NFG Season One - The Greatest Path to Self-Improvement

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Description: There are many paths to improve one's skill in martial arts. Some subject themselves to extreme conditions to harden the body. Some find meditation to unlock the powers of the mind and soul. Others... take the express elevator to the vaunted heights of technology.

Gregory has still been around; a bit more subdued than he had been at the start of the NFG, perhaps. But there have been a flurry of emails, confirming that all the participants of Team Metal are still very much invited to use the Project EVOLVE facilities throughout this final stretch of the tournament. Sarah's exit from proceedings was unfortunate, but three of the remaining competitors making it through to the second round is a good testament to the former Metal students' prowess. The only team doing better was Thunder ... and it is fair to say that Thunder's tutorship has come under scrutiny on very different grounds, now.

And so one might think that the routine will continue as it has throughout the rest of the NFG since Ultratech's involvement. Training, review, analysis, and a lot of time for self-guided innovation. These are the building blocks of success.

Except this morning, Kenzo and Mint receive an 'urgent' email with an invitation up to the top floor. The Penthouse. One of the areas that they had very much been told they were not to intrude on - now, apparently, their LifeBands will grant them access.

The elevator music is cheerful and unobtrusive, but the elevator journey itself is still... very, very long. They've got a little time to talk to each other, before the inevitable moment when the doors open to reveal this grand space...

... which seems completely empty.

The invitation and sudden access to the top floor is a bit of a surprise to the nin-gineer. With the source of those two things coming from an urgent email, it was more than enough to the Southtown U student raise an eyebrow.

Kenzo had just finished a training session at the E.V.O.L.V.E facility so when he waits by the elevator, he's a bit sweaty and slightly out of breath. Between the urgent notice on the email and gossip about what happened to Gregory, he did not think it was a good idea to stop for a shower before going upstairs. He was only slightly out of breath by the time elevator arrived since the biggest strength of his style, aside from analytical ability, comes from efficiency of most of his movements.

The elevator ride up is used to catch the rest of his breath and when the door opens, the sweaty ninja sees an empty room. As he steps off the elevator, he takes a moment to wipe his forehead with the towel he has with him.


Mint's been busy these past few weeks. Yes -- it's been a very busy time for the NFG, but it's also been an extremely tense time for the corporal's "day job" with the Special Forces, and with the peculiar nature (read: highly classified) of her work, communicating from deep within a private military contractor's headquarters has not been an option. Like Greg, she had been keeping touch with the team in an email capacity. She's also been... in and out of the facility, as her Special Forces work permitted. Just... not as hands-on as she had been earlier in the season.

As luck would have it, she'd gotten the urgent email just moments after setting foot on the Ultratech premises. As -further- luck would have it, she was on the elevator just as it showed up to escort Kenzo upstairs. It's as if some cosmic force was conspiring to make this sort of event possible. Weird!

"Oh, h-hey Kenzo," says Mint, straightening from her slouch as the nin-gineer steps aboard the elevator. "Good to see you! Great work out there against Ayala..."

The email came so quickly she didn't have time to fill up her coffee mug; it's clipped to her belt, empty. And she looks so tired that she would -definitely- have benefitted from it. So... that might make for a quiet elevator ride, as she spends her time questioning the life choices that brought her to this juncture...

"Oh, uh... we're headed to the penthouse, so." She draws in her breath. "Just... be ready for the unexpected. I can't tell you what we're gonna find when we get there, but... just remember, I got your back, okay?"

Ugh. She's -really- missing that coffee.

Mint is happy to let Kenzo take the lead out of the elevator. And ask the pertinent question. It's unlikely she'll need an introduction, after all.

The Unexpected. That's certainly one way of describing it.

There is, on closer inspection, a piping hot cup of coffee sat on the desk of the office. That may seem strange, at first. Then, from the ceiling, a drone descends. The gold and steel construction floats on some sort of energy-propulsion system. And when it is approximately halfway towards the floor, it begins to unfurl. Like origami in reverse, the machine grows and shifts - Mint had seen this once before, but it is likely no less impressive the second time.

Because ARIA is 6'7, clearly extremely solid, and there's no way that much mass was waiting in that small space. She touches down to the floor on steel heels, wings folded behind her - clearly modeled on ancient statuary and the angelic. She reaches out and plucks up the coffee up as she walks across the cavernous space, holding it out to the diminutive Special Forces Marine.

"Good morning, Corporal." Her mechanical voice is - well, the same tone that everyone, at this point, is quite used to hearing from their LifeBands, or their phones. "I am pleased that scheduling has finally allowed this meeting to take place."

