Chapter 9:

A Little Bit Closer

The Underwriters

"We're taking a break? But, shouldn't we immediately be heading out to follow our next lead?"

"Luckily, Tomoe has already made a program that can decrypt messages like the one Seela's holoband sent. But, it'll still take time for the program to finish. Also, if we don't rest whenever possible, then we'll fall apart later when there's little time to stop. Right now, the kidnapper seems to be biding his time and trying to make Mr. West nervous. Seela shouldn't be in any immediate danger."

"Alright. I trust you, Yui."

Yui reached a hand out to gently rub against the top of Hibiki's head in response. "Thanks for trusting me. I promise that we'll be heading out as soon as possible. For now, let's head back to the base."

A white taxi slid in front of them, looking starkly out of place in front of Denton's crumbling apartment building. The trio clambered inside and sat in comfortable silence. Hibiki combed down some of Maya's unruly feathers while thinking about everything that had happened so far. When she first saw the job offer for the Underwriters, she had no idea what she was in for.

Fresh out of a free community college program for low-income students from the outskirts who graduated high school with top grades, she had no idea what to do next. Her dad wanted her to go on to university, but the piling up of bills meant that wasn't a choice. The disability checks that they had been receiving since the accident seemed to pay less every year. Taking a chance, Hibiki figured that she might as well see if she could use her strange abilities to be useful for once.

The lack of sleep from the past couple of days seemed to be catching up to her as her eyelids quivered. With a bobbing head, she leaned against the window and looked out at the passing city lights that she had only dreamed of in years prior. Pigeons strutted on the street, their steel beaks clanging against each other as they fought for crumbs of food. An old lady sat on a park bench, passing out computer chips and motherboards to feed the birds.

A young interspecies couple held hands, shimmering metallic joints clasped tightly onto flesh. And several hooded figures caught Hibiki's eye. Even though they were all different heights and shapes, her mind interposed the blurry image of Seela's kidnapper onto all of them. Hibiki unconsciously strained her ears, trying to listen for any voice that matched the security footage. Brief thoughts passed as she wondered how many others on the street had thought about getting revenge on the wealthy technocrats. As soon as she realized that even the kind old grandma feeding the birds had become a violent kidnapper seeking vengeance for past wrongs, Hibiki shook her head. Ignoring the sensation of iron staring directly at her, she closed her eyes and tried to get some rest.

Watching bobbing pigtails flutter up and down as their owner slowly succumbed to sleep, Yui also put down her holographic screens. Crossing her arms, she sunk into the car seat and briefly closed her eyes. Years of experience had taught Yui to always remain aware of her surroundings, preventing her from going into a deep sleep. Yet, listening to the breathing beside her lulled her into the most comfortable rest that she had gotten in years.


Feeling the car come to a stop, Maya chirped out to wake Yui and Hibiki. Pulling her arms and fingers out in front of her in a stretch, Hibiki felt the blood rushing through her reinvigorated limbs.

Renewed energy had her practically jumping out of the car without waiting for her commander. Maya pushed to the edge of her cage, calling for Yui to hurry up and join them as Hibiki went inside the building.

"I guess you had a really good nap, huh?"

"Yeah. Thank you, Yui. I didn't know I needed the rest. Although, I didn't expect to get so much sleep before getting back."

Barely allowing her lips to twitch, Yui observed the glow on Hibiki's cheeks. Her eyes softened as she explained, "I requested the AI driver to take a longer route back so you could get extra rest. I'm glad I did. You look a lot better, little bird."

"Th-thanks. I hope you got some rest, too." Hibiki mumbled out the last part of her words before hurrying back towards the training room.

"Over here. We're heading into the computer lab for now."

Pink was barely visible in Hibiki's brown cheeks as she changed course to follow Yui. Entering the room, she watched as Yui's fingers flew over the laser keyboard. Uploading the encrypted message into Tomoe's custom program, a loading bar appeared on the screen alongside an estimated time for completion. Hibiki's eyes widened as she took in the timer, telling them to wait for a minimum of ten hours for the message's details to be decoded.

"I see why you said we might as well rest now."

