Vol. 1, Book 1 (The Vigilantes) – CHAPTER 18
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While the questions began to explode inside Kazuto's mind in the face of uncertainty as if they were fireworks, a much more familiar sensation spread through the rest of his body: reluctance. Why did he have to deal with this kind of responsibility? This was no longer related to his desire to help his friends and classmates, but it was something that went far beyond his reach. The consequences he ought to face were too many for him to place his life at risk for people he did not know or whom he had no way of being familiar with, much less if he could not discern if they were worth saving in the first place. He wanted none of this. It was not his problem...

Except that this time it was, in fact, something of his concern.

No. There had to have been a horrible mistake. He could not possibly deal with this, not to mention he had spent most of his life avoiding such complications. In addition, his previous confrontation with the terrorist had made it clear to him what his limits were.

"What are you talking about?" Kazuto asked at once, bobbing his head in denial. "You're telling me I'm supposed to operate one of those things as if nothing? I mean, aren't there other people more capable and with more experience or skills to do it?"

Colonel Hashimoto cast a severe glance with his lone eye upon him as if disenchanted. Yet a slain trace of a smile was painted in his face, all of a sudden, as if he were expecting his hesitation.

"Operating the suits to their greatest extent isn't a matter of physical state or training," he said with his deep voice. "It's all a matter of genetics."

Before he could thread more any more questions, the colonel made a gesture for Kazuto and the Yoshimura twins to follow him to the two-story suite placed in the center of the base. As the lock on the door buzzed, Hashimoto pushed it open. He entered and headed for the center of the horizontal table, Hayato moving in right after him. Kazuto followed him, and Saori secured the soundproof door behind them. After several seconds of pressing keys on a touch screen window, he raised his eyes to meet a halo of blue light emanating from a projector in the center of the table. At the same time, the lights in the room diminished, the glazed walls now becoming opaque.

Before Kazuto could marvel at the display of high-tech that was in front of his eyes, hundreds of small floating windows began to appear in all quarters. They were translucent to a certain degree, and while they overlapped each other, the young man could make sense of their content nevertheless. From pictures to video feeds, the images of the Fukushima disaster were unmistakable. Although he was not born at that time, his parents had told him on many occasions what they had gone through. Just as they had mentioned, he now saw the enormous mass of water from the Pacific ocean sweeping through the houses that bordered the coast. He was also able to glimpse the drama of the refugees as they had been relocated to temporary and rather rudimentary homes after the disaster.

As the images continued to follow each other, the colonel began to speak. "After the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, the Japanese people experienced a loss of confidence in nuclear energy..."

Colonel Hashimoto cast a severe glance with his lone eye upon him as if disenchanted. Yet a slain trace of a smile was painted in his face, all of a sudden, as if he were expecting his hesitation.

"Operating the suits to their greatest extent isn't a matter of physical The feeds in the windows then changed in a rather abrupt manner, from one moment to another. Kazuto now gazed at the recording of a meeting between two men dressed in elegant suits. One of them was tall and stout, with broad shoulders and small hands. He displayed a farfetched smile that was framed by a funny blond hairstyle. The other man was smaller but gave an impression of greater sober-mindedness. His jet-black hair did not go past his neck but it was leafy anyway, his sideburns neatly shortened. Kazuto recognized him as a former prime minister of his nation.

"In the background of the forty-second summit of the Group of Seven," Hashimoto began, "the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Japan held a secret meeting where they unofficially established CERU, the Clean Energy Research Unit. It was a special off-book research team established to engage in the systematic study of alternative energy sources. The United States was looking for a way to limit Europe's dependence on Russia's energy resources."

Hashimoto pressed a button, and a new set of feeds appeared on the multiple screens. Most of them depicted scientists working with their instruments on some sort of crystalized gem, while a few other displayed guards patrolling a large research lab compound. He continued, "At the beginning of the last decade, a group of American and Japanese geologists found a series of strange crystalized mineral gems in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico. After conducting various experiments, they discovered their extraordinary nature, which you are already familiar with. Under the supervision of the US government, this scientific development was classified as a state secret. Simultaneously, a black project codenamed 'Ergon' was initiated, with funding channeled from DOD black budgets and under military protection from special units of the US, UK, and Japan.

"As the trials followed one another, the scientists realized it was possible to deny radioactive decay, ending the growth of cancer cells. With this new breakthrough, the reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were reused to support experimental thermonuclear fusion reactors. Simultaneously, an experimental treatment against gamma radiation was also looked into. You've surely heard that part of the nearby population took relatively low levels of gamma radiation, which were presumed harmless."

"'Presumed'?" Kazuto questioned. He did not like the sound of it.

"You may not remember it because you were young and your family used to travel a lot, but there was a time when you lived in Utsunomiya and attended medical check-ups at Camp Jinmachi every now and then."

