Blinking is not commonly referred to as a new experience.
But to Meca One, that was exactly what it was. He was a child in a whole new world of discoveries. His mind was at a balance of experience and inexperience: he had been in production for long enough to know how the human world worked…but actually being human? That was where the changes came in.
The jungle was quiet, oddly quiet. In any other place, birds would have been singing in the moss-ridden trees, animals snooping around on the ground as they searched for food. But the birds and beasts had long since stopped coming to this place after the robots had set up base there. Any animals that came close to the metal base never left. And that was just the way Meca One liked it.
He gazed down at the deactivated, gold-plated body that lay next to his feet. The glowing red eyes deep in the metal face were dark. Meca One blinked. For once, he saw through natural, cell-driven eyes, no longer ruby gems. And it was odd, to say the least.
He glanced down at his hands. They were slightly old, with thin, long fingers, perfectly formed nails, and veins rising from opposite of the palm. The tips of each finger were lined with callus, revealing years of hard labor. His skin was smooth, lined with small scars on each arm as he drew the long sleeves of his tunic above his wrist.
Meca One drew to his full height. For an older man, the body was smooth and moved without creaks or pain. Of that, the former robot was appreciative. The body would have still been useful to him even if it had been worn down, but it was a nice touch to have a smooth host for himself. He grabbed a long stick off the ground and swung it around as one might do a sword. The body moved with every action perfectly.
“Oh, Sensei,” he crooned, “you have been taking good care of yourself now, haven’t you?”
Meca One dropped the wood back to the ground, staring in a small pool of water at himself. The white-streaked grey hair that was normally so neat was as ruffled as a bird’s feathers in winter. Grey-blue eyes stared back at him as he admired his new appearance.
Taking the Exo-Force leader’s memories would have been simple enough, but Meca One had come up with a plan, a devious plan, one that he was positive would take down the Exo-Force forever, leaving the world for his taking. He was going to infiltrate the humans from the inside, and for that, he needed to be a human. And what human was better than the leader of the Exo-Force himself? Meca One already had Sensei Keiken in captivity. What better way to trick the Exo-Force than to imitate the person they most admired?
So Sensei it had been. It had taken time to plan out, but the robot leader had finally designed the perfect way to use Sensei’s mind and body to his advantage. Slowly, Meca One lifted his fingers to his temples, feeling the small bumps that rose from his skull. Two tiny microchips had been placed into Sensei’s brain, or directly up against it. With them, Meca One could control the output of the man’s senses and actions. He had taken over the mind of the most brilliant man in the Japanese Military, and he was going to use it to his advantage. The best part was that he had access to Sensei’s memories. All the information that the robots had been desperately trying to attain for ages was finally at Meca One’s fingertips.
The once-gold-robot flexed his fingers, breathing in deeply. That had been another learning experience for him: breathing. It had taken him a few minutes to figure out that even when he forgot to breathe, his body would do it naturally. Blinking was the same way. The body seemed to be so naturally accustomed to the laziness of men. Meca One wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to be thankful or disgusted.
“Come!” He almost laughed in delight at the deepness of his new voice as he called out to his robot drones. It wasn’t mechanically overridden like his voice chip in his robot body. This voice was deep and powerful, one for giving orders. He rather liked it.
“Come!” He called out again. He motioned to the bronze body beside him. “Take this and keep it safe. It might still be of some use to me.” A few silver robots toted the metal body away into the base.
“I suggest, F-708,” he said slowly to one of the passing bots, “that you leave only a few drones here. Take the rest back to the mountain base along with the remaining battle machines that have not been destroyed. Wait there for further instruction.”
“Meca One,” the silver-plated lieutenant drone came to Meca One’s feet, as the man now towered over the other robots, “how will you find the Exo-Force base? The sensors and maps on the computers were destroyed during the last attack.”
Meca One strode into the jungle thickets, the green overtaking the white and grey of his clothing and hair. He gave a dark smile. “I’ll let them find me.”
“It was too easy.”
“Ah, lighten up, Ryo!” Ha-Ya-To said as brightly as ever. “We got into the jungle, saved Sensei, and got home all without being destroyed! Isn’t that awesome?”
Ryo flicked back a strand of his shaggy, violet hair. “Well, I personally did not anticipate discovering our teacher meandering in the region of the jungle subsequent to being kidnapped by robots. Or did that not strike you as abnormal?”
The four young men stood outside the doors of Sensei’s personal office building. Sensei Keiken, the Exo-Force’s leader and mentor, had been captured by the robots a week ago. It was the Exo-Force job to protect the people of Japan, and of the world in a larger scale, from the robots. The robots had never actually gotten any farther than the Japanese islands, but the Exo-Force team knew better than to underestimate them. Many a good pilot had died defending the precious secrets of technology the Exo-Force had.
