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Well, first off, this took me about 5 years to actually write down in a way that I liked, and to get the story straight, so no one had better steal it or the blog post is being deleted. Some characters durastically changed, and some mostly stayed the same. I own all characters that LEGO does not own, and etc. on after that (except for Midori, who took a lot of her traits from Brainiac5 of FanFiction). Also, all music belongs to whoever wrote it (Taylor Swift, Owl City, etc.), seeing as I have a lot of music in this story. 

If you have trouble reading this on the blog, you can look on my profile page. I have a link there that will take you to the original place this is posted. 

As always, if you have any questions, don't hesitate to send me a message!


Chapter 1:

Blinking is not commonly referred to as a new experience.

But to Meca One, that was exactly what it was. He was a child in a whole new world of discoveries. His mind was at a balance of experience and inexperience: he had been in production for long enough to know how the human world worked…but actually being human? That was where the changes came in.

The jungle was quiet, oddly quiet. In any other place, birds would have been singing in the moss-ridden trees, animals snooping around on the ground as they searched for food. But the birds and beasts had long since stopped coming to this place after the robots had set up base there. Any animals that came close to the metal base never left. And that was just the way Meca One liked it.

He gazed down at the deactivated, gold-plated body that lay next to his feet. The glowing red eyes deep in the metal face were dark. Meca One blinked. For once, he saw through natural, cell-driven eyes, no longer ruby gems. And it was odd, to say the least.

He glanced down at his hands. They were slightly old, with thin, long fingers, perfectly formed nails, and veins rising from opposite of the palm. The tips of each finger were lined with callus, revealing years of hard labor. His skin was smooth, lined with small scars on each arm as he drew the long sleeves of his tunic above his wrist.

Meca One drew to his full height. For an older man, the body was smooth and moved without creaks or pain. Of that, the former robot was appreciative. The body would have still been useful to him even if it had been worn down, but it was a nice touch to have a smooth host for himself. He grabbed a long stick off the ground and swung it around as one might do a sword. The body moved with every action perfectly.

“Oh, Sensei,” he crooned, “you have been taking good care of yourself now, haven’t you?”

Meca One dropped the wood back to the ground, staring in a small pool of water at himself. The white-streaked grey hair that was normally so neat was as ruffled as a bird’s feathers in winter. Grey-blue eyes stared back at him as he admired his new appearance.

Taking the Exo-Force leader’s memories would have been simple enough, but Meca One had come up with a plan, a devious plan, one that he was positive would take down the Exo-Force forever, leaving the world for his taking. He was going to infiltrate the humans from the inside, and for that, he needed to be a human. And what human was better than the leader of the Exo-Force himself? Meca One already had Sensei Keiken in captivity. What better way to trick the Exo-Force than to imitate the person they most admired?

So Sensei it had been. It had taken time to plan out, but the robot leader had finally designed the perfect way to use Sensei’s mind and body to his advantage. Slowly, Meca One lifted his fingers to his temples, feeling the small bumps that rose from his skull. Two tiny microchips had been placed into Sensei’s brain, or directly up against it. With them, Meca One could control the output of the man’s senses and actions. He had taken over the mind of the most brilliant man in the Japanese Military, and he was going to use it to his advantage. The best part was that he had access to Sensei’s memories. All the information that the robots had been desperately trying to attain for ages was finally at Meca One’s fingertips.

The once-gold-robot flexed his fingers, breathing in deeply. That had been another learning experience for him: breathing. It had taken him a few minutes to figure out that even when he forgot to breathe, his body would do it naturally. Blinking was the same way. The body seemed to be so naturally accustomed to the laziness of men. Meca One wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to be thankful or disgusted.

“Come!” He almost laughed in delight at the deepness of his new voice as he called out to his robot drones. It wasn’t mechanically overridden like his voice chip in his robot body. This voice was deep and powerful, one for giving orders. He rather liked it.

“Come!” He called out again. He motioned to the bronze body beside him. “Take this and keep it safe. It might still be of some use to me.” A few silver robots toted the metal body away into the base.

“I suggest, F-708,” he said slowly to one of the passing bots, “that you leave only a few drones here. Take the rest back to the mountain base along with the remaining battle machines that have not been destroyed. Wait there for further instruction.”

“Meca One,” the silver-plated lieutenant drone came to Meca One’s feet, as the man now towered over the other robots, “how will you find the Exo-Force base? The sensors and maps on the computers were destroyed during the last attack.”

Meca One strode into the jungle thickets, the green overtaking the white and grey of his clothing and hair. He gave a dark smile. “I’ll let them find me.”


“It was too easy.”

“Ah, lighten up, Ryo!” Ha-Ya-To said as brightly as ever. “We got into the jungle, saved Sensei, and got home all without being destroyed! Isn’t that awesome?”

Ryo flicked back a strand of his shaggy, violet hair. “Well, I personally did not anticipate discovering our teacher meandering in the region of the jungle subsequent to being kidnapped by robots. Or did that not strike you as abnormal?”

The four young men stood outside the doors of Sensei’s personal office building. Sensei Keiken, the Exo-Force’s leader and mentor, had been captured by the robots a week ago. It was the Exo-Force job to protect the people of Japan, and of the world in a larger scale, from the robots. The robots had never actually gotten any farther than the Japanese islands, but the Exo-Force team knew better than to underestimate them. Many a good pilot had died defending the precious secrets of technology the Exo-Force had.

They had found Sensei walking around the jungle, alone and unaccompanied, searching for the Exo-Force base. The three pilots and techie brought him back to base. It had been a week since their teacher had gone missing, and finding him proved to be simpler than they had realized.

But not all of them were convinced of their victory.

“Sensei explained everything already,” Takeshi said. “He managed to escape from the robots, but they had destroyed his communication link, so he couldn’t contact us. He ended up wandering around the jungle due to not being able to find his way back. He knew we’d find him.”

“That’s true,” Ryo rolled his eyes, “but it was still much too effortless!”

“What matters,” Hikaru spoke up, “is that he’s back. We can take on anything that Meca One has coming for us. But for now, we have our mentor. And Hitomi’s pretty happy to have her grandfather back too, so mission accomplished.”

Ryo gave a slight snarl. “No! There is something omitted from this situation…”

“Well, why don’t we leave the conspiracy theories to you?” Takeshi commented in a rather bored tone. “I, on the other hand, am starving. Let’s get dinner.”

Ryo watched the three pilots walk away from the building towards the mess hall, chatting merrily along the way. He, on the other hand, stayed put, rolling a screwdriver along his palms. Ryo always though better when he had a tool in hand. So he stood, leaning in the long shadow of the building as he mulled over his thoughts.

It had been too simple. Obviously something was wrong. Meca One wouldn’t just let Sensei escape. The robots may not be all that smart, but they knew better than to just let a captive leave. Meca One would have sent something, even a few drones, after Sensei. The teacher was too much of a prize for the bronze robot to just let him go.

So why had he been all alone?

Ryo didn’t doubt Sensei’s skills as a teacher or as a master in many different arts. But escaping from a whole base of robots on foot? It wasn’t logical.

Ryo snarled to himself, racking his brain for an answer. What was he missing? What was Ryo overlooking?

He didn’t have an answer, which frustrated him. Ryo liked answers, ones laid out clean and simple, like why the sky was blue or why the earth traveled around the sun, or things like that: scientific things. He was particular that way, which was probably why he was a techie in the first place. He had always been one for extreme scientific reasoning behind just about everything he did.

Slowly, Ryo trekked back to the mess hall, and walked in, slipping his screwdriver back into his pocket. He would come back to this problem, he just knew it. But he probably needed to talk it over with the others. They never actually told him anything really useful, but then again, he liked bouncing ideas off of people. It helped him think.

The mess hall was filled with people. Usually everyone ate at the same time, except in the afternoon, when the pilots and techies would sneak into the kitchen and swipe snacks from time to time. But as with any meal, the large cafeteria area was filled with people who chatted over their dinners.

Ryo sat down at the table closest to the door where the others on his team sat. There were five in their group, all ranking pilots and techs and were probably the most advanced out of the entire Exo-Force, or they had simply been there the longest. Hikaru was the leader, Takeshi was his second, and Ha-Ya-To and Hitomi were both pilots under them. Ryo stood on his own in their group, their “Dream Team”. He was the only long-standing tech. Hitomi had been his helper, and at times still joined him for fix-it projects, but she had basically transferred at this point to piloting, much to Sensei’s chagrin.

Ryo slowly made his way to the food line and filled his plate with as little as he could without being lectured by the servers. He hated eating at the mess hall. His team knew he was just picky, but they couldn’t do anything to help him, so he placed the food on his plate and sat at his place at the table.

Hikaru leaned back in his chair and held up his glass. “To us on our achievement.”

“To us!” Takeshi followed with a grin, holding up his glass before swigging down practically the entire thing in one gulp. Ryo winced. He couldn’t understand how Takeshi could eat so much. His plate was practically a mountain.

Hitomi straightened up and cracked her back. “Sorry I couldn’t be with you guys, but my grandfather told me I had to stay and watch the tower while he was…away.”

Ha-Ya-To shrugged, drinking from his glass. “Well, whatever Sensei says goes, even when he’s not available. What are you guys up for tonight? Guitar? Dancing?” The redheaded teen was basically the entertainer of the group. Most of the time, his friends half expected him to whip his guitar out of nowhere and break into a song and dance routine. Actually, that wasn’t all that inaccurate. Ha-Ya-To was known for his quirky, random, and rather spontaneous behavior, but was well liked among the newer team members especially.

“Sleep,” Hikaru said with a half-grin. “Honestly, I’m exhausted. You guys had better get some sleep too. Tomorrow’s gonna—.”

The blue-haired pilot was cut off by a loud voice that came in over the loudspeakers. Every single building and most of the grounds outside had speakers set up somewhere, so announcements could be heard anywhere from eating to sleeping.

“Attention all Exo-Force pilots and technicians.”

The room went silent in moments, and it was easy to know why. Sensei’s voice hadn’t been heard over the loudspeakers for over a week, as he had been missing, so everyone wanted to hear the news. Ryo set down his fork and glanced up at the speaker over the door.

“As you may know,” Sensei said over the speakers, “we are in desperate need of more pilots for the war effort. In order to make this happen, instead of the long process of bringing more people in, we will be holding a lottery for the new Exo-Force members.”

A lottery? Ryo’s blue eyes narrowed coldly. Something’s not right about this…

“And we will be bringing in a limited number of people, due to code constraints. Exactly five people will be chosen next week to join the Exo-Force. I expect everyone to be at the drawing. That is all.”

And the speakers went silent.


“Okay,” Hikaru murmured, “now that was weird.”

“You mean the fact that I ate ten pork chops?” Takeshi said smugly, “Or that I can drink eleven sodas in one sitting?”

“Both of them were pretty impressive,” Ha-Ya-To pointed out.

The dinner hour was coming to a close, though while everyone else’s plates were clean, Ryo’s was still filled with food, which he prodded rather apathetically with his fork. The four pilots and techie always sat together, though their table could probably fit more people. It seemed that everyone knew that it was their table, and no one else dared to sit there.

Hikaru shook his head. His stiff, short electric blue hair bobbed ever so slightly along with him. “No, what Sensei said over the intercom just now. You know, the part about us needing new members and that he’s setting up a lottery…I mean, what’s that all about?”

“I told you something odd was coming about,” Ryo said as he poked at his nearly untouched food, “There is something extremely out of the ordinary about the way Sensei has been portraying himself from the point in time when we returned to the Fortress.” He pulled up a forkful of pork, and set it down with a look of disgust. Hikaru reminded himself not to worry too much about Ryo’s eating habits: the young techie had a stash of food in his lab and usually snacked in the middle of the night or anytime he was really hungry during work projects.

“Maybe Sensei just needs time to adjust,” Ha-Ya-To said, “I mean, just earlier today he was in the Jungle Base of the robots and was probably having his mind picked by a bunch of killer drones!! I wonder if they actually opened his head or just used those tube things they tried to use on Ryo and just sucked his memories out…”

Ryo’s face went a slight shade of green. He pushed away his plate. “Now I’m really not hungry.”

“It still doesn’t excuse the fact that he’s acting strange,” Hikaru said, “A lottery? What put that in his mind? Usually if new members are coming in, they’re tested on their abilities and picked because they have what it takes. A lottery is…totally random! What will that do to our teams?”

“He must have some reasoning behind it,” Hitomi said slowly, though looking a little uncomfortable herself.

“Well,” Takeshi said slowly, “this may not be true, but what if Sensei isn’t looking for strong or powerful people? Maybe he wants random people for some reason.”

“And why might that be?” Ryo asked sharply.

Takeshi shrugged. “Hey, I never said it was true! But here’s a question you can answer: When has Sensei even been wrong?”

The table went silent.

Finally, Ha-Ya-To broke the quiet of their table, though it really did nothing with all the loud, happy voices around them. “Never…at least, not as long as I’ve known him.”

Ryo stabbed at a few green beans. “I guess you’re right.”

“Well,” Hikaru grumbled, “I would have liked him to have built me a better battle machine for the Jungle Era. It’s not exactly what I prefer. Can you do anything to make it fly, Ryo? It’s as grounded as the Assault Tiger, and I hate being grounded!”

Ryo snorted. “We’ll see.”

Hikaru gazed out to the other tables. “We took out a load of the drones at their Jungle Base a little while ago. It seems like a waste to have people out there at our own Jungle Base when we don’t have much to fight. And the jungle isn’t going to help us much.” He stood up, the other gazing up at him in interest. “Because Sensei isn’t exactly…well…at the top of his game, I’m going to make an executive decision: the Jungle Era is hereby over. The battle machines will be retired and the people returned to the Golden City. It’s time to focus our energy here, especially if we have new people coming in.” He gave a long sigh. “Look, I’m the leader of the Exo-Force’s mini teams, so it’s my responsibility to be the leader of the Exo-Force until Sensei’s better, so let everyone know that I’m making all the decisions until Sensei is ready. If I were in Sensei’s place, I wouldn’t have done a lottery or anything like that, but I can’t fix that now. We have to prepare for a bunch of really, really inexperienced recruits, okay?”

The others nodded briefly. Takeshi crossed his arms. “And you’re going to convince Sensei of finishing the Jungle Era project…how? He thought that the Jungle Era was a good idea, and as we just figured, Sensei has always been right.”

Hikaru shrugged. “Maybe he’ll agree with me,” he smiled, “After all, he’s not exactly in his right mind."


“F-708, do you read me?”

A silvery drone appeared rather fuzzily on the large screen, blue eyes lit and emotionless. “Clearly, Meca One.”

Meca-Sensei nodded his head, blinking his dark blue-grey eyes. “Report.”

The drone’s metallic voice played clearly over the computer. “The drones have been withdrawn from the jungle and returned to the mountain base. Production of the newest battle machines is running smoothly and efficiently. Disturbances, if any, have been at a minimum. It’s all quiet here.”

“Good, good,” Meca-Sensei nodded again, “I will contact you and give you commands when I deem fit. Until then, continue with your steady work. When I return, I expect to find double the amount of battle machines and robots than when I left.”

“Yes, Leader.”

The screen burst into static before shutting itself off completely. Meca-Sensei gave a cold smile and whirled around in his chair.

He was pleased with Sensei’s room, which he now occupied. In the few hours he had been in the Exo-Force’s base, the Golden City, Meca-Sensei had explored all around the room that the true Sensei had taken as his own. The best part was the enormous computer on one of the walls. But other than that, the room was very simple, plain even. Meca-Sensei wondered why.

It was strange: even with Sensei’s memories, Meca-Sensei still had to find his way around and questioned odd things he found. Apparently, he only had access to Sensei’s most important memories, not his everyday ones. That part is his brain was off limits, almost as though something was stopping him from entering. Meca-Sensei wasn’t sure why, as he deemed the important memories of much more value than the regular ones. What was the old man hiding? Meca-Sensei was sure he would find a way to crack the old man’s mind eventually. And when that came, he would find out every dirty little secret that the Exo-Force had.

His plan to attack the Exo-Force from the inside out was beginning to fall into place. What he needed now were the new members. They would be the beginning and the end to his plan. He really had no need to trouble himself with the thought of the new Exo-Force team; after all, applications had been flooding into the Golden Fortress since his announcement only a few hours ago. But out of the hundreds of letters already sent in, Meca-Sensei knew one thing. He would only need five.

One for each member of the Dream Team.

A sharp knock on the door to the room shocked Meca-Sensei from his senses; he almost jerked himself off his chair. He slowed his heart down slightly before calling out for the interrupter of his thoughts to come in.

A blue-haired head poked into the room. “Sensei?”

Meca-Sensei dug through the teacher’s memories for a name to match the face to. He not only attained the name, but quite a bit of information as well. The boy’s name: Hikaru. He was the self-proclaimed leader of the Dream Team and one of the head pilots, but despite that, was very independent and preferred to work alone. He preferred flying battle machines to ground-based ones, and was intelligent and a good strategist. He was clever and hated to get up early in the morning unless he decided upon it himself.

Meca-Sensei blinked his eyes sharply. An odd amount of information. He nearly shrugged. “Yes, Hikaru?”

The late teen walked into the room and closed the door behind him, straightening his white jacket and blue and grey jerkin before standing before Meca-Sensei with a direct gaze. “I came to ask you about something.”

Well that much was obvious! Meca-Sensei thought with a mental jab of annoyance. He straightened his face. “What can I do for you?”

He watched the boy swallow hard. “I’d like permission to shut down the Jungle Era Project.”

Meca-Sensei blinked. “And why is that?”

“The project is basically over, sir. The robots have been scattered from their Jungle Base, and there really is no reason to keep control of the jungle after rescuing you. The battle machines have no real reason to be used any longer, as we have no reason to keep up with patrolling the jungle. I suggest we place scanners out in the jungle to alert us of robot movement, and then leave the area.”

Maybe Meca-Sensei could learn more than just the Exo-Force’s plans from living here; their tactics and strategies could also be useful information. Meca-Sensei waved his hand. “I absolutely agree, Hikaru. Put your plan into action, by all means.”

Hikaru’s electric blue eyes filled with shock as he took a half-step back. “Wait…you mean you…support it?”

The shock was worrying to Meca-Sensei. Maybe he wasn’t acting like Sensei enough. “The Jungle Era Project was good at the time it was created,” he said, immediately trying to backtrack and explain, “but now that the robots have left, we should be able to withdraw from the jungle and focus on our work here. I’ll let you take care of the details, Hikaru.”

The blue haired pilot nodded sharply. “I’ll do so right away, Sensei.” He left through the door he had come from quickly. Meca-Sensei could hear the teen shouting orders as he walked along the hallway outside of Meca-Sensei’s room.

Meca-Sensei let a dark, evil smile form over his face. So that was the leader? Then he would have to be the first to be taken out. His pride would be crushed, his trust destroyed. He would have to be gone if the plan were going to work; in fact, the whole Dream Team would have to be gone. And the new recruits were going to make sure that happened.

Chapter 2:

Akira woke up on the roof of her apartment complex with her face on a notebook, a flashlight in hand, and an empty box of Pocky beside her.

She blinked sharply, glancing around her. A gentle breeze played gently with her long, dark hair. She brushed away a piece that stuck to her face, after prying herself away from the pages of her notebook. She glanced down at the pages. Now she remembered: she had been writing and looking at the stars. The night time always managed to inspire her. So she often came up onto the roof, and usually ended up falling asleep. She picked up the Pocky box next to her, feeling inside for more of the chocolate snacks. Unfortunately, she had eaten them all the night before. She shrugged. She could get more in the kitchen. Her mother always seemed to have a stash in the cabinets.

Akira breathed in the warm air of the day. It wreathed around her, the sounds of the streets below rushing to her ears. Just a typical day.

The teenager gazed up at the sky and at her watch. It was almost eleven. Akira shrugged. She had slept well.

Slowly, the girl gathered up her belongings. The notebook was tucked underneath her arm, the Pocky box in one hand and the flashlight in the other, though they were both transferred to the same hand as Akira opened the door from the roof to the stairs back to the ground.

The chilly air of the enclosed stairway felt nice against Akira’s sun-warmed skin. She bounced down the stairs, a spring in her step. She could tell today was going to be a good day.

Akira pulled out the key to her apartment as she reached the door. She fumbled around with the objects in her hands as she unlocked and opened the wooden door, stepping into the room. Her mother was in the small kitchen, washing a few dishes. Akira had lived in the apartment as long as she could remember, though she had told her parents more times than she could count that they should move out of the city and into the country. Unfortunately, her father’s job was located in the heart of the city, meaning there would be no moving any time soon.

Akira gave her mother a small wave. “Happy Saturday, Mom!”

Her mother stiffened, her eyes widening. “Akira! Why aren’t you at school?”

Akira gave a short laugh. “There’s no school on Saturday, Mom. Even you know that!”

Her mother nearly dropped the plate she held, hurriedly wiping her hands of the soap bubbles that clung to her skin. “It’s Friday, Akira! Not Saturday!”

Akira felt her bright spirit suddenly drop in horror. “B-b-but…yesterday was—.”

“Thursday!” her mother said loudly, “Now hurry up and get dressed!”

Akira didn’t even comment. She dropped her notebook, box, and flashlight and ran into her room, nearly shrieking at herself in anger.

So much for a good day.


“Do you want me to drive you?”

Akira threw open the door and leapt out, not bothering to close it behind her. “I’ll be fine!!” she shouted back, gripping her briefcase tightly in one hand and using the other to propel herself forwards.

How could she have been so forgetful? Completely forgetting about school? What was her problem?! She had dressed in her red and white uniform faster than ever, brushing through her long, dark hair with lightning speed, and rushing out the door as she grabbed her bag. Her mother had made her a lunch in almost the same amount of time.

The dark-haired girl narrowly avoided colliding with a quickly moving car. She heard the screech of breaks behind her as she shot past. “Sorry!” she called out behind her as she zoomed away.

“I am so late,” she breathed quietly to herself, “my teacher is going to murder me! I’ve been late before but not like this!” All the while, as she mused, she dodged cars and people, running as fast as she could towards the direction of her school. Her breaths soon came in gasps as her lungs pumped in oxygen. She ran faster than she could remember ever doing.  

“Stop, humans.”

Akira was running too fast to stop, so she span in a circle, dodging the robot. The metal drone nearly hit her with the long plasma gun in his hands. Akira felt a flash of fear enter her mind as a warning shot was fired. Drones…in the city…

She skidded to a stop, watching as the metal robot turned its attention to another person, who inched away. Clutching her bag tightly, Akira glanced around, wondering how a drone had gotten this far into the city without being noticed.

Her answer was all around her. Out of alleyways, on top of building, everywhere, drones began to appear. All drones looked the same: silver plating, and sapphire blue eyes, shorter than humans by around a foot, and all holding thick barreled guns in their large hands. Screams arose from the crowds of people, cars screeching as they braked to avoid being shot. In what seemed like no time, the robots had taken over the square. Traffic was at a standstill, people backed against walls. The robots advanced upon anyone their gem-like eyes locked on.

Slowly, the robots began grabbing people, dragging them into the middle of the street. They threw them together, a couple other drones watching them with guns pointed warningly. Captives, there was no other explanation. The robot leader would use them as bargaining chips, or worse, kill them. Akira backed herself into a wall, clutching her bag tight against her chest.

This had to be karma for being late.

One of the robots walked in her direction. Akira drew farther back, into an alleyway. She bit her lower lip, her knuckles turning white as she gripped her bag even tighter. Please not me. Please. I don’t have the time to die! I’m already late as it is. Dying is not going to make that better!

The drone drew all the closer.

Akira snapped her eyes tightly. Well…that was it…

“Hey, bolts for brains, you should know better than to pick on little girls!!”

The voice came from above and the ground shook beneath Akira’s feet. Okay, that was it, angels were coming to save her! She was already dead and she hadn’t even known it.

The sounds of shouts and screeching metal slowly filtered though Akira’s mind. Funny…were there robots in heaven?

Slowly she opened her eyes, gasping at the sight before her. Robot parts were strewn all over the street, a pile of crushed ones directly in front of her. Was that the robot that had been trying to take her? What had happened to it?

She gazed out into the intersection as shouts of joy penetrated the yells and metallic sounds. In the midst of the robots, swords and other types of weapons in hand, were probably around twenty or so people. With their various pieces of weaponry, they sliced and hacked their way through robot drones. They moved with lightning speed, blades and nunchuks and whatever else they were using flashed through the air, glinting off the sunlight. With grace and agility, they took down any metal being that came within their reach.

Akira had heard of them before, the team that defended the world from the robots. But as famous as they were, the robots had never attacked when she was around, so Akira had never seen the group in action. But there was no doubt about it. They had to be them.

The Exo-Force.


Akira sat on the ground, waiting. She fiddled with her fingers a bit, and the straps on her briefcase, but the longer she waited, the more worried she became.

Akira watched the young men and women as they worked, searching around the area after defeating the robots in the intersection and requested that the people remain on the sidewalks and traffic remain stopped until they had done a full sweep of the neighborhood to make sure there were no robots still lurking around that could cause problems. That part Akira didn’t mind; actually, it was rather considerate of them to do so. But the longer they took to clear the area, the later and later Akira became.

Yep, this was definitely karma.

Akira hadn’t seen the Exo-Force up close before. They were supposed to be some smaller subsection of the Japanese military, one that was given the most advanced technology and anything else that would help them to defeat the robots. The history was a long one. From what Akira could remember from her textbooks, the robot war had started actually not too long ago, probably about four or five years. The robots had been created to help the humans with various laborious tasks. The most prominent of these was mining, where the robots were used to keep the areas underground safe and clear.

But somehow, the robots had malfunctioned, all at once, and turned on the humans who they worked with. The humans were lucky enough to drive the robots off, but not for long. Within a month, the robots had returned, more powerful and learned than ever and ready to kill all of the humans in Japan.

And so the Exo-Force was born. The Japanese military started a small strike team, which they called the Exo-Force, which was used to keep the robots at bay on one side of a mountain, where the robots had set their base. The “exo” part was named for the large exo-suits of armor that the humans wore to protect themselves, which they called battle machines.

Akira watched the Exo-Force soldiers enter and exit their battle machines, pulling out pistols and boxes and whatever else they used. Akira couldn’t help but admire their work. They were powerful and well trained individuals, and seemed to have everything under control.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, someone walked into the middle of the street. “It’s alright!” he called out, wildly waving his hands around, “The robots are gone and you can all head out again! Thank you for your time!”

Akira slowly stood. She gave a hefty sigh. At this point, it seemed useless to get to school, as late as she was. She brushed off dirt from her pleated maroon skirt and her socks gloomily. Her teacher was probably calling her mom or something of the sort, and she’d get a whole stack of detentions. What was worse, being so late that it was crazy to go back, or just to not show up at all?

“Hey, miss, shouldn’t you be at school?”

The person who had just spoken stood before her. He looked to be about her age, maybe a bit older. He was taller than she was by around a few inches, and had wild golden eyes that flashed in the sun. His hair, a bright scarlet color that was clearly unnatural, was as messy as though he had just rolled out of bed. Maybe he had; maybe he was as late as Akira was.

Akira swallowed, flushing slightly in shame. “Um…yeah…I should be…I kind of—.”

The teen held up a gloved hand in a halt position. “Hey, I don’t need to know the reason! How far away is your school?”

Akira pointed down the road. “Around three-quarters of a mile away.”

The teen grinned widely. “Well we’d better get you there before anyone starts making phone calls!” He held out his hand. “I’m Ha-Ya-To, by the way.”

Akira took his hand slowly and shook it. “I’m Akira.”

“Nice to meet you Akira! Now, if you’ll just climb this building, then we can get you to your classes.”


Akira had dreamed of flying, but actually doing so was a whole new experience.

“Enjoying yourself?” Ha-Ya-To asked.

Akira had to unclench her teeth to answer. “It’s…”

“Would you mind loosening up on my shoulders? You’ve got a firm grip.”

“Oh, sorry.” Akira hurriedly relaxed her fingers, which were clutching onto the red-head’s shoulders. She wasn’t necessarily scared…well…she was partially. The other problem was one of balance. She stood behind Ha-Ya-To in the back of his battle machine, her arms wrapping around the teen who drove so she wouldn’t lose her balance and slam into something.

Still, she had to admit the sight from the battle machine was awe-inspiring. The large metal machine soared above the buildings of Akira’s city. People on the streets were no more than ant-like beings. Akira nearly laughed before she remembered how high up they were.

“Is that building your school?” Ha-Ya-To pointed to a large building, surrounded by a green field.

Akira nodded. “That’s the place.”

“Alright then,” Ha-Ya-To said, placing a hand to his mouth and making a static like noise. “We are now making our descent in the Golden Guardian. Please keep all hands and feet and all other body parts in the vehicle at all times. And please remember to fasten your seat belt when the light blinks on. Thank you.”

Akira almost laughed before she nearly cried out as the Golden Guardian suddenly dropped from the sky. She seized Ha-Ya-To’s shoulders and dug her nails into his skin, praying she wouldn’t fall. She finally let out what was similar to a strangled yelp as the Golden Guardian fell to the ground.

And yet somehow it landed smoother than a plane.

“Kkkkkkhhhh….thank you for choosing to fly with Ha-Ya-To and the Golden Guardian. Please come again and thank you for flying with us!” Ha-Ya-To turned back with a slight smirk on his face. “Hey, Akira, you can let go of me now.”

“Oh my gosh! I’m so sorry!” Akira gasped, releasing her grip.

Ha-Ya-To merely laughed, though he gently rubbed his shoulders with his gloved fingers. “You’re totally fine, though next time, I’ll tell you when I need a shoulder massage, okay?”

Akira let out a half laugh. “Yeah…okay.”

Ha-Ya-To allowed Akira to lead the way down the small metal ladder that popped out from underneath the metal plates of the Golden Guardian, which Akira was grateful for due to the length of her school uniform’s skirt. Ha-Ya-To followed her speedily.

Akira brushed a hand against one of the metal legs. “You have a nice battle machine.” It was indeed a beautiful piece of work, made of red and white pieces of metal. One arm held a massive blade that could have easily been used as a shield and the other a blaster rifle and a cannon. The cockpit was high up in the chest of the battle machine.

“You like it?” Ha-Ya-To asked, obviously pleased, “The Golden Guardian is my favorite of all my battle machines.”

“You have more than one?”

“Sure,” shrugged the redhead, “though most of them I don’t use any more and are used to train newcomers. But what am I doing?!” he smacked himself in the forehead, “we have to get you inside! Come on!”

Ha-Ya-To lead the way into the large school building, Akira hurrying behind him.


“You are so lucky, Akira.”

“How on earth, Rina,” Akira asked her friend in shock, “can you say that I’m lucky? I’m probably the latest a person can physically be to school.”

“It’s not that bad,” Rina sipped the last remains of broth from her empty bowl of soup, “I mean, if I could get away with coming in at lunch time, I would totally do it. But that’s not why you’re lucky.” She set down her bowl and gazed at Akira with sparkling eyes as she brushed back her spiky dark red hair. “I’m talking about being rescued by a hot guy!”

Akira felt her cheeks flush as she popped more rice into her mouth. “He was just doing his job.”

“And yet he had the courtesy to fly you to school and even walk you inside!” Minako sighed, setting down her lunch as she brushed her long, brown ponytail from her chest. “Now that’s a dedicated guy! I mean, he spent almost twenty minutes talking to the substitute teacher and convincing her he was a member of the Exo-Force. He did it for you! And if he hadn’t thought to pull out his I.D. card, he might still be here!”

“Come on!” Akira managed a laugh to hide her embarrassment. “I mean, I only met him today! And don’t forget, he’s a part of the Exo-Force. They’re highly trained and extremely busy. I doubt I’ll ever see him again.”

“Oh, stop being so pessimistic!” Rina said, “If the robots come again, who comes and saves us? The Exo-Force, of course.”

“Who said it’ll be Ha-Ya-To?” Akira shot back. “The Exo-Force is a huge team. They could send someone else completely. And anyways, if he’s that great, I really don’t deserve him.” Akira felt her spirits fall as she set her chopsticks down on her desk.

Minako blinked. “And why is that? You’re a great girl, Akira! What guy wouldn’t fall for you?”

Akira let out a sigh, brushing back her hair. “Are you kidding? When that robot came at me, I almost choked! I wasn’t brave or anything. If Ha-Ya-To deserves anyone, it’s a girl who can take care of herself, someone who’s doing her part to help in the war against the robots. I’m not doing anything! My brothers are contractors and scientists, my dad helps design technology for smaller military groups, and even my mom makes care packages! I’m not doing anything.” Akira let out another sigh and picked up her chopsticks, continuing with her meal.

“All right, students!” the teacher said as she walked back into the room. “Lunch is over. Please pull your books back out.”

Her name was Ms. Keller, though everyone at the school called her Keller-sensei. The woman was tall, and pleasantly plump, with round cheeks and wide, bright eyes. Her hair was loose down her back, a warm chocolate color. She was young, as far as Akira could tell, and was very American.

“I want you all to pull out a piece of paper,” she said, “You have until the end of this class period to write about your dreams. If you could do anything, what would it be? I know that in your school system, the school basically tells you what to be. But in this case, I would like to know what you would do if you had the choice. If you could spend hours of your day doing something, what would it be? At the end of this period, we’ll read some of them out loud.”

Akira leaned back in her chair as around her pencils and pens scratched upon paper. A pencil sat neatly in front of her, a piece of paper next to it. They tempted her to begin, to write down anything that came into her mind in order to finish the assignment. Akira was used to writing essays, but what she wanted to be? That was a different problem.

What had she just been saying to Minako and Rina? She wanted to make a difference in the war against the robots. She was tired of being a spectator. So what was it she wanted to do?

Akira swallowed hard as she picked up her pencil and slowly began to write.

What did she want to do? She wanted to help people. She was late to things, forgetful, and practically useless, now that she thought about it. Her brothers were training to be engineers and chemists, her father worked with making battle machines that designing. Even her mother played a part, making care packages. What did she do for the war effort? Nothing. So she would write about the one thing that would make her a part of the war effort that she felt would actually make her useful.

Akira finished her paper and set it before her as she listened to the other students as they read off theirs. They weren’t unmemorable, but Akira couldn’t help but think of her own paper. She was practically sweating from nervousness. She picked up her paper to crumple it and start over, but as she was about to do so, she heard her name called. Akira swallowed and she slowly stood up and walked to the front of the class.

“My essay…” Akira’s voice shook ever so slightly, “is…is…about the Exo-Force.”

The room was absolutely silent. Akira was sure she could hear the heartbeats of every one of her classmates. She cleared her throat slightly and began.

“Japan has been under attack for years, and the robots living in the mountains have only become stronger. As I realized today, everyone is vulnerable to robot attacks and no one really knows when or where the robots will strike next. Only one team can save the cities and rescue the world from robotic domination: the Exo-Force. This highly trained team of men and women are what keep the robots at bay.” Akira glanced at her friends in the back of the room, who were making hearts and smoochy faces at her. She flushed and continued reading. “Every day, these men and women risk their lives to keep the world safe. And I want to do the same. I haven’t done anything productive since this war started to help out. So my dream is to join the Exo-Force and keep the world safe.”

Akira hurried back to her chair and slumped in her seat. She nearly buried her face in her hands. It was probably the worst and shortest essay she had ever written! How could she have allowed herself to share it? She had known the substitute teacher for less than a day and she probably already had come off as an awful writer. Akira nearly groaned.

Akira barely heard her classmates’ reports after hers. She caught a few sentences of each, but nothing that made her too interested. So she instead wallowed in her self-pity until the last essay was read and the bell signaling the end of the day rang.

Akira slowly stood up and pulled out her books, sliding them into her briefcase. She briefly considered tearing her essay to shreds, but her teacher would probably see and who knew how well that would come across. So she placed on top of her books. She would destroy it as soon as she got home.

“Nice paper, Akira!” Minako said excitedly as she came up behind Akira.

“Yeah!” Rina exclaimed, “That was awesome! See? I told you that you had a thing for the redhead.”

Akira’s voice was no more than a murmur. “It was a stupid idea.”

“What?”

“I said it was a stupid idea!” Akira snapped. “I never should have written that down. It’s a dream that I’m never going to get. I’m not good enough for that team. Why write down a dream that will never happen?!” Akira staked away from her friends. Hot tears burned her eyes, her throat already beginning to constrict in preparation for the sobs.

Akira was out the door, hurrying down the hallway when a hand gripped her shoulder tightly. She turned back with a sharp movement and came face to face with Ms. Keller.

The kindly lady’s face was warm and tender. She gave Akira a half-smile, her dark eyes blinking calmly. “Dear, would you mind staying in my room after class? I’d like to speak to you.”

Akira swallowed down a few more tears as she gave a quick bow to the woman and followed her back into the classroom. The students by that time had all left. Ms. Keller closed the door to the room gently, leaning on her desk as Akira took her seat. Akira blinked down at her desk, holding back more tears. This day had turned out to be more of a flop than before; now she was in trouble!

“Akira, I wanted to tell you that I greatly enjoyed your essay.”

Akira’s face rose, her eyes meeting Ms. Keller’s with confusion. “You…you did?”

“Yes. It was from the heart. You told us what you really felt about the war and the people who fight in it. In fact, I’d like to help you achieve your goal.”

Akira felt a bolt of shock rush through her system. “Keller-sensei…I…I don’t think that’s possible.”

“And why not?”

“Well, when someone wants to be a part of the Exo-Force, they have to go through a series of tests, both physical and mental. I’m not all that strong or brilliant. I couldn’t pass any of those.”

Ms. Keller raised an eyebrow. “Well then what is this that that redheaded boy left me?” She held up an envelope. “It’s an advertisement to the Exo-Force’s Lottery. Anyone can sign up to be a part of the Exo-Force. All you would have to do is enter this lottery. You have a chance of being chosen and being trained in the Exo-Force. Apparently, it’s very new and this is the first time they’ve done it. But if it’s like that, you can definitely enter and try to become part of the Exo-Force.”

Akira felt her heart skip a beat. “I-it really says that?”

The woman nodded. “Yes. You could become a part of the Exo-Force, Akira. Is that what you want?”

Akira slowly began to nod. “Yes. That is what I want.”

Chapter 3:

“So, Akira, did anything happen today?”

“Other than being late?” Akira’s brother teased, “Did you think today was Friday and try to go to school?”

“Hush, Sora!” Akira’s mother said fiercely. “That was only yesterday.”

Akira had taken her teacher’s advice the day before and had jumped on the opportunity to sign up for the Exo-Force Lottery. But she hadn’t mustered up the courage to tell her family. So when her mother had asked her yesterday what had gone on in her day, a simple “nothing much” was the answer Akira gave.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t going to last for long. Especially when the Lottery was tomorrow.

Akira sipped her soup gently, watching as her father gently chided the younger of her two older brothers. Her father was a middle-aged, still rather handsome man with dark brown hair, thin silver glasses, and a usually partially crumpled suit on. He was slightly messy when it came to being organized and his voice was quiet and calm, always. His dark eyes were always very level and soothing.

Her eldest brother was more like their father than the younger. Kenji was neat and orderly, but also had a rather calm air around him. He was studious and smart, out of university and a contractor for the military. His lighter brown hair was usually combed down neatly, though everyone could tell when he had just awoken or was tired, because his hair during both those times was a scruffy mess.

The younger brother took more off their spunky mother. Sora was still in university, and was boisterous, bouncy, and enjoyed cracking jokes. He wasn’t very neat, his reddish, gingery hair always windblown and reflecting his carefree attitude. Usually Akira’s two brothers were gone, as they had their own lives now, with work and university and all. But every once in a while, they would join Akira and their parents for dinner, and tonight was one of those nights.

Akira fingered her own black hair as her family started up conversation again, having briefly forgotten about Akira’s sharing. She breathed a partial sigh of relief, eating more of the rice in her bowl. Maybe if her family was distracted, then she could say her news and no one would hear her. So she quietly set her bowl down.

“I…um…I…I joined the Exo-Force yesterday.” Her words came in a mumble. She held her breath, waiting for the reaction. But none came. The family continued chatting as though nothing had happened. Akira gave a short breath of relief. They hadn’t heard. She was safe.

“Akira, dear,” her mother said suddenly, brushed back a long strand of red hair, “would you start clearing the table and doing the dishes?”

Oh, because my brothers aren’t going to? Well, aren’t they just lucky!  “Sure, Mom,” Akira said, trying to sound cheerful as she picked up all of the bowls and set them on a counter, wallowing in her terror.

She would have to actually tell her parents eventually, she knew that. Her slight mumble of an answer wasn’t going to be helpful if she came back the next day and somehow managed to get into the Exo-Force. What would she tell her parents if that happened? That she was randomly moving out? That she was going to go fight robots? Her parents wouldn’t believe her.

“So…the Exo-Force, huh?”

“Sora!” Akira nearly dropped the bowl that she had started washing. Her brother held out his hands, five sets of chopsticks in his small fist.

“You forgot these,” he said simply, “and I decided to help you with the dishes.”

Akira raised an eyebrow, a smirk teasing her face. “You, helping?”

Sora brushed back his ginger hair, laughing slightly. “Yeah, I know, right? I guess university has changed me up some.” He grabbed one of the bowls, rubbing soap around it. “So…” he began again, “you joined the Exo-Force?”

Akira bit her lower lip. She should have known someone would have heard her. She cleared her throat nervously. “Um…yeah…crazy right?”

“I just never thought you’d ever do something like that,” her brother shrugged, stacking wet dishes to dry, “You never were one for martial arts or kendo or anything like that.”

Akira swallowed. “Yeah, I know…I’m not even sure why I did it. I just want to make a difference.”

“There are a lot of things you can do to make a difference other than seeing combat, ‘Kira,” her brother said quietly.

Akira nodded sharply. “I know. I just feel like it isn’t going to go anywhere if I only work from home. I want to actually see what my work is doing.” She shook her head, her hair flying around her. “But what am I even saying?! I’m not going to get in! There are probably thousands of people applying. I’m one in a million people. I have close to no chance.” She heaved a sigh and started to dry bowls and chopsticks, handing them to her brother to put away.

Her brother gave her a half smile. “Look, ‘Kira, you’re not going to get anywhere thinking like that! Take it from me. I share a dorm with a guy who’s majoring in statistics. They always say that there’s a one-in-a-something chance that something is going to happen, and the higher the number is, the less likely it will happen. But what people always seem to forget is that ‘one’. You still have a chance, ‘Kira. You just have to believe you’re going to do it.”

Akira snorted lightly. “Have you been taking classes on wisdom or something, Sora?”

“No!” he laughed, “I met a girl who’s been teaching me a few things.”

Akira handed him another bowl. “I was sure you were going to tell me to give up on it and try to convince me to stay.”

“Who am I to tell you where to go? It’s Mom and Dad you’re going to have to convince.”

Akira felt her spirits sink. “Yeah…thanks for reminding me.”

Her brother smirked, flicking his hair back slightly. “Well, you already applied, right? There’s no way you can out of the drawing now, so Mom and Dad are going to have to accept it, Mom most of all. Now, what you’re going to have to think about is if you actually get in.”

Akira sighed. “Like that will ever happen.”

Her brother set the last bowl away, closing the cabinets. “Keep being positive, Akira. I’ll be rooting for you tomorrow in my dorm. And just so you know,” he gently tugged on the sleeve of Akira’s shirt, grinning widely, “I think you’d look great in a flight suit!”


Akira swallowed hard, stepping off the bus onto the mountain slope. The powerful winds blew back her hair from her face, a chill settling into her skin. She rubbed her jacketed arms, breathing out sharply in a huff. So this was where the Exo-Force spent all their time. It seemed like a rather odd place for a base.

She glanced back at the other people streaming out from the bus. Some of them obviously knew each other, though many stood apart, glancing shrewdly at one another as though sizing up competition. Their age range had to be anywhere from twelve to around mid-thirties. Some were more powerfully built, others that gazed around intelligently. Some wore flight suits, and other people were already pulling bags off the bus, as though they knew they were going to be chosen. Akira glanced down at her jeans, t-shirt, boots, and nylon sport coat. At least she wasn’t totally out of place: there were other people dressed casually like her. One child played with what looked like a Nintendo DS as he sat on a rock. Akira wondered vaguely how long it would take to be taken off the mountain and if she should have brought something to read.

She looked around after the bus as it slowly turned around and drove back down the steep slope to the jungle road they had driven through. Akira swallowed as the last of the exhaust-breathing busses disappeared down the mountain, the sound of their loud engines being overrun by the wailing wind.

So there they were, over three hundred people all alone on a mountainside.

Akira breathed hard. Here she was. She was actually surprised she had made it this far. She was sure her parents would have vetoed her decision. In fact, they almost did.

Akira hadn’t been so worried about her dad. Her father seemed to have no problem with that she did. He had come to the conclusion a long time ago that what Akira did was based on what the mother decided. He had taken care of Sora and Kenji’s decisions. Akira’s mother dictated the daughter.

And it was true: Akira’s mother was the hardest to convince of the decision. As soon as her mother had Googled the details of what the Exo-Force did, she had come back yelling about her only daughter being missing in action or killed by a plasma gun or something worse. Akira had begged and pleaded with her mother, anything to convince her that Akira should at least go to the Golden City to see if her name was picked. Akira agreed that if she wasn’t picked, she wouldn’t pursue the Exo-Force position again. It took her nearly an hour, but finally she convinced her mother to let her go. It helped after she gave the exact statistics and probability that she would get chosen. Her mother must have been positive that Akira wouldn’t get chosen.

They always say that there’s a one-in-a-something chance that something is going to happen, and the higher the number is, the less likely it will happen. But what people always seem to forget is that ‘one’. You still have a chance, ‘Kira. You just have to believe you’re gonna do it.

Akira allowed herself a small smile, gripping the crystal necklace that Sora had given her. He had been wearing the piece of jewelry for as long as Akira could remember. It was nothing special really, just a large piece of cut quartz wrapped in thin silver wire and strung onto a long line of leather. Sora had given it to her that morning as he left to get back to his dorm. By that time, Kenji had also heard the news and had given Akira his congratulations and hoped for the best.

Sora had slowly slid the long necklace off himself and strung it around his sister’s neck, allowing the crystal to hit the light. “Take care of it,” he had said, “and even if you don’t get in, remember that you can always help other people, even if you’re not in the middle of the action.”

Akira smirked. Her brother had indeed grown up. Sora had been known when he was a child for his mischief making. Now it seemed as though he had been injected with some sort of advice-giving talent. Either way, Akira gently fingered the smoky crystal, remembering her brother’s smiling face.

Suddenly, a roar shook the ground beneath Akira’s feet. She whirled around, facing up the mountain path, where what looked like over fifty large tank-like machines were now parked. A young, light haired person slid out of the driver’s seat of the first machine, leaping on the top with sturdy footing. He held a megaphone up to his lips and spoke loudly above the crowd.

“Attention, please! I would like everyone here for the lottery to please enter the battle machines. Each battle machine holds six people, and there is room for everyone. Thank you.”

The reactions to this announcement were very different. A few groups made a mad dash for the last of the machines, the ones that would be first on arriving at the city. Others, meandered along, stopped at any one they preferred.

Akira walked to one of the machines that was around the middle of the line and sat down. In little time, the machines were all filled and soon set off up further into the mountains.

“I wonder why the busses didn’t just bring us to the city,” a tall, dark haired man asked rather loudly.

The person who answered, a pretty blonde girl, answered in a boisterous tone. “Probably because the mountain path is too rocky and the bus could fall.”

Akira gazed out the window next to her, swallowing hard. She didn’t feel nearly as up to snuff as the people around her. The man she sat next to was probably a good foot or two above her in height. And the girl…she even looked better than Akira did! Akira fingered her dark hair. Maybe she should have dyed her hair blonde…

The machines were slow but steady. They made their way up the thin mountain paths without much difficulty, their treaded tires sinking into the dusty ground and pulling the large metal beasts up the slope. Akira swallowed again as she looked out the small window next to her. The cliff just seemed to fall…endlessly. One wrong turn and the people inside the machines would be history.

“Attention all recruits,” a voice suddenly came across what Akira could only guess was an intercom system in the metal transport, “We are now approaching the Golden City. Please remain seated until the transports have come to a complete stop. Thank you.”

Akira smiled as she remembered her first experience with Ha-Ya-To and his crazy antics as he tried to mimic a flight attendant. She allowed her body to relax slightly at that memory as she sat and gazed back out the window.

Akira felt her mouth fall open in shock.

Towers of what looked like pure gold glittered harshly off the sunlight, pouring down from the hill they sat upon. Akira had never actually believed the stories that the Exo-Force trained in a city made completely of gold. It had only reminded her of the ancient Spanish “lost city of gold”, El Dorado. But Akira had not heard the tales wrong: upon a hilltop, looking as though the top of the mountain had been cut clean off, sat a huge city, gleaming gold and red. Thick walls surrounded the inside, cutting off a better view. Akira could only catch sight of the largest towers and buildings, but it was enough to convince her that she had stumbled upon El Dorado herself.

Akira continued to stare at the massive city as the transports drove closer. The dirt of the mountain path was left behind as the machines switched to metal. Akira gazed down. They were on a massive bridge, thick in width and high above the canyon bottom below. Akira swallowed. She wondered how far it was to the foot of the mountain if someone happened to fall…

The dark-haired girl adjusted her gaze slightly more ahead as the transports finally closed in upon the city walls. Akira gaped. The gate to the city was at least ten times her height, probably more around twenty if she measured, and seemed to be made completely of gold. Guarding it were two battle machines, different than the one she had seen Ha-Ya-To using before, but glorious all the same. They slowly stepped aside as the gates, with smooth if slow speed, began to open.

The machines slowly and steadily filed their way through the gates. Akira stared at the thickness of the walls as she passed through them. They were at least six feet thick, probably more so. She nearly reached out a hand to brush her fingers against the cold metal, drawing her hand back quickly as her mind began to take back over through her shock. Don’t be stupid! She snapped mentally to herself. Even as she though the words she realized just how ridiculous she was being. Not be stupid? Well, look where she was! If joining the Exo-Force lottery hadn’t been stupid enough, she had actually come through and was now in the Golden City. Following her mind was going to do no good now.

Akira gazed out the window in awe. The buildings looked to be made of gold bricks, the roofs of each building covered in red shingles. As far as she could see, there were a few trees spread sporadically around the area, but the ground was dirt and dust. Akira winced at the lack of grass. Maybe other areas of the city were more vegetated. She sure hoped so!

“Please exit the battle machines slowly and remain in the courtyard until further notice. Thank you!”

Akira had been so focused on looking out to the city that she hadn’t even noticed the machine had stopped. She swallowed hard as the people around her stood and left. Akira took a deep breath. Okay, girl, you had better move now. Stand up. Good! Now walk over to the door…okay, now step out…

Akira let the warm sun bathe her face as she stepped out from machine, landing on the sandy ground with a crunch. She crossed her arms and rubbed them fiercely as a chilly breeze blew through the city. She took another deep breath of the crisp, mountain air, so different from the slightly humid, almost stuffy air of her hometown.

Akira stepped off into the crowd of people. The large open area was nearly filled with the hopeful, chatty trainees-to-be. Akira swallowed again, clutching herself tightly and trying as best as she could to blend in. The people, the city, even the air…all combined in her mind to form an overwhelming force. She bit her lower lip and held herself all the tighter. She clutched the crystal around her neck in her fist.

“Welcome!”

Akira snapped her gaze over to one of the buildings. She couldn’t really see over the heads of the taller people in front of her, but she was able, with standing on her tiptoes, to make out a single person out of the group. He stood above the people from the buses; he must have been standing on a platform of some sort. He was wearing what Akira could make out to be a grey shirt with a white coat over it, a pair of pure white pants to match. Around his waist was a black utility belt of sorts. In one hand, steadying him, was a thick piece of dark wood, though Akira wasn’t sure why as the man looked relatively sturdy on his feet anyhow. He was an older, almost elderly, man with shaggy and yet neat gray and white streaked hair, a fierce, stony face, and a goatee. His dark eyes were intelligent and observant. He looked as though he were memorizing every face in the crowd for later reference. Akira shivered again as his gaze passed over her.

When he had finished scanning the crowd, he gave an almost weary smile, and shouted above the crowd.  His voice was deep and resounding, a powerful voice that was fit to order people. “Greetings to you all! We here at the Exo-Force welcome you.”

Akira’s attention drew away from the man as shouts and whistles came from around her. She looked around, her eyes widening. On the balconies of all the buildings surrounding the courtyard, stood men and women, teens and barely adults, all in flight suits, jumpsuits, or body armor. They clapped and called out to the people below, making their approval known. Akira felt her throat go dry. The Exo-Force. The people she hoped to join…she immediately caught sight of a single head of bright red hair, the only face in the yard that she recognized: Ha-Ya-To. He stood on a balcony not far from her with four other people, a grumpy looking violet-haired boy, a green-haired young man who simply looked annoyed, a teen with electric blue hair that seemed to be scanning the crowd, and a girl with short, dark gray hair that stood close to Ha-Ya-To, speaking to him. Akira wondered if she was his girlfriend.

“My name is Keiken,” the grey haired man said as the cheers died down, “and I am the leader of the Exo-Force. As you are here, I can safely assume that everyone here in this crowd wants to join our army.” Even from her distance, Akira could still see the man’s eyes darken. “You were invited in this way because we are in need of recruits; not the strongest or smartest, but average people. But that doesn’t mean you will not be trained hard. If your name is chosen, you will be pushed harder than you can possibly imagine.” Akira felt another shiver run up her spine, but this time it wasn’t from the cold.

The man stepped over to what must have been the other side of the platform. “Inside of this bowl are all of your names.”

Pretty big bowl, Akira though, though she could not see it herself with all the people in front of her.

“I will pick five and only five of your names.” Akira couldn’t see Keiken now, as other people were craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the bowl and the man swirling the names around. “All of you who are not chosen will be taken back to your respective hometowns. The five of you who are will remain here for an hour or so afterwards, but will be taken home as well before the day ends. And now we’ll begin!”

The silence in the courtyard was deafening. The whistle of the wind appeared louder than ever. Akira could feel the entire crowd holding their breath as the bowl of names was swirled around. The dark-haired girl realized she was doing the exact same.

“Olivia Harding.”

A cheer arose from the Exo-Force members in the balconies as the name was spoken from their leader. Akira stood as tall as possible, but only managed to glimpse a flash of blonde hair before she disappeared from view. Akira frowned. An American probably. No Japanese person had a name like that. She had heard that other countries had been sending their own citizens to be a part of the Exo-Force, but she hadn’t actually even met one.

“Kouta Kawazoe.”

Another cheer. Akira couldn’t see this one. The boy must have been too short.

“Kiku Takahashi.”

“That’s me!” a girl shrieked, one very close to Akira. She had short, reddish hair and a large, muscled body. Akira swallowed. Despite the girl’s delightful tone, she didn’t look like someone Akira would want against her in a fight.

Three down…she thought.

“Taiki Ishimaru.”

A huge, ox of a man stepped onto and off the stage before Akira could catch sight of anything more than his broad back.

The silence was even more terrifying than before. The last name.

Akira swallowed hard.

“Akira Hamoto.”

Akira let out a breath, letting go of her necklace. Well…that was it. She was done. She hadn’t been chosen. She would head back home, and forget the whole thing. That was all she could do, right?

“Akira Hamoto.”

Maybe the girl hasn’t gone up yet, Akira thought.

“Akira Hamoto!”

Suddenly, Akira’s mind clicked.

Akira Hamoto…that’s…that’s…

“Is there an Akira Hamoto here?”

That’s me!!!

Chapter 4: 

Stepping up onto the stage, walking to the building behind where all the other new trainees had gone…all of it was a blur for Akira. Her arms hung loosely at her sides, her eyes glassy in shock as Keiken sent the other people away, leading her back to the others. She barely glanced in their direction. Her brain was a muddle of thoughts, but one easily stood out to her through the confusion.

Her mother was going to kill her.

Akira nearly burst into tears right then and there. She didn’t know what kept her from doing so. Maybe it was the fact that she was in front of the leader of the Exo-Force, or the new members like herself. She wasn’t sure, but she managed to hold the tears back.

Keiken walked around, inspecting the five people before him. “So you were the five lucky people who have been picked to join our team.” His smile was odd, almost chilly and yet governing. “From this moment on, you will refer to me as Sensei Keiken, or simply Sensei, understood?” He waited as each of the people nodded. “Now, tell me a little about yourselves.” He motioned to the first girl.

She stepped forwards. “My name’s Olivia,” she said cheerfully, brushing back her shoulder length blonde hair. Akira had guessed correct: the girl’s Japanese accent was slightly off, an American twinge to it. “When I lived in America, my dream was to join the Air Force and fly planes. Now that I’m here, I decided that this was my way to make my dreams come true!” Her odd blue eyes glimmered happily as she smiled at everyone before stepping back.

How can she be so confident? Akira thought, This is probably the most terrifying thing that’s ever happened to me!

“And…you are?” Sensei asked the next in line, a very small boy.

“Kouta,” the boy replied, not looking up from his Nintendo DS. Akira suddenly recognized him from the bus ride up: the kid hadn’t been able to take his eyes off the screen. “Techie in training.”

Sensei raised an eyebrow. “Is that all?”

“Yeah.” The boy returned his full, undivided attention to his game. Whatever it was, it had to have been interesting.

Sensei gave the boy a curious look before turning to the next person.

“I’m Kiku,” the next woman said, brushing back her short hair. “I prefer ground work to flight. Give me a sword to wings any day.” She flexed her muscles, which were offset by a grey muscle shirt. Akira swallowed.

“And my name is Taiki,” the last man said, flexing his muscles just as Kiku had. But if anything, he looked even more menacing. His face looked as though it had been chiseled from stone. His muscles were massive: both of Akira’s fists wouldn’t have been able to fill out his biceps. “I will be the most powerful man here. I will beat everyone.”

Sensei raised an eyebrow almost nonchalantly. “Interesting. And you?” He turned to Akira.

Akira suddenly felt five sets of eyes on her. She felt her cheeks flush bright red. She swallowed hard, and crossed her arms tightly against her chest. “Um…I’m Akira. I…” she swallowed again, “All I want to do is make a difference.”


Akira watched the bus drive slowly away from her house, leaving her behind. She had been the last one to be dropped off; the bus would be heading back to the Golden City now.

Akira let out a sigh and adjusted her jacket over her shoulders, slowly making her way up the sidewalk to the house in front of her.

Her mother was in the kitchen, as usual, and she turned and gave her daughter a smile as the door opened. “So, how did it go?”

Akira paused briefly, opening one of the cabinets and grabbing a box of Pocky from one of the shelves. “I’m going up to the roof.”

She left the kitchen and did just that.

Akira swallowed hard as she sat on the slanted, shingled roof. She opened the box of treats and slid a single piece of Pocky into her mouth, allowing the chocolate flavors melting on her tongue to comfort her as she wallowed in her disbelief.

She had spent the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon listening to Sensei talk about the Exo-Force and expectations and things of that sort. It was all preliminary, he had said, and would be repeated during their time there, but he was still supposed to go through it anyways. Akira had barely heard a word of it. She had still been in too much shock at that point to do much else.

She had two days to pack her belongings before reporting for orientation on Tuesday. On that day, she would leave her family, her home, and her city to join a military. Her immediate thought was that it was similar to a boarding school…a very dangerous boarding school.

Akira bit her lip as she grabbed another piece of Pocky and munched on it thoughtfully. How was she going to tell her friends? How would they react? She might never see them again…and what about her brothers? Should she email them or send them a letter?

The dark-haired girl let out a sigh, eating more sweets to calm herself down. It would be fine. It would all work out somehow.

“Hey, is this private?”

Akira whirled around, gaping as she beheld her mother behind her.

Her mother was on the roof…her mother

Akira swallowed and shook her head.

The reddish-haired woman gave a small, compassionate smile as she sat slowly next to Akira, rather clumsily gaining her balance as she did so. She grabbed a piece of Pocky from the box and sucked on it, looking out to the city. Akira did the same.

It was at least ten minutes before either of them spoke, but it was the mother that initially broke the silence. “I know it’s hard,” she said quietly.

Akira could only nod.

“But…you’ll get through it,” her mother’s voice was soothing, “you always have when you’ve had to go through something hard. And anyways, you can always try again next year.”

Akira blinked sharply. “Wait…what?”

Her mother shrugged. “Maybe the military isn’t right for you. You can always help me with care packages.”

Akira swallowed again. “Mother…I…I got in…I didn’t fail or anything…I’m in the military.”

Her mother’s eyes widened. “But…but…”

“My orientation in on Tuesday. I have to be ready by then.”

“Then why are you so upset?”

Akira clutched herself tightly, feeling her chest constrict. “I’m…I’m scared.” Her words were a whisper. “Mom, I’m going into combat. I’m going to be trained harder than ever. I’m as nervous as…as…well I don’t know!” she shook her head wildly. “What if I mess up? What if they kick me out? What then? I’ll be such a failure!” Her words had gone from quiet to shouts of anguish. The tears that she had been holding back streamed down her face. Fear crashed over her in waves.

Akira felt her mother’s warm hands rub her back gently. Akira allowed the comfort to slowly calm her down, her tears subsiding. Shaky breaths entered her lungs. She felt miserable, absolutely miserable.

“I’m sure you’ll be alright.” Akira heard her mother’s voice. The words were shaky. Akira turned her head to face her mother. The woman’s eyes were teary, and her lips trembling. “Isn’t this…isn’t this what you wanted?”

“Mom,” Akira let out a choked laugh, “don’t you dare cry, or I’m going to start crying again!”

Her mother let out a long breath. “I know,” she said quietly, “it’s just difficult. I’m watching my only daughter go off to war. I never imagined I’d have to do that.” Her mother’s eyes hardened. “You make me proud, Akira, understood? You can do this. You’ve got my stubbornness on your side!”

Akira actually managed a real laugh this time. “Well, that’s for sure!”

“And your father’s grace.” Her mother’s eyes softened at the mention of her husband. “You have something in you that no one else has, Akira. You’re stubborn, and yet you have a heart for others.”

“Yeah, and I’m scared out of my wits!” Akira partially mumbled as she brushed a spare strand of hair from her face.

Her mother took her hand. “Yes,” she whispered, “but you can get over that. After basic training, we’ll see how afraid you are.”

If anything, Akira thought gloomily, I’ll probably be more scared!

^_^

Unlike before, Akira was alone in the battle machine going up to the Golden City. Each of the Trainees had been set up to come at different times so they could each get a private tour of the city with their trainer. It gave Akira a lot of time to think.

The past two days had fled by at an alarming rate. Akira had visited her school for only a few moments to sign out and say her farewells to her friends.  Rina and Minako were so excited about their friend’s new occupation and training, but of course, told her they’d miss her and she had better email or text them often. Akira wasn’t sure how often she’d be able to in training, but she told them she’d try.

Then there was the packing of her room. Akira’s mother was in a state of hysterics as she had never seen the dorms in the Golden City and questioned where Akira was going to put her things. At one point, her mother tried to convince her to break down her entire dresser and take the pieces along so that she could reassemble it there. Akira managed to convince her mother that she would probably be provided a set of drawers, shelves, and a bed when she was there, so there was no need to really worry. But telling her mother not to worry about her only daughter was like telling a lion to go on a diet from meat.

Akira’s brothers came by on Monday to wish their sister well as she prepared for leaving. Akira had tried to give Sora back his necklace, but the redhead insisted Akira keep it. Akira was told by both her brother that their phones were always on if their sister needed someone to talk to. And as Sora claimed, if anyone mistreated their sister, they would have to answer to the two of them.  Akira was glad for the support. She wasn’t sure when she’d call her brothers, but she definitely would do so.

Her father and mother had taken her to the bus terminal, where a driver had been waiting for her to take her to the mountains. Her father had helped her with her trunks, and with a tearful goodbye, Akira left for the biggest adventure of her life.

So there she was, alone in the back of a battle machine, two suitcases and a backpack at her feet. Millions of questions flashed through her mind, everything from the clothing she had brought with her to her trainer. She hoped desperately it was someone she knew, though the only person she knew was Ha-Ya-To…so basically she was hoping for Ha-Ya-To. She prayed that her trainer would be tolerant of her. She wondered if there would be any schooling at all, or if it was all fighting. Had she left her school work behind? Was this more like university? She had never been to university before. She was still in secondary school and had a year until she graduated. What was Sensei going to be like? Would she get a battle machine of her own? Would she have her own personal team or be added to someone else’s team? Akira suddenly felt very claustrophobic, as though the questions were filling up the cabin of the machine she sat in. She gulped down a few deep breaths of air.

Akira felt the battle machine stop. They must have been in the clearing of the Golden City by that point. The dark haired girl had been so focused on her questions that she hadn’t even realized that she had arrived. She waited in the hull of the machine until a young man, probably in his twenties or so, came over and gave her a quick nod. “May I take your bags?”

Akira swallowed and nodded.

The man must have been incredibly strong, as he took one trunk over one shoulder, the other over the other, and the backpack he slid over his elbow. “I’ll take these to your room. Normally your trainer would be here to meet you, but he’s incredibly busy at the moment. If you’d like to go over to the flight grounds, someone will meet you there and take you to your trainer.”

Akira flushed slightly. “Um…well…where exactly are the flight grounds?”

The man smiled. “I’m sorry. I forgot you don’t know where. Walk down that pathway until you hit the Golden Tower, take the first left, and walk until you see a set of huge warehouses and a few battle machines.” The man motioned with one of his hands as he explained. Akira nodded.

“Well, see you around, newbie,” the man called out as he walked off.

Akira watched him leave before setting off. She felt oddly alone, though people randomly walked around her, strutting from building to building as though they were in a huge rush. Maybe they were. Akira had no idea. She wished she had something in her hands, a purse or briefcase or something of the sort. It would give her something to hold onto. But the man had taken all her bags, so she crossed her arms over her chest instead, gripping the edges of her jacket.

The girl felt her long, dark hair swish behind her and she meandered along, the crisp mountain wind buffeting her as she did so. She gazed up as she came to what had to be Golden Tower. She walked slowly up to the building, an extremely tall and relatively thin one compared to most, and gently brushed her fingers against the metal base. The golden sheen reflected the sun’s rays brightly and rippled across the buildings. Akira swallowed. They were beautiful.

The tower was tall, but looked large enough at the base to be filled with something inside. Akira wondered what the people of the city would do in a tower. Maybe it was a radio tower…still, the idea didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

She slowly walked around the tower, craning her neck to see the top. She let her fingers brush against the surface of the tower, letting the grit and dust that had collected in the metal darken her hands.  She smiled slightly, feeling the warmth of the sun on her face.  She squinted at the bright light. She would either have to learn to see through this or get a pair of sunglasses at some point.

Akira suddenly stopped. She had better be moving on at this point. Her trainer would be waiting for her. But…she turned. Where was she? She couldn’t remember which way she had come from.

Akira gulped. Oh crap…


“She’s still not here,” Ha-Ya-To glanced around, pacing back and forth. “Something must have happened.”

“I’ll tell you what happened,” Hikaru’s face was clearly annoyed over the intercom system, “I have a lazy trainee, that’s what!”

The red-head rolled his eyes. “Dang, grumpy-much are we? Have you been spending too much time around Ryo?”

Hikaru’s electric blue eyes flashed. “I don’t matter right now. It’s my student. None of the other trainees were late to meet up with their trainers.”

“And none of the other trainees has trainers that were too busy to meet up with them at the courtyard,” Ha-Ya-To said dryly, “Don’t worry. I’ll find her. She probably got lost.”

“Well, when you do find her, take her to the Training Center. I’m going to see if Takeshi wants a sparring partner.”

Ha-Ya-To nodded. “Maybe it’ll help get your mind off things.”

Hikaru sighed deeply. Ha-Ya-To could almost feel the tiredness seeping of the young adult. “Yeah. I’ll meet you there. Over and out.” The small screen on Ha-Ya-To’s watch-like device darkened and shut off. He gave a sigh himself. Hikaru was working himself too hard. He had basically taken the wellbeing of the entire city on his shoulders until Sensei was well enough to regain his leadership. But Hikaru was no Sensei.

Ha-Ya-To glanced around. The flight grounds were where most to all of the battle machines in the Golden City were kept. Some were in workshops, others in garages, and some out in the open waiting for their pilots. It was probably one of Ha-Ya-To’s favorite places to be.

He broke out into a brisk jog away from the huge clearing and down the wide dirt streets of the city. He had a pretty good idea of where Akira would be: it seemed everyone new got lost there.

So slowly, Ha-Ya-To made his way through the open roads, dodging people every once in a while and shouting out hellos to random faces he recognized. If he wanted to, he could have gone a lot faster. But he wanted Hikaru to actually get to the Training Center and put a few rounds in with Takeshi; as Hikaru had said, the blue-haired teen needed to get his mind off of things.

“Hey, Akira!” The redhead ran up steadily to the Golden Tower, catching sight of the dark-haired girl who stood by. The wind caused her hair to whip around her face, the look in her dark eyes one of loss and fear. But when she turned and looked at Ha-Ya-To, it seemed to melt away.

“Ha-Ya-To!” Her words were ones obviously filled with relief, “I’m so sorry I didn’t show up. I got lost and I couldn’t find my way to the flight grounds! Did I miss orientation?”

Ha-Ya-To let out a short laugh. “Miss it? No way! I’m gonna take you to your Trainer right now. He sent me to pick you up. Oh, and just so you know, future reference and all, the flight grounds are down that road.” He pointed to direct her. Akira nodded and they started down the road.

Akira looked around, her gaze following every building and person. “So, I just have a question.”

“Fire away!”

“How do you guys know when there’s a robot attack? And how does everyone else know?”

“Besides the sounds of explosions coming from outside their door?” Ha-Ya-To grinned. “We have a lot of people manning a lot of different scanning technology around the city. All of the walls are manned by people twenty-four-seven on guard duty, and some at cannons and battle machines. Most of the robot attacks are small skirmishes, so the people inside the city don’t have a lot to worry about. When things get dangerous, we order a mandatory order for people to stay inside their homes.”

Akira nodded slowly. “So who lives in the city? Are they all pilots?”

Ha-Ya-To shook his head. “No, not all of them. Actually, most are civilians who work for the Exo-Force, as full-time analysts or contractors or designers. The Golden City is the Exo-Force’s main base, so we have a lot of people here. Some of them are pilots and techs, though, who have moved out of the dorms to make way for new recruits.” He pointed westward for Akira. “Down there is what we call the Shopping Center, though it’s not all that large. Since we have people here that are just civilians, we give them ease of access to products, food, and other things as they need them. Though, to tell you the truth, when people actually want to go shopping, they take a bus down to the bottom of the mountain where there are actual cities.”

“Makes sense,” Akira said, nodding again, though Ha-Ya-To could tell the confusion behind the girl’s expression. She would learn eventually. They all did.

Akira gave a short huff, an embarrassed laugh, as the two walked along, Ha-Ya-To leading the way. “I kinda wished you were my Trainer…you know, since I already know you and all…” She broke off with embarrassment. Ha-Ya-To nearly laughed as a blush crept up her face.

“No, sorry, I’m not yours. I got that American girl, Olivia. Nah, you’re with one of my friends.”

Akira blinked. “Is he nice?”

Ha-Ya-To brushed back a loose strand of his messy hair. “Sure he is!” When he’s not in charge of everything and about to have a mental breakdown! Ha-Ya-To winced at his thoughts, silently praying that Hikaru would go easy on the girl.


The two walked along for what seemed like a half hour more or so, though Akira wasn’t so sure. Her mind raced with excitement and worry. She was still flustered about getting lost. Thank goodness Ha-Ya-To showed up and was leading her now or she would have never found her way. Maybe there was something to her trainer, if he had sent Ha-Ya-To to her. She would have very much preferred Ha-Ya-To to be her trainer, simply for the fact that she knew him and was already used to him.

Ha-Ya-To was leading her around; Akira was glad to have him. He seemed to know his way around. He even looked professional, in a complete flight suit, which consisted what looked like a silver-white jacket and pair of pants and a white and blue chest plate over his upper body. Akira wondered why he would wear it…was it bullet proof? Either way, she remembered him wearing the same outfit when he had come to her city.

Akira was already very confused by the Golden City. As far as she knew, the place was round, so there had to be some boundaries somewhere…Akira just hadn’t found them yet. As far as she could see, the Golden Tower was the center of the city and everything else fanned out around it. Some buildings were massive, huge warehouses and buildings that looked like apartment complexes; others were as small as downtown shops. She wasn’t sure what happened around here that needed so many buildings, but there had to be some good reason.

“Here’s where we’ll meet your trainer, Akira.” Ha-Ya-To motioned to a large building in front of them. Akira gazed it over from top to bottom. It was lower to the ground than the warehouses, but it was sizeable all the same, and took up a lot of space on the ground. “This is the Training Center,” Ha-Ya-To continued, “Most of your physical training sessions will start here, at least until you get into more advanced stuff. You’ll want to remember this building.”

I’ll remember it…if I can remember how to get to it, Akira thought nervously.

