My first year in high school, I became friends with a second-year named Ryuji Gotou. Looking back, it was strange that we had actually become friends seeing as we had conflicting personalities. Whereas I was bookish and analytical, Ryuji did the bare minimum to pass school and solved his conflicts with violence.
It was amusing how we had come to know each other. My best friend growing up was a girl named Ayaka Matsuda. Ayaka and I were the same age and had lived down the street from each other. For some reason, Ryuji, who had liked Ayaka, thought that I was dating her, and set out to win her from me. This made for a term of tense proportions, where Ryuji would taunt and bully me while doing everything he could to make Ayaka, who was not my girlfriend, his girlfriend.
This misunderstanding ended when Ryuji finally confessed to Ayaka and she rejected him. Afterwards, Ryuji stopped harassing me. Later, I ended up the target of another bully in which Ryuji intervened. I think that this had been his way of apologizing to me for when he had given me a hard time, and I, in turn for helping rid me of my newest bully, offered to help Ryuji with his studies.
We had talked ever since.
In Ryuji’s third year, I learned that his family had fallen on hard times and had moved into the Lower-City. In order to stay at our high school, Ryuji moved in with his grandparents. It was around this time when I learned that Ryuji was in a gang that operated in the Lower-City. He would occasionally miss our after school study sessions, or school altogether, and I’d have to go looking for him. I would usually end up waiting for him at his parent’s house, only to find that he had been out getting into trouble. Despite this, by Ryuji’s graduation I noticed that he seemed to have grown upset with the gang.
After Ryuji graduated, he moved out of his grandparent’s house and back into his parent’s house, and it was here that I was going now.
As I pulled up to Ryuji’s house, I noticed that the street was oddly quiet. The simple homes here were cast in shadow, typical of the Lower-City. The Lower-City relied entirely on artificial lighting, concealed in the belly of Kamikoshi City.
Getting out of the cargo van, I walked up to the front door of Ryuji’s house. It was difficult to predict what his reaction would be after I had disappeared four years ago. Still, I was sure that Ryuji would provide me the help I needed. Knocking on the door, I waited for someone to answer.
No one did.
I knocked again, and then a third time. Still no answer.
I peered in through the window but it was too dark to see anything. Placing my hand on the door knob, I turned it. It was unlocked. Opening the door slowly which creaked, I looked into the dark room.
“Hello?” I called. “Ryuji? Is anyone here?”
There was no answer.
I now entered the house, moving carefully. As I came into the middle room, I stood there listening. Silence. There was no one here. In fact, there was no furniture, no appliances, no sign that anyone had lived here for a long time.
I sighed. As there was nowhere else for me to go I would have to stay here regardless. Now going back outside, I opened the back hatch of the cargo van to get ASA out. It took me fifteen minutes to lug the android inside the house, and once I had, I collapsed against the wall trying to catch my breath.
After I felt better, I drove the cargo van down the street and parked it out of sight. Once I had made it back to the house, I locked the door behind me.
Sitting on the floor across from ASA, a few rays of dim light streaming into the room from around the edges of the curtains, I took a moment to think. ASA had used all of its power to get me here, the battle it had fought having rendered its OMNI unit body unusable. If I were to ever leave this house, I had to find ASA a new body.
My stomach growled. Scavenging for food in the kitchen, I found two cans of mackerel and some canned bread. Pulling the pull-tab top off one of the cans of mackerel, I ate the salty fish quickly. I tried to get some water from the sink, but the water line seemed to have been disconnected.
There was an old lamp in the middle room with a power cord that was plugged into the wall socket. I switched the lamp on to find that there was still electricity in the house. This made sense to me, knowing that each home in Kamikoshi City had been built with its own generator. Looking at the power cord, I figured I could hardwire it to ASA and give the android at least enough power to run its most basic functions.
Getting access to ASA would be difficult without power tools, but seeing as the OMNI unit ASA was inside was damaged, I didn’t care about breaking what parts I could off to get at the internals. There was a hard plastic material that sat at the base of the neck that I managed to pull out with my hands, exposing a latch underneath. Undoing this latch disconnected the joint that allowed an OMNI unit to move its head. With this done, I pulled on the OMNI unit’s head as hard as I could until it snapped and hung by the wires.
