1: Foreign Customs
24 June, 1401 Hours (Japan Standard Time)
New Tokyo International Airport, Narita, Chiba Prefecture
“Where am I?” he murmured to himself. He was walking, dragging his spinner suitcase behind him, as part of a line of people entering the country. Everything seemed blurry—the corridor, the people, the light through the windows.
I’m at customs, in an airport. That’s right... I’m returning to this country after a year and a half away. I received extensive training and conditioning, and I came back to do something...
The next question occurred to him: “Do something? But what?”
Yes... I remember. I came here to operate that thing. That devil machine that no one else can tame... That which, once started, can never be stopped. I will spread destruction and terror... Death upon death, ruin upon ruin. And as for that city I loathe so much... I...
“But who am I?” His irritation grew worse. A sudden swelling of hatred seized at his throat.
I have a name... Kugayama Takuma. That’s right. I’m fifteen years old, just returning from a study abroad in New Zealand. That’s the story, anyway. But my real name is Tatekawa Takuma. Even within A21, I’m special.
I feel sick. I’m so angry. Should I have taken my medicine after all? No, I’m all right... I can bear it in a while longer...
A customs agent approached—No, he was the one approaching the agent.
A middle-aged man, just past age 40. The tie of his uniform is crooked... four degrees askew. I don’t like it. Fix it. Hurry up and fix it, you old...! Fighting back the urge to reach for the man’s neck, he handed over his passport with a guileless smile. Without any sign of suspicion—the great fool!—the official took the passport from him and glanced through it.
“Homestay?” the man asked.
“No, a short study abroad,” Takuma responded calmly, as innocent as could be.
“Wow,” the official said admiringly, “by yourself?”
“Yes.” Of course by myself! Fix your damned tie!
“Your parents weren’t worried?” the official inquired.
“Not really. They trust me,” Takuma said with a bright smile. All the while, he was thinking, I want to hurt someone. To tear them to pieces. It would feel so good. Big Sister would say I was good, then, too...
Oh? Maybe not... What would Big Sister think? he wondered. Big Sister. Dear Big Sister. She’s back here already, isn’t she? Making preparations for me... just for me... to pilot that devil. I’ll be able to see her soon. Big Sister...
The official stamped his passport. He didn’t even try to check his bags. “—can go,” the man was saying.
“You can go, I said.”
“What... What about your tie?” Fix it. It annoys me. What’s wrong with you? You dullard. Imbecile. Trash. Just die.
“Er, what are you talking about?” the official asked.
Takuma’s breathing picked up. Big Sister. I hate him. Why won’t he just fix it?!
“Are you... all right?” the official asked, sounding uncertain.
Takuma let out a groan, and then a bark. Unforgivable. He’s mocking me. Big Sister...
“Hey—” the official began to say something.
With a sudden scream, Takuma leaped over the counter. He tackled the official, punched him, kicked him, then got on top of him. He planted his hands on the man’s throat and squeezed. It felt good. More. More!
As the customs agent writhed and gasped, Takuma began to laugh. He kept applying force, and the man’s eyes rolled back in his head. Security personnel and officials nearby all flew on him. They tried to pull him off, but he wouldn’t relent.
Well? Do you realize what a nothing you are, now? Look at you, flapping your mouth like a fish on dry land... You’re dying, you see. Looking stupid and ugly... How funny. Big Sister. Big Sister...
25 June, 2255 Hours (Manila Standard Time)
40 km west of Vigan City, Luzon, Northern Philippines
In a jungle clearing, there stood a model of a city. It was comprised of cheaply-made buildings riddled with bullet holes and lit by artificial lighting. It didn’t resemble any city in the world; this was a place for staging practice bouts of urban warfare.
“No more games! Take those hostiles out, one shot apiece!” the lieutenant colonel barked to the trainees, his voice loud enough to be heard over the gunshots. “Don’t hold back! You’re hunting dogs! Run! Plant your teeth in their throats!”
The trainees, budding terrorists from various countries, showed no sign of exhaustion. The bullets their instructors rained down at them inspired no fear as they carried out their roles with speed and efficiency.
“Kill!” the colonel ordered them. “Everyone you see is an enemy! No mercy, not even to children!”
Human targetboards, ragged from long use, popped out from windows, doors, and alleyways. Bullets flew; metal screeched. In a room somewhere, a grenade exploded.
At last, the gunshots began to die out, replaced by reports of “clear” from radios here and there. The colonel, an assault rifle in one hand and a stopwatch in the other, stared at the timer as he waited for the shots to cease completely.
“Clear!” came the final report at last, and he hit the stopwatch’s plunger with his thumb.
“Hmm...” He checked the time the mock battle had taken, then snorted.
“Line up!” his aide, a nearby captain, ordered. From all over the practice grounds, the trainees came running to line up in front of the colonel. There were a little more than fifteen in all, and one in five were women. The group was made up of all different races and dressed in basic gray urban combat fatigues.