Ha-Ya-To led the dark haired girl into the building. Akira swallowed as they walked through tile-floored hallways and past windowed rooms of people working out. Akira glanced their way as she passed by. The people inside were working on machines and lifting weights, even climbing ropes and doing gymnastics. Akira swallowed hard. They all looked so powerful, so hardcore. She wondered if she’d ever get to that point.

Ha-Ya-To stopped in front of an open door. Even from her position a few yards behind the redhead, Akira could hear the cheers and shouts from the room. Something interesting was obviously going on in there.

Ha-Ya-To, as usual, led the way into the room, Akira following close behind. The room was large, at least four times the size of her apartment at home. The domed ceiling made Akira wonder if the room was its own separate part of the building. The walls were made of what looked like wood, and the floor was the same, though sections were covered with hard mats.

In the center of the room a crowd had gathered. Akira could barely see over the swarm of heads, though she caught a few glances of what looked like flailing limbs. Fear flashed through her body. Was it some sort of brawl?

Ha-Ya-To grabbed the girl’s hand and led her through the crowd of people, shouting out “Excuse me!” and “Senior member coming through!” and various other phrases to make the pilots and techies move out of the way, clearing a path for himself and Akira. The dark haired girl ducked by, murmuring her apologies to the people around her. Slowly, she made her way to the center of the circle, where Ha-Ya-To had stopped.

Two young men stood on the mats in the center of the circle. Both were shirtless, pouring in sweat, and in defensive positions of some sort of martial art. Akira stared at both of them. Suddenly, one rushed at the other, hands raised. He was light on his feet and moved with a certain sleekness. The other, who was substantially larger than the other in the shoulders and slightly in height, moved more slowly, but his motions had power behind them. Akira swallowed hard, trying not to stare at their bodies as they moved and fought: both of them were muscular and looked extraordinarily strong. Akira felt a flush rise in her cheeks.

All of a sudden, the larger one managed a grab at the smaller one, slamming a fist into the smaller one’s chest. The smaller of the two used the momentum to spin around and give a flying roundhouse kick to the larger man. But the large man grabbed his foot with incredible speed, twisting it and causing the smaller man to slam into the ground, unable to move.

“Okay, okay, you win!” The smaller of the two men, who had shockingly electric blue hair that stuck out in front of him, spat to the ground. Cheers erupted from the crowd, and Akira saw people passing money to one another.

The larger man, whose hair was a grassy green and merely tousled, simply smiled, letting go and allowing the blue-haired man to get to his feet. Both of them were breathing hard, and had smiles on their faces, which Akira was relieved to see.

The two shook hands and clapped one another on the back. “Good sparring with you,” the green-haired one said. By this point, the people around them had started to disperse. Only Ha-Ya-To and Akira were not heading off to somewhere else.

“Same to you,” the second said back, his breathing still having yet to get under control. He suddenly turned, gazing straight at Ha-Ya-To. “So, you finally made it.”

Ha-Ya-To grabbed Akira’s arm and dragged her closer to him. “Yep, and here’s your apprentice! Akira, meet Hikaru, your trainer, and Takeshi, the head of the physical training section of your instruction. Hikaru, Takeshi, this is Akira…you remember, the girl I told you about? The one I saved?”

“The one you wouldn’t shut up about?” The blue haired man, who Akira could only assume was Hikaru, said in a scathing tone.

Ha-Ya-To gave a huge grin. “Yep, she’s the one! What do you think?”

Akira suddenly found herself under the harsh blue gaze of her new trainer. His eyes were the same shade of electric blue as his hair, and his gaze was piercing. The young man had gone from laughing and smiling to very serious in mere seconds. He looked her up and down. Then, slowly, he walked up and around her, his gaze covering her entire body. Akira resisted the urge to look back at him. She now realized where she recognized the two young men. They had been at her drawing when she had first been to the city.

“Pilot or techie?” Hikaru asked when he came around to the front again.

“P-p-pilot,” Akira stuttered.

Hikaru nodded. “Good.” He suddenly grabbed one of her arms, his long and clever fingers feeling her over. Akira felt her cheeks flare in color as the rest of her body was pressed against the young man’s bare chest. She could feel the hard muscle against her.

“Not very much muscle,” she heard him murmur, “We’ll have to fix that. How much can you lift?”

“Um…I’m not sure…”

“We’ll have to cut your hair.”

Akira suddenly grabbed at her long, dark locks. “What?”

Hikaru shrugged. “Having long hair is difficult in combat. It gets in your face and is distracting. We’ll have to cut it.”

Akira swallowed hard. “I-I-I-If you don’t mind, I’d rather just pull it back.”

“Suit yourself,” Hikaru shrugged. His paces were even, as though he were counting the feet in each step. Akira already felt nervous around him, as though he were going to suddenly hand her a detention for no reason whatsoever.

“We’ll have a flight suit made for you as soon as possible,” he continued, “and then we’ll start your training. I’m your trainer and head, so any problems you have will come straight to me. But I won’t be training you in everything. Takeshi,” he motioned to the large green-haired man behind him, “will be training all of you in more physical techniques, while Ha-Ya-To will be working with piloting, and Ryo with minor technological workings. I’ll be in all of them at some point. Understood?”

Akira had to hold herself from saluting and shouting out “Yes sir!” at the top of her lungs. Her Trainer was like a general in the army. Instead, she nodded briefly.

Hikaru nodded back. “Good,” he glanced around,” now where did I leave that I.D….”

“I’ve got it!” Ha-Ya-To shouted, pulling a thin plastic card from his pocket. And do you want to know why I’m going to give it to you?” His question was directed at Akira.

Akira swallowed. “Um…because it’s mine.”

Ha-Ya-To rolled his eyes. “Well, yeah, but also because,” he paused and broke out into a singsong voice, “‘Hey, we just met you, and this is crazy, but here’s your I.D., so join us maybe! It’s—‘.”

His sudden outburst of singing was cut off by Hikaru’s loud, “Ha-Ya-To!!”

The redhead didn’t seem discouraged by the interruption, except for his mock whine of “and I didn’t even get to the verses…” but he handed Akira the small piece of plastic. Akira glanced at the I.D. card. They had used her school picture, which was thankfully relatively good. The card looked rather like a driver’s license, as it gave her physical descriptions and other random information. She slipped it into her back pocket.

“I have work to attend to,” Hikaru said as Akira looked up, “I would show you around the city myself, but I’m unfortunately very caught up with work. So I’ll have to leave that to Takeshi and Ha-Ya-To. Do you two mind?” He glanced at the two men, who both shook their heads. “Good.” He turned back to Akira. “It was nice to meet you. Good luck.” And with that, he left.

When Hikaru was out of sight, Takeshi let out a huff. “He thinks he’s on the top of the world, doesn’t he?”

“You always say that,” Ha-Ya-To rolled his eyes. “So, Akira, what do you think of Hikaru?”

Akira swallowed. “Is he always that…cold?”

“Not usually,” Takeshi said, “he’s often in a good mood.”

“He’s just been really busy lately,” Ha-Ya-To put in, “He’s been working harder on logistical stuff than all of us put together. He’ll warm up, just give him some time. He’s usually pretty fun to be with.”

I sure hope so…Akira thought briefly, because if he’s always like this, then I have a feeling my time here isn’t going to be very fun.

Chapter 5:

     “And that’s the dining hall,” Takeshi pointed at a large building.

“AKA,” Ha-Ya-To put in with a teasing edge to his voice, “Takeshi’s favorite building.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Ten pork chops and eleven sodas.”

Akira smiled as the two laughed. Takeshi seemed to be nice enough, especially when Ha-Ya-To was joking around. She didn’t really catch about half of their jokes, but she didn’t mind.

Along their walk around the base, Akira had finally gotten a chance to actually look at Takeshi. She had been so focused on Hikaru while in the Training Center that she hadn’t really had a good look at the other trainer. He was a rough looking young man, with scruffy, short grassy green hair. His face was well formed, with more edges than Hikaru’s or Ha-Ya-To’s, and a short, straight scar was directly underneath his left eye. His eyebrows seemed to be in a permanent aggressive look over his green eyes. He was tall, at least half a foot over Ha-Ya-To, and his shoulders were much broader. His flight suit was red with a grey chest plate. Akira definitely would not want to get on his bad side, not with the massive muscles she had noticed while he had been fighting. But at the moment, he seemed to be in a relatively good mood. Ha-Ya-To’s cheeky comments could keep anyone upbeat.

“Anyways,” Takeshi continued, “We all eat there together, unless for some reason you’re on another job and then you’ll have permission to eat later on. Snacks are prohibited—.”

“But when have we ever followed that rule?” Ha-Ya-To snorted. “We’re on good terms with the head chef, so we get tons of extra privileges.”

“’We’?” Akira asked. “You and Takeshi?”

“And Hikaru, Ryo, and Hitomi,” Ha-Ya-To answered.

Akira raised an eyebrow. “Who are Ryo and Hitomi?”

“Oh, you’ll meet them eventually,” Takeshi said. “They’re techies, and dang good ones at that.”

“Do they have odd colored hair too?” Akira flushed at her abruptness. “Sorry…that came out a little strong…”

But the two pilots were laughing loudly. Takeshi fingered his scruffy green hair. “Oh, you noticed? Well, Ryo has purple hair, but Hitomi’s is just black…well, dark grey. But yeah. No one else you really meet here will have hair like ours. We’re just a little odd about that.”

“So what’s your natural hair color?”

“Brown,” Takeshi said. “But it was so plain, and I like green, like grass. Hikaru’s hair is blonde, which is pretty odd for a Japanese person, but he’s half Canadian, actually.”

Akira couldn’t help but smile at the thought of the young man with electric blue hair being blonde. It was just a funny though.

“My hair’s more of a dark gingery red,” Ha-Ya-To said with a smile, “and Ryo’s is black. But that’s not all that important.” He glanced Akira’s way. “So, how do you like it so far?”

Akira swallowed. She had been walking all around the city with the two boys for what seemed like hours, seeing the sights and learning little bits of trivia about the place as well as learning about the buildings she would need to know for training. The city, as far as she could see, was massive, and the walls around, which Akira and the two trainers had passed, were gigantic. From what Akira had seen, this city seemed to be the perfect military base.

“It looks really cool,” she said slowly, “I’m still just a little nervous about tomorrow.”

“Why?” Ha-Ya-To raised an eyebrow.

Akira let out a huffing sigh. “Well…I’ve never done anything like this before…everyone else seems so prepared. I’m so nervous I’m practically shaking!”

Ha-Ya-To gave her a grin. “You know what I think you need to do? You need to…” and he again burst into song. “Climb every mountain! Ford every stream! Follow every rainbow, ‘til you find you dream!!”

Now it was Akira’s turn to raise her eyebrow in question. “Do you have a habit of just bursting into song randomly? I mean, back in the Training Center, was that Carly Rae Jepson? It sounded like her, but the words were off.”

Takeshi snorted. “Are you kidding me? This guy’s the craziest, most obsessed music lover in the world! You want to tell her your favorite singer-songwriter, Red Wonder?”

Ha-Ya-To bounced a little. “Easy peasy! Taylor Swift, hands down!”

Akira burst into laughter. “You like Taylor Swift? Really?”

Ha-Ya-To joined into her laughter. “Oh yeah! She rocks! Her voice is amazing! And to answer your question, yes, that was a parody of Carly Rae Jepson’s Call Me Maybe. I have a habit of twisting words to songs quite a bit. But I have songs that I keep the same.”

“The longer you’re around,” Takeshi said, “the more music you’ll hear from Ha-Ya-To. On his spare moments, you can usually find him on a wall with his guitar learning new songs.”

Ha-Ya-To smiled. “Maybe if you’re lucky, I’ll write one for you. So while we’re on the subject of your I.D., you might want to know a few things about it.”

Talk about tangential! Akira thought with a smile as she pulled her card from her back pocket.

“See that magnetic strip on the side?” Takeshi pointed, “That’s the way to get into your dorm room. Only you and your roommate can get in, because only your cards work. Well…” He paused. “Yeah, we’ll leave it at that…”

“It’s also used as a kind of credit or debit card,” Ha-Ya-To put in. “The longer you’re with us, the more your paycheck is, and the more you can spend. So I’d advise keeping it on you at all times. If you lose it, we’ll have to make you a new one. Thankfully they all have chips in them that we can kill if they’re stolen or something of the sort. So everything’s perfectly safe, thank goodness.”

Akira nodded, fingering the card between her fingers before returning it to her back pocket.

“One more thing before we take you to the dorms.” Takeshi pulled something from his back pocket. It looked rather like a cross between an iPad Mini and a Windows 8 tablet, due to the design. Akira took it from him, holding it with delicacy. She gently tapped it, the screen flashing to life. It immediately asked for a password.

“Some people use passwords,” Ha-Ya-To explained, “others use handprint recognition. It depends on your style. This is kind of your computer while you’re here. You can use it for internet, typing notes, journaling, or anything else that really strikes your fancy. The keyboard can be flipped out from behind, and if it’s too small, you can always exchange it for something bigger. We give newbies the smallest we have at first. Oh, and if you don’t have a phone, we can get you one of those too. And you’ll need an intercom watch. We’ll grab one of those for you on the way to your dorm.”

“I sure need a lot of things!”

“And you’ll be getting even more tomorrow. Hikaru will be giving you all the materials for training in the morning.”

Akira immediately felt her spirits go from overwhelmed to even more nervous, anxious even. The two young men seemed to catch her feelings almost immediately.

“Hey, don’t worry about Hikaru!” Ha-Ya-To said hurriedly, “He’s a great guy, really! I promise. You’ll learn a lot under him. And he’ll get better. He’s just a little stressed.”

Takeshi snorted. “A little? That’s a serious understatement. And don’t forget, he’s bossy and arrogant and—.”

“Takeshi?” Ha-Ya-To cut him off. “Not helping. Really, Akira, don’t worry about it! You tell me if he’s bugging you and I’ll talk to him. He’s my roommate.”

Akira nodded slowly. It was at least nice to know that she had someone to go to. But with the sudden talk of roommates, she suddenly wondered about her own.

^_^

 

Akira Log #091336

 

I hope this thing is on and I’m not writing to a void! That would be annoying…well…here it goes.

It’s good to know that I have some friends here. Ha-Ya-To and Takeshi seem pretty nice, and spent the entire day showing me around. They’re much better than Hikaru! My goodness, that guy seems like such a jerk! I really wish I could have gotten Ha-Ya-To as a Trainer…even Takeshi would have been nice. But Hikaru (*enter groan here*), he’s just so cold and distant. Ha-Ya-To and Takeshi keep telling me that he’ll get over it (well, Ha-Ya-To anyways ''J ) but I’m skeptical.

Anyway, moving on. The city seems pretty nice, and really cool, but I just know I’m going to get lost at some point! Heck, I already have! The city is huge. I wonder what else there is to do around here except for train. There are so many buildings…do they hold weapons? I’m not sure, it’ll be interesting to find out.

I’ll hopefully continue later, after dinner. Um…over and out? Maybe I should sign my name…

Akira snapped the keyboard back over the tablet, sighing slightly. It was good to get that out. If she had waited any longer, her emotions probably would have gotten the better of her.

The dark-haired girl glanced around her room. She sat on one of the beds, the neat and made one instead of the messy, already having been slept in one in the corner. Akira swallowed, wondering what her roommate would be like. Ha-Ya-To and Takeshi had told her that this was the women’s building, which happened to be much smaller than the men’s one, right across the courtyard. It was a relief to Akira, who had been worried that she might have to be on the same floor as some male Exo-Force members, which she understood from her brother Sora sometimes happened at University. But she was surrounded by females. There was nothing to fear here.

The room was about twice the size of her apartment room, and there were two beds. There was one large drawer set against a wall, the same wall with a large window looking down into the courtyard. On the wall opposite of the beds was a closet, closed and painted the same while as the walls. The room was more or less bare. Akira wondered if they were allowed to decorate their rooms at all: maybe that was the answer to the lack of decoration.

The girl glanced down at her suitcases. She should probably have started unpacking a while ago, but she was too preoccupied to do so. Also, she had no idea where to start putting things. Her roommate was in charge, as far as she knew.

“Hey, you my new roommate?”

Akira whirled around to face the doorway. A young woman stood there, leaning against the door jamb with casual ease. She must have been extremely stealthy: Akira wasn’t sure how the girl scanned in and opened the door without Akira knowing.

The woman closed the door behind the before walking up to Akira with an outstretched hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Hitomi.”

Akira blinked. “Oh…Takeshi and Ha-Ya-To mentioned you earlier. I’m Akira.”

Hitomi nodded, her light green eyes shining. “Nice to meet you. Is there anything you need so far?”

“Um…” Akira flushed as she motioned to her bags, “Is there somewhere to put my things?”

Hitomi smacked a palm to her forehead. “I’m such a bad host! Of course there is! Here, let me help you.”

Hitomi and Akira somehow managed to get everything of Akira’s put away in a place, which was impressive, seeing as Hitomi’s things were rather messy, even if they were put away. The green eyed girl explained how she had been too busy lately to neaten up her belongings before Akira arrived, but as they put Akira’s things away, she tidied her own possessions. In what seemed like to time at all, Akira was left with two empty suitcases and a backpack on her newly made bed and a neat room.

“Are we not allowed to put anything up on the walls?”

Hitomi gave her a smirk, brushing a hand through her short, dark grey hair. “No…I’m just not a great decorator. See, Ryo has me do all the technical work, and he does the flamboyant designing. So I’m better on basics. But if you want to do any decorating, feel free.”

Akira thought for a second. “Oh yeah, you’re a techie, right?”

The young woman stood taller, a look of pride entering her eyes. “Well, kind of. I used to be a full time technician, but now I’m a pilot too, so I do both. Ryo and I are partners…or well, I’m more of his apprentice.”

“I still haven’t met him,” Akira said with a slight flush to her cheeks. Everything seemed to be making her embarrassed.

“Oh believe me, you will. Every trainee has to go through some time with Ryo to learn the basics of mechanical work, even if you’re not training to be a techie. So you’ll meet him within the next few days.”

Akira nodded. “Good to know.”

Hitomi sat on her now neat bed, glancing at Akira with a smile. “It’s good to have a roommate. The last one retired from military work a month or so ago. It’ll be nice to have some company, especially from a new sister.” She winked.

Akira gave a weak smile. “I’ve never had a sister before.”

Hitomi’s smile quickly widened into a grin. “You seem like a pretty good one to me.”

Akira’s smile grew at the older girl’s words. “Anyway,” Hitomi continued, “are you hungry? Dinner is about to be served in the mess hall.”

Akira nodded and followed the girl out of the room. She was glad to have a guide, especially after her direction mishap that day. She hoped that she would eventually know the city as well as the others, but for now, she was still very new to the Golden City’s layout. But as they neared the mess hall, Akira was glad to find that she vaguely recognized the building from earlier, though she probably wouldn’t have remembered exactly what it was without Hitomi leading her.

The mess hall was…well…a mess. The noise difference from the outdoors to the hall was shocking at best and left Akira stationary in her position, unable to move. Her eyes flitted back and forth as she tried to focus on one conversation. But it was nearly impossible to do when she recognized no one.

“Hey, Hitomi, sit over here!”

Hitomi rolled her green eyes. “Alright, alright, keep your head on, Ha-Ya-To!” She turned to Akira. “Want to sit with us?”

Akira swallowed hard, shooting a glance at the table where Ha-Ya-To was waving from. It was slightly separated from the other tables, and while some tables had at least seven or so people sitting at them, this one had merely four. Akira only recognized three of them: Ha-Ya-To, Hikaru, and Takeshi. The last young man she had never seen before.

Akira shook her head. “I…I don’t think I’d be very welcome…”

Hiomi shrugged. “Suit yourself.” She walked over to the table and sat down next to Ha-Ya-To, who immediately started conversing with her.

Akira turned back to the noisy mess hall. Everyone that she had seen so far seemed to be eating there at that moment. She had basically skipped lunch completely, having been walking around with Ha-Ya-To and Takeshi at the time. But now at dinner, the familiar rush of overwhelming anxiety and shyness overcame her.

Fortunately this feeling wasn’t to last. She had been standing rather awkwardly for probably around half a minute when she was suddenly dragged towards a table. She nearly ripped her arm away in shock before realizing who it was that had pulled her so unceremoniously from her position.

“Hey, come sit with us!” Olivia, the blonde American girl said over the lull of the crowd as her arm interlocked with Akria’s. Akira felt her cheeks flush red as she was placed next to Olivia at a small table with only the gamer Kouta for company. As usual, the boy was so into his game that forkfuls of whatever was on his plate were going into his mouth, but he didn’t seem to actually know what that was.

“So,” Olivia said cheerfully, “anything interesting happen to you today?”

She brushed back a few strands of her long, golden hair before beginning to eat her dinner. Akira glanced down at her own plate. The stew looked rather bland, and when Akira took a sip, her taste buds agreed. She grabbed the salt shaker at the table and started seasoning up her food.

“Nothing much,” she replied, “I met my trainer, but he was too busy to show me around, so Ha-Ya-To and Takeshi showed me the city instead.”

“Ha-Ya-To’s such a great trainer!” Akira now remembered that Ha-Ya-To and Olivia were a trainer-trainee pair. “He’s fun and cracks jokes all the time.”

“Yeah,” Akira murmured, swallowing down the thick, slightly salty stew. “You got lucky.”

“Ryo’s alright.” Kouta’s voice rang out through the noise of the crowds. He had finally looked up for a second from his game, his dark eyes meeting Akira’s. “He could be better. I bet I’ll be better than him.”

Bold, isn’t he? Akira thought, slightly taken aback when the until then nearly silent boy spoke.

“Well,” Olivia said with a smile, “the trainers are pretty smart. They’ve been working here for longer than all of us combined. So they must know their stuff.”

Kouta’s eyes had already returned to his game.

Akira let out a sigh as she continued to sip her way through the thick stew. “Do you know why it’s so—.”

“Bland?” Olivia finished. “Well, I assume it’s really good for us, and also, the military doesn’t exactly eat like princes. They take what they’ve got. That’s what my dad always told me.”

Akira glanced at the separate table where the trainers sat, eating and chatting their hearts away. “Is the purple-haired one Ryo?”

“I think so.”

Akira nodded and watched as Hitomi made a comment to Takeshi and the two laughed for a moment. She couldn’t tell what the purple-haired young man looked like, as his back was to her. Hikaru sat next to him, his back also to her. She couldn’t see his facial expression, but from his stature, Akira could tell he was tired: he slumped over, his movements slow and very deliberate. Ha-Ya-To was cracking a joke to Hitomi, or that’s what it seemed like…it was as though they were all one big family.

Would Akira ever be really welcomed into a family here? She was so far away from her actual one. She had been so distracted lately that she had forgotten to ask whether she could ever visit her family. But…even though she had Ha-Ya-To, Takeshi, and Hitomi…would she ever sit at that table, be welcomed by all of them?

“Hey Akira, you there?”

Akira snapped out of her thoughts, turning back to Olivia. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, “I’m just a little preoccupied…”

Olivia waved the apology away. “Oh, that’s fine, we’re all a little overwhelmed. I was just asking what you thought of the other trainees.”

Akira glanced around the room, her eyes setting on the huge man from before…Taiki…she remembered his name. He was sitting with a few more men who were all rather large and broad. They ate their food quickly, their mouths holding twice as much as Akira’s could, and then hurried back to the food line for seconds.

“He’s pretty big,” Akira commented, eating more of her food. “I wonder how long he’s been in training.”

“I heard his trainer is the green-haired one,” Olivia pointed to Takeshi at the head table.

Akira nodded. It made sense that the strongest would train the strongest. She then turned to find Kiku. She found it a rather fluffy name for such a beast of a woman. Kiku sat with a group of women, all laughing and joking about something apparently funny.

“So that means she’s with Hitomi,” Akira said, “the black-haired trainer.”

Olivia glanced at the table. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Her blue eyes sparkled. “Should be fun, huh? Training starts tomorrow!”

Akira’s stomach turned. She silently chided herself. She hated feeling as anxious as she did, and she’d been feeling this way for days. Today was just the worst. She suddenly longed to be back home in the comforts of her bedroom, the most important thing on her mind what she would do in classes the next day and if she would manage to finish her homework on time.

It was as if she had grown up in a matter of days, or partially so: she realized she had a long way to go. There was something more important, more pressing than school work. And she had been thrown headlong into it. She knew she was going to be shocked into a new world, and now all she could do was prepare for it.

Put she put on a smile, forcing herself to swallow another bite of her slightly seasoned stew. “Yeah…fun.”

Chapter 6:

“An Exo-Force pilot must be well-rounded in many skills.”

Kouta raised a hand. “I’m not a pilot.”

Hikaru raised an eyebrow. “Techies as well.”

Kouta nodded, his thick eyebrows furrowing together. He had been looking grumpy since Ryo had confiscated his DS. So he stood with his arms crossed in the row of trainees.

Akira swallowed hard, glancing around. All of the trainees were in the Training Center, lined up in a row, watching as Hikaru paced up and down. He was giving quick information before each of the trainees split to meet up their personal trainers. Akira winced as her stomach grumbled. It was far too early to be up, and she hadn’t even had breakfast: the cafeteria didn’t open for another three hours…at least, not for the trainees. Apparently only those who were on morning patrol were allowed to eat early.

Akira felt stiff in her new flight suit. Most of the flight suits that she had seen pilots wear around the city were very similar with a few minor differences in color and design. Hers was a lot like Ha-Ya-To and Hikaru’s: a full jumpsuit colored white, but with red on the under arms and the inside of her legs. The chest plate was white, accented with different shades of grey and a red piece in the very center. The neck was higher than she would have liked, but loose enough not to be counted as a stiff turtleneck. The legs of the suit were skinny, allowing for a pair of white and red boots to be drawn over her feet without much trouble at all, the sleeves being the same way, as she wore a pair of dark gloves over her hands. The difference in design mostly was the set of pockets on each upper arm, which Akira found handy for carrying pens and other small trinkets. Her necklace was in one at the moment, as she had decided it might be a bad idea to have a chain swinging around her neck during training.

Hitomi had told Akira that she would eventually break in the uniform and she would be able to move in it better soon enough. Akira hoped so. The thin material was stiff and starched, but surprisingly warm. She wasn’t so worried about the chill now. All she really needed was a scarf, as with her hair pulled back into a high ponytail, her neck was no longer insulated.

Akira broke from her thoughts as she was handed a long wooden sheathe, sword and all. She fumbled with it slightly before curling it into her elbows close to her body.

“You will all learn the arts of basic swordplay, kendo, and various martial arts,” Hikaru was saying. “You will not always find yourself in a situation where you are against robots in your battle machines. So in order to be prepared, you must train through many things. This will also keep you fit.”

Akira slowly and carefully pulled the curved sword from its sheath, admiring the silvery steel. She slid it back, refocusing her attention on her trainer.

“These are each a very simple form of a katana,” Hikaru explained, “When you graduate from training, you will receive a battle machine, your orders, and a better katana. You all are lucky. Because you were brought in specially, you all get battle machines designed especially for you, due to your talents that we might not have accounted for.” He glanced around at the group. “Now you will all go and find your trainers. I trust they gave you an idea of where to find them?”

The group nodded, though Akira really had no need to. Her trainer was standing right in front of her.

“Good,” Hikaru nodded. “Then enjoy.”

The trainees left silently through the large set of doors, carrying their katana with them. Akira watched them leave, rocking back and forth on her toes with nervous anticipation. She continued to cradle the katana in her arms.

“Akira.”

Akira nearly jumped in surprise, the katana almost falling from her grasp. She immediately stopped her odd movements, straightening to attention before bowing low in respect. “Yes, Hikaru-sensei?”

The blue-haired teen actually let out a short laugh, his face relaxing ever so slightly. “Just Hikaru will be fine. And no senpai either, alright? I may be your mentor, but I’m not your senior, at least not yet. Here, most of us have around the same ranking. Only Sensei Keiken is actually a higher rank.”

Akira swallowed and nodded. “So the Dream Team isn’t actually all that higher?”

Hikaru rubbed his back neck, laughing again. Akira was glad to see her trainer at least a little more loose and relaxed than before. “Is that what they call us now? We’re just the original Exo-Force members that have survived the war. They call us seniors, but we’re really just the longest trained, and we’re still in training.”

Akira blinked. “Really? I thought you would have been done by now.”

“No. We never really end training. We always want to up our skills, and we each have something we need to work on. I’m still working with my strength and power.”

With that six-pack, you still need work? Akira could barely believe her own thoughts.

“And speaking of training, we had better begin.”

Akira nodded quickly, setting down her katana with clumsy actions. She had never handled a blade before.

Hikaru looked her up and down. “We want you to get used to the uniform, so you’ll be required to wear it everywhere, except when you’re training on your own time. More will be sent up to your room, so you can wash them often. How do they suit you?”

Akira raised her arm, feeling the fabric tighten with every movement. “It’ll take some getting used to.”

Hikaru shot her a half smile. “We all felt like that.” He stretched out his arms behind him, the worn fabric moving smoothly. It was obvious that it had been used many times. “So, to begin, I’m going to want you to run a mile in the track room. I’ll time you.”

Akira swallowed. “A-alright.”

For the next hour or two, Akira was put through rigorous training by Hikaru, who apparently needed to see everything she could possibly do, from bench presses to her top speed to her ability to walk on a balance beam. Akira wasn’t sure how well she had done: the mile had taken her longer than it seemed Hikaru might have liked (14 minutes, 35 seconds) and she wasn’t very strong at all, though her balance seemed to be alright. Hikaru told her it was fine: they would just have to train more intensely to get her in shape. This caused Akira to worry more than ever.

Sparring was next, and blade work afterwards. Akira wasn’t great with martial arts, but she had tried a few of the styles before, which meant that she did better than she originally thought. Blade work was much harder. Akira hadn’t ever done kendo, and the long sword felt awkward in her hands. And all through this, she was trying to work her mobility, which was hard in a never-before-worn suit of crisp fabric. She assumed that Hikaru had been using his a long time, as his movements were as sleek as if he wasn’t wearing the tight jacket and jerkin at all.

Akira found herself downing water as fast as she could. Hikaru told her it was the altitude. Akira had never been anywhere in the mountains before, so she didn’t doubt him. He told her to drink more and more water at meals, and soon Akira would feel back to normal. The dark-haired girl hoped he was right.

“Are…you…sure,” Akira said through gasps, “this is…helping me?”

Hikaru shrugged, watching the girl struggle to pull herself up the bar for a chin-up. “It’s helping me to help you. I need to know exactly what I’m dealing with so we can start toning your muscles.”

Akira flopped to the ground, feeling the air rush in and out of her lungs. “What about…brain work?”

Hikaru waved the question away. “That’s mostly Ryo’s work. You’ll meet up with him later today for diagnostics and beginning with his training.”

Akira nodded, brushing sweat away from her eyes. She allowed her heart rate to slow, catching her breath. Slowly she sat up, much to her abdominal muscle’s protest. “Alright,” she groaned, “What next?”

Hikaru thought for a moment. “Well, we could—.”

He was cut off by a sharp beeping noise. His eyes suddenly sharpened, growing harder and more defined as he tapped at his intercom watch, gazing down at the tiny screen. “Yeah, Ryo, what’s up?”

Akira could only hear the voice from the other end. “Those new parts have come in and I need a signature and someone to look them over. How soon can you get here?”

“I’m on my way,” Hikaru answered. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

“Good.”

Hikaru looked back down at Akira. “I’ll have to be leaving you. Meet me back here this afternoon.” And without another word, he walked out of the room and out of view.

Akira let out a sigh as she slowly rose to her feet. Disappointment flowed through her. Just when she had thought she was getting somewhere with her trainer, he had been called back and changed back to his cold, icy self. Akira knew he was busy. She just wished that he wasn’t busy when they were together. She wanted a trainer who would actually train her, not someone who had to call off their work because of other things, though Akira knew she could do nothing to change that. As long as Sensei was out, Hikaru was going to be busy. Akira heaved a sigh, glancing up at the clock. She might as well go and get ready for breakfast. The cafeteria would be opening in less than an hour.


“Hey, Akira, want to sit with us?”

“No thanks, Ha-Ya-To.”

The red-haired young man sighed in disappointment.

“Why are you so upset?” Hitomi asked dryly, “Do you fall for girls so quickly?”

Ha-Ya-To gave her a playful whack to the arm. “Come on, would I do that? No, I just want her to feel welcomed.” He glanced around. “Where are Hikaru and Ryo?”

“Looking over some spare parts,” Takeshi answered as he took a huge bite of the apple on his plate. “Hikaru had to go through the paperwork, check everything off, and sign it all. It could take him a while.”

Ha-Ya-To spread peanut butter over his apple, covering it in raisins. “If you ask me, Hikaru’s been working himself much too hard lately.”

“Agreed,” Hitomi said. “How is he going to work with Akira if he’s busy all the time?”

The redhead shrugged. “Well…I guess I could always take some time to help her, when I’m not working with Olivia.”

Takeshi rolled his eyes. “If you ask me, we all are going to be too busy. I’ve been working with that Taiki guy…talk about dense! I mean, he’s got a lot of brawl and power, but he has no strategy at all!”

“So…” Hitomi took a sip of her drink, smirking. “He’s just like you when you first came in.”

Takeshi flushed a deep red, busying himself with his second apple and another bowl of oatmeal. “Something like that,” he murmured.

Hitomi smiled, sipping on her juice. “Well, Kiku’s alright…she’s just a little arrogant. She thinks very highly of herself and has pretty strong opinions.”

“Olivia’s fun!” Ha-Ya-To put in, “but she’s easily distracted.”

“And I know that Akira’s good, just a little…nervous and timid.”

“She’ll come around,” Takeshi said, “Kouta, according to Ryo…he’s also a little arrogant. He apparently thinks he’s the best mechanic and inventor since Leonardo DaVinci. Talk about fate! Ryo’s going to have a screaming match with him before long.”

Hitomi nodded. “Should be an interesting six months.”

“Definitely,” Ha-Ya-To said cheerfully, “These five are probably the most interesting trainees we’ve ever had!”

“True that, because none of them were chosen for the reasons people are usually chosen for,” Takeshi commented, clearing his plate and heading back for more food.

Ha-Ya-To glanced at the table where Akira sat with Olivia, the two talking quietly and smiling every once in a while.

“She just seems so lonely,” he murmured.

Hitomi nodded. “Well…I expect it is a shock when you’re taken away from your old life and tossed into the military. I was kind of already prepared, with Sensei being my grandfather and all. After my parents died, I had nowhere else to go, so adapting was necessary. These trainees, at least on Akira’s part…they’ve had no training.”

Ha-Ya-To nodded seriously. “I’m even lucky. My parents are still alive and they encouraged me to join the army. Akira told me on our walk that her parents hadn’t wanted her to become a part of the Exo-Force. She has their support, but I doubt their blessing.”

The grey-haired girl sighed. “We have such messed up backgrounds, don’t we?”

Ha-Ya-To gave a quirky smile. “Well, some of you do…and we all know whose is the worst.”


Dang, you’re trainer is a butt-face!

Akira gave a small smile, holding the phone closer to her ear. “I’m not sure if that’s true…he’s just stressed.”

Well, give him a back massage or something! If you don’t learn anything, then what’s the point of having him as a trainer at all?

“Ha-Ya-To and Takeshi told me he’d come around, Rina,” Akira reassured her friend, “he just needs time.”

Exactly how many guys have you been talking with, ‘Kira?

Akira gave a laugh. “Enough that I might be able to pair you and Minako up with some attractive young men!”

How about Ha-Ya-To? How’s he been doing?

Akira felt a flush rise in her cheeks. “He’s been fine,” she said with a steady tone, “His apprentice is really nice to. Her name’s Olivia, and she’s from America. Cool, right?”

You’re really bad at changing the subject, you know,” Rina’s voice was teasing over the tinny voice of the cell-phone speakers, “Ha-Ya-To’s really who I want to hear about and I know you’re just avoiding the topic.”

Akira felt the flush in her cheeks rise. “He’s nice enough. He showed me around the city with Takeshi because Hikaru couldn’t. He’s really fun to be around.”

Have you finally got a crush on someone, Akira?

Akira swallowed. “I-I wouldn’t say that…”

Liar! You totally have a thing for him! Sit with him at breakfast tomorrow! Do it!

Akira rubbed her eyes. “Rina, I haven’t even known him for a week yet. Don’t you think that’s going a bit too far?”

No way! This is slow. You’ve never dated before, Akira. That’s the problem. You might as well get it out there that you like him enough to want to be around him. I say go for it. It’ll start your relationship off with ease.

“I’m not so sure about this.”

Well, I am! Go ahead! Follow your heart!

Akira sighed. “Fine. But I’ll take my own time on it. Okay?”

Tell me when it happens, okay? I want to know exactly when my friend gets her first boyfriend!

The dark-haired girl smirked. “Alright. Talk to you later, Rina.”

Akira turned her phone off, setting on her bedside table. She leaned back in her bed, staring at the ceiling in above her. It was true, she had never dated anyone before. No guy had really interested her before. But now…there was Ha-Ya-To. She had barely known him for a week, and found it rather childish that she was already so into a boy. He was handsome and humorous, his actions sticking in Akira’s mind.

She shook her head wildly. She was acting like a stupid middle schooler and she knew it. She sighed and sat up, glancing at her clock. She would had to go back to training in a few minutes; break was almost over. Hopefully Hikaru would be there, unless she was working with another trainer. Either way, it would be interesting.

The girl groaned and sat up, pulling out her Compad, as she had learned it was called, and flipped up the screen and pressing her hand against it as a blue light scanned her fingers for the correct prints. With a glow and a small tinkling sound, the Compad turned on.

Akira Log #091436

 

Rina wants me to sit with Ha-Ya-To at breakfast tomorrow. See, she’s under the impression that I have a crush on him or something of the sort. I’m more confused, really. Ha-Ya-To is a sweet guy as far as I’ve seen. He’s fun, quirky, handsome…what’s not to like, really? But I’ve only known him for a few days. I’m not so sure what to do. I’ve never dated anyone before, and as far as I know, he’s already got a girlfriend. What girl wouldn’t want him?…I’m not sure anymore…

Akira sighed, turning her Compad back off. For some reason, it felt good to get that out. It cleared her head, allowed her to think more clearly. She stood and adjusted her jerkin, setting down her tablet before heading out of her room to her next section of training.

^_^

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN I HAVE TRAINEES TO WORK WITH?!?!?!”

Akira winced as the loud sound reverberated around the large warehouse. It was as though the voice came from everywhere and from someone way too big to be human.

“It’s only for an hour or two,” Hikaru’s voice sounded weary, “I gave you the schedule yesterday, remember?”

The five trainees stood in the back of the warehouse, waiting at attention for Ryo, who Akira assumed was the one who was yelling. The workshop was a mess, with battle machines against the walls and pieces of metal and tools scattered across the floor. Akira had to watch where she stepped when she had come in to avoid breaking something. The two trainers had taken up an argument on the top of a cherry picker that rested against a half-made battle machine, Hikaru seemingly looking down at no one, but Akira was sure that Ryo was just working out of sight.

“And could have possibly caused you to conceive that I even had the remotest amount of free time to look it over?” Ryo’s voice was scathing and sharp, “I’ve been busier than your brain can possibly comprehend! Everything’s being destroyed right and left! I have no time to train anymore!!”

“Ryo, after an hour or so you can send them off to the Training Center with Takeshi, all right? Just keep them busy. Maybe they can do some of your work.”

“No one can do my work!!” Ryo snapped. “If it’s not perfect, it’s useless!”

“Ryo…”

Suddenly, the figure came into view. He was a young man, shorter than Hikaru, and Akira recognized him as the purple-haired young man from dinner the night before. He wore an orange jumpsuit, and his shaggy hair was pulled away from his eyes by a red bandana across his forehead. His blue eyes were harsh, almost angry. “Fine. I’ll do it. But only for an hour!”

Hikaru let out a visible sigh of relief. “Thanks, Ryo.”

“Hey, Hikaru!” A girl with dark brown hair leaned into the workshop through the massive doors. “Can you look over those patrol schedules?”

Hikaru nodded. “Sure, Midori.”

“And I need that paperwork for the kitchens signed as well,” came another young man who walked in, waving a few papers around.

“I’ll look at those in just a second.” Akira watched as the blue-haired pilot closed his eyes for a moment, heaving a deep breath as he walk walked down the ladder from the cherry picker and out the door. “Alright, Midori, show me those schedules.”

Akira watched him go, a feeling of empathy rising in her chest. Her trainer must have had it hard, always having to run around and sign papers and oversee work. She wondered vaguely if Sensei would ever be well enough to return to his former duties.

By this point, Ryo had moved the cherry picker to its position on the ground, and he stepped out, his intelligent blue eyes taking in the trainees. But it was more of a glare than an inspecting look, as though daring them to do something wrong.

The young man sighed, crossing his arms, one of his greasy, gloved hands still holding a rather large wrench. “Alright. All you need to understand at the moment is my name. I’m Ryo, the head Techie. And you are under my control until the next trainer arrives to displace you to another area.” The way he spoke was almost haughty, with confusing wording and a quick, sharp tone. Akira swallowed. This man obviously knew he was a brainiac and was not afraid to show it. “Now, what can I entice you to labor on that you won’t annihilate?” He said quietly, rubbing his chin.

Finally, he stepped over to a set of metal panels, fingering them. “These are extras. Each of you take some of those powders over there.” He pointed to a table covered with pots. Akira picked up one, gazing into the bright blue substance inside. “You can all help me with design, or at least it will keep you out of my hair. There are some chemicals, I won’t go into detail about them, in the cabinet over in that corner. Mix a chemical with a powder to get a certain color, alright?” He sounded bored, as though he were trying to make his words more simple for them to understand.

The trainees nodded.

Ryo sighed. “Good. Now don’t disturb me. I’ll be busy.” He set off to another battle machine, his wrench in hand.

The five trainees glanced at one another in confusion. Kouta was the first to start experimenting, grabbing a powder and a pulling a vial of clear liquid from the cabinet as he set up with one of the metal sheets. The other four shrugged and began to do the same.

Akira ended up with a green vial and a yellow vial, along with a blue powder and an orange one. She grabbed a spare dish and threw some of the blue powder in, a drop of the green liquid after it. The substance fizzed and immediately turned yellow.

Akira blinked in surprise, placing the brush she had been provided into the smooth creation and painted a streak of it on the silvery metal. She allowed herself a smile. This wasn’t so hard.

She immediately started experimenting with different colors and chemicals, as the trainees would go around and trade bases when they had finished with one. Before she knew it, Akira had every color of the rainbow and then some in front of her. She pulled out her paintbrush and started coloring the metal. It was like being back in art class at school, painting bright colors on a canvas.

She stood back and admired her work. Tapping her foot, she thought for a moment. What it really needed was some more orange. She glanced down at her pots filled with colors. She had used up all the orange in the beginning and now she couldn’t remember what powder and chemical she had used for that one. She looked at the others. Well…she had used blue powder and green chemicals to make yellow, and purple powder and silver chemicals to make red…maybe she just needed to mix them together.

She ran to the container table and grabbed more blue and purple powder and traded some yellow and blue chemicals for the green and silver. She poured the two powders together and held the chemicals over the pot. She thought for a moment. If she poured them in one by one, the process might not work. She would have to put them in together.

Suddenly, Kouta was at her table. “No, Akira!!”

But it was too late. The liquids were already out of their flasks and tumbling to the powder.

“EVERYBODY DUCK!!!!” Kouta screamed, throwing himself under Akira’s table. The dark-haired girl grabbed the slab of metal, holding it in front of her and screwing her eyes shut.

BOOM!!!!

Akira was nearly thrown backwards by the blast. She screamed and covered her ears, curling into a tight ball. The explosion shook the warehouse, tools jumping up from the ground and back again. Akira remained in her position even as the room went silent. She was sure that there was going to be another explosion: she had used a lot of powder and chemicals.

“WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON?!” Akira heard Ryo’s yell of anger. It made her even less ecstatic about moving.

The panel behind her was thrown away and she was dragged to her feet by an angry Ryo. “WHAT DID YOU JUST DO?!” Akira felt as though her hair were being blown back by the force of Ryo’s scream.

“I’m so sorry!” Akira cried out, flinching. “I didn’t know! I didn’t know!”

Ryo glared at her. “Chemicals that have explicit assets are NOT supposed to be collectively mixed! What on earth were you thinking?!”

Akira shook her head, falling to her knees in despair. She could feel tears of shock streaming down her face. “I had no idea! I was trying to make a certain color…”

Ryo stooped and picked up the metal sheet, holding it up. “What on earth…?” he muttered.

Akira managed a glance. The smooth surface of the metal had been completely warped, now covered in bumps, and it sparkled as though dumped in glitter. Ryo tapped it experimentally. The metal reverberated back with a hum. “The chemical reaction affected the Zaylium metal directly,” he muttered, whipping out his wrench. He set the metal against a table, and slammed down on the panel with a grunt. The metal hummed back. Ryo picked it up again. “Not even a dent.” His eyes grew cold. “What chemicals did you use?”

Akira sucked in a sharp breath and held out the vials. “T-t-they were g-g-green and s-s-silver.”

Ryo inspected the two of them, muttering to himself. “Of course,” his voice was quiet, “the reaction between…” and he broke off into a string of unintelligible words that Akira wasn’t able to understand.

He suddenly turned and shot a glare at the trainees. “Alright, class is over. Go to the Training Center, and if I find out that you didn’t, then you’ll have me to deal with.” His glare was terrifying enough to have the trainees nodding hurriedly. “And…Akira, is it?”

Akira stopped following the other trainees to the door and turned back, wincing slightly. “Y-yes, sir?”

Ryo nodded. “You’ve got quite a knack for explosions.”

Akira let out a half-choked laugh. “It was really a mistake…”

Ryo raised an eyebrow. “Well, it was a satisfactory one.” And with that he turned away. Akira, sensing the conversation was over, bowed hurriedly and rushed off to the Training Center.

Chapter 7:

Akira couldn’t remember the last time she had woken up so sore. She sat up in bed, and immediately fell back onto the mattress, unable to rise. Every muscle hurt, each screaming at her with every movement she made. She moaned in anguish, slowly opening her blurry eyes.

Hitomi was leaning over her with a smirk, “Sore, huh?”

Akira nodded with another pitiful moan. After working with Ryo yesterday, Takeshi had taken the rest of the day for strength training. Akira felt as though her arms were made of spaghetti.

The grey-haired girl gave a snort of laughter. “Welcome to the club, Akira. First day of training is always killer. It’s most likely be better off from now on. Here, want some help up?”

Akira groaned as Hitomi pulled her out of bed. Showering and dressing herself was simple enough: it was getting down to ground level that was the killer. The dorm rooms had elevators, but they were only to be used in emergencies. Apparently it was good for the students to run up and down the stairs to get to their rooms. Akira didn’t envy the people on the top floors, offering up a silent prayer of thanks to whatever deity had made it possible to her to be only on the fifth floor.

Still, getting down was a pain. Every step down Akira took, her quadriceps tightened and shot painful messages to her mind. Akira gritted her teeth and held onto the handrail tightly, easing herself down. It took her almost twenty minutes to get down to the first floor.

“I hope Takeshi lets us off easy today,” Akira groaned, walking outside.

“Hate to break it you,” Hitomi gave a sympathetic smile, “but Takeshi hardly ever lets anyone off easily. Just wait until you get to endurance training. I swore I couldn’t feel my toes for the next day.”

Akira’s eyes widened in worry. “What did you do?”

Hitomi smiled. “Well, I can’t give away every surprise, now can I?”

Akira groaned as they walked off to the dining hall. She was not looking forward to today at all. She only wondered what she was going to be doing that would cause her the pain.

“Hey, Hitomi, Akira, want to sit with us?”

The question was out by the redhead as soon as the two females entered the large mess hall. Hitomi waved to him with a smile. “Sure, Ha-Ya-To!” She shot a questioning glance at Akira. “You want to sit with us today?”

Akira looked around briefly, her eyes resting on the blonde American girl she had been sitting with lately. But it looked as though Olivia was in deep conversation with someone already. Akira wouldn’t be doing her any disservice in sitting with someone else. She remembered Rina’s words, about sitting with Ha-Ya-To that morning at breakfast. Well…here she was. Maybe it would actually work out…

“Sure,” she answered.

The two young women went and grabbed food at the cafeteria line before heading back to the senior’s table. Akira sat next to Takeshi, who was already on what looked to be his fifth banana and granola bar. He shot her a quick smile. “G’morning.”

The dark-haired girl flushed slightly. “Are you sure it’s alright to sit here? I mean…you know…it seems like it’s already reserved.”

The green-haired young man shook his head. “People only usually sit here if we invite them, but feel free to sit here any time you want. There’s no rule against sitting here.”

Akira swallowed and nodded back. Before his training session, Akira might have actually smiled and struck up a conversation with the young man. But now she had a new level or respect of respect for the trainer. Yesterday, when Akira had been in his class, she had realized just how powerful he was. His rather kind attitude had been replaced with a beast of war. He had taken the down the largest of the trainees, his own, in a matter of seconds. He could bench press more than Akira could count. It made sense that he ate like a horse; he always seemed to be exercising in some way. He must have burned off more calories than an ox.

Ryo set down his platter across from Akira, looking down with disgust at the food. But he shot Akira a look of amusement. “Well, if it isn’t the Sultan of Seismic Explosives.”

Akira blinked slightly, cocking her head. “Wait…what?”

“He means you’re pretty good at destroying things,” Ha-Ya-To translated. “Don’t worry. You’ll learn ‘Ryo-speak’ eventually. We all do. What he means is that we all heard about your…experiment yesterday.”

Akira felt her cheeks flush in embarrassment. “Y-you did?”

“Yeah!” Ha-Ya-To smirked. “Epicness! How did you manage to destroy something in Ryo’s lab and get away with it? If I had done that, I would have gotten KP for a week, at least!”

The violet haired teenager took a bite out of his apple, his what appeared to be permanently frowned lips taking on a half smile. “Because the fruits of her experimentation were plentiful, unlike anything your destructive mind might be able to conjure up.” He blinked his blue eyes. “How much time has he been slumbering, by the way?”

Akira directed her gaze to the last person at the table. She hadn’t noticed him because of his position. Hikaru was seated, his breakfast platter in front of him. But he had his head nestled in the crook of his elbow, his blue hair spilling out over his arms, which he rested in. His back rose and fell gently with each of his slow breaths.

Takeshi shrugged. “Around ten minutes, I’d say. He needs to wake up thought.” He gently nudged the teenager with a grunt. “Hey, Hikaru, you gotta wake up.”

There was a slight shifting from the person, but besides that, nothing at all.

Takeshi tried again, a bit louder this time. “Come on, buddy, move!”

Again, no response.

Ha-Ya-To snorted. “Come on, you think that’ll wake him up? He rooms with me, for heaven’s sake! He has to deal with noises and movements all the time. No, this is the way to wake Hikaru up.” He leaned over the table and said in a deep voice that could have rivaled Sensei’s, “Hikaru, what’s two hundred and sixteen divided by eight?”

Hikaru’s head jerked up from the table. “Twenty-seven, Sensei!” He yelped. His sharp electric blue eyes were wide in shock, his entire body rigid.

Ha-Ya-To smirked. “That’s the way you do it, Takeshi. Hey, Hikaru, you were asleep at the table again.”

The blue-haired young man glanced around. “I was?” He moaned, rubbing his head. Dark circles had started to form under his eyes, his hair all in a muss and his body slumped. “Sorry…I was up late going through paperwork.” He stifled a yawn, groaning slightly.

“You really need to sleep more, Hikaru,” Takeshi said, grabbing another apple and smothering it in peanut butter.

“I know,” he murmured, “but I need to get these papers finished.” He grabbed at the platter in front of him, only to realize it was empty. “Did I forget to get food too?” he groaned.

“Yeah.”

Akira glanced at her own food, pushing her protein shake towards the blue-haired teenager. “Here, you can have some of mine.”

Hikaru gave her a weak smile. “No, that’s yours. I’ll just have to go without food until lunch.”

Akira shook her head, her ponytailed hair swishing behind her. “No, really, it’s fine. You take it. I’ll be fine with this. I promise.” She picked up a hard boiled egg and immediately started peeling it. She smiled at Hikaru’s skeptical look. “Really, keep it! I’ll be fine.”

Hikaru slowly took the shake and started drinking it. “Thanks Akira…” he murmured. He gave a sigh, leaning back in his chair with a grunt. “I really need to find a way to do this all better.”

Suddenly Takeshi pointed towards the door, stopping his eating with a wide-eyed expression. “You may not have to.”

Akira turned around, looking in surprise at the doors. Standing in the entrance way to the mess hall stood Sensei Keiken, his grey eyes looking over everyone serenely. One by one, the teens and adults realized he was there, and within a minute, the whole room was silent.

Sensei glanced around, a smile on his lips and a glint in his eyes. “You can all return to eating. I just came to make an announcement in person. I have been deemed well enough by the medics to return as your full leader once again. Thank you to all who have been working in my place.”

The room burst into applause, Akira joining in. She didn’t know Sensei all that well yet, but he was the leader of the military and Akira was sure she’d get to know him soon. She glanced around the room at the delight on each person’s face. It was obvious that the Exo-Force saw this man as their leader, and apparently a very good one. The only face that wasn’t smiling was Hikaru’s, which looked more on the edge of shock. He rubbed his eyes once or twice, shaking his head a fair number of times and murmuring to himself.

Sensei gave a bow and stepped back out of the room, leaving the students to their meals. Ha-Ya-To looked across at Hikaru. “Hey, it looks like you’re off the hook after all!”

“Thank whatever deity there is…!” Hikaru sighed, leaning back down on the table. “Maybe I can actually get some sleep.”

Suddenly, a bell rang off in the distance. The people rose from their places and started out to training. Hikaru gave a tiny groan as he stood, sighing deeply. “Well…cat nap, I guess.”

Takeshi clapped his friend on the back. “You know what? You go and catch a few winks. I’ll take over for you on training today.”

“You mean it?” Hikaru looked almost skeptical.

“Well, I can’t have you falling asleep during our training tomorrow, can I? We’re sparring in the Sky Guardian and the Blade Titan, remember?”

Hikaru sighed, brushing back his hair. “Oh yeah…intro to fighting after Ha-Ya-To’s Flying 101.” He shot his friend a smile. “Thanks, Takeshi.”

The green haired pilot shrugged. “Sure, whatever. Come on, Akira, let’s head.”

Akira’s aching muscles screamed at her not to follow Takeshi, but she did so anyways. She knew she was in for it this time. Her body was going to hate her. She suddenly longed to have Hikaru training her; she doubted he would have pushed her as much as Takeshi did. But with a last glance at Hikaru, she exited the mess hall, only realizing once she had stepped outdoors that she had barely spoken to Ha-Ya-To at all.


“A quarter mile to go,” Takeshi said.

Akira collapsed to the ground, unable to speak through her heavy breathing and gulping of water. Her chest heaved as she laid on her back, trying desperately to fill her lungs with air. Everything hurt. Her legs would barely respond to her pleas of movement.

Takeshi tapped his foot impatiently. “Come on, get up! You should be able to run at least two miles, and you’ve only run a mile and three quarters.”

On my second day of training?! Akira nearly screamed. She wasn’t sure if you could die by running, but Takeshi seemed to be determined to make that happen. He had put her through basically the same series of exercises that he had yesterday, only this time more intense, and now she literally felt like she couldn’t go on any more.

“I…think…”she managed between gasps, “that…you might…want to…let me rest…”

Takeshi crossed his arms across his chest. “You’re resting right now! Get up!”

“Takeshi, give the girl a break!” Ha-Ya-To suddenly walked into the training room, his steps in a spring and face cheerful as always. “Come on! Were you able to run two miles straight on your second day?”

“Um…yeah?”

Ha-Ya-To waved Takeshi’s answer away. “Never mind. The point is we’re not all as amazing and talented as you are. Anyways, Akira’s mine for the next hour.”

Takeshi shrugged. “Fine, she’s all yours.”

Praise the lord! Akira heaved a sigh of relief from the ground and stood up shakily with Ha-Ya-To’s help, and the two walked out of the Training Center.

“Thanks for saving my life,” she said as they walked through the streets.

Ha-Ya-To snorted. “Takeshi’s motto in life is ‘If you’re not dead, you haven’t worked hard enough’. The reason he’s usually given the toughest trainees is because he can beat up on them and they won’t normally get too injured. He just has this mindset that everyone should be able to do at least fifty handstand-pushups like he can.”

Akira shivered. “I’m really glad he’s not my trainer.” If only you were…

Ha-Ya-To laughed. “He’s a great guy…he’s just a little rough.”

“You can say that again!” She groaned, rubbing her arms. “So…where are you talking me?”

The red head gave her a bright smile. “My personal specialty: Flight training!”

The pilot led Akira through the city, Akira still feeling as though her legs were going to fall off, to the flight grounds. Akira smiled. She had only been here when Ha-Ya-To and Takeshi had shown her around, as she had gotten lost. That had only been yesterday…It felt like forever ago.

Ha-Ya-To led the way into the clearing, stepping up to one of the battle machines. “I suspect you remember this one?”

Akira grinned. “Sure! That’s the Golden Guardian.”

“Smart girl! Ten points to Gryffindor!” He smiled. “Alright, as a part of the Exo-Force, you’ll have to learn to use battle machines, as they’re our armor while we’re on the battlefield. The robots have them and we have them and we’re always trying to one-up one another. Unfortunately, these things tend to get pretty beaten up and sometimes we’ll even have to lose them in the battle. That’s why Hikaru and Takeshi are teaching you close combat, in case you have to abandon your battle machine. Hikaru told me he wants you trained on the Stealth Hunter first,” he motioned to a large white and blue battle machine, “so we’ll get you set up with one of those.” He motioned to a young man who stood by polishing a large golden machine. “Hey, can you get a Stealth Hunter set up for flight?”

The young man nodded and immediately headed over to one of the Stealth Hunters.

“Luckily,” Ha-Ya-To continued, “the battle machines that are made here are relatively similar, so if you learn one, learning the others is pretty simple. There are two different types of battle machines commonly used: flight based and ground based. Hikaru and I are flight, Ryo and Takeshi usually take ground ones, if Ryo is out on the field at all. Do you have a preference?”

Akira blinked, slightly overwhelmed. “Um…should I?”

The redhead shrugged. “As it’s your first time, not really. Some people have some very specific preferences on battle machines, though, you’d be surprised. Alright, since Hikaru’s your trainer, it makes sense that he’d want you to start with a flight based one. If you hate it, we’ll try a ground one.” He stepped up to the metal platform in front of the battle machine. “Stand over here and we’ll start training.”

Akira hurried over, standing next to him. All of a sudden, the metal platform began to move up, rather like a car in a repair shop. Akira wobbled slightly before gaining her balance. It was like being on an open elevator.

The riser slowed to a stop and Ha-Ya-To led the girl over to the battle machine. “Most of the battle machines have ladders built into them,” he explained, “but they can only be activated if you have the specific controls to the battle machine, like how the Golden Guardian I have is licensed to me, so it only will let out the ladder if I’m the one doing the controlling.”

“Makes sense,” Akira commented.

“Okay, so this is the cockpit. You stand most of the time you’re in the battle machine, unless it’s a two person cabin, and then it varies. Your legs are locked in at the bottom here so that you balance. The legs of the machine are run like a car, kind of, except that you control the way you move with the way your feet are pressed on panels and pedals. Your left hand is used to flip control switches and your intercom system as well as use a weapon; your right controls the other weapon your battle machine holds. Make sense?”

Akira, not knowing what else to do in her confusion, nodded.

“Good. Flight based machines are controlled differently than ground based, as you have to use walking controls and flight based ones as well. When you’re flying, your feet are used to control the amount of power in your rockets as well as your direction, while on the ground the feet are used for walking and direction, so they’re alike, but one has to be regulated more. The power for most of the old battle machines comes from a power brick,” he pointed to the back of the cabin at a glowing rectangle of light. “They’re relatively bulky and heavy, so the newer models don’t carry them anymore, but that’s your power source, so keep that safe. Still following me?”

“Sure,” Akira said, still trying to wrap her mind around everything Ha-Ya-To was saying, most of it going way over her head.

“Great! Alright, let’s get you in and see how it works out.”

The dark haired girl swallowed hard and climbed into the cockpit, Ha-Ya-To doing the same behind her, as he explained that most of the battle machines had room behind the pilot for an extra passenger.

“Okay, push that button to close the blast shield.”

Akira did so, the clear panel that Ha-Ya-To had opened to let them in closing with a snap in front of her. Slowly, Ha-Ya-To led her through pushing a bunch of buttons, apparently preliminary matters that had to be completed and then the inverse when they finished. He told her not to worry about the time, as the longer she piloted, the faster it would come.

“Alright,” he said after they had finished, “see those gloves?”

Akira picked up the gloves off the dashboard. They were simple, a pair of regular old black gloves that had been worn from use, but out of the backs were pairs of thick, glowing wires which curled down beneath her feet.

“That’s gotta be worn on your right hand,” Ha-Ya-To explained. “And the other on your left. They’re used to control the arms of the battle machine. Piloting a battle machine is a whole body workout, really, so you’ll have to get used to using all of your limbs differently all at once.”

Akira nodded, pulling off her regular gloves and sticking them into her pocket while she slid the new ones over her hand and flexed her fingers. Thankfully they had been worn enough to move with her fingers easily. “Anything else?”

“Well,” he said with a smirk, “try not to kill us, alright?”

Akira gave a scowl as her cheeks flushed. “I’ll make it a priority.”

“Great! Now, to start, you push that button there and hold it until the engine starts up completely, like in a car.”

Akira gently pressed the button, feeling the machine rumble around her as it warmed up. She let it go, glad to see nothing had blown up yet. She had only been a part of the Exo-Force for two days and already she had seemed to get a reputation for blowing things up.

Ha-Ya-To clapped his hands. “Good! Okay, we’ll try something super simple, walking. Alright, your left foot is strictly for flying only. If you stomp on the panel beneath your foot, the rockets will start and until you stomp again, it will keep on going, so try not to do that. Your right foot is about direction and ground movement. So, to move forwards, slide your right foot forwards.”

Akira swallowed and with a wince of nervousness, slid her foot forward. To her delight, the machine took a step forwards, and then another.

“Good!” Ha-Ya-To said, “Now, before I forget, you stop by shifting your foot back into its normal place, but not any farther back, or else you’ll start to move backwards.”

Akira slid her foot back into place, and much to her relief, the machine stopped moving. This isn’t very hard, she thought to herself, her confidence growing.

“Now let’s try hovering. The harder you stomp with your left foot and the more pressure you put on it, the more power the rockets will have. So stomp just barely.”

Every time Akira made progress, Ha-Ya-To put her through another small exercise, which she found to be a serious confidence booster. Her favorite part had been when Ha-Ya-To had had her aim the rifle attached to the end of the right arm and shoot a target, which she hadn’t done very well at, but she liked the fact that the arm would move wherever she moved her arm. It felt powerful.

Slowly, Ha-Ya-To had her back up the Stealth Hunter into its docking area and they exited the metal machine. But this was something Akira wanted to get back to, learning to work a battle machine. It felt like something she could actually do, unlike many of the other techniques she had to learn. And with Ha-Ya-To teaching, it made it all the better.

Chapter 8:

“Come on, is that the best you can do?” Hikaru’s voice was mocking.

Akira breathed heavily, gently pressing on the bruise on her chest. Her hands were up in front of her face in a defensive Muay Tai position, ready to block movements. But she was worn out.

Hikaru leaped back at her, his bounds looking effortless. With quick movements, he kicked and slapped at her. Akira threw herself into full defense, balancing on her back right leg and blocking each of Hikaru’s movements with her left leg or her forearms. But she didn’t last long: she never did. The blue-haired teenager slapped her hard over the ear. She knew he was just toying with her really. She hadn’t been in training too long and he was still in slap-boxing mode. But still, her ear rang from the impact. She winced, her concentration breaking for a moment. It was exactly what Hikaru needed: he leaped at her and his left ankle slammed into her side, knocking her clean off her feet to the ground.

Akira landed with a slam into the mats below, crying out as her bruised body hit the ground. Her chest heaved as she struggled for breath.

Hikaru leaned over her, smiling slightly. “You’re getting better,” he said, “you managed to hold me off for almost a half hour.”

“Hey,” Akira gave a painful grin back, “I got a few blows on you.”

“You sure did.” Hikaru inspected the bruise that was beginning to swell up on his rib cage. Akira smirked to herself fondly. She had thrown a wild, flying kick and managed to hit Hikaru neatly in the ribcage. A feeling of satisfaction rose within her. She had come a long way in her two months of training.

Hikaru held out a hand, which she gratefully took and she struggled to her feet. She had gotten more bruises over the past few weeks than she had attained in her whole life and was sorer than ever, but she felt good. She was learning to hold her own, and her confidence was growing as well.

The two walked out the Training Center into the snow-bound city. Winter had practically flown in, and Akira was happier than ever to have her flight suit. The thick material was warm and comfortable and Akira had even begun to wear into it. She could move much easier now that she had had a couple months of training in it.

“You hungry at all?” Hikaru asked.

Akira smiled. “Starving! Is it lunch time already?”

Hikaru checked his intercom watch. It was a beat up old thing, but it somehow managed to tell the time and use video perfectly well, despite the fact that it looked as though it had been melted in some areas and smashed in others. “Yeah. What do you say we—.”

Hikaru, are you there?

Hikaru looked back down at his watch. “Naoki, what’s wrong?”

Akira could hear the frantic voice of the pilot over the watch, despite not being able to see him at all. “We have a code yellow alert. A skirmish on the edge of the jungle. Call Takeshi and power up!

“On my way!” Hikaru looked over at Akira with a small regretful smile. “Sorry, duty calls. If I get done soon enough, we can talk over lunch.”

Akira nodded and waved as her trainer bolted off down a road, through the snow. She let out a sigh, the air condensing into small clouds of fog before floating away on the wind. Slowly, she trudged her way through the snow along the straight path to the tower.

In her time there, Akira had learned her way around the city relatively well. She didn’t get lost anymore, which was a relief, but she still managed to find places she had never seen before, so everyday still seemed like a sort of adventure.

Akira made her way across the city, pausing to press her hand against the Golden Tower in the city center. She had been in Ryo’s workshop enough times to realize that it wasn’t really gold now. It was a combination of a bunch of metals. Apparently gold would have been too malleable a substance to make a city out of, so the buildings simply looked golden. She smiled, pulling off her gloves and gently rubbing her fingers against the frosted surface. After a long training session, the chill felt good.

The mess hall was only partially filled. Akira guessed that most of the pilots were probably on that robot skirmish. The attacks had been getting more frequent lately. Akira suddenly longed to be a part of them, but she was still learning how to pilot in general, and she wasn’t allowed to be on any full squadrons until she finished her training. Still, that didn’t keep her from being posted on guard duty: the all night guard posts had delayed her training some, but all the trainees had been put on midnight shift at one point, so they were all around the same level.

Akira grabbed her food and sat down at the senior’s table. It had become a habit of hers to do so, though she and Hitomi had a habit of wandering. They would usually sit with whatever table so pleased them, but the senior’s was the most interesting. Today, it was totally empty. She set her tray down and slowly began to eat. The murmurings were odd: normally the mess hall was so packed with people that people had to practically scream to hear one another. But this time, it seemed that she was on her own.

Well, for the moment anyways.

“It appears that Hikaru permitted you to abscond early on at present,” Ryo commented lightly as he sat down across from her.

Akira snorted into her stew, smirking slightly. “Maybe if I knew what ‘abscond’ meant, then I’d actually answer that.”

Ryo rolled his eyes and looked down at his food in a rather unappetizing way.

“You know,” Akira said, “I don’t know why you even get food if you don’t eat it.”

“They make me,” Ryo said stiffly.

“So how do you survive?” Akira cocked her head slightly.

Ryo picked up a spoonful of soup and sipped at it before setting it back down. “I have stores of provisions in my lab that I consume throughout the day. So I’m constantly ingesting, just not at this time.”

Akira nodded, drinking her own soup. “Sounds like a good idea. Maybe I should do that in my room. Then I’d never have to come to the mess hall and I could avoid all of the usual hubbub.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Ryo said with a smile and returned to looking around the room. “So,” he finally said after a few moments, “today appears to mark the thirty-three point thirty-three percentage of your training.”

“If you mean a third of my training, then yes,” Akira grinned. “Only four more months to go!”

“Congratulations and good luck,” a purple-haired girl came up behind the two teens and sat down next to Ryo. “You’re gonna need it!”

Ryo shot her a glance. “Don’t alarm her too much, Midori.”

“Well she’s going to need to start worrying soon,” the girl, Midori, rolled her eyes and dove into her food.

Akira’s eyes flicked back and forth between the two teens. “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Akira.”

Midori smirked slightly. “Oh yeah, we’ve all heard about Explosion Girl.”

Akira felt her face flush slightly. She really was never going to live that name down. She had only blown up one thing, but apparently she was known throughout the entire city as the girl who had managed to blow up part of Ryo’s workshop and develop a new type of metal. Apparently no one else had ever done something like that.

“I’m Midori,” the girl continued, nudging Ryo slightly, “You apparently already know my brother.”

Akira blinked in surprise. “Your brother?” She inspected the two closely. Their hair was both the exact same shade of violet, though Midori’s was much longer and perfectly straight, falling down her back to her waist. Akira wondered if she had dyed it the same shade as Ryo’s so people could tell they were siblings. But their faces were remarkably similar, the edges to their jaw lines and sharp eyes extremely alike. Now that Akira noticed it, they were very alike.

“Twins actually,” Midori shrugged, eating her food quickly.

“So are you a techie, too?”

Midori stuck out her tongue. “Are you kidding? No way! It’s embarrassing enough to have a brother who’s in love with machinery. Na, I’m a pilot.”

Ryo scowled and looked as though he were about to make some sharp come-back, but was interrupted by the entrance of the other pilots.

“Good afternoon, everyone!” Ha-Ya-To plopped himself down next to Akira. The dark-haired girl swallowed her next bite hard, her heart racing slightly. Over the past month, she had begun to spend even more time with Ha-Ya-To, her affection for him growing. She enjoyed every training session she had with him, most of them being flight training. She had progressed to learning flight techniques as she had gotten walking and running down. Shooting in the air was much harder than on the ground, so Akira was glad that Ha-Ya-To had switched their training to the training building, where they were inside and using battle machines specifically designed for training. That way, no matter where Akira shot, she wouldn’t blow up anything (again on her explosive reputation).

Hikaru and Takeshi joined the table momentarily afterwards, sighing deeply. “Well, that was quick,” Takeshi said.

“Yeah,” Hikaru frowned slightly, “it’s like they’ve been getting easier lately. It makes me wonder what Meca One’s up to.”

Hitomi gave him a whack to the shoulder as she sat down as well. “Oh, come on, Hikaru! You’re such a worry wart! Just be glad they haven’t been worse. We’ve lost way too many good pilots over the years.”

“She’s right,” Takeshi said through a mouthful of soup. Somehow he had managed to finish off one entire bowl of soup in around three mouthfuls. “We might as well focus on the good points.”

Ryo raised an eyebrow. “Since when have you been an affirmative intellectual?”

Takeshi rolled his eyes and didn’t answer.

“Hey Akira!” Hitomi turned to the dark-haired girl with a smile. “Congrats on getting a third of the way through your training!”

Takeshi stopped dead in his food, which in a way was its own miracle. “Wait…it’s a third of the way through training?”

Akira nodded.

A smile came over Takeshi’s face, a devious, dark smile. His green eyes glimmered. “Oh, now things get interesting!”

Akira swallowed hard. “Um…why is that?”

“Endurance training.”

Hikaru groaned from his seat. “Oh, darn it, I forgot about that! I’m so glad I left that training behind.”

“I hated it,” Ha-Ya-To said, fear filling his eyes. “My stomach shrunk so much over the first weekend!”

“And my toes were numb for over twenty-four hours,” Hitomi put in. “I think the only one who actually enjoyed it was Ryo.”

The purple-haired teenager shrugged. “Hey, what can I say? I have a natural adeptness to adapting to situations.”

Akira whipped her head back and forth between each of the speakers. “Wait, what’s endurance training?”

Six pairs of eyes met hers and stared. Akira gulped.

“I think in American military it’s similar to something called ‘Hell Week’,” Hikaru said after thinking it through.

“It’s basically the point when you learn to survive,” Ha-Ya-To put in.

Hitomi snorted. “By the time you’re done, you have no baby fat left. You’ve either burned or frozen it off.”

“And don’t forget your stomach,” the red-head added. “It takes a few days to get that back to normal.”

“You go through two of them,” Midori explained. “One now, and one week before your training ends. They’re to show the team what you can do and how well you can survive if you’re captured by the robots. Takeshi leads up both of them.”

Akira felt her chest tighten in fear. If Takeshi was heading them, that wasn’t a good sign. Whatever this endurance training was, it didn’t sound pretty.

“When does it start?” She asked.

