Chapter 1: School Assignment
April 15, 21:37 (Local Time)
Eastern Soviet Union
50 Miles Southeast of Khabarovsk
I'd just as soon die.
Violently bouncing around in an automobile's interior, the girl continued to make grim assessments of her situation.
Mud from the sloshy road splattered across the windshield, obscuring the coniferous trees that barely were visible in the farthest reaches of the headlights.
The girl caught a glimpse of her reflection in the side-view mirror: a pale face, gnawing on her thumb as if possessed.
I should be tannerfrom tennis practice. Why am I so pallid?
How long has it been since my last tennis practice? A week? A month?
. A year? Time's not important. I can't go home, anyway. It'd be easiest if they just killed me now.
"Almost there," shouted the vehicle's driver, a gruff man who was wearing a stiff military uniform. "In just a couple of miles, we'll be in the mountain district. From there, you'll be able to return to Japan."
Liar. We'll never get away in a vehicle like this.
Those people will capture me, drug me, strip me, and lock me up again in that water tank-that deep, dark water tank, a place where nothing exists but endless, meaningless questions. No matter how much I beg, they won't let me out.
"I'll do anything, just let me out!"
They won't hear me. I can't even hear myself.
Gradually, they will break me.
The only thing I have left is biting my nails. That's all I can do. It is my only joy. Nails arejantastic: They hurt, they bleed. They're great. Blood comes out, it dissolves. Nails . .. nails . .. nailllllls.
"Stop that!" the man brushed the girl's hand away from her mouth. For a moment, she stared absently at him. "Let me bite-or
The man's face contorted with pity as the girl's speech devolved into a pathetic stutter, like that of a broken tape deck. His sympathy turned to anger.
"Those scum bags did some bad things to you, didn't they?"
A bright flash of light behind the vehicle punctuated the man's sentiment, inspiring him to crank the wheel furiously. The light painted a streak across the sky as it sailed over the fleeing Jeep.
An explosion sent flames and debris hurtling toward the front of the Jeep, which skidded sideways. The windshield shattered, and the jeep toppled and rolled through the flames.
Not wearing a seat belt, the girl was tossed clear of th~ wreck through the side window.
If she had taken a breath at that moment, or if she had opened her mouth to scream, the whirling flames would have scorched her lungs. Sadly, she lacked the willpower to scream.
Crashing shoulder first into the snowy, muddy ground, she tumbled to a stop. Although laid out like a doll, the girl had no desire to move.
But her cloudy consciousness cleared. When she slowly lifted her head, she saw the mostly destroyed Jeep snapped in half like a twig, its rear wheels spinning futilely.
The girl tried to get up, but there was no strength in her shoulder-it was either broken or dislocated. Oddly enough, however, she felt no pain. She half-crawled toward the automobile wreckage, spotting the battered and bloody driver pinned beneath some of the car's plating.
"Take this," he gasped, holding out a CD case with a trembling hand. "Go . . . south ..."
His eyes were wet with tears.
And that was it for him. His tear-filled eyes were still half¬open, forever frozen in anguish.
The girl did not understand why the man was crying. Pain? Fear of death? Something else?
Suddenly, her survival instincts kicked in. She stood, took the CD case, and began to plop one dirty, bloody foot after another through the mud. She had no idea which way south was, but she walked in a straight line regardless, continually biting her thumbnail as she went.
Rotors chopped noisily through the air. An engine howled as it sucked in air and gas. It was a helicopter-and it was approaching uickly! The forest swayed in the man-made wind.
The girl looked up to see a gray attack helicopter, its body rugged and gnarled like an old tree.
How ugly, she thought.
"Halt!" warned the helicopter's external speaker. "Or you will be shot to death!" Of course, she did not halt. She continued to drudge In a straight line.
"Where do you think you're going?" The helicopter's machine gun fired a few rounds into the ground near the girl. Chunks of earth flew through the air, and the girl fell to the ground.
"Bad girls get punished." As she tried to pick herself up uSing her one good arm, a smattering of shots struck the ground around her.
The impact of the bullets in the ground near the girl made it impossible for her to get up. The sound of laughter came through the helicopter's loudspeaker.
Determined, the girl continued to crawl.
"Oh, poor little girl. Look how worn out she is! And still, she keeps-" the voice cut out, leaving only the sound of the chopper's spinning blades.
"Look out! It's an AS. Increase alti-"
The high-pitched sound of crushing metal interrupted the pilot. The helicopter became a veri~able spark factory. The girl looked up and saw something sticking out of the machine's nose.
It was a huge knife-a throwing knife as large as a person. The red-hot blade stuck clear through the helicopter's nose.
Fighting a losing battle with gravity, the attack helicopter lurched in a great spin. Fishtailing like crazy, it hurtled toward the girl. She had neither the time nor the aspiration to move from its path. She stayed rooted in place, watching the hunk of iron that would bring her demise.
Then, out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of an extremely large figure.
The mysterious figure straddled her, spread its arms, braced its legs, and stood in front of the oncoming helicopter.
Scraps of metal flew around, and small parts rained from the sky. The grating sounds of grinding gears and uselessly spinning turbines played an aircraft's dirge duet.
When the girl looked up, she saw that the giant humanlike shape had caught the helicopter with its upper body. Its back bent vigorously, and steam gushed from the joints in its arms, shoulders, hips, and knees.
It began to walk, its heavy footsteps kicking up chunks of dirt and snow. The machine carried the helicopter a sufficient distance from the girl, whereupon it tossed the whirlybird into the forest. The chopper wreckage fell to the ground and exploded.
The machine, which was roughly twenty-six feet tall, turned around. It was backlit by the flaming helicopter.
Finally, the girl was able to get a good look at the mysterious behemoth, which greatly resembled an athletic person with its long legs, tight waist, massive chest, and burly arms; it just happened to be coated with armor plating. The machine looked like a fight;r pilot wearing a helmet, and it carried a proportional gun and backpack, just like a person would.
"It's an ... Arm Slave, an assault trooper! "
The AS, a mechanized giant, returned to her side.
