"More champagne?" a perfect Ichi female was asking her equally exquisite friend as Ukoku made his way out onto the balcony to enjoy a cigarette in the evening sunshine. "Or should we move on to the Mou Tai?"
"Champagne," the other woman replied, with more than a touch of firmness.
Ukoku wasn't surprised. Ridiculously over-priced Meunier grape stocks had been cosseted during the Great Winter, whereas sorghum – ubiquitous, utilitarian sorghum – had received no such special tending. As a result, within that single season, the crop had become extinct and the recombinant grasses developed to replace it had given beijiu had a peculiar tang that even the most Olde Worlde of dusty labels could not disguise.
Still, if the SHAnGRI-LA (Survivor Human And Genetically Redesigned Individuals' Living Arrangement) programme had not immediately transformed Earth's smoking post-War remains into the TENKAI (Total ENvironment Kernel-Activated Idyll) Ukoku and his fellow programmers had been aiming for (and Ukoku blamed Koumyou's obdurate refusal to proceed with the full implementation of the Sustainable Energy Initiative X code for that), nowadays the Ichis were leading a life sweeter than plum wine and more ordered than a Zen garden. And, although they didn't know it, they had Ukoku to thank for that. After his esteemed colleague and erstwhile lover's unfortunate demise, he'd taken control of the SEI-X programme and refined it. Found and installed a pure new energy source. And consigned Li-Touten's ludicrous cybernetic/animal hybrid to SuspAn. The system might still have its short-comings but they were only minor ones, affecting only the lower orders whose opinions were of no consequence. If, indeed, their neural rerouting had left them capable of forming opinions of any kind.
"I say, you! You! Waiter!" The impatient clicking of the first woman's fingers distracted Ukoku from his self-satisfaction and, with a shiver of irritation, he realized she was addressing him, beckoning him to approach. "Another bottle of champagne! And don't dawdle!"
It wasn't the first time an Ichi had mistaken him for a Roku; their intellectual abilities might be considerable, but they were narrow, and he supposed his black hair and eyes made the assumption a reasonable one. However it was not an error he was prepared to forgive. He was unCoded, dammit! One of the Foundation responsible for creating and maintaining the Ichis' paradise! At the time, the project had seemed like a good idea – challenging, if not damn near impossible – and before his untimely death, Goudai had made a powerful argument for the benefits of order. However, over the years Ukoku had come to despise the Ichis, and the way they took everything for granted, as if it was their due. As if they'd somehow earned their easy lives and good health. Every time he was snubbed at a social gathering, every time his academic brilliance was overlooked, his skin itched with the need to shake them out of their self-satisfied indolence.
Indolence. Even unspoken, the word rolled, fat and juicy, over his tongue and he was seized by a desire to bite into it, to feel it burst between his teeth. Indolence – n. from the Latin, indolentia - freedom from pain.
A thought came to him, sharp as a knife, and he adjusted his glasses purposefully, half-afraid they must have assumed a dangerous glint. His fragment of the Master Code – the Management of UnTameable elemENts sub-routine– was bivalent and what a New World god had wrought, he could most assuredly tear asunder.
It was time for him to have a little fun for a change.
Time to make things interesting.
* * * * *
A fortnight later ...
Sanzo was jolted into consciousness by an insistent, high-pitched bleep. He felt like shit. His head was pounding and his mouth tasted like he'd finally been reduced to eating the crap Hakkai and Gojyo served the miserable sods who frequented their Refreshment Station.
Which, he realized, prising his face away from the grubby melamine table-top, was exactly where he happened to be. He must have fallen asleep. During the day. Again. It was something he'd been doing a lot of in the past two weeks.
"You switch that thing off, asshole?" Gojyo grumbled, with a pointed stare at Sanzo's antique PDA.
"Go fuck yourself," Sanzo grunted back, rubbing the grit from his eyes, but he tapped the worn Answer key anyway. Not for Gojyo's sake, but his own. Getting caught with a Subnet Unregistered Telecommunication Real-time Access device would a ticket to reCodeville, a place he had no intention of visiting, not even as a sight-seer. Not that he'd ever been Coded in the first place. His step-father had done everything in his power to keep him out of the Echelation Committee's hands. Including dying.
Sanzo pushed the memory of watching him fall, blood-soaked and lifeless, back to the dark, vengeful corner of his mind he nurtured it in and demanded coffee.
"None of that Hachi crap either. Go, at the very least," he muttered under his breath, as Gojyo ambled away to the counter.
Obviously, the request was an ironic one; in a place like this, there was no choice, just 'coffee' - rough and bitter, short on subtlety but with a carefully calibrated caffeine content, designed to keep a nutritionally-challenged Hachi process worker functional throughout his twelve-hour shift. Hachis like Gojyo and Hakkai probably didn't even know other grades of coffee existed.
Resigning himself to the inevitable abuse of his taste-buds, Sanzo turned his attention back to his SUTRA. The screen was flashing excitedly. Urgently, even. He glanced quickly about the room. Apart from Gojyo at the counter and Hakkai manning the microwave beyond, its only occupants were a group of guys jacked into the Refresher, ready for some consolation after another hard day at the neighbouring soap factory (if the shadows under their eyes and fine white powder in their hair were anything to go by) and a gang fuelling up before the night shift started. It was a pretty sure bet none of them would have the energy or curiosity to give Sanzo's unCoded interest in the wider world a second thought, as long as he didn't draw attention to himself.
He entered his password and watched the screen's back-light turn from green to red. A message in 32 point bold Verdana scrolled across the screen.
Brace yourself, Kouryuu.
Kouryuu. The only person who'd ever called him that was ... dead. Some bastard at the Hub must've gone looking for a new way to torture him. He'd told them time and time again he wasn't interested in their goddamn revolution, that all he wanted was to be left the hell alone. If, for one minute, they imagined playing cheap cards like reminding him of Koumyou's devotion to The Cause was going to persuade him otherwise, they had another think coming.
"Fucking shit-for-brains!" he yelled at the message as it looped past once more.
The background hubbub of conversation thinned away into silence and Sanzo realized all eyes, even the work-dulled, tired ones the Refresher should have made blissed out and vacant by now, were on him. So much for not drawing attention. He'd better come up with an explanation for his outburst and quickly.
He homed in on Gojyo.
"You!" he shouted. "Shit-for-brains! Where's my coffee?"
Gojyo, cup in hand and half-way round the counter already, blinked but everyone else visibly relaxed and the murmur of voices started up again. Sanzo breathed a sigh of relief and hit Delete.
Another message – in normal-sized green – flashed up.
I feared this time would come, Kouryuu. That's how I can speak to you from beyond the grave. (I embedded a sub-routine in the SHAnGRI-LA programme to be activated in just such an eventuality. Nifty, eh?)(Read more? Y or N).
Sanzo stabbed Y with what he hoped was venomous fury but, the truth was, he was already weakening, already wanting to believe.
It's in his kernel, I'm afraid. Can't help himself. I always told him ... but you don't want to be bothered with all that. What you want to know is what I'm talking about, right? (Read more? Y or N?)
