Chapter 39

“Bad Omen”

Etsuko opened her eyes and looked around in a daze. It took her a few seconds to recognize she was in an unfamiliar room. It was white and very boring looking, and she was laying on a bed with two sets of curtains around her. Her head was very foggy, and she was feeling incredibly tired.

“Where am I?” she muttered.

As soon as she spoke the familiar pink hair of Ran came into view, followed by her freckled face and a big smile.

“You’re awake! How are you feeling?” she said, putting a hand on Etsuko’s head. “Not great I bet, after having your apartment blow up like that. It’s a miracle you’re not badly hurt!”

“I’m…. Ugh.” Etsuko put a hand to her chest, feeling for the origin of the pain. “I can’t remember, what happened to that thing? Tamako and I kicked his- Hmph!”

Ran put her hand on Etsuko’s mouth as soon as she started talking about the fight, and quickly bent over to whisper at her ear.

“That’s a secret! Don’t tell anyone you’re a Nereida!”

Etsuko stopped struggling with the surprise of Ran’s words. She looked at the girl as she stood back up again, and after a few moments, raised her right arm to put her hand over her eye, making a mock half-mask in the shape she had been wearing as Nereida Nostrum.

“You,” she gasped.

“Uh-huh.” Ran nodded, putting a finger to her lips, and speaking in a low voice. “The day after the first time is really hard, it was like that for all of us.”

“All of you? Day after?”

“Yes, I’ll explain later, you just rest now.” Ran smiled.

“Where are Sumire and Tamako?” Etsuko asked in a louder voice.

“Right here,” a voice answered, and Ran moved a curtain to reveal Tamako resting on her own bed; she turned to Etsuko and smiled, but her face revealed she was feeling exhausted.

“Aaah, you look terrible,” Etsuko said, and grinned.

“I’m not as athletic as Etsu-chan,” Tamako replied, giggling weakly.

“Where’s Sumire?” Etsuko insisted.

“Well…” Ran pointed at the other curtain. “She’s resting now, they gave her a sedative. She’s taken it pretty hard, her parents… That alien killed them, she was holding on to her dad when he died too.”

Etsuko’s mouth opened out of its own volition when she heard it, while a burning rage caught fire inside her. She rubbed the large bruise on her chest with her right hand, and realized she was trembling with anger.

“I’ll kill him,” she grated. “I’ll find him, and I’ll kill him, that son of-”

Ran grabbed Etsuko’s hand with both her hands, and let her clutch it with all her strength. When Etsuko looked at her, she felt there were a million questions she wanted to ask, but a wordless understanding passed between them. She let go of Ran’s hand with a final, gentle squeeze, and settled down on her bed again.

“Where are we anyway?” Etsuko said.

“The hospital. We all ended up here after yesterday’s madness. As I said, don’t worry and just rest, we’ll have time later to figure out what we’ll do.”

“You sound worried.”

“A little, but really, don’t worry. I’m sure Kokawa-san will figure something out.”

“Kokawa?” Etsuko asked, surprised. “What’s egghead Nagataka going to do?”

“No,” Ran said, and couldn’t help frowning at Etsuko for badmouthing Nagataka. “His father.”

“Right,” Etsuko replied, sceptical.

“No, really. Etsuko-san, as I said, just take it easy.”

“Etsu-chan doesn’t do easy, Ran-san,” Tamako interrupted, prompting a giggle from Ran and an annoyed response from Etsuko.

Ran was quite correct in her assessment, because at that moment Torao was having a similar conversation with Hoshiko. They were sitting at the familiar bench at the small park near the edge of the dome.

“What the hell happened?” he said. “A single alien found us, came into the city, and you let him escape?”

“What happened is indeed the question,” Hoshiko said. “I have simply no idea.”

“I thought it was one of your girls that fought him.”

“Yes,” she replied. “Unfortunately it was her first time. But that’s not really the question now.”

