The day was quiet enough. Moira had parked herself in front of the television, and was determinedly immobile. Midori stretched as she removed the last of the VR gear, then stepped out into the lounge room. Immediately she was seized from behind, one arm pinned behind her back and a hand clamped across her mouth.
Gem's quiet voice suddenly whispered in by her ear. "An unknown assailant has just grabbed you. What do you do?" She asked, with an unmistakable tone of urgency.
Gem found herself, arm still wrapped around Midori, flying through the air and hitting the wall with a resounding thud "Right..." Gem muttered as she got to her feet. "And without giving yourself away?"
"I'd have tried to get you in the groin, or take out your knee with a knee from the side," Midori replied.
Gem shook her head. "Foot and chest. Use your free arm and strike backwards with your elbow, or stomp straight down. Those are the easiest targets when you're bound from behind. Of course, if I was trying properly..."
Midori moved around to try and keep Gem in front of her, but Gem just smiled "Relax, I'm not going to try again. But I think you need some better training."
"Isn't that what a bodyguard is for, so I don't have to worry about that kind of thing?"
"As much as I'd like to claim otherwise, I can't be there all the time. Besides, this is for life." Gem folded her arms. "It might also help teach you a little discipline."
"I have discipline, thank you very much," Midori replied indignantly.
"And how late was Jason to work this morning?" Gem let a playful smile light her face.
"Only half an hour," Midori replied. Gem remained still, her smile growing slightly. "What?" Midori looked at Gem, then began to blush slightly. "It was a special night last night, okay?"
"It always is," Gem replied. "But you won't be able to rely on me, or your powers all the time. Besides, it'll do you good to get out of here once on a while."
"I do leave the suite, you know," Midori replied.
"I know someone who could train you in self-defense if you're willing. And as your bodyguard, I strongly recommend you take some training." Gem paused, then added "No offense, but I doubt you'd manage well against an attacker without your powers."
Midori was silent for a moment. "You're right, of course. Jack has said the same thing, but there just never was the right time to do it..." She looked at Gem. "What, did you think I was going to refuse?"
"You were doing your best to argue. Sometimes I think you argue with me for the hell of it. Besides..." Gem trailed off with a grin.
Midori looked at Gem and raised an eyebrow. "What? And I wasn't arguing. I was defending myself. I know that I need to learn how to defend myself with more than just a pistol."
Gem smiled. "I was about to say that Moira's well ahead of you."
"And why do you think someone other than you should teach me?"
"Because I don't know as much as this man. Because he taught me. And," Gem gave a mischievous smile, "Because I don't think Jason would like me teaching you."
Midori shook her head. "So you're good enough to teach Moira, but not good enough to teach me, is that it?" She smiled. "I hope it's just self-defense stuff you're teaching her, otherwise Jason's likely to blow his top. He wants her simply to flee any dangerous situation - and preferably that she never get into one in the first place."
"That's all I feel qualified to teach. Besides, there's no way I could drag Moira into the zone on a regular basis."
"Why would you want to drag her into the... Ah, that's where your teacher is, then. Have you... Have you talked to him about me yet, and does he know about my special... talents?"
Gem shook her head. "No, not yet. He accepts all kinds of students though, so it wouldn't be a problem."
"How does he get paid? Cash or service?"
Gem chuckled quietly to herself. "You'll have to ask him yourself."
"Great. You enjoy doing this to me, don't you." Midori shook her head. "When did you want to go?"
"Whenever's good with you. Now, if you like."
Midori looked over at Moira and saw the girl was still engrossed in the tri-vid. "Let me tell Hobbs first, then we can go. Might as well get this started, so you don't think I'm chicken." She moved to turn away, then turned back. "What should I be wearing? I don't have a gi."
"Do you think I did, growing up there?" Gem asked. "Anything comfortable is fine."
"I'll need to stop and buy a shirt," Midori said. "I've got comfortable pants, but the only shirts I have are oversized - not exactly ideal for this kind of thing."
Gem nodded. "Whatever you need."
Even after living for some time in the Zone, Midori found herself surprised by the church district. It was peaceful here. Sunlight seemed more welcome here than the perpetual gloom native to the seedier parts of the Zone. What surprised her even more were the children - happy children, playing out in the street, without a sign of any weapons or violence.
Gem pointed her towards a small building. It was entirely open to the street, and consisted of a single long room. Inside, she could see several mats laid out on the floor and a mismatched group of students - young and old, men and women - practicing together. A ladder in one corner of the room lead up to the open roof, which Midori could see was covered in greenery.
"That's him there," Gem said, pointing to an elderly Chinese man who lead the students in their practice. He wore a long, worn and battered Chinese shirt, and baggy, aged pants. His head was shaved, and he had a bushy white beard and mustache that completely obscured his mouth.
Midori nodded. "I'll wait here while you go talk to him."
Gem silently stepped into the building. She waited for a while they finished up, then approached the old man. She bowed to him in respect, and the two of them talked briefly. He looked out at Midori, and waved her over.
Midori walked over and stopped about a step behind Gem and executed a perfect bow of respect, one that one would give someone who was superior in both age and skill.
"Please, please, there's no need to be so formal," he said. "Little Gem just overdoes things, that's all."
Gem introduced the two. "Master Gen, this is Midori. Midori, master Gen; the man I was staying with for a while."
Midori looked at Gem again. "Did you tell him about... You know."
"It's fine," Gem replied.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Master Gen," Midori said softly, then smiled. "I'm afraid that formality is rather ingrained in me. A hazard of growing up with a strict Japanese parent." Midori glanced over at Gem, then back at Master Gen. "I'd like to thank for your considering to take me on as a student."
He nodded. "It's understandable. It shows you are of good manners, and hold others in good regard. As for the training, I generally accept anyone who can pay my fee."
"May I ask what that fee is," Midori asked.
