The outside of the boxy military truck shone with stained plexiglass armor, a contrast to its cramped interior where Roy sat hip to hip with Ken and Hai. Akos sat across from him, their knees colliding with each bump. Two red eyed soldiers sat on either side of him, one tapping away at a small tablet.
What Roy saw out the window behind Akos was every bit as desolate as Ken warned. Buildings wore moss like a fur coat and the street signs that weren't lying in the road were almost too faded to read, but the one reading "Adachi 15km" caught Roy's eye.
"Adachi is where Mika is, you said?"
"That's right," Akos replied. "The towers are next to a bridge going over the Arakawa River. That's where he's attacked. Matsuda, how many have we lost?"
"Three of seven," the middle-aged man to his left muttered, not looking up.
"How do you know it's Mika?" Roy asked, glancing at Ken who was biting his lips as he watched the convoy of trucks speeding in front of theirs.
"They have enough missile launchers to overwhelm our interceptors," Matsuda replied in an even smaller voice. "He's the only one with that kind of firepower. The towers' high frequency radio waves should stop anybody with a synthetic brain from approaching in the first place, and he and Ken are the only ones who can hack into the waves and lower the frequency."
Ken sighed, and tapped his leg like a drum. Roy blinked at him, gulped, and turned back to the older man. "Which makes Ken the only one that can restore the frequency?"
"That's the idea," Akos said, shooting Ken a worried glance. "If we can get Ken close enough to get inside the AI network, he can reset the frequency, which would allow the multitude of navis within the towers to fight Mika off."
"There are navi in the towers…?"
"They assist us inside and outside of Aesthetica," Akos said. "They communicate with the navi of people passing by, as well as the towers that remain scattered throughout the world. It's how we get information on resources we need to fuel Aesthetica. And aside from Aesthetica itself, Adachi has the last hub left."
"That's why this is so important…"
"Exactly," Akos replied. "That reminds me, if it comes down to the main tower, its defenses will automatically go into overdrive. Your navis might act a little… strange, if that happens."
"Weren't you sick earlier? How'd you get over it?" Ken asked, peering into Roy's eyes.
"Wouldn't his aesthetics have kicked in?" Akos asked, raising his brow at Ken.
Ken, be careful talking about that! Are you trying to get me caught?
Just making sure you aren't taking aesthetics on the sly…
I'll screen myself later to prove I'm not! What's your problem, anyway?
I'm annoyed, obviously. We're about to walk into a warzone, you know?
You're nervous about fighting Mika, aren't you?
Obviously, that too…
Akos's curious gaze shifted between Roy and Ken. "Right?"
"Yeah, exactly," Roy said with a forced laugh, which Hai matched. "I might not be as skilled at using them as you, but aesthetics work for anyone, Ken."
"Guess so," Ken replied, looking away.
You should be more nervous, Roy. I'm not babysitting you out there.
You don't need to. Focus on your job.
"Another tower down," Matsuda said, panic gluing his eyes to the screen. "Three left."
"We have to preserve at least the main tower," Akos replied, gripping Matsuda's shoulder as he looked outside. "Are you in range to attack Mika's synthetic brain directly?"
"I should be, but I won't last long against him. He killed everyone else but me, last time," he said with a shudder as he finally glanced at Ken. "Officer Braun, what about him?"
"I want to save him for the battlefield," Akos replied. "I don't want to tip Mika off on our best card before playing it. Please, just hang in there for 5 minutes."
Ken knit his brow at Akos, before looking Matsuda up and down. "He's distracted. He won't focus on you. But if it looks like he's going to fry your brain, hand me the tablet."
"T-thank you," Matsuda replied, before blinking twice. His eyes turned vacant as his navi silently projected itself from his red eyes.
"He's fighting Mika… right now?" Roy asked.
"In cyberspace," Ken said. "He's just trying to block Mika's signal, to slow him down."
"Like the navi in the towers?"
"He's not using high frequency waves, but it's similar," Akos said. "He's using aesthetics to process his and Mika's brainwaves at a microscopic level. The same way Ken hacks."
"Didn't you say you don't need aesthetics to hack?" Roy asked the already disinterested Ken.
"I can do enough with just my synthetic brain, but only because there was once aesthetics that flowed through it. It's like muscle memory. Of course I have to take them to get the best results."
That's the real reason you're dreading this, isn't it?
My other reasons are plenty valid, too…
"What about Mika? Isn't he an anti-aesthetic? How is he so skilled?"