Sanzo didn't even have to think about it. If this was a trick, he fallen for it – hook, line and frigging sinker.
The SHAnGRI-LA programme is infected. He's done something stupid and introduced the virus. The virus. But what's more important is that it's time for you to embrace your destiny, Kouryuu. I want you to go to HOUTOU. (Read more? Y or N?)
HOUTOU? Sanzo had no idea what that was. He hit Y again.
As Sanzo dragged a hand through his hair in confused disbelief, a very disgruntled Gojyo slapped a mug of coffee down on the table beside him, spilling half of it and threatening to short out the SUTRA. Sanzo snatched the cloth hanging from the cretin's apron front and hastily set about mopping up the grey-brown puddle, cursing Gojyo for his idiocy and threatening to gut him if the SUTRA was broken.
"Don't get your panties in a wad," Gojyo huffed. "It's still working. See?"
Sanzo followed his pointing finger. There was another message on the screen.
This is a difficult mission, Kouryuu. I know you're strong, but you can't do this alone. (Read more? Y or N?)
"Hey! Is that thing talking to you?" Gojyo exclaimed, leaning in for a closer look. "Kouryuu? What's that? Your sector tag?"
It was a bit of a shock to realize that Gojyo had somehow learnt how to read (because it surely hadn't been courtesy of the Echelation Committee's 'tailored tutoring' programme) but hardly the biggest surprise of Sanzo's day. He hit Y again.
You'll need help. You'll need friends. And whatever you do, don't ... MESSAGE DISCONNECTED.
Something cold crawled up Sanzo's spine and jabbed him right where his portal should have been. It was almost as it he were connected anyway because he knew the interruption hadn't been a mere service failure; it had been intentional. Someone, somewhere was onto him. Already. Before he even knew what he was up to himself.
Gojyo, oblivious, snorted out a laugh.
"Friends? You? Got any?"
The fingers of one hand were more than adequate to count them, Sanzo had to acknowledge. Ditto the fingers on one foot.
Which left him with little option. Well, at least the moron could read.
He pulled the gold credit card Koumyou had left him 'just in case' from the inside pocket of his jacket and waggled it under Gojyo's nose.
"You and me are going ... on a journey."
Gojyo's eyes went wide and fixed on the card with the kind of focused attention the pervy Hachi usually reserved for a tightly-clad ass.
"Are you saying you wanna have sex with me?" he asked slowly.
Sanzo nearly choked on his coffee although, to be fair, he usually did that anyway. But that didn't stop him seizing the nearest thing that would serve as a weapon – the digital menu sheet – and whacking Gojyo around the head with it.
"No, you idiot! Who in the damn system would want that? I said a 'journey' and that's what I meant."
Still gazing at the credit card, Gojyo rubbed his head and grunted.
"What about 'kai?"
As Sanzo took some time to consider, on the other side of the room, the Refresher fizzed ominously. There was a yell, a flash of jagged blue light and a roar of anger, and suddenly the men who'd been jacked in were rising up as one, knocking over furniture and yowling with frustration.
Hakkai vaulted the counter and was at Gojyo's side in a heartbeat.
"I think," he murmured, as a table took flight and crash into the microwave, "there's a problem."
Gojyo fixed Sanzo with a look.
Sanzo shrugged. Koumyou had said friends. He could at least achieve the plural.
"Okay. Him too."
* * * * *
Sanzo led the way to his apartment with Gojyo and Hakkai trudging along behind him in silence like the dull, obedient drudges their Coding had programmed them to be. He was glad they didn't have the wit to ask questions because he had no answers to 'Where are we going?' or 'What do you need us for?' Besides, the air seemed to be thickening up, making it hard to see properly and harder still to breathe, and the bone-deep weariness that had been making him fall asleep at odds times of the day and night was worse than ever. Any talking that needed to be done could wait until he was home with a decently caffeinated espresso inside him and the filters cranked up to Max.
As they rounded the final corner into Sanzo's neighbourhood, an appalling stench rose up to meet them. Sanzo didn't need to look down to know there was sewage spewing from the drains – although his quick glance helpfully confirmed his suspicion his boots were coated with it. It looked like Koumyou's message was right: the whole SHAnGRI-LA system was in the shit.
Despite the almost painful effort involved, he quickened his pace, digging his 'key' out from a pocket as he walked, and at last made it to the front door of his block.
"What the fuck ..?" Gojyo gaped as Sanzo held the pickled eyeball up to the scanner. "Is that a ...?"
"Yeah," Sanzo grunted, pushing first him, then Hakkai in through the door and closing it firmly behind them. "Take your shoes off."
Gagging and kicking his boots off haphazardly, Gojyo took a few stunned steps down the hallway, but Hakkai merely raised an eyebrow and made a little 'Hm' noise.
By the time Sanzo had let them into his apartment and shot all three of the manual bolts, Gojyo had recovered himself enough to jerk his head towards Sanzo's 'key' and declare, "That's disgusting!"
"But necessary," Hakkai told him. "Right, Sanzo?"
Sanzo blinked, his whole view of Gojyo's normally silent partner shifting.
Hakkai took a seat on one of Sanzo's kitchen stools.
"This is a Hachi segment," he explained, lacing fingers that were longer and more elegant than any Hachi's Sanzo had ever seen over crossed knees. "And Sanzo is no more Hachi than I am."
"No. So building security would flag up his retinal scan as inadmissible. Hence the need for a third eye."
Sanzo looked at Hakkai sharply. Now that he came to think about it, he realized the guy was far too neat and feline for a Hachi. The way he moved was definitely more Roku. Except he couldn't be a Si either, Sanzo realized, as he noticed for the first time that his eyes were a brilliant, emerald green. Hakkai was not a Roku but a San. Coded not only to read the written word but to be intuitive to an almost telepathic degree. To be the perfect, reasonably intelligent, assistant.
Which meant he shouldn't be in Hachi-land either.
"What about you?" Sanzo asked, his curiosity piqued. "How come you move around Hachi segments so easily?"
With a slow smile, Hakkai lifted his floppy, dark fringe and removed the thick monocle covering his right eye. The iris was red, as red as Gojyo's.
One disclosure deserving another, Sanzo took off his own dark glasses, and the tight, factory-worker's hat he wore to hide his hair.
Gojyo's jaw just about hit the floor.
"You ... you're ... you're an Ichi!" he babbled, pointing accusingly.
"I think he's more than that, Gojyo. I think he's one of the Foundation. That device he pores over in our café? Unless I'm very much mistaken, it's a SUTRA and contains twenty percent of the code used in the creation of this whole system."
That was news to Sanzo, but he kept the fact to himself. He'd always considered the SUTRA important – but that was because Koumyou had valued it and now it was the only keep-sake he had of his step-father. He'd known nothing of its significance. As he struggled to process what Hakkai had said, Gojyo shook his head emphatically.
"Can't be one of the Foundation," he stated bluntly. "He's too young."
And now there was something else for Sanzo to get his head around. It appeared that by teaching his Hachi pal to read, Hakkai – because it had to have been Hakkai - had awoken an ability to analyze and understand in him too. Dangerous skills in a system as strictly regulated as SHAnGRI-LA. If Hachis were able to think and reason, they might start resenting their place in it. Sanzo felt a shiver go up his spine. Perhaps he'd unwittingly invited the person responsible for the system breakdown - the one Koumyou had just warned him about from beyond the grave – into his home.
