Neon Flowers

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Ch.3 Something of Value

Aikawa-sensei rarely calls in clean-up crews, he prefers that we “clean up our own mess”, but when he does end up calling them in he always seems cheerful. Maybe it’s because he gets to relax for a little, I don’t really know. Maybe I’ll ask him about it later.

A clean-up bot approaches me, “are you Hunter #3773749, Rourke Aikawa?” it asks me.

I nod to the bot, “Yes,” I respond.

“Please provide proper identification,” it beeps and holds out its palm, a glowing scanner pops out of its palm. I press the lotus insignia on my chest, and with a click the insignia pops out of my chest and into my hand. I place the lotus on the clean-up bot’s scanner.

“Identification verified, thank you,” the robot says, handing me back my lotus insignia. I press the insignia back into my chest. “Please answer a few questions,” the clean-up bot chirps, “Were any civilians harmed in the processes of slaying the demon?”

“No,” I respond.

“Was any Lotus property, including Hunters, heavily damaged, destroyed, or killed during the process of slaying the demon?” the clean-up bot asks.

“No,” I respond again.

“Did you recover any Lotus property from the monster during the process of slaying the demon?”

“No,” I say.

“Were all demons successfully slain during the process of slaying the demon?”

“Yes,” I say.

“Thank you for answering the questions, you are free to continue with your business,” the robot turns away from me and moves towards the demon’s corpse to assist the other clean-up bots. I turn towards the exit and see Aikawa-sensei talking to the clean-up crew’s supervising Hunters. I walk towards them and hear snippets of their conversation.

“It said something about you being ignorant?” one of the Hunters asks Aikawa-sensei,

“Yes, strange isn’t it? Usually they just insult our looks,” Aikawa-sensei chuckles. He sees me approaching and gestures towards me, “Ah, you two haven’t really met Rourke yet have you?” He waves me over, “introduce yourself Rourke,” he says.

“Hello, I’m Rourke Aikawa,” I reach out my hand and shake the hands of the two hunters before me.

“Rourke huh? That’s interesting. Do you know who you’re named after, Rourke?” A Hunter with blonde hair and a wide grin asks me.

“It’s the name Aikawa-sensei gave to me, I had no idea that I was named after someone else,” I reply.

“Really old man? Not even telling your apprentice the meaning of his name? Shame on you,” He says to Aikawa-sensei with the same grin. “Mind if I tell him if you aren’t going to?” He asks Aikawa-sensei.

“I didn’t think that it was necessary, but sure, I don’t have any objections,” Aikawa-sensei nods.

The hunter turns to me, “you’re named after Kaito’s old partner, Rourke Byrne. Man was almost as legendary as your old man himself. Hunters all across the continent were in shock when they heard he finally kicked the bucket. You’ve got big boots to fill.” He chuckles, the same big grin filling his face.

“It certainly seems like he’s doing that just fine,” the other hunter says, her piercing blue eyes seem to see right through me. “They somehow managed to kill a mature queen kumo-demon, and its entire colony, on their own.”

The other Hunter turns towards Aikawa-sensei, “ha, yeah, I don’t know how you two did it. This should’ve been a job for at least three Hunter teams. If I were a demon and I knew you two were after me, I would just off myself on the spot.” He laughs and pats Aikawa-sensei on the back. “If anything, you two are the real demons here.”

Aikawa-sensei smiles and nods, “Thank you, but we’re just doing what needs to be done.” The hunter with blonde hair shakes his head.

“You’ve always been way too humble, you deserve to brag a little. In fact, you being this humble almost makes us look bad,” He turns towards me, “Don’t you agree Rourke?” He asks.

“Aikawa-sensei says it’s always best to remain humble, over-confidence and arrogance kill in our line of work” I respond.

The Hunter laughs, “You really are his apprentice,” He says, reaching out his hand for a handshake, “Well, it’s been a pleasure to meet you Rourke,” suddenly, he lets out a hearty laugh, “I don’t think we’ve even introduced ourselves have we? How rude of us, I’m Angus, and this pretty lady is Aurora,” he gestures to the other Hunter, “She’s the brains of our operation.”

