Chapter 6 – Unusual Norms

– Monday, September 5, AD 2129 –

So the Chaos Quake is over, huh…

Austin stared at his phone as he trudged forwards, idly reading through the morning news. Plastered across every blog and news site on the Internet was a single piece of news: the Chaos Energy Quake that began on August 28th was now over after a mere week. Chaos Energy was now usable once more, Relaynet connections were restored, and the galaxy was back to functioning as normal — this time, with few disasters. However, there did still remain a number of questions regarding the Quake, namely: what caused it, and why was it so short?

Austin shook his head warily as he approached the campus of the University of Texas. He had more pressing matters to concern himself with than the now-over Quake. He knew that SERRCom seemed to think that something had happened at the museum last Sunday, and he knew that they knew that he and his friends were there at the time. The EIIC would be sure to continue their line of questioning from earlier, and Austin was apprehensive about just how they would do it.

But even more pertinent than that was the fact that classes started today.

I hate school. Austin scowled as he glared up at the building he now stood in front of. It had some sort of fancy name — presumably related to the alumni who funded its construction — but Austin and most of the other students knew it as the Department for Computer Science, or simply the CS Building. He took a deep breath and began climbing the steps up to the entrance, along with a sea of other students. Many of them looked to be Freshmen, bright-eyed and ready to learn, but Austin could spot a handful of fellow weathered Juniors as he entered the building. Shit, I’d hate to see how the Seniors feel, he idly wondered as he navigated the halls and stairways of the building to his classroom, ignoring confused and lost underclassmen along the way.

A couple minutes later had Austin sitting at a desk, a tablet laying in front of him as he continued browsing the Internet on his phone. He wasn’t wholly interested in the subject material — it had something to do with algorithms, if the textbook was anything to judge by, but he was content to spend his time in this class the same way he spent his time in all his other classes: wasting away time on his phone.

That is, until he finally looked up at the board.

“…Shit,” he muttered under his breath. “A quiz? On the first day? This fuckin’ sucks.”

Austin glanced over at the professor, who had yet to speak a word. She simply stood in the corner of the room, arms crossed as she surveyed the students coming in. The moment the clock hit ten, she pressed a button to the side of the board; immediately the tablet in front of Austin lit up, and his Internet access was cut. She then returned to crossing her arms and uttered only a single word: “Begin.”

Great… Austin stared at the tablet, the quiz now loaded on its screen. What a way to start the year. A quiz in algorithms. I hate algorithms. Fuck… what was the last class I took on this shit? Was it Intro? Shit, way back in Freshman year? I’m so screwed… …wait a minute… He looked at the questions more closely. …Huh. I actually know how to answer these. Maybe my memory isn’t so bad after all…?

He continued staring for a few moments before simply shrugging his shoulders, pulling out the stylus attached to the tablet, and beginning to write. The solution to each question came to him without issue; from the first moment his stylus touched the screen, he did not stop writing until all ten questions were sufficiently answered.

With a self-satisfied smirk, Austin placed the stylus down and then glanced around the room — at which point his smirk rapidly transformed into an uneasy frown. Every other student in the room still had their heads down as they tried to hash out their own answers… except for one pale-faced blond-haired man sitting at the far side of the room. Eric… Austin’s frown deepened. I know him, he’s the smartest guy in my class. I finished second? Just after him? Before everyone else…? He glanced down at his tablet, suddenly wary. Shit, I must’ve done something wrong. I never finish early. But what…? He began going back over his answers, certain that something was wrong — but no matter how many times he checked his answers, he couldn’t find a flaw.

“…And… stop!”

Every student in the class gradually dropped their styluses and looked up from their work. The pop quiz was over, and the atmosphere in the room filled with a mixture of relief and unease. For Austin’s part, he felt only unease, but eventually he simply resigned himself to whatever grade he might get. Guess I got too good at bullshiting… he thought to himself as the professor launched into the lecture proper. …Just when I think I finally know something, all I did was fool myself. Bah. He glanced toward the room’s single window irately, his attention focused anywhere that wasn’t the professor. Can’t wait to get out of here…

*     *     *

2 Hours Later

“…There you are. ‘Bout time.”