"Are you injured?" asked the humanoid machine in a calm male voice. "I had to use an anti-tank dagger because the helicopter was so close to you. My shot cannon would have been much too powerful." Still in a state of shock, the girl said nothing. The AS knelt, braced itself with one of its giant mechanical hands, and lowered its head. It looked like a scene from a fairy tale: a gray giant kneeling before a tattered princess.
A hatch on the Arm Slave's torso opened, and a soldier popped up through the hatch behind the machine's head.
He wore a black pilot suit and small, lightweight headgear that made him appear vaguely like a ninja when the light silhouetted him.
First-aid kit in hand, the AS operator climbed out of the weapon.
He was young and Asian, with messy black hair, sharp eyes, a knitted brow, and a tight-lipped mouth.
The soldier was still a boy-probably not much older than the girl he had come to rescue. But there was nothing childlike about his demeanor; he left no impression of the innocence and irresponsibility characteristic of boys his age.
"Where are you hurt?" asked the pilot. He spoke in Japanese, which surprised the girl.
When she didn't respond, he asked her if she understood Japanese. She nodded almost imperceptibly.
"Are you with that man?" she asked, pointing to the spot where the driver lay dead.
"Yes. I'm also part of Mithril."
"An undercover military organization with no national affiliation."
Again, the girl did not know how to respond.
As the soldier began to administer first aid, the girl suddenly became cognizant of her intense pain. Her breathing became ragged, but she managed to speak through the wheezing.
"Yes, it appears he did."
"He was trying to set me free."
"That's the kind of man he was."
"Doesn't it make you sad?"
The young soldier temporarily stopped wrapping her shoulder in tape so he could consider his emotional state. "I'm not sure," he finally said.
After he finished wrapping the girl's shoulder and arm, the young man began to prod and poke the girl's body without restraint or bashfulness.
"What are you going to do with me?"
"First, I'll take you in my AS to the transport helicopter's LZ.
Once we're on the helicopter, we'll return to the mother ship, which is at sea. I don't know what happens after that-that's where our duty ends." "Our duty?"
As if answering her question, two more Arm Slaves appeared, clearing a path through the trees while keeping a vigilant watch on the surroundings.
They looked almost identical to the first one, and they carried rifles and missile launchers.
"Don't worry: They're with me."
The pain began to take an even greater toll on the girl-her field of vision narrowed, and her thoughts grew cloudy. She couldn't remember where she was.
"What's your name?" she squeaked.
"It's best if you don't talk. You'll waste your strength."
"Please, tell me."
Hesitantly, the soldier contemplated revealing himself.
"Sagara. Sousuke Sagara."
Before he even finished saying it, however, the girl had passed out.
April 15, 16:11 (Greenwich Mean Time) Sea of Japan, Depth: 330 Feet Amphibious Assault Submarine Tuatha de Danaan
Armed with a clipboard and a fruit-flavored Calorie Mate, Sousuke entered the giant submarine's overly spacious hangar to work on his post-mission report.
Most ofthe ship's weaponry-Arm Slaves, transport helicopters, VTOL fighters, and the like-were lined up there. Sousuke gazed at one that was being repaired.
"Hey, Sousuke!" called an overbearing voice.
Sousuke turned around to see his colleague, Sergeant Kurz Weber.
Blond-haired and blue-eyed with a small chin and big eyes, Kurz was movie-star handsome. His long, perfectly styled hair added a touch of genderless charm. When he smiled, women's hearts beat faster.
As soon as he opened his mouth, however ...
"Why the long face? Constipated? Hemorrhoids?"
No dignity. No class.
"I'm in perfect health," Sousuke responded absentmindedly, taking a bite of his Calorie Mate.
"You're really dense, you know that?" Kurz's gaze wandered to the AS that was being repaired. Its armor was offalready. "Wow, they already cracked it open, huh?"
"Apparently, they're conducting a detailed inspection of the frame system:" "Well, you were pretty hard on it. I mean, you caught a helicopter! Weren't you scared?"
"No. It wasn't an activity beyond the specs of the M9."
The model AS both Sousuke and Kurz used was called a M9 Gernsback. It was totally cutting edge-not yet widely used in military circles. Compared to previous models of Arm Slaves, the M9 had extraordinary power and agility.
"I guess, but the M9 is the only mech that could pull that stunt," decided Kurz as he took a seat on an empty ammo case. He stared at the line of M9s in the hangar.
The Arm Slave was born in the mid-I980s. At the time, U.S. President Ronald Reagan strongly supported the development of a robot force to go along with the Star Wars strategic defense project:
"The next great development in localized dispute resolution."
"A grand technical challenge!"
"A labor-saving contribution to infantry forces!"
Driven by suspicious rhetoric, the AS became reality just three years later. The humanoid weapon once thought to be an impossible joke now ran at speeds of more than sixty miles per hour, employed numerous weapons, and matched a tank in terms of strength.
Specialists were blown away-after all, non-military bipedal robots barely could take a step or two without falling over.
What genius had masterminded this project? What think tank had developed it?
"It's technology from interplanetary visitors!" claimed UFO fanatics, temporarily boosting the sales of their magazines and books.
Eventually, however, people came to regard the AS the same way they saw the cruise missile or stealth fighter jet-as a very high-tech weapon.
About ten years later, AS technology continued to make explosive progress. It got to the point where it was dangerous to approach one carelessly, even in an attack helicopter.
A thought interrupted Kurz's stare. "Hey, Sousuke, about that girl you picked up ..."
"Will she live?"
"Yeah, but she was pretty doped up."
"Cannabinoids or something like that-they still don't know exactly, but they think it came from the KGB research facility. I don't know what kind of experiments they're doing there, but they're pretty damn cruel."
"Will she recover?"
"Who knows? Even if she does, it probably will take a long time."
Sousuke didn't know what to say. Although the superior officers seemed to know what kind of guinea pig the girl was, they didn't share that information with Sousuke and Kurz. It was protocol, really: Frontline combatants rarely had all the details.
The man who died in the Jeep was a spy from Mithril's intelligence bureau. Saving the girl wasn't part ofhis original mission, which was to dig up information on the KGB research facility. However, he had suffered a tremendous twinge of conscience and put his own life at risk to rescue the test subject.
In spite of the spy's death, the CD with the top-secret information still made it back into Mithril's hands, thanks to Sousuke and the others.
