Chapter Six: Mu Lan
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.”
“She had much fighting ability, and could act the leader. Her body passed through one hundred battles, always at the front, and compared to the fiercest soldiers, she was still better.”
—Last lines of the Mu Lan Play
10:58 AM, SATURDAY, MAY 8, 6118 AD, NEO TOKYO, JAPAN
Standing two hundred stories tall, Valiandessa Eve Obrieun Academy for the Martial and Psymantic Arts was one of Neo Tokyo’s proudest buildings. In emergencies, the students could defend the building and even hold back an attack on the city until the NTAF—Neo Tokyo Air Force—arrived and got to work.
A few blocks from V.E.O. Academy stood another building. This one was only about three quarters as tall, and while its graduates left with more knowledge than before and better understanding and use of their skills, the chances of someone from that school dying from a physical attack were twice as great as any V.E.O. graduate.
This school was Halisyen Irali Thesallu Young Women’s Academy of the Psymantic Arts, the only school of its kind. Because of the law, they could not teach young women combat skills. They could not teach them to defend themselves in any way other than psymantically, and for those with lesser powers, even that would never be enough. Too few people had associated the climbing death rate in women with the fact that they had never learned any way to keep themselves alive. Some even claimed it was merely because the times were dangerous and women were weaker, so if they insisted upon getting themselves in danger they would have to pay the price.
The school itself appeared as pristine and sharp as its counterpart. The outsides practically sparkled in the sun, the small lawn at its foot was brilliant green, and the windows glistened. It wasn’t as large as V.E.O., but it had its own pride, and its own history—for better or for worse. Balconies lined one face of the building, like V.E.O., which was understandable—they’d been designed by the same architect. Each window represented another student in that side; behind window was one more young woman stuck in a glass cage.
And behind one of those windows was a girl unlike the others. At first glance, there was nothing about her that was glaringly different: her blonde ponytail was knotted with a long indigo sash; she was wearing the crisp white blouse and navy skirt that was the school’s uniform; they still had the stiff, starchy feel of clothes a little too new yet. Her wide eyes were silver dotted with darker blue and locked on the larger building clearly visible from her balcony, filled with two separate emotions. Anyone seeing her at that instant would have found nothing too unusual about her.
If that person had watched for more than that instant, though, they would have found that there was much more than the original glance belied.
The silver warred with blue in her eyes, darkening and lightening, and her mouth twitched downward. There was a soft chirp from behind her, and she held her arm out, brushing the side of the sofa.
Careful talons hooked and unhooked in her shirt, progressing up until the dull gray dragonet was perched on her shoulder, watching her ‘mother’ with innocent blue eyes. It wouldn’t be long until she was too big to do that, so Lethya let her climb as she pleased.
The girl’s large eyes glossed over with tears, and she closed them, swallowing hard. After a moment she turned around, leaning against the clear panel of the sliding door and taking a shaky breath.
“Am I in trouble?”
“No,” the principal hurriedly assured her. “This isn’t your fault, Lethya.”
“Did I do something wrong?” she asked, not understanding why they wanted to send her away when she’d just begun to fit in.
“The only thing you ever did wrong,” Maia said heavily, “was be born a girl, Lethya. Welcome to the sixth millennium.”
The 3058-year-old girl chewed on her lip, frustrated. She’d spent 3042 of those years trapped in preservation, so she was in reality only sixteen, but telling people she was over three thousand years old in a dead serious voice was occasionally entertaining.
“I have to go back, Rexi,” she said softly. “I don’t think I can take it here. I mean, I was making friends… No fighting, no flying, no nothing—I’m going to go crazy if I don’t get out.”
She checked her watch: 11:00 am. If Ander and the rest of the school hadn’t figured it out yet, they would soon.
12:07 PM, SATURDAY, MAY 8, 6118 AD, V.E.O. ACADEMY, NEO TOKYO, JAPAN
At noon, there was an assembly where Principal Emelath told them what had happened to Lethya and expressed the importance once more of not letting anyone know. Ander could have cared less—at the moment, he was angrier than Jerik had ever seen him. Of course, anyone who had taken the time to get to know Lethya was outraged, but it wasn’t going to bring her back. To their surprise, Sakfas wasn’t particularly happy either—he was scowling at the screen, arms crossed, and hmph-ing to himself. Thorald leaned over and said something, and the black-haired professor snapped a response.
“Maybe it’s for the best,” Jerik said hesitantly, eyes on the principal. “I mean, she’s out of danger now, and—” He trailed off when he saw the look Ander was giving him and inched back a little bit.
Squeaky shuddered a moment, then started shaking his head and squalling as the assembly ended and everyone began standing up. Alarmed, Ander looked over to him, only to find nothing wrong that he could see—but Squeaky’s shrieking was proving otherwise, and nearly deafening him in the process. He had no idea what was happening, but Lethya most likely knew—
And she was in the girl’s school.
He wanted to hurt something, and very badly. And the fact that his dragon was still wailing at the top of his little lungs was definitely not helping.
