Full Metal Panic! - Volume 12 - Chapter 5

Chapter 5: The Proof of a Man5 
5 Considering the fact that the author likes references, this could be a reference to a movie of the same name, "Ningen no shoumei", a 1977 Japanese detective movie with a lot of foreign elements, that is apparently well-known. 
The Belial’s hand went right through the chest of the Laevatein, crushing the cockpit with the jarring sound of metal, ripped and torn by enormous forces. It seemed like something burst inside. 
“...annoying to the very end, weren’t you, Sagara Sousuke,” muttered Leonard. 
There was an unspoken relationship between them, as opponents. His enemy had almost managed to drive him into a corner, to damage the Belial to this extent.  
We couldn’t even feel mutual respect... if I could feel sorrow for his death right now, maybe in the next world we’d become comrades... but I feel nothing, as if I just took out the garbage. 
He pulled his right hand back. The Laevatein, powerless, fell on its knees, and leaned back, as if looking to the heavens. The fight was over. All he had to do now was to wait there. Kaname - no, Sofia - was about to change this world. 
...Something was wrong. He had been feeling the change up until now, but not anymore. That specific tone that seemed to resonate through the entire world was gone without a trace. What could have happened..? 
And at the same time he looked at the fallen Laevatein’s chest, and noticed - there seemed to be no blood or bits of flesh in 
the crushed cockpit. No remains of the pilot, who should have died a gruesome death. There had been no one in there from the start... 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
The fight still wasn’t over. The small rocket launcher was aiming at the defenseless waist of the Belial, at the part most damaged by the Demolition Gun - the enemy’s palladium reactor should be there. The angle, though, was somewhat wrong... just a little to the left... 
“I have to make it, I have to...” was the sentence drifting around Sousuke’s mind, as he hid right in the mist near the feet of the Belial. He was waiting for the last possible moment, at the closest range of his rocket’s percussion fuse. The Laevatein didn’t just burst all those pipes with its remaining bullets out of desperation. They burst, created a fog that was even thicker than he expected, and when it provided enough cover, Sousuke opened the hatch, took the rocket launcher and jumped out of the machine, which then passed under Al’s control. The attack was risky for his AI companion, hence the “Sorry” that he said earlier. 
Leonard finished off the unmanned Laevatein, and Sousuke dashed to the feet of the now motionless Belial in the fog. Once he even thought he heard Kaname’s voice, but it was now gone. 
He had one shot, and he was going to use that chance. 
“Have to make it...” 
If he were noticed, he was as good as dead. The enemy would use the Lambda Driver immediately, and the small rocket launcher wouldn’t be able to scratch its armor. However, he still escaped detection. 
A little more to the right... turn just a little more... he’ll be able to see me now, I have to make it... 
He fired at point-blank range. The old-fashioned, but reliable, plastic explosive worked its destructive magic. The armor, weakened by Sousuke’s previous shot, broke into a thousand pieces that pierced the outer core and the fuel systems of the palladium reactor. It was not a fission reactor, so it would not cause an uncontrolled chain reaction - as the nuclear core was destroyed, the plasma inside overflowed and melted everything like butter. For a moment, a great, uncontrolled surge of current overloaded all of the Belial’s systems, burning out most of the muscle packages. The devil was devoured by its own flames, and fell. The world’s most powerful machine was destroyed by an old infantry rocket launcher. 
Sousuke discarded the empty launcher tube, stood up and pulled out his favorite Glock-19. He cocked the slide, and the 9x19mm Parabellum round went into the chamber. 
He carefully started coming close to the burning Belial. The fight was not over yet... 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
Tessa was wildly firing her submachine gun, as if lost in the battle. Suddenly, she realized that the magazine was already empty, and her wrist went numb from the recoil. She clumsily replaced the magazine, peered around the corner, and pressed the trigger. 
Nothing happened. Did it jam..? 
“Head down!!” shouted sergeant Dejlani, and pulled her behind the corner. 
Ricochets sparked on the walls, and whizzed past her. She instinctively looked at a corner behind them. 
“...enemy? There?” 
She saw a shadow in that corner - there was no mistake, the enemy had flanked them and come up from behind. When did they have the time to..? She saw them - three people, armed with carbines, aiming her way. The first one was just two meters away, and she could see his eyes through the goggles. In them was only a cold intent to kill. There was nowhere to hide. 
A shot at point-blank range - but not the person who was aiming at her. Two people, shot from behind, collapsed in front of her, the third was turning back - and was knocked out by Mardukas, who came around the corner. Her executive officer kicked the enemy again and again, enraged, and emptied the remaining bullets of his SMG magazine into him. 
Hearing her, Mardukas changed the magazine with a surprisingly smooth and trained motion, changed his position, and shot another enemy. 
“Get down!” 
That last one threw something - it was a grenade. It fell right between them, and rolled on the floor. 
Tessa thought about throwing it back - but there was no time. She could only throw herself on top of it to protect her allies in the immediate vicinity. 
But Mardukas moved faster. He did not throw himself onto it, instead expertly kicking it back towards the enemy with his gunstock. 
The roar of the explosion shook the passageway. No one was hurt, but they were all dazed by Mardukas’ miraculous drive, and stood still for a moment. 
“What are you standing around for?! Break through!” shouted Mardukas, continuing to shoot. 
The crew members came back to their senses, and rushed inside the fumes from the explosion, to finish off the remaining enemy. 
“Captain... the last enemy... is down!” reported Mardukas, his breathing ragged, his shoulders going up and down. He was covered in blood and cuts in many places, his uniform torn, but his eyes were blazing with excitement behind the half-broken glasses. It was the first time she had seen him like that. 
“...where did you learn this?” Tessa asked him, still in awe. 
“Er... nowhere... I was maybe too caught up in the battle...” 
His body was giving way from all the pressure, and he was holding to the wall for support. 
She had thought he was only obsessed with chess, but now she realized she never heard anything about him being particularly slow, and disliking athletic activities. So this was another of his talents... 
“I... excuse me. Let’s hurry...” 
“Yes, but...” 
Tessa lifted her eyes towards the ceiling, squinting. She had cut off any connection to the Omni Sphere on purpose, and now opened it up a little, very carefully. Any feeling of change was gone. 
Did the process finally stop..? 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
Mao’s battle continued. Her M9 had been pushed down by the enemy, and the 37mm gun was pressed against her cockpit. At the next moment, the shell would pierce her body.... 
However, just before that, a progress bar in one of the corners of the screen changed to “COMPLETE”. It was one of the anti-aircraft autocannons of the base that was around fifty meters from where she had fallen - she had managed to hack its control systems. 
The autocannon started moving by itself, aimed - and fired. 
A hail of 20mm bullets hit the enemy machine. The white Eligor staggered, trying to use the rifle as an improvised shield, that soon became useless... and finally, after this moment of panic, remembered to use its Lambda Driver. Deflecting the bullets, it threw one of the anti-armor blades at the autocannon, which exploded. Then, it turned back towards Mao’s machine. 
That firepower was not enough after all, not nearly enough to inflict a fatal wound. The enemy was probably thinking that this was impudent of her. In her enemy’s movements, she saw anger at being humiliated - they did not resemble a graceful dance anymore. 
