Instead of P
Shotaro clutched the briefcase close to his chest. He watched, rapt, as the thing that the boss had become effortlessly took out Dopant after Dopant. He didn’t think the boss was a Dopant himself. That transformation had been different, and he didn’t look like a Dopant, not really.
He actually looked pretty cool. Scary, but cool.
(So, business as usual.)
Out of the corner of one eye, he caught a flash of movement. Another person—a human, not a Dopant. A boy not much younger than Shotaro himself, if he was judging right. His hair was mussed up and he was wearing pajamas. He couldn’t work here, could he?
No—there was only one possibility. He had to be the kid they’d come for. Shotaro started in the direction the boy was walking, but he paused when he remembered Sokichi’s words. “Don’t take a single step away from here.” He’d never disobeyed one of the boss’s orders before; he knew he’d be back out on the streets if he did. But...
But. But this was different. If Shotaro saved the kid on his own, then maybe the boss would see him in a new light. And besides, Sokichi had his hands full with those Dopants. Someone had to do it.
Swallowing his nerves, Shotaro started after the kid. “Hey!” he called out. “Hey, wait!”
The boy stopped walking for a second. He turned to eye Shotaro, raised an eyebrow in what looked like suspicion, then resumed his walk to wherever he was headed.
“I said hold it!”
“Who are you?” the boy asked without stopping. “You don’t work here. You clearly lack the intelligence necessary to be chosen by the syndicate.”
“What was that?! I’m here to save you, you ungrateful brat.” Shotaro picked up his pace. He followed the boy right into a room that looked like something out of a bad sci-fi movie; a giant control panel took up much of the middle of the room, with a huge flat screen set into one wall displaying a number of Gaia Memories with various shapes and symbols engraved on them. There was also some writing on the screen, but it was all in English.
“Save me?” The boy grinned in amusement. “From what?”
“I’m a detective. My boss got a request that said you were being used by this organization for something or another.”
“Of course I’m being used, but why does that mean I need to be saved?” The boy leaned over a computer console and started typing something. “I’m perfectly content with my position, Mr. Detective.”
What a weirdo. Shotaro had expected a kidnapping victim to be a little more grateful to his rescuer. Sighing in exasperation, he looked around the room. It was definitely some kind of laboratory. Glass display cases held assorted Gaia Memories in varying stages of completion. “Wait... don’t tell me you make these Gaia Memory things.”
“You’re sharper than you look.” The boy sounded impressed. His fingers flew across the keys on the control panel and a particular Gaia Memory was brought into focus on-screen.
“Then all the tears this city has shed because of those things—all the people who’ve died because of them—” Shotaro grabbed the boy by the collar and yanked him away from the console. “You killed them!”
The boy didn’t look particularly worried. He actually looked pretty cocky despite the size difference between them. “And?”
Shotaro let go of the boy in surprise. His jaw fell open just slightly, mouth hanging ajar as he grasped for a rebuttal.
He was saved from having to find something to say, though, by the sound of a familiar pair of footsteps rushing down the hall. “Shotaro!” Sokichi called out once he was in the room. “What are you doing in here?! I told you to—” He cut himself off when he saw who else was in the room with his apprentice. “You.”
The boy’s gaze turned from Shotaro to Sokichi. “I was right, then. This was just your lackey—you’re the private investigator she contracted.”
“You already know about that? That makes this easy.” Sokichi strode across the room and placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Let’s go, kid.”
The boy shrugged away from Sokichi’s hand. “I was told to remain here.” A grin spread across his face. “By a man whose name is Terror.”
“What’s that supposed to—”
Sokichi held a hand up to silence Shotaro. It worked, of course. “And you’re content with that? Can’t you make your own decisions?”
That grin only grew more pronounced. A chill ran down Shotaro’s spine. “My own decisions? I’m quite capable of doing so. And I’ve decided...” From somewhere, the boy pulled out a golden Gaia Memory with a stylized C on it. He lifted his pajama shirt up to reveal a belt like the one that Taboo woman had been wearing. “...that you’re interfering with my work.”
CYCLONE! said the Memory when he pressed the button to activate it. Sokichi reached for his Skull Memory, but before he could transform again a Dopant stood in the boy’s place. It was largely green in coloration with one big yellow eye visible, the other seemingly hidden behind what appeared to be a large wisp of hair, although that was really just part of the Dopant’s design.
The Cyclone Dopant lifted one hand and sent both Sokichi and Shotaro flying back against a wall in a burst of wind. Shotaro dropped the briefcase and it spilled open, revealing six Gaia Memories and a belt similar to Sokichi’s but with two slots for Memory insertion.
A rush of wind blew through the room and the Dopant was suddenly standing right in front of the two of them. “Disappear.” It glanced from Shotaro to Sokichi, as if trying to decide which to take care of first. Eventually it settled on Shotaro—Shotaro, who was frozen stiff, staring straight at the monster, eyes wide in terror. The Dopant moved one hand and Shotaro squeezed his eyes shut.
But the killing blow never arrived.
Shotaro opened his eyes. The boss was standing in front of him, arms outstretched. There was a hole clear through his chest.
Sokichi was only on his feet for a second, but to Shotaro it felt like hours. Time stretched out unbearably as Sokichi slumped to the floor, as his hat fell from his head, and all Shotaro could do was watch. The Dopant raised its arm in slow motion, forming another ball of energy. Shotaro was done for.
The boss was dead and Shotaro was next.
“How pathetic,” the Dopant said. “Do you intend to spend your last moments of life cowering?”
It hurled its attack and just like that, the spell was broken. Time returned to normal speed and somehow, Shotaro dodged the attack. His hands moved on their own without conscious input from his mind. When he stood, he found himself holding the boss’s L-shaped belt and one of the Gaia Memories from the briefcase.
“Do you intend to fight me?” The Dopant sounded surprised.
Shotaro set the driver at his navel. The belt erupted from its sides and wrapped around his waist. “You killed my boss,” he said, his voice shaking. “I’m not just gonna fight you. I’m going to kill you.” JOKER! the Memory announced, and he inserted it into the belt. A sudden wind of energy surrounded him as a suit materialized around him.
He didn’t care anymore about the client or their request. Sokichi Narumi was dead.
And Shotaro Hidari was alone.
“The security camera in Lab B was damaged in the battle,” the security guard explained. His voice shook; Saeko Sonozaki was a terrifying presence. “Unfortunately, I can’t get anything useful from it.”
Saeko sighed dramatically and ran a hand through her hair. “What are we even paying you for, then?”
“I’m very sorry, Ms. Sonozaki, I—”
“It’s no problem.”
Saeko and the guard looked toward the door of the security room. He stood there, his face and pajamas smudged with dirt and his usually-unruly hair even more out of control.
“Raito, what have I told you about getting dressed before you come to work in the middle of the night?” Saeko demanded.
He waved one hand dismissively. His sister been hassling him about that for years; they both knew he wasn’t going to change. “I can easily identify the one who escaped once I have the opportunity to gather a little more information. The security camera footage is unneeded.”
“Ah, is that so?” Saeko relaxed a hair.
“Yes. In fact, I already have the first two keywords. The name of that woman who evidently still believes I need to be ‘rescued’, and...” Raito smiled and held up a purple Gaia Memory. He pressed the button to make it call out its name. SKULL! “I will find him, Sister. Just wait.”