Decisive Battle I
The Tired Boy: Kihara Gunsou
“Switch off your Neuro Linkers now!” Nozomi said. Her words hung in the air for a full three seconds.
“Uhh…why? What’s happening?” I asked.
“There’s no time to explain. Just do it!”
Nozomi glares at me all the way as I reach up and slowly touch the power button on my Neuro Linker. The windows in my vision cease to exist and I exchange identical looks of confusion with Misawa. Only Tatesuke and Mikiseki nod in understanding.
“They’re here already, aren’t they?” Tatesuke asks.
“And they beat us very badly,” Ryoutarou chews on his lip, “We were evenly matched for Levels, but that didn’t matter at all…”
“So that means-”
“Yes,” Nozomi cracks her knuckles, “We gotta go right now.”
“Wait wait waitwaitwait! Hold your horses, what’s going on?” Misawa protests. “You’re just gonna leave us like that?”
“Actually, yes. You’re too dangerous to hang around close to my darling Miki, because between the two of you, you’re a newbie Level One. You’re a liability to our team right now, and if Guardsman Railgun gets us because of you, I will hang you by your tongue from the Tokyo Government Office.” Nozomi stabs her finger at Misawa, who visibly recoils in shock.
“Nozomi!” Ryoutarou exclaimed, “That’s not what I said! I never told you they were liabilities!”
“But you know it yourself too!” Nozomi rounds on Ryoutarou. “If Guardsman Railgun finds someone more powerful than him, they end up joining his gang! There’s no way I’d let her be the cause for all of us to be uninstalled!”
“Will you just stop this,” I grind my teeth in a low voice, “What did Misawa do to you? Nothing! What’s with all the hate?!”
Nozomi spins round, her eyes flaring, mouth opening to unleash a curse-
Mikiseki calls out quietly but clearly.
“I… I understand. But it’s not their fault, they don’t know as much as you do.” She rises and slowly pushes in her chair.
“I’m…I’m sorry, Gunsou. But we’ll have to go first.” As she leaves, Nozomi shoots me one last glare and follows her out into the pouring rain.
Shaking his head, Tatesuke quietly got up too to leave. “Sorry guys…”
Only Ryoutarou is left, and he is clearly crestfallen at the disunity of his friends.
“So? You gonna stay or you gonna go?” Misawa taunts him, “No need to be polite!”
Ryoutarou shrugs and sighs. “I didn’t want things to turn out like this. Really, you two… On their behalf, I apologise.”
And then he gets up and leaves too. Switching my Neuro Linker back on, a notification appears, informing me that Ryoutarou has just paid for the bill.
An awkward silence settles, only punctuated by the pouring rain. It doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon, so I turn to Misawa.
“The nearest bus stop is about a hundred metres away, Misawa…”
“Nah,” she waves her hand dismissively, “Not worth the run. I can’t even run as fast as you can, y’know!”
“Surely you’re not that slow…”
“For heaven’s sake, it’s raining out there!”
Okay, I have to give it to Misawa. And besides, I wonder what would happen if I was to run into Mikiseki and her gang again…
“I’m gonna look around for a shop,” I say as I get up from the table, “Maybe there’s umbrellas being sold somewhere. Let’s go home…okay?”
“Um, yeah!” Misawa nods vigourously, “Yeah… Yeah.”
Her smile looks a little too strained. Should I…?
Nope. Just stick to finding a way home for now. When we do, I’ll have all the time I want to talk to Misawa properly.
But I don’t even know where’s the nearest shop that sells umbrellas…
It turns out that there was a street market the other way, so after getting drenched while searching hastily, I eventually found the distinctive red-and-white canvas tents of the street market, leading all the way to the other side of the cafe. Shivering and dripping rainwater, I set about looking for the cheap compact umbrellas I could buy with my emergency cash.
“Hey, kid!” one of the shopkeepers call in my direction, “Want some hot milk tea? Perfect for a pick-me-up in this cold weather! Add fifty yen for some invigorating ginger!”
“No thanks,” I smile and shake my head, “It’s alright.”