1:17 PM, SATURDAY, MAY 8, HALISYEN IRALI THESSALU YOUNG WOMEN’S ACADEMY FOR THE PSYMANTIC ARTS, NEO TOKYO, JAPAN
“Anyone who gives away information about Alethyis will be expelled. I trust we will all make our new student and her…friend… very welcome.” The principal stepped down, face vanishing from the large screen at the head of the Assembly Hall, and a brief close-up of Lethya followed, Rexi gripping onto her shoulder, the girl’s eyes dark blue. They didn’t yet know it meant she was angry.
Trista leaned over to her friend, Mira. “Isn’t that weird?”
“What?” Mira asked.
“Look at her! She looks just like Laise!”
“Oh wow, you’re right! Freaky! Hey, Erica, look! Doesn’t the new girl look like Laise?”
Lethya faintly caught the name ‘Laise’ sweeping around the enormous room but kept her face clear of emotion. She still didn’t know who Laise was, but obviously she was well known enough to have almost an entire school whispering her name.
She looked out at the crowd, and felt like she was starting over: as far as she could tell, not a friendly face looked back.
Life had slowly been getting better at V.E.O. Academy. Now what lay ahead of her seemed worse.
6:54 PM, SATURDAY, MAY 8
She was glad to find that while they didn’t teach about half of her former classes, the facilities were about equal otherwise. Her Psymantics teacher didn’t know what to make of her, though, and said she’d come up with a lesson plan for her later. Lunch she skipped; dinner was lonely: she sat alone, and no one made any attempt to talk with her.
She’d just left her bags where they were in her room, and when she let herself into her room, she began unpacking to take her mind off of how much she was missing everyone. Rexi had picked up on her mood and stayed quiet the entire day, curling up on a couch cushion when Lethya set her down.
A flash of blue made her shove aside the clothes, only to find her shirtcoat—the last vestige of her past. Unlike V.E.O., Halisyen didn’t allow their students to wear anything but the uniforms.
At the sight of it, she snapped. Her eyes turned a pained silver, hot tears rolling down her face. Just when she’d finally started to find her place, to change everything… To be taken away from the only home she’d had for the past three weeks—this place wasn’t a new home; no matter how long she stayed there, she knew it wouldn’t be her home like V.E.O. had been.
There was a clack, and muffled footsteps came from her living room. She dried her face off nervously and stood up, wondering who it was and how they’d gotten there. “Hello?” Just in case, she readied a protection spell as she walked out.
Ander and Jerik stood there, Ander embarrassed, Jerik grinning. Squeaky, Jerik’s dragon, and Rexi were chasing each other around the couch, nearly knocking Jerik off his feet until he hopped out of their way. “Hey, Leth-meister. You miss us?”
For a moment, her mouth moved and nothing came out. When it started working, she found herself saying cleverly, “What—how—”
“Flew,” the green-eyed young man said cheerfully, waving his arms in demonstration. “And Rexi let us in from your balcony. Ander’s got quite the levitation skills. Nearly dropped Fergus, though.”
“Why?” she asked, not bothering to ask who Fergus was.
“Well, see, the wind’s pretty strong and Fergus’s pretty slippery—”
“No, why did you come?”
Jerik looked appalled. “Why do fish swim in the ocean? Why do birds fly? Why does Sakfas eat babies? Like we wouldn’t come, especially since you never said goodbye, therefore indicating an open invitation to visit.”
There was a knock at the door. Mentally swearing a blue streak, Lethya went to answer it, praying it wasn’t anyone who wanted to come in. “Yes?”
It was Tomiko and Sharena, two of her new classmates. “Hi Lethya!” Tomiko said brightly. “Allison’s having a party in her room, and she got a bunch of junk food, and a lot of girls will be there, so we were thinking maybe you’d like to come and meet them and you know, get to know some people and all.”
Amazingly, the girl had said it all in one breath. Lethya blinked, a bit startled, then realized they were holding out the proverbial olive branch. “Can I meet you there in ten minutes?” she asked after a moment’s deliberation.
“Sure!” Sharena looked surprised, as if she’d expected to be smote by the new girl. Not very many girls were willing to approach her—after all, she was the Alethyis Fanyathe, the girl from the past who was rumored to have powers rivaling those of the Arch Psymancer. She was the girl who, if the stories were true, had flown the only Dragonship Advanced Model into battle without ever stepping into even a regular Dragonship before. She was the girl who hadn’t just survived that flight—supposedly she’d flown like a pro on instinct. Of course, stories had a tendency to be exaggerated … “It’s room 402—take a left at the end of the hall, and it’s on your right. We’ll see…you…” She stopped completely, eyes wide.
Lethya looked behind her, only to find Jerik trying to catch his dragon. “Sorry, Leth,” he called nonchalantly. “The little creep wants to see your room.”
She smacked her forehead. The cherry on the sundae was when Ander followed him, cursing like he was trying to kill something with only words.
Sharena and Tomiko looked at her, eyes wide. “Was that Ander Tientas?” Tomiko whispered.
“Um…yes…Please don’t tell anyone.” Lethya could only hope they weren’t gossips. “They’re my friends from school, and they came to see me…though I didn’t invite them…but that’s not too surprising… I’ll be there as soon as I get them out and on their way back.”
