Saori’s heart raced as she saw the two guards and the woman walking toward them. A sudden impulse took hold of her, and she started to pat her pockets in search of pouches and equipment that weren’t there. Yet before her panic set in, she forced herself to assess the situation logically. To her fortune, the compulsive reaction reminded her of the special badge that hung around her neck, the fleeting thought giving her a faint sense of hope.
Calming herself down, Saori turned to her brother and whispered to him, “Hayato, we can access the program through the Sentinels’ backup user in the server room. We should leave, now!”
“But we have to lose the guards...” he commented, his gaze still fixed on the oncoming threat. He then glanced at his side as if measuring his options and brought his throat mike closer as he said, “Eagle Eye, I'm going to need your help to get them off our backs.”
Saori eyed him in confusion as he moved away from her and toward the three people. What the hell was he doing? She opened her mouth, ready to object to him, but he was already beside the guards. “Excuse me, I think I got lost,” he told one of them, a broad-shouldered man with light brown hair and a face with strong features and a foreign look. “Could you help me get back to the group?”
The guard gave him a look, doubting his intentions as he holstered his radio. At that moment, and with an agility Saori had never observed in him before, Hayato yanked the device away from his hand and sprinted for a hallway at the back.
“Hey! What the hell?” he yelled at the young student in bewilderment.
Saori was in an equal state of shock. Yet as the guards went for him, leaving the HR rep on her own and not knowing how to proceed, she realized a sudden opportunity had presented itself before them. She shook her head in the face of his brother’s thoughtless behavior, well aware part of her envied the ease with which he faced such actions while escaping the consequences.
Daring not to waste time, she grabbed Koizumi-san by the arm, willing to drag her away from the area. “Let’s go.”
In front of the fourth-floor men’s bathroom, the security guards dashed to a halt at a pressing update on their radio devices. They failed to notice the janitor cart standing by the door, their minds evidently focused on the task at hand as one of them listened to the report and the other waited for orders. Satisfied with what he had heard, the leading guard turned to his partner. “C’mon!” he enthused. “Base says the Yoshimura kid is heading back toward the stairs.”
Inside the restroom, darkness engulfed Hayato. He was straining to hear what was being said, forcing himself to slow his breathing and become as silent as possible. He gazed down to see the guards’ feet moving away from the thin light below the door, taking a deep breath as he heard the sound of footsteps fading into the distance. His heartbeat slowing down, his free hand reached for the light switch—his other armed wrapped around the janitor’s neck in what was before a rear-naked choke. As he realized the body had gone limp, Hayato left the man on the floor, clenching his teeth at his miscalculation of strength. The janitor was well along in years, something he hadn’t noticed when he forced him into the bathroom in a hurry to hide. But as he kneeled beside him and felt for a pulse, he sighed in relief. A few more seconds of pressure, and the poor man would no longer be breathing.
“Sorry about that,” he apologized, even though the janitor couldn’t possibly hear him. It was then, however, that a funny idea seized Hayato as he stared at his uniform. He needed a way to reunite with his sister and remain unnoticed.
And it seemed he had found it.
As the elevator doors slid open, Saori and Koizumi-san stepped into the fourth floor, striding across a short, dimly lit corridor that led them to the server room. They walked past the surveillance desk, the chairs behind the monitor sets empty, and reached a heavy security glass door. Saori paused for a moment, listening to see if anybody was nearby.
When Eagle Eye’s voice cracked in her earpiece, she almost jumped. “You’re clear, White Leopard,” he surprised her, evidently realizing what she was doing. “The guards lost track of all of you, and there’s no one working inside.”
Koizumi-san moved to the door and slid her keycard into the reader, entering a numerical code on the board right away. Much to her surprise, she got a red light in response. She sighed. “The bastards blocked all my access.”
Saori, on the other hand, had expected this. She pulled the magnetic pass around her neck and waved it past the reader. After she keyed in the code, the door gave her a green light as it clicked open. Both women went inside, Saori closing the door behind her and pressing her back to it. She held her breath, trying to calm herself down. It was a good thing there were no cameras inside, and Koizumi-san had her back to her, or else she would have felt exposed before the eyes of others. It took a while until she sensed her heart rate slow, but it seemed she was fine for the moment.
Ahead, Saori noticed the woman had made her way to one of the many server racks amid two long rows packed with them, the humming of tons of fans and the air ventilation system filling the entire room. She pulled the laptop sliding shelf toward her to lift its screen as Saori joined her. Then, sensing her phone buzzing in her pocket, the young girl grabbed it and unlocked it to check the unread message she had received. It contained the hidden user’s login information she required.
Once she had typed in all the credentials and accessed the system, she turned to Koizumi-san. “Okay, we’re in. I need you to tell me who has the flash drive. I trust he’s in the building by now?”
“Yes. He is one of your classmates.”
Saori raised her eyebrows, surprised, although her mind was already trying to figure out who the student could be.
