Austin came to with a start. He stared at the ceiling for a couple moments before rubbing his eyes and taking a second look. Since when did my ceiling have a metal finish…? he wondered to himself as he slowly turned his head to survey the entire room. …Since when did my room look like a jail cell…? Wait… shit…
He immediately sat up, the events just prior to him falling unconscious returning to his mind. He reached behind himself to rub the spot on his neck where he had been pricked, but couldn’t find any kind of wound or scab. “Whoever that was knew what they were doin’, I guess…” he muttered to himself. Returning his attention to the room itself, he turned to hang his legs off the side of the stiff bed and dropped his feet to the floor. As soon as he did so, he noticed someone peek through the small window in the metal door to the cell; they stared at him for a moment before disappearing. Shortly afterward there was a short buzz, and the door opened. Austin immediately threw his hands up in the air as one of the guards entered the room, her gun pointed squarely at him.
“H… hi…?” he stuttered out warily.
“Get up,” she demanded, and then jerked her head toward the door. “Follow us.”
Austin nodded once, his gaze never leaving the gun pointed at him. He slowly approached the doorway and glanced out, where he saw a second guard. As soon as their eyes met, Austin felt the first guard roughly grab his wrists from behind; before he could react, he found himself with his arms cuffed behind his back.
“Hey, c’mon,” he complained, “you don’t need to—”
“Shut up,” the guard growled as she nudged his back with her gun. “Now follow Preston, and don’t. Say. A word. Understood?”
Austin merely nodded once in response.
“Good.” She nodded toward the guard in front, who nodded back. He promptly turned around and began marching down the hallway with Austin and the other guard in tow.
The following silence was deafening. Austin wanted nothing more than to ask a dozen questions — where was he, what did they want with him, why were they being so rough, where were his friends — but the guards had successfully intimidated him into silence. Part of him was certainly outraged at his mistreatment, but his sense for self-preservation trumped his rage and overrode it with unease. And as they rounded a corner and walked past a giant shield-shaped emblem on the wall, with an image of Earth, the moon, and three stars embedded within, his unease transformed into fear. He had heard from his uncle that emblems that large, painted onto the wall, meant only one thing.
He was at SERRCom Headquarters.
Austin began to fidget uncomfortably. To be brought straight to SERRCom HQ meant that they thought him incredibly important — which he could understand, given the earlier video broadcast. But bringing him to their HQ held another meaning, a message directly to Austin: “you can’t escape.” It was a power play, plain and simple. SERRCom was sending the message that they expected themselves to be able to defeat whatever force that might attempt to rescue Austin. But this realization merely increased his unease; he knew that there was no one who would come rescue him. His only friends had also been detained by SERRCom. So here he now stood, facing a powerful military organization that was treating him as though they expected him to attempt escape at any moment, when in reality, escape was never even a remote possibility.
“Huh…?” Austin shook himself out of his thoughts and looked over. The guard behind him was gesturing at a door in the wall. Austin approached it uneasily and opened it slightly; he glanced back at the guards, but they both gestured again for him to enter the room. He turned back to the door, took a deep breath, and swung it open as he stepped in.
What met his eyes was a room not unlike the cell he had woken up in. The ceiling and floor had matte metallic finishes while the walls appeared to be very similar in appearance to concrete. In the middle of the room was a plain white table, with two chairs on opposite sides of it. The chair nearest Austin was empty, but in the other sat a small middle-aged woman with a pale complexion and short, dark hair in a bob cut. She offered him a wide smile and gestured toward the empty chair. “Ah, Mr. Travis. Please, have a seat.”
Austin stared at her uneasily until the sound of the door slamming closed behind him jolted him out of his stupor. He scrambled into the seat before turning his attention back to the woman. Her smile actually seemed genuine — at the very least, it managed to reach her eyes. Yet, something about her still seemed… off, though Austin couldn’t tell whether or not that was because of his own unease.
