Vol. 1, Book 1 (The Vigilantes) – CHAPTER 19
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Well, time to continue with this. Here I leave you a long chapter to try to compensate for the delay ...

Takeshi Uchida knew that many things could go wrong in an armed operation, perhaps even better than most men in his line of work. The preparation he had undergone throughout his life had taught him so, and the experience he had acquired in Turkey had proved the truth in it. As a consequence, Takeshi had always looked for ways to anticipate most of the contingencies that could arise in such situations. Naturally, there were things that he simply could not counteract with mere planning, for which a healthy dose of improvisation and intuition would always prove useful.

This, however, was something he did not know how to respond.

As he frowned down at the subordinate who had been interrogated by the unknown young man who had infiltrated their lines, Takeshi reflected upon the ludicrous situation before his eyes. He was standing inside the bathroom on the fifth floor, surrounded by men whose silhouette in the mirror above the sinks was barely visible in the darkness. Yet he did so with a demeanor that looked to be teetering between confidence and animosity. After all, two of his men had been pinned down by this strange figure, both of them with minor injuries in their heads. Worse, one of them had even been stripped of his uniform, and he was now wearing a white shirt along with a loosened tie, both belonging to the clothing used by the security guards. And he could not avoid wondering what did that said about his unit and its preparation.

Takeshi resolved to join the operative, although he remained standing and somewhat distant from him. He was one of the young college students who had recently joined their ranks. Normally, he would not have taken part of such an important operation, but a last-minute change had altered Takeshi's plans. While the previous night's incident in Shibuya Crossing had been planned, the response of the Sentinels had been faster than anticipated. It was evident they knew something beforehand. Fearing more massive leaks of their movements, Uchida had resolved to withdraw the unit from the operative who gave his life in the port of the assault on Cytek Headquarters. Taking the building without setbacks was crucial to his plans, and while he did not have more experienced men available to replace those who had been removed, he believed the newly trained recruits would suffice.

And yet, it seemed that he had been mistaken all along.

He stared deep into the eyes of the young operative, the expression on his face one of controlled anger as he explained to him, "It's just like I told the other guy. I ran into someone who wanted to know about our plans. He forced me to talk to the radio, then knocked me out. I gave him nothing."

The lines in Takeshi's forehead grew deeper as he tried to assess the potential damage, considering the possibility of altering his plan. But this figure had not had much time to question him, Takeshi decided, so it was unlikely that he would have obtained anything substantial out of him, not to mention that he did not know much in the first place.

"Did you see his face?" Takeshi inquired in a curt tone, eager to get something out of this setback.

"No," the man responded, dejected. "It was dark, and he was pointing at me with a flashlight, but I recall a woman aiming at me with a gun. I think she had short hair, but I couldn't see well."

Takeshi gave his subordinate a baleful look, one that could sour wells and frighten a brave man. If he'd had more manpower at his disposal, this useless brat would be dead by now. Such level of foolishness was an insult to someone of his mettle. He had made it clear that he and his fellow comrades should inspect the rooms in groups of two, one always providing cover for the other, all working in unison. Yet he required every last body he could have at his disposal, so taking such drastic measures was of no use.

But above all, doing something like that was against what he had been taught. A true warrior had no reason to be cruel or a need to prove their strength, their dealings with others proving a measure of their respect. He ought to give his fellow men aid at every opportunity since he was responsible for everything they did and said, including the consequences that would follow from it. While he would recognize some truth in the latter, he had chosen to abandon those paths long ago, discouraged by the corrupt masters who had imposed it on him.

For such a way of life could only lead to a meaningless death, and there was nothing that he despised more than that. Well, there was one more thing, in fact. Takeshi realized he was betraying his emotions on his face as he stared at his young comrade whose fearful gaze eluded the weight of his'. It was unmanly for someone like him to do so. In its place, he chose to shift his thoughts to matters of greater importance, like the those of the figures of the mysterious young man and the short-haired woman.