Breaking the silence, Master Sergeant Melissa Mao quickly entered the hangar. "There you are."
Solidly in her mid-twenties, Mao was an American of Chinese descent. Her short black hair nicely framed her pretty face without masking her true, spirited nature. Like Sousuke and Kurz, Mao was a skilled AS operator. The three of them often were lumped together as a team, and Mao always was the leader.
"Good work on the overtime," said Mao.
Sousuke grunted and nodded.
"What's up, girl?" said Kurz.
"Wipe that grin off your face, Mister. You always look like the comic relief around here."
"Do you know who you're talking to? It's me, Kurz Weber, model extraordinaire. This delicious face graced the pages of Esquire, 'you know. "
"Oh yeah, I think I saw that. Wasn't it a farce-like that Charlie Sheen movie Hot Shots?"
Quickly, like a cat, Mao reached out and grabbed Kurz's cheek.
"What did you call me?" she demanded.
"Jus' the smar'es, preddies', mos' debendable-"
"That's what I thought," she said, letting go of his face.
Quietly nibbling, Sousuke watched the whole exchange.
Mao noticed when he swallowed.
"Those things any good?"
Smiling, he nodded. "Just the right sweetness."
"Cool. Sousuke, the lieutenant commander wants to see you."
"You too, playboy."
"Aw, man! I thought you said we were off duty!"
"Consider this a countermand," said Mao, laughing. "I, however, am off duty. If you need me, I'll be in the bath." She cackled as she left.
"If that bitch knew what was good for her," commented Kurz, "she'd be clawing her name into my back."
As she walked away, Kurz flipped her backside the bird.
"What kind of curse is that?" wondered Sousuke.
"Come in!" Sousuke and Kurz filed into the small room filled with documents, bookshelves, and a large man clad in an olive-green combat uniform-Lieutenant Commander Kalinin. Although Kalinin had long gray hair, his beard and mustache were cropped short. "Reporting as ordered, sir," stated Sousuke, crisply saluting. "Yeah, here we are." Kurz submitted a halfhearted salute. Indifferent to Kurz's attitude, Lieutenant Commander Kalinin looked up from the documents he was reading.
"There's a mission." Lieutenant Commander Kalinin didn't beat around the bush. He tossed a file folder toward Sousuke and Kurz. 'Take a look at this."
"Yes, sir," replied Sousuke. "You got it," quipped Kurz. The documents in the file appeared to be a personal history, including a black-and-white photo of a smiling Asian girl. Roughly age twelve in the photo, the girl was nestled up against a woman, ostensibly her mother. With fair skin and clear-cut features, she was a lovely child.
Kurz whistled. ''I'll bet she grows up to be hot." "Actually, the photo is four years old," announced the lieutenant commander. "She's sixteen, now." "So, where's the picture of her now?" "We don't have one."
As he already was accustomed to Kurz's manner, Sousuke paid him no attention, focusing instead on reading the girl's biographical information.
According to the brief, her name was Kaname Chidori, and she lived in Tokyo, Japan. Kaname was a student in one of Tokyo's many high schools. Her father was a U.N. High Commissioner.
She had one sibling: an eleven-year-old sister who lived with her father in New York City. Her mother had died three years earlier.¬
There was additional information: height, blood type, medical history, and more-the report spared no detail.
One sentence popped out at Sousuke: Probability oj being a W~~~~~~~d: 88% (according to Miller Statistics Act)
Sousuke knew that the word that had been censored haphazardly with black marker was the real reason Kurz and he were being assigned the mission.
"So, what happened to her?" asked Kurz.
"Nothing," responded Kalinin. "Yet."
"Huh?" Kurz grunted his confusion.
Turning slightly in his creaky chair, the lieutenant commander looked at a map of the world that was mounted on the wall. It was up to date with the latest national borders-the complexly divided Soviet bloc, the split of the northern and southern Chinese territories, and the scribble of lines that made up the Middle East.
"All you two need to know is that there are a number of enemy agencies, including the KGB, that might want to kidnap Kaname Chidori."
"Why?" inquired Kurz.
"That," Kalinin said stoutly, "is something you gentlemen do not need to know." "Oh, right." It all seemed pretty vague to Kurz. This girl, Kaname Chidori, was only a potential target.
"What, exactly, is our mission?" pressed Sousuke.
"You'll guard the girl, naturally. I'm giving this one to you guys because you're both fluent in Japanese." "I guess that makes sense." Kurz's father was a newspaper correspondent and, consequently, Kurz had lived in the Edogawa section of Tokyo until he was fourteen. Thus, he spoke the language like a pro. "I've briefed Master Sergeant Mao already. The three of you will handle this."
That seemed like an awful lot of work to Kurz. "Whoa, just the three of us?"
"I barely can spare that many. It's decided already."
"Rough," assessed Kurz.
"That's why you're here."
Sousuke, Kurz, and Mao were more than just AS pilots, they were highly trained soldiers capable of airborne landings, reconnaissance, combat, and more. They were members of a team picked from numerous candidates. And to them, an AS was just one of the many tools of their trade.
"Upon Mao's insistence, I've granted you Class B equipment."
The two soldiers' jaws dropped open.
"We're taking an Arm Slave?" asked Sousuke.
"But it's in the heart of a major city!" protested Kurz.
"You'll just have to operate in ECS invisible mode," reasoned Kalinin.
Though the technology was pioneered for Arm Slaves, many modern weapons used some form of ECS-or Electromagnetic Camouflage System. Using hologram technology, the cutting-edge stealth equipment could hide very large objects from radar and infrared rays. Mithril's ECS systems were so advanced that they could nullify visible light wavelengths.
In other words, it made them invisible.
It took a lot of energy, so invisibility was not practical (or even possible) during combat, but it was no problem when the vehicle was sitting still or hiding. "You'll take one M9 with you. Armament will be minimal, so carry two external condenser packs."
"Check," affirmed Kurz.
"It's imperative that this mission is kept top secret."
"Say what?" Kurz frowned.
"If the Japanese government finds out," Kalinin continued, "it'll get messy. So you must protect Kaname without her or anyone else knowing. But you still must be ready when trouble comes."
"That sounds very ..." Kurz struggled for words.
