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Full Metal Panic! - Volume 12 - Chapter 4


Chapter 4: The Lover’s Dilemma 
 
 
The Tuatha de Danaan was mortally wounded. She had taken two hits on the starboard, and one on the port side. One of them was a direct hit from a torpedo, right near the hangar deck. There was no stopping the flood, and even with the help of the ballast tanks they couldn’t keep the ship upright. There was a fire in the crew quarters - it was more than the automatic extinguishers could handle, and there was no one left for fire-fighting duties. It was only because of its size and special construction that the submarine wasn’t sinking, but it was already at its limit. 
“ADSLMM activating... a hit on Mike eighteen!” 
One of the Leviathans got caught in their trap. The enemy that was coming in to deliver the final blow to the de Danaan, who couldn’t hide in the depths or even maintain full speed, had encountered one of their self-propelled mines. The chief sonar operator confirmed the destruction of the enemy vessel. 
However, no one could draw breath yet - instead, they were preparing for another attack. Their target was the first gate of the underwater passage into Merida, that was now blocked by what looked like a fence of some steel alloy. 
Holding a blood-soaked piece of gauze near her temple, Tessa continued giving orders: 
“Weapons free!” 
“Aye, torpedoes away!” 
Five torpedoes left their tubes and headed for their mark - one of their launch tubes had been rendered inoperable during the fight. Two of those torpedoes were programmed to explode first, clearing away the enemy mines. The de Danaan continued to advance with three other torpedoes in a stream of bubbles. The 
enemy’s short-range coastal defenses started their work, showering them once again with torpedoes. They tried to outrun them as fast as they could. The torpedoes detonated around them, one after the other. One hit - the ship lurched under them, and Tessa struggled to remain in her seat. One of the bridge’s main screens flickered and went black. The damage control officer reported that fires and leaks were springing up around the ship, and they had lost their second starboard rudder. Despite this, they could still move - and they accelerated. 
The torpedoes hit the underwater barrier and exploded. As the ship rammed the tattered fence, the impact they felt was not far from a direct hit of a torpedo. Everything shook, ceiling panels fell directly on Mardukas. Somebody screamed, and the lights flickered. Despite that, the forty-four thousand ton vessel was through the gate, and inside the channel. 
“Load the next ones!” 
“In progress... two... one... completed!” 
On one of the remaining screens, the status of the torpedo tubes changed from amber to green, and the label [ARM] appeared near them. 
“Fire!” 
The last salvo - five torpedoes sped towards the second underwater gate. One of them misfired, and four explosions shook the tunnel. The shockwave propagated through the water and came right at the submarine’s bow. The ship was shaken again, and started uncontrollably veering to the starboard, towards the tunnel wall. As the gigantic body of the ship brushed the wall, creating an unearthly screeching sound, the bridge shook fiercely. 
“Reactor one and two crossing critical temperature levels! Anymore and--...” 
“Maintain full speed! I don’t care if we blow up!” 
“Aye-aye, Ma’am!” 
The second gate was approaching fast. Only three hundred meters... two hundred... 
“We’re breaking through, everyone brace of impact!” 
 
 
But the broadcasting system didn’t work. Whether it was flooding or fires, the speakers remained silent. 
“It’s going to be all right, just grab onto something!” shouted Mardukas, his face bloody as well. 
Right after, the submarine broke through the fence. What exactly happened, Tessa couldn’t tell - she was thrown off her Captain’s chair forward, into the seat of a navigator. She could feel herself turning over several times, and wasn’t even sure she was alive. 
She opened her eyes to the blinking of alarms, a terrible headache and buzzing in the ears. Mardukas was looking her way and shouting something. She saw the weapons officer lying on the floor, and a navigator tending to him. 
“...tain! ...Captain!” Mardukas’ voice finally reached her. 
“...was I out..?” 
“You didn’t get up for around thirty seconds.” 
“...Report our... situation...” 
One of the screens on the starboard side was still functioning. She was helped up by Mardukas, and still feeling dizzy, operated the control panel. Luckily, it was still responding to commands. 
The ship had breached the second gate into an area drained of water, and slid around two hundred meters. From the broken sluice gate water had flooded the tunnel up to around one-third of its height. The submarine itself could now be declared non-operational, its palladium reactors having stopped automatically. The fire in the engine compartments was still not out, and a new one had appeared near the forward torpedo tubes - there was a risk of ammunition catching fire. The flooding of the hangar deck had naturally stopped, but it was now full of toxic fumes. The rudders 
were mostly broken off, and the damage to the outer hull was beyond estimation. 
She tried the periscope - it still worked. Setting the optical sensors to night vision mode, she surveyed the tunnel. Around three hundred meters in front of them was the last gate, which had been evidently sealed with a large amount of concrete. It looked like the service tunnel entrances might have been welded shut, too. On the other side of that wall, in the former dry dock, was their goal - TAROS. 
She tried the internal broadcasting system - the reserve circuits still worked. Tessa took the microphone, and informed the crew: 
“All hands, prepare for close quarters combat.” 
There was no time to sit around. Everyone replied affirmatively, left the bridge and went to the neighboring compartment, which had a weapons locker. She watched her subordinates leave one by one, until the last of them, Mardukas, stopped near the exit and called her. 
“Captain!” 
“Go on. I’ll catch up with you in a moment,” she answered, her voice unnaturally calm. 
Mardukas had probably guessed her simple wish, paused for a moment, then nodded, and went out of the door. 
She looked around the bridge, flooded with emergency lighting and the sound of alarms, as if trying to engrave the sight in her mind forever. 
She turned to the console once again, and typed a single line “Thank you”. The fire had perhaps severed the circuits, and the ship’s AI, Dana, did not answer. 
She bent down, then bowed, and kissed the dusty floor. It seemed long, very long, like that of a mother kissing her dying child... even if in reality it lasted only seconds. 
 
 
 
