Sailor Moon 4200: What has gone before
Crystal Tokyo was destroyed in the year 3478. Civilisation fell; a dark age began. Now, the year 4200 is a time of renaissance, and the city of Third Tokyo is defended by a new generation of Senshi. Some of them are old faces, reborn yet again. Others are newcomers. But all of them are in trouble—because the enemy that annihilated Crystal Tokyo was never defeated. And it is waiting for them…
In recent chapters:
* The five Senshi are together at last, under the mentorship of Artemis, his great-granddaughter Bendis, and Itsuko. * After an accidental battle at an abandoned warehouse, the Senshi erroneously conclude that they are being opposed by the criminal Sankaku Clans. * Suzue, a member of a sect that worships Queen Serenity, continues to debate the issue with Itsuko; and the two begin to develop a tentative friendship. * Artemis is forced to leave the Olympus after an ‘S’ Division raid, and ends up living with Dhiti. * Number Thirteen starts to investigate her fellow members of the Serenity Council. * Beth makes peace with her friends, and Miyo begins a cautious reconciliation with her brother. * Hideo forms a “Senshi Watch” of young school children, dedicated to secretly observing the Senshi and trying to find out who they are. * After much discussion, Miyo and Dhiti finally reveal to Kin that they are Senshi. * During a battle at a local shopping mall, in which half the mall is demolished, Iku’s new powers as Sailor Mars are finally made clear. * The ‘S’ Division team realise that Itsuko is the former Hino Rei, and—believing that she is working with the Sankaku—are sent to arrest her. Itsuko flees the Olympus, and is rescued by Sadako. * And an unidentified girl is given a familiar brooch by a spectral figure resembling the dead Queen Serenity…
By Angus MacSpon
Sailor Moon 4200 Home Page
Based on “Sailor Moon” created by Naoko Takeuchi
The car moved at a steady pace through the streets of Third Tokyo. Once they were well away from the Olympus building, Sadako had slowed down to the speed limit. Now, she waited for her passenger to catch her breath before speaking.
“I told you I’d see you again before long,” she said.
Itsuko’s face was pale and sweating, but she managed a weak grin. “Yes, but somehow I didn’t picture…quite these circumstances.”
Sadako did not smile back. “No, neither did I,” she said. She sounded almost angry.
“Never mind.” She spared Itsuko a quick look, then turned her attention back to the road. “What about you? Are you all right?” she asked.
Itsuko drew a long, shuddering breath, and relaxed back in her seat. “Not too bad,” she said. “Sorry. It all came as…a shock.”
Sadako glanced at her again. “No. Seriously.”
“Really. I’m fine. I mean, they shot at me, but they didn’t hit me—” Itsuko caught her breath. Then, suddenly, she lashed out, punching the dashboard in front of her with all her strength. The glove compartment burst open, showering her with a collection of maps, tissues and other junk. She swore viciously, rubbing her fist, and pushed it all off onto the floor. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said venomously. “Of course I’m not all right! They know who I am! I can’t go back!”
Sadako nodded. Her eyes were back on the road.
“Damn them,” Itsuko swore. “It’s all gone, isn’t it? I can’t go back to the Olympus. They’ll be watching; they’d be on me in a flash. I can’t even use the same name any more.” She turned a burning look on Sadako. “And you have the nerve to ask if I’m all right? What the hell do you think?! I just lost my home—the place where I’ve lived for nearly sixty years—and everything I own. My livelihood. And my name. And all to a bunch of idiot men who thought I was playing with the bad boys!” Her voice had risen to a piercing roar. “Of course I’m not all right!”
Sadako only nodded again, her expression not changing. She drove on in silence. At last, Itsuko flung herself back in her seat. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
“It’s okay,” Sadako said. A moment later she added, “I’m sorry I was so long coming.”
“At least you were there,” Itsuko said bitterly. Glancing over at the other woman, she gave her a twisted grin. “You always did like to arrive at just the right moment.”
Sadako did not answer at once. At last she said, “No, that wasn’t it. I literally did not see this coming…until almost too late.”
“Oh.” Itsuko thought about this. Then, deliberately changing the subject, she said, “Where are we going?”
“Where would you like to go?”
Itsuko rubbed a hand across her eyes. “God, Setsuna, don’t go playing games, please. I can’t stand it right now.”
“No game this time.” The corners of Sadako’s mouth twitched slightly. “I can take you wherever you want. If…you need it, you’re welcome to stay with me for a while. Until you find your feet again.”
“I—I don’t know.” Itsuko leaned back, shading her eyes. “It’s…everything’s moving too fast.” She paused. “What I really want right now is a nice hot cup of tea.”
Unexpectedly, Sadako chuckled. “That, at least, I can offer you,” she said.
She signalled and turned left. The car began to take a more purposeful route; they passed out of the residential district they had been moving through and started to head consistently north-west.
“I wish Artemis would call in,” Itsuko said, half to herself. “Just to let me know he got out okay.”
Captain Hiiro stared around the office. “Well, that was about as botched an operation as I’ve ever seen,” he said coldly.
Kuroi, Aoiro, Mitsukai and Kitada looked back at him. None of them had anything to say.
Hiiro lifted a handkerchief and dabbed at his cheek, which was still bleeding. His face was covered with scratches and claw marks, and he was holding one eye half-closed. “At least,” he rasped, “we have something to show for it. If not what we were sent for.”
He glanced over at Itsuko’s desk, now set upright again after the struggle. A small form lay on it, wrapped firmly in the strands of a net. Through the mesh, a pair of eyes glared.
Artemis was staring at him, with a look that suggested that he would like to deal out more scratches…and worse.
“Good reaction there with the net gun, Ryo,” Hiiro said. Kuroi nodded without speaking. Hiiro crouched down to look the cat in the eyes. “Nothing you want to say?” he asked lightly. “About where she might have gone, for instance?”
Artemis did not reply. Hiiro sighed and straightened up, wincing at the pain the movement caused in his damaged eye. “Yeah, well, I wouldn’t know how to interrogate a cat anyway…and I’m sure as hell not about to try,” he muttered. Turning back to the others, he asked wearily, “Mitsukai, are you sure you didn’t get a look at the car? Or the driver?”
The gaunt woman shook her head. She could not meet his gaze. “I’m sorry,” she said in a low voice.
He sighed. “All right. Let’s get moving, then.” Addressing them all, he said, “Start combing this place. You know the drill: address books, comm numbers, records. Keep an eye open for anything that might give a hint where she’s gone. And make it fast, people; we don’t know if she’s coming back with friends. Kitada, you stay here; I have a job for you.”
As he spoke, he pulled out a pocket comm and touched a quick series of keys. “Meanwhile,” he finished in a flat tone, “I get to face the music.”
The others took the hint, and got busy. Kitada hovered nearby uncertainly, but Hiiro ignored him for now.
Into the comm he said, “Good morning, Colonel. Nice to talk to you. How have you been?” He had to hold the comm away from his ear for a moment. “Yes, and you, too. Sir, I have some bad news, and some…other news. Maybe good.”
Honesty made him add, “Probably not, though.”
Hiiro’s report filtered its way quickly up the chain of command. Colonel Shiro passed it, reluctantly, to his superior, who passed it on to hers, who passed it on to the head of ‘S’ Division. But the head of ‘S’ Division was also Number Three of the Serenity Council…and he passed it on to the chairman.
The chairman considered the news for some time. They had dispatched Opals to look for the fugitive car, naturally, but nobody expected them to find anything. In the meantime there was a more difficult question to consider.
The cat-search had at last borne fruit, if not quite the cat they had been expecting. The question was, did they still want moon cats at all?
They had, after all, begun the search back before any Senshi had appeared. Back then, the cats were the only option available. Now, they had much better alternatives.
He could have asked Twelve what to do. But he had been serving the Master’s will himself for a long time now; and the question was certainly easy enough. Was there anything to be gained by bringing Artemis in?
When he thought about what they were trying to do, the answer was just as easy. How could there not be?
He gave the order.
A car pulled out of the Olympus garage. Inside, Masao looked down for a moment at the cage on the seat next to him. From behind the bars, the cat stared back at him silently.
He glanced away hastily and returned his eyes to the road. A lot of things that had been happening lately made no sense. This, perhaps most of all.
To begin with, there was learning that Pappadopoulos Itsuko was actually Hino Rei. Masao had been a member of the Olympus gymnasium for a long time; he had even been in one of the group sessions that Itsuko led, a year or two ago. To think that his aerobics instructor was secretly one of Queen Serenity’s closest friends was…surreal.
Then they were ordered to arrest her, which made it worse. They were told that Hino Rei was a criminal. He had seen the evidence himself; he had even helped to gather some of it, and the conclusions were hard to deny. But it felt bad.
For a while he had hoped that there had been a mistake—some kind of incredible coincidence, that the woman they were investigating might not be Hino after all. But she had admitted it; she had actually admitted to being thousands of years old. And then she had pulled out what could only have been a henshin wand, and transformed into Sailor Mars.
Except that she hadn’t transformed.
Something, somewhere, was horribly wrong.
Then Hino escaped, with the help of…the cat. Artemis, it had to be Artemis; but Masao did not even want to think about that. Was he supposed to believe that Artemis was a Sankaku agent, too?
Well, when in doubt, follow orders. Captain Hiiro was a man Masao admired, and he could be counted on to know what to do. But even Hiiro had been thrown by the whole affair; you could see it in his eyes. He had recovered, and his orders had been clear enough, but still…he had his doubts. He, too, realised that the whole situation didn’t add up. It didn’t make sense.
What Masao was doing now should have made perfect sense. The cage, hastily brought in from the van, was safer than leaving the cat wrapped in netting; less chance of the prisoner choking during transport. And it made sense that Masao should be the one to take him, because the rest of the team had to search the apartment, quickly, and get as much evidence out as possible in case the rest of the Senshi arrived to help Hino. It even made sense that Masao should take Hino’s own car, using the keys from her desk drawer, because the van would be needed to transport the evidence.
The fact remained that he was transporting Artemis, one of the heroes of Crystal Tokyo, as a prisoner. And that made no sense at all.
“I’m sorry,” he said to the cat. “I don’t want to do this. Really.”
“Then why are you?” the cat asked.
The car swerved, almost hitting a lamppost before Masao got it under control again. He glanced down at the cat, then hastily back to the road.
“Um,” he said. “Sorry.”
Unbelievably, Artemis chuckled. “I used to get that a lot, actually,” he said. “Back in the old days.”
“In Crystal Tokyo?” Masao asked. He could not help himself.
“Oh, yes. People knew what to expect, but it still threw them.” He paused. “Funny thing, though. I might have made them nervous, but they never tried to arrest me for it.”
Masao shifted uncomfortably in the driver’s seat. “I know,” he said. “And I’m—”
“Sorry? Yes, you said. But you never answered me. If you don’t want to do this, why do it?”
“Because…because…” Masao trailed off. “I don’t know,” he said miserably. “Because of…her, I suppose. Hino-sama.”
“Ah.” There was gloomy satisfaction in Artemis’ voice. “Kitada-san, you do know that the idea that Itsu—that Rei is involved with the Sankaku is ridiculous, don’t you?”
“I—” Masao bit his lip. If Hiiro knew that he was talking about this with the cat, he would kill him. “I saw the evidence,” he said at last.
“You saw—!” Artemis broke off. “What evidence?”
Masao shook his head.
“Dammit,” the cat exploded, “this is not some two-bit thug you’re talking about! It’s Hino Rei! One of Queen Serenity’s own Senshi, and one of the greatest heroes in recorded history! What can possibly make you think that she would—”
“She was seen,” Masao whispered.
He pulled over to the side of the road so that he could look at the cat properly. “Seen,” he said through clenched teeth, “meeting with known Sankaku agents. Dealing with a known Sankaku business front. And using Sankaku counter-espionage techniques and equipment. Artemis-sama…there’s really no doubt about it.”
Artemis stared at him. “You can’t be serious.”
“It’s true.—I’m sorry.”
The cat began to pace furiously back and forth in the cage. “This has got to be some insane kind of mistake,” he said tightly. “The idea that Rei would be mixed up with—that she would even consider—it’s—” He let out a breath. “It’s ridiculous.”
Masao shook his head. “I wish I could believe that.”
“How?” Masao insisted. “How can you be so sure?”
“Because I know her, you fool!” Artemis roared. “I’ve known her for longer than you can imagine, I know her better than you can imagine, and I know you’re wrong!” He faced Masao, his eyes blazing, his fur bristling, for a moment that seemed to last forever. Then, slowly, he relaxed.
“And none of that matters,” he said softly, “because she’s already been tried and condemned. Isn’t that right?”
“Oh? Haven’t you already made up your own mind? Isn’t that what you’ve been telling me?”
“So what will it be? Some sham of a trial? A media circus, of course; the great Hino Rei brought low! Or perhaps that might be inconvenient. Far better to just lock her up and throw away the key.”
“No,” said Masao, almost pleading. “I—I don’t—”
“And what about me? I suppose I’m guilty by association? Not that I’ll get a trial, of course. I’m just a cat. I’ll probably just get locked away in some—” Artemis paused, and looked around deliberately. “Cage.”
Masao’s mouth opened and closed several times. He groped for words—for a way to say, no, that wasn’t what he wanted, that he would give anything to avoid it. But at the same time, he knew that it was exactly what he was supposed to do…and what he was doing right now. He was poised on the knife-edge, and there seemed no way to escape.
Then he looked again at Artemis and saw, to his wonder, that the cat understood.
“It’s hard to know what to believe, isn’t it?” Artemis said gently.
“You’re afraid that your heroes have feet of clay.”
Masao nodded again.
“I’ve got news for you. There was never a hero who didn’t, not even the best of them. But they were heroes anyway, Kitada-san, in spite of their flaws. Maybe even because of them.
“Being true to their hearts, Kitada-san, that’s what made them heroes. It sounds trite, clichéd, I know; but that’s the long and the short of it. That’s what makes a real hero: someone who stands true. No matter what.”
The white cat fell silent. The two remained looking at each other for some time. Then, at last, Masao nodded.
“I understand,” he said.
He had told himself that he was simply obeying orders; that he had no choice. But the truth was, the choice had never left him. And once he realised that one simple fact, the decision was so easy to make.
In the end, it simply did not matter what Hino might or might not have done…because Hino was not the one being judged. Right here, right now, that was not Hino Rei, but Artemis…and Masao, too.
It made sense. And knowing that, he made his decision.
He reached past the cage and opened the car passenger door. Then, carefully, he unhooked the cage door and pulled it up. Artemis stepped gingerly out onto the seat.
The cat gave Masao a quizzical look. “Will you be all right?”
Masao smiled. “Oh, yes,” he said. “There’s just one thing I have to do, and then it’ll be fine.”
Artemis stared at him for a long moment. “We all make our choices, don’t we?” he said cryptically. “And stand by them.” He turned to go, then hesitated and looked back at Masao one last time. “Tell me…have you ever met a woman wearing dark blue, with a glowing jewel in her forehead?” he asked.
“What? No. Why, who is she?”
“Hmph. Nobody…safe. Stay away from her, if you can. Good luck.”
In another moment, the cat had leaped out the door, and was moving quickly away down the street. Masao watched him go for a moment. He felt…warm. At peace.
But there was one more thing left to do.
He reached over and pulled the car door closed, leaving it half-latched. Then, with some effort, he leaned on the cage in the passenger seat, putting his full weight against it. It buckled quite satisfactorily. He studied it for a moment, and nodded.
Then he took his seat again, and made sure that his safety belt was securely fastened. He started the engine, put the car in gear, and started forward at a brisk pace. The road ahead was long and straight; for the moment, it was empty of traffic.
He took a deep breath and accelerated to full speed. As he passed through an intersection, he threw the steering bar to the left, hard. At the same time, he stood on the brakes.
The car skidded nicely. The last thing he saw was a solid stone wall, coming toward him horribly fast.
Sadako pulled up outside a little cafe overlooking the harbour. They went inside and ordered tea. As they sat down, Itsuko saw that they had the place almost to themselves.
They sat without speaking for a few minutes. The tea was not particularly good; but it was hot, and it was what Itsuko needed. She could feel herself relaxing as she drank.
After a little Sadako said quietly, “I suppose you have questions.”
Itsuko gave her a wry smile. “Where do I start?”
Sadako took another sip from her cup. Her cool red eyes studied Itsuko in silence. Then she said, “Wherever you please. At this point, there is…very little I will not answer.”
“You—what?” Itsuko stared. “Why?”
“I do not keep secrets without reason. You should know that, Rei.” Itsuko frowned at the name, and Sadako added, “Itsuko, then. Or would you prefer another name, now?”
“…Never mind that. Go on.”
“Very well. The last time we met, you accused me of never speaking clearly. Then you told me that, after seven hundred years on your own, you thought perhaps you could understand my point of view.”
“And you told me to wait twenty times as long—”
“Yes.” For a moment Sadako’s eyes narrowed testily. “I was speaking metaphorically, as I think you understood. But that is beside the point. I take the long view, as I must. Sometimes, often, to say too much too early would be to prevent the end we are working for.”
“The end justifies the means? Is that it?”
“Justifies? Hardly. The means brings about the end—as always.” She shook her head, and there was something like regret in her eyes. “I leave justifications to…those who have a little idealism left.”
Itsuko looked at her steadily. “Don’t underestimate yourself.”
“…Thank you.” The Senshi of Pluto glanced away for a moment. “In any case, the current situation is different. The ends…are no longer visible to me. My sight is running out.”
“Running—” Itsuko froze. “What do you mean?”
Sadako quietly refilled her cup from the pot. “Just what I said,” she replied. “My perception of the timelines is clouded, and becoming more so. Every day, I can see less. We are approaching some kind of crisis point, and I cannot see the way forward.”
For a minute, Itsuko could only stare at her. “That…doesn’t sound good.”
“It is very much like going blind,” Sadako said tersely.
“No, I meant—oh.” Itsuko felt herself flush. “I’m sorry.”
“I know what you meant. Again, it is beside the point.” Sadako sipped her tea, made a face, and said, “Let’s go outside.”
Itsuko tried her own tea, found it cold, and stood up. They paid, left the cafeteria and headed down toward the waterfront. The road ran around the side of a hill; to their left, bordered by a low stone wall, a steep bank dropped down to the docks and wharves below. The two women paused, leaning on the wall and looking out across Tokyo Bay.
It was half past eleven. Traffic was light, and there were few people around. A pleasant breeze was blowing in from the water.
“I can still see some things,” said Sadako at length. “Less than before, though, and it grows more difficult. I held off your…encounter this morning for as long as I could, but in the end I could not prevent it.”
Itsuko gave her a startled look. “You held—” She broke off. “How?” she asked.
“‘S’ Division has been investigating the Olympus building for some time. I’m really not sure why. But there was an excellent chance that they’d stumble onto your identity sooner or later, so I planted a false computer trail about the building’s ownership. It kept them sidetracked for a while.”
“Well, thanks,” Itsuko said, suddenly angry. “I suppose your hacking is what made them think I was Sankaku at all!”
“No. Actually, I believe they started to suspect that when they learned that you’d called in Okuda Jiro.”
“Jiro! What does Jiro have to do with this?”
“Itsuko,” said Sadako patiently. “Okuda Jiro is a Sankaku member.”
“…Oh.” Itsuko’s eyes widened. She had known that Jiro was a crook, but she had certainly never suspected this. It was like learning that someone she thought was a housebreaker was really a Mafia don. She fell silent, working out the implications.
“Yes. That much, I did manage to learn. But I could not cover up for you forever. I knew you’d be found out eventually, but I could not see the details of how. I didn’t even find out about Jiro until three days ago. I did what I could to give you more time—I erased the recordings they’d made of you and the building, for example. But I still don’t know what finally brought them down on you. And I did not see them coming for you this morning until almost too late.”
Itsuko did not speak for a long time. At last she said, “I’ve been rather stupid.”
“Very much so,” Sadako agreed.
Itsuko started to bristle; then, slowly, she made herself relax. Under Sadako’s steady gaze, she worked it all through: the full, damning history of her folly. The number of times she had ignored evidence that she was being watched—the cameras; the bugs; even the comm call from Ochiyo, right back at the beginning, to say that someone was asking questions about her cat poster. The madness of allowing Artemis to return to the Olympus, when she already suspected that he was being hunted. Was there any hint that she had not missed?
“I thought I was being so careful,” she said bitterly. “The truth is, I didn’t want to see. Because seeing would mean that I’d have to leave—just when I’d finally found a home again, after so long.”
“It is difficult,” Sadako admitted. There was an odd note in her voice, so fleeting that Itsuko almost missed it. Then, suddenly, she wondered: how often had Sadako faced the same situation herself?
“Why didn’t you warn me?” she asked, unsure which question she was asking: about the mistakes she had made; or the other, deeper pain, of living on while others died; of never daring to stay in one place for too long; of always having to stand apart.
“Would you have listened?”
“Maybe. I—” She shook her head, realising. “No, I suppose not. I’d just have made other mistakes, wouldn’t I? I didn’t want to know.”
Sadako did not answer. Itsuko straightened up and started to walk again, and after a few moments the older woman followed her.
“You never did say why you’re suddenly willing to tell me everything,” Itsuko said at last.
Sadako gave a sudden, dry laugh. “Didn’t I? I thought that’s what we’ve been talking about. You told me you could understand, Itsuko, and maybe you’re right after all.” She drew a long breath. “We are nearing the singularity—the pivot on which the future turns—and I cannot see what must occur.”
“But why not?”
“I’m not sure.” Sadako made a face. “No, that’s not entirely true. I suspect that our enemy is responsible, but I cannot see the details. And there are other possibilities. I could only be certain by using the Time Gate, and that is—”
“Sealed. You said.”
