"Nobody," said Sho, "is going to be making any smart comments about the irony of our situation."
From the corner of his eye Jun could see Nino quickly closing his mouth.
They were huddled in the restaurant's cramped attic for a quick discussion, but even with the door shut they could still hear Aiba's grandmother crashing around in the kitchen. The city council had given all the residents the impression that they were holding one of their regular internal meetings, and the inclusion of Saori Corporation in the talks had come as a surprise to everyone.
It didn't bode well for the neighbourhood. Jun had come across other developments on the outskirts of Tokyo, old catchment areas that had since been turned into overbuilt wastelands, ugly sprawl choked with infrastructure that its residents had little means to afford. There was no need for integrated videoconferencing in a community living hand to mouth, but this glaring fact seemed insignificant in comparison to the initial building revenue.
"What are we going to do?" asked Ohno. He had not yet taken off his waders and fishing jacket, and was noticeably still dripping water onto the crate he was perched on.
"We're going to do what we do best," said Sho.
"And what's that?" asked Nino.
"Make ourselves scarce," said Jun.
"I'm afraid you can't," said someone from the door, making them jump.
It was Ikuta, with a rather flustered Aiba in tow. They both looked like they had sprinted over all the way from the berthing grid.
Aiba was clutching the doorframe as he struggled for breath. "Someone's sabotaged our ship."
The smoking hole in the Prospero IV's hull was the least of their problems, according to Aiba, because while that could be patched, the stolen booster engines and the disabled broadcaster would take a much longer time to replace and repair.
"I'd put this down as vandalism," Ikuta was telling Sho, "but this sort of thing just doesn't happen around here."
"You look murderous," said Nino to Jun, as they crouched down to examine the gaps where the booster engines had been.
"That's because I am," Jun gritted out.
Aiba and Ohno, in the meantime, had gone inside the ship to check for more damage. "Nothing inside's been stolen," said Ohno, poking his head out of the entrance.
"We can order the parts, they'll come within a couple of days," Aiba added. He seemed near tears.
"In the meantime you can make yourselves comfortable at the station," Ikuta told them. "I understand that things might get busy at the restaurant."
"That's very kind of you," said Sho. "Just let us gather some of our things."
"And you're just going to trust him?" whispered Nino, after they had all clambered inside the ship and were out of earshot.
"It's either him or Saori Corporation," Sho snapped. "Take your pick. Besides, he's mostly harmless."
"Whoever took our engines isn't," said Aiba. "And nothing but a blaster gun could have made that hole."
"The man has a blaster gun, in case you've forgotten," said Jun. "Nino's right."
"So you're proposing that we stay on the ship?" asked Sho.
"Yes," said Nino stubbornly.
"I'm proposing that we not make ourselves comfortable at a police station," Jun told him.
"Right," said Sho, "so we're equally divided on this. Ohno will decide."
Ohno, who had so far been silent on the issue, glanced around calmly at them. "Janken?" he finally offered.
Jun buried his face in his hands.
At some point in the distant past, an official from the Aomori Prefectural Police had given the small outpost at the water catchment belt full police station status. It evidently had not occured to said official to actually visit the outpost, because it was painfully obvious to the casual observer that the station was nothing more than a miniscule office with barely enough room for a standard-issue desk.
"Good grief," said Jun, when Ikuta showed them into the back room. "It's even smaller than it looks."
"Well for most of the year it's just me," said Ikuta, retrieving extra cups for the tea and attempting to wipe the dust off surreptitiously. "Please, take a seat."
Gingerly, the five of them arranged themselves to fit on the sofa pushed flush against the wall, but not without Aiba banging his knee against the low table and Nino elbowing Jun twice in the ribs.
"That was on purpose," Jun hissed. Nino merely smiled.
"I'll have to continue on my patrol now," said Ikuta as he put the electric kettle on. "I doubt there will be any disturbances, but if you're thinking of venturing out make sure you have ID ready."
"Saori Corporation?" asked Sho casually.
"I told them that five security units was excessive," Ikuta replied, "so they sent fifteen."