The Eligor grabbed her machine by the collar. She saw the Lambda field gathering around the enemy’s hands - it was trying to tear her apart.  
This is it, then... 
As soon as that thought crossed her mind, she saw a spark fly from the back of the white machine. It was... a direct hit from a shell? 
Did Clouseau come back for her? No, that didn’t look like a shot from one of the weapons he was carrying. It came from somewhere far away - from the other side of a precipice, in fact. There was a heat source there, three klicks away. She switched her sensor to night vision, and saw that the shooter was the newest 
machine of the Soviet Army, a customized Zy-98 Shadow, with an extra optical sensor array on its head, and a large-caliber sniper rifle. A sniper-type Shadow wasn’t in any of the intelligence reports she had read up until now. 
Why was it alone? Where was its squad? 
The Shadow shot again. The Eligor threw away the powerless M9, turned towards the new enemy, and prepared to meet it with its Lambda Driver. Mao saw that in one place, the armor had been particularly badly damaged by the volley of the anti-air autocannon and the Shadow’s first shot, and a part of the core unit was exposed. She had to hurry... 
Mao made her M9 get up, and with all her strength rammed her head in the back of the enemy machine. Her cranium sensors were smashed to bits, but she didn’t care - that was all she had. 
The enemy couldn’t recover from the surprise attack, and collapsed. She chose her last auxiliary weapon - the head-mounted guns, and shot at point-blank range. 
“Taaaake thiiiis!!” she was shouting and gripping the triggers. 
The double chain guns started revving up, and the feeder mechanism came alive, disgorging 50-caliber bullets on full auto. Their tungsten cores pierced and shredded the insides of the enemy machine, severing cables, destroying controls circuits and dynamos. 
They also bounced back at the M9’s head, turning it into Swiss cheese. One of the chain guns broke, the other jammed and exploded. Covered in black smoke, both machines collapsed on top of each other. 
Her monitors went black - all of the head sensors were destroyed, the sub-sensors did not seem to respond as well. With all her strength, she pulled the handle of the emergency escape system that was installed in the cockpit pod. The explosive bolts 
fired, blowing off the ceiling of the cockpit. She grasped her trusty .45 handgun and climbed out of the machine. Everything around her was covered in thick black smoke. She steadied her breathing, grasped her sidearm tightly, and very carefully advanced towards the enemy machine, lying near her broken M9. She saw that the cockpit hatch of the Eligor had been left open - the pilot had already left. Then where did..? Ah! The pilot was hiding near the leg of the M9, and she shot at her. 
In answer, a grenade came rolling on the ground towards her feet, and she moved away at the last moment. She moved to the other side of the machine, and started pursuing the enemy. She finally saw the pilot, who was trying to run away - it was a woman, clad in a tight bodysuit. She seemed to be headed for the gate to the interior of the base, that was, it turned out, just near Mao. She thought that the enemy was heading for the launch control room - it was imperative to pursue her.  
Mao didn’t have time to wallow in the happy feeling that came after escaping certain death. She took a submachine gun and several magazines from the locker in the cockpit hatch... and remembered the Shadow that saved her life. It was still standing on that mountain ridge, little more than a speck from this distance. She took out field binoculars from her tactical vest, and looked at it. The machine turned towards her, and gave a nonchalant salute, then shouldered its sniper rifle, and seemed to shrug. 
No way... 
The Shadow pointed to its own head antenna, and made circular motions with its finger. He had to be using an FM antenna. Her M9’s communications systems were destroyed during the battle. She put on her headset and switched to an open frequency. 
“ d’you like that timing?” a triumphant voice. A voice she thought she would never hear again. Oh God.  
“I made it just in time, just at the right moment, eh? You’ll fall in love with me again, won’t you, nee-san?” said Kurz Weber, shameless as ever. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
He had been picked up, dying, by Special Forces of the GRU, that had been late to the scene at Yamsk 11. He was given prompt medical treatment and a rehabilitation program, but wasn’t fully recovered yet. He learned of this operation only the previous day, from Wraith, and managed to persuade both Lieutenant Colonel Kirienko and his army surgeon to let him borrow the sniper Shadow prototype. 
Properly speaking, in his condition he shouldn’t have boarded the AS. Some of his scars were burning already, and while he obviously wouldn’t be able to fight in his usual form, he could at least shoot from a safe distance. 
Nevertheless, he seemed healthy enough to crack jokes as usual. He did look like a knight in shining armour right now, so he had to keep it as dramatic and cool as possible. Mao would probably be amazed by his miraculous return, and shed tears of joy, and then he would say: “if you’re in trouble, I’d come back from the dead to rescue you”. 
Come on, say it... cry a little, Melissa. 
“’re the worst,” finally came her sullen voice over the radio. 
“You died a heroic death, didn’t you? Why’d you come waltzing in here all of a sudden? So that was what Wraith wanted to say... I see. What a mess...” 
“Wha-.. mess?! What’re you talking about, I--...” 
“Ooh, right. You’re alive. Ooo, I am surprised. You satisfied?” 
He didn’t expect that chilly welcome, and thought that he was more likely to be the one crying. 
“Please provide fire support for suppression of the remaining enemies. Over and out.” 
Saying that, Mao disappeared inside the base entrance. 
“Sheesh, this is awful...” 
He corrected the scope amplification and got back into a firing position. He spotted several ordinary type enemy ASes moving around the mountain. Silently and sadly, he marked his targets and began the cleanup. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
His Falke had lost its limbs and became little more than a wreck. Clouseau climbed out of its cockpit, and started coughing violently, every cough causing sharp, stabbing pain from his ribs. Clouseau grimaced. 
Still, it’s amazing that I’m actually alive. Looks like my eardrums might’ve been blown... Right ear can’t hear anything. I see red... the left arm won’t move. There’s feeling in the fingertips, so it must be a fractured bone. It hurts... hurts, oh God, how it hurts. And if my ear doesn’t get better, that will be awful. I won’t be able to enjoy 5.1 channel sound. No, that’s it. I’ll stop doing this. When all of this heals, I’ll migrate to Akihabara and start my Japanese studies again, and then I’ll become a translator. Yes, every day will be fun. I’ll definitely do that. 
“I’ll,” he coughed again, “stop this..!” 
Pff, strength... warrior’s way... how ridiculous. 
The pain from his injuries was strong enough to make him feel that way. However, his work there wasn’t done. He took out his pistol from the holster, and dragging his left leg, started 
approaching the downed Eligor. He saw Fowler lying in a pool of blood near the cockpit. Black smoke was all around them. 
He came closer, cautiously, keeping his gun trained on the enemy pilot, then pressed a finger to his neck. There was no pulse. Fowler was already dead. It looked like a fragment of the armor had pierced the cockpit, and his chest. In the end, he risked his life with that attack, and survived, while his enemy was dead. It wasn’t a matter of who was stronger or weaker - pure chance. Because of that, an inexpressible feeling of regret arose in Clouseau’s chest. 
“I’m sorry, Fowler...” 