And then she turns her head to Kenzo. The young man finds himself scrutinised by those cool, luminescent white eyes.

"Kenzo Kuroiwa." She says, "I, am ARIA. We have much to discuss."

The unexpected? Well that's not ominous...

He can only watch in awe as the gold and steel construction descends from above in what can be assumed is wide-eyed awe since the eyes are covered by his combat specs but both eyebrows are lifted high.

He remains in stunned silence as the machine unfurls herself and then walks over a cup of coffee to Mint.

It's only once ARIA introduces herself that Kenzo even moves and it's only to glance at his wrist and then her as connections are being made.

"Nice to officially meet you."

If there is much to discuss, Kenzo finds himself wondering what the first topic of discussion will be.

Coffee? Coffee. Mint definitely sees the coffee cup, though she doesn't initially register it's meant for -her-. Even though ARIA has been fastidious about keeping her in full supply whenever she's on campus, the thought of it being present in the executive's office in the same capacity as it was on the EVOLVE levels is... well. It's a bit much for her at the hour.

Suffice to say, she's more than pleased as the high-powered executive not only makes a -spectacularly- awesome entrance -- again -- but walks the coffee cup over to her personally. An embarrassed flush floods her cheeks as she accepts the cup, bowing her head in thanks. "G-good morning, ARIA! Glad to be here!"

So she overcompensates, a little. Though, as she blows on the hot coffee to cool it down, she seems satisfied that she'll be back to her normal self in due time.

She watches Kenzo, as he seems to process the arrival of the CEO with trademark ease. "I... er." She takes that first sip of ambrosia, savoring it for a moment. "You seem -really- calm with all this, Kenzo. Just, er. Keep your head up."

Which is a nicer way of saying. 'don't look down,' because the first thing folks do when they hear that is to look down. And if one is afraid of heights, well, that'd be bad.

"Indeed. And you."

If ARIA is surprised by Kenzo's ease with the relevation, she makes no sign of it. Instead, she walks over to the window which looks down on City Hall - again, a familiar element to her meetings, that Mint will remember. She seems to expect the pair to follow. The view of the Metro City skyline, still ravaged by the Darkstalker menace, and Ultratech, at the heart of it, rebuilding. It is not a subtle metaphor, but then, ARIA is not always given to subtly.

"Let us begin with your next opponent." She says, "Junko Daidoji. She cannot be allowed to proceed to the finals of this tournament. The power within her is too much for her to control. I will make overtures to the Team Thunder leadership to allow me to intervene at this stage. However, I do not believe that they will be receptive to my efforts. They thought that they could tame a wildfire. If it is not stopped, it will consume all in its path."

A beat. Careful, measured.

"You will have analysed the last match. What strategy do you intend to employ?"

Having made the connections between the ARIA on his Lifeband and the ARIA that stands before them now, he's already pretty sure (though not 100%) that ARIA is privy to the gameplan he's already made since he was wearing the Lifeband while on the date with Djamila, he's just going to run under the assumption that ARIA knows and is having him repeat it for the corporal's sake.

There's a bit of hesitation at first as he's still processing the whole cybernetic form in front of him is also the same one that's on his wrist. It's understandable. Eventually, he turns to glance at Mint and give a nod to her previous statement of her having his back before stepping towards the window and suddenly wishing he had his drone or the very least a glider.

"Daidoji presents two main concerns. She has a high damage output which comes at the cost of inflicting damage on herself which was also confirmed by Djamila who had faced her previously. The other concern is her ability to get back to her feet after receiving more damage than she ought to. My plan is to essentially wear her down. If she's too tired to avoid me, too tired to attack me, and too tired to get up after receiving all the damage I deliver to her, she, in theory, will fall to me. Starve the flames of oxygen and the fire will surely go out."

He then looks back and forth between ARIA and Mint. There's a thoughtful expression on his face.

"If at all possible, I'd like my fight to take place in an empty arena. Junko has a history of collateral damage and regardless of whether she can't control it or doesn't want to, I can't trust her not to destroy everything in the area. I on the other hand would prefer it if the destruction I cause is because I will it to be destroyed."

Mint frowns slightly as Junko is mentioned. The miko's fire is definitely a concern, knowing that she'd burned down a bar. Even knowing that such establishments are *especially* prone to fire, the fact remains that people are pretty flammable too. And the NFG only -barely- escaped a lawsuit from the explosives hucked out by their former goblin team member.

