Chapter 4: Field of Giants
April 28, 22:41 (Japan/Korea Standard Time)
Democratic People's Republic of Korea
Sunan Air Base
Eventually, Kaname beat Sousuke into submission, and he loaned her his jacket.
Between bursts of gunfire, Sousuke grabbed Kaname by the hand and made a break for one of the other trailers.
Tossing Kaname into the passenger seat of the truck cab, Sousuke fired up the engine, jerked the machine into gear, and peeled out. Gunfire continued behind them, tearing off the license plate.
"Keep your head down!"
"Hey, what gives?"
Soldiers gave chase, firing intermittently. By that time, however, the power-supply trailer hurtled northward at fifty miles per hour. "Who are you? Where are we going? What are you going to do?" pestered Kaname. "Tell me!"
Keeping one eye on the road and the other on the rearVlew mirror, Sousuke responded. "I've been tailing you ever since I transferred in."
"Tell me something I don't know!"
"Honestly, I don't know exactly what's going on. My information is that you are somehow unique. Whoever those people are, they want to use you as a test subject."
"Correct. And in order to stop that from happening, an elite soldier was sent to guard you. I am that soldier."
Still suspicious, Kaname pressed for details. "Soldier? You're from the self-defense force or what?"
"Mithril? What's that?"
"It's a secret military organization without any national affiliations." The reply sounded rehearsed. "We're an elite force that prevents regional conflicts and practices anti-terrorist warfare.
I'm a member of the SRT-Special Response Team. I specialize in reconnaissance and sabotage as well as AS operation. My rank is sergeant, my call sign is Urzu Seven, and my identification number is B3128."
"Look, Sagara," Kaname began, sounding concerned, "I know you're a war nut and everything, but I think you need help."
"What do you mean?"
"I've read about this. Sometimes, a big crisis situation will cause people to lose sight of themselves. I don't know how you got out of that plane, but you're totally delusional right now."
"Delusional?" he repeated, confident that only one of t~e two people in the vehicle could be considered delusional.
"Yes. You have to tell yourself you're just a high school student and take a few deep breaths."
Suddenly, Sousuke cranked the wheel.
An armored vehicle had pursued them and now opened fire! Machine-gun fire grazed the right side of the trailer, and chunks of mud and asphalt rained down on them.
"Eeeek! Stop! Let me out!"
"Be quiet and hang on."
Swinging left and right, the vehicle somehow evaded enemy fire.
Steadily, they got closer to the northern end of the base.
"Get down. We're going to crash through."
"What? Hold on-"
But seeing how serious he was, Kaname braced herself just as the power-supply vehicle crashed into the rusty hangar door, which crumpled like a candy wrapper. The vehicle continued to skid, ricocheting off some of the tractors and planes parked in the hangar.
After they came to a stop, Sousuke stood up and looked around.
"Chidori, can you move?"
"Please, God, take me now."
"Get up. The opposition is coming."
Looking around the hangar, Kaname saw a line of large humanoid machines, three in all. The khaki-colored, long-armed mechs were about the same height as a three-story house.
"Arm Slaves," whispered Kaname, who had seen them only in movies and on TV.
"Hide in the back for a moment."
"You're not going to get in one, are you?"
"Yes, I intend to."
Sousuke ran to the feet ofan AS and started to climb the ladder to its cockpit.
It was too late for Kaname to stop him. She paled. The delusional war nut was dangerously unpredictable. She resented him for dragging her along on this escalating suicide action and for thinking he could somehow pilot a combat robot.
It was the last straw.
The soldiers would arnve shortly. There was no way he could win against professionals. Kaname knew she would be killed alongside this idiot.
"Come down from there, Sousuke!" she shouted. "There's no wayan amateur can pilot that robot!"
"Amateur?" Sousuke smiled, his eyes sparkling eerily. "I told you: I'm a specialist."
Climbing onto the shoulder of the AS, Sousuke pulled the cockpit hatch release lever, pleased with the familiar pneumatic hiss.
The head of the AS slid open, revealing a cockpit just large enough to hold one person. When she saw the cockpit with Sousoke inside it, Kaname realized that a person did not "ride" in an as so much as one "wore" it.
Also known as the Master Room, the cockpit read the pilot's movements and conveyed them to the mech, converting the master's small movements to a much larger scale. A person's movements had to be very controlled: If the pilot bent an elbow ten degrees, the AS might bend thirty. Nearly every AS operated this way.
Actually, the word Arm Slave came from "Armored Mobile Master-Slave System," but that was simply too long to be practical.
"Stand back, Chidori!" commanded Sousuke as he descended into the Soviet-made Rk-92 Savage.
Sousuke pressed a button, and another hiss signaled the closing of the hatch. The internal frame locked, and various metal gears shifted into place.
A monochrome screen lit up in front of Sousuke's face, characters flashing across it in a line.
"Cockpit block: closed. Master suit: initiating adjustment."
There was no time to lose. Sousuke skillfully operated the buttons on the control stick, initiating the startup procedures.
"Action mode: four. Bilateral angle: two point eight to three point four."
The men outside began to fire at the hangar, boring countless holes in the walls.
