Five years ago...
Takuya stood alone wearing dark blue overalls, facing the farm as pale gray clouds loomed overhead. The crops had started withering with the cold, and without the supplies he usually purchased, he worried that the sustenance wouldn’t be enough. The farm had started to wither, he knew, ever since Kasumi left. Since the stores shut down and supply chains collapsed, he hadn’t seen anyone in months. Not that it would have mattered. The one person who did wasn’t there. But even as the years passed, he didn’t know what he would say to her. He considered that maybe he didn’t want an answer to that question. After all, it gave him something, anything to think about.
As the moment wavered through his drifting mind, he heard a car engine running from in front of his house. He wandered around the corner of his home, and as he reached the front entrance he found two men standing outside. There was one tall, strong man in a black suit and tie with his arms folded in front of him. But the second man was unquestioningly in charge. He wore a black suit and tie, with a gray shirt underneath. His hair was slicked back, and as Takuya glanced towards him with awkward unfamiliarity, the man glared back with a sharp gaze, as if every motion was a judgment.
“Are you who I think you are?” Takuya asked.
“I am.” Takahashi answered.
“Where’s my daughter?” Takuya asked.
“She’s with me.” he held a firm gaze. “That was her choice. Hers and everyone else’s. Her files are the only reason we knew to look for you. It seems to me that you’re the last one left.”
“I’d invite you inside…” Takuya started, “but with what you’ve done, it wouldn't seem right.”
“Oh I don’t need an invitation.” Takahashi answered. “And I won’t be coming inside. Instead, you’ll be coming with me.”
“But that’s not my decision.” Takuya replied.
“Your decisions no longer matter.” Takahashi retorted. “This is my world now,” he stated softly. “You’re getting plugged in, then he’s getting plugged in,” Takahashi gestured to his security guard, “then it’s done.”
Takuya stared back silently.
“Like I said,” Takahashi smiled, “You’re the last one.”
Takuya paused and considered the weight of his words.
“Do you have kids?” Takuya asked.
“I have a daughter.” Takahashi answered.
“And did she choose to go into a coma for the rest of her life? Did everyone really agree to have everything that they care about stripped away?!” Takuya stepped closer. “Everything that everyone has ever built and loved and cherished is gone for what? Who would choose this?” The bodyguard took a step closer. “A father is someone who builds a better world for their children to live in. You’ve destroyed everything she’s done, and any future she might have. From where I stand, you’re the worst father imaginable.”
Takahashi chuckled and stared Takuya in the eyes. The bodyguard looked wary. Takahashi laughed and shook his head with emotional eyes and a quivering lip. “No one’s talked to me that way in a very very long time. I was about to disappear and call it a life well lived, but no. Not anymore.” Takahashi stepped forward as the pair glared intensely at each other. “I’m going to give you everything you want, and I’m going to make sure you’ll be there to watch it fall apart.”
After a long walk, Kasumi , Vine , and Birdcage arrived at the farm. The sun sparkled brightly from between the clouds as Kasumi reminisced before her old home. The crops wavered in the soft breeze, and the farmhouse looked the same as it always had. She noticed Farmer waving politely in the distance, walking over to her in familiar overalls that reminded her of her own father. Kasumi turned to face the gravestone in the distance and flashed back to the last time she’d been there, in the pouring rain to face it.
Kasumi heard Vine sigh in relief as Birdcage walked beside her.
“Are you alright now?” Birdcage said.
“Yeah…” Vine sighed, “I’m mostly better now.” she said as her gaze wandered across the horizon, “This is so much more beautiful when it’s not raining.” Vine turned towards Kasumi , who was lost in thought. In a flash, Vine realized what this moment meant to Kasumi, and how seeing that gravestone again at her childhood home must have felt.
“The last time we were here…” Kasumi started, staring forward, “you put your hands in the dirt by his grave. What was that about?”
“Oh I’m so sorry Kasumi ,” Vine answered. “I wasn’t thinking, I just … it was really nothing, I swear…”
“It’s okay” Kasumi assured, “I’m just … trying to understand everything that’s happened. He lived alone here. I don’t even know who buried him or anything. There’s so much I don’t know.”
