Chapter 3: Pale Horse (continued)
Kaname was still immersed in her work - she had barely noticed the fact that the ceiling of the control room shook slightly, and the structure’s pillar creaked a little. There was probably a battle raging outside - still quite far, but its impact could already be felt. The enemy was on the island.
The structure that housed the TARTAROS was meant to withstand any kind of bombardment, and so she wasn’t worried in the slightest. The machinery was also fitted with shock dampers, so measurement errors would be within acceptable parameters. As soon as the tremor from the explosion died, the sound of Kaname typing filled the room once again.
A knock came from outside. Kaname, not looking away from her screen, answered with a short “come in”, and Leonard quietly entered the room.
“What’s the progress?”
“Just a little longer,” Kaname still didn’t take her eyes off the screen, and her fingers were flying over the keyboard. “Should I hurry?”
“You already look like you’re pushing yourself, I wouldn’t look good if I told you to hurry up now, would I?” Leonard’s voice was full of self-derision. “The enemy has landed. Our Behemoths are destroyed - it’s only one machine, but it’s impressively strong.”
“Ah... that successor to the Arbalest...”
“Yes, the ARX-8, the one they call ‘Laevatein’.”
That machine, and the actions of the remnants of Mithril, had caused Amalgam trouble for a long time. For some reason, she did not have any interest in finding out who was the pilot of that machine.
“So, you can’t defend against it?”
“Of course we can,” said Leonard, but it felt as if he wasn’t convinced.
Kaname’s fingers suddenly stopped above the keys, and she turned to look at him. Leonard was in his pilot’s uniform - he was going out in the Belial.
“So if you can, then why should I hurry even more?”
“Well... I’ll speak frankly. I think we have a ninety percent chance of success.”
“But it’s ninety percent...”
“What, have you suddenly lost your confidence?”
Leonard smiled - it was an aggressive smile, with a hint of madness, somehow reminding her of the predator’s smile often appeared on Gauron’s face.
“Of course not. I’ll tear him to pieces.”
“The enemy machine is equipped with a Lambda Driver nullifier, and the pilot is a master at AS warfare. On top of that, this island is practically home for him. From an objective point of view, I could be defeated, roughly one time in ten.”
“That is surprisingly modest, coming from you.”
“I’m always modest - but anyway, this is the reason why I’d like you to hurry. The chance of my failing is slim, but I’d like to be prepared for it.”
She turned back towards the screen, and started typing again. One line after another, formula after formula, all the different readings - and finally, the last command “Execute”.
“I just finished.”
She took a headset that was lying on the table, and curtly informed the person in charge of the power supply to connect the machine to the power grid.
“Thank you. Do you remember all the rest of our plan?”
“Yep, I memorized Amalgam’s management list that Kalinin-san brought me, and everything else is also in my memory. I only need to get changed and get into the machine.”
She stood up and stretched blissfully.
“Soon, very soon... a peaceful, clean, gentle world will come...”
“It’s in a way more different, further from this one... That infinite, empty sky, will swipe away the realm of death... you can probably see it too, no?”
Leonard fell silent, thinking. It looked like he didn’t know whether he should tell her what was on his mind.
“I’d like to meet you on the other side, too. No matter who I’ll be.”
The other side... the new world she was about to create...
“Sure, in some peaceful little town somewhere, on a bright, sunny day... we’ll meet, make tea, relax and chat about anything,” she smiled innocently. “Soon, we’ll have all the time in the world. And I’ll go to meet lots of other people, too. I guess I’ll meet Tessa, who would be close to you, and wouldn’t remember any war or anything like that.”
“Yes, I guess it will be like that...”
“And my friends from school, and my mum - everyone will be fine. And this time, I’ll find my own happiness, too.”
“So you won’t go meet with him?”
Kaname didn’t understand the meaning of his question.
“Him? Whom do you mean?”
“No, nobody... Well, then, I’ll be going.”
He nodded to her, and left the room.
Another faraway explosion shook the ceiling. After Leonard left, she stood still for a short while, alone in the control room. Meet with him... whom? She felt as if she was forgetting something very, very important...
It was a wonder it took her so long to remember it. Wasn’t he an important person to her once? She remembered that her chest tightened when she had to kill him in those Siberian ruins, during that encounter in Yamsk 11, and yet she still forgot him. The feelings of guilt that were still alive within her must have caused this... She did not want to remember him, and avoided that painful memory of her farewell in those ruins.
Get a hold of yourself, Kaname Chidori.
To her, the fact that she killed him seemed nothing more than a trifle, for some reason. On the other side, he’ll probably be doing well, and they’ll be able to meet any time. There was, however, a minimal chance that the plan would be stopped - then those two she had killed would remain dead, and she wouldn’t be able to save, much less meet, anybody.
“Yes, I have to hurry...”
