– I –
I stared at the girl for a long while, then changed my grip on the railgun and held it aloft by its dorsal handle.
This freed up my left hand that I then used to palm my face.
From behind my palm, I said, “Sorry, would you say that again.”
“By the way, you’ve really levelled up.”
Ah, she ignored me.
Lowering my hand, I regarded her through lidded eyes.
By her tone and the expression she wore, it didn’t sound like praise.
“Good for you,” she added in afterthought, then shocked me by saying, “You finally grew a pair.”
A dirty mind thinks dirty thoughts. I would like to think that I’m not that kind of guy – or girl – but I still blushed in embarrassment as I chortled, “A pair of what?”
“Boobs. You grew a pair of boobs.”
I wondered if punching her would constitute a crime. “Is that all you have to say?”
“I like your new look better. The old one just didn’t suit you.”
I flinched, but rather than hitting her, I settled for glaring at her instead. “How stupid of me to worry about you.” Then I gaped at her. “Wait a moment—you are Tabitha.”
Tabitha – if indeed it was her – shrugged and pointed up the stairs. “Hey, you want something to eat? I’ve got food and drinks upstairs.”
She turned and started walking toward the stairs.
“The food will grow cold. And I hate reheating it.” She looked at me over her right shoulder as she walked away. “By the way, do you know that eating repeatedly reheated rice can give you diarrhea?”
“It will?” I shook my head hastily. “Wait—that’s not important.”
“We need to talk about this situation.”
“Okay, we can do that upstairs.”
I restrained myself from palming my face in frustration, and whispered, “What is wrong with this girl?”
Passing by Tobias who as sitting on the floor rubbing his pained midriff, Tabitha stopped and looked back at him as though he were a strange animal. “This is my first time seeing one.”
Tobias stiffened under her gaze and muttered, “First time seeing what?”
“A Himbo,” she replied.
“Huh? Wait—what did you call me?”
She resumed walking over to the stairs. “Maybe I should call you a Mimbo instead?”
Tobias hauled himself up to his feet and glowered at her back. “Hey, who the Hell are you?”
Tabitha climbed the steps with a shrug. “I’m Tabitha, the friendly witch.”
I regarded her ascending back, remembering her misplaced humor from our time in another copy of Telos Academy.
A loud exasperated sigh from nearby dragged my attention away from the girl, and I looked over at Clarisol who was observing me through lidded eyes.
“What?” I questioned her.
“I’ll be honest. I don’t have much faith in your plan.”
“Then you do the talking,” I curtly suggested.
Sparing a look at the school grounds outside the library, I saw that the zombies were still pushing and shoving fruitlessly at the undulating curtain of emerald air. Our fortunes may have improved a little, but that didn’t mean I was ready to relax any time soon. So after engaging the railgun’s safety switch, I decided to keep the weapon primed rather than have the accelerators discharge their pent up energy.
Carrying the railgun by its dorsal handgrip, I took a deep breath, rolled my shoulders to ease the tension in my body, and proceeded after Tabitha who by then had climbed to the library’s third level.
In the meantime, an angry Tobias had recovered one of the two remaining ammo bags, but was making no effort to follow the girl up the stairs.
When I arrived beside him, he tossed me a heated look. “Who the Hell is that chick?”
“That’s Tabitha, the girl who was with me in The Game.”
“The zombie game? The live version of Necropolis?”
“Yes, The Game your family threw me into.”
Tobias winced visibly.
I nodded and looked up, my eyes tracking Tabitha’s progress up the translucent steps. “But as to who she really is, that’s what I intend to find out.” Sensing Tobias grow uncomfortable for some reason, I blurted out, “What is it?”
His expression fell somewhere between grateful and insulted. “Thanks.”
I felt my eyes widen reflexively as I realized what he was somewhat thanking me for. Even though his thanks left a little to be desired, I accepted it graciously. “You would have done the same for me. Ah, but you did come back to save me.”
He turned away. “And ended up being saved instead….”
My eyes widened a little more before narrowing quickly. “You have a problem with that?”