She stood up, wiped off the tears that had started to gather in the corners of her eyes, turned, and quickly left the bridge. 
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
The arrows were coming down on the Laevatein one after another, their shockwaves blowing away rocks, hills, and the abandoned buildings of the urban combat training ground. He couldn’t do anything against Leonard’s attacks - it was impossible to visualize a shield against those invisible energy arrows. He could only dodge them, relying on his intuition, but he would soon reach his limit. Sooner or later he would be driven into a corner 
and shot through the cockpit. He didn’t have any obligation to continue a contest of strength - it was time to use the equipment that he conserved for that time. 
“I’m going to use the ‘feather’!” 
<Ready.> 
That was a device that he couldn’t use for a long time, and Leonard knew it very well. He had wanted to wait for better timing to use it, but the enemy wasn’t about to let him do as he pleased. It was do or die, and he was going to use everything he had... everything. 
Concentrate... visualize... 
The remaining Lambda Driver nullifier on his right shoulder seemed to function well. The cables from the back of the machine’s head were glowing hot, and it activated with a shower of sparks. Now the Belial had lost its Lambda Driver, and the machine started falling out of the sky. However, it adopted a proper posture, and effortlessly landed. 
“I thought it was about time you used it. However,” the Belial instantly jumped after landing, folded its bow, and started to perform ordinary evasive maneuvers, “do you think you can reach me?” 
The Laevatein had lost its shotgun and rifle, and they only weapon it had left was the Demolition Gun, but that could only be used with the Lambda Driver, because of the powerful recoil. He had used all of his anti-armour weaponry fighting the Codarls.  
The temperature of the “fairy’s feather” was rising - it had less than a minute of operation left. Leonard was charging, shooting his 40mm autocannon, driving the Laevatein into a corner. 
“And your machine has another weakness...” 
After he said that, the Belial seemed to vanish into thin air. The rain had stopped, and he could freely use his ECS now. 
Sousuke couldn’t detect him at all. It seemed that the enemy was carefully moving from one rocky spot to another, without disturbing the vegetation or crossing the smoke. It was a calm, calculated approach to this game of hide and seek. He must have noticed that this powerful machine didn’t have an anti-ECS sensor array. 
“Your EW systems are pitiful - did you think I wouldn’t know?” came Leonard’s voice from somewhere.  
He wasn’t able to trace him, electromagnetic waves were seemingly coming from all sides. 
“Wouldn’t know, eh...” 
Carefully studying the visuals from the optical sensors, Sousuke turned on his external speakers. 
“There’s one thing you don’t know yet,” he said, closely watching the screens, and remembering Tessa’s words - he still didn’t understand their meaning, but if he was going to use them, it would be now. 
“Oh, really.” 
“I heard from Tessa... she told me that she knows what your mother did. Hear me? She knows it.” 
A long silence followed. He didn’t even think that he would get a response, but they turned out to be the magic words, after all. 
“Wh...” for the first time, he heard that Leonard’s breathing changed. “Nonsense. You’re talking nonsense.” 
The “fairy’s feather” limit was coming closer - only fifteen seconds left. 
“Hm, you think I’d just invent this?” 
Where are you, dammit... 
“...if she knows, then why’s she interfering? Tessa’s crazy... nuts... that whore, like mother like daughter, eh? Don’t screw with me... stop screwing with me!!” 
The enemy finally made a mistake in his movement. A nearby tree shook, the undergrowth bent unnaturally, and leaves fell on something unseen. He could detect nothing on radar, but that was the only place the enemy could be. He pulled out the Demolition Gun without extending the barrel, grasped it tightly, and aimed. The “feather” was still running, and he had no Lambda Driver to help him... 
Fire. 
...his right arm shattered below the elbow as the Laevatein was hit with a force that shook even a normal fifty-ton mobile artillery chassis. The machine was thrown back, turned in the air several times, and hit the ground. The Demolition gun, with a part of the AS’ arm, went flying somewhere. 
The 165mm shell hit something and exploded spectacularly. Smoke covered the entire scene, earth and small pebbles were raining down on the Laevatein. 
Sousuke’s head was spinning as he tried to get the machine up and do a damage check. He lost his right arm and the cannon, the “fairy’s feather” overheated, and he wouldn’t be able to cancel the opponent’s Lambda Driver anymore. 
The smoke cleared, and he saw the Belial, still standing. The enemy had lost its left arm, several armour plates, and the bow weapon - but that was all. 
“Shit...” 
Despite his best efforts, it didn’t look like he managed to land a direct hit. Sousuke had played his last card, but it wasn’t as effective as he hoped. 
The asymmetrical head was turned towards him, all sensors active, as if staring directly at Sousuke, through the cockpit shielding. 
“You... to use tricks like this...” 
The voice had changed. It was now full of rage - the voice of someone ready to rip him to shreds. 
It looked like he could still use his Lambda Driver - the air around the Belial trembled and warped. 
“What, now you start thinking about the spirit of chivalry?” 
“Enough! I will shut you up!” came Leonard’s reply. 
The Belial itself seemed to change into a tornado, and charged straight at him. 
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
The “Night on a Bare Mountain” continued to play, echoing throughout the mountain range. Mao’s M9 and the white Eligor continued their fight, always keeping the same distance, exchanging shots, using jammers, probing each other’s machines with special carrier waves - the battle was even to the point of being futile. Hundreds of encryptions were being created and decoded at almost the same moment, as their electronic warfare systems clashed. 
Mao shot, but at that speed she couldn’t hope to hit anything. The white Eligor dodged the shell as if it was a passing butterfly, jumping down on the steep slope, and started activating the lenses on its armour. Was it going to disappear again? No, this time it wasn’t going to become transparent. Instead, the white machine seemed to suddenly split into two - no, three, four white Eligors were dancing around her now, and the fifth one appeared from the shade of a rock. 
“Mirage split..?” 
Theoretically it was possible to imagine. Instead of hiding oneself with a hologram, the enemy was projecting its own shape around her. Mao had experimented with the idea some time before, but the power output of the M9 wasn’t sufficient for it, and after all, the mirage was just a pretty show. One should just aim at the center vehicle - after all, the range of the projection was limited, as the rate of discoloration of the hologram was equal to the square of the distance of projection. Thus, creating a hologram far away was very difficult, and while copying one’s own machine, it was logical to place projections around you. 
Mao made her AS crouch, and aimed. This time she wouldn’t miss. First, she’d make her opponent use the Lambda Driver - the real fight would come right after. She aimed and fired. 
The 40mm bullet passed through the center machine - and that was all. The fifth target moved at the same time, switching from the carbine to the anti-armour cutter. 
So the central one was a mirage... but how? Was its projection unit powerful enough to let the real AS hang back on the left, and maintain four holograms on its right side? However, in combat it had to be a strain on the reactor... 
The enemy seemed to move in slow motion, but it was at the limit of her reaction speed. It looked like a replay of a football penalty kick. Its arms were spread wide, its back bent a little. Ten anti-armor blades were pointing at her. The jammers wouldn’t have any effect against thrown weapons - she had to evade, but where? She decided - upwards. 
The blades were thrown, and came in, but eight of them almost immediately disappeared. The two from the leftmost machine were coming straight at her... her movements were read, there was no escape. 
Mao’s M9 crossed its arms on the chest, desperately trying to protect the cockpit, just in time - the blades struck both arms, and their explosive charges detonated simultaneously. Both arms were shattered, and her vision went blank from the impact. The machine was falling... she had to assume a proper landing posture, now  - use the arms to stabilize it... but there were no arms. Her machine, shaped like a human body, was missing the most crucial parts. 
The AS slammed into the ground, and Mao groaned as she felt the impact. She noticed the timer on the corner of one of the screens... fifteen minutes left. Only fifteen minutes, and she was in a terrible mess. In front of her, the white Eligor cancelled the projections, and calmly took a rifle from its back. The shot would come any second now... 
She performed a perfect jack knife maneuver, using all the strength of the M9’s dorsal muscles, and started running. She felt shots piercing the machine’s armor - back, right leg, right shoulder. She staggered, but pressed on. Alarm - a fire broke out somewhere. No hands to help her... 
The comms, as well as the EW systems, were still operational. At least she could tell everyone... 
“This is Uruz 2! Sustained critical damage! Unable to destroy the enemy! I think I’m finished...” 
I’m sorry, guys. 
“This is Uruz 1! Don’t give up!” quickly answered Clouseau, his breathing ragged. 
She glanced at the data from his machine - it had major damage in the chest, in the cockpit segment. 
“Ben!” 
“Just... hold out, somehow! It’s not going too well here, either, but I’ll come to you as soon as I finish--...” 
A loud metal screech interrupted his transmission, and then there was silence. No signal came from him anymore. 
“Ben..?!” 
She didn’t even have time to try and reach him. Kicking up snow and dirt, the white Eligor was coming. The Lambda Driver-equipped machine didn’t even have a scratch on it. 
What should she do? What could she do..? 
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
Fowler’s machine was drawing near. With the moonlight behind its back, the black Eligor looked very much like an evil spirit that was bearing down on his Falke. Fowler was only using one weapon - a blade. It wasn’t just a monomolecular cutter, though – it was a simple lump of steel alloy, made to look like a real sword. This blade, however, slashed through the chest of Clouseau’s machine like a knife through butter. Clouseau bent back at the last moment and managed to evade a fatal wound, but the sword had even cut through to the cockpit. The inside of the machine was now filled with fumes and the smell of hot iron. Some of the screens had survived, but because of the smoke it was hard to see anything. The next blow cut off some of the head sensors and the blade antenna, stopping his dialogue with Mao in mid-sentence. 
“Uruz 2..! Mao, can you hear me..?!” 
The reserve antennae didn’t seem to work, or it was perhaps the terrain there that hampered communications. Either way, he had to concentrate on the enemy in front of him first... 
Another slash, that time cutting his rifle in half. He threw it out immediately, and the ammunition inside exploded. He jumped into the smoke, getting some distance between himself and the 
enemy, and pulled out the monomolecular cutter. He took his “Crimson Edge”, modeled after a gurka knife, in a backhand grip, and his machine assumed the posture of a martial artist. That was, however, futile. There was no escaping Fowler’s slashing attacks. The Lambda field detection system, “fairy’s eye”, installed in the head of his machine, reacted to those attacks - it was obvious that the extreme sharpness of that blade was something visualized by Fowler himself. Clouseau would not be able to stop the blow with the cutter, and had to rely on his machine’s performance. 
Filthy bastard... thinking about the enemy that way made it all easier. It was, however, far from the truth. If, for example, the enemy had a normal machine, was using a similar type cutter with the same balance - would Clouseau get hit the same way? Yes, he had to admit it, the result would have been the same. Fowler’s attacks were frighteningly precise and elusive at the same time. It had little to do with the power of the Lambda Driver. 
Clouseau prided himself in being one of the best close combat fighters in the world’s Special Forces, and never in his life did he feel that powerless. 
“Who is that man..?” 
He didn’t remember anything of the sort, not even rumors. 
He did assemble as much information as he could on the fellow, before attempting to capture him in San Francisco. Lee Fowler. Nationality: American. Some Asian ancestry. Personal history mostly unknown. Place of training also unknown. He even tried looking through the records of the world’s elite forces and some terrorist organizations, but couldn’t find any traces of someone like him. 
“Maybe a martial artist..?” 
The way that Eligor walked, the fluid, precisely coordinated movements of its blade. Very different from the martial arts traditionally practiced in militaries around the world. 
He switched on the external speaker. 
“Your skills are very impressive, and yet... why are you fooling around like this?” 
This question wasn’t just an excuse to buy time. He really wanted to know the answer. 
“I get this question often, Mister Clouseau,” answered his opponent through his own speakers. “There was once a man, who sought power, and trained day and night to improve his technique... and when he finally perfected it, he understood how powerless he truly was.” 
“So you were defeated by someone?” 
“...In a way, yes. I was defeated by a thirty-something year old worthless bum, the kind of drunk you see in every city.4” 
4 Unless something went very wrong with my translation (it's a bit or a fuzzy spot there), this is a reference to "Drunken Master". The villain in the movie was played by Hwang Jang Lee, defeated by the drunken master, Jackie Chan. 
“...what..?” 
“It’s not like continuing this conversation about my personal history will suddenly make you my friend, would it... get ready.” 
Fowler’s machine took a couple of steps forward, then suddenly hit a small rock with the flat of the blade - casually, as if playing golf. The rock was aimed right at Clouseau’s head, and came as fast as a bullet.  
It was of course a decoy, and Clouseau lightly dodged, without changing his posture. At that moment, the Eligor was already close enough to use its sword. 
It’s coming... lower left..! 
He spun, managing to avoid the tip of the sword. The sword suddenly changed direction, slicing horizontally - Clouseau dropped the machine onto the ground and tried to combine a low kick and a slash with his cutter. Fowler jumped over his kick and blocked the cutter easily. The “fairy’s eye” reacted, showing a force field forming around the enemy’s knee... 
Too late. The cutter connected with the force field, and its blade shattered into small fragments. He threw it away and rolled and jumped to avoid the following attack. Now he had some range, so he threw an anti-armor blade. Fowler stopped it with the middle of his blade - it hung in the air for a moment, then shot back at Clouseau, hitting his machine in the right shoulder. Its charge detonated and blew off his shoulder armour, and Clouseau, almost exposed in the damaged cockpit, felt the shockwave first-hand. He had never experienced an explosion at that range - it felt as if his chest was crushed, his ribs broken, all air expelled from his lungs, and his eyeballs popped. 
No, he was still alive, and both eyes could still see, even if his vision now had a red tint. Some capillaries in his eyeballs must have burst from the pressure. His violent cough sent blood flying onto the main screen. 
Is this my blood..? The machine can still move... but it looks like everything down from the right shoulder is gone... 
He suddenly realized that the machine was lying face down, and made it get up quickly to face Fowler - but he wasn’t there. No, from the back..! 
“Oh, you can still stand!” 
He rolled forward immediately to avoid the attack, but he felt a tremendous impact as his back armour plate was torn. Shock absorber liquid was leaking from the exposed spinal column of the 
machine. He didn’t have the luxury of worrying about the time of the fight, and using the terrain rushed away from the opponent. All the weapons he had now were one anti-armour blade, and one grenade. The “fairy’s eye” was dead - his last ray of hope against the Lambda Driver extinguished by the last explosion. He felt a sharp pain in his chest with every breath. His vision was becoming hazy, and his fingertips were going numb. 
However, Clouseau felt only quiet respect towards his opponent. 
“Fowler... what a man...” 
Clouseau mostly understood him after that battle. His enemy was a man who would never go easy on anyone, never degrade himself with pompous speeches - he would just use all of his power to kill his opponent. Clouseau had no idea what circumstances that man was raised in, but understood very well that he took their duel seriously. And that strength... He could understand it, too. The man had no regrets. 
“I feel lucky that he’s my last enemy...” 
No - he was still alive, and he had to stop Fowler. If he could do that at least, his comrades could somehow manage the rest. 
“Cancel the GPL limiter.” 
<Roger. Warning: removing the limiter could result in considerable damage to all syste--...> 
“Just do it!” 
<Roger. Please confirm command: remove GPL limiter.> 
“I said do it!!” 
<Roger. Executing.> 
The safety restriction on the Falke’s palladium reactor was removed. Its output started rising above levels for which the machine was designed, and its temperature rose accordingly. The 
muscle package tried to compensate for all the excess power that was flowing into it, and tensed up. 
“Let’s go..!” 
And Belfangan Clouseau kicked off into the air. 
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
The last explosion was closer than ever. The girl, who was inside the main TARTAROS control room, completing the final startup procedures, frowned - it looked like the explosion had come from the other side of the barrier wall that separated the chamber with the device from the underground passage into the sea. She quickly checked how much the foundation of the machine was affected by the shock, and decided that the figures were well within tolerance levels. 
The officer of the defense unit, stationed outside of the control room, informed her that the enemy submarine had penetrated into the sea tunnel, and that they did not have any spare troops to send down to assist them, but in his opinion, it would take the enemy too long to break through the barrier in any case. He added that they would lay their lives on the line for the world that she dreamt of. Finally, saying “God watch over you”, he and his comrades left to intercept the enemy. 
“God watch over you...” 
Empty words. There was no divine protection - she was there, now, alone, and that machine was her handiwork. There was no god, no help would come from anywhere, that was reality. However, if the three Fates would be born from human technology, she would become all of them - Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos at the same time. 
 
