Chapter 28

“Buzz Buzz”

The final bell of the day rang to call classes to an end, immediately followed by the hum and buzz of the students packing up and the voice of the teacher giving some final instructions over the noise. And it hadn’t even been two seconds when Etsuko and Tamako once again rushed into Ran’s classroom. Nagataka didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye before he had been dragged away by the two girls, although this time Etsuko looked more eager than angry, while Tamako merely followed along, collecting Nagataka’s belongings as Etsuko dragged him.

Tamako didn’t have her usual smile on her face.

“Nagata- Ouch!” Ran had tried to stand up when Nagataka was dragged away, and in her haste she bumped her wounded leg on her desk, falling back on the chair with a small cry of pain and clutching her left tight.

“Shimizu-sama!” Ayame said, rushing to her.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Ran said, speaking through clenched teeth.

Outside the classroom, a familiar voice came from the corridor as the two girls made their escape with Nagataka.

“Hey, you two, where do you think… Hey!” Hoshiko called.

“Aw, bugger,” Ran said, still in pain. “Ayame-chan, go tell sensei to let them go!”

“Sure! I’ll be back!”

The girl rushed out calling for sensei, and a moment later she returned with a rather puzzled Hoshiko in tow.

“What’s going on?” Hoshiko said.

“Sensei, well, they’re going… wum,” Ran cast a glance around, but Hoshiko interrupted her.

“Okay fine. My office, right now. You better have a heck of a good excuse to make me let them get out of detention,” Hoshiko said, speaking sharply and making sure the rest of the students heard it.

Ran stood up and grabbed Sugi’s hand before taking her crutches to follow Hoshiko. A minute later all Nereidas were assembled at the office, with Sugi trying to meld in the background. After a short and concise explanation from Ran, Hoshiko sat back at her desk and looked at the girls with a thoughtful expression on her face.

“Are you sure they still have her?” Hoshiko said.

“It sounds unlikely,” said Isamu, and anticipating Ran’s objection, she continued: “But she is still missing.”

“Yes!” Ran said. “And if they still have her, I’ll-”

“Calm down, Ran-chan,” Hoshiko said. “Let’s not jump to conclusions. Still, one of us should go and keep an eye on them.”

Hoshiko looked at the girls again.

Ran is still wounded, Isamu took a bullet to the head just a few days ago and… And Ayame. Sigh.

“Sensei?” Ran called.

“Where’s that stupid cat when we need him? Ah, never mind then. I can’t disappear from the office now.” She turned to Ayame, who perked up immediately. “So you go after them.”

“Yes sensei!” She replied enthusiastically.

“Don’t let them see you! Stay out of view and don’t do anything stupid, you hear me?”

“Sure!” She answered, looking at Ran, smiling, and reaching up for her beaded hair bands; she closed her eyes, picturing the image of Ran in her mind, fighting alone, and opening her eyes as she pulled hard at the bands, “never!!” She cried out.

She outstretched her arms as the hair bands shattered, sending the green beads flying all around her. They started glowing with a bright white light, and spinning at an increasingly fast pace around her body as her clothes were torn away from her body thread by thread. Two of the beads suddenly shot from their orbit and hit both her upper arms, one shattering into a thousand pieces as it hit her right upper arm, embedding themselves into her skin and glowing into small fragments of colourful bright Paua shell, the other making a simple armband around her left upper arm, while dozens of beads shot into the armband and turned into long bird feathers hanging from it. A hail of beads hit her on the chest, forming a narrow top of coconut and flax fiber, tied at her back with a geometrical two-tone pattern in zigzag. A final bead landed in the middle of the top between her small breasts, and turned into a beautiful bundle of green and red feathers clasped on the top. A second rain of beads fell around her waist, stretching and turning into a flax three colored tu belt of white, red and black, and from it a slow rain of light left behind a thousand strands of a fluffy, banded Piupiu skirt. One by one, new beads hit her chest and, on impact, grew around her neck to form a myriad of shell and glass bead necklaces, with pendants of shell and bone of all the revered motifs of the Tiki, the Hie Matau, the Fish, and the Silver and Mother of Pearl Manaia pendant of Gaia, the world. As they rested back on her skin, a carefully laid out necklace of grass leaves appeared between the pendants and her delicate skin. The final beads shot in unison to hit her ankles and formed two tied bundles of leaves around them over her naked feet, and a thin thread of light crawled up from her legs to her back, where it contorted on her left side and up to her neck and face to form a tribal tattoo in the shape of the Mistikos vine that sheltered their beloved little city. She shook her hands as she reached up to the sky with her hands, and from the palm of her hands a rain of beads fell on her head, and everywhere they hit they turned into an oceanic turquoise green dye which covered and extended her hair, until it was clasped in place on one side by a floral ornament of seven-petal Tiare flowers. When she lowered her hands, she grasped at the air and a pair of carved throwing maces of Vesi hardwood appeared in them.