“Fine,” Sharena said after a moment. “See you there.”
“Thanks.” Lethya shut the door, and they exchanged looks, disbelieving. She looked exactly like Laise, and she knew Ander… If they hadn’t known better, they’d swear she was Laise.
7:03 PM, SATURDAY, MAY 8
Lethya ended up promising to meet them on weekends—they weren’t restricted to the school, and she needed to familiarize herself with the city, so she’d meet them somewhere outside both schools to avoid conflict. She also diagnosed Squeaky’s head-shaking and shrieking as being due to the dragonet’s horns growing in, which could be helped with a simple numbing spell. Ander didn’t say much, but the fact that he’d come said enough for her. Jerik informed her that he’d named his dragon Gunther Wolfgang Xavier Julius Huntington, or just Fergus for short, which made no sense, but then again that was Jerik. The visit more than cheered her up, and she was in a reasonably better mood when she finally shooed them out, or at least less depressed. Things couldn’t be too bad, after all—maybe she’d make new friends here, ones that were actually her own gender too, and still be able to see her old ones.
She let herself out of her room after putting Rexi to bed for the night and navigated her way to room 402, then knocked briskly on the door. Muffled voices and music were coming through the walls, and a second later the door slid open. “Oh, hey, Lethya,” the red-haired Allison said brightly, holding out a bowl of candy. “Come on in! Chocolate?”
“Uh, sure. Thanks for letting me come.” Lethya took one and popped it into her mouth, chewing thoughtfully.
“No prob! Sheesh, how did you survive at that boy school?” She shuddered. “Only Commander Rensaris and that one teacher—I would’ve committed suicide! My brother—Lawrence, he’s about yea high and a carrot top like me, that’s the one—he said some teacher named Sakfas was a real ass to you too, I’d fry him if I’d been there, honestly.” They came into a room that was a lot larger than the ones Lethya had. Seeing her surprised look, she said, “We can drop the walls if we want and combine rooms. The other half’s Yuka’s flat.” Cupping her hands around her mouth, she bellowed over the twenty-plus voices and the music, “Oi! Everyone! Lethya’s here, and my brother says she’s cool, so be nice or start planning your funeral!” People turned to face them as Lethya blushed brightly, and there was a brief lull in the multiple conversations. Then it passed for the most part; some girls ignored her, some smiled at her, and some turned to their companions and began whispering, sending her rather unflattering looks. Still, it was better than the reception she’d got at V.E.O.
A tall girl with short black hair and slanting hazel eyes hurried over. “It’s Lethya Fanyathe, right? I’m Hisako Maeda.”
“Nice to meet you,” Lethya said a bit awkwardly, shaking her hand.
“Is it true you flew a Dragonship?” Hisako asked, excited.
She did her best to keep from flinching at the mention of a Dragonship. “Well, not exactly…”
“I knew it!” Someone else was listening in. “They’d never let a girl in a Dragonship!”
“…They didn’t let me in,” Lethya replied. “I kinda got pushed into the DA-001—that’s the Dragonship Advanced Model—and I ended up in the middle of a battle.”
More people were crowding around her. “That’s just like Mu Lan!” a younger girl commented.
“Mu Lan?” The name rang a bell or two, but none that she could place. “Who was that again?”
“Oh, right, you forgot everything. Or a lot of stuff. Well, hopefully it’ll go away.” The younger girl tugged at her twin braids, bouncing a bit on the balls of her feet, and Lethya wondered exactly what they put in the food here but didn’t voice her thoughts. “Someone else want to explain it? I’m terrible at this sort of thing.”
“I’ll do it,” offered Hisako. “Mu Lan. One of the few legends to survive the First Apocalypse… I suppose there is a similarity…not identical, not by a long shot, but similar…Let’s see….Fifth century AD, in the Chinese Empire… There was this woman named Hua—or Fa—Mu Lan. She’d been trained a little in martial arts, but she was no legendary fighter. Anyway, Mu Lan’s father was conscripted to go to war, but he was much too sick to keep himself alive out on the field, much less do any good. Mu Lan decided to fight in her father’s name, disguised as a man, but of course her father wouldn’t let her, so she challenged him to a sword fight, saying if she won, she’d go to the army in his place. She won, he lost, and so she cut her hair, put on his armor, and joined the army under his name.
“After ten years, everybody had heard of her—as her father, you know—and she had this big reputation as one of the bravest warriors in the army, because she was always on the front lines, fighting better than anyone else. Supposedly, the general was so impressed that he even offered her his daughter’s hand in marriage, thinking Mu Lan was a man. When the war was over, she returned home, and then everyone found out she was a woman, and since then she’s been famous.”
“Just like you, Lethya!” The braided girl hopped from one foot to the other. “She was a woman fighter out with all the men, and she kicked booty!”
“Mu Lan sounds so cool,” another girl said enviously.
One with blonde hair poked her shoulder. “We’ve got our own Mu Lan,” she said, a grin on her face as she turned to Lethya. “Don’t we?”
“Yeah!” Hisako threw an arm around Lethya’s shoulders. “You don’t need those nasty boys anyway! Honestly, Lethya, you really are like Mu Lan!”
