Full Metal Panic! - Volume 11 - Chapter 1

Chapter 1: Calm before the Storm 
Sir Edmond Mallory Junior was ready to confront his father. As the founder of Mithril, the organization that was already almost gone. As the son who had been deceived for decades. 
He was driving alone, without an escort. It was an old, rusty Toyota he bought off a used car dealer, and he had been driving to the west of London for four hours. He then passed near Halford, on the border of Wales, and continued driving north for an hour and a half. 
He went into hiding about a year ago, and planned on ending this game of hide-and-seek today. The constant unpleasant drizzle and low greyish clouds overhead made the dull passage of endless low meadows downright miserable. Soon, a small village came into view - a village he hadn’t seen in thirty-eight years. It looked the same as when he was a little boy. A never changing sight... the small cluster of houses with a small church near them remained the same for a hundred - no, three hundred years. 
Edmond stopped the car, and got out. He checked his Browning and put it in the pocket of the cheap parka that he was wearing, and started walking straight to a small house near the church. He walked down the muddy path, and his gait became more and more heavy. He distinctly felt the steel of the 9mm in his pocket, and the raindrops landing on his cheeks... both were cold as ice. 
He finally came to the flimsy-looking wooden door that led into the house. After a small pause, he kicked it once - it did not come off. Again, and again - the hinges finally gave way, and it fell inside. Pistol at the ready, he stepped into the cabin, his body 
moving by itself, remembering the Navy SEALs training he had once received. His combat posture was still perfect, even though he was now over fifty years old, and he kept every square inch of that house in check.  
He passed the empty dining room, and went further. He came into the bedroom, and saw an ancient man sitting in an old rocking chair. A small eight-inch LCD television on a side-table was showing BBC news. It was already two weeks since the beginning of the crisis, and the situation only worsened. Insurgencies simultaneously erupted in Poland, on the Balkan Peninsula, and in Kurdistan, and both sides were taking harsh measures against them. The armies of the Warsaw Pact were conducting large-scales exercise and were preparing to test-launch nuclear missiles as part of them. All NATO member countries switched to a wartime command structure, to be “prepared for the worst”. There were unconfirmed reports of small-scale military conflicts happening all over the world. 
In the dim light of the LCD screen Edmond saw the weary face of the old man - Lord Mallory, his father.  
“Sir Mallory... so you came,” the old man said, acting as if he had not noticed the gun in his hands. His father always called him that, since he held the title of baron even when he was a child. He never liked the name “Rod”, and always preferred to be called “Sir Mallory”. One of the reasons was to distinguish himself from his father, but due to his bravery during his Navy career he became a knight of the Order of the Bath, and the splendid title was fully deserved. 
“I thought you would come sooner.” 
“I came as fast as I could.” 
“I see...” 
He shut a Bible that he was holding and gently put it on the side table. Edmond suddenly noticed that his hands were much thinner than when he saw him last time, a year earlier. 
“You do know this place, don’t you?” 
“Yes, and no one else, besides me, you, and the butler Dent. Yes, I remember. Dent passed away quite some time ago, that makes two.” 
Every year in the summer the father and the son would go to that village together for a week. They left their mother and sister at home, and stayed in that small house, not even going out hunting or horse riding. His father did not even let in the butler, who became worried once and went to check on them. They did simple chores together - chopping firewood, getting water from the well, cutting the chicken for dinner. 
There was nothing particularly harsh about that life, but to the son of a nobleman it was a source of precious experience. There Edmond Junior learned the life of a normal person, not the heir of House Mallory. He didn’t want to admit it, but everything he learned here became useful later - both in Eaton and the military. 
Lord Mallory looked outside, his eyes glazed. 
“Dent... what would he say if he saw us now?” 
“He’d think it’s pitiful.” 
“Mmm, would he now. Maybe he’d understand.” 
“Him? Why?” 
“When you were injured in the Falklands, he came to me with a bottle of wine - Cheval Blanc, of the year that you were born, to celebrate. He said, ‘Sir Edmond is now a real man, not in any way less distinguished than you, sir’.” 
It was unclear from his father’s expression whether he was praising him, or lamenting the fact. Nevertheless, Dent was right. He went there not to ask for his father’s advice, but to settle things. 
“You came to kill me, didn’t you?” 
“Yes.” Edmond’s reply came very quickly. 
“I’d like you to listen to me first... the reason I betrayed, the reason I sold Mithril out to them...” 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
That old man, Lord Mallory, was one of the central figures in the creation of Mithril. The mystery around the nuclear missile that was used in the Gulf War, the rapid escalation of the confrontation between the two superpowers, and ethnic, religious and ideological conflicts all across the world, the food and energy crises – th0se innumerable little coals, smoldering, giving sparks... Left alone, they would lead the world to inevitable destruction in the twenty first century. It was not about national interests. Politicians, bureaucrats, military in every country would not be able to deal with those crises. The reasoning was that when the prescriptions of the physician did not have any effect, it was time for the surgeon’s scalpel. Mithril was supposed to be the scalpel, performing extremely precise strikes with ease. The Mallorys themselves were a bit like the Tracy family from “Thunderbirds”, though their goal was saving people from war, not natural disasters.  
The budget was by far not the first problem when the organization was created. It was possible because of what Lord Mallory did in his time. By various methods House Mallory assembled a great amount of real estate, a group of corporations, various intellectual property, and vast connections of Lord Mallory himself. The main problem was finding talented individuals. There was no point in having hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of hardware without the people to use it. What they needed were professional soldiers who had experience, skill, and above all, faith in the cause. Those would be people much younger than those Lord Mallory knew.  
There was no person better suited to take care of that problem than his son. Sir Mallory was a hero of the last war, having received the Order of the Bath for the rescue of the crown prince, who crashed in a helicopter on territory controlled by the enemy. Afterwards he was sent on missions as a military or intelligence officer, and helped prevent several crises. Mallory was able to gather an impressive number of talented people, thanks to his son’s scouting.  
Those thoughts were on his mind, as he looked at his son bitterly. 
“I risked everything for this organization. I supported your ideas, I was proud of you. I was happy that you were going to inherit anything that would be left after me. When you were in the army, I thought you would see the reality, the worst this world has to offer, and start believing that something can be done about it - and this organization would be the goal.” 
“And this in itself was all an illusion.” 
Lord Mallory answered in a weary voice: 
“Think about it... ‘Mithril’, a fictional metal invented by a linguist with an overly active imagination.” 
“And you were laughing at us, all the time?” 
“I only hoped it would become real. I wanted to see an evil that had to be defeated, and a silver sword that would defeat it.” 
“Well, we became it, didn’t we?” 
“No, that did not go as planned.” 
“Because of what you did. You were the founder of Mithril, and you communicated with Amalgam at the same time. Before their attacks, you conveniently disappeared as if you knew they were coming. I know the codes they use - the stock prices of a spinning machine manufacture that you own. Those numbers would then be converted into a table of random numbers by way of 
some mathematical formula published in an obscure trade journal, and used as access keys.” 
It was a simple method, but very hard to decipher, and easy to use in conjunction with modern telecommunications technology. A modern analyst would overlook such old tricks, and whereas a spy from the fifties would probably recognize it, modern intelligence agencies didn’t. 
“Those stock prices are my personal cipher only. But you did a thorough job on that.” 
“I saw that trade journal in your office. Some numbers were marked, and the same thing was in other articles. After I noticed it, I’ve been assembling evidence for the past six months - it took a long time because I was in hiding.” 
“And after confirming your suspicion, you wanted to confront me in person.” 
“All things have to be done in order.” 
“Hmm... that’s so very like you.” 
“Still, I don’t understand. Why? You didn’t just create this organization for your amusement? To throw away when you’re tired of it?” 
“Of course not,” said Mallory senior very quietly, making a grimace of self-derision. “Mithril’s too big for a toy.” 
“Then I would like to hear your answer. This... is not like you at all. Lead the enemy and abandon the organization you yourself created - to come live here as a hermit? I could shout at you all I want, but I don’t understand the reason. Why?” 
He was speaking as if the was a rebuke because of an adultery committed by his father. 
“You have no idea...” 
“Of what exactly?” 
“You know, I could say that Mithril is like an illegitimate child to me. Fighting the Amalgam that I spoiled so much... a tool that makes its own rules. The eternal struggle between order and chaos, good and evil... the balance between them that was always there since the days of legend, and seems such a commonplace phenomenon...” 
