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Origin of Symmetry

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Girl, you know that I hate to lie to you
I’m afraid that it’s the one thing that I must do
’Cause secret identities are for the safety of you and me

How I Became the Bomb, “Secret Identity”

 

 

 

 

Mai taps two fingers on the side of her glass. Ryou nods, a slight dip of the chin; they’re being watched. It’s just a little bit cold where he’s sitting—cold on his face and neck and back, and his palms are slick. He keeps both hands very flat and still on the table.

 

“Windows to your left,” Mai says through a tight-lipped smile, “door twelve o’clock. Take your pick.”

 

“Door,” Ryou says. He forces himself to laugh, like she’s just said something incredibly funny. Valon is actually laughing; Valon thinks this is hilarious.

 

“Door,” Ryou repeats—

 

 

 

 

door. Ryou flails to his feet, jerks around—too slow, much too slow, Mai will think he’s gotten soft—

 

Blonde woman in a dirty lab-coat, pink jumper and jeans, short hair, surprised black eyes, clipboard, hand not yet uncurled from the knob. The nails are short and unvarnished:  definitely not Mai.

 

“Hello,” Ryou says lamely, sinking back down. She nods at him and steps on.

 

Valon awake was loud and boisterous, all smiles until someone pissed him off. Their first handshake was Ryou’s first handshake in years:  the smell of leather and oil threading through the cold and a warm strong hand finding his in the twilight, tugging him too close and squeezing until he feels awkward—the face is in shadow but in the outline of it he sees a flash of teeth and eyes—Pleasure. Can’t say I’ve heard much about you, but any friend of Mai’s is a friend of mine, how do you do? Mai, laughing, a sweet-smelling presence at his back:  Let go, Val, he’s gonna clock you.

 

He remembers the three of them working in silence, and he remembers Valon one night, setting aside a file, looking sidelong at Mai and never saying a word. But he doesn’t know how to deal with this Valon—Valon quiet and blank.

 

 

 

 

He sits there for hours, rubbing warmth back into his hands and knees and cheeks and kneading the burns to stay awake; Mai doesn’t show. The clinic grows quieter, cold and darkness bleeding in through the windows.

 

Ryou forces himself up before his legs get too stiff and walks back into the city-sphere, his shorts and singlet drawing stares, his teeth clicking and clacking. He enters the first bath house he sees, pays the full amount, looking down, away, unsmiling, desperate to leave the cold.

 

In a corner of the locker room, he fumbles at the laces of his boots with clumsy cold fingers and strips off his clothes and the sling. His torso flowers purple and green with bruises, and the skin of his legs is red, bubbling in some places and stretched taut in others. The water stings his calves, his lips, but old scars feel dead to the touch.

 

He brushes his teeth; he rubs his face and right shoulder with a cloth. He washes his hair and soaks in steaming water, listening to the grumblings of a pair of cereal merchants.

 

“—said they were booked through for the month. I don’t want to go back to the docks, I tell her I’ll live in a goddamn shoebox as long as it’s warm, I’ll pay a little extra—”

 

“What did she say to that?”

 

“She told me there wasn’t a micron of fuckin’ space left and then she shut the—”

 

 

 

 

“Door,” Ryou repeats. He can feel the blood beating in his kneecaps, in his wrists.

 

“Count of ten,” Mai says. “Nine...eight...”

 

Valon smiles.

 

Ryou very slowly and carefully leans back. His hands leave streaks of sweat on the table. On “two” he’s going to fall out of his chair, and on “one” he’s going to get a hand on his gun and roll and roll and get up shooting, and sometime between “zero” and never they are all going to get out the door and into a ship and far fucking away from this place.

 

Valon’s lips are stretched in a big, taut grin, and his face is bone white with—fury, Ryou realizes with a lurch.

 

Six, five...”

 

Four, Ryou thinks. Three.

 

“Fuck you, you motherfuckers!” Valon yells, opening fire, and actually kicks over his chair.

 

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Mai snaps, “that was completely fucking unnecessary,” and Ryou shoots at the next hand that moves, blows up a bottle of baijiu and puts a hole in the man holding it. Mai upends the table and she and Ryou duck down behind it. Valon dives left and vanishes behind the bar.

 

Ryou aims, shoots a man through the shoulder—keeps his head low. Hair in his eyes; he swipes it away.

 

 

 

 

“—figured I could stay with her for at least a few days, but she tells me she’s got a new girlfriend and doesn’t want any misunderstandings. Then I try Kenji’s and he says ‘Sorry, buddy, been full up for weeks,’ and then he tries to snow me with some bull—”

 

 

 

 

“Shit,” Mai says. “Valon. Hey. Valon. Oh Christ—”

 

 

 

 

He sinks down until the water scalds his lips.

