Chapter 33

July 10th, U.C. 0051, 5:15 PM

On this quiet evening, Aina was enjoying some time alone in the library. The entire staff had been working extra hard over the last few months, servicing a never-ending parade of semicentennial parties and celebrations. The work had been made more difficult by the insistence of military leaders, without any intelligence of a concrete threat, that the semicentennial would be a perfect opportunity for either the ‘Muricans or the Soviets to mount an attack. In addition to cooking, cleaning and serving refreshments, the staff had been instructed to keep an eye out for dangerous foreign actors in the crowds.

Of course, having been given no indication of what to look out for, there had been numerous false accusations by meido from various goshujin households, but no real enemies of the state had been found. This was especially embarrassing for the prime minister, whose staff had falsely accused groups of celebrators on three separate occasions. Akira’s staff had avoided making any embarrassing accusations, but there had been some close calls. Naomi had kept a tight leash on the more overzealous among the staff, pairing them up with more level-headed individuals. The defense minister’s staff had also made no false accusations, and it appeared to Aina that they weren’t even trying to look for foreign agents. She suspected that the whole thing was a political game cooked up by the defense minister in an attempt to make the other ministers look bad.

“My, how rare to see you here,” Naomi commented sarcastically as she entered the library. She paused for the briefest of moments when she noticed that the library safe was slightly ajar, but quickly closed the door behind her. “Did you crack our master’s safe?”

Muri,” Aina waved her hand in front of her face. “He trusted me with the combination.”

“I’m impressed,” Naomi said flatly, unable to come up with a witty response. “I assume he told you how dangerous the books in there are.”

Aina nodded. Even with the goshujin caste considered above the law, it would be problematic if anyone knew Akira owned the books in that safe. Even within the mansion, Aina had to be careful not to let the wrong people see her reading them. She would prop up the books behind stacks of controversial, but less problematic books, hoping they would draw the attention of anyone who entered the library.

“I’ll be careful,” Aina assured her.

“So, what are you reading tonight?” Naomi tried to sound nonchalant as she leaned over to peer at the book Aina was reading, and Aina tried to pull a copy of Brave New World over the book in her hand, but she wasn’t fast enough to hide it from Naomi. “Sister Outsider,” Naomi whispered the title. “That might be the only copy left in the world. How is it?”

“It’s muzukashii,” Aina admitted. “And not just because it’s hard to remember that the America and Soviet Union that Lorde writes about are different than ‘Murica and the Soviet Expedition. There is just so much that’s different about her world. And yet, there’s so much in here that’s still relevant centuries later.”

“Indeed,” Naomi nodded. “I don’t remember the details that well, but I do remember the power of her words.”

Un,” Aina agreed quietly. “I’m surprised you’ve read it, though.”

“This book didn’t used to be controversial, at least not in Paris,” Naomi explained. “You could find it online and in most libraries. I found it when I was researching ancient history, and I was surprised when I learned that it was banned both in ‘Murica and the Soviet Expedition. From what I can tell, it wasn’t especially controversial in the United States or in the USSR when it was first published.”

Demo, I can see why it’s banned here,” Aina commented. “It goes against the established—”

Aina cut herself off as she heard footsteps approaching the library door. She could tell they were Chikako’s. A few months ago, she wouldn’t have noticed them, but either her hearing had improved, or Chikako’s stealthiness had declined. Unsurprisingly, Naomi heard the footsteps too, and they both remained quiet, listening as the footsteps came to a stop at the other side of the door.

“If you keep spending all your free time in here,” Naomi said loudly, obviously intended for Chikako to overhear, “your juniors are going to surpass you, you know.” As she spoke, Aina began quietly moving the books back into the vault.

“As a senpai, nothing could make me happier,” Aina replied just as loudly. “Besides, you were the one who told me I needed to learn more about the sekai.”

