Chapter 5: Black Technology
April 28, 23:32 (Japan/Korea Standard Time)
Yellow Sea, West Korea Bay, Surface
Tuatha de Danaan
As soon as the helicopter alit on the flight deck, Kalinin hurried down the passage to the command center. The muffled sound of the double-hull closing echoed through the corridor.
Melissa Mao caught up to him as he strode through the second deck passage. "Master Sergeant Mao," acknowledged Kalinin without slowing down. "You should be on standby in the hangar."
"We're going to withdraw now?"
"We're just going to abandon Sousuke and Kurz, then?"
"It's all part of the enlistment contract."
"They're my men," Mao persisted. "I am responsible for them. Please, let me go. I can conduct a search. I just need two-one hour. Please."
"I can't put a five billion dollar ship with two hundred and fifty crew members in danger, even if you say 'pretty please.'"
"I know it's not the most reasonable request. However, if we
employ ECS invisibility ..."
"According to the weather reports, we're due for some showers¬
for two days."
Although ECS was the ultimate in stealth equipment, it was not perfect. For one thing, it did give off the distinct scent of ozone. On top of that, large quantities of water-such as rain-caused it to emit a lot of small, pale sparks. So, rather than causing invisibility in the rain, it resulted in something more comparable to a neon billboard.
"That's just the forecast. Seriously, when are they ever right?"
Kalinin stopped in front of a large door and faced Mao. "Sorry,
Mao, only command center personnel beyond this point."
"How can you be so indifferent?"
"I can because I have to be." He turned his back to Mao.
After passmg through several doors, Kalinin entered the command center. Perched in the captain's chair, Teletha Testarossa finished giving the orders to submerge. She addressed Kalinin without looking at him.
"You want to know how long we can wait," she said.
I'm no match jor this girl, thought Kalinin.
She continued, "Right now, we do not have a minute to spare. We've already spotted three enemy patrol boats fully loaded with mines. The sea here is shallow, without any real hiding places. It's imperative that we get out of here as soon as possible."
Tessa grabbed the braid hanging over her left should~r and poked at her mouth with it, tickling her nose. It was a bad habit she entertained in times of great stress.
"However, I do want to save Sagara and the girl."
"Yes, ma'am. There also is a chance that Sergeant Weber is alive."
If the destroyed M9 had been enough to kill Kurz, then Kalinin wouldn't have chosen him to be an SRT member.
"If! could manage to surface at the coast for a few minutes right before dawn ... what strategy would you suggest?"
The sea chart on Tessa's personal display charted her intentions: disappearing into Chinese waters, eluding the Chinese navy, and then returning to their present area at full speed.
Although Kalinin was an amateur at submarine tactics, it seemed like an unreasonable plan to him. "Is that even a possibility?"
"Probably not for a normal submarine." Tessa smiled proudly. Kalinin would have to trust his captain. Who knows? he thought.
Maybe it is possible.
"Well," he began, "I'm concerned that Weber lost a dogfight in his M9. The possibility may arise that we need to use ... it."
"It? Which it are you talking about?"
"The ARX-7. The Arbalest."
As soon as he said the name, Kalinin felt a spooky sensation, as though somewhere on the ship, a confined beast howled with delight.
April 29, 02:26 (Japan/Korea Standard Time)
Democratic People's Republic of Korea
Mountains of Taedong County, South Pyongan Province
An attack helicopter zoomed overhead.
For a split-second, its glaring light grazed Sousuke's head. Fortunately, however, no one noticed: After a moment, the chopper headed for the mountains and disappeared into the southern sky.
Rain fell gently while wind rustled the branches.
"Is it gone?" hoped Kaname.
She couldn't see because Kurz, Sousuke, and she were hiding in a small hollow, disguised under shrubs, roots, and leaves.
"It appears so," replied Sousuke.
Earlier, Sousuke had given him a shot ofmorphine, so Kurz was still pretty out of it. He had a broken arm and deep lacerations on the opposite arm and leg. A normal person never would have made it so far from the wreckage in that state. Although the bleeding ceased for the time being, Kurz wouldn't pull through unless he got some legitimate medical attention in the near future.
"Chidori, can you still walk?"
"If I couldn't, we wouldn't get away," she said resolutely, although she looked rather worn.
Sousuke and Kaname staggered along the mountain road, supporting Kurz.
"Hey, careful-I'm wounded over here," muttered Kurz.
"I'm surprised you walked that far," Sousuke commented.
"I went along the river to mask my scent. But man, the lieutenant commander doesn't mess around-I barely got out of my mech before he blew it to pieces. Maybe I would've been better off to eat it back there."
"Did the silver AS beat you?"
"Yeah, but it's a mystery how."
"I drew him in, point blank, and nailed him with the fifty-seven millimeter. I thought I brought him down. But then ... next thing I know, I'm the one in pieces."
"Did he use a directional fragmentation mine?"
"No, nothing like that. It was more like he hit me with-" Kurz grimaced. "I don't know, an invisible hammer or something."
"That's enough. Don't speak."
Climbing uphill, they came to a giant tree that looked to be at least a thousand years old.
"Looks like we're done climbing hills."
On the other side of the downhill stretch, there was a large plain, consisting of farms and paddy fields. An occasional military vehicle cut through the rice fields from time to time.
Kaname strained her eyes, "That's a lot of wide open space to cross."
"Yes. We'll be in great danger of being spotted."
As Sousuke gently deposited Kurz on the ground, the latter cursed nearly inaudibly.
Squatting next to Kurz, Kaname began to cough uncontrollably, as if choking. She didn't complain, but she appeared in less than top spirits.
Shortly, Kurz's breath slowed to the deep relief of sleep as the morphine kicked in.
They walked along the bumpy path in the dead of night for three hours. Sousuke was pleased with their progress, but still ...
The three of us will never make it to the coast.
It would be difficult for a healthy, stealthy soldier to escape the enemy's sights while crossing those plains.
Even if the de Danaan wanted to rescue them, Sousuke had no way to contact them. Although Kurz retained his small transmitter, its range was just a couple of miles. It was at least twelve miles to the coast.
Sousuke felt tired. His head was not clear, and his wound seemed to feel worse with each step.
They couldn't move, they couldn't call for help, and the vulturelike enemies circled continually closer.
There's no way out. It was not the first time in his life Sousuke felt the hand of Death tapping his shoulder.
While Sousuke explained the situation-their isolation, the enemy's search net, the weather, Kurz's condition, and his own strength-Kaname listened patiently.
"Oh," she said finally.
"I have an idea," suggested Sousuke. "Kurz and I will stay here and make a lot of noise to get the enemy's attention. We'll buy a lot of time for you to run as far as you can to the west."
"Go west. Take this transmitter and make a beeline for the shore. If our allies come to get us, then they'll be calling on that channel."
There was no guarantee that the allies would come to rescue them-but he had to take a shot on Kaname making it to the shore, just in case.
"But what about you guys?"
"No need to worry. Our job is to protect you. And it's better for one person to survive than for all three of us to get captured."
Sousuke didn't understand why it mattered to Kaname if he already had resigned himself to this fate.