He eyed me sidelong. “A little.”
“Because you’re a guy? Is that it?”
Tobias swallowed and I watched him blush in shame. “That was humiliating.”
“I saved your life!”
“Cass, you tossed me over your shoulder like a sack of cement.”
“A sack of cement wouldn’t complain,” I verbally parried.
“It wouldn’t say ‘thanks’ either,” he lashed out.
“Well it doesn’t sound like you’re thanking me.”
“What? You want a kiss instead.”
My mouth fell open, but I soon closed it angrily as I glowered at him. “If you want Mirai’s first kiss—earn it!” Then I pulled the ammo bag from his right hand. “Give me that—you can barely stand up.”
Tobias used both hands to pull at the carry straps but only succeeded at being dragged along by me.
“Mat, you are seriously becoming a pain.”
“Let go of the bag, Cass. Or do you plan on humiliating me further?”
I whirled on him. “What was I supposed to do? Leave you out there?”
“Children. Children. Please.” Tabitha leaned over the railing at the third level and called down to us. “If you’re going to fight, I’ll let the zombies in.”
Tobias stumbled back several steps when I released the ammo bag.
After climbing a few steps up the stairs, I called up to Tabitha. “Why are you here, Tabitha? What’s your purpose for being here?”
She gave me a puzzled look from on high. “I’m watching the show.”
“The one you and the perennial Gun Queen are putting on.”
Her blithe reply abruptly irritated me. “A show? You call this a show?”
“Yep. That’s I why I brought popcorn. But I spilled it when I jumped up off the couch. You can be so unpredictable at times.”
“You call this a show, but you’re the Game Master.”
“That’s just something the Gun Queen made up on the spot.” She pushed herself away from the railing and resumed climbing the steps. “Don’t peek up my skirt.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I yelled up at her.
“I wasn’t telling you. I was telling him.”
I hurled a sharp look down at Tobias. “Were you looking up her skirt?”
“What? No way,” he protested. “I’d rather gouge my eyes out.”
“Jeezes, Cass. Who do you take me for?” With the ammo bag in hand, he climbed up the stairs and arrive at the midway landing. “Besides, I’ve seen better asses before.”
“Oh? Like whose?” He looked reluctant to give me an answer, so I shook my head and waved my free hand between the two of us. “On second thought, I don’t want to know.”
Stepping past Tobias on the landing, I followed Tabitha up the stairs.
It took more than three minutes for Tobias, Shirohime, and Clarisol to finally arrive at the fifth level – the topmost floor – of the library with the bags they refused to leave behind. I’d arrived long before them, and greeted the trio with a silent sweeping gaze.
They had looked tired out in the school grounds, but now they were barely able to stand.
Unlike the library floor back in The Game, this fifth level was furnished with a few sofas, round coffee tables, and a holovid projection system. However, there were no shelves with books, so the place was library in name only. Nonetheless, it was to these sofas that the group trudged toward, and then sloppily dropped into.
Tabitha – or her evil twin – had plonked herself on the widest sofa, and was busy heating up popcorn in a small microwave oven that she had placed on a table beside the armrest. As such she paid them little attention.
It wasn’t long before Clarisol wrinkled her nose and loudly muttered, “This place stinks.”
Tabitha shrugged her shoulders. “The air-con doesn’t work so you’d expect the air to get stuffy.”
There was the smell of food in the air and it was coming from a plate of palm sized party pies, but when I looked down at the packets of junk food lying haphazardly on the wide coffee table, I noticed that none of them were opened, as though Tabitha had selected every available snack from a vending machine, and dumped them on the table for show.
Was she expecting us?
Wetting my lips, I broke my silence since arriving at the top floor. “Tabitha, I need to ask you. Are you the Game Master or not?”
She flicked me a glance. “I’m an observer.”
“Then who’s the Game Master.”
The oven beeped and she opened the door, retrieving the popcorn container inside. “This brand makes honeyed popcorn.” She briefly looked at me. “Do you want to try some?”
“Tabitha, we didn’t come here to eat,” I told her. “I need your help.”