Still. That's... an issue that ARIA addresses pretty point-blank. Being an engineer, she finds solace in the idea of a forcefield-generating drone being present for the battle -- or, heck, even ARIA herself? "Good, good," she murmurs, grateful that the coffee is already starting to lubricate the gears inside her head.

Though, her expression darkens a bit more once she realizes ARIA might not have been thinking about containment... but perhaps a more targeted solution. Gulp.

She nods in approval as Kenzo lays out his plan. As she'd expected, the man's got a plan and he's right on it. Though... she draws her breath through her teeth at his request.

"It's the finals. You're in SlamMasters Arena. Terms and conditions and all that fun stuff." She rubs the back of her neck. "They -almost- handled it okay in the match with Coco. I'm kinda thinkin' they'll need some barrier upgrades though. Or force fields." She glances to ARIA with a faint smile. She hopes that's an option...

"It is a sound approach."

ARIA's assessment is delivered cooly, and whether or not she has been eavesdropping is left a mystery, for the moment. Presumably she must have been, right? There's no way she has respected their privacy... which may raise all sorts of other thoughts. But. For the moment, she keeps matters to the issue at hand.

"It will not be possible to avoid spectators. Humans have an unfortunate tendency to miscalculate risk and overestimate their chances of survival in a dangerous situation. However. Ultratech will augment whatever protections are already planned to be in place. There is also the possibility that Mad Gear may attempt to disrupt proceedings."

She turns from the window and its view of a devastated city, then, to consider Kenzo - a move that he must also realise is, entirely superfluous. This entity exists as a distributed network. No doubt whatever means she was using to be aware of them, it never let them leave her sight - least of all in this space. But, she makes the effort to at least try and appear... human-ish, with the body language.

"I considered whether to allow or even encourage this. If Junko is removed from the competition by Mad Gear before your bout, you will advance and the risk will be dealt with."

Another, calculated, beat.

"However. Then humanity will not have the true answer to the question this New Fighting Generation project sought to answer. Which is the greatest path to self-improvement?"

She gestures, and a holographic display bursts into existence in the middle of the room, showing the Team Frost competitors... all eliminated. "Reckless aggression? No."

Then the Team Blaze competitors, most of them gone too: "Raw strength? No."

The Team Thunder competitors and the Team Metal competitors are displayed all at once: "The Past, against The Future. Tradition, against innovation."

And then just Kenzo, against Junko: "The power of Humanity, against the power of monsters. We will overcome them. We will set humanity back on the path, to controlling its own destiny."

"I would suppose that would be too much to ask for."

After all, the NFG having its profits messed with would give an excellent motivation to get rid of the ultimate locker room cancer. Instead, the show must go on. Ultratech bolstering the safety measures still is better situation than previous matches.

As the holographic display suddenly appears in front of them, Kenzo watches the it and the 6'7" machine. No reaction on his face at first especially when the departure of the fighters of the NFG are noted. He doubts that Frost would still be 'reckless aggression' if Goldlewis were still a mentor, Blaze probably would be still be the same in terms of what their apparent philosophy would be as far as he could tell. The philosophies of Thunder and Metal require a bit more nuance as far as he could tell. Yes, Thunder tended to be more traditional when compared to Metal but Thunder seemed to not always stick tradition and as for Metal, you just needed to look at Ultratech's motto to know that tradition has its place too. It's why Kenzo probably would've thrived both in Thunder and Metal since he himself straddles the line between tradition and innovation. An eyebrow rises on Kenzo's face near the end of ARIA's comments.

"I don't think the NFG has the long term thinking required to be asking those questions. Especially when you consider the way they booked their fight locations. Not that those questions shouldn't be asked."

Mint nods along as ARIA delivers her cynical assessment of humanity's chances at avoiding defeat. Mint doesn't really take offense -- a mass of excited people really -can- act stupidly in the face of danger.

She does quirk an eyebrow at the notion of ARIA -allowing- the fight to go on. Mint peers back at the Ultratech CEO over the rim of her coffee cup, wondering just what she meant by that. A lot of potential courses of action are suggested. And yet -- as there have been no outright murders as of late -- she can only assume that ARIA has ruled them out.

Definitely time to take another sip.

As ARIA walks about, Mint walks a little closer to the edge, taking in the vista of the city one more time. It's... peaceful, and yet macabre at the same time, seeing how much devastation still exists throughout the city this many years later.