 

“—have the magistrate by the balls.”

 

“The magistrate is an unscrupulous rat bastard. I bet they’re payin’ him off. He looks the other way and somebody out there lines his pockets with chips. Meanwhile it’s people like us, people on the ground, people trying to make a living, that’s who gets fucked over—”

 

 

 

 

He woke up in the cargo hold that morning with a big ringing bell in between his ears and his tongue filling his mouth like a dirty balled-up sock. He hasn’t been this hungover since Yuugi and Anzu’s engagement party—

 

Mai bending toward him—

 

 

 

 

’Night, Ryou says, fuzzy around the edges, warm at last, see you tomorrow, I know where to find you, smiles.

 

Fuck you, Mai says, fuck you, fuck Karita, and fuck the Brigadier too

 

 

 

 

Is he, Mai says. Is he, oh Jesus, oh Valon—

 

 

 

 

Ryou holds his breath, sinks lower. Closes his eyes.

 

 

 

 

He lingers in the coatroom and assembles a new set of clothes: two shirts from opposite sides of the room, which he shrugs on one after another over his singlet, a dockworker’s thick woolen gloves, someone else’s woolly green hat, and some unfortunate delivery boy’s hakama, too coarse to be comfortable. Finally:  a coat, blue and nondescript and worn at the elbows. On further inspection, it yields useful hidden pockets, some of which are filled with cash. Ryou adopts it gladly, shrugs it on like a cape. It settles on him, heavy, and transforms the freezing sprint back to the Minotaur into a brisk evening stroll.

 

Cocooned in darkness and warmth, bracing the wounded arm against his chest, he imagines Bakura—sharp teeth, a shock of red cloth—hiding among the junkies, biding his time.

 

They are both waiting:  Ryou for Bakura, and Bakura for—

 

Tinder, Ryou thinks grimly. Something to burn:  the coarse remnants of hair on Karita’s big balding head.

 

He doesn’t look at the black ships. He climbs into the Minotaur and shuts the hatch, and he sleeps. That’s the first day.

 

 

 

 

He buys breakfast from a stall by the docks—steamed rice cakes in a paper sheaf, round and white and tasteless—and eats it on the way to the clinic, tosses two pills down with it. He has painkillers for lunch. He waits until the curfew bell sounds at nine and the hallways of the clinic go dark. Mai doesn’t come.

 

She doesn’t come the third day, or the fourth.

 

“Friend of yours?” the blonde doctor asks, swooping in to help him tug the curtains shut.

 

Ryou thinks about it. He and Valon really don’t look alike at all.

 

“Yes,” he says, to Valon’s wasted arms. “Old friend.”

 

“Those yakuza pals of his,” the doctor continues, “I hope they aren’t friends of yours, too?”

 

Ukiyo contacts, maybe, though it doesn’t make sense that they’d be keeping tabs on Valon three years after they sold him out and saw him shot and cremated.

 

“Yakuza, really?” Ryou says, and opens his face:  wide eyes, wide mouth. Inwardly, he winces. If the doctor’s noticed him then someone else is bound to have connected some dots—someone much less savory—and he’s already been to the clinic three times too many.

 

“That’s right,” the doctor says. “I thought you might be acquainted, considering,” and she gestures at Ryou’s sling. “You have that looked at?”

 

“Yes, thanks,” Ryou says. By the royal physician of Baek, no less. “Accident on the docks. Slippery out there. Lucky—” he’s babbling now, but he can’t stop mid-sentence “—I didn’t break a leg, don’t you th—”

 

“They’re a nasty lot,” the doctor says. “Keep our beds here filled. Their striker’s the worst of them. Put a bullet between your eyes from miles away. So I’m told, anyway." She doesn’t look at him, lowers her voice. “On these docks there are never any accidents. Be careful, eh, sweetheart?”

 

 

 

 

He tries The Kunoichi, Restaurant and Bar next; Mai isn’t there, and Jean-Claude Magnum doesn’t ask questions, but he doesn’t answer any, either.

 

Walking back to the Minotaur, he passes a display of white dresses and two vampish red ones and feels punched in the gut with the memory—

 

Yuugi is getting married.