The center of attention blinked. “I guess,” she said reluctantly. “But I’m no hero or anything.”
“Lethya. Sweety.” Allison herself was in front of her. “Lawrence couldn’t stop ranting about the one girl in the school who got into a ship she’d never seen in real life and flew it well enough to put serious damage into Jaegar’s ranks. We’ve heard all about how you’ve been out since the First Apocalypse and whatnot. And you still didn’t let those boys push you around.”
Lethya shrugged, embarrassed.
“You haven’t gone crazy. You’ve gone through what sounds like hell several times, and you’re still in your right mind. None of us have ever tried to change anything, and look what it’s got us—diddly squat. But you, you’re changing things, making people think twice about whether we should be banned from fighting or not. You’re the one who’s been getting into that flimsy airship thing, and fighting, and standing up to people—trust me, sugarpuff. You’re a hero.”
A girl at the cooler—she was a seventh-year named Harriet—caught the name ‘Ander’ and leaned closer to where Sharena and Tomiko were conversing, their voices hushed and somewhat frightened, ignoring the crowd around Lethya.
“I can’t believe Lethya knows him! And talks to him!”
“Well, she probably doesn’t know everything. She’s no idiot, she probably just never heard what all happened with Ander.” Tomiko shuddered. “I wouldn’t have stayed in that school for five seconds.”
Harriet turned, astonished, to stare at Lethya, and blurted out, “You know Ander Tientas?!”
Complete silence fell onto the room, people either staring at Harriet or Lethya. They all knew that name; they knew it too well. It had only been a year, and while memories dimmed, they returned at times with the terrible intensity that was written now in their eyes, wide and unsure.
“Yeah,” Lethya said hesitantly. “I know Ander. Why?”
“Aren’t you scared of him?” someone said, astounded.
“Because of the thing with his parents?” she asked, eyebrows raised. “I don’t believe that.”
“Oh my god,” another girl breathed. “She doesn’t know.”
“Know what?” she demanded, growing irritated. “Ander’s one of the best people I know!”
“You must not know a lot of people,” someone muttered.
“What is it?” Lethya was close to walking out. Regardless of how nice some of them were being, she wasn’t going to sit there and listen to them bad-mouth her partner.
Someone walked forward, a picture in her hands. “Do you know this girl?” Lethya took it and examined the photo. At first, she could have sworn it was herself, but then certain features began to stick out. The girl’s hair was a little neater, her eyes light blue even though she was smiling happily, unlike the royal blue Lethya’s turned, her face was a little paler, and the time stamp in the corner was from about a year and a half ago. She had still been frozen below the school then. She’d never seen this girl, or if she had, she’d forgotten her. “No, I don’t.”
“This is Laise—Aralaise—Rensaris,” the girl said. “Commander Maientra Rensaris’s adopted sister. The Rensaris’s can’t have children on their own, so they adopted Maientra and Laise… But she came here a few years ago. Like Maientra, she was an amnesiac—some wonder if they were sisters and didn’t even remember—but she was a fairly strong psymancer. The school enrolled her, and she was one of the best students—she excelled at everything. She was nice enough, though she never really let herself relax and…well, not be the best. Don’t get me wrong—she was a kind person, but she almost never let anyone get close enough to actually know her. She trusted the Commander, and Allison, but that was it.” She paused, swallowing, then continued.
“A year and a half ago, there was an attack from Jaegar, and she was out fighting, even though it was against the rules. She fell off of the school, and one pilot caught her—he actually opened the hatch and caught her—and that was… Ander. Something happened… They kept on meeting on the weekends… And anyone who saw them together knew something was different about them when they were with each other.” Her voice was getting slightly thick, tears beginning to build in her eyes. Lethya couldn’t think, only listen numbly to this story of the girl who shared her face. “Everyone here knew Ander’s name—a lot of us have brothers that go to V.E.O., and they’d always talk about how only Jerik was friends with him, and how he was a lot better than even the Muteran students, but he never talked to anybody. They were friends, nothing more, but there was something between them—like they understood each other, you know? No one else quite got them, but they just clicked like that, and they were so close…Some people think that they may have—had a—a thing for each other, but if they did, they never admitted it—personally, I don’t think so, but no one will know now… That’s part of what makes this so…so… Horrible. Sad. Confusing. I don’t know.” She took a deep, shaking breath.
“Just when both he and Laise were starting to loosen up… Well, whatever comes up must come down. It was a little over a year ago…They had an argument on the street. Witnesses saw them walking off in two different directions. An—An hour—an hour later—” The girl stopped entirely and covered her face with her hands, then lowered them and continued. “An hour later, Laise was found dead in a side alley. She’d been—been raped, and beaten, and wounds from—from Rintyran—all over her.”
Her next words fell like the executioner’s blade, and Lethya found it ten times harder to breathe with lungs that felt as if they were locked in ice.
“Ander was standing next to her, with her blood on him.”
“The only one strong enough to look into the past and see what happened was the Arch Psymancer,” another girl added quietly. “And she’s his grandmother. No one else can see what she sees when she looks into the past. She said he was innocent, that she didn’t see clearly enough to find out who exactly did it, but she’d lost her daughter and son-in-law. They couldn’t find anything on Ander or Laise to condemn him, but nothing to clear his name either.”