“True, but you can’t neglect your training. Don’t get overconfident just because you’ve finally put on a little muscle,” Naomi admonished, grabbing Aina’s arm to inspect it. “Even Mme Jin is beefier than you are. Besides, it’s not your juniors you have to worry about. There will always be strong opponents out there. You have to train hard to surpass them.”

“Strong opponents like you, for example?”

“Well, you can train all you like, but you’ll never surpass me.”

“I don’t need to disarm you with my duster,” Aina said, raising her arm, which Naomi still held, and placing her palm on Naomi’s cheek, “when I can disarm you with my smile.”

“Your charms won’t work on me,” Naomi sighed melodramatically. “I’m afraid I’m too old for romance.”

“You don’t look too old to me,” Aina said, gently pulling Naomi closer.

“Oh, Mme Aina!” Naomi wailed. “Take me to a world I have known not these last 120 years! To a world of passion which must be kept secret from Mme Chikako.”

Unable to keep up the charade any longer, Naomi and Aina burst out laughing.

“Very funny, you ni,” Chikako remarked, entering the library. “It’s been what, yon years now? It gets funnier every time.”

“And it will continue to get funnier for years to come,” predicted Naomi.

“You can’t blame me for being suspicious after Momo was sent away,” Chikako said. “If goshujin-sama sent her away to break you up, It was my job to make sure you didn’t go after anyone else.”

“That’s not why Momo was sent away,” insisted Aina.

Hai, I know that now,” Chikako admitted.

“Do you?” queried Naomi. “Then why were you spying on us from outside the room?”

“I wasn’t spying,” Chikako defended herself. “I was being discreet. I know what kinds of books you’re reading in here and I wanted to give you time to put them away before I entered. I don’t want to see them any more than you want me to see them.”

De, what brings you here this fine evening?” Aina asked, changing the subject.

“We need a few more bodies to run security at the upcoming matsuri. I couldn’t convince you to postpone your vacation day again, could I?”

Iie,” Aina answered firmly. “I’ve already delayed it san times in the last ni months.”

“Demo, it will be at Neo Chichibu Shrine,” Chikako said, hoping to tempt Aina. “Don’t you want to work the same matsuri as your miko tomodachi?”

“She’s not working that night. Besides, I already have plans.”

“Big date?” Naomi teased.

“Iie,” Aina waved her hand dismissively. “Sena-chan wants to experience the matsuri, and there’s no way I’m going to miss out on that.”

“Sena-chan?” Chikako sounded confused. “Oh, you mean the gynoid. I can’t see why you want to go. What would a gynoid even do at a matsuri? She can’t eat, and she probably won’t be allowed to play the carnival games.”

“I’m sure she’ll find a way to enjoy it,” replied Aina. “Otanoshimi ni.”

“Don’t get your hopes up,” warned Chikako. “If I can’t find enough people, you’ll have to cancel your plans.”

“Remind me again why the keisatsu aren’t handling this,” sighed Aina.

Maa, you know,” Chikako responded, “the keisatsu is largely French. They can’t exactly be trusted to keep the peace at events celebrating the anniversary of Neo Crystal Tokyo.”

I’m French. Aina pointed out. “We’re all French.” Chikako turned up her nose at the suggestion, but Naomi high-fived Aina.

“Be that as it may,” Chikako countered, “The keisatsu is currently in disorder, trying to root out seditious elements from its ranks.” The police were, in theory, independent of the executive branch, but just like she suspected the defense minister of fabricating this security crisis, she couldn’t help but see his hand in the current dysfunction within the police bureau.

Wakatta, wakatta,” Aina sighed again. “Demo, I’m going to be upset if I miss my dai date because of this,” she joked.

Chikako’s retort was cut short by the sound of approaching footsteps. Two gynoids were walking towards the library as quickly as they could. Chikako motioned to Aina to put the rest of her books away, but Aina trusted the gynoids to keep Akira’s secrets. She wouldn’t have had much time to put them away anyway, as an urgent knock soon sounded from the door.

“Enter,” Naomi said flatly.