"I'm getting old," he said. "I sustain myself with my rooftop garden, but in these past few years I find it harder to give it the attention necessary. All I ask is that you spend some time tending the garden for me." Midori could feel the lightheartedness in his voice, even as he complained about his age.
Midori looked up at the garden and thought quietly for a moment. "I believe I can do that," she replied with a smile. "My experience with plants in the past has been more technical, but I think doing this will be good for me." She shot a sly look at Gem. "Teach me patience and discipline."
Gem shrugged. "It's what he asks of everyone."
Gen gestured towards the mats. "Now, do you have any previous training that might help me out?"
Midori moved over to the mat. "I have gymnastics training," she replied, "but I don't know how to fall properly. I've also not really ever had to worry about falling as I can, well, usually stop myself from hitting the ground before that happens." She looked over at Gem. "Gem felt I need to learn to defend myself without using my... special talents."
"An admirable goal," he replied. "We have some time while the other students take a break. I can give you some instruction in the basics before they return."
Midori nodded, and prepared to learn.
"Boss, if you don't mind, I'll head back to look after Moira. It's getting time for her lessons."
Midori looked over at Gem. "Sure, go ahead."
"If anything happens..." Gem tapped her forehead.
Midori nodded. ~See you later. Oh, and make sure Moira eats something, no matter how bitterly she complains. There's problems with the taste sensors, so she doesn't like to eat because nothing has any taste to her.~
Gem rolled her eyes. ~Yes, mum,~ she joked, and turned to leave.
Midori was tempted to send Gem a rather rude comment, but refrained, and turned her attention back to Master Gen.
The hours wore on. Soon enough, the other students returned, and Midori was integrated into the class. The exercises were simple, and almost totally defensive in nature. He taught a philosophy of reaction, not aggression, and instructed his students to be calm and fluid, instead of tense.
It seemed like no time had passed when he called for another break. His attention was clearly diverted, as he looked over and behind the students. Midori glanced over in the direction that Master Gen was looking.
The students were already clustering around a new arrival, who managed to clear some space around herself. She gently placed a huge barrel just inside the dojo, hefting it as if it were half its weight. Their interest suddenly changed, the students clustered around the barrel and began drawing on its precious contents - water.
The woman stepped away from the throng and approached Gen. She was surprisingly short, and moved with the distinctive twitch of the cybernetically boosted. She had long blond hair and sparkling green eyes, and wore a rugged shirt and white workpants, both bone white. Although they had never met, Midori instantly recognized her from the locket Gem gave her.
Midori stayed where she was, off to one side, and waited for the crowd around to barrel to thin out before she went and got herself a drink. When she was finished, she returned to the edge of the mat and stretched, trying to work out the kinks that were developing from her overused muscles.
She brushed past Midori, giving her a sideways glance, then formally greeted Gen. Midori watched carefully as the two talked, briefly but showing clear familiarity. She bowed to Gen and approached Midori. "Good afternoon," she said. "I'm told you've just joined us here."
Midori nodded. "That's right. Today's my first day. Have you been coming here for a while?"
"I'm not a student as such, although I do help old man out occasionally," she replied.
"So I saw," Midori replied. "Clean water is a dear commodity. The name's Midori, by the way."
"Nicole," she said, offering Midori her hand. "I grew up in this area, so I understand how difficult it can be."
Midori reached out and shook Nicole's hand. "Pleased to meet you. You going to be staying around and participating, or are you leaving right away?"
"I was actually going to see to the garden for a moment. Would you care to join me?"
"Sure," Midori said. "I'm going to be working on it, so I might as well get to know it a bit before I become up close and personal, if you know what I mean." She smiled and chuckled softly. Inwardly she was cautious, watching the woman carefully. This was the woman Gem had mentioned, the heartless corporate assassin who had killed her own sister and set Gem on her course of revenge. She couldn't help but watch her suspiciously.
Nicole nodded and lead the way over to the ladder. She went up first, leaving the trapdoor open for Midori to follow.
The garden itself was a true surprise. It was lush and well tended, growing a variety of fruit and vegetables in neat, straight rows. A simple watering can sat at one end next to a small collection tank. Midori looked around, mentally naming all the plants with their latin names. "I can see why Gen's able to live off this garden."
"He cares for it dearly," she replied. "Mostly students are just asked to water it and check on the plants; I handle the pruning when I visit."
Midori nodded. "I must say I am a trifle curious," Nicole continued. "Mostly to find someone of your stature and learning here."
"And what do you know of my stature," Midori asked cautiously?
"Your manner and bearing are clear signs," Nicole replied. "You speak well, and are probably an educated woman. You carry yourself with the bearing of a corporate official, and your handshake speaks of confidence."
Midori sighed and gave a slight smile. "There are some things that you just can't hide without effort." She looked around at the garden, then back at Nicole. "I was brought here by a friend, who asked if Master Gen would take me on as a student, because she felt that he would be the best person to teach me."
"Interesting," Nicole replied. "I would have thought there would be better teachers where you come from."
"Better is a relative term," Midori replied with a shrug. "She wanted me to learn to be able to defend myself should I be in a situation where my bodyguards were unable to help. To her, Gen is the best."
"I see," Nicole replied, her voice betraying her curiosity. "Tell me, what's your friend's name?"
"I believe you know her," Midori replied softly and cautiously. "She carries a locket with your picture in it." Nicole didn't answer immediately. Her brow furrowed, and she slowly shook her head. "I'm not sure if she changed her name from when you knew her, but I know her as Gem."
"I can't say I know the name," she responded. She carefully put down the watering can to give Midori her undivided attention.
"I think you might, and I know you know her. She certainly had a lot to say about you," Midori continued carefully in a neutral tone, "and about her other sister, and a certain... event."
