Chapter 2: Underwater Scene
April 23, 17:32 (Japan Standard Time) Chofu, a suburb of Tokyo, Japan Keio Line, Chofu Station, South Entrance
Of course, Sousuke tailed her, keeping an eye on the situation from the opposite corner of the shop. Sousuke looked around nervously while pretending to read a three-day-old copy of Tokyo Sports.
Sousuke didn't like the look of the man sitting at the counter behind Kaname-mid-twenties, medium build, eyes hidden beneath a plain gray beret. The man had a black attache case at his feet, and he incessantly checked his wristwatch.
What's in the case? wondered Sousuke. It reminded him of one he had seen in a catalog of anti-terrorist equipment. If his memory was correct, that particular model had a built-in submachine gun, which could be fired at the flip of a switch.
After polishing off his hamburger, the man stood up with his tray in hand.
Here we go . . . Sousuke readied himself for action.
But the man simply deposited his hamburger wrapper in the trash, placed his tray on top of the garbage can, and left.
So I was wrong. Unless . . .
Sousuke looked and saw the man's case sitting on the ground, where he'd left it. What if ... Dammit!
It was not unheard of for terrorists to blow up a whole crowd of people to get at a particular target. But wasn't Kaname supposed to be a kidnapping target? Maybe the situation changed. At any rate, Sousuke didn't have time to think about it.
He dashed through the cramped eatery, upsetting tables and shoving diners. He grabbed the briefcase, which was certainly heavy enough to be a bomb.
However, this action didn't go unnoticed. "Sagara?" said Kaname in disbelief.
"Get down!" shoving away more customers, he charged out of the hamburger joint with the mysterious case.
Now, where can I get rid of this thing?
Sousuke surveyed the surrounding area-during the evening, the shopping district was positively crammed with people. He spotted a parking lot across the street-perhaps there would be fewer people there.
"Move!" yelled Sousuke as he bolted out into the street, angering drivers literally left and right.
Sousuke turned just in time to see a truck squealing to a halt. It couldn't stop in time, and it sent Sousuke flying. He crashed into a bicycle stand on the side of the road.
Failure . . . not an option . . .
Standing up as quickly as his woozy head would permit, Sousuke was in the process of trying to relearn how to walk when the suspicious man from the burger place approached him.
"Hey man, are you okay?" inquired the man, relieving Sousuke of the attache case. He popped it open. "Oh, thanks. I don't know what I would have done if I had lost my manuscript."
The man slapped Sousuke on the back and left. A small group of people, including the truck driver, Kaname, her friends, and some other passersby, stood staring at Sousuke. Some were worried, some confused, some amazed, but all seemed to be expecting some kind of explanation.
"What on Earth are you doing, Sagara?" wondered Kyouko.
"I thought it was a bomb," Sousuke said meekly before collapsing on the pavement.
April 23, 19:20 (Japan Standard Time) Chofu,Tokyo,Japan Tigers Apartments, #505
"At this rate, you'll be dead by the end of the week!" Kurz laughed as he wrapped a bandage around Sousuke's head. "You're probably more dangerous than any terrorists! Try to relax a little."
"I'm trying," said Sousuke.
That evening's hamburger-hut fiasco was just the icing on the cake of four days' worth of misguided efforts with catastrophic (and injurious) results.
No matter how hard he tried, Sousuke could not stop himself from overreacting-acting violently, crashing around, destroying public property, disturbing class-and Eri Kagurazaka and Kaname never let him forget it.
He never ran out of energy or fresh bruises.
Even in the harshest combat conditions, Sousuke hadn't ever taken so much abuse in such a short period of time. He fell down stairs, crashed through windows, crumpled beneath a falling pile of books in the library, and chafed his chest while tackling a plaster art model, among other things.
My rhythm is totally oJj, he realized, unsure how to correct the problem. How ironic that he was able to survive so many years of intense combat only to be undone by high school!
"You can't keep up this pace," decided Kurz. "Tomorrow, we'll switch. Mao and I will keep watch outside the school."
"What if the enemy comes inside the school?"
"I doubt that will happen. I wonder whether Kaname's really a target even." "Wishful thinking is dangerous." Sousuke couldn't help but frown at Kurz's easygoing attitude. You a ways must ta e every possibility into account-" "Ifyou want to get hit by a truck," interrupted Kurz. "Have you ever heard the expression 'tilting at windmills'?"
The look on Sousuke's face indicated that he had not.
"Hm. It's like a sumo fighting against his own loincloth."
"You don't know that one? Are you even Japanese?" Kurz finished wrapping the bandage and returned to the window. "There's one thing I don't understand."