The dead pilot’s face was unexpectedly calm, as if he was sleeping. Clouseau wondered what he meant when he had told him about being defeated by a worthless drunk. What kind of tragedy happened to him? What did he think during the battle? How did he live up until now? All of that disappeared together with him. 
It was hard even to stand up now. Clouseau sat onto the ground, and switched on his headset. 
“This is... Uruz 1. I destroyed Fowler’s machine. My M9 has been seriously damaged. I am seriously injured - well, I’d like to say that, but it doesn’t look like I’m about to die yet. Is someone... alive?” 
“Ben! Oh, I’m so glad to hear you,” came Mao’s voice. “I also managed to clean up somehow... and...” 
He thought he heard her sniffing and coughing a little. Was she crying..? No, he had probably imagined that. 
“...sorry, I was just a little surprised. Actually, Kurz is alive.” 
Clouseau opened his eyes wide in astonishment. That idiot was alive..? His stubbornness was simply amazing. 
“Looks like the GRU helped him. His Shadow’s taking care of the exterior, and I’m going inside the base. I contacted Yang and the others, but they’re still pinned down by the enemy on the lower levels. The control room should be close from my position.”  
“You’re going in alone? That’s unreasonably dangerous.” 
“Not like we have any choice. The enemy’s pilot also ran in, I’m sure she’s prepared to launch.” 
“...right. Take care.” 
The line was closed. 
Even if he thought before that he was going to quit this job, right now, unable to fight, he was more disappointed with his injured body than ever before. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
Sousuke was keeping his breathing even, his senses sharp. Keeping his pistol on the burning Belial, he continued to carefully step closer. He saw a human figure behind the black smoke. Leonard was sitting on a large, meter-wide pipe, covering a large wound in his abdomen. He noticed Sousuke, and lifted the revolver he was carrying... 
But Sousuke was faster. His bullet hit Leonard in the shoulder - his enemy swayed a little, and dropped the gun, which fell to the concrete floor with a dry metal sound. 
It didn’t look like he had other weapons. His hands were now hanging limply, and he stared at Sousuke with vacant eyes. 
“But I saw it clearly...” muttered Leonard. “I pierce you through the cockpit. I know I was supposed to. And that would be 
the end of it. And she would complete her change of this world, so everything would end.” 
He let out a deep sigh. 
“How did it come to be this way? Why is this continuing... isn’t it strange..?” 
“I don’t know, but this is what I planned to do,” said Sousuke, without taking his sights off him. “Didn’t know if it would work, though.” 
“Impressive,” Leonard’s voice was filled with something close to self-derision. 
“Leonard, it was a gamble on my part, I couldn’t know if you would fall for the trick. It’s a wonder it went this well.” 
“Yes, isn’t it... Looks like Teresa’s message worked too well...” 
It looked like Leonard finally couldn’t take it all anymore. He bent forward a little, and burst into laughter... or perhaps tears, Sousuke couldn’t tell. 
“To think that she knew about our mother... and that she could do all this... I thought she was a stupid little sister... turns out, she’s much tougher than me...” 
He continued muttering, as if delirious. 
“I... don’t really understand... I’ve started hating everything a long time ago... I thought everything was worthless... and everyone was an idiot. I know it’s not normal, but... that’s why I wanted to become normal. And I thought there was no other way...” 
Sousuke was silent. 
“You understand? I wanted to become normal...” 
“I... do,” Sousuke lowered the gun. “I’ve wanted the same thing. For a while now.” 
It looked like they were finally having a normal conversation. Two very different people, who wanted the same 
thing. Were they the positive and negative, the light and shadow, - that didn’t matter. Then, essentially, were they not like comrades? 
He saw a small spark appear in Leonard’s eyes, that previously seemed so lifeless. 
“You won’t ever be able to, you know.” 
“Now we understand each other... dying together, as comrades, eh... so... you think this is it?” 
“I thought so” he was grinning broadly. 
Sousuke had already noticed. Leonard’s left hand was holding a small remote control that looked like some sort of detonator, possibly activating the self-destruction of the facility. He was ready to press it. Sousuke had no choice but to kill him, even if the fact that his enemy was Tessa’s brother gripped his heart. He aimed for the head, and his finger started squeezing the trigger... 
A rifle bullet hit Leonard in the chest - a fountain of blood sprayed from it, and the detonator fell. 
The shot came from the left side, eight o’clock. Sousuke dropped and rolled into cover. Then, he saw a man with a rifle, standing in one of the upper passage doorways. 
It was, of course, Andrei Kalinin, in his field tactical vest, leading two subordinates. One of them was carrying the limp body of a black-haired girl on his shoulder. 
The two subordinate, one of them carrying Kaname, disappeared into the doorway. When Sousuke tried to move out, Kalinin shot in his direction. Why did he order them to kill Leonard, then? The remote control he had been holding must have really been a detonator for charges planted around the TAROS. He 
must have killed Leonard to prevent any harm to Kaname, but to think that Kalinin would go that far... 
“Your plan failed! Let her go!” 
They seemed to be planning to escape with her. If they had Kaname, they could build the TAROS somewhere else again. Perhaps the Lieutenant Commander even anticipated that turn of events. He would go that far... even to kidnap her... 
“Lieutenant Commander..! You..!” 
He was speechless. 
You must know how I feel about her. You know me, what kind of person I am, from a long time ago, in Afghanistan. Why then, are you taking her from me? Why can’t you just walk away silently? Why aren’t you answering?! 
He had never felt such a strong hatred towards the man. 
He aimed to hit, and shot - but his attempt failed, as the range was too much for a handgun. They exchanged fire several times, then Kalinin and his subordinates left the former dry dock. The tunnel they were in led straight to the runway. 
Sousuke was about to pursue them, and turned back for a last glance at Leonard. He was dead, no doubt about that. Sousuke didn’t feel any pity for him, either. This must have been another humiliation, and it was understandable that he was willing to blow up the TAROS and everything else. 
Yes, if I had left her to you, I wouldn’t have minded blowing myself up. Still, there were more things you could have done. Couldn’t you at least have told me something for Tessa? With all that power of yours, you were one big idiot, Leonard. 
Sousuke didn’t like that mood. Things he wanted to say came one after another, but his enemy was dead. 
“Get a grip..!” 
Now he had to go take back Kaname. 
Sousuke counted the bullets he had left, and started his pursuit. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
Mao, holding her SMG at the ready, was carefully walking through the dark, concrete passageway inside the base. She only heard the faint sounds of the battle that Yang and the others were engaged in below, and her own breathing, that seemed so loud. She had memorized the route to the control room a dozen times over. Level F, compartment eight - it should be just ahead, down a gently sloping corridor, then down a couple of staircases. 
It was deep underground - very deep. Calm down. No need to feel nervous. The enemy is all tied up on the lower levels, there wouldn’t be enough people to stop me here. Damn, since when did I become such a scaredy cat? Like a teen girl... but now, life became precious to her. 
Of course... it was all that idiot’s fault. What was all that about making her “fall in love again”..? 
There were two enemies around the corner - they had noticed her. She dived behind a nearby container, peered around its corner and shot one of them - then threw a grenade, without removing the safety pin. The first one collapsed, and the second faltered, just enough to allow her the time to charge in. She shot at full auto, and the man collapsed. 