"Other sister?" she asked. She took a deep breath, and pressed on. "Do you mean Rachel?" Midori nodded. Nicole closed her eyes and sighed, nodding slowly. "I'm still not sure how this friend of yours is supposed to know me, though."
"Well, she knows you. She was trained by Master Gen," Midori said, going on to describe her friend's appearance.
"I don't remember her at all," she replied. "But you say she knows me well?"
"And she blames you directly for Rachel's death," she finished. "Said you turned on Rachel and murdered her on a mission." Nicole hung her head, not replying. "All I'm saying is what she told me. She gets very emotional when talking about it, and I suspect that I may not have heard the entire story."
Nicole thought for a second. "I don't deny what she said," she began. "I am responsible for her death."
"Was it like Gem believes? That you went rogue and murdered Rachel?"
"No," she said sternly. It was the first sign of emotion she had shown. "It wasn't like that at all. The mission was a failure, and I had my orders."
"To gun Rachel down?"
Nicole's answer was level, but her voice showed clear signs of stress. "To remote-detonate the explosives her half of the team was carrying. And yes, that did mean taking the team out."
"I see," Midori said coolly. "So following orders justifies murder?"
"No," she replied sternly. "It was a simple matter of expediency. Either I detonated the explosives, or my commander did."
"So why did you choose to do it, rather than allow your commander to do it?"
Nicole sighed. She closed her eyes and spoke in almost parrot-fashion, as if she was used to saying this. "Because if I hadn't, I would be in trouble for disobeying orders and faced severe punishment. And she would still be dead."
"You don't sound like you believe the words you're saying," Midori commented softly.
"Do I have a choice?" Nicole shook her head. "I'm not proud of what I did at all. But it was the only choice left to me."
A low knock came from the trap door. Midori could make out Gem's muffled voice saying "Coming up."
Midori shook her head. "I'm not the one you have to convince," she said. "It's her." She gestured at the trap door.
"Your friend? The one I'm supposed to know so well?" Nicole asked.
Midori nodded. "Come on up, Gem."
The trapdoor popped open and Gem stepped up onto the roof. "So how'd the lesson..." Gem's cheerful voice trailed off when she saw Nicole standing behind Midori.
Midori stood there quietly, watching Gem's face. After a few seconds, Midori said "The two of you need to talk. I'll be downstairs learning how to fall." She headed towards the trap door as Gem slowly made her way to the roof.
Gem's hand crept inside her jacket, her eyes locked on Nicole's face. `What has she told you?` she asked Midori mentally.
Nicole turned to Midori. "This is that 'Gem' you told me about?"
Midori turned back to Nicole. "Yes, it is. She's my friend, and one of my bodyguards." ~Get your hand out of your jacket, and there had better not be any weapon in it. You are not to attack her in any way unless she hits you first. Understand?~ Midori's mental voice paused for a moment. ~She told me that she didn't know who you are, and that she did kill Rachel. It was under orders. You know the type - do it or you'll be severely punished and she'll still be dead.~
~And you believe her?~ Gem 'yelled' back. ~She's lying! I was there!~
~Yelling at me about it isn't going to solve anything,~ Midori replied calmly. ~Tell *her* that.~ Gem shot Midori a filthy look and carefully withdrew her hand from her jacket.
"I don't know who you are, but I want to know how you know so much about me," Nicole demanded of Gem. Midori took a few steps back and away from the pair, keeping a close eye on both of them.
"Rachel was my friend," Gem replied. "She came to me when you *failed* to kill her, and asked me to get revenge for her."
"Funny," Nicole replied calmly. "Given how close we were, I would have met you before. If you really were friends."
Looking between the two, Midori began to notice a few similarities. They seemed to be about the same height, and shared the same green eyes. As Nicole brushed back her hair, Midori also noticed Nicole had a single pearl stud in her left ear. It's there that the similarities ended - Nicole was Caucasian, although she had a good tan, and had a rather buxom figure.
"Gem," Midori asked, interrupting the argument. "Can you tell me why you and Nicole have the exact same eyes and why you both wear a single pearl stud?" Nicole tilted her head as if noticing this for the first time.
"My eyes..." Gem stammered. "What the hell have my eyes got to do with this?" she yelled back at Midori.
"Everything," Midori replied. "You told me the picture in your locket was a picture of your sister, and that the locket was the most important and valuable thing you owned. Did you lie to me?"
"NO!" Gem yelled back, almost boiling over in fury. "Why would you believe her over me?"
"Gem, she agreed with everything you said," Midori replied calmly. "She admits to killing Rachel on that mission. What lies is she supposed to have told me?" She paused for a moment. ~Gem, show me what happened. Show me the night of the mission, and then when Rachel came to you.~
When Gem remained stubbornly silent, she continued. "Gem, you have never told me the whole story about what happened," Midori tried to explain. "Yes, I believe you. Nicole killed Rachel. But that's all you ever told me. You never said anything about what happened on the mission, how you managed to be there, or anything else. You never told me about Rachel coming to you for revenge."
"She wasn't there," Nicole suddenly interjected. "She couldn't have been there. She wasn't on our team, and we checked to make sure none of the enemy team survived."
Midori looked at Gem. "You said you were there. What were you doing so that they didn't find you?"
Gem backed away, trampling the plants, her breathing suddenly heavy. A sweat broke out on her forehead and a look of panic swept her face. "C'mon sis..." She said. "It's me. You trust me. Right?"
"Now I'm fascinated," Nicole muttered.
"Gem, how can I trust you if you don't tell me everything? You promised me that you would," Midori reminded her. "I think now is the time."
"I can't tell you," Gem replied, her eyes darting to glance at Nicole. "Not now."
~Yes you can,~ Midori sent. ~Do it this way. Or are you simply trying to get out of telling me the whole truth?~
Gem found herself backed against the ledge. Glancing behind her, she could see a few curious students watching the trio with detached interest. She looked back up, looking Midori straight in the eye, and muttered "I can't."
