PHOENIX REBORN

written by Victar, e-mail vctr113062@aol.com
Victar's Archive:
http://www.victarfanfics.com



Chapter 9: Aggravated Assault


   Celia gave me a long, slow look. "You might be bluffing. I don't think you'd really kill everyone aboard this boat, just to avoid a beating."
   I just smiled. "Would you?"
   "No, of course not. I-"
   "Would rather take a beating. Which suggests you've never been on the receiving end of a good working-over."

         -Joel Rosenberg, Not for Glory


VIDEO TRANSCRIPT: Mishima Syndicate Tokyo Headquarters
video surveillance cassette X0111462
Residential Wing servants' exit
December 5, 2017
8:13 p.m.


The field of view looks down on an empty hall next to a plain door. Mitsurugi edges into the picture, his back pressed against the wall. He looks both ways, then sprints for the door. Just before he can reach it, Taki lands on him from above.

MITSURUGI: Aagk-!

Taki kneels on his back, pinning him face-down.

TAKI: Going somewhere?

M: Ummm... I only wanted to buy myself some-

T: Shut up!

Taki slaps the back of his head.

M: Ow.

T: You could have tried to plan a competent escape attempt! Instead, I catch you 'sneaking' like a five-year-old playing spy games. Is this your concept of invisibility? Were you even aware of the security cameras?

M: Of the what?

Taki grabs Mitsurugi's hair and wrenches his head up, so that he is looking directly into the lens.

M: Oh. How long has that been there?

T: Just for that, I'm going to hit you again.