Right, Melissa. Your intuition is as sharp as ever. 
She picked up the grenade, which was slowly rolling on the concrete floor, and moved on. The time until the enemy gets the launch codes had already elapsed, and she could expect a launch at any minute. 
She came across a sign: [E-8] - her destination was almost in front of her, just one flight of stairs down. She hated entry through the staircase - too many points from which the enemy could be aiming at her. Just a little longer... there seemed to be no traps. She entered the hallway, passed by a large iron door that led to the control room, and started setting shaped charges on the wall near the door, which looked too sturdy to be blown off. Besides, the plans that Wraith had brought them proved that blowing a hole in the wall would be a better shortcut. She set in the fuse, went to a safe distance, and detonated the charges. 
As the shockwave passed and smoke filled the corridor, she rushed in - there was no time, no time, she had to hurry..! 
Three people in the control room. One was deafened by the explosion, and was still dazed when she shot him. The second one started lifting his gun, but she was a split second quicker. He fell, his body pierced by 5.7mm slugs. The last one remaining was that girl - white AS pilot suit, an impressive figure, though she was still in her teens, short hair and glasses. A pistol was in her right hand, and her left... The thumb of her left hand rested on a large red button. Red. It must be the launch button... 
She didn’t have time to try and persuade her, or shout at her to stop, and squeezed the trigger. The bullets pierced the AS suit, and the girl fell. 
In the next instant, however, the control room was flooded with the shrill noise of alarms. The main screen went red, and [LAUNCH] was displayed in Cyrillic characters. A tremor shook the base as the rocket engines of the first missile engaged. 
Mao jumped towards the girl, and kicked out the weapon from her hands. She then turned towards the command console, and cursing her bad Russian, tried to read the information on the launched missile. It turned out that there wasn’t only one launch 
code - that was only the first launch. The second was already on standby, and the third was near completion. All the remaining silos were getting activated  - however, there was no one to give the launch command anymore. 
Only one missile had been launched - but it was quite enough. The detonation of its 55 megaton warhead would turn a megalopolis the size of Tokyo into ashes. And its target? 
She immediately recognized those coordinates... twenty degrees, fifty minutes north, by one-forty degrees, thirty-one minutes East. 
The target was Merida Island. 
Around twenty-four minutes later, the missile would hit the island, and she did not know what was going on there at the moment, except the fact that Tessa and Sousuke were fighting, and Kaname was imprisoned on that little piece of land. 
She thought she could order it to self-destruct in mid-flight, but it didn’t seem to have that capability. It simply went on towards its target, ignoring all obstacles. She couldn’t do anything from this side... she had to warn Tessa and the others. 
She operated the console, and started searching for available satellite connections. The [SEARCH IN PROGRESS] bar seemed to move incredibly slowly. 
“Come on..!” 
For the world at large, that was perhaps not the worst outcome. However, why Merida? 
“What are you planning?!” she shouted at the girl, who was lying near her in a puddle of blood. She had been wounded in many places, and probably didn’t have long left. 
“Missile... at Merida..?” she asked feebly. 
“Yes. Is that what you’ve been planning?” 
“Hahah...” the girl spasmed and twitched, but her bloody mouth was laughing “...the change... has stopped. I felt it... inside the machine... he... made a mistake... all her fault...” 
“Change..? Who’s that girl..?” 
“They can all disappear... he... and the girl... this way, I’d be alone... unfair... what’s wrong with me..? Cruel man... that girl, too, in the flames of hell...” 
“What are you on about..?” 
“Let them burn...” 
She continued muttering in delirium, and soon fell silent. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
It wasn’t exactly a mopping-up operation, but Tessa and the remaining crew members somehow got through the enemy soldiers and into the former dry dock. Perhaps the enemy morale was shaken by the Belial’s fall, she thought, as the TAROS came in sight. Her crew was dispersing, ready for an ambush, but none came. Kaname was not inside the TAROS - she might have left on her own, or been taken by someone else. The wrecks of both the Laevatein and the Belial were near the dome of the TAROS, but Sousuke was nowhere in sight, and did not answer on any radio channel.  
She did, however, discover the body of Leonard. Her brother’s motionless corpse was leaning on a large pipe, and she stood stock still before it. 
She had thought that it may come to that. He would probably despise himself, or her, in that situation. In any case she was prepared to resolve some things that were between them in the past, and wanted to say many things to him at their next meeting... wanted to preach to him the wrongness of his ways, her chest 
puffed with pride... and now, it was impossible. She couldn’t even cry, and she didn’t understand the feelings within herself. If she got out of there alive, then perhaps her feelings would break through, and she would suffer - after all, his death was her doing... Either way, he was the last relative she had, and now even he was gone. 
“Captain. Transmission from Mao.” 
Shinohara, who brought along satellite communications equipment, had caught her transmission. It was impossible to have a conversation at this short wavelength, and they only received information from her in brief. The operator, Shinohara, showed her the transcript of the transmission: the Afghan missile base was under their control. However, they had no time to be happy about their comrades’ safety. 
In twenty-two minutes, a nuclear missile would hit Merida Island. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
Admit it. You’re defeated. 
Even Kalinin could not predict that everything would turn out like this, however, victory had been on their side with a ninety percent chance... all the defensive preparations in the coastal waters, the island’s defensive unit, and finally the Belial. Everything had seemed to be flawless. There were no miscalculations, but perhaps because of the overwhelming amount of damage, they were now driven into a corner. He understood that this fight wasn’t going as he planned, and yet he could not stop. 
The power of Sagara Sousuke and Teletha Testarossa was terrifying indeed. He could not have imagined the Tuatha de 
Danaan breaking through all of their defenses and coming right up to the dry dock. Because of that, he had had to split his forces into two parts, and they arrived late. The Laevatein had amazed him as well, having not only destroyed the entire AS troop, but also the Belial. Those youngsters had defeated him in this decisive battle. A splendid display of resolution, and extraordinary skill. 
Leonard had planned to take Chidori to the grave together with him in that explosion, when the plan had failed. However, that would be most unpleasant. If he at least had Kaname Chidori, he could start off again. He wouldn’t let her die just to satisfy that boy’s foolish pride, and so he shot him, not knowing if he was seriously going to use the detonator or not. 
Kalinin quickly ran up the staircase and asked one of his men: 
“What about the escape helicopter?” 
“On standby, on the runway, sir.” 
He would escape, and start over... but was it something he really wanted? 
“Of course...” 
It was his wish, and he would do everything for it. Not an ideal world like Leonard and the others wanted to create - no, just restore it to what it should have been. And now, he was the only person able to oversee the process. If Sousuke was going to try and stop him - he would not show mercy. 
“Here. Hurry, sir.” 
They went out on the camouflaged runway, in the corner of which a transport helicopter was waiting for them, its rotors already spinning. Taking the unconscious Kaname with him, Kalinin hurried to the helicopter’s boarding ramp. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
As soon as Sousuke got out onto the runway, he heard the noise of the powerful turbo shaft engines. Kalinin and his men were boarding a transport helicopter, taking Kaname with them. 