He darted a look at Hakkai who met his gaze unflinchingly as he answered Gojyo's objection.
"You're right. Sanzo is not one of the original Foundation but he's one of their successors. Which means he ... lost someone."
"Huh," Gojyo shrugged. "We've all lost someone, 'kai." He turned to Sanzo. "Hey, got any beer in this place?"
Not given to sharing anything, Sanzo would normally have told him to piss off, but nothing about the day was turning out to be normal and, after Hakkai's revelations, he was in sore need of something to take the edge himself.
He jerked his head towards the stuttering cooler.
"Get us all one."
He was relieved to note that whatever learning Hakkai had managed to drum into Gojyo's minimally receptive brain, it had not overwritten his default routine of obedience to a higher authority and a minute later an opened bottle was placed before him.
"Right," he said briskly. "Let's get down to business."
* * * * *
"So, lemme get thish clear," Gojyo slurred, several hours and many beers later, when he ought to have realized the best he could aim for was 'fuzzy', "there's a shystem? An' i's all perf'ly regulated an' everyone's got their plaishe an' a job ... Still don' see how tha's a bad thing."
"Idiot," Sanzo hissed, uninterested in enlightening him.
"Leaving aside the abuse of human rights-" Hakkai began, only to be interrupted by Gojyo interjecting like a drunken amateur lawyer, "You mean humanoid rights, 'kai – cuz if we're all genetically modernized like he says, we're not human, are we?
"Leaving aside the abuse of humanoid rights," Hakkai resumed with a patient smile, "the system is breaking down. You must have noticed the decline in air quality over the past few weeks? And you can't have missed the fact we needed to paddle through excrement to get here. On top of that, the Refresher was only serviced last month and yet tonight it blew a fuse. That means getting on for sixty people in this sector alone are going to be jonesing for a fix. What if all the Refreshers crash? What if people start seeing the way they're forced to live? There'll be anarchy!"
"Hn." Gojyo frowned and scratched the back of his head. "Nah, I shtill don't get it. I haven't jacked in for months now an' I'm not going all bersherk, am I?"
Hakkai reached out a hand and laid it on Gojyo's knee, wrinkling the fabric of his pants slightly as he gave it a slight squeeze.
"You have other distractions now."
Gojyo grinned and returned the knee-squeeze with a lot less delicacy. And a lot further up Hakkai's leg.
"Yeah, I do, don't I?" he agreed and almost slipped off his stool in an attempt to plant a sloppy kiss on Hakkai's mouth. Hakkai smiled, helped Gojyo regain his balance and brushed a speck of white from the shoulder of his jacket.
Sanzo shifted uncomfortably on his own seat. It wasn't that he'd never seen men kissing before; it was common. Kissing and much, much more. With reproductive intercourse and intersex mingling strictly regulated, Hachi alleys were full of men fucking each other senseless, in clumsy imitation of the images Sanzo had heard the Refreshers supplied. But for all that, he'd never seen intimacy before.
Much less felt it.
"So we gotta go to WooWoo-"
"Yeah, that place. We gotta go there an' fix the virush problem."
"Yes," Hakkai nodded, adding in a soft undertone, "and maybe fix a few other things too whilst we're there."
Sanzo might have been a bit the worse for drink too but the political flavour of the remark was too obvious to miss.
"Don't tell me you're a fucking Hubber!" he spat, fighting back a rising wave of paranoia that was insisting he was being played, that this was all an elaborate hoax to drag him into that idiot organization his step-father had believed in only for it to fail him. Seized by an urge to punch Hakkai in his oh-so-reasonable but oh-so-phoney face, Sanzo rose to his feet but Hakkai was already holding up his hands in surrender.
"No, not a Hubber. I have a lot of sympathy with their aims but, well, let's just say-"
"Let's jush say the spineless bastards let the Committee's goons drag his sister off without doing one damn thing to help her!" Gojyo exclaimed, suddenly very angry indeed. "They all jush lay low in their bunker 'til the danger was past. A week later, 'kai got 'ficial notice of her death. An' the Hubbers had the neck to say," he scoffed, airquoting contemptuously, "Her sacrifice was a small one for the Greater Good."
Hakkai had gone very still, very quiet, and Sanzo found himself wishing he believed in the prayers Koumyou had said over him when he was small. As he didn't, he offered the guy another beer instead. Hakkai took it and downed the whole bottle in one. Swallowing hard, he set the empty carefully down on the counter and looked Sanzo in the eye. For an unsettling moment, Sanzo felt something like understanding pass between them.
"Anyway," Gojyo said, breaking the silence, "where's Houtou? How we gonna get there?"
Good questions, Sanzo had to admit. And again, ones he had no answer for. However, it seemed that Hakkai did.
"HOUTOU is an acronym. It's a government department: HOst: Utilities, Training, Occupations and Uniformities . In other words, it's where the Codings are designed and modified."
Gojyo's mouth twisted.
"Government? But tha's friggin' hundreds of miles from here, man!"
Hakkai smiled brightly.
"Five, at the most."
Sanzo paused, mid-swig of beer.
"And you'd know that how exactly?"
Hakkai's smile didn't falter.
"I used to work there."
Whilst Sanzo struggled to absorb this latest little gem of info, Gojyo amended his complaint to suit the new facts. "But five hundred miles, man!"
Hakkai patted his hand.
"I have a vehicle."
Sanzo gave a little snort of disdain.
"So, our glorious leaders pay more than the standard thirty pieces of silver?"
Hakkai nodded. "Well, they certainly used to. It was a while ago."
Not for the first time that evening, Sanzo was seriously wishing he'd never listened to Koumyou's advice about 'friends'. Something about this guy didn't add up.
"They were paying you enough to afford a car and an eye transplant. Nobody walks away from a salary like that."
Hakkai smiled that eerily calm smile again.
"Oh, no, Sanzo. I had to do the eye myself."
* * * * *
Sanzo had had a terrible night. The AtCon shorted out in the small hours and, with two more bodies in the apartment than usual, there wasn't a chance in hell of the temperature remaining on the bearable side of infernal. At some point he must have managed to drift off for a few minutes, because he'd been plagued by dreams of Hakkai's DIY eye surgery. By morning, he was exhausted and it was only sheer force of will that got him out of bed; his body was all for dying where it lay.
As he stumbled towards the bathroom, he gave the still-unconscious Gojyo – who was sprawled all over the floor and snoring – a kick in the side.
"Get your ass in gear. I want us on the road by seven. Wake your pal up."
Gojyo grumbled something, rolled over onto his stomach and pillowed his face on his arms. Sanzo kicked him again. Harder.
"All right, all right, you crazy fucker," Gojyo muttered, hauling himself into a sitting position. "Look. I'm awake."
