Chapter 3: Faith And Friendly Re-Rationing

1

Just outside of the Arakawa district, dense jungles grow on top of derelict skyscrapers like radish tops, reaching for the heavens with innumerable green limbs. It used to be affectionately referred to as the ‘Jungle on the Jungle’, the product of the 22nd century Japanese Archipelago Afforestation Project. The original aim was to cut down CO2 emissions by planting forests on top of skyscrapers, but nature ended up reclaiming more than was intended, forming today’s super-canopy.

Such forests are now utterly one with the natural world, and survival of the fittest is the only law. Most humans foolish enough to set foot there would disappear from the face of the Earth, leaving not even bones behind. Regardless of the dangers, however, some decide to risk its dangers, for in its depths lie an unimaginable variety of life, including strains of plants that have been long lost to civilization.

Before the sun has even risen, two figures stand in front of Building #23, not far from Garandou itself. One has long black hair and a wooden sword, and the other is dressed in a long-skirted maid outfit.

“So, uh, Uka… I’ve been wondering this for a while, but why do you dress like that even when we’re heading to a jungle?”

“What do you mean?”

“A long skirt like that’d be really bulky and just get dirty, right?”

“Maybe, but I think when it comes to bugs and snakes and other dangerous things like that, I’m a lot better off than you are. Your arms are completely exposed to bites.”

“Yeah, but I’ve got PAC.”

“PAC isn’t omnipotent, you know. If you end up taking in something poisonous that can out speed your regeneration, you’ll just be turning your life into a living hell, and worse—”

“Okay! You win, just stop freaking me out! I’m sorry I talked about your clothes like that.”

“Here, then. Take this.”

“Eh?”

Uka pulls a long-sleeved pink top out of her basket and hands it to Lyco. She spreads it to find the words SUPER☆CUTE☆LYCO sewn onto the front and back in neon pink.

“They used to call this a ‘tracksuit top.’ Long ago, there was a law where young people couldn’t exercise without wearing one of these.”

“…Really?”

“Really.”

“…”

“I also soaked it in insect repellant, and this way I won’t lose sight of you no matter what.”

Lyco notices the words MADE MY MAID embroidered into the back of the neck, though just by the colour choice alone there’s no doubt in her mind as to who made it.

“…So I should wear this?”

“Yep.”

“…”

The design is clearly in poor taste. To put it bluntly, it looks lame. Under normal circumstances, Lyco would put it on without another word of complaint, but today isn’t normal. She stares frozen at the tracksuit. Uka cocks her head to the side in confusion.

“…You don’t like it?”

“N-No, it’s just…”

How awkward. But she can’t put it on. So embarrassing. It wouldn’t be so bad at all, if only she didn’t have to worry about a certain someone mocking her for it.

Today’s jungle picnic won’t be just the two of them, after all. Despite how foul-mouthed and contemptuous Lyco may act, she has her pride and a sense of shame like anyone else. And on today, of all days, he has to come with them—

“Good morning, ladies.”

Lyco hears an unfortunately familiar voice from behind her. Turning around, she finds a young man clad head to foot in pearly-white clothes. He has delicate facial features and short rust-red hair, and the sparkle in his amber eyes is just as irksome as always.

His name is Luan, and he happens to be a rookie member of a peace-loving religious organization, the White-Cloaks. Lyco has had the misfortune of knowing him for many years now, and they get along like cats and dogs. Lyco would be the dog, of course, and Luan would be the infuriatingly handsome cat. In another world, he would surely be surrounded by mindless masses of young women, all squealing at him and scrambling for his attention.

Lyco hurriedly hides the tracksuit behind her back as Uka greets him.

“Good morning! Sorry for calling you out so early, Luan-san.”

“Please, pay me no mind. My shift patrolling the Croc-Jaw ends in the early morning, so being up at this time isn’t unusual for me.”

“Oh, really? That’s a lot like our work.”

“Yes, I’ve heard quite a bit about your restaurant. I should drop by for a visit sometime.”

“…”

“…”

Lyco watches as the two exchange platitudes, but she can practically feel Luan’s masklike smile is covering up his real feelings, and Uka’s words are devoid of emotion. Just watching them silently probe each other for openings fills her with unease.

Suddenly, Luan breaks eye contact with Uka and he gives Lyco a slit-eyed look. He smiles ever-so-slightly, as if to tell her escape is impossible.

“Good morning to you too, Lyco-san.”

“…Yeah. Mornin’.”

“No, wait, that isn’t quite right, is it? Good morning, SUPER☆CUTE☆LYCO-san.”

“Hey, what d’you think you’re–!?”

“Why the surprise? I think it’s quite fashionable. A bit of a retro look, you could say. It suits you almost too well for words. Why don’t you change it to your usual attire, SUPER☆CUTE☆LYCO-san?”

“Gah! Stop calling me that!!”

Lyco moves to throw away the tracksuit, but stops. She glances at Uka, who still seems determined to not say a word, then back at Luan’s cold smile. She clenches her teeth so loudly the squeal, but they all know the only way this could end.

“…Jealous, aren’t you!? Well, you can’t have it, no matter how hard you beg!”

She angrily thrusts both her arms through the sleeves. Only then does she realize how nicely the fabric breathes, and how easy it is to move it. She does a few practice swings with her sword to find that she hardly notices it.

“Hey, this is actually pretty nice! Not bad at all!”

“…You’re rather simple-minded, aren’t you?”

“What, got a complaint or somethin’?”

Luan shakes his head dumbfoundedly. Then, he turns to Uka and politely bows.

“I look forward to our expedition together. I’ll simply be following behind you and observing you as you gather ingredients, so please, act as you normally would.”

“I don’t have a problem with you coming with us,” Uka starts hesitantly, “but do you really need to assess our ingredients’ origins like this? I hope you don’t think we’d feed our customers anything they’d find unacceptable.”

“I’m sorry, I truly mean no offense. That is simply one of the precepts we White-Cloaks follow. One of us must be present at every stage of the food preparation process.”