Vine stood silently, turned towards Kasumi , and noticed her composure falter. “I don’t want to complicate anything,” Vine said, “But for me, it was the dirt.”
“You know I used to study plants before?”
“Plants grow in certain ways, and when the soil is disturbed, that changes. Whenever someone is buried, … a lot of soil is upheaved, and then new grass grows in its place. The kind that hasn’t been there very long. It’s not hard to tell the difference.”
“What are you saying?” Kasumi asked.
“Well, I don’t know for sure, but honestly,” Vine paused. “I’m not so sure anyone’s buried here at all.”
“Hi there!” Farmer walked up to them, waving excitedly, practically out of breath. “I’m a ways away from growing any crops, but the work sure is satisfying!” he paused for a moment and turned to Vine , “My god you got strong! I knew you did jiu-jitsu, but this is really something else” he exclaimed to Vine, “I don’t know what your workout routine is like, but if you take a liking to farmwork, we could do things ten times as fast.”
“Actually, that’s why I’m here.” Vine replied, “I need a break from the stress of the city.”
“Have I missed anything important?” Farmer asked.
“You could say that…” Birdcage answered. “After we fought Gang , there was another power struggle, and now there’s a robot army attacking the city.”
“A robot army huh?” Farmer smiled, “That might explain our guest.”
“Our guest?” Kasumi asked.
“Yeah, there’s a robot that just walked up here. All he’s done is sit in a rocking chair, so I leave him be.”
Kasumi started jogging towards the house. She knew it was a longshot, but with everything else that had happened, it could be, it might be. If it wasn’t fighting like the rest, something must be different about it. Nothing made sense, but at least this could.
She arrived at the front porch and saw the robot sitting in her father’s chair. It didn’t have a screen like the others, but had a thin exoskeleton with exposed wires and a face that resembled a speaker.
She felt stupid for asking, but had to try.
Superior walked out of the clearing and into the brushes surrounding the top of the mountain. Genji followed closely behind, and as he walked into the thicket, Aeth stood there patiently waiting.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” Aeth asked.
“I did.” Superior answered.
Aeth nodded as Superior and Genji quietly walked downhill. They proceeded silently for several minutes while Genji looked around and smiled at the leaves. After a few minutes more, Genji decided to break the silence.
“What will you do now?” Genji asked him as he brushed away a branch.
“I don’t know.” Superior answered, “but I’m going to find my sister and start by...” he paused as his head darted rapidly to the side.
“What is it?” Genji asked.
“Leaves …. Crunching” he answered.
“There are animals here.” Genji whispered.
“Not this big.” Superior stated. “I don’t see anything yet, but we’re being ambushed.”
Both Superior and Genji crouched low while Superior pulled out his sword. “If we’re surrounded by all sides, I can only take out half, and you need to run for it. Do you understand?”
“I’ll do my best.” Genji answered.
Superior shifted his gaze towards the trees and spotted five large robots walking towards them. They were each about six feet tall with large shoulders, bulging muscles, and intimidating frames.
“There’s only five” Superior stated to Genji .
“Only…” Genji balked. “They’re massive.”
“I can take them.” Superior stated.
“I hope you're as good as you think you are.”
Superior smiled and weaved between the trees. The five robots converged on him from every direction. He dashed toward the closest and pulled out his sword, putting distance between himself and Genji . The Machin closed in tight around him, and Superior used his sword to slice them apart, making sharp incisions across the bindings between their metal. Each time a Machin punched forward with its fists, Superior twisted his sword to slice the arm and used it as cover for their next attack. After a few slashes of his blade, the five Machin fell to pieces around him.
Genji took a breath. “And you say your sister is better than you?”
Superior paused. “You know there’s only one person with the resources to do this?”
Genji furrowed his brow. “Yeah,” he paused, “I know.”
Hero took a breath as he glanced outside the window of an abandoned building. He saw a large number of Machin patrolling the city. They were moving in larger groups than before. It would make it more difficult to travel. He turned back inside. Gang sat alone in the far corner of the room. Jiro , Key and Coder sat nearby, hiding from the view of the windows.
“So what are we up against?” Hero asked. “What’s this ‘ Bridge ’?”