Kurz rolled his eyes.
"About Kaname. She seems so ... normal. I mean, she's pretty but not, like, jaw-dropping hot. And her personal history is very commonplace-compared to ours, at least."
"You might be right."
If Sousuke learned nothing else from this mission, he'd at least discovered the startling difference between others his age and him.
"So, why is she a KGB target? It's just like that girl we picked up last week. She was just a normal high school student before they snagged her, too. What the hell could they possibly stand to gain by taking and drugging these girls?"
"All I have is the same information you do," said Sousuke.
"Yeah, there must be something more to this than the lieutenant commender's tellings us."
April 23, 21:21 (Western Pacific Standard Time) Khabarovsk, Soviet Union KGB Building
"When are you going to get moving?" demanded the KGB colonel. Three days had passed already since his meeting with Gauron. "Soon, very soon," answered Gauron through the other end of the phone.
The colonel could hear bustling in the background. GaurQn-a terrorist of unknown origins-was calling from the Soviet embassy in Tokyo. According to official embassy reports, Gauron barely left the building and rarely spoke to anyone.
"I'm making the arrangements now. We have to make sure everything's in place before we move in on the target." "Arrangements? What kind of arrangements do you need to
make?" "Don't be so impatient." "What?"
"There's no way Mithril's just going to let us waltz right in and grab her."
"You mean they're protecting Kanumu?" The colonel still struggled to pronounce her name.
Chuckling, Gauron said, "It seems so. If I'm not careful, I'll be noticed."
"I don't care!" spouted the colonel. "Kill anyone who gets in your way if you have to!"
"I'm afraid that's impossible."
'They have an AS in ECS invisible mode that's keeping tabs on her."
"And no one has noticed? That's impossible. That kind of equipment-"
"I told you," Gauron interrupted antagonistically, "their equipment is ten years ahead of the rest of the world's. They probably have some of their best personnel on this mission, too. If we run in there like a bunch of amateurs, they'll embarrass us all."
The colonel stuttered.
"Don't worry, I've got a plan," Gauron stated and hung up. "You worry about keeping yourself out of the labor camps."
April 24, 14:38 (Japan Standard Time) Jindai High School, Tokyo, Japan Year 2, Class 4 Classroom
"And there you have it!" Kaname finished scrawling a list of jobs on the blackboard. She turned around to face a room full of disinterested students, who were sleeping, shooting craps, and reading manga novels.
"Hey! Listen up, guys!"
"We're listening," they all said automatically.
"We have only five days before the class trip. And we need to decide what job each person will do if we want the trip to go smoothly."
"Okay, fine. Let's decide and go home, already."
Kaname sighed. "Remind me why I agreed to be class rep," she moaned. "Well, I figured it would be like this, so I already assigned all the jobs. All you guys have to do is say whether it's okay." A cheer erupted from the students. "Way to go, Chidori!"
"No problem," she said, flashing a quick peace sign. "Okay, Onda and Sanematsu-you're in charge of food. Aryiama and Omura-luggage. Onodera and Suzuki-event planning."
She scribbled names next to the jobs that already were written on the board. Suddenly, a slightly malicious grin crossed her lips.
"And garbage duty ... that's a job for Sagara."
At the mention of his name, Sousuke snapped out of his preoccupation and grunted.
'-'Is something wrong, Sagara?"
"I don't recall signing up for that."
"Sorry, it's a school rule-the transfer student always has to be in charge of garbage. Rules are rules."
Everyone laughed, but Sousuke didn't get the joke.
"I wasn't aware of that. Very well, I accept."
"Excellent. I'll fill you in on the details later. Okay everyone, all in favor?"
And just like that, Mithril's finest mercenary got elected to pick up trash through a unanimous vote.
April 24, 11:13 (Greenwi ch Mean Time) Sea of Japan, Depth: 165 Feet Tuatha de Danaan Command Center
"A class trip?" asked Captain Testarossa.
"Yes," said Kalinin, handing her a few documents and a pen. "The trip starts next week. I propose we open a new confidential circuit for communications during the trip. Also, please sign this permission slip."
She nodded and signed the document. "What a strange school, taking a trip at this time of year. Where are they going, anyway?"
"Oh." Tessa quickly turned away, staring at a map qn her forward display screen. "Did you know that I used to live there?"
"My father wanted me to go to a Japanese elementary school," she said wistfully, "but I never made any friends, and then I transferred to a school on the base."
Commander Mardukas, the ship's executive officer, cleared his throat, snapping Tessa back to earth. "I guess this isn't the right time and place for memories," apologized the captain.
