Continuing with the web release of GPR3. The eBook will be edited and corrected so what is presented here is only a draft. Nonetheless I apologize for any mistakes.
– II –
Had I crossed the line?
The thought troubled and distracted me as I walked alone out of the villa, and across the well-tended garden to the south that lay between the house and the lagoon sized pool.
Fatina had loaned me a new tracksuit jacket, but I told her not to bother.
So I walked barefoot to the Sarcophagus while wearing the remains of my training outfit.
Needless to say – but I’ll say it anyway – the maids I strode by stared at me as though I were returned from the dead.
The gunmetal grey sarcophagus hovered a few inches above the well-tended grassy lawn.
It’s austere façade and the dull thrumming emanating from its body made the tension meter within me rise like the mercury in a thermometer on a scorching day.
But though it was disturbing in its own right, I was far more bothered by the impression that I’d soured things with Sanreal and Arnval.
I can’t explain why that should bother me as much as it did, but there was no shaking the feeling off my shoulders.
And so I asked myself if I’d crossed the line.
A sudden strong breeze gusted through the air, blowing my long hair across my face.
I stopped to push my locks aside, then took a moment to look around me.
Surprisingly, the wind felt good on my face.
I realized I hadn’t experienced the wind since leaving Ar Telica by way of trans-location.
But it also puzzle me because I knew that I was inside an enclosed space at the stern of the immense Citadel. Eventually, I figured the breeze was something achieved by the environmental controls, lending additional realism to the Estate.
I looked off into the distance at the light-grey clouds above the ocean waves, and wondered what it was like outside the dome protecting the Estate.
Or was I seeing what was truly out there?
For that matter, had the ship surfaced or was it drifting below the waves?
Feeling curious, which was a lot better than feeling intensely troubled, I called out to Ghost but received no response.
I shouldn’t have been annoyed. His inappropriate manner of appearing and disappearing was nothing out of the ordinary for him. Yet it still irritated me to the point where anger flashed through me.
I sighed heavily and planted my hands on my hips.
To be entirely honest, my emotions were all over the map.
I was nervous, anxious, angry, confused, surprised – the whole gamut.
Just when I thought I was calming down and getting a hold of myself, something would set me off again.
I was beginning to suspect there was something chemically wrong with me.
I really needed to talk to Erina about it.
Taking a few breaths, I forced myself to calm down, and slowly swept my gaze over the peaceful grounds of the Estate.
In my mind, I was beginning to believe that I’d burnt down a bridge between myself and the Sanreal Family. But at the same time, the reason for their ire – for Sanreal’s anger – didn’t make sense to me. Couldn’t they simply use a Fabricator to repair the damage I’d dealt to the training room? Why make such a big deal out of it, considering all the technology they had their disposal? And why hold me responsible? It was true that I’d shot up the room, but the A.I. Overseer had agreed to my request and then supplied me with a hundred or more training zombies. Surely, it should have put the brakes on the situation.
When I thought about the situation, I started to suspect I was framed, and my feelings became convoluted all over again, roiling about within me and mixing together into a dark, infuriated, vengeful sludge that made my body tremble weakly.
I didn’t appreciate being singled out.
The A.I. and Arnval had much to answer for.
Holding only me responsible wasn’t remotely fair.
Ergo—I’d been set up. Entrapped.
And yet they expected me to fight Tabitha so that I could retain my position in Team Novis – House Novis’ Gun Princess Royale team?
Is that what they expected from me?
Were they crazy?
Right now, I was ready to jump ship and go fight for House Cardinal.
Of course, there would have to be terms and conditions that benefited me, but I was wholeheartedly considering abandoning House Novis.
Assholes. Frekking assholes. I’ll show you!
I took a dozen irate steps closer to the Sarcophagus…and then stopped.
What if this is what they want?
The possibility that I was being played took center stage in my mind.
Correction. I already suspected that I was being played, but what if their goal was to unhinge me? If so, what was the benefit in that?
It just didn’t make any sense…unless this was all a test.
However, even then, why would they test me?
Did they want to see how far they could bend me before I broke?
But why now on the eve of my climactic, life defining battle with Tabitha?
Grabbing my head, I yelled out in frustration, and walked around in a hasty circle.
It was too much for me to process. I felt like I was going to burst a blood vessel in my temples.
“What are you doing?”
I stopped mid-step and stared up at the villa in the direction of that amplified shout.
Arnval stood on a balcony with a loudspeaker in his right hand.
He stared down at me with an aggravated look on his face.
“Why are you walking in circles? Are you lost?”
He pointed at the Sarcophagus behind me.
“That way. Turn around and it’s right in front of you.”
I balled my hands and yelled up at him. “Shut up and leave me alone!”
“Not until you get inside that coffin.”
I waved a fist at him. “Hey, don’t treat me like a vampire!”
“A vampire wouldn’t give me half as much trouble!”
I waved my other fist at him. “When I get back, you and I are facing off at twenty paces!”
“When you get back, you’re cleaning up the training room. Now get moving, ma chérie!”
“I told you not to call me that!”
“If you don’t start walking, you’re going to regret it.”
I planted my hands on my hips. “Oh really?”
Arnval held something up in his left hand. “Behold my ultimate weapon against recalcitrant brats.”
Despite Mirai’s unnaturally sharp vision, I couldn’t tell what it was though it did resemble something small, rectangular, and flat.
A few feet in front of me, something shaped like a nozzle popped up from the garden’s grassy lawn.
I recognized it a heartbeat too late.
Water sprayed out from the sprinkler in a wide circle.