 

It feels ancient—news ten thousand light years past. He thinks about asking Mai for suggestions, straight-faced, deadpan:  I need guns and also a wedding present. He imagines bringing Mai to the wedding:  Ryou and alluring plus-one of mysterious origins. She’ll come in deep, skin-tight purple, make a toast like they’re all very old, very good friends; she’ll tell Honda the food’s great, tell Ryou to get her a drink, tell Yuugi she works in oh, this and that over a flute of cheap champagne or I’m in shipping, honey, ’s how I met Buster here. Anzu will ask her to dance and Jounouchi will fall madly in love—

 

Snap out of it, he thinks, focus, but can’t quite soothe the sharpness in his chest.

 

 

 

 

On the fifth day, Ryou leaves the sling in the cargo hold, ties his hair at the base of his neck, and goes for a walk. The smell of fermenting rice is thick and sour in the air. He looks at the ships from every possible angle, buys tall glass of hot, dark tea from another vendor, with which he swallows the last of his pills—“Rough night?” this one says, and Ryou smiles and shrugs one shoulder—and looks some more.

 

He’s gone an hour, maybe three. When he comes back there is a girl standing beside the Minotaur—a little wisp of a girl, in a yellow man’s shirt, dirty jeans and a bulky pink vest, with cinnamon-colored hair all down her back. She has her hands on the hull, slim fingers spread flat.

 

The first thing Ryou thinks is that he is completely fucked. The black ships fly out of his head; the Baek prison dissolves; he imagines a cold clean room where Ukiyo yakuza demand the name of his employer and break his fingers one by one.

 

He sidles closer. With any luck, she’s eight miles high and pumped full of hallucinogens, and a tap on the shoulder will be enough to—

 

“Hi,” he says. “Hi—hey." The girl doesn’t spook and she doesn’t reply, and everything sinks and tightens and goes cold between Ryou’s ribs as he realizes he may have to hurt her.

 

He bends until his mouth is level with her ear, and murmurs, “Something interesting?”

 

“Something interesting, hell!” the girl says, clear and sweet and utterly, dangerously sober. “Do you know what this is?”

 

“No,” Ryou lies. “What is it?”

 

She strokes the hull. “A Minokentaurus! KaibaCorp only released twenty last year, from their own factories, and only from Alpha Twelve and Thirteen—the propulsion subsystem is the most advanced in single-passenger civilian craft ever ever! You wouldn’t look at it twice, next to an Archer or St. Jeanne—I mean, it is pretty sleek—but the real beauty is in the propulsion. It’s still experimental so they’re phasing it in gradually...it’s a pity. It really is one of the best. I mean, if it were up to me—”

 

She turns, and Ryou meets her eyes, green-gray and strangely cloudy, and sees her pupils, small and black and sharp.

 

Everything stops.

 

“You don’t know?” the girl says slowly. “I thought this was your ship.”

 

“It is,” Ryou says, transfixed.

 

She smiles. Her smile is very pretty; she has a dimple in one cheek. “I thought so,” she says. “I thought I saw you get out, a few hours ago—”

 

He can’t look away from her, from her dirty, heart-shaped face and straggling red-brown hair. He flexes his good hand and looks at her until her smile becomes strained and nervous.

 

“So,” the girl says, fidgeting, “what do you say?”

 

Ryou blinks. “Sorry, what?”

 

She blushes beautifully pink. “I said, I knocked yesterday,” she says. “Couldn’t be sure you were still inside, but a lot of the merchants do it, and anyway there’s the blockade so you’re probably stuck here for—um, that is, I mean, I knocked yesterday and you weren’t in, so I thought I’d try again today." She bows. “Shizuka Kawai. Please treat me well.”

 

“Ryo—to,” Ryou croaks. He clears his throat. “Er. Hiroto. Honda Hiroto.”

 

“Honda-san." She beams at him. “Honda-san, can I ask you—do you need your ship looked at?”

 

In his peripheral vision, the docks start to move again; the noise of the shipyard rises to a roar in his ears.

 

“Looked at?” Ryou repeats.

 

Shizuka Kawai nods. “Uh-huh. Your ship may look fine on the outside, Honda-san, but there’s no telling what’s going on inside unless I crank it open and have a look. I promise you I’ll have it running smoother than it was when you bought it. We can talk about the money later. So...what do you say?”

 

No, thanks; thanks, no; sorry.

 

But he can say yes and make her happy; he can say yes and never see her again—

 

 

 

 

He wants to see her again—

 

 

 

 

—“Okay,” Ryou says. “Okay, sure.”

 

Yay!" Shizuka Kawai claps, delighted, and Ryou sees for the first time that her hands are dark with grease. She points at a curving line of buildings in the distance. “My shop’s by the warehouse at the far end, waaay over there; you can tether your ship in front. You’ll have to taxi low and close to the sphere—the Worms get nervous, otherwise, and when they get nervous, they get trigger-happy.”

