Chapter 7:

Chapter 007

Ergon V

An hour later, and with a clear moon shining high above her, Saori—White Leopard, she reminded herself, lest her weaknesses get the better of her—was perched inside a small tower atop a vast luxury residential complex directly across from Azabu Court. Large air-conditioning units loomed behind her as two fellow Sentinel sharpshooters set up rifle tripods on the parapets, flanked by their spotters. Her own directed-energy weapon arranged on a bipod, White Leopard trained her scope down over a limousine pulling up in front of the hotel. Behind the visor of her helmet’s armor, she saw a technician climbing a ladder to work on a light pole next to a tall tree with little leaf density. It was a Sentinel operative, placed there to get a suitable tactical view of those going in and out of the front door.

For her part, White Leopard’s mission was to observe and gather information from her vantage point. She followed the car driver as he exited his ride to escort his passenger to the trunk. She zoomed in on the plate, the image sent wirelessly to the analysts’ computers back at Hardy Barracks so they could cross-reference it with local vehicle-record databases. “That’s fine, White Leopard,” Big Boss informed her through her comm. “We’re checking the plate number as we speak. Blue Jaguar, you have eyes on them?”

White Leopard adjusted her scope to look at the utility van parked in a designated space next to the hotel. Inside were two other men dressed as technicians, one of them with his cellphone at hand and raised slightly, his eyes fixed on the newcomers. It was Hayato. She listened to him speak on her radio as she saw him moving his mouth. “Affirmative. I’m sending you his photo, but I don’t think he’s our guy.”

A small window with the photo he took popped up in the upper left corner of her HUD next to a series of images rapidly succeeding one another. Multiple geometric lines were traced across the man’s face, and the software did its job in a few seconds. But the result wasn’t the one they expected. “Indeed,” Big Boss confirmed. “It looks like we might have to wait a bit longer, so stay alert. But remember, all access points are well covered. Big Boss out.”

White Leopard cast a half-apprehensive glance at the Sentinel operatives beside her, pulling the cloak’s hoodie tighter over her helmet. The short distance to the target and the absence of enemy combatants, she reflected, deemed their presence unnecessary. While her bosses wouldn’t take any risks when dealing with Amaterasu, she suspected another reason behind this tactical choice.

She feared the problem was herself.

A shudder ran through her at the thought, and White Leopard couldn’t help feeling a curious itch on her trigger finger. From one moment to the next, the dreadful moment unfolded in her mind’s eye; she saw herself back there facing the American embassy and witnessing two terrorists arguing behind the windows through her scope. The situation had escalated out of control in no time, and she had to stop them from detonating a bomb. But her body had gone cold, all of a sudden, and her state of shock became too high for her to react. White Leopard clung to her consciousness in despair, pushing her fingertip to close the gap with the trigger as much as she could, hoping she could avoid disaster.

But she failed to do so.

With some effort, she shrugged off the memory, focusing back on the moment. But the questions were still drifting on the surface of her consciousness, demanding answers that, for a reason she couldn’t quite conceive, wouldn’t come.

These same questions had exploded in her mind after the previous night’s fallout, for which she turned to the only person she could count on for help. For months past, Saori had been consulting Hachiko Deguchi, a 31-year-old female psychologist with a master’s degree in human resource management. She ended up in charge of the Sentinels staff selection process thanks to her father, a physicist working at CERU. Saori had called her for a meeting at her apartment, a 200-square-meter penthouse atop a 44-story luxury tower in Akasaka. She opened the door to a woman with green eyes framed by long, straight onyx hair. Deguchi-sama greeted her with a gracious bow, dressed in a casual gray long-sleeved shirt and tight black pants under a baggy olive-green trench coat. Saori returned the gesture. She wore a stylish cream blazer over a striped shirt and dark high-rise skinny jeans. She apologized for the inconvenience and offered her to trade her shoes for slippers. Then, she led her to one of two armchairs past the spacious living room that stretched across an L-shaped curve.

“Why did I freeze again, Deguchi-sama?” she asked after a few minutes of casual conversation followed by a brief report of her day. “It’s like I went back to the way I was right after the embassy attack,” she added, a mixture of anger and grief in her voice.