"Probably not, ma'am," said Mardukas before returning to his personal duties.
Kalinin kept reading his report as though nothing had happened. "We have new information."
"About the Whispered?"
"Yes, ma'am. Apparently, the Khabarovsk facility still is conducting research. Take a look at this."
Kalinin thrust the bundle of documents at Tessa. It appeared to be an -endless list of chemical substances, marked sporadically with red circles.
"The circled substances rarely are found in the USSR," explained Kalinin. "According to our intelligence-"
"Is Khabarovsk the only research facility?" asked Tessa, interrupting Kalinin.
"It's the only one our intelligence division reports."
"That's questionable. Please request a continuation of the investigation."
"Yes, ma'am," Kalinin asserted as if he himself hadn't already ordered the investigation.
"Is there any way for us to disable the Khabarovsk facility remotely-maybe with computers?" proposed Tessa.
It was a good thought; the de Danaan's computer system was head and shoulders ab~)Ve a regular warship control system. Its processor was almost as powerful as that of a large mammal. This system ran circles around the American military's communications system. Cracking Soviet computers would be no problem with this beast of a machine.
"Unfortunately, the research facility computers are cut off from outside circuits," said Kalinin, effectively bursting the bubble. "We'll have to physically disable the laboratory."
"I see. Cruise missile?"
"Yes, ma'am," assented Kalinin. "A G-Type Tomahawk will suffice.
It should be a straightforward strike from a fuel-air-explosive warhead."
Captain Testarossa consid~red this for a moment; then, she looked at her map. The scientists lived less than one mile from the lab. "Okay. But let's minimize the casualties-do it at night, the next time they take off a day. For now, gather the latest photos from Sting and get as many details as possible. Who, what, where, when."
"Understood. Now, regarding the Arbalest ..." Kalinin let another handful of papers finish the sentence for him.
As he handed them to Tessa, she dropped the huge stack of papers she aldready was cradling.
"How clumsy. I'm so sorry," she squeaked as Kalinin and Mardukas helped her corral the loose sheets.
"Thank you, Mister Mardukas," said Kalinin.
"No problem," said Mardukas, implying moderate annoyance. "Seriously, though, Lieutenant Commander, you should use electronic documents like everyone else." "I'll figure it out, eventually," said a visibly flustered Kalinin as he handed the captain the document.
"The Seven Oaths of Garbage Duty?" read Tessa.
Embarrassed, the lieutenant commander quickly took back Sousuke's report and handed her the correct documents.
April 25, 16:35 (Japan Standard Time) Suburbs of Tokyo, Japan Keio Line, Hasimoto-Bound Train
"This is the last straw!" announced Kaname, disgruntled. After carefully placing a bookmark into her worn paperback, the young woman stood and moved briskly toward the other end of the train car, where Sousuke sat, pretending to read a sports newspaper.
"Hey," demanded Kaname, "you got a problem?"
"Oh, Chidori. What a coincidence."
"Yeah right," she said before snatching the newspaper from his hands and taking a quick look at the headlines. "What is this, anyway? You're reading old news!"
"That's my prerogative."
'!Why are you following me around?"
"I don't know what you're talking about. You must be overly self-conscious," Sousuke stated matter-of-factly.
"I'm not self-conscious. You're harassing me-all day, every day!
If you want to say something, just say it and quit being creepy!"
"As I said, it's purely a coincidence."
Kaname took a moment to process this assertion. The train conductor made an announcement over the loudspeaker, doing his best impression of a boxing announcer.
"Ladies and gentlemen! The next stop is Kokuryou Staaaaaation!"
Kaname tossed Sousuke's newspaper to the floor, startling an old lady nearby. The train lurched to a stop and the doors whooshed signaling the arrival at Kokuryou Station.
"So, it's all just coincidence?" checked Chidori.
"If you say so."
Right as the door started to close, Kaname dashed through it onto the station platform.
She thumbed her nose at Sousuke, who began to panic. "See you later, weirdo!"
The train began to move forward.
As Kaname walked toward one of the benches, Sousuke suddenly crashed through one of the train's windows, landing back first on the platform. He bounced a couple of times, and then he rolled before finally smashing into the iron fence at the edge ~:,f the platform.
"Are you kidding me?"
Sousuke lay there like a slug, unmoving. Kaname rushed to him, kneeled, and gently shook him by the shoulder. "Hey, are you okay?" she wondered. After a moment, Sousuke jumped up as though nothing had happened. "No problem. Just a little dirty."
He wiped the dust off his pants.
"Are you crazy? What were you thinking?"