They had found Sensei walking around the jungle, alone and unaccompanied, searching for the Exo-Force base. The three pilots and techie brought him back to base. It had been a week since their teacher had gone missing, and finding him proved to be simpler than they had realized.
But not all of them were convinced of their victory.
“Sensei explained everything already,” Takeshi said. “He managed to escape from the robots, but they had destroyed his communication link, so he couldn’t contact us. He ended up wandering around the jungle due to not being able to find his way back. He knew we’d find him.”
“That’s true,” Ryo rolled his eyes, “but it was still much too effortless!”
“What matters,” Hikaru spoke up, “is that he’s back. We can take on anything that Meca One has coming for us. But for now, we have our mentor. And Hitomi’s pretty happy to have her grandfather back too, so mission accomplished.”
Ryo gave a slight snarl. “No! There is something omitted from this situation…”
“Well, why don’t we leave the conspiracy theories to you?” Takeshi commented in a rather bored tone. “I, on the other hand, am starving. Let’s get dinner.”
Ryo watched the three pilots walk away from the building towards the mess hall, chatting merrily along the way. He, on the other hand, stayed put, rolling a screwdriver along his palms. Ryo always though better when he had a tool in hand. So he stood, leaning in the long shadow of the building as he mulled over his thoughts.
It had been too simple. Obviously something was wrong. Meca One wouldn’t just let Sensei escape. The robots may not be all that smart, but they knew better than to just let a captive leave. Meca One would have sent something, even a few drones, after Sensei. The teacher was too much of a prize for the bronze robot to just let him go.
So why had he been all alone?
Ryo didn’t doubt Sensei’s skills as a teacher or as a master in many different arts. But escaping from a whole base of robots on foot? It wasn’t logical.
Ryo snarled to himself, racking his brain for an answer. What was he missing? What was Ryo overlooking?
He didn’t have an answer, which frustrated him. Ryo liked answers, ones laid out clean and simple, like why the sky was blue or why the earth traveled around the sun, or things like that: scientific things. He was particular that way, which was probably why he was a techie in the first place. He had always been one for extreme scientific reasoning behind just about everything he did.
Slowly, Ryo trekked back to the mess hall, and walked in, slipping his screwdriver back into his pocket. He would come back to this problem, he just knew it. But he probably needed to talk it over with the others. They never actually told him anything really useful, but then again, he liked bouncing ideas off of people. It helped him think.
The mess hall was filled with people. Usually everyone ate at the same time, except in the afternoon, when the pilots and techies would sneak into the kitchen and swipe snacks from time to time. But as with any meal, the large cafeteria area was filled with people who chatted over their dinners.
Ryo sat down at the table closest to the door where the others on his team sat. There were five in their group, all ranking pilots and techs and were probably the most advanced out of the entire Exo-Force, or they had simply been there the longest. Hikaru was the leader, Takeshi was his second, and Ha-Ya-To and Hitomi were both pilots under them. Ryo stood on his own in their group, their “Dream Team”. He was the only long-standing tech. Hitomi had been his helper, and at times still joined him for fix-it projects, but she had basically transferred at this point to piloting, much to Sensei’s chagrin.
Ryo slowly made his way to the food line and filled his plate with as little as he could without being lectured by the servers. He hated eating at the mess hall. His team knew he was just picky, but they couldn’t do anything to help him, so he placed the food on his plate and sat at his place at the table.
Hikaru leaned back in his chair and held up his glass. “To us on our achievement.”
“To us!” Takeshi followed with a grin, holding up his glass before swigging down practically the entire thing in one gulp. Ryo winced. He couldn’t understand how Takeshi could eat so much. His plate was practically a mountain.
Hitomi straightened up and cracked her back. “Sorry I couldn’t be with you guys, but my grandfather told me I had to stay and watch the tower while he was…away.”
Ha-Ya-To shrugged, drinking from his glass. “Well, whatever Sensei says goes, even when he’s not available. What are you guys up for tonight? Guitar? Dancing?” The redheaded teen was basically the entertainer of the group. Most of the time, his friends half expected him to whip his guitar out of nowhere and break into a song and dance routine. Actually, that wasn’t all that inaccurate. Ha-Ya-To was known for his quirky, random, and rather spontaneous behavior, but was well liked among the newer team members especially.
“Sleep,” Hikaru said with a half-grin. “Honestly, I’m exhausted. You guys had better get some sleep too. Tomorrow’s gonna—.”
The blue-haired pilot was cut off by a loud voice that came in over the loudspeakers. Every single building and most of the grounds outside had speakers set up somewhere, so announcements could be heard anywhere from eating to sleeping.