Takeshi’s evil smile widened. “Tomorrow after breakfast.”

^_^

“ALRIGHT, YOU SORRY EXCUSES FOR TRAINEES!! COLLECT YOUR BAGGAGE!!”

Akira gulped and picked up her backpack. Takeshi had given the trainees extremely specific packing lists, and had even gone through their bag before heading off, which was a good thing because Kouta had been trying to pack his DS again. The bag was heavy on Akira’s back, but she was grateful anyways, as she had been told that what she had in her bag was all she was going to get throughout the week, and Takeshi’s bag was much bigger. Though some of the things on the packing list were a little odd, such as a swimsuit.

The five trainees stood in the middle of the courtyard. None of the other trainers were there, though a few random soldiers would pass by and look with pity at the trainees. This did not make Akira feel much better about the situation. The five trainees had eaten breakfast as usual after packing their bags and now stood before Takeshi. He stood with his arms crossed, inspecting the trainees. The only things the five trainees had been allowed to bring were the clothes they were wearing and their bags. Slowly, Takeshi nodded.

“Alright, you guys, welcome to endurance training! If you’ve somehow forgotten, my name is Takeshi, and I’ll be your trainer for the next week. We’ll be doing some pretty intense stuff, so prepare to be crushed. No one is sent home from this, no one is allowed to quit, and everyone will survive. Got it?”

Akira was beginning to feel more and more worried as Takeshi continued speaking.

“During this week you will have water and the smallest amount of food, if you get any food at all. We’ll be enduring the elements and doing everything ourselves, so you’d better get used to being cold and wet. Understood?”

The trainees nodded warily.

“Good.” Takeshi’s grin was not comforting to Akira in the slightest. “Now let’s get moving!”

It was a long walk up the next mountain, though Akira wasn’t sure if that was where they were going anyways. It was a long way up each slope, and as they reached the top, Takeshi would lead them downward into a small valley and then back up the next slope.

Akira had never felt so out of shape before. Trudging up a mountainside with a large pack of her back in the cold was enough to make her feel flabby, even after her months of hard training. Her breaths came in pants, and her movements were shaky.

The snow made it all the worse. They had to trudge through it to take each step. The trainees struggled to reach each peak before heading down.

Takeshi led the way, seeming perfectly comfortable in the weather. He didn’t even seem to be breaking a sweat. “Come on, slowpokes!” He’d yell back to them with that cheeky grin of his.

Easy for you to say, Mr. Bodybuilder, Akira thought sharply.

Probably the only others who were actually doing well were Taiki and Kiku. Their brawn was probably all muscle and they managed to press their way up most of the slopes without much difficulty. Akira, Olivia, and Kouta were having the worst time, Kouta probably more than any of them. The boy couldn’t have been more than thirteen years old, and he was struggling to make his way up the hills. Akira had never really taken to the boy, as his arrogance had always rather annoyed her. But she still felt a stab of pity for him, though most of her pity was retained for herself, as she wasn’t exactly having a picnic either.

Takeshi allowed them a few resting periods, but within a few minutes, they were moving on to another location. Akira wasn’t sure how far they had walked: it felt like miles and miles. She wondered also how Takeshi managed to tell his way around. Midori had said he was the trainer for endurance, so maybe he had done it quite a bit and knew his way around. It sure seemed that way.

Takeshi made another quick pause and the five trainees collapsed to the ground in exhaustion. They had been walking from around nine in the morning to noon with only a few stops in between.

“Alright,” Takeshi said after a few minutes, “everyone up.”

“What about lunch?” Kiku asked, struggling to her feet. After a few hours, even she was starting to feel the pain.

Takeshi met her gaze with curiosity. “Lunch? Oh, yeah, I should probably give you something to eat, huh?” He rummaged through his bag and pulled out a package of small sandwich bags about halfway filled with mixed nuts. He tossed one to each of them. “Here’s your lunch and snack. Now let’s get moving!”

Akira gazed sadly at the bag in her hands. It wasn’t all that big and wasn’t filled all the way in the slightest. And this was supposed to be her lunch and snack? Why, it probably wouldn’t even fill her stomach!

“What gives?” Kouta snapped, “There’s barely anything in here!”

Takeshi shrugged. “Well, how else are you supposed to build muscle? Nuts are high in protein, and that’s the stuff that matters right now. So when you’re hungry, eat. Just remember, you won’t get anything else until nightfall.”

The five trainees walked in silence, munching on their food and holding back grumbles. Akira knew it would do no good. This was part of the training, and if all those other soldiers had survived, then she would too.

They walked on for hours more. At one point, Olivia completely collapsed and they had had to break for a moment while getting her back up. Takeshi made her eat more of her food before continuing, and she managed to keep on her feet after that. Akira drank her way through her water bottle once, and the teens replenished their supply at a mountain stream, which Takeshi purified with a small device and made safe to drink. The water was icy, which felt good to the sweating, hot girl. It was odd; the weather outside was cold and nippy, but with all the exercise, Akira felt hotter than ever. She panted and wheezed with each step. She still hadn’t gotten totally used to the high altitude, and it was showing.

Takeshi only really stopped when the sun began to set behind the mountains. They set up camp near a small lake, and the green-haired young adult told them that this would be their camp for most of the week, if not all of it. Akira and the other learners let down their packs with a moan of relief, only to be told to set up camp a moment later. There would be no fire and no tents. It was them and their sleeping bags and the icy night to keep them company.

Chapter 9:

Meca-Sensei leaned out the window of his room, inspecting the grounds below him. The five trainees and Takeshi Kurokawa were walking out of the city, off to Endurance Training. Meca-Sensei smiled grimly. His pawns were growing stronger. His plan was beginning to take shape.

The robotic elderly man walked back to his desk, pressing a button. The door to his room clicked shut, and all the blinds to the windows closed and locked shut at the bottom. The room became dark the only source of light being the blinking of the computer screen. Meca-Sensei pressed the table keyboard with a tap, the screen bursting to life.

The metal form on the screen saluted. “Meca One.”

Meca-Sensei nodded, allowing himself a moment of pleasure upon hearing himself called ‘Meca One’, and not ‘Sensei’. He had spent the time between his so-called rescue and the months before delving deeper into the Exo-Force and learning enough about it to maintain command of the team. Leading the Exo-Force, though, was a lot more difficult than leading the robots. The most difficult part of being master over all the robots was designing new battle machines. Besides that, he mostly had to work on strategizing. But the Golden City was bursting with energy. Every day Meca-Sensei powered up to find that he had to sign paperwork, check over schedules, balance money…it was much harder than he ever could have thought. He could, of course, have just messed everything up and not have done any of those things. But he could do that later. His brilliant plan came first.

“G-729, what is your status report?”

“We have made no progress on the Golden City. All our skirmishes have been futile. Are you positive you would like us to continue with these?”

“Yes, do so.”

The silver robot’s sapphire eyes flashed. “But, sir, this is a waste to our resources.”

“I understand that, G-729,” Meca-Sensei said calmly, “but this way, the Exo-Force will not suspect our plans. Next week, send in a larger squadron, and use one of our new battle machines. Using the older models will only cause more suspect.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Anything else to report?”

“No, sir. Metal has been coming in off the black market, and the work on the Tower is almost complete.”

“Good.” Meca-Sensei turned off the monitor, leaning back in his chair. An evil smile played on his lips. The Tower was coming along, the trainees were working and moving their way along to their graduation, and by the time the Exo-Force knew what was happening, it would be too late.


“Wake up, children!”

Akira groaned slightly and pulled herself up into a sitting position. The sun hadn’t risen by this point, but it was light enough for Akira to make out the silhouette leaning over her.

The dark-haired girl yawned. “What time is it?” She murmured.

“Four in the morning,” Takeshi said. “Now up and at ‘em!”

Akira forced her body out of her sleeping bag, shivering in the cold. The wind whipped around her, biting her cheeks. Her stomach grumbled in protest, but she shushed it quickly.

It took around ten minutes or so, but finally the five trainees stood before Takeshi, rubbing their eyes and giving small moans at the annoyance of being awoken so early. Takeshi’s face was filled with glee. It was obvious that he took great pleasure in bringing pain to new recruits.

“Alright, people, this is the way this week is going to work. You will never appreciate electricity and hot water more than during this week. This is the week of survival. For the next few days, all you’ll be able to eat is what you find on our own. Water you can have at any time, but it has to come from me because of the purity of the water itself. If you want to bathe in the morning, you can do so in the lake. Any questions?”

“What exactly are we going to be doing this week?” Taiki rumbled.

Takeshi shrugged. “Whatever I see fit. So, today we’ll be working on concentration. Do you all remember when you were taught to keep your body temperature at a certain level?”

The five trainees nodded.

“Good. Now, everyone go get changed into your swimsuits and meet me by the edge of the lake.”

“But sir!” Olivia raised her hand, “it’s winter time! The lake, even though it isn’t frozen, should be close to freezing temperature by this time.”

Takeshi gave her an odd look. “And your point is?”

The blonde swallowed hard and shook her head. “N-Never mind.”

Akira felt her heart drop. This was not going to be fun.

That was how the five trainees found themselves in their swimsuits at four-thirty in the morning in front of a lake in the snow. Akira shivered violently, rubbing her hands over his arms and hopping from foot to foot. She had let her hair back down, but it offered her little warmth in the icy wind.

Takeshi stepped into the lake, wearing only a pair of swimming trunks. He faced them, arms crossed over his bare chest. “This exercise is to keep you all from dying if you’re thrown into water on the battlefield. We’ll wade out into the middle of the lake and tread water, while keeping our body temperature at the correct height. This way, no matter how cold it is outside if you’re taken down, you’ll be able to survive. Understood?”

Akira understood alright, but she wasn’t happy about it.

The green-haired young man must have had a hide like a bull, because he seemed to find no problem in the water. Taiki was the first to step in after him. The ox of a man winced slightly, but followed Takeshi without a sound. Kiku did the same. Olivia nearly shrieked as she waded into the water, her face screwed up in concentration. Akira felt particularly bad for her: in her bikini, the water must have felt worse. Akira was glad she wore a one-piece suit; maybe the fabric would warm her up some.

The dark-haired girl took a deep breath as she stepped into the water. She had to bite down on her tongue to keep from screaming in shock. The water was colder than any water she had ever been in. The chill laced up her body even before it became submerged. She waded in deeper after Takeshi and the others, her teeth chattering. Her muscles screamed in protest at her movements. She wanted nothing more than to leap out of the water and curl up into a ball with a fire to warm herself up. But she merely gritted her teeth and followed.

When the water became too deep to stand in, she was forced to actually begin to swim, which hurt even more. All her muscles seemed to have clenched tightly under her skin, making it all the harder to move.

“Alright,” Takeshi said as the trainees formed a circle around him. “The more you move, the more you will keep your body heated, but it will also use up your energy. So you need to maintain a balance. If you use your mental heating system to warm yourself correctly, then you won’t get frostbite and you’ll still have plenty of energy left. If any of you are unable to completely feel your legs or arms though in the next half an hour, tell me and you’ll be able to stop. We don’t want any amputated limbs.”

Takeshi’s words in the least were not very reassuring. Akira swallowed and closed her eyes, remembering her training, and slowly began to heat her body.


^_^

Akira Log #112536

It feels odd that at home I’d be perfectly fine in the rather chilly weather leading up to winter time. I never knew winter came so early in the mountains, but in the snow, you’ve practically decided winter is already here. It’s weird that it’s only the end of October.

            So…Hell Week…that’s what Hikaru called it. I know why now, except it seems like hell is a place of eternal ice rather than fire. I’ve never been so cold in my life. Everything cold after this is going to feel like a sauna!

            Day three of Hell Week: Takeshi decided first day to test how we can heat our bodies, and if that wasn’t enough, made us go for a run after that…apparently it was to heat us up, but I think it was just another mode of torture for us. He seems to greatly enjoy doing this. I wonder how often he does Hell Week for trainees.

            I’m just glad Takeshi allowed me to pack my Compad, though most of the applications don’t work out here without internet. This is the portion of the exam where we have to go out and live on our own. We’re not allowed to come back to camp for another day. My stomach feels like it’s eating itself. I’m not sure what’s edible out here, so I haven’t really eaten. Oh well…if I die, someone will hopefully read this and make Takeshi stop doing Hell Weeks.

Akira sighed and closed her Compad, staring out into the forest. Over the past day, she had grown in deep respect for the forest and the mountains and nature in general. She wasn’t sure how she was supposed to survive. Everything hurt, especially her stomach.

Takeshi had given specific orders. He told them not to come back for three days and to live solely on the wild. But he had told them something else. They had to bring back something.

“Bring me something that grows but isn’t alive.”

Akira had spent the entire day before thinking about that. It was probably some stupid mind problem that Ryo had set him up with, seeing as Takeshi didn’t seem to be one for brain work. Maybe the other trainers had put in portions of Hell Week that had to do with their own styles.

It grows…but it isn’t alive…what the heck was she supposed to bring? She had searched through the forest for hours, but her stomach had forced her to stop. She really didn’t know what to eat. Were pinecones edible? She wasn’t sure, but she was beginning to become desperate enough to try. She had even found an ant nest in a patch of ground free of snow. She had picked up an ant, determined to eat it, but after looking at the size of its pincers, she had set it back down regretfully.

The sun had begun to go down on the second day, and the snow had stopped falling, thankfully. Akira sighed, listening to the wind and the small hoots of owls and other birds. She had never been somewhere so quiet before. It was as though the world had stopped moving; time had slowed down. Nothing else seemed to really matter.

Akira swallowed, opening up her backpack and pulling out her sleeping bag. She knew it was going to get much colder really fast. The city had supplied them with special sleeping bags that held body heat quite well, which kept them warm at night. Akira felt like she was in some sort of survivor television show, just a lot more intense. She didn’t have people watching her with cameras at all times making sure she was alright. She was truly on her own.

Akira let out a sigh and leaned up against the tree trunk, drawing her sleeping bag tighter around her. She gazed out into the snow. It was going to be a long night, the same as the night before. And she only had a day left before her deadline. She would just spend the whole next day thinking her way through Takeshi’s riddle. That is, if she could keep on going from her lack of food.

The dark-haired girl watched the sun set behind the mountains, the world around her plunging into shadows. Immediately, the air became chillier. Akira drew her sleeping bag up to her nose, breathing steadily. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

She woke with a start, looking around. Her stomach gave an involuntary snarl of pain. Akira clutched her torso, swallowing hard. She would need to eat something soon.

She gazed around. It was still dark. A look at her intercom watch told her it was still the middle of the night…or early early morning…but she still considered it night time. Either way, it was way too early to be up.

The girl looked around, sighing deeply and watching her breaths turn to clouds. She hadn’t changed out of her uniform since she had arrived in the mountains, except for Takeshi’s water training exercise, and she felt like a mess. At that moment, she would have given anything to have a hot shower and a hair brush. Oh, and food too.

Akira couldn’t take it any more. She ripped a piece of bark off the trunk behind her and began to gnaw at it hungrily. Swallowing the bark was almost worse than the taste: it was hard and rough and went down her throat like sandpaper. She pulled out her water bottle and chugged down the icy liquid. She gave a cough as she stopped, breathing hard.

With a groan, she leaned back against the trunk. She felt absolutely miserable. In all her days of daydreaming, she had never thought she’d be alone in a forest eating bark to keep her stomach under control.

Slowly, the girl stood, rolling up her sleeping bag. If she wasn’t going to sleep she might as well walk around and work her legs a bit. Maybe the motion would get her mind off the rumbling of her stomach. She set her things in a small pile and walked away from her tree. She knew she’d be able to find it again: her intercom watch had been attached to the GPS on her Compad. It was the same with Takeshi’s own intercom watch. It was how he knew all the trainees would be able to find their way back to base camp.

Akira rubbed her arms, huffing slightly in annoyance. The cold nipped at her cheeks. She glanced back down at her watch, knowing full well that it had been less than twenty minutes since she had last looked at it. But there was something comforting in doing so, like when she was back in school and would look at the clock for the sheer reason of looking at it and making sure that time was still moving forward. Slowly, Akira continued on her way.

She walked a while in silence, watching the wind ripple through the pine trees. Snow fell in patches around her, and she avoided them narrowly. Again she marveled at the craftsmanship of her flight suit. The gloves were warm and despite the fact that the material of the suit was thin, she still retained much of her body heat. The boots were tough enough that no moisture found its way into them.

Akira blinked, gazing up at the slope in front of her. It looked as though a rockslide had been here at one point, as large stones and massive boulders piled up into a hillside. Akira sighed deeply and looked back from where she had come. The snow was beginning again, but she wasn’t at all sleepy. She turned back a few times before relaxing slightly and beginning to climb.

Step by step… Akira thought to herself as she leapt cautiously from boulder to boulder. The snow was fresh here, meaning no ice. Still, she was in no mood to slip. So she steadied herself with each leap. She looked around as she climbed steadily higher, wondering how long it would take to climb back down. It was a long way up, she realized. But she had nothing better to do.

Akira puffed slightly as she reached a large boulder at the top. Letting out a long breath, she brushed off the large stone of the snow and sat on top of it, looking out to the other mountain peaks, where the faintest of rose colors was beginning to touch the clouds. The snow had stopped falling again and the clouds were beginning to break up. Akira gripped her jacket closer around her and let out a puff of air.

The view was beautiful. The valleys below were doused in fog, which the wind blew around in wisps. The world was still dark, the snow causing the mountains to look as though they had been covered in powdered sugar. Akira’s stomach grumbled at that thought and she pulled a piece of bark from her pocket to munch on.

Akira had never been left to her own thoughts for such a long time. At home, she would be doing chores or at school. The only time she would have to herself was on her roof after school, which only usually lasted an hour or so. She had been given three whole days to herself. It made her long for the hustle and bustle of the mess hall and the attention she was given by the trainers. She realized she was actually quite privileged. The other trainees usually steered clear of the trainers, preferring to sit by themselves. But Akira wouldn’t have had it any other way. She enjoyed being with the senior members of the Exo-Force. They made her time as a trainee all the more enjoyable.

Slowly, the sun broke behind the mountains, rays of light shining through the thinner clouds and reflecting off of the snow. Akira winced at the brightness that suddenly hit her eyes. The air became warmer within seconds. Akira rose from her seat, stretching her limbs. She had been out for quite a while.

Akira started to make her way back down the boulder slope. She was even more careful this time, knowing for a fact how much harder it was getting down from something than getting up, at least from a safety point of view. She felt as though every step she took would cause her to slip and fall down the rest of the mountain, both of which didn’t exactly sound like fun.

The girl groaned briefly as her foot slid on the soft snow and she sat down again to regain her balance. She sighed and leaned back, intending to rest her head against the boulder behind her. Except that there wasn’t one.

She flailed her arms wildly to keep her seated position and not tumble backwards. When she had fully regained her balance, she turned around to face the hole.

It looked to be a cave, though Akira wasn’t sure how she had missed it on her way up. She had probably taken a different route, but the cave entrance was small anyways. It wouldn’t have been hard for her to overlook it. But what was odd about her not noticing was the fact that it glowed. It wasn’t much, but a silvery light expelled itself from the cave, causing the snow on the rocks close by to shine as though still in moonlight.

Slowly, Akira slid her feet into the hole, her body following. Once she was inside, she stood straight up; the cave didn’t seem to be very long, but it was tall enough for her. The only source of light coming into the cave was by the hole in the side she had entered through. But still, the rocks on the walls glowed.

“Crystals,” she murmured, rubbing her fingers along the clear, shining stones that jutted out from the walls. They were long and pointed, obviously having been growing there for a while. She remembered Ryo briefly telling her about crystals that glowed…bioluminescence, or something like that. Some crystals and even some animals that lived in darkness would soak in the sun’s rays and then glow at night. It was odd, and almost eerie, but beautiful.

Akira blinked as she broke off one of the long crystals. Takeshi’s riddle was obvious now. Crystals, or even some stones, grew but weren’t alive. If Akira had known earlier, she would have pulled the necklace her brother had given her out of her pocket and just turned that in. She felt like a total idiot.

The dark-haired girl let out a huffing sigh as she pulled her way out of the cave and back into open air, cradling the glowing crystal in her palm. She had spent an entire night looking for something she had with her all along. She still had a lot to learn.


In the end, everyone managed to bring back something. Kouta had come to the same conclusion as Akira, but had apparently done it a whole lot faster. He brought back a long purple crystal, though where he had found it, Akira wasn’t sure. Kiku had also thought of crystals, but had been unable to find a long, perfected one like Akira and Kouta so she instead grabbed a rather normal looking rock off the ground and pointed out the quartz crystals inside. Olivia was by far the most interesting. She had somehow come to the conclusion that since her hair was made of dead skin cells and it still grew, she merely cut off a bit of her hair and handed it to Takeshi with that explanation. Takeshi, thankfully, accepted it as an answer. Taiki merely pointed to the mountains, claiming that they grew a few centimeters every year.

The rest of the week was fairly uneventful. The group learned basic survival skills, which were actually rather fun at times. Olivia was a master at tree climbing, and Kouta could build a fire easily. Taiki and Kiku were often arguing over who was the strongest, and both, Akira agreed, were very strong.

Akira found herself being the best at raising her body temperature, especially in the lake. After another few days of doing that exercise, she could stay in the water almost as long as Takeshi.

Takeshi taught the group to use the landscape to their advantage. He even had them go out and trap animals for food, which Akira wasn’t very fond of, but she enjoyed eating meat for once. Anything beat bark. Ha-Ya-To had been right; her stomach was upset. She guessed she had been rather spoiled at home, eating Pocky and rice all the time. But Akira found herself eating less and less, and she wasn’t sure why, and even then she still felt hungry most of the time.

But a week of hard labor had made her strong, and she could tell. The walk home wasn’t nearly as hard as the walk there. She could actually kind of keep up with the others. The thin air that had at one point been so foreign to her now felt surprisingly easy to breathe. Hikaru had been right. She was adapting to her new life.

Chapter 10:

“You’re not going to want to eat that much,” Ha-Ya-To said as he sat next to Akira.

The dark-haired girl gazed at her platter, filled to the brim with food. She had gotten back from endurance training the day before and was ready to eat everything in sight. So she had piled her plate high. “Why not?”

“Because your stomach is about this big at the moment,” Ha-Ya-To held up his two fists and brought them together. “You’ll eat about four bites and not be able to eat any more.”

Akira gazed down sadly. “Well, how does it get back to normal?”

“We don’t want you gaining too much weight back,” Hikaru said, handing her a paper covered with a massive chart. “This will be your diet for the next few days. We’ll keep on working off all those calories and get your stomach back to its normal size.”

“In the meantime, I’ll eat it!” Takeshi grabbed her platter and started helping himself to her food.

Akira sighed. “Did I really do that much change?”

“Does your flight suit feel looser?” Hikaru pointed to Akira’s waist with his fork.

The dark-haired girl nodded slowly. She noticed that in the morning when she had been getting dressed. In fact, she had noticed a lot of things. She had paused briefly in front of the mirror, inspecting the muscles that had begun to form in her abdomen, the thinness of her waist, and the definition she had added to her arms. One week of living rugged had toned her quite a bit. And when she had stepped on a scale, she had found that she had lost almost ten pounds.

“Good,” Hikaru said, “We’ll have them fitted again so they actually fit your body. Now that you’ve worked off a lot of your baby fat and toned your muscles, our training can get even more intense.”

Akira groaned. “Wonderful,” she glanced down at the paper and picked up an apple, sinking her teeth into it. “Did we miss much when we were gone?”

Hikaru rolled his eyes. “Oh, the usual, Ha-Ya-To singing over the loudspeakers until Sensei screamed at him, Ryo yelling at his techies, more minor robot attacks, stuff like that.”

“Speaking of music, Ha-Ya-To,” Takeshi shot the redhead a glance, “isn’t it your turn?”

Ha-Ya-To’s eyes sparkled. “You bet it is! And Ryo has generously offered to let me use the workshop, right Ryo?”

Ryo’s expression darkened. “Only if you clean up and put everything back where it’s supposed to be. That was the deal.”

“What are you guys talking about?” Akira blinked her dark eyes.

Knowing grins spread across the table. “Let’s just say that tonight should be interesting,” Hikaru said.

“Why?”

“Tell you what,” Hikaru said, “how about you meet me down the hallway in your dorm at…oh…say ten at night.”

“In the girl’s dorm?” Akira felt her face flush, “Why? What’s going on?”

“I’d take you myself,” Hitomi said, “but I have to help Ha-Ya-To set up early.”

“Hold on!” Akira held up her hands, “Isn’t curfew at nine? What’s going on?”

Ha-Ya-To clapped a hand over her mouth. “Keep your voice down! You’ll see what’s up tonight, okay? Just be prepared to have fun.”

Akira glanced at the five pairs of eyes all looking her way, some excited and others slightly worried. Slowly, the dark-haired girl nodded and resumed eating.


Akira walked down the hallway between dorm rooms. She picked up her feet with every step, making sure not to make any noise. The rubber soles on her boots tipped lightly on the carpeted ground and she winced even at that sound. She had to be absolutely silent.

“Hey, you’re awake!”

Akira whipped her head to the side. Hikaru’s tall, slender figure slid out from the shadows of the perpendicular hallway. His electric blue eyes shimmered in the limited light. “Shut up!” Akira snapped in a whisper, “Someone will hear us!” The shock of hearing a normal tone of voice after trying very hard to be quiet was startling.

Hikaru snorted lightly, as though talking loudly in the middle of the night in a building, fully surrounded by rooms of sleeping people was not going to get him in trouble at all. “There’s almost no one in here anyways.”

Akira flicked back her long hair in annoyance. Her heart pounded nervously, not necessarily because she was with Hikaru…alone…in the middle of the night...well that was actually most of it. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she hissed, “And why the heck did you guys ask me out here anyways? I’m supposed to be asleep.”

Hikaru smiled and motioned to her. “Come on, I’ll show you.” He immediately took off down the hallway. Akira sighed and followed at a brisk pace, hurriedly catching up. She turned and glared at him. “We’re not even supposed to be out of bed, Hikaru! It’s lights-out, and you’re in the girl’s dorms! Where are you taking me?”

Hikaru turned to her and smiled. “You’ll see soon enough!”

Akira huffed slightly. Just being awake was totally off limits, and her being alone with a guy, walking though the girl’s dorm level with him, and going to sneak off somewhere were all probably rule breaking actions as well. She mentally slapped herself for her stupidity. If they were caught, she was a goner for sure. She could just see Sensei’s face if he found them! She shivered and hurriedly shoved the image from her mind.

Hikaru led Akira out of the dorm building and across the large dirt clearing used for training to the middle-left edge of the city. Akira immediately recognized the building, despite her short time living with the Exo-Force. It was Ryo’s warehouse-slash-workshop. She remembered that the seniors had been talking about Ryo’s workshop before, but it still felt odd being there in the middle of the night. Were they supposed to be helping him work? How was working with a grumpy Ryo going to be at all fun?

“Hey, you coming, Akira?” Akira rushed to Hikaru, who was now standing in front of the huge doors. He tapped lightly against the metal and paused listening. Akira focused her hearing as well, but even her well-tuned ears could not pick up any out of the ordinary sound.

The door before them inched open. A dark eye suddenly appeared in the crack, looking Hikaru up and down. “Password?”

Hikaru’s eyes glimmered, the moonlight causing his electric blue hair to shine silver. “The Contrast of White on White.”

The eye blinked and disappeared.

Akira crossed her arms. “It’s like a club or something.”

Hikaru shrugged. “Anyone can get in really. It’s more to keep out any of the older, sterner people who might shut down the fun.”

“And ‘the contrast of white on white’?”

“It’s a line from one of our favorite songs,” he shrugged again, “It sounded cool.”

Akira opened her mouth to speak, but before she could say anything, the sound of shrieking metal alerted to her the opening of the doors. It was like a void ripping apart. The darkness in the warehouse seemed to be even darker than the midnight outside. As the door opened, the standing warm air from inside flew out and buffeted Akira, her hair floating back behind her gently. But it didn’t feel like it had been heated by a machine. No, the air was more stuffy than fresh.

As soon as the door was open to about a foot, Hikaru slid in. Akira followed close behind. The doors immediately began to close as soon as she stepped into the room. With a quiet snap, they closed, throwing the room into pitch black darkness. Before Akira could even begin to worry about her now impaired sight, she felt Hikaru’s slender fingers gently touch her shoulder. “Just walk forwards until you feel the wall.” Akira didn’t even question him, but immediately walked to the other wall.

She heard a grunt come from Hikaru next to her. A sudden sliver of light appeared and Akira watched as Hikaru dragged open a door that, though it was much smaller than the first ones, was still rather large.

The light wasn’t the only thing that came through the crack. A blast of sound resounded through the room, filled with music and clapping and cries of laughter. Hikaru motioned for her and she came up next to him. He threw open the door and jumped through. “Come on, Akira!” He shouted over the noise.

Akira threw herself into the room and gasped. Lights and sounds came from everywhere. The large, normally white lights on the ceiling had had their bulbs replaced with bright neon colors, turning the room into a rainbow. The cherry pickers used for reaching the highest points on a Battle Machine had been strung with what looked like Christmas lights, and the speakers hung around the room that were used for announcements were blasting out dance music. Someone had even strung up a disco ball. The Battle Machines had been placed against the walls, leaving a huge open space in the middle. And in that space looked to be most of the Exo-Force teenagers. Whoops and cries arose from the crowd as they circled around the center, obviously watching something interesting.

Hikaru appeared next to her after he had finished closing the door. “So, you like?”

Akira gaped. “This is so against the rules!”

The blue-haired teen laughed. “Yeah, Ryo’s been telling us that for a long time, but he’s usually up secretly working on his own projects when he’s not supposed to be, so he has no room to talk.”

“How many people are there?”

Hikaru mused for a few seconds. “Maybe…I don’t know, two hundred or so? We never counted. It’s kind of whoever shows up is in.” He looked around the room. “Looks like Ha-Ya-To is leader tonight.”

Akira looked with him. “How can you tell?”

“The lights, the music, the crowd surrounding a circle? It means tonight is Dance-Off night!”


Ha-Ya-To threw down another move to the beat and the whoops erupted from the crowd. Hikaru couldn’t help but clap along as well. Whenever Ha-Ya-To hosted their little gatherings, he always did something very classic, like dancing or something artistic like that. And now was no different. Everyone who thought they could dance leaped onto the ring and started busting out moves, but Ha-Ya-To beat everyone. As always! Hikaru grinned as Ha-Ya-To began to break dance and danced another person out of the ring. Ha-Ya-To is obviously going to pick the next contest! That was the way it worked. Whoever won an activity got to pick the next one. But Ha-Ya-To always won all of his, so his nights were mostly filled with futile challenges and epic fails.

“Wow, how did he get so good?” Akira yelled above the noise. She stood next to him, her dark eyes gleaming and her lips upturned in a smile. So far, she seemed to have really enjoyed herself. Hikaru hadn’t wanted her to miss her first party night while everyone else was out enjoying themselves. Akira watched Ha-Ya-To break out into a coffee grinder then spin on his head and do a splits before actually turning to Hikaru for an answer.

Hikaru shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. He’s always been like this.”

“I wish you guys could do this somewhere else,” Ryo murmured grumpily, “We had to move every single spare part out of here to set up for Ha-Ya-To. It’ll take us forever to put it all back together!”

“Chill out, Ryo!” Akira said good naturedly, “Why don’t you go out and dance?”

Ryo’s face immediately flushed red and he looked down at his toes. “Um…no thank you.”

“Come on, Ryo,” Takeshi grumbled from behind him, “It’s just a stupid Dance-Off.”

“You’re just mad because no one liked your dancing,” Hikaru laughed.

Takeshi growled, his green eyes flashing. “Oh yeah? Well, no one liked yours either!”

“I was in the ring longer that you were!”

“Were not!”

“Was too!”

“How about this?” Akira suggested mildly, “You both suck and Ryo should try instead!”

Ryo’s face went from the color of his headband to nearly white. “But I can’t dance! I have no sense of rhythm!”

“Sure you do,” Hikaru said encouragingly, “Just move your arms around, and jump up and down and you’re dancing!”

“That’s not dancing!” Takeshi snapped, “That’s acting like a jellyfish or something.”

“Great! Jellyfish dancing! Cool!” Akira grabbed onto Ryo’s arm. “Come on, I’ll dance with you!” She dragged Ryo out, much to his apparent dislike and immediately started her jellyfish dance.

Ryo stood stock still, his face now the exact shade of his headband. His eyes flickered back and forth, his lips pinched together tightly. Slowly, ever so slowly, he moved one of his feet and gently tapped on the ground with it, as though trying to feel the beat. It looked more to Hikaru like he was trying to tap-dance, though. His face, if possible, grew even redder.

Akira seemed to have been pulled away from her jellyfish dance by Ha-Ya-To, who was showing her how to do basic dance moves. He watched the girl’s face as she laughed and smiled, her dark eyes glimmering. They were focused solely on Ha-Ya-To, who she seemed to be paying extremely close attention to.

“She seems to be enjoying herself.” Takeshi nudged into Hikaru gently. The motion was enough to break Hikaru’s gaze.

“Yeah,” Hikaru nodded, “it’s good for her to get out and enjoy herself. She’s been working her butt off.”

Takeshi looked around the room. “Did any of the other trainees come?”

“I think Olivia did,” Hikaru said, “but Taiki and Kiku weren’t interested. Ryo flat out refused to invite Kouta; he said he’s too young to be out so late.”

“Well, we do stay out for hours on end,” Takeshi rubbed the back of his neck, “Looks like Ha-Ya-To’s moved on from dancing.”

Hikaru turned to face the circle again, where Ha-Ya-To stood, bowing. Akira and Ryo joined the Hikaru and Takeshi and the four of them waited as Ha-Ya-To shushed the crowd.

“How is everyone tonight?” Ha-Ya-To held his microphone to his lips, his voice booming out over the speakers. The crowd erupted into cheers and whistles.

Ha-Ya-To laughed. “I keep telling Ryo every time we use this place how glad I am that the walls are sound proof.” The crowd laughed as he continued. “So, who’s up for a little…karaoke?”

Again, the crowd shouted out their approval. Ha-Ya-To bowed and leaped up onto the makeshift stage the group had set up, mostly consisting of old crates used for packing spare parts in. The redheaded teenager bowed as the crowd continued to clap and scream for him to begin. Slowly, he raised his hands and they quieted.

“Okay,” he said, “first of all, I’m going to need a partner…how about you, Hitomi?”

Hikaru turned to focus on the black-haired trainer, who rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Are you kidding? No way!”

The crowd booed, but Hitomi didn’t look upset, merely shaking her head and crossing her arms to state her place.

Ha-Ya-To scanned the crowd. “Alright, fine! How about…Akira! Get up here!”

The dark-haired girl flushed bright red. “What? Me?”

“He said your name, didn’t he?” Takeshi laughed and pushed the girl into the ring. “Go on up!”

“But…but I—.”

“If she doesn’t want to, she doesn’t have to,” Hikaru said loudly. Akira shot him a grateful looked before Ha-Ya-To leapt down from the stage.

“But of course she wants to!” the redhead said with a grin. He dragged a still rather stricken looking Akira onto the stage after him, where she stood with eyes wide in nervousness.

“Let’s hear it for Akira!” Ha-Ya-To raised his hands and the crowd burst into cheers. Hikaru clapped rather half-heartedly. He didn’t like having to watch his apprentice look so uncomfortable, even if it was all in good fun.

“Okay, Akira, this is how it works,” Ha-Ya-To said after the crowd had quieted, “This isn’t a competition, unlike the dance-off. This is us working together, because that’s how karaoke works. First, you take this,” he handed her a microphone, “and then I’ll pick a sing for us. Okay?”

Akira nodded slowly, her knuckles whitening around the handle of the microphone.

“Good!” Ha-Ya-to looked positively ecstatic. “Alright, now, I’ll start singing first and you come in when I point to you. Hey, Naoko, play track number five, will you?”

Immediately, acoustic guitar music filled the air. Hikaru cocked his head slightly. He had heard Ha-Ya-To playing it at times in their room, but never actually listened to it himself. Slowly, Ha-Ya-to brought the microphone to his lips and began to sing.

“Don’t remind me that some days on the windshield and other days I’m just a lucky bug as cold iron rails leave old mossy trails through the countryside. The crow and the beanfield are my best friends but boy I need a hug,” He pointed at Akira, who followed with a confused “Boy I need a hug”. Ha-Ya-To nodded encouragingly and continued with his song. “Cause my heart stops without you. There’s something about you that makes me feel alive.”

“If the green left the grass on the other side.”

“I would make like a tree and leave,” Akira smiled as she sang back.

“But if I reached for your hand would your eyes get wide,” Ha-Ya-To sang.

Akira grinned, “Who knew the other side could be so green?” She swallowed and continued onto the next verse. “Don’t remind me; I’m a chickadee in love with the sky, but that’s clearly not a lot to crow about, cause when the stars silhouette me I’m scared they’ll forget me and flicker out. I taste honey but I haven’t seen the hive. Yeah, I didn’t look, I didn’t even try. But still my heart stops without you cause there’s something about you that makes me feel alive.” Her grin widened as Ha-Ya-To started his part of the chorus again.

“If the green left the grass on the other side

“I would make like a tree and leave.”

“But if I reached for your hand would your eyes get wide?”

“Who knew the other side could be so green?”

Ha-Ya-To’s voice grew quiet. “We are honey and the bee.” And then, in typical Ha-Ya-To style, it grew louder as the music did so. “Backyard of butterflies surrounded me!”

“I fell in love with you like bees do honey!” Akira nearly laughed as she sang. Hikaru frowned slightly, almost confused.

“Swept up and leave the weeping to the willow tree.”

“And pour our tears in the sea.”

“I swear,” Ha-Ya-To’s voice rang out, “There’s a lot of vegetables out there that clop up for air. Yeah, I never thought that we were two peas in a pod till you suddenly blew, then I knew that I’d always love you.”

Akira’s eyes shone. “Oh, I’ll always love you too.”

“If the green left the grass on the other side

“I would make like a tree and leave.”

“But if I reached for your hand would your eyes get wide?”

“Who knew the other side could be so green?”

“If the green left the grass on the other side

“I would make like a tree and leave.”

“But if I reached for your hand would your eyes get wide?”

“Who knew the other side could be so green?”

“But if I reached for your hand for the rest of my life?”

“Who knew the other side could be so green?”

The singer’s voices rang out over the crowd at the last note. The teenagers burst into applause, voice their approval. Hikaru pinched his lips together and clapped quietly. For some reason, he didn’t feel like celebrating any more.

Ha-Ya-To and Akira bowed on stage, laughing and smiling. Finally, after what seemed like hours, Ha-Ya-To brought his microphone to his lips. “Well,” he said with a grin, “I’ve been doing a lot tonight, so I’m going to pass on the microphone. Akira here has been amazing and I’d like her to sing one more song for us, but she’s going to need a new partner. Any volunteers?” Immediately, hands were thrown into the air, cries coming from the crowd as people begged Ha-Ya-To to pick them.

Ha-Ya-To narrowed his eyes and looked around, finally focusing on one person. “Hey, Hikaru, you look like you could use a song!”

Hikaru blinked. “Wait, what? No!” But Takeshi had already grabbed him and thrown him forwards to the stage. Hikaru pinched his lips together. “No way! I can’t sing, and you know it!”

Ha-Ya-To rolled his eyes. “Come on, you don’t have to sing to do karaoke!”

“That’s kind of the whole point of karaoke, Ha-Ya-To.”

“Pshaw!” Ha-Ya-To waved the comment away. “It’s to have fun! Just get on stage and enjoy yourself! I promise you won’t have to sing Taylor Swift.”

Hikaru let out a rather annoyed sigh, but pulled himself onto the stage. Ha-Ya-To and rest of the crowd clapped wildly for their leader. “Alright, Akira? You start this one because I’m sure you know how it starts. Hikaru, you come in halfway on the verses and you alternate on the chorus. Alright?”

“Fine,” Hikaru grumbled, holding the microphone.

Hikaru was barely able to hear the music before Akira started singing.

“I still hear your voice when you sleep next to me. I still feel your touch in my dreams.” She motioned to Hikaru to go.

 I am going to kill you, Ha-Ya-To! The blue-haired teen swallowed and sang quietly. “Forgive me my weakness but I don’t know why: without you it’s hard to survive.”

“Cause every time we touch, I get this feeling and every time we kiss I swear I can fly. Can’t you feel my heart beat fast? I want this to last. I need you by my side.”

Hikaru’s voice was still quiet and rather self-conscious. “Cause every time we touch, I feel the static, and every time we kiss I reach for the sky. Can’t you hear my heart beat slow? I can’t let you go. I want you in my life.”

The beat of the song caused Akira to start jumping and clapping, the rest of the crowd doing the same as they cheered. She looked over at Hikaru, pulling her microphones away from her so her words were not blasted over the speakers. “You can sing louder than that, Hikaru!”

Hikaru swallowed, feeling his cheeks flare with color. “I don’t sing.”

“Well, you’re not half bad!”

Hikaru shot her a smile as the break in words came to a close and Akira pulled the microphone back towards her.

“Your arms are my castle, your heart is my sky. They wipe away tears that I cry.”

Hikaru sighed. “The good and the bad times we’ve been through than more. You make me rise when I fall.”

Akira drew closer to him, laughing at the expression of embarrassment on his face. “Cause every time we touch, I get this feeling, and every time we kiss I swear I can fly. Can’t you feel my heart beat fast? I wasn’t this to last. I need you by my side.”

“Cause every time we touch, I feel the static, and every time we kiss, I reach for the sky. Can’t you hear my heart beat slow? I can’t let you go. I want you in my life.”

Akira shot him another smile as the crows bounced around, clapping during the purely instrumental parts. “See? That’s it! Only one left.” She smiled. “Cause every time we touch, I get this feeling, and every time we kiss, I swear I can fly. Can’t you feel my heart beat fast? I want this to last. I need you by my side.”

The crowd roared their approval and stamped their feet on the ground while whooping out their answer. Hikaru let out a sigh of relief. It’s all over…calm down…

Akira stepped up next to him, handing him the microphone. She nudged into him playfully. “Hey, you’re no Broadway star, but you can sing pretty darn well.”

Hikaru felt his cheeks redden as his heart gave a little jump. “Thanks,” he mumbled.

“No sweat. Give that microphone to Ha-Ya-To for me, will you?”

“Sure.”

Hikaru watched her bounce off happily. Her hair bounced with her, which he realized now was not in a ponytail. He didn’t care. It was rather pretty hanging down.

“Hey, awesome job singing!” Ha-Ya-To clapped him on the shoulder from behind. “You can really carry a tune!”

“Cascada? Really?” Hikaru sighed and handed the two microphones to him. “Of all the songs you could play, it had to be that one?”

Ha-Ya-To blinked in confusion. “What’s wrong with it? A bit of kissing and love is good for a guy and girl singing partnering!”

“It’s just…never mind,” Hikaru snapped, stalking away into the crowd, leaving a thoughtful Ha-Ya-To behind.

Chapter 11:

“How often do you do those things anyways?”

Ha-Ya-To thought for a moment. “Usually at least once a month, maybe more. It depends on who’s going to be leading it and when they have time.”

“All of us take a turn,” Takeshi said.

“And everyone has their own style to their night,” Hitomi put in. “Takeshi’s usually have to do with wrestling or strength challenges, Ha-Ya-To’s are normally dancing or singing or something of that sort, and Hikaru likes everything from card games to having everyone just grab a soda and relax.”

“What about you, Ryo?” Akira asked the violet-haired young man, who sat in his spot looking rather grumpy.

“He doesn’t do them,” Ha-Ya-To grinned, “He thinks they’re a waste of time.”

“I resent that!” Ryo snapped, taking a large bite out of a bagel. Akira was rather shocked to see him eating at all. “I merely prefer to use my nights productively, not spending the time to act in ways that only you enjoy.” His eyes flashed in annoyance. Akira wasn’t sure if she really believed him. Ryo seemed to be socially awkward, that was all.

Ryo stood up, his lips pinched. “Akira, I believe you are working with me today.”

Akira blinked in surprise. “But I’m a pilot, not a techie.”

Hikaru shrugged next to her. “We all have to take basic courses in repair and basic battle machine engineering. We won’t always have Ryo around when we need him.”

Akira nodded and put her platter away, following the techie out the mess hall. She had spent very little time with Ryo so far, but they were always interesting, mostly because he didn’t talk a whole lot during them. She had asked Hitomi about the violet-haired teen and why he was so anti-social. Hitomi had shrugged, saying he wasn’t necessarily anti-social, but he liked keeping to himself and his work.

So what is up with him? Akira thought. From what she had seen, Ryo didn’t talk at all when they worked unless it was too his machines or to himself. He was a relative mystery.

Slowly they crossed the city and entered the workshop. Ha-Ya-To’s team had done wonders: the warehouse that had been transformed drastically for the gathering night had seemed to put everything back in its exact place. Even the tools and plates that had been left on the ground were back.

Ryo sighed softly as he crossed the room and picked up a large drill, as though annoyed that Akira was even in his workshop. But then again, the first time she had actually been in here for work related purposes, she had ended up destroying a few tables. “We’ll be working on plating this morning, if you’re not too tired from the previous night.”

Akira shook her head. “Sounds good.”

Ryo took the next few minutes showing her exactly what metal plates went where on the battle machine and the next few minutes watching as she began working. He nodded slowly, his lips pinching together. He went off to the other side of the machine and began to work.

It was rather tedious work, Akira soon found. Each piece of metal had to be placed perfectly and screwed in to a precise tightness for maximum protection. Still, it was interesting learning how the battle machines worked. She only really flew them, not knowing how they actually pieced together. Working on plating allowed her to see the tangled mess of wiring and tubing inside. She hadn’t expected battle machines to be so…complicated. But colored wires were everywhere underneath the thick metal skin. Plate after plate had to be placed precisely. Akira wondered why they didn’t have some sort of robotic arm or something of the sort to do the work. But after looking at Ryo for a moment, she realized why.

Ryo was curled into a tight position in the engine area, murmuring to himself. Akira paused in her work, watching him. She had never really gotten the chance to watch him work before. His blue eyes glittered with intelligence as he placed the engine cover in piece by piece. He didn’t seem to mind the oil splattering all over his clothes, merely rubbing his gloves against himself to clean them before he returned to work. But what was odd was that all of this, all of the sitting around indoors and putting his hands to work, Ryo seemed to really enjoy it all.

Akira glanced down at him. Was this really what he enjoyed doing? Working all by himself and not having to talk to anyone? It seemed rather lonely to Akira, who had grown so used to her counterparts that it seemed like she could never seclude herself again. She was always around other pilots, but Ryo seemed perfectly content at keeping himself indoors and alone.

“…of silver tears…” she heard him mutter, “sing to me…and soothe the ring in my ears…overcast these gloomy nights we’re…”

The dark-haired girl blinked. Was he…singing? His words were breathy and smooth, barely a murmur, but there was definitely a tune behind them. She turned her head slightly, catching sight of a pair of thin wires coming out from under his shaggy hair. Slowly Akira smiled. So he was listening to music. After last night, Akira had been sure that Ryo just didn’t like music in general. He had said he couldn’t hold a rhythm, but his murmurings seemed to have some sort of beat to them. And he was slowly bobbing his head to the music.

Akira went back to work, smiling to herself. Somehow, Ryo didn’t seem so distant now. At least he had something that made him partially human, and less of the robotic, cold being he showed on the outside.

^_^

Ha-Ya-To set down his guitar as Hikaru walked into the bedroom. “Hey, if it isn’t the budding pop star!”

Hikaru shot him an annoyed look. “Do you ever think before you speak?”

“Yep, just did!” The redhead grinned and strummed a chord, the sound floating through the air. “Aren’t you supposed to be on guard duty this afternoon?”

Hikaru sighed. “Yeah, I’m going to head over there in a few minutes. I just need to grab a few papers for Sensei.” He walked into their closet, which for once was actually rather clean for once, and began pulling out boxes from shelves and rifling through paperwork.

Ha-Ya-To watched him patiently, strumming a few chords every once in a while and humming. When Hikaru finished, he gave one last strum. “Hey.”

“Hey what?” Hikaru turned his head to face his roommate.

“I think I guessed your secret.”

“My…secret?” Hikaru raised an eyebrow. “What secret?”

The redhead snorted. “If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.”

“You always seem to speak in riddles.” Hikaru rolled his eyes and left the room, leaving behind a very satisfied pilot.


Akira set in the last plate, sighing. She looked at her clock briefly. She had been in there for at least three hours, but that was far long enough. She would be able to meet up with Ha-Ya-To in a few minutes for more flight training.

“Hey,” she called out, “Ryo, I’m done.”

She was met by silence.

Slowly, she made her way down the cherry picker, stepping into the battle machine. The area was small and cramped, wires and screws and panels sticking out from every angle. Akira had to get down on her knees in order to crawl through without catching her hair or clothes on anything.

Ryo was on his back, screwing something above him. He still hummed quietly to himself, so quietly that it would have been hard for anyone outside to hear.

Akira crawled up behind him, tapping him gently on the shoulder. “Hey, Ryo?”

The violet-haired teenager gave a slight yelp and jerked into a sitting position. His head slammed into the metal above him, causing him to let out a groan and lay back down, clutching his face.

“WHAT?!” He screeched, twisting to face her. But his sharp movement caused his earbuds to slip from his ears and tumble with the device off the panel.

“I got it!” Akira lunged for the small iPod, managing to grab it before it fell out of arm’s reach. She inspected it closely as she rolled the earbuds back up, scrolling through the artists.

Ryo snatched the iPod from her fingers, his cheeks flaring with color. “I’ll take that, thank you!” He pocketed it quickly.

“You’ve got some good music on there,” Akira said with a smile. “Christina Perri, Jon McLaughlan, Alicia Lemke, 2CELLOS…”

Ryo’s cheeks went even redder. “Thank you,” he muttered.

“No, really! But…I always thought you’d be a techno or dubstep person, but all there really is on there is—.”

“Instrumental music,” Ryo finished sharply, “Yeah, a lot of people think that.”

“I don’t have a problem with it!” Akira hurriedly threw her hands up. “It’s just not what I expected, that’s all.” She paused for a second. “Why do you like that style?”

Ryo sighed, curling up slightly. “When I was little, Midori used to play the piano. My parents were…opposed to me doing much more than work, which they deemed more important than a social life, so I was often alone in my workshop. It was nice to hear the piano every once in a while. It makes me think of home.” His eyes were sad and quiet, as though he were lost in memory.

Akira cocked her head slightly. “You were singing “Lonely Lullaby” by Owl City earlier, right?”

Ryo sighed. “You heard that?”

Akira shrugged. “It’s a good song. I just didn’t know you were a music person.”

The violet-haired teen began to slowly make his way out of the confined area. “Not many people have any idea. Hitomi teases me about it a great deal, but she keeps quiet about it when around other people. The other techies don’t really have any opinion on the matter.”

Akira followed the teenager out, stretching slightly as she reached the steps in the open air. “Well, personally, I think you have a great sense of rhythm. You should join in at Ha-Ya-To’s gathering more next time.”

Ryo snorted and shook his head, his shaggy hair whirling around him. “You must be jesting. Me? Dance? Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t prefer to make a fool of myself in front of hundreds of people, thank you very much.

Akira rolled her eyes. “Fine, be that way!” She motioned to her battle machine. “I finished working on the under layer of plating. Do you mind if I head to the Training Center to find Ha-Ya-To?”

Ryo nodded. “Fine.” And he turned away back to his work.

Akira sighed, heading down the cherry picker. Same old anti-social Ryo…


“I can scream louder than you!”

“No you can’t!”

“Yes I can!”

“Well I can eat more than you!”

“Well I can hold my breath longer than you can!”

“Nuh-uh!”

“Yeah-huh!”

“Nuh-uh!”

“Yeah-huh!”

Akira sighed. “How much longer?”

Ha-Ya-To gave a cheerful shrug. “Depends. We could be here for lunch for all we know!”

Akira hadn’t been able to do much with Ha-Ya-To so far at the Training Center. She had found the entrance to the machine area blocked by a couple hotheaded pilots by the names of Takeshi and Hitomi. They had been at it for over half an hour, screaming out insults at one another. She wasn’t even sure how it had started, only that the two of them never seemed to tire of yelling. It was all rather childish really. They reminded Akira of a couple of middle school boys.

“Any way to speed up the process?” She asked mildly.

The redheaded pilot grinned next to her. “Always, my dear Akira!” He strode over to the two loudmouths, who were still up in one another’s faces.

“I’m a better pilot!”

“Please, you? You couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn!”

“Says the girl who spends all her time fixing her Battle Machine!”

“Me?! Are you kidding? Half the time it’s yours that’s destroyed!”

Ha-Ya-To shoved his way in between the two pilots, pushing them away from one another. “You know,” he said loudly, “you two really should read the signs on the door before you enter the Training Center. I’m sure there’s one that says ‘No Flirting Allowed’. It’s distracting for the newbies.”

“DID YOU SAY FLIRTING?!” Takeshi roared, his face bright red, though whether it was from anger or embarrassment, Akira wasn’t sure.

Hitomi grabbed Ha-Ya-To by the collar and shook him. “Take that back!!”

Ha-Ya-To shrugged. “Hey, I’m just calling it like I see it!”

Ha-Ya-To was lucky he was as fast as he was, or he probably would have gotten seriously more injured. Hitomi screamed and kicked out wildly at the boy, who merely dodged with a laugh and swerved in and out of attacks. Takeshi took a brasher route and tackled the redhead, holding his arms behind his back and holding him steady as Hitomi prepared to strike.

Ha-Ya-To, Hitomi, Takeshi, come in!

The three teenagers stopped dead in their tracks, glancing down at their watches, where a stern looking Hikaru gazed back at them. Ha-Ya-To ripped his arms away from Takeshi’s loosening grip, brushing himself off with mock dignity. “Hey, HK, what’s up?”

We’ve got a code yellow. Large skirmish coming in from the North. New model machines. They could either be extremely dangerous or just another pushover. I need you three to power up and meet me out here.

“What about Akira?” Ha-Ya-To asked, glancing at the dark-haired girl. “I’m supposed to be training her right now.”

Can she fight well?

“Um…not yet…” Akira frowned slightly at the redhead’s answer, but he had a point. She hadn’t been in training long enough to do much more with her battle machine than hover and shoot at targets.

Then she’ll have to make do without you. I need you, stat. Over and out.

“Roger that,” Takeshi nodded. “Alright, guys, let’s go!”

The three teenagers tore out of the building. Akira raced after them. “Ha-Ya-To, what am I supposed to do?”

The redhead glanced behind him briefly. “Um…I don’t really care!” He yelled back, “How about target practice? Yeah, go and shoot some things! And…don’t blow anything up!!”

Akira frowned again, huffing slightly. It seemed that whenever she was going to get a good training lesson in, a skirmish by the robots had to come in and put everything on hold. It was annoying. She wanted to do well in her training, and that was what the trainers were for. But the trainers were also the senior pilots, and that meant they were always on call for a battle.

Akira groaned slightly and trudged through the snow to the flight grounds after the trainers. The air was chilly and crisp, but thankfully the wind had calmed down enough. Still, her cheeks were rosy and stinging when she arrived at the large clearing where the Battle Machines were kept.

A half a dozen pilots rushed to their battle machines and powered them up, taking to the sky or rushing down the streets to the Golden Tower with amazing speed. Akira longed to be with them, and glanced for a moment at her Stealth Hunter. But at this point she would be useless in a fight. She was still only so-so with her flying and shooting at the same time. Still, it made her jealous to watch the other pilots jump into the battle machines and take off for a battle. She watched as the flight grounds grew still once again as the battle machines left.

The flight grounds weren’t only for battle machines. Targets had been set up what appeared to be a few days ago, as fresh snow was still piled on the red and white circles. There was an indoor and an outdoor shooting range, though Akira preferred the outdoor one, even in the cold. There was something more real about doing it in the open air. And with the streets nearly empty at this point, there was nothing to distract her.

Akira stood at the marker spaced one hundred feet away from the target. Slowly, she unclipped her pistol from her belt. The weapon was small and fit neatly in her hand. Akira had learned quickly that the in the Golden City, weapons were much higher tech than any weapon she had ever seen. Blaster pistols were the plain handgun the recruits were given. Small, round, and glowing with energy, the weapons were deadly when used correctly. Akira was glad to learn that her chest plate for her flight suit was blaster proof as well as bullet proof.

The dark-haired girl was actually becoming a rather good shot. Everything she was doing was getting easier, but shooting was one of the things she could practice on her own and become good at. She raised her gun and pointed, aiming quickly.

She pulled the trigger, a thin blast of blue light erupting from the barrel of the gun. It slammed into the target with a whine, leaving a smoking mark where it hit. Akira narrowed her eyes. Bulls-eye…but not direct center. She raised her gun again.

Suddenly, a clump of snow slammed into the ground beside Akira. She turned barely a few inches around in interest, but the movement was enough to completely change the course of her shot. She gave a slight screech in fright as the shot ricocheted off a metal bar, shooting straight down the road. Akira watched it go with wide eyes. It was going to hit the tower. It would probably bounce off and down another road. It might even hit someone. Akira was going to be killed for this one.

And then, it was gone.

Akira swallowed.

The shot had disappeared. But…where had it gone? It had just…disappeared.

Akira, still holding onto her pistol tightly, ran from the flight grounds to the tower, inspecting the tower all around. There wasn’t even a mark. It was as if the bullet hadn’t even hit. But Akira had watched it make contact. It was just gone.

Slowly, Akira stepped back in front of the tower from the direction she had been standing in, in front of the road to the flight grounds. She looked closely at the tower. It didn’t seem to have sustained any damage. It was as though she hadn’t even made that shot.

The dark-haired girl lifted her pistol high, inspecting the area where the blast ought to have made contact. Slowly, she aimed and fired, watching closely.

The metal seemed to absorb the shot. Akira had fully expected to find a large hole where she had blasted through, but there was nothing. She pointed her gun at a completely different area and fired her gun again. But this time, the shot made contact with a bang, leaving a large ring of soot on the surface. She would clean it later.

The trainee made her way up to the tower, fingering the metal gently. It was icy cold, even underneath her gloves. But the spot where the metal had absorbed her blaster…it was…warm. Akira pulled off her gloves and felt along the surface. The metal was rough there, not like the smooth surface of the rest of the tower. The metal…it was different…Akira frowned and gently pushed against the surface of the plate.

The panel fell to her feet, unclipping from the tower. Akira leapt back in shock. Oh, now I’m destroying the tower! What are the trainers going to say this time?!

She looked into the hole she had made, looking at it from all angles. Suddenly, something shone from the inside. Akira blinked. It couldn’t have been sunlight; the sun was at the wrong angle for that. It wasn’t even shining into the hole. She turned around, unable to find any source of light.

Slowly, Akira slid her hand into the hole, something coming off in her hand. She pulled it back out, frowning in curiosity. It was a brick of some sort, but made of something golden. It wasn’t very large, only around a foot in length, a few inches in width and around an inch thick. But the oddest part about it was what was on the front.

Letters, and numbers…they looked to be painted on with black ink of some sort, though why anyone would paint a brick with letters and numbers Akira had no idea.

KD64G890F

Akira blinked, turning the brick over a few times as she muttered out the letters and numbers. What the heck did they mean? There were no vowels, so they couldn’t really spell anything out. Maybe it was a code of some sort. She thought through the painted symbols over and over, even holding out to see if it would change in the light, but no such luck.

The girl picked up the plate of metal that had fallen to the ground and set it back into the open place on the tower, glad to find it stayed there. She clipped her blaster to her belt and held the brick close to her. Slowly, she headed in the direction of the dorms, curiosity already overwhelming her.


Akira set her food down at the table, her stomach growling furiously at her. She picked and pried at her food, groaning slightly. She had been on a diet for what felt like forever, even if it was only for a few days. Everything she ate was low in calories, but high in protein. She was even told when she was supposed to drink coffee and when she wasn’t. It was as though the kitchen had taken over her life.

But today that wasn’t her problem. She was thinking over the brick she had found. She had spent the last two hours trying to crack it, trying everything from rearranging the letters and numbers, changing the numbers to letters and then rearranging, even flipping the numbers upside down. She had tried every code-breaker she knew, and still nothing. Now it was just taunting her.

She looked up as Hitomi, Ha-Ya-To, and Hikaru joined her at the table. She blinked, raising an eyebrow. “Hey guys. Where’s Takeshi?”

Hikaru sighed and set down his food, flopping into his chair. “Infirmary,” he said blatantly.

“Why? Did he eat too much?”

“His Battle Machine got totaled,” Hitomi said, “The new robots that we had to fight were pretty tough. One managed to catch Takeshi unaware and pretty much destroy his battle machine. We think he broke a few ribs.”

“Talking about Takeshi?” Ryo said as he took a seat, his plate filled with the barest minimum of lunch food available.

“Yeah,” Hikaru said with a sigh, “he doesn’t look too good. But he’ll be fine, of course!” He added hurriedly as he caught sight of Akira’s stricken face.

“The doctors know precisely what they’re doing,” Ryo said, munching on a cracker. “They’ve had to deal with way more than a few broken ribs.”

Hitomi cocked her head slightly. “Yeah, but they may have to work with his lungs too. I think one of them collapsed, the way he was coughing up blood and all.”

Akira swallowed and glanced down at her food. “Suddenly, I’m not very hungry.”

“I still think I should sing him a song,” Ha-Ya-To said, as perky as always. “There’s nothing better for healing than a good song!”

Hikaru slapped the hand with the microphone that Ha-Ya-To was raising to the table. “No,” he snapped, “I am in no mood to hear Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus or whoever else you’re going to blast out all over the city!”

Akira shrugged. “Where does that microphone even connect to anyways?”

“Only every freaking speaker in the city,” Hikaru grumbled.

The dark-haired trainee spat out her drink in shock. “Wait…every one? How on earth did you manage that?!”

All of the trainers besides Hikaru locked eyes and began to chuckle slightly to themselves. Hikaru leaned back in his chair, narrowing his eyes in distaste.

“Ryo is the man to answer that question!” Ha-Ya-To managed through snickers.

Ryo’s face was maliciously gleeful as he looked at Hikaru. “Let’s just say I had a motive.”

Hitomi stifled her laughs. “See, Ha-Ya-To loves to sing in the shower—.”

“At five in the morning, mind you!” Hikaru interrupted waspishly.

“Yeah, at five in the morning. Anyway, Hikaru got so fed up with it that he went to Ryo asking that he make Ha-Ya-To stop singing Taylor Swift in the locker room’s showers. Ryo agreed to help on the condition that Hikaru be more careful with his battle machine. Unfortunately, the next day the pilots got in a huge skirmish with the robots, and Hikaru’s Sky Guardian was seriously messed up.”

“Ryo didn’t want to hear any excuses for that one,” Ha-Ya-To said with a grin, “so to get his revenge on Hikaru, he made me this.” He held up the microphone. “It’s totally water-proof so I can use it in the shower. And Ryo connected it to all the speakers around the city, so when I use it, everyone can hear me!”

“I hate Taylor Swift!” Hikaru groaned, a hand over his eyes. “Why do I have to keep saying that?!”

“It was your own fault,” Ha-Ya-To said smugly, flipping his microphone in his hands. “I didn’t even do anything.”

“And I can thoroughly say I’ve had my revenge,” Ryo said with a rare, wild grin, causing another bout of laughter to erupt at the table.

The blue-haired pilot shot them all dirty glares before grabbing a piece of bread and stuffing it in his mouth, looked extraordinarily grumpy. Akira couldn’t help but join in the laughing simply for the look on his face.

“By the way, Akira,” Hitomi asked, “what are you doing over the holidays?”

Akira stopped eating. “The…holidays?”

“You know,” Ha-Ya-To said through a full mouth, “green trees, ornaments, colorful lights, green and red things, snow, cheerful music, those kinds of holidays!”

“You mean Christmas?” Akira thought for a moment. “Um…nothing, I guess…”

“Really?” Hikaru looked mildly surprised now that he had stopped looking angry, “You’re not going to be with your family?”

Akira raised an eyebrow. “Don’t I have training or something?”

“Quite a few people take the week off over Christmas to spend with their families.”

“Yeah,” Hitomi said, “I’m going to visit my aunt and uncle.”

“I’m heading down the mountain to be with my family,” Ha-Ya-To put in. “And since Takeshi’s family lives in the city, I’m guessing he’s here for the holidays.”

“And I’m just staying here,” Hikaru said. “So you’re really not doing anything, Akira?”

Akira shrugged. “I didn’t even know we had the week off. How do you keep the city defended during that time?”

“A lot people’s families live in the Golden City,” Ha-Ya-To said, “In fact, most of the residents are relatives of the military workers, so there are a lot of people who don’t leave. Also, the other cities we’re in contact with are also on high alert for the same reason.”

“What other cities?”

“The Exo-Force isn’t just centered in the Golden City,” Hikaru explained. “Japan is a big set of islands. Different cities are based around the country and specialize in different things. The main bases are named after different metals, like the Golden City. See, the Golden City was a myth, up until about a couple years ago, but since then, a handful of other cities based on the Golden City were made across Japan to help back up the Exo-Force. For instance, the Iron City, also known as the Ironworks City or the Iron Base, is located up in the deep mountains, close to where Sentai Mountain is. They mine and refine most of the metals used in our battle machines there.”

“The Bronze City is in the south,” Ha-Ya-To said. “Everything that’s sent across Japan for military uses goes through there first. So it’s basically the Mail Mecca of the country.”

“And the Platinum City is in the north,” Hitomi put in. “They create most of the technology used for military purposes.”

“The Golden City is specifically for the design and creation of battle machines,” Hikaru said. “Once the techies have had their fill, most of the battle machines are sent off to the other cities. But we get the fun of trying out the new ones.”

Akira nodded. “Makes sense. Though the naming is kind of funny.”

“How so?” Hitomi asked, an eyebrow raised.

“Well, why platinum instead of silver? Shouldn’t there be a Silver City?”

Ryo shrugged. “We didn’t make the names: old people with money did.”

Hikaru gave a snort of laughter. “True that.” He sighed and stood, stretching. “Alright, Akira, you ready for a training session?”

Anything to get my mind off that stupid piece of brick! Akira thought sharply. She gave a quick smile. “Sure! Let me just go grab my katana.”

Chapter 12:

Because Takeshi was out of commission, Hikaru took over much of Akira’s strength training, though she was often given to other pilots who were apparently also very strong and good trainers. She was actually rather disappointed; she didn’t know much about the other trainers, so it was harder to work with them, and though Hikaru was a tough trainer, Akira almost missed Takeshi’s ruthlessness. It kept her constantly on the move, always on her toes.

But that didn’t mean Hikaru was easy, not in the slightest. He kept her hard at work, always keeping her moving, though he gave her more breaks than Takeshi did.

Sparring with blades was also far more interesting with Hikaru than with Takeshi. The green-haired pilot was far more comfortable with his own two fists than with a katana. So Akira spent the next few weeks learning the finer points of blade work. Her martial arts training with Takeshi helped out quite a bit: she noticed how much sleeker her movements were, and her blade work had become very smooth.

But she was getting worn down faster and faster. For one, she was always training, and it was starting to show.

“Not hungry today?” Ha-Ya-To asked, sipping on his spoonful of soup.

Akira had been messing with her food for almost the entire lunch period. Her stomach was growling, but she didn’t eat any of her food. Her head rested on her hand, her expression one of boredom. “Not really,” she said.

“You need to eat,” Hikaru said, pointing his spoon at her. “How else will you keep up on your training?”

Akira’s lips pinched together as she set down her spoon. “Does everything have to be about training?”

“What do you mean?”

The girl let out a huff. “I feel like all I ever do is train! What am I able to do in between Gatherings that’s fun?”

Hikaru, Ryo, Hitomi, and Ha-Ya-To locked gazes and shrugged. “Well,” Ha-Ya-To said slowly, “Um…there’s always the Residential District area, where all the civilians live. There are stores and shops and restaurants down there.”

Hitomi snorted. “But don’t let Sensei catch you down there alone with another member of the opposite gender or he’ll think you’re dating someone.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Akira said sharply, glancing at Ha-Ya-To.

“Dating is against the rules,” Ryo said, as though this were the most obvious fact in the world, “According to rule Iota 407-9 of the Official Exo-Force Handbook, dating another member of the Exo-Force or having sensual, sexual, or in any way intimate relationships with another Exo-Force member is strictly prohibited. It distracts from the overall principal of the Exo-Force, which is to protect the people of Japan and the rest of the world from the robot rebellion.”

“Sounds pretty lame to me,” Akira mumbled, before glancing up, her cheeks pink. “I mean the whole dating part, not…the rest.”

Ha-Ya-To shrugged. “Hey, I agree with you! In fact, some nights of Gatherings seem like they’re specifically for couples to get together. You should see the make-out sessions!”

Akira felt her cheeks flush from pink to bright red. “Thanks for the description, Ha-Ya-To.”

“All the quiet areas out on the mountain slopes are nice for a rest,” Hikaru added, hurriedly changing the subject.

“And there are always holidays,” Ryo said. “That’s all break periods.”

“But holidays aren’t for another two weeks,” Akira groaned. “What am I supposed to do until then?”

Ha-Ya-To shot a glance at Hikaru. “Keep on training,” he said, almost sounding responsible for once.

“Always a good place to start,” Hitomi put in.

Hikaru set down his spoon. “Actually, why don’t we take a day or two off and do something fun?”

The three trainers and trainee turned and stared at the blue-haired pilot in shock.

“Are you alright?” Hitomi asked slowly.

Ha-Ya-To nearly leapt over the table, pressing a hand against Hikaru’s forehead. “You must have a fever! Are you feeling cold and hot at the same time or do you have a headache or something?”

Hikaru slapped the hand away, looking annoyed. “I’m perfectly fine! I just think Akira’s been working really hard and she deserves a break, that’s all! In fact, I think we could all use a break. I could probably come up with an excuse for us to go down the mountain and we can go do something fun instead.”

“And now Hikaru’s asking us to break the rules,” Ryo shook his head, “Will the amazement never end?”

“What?” Hikaru shrugged. “I’ve been needing a break too, you know.” He glanced towards the dark-haired girl. “So, what do you say, Akira? Want a day off?”

Akira let out a sigh of relief. “You mean it will actually work?” She grinned. “It sounds perfect! What would we be doing, anyways? And where would we be going?”

Ha-Ya-To shrugged. “If Hikaru’s the one planning it, anything, really. With his planning skills, maybe we could even sneak into a bar!”

“You’re an idiot,” Hitomi gave the redhead a whack. “We’re not going to a bar! We’re all still underage, remember? The closest one to twenty-one is Takeshi, and he’s still in too much pain to do much, and he’s still too young.”

“Maybe we could get Taiki to go into a bar and buy us drinks!”

“Why do I even bother with you?” Hitomi sighed.

Hikaru cleared his throat. “Excuse me? We’re not going to a bar, that’s for sure. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the cities below. From what I’ve heard, some sort of winter festival is going on down there tomorrow. I’ll see if I can convince Sensei to let us all off then so we can go.”

Akira felt her spirits rise. Finally, something other than training to do! “Sounds like a plan to me!”


Hikaru was actually surprised at how easy it had been to convince Sensei to let them go. He had expected a rant about why the pilot needed four other people to go with him on some errands, and why on this day specifically, and who the errands were for. But the elderly man had simply nodded, agreeing to the proposal, and signing a paper for Hikaru to leave the city.

The blue-haired pilot now fingered it gently in his pocket, hurrying to keep up with the others. “Okay,” he said, “we have a few things we need to get but besides that—.”

“AHH!!” Hitomi let out a shriek, causing the others to jump. “Ryo! We have to go to that stand! They’re selling volt screwdrivers!”

“What the heck is a volt screwdriver?” Ha-Ya-To asked, trying to flatten down his hair that had stuck out even more than normal from the shock of Hitomi’s outburst.

“It’s basically a normal screwdriver,” Ryo explained, “but used for electrical work only. It will tell you how much power is and ought to be coming through a wire. They’re incredibly useful on battle machine assembling.”

“Well, I think we should check out that one first,” Ha-Ya-To pointed to a large platform, “They’ve got sound systems set up, so they must have some sort of concert going on soon!”

Akira shook her head. “We should totally look at the things people are selling first. Maybe we’ll find something interesting.”

Hikaru groaned. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all. Who knew how long they would be out here trying everything! The festival was large, and basically covered the entire town. People were everywhere, the crowds thickening. Finally, he sighed. “Okay, fine. Everyone can split up and do their own thing. Just remember, I’ll call you up on your intercom watches when we have to meet up. Unlike you guys, have to actually run a few errands.”

“Sounds like a plan to me!” Hitomi said, grabbing Ryo’s arm. “Come on, Ryo. Let’s go look at tools!”

“And I‘m off to find some good music,” Ha-Ya-To said with a bob to his head.

“You mind if I come with you?” Akira asked. Hikaru noticed the slight look of bashfulness on her face, and felt something in his own spirits drop.