 
"God watch over you..." Empty words. There was no divine protection - she was there, alone, and the machine was her handiwork. There was no God. There was no relief. That was reality. 
They were asking for my protection. I will change this world that they have rejected... I will do it all myself, make this world more gentle and welcoming. I will do it again, until everyone understands. No matter how many thousands, millions, billions of times, I will change it. This moment will become only one in an endless journey. The fight that is happening now, on this little island, will become as insignificant as a drop of water in the ocean. 
She didn’t hear any more explosions - not that they mattered. She entered the final code, pressed the “Enter” key, and went inside the TARTAROS. Through a narrow, cold corridor, she went deeper inside the machine, passing several doors. Finally, going past the enormous amplification devices, she entered the central chamber to which everything was connected, lied down on the bed, and started the link. She didn’t need any switches now - her thoughts were sufficient. 
“Let’s go...” 
It was as if she turned the ignition key. All the systems that were on standby went live, and started the process of unification and self-organization. What was probably one of the most complex structures in the entire universe came alive as pure information combined with matter. 
This feeling of expansion... it was as if she had been squinting, and suddenly opened her eyes, but infinitely wider. She didn’t need anything primitive, such as sensors. She could sense everything that happened in the vicinity of the Omni Sphere, and even saw a hazy picture of the future. The enemy would soon be suppressed. Those in the sea tunnel, and those above ground, exhausted any available means, and were powerless. 
The enemy ran out of time. 
Nobody could stop her. 
The birth of the new world began... now. 
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
As soon as they breached the service tunnel door with shaped charges, a hail of fire greeted them. Bullets were ricocheting near Tessa. 
“Get down, Captain, please!” shouted Mardukas, returning fire with a submachine gun. 
Deck officer Gotthard threw a grenade into the blown-up door. Right after it exploded, they threw another, and then four people rushed into the room. 
Then, Tessa felt it - a distinct buzzing in her ears. It felt as if the space around them had suddenly become unclear, and the flow of time uneven. The changing of the past had begun. She thought she could see a multitude - no, an endless number of other worlds, with possibilities she could recognize. Was she the only one that noticed? Mardukas and the rest of the men were shouting something, firing, and didn’t seem to feel it - but it had started. The TAROS was working, and the world... 
“Captain! We’re being flanked from the right,” she heard Mardukas’ voice, “I will hold the enemy here. You go on, please.” 
“No, it’s too dangerous!” 
“This way we’ll be caught in a pincer attack! Go on, quickly!” 
The enemy on the right flank had already shown themselves. Sonar operator Dejlani grabbed Tessa’s hand and started running along the barrier wall. Mardukas gave her a salute, and returned the enemy’s fire. She soon lost sight of him behind the smoke. 
“Hurry, Captain!” 
The uneasy feeling grew stronger by the minute. Memories of the past seemed to suddenly get more real, and a complex - no, an overwhelmingly complicated stream of possibilities, divergences, and parallels flooded her head. The world was speeding down an unseen path... 
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
Pursued by the raging Belial, the Laevatein was forced near elevator nine of the third maneuvering ground, and fell into the shaft. He landed and smashed through the cage, leaping into the main tunnel. Somewhere straight ahead, at the end of that large tunnel, was the dry dock, the TAROS - and Kaname.  
That strange feeling that had enveloped Sousuke a little while ago was intensifying. At first, he thought that his optical sensors were malfunctioning. It was like depth perception suddenly failed him - like putting on very strong prescription glasses, or having a sudden bout of vertigo. Then memories flooded his head for some reason. He almost relived the encounter at Yamsk 11. Now he felt as if the Laevatein had already run through this passage... moving in exactly the same way, with Leonard on his heels - an incredible sense of déjà vu. No, this was the first time this happened... but then, why was he falling down the elevator shaft? He had just landed moments ago. The flow of time seemed impossible to grasp - or rather, it had become disturbed, and the chronological order of events seemed to be wrong. He was at the same time fighting Codarls, shouting at the enemy on the radio, destroying Behemoths with his cannon, flying in the sky, taking off, giving a salute to Sachs and speaking to him as he was dying... And it wasn’t only the past. He saw the future - the Laevatein running towards the TAROS, but being too late - the Belial 
standing in his way, its arm piercing his machine through the cockpit... That was the unchanging future, what was going to happen to him very soon. His consciousness seemed to be thrown in the middle of that chaos. He must have been caught up in the effect of the TAROS. He didn’t exactly know where and when he was at that moment - only one thought remained in his mind: “Forward”. But where..? 
<Sergeant Sagara!> he suddenly heard the sound of alarms, and Al’s voice. <Look at the situation around you! Look at the clock! And get to your mission objective!> 
“The... situation...” 
He shook his head, and banged it against the headrest. 
Get a hold of yourself! This is the main tunnel. The time is 0556. The mission objective is to prevent the operation of the TAROS.  
The Laevatein was moving forward at full speed, running towards certain death. 
“Wh-... what happened?” 
<I was watching your condition through the cockpit TAROS link. It was dangerous, but I had to sever the connection. The target TAROS has already been activated... I’m afraid to say, its influence radius has spread across the globe already--...> 
“No, it hasn’t.” 
Only a hundred meters left. He just had to rush in, start shooting at random and pulling out cables with his remaining left arm. He had to do it, even if the future that he saw was different. He would bring her back - that would alone gave meaning to his fight against the future. Before, he was like his AS - pushing forward, little more than a killing machine. Now, after going through doubts and delusions, he was different. 
I am doing this because this is what I want. These are my true feelings. So, Kaname... 
His thoughts were interrupted as he came to a shutter gate. He couldn’t use the Lambda Driver anymore, so he just kicked it with all his might. The gate was crushed, some cables were torn off, and some pipes twisted. The Laevatein staggered into the gigantic cavern that once served as the dry dock for the de Danaan. 
He saw what seemed at first like a mass of cables and pipes, and only after looking more closely was he able to discern a dome-like structure under them. It looked a lot like the structure he remembered from Yamsk 11, but was evidently constructed using more advanced technology. 
Either way, he had to render it non-operational. He was going to make it... 
The moment he had set the machine guns installed in the head of the machine to full auto, a large block of concrete fell down in front of him, raising a cloud of dust. The Belial had broken through the ceiling of the cavern, and was slowly descending. With its force field, the enemy machine quickly dispatched all of his bullets. No, one 50-calibre bullet hit the machine, but that was all. Not nearly enough to be a nuisance to the device, which was as big as the de Danaan. 
The Belial stood between him and the TAROS. 
“You thought I was going to let you escape?” 
Sousuke didn’t answer; his shoulders were heaving and his breathing heavy. 
“And you’re too late, anyway. The change has begun. I can feel it. I can see several different worlds at this moment... every single possibility is there. And it’s all going back, to the past. The world has already begun its change. You people can’t see 
anything... but don’t worry. Everything will be fine. She will fix everything, you understand?” 
“...Move.” 
The Laevatein moved a step forward. 
“This world will soon be gone. It is the end. There will be perfect silence... if you also had a functioning Lambda Driver, you would see it, too. It’s a world without ‘before’ or ‘after’. This will all end very soon. Right after I kill you, it will all be finished, and everything will stop.” 
He took another step forward. 
“Al...” 
<Yes, sergeant.> 
“I’m sorry.” 
<Don’t mention it.> 
His head-mounted machine guns only had ten bullets left. 
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
Because of the enemy’s futile persistence, the TARTAROS was hit once, and some noise entered her thoughts. However, it didn’t seem to have any lasting effects at all, and almost immediately disappeared. She had started the change, and saw everything. She could not hear the whispers anymore - instead, she was the one whispering to the world. No, those were not whispers, but commands, that could be heard all across the globe. Her voice carried even to herself, before she was born. 
Listen to my words... listen, remember, and do what you have to. This is the most important thing you can do. 
Her voice was the thread, and she weaved it to link the past and the present. She was fixing the very fabric of time and space, that had become so repugnantly twisted... 
And that isn’t all. This will be a truly peaceful world, where no one had to be hurt. People would think this isn’t possible, but it is. If I can grasp the entire picture of cause and effect, and reach people’s hearts... 
The preparations would have to start from the day it all began - the 24th of December, eighteen years ago. After that, ten years before today, the world would turn to a peaceful path, and for the next eight years she wouldn’t even have to do anything. Everything would be all right. 
How’s this for an example: the eighteen year-old me wakes up one winter morning... oh, I’m bad with mornings. My mother and younger sister come to try and wake me up. Mum had fallen seriously ill about four years ago, but they discovered the cause quickly, and saved her life. Now she’s as healthy as always. They shake my futon until I reluctantly crawl out of bed. Still sleepy, I walk into the dining room - dad’s reading his newspaper there. Dad’s as preoccupied about his work as always, but since mum’s illness, he changed jobs, so he can have more time at home. I exchange a few words with him, and go to my seat to have breakfast. 
[...I thought you had more guts...] 
Some news on the TV that seemed always on: the second president of the United Federation of Nations is making a speech in Egypt - looks like it’s in commemoration of the end of the first phase in the Sahara desert re-forestation plan. Then other bits of news about Afghanistan, where the hostilities ended ten years ago and an emerging tourist industry seemed to thrive; historically lowest rate of suicides in Japan; five years since the last of nuclear missiles were destroyed. 
[...do you think of yourself as some kind of princess..?] 
 