“All right...” The colonel cleared his throat before addressing the trainees. “You’ve been training here for three weeks, now. At first I thought you were all pathetic incompetents, but now I see that’s not totally true. Two of you broke down, two ran away—but that’s fine. You’re becoming tolerable killers. Just don’t get cocky.”
It was the last lecture of the day, so the colonel decided to relish it. He went on and on about how green they still were, how badly they used their equipment, how hard it was to slip past various countries’ security forces—it all went on for about five minutes.
“—Understand?” he finished. “You don’t have enough hate inside. You need more. Hate me, hate the world; if you can do that, there’ll be no military, no police force that can ever touch you. That’s all.”
Once the colonel wrapped up, his aide asked the trainees, “Any questions?!”
After a brief silence, one raised his hand.
“You’ve been saying, ‘If you graduate from here, you’ll be more than a match for any military or police force.’ But what if we’re fighting something else?”
“What do you mean?” the colonel asked.
“Mithril,” the trainee answered.
His reply caused the colonel’s brow to furrow in confusion. “Mithril. And what, exactly, is that?”
“A mysterious special forces unit that operates independently of any nation. An arms dealer in Singapore told me rumors about them before I came here... They bring together the most skilled personnel, and it’s said that if they come after you, you’re finished.”
The colonel snorted. “Nonsense. Exaggerated tripe.”
“But they say people have actually seen them,” the trainee protested. “That they’ve raided training camps like ours, stamping out insurgencies all over—”
“Enough!” Driven past his breaking point, the colonel unleashed his fury on the trainee, grabbing him by the collar. “Mithril! Hah! You must not have faith in my training if you’re swallowing nonsense like that!”
“Forgive me...” the trainee gasped, choking in the colonel’s grip.
As the exchange went on, the other trainees exchanged glances and whispers.
“I’ve heard of them, too...”
“Same here. That incident in Sunan...”
“What if they come after us?”
The whispers stopped abruptly under the colonel’s sudden glare. “I can see I’ve been laboring under a misapprehension!” the man shouted, with no intention of hiding his rage. “I guess you haven’t learned anything these past three weeks after all! You think this place could be attacked? This camp, which the military can’t even touch? Look around you!”
He pointed to the makeshift base just off the training ground, and the rows of weapons within. Tanks, armored cars, surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft guns... and though old-fashioned, they had two attack helicopters as well. The camp also housed two arm slaves—those humanoid beasts—standing eight meters tall and clad in dark green armor. These were the modern day’s greatest land weapon; a single one of them could take the place of a hundred infantrymen.
“Any force strong enough to face down firepower like this would be detected before they got close. That includes the US Army!” The colonel’s confidence was no bluff; there was a high-sensitivity sensor network running 20 kilometers around their base on all sides. It would truly take an unreal force to slip through all of that and catch them by surprise. “Think about it! The base’s impregnability is why I can train you so hard! No one, under any circumstances, will ever catch us by sur—”
The next instant, it came: an arrow of fire fell from the sky onto a tank parked ten meters away. It was followed by a second, a third. There was a squealing sound of metal.
“Wha—” the colonel began to ask.
The tank sparked before exploding, seemingly from the inside. The colonel and the others were bowled over by the force of the blast. The attacks from above continued, now against the arm slaves kneeling next to the tank. It was like a red rain was falling on the camp.
Something’s coming... from the sky? Who? How? And why didn’t our radar detect the attack?! The colonel looked up. At first, he couldn’t see any sign of their attackers. But as he strained his eyes against the night sky, he noticed distortions in the starlight, almost like a heat haze. “Is that...”
From one of those atmospheric flickers came a sudden surge of blue lightning. Like black ink oozing out from a thin veil of light, three figures appeared. This was ECS—The ultimate hologram-integrated stealth system. But to achieve total invisibility... nobody had that ready for battle yet. Did they?!
The three figures were soldiers, who were dangling from parachutes. Firearms ready, they descended on the base, firing shots sporadically...
Just three soldiers, though? the colonel wondered. No... They weren’t soldiers; they weren’t even human. They were far too big. “Arm slaves?!” he gasped incredulously.
The ASes descending upon them were unlike anything he’d seen before. They had rounded, gray armor plates and a frame that was lithe yet strong, much closer to a human form. These never-before-seen gray machines—was this Mithril? Were they here?!
The three aesthetically pleasing ASes detached their parachutes 50 meters above the base and plunged into furious freefall. Then, like the titans of legend released from their chains, they crashed onto locations all around the base and began to wreak havoc. Sparing no fire from their giant rifles and shotguns, they tore the armored cars and helicopters to shreds. They routed the panicking soldiers with their head-mounted machine guns, kicked jeeps aside, and broke watchtowers in half.
“You can’t run and you can’t hide! Surrender!” one machine shouted from its external speakers. To the colonel’s shock, it was a young woman’s voice.