It was then that it all came to Kazuto in one shining piece, the memory that had stirred at the sound of the name "Camp Jinmachi". On many occasions, the young man had tried to evoke those moments in his mind, those tedious days where the only thing he could do was play with his brother. He remembered the karate practices, the problems in which they got involved with the guards when playing hide-and-seek in the facilities. He even recalled the sharp sensation of pain from the pricks of the needles, tears covering his eyes afterward more than once. However, these pictures in his mind were, for the most part, diffuse. They were momentary impressions associated with his feelings, not concrete images.

"I think I remember something," he muttered hesitantly. "They used to give me some injections, but I never knew the reason."

Yet as he was driven to relive all these events that took place in his childhood, which were now more clear than he had ever remembered them before, he also became aware of something else. By then, a heavy silence had fallen in the room. Kazuto could hear his heart beating in excitement along with the feeble trembling sound of the projector. His mind raced as he had suddenly become aware that he had been, in fact, used. Without his understanding or consent, a series of experimental tests had been carried out in his body and those of his family. And that made him angry.

"Wait..." he said once he managed to accommodate his thoughts, anxious. "You're saying all of my family was subjected to this experimental treatment? That we were used as guinea pigs?!"

The colonel raised his head slowly and scowled, aware of his reaction. An still, he kept his mettle without faltering. "Your parents understood the situation and accepted the treatment for your well-being and that of your brother. Also, at that time, there was enough evidence to confirm there would be no side effects. And, for a while, everything went well...

"However, when we performed some routine check-ups to confirm its long-term effect a few years later, we came across something we never foresaw. The treatment caused a particular ergonomic emission around its patients, which works in a similar way to a beta minus, altered given the previous gamma radiation process. As you know, an ergonomic gem is theoretically capable of distorting the action of any of the four interactions on the particles, and in the process of a minus beta radiation, it is the weak nuclear which takes part."

"Alterations?" Kazuto inquired, once again frightened by the implications. "Do you mean something similar to a genetic deformation?"

"In a way, yes," Hashimoto replied at once. "The cells of the test subjects showed a surprising level of accelerated regeneration." He then paused, as if choosing carefully the words he was going to pronounce. "Don't you remember having cut yourself, and that your skin scarred quickly or that those injuries disappeared soon? Have you had a cold, and in a couple of hours feel like new? To take blows and see those bruises disappear throughout the course of the day?"

Kazuto felt as though he had taken a huge electric shock. "Remember, we're freaks who heal fast, not to mention we hardly ever get sick," Nozomi had mentioned to him the day before. How many times had his parents looked at him in amazement when they took his temperature? How many times had he observed his bruises turning yellow in a few hours, to then disappear as if nothing in the twinkling of an eye? Indeed, some of his classmates in elementary school used to make fun of him regarding the same issue. The same thing had happened to his friend Nozomi, although she used to respond more aggressively to their taunts form.

And yet, it all seemed so obvious now, so evident. His body's odd reactions, his parent's mysterious line of work... Everything fitted together like a puzzle, the gaps in the young man's mind beginning to fill up. Even the recovery of his brother Yoshiro made sense...

"My brother," he said, half of his thoughts now focused on him. "He was attacked by a guy with one of those improved prostheses. They told me he should have died."

"And surely that would have been the case if he had been a normal person," Hashimoto assured him "We first discovered this when treating my children since our family also lived there back then."

"Your children?" Kazuto exclaimed in surprise. "You mean...?"

While he opened his mouth to give word to his thoughts at first, he chose to keep it shut instead, feeling awkward. There was a short silence afterward in which Kazuto glanced at the twins. They looked downcast as if a tremendous burden had fallen on their shoulders all at once. It seemed they were thinking the same thing, just like their father. So far, Kazuto had barely seen any trace of emotion on his face, which now revealed a strong sense of discouragement.

At long last, the quietness was broken by the loud voice of Colonel Hashimoto, whose mouth had given a bitter twist. "It wasn't a simple decision," he admitted. "My wife never forgave me for it, but I decided to involve my children in the Ergon Project."

Kazuto stared at Hashimoto with doubtful eyes. On one hand, he could grasp how the shadow of such a decision clouded his face and his thoughts. It was evident he had not reached such a conclusion without first weighing all the factors at stake, including the future of his own children. But on the other hand, his gaze gave off the admirable level of commitment this man had to possess. Kazuto was not in a position to criticize him. He despised those who made judgments about others without having the slightest idea of what they were facing. As in everything else, the young man could not draw conclusions if he did not possess all the factors at his disposal. In the end, he could not avoid looking at him with anything but warmth and respect.

Hashimoto went on with his story. "When developing the suits powered by an Ergon gem, we discovered an average person barely achieved a twenty percent of compatibility, one with military training or high IQ below twenty-five. When we decided to try other alternatives, they asked me to carry out analyses on my children, with the certainty that nothing would happen to them.

"Saori, with only ten years, achieved a seventy-five percent in her first test, and she's currently above ninety. I performed it myself and barely go over forty percent. No one who was present at Fukushima exceeded that. Therefore, it was concluded that those who were in the womb of their mothers at the time of the incident emanate a sufficient level of radiation to properly interact with the gems."