“Attention all Exo-Force pilots and technicians.”
The room went silent in moments, and it was easy to know why. Sensei’s voice hadn’t been heard over the loudspeakers for over a week, as he had been missing, so everyone wanted to hear the news. Ryo set down his fork and glanced up at the speaker over the door.
“As you may know,” Sensei said over the speakers, “we are in desperate need of more pilots for the war effort. In order to make this happen, instead of the long process of bringing more people in, we will be holding a lottery for the new Exo-Force members.”
A lottery? Ryo’s blue eyes narrowed coldly. Something’s not right about this…
“And we will be bringing in a limited number of people, due to code constraints. Exactly five people will be chosen next week to join the Exo-Force. I expect everyone to be at the drawing. That is all.”
And the speakers went silent.
“Okay,” Hikaru murmured, “now that was weird.”
“You mean the fact that I ate ten pork chops?” Takeshi said smugly, “Or that I can drink eleven sodas in one sitting?”
“Both of them were pretty impressive,” Ha-Ya-To pointed out.
The dinner hour was coming to a close, though while everyone else’s plates were clean, Ryo’s was still filled with food, which he prodded rather apathetically with his fork. The four pilots and techie always sat together, though their table could probably fit more people. It seemed that everyone knew that it was their table, and no one else dared to sit there.
Hikaru shook his head. His stiff, short electric blue hair bobbed ever so slightly along with him. “No, what Sensei said over the intercom just now. You know, the part about us needing new members and that he’s setting up a lottery…I mean, what’s that all about?”
“I told you something odd was coming about,” Ryo said as he poked at his nearly untouched food, “There is something extremely out of the ordinary about the way Sensei has been portraying himself from the point in time when we returned to the Fortress.” He pulled up a forkful of pork, and set it down with a look of disgust. Hikaru reminded himself not to worry too much about Ryo’s eating habits: the young techie had a stash of food in his lab and usually snacked in the middle of the night or anytime he was really hungry during work projects.
“Maybe Sensei just needs time to adjust,” Ha-Ya-To said, “I mean, just earlier today he was in the Jungle Base of the robots and was probably having his mind picked by a bunch of killer drones!! I wonder if they actually opened his head or just used those tube things they tried to use on Ryo and just sucked his memories out…”
Ryo’s face went a slight shade of green. He pushed away his plate. “Now I’m really not hungry.”
“It still doesn’t excuse the fact that he’s acting strange,” Hikaru said, “A lottery? What put that in his mind? Usually if new members are coming in, they’re tested on their abilities and picked because they have what it takes. A lottery is…totally random! What will that do to our teams?”
“He must have some reasoning behind it,” Hitomi said slowly, though looking a little uncomfortable herself.
“Well,” Takeshi said slowly, “this may not be true, but what if Sensei isn’t looking for strong or powerful people? Maybe he wants random people for some reason.”
“And why might that be?” Ryo asked sharply.
Takeshi shrugged. “Hey, I never said it was true! But here’s a question you can answer: When has Sensei even been wrong?”
The table went silent.
Finally, Ha-Ya-To broke the quiet of their table, though it really did nothing with all the loud, happy voices around them. “Never…at least, not as long as I’ve known him.”
Ryo stabbed at a few green beans. “I guess you’re right.”
“Well,” Hikaru grumbled, “I would have liked him to have built me a better battle machine for the Jungle Era. It’s not exactly what I prefer. Can you do anything to make it fly, Ryo? It’s as grounded as the Assault Tiger, and I hate being grounded!”
Ryo snorted. “We’ll see.”
Hikaru gazed out to the other tables. “We took out a load of the drones at their Jungle Base a little while ago. It seems like a waste to have people out there at our own Jungle Base when we don’t have much to fight. And the jungle isn’t going to help us much.” He stood up, the other gazing up at him in interest. “Because Sensei isn’t exactly…well…at the top of his game, I’m going to make an executive decision: the Jungle Era is hereby over. The battle machines will be retired and the people returned to the Golden City. It’s time to focus our energy here, especially if we have new people coming in.” He gave a long sigh. “Look, I’m the leader of the Exo-Force’s mini teams, so it’s my responsibility to be the leader of the Exo-Force until Sensei’s better, so let everyone know that I’m making all the decisions until Sensei is ready. If I were in Sensei’s place, I wouldn’t have done a lottery or anything like that, but I can’t fix that now. We have to prepare for a bunch of really, really inexperienced recruits, okay?”
The others nodded briefly. Takeshi crossed his arms. “And you’re going to convince Sensei of finishing the Jungle Era project…how? He thought that the Jungle Era was a good idea, and as we just figured, Sensei has always been right.”
Hikaru shrugged. “Maybe he’ll agree with me,” he smiled, “After all, he’s not exactly in his right mind.”