"He uses them," Ken replied, scowling at his feet. "An altered strain, at least. It doesn't do anything like your aesthetics do…"
Did you also…
"We're here," Akos cried as the truck skidded to a stop at the base of a bridge. Everyone filed out of the truck, aside from Matsuda, who sat unconscious. The other trucks had already started firing on the baseball field below, where several dozen people were firing handheld missile launchers from the grass.
When the soldiers began their assault, they picked up their guns and fled on motorbikes to the next field, where three towers had been reduced to glass rubble. Explosions resounded across a third field, where two towers fired their own missiles from turrets and intercepted the enemy's. Beyond them, one larger tower lay in the middle of a U-shaped flower bed. Its flowers, color coded in stripes that painted a rainbow, were connected by a set of stairs made to match.
A man with tall black hair stood at the helm of the steps, not moving a muscle. "Is that him?" Roy asked, shielding his ears from the barrage of explosions.
"It's too far to tell, but I'm sure it is," Akos said, to which Ken nodded. "Everybody, prepare to turn off outside hearing! We'll communicate with our navis on the channel we joined earlier."
Roy, you don't have aesthetics to turn off your hearing, and you have real ear drums!
He looked at Ken, who put drops in his eyes before raising his hood over his head and shrugging at him.
"Here, Grainger," Akos said, handing Roy a pair of thick headphones, followed by Ken and Hai. "None of you have synthetic ear drums, so this is the best protection for you. Plus, if the main tower ends up being the last one standing, its failsafe will kick in and the waves will make everybody's synthetic parts go haywire, anyway. Keep these on, especially if that happens."
"Infantry units in the grass! Take out every one of those bastards!" Emery Braun cried as she stepped out of the truck parked next to theirs. A group of purple eyed men and women rushed down the hill, firing automatic guns at the motorcyclists as they readied their missile launchers..
"Hey, you going to get to work or not?" Emery cried, scowling at Ken with eyes so bright they were almost red. "Those missiles are machine driven. If they aren't homing, then Mika is controlling them. That means you can hack them, right?"
"Emery, I'm handling Ken," Akos said, putting his own headphones on. "You're handling the tactical side."
She clicked her tongue and turned while Roy slipped the headphones over his ears, and the constant gunfire suddenly sounded like it came from underwater.
"Just get me close to Mika." Emery's voice came as a muffled transmission in the headphones, her mouth not moving but her scowl deepening with her words as she descended the hill. "I'll kill the scumbag myself."
"Fine by me," Ken said through the headphones as the sound of glass shattering pierced Roy's ears despite the headphones. He doubled over, holding his head in his shaking hands.
Roy, you have nothing to prove. This is too much for you to handle without aesthetics!
He shook his head and held the headphones tight to his ears as he stood back up. "Did another tower go down?"
"Yeah," Akos replied. "Only one left before the main one. We need to get to Mika, now!" They followed him back in the truck, and Akos took the wheel. Just as he pulled away, several missiles slammed into the bridge, blowing some of the trucks into pieces. Akos sped around to an adjacent road, and floored it. Roy held his mouth shut, while Hai patted his back and Ken watched Matsuda closely. Smoke and fire engulfed the fields below, and Ken stood up just as two missiles emerged from the smokescreen, zoning in on their truck.
"Ken!" Hai and Akos cried. Matsuda's hands outstretched by a fraction, and Roy snatched the tablet and held it out to Ken. The navi projected from the man's eyes retracted, and several sparks flew from his vacant eyes before they closed and he sank into his seat.
Before the projectiles could close the distance, Ken swiped his finger in front of him with one hand while snatching the tablet from Roy with the other. The missiles soared just over the truck and found their home in the grass across the road.
"Did he get Matsuda?" Akos cried as the truck approached the last field, where the man with tall black hair suddenly moved.
"He broke through his hack, but it looks like Roy got him out before his brain fried," Hai replied as he leaned over and checked his pulse. "That was unbelievably quick thinking, Roy."
"I just followed Ken's lead," Roy replied, doing his best to keep his eyes from bouncing around as his stomach threatened to empty once again. "Does he know you're here now, Ken?"
"I'm not in cyberspace yet, so he shouldn't," Ken replied, peering at the tablet. "Once I use this to tap into the tower's system, he'll definitely know. Let's get to him first, Akos. For all he knows, you just have another hacker capable of moving the missiles."