Just as Takeshi clenched his teeth and scowled a little harder, a fleeting thought crossed his mind in a flash. He harbored a well-founded suspicion of just who these elusive intruders could be, but it was hard to believe for him that they had been able to outwit his men in such a way. And yet, it was a suspicion that some of his men no doubt shared.

"The twins?" another of his subordinates asked as if though he was reading his mind. It was Ienobu-two, the first man to fall under his squad's command chain. He was one of the few comrades in whom he deposited most of his trust. And it looked like he was not going to disappoint him that night.

"Most likely," he replied, favoring him with a slight trace of a smile on his lips.

According to the little information he had managed to gather, Hayato and Saori Yoshimura were the sons of Colonel Hashimoto, the man in charge of the Sentinels. They used their mother's bachelor's surname, yet another display of the extensive measures their father's organization had taken to cut off any kind of ties between them. While it was conceivable this was a simple procedure to protect them, Takeshi was sure there was something else going on. One of the reasons why he had placed a special focus on capturing them was the possibility of extracting some information out of them.

But somehow, they had managed to elude him. And while Takeshi had been sure his men would find them somewhere across the building, they had not. He expected them to offer some kind of resistance, of course, but their reaction to his assault had proved he had underestimated their skills.

"From what I've heard so far," Takeshi went on, "it sounds like they're trained. Any news of them after what happened in the parking lot?"

Ienobu-two shook his head at him. "When our men arrived, there was nobody except for Ieyasu-two. He had knocked out the older one, but someone else shot him."

As Takeshi considered whether it was worth devoting more resources to their search, the walkie-talkie on his hip squawked and his title barked forth. "Leader, this is Tsunayoshi-One. Come in, over?"

He brought it to his mouth and replied, "Leader here. What is it?"

"We have a development here in the server room. I think you should come and take a look at it."

There was something in the tone of his voice that made Takeshi raise an eyebrow in concern. He had been eagerly waiting for an update on this matter for some time since the transfer of the data that had been moved from Cytek's server farm was taking more time than they had anticipated. Yet another factor of uncertainty in his operation, and they were already far more than Takeshi would have hoped for.

What he was regretting the most at the time, however, was the decision to cut off all the power supply from the building. The leader of Amaterasu began feeling his legs heavy from having climbed up and down so many stairs throughout the hostage situation, so he found himself longing for the elevators more than he would have wanted. And yet, once Takeshi reached the fiftieth floor, he headed for the large room right away despite his fatigue.

When he moved past the door, he came across a security guard lighting a cigarette as he leaned against a wall, his MP5 hanging on his chest from the sling. The man followed him with his eyes as smoke began to emanate from the tip of the narrow cylinder and favored him with a slight grin that revealed nicotine-stained teeth. Takeshi had forbidden his men to do such a thing during the operation and even advised them to avoid cigarettes in general. After all, its negative effects on the lungs and the cardiovascular system would prevent them from performing at their best. The guards, on the other hand, were a different matter, and he was not willing to bother about them. They were not direct members of Amaterasu, but mercenaries subcontracted through a Greek PMC that had provided them with assistance of all kinds throughout their crusade. In their policies, Takeshi would not dare mess with.

As he strolled across the floor, he met one of his own men sitting in a swivel chair while he worked on a laptop placed on a table near the rackets area. Takeshi placed his hand on the back of the chair. Ienobu-two had followed him all along as he was now standing right behind him.

"While I was moving the data from your laptop," Yoshimune-three began, "I found out someone accessed it and copied the files we moved from the server farm shortly before the assault."

Takeshi grinned at this, a mixture of frustration and disgust in his mouth. Not only had they anticipated their action the previous day but also today's assault? No, that was not possible. All necessary precautions had been taken, of that he was sure. What was most likely, instead, was that they had some suspicion about his infiltrated men in the company and that they had acted accordingly. The timing was unfortunate, but the Sentinels would have never allowed the hostage-taking to come to happen in the first place.