And so this pattern repeated itself twice or thrice more until I find it at last: a middle-aged woman selling some classic patterns and designs. I pay for two on the spot.
“But, lil’ boy, don’t you want to get a third one?” she says, “These are cheap an’ good; give you a third one for another ‘undred? Any pattern you like!”
“It’s okay, I have what I need, ma’am.”
Rain is good for street market business, I guess. Now that I think of it… man, those hamburgers over there look real good…
I catch myself before I start walking over. Emergency money is just that: emergency cash. I can’t spend too much or I’ll have to make up for it somewhere else.
I walk past a stand full of children’s toys. The shopkeeper eyes me and holds up a metal ring puzzle.
“How ’bout it, young man? Fancy one of these? Check out the rest of ’em, man, anything catch your eye?”
I scan quickly, already taking a step closer towards the cafe- and freeze.
Red, blue, white, nine ‘cubes’ to a face. A Rubik’s Cube. It’s a little old and the paint is faded, but it definitely looks like it works. An experimental twist of the red face of the cube reveals the toy to have surprisingly smooth joints – the previous owner must have lubricated the cube, did he?
“Ah, this? ‘Tis a cheap but good quality toy. Pity they don’t make ’em anymore.”
“Um… no thanks, sorry. I just thought it was interesting.”
The aged shopkeeper shrugs. “Never mind. Kids nowadays have everything they want from their parents and throw the rest out to places like here. But one man’s trash is another man’s medicine- no, that’s not it, what was the phrase again…”
“Kids nowadays…have everything from their parents?” I whisper.
That’s not true. I mean, I didn’t get ‘everything,’ unless it includes my father leaving. Or my mother shutting herself up in work.
So then, have I actually missed so much that I don’t know what I have missed? Did I really get everything?
No. I gave everything I got to Misawa. Food, clothing, care, and my time. I’m happy with that, really. I’m happy if Misawa’s happy.
…That’s what I told myself last time. And I don’t think I’m happy now, am I?
I never thought I’d come to this point, but it looks like I have to ask myself seriously. Do I choose Misawa, or opening up to others with Brain Burst? That means Mikiseki and her friends.
What should I do?
It’s a name I haven’t seen before in this area. That’s probably the only reason I chose this guy.
“Turquoise… Duro. Level 1, won once, drew once, lost once. Newbie.”
I’ll just get the ten Points and leave. I can always go for a bigger fish tomorrow when Zealot finishes his report. For now…
The stage loads in the form of a neon-lit shopping district and he’s right there in front of me. Blue-green armour, he looks tough. Certainly, he’s got the advantage in height and strength. But above all, he’s just a newbie. I bet he doesn’t know a millimetre about battling at all.
“Woah, what? Another…red-colour avatar?”
Above, the Gallery collectively takes a breath. Some spectators ‘follow’ me to keep tabs on my duels, including Mirage Zealot, but the vast majority above us spectating the fight now are all Brain Burst players well aware of my name. Unlike this guy.
This will be goddamn easy!
-“No hard feelings, man. After all, you’re weak.”
Duro visibly flinches. “You called me…what?”
“I said-” I curl my wrist back over and behind my shoulder, “-that you’re going down!”
-And I serve the first pitch-
At this close range, there’s no way I can miss. The round flew straight and true, burying itself in the forehead of Turquoise Duro and throwing him back.
“Ow!” Turquoise Duro yelled, clutching his head in pain, “Why do all the red avatars carry guns? It’s cheating!”
“Eh heh heh… Ah hah hah, ah hahahaha!”
I can’t help it! This isn’t just a beginner, he’s a total friggin loser! Hands down, this has got to be the funniest thing I’ve seen all day!
The thudding of heavy footsteps kills the mood immediately and I look up: Duro’s charging at me, drawing back his left fist in a punch I can see coming from a mile away. Even though we’re this close, his utter inexperience makes him look about as threatening as a Youtube comment.