“F-708, do you read me?”
A silvery drone appeared rather fuzzily on the large screen, blue eyes lit and emotionless. “Clearly, Meca One.”
Meca-Sensei nodded his head, blinking his dark blue-grey eyes. “Report.”
The drone’s metallic voice played clearly over the computer. “The drones have been withdrawn from the jungle and returned to the mountain base. Production of the newest battle machines is running smoothly and efficiently. Disturbances, if any, have been at a minimum. It’s all quiet here.”
“Good, good,” Meca-Sensei nodded again, “I will contact you and give you commands when I deem fit. Until then, continue with your steady work. When I return, I expect to find double the amount of battle machines and robots than when I left.”
The screen burst into static before shutting itself off completely. Meca-Sensei gave a cold smile and whirled around in his chair.
He was pleased with Sensei’s room, which he now occupied. In the few hours he had been in the Exo-Force’s base, the Golden City, Meca-Sensei had explored all around the room that the true Sensei had taken as his own. The best part was the enormous computer on one of the walls. But other than that, the room was very simple, plain even. Meca-Sensei wondered why.
It was strange: even with Sensei’s memories, Meca-Sensei still had to find his way around and questioned odd things he found. Apparently, he only had access to Sensei’s most important memories, not his everyday ones. That part is his brain was off limits, almost as though something was stopping him from entering. Meca-Sensei wasn’t sure why, as he deemed the important memories of much more value than the regular ones. What was the old man hiding? Meca-Sensei was sure he would find a way to crack the old man’s mind eventually. And when that came, he would find out every dirty little secret that the Exo-Force had.
His plan to attack the Exo-Force from the inside out was beginning to fall into place. What he needed now were the new members. They would be the beginning and the end to his plan. He really had no need to trouble himself with the thought of the new Exo-Force team; after all, applications had been flooding into the Golden Fortress since his announcement only a few hours ago. But out of the hundreds of letters already sent in, Meca-Sensei knew one thing. He would only need five.
One for each member of the Dream Team.
A sharp knock on the door to the room shocked Meca-Sensei from his senses; he almost jerked himself off his chair. He slowed his heart down slightly before calling out for the interrupter of his thoughts to come in.
A blue-haired head poked into the room. “Sensei?”
Meca-Sensei dug through the teacher’s memories for a name to match the face to. He not only attained the name, but quite a bit of information as well. The boy’s name: Hikaru. He was the self-proclaimed leader of the Dream Team and one of the head pilots, but despite that, was very independent and preferred to work alone. He preferred flying battle machines to ground-based ones, and was intelligent and a good strategist. He was clever and hated to get up early in the morning unless he decided upon it himself.
Meca-Sensei blinked his eyes sharply. An odd amount of information. He nearly shrugged. “Yes, Hikaru?”
The late teen walked into the room and closed the door behind him, straightening his white jacket and blue and grey jerkin before standing before Meca-Sensei with a direct gaze. “I came to ask you about something.”
Well that much was obvious! Meca-Sensei thought with a mental jab of annoyance. He straightened his face. “What can I do for you?”
He watched the boy swallow hard. “I’d like permission to shut down the Jungle Era Project.”
Meca-Sensei blinked. “And why is that?”
“The project is basically over, sir. The robots have been scattered from their Jungle Base, and there really is no reason to keep control of the jungle after rescuing you. The battle machines have no real reason to be used any longer, as we have no reason to keep up with patrolling the jungle. I suggest we place scanners out in the jungle to alert us of robot movement, and then leave the area.”
Maybe Meca-Sensei could learn more than just the Exo-Force’s plans from living here; their tactics and strategies could also be useful information. Meca-Sensei waved his hand. “I absolutely agree, Hikaru. Put your plan into action, by all means.”
Hikaru’s electric blue eyes filled with shock as he took a half-step back. “Wait…you mean you…support it?”
The shock was worrying to Meca-Sensei. Maybe he wasn’t acting like Sensei enough. “The Jungle Era Project was good at the time it was created,” he said, immediately trying to backtrack and explain, “but now that the robots have left, we should be able to withdraw from the jungle and focus on our work here. I’ll let you take care of the details, Hikaru.”
The blue haired pilot nodded sharply. “I’ll do so right away, Sensei.” He left through the door he had come from quickly. Meca-Sensei could hear the teen shouting orders as he walked along the hallway outside of Meca-Sensei’s room.
Meca-Sensei let a dark, evil smile form over his face. So that was the leader? Then he would have to be the first to be taken out. His pride would be crushed, his trust destroyed. He would have to be gone if the plan were going to work; in fact, the whole Dream Team would have to be gone. And the new recruits were going to make sure that happened.