I had lost my tracksuit pants to the holo-graphic zombies during World War Z in the training room, so my smooth legs were bare.
I yelped loudly as the icy water splashed on them, then jumped back a dozen feet to escape the sprinkler.
The cold shock made my legs tremble for a few moments.
“You bastard!” I yelled up at Arnval.
“Ho ho! Look at that. Made you jump.”
Arnval waved the remote.
“Here! Have another taste of holy water, Vampire!”
A few feet away at my ten o’clock, a second nozzle popped up from the ground and sprayed me mercilessly with freezing water.
I yelped again, then darted out of range of that sprinkler.
From my two o’clock, water whipped the air from spinning nozzle that started up without warning.
I leapt back to avoid it, but the water lashed my legs.
As I landed, a sprinkler poked up from the ground between my feet.
I screamed as I was caught in a fountain of water.
It lasted a few seconds but by then I was soaked to the skin.
Dripping wet, I stood deathly still and made a solemn vow.
“That’s it. He’s dead….”
Forget about the match with Tabitha. I was going to strangle Arnval first.
However, before I could take a step in his direction, I sensed something behind me, and hurriedly turned to see the Sarcophagus looming over me.
The giant gunmetal grey coffin had snuck up on me while I was being toyed with by Arnval.
The seamless doors opened and half a dozen metal tentacles emerged from the darkness within the Sarcophagus.
“What—wait a minute! Give me a minute!”
The snaking tentacles wrapped around my limbs and torso, then lifted me off the grass underfoot, and carried me into the pitch black abyss behind the open doors.
“No! Let me go! Let me go you bloody machine!”
Unable to free myself from the tentacles, I twisted in their grasp and threw Arnval my most potent glare to date. “When I get back I’m going to neuter you!”
“Yeah, you should be scared. I’m going to kick you so hard you’ll split in two right up the middle!”
“Ha ha ha. I look forward to seeing you try.” Then the bastard blew me a kiss. “Au revoir, ma chérie.”
“Argh—that’s it! Kiss your spawn goodbye—no, no, I’m not finished with him—let me go. Let me go!”
I was carried into the abyss within the Sarcophagus, and the doors closed silently behind me.
In the pitch-black emptiness that surrounded me, a cold creeping fear chilled my heated emotions.
I stopped struggling and blinked to clear my eyes, but there was nothing for me to see until the interior of the Sarcophagus began glowing faintly.
This hadn’t happened before.
The first time I emerged from the Sarcophagus after waking up from my ‘dream’ as Ronin Kassius, I’d had no opportunity to look around the innards of the giant coffin. Neither had the lights been turned on for me when I was pulled into the Sarcophagus while aboard Erina’s superyacht.
With the interior at a glow, I was now I able to look around.
On one hand, I wish I hadn’t.
What I saw almost made me lose control of my bladder.
On the other hand, I rationalized that what I was seeing was nothing more than a machine that happened to look like a cross between a spider and an octopus.
Wait, what do you call a ten-legged gun-metal grey monstrosity with tentacles emerging from is body, and a sack-like womb attached to its abdomen?
Into the womb I went, and as the tentacles kept me in place, an apparatus resembling an elephant’s trunk dove into the womb and attached itself to my face.
I felt hoses slip into my nose, my mouth, and down my throat. The urge to gag was mediated by a sweetish fluid that quickly flowed past my throat, and a gas of some sort filled my lungs.
I grew relaxed, then limp.
My clothes were removed – I felt as though they were dissolved – and then other devices connected to the remaining orifices in my body. Thus naked and supported by numerous tentacles and apparatus, I floated within the womb, feeling as though my innards were being rinsed out.
My thoughts began to wander, then frayed apart.
Thinking cohesively grew difficult, then impossible.
As I floated like a helpless unborn fetus, an unexpected drowsiness overwhelmed me.
I closed my eyes and quickly found myself drifting into a deep sleep.
My lasts conscious thoughts were of Arnval.
I was going to face Tabitha, and I was going to beat her.
It was time to put the past two days’ worth of training into play, and I would draw upon my experience fighting the Gun Queen of Ar Telica to kick Tabitha’s butt.
Tabitha had fought many Gun Princesses in the past, but she had never fought someone like me, because there was only one Mirai.
Yes, I was going to kick Tabitha’s ass, and then I was going to fulfill my promise to Arnval.
Today, his family tree would come to an end.
I jerked upright, blinked quickly to clear my vision, then focused on my surroundings.
It took a few seconds for my thoughts to realign back on track.
Looking around carefully, I saw that I was sitting on a molded bench in the long plaza that was home to the gaming arcade Mat and I frequented after school or on weekends.
Around me, people of various ages, most of them young, and most of them students, walked the length of the plaza, entered and exited the dozens of shops, ate at the café houses, or loitered about.
I stared at them, glanced up at the sky, then back down at the crowd filling the plaza.
I could feel the breeze, smell the air that carried the scent of food and people, and I could hear the overlapping conversations surrounding me, including the cries of children playing.
Looking down at my hands, I turned them over.
Pale, hairless, and smooth – just like Mirai’s hands.
Then I noticed I was wearing a blouse, skirt, and dark school shoes.
I stood up, then walked through the crowd and across the plaza to a shopfront window.
In the reflection, I saw a rather pretty girl with indistinct colored eyes and light hair looking back at me. She didn’t bear the face I was slowly growing accustomed to seeing in mirrors. Her features were elfin and more delicate than Mirai’s, and when I took hold of my hair, I saw that the strands were a pale auburn in color.
Looking down at myself, I saw that I wasn’t nearly as voluptuous as Mirai.