Her AS’s palm unleashed a taser at the fleeing trainees. The electricity knocked them out, one after another. The colonel could only watch helplessly as his base was torn to shreds.
Destruction and capture of main targets confirmed. Switch to search mode?? his machine’s AI suggested in its deep male voice.
“Affirmative,” he answered. “Switch to active mode.”
Roger. ECS off. ECCS on.? The AI executed the operator’s commands immediately.
Inside the cockpit that engulfed him, Sagara Sousuke carefully studied the display on the screen. These gray ASes were the main armament of Mithril, the mercenary force with which Sousuke was aligned. They were known as the M9, or the Gernsback, and they possessed cutting-edge specs that were far beyond those available to rank-and-file armed forces.
Fires continued to rage around the jungle stronghold. With their tanks, armored cars, and invaluable ASes in pieces, most of the enemy soldiers had surrendered. About fifty in all had been gathered in the central plaza of the mock city, hands raised. Now and then, one of them thought they saw an opening and tried to escape, but whenever that happened, Sousuke or one of his companion machines unceremoniously hit them with a taser.
Their mission was almost over; they just had to search the prisoners for the Japanese group they were looking for and hand the rest over to the Filipino government.
The operator of an ally machine, standing back-to-back with Sousuke’s AS to watch over the other side of the base, called him on the radio. “Easier than expected, eh, Sousuke?” The laid-back voice belonged to Sergeant Kurz Weber, Sousuke’s comrade. He was operating an M9 Gernsback, identical to Sousuke’s own.
“That statement seems premature. Remain on guard for ambush units using heavy weaponry,” Sousuke responded steadily.
“Please, we’re fine. Not even a rocket can dent these babies,” Kurz responded, referring to the M9s.
“I’m more worried about the prisoners. We can’t complete our mission if they’re killed by stray fire.”
“Oh, I get it, you unfeeling bastard...” Kurz grumbled. “I’m a man fresh off his sickbed, remember?”
“Stop talking and confirm the targets,” Sousuke demanded.
“Hmm... fair enough.” Kurz’s M9 stepped in front of the prisoners. “Ah, ahem,” he began, his voice blaring out through the external speakers. “Are there any Japanese trainees here? They’ll be young, and from a terrorist group called A21. You won’t be killed or harmed, so if you’re here, please come out.”
The prisoners remained silent to a man, turning to each other questioningly.
“Nobody? C’mon, you there—mask off,” Kurz ordered. “You, too. Hurry it up.” As the M9 began to brandish its taser, several of the men quickly removed their balaclavas.
Sousuke magnified his screen image and studied the men’s faces. “They’re not here,” he said. Some of them had Japanese facial features, but none matched the pictures on the briefing document given to them earlier.
“You’re right...” Kurz trailed off. “What’s going on here?”
Their pre-mission briefing had said a Japanese terrorist group was in hiding here. It was an organization called A21, which had planned some bombings in the city several years ago, but their plan had been exposed and they had fled overseas. It was rumored that they were plotting a new incident of terrorism soon, though...
“They’re not here,” Sousuke repeated.
Just then, the M9 of Master Sergeant Melissa Mao returned from its foray of chasing escapees into the jungle. It was holding four taser-paralyzed terrorists in its arms. “No luck here, either. I couldn’t find one Japanese person. Guess we just got a bad draw.”
“More bogus info from intelligence, huh? Dammit...” Kurz’s M9, relaying its operator’s intent, kicked over a nearby drum. The act sent a tremble of fear through the prisoners.
“It’s not an uncommon occurrence. If they’re not here, they’re not here... We should hand these people over to the Filipino military, then meet up with the transport chopper at the landing—” Suddenly, Sousuke stopped. With his face clouded over in anguish, he let out a sound between a groan and a sigh, and then shook his head.
“What’s wrong?” Kurz inquired, noting Sousuke’s behavior—the M9 was shaking its head in mimicry of its operator.
“I forgot,” Sousuke moaned at last, in tones of sheer agony.
Hearing that, Kurz’s M9 went on the alert, swinging its rifle back and forth. “What is it? You’re usually so cautious... You forget to encrypt your channel or something stupid like that?”
“No, not that. It’s something even worse...”
“What the hell is it?!”
“I... I made a promise to someone,” Sousuke explained. “To meet up at 1900 hours today.”
“She’s going to be so mad at me,” he whispered. A cold sweat had risen on his brow. He was in complete disarray—It was hard to believe he was the same person coldly carrying out orders just a few minutes ago.
“Who’d you promise?” Kurz wanted to know.
“Kaname. I was supposed to stop by her house so she could help me to study for the term final test. Japanese history is my weakest subject, so...”
The shoulders of Kurz’s M9 slumped (third-generation ASes were capable of this motion, thanks to their more complex joint structures). “You are really something...” he said.