Her attention is drawn away by the holographic images. She gives a faint smirk, nodding along. That's a good way of framing it, she thinks -- though she keeps the thought to herself, so as not to interrupt.

"I... definitely think they could use some more judgment. But the good thing is, you folks have risen to the challenge up till now. I mean, once you leave the NFG, there won't be -any- guardrails at all in your fights. Especially if you get involved in Midnight Channel."

Mint cracks her knuckles. Which might seem like an odd thing for someone with cybernetic hands to do -- except that she actually built in the ability to -do- such a thing.

"You'll just be that much -more- ready for the folks in your fight career," she notes with a confident smile.

"If there is one constant in human history, it is that you are rarely able to ask the questions in the time and place of your choosing. I doubt that Professional Fighting Worldwide even meant to pose it. And yet."

ARIA's voice is as calm and emotionless as ever, as the holographic display flickers to show countless social media posts. Stills from FightTube commentators. Podcast paused at various points. "The question has been asked." She says, flatly. "Hundreds of thousands have engaged directly. The legacy of this tournament will live on. Over time, it will touch millions of lives. A statistically significant proportion of the population will have preferences for their favourite fighters. Few individual people will realise the significance of these moments. In aggregate, however, the New Fighting Generation Project represents a note within the greater symphony of humanity's development."

There is a small nod given to Mint's analysis, too; there is wisdom there. The fighting world was not a gentle one, and nor could it be, if it was going to succeed in creating the kind of champions it would need to protect humanity from the many threats outside it.

"That brings me to the next issue we must address. Iris has already indicated to me that she does not wish her partnership with Ultratech to extend beyond the duration of the tournament. The offer remains open to the rest of you. Project EVOLVE will continue. We cannot be complacent."

The possiblility that it wasn't even intentionally asked by the tournament organizers is too reasonable to ignore. Kenzo rubs his chin when it is mentioned that the tournament's legacy will live on. Through news sites and social media it is hard to ignore the influence that the tournament had. Even the fact that he got attacked by a bystander was a testament to that.

Then ARIA brings up the second issue. Whether or not to continue his partnership with Ultratech. Indeed, Ultratech has been /mostly/ kind to him but there are some factors that prevent him from giving an immediate yes. First, he was still a university student. In addition, he was one that had his education paid for as long as he did well in classes and didn't have to repeat so he didn't have to depend on Ultratech there. Second, there was the fact that with him dating Djamila, he would have to discuss it with her since he was certain that she will be getting the same offer as well. Third, with Ultratech beng the first offer, it would be a bad idea to take it right away without shopping around first and seeing what other offers are available.

"Is it okay if I ask for time to think about it? I mean it's a generous offer but I want an opportunity to discuss it not only with my parents but I'm pretty certain that since you're going to bring it up with Djamila, I want an opportunity to discuss it with her as well."

It's... hard -not- to feel some kind of badass when a computerized voice like ARIA's is talking up one's legacy to the world. Mint was floored the last time -- and she finds herself gawking yet again. And this, even -with- a fresh injection of caffeine flowing through her veins.

"I'm not gonna lie, it's been pretty amazing how many people have been tuning in to you all fighting. Saturday Night Fight was popular, sure -- and -tournaments- have been great. But seeing you all riff off each other, getting better with each fight... it's relatable. And I can just tell it's gonna inspire a new wave of entrants, if PFW risks it yet again."

Mint just hopes they have better guardrails, next time. Maybe the metallic CEO would be able to glean that from the look Mint gives her afterward.

She doesn't have... -much- to say about the deal. It's not like she can answer for ARIA, after all. But she does look to Kenzo -- offering her support, all the same.

ARIA addresses Mint, first. And she is quite blunt in her assessment. "If Professional Fighting Worldwide are foolish enough not to capitalise on the momentum behind this, then Ultratech shall." And that ... probably makes a lot of sense. ARIA has clearly been impressed by the development of these individuals; from beneath her notice in the first stages, to impossible to ignore in the latter. The impact of any one tournament is always difficult to predict, but when it has been made, it is impossible not to see it.

Then, to Kenzo.

"The same offer will be forthcoming to Djamila, yes." She says, "And I anticipate that she will accept. Nor would you need to cease your studies. Participation in EVOLVE will necessitate some group exercises and training activities, but the primary purpose remains as it always has: To develop the skills of the members and provide them with the materials necessary to reach their full potential."

She turns, looking out at Metro City. Everything is calculated, to allow just the right amount of time for the emotional impact to land, despite the emotionless voice.

