Chapter 13:

Friendly Squabble

Assassin's Hunter

These past two days just kept getting weirder and weirder. First, Hermes gives me the huge job of killing one of the most influential men on the planet. Then, I ran into a lost girl with her memory wiped for some strange reason. Also, Dygen might've known someone would try to kill him all along. And now, some apparent bounty hunter is after me who knows about Ava.

But wait, there was one more.

Another thought popped into my head. The flashes of light I saw at the Opera Heist. The strange phenomenon I experienced when staring at the… Dygen Corp Tower. Where Ava came from… where her father was… My stomach began to turn, realizing that something significant at work was in play. All pieces could somehow be connected, but I had no way of knowing how to solve the problem.

Gulping down this realization, I drove back to Keiffer's, also holding back the pain from all over my body. My gunshot wound wasn't too severe, luckily…well, not luckily, that's what the bounty hunter intended. I did some quick patchwork on my skin to seal up the graze.

The tech shop was just how I left it, with Keiffer hunched over some gizmos and junk and Elena playing with Ava on the couch. Of course, them being here meant they had no luck finding her parents yet. But it still was great to see Ava again. They all turned to greet me once I entered the shop, but Ava ran to me first.

"Eiji! You're back," Ava hugged me warmly.

"Missed you too, kiddo. Ouch, not too tight. You're stronger than you think you are," I chuckled forcefully, still recovering from my injuries.

"Elena took my fingers!" Ava smiled.

"I think you mean fingerprints, sweetie."

"Holy hell, you look… what happened?" Elena gasped.

"You guys don't watch the news much, do you?"

I limped over to the couch. Ava gestured for me to carry her, so I picked her up and brought her with me to sit on my lap.

"It was a trap," I continued.

"What was? Did you get Dygen? Did the Chimera II work?" Keiffer asked.

"It worked alright, but Dygen saw it coming. He had some personal shield on him to prevent me kill- finishing the job," I chose my words carefully, mind Ava's innocent ears, "What's more was that there was some bounty hunter who found me and knew about Ava. Asking for her. I barely got out alive… but he wasn't trying to kill me. My sword couldn't piece his metal armor. Heh- looks like I'm adding another upgrade request to your list, Keiffer."

"So Dygen's not dead?"

"No, he got away. I still have two days before Election day to finish the job, but… I get the feeling there's more behind this. This wasn't supposed to turn out like this. It felt set up."

"Are you okay though," Elena worriedly asked.

"Nothing a few pills and some alcohol can't fix. What about you guys? What happened with Ava?"

The two now had different looks on their faces. They hesitated to speak but then blurted out in unison, interrupting each other.

"Ava's not-"

"I found- sorry you go first," Keiffer offered.

"Right, thanks. Look, Eiji, I don't know how to tell you this, but Ava isn't on the grid. She's not in any system. No social security, birth certificate, parents, close relatives, date of birth, nothing… she's a blank slate."

Really? Unless you were an esteemed hacker or knew one closely, there was practically no way to erase yourself from the national grid.

There were two possibilities. One, she was raised off-grid with no documentation or records of her existence in the system. Her parents could be underworld dwellers who chose to raise her outside the network. Or two, she was from another country with no papers or visas transferred over.

She could be from the off-world colonies. But that was too far-fetched. She had a home here in Ultima with her family.

"If she's not in the system… then finding her parents directly is our next best chance."

Elena gestured to Keiffer to speak up on his news.

"Well, nothing too special, but I cracked a few things from the vanilla folder. The entire thing is in code, so it appears like a standard design for a normal vehicle. But I managed to decipher a good portion of it. Dygen's Applied Science division had a project in collaboration with Shinka Industries."

"The Japanese robotics company?" I asked.

"Yeah, but they're also known for their network security services… and energy supplies. Based on the numbers and dimensions these papers show, they could be building some machine or weapon that'll require enough power to level the city."

"Papa was trying to stop it…."

We looked to Ava, who had spoken. I gently nudged her to continue as she looked for my approval, "I think I remember Papa wanting to stop some machine thingy."

"Do you know what it was, Ava? The papers you had could give us a clue to what this is, but you can help us too."

"I wish I could… but I don't know what he said. It was all confusing. I'm sorry," she whimpered.

I didn't want to push her too hard, but hopefully, this meant her memory was returning.

"That's okay, you helped plenty," I looked to Keiffer and Elena, "That settles it. We can't solve anything from here, I need to break into Dygen Corp Tower to help her dad. To do that, I have to get rid of Dygen himself. Maybe lure him out. I'll need to meet with Hermes first and get to the bottom of this possible put-up job. I might even be able to raise my price now."

"You're still gonna try to kill Dygen? Not in this shape, you're not. You barely escaped back there. You're gonna get yourself killed!" Keiffer abruptly protested.

"This is the best chance to solving all of this."