All I have to do is stand there until the last second, duck and lunge to the side in one easy movement, and jump out of harm’s way. I even manage to score a free kick on his exposed back while Duro ran full-tilt into a virtual car hulk, denting the rusted steel like it was aluminium foil. That one kick alone earns me another five percent that fills up my Special Gauge with a small glop-
And I hurl another round, then another, and a third round in quick succession, Duro can only yelp in pain and fruitlessly shield himself. There’s no blocking these curveballs I’m tossing, and this ain’t even my full power!
This is just the first thirty or so seconds of the fight, and Duro’s already at 75% health? Man, this is too one-sided. There’s no need for me to even fight seriously if he’s taking this much damage.
…Maybe I’ll play a little. I’m not even busy after this fight anyway, so why not up the ante and make things more exciting?
“Hey, you there. How’dya feel?”
“Like a practice target, thank you very much,” said Turquoise Duro, glaring at me with one of the most agonising looks I’ve ever seen. “What in the world are you throwing at me?!”
“It’s just a baseball, dude,” I flick my wrist to produce one and toss it leisurely in the air, “Just a baseball.”
What had he been thinking those were? Anyone who had half a brain inside their heads would’ve look ’round and spotted the little red ball rolling away from them after every time I fired. If that didn’t give it away, then what about the snap of the wrist to produce a new ball, or the very act of throwing the ball? I guess I do take pains to make each throw as efficient as possible, but if those weren’t clear enough already, then you’ve gotta be blind to not know. I think it’s pretty simple.
Duro’s eyebrow is in imminent danger of disappearing into his forehead, so rather than risk cracking his poor skull as a result of explaining my skill, I go straight to the point:
“You got any skills hidden or something? Surely you’re saving up for something. A Killer Move, perhaps? Or perhaps even…an Enhanced Armament?”
“Err…y’know, like a weapon or extra thingy you’ve got from the beginning. Something that comes with your avatar, ya’ understand what I’m talking about?”
From the way Turquoise Duro remains standing there silently, trying to burn me through by sheer will alone, he probably doesn’t have either. Not as though I expected him to have anything…
“Maybe there is, after all.”
Duro clenches his fists and draws them back to his waist-
A shrilly rasping sound of metal on metal. From seemingly nowhere, polished silver armour plating emerges and covers every bit of Turquoise Duro’s arms, easily doubling their size. His shoulder guards thicken with burnished metallic protection and his fists fuse into a much more recognisable outline – boxing gloves.
There no other visible changes to the sturdy blue-green armour that covers the rest of Turquoise Duro, but-
-“I’m not going to lose!” he says.
And under his breath, so faint I doubt he was talking to me, Duro adds, “I’ll show you that I can do this…”
I could facepalm. This is probably his third battle and all, but Turquoise Duro needs to urgently learn that such anime-esque declarations of resolve simply don’t mean anything in Brain Burst!
I mean, if saying such things really help me win, then what did all those messages in the past count for…?
“Bring it on!”
Whether real or imagined, something distorted his otherwise confident-sounding voice, something that I instinctively recognised: the fear of failure.
For the first time in this fight, I really smile. A teeth-baring, tell-all, kind of smile. It’s just like the kind I make when I’m about to kill in a single shot.
-This loser has no idea what’s going to hit him!
I raise my hand back again-
With all the rage of a four-year-old throwing a tantrum, Duro charges. I set the ball in my fingers and cock back, ready to strike.
Duro is all sloppy in his movements. His footwork leaves him unbalanced after each punch; I dodge three of his awkward straights and let fly-
“Oh no, you don’t-!”
CLANG! My ball bounces harmlessly off the hardened silver armour; Duro threw his arm up at the last second. Well, he’s finally catching on, I’ll give it to him!
“Oh, so you can block one-”
-Two balls materialise simultaneously in the air to be caught in both my hands-
“-I think the good Dr. Railgun ordered a double dose!”
There’s no letting up of the pressure here. I pitch right, curving the ball round his curled arms to target his head. Then I hurl the left in a relentless straight throw, targeting his exposed neck-
I’m not exactly used to pitching with my left, but I’ve been practicing! Duro’s cries of shock come as a sweet, sweet reward and prove that my training is progressing. So now being an ambidextrous pitcher, I’ve got that going for me, which is good and all-
-a shiny silver fist smashes my cheek in-
“So, Doctor Railgun,” Duro spat, “Everything going well?”
