Chapter 1: Hiro CHAPTER 1 HIRO
We at the AEGIS find the data sent by Lito sol Lucius from Ceres Satellite #19 to be authentic. Moving forward, we will turn our investigation toward those responsible for the execution and oversight of these horrific experiments. Rest assured that we will stop at nothing to hold Val Akira Labs accountable for its actions.
Rosendo val Chaz, president of the Agency for Ethical Guidance of Icarii Science
I haven’t been this high above Cytherea since I was a child visiting my father’s floor at Val Akira Labs’ head office. Grandfather had just retired, naming my father the new CEO, and he proudly brought our little family to see where he’d be, in his words, “working to change the world.” I was so young, it has to be one of my first memories, yet I still vividly remember standing at the full window, Asuka’s hands on my shoulders and Shinya at my side, as I stared at the surrounding buildings that, to my childish eyes, looked like massive clusters of crystalline shards.
Now that spell is broken. The buildings are just buildings, their streaked, colorful glass more like solar panels than the overgrown rose quartzes and amethysts their designers wish them to evoke. Or perhaps it’s the fact that I’m alone that sucks all the magic from the view. Asuka is somewhere below, crumbling under the pressure of AEGIS inquiries, and Shinya—well, Shinya will never walk these streets again.
I balance across a slender metal catwalk, hazarding a view at the protest I left behind fifteen minutes ago. Nothing is like I pictured as Luce described the route to me. There’s no wind whipping through the narrow corridors between high-rise buildings, no peacekeepers chasing after me, just a rickety construction made out of spare metal, hastily tethered together and zigzagging like a fire escape.
From this height, I can even make out the great onyx Spire in the distance, sucking up all the light from the otherwise bright Cytherean twilight. The dome dims as night falls, casting my path in long shadows and making my mask more of a hazard than a protection. It’s the perfect hour for me to scurry up to the top of a building unseen. The perfect semidarkness for Luce and I to deploy another of our vids to the public.
I test a thin metal sheet with my boot. It bows under my weight, so I skip it, hopping to a sturdier platform. I stick as close to the building as possible. I don’t have a fear of heights, but I’d like to think that anyone this high up would be wary. A fall from here would turn me into a street crepe.
“Still disappointed I didn’t get high-tech gloves that make me stick to the building like a chameleon,” I say, recording my voice and uploading it to Hemlock’s server with a flick of my eyes. The com-lenses are especially useful since my hands are occupied, though I had to turn off all the entertainment functions so I’m not distracted by news articles and colorful ads.
Luce’s response comes after a few seconds’ delay. Her dry chuckle is the first thing I hear. “You always picture things like an action vid.” Despite the distance between us, her voice comes through as clearly as if she were standing next to me.
“Maybe it is an action vid.” I hold tight to the railing as I skirt a wobbly section. “Shadowy group that wants to kill us? Check. Sexy assistant? Check. Roguish hero? Check, by yours truly. And my father humbly accepts the role of evil wizard in his giant tower.”
Luce snorts. “?‘Sexy assistant’? Please tell me you’re not talking about me.”
“Of course not, I’m talking about Hemlock.” My cheeks ache from grinning. “By the way, what’re you wearing?”
“Just get to the roof, roguish hero,” Luce responds, but I can hear the amusement in her tone, and I know I’ve made her smile—no easy task nowadays. “When our ‘evil wizard’ goes before the AEGIS tomorrow afternoon, I want people to remember why.”
And that means we remind them with one of Luce’s vids.
“Roger, team leader.”
The words are hardly out of my mouth when a sheet snaps beneath me.
I stumble forward, hands flailing, but my fingers slip over the closest beam. It happens so fast, just three seconds, and I’m tumbling down—
I catch the railing of the platform below, elbows and shoulders jerking taut, joints aching from catching my full weight. My mask is not so lucky, the black tactical covering fluttering to the streets below. The entire structure groans beneath me, threatening to collapse, though it’s hard to focus on that when my vision flashes red with agony.