He broke off into a run - thirty meters to the helicopter. One of the soldiers on the boarding ramp was aiming his rifle at him, and shot - Sousuke shot back, emptying the magazine of the handgun on the run, and hit the enemy in the shoulderpad. He ran, changing the magazine, and saw the soldier fall out of the aircraft. The helicopter’s wheels were already lifting off the ground, it was going to take off at any moment now. Sousuke aimed at the tail rotor and shot, knowing that it was useless - 9mm bullets couldn’t harm a military helicopter. 
He suddenly spotted something left in the corner of a runway - a bundle of cable that was used to fix aircraft, around three meters long. 
“Have to make it..!” 
He ran towards that bundle of cable and picked it up. The helicopter was already hovering above ground, starting to accelerate - and took off. 
He threw the cable - its end flew in an arc, and reached the tail rotor of the machine. A horrible screeching sound came as the steel alloy cable whipped around the rotor, and the machine swayed, but did not fall. It hovered around a meter from the ground, struggling to maintain control, and Sousuke rushed to its right-side door. A soldier was in the way, attached by the safety belts inside the machine - Sousuke shot him and shoved the corpse aside. Near him, stretched out on the bank, was Kaname, who seemed to try to 
get up dizzily. Kalinin was nowhere in sight, possibly in the pilot’s cabin. 
He rushed towards her, and helped her get up. It was the first time he felt her so close in more than a year. He had finally caught up with her... he suppressed the flood of emotions that were flooding his mind. 
“Can you stand? We have to go, now. Get a grip!” 
He quickly operated a control panel inside the aircraft, and the main cargo hatch started opening - very, very slowly. The outside scenery that came into view was also slowly spinning, as the helicopter was still struggling above the runway. 
“...what... is this a dream again? I...” 
“No, it’s not. We’re going back together. Going back, you hear?” 
At that moment, Kalinin appeared from the pilot’s cabin, armed with a rifle. Sousuke pulled Kaname with him into the middle of the freight containers. Kalinin shot - and he felt a dull pain in his back. The AS pilot suit, being bulletproof, stopped the slug itself, but the pain was still intense. 
“Let that girl go, and drop your weapon!” 
“Don’t screw with me!” 
He pushed his gun out from the crates and fired. There was no way he would hit from his position. Kalinin didn’t even stop, and fired back. The metal fittings that held the cargo in place flew apart, and one of the boxes fell on Sousuke. 
It was a big case, likely used for anti-tank or anti-aircraft missiles, well over a hundred kilograms. The centrifugal force from the uncontrolled rotation of the aircraft added to the crushing force on Sousuke’s chest... 
Kaname, still in a daze, was trying to get up from the floor and understand the situation around her. 
“Sousuke..?. Is it really you... Sousuke..?” 
He couldn’t move, and Kalinin was coming closer. 
At that moment, the aircraft started vibrating, and the rotation worsened. The crates started sliding down to the cargo hatch and were flung outside, on the runway, taking Kaname with them. 
He swore, powerless - his foot was caught in the cargo fixtures, and they wouldn’t move an inch. The helicopter suddenly lurched and started rapidly gaining altitude. He saw her small figure tumble down and roll onto the runway, and then quickly go further and further away. 
He kicked away, pulled and finally untied the metal fixtures, but as he got up, the helicopter was already more than ten meters from the ground and climbing. He would just die if he jumped. He came that close, and yet couldn’t do anything... 
The machine shook again. He grabbed onto something, then turned back to look over his shoulder. Kalinin was clinging on to a seat, gazing and him, and seemed to mutter something - but he couldn’t hear anything because of the noise of engines and the wind that came in from the open cargo hatch. 
The helicopter stopped climbing, inclined steeply, and another impact shook the machine. It was now revolving faster than ever - this was no time to think about fighting each other. The machine started losing height fast - completely out of control, it was falling from the sky. The runway was left somewhere far behind, and it looked like the machine was slipping north. 
The ground was coming up fast, at such an angle that this couldn’t even be called an emergency landing. The rotors struck the trees first, and then the body of the machine slammed into the rocky ground. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
When Tessa finally reached the runway, a horrendous noise came from somewhere to the north, like an aircraft crashing. There was a plume of smoke that went in the same direction. 
“What was that?” 
“I don’t know, Ma’am, but we have to get out of here,” Mardukas was hurrying alongside her. 
Twenty minutes until the missile hits the island. Even if they found an aircraft that very moment and took off, they didn’t know if they could escape. 
Sergeant Dejlani, who remained in contact with the crew members in the underground hangar, reported: 
“We’ve got a plane! It’s the turboprop ‘King Air’, turns out it was left here. They’re refueling it. Not enough time to get a full load, but we’ll manage to take off.” 
“Good! Get it up!” 
“Yes, but... there’s already someone there before us.” 
“Er, well... they report a white tiger in a cage inside the plane.” 
“A... tiger?” 
She didn’t understand. Tiger on a plane? Whose pet was that? 
“Does it look dangerous?” 
“Er, not really...” 
“Well, let’s take it with us then.” 
The main elevator started lifting the airplane out of the underground hangar and onto the runway. The place was filled with that familiar noise of engines once again - it was their old home... but they had no time to reflect on it. 
“We need to get the runway cleared off, there’s something there.” 
Around fifty meters from them were scattered what seemed like boxes of ammo, and foreign objects on the runway were a hazard. But... 
“Ka-... Kaname-san?” 
There weren’t only ammunition boxes. Kaname Chidori was lying there. 
Not paying attention to Mardukas, she ran towards the girl. The runway wasn’t safe yet - there was a risk of enemy ambush, but she didn’t care. 
Tessa’s breathing was ragged, her shoulders heaving up and down, as she shook Kaname. 
It looked like she was thankfully uninjured, except a few bruises and scratches. 
“Please, Captain - I’ll take her,” one of her subordinates had come up from behind, lifted her on his shoulder and started running back towards the plane. Tessa tried to keep up, and kept calling her. 
“Kaname-san!! It’s me! Do you hear me?” 
“What happened? Where’s Sagara-san?” 
“Sousuke... saved me... in the helicopter...” 
She weekly lifted a finger and pointed to the north, where the sound of a crash had come from moments before, and now a column of black smoke was rising. It was about five hundred meters north of the runway, and Tessa guessed the rest of the story. Someone - probably Kalinin - had kidnapped Kaname, and Sousuke chased after him... he was in that helicopter. 
“Have to go... after him...” 
Kaname couldn’t speak anymore, as her body shook in a violent coughing fit. Her face was ghostly pale. Tessa touched her forehead - the girl had a very serious fever. Was it an after-effect of using the TAROS..? In any case, if she didn’t get rest, she would become worse. 
She looked in the direction of the supposed crash. She wondered if he was all right, and if he could have been thrown off. If he was inside when it crashed, the worst could have happened. 
She looked at her watch - another eighteen minutes until impact. Was there time to send her men to look for him - rush there, and take him back..? 
No matter how she calculated, it was simply impossible. The missile would come around the time they found him. There was barely enough time to get to a safe distance as it was. 
She tried calling him on the radio - since they were on the surface, the signal should be fine. 