How the hell did he get so close?! I hastily twist and jump backwards- but Duro seizes my ankle and pulls, bringing my head firmly into contact with terra firma. I see stars in my eyes again, it’s been a long time since I last saw them-
“Now, I don’t know a lot about being one of those bullies in school, but if I hafta make a guess-”
“They like to kick a man who’s down, or so I’ve heard!”
-And a foot clad in blue-green sinks itself into my ribs-
Damnit! It hurts! Twisting away doesn’t lessen the pain any less, it just presents my spine as a target, I roll from side to side as my Special Gauge rapidly fills-
“UWOHH! Friggin STOP-”
If I have to use my trump card, so be it, I’m gonna die at this rate!
A barrel as long as I’m tall extends from my forearm, pushing itself into Duro’s unprotected chest-
The world is dyed white for an instant-
CRASH. The very ground seems to shake as Duro is thrown back a full twenty metres and into the pillar of a huge skyscraper. Sparks fly from his ruined chest, exposing a crumbling, smoking smorgasbord of electronics within. From the huge wound, a red substance pours-
“You… You really had me there, faggot. You made me use my Killer Move, and at half-power, no less.”
One hand clutching my sides, I stow my railgun double-time and ready a ball. Duro’s health stands at twenty percent, while I’m at forty; still in the yellow zone. But then again, I’ve never gone yellow since I hit Level 3.
“-is that so.”
Duro’s head is hunched over like a dead man, but I guess it’s pure ignorance that keeps him going. Any Burst Linker with a shred of common sense would have backed down and acknowledged his loss, or so it should be.
“Is that… Is that good enough?”
“Whaddya’ mean, good enough?”
No, seriously. What? Things like ‘good enough’, ‘sufficient effort,’ they don’t belong on this battlefield. That’s the real world, man. Has Duro seriously lost it?
“-I mean, I could give it to you for forcing me to bring out my Killer Move. You’re a newbie, but I’m the veteran. Any day the fight goes in your favour, I’d say that’s… That’s impressive.”
“Do… Do you really mean that?”
“Well, well of course! It’s- It’s not like I’m complimenting you or something like that! For a Level 1 to stand up like that-”
–I’d say you have the guts I never had.
That second half of my sentence was locked up at the tip of my tongue. I can’t say that, not when I’m supposed to be looking for Spring Renascentia.
“Look, kid, you gotta learn to just, just tell yourself, ‘To hell with the world!’ Do whatever you want. You’d be better that way.”
Yup, that’s all I can say for now.
“‘To hell with the world’, ‘do anything I want,’ huh.”
Pieces of blue-green armour fragment and disintegrate into polygons, but Duro struggles to stand.
“I’ll keep that in mind then. Does that mean that you wanna-”
Teehee! This is still a duel, idiot!
My ball drills itself through his wounded chest and /through/, emptying out his remaining Health. The words ‘YOU WIN!’ appear in system font in the center of my vision.
“Too bad, son. Try again next time!”
I pull my baseball cap down and walk away. I don’t care anymore, it’s just another mook crushed today…
-He’s got potential, that one.
-I hope I don’t see him again.
The Tired Boy: Kihara Gunsou
As though I’m stuck at the bottom of a diving pool, or confined to a jail cell. A deep sense of helplessness and confusion has been filling my mind since yesterday.
Yesterday, when a new Burst Linker, Guardsman Railgun, had destroyed me with sheer power, it didn’t really hurt as much as when Misawa had shot me. That wasn’t so bad, I guess.
But then this morning, the results from last week’s Mathematics test had come back, and whaddya know, I’ve been ranked quite far down in the class rankings. A pass mark of seventy-eight percent was stellar in elementary, but in middle school, this is dismal!
And then to cap it all, Misawa texted me again to join her, Tatesuke, and the rest of the players in school to meet afterwards. How are their grades doing, then? Are they that free to keep playing Brain Burst during school hours? And why, the implication seems to be, does it seem that Misawa is joining them in as well?!
