Full Metal Panic! - Volume 11 - Chapter 2

Chapter 2: The Long Goodbye 
The last resupply point of the Tuatha de Danaan was the container ship Bernie Worell that waited for them in a corner of the Philippine archipelago. Not so long ago, en route to Yamsk 11, Sousuke and the others resupplied on board that vessel, disguised as a merchant ship. From the seven thousand islands of the archipelago, their destination was an uninhabited island called Tagapul, where the Bernie Worell laid in wait for them. 
The shallow and turbulent waters around the island made the resupply spot far from ideal, but avoiding detection by the US Navy and Amalgam, they had no other choice. The resupplying operation itself was dangerous for the people involved. Sousuke was helping with the loading operation as well, carefully checking the number of cases of 12.7mm ammunition, that was used in the AS’ head-mounted machine guns. 
“Sousuke!” he saw Mao calling out to him, a portable terminal under her arm. “When you’re finished there, these 76mm shells are waiting for you. You’re the one using them anyway, right?” 
“On it.” 
It was ammunition for the Oto Melara-made5 cannon, the Boxer 2, that fired 76mm shells - an unusually large caliber for an AS. The one he had previously used, the 56mm Boxer on the Arbalest, was known for its destructive strength, but the new version was even more powerful. However, if not used properly, 
5 Oto Melara, an Italian corporation, produces many armaments for navies worldwide. 
and especially in close distance combat, its powerful recoil could be problematic. 
“But anyway, I don’t think you’ll need that many.” 
Sousuke didn’t answer. He was now the only one using 76mm shells among his comrades, but in that resupply he was getting double the standard amount of ammo. Not so long ago there was another pilot who used the same type, and the logistics division had probably miscalculated. 
“Kurz always used those...” 
“Yeah, he did...” 
“It looks like getting parts for M9’s was as difficult as expected.” 
After they lost Kurz Weber and his M9 at Yamsk 11, only three functional AS remained on board the de Danaan: Sousuke’s Laevatein, Mao’s E-series M9, and Clouseau’s D-series M9. There was no backup, no reinforcements. The remaining forces that Mithril could muster were those three ASes. Even though the shortage of spare parts was noticeable, they had somehow managed to leave the stock of parts originally destined for Weber’s machine untouched, but as Lieutenant Sachs put it, “this was the end of it”. After the next fight, whatever the outcome, Mithril’s forces would suffer a substantial amount of damage. Even if they made it to the home base alive, their ASes wouldn’t be able to handle another sortie. The US Army was steadily deploying more and more M9’s, but the specific types that Mithril had would soon be obsolete and vanish from the production lines. Originally their most elite team had the most advanced machines, that were distinctly more powerful than ordinary types, but that was coming to an end. It was the irreversible pace of progress, but to Mao, who worked with those machines from the times of the XM-9 prototype, it was a bit sad.  
She sighed, and sat on a small box near Sousuke. 
“Listen... are you really going?” 
“To Merida. Alone with Tessa. You know it’s suicide.” 
Her voice was completely different from the time in the briefing room. He could only feel deep anxiety... and confusion. She was extremely worried both about Tessa and himself. 
“If you said you were going to Afghanistan, then she might give up Merida...” 
“Hm, I don’t know about that,” said Sousuke closing the lid of an ammunition case as he finished his check. “I think she’d even go alone. She has reason enough to do that.” 
“Pfh, reason. That TAROS thing and changing history. She’s going to die for that ridiculous theory?” 
“Ridiculous theory, you say...” 
Yes, it did look like that. Even to him, who happened to witness some incidents that looked supernatural, the supposed plan of Leonard and his organization seemed unlikely, to say the least. 
Even though there was some suspicious activity on Merida, wasn’t it logical to give priority to a nuclear missile base? According to the latest intelligence, there may be two enemy machines with Lambda Drivers waiting for them there, and new models, more powerful than the Codarls. No matter how used his comrades were to fighting such enemies, that fight was definitely going to be one of the hardest, and if Sousuke and the Laevatein were with them, their chances would go up considerably. Not only would the Laevatein fight at least on equal terms with the enemy machines, he had also been a guerrilla in Badakhshan years before, and knew the area like his proverbial backyard. He would be able to operate without a map, he knew the secret passages, the weather 
of the season, and could even enlist the help of local residents (if any remained), in case that was needed. 
Of course, Andrei Kalinin knew it as well. He fought against and with him on that soil, but why then did he choose that particular spot? Was it the land of fate for him? Was he saying: “Here will be our next battle. I am waiting”? 
Sousuke didn’t think so. He was simply not the kind of man who would allow himself to get that sentimental. From a purely pragmatic point of view, Kalinin was trying to lead the greatest menace to him - the Laevatein and its pilot - down the “easy road”.  
Yes... Afghanistan was the easy road. Merida was the road of hardships, where the main enemy force lied in wait. An operation, based on a reasonable assumptions and clear tactics, against a suicidal mission based on something that was out of this world. Which one would an ordinary soldier choose? And which one would the enemy protect at all costs? The missile base or Merida? 
Thinking it through, there could be only one conclusion. Tessa was right. The enemy was concentrated at Merida, and the fact that they were unable to confirm the presence of Belial on the missile base only supported that. Leonard was on Merida Island. 
Even so, they could not leave the missile base alone. They could be serious about shooting the missile. In that case... 
“Yes, no mistake,” sighed Sousuke. 
“Huh, what’s that about?” 
“Tessa. I have to follow her, there’s no other way. Leaving aside all the talk about changing history - think about where the enemy commander would be.” 
“Hm, yes...” 
Mao was not a fool herself, and could guess where Sousuke’s thoughts were heading. She continued in a sullen voice, as if talking to herself: 
“Yeah, probably... though it might be just wishful thinking...” 
“Consider that the enemy also has no more safety margin. It’s like in that old saying ‘when it’s hard for us, it’s hard for the enemy’. Mao... don’t make her raise the white flag.” 
Her voice sounded like she wanted to say a lot more, to protest to the last. The old Sousuke would probably think her hard to understand, but now he was different. It was hard for her, and deep anxiety was eating at her heart. And because he was someone she trusted, she probably wanted him to hear her out. Somehow, he understood her feelings. What was he supposed to do in that case? 
“Well, if you’re still worried, let me give you a hug.” 
“Let’s do a fun little warm-up together, and get to work later, eh?” Sousuke blurted out an expression that he memorized from god knows where, and closely looked at Mao’s face to see her reaction. 
Mao was speechless, looking at him with eyes wide open. 
“... what was that?” 
“That... I mean...” 
Sousuke’s face showed that he clearly felt just how awkward the situation had become. It was just like writing an answer that he was absolutely sure of on the blackboard, and getting it completely wrong. 
“I thought you’d hit me.” 
“If I said something like that, you’d hit and try to strangle me... and then become cheerful as always...” 
They finally understood each other, and Mao smiled wryly. 
“Sousuke... you just can’t replace him.” 
“It seems so. Sorry.” 
“You silly...” 
Sousuke hung his head, but Mao gently took his face in her hands. The warmth in her chest and the cold on her fingertips... for some reason, it was a very nostalgic sensation. 
The maintenance crew people, working close by, were glancing at them from time to time, but Mao did not care about public attention, and whispered to Sousuke: 
“You remember... some time ago... what I said on the way back from that operation in Sicily? The one where we caught that Bruno fellow?” 
Sousuke looked puzzled. 
“To think about what you’re going to do in life?” 
“Ah, that. Yes, you did say it.” 
“I then made a face like ‘I’m saying this for your own sake, think about it’. It wasn’t like that, really... I was just pissed off at you. For always putting yourself last. And everybody else first - your friends, your duty, whatever. But it was just your way of keeping your composure. Nobody was expecting you to do all those crazy things. But it was the same as not trusting anyone completely... You didn’t even understand that I was just a woman.” 
Sousuke remained silent. 
“But now it looks like you have. You’re a very kind person, you know. Someone like you shouldn’t even have become a soldier.” 
“Me..? You’re making too much of it.” 
“No. You just learned skills necessary for survival. You shouldn’t have ever had to hold a gun, or... learn to pilot that robot. We’re here by choice, and you’re not,” Mao’s voice shook slightly and she paused. “Look... I’d like to ask you something.” 
“Please. When this is over, stop it. Don’t do it anymore. Forget about good-for-nothings like us, just live for yourself. Don’t ever take up a gun again. Be kind to people, laugh with them, like a normal boy...” 
He heard a sniffle, and felt her hugging him even more tightly. 
“You can live like that, I know it...” 
“Don’t say that. Don’t say things that make Kaname sad...” 
“If you have someone you love, and that person tells you that everything’s fine, then it’ll somehow be fine. It’s usually like that...” 
Sousuke couldn’t think of anything to say. It could really be like that. If she was there, then he probably wouldn’t be feeling that way, and would believe her if she said that everything was all right. But then, who would say that to Mao? 
“Oh, I’m fine. I’m just a shameless woman,” she pushed him away lightly and laughed. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
After finishing the ammunition supplies check, Sousuke helped sort the correspondence addressed to the crew. Some personal items arriving through fake home addresses: letters from family, some food and drink they had asked their friends to send 
them, documents from lawyers and tax counsellors, articles from mail order shops. Though they had arrived in under two days by FedEx, after that the resupply was postponed, and some post had been waiting for half a year. 
While sorting the mail, Sousuke was thinking over his discussion with Mao earlier. It had somehow brought a feeling of vague uneasiness. She was psychologically weakened. Letting her go to Afghanistan like that could be dangerous. No matter the chances, the enemy AS were elite specialists in LD-equipped machines. It would be the one battle in her entire career that would require the utmost precision and skill. There would not be time for the slightest moment of hesitation, and the odds were very close. And he did not feel from her that resolve - to kick down the enemy and rip out his throat, if need be. Should he be going to Afghanistan himself? Would letting her go be equal to leaving her to die..? 
“But Chidori...” 