Ha-Ya-To shook his head, grinning in a rather unnerving way. “Actually, I think you’d better go with Hikaru. He’ll need some help carrying his groceries, don’t you think?”

Akira looked as though she were about to argue, but Ha-Ya-To was lost in the crowds before she could get a single word out. She looked put out, her eyes darkening. Hikaru pinched his lips together in frustration.

“Well that wasn’t very nice,” he said his eyes fixed on the spot where the redhead had disappeared. “Idiot. Anyways, Akira…um…”

Akira sighed and turned to him, a forced smile on her lips. “It’s all right. I’d love to help you with your errands.”

Hikaru shook his head, rubbing back a spare strand of hair. “Sorry about that. I know you probably would have liked to spend the day with Ha-Ya-To.”

Akira shook her hands. “It would have been fun, yeah. But if he doesn’t want me around, why force him?” She looked out to the space where Ha-Ya-To had been longingly. “Still…it would be nice to be with him…”

Hikaru swallowed and felt his spirits sink even farther. “You know, you can always go after him. You don’t need to help me. I can do it myself.”

“I couldn’t do that to you! You probably do have a lot of stuff to get and I’ll help you carry it all.”

Hikaru shook his head, giving her a small smile. “You go do what you want. As your trainer, I’m saying do what you want. I know you want to be with Ha-Ya-To. Go and enjoy yourself!”

Akira looked nervous. “Are you…are you sure?”

Hikaru nodded.

The dark-haired girl bowed slightly. “Thank you so much, Hikaru! I’ll make it up to you, I promise!” And with that, she disappeared into the crowd of celebrating people.

Hikaru sighed and slowly began to make his way through the crowds, glancing down at the paper slip in his hands of things he was supposed to pick up. With every step he took, the longing to join the other team members in their fun grew. He wanted to be the one Akira was rushing off to see, the one who was making people laugh and having a good time. But he was the leader; he was the responsible one who actually had a job to do. And Akira was chasing after Ha-Ya-To, not him.

Forget about her, he told himself sternly, so she likes someone else. Big deal! Why do you care?


Hikaru picked up the heavy paper bag, wrapping his arms underneath it and hefting it up to his chest. The shopping had taken longer than expected. Lines were long and he had spent enough time just waiting to be rung up. It was actually rather annoying. But he simply gritted his teeth and stepped out of the shop.

He squinted in the bright sunlight. The dying sunlight almost seemed brighter than it had in the early afternoon. Hikaru was just glad that there was very little snow around, or he probably would have been blinded. The weather had been warm lately, which was odd for around Christmas time, but he wasn’t complaining. It had made it a lot easier to train.

The teen glanced at his watch. It was past five in the afternoon, which meant that the festival would be ending soon and the team ought to be getting back to the city. Hikaru sighed and set down his bag on a bench, settling himself down. Well, it had been a productive day, but not a relaxing one. He would have much rather been running around and looking at booths and stands, buying things for himself rather than the techies and pilots.

You’re the leader, Hikaru, he told himself with a sigh, and the leader is the responsible one. So good on you!

Hikaru groaned. He might as well call the others at this point and get them all to meet up.

He was interrupted by a loud cheerful voice. “Hikaru!” Ha-Ya-To popped out of the crowd and rushed to Hikaru’s side, practically bouncing up and down.

Hikaru sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Ha-Ya-To, if you’re going to tell me about how fabulous your day was, I’m not in the mood to hear, okay?”

“No, no, that’s not it! You have to come and watch the end of Ryo’s match!”

“Wait…Ryo’s what?”

“Just come on!” He grabbed Hikaru’s arm and dragged him to his feet. Hikaru only had enough time to grab his bag before being dragged down the road a high speeds. Hikaru had to hold the bag tightly, fearing that the rapid movement would upset his newly bought products.

Ha-Ya-To nearly dragged the poor pilot through the streets, avoiding people and yelling out hurried apologies. The streets were emptier now that the festival had slowed down some, so there were less people to bump into. Hikaru gave up on fighting after a while and merely sighed, allowing himself to be pulled around. If there was one thing he had learned from rooming with Ha-Ya-To, it was that when the redheaded wonder was excited about something, there was no stopping him.

The redheaded pilot led Hikaru until they reached a small booth that was surrounded by people. Ha-Ya-To pushed his way through the crowd slowly, pulling Hikaru in after him. The blue-haired pilot muttered apologies to all the people he pushed into to make room.

Slowly the two entered the middle of the circle, looking into the booth. Ryo sat there, across from another young man. Both stared intently at a large hologram before them. It glowed sea green and imaged what looked like a three-tiered board of some sort. Hikaru smiled, realizing what it was. Ryo was a master at 3D chess. It was probably his favorite game.

“How long has this been going on?” He asked a person nearby.

“The boy with the purple hair has beaten just about everyone at this game!” The man replied, looking awestruck. “He’s been here for almost two hours and hasn’t lost a game yet.”

Ryo blinked his blue eyes and punched a command into the keyboard in front of him. One of the pieces moved forwards, knocking out his opponent’s piece. “Checkmate,” he said quietly.

The man in front of him, who was probably at least twice his age, stared at the board. “What?” He inspected it from every angle, shock apparent on his face. “But that was only my fifth move!”

Ryo shrugged. “Just be glad you’re not the person I beat in two.”

The man shook his head, handing over a few small coins. “You truly are as good as they say.”

Ryo shook the man’s hand as he left. He handed the money to Hitomi, who stood behind him and placed the coins into a bag, which looked very full. Ryo must have played more matches than Hikaru had originally thought.

“Alright!” Hitomi said loudly over the crowd. “I think that’s all we have for today!”

A collective groan of disappointment arose from the people surrounding the booth as they slowly began to depart. A few of them called back to Ryo, telling him to return soon so they could beat him. Ryo waved back, smiling widely. Hikaru was glad to see him enjoying himself as much as he was. Ryo was the kind of person who needed a break from work every once in a while, and playing chess was one of the few ways he allowed himself to relax.

Hikaru stepped up to the teen, sighing in mock disappointment. “If Sensei knew you had been betting, Ryo…”

Ryo’s sharp eyes gleamed up at him from his sitting position. “What Sensei doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

“So how was your day, Hikaru?” Akira asked, coming into the booth. “Did you do anything fun?”

Hikaru opened his mouth but caught himself before he spouted out complaints on how obnoxiously long the day had been, and how he hadn’t gotten a moment of time to himself, seeing as he had been working the entire time. He nearly bit his tongue to keep from saying all those things, but instead played a smile on his lips. “It was fine,” he said quickly. “I mostly just walked around.” Well…it wasn’t a total lie…

Akira smiled back. “Well, it’s good that you had some fun. You’re always working, Hikaru. You need to break every so often.”

Don’t I know it! “Yeah, it was fine. What did you all do?”

“Besides the 3D chess matches?” Hitomi mused, “Well, we went shopping and bought a bunch of spare parts and mechanics, and watched some street performers. Then we found this booth and started playing games.”

“Ha-Ya-To and I watched a few concerts,” Akira said. She sat on the edge of the booth, swinging her legs slightly. “Then we walked around and sampled food and window shopped for a while.”

“Sounds like fun,” Hikaru said, holding back a sigh. Hearing about what everyone else had done with their day only made him feel all the more miserable. His day really had been a bore. In fact, it hadn’t been all that different from his regular work days. He stifled a groan. Even when he was trying to relax, he somehow ended up working. Well…he was productive, if not anything else.

“Well,” he said slowly, glancing at his watch. “It’s time to head home. We had better get back to base before Sensei blows up and decides never to let us out of the city again.”

“If that happens, I’ll just make up some story about us taking the entire day to look for the stuff on the list,” Ha-Ya-To said with a grin.

“And how would that work?” Hitomi rolled her eyes.

“Well, it would consist of some pretty hard bartering, a few pickpockets, and some serious fights.”

Hikaru laughed. “Well, we’ll know who to ask if we get in that situation.”

The five teenagers began to slowly make their way back to the bus station, though they were often distracted by the merchandise still being sold at booths. Ryo just had to take a quick glance at a few mechanical devices, and Ha-Ya-To wanted to look at a booth that sold musical instruments. It was actually rather fun, the group joking and messing with one another as they continued onward.

“Hold on,” Hitomi said, “Akira, come and check these out.”

The two females of the group stopped at a stand selling jewelry. The others stopped to wait for them, standing a little awkwardly to the side. Ha-Ya-To and Hikaru joined the girls, looking over their shoulders as they pointed out small bracelets and rings.

Hikaru sighed, glancing around. “We don’t have much time left.”

“Ooh, check out this one!” Akira picked up a necklace and held it up for the black-haired trainer to see. Hikaru inspected it from behind her. It was simple, a black choker necklace with a single red, teardrop-shaped gem hanging from it. But Akira seemed to really like it.

Hitomi gently fingered the gem on the end. “It’s so pretty!”

Akira set it back down. “Yeah. Well, I’ve bought enough already today. I don’t need to spend any more money.” She slowly began to walk away from the stand, chatting with Hitomi about the day.

Hikaru watched her go and slowly began to follow, but not before Ha-Ya-To elbowed him sharply in the ribs. “What gives?” Hikaru snapped.

“Buy it for her!”

“Buy what?”

“The necklace! She liked it, right? Buy it for her!”

Hikaru blinked, cocking his head slightly. “Why?”

Ha-Ya-To face-palmed himself. “Because girls like it when you buy stuff for them.”

“What?!”

“Just do it!”

Hikaru sighed, turning his head back to the two female pilots, who were walking away down the road. Why was he following Ha-Ya-To’s advice anyways? Maybe it was the fact that the redhead was such a charmer; he had more girls chasing after him than could fit in the mess hall. Nevertheless, he turned back to the booth, pulling out his ID-credit. “I’d like that one, please.”


“Well, look who’s back! You didn’t bring me back any souvenirs, did you?”

“Good to see you too, Takeshi,” Hikaru grumbled, sitting down at the table. “What are you doing up anyways? Shouldn’t you be in the hospital wing?”

The green-haired pilot shrugged. He looked good for having been nearly crushed by broken metal only a few days ago. “The doctors are getting better and better every year. I’m allowed to move around now, even if I can’t train intensely for another week or so. And I’m still on a diet, which is annoying.”

Ha-Ya-To rolled his eyes. “That’s our Takeshi, tough ‘til the end! Though the mess hall is an odd place for you to hang out if you can’t at anything.”

Takeshi shrugged. “It’s closed anyways, which means it’s quiet.” He glanced around the mess hall over the teammates’ shoulders. “Where are the girls? I thought you went on your little adventure with them.”

“We did,” Hikaru said. “They went up to bed.” He glanced down at his watch. “We should probably go soon too. It’s nearly midnight.”

Takeshi grunted, leaning back in his chair. “More time for us men to discuss our latest endeavor. Like that festival thing! I can’t believe I missed it! What did I miss?”

“Only Ryo beating everyone at 3D chess,” Ha-Ya-To said with a smirk. “He made some serious cash!”

“Hikaru used up a large portion of his time attaining groceries,” Ryo put in.

The blue-haired pilot frowned. “Yeah, because that’s what I was supposed to do!”

“About that…” Ha-Ya-To mused slightly before clubbing Hikaru in the arm. “What the heck is wrong with you?!”

“What’s wrong with you?!” Hikaru snapped, grabbing his arm and rubbing it gently.

“Why do you think I left Akira with you? You were supposed to be together!”

“She wanted to go with you,” Hikaru answered, “What was I supposed to do about that? She wanted to be with you, so I let her.”

“You’re an idiot!” Ha-Ya-To frowned.

Takeshi threw up his hands. “Okay, hold on, what’s going on?”

Ha-Ya-To’s lips rose playfully, his golden eyes gleaming with glee. “Hikaru’s crushing on Akira!”

“WHAT?!” Hikaru sputtered slightly as Takeshi whistled and Ryo shot him an amused smirk. “I am not!”

“You so are! That’s why I tried to have Akira stay with you. I wanted you two to talk more without being in training or anything like that. As friends, not as a trainer-trainee pair.”

Hikaru forced a flush from his cheeks, immediately cooling down and adopting the air of calm leadership he donned so often. “You’re kidding, right? Me and Akira? Come on! What’s the first rule we learned about dating when we came into military? Never date your apprentice.”

Ha-Ya-To raised an eyebrow. “I thought the rule was that dating wasn’t allowed, period.”

Hikaru rolled his eyes. “It was an implied rule.”

“I always hated those implied rules. I could never tell if they were being serious or not.”

“Whatever the reason,” Hikaru snapped, “I don’t have a crush on Akira!”

“So it won’t matter if I dare you to ask her out to the Gathering next week?”

“WHAT?!” Hikaru nearly leapt out of his chair. He could feel his cheeks flaring in color, no matter how much he tried to hide it. “No way!!”

“It’s a dare,” Ha-Ya-To said with a smug expression. “You totally like her!”

Takeshi rubbed his chin, a smirk on his face. “You know, Hikaru, the more Ha-Ya-To says it, the more it sounds pretty accurate. I mean, you do spend a lot of time with her off training…”

“And you tend to spend your time with her in deep conversation,” Ryo put in. “Though I didn’t assume the day our fearless leader would take interest in a female would arrive so rapidly.”

“I DO NOT HAVE A CRUSH ON AKIRA!!” Hikaru practically screamed. By this time, his face was a cherry red. The other teenagers shot smirks at one another.

“Doesn’t excuse the fact that I dared you,” Ha-Ya-To said with a grin.

“Fine!” Hikaru snapped. “I’ll do your dare, but then I dare Ryo to sing in Ha-Ya-To’s microphone all over the city tomorrow right after lunch.”

Ryo’s face flushed a bright red, and he immediately began to sputter indignantly. “W-w-what?! Me, sing?! No way!!”

“Hey, if I have to do mine, you have to do yours.”

Ryo’s eyes grew cold. “Fine,” he said sharply, “then I dare Takeshi to read at least ten books by the end of the week.” He shot a glance at Takeshi. “Or you can use your books on tape. I’m not picky.”

Takeshi groaned. “Brainwork? I’m gonna have a serious headache. I’ll do it, but I dare Ha-Ya-To to sing a song for Hitomi at the Gathering in front of everyone, professing his love to her!”

Ha-Ya-To’s face drained of blood, leaving him pale in the fluorescent lighting from above. “Are you kidding?! She’s gonna kill me if I do that!”

“A dare’s a dare,” Takeshi said with a shrug.

The four teenagers stared at one another from around the table. All four had been dared. All four had to complete their dares unless something serious arose, of if the opportunity didn’t allow, which often happened. It was a game between them, the four most experienced pilots. But recently it had been changing from simply amusement to challenges. While some were pure fun, others were easily meant to make a statement, and that was exactly what Hikaru had felt had been pressed on him.

Hikaru snarled slightly to himself as he stood. “I’m going to bed. When you idiots are done, you can join me.”

Chapter 13:

Hitomi gave a deep sigh, sitting up in bed and glancing with squinted eyes at the bright red numbers glowing from her alarm clock. 1:54 a.m.. She huffed slightly and flopped back down in her bed.

She couldn’t figure out what had awoken her. The room was perfectly dark and toasty warm. She glanced around, curling up tighter. It must have just been a dream or something of the sort.

Then she heard it: a slight squeak. It sounded like wood, like something heavy was stepping on a weak board. She turned over and grunted. “Hey, Akira, is that you?”

The only sound that came from her roommate was the steady, slow breathing of deep sleep. Hitomi furrowed her brow slightly. Maybe she had just shifted wrong in her bed. The thin carpet couldn’t cover every sound.

Suddenly, the sound came again. Hitomi narrowed her eyes. She hadn’t moved at all that time. It wasn’t her. Slowly, she slid out from under her covers and dropped silently to the ground. She snuck across the room, her steps light and hardly making a noise. She pressed a thin hand against the door, feeling for pressure. None came to her touch. Whoever was out there must not have targeted their door.

It’s probably Aiko, she thought wearily. She always seems to sleepwalk at the oddest times…

Hitomi sighed and opened the door, glancing out. She felt the air leave her lungs, her eyes widening in shock. Out of the darkness glowed hundreds of sapphire gems. They all turned to face her.

Robots…in the dorms…

^_^

Hikaru was rudely awoken by the panic alarm.

There had been quite a few screw ups with that certain piece of technology. Buttons were placed in every room in order to alert the entire city that somewhere was under attack. There had been many updates after false alarms had been placed, such as the time Kenshin accidentally hit in when she was having a pillow fight, or when Ai had accidentally backed into it to get away from a spider. Needless to say, it hadn’t been pressed in a while.

The blue-haired pilot’s eyes snapped open and he was up instantly. A small wall insert flashed with light as, it seemed, the entire room screamed angrily. Hikaru flipped on the lights and stepped over to read it, yawning. It had to only be two in the morning. Hikaru hated being awoken at early hours.

“Whazzgoinon?” Ha-Ya-To muttered sleepily as he pulled himself up into a sitting position.

“Panic alarm,” Hikaru managed to say through yawns.

The girl’s dorm

Hikaru sighed. If this was another false alarm…“Computer, which dorm is under,” he paused for another yawn, “attack?”

The lights flashed again.

Hitomi Matsui and Akira Hamoto

Instantly, Hikaru was wide awake. Hitomi never pressed the panic alarm unless it was absolutely necessary, and Akira probably didn’t even know it was there. Besides, Hitomi knew how to hack into the panic system in case hers was accidentally pushed. Something was wrong…very wrong.

“We’ve got a code red in the girl’s dorm!” Hikaru said hurriedly, “Akira’s and Hitomi. We’re taking instant action. Grab your katana, Ha-Ya-To!”

Ha-Ya-To was on his feet in an instant, rummaging through the closet and throwing Hikaru’s katana to him. “Make sure Takeshi and Ryo are up,” Hikaru ordered, “we need to get up there now!”


Akira had never been so frightened in her life. She had no armor on, and was fighting as hard as she could. It felt odd to be fighting in a tank top and yoga pants as well, but if it would keep her alive, she was fine with it.

She dark-haired girl slammed her foot into one of the drones, taking it out. She was actually surprised at how easy it really was. The robot’s outer metal layer was thin and easily bendable. Hitomi did the same next to her, her fists flying in every direction as she took down drone after drone.

By this time, the entire dorm seemed to be fighting on the fifth floor. Females were attacking robots everywhere, dressed only in pajamas. A few had their katanas, which they used to slice through drones. The drones seemed to be in a state of mass confusion. They were unable to get through to the next level, as they were blocked by the ninja-like females of the Exo-Force, and seemed to have no knowledge of how to get back to where they had come from.

Thankfully, the Exo-Force training had done its job. Akira felt as fit as ever. Her flexibility was beyond compare to when she had first started. She weaved in and out of drones, taking them down easily. Her only real problem was that she had punched so much metal that her knuckles were starting to swell painfully. Despite the fact that the metal was thin, after a while, hitting anything had gown painful. She winced every time she made contact. So she tried to use her feet as well.

“Of all the days I forgot to bring my katana!” Hitomi snarled next to her, her hard punch taking out a drone’s eye completely and forcing it to retreat right into the blade of another girl.

“There’s way too many of them!” Olivia screeched next her. “Apparently, two other floors are in combat right now. How on earth are we going to take them all down?”

“We wait for backup,” Hitomi growled, “which should be arriving—.”

“RIGHT NOW!!” A massive person barreled into the hallway, taking out about for drones in the process. He whirled around, his large fists making contact with a drone and putting its face completely inside out.

“Takeshi!” Hitomi sounded as though she had never been so happy to see the green-haired trainer.

“Top of the morning to you, Hitomi!” Ha-Ya-To flipped over a nearby robot and stabbed it dramatically before moving on.

Akira watched in amazement as the Dream Team arrived. Takeshi took out about five drones a second, while Ha-Ya-To and Hikaru were back to back, stabbing and whirling wildly in a double team. Ryo was all strategy. He must have known exactly how the robots all worked, because he drew back into boxing position and only hit the robots in certain areas, but as he did so, the robots dropped the ground, powerless. It was like pressure points on a person.

A robot suddenly came up behind Akira, which she kicked in the jaw and punched in the arm. She suddenly gasped, pulling back as a sharp pain entered her fingers. She held back a shriek, clutching her throbbing fingers closer to her.

The distraction was enough. A robot slammed a metal arm against her, the force enough to cause her to fly back. She slammed into the wall behind her, gasping in pain. The robot advanced, sapphire eyes gleaming.

Suddenly, it stopped, the point of a sword erupting from its middle. It fell to the ground, revealing Hikaru standing behind it. His blue eyes gleamed in the fluorescent light. “You okay?”

Akira pursed her lips together and nodded, trying not to scream out in pain.

“Good.” He glanced around, his eyes resting on Hitomi and Takeshi, who were taking out the last two drones. The floor was covered with wires and parts. Akira was suddenly worried about walking through it. She and the other girls were barefoot.

There had to be at least forty females and ten males in the hallway at this point, all breathing heavily and looking down with disdain at the parts of robots on the floor. Akira took the time now to inspect the people who had come to the rescue. All of them were in their pajamas, not having had time to change. All of the males were shirtless and wore pajama pants and nothing more. Many of them held katanas and other various weapons.

Hitomi put her hands on her hips. “Well, you couldn’t have come any sooner, huh?”

“Cut us some slack!” Ha-Ya-To said with a laugh. “Some of us have a hard time actually waking up in the morning, especially when it’s only around two o’clock.”

Hitomi glanced back in the room. “Only two-thirty now. That was a short battle.”

Takeshi shrugged, cracking his knuckles. “Well, we are the most powerful of them all!”

“Arrogant much, Takeshi?” Akira managed a laugh through her pain.

The green-haired pilot shot a glance at her, immediately noticing something was wrong. “What’s up with your hand?”

Akira finally took the time to look at her injured hand. The skin was red and raw, which wasn’t surprising. But her index and middle fingers were both bent at an odd angle. Akira felt her stomach churn in anxiety. What had happened? Were they broken? She didn’t have time to deal with broken fingers.

Ryo stepped over to her, gently taking her hand in his. With his headband off, his violet hair was shaggy in his eyes. He looked rather cute, really, Akira noticed. It wasn’t a bad look, though she assumed that the hair in the face was a menace when working.

“You’ve dislocated them,” he said rather bluntly. “Stay very still.”

He hardly gave her enough time to try to be prepared before he took her fingers in one hand and snapped them back into place. Akira bit back a scream as pain laced up her arm, causing all of her muscles to clench.

Akira cradled her hand against her, holding back tears. Ryo seemed to find no problem with what he had just done, merely standing up and heading back to his team.

Hikaru was checking in with everyone, making sure no one was seriously injured. He stood in the middle of the room. “Ha-Ya-To,” he said over the crowd of muttering people, “take a squadron of guys around the city. I want the entire place checked over, no exceptions. If you don’t have enough people, wake them up. Ryo, split up all the male techies you can find and start a search around the walls. If there are any breaches, I want to know about it. Everyone else, we’ll be staying here and cleaning up for the girls so they can sleep. Anyone got a problem with that?” His gaze was furious enough that it seemed no one dared to argue.

“Good,” he nodded. “Females, back to your rooms. We’ll handle this.”

The women did so, trailing back to their separate dorms with mutters of thanks. Akira stayed in her seated position, watching for Hitomi. The black-haired trainer stood with the four male leaders, watching the other girls go. After all the doors had been closed, the men all let out sighs of exhaustion. Akira felt like joining them. Her head was ringing angrily at her.

Hitomi glanced back at her roommate. “Hey, AK, you can head to bed if you want. I’m going to stay up and help the guys clean all of this.”

Akira struggled to her feet, sighing. “I’ll help to. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep after this.”

“You should go to bed, Akira,” Hikaru said, stepping forward, arms crossed over his bare chest.

Akira swallowed. “But, shouldn’t I be—.”

“That’s an order, Akira,” Hikaru said sharply. “You need your rest. We can handle all of this.”

The dark-haired girl wanted to argue back that she was just as tough as they were, but the throbbing in her hand made her stop. She bit her lip and winced, finally nodding and heading back to the room.

With the door closed behind her, the room was just as dark as it had been before. And the warmth was the same. Akira slid back into her covers, setting her head down on the pillow and sighing briefly.

I’m never getting back to bed, am I? That was way too exciting! I’m probably high on adrenaline or something…

In less than two minutes, she was out like a light.


The guys weren’t at breakfast the next morning. Hitomi was sleeping in as well. This left the trainees to fend for themselves. It was odd now to Akira to eat breakfast at another table. She had grown so used to being at a senior table that sitting anywhere else felt awkward. Other females stared at her and whispered when she passed by. Akira flushed, and continued walking.

Olivia plopped down next to her, setting her food in front of her. “You as tired as you look?”

Akira yawned. “Maybe,” she smiled. “Last night’s…incident wasn’t exactly good for my brain.”

“Agreed!” Kiku came and sat across from Akira, sipping on a protein shake. “I was so hyped up on adrenaline that I couldn’t sleep. I might even take a nap this afternoon, just to catch up.”

Of all the trainees, Akira probably knew Kiku and Taiki the least. Kiku, now that she looked at her, was probably in her early twenties. Her hair was short and a reddish tone, and would have been rather pretty if it hadn’t been cut in the messy way it was. Akira wondered if a buzz cut was next.

“You got a nasty screw up with your hand last night, right?” She asked.

Akira held up her right hand. It was annoying that it had been her dominant hand that had gotten injured, but it was healing alright. The muscles and joints were sore, but better off than the night before. At least they weren’t out of place anymore. “Yeah. But it’s not too bad. It’ll be fine by tomorrow. So, where are you all going for holidays?”

“Back home,” Olivia said immediately as she sipped on a shake. “I’m gonna visit my family and probably go on vacation to the States again.”

Kiku shrugged her broad shoulders. “Some friends of mine are going on a backpacking trip and invited me. We’ll celebrate on a mountain peak.”

Akira laughed. “Sounds like fun!”

“It should be. So what about you?”

“Oh me?” Akira took a huge mouthful of bread. “I didn’t set anything up, so I’m here.”

Olivia blinked in sympathy. “You could always come with me to America!”

“That’s okay,” Akira said with a smile. “Anyways, holidays start in a few days; I could never impose. Anyways, I’ll be training. I can always use more pract—.”

SO DON’T YOU WORRY YOUR PRETTY LITTLE MIND!!!

The lunch room practically jumped into the air in surprise at the burst of song. Many people covered their ears, others shouted in shock. Akira felt her heart begin to race for a moment as she tried to control her breathing. “What the—.”

“Oh that’s just Ha-Ya-To,” Olivia interrupted with a grin, “he must be in the showers right now. He loves Taylor Swift in the morning. I wouldn’t be surprised if he just got up.”

“Good guess, but not quite.”

The three females all whirled around to gaze at the redhead walking towards them. His hair was wet, though still an absolute mess of form. He grinned wildly at them. “Five points to Hufflepuff, Ms. Harding, for effort, but I’ll have to take some away for the incorrect answer.”

“It wasn’t you?” Akira asked, curiosity filling her mind. “Who else has a magical microphone that connects to every speaker in the city?”

Ha-Ya-To grinned and held a finger to his lips. “I’ll tell you if the situation arises, but if not, it’s my secret to keep.” He sat down in between Olivia and Akira. “So, how are you fine ladies doing this morning?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be asleep?” Kiku asked with a raised eyebrow.

Ha-Ya-To shrugged. “I have way too much energy to sleep now. Anyways, after last night’s excitement, I’m not getting any sleep until this afternoon at least. But I’ll need the energy for the Gathering tomorrow night.”

“There’s a Gathering tomorrow night?” Olivia said with delight, “Oooh, right before everyone leaves for holidays?”

“You got that right,” Ha-Ya-To said with a wink. “It’s kind of like a dinner dance, but it’ll be after dinner so we’ll have appetizers or something like that, and a dance floor and stuff like that. Regular time, regular place. But this is a formal event, so you all had better wear something nice!”

Something nice? Akira thought for a moment. Do I have anything formal? I wasn’t exactly expecting to be going to dances in the military…She would have to check her closet later. “So,” she asked, “what was up with what happened last night?”

Ha-Ya-To shrugged. “Actually, I’m not sure. We checked the entire city, and there's no sign of a breach anywhere. In fact, none of the guards saw anything either. We had battle machines at all the entrances, but that didn’t keep the drones from heading straight to the girls’ dorm room. The only issue is the fact that the battle machines watching the front gate somehow managed to let over eighty drones into the city without knowing.”

“Odd,” Kiku said slowly, narrowing her eyes.

“That’s what I said!” Ha-Ya-to nodded. “Well, I’ll leave you ladies to your breakfast. Have a wonderful day as the rest of us snooze away!”

The redhead left the mess hall, yawning and stretching his arms out. Despite his perky nature, Akira had to admit he looked tired. She hadn’t ever seen her trainer look more exhausted, in fact. Akira felt a little guilty, seeing as she hadn’t done anything to help clean up, but Hikaru had told her to go to bed.

Still, that didn’t keep her from feeling a little bad. Hitomi had helped out, so why hadn’t she just staked her place and helped out? She wanted to help people out. That was why she had joined the military. It was a no-win situation. On the one hand, she would have been defying orders if she had stayed, but would have been totally exhausted. On the other, she went to bed but felt guilty. She had no answer for her problem, so she stabbed her fork into her plate of food and ate thoughtfully.

She listened in vaguely to Olivia and Kiku’s conversation, but she wasn’t paying all that much attention. She was thinking about the gathering…


Akira sat in her room, inspecting the area around her. She glanced down at her bed, looking at the beautiful silver dress laid out for her.

This was the night.

She was going to tell Ha-Ya-To just how much she liked him.

If only it was that simple, she thought with a sigh.

The thing was, she had spent over four months every single day with this person, and every day she found herself more and more attracted to him. He was handsome, funny, clever, and he really seemed to enjoy being around her. She could picture him in her mind, her cheeks flushing slightly as she did so. Ha-Ya-To…

Slowly, she began to dress herself. The dress on her bed wasn’t actually hers, as it belonged to her roommate. But she already knew it was perfect. The silvery material was sheer and silky. It was sleeveless and had a neat, v-neck neckline and the bottom came down to her knees. It was tight in all the right places and flattered her immensely. She inspected herself in front of the mirror, sliding her feet into a pair of black, strappy heels and tying her crystal necklace around her neck. With her hair down, she thought she looked almost sexy…a good look when trying to attract a man, at least she hoped.

“Hey, you ready in there?” Hitomi’s voice came from the other side of the door.

“Be right there!” Akira called back, sliding a pair of hoop earrings on and inspecting herself one last time before grabbing her coat and leaving the room.

Hitomi looked absolutely beautiful, Akira thought, with her long pine green dress coming down to her ankles and accenting her curves in an extremely flattering way. She wore nude pumps and her sleeves came down to her forearms, covering most of her muscular arms. She didn’t wear any jewelry, but Akira wasn’t surprised actually. Jewelry would have looked odd on the trainer who never wore anything more jewelry like than her intercom watch.

“You look great!” Hitomi said with a smile. “I told you that dress would work! I never wear it anymore. How about I give it to you for a Christmas present?”

“You mean it?” Akira said in delight, pulling on her coat. “Thank you so much! When you get back from holidays, I’ll give you your gift. I don’t have it yet.”

Hitomi waved the comment away as they walked down the hallway. “Don’t worry about it.”

They walked across the clearing quietly, watching as other teens came slinking out of the dorms and following in suit. It seemed that everyone was coming. Akira couldn’t help but stare at some of the dresses other girls had. Some of them were absolutely stunning. Had they brought them from home, or was there actually a place to buy things like that in the city? She would have to ask some of them later.

They entered the building without much difficulty. The password had been changed by that point, but thankfully Hitomi knew it (“melody in my head”) and they were let in, though Akira suspected they would have been anyways.

Akira gasped as they entered the room. What had once been a room for pop music, karaoke, and dancing, and at another a place for building and repairing battle machines, had been changed once again. Tables were set neatly everywhere, everything colored in the crisp colors of black and white. Everything looked professional, almost serious. Couples mingled around, some of the men wearing suits and others in complete tuxedos. Akira found it all very neat and nice, almost calming. Even the stage made out of crates was there, but had been covered with a black cloth, making it look as though it actually belonged there. The lights that had been strung up before were gone, having been replaced with nets of white lights, lighting the room with a warm glow. Candles glowed on each of the tables.

“It’s so…professional,” she said quietly.

Hitomi smiled. “Yeah. When the guys pull it together, they can really do some amazing stuff.”

“Yeah,” Akira breathed, gazing around. “This is beautiful.”

Hitomi nodded. “Well, I’m going to go and wander around some, see if I can get a drink or something. I’m parched! Enjoy!” She walked slowly off. Akira watched her go.

“Would you like something to eat?”

Akira nearly jumped at the voice. She blinked slightly, gazing up at the person in front of her. “Hey, I know you!”

The young man let out a grin. “You do? Wow, that’s impressive! I’ve only talked to you once before.”

Akira smiled. She definitely knew him. He had short, reddish hair and sparkling green eyes. He was only in his mid-twenties or so. But it was true, the trainee had only seen him once. He was the man who had taken her bags on her first day of training. “It’s good to see you again, even if I don’t know your name. I’m Akira Hamoto.”

“My name’s Aedan Carmody,” he said, shaking her hand. “It’s a pleasure to see you again, Akira. Now, do you want something to eat?”

Akira glanced down, picking up a small piece of chocolate and munching on it, smiling. “Thanks! Hey, I was wondering, have you seen Ha-Ya-To?”

The young man thought for a moment. “Last I checked, he was messing around in the back with some wiring, though I’m not sure why. Why do you ask?”

Akira felt her cheeks flush slightly. “Oh, no reason really. I just wanted to thank him for inviting me.”

“Oh, well, I hope you find him! Have a great night!” He said as he stepped back into the crowd.

The dark-haired girl weaved in and out of couples as she made her way across the room. She stopped a few times to look at them. She only vaguely recognized a few of them. She caught sight of Olivia with a young man, both drinking what appeared to be luminescent drinks.

I really hope those aren’t alcoholic…she thought with a sudden worry in her chest. That would definitely make the night more interesting.

“Is everyone having a good night?”

Akira stopped in her tracks, staring up at the stage as a massive voice boomed out over the speakers. Everyone stopped what they were doing and applauded for the redhead on stage. Ha-Ya-To gave a bow, laughing slightly as the crowd cheered. He wore a tux, like the other male members of the Dream Team, and his vest and tie were just as red as his hair. Akira swallowed, not able to stop herself from staring. He looked so handsome…

“Well, first of all,” he said, “I’d like to thank the amazing Ryo Hayashi for allowing us the use of his workshop once again. Please give him a huge round of applause.” The crowd clapped as Ha-Ya-To lead Ryo onto stage for a bow, which he did rather hurriedly and awkwardly.

“And then, of course, we can’t forget our wonderful heavy labor guy, Takeshi Kurokawa, for helping bring everything into here for us to use…like the bar and the tables and the lights and all that. So a huge round of applause for Takeshi, please!” The crowd happily obliged as Takeshi took a bow.

“And last but not least, for our coordinator who makes everything work out right, our illustrious leader, Hikaru Matsuoka!” The crowd whooped and cheered as Hikaru took the stage and took a quick bow before stepping back down.

Ha-Ya-To whirled his microphone in his hands a few times as he waited for the crowd to calm down. When they did so, he gave a grin and allowed his words to once again boom out over the warehouse. “Well, tonight we have something very special. For the first half an hour of tonight, we’ll be having an open mike time. After this will be more instrumental music for all you lovebirds to dance to. But during this time, you can come up and sing or do poetry or anything of the sort. Just make it from your heart.”

Akira swallowed. An open mike? This could be her chance to tell Ha-Ya-To just how much she liked him! Maybe if she could find a piece of paper, she could write a poem or something…

“So, who wants to go first?” Ha-Ya-To glanced around at the crowd.

A single hand raised, though Akira wasn’t sure whose it was. “You should!”

Immediately, the crowd was agreeing. Ha-Ya-To flushed slightly and waved his hands over to shush them. “Are you sure?”

Screams of approval erupted in the room, Akira joining in. Seeing Ha-Ya-To do something would be fun! He always seemed to have something creative up his sleeve.

Finally, the young man gave a sigh, putting his microphone on a stand. “Okay, fine! How about a song for all of you?”

The approval was deafening.

Ha-Ya-To threw his hands up. “Okay, okay! Ryo, my guitar please.” He waited as the instrument was handed up to him, and he settled himself on a chair, strumming a few chords before adjusting the microphone. “Alright. Well, for all of you out there that don’t know, I’m a huge Taylor Swift nut,” the crowd laughed as he continued. “So, I decided to write a parody of one of her popular songs for someone I really care about. I’ve been messing with it for some time, and trying to make it work. It’s still a bit rough, but it is from the heart, so I guess that’s what counts, right? So, without further ado, “Love Story”, a Taylor Swift parody for the one girl I’ll ever love…”

Akira sucked in her breath sharply.

“…Hitomi Matsui.”

The crowd erupted into screams of excitement. Akira felt her knees suddenly go weak. Wait…Hitomi…?

Ha-Ya-To began playing a catchy tune on the guitar, brining the microphone close. “We were both young when I first saw you. I close my eyes and the flashback starts. I’m standing there, in the Training room in stuffy air. See the lights, see the robots, the armor. I see you make your way though the crowd, not say hello. Little did I know…that I was Romeo, I was fighting robots, and Sensei said to stay away from Hitomi! And I was smashing things to bits, just begging you for a battle. And I said, Hitomi, I’ll take you somewhere we can be alone. I’ll be waiting. All there’s left to do is go! I’ll be the prince and you’ll be the princess. It’s a love story, Hitomi just say yes!”

The crowd went wild with cheers and screams rom girls. Apparently, Hitomi and Ha-Ya-To must have been a popular pairing, because everyone seemed to love it.

Everyone except Akira.

The dark-haired girl felt her breath catch in her chest. But…this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. She could hardly hear the next verse. It was as though her hearing had suddenly stopped working. Her world seemed to be going in slow motion. Slowly, she sucked in a breath, making her way through the crowd to the door. She noticed Hikaru standing at the edge of the crowd, catching sight of her and turning. She pushed by him. She couldn’t let anyone see her like this.

The tears didn’t start falling until she was in the hallway of the fifth floor of the girl’s dorms. But once they started, they didn’t stop. Her movements became almost frantic as she opened her door and rushed into her room. The door slammed behind her, and she leaned against it, trying her hardest to stifle the sobs beginning to bubble from her chest.

She ripped her shoes and her dress off and slid into her bed without bothering to change into anything else. She was hoping the warmth would calm her down, but the darkness only put her mind on hyperdrive. All her thoughts, everything she could possibly think of, had to do with Ha-Ya-To.

How could I not notice…he’s in love with Hitomi…why am I such an idiot? He’s in love with someone else…he doesn’t love you…get over him…get over him…WHY?! Why didn’t I notice? I’m so…so…

“Akira?”

The dark-haired girl sat straight up in her bed at the call of her name, turning to her door. It was opened slightly, and Hikaru stood halfway into the room. She could only tell from the outline from the hallway light. It was too dark to see his face. “Are you okay?” He asked quietly, his voice hardly above a whisper. She didn’t even think about how Hikaru had gotten into her room without the proper keycard. He was the leader. He could do things like that.

Akira tried to tell him she was fine, that she had left the party for some reason like a headache or an aching stomach, but the words wouldn’t come. She opened and closed her mouth, but her throat closed to such a point that if she managed any words at all, they would be drowned out by the sound of her sobbing. So she kept silent.

She watched as Hikaru entered the room and closed the door behind him. She hurriedly grabbed her robe from her bed stand and threw it over herself, already feeling rather awkward, but she couldn’t tell Hikaru to leave, not without bursting into tears.

Akira felt her bed strain slightly as Hikaru sat on the end. “Are you okay?” he repeated.

His voice was so calm that Akira nearly burst into tears right there. But somehow she managed to get her voice back. “I’m fine,” she choked out. “I’m just…I’m…I just left to go to bed, that’s all.”

“Akira…what’s wrong?”

The dark-haired girl wanted to tell Hikaru, she really did. But she just couldn’t bring herself to admit just how much she liked Ha-Ya-To, and how much it hurt her to see him sing to someone else. She couldn’t explain why, but it was humiliating to try to explain.

“I’m fine,” she managed. “I just need to sleep right now.”

Hikaru was silent for a good minute before Akira felt the pressure on her bed lift. The door slowly opened and Akira saw Hikaru’s shape once again outlined by the light. “If you need anything, I’m here.” And with that, the door closed and Hikaru left.

Akira laid back slowly on her bed, feeling the hot tears drip down her cheeks. It felt like hours before she fell asleep, but she did so, the tune of Taylor Swift’s “Love Song” still playing painfully in her mind.

 

Chapter 14:

Thwack.

Head up, shoulders high.

Thwack.

Remember, you’re only as good as your abilities.

Thwack.

Work out your anger, your hurt, everything that’s on your mind. Remember…

Akira could feel the sweat pouring down her face as she slammed her fists into the punching bag. Her breathing was hard, her throat nearly closed. Anxiety clouded her thoughts more, a feeling worse than the sting in her fingers.

It was odd to be in the training room without anyone else. Many of the soldiers were off duty at the moment, spending time with their families. The silence was almost haunting. The young girl felt as though she needed some noise to keep her mind off of things. Everything hurt: her hands, her feet, and her heart.

Ha-Ya-To, Hitomi, and Takeshi had all left early that morning for their families, though Takeshi was still nearby in the city. Akira had woken up feeling worse than on the day she had left her family for the Exo-Force, which was saying a lot. Her stomach churned, barely able to keep down food at breakfast. After she had managed to swallow a few bites of toast, she had hit the gym.

Groaning, she pounded her fists over and over into the bag. But images of the night before kept flashing in her mind. Her breathing quickened, her anxiety rising, and she nearly screamed as she pounded faster and faster.

“If you keep that up, you’ll burn yourself out.”

Akira’s breath caught in her throat, her fists stopping in mid punch. She turned slowly, breathing hard as she looked to her trainer. Hikaru stood at the door, leaning against the jamb and watching her with curious eyes.

The dark-haired girl swallowed, stepping back from the mat and slowing her breathing as she unwrapped her palms. She sighed. “I know. But when I was little, I got so upset that my brothers took me to a gym and had me exercise until I could hardly move. Now, it’s how I keep in shape and work out my problems.” She stepped over to him, looking up into his blue eyes. “I didn’t expect anyone else to come into here.”

Hikaru shrugged, dropping his duffel bag to the ground. “I like to keep in shape on my off days as well as my working ones. How long have you been in here?”

“About four hours,” Akira said slowly, pulling a towel from a rack and wiping her face of sweat. “I’ve just…needed to think through some things—.”

“About Ha-Ya-To?” Hikaru raised an eyebrow.

Akira turned around sharply. “What about him?”

“Nothing,” Hikaru shot her a small smile. “Hey, what do you say we spar a bit?”

Akira narrowed her eyes. “What about Ha-Ya-To? What do you know?” She hadn’t told Hikaru anything the night before, and she never told anyone about her crush on Ha-Ya-To, except for Rina and Minako. But Akira’s two friends wouldn’t just go blabbing about her to her trainer. It didn’t make sense.

“Let’s spar a bit, and then we can talk. I need the exercise.”

He dark-haired girl let out an exasperated sigh, but stepped onto the mat, throwing the towel over by her bags. Because she was on break, she wasn’t required to wear her flight suit, so she had donned a sports tank and a pair of track shorts. She had grown so used to her hair being pulled back that she had it back in her now usual neat ponytail. Tennis shoes had replaced her boots. She felt unusually light in her movements, without the extra weight on.

Hikaru smiled and set his things down, pulling off his t-shirt and kicking off his shoes, which left him in his long, thin pants. He stood on the mat next to her. “What are the rules?”

“No head-foot contact,” Akira said immediately. “Besides that, nothing.”

Hikaru raised an eyebrow. “That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

The trainer nodded slightly. “Alright, if that’s what you want.”

“Yeah.”

The two of them stood still on the mat, gazes locked. Akira looked deeply into the young man’s eyes, her breathing slowing as she allowed her body to relax as far it could. It felt like minutes.

Finally, she couldn’t take it any longer. She threw herself at the blue-haired young man, slamming her hand down. Hikaru’s movements were effortless, holding up his arm and blocking, while using his other to slap Akira in the side of the head. The girl bit back a cry of pain as she launched again, kicking sharply upwards. But Hikaru simply moved out of the way, using his elbow to slam into Akira’s back and sending the girl tumbling to the mat.

“Your movements are sloppy,” he snapped, “You’re better than this!”

Akira jumped to her feet, attacking Hikaru once again. But if anything, the longer the battle went on, the easier it seemed Hikaru had it. Compared to Akira’s choppy movements, his movements were like a sea lion in the ocean. He blocked her attacks effortlessly, hardly moving at all as he did so. Akira found herself again and again on the floor, leaping to her feet. She wasn’t sure what was fueling her energy, but she was slowly beginning to fail. Hikaru wasn’t even breathing hard. He was playing with her, merely slap-boxing. It made Akira angry, as though he weren’t taking her seriously, but she couldn’t do anything about it. Even without fighting hard, he was still beating her.

Akira slammed back into the ground, panting. She hurt all over, her ears ringing from the times Hikaru had smacked her. Slowly, she stood, but stepped over to the wall and sat against it. It was as though her energy was gone. Where had been, sadness only was. It felt as though she were ripping herself in two.

She looked up as she felt movement next to her. Hikaru sighed slightly as he sat next to her, watching her. She felt his hand gently rest on her knee. “Hey,” he murmured, “AK, what’s up? I know you can do better than that.”

Akira swallowed hard, feeling a knot in her throat. “I…I know. I just…”

Hikaru nodded. “Ha-Ya-To, right?”

“What about him?” Akira pinched her lips tightly, her words quick.

“I know that you like him, a lot. And that last night he practically proposed to Hitomi.”

The knot grew larger. “What about it?”

“Akira,” his voice was soothing. “I’m not stupid. I know the way you look at him, the way you act when he’s around.”

Akira took a sharp breath, holding back tears. Don’t cry…you cried all last night, you don’t need to any more, and he doesn’t need to see you cry. You held it back last night when he was around, just hold it back now… “Hikaru,” she asked quietly, “have you ever seen a person who you really like…look at someone else the way you look at them…and wishing they would look at you in that way?”

Hikaru blinked slightly, pausing for a moment. “Well…yeah. Just about every day, really.”

“You do?” Akira said, surprised.

Her trainer nodded. “Yeah…” he let out a long breath, “See…I kind of like this girl…but she likes someone else.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” Hikaru said, looking slightly embarrassed. “I see her every day, and we talk a lot. But she doesn’t…she doesn’t know I like her, because she’s always looking at someone else.” He broke off, looking at the floor. “I’m not even sure how to talk to her.”

Akira cocked her head slightly. “You’re not just going to tell her you like her?”

“I don’t want to confuse her in any way. I feel like she just needs time to think over us even being a possibility. I just don’t know when that will actually happen.”

The girl shot him a small smile. “Who am I to judge? I can’t even tell one pilot that I like him. But this girl doesn’t even know you like her?”

Hikaru gave a short laugh. “No. She just…needs time. I don’t think it’s ever really crossed her mind that we might make a good pair.”

“Well, I hope she figures it out, for your sake. Is she nice?”

Hikaru smiled slightly. “Yeah…she’s great. She’s really smart, and sweet…”

“Is she pretty?”

“Definitely. She’s prettier than any girl I know.”

Akira smiled. “Well, I hope she figures out you exist soon. You deserve a great girl.”

The blue-haired trainer shot her a grateful smile back.

Akira sighed, leaning back against the hard, cinderblock wall. “It’s funny, but all I can think about now is how Rina’s going to have a fit when I tell her I’m not getting together with Ha-Ya-To.”

“Who’s Rina?”

“A friend of mine from my old school,” she explained. “I’ve been in contact with her and my friend Minako since I left. They’ve been trying to get me together with Ha-Ya-To since they first met him.” She tipped her head back to stare at the ceiling. “Dang, I miss them! I wonder what they’re up to now. Maybe Rina finally got that boyfriend she wanted. And Minako could actually be on student council. I bet Sora’s knee deep in study material. He must hate university so much! And Kenji probably locked himself in his room until he finished his newest design. He’s always worked harder than all of us put together.” She sighed. “Sorry, I’m rambling now.”

“No,” Hikaru said hurriedly, “it’s fine! Are Sora and Kenji guys you know?”

“My older brothers,” she said. “Sora’s in university studying to be a scientist of some sort, some kind of electrical engineer. Kenji’s a contractor, like my father. They spend most of their time working with the military, though Kenji’s always fancied himself a designer as well.”

Hikaru gave a half-smile. “They sound nice.”

Akira nodded. “Yeah. They’re great, but they’re usually busy, which is why I didn’t head home for the holidays. What about you, though? Why didn’t you head home to your family?”

The blue-haired pilot’s gaze wandered across the room as he let out a small sigh. After what seemed like forever, he turned back. “They’re dead.”

Akira sucked in a breath, managing a small “oh”. She swallowed hard, looking down. “I’m sorry.”

Hikaru’s words were soft. “Yeah, I am too. It happened almost three years ago, but…well…I’m learning to live with it.” The young man stood and stepped over to the balance beam in the room, starting a series of complicated movements on it. “It got me here.”

“Here?”

“In the Exo-Force. I had nowhere else to go to. See, the day my family was killed was the same day the robot rebellion started.”

Akira blinked. “Really?” She paused for a moment. “If…if you don’t mind my asking…how did they die?”

Hikaru did a neat flip on the beam, landing with a huff of breath. How he was so concentrated while telling her a story was amazing. “My father was a robotics designer. He designed the drones and the original mining bots that became battle machines for the robots. Everything worked perfectly, and he even got me a job there, letting me help break in the robots and making sure they were working correctly. He only had one flaw: all of the robots had specific programming microchips placed in them to keep them under control, but all the chips were programmed under one computer. So when one stopped working, all of them crashed. That was how the rebellion started.”

He sighed as he flipped into a back walkover. “It only took one malfunction, one single screw up, and the whole program was destroyed. Can you guess which robot was the one that rebelled first?”

“…Meca One?”

Hikaru’s face tightened, though whether it was from concentration or anger, Akira wasn’t sure. “Yeah, he was the one. All the robots in the building, being shipped, and in the mines sudden went crazy. And in the process, the building my father worked in was destroyed. My mother and my sister were there at the time, coming to see the final preparations for the new robot designs. I was one of the few that survived the collapse. Even now I’m not sure how.”

He grabbed hold of the balance beam, holding himself into a neat handstand for a few seconds. “I searched for them for hours and hours on end, until the medics came and forced me to stop. They carried as many of the dead bodies out as they could…including my family’s.” He stopped his routine and turned to look directly into Akira’s eyes. “I hope you never know what it’s like to watch any of your siblings be covered in a white cloth and know they would never wake up.”

Akira swallowed down tears, a knot forming in her throat. Such deep, raw sadness echoed off the walls around her. Hikaru’s voice wasn’t choked, nor was it rough, but the pain behind it was horrid to the trainee. Pain laced with every word. His eyes were pools of aching sadness. Akira had to force her voice not to shake. “I…I’m sorry I asked…” She felt selfish, complaining to Hikaru about her problems about Ha-Ya-To when he was still dealing with the death of his entire family.

Hikaru shook his head. “It’s alright. Most people are curious. When they hear I’m half-Canadian, they want to know about my family, and…well…questions lead to questions.”

Akira nearly smiled, remembering her first day, back when Takeshi had told her of Hikaru’s parentage. It wasn’t obvious at all. Hikaru looked almost completely Japanese to her. “Do you take off your father? You don’t look all that Canadian.”

Hikaru shrugged. “My mother was Canadian, and my father Japanese. My mom was slim, blonde, and very pretty. My father was more broad-shouldered, older, and rigid. I take a lot after my mother, except, apparently, for my Japanese look.”

“Why did you join the Exo-Force? Was it just because you had nowhere to go to after…after the rebellion?”

“My family was actually pretty rich, so I did have a home, but it wasn’t where I wanted to be. It was too big and too empty, too filled with memories. Every time I looked around the rooms, I could see my sister running across the marble floors…my mother making food in the kitchen…even my father in his study working…” he breathed deeply, doing a single handspring. “So when I heard about the Operation Exo-Force starting up to battle the robots, I realized that maybe I needed a goal in my life, something to shoot for, something to help me get my mind off of things. And I was ready to do just about anything to finish what my father started. I basically decided it was my duty to destroy the robots, as my family had started the whole mess. So, I sold my house and donated the money to the start-up of the new Exo-Force, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Akira nodded. “I guess it makes sense, knowing you and all. You seem like the kind of person who finishes what they start.”

“Well, I try,” Hikaru grunted, pulling a few back handsprings before flipping onto the mat below him. He brushed his hands off, shooting Akira a smile. “You ready for lunch?”

The dark-haired girl nodded. “I don’t think I’d be able to fight you anyways, not after that.”

Hikaru rolled his eyes. “Don’t let that last for long. I don’t need pity, Akira, just a strong team to back me up.”

“Well,” Akira saluted, “I’ll try to be part of that, at least.”


“You mind if I sit here?”

Akira shot her head up, glancing up at the young boy before her. She had noticed how much Kouta had been growing lately, his face already far more defined than when she had last talked to him. But then again, their paths didn’t cross all that much.

She scooted over slightly, making room. “Sure…if you’re sure you don’t want to eat with the techies.”

Kouta shrugged, blinking his large, dark eyes. “They’re boring, really. All they ever do is talk about spare parts.”

Akira raised an eyebrow. “And you talk about your video games.”

The young teenager cracked a smile. “Touché.” He sat down next to Akira, eating his soup almost meticulously. Akira almost rolled her eyes. Typical techie, being as perfection-bound as he was. He and Ryo seemed to have a lot in common, though from what she had heard, they annoyed each other quite a bit. Ryo was incredibly particular and Kouta was as well. Unfortunately, their ideas often clashed.

“So,” he said suddenly, “how has life been treating you? I heard you left the Gathering early.”

“Can we just not talk about it? It’s not exactly one of my high points in life.”

Kouta pinched his small lips together, his brown hair falling shaggily in front of his cheeks. “Fine.” He turned back to his meal.

Akira sighed. “I’m sorry, Kouta. I just really don’t want to talk about it. It doesn’t make me feel all that good about myself.”

“Why not?” The boy asked, raising an eyebrow. “You think you’re not good enough for him?”

How does he know anything about who it is?! “Well…not exactly…”

“Lies,” the boy narrowed his eyes. “You think that because he isn’t dating you, you’re obviously not good enough. You’re wrong. Just because you’re attracted to him doesn’t mean he has to be attracted to you. It’s not that you’re not attractive, but maybe he likes other girls better, because their personality mixes with his in a certain way that he finds appealing. It’s not you, it’s him, alright?”

Akira blinked. “I think that’s the longest I’ve ever heard you talk.”

The boy shrugged. “I tell it like it is.”

The dark-haired girl sighed. “It’s just been a rough time for me. I’ve stressed out and…” she suddenly paused. “Hey…Kouta…you’re really smart, right?”

He raised an eyebrow, swallowing another spoonful of soup. “Depends. What do you need help with?”

“This.” Akira reached down into her bag and, grunting, pulled out her golden brick. She still hadn’t been able to crack it. She hefted it onto the table, setting it next to Kouta. “How are you at code breaking?”

Kouta dropped his spoon and immediately picked up the golden brick, inspecting it all over. His long fingers flipped it around, his eyes scrolling over the letters and numbers on the front over and over. His eyes narrowed. “I can run a few tests, I suppose. I’ve got nothing better to do on break, so I might as well enjoy a bit of code breaking.” He held up the brick. “You mind if I borrow this for a while?”

Akira nodded. “Not at all.”

Chapter 15:

“You were good out there,” Hikaru said, nodding his head in Akira’s direction.

The girl flushed slightly. “For my first assignment, I’d say it went pretty well, don’t you?”

“You’re a good shot.”

Akira held up her hand in front of her, mimicking a gun. “I’m not sure why, but I like the feeling of something like that in my hand. It’s comforting to know that I can actually shoot something myself, and not wait for someone else to save me.” She gave an embarrassed laugh. “Though, if it was me against another human, I might not have the same thought.”

Hikaru shrugged. “Be glad we’re in a fight against robots and not living beings. You’re a good flier too.”

Akira’s smile fell slightly as the two continued walking through the city. “Ha-Ya-To taught me well.” She paused slightly. “So…have you been in contact with anyone since they left?”

Hikaru shook his head, dropping his bags on the ground. “Day four and I haven’t heard from them, which is usually a good sign. Ha-Ya-To’s probably enjoying his little brother to death, and Hitomi’s probably out exploring cities and messing with technology.” He sighed slightly. “And as leader, I’m here, making sure everything is working fine.” He shot a glance at Akira. “Are you glad you stayed here?”

“Well,” Akira put on a look of obvious thought, “I get to know you better without being in training all the time, and I actually get to do what I want…so I’d say yes. I’m pretty happy I’m here.”

“How about just being in the Exo-Force?”

“Oh, I’m glad I chose to be here!” Akira said quickly. “If I hadn’t, I’d still be stuck in high school, and let me tell you, I’m glad I left! I’m learning more here than I ever did there.”

Hikaru smirked. “Not a calculus fan?”

“Are you kidding? I’d much rather be learning the finer points of piloting than learning grammar! If I was back at school, I’d still be quiet, hiding behind my hair and trying to avoid random guys stalking me and popular girls who never gave me a second look. Here…I’m accepted by everyone, not just my friends. People look at me and say ‘That’s a pilot, she obviously must know her stuff’. And it’s awesome!”

Hikaru stopped and brushed a strand of her hair of her face and behind her ear. “I like it when you’re not hiding behind your hair, because your face is pretty.”

Akira felt her cheeks flare in color and her heart beat slightly faster. “You’re sweet.” She smiled and the two continued walking.

Hikaru suddenly bent over and checked his watch, looking slightly surprised. “Hey, AK, I just remembered, I have to be somewhere. I guess all that excitement about the skirmish made me forget. Do you mind if we meet up at the indoor shooting range in around twenty minutes?”

Akira shrugged, her parka rising on her shoulders. “Sure. I’ll meet you there.”

“Great. I’ll see you soon.”

The trainer raced off down the streets as Akira continued on her way to the training center. It was slowly becoming night, and snow fell around her in whirling patterns, the wind gently brushing her face. She sighed and stretched her neck out, embracing the chilly mountain air. She had come to love this thin, dry air so much. Where she lived, it hardly snowed at all, and when it did, it rarely stuck, so Akira was trying to get the most out of her experience in the mountains. Who knew how long she would be there? The military could very well attack Meca-One within the next few days, and when Meca-One was gone, what would happen to the Exo-Force?

Three days left, she reminded herself. In three days, Ha-Ya-To, Hitomi, and the other trainees would come back and training would start up again. Akira was both longing and scared about it. Having the trainees back meant that she only had three months left for training.

March and April…when they come, I’m a graduate. It was a scary thought to the girl who had two months ago started with not even being able to run two miles. Now, that was simple. A five kilometer run was much more challenging.

But on the other hand, the trainees being back also meant that she’d have to face Ha-Ya-To. Of course, she didn’t think that he knew anything about what had happened, but just her actually being in front of him, thinking about how he didn’t like her the way she had, was an awkward thought. She had slowly been getting over him, hard as it was. Hikaru, Ryo, and Kouta had been keeping her busy enough to keep her mind of the redheaded trainer. Her only problem was how was she going to treat him now? Was he still the man she knew before, or had he just been that way in her mind?

Akira shook her head, her long hair streaming out behind her as she did so. Slowly, she entered the training building, pulling her long coat off. It felt odd to be wearing a tank-top underneath such a large parka, but the truth was that she only went outside between exercising, and she was always wearing her tank-top when she was on off days.

She slowly hung up her jacket as she entered the firing range. The area was relatively dark, the only lights really being on the targets set at markers before her. She entered one of the booths, pulling her blaster pistol off her belt and holding it before her. Slowly, she took aim, clicking the first of the two triggers, allowing the gun to warm up. The sleek barrel felt neat in her palm, almost calming. Akira felt her breathing slow, her brain go into hyperfocus mode. Everything but the target blurred slightly in her gaze.

Slowly, she pulled the trigger, watching as the speedy light erupted from the small silver handgun and shot across the room with a small whine. She smiled slightly as she looked at the target, feeling a surge of satisfaction as she admired the neat bullseye shot.

She took a deep breath and continued, firing over and over. Her shots nearly always hit the center or close to. With no other people in the room, it was absolutely silent as she made shot after shot. She breathed deeply, listening to the sound of the plasma shots hit the target over and over again. Something about it made her more confident.

Slowly, she raised her gun again, aiming for the center of the target. She took a deep breath and—

“Akira!!”

The dark-haired girl jerked suddenly her finger flying off the trigger as she whirled around. She practically dropped the gun.

“Rina! Minako!”

If Akira hadn’t been as quick as she was, she probably would have been slammed into the ground by two rather excited females. They threw themselves on her, speaking so loudly and so quickly that Akira could hardly understand them.

Finally, they calmed down long enough to actually manage some normal sentences. Minako spoke first, her long hair swishing behind her as she bounced. “Oh my gosh, Akira! You look so…”

“Old?” Rina finished, “I swear, you look like an adult! What did you do to yourself?”

“Have you been eating enough? You look really thin!”

“Please tell me I’m allowed to get to know the hot guys here. I mean, seriously, there are some freakishly sexy ones!”

“And your hair is so pretty pulled back! I never knew you had such gorgeous eyes to before.”

“And what about—.”

“Geez, you guys,” a loud male voice interrupted the two chattering females, “let her breathe for a few seconds!”

Akira’s breath suddenly stuck in her throat. Wait…was that…?

Rina and Minako parted away, leaving a path out for a tall, strong young man who shouldered his way into Akira’s space. Ginger hair stuck up at all angles, and his dark eyes gazed into hers fondly.

“Morning, Kira.”

Akira swallowed, her breaths shallow. “…Sora…”

Immediately, her family had surrounded her. Her mother, father, Kenji, and Sora, all hugging her and exclaiming loudly at her physical changes. Akira was almost overwhelmed with emotions. Shock was the only thing holding her back from bursting into tears at the moment.

What was going on?

How had her family and friends gotten here?

“I told you you’d be surprised.”

Akira turned to the door, a very satisfied looking Hikaru leaning against the door jamb. She gaped at him. “You…you brought them here?”

Hikaru shrugged, brushing a strand of blue hair from his face. “You’ve been having a rough time. I thought you might need a few familiar faces. And don’t worry about your schedule. I have it all worked out.” His gaze softened as it rested on Akira. “Merry Christmas, AK.”

It took all of the dark-haired girl’s control not to burst into tears right then and there. She ran up to Hikaru and grabbed him around the middle in a massive hug. “Thank you so much…”

The blue-haired trainer stood there rather awkwardly before patting Akira on the head. “You’re…welcome.”


“This is a nice restaurant.”

Akira nodded, sipping on her drink. “I’m never really down here in the Residential District, so this is actually pretty new to me as well.” It was true. The Residential District just didn’t appeal to her, especially with all the work she had to do. Not that the little restaurant wasn’t nice, but she had never seen it before. Rina and Minako had opted to stay back at the dining hall, where Akira had asked Hikaru to help them out. She vaguely wondered how well they were getting along.

Kenji raised an eyebrow as he nibbled on his sushi. “And why are you not down here often?”

Akira shrugged. “My work never really needs me down here, so I tend to stick to the military sections of the city.”

“So you never come down here for fun?” Akira’s mother asked, looking a little concerned.

Akira nearly rolled her eyes. “I have fun being with my teammates.”

Akira’s father nodded, seemingly interested. “What are your teammates like, Akira? It’s been so long since we last spoke, I think we’re all rather curious to know how you’re getting along.”

Akira thought for a moment. “Well, I’m technically part of the smaller trainee’s group, but I’m not usually with them. I tend to spend most of my time with my trainer and his elite team.”

“Was that boy from earlier your trainer?” Sora asked.

“Yes, that’s Hikaru Matsuoka, one of the highest ranking pilots in the Exo-Force. He’s my personal trainer.”

“He seemed like such a nice boy, setting all of this up for us,” Akira’s mother mused.

Akira nearly snorted, already knowing where her mother was going with the comment. “Please, let’s not go there. Anyways, his team consists of three other guys and one other girl.” She counted off on her fingers. “There’s Hikaru, the leader, Takeshi is my strength trainer and hand-to-hand combat guy, Ha-Ya-To is a fantastic pilot, Ryo’s the head techie, and Hitomi’s the only girl on their team and my roommate.”

“You sure spend a lot of time with men,” Sora said slowly, a smirk on his face.

He received a glare from his mother for his comment. “Sora, have a little respect. Akira, I think it’s lovely for you to have some male friends. How often are you in training.”

“Most of the time,” Akira said, taking a few pieces of sushi from her brother’s plate and chomping on it in delight. “This is my week off, though, so I get a little time to myself. Normally I’m working on my hand-to-hand combat skills or spending time practicing flying in my battle machine. There haven’t been very many skirmishes, lately, so I haven’t done a whole lot of fighting the robots directly. But I’m getting there.”

The conversation continued, with generally different interests on the topic. Akira wanted to hear about life back at home, and her family was interested in her life in the Golden City. So the conversation went back and forth. Akira was glad to hear about her family’s work, and she was happy to tell them about her work schedule and fighting techniques.

Inwardly Akira was trying to think of a way to thank her trainer. Hikaru had gone to a lot of trouble to get her family up here. Had he called their offices and school to make sure they could get the time off, and made sure that there was a way to get them up to the mountain at a certain time? Whatever he had done, Akira wanted to find a better way than a hug to thank him for his work. He really was a kind person.

After a few hours, Akira led her family to their designated sleeping areas. A small house had been set out for them, which Akira’s parents were happy for. But Kenji and Sora had been offered places in the dorms, in Hikaru and Ryo’s rooms, so they decided that was where they would be sleeping.

Akira took them to the dining hall, where Hikaru was waiting with Rina and Minako, and they all went their separate ways.

Akira glanced back at her two friends as they walked back to the dorms. “You two seem awfully quiet. What’s gotten into you?”

“No reason!” Minako said hurriedly, her blush visible in the moonlight. “We’re just…well…”

“Your friend Hikaru was very courteous,” Rina said slowly. “And man, he’s attractive!!”

Akira let out an amused sigh. “I should have known…you two are hopeless. Well, this is my dorm, not a whole lot to talk about.” She opened the door to her dorm room and let the two girl inside before locking the door behind them.

“I can’t believe you sleep here!” Rina said, excitedly bouncing on her toes a little. “It’s like a dorm for university students!”

Akira laughed. “Sometimes it sure feels that way.” She motioned to the beds. “My roommate is on a trip at the moment, so one of you can have her bed and the other can have mine. I’ll sleep on the floor.”

“You want to sleep on the floor?” Minako’s voice was incredulous.

Akira shrugged. “Why not? I’ve had worse.”

“Really? When?”

“Let’s just call it Hell Week and be done with it.”

Rina pulled open her suitcase and immediately began changing into her pajamas. “You are so cool, Akira. I mean, how many other girls get to join the military and get to tough it out like you do? I mean, do you know how well you can shoot?”

The dark-haired girl smirked slightly as she began changing into her own pajamas. “That’s more of just a skill I learned relatively quickly. If anything, my hand-to-hand combat needs the most work.” She paused, noticing the expressions on her friend’s faces. “What?”

Rina’s eyes were practically bugging out of her head as she stared at the half-naked girl. “Whoa...Akira…you’re ripped!”

Akira flushed. “Stop staring! You look like some stalker.”

“She’s right, though,” Minako said, in a much less creepy way. “You’re more muscular than half of the guys on the wrestling team! You could probably beat them easy.”

“Stop it! I could not!”

“You so could,” Rina said smartly, stopping her staring and returning to dressing. “You probably know way more than they do about hand-to-hand. I bet with a simple karate chop to the neck, they could be down!”

Akira rolled her eyes, pulling on her night clothes and settling down in a sleeping bag on the carpeted floor. “I’ve just gotten stronger, that’s all. Anyone could do the same. They just need the training. The guys here are all extremely well trained.”

“Speaking of hot men,” Rina said, sticking out her tongue, “That guy Hikaru is so amazingly attractive!”

Akira raised an eyebrow. “Hikaru? He’s my trainer.”

Minako gaped. “The one that you don’t like? But he’s so…so…”

“Amazing!” Rina squealed. “I mean, seriously!”

Akira turned off the lights, plunging the room in darkness before she continued. “He’s not much of a crab anymore. He’s loosened up and we get along pretty well now.”

“Well, I sure hope so!” Rina’s voice came from one of the beds. “I mean, he was so nice to us when we came in! He showed us how to get food, and sat with us, and asked us about our lives and how we know you. He was just so attentive. Man, if I lived here, I would ask him out, totally!”

“What about me?” Minako said quietly. “Are there any nice guys here?”

“Are guys all you two ever talk about?” Akira snorted. “Come on. Tell me about what’s going on back at home. Anything interesting happening at school?”

“Not really,” Minako said. “I mean, we all have to start preparing for tests for university, even if we have a year until we actually go. Besides that, it’s really just more of us waiting around. Things are weird without you.”

“Oh yeah?” Akira laughed, “How so?”

“Well…” Rina paused, “actually, it would kind of be weird for you to be back.”

“Why is that?”

“Because you’re not the same person you were. Besides you being buff and all, you’re more…talkative. You could probably go up to Kazuo Hasegawa and ask him out, no problem!”

“Hasegawa? The captain of the basketball team?”

“Yeah,” Minako sighed. “Now…I would definitely date him…”

Akira rolled her eyes. “You guys are obsessed.”

“Well, why aren’t you?” Akira heard Rina roll over, probably to face her in the darkness. “I mean, you’re a teenage girl, right? And I know for a fact you used to have a crush on Hasegawa when you were in school.”

Akira shrugged. “Sure I did, but that was a long time ago, at least to me. I’ve been through way more now than I ever had in high school. And besides, I spend most of my time with guys now. The ratio of guys to girls in the Exo-Force is pretty darn high. I guess I’m just used to being around them.”

“What about Ha-Ya-To, the redheaded pilot?” Minako asked. “Are you still into him?”

Akira swallowed as her heart began to race. Slowly, she calmed herself down. “I’m over him,” she said simply, “He likes someone else, and I’m not her. So I’m letting him go.”

“Really?” Rina said sadly. “Aww…that’s too bad. I was hoping you’d finally have a romantic moment in your life.”

Akira smirked. “Not yet, not yet.”

^_^

Akira was comfortable on the floor, which was good, but then again, she had been through Hell Week and back and had slept against trees during then. After the lumpy ground and scrappy tree bark, the flat ground was practically a picnic.

She breathed slowly in and out as she slowly became conscious. She loved the warmth of her room, even if she wasn’t in her own bed. She had become so used to the place.

Slowly, she opened her eyes, gazing into the room.

Something was wrong.

Light pierced the blinds, filtering into the room. The air was warmer than it should have been. Confused, Akira sat up and glanced at the clock.

With a shriek, she leapt out of bed, simultaneously causing Rina and Minako to jerk awake.

“Wazrong?” Rina mumbled, rubbing her eyes.

Akira was already in the closet, dressing herself hurriedly. “It’s almost seven-thirty! The cafeteria closes at that time, so I’m so late for breakfast! I should have been up almost two hours ago!”

Minako glanced at the clock. “Do you have an alarm?”

“Yeah…why didn’t it go off?”

Rina blinked. “Oh, that was for you? It looked so early, so I decided to cut you some slack and let you sleep in.”

The dark-haired trainee gave a shriek. “WHAT?!” She hardly glanced at herself in the mirror as she threw herself out the door, racing down the steps as she put her hair in a quick ponytail. She had to make it to breakfast, or else she wouldn’t be able to eat anything until lunch. That was the way it worked, and unless one of the Dream Team members was asking, it was strictly that way.

When she saw Hikaru standing outside the building, she knew she had missed the whole thing.

He raised an eyebrow, his arms crossed and a curious expression on his face. “Sleep in today?”

Akira, gasping for breath, came to a stop beside him. “Rina…turned off…my…alarm…” she managed through pants.

Hikaru smirked, holding out his hands. Akira looked up in surprise as he handed her two pieces of toast and an apple. He shrugged. “Sorry I couldn’t sneak more, but carrying an entire protein shake outside the mess hall would have looked a little conspicuous.”

Akira took them, almost shocked. “You got this for me?”

The blue-haired trainer shrugged again. “Yeah, well…we can’t have you starving while we’re exercising, now can we?”

The girl allowed herself a smile in spite of her still recovering behavior. “Thank you!”

Hikaru shot her a smile. “You’re welcome. Are your friends going to stay in the dorms all day, or are they actually going to join us for training?”

Akira nearly snorted in laughter. “Rina and Minako training? They would die of exhaustion after a half a mile!”