But no, I play along and push down all my feelings to where it won’t show, and reluctantly take my seat at the table as arranged. It’s one of the various study tables alotted for students and group work: six seats to a table, translucent privacy screens, and a central hub with six Direct Connect cables in the center. Five cables have already been drawn out and connected to their Neuro Linkers. Misawa pulls out the last cable and offers it to me.
“…Thanks.” I murmur and quietly insert the plug into my Neuro Linker.
Ryoutarou nods at me and holds up three fingers. “Well guys, let’s not waste any time then. Three… Two… One…”
“Burst Link!” Our voices murmur as one.
Six Net Avatars materialise in the recreated space. Ryoutarou stretches his sides before turning to me and chuckling darkly:
“Gunsou. As you know, we require your assistance to protect Miki. More specifically, while we fend off Guardsman Railgun and his group, you’ll be defending her like a second skin. I think Miki has already seen your avatar and its capabilities, but I’d like to see them for myself.”
-‘Here we go again’ much? I nod in reply to Ryoutarou.
“Miki. Tag up with Gunsou.”
“Who’s going to be our duel partners, then?” Miki asks.
“I am,” Ryoutarou answers simply. “I’m the only Level 4 here; Tatesuke and Nozomi are Level 3, and Misawa is still Level 1. So, all of ya’ll ready?”
Mikiseki quickly manipulates her menu and sends me the invite: [DO YOU TAG WITH SPRING RENASCENTIA?]
“C’mon Gunsou. Just push the button!”
I glance at Misawa. She’s looking away to the side, but out of the corners of her eyes, her expression is most definitely one of calm. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to ask, would it?
“Misawa?” I ask, “You alright?”
Only then does she turn and look at me straight. “Yeah! Yeah… Just go on.”
I accept the invite and Ryoutarou nods in approval. “Let’s go, everyone!”
A fancifully stylised ‘DUEL!’ button falls from the sky and Ryoutarou hits it confidently. The blue space around us quickly fades to black and changes to…
“The «Flooded Resort» Stage, huh. Ain’t too bad!”
Where Ryoutarou stood, a tall Japanese-style avatar has taken his place. A traditional swordsman’s robe covers much of his avatar in a reliable shade of deep blue, though his arms are a slightly lighter colour. A curved decorative piece, representing his hair, extends from the back of his head to his back. A smooth wooden sword is hung from the left of his waist.
Above all, even though my duel avatar and his are the same height, I feel an immense pressure emanating from his gaze. It isn’t that his eyes are frightening; rather, his gaze seems to bear down upon me with fighting spirit. Ryoutarou breathes in and expands his avatar’s chest ever so slightly, as though filling it with liquid confidence.
Looking up at our Health Gauges, I read his name silently: Klein Apprentice. To the left is ‘Spring Renascentia’ and ‘Turquoise Duro,’ the names of Mikiseki’s and my duel avatars respectively.
A deep metallic voice issues from Apprentice’s unseen mouth.
“So, Turquoise Duro. I see your duel avatar looks pretty nice, it’s a sturdy medium built with no visible weapons…” He trails off mid-sentence.
“Weapons?” I raise an eyebrow, “Does everyone get one of those?”
“Nope, not every duel avatar will get an Enhanced Armament!” Spring Renascentia says, “But everybody will get Normal and Special Moves like I told you the other day, remember?”
“Rena, that’s not the right name for them!” Apprentice exclaims.
In the split second it takes for me to realise that ‘Rena’ is a contraction of ‘Renascentia,’ Apprentice has already begun to speak:
“…aren’t the best way to describe them. I mean, the distinction is there, but it’s better to describe them as Passive Skills and Active Skills.”
While he spoke, Klein Apprentice unsheathed his weapon and held it with his two hands.
“A Passive Skill doesn’t always need to consume Special Gauge to be used. So if it doesn’t use it at all, then it’s just that: a Passive Skill.”