"Difficult," concluded Sousuke. Guarding someone without her knowledge or permission was beyond absurd.
"Depending on how you operate, it shouldn't be that difficult.
This girl-Kaname Chidori-spends most of her time at a co-ed public high school. Our youngest soldier is the same age as she is, and he's even Japanese."
"Oh, ho hoI" Kurz lit up and turned to Sousuke, who blinked a few times under the scrutiny. "You don't mean-" "We're forging the student transfer papers right now." And Kalinin signed the directive.
April 16, 11:50 (Greenwich Mean Time) Off the Coast of the Tsugaru Peninsula, Depth: 330 Feet Tuatha de Danaan Briefing Room #1
"Say 'cheese,' Sousuke." Sousuke scowled at the camera and at Kurz, its operator. "Come on, man," goaded Kurz. "Don't you want a nice picture on your student ID?" Calling on little-used muscles, Sousuke formed an expression that looked more like a facial neuralgia than a smile.
"Close enough." Kurz snapped the picture.
Like an elastic band that is stretched and released, Sousuke's face instantly returned to its most comfortable, sullen expression.
April 17, 21:20 (Greenwich Mean Time) Off the Coast of Kinkazan Island, Depth: 260 Feet Tuatha de Danaan Mess Hall
"What is all this?" Sousuke asked, staring at the collection of items strewn across the table. He picked up some of the objects and scowled at them: a brush, some hair gel, a portable CD player, CDs by Hiroshi Itsuki and SMAP, assorted charms from Narita-san temple, a Game Boy, a Mister Junko watch, cigarettes, energy drinks, glossy magazines, and a few other miscellaneous items of that nature.
Melissa Mao beamed. "I went around the ship and gathered up all the things a typical Japanese high school student might have."
"I see." Somewhat confused, Sousuke picked up a little square of vinyl that contained a rubbery-looking circle.
"That's a condom," said Mao.
"I know. But I can't figure out why a high school boy would need one."
"Don't play innocent, you hornball!"
"As a matter of fact, I have used them many times," said
Sousuke. "They can hold an entire liter of liquid."
Melissa Mao's mouth dropped open.
"Yes, ifyou've lost your canteen in the jungle, these can be a real lifesaver," Sousuke concluded earnestly.
"Is that so?" Master Sergeant Mao rolled her eyes.
April 18, 10:06 (Greenwich Mean Time) Off the Coast of the Boso Peninsula, Depth: 165 Feet Tuatha de Danaan Briefing Room #1
Clutching a remote, Kurz ushered Sousuke in front of an LCD screen. "Okay, take a look at this. These are Japanese high school students, so pay attention."
When Kurz hit play, a generic-looking classroom filled the screen. It looked like it was evening, and there were only two students in the classroom. Despite there being plenty of space in the room, were standing in the corner, very close to each other.
"I've always thought ofyou as a childhood friend," admitted the young man, slowly letting out the words, "until now. I can't believe it took me this long to realize the way I feel about you."
"Oh, Tohru!" gasped the girl, hugging the boy.
As the young man leaned in to kiss her, the door to the classroom creaked open. Turning in surprise, the couple in the corner saw another student standing in the doorway.
"Naomi!" called Tohru.
"How could you?" demanded Naomi, who ran away in tears.
The boy started to chase after her, but the girl in the corner pulled on his sleeve and told him to let her go. Kurz hit the pause button. "Why did she run?" asked Sousuke. "Isn't the girl in the corner her enemy?"
Kurz blinked in awe of Sousuke's lack of social sense.
"Unless ... Naomi now knows a secret that could get her eliminated. She ran because she's a survivor. Clever girl!" "Or something like that," said Kurz, rolling his eyes.
April l9, 03:30 (Japan Standard Time) Off the Coast of the Miura Peninsula Tuatha de Danaan Flight Deck
As the T uatha de Oanaan rested half-submerged in the sea like a vigilant hippo, the hatch to its flight deck groaned open, revealing . the tarmac from which the Arm Slaves, combat choppers, and VTOL planes could take off.
A seven-rotor transport helicopter sat on the flight deck, waiting for permission to leave. The cargo hold was stocked full of all kinds of gear, including an Arm Slave M9.
After tossing his small bag behind his seat, Sousuke fastened his seat belt. He checked to make sure he hadn't forgotten anything vital, such as the forged student 10 that was stashed in his breast pocket.
Mao, who sat next to him, stared at the 10 card. "You put your real name on there?" "I did. But I don't exist in Japanese record books, anyway, so if a problem arises, I always could change my name." "Oh, okay." "It's not a problem. Let's get a move on." The helicopter began to prepare for takeoff.
"Are you nervous? I mean, it's your first day ofschool," pointed out Kurz from his position in the back seat.
"I'll do my best," replied Sousuke.
"Tessa seemed worried," commented Mao, referring to the submarine's captain.
"I'm not surprised. It's an important mission," said Sousuke, eliciting a simultaneous sigh from both Mao and Kurz.
Before they could continue the conversation, the pilot of the helicopter informed them that it was time to take off.
April 20, 08:20 (Japan Standard Time) Suburbs of Tokyo, Japan ARoad 350 Feet North of Jindai Municipal High School
"Totally sucked," said a disgruntled Kaname Chidori.
Her dark brown eyes wandered for a moment, surveying the group of students walking with her. As Kaname walked, the black hair that hung clear to her hips swayed to and fro at a leisurely pace that was in great contrast to her walking speed.
"Completely and totally sucked," she concluded after a moment of thought.
Kyouko Tokiwa, a classmate, said "Gee, Kana, you haven't talked about anything else all morning. Was it really that terrible?"
"Worse!" insisted Kaname. "He talked incessantly without ever actually saying anything. I did him the favor of going out with him and everything, so you'd think he could find at least one interesting thing to talk about."
Like you? thought Kyouko. His fatber's a deSigner, he~ got a friend in the J-Ieague-seems interesting to me. To avoid trouble, though, she just said
"I mean, there's the life of Zhuge Liang, the pollution in the Pacific, religious strife in the Middle East-"
"Are you even listening to me, Kyouko? Or are you just saying
"Stop that, Kyouko! The least you can do is listen to my post¬date recap. After all, you're the one who introduced him to me."