“Sorry.” Spike grunted as he sat down on the park bench. He pulled out a plastic container and ripped its top off, revealing the day-old pizza stored inside. “Class ran a little long. Didn’t get out ‘til about ten minutes ago.”

“You made it here from the CS building in ten minutes?” Austin whistled in admiration, and then continued talking as he ate a sizable sandwich. “Aren’t we a few miles away from campus?”

Spike shrugged. “Traffic was surprisingly light today.” He glanced at the tree line to his left and then at the grassy field in between, where a number of people were playing an impromptu game of soccer. “…It’s also surprisingly cool out.”

“Rain’ll do that,” Austin remarked. “At least somethin’ good came outta that weekend-long thunderstorm, eh?”

“Guess so. Helped contain the fires, too. That could’ve gotten outta hand real fast.”

“It did get out of hand.”

“Yeah…” Spike pursed his lips in irritation before sighing. “Well, I can hardly blame Sky for doin’ what she did. I’d’ve probably done the same, were I her.”

“You always go soft on her.”

“I know, right? It’s almost like we’re a couple or somethin’.”

“Heh.” Austin chuckled, finished his sandwich, and sighed wistfully. “…I wish I had a girlfriend.”

Spike stopped chewing momentarily to give Austin an incredulous stare. “Are you fuckin’ serious?”

“…What?”

“Why the hell haven’t you asked out Twy yet?”

“Wha—?! …Because she’d say no.”

“How do you know? You haven’t asked!”

“Be-because. If she liked me, she would’ve said somethin’ by now.”

“Says the guy who’s been crushin’ on her for, what, two years? Three?”

“Look, leave me alone, alright? I know what I’m doin’.”

“Just fuckin’ ask her out already! I’m certain she’d say yes.”

“You always say that…”

“Because it’s fuckin’ true!” Spike exclaimed, exasperated. “For fuck’s sake, you are a dense motherfucker, you know that?”

“Mmm…” Austin grunted and glanced away uneasily.

Spike noticed the gesture and exhaled warily. He finished the slice of pizza and opened his mouth to speak, but was beat to the punch by Austin.

“Hey, what’s that?”

“Huh…?” Spike turned to look in the direction Austin was pointing. At the far side of the grassy field, down a slight incline and next to the road, was a large bipedal robot. It stood a full head taller than the people surrounding it and was nearly humanoid in shape, in that it had two arms and two legs — but it lacked a head, and its legs were digitigrade. Its torso was sloped and bulky, with a glowing blue orb in the upper center, and its entire body — save for the shoulder joints — was covered in slate blue metal plating. A small crowd gathered around it as it slowly yet steadily walked down the sidewalk, but it seemed to ignore its surroundings entirely.

“A robot, huh?” Austin idly commented as he watched it continue along. “Wonder if that’s somethin’ the robotics guys are workin’ on.”

“Seems a little big for a research ‘bot,” Spike pointed out, “lot of armor, too… but I guess I wouldn’t be surprised. Not like you’d see a bipedal robot for practical purposes.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Legs are stupid and pointless when anti-gravity technology exists, and can be miniaturized enough to use on car-sized objects.”

“Oh that’s a load of bullshit. Anti-grav tech is dependent on Chaos Energy, you know? And guess what just happened last week?”

“…Fair point.”

“Anti-grav is too expensive for random everyday use anyways, only SERRCom has anti-grav stuff. Legs are perfectly fine.”

“Now that ain’t true. Wheels are better than legs in pretty much every way, they’re faster, more stable, and can support more weight. Sure, legs give you an advantage on uneven terrain, but you still gotta worry about gettin’ the balance right. That’s why most ‘bots with legs have six or eight of ‘em, like those octopedal firefightin’ bots we saw Friday night. Two legs is too hard to balance to be useful.”

Austin raised an incredulous eyebrow before nodding toward the robot that continued to steadily walk alongside the road. “Well that robot seems to be farin’ just fine.”

“No shit, all it’s doin’ is walkin’. And slowly, at that.”

