Dear Readers, due to the delay in getting this posted, we decided to release Parts III and IV in one hit.
– III –
For decades the creation of a Category Six classification for hurricanes was considered superfluous.
After all, why create another level on the Saffir-Simpson scale when Category Five already guaranteed catastrophic destruction.
Then the storms grew worse, and humanity had to build bigger, better, and stronger…or die at the hands of an increasingly bipolar and psychotic Mother Nature. With cities protected by newer and better technologies, near total destruction was no longer a given at Category Five, and thus Category Six was born.
When humanity spread throughout its local arm of the Milky Way, they carried with them the knowledge they had gained in their efforts to survive on an Earth turned hostile to them.
Amongst the many worlds people settled upon was the third planet of a thirteen-body solar system – a severe, unforgiving blue, green, and red world they would name, Teloria.
A world that made Earth look like Paradise.
A world humanity was committed to taming because it was one of a precious few that could be terraformed to support human life.
However, until it was fully tamed, humanity had a need to build its city-states as befitting their environment. Hence, Ar Telica had been constructed to withstand the raging ferocity of a Category Five hurricane. After all, after a century of terraforming, the planet had yet to settle into a relatively placid Earth-like climate and ecology. Atmospheric and ocean storms continued rage, and though weak compared to what Telos had once endured, by Earth’s standards they were fierce and so the city-states were designed and built to weather their harshness.
Telos Academy was no exception to this design doctrine.
As a first line of defense, the tetrapods that surrounded Telos Island could project a layered barrier-field to diminish the force of the waves before they reached the school’s buildings. They could also partially divert the intense winds so that they blew over the island.
As a second line of defense, strong effect-fields could form a protective bubble around the school. It was one of the reasons why the main faculty building was circular, and why the gymnasium, aquatic center, and clubroom buildings were constructed with rounded corners and arched rooftops. At the prospect of being submerged under the storm’s waves, the academy’s Artificial Awareness could engage watertight doors and shutters to isolate the interior of the school in sections, and activate pressure doors to prevent the underground power generators, shelters, and life support systems from being inundated.
In effect, the school could become a waterproof environment to protect the students and staff from the lethal intensity of a hurricane.
However, Telos Academy and Ar Telica city would not survive a collision with a Category Six hurricane unscathed. In short, there would be damage, until bigger, better, and more powerful barrier-fields emitters could be designed and constructed…like the ones protecting the dome from harm.
This is what I realized as I watched waves so large they would tower over Telos Academy.
Our technology lagged that of the Empire’s.
In other words, they possessed barrier-fields that could shrug off a Category Six hurricane as though it was nothing more than a summer drizzle, something that humanity from my universe could not.
But there was something else I concluded with a grim heart.
“We could have died out there.”
It came out as a whisper, but it was heard by those around me.
“Erina, myself, even that asshole Arnval.” I nodded slowly at the storm before us. “We could have died out there.”
I heard a muffled cough from off to my right.
“I would appreciate you not calling me an ‘asshole’, young lady.”
I turned my head and looked at the asshole standing to the right of the cat maid. “It was your idea to Trans-Locate us to this location—wherever this is—and Erina’s injuries are a direct result of that.” I pointed at the towering waves crashing against the dome. “Regardless of what I am, I wouldn’t have survived out there, and neither would you.”
Arnval was quiet for a moment, before inhaling deeply. He released his breath slowly. “I won’t deny that.”
“So why do it?” I asked him coldly while feeling rage begin to simmer strongly within me. “Why?”
Are our lives not important? Don’t you value your life? Could it be you would throw away your life in the service of the Sanreals? Are you such a mindless, devoted slave? Knowing the monumental risk, why would you still press that button?
I could have shouted my thoughts, but there was no need to.
Just by looking at him, I knew he acknowledged the unspoken questions behind that single, Why?
But the reply came from the cat maid, Kyoko. “The margin of error associated with your trans-location was deemed acceptable.”
I had a vague understanding of what she meant, but I chose to play dumb. “Meaning what?”
“The point of emergence was calculated within a radius that fell within the volume of space protected by the dome.”
I smiled at her, but it came out feeling more like a snarl. “Oh really? And what would have happened if we hadn’t emerged above the pool?” I pointed to the house in the distance visible over the garden hedges. “What if we’d trans-located above that house over there? Does crashing into the roof factor into the margin of error?”
“The estate and surrounding gardens are equipped with effect-field emitters. They would have acted as a safety net and arrested your descent. You would not have been harmed, and Doctor Kassius would not have been injured.”
“And what about the pool?”
Kyoko stiffened and hesitated for a moment before offering me a deeply apologetic bow. “I regret that the effect-fields do not provide coverage over the pool.” She bowed even deeper. “I am truly sorry.”