“You’re all vegetarians, right? Is there anything except for meat we need to be careful of?”

“Any and all animal products are strictly forbidden to us, including eggs and milk. Root vegetables and the like are also unacceptable… though synthetic meat and germ-free plants are acceptable, provided they’ve been processed in a White-Cloak facility.”

“I see… anything from an animal…”

“Is there some problem?”

“Ah, no, it’s just, some of the plants in this jungle are carnivorous. I was just wondering if they counted as proper vegetables or not.”

“…Likely not. Anything in a grey area should be considered unacceptable. It’s highly irregular for us to eat anything we don’t produce ourselves, so I’m afraid our precepts are incredibly strict when it comes to these matters.”

Luan gives her an apologetic look, and Lyco mumbles “seriously, you guys are such goddamn princesses!” just loudly enough for them all to hear. Uka narrows her eyes at Lyco in irritation.

“Honestly, Lyco-chan, don’t be like that! It’s not Luan-san’s fault!”

“Like that matters. They book a full banquet giving us only a week’s notice, and now they’re complaining on and on about how we can’t use meat or fish or anything good? They even sent a babysitter to watch us get ready! Do they seriously think you’d mistake a hock of meat for a potato!?”

Lyco turns to fix Luan with a glare, vein bulging on her forehead as she remembers how he’d mocked her mere minutes before. Luan coolly cocks his head to the side.

“Really? And here I’d heard that Cactus-san had arranged for everything. We certainly aren’t forcing you to do anything. If you should decide to have your way, however, you had best be prepared for the consequences.”

“Gh…”

“The way I see it, this entire banquet is a bribe to keep us from interfering with SEED taking over that PAC factory. If you truly want Mentor Tianan to turn a blind eye and let you have your way with that high-purity PAC, then shouldn’t you be eager to please?”

“Gh…!”

She’s always hated the way he uses that cold logic to win every argument, and manages to sound genuinely threatening as he does so. That’s the way that the White-Cloaks operate as a whole, a ‘pacifistic’ organization that defends what order society has left with great vigour.

Noticing that Lyco has completely lost her tongue, Uka lets out a sigh.

“You’re the one who accepted this request in the first place, Lyco-chan. You can’t turn down anything Cactus-san says, can you?”

“So what? A debt’s a debt, even if it’s to an octopus.”

“Why don’t you stop complaining, then?”

“Mgh…”

2

Under the high canopy of Jungle #23, it’s survival of the fittest. This particular jungle is relatively safe; sunlight is visible streaming down through the gaps in the trees, whereas most others are overshadowed by an impenetrable canopy, dark and damp like a cavern even in broad daylight. Many nocturnal predators, including flying lizards and other dinosaurs, hate the brightness of Jungle #23 and as such tend to avoid it. The only real dangers are the likes of spear eggplants, which sharpen and launch themselves with lethal force if they pick up on nearby heat signatures, and the land-anemone, a much bigger, terrestrial versions of its aggressive ocean kin.

Lyco leads the group, caution all but thrown to the wind. She and Uka have tread that same path no small number of times, and as long as they don’t stray from it they have nothing to fear. After checking to make sure Luan is out of earshot some five meters behind them, Lyco leans into Uka’s ear.

“Why’re we heading all the way out here for ingredients, anyways? Can’t we just make something between what we’ve got in the garden and the veg in the shops?”

“Maybe, but this is a formal banquet, so the food has to fit the occasion. It’d be rude to serve them dishes from our regular menu.”

“C’mon, we’re talking about people who give themselves all sorts of diet handicaps just for kicks. I bet they wouldn’t know quality even if they saw it.”

“I’m not so sure…”

“You know what those guys normally eat? Canned crap and oil bars. I had to eat with them once and I had one helluva time keeping it down. They had these weird colourless pickles and soybean oil bars. I’d never been so pissed about food before in my life.”

“You ate their food? When?”

“Huh? I-I mean…”

“I’ve never heard that you ate with the White Cloaks before.”

“I’ve been on the odd job with them before. Y’know, joint operations with SEED, that sorta thing.”

“Oh really? That’s interesting.”

“…What? Got a problem with that?”

“Not really. I’m just a little surprised, since you’re always going on and on about how much you hate them. So that’s why you seem so close to Luan-san.”

“WHAT!? Me and him, close? No way! Who the hell’d want to be friends with a sparkly, iron-headed freak like–”

“Um… Pardon me?” Luan cuts in from behind. Lyco breaks into a cold sweat, but he doesn’t pay her any mind. Instead, he holds a small bundle of greens out to Uka.

“I happened to find this growing by the side of the path. Mentor Tianan loves all manner of beans, as a matter of fact. I believe this one is a green pea?”

“Oh, wow! Thank you so much!”

In a millisecond, Uka’s expression changes from indignation to angelic joy. Lyco rolls her eyes as Uka begins enthusing about it.

“This looks like a spring pea—and it even looks close to the pre-war strain!”

“Is it truly that rare?”

“Oh, yes. Most peas nowadays have pods as hard as iron, so these soft-husked types are really valuable. Do you have any experience looking for plants like this, Luan-san?”

“Not as such, no. I did, however, take a mandatory seminar in wilderness survival, so I can at least tell the edible from the inedible. I’m afraid this little sprout is the extent of my talents.” His gaze shifts slightly to Lyco, an irritatingly sparkly smile still stretched across his face. “You go hunting quite often, correct, Lyco-san? Surely you’re quite the hand at this yourself. What have you found so far?”

“U-Uh… Actually, I, uh…”

“Come now, don’t be so modest. I’m afraid I’m an iron-headed freak, so if you don’t spell it out for me I’m quite clueless.”

Sweat pours down Lyco’s face under Luan’s gaze. Uka simply sits and watches as Lyco reaps what she sows. After a long moment, Luan nods with self-satisfaction before taking up the rear once more. Uka smiles politely as she puts the pea in her bag and turns to her sour-faced housemate.