"1 just remembered that 1 ... 1 wanted to get off at this station.
It had nothing to do with you."
"After that display of insanity, you still want to insist-"
"Just a coincidence."
Sighing, Kaname drooped onto a nearby bench. Sousuke took a seat next to her and pulled out his sports newspaper, which he had retrieved somehow before leaping from the moving train.
"And it's just a coincidence that you're going to read that paper right here?"
"Unbelievable." Kaname rested her elbow on her knee and her head on her hand, staring at Sousuke all the while.
Oddly enough, his behavior didn't strike her as particularly creepy. True, since he'd transferred in, he had stared at her, walked into her locker room, and followed her pretty much everywhere she went every single day. Even so, she didn't really suspect him of being a stalker.
Something was different about him.
Sousuke didn't seem to harbor any indecent feelings or have a discernibly impure motive for following her around. He looked too Like an athlete before a match, he radiated determination and purpose. He looked calm but remarkably focused and deep in concentration. So, why the hell was he following her? "Hey, Sagara."
"If I promise I won't get mad, will you at least tell me what's going on?" "There is nothing going on, aside from a string ofcoincidences," he answered in his typical, business-like manner. "Right, right," she conceded. "Well, seeing as you're here by coincidence, may I ask you something?"
"You lived overseas for a long time, right? Were you always this weird at all your other schools?" For a moment, Sousuke considered the question. "Yes, suppose. Those were peaceful and uneventful days."
"Were you sad to leave your friends behind?"
"No. I still keep in touch with them via telephone and written correspondence. So, it would be inaccurate to say I've left them behind."
Kaname rolled her eyes.
"It isn't difficult."
"Is there a girl?"
"I know many girls," Sousuke did not understand where this was going at all.
"No, a girJtriend," pressed Kaname. "You know, a sweetheart."
"I have no friend like that. One of my colleagues-my 'friend,'
if you will-always says, 'There isn't a yak in Tibet that would be your girlfriend.'"
Kaname laughed. "Your friend is funny."
"I don't even know what that means."
"He's just saying you're really weird, Sagara."
"Extremely," snickered Kaname. "But that's not necessarily bad.
You just need to find a nice person who finds it endearing."
''I'll keep that in mind. You know, you seem like a nice person," he remarked.
"Stop it. Don't take it so seriously. I'm not talking about me," she protested.
"Okay. Never mind, then."
"You really are weird," joked Kaname.
For a moment during their conversation, she had felt a faint warmth, similar to how she might have felt if she'd found a stray dog whose only desire was to follow her everywhere she went. Temporarily, her loneliness was buried beneath the pleasantness.
I guess this is nice,jor now . . . she thought. A train rolled into the station and interrupted Kaname's thought process.
April 25, 19:05 (Greenwich Mean Time) Sea of Japan, Periscope Depth Tuatha de Danaan .
Just enough moonlight pierced the water's surface to keep the submarine cloaked in shadow.
From an outside perspective, the T uatha de Danaan looked kind of like a shark, except it was several hundred times as large. In fact, the assault submarine was as big as a skyscraper turned on its side.
The giant submarine moved through the water quietly-very quietly.
Near the rear of the sub, one of the missile tubes opened and a missile emerged.
Kicking up a healthy, foamy spray, the Tomahawk missile erupted into the air and spread its cruising wings. Shortly thereafter, it reached a steady altitude and rocketed on toward the northern horizon.
"Launch sequence complete. Closing MVLS hatch," announced the officer in charge of the Missile Vertical Launching System.
"Excellent," declared Tessa, glancing at her command screen's safety indicators. "Now, let's dive to three-hundred thirty feet and change course to the south."
"No problem, Captain," responded Commander Mardukas, a tall, thin man, whose black-rimmed glasses and pallid, bony features made him look more like a scientist than a soldier.
"Let's go, then," urged Tessa. "Flood the main ballast tank and set the submersion angle to ten degrees. Increase speed to ten knots."
Tessa, a submariner with more than ten years of experience, gave the orders without timidity, even though she was still relatively new to the Tuatha de Danaan, inarguably the most high-tech submarine in the world.
Tessa knew that launching a cruise missile potentially could attract a lot of attention, so it would be best to vacate the area as soon as possible. They could use Mithril's spy satellite Sting to see whether they hit the target.
"Aye aye, ma'am," said the navigation officer. He echoed her orders as he performed the tasks.
"Will it really take three hours to know the outcome?"
"Yes, ma'am. Perhaps you should rest," recommended Mardukas.
Tessa shrugged. "That would be nice, but I'd probably have nightmares, anyway."