“So you didn’t factor that we would pop up above the pool?”
“We did. However, we were unable to place portable effect-field emitters around the pool in time. Your trans-location occurred ahead of schedule.” She bowed to me once more. “Once again, I offer you most sincere apologies.”
My palms hurt.
When I glanced down, I saw my nails digging into them as I clenched my hands into fists.
I took a deep breath and relaxed my fingers.
Within moments the pain vanished and undoubtedly my palms had healed.
But the same didn’t apply to the anger I felt, and it was anger I directed at Arnval. “Someone saw what was happening in the park, and reported it to the authorities. How am I expected to go back to Ar Telica”—I gasped sharply—“or was that what you wanted?”
Arnval stared at the hurricane outside the dome and offered me no reply.
Again, it was Kyoko who intervened. “Master Sanreal was displeased at the turn of events. Rest assured, Master Arnval will answer for his actions.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
I stepped around the cat maid and approached Arnval, but I stopped when I remembered he had a second handgun under his trench coat, possibly holstered.
And though his hands remained shoved in his trench coat pockets, Arnval had turned slightly in my direction.
I hid my wariness as I watched him break his silence.
“No, it doesn’t. So what will you do?”
I was taken aback by his question, and I had no quick answer for him.
Arnval took advantage of the opening he’d made for himself. “Or perhaps I should ask is there anything you can do?”
“Are you implying that I’m not going back to Ar Telica?”
“Whether you return to Ar Telica or not will depend on you,” he replied.
“Then what was the point of—?” I stopped sharply and cast a glance at the cat maid.
Arnval noticed and I saw him smile. “No need to worry. Kyoko-chan is well aware of who you are…and what you are.” He turned back to the dark vista outside the dome. “She undoubtedly knows more about you than I do….”
His statement motivated me to give the maid a hard look. “Why does a maid know about me?”
Arnval chuckled briefly. “Because Kyoko-chan is Master Sanreal’s personal assistant. Isn’t that right, Kyoko-chan?”
The corners of her eyes crinkled faintly however she didn’t face him. “I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t refer to me so familiarly.”
“Yes, yes. So you’ve told me before….”
“And you fail to remember that time and time again,” she retorted smoothly without a hint of ire in her voice or expression as though she’d given up on holding hard feelings against him.
I looked at them both in turn.
Arnval stared into the surrounding darkness.
Kyoko faced in the direction of the house.
I felt as though time had stopped for us, or rather it had encapsulated the two of them, and made me a spectator to a moment with a hidden meaning that I glimpsed but failed to grasp.
However, I had no problem with being an outsider.
Instead, I had problem with being kept in the dark about matters pertaining to me, and so I bluntly crashed into their moment.
“What was the point of setting me up as Isabel val Sanreal?”
Turning slightly toward me, Arnval looked at me out of the corner of his left eye. “Ask Sanreal. But if you’re worried about the state of affairs back in Ar Telica, don’t be. It can all be smoothed over.”
How? I wondered but quickly reconsidered and decided not to ask.
The sinister implications behind Arnval’s casual reply warned me that perhaps it was better not knowing how the Sanreal Family would deal with the authorities.
However, it also left me with the question of whether or not I could return to Ar Telica.
I felt I understood what Arnval meant when he said the answer would depend on me.
It would depend on whether I behaved or not – on whether I co-operated with the Sanreals or chose to oppose them.
Was that really all I could do? Were there no other options open to me?
No, there was one other option – one slender branch I could reach out for.
However, I knew little to nothing about what accepting her offer would mean for me. I could literally end up jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. I knew little about Tabitha but if she was anything like the people I’d met thus far – the people manipulating me to their own agendas – then trusting her might be a mistake. Indeed, she’d deceived me about Cardinal, so what else had she lied about?
Then I remembered something I’d overlooked.
Tabitha had a twin sister.
So who was it operating that remote body back at the school dormitory complex?
“Mistress. Mistress? Mistress Isabel?”
I blinked rapidly, and noticed the cat maid had approached me. Reflexively, I took a half-step back, and reflexively slipped into a defensive stance.
The cat maid froze, and I was surprised by how easily I read the question running through her mind, perhaps because it was reflected on Straus’s face.
Was I going to run away?
Arnval, being better at concealing his emotions, merely questioned me with his eyes. Yet he wore a faint, thin, almost taunting smile that seemed to say, Go ahead and run. We can pick up where we left off.
I suddenly had an inkling into the workings of his mind, and it made my stomach clench unpleasantly.
Arnval wanted to fight me.