"You have a right to survive," Sousuke said. "Go."
At that moment, "duty" and "mission objectives" didn't factor into his decision. He simply wanted Kaname to live. Even if she feared and hated him, Sousuke wanted her to get back to school.
If she didn't make it home, he knew that he, Sousuke, would feel sad.
There was a long silence.
Looking from Sousuke to Kurz and back, Kaname seemed perplexed.
In actuality, it was quite simple, really. It was reasoning anyone could grasp: If the only chance for her to survive was by abandoning the others, she needed to do so. No one would blame her for saving herself. Of course she would run-at least, that was Sousuke's logic.
After at least a full minute of silence, Kaname finally spoke.
"I said 'no.' I'm not running away by myself," she declared. "We'll have to put our heads together and come up with another plan."
It was a quiet, albeit confident and composed, statement.
Patiently, Sousuke shook his head. "Listen, Chidori. I'm a specialist. There isn't any way for all three of us to escape this situation. It will be difficult for you to escape by yourself, even. That's the truth."
"Truth? Only according to you," she replied, slightly angry.
"Enough!" Kaname's outburst dumbfounded Sousuke. "I've been doing a lot of thinking while we trudged through these mountains, and I've finally made up my mind."
Kaname paused to take a deep breath.
"Sagara, you really are a total idiot. I mean, I'm glad you want to save me, but aren't you forgetting something? I think you're missing something extremely important. Know what it is? I doubt it, because you're a complete dolt. I am not too keen on being saved by an idiot."
"Huh?" Sousuke hardly could believe his eyes and ears. Kaname was morphing from scared girl into domineering class president.
"Listen, you're always thinking stupid things like 'I don't care when I die.' You didn't even consider my feelings! You're just satisfying yourself, assaulting me with your good intentions. Do you think dying for my sake is cool or something? It's not cool, it's idiotic!
"If you sacrifice yourself for someone, it's only great if you understand your own importance before you do it. You've already devalued yoursel£ Ifyou cared at all about yourself, you wouldn't give up so easily. You probably don't even feel like trying. Think about it. Forget duty for a minute and tell me: For whose sake are you saving me? And if you say mine, I will beat you to death!"
His head a jumbled mess, Sousuke stared at Kaname, who appeared to have fumed herself out. He was offended, astonished, embarrassed, amazed, and worried, all at once. He didn't totally understand what she meant, but he did grasp that she thought there was something wrong with him-and also that she was probably right.
As Sousuke struggled to find words, Kaname waved him off and said, "Forget it. I'll save us."
"You said there was no other way, but I think that means that you've given up. That's why I have to do it. Do you have a lighter?"
"I do," he confirmed suspiciously. "What are you planning?"
"To set this mountain on fire," she announced. "A forest fire will cause an uproar. In the confusion, we'll steal a fire truck or a Jeep or something and high-tail it to the airport, where we'll steal a plane amid the confusion. Don't worry, I'll fly it."
"Do you have any experience flying an air-"
"Of course not! I've played the simulator at the arcade, though, so maybe I could figure it out. Anyway, once we have the plane, we'll go to South Korea or Japan. All we have to do is go south, right? Simple. You two just keep quiet and stay with me."
The holes in Kaname's logic were enormous, but she sounded deadly serious. An expression of courage in the face of tragedy rippled across her face.
"I'm never going to give up," she proclaimed, thumping her chest. "I'll never admit we can't save everyone. We'll do something. I'll get out of here with you and Kurz-and Kyouko and everyone else will be waiting when we get there. Then, we'll all live happily ever after. That's my plan. Got a problem with it?"
"Sometimes, willpower and enthusiasm won't cut it," Sousuke said. "Do as I say."
"How many times do I have to tell you 'no'?"
"Forget that. Go. Make a run for it." For good measure, he gestured at her with his submachine gun.
"Are you going to shoot me if! don't?" Kaname sounded almost sympathetic.
"Yes. You'd be better off dying here than getting caught by the enemy and turned into a vegetable."
"Well, that's a strange reason." Smiling, Kaname took a step toward Sousuke.
Why isn't she tifraid? Sousuke was worried. He understood there was no way left to make her obey, and he was hopeless.
"Want to know why I'm not afraid?"
"It's simple," she cooed, pushing the gun aside to embrace Sousuke gently.
Sliding both hands around his back, she rested her cheek on his bloody shoulder.
"I trust you now."
For a moment, the warmth of the girl on Sousuke's chest overpowered the pain of his injury. Inside his body, all his blood seemingly switched directions and his muscles twitched. He didn't even notice when the gun slipped from his fingers.
"That's the reason I won't abandon you." Kaname's damp bangs tickled the tip of Sousuke's nose.
"I definitely was scared of you. It's terrifying to see a classmate turn into someone else. So strong ..." she faltered, but she battled her hesitation. "But you asked me to trust you, right? I know you're just trying to save me, so I've told myself to trust you instead of fearing you. Isn't that great?"
"Yes, it is."
"If a simple high school student like me can overcome so much in order to trust you, you at least can try a little harder to value your own life. Let's go home together."
Go home together . . . with her. The thought was enormously appealing. If it were humanly possible, he wanted to try. How nice it would be to see her in the morning light, he imagined.
Why would he save her? For whose sake was he attempting it? He clearly understood it.
It's jor me. I want to go home with her. I want to be with her. And live.
Realizing he never wanted anything as badly as this in his life, Sousuke felt an overwhelming power surge up through his exhausted and battered body.
They gazed awkwardly at each other.
"Urn. Ahem," Kurz loudly and unapologetically cleared his throat, snapping Sousuke and Kaname back to Earth. They practically leapt away from each other.
"You ... you're awake?" Kaname asked, disbelieving.
"A guy can't possibly get any sleep around here with you two shouting like that!"
"Why didn't you say something?"
Scratching his head, Kurz shrugged. "Don't know. Didn't seem like the thing to do. Seriously, though, you should keep it dow,n. You guys, huh? How about that."
Blushing all the way to her ears, Kaname said, "Don't get the wrong idea. I just got carried away with the mood. Nothing was going to happen. Really!"
Was that what that was? Watching Kaname's over-the-top denial, Sousuke felt surprised.
Kurz could not keep himself from laughing any longer, which caused him to curse his injury. "You lose, Sousuke," he said. "'No' means 'no.' Yo~r plan is vetoed, so you might want to consider hers."
"Start a forest fire or something. It isn't a bad idea-a lot better than dying here like this. Although, starting a fire could be difficult with all this rain, unless you have some gasoline with you. But even then, it'd still be a small fire."
"True-just big enough to give away our position."
"You don't know that. One of your planes could spot it just as easily," Kaname suggested.
"This is enemy airspace. Our people won't be flying here."
"Not even higher up? I saw it in a Harrison Ford movie once.
There was this spy satellite watching from space. Don't you guys have any of those?"
Sousuke felt ill at ease about the prospect of disclosing classified information about Mithril's reconnaissance satellite, Sting, to an outsider. Given the circumstances, however, he broke protocol.
"We do. But we can't just tell it to fly over here. The satellite orbits are confidential, and noncommissioned officers like us aren't privy to them."