“Hmph.” Austin scowled. “Why you gotta ruin all the fun?”

“I’m sorry if reality ruined your dreams,” Spike responded patronizingly.

“Bah. Well, if two legs are so stupid, then how do you explain mechs having two legs, huh? Everyone in the galaxy uses mechs, so there’s gotta be some merit.”

“Fuck if I know. Maybe advanced alien tech figured out the balance secret, I dunno. But we haven’t, not yet.”

“Need I point out the robot that is walking on two legs right fuckin’ there?”

“If it can run and maneuver on those legs without fallin’ over on its ass, then I’ll concede your point.”

“Of course.” Austin rolled his eyes. “You know, now that I think about it, why the fuck are mechs called ‘mechs?’”

“…Because that’s what they are?”

“No no, I mean, why can’t they be called somethin’ cool? Like, c’mon, they’re basically giant human robots! Why not call ‘em somethin’ like Titans, or Mobile Suits, or Metal Gears?”

“’Metal Gear’? What kinda fuckin’ stupid name is that?”

“Well why don’t you come up with somethin’ better?!”

“They’re called mechs.” Spike gave Austin an exasperated glance. “It’s like complainin’ that tanks are called tanks. Fuckin’ get over it.”

“Well if I ever get a mech then I’m gonna call it…” Austin held his hands up and then spread them apart, as if beholding an imaginary sign. “…Excalibur.”

Spike snorted in derision. “…That’s your idea of cool? Mm, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; you like Sword Kings, after all.”

“Not this again. I’ll have you know that Sword Kings is a perfectly legitimate—!”

“Yeah yeah, whatever.” Spike waved him off as he finished his last slice of pizza. “…You got any other classes today?”

“Yeah, two of ‘em,” Austin responded, annoyed. “First day and I got four hours of classes. Hmph.”

“Well at least it ain’t High School, right?”

“Guess so. Got more free time nowadays.”

“Time you should be usin’ to study.”

“Says the guy whose grades are worse than mine.”

“Touche,” Spike snorted. He replaced the lid on his plastic container and tossed it in his bag before standing up. “Well, I gotta get goin’. There was somethin’ Sky wanted help with this afternoon.”

“Help, or…” Austin held up his hands to form air quotes. “’Help?’”

Spike shot an annoyed glance at Austin and then turned toward the road.

“Just how long should I expect to have the place to myself?”

“Pretty late.” Spike turned back to answer Austin’s question. “It’s a Monday. That means I got a shift at the dojo to cover.”

“Oh, yeah.” Austin nodded absentmindedly. “…Well, don’t lemme keep ya. Have fun, er, ‘helping’ Sky.”

“Real funny.” Spike offered a curt wave as he began walking toward the road. “See ya later.”

“Aight.” Austin casually returned the wave. “See ya.”

*     *     *

Several Hours Later

“Ah, damn, not again…”

Austin sighed in irritation as he tossed his game controller across the couch. The words “Game Over” appeared on the screen in front of him for the twentieth time that hour; precision action games were hardly Austin’s forte, and the game he was currently playing was known as one of the hardest in the genre.

“Why did I ever let Spike convince me to get this shit,” he muttered to himself as he stood up and stretched. His stretching prompted an involuntary yawn — it was late, after all, with the outside skies tinged with twilight. After idly glancing around the room, he trudged over to the kitchen, where he pulled out a bowl, spoon, and a box of cereal. A minute later, just as he was adding milk to his cereal, the doorbell rang.

Who the hell is that…? Austin took a moment to replace the milk jug in the refrigerator and grab his bowl of cereal before approaching the door. He peered through the peephole, only to see the top of a head of wavy black hair. Shortly afterward, the doorbell rang again.

“Oi, oi, oi,” Austin commented lazily as he opened the door, “you really like to ring doorbells, huh?”

“Well maybe if you answered the door sooner, I wouldn’t have to hit the damn button so much,” Sky retorted, making eye-contact with Austin for but a moment before she began looking into the apartment. “Is Spike here?”

“Can’t you, you know, call him?” Austin questioned, “instead of comin’ all the way out here when he might not even be here?”