"He asked me to."
"If someone asked you to sell me off to Macao, would you do that, too?"
"Ha hal You brat," Kaname said fondly.
As the school came into view, they could see a line of students extending from the front door.
"Oh man, security searches," groaned Kaname, the victim of many random bag and pocket searches. "Yeah, it sure is. You don't have anything illegal, do you, Kana?" "Not unless they outlawed books over the weekend." Indeed, Kana had several books she'd borrowed from friends: Living Like Zhuge Liang!; Warning oj the Dolphins-So Long, and Thanks for All the Fi~h; and Marvels oj Archeology: Did Moai Write the Dead Sea Scrolls?
"As long as you're not smuggling a bomb or guns," quipped Kyouko. "Give me some credit. What kind of idiot brings weapons to school?" There was a great commotion from the front of the line, where the teacher, Miss Eri Kagurazaka, grilled one of the students. "Do you really think you can get away with something like this on your first day here?"
"No, ma'am. I don't mean to cause trouble."
"Until you show me the contents ofyour bag, you may not enter the building."
"But .. "
Although the boy seemed unnaturally calm, he also emitted an air of immense confusion and a desire not to be the center of attention.
"Who's that? I've never seen him around before."
Although he had the same stand-up collar as everyone else, he maintained a real sense of mystery about him.
It was safe to call the boy handsome, but his tight-lipped mouth and alert eyes indicated an extreme sternness slightly undermined by his messy black hair. Although he was thin, he looked pretty athletic, as if he participated in an active sport, like judo.
"Just open the bag, bub!"
Fed up, Ms. Kagurazaka slapped the bag out of his hands.
"What do you have in here, a,nyway? I'll bet there's cigarettes!"
She thrust open the bag, pushing aside notebooks, textbooks, and a smattering of writing utensils-and uncovering an Austrian-made automatic handgun with three ammo magazines. There also was a tube of explosives, several detonators, some stun grenades, a tiny camera, and a length of piano wire.
"I don't know what school you came from; but around here, we confiscate toys like these."
"Please wait in the staff room. It's almost time for class!"
All the onlookers laughed and moved on their way.
"Gross-he's a military nut," opined Kaname. "That gives me geek chills." "He looks like he might be interesting," declared Kyouko smartly.
Poor Sousuke Sagara. Though he was at home on any battlefield and had been raised in international conflict zones, on a high school campus, he was a clueless moron.
Perhaps the security is tighter here than I had guessed, thought Sousuke as he and Miss Kagurazaka walked through an empty corridor.
At first, when she asked to search his bag, Sousuke thought he might have failed the mission already. After his weapons were confiscated, he resigned himself to following the teacher to the basement, where he assumed they would interrogate and beat him.
But then, as all the students submitted to the search, he realized that it was routine.
Wait a minute. Does that mean that a lot 0/ students bring small arms and explosives to class?
Sousuke quickly looked around, but he didn't see anything to support or negate the idea.
If all the students were armed, it would make the bodyguard mission a bit more complicated. That meant it was conceivable that anyone, even the volleyball team walking down the hall, could be carrying submachine guns.
Sousuke was not overly concerned, however, because Kurz Weber was in an M9 Gernsback, camouflaged in a grove of trees behind the school. IfSousuke called him on his miniature wristwatch radio, the M9 could be there in about ten seconds.
"Urzu Six, what's your status?" whispered Sousuke into his watch.
"Tired and hungry," Kurz replied into Sousuke's hidden. "Need beer."
Miss Kagurazaka continued to lead Sousuke briskly down the hallway. She was a proper-looking woman in her mid-twenties. She wore a short bob haircut and a tight-skirted gray suit.
"Ma'am," began Sousuke, "about that gun ..." "It will be returned to you at the end of the school term," she interrupted.
"That's not the issue. The problem is that there's already a round in the chamber. It's extremely dangerous, so please don't touch the trigger under any circumstances."
"Huh? Oh, okay."
"It's loaded with splat rounds that have an extremely high kill rate. So, even an accidental firing will cause fatalities. Handle it with caution, please."
"I understand. Don't worry." She clearly did not understand. Against her instructions, Sousuke worried.
From their desks in the clamorous classroom, Kaname and Kyouko watched Miss Kagurazaka lead Sousuke Sagara into the room.
Kaname and Kyouko conducted a brief, wordless conversation through facial expressions and gestures.
Look, there he is!
"Quiet down, everyone!" shouted the teacher, rapping the attendance book against the blackboard. "Take your seats and pipe down. It's time to meet your new classmate."
Obediently, the majority of the students quieted.
"Okay. Mister Sagara, please introduce yourself"
"Yes, ma'am." Sousuke took a step forward. "My name is Sergeant Sousuke Sagara," he boomed.
Almost immediately, he paled at his own idiocy.
"Surgeon So Gay Soggy Log?" called one ofthe jokers from the back of the room.
"Sir John Soaks a Saw Gulag?"
"Sergeant? Like an army sergeant?"
"Quiet everyone! Give the new student a chance to speak," the teacher ordered sternly, again tapping against the blackboard with her book to quiet the class down. "As for you, Mister Sagara, this is no time for jokes."
Previously, Sousuke never had felt so nervous on a mission. The pressure was intense. Letting that one word slip could cause the failure of the entire mission.
Sweating profusely, he snapped to attention and started over. "I am Sousuke Sagara. Ignore the 'sergeant: That is all."
"Yes, ma'am. That is all."
Miss Kagurazaka turned to the class. "Any questions?"
"Where are you from, Sagara?"
"I have lived many places-Afghanistan, Lebanon, Cambodia, Iraq-but I haven't stayed in anyone place for very long." The class fell silent. "Wow. Sounds like Mister Sagara moved around quite a bit,"
concluded Miss Kagurazaka. "If I'm not mistaken, you transferred here from America, right?"
"That's correct," said Sousuke, acknowledging his fake transfer papers, which showed a previous address in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Although Sousuke never actually had been there, he knew some people who had.
One of the students raised his hand, but he didn't wait for the teacher to call on him. "Got any hobbies?"
"Model guns!" offered someone from the back ofthe room, and the class erupted in laughter.