"Typical," Sho remarked.
"You think so?" asked Ikuta, retrieving his coat. "Well, sit tight. I'll be back with some food."
"I don't like this," said Nino, when Ikuta was gone.
"Well that's a pity; I was just having the time of my life here," said Jun.
"If his information's right we'd be better off staying, though," Aiba replied. Under the law, Saori security units were not allowed to enter a police station without prior approval.
"And we're just going to trust his numbers?" asked Nino.
"He's the local policeman," said Sho exasperatedly. "We know him - he's harmless."
"This room," said Ohno, standing up abruptly, "is too small."
Jun looked around at the large filing cabinets and the maps plastered all over the walls. It was a ridiculous size, he had to agree.
They remained silent as Ohno wandered over to the far corner, sipping his tea. Sho reached out to rest one hand on Aiba's knee in a small, steadying gesture. Beside Jun, Nino was fidgeting slightly, but Jun made no move to stop him.
The minutes passed like hours. Jun tried to doze while Sho flipped through the newspaper, studying its contents with his habitual frown. Situations like this were not unfamiliar to them, though they had never before happened in Aomori. The room was warm, and the sofa comfortable despite being cramped. It was not long before Jun dropped off entirely.
He was awoken by Nino's hand gripping his wrist, but as he started awake and opened his mouth to speak Sho turned to him with a shushing motion. Listen, mouthed Sho.
There was someone outside. More than one person, if Jun heard correctly.
"Inside -- for the moment --" it was Ikuta's voice, definitely, but parts of what he was saying remained inaudible.
"Saori?" whispered Aiba. He was already reaching for his blaster gun.
Sho shrugged, but motioned for the rest of them to do the same.
The voices were coming nearer. "-- smugglers, I know," Ikuta was saying. "-- taken care of -- ship."
Jun and Sho exchanged glances.
The door slid open, and Ikuta stepped in. "I'm- fuck." The plastic bag of bentos he was holding slid to the ground.
"Don't move," said Sho, voice quiet.
For someone with more than three guns aimed at his head, Ikuta remained admirably calm. "You're overreacting," he told them, raising his hands in a gesture of surrender. "I can explain."
"Was it you?" asked Sho, while Nino crept forward and disarmed Ikuta easily. "Did you tamper with our ship?"
"Look," said Ikuta, "if you'd just put away those weapons, I'll explain."
"Did you?" Aiba repeated. "Was that why you knew to come by when I discovered it?"
"Please calm down," Ikuta told him. "Calm down."
"Yes or no?" shouted Aiba.
"No," said another voice, and when Jun turned to look he saw that the speaker was a tall, suit-clad man who was holding a gun directly to Sho's head. "That would have been me."
"Where did he come from?" Nino demanded, the same time Ikuta hissed, "You said you'd stay hidden."
"Make any moves and he dies," said the man. He glanced at Nino. "There's a reason why this room is so small," he told him.
Of course, thought Jun with sudden realisation. "Trick doors," he murmured. True enough, there was a noticeable gap down the middle of one of the larger maps on the far wall.
"Quite right," said the man approvingly. "Now, if you gentlemen don't mind, please lower your weapons."
Slowly, they placed their blaster guns on the floor.
"Hands behind your heads," the man continued, tugging Sho along as he gestured for them to line up next to the wall. "And now - oh."
Jun looked up; standing behind the man, with his own gun pressed against the man's temple, was Ohno.
"I did say," Ohno murmured, "that the room was too small."
"Nice," said the man, smiling widely. "Good use of filing cabinet."
"Thank you," said Ohno grimly. "Now let go of him."
"Gladly," said the man, releasing Sho, who whipped round and immediately disarmed him. Behind Jun, Aiba and Nino were moving to restrain Ikuta.
"And now," Sho told him, "I've got a few questions."
The man nodded.
"Who are you?"
"Oguri Shun, Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department."
"Tokyo?" repeated Jun. "What are you doing here, then?"
"I'm looking for a missing person."
Beside Jun, Nino stiffened.
