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Full Metal Panic! - Volume 11 - Chapter 3.1


Chapter 3: Pale Horse 
 
 
The enemy vessel changed course abruptly. Its towed sonar was practically running perpendicular to the course of the de Danaan, and thus they got a clear reading of its acoustic signature. In any case, the de Danaan could no longer hide. 
“How’s DEMON8?” 
8 DEMOdulated Noise - used mainly to determine a contact's speed. 
“Picked up the signature, analyzing...” 
They and the other vessel had been closing in on each other fast, and sonar had the time to gather plenty of data. Thanks to the skill of chief sonar operator Dejlani, they already had the ship’s name. 
“... here it is. It’s the Asheville.” 
The SSN-758 Asheville, according to the data received only last week, it was Commander Hogan’s ship. He was not an acquaintance, but according to his file, he had a spotless career, not one setback on record. Father of two. Soon to be transferred to a desk job. He seemed to love his family, the Navy, and his country. This was going to be a major blow to his career. 
The de Danaan’s sonar easily picked up the rest of the enemy fleet. It was as they feared - three other submarines nearby, possibly two anti-submarine destroyers on the surface, and two anti-submarine helicopters. However, not only conventional weapons were arrayed against them. The sonar picked up five signatures of smaller vessels that lie in wait for them - the Leviathans, most likely. 
“A warm welcome, I should say. Shall we start?” 
“Let’s give them a show. Load all tubes. Priority target is Mike five, then Mike seven. The rest at other submarines, your discretion.” 
“Aye, aye, Ma’am. Load tubes one to six. Two target Mike five, two to Mike seven. Sierra six and eight get one each,” repeated the weapons officer, and the submarine’s automatic loading system started its work. Loading all the torpedo tubes took barely twenty seconds. On top of that, Tessa ordered to load the Multipurpose VLS with four anti-ship and two anti-air missiles, as well as two MAGROCs - eight launches in total. All the while, the ship was slowly rising to periscope depth. Data was analyzed once again, and the number of enemies settled - thirteen US and Amalgam units were prepared to meet them. 
“I’ll meet you all,” whispered Tessa, smiling faintly. 
It was a smile that hadn’t appeared on her face since a long time ago, a feeling that she had almost forgotten, an excitement in her heart that she hadn’t allowed herself to enjoy for a long while. 
I’ll show you all who you’re up against. 
“Flood all tubes.” 
“All tubes, flooding, aye.” 
“Open muzzle doors.” 
“Muzzle doors open, aye.” 
Turbulence increased dramatically - still continuing to cruise at full speed, the submarine opened all of its launch tube doors. The ship’s vibration, and the amount of noise it emitted, both increased proportionally. Now the enemy knew where they were, and what their intention was. The Asheville, marked as a priority target, went to flank speed and tried to escape to the southwest. Other contacts, too, hurriedly began their maneuvers. 
Too late. 
“Weapons free.” 
“Aye-aye Ma’am! Torpedoes away!” 
The Tuatha de Danaan fired its entire arsenal at once - fourteen launches, when the normal salvo was one or two torpedoes. Seen from outside, it must have been quite a sight: six silver fish being ejected from the ship’s bow, their engines kicking in and propelling them through the water at seventy knots; eight missiles being ejected on top of the surface from the MVLS, their rocket engines blasting them into the sky. 
“All weapons away, launch went without a hitch, Captain. All doors closed, beginning to drain the tubes,” finally reported the weapons officer. 
“Wonderful. Now, in all odd-numbered tubes load self-propelled mines, in even-numbered ones, normal torpedoes.” 
“Aye, one, three and five loading ADSLMM, two four and six loading ADCAP torpedoes.” 
“Hold course and speed. Dive to two hundred fifty, down five degrees rudder.” 
“Aye, Ma’am. Bringing her down to two-fifty, down five degrees rudder.” 
Well, now, let’s see what the enemy will do. 
She was looking at the map of the battlefield on the main screen, the fired missiles being displayed as symbols with their trajectory, velocity and other data nearby, as well as the enemy targets. It seemed that this attack had made them lose their coherence, and both the US Navy vessels and the Leviathans were scattering. They were faced with fourteen missiles cutting them off from escape routes or hiding places. They probably thought that the battlefield had gone crazy all of a sudden. All of the combined tactics that they had likely prepared became useless. They had their hands full with evasive maneuvers and interception, as well as damage control. 
“Sea Sparrows have hits on target.” 
The improved version of the “Sea Sparrow” anti-air missiles were the first to reach their respective targets. Their warheads had drastically reduced explosive charge, that the crew called “non-lethal shots”9. In theory they would not bring their targets crashing down immediately. 
9 In the text it's "mineuchi", which means "back of the sword". It's a trope related to Japanese swordsmanship “using the non-cutting edge of the katana” that appears in a lot of manga/anime/related fiction. 
10 Stands for Close-in Weapon System, naval point defence for shooting down missiles or planes at close range. The most widely known in fiction is the US-made Phalanx. 
“I got one landing on the water, though it’s faint... yes, one emergency landing on water, the other one barely stayed in the air.” 
They had practically knocked out the enemy’s anti-submarine helicopters. Even if there were casualties among their crew, it was simply not possible to go easier on them, even if they were fellow countrymen. 
With their first move, they had removed the most annoying enemy. 
“Harpoons are closing in on target.” 
Next were the two surface ships - the anti-submarine frigates. The AD Harpoons were rapidly approaching their mark. The frigates were not Aegis-class, had little in terms of anti-aircraft equipment, and could not use CIWS10 to shoot down the approaching missiles. 
On the screen, the symbols of the enemy vessels and the missiles were almost on top of each other. 
“Impact... getting last data from Turtle One... analyzing... Mike eight, hit near the water line... Mike eleven, hit near water line.” 
The AD Harpoons were a quite different weapons system from the old Harpoon missiles. When a missile began its final approach, the guidance switched from radar to optical, and the intelligent recognition system allowed it to hit a desired part of the target. 
The two frigates were hit near their stern, in the propulsions systems, and were now dead in the water. 
“MAGROCs have landed on the water11, started pursuit of Sierra fifteen and Sierra eighteen.” 
11 MAGROC, evidently an advanced version of ASROC (Anti-Submarine ROCket), is basically a missile that carries a torpedo as payload. The torpedo then separates from the missile and plunges into the water. 
They had fired MAGROCs at two Leviathans out of five, but were not expecting them to hit. The enemy was too nimble for that, so they had picked two that represented the most threat to the de Danaan, and shot at them to restrict their movement for a while. The Leviathans reacted to the attack as expected, abandoning the optimal attack positions, and taking evasive action. 