That was probably the last chance to get her back. If he didn’t it would be the end for them. It was not a vague premonition, he felt it very strongly - he had to go to Merida right now, and as fast as possible. 
He wished he had two bodies right now, and two machines. The enemy’s tactic of dividing them was clever indeed, striking at the psychological state of his comrades, too. 
He cursed under his breath, and shook his head. Do not think any more, just continue your job. There wasn’t much time left... 
“Sousuke,” called Michel Lemon, who had just come in. He was the former French intelligence agent he had met in Namsak. 
“For you,” he continued without a greeting, even though they hadn’t seen each other for a month, and held an envelope out to him. 
Lemon wasn’t getting on board the de Danaan after that - his leg was injured in Moscow, and without even having time to rest properly, he was running all across the world for Mithril, and had somehow managed to get there in time to board the Bernie Worell. 
“It’s from Sarah. She told me to hand it to you personally.”  
“Sarah… Sarah Miller you mean?” 
She could have easily contacted him by email, so why bother sending a personal letter? He opened the envelope doubtfully, and caught a small memory chip that almost fell out. It was one of those common memory cards that could be used in phones or digital cameras. Slipping the memory card into his pocket casually, Sousuke started reading her small, rounded handwriting. 
Dear Sagara-san, 
I hope you are doing well. Please allow me to thank you again for your help in Siberia. The last time we were on board, I wanted to talk to you at length, but there was simply not enough time, for which I profoundly apologize.  
I am writing this letter in a house overlooking an old park. It is a quite desolate sight in winter, but Mr. Hunter assures me that in spring the anemones are quite beautiful (though I am not sure “this” me will get to see them). 
I am continuing to exchange e-mails with your superior officer Teletha Testarossa-san. She did not write me any tactical details (for security reasons, I’m sure), but there were some 
important things she told me. The reason why people like myself, Tessa-san and Kaname Chidori-san (I’m sorry, I don’t know the kanji for her name...) were born. I have a premonition... or a sort of vague conviction, that you are about to engage in very intense fighting. I don’t know how it will turn out, but I feel it has to do with our problems - no, this world’s problems, and it is a major critical point, what is called the “nick of time”. Tessa-san did not let me know what she was planning, possibly because she felt I would be opposed to it. Yes, definitely because I would agree more with the way her brother, Leonard, does things. My memories of that research facility in Siberia continue to cause me occasional bouts of panic. These wounds will probably not be healed in this life. Moreover, I understand how absurd this world has become, and if a big war comes, it’s only going to get worse. 
I think that if this world can really be restored to what it was meant to be, then it has to be done. But I will not interfere with Tessa-san in any way.  
She, as I, is torn between our beliefs. I’ll leave the decision of helping or stopping her to you, Sagara-san. You are the one I owe my life to, and thus my heart is yours (please do not misunderstand... though if you asked me to, I would do anything, but then Tessa-san or Chidori-san would probably kill me, so I will abstain. Oh, but I completely forgot what I was writing about (*sweatdrop*). I will wait until my head has cooled down a little). 
I’m sorry, I will now continue. 
Since I don’t use a pen much nowadays, my fingers get tired quickly. I should have just written everything in English from the start... Lemon-san just came into the room, and as he’s supposed to be going to visit you soon, I will leave this letter with him. 
Because this might be the last chance for me, please allow me to say it again: thank you, from my heart. I will pray for your good fortune, Sagara-san. 
Yours sincerely, 
Sarah Miller 
P.S.: If you have time, please feel free to look through the files on the memory card. These are some things I’ve found on the net. 
“So, what did she write?” 
Lemon was unceremoniously peeking from behind his shoulder. It didn’t look like he could read Japanese. 
“It’s complicated. How should I put it...” 
There were a lot of strong feelings, doubt, pressure and inner conflict mixed in that letter, and he couldn’t even start to collect his own thoughts. 
Corresponding with Sarah Miller... what did she write to Tessa-san about? Were her thoughts sincere? A crossroads of fate - then why trust him? But the facts seemed coherent enough. 
And what about the memory card - was that all there really was to it? And how much should he tell to Lemon about that delicate situation? Could he dismiss the possibility that Lemon already knew the contents of the letter? 
“Hey, you’re making an awfully troubled face, what is it?” 
“I’m always making that kind of face.” 
“Heh... well, it doesn’t look like it’s a love letter, anyway. Though when she gave it to me, she did look a little like a girl asking someone to deliver a love letter for her...” 
“What are you talking about…” 
“Hey, I know you’re a tough guy and all, but damn, seeing your popularity makes me lose confidence in myself. And they always told me I’m handsome...” 
Lemon tried to make it sound like he was jealous, but Sousuke was mostly ignoring him. Sarah was opposed to whatever Tessa was planning to do, supporting Leonard’s idea of “rewriting” the current world back to its natural state. And she briefly stated the reasons why she thought it was sensible. 
Sousuke himself was still hesitating. 
His brief dialogue with Leonard in the underground ruins of Yamsk 11 never left his mind. If his claims were true, who in the world could deny that his idea was right? Not only Sarah, anyone who got hurt in all of the wars that happened would say the same thing. Sousuke’s thoughts were getting more bitter by the minute. That things should have been better - no, he could not deny it. Some things he would have changed… 
“Lemon... what if Nami...” 
“No... nothing, forget about it.” 
There was nothing to be gained from asking other people. Even if he heard Lemon’s opinion on which was better, it would not make the worm of doubt inside him disappear. His choice was not between black or white, but shades of gray. There was not a right one, and both had unpleasant connotations. If he talked about it with anyone... 
“Hey, look, if you want to talk, I’m here.” 
“No, it’s nothing. Sorry.” 
“Hmm, right. Well, I’m off then. Have to give a brief report to Testarossa-san,” said Lemon, stood up and stretched a little. Even though he realized there was something on his comrade’s 
mind, he didn’t pursue the matter further. “Sousuke... take care, you hear?” 
He told himself that it wasn’t certain yet that this would be the last time. He simply waved lightly in goodbye, and looked at the figure of his friend, leisurely strolling towards the door that led to the temporary bridge between ships, and disappearing behind it. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
Clouseau went out on the ship’s deck in the middle of the loading operation, though for different reasons than the Frenchman. He had heard that Teletha Testarossa was having a final briefing, and was heading to her quarters.  
“Hello, Monsieur Clouseau,” said Lemon. 
“Mmm,” he only nodded and passed him by. 
His family name was, of course, of French origin, but he felt uncomfortable being called “monsieur”. One of his ancestors, from a tribe of fierce warriors of North Africa, as was told in the family, was a slave in Quebec. His unusual first name, “Belfangan”, came from a brave warrior, and according to his grandfather was handed down through generations. Apparently that old Belfangan killed a devil that was tormenting the people, at the cost of his own life, then turned into a black hawk and ascended to the heavens. 
He made the military valor part come true. The modern Belfangan entered the army, survived many ordeals, and became a superior soldier, while remaining modest. Of course, the name “Belfangan” was quite hard to pronounce, and he always told the new people to call him “Ben”.  
He was called by the Lieutenant in charge of resupplying, who was now on the ship’s deck, controlling the operation. 
“The loading of the crew’s personal effects is getting a bit delayed... can we get more time?” 
“No, I’m afraid not. If you don’t make it in time, you leave it - please let the crew know.” 
Tessa ordered the crew leaving the de Danaan to embark all of their personal belongings with them, to clear out, so to speak. The order was given only a few hours ago, and the crew was now in chaos. 
“Shit... what the hell is wrong, what’s the Captain thinking?” 
“Look, we’re all thinking that, but don’t say it before the men,” he clapped the Lieutenant on the back cheerfully, as if trying to restore his own confidence. 
He felt like cursing the heavens himself, but if there was one thing he could not do, it was changing the Captain’s mind. He was informed by Mardukas to obey, and he did exactly that. 
“Lieutenant,” called Sousuke, who was sitting somewhat further away from the work area. He was about to finish his bookkeeping duty. 
“Ah, Sagara. How’s Laevatein’s maintenance?” 
“Al and Sachs are on it right now.” 
“Your mail, sir.” 
He handed him a cardboard box with the mail order shop’s logo, and a few stickers of mail companies. It was a five-month-old order that finally reached its destination after being forwarded time and again from the fake address. Clouseau himself had already forgotten he ordered it. 
“Movies, are they?” 
“Hm... aah,” Clouseau nodded vaguely. 
Those were DVDs of a masterpiece of anime, about ten years old... yes, it was a movie, he didn’t lie. 
Sousuke’s gaze was fixed on him. He was impassive as always, and nothing could be read from his face. It didn’t seem like the contents of the DVD would be of any interest to him, anyway. 
“What is it?” 
“No, nothing,” Sousuke said hesitantly. 
Finally Clouseau could spot something like hesitation on his face. 
“Have you talked to Mao?” 
“About work and other related things... but I know what you’re trying to say.” 
He was probably worried about her. Ever since they lost Kurz Weber, she was fading away, slowly but surely. It was not like she was trying to drown her sorrows in alcohol, drinking in secret, no - but working with her, one could not help but notice the subtle changes. 
“I don’t think you can do anything, and it’s not necessary. We’re not that weak, both of us. At least, compared to you, eh.” 
Sousuke only shrugged at the provocation. 
“You planning to get back to pouting, like that time before Hong Kong?” 
“Not at all, sir.” 
“Then you’re just tired.” 
“Your heart is tired. Tired of all the fighting. That’s why you’re thinking of Mao along the same lines, no?” 
Sousuke did not answer, and looked down pensively, as if trying to recall things. After a while he looked up at Clouseau with a curious expression. 
“How do you know?” 
“Because I’m the same,” Clouseau laughed. 
Yes, he was tired, too. He had acted as a replacement for Andrei Kalinin for close to a year, and it showed. Not only him, but the rest of the crew was pretty much in the same condition. 
“But, well, when we take care of this little business, I plan on taking a lo-ong leave. I’ll return home and just lay around like a lazy arse. And then I’ll go on some sightseeing trip. Japan would be good... Akihabara, for instance...” 