"Then I have no choice than to take what Nicole said about what happened that night at face value," Midori replied. ~This conversation is not finished,~ Midori sent. "Come on," Midori continued aloud. "Time to go."
Nicole stepped towards Midori, sparing Gem a piercing glare, then turning to look her straight in the eye. "I'd like to meet you again, if I may," she said.
"Sure," Midori replied.
Nicole handed her a small card, and made her way to the trapdoor. She stopped half way down and added "When you two have had a talk." Then she was gone.
Midori glanced down at the card. It was a simple white business card with her name - no surname - and a mobile number. She tucked the card into her pocket then looked at Gem. "Let's go." She headed to the trapdoor and began to climb down.
Gem paused, looking sadly at the trampled garden, then slowly followed her. ~You going to apologize to master Gen about the garden,~ Midori asked silently.
Gem left her side and slouched over to the old man. She made a brief apology, which left Midori mildly surprised by Gen's calm reaction. He then turned and nodded to Midori, before returning his attention to the other students.
"Now where," Midori asked. "Back home?"
"We're done here, clearly," Gem sullenly replied.
Midori raised an eyebrow at her friend. "Then let's go." She turned and went to leave.
All the way back to the hotel, Gem was dead quiet. She refused to even talk to Midori. As soon as they returned, she stormed straight into her room and slammed the door shut. Midori walked over to the door to Gem's room. "We are going to finish that conversation now," she said through the closed door.
"Go away," was the only response.
"Fine," Gem said. Her tone was reminiscent of an upset child.
"Gem, we need to talk about this," Midori said. "You promised that you'd tell me. Are you going to, or am I going to have to find out the whole story some other way?"
Midori heard a sigh on the other side of the door, which then swung marginally open. Gem wandered away from it and sat dejectedly on the end of her bed. Midori entered the room, closed the door behind her, then went to sit on the bed next to Gem. "Start at the beginning."
"The beginning..." Gem leaned back, staring at the ceiling. "It's hard to describe. I was so different back then, that I can't really relate what I saw. But I can tell you that Rachel crawled out of the blast, and the ruins of the building."
Gem closed her eyes, remembering the painful details. "Rachel was a mess. You looked at her, and you could barely recognize the woman she was. She was burnt all over..." Gem shook in horror at the thought.
Midori sat quietly, waiting for Gem to continue, who shook her head. "I really, well I wasn't really anyone at that point. Just wandering. Didn't really have a purpose. Rachel gave me one."
"Who was Rachel to you?"
"My friend." Gem paused, watching her feet as she kicked them back and forth. "I guess I didn't know her as well as I thought before then."
"What makes you say that?"
"I liked to think of us as sisters, but we weren't really that close, as Nicole would have told you." Gem paused again, then looked up at Midori. "When someone's dying on you, someone like Rachel, they rub off a lot on you."
Midori looked thoughtful for a moment. "Was Rachel an esper?"
"No, but she was a very passionate person. It took quite a while for her to..." She swallowed and continued, "And I was with her the whole time."
Midori nodded. "Why did Nicole say that she didn't know or recognize you?"
Gem stood, keeping her back to Midori. "We were passing acquaintances back then. I knew Rachel much better."
"Still, the number of students at the dojo is small enough that she should have at least remembered your face."
"I don't know," Gem said. She started to pace her bedroom floor.
"Gem," Midori said. "You're still not telling me everything."
"Well I'm telling you all that's important!" She snapped back. "Can't we just leave it at that?"
"No, we can't," Midori replied calmly. "If I'm going to help you, I have to know what's going on. "
"Well, you know already," Gem replied, and resumed her pacing.
"What do I know? I know that you say you were at places, yet no one recognizes you. You are bent on revenge for someone who you tell me you weren't very close to. You have a locket that you say is very important to you, with a picture of Nicole in it, and she says she has no idea who you are, or why you would even have a picture of her, let alone one in a locket. There's one very important piece of information that's missing. Who are *you*?"
Gem froze in place, thinking. "Me?" She finally answered. "I'm nobody."
"No, you're not. If you were nobody, why did Rachel come to you? Nicole said it was a mission gone bad. If that was true, Rachel would have known what the consequences were of failure, and what would have happened." Midori paused for a second. "And you are very important to me. And to Moira. Why did Rachel come to you?"
"Like I said, we were friends." Gem turned her back to Midori again, and stared out the window. "Take a good look in the locket."
"It's got to be more than that," Midori insisted, then took out the locket to examine it. The woman inside looked just like Nicole - blonde, pretty, and wearing a single pearl stud in her ear. Midori took another look, then realized that the stud in the photo was in the woman's right ear, just like Gem wore hers. Thinking back to their meeting, she realized that Nicole had worn an identical pearl stud in her left ear.
She thought about what Gem had said - that the earrings were given to the girls by Gen, and that they were a momento of their lost mother. She suddenly looked up and asked "Were Rachel and Nicole identical twins?"
"Completely," Gem replied. "They dressed differently though - Nicole always wore white, Rachel always wore black. It was just how they were."
"That still doesn't tell me why you said you were there, at the mission site, when everything went to shit. Or why Nicole says she doesn't remember you at the dojo." She paused, contemplating the options left. "Did... Did Rachel do something to you while she was dying?"
"NO!" Gem snapped back, then shied away. "I've already told you how it was."
"No, you didn't, Gem. All you told me was Rachel came to you while she was dying, and you were with her. Why doesn't Nicole know you?" Midori kept at Gem, unwilling to let it go at that. She knew there was a lot more that Gem wasn't telling her, and she knew that she had to find it out what it was.
"I told you! I barely new Nicole! Rachel was my friend, not that... that witch!"
"Okay, then, answer me this. How did you come to be at the mission site when it was a covert operation?"