“…So you’re a quiet one, now, are you?”
“Uh, no? Sort of? Maybe…?” Austin’s thoughts stumbled over themselves as they left his mouth. “Uh, um… I… I think I want a lawyer…”
Still smiling, the woman responded, “request denied.”
“Wha-what?” Austin drew back in surprise from the curtness of the response and its complete mismatch with the woman’s expression and demeanor. “You… you can’t do that. That’s, like, illegal, isn’t it?!”
“Oh ho ho ho…” She chuckled wryly as she scooted her chair back and rose to her feet with unexpected grace. When she returned her gaze to Austin, her smile remained, but her stare had hardened into something fierce. “Listen, boy, this is SERRCom you’re dealing with here. We are an international organization — nay, an interstellar organization. We follow our own rules. And on this base, we do interrogations my way.” Her smile receded into an impatient smirk. “And I’m quite afraid that you are long past the point of legal protection.”
“What…? Who… who are you?”
“Heh. My name is Akane Hamasaki. I’m the Director of the Earthian Interstellar Intelligence Command. You probably know it better as the EIIC.”
Austin’s heart sunk to the bottom of his chest. His worst fears had come true: the EIIC had come after him after all. But it wasn’t for being a Chaotic, no, it was much worse — they thought he had directly instigated an attack against them. And then, to be interrogated by the Director? Austin felt himself shiver involuntarily. Given all that he had heard on the Internet and Relaynet, he was certain that he would rather be interrogated by the CIA. The EIIC was simply on a completely different level.
The Director’s smirk widened back into a grin. “I see you realize how much trouble you’re in.”
Austin merely gulped uneasily in response.
“Well, with that out of the way…” Hamasaki slowly approached Austin and sat on the table near him. “Let’s get to business, shall we? Now… where did you build those robots?”
“I, I didn’t. B-build them, I mean. It-it wasn’t me!”
“Hmm. Saito told me you said that. And you still stick to the story?”
“Yes!” Austin urged, “I swear I didn’t do it! I-I mean, just look at my college transcripts! I ain’t smart enough to pull off shit like that!”
“Or perhaps you’re smart enough to feign stupidity.”
“What? That doesn’t make any sense!”
“I’m sure,” Hamasaki replied flatly. She got off of the table and slowly walked behind Austin, forcing him to crane his neck backwards to keep an eye on her. “Denial is common, and I will tell you now, all it will do is make this process longer and… more painful.”
“You… you’re kidding, right? As in… torture? Isn’t that—?”
“Oh please. I’m well aware that torture achieves nothing. But there are plenty of advanced technologies in the galaxy that can force an unwilling prisoner to talk, and unlike torture, they all ensure honesty to a very high degree.” She stopped for a moment to give Austin a knowing glance. “Very few of them are… pleasant.”
Austin responded with uneasy silence.
“So, Mr. Travis.” Hamasaki returned to her seat at the other end of the table. “You can talk now, voluntarily, or you can talk later, involuntarily. Personally, I would recommend you talk now. If nothing else, it would probably reflect better on your uncle. As is… I truly feel sorry for the man. To be related to someone such as yourself… I fear his career may soon reach an end.”
“You— you can’t drag him into this! He has nothing to do with this!”
“So you know all of who was involved, then?”
“What—? No! C’mon! That bastard wasn’t me! Just, just ask my friends! You have them around somewhere, yeah? They were with me all day today, and last night, too! There wasn’t any time for me to pull this shit off!”
“Invalid alibis. They’re under suspicion just as much as you. And even if you truly did spend Tuesday and Wednesday with them, it means nothing. The robots were remotely controlled, and the video broadcast could have been pre-recorded. You’ll need stronger evidence than that.”
Austin pursed his lips as he fought the urge to begin shouting at the Director.
“Though, now that you’ve brought up your friends…” Hamasaki clasped her hands in front of her face, her elbows on the table as she peered thoughtfully at Austin. “…You all are Chaotics, yes?”
