Hayato was still busy mopping the floor, doing a decent job thanks to the practice he’d had with his own large apartment, when the double doors of an emergency staircase flung open. A man in a security uniform stepped into the hall. Hayato recognized him as the guard from whom he had taken the radio. As he jerked his head from one end of the hallway to the other, evidently still looking for him, the boy turned his back on him and wheeled his cart further away.
His heart leaped to his throat as the man approached him. “Have you seen a pair of high schoolers hanging around with a female employee?” he asked Hayato, stopping at several paces’ distance behind him.
The boy shook his head as he adjusted his cap to darken his face. Even if he had removed his glasses, it was conceivable the guard would recognize him at a closer glance. His need to know more made him turn a little, seeing from the corner of his eye as the man peered at the server room, trying to discern if anyone was inside. While the frosted glass walls did him no favors, he pursed his lips as though something didn’t add up. He pulled a cellphone out of a pocket, and once he unlocked it, Hayato saw he was scrolling down its contents. The boy tensed at this. The company, he recalled, employed a security application that kept a log of entries at each locked door. Not only would it show that someone had gone in, but if Hachiko had used her keycard to access the room, the failed attempt would appear on the record.
The guard’s expression shifted as his face registered a moment of confusion. His eyes widening in alert, he jerked his head up. Hayato whirled away again, perhaps a little too roughly, since he felt his scrutinizing gaze falling upon his features. Then came the rustle of footsteps moving to the elevators. Hayato stole a quick glance at the security guard, registering he had raised a radio to his lips. He couldn’t make out what he was saying, yet the awful feeling he had been identified gripped him nevertheless.
Lines of code kept multiplying before Saori’s eyes with as much speed as the anxiety growing in her thoughts. Meanwhile, Koizumi-san brought up a new window on the laptop. The screen flashed a command prompt as she clicked on the text string indicating the program “PORPHYRION” was already running. Saori felt a lump in her throat, hoping that she had misread it, that her hunch was misguided. But when the woman hovered an arrow over a countdown clock below the codename, which showed a payload would be uploaded in just over 6 minutes, she knew it had to be true.
Worry lines gripped Saori’s forehead at the implications. “That doesn’t look good,” she commented in a flat tone, trying to hide her fear, and then spoke to her mike. “Big Boss, please tell me you’re doing something to stop it.”
“We’re redirecting the search to find the payload files,” he replied. “But their encryption level is far too complex.”
“White Leopard, this is Blue Jaguar,” came her brother’s voice suddenly. “I need you to check a name on that list for me: Hideki Shiraishi.”
Getting carried away by the urgency of the moment, Saori wasted no time on questions and took over the laptop, whipping her fingers across the mouse pad and keyboard. She pulled up a new window and typed the name Hayato had given her. The search query ended as abruptly as it had begun, and the result showed up before her eyes.
Outside the server room, Hayato had his gaze fixed on the guard’s ID tag, barely making out in the distance the name he had reported to his sister. At that moment, the lift doors parted open, two more uniformed men joining their partner. They began exchanging comments in a low voice, Shiraiashi’s eyes flitting from Hayato to his partners and back again. A shiver ran through him, his heart pumping in his chest with frightening loudness.
His fears came true at his sister’s response. “Affirmative, Blue Jaguar,” she said in his earplug after a long while. “Security guard of Uyghur descent in his mid-thirties. Hired recently.”
Hayato tensed, feeling the edges of ready menace coming off the guards as they strode straight down where he was, opening up as if they owned the hallway. He tried to keep up his mopping act as best he could, but it was hard to focus with the threat looming over him.
“Hey, you!” Shiraishi yelled as he kept closing the distance. “Your name is Hayato Yoshimura, right?”
Instinctively, the boy whirled to the voice, bumping into all three guards coming to a dead halt within arm’s length of him. He tried to conjure up some sort of answer, yet he found none. Worse, his silence spoke for him more than any words could, an implicit confession of guilt.