She had to change her clothes. She opened a bag that was lying in one of the corners of the control room. Inside it was the datasuit that would harmonize her connection to the TAROS. She took off her blouse, camisole and skirt, and was ready to take off her shorts, when she heard a voice in the wireless headset that was lying nearby.
“... Kaname! Chidori Kaname! Do you hear me?” a man’s voice was coming through a lot of noise and static. “...calling on an open channel! If you can’t answer, just listen! I’m here. I’ll be coming for you right away!”
She took the wireless receiver and looked at its LCD display. She confirmed that the channel wasn’t encrypted in any way. There was no point even intercepting it - it was heard on all channels, and since the other side was using an emergency code, her receiver automatically picked it up.
“...Sousuke?” she whispered incredulously.
“I’ve come to take you back! Do you hear me? Take you back!”
There could be no mistake. That was Sousuke.
Why? He’s dead, isn’t he? I’m certain, that time I shot him in the forehead. Why is Sousuke here?
She didn’t feel glad that he was alive, or that he finally came for her. Only bewilderment. And that uncomfortable feeling within her grew stronger. Her vision became blurred, she couldn’t read the characters on the nearby screen, and her thoughts became all jumbled.
“...I tried to think of something nice to say, but I’m the same as usual, can’t talk niceties, so listen close. I wanted to tell you, that I thought you had more guts. Do you hear that?”
...what was that man saying? He was talking on an open circuit, so the whole island could hear him. They would locate the source of the transmission, and their forces would intercept and trap him. However, that didn’t stop him from talking. On the contrary, he sounded like he was fed up with everything and grumbling - she didn’t remember him ever talking that way.
“...I’m serious, Kaname. I’m disappointed in you. I always thought you were a better person... no, that’s not true, either. In
fact, there were plenty of things that irritated me. You always hit people over the head, couldn’t take an argument calmly; it often felt like you were preying on me, or trying to control me, and I got angry. You lived in your peaceful Japan, not knowing any real trouble, and didn’t have the slightest bit of concern about me. Thinking about it now, that’s just not fair. You were a cruel, cruel person... but that’s not the most important thing. I just remembered it, and thought I’d tell it to you now, while I have the chance... so what I wanted to say is, does it look like you’re the person I could throw away everything to save? In truth, I’m still thinking about it. I’ve been chasing you for a year, and was frustrated many, many times. In Mexico and in Yamsk 11, I was this close, but it all failed because you were slow. Think of yourself as a princess, eh? You really didn’t want to do it? You thought that it was all right either way? Don’t tell me you’re crying now, hearing me say this? Or did the stupid girl expect comforting words from some stupid boy..?”
That speech, delivered in one breath - was it really coming from the always silent Sousuke? She was first astonished, but quickly changed her mind.
That was simply foolish of them. They were trying to get to her through those simple tricks. She felt the discomfort rise to a new level, and become something even more unfamiliar, but she disregarded it, and calmly considered the enemy’s plan. It was possibly provocation, or an attempt to move her to tears - how pitiful.
“Well, Kaname Chidori?” the man almost shouted. “What were you saying before ‘let’s go back together’ and all? You liar!1 And if I’m wrong, come and hit me again! Hit me on the head with your slipper or your harisen, like you always did!”
1 He actually calls her "kuso onna"...
She didn’t understand why, but that feeling of unease was getting stronger with every minute. Anger was boiling inside her chest, her vision blurred, and she had and almost irresistible impulse to shout at him.
As if trying to erase the overwhelming feeling inside, she furiously scratched her head. She then took the headset from the table, selected the band and switched it on.
“I heard you.”
Sousuke, who had been talking by himself for a while, suddenly fell silent.
“I see you are using a pretty good voice synthesizer to recreate Sousuke’s voice. You thought you’d move me that way?”
“I’m the real Sousuke Sagara.”
“Right, if you insist. Your efforts are pointless, anyway. The preparations for the launch of TARTAROS are finished, and I’m going to create a new world. You’re too late.”
He still didn’t answer. It sounded like he was carefully listening to every word of hers.
“Leonard and his men will surround you soon. You’re in a helpless situation. I don’t know who you are, but listen to me... thrown away your weapons, and wait. Soon, the moment will come for us to say farewell to this cruel, unfair world--...”
“Shut up,” said the voice quietly, but firmly. “You shut up. I’m talking to Kaname Chidori.”
“What are you talking about? I am Kaname Chidori.”
“Wrong,” the voice said with a slight sneer.
Whoever was impersonating Sousuke behaved like a spoiled child.
“You are not her. You are Sofia.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Sousuke was moving through the jungle on Merida, and continuing the conversation. His last words seemed to have taken the other side completely by surprise.
“Sofia..? What are you talking about?”
He heard her breathing over the radio. She didn’t seem to be agitated by his words - her voice was only suspicious, doubtful of his sincerity. It was just as Tessa had predicted, and they couldn’t meet to talk face to face. From the start, Sousuke wasn’t in the mood to persuade her.