I finish my breakfast, change and go my school - the Komaoka Senior High. Its uniform is quite simple, compared to Jindai High, my second choice, but after three years I became really attached to it. 
Starting from spring, I’ll be a college student - I already have a recommendation. 
[...you liar!..!] 
The world is on its way towards peace and harmony. Nobody knows that I am the one correcting it, but that is fine. After all, that I what I wished-- 
[...if I’m wrong, hit me..!] 
This noise... it didn’t seem to stop. Only one shot landed on the machine, but the echo just didn’t disappear. That noise in her thoughts that disturbed the harmony she wished to create... a man’s unpleasant voice, that seemed to desperately cling to her, and wouldn’t go away from her head. The feeling of discomfort seemed to intensify, too. Like the voice was saying something important... 
Go away, go away..! 
No, it was fine like that. She would just continue disregarding it – that was what she was going to tell the voice. 
And then, far, very far... 
“.....wh....” 
It was another voice, very faint “someone else was speaking. 
“.....wh....ar...” 
The voice grew stronger. She could now tell it was female...  
Could it be mine? No, I didn’t say a thing. 
“...wh...you...ar...” 
The voice became clearer, and she could already distinguish words. 
“...whom did you... ar?..!.” 
The voice was getting too loud... too loud to understand... 
Stop... stop..! stop!! A part of me is leaving... I’m splitting in two..! Stop... 
The voice finally came through. 
“...whom did you call a liar?!!” shouted Kaname Chidori. 
It was as if her mind was a lake, and she broke through its surface, yelling, choking, gasping for breath - she could finally say everything she was forced to hold back. 
“...shut up and listen, instead of doing whatever you want! Yes, yes! It’s my fault! I didn’t get a grip, and that’s why everything ended up like this! Yes-yes, I’m sorry! The post-boxes are too red, and telephone poles too high - that’s also my fault! Everything is! And they could’ve made the postal boxes white eighteen years ago! 
“But me, a liar?! I won’t forgive that! I had my share of troubles too! Normally I shouldn’t even be able to talk like this! That’s ‘cause I’m an ordinary high school girl! You should be thankful!! 
“And instead, what do I get? ‘You disappoint me’ ‘who d’you think you are?!’ Me - a liar? And why do I have to be told that by some military maniac?! 
“I’m the one that’s disappointed! You had time to prepare for this, and you couldn’t think of something nicer to say?! Why d’you have to be like this even at this last moment..? 
“I would’ve been happy with you just sniffing, and saying ‘I love you, Kaname’, or something... you can’t do even that, can you?! Or you just don’t want to? What, haven’t seen me for a year, and don’t care about me anymore, huh?! And so, who was it that took my place? You satisfied with being with Tessa, in the end..? 
 