In fact, compared to Mirai, I was disappointingly flat and a deep sense of loss washed through me.
Shaking my head at myself, I regarded the midnight blue sailor uniform that I was wearing.
Exhaling heavily, I gave myself another long look in the shopfront window.
The girl looked back at me with a troubled expression.
This is me…but it’s not me.
My gaze fell to my chest, and I winced at my lack of breasts.
Releasing another heavy breath, I turned around slowly to carefully gaze at the people and shops in my vicinity.
I considered the possibility that I was back in Ar Telica.
Had I translocated here without anyone noticing?
If that was true, then this was the smoothest jump between places I’d ever experienced. With pin-point precision, I’d been delivered to the bench seat.
Did this mean that the Sarcophagus was equipped with a trans-locating device?
If that was true, then the next question was why was I here?
And the question after that was why had my appearance changed?
I had answers to neither, so I looked at my situation from another angle.
There were two possibilities to consider.
The first was that this was indeed Ar Telica, and I was physically standing in the plaza. If true, then I suspected that my consciousness was linked to another Simulacrum. When Mirai had failed to awaken after emerging from the maturation tank, Erina had linked her awareness to that of a Simulacrum that looked like Ronin Kassius in every aspect…until he began turning into a girl. Mirai had awoken upon the Simulacrum’s death by a bullet to the head.
Extrapolating further, it would imply that I hadn’t trans-located back to Ar Telica, but instead woken up in the body of a Simulacrum left sitting on a bench seat.
The second possibility to consider was that this was a virtual representation of the plaza.
In other words, my mind was experiencing a virtual reality simulation of Ar Telica.
Both possibilities were troubling, and I puzzled over how to determine which one was the truth.
Taking a deep breath, I decided to see just how far the plaza extended, and then set off at a brisk walk.
It took me a few minutes to arrive at the northern end where the plaza merged with a sidewalk running perpendicular to it.
A six-lane city street lay before me, and beyond it the buildings of Ring Zero.
If this was a simulation, then the processing power running it was extraordinary because the city looked just as I remembered it.
However, the volume of pedestrians on the sidewalks, and commuters in cars and buses, complemented the vista, enforcing the impression that my surroundings were physical and not virtual.
Adding to the realism was the sun rising slowly to the east.
I gasped at a sudden thought, and swiftly looked up at the holo-vision billboards that floated in front of building facades.
Ignoring the ones displaying advertisements, I searched for a holo-vid that would tell me the present date and time.
My gaze fell on a large holo-vision screen televising a morning news program.
The chyron at the bottom of the screen scrolled with media alerts, but the left-hand corner showed the date and time.
Friday. 7:15 A.M.
I swallowed to clear my throat, then half turned to look at the plaza behind me.
The students I’d seen were making their way out of the plaza, no doubt headed to their various schools, one of which was Telos Academy.
The people slowly beginning to crowd the sidewalks and overhead bridgeways were headed to their places of work.
This was Friday morning in the city-state I’d lived for the past sixteen years.
This wasn’t a simulation.
So why am I here?
Swallowing to clear my throat, I noticed I was thirsty, and so I walked back into the plaza. Searching with my eyes for a food outlet, my gaze fell on a trio of drink vending machines standing together about fifty feet away, not far from a fountain with a bench seat encircling it.
I walked over to the drink machines, then frowned as I pondered how I would pay for any of the soft drinks on offer.
On impulse, I reached down and patted my skirt pockets. Feeling something in one of them, I reached in and retrieved a slim phone.
I stared at it in consternation.
What the Hell is this?
The phone’s bumper case was adorned with a collage of photos from some boyband I didn’t recognize despite spending last year’s school lunchtimes frequently included in girl-talk.
Don’t really care who they are….
The phone unlocked when I swiped my thumb over its screen. With a few taps through its menus, I noticed that the app for making purchases was installed, and there was credit in the account – a lot of credit.
Wow…this girl is loaded.
I frowned faintly, growing more curious about the girl whose body I was operating.
That is what I’m doing, right? Just like back then when I though I was Ronin Kassius. This is a Simulacrum body.
Standing before one of the vending machines, I waved the phone over the selection panel. It beeped at me, and I then bought myself a clear lemonade soda that came in a quarter liter plastic bottle. Uncapping it, I took a swig of the bubbling liquid, then gazed around me once more.
“Now what?” I murmured to myself, before deciding to sit by the fountain.
Plonking my butt on the soft bench seat, I examined the phone.
Like most phones, this one had a profile on its owner that contained their name, address, and other relevant details.
However, accessing the profile was restricted to the owner of the phone, their nominated relatives, and the authorities, such as the police, hospital, and emergency personnel.
I swallowed, then tapped the profile icon.
I was asked to press my thumb over a section of the screen delineated by a rectangle.
For a moment, I feared I would need to supply a phrase password, but fortunately the security on the phone was limited to the thumbprint.
Afterwards, the owner’s profile opened on the display.
Seeing a photo of the girl I’d observed in my reflection confirmed that she was the registered owner of the phone.
I whispered the girl’s name. “Willow Mistral….”
Reading further, I learnt that she was a second-year high school student at Telos Academy, and that she lived in Ring One, District Seven, Block Sixteen.
Her blood type was A+, height was 155 cm.
The weight entry was blank, as were her three dimensions.
Seriously, what kind of girl would fill them in? And what the Hell kind of profile has an entry for a girl’s three sizes?
I peeked down at my chest – I mean her chest.
She really is small.
