2: The Baton Passes to Uruz-7
26 June, 1831 Hours (Japan Standard Time)
It was evening. Chidori Kaname was strolling through a residential district, down the road that led from the station to her home. A sour-looking Sagara Sousuke followed, about five steps behind her.
“When are you going to give it a rest?” Kaname demanded, stopping suddenly in front of a green grocer’s stand. “I don’t need your stalkery bodyguarding anymore, remember? So could you please stop following me?”
“Well... It’s just that my apartment is in the same direction...” Sousuke was still living in the apartment that Mithril had prepared for the purpose of guarding Kaname; it was a one minute walk from hers.
The news that he wasn’t actually following her caused Kaname to frown. “W... Well, obviously.” She started walking again.
Apparently even Sousuke had his limits when it came to Kaname’s obstinacy, because he walked up behind her and said, “There’s something I want to ask you.”
“What is it?”
“What can I do to make you understand? I explained why I broke my promise. I gave you poppy flowers as a sign of repentance. In the interests of ensuring your future safety, I believe it’s best that we mend our relationship.”
A shot of irritation went through Kaname. Why did he always have to talk this way? “Mend what relationship? We’re classmates; that’s all. I don’t see why we need to be on speaking terms, do you?”
“It’s my duty to protect you,” Sousuke insisted.
Not again, Kaname thought. This arrogance was so typical. He was so full of himself! She snorted her derision. “Cut the Kevin Costner act. You’re just a loser who gets on everyone’s nerves. And I never asked for your protection.” At times like these, Kaname could turn her venom on full blast.
“It’s true that I never gained your consent. But—”
“But what? I have some weird power and the bad guys want it. That’s all it is, right? You don’t actually care what happens to me.”
“That’s not true. If anything were to happen to you—”
“Stop acting like you care!” Kaname shouted, loud enough to earn looks from passersby. “Work is all that matters to you, and of course it is! You’re a war-obsessed jerk and you don’t care about anything but your missions. If you’re not going to change, at least take your self-sabotaging stupidity somewhere I don’t have to see it.” Her words came so quickly that there was no room for argument.
“Let me tell you extent of our relationship,” she went on. “If you die on one of your stupid missions, I’ll find it in my heart to light a stick of incense in your memory. And when I get a boyfriend, some time when we’re in bed together I’ll laugh and tell him about the weird idiot I once knew at school. Is that good enough for you?!” By the end she was shouting, her shoulders heaving.
It was then that she realized Sousuke wasn’t angry, but silent and standing perfectly still. “I just don’t... care about you,” she said at last. Then, suddenly unable to take it any longer, she turned her back on him. She dashed away, cut across the street, ran up to the entrance of her apartment complex, dove into the elevator, and let the doors close behind her. As the elevator ascended, then, and only then...
“Ugh. What a stupid jerk I am...” she admitted as she banged her head against the wall. I know he was just trying to say “I’m sorry” in his own way... Why can’t I ever just be honest?
26 June, 1840 Hours (Japan Standard Time)
Tigers Mansion, Chofu, Tamagawa
Sousuke headed for his apartment, racking his brain. He couldn’t understand why Kaname was acting this way. She’d told Sousuke she hated him. She’d said she didn’t care if he died. She’d said that she didn’t want him around.
But how can that be true? he wondered. She’d helped him study, made lunches for him, helped cover for his various blunders at school... Those were expressions of affection, weren’t they?
Was she still angry about him breaking his promise last night? He’d explained and apologized for that, of course... but she hadn’t forgiven him.
So she really does hate me, then? Perhaps her daily acts of kindness were just a thank-you for his protection. The thought sent a sudden ache spreading from the back of his head down to his shoulders. He’d experienced this sensation a few times before: When he was surrounded by enemies and told that no reinforcements were coming; when he was heading home on a transport helicopter and the pilot shouted, “We’re out of fuel!”; when his comrade Sergeant Kurz Weber told him, “Hey, don’t worry.” It was a deeply unpleasant feeling.
Sousuke was always out of his depth in interpersonal affairs, but he’d found his relationship with Kaname to be a particularly mysterious and baffling one.
“Sounds like love. You’re a dead man,” Kurz had told him once with a cheery laugh. Sousuke had regretted talking to him about it. Even he knew—albeit from hearsay—that love was supposed to be a pleasant thing; it was logically impossible that the word could apply to this wasting misery he felt right now. With his mind churning all of this over, he trudged down the fifth floor communal corridor and came to a stop in front of his door.
That’s when he realized it: There was someone in his apartment. No... maybe two someones? No matter how wrapped up in his thoughts he might be, his trained soldier’s instincts weren’t about to miss that. He shoved his worries out of his mind and pulled a 9mm handgun from the small of his back.
He remained quiet, evaluating. The door was unlocked. Had they used the spare key he hid in the mailbox? If so, it wouldn’t be Kurz or Mao—they both had copies of his key.