“That is wonderful, but... why Akihabara?” 
“Well, I’ve already been to Mecca, so Akiba is next.” 
“I... see...” 
Sousuke clearly missed Clouseau’s joke completely. 
“Anyway, think about yourself first. Leave Mao to me,” Clouseau clapped him on the back, and left.  
He then found private Falkowski, who was busy managing the loading of the crew’s personal effects. The poor man had enlisted in the supply battalion just a month before the attack on Merida, and since then had been living on board the de Danaan. He was a timid person, but capable at managing supplies, and in the last months even that required some courage - he got used to firmly saying “No” to different battalions’ requests. 
“Hey, look, I’m sorry about this, but I wanted to add this to my personal luggage.” 
“Yes, Lieutenant.” 
Clouseau held out the box, and was about to give it to the private. After all, he would be always busy after that, and there would be no time to enjoy it. It would be better to leave it with the other things and watch it properly later. No, wait - there was time to enjoy it on the way to Afghanistan, if he took a laptop with him. And after all, it was the movie that, when shown in North America, was a victim of such horrendous editing, that it became famous in 
itself. And, shameful as it is, he himself only saw the horrible dub...6 
6 It's safe to say they're talking about Nausicaä. 
“Err... Lieutenant..? 
Clouseau came back to earth. He was still grasping tight the box that he was about to hand over to the private, who seemed very confused. Clouseau somehow felt as if he was clutching to his lifeline. 
“Ah, er...” 
He couldn’t explain his sudden maniacal urge to not let go of that box. It was as if a voice was telling him, “don’t let it go, watch it while you have the time, now”. 
“Sorry,” suppressing the premonition, he let go of the box. 
“Is... everything all right, sir?” 
“Yes. Take care of it.” 
He turned on his heels, and quickly left the deck. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
Commander Richard Mardukas also received a letter, delivered to him by the duty officer. It was from his ex-wife. The stamp showed that the posting date was approximately two months ago. There were still some questions about property, legal matters and all kind of small things to be settled, but why did she have to write about it now? At first he grumbled to himself, “What is it now? New trouble?” 
“Something wrong, Mardukas-san?” said Tessa. 
She was holding the map of the ocean - they were in the ship’s main briefing room, discussing the finer details of both operations, and the duty officer brought the letter directly to him. 
“No... just a personal letter.” 
“Ah, I see.” 
“I’m sorry, Captain. Let us continue,” he said, pulling the heap of documents towards himself, evidently ready to resume the meeting. 
“No, it’s all right, let’s take a break,” Tessa said lightly. She folded the map and sat on a nearby chair. 
The duty officer had already left, and they were alone - the Captain and her executive officer. The other staff members that were normally around the briefing room were busy with their personal effects. Mardukas and most of the crew of the submarine would not fight in Afghanistan - they would settle things after getting off the ship, and then go their separate ways. It was a sad end to their life together, but properly speaking they would only get in the way of the land units during battle. 
Mardukas was probably the only person who still did not express his opinion about Tessa’s lone mission to Merida. For once, he could not get his own thoughts in order, and did not know how to start talking about it. And even though they were alone in the room, Tessa didn’t look like she wanted to talk. 
Mardukas was thinking hard about what he should say to her. To a boring person like himself, this silence was very uncomfortable. 
“It’s from my ex-wife.” 
“I’m sorry..?” 
“The letter. You know that I have a long history with this divorce?” 
“I heard something. Actually, read about it long ago in your personnel file,” Tessa sounded a little surprised to hear him talking about his personal history, possibly for the first time. 
“I haven’t met her for more than five years now...” 
He had divorced his wife, Paula, when he was still in the Navy, some time before joining Mithril, and had since met her 
several times in court. He mostly left the running of the affair to his lawyer, and because they had no children, there was no reason to meet. 
“Aren’t you going to read it?” 
“Later is fine. It is probably nothing important, anyway.” 
“Hm... what kind of person is she? Your ex-wife, I mean.” 
“An ordinary woman. The waitress in a pub near the base in Plymouth. Was popular with the regulars... the girl that drew customers to the shop, so to speak.” 
“Oh, she must be quite pretty then.” 
“She was... but I already threw away the picture. I only remember her as very obliging, and too talkative.” 
He fiddled around with the unopened letter, trying to remember Paula’s face when she was young, but somehow couldn’t. 
“Normally the officers would come in for a drink with their friends, but I always came alone, and sat there, reading books on engineering. I must have seemed something out of the ordinary. She would sometimes talk to me, and I would answer vaguely... and about a year later, we married for some reason.” 
“‘For some reason’..? Didn’t you fall in love?” 
“I don’t remember that myself... please do not misunderstand, I’m not particularly embarrassed about it,” added Mardukas, after seeing the doubt in Tessa’s eyes. “Forgive me for speaking presumptuously, but you are still young. There was no passion or romance, it is something that happens to a lot of people in this world.” 
“Really? But that’s so boring...” 
“That is exactly why love dramas sell so well. An ordinary couple is nothing bad in itself. My work, however, was particular...” 
Tessa could quickly imagine what happened later, and nodded, with a serious look on her face. Life was not easy for the wives of military personnel, and even less so for those who had the misfortune to be married to a submariner. Transfer after transfer, the husband being away from home for months on end, and couldn’t even let her know he was coming, because his work was always a well-kept secret. 
“Paula was an ordinary woman, and this divorce was just a matter of time.” 
He thought that Tessa’s parents somehow managed to overcome it, but didn’t say it out loud. It would be obviously offensive to say that he was jealous of them, - they did, after all, suffer a much more cruel fate than simple divorce. 
“It’s a pity...” 
“No, I would say that it is as it should be. We aren’t wasting each other’s lives, trying to pretend to have a normal married life.” 
“Maybe, but it’s a bit lonesome, isn’t it,” smiled Tessa sadly, and turned towards the table, as if wanting to get back to work. 
She glanced at the final checklist and crossed out several points. 
“Well, we should already be--” 
Mardukas was looking at her sharply. She was worn out by constant worry, and did not look like an eighteen-year-old girl. 
“If you use the TAROS in the Red Chapel, it’s true that it could be possible to operate the ship alone. It could be possible. You would not be able to substitute the skill of trained sonar operators and weapons officers. And... you need an annoying, 
nagging XO, like me. Before you make your decision, you need to see the situation from a different angle.” 
“Yes, but--...” 
“Furthermore, there are not less than twenty-four hours of sailing until Merida, and you will not be able to get any rest until then. No food, no sleep. This is simply unrealistic. It is not a question of willpower,” Mardukas told her all that in one breath. 
Tessa was silent. On her troubled face shadows passed, as if she remembered other times when someone talked back to her. Of course, she knew that he was absolutely right, but she chose this path anyway. She already told everyone the reason during the briefing. 
“I am still skeptical about all this talk of parallel worlds and a ‘nick of time’. I don’t have the confidence to lead my subordinates to believe in it, either.” 
“Exactly, and that’s why I--...” 
“You’re satisfied with playing democracy?” 
“Even if it’s an operation with unfair odds, if you think it is right, you will lead your men to hell and back - that is the role of a commander. You came this far, and you start thinking ‘I’m not going to commit suicide with everyone, so I’ll go by myself’..? No wonder Mao was so angry.” 
“And you think the same..?” 
Holding yourself back and letting your subordinates choose was not the right way to command. It did not matter whether the decision was just or not. One just had to say, “do it”. That was the one thing a commander could never, ever lose sight of. She really wanted to avoid things getting ugly at all costs. Too idealistic... 
“Captain. What if I said right now that I would relieve you from duty? If I obtain the approval of three senior officers, it could happen.” 
“That is not funny.” 
“If that happened, would you be able to shoot me? Could you kill me, to be able to exercise your right to command?” 
After a long and tense silence, she said in a voice stifled by emotion: 
“ Probably not.” 
“And that is your limit. I served under you for three years, and at the end, I have to say - regrettably, you do not have the nature of a true commander.” 
Those were his true thoughts - she realized that even though his words were harsh, she did not bear any ill will towards him. No, on the contrary, she felt like a pupil being praised. 
“Otherwise,” Tessa mumbled, folding together the sea charts, “otherwise... we’ll leave it like this?” 
“I thought you had already understood. Order me, Captain. Order your crew.” 
To commit suicide together with her; to follow her on a one-way trip. It would be easy for him to say now: “I won’t let you go with Sagara alone”, and appear like a knight in shining armor. But now that would be unacceptable. This time she had to choose, even if he understood fully how cruel it was to her. 
“It isn’t too different from making me shoot you...” 
“Yes, that option would be easier.” 
“Let me... let me think for a bit. Alone. Please.” 
“Of course.” 
Mardukas left the briefing room, and started waiting for her call in the dark passageway. 
What would the crew - no, what would her father think of how awfully he had treated her? Would she run off to hide somewhere, blaming him for the fact that she had not been able to live a normal life..? But there was no place in this world for her to hide in. The safest place was in the womb of this monster, that she herself created. No enemy could ever reach her in the briefing room of the Tuatha de Danaan. But rather than being protected by other people and spending her days afraid of the slightest shadow, didn’t she make the de Danaan’s rage into her own weapon..? 
Those were the thoughts of her executive officer. 
She knew how hard the road would be, and went along. She was nearing exhaustion, and her limit was already close. Up until now, though, she had followed her own course on the stormy seas of fate, and so shall it be, to the last. 
On the other side of the door, the briefing room was completely silent. There was no indication that she might call for him soon, so he thought that there was still time, and finally opened the letter that he had been holding. 