"It is only a matter of time before another Majigen Incident occurs. I will not be caught off guard again. Next time, humanity will be ready. And together, we will ensure that the message is received to every would-be usurper."

The ninja has to admit that is one hell of a claim by ARIA. Capitalizing on the momentum by organizing one of her own. Kenzo's mind wanders in an attempt to imagine what a Ultratech run NFG would look like. Who would be mentors/sponsors? Who would be the next generation of fighters.

"If you were to run the next season of NFG, what changes would you make?"

That being said, the fact that he can continue his studies is a huge bonus and with Djamila moving to Southtown they would still be able to live their life there and continue to participate. She also anticipates Djamila wanting to join. That starts Kenzo doing the math in his head once more. One could see the point where Kenzo realizes that a specific person was taken out of the equation though he doesn't know enough to have the details. He doesn't need to either. He's a ninja after all.

"I still want to discuss it with Djamila and look over any paperwork but beyond that, it's a just a formality at this point."

Kenzo's mind then extends back to the fact that ARIA was considering running another NFG and then back to her reasons. And one last question comes to mind. "Are you considering making a similar overture to members of other teams post tournament?"

Mint cracks a broad smile as ARIA states her intention to continue the work NFG has done. It's... refreshingly honest! Though the implications, as always, are pretty intense. Does that mean ARIA would continue wanting her along to help? Does that mean -more- chances to fight vicious velociraptors? "Wow, yeah, we need to keep the ball rolling there, for sure!"

Her mood darkens just a -little- as the Majigen Incident is invoked. The perils of Metro City were... not insignificant to the New Jerseyan's life, as a close family friend had barely made it out alive after the occupation, and countless other friends-of-friends had close calls as well. If it weren't for the Majigen Incident, it's unlikely she would have pushed as hard to develop her gauntlet technology, also...

So if either ARIA happens to catch her looking at her cybernetic hands, well. That might be why.

Her momentary reverie doesn't last long, though, as she remembers the coffee cup -held- by one of those hands. She nods slowly as ARIA encourages Kenzo to continue his studies.

"... That deal's soundin' better by the minute. But... just take your time with it. Make sure the choice is right for you."

She has a feeling she knows which way he's going to go. She can't help but smile when she contrasts his current opinion of Ultratech against his prior opinion of their anti-surveillance measures.

"The fundamental principles are strong." ARIA says, "However. I would institute a more involved vetting process for the sponsors. I would also implement more focus on the team competition aspects. The first season has been a showcase for individual talent. However, in real-world scenarios, individual strength is less important than the ability to function consistently as part of a unit."

It's not even, really, a full indictment of the NFG; that was what the NFG had set out to do and it had succeeded by her estimation. It is just that iterating upon the initial design, there could be room to make the next version fit ARIA's designs more completely.

"Take the time you need. The offer will remain open until the end of the tournament." A momentary pause, and then she adds. "I would also encourage you to discuss the issue with Iris. She has her reasons for her decision, I am sure. It may be worth hearing them as well."

Is that true? Or is she hoping that Kenzo (and presumably Djamila) will talk their teammate around into maintaining the relationship with Ultratech that she has decided to sever? Difficult to tell. Either way, ARIA doesn't seem too concerned that Kenzo will ultimately be swayed by the magical heiress.

"As to the others." She says, "Until recently I would have said no. However. I am considering sending a representative to evaluate Constance Coalbridge's mental state. If she is ameniable, we can rebuild her. We can make her better. Stronger. Faster. We have the technology. But I am not willing to make the investment in a spoiled child. She will need to demonstrate that she now understands the dangers that we face."

The lack of team fighting was something that Kenzo viewed as a missed opportunity. When one considers that a lot of the competition has set them up to be in teams and yet at no moment had the members operating in tandem. He nods in agreement to that part of the statement.

When ARIA says to take the time he needs to make his decision. He has no problem with that. The surprise is in the suggestion to talk to Iris about it but then remains silent about it.

Then ARIA mentions Coco being one of the possible candidates is a surprise to him. The understanding of dangers aspect while important, the attitude part is too hard to ignore. It is was also a surprise that there was no one else that came up as a potential candidate for the offer.

"I see... Thank you for your time."

When ARIA mentions a more involved vetting process for the sponsors, Mint does not even try to hide her enthusiasm. Much the opposite: she breathes an overexaggerated sigh of relief, a cybernetic hand reaching to support her forehead. "Wow, -wow-, I mean, -that's- somethin' I've been thinkin' all along..."