 
 
“A-ah, yes-yes, fine, I don’t care. She’s a good girl, not like me, the big liar, with no guts, eh?! 
“Aah, I don’t want to know, I don’t care! Turn around and get out of here, idiot! Just leave me here and do what you want!!” 
Yes, she came out just to say those words, to spit out her foolish, childish anger... and thus took a form of her own.  
She is Kaname Chidori. I am... Sofia. I was lying to myself, and to her. But that’s all right, now I will suppress her once and for all. I will make her bend to my will. I will also have to change my appearance to my real form. 
The last and greatest fight began at that moment, inside her head. 
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
What she just said was hysterical rambling. It wasn’t logical, or morally sound, however, it was an expression of her real feelings. She was like a child that would, in anger, throw himself on the floor and start kicking and wailing. However, the important thing was that she was able to speak at all. 
And it was all thanks to him. 
“Sousuke...” 
While she was shouting, and slowly regaining consciousness, she understood his intention, that this result was what he hoped for. He had saved her, who was floating in an ocean of unconsciousness, in constant slumber. It was done in a very soldier-like way, though. 
She was now in the middle of a daydream, in a completely white place without visible walls, floor or ceiling, gently floating naked. She thought that it was a bad idea, decided where up and down were for her, and stepped down on the invisible floor. She needed some clothes - anything would do. A black sleeveless dress appeared on her. 
“Well then...” 
She was alone in that place, inside her head. No, correction - there was somebody else. 
“What shall we do?” she called out to Sofia, looking around. 
She didn’t even know her face, so when she saw her, Sofia looked exactly like Kaname, but wearing a white dress. Even though her face was the same, one could tell at first glance that she was a different person. 
 
 
"Well..." She was alone inside her mind.  No, that was not the case - there was somebody else. “So what now?” she called to Sofia. Kaname didn't know what Sofia’s face looked like. When she saw her, Sofia looked exactly like Kaname. 
 