Large-caliber bullets. That's strange-I thought they were just using armored vehicles out there.
"Main generator: ignition. Main condenser: charging."
The power-supply vehicle suddenly exploded into flames. Then, Sousuke heard the distinct sound of approaching footsteps-very heavy footsteps.
It's an AS. Not good.
"All vehicle electronics: forced startup. All actuators: forced connections. Final startup checks all abridged."
"Just go!" The remarkably slow boot-up speed on the Russian¬
made computer irritated Sousuke.
Just then, an AS walked in, coming through the hangar. door, which had been torn off completely. Itwas an Rk-92-the same exact . model Sousuke was in.
The machine's red eyes looked toward Sousuke.
"Joint locks: executing forced release."
"Hurry up ..."
Having spotted Sousuke, the enemy AS pointed its giant rifle.
It was going to shoot-in a hurry.
"Combat maneuvers: open."
The rifle fired at almost exactly the same time Sousuke ducked.
The bullets barely missed.
The maneuver bought Sousuke just enough time to rush forward, swat the enemy's rifle aside, and land a mean shoulder charge.
The enemy Savage stumbled backward, crashing through concrete, as if it were made of paper.
Picking up the rifle, Sousuke checked its remammg ammo.
Then, he pointed it at the enemy mech.
"Entering combat," he mumbled to no one in particular before pulling the trigger.
"You've got to be kidding me," mumbled Kaname, watching the whole spectacle from behind a small tractor in the hangar.
Sousuke's AS moved with the speed, grace, and coordination of an Olympic gymnast.
Next, the khaki giant walked through the hole in the wall and expertly annihilated the armored vehicles waiting outside. Kaname could see only flashes of light, smoke, and intermittent explosions.
In the blind spot behind Sousuke, on the right-hand side of the building, another enemy AS appeared. Kaname couldn't see what happened, but she did see its head and arms go sailing through the air.
Then, she saw: Sousuke's AS had fired the rifle over its shoulder.
Sousuke searched for his next opponent. There was not a hint of nervousness or uncertainty in his fighting style. The AS movements were so smooth, Kaname almost forgot it was a huge machine.
That's not really Sousuke, is it?
That's when she realized he wasn't suffering delusions of grandeur: Sousuke really was a soldier of excellent skill.
The hijacking, the kidnapping, and Sousuke's secret transformation-it all felt like part of a dream. But the wind in her hair, the gunpowder smell, and the red flames suggested otherwise.
Sousuke's AS looked down at Kaname, seeming to say, "Welcome to my world" with its glowing red eyes. This is the real Sousuke. You might be in charge at school, but here, you're a liability. One wrong move, and you'll be a bloodstain. Now, let's go walk through hell.
Kaname just wanted to go home.
"Dangerous! Move back," shouted Sousuke through the machine's external speaker. "Can you hear me, Chidori?" "What?" she finally snapped back to reality. "It's still dangerous! Move back!"
She must have imagined the whole exchange with the AS.
Sousuke certainly didn't sound as if he were taking any enjoyment out of this.
Kaname saw two tanks heading their way from beyond the runway, the gun turrets slowly turning. They were about to get bombarded.
It didn't take an elite soldier to see that they were in danger.
April 28, 22:46 (Japan/Korea Standard Time)
Yellow Sea, West Korea Bay, Surface
Tuatha de Danaan
An impenetrable layer of clouds hid the stars from sight.
It was too dark to differentiate the ocean from the night sky until the de Danaan broke the surface, oozing from the black. The giant ship turned east-southeast to face the coast. Amid the groaning of turning gears, the top of the de Danaan started retracting from left to right, slowly and heavily. The double layered hull finished opening, exposing the flight deck.
Still, there was hardly any light-just the fing~rtip-sized diodes' feeble attempts at illumination. The deckhands all wore night-vision goggles. The darkness was a disguise, designed to prevent people wandering along the beach from spotting the ship.
Shortly, helicopters of all shapes and sizes rose from the ship, followed by VTOL fighters.
As soon as the airborne forces finished taking off, a buzzer sounded on the flight deck and an elevator carried up an M9 from the lower storage deck.
It was the mech Melissa Mao piloted. Its shoulder marking identified it as 101.
"Well, here we go," she mumbled.
"I wish we had some music," Kurz's VOiCe broke into Mao's cockpit. He was in an M9 on the platform next to her. "Maybe Ride if the Valkyries or something?"
"Do you think Wagner is really appropriate here?"
"How about Kenny Loggins?" he proposed. "Danger Zone."
"Can't you think of any songs that aren't about charging blindly into danger?" "Aw, shaddup. What, do you want some Masahi Sada?" "I don't even know who that is."
The elevator stopped. Through night-vision sensors, the catapult apparatus on the flight deck appeared to belch steam, making it look like an open refrigerator.
Kurz's AS invaded the right-hand side of Mao's display screen.
His M9 looked exactly like Maols, except for the head-Mao was the platoon leader, so her M9 had extra gizmos and communications equipment.
Each mech wore a collapsible-wing rocket pack. These were the urgent deployment boosters designed to fling an AS straight into an operation zone.