As his subordinate kept working the keyboard of the laptop, a series of video feeds began to appear on the screen. They were recordings from the security cameras in the corridors of the buildings. At first, there was nothing unusual about them—until an abrupt interruption in the feed took Takeshi by surprise. It had been almost imperceptible and rather brief, but it was something obvious nevertheless. Someone had manipulated the files.

"We checked the discs of the camera recordings," his technician said, "but the files matching that time frame were erased."

Takeshi's nostrils flared with impatience. All this was starting to get uncomfortable for him. While his plan was still underway without significant setbacks, his composure was tempered by the news about Sentinel's recent movements. But he could not allow himself to be overcome by this. There were too many things at stake, and the critical moment of his operation was still to come. He had to be patient. The calmness of his behavior and the composure of his mind ought not to be disturbed by passions of any kind.

And so, the leader of Amaterasu closed his eyelids slowly, commanding himself to relax as he placed his in a prayerful grip and bounced them off his chin a couple of times. Illumination would come to him, sooner or later, for which he now opened his eyes to look down at the table before him. He stared at everything and nothing at the same time, his instincts sharp, his mind racing for a solution with discipline and focus.

It was then that he saw it.

"There," he exclaimed with relative calm as he spotted something on the screen. "Freeze that image."

As though his eyes were burning a hole in the monitor, Takeshi gazed at that what he was looking for. Just before the interruption mark on the recording, the camera inside one of the elevators showed a woman entering it. As the doors closed, Takeshi managed to discern two things beyond any doubt. In the first place, the floor in question was that of his office, which had no cameras of any kind. And, even more important, the woman who had abandoned it was his secretary.

In other words, she should have seen whoever came into his office and transferred the data from his portable computer in the time window in which the recordings were tampered with.

Once he confirmed this, Takeshi moved the radio transmitter to his mouth. "Leader to Yoshimune-one. I need you to bring my secretary to the server room, over."

"Copy that, Leader," squeaked the voice at the other end of the channel.

"Should we kill a hostage as a warning now?" Ienobu-two suggested afterward.

"We knew that sooner or later we would have to do it," Takeshi replied him. "Hidetada-one just informed me that they only need fifteen more minutes, so maybe it's the right time."

"What about an employee? I mean, whether they know what's really going on, they are accomplices of the Ergon project."

The suggestion was a good one, and Takeshi appreciated it. The possibility of resorting to such an action had been previously premeditated, but he had avoided deciding who would be the unfortunate victim. Studying American counterterrorism tactics—which had been taught to the Japanese special forces and, consequently, to the Sentinels—he understood that above all were the hostages and their relative value. They would do the impossible to avoid hostile action, always seeking a peaceful resolution. It was not just a matter of tactics or practical solutions, but of morality and strength. It was all about the image that they should project to the world. Yet while human lives were a precious thing for them, they could not give in to the requests of the so-called terrorists, or else others would follow suit and take advantage of it.

In the end, they would try to lengthen the process as much as possible, as they were looking to tire them out in order to weaken their resolve. They would give in to smaller considerations, naturally, so that could free hostages in exchange. And eventually, they would go for them so that they could be displayed in a court of justice to set an example out of them. What a beautiful lie. If only the rest of their policies and decisions showed so splendid fervor and concern for the worth of their fellow citizens, as he had come to experience in his days as a soldier...

Slowly, his eyes came back from the shadow of his past as the sounds of complaints were heard on the other side of the entrance door. Takeshi turned his head in that direction, running into one of his men entering the room with a woman in office attire he was dragging by the arm. She wore big glasses and her dark hair was tied behind her head in a ponytail. And as soon as she looked up at him, her eyes widened in surprise at the evident realization of his identity. For a long moment, Chika Hoga, a person he had barely got to know in depth, stared at him with a startled look on her face.

"Uchida-sama?" she asked, bewildered. "What's the meaning of this? Are you with the terrorists?"