Who, then? he wondered. It didn’t seem right for an ambush. He took in a deep breath, then burst through the door with all his might. Like a snake lunging at its prey, low and sharp, he dashed through the short entry hall.
He sprung out into the living room, and pointed his gun at the intruders. There were two of them. One was an unfamiliar boy, gaunt and dressed in pajamas. The other was a girl in a dingy suit, with ash blonde hair and blue eyes. She was holding a large automatic pistol that seemed out of place in her dainty hands, which she was pointing at the boy.
She stood frozen to the spot, wearing her surprise and fear openly. But when she recognized Sousuke, she let out a sigh of heartfelt relief. “Sagara-san. Oh... thank goodness.”
Sousuke’s eyes went wide. “C-Colonel?!”
The girl—Colonel Teletha Testarossa—lowered her gun and slumped against the wall behind her, as if all of the tension had left her body at once. “I thought you were the enemy, and that I was finished. I’m not... very good with firearms.”
“What’s going on here?” Sousuke asked. “Who’s that boy?”
“You can’t let him get away,” Tessa insisted anxiously. “He’s... well...”
Sousuke met the silent boy’s eyes. There was something off about his gaze. What is he looking at? The next thing Sousuke knew, the boy stood up, wavering, and took a step forward. Sousuke looked at him cautiously, instinctively pointing his gun at him.
The boy let out a groan. Then, with a sudden bloodcurdling scream, he lunged at Sousuke. Rather than firing, Sousuke leaned over, executing a shoulder throw on the charging boy. As the boy landed on his back, winded, Sousuke plunged the grip of his gun into his solar plexus. The boy gulped, and lost consciousness. Who is he? Sousuke wondered, even as he casually secured his victory.
“Just in time... The tranquilizer must have worn off,” Tessa said.
He handcuffed the boy—his name was Takuma, apparently—and threw him into the bedroom, then brought out a folding chair and offered it to Tessa. There was almost no furniture in his apartment—which meant no sofa, of course.
Sousuke didn’t know why a young girl like Tessa was serving as commander-in-chief of the amphibious assault team, Tuatha de Danaan. But most of their squad, himself included, recognized that she had the intelligence and ability for the role. It was why Sousuke was always nervous when speaking to her. Fighting alone in an arm slave felt like a simple task, compared with carrying the fates of several hundred people every day; Teletha Testarossa was on a higher plane of existence.
He asked her if she wanted some coffee. “Please,” she said. Sousuke gave her an awkward salute, then headed for the kitchen.
Ten minutes later, Tessa had given him a rough outline of the situation. Sousuke was surprised, but digested the information quickly.
At the same time, he found it hard to believe anyone would take an AS to a government facility just to retrieve this one boy. It felt, to him, like performing a chainsaw appendectomy; the enemy must enjoy such gratuitous violence.
Tessa went on to explain how she’d lost contact with Major Kalinin, how she and her bodyguard, Corporal Yang, tried to take Takuma out of the facility, and everything that had happened after.
“So you borrowed a car from the laboratory and drove off?” Sousuke asked from the kitchen, as he watched the coffeemaker bubble away.
“Yes,” she affirmed. “Their possession of an AS made calling in a helicopter the more dangerous proposition... and our transmitters were broken, anyway. Yang-san forced himself to drive despite his injury...”
“And you came right here?”
“No. We were on our way when Yang-san’s condition suddenly worsened... He seemed on the verge of losing consciousness, so I was forced to drop him off near Higashikurume. I used a public telephone to call an ambulance, then caught a taxi to get some distance...”
She really is intelligent, Sousuke thought. Mithril had no permanent center of operations in Tokyo; he’d heard that their intelligence division was setting up a Tokyo branch, but it wouldn’t be up and running for a while. In other words, this apartment was the one place in the country that contained someone Tessa could trust. Contacting the Japanese police was out; a supposedly secret laboratory had already been attacked. There was nowhere else she could safely go.
“I changed taxis twice and finally made my way here,” she went on. “Melissa had told me where the key was, so...”
Sousuke’s comrade, Master Sergeant Melissa Mao, and Tessa were close on a personal level, as fellow East Coast Americans. But why would the subject of my spare key come up? Just what do those two talk about? he wondered. “What’s the significance of Takuma himself?” is what he said out loud.
“Oh... I’m sorry, but you’re not authorized to know that,” Tessa said apologetically.
“I see. Forgive me for asking.” Sousuke saw nothing suspicious about being denied this information; it wasn’t unusual to hear such things when you were part of an organization like Mithril.
“Just know that he’s important to them—important enough to spur such drastic action on their part—and that if we allow them to retrieve him, terrible things will result.”
Sousuke filled a mug with coffee, returned to the living room and offered it to Tessa.
“Thank you, Sagara-san.”