Mao marched her AS to the catapult's shuttle block. When the AS squatted into place, it looked like a sprinter awaiting the starter pistol.
"I wonder if that maniac is still alive," said Kurz.
"Don't say things like that. It's bad luck," scolded Mao.
"Whoa, girl! You're not worried about him, are you?"
"I am. Unlike you, Sousuke has a good side," she stated.
"I'll show you my good side later," Kurz snickered. "In private."
Melissa sighed. "You vulgar little troll."
A small electric sound signaled a message from the departure control officer.
"Urzu Two: thirty seconds until departure."
"Urzu Two, copy. You catch that, Urzu Six?"
"I heard it. I'll be ten seconds behind you," reported Kurz.
Fixing her mech on the catapult stand, Mao quickly ran through the pre-launch inspections: shaking the fuel pump, wiggling the main wing and stabilizer, and checking the pedal lock and the equipment fasteners. Everything was in order.
"All clear. Here I go."
The blast deflector rose up. The deck crew gave Mao the go¬ahead hand signal, and the mech's AI informed her she could go at any time.
"Counting down from five," said the machine, sinking into place.
"Three." The steam catapult got ready.
"Two." The nozzle contracted.
"One." The flames left a trail.
The catapult and booster roared with a total of one-hundred twenty tons of thrust, accelerated to three hundred miles per hour! And just like that, the M9 Gernsback was airborne, slicing the night air and picking up speed.
"Entering combat," reported Mao. Withstanding intense vibrations, she licked her lips.
April 28, 22:49 (Japan/Korea Standard Time)
Democratic People's Republic of Korea
Sunan Air Base
Men scrambled from the wreckage of their tanks.
Having destroyed the tanks, Sousuke turned his AS toward the hangar, where Kaname was waiting for him. They had to escape quickly, before more opposition forces arrived. "Chidori!" Sousuke's voice ripped through the external speaker.
Meekly, Kaname peeked out from behind a collapsed wall. She looked pale, timid, frightened, and cornered. Finally, she seemed to understand the gravity of the situation.
"You won?" she squeaked just loud enough to make it into the Savage's speakers.
Sousuke extended the machine's left hand and said, "Grab on. We're leaving the base now."
There was a hill to the northwest of the base, past a river and a highway. The large number of fir trees looked like a good place to hide for the time being.
Kaname poked at a finger as large as her leg and said, "You want me to get on this?"
"Correct. Sit right on the palm. Quickly."
Fearing another scolding, Kaname cautiously climbed onto the metal hand. Carefully, Sousuke lifted Kaname and began to run, literally taking Kaname's breath away. She clung to the machine's huge thumb.
Sousuke understood her fear. After all, she was in a robot hand as high as the tip of a telephone pole, being swung violently about as the robot ran nearly forty miles per hour. Chances were good that anyone would be afraid.
But there was nothing she could do but ride it out.
"Don't look down," she coached herself, trembling. "Wait! What about everyone else? We can't just leave them here."
"Right now, we are the ones in the most danger. My comrades will come for them."
"The rescue squad." Even though he said it confidently, Sousuke was not sure whether it was true. Even though he did it to save Kaname, getting into combat before the rescue operation was a colossal mistake. True, he managed to dig up an AS, but still ...
Pursuit was a near certainty. Sousuke and Kaname were not in
any less danger than before.
Sousuke's Savage jumped over the base's perimeter fence, busting through a thicket and across a wide highway.
Right about then, an alarm sounded in the machine.
"Missile warning at four o'clock."
A guided missile from the back!
Simultaneously turning and shifting Kaname from the path of
danger, Sousuke fired the two Vulcan machine guns mounted on his mech's head.
In one second's time, eighty bullets struck the missile, which
exploded in midair.
Without wasting any time, Sousuke continued to charge toward
the woods in his Savage.
It was a bumpy ride, but there was nothing anyone could do about that. The barrels of the machine guns were no more than a foot or two from Kaname's head. If Sousuke hadn't abruptly moved her to the side, the muzzle flash-the flames that spew from the guns-would have burned her, and the sound would have burst her eardrums.
"Ah, ahhh!" Apparently still unaware of what had transpired, Kaname stiffened and clutched the AS even tighter.
"Be patient. Just a little longer until we get clear."
Kaname couldn't bring herself to respond. Huddled III the hand, she looked small, pale, and afraid.
Regardless, Sousuke was impressed. He expected a typical girl to be screaming her head off and thrashing to free herself from the hand. But Kaname didn't even have any complaints as the mech pushed through the shrubs, kicking up dirt.
However . .. thought Sousuke. Why did the enemy fire just once? They should have known that an outdated anti-tank missile would be ineffective against an AS. Were they testing my abilities?
He checked, but he saw no one following him. No response on optical or infrared sensors.
It was most unusual.
Something just felt wrong to Sousuke. He ca~ght the scent of danger the would be noticeable only to experienced warriors-a scent invisible to all the fancy sensors in the world.
He reached the bank ofa river, but just as he started to cross ...
A sniper shot came from downstream-at his two o'clock, a
completely unexpected direction.
Reacting instantly, Sousuke dodged, and the orange-colored shells grazed the machine and obliterated several nearby trees.