“??!” My left shoulder, the one connected to my prosthetic, aches like someone slipped a blade between skin and metal. But I can’t just hang here, so I force myself to move, ignoring the groaning of both the catwalk and my body as I pull myself back onto the safety of a lower platform.
I sit there for a good minute and a half, catching my breath and rubbing my shoulder. More pressing than the current throbbing of my joints is an overwhelming fear. Thanks to Mara, the agent of the Synthetics on Autarkeia, I had a handle on my pain—but what if this accident fucks it all up? What if the daily agony returns?
I dig my fingers into my flesh biceps, nails tight enough to bruise through my jacket, and focus on my breathing. In and out. In and out.
Slowly, the pain subsides. It doesn’t depart completely, but now that I’m not hanging on for my literal life, I adjust. I’ll likely need to ice my joints later, but I’m hopeful that I didn’t undo whatever careful balance Mara granted me when she reprogrammed my prosthetics. Or if I did, that it’ll be a black hole like my leg after the duelist on the Leander ran me through with a mercurial blade. I can’t feel anything with my metal foot, but that’s way fucking better than phantom pain.
It’s only after I convince myself I need to keep moving that I realize Luce’s reply has been waiting for almost five minutes. But I don’t listen to it. Don’t respond. I disengage from Hemlock’s server, not needing any more distractions. Pretend as I might with Luce in my ear, I’m alone on Cytherea, partnerless, with no one to catch me when I fall. The words of my first commander on Ceres come back to me, unbidden: A duelist alone is nothing.
I test every plank before I put my weight on it, tug every ladder before I climb. When I finally reach the top of the building, another fifteen minutes have passed, though it shouldn’t have taken more than five. Better to be safe than sorry, I guess.
The rooftop is covered in a rainbow of graffiti. Colorful protest slogans and various images blanket every inch of space. I step across a trompe l’oeil of a hole that leads to a forest full of golden light and come to a larger-than-life nude of a bald woman in a breather mask: La Peste, Luce herself.
I have to hand it to her, this spot the Keres Truth Society found is perfect for our needs. It’s within a three-block radius of the protest at Val Akira Labs, but not so close that it’s being regularly patrolled. We can have our drone descend directly over the protesters instead of launching from the ground, where peacekeepers are sure to shoot it down before it gets high enough to project.
Of course, the more times we hazard this little stunt, the harder it is to pull off. Whatever route we use will be cut off to us the next time, and this is already our fifth vid.
I reconnect to Hemlock’s server and send Luce a voice message. “I’m on the rooftop,” I tell her, kneeling and unzipping my backpack. I pull out various pieces of the drone. It’s a big one, something that’d be banned on Cytherea because of the light pollution it would create, but this baby came from Autarkeia, so it’s a bad motherfucker ready for trouble. I start putting it together, mounting the projector and speakers below its rotor blades, easy as plug and play despite it being the size of a small child.
“Vid’s ready,” comes Luce’s response. “Test connection.”
Just to be safe, I check everything over one last time. The battery is full. Everything’s screwed on tightly. I test the projector and speakers; they work perfectly. My com-lenses read the open connection from the drone, and I see the option to download the vid it carries. “Ready to deploy,” I tell Luce.
“You ready to jump?”
After the almost-fall on that metal monstrosity? I’m not thrilled about it, but my exit strategy is probably safer than returning the way I came. I check the harness I wore up and pull the rest of my gear from my pack, preparing everything for go time.
“I always said I’d jump off a building if my life was shit.”
“Not funny.” I expect her to continue to chide me, but instead she focuses on the task at hand. “Remember your mask.”