“I can’t help you.”
“I told you, I’m an observer. I have a front row gold class seat to the show.”
I sighed again, this time unhappily. “Please don’t call it that.”
Tabitha shook the rectangular popcorn box before opening it. Almost immediately the smell of honey and popcorn filled the air, but it didn’t make me hungry. However, Tobias and the girls sat up and stared at the box in Tabitha’s hands. The girl appeared not to notice as she pulled out a bowl from a plastic bag lying on the sofa seat beside her, and then emptied the popcorn into the bowl.
Putting the bowl on the coffee table before her, she waved at it with the now empty box. “Help yourselves.”
I wouldn’t call it a mad rush to the popcorn, but my exhausted companions moved a lot quicker than I expected them to.
I watched them munch on the warm popcorn for a few seconds before directing my attention on Tabitha. “If you’re just an observer, why throw up that Aegis-field to keep the zombies out of the library.”
“Do you really have to ask?” she questioned me with a pitying look.
“Yes, I do.”
“I’m not letting those things in here. Period.”
“Okay, then who’s controlling them.”
“The Game Master.”
I took a deep breath. “And who is the Game Master?”
“My good twin.”
Putting the railgun cannon down like a broom and resting it against the back of a sofa, I walked around to the seated Tabitha, and then grabbed her by the neck. Jerking her hard to her feet, I leaned my face into hers.
“Let me explain something to you. I have had a really long day—a really bad day—and you’re not making it easier.”
Though my hand was clamped around her throat, Tabitha was surprisingly calm as she held up her phone for me to see.
I glanced at it and saw two teenage girls that resembled Tabitha standing shoulder to shoulder, wearing school uniforms that I recognized. “Chevalier Academy?”
“See?” she gasped.
I released her neck, and she dropped back onto the sofa. “You’re twins.”
She massaged her throat. “Yes. Twins. I’m the younger twin, she’s the older one.”
“Which one of you participated in The Game with me?”
“She did.” Tabitha rearranged her body on the sofa. “I was waiting for you in the industrial zone, but they cancelled the trial early, ending it at the residential stage, so we never got to meet.”
“Why were you there?” I asked her.
“To observe you.”
“Why?” I asked, raising my voice on this occasion.
“Because we represent the Battle Commission,” she answered. “We’re field observers.”
Clarisol snorted as she lay draped on a single seat sofa. “I knew it. No wonder we couldn’t catch you—I mean your sister. You translocated out of the Proving Grounds by using the Battle Commission’s Artifact.”
I read the disappointment on Clarisol’s face, and then asked Tabitha’s evil twin, “What’s a field observer?”
She smiled but it looked strained. “We observe and referee battles between Gun Princesses. We step in when the rules are broken.”
“You step in? Then why don’t you step in now?”
“Have the rules been broken?”
Tabitha grinned. “Exactly.”
My mouth fell open and I stared at her in disbelief. “Then it doesn’t matter if this isn’t a fair fight?”
“Against her? In this place? You have to be joking, what with her mother pulling the strings.”
I was starting to feel sick. “You said you referee battles—”
“Not this time. I’m only observing.”
I frowned inwardly as I contemplated the girl sitting on the sofa. She looked no older than a high school senior, so how was it possible for someone so young to hold a position that sounded important within the Gun Princess Royale’s Battle Commission?
Unable to contain my curiosity, I concentrated on seeing her aura. What I saw through Mirai’s eyes sent a shiver of fear running through me. Immediately I reached up and retrieved the right railgun from the mechanical holster that flipped over my shoulder and delivered the weapon to my hand. Within seconds, the Viper had primed its accelerators and I was aiming it squarely at the girl’s head.
“You’re a mechanical,” I said to her.
The girl stopped moving as though the power had been cut, giving off the impression that she was a realistic life-like mannequin.
Seated off to my left and on the sofa opposite the coffee table, Clarisol laughed softly. “Now this is interesting.”
“I wonder if they’re sharing the same remote body….”
I threw Clarisol a glance. “What?”