It was a brief note from Paula about the current state of their divorce procedure - the agency that took the matter into their hands seemed to be making some progress. Not so long ago, the owner of the pub where they had met fell seriously ill, and though he had recovered, it looked like his pub closed. She went to the closing party, and met some people she hadn’t seen for a while. During the party, the conversation somehow shifted to Richard Mardukas, and it sounded like the people who knew the real circumstances behind his leaving the Navy sympathised with him. One of them, who apparently had a conflict with Mardukas when they were classmates at the academy, talked to her a lot. He said that Mardukas was a very honest man, and precisely because of that he exposed the unpleasant truth, which the politicians and big 
shots in the military would not allow. He told her that, when he was young, he couldn’t forgive him for that attitude - and that she did the same, not listening to him. But everyone was an adult now, and they should try again, he said. That was why she wrote him the letter. 
They weren’t on bad terms, so wouldn’t it be good to go out to eat somewhere together once in a while? She wanted him to contact her, when he felt like it. 
A photograph was enclosed in the letter. She was in a park, with four other women that looked like typical housewives. Paula hadn’t changed at all from the old days - no, she looked even more lovely now, after a long separation. What was that feeling all of a sudden..? Thinking that it would be nice to meet her again, he became a little surprised with himself. 
Why not, though. If everything there ended well, he might go visit Plymouth again. He planned to rest, anyway. 
He was busy thinking about the contents of his reply, but then a noise made him turn his head. The door of the briefing room opened. 
“Yes, Captain.” 
Tessa looked even more exhausted. Her pretty eyes, now red, were a testimony of the torment she was going through. 
She handed him the copy of a document. It was a list comprising around twenty-five names of crew members. 
“This is the bare minimum. Get them to assemble in the briefing room right now, please.” 
There was no need to draw things out any longer. No apologies, or comforting words. Just one sentence that they had heard a thousand times before “you got your orders, now get to it”. Nothing else. 
“Aye-aye, Ma’am.” 
Mardukas saluted, and left the room. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
The resupply operation was already nearing its end, but Laevatein’s maintenance seemed to be far from completion. 
“Ah screw this..!” 
Ed Sachs, the Lieutenant in charge of the maintenance crew, cursed and threw down his wrench - it landed on the flight deck with a loud clang. In all that time they hadn’t even finished with the main frame of the machine. It was possible to get the machine to a condition more or less suited for fighting. The problem was installing the rapid deployment booster. The Laevatein was, fundamentally, a machine derived from the M9. Equipment and parts for the M9 could mostly be used, but the XL-2 rapid deployment booster - basically a single-use liquid fuel rocket used for assault landings, after the machine had been ejected from the submarine’s catapult - was no good. 
Fully equipped, with the Lambda Driver cancellation device “fairy’s feather”, and the 165mm demolition gun, the machine was simply too heavy to fly. The thrust was insufficient, and the wing loading was extreme7. There was no way to ensure proper shoulder and back clearance, and on top of that, the sensor system needed to operate in flight was not installed on the Laevatein. Simply put, even if the submarine got close enough to the island, the machine would not be able to disembark quickly.  
7 "In aerodynamics, wing loading is the loaded weight of the aircraft divided by the area of the wing." (thanks, Wiki, couldn’t have put it better myself - simply it means that his wings will carry an inordinate amount of weight, which is not hard to guess by looking at the ARX-8 drawing... wait, it was designed to fly?!) 
So they had to use the XL-3. It was not an official name - simply two XL-2 units hurriedly put together, an improvised piece of equipment that theoretically could carry the weight of the Laevatein. Because they had been expecting that sort of situation, they were trying to get it working for the last two months, and had barely finished in time.  
No, properly speaking, they hadn’t. The equipment itself was ready, but they had a hard time attuning it to the machine. For some unknown reason conflicts and bugs sprang up between the XL-3’s flight control and Laevatein’s motion management systems. Besides that, there were many parts they were having trouble with. It was not something that could be solved within several hours. 
Al could not remain impassive at the sight. 
<Lieutenant. If you could just attach the unit itself, that would be fine. I will try to run calibration tests on my own.> 
“No, wouldn’t work. The problem’s not only in the software. To find the reason we’d have to change circuit boards and some other parts, bypassing all the wiring and hydraulics... even if you tried, it won’t just fix itself.” 
<You’re quite right.> 
“Just stay quiet, like a good machine, would you?” 
<A machine?> 
“What? You don’t like something?” 
<No. Please allow me to pose you a question, though.> 
“Go on.” 
<Can you imagine what it would be like to grow wings from the back of your body?> 
It was, unquestionably, a strange thing to ask. 
“Eh, what are you on about?” 
<Can you?> 
“Well... as a kid, I guess I imagined that a lot.” 
<Would you say that it is part of the process of growing up of a human?> 
“Can’t say for everyone, but isn’t this kinda dream normal, anyway?” 
<It is just a hypothesis, but what if the problem is not in the XL-3, but in me.> 
“What do you mean?” 
<Feeling my own body. The motion management system is still, so to speak, a subordinate of the core unit that is “I”. However, now its data bus has to handle much larger amounts of data.> 
The motion management system was a unit integrated into the AS frame. If one compared Al to the brain, then that would be the cerebellum.  
“Yeah... I remember noticing something like that,” muttered Sachs, going through the logs again. 
The amount of data transferred was indeed higher compared to a regular M9. One could say that there was a lot of mostly useless data exchange going on. 
“So what you’re trying to say is, you became accustomed to Laevatein as your own body?” 
<I would think so. If one supposed that I was in the process of gaining “self-awareness”, then suddenly growing wings would provoke an unknown reaction.> 
“Well... it sounds a bit crazy...” 
<From a design point of view, even with the XL-3 on board, the data bus would be loaded to well below maximum tolerance levels. However, if we examine the hypothesis of this “feeling of my own body”, there is a possibility that the bus width is simply not sufficient.> 
<Would it be possible to perform an extension now?> 
“I can’t say it’s impossible, but according to tests it’s sufficient. And no bugs found, either.” 
<That would be right, if I was a machine...> 
“... I see. I get what you’re trying to say.” 
Not to look at him as just another machine - that was the idea. And either way, this Al fellow, whose core was essentially made of liquid metal, and the Lambda Driver, that was his extension, were really things beyond anyone’s imagination. At first glance the plan to increase bus width looked liked nonsense, but it could be in fact an unexpected solution. If the bus width was increased, wouldn’t it all become strangely similar to human brain tissue? And it wasn’t easy work, either. They would also need to shut down Al completely at least once. 
“Well, let’s try that... is what’d I’d like to say, but we’re out of time.” 
<I understand.> 
“Let’s give up on this and throw out the XL-3. You’ll have to walk underwater.” 
<It is a pity.> 
With that, the probability of their operation being successful dropped even lower. They would have to disembark and wade through an island full of mines, both on land and sea. Lambda Driver or not, it would be tough to survive all that. And yet...  
Unpleasant thoughts crossed his mind. Just forget about it, Ed, - you were going to get on that ship and go to Florida with Norah. Kids also waited for them, and it was ages since he last ate Mum’s meat pie. He would at least finish his work on that machine--... 
Someone called him from the other side of the ship deck - it was Mardukas, who was waving to him to come closer. 
“What is it?” 
“You’re staying. Captain’s orders.” 
When he heard that, Sachs felt strangely relieved. He stopped the disassembly. Now he had no choice but to see it through to the end. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
At last, the status of all tasks on the portable terminal screen changed to “Completed”. The heads of various departments were coming in with final reports. The resupply operation was fully completed. 
“Wonderful,” nodded Tessa, and notified the crew to gather on the hangar deck. 
All of them - the maintenance crews and supply ship’s personnel, soldiers going to Afghanistan - were coming to listen to her final words. 
Her last speech... 
She was walking towards the hangar, and her steps were heavy. She noticed small scratches in the narrow corridor. Some pipes, painted cream, were now completely black. The ship had been at sea for only two and a half years, but it looked like it had served for much longer. 
Those were a busy couple of years. She felt like the day of the ship’s maiden voyage, when she first ordered full start-up of her systems from the Captain’s seat for the first time, was something that happened long, long ago. And her young, fifteen-year-old self, ambitious, full of confidence, sincerely believing that she would be able to defeat any enemy and overcome any distress. 
How did things become like this... Her reward for overcoming all those trials was - disaster after disaster, constant fatigue, loss of faith in herself, despair that was eating away at her every waking moment... 
“If this continues, I’ll...” 
No. She has to get a hold of herself. 
She entered the hangar and saw all the two hundred crew lined up in the middle. All familiar faces, and she could see Mao and Clouseau in the front row. 
All of their faces were stiff, and she could feel the barely concealed feeling of uneasiness. 
At Mardukas’ command all of them stood at attention. Tessa briskly walked past the front row, towards the improvised podium, that was in fact a small container with a ramp. Once she stood up there, she had to find the courage to give those men a speech. 
Get a hold of yourself. Straighten your back. Pull up your chin. Do not let your eyes wander around. You have got to show them that you are in good spirits, make them think that you are absolutely confident in yourself. That everything is going as planned, and victory is near. 
I’m a leader, my strength and wisdom is unquestionable. I overcame every obstacle that has been in my way. I’m “Mithril’s witch”. 
Do not let them see a chink in your armor. Flattery is useless, - just stand on the podium, and look down on them with a commanding air. 
On them, who know perfectly well what kind of person I really am... 
And she went up the ramp. 
She felt that she was suddenly losing her balance. 
She made desperate attempts to recover it, but they were all wrong, wrong..! and Tessa executed a perfect pancake landing onto the podium with a sound that Kaname Chidori always parodied so accurately... 
The echo of her fall resonated in the completely still hangar deck. 
Dreadful silence. 
None of the crew dared to move. They were still standing at attention as ordered. 
God knows how many long, agonizing seconds passed, until Mardukas’ voice broke the paralyzing stillness. 
“... Captain..?” 
“I... I’m fine!” she gasped. 
Thoughts of how to get out of that situation were swirling in her head with tremendous speed. She descended into a complete panic.  