“Must be tough... A soldier with a side job,” Mao added, as she dumped her unconscious haul into the prisoner ring. “Filipino army transport helicopters will arrive in five minutes. Finish the questioning before then. After we hand over the hostages, we’ll start moving toward the RV point. Got it?”
“Uruz-6, roger that.”
“Uruz-7, roger that...” Sousuke answered despondently.
This was the other side of Sagara Sousuke, elite member of Mithril’s top-secret special forces: he was also a high school student in Tokyo.
25 June, 1518 Hours (Greenwich Mean Time)
Amphibious Assault Submarine Tuatha de Danaan, 50 Meter Depth, Luzon Strait
“It was a bust?” Tessa inquired, her brow knitting, after hearing Melissa Mao’s report. She was sitting in the central control room of the massive Mithril submarine, a room the size of a lecture hall, from which orders could be issued to both the submarine crew and their ground forces. From her captain’s chair, she had a view of the room’s three large front screens and the stations for about fifteen personnel.
Tessa—Teletha Testarossa—was the captain of the amphibious assault submarine, Tuatha de Danaan. She looked like a girl in her mid-teens, with large gray eyes and ash blonde hair, which was styled in a braid that draped over her left shoulder. The rank insignia “COL” gleamed on her pale brown civilian clothing.
“Yes, ma’am. No signs of the terrorist organization A21 found,” Mao responded over the radio.
“And no one connected to them, either?”
“We questioned the camp’s instructor. Apparently ten days prior, a Japanese group matching their description came to the camp to observe.”
“Where did they go after that?” Tessa wanted to know.
“He said he heard they were going from Manila to the Gold Coast, but I’d bet that’s BS... The man doesn’t know anything,” Mao told her in disgust.
“So they feigned joining the camp, then took off... They really did get the better of us, didn’t they?” Tessa sighed. The intelligence division had reported that the terrorist group in question was doing its final training in that camp, but apparently, they’d been ill informed. “I’m sorry. I wasted your time.”
“It’s not your fault, Tessa,” Mao responded kindly. “Anyway, we’re about to head to the RV point. Is that okay?”
“Yes. Return here as planned. I’ll be waiting.”
“Roger that. Ending transmission.”
In a window in the corner of the screen that displayed who she was talking to, the word “URUZ2” switched from red to green. Tessa sighed and sat back in her seat. “For heaven’s sake...”
“It’s common enough,” her executive officer, Commander Richard Mardukas, said from nearby. He cast a gloomy glance at the front screen through the black-rimmed glasses that sat on his lean technician’s face.
Noting his expression, Tessa responded. “We can’t dismiss this as ‘common enough.’ The terror group A21 has acquired Soviet-made ASes, hasn’t it? If they unleash them on the city, it will be a disaster.”
“Of course, Captain. But we aren’t omnipotent,” Mardukas protested. “It’s necessary to dismiss some failures with ‘these things happen.’”
“That sounds like indolence to me.” She had been given all of this equipment, all of these people. She and her squad had to be as close to omnipotent as possible. Perfect information, perfect planning—that was Tessa’s ideal blueprint for her organization.
“It is not indolence; it is flexibility,” Mardukas responded humorlessly.
Just then, the ship’s mother AI began to sound an alarm, calling for Tessa. “What is it?” she asked.
Channel G1, Major Kalinin.?
“Put him through.”
The mother AI put her through to Major Andrey Kalinin, their operations commander currently in Japan on another mission. The channel opened and the man’s deep voice boomed through. “Colonel, ma’am. How did things go in the training camp?”
“It was a bust,” she answered. “The terrorist group we were after wasn’t there.”
“A21, you mean?” Kalinin didn’t sound especially surprised. “I received word that one of their members was arrested at Narita Airport.”
“I’m glad of that,” Tessa said after a moment. “But it sounds like bad news?”
“Yes. The boy they caught had the expected behavior.”
Tessa’s expression clouded over. “You mean...”
“It’s very likely that he can use a lambda driver,” Kalinin told her.
The lambda driver: an inscrutable device that could prove to be extremely dangerous in the wrong hands. It fed off of the user’s will to unlock such potential as to one day render even nuclear weapons obsolete. It took a special kind of person to use it, but if that despicable terrorist group had one in their ranks...
“He’s currently in Japanese government custody, so we can’t run more detailed tests,” Kalinin continued. “I was hoping you’d come to observe him directly, Colonel.”
“Understood. I’ll make arrangements soon,” Tessa responded, before closing the channel. Again... she wondered. Who is making these dangerous things?
26 June, 1001 Hours (Japan Standard Time)
Schoolyard, Jindai High School, Chofu, Tokyo
The ball slipped just past the metal bat and flew into the catcher’s mitt.
“Strike! You’re out!” A girl in a gym uniform proclaimed sluggishly. “So, uh... that’s three outs, right? Time to change positions!” At the umpire’s declaration, the girls swiftly swapped between batting and fielding.
“Whew!” Chidori Kaname, the pitcher who had just struck out her opponent, shook out her right arm as she got off the mound.