Right away, a grenade made an arc through the air. Sousuke identified it as a high-powered bomb with a blast radius of about one-hundred fifty feet. Even ifhis AS could survive an explosion like that, Kaname, vulnerable and exposed, certainly would not.
Before the grenade came down in front of the Savage, Sousuke turned his back to it to shield Kaname from the blast.
On the grenade's impact, the Savage lost its lower right leg from the knee down. Unable to balance, Sousuke toppled into the river, flinging Kaname through the air.
She screamed as she splashed into the river.
"Chidori!" yelled Sousuke, bringing the mech up on its
At that point, Sousuke noticed that the grenade round was completely intact. It had not exploded because its fuse had been removed. It was secondary gunfire that took off his leg; the grenade was just a decoy to get him to stop moving!
Kaname's face broke the surface, and she let out a lungful of air.
"Chido-" began Sousuke, until three well-placed shots struck his Savage's right arm and flank, stopping the crawling machine in its tracks. He lowered the mech.
"Lower right arm damaged," warned the AS. "Control lost. Main condenser: complete loss. Condenser: output falling."
A lone AS emerged from the darkness. It was silver and different from the others at the base.
Although the AS was roughly three hundred yards away, it closed the gap frighteningly quickly.
From his Savage's prone position, Sousuke lifted the AS rifle and returned fire, but it was a completely ineffective act. He couldn't even brace himself while taking the shots.
The enemy fired, too. Methodically, the enemy took one shot at a time, as though conserving ammo. Really, all Sousuke could do was lie there and hope not to get hit.
"Main sensor: lost. Fire outbreak in latissimus dorsal actuator."
More and more bullets further debilitated the Savage, which was unable to change the magazine in its rifle with only one arm.
As the attacking AS came near, Sousuke swung the rifle like a club, but the enemy deflected it and pushed its carbine against the Savage's chest. Just one shot into the cockpit ...
The gun fired.
If Sousuke took a fraction of a second longer to turn the mech's hips, he doubtless would have ended up splattered on the wall; the blast ripped through the Savage's armor plating, destroying most of the instruments in the chest cavity and plowing through the generator in the head.
Its control system completely destroyed, the Savage fell like a marionette cut loose. Crashing face first, it splashed into the water, thr~wing its arms toward the bank.
The night air reached Sousuke, and blood trickled down his forehead into his eyes. A sharp pain twitched in his back. When he tried to move the mech's levers, he confirmed its complete demise.
Swimming toward the wreckage, Kaname grabbed its arm.
"Sagara?" she called.
"No, stay back!" shouted Sousuke, ignoring his pain.
The silver AS stepped in front of Sousuke. It was unlike any other Sousuke had ever seen-its stylish design suggested it was Western. But where did it come from?
"You handled that thing very well until you got to the river," Gauron called through the speaker. "Did you really think I'd set off a grenade? We want the girl alive."
"It wouldn't shock me ifyou did," answered Sousuke. He could see two Arm Slaves and some kind of armored truck en route from the base. His number really was up this time.
"Hey, you're that student from the plane. I never expected an agent to be in high school. Fooled me! You with Mithril?"
"I don't have to answer that."
"Fine. Then die."
"Wait! What are you doing?" shouted Kaname.
Ignoring her, Gauron's AS leveled its carbine rifle at Sousuke's chest. For a moment, everything was silent.
Then, there was a low rumbling as the shoulders of the silver AS shook, and the left hand slapped its head, which shook as a sign ofits operator's disbelie£ The huge machine was, in effect, laughing.
"Kashim! What a surprise!"
Sousuke winced at his former name.
"I barely recognized you. So, you've stuck with Mithril, eh? How's that coward, Lieutenant Kalinin?"
"I thought you were dead," answered Sousuke.
The silver AS pointed to its forehead, right where Gauron's scar would be.
"Ha! Fortunately, I had a titanium plate in my skull from an old wound. The angle was just right, so here I am! Wow. I'm so glad we got to meet again this way. It's great, don't you think?" Gauron laughed.
"You're awfully glib these days," quipped Sousuke.
"A lot's happened since then," he chuckled. ''1'd have a lot to tell you, but there isn't time. I need to get on with tinkering around in that girl's brain. So exciting-it's like a treasure hunt."
"What are you talking about?"
"Her head's packed with Black Technology, such as the applied theory of the Lambda Driver. Once it's complete, nuclear weapons will be obsolete."
"Guess you're out of the loop. Sorry, no time to fill you in.
Tell the boatman at the river Styx to expect a big group soon, okay? Buh-bye!"
Again, Gauron lowered the gun.
Just as Kaname opened her mouth to shout, there was an explosion and a splash of water. Gauron's rifle split into two pieces.
Leaping back, Gauron narrowly avoided three incoming shots¬each ruthless and dangerous.
A loud roar passed overhead, marking the arrival of a gray AS, which was descending from the sky at full speed. It cut its chute and plummeted.
The plummeting Gernsback fired its rifle wildly before landing roughly in the water, sending a miniature tidal wave over Sousuke and Kaname.
"Urzu Six, landing successful. And I've got a visual on Seven and Angel, too."