“I am Kaname Chidori. Sofia died a long time ago. So, you tried to move me to tears, and when that didn’t work, you think up some nonsense to confuse me? That is really--...”
“I said, shut up!” he spat out.
Anger and disgust towards that woman were building up within him. He continued talking on an open channel.
“You think I’ve come here in a combat-ready AS to start pleading you to stop? Don’t make me laugh. I’ve come to be as much of a pain in the ass as possible. Good, they must all be hearing us now. So, listen closely,” he paused for a moment to take in a deep breath, “I’m going to crush you all.”
That was his declaration of war.
“My specialties are arson and demolition. I’m going to turn that occult machine you’re worshipping into a pile of slag in five seconds. Come on, I want to hear you plead! ‘Please, don’t! These are our hopes!’ I want to see you whimper and hide, crying ‘oh, this cruel world has hurt us so much, we want it to disappear!’ That would be a sight to remember. I’ll record it and transmit it for the world to see. I’ll make you into a public joke. So get ready - I’m coming for you!”
It was probably the first time in his life that he had said so much in the space of one breath. He was surprised himself at the words that came out.
“...you don’t understand anything,” sadly whispered the girl, who had been silent all the while, “what we seek is a gentler, peaceful world, and that’s it. We would heal it, bring harmony, make it cleaner, and a brilliant--...”
“Shut up, you bitch2.”
2 I wish there was another option in the dictionary, but there isn't.
“What’s all that about healing and cleaning? You’re just going to smear your shit all over the world. This ain’t about you understanding what I say, or not. I decided I would do it. I’ll stop you, no matter what it takes. This thing called war? It’s a simple, very simple process of giving and taking, and I love it. Well, looks like we’ll get started now.”
One of the decoy’s vibration sensors reported enemy movement, and a warning from Al followed immediately:
<Eight o’clock, distance three, two ASes.>
“Come and get some!”
They were probably Lambda Driver-equipped Codarls, and having detected their prey’s location, they advanced on full alert. The decoy’s sensor was barely able to pick them up.
There was no point of speaking with that woman any more. The decoys were in place, and the enemy was dispersed, but sensing the Laevatein’s intent, has probably already started the encirclement.
“Careful about the west slope. There are three places for a good ambush there.”
<Yes, I remember, > Al also had time to memorize the maneuvering grounds of Merida Island.
Moving fast, he started switching his weapons. First, the two Zeroes from the lower back. Without hoping to hit anything, he sprayed the jungle behind him. Several hundred 20mm bullets ripped through the foliage, shredded branches, and cut down several trees. Not paying any attention to the volley, the Codarls approached. Their pilots had probably decided that ECS was useless at that point, and their shapes were visible through the dense thicket. They fired their carbines first. The Laevatein moved only a few steps to avoid their shots, and answered with its 40mm assault rifle. Five bullets hit one of the machines in the right shoulder, but it managed to escape fatal injury using its Lambda Driver. It swayed, as if drunk, but then managed to regain its balance, and prepared to resume its attack.
He was going to show them which machine was stronger - and discharged a furious volley from both his Gatling guns and the assault rifle. The Codarl couldn’t withstand such punishment, and fell on its knees, full of holes.
“The last thing you’ll see is the barrel of my gun!!”
Bullets from the other machine fell on his force field and disintegrated, and he dropped the now-empty 20mm Gatlings. He continued shooting at his enemy, emptying the magazine of his rifle, and charged. The enemy evidently had seen him coming, and started retreating with small jumps to the left and right, shooting back. The 37mm bullets whizzed past the Laevatein that ignored them. Its rifle had already run out of ammunition.
<GEC-B out of ammo.>
He switched the rifle from one auxiliary arm to another, taking it like a baseball bat, and swung at the Codarl. The space
distorted, and the colliding fields made an unearthly sound. The blow was aimed at the enemy machine’s head, and sent it spinning on the ground. He was preparing to finish it off with the bent rifle, when suddenly Al’s voice made him stop:
He immediately rolled forward and used the fallen Codarl as a shield. Almost simultaneously, bullets ripped through the space where he had been a moment before, signaling the appearance of new enemy machines. As expected, from the west, numbers unknown, but likely three or more.
Bullets were hitting his improvised shield, and his second GEC-B had also run out of ammo, and he discarded it. Holding the enemy machine with the left hand, he took a Boxer-2 in the right, and returned fire. The enemy machines started spreading out.
<Incoming contacts from the south, at least four machines.>
Now he was being targeted from another side, too. He threw to the ground the enemy machine, which was by now in tatters, and protecting himself with the force field alone, quickly moving to cover. The enemy concentrated his forces more and more, and their coordination was quick.
<It looks like the first two stopped their advance.>
“Sure they did, on the orders of the Lieutenant Commander.”
