We had to stop halfway to Kage castle. The driver had pulled over because he was about to pass out. Li and Hiro pulled both him and the navigator into the rear bay with me and the dead Defender operator. The navigator seemed fine until they dropped him. It was then that I noticed he had four holes in his rear plate where his heart was. Judging by how his hastily applied bandage was already soaked red, the driver had several entry wounds in his back just underneath his plate and some exit wounds on the other side. I was surprised he had lasted as long as he did.
Li then got into the driver’s seat. That meant both Hiro and I got to sit in the back and watch the time between the driver’s breaths get longer and longer. As Hiro watched, he gripped his mouth, both in thought and to stop himself from saying anything. His other hand held his sidearm, finger in the trigger guard. I suddenly wondered if he hadn’t made Li drive to avoid the temptation of shooting him.
Eventually, we got to the castle. Hiro and Li had gotten out of the van. For a while, I wondered if they were even going to come back. Then eventually someone got back in and drove the van into what felt like an underground area. When it stopped, Hiro opened the door, revealing what looked like a loading bay. Four Defenders opened the door and grabbed my stretcher. Hiro began walking down with them, chatting with them all the way.
For a second, I wondered why he was going with them. Then I noticed how tired they all looked. I also remembered how many Defenders I’d killed recently and that I hadn’t been the only one killing them. They may have been running low on manpower.
We were eventually led into a room that was a cross between a feudal dungeon and medical facility. That didn’t augur well for me.
Using a knife, they ripped off my clothes, patted me down for subdermal implants, inspected my mouth and anus, then ran several detectors over me. Then, when they were satisfied that I had nothing inappropriate I could literally pull out of my ass, they put me in a surgical gown and strapped me to the bed. They then hooked me up to an oxygen mask to help my lung heal.
There was nothing to do after that except to stare at the wall. At least I couldn’t hear news about the ongoing Dragon’s Teeth that would give me an ulcer to match my collapsed lung. Of course, that didn’t stop me from worrying about what was going on. It was all so stupid. Here we were, killing people over a single time-traveling Parahuman when we could be doing something to stop the real threat.
I waited. And waited. Due to how boring it was, I was waiting a long time. Then the door opened. A man walked in and started to inspect me. I remembered him. He was the German coroner who had investigated the bodies dumped around Kage keep.
“Hey,” I said, “Long time no see.”
“Ah, yes,” the doctor said, “I remember you. I would like to apologize in advance, I have very little experience working on the living.”
“Are you going to operate on me?” I asked as he began inspecting my chest. “Because that wasn’t very comforting.”
The doctor held up his hands to quiet me and then continued checking my body. Mostly it was just checking my chest. Finally, he said, “No. But if you keep living this lifestyle, young man, you will end up on my slab.” He stood up. “I am going to go back to your English friends. Is there anything you would like me to tell them?”
“Maybe like where I am?” I suggested. “Y’know, slip them a map with a big red dot that says ‘Nate’s here?’”
The coroner laughed. “That doesn’t sound like something I can do. I am supposed to be keeping neutral, you know?”
“Speaking of third parties,” I asked, “did you hear anything about Bai Feng? She’s… well, she might not be a friend anymore. She was helping the Defenders drag me away when her brother shot her.”
“She must be with you,” the coroner said. “If she was with the English, from what you tell me, they’d be using her as leverage.”
“She didn’t come back with us,” I said. “Trust me, I was there.” This provoked a coughing fit. My question now wasn’t whether or not Bai was free. It was if she was still alive. I was… sad. I never really liked her, and she had never really liked me. Still, we had a lot of shared experiences. Of course, I was writing her off early. She might have somehow escaped.
“You really should stop talking,” the coroner said. “It’s going to be quite hard to recover if you don’t shut up.” I was about to respond to that, then shut up. “Good,” the coroner said. “You’re learning. I’m going to suggest that they give you some painkillers.”
“Noted,” a voice said. I looked up. Hiro and several armed Defenders walked into the room. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m just going to talk to him, and these guys are just going to make sure he doesn’t leave.” The coroner looked at me, handcuffed to the bed and hooked up to an oxygen machine. He then looked at the three Defenders with knockoff single-stack SIG-Sauers and raised an eyebrow. “You haven’t been the one chasing him around the Prefecture for the last week,” Hiro said. He sounded extremely tired. “Go, you have a lot of things to tell Blackmoor-Ward-sama.”
One of the Defenders escorted the coroner out. Hiro began pacing for a while. Then he said, “You do realize you’re in trouble, right?”
“Where’s Bai?” I asked. Ok, more like mumbled.