Back in the conference suite on the sixth floor, Shibuya High students were looking at a presentation, sitting around the rectangular table in the center. The curtains were drawn on either side, yet a video screen at the far end of the room lit up the whole place, wide enough to nearly fill the wall behind. In front of it, the female guide moved her hands at a series of stock images following one after another. These show a group of people in pressure suits reaching a glowing gem at the bottom of a sea body, the woman speaking over them to provide further context. “The research conducted with the gems found in the Gulf of Mexico’s depths led to an unforeseen breakthrough. When subjected to high temperatures, this mineral generated distortions on the electromagnetic field that were previously inconceivable.”
The guide flicked a finger over the screen, and the images were replaced by a computerized simulation of a vast network of purple, web-like strands over a black background. They bound small clusters of tiny yellow sparkles like nerve fibers conducting electrical impulses on a brain. Kazuto recognized it as a representation of dark matter on a universal scale, the yellow glows of distant galaxies stretching out into the void. The woman elaborated, “Later experiments allowed to arise gravitational alterations and showed anomalous interaction with matter to the level of the theoretical dark fluid. This led to the conception of a fundamental force of higher magnitude than the weak, strong, gravitational, or electromagnetic ones: the ergonic.”
She paused for a moment to pick a digital tablet from the table. With a flick of her wrist, she ported data across to the mounted screen, the computerized simulation folding away and giving rise to a professional video recording. On it, a group of scientists worked a huge console inside what appeared to be a power plant. The leading technician lifted his hand, signaling to a female colleague sitting behind a monitor at one end of the room. The woman jerked her head to check his order and pressed a small switch. At this, the recording showed a camera inside the reactor, a large torus-shaped chamber clad with graphite. Bright-blue hot plasma began to glow at its ignition. Then, another simulation took over the screen, displaying two atoms merging as the guide explained, “Thanks to this, it was possible to overcome the repulsion barrier when joining a deuterium atom with a tritium one to form a helium-four stable atom, releasing a neutron in the process and thus achieving a successful nuclear fusion. Nowadays, it’s conceivable even in the reduced scope of a prosthesis or a vehicle engine.”
None of this, however, picked Kazuto’s attention. He was well informed on the matter, which was why his eyes were caught by the entrance door being discreetly opened. The light emitted by the screen glittered on Saori Yoshimura’s shiny hair as she tiptoed her way across the room. His heart leaped in his chest as he saw the girl had her flashy blue eyes fixed on him. She sneaked past the other students and toward his seat, the female guide still speaking in the background. “Current cars employ low-cost ergonomic cores that produce electricity from hydrogen combustion engines—”
“Sugiyama Kazuto-kun,” she whispered in his ear as she stood beside him. “I need you to come with me for a second. It’s about the flash drive you’re carrying.”
The girl went back straight for the door, leaving Kazuto stumped. He looked around, feeling awkward, then abandoned his seat and followed her outside. The boy turned his head for a few moments, realizing that Nozomi and Raisuke were looking at him with puzzled frowns. He got to hear the murmur of his friend’s voice. “Well, well,” he started while rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “I have underestimated you, my dear Kazuto. Perhaps you have what it takes to melt her heart after all.”
He had already lost sight of them, but he caught the dull thud as Nozomi slapped him on the head, followed by Raisuke’s giggling at her reaction. He would have laughed himself, but the sudden turn of events had his mind focused somewhere else.
A few analysts were still sitting at their workstations as Kazuto closed the door behind him. Saori was standing right in front of him, scowling in frustration as her arm stretched before her in demand.
A sort of vapid curiosity flitted across Kazuto’s mind, a desire to get some information out of this girl. “So, you’re also involved in all this?” he inquired.
“Just hand me the flash drive, will you?” she replied, her words sounding anything but welcoming as she narrowed her eyes into a hostile grimace. “We don’t have much time.”
Disappointed, Kazuto produced the drive from his pocket. She yanked it away from his hand and whirled around to leave. Then, all of a sudden, she stopped midway and spoke to him with her back turned. “I’ve noticed you’ve been watching me these past few days,” she complained, dispelling her explicit irritation by combing a few white strands of her hair behind her ear. “It’s annoying. If you want to ask me out or something, then give up. I’m not interested.”
A cold shiver ran down Kazuto’s spine. He swallowed hard, realizing he might have done something he couldn’t take back and could get him into trouble. The last thing he needed was for everyone to think he was some kind of despicable stalker. Yet, for some strange reason, he found himself at a loss of words, his palms getting sweaty. He had to say something, give an excuse of some sort, or else things would get ugly for him.
“Oh, I-I’m so sorry,” Kazuto responded at last as he waved his hands desperately by reflex. There was nothing left for him but to apologize and be sincere at this point. “It’s just that the pain in your eyes seemed familiar.” By instinct, he moved his right hand behind his head, then began rubbing it in an attempt to mask his discomfort at the situation. “I know I can’t possibly understand whatever you’re going through, yet I felt reflected in them as if we both shared similar grief and regrets...”