“Er… I guess…?”
“How very interesting. Earthian Chaotics. I can hardly believe it.”
“Aren’t the Eximius Vir Chaotics…?”
“Yes, and I could hardly believe that, either. But there is a question I wish to ask of you.”
“The girls are a Pyrotechnic and a Hydrotechnic, and your male friend is a Shield Formtechnic, if Emerson’s report is correct. But you… even Emerson wasn’t sure what Chaotic type you are. Care to share?”
“I… I don’t know. I didn’t even think I was a Chaotic…”
“How absurd. You took not one, but two electric blasts from Emerson, and remained standing. Furthermore, you somehow managed to immobilize him. So what is it? Duratechnism? Psychotechnism? Stronger Electrotechnism than even Emerson’s?”
“I don’t know! I already told you, I don’t know! I don’t know anything!”
Austin couldn’t see the Director’s mouth behind her hands, but he heard her give a lofty sigh. She closed her eyes for a moment and then slowly stood up, her expression a mere polite smile. “It is… unfortunate, that you remain so obstinate. But I did warn you—”
The door to the room slammed open, startling Austin such that he literally jumped out of his chair and stumbled to the side. Hamasaki casually glanced toward the door, where a large tan-skinned man in a green uniform stood.
“Ah,” Hamasaki greeted cordially, “if it isn’t Lieutenant Cox—”
“The hell are you trying to do, Director?” Mark barged into the room, his brow furrowed in fury, “you can’t just lock up civilians! That isn’t—!” He paused and slowly turned to the side, making eye-contact with Austin.
“…Hi…?” Austin responded meekly.
Mark blinked twice before whipping around toward Hamasaki again and slamming his fists down on the table, imparting so much force that it instantly broke into two. “You can’t be serious!” he shouted, “this is not only illegal, it’s unethical! SERRCom has no jurisdiction on Earth’s surface, you should know that better than anyone! Bringing the suspect to Headquarters is an insane breach of trust and protocol! Not to mention that he’s a damned college student, there’s no way he could have pulled off those attacks!”
Finally, someone who’s on my side… Austin thought to himself.
The Director simply stared back at Mark, seemingly unfazed by the fact that a large, furious man well over a foot taller than her was shouting in her face. However — for the first time since Austin had stepped foot in the room — she dropped her smile. “Do you honestly believe this boy to be innocent?”
“I believe he deserves a chance! What happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty?!’”
“This isn’t America, Lieutenant. This is SERRCom.”
“This is lunacy! SERRCom is supposed to be the representative of Earth to the rest of the galaxy! We are supposed to be the best of the best, we are supposed to represent the best of humanity! How can we do that if we throw ethics and decency to the curb for no damned reason?!”
“…There is clearly much about this world that you have yet to learn,” Hamasaki replied flatly. “…But even if the boy isn’t guilty, the fact still remains that he and his friends are Chaotics, and as such, they are to be conscripted. No objections.”
“That’s ridiculous! You can’t just conscript people when that isn’t even a policy the nations of Earth have agreed to! Who the hell made that decision, anyways?”
“General Lead did.”
Mark faltered, apparently caught off guard by the Director’s response.
“If you truly wish to continue pursuing this fruitless line of reasoning, I can set up an appointment for you with the General.”
“That’s… that’s ridiculous. And it’s beside the point! You can’t just say that something is ‘okay’ because your boss said so, that’s not how this works—!”
“MARK! THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!”
Mark and Hamasaki both looked back at the room’s entrance as Mote charged in. He immediately homed in on Mark and ordered, “stand down and shut up! The hell do you think you’re doing, running off and accosting the Director?”
“This…!” Mark glanced between Mote and Hamasaki before drawing back and straightening up. After a deep breath, he continued, “Mote, you can’t seriously be fine with this, can you?”