The enemy commander wasn’t about to let him destroy them one by one. It also looked like the effect of his decoys and long speech wasn’t going to last much longer. So far he had managed to put two enemy machines out of action, but that did not change the overall situation much. There were at least eight enemy ASes left, he didn’t know where Leonard’s machine was, the
enemy commander was none other than the Lieutenant Commander, and the launch of TAROS was about to happen.
“The Lieutenant Commander...”
He must have been listening to the conversation, together with Leonard. The declaration of war at the end wasn’t addressed to that woman, but to those two.
I’m not going to hesitate any more. I’m going to crush you all. Weaklings, clinging to your foolish dreams and some piece of junk... have you lost your common sense? I’m disgusted by how rotten you are. I’m going to torment you until you fall. I’ll even wait until you wash your necks...3
3 That is, washing the neck before the head gets cut.
That was his message to them. Were they laughing at the moment? No, probably not. They understood perfectly well that they had to use every ounce of strength to stop him. If he was an opponent they could laugh at, everything would have been over very quickly.
A rocket exploded too close for comfort. Earth and small stones rained down on the Laevatein’s armour.
<Three Codarl-type machines moving to 21D.>
It was a clever encirclement, and the enemy machines’ attack was obviously very well coordinated. Their piloting skills were nothing special, but their choice of position and timing of attacks were disgustingly cunning. It was as if he was suddenly fighting a different enemy.
“Is there a signal from the de Danaan?”
<No. Status unknown.>
“Let’s lure them out to the northwest.”
<We will be caught in the crossfire en route.>
“It’ll be worse if we stay. Come on, move..!”
And the Laevatein sped from the cover of a large rock straight into the enemy’s barrage of fire.
♦ ♦ ♦
After the flak and other fireworks had ended, the mountain became eerily still. Mao moved under the cover of darkness, with ECS turned on and all sensors on passive. Even her footsteps were barely audible, and she moved with the grace of a stray cat sneaking in from the back alley.
“Doesn’t look like anyone’s targeting me...”
Time was on the enemy’s side, and they didn’t have any particular reason to start the combat. Still, fighting an enemy that had already penetrated the underground base would be dangerous for the equipment. She didn’t think that they would accept even a one in a thousand chance of their enemy preventing the launch.
“Is there an ambush close then..?”
Could they have already spotted her? It had been two years since the M9 series’ onboard ECS was deployed in combat, and in that time it had lost the status of an omnipotent stealth system. It was still, of course, a powerful piece of equipment in its own right, but advanced machines, like the ones Amalgam had, would probably be able to at least detect the general location and direction of movement of a cloaked AS.
Resisting the growing urge to use the active ECCS sensors, she continued moving forward. She would have liked to be much more careful, but the clock was ticking.
The entrance to the base came in sight. She approached the foot of the mountain, on its southern side, and scanned the space around her.
Under a rock face on the southern side, as if hiding in the bushes, in a small cave in the rocks, a faint heat source was detected, with an infra-red emission pattern that was definitely not natural.
“Oh, it’s you, Mao,” she heard Clouseau’s voice over short-distance radio. The heat source was his “Falke”. She lowered her gun, and answered on a common encrypted channel:
“What about the assault squad?”
“Yang’s been assembling them five hundred meters to the northwest. One minor injury, looks like a sprained ankle at landing.”
Looks like she had landed farther away than anyone else.
She was asking about the soldier who was injured before the drop by anti-aircraft fire. She had only heard that he was unconscious...
“Don’t know. Had to leave him behind, but his condition was pretty bad.”
“I see... is Yang all right?”
Yang and the injured Wu were close, and the question was really about Yang’s mental condition, and readiness to lead the assault squad.
“I only spoke to him a little, but he seems fine. They’re going to follow their own insertion route; we’ll be coming from the northeast. Let’s go!”
She glanced at her countdown timer - they had twenty minutes left until the estimated launch. No time to argue. Her M9’s AI exchanged data with Clouseau’s machine. That way, even if they were invisible, she would be able to see his position in real time. A target mark labeled [URUZ1] appeared on her screen. The
sensors of her M9 were searching for the enemy on passive mode, and all electronic warfare systems were turned on. Checking all that, she started climbing the slope after Clouseau.
“Don’t you think it’s a little too quiet?”
Mao’s machine had a more advanced sensor array, and looking through the data that he was getting from her, Clouseau seemed to agree.
“No traps detected... the strength of their forces so far was much lower than expected, too. If this is all, then...”
“Tessa was right?”
“Yes. The enemy must have deployed most of their remaining forces on Merida. And they were serious about defending not this position, but--...”