"Not exactly," mumbled Kurz. "Before moving out, I saw some satellite photos in the briefing. There were images of this base from yesterday at fifteen-hundred thirty hours. What time is it now?"
Checking his watch, Sousuke looked as if something struck him. "Two-hundred forty-eight hours. Nearly half a day later, which means ..."
Generally, recon satellites revolved around the Earth once every ninety minutes. Factoring in the earth's rotation, the satellite passed over the same point about once every twelve hours. It if was over the base yesterday at fifteen-hundred thirty ...
Sting's going to pass over here soon!
Knowing the approximate time ofits arrival, perhaps they could announce their presence with flaming letters from the ground?
Exchanging glances, Kurz and Sousuke thought through the logistics of thermal landmarks in relation to recon satellites. ~nd to think, the impetus of this idea came from the mouth of an amateur.
"What's wrong?" Kaname asked, her voice now tantamount to the loveliness of heaven in Sousuke's mind.
"Talk about a blind spot!"
"Kaname, you're the best!"
"I am? What are you talking about?"
However, the plan still was not a safe bet.
If they lit a fire, it could attract the satellite's attention-but it also could catch the enemy's eye. Meanwhile, even if their allies did see the sign, who knew whether a rescue team could reach the trio in time?
It probably would be safer for Kaname to flee solo. But she wanted to do this, to go home together.
It was worth a shot.
Riding, Sousuke slung the submachine gun back over his shoulder. "Let's do it, then. You stay here."
"Don't do anything-check!" said Kurz. "This is crazy, so it's perfect for you."
"Are you going alone Sagara? What about your shoulder?" asked Kaname.
"It's okay. I'll sneak around. Besides," he added, noting her concerned expression, "it's weird, but I have my energy back."
And with that, Sousuke abruptly disappeared into the darkness.
Once he was gone, Kaname wiped Kurz's dirty face with a spare scrap of cloth.
"Ha ha. Thanks, Kaname."
"You're welcome." She paused to reflect for a moment. "By the way Kurz, do you know why they're after me?"
"All we know is that our boss ordered us to protect you."
"Okay." She hung her head and coughed a little.
Kaname felt quite heavy-headed. While she was talking to Sousuke, it wasn't significant enough to worry her. But now, an unpleasant sensation of floating crept over her.
When the odd visions she had experienced in the medical trailer intermittently attacked her, she couldn't determine whether they were a dream or reality.
"You okay?" wondered Kurz. "They give you any drugs back there?"
"Yeah. I don't know what it was, but they said something about a nutrient. Nothing really happened-but now, my head feels weird.
"Did they do anything else to you?"
"Yeah, they made me watch some kind of freaky movie."
"Strange symbols and characters that kept replacing and overlapping one another. Even though I hadn't seen these words before, somehow I already knew them. They were things like 'raw materials of intervertebral disc dampers,' and 'reagents of palladium reactors,' and an explanation of how the invisibility mode of ECS is not totally perfected, because the burden is all on the laser screen oscillation system-"
"How do you know all this?" Kurz asked seriously, his eyes bulging.
"Huh?" asked Kaname as though coming out of a daze.
"Did you just say 'intervertebral disc dampers'?"
"That's the name of a popular AS part-very technical stuff. No one without a military connection knows the weak points of ECS, either."
Kaname pressed her hands to her temples and tried to concentrate.
Slightly agitated, Kurz said, "There isn't any way a normal high school student would know these things."
"If you say so." Kaname wondered whether there was some kind of secret locked away inside her head. Then, she recalled the conversation with the female doctor in the trailer. "The lady kept saying strange things-that I knew that kind of stuff before I was born and that I had Black Technology or whatever. She said someday, I'd have free access to that information. Information ..." Kaname drifted off, losing herself in an absentminded floating sensation. For the first time, she was voluntarily conscious of the knowledge she was not yet aware of.
"Information. Infor ... rna-rna-rna ... Ah." Nothing came to mind, but a vague sense of disgust settled into her chest.
Then, she had a sense of deja vu, the hallucination a person might feel when traveling somewhere for the first time but finding it familiar. It was similar, except darker and heavier.
"Remem-memb-ber? Can't. C-can't," she stuttered, onlyslightly aware of herself and what she was saying.
There was a monster lurking in the shadows of Kaname's mind. The more she tried to examine it, the more some part of her (her soul itself, perhaps) convulsed. Up and down traded places, preventing her from thinking anymore. It was impossible. Impossible. Impossible ...
"Impossible. Impossible. Wha-wh-what's this?" Kaname struggled terribly to suppress a hysterical scream.
"Kaname! Stop that! Look at me!" Kurz barked, bringing Kaname back to Earth.
She realized that she had torn the chest of her gown.
"What? What did I-? Wow, it looks like maybe I'm a little messed up. Ha ha ha. Ha ha." she attempted to make small talk while concealing her chest, but her voice sounded dead.
"Listen, Kaname. Don't think about that anymore. Forget the whole thing. Completely-ugh!" Kurz's face twisted in pain.
After a moment, he said: "No, I'm not really." He tried to lift his head, but he couldn't really manage it. "Ah, this sucks. Son of a bitch, I can't believe I'm immobile at a time like this."
Moaning over his own helplessness, Kurz's blue eyes grew damp.
"It can't be helped." Kaname leaned in to wipe his tears. "You're hurt pretty bad."
"It really does suck. If I felt any better at all, I could admire it more carefully."
When Sousuke came down the mountain, he could see the farmlands.
After creeping in, he extracted some engine oil from a decomposing tractor. He wanted gasoline, but the current economic crisis kept most tanks empty. The fact that this area still had a tractor at all indicated it was a prosperous region.
Holding the oil-filled, polyethylene tank, he ran to the farm's fallow land. His side throbbed, but it wasn't so bad that he couldn't endure it.
After dumping out the oil on the field, he checked his watch: Oh-three twenty-eight.
Taking the survival kit from his pocket, Sousuke procured a permanganic acid tablet that normally would be used for sterilizing. But he crushed it, spread the powder on the oil, and lit the mixture with a Zippo.
After a second, the oil ignited, and the flames slowly spread.
Sting, the recon satellite, took extremely high-resolution pictures. On a clear day, it could easily read the headline on a newspaper. On a drizzly night like this, however, it would be difficult to distinguish Sousuke and friends from local soldiers. That's why Sousuke used fire letters to spell out A67 ALIVE.
The A was for "Angel," Kaname's codename. The numbers were for "Urzu Six" and "Urzu 7," Kurz and Sousuke, respectively. "Alive" was self-explanatory, really.
Mindful not to leave footprints, Sousuke returned to Kurz and Kaname.
There was no need to indicate their location. If Sting saw those letters, it could follow Sousuke's fire-lit silhouette from space.
The oil fire probably would die in just a few minutes, and there was no guarantee that either allies or enemies would see it. It was, after all, a gamble.
April 29, 03:45 (Japan/Korea Standard Time)
Democratic People's Republic of Korea
Sunan Air Base
"Arson?" asked Gauron.