“I take that as a no.”

“He’s probably still at the dojo, doin’ whatever it is they do there.”

“Kendo.”

“Yeah, that.”

“For someone who watches so much anime with swords and shit, I’d think you’d remember that your best friend does Kendo.”

“…Meh.” Austin then turned his attention from Sky to the multiple flies that had just entered the apartment through the wide-open door. The twilit skies, stuffy warm air, and chirping crickets rounded out the signs of a Texan summer night… and Austin was having none of it. “Are you comin’ in or what? This door needs to close.”

“No, I’ll probably go check on Spike, see what’s keeping him,” Sky replied lightly. “The dojo’s only a block or two from here, after all. Wanna tag along?”

“…Eh… might as well, I guess. Been a while since I dropped by the wherever.”

“Now you’re trying to sound dismissive.”

Austin simply shrugged as he slipped on his shoes and stepped outside, closing the door behind him with his unoccupied hand. Sky eyed his bowl of cereal incredulously.

“I’m hungry,” he stated as they began walking off, “I just poured this bowl, too. I ain’t wastin’ it.”

“If you say so.”

“I do say so.”

Sky simply rolled her eyes in response. A couple moments of silence passed before she asked, “well, how was your first day of classes?”

“Meh. It was as first day of classes as a first day of classes can get.”

“…The hell does that even mean?”

“Just boring shit. Syllabus, schedules, how homework and exams work, blah blah blah. Oh, and my first class had a pop quiz. On the first fuckin’ day! Some bullshit.”

“Oof. I had to deal with the administrative stuff too, but not a quiz. That sounds pretty bad.”

“Yeah. I probably failed miserably. Not a great start to the year…”

“Well at least you’re doing something you like, right?”

“…Sorta, I guess.” Austin threw a sidelong glance toward Sky. “Sounds like you’re tryin’ to imply somethin’ here.”

Sky sighed of irritation and looked away. “It’s nothing.”

“You haven’t given up on that singing career, have you?”

“…A career was never really possible. That’s why I’m going for a generic engineering degree.”

“Didn’t really answer my question.”

“Can’t give up on what was never possible in the first place.”

Austin frowned. “It’s not like you to be so pessimistic…”

Sky glanced back at Austin and then down at the ground. After a moment she slapped herself lightly on the cheeks and made an exaggerated show of stretching. “Ah, you’re right. Sorry ‘bout that. It’s just frustrating to have a dream, and have it be so far out of grasp… you know?”

“Heh. At least you have a dream.”

“I didn’t realize we were in a ‘whose life is worse’ pissing contest.”

“Hey, you started it.”

“Hmph. Fair.”

“I mean, you and Twy have some real talent, you know? I’d bet you’d both do well in creative fields if you really put your minds to it.”

“Implying that we don’t already try as hard as we can.”

Austin adopted a pained expression. “You know what I meant…”

Sky smirked and punched him in the arm playfully. “Heh, I’m  just messin’ with you.”

“You say that…”

“Yeah, well…” Sky began, and then trailed off as something in the distance caught her eye. “Hey… what’s that?”

“Huh?” Austin squinted into the distance in the direction Sky was pointing. “…That… hey, I think… I think that’s the robot Spike and I saw earlier today.”

“A robot…?” Sky echoed warily, “what’s it doing standing outside of the dojo?”

“…Doesn’t seem like it’s doin’ anything,” Austin commented as they approached. “It’s just staring… is that—?”

“Hey, Spike!” Sky shouted and then broke into a jog to close the last few meters. “What’s going on?”

Spike didn’t turn away as Sky approached, instead remaining squarely in the entrance to the dojo, with his arms crossed and feet planted securely at shoulder width. He glared back at the robot, nearly as motionless himself. “…I don’t know,” he eventually responded. “…Damn ‘bot just walked up a few minutes ago. Hasn’t moved an inch since.”

“Weird,” Austin muttered as he stepped up next to Spike and Sky. “Hey, Spike, isn’t this the same robot we saw earlier—?”