“Yes. Itsuko, don’t you see? The very last future event I’ve seen is…not so far away now. After that, I am blind. And if I cannot see the way we must follow, then—” She made a vague, frustrated gesture. “There is only judgement to rely on. And the circumstances do not permit ego; I must admit that yours is as likely to be correct as mine.”
She turned cool, crimson eyes on Itsuko. “Now do you understand? I will tell you what you want to know…and the price is that you, too, must bear the burden of the future.” With a faint, mocking smile, she added, “Be careful what you ask for.”
Artemis had not gone far when he heard the long screeching sound, and the sharp crunch of impact. He stopped and pricked up his ears automatically. An instant later, he realised what must have happened.
He turned and hurried back up the road, moving as fast as he could. Even so, it took him several minutes to catch up with the car.
By the time he arrived, a small crowd were already standing around, looking at the wreck and talking in quick, low voices. None of them were the heroic type, it seemed. He snaked his way past them and approached the car cautiously.
A quick sniff of the air, before he got too near. An electric car had no fuel to leak, of course, so there was no danger of fire, but there were other things scent could tell him. He might be able to smell ozone from a sparking battery, for example. Or human body fluids.
The windscreen and the driver’s-side window had shattered. He jumped up on the bonnet and looked inside. Kitada was slumped forward in his seat, unconscious. There was blood on his face and shirt, but he was breathing. Artemis noticed that his seat belt was fastened. It had not been, when the man had freed him.
“Brave soul,” he whispered. Had Kitada been trying to manufacture an excuse? Or to kill himself? Artemis might never know.
Far off, a siren began to wail. The voices of the crowd grew louder and more excited. The cat looked around, then remembered where he was. He jumped down from the car and hurried away. Nobody got in his way. Why would they?
He had only gone a little distance when he remembered that he still did not know if Itsuko had made it away safely. He started to look around for a concealed spot so that he could call her.
Itsuko took a deep breath. She was, she realised, about to cross a line. Perhaps a better metaphor would be jumping headlong into a chasm, with no idea of the depth or whether there was anything to break her fall. And yet, turning back would be…
“All right,” she said. “First question. Why did you disappear like that in Crystal Tokyo, right when things started going bad?”
Right when Princess Usagi died, she did not say. Or perhaps, Right when we needed you.
Sadako only lifted an eyebrow. “Now you’ve disappointed me,” she said. “You should have worked that out for yourself, long ago.”
“I should—? No; never mind. Just answer the question, okay?”
“Itsuko,” Sadako said patiently. “What was the enemy’s great power? What was it that made it so dangerous?”
“Well—those monsters, the crystites. Ami-chan worked out that it could control anything crystal.”
“Indeed. Tell me, then: perhaps you remember my staff?”
Itsuko glared. “What is this, twenty questions? Of course I remember it. Big thing, shaped like a key.”
“And at the top of the staff?”
“Eh? There was that big, what was it, a garnet—oh.”
“Oh,” repeated Sadako sarcastically. “Yes. A crystal. And if I had stayed, if the enemy had gained control over my staff, then…do you really think it wise to give it access to the Gates of Time?”
Itsuko snorted. “You’re right, dammit. I should have worked that out for myself. How could I—wait a minute.” She gave Sadako a sharp look. “You disappeared right before the enemy attacked. As if you knew what was going to happen.”
Sadako’s expression did not change at all, but she did not answer for a long time. At last she said, very quietly, “Yes.”
“And you didn’t say anything.”
Another long pause. Then Sadako said, “There was no time, Itsuko; there was simply no time. It had been so long—by the time I remembered, realised what was happening…it was too late. The only chance I had was to escape, and even that much was…a close call.”
“But you do know what caused the disaster.”
“And who the enemy is.”
Itsuko hesitated for a moment, almost afraid of what she was about to hear. But there was no going back; not now. She had a princess to avenge, and a queen.
“Tell me,” she said.
Sadako gave her a weary look. “I’ll tell you if you insist. But think carefully before you ask, Itsuko. This is something you must not share with the other Senshi.”
“Why not—? No; never mind.” Itsuko bit her lip for a moment. Then her eyes hardened. Serenity. Usagi-chan. “Tell me,” she repeated.
And Sadako told her. The whole, long, damnable story.
Later, they sat on a wooden bench, looking across a narrow strip of water toward the marina. It was nearly lunch-time, and a few early leavers were puttering about in their boats. Gulls wheeled and cried overhead. The breeze had picked up a little.
“So,” said Itsuko.
Sadako said, “Yes.” She did not look at Itsuko.
“And the others can’t be told because—”
“They would want to attack. You know they would. No matter what we told them, sooner or later they would attack the enemy directly…and they would not stand the slightest chance.”
“I suppose so.” Itsuko clenched her fists. “I want to attack, myself. Only I’m not sure who: the enemy, or…you.”
Sadako shrugged. “It’s been said before,” she admitted.
“I wish I’d kept my mouth shut, now. I wish you hadn’t told me.”
“Knowing too much is never a comfort.” A grim smile. “Just ask Cassandra.”
“…Never mind.” She gave Itsuko a long, cool look. “You know the stakes now, at least. You know what I’ve been working toward. I trust you’ll tell me if you see any possibilities I may have overlooked.”
Itsuko returned her look, fire for ice. “You hate it, don’t you? Having to…open up like this.” A moment later she added, “Having to ask for help.”
Something in the other woman’s eyes hardened. “You would not be my first choice of confidante, true,” Sadako said. “If circumstances were otherwise.”
“Yeah. ‘If.’ You’re working with a lot of ‘if’s, Setsuna-chan.”
Itsuko held her gaze for a moment longer; then, satisfied that she had finally gotten under Sadako’s skin, she let herself back off. “It’s all so risky,” she said, her voice softer, more thoughtful. “The only chance we have to win—”
“Is to do exactly what they want us to do,” Sadako agreed. “Exactly what they need in order for them to win. I’m not unaware of the irony. But—” she sighed. “I cannot see another way. I was hoping that you could.”
“You must be joking. You unload all this on me, then ask me what you’ve missed? Give me some time to take it all in, first!”
“Hm.” The Senshi of Time’s lips quirked in a faint smile. “I suppose so. A few days, perhaps?”
“At least.” Itsuko’s eyes grew distant. “How much more can you actually see, anyway?”
Sadako frowned. “I’m not sure of the exact timeframes. The last thing is…a battle of some kind. You and I are both there, but the details are blurred. It may be a few days away, or a week or two; I can’t be sure. Not long.”
“Sailor Moon?” Itsuko asked, trying to hide the sudden eagerness in her voice.
“She is there.” Sadako gave her a quick glance. “And I can’t see her face. I’m sorry, Itsuko.”
“I think I have an idea, at least, of how there can be a moon princess in this time, if that helps.”
“Mm. I’ve had a thought on that, myself. Something Suzue-san said to me the other day. But the idea…raises some interesting metaphysical questions.”
“Oh? Do you—”
Sadako broke off as Itsuko’s communicator beeped. Itsuko looked down, startled, then lifted it up. “Hello?” she said. “Artemis, is that you?”
“How’d you know?” the cat’s voice said ironically. “Itsuko, are you okay? You made it out all right?”
“Me? Yes, Setsuna-chan picked me up. I’d been worried about you.”
There was no reply for a moment. Then, “Setsuna? Huh. I suppose that figures.”
Sadako raised one eyebrow, and gave a rather satisfied smile.
“I’m okay,” the cat continued. “Had a little trouble, but—well, that’s over now. I’ll tell you about it later. Itsuko…what are you going to do? It would be dangerous to go back to the Olympus—”
Itsuko cut him off, her face darkening. “I know,” she said. “Don’t worry about it. I have other…alternatives.”
“Are you sure—?”
“Yes,” she snapped. “Miyo may not like it much, but—” She broke off suddenly. “Oh, no.”
“Artemis, I’ll talk to you later. I have to go now.” She stabbed at the communicator, shutting it off before he could reply. Immediately, she pressed another button.
“What is it?” asked Sadako.
“Miyo,” she said tersely. “If those bastards knew who I am, they’ve probably worked out who she is too. I’ve got to warn her!”
It was still a little before noon, and Miyo was in class when her communicator beeped. Everyone turned to stare at her. The teacher’s glare could have melted cold steel.
She made a feeble excuse and left the classroom, her face crimson. Dhiti and Kin gave her knowing smiles as she went, and she hoped, just for a moment, that it was another monster attack so that Dhiti would have to think of an excuse too.
The trouble was, Dhiti would manage without blinking an eye. Half the teachers had given up listening to the girl anyway.
Out in the corridor, she ducked quickly into a quiet alcove and tapped her communicator. To her surprise, Itsuko was the caller.
“What is it?” she asked. “An attack?”
“No,” Itsuko said. “Miyo, you’re in school?” Miyo nodded, startled. “Get out of there. Now.”
Bewildered, Miyo stepped out of her alcove and started down the corridor toward the stairs. As she went, she said, “Itsuko-chan, what—”
“Just listen!” the white-haired woman insisted. “Keep your eyes open. If anyone tries to stop you, be ready to run.”
“Itsuko, what’s wrong?” Seriously worried now, Miyo began to move faster. On the tiny communicator screen, she could just see someone else over Itsuko’s shoulder. Who?
“They found me, Miyo. They tried to arrest me. A team from ‘S’ Division…no, never mind, I’ll explain later. Miyo, they knew who I am. If they know about me, they might know about you, too! You’ve got to get out of there!”
“‘S’ Division?” That made no sense. “They tried to arrest you?”
“They had some kind of crazy story—it doesn’t matter now. Look, concentrate on getting clear, okay?” Miyo caught another glimpse of the person behind Itsuko and realised, startled, that it was Setsuna. So she was still alive.
“Don’t you think you’re overreacting?” she asked. In truth, Itsuko sounded on the point of panic; but it seemed like a bad idea to say so. She kept moving at a brisk pace, down the stairs and then out of the building.
“Miyo…don’t you see?” It was hard to make out on the tiny screen, but she thought Itsuko looked apologetic. “I’m on the run. I have to leave the Olympus. And that means you can’t stay there either—especially not if they know you’re Jupiter.
“I’m sorry, Miyo; I really am. But I have to go…and you’re going to have to come with me.”
“The address you gave her,” said Sadako a few minutes later. They were back in her car, driving methodically south through a maze of suburban streets. “You do have a place to go, then?”
“What?” said Itsuko, distracted. “Oh. Yes. I have a bolt-hole; had it for years. I learned that a long time ago.” She made a face. “I suppose you do the same, right?”
Sadako smiled cryptically, but did not reply.
“Yeah. Well, it’s not much; just a run-down old house. And it’s not really ready, and the cover ID is pretty thin…but at least I have somewhere to sleep.”
“You’d be welcome to stay with me until you can get your feet on the ground, if you wish,” Sadako told her quietly.
“I—” Itsuko shot her a quick look. “Thanks, but I don’t think it’s necessary. What I’ve got should hold up.” With a sigh, she added, “At least for a little while.”
“As you like.”
Itsuko glanced at her again. There was a ghost of a smile on her lips as she said, “Anyway, I don’t think you really want me there—any more than I want to go. We’re not exactly the most…compatible of personalities, are we?”
Sadako raised one eyebrow. “If you say so,” she murmured.
“And that’s exactly what I’m talking about!” Itsuko snapped. “Damn it, if I did try staying with you—within a week, I swear, I’d be stark raving mad, or trying to kill you. Or both.”
Unexpectedly, the Senshi of Time laughed, a low, throaty chuckle. “It’s a talent I have,” Setsuna said.
“It’s a wall, you mean,” Itsuko retorted. “And you never let it down, do you? You always have to keep your damned distance. When was the last time you actually let anyone in? Was it Haruka and Michiru? Or Hotaru?”
The silence that met her remark was shattering, and finally she realised what she had said. “Oh,” she whispered. “I—I’m sorry…”
“There was also,” Sadako said coldly, “a queen.”
“I—” She searched for words. “I know,” she said at last, in a low voice. “We all let her in, didn’t we?” Unbidden, something Suzue had said came back to her—For more than two thousand years now…—and she winced.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated.
“It doesn’t matter.” Sadako’s face remained set in stone. “There can be little you could say to me that I have not heard many, many times before.”
“And the wall goes up again,” Itsuko said softly. “Setsuna-chan…Sadako…Don’t you ever just get tired of it? Of shutting yourself away from everyone? Always being on the outside?”
“Itsuko. Rei.” For a moment she thought Sadako was mocking her; but for a moment, there was a softer, thoughtful look in those red eyes. “You of all people know how many reasons there can be to hold yourself apart.”
“But you didn’t always, did you? In Crystal Tokyo, you were relaxed, friendly…happy. I still remember how you helped me, that time.”
“Mm.” Sadako’s lips quirked briefly; but then she looked away, her eyes darkening once more. “And yet it all ended. Again.”
“It didn’t end,” Itsuko said fiercely. “It’s not over. Not yet.”
“No?” They drove in silence, each alone in her thoughts for a little. At last Sadako sighed and said, “Perhaps you’re right. Letting go…can be difficult. Of ideas, as well as other things.”
“Just remember that we’re all here. We’ll be your friends…if you’ll let us.”
“I’ll remember.” The green-haired woman hesitated, then said, “I may need the help, to tell the truth. Not now, but…sometime in the future.”
Itsuko looked at her quickly. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “You mean, with losing your…your foresight?”
“Not that. Well, perhaps that, too.” Sadako frowned, chewing her lip briefly. It was as uncertain as Itsuko had ever seen her. At last she said, “Someone—or something—is hunting me.”
“Hunting!” Itsuko stared. “Who?”
“I have no idea; not who, or why. Just, every now and then, a glimpse, as if through a darkened window, of a net, slowing weaving itself around me.” She shivered suddenly. “There’s something insidious…almost obsessive about it. It’s quite unnerving.”
“A net…” Itsuko understood the reference to a darkened window, all too well. Her own glimpses of the future, in the fire or in dreams, could be every bit as elusive.
“Yes. The hunter is being quite clever, actually. He is surrounding himself with, well, with me. I see a recurring image of a room full of pictures. Images, memories, even dreams…every kind of psychic cue; and there’s just enough of a snatch of talent there to bind it all together. He is building a web of causality that, in the end, may well draw me to him. And when that happens…” Sadako shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“You said ‘he’?”
“I could be mistaken; but it has that feel to it, yes.”
“I could look in the fire for you, if you want,” Itsuko offered. “See if I can make out any—Oh, no.”
Itsuko did not answer. Instead she began to swear, violently, profanely and at great length. Her eyes blazed; the air about her almost seemed to smoulder. “Damn them,” she finished at last. “Oh, damn them, those misbegotten pismires!”
“What is it?” repeated Sadako patiently.
“The sacred fire!” Itsuko cried out. “Damn them all, they’ve made me lose the sacred fire!”
Artemis checked that nobody was watching and leaped nimbly down out of his tree. He glanced around to orient himself, pondered for a moment, and then headed toward Dhiti’s house.
The sky was bright and clear, and the pavement was hot beneath his paws. The street was nearly empty of traffic. None of it really registered. Instead, as he trotted along, he became lost in thought.
Itsuko was going to have to move. There could be no doubt about that. He wondered, though, if she had seen all the implications yet. He wanted to discuss it with her, but she had sounded quite agitated when she’d cut him off.
For a start, if she left the Olympus, Miyo would have to go with her. Artemis had no idea why ‘S’ Division thought that Itsuko had been dealing with the Sankaku—unless the attempted kidnapping of Iku last week was related—but it was a sure bet that they’d guess Miyo was a Senshi. They might or might not connect her with the Sankaku as well. It hardly mattered; with Itsuko gone, Miyo could scarcely stay on at the Olympus.
Having to move was going to cause problems, though. Itsuko would probably have to take a new alias. That was nothing unfamiliar; since the re-founding of Tokyo he’d known her as Izumi, Yuko and Junko. But would Miyo need a new name, too? It would make it hard for her to see her friends again—and Artemis was beginning to realise how big a blow that would be to both her and Dhiti. However, if ‘S’ Division really did start hunting Miyo, they would be certain to watch her friends; and that put Dhiti’s identity as Mercury at risk as well.
Damn it all, was there anything that wasn’t going to be turned upside down by this? The whole ability of the Senshi team to work together could be on the line!
If only he had a better idea of what ‘S’ Division were planning.
And then, suddenly, he remembered the van.
That blasted van, the one that had been parked behind the Olympus. The van that Bendis had said was full of computer gear, that sounded like a mobile base of some kind. He had seen it, just an hour or two ago! The ‘S’ Division agents had been climbing out of it, on their way in to arrest Itsuko.
He knew where it was parked.
He started to run.
The van was gone.
The street where it had been parked was empty. Artemis approached the spot and sniffed it, to no avail. He stood there for some time, disappointment sharp in his mind. He had been counting on the van; he had hoped to learn so much—
An odd thought came to him. He considered it for a little, and then decided to take a calculated risk.
He headed back to the Olympus. The building was only a few blocks away; just a minute or two to a cat. And there, sure enough, was the van—parked exactly where it had been previously, in the alley behind the building. He stared at it, suddenly furious. The gall of them!
The doors and windows were all closed. He circled the van a few times, pondering the situation, burning to get inside; even, for a moment, considering taking human shape to do it. Then a movement caught his eye. Hastily he scrambled up into a recessed window ledge, just above the van, to watch.
A woman came down the alley, a large cardboard box in her arms. He recognised her after a second: the pale, skinny one who had been with the other ‘S’ Division agents. She put the box down to unlock the van, then loaded the box in the rear. Artemis saw that there were a number of other boxes in there already.
They were stripping Itsuko’s offices, he realised. Taking all her papers…probably taking everything they could find. Just in case there was something there that could lead them to the big bad Sankaku agent.
The woman started to close the rear door again, then paused as a man started to follow her down the alley. The newcomer was carrying three boxes at once, and he was having a tough time balancing them.
Typical male, Artemis thought, not unaware of the irony.
The top box slipped. The man tried frantically to recover, but without success. The box hit the ground and burst open, spilling out a pile of folders and loose papers. They were caught by the breeze immediately, and began to flutter across the road. The woman sprinted to help.
Artemis seized his chance. While they were busy he sprang down from the ledge, landing lightly on the van’s rear step and ducking inside before they looked up. He glanced around hastily for somewhere to hide, then squeezed underneath a low shelf.
Most people not familiar with cats would be surprised at how small a space one of them can fit into.
He lay there, taking quick, shallow breaths, and waited. Before long he heard the man and the woman finish picking up the spilled documents and load them into the van. Other footsteps approached. He heard voices outside, too muffled to make out. The van’s front doors opened; people climbed in.
The van doors closed, and the engine hummed to life. They started to move.
Artemis wondered if he had made a big mistake.
The car moved on in silence for some time. After a little Sadako said cautiously, “Forgive me if I’m being ignorant. You can’t just light another fire?”
“And damn you as well,” Itsuko hissed. “You should know better. That flame has been burning for over two thousand years, and you think it can be replaced?”
“That’s my life back there!”
Sadako glared back at her. “What would you have me do, then?” she asked coldly. “Take you back to fight them all over again? You could not win unless I transformed to help you, and I won’t do that.”
“And why not? If you—” Itsuko stopped suddenly. Her eyes widened. “You—you can still transform?”
“I…thought you were like me. I thought—” She clenched her fists, her face twisted into a mask of self-loathing. “Oh, gods, gods, is everything I thought wrong?”
“Itsuko.” Sadako’s voice held nothing but sympathy, the growing anger of moments before forgotten. “I’m sorry, truly. But you have to let it go. There’s no going back.”
“Easy for you to say. Two thousand years, Setsuna-chan! Could you just walk away from that?” Then Itsuko snorted. “What am I saying? You probably have, haven’t you?”
“Once or twice.” There was a hard glint in the woman’s eye; but she only went on, “Let me repeat: is this so very important? I realise how long you’ve tended that flame, and just how much of an emotional investment you have in it.” Itsuko tried to interrupt, but Sadako went on. “All the same, surely fire is fire. Is it worth your life? Would it be so…inadequate for you to simply light a new one?”
“Oh, Setsuna-chan.” Itsuko tried to muster her scattered concentration. It felt as if she were talking to Suzue again. She took a deep breath and managed to speak calmly. “All right. Ignore the question of the kami of the flame. It’s an important point; but ignore it for now. Instead, consider this. You must know how much of religious ritual is symbolic: a way to centre the mind and focus the spirit. Prayers; chanting; the sound of the bells; the temple building itself; all of them are symbols to concentrate the mind.”
Sadako frowned. “All right. Then—”
“Well, Setsuna-chan,” Itsuko interrupted, “a flame that has been burning for over two thousand years is a very powerful symbol.”
For a moment, there was only silence.
“I…see.” With an odd, almost disappointed look, Sadako said, “Is that it, then? You need to get it back as a focus for your psychic vision?”
Itsuko sighed. “No, of course not. I need to get it back out of respect for the kami. I need to get it back because I believe, even if you don’t.” Her voice had begun to rise. “And I need to get it back because my grandfather and his forefathers before him have been tending that flame for generations; and whether the temple itself is gone or not, still I am the last priestess of the Hikawa Shrine and I will not fail in my duty!”
There was a long silence. It was broken by the sound of clapping.
Itsuko looked around at Sadako, surprised, to see the other woman putting her hands back on the steering bar. “Bravo,” Sadako said softly.
She felt herself flush. “What—”
“You had me worried, Itsuko-chan, with your talk of symbols and focus. Do you think I don’t know what faith means? Do you think I don’t know what it means to hold to one’s duty?”