Sanzo opened the bathroom door and locked himself in. Taking a pee, he noticed his piss looked darker than it ought – especially after so much beer – but it didn't trip the waste analysis alarm. Hn. The System fail was obviously doing horrible things to him and Not Caring about it. He lit up a cigarette, took a couple of drags and set about shaving. In the mirror, he fancied his complexion has a grey tinge and was surprised to feel a wave of determination wash over him.
Never mind politics; the situation had become personal.
* * * * *
One look at Hakkai's 'vehicle' had Sanzo hastily revising his estimate of government pay downwards. The thing had wheels, for fuck's sake! And something that looked worryingly like a manual gearbox. The rear door didn't open either. Well, at least, not until Sanzo jerked the handle down. He climbed in behind Hakkai onto seating that seemed to be made from some kind of elderly, organic material and slammed the door shut. He was mildly surprised the shock didn't reduce the car to a pile of spare parts.
"I don't suppose it's got climate control?" he asked, without much hope, eyeing the bilious dawn with disgust as Hakkai shunted the gear-stick into place to a horrific accompaniment of graunching metal.
Hakkai raised his free hand in a palm-up shrug.
* * * * *
The day's journey was every bit as bad as Sanzo had feared, and then some. He'd only ever travelled by monorail or hoverdrive before and thus had had no inkling of the bone-rattling jarring that resulted from wheels running on standard roads. Although 'standard' was probably pushing it a bit. They hadn't been maintained for weeks, and great cracks had appeared in the polymeric binding, sometimes webbing out to form potholes deep enough to pitch him out of his seat when the car lurched over them.
As if that weren't bad enough, there was the exposure to the elements afforded by the lack of a roof. As they trundled through Hachi quarters towards the main Artery, he was buffeted by a cold, dirt-laden breeze and when they hit the open road, the breeze became a strong wind, its chill factor exacerbated by speed.
If you could call forty-two mph 'speed'. Sanzo was sure there had to be faster garbage drones. And that was on the straight! Turning corners and negotiating bends meant the car had to drop all the way down to under twenty.
The final humiliation was the look of the thing. Sanzo had never seen anything like Hakkai's car outside of a Reader and most people had never seen anything like it at all. Like all things unfamiliar, it provoked one of two responses: ridicule or fear - both of which led not only to the hurling of insults but also of rocks. By the time they hit peculiarly slow traffic half-way to the capital, the car's sides were pock-marked with dents and Sanzo was sporting a painful bruise to the temple. Slowing down any further seemed positively suicidal.
But Hakkai had no choice. Even the monorails were gliding to a standstill, humming impatiently on the ultraspeed track. Meanwhile, though they kept rising and descending experimentally, none of the hovers seemed able to find a way through the snarl-up.
Hakkai sucked his teeth and, in the rear-view mirror, Sanzo saw his reflection frown.
"This ... this feels ... different," he offered eventually.
"Different how?" Sanzo demanded, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up on end. Hakkai might have found a way to override his Coding, but he was still a San, still hypersensitive to altered protocols.
"This isn't due to the system fail. This is intentional. A firewall."
"Fuck." Sanzo ground his teeth, recalling the interruption to the SUTRA's signal the previous evening. "They're onto us."
Behind them, the line of hovers stretched away into the distance, rising and falling restlessly, like a distant memory Sanzo had of something called 'sea'. Up ahead, a siren had started wailing and was swiftly joined by another, and another.
Gojyo went to flick on the NavComm, but Hakkai stopped him.
"Just wanna find out what gives," Gojyo pouted, folding his arms across his chest and tossing his ridiculous hair over a shoulder.
"At a guess, I'd say they're currently issuing an order for everyone to stay with their vehicle," Hakkai hazarded, "and working their way down the queue."
Sanzo was first out of the car but the others weren't far behind, and they sprinted for the edge of the Artery, assailed by outraged yells from drivers whose tracks they were blocking and the odd improvised missile.
The Artery was on stilts, a four-lane streak of grey, at this point twenty-five feet above a rice-field. Arteries, Sanzo remembered reading, were only ever maintained from below. Which meant there had to be service ladders up from ground level. They were few and far between, since most of the work was carried out by drones, but some operations needed a human (if genetically modified) eye and eventually he located the tell-tale curve of metal, hooked over the roadside. As best he could, he quickened his pace but the air/gas balance and his own sickening body were against him. By the time he reached the ladder, he was dizzy and nauseous.
Hakkai handed him a water bottle and raised a solicitous eyebrow.
"Can you make it down on your own," he asked, indicating the field below with a tilt of his head.
Being patronized was all the motivation Sanzo needed to rise above his physical limitations. He drained the bottle and slapped it back into Hakkai's hand without bothering to reply, then grabbed the handrails and lowered himself onto the first rung. It was a bigger drop than he'd expected, and he nearly lost his footing, but at last his toes found the next rung and - slowly, slowly – he made his way down
Although the polluted atmosphere was taking its toll on Hakkai too, if his laboured breathing was anything to go by, Gojyo's cruder Coding seemed to make him relatively immune to it. He was descending the ladder with ease and his boots were getting perilously close to Sanzo's head. Sanzo decided letting himself drop the final ten feet to the ground would probably be safer than trying to continue climbing his way down.
But, instead of landing on soft, well-irrigated soil, he hit hard dirt. His left ankle buckled under him, pain erupting between the bones and throwing him completely off balance. His leg crumpled and he fell. Hakkai was beside him in a heart-beat, long fingers carefully palpating his injured ankle.
"Nothing broken," he declared, with another one of those infuriatingly placid smiles, "but it's probably sprained. If you'll allow me ..."
Sanzo felt his shoe being slipped from his foot and the sock being peeled gently away. He closed his eyes as the pain boiled up again and then there were fingers on his skin. Cool, soothing fingers. Sanzo hadn't been touched sympathetically since early adolescence and he stiffened, unsure what to make of the sensation and unable to remember if this was how Koumyou's hands had felt.
Meanwhile, under Hakkai's touch, his skin was losing heat and the tissue beneath it growing numb. The red-hot agony slowly cooled and dulled, then ebbed completely away. Sanzo opened his eyes in surprise. Transdermal analgesics had obviously come a long way since he'd last had access to such luxuries. He jerked his foot away from Hakkai's now redundant ministrations and hurriedly replaced his footwear.
Beyond the FiltraDome the light was fading fast, the last vestiges of day being swallowed up by night and a shiver went through Sanzo. Should have brought more clothing, dammit. Something with temp-reg sensors at the very least. Although they'd probably be malfunctioning too; everything else was. Up on the Artery, sirens were still wailing and now the gathering dark was criss-crossed by the solid yellow beams of searchlights. Whatever the government thought they wanted him for, it was clearly something serious.
"Can you walk?" Hakkai asked. "Because I think we should get away from here. Take cover in the timber plantations up on that hill over there until morning."
Gojyo sighed heavily.
"We gotta sleep out?"
Sanzo had to agree the prospect wasn't an appealing one.
"Not exactly, " Hakkai replied and raised his right hand. That was all - Sanzo didn't see him use a wave box or even signal – but suddenly something was flying towards them, gliding down silently from the Artery, a dark silhouette against the orange sunset.
"What the fuck ..?" Gojyo gaped, as the thing landed at their feet.