Coder took a breath. “When the serum became popular, the world population effectively decreased. There were things we could replace with AI, but if we wanted critical infrastructure to keep running, we had to come up with a system. So I built ‘ Bridge ’, the world’s first Machin and interoperable sentient AI.”
“Sentient?” Jiro asked.
“When you have all the world’s servers running for you, there’s a lot you can do.” Coder answered. “It controlled all critical infrastructure through a single centralized key, and eventually, all technology on Earth…”
“So every piece of technology runs through this robot?” Hero asked.
“Exactly.” Coder answered. “If you control the Bridge , you control everything.”
“How do you know someone won’t misuse it?” Gang asked. Hero glared towards him.
“That’s why there’s a key.” Coder answered. “ Takahashi has it. That’s how he’s commanding the Machin. But if we get the key…”
“Then we stop the Machin.” Key answered.
“What about the Machin?” Hero asked. “What can you tell me about them?”
“Everything.” Coder answered. “When I first joined the Triangle Company out of college, they were my first project. The company was already building helper robots back then. I thought it was innocent. Eventually, my boss, who had been working there for a while, warned me about Takahashi , so I quit. The next thing I know, I wake up years later with a TV on my head, forced by Takahashi to finish my work. After that, I woke up like the rest of you and had to pretend that I knew nothing.” Coder shook his head and turned to Key . “I’m so sorry.” he swore.
“We believe you.” Jiro answered. “But what can you tell us about the Machin?”
“There’s three different kinds of Machin.” Coder said. “The Androids were built using an actor-critic variant algorithm, which means they’re designed to be as human as possible. They follow orders from Bridge , but they walk and talk just like humans. The Primes are a different breed. They use neural networks with weighted vectors to learn fast. They’re the smartest of the Machin. You won’t outsmart them, and can only deal with them with brute force, or something really original.”
“What about the big ones?” Gang asked.
“Those are the Enforcers…” Coder sighed. “They’re built for combat with a neural-minimax approach to fights. They’re good short-term thinkers, but aren’t the best at long-term thinking.”
“What does that mean?” Gang asked.
“For example,” Coder started, “If they find a high-priority target, they’ll all dash towards it, even if it should only take one. For example if you had an EMP, they’d ignore everyone else and just attack you.”
“Can we herd them like sheep?” Gang chuckled. “If we change their targets enough times?”
“They’re built for battle.” Coder answered. “They’re not rocket-scientists, but they’re not stupid either. That won’t work.”
“So this ‘ Bridge ’ is our next target?” Hero asked.
“Our next target should be freeing Vault .” Key shook his head. “We couldn’t save her before. We owe her that much. We have to get her!”
“We will.” Jiro reassured him. “I don’t like her with him either, but at least she’s safe there. Once the Machin are gone, I’ll get her myself.” Key nodded. “But Hero here’s right,” Jiro turned to Coder , “ Bridge is our next target?”
“I think so.” Coder answered. “If Takahashi is smart, he’s surrounding himself with Machin, so we can’t get the code from him directly. I can try to brute force it. It’s a long shot, but I need some way of transmitting a signal.”
“What about the concert stuff?” Key asked. “Can any of that work?”
“Good thinking!” Coder exclaimed. “It’s the one piece of analog tech that worked around here. It’ll be tricky to modify, but it might do the job.”
“I might know someone who can help. He’s just a kid, but he knows his tech.” Jiro added.
“Perfect.” Coder smiled. “Let's shut them down.”
Kitsune , Long and Senshi stood over the broken heap of Machin scattered across the outside of the casino. Chem , Order , and Chaos stood in front of them. Design , Math , Heart and Fear stood closely behind.
“There’s something going on here.” Chem insisted. “Something doesn’t add up.”
“What do you mean?” Kitsune asked. “These robots want to take us back to the facility, which means one thing…”
“The Triangle Company” Math finished.
“Right.” Chem continued, “But why didn’t they have guns? They could have easily beaten us with better weapons…”
“It’s Takahashi …” Kitsune answered. “It has to be.”
“Why’s that?” Chem asked.
“This is what the war was like, before we were plugged in.” Kitsune recalled. “There were no guns. At first we thought their supply chains failed, but we eventually found that they had guns, but chose not to use them. It wasn’t until we captured one of their men that we learned that it wasn’t a tactic, or out of mercy, but that Takahashi wanted a fair fight. It wasn’t about winning. It was about proving that he was better than us.”