"I enjoy fishing and reading," Sousuke said truthfully.
Whenever Sousuke had time to spare at Mithril's West Pacific base, ~e dropped a line in the water and picked up a good weapons manual. Even when it rained, he sat out there under an umbrella, immersed in his own little world.
"What do you read?" inquired one of the students.
Sousuke's eyes lit up. "Primarily technical writings and specialized magazines, such as Jane~ Fighting Ships, Soldier oj Fortune, and Arm Slave Monthly. I also have read the Japanese AS Fan, which contains surprisingly high-level information. Lately, I've been completely captivated by a series from the Naval Institute Press ..."
Sousuke realized he had lost a hundred percent of his audience already. He hung his head. "Never mind. Please, forget that."
No need to ask: No one remembered, because no one was listening. One of the girls near the front raised her hand.
"Urn, who are your favorite musicians?"
This could be difficult-Sousuke rarely listened to music. He grunted as he recalled the CDs Master Sergeant Mao had given him "Oh, yes-Hiroshi Itsuki and SMAP."
April 20, 15:08 (Japan Standard Time) Jindai High School, Tokyo, Japan Athletic Club Wing, 2nd Floor
"What a weirdo," exclaimed Kaname as she undid the ribbon on the chest of her uniform. "I mean, nothing he says makes any sense at all. I don't think he's trying to be funny, either-I think he's legitimately messed up in the head, a psycho."
As Kaname removed her blouse and put it on a hanger, she knocked over the baseball bat that had been leaning against her locker.
"Darn it! I mean, did you see him during class? He just kept looking around. And in between classes, he paced around in the hallway. So weird."
"Really?" asked Kyouko, who was in the process of removing her skirt. "I didn't notice." "So weird. Seriously, it annoys me just to look at him."
"Then don't look at him."
"1-1 wasn't," protested Kaname as she readjusted her bra. "Why would I look at a maniac like that? But this is the worst-the worst! A couple oftimes, I caught him looking at me. He played it like it was an accident and just looked away, but it was creepy. Creepy!"
"A lot of guys look at you, Kana. You're really pretty, you know," commented Kyouko with a tinge of envy. She pulled up her socks and reached for her orange softball pants.
"Thanks, but it's not like that. It's like he's up to something." "You know, Kana, you've been ragging on Sagara nonstop." "I have?"
With long strides, Sousuke crossed the school grounds, stopping in front of the athletic club wing. Surveying the building, he saw there were six windows in a row on the second floor. He located the stairs.
"Yes, you have!" said Kyouko.
Kyouko knew Kaname very well-including that Kana was quite popular despite having a dangerous mouth and a very candid demeanor. She was generally very good-natured, so much so that she practically had been forced into the position of student council vice president.
For Kaname to criticize someone she didn't really even know-and to do it behind his back-well, that was a very rare thing, indeed.
"For someone you're not interested in, you sure seem to talk about Sagara an awful lot."
"Don't be ridiculous! It's not like that. Ha ha. Ha ha ha!"
As a longtime friend, Kyouko also understood that Kaname:s laugh roughly translated to: "I don't know, but I don't want to talk about it." "Come on. Let's go." Having finished changing into their uniforms, Kaname and Kyouko started to leave the changing room, where there were still many girls in various stages of undress. But just as they were about to reach the door, it crashed open violently. Eighteen changing girls looked into the eyes of the student in the doorway: Sousuke.
There were eighteen simultaneous gasps.
"Eeeeeeeeeeee!" Shrieks rattled the windows.
Sousuke stood there dumbly, wearing a look ofprofound surprise.
Completely wasting a golden opportunity, he barely glanced at all the girls in their underwear. (Scantily clad women were only a distraction from the mission at hand, he knew.)
Springing forward, he grabbed Kaname and threw her to the ground. Somehow, by the time they hit the floor, he had drawn a pistol 6ut of an ankle holster.
"Everybody, get down. Get down!" he yelled as he made a lightning-quick turn toward the open door.
He waited, gun trained on the doorway.
Nothing happened, of course.
Keeping Kaname pinned to the ground, he kept the gun pointed at the door. He surveyed the room and did not see anyone who appeared threatening.
Actually, upon second assessment, there were eighteen girls crowding around him with murder in their eyes.
Ten minutes later, the mayhem was over. "I never suspected you to have something like this," said Miss Kagurazaka, inspecting the .38 caliber revolver.
"I apologize for the trouble, ma'am," Sousuke said meekly. He looked worn out; his uniform was torn, his face was scratched, his wrists were chained behind his back to a chair (with his own handcuffs, which the girls had found clipped to his belt).
He never liked interrogations.
"I'm confiscating this."
"Sorry, no exceptions!"
"Please unload it. Those are hollow point rounds:--very dangerous." "Oh, for the love of..." Miss Kagurazaka trailed off Then, she stood up. "Miss Chidori, I'm leaving him in your custody."
"I have a staffmeeting. We're planning the class trip, you know. He definitely is to blame for all this chaos, so talk it over with the other girls and decide how to deal with him, okay?"
It was unclear whether the teacher trusted Kaname or simply was irresponsible. Either way, she was gone already. Sousuke, who regarded Miss Eri Kagurazaka the same way Cambodians viewed U.N. peacekeepers, was extremely disheartened to see her go. Under the intense glowering of so many pissed-off young women, Sousuke had a good idea what was in store for him.
"The Geneva Accords state-"
Kaname had no reason to know anything about those; she probably thought Geneva was the capital of Brazil.
"So, Sagara, what's the big idea? I mean, being a perv is one thing. But you'd have to be retarded to jump in here like a freaking commando! Are you mental or what?"
"'Menta!'? You mean, 'smart'?" How can I be retarded and mental at the same time? What is the meaning oj this contradiction?
Sousuke realized it didn't matter. Each second felt like eternity.
"You psycho! Look at this!" Kaname rolled up her sleeve. "See that? My.elbow's all skinned up because of you. What are you gonna do about it?"
Sousuke assessed the damage. The skin was not broken, but it was a little bit red. The injuries Sousuke had sustained during the fray were far worse, but no one seemed to care about that.
Finally, he spoke. "It should heal very quickly."