What now..? I really did it this time... why did it have to happen now... It’s supposed to be my last speech..! This is the first time I fell in these circumstances. I was always careful before... and I had to let my guard down at this moment. And why was the ramp so unstable? Yes, it was definitely the ramp’s fault. Have to punish it right now... wait, what am I thinking. Calm down, ca-alm down. I must quickly get up and act in a dignified manner, not showing any agitation at all. Calmly, make a face like I did it on purpose... wait, why would someone fall on purpose? No, no, that’s not it. I need an excuse, anything... can’t say it was all because of the podium... Quickly, quickly, need to do something. A way to regain dignity! A way to regain dignity... a way to regain - aaah, there isn’t any..! 
There was no other way but to admit it. Tessa got up slowly, her shoulders weighed down by the gravity of the situation, and turned towards her crew. 
Their faces were absolutely expressionless, even though they must have been shocked, too. They were staring into emptiness, determined not to let a single flicker of emotion get through. 
Or not... 
Looking more closely, one would notice that the shoulders of some people in the front row were quivering slightly. The neck muscles of some were twitching, and others were doing their best to keep their lips shut, but their irregularly contracting nostrils gave them away. For a soldier, the order to stand at attention was absolute... And they were all dying of laughter, no mistake about it.  
What was that? All of the people lined up on the deck are adults, and yet they’re ready to laugh at her like at a weeble doll. And now they were politely waiting for thankful words from that girl who always falls down. On top of everything, they all thought it was absolutely correct, and even exemplary to do that. Bunch of idiots... 
And she was one, too. Just before, she was preparing with heroic determination and inappropriate pride, to give a final, moving speech full of pathos... how ridiculous it seemed to her now. 
Am I not silly? What, I wanted to appear like some kind of perfect being? Pah, a scatterbrain like me getting all fussy and pompous... It was better to just tell them the truth. 
“Ahem,” she cleared her throat and looked around. “Everybody, from now on, you’re fired! It was good working with you!” 
Saying that, she left the stage. 
Mardukas’ eyes became round for a moment, but then he regained his composure and shouted: 
At once the silence gave way to a general commotion. Some were finally able to laugh, some people looked bewildered, others only had a dry smile on their faces. Strangely, it didn’t seem like anyone blamed her. Either way, it did not matter now. 
A-ah, so that’s what it was - above all, she was afraid to disappoint them. That battle ended, too. Afterwards everyone would do whatever they wanted. They were their own masters now. 
Among the soldiers she spotted Mao. Their eyes met for a moment - Tessa just shrugged and smiled, but Mao seemed very grieved. Without exchanging a word with anyone, Tessa turned and left the hangar deck. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
Mao, Clouseau, and the rest of the assault team loaded up, and the five Pave Mare transport helicopters, their engines roaring, took off from the flight deck. The Bernie Worell had also started up, and was leaving de Danaan’s side. Most of the crew, fired by Tessa, were returning home, and many of them gathered on the ship’s deck, taking off their caps and waving the helicopters goodbye. Sousuke, on the de Danaan’s deck, also raised a hand in salute. Ed Sachs seemed to be overcome by a wave of emotions, and as if trying to transmit them all at once, was waving with all his strength. He was the only one of the maintenance crew left, the others were on board the cargo ship. Engineering officer Nora Lemming was also there, leaning on the railing and looking very sadly at those they left behind. 
Before long the Bernie Worell became barely visible, and procedures for shutting down the flight deck began. The alarm sounded, and the enormous hatch began to slide back into its closed position. In the sky, the sun seemed to follow suit, disappearing behind the horizon. 
“Why did you remain?” asked Sousuke, and Sachs frowned. 
“There’s some work left, that’s all...” 
Sousuke looked at him quizzically. 
“ what I’d love to say, but it was Tessa’s request. I’ve got two kids, you know, and a new candidate to fill in for their mother. It’s pretty tough.” 
He sounded like he was complaining, but he didn’t really look dissatisfied. On the contrary, he seemed a bit self-deprecating, but keen and refreshed. 
“Bah, even if there was no order, I’d have remained, I think. So... even if I could complain, I should really thank her. Well, I’d better get back to work,” said Sachs, and was about to go down the staircase that led to the hangar deck.  
At that moment, the main hatch locked down with a resonating clang. Several locking mechanisms had to activate to ensure the water-tightness of the hatch, and their motors started humming all around them. 
“I’ll help.” 
“Oh, shut up. That’s not something for you to tamper with. Right, Al?” 
He was wearing a headset around his neck, and his microphone seemed to be on. 
<The Lieutenant is right, sergeant. Please stand by and support us when needed,> came Al’s voice in Sousuke’s headset. 
He knew that the rapid deployment booster was still not properly affixed to the Laevatein, and with the other maintenance crew members gone, Sachs would be working alone. 
“Heh, you’re not much help anyway. So just do as you’re told.” 
“...very well, then.” 
Sousuke left Sachs and went towards the stern of the ship, the living quarters. The usually busy corridors were empty. He went to check out the galley, thinking that because the cook, Kasuya, was gone, he should at least prepare a meal for the remaining crew. That, too, was unnecessary, as it turned out that Kasuya worked overtime, and prepared a few days’ worth of food, just in case. There was a cauldron of curry, lots of rice in the fridge, bread, salad, even pasta. He went as far as to leave behind a note, detailing how exactly everything should be warmed up, and how kitchen appliances should be used. The note ended with simple words “Good luck”. 
He suddenly remembered that this was the place he fought the traitor Danigan. Kaname was then hiding in that corner, in tears, and he had to apologize to her over and over... 
“How ironic,” he thought. 
Each time they talked honestly was in moments like that. It somehow became normal for them to talk candidly during some crisis, incident, or under pressure. 
It meant that they started relying on peril itself... if he were to meet and talk to her again, would it be under the same circumstances? He couldn’t even begin to guess. To begin with, she had now lost her sanity. She thought she was acting according to her convictions, while in fact she was being manipulated. Even Tessa did not know any way to turn her back. Was it too late 
already? Would she never go back to the girl he knew? But then, wasn’t what he was about to do completely futile and meaningless? 
“This is bad...” 
Sousuke sighed, and massaged his temple with a finger. A tough battle was coming, and he couldn’t even concentrate. The future seemed like a swirling mist, his faith in himself was gone, and he felt like he couldn’t make even one step forward. 
Did he even believe that Tessa’s goal was the same as his? Why did she absolutely have to confirm what was happening there? Did she not think at all that he could hinder her plans? 
He remembered Sarah’s letter once again. Why would she, without explanation, say that she would be on Leonard’s side..? 
He left the mess room and headed back to the SRT’s room. Out of his personal locker he took his favorite Glock 19 and a clip of nine-millimeter ammunition. He didn’t even use a holster, just pushed it behind his belt, in the back. Unless he was searched, no one would notice it. He closed the locker and went to the bridge. 
When the ship was at sea, this area was off-limits to all but required personnel. Sousuke, being a sergeant of the land assault troop, was not in that list, and naturally, entering that area while carrying a firearm was strictly forbidden, except in the case of a real crisis. But now, who cared... He entered the bridge defiantly. 
Tessa, Mardukas, and the rest of the bridge crew looked over their shoulders, and were obviously puzzled to see Sousuke there. 
He didn’t answer immediately. Keeping his usual, sullen expression, he looked around, and imagined. 
In the next second, without taking his gun out, he approaches Mardukas, tackles him, and sends him flying towards 
the rest of the bridge crew. After that, he puts the gun to Tessa’s head, and tells the crew not to move. So simple... 
“Sergeant Sagara, did anyone give you a permission to enter the bridge?” 
It did not sound like a reprimand - instead, the tone of his voice was that of concern. He also was not a fool, and could consider all, even the most impossible of cases. 
No. The idea of taking over the bridge by himself was absurd. Ordering them to stop the attack and then sitting on the bottom of the sea until the time comes, was not something he thought himself capable of. 
“Yes, sir, the most senior officer of the assault force,” he answered boldly. 
“What are you talking about, sergeant?” 
“Myself, sir. I am the only member of the assault force remaining on the ship. Which is why,” he pointed to the left side of the Captain’s chair, which used to be Kalinin’s place, “I will stand there. With your permission, of course.” 
It was not something that he thought of on the spur of the moment - in fact, he was hoping for it from the very beginning. 
“Hmm... well, technically you are correct, but...” 
“Ah, why not?” said Tessa. “But we still have a ways to go until the area of operations.” 
“It doesn’t matter.” 
“Well then, here’s your place. If you get tired, feel free to go out as you want.” 
There was no particular ill will in her words, but her manner was quite blunt. Usually she would say something like “I approve”, and that would be it. 
Sousuke saw her last address to the crew, but it felt as if she was a bit different now. She looked as tired as ever, but her grim 
disposition had vanished. She certainly did not return to her former, cheerful self, but she didn’t fall prey to her demons, either. 
It felt as if she became more... brazen, or reckless. If one had to compare, that attitude was probably the closest to those times when she would have meaningless disputes with Mao, off-duty. She was a bit peevish, sulking, and at the same time languid. If someone were to ask her what to do during an operation right now, she would probably answer something like “bah, do whatever works”. 
For some reason, however, he did feel anxious because of that, and the same could be said for Mardukas and the rest of the crew. His eyes met with a navigation officer that was sitting next to him. The latter only raised an eyebrow, and gave a small shrug, as if trying to say “It’s a bit strange, innit?” Sousuke inclined his head a little, indicating “I don’t know what it’s all about, either”, and stood near her chair at ease.  
He gave Tessa a sidelong glance, as if trying to ask her personally. 
“Fine,” she must have guessed that he was looking at her, and murmured, “I’m fine. What about you?” 
It was finally time to answer that question. One word of that girl moved him more than anything Mao or Clouseau said to him. She was a far stronger person than him, and as a man, he could not permit himself to give some sort of shallow excuse for an answer. He remained silent and just stood there at ease. 
After some time he touched the gun, still concealed on his back. He had never felt so miserably ashamed of carrying a gun in his life. 
On the main screen, large numerals indicated the time until arrival to the AO: 12 hours, 12 minutes. 
Sousuke stood at ease. He touched the gun that was hidden at his back. It was the first time in his life that he had felt so miserable about carrying a gun. 