Gem slumped down in a corner, wrapping her arms around her knees. She looked glumly up at Midori, still seated on the bed. "I was just there. What does it matter?" She asked.
"Because it does," Midori replied. "Going by what Rachel may have told you about the mission does not mean you were there, Gem," Midori explained. "Your story is starting to sound like a cover story beginning to fall apart. People who should know you, don't. You say you were in places that you couldn't have been." Gem curled up into a tighter ball, not even looking at Midori.
Midori disliked having to act like this towards her friend, but she had no choice. It was the only way she was going to get Gem to talk about what happened. She got up, walked over to where Gem sat , and towered over her like some inquisitor of old. "Gem, it's starting to sound like your whole life, everything that you've told to me, is a lie. Why can't you just tell me the truth? Tell me what happened, and what's going on?" Gem merely remained still, hunched into a ball and unresponsive.
~If you won't tell me,~ Midori sent, unaware of the feelings of regret that were accompanying the words, ~I'm going to have to get it out of you some other way, and that's not something that I want to do.~
Gem suddenly looked up, a fierce gleam in her eyes. "You wouldn't dare," she snarled at Midori in an entirely different voice. Gone was Gem's pleasant tone and slight accent, replaced with a vicious snarl.
"Just try me," Midori replied evenly. "And if I find that you've hurt Gem, or if you're even the slightest bit responsible for any pain she's gone through, I'll strip you out of her mind like a doctor going after some vile disease."
She focussed on the girl before her, brow furrowed. Midori forced down on her with her mind, trying to keep the girl in place, while erecting a defensive shield around herself. Gem... No, whoever it was before her tried to get to her feet, resisting Midori's efforts to keep her down with mental force. "Get out of my way," she snarled, glaring at Midori.
"No," Midori replied. "You're not going anywhere." Despite her efforts, Gem's body slumped back to the ground, still fixing Midori with a baleful glare. "Good to see you've decided to cooperate," Midori commented, keeping the woman pressed to the ground, not letting up the pressure. "No, you *are* going to tell me what I want to know, or are we going to have to do this the hard way?"
"The easy way," she suddenly said, her face becoming a lopsided grin. "After all, my cover's already blown, so why should I hide any more?"
"Rachel, I presume?"
"The one and only," she said with pride.
"It's nothing to be proud of," Midori replied. "You do realize what I intend to do to you once I've finished with you."
"Why? For being myself?"
"Tell me. Was there really a Gem, or did you undergo extensive reconstructive surgery to alter your appearance?"
Rachel nodded her approval. "Well done. It wasn't easy to live with, and I'm afraid I went a bit..." She paused to ponder her choice of words. Midori waited silently. "Soft," she finished. "But thanks for snapping me out of it."
"How much of what's between us was real, or was that all an act too?" Midori's voice had become soft and deathly cold.
"I admit that... Well, she meant it. There's no reason we can't be friends. I'll need a job once I've cleaned up some loose ends."
"Explain to me why I should hire you, after what you have done." Midori's voice got colder, and things began to shift along the floor of their own accord. "Tell me why I shouldn't just reach into your mind and kill you, leaving only Gem behind."
"Because you know it's wrong," Rachel replied, her smile gone. "You're no judge. You can't say what's right and wrong for other people to think." She glared at Midori. "Because it's cold-blooded murder and you damn well know it."
"I am a judge. I am a jury. If I need to be, I will be an executioner. Your executioner. Any protection you may have had from me is gone. You betrayed me. That is the one thing I will never forgive."
"You don't even know me. Now you'll kill me for, for what? Protecting myself? You think I wanted to become that, that wimp and lie to everyone?"
"And what was wrong with Gem? And you''re right. I don't know you. I don't know if I want to know you. "
Rachel rolled her eyes. "The girl was an act, alright? I got carried away and overdid it. I did some stupid things, sure who hasn't? But that's all she was already."
Midori stood there quietly, her eyes boring into Rachel's. "Talk," was all she said.
Rachel sighed. "For what it's worth, I think you're a nice enough person."
"But...." Around them the contents of the room shifted and rattled, shaken by an unseen force emanating from Midori's anger.
"But what? I still remember what Gem saw. And I meant it when I said I saw you as my sister."
"If you trusted me enough to see me as your sister, why the hell did you continue to lie to me. And what happened to the missing pill? Did you sell it to someone, in order to find a way to kill Nicole?"
"No, I didn't do anything to the pill." Rachel rolled her eyes again. "It was taken from me, probably while I was still unconscious, after the Black Company's attack. Not my fault."
"Don't you fucking roll your eyes at me," Midori swore. "Why the hell should I trust you? You've lied to me from the very first moment we met. How do I know you're telling the truth?"
"Scan me." Rachel shrugged. "It should be pretty easy for you to see if I'm lying. And like I said, I've got nothing to hide."
"Oh, I'm going to do more the scan you," she said, narrowing her eyes. Her vision blurred and it felt as if she was falling down a bottomless hole. The world was drained out from around her and she found herself in a bizarre new landscape.
Rachel's mind was a frightening place to be. It pounded all of Midori's psychic senses with a torrent of noises, all loud and angry. Slashes of dark green dominated her vision, interspersed with reds of all shades. Midori ignored them, concentrating on getting the information she wanted. She couldn't care less at this point about how Rachel felt. Midori was incensed at what she perceived as a very personal betrayal.
It was difficult enough to sort out the truth from the lies; even harder was making sense of them. It seemed Rachel's feelings to her were genuine, even those she had for Moira. Much of her story was true, from a separate perspective. She found herself drawn to a particularly knotted and intense clump of memories, ones that burned through Rachel's mind and would not soon be forgotten.