EXCERPT: private journal of Heishiro Mitsurugi
December 6, 2017


         I've got to write this down pretty quick. I'll need my sleep for tomorrow morning, but I can't close my eyes until I try to make sense out of last night.
         Or maybe I should say, this morning. Really early morning, like maybe an hour or two after midnight. Because Taki just kept drilling me and drilling me and beating me black and blue all night long, under the guise of "combat training."
         I think it was my punishment for trying to run away.
         Well, not exactly running away. Not in the sense of deserting. Deserting means you don't plan to come back. This place is terrifying, but I do need my Mishima syndicate job. Even if they're so crazy they want me to become a legendary swordsman like my ancestor. So it's not as if I was going to leave forever. I was just hungry.
         I want real food.
         Not these goddamn "ration sticks."
         REAL FOOD! Like ramen or okonomiyaki or even a bowl of plain rice, something I can chew without breaking all my teeth! They don't really make you live off nothing but oatmeal vitamin-blocks, do they? I can't let myself believe that, Taki's just trying to mess with my mind, she has to be. Why can't I go out for a bag of chips or something? It's not like I'm supposed to stay on syndicate property twenty-four hours a day, is it? I'm not a slave, am I? But Taki pounced on me before I could take a step out the front door, and she made me pay. And I still hurt from getting beaten by a zombie only two days ago. And - gods, I'm stiff like a stickman right now, I can hardly hold my pen and write this.
         Taki said she was trying to teach me how to dodge. Which meant that she'd come at me with an attack, and I'd fail to get out of the way in time, and whack it would happen all over again. Having fifteen kilos of metal armor to weigh me down did not help. I wondered how come I had to work out in that, while all she's got on is this form-fitting bodysuit with a couple shin splints?
         I wish I could see her without her mask.
         If only she didn't cover up her entire face below the eyes. I bet I could take one look and know for sure if she's really trying to make me a better fighter, or if she just likes to torture me. I'm sort of beginning to wonder. I'm not sure how far it was after midnight when I banged my head pretty hard against the concrete floor. As I tried to stand up for the zillionth time, I pleaded for a chance to rest.
         "You may rest when you are reduced to ash," she hissed, in her ruthless, grating voice. "Get up."
         I tried.
         Got to my knees.
         Fell on my face and couldn't move.
         "Hopeless," Taki scoffed. "They'd get more use out of your dead body." I wish I could be sure that was a joke.
         "Please don't say things like that," I begged. Awful memories of being beaten and strangled by that - that bullet-ridden corpse came back to me. I felt so short of breath I had to take in huge gulps of air, put my hands protectively around my own throat, and insist frantically to myself that it was over now, I'd never see that horrible zombie again.
         Or become like him.
         He had been a man once. Bryan Fury. Taki had known who he was.
         Could he have been her last student? Before me?
         No no no NO NO I can't let myself think like this I can't write like this I'll freeze up I'll start screaming again-!
         No, wait. It was Taki who had been screaming. Me, I was just broken like a twig, inside and outside. Gods, I feel sick! I have to fight harder, I have to show them I can do it, because I'm beginning to get really scared of what they'll do to me if I can't get good enough!
         I was shuddering with fear when I heard a distraction. Two sets of precisely measured footsteps, perfectly in synch with each other, sounded from the doorway into the servants' gym. Hearing the newcomers' approach was a welcome chance to rub my aches and pains.
         Taki turned her head toward the noise. "What do you want?"
         "It was you who requested that we keep you appraised of significant events," returned a calm voice with a mild Shinjuku accent. When I tried to twist my head around, I felt a small something go snap in my neck. The two men that I saw were pretty average-looking, dressed as they were in plain black business suits. Impenetrable dark glasses covered their eyes. I was almost certain I'd seen them somewhere before, very recently. Just another moment, and I'd remember their names. Just as soon as my head stopped ringing.
         "What gossip have you got for me?" Taki mused.
         The man on my left practically gritted his teeth. "It is not 'gossip.' It is a state of immediate emergency!"
         "Ishida?" I asked, half in a daze. "Kimura?"
         They both turned to me. The one on my left demanded, "What is it?"
         I tried to stand again. Made it this time, although I could keep my balance only by holding out my arms a bit to either side - Taki had clocked me a good one.
         "Well?" he huffed. With an embarrassed inner twinge, I realized that I had forgotten what I was going to ask him. I wasn't even sure which one he was - Ishida or Kimura. They both looked so identical.
         "What is wrong with you? Speak!" he prompted. "Or have you been struck mute?"
         Got to say something. Inside of my mouth feels like it's stuffed with cotton, damn it, but I can't just stand here like an idiot, got to think, got to say something-
         "Wh-which are you?"
         His hands clenched. "What?"
         My mouth couldn't leave well enough alone; it had to ramble a spindly answer. "I mean, um, you two say you're cousins but you look like identical twins. You even dress the same. How's anyone supposed to tell you apart? Maybe if you each wore something a little different. Like, if one of you had a white tie and the other a black tie. Or-"
         He backhanded me across the face.
         Never saw it coming. I know it was a backhand blow only by process of elimination; it wasn't a slap because it didn't make the right sound, and it wasn't a closed fist because it twisted my head crossways when it hit. The next thing I knew, I was on the floor again.
         "Are you my superior?" the man on the left snapped, vehemently. "Did I swear allegiance to you? Is it your place to tell me how I should look? Do you expect me to deviate from the syndicate dress code in order to gratify your petty whims? Do you!?"
         "He's Ishida," the other one quietly added. "I'm Kimura. Don't worry about confusing the names; we're used to it."
         Taki sniffed, "If you wanted to attack my student, you should have come earlier. What did I work all night for?"
         "I apologize for my cousin's impropriety," Kimura deferred, with a deep bow.
         "Not again," Ishida snorted.
         "He meant no disrespect. He is merely distraught from recent tragedy."
         "Who are you to say what I do or don't mean?"
         "Please accept our sincere humility."
         "Stop apologizing for me, dammit! You're always doing that, and I hate it!"
         "What 'recent tragedy'?" I blurted. I'm beginning to think I may have a problem with this whole spontaneous interjection thing.
         Ishida took off his dark glasses, clenching their frame so tightly that color bled from his hand. He glared at me. His dull brown eyes were puffy, streaked with red lines, and ringed by dark hollows.
         Allergies? No, not in December.
         Had he been... crying?
         No. No, I can't believe it. He's a Mishima syndicate strongman, they both are; people like that don't cry. People like that are immovable, unreachable fixtures, the silent men in black who never show any face except the one that dutifully serves.
         I'm supposed to become a person like that...
         "You didn't hear?" Taki mused, playfully. "Old man Heihachi's honor guard never came back from his last trip. That can only mean one thing."
         Ishida looked ready to attack both of us, but Kimura stayed him with a stern gesture and said, "Shiina has regrettably passed on. The others were demoted and transferred."
         Taki's almond brown eyes crinkled, as if she were smiling underneath her mask again. "So, how did Shiina die?"
         "We weren't there!" Ishida snapped.
         "Of course not, but I bet you know someone who was."
         Kimura said, "It was most likely the young mistress who killed him."
         "Who?"
         "Miss Ling Xiaoyu; she is a young woman to whom Mishima-sama has recently given shelter. I am given to understand that she is an extraordinary fighter, who stowed aboard Mishima-sama's boat and wreaked havoc. She was the only proximal antagonist, at the time of Shiina's misfortune."
         "What makes you think it wasn't old man Heihachi instead?" Taki sneered, derisively. "Or the devil-spawn?"
         "I cannot imagine the young master ever wishing to harm Shiina. Nor would Mishima-sama be likely to upset his grandson in such a manner. You know how sensitive the young master is."
         "I know nothing of the sort. You've been to Abel's hellhole. You saw how successful his 'experiment' has been. He needs fresh bodies to replicate the process, doesn't he? Shiina was the perfect candidate."
         "It seems unlikely that the young master would condone premeditated murder, not even to advance development of the Cyborg Army. He closely oversees the entire project-"
         "If you don't believe me, then ask yourself: where is Shiina now? He isn't being viewed or buried by his family, is he? They have him, don't they? Don't they!? The next time you see him, he'll be lumbering to a remote control-"
         "SHUT UP!" Ishida screamed.
         "As if you could make me," Taki taunted.
         Ishida was practically boiling in place. I wondered why he didn't lash out at her like he had at me. Then I remembered how good she was at self-defense. I wondered if Ishida knew how good she was, too. I wondered if he'd already found out the hard way.
         "Besides," Taki languidly continued, "Shiina deserved what he got. The sexist bastard liked to cheat on his wife - she's better off with just the stipend. If you need a new friend to play Go with, you can have my student here. The kid may as well enjoy a little fun and games, before he's made into one of the walking dead."
         "Uh, Teacher, I wish you would stop joking like that," I mumbled. "Really, I do."
         "It was a waste of time to come here," Ishida spat to Taki. "You did nothing of value for us. We owe you nothing. And don't ever ask us to bring you information again!" He turned away.
         "Wait, cousin," Kimura softly intervened. "We should tell them both."
         "Tell us what?" I couldn't help myself; I was curious.
         "The syndicate is currently in a state of emergency. A murderous being of supernatural Power has vanquished whole units of the Tekkenshu Corps. The enemy is closing in on these headquarters, and its vocal outcries suggest that it desires to kill the young master."
         Taki commented, "You say that as if you pretend it's a bad thing."
         "If I cannot successfully appeal to your sense of propriety, then please consider the following. When you openly voice such a callously disrespectful attitude within these walls, Mishima-sama could learn of it in any number of ways, including but not limited to simply questioning my cousin and me."
         "It doesn't matter. Not anymore. Don't act as if your wishes are truly different from mine." A harrowing darkness seeped into Taki's voice and eyes. "You know what this syndicate is. What it does. And you know what your precious 'young master' is. His menace. Your duty. His death would be a guillotine blade lifted off your neck."
         "W-wait a minute," I nervously stuttered, wanting to steer this train of conversation away from Taki's morbid tracks. "If the, uh, young master is in danger, then why aren't you two with him? You're his bodyguards, aren't you?"
         Ishida put his dark glasses back on. His mouth flattened in a straight line. At first I thought I'd made him mad again. On the other hand... well, yes, he was mad, but I felt like there was something more; I just couldn't read what it was. Kimura remained expressionless as he said, "Our security duties, particularly with regard to the young master, have been suspended."
         "What do you mean, 'suspended'?"
         Taki smirked, "Old man Heihachi found out how you screwed up again, didn't he? He'd process you both with Shiina if you weren't his grandson's darling pets."
         "That's ENOUGH!"
         Ishida snapped like a cold rubber band. When he lunged for Taki, he wasn't just trying to smack her like he smacked me; I saw both his arms outstretched, reaching for her throat.
         Taki ducked so fast I could hardly see her move.
         Ishida's fingers closed on air; Taki wrapped both arms around his waist and arched her back, hoisting him over her head with amazing strength. Bending in a perfect wrestler's suplex, she voiced a sharp, wordless yell as she slammed Ishida's spine into the concrete floor with a painful whack. Ishida flopped spreadeagle on the ground. Taki continued the motion of her throw into a smooth handspring right over Ishida's midsection, gracefully landing a short distance from his feet.
         All the while, Kimura tonelessly answered my question as though nothing remarkable was going on. "Mishima-sama has given us strict instructions to remain within these walls and avoid contact with the young master, until our punishment is decided."
         I couldn't help staring at Ishida. Kimura followed my gaze. After a couple seconds of silence, he approached and carefully examined his motionless cousin.
         "Still breathing," Kimura commented, as if he were talking about the weather.
         It's weird. Taki threw Ishida once and he was out cold. But she smacked me around all night and I was still conscious, more or less. Either I'm a lot tougher than I thought, or...
         Or she had been going easy on me. Real easy. And my training will have to get much, much worse before I can approach the least shadow of her skill.
         My bones hurt just thinking about it.
         Kimura did not look away from his cousin as he told Taki, "If you keep doing this, then one of these days you're going to kill him."
         "Am I?"
         "And then I will have to destroy you."
         "Don't sound so excited." I'm not sure what she meant by that; Kimura wasn't talking at more than half the volume of anyone else's normal speaking voice.
         With Ishida out of the conversation, I started to get nervous. Sure, Ishida's hardly a nice guy, and I owe him something nasty for hitting me, but... well, he seemed like the most human of the three. Kimura's only a few heartbeats away from being a zombie himself. And Taki...
         Taki scares me.
         On the outside, she acts like she's completely recovered from her breakdown two days ago. On the inside is another story. She's not just mean. Her words are crueller than her blows, I think. Even I know better than to talk bad about a dead person in front of his friends, or to belittle a guy's dignity when he's on the brink of losing his job.
         I don't think Taki is a natural sadist. Not that I know her well enough to judge one way or another, but I remember how she was crying, after she saw what the Mishima syndicate did to Bryan. There's just something in her, hate or misery I don't know, it makes me feel sorry for her when she isn't beating me senseless. I wish there was something I could do, but I'm afraid that if I tried talking to her, she'd kill me.
         Like she threatened to kill me that night.
         It was shortly after the noise just blared from everywhere, so loud and sudden it made me cringe. I'd never really noticed the speakers nestled in the walls and ceiling corners of the whole syndicate before, until they all turned on at once. A woman's voice delivered their announcement. She sounded kind and almost musical, except that there was something unnatural about the stop-and-start rhythm of her words. She reminded me of those touch-tone telephone voices, you know, a Press. One. Followed by the pound key, sort of thing.
         Emergency, the voice said. The. Mishima Residential Wing. Is under attack. Calling all security personnel: defend the. Mishima Residential Wing. Emergency. It kept repeating that over and over.
         Taki looked at me and said, "Let's go, rookie."
         "What?" I gulped.
         "You heard the summons." She grabbed my hand and pulled me to my feet, with a jerk that nearly dislocated my shoulder.
         "W-wait!" She towed me out of there, through a messy blur of convoluted hallways, flashing lights and black-clad bodies rushing about. Kimura didn't follow us. Well, he did say that his security job had been suspended; maybe he felt obligated to stay with his cousin, I don't know. I was bounding over the floor tiles after Taki; my hand might as well have been grafted to a speeding truck.
         Then we were close enough to hear the screams.
