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I Walked in a Desert

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Ajins of Japan.  I am Eriko Nagai.  This is your call to arms.

There was no one like Satou.  There never had been…ajins hadn’t existed (openly?) long enough for that to be the case.  And there never would be again.  Either Satou would, like any brat who got their way, destroy everything and leave no opportunity for the challenger he nevertheless so desperately wanted to ever come into existence, or, alternatively, humanity would manage to triumph, which would require the assistance of the ajin community, which would mean a formation of the ajin community, which would prevent someone like Satou from ever existing again.

Peerless, and without parallel.  And yet, Ikuya had met many who were just like Satou, if lacking the immortality.  Honestly, they bored him.

The streets of Tokyo spread out before him like the neural network of an LSD addict; bright colors and streams of light and jitters and a tangled web of contradictory emotions that he very carefully probed while keeping himself at arm’s length.  There was someone he was looking for.  If he was lucky and paid attention, he would be able to figure out where they would go next.

All around him, Ikuya caught snippets of conversations about Satou, which, he thought with an eyeroll, was exactly what the narcistic bastard would want.  It made it harder to filter through the noise for the information that he wanted, but at the same time it made his unwitting informants much bolder and more likely to let slip better information.  Tonight, the underworld would be moving.

The mistake that everyone was making, Eriko Nagai included, was assuming that Satou was only working directly through himself and his band of terrorists.  Sure, those were the A-listers.  But Satou was a mess of contradictions, and while he was eager for a fight and was practically dying for something that could challenge him, he was absolutely not interested at all in resistance.  This was made abundantly clear by the sharp rise in the number of missing-person cases since Satou had first gone public.  Eriko Nagai had called for the ajins of Japan to join her and fight against Satou, but Satou was making them disappear.

No one was doing anything about it.  There was no ajin community to notice it happening.  Law enforcement would have no way of knowing to connect the disparate cases, much less a course of action to follow for rescuing ajins if they did know the connection.  No one seemed to have noticed what was happening.

Except for, perhaps, one person.

Before long, Ikuya found who he was looking for, and followed from a distance, careful to avoid attracting the attention of the other people following his target.  His target, for his part, was someone who had absolutely no business being alone in the city this time of night.  If he was much older than eleven or twelve, than Ikuya was a middle-aged Swedish woman.  He still had chubby babyfat cheeks, for God’s sake, where the fuck were his parents?

More people were awakened ajins than they realized.  Children especially were prone to getting into dangerous situations just while they were out playing, and would shrug off a recovery from what an adult would recognize as a fatal head injury from a fall without thinking twice about it.  There were signs though; something in the eyes, something in the way the air tasted around them.  Something that made Ikuya feel safe, but also very sad.

He could intervene now.  He could get a little bit closer and whisk the boy away into a better-lit area where he wouldn’t be worth pursuing.  Spare him the fear.  Ikuya worried his lip.  But they would come again for the boy, and better for him to learn his lesson when there was at least a witness.  This way, even if Ikuya was wrong, the boy still had a chance to escape.

The same street vendor had been at four of the past six corners.  The same cab driver had been at three of them.  The boy was definitely being followed.  How would they get him away from the main road?  Brute force?  Lure him with candy?

“Oh honey, are you lost?” a sweet voice asked.

“No, just late,” the boy replied.

The voice in question came from a girl in a high school uniform, who Ikuya had a feeling was older than she looked.  “Well, all the more reason for me to walk you home.  I’ve seen you around before, we’re neighbors!  Come with me, I know a shortcut.  Your parents are probably worried.”

A loud truck driving by prevented Ikuya from hearing the rest of their conversation, but after a moment he saw the boy take the girl’s hand and let himself be lead off the main road and into an alley.  Frantically weighing costs and benefits, Ikuya counted to twenty before rushing after them, peering around the corner into the alley as he saw the boy cornered by the girl and two men.  “Scream and we’ll kill ya,” one of the men said, spinning a knife dangerously, “get in the van.”

The boy whimpered.  Ikuya’s hands were shaking.  He shoved them in his pockets.

As the men drew closer, the boy sank to the ground and curled up in a ball.  Ikuya felt the gun under his jacket.  The boy was an ajin, but the adults were not.  He glanced skyward.  If they touched the boy, Ikuya would shoot.

“Quit fucking around, Satoshi,” the other man growled, “just kill him and bag him while he resets.”

Just as Ikuya tightened his grip on the gun, the sound of a faint pop made everyone jump, and whirl around hunting for its source.  The girl noticed it first, crying out and pointing to a nearby fire escape.  There, perched about ten feet above them, was a boy.  Had he been there before?

As they gaped at him, the boy chewed what must have been gum, before blowing another bubble.  It popped.  As he watched them with hooded eyes, the air crackled in the alley.  This boy was an ajin too.  Ikuya couldn’t tell if he’d been spotted yet.

“This is official business and doesn’t concern you,” the girl sneered, “you wanna die?”