Shit, I almost forgot, I lost my mask on the way up. I pull a scarf out of my bag, wrap it around my lower face and tie it off, then finish the look with a pair of goggles that brightens my quickly fading surroundings. Rebel chic. It’s somewhat hard to breathe through the thick scarf, but I’ll have to do as all fashion icons have before: make it work. Better than having peacekeepers spot me and plaster my face all over the news. I’ve got a nifty fake ID that Hemlock set up for me, but it won’t take much for them to figure out Yasuhiro sol Fujita fucked off to Autarkeia and I’m using his credentials. As for the goggles? They’ll help me with the other thing. The thing I’m not telling Luce about.
I press the grav-anchor to the rooftop and check that it’s well secured before threading my rope through. Rappelling from this height wasn’t covered in my Academy training, but I was lucky that Luce found me a belay machine that’ll lower me to the ground at the touch of a button, like a personal elevator—you know, except attached to the harness at my stomach above a carabiner, which I check, double-check, and triple-check once my rope is through. The machine lights up green, telling me it’s ready to go, and I have to remind myself that beginners use this thing all the time for fun, so I, a professional Dagger, can manage this.
“All right, Luce, I’m ready to go.” I’m sure my voice sounds muffled to her through the scarf, but if she has trouble understanding me, she doesn’t mention it.
I brace myself, finger on the belay machine’s button, and get into position. My heart races as I go from standing upright to parallel to the ground, and I have a single moment where my world flares white and my only thought is I’ve made a huge fucking mistake, but then I’m steady in the harness and ready to rappel down.
I’m a Dagger, I tell myself, a professional. But my guts don’t get the memo, and I feel like I’m going to shit my pants at any second.
The drone’s rotors flare to life with a high-pitched whizz, and it lifts from the rooftop as smoothly as an Icarii dropship. Passing overhead and stirring my hair with a warm wind, it flies toward its destination down the street. I shift my weight as it reaches its programmed position, hovering over the protestors, projector pointed at the smooth-faced Val Akira Labs building.
I wait, harness digging into my thighs, until Lito’s face appears a hundred meters tall. I’m hit with a force like taking a mercurial blade to the ribs. My lungs feel too small, too tight, and a black wave of dizziness rushes over me. Doesn’t matter how long it’s been; every time I see him, my surroundings fade away, and I remember how I found Lito, pale and stiff and gone, on the Leander.
A cry rises up from the street below, protestors shouting and cheering at the return of the rebel whose death sparked the protests and dragging me back to the here and now. “There are good people out there who will see what’s happening and try to change things,” their great martyr says over the crowd’s roar. “People who know what it is to suffer—or even people who don’t know what suffering is, but are empathetic enough not to want others to know it either.”
I listen to his words over the cheering, his voice as familiar as my favorite song, but I can’t watch the vid. Seeing him glaring and speaking and so very alive is too much when I held his dead body to my chest.
“Beginning descent,” I tell Luce. I brace myself with my legs and press the belay machine’s button, releasing enough slack that I can walk backward down the building’s side. After the almost-fall, I’m not tempted to do anything crazy, so I stick to the slowest setting and take baby steps.
“One day,” a message from Luce comes, “you’ll have to let me interview you for my vids.”
I swallow a self-deprecating laugh. Fat chance of me ever submitting to that torture.
As if she senses my skepticism from planets away, a second message arrives. “Have you thought any more about it?” Her voice is soft and reverent. “About letting the Icarii see what your father did to you?”
But that would require so much more than letting them look. That would require flaying myself alive; it would mean cutting myself open so they could appreciate the pieces of me and pass my organs from hand to hand like collectibles. To bathe in memories I hardly want yet fear fading away. It would require me—no longer Hiro val Akira, not quite Saito Ren—to beg them to love me in a way that no one can. To pretend that they could possibly understand, and trade in offense like a currency of social values.
I cut the connection to Hemlock’s server.
After a minute or so of Lito on the projection behind me, the subject changes to an Aster without her wraps, her big black eyes swallowing whatever light they used to shoot the vid. She pulls her hair away from a dip in her skull the size of a man’s hand, hairless, puckered skin stretched to cover the gap. “I used to have a piece of metal here,” the young Aster says. Her name is Rose, I recall, and she was one of the kindest Asters I met in the Under, curious about the Icarii despite all the abuse they’d heaped on her.