Next were the torpedoes. They lagged behind the missiles in speed, but reached their targets nonetheless. 
“Asheville deploying counter-measures.” 
Their priority target was making frantic attempts to avoid the torpedoes, and launched acoustic decoys. Those efforts were in vain, however, as both torpedoes detonated in close proximity to the submarine. Of course, they also carried reduced charges. At most they would destroy the screws or make small gashes in the ship’s hull, but that was more than enough. 
The other three vessels were at a distance, so Tessa could not hope for perfect hits. Even so, one of them seemed to be overtaken by helplessness, and was charting an erratic course away 
from the scene; another blew its ballast tanks for emergency surfacing. 
Three US submarines out of action, if temporarily. Only one remained, and far from trying to escape, it seemed to be heading straight for the de Danaan for a frontal attack, after it had barely evaded the one torpedo. The enemy sub was now at two o’clock, and preparing to attack the de Danaan.  
“He’s quite capable,” said Mardukas in an admiring tone. The commanding officer of that submarine had both guts and skill. 
“What’s the ship’s name?” 
“Unknown yet, Ma’am, just a little more... Analysis complete. Ah,” sonar operator Dejlani sounded like he didn’t want to say it. “It’s them again, the Pasadena.” 
Tessa quickly scanned through the recently received data. The commanding officer of the SSN-752 Pasadena was none other than Killy Benjamin Sailor. 
“Sailor-san, why now...” 
She knew Commander Sailor personally, even though their encounter little more than a year ago, at Christmas, was pure chance. Sailor, though, remembered her only as a cute maid on a cruise ship, and couldn’t even imagine her being the Captain of the “Toy Box”. 
“Captain, what shall we with this one?” 
“We don’t have time to mess around, the other Leviathans are coming. Starboard, all engines flank speed, come to course 1-2-5.” 
“Aye, Ma’am. Starboard, all flank speed, course 1-2-5.” 
It was a daring maneuver, - accelerating and passing just on the Pasadena’s starboard, but it looked like they plotted a course for a head-on collision. There was no time to fire a torpedo at them. 
Just a little more... 
“Conn, sonar! Torpedo launch! Bearing 0-6-2, from Sierra seventeen!” 
Ah, there it came, from one of the Leviathans. The timing was pretty bad. 
“Mark, Sierra seventeen, fire two and four when ready.” 
“Aye! Mark Sierra seventeen! Torpedoes away!” 
They fired two torpedoes at the Leviathan, passed by the Pasadena and dived at the same time. Sailor had evidently thought that they had shot at him, but was unflinching and fired torpedoes. However, that was beyond the capabilities of their guidance systems. They passed by the de Danaan a hundred meters above and to the left. The de Danaan’s torpedoes also went by the Pasadena and towards the Leviathan that was hanging back. Comparing it to a sword fight, Tessa had dodged the point of Sailor’s sword, and risking her life, lunged at the assassin who had come from behind Sailor’s back. 
The de Danaan had passed only dozens of meters away from the Pasadena, and they thought they could hear Sailor’s raging voice. 
“Enemy torpedo, closing in, distance six hundred! Five hundred..! Our torpedo closing in on target, two hundred! One hundred!” 
The Leviathan was trying to avoid both torpedoes and went into a dizzying evasive maneuver. 
“Fifty... hit on target!” 
Sonar reported a detonation. It was only a couple of hundred meters in front of them, and the shockwave rocked the warship. There was no time to check the results - enemy torpedoes were approaching. 
“Enemy torpedo at four hundred!” 
Three hundred... two hundred... now. 
“Hard to port, full rudder!” 
“Aye!” 
The helmsman executed her order, bringing the rudder to its maximum possible angle, practically sending the ship in a spin, slipping sideways through the water. 
Distance one fifty... one hundred... 
“All hands, brace for impact!” Tessa’s voice resonated through the ship’s intercom speakers. 
...fifty... detonation. 
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
When he heard her warning, Sousuke was running in the passageway immediately near the main hangar. The impact came only a few seconds later, and Sousuke felt its full strength. 
At first he thought the lights had gone out, the left wall suddenly came at him, and finally the ceiling came down and crushed him. In reality, he himself was bounced around like a doll with incredible force. If he hadn’t changed into the AS pilot suit, he would have had a few broken bones. 
As soon as he was thrown back onto the floor, he got up. It was still pitch black, and through the buzzing in his ears, he heard some kind of very loud noise, as if gas was escaping from somewhere. Emergency lighting finally turned on, painting everything in its familiar crimson. A jet of vapor came from ruptured pipes a couple of meters behind him. What were those pipes for? Was it water that gushed from them? No, it just looked like hot vapor. Would it be better to try and stop that? But how? He knew next to nothing about the operation of the submarine. That was the time to call crew to help, but the bare minimum was 
on board. There was no one around. He remembered that there was an intercom just ten steps away, at the entrance of the hangar. 
The ship continued to tremble. Sousuke got up, staggered to the intercom and tried to reach the bridge. The damage control officer answered first.  
“This is damage control! Report on situation!” 
“This is Sagara, I’m currently in--...” 
“I know where you are, dammit, report!” 
Sousuke quickly looked around for the number of the passageway, and answered: 
“No casualties! Five meters from the entrance of the hangar deck, the... I don’t know the name, some pipe ruptured, and vapor is coming out! Otherwise--...” 
A thunderous roar interrupted him in mid-sentence. Out of the wall where the pipe was, burst a torrent of water, that looked like it was coming from a large fire hose. The water quickly rushed in and was already ankle-high. 
“We’ve got flooding! It’s coming from the left wall, under high pressure--...” 
“Got it, is anyone else there?” 
“Negative! I’m alone!” 
The water had already risen to his knees. The stream was flowing into the hangar with a force that almost kicked him off his feet. 
“Into the hangar, now! I’m locking this down!” 
“Roger!” 
Even before Sousuke answered, the main watertight bulkhead began closing down. He wanted to ask about the battle, the situation on the ship, the casualties, but he didn’t have time. The massive double bulkheads, as thick as a national bank’s safe doors, were closing down with frightening speed. 
Sousuke ran towards the exit, kicking up water, and managed to slip under the door, which closed behind him. There seemed to be no flooding in the hangar. The wide space, much larger than a school gym, would under normal circumstances house a unit of ASes, transport and scout helicopters, and STOVL attack craft, but was now deserted. There was nothing apart from the Laevatein, one transport helicopter, some containers and various equipment. There was no one in sight, the maintenance and deck crew had left the ship earlier. It was strange, not hearing any screams or shouts after the severe shock. Only the sounds of battle resonated in the empty deck. 