“Thank you, Angus,” Aurora says, shaking her head, “As Angus said, it has been a pleasure to finally meet you. We had heard some interesting things about Kaito’s new apprentice, and it seems like we’ll continue to hear more. I do hope we’ll run into each other more, but for now, we have duties to attend to,” She walks off towards the body of the kumo-demon. Angus gives us a final wave before following her.

“They’re certainly a lively pair aren’t they?” Aikawa-sensei chuckles.

“Yes, I suppose so,” I reply. I turn to Aikawa-sensei, “Aikawa-sensei, why haven’t you told me about your old partner?” I ask.

He turns and looks at me, “lets talk about this over some breakfast. I haven’t had a good meal in a while, and we should celebrate our success in slaying the kumo-demon,” he says.

After a ride in an ATHV, and a short walk, Aikawa-sensei and I walk into a restaurant, one of Aikawa-sensei’s favorites. The restaurant is modeled after an early twentieth century diner, aside from us and a few older looking patrons, the restaurant is empty. The hostess greets us with a warm smile.

“Welcome,” she says. She leads me and Aikawa-sensei to a booth, “feel free to order whenever you’re ready,” she walks back to the front of the restaurant and Aikawa-sensei and I sit down at the booth. When we sit, holo-screens pop up from the sides of the table and prompt us to order. Aikawa-sensei orders and I dismiss my screen. Within a few minutes, a tray carrying a plate loaded with food, and a mug filled with coffee glides over to our table and sets itself in front of Aikawa-sensei.

“When was the last time we really got to sit and enjoy a warm meal together Rourke?” Aikawa-sensei asks, digging into his food.

“If I remember correctly, about three weeks ago. Twenty-nine days, 14 hours, and about 37 minutes ago to be more precise,” I respond, watching him eat.

Aikawa-sensei laughs, “Thank you for reminding me,” he says in-between bites.

I watch him dig into his food for a while, then a question pops into my mind.“Aikawa-sensei?” I ask.

He looks up from his food, “Yes Rourke?” he responds.

“What does food taste like? Actually, a better question would be what does it feel like to taste,” I say.

Aikawa-sensei pauses, putting down his fork and knife. “That’s a difficult question, so let me ask another question. How would you describe sight to someone completely blind from birth Rourke? Would you tell them the colors of the sky? of the grass, and the trees? They’ve no concept of color, to them, even just the idea of color is nearly unreachable. Would you tell them about light? About the light of the sun and the darkness of night? They’ve no idea of light or dark, in the world they live in everything is cast in the same pale shade of nothing. Telling them of light, of color, would just cause them to feel more confusion. If I told you how sweet this pancake tastes, how savory my bacon is, or how this hot coffee feels on my tongue, would that mean anything to you? How would you comprehend the meaning of taste?”

I shake my head, “I don’t know. Even just feeling in general is confusing to me Aikawa-sensei. When I see you get struck, you try to hide it, but your face shows the pain you feel. After a long hunt, I can see the exhaustion in your body, in the way you move and talk. I see how fighting demons leaves you tired, and how seeing the bodies of the dead and innocent causes rage to build behind your eyes. I see and recognize the different feelings you display, but cannot feel them on my own. I cannot feel pain, even if I lose a limb, at worst it could be described as a mild numbness. I do not age, my software can always be updated, my hardware can always be repaired or replaced. I cannot feel anger, I cannot feel the sadness of losing a loved one, or the joy of slaying a demon at the end of a hunt like so many other hunters describe. I know how to recognize those emotions, I know how to use and recognize humor based on context, facial expressions and vocal tones, I can see and recognize the patterns associated with normal human emotion and behavior and can mimic it, but I cannot truly feel them. Sensei, if I cannot feel, how can I be truly alive? Am I nothing more than programming? Software and hardware made by your hands?”