Saori’s reaction to his words was something Kazuto never saw coming. She turned to look at him, her eyes going wide in surprise as if she had never expected him to say that. She even glared up at him, almost on the verge of panic. Had he touched a nerve, perhaps? She definitely seemed to consider him as she lowered her gaze for an instant, her eyes darting from side to side as if she were looking for an explanation.
Kazuto clenched his teeth. It looked like his reply had only made things worst. He even tried to come up with a reassuring grin in the corners of his mouth, but all he could muster was a nervous smile. “Just forget about it, would you?” he said as he clapped his hands together and ducked his head in apology. “I won’t do it anymore, I swear.”
But the girl simply walked away and disappeared around a corner, leaving Kazuto wondering what all that had been about.
The elevator took Saori back to the fourth level. Yet all the way up, she fought back the surge of anxiety growing in her at Sugiyama-kun’s words, folding her arms, unfolding them, then stomping her feet as the brief trip seemed to take forever. This was the reason why, when the doors slid open and she started for the server room, she failed to notice the yellow mop bucket before it and almost tripped. She furrowed her brown, her head turning immediately to the side to find a man mopping the floor in front of the bath exit.
It took her a few seconds to register her brother’s silhouette under the uniform. “Hayato?” she asked in surprise, narrowing her eyes to make sure they weren’t betraying her.
In a playful manner, he put a finger to his lips as he said, “I know, right? I’m just too handsome to look like a mere janitor.”
Saori had no time for Hayato’s nonsense. She didn’t even bother to shake her head or spend a thought at his overly casual attitude as she went for the server room. The young girl waved her card and passed through the security door, coming upon Koizumi-san tapping a few keys on the laptop. She walked to her and handled her the thumb-drive, the woman taking it from her hand without losing focus on the screen. Saori, for her part, crouched beside her as she pulled out a USB device with an antenna on its back, which she placed on the corresponding port of the catalog server.
Koizumi-san was still working the keyboard when she asked her, “What are you doing down—?”
“This is White Leopard,” she spoke into her mike, paying her no mind. “The transmitter is in place.”
“Big Boss here,” his father replied. “We’re in. Good job.”
Saori grimaced at his response, knowing there was nothing to be proud of before such an insignificant action, then eyed the door to be sure there was no one else around. As she glanced back at Koizumi-san, her gaze stopped at one of the many racks’ glass doors, bumping into her likeness mirrored on its smooth surface. She stared at her face for a few moments as if waiting for something to change, examining her features in detail to avoid missing even the slightest alteration. But nothing happened. Indeed, she was still the same girl as before, the one who had failed and condemned tens of people to perish.
“It’s just that the pain in your eyes seemed familiar,” Sugiyama-kun’s words echoed in her thoughts. “As if we both shared similar grief and regrets—”
Unbidden, the memory of the bombed embassy floated up to the surface of her consciousness. Once everything had gone to hell, Saori had helped rescue victims from the rubble. Her armor, after all, granted her unique protection from the collapsing structure and the intoxicating smoke inside it. She saw herself back there, standing in front of what was left of the building, unable to feel the heat coming from the flames or hear the desperate cries of the wounded and relatives of the victims surrounding her. But she could see. Through the visor of her helmet, her gaze couldn’t avoid the young student sitting motionless inside an ambulance a few meters away from her. Saori knew who he was, and while she had no way of knowing if his parents had made it through, the dead expression in his eyes told her everything she needed to know.
A sudden wave of crashing emotions came to Saori as she returned to the present, breaking through the cold, hard feeling in her chest. Fury prevailed as her right hand drew into a tight fist and smashed her reflection in the door. She bit her teeth in frustration, closing her eyes to fight the tears. “What could you know about it?” the words slipped from her mouth. “It was my fault that they died, not yours.” But she knew why he had said that to her. He was tormenting her, his accusing gaze following her to make her feel the weight of her mistake.
She forced herself back to the task at hand, not before catching her reflection on the glass, which was splintered into a spider-web of cracks, the likeness of her face as broken as her spirits. Her palm trembled as she withdrew it from the door, and as she turned away, she realized Koizumi-san was looking at her awkwardly. She seemed to recall something as she opened her mouth and said, “I-I think you take a look at this.”
Ignoring her gaze, Saori came across and looked at the computer screen. Data flashed past her eyes, endless rows of hexadecimal characters turning into clear columns of text. Most of its meaning was unfamiliar to her, but she discerned the pattern of a list among it. She leaned in closer and moved her finger over the touchpad, highlighting a text string containing multiple names, including those of KOIZUMI, KOTORI, and WATANABE, KAIO.
She frowned as she asked Kotori-san, “Is that what I think it is?”
“Likely. It seems to be a list of Cytek’s employees in their pockets.”“White Leopard,” her father demanded her attention on her earpiece. “We’re using the drive’s files to spot those Watanabe moved from the server farm. We identified high-level encrypted traffic using an undue amount of bandwidth. They may be employing some sort of hidden network.” Big Boss paused for a moment, his subsequent tone reflecting the severity of the situation in which they found themselves. “It’s clear we’ve underestimated the scale of their operation, so be careful. They’re everywhere.”