“I’d rather not,” the boy admitted, plucking the wad of gum out of his mouth and dropping it on the girl’s head.

Immediately all hell broke loose.  Or so Ikuya presumed, from the noises.  He couldn’t actually see anything.  The narrow alley was filled with a roiling mass of IBM and would-be kidnappers.  Crunch.  One of the men screamed.  The little boy was crying.  The other man yelled.  The girl didn’t make a sound.

Suddenly the alley went still, the three criminals panting and dripping sweat.  One of the men was on his knees, clutching his leg.  The girl coughed, wiping blood away from her mouth and pressing the other hand into her ribs.  The older ajin stood nonchalantly in front of them, holding a baseball bat over his shoulder.  His IBM reared up behind him, wings curled protectively around the little boy.  Ikuya’s hands itched for his lab notebook, but alas.

The older ajin narrowed his eyes, glancing meaningfully back toward the main road.  “Show’s over,” he said, popping a piece of gum into his mouth.  His IBM loomed over them.

The three kidnappers ran, one of the men dragging his leg behind him.

The boy was shivering.  Without a pause, the older ajin crouched beside him, murmuring soft words that Ikuya couldn’t hear.  The IBM vanished.  Ikuya itched to get closer but something kept him from closing the distance.  Slowly, the boy stopped crying, and pulled out his phone.  Ah, good idea, having him call his parents.  Ikuya glanced back toward the street.  There were several shops that would be safe places for the boy to wait.

Slim fingers whisper-light on his throat.  “Don’t move.”

Ikuya froze.  He’d never heard an ajin Voice speak so quietly.

He watched, unable to move, as the older ajin led the little boy into a shop.  He’d had some experience with Voices before, so the paralysis wore off sooner than the ajin probably expected it would.  Seeing no point in not being comfortable, he walked into the alley and sat on the ground, lighting a cigarette and waiting.  After a moment’s thought, he took out his gun and laid it on the ground in front of him.

Before long, the ajin came back.  To his credit, he didn’t even seem surprised that Ikuya had moved.  Hell, for all Ikuya knew, the kid wasn’t.  “Want a smoke?” Ikuya asked, offering his box.  There weren’t many left.

“Nah,” the ajin said, pulling a piece of gum out and popping it in his mouth, “I quit.”

Ikuya shrugged.  For a moment they said nothing.  The ajin chewed.  Ikuya blew out a cloud of smoke.  “So,” the ajin said, “Do you work for Satou too?”

Ikuya tapped the ashes.  “I suppose I technically worked for the government at one point, but presently I’m unemployed.  Call me a concerned citizen.”

“You shouldn’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.  You’ll just get yourself killed.”

Ikuya nodded at the gun in front of him.  “Obviously I’m not afraid of you.”

“That’s not my problem,” the ajin said, swinging his baseball bat idly.

Ikuya grinned.  “Don’t try to act too tough with me.  Your reputation precedes you, Angel of Tokyo.”

The ajin blew a bubble and popped it, rolling his eyes.  “Please call me Kotobuki,” he groaned.

Ikuya laughed.  “Then you can call me Ogura,” he said, “I’m not your enemy, Kotobuki.  I’m just a scientist, and not the kind you think, though it’s true that I study ajins, no sense hiding that from you.”

Kotobuki’s eyes were hooded like a snake’s.  “Why are you here?” he demanded, black particles swarming in the air around him.

Now this was odd.  Ikuya knew what an ajin’s bloodlust felt like quite well.  The flavor differed slightly, of course, but it always had that same bite to it.  But if bloodlust was spicy, then this was…sweet.  Ikuya had had his suspicions from what he’d heard about the Angel, but to have it right in front of him like this was something else altogether.

“How do you do it?” Ikuya asked as the ajin’s IBM materialized before him, “I shouldn’t be able to see your IBM unless you want to kill.  But you don’t, and you didn’t earlier, did you?”

Kotobuki narrowed his eyes, and for a split second Ikuya saw Kei Nagai in front of him, watching him with narrow eyes while his IBM loomed before him.  They probably had some superficial similarities, like a levelheaded intelligence and a hesitance to form attachments.  And an unwillingess to risk their lives.  But Kei Nagai had always felt at best like a mercenary in their ranks, even moreso than the real mercenaries.  He had no dedication to whatever they called their cause, and would jump ship the moment it became inconvenient to stay.

Maybe that Nakano kid would be able to get Nagai more invested in the fate of the world, but to Ikuya at least he was a lost cause.  But something fundamental about Kotobuki’s bearing was different, Ikuya observed, tasting IBM on his tongue as Kotobuki’s IBM crooned static.  If Nagai was a mercenary, then Kotobuki was a knight.

“You’re the scientist, you tell me.”

Ikuya took a drag from his cigarette.  Kotobuki blew another bubble.  Pop.  The IBM was blocking the way out of the alley.  Good, Kotobuki probably wasn’t going to bolt.