“Would that be surprising?” Tabitha started moving again, drawing my attention back to her. “Isn’t it more efficient this way?”
Clarisol sat back and folded her arms despite the sling she wore. “If your mechanical avatar is working does that mean you’re nearby? Are you somewhere within the stealth field that is cutting off our Gun Princesses from their Sarcophagi?”
Tabitha’s remote body nodded. “Correct. Our Sarcophagus is nearby, hiding away in a pocket of folded space.”
I frowned. Folded space? What is she talking about?
“So you’re the twins,” Clarisol murmured almost to herself. “I had heard about twins working for the Battle Commission but I never imagined one of them would be you.” She snorted softly. “It makes sense now. How stupid of us….”
“What makes sense?” I asked.
Clarisol crossed her legs. “When we searched the civil registry for someone matching her physical appearance we came up empty. Now I understand why. We weren’t searching far back enough.”
Clarisol didn’t respond. Instead, she addressed Tabitha. “Isn’t that right, former Gun Empress?”
Tabitha grinned thinly. “That was a long time ago, when grass was green….” Then she surprised me with a casual shrug. “We were nothing special.”
“Oh? Nothing special? Two former Gun Empresses? The youngest competitors to ever win the Gun Queen Royale and be crowned Gun Empresses? And you call yourselves nothing special”
“The competition was weak that year,” Tabitha remarked lightly. “Those were easy wins for my sister and I.”
The railgun in my right hand wavered. “You’re a Gun Empress?”
“I was a Gun Empress,” Tabitha replied. “A long time ago.”
“How could you both be Gun Empresses at the same time?”
Clarisol cocked her head slightly. “Because one of them won the Gun Queen Royale in this realm, and the other one won the championship in our realm.”
“The Gun Queen Royale?”
“Yes. At the end of the championship year, the top ranked Gun Princess from each region is crowned Gun Queen. The Queens then compete in a winner takes all battle royale called the Gun Queen Royale and the winner is crowned Empress.”
I regarded Tabitha under a new light. “Wow. You’re that good?”
Tabitha replied apathetically. “Like I said, the competition was weak.”
“On the contrary,” Clarisol contradicted. “The competition was fierce but you and your sister were so far ahead of the rest that you made it look easy.”
Tabitha was quiet for what felt like a pensive moment though she wore a disinterested expression. Then she looked up at me and I saw genuine curiosity on her face. “How did you know?” she asked.
“That this body is a mechanical avatar?”
I chose to lie. “When I picked you up, you were a little heavier than I expected, and there was something odd about your neck. I expected it to be softer but it wasn’t. It didn’t feel like Clarisol’s neck at all.”
Seated on the couch, Clarisol glowered at me but I ignored her.
Tabitha’s eyes widened slightly. “Hmm. Your tactile sensitivity is remarkable.”
“So does this mean you’re just like the Gun Queen?” I asked. “A remote operated body. A Gun Princess Avatar.”
“No, we’re not like her. Our specs are different. These mechanical bodies were constructed to allow us to safely observe and referee the matches. However, we’re not combat models like they are. Think of us as high mobility units equipped with restricted technology.”
“I can generate my own Aegis-field. Keeps me safe on the battle field.”
If it was anything like the field keeping the zombies back, it certainly would come in handy, though I wondered if it could deflect a bullet from the Viper railgun.
Deciding it wasn’t worth testing out Tabitha’s field, I lowered the railgun down to my side and glanced at the food on the table. “You don’t eat, do you?”
“No. This food was actually just for you and them.”
“So you were expecting us to come here.”
“Of course. I’ve been observing your actions every step of the way.
“Back then, during the Game,” I asked, “were you operating a mechanical body as well?”
Tabitha lethargically pocketed her phone. “Of course. Do you think I’d let one of those freaks take a bit out of me?”
I frowned at her. “You swapped bodies a minute ago, didn’t you?”
Tabitha hesitated before sighing. “How astute….”
I shook my head. “No, not really. You gave yourself away. Your sister said you were the one in The Game with me.”