“Son... you know nothing about Amalgam yet. Its origin. The dream from which it was born.” 
“Dream..? What a foolish-..” 
At that moment, Sir Mallory’s right hand that was holding the gun exploded in a fountain of blood - or he thought it had. He was thrown off and must have pressed the trigger instinctively as a shot went into the wall. For a moment he thought it was a gun discharge, a bullet somehow exploding in the grip - but that was impossible. He must have been shot through the window, as his hand was just above the level of the window sill.  
Who was it? Since when were they watching? How did he hit him? 
Questions rushed through his head. He instinctively hid away from the window, and looked at his hand. The pain was as strong as if everything below the elbow was blown away, but everything looked fine - except the little finger was missing, and a lot of blood was pouring out. 
Idiot, I’m an idiot, he thought, scolding himself for being so negligent. He didn’t even think about his father. The instincts of an ambushed soldier kicked in, and cursing himself even more, he started to reach for the dropped gun. 
Before he could reach it, however, a man, clad in fully black, jumped out of the kitchen doorway, rolled over the bed, and kicked away the gun. He then struck Mallory junior in the temple 
with the gunstock of the SMG that he was carrying. The latter felt as if something exploded inside his head, and losing all sense of equilibrium, he noticed that his own body fell down, as his mind started plunging into darkness.  
He was still barely conscious as he saw the face of the man, who came closer. It looked like he was the commander of the team that had just came into the house. The grey beard and moustache... the always gloomy face, with features as if chiseled from marble. He looked even older than Mallory senior, but that was of course an illusion. In fact, that man was about the same age as Edmond himself, someone he knew very well... 
“A-Andrei Kalinin...” 
“Sir Mallory. It has been a while,” said the other in an almost friendly voice. Yes, it was the former commander of Mithril’s West Pacific assault troop. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
The assault took them less than a minute. Under Kalinin’s orders they gave first aid to Mallory and searched him thoroughly. It didn’t look like they were planning to kill him just yet, and he didn’t lose consciousness because of the pain in his hand. His father remained in his chair as if nothing unusual had happened, even though he must have been surprised as well. It was not a trap laid by Mallory senior, he was sure of it. 
Kalinin confirmed his guess: 
“Sir Mallory, we had been watching you for the last two months. We could not find the location of your father by ourselves, so we started tailing you.” 
“You just let me move freely for a while... and the goal was my father.” 
“That is correct.” 
Kalinin inclined his head a little, and his subordinates started leaving the room. He waited a while, then continued. 
“Your father has some information that is important to us.” 
As if expecting those words, Mallory senior said quietly: 
“The name register, isn’t it.” 
“So you did have it, Mister Mercury. Apart from the register of names there were some other things we wanted to confirm with you before your son killed you, so pardon for the intrusion.” 
Edmond did not understand what Kalinin was talking about, or perhaps he did not want to. 
“Register of names…? Mister Mercury? What are you talking about?” 
“Amalgam also has a person who acts as chairman,” explained Kalinin patiently. “He does not necessarily participate in the entire policy making process, but he is the only person with administrative powers over everything. There are a minimum of rules - he is the one that enforces them, and observes the working of the organization. That is Mister Mercury.” 
“And it was... my father?” 
Sir Mallory stared at the old man in disbelief. The latter fixed his gaze on some point in space, and seemed to not hear anything that happened in the physical world. 
“So, are you? Lord Mallory?” 
Being irritated more and more by his father’s stubborn silence, and feeling his hand burning, he raised his voice. 
“Answer, father!” 
After a pause, Mallory senior finally started to speak. 
“As this Russian says... I’m the chairman of Amalgam, Mister Mercury.” 
“I thought of talking with you about it sometime. When you learn things, and become mature, maybe you could be my successor - that is what I thought.” 
What kind of bad joke was that? His son was already fifty years old, calling him immature was ridiculous. And “successor..?” “I may be a traitor son to you, but I’m definitely nothing like you!” he wanted to shout, but his father sounded more like he was trying to comfort himself, instead of criticizing him. 
“I’m not ashamed of it. Originally, Amalgam was not some kind of evil organization.” 
“What part of a terrorist organization that provokes armed conflict to make money is not evil?!” 
“That’s now. It was different before. You know, it was created just after the war, in 1948.” 
“Forty-eight..? That’s... unexpected.” 
“Yes, even we did not know that,” interjected Kalinin, sounding very respectful. “We knew it was quite old, but nobody seemed to know the entire history. This man managed it all. There were possibly many people who held the title of Mr. Gold or Silver, and yet none of them knew who their predecessor was. They were only linked by the numbers in the pages of a trade journal. Whether you call it a terrorist organization or a malevolent secret society is not important - the fact is that using only this peculiar decision-making process they managed to affect the world in such a way.” 
“They didn’t know each other’s faces or names. Therein lie its power,” nodded Mallory senior. “Nobody could form or control cliques or factions inside this organization. For example, I still 
remember that around the time of the Cuban crisis there were in fact three people calling themselves Mister Gold, and no one could tell who was communicating at the moment.” 
“And it still worked?” 
“Oh it did. One of those calling themselves Mister Gold was one of Khruschchev’s close associates. He strongly advocated the dismantling of the missiles deployed in Cuba. The others, also part of the upper echelons of power, moved to support him.” 
“Now you’re just making fun of me,” snorted Edmond. 
In the modern world just about anyone knew what the Cuban missile crisis was all about. In 1962, Soviet middle-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads were deployed in Cuba, which to the United States was the equivalent of a gun at their throat, and they reacted in full force. The tension between the two opponents was at an unprecedented level, and people were seriously considering the possibility of an all-out nuclear war. It was a critical moment that decided the fate of humanity as a whole. The resultant military crisis was solved because of the individual will of the leaders of the two countries; but Mallory senior was implying that Secretary General Khruschchev was acting under influence from Amalgam. Did that not mean that Amalgam had actually saved the world..? 
“You’re probably thinking, son: how can it be that my enemy saved humanity? And you don’t want to believe it,” said the old man, as if Edmond’s thoughts were laid out clearly before him. “But as I said many times, Amalgam was at first an organization built on a dream. The dream that after the downfall of Nazi Germany we would be able to start anew - it was menaced by the Cold War. A lot of people thought the same, both in the East and the West. My grandfather, who held an important position in the military intelligence created this organization with four like-
minded people: an American oil magnate, a Russian scientist, a German officer of the SS and a Japanese trader. Add to them my grandfather, with his enormous wealth in real estate and knowledge of cryptography...” 
“They were only five?” 
“Five of the brightest men of their time, five geniuses. Despite their completely different backgrounds and beliefs, they were united in their dream of a future for humanity. Their principles divided them, but that union was made for one purpose - to guide the world from the shadows. That is why they named themselves ‘Amalgam’.” 
“‘Future for humanity’, of all things... what insolence” murmured Kalinin. “Mithril was very much the same, wasn’t it? Though the slogans they brandished were a little different.” 
“Even now you speak like a filthy traitor...” 
“I only speak the truth... I see that a part of the power that the idea of those five people is alive in you” his words sounded like a gloomy joke. 
Sir Mallory was not a hypocrite or a stubborn believer. He fully realized how correct Kalinin’s observation really was. 
“All right. I understand the so-called dream of Amalgam. I even see its results. I can guess that afterwards things went the usual way.” 
“Unfortunately, yes. As Amalgam’s network expanded, the number of members increased. The five founders eventually retired, and their titles were taken by newcomers. In twenty years, until about the end of the sixties, the size of the organization was such that members could barely grasp its extent.” 
“The bog of the Vietnam war, then?” 
“Amalgam didn’t participate in everything, of course, but you could say it was one of the reasons the war dragged on. The 
number of people in the leadership that thought that the end of the war would be a loss increased, and perhaps they didn’t notice it themselves... and then they just started acting in their own interest for personal gain. Plans that strayed from the organization’s ideal, conflicting interests, final decisions that were watered-down compromises... And as internal resistance increased, they started playing unfair. New rules were made on the spot, it was as if everyone was trying to cheat at a game of dice.” 
“And then thirty years, and a new generation.” 
“Yes, the ones that are in it now have nothing to do with the original idea. Fools drunk with their might, playing vulgar power games.” 
