Tasked with understanding love in all its many forms, to us, companions are the keepers of a deeper knowledge.

Responsible for initiating the young into the ways of adulthood, of taming the instincts that rule us, and bearing both the joys and the sorrows that many of us take for granted, they are those who are beloved by many and yet loved by none.

While this can at times seem a paradox, it is essential to understand that a companion has no one to turn to for comfort, no loved one in which they can turn to and confide in.

Bereft of even this simple luxury, their minds filled forever with the secrets that no other can share, who else but another companion could ever comprehend the loneliness that they keep concealed within their hearts?

Shadows of the self:

A chimeras reflections on the caste system.

Chapter Twenty Four : Never trust anyone over thirty.

Welcome to The Velvet Room.” Said Zane as he pushed a thumb to the security plate that opened the doors to his shop. “Where a man can come to get away from the ordinary. Do be careful when touching the animals, they like to bite.”

So do I.” Said Kato as he passed through the reinforced durasteel doors first, only to end up coming face to face with the last thing he had been expecting to find. Chimeras, dozens of them. In every species, every form, and in every style of dress ever imagined. Whether they were sitting in high backed chairs made for two, or lounging next to gilded fountains that were spewing rainbow colored water into the air, or just standing in a circle having a conversation, all turned to look at him as one.

So many women.” He said as their piercing stares gave him reason for pause. In all his short life he had never thought to see so many of them gathered in one place, and for most of them to be chimeras, it was like a dream. And then he saw the security footage that had been captured by the cameras outside. The highlights of his fight were being played to the enjoyment of everyone in the room. Only from Kato’s perspective, it was looking as if the footage had been altered in just such a way as to make it look like he was indiscriminately attacking a random group of people. And judging by the expression of half the women in the room, they were thinking exactly the same thing as well. “Oh, I am so screwed.”

I know, I know, wonderful isn’t it? And this isn’t even half the women who work here.” Patting Kato on the shoulder as he stepped past, Zane gave them all an elaborate bow and said. “Ladies, I have returned.”

Breaking away from one of the crowds, a Japanese woman with almond shaped eyes and soft white skin wearing a maid’s uniform stepped forwards to greet them. “Welcome back Master Zane, I trust that everything has worked itself out to your satisfaction.”

Casting a glance at Kato, He said. “Well, that does depend somewhat on what our friend here wants. Seems he came here to ask for me specifically.”

Her face a carefully composed mask, Yuriko nodded slightly as she turned her attention towards Kato. “Welcome to The Velvet Room, I trust that your time here with us will be well spent.” Stepping towards him she bowed and said. “Allow me to be the first to offer my congratulations on your great victory.”

Sensing the presence of one similar to himself, Kato reached out and grabbed her by the wrist before she could get any closer to him. Cocking his head to the side as he caught the scent of steel and something else, He said. “Would you mind telling your bodyguard here to ease up on the knife she has hidden in her sleeve?”

What’s the matter samurai,” Stroking his face with her other hand, She said. “You don’t carry concealed weaponry?”

Kato didn’t particularly care for the note of challenge that he heard in her voice. “I’m not in the business of taking people out. Kunoichi.”

You should learn to anyway.” Her expression losing all of its warmth as she pressed the point of something sharp against his neck she added the words. “Because you never know when having a few extra kunai on hand will come in handy.”

Ignoring the pain that he felt, Kato said. “My master used to tell me, that patience was the greatest of all weaponry, that with it you could judge the true worth of a man, and that without it, you may as well hand your enemy victory.”

A wise man,” Said Yuriko as she considered his words. “Your master must have been.”

He was Japanese.” Kato released her grip and said. “It means the same thing to me.”

Receiving an appraising look in return, it seemed to Kato that she had just judged him to be lower then dirt, a sentiment that was quickly spread to every other woman in the room.

You fought well in the old style,” Said Yuriko as she turned her back to him. “But don’t think that that alone means that I will accept you as one of us, kemono gaijin.”

Feeling the weight of dozens of eyes turn away from him in disgust Kato felt as if he had just been weighed, measured and found wanting. And in a room full of women all giving him the same look, it was a particularly discomfiting feeling. I think I may have actually been better off outside. At least out there I could have fought my way to freedom. Against a room full of angry women, I may as well be powerless.