         We'd reached a pair of doors that must have led to outside the Mishima Residential Wing, because beyond them I heard bedlam. It sounded like a war: gunfire, howls of agony, furious yells, and there was something hideous overshadowing it all, a demanding presence that drove through my skull and stamped its direct imprint on my brain. Raw vengeance, soaked in the extract of hate-filled evil, blazed its meaning above and beyond the words that shaped it.
         +WHERE IS THE SPAWN OF DEVIL KAZUYA? I WANT HIS BLOOD!+
         It wanted to murder Jin Kazama. Jin Kazama, the 'young master,' the telepathic human-like monster who burned whole buildings down, and who masterminded a plan to turn people into zombie killing machines.
         "STOP!" I shrieked, bracing with both feet and pulling back with all my strength. I think I frayed a tendon or two in my hand before I freed it. Taki swiveled in place and narrowed her almond-brown eyes.
         "What are we doing?" I exclaimed. "That thing out there has been chewing up and spitting out whole units of the Tekkenshu Corps! What makes you think we have a chance against it?"
         "Because it has been chewing up and spitting out whole units of the Tekkenshu Corps," she hissed, coldly. "Its mouth has most likely become tired."
         "B-but I don't want to - you don't want to-!"
         "What we want is irrelevant. Our contracts bind us to the syndicate. We defend these walls with our lives if ordered, and the order has been given."
         "No! I'll quit first!" I yelled, throwing down my wooden sword. "I wanted this job so I could have a future, not so I could throw it away!"
         She moved so fast.
         I wanted to react, but I might as well have tried to outrace the wind. Her short sword was in her hand, it cut, sparks flew, my armor fell from my body, and the wall collided stiffly with my back before I was aware of being forced against it.
         My falling armor hit the floor with a clang. Taki must have severed the straps holding it to my chest, but I couldn't look directly because she pointed the tip of her weapon between my ribs. It was a sharp sword. Sharp enough so that, if I even twitched, she could run me through without a shred of effort.
         "Wh-why are you doing this?" I pleaded, trying not to whimper too much. "What are you fighting for? You'd be happy if that monster destroyed the entire syndicate! You'd murder the young master yourself if you could!"
         "You are a coward. I am not like you." She put just enough pressure on her sword for its tip to draw a thin crease of blood. "If you must fight for something, then fight for your own survival. Cooperate with me, and you will have a chance. Refuse, and you will die now."
         She wasn't bluffing. I could see it in her eyes.
         I swallowed a growing knot of fear and nodded once. Taki sheathed her weapon. A strip of white paper appeared between her fingers, as if conjured out of nowhere. The paper had writing on it, four characters drawn with broad brush strokes. It said 'evil spirit be repelled,' or something like that; I think I used to see those sorts of papers at holy shrines. Or else maybe on TV.
         Taki retrieved my wooden sword, and held the paper against its crossguard. The paper adhered like it was glued on.
         "Use this to shield yourself from its attacks," she instructed, handing the weapon back to me. "Do not close in with it. Do not take the offensive. You only have to distract it for a short while."
         "Sh-shouldn't I put my armor back on first?"
         "That would offer no protection against its Power. Its aura is so strong, even a caterpillar like you ought to feel it. Now, get out there!" She redrew her sword as she demanded that.
         I got out there.
         I saw Hell.
         It was a killing field. Dead and mutilated people were everywhere; if there were any survivors, they were too stunned to move very much. I'm not sure how many bodies there were. They seem to form endless lines in my memory, but I know that's not right. Fires crackled across the savagery, twisting dead grass into barren fuel, licking at human hair and cuffs of clothing. Most of the fallen were in Tekkenshu Corps riot gear. Many were burned to charcoal. The black plates of their shields had been melted, or fragmented as if by great animal claws. Taki had been right; mere armor was no defense.
         Some of the victims wore black business suits like me. My heart pounded with uncontrollable terror when I saw that, and saw what had happened to them - the lucky ones just had their heads torn off.
         Only one person remained standing.
         A woman.
         A beautiful foreign woman.
         A beautiful, half-naked foreign woman.
         A beautiful, half-naked foreign woman drenched with human blood.
         She was blond, pale-skinned, incredibly voluptuous, and... and all she had on were these torn, teeny-tiny little scraps that might have once been a bikini. The bikini was so tightly plastered to her blood-soaked skin that I could make out her nipples from fifty meters away.
         How could I not stare?
         Her head immediately whipped toward me. Her eyes shined with a golden electricity that made my skin crawl, what did Taki call it? 'Power,' yes, and it made the air pungent with a dirty, sickly aftertaste.
         This luscious female creature was not a human being. Not anymore.
         She was an Ogre-woman.
         But she was so... well, so close to naked!
         Her mouth moved. In any other situation, I would have been way too mesmerized to listen, yet that mind-shaking enhancement to her speech jarred me out of my trance.
         +I WANT THE BLOOD OF THE DEVIL'S SON!+
         Okay. Okay, I only have to distract this Ogre-woman for a little while. Don't look at the killing field, don't lose it staring at her body, just think of a distraction. Something to say as a distraction. Distraction, distraction, have to think of a distraction, no time to make up anything fancy, just grab the first thing that pops in your head and go with it-
         "C-can I have your phone number?" I squeaked.
         Her eyes narrowed with venomous hatred. She pointed her red-lined nails at me. Lightning shot from her hand, streaking toward my heart. Her electricity hit me in a flashing confetti of dirty gold sparks.
         I felt a slight tingle on my hands.
         My sword was glowing.
         I can't remember bringing it up to intercept the Ogre-woman's blast, but there it was in my grasp. It radiated this unbelievable lilac-white fire, centered around the paper stuck to its crossguard.
         Magic?
         When I was little, I used to believe my dad's fairy tales about souls and swords and sorcery; his stories would take a life of their own in my dreams. Then mom walked out on us, dad stopped telling stories, I got older, and day after day settled into the same old routine. Wake up, struggle with school, chores when I get home, snatch whatever fun time I can for myself, go to sleep with no dreams. Nothing special. No enchanted swords or scary demons, except maybe on TV. So I gradually lost my faith.
         But I did believe in otherworldly monsters who waged a global war of extermination: ghastly packs of long-toothed, grinning mutants led by horned, half-horse Centaurians. It was all taught in my school as part of modern history. Now, I saw with my own eyes an Ogre-woman who shot lightning, and a runic script generating a mystical shield to protect me. I'll call it 'magic' because I don't have a better word, but even as I think about it right now, I wonder if it was for real.
         And if it was real, then are all the legends my dad told me real too?
         At the time, though, there wasn't very much opportunity to wonder. While I froze, bewildered by the lilac-white fire on my sword, the lips of the half-naked Ogre-woman curled in a predatory snarl.
         +DO YOU THINK A MERE SPIRIT WARD CAN SAVE YOU?+
         "Ummm..." I swallowed back a fresh tremor of fear. Got to distract her, got to keep distracting this inhuman, homicidal, incredibly beautiful and virtually naked woman...
         "H-how about a picture of you then? Can I have an autographed picture? It's not every day I get to m-meet someone like you, if you don't have a picture I could go get a disposable instant camera or something, really, I saw this little convenience mart just a few blocks down the street, I could take you down there with me, they looked like they served some delicious takeout too, twenty-four hours a day, w-would you like that? You must be hungry after all that going around killing people; m-maybe I could buy you a snack?"
         Her dirty gold fire radiated in a brilliant aurora. She was actually hovering over the ground, I swear, because when she came at me she wasn't running or leaping over fallen bodies. She levitated above them with supernatural guidance. The Ogre-woman posed as she flew. She flexed her left leg at the knee and lifted her pale arms as if they were avian wings, keeping her hands pointed down so that the backs of her wrists formed supple curves. Electrical Power gathered on her fingers, twin dirty gold headlights transfixing me as she zoomed in-
         +DIE!+
         Prattle wouldn't distract her anymore. There was no more time to think, no time to observe or note details; something in me just went click and shifted into survival mode, because I didn't know if Taki's paper could stand up to this new attack and I didn't want to find out. At the last second, I threw myself out of the Ogre-woman's way, and rolled along a narrow patch of ground between two fallen men. An explosive flash sounded behind me. I righted myself just in time to see her retract her arms from a missed pincer strike. She hissed and lunged for me again.
         It wasn't me who counterattacked.
         It couldn't have been me. Taki had warned me not to attack, and I didn't even want to fight; I just wanted to run and hide, as of scarcely an instant ago. But I wasn't myself anymore, I wasn't Heishiro. Someone else's yell surged through my throat, clenched my right hand above the left on my weapon's hilt, and guided both my arms in a chest-level slash.
         Well, it would have been a slash if I were using a real sword. The fire-coated wooden sword was more like a burning club. Pressing each attack with a step forward, I swung my weapon right to left, left to right, and right to left again; three swift, hard blows leaving lilac-white fire trails in the air. My sudden, reckless flailing actually hit the Ogre-woman's shoulders, and made her break off her unearthly levitation. In a wild bid to knock her down, I threw my weight full-forward as I kicked out with my right leg, booting her squarely in the stomach. I committed so much to the kick that I completely lost my own balance, and had to land heavily on my bent right leg, with my left hand awkwardly sticking out to the side. At the same time I put everything I had, every desperate drop of strength and maniacal high, into an overhead blow with my right hand. Lilac-white fire followed my wooden sword as I brought it down on the Ogre-woman's head-
         -and she caught it between her palms.
         Her bloody fingers clenched. Dirty gold fire sprang from their point of contact, pushing back the lilac-white until the entire glow was an extension of the Ogre-woman's aura.
         The sword exploded.
         It blew up right in my hand; splinters lodged in my skin, and I must have barely turned my head away in time because only my right cheek got scorched. The blast stunned but didn't completely blind my eyes. I blinked and realized I was lying on my side. My right arm stung painfully, pieces of wood and scraps of paper littered the ground, and the Ogre-woman towered above me, with a carnivorous smile spread across her pearly white teeth.
         +YOUR SOUL LACKS PURPOSE,+ she sneered, maliciously.
         I was myself again.
         Plain, cowardly Heishiro, not a fighter, not a brave man, certainly no one who can stand up to an Ogre-woman. All I wanted was to do was start running, and see how well that would distract her. At the same time, I knew I couldn't really run; she'd zap me before I took two steps. But I was full in the grip of panic, and if I couldn't run then I'd crawl away like the worm I was. Tearing my eyes away from my imminent murder, I tried to pull myself along the grass with my arms-
         -and saw Taki.
         She stood tall, just across from me and the Ogre-woman. Her mask shifted ever so slightly; beneath it, I could only imagine her lips moving in a silent chant. She touched her right knuckles to the palm of her left hand, which had her first and second digits upraised.
         Lilac-white fire enveloped her.
         Taki had needed me as a 'distraction.' Now I realized why; it had taken her time to generate whatever mystic force that now wrapped her in lilac-white glory. Time to call it, time to hone it, and time for me to lure her unholy target into perfect reach, keep it too preoccupied with my gnatlike antics to take notice of the true threat. All in a single instant, I realized this, and I vainly struggled to scramble out of the way, now that my job was done.
         I couldn't escape.
         The lilac-white energy rushed from Taki before I could right myself, tracing hundreds of characters glowing so brightly I could hardly make out what they meant. I think I saw one for "hate" and another for "banishment," but that's all I can remember off the top of my head. The brilliant writing covered the grass, in a lilac-white carpet leading straight to me and the Ogre-woman. I shirked from its onslaught-
         -yet it passed right over me, lilac-white syllables writing themselves directly on my body and then fading. All I felt was a light tickling sensation. The dazzling characters converged on the Ogre-woman's skin, covering her head to toe.
         She screamed the most hideous wail I have ever heard.
         Her back arched, her muscles became rigidly tense, and her red-lined hands clawed at her possessed eyes. I regained enough sense to start running, and I even made it a couple steps toward Taki before there was a tremendous detonation behind me. A concussive wave of force scooped me off my feet, hurling me from the blast center and blistering the back of my neck. I rolled as I landed, which was probably a blessing since it put out my burning jacket. My splintered hand itched and bled something awful as I pushed myself off the ground. Taki was in front of me. Behind me was a pillar of lilac-white fire, marking where the Ogre-woman had been.
         Taki's eyes fluttered shut.
         She pitched forward.
         She barely stopped herself from falling on her face, instead collapsing to hands and knees. Her breathing was heavy and strained; she seemed to respond when I called her name, but at first I couldn't make out what she was saying. Her body trembled, like a racehorse that's on the verge of being run to death.
         "Too strong," she breathed, in the faintest possible whisper. "It's too strong..."
         "No. No, you blasted that thing," I reassured, looking back to the pillar of lilac-white fire. "It's just a pile of ashes..."
         My voice faded into a horrified creak.
         An hourglass shape emerged from the pyre.
         It was the Ogre-woman, walking out of the flaming crucible like an unholy avatar reborn into this world. The last scraps of her bikini had been vaporized; the only covering on her naked body was Taki's lilac-white characters, blazing from toes to face and every curvaceous bit in between. Her dirty gold, wildfire eyes transfixed Taki as she uttered her thundering judgement:
         +YOUR SOUL IS DIVIDED AGAINST ITSELF.+
         The Ogre-woman pointed her red-lined fingers at Taki's helpless form. All the characters on her naked body started running like liquid ink, squiggling along her skin to gather in a concentrated, lilac-white star on her hand. It didn't take a genius to figure out what was coming next. Taki knew it as surely as I did, but she was so weak she couldn't move.
         I suppose the smart thing to do would have been to run.
         It's not like I owed Taki anything. Heck, she'd threatened to kill me scarcely a couple minutes ago. 'Fight for your survival,' she'd said; well, survival means looking out for number one. If I ran for my life while the Ogre-woman let loose her blast, maybe I could sprint to safety before she recharged. If I just ran...
         The Ogre-woman discharged the lilac-white energy in an incendiary burst.
         I ran.
         Dove straight into Taki right as the lilac-white bolt struck. My plan, if I can pretend to have had one, was to grab her and whisk us both out of the line of fire. Like in the movies, you know, where the bad guys shoot and shoot and never hit the good guys. Only it didn't work that way.
         The lilac-white energy got me in the back.
         Zap.
         Entire bolt, full force, like a tremendous shove right between the shoulder blades. There was a loud ringing in my ears, a black spot unfolding before my eyes, and just enough time to wonder why it didn't hurt.