Chidori had black hair that came down to her waist. She was on the tall side, with a balance of proportions that was notable even through her gym uniform. She had a strong-willed, noble aura about her—at least, when she wasn’t talking.
“Kana-chan, that was three up and three down,” Tokiwa Kyoko, Kaname’s classmate, said as she sat down next to her.
Kaname flashed the smug smile of feigned modesty particular to girls who do well in gym class. “Easy as pie,” she declared, flashing her friend a V-sign.
“That’s not what I mean... this is just softball for class,” Kyoko explained. “It’s not right to take it so seriously. You really freaked Shiori-chan out.”
“Huh? I did?”
“You did,” her friend confirmed. “Hey, are you in a bad mood or something? Every time I’ve talked to you today, you’ve been crabby...”
“Hmm... You can tell, huh? You’re sharp, Kyoko...” Kaname had been friends with Kyoko since the first day of school, so it was hard to hide anything from her.
“Did something happen with Sagara-kun?” Kyoko asked, even more sharply. That wasn’t just a bullseye, it was a dead center hit—her classmate, Sagara Sousuke, was indeed the one responsible for Kaname’s bad mood.
She’d promised yesterday morning that she’d help him study for term finals. Sousuke was supposed to stop by her house at 7:00 that night, but he hadn’t come. She had tried calling his cell phone, but she’d just gotten the message that it was out of range. Then it had gotten to be past eight, then past nine, past midnight. When morning came, the handmade dishes she’d made in lieu of studying the minute she got home were still sitting on her kitchen table. (For certain reasons, Kaname lived alone.)
“Hmm... nah,” she lied nonchalantly. “It’s not him.”
Kyoko saw through her immediately. “I knew it. I notice he’s not here today... do you know why?”
They could hear the voices of the boys playing basketball from the gymnasium behind them. Sousuke hadn’t been among them.
“Why would I?” Kaname scoffed. “He just ran off yesterday during lunch, remember? I haven’t seen him since.”
“Then why are you so mad?” Kyoko asked.
“I told you... it’s not about him. What do I care what the guy does all day?” This was another lie, of course. She wouldn’t have prepared all that food if she didn’t care. Baked mackerel, squid and daikon stew, pidan tofu, chawanmushi and more... Kaname found herself sighing.
Kyoko interrupted with a poke to her shoulder. “You’re up, Kaname.”
“Huh? Oh, I guess I am...” Kaname stood up, grabbed a bat and walked up to the plate. As she went, she heard the vague sound of a helicopter from somewhere nearby. She looked up at the sky, but there was no sign of anything in the area... Still, she was sure she could hear the pounding of rotors and the low roar of an engine approaching. She ended up shrugging. Ah, well...
The pitcher threw her an underhand pitch. It came to her so slowly, she could make out every detail on the ball. Kaname projected Sousuke’s overserious, sullen face onto it. Sousuke, you... She hefted up the bat. “...jerk!” she cried, and swung with all her might. There was a satisfying thunk of contact, and the ball flew toward high left field. She’d really gotten a piece of it, and the outfielders ran back in panic.
Her team was cheering. The ball rose higher and higher... Then it stopped, suddenly, and began to fall straight down, toward the left fielder. It was as if it had hit some kind of wall.
Kaname gaped. She had been so sure of her home run that she found herself stopped just before second base. The other students were similarly forced to stop and stare up at the sky. No one could see anything.
Wait... is that a rippling in the air? Just as the thought occurred to her, the persistent sounds of a helicopter suddenly grew in volume, as a fierce wind kicked up over the grounds. It stirred up the dust, reducing her visibility to just a few meters.
“What in the world is...?!” she screamed, but she couldn’t even hear her own voice. The wind was so strong she couldn’t keep her eyes open. She threw herself on the ground, as if to cling to the base.
The mysterious roar finally reached its peak, and then moved away as swiftly as it had come. Immediately after, the wind died down and the silence returned.
Kaname looked up. There was still nothing in the sky— No sign of a helicopter, or any similar craft. “What’s going on? For heaven’s sake...” she grumbled.
She was just picking herself up when she found herself face-to-face with a boy in a summer uniform. He was about 175 centimeters tall, with a slim but toned frame. A large, olive green backpack hung from his right hand, and he carried a black school bag in his left. “Sousuke...?” she began tentatively.
The boy, Sagara Sousuke, gave an alert look around, then said, “Chidori?” in a completely neutral voice. He had a well-proportioned face, but there was an intensity to it, a guardedness that never wavered even for a moment. His eyes always seemed to be looking past her at something else. His brow was wrinkled, and his mouth was drawn into a tight frown. His black hair was cut haphazardly, like a man who didn’t care at all for style.
Sousuke looked at his watch, then at the school’s clock. “It seems I was only two hours late,” he remarked. “The rush back proved worthwhile, then.”