“So you two are friends, after all.”

“Like hell we are!”

“Come to think of it, you’ve always been like this with Luan-san. You’ve known him a lot longer than you’ve known me, right?”

“Technically, yeah. I first met him not long after joining SEED.”

“So about as long as you’ve known Cactus-san?”

“Maybe, but we’re not friends! We’re like, mortal enemies. We worked together on a job against the African mob once, and he gave me hell through every minute of it. Guess that’s what you’d expect from a dyed-in-the-wool soldier like him, though.”

“…Soldier? I know he mentioned something about training, but I thought the White-Cloaks were nonviolent?”

“On paper, yeah, but you’re forgetting there isn’t a single good person left up here on the surface. Behind that pacifistic front, they’ve got a group of militants called the White-Daggers who handle all their dirty work. Luan’s one of their best.”

The term ‘White-Cloaks’ is a blanket term for both groups. The public face, the White-Cloaks, is a pseudo-Jain religion formed from the fatalistic desperation of those left on the surface when the chosen few retreated to their shelters far underground. They preach nonviolence to all ends, advocating for a form of universal acceptance. If only death awaits them on the surface, then they might as well work to make it pleasant. Despite—or in all likelihood, thanks to—the endless violence and destruction witnessed by the surface-dwellers, a fair number of believers have come to accept their somewhat extreme beliefs.

The religion has a critical flaw, however, in that an all-too-likely premature death renders the precepts moot, cutting personal cultivation short. As such, a sect of believers decided to take matters into their own hands—the White-Daggers. Though they shoulder the sin of violence, in protecting the faithful, they secure their salvation. The bulk of its members trickled into the White-Daggers from the last real military force left on Earth, the Defensive Front for the Obsolete, or the DFO for short. They were a multinational force that existed until the end of the 23rd Century, created in order to combat and suppress nature as it ran rampant and establish safe zones centered around the Experimental Cities. As the DFO was supported by extensive moral codes and near-ascetic practices, it didn’t take long for it to naturally merge with the pseudo-Jain.

“…That’s why his words and actions don’t match up, see? He doesn’t make sense. He claims to follow all those fancy precepts about how bad violence is, but just look at what he’s got slung over his shoulder – a Weatherby Mark X bolt-action rifle! He’s packing enough raw firepower to split a migrant drake’s skull in one shot. You know how many people his sniping has—”

BANG! A low gunshot echoes throughout the jungle. Lyco and Uka both start with surprise, but in moments the air is left eerily silent. Lyco whips around.

“Hey, dumbass! You think you could at least give us a little warning before you go shooting up the wildlife!?”

“Ah, my apologies. I simply glanced something rather large through the trees and decided it would be prudent to scare it off with all due haste. That was a blank just now.”

“That ain’t the problem here! I thought my heart was gonna jump outta my chest! You were just tryin’ to mess with me, weren’t you!?”

“Ahaha, perhaps you’re right.”

“Go screw yourself!”

Lyco draws her wooden sword, ready to cut into Luan’s carefree smile, but Uka grabs her arm at the last moment.

“Lemme go, Uka! Just one good hit, that’s all! This’s work, which means we’re in charge, and he’d better respect the chain of command ‘round here!”

“…Lyco-chan.”

Uka’s brow furrows, creating the kind of grave expression she makes only a few times a year at most. In fact, her expression seems to have only grown more grim since entering the jungle. Lyco stops.

“Seriously, what’s up with that face…?”

“This is also work, Lyco-chan. Shouldn’t we be focusing on the job at hand?”

“Yeah, but…”

“We’re almost there. Come on, let’s get moving.”

Uka flashes Luan a glance where he stands smirking, then pointedly turns her back on him and links arms with Lyco, practically dragging her along as she walks.

“…I refuse to lose to him,” Uka mutters.

“Lose? At what?”

“It’s nothing! Keep walking!”

“H-Hey, what’re you getting all angry at me for!? It’s his fault he–”

Her voice is almost comically quiet in the wake of the gunshot. At that moment, however, she suddenly cuts herself off and stands at alert.

“Is something wrong, Lyco-chan?”

Lyco quickly puts a finger to her lips, quietly urging Uka onwards.

“Don’t stop moving.”

“Eh?”

“We’re being hunted.”

Her ‘business’ tone escapes in her voice, something she hardly ever shows Uka. Her entire body tenses with combined unease and bloodlust, senses sharpening like blades. She smoothly pulls a red syringe out of her sword’s hilt and injects it into her arm, closing her eyes to focus. Finally, she can pick up a slight rustling sound in the nearby undergrowth.

“Whatever it is, it’s keeping pace with us just out of sight, and it ain’t human. I can’t hear the rustling of clothing, weapons, nothing.”

“Is it an animal?”

“Yeah. It’s probably…”

“A ‘cat’, isn’t it?”

“That’s my guess, but… how’d you know?”

“It’s right there in front of us.”

“What?”

Lyco’s eyes flash open, reveling a four-legged beast a short distance in front of them. The creature is nearly human height at the shoulder, and it has a long, lashing tail. Its pelt is covered with motley red-and-black splotches, and it stares them down with needle-sharp golden eyes.

Uka’s grip on Lyco’s arm loosens, and Lyco raises her blade ever so slowly, careful so as not to aggravate it. She calls back to Luan without taking her eyes off the giant cat.

“You were shooting to scare off this thing, weren’t you?”

“Yes, but I must confess, I don’t know why the two of you are so ill at ease.”

With a solid dwock!, Luan fires at it, this time without a blank. A tranquilizer dart embeds itself deeply in the cat’s neck. He crisply ejects the empty shell, but he falters as he moves to load his next shot. The colossal feline, instead of passing out as any creature half its size might, dislodges the dart with a shake of its massive head as it glares at him. It lets out a low growl.

“What…?”

A rare shadow passes over Luan’s features. Lyco’s expression twists into a smirk as she thumps him heartily on the back.