         I wasn't lonely in the dark. My dream kept me company.
         It's weird. When I was a little kid, I used to have all sorts of vivid movies in my sleep, action-adventure stories of heroes, magic, and monsters; now I can hardly remember what few dreams I've experienced. It's like trying to catch a butterfly with your bare hands - almost impossible to grab without crushing it completely.
         All I really remember from my last dream is Taki.
         She turned toward me, holding her short sword chest-level in a backhanded grip. I blinked and she turned toward me again. When I took a step closer to her, she vanished into gossamer fragments.
         I remembered.
         They had been slow in coming, these distant memories that bubbled from the depths of my subconscious. Stories that my dad used to tell me, way back when mom was living with us. I remembered his tales of a legendary female ninja - not a spy or an assassin for some feudal lord, but a true ninja, a noble warrior of stealth and vanquisher of evil spirits. She was called 'Taki,' and she was a contemporary of my ancestor Mitsurugi.
         I know the Mishima syndicate recruited me because they knew about my ancestor, and expected me to become a legend like him. Could they have recruited Taki for the same reason? I might dismiss it as coincidence... or else assume that she was no relation to the myth at all, merely a stranger who adopted the name and the mask... except that her magic was real. She was like the Taki of old, who banished demons while the Mitsurugi of old joined forces with a golden-haired woman of the gods, striving together to suppress a great and terrible evil.
         The world of my dream spun all around me. No sound alerted me to turn, yet when I did, I saw Taki perform a gracefully effortless back handspring. Her form broke apart into cherry blossom petals. When I looked in front of me, there she was again. Her crimson bodysuit covered her from wrists and feet to her mask. She looked just like the ancient Taki my dad used to describe. Except-
         Why won't you show your face? I asked her.
         She removed her mask with one hand, and turned her eyes toward me, but poisonous black shadows covered her mouth, cheeks, and chin. They spread up to her eyebrows and hair, and downward along the length of her body, until she was only an empty void.
         Without the mask, I am nothing, her voice returned in the darkness. Nothing that can allow itself to be seen. Nothing that was ever meant to exist.