It was clear that the organization departed from its lofty goal and turned into a grossly obese creature whose only concern was its personal safety. It was a quite typical case of corruption. No matter how many brilliant men it assembled, and how novel a system it adapted, in the end it could not escape from this decay. 
“All right, so it’s become a sort of mass council without any idea or goal. And the part that remained, the one that wished to survive at any cost, made managing this organization even less feasible.” 
“True. I succeeded my father as the head of the organization about twenty years ago. It was already unmanageable then. The title of ‘Mister Mercury’ had quite a reputation, but my role was not giving speeches - it was management. Maintaining the organization’s network, excluding those who violated its rules, not allowing anyone to interrupt the conversation of the staff... but trying to make anyone listen to the original idea would be futile. And besides, Mister Mercury’s authority rested on the fact he was impartial, and did not have his own interests. My hands were tied.” 
“You couldn’t even try to destroy the network? Without it, the organization would probably fall apart.” 
“Impossible,” Mallory senior sighed deeply. “Fifteen years ago I was seriously considering my options, because I wanted to destroy it. Then there were of course no online meetings, like now; instead, we communicated through classified advertisements, which contained encrypted data, in select newspapers around the world. Every leader had his own cipher key, that they created themselves. Just as I used stock prices of my company, some used for example the figures that came up in the weather report of America’s East Coast, or the string of characters in a tabloid’s daily column. I imagine the authors of those gossip stories had no idea how their petty work was used... Anyhow, it was not possible to somehow destroy their own means of encryption. Several backup lines of communication were always available, and above all, nothing could be done about public means of communication. And now, because of the Internet, next to nothing can be done to disrupt their communications.” 
Mallory senior glanced at Kalinin and continued. 
“Though Mister Silver seems to have done just that.” 
“He does have a limited ability to see the future. This allows him to predict ciphers and used protocols, and analyze their use,” nodded Kalinin matter-of-factly. 
“So did he use some kind of virus?” 
“To put it simply, something like that. It’s not only an electronic virus, however, but one that has psychological effects. It took him quite a while.” 
Sir Edmond felt he could not fully grasp the meaning of the conversation between his father and Kalinin. It sounded like one of the members of the organization was trying to seize control from inside, and succeeding. The pain in his wound had no intention of 
stopping, and he would have been shouting and cursing, if it wasn’t for the presence of those two.  
“What was I talking about again... Ah, yes, - as I said, I was not able to do anything to stop this grossly inflated organization.” 
“I got it already. Is that why you created Mithril?” 
“Correct. If I could do nothing from the inside, I would create an outside threat, to check Amalgam’s unpredictable movements. Since that time... the nuclear warhead in the Gulf War. The pinnacle of Amalgam’s hubris...” 
The one mysterious nuclear strike, that was the reason of the appalling situation the Middle East was in. And this was also the handiwork of Amalgam. 
“I decided then that it was absolutely necessary to create an organization to stop them.” 
“Oh, really. Such a noble goal that motivated you?” 
“There was no other way.” 
“I only see that you hid, while the two organizations you betrayed battled each other, while you sold them out to each other. Even if, for argument’s sake, we suppose that you had a good goal, this little game of yours is inexcusable. What a splendid combination of cowardice and arrogance!” 
“You are acting like a child, stop it.” 
But Sir Mallory did not have any intention to calm down. 
“You did not only betray those organizations, but me! Your son! You used, manipulated me to get the people you needed for the organization!” 
“It was a job you were suited for. A romantic in a pragmatist’s hide, who else could become the brains behind Mithril?” 
“How dare you...” 
“Your reaction is that of disappointment, is it not? If you were a real Mallory, you would be disappointed in yourself for not anticipating your father’s actions.” 
Edmond never felt such a tremendous anger in his life. He was fully aware of the fact that he was ready - no, he wanted to kill his father with his own hands that very moment. On his way from his hiding place in London he had asked himself many times - would he really be able to shoot his own father? Now the question would not ever appear. 
“I’m glad I took away your gun,” calmly observed Kalinin, who was watching him. 
“His intent is quite clear, isn’t it, Mister Kalinin? Now, you had something you wished to discuss. Do I have to finish my story quickly?” 
“No, it’s already quite fine.” 
Kalinin also probably did not know most of the organization’s history, and its relation to different incidents, but was also able to get a general understanding during that conversation. He no longer wished to see a quarrel between father and son. 
“So, can I now ask you to kindly hand over the ‘register of names’?” 
Hearing Kalinin’s firm request, Mallory senior frowned. 
“It is incomplete.” 
“That does not matter,” quickly answered Kalinin, as if expecting the answer. “You, sir, should know at least the leadership of the organization from its founding and up to now. There were many examples of Mister Mercury expelling members for violating rules - by letting other members know his name.” 
That was, however, all that the manager could do, without taking direct action, otherwise he would risk losing the trust of the other members. 
Leonard Testarossa’s ability of predicting the future, no matter how limited, allowed him to understand more or less the current status of the organization and its membership, but he did not know anything about the past. The only person who did was Mister Mercury. 
“So, what do you plan to do with the data about past members? They’re mostly gone now.” 
“Information on a need to know basis, sir.” 
Yes, Mallory senior did not need to know anything. The group to which Kalinin belonged already had information on most members, and for all intents and purposes has seized power within Amalgam. Information about the present was quite worthless to them. The past, however, was a quite different thing, especially about Amalgam around eighteen years ago. That was the turning point. If the modern world had to be returned to the right path, the Amalgam that existed then could prove useful. This information would be a sort of reference for the creation of the next world, and for that, she had to know the register of names. Kalinin was only obeying orders. 
“Mister Kalinin... as the manager of that organization, there is a line that I cannot cross. Otherwise I would be selling them out.” 
“And you are prepared to defend this ‘line’ at any cost?” 
The sudden bout of faithfulness seemed absurd. That person created Mithril, the ‘justice league’-like organization that together with Amalgam constituted a perverse self-maintaining balance. What could possibly drive that man to be so stubbornly loyal to the past of the organization? 
“I’d like to see you try and get it out of me. If you’re expecting me to simply hand it over to you in a gift wrap, you are very much mistaken.” 
“Then you’ll excuse me.” 
Kalinin surveyed the room, paused in front of a bookshelf, and quickly started throwing all of the books out on the floor. It took him less than a minute. A cloud of putrid-smelling dust filled the room, and Edmond started coughing. 
Kalinin took another book, and was about to throw it down, but then paused. 
“No. Not here.” 
His gaze fell upon the Bible that was lying on the small side table near Mallory senior. He took it, opened it, ran his finger along the spine of the book, and pulled once. It came off, revealing an old, yellowish piece of folded paper. Every square inch of it was packed with what was clearly a cipher - it was the “register of names”. Kalinin glanced at it, gently folded it back and put it in his breast pocket. 
“...How did you know?” 
“Hiding dirty secrets in the back cover of a Bible seemed like something that a person like you would do.” 
“Hm, isn’t it... It only seemed appropriate to hide it in a vulgata,” nodded the old man, pointing at the Bible. 
The cipher key was probably a character string in the book - a primitive measure by modern standards. With the help of an AI the analysis and breaking of the code wouldn’t even take an hour. 
Mallory senior made a face like a spoiled child suddenly deprived of his favorite toy. The guess was probably right.  
“Well, it seems we do not need anything from you any more, sir. You are free to do anything you wish,” said Kalinin, taking the Bible under his arm and turning towards the door. 
“You’re not going to execute me?” called out Mallory senior. 
“There is no reason to. You are powerless now.” 
“So, I’m already part of the past, am I not?” 
“Not only that. You are already a prisoner here, of your own device.” 
The old man would probably not go out of that room any more. He was bound by invisible chains he had forged himself. 
Kalinin glanced at the son. Mallory junior’s face was already very pale, but he could still read a cold intent to kill his father. It seemed that he had already forgotten about the pain, and his murderous intent had left him indifferent to what had happened between his father and Kalinin. 
The father, who gave up on fighting against life. The son, kept conscious only by the rage of his father’s betrayal. Suddenly Kalinin realized how that sorrowful sight reminded him of himself and Sousuke, and smiled bitterly. It was even more absurd that he told that old man, - practically his own reflection - that he was a prisoner. Wasn’t Kalinin himself bound by chains of the past…? 
As if driven by some impulse, Kalinin stopped, took out the gun and placed it in front of Edmond Mallory. 