Her trainer laughed. “So they were like you when you first started?”

Akira almost shot an insult back before snapping her mouth shut. She rubbed her neck in embarrassment. “Um…yeah, kind of.”

Hikaru grinned. “Alright. You ready for training?”

The two walked along the long streets of the city, enjoying the chilly air as they chatted idly about various topics. Slowly, Akira began to relax again. The scare from the morning had left her tense, but laughing with Hikaru was enough to get her to calm down slightly.

She glanced around, enjoying the winter sun on her cheeks. “So did Kenji and Sora stay with you?”

“Sora was with me in my room,” Hikaru replied, “and Kenji shared with Ryo.”

Akira raised an eyebrow. “You actually managed to put up with Sora? I’m surprised.”

Hikaru laughed slightly. “Are you kidding? After Ha-Ya-To, he was practically a breeze, though I have to admit, he’s extremely talkative.”

“And to think he’s older than you,” she teased. “He’s in university already.”

“Really?”

“Doesn’t act like it, right?”

“No,” Hikaru laughed. “From the way he acted, I thought he was your twin or something.”

“Oh, shut up,” Akira snapped good-naturedly, punching Hikaru in the arm for good measure.

The two arrived at the Training Center and immediately took to the exercise room. Akira liked this room best out of all of them. It had a large set of mats in the center for sparring, and was surrounded by various machines. It was where Akira spent most of her time with her trainers. But she enjoyed a good basketball game on the courts when she had the time.

“Morning, ‘Kira,” Sora said cheerfully as Akira and Hikaru entered the room. Akira was surprised to find her two brothers already hot and sweaty and working out in the room.

Hikaru nodded. “I showed them how to get here this morning so they could work out as well. We wouldn’t want them to get out of shape, now would we?” His smile was almost a smirk and his eyes sparkled cheerfully. Akira narrowed her own eyes. Hikaru looked almost…mischievous.

Sora stretched out his arms above him, moaning slightly in satisfaction. “What took you so long, ‘Kira? I thought you would have been up by this point.”

Akira set down her bags with a sigh. “I would have been up way earlier, but Rina turned off my alarm.” She shook her head slightly. “What have you two been doing?”

Kenji brushed back a strand of his hair. It was odd to see him shirtless and without his glasses, as he was always so button-up. “Sparring,” he answered in his quiet, straight voice. “And doing weights and various other exercises.” He looked around the room. “You have quite the training deck here, Akira.”

The dark-haired girl shrugged. “Yeah, it’s pretty sweet. It keeps me in shape, at least.” She glanced towards Hikaru. “So, what are we working on today, oh great trainer?”

Hikaru thought a moment. “Sparring sounds good at the moment.”

“Blades or no blades?”

“No blades,” Hikaru smiled, “but I don’t want you to spar against me today. Why don’t you pick one of your brothers?”

Sora narrowed his eyes slightly. “You can’t put our sister on us! We’ve been in training for years and she’s only been in for a few months.”

“He’s got a point,” Akira added.

Hikaru shrugged. “So? I’ve personally been training Akira for battle, and I’d like to see her against some seasoned men. She could use the experience.”

The two brothers looked at one another almost nervously. Kenji shrugged. “It’s fine by me as long as no one really gets hurt.”

Sora’s lips pinched together slightly. “Who are you that you can boss around my sister? And how old are you?”

Hikaru blinked coldly. “Seventeen years old, in training for almost four years. I’m her official Trainer, and therefore I do make the rules about her routine and exercise.”

Akira nodded. “Sora, he’s the leader. He makes the rules. And I personally think it’s a great idea.” She gave a smirk and cracked her knuckles. “Who’s up first?”

“I am,” Sora immediately volunteered. He stepped onto the mat, stretching his arms slightly. “After all, we wouldn’t want you to get hurt or anything.”

Akira rolled her eyes. It was funny that her brother thought he could really do Akira all that much damage. Akira knew a lot more than just fighting techniques: the defensive ones were just as necessary, maybe even more so.

Akira threw the towel from around her neck to Hikaru before stepping onto the mat, stretching out her tight limbs until they would move properly. Sora did the same across the way. Slowly, they both stood still, waiting.

Kenji held up his hand, glancing at both of them before letting it fall sharply. “Go!”

Akira didn’t wait for Sora to make the first strike. If she had learned anything from Ryo besides how to put things together, it was that the battlefield was a test of the minds. And she was ready to psych her brother out as well as possible first. Sora didn’t know anything about her fighting abilities yet, so she would scare him as best as possible first, making him think that she was an incredible fighter before even dealing any blows.

The ginger boy looked shocked all right as Akira flew at him. He narrowly missed a kick to the chest and blocked off a few stray punches. But he couldn’t catch them all. Akira managed a good few smacks to his arms and chest before backing off slightly.

She threw herself once again at him, a neat kick to the side was blocked, but left her open for a few more punches and kicks. Sora was on the defensive, looking surprised to be on it as well.

The girl paused for a moment, allowing her brother to jump into offensive. Immediately, Akira blocked a few punches and used a break in his movement to plant a hard mick to his side. Sora jerked back under the impact, looking surprised. Akira took his moment of confusion to twirl around, using the momentum to throw a roundhouse kick to his shoulder, knocking the young man off balance and to the ground.

Sora jumped back to his feet, throwing a varied range of kicks and punched. Akira dodged and weaved through his attacks, breathing deeply to slow her heart down. When Sora hit a pause, Akira readied her fist and forcefully slammed it into Sora’s diaphragm.

The young man collapsed to the ground, wheezing to regain air in his lungs. Akira stepped over to him, placing a hand over his neck. “Call it?”

“I…call,” Sora managed between breaths.

Akira smiled and backed away, breathing slowly. Hikaru handed her the towel, which she gratefully took and rubbed the sweat from her face. He nodded in approval. “Nice job.”

“Thanks!” Akira grinned, “It was easier than I expected. But then again, he’s been trying to teach me to fight since I was about ten, so I know his style. I was never really all that good at it, but I learned enough about how he fight.”

“But he didn’t know your fighting style yet,” Hikaru nodded. “Nice thinking.”

Across the room, Kenji was helping Sora to his feet. The ginger was still breathing hard, but had managed to get his lungs mostly under control. Sora stumbled over to Akira and Hikaru, looking shocked. “How,” he asked, “did you do that? And what style was that?”

Akira shrugged. “A mixture of Taekwondo and Muay Tai mostly, though some of the movements were really used for sword fighting. I needed to mix styles to get past any of your defenses. After realizing your style was just about the same from when we were little, it was easy. I just had to think through your strategies and counter them.”

Sora looked at Hikaru. “You’ve trained her well.”

Hikaru dipped his head in thanks.

“Keep it up, ‘Kira. You’re better than most people I know.”

Akira flushed in pleasure. “Well, I’m not all that good compared to—.”

Akira! Akira, pick up!!!

“Ryo?” Akira rushed over to her bag, pulling her intercom watch from inside. Ryo’s face appeared on the screen, looking absolutely frantic. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

Akira, get down to my workshop NOW!!!

Chapter 16:

Akira practically flew down the streets. Ryo’s frantic message had left Akira extremely worried. But why had he called her? Why not one of the seniors?

“I’m here!” She yelled, running in through the open warehouse doors, “What’s going on? What’s wrong?”

On immediate perception, everything seemed to be fine. As usual, parts were strewn across the floor and half-repaired battle machines were set sporadically around the room. So it was normal, or as normal as Ryo’s workshop could be.

Ryo threw himself out of nowhere at Akira, his face red and eyes wild. “Akira!! How do you get them out of here?!”

“Who out of where?”

“RYO!!” Rina popped out from behind a set of shelves, holding a small vial. “What is this?”

Ryo grabbed at his hair, ripping the vial from Rina’s hands. “That’s nitroglycerine, and it’s highly explosive, so don’t touch—.”

“Ryo?” Minako was on top of one of the battle machines. “Um, what does this do?”

“That’s a Battle Key and it’s extremely important, so PUT IT DOWN!!” Minako did so looking stricken, the golden key falling from her grasp and hitting the ground far below with a clang.

Ryo finally turned back to Akira. “How the crap do you get these two to leave my workshop?! I’ve been chasing after them all morning and they won’t leave! I swear, I they pick up one more thing—.”

Rina tapped Ryo on the shoulder. “Um, Ryo? Is this water?”

Ryo snatched the bottle of liquid from her. “Okay, fine, short science lesson. This chemical happens to be called methyl-phosphono-fluoridate, and it happens to be a highly dangerous liquid and is used for chemical warfare. Though it is colorless, odorless, and looks similar to dihydrogen-minoxide, it is more commonly known as Sarin and it will cause you to be suddenly contracted with Asphyxia.”

“Asphyxia?” Rina cocked her head slightly. “What’s that?”

Ryo narrowed his eyes. “It means that your lungs will forget how to move properly and you will effectively suffocate yourself. In fact, most of the things in the room will harm you in some fashion. So I would advise you to LEAVE ME ALONE!!!”

Akira came up and gently put a hand on Rina’s shoulder. “You know what, how about you two go explore a bit? I have some business to attend to with Ryo.”

“Business?” Rina’s smile was annoyingly knowing, as though she were in on some big secret. “Suuuuuuure. Well, enjoy your business. Come on, Minako.” The two girls left the workshop chatting away idly.

Ryo sighed in exhaustion as they walked out. “I assure you, Akira, if your associates enter here for a second time…”

“I’m sorry about that,” Akira flushed slightly in embarrassment, “I didn’t know they were here. Do you want me to help you clean up?”

The violet-haired young man shrugged. “Whatever. The damage is mostly minimal, only a few objects out of order. I’ll fix it myself.”

“Are you sure?”

Ryo cracked a smile. “It could be much worse, AK. Your friends may be intrusive, but they aren’t destructive…mostly.”

Akira grinned. “They mean well. I think they came in here because they think you’re attractive.”

Ryo went completely stiff, his cheeks going red. “What makes you think that?”

Akira smirked to herself. Leave it to Ryo to sound extremely awkward about something involving relationships. She brushed a strand of hair from her face, trying to get his attention. “You know, Ryo, you are really attractive.”

The purple-haired teen’s face flushed bright red. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Are you kidding? I’m surprised not every girl in the city is at your doorstep.”

“That’s absolutely illogical,” Ryo said firmly, though his face was still getting redder. “I have no time for a relationship of that caliber in my life at the moment. All I’m doing is—.”

“Working?” Akira rolled her eyes, laughing inwardly at Ryo’s reaction. “My friends came here with the intention of looking for hot guys. Apparently, you make the cut.”

“I would prefer if we end this conversation now,” Ryo said firmly, turning away.

Akira stifled a laugh. “Anyways, besides that, do you know where Kouta is?”

Ryo pointed. “In the back.”

“Thanks.” Akira stepped delicately through the maze of spare parts and tools, knowing that an already stressed Ryo would probably murder her for moving anything at this point. Of all the dangerous places in the city, Akira had to put Ryo’s workshop as one of the top, one for the owner’s touchy attitude, and two for the dangerous material inside. Who keeps nitroglycerine in a workshop? Akira thought.

“Kouta!” Akira waved as she came out to the back of the large warehouse, where a smaller boy was hidden under what looked like one of the tanks that Akira had arrived in on her first day.

The small, brown-haired boy poked himself out, shooting Akira a small smile. “Good morning, Akira.” He slid himself out from his confined area, rubbing oil from his face and hands with a dirty cloth. “What can I do for you?”

Akira twirled a strand of her ponytail through her fingers. “I was just wondering about the code I gave you yesterday, if you had any leads.”

“Unfortunately, no,” Kouta sighed, brushing back his shaggy hair. He stepped over to one of the computers sticking out of a wall nearby and pulled up a page, which appeared to be filtering through words and devices. “If doesn’t appear to connect to anything I know of. No cell phones, computers, hand-held devices…this thing just seems to be written for nothing.” He sighed. “It’s odd though. Maybe it’s too old to find a direct match. For all we know, it could be from a hundred or so years ago.”

Akira pinched her lips together and nodded. “Yeah, maybe you’re right. I mean, who writes random codes down on golden bricks anyways?”

“Wait, did you say ‘golden brick’?” Ryo suddenly popped out his head from behind a battle machine, his eyes curious. “What kind of golden brick?”

“One with letters and numbers printed on it,” Akira called back to him. “We think it’s some sort of code.”

“A Code Brick?” Ryo leapt over, looking with interest. “You found a Code Brick?”

Kouta turned to the computer and ejected the brick from underneath, holding it out for Ryo to see. The older teen immediately snatched it up, holding it up to the light. “Where did you get this?!”

Akira winced. “Um…from the tower…” She might as well try to avoid the fact that she had ripped a piece off the Golden Tower in a shooting incident. But somehow, she didn’t think Ryo would pay any attention to how she had found it in the first place. He was much too interested in the actual object.

“You found this?”

“Uh…yeah?”

Ryo’s worn face suddenly burst into a huge, shocked smile. “You’re kidding! You found a Code Brick? We haven’t found one of these in…in…in months! Hold on just one second.” He rushed off and returned a few moments later with a small sensor which he stuck on one end. He rubbed his neck slightly before nodding in satisfaction. “Pure gold, just as I thought. That proves it connects to the city. Nothing less than the purest gold was used to make these.”

“So it actually connects to something?” Kouta asked.

“Of course it does. The makers of the city left these Code Bricks around to keep secrets safe. They keep things hidden from the robots, or anyone who’s not supposed to find them.”

Akira raised an eyebrow and looked at Kouta, who looked back, equally as confused. “Okay,” she said slowly, “So…why did I just find one if they’re so hard to find?”

Ryo shrugged. “It must have opened up for some reason. Maybe the city wanted you to find it.”

“You make it sound like it has a mind of its own.”

“It does!” Ryo said, looking offended, “Mechanical objects have minds!”

“They do not, Ryo.”

“Yes, they do.”

“Do not.”

“Shut it!” Kouta snapped, jumping in between the growing argument. “We just want to know what it does. Ryo, what do these things connect to?”

Ryo shrugged, fingering the brick and looking as though her were weighing it in his palms. “It could link to almost anything, really. The ones we acquired when we first arrived here opened warehouses and bridges and other things of that sort. But we haven’t found one…in months, almost a year.” His eyes narrowed. “So the possibilities are almost endless.”

“So plug it in, already!” Kouta said excitedly.

Ryo blinked. “I would, but we have a problem.”

“What?”

Ryo stepped over to the computer, tapping on a few keys and pulling up a helicopter view of the city. “See this? There are five diverse sites that Code Bricks can be connected into, and even though all of them can take codes, we won’t distinguish what it does. Most of the Code Bricks decoded various places close to the point where they were found. You found this one in the Golden Tower, correct? The Golden Tower is the center of the city, so the code could unlock any point throughout the city.”

Kouta thought a moment. “So what we need is a way to see the whole city while one of us goes and punches in the code.”

Ryo shrugged. “That’s not too problematic. All we have to do it hack into the monitors. The entire city is videotaped at all stretches. We need to get into the camera’s mainframe.”

“Whatever,” Kouta rolled his eyes. “If you’re head techie, why don’t you just get access?”

“It’s not that simple. That’s all administrative access only. Even I don’t have that much power.”

“So what do we do?”


“Are you sure hacking in is the best idea?” Akira whispered.

“It’s perfectly fine, Akira,” Kouta hissed back, “now shut up, I’m concentrating.” He tapped furiously on the computer. Akira glanced around. The room she and Kouta were in seemed like the stereotypical hackers room: the lights were turned off, but wiring coming from the computer glowed different colors. Silhouettes of bookshelves covered the walls. Ryo mentioned that this was one of his secret workshops (when Akira had inquired earlier, he said he had at least two others), so it was practically off the grid.

“Okay,” Kouta whispered, “I’m in.” He sat back, watching as the screen in front of him separated into multiple black and white images. He pointed to a few of the small squares. “Okay, the place Ryo will go to plug in the Code Brick is the closest one to us, in the flight grounds. What we have to do is watch the other screens when he does, and see if we can spot any differences around the city.”

“Sounds easy enough.”

“If you have good vision.” Kouta gently pressed the headset over his ear closer. “Okay, Ryo,” he hissed, “punch us in.”

A black and white figure appeared on one of the screens, walking stealthily over to a large pillar. With a few taps in certain places, a keyboard and a screen popped out from the metal. Ryo quickly tapped on the keys, watching the screen. He held his finger over the enter key, waiting.

Kouta motioned to Akira. “Eyes on the screen, AK. Okay, Ryo, go!”

Akira stared hard at the screens, searching for any signs of movement. It was difficult, as many of the images had people walking across them. She tried to ignore them, looking for anything else that might have moved.

“Anything?” Kouta hissed.

Akira shook her head. “I didn’t see anything.”

Kouta bared his teeth and half-snarled. He enlarged the first screen, pulling the time back a few seconds and playing it over. “Does anything change in this one?”

“I don’t think so.”

And so they continued one by one, going through each of the screens. Akira stared until her eyes watered, but for the life of her she couldn’t see any difference in any of the screens.

Until around the middle.

“Wait wait wait,” Akira suddenly pointed to the screen. “Hold on, did that wall just move?”

Kouta hurriedly reversed the video again, and the two watched it carefully. Akira squinted, pointing at one area. “See that? That wall looks like it moved!”

Kouta nodded. “Yeah. Ryo?” He called through his headset again, “I think we found the connector!” He nodded a few times and turned to Akira. “He wants us to meet him there. Any idea where that is?”

“Residential District,” Akira automatically answered. She recognized the place. She had passed by that blank stretch of wall multiple times. “I’ll lead us there.

The two trainees met Ryo in the far back of the Residential District. Akira had been there a fair few times, though never for her training. It was mostly for exploration purposes, and other errands. But she knew the place well enough to lead Kouta there.

Ryo was waiting there, standing in front of what at one point had been another piece of another wall. But the slab of metal had popped out and shifted over slightly, revealing a long, dark tunnel. It was relatively large, as far as Akira could see, and could probably be walked through without much ducking.

“So we have a hole,” Kouta said. “Big deal. Now what?”

Ryo shot his apprentice a wry glance. “We have a few options. The easiest would be to close up the hole and leave it there. The most efficient option would be to follow it and find the technology hidden at the end. Or we could alert Sensei and have a different group find it.”

“Well, which one would be best?”

Ryo took a moment to think, as he usually seemed to do before making a decision. “If it were any other time, I’d say to find Sensei. But because of recent events, I’d label that as a bad idea.”

“Why is it bad?” Akira raised an eyebrow. “Sensei’s our mentor and leader. Shouldn’t he be alerted of things like this?”

Ryo’s eyes locked with theirs. “It’s a little known secret among the trainers, but Sensei has been a bit…unstable lately. The most recent events of this year, from a particular time onwards, have affected his teaching methods as well as his reasoning. He doesn’t seem to be in his right mind. That robot attack in the dorms? That wasn’t normal. There’s no way that robots could have gotten into the city without someone letting them in. And I have all the records of the battle machines at that time. None of them were out of place.”

Akira blinked. “But, then why is he still in control?”

“Exactly my point. If Sensei was actually the one in charge, he would know when he wasn’t acting correctly and assign someone else to take charge.”

“So Sensei’s not in charge?”

Ryo narrowed his eyes. “Whoever is living up in that penthouse, it’s not Sensei Keiken. There’s something seriously wrong.”

“Then how is everything still running?” Kouta asked.

“The seniors have been working more to keep up with everything. So while Sensei thinks he’s in charge, Takeshi, Hikaru, Hitomi, Ha-Ya-To, and I have really been behind the scenes taking control. The guys on vacation are working extremely hard to keep up with everything. So while it may seem that they’re on a break, they’re really more in the loop than you could know.”

They really have everything under control. Akira was amazed by just how well-thought out this all was, and how covered. She had no idea they were all working and keeping the whole operation undercover. She would have expected them to be showing some signs of strain, but as opposed to Hikaru taking the brunt of the work, this time it seemed everything had been balanced out between the five of them.

Kouta waved his arms around. “Okay, this is a nice learning moment and all, but we still haven’t decided what we’re going to do about the giant hole in the wall.”

Ryo and Akira turned back to the situation before them. The giant hole seemed to have no end, going off into darkness. Akira shivered slightly. “If it’s all the same to you guys, shouldn’t we get some flashlights or something?”

Ryo shook his head, his violet hair waving around him in the gusty air. “No. It’d be better if we just go in by feeling. And I’m closing the door behind us.”

“What?! But, what if we’re sealed in?!”

“We’re not.” Ryo held out a hand. “Feel that? There’s air blowing in from that side. There must be another end to this, one letting air in, or at least a large enough space to have been pressurized this long that it’s now letting it out. Whatever it is, it’s old, and we don’t want anyone else to find it. So follow me.”

Akira felt an almost overwhelming sense of claustrophobia as Ryo shut the door behind them, leaving them in the dark. Throwing her arms out, she ran her hands along the edges of the cave. “Um, Ryo? What do we do if it gets smaller?”

“Don’t think about it,” Kouta snapped through the pitch black shadows. “We’ll discuss it if we get there.”

But if anything, the walls got wider and the ceiling taller as they walked along. Akira could no long hold out her arms and touch around her, leaving her only to feel the left wall, which Ryo had said to follow. Her fingers ran gently against the stone, the grains rough under her fingertips. Then suddenly, it became smooth.

Akira stopped. “Um, Ryo? What just happened?”

Ryo paused for a moment. “The stone changed. It feels more like polished marble or granite, and not just plain old sedimentary stone. This is where the path really starts.”

“But why?”

“The beginning was just to make it look like any other cave. This is where we figure out what it really holds.”

The three teens walked down the rounded tunnel slowly, their rubber soled shoes making loud clops on the ground. Akira didn’t like it down here. She didn’t like how dark it was, the feeling that she was wandering aimlessly and might never see the light of day again. If she had been down there before, it would be different. But it was all new, and she was very paranoid.

She drew back slightly as her fingers brushed up against something that wasn’t stone. It was smoother, colder. Maybe metal? Either way, she sucked in a breath. “Um, Ryo? There’s something here.”

She felt a hand run down her arm to find what she was touching. Ryo’s warm body pressed against her, giving at least some form of comfort. “It feels like a button.”

Immediately, lights flared to life above them, each across from one another. Slowly, they lit, pair by pair, going down the tunnel. A hum filled the silence, either from the lights or what was generating them. The long tube lights were inserted into the wall, leaving a smooth surface still, and their light was almost blue, not the warm yellow glow Akira expected from an old structure.

The tunnel was filled with light, and Akira could finally see her counterparts clearly. They all gazed down at the lit tunnel, to what appeared to be the end.

“Well,” Kouta said slowly, “shall we?”

The three walked down slowly towards what they hoped was the end of the tunnel. The light made a huge difference: Akira no longer felt like she was drowning in darkness.

The air was chilly down here and very still. Akira was starting to wonder if Ryo had actually been right with the whole “other opening” thing. As far as she could tell, the air here hadn’t been touched in years, making it musty and icy cold. Akira could see her breath condense into clouds.

The tunnel finally ended, but not to another opening on the other side. No, it came into a room, an almost ovular room made of the same marble or granite as the walls in the tunnel had been. It was relatively large, and looked more like a lounge than anything. Twisted lights hung from the ceiling, and a few large cushy looking armchairs were set around the room complete with small tables. All it would need was a few magazines and an espresso maker and Akira would have thought they were in a doctor’s office. One that was almost completely white, though, as everything seemed to be perfectly white in coloration. Now it felt like more of a hospital.

Kouta glanced around with eyebrows raised. “I was kind of expecting something more…you?”

Ryo shrugged apathetically. But Akira felt along the lines that Kouta did. If they found this code on a Code Brick, it must have been there for a reason. And some lounge wasn’t necessarily what she had expected from a highly technological group who built it.

“There has to be something more to this place,” Akira insisted, “It wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t needed specifically.”

The three fanned out, spreading across the room. Akira took the walls near the tunnel, pulling off her gloves and rubbing her fingertips against the cold stone. The stone must have been cut extremely finely, for each of the stones connected together with hardly a crack between them. There were no flaws as far as she could tell, just smooth, polished stone. She glanced around. If it was as sealed in as thought, then there wouldn’t be any erosion or exposure to the elements in any way. No wonder it was still so perfect.

“I think I found something,” Ryo said quietly.

Akira and Kouta stopped their own investigations to turn to Ryo. The violet-haired teen was at one wall, where protruding from it was a steel button. Above it was written something. Akira had no idea what it said. It wasn’t Japanese and it wasn’t English, and besides that, she knew no other languages.

“What does it say?”

“It’s Old Japanese,” Ryo said immediately, “it differs from modern day Japanese in that it has no long vowels or diphthongs, no word started with the ‘r’ sound or any other voices plosives such as ‘p’, ‘t’, or ‘k’. It also has an eighty-eight syllable range. It was—.”

“Ryo,” Akira cut him off, “not that this isn’t absolutely fascinating, but we might want to go a bit faster seeing as we’re kind of technically off campus without anyone knowing. Can you just translate it?”

Ryo frowned but didn’t argue. He ran his fingers along the carvings, muttering to himself. Finally he stepped back. “Alright, a rough translation says this:  Off the grid zone. Please press for access.”

“Well,” Kouta snapped, “Isn’t that helpful. What the heck does that mean?”

Ryo rubbed his chin. “’Off the grid zone”, he said quietly. “Off the grid…that’s usually a phrase used to mention that a place is untraceable by technology. So this could mean that this area has no access to the outside world, or that it’s unable to be seen on radar or scanners. This could be a room for secret meetings. Access could mean various different things. We could be getting access to anything. But in order to get access, we have to press the button.” He raised an eyebrow and glanced back at the other two.

“Ryo, you are way too smart,” Akira smirked.

“Press is, Ryo!” Kouta said excitedly.

Ryo obliged and firmly pressed the button down.

Akira wasn’t sure what she had been expecting, but it wasn’t what happened. About fifty small panels of the wall inserted into the wall and span around, clicking back into place. Now there was the other side of the panel, and on it was what appeared to be a scanner.

Ryo glanced around. “Ah, access, I understand now. Those are hand scanners. If we want access, we need to scan our way in.”

“So they’ll just let us in?” Akira asked. “All we have to do is scan our fingerprints?”

“Presumably. Let’s see.”

The three teens each walked over to a separate scanner and placed their hands on the greenish pad after pulling their gloves off. Akira waited as it laser scanned her hands. She had done this millions of times, for everything from IDs to school lunches. Some schools used cell phones, others fingerprints. Hers was fingerprints.

Suddenly, the scanner flipped halfway back into the wall and her hand was dragged along with it. She gave a yelp and tried to jerk away, but her hand was stuck fast. “Ryo!” She shrieked, but across the room, the two guys were having the same problem. Kouta was yelling from his corner, and Ryo, usually so poised, was jerking himself in such a way that Akira was sure he would dislocate his shoulder.

“Ryo!” Akira yelled, “How do we—AHHHHHH!” Akira screamed as she felt something burn into her hand. She tugged as hard as she could, bracing her arm, anything to pull it out.

Then suddenly, it let go.

Chapter 17:

Akira flew back from the force of her last tug. With a cry of pain, she slammed into the floor. Ryo and Kouta did the same next to her.

The dark-haired girl clutched her hand close to her. It was her right hand, which made it all the worse. What if she couldn’t use it anymore? What if something had happened to the nerves? She would never be able to write or fight!

But as the pain died down, she found flexing her fingers as easily as before the incident. She slowly pulled her hand away and inspected it.

She gasped loudly, but she really couldn’t hold it back. On the backside of her ungloved hand looked to be some sort of tattoo. She had never ever gotten a tattoo before, and she had never planned to. But there, on her hand, was a tattoo in dark ink. It wasn’t an animal or anything like that, only a symbol. There were two concentric circle, relatively close to one another. Inside these circles were two English letters. One, on top, being an “S”, the other, a “C”. The bottom of the “S” was intertwined with the “C”. It was like a monogram of sorts.

But it was on her hand!!

Akira swallowed hard, and turned to Ryo and Kouta, who were staring at their hands in the same way. Kouta’s eyes were wide, almost frightened. “Um…what the heck just happened?”

“Some sort of marking,” Ryo said slowly, holding up his hand and slowly rotating his wrist to get a full view of his new body marking.

“But what does this have anything to do with accessing anything?!” Kouta snapped, getting to his feet. The other two followed in suit. “I mean, it’s not like we got a door or something, or even a box with a key in it.”

Ryo shook his head. “It must do something. There has to be a reason for tattooing monograms on our hands.”

“Like what?”                                                                                                              

“You said it yourself, a key. To get access to something, you need a key, like a fingerprint, or a retina scan. In this case, I think it might just be these tattoos.”

“How can tattoos be a key?” Akira asked, “I mean, it’s an imprint on your skin.”

“Did you feel when they were doing it, though? Tattoos are usually ink. It felt like a burn or a pricking of some sort. I bet these go deeper than just the skin.”

“You mean they’re affected our bloodstream?!” Kouta yelped. “But that could change our immune system or cell level!!”

“We’ll see,” Ryo said grimly. “Come on, we’d better find out what they do. They should allow us to pass though something.”

Akira stepped back to return to her previous inspecting of the room, but she was much more distracted now by her hand. Her stomach churned in unease. What had just happened left her in a state of shock. The room suddenly felt more dangerous.

“Um…guys?” Kouta called from the far wall directly across the tunnel. “Do tattoos normally glow?”

Glow?” The other two teens hurried over to Kouta, who was holding up his hand and staring at it with scared eyes. He was right: the tattoo glowed a pure white on his hand.

“I told you,” Kouta hissed, “it must have affected our cells!”

“Or it just has some sort of nanotechnology in the ink,” Ryo said slowly. “It could be a type of bioluminescent material.”

“I don’t care what it is!” Kouta screeched, flailing his hand wildly back and forth. “I want it off! I don’t want to be a walking glowstick!!”

Akira glanced down at her own hand. “But, mine isn’t glowing.”

“Neither is mine,” Ryo said. He raised an eyebrow and glanced around the room. “It could connect to the wall.” He pointed to the wall right next to where Kouta stood. A panel there glowed in the same shape as their tattoos: an “s” and a “c” in two concentric circles. Kouta gingerly held his hand up to the wall, twisting it slightly so the letters and circles matched up.

Suddenly, a large piece of the wall in front of Kouta pressed back deeper and slid away, revealing a large glass and metal container. Akira narrowed her eyes. “Is that—?”

“An elevator,” Ryo finished, tapping on the glass and moving backwards slightly when the glass slid open.

The three teens glanced at one another. They all had the same thought on their minds: to go in, or not to. If they did, there was a reasonable chance that they might never get out, even with their new bio-keys. But if they didn’t, they were turning their backs on what might be a big discovery.

“I vote go down,” Ryo stated firmly.

Akira took a deep breath. “You know what? Me too!”

Kouta sighed. “I guess that makes three of us.”

And so they entered.


Akira wasn’t all that fond of roller coasters. Even with her now excessive training, she still felt slightly sick on roller coasters, even though she hadn’t been on one since she had joined the Exo-Force.

The elevator was close enough.

It shot down with sickening speed, and Akira felt as though her stomach had been left on the surface. She swallowed hard, clutching a railing along the cylindrical tube and trying not to throw up.

The elevator was down through layers and layers of stone, or so she presumed, as the glass didn’t allow her to see anything but rock. Still, the elevator was very high-tech, a sleek cylindrical shape that could probably hold around seven or so people, and the tube lights above glowed a fluorescent blue-white. The inside gleamed pure white.

Just when Akira was sure they would be going through stone forever, the stone outside suddenly dropped away, the tube now going through a massive cavern. The dark-haired girl pressed her face against the glass, staring and gaping.

The cavern was so large, Akira could have fit at least fifty football fields inside, and that was only as far as she could see. And out from there appeared to be…apartment buildings? That couldn’t be right. This was underground. No one would be living here.

The tube slowed to a stop at the bottom of the cavern, the glass sliding open and Akira, Ryo, and Kouta slipping out. As Akira’s foot touched the ground, the tile beneath her feet flared to light. With a pulse-like glow, the light spread throughout the city. Akira glanced down at her hand as her tattoo began to glow, just as Kouta’s had.

The large structures, what Akira had convinced herself were not building, but in reality were, seemed to also be covered in the same tile, and the light spread to cover those too. But not all the buildings were on the ground. Some of them seemed to hang from the cavern’s ceiling, what would be the top of the building now hanging at around a hundred feet above the teen’s heads. Akira suddenly felt very small.

Every surface in the cavern seemed to glow, all of them made of the same material. Then, on every flat surface available, the panels changed, all matching one another, but making some sort of collage. Slowly, they worked themselves out, and a face appeared on the screens.

It was a woman’s face, not too young and not too old. It seemed to be in some lighting that made her look almost pasty in complexion, like a very white-blue. Her hair was cropped in a straight bob, her hair appearing white, though Akira wasn’t sure if it was the lighting or her natural hair color. Her eyes were a peculiar shade of grey-blue, and looked sharply down at the three teens, as though she could actually see them.

“Welcome, adventurers and chosen ones!”

The woman’s voice boomed out over the entire cavern, but it didn’t seem to echo. Akira wondered if that was due to so many buildings being there and taking up so much space.

“You have found the ancient city your ancestors before you once built to save humanity. And as you have found it now, I believe now is your dearest hour.”

Kouta narrowed his eyes. “Um, what is she talking about?” Ryo shushed him.

“The world above may collapse,” the woman continued, “though it may be due to outbreaks of incurable sicknesses or powerful rebellions. Not even we could see that far in the future. But this is the safe haven built. Companion to the Golden City above, created for the hold of the greatest technology, the most powerful of those creations were used here, to one day save mankind.

“This is the Golden City’s sister: the Silver City.”

Akira glanced around once more. In truth, it really was a city underground. It looked like a mixture of downtown Tokyo and the Batcave. Some buildings hung upside down from the ceiling, while others were more traditionally standing up. From the little Akira could see from her position, she looked to be in some sort of downtown metropolis area. There was even a lifted train system, or so it seemed. She couldn’t really tell, as it all seemed to sleek and perfect, and nothing seemed to be in motion or being used at the moment. Blue fluorescent lights hung from the cavern ceiling, giving the place a bright but highly idealized look. It was like something that Akira would expect to see on a moonbase: pure, clean, and very very grey.

“My name is Korda Yamamoto,” the woman said, her face straight, “and I oversaw the construction of this city. But now, you of great wonder, you are now the masters of my city. You must save mankind. Maybe one day the Earth will sustain life once more, but until then, this city is the safest place for mankind. Cures for every known disease and many not known lie in this city. This city’s center is under the Golden City, but spreads throughout cavern after cavern under all of Japan.

“Man is the greatest thing the world has to offer. Save them, and your world might be saved as well. You already have the keys to call me back. Do well, young explorers. And be strong.”

And with that, the tiles flipped back into a pure white color, lighting the city cavern with white light. The three teens looked at one another. For a long time, they were silent.

“Well,” Ryo said slowly, “that was rather unexpected.”

“Unexpected?!” Kouta’s eyes were like silver dollars. “Are you kidding me?! We just found an entire city underneath Japan! This is a bit more than unexpected!!”

Akira swallowed hard. “So…what do we do now?”

Ryo narrowed his eyes, pulling a screwdriver from his pocket and fiddling with it. Akira had noticed him do that at various times, from everything to nervous moments to when he was thinking hard. His blue eyes darkened under the shadows of his hair, and he leaned against a wall. Finally, after a few minutes, his eyes met Akira’s and Kouta’s. “We should keep this place a secret until necessary. The woman said that this place was created as a refuge against some evil. That evil may indeed be the robots, but we don’t want it to be general knowledge, or else the robots may find a way to use it against us. So until then, keep it secret, and safe.”

“What about our ‘keys’?” Akira asked, holding up her fist. “These are kind of hard to hide.”

Ryo shrugged. “Gloves are great and powerful devices, my dear Sultan of Seismic Explosions. I believe you will find that you wear them quite often.”

Akira couldn’t help but crack a grin at Ryo’s language. She even excused the fact that he had called her by the nickname she couldn’t get rid of. “So,” she started, turning around. “What do we do? Explore?”

Ryo blinked, his blue eyes shining grey in the fluorescent light. “Well, no one will really be looking for us, except for maybe Hikaru. So I guess looking around the place wouldn’t hurt. We need to be aware of what we’re dealing with.”

Kouta’s eyes widened slightly. It was at times like these that Akira could actually tell the guy was barely a teenager. He probably hadn’t even hit his growth spurt. In the odd light, he looked scared and very young. “Explore? But what if this is some sort of trap? What if it’s just the robots using us? This could all be a big mistake!”

Ryo nodded. “You’re thinking right. But we also know that this wasn’t built by robots. See the buildings? No robot would build from the ceiling down. They would have compacted everything on the ground and used the upper space to make battle machines. This place is too old to be a robot-made place. I think Akira’s right. We ought to explore a bit.”

Kouta bit his lower lip, but said nothing.

The three walked through the city streets, their gazes shifting from object to object. Akira was unnerved by the lack of color through the entire place. This Silver City was truly all silver. The only differentiation was between shades, and that was the only way Akira’s whole depth perception didn’t get thrown off. It was as though the entire place had been made from one material and nothing else. Everything was shades of grey.

And no one was there. The place was unnaturally silent. It was well lit and open and quite cozy, but silent. It was as though this were a prototype of a city; the real one hadn’t been built yet. This was just for show. But apparently it could be lived in. Akira wasn’t sure how. It looked so barren.

Ryo motioned for them all to go into one of the shops on the side, which they followed him in to. Akira glanced around, admiring the objects on the shelves. It looked like some sort of food store, but none of the food was anything she recognized. She picked up packages, as everything seemed to be sealed in bags. Maybe it was for storing purposes.

“Hmm…” Ryo mused as he picked up packages. “These must have been here for years, and yet they seem completely fresh. What technology do they use, I wonder…”

Kouta and Akira left Ryo to his thoughtfulness and took back to the streets, going to the store directly across from the grocery store they had been in. This one was even more organized than the last one. Tiny bottles lined the walls, each labeled specifically, and all glowing with different color. After all the silver and grey, Akira was glad to see some variation in color scheme.

“What are these?” Akira picked up a bottle, admiring the blue liquid glowing from inside. “Magic potions or something?”

Kouta snatched the bottle from her. “Don’t be ridiculous!” he snapped. He glanced at the label. “It says ‘Malaria’.”

“Like the disease?”

Kouta narrowed his small eyes. “Yeah. But that could mean—.”

Akira clapped her hands together excitedly. “A cure for malaria! Malaria doesn’t have a cure!”

Kouta nodded slowly. “Or…” he paused. “It could be the disease itself. You know how scientists keep records of all diseases so they can experiment on cures. What if these are all diseases?”

The dark-haired girl felt her skin crawl up her back. “Why would diseases be at a shop? It makes no sense. You don’t sell diseases.”

“We don’t. Maybe there’s a reason.” He picked up another, this one green. “This one says ‘tuberculosis’.”

Akira blinked, glancing around. “Dang, they’ve got everything here!”

“It’s a city for the apocalypse. What did you expect?”

The two of them continued searching the other shops, taking close inventory of what each of them had that could be useful in the future. Large warehouses held clothes and food, while others were more like gathering spaces. There was even a park in the middle of the city, but Akira wasn’t sure why. If this was for the end of the world, why would entertainment be necessary? Wouldn’t everyone be too freaked out to do anything of the sort?

Still, she and Kouta had an interesting time together as they searched through buildings, especially when they found out how to get up to the ceiling buildings. The two of them took another tube-like elevator to the ceiling, and were set off right in the building.

It looked like a regular old apartment building on the inside. Akira wondered if all the numbers on the indoor elevator were in negatives since they were going down. But when she tried to get in, the door wouldn’t open. She frowned and knocked on the door, but it did not budge.

Suddenly, her tattoo started gleaming once again. Out of a wall panel folded what appeared to be one of the tiles from the outdoors, and Korda’s face appeared on the screen. “Scan, please,” her cool, feminine voice said slowly. A hand scanner poked out of the wall and Akira cautiously pressed her hand against it, remembering what happened the last time she did something similar. But thankfully, this time the scanner merely shot out a harmless laser over her fingers, and did not grab her hand.

“Ms. Akira Hamoto,” Korda said slowly. “Your room is number A01. Please continue.”

The door to the elevator slid open, and Akira hopped in, but had to wait until Kouta scanned himself in as well, for the elevator door shut behind Akira and refused to open before Kouta checked himself in. His room, as no one else had ever checked in before, was right next to hers, so they continued to their level. Akira didn’t even wonder how the city knew her name. At this point, she was finding it hard to be shocked by just about anything.

She had been wrong about the negative numbers. Every level corresponded with a letter, the bottom one, which hung the lowest over the city and that Akira and Kouta were staying on, was labeled ‘A’. The elevator shot down with sickening speed (Akira was starting to dislike the Silver City’s transportation system) but slowed to a smooth stop at the bottom level.

Akira stepped out onto the carpeted floor (grey, of course) and into the hallway. It was almost drab, but each of the doors had a neat, gold plate on the front with a number set carved in it. Akira stepped up to the first one and held her hand up to the doorknob, the backside of her hand facing away from her.

To her delight, the door clicked open, revealing a small room, rather like a dorm. In fact, it was almost like her room up in the Golden City, but with only one bed. And the floor was made of glass. Akira could look straight down and see the streets below. She wondered if she could fix that. She didn’t like the idea of people looking up and seeing what she was doing in her room.

But why was she even thinking about that? She wasn’t going to live here, at least not yet. The apocalypse hadn’t happened yet, and she was part of the Exo-Force. It was her job to try to prevent the end of the human race from happening. She doubted she would ever use this room again. Still, it was nice to know that there was somewhere she could go, somewhere that would only open for her.

She answered Kouta when he same and knocked on her door. “Nice place,” he said quietly. “I feel like I should be whispering, though. This place is so quiet that I’m pretty sure I’m disturbing the peace.”

“I know,” Akira said, barely above a murmur. “I feel like I’m in a cemetery, and it’s making me shiver.”

Kouta nodded, looking around. “I’ve had enough of this place for one day. Let’s find Ryo and head home.”

“Agreed.”

Chapter 18:

Akira Log #122836

 

Trying to be quiet about something super exciting is one of the hardest things I’ve probably ever had to do. The whole concept of this Silver City thing is just so amazing that I want to just scream it out to the world and go and talk to Hikaru about it, get his opinion. But he’s still not in on the plan. So I have Ryo and Kouta. Ryo just gets all dreamy-eyed and seems to forget I exist after a while of talking, and Kouta is so spazzy about the whole thing that he can’t hardly sit still when talking. I wish Hikaru was in on it. At least he’d take the whole think a little more calmly.

Vacation is almost over, which means the rest of the team will be coming back soon. Actually, I think they’re coming back tomorrow. I’m actually pretty excited to get back to work and have a normal training schedule. The days are getting frantic with Rina and Minako tailing me around. Oh well, at least everyone else is taking it well.

Akira closed her Compad shut and stood from her ground-level bed. With a quick twist, she popped her back a few times and sighed.

She clapped her hands loudly and opened the blinds so the pale light of the new day shone into the room. “Good morning, you two!”

Rina moaned and pulled her pillow over her head. Minako merely sat up, looking bleary eyed. “Did something…happen?” The brown-haired girl asked through a yawn.

“Sure something’s happening!” Akira said with a wide grin. “You two said you wanted to see what my life was really like. So you’re joining me on my daily schedule!”

Rina moaned a little more. “Tomorrow?” She said in her pillow.

“Nope. Today. Up and at ‘em!”

It took nearly a half an hour for the two girls to roll out of bed and get ready for the day. But there was still enough time for Akira to get them down to the training center. It was around five-thirty in the morning. Akira would have been up by four sharp, but she didn’t want to torment her friends too badly.

“No breakfast?” Rina whined.

Akira shook her head with a grin as she walked them through hallways. “Nope. Breakfast doesn’t start until seven. I always exercise before breakfast.”

Minako gave a small sigh, but was quiet.

“I’m even too tired to talk to all the hot guys,” Rina complained.

Akira laughed, and they continued down the hallways.

She opened the large wooden doors, motioning to the room. “This is the man training deck, where I do most of my training, and—TAKESHI!!”

Akira had to stop her mini tour to give a flying hug to the young man in the room. Takeshi was shirtless, sweaty, and already busy with a punching bag. But Akira didn’t care. In her excitement, she threw herself on him.

Takeshi stopped his exercising and turned around as Akira released him. “And what did I do to deserve this?” he asked, with a teasing note to his voice. Akira understood well enough, and was actually surprised as well in her actions. A few months ago, she would have thought that hugging Takeshi would have either been downright awkward or a little disrespectful. But at this point, she considered him one of her friends. And a mentor.

“You’re better!” Akira laughed, punching Takeshi slightly in the arm. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you in here.”

Takeshi rubbed his hands gently on his abdomen. “Yeah, well, I’m basically fully healed. I just can’t stand the sickbay. They told me not to do anything too strenuous.” He glanced at the punching bag. “Do you call this strenuous?”

Akira shrugged. “Compared to what you normally do, not at all.”

“I have trained you well.”

“Um, excuse me?” Rina, somehow now perked up slightly, tapped Akira on the shoulder. “Are you going to introduce us?”

Great, more attractive men for Rina to gawk at! Akira smiled and motioned to Takeshi. “Rina, Minako, this is one of my trainers, Takeshi. Takeshi, these are my old friends, Rina and Minako.”

Takeshi nodded, raising an eyebrow at the two of them. “And they’re here…why?”

“They wanted to know what my life was like.” Akira answered. “So I decided to give them the full on experience.”

“No breakfast ‘til seven and everything?”

“Heck yeah!”

Takeshi’s hard face broke into an amused smile. “So what should we make them do first? Run a mile or two or do fifty chin-ups?”

Akira rubbed her chin in mock thought. “Well, we could spar a bit with them, and that’s always quite painful.”

“Of have them do handstand-pushups.”

“Not even I can do those, Takeshi.”

“Well, we should give them the full experience, right?”

“WHAT?!” Rina yelped. “I haven’t even had breakfast yet! I can’t run a mile!!”

Minako, looked scared, nodded in agreement. “Um…maybe we could just do a few pushups and be done with it. How does that sound?”

Takeshi and Akira burst into laughter at the stricken faces before them. Akira had never seen her friends so uncomfortable before. It was rather entertaining. When she had finally subsided in her laughs, she shook her head, her ponytail swinging behind her. “We’re just teasing you two, don’t worry about it! I’m going to be doing all that stuff probably. You guys can just watch.”

The relief was immediate on their faces.

Takeshi merely grinned and started to put Akira through a few drills, just to see where she had gotten to while he had been on leave. Every once in a while, he would make a comment and have her adjust, but besides that he stayed silent.

Rina and Minako watched in silence as Akira pulled a series on complicated moves on the balance beam, through handsprings and handstands and various other forms of flexibility. She was about to flip off completely when she was blocked. Takeshi hoisted himself on the beam and his fierce green eyes met hers.

“Alright,” he said quietly, “now against me.”

Akira scrunched her eyebrows together. “Against you?”

“Fight me.”

“But…why? On a balance beam?”

Takeshi nodded to the side, to all the other equipment in the room. “This isn’t just training anymore, Akira. You’re almost in your fourth month of training, almost two thirds of the way through. You have good timing, a quick mind and body. But it won’t get you anywhere unless you can use it. So from now on, your techniques will be used against me.”

“Hey, that’s not fair!” Rina spoke up from the sidelines. “She’s already out of breath and you’ve had time to recover.”

Takeshi glanced her way, his gaze hard. “Robots don’t breath, girl. People do. If she wants to do well in a full on battle, she had better get used to fighting objects that won’t tire.”

Akira forced herself to stay calm and look over the situation. Takeshi was right. Playtime was over, at least in his classes. From now on, she was in the real section of her training: fighting. She could spar well enough, but when it came to a full on fight, she wasn’t sure how well she’d do. She had done well enough with the robot-dorm invasion, but her one moment of weakness had put her in a vulnerable position. She wasn’t about let that happen again.

Before she could even think about her first move, Takeshi was already coming at her. For such a large young man, he was quick on his feet. He deftly cleared the position between himself and her and threw a neat kick. Akira nearly lost her balance as she leapt back to avoid his blow.

Slowly, she pulled herself into a defensive position, though keeping herself on her toes. Maybe is she reached far enough with her leg, she could knock Takeshi off balance by hitting his ankle. But her movements weren’t quick enough, and before she knew it, Takeshi had rammed a fist into her shoulder and she was crashing into the padded floor.

Rina and Minako cried out in anguish, but Akira was already on her feet. Takeshi could hit a lot harder than he had. At most, she would have a bruise there. But she didn’t care. She jumped onto the springboard and got back on the beam, facing Takeshi once again.

But no matter what she did, she couldn’t beat him. Takeshi was larger, heavier, and way more experienced than Akira, and his balance was impeccable. Every time Akira tried a new tactic, she found herself on the ground. She was starting to get frustrated by around time number twelve.

“This…is impossible,” she said through heavy breaths as she struggled to get back on the beam. “I’m…not strong…enough!”

Takeshi stepped over to her and extended a hand, helping her back on the wooden and leather board. A grin was on his hard, scarred face. “What did I teach you about pressure points, AK?”

“That no matter how strong a person, when a pressure point is used, the muscles in their body can flex in a way they do not intend or can cause great pain,” Akira recited. She had heard it said so many times in passing that it had stuck.

“Exactly,” Takeshi nodded in approval. “So when you get the chance, ask Ryo about robot pressure points. They won’t work on me, but everything has its weaknesses. Robots are metal, which means they’ve been fused together by wires and metal. They don’t think, they reason. They look at situations and figure out a strategy. They obey orders. And they never tire. What you need to figure out is where to hit them to keep them down. Because if they can even move a little, they will attack you, even when you’re not expecting it. So from now on, your own training in the gym to keep in shape will be your own responsibility. Our training will be on your senses, and your personal fighting style. Does that work?”

Akira managed a bow without falling off the beam. “Yes, Takeshi-sensei.”

Takeshi smirked a little, ruffling Akira’s bangs slightly. “Good. I’ll be around from now on, so we can chat or work. See you at breakfast?”

“Yeah! I’ll be there.”

“Good.” Takeshi nodded and left the exercise room, grabbing his bag on the way out. Akira smiled. It had been a while since she had a lesson with Takeshi, and she was glad they were back.

Minako rushed onto the exercise floor, grabbing Akira with stricken eyes. “Are you alright?!” Minako yelped, checking Akira for any apparent injuries. “He beat you up pretty badly!”

“Are you kidding me?” Akira laughed. “He was going easy on me. I’ve gotten way worse from him.”

“He sounds so mean,” she fretted. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

Akira shrugged. “Actually, that lesson was good for me. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten my butt totally kicked. I needed that.” She glanced around. “Um…where’s Rina?”

Minako flushed. “I think she’s trying to find Takeshi. I don’t know if she’s angry or lovestruck.”

Akira rolled her eyes, grabbing her bag. She would move on to maybe a quick run before breakfast, but Takeshi’s words had given her some food for thought.

Playtime was over. The battle was beginning. Before she knew it, she would be a full member of the Exo-Force. She couldn’t afford to be weak anymore. It was about time she really took everything to the next level.


“Morning, Akira,” Hikaru nodded to the girl as she took her place at the front table.

“Good morning, Hikaru!” Akira said cheerfully. Rina and Minako were close behind her with their own trays of food. They settled by her, still looking exhausted. “How are you?”

“I’m doing alright,” Hikaru nodded, cracking his back as he twisted slightly. “Though a little more sleep might have been nice. Sora was up messing with Ha-Ya-To’s guitar, which I’m sad to say he does not play as well as Ha-Ya-To.”

Akira snickered through her mouth full of apple. “Did he play anything for you?”

“Tried,” Ryo said in annoyance as he came to the table, his tray full of food Akira was sure he wouldn’t eat. “I could hear it through the walls.”

“He’s been trying to learn the guitar for years,” Akira explained. “He’s just never actually, you know, practiced.”

“Well, hate to say it, but it shows,” Hikaru grinned. He shot a glance at Rina and Minako. “I’m surprised you two aren’t sleeping. Don’t you normally eat with the residents later in the morning?”

“Normally yeah,” Rina muttered, “but Akira wanted us to see what the day was normally like for her, so we agreed. Now I wish I hadn’t.”

“Hey, you guys asked me to show you first!” Akira snapped back playfully. “I agreed to your demands.”

Minako took a small sip of her protein shake. “You all seem to do quite a bit,” she said politely. “What’s your favorite part of being part of the Exo-Force?”

“Easy!” Takeshi said, coming up with his own platter, as all his food wouldn’t fit on one plate. “Smashing robots until their circuits are screwed!”

Hikaru snorted. “Violent much, Takeshi?” He rubbed his chin in thought. “Hmm…that’s actually a good question. I’d say…maybe just how much I learn while living here. I’m always honing my skills more and more.”

“Seeing the decommissioned battle machines stay in one piece,” Ryo answered smoothly, avoiding Minako’s deep stare at him. Minako’s eyes lingered on him for a moment longer, before returning to her food. Akira held back a smirk.

“It’s good to see you, Takeshi!” Hikaru said, giving his friend a hug before Takeshi sat down. “Tired of residency food?”

“Of course,” Takeshi rolled his eyes. “I just love trading bacon and eggs for protein shakes and stale bagels.” He shrugged. “I missed the company. My parents are great, but I missed being with the team. They understood, so did my little brothers.”

“Glad we can be here for you, buddy!” Hikaru grinned, continuing with his cereal. He shot a glance at Akira. “Have a good morning so far?”

Akira nodded. “Yeah. Takeshi and I worked out this morning, which was fun. I’m excited to get back to more straight training.”

Hikaru nodded. “Well, just so you know. It’s not all going to be fighting anymore.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. You have to go through a series of classes. We all have to at some points. You’ll be taking Gipscom—.”

Akira interrupted him, already confused. “Which is what?”

Hikaru waved it away. “Sorry, it’s spelled ‘GPSCoM’, and stands for GPS, Compasses, and Maps training. You’ll be in Engineering and Divisionary Tactics, but you’re exempted from Combat Tactics, since we’ve practically taught you most of that. In between classes, you’ll be doing normal routine, whether that be guard duty or hand-to-hand practice, or flying. Let’s see…you’ve got Robotics 101, so you can recognize the robots battle machines easier, and a class in Military History.”

Akira frowned. “Sounds like school.”

“You can’t ever really avoid it,” Ryo shrugged. “We even have to take the classes. We’ve only been exempted these past few months because we’ve been training all you. So we’ll be in classes with you.”

“Well, that’ll be slightly more enjoyable, I guess.” Akira shrugged and continued her meal. Though she wasn’t really all that excited. She had been hoping her classwork was finished. Seems she had been wrong.

“We have a Code Red, robots on the bridge! All available pilots to their stations!”

The three pilots locked gazes as the loudspeaker blared to life. “Think this is too strenuous for the nurses?” Takeshi asked, trying to sound serious.

Hikaru couldn’t hold back a laugh. “Are you kidding? You eat, drink, and breathe fighting! Come on team. Let’s power up!”

Akira rose to her feet and tapped Ryo on the shoulder. “Have Midori look after these two, okay?” She motioned to Rina and Minako. “I’m busy at the moment.” She turned to her friends. “Duty calls! I’ll see you all at lunch at the latest, okay? And I’ll radio you if anything changes.”

Akira ran at top speed after Hikaru and Takeshi. The training grounds were close by, where her Stealth Hunter was kept. Hikaru and Takeshi kept theirs elsewhere. As the Dream Team’s pilots had very specific battle machines that only they were licensed to, and the Golden City had special warehouses for each of them. So they broke ranks at a fork in the road and Akira hurried to the training grounds.

A techie was already there preparing the Stealth Hunter for flight. Unlike the newer battle machines, the older ones still needed techies to prepare them. Akira wasn’t licensed to her own battle machine yet, so she still needed someone to set hers up for her.

A platform rose underneath Akira, a thing she had marveled at upon her first experience with her battle machines, and yet now seemed to normal. She threw herself in her machine and clipped the braces around her feet. Ha-Ya-To had been right all that time ago: the preliminary settings were practically instinctual now. She flipped switches and pressed buttons and waited until the techie was finished.

Finally, he pulled away. “Alright, you’re all set!”

Akira grinned, slamming her foot down on the pedal. “Power up!!”

Akira loved the feeling of flying. She had tried a ground-based battle machine once, but she didn’t like the feeling of being confined to the ground. She was much more accustomed to the flight-based machines. They were lithe and sleek and gave Akira a sense of power she had never felt before. “Be careful, Akira,” Ha-Ya-To had told her. “Remember you’re controlling an awful lot of power here.”

She knew she was. And she loved it.

Akira met Hikaru in the sky over the large golden bridge leading out to the mountains beyond. The bridge had once connected the robots to the Golden City, apparently. But the trainees had been banned from going over the bridge unless in battle, and she hadn’t seen a massive amount of robots coming in through the stone archway on the other side.

Until now.

Akira gaped. Only a few days ago had been her first real defensive assignment, and that hadn’t been too difficult. But this was much bigger.

The screen in front of her flared to life, splitting into three screens: one for herself, one for Hikaru, and one for Takeshi. She only communicated with the leaders, as she had found out earlier on. She could ask them to do things, but because they were the seniors, Akira had no real contact except by radio with the other battle machines.

“We’ve got some Venom Walkers, Shadow Crawlers, and some Fire Vultures 2.0. Dang, I thought those things had been decommissioned ages ago!”

“Apparently we were wrong,” Hikaru frowned. “I’m also picking up some Claw Crushers, Iron Condors, and Thunder Furies...even a few Raging Storms!”

“This is when I really wish we had Ha-Ya-To back,” Takeshi grumbled.

Hikaru nodded. “Well, we’ll have to do the best we can. All pilots, defend the city at all costs! These are our orders.”

Akira nodded. “Yes, sir!”

“I want Grand Titans on the Claw Crushers, and Stealth Hunters on the aerial machines. Takeshi, take the Venom Walkers and Shadow Crawlers. I’ll move with the Thunder Furies and Fire Vultures. Are we clear?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Good, then begin!”

Akira shot into the sky, taking out a few land machines with her blaster rifle on the way up. She had gotten much faster, and much smoother during her many training sessions. And she liked the way the Stealth Hunter worked. It was a good battle machine.

She took aim as she hit her high point and began firing. She could take out many machines from up here. Her aim was precise, and after a while, she began to feel pretty good about the whole thing. This wasn’t so hard.

Bzzztt!!!

Akira whirled slammed into the pedal, whirling out of the way as a shot of pure energy blasted into the place she had been in mere moments ago. She swallowed hard, turning her machine quickly to face a Fire Vulture…at least, she thought it was a Fire Vulture. She didn’t actually known many of the names of the robot battle machines. She tried to remember the little she had learned about each type of robot. Fire Vultures had a massive fan on the back of them, giving them hovering abilities that a bunch of other robots from the Split Sentai Era hadn’t had. They had a massive flamethrower on one arm, a claw on the other that was fueled with raw electrical power, and lasers on the shoulders.

Needless to say, it was dangerous.

Akira gripped her gloved hand tighter, pointing her fingers in the direction of the robot and clicked her fingers together. The laser rifle mimicked her every movement, and the Fire Vulture was down, but not without leaving her a nice black mark on one of her white armored plates.

“Watch it, Akira,” Hikaru snapped, looking relatively preoccupied on the screen, as he was probably fighting his own battle at the moment. “Stealth Hunters don’t have Golden City technology. You’re more susceptible to damage.”

Akira turned and fired at another Fire Vulture that had been trying to sneak up behind her. “Thanks for warning me!”

Again and again she fired, taking down battle machine after battle machine. Her senses were on hyper-focus mode, every sound causing her to spin and shoot as a result. She was just glad that her sensors were there to warn her if it was another Exo-Force battle machine, and not a robot. She almost shot at a few of her fellow members, but managed to stop before she clicked her fingers on their imaginary triggers.

Iron Condors coming at you, Akira.

Akira whirled around and faced the five large battle machines that streaked towards her through the air. She managed a few shots at them before having to fly to a higher altitude to keep them from totally colliding with her. Unfortunately, she had forgotten the one major strength of the Iron Condors.

They could fly at wickedly high altitudes.

Akira found herself pushing her Stealth Hunter to go as fast as it possibly could, trying everything from sharp turns to even dropping out her power completely to make the robots maybe think that she had been hit by their many wildly thrown shots. But they kept right on following her.

“Hikaru!” She shrieked. “How do I shake these things?!”

“Be right there!”

Akira slammed on the backpedal as a streak of blue shot up in front of her, the Sky Guardian’s gleaming sword taking out one of the Condors as it flew straight on. Akira turned her back to the Sky Guardian, the two of them back to back. Hikaru had a short range weapon, as his sword didn’t extend nearly far enough to reach the Iron Condors in the their tight knit circle, so when his particle beam rifle was charging or his missiles were being reset, he dodged and weaved with his energy sword.

The Stealth Hunter was much more limited. Akira had donned both gloves, giving her access to the double-bladed electro sword on the other arm of her battle machine. But she wasn’t nearly as good with a blade as she was with her blaster rifle and her rifle was only for long-range. She needed to get closer in. The Iron Condors were much too swift for just a gun.

As another robot came into range, she swung her sword around, stabbing the robot as best as she could, and threw it into another. But her movement caused her to lose focus on the other robots around her. Another Condor shot close to her side and gripped the arm of her battle machine. She let out a yell as the claws gripped and crushed the metal like paper. She pulled back her gun and shot directly at the robot, the battle machine falling from the air like a dead weight. But the damage had already been done: her blade arm was out of commission.

The Iron Condors surrounded her, but before she could call for help to Hikaru, who by this point was much farther away, a claw gripped into the area just below her blast shield and ripped the section out. Suddenly, her power was gone, and her communications video and radio were down. She scrambled around to look at the Power Brick, glad to see it still pulsing. Wires must have been ripped out, but the brick seemed to still have power.

Akira screamed in fear as her rockets went dead. She felt herself falling out of the air. She looked down and gripped the sides of her battle machine, just knowing that in any moment, she would be crushed down below on the floor of the gorge.

But instead, she rose. She glanced up, hoping to see Hikaru’s Sky Guardian lifting her back into the air. But it wasn’t. It was another Iron Condor, it’s short, metal arms gripped around her battle machine and taking back off into the sky. Akira tried to point her rifle at it, but the barrel was too long. She couldn’t get the correct angle.

She turned back to face forwards, looking at where the robot was taking her.

The Iron Hills.

Home of the robot base.

Akira pounded on her screen, but nothing happened. No one could hear her scream from this altitude, and she doubted anyone would notice one Iron Condor flying back off. Everyone was too busy with their own battles.

She was being taken to the robots.

And no one even knew.

Chapter 19:

“We have to go after her!” Takeshi said through a snarl.

Hikaru nodded gravely. “And we will. Ryo, I want all stats on positioning and situation of Akira’s Stealth Hunter, on the double!” Hikaru landed his Sky Guardian into place, leaping out to the ground. He took off running towards Ryo’s workshop, Takeshi right behind him.

Hikaru had seen Akira being carted off by the Iron Condors and had tried as much as he possibly could to keep the Condors from getting away. But even his Sky Guardian’s speed wasn’t enough to get to the Iron Condors before they passed the gate to the mountains. After that, he had to stop. Even he wasn’t allowed over there without more pilots. He had done some stupid stunts before, but going straight into robot territory alone, especially with the uncertainty of what the robots had been planning recently, was against many of the Exo-Force rules and just plain suicide.

No matter how much he wanted Akira back, he needed to wait. It would be much too dangerous to go with only Takeshi, even more so with more inexperienced pilots, no matter how many he brought.

He would have to wait it out and pray Akira was alright.

“We should have just gone after her in the first place!” Takeshi yelled as they ran.

“I would have if we could have,” Hikaru said back, steadying his breathing as much as possible. “But we had too many battle machines down after the fight, and we wouldn’t have had enough to go after her safely. If we had more experienced pilots with us, I would have agreed right away.”

Takeshi nodded.

Ryo was already busy at work when they arrived. He whirled around, facing them. “Her communicator’s off, and her power is down. But with some readings, I might be able to find where she is.”

“Do them now,” Hikaru ordered, leaning over Ryo as the techie sat down at his computer and began to type furiously. Agonizing minutes passed by, as Hikaru watched Ryo type in password after password, code after code. Finally, an image popped up on the screen of a Stealth Hunter, tiny words slowly snaking their way across the page in neat lines.

Ryo bent in closer, narrowing his blue eyes. “Let’s see…I’m getting some tracking image on the Power Core. Thankfully, the core itself doesn’t look like it’s been damaged, so we’ll be able to track easier.”

“Good, good,” Hikaru nodded. “And Akira?”

“Still on the move. The Iron Condor must be taking her deep in the mountains, though I don’t remember a base being on any records there. There must be something, though.”

Hikaru nodded again. “What would we do without you, Ryo? Okay, I want someone monitoring that light at all times. If anything changes, I want to know about it. Understood?”

Ryo cracked a rare smile. “Loud and clear, commander.” His gaze became solemn very quickly. “Are you going to tell her parents?”

Hikaru let out a breath. As the immediate superior of most of the teams, he was also in charge of telling pilot’s families if their child had been captured or killed. It had become like a drill to him, but no less painful than the first time he had had to do the job. It was hard enough telling a parent that their child was missing. It was worse telling them that their child wasn’t coming back from the war. That they were never coming back.

The pilot nodded. “Yeah, it’s a good thing they’re in the city right now. I’ll have to tell her two friends too.”

Takeshi clapped his friend of the shoulder grimly. “Best of luck.”

“Thanks.”

Hikaru took a deep breath as he stepped out of the workshop into the open air. At any other point, he would have easily been smiling at the glorious day. The sun was out, the air not nearly as chilly, and the snow gleaming from where it had been moved away from the streets. In fact, the day was one of the prettier ones since the massive snowstorms the mountains always seemed to send.

But Hikaru’s mind was already puzzling out a way to get Akira back. He hadn’t been made the leader of the Exo-Force’s pilots for nothing. Anyone else would have been in a state of shock at this point, but Hikaru was trying to stay logical, which was difficult due to the circumstances.

While Hikaru may not have been in shock, his emotions were nearly taking over his mind. He wasn’t normally so emotional, but he found himself having to slow down his heart rate, keep his mind from playing over worst-case scenarios, and stop his legs from shaking. He nearly slapped himself. What was wrong with him? Akira was just another soldier who had been taken behind enemy lines. He had had to save pilots before.

So why was she causing him to worry so much? Was it because she was his apprentice? That was probably it. He had spent a lot of time and effort training Akira, training that would go to waste if Akira was dead.

Stop it! He told himself fiercely. She’s not dead, you idiot. She’s perfectly alive and safe. If anything happens, Ryo will let me know.

Slowly, Hikaru walked up to the house in the Residential District that Akira’s parents were staying in. Hikaru would have to tell Rina, Minako, and Akira’s brothers later, because they were staying elsewhere.

So he stood there, in front of the door, waiting.

Hikaru hated this part of the job: knocking on the front door. It was almost worse than seeing the reaction afterwards. There was so much uncertainty to that one door. One knock could change the lives of the people behind it, and not for the better.

The blue-haired pilot took a deep breath and knocked on the door. He waited a few seconds, listening for any movement behind the piece of wood separating happiness from sorrow. He knocked again, a bit louder this time.

Slowly, the door swung open, revealing Mrs. Hamoto, who was drying her hands with a dish towel. Hikaru had only had a few experiences with Akira’s mother, but the middle-aged woman seemed nice enough, if a little fiery at times. She had long, dark red hair, and a slight frame. A kind look came over her face. “Good afternoon, Hikaru! How can I help you?”

Hikaru swallowed. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Hamoto. I have something I need to speak to you about. May I come in?”

“Of course!” Mrs. Hamoto hurriedly shifted out of the way and made room in the small hallway for Hikaru to pass. The pilot nodded his head, and stepped in, thanking her for her kindness.

Hikaru loved the residential homes. They were all so comfortable and small and decorated very well. The people in the Golden City had done wonders to make the place home-like, especially in such a short time that they had been allowed to move. This house was one of the many empty ones used for guests or in preparation for more citizens to move in.

“Please, have a seat while I get you something to drink.”

Hikaru raised a hand. “You are most kind, Mrs. Hamoto, but I can’t stay that long. I came to speak of something very urgent.”

Mrs. Hamoto raised an eyebrow, but set down her dish cloth and nodded. Hikaru swallowed. “You might want to sit down, Mrs. Hamoto.”

“I’ll stand, thank you,” she said quietly. “What seems to be the problem?”

Hikaru sucked in a breath. He hated this part too. You couldn’t make it sounds any less painful than it was already. There was no way to soften the blow. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Hamoto. But your daughter had been captured by the robots.”

The room was silent. Mrs. Hamoto didn’t move. Finally, after minutes of silence, her voice seemed to return. “And…when did this happen?”

“Earlier this morning,” Hikaru answered slowly and quietly. “But you can know that we are doing everything in our power to get her back.”

The woman’s breaths were starting to come in more quickly and more ragged. She swallowed, hard. Hikaru had to force himself to remain calm. He knew it wouldn’t help if he showed any sign of fear as well.

Mrs. Hamoto’s knees buckled and she sank into the chair behind her. A hand pressed against her forehead, her eyes widening as the shock of the whole situation began to overcome her. Tears spilled from her eyes, which she hurriedly tried to brush away. “No,” she whispered, “not her…not her!”

Hikaru moistened his lips, which had become very dry. “Mrs. Hamoto, we have everyone on high alert, and as soon as I have enough experienced pilots, I will be leading a team myself to find your daughter. We have her being tracked at this very moment. If anything happens, we’ll know. And we’ll alert you if the situation changes.”

Mrs. Hamoto’s dark eyes raised, meeting Hikaru’s bright blue. “Thank you,” she whispered, “for taking this so seriously. You have no idea how much your intervention means to me.”

Hikaru bowed slightly. “I try my best to take care of your daughter, Mrs. Hamoto. And I’ll be sure to bring her back for you.”

“You’re a good man. Thank you for taking care of her.”

Hikaru nodded. “I try my best, ma’am.”

“How soon will you have experienced pilots to take with you?”

“Tomorrow morning at the earliest. I’ll be sure to contact them as soon as I head back so as to warn them of the situation. They’re the highest ranking pilots of our team, and there’s no one I’d rather have with me. If anyone can bring back your daughter, it’s them.”

Another tear streaked down the woman’s cheeks her face contorting as she tried hard not to cry. Hikaru stood rigid by the entrance to the door. He knew he couldn’t do much in this situation. He wasn’t family, he couldn’t comfort her like her family could. He would have to have Takeshi find Sora and Kenji to come and speak with their mother and hear the story.

“You have my deepest condolences,” he managed to say, trying not to choke up himself. He didn’t want to admit it, but Akira meant a lot to him. He admitted he had been crushing on her for quite a bit of time, but all that aside, she was his trainee, and he had grown close to her through that. He had watched her grow up from a timid girl to a strong young woman. And he wasn’t about to let that all go to waste.

As he stepped outside, he let the newly fallen rain drip down his face, shadows of the tears he forced himself not to shed.

He was going to get her back.


Akira moaned as she awoke. Pain racked her head, pressing against her skull in painful places. She raised a hand to her head, feeling the nice new lump on the back of her skull. Well, it wasn’t going to go away for a while, with a lump like that.

Robots.

Akira forced herself into a more alert position, trying hard to stay awake. Was she still with the robots? She tried to remember. Everything was fuzzy in her mind.

She raised her arms around her, feeling. Funny, this felt like her battle machine. Was she still in the Stealth Hunter? That couldn’t be. She had been carted off by a group of Iron Condors. By this point, she should have been scrap human parts.

Maybe you’re just dead.

But…why would I be dead in a battle machine? Is it some sort of pilot limbo while you wait for judgment?

That was a stupid idea. She wasn’t dead. She was in pain. That ought to have been proof enough. Limbo wasn’t supposed to be painful.

So then where was she?

Akira leaned back in her chair farther and let her fingers gently touch the Power Brick behind her. Immediately it flared to life, emitting a powerful fluorescent blue light around her.

This was definitely her battle machine, not some sort of robot. All of her components were here, even her water bottle she had forgotten to take out. This was her Stealth Hunter, there was no doubt about it.

But where was she? The robot base? Was she in some sort of isolation while they decided what to do with her? What did robots do with humans anyways, besides kill them? Would she be used as a ransoming tool?

She pressed the button on the dash to open the blast shield in front of her, but nothing happened. She pressed her fingers against the dashboard screen, which by this point was cracked, and spoke slowly. “This is Akira, Stealth Hunter 48-37. Does anyone copy?”

There wasn’t even static, just a dead headset.