“Hehe, guess that’s one thing your shitty little training seminar didn’t teach you. Tranquilizers don’t work against these guys. No poison does.”

Luan’s face turns a shade graver as she continues.

“The real problem is, though, they’ve got a lethal poison in their fangs, claws, meat, heck, even their fur. You can’t even touch one of these things without dying. Any hunter worth their salt knows to turn tail at the sight of one of these things.”

“…”

“Meet the toxicat, a beastie that folks have been scaring their kids shitless with for years. You really are a sorry bastard if you’ve never even heard of–”

Before she can finish her sentence, however, he snaps – the toxicat, not Luan. Taking advantage of the fact that Lyco is totally distracted mocking Luan, the pantherous feline leaps.

“Uh oh.”

Its toxic fangs sink deep into Lyco’s arm.

3

In the next instant, Lyco pierces the toxicat through the heart, then cuts off her arm at the elbow.

“Lyco-chan!”

A river of blood pours out from her stub of an arm. The severed limb lying on the ground rapidly begins to discolour and starts decomposing within seconds. Luan doesn’t even have the time to process all that just happened before Lyco lets out a sigh of relief.

“Damn, that hurt.” Her bleeding has already stopped, and her arm is already regenerating. “This is all your friggin’ fault, Luan!”

“No, I believe that was because you completely let your guard down.”

“That’s… a good point.”

“I wish you would warn me if there were creatures like this in the jungle, however. I was convinced that blanks and tranquilizers would be sufficient to prevent any loss of animal life. I didn’t know that warning shot would only make them more aggressive.”

“Well, that’s one animal life lost, at any rate.”

“I assume no responsibility for your murderous actions.”

“Hey, this is self defense! If I didn’t stab it, the thing’d be–”

“Oh, snap out of it, you two!”

Uka cuts in between them and points into the bush. From the shadows emerge more red-and-black blotchy figures, slinking around to encircle them. The fourteen remaining toxicats, no doubt the rest of the first’s pack, slowly draw in closer.

Luan lets out a heavy sigh. “I suppose I should accept responsibility for provoking them, at least.”

He shoulders his rifle, instead drawing a pair of PL-20 automatic handguns. The weapons are dyed in the same rust red as his hair, and magazines are filled with not blanks or tranquilizers but live ammunition, lethal 9mm bullets. They look almost like red roses blooming on his crisp white sleeves, a sight that earned him the moniker of the ‘White-Robed Rose.’ As gorgeous as he his lethal, he breaks the very precepts he defends, a lethal—

“Butt out, Luan. You can just sit there and watch.”

“Excuse me?”

“This’s our work, our hunt. It’s eat or be eaten out here, so you can take your half-assed resolve and stuff it. This ain’t the place for a blank-firing baby.”

With that, Lyco charges forwards into the mob. One of the toxicats, initially hesitant after having one of its kin slain, snarls and swipes at her. Her first swing relieves it of its arm, her second taking its head. Swing, swing, swing, she cuts through the mob without a moment’s pause, slaying beast after beast. The remaining cats, identifying her as the biggest threat, all leap at her hissing. Her tracksuit, while insufficient to guard against their attacks completely, is enough to keep their poisonous blood off her skin. She howls like a mad dog as she tears into the new wave of attackers.

Luan simply watches her dumbfoundedly. After a moment, he lowers his guns and returns them to their holsters. Uka watches him with a critical eye.

“If you’re willing to resort to violence so easily, what’s even the point of having precepts?”

“I didn’t decide to draw on a whim… rather, err…”

“And here I thought you had it more together than that. Are all you White-Cloaks like this?”

“…”

He can hardly challenge her point, but more than that, he wasn’t expecting such hostility from her. It made some sense; even with PAC, the toxicat could have easily gone for Lyco’s neck or torso, from which there would be no recovery. No matter how strong Lyco is, it’s only natural Uka would be worried.

“…Do you know what those cats really are, Luan-san?” Uka’s voice is absolutely frigid.

“I’m afraid I don’t.”

“Take a good long look, then. That’s what twisted human ideals looks like.”

“Ideals…?”

“The toxicat’s descendants were pets, kept for human enjoyment. Some humans, however, decided to give them as gifts, and the unwanted animals were returned to the wild.”

“But they’re not just any hyper-evolved stray, are they?”

“No. They eat poison and store it in their body. I’ve heard that they were genetically spliced with a poisonous pre-war mammal called a ‘platypus.’”

“But why?”

“Isn’t it obvious? So humans wouldn’t eat them.”

Luan’s mouth snaps shut.

Three hundred years ago, in the Age of the Ark, humanity fled a war-ravaged Earth to seek a better future among the stars. The remaining humans began to fight over the little food that remained. Many believed that humanity would return to some form of its hunter-gatherer roots. Abandoned pets no doubt would have made prime prey. Some humans then thought: before our beloved pets become food, we should just make it so that they can’t be eaten.

“But why would they do such a thing? Why would they rewrite those animals’ very DNA to protect them after abandoning them? Just what were they trying to protect…?”

“I told you it was twisted. Humans aren’t content to live in a world they can’t control. They need to change their world to make it more comfortable for them. Just as some decided to make unappetizing foods delicious, some decided to make edible food inedible. Most make rules for themselves and do a decent job of following them, and they’re free to live however they please, but some people… For some people, it’s hard to tell if they even know what they believe in.”

Luan freezes up at Uka’s interrogating tone. As he finally opens his mouth to say something, a low growl emanates from his feet. The first toxicat, the one Lyco had stabbed through the heart, has climbed back to its feet. Without a moment’s hesitation, it makes a snapping lunge towards Uka. Right before its massive jaw closes around her petite frame—

“Move!!”

Luan cuts in, grabbing its jaws and holding it back. As he restrains its head, however, it makes a vicious swipe with its foreclaws.

“Look out!”