Her therapist stared at her with a crooked smile as she said, “It’s just a small setback. You know the suit’s connection to the nervous system has its side effects. What matters is that you'll still be on the field. You will only have to rely a bit more on your comrades.”

Saori’s mouth gave a bitter twist. Doubtless, she would leave all this behind for good. But when? According to Deguchi-sama, she was suffering from a condition known as PTSD—short for post-traumatic stress disorder. It was a common mental health problem experienced by those who went through life-threatening situations such as an accident, a sexual assault, or military combat. In her case, the event in question had been her fallout during the attack on the US Embassy. The symptoms began manifesting themselves a few months afterward. She got easily irritated, had trouble sleeping, and used to be startled by nonsense, always nervous and looking for some source of immediate danger.

But while she had mitigated them at first, it was clear they had bounced back hard. The frustration within Saori was immeasurable. “I hate this, but I have nothing else,” she spoke after a long silence, shaking her head while bowing down as though she had given in to her resignation. “I’m empty without it, just like when I practiced gymnastics. It was the only thing I was truly good at. I endured it because it made my mother happy. Even if she was unforgiving, yelling me at each mistake, I gave my best, facing things head-on without fear. But now, she’s gone...” Saori choked back a sob, the memory of her dead mother still a fresh one. “I guess I’m no longer that girl.”

“You still are,” her therapist tried to convince her. “You need to find a new motivation, come to terms with this weak image you have of yourself. Not everything is a success or a failure.”

The words achieved nothing to ease Saori’s growing irritation. She was tired of hearing the same words over and over again, let alone talking repeatedly about the things that frustrate her. Deguchi-sama took a few moments, closing her eyes and massaging her temples as though discerning what to do next. “Is there any other sensation you remember from this ’sinking’ dream?” she asked. Saori tensed as she recalled the image, the raw pressure threatening to crush her into oblivion and leave nothing behind. “The words you employ, the meaning you give them, are important to know what—”

“I told you, it’s the same!” Saori seethed in response, her temper flaring as her eyes shimmered between flames of fury and tears of pain. “You’re not listening to me! What I need is to figure out how to make this stop, leave it behind for good!” It was then that she realized she was stirring, her face reflecting her sudden outbreak of overflowing emotions. She hated herself for feeling like this, unable to stop the urge to scream and cry until her throat was raw or the feelings of rage and sorrow that ravaged her from the inside. “This isn’t working,” she muttered, her gaze turning sideways as her right hand moved over her left arm.

Deguchi-sama leaned closer to Saori, measuring if she could dig deeper into her psyche. “There’s no point in getting so overly hasty for results. It takes time and treatment, not some out-of-the-blue magical solution. You’ll eventually come to terms with the fact that, deep down, it wasn’t your fault, despite things you did or didn’t do.”

That was what bothered her the most. She had to wait for what, exactly? To talk about her trauma, express her emotions... How could those things help her move on? But while Saori was skeptical of Deguchi-sama’s methods, the woman had proven to be intelligent and insightful. “I-I guess you are right,” was all she could reply. “But then, how do I get rid of this ‘weak’ part of me? I can’t keep freezing every time I face a stressful situation.”

Hachiko grimaced in empathy, the corners of her lips drawing down with pity. “See, there’s where your problem lies. You see it as a weakness that hinders you on your way, something you should get rid of. Instead, you could try to accept this part of you, love yourself more, learn to trust in your skills while accepting there are situations that will develop beyond your control.”

The young girl nodded at her as a faint smile gripped her face, getting a better sense of what she meant. In a way, she was right. Saori knew what she was capable of, both her abilities and her limitations. And the more afraid she was, the more insecure she would become.

Her train of thought drifted back to the present as Big Boss demanded her attention. “White Leopard, give me a tactical shot of the men going into the hotel, over.”

White Leopard returned to scanning the building’s entrance through her optic sight, bumping into two men walking in casually. As she adjusted her scope, her helmet’s IVAS highlighted their shapes, turning them into bluish skeletons framed by an aura of their physical anatomy. They resembled images taken with an X-ray scanner, a consequence of the system’s constant sonar-like electromagnetic pulses. She even kept track of them once they had stepped inside the hotel, their silhouettes remaining visible even through solid objects. Moreover, from the corner of her eye, she visualized the members of the assault team sitting in the back of the truck, their guns at the ready.