“This is yours.” 
And he left the room without even looking back. He heard Sir Mallory grab the gun, certainly not to shoot himself. 
Outside of the house he was greeted by a rain that had gotten stronger without them noticing. Two black wagons were parked around the Toyota which Mallory junior was driving not so long ago, and six subordinates waited for him, silent, under the rain. 
“Let’s move out.” 
His subordinates got into the vehicles, still silent, and they withdrew from the village. On the way back Kalinin thought that 
those people were nothing like those he was happy to lead, only a short while ago - none of their humanity, their kindness, and their skill. However, it was easier for him that way. He did not have to listen to pointless conversations, and he did not care when one of them got injured. Yes, it was better that way. 
When he was getting in the front passenger’s seat of one of the wagons, he heard a muffled gunshot from inside the small house. His driver only paused for a split second, before starting the engine as if nothing had happened. There was no scream, though a voice full of bitterness and anger reached Kalinin’s ears - but the wagon started moving, its wheels kicking up large amounts of dirt, and Kalinin did not hear anything else. Maybe Mallory senior was actually alive. That place... wasn’t the fact that he was waiting for his son in that village only they knew about, a proof of his sincere wish to mend their relationship? Instead of being killed by some unknown assassin somewhere else, one shot, releasing him from his burden, would be a fitting end to his life. If one could not hope for at least that, then the world-- 
An indicator flashed on his satellite phone, indicating that the prepared communication channel was open. 
“I got the register.” 
“Good. Come back quickly,” he heard Leonard’s voice over the line. Besides the negligible time lag, the channel was perfectly clear. “It’s also generally going fine here.” 
“Generally? Is there a problem?” 
“My sis and her crew sniffed us out somehow. Well, satellite communications aren’t that safe, it was a matter of time, really.” 
“Our counter?” 
“I think I’ll let the US Navy do the work. Trying to sink the ‘Toy Box’ with all they got” in fact, they were supposed to engage them right about then. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
“Conn, sonar! Torpedo - bearing one-two-oh distance twenty-five hundred, closing in at fifty knots!” 
Almost at the same time that the sonar operator’s suddenly tense voice announced that, the main screen, depicting the map of the immediate area of the ocean, turned red and warning symbols appeared. It was a Mark 48 fired from the USS Augusta1, a nuclear hunter-killer submarine of the United States Navy. 
1 USS Augusta (SSN-710) was a Los Angeles class sub, in reality decommissioned in 2008. Ironically, it was involved in the incident which clearly inspired Mardukas' first encounter with Tessa's father - see the translation of "Birth of the Tuatha de Danaan". Gotoh just draws parallels. 
Tessa, sitting in her captain’s chair, reacted instantaneously. 
“Starboard, bearing 2-9-0, hold speed.” 
“Aye-aye, Ma’am. Starboard 2-9-0, holding speed,” repeated Mardukas, always by her side as her XO. 
One could not call that the best maneuver for avoiding the torpedo. Standard practice would to be to set course east and accelerate, and some members of the crew evidently thought so, but Mardukas remained absolutely impassive. Noticing their reaction, he only shook his head a little, which as they well knew meant “Obey your orders, immediately”. 
As the Captain expected, the sonar soon caught another signal. 
“Contact! Bearing 2-9-3 distance eight hundred, closing in at fifty knots!” 
“Ah, there it is,” muttered Tessa with a little satisfied smile. 
If they had done things by the book, they would have walked straight into the enemy’s trap. She easily anticipated that the enemy had reinforcements, and that they would attack that way. 
“Hold course. Lower speed.” 
“Holding course, lowering speed, aye.” 
“Open tubes three and four.” 
“Open three and four, aye. Target data input complete.” 
“Wonderful. Weapons free.” 
“Aye-aye, Ma’am. Torpedoes away.” 
Two ADCAP torpedoes left the de Danaan’s stern - they were nothing more than a decoy to disrupt enemy movement. One of the subs that lie ahead of the de Danaan had no choice but to engage in evasive maneuvers, which created a breach for them.  
The first torpedoes were fired from the stern, and were rapidly approaching, as the numbers on the screen showed. Seven hundred yards, six hundred, five... 
Now’s the time. 
“Hard to starboard, 3-3-5. Engine stop, EMFC to passive.” 
“Aye, starboard 3-3-5. Full stop, EMFC in passive mode.” 
Having waited to attract the enemy torpedoes close enough, Tessa made the ship perform a steep turn, at the same time engaging the EMFC, a system that, together with a special alloy covering the hull of the ship, drastically reduced the resistance of the sea water. 
The maneuver sent the enormous hull of the Tuatha De Danaan gliding through the water like a car on ice. It was unimaginable for an ordinary submarine. 
The floor or the control room inclined steeply, and everything that was not affixed began sliding towards the port side. 
The guidance system of the enemy torpedo was not made to follow such rapid and irregular movement, and it detonated around six hundred and fifty yards away. The felt the impact of the shockwave as the control room shook and the main screen flickered. 
“EMFC to active! Course 1-1-0, fire one and two when ready!” 
“Aye, Ma’am! EMFC active. Course 1-1-0, weapons free.” 
Because of the timing of the launch, the enemy sonar would not be able to detect the opening of the launch tubes of the de Danaan behind the detonation. They were now firing from a drifting maneuver at the enemy that was behind them. 
“One and two away.” 
“Excellent. Port, ahead, one-third, course 0-4-0. Take her to nine hundred, down twenty degrees rudder. We will break through them on a north-north-eastern heading2.” 
2 The slang used here is a mix of the real thing (as far as I could find) and some elements from Gatoh I had to keep - for example, the text says "rudder down", though in reality the rudder would only control left or right turns as far as I could find out; but I would consider it appropriate to keep the expression because of the futuristic technology of the TDD. In a revision I will perhaps consider a more realistic approach. 
“Yes, Captain.” 
Even though it was a retreat, Mardukas sounded relieved. The remaining enemy torpedoes would be completely confused by the detonations and after a few minutes their safety switches would kick in, bringing their engines to a stop, and they would sink quietly into the depths of the ocean. The torpedoes fired by the de Danaan would not explode even if they hit their target. Those were only Amalgam’s pawns, who were probably themselves curious as to why they suddenly had to hunt down the “Toy Box”. He wanted to avoid bloodshed if at all possible... but the other side was 
“serious”, firing at them with live ammunition, so to speak. And they didn’t even fire a shot until the last possible moment, obeying seemingly nonsensical orders... 
Was it necessary to go easy on the others? There were three US hunter-killer submarines, as far as they could tell, and probably at least one more below the thermal layer. If they made course corrections immediately, fired ADCAP torpedoes, ADSLMM mines and MAGROCs, all four enemies would be destroyed. 
Should they try to? 
If they destroyed their pursuers, their own crew, who had been on alert for more than twenty hours, could finally get some rest. Yes, it was easily done--... 
“Captain,” Mardukas’ voice interrupted her darkening thoughts, “should we reload the same torpedo type?” 
Normally that would be the case, but if they were to proceed to annihilate the enemy, it would be tactically sound to load in two ADSLMMs. This question was Mardukas’ very indirect way of confirming her intentions. She glanced at her XO, who was standing near her as usual, and noticed that he slightly furrowed his brow. His message was obvious: “I understand what you are thinking, but I’m against it”. 
“Yes, same type. Let us leave this area as soon as possible.” 
Which was equivalent to saying “I understand, no more attacks”. 
“Yes, captain.” 
The Tuatha de Danaan descended to nine hundred feet and leveled out, continuing on her original north-north-east course in complete silence. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
After the submarine had been taken off full battle alert, and noise reduction procedures were no longer in effect, the main hangar deck became lively once again, with maintenance crews 
appearing from whatever hole they were hiding in during combat, and resuming their work. Some were busy on the rotary-engine transport, others gathered around the Arm Slaves, who looked like skeletons with their armor taken off and bare frames and wiring plainly visible. Each machine was undergoing some kind of maintenance, and Sagara Sousuke was busy helping with his. 
The ARX-8 Laevatein, their only machine equipped with a Lambda Driver, and possibly the second most powerful in the world. It was white with sections of dark red armor on it, and compared to the M9 Gernsbacks it looked very aggressive. 