“This is Ansuz. Uruz 7, come in! This island is about to be hit by a nuclear missile, ETA eighteen minutes!” 
No response. 
The elevator had finally lifted the twin-engine turboprop airplane up onto the runway. It was an old, trusty plane, that had usually carried off-duty members of Mithril to Tokyo or Guam. 
“Ansuz to Uruz 7, come in! I repeat, this island will be subject to a nuclear strike in seventeen minutes! Uruz 7!!” 
No response. 
The crew members were finishing the takeoff preparations as fast as humanly possible. A couple were removing the fuel supply pipe, others were carrying their injured comrades to the aircraft, others yet finished moving the ammo boxes scattered on the tarmac, and were running back. Mardukas pulled Tessa into the aircraft almost by force. 
“Do you hear me, Uruz 7! Answer, Sagara-san!!” 
“This is... Uruz 7,” Sousuke’s voice was barely intelligible because of static and noise. 
“Tessa... I’m glad you’re ok. My present location... near radar number three. Yours..?” 
“On the runway! Kaname-san is fine, we are getting out of here. The nuclear strike will wipe out the base in sixteen minutes. Come here, quick!” 
This way, there was a possibility of them making it out alive, if they waited until the last possible moment until he got on board, and then took off at full speed... 
“Negative, Ansuz.” 
“Uruz 7... engaged in combat. Linking up is impossible.” 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
Yes, his battle was not over yet. 
Under a beautiful morning sky, he stood in the middle of the burning wreckage of the helicopter. Drop tanks, fragments of the fuselage, rotors and engine pods were scattered around him, and everything was covered in black smoke. He sat near a broken stabilizer, and reported to Tessa. The noise was awful, and he didn’t know its source, but most likely his headset was damaged in the impact. 
“The enemy? How many?” 
Sousuke was holding his combat knife in a backhand grip, standing face to face with the last remaining enemy. Five meters in front of him, holding a similar knife, stood Andrei Kalinin, his uniform torn, his face bloody. 
They were both a sorry sight. Even if he had proposed to him to stop the fight, and run back to Tessa together, the reply was obvious. 
“Kaname... is she all right?” 
“...yes, she’s lying down for now. 
“Please get her back safely.” 
She sounded like she wanted to say something, but stopped herself. She was too aware of the situation, painfully aware, and understood that if Sousuke said that it was impossible, it really was like that. 
“Well... I promise.” 
“I am grateful. Uruz 7, over and out.” 
He took off his head gear - he wouldn’t need it anymore, and it sounded like Tessa was holding back tears. Should he have told her something affectionate at the end? No, he shouldn’t, this double-dealing was what hurt her the most. 
“Are you finished?” said Kalinin. 
“Yes... do you know about the nuke?” 
“I heard. One of my men was tracking it,” he sighed, “Sabina’s handiwork, I’d say. It was a mistake sending her there.” 
“...were you really planning to start a nuclear war?” 
“Of course. Everything had to be fixed anyway. There wouldn’t have been any trouble in the future, we would have rebuilt everything anew.” 
Sousuke suddenly remembered that strong feeling of anger and hatred towards this man for his lies. It was not for his admission of mass genocide - Kalinin was lying not only to Sousuke, but to himself. 
“If you have an excuse, I’d like to hear it.” 
“No matter what I’ll say, you’ll be angry.” 
“Of course.” 
Somewhere behind them, one of the helicopter’s engines exploded, and the area was showered with fragments of turbine blades, screws and torn pieces of aluminum alloy casing. 
The explosion was like a sign. A cloud of smoke covered the area temporarily, and Kalinin used that to rush towards him. His movements had been almost sluggish until then, but at that moment his speed was incredible. There were no feints, no clever techniques, no flexible use of wrists and shoulders - just the point of his knife, coming straight at him. 
He barely had time to move his head, and he felt the blade swish past his throat. The stab turned into a slashing attack faster than he could imagine. He thought that his opponent would try to grapple him, but instead he was aiming at his back. Sousuke dodged and jumped away, to get a little distance, and the enemy looked like he was going to kick up the dust at him. Sousuke closed one eye and tried to aim for his opponent’s leg, but instead of kicking up dust Kalinin’s leg came at his temple. He blocked it 
with difficulty - but not completely. The impact on his left hand, that was blocking the kick, was probably the most powerful he had ever received in hand to hand combat. He staggered, barely managed to right himself, and tried to slash his opponent. Kalinin dodged the attack without difficulty, and with the same movement the heel of his jungle boot struck Sousuke’s side. 
Sousuke had trouble breathing after the kick, and his vision became dark for an instant, but he returned to a guard position. 
“What, you can’t fight without your AS?” 
Sousuke was silent, and tried to steady his breathing. 
“I taught you many things, but there was something I always thought.” 
“You don’t have any talent for this.” 
At the same moment, Kalinin’s right hand moved so fast it seemed to leave afterimages on his retina, almost as a bullet - but he somehow dodged it. Stabs kept coming with the same speed - he avoided them with great difficulty, and counterattacked. Sparks flew - he scrambled to right his posture, his vision swimming. 
Talent... he knew he didn’t have any. He didn’t even bother to answer. 
I know that I’m not a genius, at hand-to-hand, and shooting, and piloting. I’m on a pretty average level, nowhere near the top. There are a lot of people more skilled than me - Mao, Clouseau, Kurz - all of them more talented. I know that. And in my grasp of hand-to-hand combat, I’m probably inferior to Kalinin. 
So - why, then? Why did you use me as a soldier? My only strength is stubbornly fighting to the very last. 
Sousuke kept dodging, parrying, withstanding all the attacks that were thrown at him, and the brilliant morning sun was rising behind his back. Unexpectedly, this position turned to his 
advantage, as Kalinin had to squint, and his field of vision became narrow - if he was going to attack, this was the time. 
“What wrong? You can't fight without your AS?” “…………” “I taught you many things, but I always thought something.” “What?” “You don't have any talent.” 
He charged his enemy, barely avoiding Kalinin’s stab, caught his knee and pulled. He could have avoided the attack, but instead he grabbed the knee and pulled with all his might - and it was not enough. This way his back was open, but he didn’t care anymore. He shifted his posture and put his entire weight behind the grapple, almost performing a sode-tsuri-komi-goshi6. His opponent staggered, but was regaining his balance - and at that moment he kicked him to the ground with all his might. 
6 Judo maneuver - sleeve lifting and pulling throw. 
It was a victory of perseverance. Kalinin fell on the ground, and it was not a pretty fall, like in a match - no, it looked like a shameful scuffle of some children in the sandbox. But that was fine. 
He tried to grip his opponent’s right arm - Kalinin was still trying to slash him with the knife, but with all his strength he tried to complete the back arm lock. The knife finally fell out of Kalinin’s hand, the enemy losing his only weapon. Victory was very close. 
He clumsily head-butted him, over and over again, just trying to create an opportunity for himself. 
A thick sound - his nose cartilage was snapped. 
No mercy. 
Still on his enemy’s back, locking his hands, Sousuke reached for the knife that he still had, and stabbed at the man’s defenseless chest. He struck a rib, and remembered that he had to hold the blade horizontally. Sousuke remembered where the heart was - he only had to push the blade in, and almost felt the sensation of serrated steel piercing flesh and ripping apart arteries... 
