Chapter 12 Summary

Aydan, with Synth, Akiko, and Zeta, prepared to execute their planned op, first of all deciding to keep ÆON out of it. ÆON instead gave Aydan a mysterious binary, saying to execute it at its moment of need. Using callsigns and ephemeral keys to conceal their identities, they dissociated into the æther.

Aydan rendezvoused with Akiko for their first ætherdate. She took Aydan to the æthergarden, a private domain of Professor Reina and her favorite students, where Akiko had created a grove of æthereal artwork in the form of bizarre plants. There Akiko showed Aydan the true depths and versatility of the sense of touch.

At Akiko’s largest creation, a huge tree made up of every type of cable, the two learned more about each other and connected on a deep empathic level. Here in the æthergarden, Aydan and Akiko would kiss for the first time.

Having reached a climax of their date, they decided to initiate their duel, as planned. Aydan requested to maintain their empathic link, and Akiko said xe would regret this. As they dueled, Akiko proved invulnerable to Aydan’s visual-based evocation, and took advantage of their empathic connection to manipulate Aydan and gain control of fær senses to shut them off one by one until it could only navigate the æther by touch. Aydan made a valiant effort to fight on, trying to find a texture that would sensory overload Akiko, but ultimately they were defeated, undone by hir own scheme.

Moments after the duel’s conclusion, the expected ambush came, and two cultists of the Chosen of ÆON infiltrated the æthergarden to make an attempt on Aydan’s life. Among their assailants was a cultist with wings wielding a great bow and launching stars from the æthereal sky as arrows, and a strong technopath who wielded music as a weapon--confidently identified as the second-year TLA student called Pulse. As planned, Synthesis joined the battle and came to Aydan’s aid as Akiko dealt with the archer.

Aydan was overwhelmed by Pulse, and barely escaped her soundscape using vær own understanding of music. A third cultist entered the node, in the avatar of a huge half-mechanical wolf, and dealt a heavy attack to Synth--except Synth was merely an illusion executed by Zeta, who then tried to divert the wolf’s attention further while Synth unleashed a fierce assault on Pulse.

In a moment where both Akiko and Zeta seemed in danger, Aydan chose to help Akiko against the girl who is possibly Aydan’s classmate Deianira. But just as Aydan had an opportunity to finish her off, Zeta was in great danger from the much stronger cultist below. Aydan provided cover fire allowing Zeta to safely retreat from the battlefield. But then e was left to face the strong cultist alone.

Surrounded by an inescapable offensive program, Aydan executed ÆON’s code, giving emself the ability to slow the flow of time for a moment. Seizing the opportunity, Aydan counterattacked, joined by Akiko who had neutralized her opponent. Rather than press further in their weakened state, Aydan, Synth, and Akiko decided to fall back, considering the op a success for gathering intel and injuring their enemies.

Surfaceside, Zeta was unresponsive, and Aydan went to go check on it. Sie found it in its room, having fallen asleep from the exertion of combat. Aydan decided to stay and make sure it was okay, which is really appreciated when it woke up, and offered for Aydan to spend the night there and rest up. Not wanting to be alone, Aydan accepted. The two talked a bit more and resolved some previous tension over the cult’s prior op to sow discord between them.

Several days later, Aydan and Akiko had to explain to Professor Reina how they had caused so much damage to the æthergarden in a simple training duel, omitting anything about the complex situation they were entangled in. As punishment, they would be spending the next month aiding in Reina’s research in cyberbotany.

Once Aydan and Akiko were alone, they shared their first kiss on the surface.