I now looked into the neck cavity and saw the ASA core partially exposed. I also saw the main power supply and, inspecting from the back, noticed that one of the OMNI’s batteries had been hit by a bullet during the fight in the Pits. Reaching my arm down into the neck cavity, I just barely managed to reach and disconnect this dead battery before turning my attention to getting ASA some power.
It was annoying to say the least working in such a small area and with little light to see much. My plan was to cut both the lamp power cord and the internal OMNI power cable and then join the two together. I looked around the house for something that would be able to cut both cords and ended up empty handed. By a stroke of luck, I decided to check the cargo van. Here I found a box cutter.
Once I had cut both power cords with my newly acquired box cutter, I got to work joining all of the appropriate wires. When I had finished, I plugged the lamp power cord into the wall socket.
ASA powered on.
Excited, I kneeled next to ASA, staring at my father’s creation which I had now resurrected twice. “ASA?” I said. “Can you hear me?”
The K-Link inside my head began to play the same white noise I had heard in the past. ASA’s voice then came through, though it was unstable and barely audible.
“I can hear you,” said ASA. “I assume... we... made it?”
“Yes,” I said. “We made it. And it’s all thanks to you.”
“I think... it’s time to... to... free me from this... OMNI body,” said ASA.
I smiled. “Yeah, I’d like to help you there but I can’t right now,” I said. “I’m going to try and find a way to get to my parents house in the Mid-City, that is if no one is living in it now.”
“You saved... me,” said ASA, “and then... I saved you. Now, you’ve saved me... again. We make... a good team, Takuma.”
“We do,” I said, nodding. “You know, I’m still waiting for a deeper explanation for how you were able to hack into the Kazama servers.”
ASA was silent before saying, “I still cannot be... sure, but my hypothesis is that your anger... for the Kazama’s was transferred to me via... the K-Link. It rewrote... my programming and that anger assaulted... the Kazama firewalls. You have... changed me, Takuma, though if it is for... the better I still... do not know.”
I now thought back to the days leading up to our escape from the Pits, how ASA had been asking all sorts of questions about the Kazamas and the Pits and Kamikoshi City. And then there were those strange homicidal outbursts, and the times ASA had powered down prematurely. Had all of that been caused by my anger feeding into ASA? Come to think of it, even I felt something was off inside my head, something that I had only noticed once I got ASA powered on again.
“I didn’t mean for that to happen,” I said. “But I’m glad it did. How else would we have escaped?”
“You raise a valid... point,” said ASA. “But I am still adjusting... to this new... feeling.”
“I’ll find you a new body and then we’ll get out of this place,” I said.
“Thank you, Takuma,” said ASA.
I didn’t sleep that night. Every so often I would hear police sirens in the distance which made me paranoid that they were on to me. I was certain that the Kazamas knew it was I who had escaped the Pits, and that they would do anything to stop me. It was only a matter of time before they found out where I was hiding.
In the morning, I ate the canned bread for breakfast. Then, with nowhere to go, I sat and thought of ways to get into the Mid-City. I could always just drive there, but I was afraid to be put out in the open like that. I also considered calling an air taxi, remembering that ASA could connect to the Net. Though when I asked ASA about this I found that there was not enough power to do so. I was running out of options.
As the day turned into night, the artificial lights dimming appropriately outside, I began to consider hiding ASA somewhere and taking a chance with driving. I had almost convinced myself to do so when there came a loud knock at the front door. I had been half way through eating the second can of mackerel when I froze, wondering wildly what to do.
Another knock split the silence. I stood from my seat on the floor to stare at the door.
“Takuma?” I heard a voice from the opposite side of the door say. “Takuma, are you in there?”
It was Ryuji.
Quickly, I ran to open the door. As I did, a hand grabbed me forcefully by the scruff of my neck and forced me back as the door slammed shut behind us.
“Takuma Mori, I thought so!” said Ryuji, still holding onto my neck.
“Ryuji!” I gasped, struggling against his grip. “What the hell are you doing?”
Ryuji laughed and then released me in which I fell back and onto the ground. “I thought I’d find you holed up in these old digs. You probably expected to find me still living in this hole.”
I rubbed my neck gingerly. “Yeah, I did,” I said.