If he did not find himself before then, he would be a goner. 
Only 12 hours and 11 minutes left... 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
Eighteen hours after they left the de Danaan, the assault force was on a small airfield in the west of Nepal. Even though it was supposed to be a race against time, they had already wasted two hours there. The town, called Dipayal, was situated in a river basin in the middle of a mountainous district of the country. The airfield was just outside the town, and was comprised of an unpaved runway and a couple of shacks. It was obviously not designed for anything more than light planes, and because fully loaded C-17’s were landing on it, making enough noise to cause an avalanche, it was easy to imagine the inhabitants’ astonishment. Mao and the others flew from the de Danaan to Brunei by helicopter, then got on board C-17s, and using ECS safely flew over the airspace of Cambodia, Myanmar and Bangladesh. 
They were around twelve hundred kilometers from their target, the missile base in Afghanistan. They were waiting here for their last refuel. According to their estimate, they only had about four hours left until the enemy gained missile launch capability. 
The air was cold, around 2-3 degrees below zero, and perfectly clear, and their breath escaped in small, white clouds. Fortunately, they wore thick field jackets over the AS pilot uniforms, and so only their faces felt the cold. There was no wind - a graveyard-like stillness and snow-crowned peaks around them created a serene atmosphere. 
Some peasants gathered in the distance, watching Mao and the others, who were hurriedly completing the inspection of their 
equipment near the prefab shacks. It was natural that they felt uneasy. 
“Sheesh, I know that I said I wanted an isolated location for the last stop, but... why this place?” Mao complained to Lemon, who was near her. 
“Sorry. There really wasn’t anything better,” said Lemon. 
Normally he would just wave it off “come on, getting this in half a day is a luxury!” - but he adopted a much more cautious attitude towards Mao. 
He was there when Kurz died. What little he heard from Sousuke about the situation on the ground, clearly stated that he was not responsible for anything, but deep inside he probably felt that he could have tried to do something, to help in some way. He had no way of knowing about Mao and Weber’s relationship, and was probably thinking that he let Mao’s subordinate die. 
“Nah, doesn’t matter,” she said, closely inspecting an SMG, “but those rubbernecks are starting to worry me. Are you sure the police of that town don’t mind?” 
“It... doesn’t look like it.” 
“What’s that supposed to mean?” 
“There’s a Chinese who owes Mr. Hunter some favor, and his brother is a trader that has an office in Nepal, so he bribed a government official, whose cousin is the deputy head of local police and--...” 
“Right, I got it already, in other words, nothing’s sure.” 
“It’s going to be fine. The nearest police station is two hours away by car. Even if some thick-headed local cop comes running, we’ll be out of here long before then.” 
“That is, if the package gets here before that.”  
The “package” was the drop module for Mao’s M9. In the coming operation both Mao and Clouseau would make an assault 
landing, but the de Danaan only had one drop module left. They couldn’t get another one before they parted ways with Tessa and the others, so a friendly supply troop was supposed to get the module to the airfield. That, too, was delayed, and they were powerless to do anything. She knew very well that it was useless to be angry, but she still continued cursing under her breath. 
Lemon, evidently sympathetic to the situation, tried to start a conversation to break up the tension a little. 
“So, I heard this drop module is coming from western Bengal. Why on earth would there be M9 equipment there?” 
“Leftovers from the Indian Ocean squad that got wiped out a year ago... well, their surviving comrades prepared us for it.” 
“Ah, I see... hey, is that them?” 
They saw Clouseau talking to someone on the small radio that was lying on top of a rusty drum not ten meters away. After a short exchange, he looked at the soldiers around him, and said loudly: 
“Helicopters will be here in five minutes! Get the equipment and fuel ready!” 
The soldiers rushed to prepare for the transports’ arrival. Mao had readied her kit, and now ran towards the C-17 where her M9 was. After getting it outside, it would take some time to affix the drop module... she quickly got into the M9, that was being unloaded from the transport plane, got some distance between herself and the landing strip, dropped the machine to its knees, and started waiting. The local peasants were gaping at the spectacle - it was probably the first time they’d ever seen an AS. She zoomed in onto them, and saw that one was taking pictures with a cheap digital camera. 
“A-ah, I’m sorry, but no pictures...” 
She adjusted the machine’s head radar to send waves of a certain frequency at maximum power in the short range where she had zoomed in. It was completely harmless to people, but to electronic consumer goods that amount of radiation was lethal. The young man who had been taking the picture clearly seemed bewildered by the fact that it had stopped working, and was fiddling around with it. 
“They’re coming,” Clouseau’s voice came over the radio. 
She saw the transport helicopters crossing the mountain ridge to the south. They were derivatives of the Ch-53, frequently used in the Western countries, white fuselage with a bright orange stripe, and horizontal letters “HUNTER AIRLINE”, a suitable disguise for a local private airline company. 
The characteristic whine of the turbo shaft engines ripped apart the silence that shrouded the airport. Mao set her machine into the loading standby position, and got out. A helicopter hovered above, rotated, started descending slowly, blowing up clouds of dust, and gently touched down. 
Before the rotors stopped, one of the hatches opened, and a slender Asian woman in a beige pantsuit jumped out. She definitely seemed familiar... 
“Is that... Wraith?” 
It was, indeed, the agent, who worked as a backup for Sousuke when he was guarding Kaname Chidori, back in Tokyo. She was also the person who recovered the core unit of the Arbalest, and delivered the new Laevatein to Sousuke from the research division, and Gavin Hunter personally. Mao didn’t get a chance to talk to her personally, but she knew that, like Hunter, she had been helping Sousuke. She heard from Lemon that the woman was attacked by Leonard during the Moscow operation, and went missing since then... 
“Wraith!” Lemon was sprinting towards her. “You’re all right, thank God!! Why- how come you’re here?!” 
“I’d like to ask you the same. How did you get here?” she asked dryly, without even smiling.  
It didn’t look like she was too pleased at the reunion. Lemon, who looked like he was about to embrace her, seemed to be befuddled by this cold reaction. 
“Eh... me? Well, it’s a long story--...” 
“I’m joking. I’ve heard the details.” 
“Ah, right...” 
Mao approached them, and Wraith greeted her with a nod. 
“Lieutenant Mao.” 
“So you were fine, I’m glad to see that.” 
“Thank you. You seem to be in perfect health yourself,” Wraith smiled politely. 
Lemon seemed to be thoroughly displeased at the difference in her attitude, and muttered something to himself. 
“After the operation, I was detained by the Moscow police, and subsequently handed over to the GRU. There was a mentor of mine, from the old student days, to whom I felt indebted... anyway, I was released after an exchange of information. If it was the KGB, I’d still be in prison...”  
The KGB and GRU were two distinct intelligence agencies that represented the Soviet Union. The KGB acted as the hound of the Communist Party, while the GRU represented the military counter-intelligence. Very roughly, it was the difference between a politician and a military man, so their behavior was “relatively” different. That said, they still could not live without providing information to each other, albeit cautiously.  
“Exchanging information with the GRU? Like what?” 
“Why did we investigate Yamsk 11, and other related things. I didn’t say anything that could put you all in jeopardy.” 
“I do understand that you would not believe my words alone. However, the GRU wanted a contact with you. Their top officials had noticed the threat of Amalgam a while ago, and wanted to be free from its influence, if at all possible.” 
“This is all great, but shouldn’t you be talking to Tessa about it? Though she’s at sea now, and no communications can be made.” 
“Right now I came for a different reason. There are two main things I would like to let you know. Is there a table somewhere..?” 
“No tables. Come here,” Lemon led them to the nearest ammo box. 
Wraith unfolded the flexible screen she had with her. Poking at it several times with her finger, she brought up a detailed view of the missile base.  
“This is the latest information, courtesy of the GRU. All the electronic locks, as well as the launch systems, are in here.” 
The 3D map of the base had some written comments here and there, probably added by someone who knew it well. Compared to that, the information Mao and the others had was nothing more than a rough sketch that could not be relied upon. 
“Wow, that is... incredible,” breathed Mao, playing around with the screen. 
“Think you can use it?” 
“Absolutely. If we relied on what we have, it’d be like diving in blindfolded.” 
“I’m glad it can help. I knew it was dangerous to send it online, so I rushed here as soon as I learned the location from Mr. Hunter...” 
“So, why is GRU interested?” 
“Isn’t that obvious? Those fellows who took over the missile base are out of control.” 
“Exactly. They had already sent a quite considerable force to recapture it, and it seems they had been wiped out by the enemy AS.” 
Hearing that, Mao laughed sarcastically. 
“Isn’t it always the same... when the fire gets out of control, it’s our turn to try and put it out. They really rely on us too much.” 
“But ‘who dares wins’, wouldn’t you say?” remarked Clouseau, who had come up behind them unnoticed. “Thanks to this information, the infantry’s work will become easier. We are grateful, Wraith.” 
“No thanks are needed. Now, it’s not that important, but I do have another message--...” 
Before she had time to finish, Clouseau turned to the infantry squad and shouted: 
“Assemble for briefing! Changes in the operation following new info!” 
“Sorry, you can leave the less important talk for later, we need to discuss the tactics first.” 
The members and team leaders of the infantry force, Yang Jun-Kyu and Roger Sandarapta, assembled promptly, and were quickly given new instructions regarding team composition, insertion routes, and the like. They had the time to memorize the changes and ask their questions, before Clouseau finally said: 
“That is all. Any other questions?” 
Mao raised her hand. She didn’t have any particular questions on the operation, but she suddenly realized that it may be the last time they were all together, and wanted to say something to her fellow soldiers. 
“Can I? It’s not a question though...” 
Her eyes met Clouseau’s. He knew very well that compared to himself, who was transferred to the Pacific, she was a veteran of the force. He felt that he should give her some time, and nodded, as if saying “do as you want”. 
She looked around at those with whom she had shared joys and sorrows in those past years. She knew every face in the crowd - they all seemed relaxed, but Mao’s eyes were not fooled that easily. Everyone was extremely tense. 