Uka’s cry does little to stop it, however, as its poison-drenched claws rake at Luan’s face. He doesn’t even flinch, simply slamming the giant cat’s head into the ground. It spasms just once, then hacks up a spray of blood and dies.

“L-Luan-san… Your face…!”

Her voice trembles as she calls out to him from behind. The toxin is a complex one, and there exists no purging method or antivenom. Not even PAC can defend against it; he has at best a few minutes to live. In moments, he’ll lose the ability to even stand… or so she believes.

“…”

Luan looks down at the body of the animal and lets out a casual sigh. Slowly, he turns to face her with a lonely smile, and seeing the scratches on his face she finally realizes.

“Your face… It’s…”

“Metal underneath, I know. I’m a Fullarmour, an artificial human. Poison has no effect on me. Didn’t Lyco-san tell you I’m iron-headed?”

Underneath the sheath of artificial human skin on his face is a layer of pearly-white synthetic muscle and fat. Not a drop of blood is to be seen. His supernatural beauty suddenly makes sense. He calmly wipes the black poison off his cheek with a handkerchief.

“I was originally made as an experimental combat drone. I’m perfectly mechanical, save my brain. I was born in a test tube, raised in a lab, and had my brain harvested for this human-like contraption before I could even know my true body.”

“…”

“That’s why I may act and react as a real human might, but my body has no small number of tricks and gimmicks. If, for example, a human would be hurt near me, my body automatically moves to protect them, regardless of my own wishes. It’s how I was designed – and rather, if I were to fail to protect, I’d no doubt be discarded as defective. I’m truly sorry I hadn’t noticed the toxicat was alive sooner. I’m afraid your scorn had all but paralyzed me.”

As he talks, a faint smile creeps onto his lips, making the gashes on his face become even more distinctive. Uka can’t tell if his expression is genuine or not. Unable to say anything in return, a heavy silence passes between them. Finally, they nearby bushes rustle as Lyco pushes her way back onto the path.

“There, that’s all of ‘em. Damn, I’m beat.”

There’s not a drop of blood on her, not a single scratch. Only one of the sleeves of her tracksuit is still missing from the first toxicat’s attack. She at last notices Luan’s face and cocks her head to the side quizzically.

“Jeez, what happened to your face, Luan? Did you piss off Uka and get scratched?”

Uka is dumbfounded, and even Luan’s expression turns grim.

“I’m afraid this is all a certain someone’s fault,” he says in a low voice.

“…Huh?”

“This is a parting gift from that first feline, the one you failed to slay. Who was it giving lectures on resolve again…?”

“Ahahahaha… Accidents happen?”

Uka and Luan sigh in unison, but the grin stays strong on Lyco’s face.

“Hey, so you two can get along!”

Another pair of sighs echo through the jungle.

4

After the encounter with the giant cats, they carry on towards their destination. They don’t walk long down the thin, winding path before arriving at a distinctly out-of-place metal ruin. The windows are broken, the walls battered and dented, and expansive networks of vines cover the outside. The structure itself seems to attest to humanity’s loss in the war against nature.

“I had entirely expected to wander through the woods for some time yet… this is quite incredible.”

Luan pulls aside a curtain of vines to get a better look inside. Lyco puffs out her chest with pride.

“I found this place, y’know! It was a lab built just after the war. Uka and I are probably the only people who know ‘bout this place now.”

“Interesting… But what are we doing here?”

“Getting food, ‘course. You two go ahead and start gathering the mushrooms. I’m gonna go grab something real good.”

With that, she disappears into the darkness, leaving Luan and Uka alone. An uneasy silence fills the air.

“…They’re this way. Follow me.”

“Understood.”

The corridors, despite having no proper roof left, are cast into deep shadow by the surrounding walls. They proceed through the gloom for some time before finally arriving in a bright square room, some fifty metres wide per side. Rubble and broken glass cover the floor, leaving the room filled with checkered patches of shade. It takes Luan a long moment to notice the rotten-brown clumps hidden in the darkness.

“Are these…?”

“Let me guess: your precious survival seminar didn’t teach you about these, either?”

“Not as such, but… They’re mushrooms, correct?”

“They’re a type of morel mushroom, yes. Eating one will kill you in just a few short hours.”

“Oh.”

Left on their own by the wayside, Luan might mistake them for dried internal organs, or maybe even shriveled brains. Uka reaches into the patch without hesitation, picking them one by one and piling them into her basket. He watches dumbfoundedly.

“You’re not planning on murdering everyone at the banquet, are you?”

“Of course not. They’re definitely toxic, but all that means is I’ll have to take the poison out.”

“Is it really just that simple?”

“These mushrooms are packed with gyromitrin. That means that it turns into monomethylhydrazine with a bit of water, and that’s easy enough to boil away. These mushrooms are actually pretty close to how they were before the war, and they were eaten quite a bit in a country called ‘Finland.’”

“You’re rather knowledgeable, as always. You’ve certainly earned your reputation. How, may I ask, do you know so much at your young age?”

“I just enjoy looking things up.”

She ignores Luan’s loaded gaze with an angelic smile. He sighs and slumps his shoulders.

“I’m sorry, I suppose that was rather rude of me to ask. Speaking of which, why are these mushrooms in this old factory, of all places? These can’t be related to those cats from before, can they?”

“Well, toxicats can’t produce poison on their own, so they’re probably eating the morels. Actually, I have a theory that this factory used to extract the monomethylhydrazine from these mushrooms. The morels would grow infinitely with a supply of PAC, so there’s no point in setting up a bunch of elaborate machines to manufacture it. It’s better to just let nature do the hard part.”

After mostly filling a large pot with the morels, she carries it to the side of the room. She cuts one of the thick vines there with a knife, letting the water contained within it flow out. She waits until the mushrooms are barely submerged before getting a portable gas burner out of her pack and lighting it.

Luan pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket and holds it out to her.

“Shouldn’t you wear a mask, just to be sure? Something would surely be better than nothing.”

“Y-Yes… I completely forgot. Thank you.”