“You’re gonna have to come with us.”
Hayato heard the rustle of a holster being snapped open, followed by the click of a safety catch flicking off. He thought about running away, even if only for a few seconds, but fought the impulse to do so. His sister and Kotori were still inside the server room; he had to buy them some time.
Then, he did the unthinkable. In the bat of an eye, Hayato threw a sudden blow with the end of his mop—cracking Shiraishi hard in his face. The impact broke his nose, blood gushing from it as he staggered back, struggling to keep his balance. Hayato stomped on the mop’s head and separated it from the pole, adrenaline rushing through his body as he realized the second guard was on him. He stepped backward and pivoted left, ducking in time to avoid his onslaught, and then turned the inelegant move into a counterattack. He swept his foot with the mop’s handle to throw him down.
The third man taught better than to face him and kept his distance, so it was Hayato who took the initiative. He lunged forward with a thrust of his mop, but the guard saw it coming and deflected his attack with an inside-forearm block. He then spun around and delivered a back-fist at Hayato, who defended himself by blocking it with his makeshift weapon. Yet by doing so, he had let his opponent get too close, to the point where he caught hold of his mop, trying to yank it away from his hands. Hayato tightened his grip, both men now jostling for its control. He knew he was no match for the guard in terms of strength and that the plastic stick would break at any moment. And still, he allowed him to take the lead. Pushing the man closer, he seized the momentum, using his own body weight against him to perform a hip throw. He brought him down with ease.
The bastard, however, got up in no time, far from beaten. At this, Hayato began spinning his mop like a bō staff, holding it with one hand as he whirled it under his arm, then with both as he moved it behind him, all in a seamless and skillful flow. There was nothing swagger about this, of course, but rather a need to keep the guard on his toes and unable to anticipate his next move. Indeed, he never saw the powerful lash Hayato threw at his leg, the pole breaking in two as his legs were thrown into the air. He fell heavily on his back.
“Watch out!” Eagle Eye suddenly barked in Hayato’s earpiece. “The other—!”
Pain erupted in the back of his skull, and the boy found himself beaten on the floor. He assumed the first guard had hit him with the butt of his pistol, yet as darkness engulfed him, his senses started to fade away. “Blue Jaguar, what was that?” he caught his sister’s voice in his ear. “Blue Jaguar, do you copy, over?”
No reply came from his end. For he had already blacked out.
Peering out into the corridor from beside the laptop, Saori witnessed two shadows carrying a lump on their shoulders behind the frosted glass. And if that wasn’t enough to make her skin crawl, she noticed a third shadow was moving on the door, ready to step in.
“White Leopard,” her father barked in her comms with urgency in his voice. “Head to the roof at once for emergency exfiltration. Alpha's on the way via chopper.”
Saori grabbed Koizumi-san by the hand before she could react and pulled her toward the opposite end of the room, avoiding the urge to glance over her shoulder and hoping they could get out of sight in time.
But the guard was already inside.
“Game’s over, ladies,” said a menacing voice behind them. “Show me your hands, and don’t try anything funny.”
Saori sensed her heart turning to ice as she stood dead still. She threw a sidelong glance at Koizumi-san, her eyes widening under her glasses as she drew her lips back in an expression of pure terror. She even felt the woman’s body shaking, Saori herself fighting to keep her knees under control. Then, with a sense of increasing dread, the young girl turned around. A pistol aimed straight at her heard met her, the man carrying it cocking the hammer. She recognized him as Hideki Shiraishi, the person his brother had asked her to find on the encrypted list. Saori let go of Koizumi-san’s hand and raised her own slowly, lest the man had an excuse to fire his deadly weapon. As the woman beside her did the same, the guard closed on them, always maintaining a cautious distance.