“I—” Itsuko had to look away. “Of course not.”
“Of course not,” Sadako repeated ironically. “But I’m glad that you remember.” She shook her head slowly. “I truly had not realised that the fire meant so much to you. Yet at the same time—” She paused, and her voice became a little wistful. “It is…oddly comforting.”
They drove in silence for a minute. Then Itsuko said, in a quiet, reflective tone, “It did go out, a couple of times. When I was young. I remember Grandpa saying it was a bad omen…I always swore to myself that I’d never let it happen again, no matter what. And since then…”
Sadako said, “How long do you have? Before it burns out?”
Itsuko glanced at her quickly. She muttered something inaudible.
“Excuse me? I didn’t quite catch that.”
“I said it won’t burn out, okay?” Itsuko snapped. “Damn it…how do you think I managed to keep a fire burning in a gymnasium without anyone noticing the smoke?”
“Eh?” Sadako’s eyes widened. “You don’t mean—”
“It’s gas, all right? It’s a gas fire. Go ahead and laugh.”
Sadako’s face twitched, but she did not laugh…quite. “How very traditional,” she murmured.
“Oh, shut up. I told you the importance was symbolic, didn’t I? And flame is flame.” Itsuko could feel her face burning.
“And the kami?”
“Hasn’t complained to me. Look, can we change the damn subject?”
Again, the car moved in silence for a while. At last Itsuko said, “You must think I’m an idiot.”
Sadako chuckled. “I think you’re human. That’s not a bad thing to be, you know.”
“So I’ve been told.” A moment later, Itsuko went on, “I still remember, you know. How you helped me before, with the—you know.”
“Mm. That was a long time ago.”
Back in the founding days of Crystal Tokyo, it had been. The Great Ice had swallowed the world for centuries, and the Hikawa Shrine had not escaped. The sacred fire had been quenched, the long tradition broken at last. Until, not long after the ending of the Ice, Rei had gone to Setsuna and asked an enormous favour; and, for a wonder, the Senshi of Time had agreed. They picked a moment when they would not be disturbed, stepped into the past, and brought back a firepot—and the sacred fire burned once more.
Had the tradition been broken, then, or merely interrupted? Reason said one thing; faith, another. But the fire that burned in Crystal Tokyo was unquestionably the same that had burned in Rei’s youth, a thousand years before. Paradox or no, it was enough.
Itsuko smiled at the memory. “I was always a little surprised that you said yes,” she admitted.
With a sigh, Sadako said, “You would have been unhappy without it.”
Itsuko blinked. “What?”
“And if you were unhappy, Queen Serenity would have been unhappy.”
“Wait a minute. You mean the queen—”
“The queen,” Sadako said heavily, “suggested to me that she did not want you to be unhappy. All right?”
For a long time, Itsuko did not reply. “I never knew,” she said at last.
“You were not supposed to.”
“I—” She could not think what to say. “Thank you.”
“It’s okay.” The car slowed as Sadako looked over at her. “They won’t keep watching the building forever, Itsuko-chan. You have time. We’ll find a way to get the fire back. All right?”
“I know.” Itsuko made a brief, impatient gesture. “I just wish…”
“If I were to take you back there now, we would probably have to fight. But if I do that—if I fight them for you as Sailor Pluto—it will bring the Senshi into direct, active conflict with the security forces of Third Tokyo. It will be a declaration of war against the government. Do you really think that would be wise?”
“I…no. Of course not.”
After a moment Itsuko added, “Forgive me if I can’t be quite as detached about it as you.”
The ‘S’ Division van hummed its way through the streets of Third Tokyo. Inside, wedged under a low set of shelves, Artemis felt every bump in the road that they passed over.
It was hard to breathe, his spine was killing him, he needed to pee, and the damned agents weren’t even talking much. So far, his brilliant idea had been a total bust. He wondered how much more of this he could stand.
For at least the twentieth time, he tried to stretch a little without making any noise. Why couldn’t the shelves have been a little higher? Half a centimetre would have been enough. Didn’t anyone design their vans with cats in mind?
I sound like Bendis, he thought giddily.
The van rounded a corner a little too fast, and the tyres squealed in protest. “Slow down,” said a man’s voice from the front. “There’s no rush. Not any more.”
Artemis recognised the voices. He had heard them all earlier, while lying wrapped up in that damned net.
“That’s not what you said before,” came a second voice. Aoiro, the blond, lantern-jawed one.
“We’re well away from the building,” said the first voice, Captain Hiiro. “Even if Pappa-san comes back with her friends, she’s too late.”
Under his shelf, Artemis blinked. Pappa-san?! He tried to imagine Itsuko’s face if she heard them calling her that. Even in his current situation, the idea went a long way toward cheering him up.
Then he realised what else they were saying. If Pappa-san comes back with her friends… They wanted to be away from the Olympus, in case she returned. They were afraid of her. They were actually afraid of her!
He hoped Itsuko was sensible enough to stay away.
“We don’t even know that she’s working with the others,” said Kuroi’s voice.
“Can you take the chance that she isn’t?” said Hiiro. “She’s got two girls staying with her, for heaven’s sake, and neither of them is family. That’s too much of a coincidence. What are the odds that they’re—?”
“Well, we know one of them is clean,” said Aoiro.
“The hell we do!” snarled Kuroi. “Oh, wait, you mean the one you mugged. Yeah, big man, Aoiro.”
“I did not mug—”
“The hell it is!”
“Enough,” cut in Hiiro sharply. “Lay off, Ryozo. Save it for the bad guys.”
A fourth voice—Mitsukai—said, “If only there were any bad guys.”
Aoiro started to reply, but Hiiro cut him off. “Enough, I said!” he ordered. “Bad guys or not, we have a job to do. Let’s keep this professional, people.”
That seemed to kill the conversation. The other three shut up, and the van droned on in silence.
Artemis tried to work out what they were talking about. Two girls, and a girl who had been mugged? Miyo had to be one of the girls, but who was—? Then he remembered the Aizawa girl. He had never actually met her, but she slept over at the Olympus sometimes. And hadn’t there been an incident, weeks ago, when Itsuko had found her unconscious?
Slowly, he put the pieces together. Aizawa had been attacked by a burglar and drugged. The next day, Itsuko had discovered that her desk had been bugged.
Dear gods, had these people suspected Itsuko for that long?
“Hey, boss,” said Kuroi in a mocking tone. “Speaking of professional, what happened to Kitada? He’s been a long time calling in.”
“Good point,” said Hiiro. “Mitsukai, check it out, will you? They may be holding him up at headquarters.”
“Right.” Artemis heard somebody moving, and then Mitsukai began speaking in a low voice; over a commset, he realised. But he did not want to think about Kitada, that foolishly brave young man. He tried to ignore Mitsukai and concentrate on the others.
“So what happens with Pappa-san now?” asked Aoiro. “Think we’ll be kept on the case?”
“After the botch job we’ve made of it so far,” said Hiiro darkly, “we’ll be lucky not to end up handing out leaflets for ‘I’ Division.” More thoughtfully, he added, “It depends. She’s on the run, now; she’ll be more vulnerable. It gives us some options.”
“I suppose we’ll follow up on the other girl? Hayashi?”
Hiiro did not answer for a little. Then, in a curiously thoughtful tone, he said, “I’m told that Lieutenant Chairo has been assigned to check her background.”
“Chairo!” It sounded as though Kuroi was about to explode. Then he broke off. When he continued, it was with a subtle note of respect. “That Colonel Shiro. He’s a sly one.”
“Indeed. Nobody could ever accuse Chairo of being incompetent.”
“Hell, no. He’ll give them the most thorough check they’ve ever seen.” Kuroi started to laugh. “In a few months’ time.”
Aoiro said, “So you think the colonel has…doubts…about arresting Pappa-san, then?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Captain.” Hiiro’s voice was suddenly flat and clear. “To my knowledge, Colonel Shiro has never shown anything but the highest dedication to his duty. If he had concerns about hunting moon cats, or Senshi, or Pappa-san or anyone else, he would certainly never allow it to affect his loyalties.”
Artemis could almost hear the salute in Aoiro’s voice. “Yes, sir.”
“Good.” Just as suddenly, Hiiro’s voice relaxed again. “Now…Mitsukai, have you heard anything back about our missing Irregular yet?”
“Yes, Captain,” the woman answered. “Ah…headquarters say they haven’t seen him. He never arrived there.”
For a few seconds there was only the sound of the van’s engine. Then Hiiro said, “Well, this day just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it?”
The car passed through a small shopping district and Itsuko became more animated, watching their route carefully. After a little she said, “Can you head left here? There’s something I have to pick up.”
Sadako turned left obediently, and for the next minute or two Itsuko gave her directions. At last they pulled to a halt at a small charging station. Itsuko got out of the car and said, “Hold on. I’ll just be a moment.” She disappeared into the station office.
While she waited, Sadako got out of the car herself and thoughtfully plugged in a charging cable. Her car’s battery was not very low, and it did not take long for the meter to trip. She unplugged the cable and went inside to pay.
She handed her credit chit to the attendant and looked around the room, ignoring his attempt at small talk. A typical checkout office; racks of automotive components, magazines and junk food. She noted with interest that there was no sign of Itsuko.
As the attendant was passing her chit back, a door at the rear opened and Itsuko came out. There was a small leather satchel under her arm; it looked fairly full. She paused for an instant as she saw Sadako. Then she turned to the attendant and said, “Thank you, Asano-san.” He bobbed his head jerkily in reply and Itsuko strode out of the office.
Sadako followed her a few seconds later, humming an ancient tune under her breath. She got into the car and drove out of the station, carefully not noticing the angry look Itsuko was giving her. After a little, she said, “Your emergency kit, I assume?”
“Yes,” Itsuko said shortly. She opened the satchel and rummaged around, pulling out a sheaf of papers.
“And should I still call you ‘Itsuko’?”
Itsuko sighed. “I suppose not.” She flicked through the papers and produced a driver’s license. “The name on this is Hiyama Seki, but I don’t dare rely on it for too long. I’ll have to replace it when I can.”
“Be careful. ‘S’ Division may be looking out for things like that.”
A pause. “I hadn’t thought of that. Yes, you’re right.” She swore under her breath. “This is going to get expensive.”
“Had you considered doing anything about your appearance? Your hair is rather distinc—Oh.” As Sadako was speaking, Itsuko pulled two more items out of the satchel: a pair of glasses, and a wig. “Oh, dear.”
“Yes?” said Itsuko dangerously. “You have something to say?”
“No. No. I—”
Sadako stared at her for a moment longer. Then she pulled over to the side of the road and leaned over the car’s steering bar, her head in her arms. She began to laugh helplessly.
Itsuko ignored her. She turned the rear-view mirror around so that she could see herself and fitted the wig in haughty silence. The hair was straight and black, tied back in a pony-tail. The glasses were round-framed and tinted a pale yellow, and—though the lenses surely had to be plain glass—somehow seemed to magnify her eyes. She examined herself in the mirror, nodded once, and then turned to Sadako. “Well?” she demanded.
Sadako looked back at her. “You—you look like an owl.” She started to laugh again.
“Thank you so much. I’d never have picked you for a comedian, Setsuna-chan.” Her words were acid, but after a moment Itsuko softened. “Look, this is how the neighbours at my bolt-hole know me, all right? If you can’t keep a straight face, let me out here and I’ll get a taxi the rest of the way.”
“No, no.” Sadako wiped her eyes. “I’ll be good. I wouldn’t miss this for anything.”
“Lovely.” Itsuko scowled at her, then wrenched the rear-view mirror back into position with rather more force than necessary. “All right. The address is—”
“I remember. You told Miyo earlier.”
Sadako started the car again and drove off briskly. They headed back through the shopping district, the way they had come. After a minute Sadako said casually, “It’s quite close to the mall, isn’t it?”
“The address you gave. It’s quite close to that mall; the one that got wrecked last night.”
Itsuko tried to remember. “Oh…about five or six blocks away, I suppose. I hadn’t really considered—” She gave Sadako a sharp look. “You don’t think…?”
“No, no. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence. Quite convenient, though, don’t you think? That your new place is nice and handy to where all the action is happening.”
“But I found that house more than eight years ago. It couldn’t possibly be…” Itsuko trailed off. “Coincidence?”
Sadako shrugged. “I thought it was interesting. That’s all.”
Itsuko nodded, but the troubled look did not leave her face.
They drove for a minute or two more, leaving the main roads. At last Sadako turned into a narrow street, lined with trees, that wound its way along the side of a hill. She pulled to a halt in front of an old-fashioned brick house.
It was small, only one storey, and had a rather shabby air. The yellow paint on the window frames and door was faded and peeling, and the front yard was unkempt and overgrown. Most of one wall was covered with ivy. In spite of it all, the building looked to be in reasonably good repair.
The two climbed out of the car, and Sadako was immediately struck by the quietness of the street. Above them, the trees stretched over their heads, branches almost meeting above the centre of the road. They seemed to soak up all sound. There was a distant murmur of traffic from the main roads, several blocks away, but nearby there was only the sound of the breeze, lifting a cloud of leaves from the roadside, and the calling of birds in the trees.
Itsuko walked to the front gate and paused, hunting about in her satchel, before bringing out a set of keys. Behind her, Sadako looked around curiously. The sound of the birds was getting closer—
Then they burst out of the trees: a pair of crows, huge and black, calling out harshly as they spiralled down to perch on the roof above the front door.
Itsuko froze for a moment, her hand still on the gate, looking up at the birds. They stared back at her, their heads cocked to one side, their black eyes unfathomable. A faint smile crossed Itsuko’s face. Then she moved on, up the path to the front door.
With a loud clatter of wings, the crows took to the air again and flew back into the trees, cawing raucously. When Sadako looked back, though, they were still there, peering out through the branches, watching her intently. No, not watching her; watching Itsuko.
“Those surely cannot be Deimos and Phobos…can they?” Sadako asked quietly.
Itsuko glanced back at her. She smiled again, small and secretive. “Ask me no questions,” she said, “I’ll tell you no lies.”
Before Sadako could reply, she indicated the front door and said, “Do you want to come in for a moment?”
Sadako considered. She had intended to offer further help. But—
“Perhaps I had better not,” she said slowly. “Miyo will probably arrive before long. And she is likely to ask…the same questions you did.”
Itsuko’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, I see your point,” she replied. “We certainly wouldn’t want things to get awkward, would we? Never mind that she’d be glad to see you. Never mind that—”
“Seki,” she said rebelliously.
“—Seki-san,” Sadako said.
“I—oh, all right. All right!” Itsuko sighed. “I do understand; really. I just don’t like it.”
“Nor do I.” The look in Sadako’s eyes was old and inexpressibly weary. “Sometimes what we do not like cannot be helped.”
“You think I don’t know that? Still—we’re keeping things from them, Setsuna-chan. Even lying to them, in a way, and I…I wanted to believe I’d never do that. I just wish I knew if it’ll be worth it. If we even have a chance.”
Sadako nodded. “And yet,” she said, “there is hope. What was the line? ‘All will be well, and all will be well; and all manner of things will be well.’”
“Julian of Norwich.” Itsuko raised her eyebrows. “But do you believe it?”
Sadako hesitated. At last she said, “Let us hope so.”
Artemis waited for several minutes after the van stopped moving and he heard the humans depart. Then, with some effort, he struggled out from under the shelf.
The rear doors of the van were closed, but one of the front windows had been left half-open and he managed to slip through, landing lightly on a concrete floor.
He looked around cautiously. He was standing in a car park, filled with dozens of vehicles of all descriptions. The only light came from dim electric tubes in the ceiling, suggesting that he was underground. The area was almost silent. He was alone.
He found a dark corner and took care of certain urgent business. Then he began to prowl around the park, sniffing experimentally at cars and trying to work out where he was. The people in the van had mentioned “headquarters.” If so, he might be in the middle of ‘S’ Division.
Great, he thought.
A door opened somewhere, and he heard footsteps approaching. He hid under a car and watched as two people walked past.
“Figures he’d lose the damn cat,” a voice grumbled. Artemis recognised the speaker: Kuroi. “Damn it, why do we have to be saddled with an Irregular at a time like this? Couldn’t they give us someone competent?”
“Just the other day, you were saying he seemed pretty promising,” came Hiiro’s voice lightly.
“Not me. Must have been some other guy.”
“Sure. Well, we’ll see what he has to say when we get to the hospital.” Hiiro’s legs paused, and Kuroi halted a few steps later. “I’m a little more concerned about the other thing,” Hiiro said.
“Do we have any choice?” asked Kuroi. For a moment, the usual tight rasp of his voice softened.
“Maybe. I have a friend in ‘Q’ Division. He may be able to help—off the record.”
“‘Q’?” Kuroi sounded half-amused, half-contemptuous. “You’re getting into blue-sky stuff there, Yoichi.”
“I know. It can’t be helped. If he can give us an edge…”
Hiiro stared moving again, and Kuroi followed. Seconds later, Artemis heard them climb into a vehicle—it sounded like a car, not a van—and then drive off.
He remained where he was for a little, considering. It sounded as though the young man, Kitada, had survived. That was good. But he could not make head or tail of Hiiro’s cryptic remark about ‘Q’ Division. There was no such government section. What had the man meant?
At last, none the wiser, he emerged from under the car and resumed searching the car park for a way out. A ramp led up to more levels, and he followed it hopefully.
The top level was open to the sky and was filled, not with cars, but with Opals. He watched them suspiciously for a minute and wondered if any of these had been the ones that chased him, back when he was still travelling with Bendis. Then, forcing himself to relax, he went to the outer wall and looked over.
It was a fair distance to the ground—three or four storeys—but there were places here and there where a cat could get a footing. A human could never have done it. Slowly and carefully, he made his way down.
Once he was safely on terra firma again, Artemis looked around quickly, working out where he was and memorising the location…just in case. From the outside, it appeared to be a perfectly ordinary office building in the central business district. There was even a sign, clearly labelling it as ‘S’ Division.
Feeling somehow cheated, he started the long walk back to Dhiti’s house. He did not try to hurry; he had a lot to think about.
Sadako left, finally, and Itsuko was alone at last. She had been grateful for Sadako’s help, more grateful than she could have said; but the day’s events, and their implications, were beginning to pile up to the point where she felt like she was drowning. She needed time to sort things out, to settle herself. She needed to be alone.
She glanced down at the low table in her new living room, at the little business card lying there. Sadako’s contact details. The card was printed with the logo of a company named “Suisho Productions”—a riddle, but one that could wait. She picked it up and tucked it in a pocket absently.
Too much to think about, too much to do; and it couldn’t be long before Miyo arrived. Miyo was not going to like the situation, and Itsuko could not blame her. There would be explanations, and arguments, and recriminations.
Even when that was settled, there was still endless work left to do. There were plans to make. There was…there was shopping to be done. She made a mental note, adding it to dozens of others: the pantry was nearly empty.
And she was going to need money, a lot of it. She had some emergency reserves, squirrelled away under various false names—in much the same way that she had had this house—but they would only stretch so far. She would need to find a new source of income, quickly.
It might still be possible to draw funds from Pappadopoulos Itsuko’s bank accounts, if ‘S’ Division hadn’t frozen them yet. Another mental note.
And her head was already beginning to itch under this damned wig; and there was no cure for that at all, because it would be a long time before her own hair grew out long enough to be able to get rid of it.
Her thoughts swam chaotically. If Pappadopoulos Itsuko had to vanish, her identity as ‘Hiyama Seki’ would need to be fleshed out, or replaced. That took serious money nowadays; a good false identity, one that would stand up to scrutiny, was hard to come by. She suddenly realised that she was going to need documentation for Miyo, too.
There was only one place she knew to get it. She would have to go to the fair.
She remembered, with a momentary flash of amusement, Artemis’ surprise and indignation at the idea. Had it been only a week or so ago? She had admitted to him that she occasionally dabbled in Third Tokyo’s underworld. He accused her, half in jest, of being a wanted criminal. Oh, the irony!
Visiting one of the black market fairs was a risk, but she did not see how she could avoid it. Okuda Jiro might perhaps have been able to help her with papers, as he had done once before, twenty years ago; but the revelation that he was Sankaku made it hard to trust him. She did not know where to look online for help; computers had never been her forte. That left few choices.
The fairs were where the underside of society met, host to everything from innocent barter and exchange to arms and drug dealing. Itsuko herself ran a minor smuggling operation: essentially benign, though the authorities would probably take a dimmer view. She did it mainly to keep up contact with a criminal element that she occasionally needed. For things like identity papers, for example.
If she was honest, she had to admit that she might do it anyway. There was a certain vicarious thrill to it: the straight-laced temple girl playing smuggler. Undeniably absurd; but still, her pulse raced whenever she drove the van out with a load of contraband…
The schedule varied, but there was usually a fair every two or three weeks, in an ever-rotating location. She had asked at the charging station, and the next fair was due tomorrow night—another ‘interesting coincidence,’ Sadako might have said.
She rubbed her forehead, wincing. She was getting a headache.
So many things to keep track of. New identities—and other, more everyday things. Clothes; she had nothing but what she was wearing. Toiletries. Extra bedding.
And what was all this going to do to Miyo? Would she have to pull the girl away from school…and friends? ‘S’ Division would surely try to trace her through Miyo. Yet at the same time, Itsuko could hardly afford to create a rift in the Senshi. Was she being selfish?
Perhaps it would be better to go back to the Olympus after all. To give herself up. If it would help the others…
She sat at the little kitchen table and buried her face in her hands. She did not know what to do; like Sadako, she could not see the way forward. She longed, desperately, to meditate before the sacred fire. To reach out for clarity of vision and purpose; to purify her soul in flame.