The door opened and one of the mansion’s gynoids entered the library, followed closely by a gynoid wearing a denim jumpsuit. Aina had never met this gynoid before, but she could feel her distinct personality. From the looks on Naomi and Chikako’s face, she realized they thought she was one of the mansion’s gynoids.

“Konbanwa, Mao-chan” Aina greeted the mansion’s meido. “Dare’s your tomodachi?”

Kochira wa…” Mao-chan began to introduce the other gynoid.

“I do not have a namae, meido-sama,” the gynoid explained. “I am called Assembly Worker Zero-Zero-Nine. I work at Hideaki-sama’s manufacturing plant.”

“May I call you Zero-Zero-Nine-san?” Aina asked.

“That is what Hideaki-sama calls me,” the gynoid replied.

Sou ka?” Aina frowned. It would have been convenient to use that nickname, but she got the feeling the gynoid didn’t like it. “Tell me, do all the gynoids at the manufacturing plant lack namae?”

“Only watashi,” the gynoid confirmed.

Jya,” Aina smiled, “it may not sound like a namae to you, but I believe Hideaki-sama considers it to be one.”

“And what business of Hideaki-sama’s sends you to us?” Chikako interrupted.

“Please forgive me, meido-sama,” the gynoid apologized. “I came here of my own volition.”

Nandato?!” Chikako gasped.

Onegai,” the gynoid begged. “I believe Hideaki-sama is in trouble. I have come to request aid.”

“What makes you think that?” Naomi queried.

“For the past week, he has locked himself in his office and has issued strange orders via email. The orders do not fit any pattern of orders he has issued in the past, making it likely that the orders are being issued under duress, or from someone else.”

“Why did you wait for so long to come for help?” Chikako asked suspiciously.

“It is not strange for Hideaki-sama to lock himself in his office for days at a time while he is working,” the gynoid explained. “It took a few days for him to issue enough orders to determine that they did not fit to any of his previous patterns, and by then, the factory had been taken over by strange men who have watched our movements closely. On Hideaki-sama’s orders, of course.”

“Sounds serious,” observed Naomi. “So why come to us? M Hideaki surely has allies closer to his factory. It seems to me you took an unnecessary risk of being discovered by traveling so far.”

“Because we’re the ones most likely to help,” Chikako said through clenched teeth. “Goshujin-sama just purchased a large share in Hideaki Heavy Industries. He now owns the second-largest stake after Hideaki-sama himself. He has the most to lose if something happens.”

“It is as you say, meido-sama. I also wished to meet Kazue-sama, if possible.”

“Just what I need,” Chikako rubbed her temple with her right hand, “another schedule change. I’ll get it cleared with goshujin-sama. Naomi-sama, would you put together a plan? You can take whoever’s available.”

“Just a minute,” Naomi countered. “We have to account for the possibility that M Hideaki is being held hostage. If we value his life—and I assume we do—we’ll have a better chance of success if we infiltrate the factory with one or two of our own gynoids.”

“Without ningen backup?” Chikako asked. “They’ll be sitting ducks if they encounter a situation they haven’t been programmed for. Tell me, are the factory gynoids programmed for combat?”

“Iie,” Zero-Zero-Nine shook her head. This revelation angered Aina. How were they supposed to defend themselves?

“If we gave you a copy of our combat routines, could you distribute them to the other gynoids at the factory without getting caught?” Aina asked. “Soshite, can you get us two uniforms like yours, preferably used, so they don’t stand out as new?”

“I will do these things,” Zero-Zero-Nine said.

“Sounds like someone just volunteered to lead this ninmu,” Chikako said with a grin on her face.

“I’ve never led a ninmu before,” Aina said, taken aback.

“Everyone has to start some time,” Chikako pointed out.

“Demo, I’m not qualified,” protested Aina. “Don’t you usually have to go through training?”

“I can’t think of anyone more qualified to work with the gynoids,” Naomi remarked.

“That settles it,” Chikako said smugly. “Make your preparations, and take ni of the gynoids with you. Depending on what you find, you may call for backup. Shuppatsu.”