The metal panels had a vaguely familiar look and, when Sanzo stepped closer, the lengths of fabric an all too distinctive smell.
"Your car?" he marvelled, incredulous.
"Most of it," Hakkai nodded. "Obviously, the chassis and wheels are still where we left them. And you don't have to worry – the NavComm transponder is on the back axle. They can't use this to track us."
Sanzo grunted, reluctantly grateful for small mercies.
"How does it work?" Gojyo asked, toeing a corner suspiciously.
"Help me carry it and I'll show you," Hakkai bargained.
Gojyo shot Sanzo a resentful glare.
"This trip was his dumb idea. How about him doing the carrying?"
"Certainly," Hakkai nodded amiably. "If you don't mind spending most of the night in the open. I'm sure Sanzo will make it to the woods eventually, despite what a hundred-pound load of camping equipment will do to a recently sprained ankle."
Gojyo gritted his teeth and lifted the far metal panel. Hakkai smiled at him and took hold of the panel opposite, and together they started making their way towards the hills.
Lighting a cigarette, Sanzo followed.
* * * * *
Predictably, Sanzo was having another terrible night, although he could blame it on neither the location nor accommodation. Camping at altitude had raised them above the worsening pollution of the plains and Hakkai's car parts had reassembled into a tent-like structure with strong walls and a serviceable roof, even if the unscheduled hail that had been bouncing off it for an hour or more was making a hell of a din. No, what was keeping him awake was the knowledge that, by daybreak, he'd need a plan. They didn't have a lot of time. They were being hunted. And the hunters had to know where they were headed. How the fuck was he going to get them into HOUTOU? And, more importantly, would he ever be able to get them out again?
He needed to study the complex' layout. It had to be on file somewhere. He sat up and switched on his SUTRA – only for Hakkai to all but snatch the thing from his hand and switch it off again before the start screen had even appeared.
Sanzo saw red and he felt for his gun.
"Get your hands off-"
"They'll detect the signature."
Sanzo's ire deflated. Hakkai was right. And Sanzo was back to square one without a paddle.
Hakkai gave a soft chuckle.
"I have an exceptional memory, Sanzo, and I know HOUTOU like the back of my hand. Better, probably, since I was never Coded to take much interest in myself."
Sanzo peered at him through the gloom.
"They'll have changed all the passwords ..."
Hakkai didn't even blink.
"Undoubtedly. But I know the way their minds work."
Sanzo decided not to tell Hakkai that that was what worried him.
* * * * *
Sanzo couldn't believe they'd got through the main gates without being arrested. Or shot. He'd argued for slipping in through one of the service entrances or climbing up into the AtCon duct-net but Hakkai had insisted government security worked on peripheral not foveal vision. Whatever the fuck that meant.
"They're expecting us to try to sneak in so all the back entrances will be crawling with security. It will be far better to just walk right in the front door. People never notice what's right in front of them. If we behave as if we have every right to be there, they'll assume we have. My old ID card should suffice, if they don't look too closely."
They didn't. The Go guard didn't seem to be having a very good day and was too occupied with shouting at the blurred face of a middle-aged Go female on a fuzzy plasma screen and coughing his lungs up, to do more than give Hakkai's pass a cursory glance.
Not that that meant they were home and dry. Human security was one thing; server security something else entirely. The main doors were on an electronic lock and Duran-glazed: shockproof but transparent. Any fumbling would be obvious to people and scanners inside the building.
Hakkai punched a number into the keypad. Nothing happened. He punched again. Still nothing. On the other side of the glass, a Cerberus unit rolled to a standstill, antennae extending.
"I thought you said you knew how their minds worked?" Sanzo hissed through clenched teeth, as Hakkai tapped in a third number.
A green light flashed above the key pad and the doors slid noiselessly open.
"Apparently I do," Hakkai answered, cheerfully, and the Cerberus retracted its aerials and resumed its patrol.
Gojyo let out a long breath.
"Jeez, 'kai. Way to half scare me to death."
"Sorry. This way!"
Hakkai's heels clicked over the white marble flooring as he entered the building and immediately took a sharp left, leading the way past a Welcome screen, brightly flicking through a succession of images Sanzo supposed were meant to be inspirational. None of the people jacked into their work stations looked up, instead frowning with concentration as they stabbed frantic fingers into their touch screens and tugged at their hair in what looked an awful lot like frustration.
Before them lay a long corridor, walled mostly with smoked glass windows, though some were silvered. The rooms behind them were probably sound-proofed, Sanzo realized, remembering HOUTOU's main purpose. He stared in at one of the obscured windows as he passed, trying to penetrate the reflective surface, imagining a nameless lab-rat beyond, being Coded and gene-spliced and fuck knew what else, but all he saw was his own face, glaring back at him, eyes burning with righteous fury.
And then he heard it. Above the all-pervasive, low-level electronic hum. Above the sound of Hakkai's polished shoes. Above even the sound of his own heartbeat.
A voice, calling.
"What the hell is that and where's it coming from," he demanded, catching up with Hakkai.
Hakkai gave him a blank look.
"What the hell is what?"
"That voice. You must be able to hear it!" Sanzo insisted, but Hakkai shook his head and Gojyo muttered something about Sanzo's wiring being even more random than he'd thought.
Sanzo stopped and listened. The voice was still there, not speaking words exactly but saying things, things Sanzo could almost understand, things just out of his reach. It was familiar but strange ... Which was insane. Perhaps Gojyo was right and the system fail was screwing with his synapses now. Sanzo shook himself and hurried after the others.
At the far end of the corridor, there was another security door. Hakkai's fingers hovered over the keypad for a moment, as if he were trying to make up his mind, then a smile blossomed on his face and he gave it four quick jabs and the door opened. Sanzo decided not to think about how eerie that was.
On the other side of the door, the corridor continued for about fifty yards, then widened out to form an open space, encircled by a double layer of curved polycarbonate sheeting rising thirty feet up to a domed ceiling. Sandwiched between the plastic layers, a film of nebulous colour swirled and dissolved, formed fleeting patterns and faded. A multitude of shapes and hues, restlessly aligning, then drifting apart. Layers. Colours. Shapes. As Sanzo watched, a streak of white shot from the base of a triangle to its apex, turned blue and reversed. Then the whole circuit reconfigured and the pattern mutated, random sections glowing into new life with no sense of order or purpose.
"Is this it?" Sanzo asked, head tipped back and revolving on his heel as he tried to take the thing in in its entirety.
"No," Hakkai told him. "The server is underground, coupled to the power supply. This is the functions monitor. In principle, the colours should be muted and all of a tone, to show the System is operating properly." - A couple of brilliant red L-shapes tumbled through a sea of pale green. - "And there should be no sharp angles in the patterning."
"How d'we get to the server?" Gojyo asked, cutting to the chase. "Pick a door? Any door?"
Sanzo followed the sweep of his arm that accompanied the question. Again, Gojyo had a point. The room was almost circular and, every fifteen degrees, there was a door. Twenty-four of them in total. For a moment, Sanzo was defeated, paralysed by indecision. Which one? Which fucking one, he asked himself frantically. And then, all of a sudden he knew. The door that stood between him and the voice. It was so obvious, he almost laughed.