Immediately, the M9 squeezed off a quick burst of shots, destroying the incoming enemy Arm Slaves. Gauron's mech seized the opportunity to hide behind a hill.
Upon hearing the familiar name, Kaname frowned. "Kurz? Does that mean . . ."
"In the flesh. How goes it, Kaname?"
"What is going on here?"
Temporarily confused, Sousuke suddenly remembered that Kaname and Kurz had met the previous Sunday.
"Hey, Sousuke," called Kurz, "can you move?"
"I'll manage." Battling intense pain, Sousuke heaved open the bent frame and crawled out of the cockpit.
Sparks flew every which way through the sky above them as the multi-warhead rockets that were launched from the Tuatha de Danaan scattered small bombs. Explosions preceded the eruption of many small flames.
Now, Kurz's AS was not alone-five more M9s detached their urgent deployment boosters and plunged onto the base. Simultaneously, rotor sounds announced the arrival of attack and transport helicopters rushing toward the base. It was the de Danaan's rescue squad!
"Listen, Sousuke. Take Kaname and get back to the base. Head for the south side of the runway," Kurz instructed as he snapped a magazine into his rifle and turned to chase the silver AS.
"A couple of C-I7s will be making a forced landing. They'll wait for five minutes. Leave this battle to me. I'll pick you up afterward."
"What about the bomb on the plane?"
"Mao and Roger have it covered."
"Understood. Be careful of the silver AS. Both the mech and its pilot are in a league of their own."
"Don't sweat it, I'll kick his ass good!"
After a preparatory squat, Kurz's M9 leapt away.
"What's go 109 on?" Shinji Kazama mumbled as he watched the shaking fuselage.
There was a senes of explosions. Although there had been scattered combat noises ever since they landed, this seemed to be an all-out battle.
A large shadow passed by the window, setting the students' imaginations wild. Shinji caught a good look at it when it was illuminated by one of the explosions. Instantly, his jaw dropped.
Shinji had seen Western Arm Slaves before and wouldn't normally be that surprised. But a brand-new M9 Gernsback? The US army didn't even use those in combat yet! And the head appeared to be outfitted with the newest ECCS anti-ECS sensor, as well as a milli-wave radar.
"Move away from the windows!" shouted the female pilot of the AS.
The AS reached behind it and extracted a huge knife-easily twenty feet. It was a monofilament cutter designed for combat. The blade was secretly a micro-chainsaw that could cut through armor like it was cardboard. These were usually the size and shape of a combat knife, but this looked more like a Japanese sword.
"What's she going to do with that?"
Then, as a plane full of wide-eyed students looked on, the M9 forcefully brought the blade into the side of the jumbo jet.
Immediately, the plane began to shake, and there was an ear-splitting screech. Screaming, the passengers clung to their seats.
What they couldn't see, however, was that the sword only sliced into the baggage compartment. After hacking into the plane and poking around with the sword, the AS mercilessly tore off the bulkhead.
"Aha! Found it!"
Thrusting its hand into the baggage compartment, it nimbly extracted a container and passed it off to another M9. Upon receiving the container, the second mech immediately turned, took a running start, and tossed the crate toward the apron on the far side of the base.
This was, of course, all very puzzling to the students, until the box landed and exploded violently.
Even from a distance of at least a quarter mile, the blast rocked the plane, eliciting another round of shrieks from the female passengers. Some of the boys on the plane took this opportunity to pull the girls close and comfort them.
"This is Urzu Two. We've cleared the bomb and will join the combat now. Uh, hold on."
Mao's speaker fell silent as the jet's entry hatch clanked open and about ten armed soldiers in blue berets ran out. Shouting in broken Japanese, they spread out around the plane.
"Please remain calm! This is a United Nations rescue squad!
There is yellow tape leading away from the exit. Follow that tape to the transport vehicles waiting outside. For your safety, stay calm and don't panic. We won't leave anyone behind. I repeat: We are a United Nations ..."
Content to let this play out, Mao switched her attention to guarding the transports.
"Yes, Master Sergeant?" answered her mech's AI.
"Cut the ECS! Initiate the milli-wave radar. And turn on active IR and strobe light!"
"That drastically will mcrease the probability of being attacked."
"That's fine. I'll be an easy target."
"Roger. ECS: off. All active sensors: on."
Already, Mithril's transports landed and taxied toward the jet. The friendly M9s took care of business around the base, and the attack helicopters hovered overhead.
Mao's M9 danced away from the jet. Almost immediately, a tank emerged from a building about a quarter of a mile away, guns blazing. The first shell came dangerously close to Mao, blowing a large hole in a building behind her.
"You little ..."
Mao pulled a super high-speed missile from her the backpack on the AS and took aim. Known as a Javelin, this weapon was similar to the cylindrical shoulder-mounted rocket launchers humans used.
When she aimed and fired, there was an instant reaction: Moving at a mile per second, the missile immediately smashed into the tank, obliterating it completely.
Mao tossed the empty missile tube and loaded another one while looking for something else to destroy. All around, she saw smoldering heaps of metal that used to be enemy mechs and tanks.
"Hm. There aren't as many as I thought there'd be."
