Chapter 9:

Chapter 009

Ergon V

The next day, the sun was shining low through the twisting streets of Shibuya as a man ran across the pedestrian crossing that emerged from Jingu-dori Park. He was having a hard time trying to keep up with his playful dog, and as he made it to the other end, a white school bus rounded the bend to Jingumae-Dori. Inside, Kazuto gazed from behind the window of his seat at the back as the owner surrendered himself to the unruly animal. Then, the shadow of a three-track train overpass enveloped the vehicle transporting Shibuya High students as it headed southwest. Kazuto’s eyes darted to the orange flash drive he was turning in his fingers as if it were a toy, his mind hovering around its potential contents. As he recalled Kotori had sent him a text message that morning, he took out his cell phone with his free hand to check it.

< Sugiyama-kun, there are no words to express how sorry I’m for what you had to go through yesterday. But I want to let you know I arranged something and, if you’re willing, what we discussed is still in motion. Please let me know your answer as soon as possible. >

< Okay. I’ll be there tomorrow with it. >

Kazuto shook his head, part of him still regretting his choice, as he tried to lose himself in the repetitive cityscape surrounding him once the bus left the gloom behind. Even if a few structures differed from the monotonous pattern, most of them were ten-story buildings with clothing stores at street level. Hadn’t he enjoyed a good night’s sleep as he had for the first time in several days, he would have yawned at such an uninspiring scenario. He had, however, to squint his eyes every now and then as the evening sun filtered through the gaps in the narrow streets at each junction, sparkling against the glass.

But it was no use. The unrest at the edges of Kazuto’s thoughts was still there. Seeking a new diversion, he opted to eavesdrop on the conversation Nozomi was having with her friend Mayuri Hanekawa. She was a shy-looking girl who wore glasses, the same with which Saori Yoshimura had stumbled during class the day before. “Are you alright, Nozomi-chan?” she inquired with genuine concern. “You have some serious under-eye bags and you’re a little pale.”

“It’s nothing, Mayuri,” Nozomi replied. “It’s just I’m not sleeping well lately, but you don’t have to worry at all. I’m fine.”

Mayuri shook her head, her words far from convincing her otherwise. “You’re pushing yourself too hard with this college thing. You should ask your mom’s new boyfriend for some money.”

“No, no way. I don’t know him well enough. And I don’t trust him.”

There it was. Once again, Kazuto felt the familiar tingle of uneasiness creep through his body, the conflicts churning inside him refusing to be silenced. But in the end, what was it he could do for her? Not only was Nozomi knee-deep in her college studies and work, but Kazuto himself was in a state where he would be a burden to her. If he wanted to overcome what was happening to him, he had to confront his feelings about it first. And still, Kazuto couldn’t help but feel he should do more for his friends. Even Raisuke, sitting by his side and pressing the buttons of a portable video game frantically, looked like he could use a push out of the bubble he seemed to inhabit. Kazuto raised an eyebrow at him. Whether he was more baffled by his detached and childish mindset or his own passivity in the matter, he knew not.

It was a good thing Cytek HQ was just a few blocks away from his school, or else Kazuto would have kept on dwelling over the worries of his mind. As the bus reached its destination, the small group of teachers leading them was the first to get off. Kazuto was among the last students to do so, his feet clearing out the steps to face the facade of Cytek’s annex building, which stood next to the main structure. A large scaffolding framework covered it, the green meshes giving a glimpse of the construction materials inside and revealing the interior works were far from complete. The store across the street was also undergoing similar repairs. The city, it seemed, was in a constant state of transformation.

The students moved forward and left behind Jingumae-Dori, the shadow of the imposing building fading in favor of the sunlight shining through a few clouds in the sky. Kazuto deflected his gaze from it into the tower, grateful its glass panel didn’t reflect the glare. He felt dwarfed by its magnitude and even had the funny feeling someone was watching him there at the top. The group entered the premises in a single row, stepping through the large frameless reinforced tempered glass doors on the right. As they did so, a couple of bodyguards came out escorting a bald he who was on the phone. Kazuto strolled behind Nozomi and Raisuke as the three suited men walked past him. The bald man glanced at Kazuto for a moment amid his phone conversation, and the young man recognized him as Kentaro Tsujimoto. Kazuto turned to look at him as he stepped inside Cytek HQ, still puzzled by his piercing gaze and the conviction it carried, while his ears picked up some of his friends’ idle chatter.