“If it’s supposed to be fair, does that mean there’s a way to win?” Chem asked.
“Maybe” she answered.
Chem paced and stroked his screen with his hand. “ Gang took Coder away just before the Machin arrived. That can’t be a coincidence. That thug has to be involved in this somehow. If there’s one place they’re coming from, it has to be the facility.”
“Where everything started…” Math whispered.
“I always knew he was trouble…” Chaos sneered smiling.
“I would attack the area myself, but there are too many of them around.” Kitsune started, “If we were surrounded, I could take out half, but only half. Senshi and Long here are great fighters, but we’re still not enough. With my brother maybe things would be different,” she pondered, “But that bridge is burned now. We have to make due with the resources we have. We’ll scout out the area together.”
Chem , Order and Chaos nodded. And by their lead, everyone else followed. They stalked through narrow alleys and abandoned side-streets and made their way closer to the facility. Order had memorized the city layout, which made navigation easier, but they had to move slowly and carefully to avoid the squads of Machin circling the area.
The sounds of the Machin grew louder as they marched through the city streets, their heavy footsteps boomed violently through the buildings. As the echo of the Enforcers came from around a corner, the group turned into a nearby alley. They followed the narrow alleyway as it weaved between various buildings until they came upon a dead-end. They were surrounded by brick walls about fifteen meters high with the only windows higher than they could reach.
“It looks like there’s no way for us to progress here. We turn back.” Kitsune announced.
“Do you really think I’ll let you?” A voice called out. The group turned around to see a figure emerge from the area they’d entered from to find a man" with a bandana around his screen. His screen was dark and wore a white robe with Itamae knives grasped firmly in hand.
“What is it you want?” Kitsune called out. “We’re all on the same side here.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.” Itamae answered. “I was curious when I saw so many Enforcers taken down. There were slashes all across their torsos, and you’re the only one carrying a blade.”
“I am.” Kitsune confirmed. “And what else?”
“What else?” Itamae barked. “You’re standing in his way. This is the only way the world ends peacefully, where everyone’s plugged in, and everyone gets what they want.”
“Are you actually on Takahashi’s side?” Kitsune asked.
“I always have been.” Itamae stated. “It’s a noble purpose. I was his personal assassin before, and I won’t hesitate to kill again.”
“His personal…” Kitsune stuttered. “Who have you killed?”
Itamae stared at her and answered flatly. “Anyone who was worth killing.”
Kitsune shifted to a frustrated battle stance. “You don’t need these people then. Let's fight, just you and me!”
“Fine by me.” Itamae snarled. The group cautiously walked past Itamae and back outside the alley by which they entered. Chaos glanced towards Itamae , admiring his blades before leaving. Kitsune held firm, unwavering in her position.
After a minute, Kitsune and Itamae were alone in the alleyway. Kitsune took a moment to consider her position. Itamae stood in front of the only exit. She was boxed in, and couldn’t climb the walls for an advantage. Even further, he held long knives in both hands. If they fought in close-quarters, she had a chance of taking him down. If he intended to throw the knives, she’d have to dodge projectile attacks, and maybe come in close, but even then she’d have trouble.
A second later, he threw a knife in her direction that she narrowly dodged.
She waved to the left, then to the right, narrowly dodging two blades that cut across her kimono.
Kitsune tried to dash to an angle where she could see into his pocket, maybe then she could account for the number of blades he had, but he smartly pivoted every time she did, so she had no idea how many blades he had.
Another blade flew by her head.
He threw his blades at a rapid rate, implying he wasn’t short on knives. The smart thing would be to come in close to fight. As an assassin, he was probably used to sneaking up on opponents instead of all-out brawls, but he knew she’d fought off a squad of Enforcers before, but he still wasn’t hesitating. She’d have to find another way.
Another blade whizzed past her ankle.
That’s when she had an idea.
“How do you find this noble?” Kitsune jumped backwards taunting him. “To leave people an empty world with nothing to cherish?”
Itamae threw a blade forward, impaling itself to the brick wall behind her.
“They don’t experience suffering, or experience loss. All they feel is happiness!” Itamae barked. “What more could they ask for?”