Sousuke's rampage took out a pretty good portion of the opposition forces.
Behind Mao, the hostage group lined up and hustled toward the two transports. She peeked at the clock in the corner ofher display screen.
"Two minutes ..."
Not a lot of time. Mao wondered whether Kurz was able to find and rescue Sousuke.
Leaning on Kaname for support, Sousuke ran along the runway.
"Hang in there," she said.
"I'll make it," he replied with his traditional flatness. The gash on his head was not serious, but the wound in his side hurt like crazy.
"Are we going to make it in time?"
"Not sure. But Kurz will come back to get us."
"He's one of you, then?"
"Yes, a sergeant on the same team."
A stray mortar plopped down about a hundred feet behind them, showering them with tiny bits of concrete. Kaname screamed.
"Ignore it. Just keep running."
The friendly transports were a solid two miles away. On foot, there was no way they could possibly get there in time for takeoff.
Kurz's M9 was nowhere in sight. He must have been struggling with Gauron. Then again, Kurz also knew that the enemy was after Kaname, and he probably was doing everything he could to distract Gauron.
Wishing he had a transmitter to communicate with the passing helicopters, Sousuke said nothing and kept running.
Kurz let one rip from his rifle. The violent recoil jarred his frame.
The silver AS took cover in the shadow of the brush. Actually, it changed course just before Kurz fired, but it looked nearly simultaneous.
"Man, this bastard's quick," growled Kurz. Smacking his lips, he changed the rifle's magazine.
Although they started fighting several minutes ago, the silver AS hadn't fired a single shot yet. Since Kurz destroyed its rifle, it probably had only close-combat weapons left.
"Ha! You think you can get me?" taunted Kurz.
Kurz fired twice. Both shots came as close as bullets can come without connecting.
"What the hell, is my aim off?" Kurz asked rhetorically.
"Negative," answered the machine's AI, "the ballistics error margin is within set margins."
Kurz knew that. He spent a great deal of time fine-tuning the thing in between missions. The enemy's evasion abilities specifically known as "random evasion"-were impressive. Staying alive for that long without firing a shot was more than remarkable.
The abilities of the enemy's AS were on par with Kurz's, maybe even higher. But how could anything be better than Mithril's weapons, which were ten years ahead of the rest of the world?
"How is that possible? Crap!"
Kurz imagined the silver AS to be smiling as it dodged the shots.
"Don't screw with me!" Kurz knew time was of the essence. He had to finish off the enemy in a hurry and go pick up Sousuke and Kaname. He worked out a plan. Time to get tricky!
Making it look as though he wanted to keep some distance between himself and the enemy, he fired several shots as if he were terribly confused. Keeping his distance, he dropped to his knees and aimed the gun steadily.
However, he didn't fire. He looked down on the rifle and manually moved the bolt several times. Raising the gun again, he still didn't fire.
It all seemed suspicious to Gauron.
Kurz dropped the large rifle and took out his monofilament cutter, which was shaped like a combat knife.
Pulling out his own blade, the enemy immediately rushed at him.
Kurz's M9 stood waiting for the enemy to close the gap. When the enemy neared, Kurz threw the knife, forcing Gauron to knock it aside, relaxing his position. Meanwhile, Kurz already had picked up and aimed his large rifle in a single, fluid motion.
At this range, he couldn't miss, and evasion was impossible.
"See you in hell!"
A shot. The fifty-seven millimeter shell flew out of the barrel directly at the machine's silver torso.
"Keep it moving!" shouted the soldiers to the hostages.
The students crammed into the idling transport vehicles.
Mao's M9 was on its knees, shielding the civilians. There were no enemies in sight, almost as if they'd given up. The only soldiers Mao could see were fleeing the scene.
"One of the students is missing!" yelled one of the hostages, breaking out of line. The woman, dressed in a suit, appeared to be about the same age as Mao.
"Kaname will be traveling home on another plane."
"A-another plane? How do you know my student's name?"
"That's not important. Hurry up and board that plane."
Totally flustered, the teacher followed the instructions.
Time was not on their side. Sousuke and Kaname were still MIA, and Kurz was still out in combat somewhere. Thirty seconds ago, he had reported having some kind of trouble, though.
"Urzu Six, aren't you done yet?" Mao inquired. No response.
The hostages and soldiers took their seats and the rear doors of the planes closed.
"Hurry up, Urzu Six. Get them here, pronto."
"Urzu Six, respond. Urzu Six!"
"Don't screw around at a time like this, Kurz! Don't piss me off!"
Still, Kurz said nothing.
Upon reaching the edge of the runway, Sousuke still saw no sign of Kurz. Meanwhile, the transport planes began to taxi, meaning they couldn't be boarded. They would have to wait for the helicopters that would come for the Arm Slaves.
But would anyone notice that they were there? No, it's impossible.
The fire and smoke made the chances of someone being able to see them from the air nearly nonexistent.
A handful of shells flew in from the east, landing here and there on the base. One of them exploded just fifty yards away from Sousuke and Kaname.
"Enemy reinforcements," explained Sousuke, wiping the sweat from his forehead. They ducked low and hid behind a building.