It was a breath of fresh air to have someone who'd taken the job of mentoring as seriously as she had -- and even moreso for there to have been enough wiggle room for her to alleviate work stresses from her primary job function with Special Forces. So it's a friendly, even -grateful- smile that she shares with ARIA afterwards, as she listens to the further details about the 'job offer' extended to the three Team Metal charges.

She does seem... surprised, though, at the potential for an offer to be extended to Coco. "... Well, she's serious about kicking ass, but..." If it weren't for having faced Junko head-on, she would've flatly denied the idea of giving Coco a chance in this. But... all of Mint's vital statistics would suggest she's not completely cold to the idea.

She turns to Kenzo. And... seeing that he's got fewer words for that, she opts to fill in the space.

"The biggest problem with her would be if you tried to keep a proper uniform on her. That just ain't gonna happen."

She turns back to ARIA with a faint smirk still pulled across her face. "Have you given thought to anyone else? Hawksley Moore seemed pretty intent on fighting against the supernatural, if for similar reasons."

ARIA nods once, briefly, to Kenzo. "You are welcome. In the near future, I will need to announce my presence to humanity proper. It is not my intention that those who I have mentored feel betrayed by the truth when I do so. I have now broached the main subjects I felt it necessary to clarify, however, if you have any questions, I am open to answering them for you."

There is a vague sense of amusement from the machine as Mint not only approves of her assessment, but makes it extremely clear that she does so. There is, perhaps, a spirit of comraderie there. ARIA had been manipulating things from behind the scenes, rather than moving openly, but the pair had the same objectives and many of the same criticisms of how various elements of the NFG had been handled. ARIA, of course, had taken measures to protect their wards that Mint's position would not allow her to. But although they had never discussed it openly, she suspected that the Corporal would be no more disapproving than Kenzo in truth. She is, after all, a marine. Sometimes, problems need to be solved permanently.

"Constance Coalbridge has not had the benefit of any appreciable training throughout the tournament." ARIA says, flatly. "She is the favoured student of a lunatic terrorist and prior to that a dojo where she was mostly used for manual labour. Despite this, she had flourished. Until it was taken from her by powers which should never have been allowed access to the tournament."

She gestures, and the display shimmers to one of Hawksley and Coco, clearly caught at an unguarded moment, far too much open affection in their eyes.

"Hawksley Moore is a drunk." She says, bluntly. "And he has a problem with authority. He is strong, but he cannot be relied upon to trust strategic analysis. He will act impulsively. Emotionally. There are other organisations who may find use for him. Ultratech, would not be a good fit. And his relationship with Constance is the greatest flaw I have been able to identify in her."

Kenzo looks like he's about to excuse himself but then the conversation about potential recruits gets into full swing which gets interesting really quickly. His face gets red really quick especially considering he was partially responsible for her wardrobe malfunction in the triple threat bonus fight.

Then ARIA weighs in on Mint's suggestion of Hawksley which elicits a wince from Kenzo especially the part pointing to Coco's relationship to him as the biggest flaw. That was nasty.

"I suppose some of the cons of Hawksley would apply to Buck as well in that he's someone who also leans on instinct and emotion, though doesn't seem to have as much problem with authority."

It's true: when she'd first heard about Ultratech's extrajudicial actions, Mint was downright -furious-. She'd felt betrayed by Greg, and the last face-to-face she'd had with the guy had shown it. But, having gone from that brief confrontation straight into a personal meeting with ARIA... well. Priorities shifted.

Suddenly, it had become -very- clear that the less said about that topic, the better. And this is where we're at now: Mint and ARIA confiding their shared distrust over the NFG's ability to do what's best for their recruits.

Regarding Coco, Mint is not entirely surprised that ARIA has been able to pinpoint Miss Coalbridge's success in the face of apparent neglect. While Mint -could- point out the key indicators she'd seen evidenced between the Sunshine City rounds and the Metro City rounds, there's a certain futility in trying to argue facts with a practically omniscient AI who is in the midst of displaying intel of how Relationships Are Bad, Actually.

"... I mean, aren't -both- of them bad with authority?" Mint laughs mirthlessly, shrugging her shoulders. ARIA knows better than she would, to be sure -- and she wouldn't shy away from -seeing- Coco respond to authority, but she doesn't linger on the point overly long.

"That is... true. Obviously, we had -wanted- Buck in the first round. He's a good ol' boy, never meanin' no harm, and that's a useful thing to have."

She winces. Is that the -first- time she's busted out a faux Southern drawl for an audience of -any- size?