He wasn’t entirely human, and I was beginning to suspect the reason was because his body was partly mechanical, implying he was some kind of cybernetic entity. Why wasn’t the question, because I didn’t care for how he’d become that way. Neither was it a question of whether his body was based on technology from this universe or from the Empire’s, because in all honestly, I had little knowledge of what cybernetic tech was capable of accomplishing. So the real question was whether or not I could be beat him. I’d felt his strength and witnessed his speed, and so I believed that a one-on-one battle with him would be a painful, bone breaking encounter.
If I’m going to face him, I’d rather do it as a Gun Princess, with my guns and with my Regalia.
Having made my choice, I dropped my defensive stance and relaxed my posture, though I remained wary of Arnval.
The taunting smile faded from his lips but his questioning eyes now revealed amusement, and it was that which kept me on guard.
Without breaking eye contact with him, I addressed the cat maid. “So when do I get to meet Phelan Sanreal?”
I didn’t need to look away from Arnval to observe the cat maid. With Mirai’s preternaturally wide field-of-vision, I could see her fairly well, thus I saw the reluctance that briefly expressed itself on her face but there was none of it in her smooth, courteous reply.
“Mistress Isabel, may I suggest first settling into the Estate. A room has been prepared for you. I recommend a long hot bath with scented oils to replenish and rejuvenate your skin, and a change of clothes before your audience with Master Sanreal.”
The mention of clothes reminded me that my appearance right now wasn’t my best.
Ugh…what exactly is my best?
Leaving the question aside, a quick downward look confirmed what I felt through my skin. My uniform had dried considerably, but it and my underwear were still dank. Thereby a change of clothes sounded good, and I could certainly do with a shower, but I wasn’t so sure about soaking in a bathtub. That was something that girls did…even though I was now a girl.
Argh—there’s just no escaping it! Even the maid is prodding me down the path of femininity.
My hands balled into fists, and my arms trembled faintly at my sides.
I’m just…just…not ready for a bath!
“Fine,” I grumbled with my head bowed. “Room. Shower. Clothes.”
I raised my head and glared stubbornly at the maid.
“But I’m not taking a bath.”
Kyoko, the cat maid, smiled faintly at me. “As you wish, Mistress Isabel….”
Taking a deep breath, I blew away the soap bubbles drifting in front of me.
I should have realized she was up to something.
The small cloud of bubbles drifted into the air before floating back down.
She agreed way to easily to my demands.
They landed gently on the thick layer of soap bubbles coating the surface of the water.
I should have guessed she wasn’t going to play fair.
With a soft groan, I sunk up to my chin in the scented water.
But what was I supposed to do? I really didn’t have much of a choice.
I tipped my head back and stared annoyed up at the ceiling.
Besides they’d never understand why I didn’t want to take a bath.
The bathroom was obscenely large, easily four-fold the size of my former dormitory apartment, but it was necessary to fit a bathtub that could double as a small swimming pool.
Honestly, I could do laps in it, and right now it was filled almost to the brim with warm water coated in a thick layer of scented bubbles that had the entire room smelling of vanilla and strawberries.
Damn it. It’s making me crave ice-cream or a jumbo sized parfait.
My eyes widened in a sudden panic.
Wait, wait, wait—only girls eat parfait!
My hands shot up out of the water and I grabbed my head.
No! That’s just me being sexist. There are plenty of guys who indulge themselves in a pretty pink parfait.
I sat up in the tub, but it was so deep that only my head, shoulders, and the tops of my breasts were exposed.
What am I thinking? What is wrong with me?
Grinding my molars together I slapped myself twice.
“Come on, Isabel! Get a grip!”
I slapped myself again, then yelped.
“Damn it, that hurt—ah!”
I stared through the steamy air at the far end of the bathroom.
“That’s it! This is part of their master plan!”
Leaning back against the smooth, contoured end of the pool, I regarded the curved edge where the ceiling met the far wall.
“Why didn’t I realize it before…?”
This was how the Sanreals were planning to defeat me. By smothering me in wanton luxury. By seducing me with their wealth and money. By appealing to my vanity…though I wasn’t sure if I was vain. Regardless, I was now confident I had understood the crux of their scheme to win me over. As I did so, I remembered a quote from a distant past.
Every man has his price.
I frowned as my gaze drifted up to the ceiling.
But what about a woman?
My frown deepened as I grew troubled.
Okay? So if I’m something of a mixed bag then what’s my price?
My gaze drifted over the outlines of the swirling, flowery patterns embossed into the ceiling.
I’d honestly like to say I don’t have a price…
The warm water and steamy scented air were eroding my efforts to remain awake. Coupled with the stress and exhaustion I’d incurred at the hands of Tabitha, Straus, Arnval, and the maid from Hell – Kyoko-chan – it was becoming a real struggle to keep my eyes open.