Luce’s voice answers her. “Do you know what it did?”
“No,” Rose says sadly. “I was told by the scientist at Val Akira Labs it was to monitor my brain waves, but after the trial was done, they didn’t remove it.”
“How old were you when they put it in?” Luce’s tone is calm and reassured, like a journalist at an interview, but I can tell from the way she’s forcefully enunciating that the subject upsets her.
“Seven,” Rose answers, and Luce sucks in a sharp breath. “They didn’t take the metal out, so when I started to grow, my skull started pulling away from it, and it left a gap that exposed my brain to—”
The vid cuts out, and the sharp sound of tearing metal fills the air. I release the belay machine’s button, halting my progress. Like all our other drones, this one’s been shot down. The shouts of the crowd reach me a moment later, a rush of angry voices like a Venusian metal storm.
My goggles catch the falling pieces of the drone and highlight the direction they scatter, allowing me to calculate where the peacekeeper with the long-range HEL gun is down below. I tag that section of the crowd, cursing that I’m not already on the ground to intercept them. I need that weapon.
Maybe even more than I need to survive this rappel.
“Shit.” I turn up the speed on the belay machine and move faster than before, kicking off the building and hopping two to three meters at a time. “Fuck.” With each miniature fall, my stomach flies up to join my heart. “??.”
A message from Luce glows in the corner of my com-lenses, but I don’t reconnect to the server. If I contact her now, she’ll have too many questions about what I’m doing, why I’m not going home, and I’m not ready to tell her about my plans with the peacekeeper’s HEL gun. Not yet.
What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her.
DESPITE SIX LONG months of protest, the crowd of people outside of Val Akira Labs is so thick that podcar traffic has been rerouted from the street. Losing myself in the swarm is all too easy, the press of bodies around me a welcome change from the feeling of falling. As soon as I reached the ground, I thought about kissing concrete but held back. Who knows what’s growing on the Cytherean streets.
Peacekeeper drones fly wildly overhead, side by side with both news outlets and personal drones in a bevy of colors. Some have been rigged to carry tiny slogans of the protest, my father’s name cursed in a dozen different languages, but those aren’t the ones I need to watch out for. I can’t risk being identified here, and I’m not exactly blending in with my scarf and goggles combo.
The peacekeepers have cordoned off the Autarkeian drone wreckage on the steps leading up to Val Akira Labs, pushing the crowd back from the scattered fragments. A triage area has been set up in a green tent off to the side, medics tending to anyone with wounds from falling pieces. Cytherean authorities care about the protesters, but they’re obviously still willing to risk protester health in order to take out our message.
I check my compad to see if, by some magic spell, the drone is still broadcasting—but of course, it’s dead. The first thing the peacekeepers would’ve done is make sure no one could download that vid. It’ll be up to Luce and luck to spread it now.
I move toward the section of the protest I’d tagged in my goggles, off to the right of the steps and across a little side street, butting up against flexglass-front restaurants closed due to the late hour. It’s not difficult to find the peacekeepers milling about in their black-and-silver uniforms, but it takes me a bit of walking back and forth before I spot the one with the sleek plastic case on his back. Only now that I’m here, I have no idea how I’m going to get it from him…
First things first, I need a mask. I look around the crowd for any extra or one cast aside and spot a fox through a gap—
In a moment, years collapse, one atop the other, until I don’t know where or when I am. I feel my mother taking my hands between hers, putting them in prayer position before the family shrine. I see Asuka slipping my handwritten paper beneath the fox statue’s soul gem. How many prayers are still there now, hidden inside the messenger to Inari? I remember the dreams of my father, the nine-tailed fox, demanding we children feed ourselves to him.
But then I calm myself with a long breath. It’s just the plastic carnival mask of a white fox, red whiskers framing its playful smile. There is no cosmic meaning to this.