At any rate, the missile was on its way. If the attack succeeded, it probably would take the enemy five years to recoup. Arduous recon from the intelligence division indicated that Khabarovsk had the only Whispered research facility in the country.
"Lieutenant Commander, if we can destroy the laboratory, will we recall our guards?" asked Tessa, sinking into her chair.
"Yes, ma'am. However ..."
"Yes? What is it?"
"Nothing. I'm probably just being, paranoid," said Kalinin, looking somewhat troubled.
April 26, 10:38 (Western Pacific Standard Time) Khabarovsk, Soviet Union KGB Building
"The whole laboratory is in a state ofruin!" shouted the colonel into the phone. "A missile attack, ofall things! All our data is gone. We've lost every single piece of information on the Whispered."
Gauron's unsympathetic voice leaked through the phone. ''I'm sorry to hear that."
"Resuming oar research is impossible, so we no longer will need the girl."
"I see. That's a pity."
"Yes, you must cancel the abduction; there's no way we could pay you." The image of Gauron killing a man in cold blood flashed through the colonel's mind.
"I understand," Gauron said calmly-a little too calmly.
"Do you really?" probed the colonel.
"You seem awfully calm, considering your source of income is gone."
"I have many jobs," stated Gauron. ''I'll go back to another employer, maybe even bring him a souvenir."
Something clacked against the receiver.
"Do you know what that was, colonel? That was a OVO I found. Sounds like a good one, huh? It has all kinds of fascinating figures on it."
"The research data? How did you-"
"Trade secret, comrade. Be sure to write me a letter from whatever labor camp the KGB dumps you in. Goodbye, Colonel."
Click. Knock! Knock! Knock!
The colonel looked to the door. Before he could say anything, three armed soldiers burst through.
"Colonel Smirnoff?" asked a young lieutenant. "You~ side job intrigued the party headquarters. You are accused of dispersing national assets to your personal accounts, resulting in a substantial loss for the nation."
"Wait, that's not-"
"Save your explanation for Lubyanka. This way, please."
Lubyanka. Russians knew the true meaning of this word and feared it immensely. Lubyanka meant intense interrogation and life in a labor camp. Just like that, Colonel Smirnoff's fate was sealed: a world of nothing but agony awaited him.
The colonel hung his head as the soldiers led him away.
April 26, 20:01 (Japan Standard Time) Chofu, Tokyo, Japan Tigers Apartments, #505
Deservedly, Sousuke took a day off, spending all day resting in the apartment.
That Sunday, when Kaname left her home at noon, Kurz tailed her, Mao piloted the AS, and Sousuke monitored Kaname's apartment.
Throughout the entire day, not a single SUSpiCiOUS person appeared. At one point, a middle-aged woman with a child rang the buzzer to Kaname's apartment, but she proved harmless.
Shortly after eight p.m., Kaname returned home safely.
"Twenty-hundred hours, six minutes. Angel is home. Nothing unusual," said Sousuke into his microphone.
Right about then, Kurz burst through the door ofthe apartment, with good cheer.
"Heeeeeeeere's Kurzie! Ha ha. What's the deal, Sergeant Moody?" When Kurz spoke, Sousuke could smell the beer on his breath.
Sousuke kept his eyes glued to the surveillance monitor.
"Honestly, Kurz. Drinking during a mission?"
Kurz laughed meekly. "What can you do? I was going to have just one, but Kyouko kept insisting."
"Kaname's friend Kyouko?"
"Yeah. When I saw Kaname, Kyouko, Yuka, and Shiori, I told them I was lost. 'Thank you so much! You saved me! Japanese girls are so nice!' Cute too. Ha ha!" What Kurz lacked in stealth, he more than made up for with confidence.
"For God's sake, smack some sense into that idiot," crackled Mao's voice through the wireless receiver. She was back in the trailer with the AS.
"It isn't my fault they're so cute!" protested Kurz. "Besides, it was nice to see some girls other than a certain bitchy someone who will remain nameless."
"Kurz, this is classified guard duty. You don't want to become too attached," reminded Sousuke.
"Are you mental, bro? Getting up close and personal makes it that much easier to keep tabs on them. Obviously." "If you become attached, it can cloud your judgment. In order to maintain a rational power of observation-" "Yeah, in theory!" interrupted Kurz. "In times of great danger, you have to use your head, feel it out a little bit."
"Am I wrong?"
Sousuke stared dumbly at Kurz, unable to say 'yes' or 'no.' He wasn't even sure what point he was trying to refute anymore.