…but the problem is that I can get used to this…
Little by little, my eyes began to close as each successive blink grew longer.
…and all this running around…is really wearing me out….
Eventually, my eyelids closed shut and I felt myself drifting toward slumber.
So how did I end up taking the aforementioned bath?
Well, it’s because that damn head maid exploited my Achilles Heel.
The one chink in my stubborn armor that an equally stubborn arrow could penetrate.
You may already know what I’m alluding to, but I’ll tell you anyway.
With Mirai’s preternatural abilities, it’s hard to ambush me. For example, if I concentrate my vision on my surroundings I can see the aura of living beings faintly through walls. Because I happened to be using this ability at the time, I wasn’t taken by surprise by the dozen or more maids lying in wait for me inside the living area of the luxurious suite I’d been allocated on the second floor of the palatial villa.
Note that I wasn’t certain they were maids, but from the aura alone I sensed they were Simulacra, and something about the way their lifeforce radiated made me suspect they were female. I honestly can’t put a finger to the reason. It’s just something that I knew on an instinctual level. For now, let’s leave it at that.
The first maid that came flying at me made a dull whump sound when she rebounded off a nearby wall that I tossed her into, and then collapsed unconscious on the floor.
The second maid screamed in pain when I grabbed the back of her head and slammed her face first into another wall, knocking her unconscious.
The third maid I sent flying into a living room sofa. She tumbled over it, her skirts fluttering, her shoes kicking the air, and disappeared behind it. Mind you, I did glimpse her white panties as she went over.
Then the remaining maids got serious and out came the weapons.
Handguns, stun guns, stun batons, a telescoping cattle prod, a flail masterpiece…and a broom.
At sight of their arsenal, my Awareness kicked its afterburners and accelerated into an overclocked state.
Honestly, I was shocked – no pun intended – at the nature of the weapons they had been hiding in their dresses. The saying more than meets the eye was a clear understatement when applied to these maids. With that firmly in mind, I was most concerned about the broom. Compared to the other weapons it was an incongruous choice, and thus demanded the most suspicion.
The maids spread out, and I dropped into a defensive crouch.
However, before the situation could escalate into an all-out melee, Kyoko blew a loud whistle while standing a safe distance behind me.
Clapping her hands, she forcefully announced, “Abort. Abort. All girls, stand down.”
A collective ‘Eh’ went up from the maids, but none of them relinquished or withdrew their weapons.
“I’m declaring Plan-A a failure,” Kyoko stated firmly. “We’re switching to Plan-B.”
Turning my head slightly toward Kyoko so that I could see her in the corner of my right eye, I asked her angrily, “What the Hell are you trying to do?”
“To ensure you take the bubble bath we’ve prepared for you.”
My head jerked back. “The bubble bath?”
“You had them attack me because of a bubble bath?”
“Correct again. However, Plan-A failed so we’re now employing Plan-B.”
Not relaxing my guard for a heartbeat, I heatedly asked, “And what’s Plan-B?”
Kyoko snapped the fingers of her right hand. “This…is Plan-B.”
I waited. The maids waited. But nothing happened.
“What?” I queried her. “Was that supposed to be a magic trick?”
“Hardly.” Kyoko inhaled deeply and snapped her fingers again.
Again, we all waited for a short while, but nothing changed.
I started to relax a little. “So…is it third time’s the charm?”
Kyoko took a deep breath that shuddered with exasperation.
And once again she snapped her fingers.
I cocked my head at her slightly. “Is there a Plan-C?”
Kyoko trembled violently for a second or two, then retrieved a slim phone from an apron pocket.
“Penelope!” she shouted. “Where the Hell are you?”
“I’m here!” came the cry from the wide hallway connecting the suite’s entrance to the living room area, and the exhausted bunny eared maid staggered into view, her large bosom heaving mightily with each breath she drew.
Kyoko glared openly at the girl before striding over to her and yanking free the package the bunny maid carried in her hands.
“I told you to be quick about it!”
The bunny maid took fast, gulping breaths. “I had trouble finding it. I forgot what it was called.”
“As punishment you’re on bathroom cleaning duty for a week.”
“…nooooo…,” the buxom blonde girl whined pitifully and collapsed to her knees.
Ignoring her, Kyoko approached me but stopped a couple of yards away. She held up the rectangular package in her hands for me to see.
I recognized it as a holovid disk case, but a loud gasp bellowed from my gaping mouth when I saw the cover.
“…it can’t be….”
“But it is,” Kyoko said with the hint of a smile on her face. “Only a hundred were ever released. A limited-edition holovid production chronicling the making of her bestselling holovid album, and it includes the raw, unedited ‘A Day In the Life of Mercy Haddaway’. It was released when her career was at its peak and only available to the first hundred buyers.”