At that moment, an enormously powerful sound broke their communication and seemed to fill all the space around them. It was not the sound of an explosion, but music. Among the mountains, the high notes of the musical movement echoed and broke, but she immediately recognized the piece. It was Mussorgsky’s “Night on a Bare Mountain”, a symphonic poem that painted a chorus of evil spirits appearing on St. John’s eve and engaging in all kinds of mischief. The source of that sound was also immediately discernible - speakers installed around the base perimeter, that created a wave of sound that was nothing short of a rock festival.
“So, ‘Fantasia’, isn’t it”, muttered Clouseau.
“The world’s first movie with stereo sound... never mind. Anyway, this clowning is definitely Fowler’s handiwork.”
Fowler... yes, it did look like something that poseur could come up with. If irritating the enemy was part of tactics, then he
was a master of it. And that wasn’t all - the man was an excellent pilot himself. Then, the next move...
An alarm interrupted her thoughts.
On the north slope at ten o’clock - a small heat source and noise. She pointed her gun at it, and let the targeting systems do the work. No warning was necessary for Clouseau, he had already received her data. The AI would classify it as a measurement error - it was that small - but Mao didn’t think so. This was an enemy machine... but it wasn’t shooting.
“Didn’t see us yet?”
“No - behind you!” shouted Clouseau, and the attack came from a completely different direction.
The enemy was also using ECS, and was almost completely invisible - she just saw something dart out of the shade of a rock and target them with its active radar. It was a classic pincer attack.
“I’ll leave you the front one!” shouted Clouseau, and sent his machine into a flying leap forward.
They couldn’t coordinate their actions over the datalink anymore - this would become a duel with the enemy.
Mao started moving in the opposite direction, disengaging her ECS - its effect was negligible by then anyway - and switched all sensors to active. Information started flowing onto the screens, and she could soon identify these enemy machines with heat camouflage. They were two Eligor-type ASes - a further development of the Codarl, that machine was both more powerful and agile. During the fight in Mexico, she ran from that machine a lot, until she could crush its head with a surprise attack.
The black Eligor that Clouseau was up against was most likely Fowler’s machine, and she remembered the white machine, that she was currently facing, from Mexico.
Thus, on that mountain, tearing apart the evening silence, began their last battle.
They had at least managed to avoid being completely surprised this time, but were still at a disadvantage. The numbers were the same, but the other side had Lambda Drivers, and there wasn’t even any room for traps or other special tactics. Most importantly, Fowler and his teammate were more than competent pilots, at least equal to themselves.
The white machine in front of her dropped the ECS cloaking and prepared to attack. It started moving very fast, traversing the slope and aiming at Mao.
“Oh, quick to draw, aren’t we...”
Encountering strong jamming waves, the targeting systems of the enemy’s guns were confused for a while, but it fired a burst anyway. The shots went wide. Mao continued to circle the white machine, sometimes making random maneuvers to throw the enemy off, locked her gun on the target, and squeezed the trigger the moment the lock was confirmed. She knew that the enemy would stop the bullets with its Lambda Driver- that was only a test.
The white machine, however, did not use its Lambda Driver, instead using the same type of lock jamming system. Mao’s screen flickered for a moment, but recovered. She thought she saw the enemy machine shake its head a little, as if saying: “I don’t need a Lambda Driver to deal with you, my EW systems will be enough,” and move to the next attack position.
Damn, he thinks he can play around with me...
The was no information on the pilot of the machine... but she suddenly got a feeling that it might be that girl. It was pure intuition, but there was a basis for that guess - the machine’s movements. The series of light jumps, where the machine only bent its knees a little, made it float gracefully across the rocky slope. It could have been Mao’s imagination, however, the AS was a tool designed to reflect its pilot’s movements, and to a trained
eye would show its pilot’s personality, even without a fully calibrated motion management system. Mao could easily tell who was piloting an allied AS just by looking at its movements. Sousuke’s style, for example, was especially notable: a forward-leaning posture, like a predator waiting to take off, its head moving ever so slightly to survey its surroundings. Weber’s machine would stand tall, chest forward, its head moving slowly, as if looking around with a certain air of haughtiness. Clouseau’s M9 always held its back straight, its limbs moving in the tight, precisely controlled patterns of a martial artist. That was why Mao’s intuition was telling her that it could be a girl. Even so, it wasn’t like she could take advantage of the information...
“Can’t be her... shit..!”
She was being shot at - her left shoulder was hit. No significant damage, but the ECS lenses in that area were damaged. It would be difficult to hide now.
She brushed all those unnecessary thoughts aside, and accelerated her movement, aiming at the enemy, and firing bursts from her assault rifle. From that position, it was too difficult to hit the target. The white machine was jumping around, sometimes using ECS, sometimes not, and shooting in small bursts, as if to ridicule her. There was no time for that. Would she even be able to get close to her enemy..?
♦ ♦ ♦
The Laevatein threw one of the Codarls on the ground, and pinned it firmly.
He held the enemy machine with his left hand alone - his right was holding the shotgun, aimed at a second target. From
behind, a third Codarl was bearing down on him, holding a monomolecular cutter made in the form of a spear.