The container in front of Sousuke was sliding down with a metallic grating noise to the starboard side, following the ship’s inclination. If something like that was flying around at the time of the impact, there could have been serious injuries, it was lucky that the hangar was empty. 
Wait - empty? There was one person who was still working down there..! 
“Lieutenant Sachs!” 
He had to be there for the final adjustments on the Laevatein, but was nowhere in sight.  
“Lieutenant!! Are you here?” shouted Sousuke, but no answer came. 
He ran towards the Laevatein, and started looking for him. The AS, in its typical kneeling posture, was securely anchored to the deck with cables, but the external power supply unit, which should have been connected to the machine, had turned over and fallen near its leg. It was the size of a large refrigerator, and looked like it had fallen from some height, having crushed some parts and equipment... and on one of its corners, Sousuke saw fresh blood. 
“Shit...” 
He couldn’t resist cursing. Behind the smashed power unit, near the leg of the AS, Lieutenant Sachs was lying in a puddle of blood. 
“Lieutenant..!” 
He called him in a hushed whisper, then rushed over to him, and grabbed his shoulder. Sachs was alive, but only barely. His crushed chest was likely causing massive internal bleeding, and it was likely that some protruding parts had pierced his body, stuck between the power unit and the wall. An ordinary man would have been killed instantly... 
“Saga...ra... is it,” murmured Sachs, his voice barely audible. “I... my mistake... too slow... unit wasn’t fixed... hah... this is bad...” 
Blood was flowing from his mouth, and onto his beard. 
“Don’t talk, don’t move. I’ll call Lieutenant Goldbery.” 
He rushed to the intercom and called the ship’s chief medical officer. It sounded like she had other casualties there, but said that she would run to the hangar immediately. He ran back to Sachs, found a first-aid kit in the equipment around them, and tried to inspect his injuries closely. 
“This is... useless... innit...” 
“Hold on there, Lieutenant, help is on the way.” 
Sachs suddenly grabbed Sousuke’s hand with surprising strength. 
“Shut up... and listen... Sagara... the adjustment is... almost done, but... power unit... disconnected, so... Al can’t move.” 
“Lieutenant, please,” Sousuke moved his hand away, and listened to his explanation, continuing his first-aid procedure. 
“The plug... on the right. It’s broken, remove it... the locker, third cable... get it out, plug in... socket’s here... then the APU will start... don’t screw this up...” 
This was extremely important - without explanation, Sousuke wouldn’t be able to do anything. He wiped the blood coming from the biggest wound with some gauze. He could only get a glimpse of it, before blood poured out and covered it again. It looked like an artery near the heart might have been damaged. He couldn’t do anything with the first-aid kit he had on his hands. He looked at the puddle of blood surrounding Sachs. Judging by its amount and his body weight, it was a miracle he could still talk. 
He quickly set up an intravenous drip, but it was futile. Even if Dr. Goldbery somehow made it there in a couple of minutes, she would probably be too late already. 
“The IME12 cable is still attached. What do I do with it?” 
12 Integrated Motion Equaliser, an AS system. 
13 Shock Absorber Liquid. 
“Just don’t touch... leave it to Al...” 
“What about the SAL13[17] tank? Do I need to set it to decompression?” 
“Yes... careful... when disconnecting...” 
Normally he should have been asking “where do you feel pain?” and other questions like that, but circumstances dictated the priority - the AS came first... 
“What else... I’ve replaced the... motion management system... bus with one that has a... larger width. I... didn’t wake Al up yet... don’t know if he will... if there’s a problem... remove the auxiliary line... from the control panel... you’d have to abandon the XL-3, but... you should still be able to move...” 
“Got it. I will remember.” 
It was as if the explanation had drained the last drops of life he had. Sachs suddenly stiffened, and the strength left his limbs. 
“Sagara, I... don’t blame anyone.” 
 
 
 
“Yes, you’re our bravest mechanic. Everyone knows that. So hold on there. Goldbery is coming.” 
“I... don’t want to have the grandma... performing mouth-to-mouth on me...” 
“Tell her that yourself. She’ll...” 
Sousuke stopped in mid-sentence. Sachs did not hear him anymore. 
His eyes were looking  at something very far away, and did not move. 
“Damn it..!” 
He knew it was useless, but he tried the defibrillator, and artificial respiration, again and again... 
Goldbery came running out of a passageway. She must have been running the whole way there - her shoulders were heaving, she was out of breath. Sousuke looked up at her. 
“He was a good man,” he said. 
He bore the tragedy well, and did not dare cursing - only his usual frown became even more grave. He wiped Sachs’ blood from his hands and face, and sighed deeply. 
“It’s time to prepare for out sortie...” 
And following the late Sachs’ will, he began the start-up procedure of the Laevatein. 
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
The ARX-8 Laevatein was waiting for him, fully equipped: AS-size buckshot, assault rifle, the gigantic demolition gun, two smaller Gatling guns in the back, the Lambda Driver cancellation device “fairy’s feather”, the disposable rapid deployment booster XL-3, twelve “Black Mamba” anti-aircraft missiles under the wings. Everything was in place.  
From a distance, it looked like it was hurriedly put together, and the human-like silhouette was barely visible. Can it even walk, 
with this pile of weapons on top of it? Sousuke felt even more the difference in strength and preparedness between them and the enemy. 
He took the cable of the auxiliary power unit from the locker, and plugged it into a socket near the waist of the machine. The generator started working. It was time to restart the activation sequence from the external control panel. 
“What... what were his last words?” Goldbery sounded like all strength had been drained from her voice. 
“He said he didn’t want you performing mouth-to-mouth on him.” 
“He’s terrible... really, incorrigible...” 
Sousuke was continuing his work behind the back of the chief medical officer, who was smiling even though tears ran down her face. 
He tried starting up Al. A long silence followed, then an indicator finally showed that the activation was a success, even though Sachs had doubts. It looked like the extension of the data bus had gone well. The voice interface was not connected yet, and the start-up data showed in text form on the screen of the maintenance terminal. 
 
“> Connection confirmed... 
... 
> Status check in progress. 
> Restarting APU. 
... 
... 
> Commencing activation of vetronics systems.” 
 
“He said he didn’t blame anyone.” 
“Ah... well, me neither.” 
“Not the Captain?” 
“No, not if she said it was necessary. Absolutely necessary.” 
Sousuke was silent. 
“Have a little faith, Sousuke.” 
He didn’t answer, and continued working, disconnecting the IME and other cables as instructed, checking and removing that tank valve, finally locking down the access panel and the pieces of armor that were removed for maintenance. Lights ran down the machine as Al assumed control. Apparently, the rest was up to him. 