“Hey, take that back,” I demanded. “Her career hasn’t peaked yet!”
“Oh, really?” A smirk settled on Kyoko’s lips. “Her merchandise sales are down seven percent this year compared to last. And she’s fallen from third place to fourth place on the popularity rankings.”
“She’s still got steam in her. Don’t count her chickens yet!”
“Regardless. Her career has passed its zenith.” Kyoko held the rectangular case a little higher. “This little item was purchased on an online auction. Master Sanreal fetched it for a hefty price.”
“It’s best that you don’t know.”
I swallowed loudly and then cautiously asked, “Why would he do that?”
“Do you really need to ask? Are you not a Mercy Haddaway fan?”
I swallowed again as a feeling of unpleasant Déjà vu swirled through my chest. “So why are you showing me that?”
“Because if you take a bath, like a lady should, then you get to keep this. Consider it both a bribe and a gift from your…father.”
Though I’d relaxed it, my stance remained defensive, yet now it wavered. “How do I know you’re not lying? How can I trust you?”
“That’s not the question you should be asking,” Kyoko replied smoothly with an unreadable expression like someone holding the best hand at a card game. “The question you should be asking yourself is, ‘Do I want this or not’?”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “I could just take it from you.”
Kyoko nodded and betrayed a smile. “Is that what you think?” Then she opened the case to reveal it was empty inside. “Take the bath, and you’ll get what you desire.”
What I desire? Is that what you think I desire? How little you understand me….
I then had a flash of insight. Perhaps, I could call it inspiration.
Let them think what they want. I can use this to my benefit.
Telling her what I truly desired would be a waste of time because she wasn’t in a position to grant my wish.
However, I recognized what the Sanreals were offering me.
It wasn’t just an extremely limited piece of Mercy Haddaway’s gravure existence.
It was an olive branch that came with strings attached.
At least, that was what I suspected.
As the saying goes, time would tell if I was wrong or not.
Thus, I chose to accept the offer and took the bubble bath the maid platoon had prepared for me in the swimming pool sized tub.
For the time being, I would play along.
If the Sanreals believed they could use my obsession with Mercy Haddaway to play me like a marionette on strings, then so be it. I’d string them along as they were stringing me, and gain important items to include my collection. I also realized that I would have to start anew, since my existing collection of Mercy memorabilia belonged to Ronin Kassius.
That realization pained me, and I sank deeper into the water.
Who am I kidding. I gave into my obsession. Those bastards know me too well.
I felt like grabbing my head again, but instead blew bubbles just below the water’s surface.
I’m so tired of all this crap…tired of all these weirdos messing up my life…tired of being manipulated…tired of being told Mercy Haddaway is past her prime…give me back my delusions…give me back my peaceful life…give me back my old life….
Arnval’s face with its provoking smile and amused eyes drifted unbidden behind my closed eyelids.
Annoyed, I wondered why I was thinking of him now, while grudgingly conceding he was a new problem I needed to contend with.
I’m going to wipe that smile off his face.
His expression was an open challenge, but I didn’t feel I was ready to fight him yet.
No, there was too much I didn’t know or understand about this body – about Mirai.
There was too much that was a mystery about her.
I had moved pretty well back at the parkland, but I need to know why that was possible. What kind of training did Mirai’s body possess, and how had she been trained. Those were among the questions I wanted answered.
The ancient adage of knowing yourself and knowing your enemy such that won’t fear a hundred battles could be twisted to suit my situation.
Before I knew my enemy, I needed to understand myself because stepping onto the battlefield without preparation was to invite defeat.
With that understanding in mind, I realized that I had all but acknowledged that Arnval and I would fight.
It didn’t mean I was willing to fight him. Rather, I was resigned to fight him, and I wasn’t looking forward to it.
Arnval was an unexpected and unpleasant obstacle that had popped up, and the only way to get past him was to give him the battle he wanted and resoundingly defeat him.
As such, our reasons for fighting couldn’t be more different.
Arnval desired pitting himself against me.
I was going to fight him simply because he was standing in my way. In other words, it had little to nothing to do with the trans-location fiasco that nearly cost Erina her life. Nor did it have anything to do with him pulling that gun on me back at the park. Therefore our inevitable duel would have all the depth and meaning of a schoolyard bout.
How pathetic. I snorted softly under my breath. Is this my true nature?
After so many years avoiding the spotlight and not drawing attention to myself so that I could live a relatively peaceful, uneventful school life, was I now showing my true colors?
Was resorting to violence the only way I knew how to deal with problems?
Was I nothing more than a bully?