“I will never give up! I will never surrender! I am Nereida Pacifica!”

As time resumed its march, she looked around and realized everyone was still looking at her. Sugi appeared to be completely awestruck, Ran and Isamu looked somewhat surprised, and when she looked at Hoshiko, the teacher merely facepalmed and shook her head.

“Ayame-chan,” Hoshiko said. “Why are you transforming in here? Do you want the whole school to see you?”

“Ah! Erm, well of course! I mean, of course not! Eh-hehehe.” She laughed softly while embarrassedly scratching the back of her head.

In the meantime, Nagataka had managed to disengage himself from Etsuko, and the three of them were walking at a good pace towards the military base. Etsuko wanted to run there, but the other two had managed to calm her down some. The base came into view quite early, as they had to walk down a long hill to reach it and it was placed at the bottom. Even from a distance, it was clear that the damage from the battle had left it worse for wear, and it was still being rebuilt.

“That’s the base?” Etsuko asked, squinting as she tried to discern the details. “What a run-down crappy place.”

“I suppose, but it wasn’t so bad a few days ago,” Nagataka said, and continued after a short pause. “That’s what it was left like after the fight when they freed me.”

Etsuko looked at Nagataka and furrowed her brow.

“Just who are these people you’re talking about? How can they do something like that? Is it some other military thing or something?”

“Can’t tell you.”

“Aaaah, why not? You think you’re better-”

“That’s not it! For crying out loud Etsuko!” Nagataka pointed athead at the base while speaking. “I didn’t tell them, even when they detained me and beat the crap out of me, I suppose I should tell you instead? It’s not up to me to decide who knows!”

Etsuko was taken aback by Nagataka’s vehemence, and Tamako took the chance to place herself between the two of them.

“Now, now, let’s just go, don’t get too excited Etsu-chan,” she said, smiling for the first time that day.

They were already close to the base when a cry of terror froze them in place. It had been close, a feminine voice too. And familiar.

“That’s-” Tamako started saying.

“-Sumire!” Etsuko finished for her.

“What? Where?” Nagataka asked, looking around frantically.

A second yell followed, and Etsuko took off like a bat out of hell, followed by Tamako and, after a few moments digesting the surprise, Nagataka. Schoolbags and papers were unceremoniously dumped as they rushed along, leaving a messy stationery trail behind them.

“Get away!” Sumire’s yelled, spurring Etsuko to sprint at her top speed.

“Sumire!” Etsuko called.

“Help!”

Etsuko turned a corner into a small, dirty alley between the worn-out buildings to find Sumire. She looked dirty, ragged, and very scared. She was pinned with her back against the wall amidst heaps of rubbish and debris, and surrounded by three large bugs. They looked somewhat like cockroaches, with a metallic shine and a meter in length each. Etsuko didn’t even slow down, she rushed straight towards her friend, and as soon as she got there she let go a kick that sent one of the bugs tumbling back.

“Etsu-san!” Sumire cried out.

“Sumire, run!”

“But…”

While they talked, one of the other bugs jumped at Etsuko, flapping its wings noisily and opening a large pair of mandibles that looked nothing like something one could find on a real insect. Without a blink, Etsuko punched it as it came for her.

“Ow, damn!” Etsuko cried out, clutching her right hand; it had hurt like crazy, and other than tumbling back, the bug appeared completely unharmed.

The bugs had now switched targets, and were moving in to surround Etsuko. She didn’t give any ground, preparing to fight those things no matter what, fists raised and with a light crouch, bending her knees at the ready. She hit the first one that came at her again, kicked a second, and when the third was getting ready to get her, someone kicked it out of the way.

“Tama-san!” Sumire cried out again. She had been unable to move, and was sitting on the ground with her back to the wall, looking terrified.