Apprentice walks over to a crumbling hunk of concrete, raising the sword above his head. He freezes there for a moment, and-
BOOM! The block of concrete is reduced to gravel and dust with a single stroke. The ground quakes slightly from the destruction; from the sides, Tatesuke and Nozomi clap in approval.
“A Limited Activation Passive Skill, on the other hand, may deplete the Gauge at a constant rate, depending on whether you’re actively using it or not. Something like Tatesuke – Green Guardian’s Defense Up, which will use up a full Gauge in about a minute or so.”
“Notice how my Special Gauge filled up just now? You can get it from destroying the Stage, and because of that, I can now execute my Active Skill: one move which consumes Special in one shot…”
Apprentice flicks his sword over to his left and faces me; a dreadful feeling fills my chest and suddenly, the light green avatar that belongs to Mikiseki is nowhere to be found-!
“If you’ll excuse me, Duro. «Snake Bite»!”
A purple glow surrounds his sword- no, two swords?!
WHOOSH! Apprentice charges straight at me, one sword swinging in from the left, another from the right. All I can do is throw up my arms and roar “«Reserve Armour»!”
-no shiny silver armour appears-
BLA-BLAM! Two consecutive hits land on target and blow me back ten metres in the air. I land on my back and start rolling all over until I finally come to a halt at a red avatar’s feet-
“Lol. C’mon Gunsou, get up and teach him a lesson!”
Oh right. It’s just Misawa.
“Sorry about that,” Apprentice sheathes his sword and bows lightly. “But it was a good outcome nonetheless. Your Special Gauge has been filled by a quarter, and you’re now acquainted with the power difference between a Level 4 and a Level 1.”
“It feels like yesterday…” I mutter and stagger back upright.
“I noticed you tried to use a move just before I hit you, Duro,” Apprentice cocks his head to the side. “Surely it wasn’t an Enhanced Armament, so was it a Passive Skill? Or an Active Skill?”
“How do I tell which is it?” I grit my teeth, trying to hold back the pain.
“Click on your name and see your movelist.” Apprentice says.
-Didn’t I do this before already with Mikiseki the last time…?
“…’Reserve Armour’ is a Limited Activation Passive Skill, Ryoutarou.”
“Please address me by ‘Apprentice’ in-game. It’s politeness and courtesy.” He narrows his eyes down on me.
-Or is it just your ego and sense of identity? “Yes… Apprentice.”
“Well then. What does the rest of the description say?”
“Uh,” I look back at the game’s window, “”Extra armour plating. Coverage increases with more ‘Bonuses.’ This armour is… ” Uh, what’s this character? ‘utsu‘ from ‘utsuru,‘ ‘koro‘ of ‘korogaru,’ and followed by ‘dekiru‘?”
“That’s read as ‘iten dekiru.’ It means… ‘transferable.'” Apprentice explains for me.
“Huh? So, ‘this armour is transferable’ means that…it can move?”
“To another duel avatar.” Apprentice’s eyes light up in excitement. “Yo, Rena! Get over here!”
The light green female avatar jogs over. “Geez, Apprentice, you need me to heal him already?”
“No, but I’ve got an idea. Duro,” He gestures at Renascentia, “While you touch Renascentia, use that move. I want to see what happens.”
“But, but, whenever I call it, it only goes to my arms, Ryou- sorry, Apprentice!”
“Never try, never know, Duro! Just go ahead.” Apprentice shrugs his shoulders.
I turn ’round to look at Misawa. The arms of her cute red avatar are folded and her expression is unreadable, but she just nods in agreement.
“Okay… Here I go.”
Placing my hands on Renascentia’s petite shoulders, I’m suddenly quite aware of our difference in height between our duel avatars. Renascentia’s head only comes up to my chest level.
SLOSH! My arms shiver instinctively, but it’s the sight that I can’t quite believe! Instead of plates, the armour now looks like mercury with a mind of its own, flowing from my arms to Renascentia’s body. The sound it makes very much sounds like… it sounds like…
“It’s freezing!” Renasentia shivers under my grasp. “It’s almost like taking a cold shower!”