I can’t explain why that made me feel inadequate. Had I grown accustomed to Mirai’s big boobs? But more than that, I had also grown comfortable with Mirai’s height. At 176 cm tall, Mirai would tower over this girl if they ever met face to face.
Come to think of it, Mirai is taller than the girls in my class, including Class Rep.
I sat back and sighed as I stared up at the morning sky.
Mat…Shirohime…please be okay….
I sighed again, then slowly sipped at my drink as I resumed exploring the contents of the phone.
Checking the list of contacts, I saw that there were entries for four people.
Simon Mistral, Candice Mistral, and Connor Mistral.
Within each contact’s profile were sub-notes that read: Dad, Mum, and Idiot Brother.
I frowned at them, and for a short while I debated giving them a call to see if they were real.
Then I tapped the entry for the fourth contact by the name of Celeste Ines.
The sub-note read, “Guidance Counsellor.”
I wondered if she knew what was going on, then checked the messages on the phone.
My eyes widened at the fifteen or more messages and missed calls from the girl’s mother.
As I read through the entries, my stomach began to contract unpleasantly, and my feelings grew conflicted and confused.
“…what the Hell did this girl do…?”
I listened to the handful of voicemail messages the girl’s mother had left behind. At first her tone was angry, but with each successive call they became conciliatory. The last one ended with a plea for her to come home and talk things over.
Again, I sat back and pondered my next move.
I considered replying to the girl’s mother, but what would I say? In the end, the problem was lack of knowing her circumstances.
In that case, who do I call?
Finally, I decided to tap the entry for Idiot Brother.
Holding the phone to my ear, I listened to it ring for a short while before someone answered the call.
A boy’s voice asked in a hushed, flustered tone, “Is that you—you dumb twit?”
I thought I heard the sound of a door closing, before I asked, “Is this the Idiot Brother?”
“Who are you calling an idiot!” The boy’s voice rose then fell back to a hushed whisper. “You’re the idiot. You left mum in tears this morning. You stupid bitch. Why’d you have to call her that anyway?”
I was already confused, but now that confusion was reaching new heights.
The boy continued as though he didn’t want to be overheard. “Dad is really mad at you. He left for work rather than hang around. And you left your school bag here at the apartment. That was a stupid move.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I sat in silence.
“Hey? Are you listening to me?”
I cleared my throat. “Yeah, I’m listening.”
“I don’t care if you stuff up your life, but I don’t need you making things hard for me at home. You got that.”
“What do you mean stuff up my life?”
“Huh?” He sounded incredulous. “Are you really asking me that? You spent the night at your boyfriend’s place, you lied to mum and dad, and you tried sneaking in this morning.”
I narrowed my eyes. “…oh….”
“Sis, you are so stupid. That guy is a total dick. He treats you like crap. Why did you do it? Why do you stick with him? He’s a total asshole.”
I cocked my in thought. Willow has a boyfriend?
I quickly double checked the contact’s list but there was no fifth entry.
“Hey? Hey? Sis?”
I quickly held the phone back to my ear. “I’m here.”
“You need to come home. Dad’s mad, but before he left, I heard him tell mum that your punishment was up to her. I think you’re getting off easy.”
I was confused, but slowly putting the pieces together. “Okay….”
This girl’s brother sounded distinctly nervous when he spoke again. “Sis, did you really do it?”
“You know. Did you do that?”
“Do what?” I repeated.
I heard him exhale as though flustered. “You know what I mean.” Then his voice fell to a whisper. “Did you do it?”
“I keep asking you, do what?”
“Did you have sex with him?”
I almost dropped the phone in shock. “Huh?”
“That’s why you didn’t come home last night, right?”
Tapping the phone screen quickly, I opened up Willow’s profile and double checked her age.
Shit. This girl is seventeen.
“Sis? Well…did you?”
I swallowed twice before I was confident my voice would hold. “I’m not going to answer that.”
“Yeah, that figures. Well, it’s your reputation not mine. Word gets around fast. You know that.”
I clenched my hand around the phone. “That’s my problem not yours. And I doubt I’m the only girl that’s slept with her boyfriend.”
What the Hell am I saying?
Then something weird happened – the image of a young boy about fourteen or fifteen years of age crossed my mind.
What is this? Is this one of Willow’s memories?
Her brother sounded angry. “It’s my problem too, you stupid slut. My classmates are going to pester me for having a slut sister.”
“I’m not a slut!” I shouted, then realized I was drawing attention to myself. Speaking in a hushed tone, I bowed my body over my legs. “I’m not a slut,” I whispered.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t care what you are if it didn’t cause me problems.” Willow’s brother sounded exasperated. “Can’t believe you slept with that dick!”
“Frek you, Connor.”
I straightened sharply as I suddenly remembered his name. But of course I did. It was on Willow’s contact list. However, what surprised me was how easily it had come to mind.
“No, frek you—you stupid slut! And I hope you’re grounded for a year!”
Abruptly he hung up.
I sat still for a long while before tapping the phone and ending the call on my end.
What the Hell was going on? Just what kind of girl is Willow?
Except for the fleeting instances of memory recall, I knew nothing about her history.
The question of why my consciousness was inside her began to hammer the inside of my head. It was well and truly denting out my skull when Willow’s phone abruptly rang.
I looked at the screen and read the caller ID before answering it. “Hello.”
A young woman’s voice filtered through the phone’s speaker. “Well, well. You’ve had an interesting morning.”
I waited for a moment. “You’re Celeste.”
“And you’re Isabel. Or should I call you Mirai? Or do you prefer I call you…Willow?”
I sat on the edge of the bench seat and leaned forward. “Sounds like you know what’s going on. Care to fill me in?”