         ...and I was awake.
         My head ached, making it hard to think while I recuperated on this cot, or hospital bed, or whatever it is. Lingering pain sort of has that effect on me. At least my burns and splinters have been cared for; the worst of what I'm feeling now probably doesn't have anything to do with the Ogre-woman at all. It's just muscle cramps, due to the training wringer Taki's been putting me through. I'll be fine as long as I don't have to move.
         Ever.
         Taki was standing next to my cot, arms folded, almond brown eyes unreadable. She didn't offer a word of greeting, comfort, or praise. Instead, she declared, "Your rendition of the legend is inaccurate. It was my ancestor who saved the life of the gods' Chosen One, not yours."
         "Wh-what...?"
         "You were talking in your sleep."
         "Me?"
         "Yes."
         "Did you talk back?"
         She looked away, disdainfully.
         I tried sitting up; a zillion pinprick agonies convinced me that it was a bad idea. So I just settled back and mumbled, "What happened?"
         "You have been unconscious for ten hours."
         "B-but the Ogre-woman - what happened to her? I thought for sure she was going to finish us off..."
         Taki didn't answer. Perhaps she didn't know either; she could easily have passed out at the same time I did. Well, I guess reinforcements or something must have saved us both, or else we wouldn't be here, would we? But I wonder what really happened. How did the syndicate get rid of an indestructible Ogre-woman? When I tried to look for clues in Taki's masked face, I couldn't find anything. She just stayed there for a long time, studying me. Studying me like... like...
         Like working on a big jigsaw puzzle. Like putting almost all the pieces together into a complete picture, when suddenly you come up with a strange piece and you have no idea where it goes. You think that maybe one of the other pieces has been mashed into the wrong place somehow, so you carefully pore over every speck of the nearly-finished puzzle, searching for the piece that looks like it fits, but really doesn't. That's how she studied me.
         Taki said, "Why did you save my life?"
         "Huh?"
         "You threw yourself in the path of my reflected spell. Why?"
         "Umm..." Since I wasn't completely sure myself, I stalled for time. "What kind of 'spell' was that, anyway? Was it really magic?"
         I thought she might scoff, but instead she gave me a very respectful answer. "The Earth is analogous to any other living body. It resists the intrusion of foreign entities. Just as you have an immune system to protect your native cells from infection, the Earth possesses a natural Power inimical to that which does not belong. During the Great Invasion, the sorceress Jun Kazama channeled enough of this Power to banish ten thousand unholy monsters to the Black Abyss. I can summon only a fragment without destroying myself. It burns to my touch."
         She showed me her palms. Ugly black streaks chafed them, but the marks looked more like she'd been scorched days or weeks ago, instead of just hours. They had to be recent, though; I don't remember seeing any burns on her before.
         "A-and you figured your spell would take out the Ogre-woman, right?" I stammered. "Only she was way too strong, she threw it right back at you, and, um..."
         I trailed off.
         "Why did you save my life?" Taki repeated.
         "But I... I didn't. I mean, I guess I did get in the way of that blast, but it didn't hurt me. It just knocked me out for a little while."
         "The banishment spell itself did not render you unconscious. That was the shockwave from its impact."
         "Right, right, whatever. I still wasn't hurt."
         "Your blood is fully intrinsic to this world. You were born an ordinary human being, as native to the Earth as your flesh is native to your body. That is why the banishment spell could not harm you."
         "Uh, okay."
         "But you didn't realize as much at the time, did you?"
         "Umm, does it matter?" Now that I'm putting it on paper, I feel as though I should have figured it out on my own, if only from how the spell harmlessly passed over me when Taki first cast it.
         "For the last time: why did you act to save me?"
         That was a good question.
         Taki had beaten the crap out of me, wouldn't let me eat anything but awful ration sticks, and nearly skewered my heart. Why didn't I abandon her? It's not as if I'm in love with her, or anything. She's way too scary, and mean on the inside. Even if she is pretty shapely on the outside.
         Then why...?
         "I guess because you weren't dead," I muttered.
         "What?"
         "Well, if you had been dead, I wouldn't have done anything; I would've just run off. But you weren't dead, so I tried to keep you from getting dead."
         "I don't understand."
         "Maybe it's how I was brought up. It isn't right to let someone die if you can do something about it, you know? I was just too, um, scared to think it all through before. I mean, that Ogre-woman was going around killing everyone, I'm not really sure she would have been happy to stop with murdering only the 'young master' after all, do you? So if someone didn't bring her down, she'd just keep on killing innocent people. That's the real reason why we had to fight her, isn't it? Isn't that what you were trying to tell me? Except that your meaning didn't sink in until I saw her ready to blast you. It's a lot easier to run away when you don't have to see or know who you're leaving to die. Which is actually pretty stupid; what kind of self-centered idiot are you if you value other people's lives only according to how well you happen to know them? But I've never had a reputation for being very smart, I guess."
         I shrugged.
         Taki looked at me like I was speaking in Ainu.
         "I have been waiting for you to awaken so that I could explain something important to you," she said at last, hollowly. "You must not depend on me to repay my debt of life. When the syndicate comes for you, I can't stand in their way. I can't even help you escape. It's too late. It was too late before your first day here; they already know everything about you. Even if they couldn't find you, they know where to find your family. The one thing I can do for you is train you as severely as possible, so that when they do come for you, you will be able to carve yourself a grand escort to Hell."
         She's going to train me 'as severely as possible'?
         Oh, no. No, no, no. I really don't want to deal with the painful consequences of her gratitude!
         "B-but you don't owe me anything! Honest! I w-was trying to tell you before, I didn't save your life. Your, um, 'reflected spell' or whatever didn't hurt me, so it wouldn't have done anything to you even if I hadn't gotten in the way, would it?"
         Silence.
         "Would it?"
         Silence.
         "You... you couldn't have been in danger. Y-you said the spell couldn't hurt human beings..."
         Silence.
         "You are human," I insisted, slowly. "I know you are. I've seen you cry. H-how could you do that if you... if you weren't...?"
         "Your next lesson begins tomorrow morning, at six a.m. sharp," Taki said, flatly. "Do not speak of last night again. The syndicate is clinging to its cover story for the disaster; if they suspect you to be a potential leak, they will silence you."
         I flinched from her steady gaze. When I summoned the courage to look at her again, she was gone.