“What do you mean? That’s the whole bloody question! I’ve got the top brass breathing down my neck for this! After giving me the whole unit and everything else, we’ve failed right after getting started. Now we’re looking at evacuation plans and early warning systems for when the attack comes.”

“And that’s my point, I don’t think there’ll be an attack. Not yet, at least.”

“What? Why?”

“I can’t tell for sure,” she said, doubt clear in her voice. “This is all going so different than what I expected. But it’s very odd. If the aliens were looking for us, or at least looking to see what happened to everything we’ve been blowing up, why would they send only a single scout, to make all that noise to boot? And that’s not even half of it, why the hell did he kidnap that girl?”

“That was something I wanted to ask you about, Aegea-san. Is she actually part of your group?”

“No! You should know that already, she’s just a shy girl with very few friends who weren’t even part of our group, it doesn’t make any sense!” She quieted down for a few moments, thinking. She then shook her head. “All I can think of is that she was at the wrong place, at the wrong time.”

“We should find out-”

“Absolutely not!” Hoshiko interrupted. “She’s gone through enough already! She’s staying put with her friends and we’re getting her counselling and help, the last thing she needs is to answer a hundred questions!”

Torao regarded Hoshiko with some interest for a few seconds, and his voice had hardened when he resumed his talk.

“Believe me, Aegea-san, I appreciate your concern. But we need to know what she knows. You are worried about her, I’m worried about this whole city, and I can’t be prepared to do what’s necessary if I don’t have enough information.”

“We can get that information without bothering her,” Hoshiko replied. “And as I said, there will be no large scale attack coming anytime soon.”

“So you claim. On what do you base your speculation?”

“This is not normal. I believe they are targeting us, which is not surprising, but I also think we’re being targeted by a faction of the alien force against orders from the Empress. Or at least acting behind her back. It’s the only thing I can think of that fits.”

Fits?” Torao asked, ignoring the rest of the questions that Hoshiko’s explanation had raised in his head. “What do you mean by fits?”

“I know how these aliens operate, Torao-san,” Hoshiko said. “What the Empress wants, the Empress gets, and they’re not subtle about it. If she had found out we’re here, she’d have sent a large force to capture us already.”

Torao remained silent, not opening his mouth until Hoshiko looked at him. He had a hard look on his face, and seemed to be ruminating something.

“What is it?” Hoshiko asked.

“Aegea-san, so far I’ve respected that there are things you don’t wish to tell us. But what you’re telling me sounds like you are not just an asset, but a liability, if you are being targeted. What is it the aliens want with you?”

“Without us, this place is one accidental discovery away from obliteration,” Hoshiko retorted hotly. “Which has already happened twice.”

“That’s true,” Torao responded, furrowing his brow. “But now that it’s already happened, it’s not accidental anymore, is it?”

He let the conversation hang for a few seconds, and resumed in a calmer tone.

“All I’m saying is that it’s a double edged sword, and it would have been good to know it before all this happened. We could have deployed an early warning system, and we could have worked more closely with you.”

“Neither of that would have helped this time, when that Livuan came to hurt someone that wasn’t us or you,” Hoshiko retorted, but after quieting down for a few moments, she sighed. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate it, Torao-san, but right now we’re the only ones who can do anything against them.”

“At the very least,” Torao said, more relaxed. “I’d like to hear why they are going after you, and why you know so much about them too.”

Hoshiko didn’t respond at first, she kept her gaze lost in the distance, as if she was looking past the vine-covered glass panels of the dome.

“This isn’t going to be easy…”

“I have time,” Torao said, smirking.

“Really now,” Hoshiko said, managing a small smile of her own.” I’ll start with why I know so much, as you say. I’ve… lived under the Livuans, for most of my life.”

“So…” Torao prompted, when after a few seconds it was clear Hoshiko wasn’t going to continue.

“So, I know how things work with them. I know the Empress is after us, she wants to use our power for herself.”