So Clarisol was right. They were sharing the same body, or was that simply to make it easier to communicate with us?
So how do I deal with this Tabitha?
I swallowed to give myself an extra moment before asking, “Are you the Game Master?”
Tabitha exhaled and that surprised me as I didn’t expect a mechanical body to breathe. “Yes, I’m the Game Master.”
“Then can you protect Mat, Clarisol, and Class Rep? Can you keep them out of the fighting?”
“Unfortunately, no. The Empress was adamant that they be included. Consider them the extra risk factor.”
My spirits dipped but I wasn’t ready to give up. “Are you in contact with the Empress?”
“I’m not at liberty to say.”
I took that to mean a ‘yes’ but in the event that it was a ‘no’, I approached the problem from a different angle. “Is she watching this match?”
“Do you think the Empress sees this as a fair fight by including non-combatants into this engagement?”
Tabitha dipped her head at me. “These non-combatants are providing you with support.”
“But I’m also having to protect them,” I countered. “That means I can’t fight the Gun Queen seriously.”
“Define seriously,” she requested.
“If I’m here and not out there, I’m not giving her my undivided attention.”
“That’s true,” she agreed.
“So how can this be a fair fight? How can she test herself properly against me if I’m distracted keeping them alive? And how can it be fair if we outnumber her?”
“Outnumbering her may not matter.”
“Regardless, is this a fair fight?”
Tabitha arched her eyebrows at me. “From the outset, this was never a fair fight. The odds were always stacked against you.”
I swallowed hard. “I know that. I know that I’m not expected win. But even so, this is still my fight.”
With a thoughtful visage, Tabitha looked over at the trio on the sofas.
I held my breath, hoping the pendulum would swing in their favor, not wanting to say anything more at this stage for fear that I would harm my cause.
Tabitha was still for a long while, yet I noticed that she was breathing and that truly unsettled me. The girl had no aura so I knew she wasn’t a living entity, but that didn’t explain why she was breathing. When she spoke again, it caught me off guard as I’d been distracted watching her chest rise and fall.
“Okay, I’ll take them in.”
I leaned toward her. “You—you will?”
“On one condition.”
I straightened. “What condition?”
“On the condition that Clarisol hands over the remote.”
“What remote?” I gave Clarisol a hurried look. “What is she talking about?”
Sitting on the sofa and looking exhausted, Clarisol sneered at Tabitha. “So you saw that?”
“My sister wouldn't be much of an observer if she hadn't.”
“Clarisol,” I asked, “what is she talking about?”
Tabitha cut in before Clarisol could answer me. “I’m talking about the remote detonator to the bomb she left behind on the second floor of the administration building.”
My eyes widened as I stammered, “B—bomb? You left a bomb in the building? Ah—the third bag!”
Tabitha continued holding out her hand. “Allowing you to use an armory’s worth of ammunition is one thing. But that bomb is simply too much. As the Game Master, I can’t allow it. So if you want out of this match, hand over the remote.”
Clarisol’s sneer turned into a bitter glower that she directed at the girl. “And if I refuse?”
“Then I won’t offer you my protection.”
“So be it,” Clarisol decided. “I’m not the one who needs it.”
Tabitha sighed gently. “I won’t be offering them my protection either.” Unfolding her arms, she held out a hand to Clarisol. “Do you get me?”
Despite her right arm being in the sling, Clarisol crossed her arms under her breasts, her glower undiminished. “You would deny me my pound of flesh?”
“You have your Gun Princess here, and she’s fighting on your behalf. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that what the Noble Houses use them for? To settle disputes. To win prestige. To topple your rivals? To avoid outright war?”
On the nearby sofas, Tobias and Shirohime were no longer slouched but sitting upright, their faces drawn tightly as they watched the recalcitrant Clarisol and the disingenuous Tabitha stare at each other. However, I realized that they knew about the bomb.
So that’s what they were busy with on the second floor while I was shooting zombies on the first floor.