A BRIEF CONVERSATION WITH JULIA CHANG
February 9, 2018
5:45 p.m.


         Go away.
         I don't care about my appointment. Haven't you done enough? Prying Jin with questions until he... he...
         I'm fine. Damn you.
         I'm not the one with 'dirty blood.' I don't need my own memories sealed off, because I'm too sane to throw away my life, no matter how much it would hurt the people who are left behind! I...
         ...I've begged Lee to do to me what he did to Jin.
         Did you know that?
         Lee refused, of course. He said it would only hurt me. He said my personality is so keyed to figuring things out that I'd damage my own psyche fighting against any barrier, no matter how well-crafted it was. And the worst part is, he's right.
         So I can't forget what we've done, or why we had to do it. I can't even make myself forget.
         I just come here to cry.
         It's my room. The walls are lined with lead; it isn't a perfect barrier, but it's thick enough that Jin won't necessarily sense my emotions. If... if he were to concentrate, he could use his Power to spy on me when I'm in here, but I know he won't. He respects my privacy.
         He trusts me.
         I betrayed his trust...
         So I come here, and I cry all the tears I can't show him. Because if I did, he'd ask me why I feel sad, and the answer to that won't stay in his thoughts.
         He's... he's beginning to get suspicious.
         He knows that he's been having the equivalent of epileptic petit mal attacks. And he knows that the tests we're running him through aren't just for research. He's beginning to figure out that something's wrong with him. I want to say it's all your fault, you and your damn questions triggering his block, but I know that's not the whole truth. W-we... we went to see a movie yesterday night, a supernatural mystery-thriller... I love mystery movies but damn it, I should have known better! H-he blacked out during the climax... couldn't remember anything about it, trying to explain it to him only retriggered the block... it was my fault for picking the movie, I know it was...
         I... I don't know what to do.
         I can't talk to you right now. It hurts too much. Tomorrow, I'll keep an appointment for tomorrow. I just need some... some time tonight. Can't you interview someone else?
         No. Not Jin. You keep away from him!
         I know who you should talk to.
         Bryan Fury.
         Why so surprised? You need a firsthand account from when Toshin-Nina attacked the syndicate, don't you? Bryan was there for the whole thing.
         I'm telling you, he was there! Don't you dispute it, not after what he did to me!
         I know. I'm sorry, too.
         I - I'll be fine. I just need some time to myself. Time to think things over. I'll talk to you tomorrow, I promise. I know how important your project is to Jin.
         I'll be fine...





INTERVIEW WITH BRYAN FURY, section 2
February 9, 2018
6:01 p.m.