"Man, those girls talked my ears off," began Kurz. "'There's a really weird transfer student in our class, right Kana? Isn't he weird, Kana? Tell him about the new kid, Kana.' I can't believe they didn't want to talk about important things ... like me."
Suddenly, Sousuke perked up. "What did they say about me?"
"I see. So, you want to know, do you?" Kurz gloated.
"Not really, no. But it's part of the mission, so I should hear it."
"Not buying it. First, say, 'Please, sir, tell me some more.'"
Sousuke was not amused.
"Okay, fine. You don't have to be such a baby about-" spotting something suspicious, Kurz suddenly became very sober.
He moved closer to the surveillance screen. "Twenty-one hundred twenty-one: suspicious individual on the balcony side. Commencing investigation," reported Sousuke.
The monitor showed Kaname's apartment's balcony, courtesy of a hidden camera on the roof of an adjacent building. On the left side of the image, a man clad in black and a knitted mask scaled the building's drainpipe.
"Is he stupid enough to go alone?" remarked Sousuke while screwing a silencer onto a nine-millimeter handgun.
"Dunno. There still could be others nearby. I'll check cars in the area," said Kurz, grabbing a nearby sniper rifle with a night vision scope.
"This is Urzu Two," said Mao, through the wireless. "Let's subdue the perp. Urzu Six, take that rifle to the roof where the camera is."
"Urzu Six, roger."
"Urzu Seven, subdue him directly. I'll be in the parking lot, keeping watch." "Got it. Give me two minutes." Slinging rappelling gear over his shoulder, Sousuke rushed out the door.
One-hundred twenty seconds later, he was on the roof of Kaname Chidori's apartment building. He clipped the rope to the railing and nimbly wound it around his waist. Kurz's voice came through his earpiece.
"This is Urzu Six. I'm in position by the camera. There's no sign of accomplices. He actually might be flying solo."
"Don't let down your guard, especially at your six."
"Who do you think you're talking to, bonehead?"
Mao interrupted their banter. "Perfect timing, Urzu Seven: Kaname's in the shower. Let's try to take care of this before she comes out."
"Urzu Seven, roger."
"Don't kill him."
And just like that, Sousuke threw himself off the roo£ Aside from the slight whisper of the rope sliding through his hands, he was silent. After bounding down the wall a couple of times, he was directly over the prowler's head.
The intruder was so focused on climbing over the railing onto the balcony that he didn't even notice Sousuke.
Taking one last leap off the wall, Sousuke skillfully twisted in midair and crashed down on the back of the man on the balcony.
"Don't move." Sousuke pressed his silenced gun against the back of the intruder's head. "You lose. Don't make a sound."
Shaking violently, the man nodded.
"Good, you value your life."
Keeping the man pinned to the ground, Sousuke conducted a brief body search. The pat down turned up no weapons, only a wallet. Sousuke took a look at it.
Inside, there was a student ID.
Jindai High School, Year 2, Class 4, # lO. Shin}i Kazama.
This boy was in Sousuke's class.
"Urzu Six to Urzu Seven."
"Sousuke, look at what he's holding."
Sousuke saw what appeared to be several small pieces of cloth.
"Panties," smirked Kurz. "White as fallen snow. End transmission."
Sousuke looked over to see Kurz laughing and packing up his gear.
"For crying out loud," grumbled Mao as she retreated in the camouflaged M9. "What are you doing, anyway?" demanded a confused Sousuke. He pulled off the prowler's mask.
The boy underneath-thin, childlike, and pale-trembled with fear. ''I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I'll never do it again!" "Shh!" hissed Sousuke, pressing the gun tighter against the boy. Much quieter, the boy said, "Sorry. Please don't arrest me." ''I'm not the police," clarified Sousuke. "I just want you to explain yoursel£" "You won't arrest me?" "Relax." Sousuke pulled the boy to his feet. "Thanks. Hey, you're from my class. Sagara, right?" "You must be mistaken." "No way! You're-" Sousuke cocked his gun. "I said, 'you must be mistaken.'" Nodding feverishly, the boy apologized. "Now, Kazama, right? What are you doing here?" Holding out the underwear, Shinji Kazama said, "As you can see, I'm on a panty raid-looks like we had the same idea." "No, I was just in the neighborhood," fibbed Sousuke. "Oh. Right." Though confused, Shinji didn't try to argue. "Why on Earth are you trying to steal Miss Chidori's undergarments?"
"They're not for me," whispered Shinji. "Murano and the others-"
"Murano?" inquired Sousuke.
Shinji Kazama revealed the situation.