That said, there was not much Sousuke could help with in terms of maintenance. He mostly did simple things that the maintenance crew trusted him with, as a show of good faith towards the machine’s AI. And if he touched any of the parts himself, Lieutenant Sachs (the one leading the crew) would probably be enraged beyond reason. It was like that in any army in the world - the maintenance people thinking of the machine they were responsible for as their own, “lending” it to the pilot for a sortie. 
<Please reset the alignment of the sixth cartilage unit on the right arm to point-twelve > the request, both in vocal and text form, came from Al, the machine AI. 
“The sixth again? You just told us to reset it to point-zero-five,” said Sousuke, speaking in the headset microphone. 
<We found out later that the wear levels of muscle packages three-two to three-seven were more than initially assumed. Please set it to point-twelve.> 
“Right,” Sousuke gave instructions to the nearest mechanic. 
The man nodded and made a minute adjustment on a small damper-like part, the artificial cartilage unit. 
<It seems that it should be point-zero-five, please return it.> 
“What is it this time?” 
<At point-twelve the first ten muscle packages bear all the pressure. I conclude that operations should be performed with the setting at point-zero-five.> 
Sousuke decided to bear with the complaints for now, and told the mechanic. The latter shrugged, and followed the machine’s own instructions. 
“Done. Satisfied?” 
<I am sorry, but let’s try point-zero-eight.> 
“Hey, look...” 
<Correction. Leave at point-twelve, please.> 
“Well which one is it??” 
<No, I think point-fifteen would be better...> 
“Think before you talk, damn it.” 
Sousuke switched off the comm, took off the headset and put it on the table. He was fed up with the AI ordering him around. 
“So... how shall we set it?” asked the mechanic. 
“Point-twelve is fine.” 
The AI was going to come around to that, anyway. 
Having told the mechanic his guess, Sousuke returned to his laptop, where an unfinished document laid waiting for him. The document that he had been struggling for some time with, was his own will. It was decided that the remaining members of Mithril would all take the time to compose a written document that would serve as their last will and testament, and would indicate to whom they would leave their property. Moreover, rewriting the will was encouraged, if not required every year for the members of his unit. The last time Sousuke did it was two years ago. He did not want to 
touch it again, but Tessa’s secretary, Viran, pestered him about it so persistently that he started the revision draft. 
Writing down his possessions in a pragmatic, concise list, was not a problem. The questions came later: there was nothing particular he wanted to say to anyone, and he found it very difficult to write down something for his acquaintances, friends and comrades in arms. Would he write about what kind of person he was, what he felt during all the time he spent fighting? Honestly, it all seemed irrelevant to him. Writing about something specific? But too much happened to narrow it all down. Victories, defeats, lives saved and lives lost... It seemed already impossible to him to unravel the countless number of intertwined incidents and write something about each. If he died, there was only one message he could leave to all the living who would continue playing with fate. 
“Good luck.” 
That was all. Since ancient times that simple phrase, with a few variations, was the one thing dying warriors left to their comrades. They could say “God’s blessing upon you”, or “We shall meet in the other world”, but it was the same. 
So, would he tell Kaname Chidori the same thing..? 
No, probably not. There were too many things he wanted to tell her himself. So much that he didn’t know where to start. And at the same time he felt that no words were needed. If she returned to her real self, he imagined more or less what she would feel. She would suffer, blame herself, and start on her own road to atonement... somewhat like Tessa now. Could he even write anything to someone like her? 
After he wrote “good luck” to all his comrades, he noticed that the signal lamp of the comm device was blinking. Al was calling him. 
“So, finally decided?” asked Sousuke, putting on the headset. 
<Let’s go with point-twelve.> 
“That’s what I thought.” 
It was as he expected - in fact, these days he could predict Al’s behavior to some degree. He understood though that the value itself was not more than a lucky guess, there was nothing supernatural about it. It was close to seeing your dog turn his head your way, with pleading eyes, and understanding that he wanted to go for a walk.  
After that Sousuke and Al continued their technical argument for a while. This time the main problem seemed to be the Laevatein’s levels of wear. 
<...The entire skeleton is suffering from wear and metal fatigue. For now my software with the help of maintenance can compensate, but maneuvers of over 20G should be avoided as much as possible.> 
“Look, I know that...” 
First of all, he himself didn’t want to do any maneuvers that involved going over 20G, even momentarily. In the most extreme of cases, Laevatein could do a maneuver that would feel like being in a traffic accident over and over for several seconds. Technically speaking, the M9 Gernsback’s initial design, on which the Laevatein was based, had not been conceived for such incredible strength and firepower. If one thought of it as a regular sports car outfitted with a Formula 1 engine, the various possible defects became apparent. Independent functioning time was very short, the electronic defense system was quite poor, and there were problems with cooling. And of course, maintenance. The parts of the frame suffered much more wear than those of an ordinary M9, which resulted in a loss of operating efficiency. The flashy first battle was only a pleasant dream for the Laevatein in its current state. 
Based on his understanding of the machine’s condition, Al posed a natural question: 
<Is there a possibility that “that bastard” will appear in the next battle?> 
“Maybe he will...” 
They were talking, of course, about Belial, the black AS piloted by Leonard Testarossa. They learned the name of the machine from some documents they found at the mansion in Mexico. Sousuke and Al were defeated by that machine once, and a second time would be their last. 
Al also held a surprising amount of animosity towards that machine and did not miss any opportunity to berate it. “Cheating bastard”, “pile of junk without his Lambda Driver”, “one-off machine that’s not worthy of being called a weapon”. Ironically, every bit of this applied to the Laevatein, but Sousuke, perhaps trying to preserve the AI’s pride, did not point it out. 
“There’s no one but us to face him, you know.” 
<If that is the case, we have only one deployment left.> 
Sousuke lifted his eyes and surveyed the Laevatein. Miniature cracks were visible in many places. 
“One more... and it should be enough.” 
At that time, a general announcement sounded in the warship, and XO Mardukas’ voice proclaimed: “The meeting interrupted earlier will be continued now. Concerned personnel is to assemble in briefing room one. I repeat, the meeting interrupted by the combat situation--...” 
Lieutenant Sachs of maintenance let a subordinate take over and started walking towards the hangar deck exit astern. Sousuke was also one of the “concerned personnel”. He closed the file with the unfinished will, and started putting in order his personal belongings. 
<A meeting with Captain Testarossa?> 
“That’s right. 
<Should I also come? I could offer some useful advice. I could fill in for Sergeant Weber--...> 
“Shut up.” 
Sousuke threw down his headset and started walking towards the briefing room. 
Tessa was the last one to enter. 
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting! Let’s start.” 
“Yes, ma’am,” said Belfangan Clouseau, who was in the room together with Melissa Mao and Sousuke. “First, the bad news. Afghanistan again, gentlemen. Several hours ago a Soviet nuclear missile base in its north-eastern part was occupied by an unidentified armed group.” 
The republic of Afghanistan was at the present time under the control of the Soviet Union, which stationed a large force and built a lot of military installations on its territory. The nuclear missile base was only one of them. 
“An armed group?” frowned Melissa. “If it’s in the north-east, it’s close to the border of the Soviet Union itself, right? That space is so closely monitored a surprise attack and occupation of the facility is almost impossible.” 
“Well, there are some who can do it. Like us, or... them.” 
“Leonard and his crew, right...” 
Mao and her troops now referred to the enemy as “Leonard and his men”, not “Amalgam”. The latter had been just a faceless organization, but now it was clear that Leonard Testarossa had seized power. 
“Their Lambda Driver-equipped AS could take down the main defender force in under ten minutes, I bet. And then a group of engineer supported by those Alastors could easily occupy the base.” 
On the briefing room screen appeared the latest photographs from the spy satellite. Black smoke was rising from the charred wrecks of the Soviet AS and BMPs, and among them could be seen the silhouettes of the ASes occupying the base. 
“So, why now, and why the missile base?” said Mao. 
“No information on that. These days it looks like a nuclear war might start on its own, I doubt they want to make things even worse.” 
The Americans and the Soviets were already eyeing each other very cautiously, and if word got out of an incident with a nuclear missile base, the situation would become even more strained. And even Leonard or Amalgam could not possibly want the destruction of the world. If so... 
“It’s a diversion, to buy time most likely,” said Tessa. 
“A diversion..?” 
“I was planning to capture Merida itself, their stronghold. They would obviously want to prevent that, no matter what it takes. That’s probably the reason...” 