 

“Okay,” Ryou says again.

 

“I’m there every day, seven to seven,” Shizuka says. “Come by any time. It was great meeting you, Honda-san.”

 

“Right,” Ryou stammers. “Yeah. Same here.”

 

She smiles at him and bows—Ryou jolts, bows back—and is gone by the time he straightens up.

 

 

 

 

Forty-eight hours pass. The circulated air in the sphere is now marginally less stale than air in the Minotaur, so Ryou assembles his files and takes them to the ruin of a much older warehouse overlooking the docks. Dock rats have long since stripped the place of all the metal and glass they could find and carry off; the wreckage is deserted. Ryou sets up shop on one of the larger dockside slabs of concrete. Mai has yet to make contact, but he isn’t going to ask around again; once is enough. Word will get to her eventually (creepy kid with white hair asking after you, Peahen), if she isn’t long gone and laughing at him, at Ryou and the Brigadier and the whole blighted venture, light years away on another colony.

 

Would she leave Valon behind? Ryou wonders. The thought rises unbidden and pathetic:  She left me, after all, and never looked back.

 

He thinks about spending every waking hour in the clinic. But there’s nothing to stop Mai from spiriting Valon away if she wants—and he’s drawn enough attention to himself already—

 

The mad recklessness of seven days ago has faded:  he’s going to need a small army to get inside the Wormdrake flagship, and for that, he needs Mai. But he doesn’t know how much longer he can afford to wait.

 

He’s still brooding when Shizuka Kawai appears in his peripheral vision, a pair of tattered sneakers and dirty jeans and the tips of thick black sausage-fingered gloves, startling him so badly he can’t stop the convulsive full-body twitch that follows. He closes the folder and waits until she’s in front of him and casting a vague shadow over his hands before he looks up. Over her shoulder, there’s a little merchant skipper tethered to the nearest bollard—and beyond it a sea of cargo ships—and the blue-black of the armada, indistinguishable from the blackness of space but for its gleaming red lights.

 

“Kawai-san,” Ryou says.

 

“Honda-san,” she says brightly, meeting his eyes. “Konbanwa.”

 

Muscles twitch in his legs. He sits up straighter.

 

“Fancy meeting you here,” she says. She hops onto the slab and draws her legs up under her. “Come here a lot?”

 

“Mm,” Ryou says, noncommittal. “Thought I’d spend some time outside.”

 

“And enjoy one of our famous Ukiyo sunsets?” she says, grinning. “I don’t see your ship parked outside my garage,” she adds. “I hope you weren’t lured away by someone else’s offer, Honda-san.”

 

“Sorry,” Ryou says. “I—it’s been busy, it’s been—I’ll bring it as soon as I can.”

 

“It’s fine,” she says, smiling at him. “You don’t have to—”

 

“I want to,” Ryou interrupts. “I will." And then, because he can’t leave well enough alone:  “As soon as I can,” he repeats. “I’ll bring it. I will. There’s something wrong with the engines,” he says, “so I’ll bring it in.”

 

“I’ll look forward to it, then,” Shizuka says, after a pause.

 

“What are you working on?” she asks.

 

“Contracts,” Ryou says, setting the files down and sliding them under his left boot. He counts to three and says, with what he hopes is an appropriate amount of curiosity, “What brings you here?”

 

“Oh—taking a walk,” she says. “To see the ships. This is one of my favorite spots, actually—great view, isn’t it? You can see everything from here. I mean, not everything everything. But most of the docks.”

 

Ryou knows. He’s been here before with Mai, running recon.

 

“There’s your Minokentaurus,” Shizuka says. “Just over there—that slice by the Yamata, that’s your ship. That Yamata has been here almost a month now.”

 

Almost a month. It’s been, unbelievably, four weeks since the clusterfuck on Baek. He’s been underground—literally underground—for most of that time. Bakura could be anywhere in the galaxy by now, Ryou thinks, rationally-speaking, but—Brigadier Ishtar seems to think so, and Ryou is sure of it—Bakura is here.

 

Ryou wonders if this is what people call a gut instinct—this sickening certainty, rising up to choke him. He’s here, and he’s had a three-week head start.

 

He’s frowning. He stops. “It’s quieter than I expected,” he says.

 

“Yeah,” Shizuka says. “It used to be a lot livelier, but now...well, no matter what everyone says, I think Worms are kind of cute—oh—when I say Worms I mean Wormdrakes, those boxy black ships out there. Everyone thinks they’re ugly, but you have to admit they’re pretty impressive in formation—but—yeah,” she says, leaning forward, talking faster, “there’s a problem with these Worms. Which is why I think the Alliance needs to upgrade—not that they’d ever listen to me, but Wormdrakes are ancient. They should have signed a contract with KaibaCorp yesterday! Can you imagine what a fleet of Minokentaurii could—” she’s turning pink “—oh, jeez, I’m sorry, I got carried away.”