Standing in front of a maintenance trailer where he was overseeing the Codarl's repairs, Gauron looked over the report from his subordinate.
"Yes, sir. We just got word that someone set fire to a field on a farm nine miles west of here."
Gauron harrumphed. He wondered if it was a diversion, but he decided that it was unlikely, as a simple fire wouldn't suffice. Regardless, he figured Kashim was the likely culprit. Even ifGauron didn't know what Kashim was up to, at least he knew the vicinity of his whereabouts.
"The military already is tightening their search radius. It's only a matter of time before we discover the escapees."
"Kill the man. As for the girl, they can do with her as they like, as long as she is not killed under any circumstances."
"I'll be moving out soon, as well."
"In the Codarl?"
Gauron glared. "You got a problem with that?"
"C-certainly not, sir. But Doctor Kaneyama said you shouldn't use it much in front of the local soldiers."
"It isn't forbidden. Besides, we're up against Mithril-and Kalinin. There could be trouble still."
According to the naval report, Mithril's submarine already had fled away from the coast to nearby Chinese waters. Even if they used their urgent deployment boosters, dispatching a rescue party seemed impossible. But still ...
"Better safe than sorry. Get me?"
Right on cue, an engineer closed the maintenance hatch and shouted that the repairs were complete.
April 29, 03:55 (Japan/Korea Standard Time)
Democratic People's Republic of Korea
Mountains of Taedong County, South Pyongan Province
When Sousuke returned, Kaname seemed relieved to see him. She tightly clutched her shirt across her chest, where it had been torn open somehow. Kurz appeared to be sleeping.
"How is he?"
"Unexpectedly well, I'd say. His type lives a long time."
Unsure what that meant and how to respond, Sousuke took a seat on a tree root.
"Well? Will it work?"
"I don't know. It's a long shot, at best. I still think it would be easier for you to escape alone."
"Too late now. I don't feel like reconsidering, anyway."
"I know. I won't say it again."
In the distance, helicopter rotors hacked at the sky. They didn't seem to be approaching-and ten seconds later, the sound faded. Like a desolate maze with no exit, the dark woods were gloomy. Kaname broke the silence. "Hey, if ... if we get back okay, what are you going to do, Sagara?"
"Take on the next mission."
"You mean you'll go offsomewhere else? You won't go to school anymore?"
"Probably not. It was just a temporary assignment for me to be a student. It definitely would get in the way of other duties. I'll probably just disappear."
Sousuke's ears perked up as he heard footsteps.
They were much quicker and quieter than a human's. Wild breathing suggested it was some kind of animal-maybe a dog.
Then, from a distance, he also heard human footsteps: three, four people, maybe more.
Sousuke held his breath; meanwhile, the sound of twigs snapping underfoot grew closer. There was a frenzied howl.
"They're coming. Stay down," commanded Sousuke.
Almost immediately, two dogs leapt out from behind a rock. It was too dark to tell what kind of dogs they were, but they were big and black and headed straight at them.
Without hesitation, Sousuke fired. The dogs yelped. One of the dogs had enough momentum that it slammed into a squealing Kaname. However, a moment later, it writhed and died.
Hearing the shots, the pursuit squad opened fire from somewhere in the forest. White lines traced bullet paths, rocks shattered, and dead branches rained from the trees.
"They followed you, you dumbass!" reprimanded Kurz.
"Only a matter of time-can't help it," shrugged Sousuke. With their injuries and available equipment, there was no masking the scent of blood.
A soldier appeared, taking in the situation from the shadow of a huge tree. Sousuke aimed at his legs and fired once. His aim was true. Purposefully, he fired a couple of shots in the area where the soldier fell. The soldier screamed, seeking help from his comrades, and another soldier who was willing to die for his friend rushed toward wounded one, dragging him toward a pine bower.
"There's at least two."
"Just kill 'em," grumbled Kurz. "Damn."
The enemy fire picked up. Reinforcements.
"At this rate, there'll be mechs here soon."
"So this is it." Kurz burst into laughter.
Sousuke had no more than ten rounds left in his gun.
"Looks like it was hopeless after all, eh?" mumbled Kaname.
"It appears that way. Sorry," Sousuke said, returning fire.
"I don't regret it," Kaname announced, trying to sound cheerful.
"I'm glad I met you, Sagara."
After a moment, Sousuke responded in a dark voice. "Yeah."
He ran out of ammo. Now, Sousuke's combat would be limited to bludgeoning people with the bulletless gun.
Kurz groaned. "The end!"
"No," corrected Sousuke, keeping an eye on the sky. "Aerial
Three-hundred feet over their heads, a parachuting capsule burst open.
Sparks from the explosive bolts scattered, illuminated a white AS dancing in the black sky.
The mech raised both arms over its head in midair, as if trying to balance itsel£ and reached terminal velocity.
"Here it comes."
In front of their eyes, the AS landed just fifteen feet ahead of them on the slope. Mud and pebbles shot in all directions, and its massive drive system emitted a grinding sound. White steam-evaporating shock absorbent-discharged from several of the machine's joints, creating a temporary fog.
The three of them gaped at the AS, which was white as snow.
"What is this?"
Although its frame resembled that of an M9, the shape of the armor was different. By nature, Arm Slaves took an aircraftlike form-but with this mech, the trend was even more pronounced: Its sharp silhouette suggested the frenzy of a raptor. It was sharp like a knife, and there was a sense of tension in the air.
This machine had the kind of cold ferocity that suggested that, once it found its prey, there would be no escape.
"Land war weapon" was not an adequate description; it was the world's most dangerous work of art.
On its hip pylon-the equipment fixture-was a shot cannon.
In the armpit pylon were spare magazines and a monofilament blade.
"Who's in that thing? Mao?"
For that matter, where was everyone? Did they really send just one mech?
As if to answer these questions, the AS knelt and its cockpit hatch opened.
Oddly, no one emerged.
The white AS remained in its pose. After several seconds, nothing changed. Enemy gunfire hit the armor plate on occasion-but even then, the mech didn't move an inch.
"Hey, you don't suppose-"
Before Kurz could finish his sentence, Sousuke darted toward the white AS. Nimbly climbing up to the cockpit, he narrowly avoided bullets, which he didn't have time to worry about. He checked inside.
The empty cockpit was mostly the same as that of an M9 or any other AS, so there was room enough for only one person to fit snugly. Sousuke went ahead and slid inside. The forward multipurpose screen lit up, indicating the machine was ready to go at anytime.
"Commencing voice-print check. State your name, rank, and identification number," requested the mech's AI. It had a deep, male voice.
"Sergeant Sousuke Sagara. B3128."
"Comparison complete. Identity confirmed. Your orders?"
"Close the hatch. Begin tuning to mode four. Bilateral angle: three point five." "Roger. Run mode four. BMSA three point five: completed," recited the machine.
The hatch closed immediately, and the semi-master/slave control system started up. Now, Sousuke's arms practically were the same as the machine's.
I can do this. This white AS is pretty much the same as the M9.
Sousuke stood the AS up.
"Start with the chain gun."
"Roger," affirmed the AS.