"Well," said Jun, reaching round to grip Nino's elbow with a sudden flash of defensiveness, "you're not going to get him."
"Don't be silly, that's not a person," Oguri replied.
"What?" asked Sho. "Wait - what exactly do you know?"
"That's prototype unit OS-04, affectionately referred to as 'Nino'. I wasn't sure if he was fully functioning but I suppose he is, from the quick way in which he disarmed Toma-kun," said Oguri. "No, I'm looking for the man who made him."
"You won't find him here," said Sho.
"On the contrary," said Oguri, "he's pointing a gun at my head."
"Wait," said Sho. "This is completely insane."
From where he was standing behind Oguri, Ohno looked equally baffled.
"That's what I thought, too," said Oguri, "when all this first started."
"When all of what first started?" asked Nino, his voice taut with uncertainty.
"I have to commend you, Satoshi-kun," murmured Oguri, "he's incredibly well made - down to the last expression."
"But I didn't," said Ohno, confusion written all over his face. "I didn't make him. I think I would remember doing something huge like that."
Oguri shook his head. "Disappointingly for me, you don't. But I have the files to prove it. If you'd come with me-"
"We're not following you anywhere," said Jun curtly, "until you give us more answers."
Oguri was about to reply when they were interrupted by the sound of several blaster guns being fired in quick succession.
"WE HAVE THE BUILDING SURROUNDED," someone with a loudhailer announced, "LEAVE YOUR WEAPONS AND SURRENDER."
"And that's Saori Corporation," said Ikuta. "They've been tracking you, which is why we took out your broadcaster."
"Fat lot of good that did," said Jun, while what sounded like a phalanx of security units outside the station fired off several more warning shots.
"Toma-kun, any way out?" asked Oguri.
"Small rooms lead to smaller passageways," Ikuta replied. He glanced at Aiba. "It would help if I could move."
From outside the room came the unmistakable clatter of the security units forcing entry into the station.
"Saori Corporation won't answer your questions," said Oguri. "And I have a ship."
Sho and Jun exchanged looks.
"All right," said Sho finally. "Lead the way, then."
They emerged from the long passageway onto a berthing grid located a sizeable distance from the police station, just a stone's throw from the onsen. A ship was waiting for them; not the standard police craft but a battered, patched-together affair that Jun found extremely familiar. From the way Sho was staring at it, Jun figured he wasn't alone in this feeling.
"Nishikido's," said Oguri urgently, "now get on before they find us."
"How on earth," said Jun after they had all gotten on the ship and were safely airborne, "did you manage to convince Nishikido Ryo to fly you to Aomori?"
"Let's just say I owe the man a lot of favours," Nishikido replied, emerging from the bridge. He turned to Oguri. "I've set course for Tokyo."
Sho was observing this exchange with great disbelief. "Now I'm really curious."
"Now I really just want to hit him in the face," muttered Jun, "but it wouldn't be polite."
"I heard that, Matsumoto," called Nishikido. "And I know you're still pissed about those drugs-"
"Go fuck yourself," Jun replied.
Nishikido rolled his eyes. "You're a really nice guy, you know that?"
Before Jun could reply, however, he felt Nino's hand on his arm again. "We've got questions that need answering," said Nino.
Oguri was retrieving a large folder from a briefcase originally propped up against a wall in the hold. For a man who had just brought five possibly hostile, still-armed smugglers onto a ship piloted by an all-around crook, he seemed extremely relaxed. Then again, this was also the man who had barely even blinked when Ohno had pointed a gun at his head. It unnerved Jun, that unflappability; somehow it didn't seem like something Oguri could have simply picked up at police training.
"Answers, then," said Oguri, settling down at the large table. "Before I ask my own questions."
Slowly the rest of them moved to gather around the table, peering curiously at the stack of documents he was thumbing through.
"I'm so glad we're doing this minus the guns," Oguri remarked, when they were all seated.
"Get to the point, Shun-kun," said Ikuta.