"That one," he declared, pointing.
Naturally, it was locked. But there was no keyboard. There wasn't even a retinal scanner.
Hakkai scratched his head.
"I'm not sure what I do here. I never had clearance to be this close to the server."
"Think of something!" Sanzo ordered. They'd come too far to be beaten now.
Hakkai hummed and hawed, shifted from one foot to the other, sucked his teeth and generally pondered until Sanzo was on the point of whacking him around the head. He'd even got so far as raising a hand when, from behind them, came the clack-clack-clacking of high heels. Someone was coming! Sanzo scanned the room desperately but there was nowhere to hide. The few pot plants that might, once upon a time, have afforded some cover, had bolted and were now gangly, dried-out versions of the species ideal and practically wilting before his very eyes. He drew his gun, spun round to face the approaching footsteps and took aim.
A woman stepped out from the corridor and into the monitor. She was tall, taller than Gojyo, dark-haired and absurdly curvaceous. Which Sanzo would probably have noticed even if she'd been clad more demurely; as it was, given her top was a flimsy affair of transparent gauze, he felt his eyes were in some danger of being poked out by an astoundingly pneumatic pair of breasts and the ramrod nipples fronting them.
"Stay where you are," he warned, cocking his gun.
"And leave you to work out how to get through to the server on your own?" the woman laughed. "Don't be ridiculous!"
Sanzo blinked. That was far from the response he'd expected.
"We don't need your help," he spat, annoyed beyond reason by the twinkle in her clear, grey eyes.
"You most certainly do!" she disagreed. "And if you fire that thing, you'll be arrested within seconds and executed very soon after, so put it away! You can't save the world if you're dead."
"Who are you?" Sanzo demanded as she strode over. "Are you from the Hub?"
She laughed again and had the effrontery to pat his cheek indulgently.
"I'm a friend, kiddo, that's all you need to know. Now, where's your SUTRA?"
"Your SUTRA," she repeatedly slowly, as if he were stupid. "The only thing that will open these doors is a SUTRA. The lock is RFID-activated."
Sanzo wasn't sure he believed her but he took it from his pocket.
"The line," the woman urged, snapping her fingers imperiously. "Recite your line of code!"
Line of code? Sanzo wasn't Coded! What the hell was she ... A memory stirred, faded and dusty with age. He opened his mouth, lips rounded on the first syllable.
"On." He paused, feeling faintly ridiculous. He'd always thought the nonsense words a piece of gobbledygook invested by Koumyou to give make his magic tricks seem more convincing. "Ma ni hatsu mei un makai tenjyo!"
The door didn't so much swing as burst open.
"Well?" the woman asked, hands planted on rounded hips, as Sanzo stood gaping, "what are you waiting for? Get going!"
"You're not coming with us?"
She shook her head and smiled.
"It's not my journey."
Sanzo looked warily through the open door and into darkness. When he looked back, the woman was gone.
* * * * *
Despite a choice of lifts, they opted for the stairs; after the chaos they'd witnessed on the monitor, none of them had any confidence in Houtou's electrical systems. But the stairwell was dark and their progress slow. With each step, Sanzo's stomach knotted a little more. He had no idea what awaited them at their goal and no clue what would be expected of him. Why the hell had Koumyou asked him of all people to do this? It wasn't as if Sanzo had ever shared his interest in informatics and there had to be hundreds of eager young Nis better suited to system restoration. But there had to be a reason: Sanzo's stepfather had been playful but not capricious. He tightened his grip on his gun.
"This is it," Hakkai announced in a low voice as a pale, blue light rose up the final twist of stairs to greet them. "The server floor."
"Where is it?" Sanzo asked with a brisk purposefulness he didn't feel.
"Right in front of you."
There was no show down here, no ostentatious display of power or wealth, just a solid, functional steel door with a central panel of wire-reinforced safety glass. Sanzo stepped closer to look through. The others did likewise.
In the centre of the room stood a plain, grey cabinet, about twelve feet square, and plastered with the usual hazard warning stickers plus a few Sanzo was unfamiliar with. All along the base of it, electric cables snaked out of sockets and disappeared down through neat holes in the flooring. To the right of this, there was an open-topped enclosure of about the same height with solid walls at the back and sides, and a half-wall of thick metal mesh at the front. There seemed to be something inside the frame, some kind of huge beast with horns, and, as far as Sanzo could make out, it was wired up to a series of pipes, its head under a metal cap, but the room was only dimly lit and it was hard to tell. Shielding his eyes from the lights in the hall, Sanzo pressed his nose right up against the glass for a better look – and nearly leapt out of his skin when a face, framed by long, dark hair, appeared on the other side of the panel and two balled fists banged on the glass. Sanzo had just enough time to register fangs and deep, gold-flecked amber eyes with slits for pupils like a cat's, before Hakkai and Gojyo dragged him away from the door, and almost flung him to the ground in the process. It took all three of them a while to compose themselves before risking another look into the room.
The owner of the face had withdrawn to one side of the room but, as soon as it spotted them, again launched itself at the door, mouth open on a yowl that was damped into silence by the sound-proofing properties of six-inches of steel and high security sealants.
And yet Sanzo heard it. Or felt it. Every nerve in his body seemed to stretch tight and resonate with the anguish behind that cry.
"What. The fuck. Is that?" Gojyo breathed as the creature retreated once more.
With its messy hair, savage features and tanned, naked body, Sanzo guessed it was some kind of animal, stolen from the wild, from beyond the System, and kept – perhaps – as a watchdog to protect the server. A final, deadly, obstacle between it and anyone planning sabotage. On the other hand, it was small, lithe and slight of limb and one might almost have said a child – BANG! It hurled itself at the door again. - had it not been for its rage and strength. A child couldn't make a security door shudder in its frame like that.
The virus. It had to be. Or, at least, the thing containing it. Sanzo had heard rumours about experiments on animals that stripped out their neural pathways and replaced them with cybernetics. Experiments that allowed living creatures to be plugged into computer systems, not in order to download behaviour modification routines into them (as the Refreshers did), but to upload almost infinite supplies of cheap, green energy.
Killing the creature would be a kindness.
Sanzo checked the five bullets he clearly remembered loading into his gun earlier were still in their chamber. Then, holding his SUTRA against the door, he recited Koumyou's incantation for a second time, with exactly the same effect.
The door swung back on its hinges with a dull thunk of metal hitting metal and the creature, which was returning to the far wall in preparation for another run at the door, froze in its tracks and looked back at Sanzo over a bare shoulder as he levelled his gun at it. One clean shot through the head would do it, he told himself, trying not to be distracted by the creature's steady, golden gaze. Then this would all be over - the system fail, this stupid mission, all of it. One shot and that lithe, wiry body would crumple, the slender muscles would turn soft and slack, and those incredible eyes would close forever.
"It's been bleeding," Hakkai whispered.
Sanzo scanned the thing's body and noticed brownish-red patches of dried blood on its wrists and ankles, and portal-sized excavations into its flesh.
"Good!" Gojyo approved, unmoved. "Make it bleed some more. Lots more."