 

“There’s a problem?” Ryou prompts.

 

“Well—not a problem, I guess,” Shizuka says, sheepish but warming to her topic again. “It’s just that Worms are slow—solid, but slow. They’ve built a space-wall with these, which is beautiful if you want to keep our cargo ships grounded. Cargo’s too big and slow to try to break out. But just think—if—let’s say hypothetically—a single-passenger lightcraft can make it around that wall, or through it, they aren’t going to be able to follow it for long. I guess they’re counting on firepower to make up for speed." She points. “They brought the big guns, see? Those are huge. You’d have to be crazy to try something."

 

Bakura, Ryou thinks, is crazy enough to try something. Ryou will just have to match him. And as long as Minotaur’s engine holds...

 

No:  even the Minotaur is too big to dart through any cracks that might exist; the Minotaur will make a big, beautiful, bright red target.

 

“Supposing everyone tried it at once?” Ryou suggests, hesitantly, because he’s a clueless civilian contractor who doesn’t know anything about frontal assaults on Wormdrakes in blockade formation—

 

He follows her gaze to the glowing red maw of the flagship.

 

“We-ell,” she says, doubtful. “I don’t know. You mean if every single ship in these docks just revved their engines and went for it? Maybe, but—no—these are merchant ships. They aren’t built for speed either, and none of them have the heavy artillery you need to match a Wormdrake. I think—you can’t break the Worm wall and you shouldn’t try to—what you need is something really fast. Something Fiend-class, maybe, with modified engines.”

 

“Like a Gremlin,” Ryou says, and bites his tongue—so much for the clueless civilian contractor.

 

“Like a Gremlin!” she agrees. “A Byser Shock could do it, too. You’d be gone before they could get a lock on you." She turns on him suddenly, dimpling, voice bright with approval. “You know your ships!”

 

“I,” Ryou says helplessly. “A little bit, I guess.”

 

“Have you piloted anything Fiend-class before?”

 

“Nnn,” Ryou says. “No. I’m a transporter. I—ehm. Cargo space. Is important.”

 

Smooth. He winces.

 

She’s going to ask him what he usually ships, and the only thing coming to mind is the Baekan’s little golden eye. A fresh burst of something like misery—

 

“There’s a stall closer to center-sphere,” Shizuka says instead. “The nasi lemak is delicious.”

 

“Yes,” Ryou says, staring at her, and then, sharply:  “What?”

 

She slips nimbly off the concrete slab and looks up at him; she’s gone faintly pink. “I was asking if you’d like to have dinner, Honda-san,” she says. “That is, if you don’t have somewhere else to be. I know a good place. You can put your contracts in here,” she adds, patting her satchel. “It’s clean, I promise.”

 

“Oh,” Ryou says. The color in Shizuka’s cheeks is deepening to red. The back of his neck feels hot. He fumbles for his files, fingers dragging on concrete.

 

“Right,” he says. “Lead the way.”

 

 

 

 

That week Shizuka buys her dinner from various vendors between 1800 and 2200 GMT and knocks on the hull of the Minotaur on her way. She takes Ryou to a different stall each time—“since you’ve never been,” she says. (“Am I getting the tour?” Ryou asks. “Highlights—the abridged tour!” Shizuka says.)  It suits Ryou entirely; the last thing he wants to become is a regular of any kind—although, he notes with regret, the congee seller remembers him vividly and broadcasts it in booming tones when they pass his cart:  “Well, you look much better today, duckie!”

 

Over tumblers of hot soy milk, Shizuka tells him about today’s mystery of the exploding gasket, gestures with her hands at her favorite parts and doubles over laughing twice. Ryou has had ample practice listening to Jounouchi’s dock stories and knows exactly when he should laugh, but he’s disturbed, hours later, when one of her punch-lines resurfaces in his thoughts and provokes a smile.

 

“Being a mechanic is kind of like traveling, I think,” Shizuka says. “You meet all kinds of people. ’S how I met my roommate.

 

“You must have friends on the other side of the galaxy,” she says.

 

“Coworkers,” Ryou says, which is true enough.