“Interesting. You sound far less surprised than I expected. Then again, you’re rather quick on your feet. It’s no wonder you adapted so quickly to Mirai.”
I swallowed before flatly stating, “Flattery will get you nowhere.”
The woman laughed softly. “That’s an endearing quality of yours.”
“How unflappable you are.”
I blinked slowly as her observation churned around in my head. “I wasn’t always this way. I’ve had to change to survive.” There was silence on the line, and I wondered what she was thinking. However, I’d spoken the truth. Since becoming Mirai, I had changed. I’d become more assertive, as though empowered by Mirai’s abilities.
“Nothing to say?” I asked her.
“I agree with you. You’re quite different from the Ronin Kassius of old. I’m curious to see how much you grow.”
“I guess you’ll have to stick around then.”
“I intend to.”
I paused before returning to address the crux of the matter. “I asked you before, care to fill me in on what’s going on?”
“What you’re experiencing is part of a trial.”
“What kind—” I flinched when a young woman with lustrous red hair sat down to my left me on the bench seat. “What kind of trial?”
Speaking into the phone in her hand, she smiled at me. “A behavioral experiment.”
I lowered Willow’s phone away from my ear, then tapped the icon to end the call.
The young woman ended the call on her phone while continuing to smile at me. “Hello Isabel. I’m Celeste.”
A multitude of thoughts rushed through me. For a heartbeat I considered running. For another heartbeat, I considered drowning the woman in the fountain. In the end, I chose to sit and wait and play this by ear, but not once did I break eye contact with the her.
The redhead’s eyes narrowed marginally smiled in amusement. “Relax, Isabel. There’s no need to be afraid of me.”
I frowned inwardly while keeping my expression unchanged.
She misread my reaction. Or had I been showing her fear?
Clearing my throat discreetly, I ignored her unsolicited advice, and with the pleasantries over, I bluntly asked, “Why am I here? And start from the beginning.”
The woman sat back on the bench seat, and neatly crossed her legs while folding her arms under her noticeable breasts. I glanced at her outfit, observing that she was dressed in a light beige skirted business suit that included a short blazer and black blouse. Black strappy high heels adorned her feet.
“You’re here because I requested the opportunity to meet you, and Phelan Sanreal agreed with my reasons.”
Her reply made me uneasy, but it confirmed that she was part of the inner circle with intimate knowledge of Project Mirai.
I decided to tread cautiously. “What reasons would you have for meeting me?”
“I wanted to introduce you to the program I’m involved with.”
I tipped my head slightly toward her. “Program? Is this part of Project Mirai?”
“It is now. Originally it was part of a project to test the capabilities and limits of the Dive Link. It was subsequently incorporated into Project Mirai.”
I questioned inwardly if this was related to how Meisters operated their Gun Princesses. “Why was that done?”
“Because its benefits to Mirai were recognized by the Sanreal Family leadership.” With a fluid motion, she tossed her hair and then smoothly dipped her head at me. “Along with its benefits to you.”
“Providing you with a means of escape.”
Dumbstruck, I stared at her for a long while before asking, “What kind of escape?”
Expelling a soft sigh, Celeste’s gaze was on the plaza crowd when she answered me. “Willow Mistral is an identity created to offer you an emotional release when your life as Isabel val Sanreal becomes too much for you to bear.”
“You mean, she’s a way for me to get away from it all.” I swallowed before adding, “She’s like a vacation?” I looked down at Willow’s body dressed in a Telos Academy uniform. “Feels more like roleplaying.”
“That’s true. However, unlike roleplaying in an MMORPG, this is all real. Willow Mistral and her family are all real people—real in the sense that they are not virtual entities. They are Simulacra, but they have lives, they interact with other people, they hold positions in society. They have friends, acquaintances, associates, co-workers, classmates, and so forth.”
My mouth dropped open as I realized the magnitude of what she was describing.
A family of Simulacra, living in Ar Telica, and except for a select few, no one was the wiser.
Celeste carried on as though my reaction was to be expected. “The Dive Link between Simulacra was established a long time ago. The mechanics were all worked out long before they were put into practice with Mirai. So when your sister suggested it as a means to wake you up, we knew that it was going to work. That is, we knew the link could be established between Mirai and the Ronin Kassius Simulacrum. Whether you woke up or not was another matter.”
“Are you saying that as Mirai, I can access the bodies of other Simulacra? I can remote control them?”
“Only the Simulacra that have been specifically prepared in advance. Willow is one of them. But although her family are also Simulacra, you will not be able to dive into them.”
Her answer again unsettled me. Knowing there were Simulacra living in Ar Telica over which I could assume control tested my grip on reality. In truth, I was frightened to know that a Noble House could infiltrate society and pursue its machinations while keeping the public none the wiser. Willow and her family were artificially created entities, so their history and identities had to be fabricated. Yet they were apparently living as normal citizens of Ar Telica. That was no small feat considering how much the city-state authorities of Teloria monitored the population. It begged the question of how far the Noble Houses could exert their influence over the city-states.
But for the lie to work – for the ruse to work – would players need to believe it as well?
I anxiously swallowed twice, before reluctantly asking, “Do they know…do they know they are Simulacra?”
Celeste blinked and tilted her head back a few degrees. It was subtle, but I realized that my question had slipped past her guard. “Why do you ask?”
“Because I want to know. Why else would I ask?”
“Will knowing make a difference to you?”
I cocked my head at her and held her gaze with mine. “Are you going to tell me or not?”