When Shiraishi seemed ready to pull something out of a pocket, Saori saw he had taken his eyes off her for a brief moment. The girl saw his chance and acted in a split second. Ducking and spinning on one leg, she threw a reverse roundhouse kick. It was precise and strong enough to yank the pistol away from his hand and leave him stunned. Adrenaline pumping, Saori stepped forward and went for him with a series of fast punches from all angles, anticipating he would react to a few of them. Her hunch proved right as the man blocked blow after blow, then countered with a few of his own, the fight beginning in earnest. But soon enough, Saori realized that Shiraishi’s physical advantage was too much for her to handle, taking everything she had to defend herself. Indeed, as he found a gap in her defenses, he connected two powerful fists on her abdomen. Saori fought the urge to double over in pain, for she had glimpsed a roundhouse kick being thrown at her. Thankfully, she reacted in time, ducking to dodge his onslaught as she mustered all her strength to spin around so she could stomp on his kickstand. The man uttered a cry of agony at her attack, but Saori didn’t stop there. She drove an elbow to his head, knocking him back against a server rack. Yet adrenaline had abandoned the girl by then, replaced by stabs of pain shooting across her belly that demanded to be contained. She clutched at it as she backed away, putting some distance between them.
For a few moments, nothing was heard but the murmur of the server fans and the gasps of exhaustion coming from both combatants as they tried to regain their breath. Then, all of a sudden, Shiraishi favored Saori with a wicked smile. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed he had produced a knife from a pocket. The girl swallowed hard, bracing herself for what was to come.
In the bat of an eye, the guard was onto her, sweeping in with a lunging attack Saori dodged by a hair, the blade cutting the air near her face. Shiraishi kept throwing thrusts at her, the girl backing away every time she fended them off. Yet she soon ran out of room, and her opponent had cornered her into a server rack. As the edged weapon came down on her, Saori locked her hands around the guard’s right wrist, just in time to keep the knife away from her face. But the man was too strong for her, the edge of the blade getting closer and closer as she fought for space with all she had. Not before long, Saori felt the touch of cold metal on her left cheek, ripping a small fraction of her soft skin open. Her eyes widened in panic, knowing she wouldn’t be able to hold him off much longer.
“No one said I couldn’t hurt you or ruin your pretty face, you know?” the guard scoffed through clenched teeth while pressing harder.
“Let go of her!”
From the corner of her eye, Saori saw Koizumi-san was holding the guard’s pistol between her hands, which trembled as she tried to fix it on him. The muscles of her face had scrunched up into a terrified grimace. But as Shiraishi jerked her head to the woman, ever so slightly, she seized his distraction and kneeled him hard in the crotch. Free from his grasp, Saori crossed her right hand in front of her body to elbow him in the neck. The guard staggered backward, letting go of the knife as he struggled to keep his balance and, most importantly, losing sight of her.
Emboldened, the girl kept her momentum going and went for him with a series of relentless double kicks at his ribs that broke down his defenses. She then spun her body, pivoting on her right leg to lift her left one as she threw a high butterfly kick that stuck him in the face. Winded, the guard fell to the floor, yet Saori would take no chances. Her heart pounding, she yanked out an ethernet cable from a server and wrapped it around his neck, pressing hard for a few long seconds. She feared her efforts wouldn’t be enough, but when his body slumped into unconsciousness, Saori knew it was over.
The girl let go of him, then crawled backward until she sat resting her head against the glass door of one of the racks. She panted heavily, gasping for air as showers of sweat soaked her delicate face, and not believing how she had managed to get out alive. With some effort, she jerked her head to Koizumi-san. She was standing limply in place until she dropped the gun and collapsed on her knees, her eyes petrified as though they couldn’t conceive what had happened.
Then, out of nowhere, the lights in the room began to flicker. Almost immediately, Saori glanced in the laptop’s direction. She collected her strength and fought to stand up, then walked toward it, holding onto the racks for support as she kept panting. When she reached the screen, text strings flashed past her eyes as an endless chain of commands was being executed.
"Shit,” she muttered, alarmed. "It’s