But the unidentified men possessed no such weapons. “No suspicious objects whatsoever,” White Leopard stated into her mike. She then moved her sights toward the window of a room on the third floor, recalling Koizumi-san now had taken in a guest. Indeed, a second person was sitting on a bed beside her, the body language coming from their shadows implying they were chatting. “Anything new on the target’s visitor?” she asked.

“Negative,” came the reply of Big Boss. “But given his build and the emblem in his uniform we saw on the outdoor camera, he must be a student.”

As she switched off her tactical view, the skeletons on the bed vanished behind a closed curtain. White Leopard backed off the rifle, her nerves ringing like struck chimes at this unexpected factor. There was no way of knowing how it would affect the operation, although she felt a profound conviction it would throw the entire situation into disarray.

Inside the room, Kazuto was processing everything Kotori had told him as he got up from the bed to turn off the bedroom lights. Crossing over to the window, he pushed the curtain a little and glanced out into the dimly lit street. A man dashed into view and flung open the driver’s door, climbing into the sedan lined up near the entrance. The car’s headlights popped on a second later, and the vehicle backed up to maneuver into the street to the left, driving past a van that had been parked there for several minutes. Somehow, Kazuto had the peculiar feeling the men inside were watching him. He even thought he had seen the reflection of a lens in the distance. Or perhaps, what was likeliest of all, his mind was playing tricks on him at his constantly increasing paranoia.

Kazuto jerked his head back to Kotori, still sitting on the bed and avoiding his gaze in embarrassment. “Look, I’m sorry to get you involved in all this,” she told him, an edge of genuine regret in her voice. “But you have to believe me. I was stupid, I know. I should have never got mixed up with these people. But once I was in, I couldn’t find a way out anymore. I don’t know how much I can trust this lawyer, but he’s my only option to clear things up.”

Still uneasy, Kazuto moved to the entrance. The studio room stretched out narrowly in front of him as he walked past the bed on his left, which faced a cabinet with a TV, then reached the tiny bathroom, a small kitchen set up in front of it. He leaned on the door, checking the peephole with caution. Seeing nothing of concern, he headed back to the bed and turned the lights on as Kotori held his gaze with pleading eyes.

A thought crossed his mind. “Maybe we should call the police. The guy was supposed to show up half an hour—”

“No!” she cut him off vigorously. “No police. I shouldn’t even have called your brother. This is all wrong.”

Kazuto shared her feeling. He stood near the bed for a good couple of seconds, looking at her with a hesitant glance and not knowing what to make of her situation. His reason advised him to leave, abandoning her to the fate she had brought upon herself with her lack of judgment. But his heart told him otherwise, sensing no ill intent in her story and willing to help her get a second chance.

After a brief silence, Kotori shook her head as she said, “But I needed someone of trust to keep the drive. They can’t just kill me if I can still be of use, right?”

The ominous word fueled Kazuto’s doubts as he noticed, with a kind of inward shudder, that perhaps the situation was too much for him to handle.

A sudden development in the lobby caught Hayato’s attention. From inside the van, he saw a security guard had stepped to meet the two newcomers. One of them put his hand on the stone-faced man’s shoulder, trying to get him to relax, yet he brushed him off. Hayato gritted his teeth, lamenting he had no audio input to listen to what was occurring.

His regrets vanished when one of the visitors produced a military knife from a pocket, replaced by a need to intervene. “Shit, they’re here already!” Hayato exclaimed, demanding the attention of the driver at his side.

He pulled his H&K USP with his right hand as he leaped from the car, moving to the hotel entrance alongside his fellow operator in the van. The technician working on the lamppost had joined them as the three armed operatives converged on the sliding doors, which parted at their arrival. They stepped inside, coming across the thug pressing his knife against the guard’s throat and shielding himself with his body.

“Drop the knife and let him go, now!” Hayato demanded as he aimed his pistol at him with intent.