"Almost there," Akos replied, swerving the truck as motorcyclists appeared from the hill, firing automatic guns at their flank. "I'm not as eager as my sister to get red eyes. Can you cover me, Ken?"
Ken nodded, and directed a missile at the open field leading to the hill the motorcyclists had scaled. The explosion sent a surge of wind that laid down all but one of the bikes. The slender rider threw her helmet off and let the wind whip her black hair as she aimed a long, skinny rifle while steering the bike with her hips and thighs, tightened around the bike's frame like a snake choking its prey.
"Shit, it's Miyuki." Just as Ken's words reached Roy's headphones, the bullet from her sniper rifle blew out their rear tire. Akos swerved with the missing tire's axle, and brought the truck to a skidding stop.
The woman on the bike sped by, her rifle, aimed at the window behind Matsuda.
"That one isn't plexiglass!" Akos cried as he threw the door open. The woman turned just in time and fired two shots, but crashed into the open door regardless. Her, her rifle, the bike, and the door all scattered down the road, while Akos cried out.
Hai leapt into the cab and found the soldier in the passenger seat shot in the head, and Akos' thigh seeping blood. "You'll live! You should be able to use your synthetics to stop the bleeding. Guys, I'll hold her off. Go after Mika!"
Ken and Roy threw the back door open and jumped out onto the road. Hai was already running toward the woman dressed in black leather, who was struggling to her feet with blood dripping from her head and torso. Roy threw up on the pavement, and looked at Ken.
"It's just you and me, Roybot," he said with a grin, holding up the tablet. "I guess you'll be babysitting me, now. I'll be a sitting duck once I'm in cyberspace."
Roy, you shouldn't go! You could die!
My duty is to serve the people of Aesthetica, Navi…"
But not as a soldier!
If Mika succeeds, there might be no Aesthetica. I have to do this.
But Roy, you can't… I can't stand by and watch you—
"Let's go, Roy," Ken said, running down the hill that led to the rainbow steps Mika walked slowly down. Roy followed, glancing to see Hai trading blows with the woman in black.
"The towers are still pushing him back, look, he can barely move," Ken said, tapping at the tablet. "I'm keeping them from affecting us, so cover me and try to take him down. Unlike me, he can move in both places."
"Okay, be careful in there," Roy said, eyeing the man's rigid back which bore a sleeveless white tactical vest that contrasted the black ink covering his arms and neck in flames, and his dark hair which rose in the shape of a flame.
As they neared the steps, Ken tapped at the screen, before looking back at Roy with a grin "By the way, I can't keep you safe from the waves from cyberspace. Have fun, Roy."
He collapsed on the steps with the tablet in his hand, his navi projecting from his eyes. A burst of static filled the headphones, along with a chorus of robotic voices speaking so fast Roy couldn't make out a word.
Roy, your head can't take this!
I just have to reach him…
He spurred his stiff joints on and reached out, almost close enough to touch Mika's back.
You don't have to sacrifice yourself like this, Roy!
My duty… is to the people of Aesthetica… not myself!
And mine is to you! I won't let you die!
"What is annoying buzzing in my ear? Who are you?"
The voice that spoke belonged to none of the people that had been speaking in the headphones, nor his navi. And before his trembling hand could touch the man's back, another explosion sounded, followed by an avalanche of glass. In the next field over, the only other tower was reduced to rubble, while Emery fell to her knees in the blood-strewn grass.
"I asked you who you are, you fucking bug in my ear," the young man said as he slowly turned his head. The inked flames shaded his murderous gaze like warpaint, and his eyes were no more than pure black abyss threatening to devour him.
"This signal— Is that… Ken?" His eyes settled on the unconscious Ken. "You came back."
Roy snatched the armpit of Mika's vest, but before he could pull him down, Mika drew a pistol from his vest and fired. The bullet pierced his headphones, smashing his ear and blowing the headphones to pieces. His ears rang like a screaming kettle while his shaking hands flailed in an attempt to cover his ears. The lone tower lit up so bright Roy saw flashes of the chapel he was baptized in, and the voices he'd heard in the headphones consumed the air itself. Somehow, he still heard one over the rest.
Roy, they're pulling you into cyberspace! Find Ken! I promise I'll pull you out!
"Failsafe activated." The chorus of voices sang along with the ringing in his ears, and before he could shield his ears from the assault, he and Mika both fell with a thud.