“What are you talking about?” Kaname hissed, resisting the urge to lay him out on the spot.
“I came straight from the South China Sea,” he explained. “I only just arrived.”
Kaname didn’t know what to say.
In response to her silence, Sousuke gave her a shameless once-over, seeming only then to notice her gym uniform. “Were you having a match?”
“Yes. But thanks to someone’s bizarre arrival in some weird thing, my home run is ruined!”
“The next time you hear a helicopter, you should be more careful. Well, I should join the boys’ class...” He started to turn toward the gymnasium, then suddenly stopped and looked back. “By the way, Chidori...”
“Are you mad about the promise yesterday?”
“Oh, no way! I’m not bothered in the slightest!” Kaname threw her arms open wide and shook her head, sarcasm on full blast. Unfortunately, her intent didn’t get through.
“I’m glad to hear that,” Sousuke said in tones of sincerity. “When I remembered my promise, I felt sure that you would be angry.”
She stared at him. “You forgot?”
“I did,” he replied. “Something very important came up, you see.” Then he turned at last and headed toward the gym, his steps light and backpack swaying. At first, Kaname couldn’t do anything but stand there with trembling, clenched fists. Then at last, she picked up the base at her feet and...
“Why, you...” She cast it at him, frisbee-style. She wasn’t aiming at anywhere in particular, but the base ended up hitting the back of Sousuke’s head—the one part of his body there was no way to train. He made no sound, but dropped his bag and backpack and collapsed onto the ground. “You idiot! I hate you so much!” Kaname yelled at him.
The infielder holding the ball took that same moment to approach and tag her out.
26 June, 1028 Hours (Japan Standard Time)
Sayama Suburbs, Saitama Prefecture
It took six hours by helicopter from the Tuatha de Danaan in the Pacific, during which the regular roar of the engine had become like a lullaby. The windows cut out a lot of light from the sky, and the craft was constantly vibrating—an environment that inclined Teletha Testarossa to doze. She wasn’t even dreaming; deep beyond the depths of consciousness, the usually hurried currents of her mind now sat as still as a lake.
“Colonel.” It took a moment for her to realize that she was being called. “Three minutes, Colonel.” Though she captained the submarine that served as their base, the ground forces of the Tuatha de Danaan called their commander-in-chief ‘Colonel’ rather than ‘Captain.’ It was a custom unique to Mithril, so as not to confuse it with the military rank.
Tessa stirred in her seat, then quickly opened her eyes.
“I’m sorry to interrupt you while you were resting, ma’am. We’ll be arriving in three minutes.” The young man addressing her was one Corporal Yang, dressed in his civilian clothing. Born in Korea, he was a member of their combat team, and used the same “Uruz” call sign as Mao and the others. He was currently serving as Tessa’s bodyguard.
“Where is Sagara-san?” she asked, looking around the cabin.
“The sergeant landed in Tokyo earlier. He asked me to thank you, ma’am.”
Sagara Sousuke... Like Corporal Yang, he was a combatant with the Uruz call sign. He had recently started attending school in Tokyo as part of a certain special mission. She was the captain and he was an NCO, so they didn’t have many chances to talk, and they weren’t particularly close... and yet, she found herself taking interest in him. Like her, he had a reason for being the youngest in his squadron, and she was a little bit curious about the life he’d made for himself at school.
“Now...” Tessa peeked into her hand mirror and straightened up her appearance. She fixed the collar of her blouse and pulled down the hem of her pencil skirt. She looked down from the window at their destination.
It was an open plot of white-walled buildings, nestled in the pine-covered hills. At a glance, it might look like a suburban college campus—though most campuses weren’t surrounded by tall fences, or patrolled by men in camouflage.
It was a technological research facility run by the Japanese Ministry of Defense, Tessa was told. It was generally unknown to the majority of the populace, designed to handle highly classified research, and it was where the boy in question was being held. The circumstances that had led to his capture might have come about by coincidence, but she was glad he was in custody; leaving him at large could have led to disaster.
“Landing now,” came the pilot’s voice through her headset as they descended. The facility’s helipad looked a bit small for their helicopter, but it was still easier for their pilot to handle than an emergency landing under gunfire.
Once they were on the ground, Corporal Yang helped Tessa down the gangway. Major Andrey Kalinin came to greet her, buffeted by the wind of the rotors. He was the commander of the Tuatha de Danaan’s ground forces, and he had arrived at the facility ahead of Tessa. He was a Russian, just past 40, broad-shouldered, and nearly 190 centimeters tall. He had a well-chiseled face, a gray mustache and beard, and gray hair to match, tied back into a tail. Tessa’s own hair being ash blonde, they looked a bit like father and daughter when they stood side-by-side.
“Thank you for coming all this way, Colonel, ma’am,” Kalinin said, his words managing to pierce through the helicopter’s roar.
“Oh, please,” she responded. “You called me because you need me, right?”