Uka takes the kerchief and folds it in half diagonally before tying it over her mouth. They both stare into the pot in silence. Eventually it begins to boil, and their ears are filled with the pleasant sound of bubbles.

“I think I understand now,” Luan says suddenly. “If they were after large volumes of hydrazine, then this facility must be from the Age of the Ark.”

“Yep. It’s a rocket propellant, after all. Back when everyone was desperate to abandon the planet, they made a lot of these places.”

“I’ve heard of that, yes. All the elites fled the Earth, leaving the common folk to continue a losing war against nature…”

“I suppose that was the hardest time for the White-Cloaks, wasn’t it? They used to be the DFO, right?”

“That’s all in the distant past now. Just like this factory, we also lost to the planet.”

He looks away from the pot, running his eyes over the cracked factory walls. The sound of bubbles fills the air for a long moment before their silence is broken again, this time by Uka.

“Um… So why did you join the White-Cloaks, Luan-san?”

“That’s an awfully sudden question.”

“I thought I might as well use this opportunity to ask. I just can’t shake my curiosity. Why are you upholding the ‘faith’ as you are?”

“Why would an old war machine like myself join the pacifistic White-Cloaks, you mean?”

“No, not that… Why are you killing for them?”

“…”

“…Was that rude of me?”

“Ah, no… I’m simply surprised. Never would I have thought you, of all people, would be interested in me. I could’ve sworn you were completely obsessed with Lyco-san.”

“I-I’m not obsessed or anything… ahahaha…”

“Haha, sorry. You’ve surely heard plenty about me form Lyco-can, haven’t you?”

“Some, yes. She told me you were the White-Cloaks’ muscle.”

“And how did you feel when you heard that?”

“To be honest… you seemed to contradict yourself. Why would any organization make such strict rules about killing for food, and then make some of its members break those rules to murder? Haven’t you ever wondered that yourself?”

“I’ve never known a soldier to not contradict themselves. To us White-Daggers, the precepts are merely a formality. Many of us have their fill of fish and meats when they believe nobody is paying attention. The higher-ups know all about it, but so long as their dirty work is done, they couldn’t care less about minor infractions like that.”

“But what about you?”

“What about me? I detest violence, and yet I’ve taken many lives with this rifle.” He puts a hand on the weapon lying beside him, fingers running along its barrel. “…I don’t expect any form of salvation. I uphold the precepts out of a sense of duty alone, you could say.”

“Duty?”

“Mentor Tianan fished me out of a mountain of scrap. I was still in jar at the time, a lump of grey matter barely aware enough to know only death awaited me. I was given a new body, a name, a purpose in life. He saved my life, and following his teachings is the least I can do to repay his kindness… and for the same reason, I break the precepts and claim others’ lives.”

“…”

“You’re probably suspecting that he’s only using me, aren’t you?”

“…You’re suffering, aren’t you? Because of him.”

“Am I now…?”

“When you finished off that dying toxicat, I could tell that you were in pain. You really believe in the precepts, don’t you? You hate killing. So why…?”

If what he really wants is to be a pacifist, then he should leave the White-Cloaks. If his desire to repay Tianan is bringing such contradiction into his life, then he would likely be better off without them.

Luan simply smiles calmly, however, and shakes his head.

“The precept against claiming lives itself is a contradiction. A paradox. Even if someone were to live on water alone, there are countless microbes in every glass. They’d still be murdering living things. The precepts allow us to eat vegetables, but those vegetables themselves grow on the corpses of living creatures. The world is filled with killers and the killed, to the point that murder doesn’t even cross one’s mind. Life means killing, and in that the precepts contradict themselves, before even the matter of claiming human lives. It never has, and never will, make sense. To me, however, that contradictory lifestyle is quite pleasant, and through it I can repay my debts. There are times, though, where I yearn for a different life. I suppose there’s no hiding that side of me from you, is there?”

He narrows his shoulders in apparent embarrassment, his voice trailing off in uncertainty. Uka is struck speechless. In that moment, somewhere deep beneath his perfect façade, she can faintly envy in his words. Finally, she understands the look he’d been shooting Lyco ever since they met up. Luan is just like her, attracted to Lyco’s unbridled nature, her fierce independence. It’s as though she sees him with totally new eyes now.

She lets out a sigh so quiet he can’t hear and stands to her feet.

“Could you give me a hand, Luan-san?”

“Of course.”

Uka hands him a strainer, then pours the water out of the pot through it. As steam begins to rise from the ground around them, they spot Lyco appear at a distant doorway. She visibly represses a childish grin, hands held firmly behind her back. She prances over the rubble, then sticks a bundle of grasses under Luan’s nose with a flourish.

“Check this out!”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“Are those weeds?”

“’Course not!! C’mon, guess!”

“I’m afraid I have no idea what that is unless you tell me.”

“This is lemongrass! I think… no, definitely lemongrass!”

“I see.”

“I knew you wouldn’t know! See, this is grass that smells like lemon. This is crazy rare, and I bet Uka’s losing her mind with happiness! Right, Uka?”

Luan composedly removes the cloth covering his face. He takes a small piece and puts in his mouth, nodding with a composed “I see.” Uka shakes her head dumbfoundedly, eyebrows furrowed.

“We have that in the garden back home, you know.”

“Uh… We do?”

“Did you really want to one-up Luan that badly?”

“I-I was just trying to show you–”

“Oh, and these are all hard leaves! How many times do I have to tell you that the young growth is the best?”

“B-But I… I, uh…”

Lyco begins to shrivel up under their cold gazes. In that light, the neon-pink stitching on the front of her sweats almost seems to read SUPER☆HURT☆LYCO. Not only that, her stomach lets out a high-pitched growl.

“…I’m so hungry.”

“Oh, honestly… Let’s eat, then. All we have to do still is dry the mushrooms.”

“Okay.”