“Sumire-chan, shouldn’t you be running now?” Tamako asked, in a strangely calm tone.

“I… I can’t-”

“What the hell are these things?” Nagataka asked, arriving a moment later and skidding to a stop next to the girls.

“I don’t know,” Etsuko said, and turned back. “Sumire! Run!”

“I… I can’t move…” Sumire said, as tears streamed down her face.

“Watch out!” Nagataka said.

He rushed the bug that had jumped at Etsuko, and grabbed its legs while in the air. It felt slippery, as if something was keeping his hands from properly grabbing it.

“Hold it!” Etsuko yelled, and a moment later she threw a punch at the bug while Nagataka tried to hold it firmly with both arms. The impact nearly threw him off his feet, but even then, and with Etsuko howling in pain while she clutched her fist once more, the bug appeared unharmed.

Nagataka turned and threw it at a second bug, but again they recovered fast and started crawling towards them again.

“This isn’t working…” Nagataka said, kicking one of the bugs and taking a step back.

“Aaaah, you tellin’ me?” Etsuko replied, still nursing her hand.

Without another word, Tamako suddenly stepped past the two of them wielding a broken broom handle, and whacked the first bug that came into range. Her movement had been well controlled and fluid, describing a wide arc as her improvised weapon gained momentum, and the cracking noise when it impacted the bug was quite loud. To their dismay, as soon as the bug stopped rolling away, it twitched, turned around, and started moving again like nothing had happened.

“I suppose we should leg it,” Nagataka said.

“You go, take Sumire with you,” Etsuko replied, standing next to her friend Tamako.

“What? Like hell, you take her and run,” Nagataka said, not moving one inch from the line they had formed.

“Aaah, you really piss me off, you know that?” Etsuko complained.

Without another word, Tamako gave the broken broom to Etsuko, turned around and, pulling Sumire up to her feet, started running away with her.

“Great!” Etsuko said. “Keep running! I’ll- Aaaah, what’s they doing?”

As soon as Sumire and Tamako started running, the bugs spread their wings and shot up over Nagataka and Etsuko, flying towards the running girls.

“After them!” Nagataka cried out, running after the bugs.

“I know!” Etsuko retorted, throwing the broken broom at the bugs without much success.

Tamako made it with Sumire out of the alley and on to the street, with the bugs hot on their heels. Fast as Etsuko was, she knew she was not going to get to them in time before the bugs got Sumire and Tamako.

“Dammit all, Tamako!” Etsuko shouted. “Turn and fight!”

Before Tamako ha a chance to do anything, there was a crash and a bang as something crushed one of the bugs. The attack was of such violence that the exploded into little gooey pieces of biomechanical shrapnel, kicking up a cloud of dust and debris. A moment later Etsuko saw a girl rushing in to the fight, wearing a strange costume that looked like a mix of a swimsuit and a plant pot. She had green hair, and was carrying a pair of wooden maces in her hands. She jumped at another one of the bugs, and her mace broke it like a twig with a powerful spinning move.

The third bug turned tail and tried to fly away, but the girl reacted fast, throwing one of the maces and destroyed the bug in mid air with a a graceful and seemingly effortless move. After spinning in the air a few times, the mace flew back and the girl caught it with a smooth pendulum movement of her arm.

“Is everyone okay?” Nereida Pacifica said.

Etsuko thought the voice sounded familiar, but she couldn’t quite tell it was Ayame, as she was very distracted admiring her looks. On top of the costume, she had the most beautiful hair she had ever seen, a profound green that seemed way too natural for a colour that simply never happened in hair.

“Are you hurt?” Ayame insisted, turning to Sumire and Tamako.

“N…. No… I’m… No…” Sumire said, looking at the green haired girl from the ground with wide, surprised eyes.

Ayame smiled and offered her a hand to stand up, and Tamako came from behind and helped her up too. Sumire looked completely enraptured by the view of the Nereida.

“Thank you very much,” Tamako said, smiling. “You are a life saver!”

“Eh-hehehe,” Ayame laughed, scratching the back of her head. “Of course! That’s what we do!”

“What are you doing here?”

All the girls turned to Nagataka, with various degrees of surprise at his question, and in the case of Etsuko, confused by the familiar tone he had used.