The machine guns mounted on the head roared as hundreds of rounds per second spewed forth, instantly tearing the surrounding pine trees to confetti, inspiring enemy soldiers to flee.
It was nearly an instant reversal of the situation. Dumbstruck, Kaname and Kurz looked up at the mech.
That's when the red letters in the corner of the screen caught Sousuke's eye.
Inspect data recorder's prep file. A1-highest priority.
Sousuke instructed the computer to play back the data, and Kalinin's voice filled the cockpit.
"Sergeant Sagara. If you can hear this recording, it means you successfully rendezvoused with this AS. Now, I'll tell you the reason for this: When Sting discovered your group, the de Danaan was forty miles from shore. This was too far to dispatch a regular rescue squad, so we used a modified ballistic missile to send this AS. that's why it was unmanned."
"Okay." said Sousuke.
A ballistic missile could cover that distance in just a few minutes, but it couldn't carry a person because the G-force at launch would not be kind to a human body.
"Under radio silence, the de Danaan is headed toward the West Korea Bay Coast," continued Kalinin's message. "We plan to skim the coast, recover your group, and escape at full speed. Find a way to make it to the indicated point by that time."
A digital map showed the recovery point, just south of a village called Hasanbuk, which was about twelve miles from their current location.
The current time was oh-four hundred thirteen, leaving seventeen minutes until their allies could make it to shore.
"Furthermore, this AS is called the ARX-7 Arbalest. The AI's call sign is AI. It's a highly valuable test unit, so be sure to bring it back. That is all. Good luck," concluded Kalinin.
The ARX-7 Arbalest, huh?
Sousuke checked the machine's condition. Energy surged from its palladium reactor, power swelling its electromagnetic muscles. He could feel its superiority, even in tiny movements.
"Enemy mechs approaching. Five estimated," warned AI. The screen projected the assumed positions and distances of the enemy units, which were ahead to the left and right. They were approaching at high speed, presumably to surround the Arbalest.
The auditory sensor detected the deep menacing roar of the enemy units' gas turbine engines. The optical sensor cut through the darkness, picking up signs of the enemy-khaki armor with two red eyes.
Sliding along the mountain ridge, the Savages kept their rifles ready. They didn't look like they were going to give up and run. After all, they outnumbered Sousuke five to one.
But it was up to him what would happen next. He would take Kaname home. He found the pain of his wound oddly comforting.
"We're going to do this in one minute or less."
Just like that, the Arbalest leapt.
The mud Sousuke's AS kicked up pelted Kaname and Kurz.
When it was safe to open their eyes again, the white AS had already landed behind the mountain, where it charged at the approaching enemy.
Had it really gone that far in an instant? Even to Kaname's untrained eyes, it was clear that the mech was a cutting-edge machine with extraordinary jumping power. The khaki Arm Slaves wouldn't stand a chance.
From their position, Kaname and Kurz could make out two enemy units, which were hopping around on the dark slope to engage Sousuke's AS.
One of the enemy mechs fired its rifle, and Kaname gasped.
The next instant, however, the enemy blew apart, and neither Kaname nor Kurz could tell how it had happened.
Approaching the other mech like a hopping bird, the white AS belched a white light as it passed. Sousuke must have fired. The blast spun the enemy in midair, sending it crashing to the ground, where it exploded.
After that, the hill obscured Kaname's view.
Running through a ravine, the white AS danced through the air. Just when it appeared about to collide with an enemy, it sprang over it. Countless fireballs scorched the night sky, seeking the leaping mech.
In the darkness, it resembled a spark leaping about at will.
"It's like a ninja manga," commented Kaname.
Kaname and Kurz couldn't see how many enemy units there were, but it sure sounded as if there were more than four. Sousuke shot them all, leaving them in pieces.
Lightning fast, Sousuke rushed the last enemy mech, firing two rounds from the shot cannon.
"And that's five!" he panted as the enemy vehicle fell to the ground, bleeding smoke.
It took exactly fifty-eight seconds for Sousuke to silence the pursuing enemy AS squad. With catlike alertness, he scanned for signs of an ambush. After ten seconds, he was convinced there were no more enemy mechs.
Good, now's our chance.
Intending to collect the others and escape, Sousuke returned to Kurz and Kaname.
But then, a silver AS popped out of a mountain recess to the right.
From point-blank range, it rapidly fired its carbine rifle with raging hostility.
Rolling his mech forward, Sousuke barely evaded the line of fire before he counterattacked with the shot cannon. The enemy seemed to anticipate this and dodged. It jumped and fired three pinpoint-accurate shots. The Arbalest kept rolling forward, somehow managing to survive.
With a grating laugh, the silver AS landed. He was using the external speaker.
"Nicely done, Kashim!"
Gauron fired his rifle again, and Sousuke shot back. They both missed, tearing trees from their roots.
Most AS battles lasted just two or three shots. One had to make the best choice, whether it was to stop and snipe, keep moving and' fire containment rounds, or focus on evasive maneuvers. These decisions had to be made quickly, on the fly. And the first to make a mistake instantly would suffer fatal damage.
The fight between these two was different.
Neither yielded an inch. Never resting, they ran, jumped, ducked, rolled, and fired-again and again. Each and every shell missed. No matter how intensely they moved, the machine limbs didn't tire. This battle would end only with the destruction ofone of the mechs-or one of the pilot's nerves.
It was a furious dogfight, but it was on the ground.
"That silver AS IS the same one from earlier," Kaname noted absentmindedly.
The white and silver puppets popped in and out of her view. Just when she thought they were behind the mountain, a burst of flames signaled their position behind a rock on the other side. They leapt, mowed down trees, and colored dark ravines red.
"Keep low," advised Kurz. "A fragment or stray bullet would
Kaname ignored Kurz, standing completely still as if watching
"Which one's superior?"
"In normal combat, they should be equaL However ..."
"That silver AS isn't normal. It has a secret."
"That's the one that beat you?" she asked, taking her eyes off the battle.
"Yeah. My shell flew off in midair, you know. I don't know
what kind of trick-"
"It's not a trick," Kaname declared. Her head felt heavy, and the eerie sense of floating enveloped her again. She heard the whispering voice.
Reverberating through her skull, the voice told her that what Kurz said wasn't right. It wasn't a trick contained in that AS. It was something else.
"Not ... a trick. It's technology."
The enemy had it-in his mech.
"He'll lose," she stated.
"At this rate Sousuke's going to lose."
A grenade Gauron lobbed exploded 1ll uncomfortably close proximity.
The Arbalest ducked to avoid the blast and any shrapnel. Then, appearing to stand up, it grabbed a fallen tree and flung it.
When the tree crashed to the ground in between the two mechs, they could no longer see each other. At that instant, although neither could see the other, they fired simultaneously.
Conifers blew apart.
The Arbalest took a hit on the lower-right part of its head. Machine-gun ammo went off, and half of the main sensors were destroyed. Gauron's AS, on the other hand, sustained damage to its rifle; the binary liquid tank ruptured, and it broke down completely.
In terms of damage to the mechs, the Arbalest was in more serious condition. However ...