All her power was out, she now remembered. The Condors had ripped out a section of her wiring. She gripped the bottom of the blast shield herself and tried to force it open. But it wouldn’t budge. She let her fingers roam over the blast shield’s frame, and she tried to find any dents or cracks, or anything she could bash in to make a hole for her, but the shield seemed to be pretty intact. The glass for the blast shields were thick.

Akira glanced back at the Power Brick, and how it was inset. It was forced back into a small rectangle hole with about a million wires protruding from it. The girl narrowed her eyes. Maybe she could rewire it and make the button work, or even just get the power on again. Then she would be able to get out.

Slowly, Akira pulled herself onto her stomach and fingered a few of the wires. Most of them had been severed at this point, but maybe she’d be able to use scraps of each of these and make one long circuit to connect the button back together, and maybe just the dashboard in general as well. She was no techie, but she had learned quite a bit from Ryo and knew the basics of electrical work and how the battle machines functioned. Still, she had only worked on them when they were half completed and she could get the whole picture. Also, wiring electronics to a Power Brick was also foreign to her. She had only ever done wiring to the new cores that were standard among battle machine designs. Power Bricks were old technology.

But she would have to try, and had to work fast. The robots could come back. She wasn’t sure where they were now, but they could need her for something.

Now she just had to figure out how to wire buttons.


Hikaru loved his team. When there was an emergency, they were on high alert, and were willing to go to any means to fix whatever the problem was.

Ha-Ya-To and Hitomi arrived early the next morning, at almost four o’clock. They were both in the same tank on the way up, already dressed in their flight suits. A few other people had gotten up to take their bags so that they could get right into the search and rescue party.

“’Morning you two,” Hikaru said as the tank pulled up. Takeshi and Ryo were with him. They had been up for an hour already. Needless to say, they hadn’t slept very well the night before. “You guys had a breakfast yet?”

“Nope!” Hitomi landed neatly on the ground. “But I’m good. I can go for hours without food.”

Ha-Ya-To nodded grimly. “When it comes to saving someone, food can wait. We need to find AK. Any reading on where she is at the moment?”

Ryo whipped out his Compad, scrolling through a few charts. “As far as we can see, her battle machine hasn’t moved for a few hours. It’s been in the same spot. Whether that means she’s in a robot base or not is the real question.”

Takeshi’s lips pinched together. “Well then what are we standing around here for?”

The five pilots raced off to the docking bay. Their battle machines were waiting for them in a neat, orderly place, already having been checked over by Ryo the night before to make sure they were in top condition and their fuel tanks were full.

But they weren’t alone. Two people were waiting for them there, two rather determined looking people.

“We’re coming with you!” Sora immediately stated as soon as the Dream Team was in range.

“No,” Hikaru answered bluntly, heading over to the Sky Guardian and extending a ladder for himself.

The ginger-haired young man grabbed Hikaru’s shoulder and whirled him around angrily. “Yes we are!” He shouted. “We have every right to be on this mission!”

Hikaru narrowed his eyes. He was really not in the mood to argue, especially not now. “No, you don’t. That’s the point. You have never had any military training before this week, and you don’t have any experience doing anything with Search and Rescue. You’re extremely under-qualified for this mission, and you cannot join!”

Sora’s face had gone redder and redder as Hikaru had spoken, and now he looked ready to burst from rage. Kenji rested a hand on Sora’s shoulder gently, speaking in a calm voice. “Hikaru, she’s our sister. We want to make sure she’s alright.”

Hikaru felt his breath caught in his throat. He understood, he really did. Hadn’t he gone searching for his family when they had gotten crushed by a building? He had searched for hours until someone had to physically make him stop, in fear of him hurting himself. So it wasn’t that he didn’t understand their stand on the matter. It was just the fact that now he was the person restraining the two of them from hurting themselves.

But at the same time Hikaru didn’t want to be the one to bring back Akira’s body to them. They would want to be there for that, if something had happened to her.

Stop thinking about that! She’s fine, remember? She’s fine…

Hikaru took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, but I can’t in my right mind let you come with us. It not only breaks quite a few rules, but I also don’t want any of you to get hurt if we get attacked by robots again. Here,” he tossed them his Compad, a rather small one compared to most others. “If something happens, I’ll call you on this. Just keep it on. Alright?”

“No!” Sora snapped. “Not—.”

Kenji cut his brother off. “We’ll do fine. Thank you for taking us into consideration, Hikaru.”

Hikaru nodded sharply. “I’ll be in contact, and I’ll let you know if anything happens.

Sora still looked angry, but nodded all the same. Kenji gave him a brief nod. “Bring her home for us, Hikaru.”

Hikaru blinked his electric blue eyes. “I will.”


“Are you sure this is the place?” Takeshi asked.

Ryo nodded over the videoCom. “The dot is blinking in a place of very close proximity to us. She must be near here.”

Hikaru touched his screen, pulling up an image of the GPS. Indeed, the light seemed to be blinking very close to their battle machines’ locations. He pressed it again, letting the hologram disappear.

The only issue was that Hikaru couldn’t see anything, nothing of use anyways. All he could see in this valley were boulders everywhere. He narrowed his eyes. “Well, if this is some robot base, they’ve got an incredible cloaking field.”

Hikaru watched Ryo shake his head over the screen. “There’s no cloaking device here. The Cyclone Defender would be able to pick it up.” He paused. “But…I am getting a high reading of instability on these boulders and the mountains around us.”

“Great, Ryo,” Takeshi grumbled, “thanks for telling the people who are on the ground!”

“It doesn’t make any sense, though,” Ryo said quietly, appearing to be messing with something on his dashboard. “There’s a high reading of instability, but it’s weak enough that is has to be from around yesterday. It can’t be from today.”

“And don’t you guys find it weird that there’s mud everywhere, but no snow? It’s been snowing non-stop for the past few days, until yesterday—.”

“When it rained!” The scene started playing out in Hikaru’s mind. It all made sense now. “That’s it! The reason there’s instability is because a landslide happened here, and it’s weak because the rain from yesterday must have caused it. And if something happened to the Iron Condor carrying Akira, then she must be buried underneath the rocks! That’s why her battle machine isn’t moving.”

“Unless there really is a base down there,” Hitomi pointed out.

“But say there isn’t,” Ryo said. “How else would Akira’s scanner say she’s so close in proximity to here but we can’t see her? Even the Stealth Hunter can’t cloak without having power. And according to my codes, the Stealth Hunter still doesn’t have power. The only other option is that she’s underground, or in this case, covered in a landslide.”

Takeshi directed his Blade Titan to pick up a boulder, tossing it over his shoulder as easily as he might a pile of twigs. “Well then we’d better get her out of there. Who knows how many tons of material are on top of her! Let’s just hope she hasn’t been crushed.”

“She hasn’t been crushed!” Hikaru snapped, before taking a deep breath and calming himself down. “We just need to find her. Takeshi, you and Hitomi can take the brunt of the loads, and Ha-Ya-To and I will try to help as much as we can. Ryo, you can move aside the smaller ones, but I don’t think the Cyclone Defender is quite up to the task of picking anything up. Got it?”

“Got it!” Four voices said in unison over the videoCom. Hikaru shot them all a small smile. He could always count on them when he needed something done a certain way. They had his total confidence.

The work was slow and tedious. Takeshi’s Blade Titan was the only battle machine able to pick up the largest boulders. Hitomi’s Blazing Falcon had a lot of power, but was stuck with anything smaller. Hikaru and Ha-Ya-To took the smallest boulders, but they were able to shift other aside, leaving more space open. Ryo took the smallest of rocks, and did most of the planning. His scanners were able to pick up anything unstable, and he seemed to have a plan as to where to go to find Akira the fastest. None of the others questioned his words.

“Pick up that one next, Takeshi,” Ryo directed. “The underside is loose. No, not that one, that one!”

“I’ve got the one underneath,” Ha-Ya-To called, swooping down and picking up the large-ish boulder in his arms. He somehow managed to fit it in between the large blaster on the end of one of the hands and the blade on the other and flew it off. It looked awkward, but Ha-Ya-To seemed to have it under control.

“Hey, I see something!” Takeshi called out, holding a massive boulder of his battle machine’s head.

Hikaru directed his Sky Guardian over, pressing his hands against the blast shield to get a better look. Grey and dented it may have been, but Hikaru had piloted a Stealth Hunter for long enough to know what they looked like. He nodded sharply. “That’s the Stealth Hunter Akira was in, or at least I’m pretty sure. Okay, Takeshi, take that top boulder off, over on that side. Yeah, over there.”

Hikaru turned his Sky Guardian off and slid out of the tall battle machine, climbing down a leg to the rocky surface below. He stepped delicately over to the Blade Titan, waiting patiently as it pulled a few more boulders off until it revealed a glass blast shield.

“One more, Takeshi!” Hikaru called up. “The one right in front of me!” He stepped back, allowing the massive battle machine to take up the boulder just in front of the blast shield. To his relief, it wasn’t cracked or smashed in any way.

Hikaru stepped up to the blast shield, pressing his hands against the surface. He didn’t need to get the attention of the figure inside, as she was already alert and against the blast shield herself. Her eyes were wide, relief flooding her gaze.

“Akira!” Hikaru could hardly contain his relief. “Are you alright?”

The girl shook her head wildly. She motioned to her face. Hikaru squinted, trying to see better in the shadows. Over her mouth appeared to be some sort of mask. He was confused for a moment, but quickly realized what was going on.

“Ryo!” He snapped. “I want the oxygen level reading of inside that battle machine. I don’t care what you use, just get me a reading!”

Ryo slid out of his Cyclone Defender, pressing a small device on the surface of the glass, glancing at the shield every once in a while. “There’s practically no pressure in there. She must be on a backup level of oxygen at the moment. Akira,” he tapped the glass slightly, “how many hours have you been on that supply?”

Akira paused for a moment as she looked down at her intercom watch, then held up three fingers.

Ryo’s face grew tense. “We have to get her out of there, now! That oxygen tank doesn’t have much more air left in it. Akira, can you get to the button to open the blast shield?”

Akira shook her head, tapping on the shield. Ryo narrowed his eyes. “Morse code. She says it’s jammed.” He turned to face Hikaru. “If we don’t get her out soon, she’ll suffocate!”

Akira’s eyes widened substantially, her movements becoming frantic.

“I’m going to see what I have in the Cyclone Defender, but if I don’t have anything, we might have to crush the blast shield.”

Akira slammed a fist on the thick glass, her eyes huge. Ryo narrowed his eyes at her. “We need to get you out.” He ran over to the boulders, taking a quick glance at Hikaru. “Keep her calm. She shouldn’t be using too much of her remaining oxygen.”

Keep her calm?! How the heck do I do that?! Hikaru knelt down on the boulder, tapping on the shield to get Akira’s attention: the girl had begun to search frantically for something, probably something to get her out faster. “Hey, Akira! Akira, you need to calm down. If you breathe any harder, you might run out of oxygen faster.”

The girl pressed herself against the shield, staring deeply into Hikaru’s eyes. There was something painful there, something desperately afraid. Akira tapped hurriedly on the glass, her knuckles rapping in long and short beats. Hikaru hurriedly tried to translate them into Morse code.

LOOKATME.

Look at me.

Hikaru knew immediately what she meant. She was basically telling him, “Look at me and tell me with a straight face that I’m going to be alright.” It was something he had learned about Akira in the time they had been together. She wanted a straight-face answer when something was serious. So Hikaru did just that. He stared deeply into her eyes and took a long breath.

“Akira, you’re going to be alright.”

The relief was overpowering in her gaze. Her whole body relaxed, and judging by her movements, she seemed to have calmed down slightly. Suddenly, a look of confusion crossed her face. She messed with the mask slightly, her eyes filling with fear once again.

Hikaru shot to his feet. “Ryo, we need that tool NOW!!”

The violet-haired pilot leapt out of his battle machine, a few screwdrivers, a portable drill, and a crowbar in his arms. “This is all I could find. We’re going to have to make it work. Takeshi!” He called up to the Blade Titan. “I’m going to need your strength. Hitomi, Ha-Ya-To, get down here and start drilling!”

Immediately, the five pilots were all at work. Takeshi kept it all in place, keeping the blast shield tight, so none of the screws would go out of line and basically be impossible to pull out. Ryo and Hitomi were all over the place with the screwdrivers and drill, pulling out screws over the glass one by one. Hikaru and Ha-Ya-To moved aside more boulders to make room for the blast shield once they got it off.

Akira inside was looking frantic, trying desperately to breathe as she lost oxygen. Hikaru hoped desperately that her body wasn’t suffering anything horrible from her loss of air. It made him all the more quick to get stones out of the way.

“Alright, all the screws are off!” Ryo snapped, throwing his tools down, and handing Takeshi the last one, the crowbar. “Wedge this into the side and press it with all your might. Hikaru, Ha-Ya-To, Hitomi, I need you guys to help me pull. The metal on the side was crushed over the seams, so we’ll have to wrench it back out.”

They each took a position, their fingers gripping the shield tightly. “GO!”

Takeshi groaned, his muscles rippling as he yanked back on the crowbar. The four other pilots tugged and tugged, trying desperately to make the glass move. Akira underneath was trying desperately to breathe, but eventually she had to pull the mask off. It wasn’t helping her now. She was on her last breath of air.

“ON THREE!!” Hikaru yelled. “ONE, TWO, THREE!!!”

Cries of pain arose from the pilots as they each gave a tremendous tug. And like a cork being pulled out, the blast shield gave a loud pop as it snapped off.

The pilots fell back onto the bounders. Akira flopped out from the cockpit, gasping for breath. Hikaru hurried to his feet, picking the girl up in his arms and drawing her close to himself. A sob rose in Akira’s chest, tears streaming down her face as she tried desperately to breathe. Hikaru, trying as hard as he could to not be awkward, gently ran his fingers through her hair, shushing her. “It’s okay, Akira. You’re with us now. Calm down. It’s okay.”

He continued to murmur his words until Akira’s sobs subsided and she had regained her breath. Hikaru’s shoulder was soaked, but he didn’t care. All he could think about was that Akira was safe. He smiled to himself, allowing her to hold him tight.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “I…I don’t know…”

“Shh…” Hikaru pressed a finger to her lips. “You would have done the same for us. You’re back, and that’s what matters.”

Tears once again welled up in Akira’s bloodshot eyes and spilled over her already wet cheeks. “Hikaru…Hikaru…”

Hikaru drew her hug closer, ignoring the probably pointed stares he was getting from his teammates. “It’s okay. You’re safe.” He held up his watch to his face and spoke clearly into it. “Sora, Kenji? We found her. And she’s alright.”

Chapter 20:

“Her brain looks relatively fine, as far as the tests show. All she’ll really retain is a pair of bloodshot eyes, but not for more than a week, we hope, and some minor bruising. A few of her blood vessels in her eyes and areas of her skin burst but if there are any complications, a minor surgery should be enough to fix them. Over all, she’ll be fine.”

Hikaru let out a held breath, relief overcoming him. “That’s good news. Thank you.”

The doctor shrugged. “Just doing my job.” He glanced through the glass wall. “She’s been shockingly good about the whole situation, though. It’s good to see her spirit hasn’t died.”

Hikaru followed his gaze. Akira was asleep at the moment, her chest rising and falling slowly as she took deep breaths. Her body was probably still recovering from the shock of not getting enough oxygen for the amount of time it had. Hikaru was just glad it hadn’t impaired her brain at all.

Her family had been in earlier but had been sent away when Akira had fallen asleep. Her family had delayed their returning home until Akira started her classes up, to make sure she was alright. Sora and Kenji had wanted to stay longer, but had been told their presence would be a distraction if they stayed. So they would be leaving around the same time.

“How long will she need to be in the wing?”

“Probably only a few more days. Her body just needs some time to reacclimatize to the oxygen and get over the shock completely. With any luck, she’ll be ready when classes start up again next week. If we have to worry about anything, it would be the fact that she might have an increased risk of heart attacks or strokes in her future, but we’ll put that on her record and keep watch in later years.”

Hikaru nodded. “Good. Well, thanks for the update, sir.”

“You’re very welcome.”

Ha-Ya-To met Hikaru at the street entrance to the hospital wing, walking with him into the city. “How is she?”

“Alive,” Hikaru said with an exhausted sigh, “and they’re pretty sure she won’t retain any brain damage. She just has to stay in there until they’re finished with testing and for her eyes to heal slightly.”

“Well that’s good news!” Ha-Ya-To grinned, bouncing on his toes slightly. “Will she be back for classes?”

“They’re pretty sure.”

“Awesome! Otherwise, she’d have some serious catching up to do. I swear, last time we were in classes, my guitar was very neglected. I had so much work to do! It was hard to find time to do anything else besides homework and training…oh, and fighting robots, of course. By the way, did someone play my guitar while I was gone? It sounds out of tune.”

Hikaru smirked. “Akira’s older brother Sora did, but you’ll be happy to know he’s got nothing on you music wise. You’re still the best one here for music.”

“Always good to know,” Ha-Ya-To laughed. “Maybe I should give him a lesson or two.” He paused, getting more serious. “So…um…how did Akira deal with, you know, me being away after the Gathering?”

Hikaru nodded. “She’s doing well, actually. It took her about three days or so, but I think she’s gotten over you.”

“I didn’t even know she liked me! I mean, seriously, I’ve always been partial to Hitomi.”

“You know, for being so good with girls, you’re extremely oblivious,” Hikaru said, half-exasperated. “I mean, seriously? Everyone knew Akira liked you, except you. And it was rough for her to get over.”

Ha-Ya-To smiled. “But you got to spend a week with her! Did you get to talk or anything?”

“Sure, about you! Ha-Ya-To, nothing is ever going to happen between me and Akira, okay? It just…isn’t. I’m so busy with working and training her, and for all I know, she could be reassigned to a new city at graduation. Remember?”

Ha-Ya-To waved the comment away. “Come on, is that the best excuse you’ve got? Really? I’ve done better in a happy hour when I was seven. Seriously, just tell her that you like her! I mean, really, she’s never going to figure it out if you don’t do something!”

“Something like what?”

“I don’t know…dinner, a dance, a date of some sort. You really can’t leave it until graduation. That’s two months away! Are you really going to brood on it till then?”

“Yes…no…maybe,” Hikaru groaned. “I don’t know! I can’t just have a dinner-date with Akira, and you said it yourself, we’re going to be so busy starting next week, it won’t even matter. And if Sensei finds out, he’ll throw a fit and have me doing extra chores for a month!”

Ha-Ya-To raised an eyebrow, grinning as he thought. “Well, why not just make a gathering of it then? We can do something where the trainers all have to ask someone to dance, or something like that. Or have one of those mystery dance things, where you get a number stamped on your hand and have to find the other person that has your number, but rig it so you and Akira get the whole night together. Or maybe we can write love songs for one another, or do poetry! Or maybe even—.”

“No!” Hikaru snapped. “Good lord, Ha-Ya-To, I swear, you could give a telemarketer a run for his money!”

“I can’t help it if I’m a good talker,” Ha-Ya-To frowned, crossing his arms. “And I’m serious! Okay, so maybe the whole poetry thing is a little out there, but a dance would be a great idea! We could get you two together, and no one would think otherwise about you two dancing! I could even cook up a romantic love song for you two, and sit in a tree and warble it out to you!”

Hikaru rolled his eyes. “Since when did this stop being about Akira getting better and more about our non-existent romantic relationship?” He waved Ha-Ya-To down another road. “I’ll figure out Akira on my own, alright? You go finish your work. Maybe if you finish your rounds, you can get to work planning that dance.”

“Maybe!” Ha-Ya-To called back, having already run part of the way down the road. “See you later, HK!”

Hikaru waved to his friend before continuing down the path he was following. He had somewhere to be.

Slowly, he made his way up to the building, knocking on the door. But this time he wasn’t anxious, like he had been only around twenty-four hours before. He was actually rather calm. At least he knew Akira was going to be alright. It made all the difference in his behavior.

Mrs. Hamoto answered the door, free of a dishtowel this time, and looking far better than before. “Good afternoon, Hikaru.”

“Good afternoon, ma’am.” Hikaru bowed. “I was asked by your sons to meet with them here this afternoon. Am I imposing on anything?”

“As long as you’re not here to tell me things about my family being kidnapped again, I think we’re good!” Mrs. Hamoto’s eyes glinted playfully. “Please, come right in and make yourself at home. The boys are in the back room, playing who knows what video game this time! I swear, half the time they’re working out, and the other half they’re playing video games!”

Hikaru smiled. “Well, for the record, I’m just as guilty as they are. It must just be a teenage male thing.”

Mrs. Hamoto smiled, leading him through the small house. “At least I’m hearing it from and outside source and not from them!” She stepped into the back room, calling out. “Boys, Hikaru has come to see you!”

“Come on in, Hikaru!” Sora’s voice came from behind the door, and Hikaru walked inside, nodding to Mrs. Hamoto on his way in.

The two young men were seated cross-legged on the floor, Xbox controllers in their hands, which they tapped at furiously. Hikaru sat down behind them, watching their game speed by.

“How are you doing, Hikaru?” Kenji asked, his eyes glued to the screen.

Hikaru shrugged. “Fine, I guess. How about you both?”

“I’ll be fabulous when I whoop Kenji’s butt at Black Ops!” Sora said through gritted teeth. He must have been staring at the screen for quite some time because he blinked practically every second to moisten his quickly drying out eyes.

“You wish, little bro!”

“Ha! While you’re designing buildings and robotics, I’m on my breaks from university playing video games. I can beat you any day.”

“I’m way smarter than you, Sora.”

“Sure, at books! I’m better at the quick thinking thing.”

Hikaru rolled his eyes. It reminded him of the last game gathering they had had. Takeshi and his friend Hideki had spent literally the entire night trash-talking one another and duking their manhood out over a game. Hikaru was still confused by the whole thing.

“Come on! That should have been illegal!”

“Please, little brother, you just don’t know the first thing about things like this.”

“Like what? Shooting?”

Hikaru raised an eyebrow. “Actually, Sora, whenever you aim, you always aim too far to the right. Try moving to the left a bit.”

Sora’s gaze shot to Hikaru for a split-second. “Wait, are you serious?”

Hikaru’s mouth went flat. “Do I look serious to you?”

Sora blinked a few times. “Uh, yeah, you actually do.” He aimed his gun, shifting it slightly to the left. And when he fired, it was a direct hit.

“BOOYEAH!!!” Sora leaned back and shot a high five at a grinning Hikaru.

Kenji snarled. “What the heck?! That shouldn’t have hit!!”

Sora crossed his arms smugly. “Please, I’ve got a pilot with me! And not a bad pilot at that matter!” He whirled around, grinning wildly. “You and me, Hikaru, we’re good!”

“Indeed we are,” Hikaru said with a smile.

“But seriously.” Kenji set down his controller and fixed his glasses. “We actually have to talk now.”

“Aw,” Sora gave a pouty face. “Can’t we play one more round?”

“No! We have to talk to Hikaru. We don’t have much time.”

Sora nodded, though still gave a sigh of annoyance. “Okay, fine.” His gaze locked with Hikaru’s. “We want to know what you have planned for our sister.”

“’Planned’?” Hikaru raised an eyebrow. “She’ll make her recovery, and then we’ll put he through her two months of written classes while—.”

“We don’t mean academically,” Kenji cut in. “We mean emotionally.”

The blue-haired pilot was confused. “Um…emotionally?”

“Come on, dude!” Sora snapped. “We all know she’s very emotionally attached to you, and that probably means that she’s got some sort of crush on you. Though why you, I’m not sure.”

“I’m her trainer,” Hikaru snapped back. “Emotionally attached? Don’t make me laugh! She’s not emotionally attached to me at all! And her having a crush on me? Are you joking? If anything, I’ve got a crush on her, not the other way around.” He suddenly bit his tongue to keep from speaking any more. He had already said more than he needed to.

Sora’s face grew smug. “See, Kenji? Told you he liked Akira!”

Kenji’s expression darkened. “So what do you have planned for our sister, Hikaru? What exactly are your motives?”

“My what?”

“Your motives, your intentions,” Kenji explained. “What do you want her for? Is all you want is to take advantage of her?”

Sora narrowed his eyes. “Because seriously, if you do? I swear, I’ll kill you.”

Hikaru felt his cheeks flush. “No!” He yelped. “I…well, I…I’m not sure, exactly…but no, I don’t like her because I want to have sex with her or something like that. No, I just…I really like her.”

“Like, you love her?”

Hikaru rubbed his neck, his cheeks darkened in red. “Um…I…” he let out a long breath. “Yes, I do love her. And I’ve been trying to find out how to tell her that for about a week or so.”

Sora and Kenji’s eyes met and they nodded together. “All we want is for our sister to be safe,” Kenjo said slowly. “We want to protect her from stupid guys with stupid ideas of how to treat women.”

“Our sister isn’t someone to be messed around with!” Sora said with a snarl.

“I get that!” Hikaru said, getting defensive. “I already said I love her. What more do you want me to do, sign a contract or an oath or something?”

Kenji’s eyes met his with all seriousness. “No. But you could tell me straight to my face that you’ll respect our sister.”

Hikaru inwardly sighed. Like sister like brother. It seemed they all needed something to be told to their faces to actually believe it. But he consented. What else would he have done? “I promise to take care of your sister, treat her like the woman she is, and keep away predator-like males. Deal?”

Kenji gave a small smile, holding out a hand to shake. “Deal.”

Hikaru took it.


“Imbecile!”

“We are very sorry for our failure, Meca One,” the robot said quickly, bowing on the wooden floor. “Though, master, we are still confused at what we did wrong.”

Meca-Sensei snarled through gritted teeth. “She almost died, do you understand me?”

“Yes sir,” one of the other robots cowered before Meca-Sensei’s feet. “Though, if our mission is to annihilate the humans, why are we not killing them?”

“Are you questioning me?” Meca-Sensei roared.

“No. We are simply confused on the matter of killing the humans. It seems illogical to be preserving them as well as killing them.”

Meca-Sensei glanced coldly over the five drones before him. Their sapphire eyes were glassy and dull. It had been almost a month since they had been out in the field, so Meca-Sensei had tasked them with setting up the recent raid. Apparently, he had been wrong to do so. “Do you not understand any reason of why you are here?”

“No, Meca-One,” another one said. “We have been here for a month and still we have done nothing.”

Meca-Sensei sighed. “I snuck you in during the dorm skirmish for one specific reason. Do any of you happen to recall the specific reason why?”

“To become human.” All five spoke as one.

“No!” Meca-Sensei moaned and sat back in his chair. “All that time in the archives has done a wrong to your circuits.” He paused. “You’re not going to become human. You’re going to do what I did: take over the minds of five humans and use their bodies to take over more and more minds until all of the humans in the Exo-Force will belong to us. Then no one will be able to keep us contained. And do you remember which humans you will be taking the minds of?”

“The trainees,” one of the robots said slowly.

“And you almost killed one!!” Meca-Sensei yelled. “If you had killed Akira Hamoto, we would have had a much more difficult time working out how to get the rest of the humans’ minds taken over!” He leaned back in his chair. “Hikaru Matsuoka trusts Akira Hamoto, the same with the other ‘Dream Team’ members with their trainees. Pretty soon, they will trust them so much that they will not find it odd to have them around at all. And then, I will make my move.” His eyes met theirs. “But you may have done me a favor yet. Her mind has probably been weakened by this event. Take care not to mess up what I ask you to do next.”

“Yes, Meca One.”

^_^

“Morning, Akira!”

Hikaru whirled around, shooting a glance at the door. Akira had just walked into the room, waving at Takeshi, who had called out her name. She seemed to be back to her usual self, after her few days of being in the medical wing.

“Morning, you two,” she said with a grin. Hikaru and Takeshi stood hurriedly.

“How are you?” Hikaru asked quietly.

Akira grinned. “Fit as a fiddle!” Her dark eyes blinked up at Hikaru and Takeshi, seemingly free of their red tinge from her time in low oxygen. Hikaru realized just now that he was almost a head taller than Akira. He had barely hit six feet in height, and Akira had balanced out at around five foot seven. It didn’t really matter at all, he just noticed, that was all. “When are we getting back to training? The doctors said I was well enough to get back to work.”

Takeshi resumed eating his massive pile of food. “Well, we’ll be doing more minor training in between classes and on weekends. But besides that, it’s a lot of guard duty and a whole lot of paperwork.” He frowned. “And that’s why I hate school.”

“I thought I left schoolwork behind months ago,” Akira sighed, setting her platter down next to him. Hikaru took her other side. “What am I taking anyways?”

Hikaru shrugged. “Mathematics, social studies, history, geography, sciences, mechanics…yeah, that’s basically what I remember. At least, those are the basic studies under each class. They’re really way more detailed. Did I miss anything, Takeshi?”

“You forgot engineering,” Takeshi said through a mouthful of eggs. “Robotics is kind of underneath that one.”

“True,” Hikaru nodded. “Basically, a lot of stuff with a lot of homework.”

Akira sighed, poking at her food. “Darn it. More homework. And I thought I’d spend the last two months doing even more intense stuff.”

“You call homework not intense?” Takeshi’s eyes widened. “Oh, Akira, are you in for a big surprise!”

Akira raised an eyebrow, biting into her apple. “I know brain work, Takeshi. I meant more physically strenuous work.”

“Oh don’t worry about that. When we’re off class, I’ll be getting you in the gym and working your butt off!”

Akira rolled her eyes, glanced down at her food. “After all that hospital food, I feel like there’s so much food here.”

Hikaru looked at her platter. “Are you telling me that they didn’t feed you well?”

“Are you kidding?” Akira snorted. “They fed me fine, I was just on their diet thing. And I swear, I’m dead sick of scrambled eggs!”

“Me too!” Ha-Ya-To sat down next to Hikaru, flopping into his chair. “Actually, I’m scared of them.”

Akira raised an eyebrow. “Well, that was a little random…”

“No, really!” Ha-Ya-To’s eyes grew wide. “I had a dream once that a bunch of scrambled eggs turned green and they started eating people! And when they came to get me, they turned my hair green and then swallowed me along with a bunch of ham and bagels!”

The table was silent. Blank stares met Ha-Ya-To’s wildly fearful ones.

“Um…” Takeshi cleared his throat. “How much Dr. Seuss have you been reading lately, Ha-Ya-To?”

The redhead’s eyebrows cocked. “Huh? What does Dr. Seuss have anything to do with it?”

“Green eggs and ham, man. Look it up. And I thought you were afraid of the ocean.”

“I am!”

Akira sighed. “Good lord, this conversation is getting nowhere.” She rubbed her eyes. “So, when do classes start?”

“Soon,” Hikaru nodded. “On Monday actually, so it’s good that you’re doing better. You wouldn’t want to miss your first day of class.”

“Now you’re just stressing me out!”

“Sorry,” Hikaru said apologetically. “So, um, how was it letting your family and friends go home?”

The dark-haired girl shrugged. “You know, it was a little rough. I’ll miss them until our next time together. Rina and Minako need to get back to classes, though they said they’d miss you all. Personally, I think they’ll miss attractive guys actually talking to them!” She grinned. “But Sora and Kenji want to come up and visit again, maybe after my graduation. They said they won’t be able to make the ceremony, but I get it. They’re busy people. My parents are the same way. Still, it was good to see them.” She shot a glance at Hikaru. “I have two months left, and a lot I still need to learn.”

Hikaru smiled. “Yeah, which is why actual classes will help. They’ll get you up to date on all that stuff you don’t know.” He paused for a moment. “By the way, Ha-Ya-To and I were setting up the next Gathering, kind of a welcome back for all the people who left for the holidays.” He shot a pointed glance at Ha-Ya-To.

“Oh, right!” Ha-Ya-To said hurriedly. “It’ll be the night before classes, and we’re thinking of doing a dance or something. How does it sound?”

“Another dance?” Akira smiled. “Didn’t we have a dance a few months ago?”

“Yeah, but we can always do more dancing! Dancing is like a free spirit. And anyways, it’s not like pop dancing, at least not the whole time! It’s more like a dinner dance, something more toned down, or at least that’s the plan. I could break out a few upbeat songs, but I’m really more into doing something more classical.”

Akira grinned. “Well, I’m in! Who’s coming?”

“I managed to convince Ryo that all the trainees should come, even Kouta, so we should set up the dance floor in Ryo’s garage soon, probably tomorrow. And Hitomi will hopefully help me with the sound system. All in all, it should totally rock! Just find something nice to wear.”

The dark-haired girl’s face flushed slightly. “Alright, I will!” She stood, her platter empty before her. “Well, I had better hit the gym. It’s been almost four days without me exercising, and I feel like a blob. See you all around!” She trotted off perkily and left the room.

Hikaru turned back, having watched her leave, only to find the other two pilots giving him cheeky looks. “What?” He snapped.

“You’re got it so bad, man!” Takeshi grinned. “I don’t normally have any comment on relationships, but man, you’re just so love struck!”

“I am not! And shut up!”

“He’s right,” Ha-Ya-To said with a glimmer of mischief in his eyes. “And I’m gonna make this night so awesome for you guys! It’ll be quiet and romantic and—.”

Hikaru stood from his seat. “Look,” he said, cutting Ha-Ya-To off. “I really appreciate your good intentions, but Akira and I are not getting together. We’re not at all alike!”

“You’re both as stubborn as asses,” Takeshi grumbled. “That’s a fact!”

“Oh whatever!” Hikaru sighed. “Look, I may like Akira, but she doesn’t have any feelings for me. Just look at how we interact.”

“You’re like a lovesick puppy drooling over a malamute,” Takeshi rolled his eyes. “Look, let’s make a bet. If we can get Akira to go on a date with you in the few months before her graduation, you owe me by naming one of yours and Akira’s kids after me.”

“Our WHAT?!”

“But!” Takeshi held up a hand. “If we can’t, you get to do whatever your heart desires after graduation, and if that’s forgetting Akira ever existed, that’s cool with me. Do we have a deal?”

Hikaru sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Why am I even agreeing to this? Fine! I accept your challenge.”

And the two shook on it. A playfulness sparked between their gazes. This was going to be an interesting next few months.

Chapter 21:

“What about this building?” Kouta tapped the glass in the front.

Akira glanced inside. “It looks like some sort of…I don’t know…thrift shop?”

“There are a lot of clothes in there…maybe it’s some sort of clothes distribution center. I mean, if everyone in Japan had to suddenly evacuate down here, would money be worth anything anymore?”

Akira nodded. “Good point. Everyone gets a room, no one is of higher status.” She glanced at Kouta. “Hey, thanks for coming down with me, by the way.”

Kouta shrugged, a smile on his small face. “No problem. I like it down here with someone else better anyways. It’s a little…”

“Creepy?” Akira finished. “Yeah, I get it.” She looked around, shivering slightly. “It’s just…all cold, and grey, and so…empty.”

The brown-haired boy nodded. “Yeah…I feel you.” He took a quick breath. “Okay, so what do we look at next?”

Akira shrugged. “Anything, really. I’m fine with just about anything.” She paused, glancing at Kouta. “If this thing is under Japan, I’m guessing there’s no way to find the center of the place.”

“Actually, I was just thinking about that. If this city is so big, and if random people are suddenly brought down here, there can’t be any cars. So there has to be some insane public transportation.”

“Wasn’t there some sort of elevated train where we first came in?” Akira struggled to remember. “But lifted trains can’t go all that fast.”

Kouta shrugged. “Well, maybe there’s a map there with a train system. I don’t know, but it could be helpful. Let’s go check it out.”

The two began to walk back along the empty streets of the city to reach the train tracks. Akira was still unnerved by the entire place. For one, it was totally empty. The only person to talk to besides themselves was Korda, but after realizing she had been dead for some time, Akira was less warm towards the woman on the screens. She was much more comfortable with Kouta there, and thank goodness he was just as interested in the place as she was.

Akira couldn’t find anything really wrong with the Silver City, it was just so perfect. They had cures for just about anything, and warehouses filled with clothes, and even food that looked as though it could have been packaged the day before, at most. The technology was insane. Most of the sidewalks were conveyor belts, making it feel more like a very empty airport, almost. The roads were there, but Akira wasn’t sure where the vehicles for it were. Did everyone walk everywhere in this city?

Kouta and Akira walked into a small, thin building and rode the elevator to where the elevated train was parked. With a swipe from their hands, they were let inside, the door sliding shut behind them with a smooth hiss. “See?” Kouta pointed to the top of the wall. “Check out the map.”

Akira glanced at it, narrowing her eyes. “But, it says that this will take us all the way to the city center. That would take all afternoon!”

Kouta looked as though he were about to answer, but before he could get a word out, the train started moving, with Korda’s smooth voice coming over the loudspeakers. “Good afternoon, passengers. Please hold on tightly as we move on to the next stop.”

The two teens glanced at one another, but shrugged and gripped tightly onto the cords hanging from the ceiling. After a while of simply standing there and waiting as they stopped to let passengers off and on (even though there were none), Akira was getting more and more uneasy. This was really going to take a long time. And she wasn’t sure how fast they would be able to get back. What if someone noticed they were missing?

“Please hold on tightly for warp speed,” Korda said loudly.

Akira glanced at Kouta. “What does she mean, ‘warp speed’?”

Kouta looked up at the map. “I’m not sure, but that was our last stop before central station, and that’s still pretty far away.” He pointed. “See? It’s that long line on our path.”

“Yeah, I see it,” Akira nodded. “But what—.”

She cut herself off as the train started moving again, at the same speed as before, but as she stood there, she realized something was very different. The train was starting to move to the side and actually flip on top of itself, but the floor stayed in its normal horizontal position. It must have been on some sort of hinges, because even though the train was literally turning on top of itself, Akira and Kouta found themselves only being on top of the bar that they had hung below on their earlier rides. Akira glanced down, trying to figure out the purpose of what had just happened.

Kouta blinked. “Oh darn it.” He hissed.

“What?”

“I know what’s going to happen.”

“Well, what?”

The techie didn’t have to answer; the train was already making its move. Akira felt a jolt and the train slithered forward slightly. The girl glanced back, realizing the train had suddenly dropped off the metal pieces it had been attached on to keep it on the line. She felt the blood drain from her face. With nothing to keep their balance, the train was going to fall!

Kouta set his jaw, standing next to her. “Here we go!”

The train suddenly sped to life. With one smooth motion, it bolted down the metal line, somehow staying balanced. Akira had to hold on tighter to her cord to keep from flying to the back of the train and slamming into the wall.

“WHAT’S GOING ON?!” She shrieked, her voice just barely audible above the whoosh of the air outside sliding against the aerodynamic silver walls of the train.

Kouta spoke through gritted teeth. “It’s like a super advanced bullet train.” He managed to be heard above the sound of the air without screaming. “By my vague calculations, it has to be going at least four hundred miles per hour—.”

“How the heck do you know that?!”

“Simple mathematics!” Kouta said rather waspishly. “You take the total square miles of the Japanese archipelago and then transfer it—.”

“I really have no idea what you’re talking about!!” Akira snapped, trying not to let her face completely fall off with a blasting air in her cheeks. Her words were garbled by the vibrations. If this was such an advanced city, why couldn’t they just make their trains a little smoother?

Finally, after what seemed like hours (though according to Kouta it had been exactly half an hour), the train began to slow. Akira drew in a long breath, trying to regain the oxygen that the pressure from the speed had pressed from her lungs. She loosened her grip on the cord above her, her knuckles white. Her fingers hurt from gripping the plastic so tightly.

Akira sighed and glanced out the window, the silver tints on the scenery now not all blended together from the speed. The area here was much more densely metropolitan, with hardly any space at all between buildings and rails for the magnet trains swirling through gaps with amazing angles. The pilot strained forwards to see more clearly the end destination.

“Kouta!” She gaped. “You’ve got to check this out!!”

The small techie hurried to the glass paneled walls, following her gaze. Akira craned her head back to see the top of the building before her. It looked more like a castle than a metro-building. Spires of shining silver metal rose from the ground and pointed high into the cavern ceiling. Akira wasn’t even sure if there was really a top, or if the whole thing connected to the stone high above. She couldn’t tell from her position.

“That thing is huge!” Kouta said quietly, trying to get a better look. Akira was just amazed at the massive size of the entire thing.

“You think it’s the center of the city?” Akira asked quietly.

Kouta nodded. “It’s got to be!”

The train sped for a while longer into the city center before coming slowly to a stop, after entering the building through a small archway. The doors opened as Korda’s voice told them to watch their step and be quick about their departure, and Akira and Kouta hurried out.

The dark-haired girl had to stop and gape at the room before moving on. Judging by the tracks, the room was where all the trains stationed from their different points. The room’s ceiling was extremely tall and in an arching design, making the room tall and gloriously opened. And the walls seemed to be made less of metal and more of white stone, maybe alabaster. Akira gently pressed a hand against the wall. The stone was icy to the touch, and carved smooth. Her lips twitched into a smile. After so much metal, good, solid stone was a nice change.

“Kouta,” she said, her quiet voice echoing throughout the room. “This place…do you think it’s under Tokyo?”

The techie narrowed his eyes and nodded. “So it wouldn’t be the center of the island, but it would be center of the population…that’s actually pretty smart.”

“Oh, thanks!”

“No, really!” Kouta stepped around the room, pausing at a massive fountain directly in the center. Though no water poured from it, the intricate shape was still a sight to behold. “Think about it. What if this city isn’t just like the Golden City, and it’s not simply based off of the Golden City? What if the Silver City is an inverted, underground Japan?”

“Then this place would be even larger than we thought, and way more dense,” Akira murmured, looking back up to the ceiling. “So…do you think this place continues all around the world?”

“It’s not a very plausible assumption. The crust of the earth would be increasingly less stabilized if there was a massive cavity underneath all the continents. It’s probably simply for Japan. Korda’s Japanese, isn’t she?”

Akira rolled her eyes. “You sound more and more like Ryo every day. And yeah, I think Korda’s Japanese. It just seems a little odd that it’s only beneath one country if it’s supposed to save mankind.”

Kouta shrugged. “National pride?”

“Maybe…but if it’s supposed to be for all of mankind, then there has to be more entrances than just the Golden City’s. Maybe there are entrances all over Japan!”

“But if the robots find them, they’ll have access to unbelievable technology,” Kouta hissed. “What if we lock the place down?”

Akira thought for a moment. “Remember when you complained about the tattoos entering something into our bloodstream?”

“I proved it too, if you remember, with all the blood testing and various DNA tests.”

“Well, maybe the tattoos only work for biological beings? I mean, if it entered our bloodstream and messed with our cell structures to make us keys to the city, then robots shouldn’t be a threat. And if the technology is as advanced as it seems to be, then they probably can’t blow their way in either.”

Kouta nodded slowly. “So this place is robot proof.”

“Perfect for a refuge from the robots when the time comes,” Akira agreed.

The two fell silent, simply gazing around the central station for a few moments. The silence was eerie, as usual, but Akira had grown slightly accustomed to the silence. Still, having Kouta there was a major relief. The pilot just couldn’t get over the feeling that someone was going to jump out from behind one of the shiny buildings and stab her to death.

“Kouta,” she whispered quietly. “What if Sensei finds out about this place? What do you think he’ll do with it?”

The young techie was quiet for a moment. “If it’s true Sensei isn’t in his right mind in some way, whatever is using Sensei’s body might use him to get past the biological barrier thing and become a key himself.”

Akira narrowed her eyes. “Are you saying it’s a robot controlling Sensei?”

Kouta shrugged. “What other enemy does man have at the moment, at least here? Did you know that the entire rest of the world is watching this war with bated breath? If the robots somehow spread from Japan, the rest of the world will be at risk. But no one is really allying themselves with anyone else yet, especially not Japan. Only the politicians know why.” He blinked calmly. “That’s why this war is so important. The robots can create new robots out of practically nothing. If they spread, the world is gone. There will be no real way for everyone to defend themselves. Missiles and planes only go so far. Meca One has never fought as hard as he can possibly fight. You know what the Striking Venom is, right?”

Akira shook her head.

“You’ll learn more about it when we get to classes, but let me just say it was a full scale attack on the humans by the robots, with their newest battle machine, the Striking Venom. The Exo-Force was almost taken down, in fact, they would have been if not for the millions of simulations they ran and all the practice they had against holograms of the Striking Venom. The fact is, Akira, the Dream Team may be quick on their feet, but without preparation, they don’t know half of what they should. No human does. That’s what makes the robots so powerful. They’re practically perfect. The only reason we’ve defeated them so far is because we’ve been prepared and knew exactly where weak points and other things of that sort are. Without those, we’re basically doomed. And Meca One’s been unusually quiet lately. Who knows what he’s cooking up.”

Akira nodded, trying to take in what Kouta had just said. “So…are you saying this war is…superfluous?”

The brown-haired techie shrugged. “We do what we can, but we have no intelligence inside the robot world. They could be creating a titan, for all we know. The thing is, when they strike, if we’re not hot on their heels, the world will be overrun with robots.”

“Well what are we supposed to do then?!” Akira snapped, suddenly feeling defensive. She knew Kouta probably knew what he was talking about, but that made her suddenly all the more anxious. What if it really was true, and the war was inevitable won already? “Keep fighting until we all die?”

Kouta sighed. “Actually, until we’re graduated, we haven’t signed that contract. But the Dream Team? They promised when they graduated to protect their country against any evil. They’re bound by their oath to protect Japan, even if that means becoming kamikazes.”

Akira sucked in a breath. “They’re going to be killed?”

“If that’s what they choose. If the robots take over, they’ll just keep on fighting until they win. You’ve seen the way they fight. They’re trained to do anything it takes to take down the robots, and they’ll do just that. Ryo will just keep on working, keep on creating until there’s nothing to fix. Ha-Ya-To will never stop protecting his team. If you ask me, he’d be the first to go down. That’s how much he cares for people. All Hitomi wants is to follow her dreams, but to make Sensei proud, and that could easily put her in danger. Takeshi will put himself in the most dangerous situations so no one else has to deal with them. And Hikaru can’t stop blaming himself until he personally takes down Meca One, to protect the people he cares about.” He drew closer to Akira, his eyes hard. “Akira, look. You’re in the military now. People die, it happens. And the Dream Team knows that. They’re willingly putting themselves out there to protect the people who can’t protect themselves. And if they die, they die.”

Akira took deep breaths, trying not to let the tears that were welling up in her eyes spill over. She knew what Kouta was talking about; she knew enough about the military when she had joined to know the significant risk of being a part of it. But now that she had grown so close to her friends, she didn’t want to have to see them be killed on the battlefield. Her mother had known, one of her main complaints with her joining the military being that her daughter could easily get injured.

She was being stupid. This was the military. People died. It was what happened in wars. But she didn’t want it to happen. She had come close to death, and she wasn’t even a full-fledged member of the Exo-Force yet. The others were so much more vulnerable.

She took a long, breath, calming herself. “You’re right. I just…I don’t like losing people.”

“We’re soldiers, Akira. Not just people anymore. We have a responsibility to our country and our fellow soldiers. When we weren’t soldiers, the world was all about us. But now we’re not even permitted to think of ourselves first. We do what’s for the common good, not for us. Now it’s about everyone else. And when it comes down to it, we have to make hard choices.”

Akira nodded slowly. “I know I’m a part of the military…but is it wrong that I want to protect my teammates more than the people I’m trying to save?”

“It’s natural for you want to protect the people who you know personally, but I know that if you chose an Exo-Force member over a helpless, innocent civilian, the soldier you saved wouldn’t think kindly of your choice to save them. The soldiers know what they’re doing, Akira. That’s why they’re here. They chose to lay down their lives. Didn’t you do the same?”

“I wanted to make a difference in the war. That’s why I joined.”

“And don’t you want to take down the robots?”

Akira nodded.

“You’ll understand when you graduate, I guess. You’re a part of something bigger, but the choices you make can affect a country. Be sure to make the right ones.”

Akira let a small smile come over her features. “You’re pretty wise for a twelve year old, Kouta.”

“Thirteen!” Kouta said grumpily. “I’m thirteen!”

Akira drew the younger boy into a quick hug. “Well no matter how old you are, you’re pretty darn wise.”

“I try.”

 

Chapter 22:

“Please don’t die…”

Hikaru snapped his eyes open, his breathing sharp. With a single, quick movement, he sat up, rubbing his hands over his face to calm himself down. A shiver overcame his body, and he rubbed his hands over his bare arms. “Good lord,” he hissed quietly. “Why do I keep on dreaming about her?”

“Dreaming about who?” Ha-Ya-To yawned next him, sitting up and rubbing his neck. “And why are you awake? It’s only three-thirty!”

Hikaru gritted his teeth and pulled his sheets off his body. Reaching over, he turned on the lamp by his bedside, letting his eyes adjust before turning back to Ha-Ya-To. “Akira, and I was dreaming and it woke me up.”

“If you were dreaming about Akira, why would it wake you up?” The redhead’s eyes grew wide. “Oh, man, you’ve got it bad if you’re having dirty dreams!”

Hikaru felt his face grow bright red. “It was not dirty!” he snapped. “It was just my memories replaying over.”

“Your…memories?” Ha-Ya-To yawned widely. “What memories?”

“Of last night,” Hikaru said quietly. “When we were dancing.”

Ha-Ya-To had managed to set up his little gathering that night, and had gotten Hikaru and Akira a table together. Hikaru nearly sighed as he remembered her. Her long hair had been pulled up, as usual. And her dress was absolutely stunning on her, a dark purple against her black hair and red lips.

But something had been definitely off. He caught her staring at him at odd times, and had no idea why. Her eyes had told him it wasn’t from attraction, but something much deeper. And when they were dancing slowly on the floor, her grip had suddenly become tighter and her body has pressed against his. Her words were simple, and yet eerie at the same time.

“Please don’t die.”

Hikaru narrowed his eyes, sighing slightly as he brushed back his hair. “She was just…I don’t know…off a bit. And she was scared of me dying.” His eyes locked with Ha-Ya-To’s golden ones. “She told me not to die…and sounded pretty desperate about it.”

Ha-Ya-To shrugged, grinning. “Maybe she’s getting attached to you.”

“Stop joking about this, will you?” Hikaru snapped. “This isn’t about her getting ‘attached’ to me. She was seriously scared about me dying. Why would she suddenly be scared about that?”

The redhead let out a long breath, his gaze becoming more serious. “Well, graduation’s in a few months. Maybe she’s starting to think about what happens afterwards. We’re in a war, Hikaru. Don’t forget how many people we’ve lost.”

“Four hundred and eighty-two,” Hikaru muttered almost robotically. “They add another name on the wall every time it happens.”

“I hate that wall,” Ha-Ya-To whispered quietly. “It makes me think of all the friends I’ve lost.”

The two were silent for a moment. Hikaru full heartedly agreed with his roommate. Every time a soldier fell, their name was carved on the Exo-Force Fallen Soldier Wall, a long stretch of polished black granite now carved with hundreds of names. It was a sorrowful place, and Hikaru hated watching the names be carved at every memorial service.

Hikaru sighed. “It’s just…why does she suddenly get all weepy and…freak out like that? I mean, I was totally unprepared!”

Ha-Ya-To waved the comment away. “She’s probably just anxious. I mean, think about it, she almost died a few weeks ago. She might be thinking about what could happen to us now that she’s only two months away from becoming a full-fledged member of the military. And you’re her trainer. It’s no wonder that she’s worried.”

“But she’s still got two months! Why should she be worried?”

The redhead smiled. “Look, girls elude me just as much as you. I wouldn’t worry about it now. She’ll get over it after a few days.” He yawned. “Now, not that this hasn’t been fun and all, but can we please get to bed? We’ve got class tomorrow, well…today.”

Hikaru snorted. “Fine, buddy.” He snapped off the light. “G’night.”

“G’night!”

Hikaru fell silent in the darkness, but didn’t immediately try to sleep. He lay there thinking over his night. Akira…why would she have said something like that, like a desperate plea? It didn’t make much sense at all. Her final exams were far into the future, and she still had a long way to go.

Had her near death experience shaken her so much that she would be worried about her mentor? He had thought she had gotten over that. She had been in such a good mood lately, seemingly recovered from her incident. And yet here she was nearly in tears telling him to be safe.

Hikaru brushed his hair back, letting out a long breath. This was going to be a long two months.


“Ha-Ya-To Yaguchi.”

“Here!”

“Takeshi Kurokawa.”

“Here.”

“Hikaru Matsuoka.”

“Present.”

“Ryo Hayashi.”

“I refuse to answer your question when you’ve had me in you classroom for over three years now and you should obviously already know my name.”

Akira stifled a snicker as Ryo gave his answer to the teacher. His facial expression was as grumpy as ever, and he looked livid enough to destroy something.

It was day one of classes, and Akira sat with the trainers, the other trainees, and a mass of other people, inside a huge lecture hall. She had placed herself next to Hikaru, as he was her trainer, and another young man sat next to her on the other side. Her Compad was set up neatly in front of her, ready for her note-taking.

But despite her preparedness, she was still rather nervous. For one, the teacher scared her. She had known him for exactly fourteen minutes, and he still scared her. He was a shorter man, but extremely thin and had an egg-shaped head partially covered with thinning grey hair. Thick glasses perched on his nose. And he looked practically bored to death.

“Thank you, Mister Hayashi,” he said rather dully. “Next time, please refrain from the speech.”

Ryo looked like he was about to scream in frustration, but kept his lips firmly shut in a thin line. Akira turned back to her Compad, trying not to laugh. Hikaru nudged her from the other side. “Ryo hates this class,” he hissed, “because he’s already so good at it.” He paused for a moment, thinking. “Actually, he’s good at everything.”

“Mister Matsuoka!” The teacher barked, his small beady eyes glinting up from the clipboard he had been staring very intently at. “You know the rules! Recite!”

Hikaru huffed slightly, a half-smile of ridicule on his face. “No speaking in permitted unless questions are asked. Anyone speaking will receive a detention.” He raised an eyebrow. “I’m pretty sure I got that right, Mister Hamasaki. Do you?”

The man narrowed his eyes but nodded and continued to read names down the list. It was obvious that the Hikaru and the teacher had had this conversation before. Akira wondered who Hikaru whispered to before. Some other girl? Maybe it was that girl he was really into.

After around twenty minutes or so, Mister Hamasaki had finished his list and was adjusting his rather thick glasses. “Welcome to History of Warfare, both new and returning students. My name is Mister Hamasaki, and that is all you need to know. Please feel free to write down notes during class, but please do not interrupt, or else detentions will be given out.” His eyes met the five trainers’ with a rather nasty glare before continuing. “So, please open your textbooks to page seventeen and begin reading along as I explain the Jӧmur Period, starting in 300 BC and ending…”

Akira tried to take notes, she really did. But at two minutes in, she couldn’t find anything interesting about history. In fact, she was ready to pull up music videos on her Compad and watch those instead. She fiddled with the task bar on the side of the pad for a moment. If there weren’t hundreds of people around her, she would have easily pulled out her journal and started writing down what had been going on the last few days. But she didn’t want everyone seeing them.

Suddenly a small icon appeared on her Compad. Mail? She never got emails, except from Rina and Minako. Was it from them?

She tapped on the icon and waited patiently for the email to open. The message was short, but made her smile. Before you ask, he’s always this boring. –H

Akira shot a smile at Hikaru next to her, who winked back. Good to know', She typed back. Does he ever do anything interesting?

Not really, but we only have him once a week, which is nice. He’s looking over here, better pay attention.

Akira turned her Compad back to her notes area and hurriedly typed out a few before glazing over her gaze as she stared at the teacher. She could hardly keep her eyes open through the entire two hours of lecture. Her muscles screamed at her to move, to do something, anything, active. It didn’t help that the entire detailed history of ancient Japan had absolutely nothing to do with what she thought was important. Everything was about slingshots, moats, catapults, or swords. She kept herself from yawning through the first hour, and then couldn’t help herself. Her eyes were becoming so blurry from staring for such a long period that her notes were hardly intelligible, and they weren’t even handwritten.

She blinked a few times as the email icon reappeared on her screen. She shot a quick glance at the teacher before clicking it. Want to head to the gym after this? It read. 'I could use some exercise, and next class isn’t for another two hours afterwards. -H

Akira smiled, typing out a hurried “yes” and sending the email back to Hikaru. He shot her a grin, which she returned. Leave it to Hikaru to know what she needed.

“Anyone else coming?” She hissed quietly.

Hikaru shrugged. “They’re too busy. You and me?”

“Sure!” Akira snapped her hand over her mouth, glancing at the teacher, who appeared to not have heard. She bit back a smile and returned to her Compad, so as not to let Hikaru see how pleased she was. She couldn’t explain it, but she just wanted to spend more time with Hikaru. But she wasn’t going to let him know that.


“Enough for one day?”

Akira grinned, breathing quickly as she slammed her fists into the punching bag over and over. “Are you…kidding?” She said between pants. “I could…do this…all day!”

Hikaru’s smile turned to almost a smirk of amusement. “Oh really?”

The girl took a step back, catching her breath. “Well, anything’s better than classes!”

Her trainer smiled. “Yeah, I’ve been in that class for almost three years now, and I’m still sick of it! You’d think that after that long, Sensei would let me and the others off. But he says we need something mentally stimulating as well.”

“Is Mr. Hamasaki always that touchy?”

Hikaru shrugged. “Yeah, and I’ve been put in detention multiple times. But to tell you the truth, detention isn’t all that bad. It’s usually just guard duty at night or something like that. But sometimes we’ll sneak out of the really boring classes we can pass with our eyes closed and hang out in one of Ryo’s secret workshops. No one ever looks down there.”

Akira sighed. “Are there any non-boring classes?”

“Well, Engineering is cool, but Ryo makes us all look like idiots, so I’m kind of sick of that class. Mathematics, social studies, history, geography, sciences, mechanics…that’s basically it. But the fun part is, some of the classes Ryo teaches, like all the basic mechanics and engineering classes, especially when the teachers are gone. And sometimes Ha-Ya-To teaches geography, you know, GPSCoM. And I’ll do some of the science ones and maybe a bit of mathematics if I’m needed. Takeshi and Hitomi fill in wherever they’re needed.”

“That sounds cool! Just give me a good grade, will you?” Akira shot him a saucy grin.

Hikaru smiled. “We’ll see how well you do, little miss explosions! If you blow up my class, you’re getting either a detention or a medal!”

The two sat on the nearby bench and laughed for a bit as they slid their over-clothes back on. Akira had noticed that lately Hikaru had stopped wearing his white and grey flight suit and had switched out for a full blue jump-suit and a golden chest plate. Actually all the trainers besides Hitomi had decided to switch into alternate uniforms: Ryo now in green and gold versus his old orange and grey, and Takeshi had replaced his grey chest plate with a gold one. Even Ha-Ya-To had swapped out his white chest plate for a gold one. Akira wondered if it was just a fad thing, or if they wore different clothes for different occasions.

Still, the change in colors didn’t affect her gaze on Hikaru as he slid his shirt back on and zipped his jumpsuit back up. As he was going through his bags, looking for his shirt, Akira couldn’t help but glance in his way. She remembered when they had first met, and how taken aback she was by how fit her trainer was. Now it was just another part of him, his fitness.

But still, there was something so alluring about the way his body moved. He was as sleek as a snake, his muscles not nearly as big as Takeshi’s, but still powerful. And his chest was so neatly muscled and formed. Akira felt her cheeks flush and she hurriedly turned away. Don’t think about that, she thought firmly to herself, you shouldn’t be thinking like that!

When they were both dressed, the two of them left the gym. Akira was looking forwards to a long shower before her next class, which according to her schedule was a mathematics course. She wondered vaguely what kind of mathematics it was. Calculus? Geometry? Trigonometry? Either way, she wasn’t all that pleased. She didn’t like mathematics. In fact, it was her least favorite class, though after today, history might have surpassed it.

“Hey, Hikaru, Akira!” Ha-Ya-To met the two of them outside the door. “You guys ready for the next class? I’m not.”

Akira flicked her messy ponytail behind her head. “All I need is a sho—Ha-Ya-To, what’s that?”

The red-head glanced downwards, a guilty look overcoming his features. A small brown object wiggled by his feet, a happy bark coming from the ball of fluff.

“Is that a puppy?” Hikaru raised an eyebrow.

Ha-Ya-To picked up the small furry creature. “Yep! Isn’t she just beautiful!” He drew the puppy close to him, squeezing her tightly. “I found her in the streets, just whimpering and all sad. Oh, Hikaru, you should have seen the look on her precious little face!”

“You do know that this is doing nothing to change my mind about you having a puppy, right?” Hikaru sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. Akira had noticed he did that often when he was exasperated.

“I didn’t even ask yet!” Ha-Ya-To pouted, holding the wiggling puppy out for the two of them to see. “Just look at how cute she is!”

Akira had to admit, the puppy was absolutely adorable. She looked to be a chocolate Labrador, or something close, and had large brown eyes and silky brown fur. And yet the animal felt like a completely foreign species in the Golden City. Akira hadn’t seen a dog in what felt like forever.

But Hikaru wasn’t convinced. “Ha-Ya-To, she has a collar. You can’t just take a dog that has a collar.”

“But I’ve asked everyone!” the redhead protested. “I swear! And look, the tag says “New York” on it. No one would name a dog “New York”. She’s got to have come from there, and somehow have gotten here on accident!”

“How the heck would a puppy get from America to Japan?!”

“I don’t know, but we have to take care of her! No one else is allowed to have pets—.”

“We’re not allowed to have pets either,” Hikaru pointed out, looking extremely aggravated.

“Well, yeah, but we can hide her better. And Sensei may not even notice! Oh, please, Hikaru, we have to keep her! I’ll take good care of her, I promise! I’ll even get her a new collar and a leash and everything! And I’ll be sure to feed her and clean up after her, and make sure she doesn’t shed! Please??

Hikaru let out a long sigh through his nose, taking a long look at the puppy and then at Ha-Ya-To’s large, pleading eyes. Finally, he succumbed. “Okay, I’m going to give you a week. If you can’t take care of her for that long, she’s sent down to the closest town. Got that?”

“YES SIR!!” Ha-Ya-To gave a little bounce, swinging the puppy around, still held protectively to his chest for safety. He held the small creature out to arm’s length as he stopped spinning. “I think I’ll name her Delilah!”

Akira raised an eyebrow. “Delilah?”

“Well, yeah. You know, she came from New York. So she needs a name that matches.”

Hikaru shook his head a little. “Okay, I’m lost.”

Ha-Ya-To rolled his eyes. “Hello? You’ve roomed with me this long and you don’t know? ‘Hey There Delilah’ by Plain White T’s. You know?” He burst into a quiet sing-song voice. “Hey there Delilah, what’s it like in New York City? I’m a thousand miles away, dear, but tonight you look so pretty, yes you do…” He grinned. “Come on, am I the only one who’s heard this?”

Akira and Hikaru looked at one another, and nodded together.

The redhead looked slightly disappointed, but shrugged it off. “You guys miss all the awesome music! Anyways, I’m off to get ready for the next class. See you guys later!” The trainer took off, dancing around with his new puppy and whistling cheerfully as he skipped out of sight.

Hikaru sighed loudly. “Did I just agree to that?”

“Yeah, you did.” Akira smiled. “You’re sweet when you want to be.”

Her trainer rubbed the back of his neck in embarrassment. “Yeah, well, Ha-Ya-To’s got a good heart. I don’t want to discourage that, even if I don’t want a puppy.”

Akira rolled her eyes. “So selfless of you, master!” She gripped a strap on his chest plate and pulled him to the dorms. “Now come on, we’ve got to get cleaned up before class starts again!”

Hikaru laughed, allowing the girl to pull him away to the square that the dorms met up at, where they split up to their separate buildings. Upon entering her room, Akira immediately walked into the bathroom and started up a hot shower.

The hot water felt good against her skin, and she savored the initial moment of the steaming water pouring over her. If she had had more time, she would have easily taken at least a half an hour in the shower just to enjoy the warmth, or maybe even have taken a bath. But she only had around forty minutes until her next class, so she began to scrub the dried sweat from her skin.

Akira sighed, letting the water stream down her face. Her aching limbs begged for her to sit down and relax a little, but she remained standing, thinking of Takeshi’s outraged face telling her that she was too weak to stand up. The thought made her grin.

She wasn’t sure how long she had been in the shower when she finally turned off the water and stepped out, but she wasn’t all that worried. She tied a towel around herself and walked back into her room, rummaging around for a clean jumpsuit.

A knock came to the door. “Come in!” Akira yelled back. Hitomi had probably misplaced her keycard. It had happened before.

“Akira, are you—.”

The girl span around and shrieked. Standing in the doorway was Hikaru. He stopped dead in his tracks, eyes wide. “Hikaru,” Akira yelled in shock, “what the heck are you doing?!”

The blue-haired pilot looked as though he was asking himself the same question. His eyes widened at the sight of his apprentice wearing only a towel. Before he could say anything, Akira yelled, “GET OUT!!”

The young man didn’t argue. He immediately jumped out of the doorway and slammed the door shut behind him. Akira nearly fell to the ground, gasping for breath. Her heart pounded against her chest.

“I’m so sorry!” Hikaru said through the door. “I didn’t realize you were dressing!”

Akira hurriedly grabbed a jumpsuit and pulled it on. “What are you doing in the girl’s dorms?!” She yelled back, trying to dress herself as quickly as possible.

“I came to get you for class. We’re supposed to be there in less than ten minutes, and you weren’t outside.”

“That’s not a great reason for coming into a girl’s private bedroom,” Akira snapped, getting angry. It wasn’t really Hikaru’s fault…well…yes, it probably was after all. But she had given him permission to enter. How stupid was she, letting random people into her room without asking who they were first? “I’ll be out in just a second.”

In less than a minute, Akira was dressed and grabbed her bag from her bed and was out the door. Hikaru was waiting in the hallway, and both people avoided one another’s eyes. Akira felt her cheeks flush bright red. She pointed a threatening finger up at him, her eyes narrowing. “No one hears about this.”

“Agreed!” Hikaru said quickly. His cheeks were just as red as hers, maybe even more so.

Akira sighed as she pulled her wet hair back into her usual ponytail. “Let’s just get to class.”

 

Chapter 23:

Akira sat in the library, typing out notes as fast as she could. How could she have let it get to this point?

But it wasn’t her fault, not really. It was her teachers that had assigned her with three projects all in one day. And now she was very, very behind, and was left up finishing her homework. And it didn’t help that it was nearly one in the morning.

She needed more coffee.

“Akira?”

The girl jerked her head up, trying to focus her bleary eyes in the dark library. The door to the building opened, letting in a blinding shaft of light that Akira had to squint to see through. A tall figure was silhouetted against the light, standing in the doorway.

The girl sighed. “Oh, Takeshi, hi. What’s up?”

“You are,” Takeshi responded, sounding confused. His deep baritone voice was almost calming in the middle of Akira’s distress. “It’s way past curfew!”

“You’re here too,” Akira pointed out with a small laugh.”

Takeshi let out an amused huff of breath. “Yeah, but I’m a senior. I’m allowed to be up past curfew. What are you doing awake?”

Akira let out a groan. “Homework. I have a history essay to finish, a scientific analysis on the circuit lab we did yesterday, and…” she paused to yawn for a moment. “And a slideshow presentation on the country of Nepal.”

“You’re still working on that?” The young man asked incredulously. “But we’ve had almost two days to finish all of those things.”

“I know,” Akira sighed, rubbing her eyes. Takeshi at this point had closed the door and come over to the table she was at. He pulled up a chair and set his own stack of books and material down, eying Akira curiously. The girl motioned to the stack of books surrounding her, not unlike a wall of a castle. “But I’ve been reading for both of those days. It’s the compiling that’s taking me so long!” She stifled another yawn. “And I can’t just skip them…”

Akira was surprised as Takeshi pulled portions of her wall of books away, setting them in smaller piled away from her. “Well, show me what you already have.”

The girl blinked. “But…don’t you hate reading?”

“Hate is a strong word,” the green-haired man answered with a shrug. “I’m just not very good at it. I’m dyslexic, so reading has never come easily to me. I can do it, it just takes me longer than most people, and I have a hard time retaining it.”

“How do you get any of your homework done?”

Takeshi picked up one of the smaller objects he had placed on the table. “Books on tape. Ryo put some fancy software on my computer and Compad that reads articles and textbooks out loud to me. It’s pretty helpful when I need information for my reports.” He shook his head. “But we can talk about my personal study habits later. We’re wasting moonlight and you still have papers to write.”

The girl have a quiet laugh, more relieved than amused. “Thanks, Takeshi.”

The young man smiled. “You’re welcome. Now hand me those books and show me your notes.”

The girl did as he asked, and Takeshi immediately began scanning through her notes. Together they started looking through the books. Takeshi went off for a moment to find some CDs with textbooks on them, and began to help the struggling girl with her paperwork.

Akira was pleasantly surprised by Takeshi’s help. She hated to admit it, but she had always classified Takeshi as being much more of the brawn behind the team, and much less of the brains. But he was more insightful than Akira could have ever asked for. He downright refused to check Akira’s papers for typos, mostly because he claimed his dyslexia wouldn’t help him in any way, but he had Akira read it out loud to him and he gave her small advice on wording and things of that sort. Within the hour, they were just about finished.

But that didn’t matter. They were already asleep.


“Where are they?” Hikaru snapped, growing more and more impatient.

Ha-Ya-To shrugged. “According to Ryo, Takeshi wasn’t in his bed this morning, and Hitomi said that she hasn’t seen Akira all morning. It’s probably a total coincidence. For all we know, Takeshi might as well be working out in the mountains and Akira could be in the Training Center.”

“But she’s not,” Hikaru protested. “Believe me, I checked already, twice. And she’s not in the showers either: I asked a girl coming out.”

“What about her bedroom? Did you go up and check?”

Hikaru felt his cheeks flush slightly. “Um, I left that to Hitomi, for various reasons. She says the room and the bathroom up there are empty. I’ve tried their intercom watches, but all I get is static.”

Ha-Ya-To thought for a moment. “Well, that’s odd in and of itself...Takeshi never turns his watch off. Believe me, I roomed with him for a while, and he keeps that thing on twenty-four-seven.”

“I know,” Hikaru said, thinking hard. Where on earth could the two of them be? Maybe Takeshi had taken Akira out to do some more intense training, but he wouldn’t have done something like that without letting Hikaru know first. In fact, Takeshi didn’t do a whole lot without letting Hikaru know first. The green-haired pilot knew that Hikaru was heavily scheduled, and that he wanted to know what his team was up to at most times. Why would he not let Hikaru know about this particular situation?

Not to mention classes started in less than an hour. The two pilots needed to be found, and quickly.

“Alright, Ha-Ya-To, I want you to check the Golden Tower area, and get Ryo to check security tapes. Have some of the younger pilots check out the Residential District. For all we know, they could have been captured by robots in the middle of the night. That’s the last thing we need at the moment.”

The redhead saluted. “Aye-aye, Captain!” Immediately the pilot was running down the street and out of sight.

Hikaru let out a sigh and began making his way towards the inner areas of the city, but away from the Golden Tower. Ha-Ya-To and Ryo would take care of the situation there. No, he was in the fine space between residential and military areas. The only way to tell the difference between the two was the fact that the buildings became very different. The militaristic side was designed to be very minimalist, with grey metal warehouses and low ceilings. The Residential District took on the more “golden” side to the Golden City. The roofs were made of red shingles, and the walls of buildings had changed to be the golden-painted bricks that the city was well-known for.

So while Hikaru had set his team and others on the Residential District or the military areas, the leader would take the middle himself. The area wasn’t all the large, just right for him to check through before classes started. If worse came to worse, he would gladly skip his first few classes to continue searching for his friends.

The buildings on the borderlands were very basic, but were used by both parties of people living in the city. Some of them were markets (usually food related), others for the more logistical side of the city, such as record offices and things of that sort, and there was even a church.

Hikaru passed all of them by, keeping his eyes sharp for anyone that looked remotely like Takeshi or Akira. But he could not spot any grass-green hair, nor Akira’s unique red, white, and grey flight suit. Still, Hikaru continued looking. For all he knew, they could be inside one of the buildings. He would have to wait for Ryo before he could judge any of that.

He peeked inside of some of the building with glass he could not see through, such as the church and one of the post offices, but there was no sign of the two pilots. Slowly, Hikaru was starting to get worried. Every few minutes he would try to radio through his intercom watch to Takeshi, but his friend didn’t seem to hear him.

The pilot avoided various people as he continued onwards. The street was relatively well-packed with civilians. Hikaru paused when he passed various people, dipping his head respectfully. Inwardly, he hoped that one of them would raise their head and he would be looking into the dark purple-hued eyes, or Takeshi’s spring-green ones. But that was more wishful thinking than anything else.

Hikaru sighed and walked up to the one building at the end of the road. The building could only fit there, as it was massive. The elegant building was the most unique building in the city. Made of white stone and filled with glass, it was probably impractical for a city constantly under attack, but the pilots and techies liked it. It gave them some hope of home when they looked at the gorgeous old building. For some reason, it reminded them of home life more than any other building in the city, so it wasn’t uncommon for the pilots and techies to be found there on their off-days simply to pick up a good book or have a cup of coffee and admire the building.

Hikaru hadn’t been the building in quite a while, a few months at least. It had been longer than that since he had picked up a novel or a poetry book. For one, he was a busy person. He hardly had the time to deal with his teammates and all of the Exo-Force and keep everyone in line, much less while he was training an apprentice. Still, he missed the ability to relax enough to pick up a good book and take a break. He would have to remember to come here when he next had a day off.