He didn’t stab. The point of the blade reached Kalinin’s chest and stopped. He tried again, and again, but it didn’t go further. 
This blade couldn’t reach the enemy’s heart, because he couldn’t drive it in. He became painfully aware of that fact. He was young and strong, but all that did not matter anymore, and his strength disappeared somewhere. 
He jumped back from Kalinin, telling himself to get up, and charge the man once more, but realized it was useless, so he took three steps back. 
He couldn’t kill his father. 
“Do whatever you want...” he muttered. 
He still kept his back to the wreckage. He took the knife, lying in front of him, and threw it in Kalinin’s direction. It stuck the ground right in front of the man, and remained there, quivering slightly. 
Sousuke felt a terrible fatigue. In front of him, Kalinin was getting up slowly. 
“...that is why I said that you have no talent for this.” 
“Shut up...” 
“You’re a lamb, brought up by a pack of wolves. You don’t need blood, you’ve no taste for flesh, but you still pretend to be a wolf, because if you didn’t, you would die. Is there a more twisted and sorrowful existence..?” 
“Like I know...” 
“You shouldn’t have to do this. You shouldn’t have become the man that could drive me into a corner. Not Kasshim, or even Uruz 7, no...” 
Sousuke was silent. 
“There had to have been a more appropriate place for you, but... you can’t turn back anymore. You destroyed yourself.” 
What was the man trying to say? What was this all of a sudden - a stale speech about how he “wasn’t born to be a soldier”. 
I’m a sorrowful existence, you say. I should have become a normal boy, you say. But I didn’t. And now it’s too late. 
“But I’ll help you make that distinction.” 
Kalinin picked up the knife, and approached carefully, getting closer with every step. Once a fight was started, it had to be settled. He could do what Sousuke couldn’t - that was the difference between a lamb and a wolf, and this distinction had to be enforced. 
He closed in, his posture low, preparing for a thrusting attack. Sousuke was leaning against a piece of wreckage, simply looking at him feebly... 
But the stab he was expecting didn’t come. Kalinin coughed violently, and spit blood. The knife fell from his hands - then both of his arms went limp, and he collapsed. 
The back of his field uniform was soaked in blood. He probably received that injury during the crash - Sousuke just noticed that many metal fragments had pierced his back, and evidently reached his internal organs. And he fought in that condition... 
“W-why did--...” 
“It was... your last... training,” his voice was weak, “I wanted you to think... about what you are.” 
He grabbed Sousuke’s shoulder with his big hand, now covered in blood. 
“You wouldn’t stab. I knew it. You’re a gentle child...” 
“Stop it.” 
These words were worse than being stabbed. He didn’t want to hear this. He wasn’t like that. Why didn’t this man scold 
him properly... if he continued to speak like that, Sousuke wouldn’t be able to stand up anymore. 
“Wanted to... get you back...” 
He sighed deeply, like his life was leaving his body. 
“I also... wanted to go back... to Irina... and the child...” 
He was talking about his wife, who had died, while expecting a child, because of a medical error, while he was in Afghanistan. 
“And that is why you went with Leonard’s plan? A man like you, following some kind of crazy pipe dream?!” 
“You thought... I was flawless..?” 
“That’s what a father’s got to be like, no?!” 
Kalinin smiled faintly, perhaps glad to be called a father. 
“If you look... at any father closely, it’s like that... before you know it, he’s only half a man...” 
“Lieutenant Commander...” 
His last words were in Japanese7. 
7  Can mean "go on!" or "live!". Same last words as Sousuke's mother said (see “Voice from the North”) 
Strength left the hand that was grabbing Sousuke’s shoulder, and it fell to the ground. 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
He didn’t know how much time he spent on his knees near Kalinin’s body, who looked like he was simply daydreaming. The noise of turboprop engines woke him up, and he looked up at the sky. The “King Air” had just taken off from the runway. Inside were Tessa and the rest of the crew. He glanced at his watch - ten 
minutes left until impact. If they went to full speed now, they would probably reach the limit of the safety zone. 
There was so much he wanted to tell her, and yet it had come to this. They only had a dozen seconds inside the helicopter. He had been waiting for that for more than a year, and yet those moments were all he got. He didn’t even know if she had returned to her true self, he only knew that the so-called “change” had stopped. She would probably be happy from now on, wouldn’t she..? At least, that was what he wanted, but now he lost any way to make sure of that. 
Well, he did what he could. In the end, he didn’t even rewrite his last will and testament, and couldn’t think of anything, even now. He couldn’t do anything for her right now. 
“Good luck...” he muttered, looking at the tiny speck that was the plane, disappearing in the morning sun. 
He stood up, and leaving Kalinin’s body, began running towards the base. It was not like he was going to find anything useful. He didn’t even want to move anymore, but still he ran. 
Ikinasai... he seemed to remember those words, as if in a mist, from somewhere long, long ago. Why did he say that, instead of properly saying “live” or “go”? However, those words had the power of a supreme order, and he kept running into the morning sun. 
He found one of the entrances to the base in a corner of the maneuvering grounds. Kicking down the wire mesh gate, he jumped down the staircase - it didn’t even take him thirty seconds. 
Turning several corners and passing several doors, he suddenly found himself standing in corridor zero8. 
8 Just a side note: in Japan, they usually start a numbered list (eg. in official documents) with zero (so it's point 0 to point 9, instead of 1 to 10). 
With the warhead on that ICBM, the underground structures of Merida would not withstand the heat, or the shockwave of the detonation, even if he ran to the drainage facilities at the very bottom of the underground base. Even if he somehow managed to survive the initial impact, the structures would collapse, and ocean water would flow in, drowning him. Either way led to the same result. It was futile trying to hide underground, and there didn’t seem to be any methods of escape. 
He looked at the watch. Seven minutes. 
“Nothing I can do, eh...” 
It seemed to be futile. He sat on the floor of corridor zero, thinking, and then noticed a large hole in the wall. On the other side was the dry dock, where he settled his score with the Belial. 
That’s right, Sousuke had completely forgotten about that fellow. He climbed over a pile of rubble, and saw the damaged Laevatein still lying in the same position he had left it in. Its head was still relatively undamaged, so its hearing sensors should be operational. He rushed over, and called him. 
<I thought you were going to leave me like this,> came his voice from the external speakers, his tone flat as usual. 
The cockpit had been destroyed, but Al’s core unit was in the abdomen. The maneuver had been dangerous for him, but he had survived. 
“You know about the nuke?” 
<Yes, I do. I had been monitoring the transmission from Afghanistan.> 
<It is a MIRV design, with each warhead carrying a nominal charge of 550 kilotons in TNT equivalent, all of them targeting Merida. It is impossible to take refuge on the island.> 
“Yeah, isn’t it...” 
<At least we could get our revenge on that piece of scrap over there.> 
Al bore a grudge against the Belial from his days in the Arbalest. The fight at that school... Yes, the school. It was only a year ago, but he felt like it was forever, and missed it. In the square courtyard of that school he was defeated by the Belial, who then kidnapped Kaname. He had then told all of his classmates that he would “definitely bring her back” - it was so long ago... and now he was at this dead end. 