“I wasn’t born Ogura, you know,” Ikuya began, grinning when he noticed Kotobuki’s eyes widen for a beat.  It was always nice to surprise someone.  “I was born Yukimura.  Ogura is my wife’s family name.”

Kotobuki shrugged.  “Never heard of her.”

“That’s fair,” Ikuya acquiesced, “I don’t think your circles would overlap.  But in my circle, Dr. Dipali Ogura is a renowned radiochemist.  Dipali’s not a Japanese name, by the way,” he added, gesturing with his cigarette, “it’s Indian.”

“And?”

“I had no real family to speak of,” Ikuya said, “Maybe you can relate.  Dipali changed that.  She made me part of her family.  That’s why I took her name.”

He ground out the cigarette and got up, hesitantly walking toward Kotobuki’s IBM.  After cautiously running his hands over its wings, he stretched one wing out, comparing the structure to that of real birds.  “We were visiting her family when it happened,” he said absently, his hands not pausing in their work, “Everything happened so fast.  We were just walking on the sidewalk with a few of her cousins when suddenly a car drove onto the sidewalk.  She’d run ahead to say hello to an old friend.  If she hadn’t, maybe things would have ended differently.”

“What does your dead wife have to do with me?” Kotobuki asked stiffly, fiddling with his baseball bat.

“She’s not dead, and she has everything to do with you,” Ikuya said lightly, running his fingers along the IBM’s feathers and marveling at their softness, “such a pretty thing,” he crooned.  “Ajins are venerated in India, you know.  They were wheeling her corpse away on a stretcher when she suddenly woke up.  Instead of taking her to the morgue they took her to a temple, and wouldn’t let me get anywhere near her.  Your IBM has remained solid for a very long time.  I wonder if the reason it’s always visible also makes it more durable…”

“She got a better end than any ajin in Japan would have.”

“Perhaps, but it doesn’t have to be the end, now does it?” Ikuya asked, looking at Kotobuki critically.  Kotobuki had a hard time meeting his eyes.  “The day I got back to Japan, I started smoking and wrote a grant proposal for ajin study.  It was the only way I knew how to fight.”

Kotobuki backed away, raising his bat defensively.  “Did Eriko Nagai send you?” he asked dangerously, his knuckles white against the grip of the bat.

 “Nah, but we’re singing the same song.  You seen her recruitment video?  You should join up, I’ll bet she could use someone like you.”

“I have promises to keep.  I have no intention of being a soldier.”

“You draw an awful lot of attention to yourself.  You sure you wouldn’t be safer in a pack?”

Kotobuki raised an eyebrow.  “Same could be said for you.”

“I’m no threat to Satou, I’m just another soft and squishy human.  Probably.  I’m not cut out for fighting on his turf.”

“And you think I am?  Is that why you came here?  What made you think you could talk me into fighting?”

Ikuya scratched his head and looked up at the sky.  “Honestly, desperation more than anything else.  I feel like the end is almost here.  Satou’s up to something.  Why else would he broadcast to all the world that he’s kidnapped one boring human?”

Kotobuki flinched.  Ikuya narrowed his eyes.  “I don’t suppose you know him, do you?” he asked lightly.

Kotobuki didn’t say anything, but he did lower the bat.  Ikuya felt something fond fill some dusty corner of his heart.  “I guess another part of it was curiosity.  What kind of person would become a vigilante to save people that are obviously being targeted by Satou?  Maybe they could be convinced to take a more active role.”

Kotobuki turned away.  “Well, you were wrong.”

“I don’t think so.”

Kotobuki hunched his shoulders.  “And I’m sure you’re going to tell me why.”

Unthinkingly, Ikuya reached out and ruffled Kotobuki’s hair.  “Just a hunch, but it’s because you quit smoking.”

Kotobuki swatted Ikuya’s hand away, the tips of his ears red.  “That’s none of your business,” he snarled.

Ikuya held out his hands beseechingly.  “Easy, easy, okay I’ll leave it alone.  But…” and here he was venturing purely into hunch territory, “So far you’ve only been able to help people that Satou doesn’t have yet.  Alone, anyone that Satou takes is beyond your reach.  But you don’t have to fight alone.”

Kotobuki looked at the sky and swore under his breath.  “I told him to be careful,” he muttered, “the fuck am I supposed to do now?”

Bingo.  “Simple.  You go find Eriko Nagai, and then together you all can bust that kid out of there.  Be big damn heroes.”

Kotobuki sighed, and spat out his wad of gum.  He slouched on the side of one of the buildings lining the alley and looked up, though there were no stars to see through the light pollution.  Maybe that was a metaphor.  Ikuya shoved his hands in his pockets and leaned next to him, trying to discern constellations through the haze.  “You’re running from something you can’t outrun,” he said, “Better to stand and fight while you still have the strength to.”

Kotobuki said nothing.  Cars drove past in the street beside them.  People walked by.  After a while, Ikuya dug into his pocket for another cigarette, lighting it and blowing the smoke up to the sky.  Kotobuki started chewing another piece of gum.  Neither of them said anything else.