“Capturing the missile base to make us busy for a while, because we would have to go and recover it?” 
“I don’t get it, Tessa...” 
The Captain looked at her subordinates faces - it was as if large question marks were floating over their heads. Why was she so concerned with protecting Merida? What was there, on that island? Why was she so obsessed with it? 
So far everyone was hesitating to ask the question, but she was certain someone would, and soon - what was the truth behind their fight against Leonard. 
Tessa glanced at Sousuke, the only person who knew the truth. Sousuke hesitated a little, then gave her a barely discernible 
nod, as if saying: “That’s as far as you can remain silent. It’s time to tell everyone.” 
Why was Tessa so adamant about capturing Merida? Why was the enemy so obsessed with the island, too? The real reason? The problem was not losing the faith of the subordinates present there. 
“All right. Jokes aside, I would like you to listen, and listen closely...” 
Tessa took a deep breath, told them everything. 
That because of a Soviet telepathy experiment gone terribly wrong eighteen years ago, information about technology from the future “leaked” into the modern world. That because of this “Black Technology” and the Whispered, that knew it, the world’s technological level was much higher than it should have normally been. And that most likely because of its influence, the world’s history changed drastically.  
“Simply put,” Tessa paused and looked around the briefing room, which was completely silent, before continuing, “people who should have lived are dead, and those who should have died are alive, probably. Leonard and his subordinates are planning to correct this world. They have built a new TAROS on Merida, and will use Kaname-san’s power to change this world’s history.” 
The overwhelmed subordinates remained completely silent for a while. Everyone had felt that something about the situation was unusual, but that was beyond anyone’s wildest guesses. It looked like everyone was glancing at each other dubiously, did not know what to say to Tessa, and did not want to let her think they dismissed her speech as nonsense. 
Mao broke the ice. 
“Tessa... I know you’re not just taking this out of thin air, but... do you think I’ll just believe this crazy story right away?” 
“Hmm, I don’t think so.” 
“We’re soldiers, you know. We deal in facts, pragmatic considerations, tactics and such. This kind of... fairy-tale - I don’t know what to think of it.” 
“It is, however, too consistent,” muttered Commander Mardukas, the oldest person in the room and a staunch realist, who would not believe in such tales. “It had always seemed unusual to me. All these Arm Slaves and Lambda Drivers, and the rest of it. And I heard about the Whispered before. It is a preposterous story, of course, but it is logical in its own way.” 
“Thank you. As I was saying--...” 
“However,” Mardukas interrupted her, “there are too many things an old man like me just can’t imagine. The history may have changed, but these last eighteen years are undeniably real. If Leonard Testarossa changes history with the help of that TAROS, what would happen? A lot of my friends, for example, died in that time, and your father was one of them.” 
Mao and the others were even more surprised by his words. They had no idea Tessa’s father, Carl, was his old friend.  
“Would I be able to see Carl again, safe and sound?” 
“I don’t think it would work as you imagine,” said Tessa. “If, after the change, this becomes the world where Carl Testarossa didn’t die, then you would not notice the change, and would think that seeing him alive, and meeting him regularly for friendly chats, is natural. The moment TAROS is used, history would change, and you would immediately accept it and live the rest of your live unaware of the change.” 
“And Mithril would be gone?” 
“Most probably.” 
“And those three years I spent fighting together with you and my comrades, too?” 
“Again, most probably, though the you in ‘that world’ would not know it. It would not have existed to begin with...” 
“I will not forget my comrades.” Mardukas’ tone was unusually firm. “No matter what machine that is, I cannot forget those who died at my side.” 
Unexpectedly, Tessa thought that those words suited him very well. 
“I cannot, either. But speaking honestly, you would not be able to remember a person you haven’t ever met, would you?” 
“That... is true.” 
“This is not some kind of mass brainwashing. Reality itself would change. Be it success or failure, life or death, in any world the brain’s internal workings would respond to the reality around it. It has nothing to do with your feelings or intent.” 
Mardukas seemingly could not find anything to answer. 
“But Captain, I still can’t imagine it, no matter how I try,” said Clouseau hesitantly. “I, well, have read some science-fiction. In books and movies, even if you go to the past with some kind of time-machine and interfere with it... well, a new timeline branches off from that point, and a new world is born, while the old one remains the same...” 
“The multiple worlds hypothesis, right?” 
“Ah, yes, the so-called parallel reality. No matter what Leonard does with his weird device, nothing can have an effect on us, as we exist here and now, can it?” 
“I can’t say for certain,” answered Tessa honestly. “The parallel reality concept that Clouseau-san is talking about... well, following the psycho-physical reality theory that is the Omni Sphere’s operating principle, it could go either way. It’s a bit like 
the wave function of quantum physics3 - no, even simpler, it’s because you can’t observe both worlds at once.” 
3 She is referring to wave-particle duality and the uncertainty principle, it's just a pretty way to say that it could or could not happen. 
“That’s a bit vague... wait a second. You just said ‘you can’t’. Does that mean..?” 
“We can,” said Tessa very quietly. “When a Whispered operates the Omni Sphere, he or she can send and receive psychic waves across the space-time continuum. Even if we assume that there is a parallel world... we may not be able to sense it.” 
“I think that confused me even more,” sighed Clouseau, scratching his head. “So in the end, what would happen?” 
“In short, this is their plan. They would change history as convenient to them, and would be alone to retain their personalities in the ‘other world’. Please try to imagine this: from tomorrow morning you’d be able to live in the world that you want, and make your own situation as good as you want? And no one else notices it besides you?” 
“It’s like doing whatever you want with your saved game files. How charming...” 
“But it’s all a trick,” said Sousuke, who remained sullen as usual. “In the ruins of Yamsk 11 Leonard said he wanted to ‘correct the world’... to return it to its original shape. I was suspicious of his so-called noble goal from the start, but that confirmed everything. He was just planning to steal Kaname and run off to somewhere we wouldn’t know... I wouldn’t know...” 
“That’s what’s going to happen. Which is why I’m trying to disrupt his plans.” 
“Even so, this is all based on assumptions and suppositions, there’s nothing real to grab hold onto,” said Mao impatiently. “And even if everything Tessa had said is true, it has nothing to do with 
ordinary people. Parallel world or not, we wouldn’t know anything anyway, right?” 
“Yes,” Tessa answered truthfully. 
“Then what’s the reason for capturing Merida..? Tessa, look, I’m not blaming you or anything. If it’s something important to you, I’ll lay my life on the line. But the rest of the crew and my team have to understand this for themselves.” 
“Of course.” 
She understood what Mao was trying to say, and could see that others were thinking the same thing. Sousuke alone seemed to be in disagreement... 
Tessa cleared her throat lightly, and continued explaining the situation to the subordinates. 
“So, as I was saying, aside from me, Leonard and his men understand the situation very well. That is why they bothered to capture that nuclear missile base - to ordinary people it would seem necessary to deal with the ‘immediate threat’ and recover the missile base, instead of going for the island. Which one should we go for? I want to hear your answer as soldiers and professionals.” 
“I think it’s obvious,” immediately answered Clouseau. 
“Yes, without question,” agreed Mardukas. 
“Normally it would be the missile base,” shrugged Mao. 
The rest, including Lieutenant Sachs from maintenance, some SRT members, and other people seemed to think the same. Tessa glanced at Sousuke, who remained silent.  
He hesitated for an instant. He wanted to fly right away to Merida, where Kaname Chidori most probably was at that very moment, but from a purely logical point of view he was of the same opinion, even though it went against his feelings. 
“, it’s true... the Afghan target has to be given top priority.” 
“Very well,” Tessa stood up from her seat and faced all the present crew. “It may be just a diversion, but we have to recapture that missile base in Afghanistan. They are seriously prepared to fire, if only to get us to make a move first. It does not matter to them what happens to this world, as long as they can get TAROS working.” 
This was not all. They didn’t mind a large percentage of the world’s population dying; in fact, it was quite possibly convenient for them. Tessa was not convinced it was like that, but left further explanation aside for the time being. 
“This is crazy.” 
“It may be so, but you cannot underestimate Leonard’s charisma. His non-Whispered subordinates probably came to believe in his idea of ‘changing the world’, so making them start an apocalyptic war should be feasible.” 