Midori pried at them with mental hands, heedless of any pain or anguish she might be causing Rachel. She found herself inside a darkened office building. All around her were the muted sounds of gunfire, and screams of pain. She could hear her own voice shouting again and again for backup, but to no avail. Then came a world of searing, burning pain.
The memory blacked out, then resumed. She was staggering through the darkened streets of Neo York, her body screaming in pain with every step. In a window, she could see her own reflection - hunched up, huddled in a stolen sheet and hidden from the world, save for a face that was nothing but a mass of burnt skin.
Midori watched silently, letting the scene play itself out. From there it repeated itself, over and over, etching the pain and the sight of her disfigured face into Midori's memory. She pulled back, letting the knot of memories close again.
She turned her search to Rachel's intentions towards Nicole. Wave after wave of hatred assaulted Midori as she closed in on her objective. She felt love too; a distant, long-buried sisterly love that had found a new home. Digging deeper, she found more mixed and confusing emotions. Jealousy and regret combined with guilt, but they were quickly washed away by her hatred.
Midori dug deeper, trying to find the source of the negative emotions - the regret, hatred, and jealousy. She found herself an observer to a discussion between the sisters. Seeing them together showed the true similarities and differences between them. They looked absolutely identical, yet dressed completely differently - Rachel in shredded black street clothes, and Nicole in rugged and practical whites.
The conversation sped past her in seconds. They had been approached by a recruitment officer from Shiroko-Tsuhi and offered a place in their black ops team. Rachel begged, pleaded, whined and needled her way to the bitter end, when Nicole suddenly stood from their perch on master Gen's roof.
"Alright," Nicole said, her voice empty. "I'll go with you. You win." She turned her back to her sister and walked away, sadly stating "As always."
The next memory seemed to be newer, by months or maybe a year. Midori found herself approaching an office door bearing the name "Richard Allman" on a small metal plaque. Midori ran the name through her mind, trying to remember if she'd ever heard it before. It came up a blank, but she committed the name to memory, hoping to find out more.
She reached up to knock, but stopped, hearing a nasally, British voice from within.
"...are simple. You know what her-" and here he paused for a brief instant, "-behavior has cost us. I want to make it-" pause, "-perfectly-" pause again "-clear that she cannot be allowed to fail another mission."
"What am I to do?" another voice asked. It was one of the twins, clearly Nicole.
"You have a remote detonator for the explosives." Pause, longer than before. "Use it."
Midori backed up. Her sister? she heard herself think. Conspiring with the boss? She shook her head and smiled her lopsided grin. No way would she do that. Midori strolled away from the office, oddly confident. After all, she thought, sis will keep me safe. She always does.
She pulled away from that memory, searching for more of the night. It seemed that Rachel had never mentioned the conversation, never asked Nicole what she was going to do. She was confident and chatty as always, although Nicole was deathly silent.
Lastly she returned to the knot of emotions surrounding memories of Nicole. She dove in deep, looking for Rachel's plans, trying to find what her aim was. What she saw were horrific images, fantasies of killing her own sister over and over again. But they were never clean - Nicole's end was always painful, and often involved being burnt, just as Rachel had been.
She finally pulled back and out of her mind. The colors drained away, and her world blacked out for the briefest of seconds until she found herself in her own mind again. She was angry, certainly, but not as angry as before. Mostly she felt just plain pissed off at Rachel's lies; a betrayal that hurt, regardless of the intentions behind it.
Rachel remained hunched on the floor, sadness etched into her tear-streaked face. She looked at Rachel, her eyes still as if peering into the woman's soul. "I promised you before that I will help you get your revenge on the people responsible for what happened to you. I am not going to go back on that promise. Those who need to pay, will pay."
"Are you happy yet?" was all she could say, her voice embittered and harsh.
"How can I be happy after everything that's happened?" Midori asked. "How can anyone be happy after what we've gone through. But I got my answers, and you are going to get your revenge," Midori said, turning her back on Rachel so she couldn't see the tears beginning to fill Midori's eyes. But not the way that you think you might, she finished silently to herself.
Quiet as she could manage, Gem slid the door to her room open. She checked the bag on her back one last time, then stepped out into the living room. It was well lit from the city lights outside, giving her a ghostly pallor. The room was dead silent as she crept from her door, heading out into the room.
She froze in place as she heard a low creaking noise. Right in front of her, Moira's door had opened, and the little girl had stepped out, half-asleep. And spotted her right away.
"Hi Gem!" Her voice sounded jarringly loud all of a sudden. "Whatcha doing?" She moved forward and a moonbeam splashed silver across her face and nightie.
Gem cringed back, half in surprise and half in terror, and held a finger to her lips, hissing for Moira to be quiet. Moira looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "Is it a secret?" She rubbed her eyes and moved to stand right next to Gem. "What's in the bag?"
Gem glanced between Moira and the front door. "I'm going for a bit. I just need to take some things with me."
"Can I come? I'll help carry some stuff for you." Moira had the cutest little evil grin on her face. "And I won't tell Daddy and Midori."
Gem gave her a sad smile, and knelt down to face Moira eye to eye. "I wish I could take you with me," she said ruffling Moira's hair, "But it's something I've got to do alone."
"Aw, pleeeaase? I can help! Really, I can," the girl insisted. "Besides, now I'm awake. I bet I could follow you anyway."
Gem shook her head. "Sorry, kid. Besides," she began with a smile, "You're needed here." She nodded towards the other bedrooms, and said "Those two need someone mature and responsible to look after them."
"Those two spend all day looking at each other," pouted Moira. "I want to help you." She wasn't taking 'no' for an answer. "And I can help, too. Like in the game? Remember when we played and you were shooting the evil corp-drones dead and I was crippling them with ICE? I be we could do that for real. I got skills!" It was a guess. A really big guess, but other than Zone gangs, Moira couldn't think of another bad guy that Gem might be going out after.