With the low growl of the cooling unit, the Laevatein awakened. 
He proceeded to strip off all the ribbons and labels with “REMOVE BEFORE LAUNCH” on them, before climbing onto the back of the unit’s head to close a small weapons and equipment locker that was on the other side of the cockpit hatch. The locker wasn’t that large - about the size of a camping rucksack - but enough to hold an old rocket launcher that Sousuke always kept with him. It was an M72 LAW one-shot unguided missile launcher, formerly used by the US Army. It was weaker than modern anti-tank weapons systems, but it did have one major advantage of being so compact as to fit in that locker (in the collapsed state, of course; one would extend the tube before shooting). 
The palladium reactor’s hum filled the hangar. Laevatein’s prototype reactor was not designed to be nearly soundless, like most conventional models. He was just putting on the familiar headgear, when he noticed that Dr. Goldbery was packing her instruments and was going to leave the hangar. 
“I’ll be going. About Sachs...” 
“I’ll leave it to you.” 
It was best that he wasn’t the one to report it, Goldbery was a much more suitable person for that. 
“All right. Take care, Sousuke.” 
“Roger that.” 
The screens inside the cockpit flickered to life. Again, that familiar cockpit, the familiar feeling of the M9 series master control suite. He put his arms though its fixations, grabbed the levers and stepped on the pedals, testing their responsiveness. Finally, with his left thumb he operated the cursor and began the final start-up procedure. The voice interface activated immediately. 
“Al?” 
<Yes, sergeant?> said the familiar low voice of the machine AI 
“Establish datalink, get data about the ship from Dana.” 
<Roger. Accessing data circuit. Connection priority C. Connection established.> 
Information about the vessel’s current situation flowed onto one window in a side screen. The de Danaan was still in combat. 
The vessel obviously wouldn’t sink from one hit, but its two main characteristics - speed and low noise level - were now compromised, and they couldn’t hope to deliver surprise attacks any more. It was the time for a direct confrontation of skill and firepower. On the other hand, they mostly got rid of the US Navy warships. The Pasadena seemed still willing to attack, but couldn’t pursue them immediately. They had destroyed two of the Leviathan high speed submersibles. Another one was trying to avoid the self-propelled mines that Tessa had launched... sonar reported a distant explosion - one more down. 
The remaining Leviathans, however, were coming in for an attack. They launched torpedoes, four of them. Tessa counter-attacked, launching three, and going into a dizzying evasive 
maneuver, avoided two of them and got back into combat. Really, she was a monster. 
<Sergeant, I’ve a question...> 
“Hm?” 
<Three o’clock, distance zero, unidentified target - body, human, male. What happened..?> 
The screen showed part of the blooded maintenance tunic. 
“It’s the body of Lieutenant Sachs.” 
<Chief Maintenance Officer Edward Sachs was killed in action?> 
“Affirmative.” 
<Could I ask about the cause of death?> 
“The ship was hit, and the external power supply unit fell onto him. He must have been so busy fixing you, he forgot to anchor it properly.” 
A short silence followed, then Al said: 
<Roger. Thank you for answering me.> 
Meanwhile, the activation was proceeding smoothly. The test of the rapid deployment booster, attached to the back of the machine, finally began. Most of them checked out, however some errors were left. It was theoretically possible for the Laevatein to take flight using the XL-3, but they ran the tests again to make sure. That equipment, after all, was not official manufacture, but a system developed by Sachs, and tests only involved computer simulations, without any field trials whatsoever. They really had no way of knowing if the machine will fly or not, but Sachs’ extraordinary efforts at least allowed them to connect the booster properly, which in itself was almost a miracle. 
Errors again. 
Continuing to rerun tests, he released the knee joint locks and guided the machine towards the main elevator. 
Another impact. Another enemy torpedo exploding at close range. The damage was insignificant, but the functioning of the EMFC array seemed to be mostly disrupted. The de Danaan’s mobility suffered another hit. 
Sousuke couldn’t help with the naval battle. He could only stand by in the elevator, watch it, and continue to run tests on the XL-3. The aileron control linkages and auxiliary systems continued to remain unresponsive. 
<Is it my fault?> said Al, while the test continued to run. 
“This equipment was put together in a hurry, you can’t avoid bugs.” 
<No, I meant Lieutenant Sachs.> 
“What..?” 
<Because he was trying to activate me as fast as possible, he forgot the safety measures.> 
“Well...” 
Sousuke was astounded. Al, feeling responsibility for the death of a person? Of course, his speech programs were very advanced, but he was still a machine. If it was something related to tactics and the current operation, it would be understandable, but there seemed to be no reason for that question. 
“Why are you asking this? Worried about something?” 
<No. The role of the maintenance personnel in the operation is almost over. Losing Lieutenant Sachs, as I am sure you know, does not affect our military strength.> 
It was a mechanical answer - even too machine-like, perhaps, and Sousuke felt a slight flicker of irritation “just say that you feel it!”. But before he could intervene, Al continued. 
<However, I feel a much more significant loss. He had been taking care of me since I was in the “Arbalest”. He, better than anybody else, knew the state of my “body”. He never 
inspected me, never talked to me. Not once. What I feel is on another level than tactical data.> 
“Well, do you feel grief? Because of his death?” 
<Simultaneously, I feel that the cause of his death might have been the low efficiency and hard maintenance of this body - that was the meaning of my original question, was it “my fault” or not.> 
Al’s core unit was a quite unique device - made from liquid metal to imitate the human nervous system, something completely different from an ordinary M9 series machine AI. Sousuke, however, could not imagine that Al was such a perfect copy of a human being. He would understand if it was a small feeling of attachment, without any deep thought involved - like a person’s favorite gun, or car; but here were feelings of responsibility for the death of a person. One could say that this was already an imitation of emotions. 
“It’s not your fault. He was doing what was necessary,” said Sousuke, trying not to give away his thoughts and suspicions. “Sachs said it himself ‘I don’t blame anyone.’” 
<This is an extremely important piece of information to me, sergeant.> 
“All right, all right. Let’s concentrate on the job.” 
<Roger that.> 
And Al fell silent, continuing to run checks on his equipment. 
Sousuke suddenly remembered the letter from Sarah Miller, and the memory card she had sent with her letter. She had written that it was just some things she found on the Internet, so probably no crucial intelligence, and nothing concerning the Laevatein. There was probably no time to look through it now. He’ll do it later, when he returns. If he returns... 
“Uruz 7! Are the preparations for sortie complete?” came the voice of the operations officer through the intercom. 
The submarine vibrated as compressed air was pumped into the ballast tanks. 
“Affirmative. On standby in elevator zero.” 