Celeste wet her lips with the tip of her tongue, all the while casting a thoughtful look upon me. “Willow and her family are unaware they are Simulacra.”
“…what…?” I had to take quick breath. “How can they not know?”
“Did you know you were a Simulacrum when you were living as Ronin Kassius a few days ago?”
I shook my head weakly. “…no…I didn’t….”
Celeste switched her crossed legs, then settled back into the bench seat. “Willow and her family emigrated to Teloria over a year ago. Her family works for the Telos Corporation. Willow and her younger brother attend Telos Academy. Their histories are fabricated, as are their memories. However, they are all carefully constructed. As far as anyone around them is concerned they are a perfectly normal family. As far as they concerned, they are normal as well.”
I slowly turned away, and then stared absently at the ground.
Simulacra that did not know they were Simulacra.
It wasn’t hard for me to accept or because I had believed I was Ronin Kassius until Ghost spoke to me from inside my head.
What troubled me was the fact that they existed – that Simulacra lived in this city as normal people. Celeste had called it an experiment, but she had been explicitly referring to the Dive Link. The implicit reference was to the experiment of having Simulacra live as citizens of Teloria. But in order to pass themselves off as human, how human was Willow and her family?
“They’re not like Mirai, are they?” I asked Celeste.
“Hardly. They are as close to human as possible. One could say the only difference between this series of Simulacra and humans is that fact that they are manufactured and not born of woman.”
That certainly explained why Willow saw and felt her surroundings in a subdue fashion when compared to how Mirai perceived the world around her.
I faced Celeste with a faint frown. “Why give me access to Willow? Why would Sanreal go this far for me?”
She hesitated before replying.
I didn’t know if it was part of a carefully tailored response, and Willow lacked Mirai’s ability to see the lifeforce aura that radiated from living beings, thus it was difficult to tell how sincere the other party was.
Nonetheless, Celeste visibly held back for a moment before explaining, “You’re important to Lord Sanreal. Your mental health is critical to the success of Project Mirai.”
“My mental health?” I laughed curtly. “Well, if people treated me nicely, my mental health would be doing a lot better. Have I mentioned that I don’t like surprises? And I don’t appreciate being treated like a tool. I’m not a means to an end.”
“We are all means to an end.” Celeste’s eyes firmly held my gaze. “Everything that we do is a means to an end, whether it be for our own good or for someone else. We all work to achieve either common or individual goals.”
I clenched my jaw and restrained the urge to punch the woman. “I guess you weren’t listening, were you.”
Celeste took a deep breath, then turned her upper body closer toward me. “Isabel, how people treat you will depend to a certain extent on how you treat them. If you’re going to fight everyone at every turn, you’ll restrict your options. If they choose to box you, then one alternative is to have you live as someone else, and fight in the Gun Princess Royale as Mirai.”
She certainly did know a lot about me, including the possibility of being boxed like Clarisol.
Celeste raised a finger at me. “This is where existences such as Willow come into play. If you don’t wish to live as Isabel val Sanreal, you can live as Willow Mistral. Or if you’re unhappy with Willow’s life, we can find you another role to play.”
I gasped faintly and then asked, “You mean I could live as a man. I don’t necessarily have to live as a girl.”
Celeste nodded. “That is an option. But it will depend on you. Play your cards right, and you could experience a multitude of lives.”
But they would all be carefully prepared by the Sanreals, and I didn’t know how much freedom was to be found in them. I would be stepping into their shoes and lives for a short while, but at the end of the day I was still Isabel.
I would still be Mirai.
So was there any point to this other than as a distraction from my life?
And was this fair to Willow?
In many respects, Willow was a more normal existence compared to Mirai. The way she experienced her surroundings wasn’t as rich as I could perceive the world through Mirai’s senses. In that respect, Willow was a step down from what I was growing accustomed to. But while that was something I could adjust to, I wasn’t comfortable with taking over her life. It felt wrong, and it reminded me that I had unwittingly stolen Clarisol’s chance at freedom when my mind was imprinted into Mirai’s brain.
I tried hiding that discomfort as I quietly cleared my throat. “Why am I really here? Why are you here? I understand that you’re giving me options to consider, but I know you’re not telling me everything. I have something important coming up. I really didn’t need a distraction like this.”
Celeste gave me an understanding nod. “I know, Isabel. You will be facing a difficult challenge. A very trying experience that will most certainly test your heart and soul. Afterwards, you may wish to get away from your life as Isabel and Mirai. You may attempt to leave it all behind. Before you do so, I’m here to offer you an alternative—a way to escape from the pressures of being Mirai and Isabel val Sanreal.”
Was my match with Tabitha going to be such a momentous event?
Celeste grew quietly thoughtful, and when she spoke again, she sounded concerned. “Isabel, I know that you feel there’s no one you can trust. As a consequence, your keeping your troubles locked away. You’re bottling them up, and then you’re venting them in a violent fashion. I’m here to help. Not only by offering you a life as someone else, but as someone you can talk to.”
I cocked my head at her, honestly surprised by what she was saying. “Why would I talk to you?”
I’d rather confide in Ghost than in you. But I’m not going to tell you that.
“Because I’ve been assigned as your counsellor.”
I narrowed my eyes suspiciously at Celeste. “Seriously? Who’s bright idea was that?”
I sighed heavily as I rolled my eyes. “Does he really believe I’d talk to you about anything?”
“Not at first. But as time goes on, he’s hoping and I’m hoping, that you will open up to me. To that end, my objective is to earn your trust.”
“Well, you’ve got your work cut out for you,” I quipped sardonically.