They were thirty-two. There was a time when the force was much larger, but some people had left the unit, some had been shifted to a different location, and of course some had been killed in action or retired because of their wounds. For this final strike that was all they had. 
“I think this may be my last chance, so I just wanted to say something to you all... Well...” 
She couldn’t seem to find any words that would fit the occasion. She now understood how hard it was for Tessa to find parting words, to give a last speech. She, however, did not have to shoulder a burned as heavy as that girl. As a normal, ordinary person, she obviously wanted to say what was on her mind to those fellows. Yeah, why not just say it... 
“The situation’s pretty bad. The operation itself is difficult, the crisis couldn’t be more serious, and there probably won’t be enough time. But there’s one thing that’s even worse. You know what?” 
“No idea...” 
People were shrugging, looking at her quizzically, and finally she said: 
“The fact that you bunch are the ones saving the world.” 
Everyone started laughing. Some people were clapping their knee, doubled up in laughter, some smiled and looked at the sky, leaning on their neighbor’s shoulder. Clouseau was smiling broadly and shaking his head, as if in disbelief. The outsiders, Lemon and Wraith, seemed to be puzzled by this display of joyous self-deprecation. 
Mao continued, grinning all the while: 
“No, just look at us, right? Maybe we should leave it to some other fellows that at least look presentable!” 
“Really, you’re right, hahah... spot on..!” 
“Aw, why’d you have to be so nasty... heheh...” 
“We definitely ain’t the ones for the job, haha...” 
Mercenaries like them were really little more than a bunch of vagabonds. They usually died meaningless deaths in meaningless operations, and their lives had nothing to do with honor or virtue. Then how did it come to this? After all, they were about to take back a nuclear missile base, to prevent World War III, fighting for hundreds of millions of lives... didn’t all of this look like a bad joke? 
“But, you know,” Mao waited until the laughter had stopped, and continued, “the things we’ve done to get this far, they weren’t pointless. All the training, and the operations, and those we lost. They all had meaning.” 
Those they had lost... the soldiers were nodding in approval. 
“Bah, they’re probably laughing at us now,” said one of them, “imagine what Kurz would say - that we’re doomed because he’s not with us, or something.” 
“Yeah, that’d be like him.” 
“He’s sure not praying for our safety or anything,” laughed another. 
It was a different kind of laughter, laced with notes of sadness and weariness. 
“Then let’s do it, and prove him wrong!” 
“Yeah, let’s!” 
“I’d like to see his disappointed face...” 
All of them answered her in the same way. 
“I have nothing more to say, Ben.” 
“Good work. Then, start preparing for departure! Get to it!” 
All the soldier immediately got back to their work. 
They had changed almost visibly, and were now full of inspiration. Their gait was reassured, their voices were full of energy, and they knew exactly what they had to do. 
Mao thought that “let’s prove Kurz wrong!” was a good motto. Of course, he wouldn’t ever wish for them to fail, and everybody understood that. As adults, they would have been just somewhat embarrassed to say “let’s do this for Kurz”. And they were not thinking about him alone - as the friend they had lost a short time ago, he represented all of their comrades who perished in battle up until then. 
“Let’s prove you wrong... Kurz”, she muttered, smiling to herself. 
Kurz... your sniping was good, and you were sometimes useful, too - I’m showing a little gratitude here, so don’t be angry up there, okay? I can see you relaxing with the other guys, beer in one hand... 
“ the way, Wraith,” Mao remembered something, and turned to the woman, who had been standing near her all this time. “What was that other thing you wanted to say?” 
Wraith didn’t answer. Her face was troubled, as if she had something to say, but was struggling with it. She was very calm 
and composed up until then, but for some reason reacted strangely to that final speech. 
“Eh? Ah, yes, -yes, what?” 
“The other message you had for us..?” 
“Er, message? no, nothing...” 
“Hey, is something wrong? You look pale.” 
“Oh, er, do I..? That must be... the climate... and the pressure here is low...” 
“Ah... right. So, about the message? Ben looks busy at the moment, just tell it to me, I’ll let him know.” 
“Er... no, it’s... nothing, really. Forget it.” 
“What is it?” 
“No, really, nothing. Your fellows’ morale has been raised, and I don’t want to be the one pouring cold water onto them, so to speak.” 
“Eh, what do you mean?” 
“Just... don’t worry about it! It must have been my misunderstanding. There’s only a piece of news. I hope the information from the GRU helps. Well then...” 
“O- hey, wait...” 
Ignoring Mao, Wraith hurriedly left the scene. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
The loading of all of the troops’ equipment was finally complete, and the transport plane was taking off from the small Tibetan airport. The disposable rocket boosters, affixed to the plane for a short takeoff, emitted an ear-splitting roar. 
Lemon, after seeing off the transport plane with Mao and the other soldiers, helped the supply troop to pack up and withdraw. 
He spotted Wraith, who also remained behind, talking on a satellite phone in a corner of the airfield. He had no idea with whom she would be talking now, but he saw that she was frantically trying to calm down the other party.  
“... I’ve already explained the situation..! Yes, I did not tell them... Why? but... no, I had no choice..! No, that’s not it..! If the team’s mood was raised by that alone, I’d be taking it away, no..?. ah, that’s why I was... don’t say this, and don’t do anything rash. No, on a second thought, just shoot yourself, that would be the best, going with the flow. I’ll speak to Lieutenant Colonel Kirienko, he’ll arrange it... what? No, dammit, why would I know that..? But you did understand, right..? Oh shut up, stop yelling at me! Over and out!” 
She fiercely pressed the off button on the phone. 
“My God, I swear, if that’s not the most annoying fellow I’ve ever met in this world...” 
She continued grumbling, and put down the phone. 
Lemon, very curious about what was going on, called her. 
She hadn’t noticed him at all, and almost jumped at his voice. 
“Le-... Lemon, it’s just you... what is it?” 
“Well, you seemed a bit weird there in front of Mao-san. Whom were you talking to?” 
“Er, well,” she hesitated for a moment. “Well, since you’ll only be able to speak to them after the operation anyway, I can tell you...” 
“Well, originally I brought them another message...” 
And Wraith told him what she was hiding. 
Hearing her story, Lemon finally nodded in agreement. 
“Yes, you’re right. This wouldn’t help them at all...” 
“I just couldn’t, that would have been too awkward.” 
With an annoyed look, she picked up the phone once again, and started calling somewhere else. 
“Who is it this time?” 
She had a very short exchange with him, but her face grew more and more serious by the minute. 
“Is there a problem?” asked Lemon, when she had put down the phone. 
“The expected time until the enemy gets the missile launch codes – is less than three hours.” 
“That’s much faster than we expected..!” 
Very secure codes are necessary to launch nuclear missiles. The safety device is completely tamper-proof, and there is a very limited amount of attempts to enter it. If someone unsuccessfully attempted an unauthorized launch, the firing circuits would immediately burn out, and in that case, one would have to go to a base around 2000km away to get the parts, which were kept there in secure storage - otherwise a second attempt was simply impossible. 
The GRU had possibly provided the number of digits, and information about the model of the safety device. Knowing that, and estimating Amalgam’s code-breaking capabilities was all they could do - it was little more than a guess, at the end.  
Three hours... 
“Is that an optimistic estimate?” 
“I’m afraid so. They may be faster.” 
It would take their troops a little less than two hours to get to the AO. Even if the estimate was correct, the assault force would 
have almost no time left. Taking a mountain stronghold within one hour... 
“We’re talking about Mithril’s SRT here, they can do it.” 
Wraith didn’t say anything. She wasn’t a person who liked consolation, and there wasn’t much she could say, anyway. 
“If we remained in this wilderness, we could probably escape the missiles.” 
“Hey, what--...” 
“Just kidding. Let’s go.” 
The preparations for withdrawal from the area were well under way. Soon, all the remaining equipment and parts were loaded onto the transport helicopters, their engines once again disrupted the natural silence of those mountains, and after their final roll-call, the supply unit loaded up into the machines. 
“Well, it’s time to make preparations in case this goes well.” 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
The final calibrations were entering their last stage. Kaname had locked herself in the control room near TARTAROS since yesterday, losing herself in the rewriting of the control codes and fine-tuning of the device. The construction of the gigantic machine had ended, and now only the personnel necessary for a detailed inspection of the device remained on the scene. In a few hours, the geothermal power station would reach planned capacity, thus being able to maintain necessary power levels. The adjustment of control codes should be finished by then, too. 
She practically didn’t sleep these two days, only sometimes taking a nap on a bench that was left outside of the control room, and went to get a sandwich downstairs - otherwise she allowed herself no breaks. 
Yes, nobody was forcing her, her own desire kept pushing her forward. She did not mind working with hardly any rest - bringing that apparatus to completion was exceptionally gratifying. 
The TARTAROS was bringing a revolution. It was a device that rendered meaningless the concept of time and history that has been weighing down humans for so long. You could say, it controlled fate - and she was proud to carry the burden of the one who would lead the world onto a new path. Everything should be entrusted to her, and she would undoubtedly satisfy everyone’s wishes. 
She had been in that constant state of exaltation and euphoria ever since she returned from Yamsk 11. Not a single trace of doubt, always full of energy and vigor.  
The body, however, would not support this. Even now she was sometimes assaulted by waves of sleepiness, and the vast flow of thoughts inside her mind had become disjointed. 
Right now, she noticed that, her fingers stopped above the keyboard, and she lifted her eyes towards the ceiling. 
“Ah... no, no, I can’t, not now. 
She blinked several times, then clapped herself on the cheeks. She had stopped again, for the umpteenth time. Thinking of operational efficiency, it would perhaps be better to take a short nap right now. 
And then she noticed. 
In one of the windows she was working on, at the end of the iota wave supposition lens group alignment script, were words that didn’t belong there. 
//anata wa atashi jya nai; 
It was Japanese. There was no Japanese language pack installed on the PC, so it was displayed in romaji. “You are not me”? She didn’t understand the meaning. Who wrote those? Certainly not herself. 