“Indeed.” Kalinin seemed unfazed by her slightly snide tone. On the submarine, he typically wore a uniform of a dull olive green, but now he was in a brown suit; plain though it was, it gave him a slight air of refinement.
“And who is this?” Tessa turned her attention to the Japanese man behind Kalinin. This one wore the utterly unremarkable navy suit of a bureaucrat; he appeared to be just past thirty, on the heavy side, and wore black-rimmed glasses.
“Shimamura, from the Ministry of Transport,” the man replied in fluent English. “I’m taking the lead on this incident.”
“A pleasure, Mr. Shimamura,” Tessa said.
“The pleasure is all mine, Dr. Testarossa.” Shimamura greeted her with a geniality that skillfully concealed his deep curiosity about her. Most people tended to be either amused or enraged to discover that a sixteen-year-old girl was such an important figure in Mithril’s clandestine organization; the fact that Shimamura was neither suggested that Kalinin had fed him a cover story in advance. “I am surprised how young and beautiful you are,” he was saying. “For a minute, I thought you were a girl in her mid-teens; I can hardly believe you’re really thirty.”
“What?” Tessa asked, surprised.
“Ah, excuse me. It’s bad manners in any country to speak of a lady’s age...” Shimamura then soberly began to walk, apparently expecting them to follow.
Tessa remained where she was, side-eyeing Kalinin. “Major. What did you tell him?”
“That you were a genius. As for the age issue, I thought it might be a stretch... but he seems to have bought it,” Kalinin responded lightly enough.
“Thirty...” Tessa looked over her petite frame. If there had been a mirror present, she might have started burning holes in her own face. “Do I really look that old?” she anxiously asked Corporal Yang, who stood nearby.
“I don’t know,” he said with a laugh. “Maybe you just work hard to look that way?”
An unpaved road ran through the forest about a kilometer from the facility. Cars rarely traveled that way, but it was currently home to a large black trailer, beside which a small group of men and women stood. All of those present were young—about twenty years old, give or take.
Despite their rather fashionable civilian clothing, a strange, silent tension hung over the group. They were watching a large transport helicopter descend toward the facility’s helipad. As it disappeared behind the trees, a man standing on the roof of the trailer lowered his binoculars and said, “The American army?” He glanced down at a woman standing on the road below, as if seeking her opinion on the matter.
“No,” the woman answered. She, too, was young, and dressed in a long red coat, despite the early summer. She had almond-shaped East Asian eyes and chestnut hair, which had been done in a mushroom cut. She possessed what many might describe as the face of classic beauty. “It lacked a national insignia, and the USFJ doesn’t have helicopters like that.”
“Then where are they from?” the man asked again.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?!”
“What does it matter?” she questioned. “We’re here to get Takuma out. If someone gets in our way, we get them out of it—end of story.”
“That’s pretty cold, Seina. They’ve got your dear little brother in there, remember? Aren’t you worried?” one of the men said teasingly.
“Of course I’m worried. We need him for the plan,” the woman called Seina replied dispassionately.
“That’s true...” Another of the men smiled a thin smile. “We can’t move that devil, the Behemoth, without Takuma. And once it’s up and running, even the JSDF will have to flee for the hills.”
“Yeah. No one can stop us,” another of the group said.
“We’ll burn that disgusting city down. I give it two days until the city center is rubble,” added another.
The woman called Seina stood silent at first, then said, “Let’s get ready for the raid.”
It was at that moment that they noticed a car approaching down the forest road. It was black and white—a police car. It was probably doing rounds in the area.
“What should we do?”
“You take the driver,” Seina ordered.
The car stopped next to the trailer. The driver, a young patrolman, looked like he was going to stay inside, while the head officer in the passenger seat stepped out. “What are you people doing here?” the elderly officer demanded. “Don’t you know civilian vehicles aren’t allowed here? Who’s the driver? I want to see your license. And what are you carrying in there?”
“Just rubbish.” Seina’s right hand, previously thrust into her right pocket, now whipped out. It held a pistol with a silencer, which she fired twice into the officer without batting an eye. It made a strange shu-shuw sound, and the officer died on the spot.
The patrolman in the car didn’t even know what had happened until two members of the group fired suppressor-attached submachine guns at him; the breaking of the windshield was louder than the gunshots.
“He’s dead,” one man said, peering at the driver, who now lay in a pool of blood.
Just then, the young patrolman let out a groan. “H... Help...”
With a slightly awkward expression, the man fired a few more times, this time at close range. “Well, these things happen,” he said with embarrassment as the patrolman’s moaning died out.
“Enough,” Seina said. “Clean up the corpses and let’s get moving. I’ll inspect the machinery.” She walked around behind the trailer and opened the double doors. Inside lay an arm slave; a kind of second-generation Soviet AS known as an Rk-92 Savage.
Seina threw off her coat, revealing a skintight orange operator’s uniform that hugged her supple form. It would have resembled a scuba diver’s outfit if not for the clunky G-suit, harness, and lock bolt.