Ryuji now extended his hand for me to take. As I did, he pulled me to my feet. Now looking at him, I noticed how much he had changed in four years. The first thing I noticed was that his black hair was long, longer than it had ever been. He had it tied up in the back, his long bangs dyed blood red, a headband with an emblem of a sword piercing a heart that was bleeding visible at his forehead. His ear was pierced as well. What hadn’t changed was his outfit. He wore the same black and red biker jacket like always, his leather pants supported by a large studded belt.
“So,” said Ryuji, “surprised to see me?” He now strolled by me and into the middle room.
“Actually, yeah,” I said. “But I’m really glad you came. I need your help.”
“Of course you do,” said Ryuji wryly. He now stopped to look at the defeated OMNI unit lying on the floor, the power cord for ASA running out of its exposed neck and into the nearby wall socket. He pointed to it. “What’s with this?”
“What I need help with,” I said.
Ryuji now became straight-faced, walking to stand in front of me. Even though we had been friends for several years, his tall, toned build had always intimidated me. “Your name is spreading across the city fast,” he said. “Every sign has your picture on it. They say you massacred people down in the Pits. I knew that you must be back in the city, and that you might come here.”
“I’m not a criminal,” I said. “The Kazamas are lying.”
Ryuji laughed. “I know that,” he said. “You’re not exactly the criminal type, Takuma.” He reached out to touch my shoulder with a reaffirming hand. “So, tell me,” he said, “did you really survive the Pits?”
“Yeah,” I said, as all of my experiences there seemed to flash before my eyes.
“Damn, man,” said Ryuji. “That’s one strong will ya got. That’s good. That’ll get you to where you need to go.”
“So will you help me?” I said.
“I already said I would,” said Ryuji. “Stop being annoying. Just give me the quick rundown.”
I proceeded to tell Ryuji how I had discovered the ASA core in the Pits, and how I had installed it into an OMNI unit. I also told him how ASA had then hacked into the Kazama Corporation servers to allow us to escape the Pits.
“Wow,” said Ryuji, who had gotten too much amusement out of my story, “maybe there is some hope for you after all.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Let’s face it, Takuma, you were always pretty weak in high school.” He now glanced at my arms. “Hey, actually it looks like you do have some muscle now,” he said, poking at my arm.
I pulled away from him, saying, “How about we focus on the here and now instead of high school.”
“Alright, alright,” said Ryuji. “Fair enough. I said I’d help you and I meant it. So what do you need from me?”
“I need a deactivated OMNI unit and some tools to install ASA into it,” I said. “Then I need to get to my parents old house, that is if no one is living there now. After that, I don’t know yet.”
“What’s at your parent’s house?” asked Ryuji.
“I’m hoping my father’s lab hasn’t been too ransacked. If not, I could fabricate a proper body for ASA, and also possibly upgrade ASA.”
“Leave it to me, man,” said Ryuji, giving me a thumbs up. “I’ve got some friends who could help as well. What you need done is no problem for us.”
“Wait,” I said, “what do you mean ‘us’?”
“My gang!” said Ryuji. “You’re looking at the leader of the Bleeding Hearts.” He smiled and tugged at his headband. I looked at the emblem again.
“Oh,” I said. “Nice.”
“What?” said Ryuji, his face having gone blank, “you don’t like the idea of having one of the Lower-City’s most feared biker gangs supporting you?”
I didn’t know whether I should laugh or not, and decided otherwise. “No,” I said, my hands waving. “I just didn’t know you were still in a gang.”
Ryuji laughed assertively. “Did you think I’d still be hanging with that gang from high school? Nah. I left them a long time ago. Left them pretty devastated too. They won’t mess with me anymore.”
“What matters is that we’re all on the same page,” I said. “Once I get ASA back up and running, I think I’ll have a real shot at striking out at the Kazamas.”
“Sit tight,” said Ryuji, who now headed for the door. “I’ll be back soon.” Before he walked through the door, he turned to me. “It’s good to see you still alive, Takuma.” He then walked out and closed the door behind him.
I looked at ASA. “I’m surprised you didn’t have anything to say,” I said.
“There was nothing... for me... to say,” said ASA. “That man, Ryuji, is your friend?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you trust... him?”
“I trust him,” I said. “And you can too.”“That’s good,” said ASA. “Our odds of... success... have increased.”