“Damn you, Izanami!” Raisuke yelled, complaining about a sudden development in his video game. “Why is this final boss so infuriatingly hard to beat?”

“You know they’ll take that away from you, right?” commented Nozomi with a voice devoid of empathy.

Once the students came to a halt before the reception desk, they ran into a series of dark metal detector arches on both sides. Raisuke swallowed hard as he saw Nozomi handing her cell phone to a man wearing a white tie shirt and black pants along with a peaked cap, placing it in a small plastic box. The young jokester was the second of the three to go through the arch. The guard greeted him with a smile as he asked him to empty his pockets and get rid of any kind of electronic device. While Raisuke reluctantly handed over his phone and console, Nozomi picked up a magnetic stripe card with her name tagged on it, arranged in a grid over a table near the front desk.

When Kazuto himself went through the metal arch, however, trouble followed. He adhered to the same procedure as his classmates to the letter—yet he was greeted by a red light and an annoying electronic beeping. The welcoming smile disappeared from the guard’s face as he grabbed a hand-held scanner and signaled Kazuto to extend his arms away from his body. Then, as he passed the device over one of his jacket’s pockets, the man in uniform frowned at a new warning chime. Kazuto felt the floor fall out from under his feet as he realized he hadn’t pulled out Kotori’s flash drive. His mind raced for a way to explain what he needed it for, the guard eying him with suspicion as he demanded him to hand it over with an outstretched arm. Ahead, Raisuke and Nozomi had turned to see what was going on, shooting him a confused look, while some classmates behind him whispered under their breath. Oddly, part of him felt some relief, tempted to let go of the burden that weighed him down and bring an end to his uncertainties.

But he had made a commitment to Kotori, and more importantly, to himself. “It’s for the internship thing,” he improvised. “One of your employees is a friend. I can give you her name for you to check it.”

The guard’s radio then crackled to life. “It’s fine. Let him through,” said a voice at the other end, perhaps that of his supervisor. “I’ve just been notified about this.” The guard nodded in acknowledgment, his face relaxing as he gestured for Kazuto to move on. A wave of relief washed over him as he made his way to the desk and took his visitor pass. When he joined the rest of his class, he found Nozomi staring at him with a puzzled look. Kazuto merely shrugged and shook his head as if nothing of consequence had occurred. Yet deep down, it seemed to him he had made some progress in his struggle.

Once the brief incident fell between the cracks, the students met a slender woman with light brown hair wearing a white coat, who would escort them on their tour across the facilities. She led them toward the far end of the floor and past the turnstiles to access one of the four staircases that faced each other. They passed a steel emergency exit door leading to the stairwell and made their way up to the first level. Here, they bumped into a food court area and a communal room for recreation. On the second floor, they met a showroom displaying the company’s most popular products, from different prosthetics and wheelchairs for low-income citizens to cars that operated entirely with electricity and even augmented reality glasses for VR video games. The students then moved to the third floor, which posed as a health and fitness center, both the fourth and fifth ones dedicated to cyber-security solutions, including the largest server room in the building. The group then learned a large number of workshops filled some of the next floors. These included labs focused exclusively on the field of medicine, areas of legal affairs, human resources, accounting, purchasing, and administrative offices.

Yet it was the sixth level of Cytek Headquarters that most students looked forward to. Many of them, after all, aimed at college careers that would allow them to work in the research and development laboratories located there. Kazuto looked at the many scientists sitting at workstations, scattered in areas of cubicles here and there across the floor and encircled by conference rooms and senior offices. The roofs, walls, and columns were of a whitish color, while the lights from above reflected in the clear tiles and gave a sensation of neatness. Every part of the building conveyed an undeniable air of elegance, sophistication, and modernity in its purest state, making him feel he was there where the future was being shaped.