 

The third night, sharing a plate of idlis, she asks him about his favorite delivery, and he tells her about the vast cityscape of an alpha cylinder, about the unbelievable quality of the starlight through clean glass panels, about the rooftop gardens with their curling vines, about the sweetness of strange flowers and red petals soft between his fingers like velvet. It’s pure fantasy, an amalgam of Gamma Seven and Alpha Sixteen and a painting he saw hanging in an alpha art gallery, years ago:  flowers bursting like supernovas in a green field.

 

Yuugi and company took it in with smiles and sighs; Shizuka looks blank and maintains a polite silence. It makes him nervous; he finishes the story without further embellishment and swallows down the rest of his drink. He supposes he might have been laying it on a bit thick and blames the pijiu, which is warm and foul and went to his head in minutes.

 

“You’re going to think this is weird,” Shizuka says, reading something from his face, “but I’ve never really liked flowers. Or the idea of—well—oh, god, you’ll think I’m crazy, but I’ve never really cared about Earth either.”

 

Ryou thinks that anyone else would have exclaimed. He waits.

 

Shizuka’s smile is wistful. “I like concrete,” she says, and the way she speaks makes Ryou think the pijiu has gone to her head, too, “and titanium and gears and cogs and screws. I like rewiring circuits, and I like the sound wires make when I cut them—snip! I like putting my hands into engines that are still just a little bit warm. I bought my first laser-saw when I was fourteen, and the sound of it turning on was one of the best sounds I’ve ever heard, and that red line of light is the only color I remember." She pours them another round. “I like Ukiyo. I like the way the panels creak and grind and squeal; I fall asleep listening to the whirring of the core. I dream about machines, Honda-kun, not flowers—kanpai.”

 

 

 

 

On the tenth day, Ryou goes to a nicer bathhouse and borrows a nicer pair of pants to replace the hakama:  the lower half of a dark blue tracksuit. When he returns to the docks at dusk, hurrying so he won’t miss Shizuka, he finds Mai waiting in front of the Minotaur with her hands jammed in her pockets.

 

“Jesus, where have you been?” she shouts. “Took you long enough, Inoue—it’s fucking freezing!"

 

“Mai,” Ryou says, blank.

 

“Nice coat!” she shouts.

 

Mai’s jacket is deep plum purple, slick leather, and very tight across her chest. No thigh holster this time:  if she’s carrying today, the gun is extremely well-hidden. Her hair is loose and tumbling around her shoulders; the Minotaur is glossy and red behind her. She looks like a page out of Classic Starships.

 

She pushes off the side of the Minotaur as Ryou comes closer. “Where’d you go?” she says again, breathing on her fingertips. “Fuck, it’s cold today.”

 

Ryou finds his voice again. “How did you—”

 

The baijiu.

 

“Nice ship, too,” Mai says, patting the hull. “Bet it flies smooth.”

 

“You followed me,” Ryou says. “The first night. You—”

 

“Well,” Mai says, “something like that." She smiles, all teeth. “Now we both know where to find each other—isn’t that nice?”

 

Ryou glances at the Minotaur over her shoulder. He won’t know she’s been inside until she tells him.

 

“Hungry?” Mai says, ruthless. “I want to introduce you to a friend of mine.”

 

 

 

 

They take a shortcut through the entertainment district and end up in a night market that bridges the whorehouses and center-sphere. Lanterns are strung up along both sides of the street, casting dim orange circles of light over the little shops and colorful outdoor clusters of plastic chairs and tables. Groups of men and women in heavy coats are eating and drinking and laughing. The air is smoky; steam rises from the pots of open-air stands. Overhead in the distance, three glowing high rises of intricate design unfurl into the gray dusk.

 

Mai laughs at him. “Sorry, kiddo,” she says. “Woulda come back sooner to see the look on your face, but I had business.”

 

Ryou looks at his feet, at the scuffed toes of his boots, and presses his tongue against the back of his teeth. Still laughing, Mai leads him to Baba-Nyonya, where a girl with messy cinnamon-colored hair is sitting outside at a blue plastic table, sipping barley water.

 

She looks up and around and smiles at him, and waves, and Ryou feels his mouth twitching and just barely manages to avoid waving back. He’ll say hello just as soon as Mai isn’t looking.

 

“Kujaku-san!” Shizuka calls. “Over here!”

 

Ryou’s stomach plunges very unpleasantly toward his feet.

 

“Hi, kiddo,” Mai says, with a flutter of her hand. “Sorry I’m late.”

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Shizuka says. “I just ordered—nasi goreng for all three of us, is that okay?”

 

“Sounds delicious,” Mai says.

 

The smile Shizuka gives him is wide with delight. “Hi,” she says.

 

Nausea bubbles up.