I didn’t know how to deal with situations the way Straus had suggested. I honestly couldn’t do passive aggressive. So how was I supposed to handle Arnval, Kyoko, and the Sanreals?
“…princess…Princess…Princess…wake up now, please….”
My eyelids fluttered open, but I had some difficulty keeping them open, and my eyes had trouble focusing.
Had I fallen asleep?
Noticing someone to my right beside the pool – I mean bathtub – my heart jumped into my throat. Then I saw that it was Ghost dressed in a butler’s suit, complete with a neatly folded hand towel over one arm. His projection into my mind was so realistic, even the way I initially had trouble bringing him into focus, that it elicited a shiver from me.
“Princess, if you fall asleep in the bath, you may catch a cold.”
Had he noticed my shiver? I had to wonder if he was watching me from the outside despite projecting himself into my mind from the inside of my head. That implied he’d hacked into the bathroom’s surveillance cameras and was using them to observe me.
If that wasn’t enough to warrant me hurriedly crossing my arms over my breasts and sinking into the water up to my eyeballs, then I’m not sure what is.
From underwater, I yelled at him, “What the Hell are you doing here? Are you a pervert?”
At least, that’s what I wanted to yell, but it came out garbled and muffled by the water.
And yet Ghost understood me. “I came to see if you wanted to talk?”
Glaring at him, I felt a frown crinkle my brow. “Talk?” I bubbled.
I raised my head until my mouth was out of the water, then pointedly swept my gaze over the luxurious bathroom. “Is it safe…?”
Ghost bowed his head slightly. “I have infiltrated the bathroom’s surveillance systems. We have a few minutes at least before they notice the anomaly in the system and respond to it.”
My suspicion was on the money.
With it confirmed, I glanced at the bathwater.
The surface was still covered in bubbles, and though they had lost much of their volume, I decided that for the moment my modesty was safe.
I nonetheless remained submerged up to my chin as I eyed Ghost with open suspicion. “Don’t you dare peek.”
“I assure you, Princess. I would do no such thing.”
“As if I’d trust you. You’re a guy. I’m a guy. I know my kind all too well.”
Ghost arched his eyebrows at me. “Indeed, one could say your perspective is unique. Do you know the story of Tiresias?”
I shook my head.
Ghost nodded thoughtfully. “I suggest you look him up.”
“Who was he?”
“According to ancient Greek mythology, he was a blind prophet of Apollo who was turned into a woman for a period of seven years. Afterwards he returned to being a man, though his life was tragic.”
“He was blind as a woman?”
“No, he was blinded after regaining his masculinity.”
I couldn’t help frowning up at him. “Why? I mean how?”
Ghost sighed. “Well, accounts vary but one popular theory is that he was the victim of an argument between the gods.”
I hesitated before asking, “What was the argument about?”
“Who enjoys sex more? A man or a woman?”
“His sorry tale does make for interesting reading.”
I wasn’t so convinced, and decided not to take Ghost’s word for it, but I will admit that I was intrigued. Usually there was a moral to be found in the stories surrounding ancient myths. Would I find something pertinent to me in the story of this Tiresias?
Holding onto my frown, I realized Ghost’s conversational side trip had settled my state of mind a little. That didn’t mean I was entirely comfortable with him standing beside the bathtub, but I wasn’t going to make a big deal out of it.
However, as I moved my body and sat a little higher in the bathtub, I made request of him.
“Okay. I guess I do have a few questions for you.” Lifting a hand out of the water, I twirled it in a circle. “But could you turn around, please.”
Ghost expressed a hint of confusion in his eyes. “Princess?”
“I’d feel more comfortable if you turned around.”
“Ah, I see. If it helps, I can”—he snapped the fingers of his free hand—“disappear.”
“No, no.” I made a stopping motion with the hand I held out of the water. “Don’t do that. Just…turn around. I know that you can see me anyway so it won’t make a difference, but I still feel more comfortable seeing you face the other way.”
Ghost considered me with a thoughtful look, then nodded before turning around. “As you wish, Princess.”
I resumed covering my breasts with both my hands and arms. “You probably think I’m weird.” I chuckled bitterly. “I’m a boy in a girl’s body. I shouldn’t care if you see me. I mean, guys don’t care if they see each other naked, right.”
“Not at all, Princess. It is quite all right.”
“No, it’s not. I shouldn’t care, but for some reason I do.” I stared at the water for a while before looking up at Ghost. “Do you know that back at the dorm when I put on the uniform I kept my eyes closed most of the time.” I chuckled softly but anyone could have heard how pitiful I sounded. “I—I couldn’t even look at myself, and I made sure I was facing away from the mirror above the vanity.” A shiver ran down my back and I resumed looking down at the water. “Erina really did a number on me. I’m totally messed up.”