Aikawa-sensei closes his eyes and clasps his hands together. He sits like this for a few moments, then he exhales and opens his eyes again, “Rourke, the questions you’ve asked me have plagued my mind since the first day I made you. How do we define what is living? How do we define what is human? I have to admit, I do not know the answer. I don’t think anyone truly does, nor do I expect anyone to. Life is something that cannot be measured, something that, even now, is still full of mystery. I cannot give you an answer, but I know in due time, you will find the answer you need most inside of you, and inside of the hearts of those closest to you.” He picks up his utensils and begins to eat again.

I nod my head, “thank you Aikawa-sensei,” I say.

“Of course, you’re welcome. I’m always willing to answer any questions you have,” He says. “Still, we do have to discuss your name, and Rourke Byrne,” He says, cutting out a piece of the stack of pancakes on his plate, and taking a sip from his mug. “I named you in honor of him. Just as Angus said, he was a strong and capable man, and he was my partner for thirty long years. When he died, I refused to take another partner. Of course, Lotus wouldn’t let me hunt without a partner, so I decided to create you. Don’t think you’re just a replacement, I named you in honor of him, not because I wanted you to stand in for him. I didn’t think you needed to know the reason behind your name, but if you ever asked, I told myself I would tell you,” Aikawa-sensei sets his empty mug on the tray the the tray glides off and into a set of open double doors.

“I can’t believe I hadn’t found out about him sooner, still, thank you again Aikawa-sensei. I’ll try honor his name,” I say.

The tray returns and lands back on our table with a full mug of coffee, Aikawa-sensei picks it up and laughs, “You’ve done an amazing job these last four years Rourke. I’m sure he would be more than proud of you, I know I am,” he takes a sip from the mug, then scoots out of the booth and stands up. “well, I’m finished, lets head back to HQ to pick up another Hunt,” He says, waiting for me to get up.

“Yes, Aikawa-sensei,” I scoot out of the booth and follow him out of the restaurant.

Back at Lotus HQ, Aikawa-sensei tosses the duffel bag with the kumo-demon’s head inside to me, “go ahead and turn this in. You know where to find me afterwards, right?” he asks.

“Yes, Aikawa-sensei,” I say, catching the bag and nodding my head. Making my way through the hallways and rooms of the Hunter division, I stop at the tagging area. I walk up to the booth.

“Hey, whats up Rourke, here to turn in another Hunt?” the teller asks me.

“Yes,” I say, sliding the duffel bag through the scanner.

“You know, you guys can turn in more than just heads right? Lotus takes anything,” the teller says, taking the head out of the bag and putting it into a large metal crate. A message pops up on my HUD telling me my Hunt has been completed and that payment has been directly deposited into my Lotus account. “Well, now that thats done, I’m assuming you’re going on another hunt, right?”

“Yes, what Hunts are available?” I ask.

The teller sighs, “you guys really should take a break once in a while. Anyways, there’s quite a few, like always. There was an outbreak of goblins in some parts of the outer root district, a pack of Wailers have been harassing some shop owners in the leaf district, an unknown disturbance was reported outside of the city proper, and some Taurus demons were spotted in the ruins. You’ve got your pick.”

“It’s been a while since I’ve fought Wailers, still, an unknown disturbance? Sounds interesting, we’ll look into it,” I say.

The teller nods, and taps away at some holo-screens, “Alright, I’ll be looking forwards to seeing you back in one piece,” the teller says, waving me goodbye. I wave back, and make my way to Aikawa-sensei in the Armory. Outside of the booth, Theo and I make small talk until Aikawa-sensei and Desmond walk out. Desmond smiles, and waves to me, I greet him and Aikawa-sensei with a wave.

“You got everything in order?” Aikawa-sensei asks me. I nod in response. We say bye to Desmond and Theo.

On our way out of Lotus HQ, he asks me, “so, what trouble are we going to get into next?”

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