"We don't even know what this is! There has to be another way to help Ava. But killing Dygen will put you and possibly us in more danger than we've bargained for."

"I don't remember hearing these concerns when we started."

"Maybe I've had a change of heart," he whispered.


"I've had enough!" Keiffer's eyes stared down at me.

An ugly pause infected the air.

"Can you take Ava and wait for me outside, Elena," I asked without breaking Keiffer's gaze.

"Uh- sure. Come on, honey," Elena grabbed Ava's hand.

"But I want to stay…." Ava whispered as she was led out the door.

The door's slam echoed throughout the warehouse. I stood up and paused to prepare for what was coming. Keiffer looked at me with all seriousness in stern composure.

"Where is this coming from?" I broke the ice.

"For too long, I've let this go by without saying my concerns. I can't stand to see you like this anymore. Maybe seeing innocent little Ava standing next to you reminded me of when we first met. A thirteen-year-old boy comes to my shop, calls himself an assassin, and demands to buy a weapon from me… not even then did question or protest."

"You never had a problem with my killing. Another man to my list shouldn't change that."

"It's not about Dygen or your work as an assassin. I'm talking about you. Your persistence to live this way," Keiffer paced around the worktable.

"I'm going to kill Dygen. Doing so will help me in saving Ava's father. It isn't anything more than that."

"But it is. Killing Dygen will cement you in a life of despair and persecution. At what cost will you go to keep walking this path?"

"I've faced far worse challenges than this… So I understand the risks," I said.

"I don't think you do… Long ago, before the Purge, when the forests were still alive, my grandfather knew a man who loved hiking, mountain climbing, hunting, and combatting the wilderness. It was his life and passion, the only thing he knew what to do, and everyone around him knew that. Then, one day he fell on the floor with enormous pain shooting across his lower right leg. The doctors said it was a rare condition that would eat away his nerves and would eventually result in death if he kept at the lifestyle he lived. There was a cure, but it would mean losing the ability to walk.

Refusing to do so and ignoring his family's plea, the man gambled his life day after day, wanting to live the most of his life. He eventually went on an expedition to trek a mountain trail alone. On the way back, that pain returned to his leg, causing agony with every step he took. He spent a week in the forest alone for what should've been a two-day trip. He nearly starved and was tormented with all kinds of horrors no man should ever face. By this point, the doctors confirmed that if he continued this path, he'd die within months."

"I don't need your parables," I said, irritated.

"What I'm trying to say is that you don't even know what you're after anymore. You think this is all you are. You're better than this life," Keiffer said, "Your future plan to 'head off-world' is not you finding peace; it's running away. And what's worse is that you're still here… How much money do you have saved? From all the jobs you've taken."

"What does it matter-"

"How much?" Keiffer persisted.


"You don't know… but I can take a guess. You've accepted almost a hundred kill requests from when I met you. I'm no accountant, but it should be more than enough to get you going. So why don't you go?"

I clenched my fists not to hold back aggression but to push away the thoughts and answers to his question. My chest began to feel empty and sick, hurting from what Keiffer was telling me.

"I will leave this planet. I will," I muttered.

"Then why haven't you? To earn more money?"

"I just forgot- soon I'll-"

"No, you won't. You'll stay and regress into what you've always hated doing. I might not know you that well, and I don't know what you think of me. Whether as a friend, partner, acquaintance, or just your personal weapons merchant. But I know that you're not meant for this life."

"And you are?"

"No… I'm not. I'm a merchant of death… supplying killers and criminals with weapons this city fears. But I fight to escape what this world makes me. I'm not a machine or cog! I'm human! While others waste their days watching the world crumble and turn to metal, I invest in changing my life for the better. Whether that's me opening a new shop or creating something that'll benefit the world, I'll go through with it. Yeah, I'm an arms dealer for now, and I'll have to live with it for the rest of my life-"

"Then I'm fine killing criminals to make a living," I affirmed.

"I've never questioned what you did to survive in this world, but if it's bringing you this much pain and carelessness to gamble your life away… it can't be good. It's eating away at you every day. And it'll hurt most for those who care for you. Ava. Your family. Your friends."

"What people? Who cares for me? My family? My friends?! I don't have ANY!" I yelled, breathing heavily from the leaking emotions.

Keiffer closed his eyes in defeat. He took a slow, quiet sigh turning away, "I thought I was your-... I thought you would think differently."

I wanted to say more. I wanted to prove him wrong or explain my perspective to him. But it would be futile at this point.

"I'm going to see Hermes… and I'm taking Ava with me. After that, I'll take her to see Hollace at the hospital. Don't wait up," I uttered quietly.

Keiffer didn't turn back to look at me; he stood still, looking down in cold silence. Four years. I've never had an argument this deep with him. His patient and welcoming attitude had me believe that nothing got through to him.

I thought he was as indifferent as I was… to the work we did with our lives. I suppose he was more human than I was.

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