As the students reached one of the edges of the workstations area, the female guide approached an unoccupied station. Over the desk was a prosthetic hand between a computer monitor and a huge digital touch screen that displayed its blueprints. She grabbed hold of the limb with caution, calling the students to action. “So, any of you know how these work?”

Kazuto watched from the corner of his eye as Raisuke began to raise his hand—but another student had beaten him beforehand. He was a good-looking boy with black hair and green eyes, popular among girls for his beauty and performance in the Soccer club. His name was Issei Uchida, and he was the younger brother of the former head of public relations of the company.

The guide nodded at Issei, inviting him to speak. “My brother Takeshi had one, lost his right arm in Turkey. The electrical impulses of the nervous system connect wirelessly with the prosthesis, which mimics the behavior of an actual limb.” The eyes of a few female students shimmered at his display of intelligence. Raisuke, for his part, grumbled and threw an unconvincing envious look at him out of jealously.

“Indeed,” the guide acknowledged him as she examined the prosthesis in detail. Its outer shell resembled the musculature of a human arm, though the threads looked like some kind of carbon fiber polymer. The joints exposed part of the internal metallic skeleton, the hand made of rigid pieces separated from each other in phalanges, metacarpals, and a single composite structure in place of the carpals. She offered more detail to the students. “Here, we have artificial bones, synthetic muscle tissue, pneumatic actuators, and sensors that replicate the human sense of touch. Finally, we have a processor that interprets the electrical impulses as information that flows across the nervous system.” She took a brief pause and went on. “Now, what one surely imagines when hearing that word is a lightning-like shock. But that’s an effect of light and heat. Electricity is present in the electromagnetic field around us. We just have to manipulate it.”

She laid down the fake limb back on the table, taking in its place some few loose half-finished mechanical phalanges similar to those that were part of the prosthesis. However, a fraction of their internal wiring was exposed as raw flesh without skin, its inner structure a sort of hollow shell. The guide placed the casings on each of her fingers. Next, her thumb came into contact with the tips of her little and ring fingers—a slight, garish electric current arising in the process. Soon afterward, the woman snapped them, her thumb brushing her middle and index phalanges as the current died with a cracking sparkle. She began taking them off as she explained, “See? All these do is to generate an electric shock resulting from the movements between each finger.”

A nearby security guard walked next to the woman, then whispered something in her ear, to which she nodded in response. As she placed the phalanges back on the desk, she turned to the students and said, “Yoshimura-san? I understand you and your sister are being requested by an employee. This man here will escort you to her office.”

As the students exchanged comments under their breath, the twins made their way among them and joined the guard, following him away from the group. In the meantime, the guide gestured for two of her colleagues to join her as she addressed the class. “So, how about we continue the visit? We have set up a few conference rooms for each class to hold a presentation.”

The students split up into class groups as they headed for the glass-walled suites on the right side of the floor. The lady in charge of the tour motioned toward a glass door secured by a card reader. She slid her badge over it, allowing the students to step into the room. Kazuto followed them inside, yet he kept his gaze locked on the Yoshimura twins as they met a woman near the staircase area. It was Kotori. She spoke to the security guard, who nodded back at her as he left them both in her charge. His eyebrows arched in concern, Kazuto wondered if they were somehow involved in what was going on, and more importantly, what this could mean to him.

Time was of the essence, which was why the Yoshimura twins went to Koizumi-san’s cubicle on the seventh floor without deviation. Once the security escort had abandoned them as instructed, Saori saw the security cameras attached to the support pillars before her shifting away from their path thanks to the man monitoring them. “Eagle Eye to White Leopard,” came his voice over the custom-molded earpiece she had put on before the trip began. “Everything’s in order, over.” He was an undercover Sentinel operative positioned there to observe all their movements and notify the twins of any kind of unforeseen development. He also had to erase the visual records of the entire operation from the corresponding digital storage.