“Hehe, well, se- I mean, Aegea-san sent me over to- Yeah, you know,” Ayame spoke in fragmented phrases, stumbling every other word into something she shouldn’t say.

“Aaaah, what’s that, you should be a bit more grateful, don’t you think?” Etsuko asked in a sharp tone.

“I suppose, you’re right,” Nagataka said. “Thank you; but what I mean is that maybe you shouldn’t stay around.”

“Of course! Nereida Pacifica, away!” Ayame said, and disappeared with a powerful jump, making a crack on the pavement and landing on the roof of the nearest building. Her movement had been so fast the others thought she had merely vanished.

“Nereida… Pacifica?” Etsuko asked, looking at Nagataka with inquisitive eyes. “Who was that?”

“Dunno,” Nagataka lied, not bothering to sound convincing.

“Aaah, hah! It’s so obvious, you’re a terrible liar, you know that?” Etsuko chided him.

“I told you befo-”

He was interrupted by Tamako. “Yeah, yeah, let’s just let it go, Etsu-chan.” She spoke in a calm voice, smiling and with her arms still around Sumire.

After the tension was gone and the rush of battle subsided, Sumire suddenly started crying, burying her face on Tamako’s clothes while hugging her, and Tamako calmly put her arms around the smaller girl.

“It’s okay, Sumire-chan, you’re with us now.”

“What happened?” Nagataka asked, but Sumire didn’t answer.

“Let’s just leave it for now, shall we?” Tamako said. “We should take you home, Sumire-chan.”

“No!” Sumire cried out, snapping her head up to look at Tamako. “I don’t wanna go home! Please! Don’t send me-”

“Oi, oi, Sumire, calm down,” Etsuko said, putting a hand on Sumire’s shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

“I… I don’t wanna… I don’t wanna see my parents… They just let me… And they didn’t…”

“Shh.” Tamako hushed her, gently embracing her head with her right arm. “Don’t worry. If you don’t want to go, you can come with us.”

“R-Really?”

“Aaaah, sure!” Etsuko smirked, and mussed Sumire’s hair. “You can stay with us if you want! Why, it’ll be great! Just the three of us!”

Sumire nodded, and for the first time smiled at them. After a few moments, Nagataka broke the silence, trying to ease the mood.

“Look at that,” he said, walking towards his schoolbag. “I hope I didn’t lose anything!”

“Who cares about that?” Etsuko said.

“Yeah, I bet you don’t.” Nagataka looked at Etsuko and smirked. “You never do your homework anyway.”

“Why you…”

Whatever she was going to say was lost forever when Tamako started laughing. Etsuko turned to her friend and saw that even Sumire was smiling.

“Aaaah, whatever, let’s just pick it up.”

A few minutes later they had all recovered their school material. Hoping it had been enough to break the tension, Nagataka tried questioning Sumire once more. “Sumire-san, why were you out here like that?”

“Why? We said-” Etsuko started to chide him, but he interrupted her.

“Look, I’m going in there,” he said, pointing at the military base, “and I’m going to talk with my father. If I’m going to do something about it, I need to know what happened! Sumire-san, did you escape, or did they let you go, or what?”

“N-No, they just… They kicked me out, a few days ago. Told me to go home, but… But I didn’t want to…”

“I see,” said Nagataka, furrowing his brow. He looked at the girls one after another. “Okay, I’ll try talking with my father, but I suppose you don’t have to come with me now.”

“Let’s just go home,” Tamako said, smiling widely. “Thank you, Nagataka-san.”

“Hey, not a problem, I’m just glad Sumire-san is okay. Take care of her now.”

“Hah! We don’t need you to- Hey Tamako, what are you doing?”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever you say Etsu-chan,” Tamako said, still smiling while dragging her friend away by the wrist, and holding Sumire with her other arm. “Bye-bye!” she said, before turning away and taking her two friends with her.

“Well, that sure was exciting,” Nagataka muttered to himself, looking around at the remains of the biorobotic bugs. “What a mess, oh and look at that, here comes the cavalry.”

Two jeeps with soldiers were driving up from the base, and Nagataka waved at them with complete calm. As far as he knew, all the bugs had been squashed, he was too far to see a remaining pair of insectoid eyes looking down from the top of the dome at the scene that had unfolded. With only the faintest buzz, the bug took flight and headed for the canvassed half-repaired opening at the top of the dome.

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