She nodded in agreement. “That’s true. You pose a considerable challenge. The way you’ve been treated. The way in which you were pulled into Project Mirai. The fact that your life was stolen from you. Your sister’s aloofness. And the demands placed upon you. The expectations you carry on your shoulders. All of this has conspired to turn you into a jaded, angry, distrustful person.”
“You don’t sound surprised.”
“Because I’m not. I expected this would happen. I told Sanreal as much. Unfortunately, the opening moves were dictated by the Empress. All we could do was wait and watch and hope that you survived her twisted introduction to your new existence as Mira.” Celeste turned her body a little toward me. “That said, while it’s true the Empress played a monumental part in the opening act, you’ve been treated very poorly since then.”
“And I’m supposed to believe you’re on my side?”
Celeste shrugged a shoulder lightly. “That will depend on you. I’m here to listen. I’m here to be your sounding board. To be someone you can talk to, and to give you advise if you’re willing to take it because that is my role. I’m your counsellor. I’m here to offer you my counsel.”
“All so you can report back to Sanreal on my state-of-mind,” I remarked with undisguised sarcasm.
“It’s my job to do so.”
I snorted then asked, “Ever heard of client confidentiality?”
“My client is the Sanreal Family. They hired me to support you.”
Again, I rolled my eyes and turned away. “Then I guess my lips are sealed.”
“Would you be more comfortable talking to Phelan Sanreal instead of me?”
I eyed her sidelong. “Not in the least.”
“Hmm,” Celeste sat back and gazed off into the distance. “Then how about this. What if you think of me as your backdoor to Phelan Sanreal?”
I turned a little more toward her but continued observing her sidelong. “What do you mean by that?”
“Well, if there’s something you want from him, I may be able to convince him for you.” She grinned at me. “All in my capacity as your counsellor.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “That almost sounds like a bribe.”
“I’m just sweetening the deal. If you open up to me, I’ll do my best to support you. And there’s one more thing to mention. Sanreal does appear to have your best interests in mind.”
I kept my frown inward as I was bothered by her remark.
Arnval had said more or less the same that Sanreal had taken a liking to me. Could it be true? Oddly, I believed it more coming from Arnval rather than from Celeste. When he wasn’t being the proverbial dick, I found it easier to accept his observations. On the other hand, I was wary of Celeste despite her assurances. I thought of Fatina, but I couldn’t bring myself to think of this woman in the same vein.
I cleared my throat quickly, then remembered the soda bottle in my hand.
After drinking from it for a short while, I held it upright on my lap. “This might come as a shock, but it’s hard for me to believe you. I’m the not naïve trusting girl—I mean guy—that I used to be.”
Celeste’s grin faded smoothly as she gave me a gentle nod. “I know, Isabel. I know. Nonetheless, I want you to talk to me. Lie to me, if it will make you feel better. Feed me disinformation. But I would still like us—I would like you—to talk to me, and obviously to be open and honest with me. Equally as important, I’m committed to earning your trust.”
I mulled her words over. “Open and honest?” I took a deep breath and released it loudly. “Then let me ask you something.”
“What’s on your mind?”
“Who is Willow Mistral? I know she’s a Simulacrum, but what is she like as a person?”
Celeste nodded as though she’d been expecting me to ask that question. “Willow is a high school girl with loving yet disappointed parents, a brat of a younger brother, a small circle of close friends, a member of the archery club, and as curious about the opposite sex as they are of her.”
I narrowed my eyes at Celeste. “She’s curious?”
“Of course. She’s a girl on the cusp of becoming a woman. It’s only natural that she be curious.” Celeste’s lips abruptly twisted in disappointment. “Although she needs to rein in her curiosity. She needs a good talking to. And we’ll need to smooth things over with her family.” The pretty redhead sighed. “Damn that girl. She just had to go and complicate her life. She won’t be much good to you like this.” Celeste’s expression grew thoughtful. “On the other hand, this might be an excellent opportunity for you. A learning experience. You were raised by your sister, so you’ve never had troubles with your parents. You’ve never experienced a disagreement with them. Why not see this as a chance to see what it’s like to have parents who worry over their daughter.”
“I’d rather have parents who worry over their son.”
Though her arms were folded under her breasts, Celeste flapped her hands. “Very well. I’ll speak to Phelan Sanreal and make a recommendation.”
I chose not to get my hopes up. After all, even if I did step into a boy’s shoes, I wouldn’t be living my life, but roleplaying as him, so I wasn’t all that comfortable with the idea, and my feelings grew cloudy and confused.
Celeste pressed on. “But Sanreal will need to see some progress on your part.”
“That you’ll behave. That you’ll settle down. That’ll stop lashing out at the world.”
“That’s going to be a problem. The world and I don’t get along.”
Celeste arched an eyebrow at me. “The ball’s in your court, Isabel. How the world treats you will depend on how you treat the world.”
“That’s not fair,” I stated bluntly. “The world hasn’t treated me kindly at all. Fate’s been a real bitch to me. The ball’s not in my court.”
“And if the world begins treating you kindly—fairly. What then? Will suspect that it’s up to something? Will you distrust it? Will you or won’t you give it a chance? Or are you so set in your ways that you won’t change how you approach people?” Celeste unfolded her arms, and draped one of them over the back of the bench. “What are you afraid of, Isabel?”
Turning away from Celeste, I felt the need to look at something rather than stare at the distant buildings beyond the plaza. Willow’s phone provided an alternative. On a whim, I called up the phone’s gallery, and saw there were dozens of photos of her in the company of other girls, at times in uniform, at times in casual wear that I found a little skimpy for my taste. Yet I could find none of her boyfriend and that fact puzzled me.