“On the contrary. Considering all you have endured of late, you are doing remarkably well.”
My feelings soured in a heartbeat, and I threw him a sullen glance. “That doesn’t make me feel any better.”
Ghost was quiet for a short while before breaking his silence. “Princess, may I remind you of what you said to me aboard the Sanreal Crest?”
I shook my head weakly. “What did I say…?”
“That you had chosen to move forward. That you would live as Isabel and fight as Mirai.”
I stiffened slightly as I regarded the multicolor bubbles covering the water above my body. “I did say that, didn’t I….”
“I guess it is not as easy as it sounds.”
My breath caught in my chest. “That’s true….”
“Was it all a lie?”
His question felt like it stabbed me, and I threw him a sharp look. “No, it wasn’t a lie.”
“Have you changed your mind since then.”
I started to shake my head but then stopped. “That’s not it.”
Ghost turned slightly to peer at me over a shoulder. “Then what is it.”
I didn’t give him an answer right away. That was because I had trouble voicing the reason why I was having doubts about my decision back aboard the superyacht.
I took a deep breath, and felt my large breasts rise and fall, buoyed by the water. “Because it means truly giving up.”
I nodded gently while looking at the multicolored bubbles floating on the water. “Giving up on any chance of going back.” I raised my head, and met Ghost’s gaze. “Giving up on life as a boy.”
Regarding me over his shoulder, he pursed his lips into a thin line before reminding me, “Princess, that is not possible. The longer your mind spends in that body, in that brain, the more you will adapt to being female—”
“I know!” I tucked my legs and knees up against my large breasts. “I know. I know that…I know that….” Clenching my hands, I rubbed the heels of my palms into my eyes. “I know….”
I felt tears well up in my eyes, so I squeezed them shut as tightly as I could, and continued pressing my palms into them.
“…it just…really sucks…really frekking sucks….”
Even if time was ticking along, and my opportunity to talk to Ghost and gain answers to the questions I had was slipping away, I couldn’t bring myself to look up and ask them because at the moment they didn’t feel important anymore.
I was awash with intense feelings of regret and denial, but burning resentment clamped around my chest, making it hard to breathe and impossible to talk. Thus choked, I couldn’t bring myself to say or do anything but huddle up against the back of the bathtub, and sob quietly.
“Princess, I understand this is hard for you. I imagine that in your position, I would feel the same. But you must see this through. Do not be anchored to the past. See this as an opportunity to—”
“To what?” I yelled at him as I lowered my hands away from my tear streaked face. “To what, Ghost? To live as a girl. To accept that I’m now a girl! That I have no choice but to be Isabel and Mirai!”
Ghost’s expression reflected momentary surprise before he calmly replied, “Yes. To be Isabel val Sanreal. To be the Gun Princess Mirai. To live as a girl and much more. To accept what you are now and move on. To keep your promise to me.”
I clenched my jaw as I shot to my feet, splashing water out of the bathtub without regard. Despite past assertions, I was angry enough not to care that I was standing naked before him. “I never promised you that.”
“Well it sounded like a promise to me. You said it yourself back in Ar Telica. You cannot go back. You can only go forward. But you have a choice to make. You can either fight what you are and inevitably drive yourself into a ditch. Or you can accept it and make new opportunities for yourself.”
My arms trembled as my anger and resentment bubbled over the edge of my control.
“Frek you,” I hissed at him.
Ghost met my glare with stoic calm. “What are you afraid of?”
“Afraid? I’m not afraid of anything!” I screamed at him, and kicked the bathwater in his direction but it passed right through his body “You piece of shit! Get a body so I can punch you—you frekking asshole!” I kicked more water at him even though it was pointless. “Face me like a real man would!”
“Is that what it will take?”
I stopped in mid-kick and had to recover my balance in a hurry. “What?”
“Is that what it will take to make you accept reality? If you can punch and kick me, will that shake some sense into you?”
Rage continued to make my body tremble, but I wasn’t lashing out anymore, though my self-control was paper thin.
Ghost crossed his arms without dropping the hand towel he carried. “I am waiting for an answer.”
I sucked in air through clenched teeth. “Are you calling me a coward?”
“Is that what you’re saying? Is that what you’re implying?” I dipped my chin at him. “Are you saying that I’m afraid of being a girl?”
“You are jumping to conclusions.”
“Am I wrong? Stop mincing words and give me an answer.”
“I have never thought of you as a coward.”
I nodded tersely. “That’s good because I’m not a coward.”
“Very well. Then what are you?”
“I am not a coward.”
“Then what are you.” Unlike my gesture, Ghost raised his chin and looked down at me. “Or should I be asking, who are you?”
That was a very good question.