The robot shifted and slowly turned toward Austin. The glowing blue orb on its upper chest momentarily increased in brightness and then projected a beam at Austin, as though it were scanning him. He froze up in apprehension; Spike uncrossed his arms and lowered them to his sides expectantly as Sky summoned a small fireball in her hand, both ready to pounce on the robot at a moment’s notice… and then it simply turned away and began trundling down the road.

Austin sighed of relief. “The hell was that about?”

“Beats me,” Spike shrugged, and then tousled Sky’s hair as she hugged him. He glanced toward Austin and opened his mouth to speak further, but paused and pulled a face. “The hell did you bring a bowl here for?”

“Hey, I was hungry.”

“Spike! Is the ‘bot gone yet—? Oh.” A middle-aged Japanese man appeared through the dojo’s front door. “Well, if it isn’t Sky. And… Austin, correct?”

Sky bowed in greeting, while Austin simply offered a half-hearted wave.

“Nice to see you again, Sensei Roshu!” Sky exclaimed.

“Nice to see you, too.” Roshu smiled in response, and then glanced around. “…So the ‘bot finally left?”

“Yeah.” Spike nodded. “…It just stood here for a while, and left once Austin and Sky got here.”

“Mm, must be afraid of the uncommitted.”

Austin frowned. “I get the feeling that’s a dig at me…”

“Ha!” Roshu smirked. “Maybe you should have completed the beginner’s track, if you feel so bad.”

“Whoa now, never said I felt bad.”

“Austin,” Spike muttered curtly, in a clearly reprimanding tone.

Roshu simply laughed in response and heartily slapped Spike on the back. “No need to be so uptight around me. Anyways, now that the ‘bot’s gone, you should probably get back to teaching Twy.”

“Twy?” Austin and Sky echoed simultaneously before turning toward Spike. A mere moment later, Twy appeared at the dojo entrance, fully decked out in Kendo training gear.

“You didn’t tell me you were getting Kendo lessons!” Sky exclaimed.

“Oh. Uh…” Twy glanced away uneasily. “Well… I’m getting Kendo lessons…!”

Austin and Sky responded to Twy’s forced enthusiasm with blank stares. Austin then turned toward Spike, his eyes narrowed suspiciously, before simply turning on his heel. “Well, I’m done here. ‘Night y’all—”

“Now, hold on one moment,” Roshu interjected, moving over to Austin’s side and grabbing his shoulder with surprising swiftness. He spun Austin back around to face the group before suggesting, “surely you didn’t think you could just waltz on in, insult my teaching, and then leave, did you? How about a duel?”

“Oooh, a duel between Austin and Sensei?” Sky rubbed her hands together eagerly. “Can’t wait to see this!”

“No no, I’m not that cruel.” Roshu shook his head. He then gestured toward Twy. “The two of you should be at about the same skill level by now. Well…” He glanced back toward Austin with a glint in his eye. “…Assuming you didn’t forget anything, at least.”

“A duel with Austin…?” Twy’s lips slowly turned up into a smirk as she thought over the idea. “Well, why not?”

“Ha! That’s the spirit!” Roshu grinned as he re-entered the dojo. Twy promptly followed, as did Sky. “Come on in, Austin!” Roshu shouted through the front door, “hurry it up!”

Austin simply stared at the opened door uneasily until Spike came up and put his arm over his shoulders.

“Now listen here, dumbass,” Spike muttered, his voice lowered so that only Austin could hear. “Don’t be gettin’ the wrong idea, now.”

Austin narrowed his eyes. “You mean because Twy’s training with you?”

“Now listen here. She ain’t here for me. She’s here so she can get better and impress you.” Spike stabbed his index finger at Austin’s sternum. “…Well, she never actually said that. But I’m sure you’re part of it. …Probably. Maybe?”

“Uh huh, right. And now I’m supposed to duel her? You know I haven’t had lessons in months!”

“Ah, you’ll be fine.”

“I better not have to wear that stupid get-up.”

Spike glanced down at himself, and the Kendo uniform he was wearing. He then released Austin and straightened up. “Well if you’re gonna be a cry-baby about it, I won’t make you wear the uniform. But you gotta at least wear the protective gear, alright?”