"A girl's injuries last a lifetime!"
"So, what do you have to say for yourself?"
"Apologize to Kana."
Sousuke felt like a tank caught in crossfire. As far as he could tell, it appeared they did not appreciate his actions.
"I'm sorry for violently handling you," said Sousuke. "But please let the record show that it was not my intention to cause you or your friends any harm."
"Then, what were you doing?"
"I'm afraid that information is classified."
"What do you mean, 'classified'? Tell me!"
"No, I'm sorry ..."
Pushing her bangs off her forehead, Kaname said: ''Tell us why you came here in the first place." Thinking quickly, Sousuke answered, "I want to join the club." None of the girls knew how to respond to that. "I was a member of a similar club at my last school. I'm very proud of my participation, and that's why I was hoping to join. I'm confident in my physical strength and think you will only benefit from including m~. So, what do you think?"
Internally, Sousuke commended himself for the bold delivery of his impassioned plea.
"Look, Sagara," began a flustered Kaname, "this is, well, it's the girls' softball club."
Sousuke processed this information. "So ... boys can't join?"
"Of course not!"
"I think the circumstances warrant an exception, don't you?"
Fed up, the girls picked up Sousuke, chair and all, and kicked him down the stairs.
April 20, 18:45 (Japan Standard Time) Chofu,Tokyo,Japan Tigers Apartments #505
On a display screen, a black-haired girl opened the door to her apartment and went inside. After she swung the door shut, there was the gratifying sound of a lock clicking into place.
"Eighteen-hundred forty-five hours. Angel is safe at home. No shadows," reported Melissa Mao into a walkie-talk ie-like device.
She toggled the display to see what Kurz was up to with the AS. She couldn't see Kurz, of course, because of the ECS, but she knew that he would be running along the road and probably would be back in a couple of minutes.
Mithril's intelligence bureau prepared a base for their mission¬a safe house of sorts. Just across the district line, they had a good view of Miss Chidori's apartment.
Their room didn't have any real furniture-just a cheap table and some folding chairs. Still, the apartment was pretty full, loaded up with small weapons and surveillance equipment.
"I can't get over how expensive everything is here in Tokyo," grumbled Mao to no one in particular. She polished off a hamburger; then, she pulled out her menthol cigarettes, firing one up.
Shortly after that, Sousuke entered.
Mao laughed out loud when she saw him. His hands were chained to a strange-looking chair, which he had been dragging behind him the whole way.
"Oh, Sousuke, you made a friend!"
"It's a chair."
"I can see that. Why are you dragging that old thing around?" "Because I can't get the handcuffs of£ They're a hinge model, and the keyhole's pointed toward my elbow." "Give me a break," Mao chuckled as she pulled out her own master key and undid the cuffs.
"Thanks," said Sousuke. Then, he related the details of the day.
" ... and that's what happened. Buying a subway ticket at Sengawa Station was the most difficult part. What's the matter, Mao?" Pinching the top of her nose between two fingers, she said, "It's nothing, just a little headache."
"Oh. Perhaps you should rest a little."
Interrupting that thought, a small electronic sound signaled a transmission from Kurz. "This is Urzu Six, done for the day. Does one of you want to switch with me?" he pleaded. The M9 was safely inside a makeshift hangar, an oversized¬trailer in a nearby parking lot.
"Are you sure no one saw you, Kurz?"
"I almost kicked an old man. Every dog in a two-mile radius barked its head of£ I nearly smashed up a pachinko parlor. I stopped to rest against an elementary school and cracked the windows. You should've seen the little dudes freak out."
At any rate, no one saw the M9. With a less-skilled pilot, the near misses might have ended in disaster.
"Maybe this isn't the best way to go about this, after all," suggested Mao.
"If we stick to the plan around the clock ... then, yes, it may be impossible," agreed Sousuke. "I think it would be best to have the AS on standby here, starting tomorrow."
"It seems like such a waste ofits firepower and sensors; though," reasoned Mao.
Because the M9 was the absolute latest in AS technology, it was fully equipped with electronics that cost tens of millions of dollars. Its audio-detection system operated a "smart filter" 'that alerted the pilot to potentially dangerous phrases, such as "take captives" or "weapon discharge permitted." On top of that, the M9 had two machine guns that easily could take out twenty to thirty unarmored vehicles.
In hindsight, the M9 might have been a little bit too extravagant for the mission at hand. But Mao came from the most extravagant military in the world-the U.S. armed forces.
"I want the M9 as close to Kaname as possible. As long as we avoid rush hour and move along the river, I think we'll be okay."
"I trust your judgment," declared Sousuke.
"Somebody swap with me! I'm exhausted!" lamented Kurz.
"Wait a minute. Miss Chidori's getting a phone call." Mao twiddled some knobs on her equipment and offered Sousuke a spare headset. "Want to listen?"
The caller was Kaname's little sister, who lived on the east coast in America. They had a friendly chat, touching on many subjects, including the "crazy new transfer student," who she described as "pretty entertaining, at least." When it came time for her to hang up, Kaname seemed a little bit reluctant to end the call.
"Poor girl, living all alone," said Mao, sympathetically. "I guess she gets only one dose of family a day, through a long-distance call."
''I'm not sure I understand completely," said Sousuke, "but a scheduled communication is a good idea." He thought abbut this for a minute. "It's strange, though. In my dealings with Miss Chidori, she was a lot sharper, more aggressive."
"Ofcourse, she was different-she was talking to her little sister."
"Is that typical?"
"Noted. I'm also surprised to learn that she doesn't totally despise me."
"You sound pretty excited about that, Sousuke."
Sousuke turned to the window and studied his reflection for any traces of elation.
April 20, 11:30 (Greenwich Mean Time) Pacific Ocean, Depth: 165 Feet Amphibious Assault Submarine Tuatha de Danaan
"Sergeant Sagara sure seems to be having a tough time with this mission," said the girl in the captain's chair, who, according to appearances, was only in her mid-teens.
The young woman had large gray eyes and braided ash blonde hair that hung down over her left shoulder. She wore informal clothes-a stylish brown suit that was two or three sizes too large.