"Right then," said Oguri, removing his gloves and setting them on the table. "I'll start with this, then." He held up his right hand. In place of his index and middle fingers were two mechanical digits of a pre-Saori design largely similar to that of Sho's arm. "You should know how this happened."
"Yamamoto gang?" asked Jun. When the others looked quizzically at him he explained, "They take the fingers of traitors before beheading them. If they find out you're police, they take the trigger fingers."
"Takahashi, but you're right," said Oguri. "Though as you can probably tell, I managed to worm my way out of the beheading."
"The Takahashi gang was dissolved years ago, though," said Sho.
"That was me," said Oguri, with a gleam of pride. "I was an undercover agent for two years before we took out their smuggling ring. In return they took my fingers. After that the force gave me a desk job - handling other agents."
"What does that have to do with Nino and Ohno?" asked Aiba.
"I'm getting there," Oguri told him. "The truth of the matter is, we're low on personnel. Saori Corporation keeps the peace, to an extent, but only when it serves their purposes. Their ground officers are not paid to interfere with anything but cybernetic part smuggling, and we're finding it increasingly difficult to pay our officers comparable rates, or to compensate them for years - or digits - lost while undercover.
"Approximately five years ago, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department commissioned one of Saori Institute's finest cybernetic engineers to start on a top-secret project. This engineer had no projects under his belt at that point, save for one unit - a freight craft co-pilot also equipped with self-defense skills. Her name was Hisa."
"Wasn't that your final-year project, Ohno?" asked Sho.
Oguri turned to Ohno. "Do you remember Hisa, Satoshi-kun? She was easily the best at the exhibition, that year. Her movements were still jerky and her demeanour was patently unfriendly, but she integrated perfectly with the ships we tested her in."
"I-" Ohno began. "Vaguely. I vaguely remember her."
"Why can't he remember?" asked Jun.
"That's what I want to find out," Oguri replied. "Satoshi-kun worked with us for the next four years, developing the - how would you put this - developing what we dreamed would be the ultimate undercover officer: a cybernetic unit that could blend in perfectly as a human. After several false starts, Nino was designed."
At this point Oguri pulled out several booklets, flipping one open to show them the numerous sketches made and annotated in Ohno's distinctive writing. Nino's arms, head, legs, torso - his hands, even; deliberately imperfect.
"Throughout this, Toma-kun was working closely with Satoshi-kun, giving him input on what would make for a better model. On Toma-kun's advice Nino was equipped with senses far more acute than the average officer or Saori security unit, which might explain why Nishikido had some problems getting those drugs past him a couple of weeks ago," said Oguri.
"Wait, so Nishikido is working for you?" Jun demanded.
"If you suggest this to anyone outside of this room I imagine he'd have you killed, childhood friend or not," said Oguri. "But in a way, yes. He's been a great help."
"Yes, well, he's still a little bastard," said Jun.
"I'm afraid I have to agree with you on that," said Oguri, as an aside.
"Wait," said Nino abruptly. "You haven't finished." Jun glanced over at him and couldn't help but notice how he appeared to have shrunk into himself a little bit, how he seemed somehow smaller, sitting there in an awkward huddle beside Jun.
"Physically, you were perfect," said Oguri. "The day they did a test run in the training centre, you missed the last jump in an obstacle course and took a tumble, and you bruised. That was how groundbreaking Satoshi-kun's work was. But it wasn't enough. You replied to everything with 'Affirmative' or 'Negative', and on good days we were treated to a particularly gormless, 'Do not compute'. There was no way we could send you undercover like that."
"So you gave him a personality," said Aiba in awed tones.
"But how?" asked Jun sharply.
"And that's where my information ends," said Oguri, leaning back in his chair. "All the rest is just deduction."
"Go on," said Sho.
"Throughout this period, Satoshi-kun seemed to also be developing a technology called RepliSync, based off a Saori software that can copy a cybernetic unit's disposition data such that customers can upgrade their units without needing to get used to a new unit. From what I've gathered, they managed to take it a step further, retrieving and copying a person's memories and personality," said Oguri.
"This explains a lot," said Jun. "The eating, the need to sleep, seasickness..."