Sousuke still had weapons. It was close range, and he would
Sousuke blasted away with his shot cannon. Gauron's mech still staggered from the previous attack. The small warhead flew from the barrel, separated into eight pieces, and continued toward the other mech's torso.
Sousuke didn't believe what he saw next: Every piece of the shot shattered before hitting Gauron's AS, as if it were crashing into an invisible wall. Sousuke didn't understand.
Shortly after that, a violent shock rocked the Arbalest. It seemed as though a great force were pulling Sousuke forward, but then it threw him back.
The Arbalest arced through the air, spun, and tumbled shoulder first to the surface.
Gauron's loud laughter resounded through the ravine.
"Dammit, there it was," lamented Kurz.
From a faraway vantage point, it still looked like some incomprehensible phenomenon.
It couldn't have been a fragmentation mine, nor explosive reactive armor. It was a force field and some kind of shockwave.
There simply was no other way to describe it.
The white AS didn't move.
Although Kurz and Kaname couldn't see it, they imagined it to be damaged. After all, an M9 in good condition had been blown to pieces from the same device, so this prototype surely couldn't withstand it.
Kaname remained still.
"Oh, God," she pleaded.
Sousuke gasped, shaking his head. He literally was seeing red; it must have been "red out" from the G-force of the crash. His whole body felt numb, and he barely could move his fingertips. His side felt wet, indicating that his wound had reopened.
He remembered Kurz's words: "It was like being hit with a hammer."
So, this is what he had meant.
He knew Kurz's mech had been destroyed by a hit like that, so Sousuke assumed that his was in a similar state. There was no way it could be functional after that kind of shock. His AS had lost. He had lost to Gauron.
This time, it really is the end.
After a moment, his reddened vision returned to normal, and he studied the on-screen letters. Blue letters.
Contrary to his expectations, the screen read: "Damage slight¬no hindrance to combat."
Now, it was Gauron's turn to question his eyes: With great effort, the white AS sat up. And then it stood.
Although the head was partially destroyed, the machine appeared to be otherwise unharmed. The Mithril AS that Gauron had defeated earlier had blown apart completely!
"Ah! Why didn't that work?"
Shaking his head, Gauron checked his drive system. He used the Lambda Driver properly-having charged its personal condenser¬so it wasn't an output problem.
"A misfire? Weird."
In any case, it was an imperfect device; at times, it did not operate as desired.
The personal condensers were in a cylinder like a six-shooter, and Gauron revolved it, causing a new one to lock into place.
"There." Gauron chuckled, planning to attack with the Lambda Driver again. This time, he'd make sure to get the job done.
"What's going on?" wondered Sousuke, still in awe of the damage report.
Outside of the head damage, the machine virtually was unharmed.
"How the hell ...?"
It sounded like something was turning around on the Arbalest's back-some kind of cylinder. Then, there was the sharp sound of something connecting.
"What did you do? What's that movement?"
Ignoring those questions, Al said, "Lambda Driver initialized."
"What? What are you talking about?"
"Unable to respond. Resuming combat."
"Answer me, AI."
"Unable to respond."
On the screen, Gauron's AS unsheathed its knifelike monofilament blade.
"He's alive? How the hell?" Kurz was gobsmacked.
Kurz wondered why Sousuke was okay when his own mech had been obliterated.
"Oh, okay," Kaname began, putting her hand to her temple. "S-somehow ... I get it."
"Kaname? Are you okay? Hey."
Supporting herself on a tree trunk, Kaname coughed a few times before gazing at the white AS in the distance.
"I feel sick. The TAROS ... he doesn't ... understand how to use it." •Her dainty shoulders heaved up and down as she mumbled frail incoherencies. "Only keeping up ... with his opponent. Strong self-defense urge ..."
Kaname's eyes looked far from sane, the same way they had appeared earlier.
"Get a grip, Kaname. Cut it out!"
"Can't. I've got to ... i-instruct ..."
"Instruct? What are you talk-"
"Always being saved ... not this time ... must instruct."
Finally, Kurz understood Kaname's cryptic ramblings. She knew something valuable that could help overcome the enemy. It seemed as if she were wrestling her own mind to extract the information.
"Pseudo ... lam ... fa, fa, fa." She sobbed in apparent anguish. "Ph-phase interference is th-the t-t-TAROS ... Hn ... ah. No. N-n. But not."
Kaname grabbed her disheveled hair and arched her back.
Kurz couldn't help getting the willies from the manifestation of her madness.
"Hey!" he called, but she did not respond.
"I ... won't lose!"
With that, Kaname bashed her head against the tree trunk. The recoil knocked her down, and she rocked back and forth vigorously. Curving her body backward, she spewed gibberish in an inverted crying voice.
"Kaname!" Kurz thought he might go crazy, too, just from watching. What the hell is this? I'm a soldier, not a nurse in a nut house! What am I supposed to do about something like this?
"Ha! Ha. K-Kurz ..." Kaname stood in front of Kurz and attempted to speak, but she couldn't quite inspire her tongue to the task. She glared at him with ghastly eyes, inhaled, and said, "Ku¬Kurz. G-give me your transmitter."
It was entirely urgent, a different tone from before.
"Fine by me, but why-"
"I must hurry and tell him."
"Tell him what?"
No matter how many times Sousuke asked, the Arbalest's AI would not answer his question.
It was no time to bicker: The enemy approached. Having already dropped his shot cannon during the last impact, Sousuke extracted the monofilament blade from the mech's armpit.
But if he does that to me again . . .
Even if the mech survived, Sousuke's body couldn't take another shot like that. With that thought, his whole body broke out in a sweat.
Suddenly, he heard a new voice-a short-range transmission from outside.
"Sagara, can you hear me?"
"Listen carefully! Your enemy has special equipment."
Kaname's voice was hoarse, as if being wrung out of her, and Sousuke wondered if she was wounded.
"It's a mechanism that converts the pilot's attack impulses into physical power. This is im-imporant."
"L-listen. And ... I don't know why, but your AS also 1S equipped with a Lambda Driver. That's why you're still alive!"
Lambda Driver? That's the phrase the Arbalest used.
Gauron's AS was only about a hundred feet away now.
"Surely, you thought about protecting yourself, right? The mechanism reacted to that. With it, strong images in your mind take shape!"
"Images? In my mind? No weapon like that could ever-"
Stopping in front of the Arbalest, Gauron's AS glared w~th one red eye. With no warning, the surrounding atmosphere waved and distorted.
Trees, grass, mud, and rocks flew about as though hit by an intense gust. It was another shockwave. There was no stopping it-in the blink of an eye, it hit the Arbalest.
The top half of the mech bent back. However, this time, it was not as bad as Sousuke expected. After taking several steps back to steady itself, the Arbalest regained its posture.
"Was that it?"
"Yes. Your opponent thought he would break you into pieces just now, but he wasn't able to. You can counterattack, too. Focus hard!"
"Focus on what?"
"Think about taking out your opponent. Put your spirit into it, all at once, like a kamehameha or something!"
"Proximity warning!" alerted AI.
Bearing in, the silver AS thrust its knife. The Arbalest barely managed to stave it off.
Inside his mech, Gauron laughed. ''That just might be it!"