“What?” Hiro asked, understandably not hearing me. He leaned in closer and when I repeated myself, he said, “We have no idea. That, and your concern, honestly lends some credibility to Li’s theory.” I stared at him. Noticing my look, Hiro said, “Yes, I know. He’s insane. Was he always this crazy?” I shook my head.
“Anyway,” Hiro said, still pacing and making nervous motions with his hands, “before she escaped, I honestly agreed with Blackmoor-Ward-sama. My ancestor is a human being. A human being who gave up a life for the Defenders of Fuji. It is not her fault it changed while she was gone. I mean, if the council had decided to… to retire her, I wouldn’t have defied them. Yet… there was a difference.”
He paused. I motioned for him to continue. He shook his head and said something in Japanese. One of the words sounded like “television.” He took deep breath. “Are you sure,” he asked slowly, “that there is no information you have to The Architect’s whereabouts? No ways to narrow down the search?” I remained silent. “You don’t have to tell me where the Architect is, just… do you know what it looks like? Or if it could be described as a he or she? What ancient traps protect it? Hell, you could just tell me if you have a way of finding out more.”
I decided to see if I could give him my best “Why should I tell you?” face. At this point, I didn’t give a shit about Charlotte or Mayu, but I did care about Mubashir. The guy had risked his life for me, delaying people who wanted to kill me. Well, technically, he was immortal, so he just risked some minor inconveniences. Still, I owed him.
“You don’t speak Japanese, do you?” Hiro asked. I shook my head. “Then the video wouldn’t change your mind. Except maybe the last part.” He took a deep breath. “I’ll just summarize. After all, I’m the guy who was monitoring her first debriefing.”
I froze. The other Defenders became much more attentive. Hiro laughed. It was the kind of laugh that was less about mirth and more about releasing tension. “Yeah, pretty cool right? I get to watch my ancestor talk about how she spent the past five hundred years. Well, for her, it wasn’t five hundred years. They lost track at a thousand, and that was when they got their first revolver. You see, according to her, time there would slow down compared to our world if there were more people. If someone died, time would accelerate for a little bit.”
“Wait,” one of the Defenders said, “if time worked like that, wouldn’t they die from starvation?”
“Apparently,” Hiro said, “that wasn’t really a problem. At least, if you took what she said at face value. However, she mentioned that they did feel hunger and thirst. Maybe that contributed to the massacre.” He paused for a moment, then said, “You see, some of the bodies were… infected by something, of course. But the rest, the majority died to conventional means. Mayu’s explanation to these were usually reasonable, but… once in a while we would get some inconsistencies. Inconsistencies that could only mean she was lying.
“It was when we got to the sensei sent with them that she snapped. You’ve been with her more than any of us. Surely you’ve noticed how disturbingly happy she always is. That smile is a mask, and an obvious one. But when we talked about the sensei, it began to slip. Her smile remained, but you could see the panic.”
“I know…” I rasped, “…that part of her.” I paused to get my breath again. “Did… you see what… happens when she loses it?” The painkillers had finally worn off, and I was finally being smarter about speaking. I did it because I wanted to test if I could speak in short bursts without pain and maybe get some information.
“Yes,” Hiro said. “In fact, when one of the guards mentioned how revered the sensei was before he went into the pocket dimension, she… flipped out? Is that how you say it? Anyway, the person who praised the sensei was killed instantly, one guard is still hospitalized, and three others were injured.”
“Flipped out…” I said, “…is right. Just… gave her wrong colored pencils.” That last burst was way too ambitious, and I struggled not to cough again.
“Wait,” one of the guards asked, “she killed someone over the wrong colored pencil?”
I shook my head. “Injured,” I whispered.
“But you are not surprised.” Hiro said. “May I ask why you helped her?” I shrugged. I wasn’t exactly sure, other than that she had already escaped and I didn’t really want to argue that much with Charlotte while Eliza was still there.
We sat and stared at each other for a while. None of us said anything. I think the Defenders were waiting for me to speak. That would be a long time, as I had come to the conclusion that I would not hurt myself to tell them anything they didn’t know. Then there was a distant thump. Dust fell out of the walls and the lights flickered.
Hiro’s phone beeped. “That was server one.” He looked up from the phone, a look of panic on his face. “We’re vulnerable until server two and three pick up the slack.” He looked at my confused expression. “We have a server for each section of the castle. If one goes down, the workload changes to the other two. We lose some features like automated threat detection and other features get slower.” I nodded, mentally thanking him for that bit of information.
“Well,” one of the guards said, “we still have the other two. That should…”
There was another explosion, much closer this time. This time, the lights went out permanently. After a few seconds, red back-up lights came on. “That,” Hiro said, “was server three.”