“Yeah, yeah…” Austin sighed in irritation. He shoved his bowl into Spike’s hands and finally approached the front door; as soon as he stepped through and removed his shoes, Roshu threw a breastplate at him. He barely caught it, and inspected it for a moment before donning it.

“I see you remember how to put on the dō,” Roshu remarked. “Don’t forget the rest.”

“Don’t patronize me…” Austin muttered as he approached a nearby rack of protective equipment. After putting on the headgear and the protective gloves, he moved over to the rack of shinai and grabbed one. He swung it through the air a couple times before turning toward the middle of the dojo and approaching uneasily.

“What’s the matter?” Twy taunted, “are you that afraid of losing to me?”

“More like I just don’t like pointless ass-kickings,” he grunted back. He glanced to the side, where Spike, Sky, and Roshu were watching. Spike offered a curt nod before Austin turned back to face Twy. “…Welp. Might as well get this over with.”

“Right,” Twy responded as she gripped her shinai with both hands in front of her. “Ready when you are.”

Austin took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He couldn’t quite see Twy’s eyes through the facemask she was wearing, but he knew she was more than prepared for anything he could throw at her. Well… here goes.

He rose his shinai into the air, preparing to strike. Twy immediately swung forwards, aiming to hit Austin’s wrists; he quickly turned his shinai sideways, blocking the attack. As Twy drew back he pressed forward, attempting to tag her breastplate, but she dodged backward before darting forward to attack Austin’s wrists again. With surprising swiftness, he snapped his shinai up and to the side just fast enough to block the incoming attack. Twy immediately retreated and returned to a neutral stance.

“Seems I underestimated you…” she commented.

“Or maybe you just overestimated yourself,” Austin shot back.

Twy didn’t respond. Instead she lunged forward, swinging diagonally from her left and batting Austin’s shinai to the side. She immediately moved to close the distance and attack his core, but he reflexively fully gripped the hilt of his shinai with both hands and horizontally blocked her strike. Then, without thinking, he let go with his right hand and brought his shinai over to his left side before grabbing it halfway down the shaft and thrusting forward. Startled, Twy jumped back to dodge, but Austin acted faster, letting go with his left hand and swinging his shinai — hilt first — down on Twy’s head. The weapon’s length, combined with his superior arm span, proved too far for Twy to evade; she took the hit square on her forehead.

“Hey!” she exclaimed in irritation, “that wasn’t Kendo form!”

“Twy is correct,” Roshu stated as he stepped forward. “Were you holding an actual katana, you would’ve sliced open your hand! Those techniques are hardly useful with Japanese weapons against Japanese armor, anyways.”

“…Wait, ‘techniques?’” Austin echoed. “…What are you talkin’ about?”

“Hmm?” Roshu gave Austin an inquisitive glance. “What you just did there at the end were western longsword techniques. Half-swording and such. You didn’t know that?”

“…Er, no. It just kinda… happened.” Austin turned toward Twy sheepishly. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to do that.”

“At least we had this headgear,” Twy muttered as she worked to remove her facemask and hood. “That blow hurt.”

“Hey, I said sorry…”

“Hmph. Apology accepted. But be careful next time!”

“Bah, there ain’t gonna be a ‘next time.’” Austin scowled as he began removing his protective gear. “…Man, I just came down here to check on Spike, and then I got roped into this bullshit…”

“Well you performed rather well for ‘bullshit.’” Roshu smirked. He then glanced back at Spike and Sky before stretching wearily. “The day is over now, though. Spike, Twy! Help me clean up, will you?”

“Yes, Sensei!” They both bowed and began moving to close down.

“I can help, too!” Sky exclaimed as she rushed forward to Spike’s side. “Hey, what can I do?”

“Oh, well thank you.” Roshu smiled, and turned toward Austin. “Will you—?”

“Ah, sorry.” Austin waved as he retreated toward the front door. “I, uh… have classes tomorrow. In the morning. Early morning.”

“Sure you do,” Spike deadpanned.

“See you later, then?” Twy waved back.

“Aye, yeah.” Austin nodded as he finally set foot outside. “See y’all later.”

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