The blade of a GRAW-4 monomolecular cutter sprang from the machine’s knee, and started up. He barely managed to avoid the tip of the Codarl’s spear, and from a seemingly impossible posture kicked the other machine. The enemy AS was skewered by the cutter blade protruding from the right knee in a shower of sparks.
One more enemy was shooting at him from another direction. He half-turned, using the enemy as a shield, and kicked it off. The skewered AS flew, like a discarded doll, turned, and fell down, raising fountains of mud. Finally, he put his shotgun to the head of the machine that he had pinned down, and pressed the trigger, blowing it to little pieces.
“That’s right, keep coming!!”
For once, he felt complete. He was using all of his skills, learned from a very young age, in perfect harmony, moving like an organic machine.
And there was another feeling - that of surpassing Andrei Kalinin. The feeling of being able to read his thoughts and tactics. If he moved to a certain position, he could guess what the enemy commander’s orders would be. Their long acquaintance played into his hands - he understood many things about Kalinin. That would surely place the latter at a disadvantage, and he would be able to move unpredictably.
It wasn’t the unwarranted pride of a green recruit, he just knew exactly what he felt. If this was a contest of pure wit, then the Lieutenant Commander would still have the upper hand, but there were too many uncertain factors in this game. Sousuke
himself, together with his machine, was a wild card. He found a rage within himself that he did not expect; something that surpassed the knowledge of that old soldier.
However, no matter how strong he was, he also had limits. The difference in numbers and firepower, strong fatigue, too little time remaining... Even after all that fighting, he couldn’t shake them off and run straight towards the objective - TAROS. Even if he did destroy the majority of the enemy’s troops, the game would be over by then. And Laevatein would use all of its strength...
... is that what you’re thinking, Lieutenant Commander? No, too slow..!
<Intercepting signal from the TDD-1. Should we ask for assistance, as planned?>
<Roger. Executing... Launch confirmed. Displaying data.>
On the very edge of the tactical map appeared ten small marks. The others had probably been waiting for Laevatein’s request. The de Danaan, managing to get close to the island, went up to periscope depth and fired ten cruise missiles. For them, it was almost a point-blank shot.
<ETA thirty seconds and counting.>
The missiles were coming, and the Laevatein started rapidly moving west. The enemy bullets continued to rain down upon it. It performed unpredictable, seemingly random maneuvers, and hid behind cover as much as it could. Something slammed into the body of the machine - his leg was shot, and though the damage was insignificant, the power output dropped somewhat. Not paying any attention to it, Sousuke pressed forward.
He rushed out of the dense jungle and into an opening - a clear space around three hundred meters in diameter. In the theory
of AS warfare, that geographical feature was to be avoided at all costs, and yet he ran to the very centre of it.
<ETA fifteen seconds and counting. Executing guidance of TRAM one to ten.>
He returned fire, and one of the Codarls’ arms was blown off. The enemy didn’t stop for a moment, and the machines continued to encircle him, now pressing from three sides at once.
The enemy had eight machines, coming from all directions, and he could not face them all together.
“I’ll leave the guidance to you!”
<Roger. ETA five seconds, four... three...>
The Laevatein activated the “fairy’s feather”. An enormous amount of power was suddenly concentrated on the thin plumes of the unit; bluish particles started dancing on their tips, and even the air around them seemed to vibrate.
The device worked perfectly: the nullification field expanded suddenly, and cancelled the Lambda Drivers on all the enemy machines that were arrayed in a circle around the Laevatein. Almost at the same moment ten cruise missiles that Al was guiding fell upon them, lighting the sky like arrows of flame.
Four... five hits.
Everything around Sousuke seemed to vanish in one enormous explosion. Some pilots didn’t notice the missiles, some did and tried to activate their Lambda Drivers, but the result was the same. More than half of the enemy machines was either blown up into little pieces, or were on fire.
<Five targets confirmed destroyed. The rest are taking evasive action.>
He stopped the “fairy’s feather”, the plume-blades of the unit gently folding into the machine’s body, and started mopping up the survivors. Only three remained, and while they escaped direct hits, they didn’t come out unscathed. One machine had a leg missing, and was trying to crawl away - he unloaded his shotgun into its back. Only two left. Those seemed to hesitate between escaping and continuing the attack, but finally turned towards him once again.
“Out of my way!!”
Pulverizing one with his trusty shotgun, and slashed the last one in two with his cutter.
The small fish were dealt with. Now was the turn of the Lieutenant Commander himself.
Did you expect this, too? And if yes, what’s your next move? Probably, luring me in towards the base, waiting for the moment when I’ll be forced to get out of the AS to go save Kaname. You probably prepared a lot of traps, and a nice welcome committee, right? Good, I won’t keep you waiting for long...
The Laevatein stowed its cutter in its knee, and start quickly moving towards the central base.