“How much time left?” 
<Five minutes and counting.> 
“Seems so long...” 
He knew it was useless to struggle, and just waited, feeling every second pass slower than ever. 
He suddenly remembered the memory chip that was in one of his pockets - the one that he had got from Sarah Miller. He was planning to look at the contents after the operation had ended, but now he had no playback device. There was, of course, one in the cockpit, but that had been destroyed by the Belial. 
“Think you can read a memory card?” 
<Confirming... it is feasible. There is a functioning slot in the cockpit.> 
He climbed in through the hole in the cockpit hatch, pinching his nose because of the overpowering smell of burned 
metal and vinyl. The master seat was gone, the space was full of twisted cables, system parts were hanging by their wires, but he found a box-like device that had escaped destruction. He pulled it towards himself, and inserted the memory card. 
“Well, can you even display this somewhere?” 
<Only display panel six is operational. Displaying.> 
The magazine-sized screen on the right side, which also somehow hadn’t been damaged, flickered to life, and he started looking through the contents. 
“So it’s a video...” 
Sarah had written that it was something she found on the net. He took a moment to look at the file properties. It was called [tokanasousuke_01]. Finally, he pushed the Play button. 
The resolution was pretty low, lots of grain, mono sound. First, a classroom came into view - a little different from what he remembered. The scene outside the window was also slightly different. Sounds of the brass band club practicing. Shouts from the baseball team, training outside. Girls’ laughter from the corridor. This was, unmistakably, Jindai High. 
The classroom was probably not the familiar 2-4, but the one above it, 3-4. The picture wobbled, and suddenly the floor and ceiling changed places. 
“Hey, is this thing on already?” 
“It’s upside down. Look.” 
The camera was finally fixed on a tripod, and the picture became steady. The first thing that came into view, was the face of Shinji Kazama. No mistake, it was really him. 
“Err, ahem. We don’t really know where you guys are, and what you’re doing, so we thought we would give you some news this way. If you see this, please contact us, somehow.” 
“Hey, hey, you’re not really making any sense this way!” came a voice from outside the picture, and some people laughed. 
“B-but, we don’t really remember if it’s ok to say names and all... we’ll be laying this out for the world to see, you know.” 
“Who cares. Come on, one-two-” 
The picture moved again, and now showed the students gathered in front of the blackboard, three dozen of them. He knew them all well - he wouldn’t forget any of their faces. They all shouted at once: 
“Chidori! Sagara! Come back quickly!” 
They were definitely far from being in perfect unison, and then broke out into laughter, with some saying “let’s remake this”, and others telling them to leave it this way. 
Kazama turned the camera back towards him. A somewhat strained file was on his face. 
“, that’s sort of what we wanted to do. Thought that you two might see it somewhere. So, whom shall we start with?” 
“Sensei! Sensei will go first!” shouted many voiced behind the camera, some people whistled and clapped. Kazama left the picture, and was replaced by a woman - their female teacher, Eri Kagurazaka. She had always worn a suit before, but now she was in a loose shirt and casual pants. 
“Eeh... Sagara-kun, Chidori-san. I’m your homeroom teacher, Kagurazaka. How are you? A lot of things happened, but everyone is doing their best. I’m keeping your personal effects, so don’t worry about them.” 
“Sensei, is there really nothing else you could say?!” 
“Ah... well, as a matter of fact, last year I’ve married Mizuhoshi-sensei. Thanks to you, I finally did it. Thank you, really!” 
Cheers from the class. 
“Sensei, there’s something else, isn’t there?” 
“Oh... right, well. After you all graduate, in April, I will go on maternity leave. We are expecting a baby in June. If you can, please come back to meet us.” 
Overwhelming sound of applause. Eri awkwardly left the picture. 
“Next! Who’s next?” 
“Kyouko! Let Kyouko do it!” 
“... eh, me? I... err...” 
“Kyouko! Kyouko!!” 
Kyouko Tokiwa entered the picture. It looked like she had done away with her usual childish pigtails. She looked a bit grown up, but looked in good health. 
“Um... Kana-chan, Sagara-kun. I’m fine, as you see. You must’ve been really worried, but please, don’t. Oh and by the way, Hammy’s now staying with me, so don’t worry. The graduation’s on the third of March. I’d be very happy if you could let us know how you’re doing until then...” 
“Right, thank you!” 
“Next? Come on people!” 
“Ono-D, go on!” 
The camera shook again. 
“Eh? I, well, don’t--...” 
“Oh, right! Ono-D! Your turn, Ono-D!” 
“But ehh...” 
“No, you have to. You want to say a lot of things, don’t you? Well go ahead.” 
Koutarou Onodera slowly, reluctantly walked into the picture. 
“Come on, dude, say at least something!” 
“..ehh... what, sheesh,” Onodera was scratching his head, glancing at the camera hesitantly, but finally turned towards it. 
“Well... Sagara... I’m sorry,” he said awkwardly, not looking at the camera, “I kinda lost it that time, and after that... well, I’ve been hearing things, and thinking... if it was all your fault or not.” 
His voice became cooler, and the class was completely silent, waiting for his next words. 
“Well, eh... were you keeping too many things from us, or not... but I realized that you guys also had your reasons. So, as I said, I kinda lost it then, in the heat of the moment... gah, sorry, man, it’s just an excuse. Anyway, when you get back, let us know. We’re waiting.” 
Koutarou then quickly escaped behind the camera. After that, his classmates one by one transmitted their messages to Kaname and Sousuke. It was a pretty long movie, he thought it lasted at least fifteen minutes... 
He checked his watch. One minute left. 
“I don’t want to die...” 
This thought overwhelmed him. 
His voice shrill and tense, as if squeezing out the words, he muttered: 
“I don’t... want... to die..!” 
He didn’t understand. His voice changed by itself, and became unnatural. His face became hot, his vision blurred and swam. 
It was all hopeless. 
“No... I don’t... want to... die...” 
He finally realized. 
I’m crying. 
Tears were flowing out; he was sobbing and groaning from the thought, in that cramped, sooty, black cockpit. There was only a minute left. 
Please let me see them, if only for a minute. That’s all I ask. But this doesn’t matter right now, does it..? 
I don’t want to die. I want to go back... go back to that school with Kaname... I want to go back! No, no, no... 
“I don’t want... to die...” 
<...sergeant. Thirty seconds left,> said Al. 
“No... don’t want to...” 
<The TAROS is destroyed. It is also impossible to use the Lambda Driver.> 
“...I... know...” 
Twenty seconds. 
<I want to try something, but first I want to ask. Am I human, or machine?> 
It would be simple to say that he was a machine... but that was simply no longer the case. He was a much more advanced being than that. 
“...decide it for yourself. People... do that.” 
<I am grateful.> 
Five seconds. 
“What are--...” 
<I’ll try it by myself.> 
The air around the Laevatein, lying in the middle of the room, started vibrating. It was the power of turning energy into matter - the raw power for which the human pilot was only the intermediary... 
The equivalent of fifty-five megatons of TNT detonated in the sky above Merida Island. 

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