It was then that Kazuto came to understand the reason behind the colonel's resentment. He could even picture the way it had all been. He could see little Saori being subject to experiment after experiment, submitted to his father's sense of duty and the new reality she had to face. He could imagine her father with conflicting feelings about the repercussions of these events, the man observing his dear daughter with a sense of helplessness as she gradually became a laboratory rat before his eyes.

Yet, even if he was listening raptly to this whole affair, Kazuto had no way of knowing what was that these people expected of him. Although it was explicit for him that he possessed a unique affinity that allowed him to employ the armors more effectively than other people, what was he supposed to do with them, exactly? His skills were limited, and his body would doubtlessly be able to withstand the effort this technology would demand of it.

"All this sounds too unlikely to be true," he stated, his own skepticism now growing larger. "Also, what could I do with them? I mean, I hardly know any martial art or something minor like handling a sword."

The colonel was quick to reply. "The suits connect the Ergon gem directly to your nervous system, something similar to what the prostheses do with their core. With the processors we have nowadays, we can transmit information throughout your nervous system up to your brain so that your body responds according to it."

"Still," Hayato intervened, "it's better if your body is more or less able to withstand certain movements to avoid fissures, fractures, or any other types of injuries when forced."

"Do you care about your friends?" Saori challenged him with a remarkable fierceness in his eyes. "Guess what? They're in danger right now, Kazuto. And we are giving you the opportunity to help them."

It was not as if the young man was unwilling to take the opportunity. After all, the offer had not surprised him in the first place; what other reason could these people have had for having summoned him to that base? If Kazuto had presented one question after another, it was simply because he would refuse to face the reality that was posed to him. He had been offered a responsibility as large as the world itself. He was supposed to act, in a certain way, as its protector. And that was the last thing he wanted.

But in the end, there was one more reason why he did not want to have anything to do with this. The whole revelation had been shocking, without a doubt, to the point that his curiosity, along with his yearning for knowledge, had become so strong it had overcome his initial fear. Therefore, Kazuto had forgotten there was no place for him in such an environment. They were asking him to be part of the cycle that little by little plunged the world into darkness, to choose a side to which he was not willing to compromise.

Another prolonged silence had fallen by then, as young Kazuto was lost in his thoughts. Until he gained his voice once again… "You expect a teenager to handle all this out of the blue?" he demanded. "How can someone like me be ready to handle such responsibility? And then what? You turn us into soldiers who obey your orders so that we kill other people?!"

"This project has only peaceful intentions," the colonel replied him. "You have already seen us in action.  We have avoided as many deaths as we could, and when confronting terrorists, we have not murdered anyone."

"For now. What about all those weapons, tanks, and vehicles I saw? Are those instruments of peace?"

Hashimoto sighed as if growing tired of his questions. "You look like someone who knows how the world works, Sugiyama-kun. Poverty, inequality, injustice... These are things that can't just be eliminated. But they can be reduced, we can improve upon them."

It was then the colonel's gaze became penetrating, his voice acquiring a more powerful and emotional tone. His following words were se meaningful it seemed as though they had arisen from his heart. "Why do you think so many people cling so desperately to something like religion? Human beings, as individuals, want to believe they are special. They want there to be a purpose that exceeds their own existence. And, from my own experience, I can tell you there's nothing worse than a man who has lost the way, his purpose. He's capable of falling into the abyss, and of clinging to an idea that, while attractive, is mistaken.

"A man who places his ideals above his own existence is able to put them above that of other people. If that idea turns out to be wrong, he's capable of placing the lives of others in danger. And there are times when you can't have any doubts when dealing with these men."

Almost without realizing, Kazuto had fallen immersed in his words, to the point he would recognize some truth in them. He opened his mouth and closed it several times, struggling to come up with a counter-argument. But the words would not come. It was almost as though he had lost the ability to talk.

And then came the question he wanted to avoid the most.

"Tell me, Kazuto. Will you?"

The young Sugiyama laid his eyes on the holographic projector, now showing a detailed scheme of one of the armors. If he really wanted to save his friends, he would have to swallow his pride and his ideas, to then turn into a soldier who would obey the orders of unscrupulous men without regard for the value of human life. He would become part of the cycle he so much despised... No. This was much more than that. In front of him was the possibility of doing something concrete, of being part of the movement that would shape the world to come. With some hope, he could even put an end to that cycle eventually, to break it once and for all. Kazuto was not a very optimistic or dreamy person, but perhaps something to cling to would make his existence more bearable.

Of course, he would have to answer to individuals who did not deserve his loyalty or his trust, but at least it seemed that some people deserved it. At least Colonel Hashimoto looked like a sincere man within what his position allowed him. But this was the time to take a step forward, to stop running away from responsibility and undertake concrete actions. Yoshiro had encouraged him to stop talking about the problems in the world and do something in response.

And, for once, he would do so.

After a long while of inner deliberations, Kazuto nodded in affirmation at Hashimoto-sama, though he was not certain he could achieve what was being asked of him. Yet, he would have to try. Otherwise, there was the possibility he would not be able to see his friends and classmates unharmed again.