However, this was all a temporary escape.
Celeste’s question hung over my head, and I could feel her watching me as she waited for an answer.
“What am I afraid of?” I asked myself as I looked at the photos stored in Willow’s phone. “I’m afraid of being hurt.”
“Is that all?” Celeste inquired gently. “Isn’t there more, Isabel?”
“More? I guess there is.” I felt an emptiness begin to expand within my chest. “I’m afraid of not knowing what to do.” I shrugged my shoulders. “I guess I feel trapped—like I’m already boxed. I keep hoping that I’ll wake up and discover this was nothing more than a nightmare.” I glanced at Celeste. “But it’s not a nightmare. It’s real. But I still want to wake up from it.”
I watched the corners of Celeste’s lips curl slightly into a faint smile. “Isabel, do you remember the nursery rhyme, ‘Row your boat’?”
Her question caught me off guard. “I remember it. What about it?”
“It’s a metaphor for being positive about life. Don’t row angrily down the river of your life. Be happy about it, and make your dreams come true.”
I twisted my lips into a grimace. “Yeah, but my boat is surrounded by crocodiles and sharks. How can I row merrily along when I need a spear—a harpoon—and not an oar?”
Celeste’s eyebrows rows quickly. “Aren’t you the positive one.”
“Oh, I’m a bundle of joy. And since we’re on the subject of ‘Row, Row Your Boat’, that line about life being a dream is a metaphor for death.”
She looked confused. “I’m not following you.”
“It’s only when we die that we wake up from the dream.”
Celeste leaned back slowly. “Is that what you believe?”
I shook my head. “It’s what I believe the song is telling us. That this existence is the dream, and we’re released from it when we die. In other words, we can only achieve transcendence through death.”
Celeste was quiet for a long while before asking, “Do you believe in transcendence?”
I sat back on the bench seat, and then directed my gaze down the length of the plaza. “I don’t know. I just wonder if there’s something more. Like our lives are nothing more than a qualifying stage. That we’ll be judged whether we’re worthy of moving on—of transcending—based on how we’ve lived the dream.”
I thought of my parents, and their quest to find enlightenment through unravelling the mysteries of Trans-Space. But if death was the only means of finding true enlightenment, then didn’t that make all their efforts pointless?
I honestly didn’t believe they were going to be judged kindly, not after abandoning Erina and I on Teloria.
I stared down at Willow’s phone in my hand. “I don’t care,” I blurted out wearily.
“You don’t care about what?” Celeste asked.
I shook my head, feeling abruptly irritated. “Can we not talk about it? I don’t want to think about life or death or whatever comes after—if anything at all.”
“Very well. We still have time. Let’s talk about something else.”
In turning my head a little toward Celeste, I watched the woman out of the corner my eyes. “You make it sound like I’m on the clock.”
“Consider this your first therapy session.”
“Right before my big match with…with Tabitha.”
“How do you feel about that?”
I felt uneasy about her question, but it was my fault for steering the conversation in this direction. “I’m not happy about it.”
“Tell me why?”
I stood up in a hurry, then made a show of stretching Willow’s body after sitting on the bench for so long. “Nope. I’d rather not.”
“But it’s an important challenge.”
“Like I said, I’d rather not talk about it.” Intent on changing the subject, I held up Willow’s phone. “I’d rather know if this chick actually went through with it.”
Celeste’s eyebrows rose questioningly. “This chick?”
It was my intention to shift the focus away from me, but I struggled to remain stoic as I asked, “Did she have sex with her boyfriend?”
Celeste’s eyebrows rose a little higher before she waggled them at me. “Do you really want to know?”
I felt my cheeks grow warm. “Sure, I do.”
The young redhead smiled then laughed softly, but I didn’t sense she was mocking me. “You’re unexpectedly bashful.”
I became briefly annoyed with her. “What happened to being honest and open?”
“Touché” Celeste tipped her head back. “No, she didn’t.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “How do you know?”
“Because we keep a careful watch on all our subjects. Willow is to remain pure for a while longer.”
“Then what happened? Did you stop her?”
“No, she panicked and ran away on her own, leaving her boyfriend high and dry. He’s not going to be happy about it, and he’s sure to retaliate by spreading some nasty rumors about her. I’ve already taken steps to nip that in the bud.” Celeste appeared to make a point by glancing at the slim phone she held in her left hand. “That leaves the matter of her parents.”
“If she chickened out, then why the fight with her parents?”
“Because she’s a stubborn girl and she didn’t take kindly to her parents laying down the law. She wasn’t happy to be grounded for a month.”
“Oh….” I closed my mouth and pressed my lips together, but eventually asked, “You said I’d be facing a trying time. What did you mean?”
As she met my gaze, a shadow crossed Celeste’s face. Then she glanced at her wristwatch, a neat and tidy silver affair strapped to her slender left wrist. “You’ll be facing your challenge in an hour. Would you care to join me for a coffee?”
“Are you avoiding my question?”
“Yes. I am.” The smile she gave me beheld a hint of sadness. “So why not grab a bite to eat. I’ll tell you about Willow instead. Aren’t you the least bit—”
Celeste’s voice sharply faded away as my vision swam.
The world around me, the plaza, the people in it, and the surrounding buildings lost their color as I fell to the ground.
I was helpless, unable to move my limbs, and equally unable to break my fall.
I felt disconnected from my surroundings and from Willow’s body which is why I didn’t feel the pain of a hard landing.
My last vision was of Celeste reaching out to me in alarm before darkness swallowed me up.
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