Every school has its share of delinquents, and Murano was Jindai High School's chief hooligan. He and his goons knew that Shinji was in the photography club, and they pushed him around and stole some of his negatives. They would give them back only in exchange for Kaname's underpants.
"So, you're being blackmailed?" iterated Sousuke.
"More or less." Kazama sighed. "But those guys really aren't that bad. They just wanted me to prove that I had enough guts to steal underwear from the most popular girl at school."
The convoluted plots of deviants never failed to strike Sousuke as immensely ridiculous. "I see. Did you ever think that Miss Chidori might be rather upset?"
"Well, yeah," admitted Kazama guiltily, "but I really want
"Oh yeah?" Suddenly, Sousuke was quite interested.
"Yeah, I went around to bases all over Japan to take those pictures. It was a ton of work, too. Isn't AS technology one of your hobbies, Sagara?"
"I wouldn't exactly call it a hobby ..."
''I've even got a picture of a Marine M6 in Okinawa."
The M6 first saw combat in the early '90s, most prominently in the GulfWar. Once people saw it on the news, it became an extremely popular piece of equipment.
"Was it the A2 model?"
"Yeah. It had a shield with reactive armor and everything."
"Really? How were its actual movements?"
"The operators at the base said the balance wasn't great,"
Shinji reported. "That makes sense, because its control system is the Rockwell-built MSO-I!, right? The feedback architecture has a lot of flab, so when the bilateral angle exceeds three point five, it's even susceptible to handheld firearms."
Sousuke nodded, acknowledging all the jargon.
"Basically, its best use still would be a well-plotted ambush or a suicide charge. I read somewhere that the newest model M9s are still As Shinji rambled on about technical mumbo-jumbo, the two young men sat cross-legged on the balcony. Their military geek discourse soon buried all memories of the foiled underwear theft.
"Your knowledge is impressive. You don't sound like a civilian at all," praised Sousuke. "There's still so much to learn," said Shinji modestly. "You sure know a lot, too, Sagara."
Clattering, the balcony curtain opened, interrupting Sousuke's attempts to be demure. Sousuke and Shinji's eyes grew to the size of dinner plates. Kaname stood in front of them, frozen with fright, rage, or some combination of the two. Her bath towel barely concealed her shapely chest, and it covered even less of her legs. Tightly clutching her towel, Kaname demanded to know what was gomg on. As Sousuke and Shinji struggled to explain themselves, Sousuke realized he harmlessly had been playing with a pair of underwear. His eyes traveled from the damning cotton evidence to Kaname and back. "Chidori!" he chirped. "What a coincidence."
Quietly, Kaname disappeared into her apartment.
Shinji and Sousuke shared a sigh of relief.
And then, she reappeared-with a metal softball bat in hand.
"That's one hell of a bruise, buddy!"
Kurz wrapped a sack of ice around Sousuke's arm.
"I believe she intended to kill us. Kazama got lucky-I distracted her just long enough for him to leap into the shrubs below."
"From the fourth floor?"
"Yes. He plunged into the cherry tree and to the groun~ from there."
"Were you trying to kill him?"
"I was lucky to get away. Imagine the lieutenant commander's disappointment if the girl we're supposed to protect had epded up killing me."
Kurz laughed. "Actually, I can totally picture his expression."
Knowing the lieutenant commander's stoic disposition, he probably would sigh once, fill out some forms regarding the distribution of the deceased's possessions, and then move right on to the next job. Lieutenant Commander Andrei Kalinin never seemed particularly surprised by any person's death.
"She'll probably really hate me from now on," complained Sousuke.
"I don't blame her, you perv," joked Kurz.
A moment later, Mao contacted them from the M9. "Guys, I was just on the horn with the de Danaan."
"Yes. The mission's over: The enemy no longer has any reason to kidnap Kaname."
"What do you mean?"
"We blew the crap out of the base where she was wanted. We annihilated everything, including all their research data. That means we can relax for a while."
"Huh. So, do we go back to the ship now or what?" asked Kurz.
"That's the best part. We get to take a week off!"
"No way! Yes!" whooped Kurz, raising his hand for a high five.
Sousuke just sat there, looking disgruntled. "I was supposed to go on a class trip the day after tomorrow-five days and four nights."
"He said you should," Mao cleared her throat to do her best impression of Kalinin, "'Go and have a good time.'"
"The lieutenant commander said that?"
"Yeah. We already paid for the trip. We're to stick to the budget. Looks like it's an order."
"Just go, Sousuke," said Kurz, who abandoned all hopes of a high five. "Relax. Kaname's safe, so just take a load off and try to act like a normal kid for a change."