Now that the enemy's backup had arrived, the helicopters that had come for the Arm Slaves would be under too much fire to wait for them. They had to do something.
One of the jets roared past them.
"Ah! There they go."
"It can't be helped."
Like a cloud, the dark truth of their situation hung over them, reminding them of their failure to rendezvous with their allies.
Swaying and shaking, two C-I7s rattled along the torn-up runway.
Small pebbles clacked against the fuselages, the wings trembled, and the engines shrieked. There was an explosion about a hundred feet away from the plane.
"Remain calm! Stay seated! " shouted a soldier.
Most of the students were too terrified to get out of their seats, anyway. The only one who wasn't holding his breath was Shinji Kazama, whose cheeks were damp from large teardrops.
"Are you scared, Kazama?" inquired Kyouko, somewhat out of the blue.
"No, I'm just so ... happy," he explained. "We got to see M9s in action, and we're riding in a C-17. I can die a happy man now."
With a sudden increase in speed, the aircraft reached VR-the speed at which liftoff was possible-and ascended. Following suit, the second plane took off, as well.
From the ground, a soldier fired an anti-aircraft missile at the second plane. When the plane turned on its ECS, however, the missile went awry and flew around wildly before crashing harmlessly into an unoccupied corner of the base.
While the planes traveled deeper into the western sky, the VTOL fighters kept close to protect them.
"So much for the hard part," muttered Mao, watching them go.
"The party's over," said the pilot of a large helicopter that landed nearby. "A large opposition force is incoming."
"Wait. We haven't heard from Urzu Six-or Seven and the girl."
"This is Teiwaz Twelve," announced one of the attack choppers overhead. "We spotted M9 wreckage that appears to be Urzu Six's. It's in a river to the north of the base."
"Say what?" Mao paled.
"The torso's been sliced in half."
What? The torso-the cockpit? No!
"Did the operator make it?"
"Don't know. The smoke's too thick to see much."
"Well, keep looking. And what about Sousuke?"
Before answering, the helicopter pilot swallowed thickly. "I want to look for them, Mao, but we simply don't have time." "Just one minute.I'll go, too. "
"Withdraw at once. I forbid you to search," interrupted Lieutenant Commander Kalinin, who was in one of the recon choppers.
"But, Lieutenant Commander!"
"The reinforcements already are across the bridge. Interceptors are on their way. If we -stick around, you'll all be wiped out." His tone indicated no room for negotiations. "Teiwaz Twelve, fire your remaining rounds at the M9 wreckage. Don't let the enemy get their hands on a single screw."
"Teiwaz Twelve, roger."
Firing a rocket, the attack helicopter carried out the command, blowing Kurz's AS to bits.
"Urzu Two, hurry up and dock with the transport helicopter."
For the briefest moment, the lieutenant commander's coldness infuriated Mao, and it took a great deal of effort for her to swallow the word "murderer" before it came out of her mouth.
"Urzu Two, roger."
Kalinin was right; the enemy would be there shortly.
Gauron climbed down from his inoperable mech onto the damp ground.
Grunting, he looked up at the silver AS. The chest armor plate was largely crushed, its internals exposed. The actuator stabilizer trickled out like blood, and smoke spewed from several joints ..
The AS called the Codarl was overheating. This happened because Gauron had to use the unfinished Lambda Driver, which shorted the MOTIVE system. All he could do for the time being was hide in the brush and hope to keep out of sight of the enemy helicopters.
The Lambda Driver had powers unlike any previous man-made invention. With the ability to amplify the operator's attack and defense impulses, it converted thoughts into pseudo-physical power. Scientific types called it a "false-axis repulsive-field generator system."
Although this system had the potential to change modern warfare completely, that was still a long way of£ There simply was not enough information. They had to get their hands on a new source of knowledge.
That was their motivation for abducting the Whispered.
"Piece of crap!" declared Gauron, looking toward the base.
Mithril's helicopters and VTOL fighters receded into the western sky.
"Kalinin ... that smug bastard." Even Gauron didn't anticipate a rescue operation to occur so quickly-only haIfa day after the hijacking of flight 903.
On top of that, Mithril disposed of the bomb Gauron had planted on the plane.
With no dry run and no recon group, the surprise attack defied all common sense of special operations.
But it seemed like something Kalinin would do. If Gauron had known he was with Mithril, he would've drafted a countermeasure.
As it was, the rescue enabled Kashim and the Whispered girl to escape. Major failure.
"You'll pay for this, dammit!"
A transmission came from one of his subordinates: "Gauron, one of the firefighters said he spotted a suspicious person near the base's western fence, ostensibly escaping with a young girl in tow."
"A young man?"
"Not sure. In any case, they went west."
Gauron chuckled to himself. What luck! Kashim jailed to meet up with his allies. If he went west, they were heading toward the coast. Kashim must hope to connect with his people there.
It was about twenty miles from there to the coast. No matter how fast they were, it would take them at least the whole night. There was plenty of time to repair the Codar!.
"My, oh my. It looks like this party's just getting started."
Trudging through the dark mountains away from the base, Sousuke and Kaname could no longer hear the cacophonous aftereffects of the battle. The only sounds were their breath and the pine needles fluttering about beneath their feet.