“What do you mean,” she smiled, “It’s already started, right? Let’s finish it together.” 
“I don’t think so.” 
“Why?” 
“That’s something you started, it’s got nothing to do with me. You won’t have my help.” 
“I thought you’d say that. Actually, I knew it from long, long ago. When I started whispering to you, you were always so defiant, so... aggressive.” 
That voice, that reached everywhere, up to the mountains of North Korea - it was all Sofia’s doing. That whisper in her head, that tried to transmit the thought “switch places with me”. Now she knew it all. 
“Do you even understand how absurd your idea is?” 
“I don’t think I should explain anything to you, you were one with me up until now.” 
Sofia was right, she didn’t even need an explanation. Kaname was now her old self, but her memories from the time she was merged together with Sofia didn’t vanish. She knew perfectly well what kind of person Sofia was, and why was she doing this. 
“Look, I know you’ve been through a lot, and I feel sorry for you. However, because of that, stealing other people’s lives to create a new self is strange to say the least.” 
Physically, Sofia was long dead. Eighteen years ago, she was the test subject for the TAROS at Yamsk 11, and when that experiment went wrong, she died. However, just before death, her psychic waves were amplified many times, and not only killed the people in the immediate vicinity, but also reached newborns across the world. These waves also reached into the future, where there was another Sofia (or Kaname) - she told her of the newborn “Whispered”, and the future one then transmitted them the information, which became known as “Black Technology”. 
Thus, the world came to be. The “Black Technology” wasn’t something from the end of the next century, but from 
eighteen years into the future. She could guess that these eighteen years have been repeating over and over, and this technology was their product. It was just a guess, neither Kaname nor Sofia could really know the truth. There was nobody who knew what the original shape of the world was - one could just think of it as the edge of the universe, supposedly there, but too far to be certain. 
Sofia was the daughter of Doctor Valov, the chief scientist of the Yamsk 11 facility, and was sacrificed for the experiment. She was eighteen at the time, just like Kaname now. It seemed that she had been subjected to inhuman treatment prior to the experiment, along with constant injections of drugs. Her body weight had dropped to thirty-five kilograms, her skin was rough, and her hair was falling out... even seeing it through memories was heartbreaking. And so she died, after all that hellish torture and humiliation that was inflicted upon her by her own father. The psychic waves resonated with her thoughts at the time, spreading through time and space. In old legend, she would be called a vengeful ghost. 
In truth, however, she wasn’t. Her thoughts were not a malediction to all living things - instead, she wanted to create a new world where she could live as somebody different, and she believed that this solution was the only right one. 
“You know how I died. You think I should content myself with that?” 
“Well...” 
“Those last three minutes... you must feel the pain of those last minutes, too. And you’re saying that I should just let it go? You know, there was a boy I loved before being taken to Yamsk 11. I grew flowers, loved to play the piano, and had dreams of my own. They took everything from me, and instead--...” 
“I know, and believe me, I think it’s terrible. Really, really terrible...” 
A wave of sadness swept over her, then anger towards her father, who did those things to his own child. Sofia seemed to feel that Kaname was speaking truthfully. 
“Thank you... you’re a kind person, you know. I can feel that your compassion is genuine.” 
“Even so!” Kaname bit her lip, and held back the grief. “Even so, my heart and my life - they are mine alone. I cannot give them up to you. And I can’t let you change the world however you want.” 
“Really.” 
“Because you can’t just start a nuclear war in this world!” 
After the new world was created, this one wouldn’t be of any use - but it couldn’t just be left alone. There were many Whispered left on the planet, and with their knowledge, someone could start using a TAROS once again, and it was too dangerous to leave something like that to billions of people. This world had to be destroyed - not even one percent of the population could be allowed to live. They all had to disappear to make place for the new, peaceful world. Only Kaname and Sofia knew of that, together with Leonard, and several subordinates. 
It all seemed like a bad joke. 
“But it’s necessary. Everyone will live in the new world; we’ll just cut away the tumor. What’s bad about that?” 
“Just cut away? Those are just pretty words.” 
“Then what would you compare it to? Replacing broken parts, or members of an orchestra? Or--...” 
“Enough,” snapped Kaname. “Anyway, do not expect my cooperation. I’ll wake up and stop this nonsense. I don’t see other options.” 
Sofia suddenly burst into laughter. She hadn’t even been smiling until then, it was like an uncontrollable burst of emotions. 
“What’s so funny?” 
“...what, you haven’t noticed yet? It’s pretty obvious. If we stop now, the world will come to nothing...” 
“Huh?” 
“Look.” 
And she saw - the figures of those who were fighting around her, while she was having this daydream. The situation around changed very slowly. Only several seconds had passed since Sousuke’s shot at the TARTAROS. Then she saw the sea tunnel. 
“Tessa...” 
The crew of the Tuatha de Danaan was engaged in a firefight. Several crew members had collapsed with serious wounds. Tessa was clumsily holding a submachine gun, and returning enemy fire - they could barely hold out. She couldn’t see Mardukas - he had probably been killed. Kalinin’s soldiers were extremely loyal to her, after all. On top of that, Tessa didn’t notice that three of them were creeping up from behind. She was soon going to be caught in a pincer attack. A score of bullets were going to pierce that frail body, and... 
Run! 
She tried to reach her, but it was useless. Tessa was suppressing any signals from the Omni Sphere within herself, to avoid its side-effects. 
“It’s wonderful that she made it this far, but her fate is sealed.” 
“Wha--...” 
“Look further... yes, further. You should be able to see Fowler and the others.” 
Seven thousand kilometers away, she saw Mao and Clouseau engaged in a struggle to the death. 
“Clouseau-san..?” 
She had only spoken to him a few times before, but remembered him well. His machine’s head was partly smashed, and it was missing its right arm - but having disengaged the reactor limiter, it was running at great speed towards Fowler. He threw a grenade towards Fowler, but the latter avoided the explosion, and in the next instant, its sword pierced the M9’s abdomen. It was a fatal wound, but Clouseau’s machine still moved. No, it looked like skewering himself on the sword was his intention. With his next move, he plunged an anti-tank blade right in the back of Fowler’s machine. 
The explosion sent both machines flying, Clouseau’s was snapped in half and started rolling down the slope... 
“It’s a pity. Looks like he was a great pilot.” 
“Damn...” 
“Three kilometers to the west - looks like it’s also coming to an end.” 
Mao’s M9 was driven into a corner by Sabina. The M9 had lost both hands, and its body was riddled with wounds. It was like a tank without its turret. There wasn’t anything she could do, except escaping and trying to buy time. She was being shot at, her vehicle staggered, and its movements were becoming sluggish. She could have made it to the entrance of the base, but now she couldn’t get away anymore... and there, the Eligor caught up with her, brought her machine down, and pointed its rifle at her chest. 
“Sabina had her opponent at a disadvantage, though... she was a good person.” 
“You...” 
She glared at Sofia, but the girl wasn’t laughing. She didn’t even try to hide her disdain, and only gazed at Kaname with cold, emotionless eyes, that could see through everything. It was her own face, but she never knew it could make such an expression. 
“You think it’s an illusion I’m showing you?” 
Kaname didn’t answer. 
“Unfortunately, not. I was fooled by your little trick at Yamsk 11, when you made me think I shot Tessa and Sousuke - but this isn’t a trick. This is happening, right now. I didn’t even have to do anything.” 
This had all gone too far, and couldn’t be stopped, even if she cut the connection from the TARTAROS right now, and grabbed the nearest communications equipment. It was futile trying to make them stop... she couldn’t make it. 
“And look at him. Right here. Right outside. Look.” 
In front of the TARTAROS, Sousuke’s machine - the Laevatein - was charging the Belial, firing wildly from its head-mounted machineguns. Cooling pipes burst, and the area was shrouded in a white mist. It was an improvised smoke screen. Leonard, however, was expecting his opponent to appear from the mist, and his Lambda Driver was concentrating an intense force field on his right arm. The endgame was near. 
“Leonard’s opponent is doing great, all things considered. But--...” 
“Stop it...” 
“...he can’t be saved.” 
The white AS appeared from the fog, and the Belial immediately attacked. 
“STOP!!” 
Leonard didn’t. The Belial’s hand went for the opponent’s chest, pierced it and reappeared from the back. The cockpit capsule 
inside was crushed - she didn’t want to see what happened inside, not even guess. 
 