Took aim at the brown line of a half-healed incision he could now see above the creature's brows.
"Shoot!" Gojyo shouted, but Sanzo couldn't. Not with the thing looking at him. Not when it was hurt and looking at him like that. Not with Koumyou's final warning suddenly springing into his mind. And whatever you do, don't ...
Silver flashed at the edge of Sanzo's vision and then Gojyo was lunging forward, a blade in his hand. Where the hell had he got that? Sanzo hadn't realized the idiot was armed – or that he was stupid enough to go hand-to-hand with something strong enough to bring down the whole of SHAnGRI-LA.
The creature was across the room and on Gojyo in a heartbeat, knocking the knife from his grip easily as it threw him to the ground and held him pinned, one clawed hand constricting his windpipe.
Sanzo's heart leapt and fear thundered through him. He couldn't believe the speed of the thing. Nor its power. The air was crackling with it. If he didn't end it now, it would kill them all.
"Shoot!" Gojyo's strangled plea was desperate now. "Damn well ah-"
The creature cut him off by slicing its talons right through his jacket, shredding the heavy duty polyurethane like paper. They must have gone through skin too, because Gojyo cried out, his back arched in pain. Locking its gaze onto Sanzo's again, the creature raised talons sticky with blood to its mouth.
And sucked on them.
The tension in Sanzo's belly twisted tighter. He felt strange. Scared, trapped and unsteady ... and something else, something he could scarcely believe. They were entirely at this thing's mercy. He was entirely at its mercy. Adrenalin flooded his body and suddenly he was hard.
The creature seemed to sense the change in him. Shoving Gojyo aside, it pushed up onto its feet in one sinuous movement, muscles contracting and lengthening under smooth, golden skin. It was extraordinary. Perfect. It smiled, and Sanzo caught his breath. It flexed a clawed hand and the hairs on the back of his neck stood up on end, his skin tingling with expectation. In that moment, he knew. Knew that this was it. His destiny. The fate that Koumyou had wanted him to embrace.
Mine, he thought – no, felt, the word ringing in his ears and echoing through his head. An absurd possessiveness came over him.
Shit, he was going crazy. The sleepless nights, the system fail, the atmospheric pollution must have screwed his brain up royally because his body was reacting in the stupidest, most ridiculously suicidal way imaginable to the threat in front of him: it wanted it nearer. Close enough to touch, and be touched. To taste and be tasted. To fuck.
The scary thing was that he wanted at all. He'd given up looking forward the day his step-father had died. Stopped expecting or hoping. And yet now, looking into those eyes, he wanted all sorts of things. Not just the physical release his body was suddenly clamouring for, not just a frenzied rut in a back alley. He wanted to tangle his hands in that hair and feel it slide between his fingers. Goddammit, he wanted to kiss that mouth. He wanted not just contact but closeness. Intimacy.
The creature began prowling towards him on light feet and Mine hit him again, deep in his gut. Whether the thought was his or its, he had no idea. He was in no state to differentiate. His mind was reeling, his dick throbbing against his fly and, with each step the creature took, his pulse was beating faster. He felt light-headed, giddy, like he was standing on the edge of a cliff, on the verge of succumbing to an inexplicable urge to hurl himself over-
The sound of Hakkai's voice brought reality rushing back. Indulging this fantasy any longer was going to mean death.
"Sanzo - do something."
Pulled himself together.
Set his jaw.
And did something.
* * * * * *
Sanzo's new apartment was a shit-hole in the Ju part of town. Which explained why, despite hir access to all kinds of classified data, it had taken Kanzeon Bosatsu a whole week to track him down. Annoyingly, the Server Guard weren't far behind hir, so there was no time to lose.
Se rapped hard on the battered front door.
No answer. An eminently sensible precaution, given that Sanzo had spent his last five bullets taking out two staffers, two security guards and a CCTV camera during his escape from HOUTOU. Since it was a fair bet he hadn't dared try to acquire any more, he was now unarmed and vulnerable. Opening his door to just anyone would be idiotic.
But Kanzeon was not just anyone.
Se knocked again, louder, and called out, "Open up, kiddo!"
This time the door opened a fraction and a blond head peered around it. Se knew he recognized hir instantly from the way his eyes narrowed, but it didn't make him any friendlier than if she'd been a complete stranger.
Kanzeon jammed a foot in the door before he could close it again.
"My, my! Is that any way to greet someone who helped you out of a fix? Someone who wants to help you again?"
"I keep telling you: I don't need your goddamn help."
"Of course you do! Some very influential people want your little friend back. People who will regard your theft of him as indicative of a Coding fail. People who, even now, are mere hours away from finding you – so stop being ridiculous and let me in."
Fury sparked in those lovely eyes of his but he knew he was beaten. He opened the door wider, with the blackest of scowls, and slammed it shut again the instant se was inside. Kanzeon followed him down a dreary hallway, relieved to note that he seemed to have healed pretty well. There was no sign of stiffness in the shoulder that had been laser-whipped and no trace of the burn that had seared his upper arm. The farm implants Hakkai had bought as penance for his grief-induced killing spree the previous year were clearly still working. Better still, he'd learnt how to use them properly.
The gloomy hallway led into a drab sitting room. Two of the other boys were there, just as Kanzeon had expected.
The redhead's reaction was every bit as appreciative as it had been the first time he'd seen hir: his eyes popped out on stalks and he stared, dumbstruck and openly lascivious, at hir breasts. Beside him, his boyfriend smiled politely then went back to pouring green tea from a flask into bowls we was taking, one by one, from a neat canvas hold-all without betraying the slightest flicker of jealousy. Kanzeon presumed he must either be used to Gojyo's shameless ogling or was completely unhreatened by it. Probably the latter, se decided; Hakkai oozed quiet confidence.
"If you've come for the virus," Sanzo warned, taking a seat in a threadbare armchair, "you're going to be disappointed."
"Silly boy! Goku's not a virus. He's a power source. Or, at least, that's what the Foundation – after Koumyou was no longer there to guide them – decided to turn him into."
"Ah," Hakkai nodded. "That would explain why there was no improvement to the System after we removed him. I did wonder ... Although without a power source, the System should surely have collapsed completely. The FiltraDome is still in place and functioning as far as I can tell, and yesterday we even had a couple of hours of electricity!"
"Oh, the System still has a power source," Kanzeon told him, "but it's an infected one. Three weeks ago, someone took Goku off-line and installed Gyumoah in his place."
All three boys blinked.
Kanzeon rolled hir eyes and waved a dismissive hand.
"That thing in the server basement you found Goku with. Part ox-hybrid, part electronics - and all failure as a generation unit. The bio/cuber interface got corrupted on the very first cycle. It should have been deleted immediately but Li-Teuton insisted he could fix it and, with the System so energy-hungry and no-one sure how long a little squirt like Goku would keep running, the government let him keep trying – on the strict understanding Gyumoah remained in the server basement. Which, of course, meant it was easy to plug him into the server after Goku had been disconnected."
"But what kind of a dumb ass would do a thing like that?" Gojyo boggled. "I mean, why?! Everything was pretty sweet 'til then."