“We are currently performing emergency surfacing. The flight deck will open as soon as we’re up, and once you get launched, we’re diving again. As planned, the cleaning up on the island’s left to you.” 
“Roger.” 
He checked the status of the machine. The control linkages that had been giving errors were still not operation. Sousuke gave up and stopped the tests - the auxiliary system seemed to be failing every time. That meant that he couldn’t do much but pray that the master system would not be damaged, and that the auxiliary one wouldn’t be needed. 
The vessel’s nose was pointing upwards at a very steep angle - it flew out of the water like a rocket. Equipment, parts and other junk was flying around the hangar. Lieutenant Sachs’ body had been, fortunately, affixed to the deck by Lieutenant Goldbery, and did not move. 
“Well, I’ll be going, ‘Bruiser’ Sachs...” 
Sousuke switched the machine to manual control, and lightly shifted his right arm. The Laevatein’s right arm followed, and the machine, still kneeling, gave a final salute to the lost comrade. The elevator started going up at the same time.  
We don’t need words to express how we feel - a single gesture is enough. 
Right, LT..? 
The elevator’s warning light was blinking, the ear-splitting alarm siren was going off. The de Danaan had probably surfaced - the hull jolted one last time. 
The elevator with the Laevatein was moving with speed well above regulations, but the machine effortlessly found its balance. 
“Opening flight deck hatch! Uruz 7 - in the catapult, on the double!” 
The Laevatein practically jumped out onto the flight deck. Overhead, the gigantic flight hatch was opening, and the sky came into view. It was a dark, purplish gray, and it looked like the sun had not yet risen. Heavy raindrops were being blown into the flight hatch by the winds of the sea. The wind was not that strong, but for him it would be the first time, launching in such conditions without preparation. 
The de Danaan trembled under the assault of mighty waves. It was necessary to reduce the surfacing time as much as possible. Any submarine was at its weakest when surfaced. Sousuke did not want to lose a second, and quickly got the Laevatein fixed onto the catapult, in the posture of an Olympic sprinter at the start line. 
<Connection established. XL-3 rocket engine on idle. Rotor blade extension to automatic mode. Flaps in take-off position. 
<We are ready for take-off. Shall we request the TLS?14> 
14 I suppose it stands for Take-off Launch Signal. 
15 Typical good-luck wish for landing operations. 
“Do it.” 
<Requesting TLS.> 
The operations officer replied immediately: 
“Uruz 7, this is Control. Starting TLS sequence. See you on the beach!15” 
The alarm buzzer went off, and the rocket motor kicked in at the same time as the catapult with a deafening howl. Sousuke felt extreme G-force of the acceleration, like a giant hand, almost crushing him in his seat. The end of the flight deck came up in the blink of an eye, the catapult released automatically. The machine was propelled from the deck, and looked like it was going to crash into a huge black wave, but then soared into the sky on wings of fire. 
In the rear observation monitor, the Tuatha de Danaan could be seen closing its flight deck hatch, preparing to dive, but as they shot up straight through the rain-heavy clouds, it soon vanished out of sight. 
As expected, the Laevatein was very unstable in flight. It was a wonder it could fly at all, but it could not keep on an even keel. Were they about to crash now? No, didn’t look like it, at least for the time being. All on-screen indicators, constantly trembled, however as the machine accelerated, they showed signs of stabilizing. Even though the AS had wings, their movement was less of a proper “flight”, and more of a “projection” along a trajectory. The powerful thrusters of the XL-3 were pushing the unstable craft, built for operations on land, towards Merida Island. 
<Contact, appears to be a military vessel or similar vehicle, on our path. Distance three-one-seven, bearing 0-8-6.> 
“A... vessel?!” 
Sousuke had to shout over the awful noise. 
<Unknown. Same type of contact at bearings 0-8-1 and 0-9-3.> 
If they only had the sensor array of the Arbalest, or at least a regular M9, they could get more information. At that distance, a “military vessel or vehicle” was already a pretty good result. They 
had to depend on the FLIR16, installed as part of the XL-3, and the onboard navigation system.  
 
16 Forward Looking InfraRed - a thermal imaging device, usually part of a navigation system, on many ships and aircraft. 
 
 
All on-screen indicators constantly trembled, however, as the machine accelerated, they showed signs of stabilizing. Even though the AS had wings, their movement was more of a "projection" along a trajectory than a proper "flight" anymore. The powerful thrusters of the XL-3 were pushing the aerodynamically unstable craft, built to be a “land weapon”, towards Merida Island. 
  
Three warships on their course... that was not natural. Those coastal waters were shallow, and an inexperienced crew would have been afraid to maneuver in them. So what was waiting for them there... 
“These aren’t warships. They’re Behemoths!” 
According to latest intelligence, exactly three of those gigantic AS remained. 
<Detecting lock on, probably an anti-air missile... detecting launch, salvo of four, twelve in total. Shall we take evasive action?> 
“No time for that!” 
It was not easy to evade a modern anti-air missile, and besides, they weren’t exactly a fighter jet to begin with. With that craft, a poorly executed high-G turn meant that they would either stall, or their wings would come off, which would mean a crash in any case. They had no electronic warfare suite to speak of. The twelve missiles were approaching fast. 
Thirty-five seconds to impact... 
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
Around the time when the Laevatein was locked on by the Behemoths’ anti-air missile systems, alarms also went off in the C-17 that was transporting Mao and her team.  
<Missile warning. Taking evasive action. Brace for impact.> 
“Anti-ECS missiles? That’s quite a welcome” muttered Mao, who was sitting in the cockpit of her M9, on standby. 
Their transport plane was equipped with the ECS, and a normal radar wouldn’t be able to pick it up. However, as soon as they arrived near the landing spot, they were greeted with that fireworks show. Still, even against anti-ECS missiles, at that height and speed, with their advanced electronic warfare systems, they would probably be able to avoid direct hits... 
Impact, muffled roar of an explosion - that was a missile that ended up detonating in the vicinity of the plane. From her 
cockpit, Mao couldn’t see what was going on for herself, and could only pray for them to reach the drop zone safely. 
“Did we get hit?!” 
“No... looks like it was just a fragment. Fire in engine two, shutting down engine, starting fire extinguishing system.” 
One of the right-side engines was emitting a shrill, high-pitched whine. As the pilots shut down both right-hand-side engines, the sound gradually stopped, but the body of the aircraft started shaking violently. All of them - two ASes, thirty-two soldiers and crew, were flying on two engines. That was bad. 
“It’s all right, just drop us--...” 
“No, hold on for a bit longer. Only fifteen klicks left. Think you can do it?” Clouseau interrupted her. 
“Ben?!” 