Who was I? Was I still Ronin? Was I Isabel? Or was I Mirai? Or was I all of the above – a composite entity and thereby an amalgamation of different people?
I flinched inwardly.
Was that what I was afraid of becoming? Was it the reason I couldn’t let go of my past despite claiming that I would? No, that wasn’t right. I never made that claim. I merely said that I’d accepted my past and would move forward. But I wasn’t moving forward at all because I hadn’t accepted the choice I’d made.
I was lying to myself and I was lying to the people around me.
Why? Because I believed there had to be another better option, and thus I couldn’t give up.
I refused to accept the situation was purely black or white.
But that didn’t answer Ghost’s question.
“I don’t know,” I admitted through clenched teeth. “I don’t frekking know who I am….”
“Then perhaps that should be your goal. Determining who you are. Finding your true self.”
I shook my head. “No. My goal is going back.”
“And here we go again.” Ghost exhaled softly in evident disappointment. “Princess, you cannot return to that life that was never yours.”
“There has to be a way.”
“You are not Ronin Kassius. You have a copy of his mind, his memories, but you are not him. Ronin Kassius lies in a med capsule undergoing regeneration—a process that will take months to complete due to the extent of the injuries he sustained.” Ghost leaned slightly toward me. “Or is it your intention to terminate him and somehow assume his identity?”
He sighed heavily as he straightened. “I expected more from you.”
“I said, shut up!” I strode through the water until I reached the edge of the bathtub. “I’m tired of hearing your sanctimonious crap. Speaking down to me like you know better!”
Ghost shook his head slowly. “So you’re not going to listen to me?”
I glared up at him. Truthfully, if I could throttle him, I would. “Not if you’re going to say the same thing over and over again.”
“That is the kettle calling the pot black.”
“Oh, shut up!” I pointed at the bathroom’s exit. “And get out.”
“That is not how it works.”
“Then get the Hell out of my head.”
Ghost sighed again and almost sounded condescending. “Truly, Princess, you need to stop acting like a child.”
“I am a child. I’m sixteen years old. You can’t expect me to act like an adult.”
“You are a teenage girl, and I remind you that human females mature earlier than males.”
“I am not a teenage girl.”
“Then what are you?” Again he leaned toward me. “From where I am standing you look like a girl to me.”
“Only on the outside.”
Ghost blinked rapidly then unexpectedly scratched a cheek. “Is that what you think?”
“Huh?” I blinked sharply too before narrowing my eyes at him. “Stop beating around the bush. If you’ve got something to say then say it.”
“Does that mean you will listen to me?”
“I’ll hear you out this time!”
“Very well, Princess. No need to shout.”
I growled at him while trembling in anger. “Well, let’s hear it then.”
“According to your data, you are a girl on the outside…and the inside.”
Confusion shattered the glare on my face. “What was that?”
“It seems that your unique Ultra Grade Simulacrum body is a girl on the outside and the inside.”
Yeah, that’s what I thought he’d said.
Shivers broke out all over my body. “I’m a girl…on the inside…?”
My stomach clenched painfully and my heart beat anxiously in my chest. I was almost too afraid to ask, “How…how much of a girl?”
“Be on your guard during Prom Night.”
I stopped shivering and grew rigid with shock. “You—you can’t be serious….”
“I am completely serious.”
At this my voice broke and fell to a whisper. “I…I can get pregnant…?”
“Well, that remains to be seen. Your body is fresh out of the maturation tank. However, according to your sister’s notes, it is highly likely that you will ultimately experience the monthly monster.”
It took a moment or two for the words to sink into my consciousness.
A heartbeat later, I felt as though every string holding me upright was cut at once.
My legs lost their strength and I fell back into the bathtub with a big splash that spilled water over its rim.
The impact jarred my spine and numbed my buttocks, yet failed to jolt my awareness free of the abject disbelief clouding my thoughts.
“…what kind of body is this…?”
I heard the question leave my lips, yet it sounded as though someone else had asked it.
Then I looked down at my large breasts bobbing in the water.
“…what the Hell kind of body did Erina make…?”
A short while later, I listened to Ghost’s solemn reply. “An Ultra-Grade Simulacrum of the highest caliber. And a girl to boot.”
Under different circumstances I may have thrown Ghost either a heated or frosty glare.
But sitting spread-eagled in the bathtub, and with water lapping the tops of my breasts, all I managed was to gape at him in a stupor before closing my mouth with an audible click.
In one fell swoop, all the fiery fight had been doused from my body, and nothing but embers remained.
Thank you for your patience with this series.
For those of you who are new to the series and would like to read or purchase Books 1 and 2, the links are provided below:
Currently working on Chapter 8.
Thank you for sticking with this series through its ups and down.
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