“I can,” Mote stated bluntly. “What the General says, goes. And it’s hardly an unreasonable order. SERRCom has woefully few Chaotics as it stands; we need every edge we can get. If that means conscripting civilians, then oh well. Don’t tell me that you mean to say that the rest of the galaxy is wrong, too?”
“Of course they are! Just because everyone does it doesn’t make it right!”
“Perhaps, but it does make it necessary,” Hamasaki countered.
Mark glared at the Director for a moment before turning back to face Mote. “You have to at least give them a choice. At the very least, you can’t treat them as conscripts and criminals at the same time. That’s just too much!”
Mote’s gaze hardened as he maintained unwavering eye-contact with Mark. “You want me to go easy on the ones who launched clear and blatant attacks on not one, but two SERRCom offices?”
“How do you even know it was them?”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe just a little video that everyone on the fucking planet saw!?”
“Why is one video so trustworthy? Video and audio can be doctored, the EIIC has done it themselves countless times!”
Mote pursed his lips and exhaled warily. After a moment he turned toward Austin, who was still sitting on the floor. “…Did you do it?”
“Oh, now you ask me,” Austin retorted.
Mote narrowed his eyes and approached Austin threateningly. “Don’t get coy with us.”
“No, okay?! I already told you a thousand times, no, I didn’t fucking do it!”
“Then who did?”
“Fuck, I don’t know! For all I know it was some fucking evil twin, I dunno!”
Hamasaki scoffed. “An evil twin? Really?”
“Man I dunno, I’m just throwin’ shit out there!” Austin glanced frantically between Mote, Mark, and Hamasaki. “C’mon, I don’t know anything about what happened! I’m a victim here, too! I just wanna go home…!”
The Director crossed her arms, her lips pursed in impatience. “You mean to tell me that someone used your face and name, but you know nothing about it? Absolutely nothing?”
“Nothing happened within the past couple weeks that could explain this?”
“No— …wait…” Austin looked down in thought before returning his attention to the Director. “…There was something… a, a week and a half ago, when the Chaos Quake started…”
Mote and Mark glanced at each other as Hamasaki leaned forward. “Go on…”
“I-it… uh, well, me an’ my friends were at some museum — you probably know that, since a couple EIIC agents already asked me about it. Well, uh, while I was there — there was an Ayas exhibit, right? With replica Ayas. And, I thought I saw the replica Master Ayas fall on the floor, and I went to pick it up, but then… I, uh, I had visions, I guess? It seemed like a bunch of nonsense at the time, but now that I think about it, I did see me fighting, uh, myself. Except with, like, a robot arm? And I saw a bunch of other stuff, too. And then when I came to, the replica Ayas I thought I saw wasn’t actually there, and the real replica was still in the display case, which was, uh, kinda weird? And then the Quake started immediately after that, which was really weird, now that I think about it…”
After Austin finished, the room fell into silence. Mote bore an expression of impatience while Mark looked on with what seemed like pity… but Hamasaki seemed to be genuinely smiling.
“So…” she muttered, “…that really was the Master Ayas, after all…”
“What?” All three men turned toward her in surprise.
“Director…” Mote continued, “…you mean to say… you actually think the Master Ayas was here?”
“…It stands to reason,” she commented. “It corresponds to the spike in Chaos Energy in Texas immediately prior to the Quake. And, given the information our Nimalian friends have given us, ‘visions’ and the like are well within the purview of the Master Ayas.”
“So, so you believe me?!” Austin exclaimed hopefully.
“We’ll need to verify your claims, of course,” the Director stated, “and this hardly absolves you of suspicion. If anything, it makes you even more—”
“What now…?” Hamasaki turned impatiently toward the door as a soldier rushed in.
The soldier offered a quick salute to Hamasaki before noticing Mote and Mark, at which point he saluted them as well.
“Get on with it,” Mote urged.
“Uh, yes sir!” The soldier stiffened and then declared, “there’s been another attack!”