I move toward the fox and slip into place at the back of the group. They elbow their way through the edge of the crowd, a bunch of kids barely shoulder-height, and I snag a mask from one of their jacket pockets as they pass by.
I can’t help but laugh when I realize the mask I’ve grabbed is that of an ? with vibrant red skin, pointed horns, and yellow fangs in an open-mouthed snarl. Fitting, I suppose, after all the trollish things I’ve done tonight.
As I circle back toward the peacekeeper with the long-range HEL gun, my attention catches on a bubble in the crowd, a group standing shoulder to shoulder with their compads held between them. Passing close enough, I hear Rose’s voice followed by Luce’s, and all at once, even over the thrill of success that our vid is changing hands, a plan forms.
I needed a distraction, and now I have one.
I shoulder my way into the group as if I’m one of them. “Is that the vid from tonight?” I ask, pitching my voice lower than natural. The one with the compad pauses the vid as all masks snap up toward me. They’re wary, this group.
“I didn’t get a chance to download it before the drone was gone…” I trail off, scuffing my heel over the concrete. “Think I can snag it off of you?”
The one holding the compad sighs and offers it to me. “Sure.”
A friend of theirs looks toward the patrolling peacekeepers, including my target. “Make it quick.”
I don’t reach for my compad, the one that connects to Luce. Instead, I reach for a burner, one of the several cheap ones I have in the backpack that used to carry the Autarkeian drone. It takes only a tap of that compad to theirs to transfer the vid, but as soon as I have it, I turn up the volume as loud as it’ll go and hit play.
“Thanks,” I say just before Lito’s voice overwhelms us.
“THERE ARE GOOD PEOPLE OUT THERE—” Lito booms.
The peacekeepers turn toward us.
“Fuck!” one of the group yells.
“You idiot!” says another.
“Scatter,” the smartest hisses.
I drop the compad to the ground. We all break in different directions, though I’m the only one who walks toward the peacekeepers.
Drones, the eyes of the peacekeepers, congregate overhead, searching for the owner of the compad. I wish the group luck, but I needed them as bait. Even if they’re arrested, they’ll be slapped with a fine at worst, and I need that long-range weapon for something far more important than a bit of content swapping.
The peacekeeper with the HEL gun case passes by me without a second look. Most of the crowd has backed away from them, sensing that they’re out for blood, but many linger, their own drones hovering at their shoulders to capture what might happen. Unfortunately, that means they might also capture what comes next.
I step into the peacekeeper’s shadow, my left hand reaching while my right hand distracts. I make sure to jerk my right arm around as if hoping to record all angles with my compad—the one that contacts Luce, so I can’t lose it—as I carefully unsnap the case.
Two latches undone, and one of the peacekeepers points another in the direction my friends went. The man with the HEL gun shifts, and my heart speeds—but then he leans back into his heels, waiting for orders. I gently push the case open, only wide enough for me to reach the folded-up long-range weapon, and—
“Hey, what’re you doing!” a different peacekeeper screams.
Shit. Time to go.
I snatch the HEL gun out of the case and take off down the closest alleyway. The sounds of shouting and stomping boots follow behind, far too close for comfort, but I have enough presence of mind to use the dark of the alley to slide the HEL gun into my backpack for cover.
Above me, peacekeeping drones swarm in pursuit, and while I’m faster than the peacekeepers in an open sprint, there’s no losing a drone. But the difference between me and the machines is that I know the dark crevices of this city better than they ever could, and I know that I don’t have to make it all the way home to get out of sight.
I turn a sharp corner and, without looking, hop a concrete barrier into a stairwell that leads to the bullet trains. A few people shout in alarm, while most stumble out of my way. In the precious seconds I have before the drones recalculate and follow me down into the station, I strip off my mask and jacket and toss them in opposite directions.
But I’m not free yet: the drones have me scanned and are looking for someone with my height and weight, regardless of what I’m wearing or not.
