4: The Fuse of Battle
27 June, 0110 Hours (Japan Standard Time)
Cargo Ship George Clinton, Akami Pier, Koto Ward, Tokyo
The ship looked like it hadn’t been used in a long time. The lockers were empty; the bunk beds were bare. In the corner sat an old, dead CRT TV.
Tessa was overwhelmed by fear and and a sense of powerlessness. Takuma had fallen into the enemy’s hands; now, they might be able to use that lambda driver-mounted weapon.
She had to do something, she thought, but no ideas were coming. She was helpless while a horrendous act of terrorism was being plotted just a few rooms away.
She’d been a fool. She’d made so many mistakes, had so many lapses in judgment. And because of her, he... Sousuke was...
While Chidori Kaname inspected the cabin’s various furnishings, Tessa sat on the bed, clutching her knees and staring vacantly at the opposite wall. At last, after making sure there was nothing in the room they could use, Kaname took a seat on the bed across from her.
The silence was awkward. It was Tessa who chose to break it first.
“You’re a very strange person.”
“Oh, yeah? I’d say I’m pretty normal, actually,” Kaname responded, gazing up at the ceiling.
“No, you should be normal... But even in the situation we’re in now, you’re searching for a solution,” Tessa observed. “You provoked that woman. And back at the school, you tackled Takuma...” Those weren’t things that a ‘completely normal person’ could do.
“Is that weird?” Kaname asked.
“Yes, it is. I...” Tessa looked down for a while, falling silent. She decided that now was the time to say it. “You completely throw me off my rhythm when you’re around. I did so many foolish things tonight that I normally wouldn’t do. I teased and tormented my subordinate, and tried to spring into action in the most pointless ways...”
“Spring into action? What do you mean?” Kaname didn’t seem to understand what she was getting at.
“In the schoolyard, I ignored Sergeant Sagara’s instructions and charged out. I’ve never made such a foolish decision before in my life. Trying to save you from your foolish actions turned me into a fool as well.”
Rather than acting insulted, Kaname nodded in remembrance. “Oh... yeah, you did do that. How come?”
“Because...” Tessa hesitated. Why did I run out to save Kaname then? Why did I do that, knowing that it would be pointless at best and harmful at worst? Because I was frustrated. Because I wanted to show him, as forcefully as I could, that I wasn’t useless.
The reason Sousuke had asked for Tessa’s release first was because he trusted Chidori Kaname. That meant, by implication, that he didn’t trust Tessa—that he didn’t see her as reliable. Given her utter lack of athletic ability, she couldn’t claim that his decision was wrong.
But even so, why did he trust her more than Tessa? Her trained intellect offered her a variety of logical answers, but her feelings rejected all of them. Those foolish feelings she couldn’t fully control...
This isn’t like me at all, Tessa thought. I’m a better person than this. I should get along with this girl... But despite telling herself that over and over again, for some reason, she couldn’t bring herself to care for Kaname.
Have I always been such a rotten person? she wondered. The thought of it sank Tessa deep into depression. Realizing there was a possessive side to her she’d never knew she had filled her with self-loathing.
After all... just what kind of person was this Chidori Kaname? She’d earned so much trust from a soldier of Sagara Sousuke’s caliber. She was an ordinary person, yet so decisive in her actions that she sometimes slid into recklessness. She maintained these traits even in situations that would send most girls to pieces, trembling and crying.
In the end, rather than answering Kaname’s question, Tessa asked one of her own. “You truly are strange. You aren’t afraid at all?”
At this, Kaname made a big show of thinking. “Let’s see... I mean, sure, I’m afraid. It’s more, just... when I’m put in a situation like this, it makes me want to fight back?”
“Fight back?” Tessa questioned.
“Yeah,” Kaname answered. “Everything that challenges me or tries to get me down... they’re like enemies, in a way. Enemies aren’t all people with guns; you find them in normal life, too.”
Mountains of homework, morning drowsiness, nighttime loneliness, bullying... She had her monthly agony; she had fears about the future; she had fears about heartbreak.
“If one of those enemies attacks you,” she continued, “you have to do something, right? Whether it’s grinning and bearing it, or fighting back... I guess that’s kind of how I try to live my life.”
“But those mundane problems are surely of a completely different magnitude,” Tessa observed.
“Yeah, true. I don’t know how to explain it, exactly,” Kaname admitted. “It’s just, well, I don’t know how you were raised, but... even if you’re living a normal life in Japan, you’ll probably end up in situations where you end up thinking, ‘I’d rather be dead than here.’”
Tessa found that surprising. “Really?”
“Totally,” Kaname said, half-joking, then leaned back against the wall. “It started for me back in middle school. I’d just come back to Japan after four or five years in New York with my dad. I’d transferred to a local middle school... and after that, it was the typical story, I guess. I’d picked up the habit of saying whatever was on my mind, so I got treated like a freak.”
Tessa was starting to see what she was getting at. She said nothing.
“I know I wasn’t exactly a saint myself. But... they were just so vicious... It was awful. I really did want to die,” Kaname recalled, distantly.
“But you still fought?”
“Yep,” she replied promptly, bouncing back. “It wasn’t the most dignified way of doing things, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t have any regrets... Maybe it would’ve been smarter to run away. But I learned a lot from doing things my way, I think.”
“I see,” Tessa said neutrally. “Such as?”
“Just lots of stuff.” Kaname didn’t seem inclined to explain any more than that. “Anyway, things did a 180 when I got into high school, and now I’m pretty happy. The school’s pretty chill, the people are cool, and I’ve even got a best friend. If Sousuke’d just dial it down a little, it’d be perfect.” She laughed.