“A prelude to destruction, eh?” she whispered, too softly to be heard.
26 June, 1233 Hours (Japan Standard Time)
South School Building, Jindai High School, Chofu, Tokyo
“C’mon, Sagara-kun. Head trauma can be serious business, you know?” Sousuke’s classmate, Kazama Shinji, said to him as they walked down the fourth floor hallway at lunch.
Shinji was an unassuming type, half a head shorter than Sousuke, with pale skin and wide eyes. He used to wear rather shabby-looking glasses, but he’d recently switched to contact lenses, which increased his fashionability a bit—that was the kind of boy he was.
“I’ll be fine, Kazama,” Sousuke responded glumly. There seemed to be more behind his despondence than the blow to the head he’d taken that morning.
“I hope so... You’ll make Chidori-san sad if you die. She’ll be weeping, ‘I killed him!’ while she slits her wrists in the bath.”
“I find that highly doubtful,” Sousuke replied. The words ‘I hate you!’ kept bouncing around in his mind. Chidori Kaname had had him on full ignore since the incident that morning, and since Sousuke was an inherently reticent person, he couldn’t come up with a pretense to approach her. Instead, he’d ended up agonizing his way through the first half of the day. “Chidori hates me.”
“Ahh, there you go again... You grew up in a war zone, but you can’t even stand up to Chidori-san? It’s pathetic, man, no joke.”
It was common knowledge around Jindai High that Sousuke had been raised overseas, in dangerous war-torn regions of the world. Yet most took that with a grain of salt and ended up labeling him “the weirdo returnee” or “the pain-in-the-ass transfer student.” Nobody knew that he was a member of super-secret military organization Mithril, and that he was an elite soldier on their special response team to boot. Nobody... except for one person.
The boys came to a stop in front of the student council room.
Sousuke had been granted a dubious title, “Head of School Security and Aide to the Student Council,” which mainly meant that they sent him on various errands during meetings and events.
Shinji had the more proper title of “Culture Festival Committee Vice Chairman.” Culture festival season was still a ways away, but June was around the time he was supposed to begin participating in executive committee meetings about preparation and funding.
“The president sure is hardcore,” Shinji remarked. “He still wants to hold meetings, even with term finals next week...”
“It is important to receive regular updates,” Sousuke observed before opening the door and entering the room.
Only three students were there: two first-years and one second-year, the accountant, all boys. The president was nowhere to be seen, even though it was almost starting time...
“Hey, isn’t there a meeting today?” Shinji asked.
A student in the corner glanced up from watching the room’s LCD TV. “No one told you it was canceled? He decided to call it off this week, since tests are coming up and there’s not a lot on the table...”
“Yeah, we never got the message.”
“You’re in class four, right? The vice president—Chidori-senpai should have known.”
“Sheesh, that’s mean of her... I guess we’ll head back to class, then. Darn it...” As Shinji turned to leave, grumbling, he happened to bump into a girl on her way in.
It was Kaname. She had been in her gym clothes when Sousuke met her that morning, but now she was in her summer uniform: a blue skirt and a white blouse with short sleeves, secured at the neck with a red ribbon. “Oh, Kazama-kun...”
“Chidori-san,” he said resentfully. “We saw you in class before. Why didn’t you tell us?”
Chidori Kaname, the student council vice president, cast a look in Sousuke’s direction before forcing a cheerful, friendly tone: “Hey, I’m sorry, Kazama-kun. It totally slipped my mind. We’ll really want your help next time, though, so I hope you forgive me. I’m really sorry. Please?”
“W-Well, I guess these things happen... T-Take care, okay?”
“No, these things don’t just happen. I promised the president I’d tell you, and forgetting a promise is the worst thing a person can do,” Chidori told him pointedly. “It’s an act of cruelty to the person you let down. If a man broke a promise to me, I’d never, ever forgive him.”
As he listened in, Sousuke found a greasy sweat forming on his temples.
Shinji seemed to notice the tension in the air, and insisted, “No, i-it’s really not that big a deal... A-Anyway, I’m going back to class now...” Then he left.
With Shinji gone, Kaname’s face immediately lost its cheer. She turned a glare toward Sousuke, gave a “hmph,” and then walked toward the back of the student council room. She laid the documents she’d been carrying onto the president’s desk, staked out a place at a corner of the large table, and opened her study materials.
Sousuke turned pale, then slid his backpack from his shoulders and began searching around inside it... but Kaname showed no interest. At last, apparently finding what he was looking for, Sousuke pulled it out and approached Kaname.
“Don’t hover over me. It’s creepy,” Kaname said in stinging tones, eyes locked on the blank page in front of her.
Then, as if screwing up his courage, Sousuke offered her a bouquet of white flowers.
“What...” she breathed. The blooms were about the size of a fist; four petals gently wreathing a round ovary. There were six of them, and Kaname found herself taken aback by their beauty.