The man hesitated for a brief second, throwing a sidelong glance at the guest checking in at the front desk. There, Hayato bumped into the unthinkable. As the suited man pressed the catch on his briefcase, it dropped to the floor—leaving in its place a compact submachine gun in his hand. The revealed assassin opened fire without hesitation. Hayato squeezed a few shots as he backed away and out of the hotel, taking cover behind a rough concrete wall alongside his fellow Sentinel operatives. Steadying himself from the sudden shock, he leaned out from his cover as the firing upon them decreased, leading with his pistol and drawing a bead on the armed thug. His gun barked three times, yet he landed no shots on his target. But he caught sight of the muzzle flashes coming from the assassin’s weapon as he made a run for the spiral staircase, his two partners following him closely.

And that could only mean one thing.

“White Leopard, the bastards are gonna take our gal out!” he cried into the comms as his colleagues returned fire. “Get your ass over here now and reach her before they do!” Much to his surprise, no reply came from his sister’s end. He frowned at that. “White Leopard, do you copy, over?”

White Leopard’s eyes wavered in confusion as she stood frozen on the tower above the rooftop as if someone had nailed her feet to the ground. She glanced at her hand, hoping it would come alive, but it didn’t move in the slightest. Shock soon turned into understanding. It was happening again; her body was betraying her, turning her into a useless statue. She had to react and do something, or people would die.

Yet Saori failed to do so, her fear keeping her motionless as it had done before.

The rumor of gunfire had put Kazuto on high alert. No longer thinking about Kotori’s wellbeing, his self-preservation instincts prevailed as he grabbed his bag, his mind hovered around a way to get out of such pressing situation. Then came a chilling moment of realization as he recalled he still carried the flash drive she had given him. He pulled it out of pocket—just as Kotori jumped to his side, knowing he intended to dispose of it.

“No!” she yelled at him desperately. “Take it with you to Cytek tomorrow. If I cut a deal—“

“You kidding me?” Kazuto shrugged her off. “You’re gonna get us both killed!”

Back on the tower’s rooftop, Bravo Leader decided they had wasted enough time. He keyed his mike as he turned to check a weapons cache they had set up behind them. “Bravo One here. I’ll extract her on my own. I’m deploying my zipline—”

At that moment, something clicked in Saori’s brain, something she almost forgot she had; her pride. It had been wounded, and it demanded compensation. Indeed, such an insignificant thing granted her a brief but powerful force of will that drove her body into action.

Her eyes glaring in fury behind her helmet’s visor, she got up and cast aside her rifle, launching herself off the tower. She landed on the rooftop and kept running forward, tapping a few commands on her right arm’s gauntlet. Then, out of thin air, a grapnel-like gun took shape in her hand amid a brief flash of light. Adrenaline pumping, she grabbed hold of it as she reached the roof’s edge, squeezing its trigger as she leaped off into the night. A hook trailing a length of cable was launched forward and backward simultaneously, hissing across the open space between both buildings while burying itself into their walls. Dangling from a wheeled device that fitted over the line, Saori glided over the dizzying drop and toward Azabu Court.

As she let go of the wheel, she hit the floor, rolling on the hotel’s roof as the device vanished behind her. Saori pushed himself to her feet and was running for the spiral staircase even before she was upright, building up speed and not daring to waste a single second. And as she reached its upper end, she threw herself over the edge and into the emptiness once more. Air soared past her as she swayed with the grace and accuracy of the gymnast within her, and for a brief moment, she saw the world upside down, catching an inverted glimpse of the thugs as they made their way upstairs and toward the fourth floor. She wouldn’t let them reach their destination. Electric bolts arose around her feet as she bounced on the floor’s adjacent railing, granting her the momentum to perform a mid-air reverse somersault.

Saori landed fitly on one of the last few steps before the floor landing and sprinted into the hall in no time. There, the terrorists greeted her with little courtesy. One of them came at her with his knife, ready to slash her exposed throat hydraulics. Whether he could have made it, Saori would never know, as she disarmed him with a quick flick of her wrist before he could even dare to try, then kneeled him hard in his stomach. The second thug thought better than to employ his futile blade and instead went for a fire extinguisher near the door. He picked it up with some effort but still managed to throw it at her with both hands. An electronic whir ringed within Saori’s suit, its automatic reflexes kicking in and making her spin and duck out of her will to avoid the blunt metallic object she had barely visualized.