However, no one else was around, and no one worked on the script except her. She didn’t think it possible to write that, even half-asleep, but even if it was the case, she didn’t understand. Asleep or awake, her thoughts were filled with the completion of the TARTAROS, so how did those words come out? You are not me... what..? 
For some reason she became very irritated, even angry, thought she didn’t understand why she was feeling those emotions. She wanted to take the screen in front of her and throw it on the floor. 
Don’t joke around! Don’t give me this crap. Why did these words appear there? I am myself, and you’re talking nonsense. 
Wait... no... who is this? Who... who am I getting angry at? 
“Aah, what’s wrong with me,” she groaned, burying her face in her hands. 
That feeling... it was as if someone, somewhere, was constantly yelling at her, and protesting against everything she did. Yes, that was it, it had happened before. Thinking about it now, she remembered that she had the same feeling on the plane from Yamsk 11 to Merida.  
Tears started flowing down her cheeks because of that strange sensation. They were unpleasant, salty tears...  
Even more obvious was the time when she had a visit from Leonard. A month earlier, Leonard came to her room to talk about technical details, but then she proposed to sit on the sofa, and made some tea. After Yamsk 11, he had been a perfect gentleman, and 
did not make any inappropriate attempts to catch her off guard. But that time was a bit different. 
He had taken her hand, and she did not object. It was late at night. She thought that it was time to reward his devotion, even though her former self would have obstinately continued to reject him. She thought it would be truly pitiful, if he had to leave this world like that. Why not tonight then? 
When she told him that, he only smiled sadly for some reason. But he didn’t to become timid, or suddenly hesitate. Like with any other woman probably, he put his hand around her, and leaned forward to kiss... 
And then that feeling came.  
It wasn’t exactly self-hatred, or revulsion towards Leonard. The closest description would be discomfort, as if someone was peering over her shoulder - a dreadfully unpleasant feeling. On top of everything, that someone was very angry at her - and rightly so - for the things she was doing. 
It made her turn her face away from Leonard, hiding her own uneasiness. “Sorry,” she then said, “let’s not”. He only answered “I understand”, and left the room. 
And that was it. Since then, he didn’t lay a finger upon her. 
Why did she have that feeling? She couldn’t be anyone but herself. She thought and acted by her own will. And she was doing the right thing. Even so, doubts constantly emerged out of nowhere, and stirred her heart.  
Don’t worry. You’re just tired. Come to think of it, you’ve only done these all-nighters when you were preparing for the school festival. You’ve done enough, now a short sleep would be fine, wouldn’t it? 
“Right! Let’s sleep!” 
She stood up from her chair resolutely. 
Why not tonight then? When she told him that, he only smiled sadly for some reason. But he didn't become timid, or suddenly hesitate. 
This manner of speaking, these fast decisions. This is me, no question about that. An hour should be fine, I’ll wrap myself in that futon. This might be my last sleep in this world, so let’s enjoy it! 
Informing the guard outside of the control room of her intentions, she threw herself down on the bench. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
Only fifty nautical miles left. 
The first thing that stood in the way between the Tuatha de Danaan and Merida Island was the United States Navy. 
The sonar room reported “one submarine, bearing 0-8-6, eighteen miles, heading two-six-five at ten knots. Identifier ‘Mike-Five’ assigned to target.” 
It was too far away to know the name of the submarine, but it was without mistake an improved version of the Los-Angeles class. 
“It looks like they were waiting for us,” said Mardukas. 
“Hm, yes, probably. There should be at least four others in the area,” muttered Tessa. 
Four submarines of the Pacific fleet - and it was possible that more were waiting for them, all with the orders to sink the Tuatha de Danaan, known to them as the “Toy Box”. 
Tessa had obtained that information without accessing Mithril’s channels. It was at a dinner party a year ago, from one of the guests, retiring rear admiral Thomas Ross. He had been the commanding officer of the Pacific Fleet’s submarine group, and had some connections in the Hawaii HQ. That admiral Ross then informed her of the situation by an encrypted channel. 
The idea of attacking the “Toy Box” was pushed through by the party of the current Secretary of Defense, who, as one could guess, was an Amalgam collaborator. He had tried to play on the current crisis between the Americans and the Soviets to make the President give the order. In the HQ a lot of questions appeared about that order, and it seemed they were reluctant to proceed. With the Soviet Far East Fleet being very active, moving some of their forces to a relatively unimportant area of the ocean, where the “Toy Box” appeared, did not seem very logical - but orders were orders. They couldn’t officially let their doubt be known, much less disobey. In short, they were now hunting the “Toy Box” with complete devotion, and wouldn’t consider going easy on it. 
“Sorry, I wasn’t able to help much”, Admiral Ross had written to her. “Roy and his fellows, and the thing they pocketed got exposed, and they’re now in military jail, John had fled the MP investigation and is now missing. If Jerry was still alive, something could be done about this...” 
“Jerry” was the nickname of the Admiral Jerome Borda, Mithril’s chief of operations. He was in Sidney HQ at the time of the general attack and was presumed dead, even though because of the massive blast no body was found. Thinking about the loss of Admiral Borda, who was like a father to her, was still hard for Tessa, even a year after the events. 
But enough about her acquaintances in the Navy, now was the time to concentrate on the enemy in front of her. Tessa looked at the information displayed on the main screen once again. The Los Angeles-class sub was heading away from them. The vessel adopted an S-shaped patrol route that would allow them to detect any intruders in their area. Most likely, they were using a towed sonar, and would sooner or later discover the de Danaan, which was moving at fifty knots - the speed of a torpedo - and thus could 
not help leaving an acoustic signature. There was no other way to avoid detection than to descend and decelerate - for the de Danaan, it was like switching from a jog to a crawl. If they proceeded cautiously, they could get close to Merida avoiding detection and confrontation with the US Navy. That, however, would significantly delay their arrival at the island, roughly by fifty minutes, and that was an optimistic estimate. 
“An hour and fifty minutes in total, then...” 
Was that an admissible delay? Unlike the Afghan mission, they barely had any information about the possible time of operation of the TAROS. At best Tessa could make a guess based on the information from spy satellites. She had little confidence in her estimates, but she thought that they didn’t have time to spare. Leonard and Kalinin wouldn’t leave them any, so they had to hurry. 
“And besides...” 
Was the US Navy alone guarding the approach to the island? No, most likely Amalgam’s submarine forces were also there. A type of underwater AS, “Leviathan”, was mentioned in the documents Kaname left for them in Mexico, and was likely to make an appearance. The US Navy vessels were like hunting dogs, restricting their approach route, so that they would end up in the hunting ground of the Leviathans.  
She made her decision. 
“Crew to battle stations.” 
“Aye, aye, Ma’am. Battle stations!” Mardukas repeated the order, and the ship’s AI, Dana, issued the appropriate alert. All the screens turned red, and the words “BATTLE ALERT” appeared on them. That said, with the number of people left on the submarine, all personnel was already at their stations. 
Tessa continued giving orders. 
“Starboard ahead full, course 0-3-0.” 
“Starboard ahead full, 0-3-0, aye.” 
They would not even try to hide or escape. They would hit the enemy from the flank. 
She saw Sousuke showing signs of surprise, which was only natural, but Mardukas did not appear to be opposed to the decision, either. 
“Oh, you do not object?” 
“No. In chess I would call this a gambit. I often used them when playing, so I do not have any aversion to this tactic,” he said with a faint smile. 
She thought she had come to know him well those past few years, but that was unexpected. 
“So, Captain, what is our next move?” 
“They’ll soon notice us, so proceed on this course until they make a move.” 
They were travelling at sixty knots, which was double the maximum speed of an ordinary submarine. That gigantic size, and yet what speed - the forty-four thousand ton vessel was ploughing through the waters of the ocean at more than one hundred kilometers an hour. The EMFC system that covered the hull of the ship managed the water current, but could not help avoid turbulence. The floor vibrated, and the vessel’s structure creaked and groaned a little under the pressure.  
They were alone against about ten enemy vessels. Sensing that the fight ahead would be hard, Tessa called Sousuke: 
“You shouldn’t stay here any longer. Take Al and load up into elevator zero.” 
That was the main elevator of the hangar deck that all ship-borne planes and AS used for takeoff. Tessa obviously meant that he should be ready for launch at any moment. 
Sousuke didn’t answer immediately, but hesitated for a moment. He was probably thinking: “If I reply right now, could I leave the bridge a little later?” 
Tessa understood his thoughts well. It was probably his last sortie, and it was possible that they’d never meet again, and she was sending him away only with a short order? Did she want to say something to him? 
The enemy still didn’t show any signs of activity, and they had a little time. If there was something... something that she wanted to tell him, she would have to do it now. 
After a moment of silence, she said quietly: 
“Please give Kaname-san my regards.” 
A multitude of emotions passed like shadows on Sousuke’s face, and then disappeared. There was a bit of gratitude and respect, anxiety and concern, and most prominently, guilt, all mixed together. 
“I will. Then, if you’ll excuse me.” 
Saying that, Sousuke left the bridge. She couldn’t leave her post to see him off. The farewell, however, was not as heartrending as one would have thought. No, she still had lingering feelings for him, and even though it was not passionate love, like before, and they could not enjoy a close relationship, she still felt a deep affection. There was no tragic sorrow, however. Well, it was only natural that she felt that way after calming down. Thanks to him, she had enjoyed feeling like a normal girl of her age, though a couple of years earlier she thought she already had a lifetime’s worth of experience. 
Thank you. And my regards to Kaname-san. 
That was really all she wanted to say to him. 
About a minute after Sousuke had left, the sonar operator reported: 
“Conn, sonar – Mike five changed course to 3-0-5, accelerating to fifteen knots.” 
Well, it looked like the battle was about to start. 
She chased all thoughts of Sousuke out of her head, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She regained her concentration, and opened her eyes again. New information started pouring onto the main screen. 
With that, unknown to the rest of the world, Teletha Testarossa plunged into the greatest underwater battle in history. 

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