There was a heavy, deep silence around the room, broken only by quiet sniffles and the cautious noises of those digging for tissues. In everyone’s mind was the casket, Laise’s white face, Commander Rensaris looking as if the world was ending, Laise being lowered into the flames of the Crematorium and her ashes scattered into the ocean. The school had known and loved Laise for being so extraordinary, and then she was gone…
Lethya swayed, a distant part of her mind saying that she should have sat down before she had heard her partner Ander could be a rapist and a killer. There was a buzzing sound in her ears, and she felt as if she were nailed to the ground and yet floating, disconnected to everything but locked in place.
Her stomach lurched, and she ran into the bathroom, reaching the toilet just in time. Even after her dinner and breakfast were long gone, she still felt like throwing up. How could it be? Either Ander was a cold-blooded killer, or his past was darker than she ever could have imagined—seeing his parents murdered, then finding Laise—
But what if he was the murderer?
No wonder most people looked haunted when they saw her. She was a reminder of a ghost, of one lost—it must have hurt Ander every day to look at her, unless he was responsible. The thought made her retch, though her stomach was long empty.
Now she knew what Jerik hadn’t told her when he’d been explaining about Ander’s not-so-easy life. Now she knew why Maia had called her Laise when she’d first seen her. Now she knew who Laise was—and she wished she didn’t.
Long after she’d apologized, left the substantially quieter party, let herself into her room, and gotten into bed without even changing, she lay awake, mind racing and grinding to a halt at alternate points. She couldn’t find anything more by asking anyone, couldn’t get any more information, anything. There was nothing more to know; there were no more questions to ask. What she’d seen in the storyteller’s face and in the faces of everyone else told her she’d heard the flat, straight truth, so there was nothing more she could gain from that story.
First his parents dying, then the girl he loved. Either Ander truly was a monster, or he’d gone through hell—twice. Which was the horrible truth?
10:00 AM, MONDAY, MAY 10, 6118 AD, HALISYEN ACADEMY, NEO TOKYO, JAPAN
She went through her first classes in a haze, not noticing the worried looks the girls from the party were sending her, and some from other girls who hadn’t been there—word traveled fast.
“Wonder if she liked him?” she heard someone whisper behind her.
“Dunno. I hear she threw up, though. I would’ve too, I bet.”
“Are you okay?” a girl asked on her right.
Lethya looked up at her with eyes dull from little sleep, to find it was Hisako. “Yeah, fine…just a bit—I don’t know. Confused? Overwhelmed? Something. Finding out one of your friends could have raped and murdered someone who looked just like you kinda has that effect on me.” She smiled weakly to let her know she wasn’t snapping at her.
“I’m sorry,” the girl said after a beat. “At least you’re with us girls now, huh?”
“Yeah,” Lethya said quietly. “I am.” She had to admit, at V.E.O. none of her classmates would have understood, or they would have written it off to PMS, and it was nice being surrounded with people who didn’t think ‘sensitive’ was an insult. Not everybody had accepted her yet, and there were always the dirty or derisive looks and whispers, but it wasn’t on the same degree as it had been at V.E.O.
If only they could have Hand-to-hand Combat Training, or AFT, or even Advanced Mechanics! Being an engineer didn’t precisely put your life on the line, but she supposed the logic was that there was no use in knowing the construction of something they were never going to use. No wonder Maia was so angry about the way education was handled—the girls were no less intelligent than the boys, no less skilled, but by far and away at greater risk from this engrained belief that they couldn’t fight. The government was ignoring the equally capable other half of the population, which was so blatantly stupid it should have been illegal instead. They could have had twice the numbers they had now, if only they’d school girls as well as boys. For crying out loud, this was a war against Muterans, and yet they allowed Muterans into V.E.O.! It was so frustrating…
She realized that if she stewed about this sexism, it would take her mind off of Ander’s potential homicidal actions. Rintyran marks on Laise, and her blood on him, a possible history of murder from his parents, and right after an argument—it was either a magnificent setup, or he was guilty. And either made her sick—one with sympathy, the other with horror.
MONDAY 10—TUESDAY 11, 6118 AD, HALISYEN ACADEMY, NEO TOKYO, JAPAN
Lethya coasted through that day and the next, speaking with as few people as possible and trying to decide whether she believed Ander to be a murderer or not. Skipped meals and lost sleep made her appear a wreck, but she didn’t notice, her mind in a constant state of confusion and wondering. Rexi stayed quiet as well, though she attracted enough attention at mealtimes. She hadn’t learned mindspeech yet, but would in the next few weeks, and at the moment it seemed as if she was beginning to understand the language. In the meantime they relied on her squeaks and pointing to things. It was progress, something Lethya welcomed.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 12, 6118 AD, HALISYEN ACADEMY, NEO TOKYO, JAPAN
On Wednesday morning, Lethya had just finished eating half of her breakfast and feeding the other half to Rexi when the lights all simultaneously turned brilliant crimson, a siren wailing.
“I wonder how many?”
“Dang it, I was almost done!”