         Out of my way, maggot.
         Don't follow me!
         What're you doing here, anyway? Shouldn't you be in bed or something?
         Yeah, right. Don't you give me that 'only a fainting spell' crap. Your pulse dropped to damn near nothing. If you're going to keel over dead, at least have the decency to do it around someone who gives a shit! The next time you fall down, it had better not be in front of me or I'll skip calling the hospital and bury you on the spot.
         Oh, really? If I said 'you're welcome,' it'd be a bald-ass lie, and no one is paying me to lie to you. Why don't you leave me alone and we'll call it even?
         What?
         No one told me about any interview tonight. I got places to go, people to tail. You are not supposed to fuck up my schedule until you start collecting stuff about me, or have you forgotten?
         What have they been saying about me, anyway? Show me what you've got.
         I said show me!
         That's it?
         One lousy excerpt? The only description you've got on me so far is from a fluffy little kiddie diary?
         Oh, don't have a heart attack. Why are you pestering me, anyway? Why not the pretty boy? Or his Brainiac girlfriend?
         Ah. That.
         Yeah, I know about what Lee did to the pretty boy's mind. Most of it. Wasn't awake when it actually happened. Lee won't tell me exactly what he had to black out, either - something about not wanting me to 'intentionally undermine' the block, as if I give a shit either way. Is that why you had a coronary in my office? I could've told you how close pretty boy Kazama was to doing himself in, before Lee decided to play God. But no, no, you didn't ask me a word; you just stormed in and demanded to talk to Lee, it always has to be about Lee, what I've been through doesn't count, what I know doesn't make a difference, Lee's story is the only one that matters, no one even thinks of listening to my side-
         Oh, shut up.
         Fine. FINE! Stop playing head games! I can spare you forty minutes. Then I'm meeting with a client, and you are not invited. Got that?
         Good.
         So. You want to know what it was like?
         What it was really like?
         Imagine you're watching TV.
         You can't feel anything. There's no sense of touch anywhere on your skin, or inside your gut. You're disconnected from your body; can't move your head, or your arms, or your legs. Maybe they move on their own, but you have nothing to do with it, and you can't detect it unless your hands happen to pass in front of your eyes or something. It's not even obvious that the black-gloved hands in front of your eyes are your hands. You may as well be staring into a TV screen.
         That's all you can do. Watch TV.
         Moving pictures pass through your field of vision. You can't look away, or change the channel. It's one of those fucked-up new first-person perspective TV programs, like you're seeing the show through the eyes of one of the main characters. Would be more interesting to watch if it were a better show. The soundtrack's pretty unintelligible, too. Half the time it's in Japanese, and there aren't any subtitles.
         I know what Hell is. Other people make up sermons about Hell, but I know what Hell really is. It's a big strap-down armchair, where all you can do is sit in place and watch TV.
         I would've gone nuts if I thought it was real.
         Shit. Maybe I did go nuts. Maybe it's better that I can't remember huge chunks of it. The TV was pretty goddamn boring; all the episodes began and ended the same. They started with the ksssh of some frost-coated door to an enclosed space swinging open, and closed with the slam of that same door, followed by a fade to black. There were never any title or credits; I wondered if they'd been edited out. Most of the actual shows just had this mumbling old guy, called himself "Abel," puttering around and doing incomprehensible stuff.
         I did notice this one guest star; his role recurred every so often. He was this Japanese kid in his late teens, quite the photogenic pretty boy. Except his hair was completely screwed up, pointing straight from the back of his skull like he could drill a hole with his head. That plus his thick black eyebrows made him look suspiciously sinister. Anyway, he did Abel the courtesy of talking in English, unlike most of the other walk-ons, who tended to stick to Japanese. Abel always addressed the pretty boy as "young master."
         The sinister-looking teen actor had a familiar face, and I couldn't figure out where I knew him from, until I realized he was the spitting image of Kazuya Mishima. That was screwy. I mean, would you cast a clone of Adolf Hitler to do a guest spot on your TV show?
         Huh?
         Of course I'd seen pictures of Kazuya before. Any high school history textbook has them. You think I didn't finish high school? You think I'm a brainless, ignorant thug? Cops have to get an education too, you little smart-ass.
         Heh. You remind me of Abel when you flinch like that. He couldn't stand it when the pretty boy lectured him. After the kid left, the old buzzard would claw at his balding head, even shout things to the closed exit door.
         There was one rather intriguing episode, when Heihachi Mishima had a part. I knew it was the real guy playing himself, not just an actor. After all, I'd seen him on TV before - huh? - oh, in a couple of his statements to the press, broadcast on the six o'clock news. Old man Heihachi was never a publicity hound, but when someone with that much raw power decides to speak, the networks listen.
         It seemed extra screwy that the President and CEO of the mighty Mishima syndicate would condescend to do a cameo on some backwater soap opera, but there he was, talking quietly with Abel. Damned if I could make out most of their lines; even though they used English, their respective accents were thick as cinder blocks. I did catch a couple of old man Heihachi's phrases, like "accelerate the Cyborg Army timetable," and "my grandson must not become suspicious." At one point, Heihachi turned and looked directly in the camera. I saw the naked greed in his eyes, and thought to myself, hey. He'd make a pretty good villain.
         Oh, and I do remember the 'test' of the 'safety disengagement protocols' as it's all written up in that pathetic diary. Look, I wasn't in control, you got that? It wasn't real to me, just a TV show that happened to have some action in it, for a change. I saw this spindly Japanese wimp with a wooden sword - hey, shut up and listen, you want this by your rules or not?
         Anyway, this spindly wimp tried his damnedest to put up a fight. He failed. Then there was a pair of thick, black-gloved hands crushing his neck; he nearly got choked to death, but... well, let's just say that I'd had him figured for a possible recurring role. He was certainly different enough from the rest of the faceless men in black, what with his colorful armor and piss-pants frightened attitude, so I thought the script might spare him at the last second. What do you know, I was right. All in all, it was one of the more novel episodes, but I still would have dismissed it as lame except for one thing.
         Taki also had a guest appearance.
         Since when did she get into TV?
         I... I saw her crumpled there, screaming like a slasher flick victim. The camera didn't happen to swing her way much, but when it did, she'd look straight in the lens and lose it. Real, lifelike hysteria, and believe me, I've seen enough histrionics in my days as a cop to know. I hoped the studio execs were paying her what she was worth. She was beginning to give me a disturbed, creepy-crawly feeling, only it was all in my mind because I still couldn't feel anything on my body - not pain, not pressure, not temperature, nothing.
         Good thing it's only TV, I thought to myself, because I'd never wanted to see the real Taki again.
         The show rambled on for several hours after she left, before it finally ended like always. It was the next episode where things started to break down.
         It started with a bit more urgency than usual. There was this computerized female voice blabbing something in Japanese. Kept on repeating the same phrases over and over, like a scuffed CD. I remember thinking that whoever mixed the soundtrack ought to be fired, because the computer voice wasn't fading into the background; it stayed so blaringly loud I could scarcely make out anyone else's lines. Such as Abel's heated arguing through some sort of intercom.
         "No, it could be damaged! Or even destroyed! My prototype is the only functional unit so far!" Abel was yelling like he'd been stabbed in the gut, and I ought to know. I couldn't hear the reply on the other end. At last, a despair most people save for funerals and tax audits settled on him. He walked right up to the camera and sighed, "They need you, Prototype Alpha. You must go and fight."
         The camera's perspective moved. Pretty quickly, too, bounding through halls and whatever. There was a click from deep within, like the noise of a light switch being flipped, only with a Surround Sound type echo. Suddenly, I could hear Abel's throaty, Yiddish accent. And more voices.
         Testing remote command relay system. Audio receivers operational. That was Abel, the braying old goat. His voice had this strange resonance, as though there was a third TV speaker right inside my ear.
         Send in the prototype. Was that Heihachi? Yeah, it had to be; I recognized the old man's deep-throated growl. Like a dog jealously hoarding his stash of bones. I heard other voices way in the background too, talking in Japanese, and sometimes Heihachi would answer them in the same language. Screwy bilingual soundtrack. Since I didn't know Japanese, I tuned all that drivel out. I'll repeat for you the things Heihachi said in English, usually to Abel; don't ask about the rest.
         Anyway, as soon as I heard old man Heihachi's Surround Sound voice, a familiar pair of black-gloved hands raised themselves into the camera's first-person perspective, and pushed open one last pair of doors.
         The camera panned over death.
         These prop people, set designers, and dummy actors were pretty damn good. It really looked like a whole lot of wretches had gone down in flames, gotten dismembered, you name it. The blood especially looked real - not that thin, off-color stuff they sometimes try to pass off as blood in showbiz. This simulation was so close it brought back unpleasant memories from when I worked in homicide. Hell, I could see the discoloration of dependent lividity in the mockup corpses' skin, something that movie folks like to overlook. I could even smell blood and piss and shit. But that was impossible; TV doesn't have smells, just sights and sounds.
         And kick-ass special effects.
         Such as this tremendous pillar of lilac-white fire, shooting into the sky.
         Taki and her wimpy co-star sprawled a short distance from the spectacular light show. They were both staring into it, fearfully, until a naked woman walked out of the furnace.
         Yowza.
         This had to be a late-night, hack sci-fi movie, pandering to the lowest common denominator. Not that I minded. If anything, I would've appreciated a closeup. Maybe even a nice freeze-frame. God, that babe's chest was built!
         +YOUR SOUL IS DIVIDED AGAINST ITSELF.+
         The naked blond glared at Taki as she said that, but the words - the words were a goddamn battering ram! This was different from Heihachi's and Abel's voices in my head. I didn't just hear; the meaning hummed like the aftereffect of sounding a gong. It was still ringing when the blond femme fatale channeled lots of lilac-white marks all over her body into a lightning bolt, which would have struck Taki if her wimpy little friend hadn't thrown himself in the way. Taki's head snapped back from the shockwave.
         Not good, Abel murmured. If I had known the enemy was this polarized-
         Attack it with the prototype. That was Heihachi's voice again. The camera advanced steadily on the naked blond; looked like I was going to get my close-up after all.
         No! Abel denied, in his creaky old wheeze. The camera stopped moving.
         You dare to refuse my will?
         You must not do this! Her electromagnetic interference will compromise the prototype's motor transceivers. Its remote life support could be jeopardized!
         Are you telling me that Cyborg Army soldiers are useless in a fight?
         Their argument continued, but I didn't pay attention. The camera focused on Taki and the Japanese kid. Was the kid supposed to be playing out a heroic death scene? Maybe not; I could still see the slight movement of his continued breathing, although his eyes were closed and his body had gone limp.
         Taki acted drained. From the way she barely propped her head off the ground, both her arms quivering like blades of grass, she did a good job of pretending that she was close to passing out.
         Taki looked directly into the camera.
         Her slanted eyes grew as wide as they could go. At first I thought she would scream again, but hardly any sound came from her. Her gathering tears sparkled in the firelight.
         "Bryan..." she whispered, mournfully.
         Taki's arms slid apart. Her eyes closed as she slumped on the ground. She didn't move to get up again.
         Poignant moment, I suppose. It probably meant something in the context of the TV show, but I felt as though I'd missed the last half-dozen episodes. Who was 'Bryan'? The name sounded familiar; I was sure I'd heard it before. Damn, I thought, now I'm going to be wondering about this all night. I'd probably have been able to think better if I could look away from the TV screen, but that wasn't an option.
         'Bryan.' The letters flickered through my mind, B-R-Y-A-N. Not spelled the common-as-dirt way; it was with a 'y,' I just knew without being told... had I seen it written like that in a TV Guide capsule or something? I was still wondering about it when I heard the roar of an engine.
         The killer blond also heard it. Her lips split into a smile that was both luscious and hideous. She threw her shapely arms in the air, laughing maniacally, and a blazing thunderstorm enveloped her. Evil gold lightning surrounded her body, evaporating the crimson remnants of her victims' life-fluids, and forming a leotard of sizzling energy about her nubile skin.
         A shame, that.
         +COME TO ME, HALF-BREED SON OF KAZUYA!+ she exclaimed, in homicidal frenzy. +COME AND SPILL YOUR CURSED DEVIL'S BLOOD!+
         'Son of Kazuya'?
         And who was 'Bryan,' dammit...?
         The engine roar increased to a deafening pitch. It sounded like a motorcycle. The camera tracked to observe the glare of a single, oncoming yellow floodlight.
         Heihachi's voice growled, Nan da?
         Yes, that was definitely a motorcycle. Judging from the engine's beleaguered strain, I'd say it was a non-sport motorcycle being mistreated as a cross-country racing bike. The shrill cry of a young girl, not Taki or the killer blond but someone new, carried above the mechanical bellow:
         "Brake! BRAKE!"
         Followed by a familiar male voice stuttering, "I-I'm trying-!"
         And Heihachi's flabbergasted, NANI!?
         The killer blond pointed her fingers at the onrushing glare. A zigzag streak of evil gold electricity leaped from her hands.
         Boom.
         What, what's your problem? It's not enough that I'm spilling my guts for your stupid interview, you want me to give perfectly lifelike sound effects, too? Tough shit. The bike exploded like a frag grenade. Imagine for yourself how that sounds.
         At first I figured the motorcycle's riders had been blown to bits. Just standard theater fare, where you show the cool fireball and poof, you can assume in movie conventions that they're history.
         Should've known better than to assume. This was sci-fi, after all.
         Or maybe fantasy. Because two people were kneeling at ground zero of the blast, alive and unhurt, although they both looked pretty shaken up. The foremost one was none other than pretty boy recurring character himself, his arms stiffly crossed and held out in front of his chest. A girl's arms hugged his midsection; she let go of him, but kept herself half-hidden behind his back. Flickering indigo light covered them in a dome of pure energy. Fiery afterblaze carved a wider, orange-red circle around them.
         Keep Prototype Alpha on standby. It is not to interfere until my grandson has settled the challenge. From the back of Surround Sound, I heard Heihachi's gruff declaration.
         Wait a minute.
         Heihachi's grandson. 'Son of Kazuya.' That's what the killer blond meant, that's why the pretty boy actor looked so much like Kazuya - he'd been cast in the role of Kazuya Mishima's son. Or maybe he was Kazuya's son playing himself, just like Heihachi Mishima played himself in this crazy sci-fi marathon. I'd heard about Heihachi's grandson; ever since he joined the Mishima syndicate around four years ago, various trashy tabloids had a field day 'reporting' his so-called psychic powers.
         What?
         Yeah, I like to read tabloids. Entertainment value. You got a fucking problem with that?
         Hell, I even remembered the pretty boy's name from those dirt-cheap paper rags: Jin Kazama, that's who he was. Finally, I was beginning to figure this movie out. It was a sci-fi thriller about the Mishima syndicate! The crouching pretty boy over there was Jin Kazama, main hero of the story, while the girl was his generic cute squeeze sidekick - I didn't recognize the actress.
         I'll tell you one thing that went through my mind, though, when I looked at her. I looked at her and thought, those racist assholes. It's the fucking twenty-first century, and they still can't bring themselves to cast real Indians? Because she was all dressed up like an Indian - well, not in moccasins or a nightgown of raw buffalo hide, but her costume was an American West cliché. Starting with her buckskin tank top laced down the middle; I swear, it was the 'Indian girl in summer swimsuit' look, even if she did have an aquamarine cloth tank top under it. Then there were her fingerless buckskin gloves with a stylized pattern of X's around the wrists; a short, dark denim skirt held in place by a narrowly cinched belt; and buckskin cowboy boots reaching up to the bunched white stockings around her knees. Oh, and she had some kind of chain-necklace with the bulge of a hidden pendant under her top.
         What really screamed 'Indian!' about her, though, was her feathered headband. I saw it when she took off her violet motorcycle helmet. She had this band of tiny beads, decorated with stylistic black-and-white lines tracing a pattern of triangles, and one, cardinal red feather that poked straight up from the left side of her scalp. Her black bangs had been wind-blown over either side of her imitation Indian headband, while her two ponytails pointed stiffly down and away from the back of her head. Long, tubular blue hair-holders, decorated with more fake Indian patterns, held those ponytails in place.
         Huh?
         Can the flattery. I'm a trained detective; I know how to pay attention to details. What I mean to get at, though, was here's this girl, all dressed up to play an Indian, and she was obviously white. No possible mistaking it. She wasn't even wearing makeup to hide her natural skin color, not to mention the sunburn lines around her neck, shoulders, and thighs. Idiot racist casting directors.
         Fuck you. This doesn't have anything to do with politics; I like realism in my movies, that's all. Now shut up or I'll knock you on your ass.
         Where was I, anyway? Oh yeah, the killer blond had just dropped the bomb on pretty boy Jin Kazama and his fake Indian girlfriend.
         "I think we've found the Toshin's vassal," the girl muttered under her breath.
         The pretty boy gasped, "It's possessed an innocent woman!"
         Killer blond started laughing.
         She couldn't help herself; a sudden contortion of outraged, unstoppable histrionics took control of her. She threw back her head, spread open her arms, and served her cackling hysteria to the stars. +YOU DARE TO DESCRIBE THIS VESSEL'S SOUL AS 'INNOCENT'?+
         "Jin!" gasped the Indian girl. "That's Nina Williams! She's a hired killer! Haven't you studied your own family's history?"
         Nina Williams? Nina Williams, the Silent Assassin?
         I thought she was a myth. Shit, of course she was a myth, as imaginary as her 'Toshin' demon-possessor. This whole Toshin-Nina bloodbath was just a made-for-TV movie loosely based on real people. Now, if I could only figure out who 'Bryan' was supposed to be...
         Pretty boy Kazama stood up. He raised his head high, chest out, arms ready to create another shield. He said, "Is that true? Are you Nina Williams?"