But the sacred fire was far away, denied to her. Lost.
And at that thought, unbidden, a memory returned, one she had tried hard to bury. A dark time, long ago. Another day when she had lost everything—
After she awoke, 722 years before, in the ruins of the palace in Crystal Tokyo.
Rei staggered out into the grey morning light of a new age, half-mad with grief and pain. Behind her she left the bodies of friends: Minako, Endymion, Luna, Makoto, Ami. The others, gone before: Usagi, Haruka, Michiru. And, most precious and most loved, the queen, fallen on the steps of her own palace.
She saw no sign of Artemis or Diana. Perhaps they had escaped.
She left them all. There was nothing she could do for their remains, as injured as she was; no way to give them a fitting repose. She could only walk, and grieve.
Her back was a solid, burning knot of fire, and putting weight on her right leg was agony. She had several broken ribs, at least. She spat blood occasionally. After a while she found a long, stout stick to support herself with, and went on.
With every step, she found new reasons for grief.
The city around her was a shattered wreck. Behind her, the great crystalline spires of the palace were charred and broken. Ahead, the streets were littered with rubble, almost impassible in places. Fire had swept across the metropolis. Many buildings were smouldering ruins; here and there columns of smoke still rose, thick and black in the dim light of dawn. Bodies were everywhere, many of them torn almost to pieces. The air was thick with dust and the smell of smoke, fear and death. Perhaps worst of all was the silence. This city, that only two months before had been filled with life and love and music, was now a charnel-house, as silent as the grave. A burial-place for dreams.
And there were the enemy; the crystites. They, too, were everywhere, lying silent and motionless. It looked as though they had simply fallen over and turned to glass. Rei kicked one, and it broke into pieces with a faint clink. She gave a thin, rusty laugh.
When you wake up and the world has ended around you, what do you do? Where can you go? She wandered the streets for an hour or more, filling her heart and mind with desolation and despair. As the sun rose, the sights all around her only grew worse: rack and ruin, outlined against a clear blue sky. The pain became too much to bear at last, and she had to stop. She sat down beside a fountain that had once been a famous work of art, but which was now choked with corpses and worse things, and wondered whether she had the courage to go on.
When you wake up and the world has ended around you, where do you go? You go home.
The long stairway up Sendai Hill took her nearly two hours to climb. Each step brought new pain. Several times on the way, she had to stop when her head began to swim and she thought she would pass out. At last, she stood at the top and looked across the courtyard.
The temple was a disaster. She almost wept again at the sight of the beloved old buildings laid waste. They had been rebuilt with such devoted care after the end of the Great Ice; and all, all for nothing.
The dead were here, too; hundreds of them. When disaster had struck, they had fled to the temple for shelter. It had not saved them. The crystites had come—to kill, and then die in their turn. Now, refugee and invader alike lay baking under the morning sun.
Parts of the main building were still standing. Rei stepped past a mound of bodies lying outside the door, noting with distant regret how small some of them were. She did not weep; there was no more grief left in her. She was numb.
At the end of the corridor inside, three more people lay, unmoving, cut almost in half by crystalline shards. One of them, she knew: the priest, Genichi. She had known him for centuries; he had taken over after the death of her grandfather, when it became apparent that Rei herself would have other priorities in life. He had been a close friend, one of the few people outside the palace to whom she could unburden herself.
Unable to kneel by his side, she could only kiss her fingertips, then reach down and touch his forehead softly. “Rest easy, old man,” she whispered.
Then she left them behind—as it seemed she had left everyone—and went into the final room, to bow down before the sacred fire and greet the kami and—please, oh please—to lose herself in meditation and perhaps forget, for a little while, the world outside.
A little light filtered through the door, enough for her to make out details. The room was broken, ruined; the walls were splintered and torn apart, and the massive old beams had fallen. Rubble littered the floor. Once, the air here had been scented with fragrant resins. Now there was nothing but the smell of old, stale smoke.
The fire was out.
Rei stood blinking in the darkness for a full minute. Her mind was blank. It was not real; none of it was real. Then, gradually, she became aware of a sound: a low, keening moan. After a while she realised that it was coming from her.
“No no no nononononono—”
She stumbled forward toward the low altar. There was no answering warmth in her face. Alone in the darkness, she threw back her head and howled her denial. She reached the fire pit and, desperate, thrust her hands deep into the ashes.
There was a sting of heat, and she realised with incredulous hope that there was still a chance. The embers were not dead yet.
The hours that followed were madness. Later, she would remember only fragments. The wild search for fuel. Desperately trying to control the shaking in her arms as she fed fresh kindling to the charred embers. The agony of broken ribs grating as she fought to blow gently on the little pile. The taste of ash in her mouth.
She begged; she pleaded; she prayed feverishly, offering her soul to the kami anew, and watched in despair as the dull red glow faded from the wood. Still she worked, prying the black cinders apart with burnt fingers to expose the last precious heat to the air, and delicately touching fine wood-shavings to the surface revealed. They blackened; there was a faint trickle of new smoke. Then they seemed to darken once more. She breathed on them, not daring to do more.
A brilliant red spark danced to light. A tiny, fragile tongue of flame.
She fed it more tinder gingerly, nursing it like a baby. As she worked she mumbled incoherent thanks, barely noticing that she was speaking aloud. The kami had heard her; the fire spread from shavings to twigs. The kindling began to crackle softly.
Slowly, she realised that she was actually half-lying in the pit itself. She pulled herself out gingerly and began to bow toward the altar.
The room swam around her and went black.
When she came to, the fire she had built was still burning. The room around her was still a ruin; but it was a holy place once more.
As she struggled upright, she saw that her sleeve and her hair had actually been trailing in the ashes. The fire had been burning all around them. But somehow, neither hair nor robe was even singed.
Itsuko opened her eyes. “No,” she whispered. “No, damn it. I won’t give up. We’ll find a way to make it work. Somehow, we’ll find a way.”
As if from a great distance, she heard a faint knocking. The front door. Miyo had arrived at last.
For a moment longer, Itsuko paid no attention. Her eyes were fixed on a dream. “We’ll find a way,” she whispered again. “And somehow, I will get you back.”
Dhiti was not particularly worried when Miyo left class. The situation could not be urgent, or Dhiti would have been called too. She simply exchanged a knowing look with Kin—who looked just as amused by the incident as Dhiti was—and waited for lunchtime, when Miyo would tell her what it was all about.
Except that Miyo didn’t come back; and when lunchtime rolled around, there was still no sign of her.
“How are we supposed to take a horrible revenge on her if she isn’t even here?” Dhiti complained to Kin. They were sitting at their desks, finishing their lunches as they talked.
“Maybe that’s the idea,” Kin offered. “Maybe this is her, taking a preemptive horrible revenge for your horrible revenge.”
“Too subtle for Hayashi. Nah, Beth-chan probably got a hairball and called for help, that’s all. Still, Hayashi might have said.”
“Beth-chan.” Kin looked thoughtful. “That’s one of the others I haven’t met, right? You mentioned her once before.”
Dhiti cursed. “You remember too much.”
“Well, it doesn’t help if you keep on mentioning her, does it?” asked Kin reasonably. Then she said, “Hairball?”
“That, believe it or not, is a story even weirder than Hayashi and her slugs. And that’s all I’m sayin’.”
“Wow. I knew you Senshi got up to some weird stuff, but I didn’t know it got kinky.”
Dhiti winced at the mention of Senshi. “Can we not use that particular word in public, please?”
“No, ‘Sen—’” Pause. “Uh. Yes, ‘kinky.’ As you know, we prefer the word ‘exotic’ instead.”
“Well, I can accept that. You yourself, Dhiti-chan, would have to be about as ‘exotic’ as they come.”
“No, no.” Dhiti tugged an imaginary forelock. “I defer to the master.”
“Oh, I don’t think so. I’m not much of one for exotica. Though—” Kin leered at her—“kinky is another matter.”
“Fair enough. If you insist that I’m the master, how can I say no? All the same, Kin-chan—” Dhiti grew a little more serious for a moment. “A little care and attention, huh?”
Kin had the grace to look abashed for a moment. “Okay. Sorry.”
“Hmph. Okay.…So, you like it kinky, though? Is that why you and Liam-kun broke it up again?”
The other girl stiffened. “Drop it, Dhiti-chan.”
“After all, you—”
“I mean it. Drop it. Now.”
“…Right you are.” Dhiti looked around. “Damn it, what’s happened to Hayashi, anyway?”
“Oh, nice segue.”
“No, I actually meant it this time.”
Kin glanced at her watch and raised her eyebrows. “She has been a while, hasn’t she? Maybe you should try calling her. Aren’t you supposed to have some kind of magic dingus?”
Dhiti winced. “Do you have any idea how that sounds?” She clasped her hands together and warbled theatrically, “‘Oh, Dhiti-chan, won’t you show me your dingus?’” Several other nearby students started to look in their direction.
“Hmm,” said Kin. “Now that you mention it—”
“As it happens,” Dhiti interrupted, smirking, “I do indeed have a dingus. You wanna see it?”
Kin sat up straight, her eyes sparkling. “I can’t wait!”
“Huh. You said you liked it kinky and I didn’t believe you.”
Behind them, a boy said, “It’s just Sharma and Okamura again.” The other students started to lose interest and turn away.
Kin waited a little, and then snickered. “You could stand up, right now, and tell them all that you’re Sailor Mercury, and they wouldn’t believe a word.”
“Yeah. Isn’t it great?”
The other girl giggled again. “Tell them that I’m Sailor Moon. See how they react to that.”
“Har-de-har-har. How do you know you’re not?”
“Oh, wouldn’t that be cool? Then I’d be a princess and you’d have to bow down to me.”
Dhiti huffed. “You can make me bow down, but I ain’t gonna kiss your foot.”
“Oh, you’re no fun any more. I do wash my feet…sometimes. Anyway, weren’t you going to call Miyo-chan?”
“Nice segue.” Dhiti grinned at her. “Okay, okay. Anyone watching?” She waited for Kin to shake her head, then touched buttons on her communicator. Kin watched, fascinated. A few seconds later, the tiny screen lit up with Miyo’s face.
“Yo, Hayashi,” Dhiti said before Miyo could speak. “So what is it? More bad guys?”
Miyo did not answer at once. At last she said, “No, it’s not…not like that. I—” She took a deep breath. “It’s complicated. I can’t…can’t talk about it now.”
Kin leaned forward. “Miyo-chan? Are you all right?”
“Oh, gods. Is Kin-chan there too?” The picture on the screen gave a sharp jerk, as if Miyo had sat down suddenly.
“After school, Dhiti-chan. I’ll tell you then. I…I have to go now.”
The communicator screen went blank. Dhiti and Kin look at each other. Neither spoke for some time.
“She looked like she’d been crying,” said Kin at last.
“Yeah,” said Dhiti. “She did.”
She thought, briefly, about ducking out of school and running to help. She might have done it, too, if she had any idea where to go. But Miyo hadn’t sounded the way she had when her parents threw her out. Upset, yes; but…
“You think it’s her family again?” asked Kin.
“If it is, I’m going to kill Fujimaro-kun.”
“I might help.”
“I’ll tell her you said so.” Dhiti stared blankly out of the window. After a little she muttered, “After school, she said. I suppose I’m going to miss my club meeting.”
“Oh, there’s a hardship,” said Kin. “Another new club? What happened to the ikebana?”
“That’s Mondays. And it’s an evening class, anyway, not a club. No, I thought I’d try the film club. Today was supposed to be my first day.” She sighed, and looked down at her communicator. “Normally I go to at least a few meetings before I start dropping them. This could give me a bad name.”
“The things you do for Miyo-chan, eh?”
“Well, yeah. Now why can’t Hayashi see it that way?” But the moment of humour faded from Dhiti’s face. “She sounded…pretty unhappy, didn’t she?”
The school bell rang before Kin could reply. The two exchanged a final doubtful look, then obediently put the remains of their lunches away and got out their math books. It looked like being a long afternoon.
There was more to come, as it turned out. At the end of the next class, as Ihara-sensei was leaving, their homeroom teacher came in. She had a troubled expression. She stood silently at the head of the classroom as the students stood and bowed. Then, quietly, she announced that, due to a personal emergency at home, Hayashi Miyo had been withdrawn from the school by her guardian. She was not expected to return.
The class erupted in an uproar. The teacher’s voice was almost drowned out as she added that the next class would be treated as a study period. Then she left.
Dhiti and Kin’s eyes met. It looked as though the afternoon would be a very long one indeed.
Kitada Masao opened his eyes, then closed them again with a groan. The world was too bright. His head hurt.
He re-opened one eye gingerly, and found the light bearable this time. Things swam around him, then steadied. He was lying in a strange bed, somewhere white.
Then a familiar figure stepped into view. Captain Hiiro.
The sight brought it all back to him. The raid. Pappa-san’s escape. Artemis, and a conversation in a car. And his decision.
“Feeling better?” said Hiiro.
“Where am I?” Masao asked. Turning his head brought more pain, but it was not too bad this time. It looked like he was in…“A hospital?”
“Bingo.” Hiiro swung up the little monitor pad hanging from the end of the bed and started to read it. With a clucking sound, a nurse tried to stop him, but he fended her off casually. “Looks like some bangs and scrapes and a mild concussion, but that’s about all,” he announced. The nurse gave an indignant sniff, and departed. “Want to tell me about it?”
Masao tried to think. His head felt thick. “I…had a crash?” he said hopefully.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Hiiro said with a pained look. “We had to do some fast talking to ‘P’ Division, by the way. They were pretty curious about what you were doing in a car registered to Pappa-san.”
“Oh. Er, thanks.”
“Don’t mention it. Kitada, at the risk of repeating myself, what happened?”
“I…” Masao made a fast decision. “We were driving along—and then he started talking. You know, him. Artemis. It startled me; I must have swerved…” He trailed off with a convincing sigh. “I’m sorry.”
“And so am I.” Hiiro looked down at him in silence. Masao started to feel anxious; but then Hiiro said, “What did he say?”
“Oh…that if we believed Pappa-san was working with the Sankaku, we were crazy. Something like that.”
“There was no sign of him in the car wreckage. The cage had been bent open. Just bad luck, I guess.”
“I guess so,” Masao agreed.
“Yeah.” Hiiro rubbed his forehead. “That was all, then?”
“Sorry, yes. You said.” Hiiro studied Masao for a long moment, then glanced back down at the monitor pad. “Well, from the looks of this you shouldn’t be stuck in here for too long,” he said lightly. “I’ll have someone pick you up when they check you out.”
“It’ll be handy to have you back. This case has blown wide open, as I guess you know, and we’re going to have our hands full for a while. Even if we’ve lost our prisoners, we still have a lot more to go on than we did before.”
Another uncertain nod.
“It may be a while longer yet before we can let you go back to your real job. Though I suppose by now your boss is resigned to it.”
“Too bad for him.” Hiiro turned to go, then looked back. “Oh…one more thing,” he said conversationally. “Was the crash real? Or did you just let him go?”
“Was—?” Masao froze, staring at him.
“Look, don’t fuck with me, Kitada. It’s been a bad day and I’m tired. You’re a lousy liar; your story’s about as full of holes as Pappa-san’s car. Was—the—crash—real?”
Masao said slowly, “If you think you already know the truth, then why ask me?”
“We could call it a character test, but you already flunked that part, when I asked you if that was all and you said yes. Now just tell me the goddamn truth, will you?”
“I…” Masao took a deep breath. “I let him go.”
“Yes, I know.” Hiiro grinned at him. He walked back around the bed and sat down in a light plastic chair, then studied Masao for a few seconds. “Now for the real character test,” he said. “Tell me why.”
“Why?” Masao stared at him, incredulous. “What does it matter why?” he demanded. “I lied to you! You’re going to throw me out, maybe arrest me…Why draw it out?”
“Because I want to know,” Hiiro said. “Tell me.”
“Because…because it was the right thing to do, damn it! We had no business taking him prisoner, and you know it.”
Hiiro cocked an eyebrow at him. “I don’t know anything of the sort. He was a material witness, and likely an accomplice, to a suspected Sankaku associate. He interfered with enforcement officers conducting a legal arrest. Probably half a dozen other things. We had every right, not to mention obligation, to take him in. Try again.”
“Oh, what’s the point?”
“Try again,” Hiiro repeated.
“Because he was right,” Masao said in a low voice. “Because sometimes we have to choose. What to believe in. Even whether to believe. We have to…to be ready to take a stand, for…for whatever has meaning in our lives.” He shook his head. “I can’t say it right; it just comes out sounding hokey. But it isn’t! It’s the most important thing in the world. It’s—”
“Faith?” suggested Hiiro.
“Yes!” Masao gave him a faintly wondering look. “You do understand.”
Hiiro shook his head. “That’s one smooth-talking cat,” he said. “I could almost get to like him. Kitada, I hate to break it to you, but very little of the world runs on what you believe in your heart. The world doesn’t care. There is no tooth fairy, and love and justice don’t always win.”
“That’s no reason to give up,” Masao said stubbornly.
Hiiro started to answer, then paused. Unwillingly, his face broke into a grin. “You’re a starry-eyed romantic,” he accused.
“…What’s it to you if I am?”
“Maybe a lot,” said Hiiro slowly. “Why did you let him go, Kitada?”
Masao blinked. “I told just you—”
“No, you didn’t. You gave me a lot of sentimental waffle, and I’m sure you meant it sincerely, but you weren’t telling me why you let Artemis go.” Hiiro cocked an eyebrow at him. “You were telling me why we should let Hino go.”
“I—” Masao fumbled to a stop. “Maybe I was,” he admitted, surprised.
“So what was the reason, Kitada? The real reason. Why did you let him go?”
“Because—because—” He groped for words. Earlier today, in the car, he had thought he’d known what he was doing, and why; but now it appeared that nothing was what it seemed, and even Hiiro was a far deeper man than he’d imagined. So why had he let the cat go?
“Because he’s Artemis,” he said at last.
“Ah.” Hiiro nodded once. “Now there, at last, you speak a word I understand.” He studied Masao for a second longer, then glanced at his watch. He stood abruptly. “All right; that’s enough. Get your clothes on. We’re overdue back at headquarters, and there’s a lot of work to do.”
“You…what?” Masao gave him an incredulous look. “That’s it? You’re not firing me, or throwing me in jail?”
“So it seems.”
“Why not?” he demanded. “How can you ever trust me again?”
Hiiro looked amused. “Open your eyes, Kitada. I never trusted you in the first place. I know your limits a little better now; that’s all.”
“You don’t say.” Hiiro studied him, then thoughtfully sat back down, straddling the chair with his arms hung loosely over the back. “All right. Let me spell it out in words of one syllable. Later on we might be too busy for me to hold your hand, so pay attention.
“You were talking about choosing, before. It was a valid point. But your mistake is in not realising that we all make choices. We all decide: who to trust, who to believe…who to follow.
“Me, now, I chose a long time ago. I gave my loyalty to ‘S’ Division, because I happen to believe that what we do is important.” He lowered his head to look Masao in the eye. “That doesn’t mean that I always agree with what I’m told to do. And it doesn’t mean that what I’m told to do is always ‘good’—even assuming there’s any such thing as an objective ‘good.’ Do you follow me, Kitada? What it does mean is that when I’m given orders, I obey them. Because I have made that commitment. Because that’s what it takes.
“Do you understand?” he said. “That’s what it takes. The willingness to do the things you don’t like…because, sometimes, they need doing.”
“But you can’t just blindly do whatever you’re told,” Masao protested. “That’s a…a total abdication of responsibility.”
“Not at all. There is blood on my hands; I acknowledge that. I’m sure some of it was justly spilt…and I suspect that some of it wasn’t. I don’t try to deny my guilt. But when I’m given an order, I’m seldom in a position to judge its morality. I don’t necessarily know the big picture. That’s why we have to obey orders, even if we don’t like them: because we don’t know. We just have to have faith that the ones in charge do know. And so we pick our loyalties…and we stick with them.
“Kuroi, now…he and I go way back. His first loyalty isn’t to ‘S’ Division; it’s to me, personally. If I say go, he’ll go. If I ask him, he’ll tell me if he thinks I’m wrong; but once I give the order, he’s committed. The others, Aoiro, Mitsukai—well, they all have their reasons and their loyalties, one way or another. They’re all committed to the job, or I wouldn’t be working with them.
“And then there’s you.”
“Me?” repeated Masao.
“Yes.” Hiiro studied him for a few seconds. Then, suddenly, he shot from his chair. “Come on, Kitada, get a move on. Aren’t you dressed yet?” Before Masao could say a word, he turned and strode quickly out of the room.
Masao pulled himself out of bed and got dressed, wincing occasionally. His mind was whirling. What had Hiiro been talking about? What had he been trying to say?
And what was Masao supposed to do now?
Kuroi was waiting out in the corridor. Hiiro nodded to him and said, “He let the cat go.”
The other man cocked an eyebrow. “Then crashed the car and put himself in hospital to cover up? Pretty ballsy.”
“Sounds like something you’d do, right?”
Kuroi did not even pause to think. “No.”
“Oh?” Hiiro considered. “I suppose not.”
They made their way down to the nurses’ station. The nurse whom Hiiro had shooed away before was there, talking angrily to another woman. She saw them coming and stalked off before they could get there, the sound of her heels sharp on the polished floor. Hiiro grinned.
He showed the duty nurse his ID, and she handed him a clipboard full of forms. He started to flip through them. After a few moments Kuroi said, “You’re keeping him on, then?”
“Yes,” said Hiiro. “He might be important.”