"Oh, Moira..." Gem held the girl by her shoulders, and looked deeply into her eyes. "This isn't anything like I've done before. It's going to be very, very dangerous. I don't know when I'll be back... If ever." She shook her head, and continued. "You think it would be fun, but soon enough we'd both be in trouble, and you'd miss them. And I know they'd miss you."
Moira looked surprised at the apparent seriousness of Gem's mission. Then she looked alarmed. "You might not be back? But won't Midori feel sad that you didn't even say goodbye? I don't want anything bad to happen to you, either. Don't you want any help? I'm sure Midori and Dad would help you if you asked."
"Trust me, I've been over this," Gem replied. "I don't mean to upset her, but..." she looked around, searching for the right words. "It's a very personal matter, really."
Moira looked unhappy. "Oh, all right. But if you get hurt just because you were too stubborn to ask for help, I'm gonna punch you right in the stomach." The little cyborg looked like she meant it, too. "You better get out of here before I go tell Midori." Adults. Always running around, getting themselves shot. They didn't seem so smart to her.
For Midori, the morning couldn't have been any worse. The first thing she found when she woke up was Moira, tugging on her nightie and asking where Gem had run off to. Checking the girl's room, she found that it had been cleared out. Rather hastily too - all kinds of clothes were scattered across the floor, but she apparently had only taken the clothes she had arrived with. Everything Midori had bought her had been left behind, in immaculate condition.
A quick interrogation of Moira told her all that she needed to know. Gem had snuck out around midnight, and had told Moira not to tell anyone. Moira, fortunately had been a disobedient girl. Still, by now the trail would be cold and there was only one thing to do. She took up the phone and rifled around in her purse for a small white card.
The phone rang a few times before she finally got an answer. Nicole's voice came on the other line, simply saying "Hello?"
"It's Midori," she said quickly. "Sorry to call you so early, but there may be a problem."
"Hello again. It's no problem, I was awake."
"We need to meet. Immediately." The urgency was unmistakable in her voice.
There was a brief pause, then Nicole replied "Where?"
Midori named a cafe in Neo York halfway between the hotel and the S-T arcology. "How soon can you be there?"
"Within the hour, certainly. I need to make an excuse to my boss, though."
"I understand. I wouldn't ask this of you unless it was very important. A matter of life and death, so to speak."
"Concerning..." Nicole trailed off, a clear tone of worry in her voice.
"Something we discussed the last time we met," Midori replied, hoping Nicole would pick up on the cue.
"A... family matter."
"Of course." The line immediately went dead. Midori hung up and went in search of Hobbs. "I have to go out for a couple of hours. Here's where I'll be, and I'll let you know if we change locations." She handed him a slip of paper and Nicole's business card. "That's who I'll be with."
It was turning out to be a nice, sunny day which just left Midori in an even filthier mood. The cafˇ itself was nice enough, with large windows open to the sun. She found herself a secluded spot and waited impatiently for Nicole.
Nicole arrived shortly after Midori. She looked far neater than the previous day. Her hair was still loose, and she wore a long skirt, blouse and jacket, all well-tailored and completely in white.
Midori gestured to the chair across from her and undid one of the buttons of her emerald silk suit jacket. "Again, I'm sorry about the suddenness of this meeting."
"Sorry to cut out so quickly," Nicole said as she took her seat. "I have reason to believe that my mobile has been tapped."
Midori nodded. "That's why I didn't want to say any more than I already had." She paused for a moment. "As you may notice, my bodyguard isn't here."
Nicole glanced around. "I must confess, I hadn't." She looked to Midori, waiting for further details.
"How loyal are you to your employer," Midori asked, suddenly changing the topic. "Not that I'm asking you to betray them in any way. I just want to know how much of what we talk about here will get back to them." As carefully as she could, Midori let her mind stretch out, lightly touching the surface of Nicole's thoughts, looking at the truth behind her words.
Nicole sat in silence for a few moments, pondering the question. "If this is the matter I believe it is, then I would certainly keep it to myself." Midori's scan let her know this was the honest truth.
Midori's voice dropped, so it traveled only as far as Nicole's ears. "Rachel did survive." She paused. "Badly burned and barely alive. She got extensive reconstruction afterwards, to disguise who she was." Again she paused, letting the gravity of her words sink in. "I think you know what she looks like now."
Nicole's heart skipped a beat. For a moment, it seemed as if she would stop dead, but she kept her composure. "I had guessed that she had survived," she said quietly. This seemed to be a half-truth; more that she was hoping that her sister had survived. "I don't mean to offend you, but I find that very unlikely." Once again, her words showed to be true.
Midori looked around. "Do you know somewhere nearby where we can go that's.... private? I can give you the proof you need there."
"Nowhere safe from prying eyes, I'm afraid."
Midori frowned slightly as she thought. "All I need is someplace that'd be secure from casual snoops."
"Then the Zone. I'm sure we could borrow Gen's rooftop garden for a while." Midori thought for a moment, then nodded.
The pair traveled in silence into the zone. Passing the border was a simple matter, as was securing the rooftop. Gen seemed more than happy to help out one of his 'little girls.' Nicole lead the way up into the garden, and stood amongst the plants for a moment, taking in the view.
"It'd probably be best if we sat down," Midori said as she lowered herself to the ground on the path.
Nicole nodded, and carefully sat opposite her. "Forgive my earlier statement. I just find it unlikely that my sister would change her appearance so greatly."
"In a moment, you'll understand," Midori replied gravely. "I only found this out last night, and I'm not exactly proud of the way I did it." She paused and pulled her PDA out of her pocket. "What's your opinion of espers?"
"I have worked with one in past," Nicole began, "And she was a thoroughly unpleasant person. That, I'm afraid, is my only experience with the subject, but I haven't let it cloud my opinions."