 
Impossible despair gripped Kaname’s heart. It had just happened. The Belial had destroyed the Laevatein’s cockpit. Blood or oil, or maybe a mix of both, was flowing from the pierced chest. This was not an illusion. 
Sousuke was dead. He died a moment ago. 
No... no, no-no, this can’t be... 
“You understand now, don’t you?!” shouted Sofia. “You can’t accept this! Can’t forgive this! You know these feelings, right? And then, why did you say those things to me?! You should have seen your face, as if you won a victory against yourself... Now you understand your own pride? Do you understand?!” 
“Stop...” 
“No! I won’t! I have the right to continue! Go on, say it again, ‘you’re wrong Sofia!’ Say it!” 
“Stop..!” 
“Come on, explain to me again why is it that we can’t use the one way of starting over. I want to hear it..! Oh, you can’t? Of course not.” 
Kaname fell on her knees and tried to cover her ears, but Sofia grabbed her by the shoulder and continued to yell. 
“Right, you remember this feeling, don’t you? Oh, yes you do. Four years ago, that hospital in Tokyo...” 
Kaname froze. 
“Your mother’s face. Your beloved mother, all covered in tubes, looking weak and frail, her hair falling out... and she was once so beautiful...” 
She saw that hospital room again. Her father had just flown into Narita airport, but he wouldn’t make it there in time. Her sister was sobbing, and she was standing still, in shock. She didn’t hear anything the physician was telling her. 
“I am sorry, but your mother has passed away...” 
No... no, no. She hadn’t forgotten that memory - it came back to haunt her at every opportunity. She always held in her grief, and somehow overcame it... 
No, that was a lie. She could never overcome it. From that time on, she had tried her best not to cry, bear the pain, and eventually forget. 
“Ah...” 
The figure of her mother, lying on that bed, covered with tubes. The Laevatein, pierced through the cockpit... those two images overlapped within her, causing an extraordinary upheaval of emotion. She could not bear the weight anymore, she could not resist this pressure. 
Kaname screamed. 
It was an almost bestial howl. Disheveled, her mouth wide open, she continued to scream until there was no air left in her lungs. 
A torrent of tears came next, and they made a puddle on the floor. The wave of emotions that overwhelmed her did not stop, and she was cowering in the same place, clutching her chest, defeated by the sorrow and despair, and let out everything that had been weighing on her heart. 
She didn’t want to think, or feel. She just wanted to return to nothingness, to disappear. 
“You can’t forgive this, can you?” 
“No...” 
“And you can’t accept it either?” 
“No...” 
It was unthinkable that something like that would happen to her again. This was... nonsense, yes, there was some mistake. 
I can’t accept this. I can’t go on like this. 
“Poor, poor Kaname,” Sofia gently stroked her head. “but let’s not grieve any longer. There’s something we both can do.” 
She gave a little nod. 
“Let’s finish it together. You don’t have to worry anymore. Just imagine what you want to do. I’ll make it all come true.” 
“Really..?” 
“Yes. You should know I’m not lying.” 
Kaname was silent. 
“Go on, remember, imagine it...” 
Still on the floor where she had collapsed, Kaname tried to think. 
“What do I want...” 
Not much, really - just spend time like a normal person, in peace and quiet. A very ordinary life. 
“Yes... you can see it, can’t you?” 
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
Before she noticed the change, she was sitting at the dining table. It was breakfast time, and she saw the vapor rising from the bowls of miso and white rice. She smelled fish, and grated daikon, raw egg and mozuku vinegar, nori and egg furikake, and the leftover pork stew from yesterday... a very nostalgic smell. 
“What’s wrong, sis?” said her sister, Ayame. 
“Huh?” 
“You were going to give me the furikake, come on, quick!” 
“Ah... yes, here” she handed the plate to Ayame. 
She saw her father, sitting in front of her, holding a newspaper with one hand, and the miso bowl with the other. 
“Da-ad, that’s bad manners,” said her sister, shaking her head like an adult would do. 
“Mm... ah, sorry. This article about robots is pretty interesting.” 
“Robots? Eh?” 
“It’s Honda... see, here. No idea what it’s called, but it’s impressive. See, it can walk on its two legs, and even if you push it, it doesn’t fall over. Now that’s modern technology for you... I don’t really understand anything in it, though.” 
“Hmm...” 
“You don’t seem too interested though.” 
“Nah.” 
“Kaname? What about you? See, they might start selling those, to help with housework and all.” 
Her father held the newspaper in front of her. The cover photo was a robot that somewhat resembled a spacesuit, awkwardly taking a step forward. This was the forefront of technology - it could finally walk. 
Kaname wasn’t interested at all. She only thought that the woman that was presenting the robot and smiling, wore a brighter shade of lipstick that needed, and that maybe they wanted to make it look futuristic. 
“Yeah, but... even if these are sold, we won’t buy one anyway, right? You’re complaining about the car loan anyway.” 
Hearing Kaname’s tease, her father gave a bitter smile. 
“Bah, don’t talk about these things during breakfast.” 
“Kaname’s right. Now, eat quickly, or you’ll be late.” 
“Oh...” 
Her mother had come up from behind and took the newspaper from him, put Kaname’s bento-box on the table (Ayame’s school had a canteen of its own), and sat down at her own place. 
“Kaname, did you already try the miso?” 
“Aha.” 
“What do you think?” 
“Sendai miso paste and... a dashi that I don’t recognize.” 
The food quiz had become a sort of tradition, and today seemed to be the day of the miso soup. 
“Correct. I got the kelp from Oomiya-san.” 
“Hehe, you can’t fool me!” 
Her mother laughed lightly. 
Her dad looked at the clock, and started gulping down the rest of the meal in haste. 
“Ah, sis, so how did it go, yesterday?” 
“Eh?” 
“O-oh, your mother would like to know that, too. It was a date, wasn’t it?” 
“Ah, er... that, well...” 
She sounded surprised, but immediately remembered everything. Yesterday was Sunday, and she went to see a movie with a boy from her school. Well, it wasn’t really a date... they went to Shinjuku to see a movie, then drank tea, went shopping a little, and parted ways at Choufu station - and that was all... but, wait, wasn’t that a date after all..? 
“Well... wasn’t anything special, we just walked around. Nothing weird.” 
“Aw, no fun...” 
Both Ayame’s and her mother’s shoulders dropped in unison. Her father didn’t seem to understand what they were going on about, and was instead quietly sipping the mozuku vinegar. 
“But you did like it, didn’t you? I mean, you went with a boy? Ayame, did you hear anything about that?” 
“Aha, name’s Sagara-san...” 
“W-wait..! How do you know, Ayame?!” Kaname felt her cheeks flush. 
“I could hear you speaking with Kyouko-san, and you said you were ‘going to the movies with Sagara-kun tomorrow’, or something like that.” 
“Eh, I said that?” 
“Yup, you did.” 
“Well, er... wait, are you always listening and remembering everything I say on the phone?!” 
Evidently, she had to stop thinking of her as “just a kid” anymore, and couldn’t let anything slip... yes, she was different now. Kaname had to watch what she said from now on. 
“Ah... so Sagara-kun’s you boyfriend” murmured her mother, looking serious. 
“I said, he’s not my boyfriend or anything. He fixed my laptop, and I was just thanking him...” 
She was denying it, but somewhere within her heart something wanted to make her smile. Their relationship wasn’t anything like that, but it wasn’t bad hearing it from other people... and he wasn’t a bad guy. 
“Right, right-right-right, so, you owe him, and you went to a date in thanks?” her father suddenly intervened. 
“I said, it’s not a date, we happened to have tickets...” 
“Your father thinks it’s not too good - what, doing a favor for a girl, and then asking her on a date in thanks? No-no.” 
“No! I asked him myself!” 
“Y-you asked him out..?!” 
“It wasn’t anything serious..! Ah, forget it, I’m going to miss my train! Right, I’m off!” 
Leaving her astonished father, and giggling mother and sister in the room, she jumped out into the hallway, took her bag, and cheerfully went off to Jindai High. 
The station was less than five minutes away. She got onto the crowded train, and soon arrived at Senkawa station. There, on the other side of the ticket barrier, she met him. 
“Ah... Sagara-kun...” 
“Oh... good morning, Chidori-san,” Sagara Sousuke nodded in greeting. 
“Thanks for yesterday, I had fun!” she smiled. 
Sousuke’s cheeks flushed a little, and he said after a little pause: 
“Ah... y-yes, I... had fun, too.” 
“Good! Thanks for fixing the laptop again!” 
“Mm... if you ever have any trouble with it... I, I’ll help.” 
“Thanks! You really saved me there!” 
“No, it was simple, really... s-so, don’t worry,” said Sousuke, scratching the back of his head, obviously flustered. 
It was the same as yesterday. Unlike other boys, he was quite shy, and seemed somewhat tense. He was quite handsome, good at sports, and had a lot of secret admirers among the girls, but didn’t realize it himself. He had a thing for computers and all kinds of machines, and his friends were mostly the same. Thus, without any particular reason, they were walking together to school. 
“Er, Chidori-san...” 
“Mm, yes?” 
“I don’t really know how to say it... well, yesterday, watching that movie together was really fun.” 
“Mm?” 
“Er, no, well, I don’t mean anything weird. It’s just that I... didn’t really go out with a girl before. I was really... worried.” 
“Mm, I understood that.” 
It looked like he was going vent some of that tension. 
“Ah, well... I thought about it later, and I must’ve been really... unsociable. Was it all right..?” 
“Yep, it was fine. You were your usual self, Sagara-kun.” 
“Right, good,” he muttered, and smiled broadly. 
“You know, I usually go out to see movies and stuff with Kyouko or Shiori, and that’s it. I was a bit nervous too. So...” 
“Yes?” 
“So... well, nothing, sorry.” 
She faked a laugh. She didn’t know what to say after the “so”, herself. Besides, they met her friend, Kyouko Tokiwa on the way, and their conversation ended there. 
Afterwards was an ordinary school day. The classes ended, and as she was getting her things together, ready to go home, Sousuke called her from the classroom doorway. 
“Chidori-san... do... do you have time now?” 
“Huh..? Yes, yes.” 
“I just wanted to talk, but... it won’t take long.” 
“Mmm, all right.” 
She had some kind of unknown premonition. She stiffened a little. Tokiwa and all of her friends understood immediately, and started edging her forward, whispering words of encouragement. 
They were alone on the roof of the school. Sousuke was even more nervous than yesterday - he pressed his forehead against the fence for a while, then clapped himself on the cheeks, as if trying to rouse his own spirit, and finally turned to face Kaname. 
“L-listen..!” 
They both started speaking at the same time. 
“Eh... please, go on...” 
“Ah, no... sorry, Sagara-kun...” 
Kaname’s thoughts were confused, and her heart was fluttering, beating faster and faster - now her heartbeat was as powerful as an earthquake, and she was trembling, thinking that she was going to pass out. 
“Ah, yes... well, I, I heard from Kasama, Onodera and the others... that, well, Chidori-san isn’t... with anyone... Er, I mean, going out with anyone, sorry... so, what was I saying...” 
“I-it’s all right, please continue...” 
She felt that her face was burning, and she couldn’t think straight. 
“So..?” 
“Ah... what?” 
“Well, do you have someone or...” 
“Eh? Oh. No. No-no-no, not at all.” 
She waved her hands in front of her, denying all that - a little too vigorously, the question wasn’t that serious after all. 
“Then, would you try... no, saying this is just weird...” 
Sousuke clenched his fists, mobilizing every ounce of his courage, and looked her straight in the eyes. 
 “Would you... go out with me?” he almost shouted these words of confession. “I liked you for a long time already, but you’re a popular person, and I thought I wouldn’t bother you and kept my distance... But after I fixed your PC, and we talked, and walked around together yesterday, I kind of got the feeling that you’re a really good person, not showy or anything... and I liked that, too...” 
Kaname was silent. 
“Was I wrong..?” 
“You kind of understood it? That I don’t like people who show off, and all...” 
“I’m not like that...” 
“I know.” 
He suddenly became much more serious. 
“I won’t ever make you sad, Chidori-san.” 
“Mm.” 
She thought that was questionable, but believed him for now. 
“So, well... I’d like to hear your answer.” 
She had to say yes or no clearly, right now. 
After all, I’ve been waiting for you for eighteen years... Waiting to be held, to be embraced by you. I’m happy... This was my wish. 
“Of course, yes, because I love you... Sousuke.” 
She stepped up to him, smiling despite the tears, and gently reached for his cheek. She touched his left cheek with her fingertip. 
Ah, I’m such an idiot... 
 