He took a few swipes at Sousuke, and they began a dizzying knife fight.
"You're protecting a Whispered! No wonder you have it."
"You know my specialty is knives, right?"
Thrust, parry, slash, strike, lure, resist!
Every time a monofilament blade grazed armor, white light illuminated the area.
"Come on, don't be so slow!"
Gauron's attacks were fierce and skillful enough that an ordinary pilot and AS wouldn't have lasted three seconds. With his mech's main sensor half-destroyed, Sousuke gradually lost ground.
"Do you remember how I hacked those villagers to pieces, Kashim? Like this!"
Gauron's knife cut through the Arbalest's chest armor.
"Come on, put some spirit into it!" Kaname shouted through the wireless.
"I've been doing that! I can't just make a force field!"
"Here's how you use it!" Gauron shouted, right before a large shock hit Sousuke.
Falling backward, the Arbalest rolled a few times. Sousuke's vision went dark, and stars flickered in his head. Still, though, he was able to get right back up. This time, he adopted a defensive stance against the incoming mech.
Laughing sadistically, Gauron seemed to enjoy making sport of Sousuke.
"Ha ha" It's absurd: Two grown men killing each other with toys they don't really even know how to use, eh?"
Seeing the shot cannon he dropped earlier ab6ut a hundred feet away, Sousuke made his mech crawl toward it to pick it up again.
"Oh, hoI What are you going to do with that? Shoot me?"
"You know it's pointless, right? I mean, you barely even know how to use your equipment!"
This was undeniably true. Even if Sousuke fired the shot cannon here, Gauron easily could use another force field to reflect the shells. To some degree, at least, Gauron understood the principles of the system, and he appeared to be experienced at handling it. This was not the case for Sousuke.
Withstanding Gauron's attacks was about all he could do.
Skillfully, the silver AS twirled its knife as it approached the Arbalest at a leisurely pace.
The next time it came in, Sousuke probably wouldn't be able to fully defend himself. The cockpit would be pierced, and Sousuke would be done for.
"Listen, Sagara," urged Kaname. "The important part is momentary concentration! Breathe in slowly, and then breathe out all at once. In that instant, envision your own willpower going into the shell!"
"That's easy for you to say."
He couldn't do it. Sousuke couldn't apply Kaname's advice.
"Then think about this: If you lose, I'll be captured and stripped naked; then, they'll do who knows what to me before they kill me. Just put that vision in your head!"
"Just do it!"
He wasn't sure what to say-just thinking about it was terrible.
"You don't like it, do you?"
"Does it make you angry?"
"Well, he is trying to do that to me! Are you going to let him?"
Slowly, the sense of crisis driving Sousuke fell victim to his anger. "I won't!"
"That's right. Point your gun at him!"
Following orders, Sousuke aimed the shot cannon at the enemy mech. Temporarily, he forgot that it was a useless act. It didn't matter what would come of this, nor what Kaname knew.
She trusted me. Now, it~ time jor me to trust her.
"Desperate, huh? I'm disappointed, Kashim. I guess it's time for you to die!"
Intending to finish the fight, Gauron rushed at the Arbalest with his knife out.
"It's okay," Kaname cooed. "Just close your eyes and concentrate on this image: You're about to hit him barehanded."
Although it was the height of recklessness to close your eyes in the face of the enemy, Sousuke did as he was told. When the AI warned of the enemy mech's approach, it fell on deaf ears.
The sight of him punching the silver AS came to mind.
"Now open your eyes."
Right in front of Sousuke's shot cannon, the enemy mech charged, filling Sousuke's entire display screen.
"Rot in hell!" Gauron shouted ferociously.
"Breathe in," Kaname instructed gently.
Sousuke took a deep breath.
He pictured his whole will going into the shell.
Sousuke grunted. There was a point-blank shot.
In defense, Gauron's mech emitted another shockwave. But, at the same time, Sousuke's image took shape, and the Arbalest's unknown powers kicked in.
Sousuke couldn't tell exactly what happened.
What he could tell was that two things collided. The air twisted, distorted, and screeched. Temporarily, gravity seemed arbitrary.
Ultimately, the bullet did not stop-it hit the silver AS.
As the 00-HESH round struck Gauron's mech, it split into eight pieces. While the AS stumbled backward, one of its arms fell off and exploded.
The blast sent the Arbalest rolling, as well. Scattered debris pelted the armor plate with a dry clang.
Under the rain, flame, and wind, Sousuke sat up in his mech.
Gauron's AS was damaged severely. The head and both ar~s were obliterated, and the majority of the chest was destroyed. The giant, so full of frenzied life just moments ago, was scrap metal now.
Certainly, Gauron must have died instantly.
"Sagara, are you okay?"
Turning his back on the wreckage, Sousuke ran the mech toward Kaname and Kurz.
"I'm heading back your way. We need to go."
They had to hurry-the battle had taken nearly five minutes.
As soon as he reached the others, Sousuke made the AS kneel.
"How are you feeling, Chidori?"
"Better than before. I've practically forgotten what I was talking about, though."
It was good of her to give him advice; Sousuke shuddered to think what might have happened to him if not for her help.
Helicopters roared from the east, announcing the coming of pursuit reinforcements.
"Let's move. We don't have time."
With that, Sousuke fixed the shot cannon to the Arbalest's hip, picked up Kurz and Kaname in its open hands, and took off running. Twelve miles in ten minutes ... with this mech, they could make it.
Clutching the passengers, the Arbalest crossed the mountain slope in one bound. Kicking up pebbles and uprooting shrubs, it rushed out onto level farmland.
"Gah!" Kurz agonized. He was in extremely intense pain.
Sousuke operated the mech carefully, keeping the speed down to about seventy-five miles per hour. Even so, there was no way to eliminate the pitching completely. An AS probably was the least adroit vehicle for transporting the wounded.
Trampling paddy fields, the Arba1est kept runnmg west, encountering several armored vehicles, which Sousuke ignored. Whizzing bullets did not faze him; he just kept running.
When they were still a couple of miles from the coast, the AI spoke. "One attack helicopter, range eight, at your seven."
The heat signature on the rear-warning sensor indicated a chopper was coming for them.
"Here they come!"
"Rocket alert! Two, one ..."
In an emergency maneuver, Sousuke swung the mech wide to the right, avoiding the incoming air-to-ground rocket.
Kurz let out a little scream, which overlapped the sound of the rocket exploding.
"Enemy helicopter closing at relative velocity of eighty. Must return fire," said Al.
"I know that!"
When the helicopter unleashed another rocket, Sousuke barely evaded it. If it got any closer, he would be unable to dodge.
What do I do?
With Sousuke traveling only seventy-five miles per hour, the chopper caught up in the blink of an eye. But Sousuke couldn't use the shot cannon: His hands were otherwise occupied, with Kaname in the right and Kurz in the left. There was no time to set them down-the helicopter would be there too quickly.
While still sprinting, the Arbalest heaved Kaname's body high into the air. With its free right hand, it drew the gun, turned, and fired two shots.
After tossing the gun aside, Sousuke made the mech dash forward madly.
"Aieeee!" It was the parabolic scream of someone falling through the air.