         The killer blond stopped laughing. Evil gold lightning danced so fiercely around her head that it made her hair spread out with static. +YOUR SOUL HAS GROWN STRONGER.+
         "A malevolent spirit is controlling you," Jin told her, fervently. "It's been forcing you to do horrible things. You have to fight against it! I can help you win free, if you'll only resist the Toshin!"
         The Indian girl mumbled, "Now you're trying to use reason?"
         An odd attitude settled on the killer blond. She gradually lowered her arms by her sides. Her head tilted a bit. When she spoke, her voice still had that mind-blowing impression, but at least her sheer volume was down. She said, +You... want to help me?+
         "Yes." The pretty boy took a step forward. "You're a victim, too."
         +I am... a victim?+
         "You have to concentrate. Think of who you are. Hold on to your identity, and use it to fight the monster in your body. It has killed too many people already; I won't let it take your soul as well!" He stretched out his hand.
         I couldn't believe this.
         Here was this vicious murdering bitch, and pretty boy Kazama, son of a genocidal madman, was appealing to her better nature? The most insane thing about it was how sincere he acted; how his voice shook with tense concern, and his eyes blinked like he was holding back tears. His extended hand trembled as he approached another step.
         "Please," he stressed, sadly, intensely. "You have to fight it!"
         The killer blond swayed. Her knees bent. Her evil gold energy extended in orbital spires. Pressing her hands against her forehead, she groaned, +Help me...+
         The Indian girl's hand went to her chest. She reached under her top and drew out the pendant to her chain necklace. It was a shiny gold medallion, with frilly loops and inset red stones, and it glowed in the darkness.
         Heihachi's voice exclaimed, Are wa-!
         "Jin, don't get any closer," warned the girl, holding the glittering object in both hands. "It's a trick! If she really were resisting the Toshin, the aura of her Power would diminish!"
         I want that medallion, Heihachi rumbled. Seize it! Now!
         The camera moved in response, but instead of performing a seamless zoom-in, it abruptly jerked away from the Indian girl. Black sky and blood-streaked bodies whirled past the narrow view of the lens, until everything came to a jarring halt. Blades of grass feathered half the picture; the other half happened to settle in line with the pretty boy and killer blond.
         I said seize her medallion! Heihachi's voice repeated. Then, Why isn't it responding!?
         Too much electromagnetic interference with the somatomotor command relay, Abel grimly stated. I told you-
         Shut up!
         Pretty boy Kazama remained oblivious to everything around him, especially his girlfriend's warning. He only had eyes for the killer blond; hell, he was right across from her now. A sprinkle of electricity crackled around his hands. Its gentle indigo color was the polar opposite of her hissing, merciless gold fire.
         "Open you mind," he encouraged. "I will lend my strength to your own, and help you exorcize the Toshin."
         +Help me...+
         The killer blond reached out her hand. A smile crossed the pretty boy's face - I mean a real smile, genuine, compassionate, loving warmth. She took his fingers in her own. I was about ready to gag, because I couldn't believe they paid someone to screenwrite this.
         +Help me get MY REVENGE!+
         The killer blond clenched his wrist in a death-grip, yanked him forward so hard he stumbled off-balance, and snapped her left foot into his balls.
         That looked like it had to hurt.
         A lot.
         I revised my lukewarm first opinion of the pretty boy's acting. From the way he folded, eyes bulging, voicing a cut-off squeak, you'd think he really was in serious pain. The killer blond laughed, madly, and sliced her stunned prey with her free hand. Pretty boy Kazama somehow managed to tuck his chin at the last second, so instead of ripping open his throat, her fingernails just carved a massive rent down his cheek and the side of his neck. Indigo electricity rippled his steaming, freshly spilt blood. Killer blond lunged at her victim, bending forward and thrusting her hands out, arms ramrod straight, palms flexed with the left pointing up and the right pointing down. Her extended strike slammed the half-crumpled pretty boy in the chest, complete with a fantastic burst of evil gold electricity. He fell flat on his back.
         "JIN!" screamed the Indian girl from off-camera.
         +YOUR SOUL IS OVERCONFIDENT.+
         Killer blond didn't even bother to look; she just pointed and blam, a deadly gold lightning bolt shut the Indian girl up. I mean, the actual blast took place outside the border of the director's narrow view, but I heard a high-pitched female screech off-camera, followed by a long silence. Hm, maybe they hadn't bothered to hire a real Indian actress because her character was dead within a couple minutes' screen time anyway?
         Jin cried, "NO!" Shock paled his face as he strained his neck, looking for his fallen girlfriend. His head turned back to the killer blond as he exclaimed, "Leave her out of this! The Toshin's fight is with me!"
         Screwy thing was, he talked like he thought the Indian girl wasn't dead. Which was really pushing it; there were bodies all over the place showing how lethal the killer blond's lightning was. Pretty boy Kazama might be able to survive it, given his psychic powers or whatever, but no way could a normal young girl take it and keep on kicking. Unless the screenwriters pulled a cheap-ass stunt, that is.
         +THERE WILL BE AGONY ENOUGH FOR YOU!+
         The killer blond approached him. He tried to get up, and had reached one knee when she was close enough to lean in his face. Instead of hitting him or blasting him, this time she - well, it looked like she spat out a deep purple mist, through her pursed lips. Pretty boy recoiled when it coated his face; his eyes teared in a natural reaction to the stuff that hissed and sizzled on his skin.
         Heihachi's voice made a disgusted, growling sound.
         +KAZUYA RAPED MY MIND,+ the killer blond snarled to her kneeling, weeping prey. +TORE OPEN MY SOUL. FORCED ME TO BETRAY MY CONTRACT. AND YOU, CORRUPTED WITH HIS FACE AND HIS POWER... YOU PRETEND THAT YOU WANT TO 'HELP' ME!?+
         "I - I'm sorry he hurt you," the pretty boy pleaded, clutching at his burning eyes with both hands. "But the Toshin is turning you into a menace as bad as the Devil that controlled my father. It's making you murder innocent people! You have to- ugh!" A swift kick to the chin shut his yap.
         +HALF-BREED FILTH! DO NOT SPEAK TO ME OF 'INNOCENT'! I AM A VICTIM NO MORE!+
         Pretty boy Kazama looked like a pile of shit.
         The killer blond's venom-breath pitted his face and swelled his eyes; from the disoriented way he struggled to stand, I figured he'd been struck blind. His own blood dyed a long swath down his neck and painted a purple stripe on his dark blue clothing; more streaks trickled from his mouth. He teetered, and his bloody teeth gritted in a strained wince, and the idiot still wouldn't fight back. When the killer blond tried to kick him again, he managed to catch her sexy right leg. Pushing sharply on her limb, he guided it away from himself while stepping to her side, and he kicked hard at her supporting leg's hamstring. That surprised her enough to knock her on one knee. But instead of taking his chance to hit her while she was down, he just gripped her shoulders with both hands. His indigo electricity redoubled, surrounding her without burning her as he declared, "I will drive this monster out of you!"
         It was his last mistake.
         The pretty boy should have known better. If he'd had the guts to fight his nemesis without holding back, he might have had a chance. Not definite. Might. But he was too soft. She erupted free of his hold - she didn't need to use any fancy moves for that, just sheer, superhuman strength - and then she had her hands on him.
         +I WILL CRUSH YOUR BONES!+ she boomed, with vicious enthusiasm.
         I had no idea how they were staging this.
         Trick photography, or maybe the pretty boy doubled as a stellar stuntman, but I still couldn't get over how real his beating looked. Grabbing his left wrist in one hand, the killer blond reached her other hand under his trapped limb and rapped his chin so soundly that fresh blood droplets flew from his mouth. And she was just warming up. Dragging his arm down, she put her right hand on his back and shoved his solar plexus into her knee thrust. While he froze in that split-second paralysis of choking agony, she targeted his neck. Wrapping her right arm around it, she yanked back with a stiff tug. Her weight pulled him on his stomach; she sank down on her rear next to him, with both arms around his face. She wrenched his neck so far back she pried his torso partly off the ground. One of his legs reflexively kicked at the knee as I heard the dubbed-in crack of breaking bone.
         My God, I thought to myself. They killed him.
         The screenwriters killed off their main hero.
         I mean, his head flopped and lolled brokenly, his blood stained a royal throw rug on the grass, and the killer blond loomed over him, sensuously licking his blood from her hands - shit, not only did pretty boy Kazama's character have to be dead, but I was beginning to worry about the actor. How the hell could he fake that kind of damage? Mirrors? A model? I upgraded my previously sinking opinion of the director; whatever camera tricks he'd used, they were good ones.
         +KAZUYA! I FULFILL MY CONTRACT WITH THE HEAD OF YOUR SON!+ Drunk with Power, mouth agape from wild abandon, the killer blond poised her clawlike fingernails above the back of her slain victim's neck.
         "You - you - TERMAGANT!"
         The Indian girl's scream came from off-camera. Hey, wasn't she supposed to be dead too?
         Again, the killer blond pointed her hand and discharged a lightning bolt, without bothering to turn her head. The Indian girl raced into the screen, even as the evil gold energy found its mark-
         -upon the shining medallion she held out in front of herself.
         Everything flashed white.
         The medallion's gleaming radiance transformed searing electric death into a cavalcade of starry fireworks. So that was how the Indian girl had survived the last zap. She continued her charge, racing like a madwoman; her sheer forward momentum collided with and overwhelmed the backward push of the energy attack. She staggered, but did not fall.
         +WHAT?+ The killer blond sensed something wasn't right, and turned her attention away from the pretty boy's corpse - too late.
         "STOP IT!" shrieked the Indian girl. She curled and snapped her extended arm, smashing her medallion in a glancing blow against Toshin-Nina's forehead. The killer blond's neck whipped to the side, but her body remained anchored in place; it was her electric aura that recoiled most violently to the blow. Her energy dress thinned to a few tiny tendrils. Her eyes blinked; for just an instant, their evil gold fire receded to a more natural, icy blue.
         The would-be Indian drew herself tall, heels together, chin out, presenting her medallion in an act of sovereign defiance. The object's glow escalated to white-hot intensity. It spread from the small disc-shape to completely envelop its holder, framing her in gleaming white; even her eyes changed color from brown-black to radiant pearl. The binders holding her ponytails burst; her straight black hair spread as if blown by a hurricane wind.
         She wasn't playing the part of a scared young girl anymore.
         Her panic melted away. Supernatural tranquility settled on her whole body. It's hard to explain, and even harder to admit, but at that moment she looked more like an earth goddess than a human being.
         Toshin-Nina could not move in the shimmering white glare. She remained rigidly frozen. The blood coating her hands gave off scalding gouts of steam. A deep red gorge appeared in her forehead, where the medallion had struck her.
         *I am Julia Chang,* the Indian girl stated, proudly, resolutely. *Daughter of Michelle Chang, and heir guardian to the holy treasure of our tribe. I speak for the people you have murdered, and the survivors you have devastated. The blood of your victims repels you. The desecration you have visited repels you. On behalf of this sacred planet, I repel you!*
         +No,+ Toshin-Nina croaked. +You can't... I won't-!+
         *BEGONE TO THE DARKNESS OF YOUR MASTER!*
         Toshin-Nina screamed.
         White fire erupted from the blood on her hands, liquid trails of the pretty boy's spent life-fluid springing into ten-foot tall sheets of spontaneous combustion. She flailed in the center of a volcanic pyramid. Her form became a silhouette, which narrowed to a line, shortened to a dot, and winked out of existence. Her scream seemed to echo on and on, long after her physical presence had disappeared.
         I wondered if she'd be back for a sequel.
         The medallion's light dimmed. The Indian girl, Julia, all her supernatural white energy drained back into the golden disc from which it had come. Her toy stopped shining; its glow dimmed to nothing more than reflected firelight.
         Julia's eyelids drooped. She rocked on her feet, and collapsed to hands and knees, still holding her treasure. Sweat dripped from her face. Her breath came in strong, staggered heaves.
         The camera lens raised itself. Like someone had finally picked it off the ground and set it back on its tripod.
         Abel's voice huffed, Finally. The electromagnetic interference has departed along with Miss Williams. Now if I can only recalibrate the gyroscopic-
         Stop babbling and get that medallion! Heihachi demanded.
         The camera focused on Julia.
         She looked directly into it.
         "Detective Bryan Fury!" she gasped.
         What?
         That name - the full name now, 'Detective Bryan Fury,' hearing it was like getting hit over the head. My senses reeled. The camera lens blackened. I was so close to remembering; it was driving me crazy-!
         Heihachi shouted, Why has it stalled!?
         Abel muttered, I was trying to tell you, the gyroscopic equilibrium sensors have to be properly recalibrated or it will fall down again. And there's something abnormal about these engrammic readings-
         I want that medallion!
         Goddamn noisy Surround Sound bastard voices; how's a guy supposed to think with all that background-
         "You are Bryan Fury, aren't you?" Julia softly continued. "The 'Snake Eye' of Interpol? You wouldn't know me, but you're one of my heroes - I've been following the careers of world-famous detectives like you since I was old enough to access the Internet. I read that you were killed last September, in a Hong Kong shootout? Detective Lei Wulong said you gave your life to save him-"
         She broke off. Her brown-black eyes became wide as saucers, dipping down from the camera lens and then back up to it, as though she'd just become aware of something horrific right in front of her.
         'Snake Eye'?
         'Interpol'?
         'Hong Kong shootout'...?
         Aha! came Abel's voice. Excellent. Balance fully restored, although I am still disturbed about these engrammic-
         Heihachi roared, I WANT THAT MEDALLION! NOW!
         Yes, Mishima-sama. At once.
         The camera lens advanced on Julia. Her wide eyes narrowed. A pair of black-gloved hands reached for the shining treasure she held.
         "No!" she breathed, ferociously. Jerking the medallion away from the clutching hands, she hastily wobbled to her feet. A camouflage-covered leg snapped to kick the prize from her fingers, yet she wasn't there, spinning around reach of the attack and past the side of the camera's view.
         I have only one explanation for what she did next.
         Epinephrine.
         She had to be running on the leftovers of supercharged stress hormones, flooding her whole body. Because her legs tightly scissored around the lens while her arms and back pitched toward the earth, pulling the camera off its tripod in a display that turned the world upside-down.
         Abel exclaimed, What is that vixen doing to my prototype!?
         The camera lens righted itself, on a new tripod - I could swear it was filming hands and feet, braced against the bloodstained grass. The girl was also recovering from her gymnastics. When those black-gloved hands made another grab for her medallion, she cocked the fist holding it back, folding her left arm and striking with her elbow just below the central focus of the director's shot. She swept her right foot in a follow-up kick, which glanced against the camera lens so hard I could swear I heard the glass crack.
         NO! Abel shrieked. Prototype Alpha: KILL!
         Those black-gloved hands locked around the girl's throat.
         Their arm muscles tensed.
         Heihachi's voice growled, I commanded you to retrieve that medallion, not-
         I'm not going to pry that toy loose from her while she's alive and you know it! Abel shot back, petulantly. Any more of this pointless struggling could irreparably damage the prototype!
         Very well.
         At first the girl flailed against the stranglehold, striking out with her palms and kicking with her legs. But her strength soon deserted her. The hands lifted her bodily off the ground, holding her by the clenched throat. Her mouth sucked air in this overwhelmed O-shape, but none of it could reach her deflating lungs.
         I... I'd seen someone work their mouth like that before...
         I'd seen...
         An image flashed in my mind. Not on the TV screen, it was memory that replayed the slow-motion picture of a dying gangster, his throat cut by his own knife-
         -a sensation passed through me. Not real pain, not any kind of physical feeling, but the memory of pain, the sympathetic mental twinge of a bloody trail ripped through my gut-
         -there was a sick, aging cop, short stature and raspy voice, coughing up his gizzard in the middle of a crossfire. I felt something when I thought of him. An emotion. Hatred. I remembered boiling hatred in response to his name, in response to everything I heard about him-
         Detective Lei Wulong said you gave your life to save him.
         I remembered.
         The girl's words, echoing in my conscious mind, were the final push to open the dam. Memories overwhelmed me - facts, feelings, ambitions, everything came rushing back in a flood of Truth.
         Oh, my God.
         I was Bryan Fury.
         This wasn't a TV show. This was real. The scene before me wasn't any camera shot, it was my eyes seeing for real, it was all real, and I was strangling a girl to death!
         No.
         Oh, God, no.
         No, stop this - let go of her - why can't I let go? I still couldn't feel anything on my body, and my hands wouldn't do what I wanted. I began to panic. Sure, I got mired in some deep shit before, but never anything this low. Not the cold-blooded murder of an innocent girl - hell, better than innocent, she was a fan of my career!
         Let go!
         Let go!
         The girl's hands made one last, feeble attempt to claw open the vise on her throat. She tried to use her medallion as a wedge against my fingers, but no magic came to save her.
         I freaked out.
         Let go of the girl. Let her go. LET GO! No, no, I don't want to do this, I don't want this girl's murder on my record, why can't I let go of her throat? God, no, don't make me do this! Somebody stop this! Stop me from doing this! God, someone, anyone, STOP THIS!
         SOMEONE STOP THIS!
         This is too slow, Abel sighed. I simply must program the prototype with a killing technique swifter than manual strangulation.


         Ah, damn. I'm out of time.
         You want to 'interview' me again, have Lee fill you an appointment in advance, you got that? Right now, I got people waiting for me.
         No, you may not talk with me on the way. You wouldn't blend in, not where I'm going. I said I only had forty minutes for the likes of you, and I meant it.
         What?
         Oh, give it a rest. You are not 'left hanging.' When's the last time you saw Julia? Or her pointy-haired boyfriend? Did they look dead to you? Are those eyes of yours just painted halves of ping-pong balls, or what?
         Shit. You really want to know what happened next?
         My prayer got answered, that's what happened. And you want to know something else?
         God has a sick sense of humor.


End of Chapter 9: Aggravated Assault