I walk like an innocent bystander, hoping I come across someone with the same build as me, to no avail. I know from the noise alone that the drones have made it downstairs, their metallic whirr louder than the ambient sounds of the station. The swarm hovers above the crowd, scanning us. Any second, they’ll spot me.
As if I had cried out for help, a group of masked individuals with plastiflex signs on poles mob the drones, blocking their cameras with slogans like FREEDOM OF KNOWLEDGE!
“Go! Go now!” one of the protesters shouts in my direction.
“Bruv!” calls another, and a mask comes whizzing in my direction. I put it on without looking at it, slouching as I make my way to the train platforms.
Once I’ve taken the stairs deeper into the station, I risk a glance over my shoulder. The drones are trapped by the throng of people swatting at them with signs like giant flyswatters. I swallow a laugh and jump on the first train I come across, but it’s only once the doors close and the train rumbles out of the station, leaving the drones and peacekeepers behind, that my heart finally slows.
At least until I catch sight of my reflection.
Staring back at me from the flexglass is the mask of a fox.
I RETURN TO Yasuhiro sol Fujita’s apartment, affecting a nervous gait—back slouched, hands in front of my stomach, feet shuffling. As always, Yasuhiro’s neighbor, an elderly woman with nothing better to do than monitor the comings and goings of the residents on her floor, opens her door and pokes her head into the hallway. I make sure she catches a glimpse of the fox mask before I slip it off and replace it with a visor that monitors the feed, cheaper than com-lenses but not nearly as popular.
“You’re coming back so late, Yasuhiro!” Gianna sol Luca exclaims. “You’re not getting into any trouble with those masked people, are you?”
I pitch my voice higher as if embarrassed. “O-of course not, ma’am. I-I’m just interested in r-recording some of the protest… for posterity.”
She nods thoughtfully. “Good, good… We have to watch out for each other in this neighborhood.”
I nod as if I agree wholeheartedly. “Good night,” I tell her, then fumble with my bag until she bids me farewell and closes the door. She’s probably still watching from a hallway cam, so I hurry in without opening my door too wide.
Inside, I shrug off the Yasuhiro persona, taking off the feed visor and tossing the fox mask facedown on the bed so it can’t watch me. I have a dozen missed messages from Luce waiting for me when I reconnect to Hemlock’s server, and I trash them all after listening to the first—“Hiro, are you okay?”—knowing they’ll be more of the same.
“All clear,” I send her as a reply. Quick and professional. Enough to stave off worry.
The midlevel safe house, bigger than the closet Dire gave me on Autarkeia but still small by Cytherean standards, is a single long room, with a layout more like a hotel room than an apartment. I stacked the excess furniture in the corner to give myself more space, so I settle on the stained blue-and-yellow carpet, turn on the holoprojector, and listen to the news as I pull the long-range HEL gun from my backpack and begin my work of taking it apart.
Every news outlet carefully avoids talking about Luce’s vid, instead mentioning the continued protest before circling back to my father. “Tomorrow,” various anchors say in various ways, “Souji val Akira is scheduled to appear before the AEGIS.”
I force myself to look at his face, at the face of the man Shinya died for: gentle crow’s feet and an unlined mouth, black hair with a single streak of white pushed back from a high forehead, brown eyes lit with a hint of blue fox fire—or is that just in my memory?
In the brief images they show of him, he’s unconcerned even now. Untouched by stress. Utterly unrepentant. He smiles like it’s all a game he’s already won.
A message from Luce pings me. I play it before second-guessing myself.
“I know you too well to think you’ve gone to bed,” Luce says, and she sounds as tired as I feel. “So tell me… what’s really going on, Hiro?”
I look down at the long-range HEL gun scattered before me in heavy, unrecognizable pieces on the carpet. At the box with two dozen fingerprint-locked triggers, all keyed to me. At the face of my father on the holoprojector, believing he’s won a game that isn’t over.
I don’t answer Luce now, because I already answered her, all those months ago on Vesta.
I’m going to kill my father.