I decided I wasn’t going to tolerate Clarisol’s behavior any longer, and aimed the Viper Vanquish at her. “I appreciate you going this far to defeat her,” I admitted sincerely, “but this is my fight.”
Clarisol’s eyes met mine. “I’m not giving her the remote. You’ll have to shoot me.”
“If I’m out of this game”—Clarisol nodded at Tabitha—“then she doesn’t have a reason to deny my brother and his girlfriend her protection. But either way, I’m not handing it over.”
Tobias started to rise for his seat. “Clarisol, stop being stubborn. Just give her the remote.”
“Girlfriend?” Shirohime whispered loudly with eyes wide. “Then you approve of me…?”
I adjusted the Viper’s aim by a couple of degrees. “Don’t think that I won’t shoot you.”
Clarisol continued looking up at me. “I’m expecting you to.”
“Cass, hold up,” Tobias bade me with an outstretched hand. “Just wait up.”
“I won’t hand it over,” Clarisol said. “Not after what Kristeva did to Feli and Angie. I won’t do it. It’s my way of paying her back with interest.”
“Don’t bring them up,” I warned her. “After what you did to them, you don’t deserve to speak their names.”
“I have every reason to,” she said softly, “because I love those girls.”
I swallowed and shook my head faintly at her. “You’re incapable of love.”
“You say that because you don’t know me at all.”
“I have no intention of getting to know you.”
“Then pull the trigger now,” she told me, her gaze locking horns with mine, “and show me your resolve.”
I looked down at her past the two-foot length of the Viper Vanquish.
Shooting her and thereby blowing her head apart would not be the same as killing an undead Simulacra. I understood this, and I also acknowledged that if I pulled the trigger now, I would change as a person. No matter the reason or motivation, I would be crossing a line that I would not be able to step back over. Clarisol wasn’t a human being, and no doubt her human body was safely stored away, so dying here was not an absolute death for her.
Yet knowing this didn’t make my choice any easier.
However, it was not the only option available to me.
Lifting the Viper over my right shoulder, the mechanical holster took it from me and stored the weapon against my back.
“I’m not ready to kill you just yet.” Flexing my fingers, I clenched my hands into fists. “I have other ways of dealing with you.”
Clarisol half smiled at me. “Oh?”
I stepped around the coffee table and approached her. “Yeah.”
Tobias stood up and tried to intervene. “Cass, wait—”
I pushed him away. It was a gentle shove that sent him sprawling back into the sofa seat he’d risen from. “Don’t get in my way, Mat. I’m doing this for you and Class Rep.”
Clarisol regarded me fearlessly as I reached down for her. “You disappoint me.”
“Like I care.”
“But you are smarter than I expected.”
“Oh, how is that?”
“Because if I die, the bomb goes off.”
I clenched my jaw. “So if I’d shot you—?”
“Kaboooooom,” Clarisol replied with a wide grin.
Below my feet and visible through the transparent floors, a brilliant flash of orange light filled the lower levels. A deafening rumble roared through the air, propelled by a shockwave that rocked the library and tossed me onto the table, scattered the lounge furnishing to the four winds, and threw everyone else to the floor.
Adhering to the motto that to move was to stay alive, I rolled off the table and back onto my feet. The library continued to tremble as I hurried over to the railgun cannon that had tumbled to the floor and slid several meters away.
It wasn’t until I had the weapon back in my hands, charged up and ready to fire, that I took stock of my surroundings while crouched on bended knee.
Tobias was helping Shirohime up onto her knees, and Clarisol was clutching at a sofa seat, all of them looking shaken and confused.
“What the Hell happened?” Tobias muttered loudly.
“How the Hell should I know?” I yelled back then stared at Clarisol. “What the Hell did you do?”
Clarisol shook her head. “That wasn’t me!”
“Yeah—like I’d believe you!”
“I’m telling you that wasn’t me!”
I looked down through the transparent floors at the levels below for the answer.
If the library hadn’t been bombed, then perhaps it had been bombarded.
If that was the case then there was only one suspect on my list – the Gun Queen of Ar Telica.
Thank you to everyone for sticking with it.
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