Kitsune jumped off the side of a brick wall, and Itamae threw a blade just above her head, impaling itself on the brick wall behind her.
“Maybe they get to ask. Maybe you don’t choose for them.” Kitsune rolled forward towards Itamae , feinting to spring forward with blade in hand. Just as she came out of the roll, Itamae threw a blade violently above her head. Kitsune countered by rolling backwards to where she’d previously stood as Itamae’s blade impaled itself high up in the brick wall behind her.
The loud march of Machin grew louder and louder.
“It’s not too late to run.” Kitsune stated.
“You think you can handle me, and the Machin?” Itamae taunted. “You’ve barely held your own here!” Itamae started yelling. “When they come for you, do you really think you can fight us both?!”
Kitsune stood still, unmoving. Itamae also stood firm, locked eyes in a deadly standoff. After a moment, a squad of Enforcers came storming from around the corner. Itamae turned for a moment to face them.
Then Kitsune dashed backward with a smile on her face. She jumped on top of the first blade Itamae had impaled into the wall, then jumped again onto the second blade he had thrown, then leaped upwards again onto the third blade he had thrown high up. Itamae had turned around and in a violent rage threw a final blade directly at Kitsune’s chest. Kitsune caught the blade with calm confidence, and stabbed it into the brick wall behind her. She stepped on that blade and managed to pull herself on top of the building surrounding the alleyway.
She turned around to face Itamae , victorious in evading his attack, and saw him punching towards the Machin helplessly.
“I’m on your side! Why won’t you let me go!?”. Itamae yelled helplessly, as the growing tide of Enforcers closed in around him
Kasumi glanced fondly toward the robot, a hollow husk of metal with no screens or discernable features. It felt so exposed and vulnerable, and something about the way it sat in that chair reminded her of her father. She felt foolish for hoping, but maybe…
“ Kasumi ?” it whispered through a mechanical voice.
“Yeah, it’s me.” she smiled, and bewildered at the thought.
“Why is there a screen on your face? Everyone has screens and no one’s told me why.”
Kasumi laughed. “We’ve worn them as reminders.” Kasumi started, “Of where we’ve come from and where we’re going.” she ran her hands across his robotic arm. “Is it really you dad?” Takuya turned his mechanical head away. “What happened to you?”
“I met Ichiro Takahashi once after you left. We didn’t get off on the best of terms. I think he did this for irony - as my punishment.”
“Dad, I'm so sorry I left,” Kasumi said, “I shouldn’t have and I’ll always regret it.”
“No, I'm the one who’s sorry.” Takuya answered. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about this Kasumi , a lot. And I know now that I pushed you. I wanted you to live the life I wanted.” he looked towards the horizon ahead. “The life I enjoyed. The country life was never for you. I should have known that and respected that. You should lead the life you want. I won’t ever stand in your way again.”
“I’m just glad we’re together again Dad.” Kasumi smiled.
“Me too pumpkin. Me too.”
Takahashi stood tall in the dark facility. He looked down at Vivian , sitting spitefully in the corner as he watched the Machin through his monitors.
He wondered to himself if she’d ever appreciate the gravity of what he’d accomplished, and the life he had made for her .
Superior and Genji weaved through the downhill trees and were almost at the base of the mountain.
“You never answered my question.” Genji stated.
“And what’s that?” Superior asked.
“What are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know. Frankly it’s hard to know.” the pair reached a clearing at the base of a hill. “First I need to…” Superior stopped cold in his tracks as he saw a large mechanical figure standing fifty feet away. It stood over seven feet tall, with bright red armor and samurai plating, with twin blades across its back. Its large confident frame towered over Superior and Genji . Yet the part that transfixed him the most was that on its screen in pixelated colors was the image of Kitsune ’s mask.
Superior shooed Genji away without breaking eye contact with the Machin. “You should leave. It’s here for me.” Genji nodded and paced away along the treeline.
The Machin shifted its stance and drew both blades into its hands. “Are you ready?” it called to him in a mechanized female voice. Its body was large and imposing. It was clearly reminiscent of his sister. Its red and white armor represented a challenge that he could not refuse.
Superior smiled, with his blade in hand and a firm battle stance. “I am!” he shouted back.