"For some," Sanzo growled, lighting up a cigarette. "Not for Goku."
Right on cue, the kid came charging into the room, arm outstretched, a bunch of bedraggled weeds in his little fist. He threw Kanzeon a brief smile but it was obvious there was only one person in the room he was interested in.
"Sanzo! Sanzo! I picked these for ya! Aren't they pretty?"
"Mph," Sanzo grunted, adding, "pretty dead" in an undertone as Goku scrambled up onto his lap and wound an arm around his neck. Whilst the kid squirmed about trying to get comfortable, Sanzo looked Gojyo squarely in the eye. "You think we should have left him there? Hooked him back up to that machine?"
"Hell, no!" Gojyo cast a guilty glance at Goku. "But whoever unhooked him didn't do it for the good of Goku's health, did they? Or they wouldn't have left him locked up in that place with nothing but a virus-addled rob-cow for company."
The redhead was smarter than he looked, Kanzeon had to admit. And far smarter than the Echelation Committee's Coding would have made him. She decided it was a good omen, a sign that SHAnGRI-La's inequities and iniquities would eventually be rectified.
Sanzo was sucking thoughtfully on his cigarette.
"The question is," he said at last, "why didn't the people running the Server just go back in there and put Goku back on-line themselves?"
"Easier said than done, I reckon," Gojyo murmured, running a hand over his belly. "He was like a wild animal in there, remember? Dangerous."
"They'd done it before; they must have had the tools."
Kanzeon beamed. These boys were so clever! He'd been so right to choose them!
"Yes, they had the tools. As I'm sure you've worked out for yourself by now, the only way of restraining that little runt's true form is to use a SUTRA. They were the Foundation; SUTRA's they had aplenty."
"Had?" Gojyo frowned. "You mean they've lost 'em? What are they, idiots?!"
"Not so much idiots as corpses."
Sanzo sat up straighter in his chair so abruptly that he nearly spilt Goku onto the floor.
"They're all dead?!"
"Not all of them." Kanzeon paused, watching the wheels clicking behind his eyes, the angry flare of his nostrils and the tightening of his jaw. He was putting two and two together and coming up with not only a reason for his step-father's death but a new image of the man responsible for it as well. All he needed was another little push. "One of them is still alive - and he has all the SUTRA's except yours."
"Shit!" Gojyo cried. "He's gonna come after you, Sanzo!"
"Or," Kanzeon suggested, "you could take the fight to him. I happen to know he's hanging out in the Ichi Novel Domestic Idyll Application."
"I'm not doing your dirty work for you," Sanzo vowed, taking another furious drag on his cigarette.
"It hardly matters," Hakkai said wearily. "We can't stay here, Sanzo. The government are bound to want Goku back. We're going to have to run."
Sanzo gave a bitter laugh.
"Run? How are we supposed to run anywhere with our lungs full of shit?"
Kanzeon planted hir hands on hir hips and gave him a hard stare.
"You think staying here will make things any better? If you want changes, if you want to live, you're going to have to get off your butt, boo! Come on. Let's go outside. I've got something to show you." Se caught Gojyo's eye and winked. "Something you haven't seen already, that is."
Bristling with resentment, Sanzo pushed Goku from his knee and stood up. Kanzeon led the way to the back door and out of the house.
Gojyo gave a low wolf-whistle.
"Wow, that's some car, man!"
The sight of the open-topped white Firebird, crouched alongside the pavement, sent Hakkai's hands fluttering to his face and he adjusted his monocle several times, making soft little purring sounds. Sanzo merely clicked his tongue in disapproval at the extravagant fins and gleaming chrome bumpers.
"Hurry up!" Kanzeon ordered, as they continued to hesitate. "Time's marching on. If you stay here much longer, things will get messy. Unless you don't fancy a complete memory wipe and a whole new operating system, I suggest you get in. Now!"
Gojyo didn't need telling twice; he practically leapt into the passenger seat and draped a self-consciously nonchalant arm over the door. Hakkai slid into the driver's seat and folded his hands around the steering wheel in an exploratory caress, an ecstatic smile on his face.
Still scowling, Sanzo opened one of the back doors.
"In," he said gruffly to Goku who stood rooted to the spot, gazing at the car, wide-eyed.
"Uh-uh." The kid shook his head. "It smells funny, Sanzo. Like flames."
"Don't be an idiot!" Sanzo snapped, grabbing Goku's arm as he tried to escape. "Get the fuck in."
Still Goku hung back and in the end Sanzo had to give him an almighty shove before he'd move.
"But I'm hungry!" Goku wailed, wriggling across the bright and shiny upholstery. "Really, super, crazy hungry, Sanzo!"
"Tough!" Sanzo leant in and cuffed him sharply around the head. "Shut up!"
"You shut up!" Goku yelled right back.
Ignoring him, Sanzo walked around to the other side of the car. Kanzeon followed.
"Not quite what you expected, is it?" se asked. "When you decided not to shoot him back in HOUTOU, I mean."
"I don't know what you're talking about, hag," he grunted, but spots of pink had appeared on his cheeks.
"You looked at him and you felt something, didn't you?" se pressed, dropping hir voice to a murmur. "You wanted him."
"It may have escaped your notice, but I got him!"
"You got the bit-capped version. That chip the SUTRA put on his forehead? It's a power limiter. Things are safer that way for now. You've both still got so much to learn. But he's still in there, Sanzo - all of him - and one day, when you get back from INDIA-"
"Like I said," Sanzo interrupted, opening the car's other rear door and getting in, "I have no idea what you're talking about!"
"I'm hungry!" Goku complained again, bottom lip jutting.
Grinding his teeth, Sanzo smacked him around the head again. At that precise moment, he probably wanted to smack himself too, Kanzeon mused, because Goku wasn't the only one who was hungry. Sanzo was just too proud to admit.
The Firebird pulled smoothly away from the kerb.
"One day, Sanzo!" Kanzeon called after it. "One day!"
Although the car had almost reached the end of the street, he must have heard hir because he swivelled around in his seat and gave hir the bird, just before the Firebird turned a corner and disappeared from view.
A gentle whirring announced the arrival of Kanzeon's own transport.
"Ready to leave, Mistress?" Jiroshin enquired, pulling up in the lilac and gold hover.
Se nodded and got in beside him.
They drove a mile or so in silence, Jiroshin concentrating on navigating the narrow streets and Kanzeon lost in contemplation.
"You know," se commented at last, "Koumyou always said Ukoku would do the right thing eventually."
"The outcome of his actions may indeed change SHAnGRI-LA for the better, Mistress," Jiroshin conceded, "but I doubt that was his motivation."
"No, I suppose not. But it's amusing that Koumyou knew him better than he knew himself, don't you think? But then again, he always was rather fond of that miscreant, wasn't he?"
Jiroshin looked uncomfortable and quickly changed the subject.
"Do you think Sanzo will find him?" hir assistant asked. "And bring back the SUTRAs?"
"I do, Jiroshin. In fact, I'm sure of it." Se leant back in hir seat and crossed hir arms behind hir head. "You see, I've given him one hell of an incentive!"