The scar was not there. That cross-shaped scar, the origin of which she didn’t know. All those battles, survival in the harshest of environments - it was a wonder that he only had that one scar.  
 
Sousuke... the world that created him wasn’t this peaceful and gentle. He was a child of that unforgiving, chaotic world, torn apart by a never-ending, merciless struggle. That harsh era, an age of destruction and slaughter, was the one that shaped him into the man she knew. He was a blade, forged in the fires of hell. 
He couldn’t be replicated, and the person standing in front of her was not him. She had lost him forever -  she knew it, no matter how much she tried to deceive herself, no matter how many sweet days she would spend with this boy who had no scars. The time she had spent with Sousuke - yes, those days were noisy, 
messy, full of nonsense, but her heart longed for them. Now, however, they would not return. She could do nothing. 
 
 
One thing she could never accept, and never forgive - that she didn’t get to meet him. 
“I’m sorry...” 
She lowered her hand and stepped back a little. 
In the end, she couldn’t imagine herself in this world. She wanted to do this and that, but she finally came to think that she did not have any wishes left. 
The “Sousuke” before her disappeared, along with the roof, the school, the city - everything. She was in that white space again. In front of her was Sofia, staring at her in shock. Their momentary daydream continued. Several thousandths of a second passed, and outside, the Laevatein was falling to the ground, very slowly. 
“Are you serious..?” 
Kaname gave a silent nod. 
“Do you understand what you’re choosing? You’re just going to leave him to die? His friends, too, and your own mother? You’re just going to abandon everyone? That’d be a sin towards the entire world!” 
“So what... there’s nothing I can do...” 
“Yes there is! Continue the process of rebirth! You cannot give up, not now! You would be running away, abandoning everything!” 
“There is nothing to abandon, and nothing to give up on...” 
To continue living by herself, in this barren world where he did not exist... living off memories, wandering aimlessly in the darkness, and even if this world is doomed to perish after a moment, continuing to walk on... There was meaning in that. She, who created that ideal world for herself, thought it had meaning. There wasn’t any need for this machine to fight against fate - she just needed to bear it. She would rest, and then continue, following her nature. 
“You are deceiving yourself! Don’t you see how egoistical this is? You have the power to resurrect the dead, and you won’t use it?!” 
“There is no one to resurrect! They are all alive, this very moment! They might be killed the next instant, but for now they are alive!” 
“What about Sousuke?! Look at that!!” Sofia once again conjured up the image of the Laevatein, pierced through the chest. 
“Shut up! There’s nothing that can be done about that!!” she yelled at the top of her lungs, looking up at the invisible sky, tears still flowing down her cheeks. 
“This is madness! You’re going to regret it! Stop, now!” 
“He would agree with me! Because,” she continued, with more confidence than ever before, “if I was the crying weak girl that I’m now, he wouldn’t come to love me..! He wouldn’t risk his life for me... So... I’ll...” 
“Stop this! Please..!” 
But Kaname’s decision was final. 
When she said that, the white space surrounding them seemed to warp and twist - a giant vortex appeared, and started sucking it in... 
“...so I’ll live on! I’ll show him that I have guts.” 
A shockwave made the entire white space tremble - the vortex became larger, and this daydream started falling apart. Her will to live, and to begin anew, was destroying this illusion. An enormous psychic power spread through the machine, made its countless gears stop, and start turning in the opposite direction. 
“Stop!..! Stop..! stop... ” 
Sousuke... I live, while you are dead. I don’t even mind it that much. I’ll find myself an even better man, and will become happy..! bah, who am I lying to. 
“Sto--...” 
The white space disappeared completely, and she saw the inside of the TARTAROS. The first word that came off the awakened girl’s lips was a name “Sousuke...” 
 
 
The transformation of the world had stopped. Time had resumed its normal flow, and the sounds of the fierce battle outside reached her inside the dome. 
 


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