Lethya got to her feet, Rexi jumping to her shoulder, and was immediately swept up in the crowd. Someone tapped her free shoulder and shouted over the crowd to her. “When you get to the transportation shaft, go to the Attack Level—it’s the standard procedure.” She nodded and shoved her way through, wondering what their attack level looked like and how long the practice drill was going to last—she assumed it was a drill from their nonchalant demeanor—because she wasn’t in the mood for a time-consuming waste of her energy. However, when she went through the shaft she found herself in a sturdy, enormous room everyone was piling into, lined with doors and sandbags and water tanks. It was no place to defend from—it was a retreat bunker.
She numbly let herself be steered around until she came to a halt and a whistle blew. All voices cut off; people had stopped coming from the transportation shafts a long time ago. Allison was nearby, face anxious, and she leaned over and asked, “What’s going on?”
“Must be a major attack,” she said darkly. “This is the shelter we go to when there are more than three thousand enemy Muterans outside—normally we just go to the one above it, it’s not as well stocked but it’s only a precaution.”
“You mean Jaegar’s attacking?” Lethya demanded, heart beginning to pound in her ears.
“Yes,” Allison said. “My brother’s out there, holding them back, but we can’t do anything! I hate this! And they’ll be getting everything on the latest feed, the news—it’s entertainment!” As they watched, screens lowered from the ceiling to show the battle. Five thousand or more Muterans were advancing on the horizon, Dragonships beginning to emerge from V.E.O. Academy.
Lethya’s mind registered three things: Jaegar was attacking, his forces were at least three thousand strong, and she was down here in a safe little bunker while her friends were flying into danger.
If they were going to call her a hero, she was going to have to be one.
It was her time: time to stop playing safety games, time to stop hiding, to stop brooding over the question of Ander’s innocence. Time to prove why girls didn’t need to be taught any differently. Time to prove she was a Mu Lan.
“Well,” she heard herself say, “I’m not very entertained.” Her anger had risen enough that psymantic power rumbled in her, seeping into the air around her form, and when Allison glanced over, her eyes widened at the blue-white halo surrounding her friend.
Lethya was fed up past the point of caring about regulations and rules, and she let that simmer. Lifting a hand, she drew on the power that was swelling with her temper. Her palm moved to the left; so did everyone between her and the nearest transportation shaft, leaving an empty aisle. She walked past dozens of people staring at her, not caring that she shed a brilliant light that almost hurt to look at or that fear was beginning to run through the crowd. She didn’t even notice Rexi starting to shake, clinging to her shoulder and watching her ‘mother’ with eyes that were as frightened as those in the crowds.
The glowing girl stepped into the transportation shaft, saying lowly, “Roof.”
“Override.” Like when she’d gone to the Scanner Level to get the eggs, one hand touched the circuit board, a spark or two flaring up. She shot up the shaft.
The sounds of battle grew louder as they neared the top of the building, and when she stepped out, she saw the fight being carried out overhead. The winds buffeted her brusquely, but she ignored them, walking out until she was standing in a part of the roof that had nothing around it for a twenty-foot radius.
Staring up, Lethya watched for a moment and found her target: a Dragonship that was not only avoiding the flames of a centipede-like Muteran but had another Muteran on its tail. She put a mental tag on that ship in particular, then closed her eyes.
9:37 AM, WEDNESDAY, MAY 12, 6118 AD, NEO TOKYO, JAPAN
Ander swore vividly, heart racing. He was in trouble—obviously the two Muterans were teaming up on him. With the third Dragonship Advanced Model completed, he’d been training on the DA-002 for the past week, and could see why Lethya had had difficulty with a normal Dragonship. This was twice the fun, but right now even the advanced aircraft wasn’t going to help him.
Suddenly his ship jerked to the side, though he hadn’t done anything. The steering handles jerked out of his grips, and the craft rolled, screaming into a turn, the laser whiskers flickering to life without any action on his part. The ship was flying itself, and within seconds both Muterans were dead and the DA-002 was rocketing after another victim.
This one was a giant armored beast. He was hanging on for the ride as the aircraft charged at it, then at the last moment dropped a little lower and whipped onto its side, slicing cleanly through the Muteran’s unprotected belly.
That was Lethya’s favorite move.
He called up his Sight and found lines of blue-silver all over the cockpit and, he suspected, the rest of the ship. “Lethya?!”
Lethya swore from her body. Of all the ships to use her psymantic power to control, she had to choose Ander’s! She should have known, given it was a DA, but instead she’d been caught up in, well, fighting with it. Still, he’d caught on and she couldn’t let him think his ship was malfunctioning. “What is it? I’m busy.”
“Yeah, with my ship!” he said stubbornly. “What are you doing?!”
“From all appearances, flying a Dragonship around and shooting things. How am I doing, by the way?”
“Knock it off! Where are you?!”
“On the roof of Halisyen, why?”
“This is a serious fight, Lethya! You shouldn’t be outside the school!”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Maybe you can fly around my ship, but right now you have no way of telling if someone’s coming after you!” he argued.
“Rexi will warn me.”
“And then what? You’ll have plenty of time to build a bomb shelter before they rip you to shreds? Get back inside!”