I’m afraid that you’ll have to forgive Yuriko for her excesses,” Said Zane as he watched her disappear into the crowd. “Despite the loss of her homeland, she remains to this day a deeply loyal servant of her people. Seeing the way that you fight must have brought back some bad memories for her.” But that’s the price of being old. He thought to himself. You end up seeing too much. Too much to ever forget it all. “Still, for one as young as you are you handled yourself remarkably well. I trust that you have experience in such things?”

There were times when my master was the same way.” As a former bodyguard himself, Kato knew all too well that the abrasive attitude they surrounded themselves with was an essential part of the job, but something about the way she had been willing to act first and ask questions later had still managed to rub him the wrong way. “But he lived through the fall. So what’s her excuse?”

For the briefest of moments, Zane wasn’t entirely sure if he had asked the question out of an honest curiosity to know the truth, or simple spite. Either way, he noted, Kato had also managed to artfully avoid answering his own question. Which can mean his arrogance is simply a facade, or he truly is out of his element. Deciding that the truth would serve him best, Zane said. “Selling one’s pride for the sake of survival can often have that effect on people. You would do well to learn from her example,” Noticing the look of deep chagrin on his feline face, He smiled knowingly. “Before you too succumb to the same mistakes.” Pointing the way with his cane he added. “Now, on to business.”

Following Phoenix and Zane into a more private room filled with a few simple luxuries, Kato’s anger began to slip its bonds. “I can’t believe this.” He said as the door closed shut behind him. “You run an illegal operation, that specializes in biological augmentation, out of a petting zoo!”

Pretending to be wounded by Kato’s words, Zane seated himself on a couch against the far wall and feigned a look of utter surprise. “You know Phoenix, I think that I’ve realized something important just now.” His voice was practically dripping with sarcasm when he said. “He’s absolutely right. I do! Why? Is there something wrong with that?”

No.” Kato could only shake his head as he struggled not to laugh. “It’s just a little bit of surprise, that’s all.”

And pray tell, why is that?”

Cause you claim to be a doctor, when in reality, your nothing more than an over priced and over paid veterinarian.

What?” Said Phoenix as she swept out her hand. “Do you think that The Velvet Room is just some kind of joke! A show we decided to put on for your amusement?”

Easy Phoenix.” Said Zane as he smoothed out the feathers in her hair. “Remember how you felt the first time you came to me for an upgrade?”

Despite the calming influence his touch seemed to have on her, Zane’s words did next to nothing to soften her glare. “Yes.”

You see?” Said Zane as he pointed to Kato. “Our little hellcat here is no different. He’s just trying to blow off a little steam, isn’t that right, Kato.”

Not that it would have done him any good to continue hiding it, but Kato still flinched at hearing his name spoken aloud. “How did you . . .”

Know?” Said Zane. “Its simple. You see, when an amateur like you goes around asking a lot of, unnecessary questions, it leaves a trail that even a blind man like me can follow.” Removing his glasses, Zane showed off the scars that had robbed him of his sight. “You know, you really might want to consider getting some kind of bio-diffuser implanted into that pretty little head of yours. Unless that is of course, you enjoy seeing your true identity displayed on every single security monitor for miles.”

Fighting back the urge to be sick, Kato forced himself to look ahead anyway. Because where most people had a face, Zane had thick scar tissue that had sealed his eyelids shut.

Make them think your weak, then catch them off guard. Reevaluating his opinion of the man in front of him, Kato simply said. “And you just happen to know what I need.”

That I might,” And with the wisdom of one who had managed to survive, Zane showed him just how much of a mistake it would be to underestimate him further. “Kato, core line, model type: Siberian tiger, former occupation, bodyguard to one Johnathan King, current occupation, unemployed, at least, officially, anyway.”

Not bad, but you could have just as easily gotten that much from scanning my collar.”

I could have,” Undaunted by the challenge in Kato’s eyes Zane went on. “But strangely enough, nothing else about you seems to exist in any database of any kind anywhere. Not your parents names, not their occupational history, even the day that you were supposedly born is missing from your record. Now I see a chimera standing before me who isn’t even supposed to exist. Why is that?”