"Are you sure everything's okay?" Kaname checked as she supported the staggering Sousuke.
"I won't say I'm not worried," he said flatly, "but we have to get away from the base."
"I meant you. It looks like something's wrong."
Sousuke's usual stern expression shined with an aberrant
gloss of sweat. Although his whole body was covered in grime, the bloodstain on his shirt was plainly visible.
"Let's take a break. At this rate . .." Kaname began gravely.
Sousuke stopped and peered into the darkness behind them.
After a moment, he said, "Yes, I could use a short rest."
Sitting down on a large tree root, Sousuke removed his shirt.
Kaname nearly screamed when she saw him in just his tank top.
There was a piece of metal, about the size of half a CD, protruding from his left side. It must have lodged there earlier, during his AS battle. Kaname could only imagine how incredibly painful that must have been.
She sputtered and gawked.
"I was lucky. It missed all the internal organs and major arteries. There should be a case of small bottles in my jacket pocket-would you please get that out?" Then, without the slightest hesitation, Sousuke yanked out the piece of metal, groaning only slightly.
Terrified, Kaname hurriedly searched the pockets of the jacket and handed over the small case.
Kaname couldn't stand to watch as Sousuke stoically scrubbed the wound with alcohol. Although his hands moved confidently and with purpose, his eyes stared blankly at something unknown.
"There's another case in the other pocket. There should be some tape in there."
"You mean this?"
Grabbing the tape, he tore up his shirt and taped it in place as a makeshift bandage. Kaname continued looking through the case.
"I looks like there's some morphine in here," she suggested timidly.
"Don't need it," Sousuke said in a dead tone that made Kaname immensely uneasy.
"But, I mean, you're-"
"If! fell asleep, who would fight the enemy?"
"True, but ..."
"Let's keep moving. They'll come for us."
With great effort, he rose and started hiking through the forest.
What the heck? Kaname couldn't help but recognize the absurdity of it all. What's his deal, anyway?
She didn't understand how he could just treat his body like a machine, ignoring the pain. He just pushed forward, mumbling "opposition" this and "enemy" that. He really was just a smaller version of an AS, she decided. Whatever.
Ever since the battle, a strange feeling began to grow in Kaname: She was scared of Sousuke. Although the young man in front of her looked very much like any other, he seemed to be from an entirely different planet. To Kaname, in some ways he was just as scary as the terrorists chasing them!
"What's wrong, Chidori?"
She just stood there, blankly, until Sousuke turned around.
"Hurry. The enemy's coming."
Sousuke was met with a blank stare.
"Are you feeling okay?"
"St-stay away from me!" Kaname stepped backward, prepared to run from Sousuke. "Don't come near me!"
Sousuke stopped near her.
There was silence.
Kaname wondered: Was he angry? Irritated? Would he shout? Even worse, would he hit her? Would he drag her by force into the cold darkness?
When she felt the impulse to turn around and run, Kaname noticed Sousuke's expression was not one of anger-it was one of hurt. He looked like someone who had been slapped unexpectedly by a friend.
He started to speak, stopped, and looked at the ground. Then, he finally spoke.
"You're ... afraid ofme." When she said nothing, he continued. "That's a natural reaction. I'm sure I must seem ..."
And a shadow of profound loneliness crept across his profile, finishing the sentence for him.
Huh? Kaname was startled. What's that about?
It was the face ofsomeone rejected by the object ofhis affection, the face of someone in more than physical pain, but who still had the strength to endure it. He clutched his injured side.
"My only concern is to get you home safely. I can't guarantee we'll make it. But can you trust me for now?" he asked meekly, unable to look her in the eye. And with these words, the humanity returned to his face.
"If we get out of this again, I'll leave you alone. I promise."
Even though he'd been injured in combat, he just wanted to save her. Kaname felt extreme guilt. Through intense pain, in the face of incoming enemies, his only concern was her safety.
If he didn't act like that, he wouldn't be able to save me, she realized.
She thought about his behavior at school-tailing her doggedly, suffering her angry looks and abuses, and the rest-all because he knew the danger she could have been in.
So that's why.
A tsunami of tenderness smacked her in the face.
Mired in emotional turbidity, she flushed. Her heartbeat sped up and the blood rushed to her head. Kaname couldn't recall ever feeling this inexplicable swirl of emotions.
Unsure how to express the intense flux of feelings, all she said was, "Okay."
"Good. Let's go, then." The hurt expression lingered on his face. Physically, however, he seemed greatly relieved to have the shrapnel out of his side.
Ten minutes later, Sousuke stopped in his tracks.
Pointing with the submachine gun in his right hand, Sousuke cautiously made his way toward some brush.
Kaname sensed the stifled breath and rustling of clothes, too. Were the pursuers there already?
Sousuke switched on his flashlight.
Near the back of the bushes, there was a man huddled against a tree.
Faintly breathing, the man sweated through his black clothes. Actually, they weren't regular clothes: He wore an AS ope~ator's uniform. His long blond hair was disheveled, his face smeared with coagulated mud and blood.
"Took you long enough," Kurz managed a small half-smile before he fell limply forward.