Slowly the pilot entered the library. The massive doors were made of maple wood, engraved with intricate, vine-like shapes. Hikaru let his hands rest on the beautiful wood as he shoved the door open. Despite the fact that the doors were incredibly large, he had little trouble opening the doors.

A shaft of light entered the dark building. Hikaru rarely entered the building when it was not lit. It felt crisp and chilly inside, just like Hikaru thought a building of old books ought to. He breathed in, taking in the musty scent of old paper and ink. It was lovely, utterly lovely.

His eye caught on the single unnatural light source in the room. Off in a corner shined one lone lamp. The blue-haired man slowly walked up to it. It was one a desk, and identical to the other lamps in the room: square and inset with pieces of brightly colored glass. The light emitting from the lamp was warm and golden, a soft color on the dark bookcases in the library.

Hikaru stood in front of the desk and raised an eyebrow. He let out a small sigh, and ran a hand through his hair before holding up his intercom watch to his face. “Hey, Ryo, you can stop tracking Takeshi’s watch. I found them.”

There they were, fast asleep on the desk. Well, Takeshi was on the desk and Akira was more or less on one of his arms and against his head. If Hikaru hadn’t been on a mission at the moment, he would have easily allowed them to sleep. After all, he rarely ever saw Takeshi so peaceful. The green-haired man had his head on his arms and head off to one side, where he lay, breathing slowly. Akira’s head was over one of his arms, her head nestled into Takeshi’s shaggy hair. Her back rose and fell with every long breath.

Hikaru licked his lips and swallowed hard. What he would do to let them sleep! They looked as though they had had a long night. Takeshi’s CDs and Akira’s books were all over the table, and Akira’s Compad was neatly set next to her, turned off. Had they been studying? It sure seemed so, or else they had come for a book club.

The young man sighed and walked over to Takeshi, tapping him on the back. “Takeshi, wake up…come on, you have to get up…Takeshi…” He tried to shake the man awake, but Takeshi merely let out a longer breath and shifted his position ever so slightly before he went back to his sleep.

Hikaru had no choice. He stood perfectly straight and yelled into the silence of the room. “TAKESHI KUROKAWA!!”

The green-haired man’s head jerked upwards with such a force that it hit the table-lamp and sent it flying off the table. Akira threw herself into an upright position, eyes wild and blood-shot. She moaned a little and rubbed her eyes. “What…what the heck?”

Takeshi immediately caught sight of Hikaru and stood hurriedly. “What’s going on?” He said, his voice cracking slightly with the lack of moisture. “Where…?

“Library,” Hikaru said. “Class is in fifteen, so I hope you two aren’t going to need to take a sho—.”

“My reports!” Akira grabbed at her Compad and turned it on. The light from her Compad was the only source of light besides the sun now; the lamp that Takeshi had accidentally knocked off the table was not out of the floor, though thankfully had not broken. Akira hurriedly swiped through files while Hikaru and Takeshi waited. Finally the girl sat back and sighed. “They’re all there, and they’re done…”

Takeshi let out a sigh of relief. “Well, that’s good!”

Hikaru grabbed Takeshi’s arm and dragged him out of the room. “Yeah, it’s great that you two finished your reports. But they won’t do you any good if you don’t get to class on time!”

Akira turned her Compad off and hurriedly followed Hikaru and Takeshi out the door. Hikaru watched the two of them as they walked side by side. Takeshi held Akira’s Compad as she fixed her messy hair.

“Have you guys been in there all night?” Hikaru asked.

Takeshi nodded. “Yeah, well, Akira was up at nearly two o’clock last night, and I was returning my own stuff, so we ran into each other. She was behind on her homework, and I decided to help her. We were just so tired by the time we were done that we fell asleep.”

Hikaru nodded, trying as hard as he could not to raise an eyebrow curiously. It was odd for Takeshi to help anyone with their homework, especially when it came to reading and writing. But he wasn’t all that surprised. Hikaru himself had a soft spot for Akira. She was likable and pleasant to be around. So why wouldn’t want to help her? He could speak from experience that being behind in one’s studies was not a fun thing to do.

So was it totally wrong of him to wish that it had been Hikaru instead of Takeshi who had helped Akira with her work? Or that it had been Hikaru who ended up with a certain trainee asleep on his shoulder?

Chapter 24:

“Ugg…” Akira sighed. “I swear, the classes get more and more boring by the day.”

“They could be substantially worse,” came Ryo’s muffled voice from under the piece of metal he was screwing in.

Akira rolled her dark eyes. “Yeah, sure, because we’ve actually gotten into modern day technology in Mr. Hamasaki’s class! And no offense to Ms. Inoue, but GPSCoM is much more interesting when Ha-Ya-to teaches it.”

“That’s only because we suddenly break into rap songs about the capitols of the world and various things of that sort.” Ryo pulled himself out from under the battle machine he was repairing. He brushed his purple hair away from in front of his eyes, and he gave Akira one of his rare smiles. “Your graduation is a mere few weeks away. How have you been feeling about it?”

To tell the truth, Akira had actually been thinking about her graduation more and more as the days passed by. She was an excellent shot in the battle machines she used, and her flying had become very good, well enough that she could hold her own against robot skirmishes. Her academics were doing alright as well, though she could care less when it came to those. The only class she actually enjoyed was basic mechanics, which she had learned relatively quickly from Ryo and his efficient teaching skills. She was nowhere near as good as Kouta or even Hikaru, but she was rather satisfied with her work. Even more to her liking, she could hold her own in close combat with Hikaru, weapons or not. She still found it hard to get past Takeshi, but she had managed to best him a few times.

But despite her skills, Akira still felt less than ready to graduate and become a full pilot. She felt like she still had so much to learn. Hikaru had told her not to worry, as he was still learning, and he had been in the Exo-Force for years. But still…

Ryo ruffled his hair slightly. “I know what will cheer you up!”

Akira raised an eyebrow. “Cheer me up? Ryo, you’ve never been one for cheering people up.”

“True. But you’re a trainee. And you’ve had a lot on your mind lately. So, do you want to see your battle machine?”

The dark-haired girl slid off the platform to the ground, following Ryo into another room, which he had scan into with a keycard. “Did you fix my Stealth Hunter?”

Ryo led her into the room. “Negative.” He motioned to the room. There were no people inside, from what Akira could see. It was smaller than the larger workshop they had come from, but it was large enough to hold five unfinished battle machines. Akira gaped up at the machines. She had never seen a battle machine in its earliest stages, and they looked even larger than the finished ones. They were basically steel beams and wires at the moment, hardly any plating at all. She let out an awkward laugh, not even trying to conceal her amazement.

“Are these the trainees new battle machines?” She asked.

Ryo nodded, motioning to the first one. “This is Taiki’s.” The base, as far as Akira could see, was massive, probably at least as big as the Blade Titan, and from the wiring looked like it could be just as stout. Ryo touched one of the legs, his fingers mingling with the wiring. “I just need to finish the final adjustments on the blade, and then I can start adding the plating on. The blade’s going to be huge and thick, and can also double as a thin shield when used right. The other hand will have some sort of huge cannon.”

“Sounds very Taiki,” Akira grinned.

Ryo went around to each of the unfinished machines and pointed out the certain features made specifically for each of the trainees’ unusual abilities. Kiku’s was also large and compact, but a blade in one of the hands was thinner than Taiki’s, and the other hand was a large claw, the ends tipped with diamond for, as Ryo called it, “maximum depth of use”. Olivia’s was much smaller, thinner, and lighter, as she was a rather good flier. Both of the hands in hers held thin blades, strong but agile and good for slicing. The undersides of the arms had missiles attached to them, and could be used multiple times, which balanced out her long and short range weapons. Kouta, as he wasn’t really much of a fighter at all, had a much smaller battle machine, more like Ryo’s Cyclone Defender. And yet it had a few good defenses, such as the hidden rockets on the back in case he was in a situation where he needed to make a quick getaway. His was small, compact, and seemed to have a lot more done on it than the others (Ryo explained that Kouta was actually designing and working on his own).

“And this,” Ryo said quietly, “is yours.”

Akira stepped up to the battle machine, looking up at the un-plated body. From the general shape, it looked to be slightly shorter than her Stealth Hunter, and a little stockier. But it was still lithe enough for her to make clean flight cuts in the air during an aerial battle.

“The blade will be edged in tungsten, which I’ve messed with enough that it will heat up outside of a vacuum source,” Ryo explained, “and it’ll be able to cut through most metals and stones. And I’m planning on having quite a few missiles and a large gun for the other hand. I’ve heard you’re a good shot.” He shot her a small smile. “But I won’t reveal anymore. Wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise on graduation day!”

“It’s beautiful, Ryo!” Akira breathed out. Her heart soared in excitement. Her very first personal battle machine! There was nothing wrong with the Stealth Hunter, of course, but watching the Dream Team with their own personalized battle machines had made Akira long for one of her own. And here it was, unfinished and yet still beautiful.

But Ryo seemed to love it even more than she. Akira watched the young man’s expression grow soft, softer than she had ever seen it before. There was something deep within his blue eyes, a deep pride in his work.

“You like doing this, don’t you?” Akira asked. It was less of a question, though, and more of a statement. It was already rather obvious what his answer would be.

“Creating?” Ryo responded. “Yes, I love it.” He brushed a hand over the unfinished, heavily wired leg of the battle machine with a tender look on his face. Akira had never seen him so relaxed, so happy. “It’s my τελος.”

Akira blinked. “Your telos?”

Ryo shook his head, his shaggy hair spinning around his face. “You probably wouldn’t know the term. It’s from Ancient Greek, and its literal meaning is “end”, someone’s end. But its meaning is something deeper. It means someone’s greater purpose in life, what they were created to do. I believe my τελος is to create.”

The dark-haired girl nodded. “Really? That’s interesting.”

Ryo shrugged. “Just a simple term. Midori’s always teasing me about my work—.”

“What was that, dear brother?” At the moment, the violet-haired young woman stepped into the workshop, glanced around at the battle machines for a moment. “Wow, did you make these?”

“Yes,” Ryo answered gruffly, crossing his arms. Gone was his relaxed look, the expression now replaced with annoyance. “What do you want?”

“To get you to go and meet up with Takeshi and Ha-Ya-To in the lunch room,” Midori waved a hand. “Of course, I get volunteered…no, volun-told to do it.” She sighed. “Anyways, you’d better get your butt over there. Takeshi doesn’t like to be kept from his lunch.”

Ryo snorted and rolled his eyes. “Fine, but make sure to lock up this workshop, alright? I don’t want anyone else in here.”

Midori rolled her silvery eyes. “Sure thing, genius.”

Ryo gave her a glare before hurrying from the building, leaving Midori and Akira in the room, alone except for the five metal titans keeping them company. Akira shot a glance back at Midori. “So, why are you two always so…angry at each other? You guys are siblings, right?”

“Twins,” Midori responded, brushing back her long purple hair. Akira wasn’t sure how she didn’t get it caught on something, especially while fighting. Akira couldn’t stand her hair being down for long after having it up for such a time. “And we had a rough background. We made up around a year ago, but it’s hard getting used to being around one another again.” Her lips drew into a thin line, so like the way Ryo did then he was thinking hard or annoyed.

Akira swallowed. “If you don’t mind my asking, what happened when you were little to end up like this?”

Midori shrugged. “Well, see…Ryo was always a genius. I wasn’t. He was probably the smartest person in our entire city, children and adults alike, so he was always getting a lot of attention from out parents as well as other kids and adults. I guess our parents liked having a genius for a son. He got everything he wanted, even his own workshop while I had to sleep in the smallest room. My parents never had time for me anymore. He always got the most expensive presents out of the two of us. He’s even going to get our parents inheritance when he’s twenty-one. It was always about Ryo. Nothing was about me.”

“So…how did you get past that?”

The girl smiled slightly, her eyes gleaming. “Well, I never heard Ryo’s story…ever. When our parents died, Ryo joined the Exo-Force and I stayed behind. I wanted nothing to do with the military. But the city was bombed years later, and the Exo-Force brought me here as a refugee. So we were kind of forced together. And after a long few days, I finally heard from him why he was so upset.

“He was genius, but that didn’t mean he wanted to be. He was stuck with every job, especially taking care of me, because our parents just assumed he could do everything because he was smart. He never got to live a normal life, in fact, he never really got a life at all. He was jealous that I got to go to birthday parties and hang out with my friends. He never had any friends before the Exo-Force.” The girl sighed, smiling to herself. “And yet, even though we’ve gotten over all that, we still can’t seem to get along. Must be a sibling thing.”

Akira allowed herself a small smile. “You two sound incredibly alike.”

“Well, I don’t have his brains, but we’ve got the same bad attitude, even I know that!” She looked up at the battle machines looming over them. “To be completely honest, I’m still a little jealous of him. He’s needed by everyone here. Everyone looks up to him. I’m still making my way through this whole way of life.” She gave a soft smile. “But I’m pretty happy here. I get to fight and train and learn a lot. So what’s there to complain about?”

“You’re right,” Akira smiled back. “What is there to complain about?” She sighed, stretching her arms out above her head. “So…you coming to Ms. Kimura’s physics class?”

Midori groaned. “Oh please, that class? I suck at physics!” She rolled her eyes. “But I’d better be there. She’d murder me if I didn’t.”

“You guys heading to lunch?” Hikaru stepped into the workshop, his eyes gleaming in the dim light. “You’ve been in here for forever!”

Midori brushed a strand of hair from her shoulder. “Yeah, and you’re not supposed to be in here!” She marched over to the door, shoving Hikaru forcefully from the room. “Alright, out you go!”

“But I didn’t even—.”

“I know, I know, but Ryo make me promise not to let anyone else in here. Now out!”

When the three teens had left the small workshop, Midori scanned her I.D. card and locked the room tight behind them. “So, we heading to lunch?”

Hikaru nodded. “We’ll see you soon, I just wanted to talk to Akira for a sec first.”

Midori shrugged. “Whatever. You two chat your hearts out, ‘k? I’ll see you around.”

Hikaru waited for Midori to get out of sight before turning back to Akira. The dark-haired girl glanced quickly. The two of them were completely alone in the room. All the techies appeared to have gone to lunch. So they were alone in a massive workshop. Akira swallowed. “Okay, what’s up?”

Her trainee’s eyebrow rose. “I just wanted to make sure you’re doing alright.”

The girl shot him a half-smile. “What, are you worried about me too?”

“You’ve been acting stressed out lately. I just want to make sure you don’t need a break.”

Akira gave a long sigh, shaking her head. “A break would be lovely, Hikaru, but I really don’t have time for a break, not with graduation just around the corner.”

“Come on!” Hikaru rolled his eyes. “There’s always time for a break. What do you say we skip class altogether for the rest of the afternoon and eat lunch somewhere else?”

“Just…leave?” Akira looked around again, making sure no one else had spoken instead. “Wait…are you saying we can just…skip classes? You’re the one who’s supposed to be convincing me not to ditch classes!”

Hikaru rubbed the back of his neck, embarrassed. “Yeah, well, we all need breaks sometimes, AK. Come on, what do you say? Can I take you out to lunch?”

Akira gave a huffing laugh. “What do you have in mind?”


“Your own personal green space?” Akira grinned as she hopped down from the ladder of the Sky Guardian.

Hikaru swung a picnic basket over his shoulder, smiling. “Yeah, well, when you’re the leader of the Dream Team, you get some privileges. And it also helps when you use the excuse of a minor mission, and no one is supposed to question you about it.”

Akira had to admit, she had been a little lost when Hikaru had suggested them taking one battle machine and her standing behind him, holding onto the chair tightly as they soared from the city through the mountains. She had thought he would be taking her to some small village where they could get something to eat. But this was better.

It was the top of a lower hill in the mountains, and the area on the top was completely covered in grass. A single tree stood off to one side. It was like a tiny, secluded grassy space.

“Hikaru, it’s beautiful!” Akira said quietly. She closed her eyes and allowed the breeze to slide gently through her hair. It felt so good after being cooped up in the city for so long.

Her mentor smiled. “I’m glad you like it. No one else really comes over here. Actually, I’ve never told anyone else about it. So feel privileged, you’re the only other person who’s ever been up here.”

Akira whirled around to face Hikaru, not able to keep the smile off her face. She dipped her head slightly, clasping her hands together. “You’re amazing, Hikaru.”

The young man blushed a little, but busied himself with setting up a picnic blanket and setting down the basket. “Just helping out my apprentice in her last few weeks as one.”

“Don’t remind me!” Akira groaned, settling down on the blanket next to Hikaru. “I’m terrified stiff of my final exams!”

Hikaru pulled a plate out of his basket and handed it to Akira, filling it with clumps of grapes and a few slabs of thick bread. “They’re really not that bad. The biggest one is your final with Takeshi, your second Hell Week. But you’re in such good shape now, it shouldn’t be much of a problem.”

Akira smiled, graciously accepting his gift, murmuring a thank you to him before eating. After eating all her ‘dietary’ food that the cafeteria forced upon the soldiers, to keep them at peak condition, Akira was happy to splurge. Bread and grapes had never tasted so good. She sighed a little after swallowing. “You have no idea how much I’ve needed this. You must be feeling European today, with bread and grapes.”

Hikaru smirked. “Yeah, well, I can only sneak so much from the kitchens.” He gazed out into the mountains, his gaze steady and level. Akira had to rip her gaze away from his face, trying not to flush in embarrassment. She had caught herself doing that more and more when her mentor was around. What was wrong with her? She shouldn’t have been staring.

Especially when her mentor was currently chasing after some other girl.

Hikaru’s words broke her out of her thoughts. “So…have any plans for after you graduate?”

Akira thought for a moment, trying to piece together a response. She bit her lower lip. “Um…not yet. I’m still a little undecided.”

Hikaru raised his hands, waving them a bit. “Hey, that’s fine! I had no plan either. You’re in good hands, no matter where you’re stationed.”

“Oh, yeah…” Akira felt her spirits sink once again. “To tell you the truth, I want to stay here in the city.”

“Any particular reason why?”

Millions, Akira thought to herself. For one, I’ve still got a long way to explore in the Silver City, and all my friends are here…and you’re here…

She instead said, “I’m just used to it. I’d like to continue my training here. I’ve had such a good time, and I feel like no other place would compare.”

Hikaru smiled. “I felt the same way, and I’m still here. So maybe it was what was best for me.” His gaze locked into Akira’s. “If you do get assigned somewhere else, you’d better give me regular updates, alright?”

Akira grinned. “You got it, HK.”

The two fell silent. Akira sat listening to the wind and sighing once again as the air brushed against her cheeks. It felt peaceful, and yet invigorating at the same time. She shot a glance at Hikaru, forcing herself to only take a quick look and not to stare. His gaze was intense as he stared once again out into the mountains. His electric blue hair blew gently in the wind, and his posture was one of peace. Akira loved the way his eyes gleamed in even the most minor of lights. They seemed to glow. In fact, Akira loved the way he sat, the way he spoke in his smooth tenor voice, the way his face was so smooth…

Akira loved everything about him. And that was the problem.

She had been trying to convince herself for almost two months now that she didn’t like Hikaru, that she only wanted to be around him because he was her trainer and he gave good advice for her mental and physical training. But lately, she had become more and more attracted to him, and it wasn’t going away like she wanted. In fact, it grew every time she saw him.

But he liked someone else. He had told her months ago about it, and she had even asked him recently about how the girl he liked was doing. He had replied that she was actually doing really well, just a little overwhelmed by all the recent work. But that wasn’t very helpful, as just about everyone was stressed out about the work load. Akira had no idea who Hikaru liked.

But she didn’t want to face another rejection, like she did with Ha-Ya-To. Granted, they were friends now, but she didn’t want to go through that anguish with her teacher. She felt their connection growing much stronger than hers and Ha-Ya-To’s had ever been.

And yet she still managed to hold her tongue around Hikaru and admire him from afar. She loved being around him, but she realized that she didn’t want to be around him at the same time. She could never get over him if this was the way things were going. And anyways, in the next three weeks, she would be graduated and stationed, and that would be the end of it.

The girl swallowed, hard. “Hikaru?”

“Hmm?”

Akira paused for a moment. “This is going to sound super cliché…but when I’m gone, don’t forget me.”

Hikaru’s head turned and his confused blue gaze met hers. “Forget you? How could I do that? You blew up part of Ryo’s workshop!”

That’s not what I meant! Akira held back a sigh. “No, just…well…I guess that’ll work…”

Hikaru’s mouth twisted into a half-grin. “I’m just kidding, AK. I won’t forget you. You’ve been a great apprentice. And you’ll always have a home here in the city if you need one.”

Akira felt a smile wash over her face. “Thank you. And thank you for today. I need this every once in a while.” I need you every once in a while…

“A pleasure.” Hikaru smiled. “Just let me know if you ever need anything.”

“I will.”

Chapter 25:

“Well, congratulations,” Hikaru said with a grin. “You’ve officially passed everything!”

Akira let out a long sigh of relief. She felt as though all her stress was just flowing away. She had spent the last weeks preparing for her exams, and she had passed. In fact, Takeshi’s second Hell Week had actually been one of the easier examinations. She had even passed her written history test, which she had been moaning over for some time now. But she had been trained well.

She raised an eyebrow, a half-smile on her lips. “So, does this mean I’m one of you guys now?”

“Sure!” Ha-Ya-To said through his shake, “but not until graduation. Then it’s official.”

“Since when have we ever cared about anything being official?” Takeshi rolled his eyes. “Please! AK, you’re an Exo-Force soldier. Welcome to the team!”

Akira felt her cheeks flush in pleasure as the five Dream Team-ers each came and shook her hand, clapping her on the back and grinning wildly. Hitomi pulled her into a tight hug. “So,” she said cheerfully, “you ready for graduation? It’s tomorrow!”

Akira swallowed hard. “As ready as I’ll ever be. I’m still so nervous, even though it’s all fine now and I don’t have to worry about tests or nearly dying in the woods anymore.”

“You’ll do great,” Takeshi assured her. “After all, we trained you!”

“You trained everyone,” Akira pointed out. “Taiki, Kiku, Kouta, Olivia, and me. Remember?”

Ha-Ya-To shrugged. “Sure, but none of them were interested in being on the top, with the D-Team. You migrated over here and now you’re one of the big shots!”

Akira smiled gratefully at the group. They had really made her experience here was it really was. The other trainees were wonderful people, but the trainers were where the life of the city was. And they had taken her under their wing and taught her to be one of the best. And for that, she was extremely grateful.

“So what now?” She asked. “I mean, I’ve got an entire day before graduation, and the only thing I have to do is wall guard tonight. What do I do with the rest of my time?”

Ha-Ya-To threw his hands into the air. “Impromptu Gathering! Ryo, we’re taking over your workshop, alright?”

Ryo sighed. “Is this really the moment?”

“Uh, yeah? Hold on, I’ll meet you all there. Just let me get my guitar…”

And so within the next ten minutes, the trainer and trainees found themselves in Ryo’s workshop, already cleared out, as more and more people joined them for their mini Gathering. Akira wasn’t sure how Ha-Ya-to managed to get so many people off duty and into the workshop without anyone else noticing, but as Takeshi pointed out, something about Ha-Ya-To was a little less human and a little more spazz-tastically magical.

“Welcome everybody!” Ha-Ya-To’s voice blared out over the speakers now hung up around the workshop. “You all ready to dance?”

The crowd cheered in response. The redhead grinned. “First of all,” he said, “I’d like to recognize why we’re having a Gathering at this early hour in the day. Well, we have some very special people to commemorate for their amazing achievements in this half a year. So, I’d like to ask Taiki, Kiku, Olivia, Kouta, and Akira to come and stand up here with me!” As the five filed onto the makeshift stage, Ha-Ya-To threw his hand into the air. “How about a big round of applause for our newly initiated teammates?”

The crowd bust into cheers. They whistled and yelled their approval for the new soldiers. The room was filled with the sound of applause. Akira smiled, feeling her face flush slightly from all the gazes on her and the other trainees. But something in her rose, a feeling of her belonging.

This was what she joined the military for. She was a part of something bigger. This was her team.

Ha-Ya-To managed to calm the screaming crowd down a bit. “Alright, you all received a bracelet when you entered, right?”

Akira nodded along with the rest of them. Well, it wasn’t really a bracelet, just a simple piece of construction paper with a number scribbled on it that had been stapled together around her wrist.

“Well,” the redhead continued, “you have a matching number and color with someone in this room. For this dance, that’s your partner. This only applies to your first dance, the others you get to choose. And yes, they’ve all taken gender into account. Now go and find your partner while I pick a song!”

Akira slid off the stage, inspecting her bracelet. It was green. She looked around her, eyes resting on blacks, blues, purples, and yellows in color. She dodged and weaved her way through the crowd, trying to find another person with her number. It was a lot harder than she thought. No one else seemed to have a green bracelet.

“You’ve got green too?”

Akira whipped around, her dark eyes meeting Hikaru’s electric blue. She looked down at his bracelet. It was green, and its number matched hers.

Of course it’s him! She thought bitterly to herself. Just play it cool, don’t let him think you’re interested at all…

Akira nodded lightly. “Yeah! You too?”

Hikaru grinned, bowing before her. “May I have this dance?”

“O-of course.” Akira set her hand onto Hikaru’s, trying not to flush furiously. She could feel her heart leap at the contact.

The blue-haired trainer led the girl onto the dance floor. After a few minutes everyone had found their partners.

The music began slowly, a peaceful song. Akira recognized it from somewhere, though she couldn’t remember. It was piano based, slow and waltz-like.

“You're in my arms, and all the world is calm

The music playing on, for only two…

So close, together

And when I'm with you

So close, to feeling alive…”

Akira swallowed, trying not to let her heart race. Her body slid neatly against Hikaru’s, their steps slow and swaying. His arms were around her. He was so warm, so comfortable.

“As life goes by,

Romantic dreams must die

So I bid my goodybe,

And never knew…

So close, was waiting,

Waiting here with you

And now, forever, I know

All that I wanted,

Was to hold you, so close...”

Akira tried to focus, not to let her mind wander, especially not to the lyrics of the song. She couldn’t do that, couldn’t let her mind think all of the things it wanted to. She had self-control…it was just so hard!

“So close to reaching

That famous happy end, and

Almost believing,

This one's not pretend, and

Now you're beside me

And look how far we've come…

So far, we are…so close...”

All Akira wanted to wrap her arms around Hikaru even tighter, to kiss him, to tell him how she felt. But she knew he wouldn’t take her actions kindly. So she refrained herself. Don’t think about it…just stop thinking about it…he’s kind and welcoming and sweet, but he’s in love with someone else. So just let it go!

“Oh how could I face, the faceless days?

If I should lose you now…

We're...so close,

To reaching, that famous happy end, and

Almost believing this one's not pretend, and

Let's go on dreaming, for we know we are...

So close...

So close...

And still so far...”

The song came to a stop, but Hikaru didn’t let go of her immediately. Akira found herself completely lost in his comfortable form. Slowly, he released his hold on her. But Akira didn’t want to let go. She wanted to soak in his warmth, his relaxed figure. Oh, she wanted to hold him forever. She wanted him so badly. But she forced herself to take a step back and merely gaze into his mesmerizing blue eyes. Akira longed to run her fingers through his hair, to feel his breath on her cheek.

STOP IT!! She told herself fiercely. You can’t just expect someone to fall in love with you. It doesn’t work like that.

She forced herself to nod to him. “Thank you for the dance,” she managed to say.

Hikaru raised an eyebrow. “How about a second one?”

Say no, say no… “I…um…”

“Hey, Akira!”

Hitomi saved Akira from answering. The dark-haired trainer grabbed her in a tight side hug. “You know, we’ve got to do something tonight! Last night, right?”

Akira sighed, smiling. “Yeah, but I’m busy tonight. I’ve got guard duty and all the trainees are meeting with Sensei tonight. Not sure why, though.”

“Really?” Hitomi pouted. “Well, why don’t we do something right now? You don’t mind if I take your partner away, do you Hikaru?”

The blue-haired teen gave a half-smile. “Sure, go ahead. Have a good time.”

“Great!” Hitomi grabbed Akira’s arm, dragging her out of the workshop. Akira gave one last look to Hikaru, who hadn’t moved from his position. His eyes locked with her, those piercing electric blue eyes that Akira had once found so terrifying, and now she couldn’t help but find so alluring.


The sky had darkened quickly. Even though spring was on its way, Akira could still feel the chill in the air, especially at night. But the sky was clear, the moon shining down onto the Golden City and turning it silvery in color.

Akira slid off her glove, examining her tattoo on her hand, as she did often enough. The Silver City…the place was odd, and yet she felt a strange attraction towards it. She and Kouta had explored most of the underground city over the last few months, and had found more and more wonders to add to their list. The city was like an eerie fantasy. Akira had built up enough courage to venture the city alone when Kouta and Ryo were away, but she still liked to have one of the techies with her while exploring. They were a comfort.

Last night as a trainee… Akira sighed, looking towards the moon. It had been a long six months. She had done more in the last few months than she could remember ever having done in her life. She had passed a whole set of some of the most difficult examinations she had ever been in, battled the elements during two Hell Weeks, and had even dealt with nearly suffocating in a destroyed Stealth Hunter. She felt more accomplished than ever.

And this was it.

Her family had come in that afternoon for the graduation, and were already in bed. The trip from her city to the Golden City wasn’t a small one, and she wasn’t surprised when Sora and Kenji had bunked down earlier than they usually did. They had told he they wouldn’t be able to make it to her graduation, but had surprised her with showing up. She was just glad that they were here. She had been missing her siblings, even though it had been only two months since she had last seen them.

The chilly wind whipped across the mountain peaks and into the city. Akira wasn’t in her usual guard duty position. She had been assigned to the ground portion of the guards, which meant she was on top of one of the massive city walls, without a battle machine. A building backed up against the platform behind her. She felt as though she were in the Great Wall of China and looking down into the plains, simply awaiting disaster. But she was on duty, even if it was easy: she stared out into the mountain area, looking for any sign of light or life or mechanics. She was supposed to be here until eleven, when someone else would be sent to take over and she would be meeting with Sensei and the other graduating trainees. But until then, she had to stare out into the mountains for hours. Akira didn’t mind really. There was quite a bit of time to think.

The girl pulled the tie out of her hair, letting the wind whip its long dark strands through the air. She loved the feeling of her hair being played with. The wind did a wonderful job, its long tendrils streaking their way to the roots of her hair and whipping it around.

“Bored?”

Akira whipped around, hurriedly sliding her glove back on. She nearly groaned when she saw who it was. Why was it always Hikaru? Couldn’t she ever get away from him? All he did was tempt her, tempt her to let her mind wander into all the wonderful hormonal things it wanted to desperately to have actually happen.

Akira took a deep breath. “No,” she said patiently, “I actually enjoy being alone sometimes. And besides, the moon isn’t nearly this beautiful in the day.”

Hikaru stepped away from the ladder, coming to the edge of the wall Akira leaned against. He looked up at the moon, his eyes turning silver in the light. Akira looked away, forcing her heart to slow down. Dang it, she hated it when this happened!

“I don’t know. I’ve seen prettier.”

Akira whipped back to look at him. His eyes drifted from looking at the moon to Akira’s dark eyes. The girl pinched her lips tighter together. “Really?” She said, trying to stay calm. “Where?”

“Every day in the city.”

“Oh, that girl you like, right.” Akira was surprised at how bitter her tone was. Why should she care if Hikaru liked someone else? It was his own choice, right? She shook her head slightly, putting on a smile. “I still have no idea who she is. What’s her name?”

Hikaru’s relaxed position turned uncomfortable. “Well…um…”

“Come on, tell me!” Akira couldn’t remember ever seeing her trainer so flustered. “I won’t tell a soul, I swear.”

Hikaru’s flush was easily distinguishable in the moonlight. He ran a hand through his hair. “Well, she…umm….”

“I can keep a secret, Hikaru.”

“Promise?”

“Of course I—.”

Akira gave a muffled shriek as Hikaru leapt forwards, his mouth forcefully pressing against hers. In fact, the movement was so great, that Akira was forced back a few steps until she hi the building behind her. With the pilot’s body pressed against hers and the wall at her back, there was nowhere to go.

The girl’s mind was a slowly blurring whirl of emotions. With every passing second, Akira could feel her grip on reality slipping out of her conscience. And when Hikaru’s tongue asked for an embrace, she couldn’t refuse. Anything still sane in her mind vanished and the most blissful, wonderful feeling overcame any logic she still had left.

Hikaru finally broke the connection. Akira’s breath came in gasps. She had momentarily forgotten how to breathe. “Hikaru Matsuoka!” Akira hadn’t meant her words to sound as accusing as they had, but she was genuinely in shock, and she stared up at Hikaru with wide-eyes.

The blue-haired pilot seemed to be having just as much trouble breathing as Akira was. His hands were up against the wall, as though blocking her escape. His body loomed over hers, seemingly taller than he was in perspective. “I can’t get you out of my head,” he whispered. “I don’t know why. I’ve never had trouble controlling my thoughts and emotions before. I know this is so against the rules, but I—.” He broke off, looking confused and brushing a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry. That was wrong of me. I shouldn’t have forced myself on you. But this is going to drive me insane! Akira, I’m just…I love you.”

Akira felt her racing heart skip a beat. “You…you what?”

Hikaru drew closer. They were hardly a foot apart. “I can hardly sleep at night without dreaming about you, I can barely think straight. I love you.”

“B-b-but…what about the other girl?” Akira stuttered. “You said you loved someone else!”

“I’ve been trying to deny that I like you for months, ever since Christmas break. I just can’t...I’ve tried everything. And if you’re reassigned to another city tomorrow, I just wanted you to know how I felt. I just—.”

Akira cut him off by holding a finger to his lips. “It’s so much harder to kiss you when you’re talking.”

Akira didn’t hold back this time. Her arms wrapped around his neck and head, her lips pressing against his. Hikaru’s arms wrapped around her back, locked in an embrace neither of them wanted to leave.

And when Akira actually regained some sense, she realized it was way past eleven.


“She should have been here by now,” Sensei snapped, glancing down at his watch and at the computers all around the room. But they were all correct, all satellite directed.

One of the trainees (Meca-Sensei remembered his name was ‘Kouta’) snorted, rolling his eyes. “So she’s late, big deal! She probably just got caught up with her duties and getting ready for tomorrow’s graduation.”

Meca-Sensei forced himself not to scream in frustration. He needed the last trainee! He had only four, and he needed five. He shot a glance at the trainees in the room. He would have to switch up his plans slightly. He would get Akira Hamoto later. He would just have to deal with them for now.

He turned around and put on his best stern teacher-like smile. “I’ll have to speak to Ms. Hamoto later on her lack of responsibility. Now, as for you all…congratulations on completing your training.”

“Thank you, Sensei,” the small blonde girl bowed her head, hands together respectfully.

“I would like to personally thank you for your undying care for this military,” Meca-Sensei said slowly. “And for your years of upcoming service. Now, onto your knees so you may receive your blessing.”

The four humans knelt to the ground, their heads bowed and eyes closed. Meca-Sensei waved his hand forwards, and four drones came from the shadows, standing directly behind the trainees in silence. “After tonight, the world will be a very different place. And you will be helping me mold it to the way it is supposed to be. And if you do so, you will be rewarded.”

The trainees’ faces pinched slightly, taking on an air of confusion. Meca-Sensei gave a small smile. “Welcome to your new life, my creations.”

The drones stepped forwards, and with one smooth motion, pressed their hands against the trainees’ heads and inserted the small chips. The humans couldn’t keep their kneeling position. With cries, they fell forwards to the ground. The drones behind them collapsed backwards, their sapphire eyes blinking out as their metal bodies shut down.

The first human to stand up was the small brown haired one, Kouta. He raised his head slowly, his eyes meeting Meca-Sensei’s. He experimentally flexed his arms and legs, twisting his head around. His eyes were still dark, but had a blue tinge to them now.

“These bodies are odd,” he said quietly. “They work so smoothly. Do they need to be oiled?”

“Biological beings need only sustenance,” Meca-Sensei said coldly. “You will receive this often.”

The other trainees rose to their feet, doing the same as D-906-Kouta and trying out their new bodies. The smaller blonde-girl-now-drone threw herself into the air, making a flying kick. “Amazing how these all work.”

“This human is powerful,” said the massive man, who Meca-Sensei now referred to as K-433-Taiki. “Its raw strength far overpowers most humans.”

“This human’s power is limited, but it is balanced with its strength and speed. It is a good fighter,” said the last one, K-645-Kiku.

A smile passed over Meca-Sensei’s face. This was the moment he had been waiting for. After months of training, he had information at his fingertips. Information about cities, about battle machines. Everything they knew, he knew.

And after tomorrow, he would know more, and more, and more.

For that was when his epidemic would begin.


“I knew you were trouble when you walked in…so shame on me! Flew me—.”

Ha-Ya-To cut off his jam session when his roommate walked into the room. “And here comes trouble himself! So, how did it go? Did you tell her?”

Hikaru ignored the question as he walked to his dresser and pulled out his pajamas. “It’s getting late. I’m going to bed.”

The redheaded teen rolled his eyes. “Did anything interesting happen?”

“Nothing that you would find interesting.”

“Are you kidding me? I’m like the King of Relationships! You and Akira interest me very much. Tell me, what happened?”

“Nothing to report.”

“Lies!” Ha-Ya-To scoffed. “I know you better than that!” He strummed a few chords on his guitar before finding the right one, and bursting into song. “I’m not sure what this is gonna be, but with my eyes closed all I see is the skyline, through the windows, the moon above you and the streets below. Hold my breath as you’re moving in, taste your lips and feel your skin. When the time comes, baby don’t run, just kiss me slowly.

Hikaru snorted. “You just wish I was in a Taylor Swift relationship so you could sing that over the loudspeakers, don’t you?”

“That wasn’t Taylor Swift!” Ha-Ya-To said indignantly, “It was Parachute! Kiss Me Slowly? Get your artists right, Hikaru!” He shook his head. “All things aside, I just want to know how it went.”

Ha-Ya-To watched his roommate dress for bed, the blue-haired pilot remaining stubbornly silent. Finally Hikaru swallowed hard, sitting on his bed and facing Ha-Ya-To, though his blue eyes didn’t meet the redhead’s gold. “I told her.”

Ha-Ya-To set down his guitar. “Really?” he said with excitement. “How did it go?”

He watched Hikaru swallow again. The pilot bit his lower lip. “She feels the same way.” His voice was barely above a whisper.

The redhead nearly fell off his bed. “She does?! This calls for a celebratory song!” He grabbed his guitar and immediately started playing. “You belong with her! You belong with her!” He cut off suddenly. “Why aren’t you happy?”

“I am!”

“Then why are you so glum?”

Hikaru ran a hand through his hair. “To tell you the truth…I’m a little freaked out! And I’m in shock, and scared as heck that I’m going to screw this up.”

“Why?”

“I’ve…never…I’ve never…”

“Dated before?”

Hikaru nodded slowly.

Ha-Ya-To shrugged. “Come on, it’s not a bad thing! Please, I know the ins and outs of relationships, remember?”

A half smile twitched on Hikaru’s lips. “And remind me which guy has been trying unsuccessfully to get Hitomi out on a date since she joined the team?”

“That’s a completely different situation,” Hikaru said with a pouty frown. “Akira actually admitted she likes you; Hitomi hasn’t told me that…yet. But you and Akira…you guys have chemistry! What’s freaking you out so badly?”

Hikaru took a long breath. “Well, I…I just…I feel so out of control. You know me; I’ve got self-control to match a turtle.”

“You’re just a lot faster.”

“But…when I’m around Akira…I can’t get a hold on myself. My heart races, I can’t stop myself from looking at her, from getting lost in trying to communicate. I’ve never had this problem before! And I don’t like it!”

Ha-Ya-To nodded. “I think you just need to get used to the fact that you’re physically attracted to someone, which I’m guessing has never happened to you before. It’s all science, HK. That’s why you feel the way you feel. And don’t worry. It’ll get easier the longer you two are together. Your hormones will balance.”

“I hope so,” Hikaru said quietly. “It’s weird, though. I hate the feeling…but I like it too. It’s…something completely new to me.”

“Well, you’re learning!” Ha-Ya-To said cheerfully. “Come on, we’ll talk more tomorrow. We wouldn’t want to be complete zombies on your girlfriend’s graduation!”

Chapter 26:

“Are you ready for this?”

Akira breathed out slowly, trying not to think too hard. She was already feeling way too stressed out for it to be healthy. “I’ve been training all this time, and now I’m going to a ceremony. And you know what, that’s the scariest part!” She let out a long breath, putting on her chest plate. “My mind is going crazy!”

Hitomi flattened down the stiff sleeves on Akira’s arms that had gotten bunched up. Akira had returned home to find her uniforms all pressed and starched, but that meant they were as stiff as ever. She just hoped she’d be able to wear them in soon. Still, they were neat and crisp.

She whirled around, away from the mirror to face Hitomi. “Okay, how do I look?”

Hitomi grabbed the girl’s short, stiff collar and straightened it before stepping back. “You look battle ready, if a little neat.”

“I hope that’s a good thing!” Akira said with a sigh, pulling her hair back in its regular ponytail. She clipped her katana sheath onto her belt. Part of the ceremony was her handing over her old blade and receiving a newer, better conditioned one. She’d also be receiving her orders. She looked at herself again in the mirror, adjusting her chest plate and her hair slightly. “I feel like I’m just going to the gym. Are you sure this is alright?”

“For the record, Hikaru will love you no matter what you’re wearing.”

Akira forced a flush from her cheeks. “It’s not like we’re going out on a date, Hitomi. He’s escorting me to the graduation. All the trainers are supposed to do that.”

“Yeah,” Hitomi rolled her eyes, “but not every trainee ends up dating their trainer. You happen to be a very special case.”

The dark-haired girl smiled at her roommate. “Well, if I end up reassigned to another city, I want you to know that I’ll miss you.”

Hitomi grabbed the girl in a tight hug. “I’ll miss you too, AK. Now come on, your boyfriend awaits!”

Akira rolled her eyes, but proceeded out of their dorm room and down the long flights of steps to the ground level below. She ran a hand along the railing, remembering fondly her first actual day of training and how she had practically dragged herself up the stairs because of how sore she was. Now rushing up the stairs was practically a walk in the park.

The day was sunny and warm. Akira couldn’t remember the last time it had been so pleasant. But now that it was March, the snow had finally melted (for the moment anyways) and the sun was starting to actually feel warm.

Hikaru stood waiting for her just outside the door. His royal blue and gold uniform was neatly pressed and starched, like Akira’s, and he stood like a soldier: head high, feet shoulder width apart, hands behind the back, shoulders back, and very straight. His hair was of course still rather messy and his blue eyes gleamed in pride as Akira made her way out of the building and stepped up to him, bowing. “I thank you for your skills and your determination in training me, Hikaru-Sensei. Please, what do you desire from me to repay you for all the hours of work you have put into me?”

She heard Hikaru let out a laughing breath. He put and hand under her chin and moved her gently back into a standing position. “Nothing. It was my pleasure.” He paused for a moment, glancing around. “Actually, I could ask for one thing.”

“What?”

“A quick kiss from my girlfriend.”

Akira was more than happy to oblige. She slowly came closer, pressing her mouth gently against his. Their kiss lasted for only a few seconds, but it was enough to make Akira’s heart race.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to get used to how that feels,” she said with a sigh of contentment.

Hikaru responded with a grin. “I don’t want to.” He held out his arm. “Now, you ready to be a part of the military?”

Akira sucked in a rough breath. “As much as I can be.” She took his arm and they set out to the city square. Akira always found the name funny. The square wasn’t in the center of the city at all, and it wasn’t really a square shape. It was more of just a massive open space, the place she had been dropped off her first official day as an Exo-Force trainee. It was the usual gathering space for various announcements around the city (as if the Gatherings weren’t enough) and also where people were dropped off or taken to other cities for various reasons.

The square was packed. Akira suddenly remembered the day she was chosen to start her training. It was here, and the area was just as filled with soldiers. They were all in uniform, though they looked much more formal than they had the day Akira had joined the Exo-Force.

“The ceremony is rather short,” Hikaru hissed to her as they entered the crowd. “It’s because we need to be ready for an attack at any moment. So you won’t have to endure more than a half-hour of standing on stage in front of everyone. You okay?”

Akira was trying to breathe as she dodged and waved her way through the crowd. “Yeah, I’m good,” she said quietly, “just thinking about all my stupid things I’ve done and stuff like that. It’s like I’ve started realizing that maybe I’ve been an idiot for a long time, and now I have to fix it.”

Hikaru pulled Akira along to the area behind the stage, which he mounted and hoisted her up onto. He fixed her collar and sleeves, adjusting her chest plate for a few moments before grabbing her by the arms and making her look at him. His voice was barely a whisper, so as to keep their words between them. “Akira, you’ve done amazing work. And you’re not stupid or useless or an idiot. Would I date an idiot?”

Akira let out a huffing laugh as Hikaru continued. “Come on, this is your big moment. Six months ago, we were both different people. We’re always growing up. You’ve grown into a fine young woman. Embrace that.”

“You sound like my mother,” Akira said with a smile.

Hikaru shrugged. “I try. Now get up there next to the others. I’ll be up in just a moment. Oh, but before I go…” He pulled something out of his pocket and held it out to the girl. It was a box, small and covered in velvety fabric. Slowly, Akira took the box and opened it. She sucked in a breath, immediately recognizing the piece of jewelry inside. It was a black choker necklace with a large, red, teardrop shaped gem hanging from it. She hadn’t seen it in months, but it was the necklace she had been admiring at the festival that the trainers had taken her to months ago.

“Did you…did you buy this for me?”

Hikaru’s cheeks were slightly red, but he nodded. “Well, Ha-Ya-To convinced me to buy it, but yeah, I did. I hope you like it. Think of it as a graduation present.”

“I love it!” Akira gently plucked it out of the box and tied it around her neck. She pulled up her collar a bit higher to hide it from view. “It’s beautiful! Thank you so much!”

“You’re welcome,” Hikaru answered with a smile. “Now get out there. You have to pledge your allegiance.”

Akira nodded and followed the other trainees to the front of the stage. Slowly, they bowed to Sensei, who stood before them. His stormy eyes were hard and calculating. Akira swallowed.

She waited as the others in front of her slowly said their pledge. She was last in line and would say hers last. The Pledge of Protection of the Enlisted was the first part of the ceremony, but that was because it was the most important. Without the pledge, the entire rest of the ceremony would not be there at all.

“I, Akira Hamoto, pledge to defend the country of Japan, to protect its allies, and to keep defend the people of the country from any invading peoples. I promise to be faithful to my teammates, keep safe the secrets of the military, and uphold myself to the highest degree of self-discipline. This I so do pledge before my commanding officers and the people of my team.”

Sensei nodded and Akira let her hand rest beside her once again, waiting patiently for her next part of her ceremony. She felt a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t need to look to see who it was. She knew Hikaru was behind her. He was there as her mentor, but also as support.

“Present your swords.”

Akira knelt to the ground as she pulled her katana sheath from her belt and laid it out across her open palms. It was collected from her and replaced with another scabbard. She gripped her hands around it, feeling the comfortable material. It felt like well-tanned leather, and was soft yet firm in her grasp. Lumps of metal arose from the sheath, cold against her fingertips. But she didn’t look at her new blade, keeping her eyes closed and head down.

Sensei’s voice rang out over the silent clearing. “You have mastered your use of the blade in your training. Accept your new sword as protection for yourself and your defense for the weak. Your blade is your responsibility. Treat it well.”

Akira stood as one with the other trainees and attached the sheath to her belt. She forced herself not to completely stare at it. She would have a chance to inspect it thoroughly later.

Sensei then walked back around, facing the crowd. “Our presentation now concludes to the final two remaining sections: presentation of the battle machines, and the assignments of our new soldiers. Ryo,” Sensei motioned to the back, “if you please…”

Ryo nodded and stepped back to the massive, cloth covered objects behind the stage. Akira had known on sight that they were the battle machines, but with the massive canvas clothes over them, it was impossible to tell which was which.

The purple-haired teen walked to the end of the line, where Taiki stood in front of, and pulled the massive piece of cloth off the battle machine. “May I present to Taiki Ishimaru, the Megaclops.”

The battle machine was huge, a symbol of raw, pure strength, as was Taiki’s specialty. The metal had been painted a tawny color, and streaked with dark brown in a camouflage-like manor. The cockpit appeared to be small and spherical, inset into the upper half of the battle machine. One hand held a massive cannon, and the other, a thick blade, far bigger than any Akira had ever seen in her life. Ryo had mentioned earlier that it could be used as a small shield. Now she knew why.

“And to Olivia Harding, may I present the Sun Swarm.”

The tall, lithe battle machine came into view as its cover was pulled off. It shone with brilliance in the golden sunlight, the rays reflecting off the angular, smooth metal pieces, all painted orange and red, with a few splashes of yellow. Both arms were twin blades, both extremely thin and sharp, but on the undersides of the arms were Gatling laser cannons, and a set of missiles. It looked ready to cut through the air with intense speed.

“For Kouta Kawazoe, I present Formatter.”

The cloth fell away to reveal a much smaller battle machine than the last two. It was slightly stocky, with grey plating and an open cockpit. It reminded Akira of Ryo’s own Cyclone Defender slightly, but it was maybe a little bit bigger in height and slightly slimmer in girth. The shoulders were crested with Kouta’s invented, personal symbol (a set of knives crossing a screwdriver) in white. Peeking out from the back seemed to be a set of rockets, which made Akira wonder if it could fly. One of the hands was purely a fist shaped, though it seemed to have fingers. The other had some sort of tube…a flame thrower maybe? A welding torch? Akira wasn’t sure.

“And for Kiku Takahashi, The Onyx Torch.”

Most of the metal on Kiku’s new battle machine was pure black, the underarms and all along the chest was a dark silver. Hers had a single blade in one hand, and on the other, a claw tipped in diamond. The whole thing looked like something out of a child’s nightmare—dark and sharp and dangerous. And it was massive, almost as large as Taiki’s.

“And for Akira Hamoto, I present the Solar Flare.”

Akira whirled around as the cloth fell from over the massive shape behind her. She couldn’t help but gape in awe.

The battle machine before her was large, and slightly stocky, but still thin enough for a good flight. It reflected the sun brilliantly, the golden metal seeming to be almost bumpy and angular, which shot the sun’s rays in different directions. The cockpit was rectangular, high on the upper section of the machine. One had held a long, curved sword, and the other a Gatling laser cannon. The shoulders were lined with missiles, and she could even see a few peeking out from behind. But the beauty of the machine wasn’t what put her in so much shock.

It was the fact that it was hers.

She had spent all of her training using battle machines that were relatively mass produced. But this one was completely and utterly hers. She would never see another one like it.

“It’s beautiful,” she breathed out in a whisper.

Hikaru nodded, looking at the battle machine for himself. “That’s a good one.”

Ryo shot him a dirty look. “He. He’s a good one.”

“Whatever.”

Sensei looked at the battle machines and nodded, turning back to face the crowd after stepping over to a table and picking up a set of pamphlets. “And now, to present our newest soldiers with their assignments.” In silence, he handed each of the former trainees a folder. “Please read yours aloud.”

Taiki stepped forwards, opening his folder. “’Mr. Ishimaru,’” he read, “’you have been assigned to the Ironworks City, effective tomorrow.’”

The crowd burst into cheers, happy their old teammate was being assigned to somewhere they knew. Hikaru had told Akira that sometimes trainees had been assigned to specific cities and not any of the four major ones, Ironworks, Platinum, Bronze, and Golden. These unregistered places could be considered extremely dangerous.

The crowd continued to show their approval as soldier by soldier, the five went through their assignments. The biggest smattering of applause was when Kouta announced he was remaining in the Golden City. Olivia was reassigned to the Bronze City, and Kiku to the Platinum City.

Finally Akira was the only one left. She trembled slightly as she opened her folder, reading off the words.

“’Ms. Hamoto, you have been assigned to the Golden City, effective tomorrow.’”

Akira had never released a bigger sigh of relief. She was still there! She was still going to be in the Golden City! The crowd erupted into more applause and cheers. Her knees weak in relief, Akira bowed respectfully to Sensei, as the others had when they had read off their own assignments.

“Please help me welcome our newest soldiers!”

Akira couldn’t help but beam in pride as the crowd screamed and applauded. She caught her family’s eyes in the crowd, trying to pay close attention to Sensei and not wave to her family. Though, they were the ones that had gotten her here. Without her family’s approval, she would never have even had this chance.

And she had done it. Even with all her doubts and fears, here she was, truly a member of the military. She had had quite a few scrapes along the way, but this was the moment she had been waiting for.

This was her team. This was her new family. This was her life.


Hikaru felt giddy, which was saying something for him. But the adrenaline of the day had left him in a high. It felt so sudden, the graduation and all. They had been partying for almost four hours.

So needless to say, he needed a good night’s sleep.

He stepped into his room, fully preparing to come into a dark, empty space. But as he walked in, he realized he was very much not alone.

“You guys left the party? I thought you were still there!”

The Dream Team was all there, even Hitomi and Akira, who by all means weren’t supposed to be in the guy’s dorms. But they all stood over Ha-Ya-To’s bed, looking up at Hikaru with blank expressions. Hikaru frowned. Something about the situation wasn’t right: the guitar that was usually out was back in its case, and Ha-Ya-To’s suitcase was packed on the floor. In fact, Hikaru couldn’t remember the last time he had seen the room so clean.

Hikaru blinked. “You heading on a trip, Ha-Ya-To?”

The redhead slowly stood up from his sitting position, handing a manila folder to Hikaru. His voice was dull and words empty. “I’ve been transferred.”

Hikaru felt his heart skip a beat. “You’ve been…what?”

“Transferred,” Ha-Ya-To tapped the folder with his fingers. “Bronze City, Southern area. Effective tomorrow.”

Hitomi came up and handed him a similar folder, swallowing. Her eyes were red from crying. “I’ve been transferred to the Platinum City, Northern area, effective tomorrow.”

Hikaru felt as though he couldn’t breathe. This wasn’t right. This was his team.

Slowly, Takeshi rose to his feet. Hikaru immediately pinpointed the folder in his hands. “No,” Hikaru’s voice was choked, “Takeshi…not you too…”

The green-haired young man set his on top of the others, his eyes meeting Hikaru’s straight on. “Ironworks, Eastern areas, effective tomorrow.” His gaze broke, looking down. “We’ve tried everything.”

Hikaru took a shuddering breath. “And…and when were you assigned?”

“Twenty minutes ago,” Hitomi answered quietly. “Grandfather said we were needed elsewhere, and our abilities would help the other cities grow.”

“And some BS about us needing to grow in our independence and start our own teams and grow in leadership,” Takeshi snapped. “I’ve honestly never heard anything more stupid in my life. Did he ever think that maybe, just maybe, I’m happy where I am?”

Akira stepped into the light. “But…isn’t this the military? Aren’t you supposed to move around?”

Hikaru shook his head, glancing down at the paperwork. “It’s not as simple as that, Akira. Everyone is assigned right after graduation where they ought to stay. It’s really rare to transfer to another city.”

Takeshi’s eyes flashed angrily. “And you know what’s even worse? We’re banned from communicating with one another while we’re gone!”

“No contact at all,” Ha-Ya-To put in. “No calls or emails or anything. We’re basically being cut off. Apparently we need to learn to make our own decisions…”

Hikaru narrowed his eyes as he took in what was going on. He took a deep, shuddering breath. “But…why? You guys…we’re a team…we don’t just get split apart. Sensei—.”

“Sensei didn’t do this.”

The five other people in the room turned to Ryo, who leaned in the corner. He hadn’t said a word since the news was broken. He flipped a screwdriver around in his fingers, his eyes closed. His appearance was one of him thinking hard. “We all agreed Sensei isn’t in his right mind. But I have reason to believe that it isn’t Sensei at all.”

“What do you mean?” Takeshi asked sharply, crossing his large arms over his chest.

Ryo’s clear, blue eyes met Takeshi’s green. “I mean that Sensei isn’t having some sort of mind-warp or anything of that sort. I think his mind is being invaded.”

Hitomi cocked her head. “Invaded?”

“By something, most likely a robot. No blow to the head would give Sensei this idea. I’ve been doing some research, and by this point, Sensei’s mind should be almost completely healed by now, even if he had a nasty shock. He would only be slightly confused if anything. No, Sensei’s not in there anymore. His mind is being messed with.”

Immediately, Takeshi was on his feet. “Then what are we waiting for? What’s the plan? We have to come up with something!”

“But we can’t communicate with one another after tomorrow,” Akira said quietly from her wall. “How are we supposed to do anything without everyone else?”

The room fell silent. In all his long years of being part of the military, Hikaru had never felt so helpless. He had been with his team for years. Without them…he wasn’t sure what he would be able to do. He depended on his team for just about everything he could possibly think of. They were his family. He felt his throat close in grief. “So that’s it then? Everyone’s leaving?”

Ryo shook his head. “They didn’t transfer me. Apparently, Sensei thought I was too ‘valuable’ to send somewhere else. So it’s you and me.”

“We’re being transferred where our old students are,” Ha-Ya-To added. “Akira and Kouta are the only ones staying here.”

Hikaru bit his lower lip, forcing back tears. You’re the leader. You’re strong, you’re tough. You show them the way. You speak for them to hear. Tell them it’ll be okay, that you’ll work it out.

You speak…

Hikaru’s head shot into the air, all thought of tears gone.

He had a plan.

He whirled around. “Ryo,” he snapped, “how do you feel about doing something that, starting tomorrow, might be slightly illegal?”

Ryo raised an eyebrow, a smile coming to his lips. “Sounds fun, if anything.”

“Good.” Hikaru steeled his gaze and turned back to his friends. “Alright, team. So whoever’s controlling Sensei thinks he can get the better of us? Well, how’s this for a plan?”

Chapter 27:

Hikaru bowed as he stepped into the room, making sure to make direct eye contact with the older man as he entered. He gave a salute, not really sure what else to do. “Are you Hiroshi Keiken?”

The man nodded in Hikaru’s direction, pouring out a cup of tea and setting it on the table across from him. “I am. And you must be Hikaru Matsuoka. Please take a seat.”

Hikaru nodded and sat across from the older man. He picked up the tea set before him and sipped it, just to be polite. He wasn’t actually all that fond of tea.

Keiken took a long drink and set his cup down. Steely grey eyes met Hikaru’s electric blue with a piercing gaze. “I heard of the incident only yesterday, and I am very sorry for your loss.”

Hikaru’s hands gripped the arm rests on his chair tightly. The “incident” Keiken spoke of was all too fresh in his mind. He pressed back horrific images from his mind. “Thank you for your condolences.”

“You also donated a large amount of money to our operation,” Keiken commented after another nod. “Are you sure you don’t wish to keep any for yourself?”

Hikaru crossed his arms. “No. If I’m going to be a part of this, I’m going all in.”

Keiken nodded once more, and stood. “You are one of many new recruits, Hikaru. This is a time to start anew. No one here takes pride in surnames or ranks. We are all equals here. There are no past stories to keep you from interacting as well as everyone else. Because in truth, your name or your rank does nothing in my eyes to make you more powerful. That is all up to you. Do you have the abilities to be a member of the Exo-Force?”

Hikaru stood as well, setting his gaze. “I believe I do.”

“Good,” Keiken nodded his head. “From this moment on, you will address me as Sensei. I am your trainer. No one else here gives you orders unless I say so.  I’ve heard you already have your bags here. I will have someone bring them to your room. Then you will be introduced to your team, and—.”

Hikaru held up a hand, cutting the older man off. “Wait, did you say a team?”

“Yes, and please refrain from interrupting me, Hikaru.”

The blue-haired teen bowed slightly. “Forgive me. I meant to say, I don’t do teams. I’m a solo player. I work best alone.”

Sensei cocked his head ever so slightly, as though trying to peer into Hikaru’s mind. “We’ll see about that, Hikaru. I have a feeling you will work even better with the right people.”

“Well then you’d better choose wisely,” Hikaru snapped before remembering his manners and bowing again. “When am I expected tomorrow, Sensei?”


 

“He’s the leader? He’s just a little kid!”

Sensei’s eyes darted to the new trainee’s grass green ones. “And, Mister Kurokawa, you are as well. Hikaru will be your leader for as long as I think is necessary. If I believe you would be a better leader, I will let you know.”

The young teen fell silent, his violent eyes darting to the ground where they smoldered. Hikaru already didn’t like him. The broad, green-haired young man was rough, wild and a little crazy, as far as Hikaru could see. Hikaru took a deep breath, calming himself. He would do this. He would be a good, calm leader.

The teen, which Hikaru remembered was named Takeshi, drew in close. “Tell me what to do, and you’ll wish you had never been assigned to me.” His words were barely over a whisper.

I’m already regretting that, Hikaru thought to himself. Just stay calm. Think this thing through.

“So what are we supposed to do?” Ha-Ya-To said perkily. His eyes, a sharp golden color, had a wild look to them, but in more of a sporadic way than Takeshi’s. The green-haired young man’s wildness came from a need to destroy things. Ha-Ya-To just looked like he wanted to party.

Sensei walked along the line of young men. “You will be under my guidance. As the founding members of this group, I’m hoping you will all grow up to be leaders in the future. You will be rooming with one another, having classes and lunch with one another, and hopefully will grow in friendship.”

Hikaru noticed the last boy in the line, a purple-haired boy named Ryo, pinch his already thin lips in what seemed like annoyance, but the young man said nothing. Hikaru wondered about him. The boy had given him very little to go off of personality wise.

Team…sure…we’ll see about that…


 

Hikaru couldn’t stand them, he really couldn’t. He tried to get along with them, but he could feel himself getting more and more annoyed with every passing day.

Takeshi was powerful, more powerful than Hikaru by far. But he was as thick-headed as a bull being poked with swords, and just as temperamental. The green-haired teen boasted of his strength, able to wrestle even the toughest contenders to the floor. He complained openly of Hikaru being placed in more of a leadership position then himself, as he was a year older than Hikaru. In fact, Hikaru was basically fed up with the guy.

Ha-Ya-To wasn’t ever in a bad mood. Ever. Some may have considered that a good thing, but Hikaru was starting to like it less and less. His roommate couldn’t take anything seriously. The bouncy, happy-go-lucky teen was probably the least responsible person Hikaru had ever met.

And then there was Ryo. The violet-haired boy was a genius, even Hikaru could see that. But he closed himself off, and was openly violent with anyone who invaded his space. Hikaru would take one misstep in his workshop and Ryo would be throwing things at him.

Hikaru was started to get worn down. He had been given these people almost a month ago, and already he was sick of them. More and more he would go off and finish missions on his own. He just couldn’t count on his teammates. He would have to do everything himself.

“Where did you go?” Takeshi demanded as Hikaru stepped out of his newly redesigned Stealth Hunter. Hikaru stretched out with a smile, sighing in comfort. He shrugged, glancing at Takeshi, then at Ha-Ya-To and Ryo standing behind him, looking rather skeptical.

“I finished the bomb run,” Hikaru said with a grin. “In a few seconds, whatever robots are on that part of the mountain are toast!”

Takeshi looked stricken. “What part of the mountain?!”

Hikaru raised an eyebrow. “South-Western, near the lower edge of the second bridge.”

“WHAT?!” Takeshi nearly screamed at him. “And you didn’t warn me?!”

“Why should I warn you?” Hikaru snapped. “You don’t have enough brain matter to do something that complicated anyways!”

Takeshi’s teeth were bared in a snarl. “This isn’t a joke. If those bombs go off—.”

“What?!” Hikaru yelled, “Report me? I just finished a mission! So BACK OFF!!”

Hikaru practically flew across the courtyard as Takeshi’s fist slammed into his gut. Hikaru smashed to the ground, wheezing for air. He slowly regained his footing as Takeshi rushed over. The blue-haired teen cracked his knuckles and spat blood out of his mouth. He must have bitten his tongue.

But he wasn’t going down that easily.

As soon as Takeshi was close enough, Hikaru whipped into a taekwondo position, throwing a roundhouse kick to Takeshi’s side. The young man slammed to the ground, but immediately grabbed Hikaru’s leg, dragging him to the ground after him. Hikaru kicked Takeshi in the chest, but Takeshi’s arms were longer, and he threw Hikaru a few feet back with a thud. Hikaru could feel himself losing strength, but he wasn’t going to lose. The fight turned into more of a wrestling match, the two trying to twist one another into submission, maybe even break a few limbs.

“THAT’S ENOUGH!!”

But Hikaru and Takeshi didn’t care. They completely ignored the order and continued slamming fists and feet into one another, screaming wildly until a few people dragged them apart.

Sensei stood in the middle of the courtyard, his grey eyes icy. He stepped in between the two young men, now being restrained by their peers. His eyes shifted from one to the other, his piercing gaze falling on each of them with equal fury. His eyes lingered on Hikaru’s split and now swelling lip, and on Takeshi’s cut arm and blackening eye. He nodded to Takeshi. “Go and get that looked at in the sick bay, and that is an order.”

Takeshi narrowed his eyes and snarled slightly as the other members let his arms go. Takeshi gave one last, wrathful look at Hikaru before stalking off in the general direction of the sick bay. Sensei then turned to Hikaru. “And as for you, my office, now.”

Hikaru couldn’t remember much from the walk over to Sensei’s office, only that upon entering, the guilt weighing on him was starting to get incredibly heavy.

Hikaru felt like a child again in front of his father. The one moment he could remember being in a position of this great of humiliation was when he had flunked his first test as a freshman. He had thought nothing of it…until his father had gotten involved.

His father had sat him down across from him in his office, and the two had simply looked at one another. Hikaru hadn’t though he was bad…in fact, he considered himself rather clever. So what was one failed test? His father had other thoughts. “Is this what you want to be known for?” he had said, almost too quietly for Hikaru to hear. “Do you want to be careless?”

Hikaru felt that exact same way in front of Sensei. The older man sat across from him and the room was silent, absolutely silent. Hikaru could have heard a pin drop from the other side of the room, maybe even down the hallway.

What was he supposed to say? Hikaru swallowed. “I tried—.”

“That’s just it, Hikaru.” Sensei cut the young man off. “You didn’t try.”

“Yes I did!” Hikaru could feel resentment for the older man rising within him. His self-control was practically flawless, but at this moment, he just couldn’t hold it in any longer. “For an entire month, I tried with all my might not to get frustrated, not to be bossy. But did it work? NO! I’ve been seething over these guys for weeks, and what do I get back? Nothing! They have no respect for what I do to get the job done!” At this point, Hikaru had run out of breath and had to suck in another one. He was about to continue, but snapped his mouth shut as Sensei rose to his feet.

The older man began to slowly pace around his office. “Hikaru…” he said slowly. “Hikaru, do you know why Takeshi was so vehement about your decision to bomb the base?”

Hikaru snorted. “Because he’s a blockhead and doesn’t know the first thing about making decisions?”

“No,” Sensei’s voice was low. “Hikaru, Takeshi’s family is being held hostage by the robots, along with many other people. If his family was in the portion you bombed, they easily could have been killed.”

The blue-haired teen felt his next argument die in his throat.

“You have the makings of a true leader,” Sensei continued, “but you’re pride gets in the way of your skills. You think everyone else is incompetent next to you, and think yourself cleverer and much more skilled than they are. And that’s your downfall. Hikaru, a true leader doesn’t boss others around to make them follow them. A leader inspires others to follow him. This is what I hoped you would do with this group. You have no idea of the backstories of your new teammates. Some of them might even have the same issues as you do.” He drew in closer to his student, grey eyes locking onto blue. “Hikaru, you think yourself alone. But you’re not. Why do you think I gave you a team? You cannot say you’re alone any longer. You have three young men who, if you lead them right, will back you up no matter how difficult the situation. You’re a natural leader. So lead!”


 

Hikaru didn’t like the sick bay. The smell made him nauseous, and the whole place practically depressed him. But he had a feeling that if he remained in the military, he would be in here more often.

“Excuse me.” Hikaru walked up to the girl at the front desk, who was tapping away at her computer. “Can you tell me where Takeshi is staying?”

The girl flipped through her computer files. “Can I have a last name?”

Hikaru swallowed. He hadn’t even learned what Takeshi’s last name was. “Um…no, but I can tell you who his superior officer is.”

“And who is that?”

Hikaru allowed himself a small smile. “I am.”

The girl soon had all the information on Takeshi needed to find him and Hikaru set off. He walked through the long hallways, dodging doctors and nurses and various instruments. Rooms flashed by in his vision, some doors open. Hikaru swallowed and felt his throat go dry. So many injuries…He hadn’t been out on the field as much as some of the older members had, and he had never actually gotten injured yet. His battle machine had gotten smashed up a few times, but that wasn’t nearly as big of a deal.

Hikaru slid into the elevator and waited patiently for it to reach its level and ding to a stop. The higher levels of the medical wing were reserved for much less malignant injuries or illnesses. The bottom floors were easier to get to and therefore the people there could be seen at a sooner time. But Hikaru preferred the upper areas anyways: the windows had a better view.

Slowly, elevator came to a stop and Hikaru stepped off and into the crisp hallway. He glanced down at the paper in his hand and followed the directions to the right room. Taking a deep breath, the young man knocked, waiting for a response.

“Come in.”

Hikaru swallowed and stepped into the room. It was small, obviously not meant for much more than a minor injury. A bed was set against one wall, which had a window over it. Everything smelled of disinfectant. Hikaru wrinkled his nose slightly. He hated the smell here.

Takeshi sat on the bed. His chest plate had been taken off so he was in his jumpsuit, but he had unzipped the top and tied it around his waist, revealing a dark grey t-shirt. His black eye was covered in some sort of creamy paste, and his arm where Hikaru had cut him (it was an intense punch) had a bandage wrapped around it. When his eyes met Hikaru’s, they immediately narrowed and burned with a smoldering rage.

“Get out,” he snapped, “before I send you to level one for brain injury!”

Hikaru held his hands up in the air, keeping his attitude level and calm. If he freaked out he wasn’t going to get anywhere in this conversation. “I’m not here to fight,” he said quietly, “I’m here to talk.”

“Sensei put you up to this?”

Hikaru bit the inside of his cheek, nodding.

The green-haired teen let out a huffing breath, rolling his eyes. “The old coot…what is he trying to do?”

“Make us a team, apparently.” Hikaru’s voice was quiet. “I’m sorry about your family. I know how you feel.”

Takeshi barely nodded. “Thanks for the sentiment, but how would you know?”

“My family died right before I joined the Exo-Force, when the robot rebellion started. I’m the last one.”

Takeshi’s still angry eyes took on a more sorrowful look. “Sorry about that. I guess…we’re kind of in the same boat, huh?”

“Yeah.”

The two of them went silent for a moment, both avoiding one another’s eyes. It was nice for Hikaru to have some sort of connection with his teammate, even if he wasn’t sure if they’d ever really be friends. They both had pretty clashing personalities.

Hikaru rubbed the back of his neck. “Well…um…I’d better go and make sure Ha-Ya-To’s actually on guard duty.”

“Better check on Ryo as well,” Takeshi grunted. “Last I checked, he was inventing his own personal battle machine instead of fixing ours like he’s supposed to. Though with his spirit, he really should be fighting.”

Hikaru gave a short laugh. “You’ve got that right!” He turned to leave the room, but paused, looking back over his shoulder at Takeshi. “Hey, you’re a good fighter.”

“And you’re not a bad leader yourself.”

The blue-haired young man gave a smile. “Thanks Takeshi.”

^_^

The next morning was one that Hikaru considered pretty high on his list of least favorite days.

The three senior trainers who had been reassigned stood out front with their ex-trainees, packing their bags into their battle machines. Takeshi was saying farewell to his family in one corner, and Hitomi was looking determined not to even glance at her grandfather before she left. The newest soldiers were trying out their battle machines a bit to get a feel for them before they took them to their new homes.

Hikaru watched the scene before him, trying not to scream in frustration. It had taken him years to get to know his teammates well. He had spent months, years even, getting this team of four as high as they could go in ranking and respect, and now he was being forced to start all over again. All his hard work was being taken away from him.

Takeshi stepped over to Hikaru after saying a last farewell to his family, clapping Hikaru on the shoulder. “You take care of yourself, okay? I’m not going to be here to watch your back.”

“No one can watch my back like you, TK.” Hikaru said quietly, grabbing his second-in-command in a quick, stiff hug. “And to think I hated you when we first met.”

“You and me both!” Takeshi said with a half-hearted laugh. “Look at us now.”

“Best friends.”

Takeshi’s gaze grew dark. “Keep an eye on things around here. We don’t want anyone to get killed.”

“I’ll do my best, Takeshi.”

Ha-Ya-To jumped into the conversation. “We all ready?”

“All packed up,” Hitomi said, shouldering a small bag. “Though I wish I wasn’t.”

“You all have your newest gadgets, right?” Ryo said, walking calmly into the little circle.