“Can she actually do that?”

“I…” Hoshiko hesitated, and then shook her head. “I don’t know. Possibly. But we can fight her, by the same token. But there’s so many unknowns.”

“What are you planning?”

“Planning?” Hoshiko asked, surprised, only to realize Torao was looking at her as if he knew what she was thinking. “I don’t know. It’s just not happening as I thought it would. Right now I just want to make these girls stronger, give them time to grow.”

“And you?”

“Me? What about me?”

“Are you strong enough? How much stronger do the girls have to get?”

“I truly, truly don’t know, Torao-san. I really wish I did. I… think Nereida Nostrum can be stronger than me. I’m fairly certain actually. The rest, I’m not so sure.”

The conversation died for a while, until Torao resurrected it with a different thread.

“Aegea-san, I understand you are the only senior member of your little squad,” he said, with an easy smile aimed at dissipating the tension, “yet you speak as if the Empress knew everything about you. Is that only because she knows about you, or are there others?”

“There are others,” Hoshiko said, but quickly corrected herself. “There were others. I only heard this from my mother, so…”

“Good enough,” Torao said.

“No, not good enough, that’s the problem,” Hoshiko retorted with more spirit than Torao had expected. “She claimed there had been others when the Livuans first arrived on Earth, but… Let’s just say it ended badly for them. Very badly. Or so she claimed.”

“You think she lied?”

“I’m sure she did, but there is probably some truth to it. Regardless, that’s how the Empress discovered this power. And now she wants it.”

“I see.”

“But I suppose we should be talking about what to do next.”

“Yes, indeed.”

“I think we need to find this Livuan as soon as possible. That means we’re going to have to go out of the dome and search. And I suppose that’s where you could help. In the meantime, your son and Nereida Nostrum can continue their research.”

“We can help with the search for sure. What will you do once we find him?” Torao asked.

“You leave him to me, I’ll deal with him,” Hoshiko replied, with real venom in her voice.

Tikaae would have surely envied Hoshiko’s position. She didn’t have to answer to Torao as a superior, and she had all the cards herself. In the meantime, he had to endure the humiliation of having his superior chew him up for his failure.

“I had assumed that a single agent operating independently would have the best chance of success, based on lack of oversight from the higher chain of command, as well as the superior capabilities of our elite equipment. Of course, such plan’s success hinged on the abilities of the agent in question, and perhaps a more thorough screening process to select the appropriate individual would have been advisable,” Valaal droned on an on through the communicator.

“Just cut the crap already,” Tikaae said, in an exceedingly human manner. “You haven’t seen these females, what they can do is not normal.”

“Indeed, I haven’t seen it,” Valaal remarked, prompting a muttered curse from Tikaae, “it is hard to evaluate a report with so little supporting evidence. If just one-”

“Not just one,” Tikaae interrupted again. “I don’t know how many there are, I had to deal with two I had not seen before, and there’s the ones we know about. I need more resources.”

“And what will you do with these resources, if I may ask?”

“The one thing we know works,” he said, grinning and licking his sharp teeth. “Get my hands on that little female, and the others show up in no time. Give me enough reinforcements, and we can just pick them as they come.”

“Very well. However, we don’t want any attention drawn to ourselves, as I have repeatedly pointed out.”

“Afraid of Her Exalted Highness?” Tikaae asked in a mocking tone.

“As you should be,” Valaal responded dryly, before cutting all communication.

Tikaae sat back in the cockpit of his armored mecha, rubbing his chest with a grimace of pain. Nevermind the cuts and the lighter wounds, they would get healed easily enough with the medi-gel. He closed his eyes and replayed the attack in his mind. The chance he thought he had seen, and the sudden thrust of that damnable staff hitting him on the chest. Try as he may, he just didn’t see how it could have hurt him so much. He didn’t understand that power at all.

“I’m going to tear them apart limb by limb once I get my hands on them,” he muttered.

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