Kuroi did not answer; he simply waited.
Hiiro finished the last form with a snap and passed the clipboard back to the nurse, then led Kuroi a few paces away. “His loyalties aren’t set,” he said thoughtfully. “Not yet. He still believes in right and wrong. It makes him dangerous, true—if someone changes his mind, he’ll turn his coat. All the same…”
Kuroi said, “You want a canary.”
“Yes. You do see.” Hiiro gave him an approving look. “There’s something big going on here, and I don’t like it. Some funny orders coming down from above. Shiro sees it too; otherwise he wouldn’t be stalling on the Hayashi girl.”
He paused, chewing on the idea. “The whole situation’s looking nasty, and I’m not sure that we’re on the right side. That’s why I want Kitada. Because maybe, just maybe, I’m going to need someone on my team with a conscience.”
A pause came in gym class, and Mark squatted down to take a breather. Liam sat beside him, watching the girls’ class on the other side of the field. His eyes never left one small, golden-haired figure.
After a little he said, “You heard what happened?”
Mark snorted. “The whole school’s heard what happened by now,” he said angrily. “I was going to do it today—ask her out, and the hell with waiting. But now—”
“Mm. I wasn’t talking about that, though.”
“Her brother.” Liam paused for a moment, his brows knitting. “Ichiro, I think it was. He’d be a year ahead of us—”
“Whatever. I hear he got a phone call at lunch time. Apparently, the other brother—Fujisomething, he’s at Kamome Junior High—got sent home. They’re talking about expelling him.”
Mark looked up sharply. “Expelling? What for?”
“Fighting. It seems somebody said something bad about his sister.”
The two exchanged a look. At last Mark said, “Damn.”
Liam nodded slowly. “This Ichiro, now,” he said meditatively. “I hear that he’s not one to be too sympathetic about what happened to his sister.”
“That’s what I hear,” said Mark.
“Mm. It’s nice to know that someone in the family is still on her side.”
“Ye-es.” Mark was silent for some time. “Fujimaro-kun. I suppose I could find him, talk to him,” he said at last. “He might even know what’s really happened to her.”
“You don’t have to sound so eager,” Liam said sarcastically.
“Well, would you be so eager to talk to a complete stranger about wanting to date his sister?” demanded Mark.
“Ah.” Liam finally tore his eyes away from Kin as he considered this. “You may have stumbled on one of the universal woes of manhood, there.”
“Fat lot of help you are.”
The gym teacher’s whistle blew, and they looked up, startled. “You there! The unheavenly twins!” the teacher called. “Get a move on!”
Mark stood up again with a groan. “Sometimes,” he said, “I dream I can find a way to sort all this out so everyone ends up happy. Silly, huh?”
Liam shrugged, and joined him. “Sometimes I dream I’m a secret agent. I expect dreams are what you make of them, mostly.”
“You’re a big help. C’mon, let’s go.”
The school day finally ended. Dhiti headed outside at a speed that she never showed in PE class, found a secluded spot and tapped her communicator. As soon as the tiny screen lit up, she burst out, “Hayashi, what the hell?!”
“…Dhiti-chan,” said Miyo’s voice. She sounded resigned. “Dead on time.”
“Don’t you try to put me off,” said Dhiti, almost savagely. “I’m…very unputoffable. Damn it, Hayashi, the teacher announced that you were leaving, in front of the whole class! What the hell’s happened?”
After a moment she added, in a puzzled tone, “And why can’t I see your face?”
“I…it’s a long story, Dhiti-chan. It would be better if we can meet, so I can explain. If you—”
“I’ll be at the Olympus in twenty minutes.”
“No! Not there. If we go to…oh, let me think. I can’t come to your house. How about…”
“Why not Beth-chan’s favourite warehouse?” asked Dhiti sarcastically.
“That could work, actually. At least everyone knows where it is.”
“What, you’re serious?” Dhiti raised her eyebrows. “All right…whatever. I’ll get Kin-chan and we’ll meet you in—”
“Just you, Dhiti-chan.”
“You can tell her later, I suppose. But I need the others to hear this too, and I…don’t think Kin-chan should be there.”
Dhiti did not answer for some time. Her mind was racing in circles. At last she said, “Hayashi, what’s wrong?”
There was only silence from the communicator. Then, unexpectedly, Miyo gave a dry chuckle. “Wait and see, Dhiti-chan. I think you’ll be surprised.”
“Oh, come on,” Dhiti protested. “You—”
“Never mind. I’ve got to call the others. I’ll see you…in a bit.”
“Why do I think this isn’t a good surprise?” But the communicator had gone dead. Dhiti stared at it, then let her arm drop.
Then she was running again: first to find Kin, and probably an argument; and then to get to a warehouse whose location she barely remembered. Why did life have to be so complicated?
Suzue received Miyo’s call with equanimity. She had been to the warehouse twice before, and had little trouble finding it again. When she arrived, she found Beth and Iku already there, waiting outside the gate.
“Oh, hi, Suzue-san,” Beth said as she approached. “Have you any idea what this is about?”
Suzue shrugged. “A Senshi meeting, I expect,” she said. “Miyo-san didn’t say.”
“I suppose so. She sounded as if something was bothering her, though, so I just wondered…”
“Hm. I imagine we’ll find out soon enough.”
“…I suppose,” Beth said reluctantly.
An awkward silence fell. Suzue looked around, trying to think of something to talk about. At last she nodded toward the gate. “Should we go in, do you think?”
“Well, it’s locked. We’d have to climb over…or transform, of course.” Beth looked through the wire fencing, her head cocked to one side. “I wonder why Miyo-san wanted to meet here? I mean, I used to come here all the time with Bendis-chan, but…”
“I don’t know.” Suzue’s eyes moved to a building a few hundred metres from the warehouse gate. It was old and dilapidated, and had clearly been abandoned for some time. More recently, though, it appeared to have been struck with some heavy object. One side had caved in, and the surrounding sections were charred and blackened. Bright orange warning tape marked the damaged areas.
“It’s not as badly damaged as I thought,” she mused.
Beth followed her look, and winced. “Go ahead,” she said. “Rub it in.”
“What? Oh. No, I didn’t mean that. I was just thinking that it was odd…”
“Odd?” Beth looked at her sharply, then back to the building. “How do you mean?”
“Those men we fought,” Suzue said slowly. “They said they were from the Sankaku clans. So why did they have an Opal with them?”
“Eh? Why…wouldn’t they?”
“You can’t just buy an Opal. Only the government has them. ‘P’ Division and ‘W’ Division, mostly—”
“And ‘M’ Division,” added Iku softly.
“Yes.” Suzue looked at her sharply. “Those men were in ‘M’ Division uniforms, weren’t they?”
“They said they were in disguise,” Iku said.
“Okay. I suppose they could have stolen an Opal, too.” Suzue frowned. “They must have done. Why would ‘M’ division attack us?”
“So what’s the problem?” asked Beth.
“Nothing, I suppose. I just…thought that the Sankaku would have been more…competent, somehow.”
Beth stared at her. Then she chortled. “You want our enemies to be more competent?”
It was Suzue’s turn to stare. “What on earth are you talking about? Of course not!”
“Okay, okay. You know, you’ve got to learn to take a joke, Suzue-chan.”
Suzue’s brow wrinkled at the ‘chan’, but she let it pass. “I just don’t see why they were so bad at it,” she argued. “You know, you always hear about the Sankaku as being master criminals, but if one of them had simply held a gun at Iku-san’s head—” She broke off, seeing Iku’s sudden, horrified look, and realised with a start what she had been saying. “All right, I’m sorry,” she went on. “It was just an example. But—why didn’t they? Why did they handle it all so badly? You see what I’m getting at?”
“Umm. I think so,” said Beth.
Hesitantly, Iku said, “You think that…if they seem to be so incompetent, then perhaps…”
“Perhaps they’re anything but,” finished Beth. “Perhaps they’re doing it to fool us.”
“In which case…what are they drawing our attention away from?” added Suzue grimly.
Beth let out a whistle. “That’s pretty subtle,” she said. “You really think they could be that smart?”
“If I could think of it, why couldn’t they?” replied Suzue matter-of-factly. She looked around, her brow creasing. “Shouldn’t the others be here by now?”
“They’ve got further to come.” But Beth looked around, too. “Maybe we should head in. People will think it’s odd if they notice a bunch of girls standing around outside a warehouse.”
Suzue nodded; after a moment, Iku did too. Beth led them to the gates. They were closed and locked, but there was enough give in the chain that held them together for the girls to squeeze through.
Inside, the road led between a row of buildings, ending in a broad, open courtyard. Suzue came to a halt, studying the place. The last time she had been here, it had been by night.
The courtyard was much larger than it appeared from the street outside; most of it was shielded by the surrounding buildings. Tall, rusting industrial cranes lined one side. Several of the buildings had open loading docks, some of them littered with empty metal drums. The ground between them was paved, but the tarmac was cracked and broken in places, letting grass and even a few summer flowers show through. The buildings themselves were dirty, their paint fading, none of them more than three stories high. There was a smell of old oil in the air.
“Ugly,” she said idly.
“Yeah,” said Beth. “But it’s all abandoned; nobody comes here. You know,” she went on eagerly, “we could use this as a training area. It’s a lot easier to get to than that place Itsuko-san took us—”
“Someone did come here, last week,” Suzue reminded her.
“And Lady Blue attacked you and Iku-san here, if I recall.”
“Oh, all right. It was just an idea.” Beth made a face at her. “We really could use another training area, though. I wonder how the old-time Senshi managed?”
Suzue raised her eyebrows. “You know, that’s an interesting question.” There was nothing about it in any of the holy books that she had heard of. “Perhaps they had the same problem?” she mused.
“Probably,” Beth said darkly. “Crazies everywhere, waiting to mob them if they showed their faces. It happened to me once, you know.”
“Back when I was just starting out. This man—one of the Loonies, or something mad like that—”
A little angrily, Suzue said, “You know, the Church of Serenity aren’t all madmen, and it’s not very nice to call them Loonies.”
“Ha! You didn’t see this guy, Suzue-chan. Let me tell you a thing or two.” Speaking quickly, Beth told her what had happened: the jewel robbery and the wounded officer from ‘P’ Division; her intervention as Sailor Venus; the scorn of the woman she had saved; and finally, the man who had knelt at her feet and tried to kiss her hand, and beseeched her to carry a message to the ears of the ‘Blessed Lady Serenity.’ As she spoke, Beth became visibly agitated, and by the time she finished, she was almost shivering at the memory.
“Yes,” Suzue said thoughtfully. “I can see how that would be…unpleasant.”
It was true. She had never considered the question from that viewpoint before, and the idea was somehow disturbing. For the first time, she wondered how Itsuko had felt when Suzue had knelt at her feet; and the thought made her feel slightly ill.
Even worse was the possibility that, as a Senshi, Suzue herself was now one of the Elect. What if other Church members knew who she was? People she knew; friends and even family? How would they react? What if…her parents wanted to kneel to her? She shuddered.
Beth must have noticed. She nodded and said, “Yeah. It got to me, for a while. Bendis-chan helped me sort it out; but still, if I saw that guy again…brr.”
“I think…perhaps I know what you mean.” It occurred to Suzue, suddenly, that she was in quite a similar position to Beth. She found herself wondering how much that gave them in common; and even if, in spite of everything, she might be able to confide in the girl.
“You know,” she said slowly, “there’s something that maybe I ought to tell you—”
“Hello-o!” called a voice suddenly, making her jump. She looked around and saw Dhiti walking up from the gate, waving.
Perfect timing, she thought ruefully.
Then again, perhaps it was a good thing that she had been interrupted. Once again, she had managed to miss Iku. The girl was so quiet, it was easy to forget she was there…
“Good afternoon,” she said coolly as Dhiti reached them.
“Wow, what’s wrong with all of you?” Dhiti replied cheerfully. “You look like you’ve been kissing toads.”
Suzue stared at her. “We what?”
“It’s not that bad,” Beth put in. “We were just talking about…some stuff. It doesn’t really matter.”
“Kissing toads always matters, Beth-chan. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”
“No, I meant—”
“Though to be honest, when it comes to toads I’d actually prefer not to know the sordid details.”
Beth narrowed her eyes. “Excuse me? Which one of us has the toad fetish here?”
“It’s too dry for toads,” said Iku, very quietly.
Dhiti and Beth broke off, staring at Iku. The girl shrank back, as if frightened by their attention. Then, slowly, Dhiti’s face broke into a smile. “Not bad, Iku-chan,” she said. “Not bad at all.”
“What are you all talking about?” Suzue burst out. “We were having a serious discussion, and suddenly it’s all…toads! Is this supposed to be some kind of joke?”
“No, Suzue-san, it’s quite important, really,” Dhiti told her earnestly.
Suzue blinked, taken aback. “It is?”
“Absolutely. You see, kissing toads can cause chapped lips, so—”
“Oh, you’re impossible!”
Suzue whirled and started to stalk away, infuriated. It was bad enough that Dhiti seemed incapable of taking anything seriously. Worse yet, the others were all too ready to go along with her. Couldn’t they see how ridiculously they were behaving?
A hand touched her shoulder, and she looked around. “Come on,” said Dhiti softly. “It’s just a bit of fun. Don’t get grumpy.”
“Why not?” asked Suzue petulantly.
“Because then we’d have to start calling you ‘Grumpy-san.’”
“You—” She stared at Dhiti, on the verge of exploding again. “You are impossible.”
Dhiti shrugged and said, “That’s what they tell me.” She winked at Suzue, a faint grin quirking the corner of her mouth. “Friends?”
Suzue looked at her for a moment longer. Then, defeated, she let herself sag back. “…I suppose so,” she muttered.
“That’s the spirit! Now, come on. We’ve got to be ready to hear this big news of Hayashi’s…”
Suzue followed Dhiti back to rejoin the others. She felt muddled, annoyed—and yet, at the same time, oddly relaxed. It was all very confusing.
Beth watched the two of them come back with a sense of relief. Suzue and Dhiti sometimes seemed to get on like a house on fire, and not in a good way. Dhiti could never take anything seriously, and Suzue was…not cold, exactly, but…oh, well, never mind. The two of them had obviously made up, so that was all right. Surely.
She wondered, though, what Suzue had been about to tell her. Well, she could always ask later.
“So,” she said as the two drew near. “Dhiti-chan, did Obaasan tell you why she wanted this meeting?”
Dhiti blinked, then frowned. “No,” she said. “Actually, it was kind of weird, what happened.” She outlined what had happened quickly: Miyo’s sudden departure from school, their communicator call, and finally, the astonishing announcement in class.
“Withdrawn from school?” said Suzue, startled. She thought, then said, “Has anyone tried calling Itsuko-san?”
“Er—no,” Dhiti admitted. “I was in a bit of a hurry, and—”
“And you didn’t think of it,” Suzue finished. There might possibly have been a faint smile on her lips. “Never mind. But maybe you should try now. Artemis gave her a communicator, so…”
“Yeah, yeah,” muttered Dhiti, chagrined. “Just give me a second—”
“Don’t bother,” said Miyo’s voice from behind them.
Beth turned, and jumped. It was not Miyo at all; it was a stranger. But what was a stranger doing here? And where had Miyo’s voice come from?
Then she realised what she was seeing, and yelped in surprise.
The Miyo that stood before them was a changed person. Her clothes were unfamiliar. Her eyes had mysteriously become brown. Her skin had darkened a little, as if she had somehow acquired a tan overnight. Her figure seemed different, too, though Beth could not immediately pinpoint how.
And her hair—her beautiful mane of chestnut hair—had been shorn. It was barely shoulder-length, curled inward at the ends; and it was black.
Beth could not speak; she could only stare. At last she managed to stammer out, “What—what—”
“Hayashi!” groaned Dhiti in real horror. “Hayashi, what have you done!”
Miyo gave her a sardonic smile. “Surprise,” she said.
“Don’t tell me that!” Dhiti shouted. “You can’t do that! You can’t—oh, Hayashi, oh, Miyo, what have you done to yourself?”
“They found her, Dhiti-chan.” Miyo’s voice was level; but there was a sudden, fierce note in it. Her fists were clenched. “They found Itsuko. And now it’s all gone to hell.”
“Perhaps,” suggested Suzue carefully, “you should start at the beginning.”
Miyo told them. The raid on the Olympus; Itsuko’s forced flight, and her unexpected rescue. Eyebrows lifted at the mention of the semi-mythical Sailor Pluto, but Suzue firmly kept the others from interrupting. When the story was finished, a long, dismayed silence fell.
“So…you…” faltered Beth at last.
Miyo laughed harshly. “Itsuko said it. If she has to run, I have to go with her. Where else have I got to go?” She shook her head. “So Hayashi Miyo has to disappear. And you get to have a new me. Contact lenses, and body dye, and…” She grimaced. “I hope you like it.”
Dhiti did not answer in words. She walked up to Miyo, took her by the chin, and studied her face for a long moment. Then, still not speaking, she put her arms around the girl and hugged her.
After a moment, Miyo gave her an awkward hug back. “Thank you, Dhiti-chan,” she said softly. “That means a lot.”
“I don’t like this, Hayashi,” Dhiti answered, her voice muffled. “I don’t like it at all.” She lifted her head from Miyo’s shoulder, looked her in the eye, and said, “Just…promise me that you won’t change. That you’ll stay you. Promise me.”
Miyo looked oddly touched. “I promise,” she said.
“All right, then.” Dhiti sighed. “You know, if you really have to—” She broke off suddenly and pulled away from Miyo. “You feel funny,” she said, puzzled, and studied her for a moment. “Hayashi, what’ve you done to your chest?”
“Oh, so that’s what it is,” said Beth in sudden realisation. “I thought you looked different, Miyo-san.”
Suddenly everyone was looking at her. She flushed. “Um…apart from the obvious, that is.”
“I’m wearing a minimiser bra,” said Miyo stiffly. “Itsuko thought I should try to be a little less…”
“Outstanding?” suggested Dhiti. Iku made a tiny sound that could almost have been a laugh.
It drew her a glare. “Thank you so much. Look, the more different I look, the better, all right?” She rubbed her chest absently. “It’s not the most comfortable thing in the world to wear, but it’s not too bad.”
“The sacrifices you have to make,” said Dhiti sympathetically.
“Yes, I—Oh, shut up, you!” Miyo aimed a clout at Dhiti’s head and the Claver girl ducked, snickering.
Suzue shook her head. “I don’t know how you can take it all so calmly. You—forgive me, but, well…you already lost your family. This, though—it must be like losing—”
“Myself?” Miyo sobered, and gave her a cold smile. “Oh, I haven’t forgotten. But I’ve done my crying, Suzue-san. Now—” She took a deep breath. “Perhaps it’s time for me to grow up. Start fighting back.
“This was a defeat, yes. But I’m not going to tuck my head in and wail about it. I may have to hide who I am for now, but I swear to you, it won’t be forever. I have a life to live…and I’m going to live it!”
“Yes,” said Iku, softly but firmly.
“Bravo,” echoed Suzue.
“Yes, well,” Miyo said, a little embarrassed. “Thanks.”
“So you have to start a whole new life,” Beth mused. “In disguise…on the run from the law…it’s very romantic.”
Miyo stared at her. “Romantic—”
“Never mind that,” said Dhiti fiercely. “Hayashi, what happens now? What are you going to do? Where will you live? Don’t tell me you just have to leave! We need you!”
“I’m not leaving,” said Miyo. “Itsuko and I have a place to stay. I’ll give you the address. But…” She shook her head. “Dhiti-chan, you know I don’t like this either. But it’s not like I’ll be gone. I may have to go in disguise, and switch to a new school, and I…” She faltered suddenly. “I have to get a new name, too,” she admitted.
Dhiti stared at her, then looked away. “It’s all changing,” she said unhappily.
Miyo nodded. “I know. I just don’t seem to have any choice.”
A silence fell, one that grew steadily more uncomfortable. At last, clearing her throat, Beth said, “So, um, do you get to choose a new name yourself? How does that work?”
“Oh. Well, I have to pick one, but…well, I haven’t quite decided. Itsuko says I need to tell her soon, because she’s got to get me new identity papers.” Miyo paused, frowning. “I’m not sure how she’s going to do that, either. I asked, but she won’t say. Anyway, I—”
“You mean, after all that buildup, you don’t know?” demanded Dhiti indignantly.
“It’s a big decision,” Miyo protested.
“You must have some idea,” said Suzue.
Miyo hesitated. Her eyes narrowed. She said, “I was thinking of ‘Makoto.’”
When school let out, Aizawa Ochiyo headed for work. She had been a part-time receptionist at the Olympus Gymnasium for a year and a half now: four nights a week, one of them working until midnight. (The schedule rotated, thankfully.) On late nights she got to sleep over at the boss’s place, with a free meal thrown in.
The job kept her in spending money, and it was not too hard. It was an added bonus that she actually liked it.
Things were still quiet when she arrived; they wouldn’t warm up for an hour or so, when the business crowd started coming in. She climbed the stairs to the gymnasium and put a bundle of flowers down on the reception desk. Then she looked around, puzzled.
Nobody else was there. Where was Marisa, the day receptionist?
After a moment she shrugged, went around the desk and stowed her satchel in the cubbyhole at the rear. She sat down and glanced through the log book. It looked as though the whole day had been slow.
She stopped, and reread the log. That was odd; the last entry was from midmorning. Surely things hadn’t been that quiet?
She stared down at the book, dithering, then stood up. A glance down the stairs showed that nobody was coming. She left reception empty and went looking for the other staff.
She found Marisa in the little staff kitchen with Yukimi and Mito, two of the trainers. They were talking in low voices, but broke off quickly as Ochiyo came in. “Oh, you’re here,” said Yukimi. “Good. Were you on late shift last night?”