The four looked at one another and nodded as one. “And we all know the plan?” Hikaru asked.

Ha-Ya-To snorted. “Please. When all chaos and hectic-ness breaks out, we’ll be ready.”

“Good.” Hikaru looked at the four of his teammates. His eyes met all of theirs briefly. The leader took a deep, shuddering breath, trying to hold himself together. “You guys are the best. I couldn’t have asked for a better team.”

“We couldn’t have asked for a better leader,” Hitomi responded.

Hikaru let out a small breath of a laugh. “Okay, you guys. I don’t how long it’ll take for Operation Apocalypse to happen, but when it does, the robots aren’t going to find us sitting around. Who are we?”

“EXO-FORCE!!” The five of them said together as they made a big group hug. Then one by one, they each moved to their own battle machine and took off, their previous trainees following them.

Hikaru held up a hand in farewell as the battle machines took off and made their way slowly down the mountain. It didn’t take long for them to get out of sight after they crossed the massive golden bridge over the gorge. The mountains were not smooth in nearly any way and Hikaru’s field of vision was quickly blocked by a set of large boulders. But still he didn’t move, even after the machines were out of sight. The blue-haired teen swallowed hard, breathing in the chilly air.

“This isn’t right.” Akira came up behind him, putting a hand on his shoulder.

Hikaru nodded. “Yeah. I don’t want to let them go.”

“But we have a plan, right? We’ll see each other in time.”

“In time, yeah,” Hikaru agreed. “But I don’t know how long I’ll be able to last without them. They’re how I get everything I need to get done…well…done.”

Akira’s hand rubbed against his shoulder comfortingly. “I guess we’ll just have to be patient. And I know that sounds awful, but it’s true.”

Hikaru nodded. “I can do that…it’s not going to be easy, but I’ll do it.” He turned around, narrowing his eyes. His voice died down a harsh whisper, and he spoke only after glancing around a few times to make sure no one else was listening. “And speaking of the plan, you said when we were making the plan that you and Ryo knew a safe place for civilians in case something went wrong. Where is this safe place?”

Akira gave him a sassy smile. “What if I want to keep a secret?”

“Then I’ll kiss you and make you tell me.”

“I’d like to see you try!”

Hikaru snorted, but he didn’t move. “Don’t make me pull my leader card on you.”

Akira rolled her eyes. “I’m kidding, HK. I’ll let you see, but you’d better keep it a secret. With all this talk of robot taking over the base, I want to keep some things a secret.”

“What do you want me to do?”

Akira gripped his hand with hers, squeezing tightly. “Follow me.”


Ryo glanced back up at the plate he was drilling in. It was smooth, but it still didn’t feel right. He looked at his hands and pulled off his gloves, feeling it up and down with his bare fingers. What was wrong with the stupid piece of metal? With a snarl, Ryo slammed his fist into the plate. He knew he was overreacting, but it felt appropriate with how he felt.

Without Hitomi, the workshop felt empty.

It wasn’t that Ryo was particularly attracted to Hitomi. She was pretty and all, even he could admit that, but he didn’t see her as someone he could actually get into a relationship with. And even if he could, he determinedly kept on reminding himself that he was much too busy for a relationship. Even though Hitomi was thick-headed and stubborn and off the wall insane at times, she put up with him in a way no other techie really did. And unlike the other techies, who saw Ryo as an idol and not someone to mess with, Hitomi had actually taken the time to get to know Ryo as person. Ryo had come a little ways out of his turtle-like shell and interacted with her. He didn’t normally try to interact with females in general. Hitomi was different.

“You’ve got one too?”

Ryo turned around slowly. Hikaru sat against one of the walls near Ryo’s cheery picker, knees against his chest and eyes solemn. He held up his fist, and even from his faraway position, Ryo could still make out the concentric circles on the back of Hikaru’s hand.

Ryo crossed his arms, actually a little impressed Hikaru had managed to get into his workshop with him noticing. “I’m not surprised Akira told you. You lovebirds are disgusting.”

“Actually, I wanted to know for the plan. It’s a nice place. A little eerie, but nice. It’ll be good for a safe place. Are we sure it’s robot proof?”

“As far as we know,” Ryo responded, shrugging. “From what Akira and Kouta have told me, it goes under Japan almost completely, and you can ride from one side of Japan to the other in less than an hour.”

Hikaru’s eyes widened. “That’s insane! That’s like a plane trip!”

“All on train too,” Ryo said.

Hikaru mused over the thought. “It should be helpful if we need to get somewhere fast, that is, if the plan runs smoothly. How’s it going, by the way?”

Ryo shrugged, stepping down the long steps from the platform. “Alright. My hacking skills are a little rusty, but I’m actually enjoying myself. It’s not often I get to hack into sound systems. I haven’t done that in over a year!” He narrowed his eyes. “Is there some other reason for the great leader of the Exo-Force to come down from on high to visit his lowly techie? If it’s about the Solar Flare, I already told Akira I’d take the day off tomorrow and teach her how it works.”

Hikaru shook his head, his gaze still down.

“So what do you want?”

“I want my team back.”

Ryo sighed, running and hand through his hair. “Wish I could help you, but unfortunately even I don’t have that much administrative access.”

Hikaru’s jaw set and he stood up, his eyes glaring. “Dammit, Ryo, I literally can’t get anything done!! Sensei gave me three new people to add onto my team. Seriously, how can people be this incompetent?! I’m up to my knees in work, and I ask them for one simple task each, just one, and without fail, each of them came back and told they couldn’t do the jobs because they can’t find a way to do them without my help. I commemorate them on trying to be safe, but things were a whole lot easier when Takeshi could just bowl something over or I could send Hitomi to get something done!”

“We weren’t perfect either,” Ryo pointed out, “but you managed.”

“Barely,” Hikaru said in amusement, but he didn’t smile. “Ryo,” he said quietly, “I just…I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I feel lost without my friends.” He gave a small smile. “I just…how am I supposed to use an iron fist without Takeshi? The guy was practically a mountain! The lunch ladies will have to make less food from now on. And Ha-Ya-To…what am I supposed to room with now? I’m taking care of Delilah for him until he gets back. He did a good job of taking care of her, trained her and everything. But she reminds me of Ha-Ya-To. I keep on walking in expecting to hear some new parody of the Safety Dance or Taylor Swift or something. It feels so…empty. And I don’t have Hitomi to worry about or argue with or anything like that. I had to keep a watch on her when she was with Takeshi, cause I swear, they almost destroyed the training room once.” He paused. “Sorry, I’m rambling now, aren’t I?”

Ryo shrugged. “I don’t mind. And for the record, all the new people you’ve had to deal with aren’t what you want. Come on, remember how Takeshi was when he first came?”

Hikaru snorted. “Yeah, he was a right pain in the behind and was either silent and sullen or outspoken and arrogant.”

“And Ha-Ya-To could never take anything seriously, even if he got work done,” Ryo said, rolling his eyes. “Hitomi was the complete opposite. She could never get enough of rebelling and deliberately defying orders.”

“I hope Ha-Ya-To is alright without Hitomi nearby to serenade,” Hikaru managed to crack a grin.

Ryo rolled his eyes. “You know, if Hitomi didn’t have too much dang pride, she’d realize just how perfect Ha-Ya-To is for her. I mean, he’s only been chasing her for a year or two now. You’d think she’d take a hint.”

“Since when did you get into romance counseling?”

“Never! I just notice what’s going on around me, which is apparently difficult for all you mortal beings to comprehend.”

Hikaru laughed. “That sounds like the first Ryo, the one who would never give anyone the time of day because he was too good for them.”

Ryo huffed slightly, but ended up with one of his rare smiles. “Okay, I’ll admit to that one. But you weren’t exactly a saint either, mister-I’m-so-good-at-everything-I’ll-try-to-mess-up-so-I-don’t-look-so-good.”

Hikaru brushed a hand through his hair, grinning in embarrassment. “Yeah, I was a little stuck up.”

“A little?”

“No need to rub it in, brainiac!” He laughed and shoved Ryo playfully. But within a few moments, he had returned to his solemn demeanor. “We’ve grown up a lot.”

“You can say that again,” Ryo responded quietly.

The two fell silent, staring around the warehouse at nothing in particular. All of the techies were at lunch, so the entire place was large, cold, and silent. Ryo had never felt more excluded from his own work. No one this whole afternoon had popped in to ask a question or to find something to fix their machines with, or even to say they needed a repair job.

“I miss them too,” Ryo whispered. He leaned back against the wall, a ghost of a smile on his lips. “What are we doing, Hikaru? We could be in university right now, learning about history and mathematics. We could be working and watching our families grow old as we supported them. We could be dating beautiful girls and be out dancing and drinking out lives away. Maybe we’d even be starting our own families…what happened? How can this life of deaths and MIAs and forgotten warriors be ours?”

Hikaru sighed. “Meca One happened. Robots happened. Exo-Force happened. Our families were torn apart, and now we’re trying to fix all those mistakes that we made.” He ran a hand through his hair again, sighing. “I hate it. I try to keep upbeat, but I’ve always hated living like this. We work, we train, we fight, and no matter how good we get, the robots keep on evolving just as fast as we do. We lose so many people, good soldiers who did all they could to stay alive and protect everyone else. You know how many people we’ve watched die since we started?”

“Four hundred and eighty-two.” Ryo stated without even having to think. “And that’s not counting the people who died before we joined, when the Exo-Force first started. From what I estimate, in the first few days as the Exo-Force, we were all so unprepared that we lost over a hundred soldiers. We’ve seen a lot of good people go.”

“Like Akane,” Hikaru said. “She was a good fighter.”

“And like a mother. How about Katashi, the one who told us when he got out he was going to do into dance? He never did get to follow that dream.”

“Same thing happened to Momoka. She was going to go to university for clothes design. She died within her first month.”

Ryo nodded, breathing slowly to calm down his aching heart. “It’s been a long fight.”

“Hopefully this will be the end,” Hikaru agreed, closing his eyes as he leaned against the wall. “Do you think they’ll be safe?”

Ryo knew who Hikaru was talking about immediately. “I’m sure they’ll be alright. You trained them after all.”

Hikaru smiled. “You guys trained yourselves. I was there with you.”

“We were all together,” Ryo said quietly.

“Like we should be. We’re a team. We were assigned to one another, and now we can hardly be apart. What am I supposed to do without Takeshi to beat sense into people, or Ha-Ya-To to play me some stupid cheesy song when I really need it. You guys always did know what I needed.”

Ryo shrugged. “We know that about everyone on our team. I can tell when Takeshi’s upset and what he needs, and it’ll be different than when Hitomi’s upset and needs something for herself. We all learned well.”

Hikaru let out a long sigh and pulled away from the all, stretching his arms out. “Sorry for boring you with my ramblings, Ryo. I guess I just needed someone to talk to.”

“You know it’s bad when you come to me with problems!” Ryo said, smirking. “But I get you. I needed a good talk too.” He motioned to Hikaru’s hand. “By the way, I’d suggest you keep that covered. We wouldn’t want Sensei or whatever is in there now seeing that.”

Hikaru nodded and pulled his gloves back on, covering the new tattoo he now sported. “Thanks for listening, Ryo.”

“It’s what I’m here for.”

Hikaru waved to the techie as he walked out of the workshop. Ryo waved back, a small smile on his face. He felt better. With a sigh, he stepped back up the massive set of ladders and platforms back to his earlier position.

A slam of metal doors put him back on alert. “That you, Kouta?”

“Yeah, I’m just going to walk around a bit before I get back to work. You mind if I check out what you’re up to?”

Ryo narrowed his eyes slightly. “Yeah, sure,” he replied. “Come on up.”

The head techie could feel the pressure on the steps as Kouta climbed up. The loud clangs felt out of place in the silent workshop. And out of place for Kouta.

Something isn’t right…

“Actually,” Ryo suddenly said, “I want to show you something with the feet. I’ll be right down.”

Kouta’s unusually heavy steps stopped. “Oh, alright.” Ryo let out a held breath as he heard and felt Kouta’s retreat. There was something not quite right about the Kouta stepped. Ryo noticed things like that. And Kouta’s steps didn’t match the way they were supposed to. Ryo had spent enough time with his trainee to notice if something was off, even something like the way he walked.

Ryo pulled himself back out from his down position and dragged himself down the ladders to the ground where Kouta was waiting for him. As the two walked over to the legs of the battle machine, Ryo shot a few glances at Kouta. Something was definitely different. The way he walked, the way he held himself…it was as though he were completely different. Ryo allowed his senses to override his mind. He had a feeling, and not a good one.

“See how these plates are pressed down extremely far? They’re going to rip through the metal easier.”

Kouta nodded, looking interested.

Ryo turned his back to Kouta, his hair standing on end in anticipation. “And then there’s the way the bolts have been stripped. We’ll have to redo—.”

Ryo snapped around just as Kouta’s hand was falling over where Ryo’s neck was. With lightning speed, Ryo grabbed Kouta’s wrist and twisted hard. Kouta cried out in pain, his other arm coming in for a quick jab. But the techie had expected that as well. He grabbed the other incoming hand and jerked Kouta towards him, twisting on one foot to get enough momentum to throw Kouta into the leg of the battle machine behind him. Kouta slammed into the surface with a resounding yelp and fell to the ground wheezing. Ryo realized he must had just crushed the air out of Kouta’s lungs.

“Sorry, Kouta,” Ryo said sternly, “but this is going to hurt.” He grabbed at Kouta’s neck, pinching a single artery with precision, the way he had been taught. Kouta let out a yelp of pain, but within the next ten seconds, he had gone limp on the ground.

Ryo let out a long breath, looking at the unconscious boy on the ground.

The final battle was coming sooner than he had thought.

Chapter 28:

Hikaru sighed, tapping one foot on the ground with impatience. “This had better be good, Ryo. I’m trying to finish up some paperwork without the resources I usually have.”

Ryo crossed his arms, frowning. “Oh, so apparently someone attacking me isn’t all that important?”

“You were attacked?” Hikaru’s eyes widened. His foot stopped tapping. “Wait, when?!”

“Just now, in my workshop.”

“Well, are you okay? Do you need anything? Is that why we’re in the medical wing?”

Ryo motioned to the room next to them. A massive window cut through the wall, revealing a team of nurses and doctors, all hurrying around the room and around the table in the center. They were so tightly packed that it was impossible to see who was on the table. Hikaru frowned. “Did someone else get hurt?”

“Only my attacker. I knocked him out so I could bring him here.”

Hikaru tilted his head slightly, looking confused. “I’m not following you.”

Again, Ryo looked into the room, Hikaru following his gaze. One of the nurses rushed off to a corner, probably to grab something, but it parted the exact area where the head of the person was. Even with the long white sheet over the body and the blood splashing the face, Hikaru could tell who it was.

“Wait…is that…is that Kouta?”

The purple-haired teen nodded in response.

“What happened?! Is he okay? What’s going on?!”

Ryo continued to stare at his apprentice, his eyes betraying nothing. “Something was taking over his mind. We conducted a CT scan and found tiny microchips that had been attached behind his eyes and ears, and connected to his brain. They’re recent as well, must have been placed there only a few days ago. They’re being surgically removed as we speak. Hopefully that will get him back to normal.”

Hikaru shook his head wildly, trying to comprehend the whole situation. “Wait, hold on. Kouta was being taken over by something?”

“Not just something: robots. The chips are distinctly Meca One technology. Somehow a robot managed to get a hold of Kouta and insert these chips. They’ve been feeding off his eyes, ears, and memory.” He paused. “We’re trying to find some sort of connection between Kouta and the robots. It doesn’t seem like Meca One to just have one person in the city to do his bidding. He must have something up his sleeve.”

Hikaru nodded. It made sense. “Okay, who are you testing?”

“We’re hoping Kouta can give us more information when he wakes up, or we can get some from the chips. Until then, we’re only looking at one person.”

“Who?”

“Akira.”

Hikaru’s mind stopped whirling for a moment, his quickly beating heart doing the same. “Wait…what?”

Ryo sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “We don’t know if it has something to do with the trainees themselves, so we’re doing a CT scan on Akira.” He took one look at Hikaru’s stricken face and continued before the blue-haired pilot could interrupt. “I’ll let you know as soon as I do whether Akira has the chips too, alright?”

The pilot let out a long breath. “If it’s with the trainees, then we have to warn Takeshi, Ha-Ya-To, and Hitomi. They’re with their trainees right now. And by this point, they’ll be at their new cities, and already working. We’ve got to somehow get information to them.”

“Our phones, Compads, email, and even letters and packages are being watched.” Ryo let out a long breath. “Unless I’m forced to get past about a billion firewalls on our technology, we’re stuck.”

The two thought for a moment. The Dream Team in fact had come up with a way to communicate with one another, but that was specifically for when their plan came into play. Any time earlier would alert the robots to what was going on. At this point, though, Hikaru was seriously considering speeding up the process.

But then, he had an idea.

Hikaru snapped his fingers. “Hey, Ryo, how far away is New York from here?”

“Over six thousand miles. Why?”

“How far is it to the Bronze City from here?”

“About two hundred miles south. Again, why?”

Hikaru raised an eyebrow. A plan was beginning to form in his brain. Something he might actually be able to get away with, and still be able to warn at least Ha-Ya-to about. It was probably stupid, but there weren’t many other options at the time.

Ha-Ya-To worked in the “Mail Mecca” of Japan. All packages were sent to the Bronze City first, and could be sent back out just as quickly. So, was it extremely odd to send something there, and have it just happen to end up in the hands of a certain red-headed wonder?

The pilot bid farewell to Ryo and left the stuffy hospital for the open air outdoors. He took a deep breath in as he left the building, allowing the wind to rush through his hair. He longed to just have all the stress from the last few days seep out of his body.

Slowly, the young man walked across the city, from the hospital to the dorms. It was still relatively early in the afternoon, though Hikaru had been so bogged down by paperwork and distractions that he hadn’t even had lunch yet. His stomach growled to remind him of his hunger, but Hikaru forced himself not to think about food. He didn’t want to be around people at the moment.

Hikaru walked into his room, sighing briefly as the door shut slowly behind him. He leaned against the door, closing his eyes. He nearly slid to the floor in exhaustion.

He felt as though his world had fallen out from underneath him and he had nowhere to land. His friends were gone. His girlfriend might be taken over by a robot mind and now Hikaru was questioning who he was supposed to trust. His team was gone, and he wasn’t sure who he was supposed to go to.

You’re the leader. People go to you.

Yeah, he snapped back to his mind, but what about me? I need someone to talk to too!

“Ruff!!!”

A brown ball of fur hurtled across the room and into Hikaru’s lap. The pilot allowed himself a small smile and gently stroked the puppy’s fur. The animal wiggled a little and made its way up to Hikaru’s face, which she licked vigorously.

“Down, girl!” Hikaru managed a laugh as he dragged Delilah off himself and to the ground. The puppy wiggled there a little, looking up at Hikaru with dark, hopeful eyes.

The pilot rolled his eyes. “Fine, one treat.” He walked over to Ha-Ya-To’s bed and opened the drawer to his nightstand, which held a small bag of dog treats. Hikaru threw one to Delilah, who greedily wolfed it down.

Hikaru set his bag down and sat on his bed. He pulled Delilah onto his lap and pet her, allowing the feeling of her soft fur and quick heart beat to calm him down slightly. Ha-Ya-To had done a good job of training his new puppy. No one even knew that there was non-human creature in the dorms. So Hikaru had allowed the redhead to keep his pet.

“Will you let me talk?” Hikaru whispered, looking down at the puppy. When he didn’t get any sort of response, he let out a long breath. “Okay, here goes…I feel lost without my friends. I’m so busy, and I guess that kind of keeps my mind off of things, but I just want my team back. But I can’t deliberately defy Sensei’s orders, not yet. Things are starting to get tense. I can’t even see my girlfriend when I want to. She’s as busy as I am. And there’s just…just this feeling of emptiness.

“What am I supposed to do, Delilah?” Hikaru continued. “I haven’t felt this lonely since my parents died. You’ve never heard that story, have you?” He cuddled the puppy against his chest, breathing in her musky scent. “Well, my family was rich, really rich, and they were really kind. I had a little sister, named Aimi. You should have seen her when she was going out to be with her friends…all excited and dressed up in her little dresses. She had long, dark hair, like my father. My mom was actually Canadian…is this boring you?”

Delilah gave Hikaru a long look before licking his face.

“I’ll take that as a no.” he managed to say through kisses. “Anyways, my sister and I were the only two kids in our family. My father was a scientist and helped create the drones for labor. See, Sensei was the one who designed Meca One, but my father made it work. And when he created Meca One…something malfunctioned. And when Meca One rebelled, all the other robots rebelled. I was there when it happened. My father got me a job at his drone development center, and I broke in all the original exo-suits for the robots, you know, like a tester? My mother and sister were there to visit my father and congratulate him on his success and creating a more intelligent robot to lead the others. They never made it.”

Hikaru pulled Delilah closer to him, his fingers running through her fur. “Do you know,” he rasped, feeling his throat go dry, “just how hard it is? I still wake up from nightmares. I can still hear Aimi laugh, see her smiling face when she’d run across the room to welcome me home after school. I can still see her dancing, hear my mom calling me for dinner. I just…I can’t let it go.” He gritted his teeth as a tear slid down his cheek and disappeared into the puppy’s fur. “I hate fighting. I hate the robots. All I want is for them to go away. Every time I destroy a robot, I feel like I can hear my sister’s screams. I don’t even know how I survived and they didn’t. One moment they were there, and the next…I was all alone. I’m still all alone. My friends are gone.” Hikaru squeezed his eyes shut, his chest racking as sobs erupted in his throat. His hands left Delilah and came to his face, covering his eyes. He doubled over as more and more tears streamed down his cheeks.

Hikaru fell onto his bed, curling into a ball as he cried. Never before had he felt so helpless, not even when his family died. Then, he was too young and had no experience. Now, he was in the middle of a war, a war that he had no idea when it would end, and he was supposed to be the leader, the one who took care of problems like this and made plans. Most of his friends were gone. He had Ryo, and Akira and Kouta, but besides that, he was alone.

Slowly, after minutes, the pilot started to get a hold of himself. His tears subsided as well as his sobs, and he managed to swallow down the horrible knot in his throat. He sat up again slowly, stretching out his cramping stomach. Delilah sat on the ground, whining piteously up at him. Hikaru gave a half-smile, picking her up again.

He held her out at arm’s length, raising an eyebrow. “Delilah, how would you like to do something for me? And get to see Ha-Ya-To again?”


“I need to send this package, Sensei.”

The elderly man twirled around, looking Akira in the eye. “Ah, and who is it to?”

Akira put on her straightest face and held out a letter to Sensei, bowing slightly as he took it. “It’s from Hikaru to the head of the mail department in the Bronze City. Apparently there’s been a mix-up in our mail and we’ve been receiving mail that’s meant for the Ironworks City. This note is to clear the mix-up, and we’re sending all their mail back so it can be redistributed.”

Sensei raised an eyebrow, but Hikaru must have done a good job on writing up the letter because he handed it back to Akira with a nod. “You may do as you have requested.”

Akira gave a deep bow. “Thank you, Sensei.” She backed out of the room, after taking back the letter. She gently closed the door behind her, but didn’t have a real reaction until she had stepped into the elevator and the door had shut behind her.

Akira let out a long sigh and leaned against the wall, shivering slightly. Sensei’s blue-grey gaze gave her the creeps, especially now that she knew that it wasn’t her leader doing the talking. Still, she had managed to get past him with a letter.

Hopefully, it would do the job right.

Akira exited the elevator and entered the lobby, where Hikaru was waiting for her. “Well?” His eyes were worried. Akira wasn’t surprised. “What did he say?”

The dark-haired trainee grinned and held the letter up. “We’re good to go. Sensei agreed. You must have done a good job writing this thing. You sure Ha-Ya-To will get the message?”

“Positive,” Hikaru grinned. “We’ve had to learn code since we started here together. I wrote it in invisible ink on the back, and only Ha-Ya-To would know it’s there.” His gaze darkened as the two of them left the building. “So, you doing alright?”

Akira rolled her eyes. “It was a CT scan, not a heart transplant, Hikaru. But you’re sweet. I’m doing fine. I’m just glad my brain isn’t being taken over by robots.”

“Same. I wonder why just Kouta was being bugged.”

“Maybe he was in the right place at the right time,” Akira suggested with a shrug. “Ryo said he’ll be fine, though. I got to talk to him, though. He’s incredibly smart, and he kept our secret. He somehow convinced the robot in his mind that the Silver City memories weren’t important, and the robot didn’t look any further into it.”

Hikaru let out a long sigh. “Well that’s a relief. He’s smart, Kouta.”

“Yeah,” Akira nodded. She handed the paper letter back to Hikaru. “Anyways, we’d better mail that package. We don’t want Delilah to be too hungry.”

“I put food and water in a set of dishes specifically for her cage, so they won’t spill. And she’ll be fine. If she got here from New York, she should be fine going to the Bronze City.”

The two pilots entered Hikaru’s dorm and checked the package one more time, to make sure the puppy inside was alright, before taping it down and bringing it outside. There they handed the package over to a pilot who would bring it down to the city below and have it mailed there.

The pilot shot a skeptical look at the package. “Why does it have holes in it?”

For air, so our dog doesn’t die…Akira thought. Instead, she said, “Some of the mail got a little wet when it was being delivered. It hasn’t had time to dry, and I’ve heard that if you want to keep something from forming mildew, a constant flow of fresh air is best.” She put on her sweetest face. “Thank you so much for taking this down for us!”

The boy flushed slightly. “Yeah, well, be glad I’m taking time off to do this for you guys.”

“You are much thanked,” Hikaru said stiffly. “Now please hurry off. Mail order is supposed to be done quickly, and we don’t want to keep the city waiting.”

“Yes sir!” The boy saluted and entered his Stealth Hunter quickly, taking off and heading down the mountain with amazing speed.

Akira raised an eyebrow. “He’s still using a Stealth Hunter? Man, I feel like I’ve got a huge upgrade.”

Hikaru shrugged. “How’s the Solar Flare going by the way?”

“I love it! Want to see? I’ve got nothing else going on this afternoon, and I’d love to show you before tomorrow.”

Hikaru took one last look after the Stealth Hunter before nodding. “Sure.”

Akira led Hikaru across the city to the flight grounds. She reached into the small pouch attached to a belt around her mid-thigh and pulled out a small remote. Akira smiled and flipped it around slightly before clicking the button. This small piece of technology was her ticket to pilot-hood. It was hers, and licensed to only her.

With a click of the remote, the massive garage before her slid open. Akira stepped inside, motioning for Hikaru to follow her. She rubbed a hand on one of the golden-painted legs. “Ryo made most of the outer layer out of the metal I created the first day I was in his workshop, you know, when I practically blew the place up? I think it’s one of his last testaments to my handiwork. And he named it the ‘Solar Flare’.” She rolled her eyes. “I think he enjoys teasing me.”

“We all do,” Hikaru commented with a snicker.

Akira stuck her tongue out at him but didn’t answer. She was actually rather enjoying showing off her new battle machine to her boyfriend. She had wanted to show it to someone since Graduation night. Now was the first time she had actually gotten that chance.

“See the shoulders? They’re covered with missiles that will reload, and under the arms are a bunch of machine gun systems. And the blade? Its edge is tungsten, and will melt through most metals and stones. It’s like the stuff that’s in light bulbs, but it’s been tweaked so it’ll heat up to extremely high temperatures even outside of a vacuum. This thing packs so much fire power that Ryo even put a self-destruct button in it. It’ll set for three minutes to detonation, and when it goes off, it’s powerful enough to destroy basically anything in a half-mile radius.” She patted the leg fondly. “Yep, this baby is my little fire bird.” She looked at Hikaru. “Do you like it?”

The pilot ran his hands along the leg, tilting his head to look back. “It’s a beauty. Ryo really outdid himself.”

Akira flushed in pleasure. “Think it’ll be good at the battle?”

“It’ll be great!” Hikaru said with a smile. You’ll be able to fight way better in this than in the Stealth Hunter you had. You’ll do great.” His smiled faded ever so slightly. “You ready?”

Akira straightened her shoulders and nodded slowly. “I’m ready.”

The next morning, the robots started appearing.

Chapter 29:

“That’s four more Fire Vulture 2.0s,” the sentry yelled back, turning away from his binoculars.

Hikaru stepped up behind him, narrowing his eyes. “So that’s about twenty of them on the horizon?”

“And seven more Iron Condors over on the west side,” Akira put in, making her way over to the two young men. She looked out to the front of the city, trying to count the number of robots on the other side of the bridge. There had to be at least fifty battle machines on this side, and thirty to the south. The east and west sides were building up robot forces as well.

Hikaru let out a long sigh through his nose. “Okay,” he said slowly, “keep me updated.” He clapped the sentry on the back and made his way back down the series of ladders and platforms from the wall to ground level. Akira followed close behind him, a clipboard in hand that she scribbled on from time to time to keep track of all the robots appearing. Hikaru had asked her to keep track of the battle machines that appeared near the city, and she did just that.

“The total count so far,” Akira said slowly as the two of them entered into the depths of the city, “is around a hundred and fifty robots and battle machines. And they’re cutting off all of our communication to the outside world. We’re not going to be able to stay here forever. What do we do if we need something?”

“We wait,” Hikaru said bluntly. “We can’t do much more than that at the moment. Sensei wants us to stay in the city, and that’s why we’re being cut off. Maybe they’re trying to starve us out, or they might just be trying the whole psychological idea, of making us freak out about the whole thing.”

Akira blinked a few times but nodded and hurried to keep up with Hikaru. She shot a glance at the young pilot, noticing the strained look of hard determination on his face. Recently Hikaru had been almost as cold to people as he had when Akira had first met him. She knew he just stressed out as he tried to plan out an entire strategy to keep the robots at bay until the right time, but she also felt worried for her boyfriend. The poor guy had been barely eating, and from the crazed look in his eyes at times, Akira wasn’t sure if he was sleeping well either.

She nearly ran after Hikaru, taking notes from the sentries who ran around the city to report their news. Akira was busier than ever. With this new job, she was constantly walking through the city and being interrupted by people who had news. She had already gone through three blue pens trying to take down so many notes. Akira knew now that when Hikaru had a plan, that usually meant a whole lot of paper and note-taking needed to happen. Akira was sure now that she would fill up a notebook with all the ideas Hikaru had that needed to be recorded.

“Akira, can you make sure that I remember to ask Ryo about the city hacking project?”

“You won’t need me to. He’s walking down the road.”

Hikaru’s chin shot up and he looked down the road, hurrying to meet up with Ryo, who was indeed rushing up a road crossing the one Hikaru and Akira were on. Akira made sure to keep up with the pilot.

Hikaru rushed up to Ryo, nearly panting. “Ryo! How’s the hacking going?”

“Good!” Ryo managed a small smile before it returned to a quieter gaze. “How are we doing number-wise?”

“I just got more stats.” Akira held up her clipboard. “We’re almost at two hundred now, all surrounding the city. And that’s just here. Any new back from Ha-Ya-To?”

Ryo shook his head. “Nothing yet. But if my hacking program works within the next few days, then they’ll contact us as soon as we call them all up.”

“Can you get it done any faster?” Hikaru said quietly. “With this build-up, we might not be able to spare a few days.”

“I’ll do what I can, but you can’t rush this stuff, Hikaru. I would prefer not to get trapped within the computer. Hacking is all cloak-and-dagger work. It’s supposed to be felt, but not seen. If I try to do something faster, I may be detected, and that would put me back at the beginning.”

Hikaru sighed, but nodded. “I understand. If you can do anything, though, please try. We need all the time we can get. Also, before you go, are all battle machines ready for action?”

Ryo smiled. “Just about.”

“Good. We’ll need them all during the battle.”

As Ryo left them, Akira made a few more notes on her pad before turning to Hikaru. “Why are we waiting for the robots to start the battle? Shouldn’t we make the first move?”

Hikaru shook his blue-haired head. “They may be creating more battle machines for their robots, but we need to be extremely careful. If we start a battle, we’ll be overrun. We need to time this all perfectly.”

Akira nodded. “And how will that work?”

“We’ll deal with it when it comes to it. All we really need to make sure of is that all the cities attack the robots at the same time. And while the robots are distracted, we’ll get a small group together and find out what Meca One is doing.”

The dark-haired girl scribbled down a few quick notes, adding to her already long list of notes for the upcoming battle. She would probably have to organize them all soon, just so she could tell the other pilots what to do when the battle started, but with all of the paper she had used, she knew it would take a long time.

“Akira,” Hikaru continued, stopping in the road, “I want you to go inside the Golden Tower and have Kouta check the specs on the city. We need to keep this entire city in check. It’s like a living being: it’ll tell you if something’s wrong.”

A living city…Akira liked the concept. It reminded her of the Silver City and how it worked. She had heard those words a million times since she had come into training, but she still loved the idea. It was as though the city itself was breathing, being sustained by the people inside. With the mountains surrounding it, and the sharp breeze, to wasn’t hard to imagine.

Akira nodded. “Alright…but what exactly am I looking for?”

“A breach in security.”


“And that’s all he wanted?”

Akira nodded, checking her notebook. “Yeah, that’s what he said.”

Kouta rolled his eyes. “That’s a little vague, but I believe you.” He stepped around the center of the Golden Tower, checking the screens on the cylindrical pillar in the middle. Akira had never actually been inside the Golden Tower. The last experience she had really had with it was when she had accidentally broken a hole in the outside and found the code for the Silver City. The inside was massive. It was a large, circular room with a thick pillar in the center. The pillar was covered in computer screens, all of which were displaying something different. “What the heck am I supposed to be looking for?”

“Anything out of the ordinary, I suppose. Maybe robots wandering the city, or something like that.”

Kouta rolled his eyes, rubbing the bandages on his head. His head had been bandaged since his surgery, but his operation had gone well enough that he was now up on his feet and thinking as clearly as ever. Still, the bandages were wrapped around his head to protect the stitched areas on his temples and behind his ears. His brown hair stuck out from the top, and if it had been longer, it would have rivaled Ryo’s with his red headband.

Akira couldn’t help but stare at Kouta as the boy took to messing with the coded information in the tower’s mainframe. What was it like to have a robot inside your mind, messing with memories and even the simple senses as sight and hearing? How did it feel to have no control? It caused a shiver to run up her spine and she shook her head. She never wanted to feel something like that.

Kouta let out a huff of air. “Alright, we’re in. Darn it, why can’t Hikaru be just a little more specific?” He slid his finger along the screen, flipping through page after page. “I have just about all the information we could want. This is everything from how much money is on everyone’s keycards, to the heat readings of people going in and out of rooms. What do we want?”

Akira raised an eyebrow. “Heat reading could be helpful, especially if we’re working with robots. Don’t all the drones have a single heat source in their core to keep the wires working properly and at a certain temperature?”

Kouta raised an eyebrow as he glanced at Akira for a split second, clearly impressed. “You actually were listening in class. That’s surprising.”

Akira rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Just bring up the heat levels from the last few months in Sensei’s room. I want to see if there’s any difference.”

Kouta nodded and tapped out a few commands. Within a few seconds, the screen flashed up a long list of numbers. He examined it for a few moments. “Okay, from what I can see, around three and a half months ago, the temperature level was steady, and fine for a single human. But a few days later, the heat level raised a substantial level. Almost enough for two humans.”

Akira came up closer behind Kouta and looked over his shoulder, glancing at the stats on the screen. “Hmmm…how long does that last?”

“Until the night before graduation. Then, in the middle of the night, it suddenly goes down. Now, it’s just a few degrees over Sensei’s normal body temperature.”

“Do you have a date for when the temperature started to rise?”

Kouta tapped in a few keys. “Um, yeah, it was the middle of the night, though.”

“Anything else happen then?”

“Let me check.” Kouta took a few moments and flipped through records. “Oh, yeah, that was the night the girl’s dorm was attacked by robots.”

Akira narrowed her eyes, stepping back from Kouta. “And you said it ended on the night before graduation?”

“Yeah.”

“How much heat does an average robot emit?”

The techie paused, thinking for a moment. “Well, I’d say probably around seven degrees centigrade. So not that much, just enough to keep the inside of the robots warm enough to keep them working right.”

“Hmm…”Akira did a few minor calculations and shot a look at Kouta. “I think I figured it out.”

“What?”

Akira ran a hand through her hair. “You said it was the night before graduation that your mind got taken over, though you still aren’t quite sure how a robot got into the city. I think I figured it out. The attack on the dorms was a diversion. Sensei must have snuck a few of the robots into his room at that time, and kept them there until graduation night.”

“And used them on us?” Kouta said, raising an eyebrow as he caught on. “And that’s why I was infected and you weren’t. You weren’t at the last meeting.”

Akira nodded. “I was on guard duty, and…well…yeah. And then while you were all robo-techie, you tried to infect Ryo with the same type of chip that infected you.” Her eyes widened. “That’s what Meca One’s doing! He’s using the apprentices to infect other Exo-Force soldiers! He’s going to take us down from the inside! That’s why he sent everyone to a different city. He’s going to have the apprentices infect the trainees, and then the trainees will infect the other soldiers!”

Kouta nodded. “And that’s why there’s still more heat in Sensei’s room. There’s probably one drone left, the one that was supposed to go to you. But there’s got to be more than one, but…well, maybe two. The stats don’t look like there’s any more than that.”

Akira thought for another moment. “What if…?” She paused again. “What if when someone’s mind goes back to normal, if the robot goes back to normal too? Like, if there are really five robots in Sensei’s room, why are only two showing up now? Maybe they power off when their minds are connected to someone else, and only when they get their minds back do they actually return to their full consciousness?”

“Would make sense,” Kouta said with a shrug. “The real question would be what do we do about it?”

“We get into Sensei’s office.”

Akira nodded and she and Kouta ran out from the Golden Tower to the streets. They dodged the hundreds of pilots and techs who were running around and made their way to the large building that held Sensei’s room and office.

The building was architecturally very pleasing to the eye. It wasn’t all that tall, maybe only about three stories high, and was made with white metal and stone. There were windows on every level which caught the light and nearly blinded the unfortunate people passing by who happened to be standing by in certain places. But it was a clean cut, well-made building that Akira had rather liked to look at.

Akira and Kouta rushed into the building. It was empty, which was odd in and of itself. Normally the offices down below were bustling with life, but now Akira assumed the people were all out in the streets.

“This feels like a really bad idea…” Akira whispered as they exited the elevator on the correct floor.

“It was your idea in the first place!” Kouta hissed.

Akira rolled her eyes, breathing out slowly. “I know. I’m not having doubts, I promise. I’m just…a little freaked out that we’re sneaking into our teacher’s office.”

“As I just said, it was your idea.”

“I know that!” Akira slid against a wall, peeking around the corner before sliding into the hallway. “Look, we’ll go in, check things out, and get out before anyone notices we’re gone.”

Kouta followed her pace steadily. “Okay, but you do realize that our body heat, movement, and basic photos are going to be on record when we enter that room.”

“Well let’s hope Sensei doesn’t notice anything is wrong and doesn’t check the files. And besides, if we figure out what’s going on, it shouldn’t matter. We’ll get the info to Hikaru and get to work on the final plan. Okay?”

“Agreed.”

The pilot and techie sneaked down the hallway to Sensei’s room. Sensei’s room apparently doubled as his office, so that was the one place Akira knew they would find information if there was any to find. Still, entering her teacher’s office felt awkward.

“You ready?” Akira whispered as they stood in front of the door at the end of the hallway.

Kouta nodded. “When you are.”

“Go!”

Akira slid open the door and she and Kouta slid into the room before she shut it again as quickly as she was able. She looked around, turning on a small lamp by the door so the room was bathed in a faint golden glow. Akira had never been in here before. The room was small and compact, with what looked like bamboo flooring, matching the bamboo frame of the small, low bed that stuck out from one of the walls. Besides that, everything seemed to be in shades of white. The sheets and rug were white, as well as the ceiling fan and even the pots for the plants that were set casually around the room. In fact, if it weren’t for a wall of computer monitors, it would have looked like a rather traditional, minimalist Japanese bedroom.

“Anything?”

Kouta held up his scanner, glancing at the screen. “Nope, but I’ll set it to a higher frequency.”

Akira glanced around before setting herself down in the rolling chair in front of the screens. With a single tap to the massive keyboard, the screens flared to life. A muffled hum came from somewhere in the room as the computer awoke. The screens all glowed, and all came up with the same page: a password screen.

“Hey, Kouta,” Akira hissed, “I’ll take over scanning. See if you can hack into this.”

In a split second, Kouta was over Akira’s shoulder, nodding excitedly.” My pleasure!” He took Akira’s place at the desk, handing her the scanner.

The pilot held the piece of technology gingerly as she adjusted it to her hands. It was around the size of a Compad, and just as thin and light. On the screen looked almost like an x-ray, but much more colorful as it scanned the areas it was pointed at for thermal energy. Akira held up her hand in front of it, marveling for a moment as the picture of her hand turned bright shades of red, orange, and yellow.

Slowly, Akira began to make her rounds. The room seemed to be basically heat free, save for the pipes running through the walls, and the ventilation shafts. But she couldn’t pick up anything else. The screen was dark.

Akira glanced back at her partner. “Hey, how’s it going?”

“Almost got it,” Kouta whispered back. Akira could hear the furious tapping of keys coming from his direction.

Akira continued her way around the room. She paused in front of the closet, and shook the scanner a bit. She tilted her head. There was heat…and it wasn’t just from the pipes. These weren’t long thin strips of heat. These were small and concentrated into one point.

“Kouta,” Akira hissed. “I think I found something.”

“Hold on…I’m in!” Kouta rolled around in his chair, facing Akira. His gleeful smile darkened quickly as he caught sight of her serious look. “You found something?”

Akira didn’t answer, but motioned for him to come closer. Kouta did so slowly, his feet pattering ever so slightly on the hardwood floor. He glanced over Akira’s shoulder, raising an eyebrow and pointing at the closet door. He mimed opening it. Akira nodded.

The two of them slowly stepped forwards and Kouta grasped the handle of the closet while Akira drew her blaster pistol. The two of them stood there for a moment, eyes locked, before Akira slowly nodded. Kouta gently twisted the handle and, after waiting for a split second, threw the door open.

The silence was deafening. Nothing stirred. Akira glanced at Kouta and motioned for him to continue. Kouta gently moved away hangers of clothes and pulled a tiny flashlight out of his pocket to get a better look. Wherever he shone the light, Akira’s gun point followed.

Suddenly from the darkness flashed a bright blue light, sapphire blue. Kouta gave a yelp as his hand was gripped tightly by a metal hand. The flashlight fell to the ground.

“Human,” the drone said flatly. It was cut off from whatever else it was about to say when Akira’s plasma shot found its chest plate. The drone jerked backwards, loosening its grip enough that Kouta managed to wiggle free.

“Humans…” the drone sputtered out through its now breaking voice chip. Akira ran up to the drone, grabbing one of the looser plates on its shoulder and swinging the drone out of the closet and onto the ground, where she held it. She tossed her gun up to Kouta, who pointed it at the closet.

Akira narrowed her eyes at the drone, her dark eyes fixing on the sapphire blue of the eye-like gems inset in the drone’s face. “Alright, I want answers,” she snapped. “Why are there robots surrounding the cities when Meca One is planning on taking over the humans’ minds?”

The robot’s voice chip went in and out as it managed words. “You…will…humans…”

Akira slammed her fist into the chest plate, making an indent. “Listen, Devastator, I need answers now. What is Meca One planning?”

“Humans…doomed…dead…” Before the drone could get another word out, the lights in its eyes went dark and the metal body ley on the floor.

Akira hissed in annoyance as she stood. “Stupid me. I shot it too well.”

“At least you didn’t let it kill you,” Kouta put in. “That’s what matters right now.”

The pilot took back her gun and pointed it at the closet. “Alright, we’ve got one last chance. There’s another robot in there, so I’ll restrain from shutting it down. Can you get it out here?”

Kouta nodded and shifted more of the clothes around, letting them rustle loudly. Within moments, the second robot was out of the closet and wildly making his way towards a retreating Kouta.

“Hey!” Akira shot dangerously close to the drone’s head. Her shot left a mark on the wall, but Akira didn’t really care. “Make one more move and you’re scrap metal.”

The drone stopped dead in its tracks, and turning away from Kouta, instead ran towards Akira.

The pilot took a split second to aim and fired, shooting directly through the drone’s leg. With what sounded like a rusty, earthy cry, the robot collapsed to the ground, struggling to get back onto its feet with a foot that was obviously out of commission.

Akira swung over the fallen drone, a blaster pointed at its face. “Okay, I’ll make this simple. Who did you infect?”

If the drone could have narrowed his eyes, he would have. “No one,” it said in a rough tone.

“So you were for me?” Akira couldn’t help but give a small smile. “Sorry I never showed up for your little party, but I prefer to keep my mind intact. Now tell me, what is Meca One planning?”

“Never, human.”

Akira pressed the gun against the robot’s head. “Answer, or your circuits get fried.”

“Negative.”

The shot was fired and the robot was left motionless on the ground. Akira curled her lip back as she holstered her weapon. “Stupid robots and stupid programming,” she mumbled under her breath. She looked down at her watch. They needed to get out, before Sensei came back. “Kouta, we’ve got to get out of here. Anything on the computer?”

The techie gave a smirking smile. “Probably.” He pulled a flash drive out of his pocket. “We’ll check it out later.”

Together, the pilot and techie managed to get the two drones back into the closet, where they found three other robot bodies (all deactivated) and turned off the computer before sliding out of the room. The two of them bolted down the hallway as quietly as they could.

They had hardly gotten out of the building when they were confronted by a young sentry, who raced up to Akira, panting. “You…you have to come…see this…”

Akira glanced at Kouta, raising an eyebrow. “I need to speak to Hikaru first.”

“You can do that later. This is important!” the sentry said.

Akira sighed. “Fine, it has to be quick.”

Kouta followed Akira as she took off down the road after the sentry. He led them through the city and onto the northern wall, which the three of them scaled easily. Akira looked out onto the horizon, narrowing her eyes. There was something moving on the distance. She squinted. “What is it?”

The sentry handed her a pair of binoculars. “Here, try these.”

Akira did so, making out the enlarged shapes. There were a few Fire Vultures, some Claw Crushers, and a squad of Iron Condors. But she wasn’t surprised there. It was the huge looming shape in the back that drew her attention. She focused the binoculars, not able to hold back a gasp of shock as the figure came into focus. She had only ever heard of them and seen them in textbooks. She had never actually seen one in person: only on the holographic screens in class. But from what she had heard from Hikaru, they were dangerous, powerful, and had only been seen once. When it had, it nearly crushed the Exo-Force.

The Striking Venom.

“We have to find Hikaru. Now.”


“Did you say two Striking Venoms?!

Akira nodded, breathing hard from her sprint across the city to find her mentor. “Yeah. One at the northern entrance, one at the southern one.”

Hikaru ran a hand through his hair, letting out a long held breath. “Wow, Meca One’s been busy…you find anything else?”

Akira explained about the drones found in Sensei’s room and hers and Kouta’s theory about how the drones’ minds and heat circuitry worked. She also mentioned the computer and how Kouta was in the Golden Tower trying to hack his way into heavily protected folders to see if they could find any information. Hikaru nodded slowly throughout the whole speech, his eyes closed and pinched. Akira could tell he was thinking hard.

“Alright,” he said slowly, “I really would have preferred to not do this, but I don’t seem to have much of a choice.” He ran a hand through his hair again, making it stick up at odd angles. He looked as though what he really needed was a good night’s sleep. “We need to get this battle started.”

Akira took a start. “Wait, already? But what about the others? Has our note reached Ha-Ya-To yet?”

Hikaru raised an eyebrow, giving Akira small smile. “We’ll figure out soon. Come on, follow me.”

The two pilots sped to the center of the city, directly in front of the Golden Tower. Hikaru paused there, and glanced around before pulling something out of his pocket. Akira couldn’t hold back a smile. She found it funny that what Hikaru had found most annoying a few months ago was now his one piece of salvation.

It was a microphone, identical to the one that Ha-Ya-To had, the one that bugged Hikaru with its connection to all the speakers in the city. But Hikaru had asked Ryo to make a few adjustments…well, one actually. One major change.

This didn’t connect to the city. It connected to the country.

Hikaru lifted the microphone to his lips. Taking a deep breath, he spoke slowly and clearly. His voice boomed across the city, and across the country. “Attention, Japan, this is Hikaru of the Exo-Force military.”

And the nation was silent.

Hikaru pulled the microphone away from his mouth, waiting. Akira could see him visibly swallow, nervousness falling over his form.

“Hello? Is this thing working?”

Akira let out a huff of a breath, a smile breaking on her face. She knew that voice. It was happy, cheerful, and maybe slightly confused. It could only be Ha-Ya-To. Even miles away, his voice was still loud and clear.

“If I’m talking into a void, then this thing really sucks.”

That one was obviously Takeshi. His gruff voice was distinct, and Akira had never been happier to hear the grumpy pilot’s voice.

“Is this thing on? Hello?”

“Hitomi!” Ha-Ya-To’s voice was as perky as ever. “Is that you?”

“YAHOO!! We’re back on line!”

Hikaru managed out a small laugh, though Akira could see the relief in his eyes. “You guys are the best.”

Chapter 30:

“Did you get my note?”

“I heard about it!” Takeshi spoke up. “Ha-Ya-To contacted me through my Compad’s video chat by using someone else’s account and only speaking his voice, not actually being seen. Pretty clever.”

Ha-Ya-To’s voice was practically beaming in pleasure. “I got your note, Hikaru. Hiding it in Delilah’s collar? Awesome! And so that was the reason Olivia suddenly got very violent in our last sparring match…anyways, I’ve got Delilah here with me now. Thanks for sending her. I’ve been needing a good puppy kiss.”

“Guys?” Hitomi’s voice was still delighted, but was tight with anxiety. “We really need to talk about the cities and the danger and all that.”

“Exactly.” Hikaru spoke clearly and slowly into the microphone. “People of Japan…we have a dire situation. The robot’s rebellion has taken off in a completely new direction. For your own safety, we as the military are authorizing a mandatory evacuation of your homes and enter underground to a city specifically designed for your safety.” He motioned to Akira, who handed him a small flashdrive, which Hikaru hurriedly connected to the microphone, and pressed a button inset into the bottom. “On your cell phones, televisions, or whatever you are hearing this on, will appear a small map leading you to the closest entrance to the city you will be staying in. If you are on a radio or landline phone, please turn on your television or open your cell phone or laptop or other device and follow the directions. This map will lead you to the entrance of the city, and please follow the written directions after you arrive. This is not a drill. This is for your safety. If you do not follow these directions, we as the military cannot insure your safety. Thank you and good luck.”

Hikaru took a long breath and looked at Akira, who looked back. She hated to admit it, but she was scared, terrified even. This was the moment they had been waiting for, training for, and it was finally here. It was as though this were her telos, her purpose. She was going to fight as hard as she could.

The blue-haired pilot took a long breath, putting his microphone back in his pocket. “Well, if Sensei is even half of himself, he’s just checked his cell phone or his computer and probably knows everything. So we have to work fast.”

Akira nodded as they ran. She wasn’t even sure about this part of the plan. She hadn’t written this part down. At this point, she was running through all the notes she had taken in her mind, trying to remember everything about the robots and battle machines and what their strengths and weaknesses were.

Hikaru didn’t take the time to alert his own city of their orders, but they must have all heard just the same as the rest of the country because the pilots and techies were all at their battle stations. Citizens flooded the streets, all with cell phones and other devices in hand and carrying a few meager possessions in their arms. They all headed towards where the Silver City entrance was. Only now did Akira wonder how they were all going to get in and how long it was going to take.

Hikaru seemed to be able to read her mind. “Don’t worry. I sent a few pilots to guard the city entrance and they’ll help everyone get in. They’re already branded.” He held up his hand, pulling off his glove and flashing Akira the dark tattoo opposite of his palm. Akira smiled and did the same.

“So,” Akira finally said, “Um…where are we going?”

“To find Sensei,” Hikaru answered, his breathing starting to become slightly labored as the two pilots dodged and waved citizens and tried to get through the mess of people. Akira followed, narrowly avoiding colliding with a young man who had a laptop directly in front of his and appeared to be following the map on there. Akira was just glad she was paying attention or she might have gotten clotheslined.

“And where might that be?”

“Probably his office. If not, he’s on his way to the city. But if he gets within a hundred foot range, the pilots will let me know.”

Hikaru and Akira raced to the admin building, where Sensei’s room was. They ignored the elevator inside and proceeded to head straight to the stairs. Together they raced up flight after flight. Sensei’s room was on the top floor.

Akira hardly felt the pain in her legs when she reached the top of the last stair. She just wanted to run right into the room and tackle Sensei into a headlock, to make him reveal all the secrets about the robots. But she followed Hikaru a little more slowly. Still, he looked just as upset as she did. His strides were long and stiff.

They didn’t knock. They just barged right into the room. The area was brightly lit and Sensei sat at his massive computer desk, whatever he was doing completely obscured from view. Sensei raised an eyebrow as the pilots entered the room. “Welcome, Hikaru Matsuoka, and Akira Hamoto.”

“Now you’re just lying through your teeth,” Hikaru said waspishly. “Don’t tell me your super high tech computer didn’t pick up my message.”

Sensei rose to his feet slowly, brushing off his white top and white slacks. His steely eyes met Hikaru’s blue. Akira could see the power behind them. They were wild and angry, something Akira had never seen before in her master’s gaze. “You had a clever plan. I had no idea this city even existed. You are a clever one, Hikaru Matsuoka.”

“It wasn’t me. My team is smart.”

Sensei waved away the comment. “Modesty means nothing to me. Where I hail, anyone who fails is executed. Anyone who succeeds is promoted and will live another day. You, human, are worthy enough to be a second to me. Even your teacher finds you highly intelligent.”

“Who are you?” Hikaru asked. Akira wasn’t sure how he remained to calm. She wanted nothing more than to take down the robot herself, even if it was inside Sensei’s body.

Again, the eyebrow raised on Sensei’s face. “You haven’t figured it out yourself? Maybe you’re not as clever as I thought.”

Hikaru gave a tiny smile. “Oh, I’m pretty sure who you are. I’d just like to hear it from you.”

“Why don’t you guess? If you fail, your death will be all the more pleasant.”

“Only one robot would dare to directly interfere with Sensei Keiken’s mind.” Hikaru’s eyes grew cold and filled with a deep fury. “Aren’t I right, Meca One?”

Akira sucked a sharp breath in. How had she not figured it out? Obviously Hikaru was right. Only Meca One himself would have taken over Sensei’s mind. It was like the greatest possible feat: to take over the mind of your greatest rival.

Hikaru’s voice sounded as though it were having a hard time not trembling. “How dare you? You murder, lie, and even take over our military. You killed my family, and millions of other families in this country.”

“You wouldn’t hurt an old man, would you?”Meca-Sensei said quietly. “You humans are all weaklings. When someone you care about is in danger, you immediately lose all logic within your minds. Your senses are overridden. When robots take the earth, there will be nothing to block our ideals. We have no feelings.”

Akira spoke up. “But Sensei does. How does it feel to have grown used to the fact that you’re in the mind of someone that has feelings?”

“That is no concern, human,” Meca-Sensei said calmly, stepping forwards more into the light. “I am a robot. My feelings are non-existent. Nothing can change the fact that my mind rests on logic. Your puny human minds are a waste of energy. Soon you will all be robots. I must admit though, human bodies are incredible.”

“Don’t get used to it,” Hikaru snarled. “I’m going to give you one chance to give up, though I doubt you’ll take it.”

Meca-Sensei nodded. “You think correctly. And you are unarmed. I can practically see your entire plan playing out before me. You will fail, human. Now, I will give you one chance to surrender your army and city.”

“Armies.”

Meca-Sensei cocked his head slightly. “Armies?”

Hikaru nodded. “See, without you in charge, I’m in charge of the Exo-Force military project. And on behalf of the Golden, Bronze, Iron, Platinum, and Silver cities, I refuse. Now!”

Fortunately, Akira knew this part of the plan. She whipped out her blaster pistol and fired a shot directly above Meca-Sensei’s right shoulder, just so that it split the fabric of his jacket, but not the skin underneath. Meca-Sensei jerked out of the way, looking startled that Akira had made such a direct shot. But before he could make another move, Hikaru had taken a flying leap at Sensei, tackling him to the ground. Akira was suddenly worried that Sensei had broken something, but the elderly man wasn’t the leader of the Exo-Force for nothing. He was powerful, and with one move, he had gripped Hikaru’s hands and flipped him off his wiry body.

“Hikaru!” Akira pointed her gun directly at Meca-Sensei, but the man was faster than she though. Before she could take aim, he was back on his feet and directly in front of Akira, a hand on her blaster and another grabbing her wrist. Akira let out a scream as his grip became tighter and he began to twist sharply.

“Let her go!” Hikaru bounded across the room and jumped onto Meca-Sensei’s back, ripping him off Akira and throwing him off balance. The two went tumbling back to the floor. Akira managed to regain enough power to point her pistol at the two wresting men on the ground. But she didn’t shoot. She didn’t want to hit either of them. She wasn’t even sure why she was pointing the gun. Maybe if she had enough skill, she would shoot and hit Meca-Sensei is a non-fatal place. But she didn’t like the idea of hurting the elderly man. He was still her mentor, even if she barely knew him.

But she still held the gun. “Get off him!” She shrieked, “or I’ll shoot!”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Meca-Sensei managed to say through grunts. “You have too much sentiment.”

He had called her bluff. Akira could feel the gun in her fingers tremble. Of course the robot was right. She had too much sentiment to hurt humans. Akira tightened her grip and pointed it steadily at Meca-Sensei, following his body. “I hardly know Sensei. Why should it matter to me?”

For a split second, the wild grey-blue eyes met hers. “Because they care.”

Akira shot a glance at Hikaru, realizing Meca-Sensei was right. The Dream Team and the rest of the Exo-Force was very well connected with Sensei. She couldn’t just kill him.

She had to do something fast, or Hikaru was going to meet with a nasty end. She and Hikaru had planned this out, but she needed more time!

Need a plan…need a plan.

“Meca One!” Akira yelled, trying not to let her fear and desperation show through. “If you don’t want to be a human forever, don’t you dare continue!”

Meca-Sensei paused for a moment. Hikaru didn’t even try to fight him again. He lay panting on the ground, all the air in his chest having been crushed out by a knee in the stomach from Meca-Sensei. Akira tried not to wince as she refocused her gaze on Meca-Sensei.

“If you shoot me,” he said slowly, “my mind will return to my body, and your teacher will be dead.”

Akira swallowed. “What if I told you I had your drone body?”

Meca-Sensei narrowed his eyes. “You’re a liar. Only my drones know where it is.”

“But I know, because we found it and we have it here in the workshop. Want to see?”

Meca-Sensei narrowed his eyes even farther, but nodded. Akira, not moving her gunpoint from Meca-Sensei’s chest, managed to pull her phone out of her pocket and pull up the video camera setting Kouta had installed. It connected with the surveillance camera in the main workshop, and not it showed Kouta working furiously over a golden-plated robot that lay on a table.

“This is a live show of what’s going on in the workshop,” Akira said, showing Meca-Sensei the screen. The dark-haired girl silently thanked Kouta for being so punctual. “Kouta has been working on your body, trying to find out exactly how it works. And he’ll shut you down. And you’ll be stuck as a human.”

Fury filled Meca-Sensei’s cold eyes. “What is he doing?!”

“Cutting you open.”

“I can’t stay like this!” Meca-Sensei let out a half cry. He slammed his arm into Akira, sending her flying across the floor. “Call him off!”

Akira coughed, trying to catch her breathing. “No way!”

Before Akira could make another move, Meca-Sensei had crossed the room and raised her off the ground, a hand on her neck. The girl couldn’t feel the floor beneath her toes. Akira clawed for air, trying to breathe through her constricted windpipe. The man’s eyes were furious. “Call him off, or you die.”

The girl looked around for her pistol. In the scuffle, she had lost her grip on the blaster and now it lay almost ten feet away from her. Akira couldn’t even cry out in pain. She grabbed at the hands and tried to rip them away, but Meca-Sensei’s grip was like iron.

“Get off her, NOW!!”

All Akira could see was a pair of small, bar-like pieces of metal that were being held up to Meca-Sensei’s temples. The older man cried out for a split second, but was cut off as his eyes rolled to the back of his head and he fell silently to the ground.

Akira fell back to the ground. Her knees would have given out completely if Hikaru hadn’t rushed over and helped her stand. “Thanks,” Akira croaked out, coughing a fair amount of times. She gripped Hikaru, his warmth a comfort to her way-too-close-almost-end. She looked at the fallen man and shook her head slightly. “Your plan worked.”

“It took way too long,” Hikaru replied, picking up the pieces of metal on the ground. “But these magnets did the trick. Ryo is brilliant.”

It actually hadn’t been Hikaru’s plan, but Ryo’s to use powerful magnets to wipe the chips that were inserted in Sensei’s mind of all of their memory. Ryo had warned they could do permanent damage to their teacher’s brain, but they had decided to take that chance. They had no other option.

“Did you catch the signal?” Hikaru asked.

Akira pulled her phone from her pocket and punched in a few buttons. “I picked up on something, probably the connection between the chips and Meca One’s actual body. Ryo or Kouta ought to be able to translate it into a latitude and longitude. If we can get this to them, we can have an exact position on Meca One’s real body.”

The two nodded at one another, and proceeded to pick Sensei up together (that man was surprisingly light) and carried him to the elevator, which they consented to take down to the main floor because of the extra weight. They left him with a pair of sentries who were passing by and promised to take the elderly man to the hospital wing.

The world outside was chaotic. In a period of only about twenty minutes of being away, the whole dynamic of the city had changed from evacuation to a full scale war. Battle machines ran and flew across the city at top speeds, taking out drones that were scaling the walls of the city. Akira stared around her in horror. Explosions shattered the once silent air.

Hikaru briefly checked his watch. “We don’t have much time. Send that info to Kouta. We’ll need it on the road.”

“Where are we going?”

“To meet up with the gang.”

Akira hadn’t gotten to try out her new battle machine very much over the past few days, what with all the planning and chaos of that sort. But now, in the face of imminent disaster and pain, it seemed like a great time to try her new machine out.

She and Hikaru ran the rest of the way to the training grounds, where Akira’s battle machine was garaged. She had been surprised at first at the privilege of having her battle machine in its own garage, as most of the pilots had their battle machines out in the open. But Ryo had explained that Akira’s battle machine took most of its power from the sun, and having it wet and drying in odd ways wasn’t best for its maintenance.

Speaking of Ryo… The purple haired techie was waiting for them at the Training Grounds, arms crossed and looking as impatient as ever. “Were you guys ever going to show up?” He grumbled. “Our city happens to be in danger, if you two didn’t notice.”

“Oh, we noticed,” Akira said cheekily as she opened the garage to her battle machine. “We just took a little stroll through the explosions, talking about our lives.”

Hikaru gave her a small grin, but turned serious just as quickly. “Ryo, did Kouta get the message about the electromagnetic field we picked up?”

“Are you kidding?” Ryo rolled his eyes. “He’s been working like a maniac to get it decoded. So we’d better get moving. We’re meeting the others in the Iron Hills, right?”

Hikaru nodded. “One last question: the Silver City?”

“We’ve got almost everyone in the city in there. There are probably about fifty or so left. Ha-Ya-To, Takeshi, and Hitomi said their cities are just about empty as well.”

“Good.”

“And let Kouta know that Meca One totally bought his little charade,” Akira put in. “Using the silver drone that we shot and painting it gold? Brilliant!”

“I’ll be sure to let him know.”

The three pilots took their places in their battle machines. Akira had never seen the Cyclone Defender in action before, but to her, it seemed a little…well…small. But if it was Ryo’s, it must have had some extremely interesting features.

The Sky Guardian picked up the Cyclone Defender and took to the skies. Akira sat in her cockpit, flipping all the preliminary switches she had to, though slower than usual. She didn’t want to screw this thing up.

Finally, after what seemed like ages, she took to the air after Hikaru. A smile broke her serious face as she twisted and turned in the air. The movements in her machine were smooth and comfortable. She used her right gloved hand and slashed through the air. To her delight, her blade followed her every movement.

“Akira,” Ryo’s face popped up on the screen in front of her. “If you need more power in the middle of a battle, press the green button next to the left glove hand connector piece. But you can only use it in sunlight. The power from there feeds directly into your tungsten blade.”

“What does it do?” Akira asked, focusing on his voice as well as dodging robots whose wings cut through the air effortlessly.

“It usess solar power to power up the hot edge of your blade even more. But again, it only works in direct sunlight, so be careful.”

The screen split into two as Hikaru’s face appeared, looking serious. “Okay, here’s what we’ve got to do. We need to hold off here until we get the directions to Meca One from Kouta. When we get that, we can meet up with Ha-Ya-To, Takeshi, and Hitomi and give them the info as well. Sound good?”

Akira took a split second to aim her gun and take out an Iron Condor that was coming for her. To her delight, it fell out of the air and crushed about four drones below. Still, there were so many that four wasn’t all that great of a number. “Yeah, I’ve got your drift.”

“Because I’ve got Ryo, I’m going to have to use my rockets mostly. I can’t do a whole lot more.”

“I’ll shoot for you!” Ryo immediately volunteered. Akira looked out her blast shield to see the Cyclone Defender hold up its small blaster rifle, and take out two Fire Vulture 2.0s in quick succession. Akira quickly put aside her earlier notion that the Cyclone Defender was too small. It was the perfect size for a crabby, tough technician.

Chapter 31:

“I’ve got it!”

Akira glanced down at her screen for a split second, catching sight of Kouta’s delighted face as the screen split into three. But she quickly returned to the Fire Vulture in front of her. She cut straight through an arm with her blade before speaking again. “You got those coordinates, Kouta?”

“Sure do!” Kouta paused for a second. “It’s deep in the Iron Hills, deeper than the entrance on the other side of the bridge. I didn’t even know there was a base out this far.”

“Good to know,” Hikaru said through gritted teeth. Akira glanced down at the long Golden Bridge where hundreds upon hundreds of drones and battle machines ran up and down, battling their hearts out. Akira could hardly see Ryo, though she knew where he was in the mass of color. He was by the Striking Venom. Hikaru had taken the one to the Southern Entrance, and Ryo the North. Akira was busy taking out aerial battle machines, which was difficult, but she couldn’t help but worry about both Hikaru and Ryo on the ground. From what she could remember, the Striking Venom, aside from being almost fifty feet tall and looking like a four legged spider, the battle machine was covered in plates of metal two feet thick, and was covered with weapons.

Ryo’s face grew panicked on screen. “Um, Hikaru? You remember that blind spot that Takeshi used to defeat the Striking Venom last time?”

“Yeah?”

“They fixed it.”

“Crud!” Hikaru narrowed his eyes. “I’m coming over to pick you up. We’ll have to leave the robots to the pilots here. We have to go after Meca One. If he’s shut down, everyone’s in chaos.”

Akira broke off from the Fire Vulture she had been in combat with by turning on her solar panels and using her now super-heated blade to melt straight through the Vulture. She watched it in satisfaction as it split and crashed onto the bridge.

“Are you sure it’s safe to leave them here without us?” Akira asked as she got out of range from the nearest robot drones.

She watched as Hikaru dove out of the air and swooped to the ground, picking up Ryo and soaring back into the air without any trouble. Hikaru’s face darkened on the screen as he frowned. “We don’t have a choice. All the citizens are in the Silver City at this point, so the pilots won’t have to worry about harming anyone. And besides, Meca One is our top priority. If we can take him out, we might be able to shut down all the drones.”

Akira sighed, letting out a long breath. “You’re right. Kouta,” she directed her focus to the third window on her screen, “I know you’re in charge of the workshop and reconstruction now, but…be careful, alright?”

“Will do, Akira,” Kouta nodded seriously. “I’ll be here if you need me. Until then, I’m going to sign off so you guys can focus. We’re all rooting for you guys here.”

His screen went dead and the four piece screen returned to its earlier three-split screen. Hikaru’s eye narrowed. “We’ve got to get moving.”

“I’ve got the coordinates locked in,” Ryo said, “and I’m sending it to your battle machines.”

Akira nodded as a map appeared on her screen. “Then let’s find Meca One.”

The others nodded and they all soared over the battle lines and into the mountains. Akira watched the ground go by below her. As the golden bridge disappeared, Akira narrowed her eyes. “Is that black gate the official entrance into drone territory?”

“You could call it that,” Hikaru said slowly. “The golden bridge was created from a Code Brick the robots got a hold of, and used it to connect their base to the Golden City. After we crushed them during a battle, they abandoned the base there, but it’s still menacing enough to keep most pilots out of the area.”

They were silent again as they flew on deep into the Iron Hills. Akira glanced down at her screen, biting her lip. “Guys, what if this is a trap?”

Ryo shook his head. “That’s our initial reaction to just about everything now. We’ve gotten quite good at calculating odds, though.”

“Honestly, Akira,” Hikaru said slowly. “We’ve put a lot of thought into this. We know what we’re doing.”

“I sure hope so.” She hurriedly brought her battle machine to a halt as Hikaru and Ryo suddenly stopped. “What is it? Is this where the base is?”

“We’re not in the right area,” Hikaru assured her. He hovered beside her, having set Ryo down in a clearing in the forest. “We’re just waiting here to meet with the others.”

“I can’t see anything.” Akira hovered at least fifty feet over the tree tops. It was practically the middle of nowhere. It seemed the whole place was just filled with mountains and trees.

“Don’t worry about it,” Hikaru said with a small smile. His gaze was distant, but he at least looked a little calmer than Akira. Akira felt as though her mind were going to explode from worry. What if not everyone had gotten into the city in time? What cities were being ransacked by drones at the moment? What if the Golden City was completely destroyed by the Striking Venoms right now? What if—.

“Hikaru! Ryo! Akira!”

Akira turned down to look at her screen, which split into four screens once again, a cheerful face appearing on the screen. With hair a mess and golden eyes wide and wild, the person looked ready to either break into song or beat a few robots to pulp.

“Ha-Ya-To!” Akira couldn’t help but smile. She glanced up and watched the Golden Guardian battle machine soar through the air for a few moments before landing in the clearing.

The red-head’s eyes practically sparkled. “Hey, AK! Haven’t blown your battle machine up yet?”

“No!” Akira grinned. “It’s good to see you, Ha-Ya-To.”

“Have to agree with you there, Akira,” A gruff voice said. The screen split into five and Takeshi’s face appeared in the small rectangle.

The dark-haired girl laughed for a moment. “Takeshi! How are you?”

“Fine. Not turned into a robot, thank the gods. I almost got freaking killed by Taiki, though! If that ox hadn’t lost his footing, I think my neck would be gone. I’m right underneath you on the ground, by the way.”

“You totally cheated,” Hitomi’s face appeared on the new sixth rectangle on the screen. Akira pressed her fingers on the glass, toggling the screen so Hikaru was in the center and four smaller faces were in the corners. She completely cut hers out. She didn’t need to see herself. “You took a train or something to get here. My Blazing Falcon is way faster than your Blade Titan.”

Takeshi rolled his eyes on screen. “Sure Hitomi, you’re just mad that I won the race.”

“Am not!”

“Are too!”

Akira didn’t even mind the squabbling. Just seeing her friends’ faces was enough to fill her with joy. “Hitomi, you alright?”

The Blazing Falcon appeared next to Akira’s Solar Flare. The dark-eyed girl could just make out her old roommate through the two blast shields. “Are you kidding? I just spent the last few days hacking into a billion speakers, getting attacked by a person who is probably four years my senior and at least forty pounds heavier than I am, and making sure to not disrupt the precious ‘technological balance’ of the Platinum City. I’m doing great!”

Akira let out a laugh. Her mouth hurt from smiling, but she didn’t care. This was just what she needed: the team, all together, and off to save the world. It felt so right to just be there among them, the greatest of the great, the Dream Team.

Hikaru’s face was just as joyful. “You guys are here!”

“Yeah, we’re here,” Takeshi answered with a slight smirk to his tone. “What did you expect?”

The leader shook his head, his stiff bangs barely following. “I’m so glad I can trust you guys to do what I ask you to do.”

“Why wouldn’t we?” Takeshi asked, a grin on his lips. “Come on, we’re the Dream Team! We’re practically a household name now. We have a reputation to uphold!”

“And we kind of got assigned to you,” Ha-Ya-to put in. “We’re obligated to do what you say.” His face burst into a grin. “We’re kidding, HK. We get you. Just be glad you’re assigned to us and not to some other crazy wackos.”

“Well, speaking of that…never mind, we no time for talk. You guys know where we’re going?”

“Nope!” Ha-Ya-To said, ever perky. “I’m hoping a candy shop, but I’ve learned not to get my hopes up, especially when we’re all together like this.”

Ryo’s head bent down, apparently calculating. “If we keep on heading straight west, we should meet up with the robot base in less than twenty minutes. We have to scale that mountain.” Akira followed his gaze and swallowed. The peak before them was massive. But she was with her friends. They knew what to do, right?