♦ ♦ ♦
Upon receiving the news that the Codarl units were all eliminated, Kalinin didn’t show any sign of surprise - instead, he nodded, as in agreement. It didn’t mean that he was going easy on the enemy, however. He did warn his troops about the dangers of the Laevatein’s Lambda Driver nullifier, and a combined attack with cruise missiles was not impossible to pull off, but that perfect timing was really quite extraordinary. Sousuke and Tessa were
different from a year ago. They had lived through many ordeals, and their skills were now more refined than ever.
He didn’t have much left now. If he had managed to make the Belial attack together with the Codarls in a coordinated fashion, the outcome might have been different.
“This is pointless” was the only thing Leonard said to him, his conceit almost palpable. He wished for a duel, nothing less... and so their most powerful unit also became their weakness. He tried calling Leonard on the radio, but there was no response - he had probably closed off the channel.
Thinking about it rationally, the odds were nine to one in Leonard’s favor. Even with its Lambda Driver nullified, the Belial was a fearsome machine. Kalinin had no choice but to leave the Leviathan to him, and prepare his men for the battle.
If the de Danaan tried to disembark an assault squad, they would have no choice but to enter the base from the north. He would have to prepare an ambush that would wipe out the landing party with one precise blow. Regardless of how well they did, they will spend a lot of time there.
Kalinin gave several additional instructions, and sent his men to prepare for attack.
♦ ♦ ♦
Running through the jungle at top speed, Sousuke contacted the de Danaan on a secure channel.
“This is Uruz 7. All enemy AS units are down, however, unable to confirm presence of Belial. It seems the activation of TAROS has entered its final stages.”
“...This is the de Danaan, our thanks...”
It was Mardukas’ voice - despite the static that interrupted it, Sousuke could hear his heavy breathing, alarms blaring in the background, and someone shouting angrily. He could guess that the damage was quite serious.
“Commander, how’s the Captain?”
“We got a bad hit... she was thrown out of her chair during the impact...”
“Is she injured?”
“...it’s fine. The ship can still move, she can, too... we’ll try breaking from the underground passage to the sea... according to latest info from the satellite, the TAROS is definitely in the dock... Sagara, you get in from above and do whatever you can...”
From the underground passage? That was definitely dangerous, even reckless. He wanted to tell them to try and hide in the sea - but couldn’t. There was no room for careful steps. The TAROS was about to launch. He wasn’t sure if he would make it alone. He didn’t have time to go through carefully, either. There probably wasn’t anything left except trying a pincer attack from above and below.
“...Give me that!’ he heard Tessa’s voice, and her fumbling with the headset she took from Mardukas. “Sagara san..! you haven’t seen the Belial yet..?”
“Please be careful, Leonard will be trying to buy time... it isn’t necessary for him to defeat you, just to stall you until the activation...”
“I understand, but--...”
“Restraint will be harmful. Do everything you can to defeat my brother. It doesn’t matter if he dies,” Tessa must have guessed
exactly what Sousuke was thinking. “Tell him this from me, it may have an effect. Do you hear? Remember them, this is important.”
Over the noise, he heard that her voice had become... pained, as if she was giving him a cup of poisoned wine to give to her brother. As if fighting back nausea, she had told him the words. It was only a short phrase, that Sousuke did not understand, but there was no time to ask for explanations. He just answered:
“Please, do your best. Over and out.”
The channel was closed quickly, and that was the end of his exchange with Tessa. Above ground, some enemies remained, and he couldn’t start a moving dialogue with her in the middle of the battle.
The Laevatein was running towards the base. If he continued south from there, he would come to elevator number sixteen, that would take him down into the base, from where he could proceed to elevator shaft zero, which was like the spine of the entire construction. Its width would easily allow an AS to pass through.
Trees were blocking his sight, as he moved through the dense undergrowth. He suddenly remembered the tiger that was left alone by chance on that island. He had saved the Bengal tiger from an illegal animal vendor in Tokyo, and because there was no place to raise him in the city, had moved him to Merida Island. That beautiful white cat could still be in that jungle. Sousuke wondered if he was all right... that time, it was Kaname who told him that it was impossible to keep the tiger in his apartment, and he moved him to those maneuvering grounds, to get rid of the wild pigs, he told her - but she was still worried.
<Sergeant? You seem to be losing concentration,> remarked Al.
He was able to evaluate his mental condition, because the cockpit of the machine was in fact a small TAROS.
“No... it’s nothing.”
He shook off these idle thoughts - elevator sixteen was almost in sight. Neither Leonard, nor Kalinin had made their move, and that was just fine by Sousuke. Who knew, maybe they had to deal with some other troubles. Now he only had to stop Sofia...
Ah, but he was deluding himself, nothing could go that easily. On Sousuke’s path, on a small hillock in front of elevator sixteen, stood one AS. An elegant machine, its black and silver armour polished, as if ready for a parade march, its asymmetric head looking as intimidating as a demon from legends. It was the Belial.