It seemed that she had her doubts at first, the uncertainties in her mind explicit in her grimace. Yet as the initial jolt faded into understanding, her expression cracked. As Takeshi nodded for his subordinate to let go of her, Hoga ended up collapsing on her knees on the floor as if the truth she was facing was too much for her to bear.

The leader of Amaterasu crouched in front of her, placing a comforting hand in her shoulder. He then looked her hard in the eye, wondering if she would flinch away from his gaze. It was almost as though it was unbearable for her, the frightened eyelids bellow her glasses fleeing from his'.

"I know all this must be difficult to digest," he explained her with a voice as hard as gentle, "but right now I need you to tell me something. We won't hurt you. We will leave as soon as we have got what we need."

The woman looked at him for a split second. "But... You're one them?" She swallowed with difficulty, her fragile voice about to reach a breaking point. "How... How could you be doing this?"

"Just tell me what I need," Takeshi insisted. "It will help to end all this sooner."

Her face became a mirror of fiercely battling emotions, her head bobbing in denial while her gaze got lost all over the room. But as the tears gathered in her eyes, she took a deep breath and began to nod. He had her right where he wanted it.

"Someone accessed my office between five and ten minutes before all this," Takeshi said. "Do you remember who he was?"

Since she was still in shock, her voice remained choppy as she said, "It was... a young woman. She said she had to do an update. I don't remember her face since I didn't see her before, but I... I think she had short hair."

There she was once again, the elusive short-haired woman. But if what Hoga was telling him was true, the Yoshimura twins were not mere civilians in this conflict. So far, their actions suggested the possibility of them being part of the Sentinels. And still, why two teenagers were asked to carry out tasks reserved for men of more experience and training? The answer, Takeshi suspected, had to be nothing but disturbing.

Since he had other pressing issues at the time, Takeshi focused his mind back on the current situation. The Sentinels had crossed the line, and their deeds could not go unpunished. Ienobu-two had suggested the execution of an employee as an answer, but Takeshi wished for something more obnoxious, more personal...

And without altering the stony expression on his face, he addressed her secretary when he realized that his prayers had already been answered. "You did well," he began, and then took a brief pause. The woman was grimacing in relief in the meantime.

"Unfortunately, I can't let them know about this."

Chika Hoga suddenly froze, her eyes widened in panic as Takeshi made a gesture with his hand for the guard who had brought her in to move her away.

"Take her to the top floor," he said to him, the operative grabbing hold of her once again and ready to comply.

"Wait!" she complained, now fully reacting to what she was going to experience. "You can't do this, Uchida-sama. Please, let me go! Please!"

He paid her no mind. Instead, he turned to Ienobu-two. "It's time for me to go downstairs."

Takeshi marched off in the same direction in which Hoga was being moved, ready to reach the Cytek annex to establish himself there permanently until the moment of truth arrived. The screams and curses that she threw into the air would have caused pity on most men, but not on Takeshi. His mind was somewhere else since the next half-hour would be the tensest of the siege. As he knew all too well, countering the situation with a dead hostage would result in a change of attitude on the part of the men outside the building. A public display of such an appalling event would cause them to shift their priorities, to the point they would have to accelerate any kind of forced-entry plan they had in mind. And then, the show would begin, just as Takeshi had expected all along.

After all, he was more than prepared for them.

 

Outside of Cytek Headquarters, the situation had not changed much in the last hour, although Yoshiro knew something grave had happened. The crackling noise he had heard several minutes ago, however distant it might have seemed, could not be anything other than the sound of weapons being fired. Yet nobody had taken the trouble to tell him anything, or to the other policemen for that matter. Rumors ran like the wind. Some officers said one of the hostages had tried to escape and paid the consequences, while others insisted one of the terrorists had raped a woman and ended up killing her in the process.

While the scenarios they posed were as frightening as they were plausible, their way of expressing them seemed inconsiderate. Moreover, what if they were wrong? What if a student had been injured, instead? What if it had been his own brother...? Too many questions. Kazuto himself had taught him on several occasions never to lose one's patience, but his uneasiness was growing harder with every minute that went by. Right then, he would have given anything to be with him or even to hear some of his numerous complaints about the unfair world around him.