She was about to respond when something slammed into the DA-002, jarring her control loose. A Muteran almost as big as the one they’d fought that time when they’d gotten stuck under the building was facing them, grinning sloppily, and it swatted Ander’s ship again.
He’d been surprised, and now the engines had been hit; he was plunging to the ground.
Lethya’s consciousness raced after the ship, but before she could do anything, it crashed.
Horrified, she returned to her body with a gasp. Smoke was starting to billow up from the wreckage, streaming into the sky, and her mind was overwhelmingly clogged with fear, anger, distress, worry, and loss for a single moment. Then it cleared, that buzzing sound in her ears again.
Ander had been her friend and had accepted her, even though it had taken time. She didn’t think he was guilty. He’d never seemed crazy, and he’d never really tried to hurt her. If anything, he was stronger than most people after surviving everything he had.
And, thanks to Jaegar and the Muterans, he had just crashed into the ground and was quite possibly dead.
Rexi left her shoulder and hid behind a crate a little over twenty feet away.
Her fury took mastery of her, and from her throat wrenched a cry that chilled all that heard it to the bone. Metal nearby began bending away from her as her fury manifested in a cloud of blinding blue-white boiling around her silhouette, wind whipping around the second girl to stand and defend Neo Tokyo from the roof of Halisyen school.
In the minds of all of Jaegar’s Muteran forces, one voice echoed. It was deep and menacing, and made more fearsome by the hiss of surprise and slight fear in it. “Kill her!”
Two hundred Muterans split off from the attacking force and wheeled, descending on Lethya. She turned eyes dyed deep, dark blue in rage on them.
Blue fire roared up around the 3058-year-old girl, turning into pure energy. She hadn’t noticed the cameras broadcasting everything she’d done for the past few minutes; it wasn’t every day the anchors got a girl on the roof looking ready to blow up something big.
The energy formed a ball as wide as a football field, and everyone watching marveled at how so much power could be contained a single young woman. She launched the blazing sphere of sapphire light at the oncoming Muterans, and it swallowed them; the deadly quiet that followed belied the coming storm.
Lethya raised her arms as if to grasp the clouds and rip them to shreds in her blind anger, and the ball raised with them: she wasn’t done yet. It soared higher and higher in the sky, engulfing every one of Jaegar’s Muterans in its path, until it was at least two thousand feet above the ground.
She threw her arms straight out to her sides, then swiftly brought them together in front of her. The clap was drowned out by an ear-rending, crashing boom that rocked the air in answer.
Anyone watching was torn between throwing their hands over their eyes or their ears; the ball had exploded with greater force than anyone could have estimated, staining the gray sky an unnatural blue. Any of Jaegar’s forces caught in the blast were reduced to ash on the wind. Buildings and Earth’s fighters were left untouched, islands of black against a deadly, raging sea.
Power streaked over the sky, reaching fiery arms towards any enemy Muterans left within five hundred feet of where the ball had once been. Rolling explosions shook the sky for the next two minutes, and beyond the shrieks of the dying, the dull roar of Dragonship engines, and the sounds of the explosions themselves, perfect silence reigned.
A very, very exhausted Lethya stood among the billows of dust that had been stirred up by the winds blustering around her; they too had died down now that she was spent and the spell’s light fading. Through slowly graying vision and clouds of smoke, she searched for any surviving enemies and found none. The Muteran presences she could pick up were either on their side or fleeing.
She’d dispatched a significant chunk of the three thousand Muterans sent after Neo Tokyo. Easily a thousand at the least. That was something of a dizzying figure. She was going to have to work on her anger management.
Her fading mind didn’t pick up on why Rexi was shrieking, or the approaching Muteran, until it was too late. The winged Muteran swept her up, knowing she was too surprised and worn out to defend herself; it met with gunfire. The claws released, dropping her off the building.
How funny, her mind thought distantly as she plunged towards the ground, windows and balconies rushing past. Like Laise, she’d gone and fought on the roof, defying regulations. Like Laise, she ended up falling off of it. Like Laise, she was doomed to die. Where did the similarities ever end?
Something caught her, and she gasped, the wind knocked out of her. Her rescuer’s feet hit the side of the school, springing from it to shed some momentum, and then gained speed again and again. Since she was so close, she could tell how they were flying: he could sense where the air currents were strongest, and their kinetic and potential energy was built momentarily to the point where he could push off from them.
Lethya opened blurring eyes to find herself in Ander’s arms. The irony of this didn’t escape her either. “I thought you were dead,” she mumbled.
Golden eyes glanced down and met hers for an instant, and then flicked back up to their destination: the roof. “Takes more than a crash to kill me,” he answered, electing not to tell her that had she not fallen, he would have stayed near the wreck of his ship until he could get help—he was more seriously wounded than he was going to let on.
Ander’s eyes weren’t that of a killer’s. Somehow Lethya knew. She smiled faintly before passing out.
Ander made the executive decision to concentrate on flying and not the memories this was stirring up, though he knew it would plague him later. Almost a year, and Laise’s death was still haunting him…And, though it wasn’t her fault, Lethya wasn’t helping.