Regardless, a captain's rank insignia sparkled on her collar. And although the awards and decorations common to most captains were nowhere to be found on her chest, the girl, Teletha Testarossa (a.k.a. Tessa) was captain of the Tuatha de Danaan.
Only a small group of people knew the reason why.
One of them, Lieutenant Commander Kalinin, stood beside her in the submersible's command center, which was about the size of a small theater. It was the Tuatha de Danaan's brain, unifying the ship and its combat teams.
"It could be a valuable learning experience for him," opined Kalinin.
The young captain continued to scan the most recent report from Melissa Mao, which detailed Sousuke's adventures in a business-like fashion.
"Firearms confiscated. Assaulted by a gang ofcivilians, including the guarded target. Returned to safe house in exceedingly disabled state, tied to a chair."
"Nothing he can't handle, Captain." "True, Mister Sagara is a top-notch sergeant. Even so, I'm glad he has Miss Mao and Mister Weber with him." Tessa paused to look at the clocks-one for GMT and one for JST-on her display screen. "Lieutenant Commander? How long do you think those three will have to be in Tokyo?"
"It could be several weeks until we locate and suppress the source of the threat, Captain." In spite of his physical seniority, Kalinin responded with immense respect.
"So, it all depends on the progress of our mission," concluded Tessa as she studied a marine chart on the display screen. "If everything goes according to plan, we will eliminate the need to guard Kaname Chidori."
"As well as the rest of the Whispered candidates."
"For the time being, at least."
Kalinin excused himself; then, he saluted and left.
Meanwhile Soviet Union Outskirts of Khabarovsk
Two cars sat parked atop a lonely bridge that straddled a frozen river. Apparently, all noise in the outlying area also had frozen solid, as it was dead quiet.
Three men stood in the center of the bridge: one Asian man in a fancy Italian coat and two Russians, both clad in KGB uniforms.
"Too quiet," grumbled the Asian man, adjusting his slicked hair. There was a large scar on his forehead-a remarkably straight line that resembled a knife's slash or a bullet's kiss. It looked almost like a third eye.
"Quit whining; you're the one who designated this meeting place," said the more corpulent of the two KGB men, a colonel according to the decorations on his shoulder.
"I was referring to the activity between your ears. I can hear the moths' wings flapping!" The colossal captain next to the colonel lunged fo.rward. "What'd you just say?" The colonel restrained him. The Asian man laughed. "At least the colonel has decent people skills."
"It is not our error," protested the irritated colonel. "The Whispered test subject was stolen, and there's a good chance they got their hands on the candidate list, too. Without a test subject, we can't conduct the research; it's as simple as that."
The colonel sounded irritated-and with good reason. The research he spoke of was being conducted without permission from the party's central committee. If they detected his unauthorized activities were a failure, he most certainly would be sent to a labor camp.
"So Gauron, are you through investigating the enemy's objective?"
"More or less. Take a look," said the scarred man, handing the colonel a photograph. "I ran an image enhancer on this photo you gave me."
In the photo, there was the vague outline of an AS.
"It's using ECS-that's why the outlines are blurred as if they're melting into the surroundings. It appears to be carrying a backpack, maybe transporting VIPs up that mountain slope."
The AS looked slick, remarkably similar to a human. Impressed, the colonel raised an eyebrow. "What is this? I'm not familiar withthis type."
"It's a Mithril AS," Gauron cheerfully responded, "much too advanced for you to worry about it."
"It's a secret organization of mercenaries. Their equipment is a good ten years ahead of the rest of the world: top guns, elite soldiers.
Mithril was an enigmatic force, perpetually present in the shadows ofinternational conflicts. They attacked armed guerilla bases and destroyed drug-manufacturing plants. They allegedly annihilated terrorist camps and prevented nuclear-weapon smuggling.
Mithril's mission was to extinguish the flames of regional conflicts. Consequently, they weren't on any particular side.
"Why would they interfere with my project?" asked the colonel.
"Probably because it's dangerous. If you were to succeed, it would upset the world's balance of power." "So, they're going to make it hard for us to capture a new Whispered candidate, I suspect."
Having one of the Whispered girls in their custody was absolutely essential to their project's success. Now that theirs was lost, they simply would have to find another.
"I can abduct one, but it'll take some time-it's more trouble than killing one," said Gauron.
"Does that mean an increase in your fee?" growled the colonel.
Smiling, Gauron said, ''I'm a businessman, not a communist."
"Very funny, you yellow monkey!" shouted the captain. "You're completely replaceable! How about you show some thanks to the colonel who keeps hiring you, anyway?"
"I am thankful for your patronage," responded Gauron.
"You Chinamen are all empty promises!" roared the captain.
"What an insightful comment. I'm not Chinese, though," corrected Gauron.
"Either way, you're all the same! Wait until I send you to the
Ural mountain coal mines and turn your grinning yellow face black!
You puny pig!"
"You, sir, are very annoying."
With the skill and speed of a card shark, Gauron pulled a pistol from under his coat. It was such a smooth and simple action, it looked as if he were pulling out a cell phone.
The red point of a laser sight dotted the captain's forehead.
A gunshot shattered the nighttime quiet.
Blood, skull fragments, and pieces of brain littered the snow.
The captain's body, with the surviving half of his head, clattered to the ground with a thud.
"Now, where were we? Oh, yes! Discussing the terms of the kidnapping," Gauron nonchalantly put away his pistol. He looked at the case file the colonel had given him earlier.
"Ah, here. This is it," said Gauron. "Is there a problem, Colonel?"
"That's one of my men ..."
"But really, you just brought him here to intimidate me, da?" said Gauron, cruelly. "At least you don't have to babysit him anymore. Now, let's get down to business."
Speechless, the colonel let the madman take the wheel of the conversation.
Rifling through the documents, Gauron counted roughly fifteen separate files with the personal information of fifteen Whispered candidates. Judging by the photos alone, the boys and girls were different nationalitie~ and races but all roughly the same age-mid-to late teens.
"Now, which one do you want me to get? I know, I know-it's already decided. You want," Gauron shuffled through the papers, "this one! Hey, she's pretty cute."
To the colonel, Gauron presented a photograph of Kaname Chidori.
Chomping on fries from the burger joint beneath the department store, Kaname and her friends gabbed merrily.