Everyone realized that the problem was too massive, and too complicated. What priorities should they set, and what should they do to outsmart the enemy - nobody could fully answer. The atmosphere in the room grew even more heavy and serious than before. 
“So, Captain. What are you planning to do?” 
Mardukas finally voiced the real question, and she looked at everyone’s expectant faces. 
“Split our forces.” 
“We will send the helicopters. Everyone will go to Afghanistan and capture the base. Whether there is a parallel reality or not, this is your world, and your reality. Please protect it.” 
“Then, you will...” 
“I will return with this ship to Merida. Fortunately, I can use TAROS to pilot the de Danaan. This type might be old, but I can use it to operate the ship alone. 
Hearing those quiet, but resolute words, Mao and the others stared at Tessa, dumbfounded. 
“A-but, even so... You can’t capture an island with only this ship?! You will need an assault unit--..” 
“Yes. And I will be that assault unit.” 
Tessa looked at Sousuke, as if expecting this reaction. He did not show any sign of surprise at this situation, and endured everyone’s attention with absolute calm. 
“Me and Sagara-san. We are the two people necessary for the operation on Merida Island. So we will go together, and we’ll take the Tuatha de Danaan and the Laevatein. Is this all right with you, Sagara-san?” 
Sousuke nodded silently, - it was also a gesture indicating that he understood that there was no other way. 
“This is suicide,” said Mao, her voice shaking with anger. “And after all this... after coming this far together, you just tell us to go do as we please?! Do you understand what you’re saying?!” 
“Yes. It is as you said just a while ago. I’d like to have a reason to convince everyone that the recapture of Merida is what we should prioritize.” 
“There is none,” Tessa smiled bitterly. “No reason to make everyone follow me. I’m a Whispered, and disrupting their plan is reason enough for me. Sagara-san is an ordinary person, but his reason is simple - bringing Kaname-san back to Japan. But for you - there is none.” 
No one could find anything to say. 
“This ship will arrive at the last resupply point in five hours. You will then disembark and fly to Afghanistan. If you manage to recapture the base successfully, consider the battalion disbanded. You will be free to do as you please.” 
She understood painfully well what Mao was trying to say, but Tessa did not have any other answer for her. 
“I’m sorry. We say goodbye today.” 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
The Soviet unit, which was supposed to recover the base, was coming later than Sabina expected. 
They were in Badakhshan, in the north-eastern part of Afghanistan. All around them mountain ranges with peaks going over four thousand meters stretched out in all directions, creating a natural fortress. In the brilliant white of the mountains the thin line of a road zigzagged in and out of sight. It was perishing cold, - a normal battalion would not be mobilized in those conditions. 
The Eligor-type AS with Sabina on board was crouching on a mountain ridge, ECS activated. She was supposed to watch for enemy movement and report back. 
It was practically impossible for ordinary armored vehicles to move in those conditions, so the main force was composed, as expected, of Arm Slaves. Ten Rk-96 types, an upgraded version of the second-generation Savage. Six more behind them - newer type, called in the West Zy-98 “Shadow”, the main third generation AS of the Soviet Army. Compared to the short and stout Savages, with their egg-shaped bodies, these had a slim silhouette. Their performance far outclassed Savages, of course, and one could say that they were more or less equal to the M9 Gernsbacks used by 
the US Army and Mithril. Sabina’s Eligor was also a design originally derived from the Shadow. 
So, sixteen ASes of different types in all. In theory, that was more than sufficient to retake the missile base from the “terrorists” that had occupied it. In theory, that was... 
“This is Fowler. I’ve got sixteen AS units approaching from the north. How are things on your side?” 
That was Lee Fowler, scouting the anticipated enemy northern approach route. They didn’t even bother to use call signs because of the superior encryption of their comms. 
“Got visual, just sent you the data.” 
“Hm... same, is it? Makes thirty-two in total. Not bad.” 
“There are probably transport helicopters following close behind.” 
“Yes, use the ASes to spearhead the assault, then rush in infantry... typical. Bah, it’s no good anyway.” 
Their forces consisted of the two Eligors she and Fowler were piloting, four Shadow-type ASes and one infantry platoon. Even despite their numerical disadvantage, the Lambda Driver-equipped Eligors were practically invincible against regular ASes. There was nothing to worry about. 
“Anyway, it looks like we’ll be busy for a while. If we just had a Codarl or two...” 
Codarl was another type of Lambda Driver-equipped AS that Amalgam used. It wasn’t as exceptionally powerful as the Eligor type, but compared to regular models it was still more than enough. 
Sabina was getting a little annoyed at Fowler’s complaining. 
“You know perfectly well that all the Codarls are engaged in Merida’s defense. Master Leonard decided this force was 
enough to accomplish our mission. Would you please refrain from expressing your dissatisfaction every damn minute?” 
“Yes, yes, of course. But I’ve got a feeling you’re the dissatisfied one.” 
“And why might that be?” 
“You wanted to remain on Merida, didn’t you? At the side of  Master Leonard...” 
“No. Even if I remained there, I would not be able to serve him.” 
And besides, that girl was on Merida. Even though she awakened in Yamsk 11, as far as Sabina could see, her character didn’t change much. The same insolence, stubbornness, self-righteous demeanor. However, Master Leonard thought she was necessary, and he was not alone. In fact, pretty much everyone working with him thought of her the same way. She had the power to right this world full of wrongs, to erase things that shouldn’t have happened.  
He did not even look at Sabina any more, avoided any contact. Of course, she never thought she could monopolize him - he was a special man. She did not know anything specific, but she imagined that he had embraced a lot of other women besides her. She did not mind being only one of them. But... 
Why did he offer his heart to that teenage girl, of all people? If it was only his body, she didn’t care, but that was not the case. Even though it was platonic, ridiculously so in fact, from her point of view, he was completely enthralled by that girl.  
After the girl had injured him in Mexico, he had ordered Sabina to not hold back when dealing with her. To drive her into a corner, mentally, to wear her out, to finally make a tool out of her, and Sabina felt strangely relieved. It looked like he was planning to make that girl his possession, and for Sabina, that was easy. 
But before it could happen, the girl changed. After Yamsk 11, she became the leader. And it only got worse from that time on. Leonard didn’t dare lift a finger on her. He reverently served her obeying every wish of that arrogant princess. And Sabina did not wish to be near him anymore. 
The fact that she was at the Ishkashim base, seven thousand kilometers away from Merida, participating in a decoy operation against the remnants of Mithril, made her a little happier. She did not wish to see him like that. Even if it was an assignment that made her no more than a pawn that was ready to be sacrificed... 
“I am not dissatisfied with anything. But what about you, Mister Fowler?” 
“Well, a bit. It’s unfortunate that I have to miss a historic moment,” came his faintly bitter voice over the radio. 
“Is that really all?” 
“Pretty much. If the TAROS functions as expected, I won’t have any complaints.” 
The people who believed in Leonard’s cause had a very strong motivation. They all had different reasons, but all of them had one thing in common - they hated their past vehemently, almost fanatically. They were able to do anything to fight against the past which they frantically rejected. That way of thinking could lead them into any battle, be it reasonable or not.  
Sabina, raised in the slums, and having been abused since youth, had plenty of reasons to hate the past, and it was the same for Fowler. While fighting at his side, she sometimes detected traces of the same anger that raged deep inside her. That dark anger, that smoldered like the remnants of a fire, was a proof that he left a part of himself somewhere. She heard that it had something to do with his family, that something happened to them while he was helpless to act... but she did not know more, and she 
probably wouldn’t hear any more from anyone else. Like herself, Fowler had only told his reason to Leonard.  
Sabina adjusted the zoom on her optical sensor array. On the screen the ASes of the Soviet Army were advancing steadily. Step by step, they were getting closer to their inevitable demise. 
“Shall we start?” 
“I was planning on observing a little more... but oh well. Let’s do a vigorous warm-up, shall we?” 
“Well then...” 
Sabina cut the comm channel and raised the output of her machine’s palladium reactor from cruising to battle mode. The machine responded with a faint hum that grew louder. The reactor itself was, naturally, silent, but the cooling systems produced a certain amount of noise. The winter in northern Afghanistan was severe, and at the moment it was minus 13 Celsius. The heat emitted by the reactor was too much for the ECS systems to conceal. 