“If we drop now, we’ll be too far from the target. One more mountain to climb over - we don’t have the time for that.” 
His argument was tactically sound. They could only wait, and trust the plane’s crew. 
“Right, copy that we’ll... hold, somehow. You get ready to jump any time,” answered the pilot, and relayed the information to the two escorts. These were Mithril’s last remaining FAV-8 “Super Harrier” attack aircraft that joined them over Pakistan’s airspace. They had already been sweeping down to dangerously low altitudes to take down enemy SAM sites. 
“This is Laguz 1, copy that,” acknowledged the pilot of one of the Harriers, “we’ll provide escort as long as we can, try to make it to Point Echo--...” 
The incoming missile alarm sounded again, interrupting him. 
The transport plane made an impressive turn, launching a hologram decoy. An explosion, again - that time further away, but 
small fragments rained down onto the fuselage. Bit by bit, the vibration was increasing, and one could bite their tongue if one wasn’t careful. 
A small fire broke out in the cargo bay. Yang and the rest of the soldiers preparing for a jump were shouting for an extinguisher, checking if there were no casualties. 
Mao couldn’t do anything. She only grabbed the joysticks a little harder, and started checking the status of the machine. No damage, all systems green, ready to go at any moment. Only ten clicks until the drop zone. 
“Come on, hurry...” 
Everybody was exceptionally tense - they were getting hit by the enemy, and couldn’t do anything. To a soldier, that was stressful in the extreme. All of their training and acquired skills were useless, and they could crash at any moment. 
“This is Laguz 2, destroyed two enemy SAM sites. I have visual on one more only--...” 
A jarring noise interrupted his communication. 
“This is Laguz 1, Laguz 2 is under fire. I can see smoke - Laguz 2, respond. Laguz 2? Can you hear me..?” 
Six kilometers until the drop zone. 
“Hurry! Please..!” 
“Laguz 2 has crashed, coordinates twenty-one-eighty-two. Unable to confirm parachute release. Repeat, unable to confirm parachute...” 
One of the Harriers had crashed, and it was unclear whether he had survived or not. 
“All units, this is the pilot speaking. Engine one output is dropping. Unable to maintain altitude. I repeat, unable to maintain altitude.” 
The fire in the cargo bay didn’t stop, even though they had descended, and the cabin was decompressed. Three kilometers until the drop zone... it was already enough. 
“Ben!!” 
“Yes. Pilot, this will have to do, drop us.” 
“Copy that, Uruz one. Good luck.” 
The rear cargo hatch started opening. The pitch blackness outside and the roar of the wind created an unsettling resemblance to the maw of some legendary monster. It was at times colored in scarlet by the bursts of flak, and into this darkness the M9s would have to jump. 
“Separating from rails! I’m going first!” yelled Clouseau through external speakers, disregarding all airdrop procedure and regulation. 
The locks on the side of the M9 released. A warning buzzer sounded, and in a shower of sparks, Clouseau’s “Falke” slid down the rails, and dropped outside head first. 
“Uruz two, ready for drop!” 
It was definitely not the time to follow proper procedure. Mao released the locks on her machine as soon as Clouseau disappeared overboard. 
Tremendous impact - she felt her machine sliding into the back of the plane, then suddenly the left wall blocked her field of vision, and was just as suddenly replaced by the sky. 
Between the starry sky and the pitch-black tar that was the earth, the C-17 was flying away, its right-hand engines ablaze, leaving a thin trail of smoke. Then, an explosion - she didn’t know if it was a missile or flak, and her sensor couldn’t pick up the aircraft. Mao’s M9 was spun around by the shockwave. The transport plane was nowhere in sight, and where was the ground? Where was Clouseau? Did Yang and the others manage to jump 
off safely? What about her own machine? What was the altitude again..? Everything, including the screens, was spinning around and shaking so badly that she couldn’t read what was written on the indicators. Oh yes, the posture... she has to recover a proper flight posture. 
She moved her hands and feet with all her strength, and the M9 adopted a proper posture, limbs spread out. Even so, the wind pressure was too much for the feedback systems, and the machine rolled from right to left. She brought in her right hand a little, and extended the other, which effectively stopped the irregular rotation.  
She remembered that she had done this so many times. Her machine was finally in equilibrium, and she was one and a half thousand meters above ground. It was still too early to open the parachute. She checked indicators, and activated ECS, then set her sensors to passive infra-red. Below her stretched a frozen mountain ridge, but she discovered a heat source - it was a flak installation, that was still shooting at her. Now... 
She swung her limbs and the machine abruptly turned over several times, sliding to the left. Shells passed the spot where she was a second before, and their proximity fuse made them detonate too close for comfort. Thanks to the ECS, the enemy’s aim was quite inaccurate. 
The machine was still unsteady, but she pulled out her assault rifle and fired, her weapons control system compensating for the unsteady movement and the weapon recoil. The 40mm shells from the AS-type assault rifle rained down upon the enemy position below, and exploded. 
The altitude was five hundred meters - she couldn’t go any lower. The primary parachute opened and significantly reduced her drop velocity. It soon reached its limit of usefulness, and she cut it 
off, opening the secondary parachute. Her speed dropped again - if enemies remained in the area, now was her weakest moment. 
The parachute detached, she was in free fall for the last few meters, the ground was drawing near... and she landed. The M9’s joints were saved by the reaction of the shock absorber liquid, that turned into steam from the impact and gushed out of the joints. The metal frame screamed under the impact, and Mao saw sparks in her eyes as she was thrown forward in the cockpit. That happened every time.  
Gritting her teeth, she immediately started getting away from the landing spot, scanning her surroundings for any signs of Clouseau or the other soldiers, but she could not find them. If they were fine, they had to be somewhere close. No enemy units were in sight, either... no, speaking about targets, she could see one. 
After the gentle slope where Mao had landed, there was a low mountain ridge; beyond it was a deep and wide canyon, and just behind it, a huge mountain rose into the clouds. It was black, and looked monstrous from the distance. That was Ishkashim - the whole mountain was the target. They had to climb up to the base entrance, then assault the underground fortress itself, getting to the control room and stopping the launch. 
“Fifty minutes left... only fifty minutes...” 
Mao laughed dryly. No, it was far from genuine laughter, and closer to a spasmodic cough. The clock in a corner of the screen continued ticking away the seconds. 
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
Six missiles from the Behemoths were closing in. The Laevatein, not being able to counter them in a proper way - such as by taking evasive action or using the electronic warfare suite - was 
pushing on in the grey morning sky. They had no choice but to go through them... Sousuke finally made his decision: 
“Ready ‘Zeroes’, both sides.” 