After thinking it over for a moment, Sousuke said: "Okay, I'll go. It will be a valuable learning experience."
April 28, 09:15 (Japan Standard Time) Haneda Airport, Tokyo, Japan Passenger Lobby
Although he was under direct orders to "have a good :ime," Sousuke was not in the best of spirits. Free of his mission's obligations, he was more than a little bit uncertain what to do with himself.
On top of that, Kaname really seemed to hate him this time. When their eyes had met by chance, Kaname simply had turned around and walked off in the other direction with Kyouko and the other girls.
"Well, you really can't blame her," lamented Shinji Kazama from his perch on the airport bench. "I mean, she did find you out on her balcony, having a chat with her panties in your hands."
Ever since the incident, Shinji and Sousuke were associates in shame, complicit in embarrassment.
"Hey, cheer up, Sagara."
"Right." Sagara looked forward to returning to the Tuatha de Danaan and receiving another assignment.
Why did he agree to go on the school trip, anyway?
"Okay, Class Four!" announced Miss Kagurazaka. "Have your tickets out and your IDs ready!"
Sulking, Sousuke and Shinji moved through the line and onto the plane.
Having seated a whole plane full of rowdy students, the stewardess breathed a sigh of relief. Actually, there were about eighty or so passengers that weren't part of the school trip. And as those passengers began boarding the plane, they already were rolling their eyes in anticipation of the students' youthful energy. Visions of future headaches flashed through the stewardess' head. She grimaced. "Hello?" called a passenger as he stepped through the door. "Can you tell me where my seat is?"
He waved his ticket in front of her.
"Yes, please follow me," she said, forcing a smile.
"I can't say I envy you, having to babysit all these students."
"It really isn't that bad," she said.
"I would snap for sure, probably toss them all out the window at twenty-five hundred feet." Somewhat confused, she grunted. "If we killed them all, we'd have a quiet flight, don't you think?" "Sir, it isn't-" ''I'm only kidding," he explained, quite seriously. "Ah, there it is." The man smiled as he slid into his seat, but it was not at all a pleasant smile.
April 28, 09:58 (Japan Standard Time) Air Over Tokyo, Japan JAL Flight 903
The jumbo jet reached its cruising altitude.
Having never been on a plane before, Kyouko gripped the side of the window and pressed her face against the glass. It was a bright and clear day, and she could see all of Tokyo.
"Wow, look! Hey, there's the Rainbow Bridge. Awesome!"
"There it is," Kaname said halfheartedly.
"Are you even listening, Kana?"
"Look, the Statue of Liberty!"
"The Eiffel Tower!"
"Neato," monotoned Kaname.
Kyouko nudged her. "What's the matter? You've been acting really weird all day. What happened?"
"Nothing, really." Kaname didn't feel like explaining that she was mad at herself She thought she might learn a little bit about this Sagara character when he jumped out ofthe train window to follow her, but all she found out was that he was a geeky, moody, perverted stalker!
It was stupid oj me to trust him, she thought glumly.
"Is it about Sagara?" guessed Kyouko.
"What? Of course not. No way. Ha ha. Ha ha ha!"
Despite Kaname's obvious use of her nervous "let's talk about something else" laugh, Kyouko had no intention of dropping the subject.
"Did he do something to you?"
"No, not really."
"I knew it. I mean, it was just Sunday that you said he actually might be a nice guy; but the very next day, you totally ignored him. What did he do?"
"Come on, Kana. Even if you're scared to tell anyone else, you can tell me." Kyouko took Kaname by the hand. "You'll need to go to the hospital, too. I'll go with you."
"Don't worry-we'll make Sagara pay for this! I know this lawyer who deals with this kind of thing a lot. She's good, too."
"What are you blabbering about?"
Before Kyouko could answer, the plane pitched left and right, rocking back and forth. Kyouko let out a small yelp.
"It's okay, nothing to worry about," stated Kaname coolly, although the plane's swaying hadn't totally stopped. "It's weird, though, I've never been in turbulence when the weather's this nice."
Students, natural gossipers and conspiracy theorists, were buzzing about the bumpiness. Kaname tapped the student in the seat in front of her.
"Hey, what's going on?"
"I don't know. But I swear I heard some kind of popping sound just before the jolt."
"Attention, passengers. Don't be alarmed. We've encountered a low-pressure system. We've adjusted our course. We still may encounter future turbulence, but I assure you that there is nothing to worry about."
"That's strange," Kaname decided.
Confused, Kyouko asked why.
"I mean, they don't usually say'don't be alarmed: Usually, they say 'please fasten your seat belts: or something like that."
And neither one of them knew just how right she was.