The central machine, probably the one that was scouting the enemy with infrared sensors, spotted the disturbance. It stopped, and started scanning very carefully the ridge where Sabina was hidden. The pilot of the enemy machine evidently let his allies know of the “unknown heat source”, and was exchanging data about its position. 
Yes... electronic data. On a very familiar frequency, protocols, and signal patterns. Sabina’s Eligor possessed a powerful central computing unit that analyzed all that data exchange, and inserted additional data into the information exchanges, overwriting the initial battle program data into something more convenient. Casper, who died in Yamsk 11, was an expert in sniping, and she was as good as him, but in electronic 
warfare. Her machine’s systems were specifically modified for her, and in her Eligor she became a real witch. 
Of the sixteen machines, she first attacked the six Shadows. To her, the cutting-edge electronics of the new machine were as simple as a baby raised in a sterile room. The machine went out of control, left the formation, turned towards the nearest AS and fired a missile at it. Two others raised their guns at each other simultaneously, and fired at point-blank range. The ten Savages did not go haywire like their more advanced comrades, but lost the capability to fight: on some machines sensors were gone, on others the power failed, and smoke could be seen rising from the gas turbine engines of some of them.  
She heard the voices of the pilots. Panic. Curses. Angry shouts. Terrified screams. Wonderful... the Russian people’s screams were delightful. 
Sabina deactivated the ECS. The Eligor appeared before the enemies, basking in the orange glow of the early sunset. Her machine was pure white, that of a bride’s wedding gown. 
“Leonard” she whispered. She did not even engage the Lambda Driver. If he wished to see the world destroyed by the power of atom, then so it would become. But she would become his sword by her own strength. She would do all the things that girl could not. Her white Eligor took out a 37mm rifle from its back, and started sliding down the powdery slope. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
According to Kaname Chidori’s memories, the vast underground cavern once served as the main maintenance dock for the Tuatha de Danaan. Right now all the ocean water had been drained, and the passage connecting it to the ocean had been blocked with reinforced concrete. In that gigantic space, enough to easily accommodate the 218-metre hull of the de Danaan, which was as large as a Shinjuku skyscraper laid down, was now proceeding the construction of something much more impressive than the facility at Yamsk 11. Thousands of cables and pipes of all dimensions ran towards a domed structure fifty-eight meters in diameter. The amount of energy that ran to that structure from generators several kilometers away was enough to power an entire city. Around the dome itself were large blocks of transformers, electricity storage units and the vital cooling system. Far from thinking about elegance, the space was used as practically as possible - after all, that was the world’s largest Omni Sphere, that the project team called TARTAROS, for Telechrono Alternation Reactor Transfer and Response Omni Sphere. Curious, how the symbol of hope for the world had to bear the name of the deepest part of the mythological underworld, and its god. 
She often liked to jokingly call it the “if-box”4. It was, in reality, strikingly similar, but there wasn’t anyone there who would understand how true that joke was. 
4 This is obviously a reference to Doraemon, the "moshimo-bokkusu". 
TAROS was a machine that all Lambda Driver-equipped ASes had. TARTAROS, however, had very little to do with its smaller cousins. It was built for a higher, noble purpose. Yes, noble... at least, that was what that Kaname was convinced of. Nobility, justice, friendship... and others. Oh, it was such a bliss, letting oneself float on these flowery words.  
“Just a little more”, she whispered, looking down at the dome, wrapped in twisting wires and cables, from the controller booth on the ceiling. It was almost complete, even though construction began little more than half a year ago. She was present on the site for two months already, and work had been proceeding very fast.  
“Well-well, haven’t they been busy... to think that it’s finished so quickly.” 
“They will work as you desire,” said Leonard, standing behind her. “However, because we had to hurry, the enemy had noticed the flow of components and parts.” 
“My sister. Tessa and Sagara Sousuke, Mithril’s remnants - they are coming to this island.” 
She thought that Leonard sometimes said the strangest things. Teresa Testarossa and Sagara Sousuke were both dead, and he spoke of them as though they were alive. She shot them herself, there could be no mistake.  
“Tessa and Sousuke are long dead, what are you saying?” 
“That is your impression, in fact-...” 
Leonard paused in mid-sentence. 
“, you are right. It was a misunderstanding from my part.” 
“Sheesh, get a grip, will you,” laughed Kaname cheerfully, feeling as if she pointed out a silly blunder. 
Why was she even able to laugh at that? That question did not cross her mind. Her broken mind and soul could not imagine just how wrong it was. 
“In any case, the enemy will come, even though I sent Fowler and the others away to split their forces.” 
“What, they’ll come before the activation?” 
“Most probably, yes.” 
“Then you know what to do, right?” 
“Of course, I will stop them no matter what it takes. Now, shall we?” Leonard opened the door and motioned her to go first. 
They left behind the underground dock, walked for some time, and came to an elevator, which took them back above ground. They walked out on to the storage terminal, a large plaza for reception of the different materials needed for construction, that was cut into the side of the mountain. The sky was full of stars. 
The base defense force was lined up on the plaza, waiting for orders. Seeing her, the twelve Codarls, like an honor guard, stood at attention and lifted their monomolecular cutters towards the night sky. Behind those were three enormous shapes, illuminated in night time - the Behemoth ASes. They lifted their gigantic guns to their chests, saluting and expressing loyalty to their leader. 
The first in the row of the Codarls stood Leonard’s personal AS, the Belial. With Leonard’s power, that AS did not have any limit to the use of its Lambda Driver, and could without question be called the most powerful in the world. 
There was also a company of infantry and their transport helicopters, as well as the anti-air battalion. They all formed up and saluted Kaname and Leonard. 
“All units have formed up and are waiting,” reported the commander, none other than Andrei Kalinin, who stepped forward to greet them. His olive-colored field uniform was perfectly clean, and, despite having just returned from a long trip to England, he did not show any signs of fatigue. 
“Mister Kalinin, you know, you look better in this uniform than any suit.” 
“Oh, I agree,” replied Kalinin without a trace of insincerity. 
“Is this the entire garrison?” asked Kaname, and Kalinin glanced at the sea of heads that occupied the plaza. 
“There are two platoons of Leviathans in the sea, on standby. Any fleet or vessel that tries to approach the island will at the very least sustain considerable damage.”   
“Even if the landing is successful, the troops you see now will be prepared to meet the enemy anywhere.” 
“And there is my Belial.” 
It was not surprising that those were all the forces that Amalgam in its current state could muster. That said, if the detached force that was now in Afghanistan was there, the garrison would be considerably stronger... 
“We were spending all of our resources on TAROS, the expansion of the military force was secondary. There are other reasons...” 
“Mithril, isn’t it?” 
“Unfortunately, yes, or more precisely, its remnants. They became a real nuisance in this past half year. Either direct strikes by that ARX-8 machine, or guerrilla tactics, disruption of supply lines and manufacturing facilities. As you know well, special parts are needed for Lambda Driver-equipped AS types.” 
Having read the written report, Kaname understood the overall situation. The remnants of Mithril continued to resist with exceptional stubbornness, patiently uncovering the secret plants of Amalgam and its related enterprises, and eliminating them diligently, one by one. They thought the organization would not be able to recover from the initial, devastating blow, but its remnants, on the contrary, became more elusive than ever. Especially the Tuatha de Danaan, that got away during the assault on Merida, 
showed up several times, but then disappeared without a trace. And it was now both a symbol and a secret headquarters for the remaining people of Mithril. 
“Even though Tessa’s gone, they managed to keep together... is it the influence of Mardukas-san, I wonder?” 
Kalinin only frowned slightly, and exchanged looks with Leonard. The latter just shook his head almost imperceptibly, so that other subordinates wouldn’t notice.  
“What? What is it?” 
“No, nothing,” Kalinin quickly changed the subject. “As I was saying, the enemy cannot have a large force at his disposal, and to recover the missile base in Afghanistan, they have no choice but to divide their already small forces in two. And we still have superiority in political influence.” 
“The US Navy, you mean?” 
“Yes, even if it’s only a temporary nuisance to them. They have orders to sink the ‘Toy Box’ upon detection. There are probably a lot of officers in their ranks who doubt the order, but... well, at least they have the numbers to keep a large portion of the ocean in check.” 
“Good!” Kaname clapped her hands together. “Well, once we get TARTAROS started up, even the weapons won’t be of any use. Leave it all to me, I’ll grant everyone’s wishes!” 
Just protect me. After all, this fight is going to be easy. 

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