<Roger. Weapon C, weapon D, ready to fire.> 
The two 20mm Gatling guns, that they called “Zeroes”, mounted in the lower back of the Laevatein, swung around and locked in a forward-facing position. They were optional weapons for the M9 series, and while their firepower was relatively weak, they had the advantage of a very high rate of fire, spitting out up to a hundred rounds per second. 
“Ready GEC-B, Boxer 2, GAU-19. I want them all prepared to fire.” 
One 76mm Boxer shotgun in each hand, one GEC-B 40mm assault rifle in each sub-arm, and two GAU-19 12.7mm Gatling guns in the head of the machine. He was going to intercept the incoming missiles with all eight guns. And if something got through, he would have no choice but to try and withstand the impact with the help of the Lambda Driver. 
“You take care of the Zeroes and the GEC, I’ll handle the others.” 
<Roger.> 
“Don’t be too cautious about ammo. At my signal, fire all at once.” 
<Copy.> 
Setting an AS to intercept posture in high-speed flight was not simply a matter of moving the hands a little. From the turbulence, the craft became very unsteady. The flight computer of the XL-3 was loaded to maximum, trying to stabilize the machine using its control surfaces, but they somehow managed to adopt a proper posture. 
The missiles were coming - he could already spot them with some difficulty on the FLIR. Moments remained until impact - they were at four thousand... three thousand... two... 
“Fire!!” 
Eight guns opened fire simultaneously. In three seconds, they shot around twelve hundred bullets towards the targets, and because of the recoil alone the speed dropped significantly, it was just on the verge of stalling. However, the powerful boosters of the XL-3 kept propelling it forward. 
The missiles went straight into the hail of bullets. One was hit - from which weapon he couldn’t be sure - spun around and broke into fragments. Another one fell to pieces quite a ways ahead. One more was shot down, and then four others detonated somewhere in the vicinity. There was no avoiding the ones that were left. 
<Five missiles approaching. Impact in two...one...> 
Focus... visualize it... 
The space in front of the machine warped. 
The machine raised its right hand forward, as if holding the force field, and five missiles exploded in the same instant. The Lambda Driver was fortunately able to protect the Laevatein from the shower of fragments. Anti-air missiles had a relatively weak charge, thus he was able to defend himself, but if they were just a little stronger, he would now be a burning wreck, plummeting down into the sea. 
“Damage report!” 
<Damage to left wing of XL-3. First aileron unresponsive. Slats actuator unresponsive.17> 
17 Control surfaces on the leading edge of the wing, as opposed to flaps, which are on the trailing edge. See for ex.:  http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2b/Wing.slat.600pix.jpg 
“The main body?” 
<No damage. Lambda Driver fully operational.> 
The AS was an extension of the pilot’s body. He could create a powerful image in his mind to protect the body of the machine itself, but the wings were left out, leaving him unable to protect the XL-3 with his force field. 
Damage to the left wing... he turned the machine’s head to inspect it visually. 
Of the wing’s four sections, everything from three, damaged in the attack, was gone. A bad vibration started to shake the machine. The machine would have rolled over to the left, if it wasn’t for the flight computer, patiently compensating every second. And the Laevatein continued its flight. This rapid deployment booster, no matter how quickly it was put together, was just as tough as its parent, “Bruiser” Sachs. 
“It won’t survive another attack, though...” 
He changed the machine’s posture, and stowed all weapons, including the Boxers in his hands. Extending them forward, he ordered: 
“Ready the Demolition Gun. Switch to Gun-Howitzer mode!” 
<Sergeant... are you joking?> 
It was obvious that he didn’t believe what he heard, and asked again. The Demolition Gun, after all, was their main weapon - practically an artillery cannon, that could destroy a Behemoth in one shot. However, even on the ground, with the AS bracing itself, the recoil was extraordinary. Shooting that while in the air... 
<Sergeant, the machine will fall apart.> 
“Don’t worry about the recoil, just hurry!” 
<Roger.> 
He had also probably recognized that in this worsening situation, attack was the best defense, and did not object to his orders again. 
The cannon, stowed below the XL-3’s wings, began shifting to its firing position with the assistance of a mechanical arm. Sousuke finally caught its grip in his right hand, and locked it in front of his chest, switching targeting systems to long-range Gun-Howitzer mode. The black barrel swayed a little, and pointed in the direction of the target. The machine was still in flight posture, and the vibration increased even more. 
This would normally be the last thing an AS pilot would do in flight, with a damaged wing, but they had no choice. The flight computer was not able to handle this on its own, and got assistance from Al - they had to adjust the trim around thirty times per second. Raising the engine output to maximum, they somehow managed to keep the machine in the air. 
He set the infrared sensors at maximum range. The nearest Behemoth was approximately eighteen kilometers away, barely in range of the targeting system. As they got closer, he set the targeting reticule on it, and could already distinguish its shape. 
“Damn..!” 
The enemy was preparing for attack. Its gigantic main gun, not too different from the main caliber on a battleship, was pointing his way. Perhaps they realized that anti-aircraft missiles were not strong enough. Surely, they wouldn’t be able to snipe him as deftly as Kurz. 
He looked at the data from the ballistic targeting system, and adjusted the gun, based on his intuition. 
“I’m going to fire!” 
Focus...visualize... 
How will the cannon move in his hands? How strong will it be affected by the wind? He remembered that he shot it many times before, and knew all of its peculiarities. He pressed the trigger. 
A fireball exploded before his eyes, and the machine creaked from the recoil. The gun barrel swayed, the machine dropped a little, but that was it - it was still flying.  
<It seems that the shooting was successful. You seem to be at ease with using the Lambda Driver in flight.> 
“Yes, yes, just observe the impact!” 
<On it.> 
The shell from the Demolition Gun was flying towards the target Behemoth, fifteen clicks away, at Mach 3, and would take around fifteen seconds to get there. Only several seconds left... and impact, on the sea several hundred meters behind the Behemoth. 
<Correcting targeting system. Loading cannon.> 
“Right...” 
The cannon fired, and he was able to hold back the recoil once again. As soon as the 165mm shell left the barrel, he saw that the enemy fired, too, and a 300mm shell was coming his way. 
<Should we take evasive--...> 
“I don’t think we can, pray that it misses!” 
A lump of destructive force was coming at him from that black sea. On the screen, his own shell had almost reached the target... 
Both impacted in almost the same instant. Sousuke thought he saw a shadow cross the optical sensor’s field of vision, then a shockwave came from behind and shook the machine. The anti-aircraft shell exploded quite far behind him, but it was still a close shave. 
The shot he fired, however, hit its target. The Behemoth’s chest exploded spectacularly, and it started to slowly bend backwards. It seemed to raise one hand towards the starry sky, dropping its cannon, and then collapsed into the sea. 