Uka takes the kerchief off her face and spreads it out on the ground, then sets ham, bread, cheese, and condiments out upon it. Before she begins to make the sandwiches, however, she spots Luan pulling a can and three sealed packages out of his bag. It seems to be eggplant canned in oil and organic oil bars, the exact lunch Lyco had described to her.

“Those are rations, aren’t they?”

“Yes. They’re made at a White-Cloak facility, so I can eat without fear of breaking the precepts. Would you like to try?”

“Can I?”

She politely accepts a bite of eggplant from him and puts in in her mouth. It seems to be preserved in a white wine vinaigrette, but the sheer saltiness of it is enough to blot out any decent flavour. On top of that, garlic—no, synthetic garlic was used to remove the reek of the canning process, but that flavour is again too strong. The taste of the oil bar is as she would expect, hardly any different from eating raw soy flour. Even one bite is enough to totally dry out the inside of her mouth.

“That’s… how should I put it…”

“You can be honest and say it tastes awful, Uka-san. I remember when Lyco-san first tried it, she shouted ‘Like I could eat that shit!’ right into my face.”

“So what?” Lyco says poutily. “I just called it as I tasted it. Nothin’ wrong with that.”

“You may well be right, but I distinctly remember that little bit of honestly nearly sparked a fight between the White-Cloaks and SEED.”

“Not MY fault…”

Uka smiles bitterly and Lyco’s pouting figure before turning back to Luan.

“Speaking of which, Luan-san, why are you eating in the first place? Does an android even need food?”

“Not particularly. I run completely on electricity, so you could say I could be the most pacifistic person alive. I only eat so that I may appear more human.”

“Told you,” Lyco scoffs. “He couldn’t care less about food.”

“But Luan-san, you are interested in food, aren’t you? At least enough to know those rations don’t taste good, that is.”

“I suppose so.”

“Okay, then, how about I make you something?”

“…Excuse me?”

“Why don’t you have a meal not because it seems human, but because it’s fun?”

“There’s no need, so why—”

“You can really enjoy food because there’s no need to eat. You can have whatever you want, as much as you want, without ever needing to worry about allergies or nutrition or anything like that. Don’t you think it’d be a waste to not use such a gift? You’re free to follow the precepts, but doesn’t that also mean you have the right to live whatever life you want within them? I think it’d be a real waste to not eat.”

“…”

“So why don’t you let me make you something?”

“Make something? You mean here and now?”

“Yes, using those rations there. I want you to realize how fun food can be.”

She can feel the stress she’d been carrying in her features the entire trip melt away. With the most earnest expression she can muster, she fixes him with the gaze of a real chef and something more.

“…Her food’s real good, y’know,” Lyco mutters.

Luan’s features cloud with indecision for a moment, then he nods.

“I suppose if you’ll be cooking a banquet, it’d be fitting to assess your skills firsthand.”

Her ingredients are Luan’s awful-tasting rations and the plants they’ve picked throughout the day, and she has not a condiment at her disposal—yet she feels more excitement at the challenge than anything else.

With that, Uka’s camp cooking begins.

5

Uka hadn’t been planning on cooking anything in the first place, meaning that she hardly has any cooking utensils, either. She has the pot, a knife, and a single burner, meaning she’ll have to limit the meal to a single dish.

One idea comes to mind, however. She washes the pot thoroughly, then fills it partway with fresh water from a vine. Then she adds the three oil bars as-is, dissolving them on low heat. Before long she’s left with a soupy soy paste.

“You’re just gonna melt it down, after all the work that went into firming those suckers up?”

Lyco peers into the pot, apparently energized by the prospect of Uka’s cooking. Uka then adds the oil and juices from the canned eggplant to the pot, mixing it well before giving it a small taste.

“The first step is to bring the salt levels under control. These oil bars have no inherent flavour, but the eggplant is way too salty.”

“But it’s just soy powder, right? It still doesn’t look that good…”

“There’s a long tradition of bean-based dishes around the Fifth Experimental City Festuum, around what used to be called the ‘Mediterranean.’ Using boiled and mashed chick peas would be more traditional, but soy beans should be a decent substitute.”

With the oil, salt, and slight sourness, the main flavour itself is complete. Once the paste has reduced somewhat and become thick, she divides it into three lumps at the bottom of the pan. In one, she adds the minced peas Luan had found, in the second she adds Lyco’s finely chopped lemongrass, and in the last diced eggplant. She then carefully heats the three pastes, taking care to not let them mix as she stirs them. Once all the ingredients have integrated completely, she lightly drizzles the last of the oil overtop. The smell of garlic begins to dance through the air.

“Lunch is served! I present three types of hummus. Eat it by scooping up the paste with the mushrooms!”

Uka turns off the burner, and the three of them gather around the pot. Lyco wastes no time in tearing off a strip of morel and dipping it in the lemongrass hummus closest to her.

Itadakimasu!”

She pops the whole piece into her mouth. Her eyes fly open, her ears twitching slightly. She starts squirming, as if resisting the urge to leap to her feet and dance.

“Mm! This is crazy!”

The first flavour to spread through her mouth is the sharp tang of the garlic, and the gentle flavour of the lemongrass follows quick on its heels. The mushroom itself, still lukewarm from its hot bath, is bursting with rich flavour. The soy flour mixes perfectly with the oil, creating a sense of satisfaction akin to eating meat. She almost can’t believe it’s vegan.

“I’m next, then.”

Uka tries the eggplant paste first. The combined saltiness and sourness grab her by the tongue all at once, and despite having cooked it herself, she lets out a sigh of utter satisfaction. It’s not too salty, nor too bland; the hummus removed the worst of the saltiness from the eggplant itself, and its soft texture provides a wonderful match for the gentle flavour of the mushroom. The strong garlic kick provides an excellent accent, resulting in a flavour that she couldn’t get tired of if she tried.

Lyco and Uka both stop after a moment, however. They turn to face Luan. Their entire expedition hinges on his opinion as the White-Cloaks’ representative, and they can’t stem their curiosity.