Midori nodded in satisfaction. "That was the answer I was looking for, and part of the reason I asked you how much of this conversation is going to get back to your employers." Midori handed the PDA to Nicole, who noticed the screen was blank, and it wasn't even turned on. "We're going to use this as a prop. Pretend you're looking at it."
Nicole glanced at Midori, then at the screen. "You'll pardon me if I ask why first," she replied, her voice flat and neutral.
Midori lifted her hand to shade her mouth, but not enough to muffle her speech. "If you'll allow me, I'll show you exactly what I learned."
"Very well," she replied, and watched the screen.
"With your permission," Midori continued softly, "When I touch your arm I will show you exactly what I saw when I... questioned her." Nicole silently nodded her consent.
Midori reached out and touched Nicole's arm lightly. Slowly and carefully, not editing anything out or softening any blows, Midori played what she had learned about the mission and what happened afterwards in Nicole's mind, like a tri-vid in her head
As the images finally faded from her mind, Nicole pulled back slowly and swallowed hard. Her face was blank; an expressionless mask carefully chiseled to avoid betraying any emotion.
"I wish there was any other way I could have told you, but you deserved the whole, unvarnished truth."
"Thank you for sharing it with me." Her eyes met Midori's. "Having seen the results, I hope you can forgive me for what I did."
Midori sighed sadly. "I'm an outsider on all of this. If there's anyone who needs to be forgiven it's me. Faced with the choice you were given, there wasn't really any other you could have made that would not have made things worse for the both of you. Like you said, she still would have been dead, and you likely would have followed her shortly thereafter as a liability. If there's anyone who needs to be forgiven, it's me. I felt horribly betrayed when I discovered that she had been lying to me, about almost everything, and I thought that the relationship we had was a sham, created so that she could use me. I wasn't exactly... gentle about getting this information."
Nicole nodded, staring off seemingly into space. "My sister was awfully proud of her appearance," she said, seemingly to nobody. "I can't imagine what seeing her own burnt face would have done to her." She turned back to face Midori. "That's why I didn't expect her to undergo such a radical change; she never would have been happy looking so rough and boyish."
"I'm not sure how much of her personality came through when she was Gem," Midori said thoughtfully, "but I do get the impression that she regretted—at least to some degree—the way she used to be..." She paused. Nicole remained carefully silent. "Her entire existence seems dedicated to getting revenge. That kind of obsession can lead people to do dangerous things. She has started a one woman crusade against S-T, with you as the focal point of her hatred."
Midori sighed. "Now I find myself in a dilemma."
"Then what do we do? Kill her?" Nicole asked. "She's pretty much impervious to reason once she's set her mind on something." She sadly shook her head.
"We have to find some way to divert her," Midori replied. "And we may not be able to use reason. I could force her to stop, but that wouldn't solve anything."
Nicole rubbed her forehead in frustration. "I never could win with her. She was..." She curled one hand into a fist and looked bitterly at it.
"Like a bulldozer."
"Yes," Nicole replied, visibly relieved. "Yes, exactly. More and more often I'd find myself giving up and agreeing with her before the argument even began."
Midori nodded. "I... saw the conversation the two of you had about hiring on with S-T." A brief look of discomfort crossed her face.
"Not my proudest moment," Nicole replied.
"Learning about it wasn't exactly mine, either."
"She won't listen to me. Not now," Nicole suddenly said.
"I'm not so sure she'll listen to me, after what I've done," Midori said. "But we're going to have to try and stop her anyway. I contacted you as soon as I found out she had disappeared in the middle of the night. I have no idea where she is."
Midori looked out over the city and reached out with her mind, trying to open her link with Gem. No, with Rachel, Midori reminded herself.
"She'll want her own face back, if her cover's blown. I have no idea where she's having the surgery done, but she'll be out of action for several days. After that, she'll launch whatever hair-brained scheme she has."
"Whatever it is, she intends to kill you, slowly and painfully, and make sure you know she was the one who did it." She paused and looked Nicole directly in the eye. "Can I trust to you watch over me for a few minutes? I'm going to try and see if I can find her." Nicole nodded.
Midori shook her head, opened her eyes at looked at Nicole. "I found her. She's somewhere in Neo York, but I couldn't contact her. She's already under anesthetic."
"I understand." She sighed, leaning back from Midori. "I'm sorry you got involved in this," she added.
"It's not your fault," Midori said with a sigh. "Your sister was able to create a very good alternate personality. None of the surface scans I did turned up anything, and I didn't do a deep scan out of respect for her privacy. My own fault."
"Well, you would hope you could trust her."
Midori nodded. "And the really weird thing is, despite all that's happened, I still do, in a way. I don't think she'll betray me, unless the only way to enact her plan would be to do so."
"Unfortunately, that's not like her. My sister didn't care much for loyalty."
"We'll see," Midori said. "Perhaps I still have my rose colored glasses in place and I don't know it. Still, I'm going to take precautions, just in case." She reached up and ran a tired hand through her hair. "I don't suppose you could recommend a replacement?"
"No-one who's available, I'm afraid. Personally, I'd appreciate a change of profession, but I'm sure you can imagine the kinds of contracts they lock operatives like us into."
"Do you want out?"
Nicole drummed her fingers on the rooftop for a second before answering. "I only signed up to keep her safe." She shrugged. "That worked. Now I'm in charge of the team, and I can hardly walk out on them."
Midori nodded. "I can certainly understand that. If you ever change your mind, though, get me a copy of your contract, and I'll find someone who can break it."
"Gladly," she replied. Nicole stood up, looking out over the district. "In the meantime, keep in touch. If you do hear anything else, let me know."
"And you do the same," Midori agreed. She stood, and dusted off the bits of stone and dirt from her legs.
It seemed they had nothing more to say to each other. The two women parted ways, both pondering the same question: What happens now?
Return to Kazei 5 PBEM Stories