“No, not until next Saturday,” said Ochiyo. “Why? What’s happened? Where is everyone?”
“Where is Pappadopoulos-san, is the question,” said Yukimi with a sniff. She was a haughty, arrogant woman to the other staff, but ingratiating with the customers. Ochiyo did not like her much. “She disappeared this morning, and nobody’s seen her. I thought she might have said something to you last night.”
“There were strange men in and out of her office all morning,” put in Marisa. A fifty-ish woman with a strong accent, she looked upset. “Norie-chan asked them what they did, and they told her they were from ‘P’ Division!”
Ochiyo blinked. “The police? Were they here about the burglary?”
“Burglary?” said Mito, startled.
“Burglary?” demanded Yukimi at the same time. “What burglary?”
“Oh, la, I remember,” said Marisa. “That was…a month ago, yes? Someone, they broke into Pappadopoulos-sama’s apartment?”
“Yes,” said Ochiyo, and shivered. She had been there at the time. She still remembered it vividly: the black figure, appearing suddenly out of the darkness; the hand over her mouth, and the cold spray on her face.
There had been another break-in too, just a week ago; but that had been an altogether more inexplicable affair. Itsuko had told her later that it had been a practical joke, but it certainly had not seemed like one at the time.
“I would not think it was that,” said Marisa. “Why, they told Norie-chan that if anyone sees Pappadopoulos-sama, they must report it immediately!”
“It’s all very mysterious,” added Mito. He was a tall, athletic man, popular among the female customers, with a narrow, bony face. “Like something out of a crime novel.”
“I think Pappadopoulos-san is in some kind of trouble,” said Yukimi. From the thin smile on her face, the idea seemed to please her.
Marisa sniffed. “Now there’s a mushroom idea,” she said.
Ochiyo lifted her hand to hide a smile. Marisa was from Grande Brasile in southern Americay, and she sometimes had a curious turn of phrase. They were all at least slightly mad in Grande Brasile, supposedly.
Yukimi did not smile; she glared at Marisa and said acidly, “And what would you know? If you ask me, there’s been something a little fishy about Pappadopoulos-san all along. Where does a Greek woman get the money to buy a building like this, for a start?”
“Oh, come,” protested Mito. “You can’t be suggesting she’s—”
“Then why do the police want her?” said Yukimi. “Why were they taking all her files away? And where is she?”
“But surely you can’t think Pappadopoulos-san would—” Ochiyo began. But even as she spoke she realised, appalled, that that was exactly what Yukimi did think. She broke off, staring at the woman in shock.
“You are talking nonsense,” said Marisa to Yukimi angrily, and Ochiyo wanted to applaud. “Crazy nonsense! I have worked for Pappadopoulos-sama for more than six years, and you won’t find a better, more generous woman!” Under her breath she added, contemptuously, “Mushroom, la.”
“Then where is she?” Yukimi repeated. There was a smug satisfaction in her voice that Ochiyo longed to puncture; but she could not. Where was Itsuko? She could only stare at the woman, hating her a little. Marisa, too, gave Yukimi a look that was filled with loathing, and then turned and stormed out.
“Really, there could be a lot of explanations,” pointed out Mito. “We don’t know that she won’t be back any minute. And heaven knows, the whole business in her office could be…I don’t know; a tax audit, perhaps. I’m sure it’s all perfectly innocent.”
“By ‘P’ Division?” said Yukimi.
“There could be a lot of explanations,” he said again; but his tone had a sudden weak uncertainty and Ochiyo realised that he, too, was beginning to doubt.
Sickened and not wanting to hear any more, she turned away. “Mushroom,” she whispered under her breath. She had no idea what it meant, but somehow it was comforting.
She followed Marisa back out to reception. The Brasealan woman was at the desk, packing items into her little shoulder satchel. She looked up as Ochiyo came in.
“Ochiyo-chan,” she said. “You must not believe anything that…that foolish woman says! Pappadopoulos-sama is—”
“I know,” said Ochiyo.
“She is a paragon, a hero among women! Why, when first I came to Japan, she gave me such help, she—” Marisa gave a loud sniff, and Ochiyo suddenly realised that the woman was close to tears. Any sense of amusement at her words suddenly vanished.
“I don’t believe Yukimi-san,” Ochiyo said. “I don’t like her.”
“That is good.” Marisa gave her a quick smile. “You have a strong heart.” Then she looked back to the desk, and flinched. “Oh, la, and I have not finished my work! The log is undone, and—”
“It’s okay,” Ochiyo told her. “I can do it.” She touched Marisa on the shoulder. “I’m sure it’ll be all right.”
As she spoke, she wondered if she believed it.
Marisa stood at the desk for a moment longer, then relaxed. She nodded sharply. “Very well. I will see you tomorrow, then. Be well, Ochiyo-chan.” She smiled at Ochiyo again, then headed down the stairs, her steps quick and jerky. Ochiyo stood looking after her for several seconds, trying to decide what to do.
Then she heard more footsteps—a sharper, male stride—coming up. A customer, arriving for his regular workout. Abruptly, she remembered what she was supposed to do. She sat down at the reception desk, and when the man came into view, she offered him a big smile.
The afternoon dragged past. All the staff were nervous and subdued, and before long the mood infected the customers as well. More and more of them cut their sessions short and left early. Ochiyo found herself wondering what would become of the gymnasium if Itsuko never came back at all.
Her shift finally ended at seven, and she picked up her bag as soon as Ryobe arrived to take over. He raised an eyebrow at the flowers on the desk, grinned at her obvious eagerness to be gone, and waved her out.
She started down the stairs. Then, on a sudden odd impulse, she turned and went up instead. She stood for a moment on the top landing, listening. The upper floor was silent. She nodded to herself and went on.
Itsuko’s office was sure to be locked; but Ochiyo knew the key code to her apartment. She had to, to get in and out on her late nights. She punched in the number and opened the door.
The apartment was dark and silent. She paused on the threshold for a second, knowing that she had no business being here, and then stepped inside. She walked down the corridor quickly and opened the through-door into the office. “Itsuko-san?” she called quietly.
The office was as dark as the apartment. Ochiyo steeled herself, then turned on the light.
It was a mess. Papers and empty boxes littered the floor. The drawers of the filing cabinets were open, and folders lay stacked haphazardly everywhere. The cupboard in the corner stood ajar, its contents strewn across the carpet. The window had been left open. Itsuko’s desk was tidy enough, but it was not in its usual position. Nor was the rest of the furniture.
She took another look at the desk. It was completely clear; even the ‘in’ and ‘out’ trays were empty. Most of the folders by the filing cabinets looked empty, too. Yukimi had said that the police had taken Itsuko’s papers away, she remembered. Seeing the wretched woman proved right left a sour taste in Ochiyo’s mouth.
Feeling ill and depressed, she glanced around the office again, saw nothing else, and then switched off the light and turned away.
Somewhere in the apartment, there was a loud buzz.
She jumped, then relaxed, laughing softly in the darkness. It was just the commset in the living room. Someone calling for Itsuko, or perhaps for that strange, tall girl Itsuko had taken in.
It buzzed again. And again.
Her feet seemed to move by themselves. She found herself looking down at the commset, barely visible in the light filtering through the door. She had no right to answer it; she knew that. But whoever was calling might know what was happening…
It buzzed again, and she picked up the handset. “Yes?” she said.
“Hello?” The voice in her ear sounded like a boy, or perhaps a young man. “Oneechan, is that you?”
In the darkness, Ochiyo blinked, and for a moment, the patent absurdity of the situation got to her. “If I am, my parents have been lying to me for a long time,” she said wryly. “Who is this?”
The voice did not answer for a long time. Then, in a low, bitter tone, it said, “I knew it wouldn’t be true.”
“What?” she said, baffled. “Who is this? Did you want Itsuko-san? Or Miyo-san?” But the commset was dead in her ear. She stared at it, then put it down.
In the darkness, she looked around one last time, and shook her head. There were no answers here. She left the apartment, locking the door behind her.
Friday was baking hot, without a breath of wind. Beth trudged to school glumly, sweat beading her forehead, her satchel hanging from fingers that felt like rubber. It was only half past eight and already she felt nearly dead.
She had not gotten much sleep the night before. Her bedroom had been completely airless, and she had tossed and turned for hours. Worse, Bendis had been just as restless, and kept getting up to prowl around the room. Each time Beth started to fall into a fitful doze, she would be jerked awake by the cat’s soft, padding footsteps.
When her alarm finally went off, she was still lying awake. Her eyes felt half-boiled. She dragged herself out of bed and into the shower, not even hearing Bendis’ half-hearted good morning, and then screamed in shock when she stepped in before the water had had a chance to run hot. It was not an auspicious start to the day.
She managed to rouse a little more when Nanako joined her at the school gate. Beth raised a limp hand in greeting, too tired to care that they had recently been fighting, and they walked in together.
“Rough night?” inquired Nanako, giving her a curious glance.
“Couldn’t sleep,” Beth mumbled. “Don’t ever get a cat, Nana-chan.”
“No?” Nanako looked interested. “Why, is she going into heat or something?”
This idea, finally, shocked Beth wide-awake. “Oh, gods, I hope not. I don’t even want to contemplate that.” But, unbidden, a mental image of Bendis yowling outside her window sprang into her mind, and she cringed. “Ohh, I contemplated it!”
“Contemplated what?” asked Eitoku’s voice.
She looked around to see him approaching, with Iku close behind. “Never mind,” she told him.
Wildly, Beth grabbed him by the lapels of his uniform jacket. “There are some things,” she hissed, “that human beings were not meant to know. All right?”
“All right!” he squeaked, and backed away from her hastily. “For heaven’s sake—”
“Beth-chan has cat problems,” Nanako put in, smirking.
“Oh, is that all?” Now he was annoyed. “You mean that one that was hanging round school, a while back? If it’s a problem, why not get it spayed? Or just get rid of it.”
Beth stared at him. She decided that she was never, ever going to mention this conversation to Bendis.
Nanako seemed to think the whole thing was hilarious. “You could get a canary instead,” she suggested. “Or white mice.”
“Or a dog,” Iku said. “I had a dog once. A little puppy…”
“Really?” There was a curious wistfulness in Iku’s voice that drew Beth’s attention. “Iku-chan, I didn’t know you—”
“Whoops,” said Nanako suddenly, with an exaggerated look at her watch. “It’s almost time. We’d better head in, everyone. Come on.”
She led them inside, talking animatedly. Beth followed along, but she hung back a little, not paying much attention. For just a moment there, when Nanako had butted in and cut off her question, she thought there had been an odd expression on Nanako’s face. It might have just been Beth’s imagination; but it seemed to her that it had looked like pity. Or guilt.
Late on Friday night, Itsuko drove out of Third Tokyo. Thirty kilometres north-west of the city, the countryside around Lake Tega was still largely rural, and there were no street lights. The night was pitch-black. There was no moon; overhead, the stars were brilliant, but they illuminated nothing. She drove in silence, just her and the beams from her headlights, alone in the dark.
She pulled up by a decaying old boathouse on the lake shore. Its appearance was deceptive; it was a good deal sturdier than it looked, and the lock on the door was excellent. She unlocked it, swearing as she fumbled with the keys, and pulled it open. There was no boat inside; instead, a dark blue van gleamed in the headlights of her car.
She switched the vehicles, and spent a few minutes transferring a number of long, heavy wooden boxes into the rear of the van. Then, leaving the car locked in the boathouse, she drove off again, heading around the lake and then west, over the Tonegawa bridge and across the Kanto plain.
The van was noisier than the electric car; it had an alcohol engine. Permits for such vehicles were hard to come by, and she had not obtained hers legally. Tonight, though, she needed the extra range.
An hour’s drive brought her into a thickly wooded region. Ghost-pale tree trunks flicked past in her headlights, their branches a deeper shade of black against the night sky. Ahead and behind, she began to see the lights of other vehicles, moving in the same direction as her.
They were all going to the fair.
‘Fair’…such an innocent name; so deceptive. The truth was that the black market fairs could be ruthlessly dangerous to the innocent or the newcomer. They were home to a spectrum of vices, from the comparatively innocent to the thoroughly vile. No names was the rule, and no questions. The people who came to these gatherings had a lot to lose, and they did not give second chances.
Itsuko knew the ropes. She knew what to say, who to talk to, and who to beware of. All the same, she would have to be particularly careful tonight. She had more to lose than usual.
Five minutes further on, the road took a long curve south. She slowed and turned off into a narrow dirt road. It twisted its way through the trees, before suddenly emerging from the forest and passing between well-fenced fields. A horse ranch; she could see glimpses of the animals in her headlights.
Up ahead, one of the fields was filled with light. No doubt the ranch owners had been well-paid for the use of their land tonight. They might even be participants. There was no shortage of people interested in a little off-the-books, tax-free commerce.
A ranch field was an odd sort of venue, perhaps, but hardly exceptional. The locations could be anywhere, and they were always shifting; it would be months or even years before this place was used again. Itsuko had actually taken the Senshi to one of the fairgrounds, not long ago, for a training session. She wondered what the girls would say if they knew what else went on where they had been practising their attacks.
Her headlights picked out an open gate, just ahead. She turned into the field and stopped at the end of a row of other vehicles: vans like hers, cars, trucks, and even a few motorcycles. As she switched off the engine, she could hear voices in the distance.
She took a quick glance in the rear-view mirror and nodded. The wig and glasses had been left behind; for tonight, she was Itsuko again. If all went well, it would be for the last time.
It was after midnight, but the air outside was still warm, and redolent with the aroma of horse. She breathed in through her nose, shrugged, then tucked a small leather satchel under her arm and headed over toward the lights.
She had to pass through an inner fence on the way. A group of men and women stood at the gate, talking quietly. They looked up as she approached, and she nodded to them. After a second one of the men nodded back. The others relaxed.
She had been recognised. If they had not known her, and she had not had someone to vouch for her, they would have had to show their weapons. Itsuko knew from humiliating experience just how well-armed they were.
“Hi, Masami-san,” she said to the man who had nodded to her, as she reached the gate. “Can I get you anything while I’m inside?”
He looked back at her, expressionless. “Thank you, Pappadopoulos-san,” he said. “That won’t be necessary.”
“Sure.” Itsuko could not resist. “You know, I heard a weird rumour about you. Man I was talking to a few weeks ago said he’d actually seen you smile.”
Still his face did not move. “Surely not.”
“Well, that’s what I told him. Tell me—” She dropped the levity suddenly. “Who’s good with records at the moment?”
He paused, apparently deep in thought. At last, slowly, he said, “Speak to Kuramoto-san. He can give you a referral.”
“Kuramoto-san. Thanks.” Itsuko turned away and walked through the gate briskly.
The field was busy. Here and there, little tents had been set up, for all the world like a real fairground, but most of the dealing seemed to be done from the backs of vans or trucks. In between, there must have been a thousand or more people bustling about. Some of them were talking and laughing, but most were hushed, moving quickly, their heads and voices low, intent on their business. Somewhere, soft music was playing from a tinny speaker.
Itsuko moved through the crowd, taking her time, nodding to people she recognised and stopping to greet a few. A couple of them asked if she was here with goods. She gave noncommittal answers, and they nodded in return.
She walked past a truck that was unloading carton after carton of data wands—probably pornography—and paused to watch another man lifting heavy sacks from the rear of a van. Coffee, from the smell of it; the markings on the sack were Brasealan. Itsuko was in a similar line, so she took an interest.
A little further on, a heavyset young woman was levering the top off a crate of gold and silver ornaments, packed in wood shavings. Seeing Itsuko’s raised eyebrow, the woman said, “Native art from the Virgin Nation. Were you buying?”
Itsuko smiled, shaking her head; the ornaments looked quite good, but they were almost certainly fake. The woman’s eyes hardened. “You’re in the business already?” she demanded.
Itsuko raised her eyebrows. “Rather a personal question,” she murmured. From the corner of her eyes, she saw some of the men in the van start to pay attention.
To her silent relief, the woman backed down at once. “All right, all right,” she said sulkily. “Sorry. Only I can do without the competition.”
Itsuko nodded, accepting the apology. “I’m in a different area,” she said. “I was just curious.”
The woman snorted. “Aren’t they all,” she muttered, and turned back to the crate, sorting through the ornaments. Itsuko watched her for a few moments more, an idea slowly crystallising in her mind. Then, thoughtfully, she moved on.
All around her, the fair hummed with activity. Here was a gathering where you could find anything from heroin to hit-men, buy anything from real Flamish wines, fabulously expensive, to jewellery stolen from the royal palace in Attalantay. And everywhere, if you knew where to look, and if your credentials were good enough, the people who could sell you still more exotic things. Anything at all.
But there was more to it than just buying and selling illegal goods or services. The fairs also served as a haven to those people who, for a thousand different reasons, preferred trade and barter to other, more taxable forms of exchange. They brought a wilder element to the gatherings; in the rougher areas, there would be the gambling dens, the brothel tents and the arenas.
A gathering this large even attracted its own service industry. Here and there she saw stalls and carts selling hot food and drinks, and doing a brisk trade—not always for money.
The interesting thing about the service industry, sometimes, was how well it knew the people it served. She stopped by a little stand that was selling hot roasted nuts and asked the seller quietly if he knew where to find Kuramoto. He gave her cheerful directions, and sold her a bag of roast chestnuts. She tried one as she walked away. It was quite good.
She found Kuramoto after a little searching: a tall, lanky man talking to a group of drug dealers. Itsuko kept her opinions to herself, waited until he was free, and told him that Masami had suggested that he might be able to recommend someone for records work.
Kuramoto thought for a moment. “Cash or trade?” he asked. “You deal in tea, don’t you?”
“Darjeeling,” she agreed. Government tariffs on imported tea were very high, making it profitable to smuggle in; and she had contacts in India. “I can do either.”
She found it interesting—and slightly alarming—that he knew her by sight, and what she dealt in. How, and why? Had Masami warned him somehow? As before, she kept her opinions to herself.
He smiled. “Tea, then.” They discussed his referral fee for a minute, and settled on a single case. He waved to another man to help him, and they returned to Itsuko’s van, where she unloaded one of the boxes she had packed earlier. Kuramoto lifted the lid, sniffed, and nodded. The nameless assistant carried the case away.
Kuramoto pulled a card from his pocket and scribbled on it. “Talk to Trio,” he said. He gave her the card, and directions. “He’ll want cash. Probably quite a lot of it.”
“Thank you.” Itsuko waited as Kuramoto left, made sure the van was locked and the alarm reset, and then headed back into the fairground. Almost immediately, she ran into an old friend.
“Itsuko-chan!” boomed Okuda Jiro, throwing his arms wide. “Kalispera! Ti kanis?”
She stifled a curse. Not now!
She had first met Jiro twenty-two years ago. She had been using the name Ochida Junko back then, running a dojo in the upper levels of the Olympus building…and, then as now, doing a little smuggling on the side. She had befriended Jiro, still a young man at the time, at a fair. Over the next few years she had helped him out when she could, and in time it paid off.
Even at that first meeting, she remembered, she had told him she was half-Greek; already planning, two years ahead, for the day when she would need a new name. Later, when she needed help in turn, Jiro was the one who introduced her to the people who could build her a new identity; could make her into Pappadopoulos Itsuko.
They fell out of touch after that. It was safest that way. But recently, when she’d found that her office in the Olympus was bugged, she had had to call him again—and, inevitably, he had noticed that Itsuko had not aged.
That alone could make him dangerous. But now, coupled with what Setsuna had told her about him…she felt a slow, cold rage begin to burn.
“Jiro-san,” she responded coolly.
He looked hurt, but ploughed on. “Sure didn’ expect to see you here. Thought you went straight, years back?”
“I still do a little,” she said. Her voice remained flat.
Jiro’s eyes narrowed. “Somethin’ wrong, Itsuko-chan? Anythin’ I can do to help?”
“No.” Itsuko started to turn away from him; but he put out a hand to stop her. Just as quickly, she struck his arm away.
He stood stock-still, looking at her, weighing the situation. Then, very quietly, he said, “What’d I do, Itsuko-chan? I thought we were friends.”
“You?” she snapped. “You’ve done everything!”
“You never told me you were Sankaku,” she hissed, keeping her voice low. Even here, that was not a fact to bandy about. “You never told me who I was dealing with, Jiro-san.”
“So.” His face went suddenly blank; his eyes, alert. “An’ so what?” he asked.
“So ‘S’ Division came to arrest me on Thursday. Conspiracy charges! Working with the Sankaku—me! I was lucky to get away.”
“I can help,” he said at once. “We got resources; we can get around this. You don’ know the whole story, Itsu—”
“Help?” she spat. “I think you’ve done enough, don’t you? I don’t need your help, Jiro-san. I don’t think I need to see you ever again.”
Before he could move again, she spun away and left him behind.
She stalked through the crowd mechanically, pushing people out of her away when they did not move fast enough. Her fists were clenched, her teeth set. She had wanted to hit him; the only thing that had stopped her was remembering how bad an idea it was to start a fight at the fair. But oh, how she had wanted to hit him…
She stopped at a cart and bought a cold, sweet drink. Sipping it helped to restore her self-control. As she calmed down, she began to wonder if it had been a good idea to tell him that she knew he was Sankaku. Well, it couldn’t be helped now.
With a sigh, she pulled Kuramoto’s card from her pocket and glanced at it. ‘Trio.’ She grimaced, and set out through the fairground again.
Jiro watched her go, and cursed to himself. This, he had never expected. He knew that the Serries were nervous, but arresting Itsuko seemed excessive. Unless they knew, or suspected, more about her?