“…My turn, I suppose. Itadakimasu.”

Feeling somewhat self-conscious, Luan follows suit and dips a piece of mushroom into the pea hummus before him.

“…Oh!”

His reaction is nearly instantaneous, his composed features suddenly changing as though he were electrocuted. Wordlessly, he takes a second bite, then a third, until finally his mushroom has disappeared. He licks the remaining paste off his fingers before finally opening his mouth.

“This… this is quite good.”

His words escape his lips like a laden sigh. Lyco and Uka exchange glances, then smile at the same time.

“I could never have imagined those oil bars could become something so tasty, and the diced pea pods provide the most interesting crunchy texture. May I try those two dips as well?”

“Of course! We have more than enough mushrooms to go around, after all.”

Luan’s expressions are clear and fluid, shifting into different forms of delight with each mouthful.

“…Do you eat this well every day, Lyco-san?”

“‘Course I do! Bet you’re jealous!”

“I am… oh, truly, I am…”

Uka, hearing the envy rich in his voice, finally gives in. The way he eats, food stuck to his cheek as her goes in for seconds, is all too similar to Lyco. The two are alike in more ways than they realize, perhaps the sign of some special bond the two of them share. More than anything, they strike her as a pair of quarrelsome siblings. They might have seen to small number of battlefields and they may seem to be on awful terms with each other, but now they can break bread without qualms.

“So that’s what they are… Siblings…” Everything fits together now, and the muddled emotion that had been filling Uka’s head ever since she first laid eyes on Luan is cleared. “Oh, Lyco-chan! I made you a sandwich, too, so try not to eat too many mushrooms.”

“Got it… Just me, though?”

“I’d be more than happy to make more, but…”

She fixes Luan with a questioning gaze, but he quietly shakes his head.

“Don’t worry about me. This is plenty enough.”

Come to think of it, the bread she’d made contains butter, and regardless of that he wouldn’t eat any food not prepared in front of him or by the White-Cloaks. That summarizes his stance on food, and within that philosophy there’s plenty of room for him to enjoy himself.

Uka shifts her attention to the oblong loaves of bread, slicing it open with a knife and filling it with ham, cheese, and a drizzle of each of the three types of hummus. She hands it to Lyco, who takes a large bite, leaving a faint smear behind on her nose.

“Oh, honestly… Here, look at me.”

She wipes Lyco’s nose clean with a handkerchief. Luan chuckles at them, and Lyco turns to glare daggers.

“What’s so funny?”

“I simply find the two of you amusing. It’s rather hard to tell which of you is the elder.”

“Shut it! You’ve got sauce all over your own damn face!”

“What…!?”

He quickly mops the hummus away with a handkerchief, an unusually embarrassed look on his face.

“Well, that was rather humbling.”

Uka rolls her eyes at them, but she can feel a bout of laughter well up from inside her. It feels unlike any emotion she’d ever experienced before, filling her body like a gentle breeze.

The jungle picnic continues until all three hummus pastes have neatly vanished form the pan. By the time they have harvested and prepared a new batch of mushrooms to replace the ones they’d eaten, the sun is already low in the sky, and the jungle outside has begun to grow dark.

“I think I’ll make mushrooms the main dish of the banquet. Do you know of any other White-Cloak rations that I might be able to use? Is there anything else you think might be good? To be honest, I never would’ve expected such depth from vegan food…”

“With pleasure,” Luan replies, flashing Uka his unchangingly proper smile. Lyco, leading the way through the darkening wood, turns around to look at them in bewilderment.

“You guys really are close now, huh? What happened between you while I was gone?”

By coincidence, or perhaps by fate, their voices overlap in reply.

“This is all thanks to a certain someone!”

Uka and Lyco’s Ingredient Log #3 – Poison Mushrooms

Uka: Poisonous mushrooms, scientific name… wait, do they have a scientific name? It used to be called Gyromitra esculenta some two hundred years ago, but the ones we ate were probably an industrial strain. They’re chock full of toxic gyromitrin.

Lyco: Yeah, eating one raw could kill you.

Uka: Vomiting, severe stomach cramps, then severe internal bleeding… It’s lethal all right.

Lyco: …Who the hell thought it’d be a good idea to try and eat it?

Uka: It is tasty, though.

Lyco: Well, yeah, but… What is a mushroom, anyways? And why would anyone try to eat any of those squishy little things in the first place? I mean, that poisonous one looks like a shriveled brain on a stick.

Uka: These ones probably weren’t for eating originally. Fungi are amazing at breaking things down and synthesizing them, and they’re also really hardy, so they were pretty much the center of the biotechnological revolution after the invention of PAC. The monomethylhydrazine that can be gleaned from these mushrooms is a rocket propellant, you know.

Lyco: Speaking of PAC, why do you think those ruins were the only place with those mushrooms? If they’re really so hardy and stuff, you’d think there’d be mushrooms as far as the eye can see.

Uka: I was wondering that too, actually. I even tried to take a few home and grow them in the garden, but none of them survived.

Lyco: Is it really that hard to grow mushrooms?

Uka: Oh, yes. I’ve been trying for quite some time now.

Lyco: Come to think of it, you use the shrooms that naturally sprout up in the garden as ingredients every once in a while, right? Those aren’t the poison type, though, right?

Uka: …

Lyco: Okay, do NOT get quiet there!

Uka: I’m just joking. I’d never serve a customer anything poisonous.

Lyco: Really…?

Uka: We actually do have something called ‘Raw Poison Shroom’ on our secret menu, though. I once lied and said that you’d eaten a poison mushroom raw and thought it was really good, but every once in a while, a customer actually orders it.

Lyco: Yeah, I’ve seen them haze new customers with that before. They think it’s actually lethal, so it’s like a test of courage thing.

Uka: Well, I think it’s cruel.

Lyco: C’mon, it’s not actually poisonous or anything. You always boil ‘em properly, right?

Uka: …

Lyco: Seriously, stop doing that to me!

[to be continued]

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