"He was meant to be indistinguishable from any other human. Not just to look like one, but to talk like one. To feel like one," said Oguri. "So the seasickness, like you mentioned - it wouldn't be a physical reaction like in a real case of seasickness, but rather a remembered one, like a habit. It's incredible how complex the technology is.
"In the case of Nino, they retrieved the personality of one of Toma-kun's old friends - a pilot who had gotten into a bad accident two years ago and was since unable to leave his home. Look."
He flipped open another file, containing letters of consent and certifications of sound mental health. What interested Jun most was the photograph on the first page of the dossier.
"He looks exactly like Nino," he said, examining it with great interest.
"It would have been only respectful," said Ohno hoarsely. "I don't- I think I would have made sure. That they looked the same, that is."
"It appears that you also named the prototype for Toma-kun's friend," Oguri told him. "At that point your reports stopped coming in. I was aware that you were attempting to base the prototype's personality on an actual person, but I was completely in the dark about RepliSync. From the notes that you hadn't destroyed, I gathered that there was also a second step, in which you had to erase all specific memories that had also been retrieved.
"I believe this is the same technology you eventually turned on yourselves," Oguri finished.
"What?" asked Aiba. "Why would he do that?"
"Because it's dangerous," said Jun. "Can you imagine? Being able to copy a person's mind, more or less, and transfer it into a cybernetic unit?" He turned to Oguri. "Saori got wind of it, didn't they?"
"That seems the case," said Oguri, nodding. "And it seems that the two of them made the independent decision to destroy all the evidence, which included wiping their own memories. When I arrived at their lab Satoshi-kun had already gone missing, and most of the documentation had been destroyed along with all their systems."
"But you covered for them, didn't you?" asked Jun. "That's why you sent him to Aomori."
"Exactly," said Oguri. "I've been searching for Satoshi-kun ever since, but it was only when Nishikido mentioned that incident with the drugs that it finally occured to me that Nino might be functioning as well."
Ohno was sitting completely motionlessly in his chair, looking visibly distressed. The others, too, appeared as stunned by this information as Jun felt.
"What will you do now?" asked Nino, finally. "What do I need to do?"
Oguri turned to Nino, regarding him gravely. "If Satoshi-kun truly cannot remember, that makes you the last piece remaining piece of evidence."
"We've been lucky so far," said Ikuta, "mainly because it's so difficult to detect that you're a cybernetic unit."
"If Saori Corporation finds you," Oguri told him, "everything will be compromised."
They were passing the trees again, Jun knew, but they were difficult to see now that the sun had set. When he climbed up the rusty ladder to the viewing deck, though, he found Nino already seated there, looking out of the dusty window and into the quiet darkness.
Nino could be open one moment and prickly the next; he was just as likely to say something honest as he was to callously push Jun aside. Ohno, perhaps, had mastered the art of reading Nino, but for Jun and the others, he still remained a mystery.
This didn't stop Jun from trying, however, especially in a moment like this, when there was something in Nino's expression that might be described as vulnerability, when there was no one else but the two of them that evening, sitting side by side on the viewing deck. There was no one to say who was real and who was not, who was alive and who was merely an amagamation of metal and synthetic tissue, a walking illusion.
When Jun took Nino's hand in his Nino stiffened for a moment.
"They're like hamburgers," he muttered, wriggling his fingers and causing Jun to let go.
"If you don't want people to notice you should stop mentioning it," snapped Jun.
"It's fine for you to say, your hands are nice," Nino retorted, pausing on the last word like it pained him to say it.
"Why, thank you."
"Oh, shut up," said Nino, but he was shifting, leaning into Jun such that Jun could easily put an arm around him, resting his head on Jun's shoulder with a weary sigh.
"Well, this is unexpected," said Jun.
Nino didn't reply, but Jun imagined he was rolling his eyes.
"What am I?" asked Nino after a long moment, his voice barely audible.
"Nino," Jun repeated. He let his arm rest heavily on Nino's narrow shoulders, and wondered if Nino could feel the way his heart was racing in his chest.