"Mm, well," begins Mint, hoping not to dwell on -that- overly long, either. "Just my two cents. I know we're trying to protect humanity here, and it seems those folks might be good allies to have, if not expressly -employee- material."

Mint returns her attention to her coffee cup, finally draining the very last of it.

"Near death experiences have a way of changing a person's life direction." ARIA says, to Mint. Tacitly, she acknowledges Coco's previous rebellious, self-centred attitude. But, having seen the danger firsthand, it is very plausible that Coco's entire outlook on how to approach all of this will have shifted. It's something that is difficult to ascertain from afar; thus the need to send someone and get a first-hand appraisal.

"Buck Finley is under the guidance of this individual, as are Ichika Kasumoto and Chevelle Beaumont." ARIA says, and the holographic display changes to show 'Peng You'. There is also a small biography. Small, because much of it is reduced to the note: ???

"I have my suspicions about what this is." She says, and with how precise her language is, there's no way the 'what' was an error. "At the present time, Ultratech considers him a threat. If I am correct in my deduction, this man was responsible for the team of agents which sabotaged the Dead or Alive tournament. He believes that he acts in humanity's best interests as well. At this time, I do not intend to antagonise him. But I also cannot trust his students."

The display shifts another time, to show the absolute devastation that had been left in the wake of the destruction of the Janus facility. A smouldering crater, what has to be millions of dollars or more in destroyed investment. Yet, whilst she had obviously made a note of this and of the danger that he represented - she hasn't made any overt moves against him or the other team in the tournament. Other than to prepare her team to demonstrate that her methods were superior.

"When I announce myself to humanity." She continues, "There are many powers in this world who will have to choose their response carefully. It is my intention that he will understand our efforts are aligned and his attempt to forestall Ultratech was misguided. However. Until that time, I will move carefully. There are too many other demands on our assets to risk further misunderstandings."

It is at this moment that Kenzo realized that things related to the world of fighting was bigger than he thought. Sure there was the introduction noting the preparation for supernatural but it didn't truly hit him until noting of the factions that, while operating at parallel purposes but ending up interfering with each other.

"Well that does give you another reason not to go after any of them."

He then looks once more at the holographic images. A pensive expression appears on his face as he stares at the images.

"What other powers would be involved?"

As ARIA lays out the rationale, and the -reason-, for not pursuing Buck, Mint nods her head in understanding. It -does- make sense: she'd done her own background research on Peng You and, similarly, turned up nothing. "Peng You, obvious pseudonym, obviously hiding things." Mint acknowledges that it's nothing ARIA doesn't know, clarifying things in case Kenzo never looked into it himself.

She did -not- know about the Janus facility though. For one reason or another, she was left out of the loop insofar as intelligence was concerned there: and it shows as the corners of her lips peel back in dismay. "... Yeah, I can definitely understand why he's on your threat board..." If ARIA hasn't seen it fit to move against him, there's definite -reasons- for such. Suffice to say, it's worth Mint putting in a word to her superiors.

"... Right." Mint scratches her temple. "Apologies, ARIA, I ... haven't really gotten around to explaining the full intent of the EVOLVE initiative."

Turning to Kenzo, she gives the Cliff's Notes version: "The Majigen Incident that happened years ago was one of the most dramatic events that has ever happened in recent history -- the fact that an entire -city- could just, poof, disappear. With the potential for -everyone- on it to just... turn into mulch for a gigantic chipper-shredder of human souls." She huffs slightly. "I was about one wave away from being sent in on that. But then situation normal happened. And ARIA here is a big reason for why Metro City didn't -completely- fall apart in the wake of that."

She rests one hand on her hip as she turns back to ARIA. "So... that's where we play in on their mission. 'Looking to the past, to preserve our future.' By... -demonstrating- that humanity has the means to nip this in the bud themselves. To inspire us to be better as a -whole- so that we're ready when the next force -- whether that's Darkstalkers, megalomaniacal terrorists, or invaders from Outworld -- decides to make their move."

Here, her expression gets a little more sour.

"Personally, we're honestly more concerned with this 'Miss September' character. She wanted Genie for the same reason Juri wanted Coco. And they both just kinda disappeared from my radar after Genie's loss. -They're- a concern of mine."

ARIA gives Mint the time to explain the situation in more detail to Kenzo. It is interesting to hear her say it out loud. Nothing she says is wrong, but the way the Corporal talks, it seems that she still very much intends to be involved in the project. Which is good. A joint enterprise with the US Military opens far more doors than it closes, and Ultratech does have the connections to make that happen. It would mean having to be open to more scrutiny on several levels... but Ultratech is so heavily invested in the United States that it was obvious they would need to be open to that within the broader company.