 

“Here’s the friend I was telling you about,” Mai says. “Inoue, say hello to the best mechanic in Cloud East. Shizuka, this is Inoue Ryou—old friend from the squad.”

 

For about a tenth of a second, Ryou thinks about lying. Maybe Mai will go along with it. Maybe Mai will ask him what the hell he’s doing and blow out his kneecaps—maybe Mai’s had this planned all along, so she can watch him hang himself with the threads of his own lies.

 

Mai elbows him none too gently in the side.

 

“Ryou,” Ryou says. He tries to smile. “Inoue Ryou. Nice to meet you.”

 

“Shizuka Kawai,” Shizuka says, after a beat. That dimple again. “Nice to meet you.”

 

 

 

 

Ryou’s first suit weighs three tons; it squeals and shudders and has a padded cockpit for the lurches and tumbles; it is beaten and dented and scratched and seats as many as fifteen cadets a day. It is one of the older models, of a line recently extinct:  the unfortunate and much derided Käfer, “Maneater” in certain circles, for its general inclination toward to system failure and meltdown at critical moments. By the time Ryou sees his first firefight, the Maneaters have been phased out; he buckles himself into a gleaming new Uraby, and on another occasion jams himself into the seat of a half-smashed Battle Ox, nudging a dead pilot’s hands from the controls.

 

In a wing of mostly Oxen, Urabies, and the occasional Megami suit, Mai’s Harpy Lady becomes legendary overnight. The suits arrive from KaibaCorp plants in grey and brown and camouflage black, but some pilots embellish, streaking color across titanium, spray-painting symbols, gluing decals, stenciling numbers, letters, names, profanity. To many the suit becomes an extension of the body, a new pair of arms or legs in need of some kind of personal touch or at the very least another stripe of war paint; to Ryou, the suit is an exoskeleton for the pale fleshy body within, and he cannot see the logic of stamping targets onto his armor.

 

But Mai’s customizations are marvelous and ostentatious:  a gunmetal blue paint job, the samurai helmet with its brilliant red mane, the yellow diamantine sabatons and gauntlets with talons strong enough to pierce titanium, the rattling armor skirt of individual spearpoint pieces, the sharp purple greaves, the flaring ailettes and their matched set of wing decals. And that Harpy scream—!

 

 

 

Ryou thinks this can’t possibly be the same suit of cadet legend, this puppet lying gutted and dismembered across the concrete floor of the garage. But there is the famous red mane matted and tangled, the same gunmetal blue chipped and tarnished, the ailettes snapped, the greaves severed and laid out beside the body of the suit.

 

“Uh-huh,” Mai sighs. “Sad, isn’t it? We’ve been gutting it for parts since—oh, I don’t know. Hello, my Harpy.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Ryou says.

 

“Yeah, well.”

 

Mai looks tired. Ryou watches as she scrubs a hand over her eyes, smearing mascara, and wonders where she’s been.

 

Shizuka’s repaired radio stops playing bubblegum pop and blares some kind of trumpet salute. “Later on in the hour, our very own Zygor’s gonna clue you in on some of his favorite recipes for fry-ups, cocktails, mocktails, puddings, and more! It’ll give you an idea of what to do with all this goddamn rice. But first the news.

 

Outside, Shizuka has stopped walking circles around the Minotaur and is inside examining the engines—

 

 

 

 

“Oh my god,” Shizuka says, stopping dead. “Oh my god! That’s your ship?”

 

“Yes,” Ryou says, after a moment’s hesitation, surprised.

 

“Do you know what this is?” Shizuka says, as they reach her. “A Minokentaurus! KaibaCorp only released twenty of these last year—how did you get your hands on this? Fantastic,” she murmurs, and reaches out to stroke the blistered red shell.

 

“Like your surprise?” Mai says. Ryou glances at her:  she’s smiling.

 

“I love it,” Shizuka says. “Kujaku-san! Why didn’t you say?”

 

“And ruin the big reveal?” Mai says. “So, think you can fix it?”

 

“Oh, definitely,” Shizuka says, patting the hull. “Let me guess,” she says, looking at Ryou, and he can’t stop himself from shifting uneasily backward, “engine troubles?”

 

 

 

 

They’ve all been lying through their teeth, Shizuka best of all. He’s grateful for it, in a way, but it gives him pause:  something not quite right. Ryou reassesses. He’s seen Mai shooting to kill and Shizuka pink-cheeked and grinning over a new set of screwdrivers, about as vicious as a china doll, so how is it harmless Shizuka and deadly Mai ended up eating plates of fried rice together in companionable silence under orange lanterns—?

 

Unless Mai’s weak to dimpling smiles and sweet cinnamon hair—just like he is

 

Unless Shizuka is just as deadly.