The large green eye lenses belonging to Cul Artillery squint in annoyance. Apprentice merely looks on in approval of this phenomenon.
When no more silvery liquid flows from my arms, I gingerly remove my hands from Renascentia’s shoulders and admire the transformation. Her avatar is almost completely encased in shining silver armour, evenly covering her entire avatar. Even her head is encased in an open-type helmet, shielding every bit of light-green with brilliantly shining silver.
“This is…beyond my expectations. Very impressive, Duro, this is marvellous!” Renascentia holds up her arms, “This armour feels super light!”
“That looks very nice on you, Rena!” Nozomi calls out from the sidelines.
“How’s your Special Gauge holding up, Duro?” Apprentice asks, “Is it falling any faster or slower?”
I examine my shrinking Gauge. “I guess… it seems like it’s going slower, but I’ve never tried this before…”
Then a question came to mind. “What about when I need it back? What if I need to fight somebody else, but I’ve got nothing to protect myself?”
“The description for Reserve Armour stopped there at ‘This armour is transferable,’ right?” Apprentice tilted his head to the side, “Getting it back should be simple. Rena, go touch Duro. Maybe with your hand, or whatever part is covered with armour.”
The instant she came into contact, the armour turns to liquid and flows back twice as fast, quickly taking it’s usual form as thick plates covering my arms. “So that’s how it is…” I say.
“Well, this is perfect! Armour you can freely manipulate to protect yourself or Renascentia. Looks like we’re good! Don’t you think so, Cul?” Tatesuke nudged Misawa’s avatar.
“Uh… Um, I guess it’s good, too…” She replies quietly. “What do you think, Luka-senpai?”
“Who’s ‘Luka’?” I whirl around in confusion.
“That would be me, you idiot!” a pink avatar snarls in Nozomi’s voice. Chewing on her lip, she huffs and says, “I gotta admit, this guy ain’t half-bad. That’s a nice Child you got there, Rena.”
“Alright, alright, we all agree that Turquoise Duro is good,” Apprentice gives me a thumbs-up. “I need to know too, Duro, what about its strength? Didn’t you use this before against Apple Panzer? How did the battle go afterwards?”
-Wait a minute…
“Actually…” I swallow briefly and continue, “I duelled with Guardsman Railgun yesterday, and used Reserve Armour too.”
You could hear a pin drop in the deafening silence. Apprentice’s eyes widened in disbelief.
“What? Why didn’t you tell us earlier!”
“I forgot,” I reply lamely, “Please forgive me.”
“We’re gonna need to rethink everything because of this!” He blinks several times and clears his throat, “Well, uh… How was it? How did it go?”
“He floored me completely. I stood no chance against him. Even my armour couldn’t stand his attack…”
I raised my hands in surrender, head bowed, but at the same time, something had stirred within me. “I’m sorry, Apprentice. I guess… I guess I’m too weak for you and your group-”
“No, you are NOT!”
In the blink of an eye, Apprentice crosses the distance between him and I, seizing me by the shoulders and pinned me against the wall.
“Ryou!” Renascentia exclaims, “What are you doing!”
“You’re not as weak as you believe,” Apprentice growls, “All duel avatars at the same level have the same potential, and this skill is proof of that. You agreed to help us, and so you will fulfil your obligations, Gunsou.”
To which I coldly reply, “So, how do you maintain your grades then, senpai? Hmm, Mikiseki? How did you do for the Mathematics test?”
Silence. And after a few seconds, Extinguisher breaks it with a scoff.
“Oh please, Duro. Didn’t you know that when you Accelerate, you can use your other programmes too?”
Extinguisher smirks at the sight of my look of shock. “What a faggot. But an honest faggot, I’ll give it to you. See, none of us ever had to worry about our grades because we can freely Accelerate and use the extra time to think. All it costs is one Burst Point, and us veterans have hundreds to spare. Brain Burst isn’t on the school’s list of forbidden programmes. Nobody except for us knows. So…what’s there to stop you from checking your notes every now and then?”
“That’s… That’s cheating, isn’t it?” I whisper.