Alright already, you’ve made your point.” Holding out his hand, Kato said. “So why not just give it to me for free, and if I like it, maybe I’ll consider buying some.”

For . . . free?” While Zane burst out laughing, Phoenix looked ready to commit murder. “Nice try kid, its been a long time since I last heard a joke that good.” His laughter giving way to a slow steady smile, Zane started shaking his head. “But I’m afraid that for people like us, privacy comes with a price, and in our line of work, its not something that we can afford to go without.”

Wondering how badly he was about to be cheated, Kato’s eyes narrowed in suspicion as he said. “How much?”

Fifty-thousand up front will get you a two way trip to Cyberside and a week’s supply of triptaphenimine. Two-hundred-thousand up front, and the answer to my question, can get you the recipe. Shop around, that’s practically a steal.”

Fifty-thousand!” Kato growled low in his throat. “Do I look like I walk around carrying that kind of cash!”

No. But because I like the way you look, I’m willing to accept something as collateral.” Zane leaned forward on his cane. “Just this once.”

Trying not to flinch Kato said. “This is because I beat up your entire customer base, isn’t it?”

Maybe, although I would hesitate to think of them as customers. I tend to think of them the same way the companies do, as, potential human resources.”

Kato could only shrug his shoulders and sigh as he tossed Pheonix the key to his bike. It really made no difference to him how the man made his money, as long as he was as good as his word, then that was all that mattered. “And make sure you engage the brakes before you try turning it on. I’d hate to see you end up as a stain on one of Zane’s walls.”

Glaring at Kato as she left, Phoenix made no secret of her distaste for him as she went.

It was hardly surprising. Especially since Kato was everything that Phoenix had come to hate about men. Arrogant, cocky, and smart enough to know when to keep his mouth shut his was a rare enough combination of traits on its own, but added to that was the fact that he had the balls to stand his ground, and try as he might, Zane could actually feel himself warming up to the kid. Now if only he could overcome his weakness to women.

There,” Said Zane after a moment of prolonged silence. “You can talk freely now that’s she gone. You must have quite a few things you want to ask me about. I can see it in your eyes you know.”

Kato nodded as he looked at Zane and said. “There’s a sonic pulse emitter located at the base of your cane that’s linked to your glasses, it allows you to recognize different shapes and objects, while an internal memory cache located inside your head is dedicated solely to processing information taken from the net. You can see me by literally tapping into the live feed from the security cameras.”

Very good.” Rising to his feet, Zane started circling him and asked. “And how exactly were you able to come to that conclusion just now? Did you apply any abstract reasoning, deductive logic, simple trial and error?”

I thought about it,” Said Kato. “And picked the answers that made the most sense.”

Now that is scary.” Replacing his glasses, Zane said. “Do you know that there are only a handful of people in all the world who could have figured that out just by looking at it?” Tapping his cane against the floor with each step he added. “And just like Phoenix and I, they all have augmentative implants inside their heads to help them do it.”

I’m a chimera,” Said Kato as if it should have been obvious. “Natural superiority means I don’t need to rely on hardware to help me.” Forcing his ears to lay flat, each sonic pulse sounded off a sharp staccato rhythm as it reverberated throughout the room. Even though it was as unpleasant as all hell, it was nothing that he couldn’t endure. “But why only take on jobs that interest you,” He said. “Beyond the obvious reasons I mean.”

A personal policy, born from necessity.” Satisfied that Kato was a chimera through and through, Zane lifted his cane and said. “In my arrogance, I stood by and watched as a man that I once admired destroyed himself in the relentless pursuit of his research. And worse, when I had learned the horrible truth of what it was that he had done, I did nothing to stop him. Now I try to dissuade others from doing the same. Call it a hopeless endeavor if you will, but there it is.” Feeling the full weight of his eighty years descend upon him, Zane considered the chimera who stood before him and thought. How strange that I should be made to remember such things now. Who is he really that he could make me question my own past so? Zane sighed. Something about Kato seemed off to him, but try as he might, he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was that was bothering him. “Three questions,” He said at last. “Answer them, and I’ll consider granting you your request.”