They reached Tokyo's Bridges at dawn, passing through the last checkpoint with sunlight creeping into the ship's windows.
Nino had already made his decision.
"I don't suppose it would hurt," he said, while nibbling at a rice cracker from an odd packet he had discovered in Ohno's trouser pocket. "Disassembly."
Aiba was crying but Jun refused to look; Sho, too, appeared stricken. Ohno was gripping Nino's hand like he didn't know what to think.
"You're very brave," said Oguri.
"Call of duty," Nino replied, attempting a lopsided grin. For a moment he looked utterly lost, but that desolation vanished almost immediately from his face.
When it came to Jun's turn to say goodbye he found he couldn't say anything. Instead he stood there, fingers twisted in the front of Nino's shirt (which had been Jun's before), trying his hardest to memorise the lines of Nino's face; those startling eyes, that irrepressible mischief in his grin.
"Little bastard," Jun whispered.
"I'll take that as a compliment," said Nino.
There were, broadly speaking, three general steps to disassembling a cybernetic unit. Jun was familiar with all of them, having honed his craft on countless Saori units over the span of his career.
The first step, after manually shutting down the unit or completely draining the power in the case of units with no visible switches, involved making incisions in the synthetic tissue. With Saori models this could be done relatively easily, and the cleaner and more precise the cuts, the easier it was to carry out the second step - disconnecting the individual joints.
Jun had been taught to start from the head, because it was easier to put that aside and work on the rest of the body without having the unit's eyes staring up blankly at you. Whole, undamaged limbs were highly valued, and prising apart metal joint from socket could be considered an art form.
The last step was removing the processor. This could be done fairly easily with most Saori models, where the processors were located around the shoulder region. Some processors fetched decent prices on the markets; those were wiped of their memory and retained. Others, the less well-made ones, would be discarded.
Nino had two processors; one located in his head and another in his chest, in a feeble imitation of human organs. His synthetic tissue would bruise and bleed as it was severed, and his unique skeleton would interface with no other unit after it was taken apart.
All of him would be destroyed, Oguri told them.
They didn't let Ohno take Nino apart, couldn't allow him to destroy the masterpiece he couldn't remember. Instead, the disassembly was carried out by an engineer at the Police Department who was never introduced by name, with Toma and Oguri as official witnesses.
The rest of them sat in Nishikido's ship with the window shades drawn down, silent while around them the city awoke in a rumbling, insulated rage. Nobody spoke. They waited.
There was a beep on the comlink. Nishikido pressed the button.
The ship juddered to a groaning start as it lifted off from the berthing grid.
"Where are we going?" asked Aiba.
"Aomori," Jun replied.
"We just came from Aomori," said Sho.
"We did leave a ship behind, though," Ohno pointed out.
"So," said Nishikido, who Jun had somehow bullied into ferrying them back, "business as usual, then?"
"No," said Jun, because Nino was one more thing they had to hide and destroy before it could be taken and used for terrible ends, one more thing - one last thing - Saori had wrenched from them. "We have farms to save, for a start."
Aiba's smile, at those words, could have lit a room.
A woman answers the door on the third knock, eyeing Jun from behind the metal grill of the gate.
"I'm Matsumoto; we spoke earlier?" says Jun.
"Yes." She doesn't smile.
"If this is a bad time I can always come again later-"
"Wait here," interrupts the woman. She disappears into the house for a while, and emerges from the shadows with the key to the padlock. "Come in."
It is a cheap unit, hastily built and issued by Saori Corporation like so much penance without remorse. The apartment smells of metal, metal and sweat and cold dinners. Its floor and walls shudder every now and then, echoes from a nearby generator.
He is given a glass. "Drink."
"Thank you," Jun says. He sits down on the couch and sipps his water patiently, even though he knows that the others are still waiting back in the ship.
The woman is standing by a beige door in the far corner of the apartment, listening intently. After an eternity, she knocks softly, twice. There is no discernible response, but at some unknown signal she opens it just a crack and peers in.
"Kazu, there's someone here to see you."
Back to Part 1