Extinguisher shrugs. “So what if it is? It ain’t against the school rules, so it’s not illegal. And if you go to the teachers, who’s gonna believe you?”
“And one more thing, Duro…” Tatesuke says, “If you lose all your Burst Points by losing too many battles, Brain Burst will uninstall itself. And rumours say that it’ll take all your memories of Acceleration with you. I don’t want to sound like I’m threatening you, but… if push comes to shove, we can – and we will – do that to stop you from talking.”
“You can’t be that serious about a simple game!” I exclaim. “Misawa! Burst Out right now! I’m not going to do this anymore-”
“I’m not going.”
“Excuse me?” I can’t believe my ears.
“I said,” Misawa repeats herself, “I’m staying with them. And as for why, I guess… Look, you said you’d do this, didn’t you? And now you’re backing out? That’s not the Gunsou I know.”
Her words sting. But that she’s the one saying it… does it hurt more or less?!
“And furthermore, Acceleration is truly a wonderful power. I don’t agree with the cheating, yes. But just because you can do that, doesn’t mean you should! I think you can use Brain Burst for other things, Gunsou!”
“Like what, playing a game?” I snap back at her, “Come on! There’s school and other things we need to handle! And.. And!”
“You don’t get it, Gunsou,” Misawa says softly, “Acceleration let me do things I’ve never dared to do before. I want to do things I’ve never done before! If you would only just wait and see…”
“-So this is it, huh.”
It’s a whisper only to myself, but Misawa must’ve seen my lips moving. Tilting her head, she asks me something, but I no longer hear her.
This is the end of my relationship with Misawa being mine. My ward. My friend. The girl whom I always thought I would take care of forever wants to be free of me.
They’re talking amongst themselves. Discussing about Guardsman Railgun and the impending battle. Something I committed to despite not knowing even a millimetre about. Was I that stupid?
“-uro. Hey, Duro!”
I’ve fallen to my knees without knowing it. Apprentice stares down at me while Renascentia looks on from the side.
“C’mon, man. It isn’t nice to go back on an agreement. And it’s not like I’m forcing you to stay afterwards.”
What Apprentice left unspoken – gratefully – was the possibility that only I would be excluded from the group.
“I’ll do it,” I get to my feet, “Just… Just give me some time.”
“Splendid.” He claps me on the back, “Don’t make us feel bad about this too, y’know?”
-But I already feel thousands of times worse.
That feeling of drowning from earlier this morning assails me again, lingering even after the duel finishes and Acceleration ends.
I was sipping on my drink at a coffee joint, relaxing in the cool air of the afternoon, when the message arrived.
There is no sender nor picture. The six other recipients’ names and addresses are also censored. The subject line is surprisingly long: ‘Mitsukihara Middle School BLers.’
A smile worked its way up to my lips. Mirage Zealot had delivered. Clicking on the mail, four pictures and accompanying descriptions followed:
(Luka Extinguisher Level 3) Shokuhou, Nozomi. Age 13. Class 2-A. Dislikes people in general, hates irresponsible people. Trauma should be related to Tokonosu Great Fire Incident five years ago.
(Klein Apprentice Level 4) Tsuboi, Ryoutarou. Age 14. Class 2-A. Highest-ranked kendoka of his grade in all Tokyo. Unknown trauma. (His father, Tsuboi Kanda, was implicated in the escape of Hino Jinsaka.)
(Green Guardian Level 3) Ichijo, Tatesuke. Age 12. Class 1-A. Booksmart. Particularly well-known for being kind and making enemies of bullies. Unknown trauma. Father listed as missing three years ago.
(Spring Renascentia Level 2) Gekkagawa, Mikiseki. Age 12. Class 1-B. Aspires to be a paramedic. Native to Hokkaido. Unknown trauma. Father is deceased.
Attached was a map of the area in which Mitsukihara Middle School was situated in; it was merely two kilometres away from mine. I looked at the final line of the email:
‘DSG is to gather at XingWang Cafe & Confectionery later, at approx. 1400 hrs. Optimum timing is at 1405 hrs to strike.’