At the last second, just before Kaname splatted into the ground, Sousuke scooped up her body, putting all his concentration into controlling the mech as it started to tumble.
Concurrently, the shattered attack helicopter crashed into a field and exploded. Sousuke kept running.
"Kaname?" he called.
A little grunt indicated she was breathing, though likely unconscious. He would have to wait to administer first aid and an apology. For now, they had only one minute to get to shore.
"There it is!"
Under the deep night sky, the sea looked darker than black. There was a sandy beach to the right and a cape to the left; Sousuke drove the mech toward the cape.
"Two mechs, range six, at your eleven," chirped AI.
There they were: two Savages up on the cape, probably out on coastal watch. There also was an enemy unit from the direction of the beach. Surrounding Sousuke, there were all together at l~ast four or five mechs-no, more.
An AS was quite a different enemy than an attack helicopter. And besides, Sousuke had almost no means of attacking. He considered the strange force-field emitter unreliable.
Loading its rifle, the enemy's lead mech turned to face Sousuke.
"Urzu Seven, run straight ahead," instructed a woman on the radio.
Before Sousuke even finished saying Mao's name, the two mechs in front of him burst into flames and collapsed.
It was a sniper from the ocean! Closer inspection revealed an AS with a large rifle about a thousand feet from the shore. Mao's M9 appeared to be kneeling on the sea.
Then, beneath it, the Tuatha de Danaan surfaced, cleaving the inky water.
"Sousuke? You have just one chance: Jump directly from the tip of the caFe!" instructed Mao.
Leaving two enemy AS divisions in the dust, the Arbalest ran into a rocky area of the beach. It climbed a rocky slope. Really, the cape resembled a giant ski jump.
As debris flew all around, the pursuers fired, destroying pine trees left and right. Sousuke accelerated without looking back.
Suddenly, the end of the cape loomed. Ahead of it, there was a cliff-beyond that, the sea. Carefully cradling his passengers, Sousuke concentrated.
As he leapt, the ground disappeared beneath his legs, and his body felt weightless. There were only dark waves beneath him now.
The de Danaan approached quickly. Mao's M9 waited with outstretched arms.
"All right!" hooted Mao, catching the incoming Arbalest."Urzu Seven recovered! Admission from hatch four: complete!"
"Hatch four closure commencing! Two more seconds," reported the duty officer, whose screen read secrecy maintenance. "Closure complete."
Teletha Testarossa nodded and said: "Hard to starboard, course 205, full combat speed. Mind the depth, please!"
"Aye aye, ma'am. Hard to starboard, course 205," echoed the navigation officer. "Maximum speed!"
The ship lurched right, chopping through the surface waves. Enemy fire splashed haphazardly around it.
The screen's velocity display shot up past fifty knots, close to thirty-five miles per hour.
The fastest any normal submarine could travel was forty knots, but the de Danaan easily broke through that barrier. The on-screen speedometer continued to increase.
"Present speed, sixty-five knots."
Seventy-five miles per hour!
This freakish cruising ability was what enabled the de Danaan to get to the coast in such a short amount of time.
Quickly, the ship fled the coast.
"When we reach a depth of one-hundred sixty-five feet, flood the main ballast tank and set the diving angle to five degrees," ordered the navigation officer. "Maintain present speed."
"Aye! Beginning planned dive," responded the helm officer. Tessa and Mardukas closely watched the diving procedures. "This is the first time we've pushed it this hard," Mardukas commented.
"The super-conducting propulsion system?" clarified Tessa.
The executive officer nodded and said, "Yes, ma'am. It seems tough. From our preliminary tests, I thought it would be more delicate."
"I'm surprised, too." Tessa smiled and looked at her screen before adding, "I guess that's strange for its creator to say, isn't it?"
She returned her attention to passing a series of patrol boats.
Freshly patched up, Sousuke returned to the hangar.
Kaname and Kurz both were conked out in the medical office still.
The hangar was quiet; noise regulations throughout the ship prohibited the maintenance crew from working there.
Covered in bandages, Sousuke gazed at the kneeling ARX-7 Arbalest. Splotches ofmud and grass stains marred the white exterior. The armor was a mess, and the lower right part ofthe head was missing.
In this light, it was just an AS-an eccentric prototype mech based on the M9 Gernsback. But what on Earth was ...
"Looking pretty terrible," declared the lieutenant commander, approaching from behind Sousuke. "What happened to Gauron?"
"He died. No mistake this time."
"I see. I wish I could have been there for that." Kalinin sighed. "You look like you have more to say."
"Yes, sir. What exactly is the Lambda Driver?"
Kalinin seemed prepared to answer this frank question. ':1 heard rumors Gauron had one."
"Yes, he did. And this AS has one, too, if I'm not mistaken."
"You're correct. When I heard that Weber's M9 got totaled, I knew it was a possibility. That's why I sent the Arbalest. It takes an AS with that kind of firepower to stop one of the same."
Now Sousuke understood why they had flung an unmanned, highly valuable, experimental mech into enemy territory.
"That still doesn't answer my question," persisted Sousuke, "about the Lambda Driver."
"You don't need to know. Not at this stage."
"Lieutenant Commander, I am aware of rudimentary physics, but I've never heard of a device with powers like that."
"Of course not. No one in this world has thought of it."
"What do you mean?"
"Your generation probably hasn't realized it," Kalinin said heavily, "but today's weapon technology is abnormaL It started with the AS. The Lambda Driver, ECS, this ship's propulsion system, sensors-it's all overdeveloped. Any way you look at it, it's weird. Don't you ever think it's strange that sci-fi robots dominate the battlefields?"
Commanding a mechanized assault division was an everyday activity for Kalinin, so Sousuke was surprised to hear him say something like that.
"Today, I thought so for the first time," answered Sousuke.
"I've felt it for a long time-many people think weapons like this shouldn't exist. But the reality is that they do. I don't know who thought them up, but the theories and technologies are real. And society understands that."
Sousuke didn't know what to say.
"But, as I said, things like this really shouldn't exist." Kalinin stared at the Arbalest, finding the indispensable mechanical ally somewhat grotesque. "Who the hell dreamed up this technology-Black Technology-that drives current weapons, like the AS? Do you know where it came from?"
"Perhaps people like Chidori? The ones called the Whispered."
"I'm not allowed to say, but it's possible." Kalinin walked over to get a closer look at the Arbalest's damage. "In regards to Chidori, the intelligence bureau will handle the situation by spreading false information."
"Most likely that Gauron's group investigated her and she turned out to be a non-Whispered. She should be safe, but we'll still have to be ready in case an enemy wants to kidnap her. We'll destroy their bases and rescue her as many times as we have to."
Kaname might be able to live a norma11ife.
The idea appealed to Sousuke, but he still felt a great sense of loss. His next mission awaited, and there would no longer be a place for him in Kaname's life. He felt Jindai High School, its hallways, and its people quickly fading.
"However," Kalinin began, interrupting Sousuke's thoughts, "this incident was a good precedent. It'll be easier to have insurance."
"You've done well. Get some rest."
With that, Lieutenant Commander Kalinin walked away.