 

“Listen, about the guns,” Mai says, low, “I talked to some people. They’ll do it—for a favor.”

 

“What kind of favor?” Ryou says.

 

“I’ll let you know."

 

“I have limits, Mai,” Ryou says, and then winces. It sounds pompous—a preposterous attempt to threaten.

 

 

 

 

“Well, Mr. Inoue—”

 

Mai grins as he tenses and turns.

 

Shizuka is wiping her hands on a greasecloth. “I don’t know what you did,” she says, clipped and unhappy. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

 

“Can you—?” he says.

 

She swipes the cloth over her knuckles, fingernails, wrists. “Yes,” she says finally. “In all seriousness, Inoue-san, we’re looking at multiple part replacements. It’s going to cost you.”

 

“I can pay,” Ryou says.

 

She looks at him, sizes him up—

 

“Eight thousand,” she says, flatly, and Mai makes a sound like she’s choking.

 

“Okay,” Ryou says.

 

“Jesus Christ,” Mai says, under her breath.

 

The radio breaks the silence. “—nine-oh-five and all’s reasonably well—”

 

“Damn,” Mai mutters, stepping back. “Gotta go. Later, kids—have fun and don’t stay up too late."

 

She spins around at the warehouse doors, the gray-black sky huge behind her:  “Dockside, same time, forty-eight hours, Inoue. Bring your shopping list.”

 

She’s gone. Ryou breathes in and out.

 

—moves into its eighth week,” the radio bubbles. “We’re all on the edge of our seats about this, Bonz included! Whatever happens, ’s gonna be a real riot—

 

Shizuka turns the radio off with a click.

 

“You could buy a new ship with that money,” she says, just as flatly as before. “Forget the eight thou. I’ll do it for two.”

 

“Kawai-san,” Ryou says.

 

He stops at the sudden glint in her eyes.

 

“So,” she says—

 

 

 

 

“So,” Shizuka says, with cheerful unconcern, “Kujaku-san says you have a job for me.”

 

Ryou feels small and cold and sick. “I need,” he begins. “My ship. I—”

 

A laughing couple jostle their table, trying to squeeze by. Shizuka stands up and pulls in her chair to make room.

 

“What’s the matter?” Mai murmurs. She’s enjoying this. “Don’t tell me you don’t know how to talk to pretty girls—”

 

 

 

 

“What’s your real name?”

 

Ryou estimates he’s been through twenty interrogations in his short career; he could go through another hundred, he thinks, and they would never be anything like this one. He swallows. “Kawai-san, I’m sorry.”

 

“That’s a weird name. I think I liked Hiroto better.”

 

“It really is Ryou,” Ryou says. “Inoue Ryou. I’m sorry. I didn’t think—I didn’t know—”

 

“Mm,” Shizuka says, and Ryou shuts up. “Okay, then, Inoue Ryou-kun, I have a few more questions. Are you really an old friend from the squad?”

 

“Sort of,” Ryou says. “We were on the same side and—and everything.”

 

“And you really transport things?”

 

“Yes." He closes his eyes. “Sometimes.”

 

“Why are you here?”

 

“There’s—something I need to pick up,” Ryou says. Someone.

 

“Does Kujaku-san know about it?”

 

Probably, Ryou thinks. He meets her gaze and holds it. “Yes.”

 

Shizuka sighs. “Last question. Do you have a place to stay?”

 

“I,” Ryou says. “My ship—”

 

“No,” Shizuka says. “I mean a room.”

 

“I—I’ll find a place." He’s seen at least two twenty-four hour bathhouses in center-sphere. They’re full up, but there’s always room for one more. In the worst case, he’ll go to the clinic, where the bars on the windows are loose and the night guard is lazy—

 

“Don’t bother,” Shizuka says. “There isn’t a vacant room on this sphere. There probably won’t be for—umph—weeks!" She tosses the radio into her satchel and heaves a toolkit after it. “I have a spare bedroll at my place, though.”

 

“You’re—”

 

“Telling you to sleep over,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, Ryou-kun. I just want you where I can keep an eye on you.”

 

“What,” he says feebly. “What about your roommate?”

 

Shizuka frowns at him. “Why would she care?”

 

“I could—I could be a psycho killer,” he says.

 

“So could I,” Shizuka says. “This is Ukiyo, in case you hadn’t noticed." She swings the satchel up over one shoulder. “Coming? Can you get that bag?”

 

“Kawai-san,” Ryou says, “thank you.”

 

She waves him off. “Don’t worry about it, Ryou Hiroto Honda Sorry.”