Not even the superintendent seemed to have information about the situation. Nevertheless, Yoshiro went to him once more in search of answers. "Any news about those shots we heard before?" he asked him, Matsuda showing by his side right off the bat. For some reason, his partner had not gone far from him all night.

"Nothing," Yamada-sama replied, his jaw clenched as a grimace of uncertainty brushed his lips below his mustache. "We talked to them, but—"

Without any warning, the man in front of him bobbed his head upward, his eyes petrified as if he were unable to give credit to what they were contemplating. "What the hell?"

From the corner of his eye, Yoshiro caught sight of the rest of his peers doing the same thing as his boss. And as he reflected on what it all meant, he felt his stomach tighten. He had a dreadful feeling about this, but he still resolved to follow suit and glanced up.

That was when he saw her.

There on top of the imposing corporate building, the halo of light from the reflectors revealed a woman being pushed onto the edge of a smashed window. It was on the thirtieth floor—or at least that's what Yoshiro inferred from the height—and the person responsible for it appeared to be one of the terrorists. He was holding her tight by the arm, his other hand pressing a device against his ear. Yoshiro could not make sense of it given the distance, but if he had to guess, he would say it was a cellphone.

The rumor of a fierce conversation began to become louder not far from where Yoshiro was standing. A couple of officers scampered past him, their shoes shaking one of the manhole covers on the tarmac. Other men in the area were moving too, heading toward the SAT operations truck to see what the whole thing was about. The superintendent hurried to the vehicle as well, and both Yoshiro and Matsuda ended up running after him.

By the time he reached the moving fortress, there was a thick crowd of uniformed men packed in shoulder to shoulder. Yamada-sama squirmed through them with some difficulty, as did Yoshiro.

Unfortunately, both he and Matsuda were only allowed to observe what was going on from the outside, while their boss managed to get in. As the quarrel became louder and louder, Yoshiro spotted the man in charge of the negotiations sitting in a chair. He had a headset on his face, his eyes wide-open and restless as he shouted things to the microphone. An equally hostile voice answered from the other side of the conversation, the speakers allowing everyone gathered there to hear his words. That did not seem like a standard negotiation at all.

"What are you talking about?" the negotiator said at some point. "We had nothing to do with what!"

"You're being played for a fool, my friend," the other voice replied with a menacing tone. Could it be the man on the edge of the window? "For now, you have to know every mistake on their part will be paid with the lives of hostages. Consider this a warning. We don't want any more surprises."

"Wait, don't tell me you're—"

As the communication was cut off, Yoshiro scowled, wondering the last thing meant. He had been unable to follow the thread of the conversation from the beginning, but it was clear that something was wrong.

It was then that everyone turned their heads back to the situation of the thirtieth floor. The woman and the terrorist were struggling at the edge of the ledge—until he let go of her. Yoshiro's heart stopped in her chest as the woman's body fell towards the precipice, her nerve-racking cry becoming louder as she approached the ground. It was too much for him, so Yoshiro turned his eyes away from the dreadful show...

Until he heard the noise, a mellow sighing sound as if everyone around him had let out their breath at once. All he could see, however, was the expression on the negotiator's face. His mouth hung from his face as if he had been told he was going to die himself.

"Why didn't the snipers take him out?" complained Matsuda, his voice interrupting the seemingly endless moment of silence. Yoshiro turned to him

"If they had done such a thing, that hostage would not be our only casualty," Yamada-sama answered him, discouraged. "For the time being, we need to re-establish communication with the terrorists and identify the victim's body. Her relatives should be the first to know."

And in the blink of an eye, all the officers around him returned to mind their own business. After all, while a human life had been lost, they had to continue doing their work to ensure it was the only one. Yoshiro, for his part, took one last look at the building that had everyone with their hairs standing on end. All he desired was to go home with his brother to forget about this, but for Kazuto to leave that building, a miracle had to occur.

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