Besides. ARIA is a United States Citizen. As her lawyers have been preparing to prove in court for several years now.

"An accurate summary, Corporal." She says, "To answer your specifics." She continues, and the holographic display changes.

In rapid succession, grainy footage shows the figures she is talking about; or at least their bases of power. The Black Noah. Shadaloo thugs raiding a house in Southtown. Shang Tsung's Island, and of course, footage from the Majigen Incident itself.

"International criminal cartels seek to control power they do not understand and risk releasing it. The greatest dangers here are 'R', 'NESTs' and the so-called 'Syndicate'. A private army controlled by a madman prepare for global domination under the banner of 'Shadaloo'. Threats from Outworld and the Darkstalker menace work to subjugate or replace mankind in their own image, under too many potential leaders to count."

She pauses for a moment, and then she addresses the Miss September in the room.

"Yes. Her disappearance has been total. She is almost certainly in league with one of these powers. My analysis places the most likely allegiance as either 'R' or Shadaloo. If she shows her face again, we will know."

More images. More potential enemies. Powerful potential enemies. Kenzo in his wildest dreams did not imagine that he would get involved something like this when he signed up for the NFG. He only thought he was signing up for a fighting competition.

Because of that, the weight of making the right post-tournament decisions weigh heavy upon him. Should he continue his affiliation with Ultratech?

"It kinda makes me wonder if I should consider joining JSDF or Interpol after graduation regardless of whether or not I continue my affiliation with the E.V.O.L.V.E project."

Mint -would- be interested in working with ARIA -- though, thankfully, that's not a decision she has to make right away. It's good to have a -clear- picture of what Ultratech's priorities are; that's something she can't say for a lot of military contractors, to be sure.

Criminal cartels are a sticking point with her -- one, in particular. "... I can say with certainty that at least one representative of Shadaloo was present at the Rumble -- one of the Dolls, named Xiayu."

She glances over towards Kenzo. "So... there's probably a good chance that they're interested in their fighting abilities. And I think it's fair to say I trust Shadaloo -way- less than this Peng You character."

She smiles briefly, as Kenzo talks about joining the JSDF, or Interpol. "Well. They're good choices for a future. I mean, I can definitely give a thumbs up to joining the military."

She does so, with the faint mechanical sounds that accompany such a motion.

It's definitely true that ARIA is not one to play around. Many of the tutors of other teams had made allusions to the dangers which accompany full participation in the fighting world. She, however, was the only one to have decided that at least one of her wards is ready to be shown the full scale of the danger that threatens to them. For her, though, the point has never really been about bringing these students to a position where they could make their own decisions. The point is to make them understand the urgency of the task ahead of them. Humanity stands at a dangerous crossroads. So many paths lead to oblivion or servitude. It is up to ARIA to light the way towards salvation, and up to each individual person to choose whether or not to follow that road.

Evolve, or die. The choice, as always, is theirs. But she must make clear why that is, exactly.

"The enemies of humanity use a diversity of tactics." She says, "We require a diverse array of options to monitor for and counter them. The army and interpol are two. NOL is another, though I suspect they will seek my destruction or subordination. Ultratech is, of course, another. There are advantages to legitimacy, and advantages to working outside of direct oversight from civilian authorities."

Which is about as diplomatic a way as she can possibly put 'work where you like, but remember Ultratech has black sites even other black site operators are scared of'.

She allows the threat collage to remain. She does not, however, comment on whether she personally is more intimidated by Shadaloo or 'Peng You'. The full capabilities of each have yet to be explored, but only one of them had totalled an entire Ultratech facility... at least, assuming that she could trust her predictive models.

And when did she fail to do that?

In a way, giving them that knowledge is putting them in a position to make their decisions. Without that information, they're more likely to make uninformed decisions that will increase the probability of being killed before they even have a chance to evolve.

Now that he thinks about it, that is an awfully heavy decision to be placed on the shoulders of someone who isn't of drinking age in most countries. He has a lot to discuss both with Djamila and Iris.

Sensing that the amount he will be able to contribute to the conversation has run out, he bows to Mint and then ARIA.

"This was quite informative. I have a to think about. Thank you."

And then Kenzo makes his way to the elevator.

Log created on 19:39:57 11/15/2023 by Meifeng, and last modified on 20:34:12 11/18/2023.