Koizumi-san took a seat at her workstation as soon they reached their destination. Saori stood beside her as she checked her earpiece and ran her hand over the badge hanging on her neck. Like her brother’s, it had been programmed with special administrative permissions in case they needed them. From the corner of her eye, she saw Hayato was leaning on a nearby column behind them, hands behind his back, always playing it cool. She wished to share his confidence.

As she massaged the middle phalanx of her index finger with her left thumb in reassurance, she leaned closer to Koizumi-san, asking her, “What about the flash drive? You said someone would—”

“I’ll have him come over in a minute,” she cut her off. “But, first—” The woman began working on her keyboard, typing her user ID and password in the login form. Once inside the system, she quickly navigated through a series of folders and files, looking for something specific. She came across it in no time. Saori found herself laying her eyes on an invoice-like legal document full of rows and columns packed with categorizations and printed data she couldn’t make sense of. “This is the shipping manifest I mentioned to your people before,” Koizumi-san elaborated. “The employee who signed it caught my attention since his name’s combination is unusual. It sounds almost fake.”

Saori brought her face closer to the screen, trying to make out the name that had signed the document: “YOSHINAGA HIDENOBU.” She frowned at it, recalling the briefing before the hotel stakeout operation. “It is,” she commented. “He rented a storage unit where Amaterasu members used to meet.” Suddenly, a thought flitted through her mind. The connection took a moment to register because it seemed all too obvious at first, the familiarity of the name and the kanjis that made it up. She stopped short, realizing what she was about to say might prove inconsequential, yet she opted to give her thoughts a voice in the end. “‘Yoshinaga Hidenobu’. Standing for ‘Hideyoshi’ and ‘Nobunaga’?”

She turned to her brother, who seemed to follow her thread of thought. “As in two of the three unifiers of our nation?” Hayato wondered aloud. “Can’t be a coincidence.”

Koizumi-san shared her own conclusions. “Whoever he is, he’s a senior member of the HR department. I asked a few folks there, but nobody has ever seen him.”

“Big Boss here,” her father spoke into her earpiece. “We’re accessing her computer remotely. That signature style is unmistakable...” He took a long breath as if his deepest fears had been confirmed. “He’s Uchida Takeshi.”

A stunned Hayato lowered his head a little. “You mean he’s alive and working with the terrorists?” Both twins exchanged a fleeting glance at the implications.

At that moment, a sudden development brought their eyes back to the screen. An error message appeared on it, and it looked like Koizumi-san was no longer in her account. She pulled up the login form again and keyed in her credentials, but to no avail. Confusion was visible on the woman’s face. “I don’t understand. It’s like I’ve been locked out of my account. I don’t know what’s going on.”

“Eagle Eye here,” came the voice of the guard in Saori’s ear. “I just heard a couple of guards and the head of HR are heading to Koizumi-san’s station.”

As all three glanced up from the computer screen, they saw an aging woman in office attire joining two men in security uniforms. Saori threw a sidelong glance at Koizumi-san, her features twisted into a shocked expression as her eyes darted back and forth in search of an explanation. “T-This makes no sense,” she stammered. “If they were gonna kick me out, my keycard would’ve set off any alarms at the entrance, and I’ve been here for over an hour—” She stopped her train of thought, the lines on her forehead suddenly widening in realization “—unless they were expecting me to access my user ID, knowing I was going to bring the stick here, to then catch me. There must be other employees involved with Amaterasu beside me.”

Certainty quickly turned into panic in her eyes, leaving her with a grim mien. Anxious, Saori started glancing around the room, seeking an immediate culprit, while Hayato kept his gaze fixed on the men in uniform. The young girl noticed this and shifted hers to them, finding out they had their mouths pressed to their two-way radio devices.

“What are the guards saying, Eagle Eye?” Hayato spoke into his mike.

“I don’t know,” their contact replied, worried. “They seem to be chatting on a private channel, which is not regular procedure. Something’s wrong.”

Saori felt her breath shortening. She pretended to be focused on the screen while trying to keep the three looming threats in her peripheral vision. The guards were now speaking with the woman, occasionally casting an eye on their station while paying attention to any updates on their radios.

It all indicated they were going to make their move at any moment.