<Hit on target. Behemoth B - confirmed destroyed.> 
“Maintain engine output at maximum. We’re going to get through this breach in their defenses.” 
Merida Island was already in sight. The two remaining Behemoths to the left and right started to move and were preparing their anti-air artillery. At that speed and range, he would be able to make it through somehow, and even though his altitude was unstable, the booster’s output remained at optimal levels. 
The radar detected helicopters in the skies above Merida, and with the help of the FLIR marked the objectives. 
<Contacts, six attack helicopters. Mi-28 Havocs.> 
They were moving towards the shore, most likely preparing to strike as soon as he landed. As if he’d let them. 
“’Black Mambas’, let’s use all of them.” 
<Ready.> 
The twelve heat-seeking missiles under the wings of the XL-3 were all locked on, and the target boxes on the screen became red, with familiar words “VALID LOCK” appearing beside them. 
“Fire!” 
<Roger.> 
The twelve missiles were launched in one salvo, their rocket engine ignitions making for a spectacular fireworks display. Leaving behind flaming tails, they headed for their targets at incredible speed. The enemy probably didn’t expect any anti-aircraft capability from the Laevatein. The helicopters scattered, 
ejecting flares, but it was too late. It was two missiles per helicopter, and they hit. 
Explosions lit up the sky above Merida, and were it not in the middle of the battle, he would stop to admire the magnificent view. All the helicopters were crashing or falling apart in the air. 
<All targets confirmed destroyed.> 
The flak from Merida added to the intensity of the anti-aircraft fire, supported by the Behemoths. He was practically caught in crossfire. Thick curtains of tracer bullets were very close to the Laevatein. Even with the Lambda Driver he wouldn’t be able to withstand that amount of firepower. 
He felt a kick - a shell must have struck the machine. Upon checking, it looked like it went through the engine cowling of the right booster, which caught fire. The vibration intensified, and the engines were emitting a strange whine. There was a danger of explosion in mid-air. The sound of the alarm mixed with Al’s repeated warnings into a cacophony of noise. 
Only three thousand meters to Merida, and if he cut off the booster now, he would fall into the sea. If he deployed the emergency balloons to slow down the descent, he’d be turned into Swiss cheese by the Behemoths and other flak. 
Only two thousand meters until landing. The right engine and wing were ablaze, and flames were licking the second engine. 
One thousand meters. Shot again, - a large hole appeared, as if by magic, in the right wing. The machine was losing too much altitude and speed. The fire had now spread so much that the Laevatein’s right shoulder was black. 
Eight hundred meters. He couldn’t wait any longer... 
“Cut us loose!” 
There was no time for argument - Al immediately released the lock bolts, and the XL-3 came loose. The machine began its 
freefall, and the booster soared up into the sky, spiraling wildly, then exploded high above. 
He waited until the last second to open the primary parachute. Sudden deceleration - the parachute cut off, and he opened the secondary one. Without waiting for it to slow him down much, he cut it loose, and was in freefall for the last hundred meters. 
It was a sandy beach on the west coast of the island. The very same beach, in fact, where he had been explaining the basics of handling of an M9 to Tessa, what seems like centuries ago. 
With an incredible splash, the machine landed two hundred meters off the wide, shallow beach, on the water, though for the AS it was not a problem, as the water level only came up to its calf.  
He immediately dropped the machine into a crouching posture and pointed the Demolition Gun towards the northwest, where the shape of one of the Behemoths was visible, only six klicks away. It had already confirmed his position, and was slowly turning towards him, ready to pound the beach with all of its artillery. 
“Too slow!” 
He aimed and fired. The recoil was very powerful, but he didn’t fall over. The shell hit the Behemoth in the shoulder. The giant staggered, and pieces of armor fell off it. He loaded the cannon again, aimed, and fired, managing to deal with the recoil. This shot hit it in the head. Second Behemoth down. It wasn’t that easy hitting them at that distance, even with their monstrous size. 
<Gun target lock detected, from Behemoth C... weapon discharge.> 
The last Behemoth shot at them from the southwest, and it was not just the main gun - it looked like the pilot decided to open fire from all guns at once. Sousuke made the machine jump several 
times, avoiding its fire, and landed on a rocky slope near the beach, which turned out to be full of anti-AS landmines. He had practiced there so many times that from that rocky slope, he could move around the island with his eyes closed. 
Shells of all kinds were ploughing the beach around the place where he had landed moments ago. 
“What, you think I don’t know my own back yard..?” 
He loaded the Demolition Gun again. Feeling as if he was protecting his old home, he turned it towards the last Behemoth. It took him three shots to bring it down, after which he turned the machine, and disappeared into the jungle. 
“Going to Phase two. Sensors to passive, GPL on idle. Scattering ‘seeds.’” 
<Roger.> 
On the lower back of the AS, the small hatch of the grenade dispenser popped open, a small drum-like decoy rolled on the ground. After this he proceeded South at high speed. He carried eight of these decoy units, that not only emitted the same signal wave as the Laevatein, but also waves in the infra-red spectrum. It couldn’t, of course, recreate the shape and movement of the machine, but it was enough to fool some enemies’ eyes. The decoys were also equipped with vibration sensors and could pick up the enemy’s footsteps. If he used the forest to hide, this reduced, to a certain extent, the risk of the enemy finding him. This, however, was not all. To reveal their presence, the decoys actively “communicated” with each other, sending bursts of encrypted data. Of course, one machine leading this lively exchange of information seemed very fishy; and if this communication, normally restricted during operations, played over and over for a period of time, the enemy would think it suspicious. 
And then there were Kalinin and Leonard. If he made mistakes, they would simply outsmart him and drive him into a corner. Then... 
“Al, remove encryption on circuit E2. Switch all communications, decoys included, to emergency frequencies.” 
<Are we going to reveal to the enemy the contents of our communications..?> 
“Let them hear it. This machine is a radio station, and I’m the DJ.” 
Many questions and doubts swirled in his head long before the sortie. How to contact Kaname? How to counter the enemies on Merida? Are his plans correct? What does she want, and what does he want for himself? 
Somehow, when the battle started, most of them became clear as day. Especially, the question that he had been asked many times before: who is he, really? He couldn’t give a proper reply to Leonard’s speech, nor to Sarah’s letter, nor to a lot of other people that talked to him about many different things. The reason for that was that that he wasn’t a pastor, a politician, a mental health counselor, or a teacher. So, in the end, who was he? 
Why, that’s obvious. Now, in the heat of battle, I feel my true self. I am a soldier. 
 
 
To Be Continued in Part 2… 
 


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