That she was Hino Rei, for instance.
It was hard to deal with her, knowing that. Still harder to imagine that she was still smuggling tea, of all things. It made him prone to mistakes; he had almost forgotten to greet her in Greek.
But if she was on the run now, she would have other priorities besides smuggling; she would be trying to disappear. He might lose track of her completely—
Wait. If she was on the run, she had probably come here tonight for new identity papers.
Jiro found a private spot and pulled out his commset. He punched in a number and spoke rapidly.
Near the rear of the fairground was a truck that matched Kuramoto’s description. Itsuko studied it for a moment, noting with interest the cable that led to a satellite dish mounted on the roof. She knocked on the rear door.
It opened, revealing a bleached-blonde woman with a flat-top haircut. “Yes?” she said.
“I’m looking for a man called Trio,” Itsuko said.
The woman raised her eyebrows. “Oh? And what makes you think he’s here?”
Itsuko passed her the card. “Kuramoto-san sent me.”
The woman studied it. “Better,” she said. “Your name?”
“Wait.” The woman pulled out a commset and punched a single button, without taking her eyes off Itsuko. “Kuramoto-san?” she said. “Did you send me someone?”
She listened for a few seconds, then nodded and put the commset away. “Come in,” she said to Itsuko, and stepped back so Itsuko could climb inside.
The back of the truck was lined with tables holding a bewildering array of equipment: computers, printers, binders, laminators—virtually a mobile printing shop. In one corner Itsuko could see a work area laid out with pens, brushes and inkstones. It was an encouraging sight; she began to think that she might not be wasting her money.
Two men were working at computer terminals: a tall Claver who looked African, and a smaller, rat-faced man who was Japanese like the woman. Itsuko asked quietly, “Which one is—?”
The woman smiled. “I’m Trio. You can talk to me.”
“Oh.” Itsuko glanced at them again, then back at the woman. “Kuramoto said ‘he,’” she said, suddenly suspicious.
“They are also Trio.” The smile widened. “There are three of us, of course.”
“…Of course.” Itsuko felt like an idiot. To hide her discomfort, she pulled out her satchel and opened it. “I need a new fake ID,” she said brusquely. “Plus a background upgrade on a different ID.”
“Really,” the woman drawled. “Well, I expect we can do something about that.” She glanced through the papers Itsuko handed her, clearly amused. “Birth certificate, bank accounts, tax records…a full credit history…my, my. And how much detail were you expecting in all this? Enough to take a casual glance, or something a little more…sophisticated?”
“As thorough as you can make it,” Itsuko said. “I need to be able to take scrutiny from ‘S’ Division.”
“Ah.” The woman’s teeth flashed. “How interesting. I trust you’re not in a hurry. And I do hope you’re feeling rich…because you won’t be, by the time we’re done.”
She left the truck much later, substantially poorer, with her satchel full of papers.
It had been quite impressive, really, to see Trio at work. They took all the documents she gave them and then spent nearly an hour questioning her, extracting still more information in bewildering detail. All of it went into the computers, and slowly, new documents began to emerge. As they worked they moved around the confined space of the truck, from computer to printer to work desk and back, their efforts perfectly coordinated even though they barely spoke to one other.
Two of them, anyway. The third, the rat-faced man, was apparently working on some other project; he stayed out of the way at a single computer, his eyes glued to the screen, working as if driven. Twice as Itsuko waited, people she did not recognise entered the truck and spoke to him. One of them passed him a single sheet of paper; the other, a data wand. Each time, it seemed to spur him to more furious effort. Itsuko wanted to ask the other Trio members what he was working on. She kept her mouth shut.
The other two did not seem to need him, in any case. The bundle of papers they gave her an hour and a half later looked impressively official, and more importantly, impressively real—right down to the aged paper in the birth certificates and the hanko stamps. The woman—Itsuko never learned her name—advised her to wait a week or so before using some of the documents, to give the details time to propagate through a network of government databases. Itsuko nodded wisely and tried to pretend she knew what the woman was talking about.
Now, outside once more, she stood blinking in the darkness for a minute or two as she let her eyes readjust. It was nearly three o’clock, and the noise level of the fair had dropped a notch or two. The hustle and bustle was not over, not yet, but the activity was definitely beginning to ebb.
Just a couple more things to do, and then she could go home and get some sleep. She yawned, shifted the satchel to her other arm, and set out through the thinning crowd.
Almost immediately, she came to a stop as a hand touched her elbow. “Pappadopoulos-san?” a voice murmured. “I wonder if I might have a word.”
Not Jiro’s voice. She tried to shrug the hand off and step away, but the voice added, “Or would you rather I called you Hino-san?”
Slowly, she turned to face her assailant. She recognised him, all too well. Tall and blond, with a prominent chin…and an ‘S’ Division agent. He had tried to stop her from escaping, two days before, in the car-park of the Olympus building.
She said, “Get away from me, right now.”
“Now, now,” he said mildly. “There’s no need for unpleasantness. All I want is a quiet chat.”
“Get away! If I raise my voice—”
He let go of her and stepped a careful few centimetres back. “I wouldn’t be rash, if I were you,” he told her. “Shouting won’t help. They know me here.”
“They know—?” She stared at him. Then she hissed, “Do they know you’re ‘S’ Division? If I mention that, you’ll be dead in a second.”
He said, “And if I tell them who you really are?”
Itsuko was silent.
“It seems we both have something to lose,” he remarked.
“What. Do. You. Want?”
“I already said: just a quiet, polite little chat. No strings attached. Is that so much to ask for?”
She studied him for a moment, her teeth clenched. “Say what you have to say.”
He nodded in approval, with a self-satisfied confidence that made her want to punch him. “I’m guessing that you came here for papers,” he said. “New identities for you and the girl, and so forth. I assume the Hayashi girl is, er, one of you? Well, never mind. You made an excellent choice, talking to Trio. They’re very, very good. We always have trouble trying to break their work—it takes us days, sometimes.”
Itsuko glared at him.
“Really, now,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be better if you didn’t have to go through all of this?”
“Then get off my back!” she said. “I am not a member of the Sankaku. I am not working with the Sankaku.”
“Oh? Prove it.”
He smiled. “Come with me now. Turn yourself in.”
“No, hear me out,” he insisted. “It really is your best choice, you know. Look…you think we want to keep hounding you? You, of all people? Hell, of course we know the evidence is circumstantial! We’re not trying to persecute you for fun. If you’re innocent, you’ll get the chance to prove it.”
“If you’re so damn sure the evidence is circumstantial,” she said angrily, “why couldn’t you investigate it first? Why are you hounding me now?”
“Because the Sankaku are involved,” he said. “That makes it a National Security matter.” He shook his head. “Unfortunately, it also makes our options a good deal more limited.”
He was sincere, Itsuko realised. That was unexpected. She was silent for a minute, considering what he had said. At last, cautiously, she asked, “And if I decline your…kind offer?”
The lightness dropped from his tone. “Then all bets are off. This case has gone all the way to the top, and the orders are clear. They want you, Hino-san—”
“Don’t call me that,” she said automatically.
“—Pappadopoulos-san, then. They want you, and they’ll have you. If you don’t turn yourself in, the kid gloves come off. I don’t care what papers Trio gave you; we will find you and we will take you. And after that…even if you do turn out to be innocent, you can’t expect your identity to remain secret by the time the investigation’s over.
“Please—” He was almost pleading now. “Make it easy on yourself.”
Again she was silent, thinking it over. He was probably telling the truth, and in spite of herself, she was almost tempted. But…“I can’t, don’t you see?” she said. “You know what’s happening at the moment. The crystal creatures, the vitrimorphs. The attacks. I’m a part of it. I have a responsibility.”
Very gently, he said, “Do you? But you’re not a Senshi any more, are you?”
She could not restrain a shudder. “That doesn’t matter. I was there; I saw this all begin. I need to—to be sure…”
“You were there,” he repeated, almost under his breath. She saw him hesitate. Then, in a rush, he said, “There’s so much you could tell us. What happened? Who destroyed Crystal Tokyo, and why? And why—why can’t you become Sailor Mars any more?”
The question was so unexpected—and so personal, and so completely honest—that she almost laughed. “As to that,” she began, then broke off. “See here, what is your name, anyway?”
He blinked. “Aoiro. Captain Aoiro Takechi.”
“Well, then, Captain Aoiro Takechi, as to that…” She waved one finger at him. “That is a secret.”
He didn’t get the joke, of course; he just looked puzzled, and disappointed.
“Never mind.” Itsuko sighed. “Look—give me a little time, all right? Two or three days. I…need to think about all this.” He looked unhappy, but she overrode the protest he was about to make. “I suppose I know where to find you, if I…decide to work with you.”
He studied her for a few heartbeats longer, and then bowed his head in resignation. “All right,” he said. “Just…do the sensible thing.”
“We’ll see,” she replied. She was about to leave, but then turned back at a sudden thought. “What are you doing here, anyway? How did you find out about the fair?”
Aoiro looked surprised. Then he laughed out loud. “Please,” he said. “Do you really think ‘S’ Division are that useless? Credit us with some competence. We’ve known about the fairs for years. We keep our hands off, usually, because it’s handy to keep the black market where you can find it; but there are always a few agents about, keeping an eye on things.”
She stared at him, chastened. “Oh.”
“The fair officials know that we know, of course. And they keep quiet about it, for the same reason we do.” He gave her a quick look. “The really dangerous types never come here. They know better.”
“But you keep watch anyway.”
“Of course.—Well, not me personally. I got called in when you were seen here tonight. Actually, it was quite a surprise to us. We didn’t have a record of you as a dealer at all.”
“I suppose,” she said, “that I should take comfort in that.” She scowled. “If nothing else.”
After they parted, Itsuko watched him go carefully, nervous that he might try to follow her. Then she realised how foolish she was being. Aoiro had just told her that there were other agents around. They could be anyone at all. The man who’d sold her chestnuts; the woman walking past with an armful of thin metal rods…even one of the members of Trio. Or all of them.
She snorted. Paranoia was the last thing she needed now. Shaking her head, she went on her way. Just a little more to do, and then she could finally go home.
She found the men who had asked her if she’d brought any trading goods earlier, and sold the rest of her tea to them. It didn’t bring in a lot, but after the amount she’d paid to Trio, every little helped.
And last, she went hunting and found the young woman she’d talked to earlier, with her box of fake ornaments and, obviously, little idea what to do with them.
She found her, rummaging through the crate dejectedly. The level didn’t seem to have dropped much and Itsuko thought that she probably hadn’t sold anything at all.
The woman looked up as she approached. “You again,” she said. “Come back to laugh?”
Itsuko shook her head. She studied the woman for a few seconds, and decided that she liked what she saw. “No offence, but…you’re kind of new at this, aren’t you?” she said quietly.
There was a sudden wariness in the woman’s eyes, quickly hidden. “What if I am?” she demanded. “What’s it to you?”
Itsuko carefully did not smile. A new start, she thought. A way forward.
A chance to begin again. Someone who didn’t know her as Itsuko, and so wouldn’t expect her to look older than she did. Someone relatively innocent, who could easily be bluffed when Itsuko suddenly became Seki. And, best of all, someone who already knew the fairs.
After all, knowing what she knew now, it would be a long time before Itsuko dared come back here.
“Oh, nothing,” she said aloud. “It’s just that…well, I’ve been around a little, but I’m kind of at a loose end at the moment. So I was just wondering…”
She smiled at the woman. “Could you use a partner?”
Aoiro checked the time and decided, with malice aforethought, to call Captain Hiiro anyway. Hiiro’s voice was suitably groggy, but he woke up quickly when Aoiro briefed him on what had happened.
“She’s been to see Trio?” Hiiro repeated. “Damn.”
“Yeah. I said we can break whatever they gave her.”
“That’ll be the day. If we could break their work, we’d’ve had the evidence to arrest them years ago.”
“I know. I wanted her nervous.”
“Okay.” Hiiro was silent for a few seconds. “You think she’ll take your offer? Call you back?”
“Not a chance,” Aoiro said regretfully. “She asked for a few days to think it over. You know what that means.”
“Hell, I taught you that. She wants time to get clear.” Hiiro breathed heavily into the commset. “Okay. We take the other route, then. At least now we know.”
And then, finally, home. An hour’s drive back to Lake Tega to switch vehicles, and then back to Third Tokyo by car. Itsuko had to drive slowly; she could barely keep her eyes open.
She reached the house a little after five in the morning. The sun was already up; the birds were singing. She groaned, draped a heavy blanket over her bedroom window, and crawled into bed.
She could not sleep. Her mind was too busy. Pondering Aoiro’s veiled threats. Worrying about how trustworthy her new papers would be. Remembering Jiro, and the bridges she had burned when she walked away from him. Trying to decide how long she had before Aoiro gave up waiting to hear from her.
She tossed and turned restlessly. The room was stuffy and hot. Kami, she was so tired.
She remembered the woman with her crate of ornaments, Gensai Eri. She had been understandably sceptical of Itsuko’s sudden suggestion; but by the time Itsuko had finished laying out her offer, she was enthusiastic. It smacked of naïveté, but Itsuko would help cure her of that.
But there was still so much to do; so much to plan; and always, so little time to do it all. If only she had a chance to stop and catch her breath; if only the world would stop moving for just a little; if only she could sleep…
And then, unbelievably, she heard Miyo start to bustle about in the kitchen, making breakfast. She looked at the clock and bit her pillow in an effort not to scream.
When Miyo burst into her room, carrying a steaming tray and bidding her a cheerful good morning, she managed to smile.
Saturday afternoon was as hot and still as Friday had been. August would be hotter still; but even now, Third Tokyo baked under a blazing sun. Within the little aerodrome a few kilometres out of the city, the wall thermometer hovered just below 30 degrees Celsius. Outside, it was several degrees higher.
Suzue ignored the heat as she walked from the flight-club rooms into the main building. She was feeling very pleased with herself. Another sixty minutes in her flight log book today; and the instructor had told her that with a further three hours or so, she would be ready to solo. She hummed to herself, a faint smile on her face.
A glance up at the clock showed that she had ten minutes before the next train left for the city. She felt the little purse in her pocket, and went over to a nearby vending machine for a cold drink. When she turned around again, she jumped. Minoru and Keiko were standing right in front of her, grinning.
“Minoru-kun…Keiko-chan,” she said, startled. “What are you doing here?” Her boyfriend and her best friend from school were the last faces she had expected here.
“There, you see?” said Keiko, looking up at Minoru. “I said she’d be pleased to see us.”
Suzue gave her a mildly exasperated look. “Well, of course I’m glad to see you,” she said. “I just never thought—”
“She’s winding you up,” Minoru told her. “Actually, we’ve been here for a while. I wanted to see you actually flying…and Keiko-chan invited herself along when I said I was going.”
“Well, I’ve never been in an airplane,” said Keiko, rather defensively. “Is that thing really safe, Suzue-chan? It looked awfully flimsy.”
“Of course it’s—well, I suppose it’s not totally safe,” Suzue admitted. “But Ashida-san is a very good instructor, and she says I’m doing well.”
“Oh…if you say so.” Keiko looked out the window dubiously as another two-seater plane taxied out to the runway. “I just don’t see the attraction in it.”
“When you’ve seen the view from up there, Keiko-chan…the whole world, spread out underneath you…” For a moment Suzue’s eyes were far away, seeing distant horizons. “Then you’ll understand. There’s nothing like it.”
Keiko let out a squawk. “You expect me to go up in one of those tiny things? I wouldn’t dare!”
“Your loss,” said Minoru cheerfully. “Personally, I have a date in the air with Suzue-chan…as soon as she gets her license.”
“That won’t be for a while yet, of course,” Suzue warned.
He winked at her. “Who did the landing today? The instructor, or you?”
“Oh…I did.” Suzue tried to look modest. Admittedly she had bounced the airplane a couple of times, but she was improving at that. Last week’s lesson had been little but landings.
She finished her drink and tossed the cup into a bin, and the three of them headed out to the railway platform, chatting amiably. The surprise of the moment aside, Suzue was touched that her friends had come. The afternoon had already been good. Now it was better.
The train hissed into the station, on time, three minutes later. They took seats in an almost-empty carriage. As the train pulled out again, Keiko said, “Hey, Suzue-chan, I never asked. Where did you have to go in such a hurry, after school on Thursday? You ran off without saying a word.”
Suzue thought before she spoke. She had gone to the warehouse to meet Miyo and the others, of course. “I had to see someone,” she said calmly. “A friend I met recently. She needed to talk about some things.”
“Oh?” said Minoru. “Anyone I know?”
“I shouldn’t think so,” Suzue answered. She thought about some of the things Miyo had said that afternoon, after the bombshell about her name, and added, “Though you could meet her soon. I understand she may be transferring into our school.”
The day passed. Miyo spent Saturday afternoon cleaning the windows of her new house—it was impossible yet to think of it as “home”—and scrubbing down the rear porch. By the time she had finished, she had scraped off a fair bit of flaking old paint as well, but the porch still looked a hundred times better.
Afterward, she ventured into the garden. The rear of the property was large, and it was filled with a tangled web of overgrown bushes and plants that looked, at first sight, like a solid mass of greenery. The few patches of lawn that were still visible were nearly knee-high. She spent an hour or two trying to bring a little order to the garden, but it quickly became clear that she was not going to finish soon. It was going to take her weeks—perhaps months—to do a proper job. She looked forward to it with relish.
She tried to imagine how much a property this size would have cost back in the 21st century, and winced. More than fifty million yen, probably. Even now, it would be expensive. How long had Itsuko owned it?
Now and then, as she worked, she could not help glancing up at the roof of the house. A pair of crows were perched on the tiles, watching her. They had been hanging around ever since she and Itsuko had moved in. Itsuko called them Deimos and Phobos…and they seemed to know her, and were utterly unafraid when she threw them scraps of food. Miyo had even seen one of them fly down to perch on Itsuko’s hand for a moment.
They bothered her. There had been a pair of crows at the shrine in Crystal Tokyo, too, though she did not know if Rei had ever named them. Was it just a tradition…or something more? The whole idea, the sense that something small but uncanny was happening around her, was troubling. She found herself wondering if Rei had had birds back in the Silver Millennium…and if so, what kind they had been. She could have remembered if she had wanted; the hole Artemis had opened into her memory was still there. But she shied away from the attempt.
Best not to think about it at all, perhaps.
Thinking of Itsuko brought another troubling memory, anyway. The woman had gone somewhere, last night, and would not say where. Miyo had gotten up to use the bathroom at three o’clock, and Itsuko’s bed had still been empty. Where had she been, and why? Above all, why wouldn’t she talk about it? Did it have something to do with her cryptic comment about identity papers? Why wouldn’t she just say?
Miyo had thought they were friends again, but they were going to have to have another talk about trust. After everything else that had happened, this new secrecy was intolerable.
That, of course, brought her to the big problem that she was trying not to think about: namely, everything else that had happened. Yet again, she had been uprooted and thrown into a new, unwanted life. On top of what her family had done to her, it might almost have seemed a bit much.
To tell the truth, though, this new change wasn’t actually all that bad. She looked around the garden again, and thought that it even had its redeeming features. Having to run had been a horrible shock at first, yes, but not nearly as much as when her father threw her out.
That one still hurt, but the pain was beginning to fade at last. She no longer thought about it every day; about the family she had had. One might say that she was getting used to losing families—a horrible, bitter thought. Except that it was not quite true. There was one family that she had never lost; one which had been with her in three lifetimes now. And if the members of that new, extended family were not actually blood relatives, or even all human, still they were no less precious. She thought of that, from time to time, and tried to draw comfort from it. Sometimes it helped.
She mopped her brow, and paused to look down at the hand that had done it, and at the new, golden colour of her skin. No, this new change was not all bad. Looked at in the right way, it could be seen as an adventure—even romantic, as Beth had said. In other ways, it was not too different from moving house. True, the house was old and rundown; but once she and Itsuko had finished, she thought it would be quite nice. There was a new neighbourhood to learn, and a new school; but not everyone at school would be a stranger. It had been a pleasant surprise to realise that she and Suzue would be schoolmates. She looked forward to learning more about the girl.
No, the biggest problem—she looked down at her hand again—was having to change her appearance, and even her name. She had been pretty upset about that for a while. She and Itsuko had had quite a shouting match on the subject, on Thursday afternoon. It was still a shock every time she looked in the mirror, or when she heard Itsuko’s voice and looked up to see a stranger.
She was upset about it, yes, but she could see that it was no better for Itsuko. The woman stumbled over names and jumped at mirrors just as often as Miyo did…though she could not help thinking that Itsuko really ought to be used to doing this by now. Itsuko had lost as much as Miyo had—Miyo knew that losing the Olympus building had been a blow to her—and she had the additional worry of needing to find a way to support the two of them. But she never complained. Her lips would tighten and her jaw clench, and Miyo knew that she wanted to shout or break something; but instead she just buckled down and got on with it. Perhaps that was the result of experience. Perhaps it was simply maturity.
Either way, having Itsuko around made the whole thing more bearable. Maybe it was because misery loved company. Or maybe it was because both of them were fighters.
Well, if this was a new battle, Miyo had decided that she was not going to lose. And it did have its compensations.
She paused again to relax her aching back, and glanced at her watch. The shadows were lengthening; it was getting late. Time to think about eating. She picked up her garden tools and went inside to wash up and start on dinner.
The evening passed quietly. They did not have a viddy set yet, and there were only a few books in the house. Miyo thought about going out and meeting Dhiti somewhere, but she did not really feel like it. It would have seemed awkward, with the way she looked now: like being a stranger at a party. Instead, she lay on her bed and chatted with Dhiti over her Senshi communicator, and almost managed to feel as if nothing were different.