"Mmm. If Tomoe was available, she would have this message decoded in under an hour, but she's still busy like everyone else. Luckily, she created this program for the team to use a while ago."

Seeing Hibiki shift her weight back and forth standing beside her, Yui pulled her down into the seat next to her. She sighed, watching Hibiki continue to fidget in the chair. She asked, "Do you have any questions for me, little bird?"

"Hmm? Questions?"

"While we wait, now's the time to ask me any burning questions you have about me. I'll answer what I can as a reward for being so good."

"Then, can. Can you tell me a little more about what you did before the Underwriters? Only if you feel like sharing." Hibiki ignored the flames in her face under her commander's praise and waited.

"Well, I was a soldier like you mentioned your dad used to be in your interview. But I didn't fight in any wars for a government. Instead, I was employed as the leader of a private army."

Stopping her fidgeting, Hibiki turned her full attention to her commander. Her eyes practically asked her next question for her.

"A private army? I remember back after the last great war, my dad said things began to change, right? More technocrats and billionaires sprung up than ever profiting from the war."

Yui watched the girl open one of her notepads, jotting down every word that she said. This was one of the first times she saw Hibiki so excited about anything. She knew it was partly because of her dad, but she still found the shine in those umber eyes fascinating.

"Your dad was right. The Great War of Nations changed everything. Some people became incredibly wealthy off of the new technology, weapons, and other developments. Meanwhile, others became poorer than ever. But you probably have personal experience with the last one."

Hibiki nodded while her eyes glazed over. Thinking back to her life on the Outskirts where she could only imagine the world of Newton City proper, she sighed. Maya's gentle coos brought her back to reality.

"That's when private armies began popping up, right? To protect the ultra-wealthy. Kinda like what the Underwriters does in a way."

"There's a major difference between the two. Private armies were a tool to protect the wealthy's immense assets from both the impoverished and each other. We don't care about that here. Our goal is almost to keep everybody in check. We're almost mediators between the two worlds of wealth and poverty." The computer tinged, signaling that the first layer of encryption had been broken.

Both women took note of the new estimate that had shaved off a couple of hours of time.

In the silence, a certain robot bird began to feel ignored. Maya piped up, "How? How?"

"Oh, you want to know how we keep everything balanced? Well, as private armies got out of hand and a new war between titans seemed to be brewing, K&R Insurance came in to fill their place. Basically, the insurance company was founded on the premise of protecting the bodies and wealth of those with power. But, as you probably guessed, not everyone gets their power through justified means."

"But what does that have to do with us? I mean, I'd love nothing more than to see justice doled out, but that seems to be the opposite of what we do."

"It would seem like it, but think about it this way. Like any insurance company, K&R is in the business of making money. More specifically, K&R is retained by the company shareholders of these wealthy titans and not by the rich themselves."

Hibiki wrote down line after line. Thinking over everything Yui said, she finally came to an epiphany. "I think I get what you're saying. So, if we save say a socialite from a kidnapping, but find out she murdered the husband of the person who kidnapped her, we would work in the company's interest and not the socialites."

"Good girl. I knew you would get it. After the Great War, things got so out of hand that rules needed to be put in place to quell a major civil war. Some people still try to use their resources to skate past the rules, but doing so could ruin the reputations of the companies they established. Going back to your example, that means that the socialite would most likely be turned in to the authorities after rescue." Yui looked on at Hibiki who was beaming at finally making a connection. Shaking her head, she tried to ignore the girl's beaming eyes.

"And you said in the interview that some kidnappings are fake for an insurance payout, right? So that's another time we investigate."

"Exactly, little bird. That's why we're both loved and hated by our 'clients.' We've ruined a couple of reputations and brought up plenty of dirty secrets. Some companies keep things under the radar, but others have no problem throwing their former leader under the bus to save themselves. And that's how we kind of toe the line without really helping either side."

Another beep caught their attention. Looking back at the screen, Hibiki was shocked to find that their conversation had lasted so long. With the decoded message finally available, it was time to continue the search for Seela. A part of Hibiki wanted to ask more about why Commander Yui had left her work in private armies behind, but the numerous scars dotting Yui's skin made her swallow her question.