Questions?” Kato’s innate suspicions rose to the fore. “But what about the money?”

The money is to cover the cost of doing business, but for all intents and purposes it was merely an elaborate bluff, a formality that needed to be taken care of in order to grant you the audience that you so desired.” Zane carefully considered his opponent and said. “But then you already knew that, didn’t you? Mr. CEO of Yamato Industries.”

Schooling his face to impassiveness, Kato said. “News travels fast on the net.”

It does and it doesn’t.” Said Zane as he played the only card that he had left, “But what if there were a group of invisible investors in a country that had decided to cut off all ties with the rest of the world, what if said investors were to suddenly to take an interest in the ideas of a chimera with something to hide. A chimera who for the most part, doesn’t even exist? Well, that would only mean that either you have some very influential friends, or someone owes you some serious favors.” His back turned to Kato, Zane opened a remote link to the net and began searching through several of his personal databases for any and all recent activity bearing Kato’s unique bio-signature. “Your security encryption is good but it could be better. First question, why are you here?”

To find what I’m looking for. And why would you care how good my security is. If you had actually managed to hack into Yamato Industries central database just now, then you would have already known the reason why I’m here.”

Because I might be inclined help you achieve certain goals, for a modest fee of course.” It was pure bluff and Zane knew it, but simply attempting to uncover whatever it was that Kato was after had already become hellishly frustrating, and while nothing he had said so far had been an outright lie, the truth he sought to hide was so carefully disguised, that he had somehow managed to make it seem as if he had nothing at all to hide. Yet I know for a fact there is something he isn’t telling me. Is it a lie of omission? Possibly, but whatever it is he wants, he’s desperate enough to kill himself in the process of obtaining it. And a man doesn’t risk everything he has without a damned good reason. “You could add me to your company payroll as a security consultant.” Said Zane as he tried to reason it out. “Having my name associated with a fledgling company such as yours would certainly make a few people think twice about trying to pry into your personal affairs. Next question. You have the look of the familiar about you, have we met somewhere before?”

No,” Surprised finally meet someone who was actually able to distinguish one chimera from another, Kato added. “Though I would have remembered if we did.”

Maybe I’ve met your parents, who knows? I have known quite a few tigers in my time.” Though none of them posed as quite a mystery as you. “Last question. Tell me, and answer me honestly this time. What is it that you see when you close your eyes?”

Honestly? That’s not an easy question to answer.” Wetting his lips with his tongue Kato felt himself hesitate. Admitting the truth openly, even to another chimera, was tantamount to erasure. Exotica Geno-Works worked very hard at keeping chimeras from questioning their place in the world too deeply, and admitting that they weren’t human, even if it was to some only a superficial difference, was in their eyes the greatest crime any chimera could ever commit. But if it meant choosing between a life where he must deny all that he was in order to please the meager few, and one in which he could lay claim to all that he desired then the choice was for him a simple one. “I see what every chimera sees when they close their eyes, myself, the way that I was meant to be.”

Watching the tension flow out of him, Zane seemed genuinely pleased to hear it.

Good answer.” He said. “Not exactly the one that Exotica Geno-Works wants to hear but then again, who cares about what a bunch of old stiffs in suits want?” Laughing at his own joke, Zane suddenly became serious again. “I like a man who isn’t afraid to stare into the darkness, to see inside his own soul and admit that he’s still human. Or a chimera, as your case may be. You’ll go far in this business, if you can survive that is.”

Letting out a breath that he hadn’t even known he’d been holding, Kato nodded and said. “So does that mean you intend to help?”

Since you don’t officially have any of the required hardware inside your head, its going take me a while to make all of the necessary preparation’s for going Cyberside. So in the meantime . . .” Zane was quiet for a moment as he considered more then a dozen different ways of keeping Kato preoccupied while he ran the tests necessary to verify his identity. “Why don’t you take some time to think about what it is that you want to do once you get there, maybe even take some time to sample the wares a little. An innocent kid like you, shouldn’t be so quick to end his own life without at least having a little fun first.”