It was raining lightly, and the enemy didn’t even bother to use its ECS. It was holding some kind of weapon in its slender hand. It looked like a metallic arc, approximately the size of the machine’s body, that curved like a crescent moon. It was holding this weapon on its shoulder, calmly looking his way. Was that some kind of bow..?
“I thought you’d come this far,” he heard Leonard’s voice through the external speakers. “Though I hoped they would hold out a little longer, with Kalinin in command. Turns out he’s really too old for this.”
“Really. I think with you in command I’d be here in half the time.”
“You don’t say,” the Belial moved its shoulders slightly, as if it was shrugging. “I heard what you were saying just a while ago. Pretty interesting... so you know she’s Sofia?”
“Of course. Heard it from Tessa.”
Yes, Sofia - the girl whose heart and mind were lost during that experiment at Yamsk 11 eighteen years ago. That collection of
residual thoughts was what Kaname was exposed to in the Omni Sphere - Sofia herself had long ceased to exist. It wasn’t a case of her personality taking over - no, the girl still thought of herself as Kaname, and while her intent was clear, all the memories of the past belonged to Kaname. This was the reason why it was futile to try and persuade her, or play on her past memories.
He could only hope that her heart was still there somewhere. And if that was the case, what could he tell her? Hang in there? I’m coming? I’m thinking about you? No, that was all wrong. And still, he felt... empty. What powerful words could he say? He had been asking himself the same question over and over, and in the end, he said what he said.
He didn’t know any words of love - his were harsh, provoking. After all, you can’t support a losing side with gentle encouragement alone.
“I see. Trying to call her real self, thinking that this way would be successful. It’s very much like you.”
“And what about you?”
“It looked like you had feelings for Kaname - but this isn’t really her. How could you keep up this pretence, knowing it all?”
“...well I already told you that, didn’t I.”
“The fact that you refuse to accept this world to the last? Yes, you did.”
“I only wish to see it returned to what it should be.”
“Now you’re just turning in circles.”
Sousuke calmly started loading the magazine of his shotgun. He suddenly felt a strange sense of loneliness. It wasn’t like he and Leonard hated each other. If they didn’t have such powerful motivations and attachments, would they ever think of each other as enemies..? This wasn’t even a crossing of fates, just a fight to
destroy the person whose way of thinking was different. He didn’t have to give his opponent any consideration... yes, it was time to defeat him and move on. Even if they met in the other world, it would probably be the same, whether they’d be friends or enemies. No interest in each other, no shackles of hatred - an empty relationship.
People just don’t change. Fate or not, those that aren’t interested in each other just don’t associate with each other. It’s all a hopeless, humorless story - he felt that very keenly.
Leonard... if I thought of you as an old enemy, I would perhaps support your cause...
“I don’t have time for this. Let’s go.”
He shot - the Belial didn’t move. Space in front of it distorted, as the armour-piercing round stopped right before its chest, and force fields collided. To them both, the ammunition itself was no more than an intermediary now - a vehicle of their own vision of destruction.
The armour-piercing shell was shredded, as if it was made out of paper. The warped space exploded, and a shockwave made the air tremble.
“Right, this wasn’t supposed to be easy,” Sousuke shook his head and prepared himself.
This wasn’t an opponent who would fall to that simple greeting. His Laevatein was a powerful machine, but the other AS was yet unmatched.
“You showed off that big mouth of yours a little while ago, Sagara,” the Belial soared into the sky from the fumes of the explosion. “Something about destroying us, and being a pain in the ass? Well, show me what you’ve got!”
Sousuke was already prepared to move. That weapon really was a bow - an eight-meter longbow, more precisely. Holding it with the left hand, the machine elegantly pulled the string.
There was no arrow - no, whatever was its projectile, it was invisible, but definitely pointed his way. He suddenly felt that he wouldn’t be able to defend against it, and reflexively dodged with his upper body. The Belial shot - something pierced his gun and left shoulder, and a shockwave came moments later, and after it, a sharp plosive sound, that was likely the delayed sound of the discharge of the “bow”.
That was something very different from a shell...
<Unknown. The hit came in the same instant as the discharge. The projectile could be travelling at hypersonic velocity, rest unknown...>
Sousuke didn’t have time to listen to Al’s explanations. The force field could not hold against something that travelled faster than a bullet. This first shot didn’t only destroy his shotgun, but also the plumes of the “fairy’s feather” on the left shoulder. If he hadn’t moved reflexively at the last moment, his torso would have been pierced.
“Nice intuition... but what will you do next?”
The Belial was lazily floating in the sky, and preparing to fire a second arrow. At that very moment, Kaname - no, Sofia was probably starting the activation of the TAROS. There was no time... or, rather, time was not the most pressing issue, as death was staring him in the face.