Itsuko, for her part, spent the evening brooding. Thankfully, she had managed to get a little sleep during the day. However, a clearer head also brought a clearer understanding of what she had to do. Her meeting with Captain Aoiro had probably bought her a little time, but it was impossible to tell how much. She suspected that he had lied to her about how easy her new papers would be to trace—but if he had lied about that, he could have been lying about everything. The grace period before they started hunting her again might be vanishingly small.
If she were to do what she was contemplating, it would have to be tonight.
Miyo turned in early. She lay in bed for a long time, tired but still too unfamiliar with her new bed to be comfortable in it. At last she dropped off, and dreamed that she and Chiba Mamoru were dancing a slow waltz under a velvet-black sky. He handed her a flower, and she knew it would be a rose; but instead it turned out to be a camellia, and then he waved his hand and it turned into a lily and—
She woke up.
All her senses were on alert. Something had woken her, but what? A faint noise, like the closing of a door. She lay in bed, face buried in her pillow, and listened. The house was silent. She held her breath—twenty, forty heartbeats—but heard nothing. She was just beginning to relax again when, faint and distant, a sound came. The electric whine of a car engine starting up.
She sat up and touched the stud on her communicator-watch. It lit up to show her the time: nearly half past one. Far off, the engine sound rose and then faded away.
She got out of bed and padded through to Itsuko’s room. The bed was empty.
Damn it, again?! she thought angrily. Where was Itsuko going this time? All the secrecy, trying to slip out without being noticed…Miyo was being treated like a little child, and it rankled. She stared at the bed, fists clenched, and then turned away with a silent curse.
She stomped back to her room, still grumbling to herself, and sat down on the bed. Then, still too annoyed to think about sleeping again, she got back up and went into the kitchen to get a glass of water.
When she turned on the light, she saw a note fixed to the refrigerator.
Mako-chan—if you read this, don’t worry. I have to go out for a while. I’ll be back in an hour or so.
Underneath, in a faster, sloppier hand, was added:
If I’m not back by morning, do what you have to do. I trust you.
Miyo read it over three times, growing more alarmed each time. What was Itsuko doing? The first part was surely meant to be reassuring; but the postscript was different. It almost read as if Itsuko expected—
Suddenly galvanised, Miyo raced back to her bedroom.
The sound of her communicator woke Dhiti. She jerked upright in a panic, then fumbled around for several seconds before she found the device.
“Hello!” she whispered into it frantically. “Yes! I’m awake! Who is it?” Across the room, dimly, she saw Artemis on his feet, staring at her in alarm.
“Dhiti-chan?” It was Miyo’s voice. “I need your help.”
“What, at this hour?” Dhiti looked across at the illuminated figures on her clock and cringed. “Hayashi, what’s wrong?”
“I don’t know yet. Can you meet me outside?”
“Uh…all right. Outside where?”
“Outside your house. I’m waiting for you now.”
Dhiti turned off her communicator, said a few choice things about Miyo under her breath, and got up. (Artemis turned away hastily. At this time of year, Dhiti did not wear anything in bed.) She reached for her clothes drawer…and then thought again, and produced her henshin wand instead.
Moments later, Sailor Mercury slid the window open and dropped silently to the ground outside. A white cat followed her.
As she had expected, it was Sailor Jupiter, not Miyo, who waited for her by the front gate. “Hayashi,” she said in a low voice. “What is it? Another vitrimorph attack?”
“No,” said Jupiter. “At least, I hope not. But—” She explained the situation hastily.
Mercury listened, frowning. When Jupiter had finished, she said, “Uh…you don’t think you might be overreacting? I mean, it sounds a little odd, but—”
“You didn’t read that note, Dhiti-chan. ‘If I’m not back by morning, do what you have to do.’ Does that sound like she’s just gone to get some fresh air?”
“It sounds worrying, yes,” put in Artemis, “but it may not be as bad as you think. Miyo, you must know that Itsuko has other…contacts in the city. Illicit ones. She could easily be seeing one of them.”
Illicit contacts? That was news to Dhiti, and deliciously tantalising; but she put it aside for now and said, “Face it, Hayashi, you don’t know where she’s gone.”
“No, but you might,” argued Jupiter. “Don’t you remember? Artemis gave her a communicator. You might be able to track it with your computer!”
“God, Hayashi, you’re making it sound all cloak-and-dagger. Why not just call her? If she’s got a communicator, you can ask her what’s going on.”
“No! Don’t you see? If she’s doing something dangerous, having her communicator go off could give her away!”
Mercury stared at her, wondering if Jupiter had any idea how she sounded. “What do you think she’s doing, for heaven’s sake? Meeting Sankaku agents, or raising a revolutionary army? Come on! There’s got to be a more reasonable explanation for—” She saw the other girl’s expression, and sighed. Hayashi was really upset. “Oh…all right.”
She pulled out her computer and flipped it open. “Let’s see…” She started to type rapidly, bringing up a series of tracking displays. Information raced past on her visor. She didn’t much like computers, but they weren’t that hard once you knew what you were doing.
“You’re getting good at that,” remarked Artemis.
She looked over to where he sat on the fence. “Well, I have been practising,” she said smugly. “You told me to, remember?”
“Just get on with it!” said Jupiter.
“Patience, Hayashi, or I’ll tell Suzue-chan about the slugs. Just give me a moment…” Her computer beeped, and she grinned. “Got her! Not that far away from here, either.” Fingers flew, and she brought up a map display. “Huh. I should have thought of that. She’s at the Olympus. Now why would she…”
Abruptly, she realised what she was saying. She stared at Jupiter and Artemis, her eyes wide. “She must be out of her mind,” she said.
They stared back, equally aghast. Artemis said, “The one place she knows they’re watching, and she’s headed straight into the lion’s mouth!”
“Oh, no. I’ve got to—” Jupiter whirled, and sprinted away into the night.
Mercury flipped her computer closed and thought quickly. “I’m going after her,” she told the cat. “Artemis, call the others. Tell them to meet us there—and fast.”
Then she, too, was gone.
From across the street, Itsuko stared at the Olympus building. She was tense, nervous. Now that she was actually here, looking at her former home, the difficulty of her task seemed magnified enormously.
It had seemed so easy, before she left: go in, fill a firepot from the sacred fire, and get out again before ‘S’ Division could arrive. The little secret room beside her office should still be safe. If she was quick enough, there would be no danger.
Well, not much danger, anyway. But she would risk far more than this to retrieve the sacred fire.
(For a moment, the dead face of Genichi swam in her memory, and the wreckage of the Hikawa shrine. Never again.)
She kept on watching. The gymnasium stayed open all night, but at this hour it had few customers. She could see lights in the second floor windows, and once a figure walking past. Around her, the streets were nearly empty; a few cars per minute, no more. None of them stopped.
…The real trouble was, she knew that ‘S’ Division was monitoring the building. She herself had seen the security cameras being put in place, weeks before. Even her private staircase down to the car park was no longer a secret, since she’d used it to escape two days before.
How to get in?
She had considered going ahead and using the private staircase anyway. She had even toyed with wilder ideas: climbing up to the roof, for example, and letting herself down on a rope, or through the elevator shaft. Romantically tempting, but ridiculously impractical, even if she could get to the roof at all. Or she could go up the fire escape and in through her office window—right under the view of the cameras. That was no improvement.
In the end, simplest was best. Speed would be her friend. In and out like a flash, without stopping, and she would be gone before they could arrive. They would never have a chance to touch her.
And she was wasting time. She took a deep breath, jogged across the street, and in through the main entrance of the building.
Okay. Assume they’ve seen me. Clock’s ticking.
The staircase was just inside the entryway, on the right. She ran up four flights, emerging on the third floor. No one was in sight. She turned left, following the corridor around to her office door. Still nobody.
The door was unlocked. She opened it and looked around quickly…and froze, staring in dismay. The office was in ruins, its contents strewn everywhere. She stood for a minute, gazing at the waste of her career.
Then, brutally, she forced herself to move. Ruins or not, she had a job to do and no time to lose. She went in, closing the door behind her, and walked across the office in the dark.
The hidden contacts in the wall moved easily under her touch, and the secret door clicked open. Itsuko stepped through gingerly.
Firelight glowed in her face, and she almost fainted with relief.
She moved forward and bowed reverently to the fire. The flames seemed to wave in reply. Then she turned away. A low shelf nearby held what she needed; she picked up an insulated firepot, and started to turn back to the fire—
A soft movement came from behind her. A voice said, “I think that’s about enough.”
She felt a hand on her shoulder, and knew that she had lost.
Looking around, she saw the man who had tried to arrest her two days before: Hiiro. His face was covered with barely healed scratches from Artemis’ claws and teeth. Red light reflected in his eyes.
She let the firepot fall to the floor. It struck with a dull clatter and rolled away without breaking.
Another man emerged from the shadows at the rear of the secret room: Captain Aoiro. “I told you to credit us with a little competence,” he told her sadly. “The door wasn’t even hidden all that well.”
“Quiet,” Hiiro said, and Aoiro fell silent at once. Hiiro went on, “Hino-san, do we need to go through the formalities? You are under arrest, on charges of forgery, tax fraud and criminal conspiracy against the government of Japan. And resisting arrest. Other charges may be laid later. Do you have anything to say?”
She shook her head, mute.
“All right then.” He gestured, and she held out her hands. Hiiro produced a pair of handcuffs from somewhere. He snapped one cuff over her left wrist, and was just bringing the other cuff down—
Itsuko dropped to the floor, yanking herself free from his grasp. In the same motion, she launched herself backward, out through the door and into her office. She heard a confused shout from Aoiro. She stumbled to her feet, skidding on a loose sheet of paper, and lurched toward the exit.
The office lights flicked on. She winced at the sudden light, and then froze at the sight of the man standing between her and the door. The burly, unshaven man who had been with Hiiro on Thursday; she had never heard his name.
Behind her, Hiiro said quietly, “I told you, that’s enough.”
I’m sorry, Itsuko thought in a sudden burst of grief. Makoto-chan, Setsuna-chan…Genichi-san…I’ve failed. I’m sorry…
Aoiro took her by the arms, holding her firmly. She felt a hand on her wrist, and waited for Hiiro to put the other cuff on her.
A voice from the window said, “Let her go.”
Sailor Jupiter stepped in through the window and halted by Itsuko’s desk, facing the three men. A spark of fury was in her eyes, and a grim, determined look on her face that told them she was ready for battle. Her fists were clenched, and a pearly, electric glow seemed to cling about them.
“I said, let her go,” she repeated.
Captain Hiiro hesitated. Itsuko saw him swallow, and wondered what was running through his head. Was he afraid? But when he spoke, his voice did not waver.
He said, “Ma’am, I am conducting a legal arrest of a wanted criminal. You are interfering with government business. Please leave, and let us do our jobs.”
Jupiter’s expression did not change at all. She said, “Last chance. Let her go or I’ll fry you.”
The nimbus of light about her fists seemed to gather and brighten.
Hiiro took one step back, and for one moment of incredulous hope Itsuko thought he was going to obey. Then he said, quietly, “Mitsukai. Now.”
A figure exploded from under the desk, just behind Jupiter: a woman, wiry and thin. Before Jupiter could react, she lunged up and clapped a fist-sized object to Jupiter’s neck. Instantly, a metal band snapped closed around the senshi’s throat.
Jupiter convulsed. A short bark of a scream burst from her lips. There was a loud crackle, and the metal rod on her tiara flared with a wild burst of light. Electric sparks danced around it, arcing to the desk nearby. With a cry of pain, Mitsukai was flung away from her. Jupiter staggered backward, and screamed again.
More bolts of electricity flew, filling the air with the sharp smell of ozone. A bundle of papers on the floor caught fire. She spasmed, again and again, unable to control her body. Then one final burst of light came from her, so brilliant that they had to shield their eyes. As it faded, she wobbled and slumped to the floor, face-down, unconscious.
A moment later she shimmered and became an ordinary teenage girl, dressed in rather scanty pyjamas.
“Miyo-chan!” Itsuko shouted. She struggled in Aoiro’s arms, in vain.
“Son of a bitch,” Kuroi muttered. “It actually worked.”
Gingerly, Mitsukai stood back up, looking pale and shaken. She started toward the fallen girl, favouring one leg, until Hiiro waved her back. Instead she leaned back against the wall, her face pale. Stray wisps of hair clung to her face as if electrified, and she brushed them back.
Hiiro knelt down at the unconscious girl’s side and flipped her over onto her back. “I don’t know her,” he said. “No, wait. Yes, I do. Hayashi Miyo, I believe?”
“You bastard!” Itsuko snarled.
He only shook his head wearily. “If ‘M’ Division can outfit an Opal to track Senshi powers, it’s only a short step further to work out how to block those powers,” he said. As he spoke, he unfastened the device from Miyo’s neck. “This unit is a prototype, but I dare say we can make more, now that we know it works.”
He glanced up at Itsuko and added, “She’s alive, by the way. And you needn’t worry; I have no orders to arrest Sailor Jupiter. She’s welcome to blow up all the crystal monsters she wants.”
He left Miyo lying on the floor, kicked the burning papers away from her, and said to Itsuko, “You, on the other hand, are coming with us.”
He turned away from her and tossed the device back to Mitsukai, who caught it deftly. To Kuroi he went on, “Ryozo, call Kitada. Tell him to bring the van round to the front of the building. You and I will—”
There was a sudden, thunderous knock at the door.
“Shit.” Hiiro gestured quickly to Aoiro and Kuroi, and they fanned out to either side of the door. “What now?” he demanded to Itsuko. “More of your friends?
Before she could answer, the door shuddered under another blow. Then, with a roar, it burst open. The frosted glass pane exploded; splinters of wood flew from the shattered latch. The door struck the wall violently, mere centimetres away from where Aoiro was crouching, and hung loosely on broken hinges.
Kuroi swore violently.
As the last fragments of glass hit the floor, four men walked in. They were tall and bulky, dressed in drab, cheap-looking clothing. They moved ponderously, almost clumsily. But what chilled Itsuko, as she saw them, was the flat, empty look in their faces. A dead look.
Hiiro came forward to meet them. There was no uncertainly or apprehension in his face: just a cool, assured calm. “Can I help you?” he asked.
The leader approached him, pulled out a card, and held it out in one big, ungainly hand. Hiiro took it and read it.
“Government ID. For the…the ‘Technical Enforcement Network’?” He looked up at the stranger, one eyebrow raised. “What, is this a joke? I’ve never heard of that outfit—”
He broke off. His eyes moved to one of the other newcomers.
The man had been looking around slowly, his head turning from side to side as if searching for something. Now, suddenly, he moved, stepping toward Mitsukai. The woman’s eyes widened a fraction, but she held her ground. For a moment the two of them stood face-to-face. Then, shockingly quick, the man’s hand flashed out. She tried to defend herself, but too slowly. There was a sickening crack, and then he moved back, holding the device she had been carrying.
She cried out and clutched her arm, which was bent at an unnatural angle. Kuroi cursed and started toward the two—only to stop short at what happened next.
The man looked blankly down at the device he had taken. Then, slowly, he closed his grip on it. The metal case buckled and collapsed in his fist; they could all hear the crunching and tinkling of delicate components. His expression never changed. Then the unit dropped to the floor, a useless, twisted piece of junk.
Itsuko started to have a very bad feeling about this.
Quietly, Hiiro said to the newcomers’ leader, “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but—”
“Captain,” interrupted Aoiro, his voice thin and strained. “Captain, I don’t know what this is about, but I recognise one of these men.” He let go of Itsuko with one hand, to point at one of the four newcomers. “That one. He’s Morimoto Eiji, a career criminal…and he’s supposed to be in jail right now, serving a nine-year sentence.”
Hiiro stood motionless for a moment, his eyes never leaving the leader. He said, “Explain.”
The leader stirred. In a voice as flat and dead as his face, he said, “You will release the woman into our custody.”
Hiiro laughed. “Will I hell.”
“You have your orders. Our authority exceeds yours. You will release the woman into our custody.”
The impasse lasted another moment. Then, calmly and deliberately, Hiiro reached into his jacket and pulled out a gun. He levelled it at the leader’s face. In the rear of the room, Aoiro and Kuroi followed suit.
“I don’t think so,” said Hiiro softly.
And another voice said, “That’s right. She isn’t going anywhere with either of you.”
One by one, four more Senshi entered the room: Venus and Uranus through the window, and Mercury and Mars through the shattered door. As she came in, Sailor Mercury exclaimed in dismay and ran to the fallen Miyo’s side. The others stayed back, observing the confrontation taking place. Their faces were stern and implacable, their eyes fierce.
Even Mars, Itsuko thought; even Mars. The timid girl looked as resolute as the others. She felt a sudden blaze of pride in all of them.
The four exchanged glances. Then Sailor Venus stepped forward and said, “I don’t pretend to know what’s going on here. But you’re holding one of our own, and we can’t allow that. Release Pappadopoulos Itsuko, and we’ll leave you be. But if you threaten her, then in the name of the planet Venus—”
Sailor Uranus stepped to her side. “And Uranus—”
Mars joined them. “And Mars—”
Sailor Mercury rose to her feet again. “And Mercury,” she said, her voice cold.
“—We will defend her!”
The oath dropped like a pebble into a suddenly silent room. For a brief second, nobody moved. Hiiro’s eyes were very wide. Itsuko felt as if her heart were going to burst.
Then, as one, the four men threw their heads back and started to laugh. They did it in eerie, perfect unison; even their mocking guffaws were synchronised.
At the same time, they started to change.
Their face stretched, distorted; their bodies swelled grotesquely. The drab clothes they wore split and fell away, revealing flesh that seemed translucent, almost faceted. Their limbs became monstrous, club-like things. Within seconds they had become gigantic mockeries of men, towering over the others, their heads almost touching the ceiling.
Still they laughed.
Sailor Uranus responded first. She ducked to one side, lifted her hands, and started to shout: “MUSIC OF THE—”
In the instant she began to move, the laughter stopped. The vitrimorph she was aiming at moved with unexpected speed, spinning away from her. The floor groaned under its weight. As it came to a halt once more, it swung one giant fist…and struck Captain Aoiro on the shoulder, clubbing him casually away from Itsuko as if he were weightless. He smashed into the filing cabinets with a cry of pain.
Uranus shifted to try and track it. Before she was in place, the vitrimorph reached out—and its hand closed around Itsuko’s head.
Itsuko felt cold crystal against her skin, and gasped. There was enough of a gap between the massive fingers for her to see what was happening, but she did not dare move. The grip was gentle…for now.
The vitrimorph turned its eyes back toward Uranus, who stood frozen in mid-attack. In an ugly, gloating voice it said, “Think you can shoot fast enough?”
The four began to laugh again.
Uranus stared at it, irresolute.
And in that instant, the lights went out.
The room was plunged into darkness. Even the corridor beyond the office door was black. Only a dim band of red-gold across the floor remained, coming through the open door from the sacred fire. For a second, they all froze in shock. The moment seemed to stretch, as if the whole room held its breath.
Then, in an instant, all became chaos. “What the hell—?” someone shouted. There were more shouts in answer. Footsteps. A loud crash as someone knocked something over. Itsuko felt the grip on her head tighten convulsively, and she screamed in pain. The fingers relaxed a little.
There was a light coming from somewhere: a dim glow, pearly white, faint but growing.
More shouts; more footsteps. “Find the goddamn switch!” The floor shook as a vitrimorph took one heavy step. A girl’s voice, shouting a warning. There were three sets of mutual enemies in this room, and they were beginning to panic. When they did, Itsuko knew that she would be the first to suffer.
The pale glow was getting brighter. Where was it coming from…?
Then a strange noise, like a faint chiming. All other sound seemed to fade away, and in the growing light, they all saw it happen: a small, delicate object flew across the room and embedded itself, deadly accurate, in the eye of one of the vitrimorphs. The monster staggered back, and they saw the missile clearly.
Another object followed it. A discus of energy, shining a brilliant gold, it traced a lambent curve through the air that touched the arm of the vitrimorph holding Itsuko…and, with a sharp crack, cut straight through it. The fingers on Itsuko’s face tightened once more, then loosened forever. With a heavy thud, the arm and hand struck the floor. The wounded vitrimorph gave a strange, almost animal cry.
The disc arced around in the direction it had come: back to the other door in the office, the one that led into Itsuko’s apartment. A hand rose up to catch it. As it came to a halt, the disc’s golden radiance winked out, and it became…something else. Delicately, the catcher lifted it up and replaced it on her forehead.
Two figures stepped forward in the light. The one in the rear was tall and dark, clad all in black, wearing a long cape and a kind of hat that had not been seen in centuries. A simple white mask covered his eyes.
In front of him was a young girl, in a familiar costume. Her words were familiar, too.
“You who would threaten an innocent woman, and you who serve the great enemy that destroyed the world—beware.
“I am Sailor Moon, a champion of love and justice. Princess of the Moon Kingdom and heir to the throne of Queen Serenity of Crystal Tokyo, I will right wrongs and triumph over evil. And in the name of the Moon—I’ll punish you!”
S A I L O R M O O N 4 2 0 0
End Of Chapter Twelve
Next: Many meetings; a foe unmasked and a secret laid bare; and, at last, the fight carried to the enemy.
Sincere thanks to the pre-readers who helped improve this chapter: Chris Angelini, AnimeJanai, Elsa Bibat, Chester Castenada, Jed Hagen, David McMillan, Bert Miller, Aaron Nowack, Helmut Ott, Steve “Komodo” T. and LaShawn Wanak.
Draft version: 24 October, 2005.
Final version: 27 November, 2005.