The young woman was back in control as she grabbed hold of the first thug’s arm, his now weaponless partner lunging at her. He was about to jump over the couch between them as Saori kicked it toward him. She had made him lose his balance in the middle of his jump, yet the bastard landed on the ground unflinching and kept running to fight her. Saori raised at half-height to meet his challenge, blocking blow after blow with her free elbow while trying not to let go of his partner. But she had to do so from one moment to another, seizing a gap in his attacks to throw a powerful kick that caught him in the chest and sent him flying. He crashed into a table, glass fragmented and splintered at his impact, then went down to the floor.

The first goon rejoined the fight and went for Saori. She used her stance to perform a sweep kick to force him back, gaining time and momentum to set up her next move. Spinning wildly on the floor like a mad capoeira dancer, she surprised the terrorist with a powerful reverse-turning kick that caught him square in his neck. She slammed him into a column, breaking his nose on the impact with an ugly cracking sound, blood jetting from it as he fell hard and howled in pain. He was down for good.

Once Saori checked both thugs were knocked out, she realized she hadn’t fought their last colleague, the one with the machine gun. Anxious, she whirled to a side, catching sight of the suited assassin as he preyed on the situation, placing himself next to the door’s hinge-side jamb of Koizumi-san’s room. He swiped a magnetic key card on it as an alarmed voice yelled from the inside, “I’m not gonna do it! It’s too risky!” It seemed to come from the student.

The man kicked the door open and stepped into the short hallway, leveling the submachine gun on the room's occupants. Saori’s stomach tightened. Desperate, she stretched her right arm forward and snapped her fingers. In a blink of an eye, a magnetic charge yanked the gun away from the thug’s hand, quick enough to prevent his shot from hitting his intended target. Before the man even had a chance to react, Saori was already lunging at him. She took him down hard, scissoring her legs around his neck and twisting him to the ground. Eyes blazing, she tightened the lock, her rage and frustrations channeling into a deadly grip. Nothing could penetrate the heat that was now driving her; she had even failed to notice the student beside the bed had run past her in a rush to leave the room.

It took her brother’s words to bring Saori out of her trance. “White Leopard, that’s enough!”

Suddenly, she realized her display was packed with an endless array of warning icons, including the dreadful “101% SYNCHRONIZATION ERROR” message. She jerked her head to the door, bumping into Hayato as he moved in on the room, looking at her with a mixture of pity and caution in his blue eyes. She maintained the grip for an instant longer, the thug’s eyes rolling back into his head. Saori abruptly eased the lock on the unconscious terrorist. She looked down at the man she had almost choked to death, stunned by what had transpired.

The squad of Sentinel operatives in tactical vests then flooded into the room. A couple of them escorted Koizumi-san out of the place while the rest took custody of the suited assassin, snapping him back into consciousness as they secured him with black plastic zip ties. Saori gazed back at Hayato as he held out his free hand to her. As she realized, perhaps for the first time, that she could no longer allow her mindset get the better of her, Saori allowed him to help her up.

In the meantime, guests and staff members poured out of the hotel through the narrow rear door. Pushing past them was Kazuto, carrying an even greater urgency to leave the place. Once he put enough distance from the building, he came to a halt, resting his hands on his bent knees as he fought to catch his breath. He shifted his gaze up the spiral staircase, still panting from the effort of running downstairs among the chaos.

That was when he remembered there was something wrapped in his right hand. For a few seconds, he stared at the tiny orange drive Kotori had given him. In a sudden surge of anger, he reached his arm out, ready to dash the dreaded thing to pieces against the ground. Yet for some reason he couldn’t quite comprehend, he stopped himself mid-way.

For what, it suddenly occurred to him to wonder, was he doing this? Was it to gain a sense of purpose from his guilt over his parents’ deaths? It was something silly and pathetic, definitely not worth risking his life. But then again, was he going to keep running away from things and continue to make excuses? An opportunity to help had presented itself before him. If he was committed to change, he dared not to miss it.

As he eased his fingers off the palm of his hand, he gazed at the thumb drive for some time, pondering what to do with it.

In the end, he chose to keep it.