Once he reached the roof, he set Lethya down and then sat down himself, frowning at the spreading patch of blood on his shirt. His injuries were worse than he’d thought.
When his eyes closed, it took him all of three seconds to lose consciousness. Ander collapsed against the roof’s low wall, Lethya passed out at his side. It took the news networks all of two seconds to broadcast the image across the planet.
9:40 AM, WEDNESDAY, MAY 12, V.E.O. ACADEMY
Maia wasn’t sure whether to be glad or upset. Thanks to the stupid newscasters and to Lethya herself, there was no longer any need to hide her existence from the press. There was no way that the thousand Muteran casualties she alone had taken out could have escaped Jaegar’s notice, not to mention the news covering her little temper tantrum. By the Emperor, where did she get all that power? And now he knew there was a human atomic bomb, as her old friend Arakawa called Lethya, in Neo Tokyo.
The only advantage she could see was that it meant that Kostral’s threat to expose Lethya could be thrown to the wind and she could be taken back into V.E.O., but only temporarily. Her permanent enrollment relied on The Grand Council’s approval. They would meet in the Imperial Palace in three days, and she and Principal Emelath would present Lethya, a record of her experiences and achievements, and a request that she remain in V.E.O. Academy and continue to study there until she graduated. If the Emperor approved, the chances were that the Planetary Representatives and Master Psymancer would follow suit. The worst case scenario would be that they wouldn’t see how crucial Lethya could be to turning the tide against Jaegar and either order her punished for breaking the law or send her back to Halisyen.
“Someone get Ander and Lethya back here,” she ordered, trying to keep her mind on the battle for the moment. There was nothing she could do until the Grand Council met—other than inform the principal of Halisyen that they were taking Lethya back.
“On it, ma’am,” Jerik answered from his Dragonship, flying towards Halisyen’s roof.
4:09 PM, WEDNESDAY, MAY 12, V.E.O. ACADEMY
Lethya strode back and forth in the waiting room impatiently. Ander had been hurt a lot worse than he’d let on, and she was going to chew him out once he recovered enough, but until then she was reduced to stomping around. Nonetheless, she was happy to be back in V.E.O., even though Maia had warned her it might not be permanent. For the moment, she was back, and that was all that mattered.
Jerik walked out of the door that let into the hallways to the hospital rooms, and she whirled around to face him. “How is he?”
“Well, he threatened to kill me and make it look like an accident, so I think he’s okay,” Jerik replied, thoughtful. “They need to put warning labels on both of you, though: ticking you guys off may be hazardous to your health.” Though he hadn’t told her, he was still blown away by Lethya’s feat in the battle. Without her, they would have been in serious trouble—the Neo Tokyo Air Forces had been attacked at the same time, so they hadn’t been able to come until fifteen minutes into the battle. They, too, had been hit fairly hard. Three of the students had lost their lives, thirteen injured, but without Lethya’s help it could have—and would have—been much worse.
“Can I see him?”
“Oh, sure.” Jerik shrugged. “He’s no cupcake right now, but if you really are one of those people who likes scaring themselves senseless, by all means, go see him. Third room on the left.”
Lethya shook her head, grinning. It would take more than a cranky Ander to scare her off.
When she knocked on the door and he responded with a foul suggestion, she started to debate that. She opened it and stepped inside, saying mildly, “I hope you never told your doctor to do that. For one thing, it’s physically impossible, and for another, he’s the one treating your injuries.”
Ander flushed and scowled, avoiding her gaze. “Thought you were Jerik.”
“One can only hope.” She sat in a chair by his bed and picked up at a clipboard, examining the list on it: Ander’s appraisal of his injuries.
One (blank-ing) gash in his side that hurts like (blank)
Three fingers that are (blank-ing) broken
(Blank-ing) nine broken ribs
A (blank-ing) metal bar through his (blank-ing) shoulder that feels like some (blank-ing) (blank)-headed moron shoved a (blank) crowbar in there and (blank-ing) jerked it around
She assumed that every omitted word was a profanity on Ander’s part, and wasn’t surprised. “How are you feeling?”
“Ready to run a decathlon,” he groused. Lethya wondered why he was looking everywhere but at her. Ander knew too well. He wasn’t about to tell her, though, that her face belonged to the girl most people believed he’d murdered.
There was a knock on the door, and a nurse entered, carrying a bouquet. “Sorry, Tientas, they’re not for you.”
“Gee, darn,” he muttered.
“For me?” Lethya asked, confused.
The nurse nodded, handing the flowers to her, and then an envelope two feet long and one foot wide. “There’s a card.”
Lethya didn’t know that all the girls in Halisyen had watched when she’d taken things into her own hands. She didn’t know that they’d watched her on the screen while she showed the world part of what she was capable of; she didn’t know they’d all watched while she fought to defend both schools and help her friends. They hadn’t seen a rebel, trying to overthrow their society; they hadn’t seen a freak of nature using her advantage over the Muterans. All they’d seen was their classmate Lethya, who was fighting to defend her new homes.
Lethya opened the card to find hundreds of signatures crammed into every available space, though it was clear around the message on the inside:
We’ll miss you—To our Mu Lan.