With that, at last, and with great effort... Tessa felt a small amount of affection for Kaname. A very small amount. “Does Sagara-san cause you that much trouble?”
“Oh, he’s the worst. He’s got no common sense; it’s always a string of disasters around him. I know he doesn’t mean any harm, but the fact that he doesn’t... honestly kind of makes it harder for me.” Kaname narrowed her eyes. It wasn’t the expression of someone whose sole emotion was annoyance. “He’s trying his hardest, in his weird, awkward way. It makes me want to help him...”
Tessa fell silent. Awkward. Earnest. Makes you want to help him. Exactly... For some reason, Sagara Sousuke inspired those same feelings in her.
Tessa was reminded of when they were discussing Kalinin’s fate, and he had said, “Not even I could kill the major. I’m sure he’s fine.” It was a terrible way to comfort someone, but she could tell that he was trying. He was strange, and charming, and just a bit reassuring to have around.
Seeing him appear so detached, yet so earnest... In that moment, Tessa had found herself growing fond of him. She wanted to be with him, to navigate him through all of his social awkwardness. And yet it was Kaname who was with him, doing that...
That explained it. At last, the answer to her earlier question—why am I so off my rhythm?—was starting to come into view.
“You’re right...” Tessa whispered, “Sagara-san is a strange person, isn’t he?”
“Yeah,” Kaname agreed. “A total weirdo.”
Their eyes met. For some reason, they found themselves smiling at each other. For just an instant, they shared the same feeling.
Chidori Kaname isn’t some alien being. She’s an ordinary girl, just like me.
The realization took a weight off Tessa’s shoulders.
“So, what about you?” Kaname asked.
“You seem pretty weird to me too, Testarossa-san.”
“Ah... Please, call me Tessa. That’s... what my friends call me.” It took her a bit of courage to say that.
But Kaname’s response was as breezy as could be. “Sure, Tessa then. You can call me whatever.”
“All right then, Kaname-san.” Once she’d said it, Tessa found that she liked the sound of it.
“So, what do you actually do?” Kaname asked curiously. “I get that you’re with Mithril, but...”
“Well, as I explained earlier—” Before Tessa could finish, the door to the cabin unlocked, and a man in a combat uniform poked his head in.
“Get out,” he ordered. “Come with us.”
A man entered Andrey Kalinin’s room. He wore one of their black combat uniforms, but his mask was off; this revealed him to be a young man with his black hair done up in dreadlocks. “Time for questioning, old man,” he said haughtily. Seina wasn’t with him; perhaps she had other business, or perhaps she just didn’t want to see Kalinin again. “You get a tearful reunion, too... Bring ’em in.”
Teletha Testarossa and Chidori Kaname entered, prodded on by two other men. Each girl had her own reaction to the sight of the heavily bandaged Kalinin on the bed.
“Kalinin-san!” Tessa exclaimed.
“Who’s that?” Kaname asked curiously.
They seem unharmed, at least. My insurance must have worked, he thought.
Chidori Kaname had never seen Kalinin before. He’d visited her in the infirmary when she’d been taken onto the Tuatha de Danaan after the incident two months ago, but she’d been unconscious through all of that.
“Kalinin. That your name, old man? Let’s get down to business, then,” the man with dreadlocks said before signaling to his comrades with his eyes. They grabbed Tessa and Kaname and forced them to their knees. “All right. Seina said you can’t be tortured, seeing as you’re already at death’s door. That’s why I thought we’d get some help from the girls... Know what I mean?”
Kalinin held his silence.
“First, I’m gonna warn you... I’ve got no scruples about this kind of thing. It’s what got me thrown in juvie ages ago.”
The man behind Kaname chimed in, “Yeah, be careful, old man. He’s a major perv. There was a lady office worker in the neighborhood where he lived in middle school. He dragged her into the forest, popped her in the face half a dozen times, then used it for... y’know.”
“Aw,” the man in dreadlocks gushed mockingly. “Cut it out, you’re makin’ me blush!”
The men shared a laugh, while the girls lowered their eyes in disgust.
Still, Kalinin reckoned, these men were a cohesive squad—there was no chance they would actually do something that recklessly impulsive. Indeed, the man’s joking expression immediately sobered, and he pulled out his gun. This was the face of a soldier, not a sex offender.
“Okay, start talking. What organization are you with?” He shoved the muzzle against Tessa’s temple. She managed to keep her gaze fixed forward; perhaps she was mentally fortified for this.
“Don’t do it, Kalinin-san,” she said in a tone of command.
“That’s... not your call, Testarossa-kun,” he said, speaking her name in a slightly strained voice. He was trying to conceal the fact that Tessa was actually more important than he was; if they learned that Teletha Testarossa was more than a secretary, they might decide to torture her directly. “Since when do you... order me around?”
Tessa fell silent, seeming to have decided to leave it to him.
“Cut the chatter and answer the question,” the man in dreadlocks demanded. “What’s your organization? Wait, maybe you need to see that I’m serious first... Yeah, let’s do that.” Unceremoniously, he pointed his gun at Tessa’s leg. It was clear he really would pull the trigger.
“Mithril,” Kalinin said, before he could manage it.
“What’s a Mithril?” the man asked, without withdrawing his gun.
“It’s a military organization designed to check regional conflicts and terrorism,” Kalinin strained. “We offer information gathering and training to militaries and police in various countries. If needed... we even take physical action. I’m a part of the operations division, and I was... doing some consulting with the Japanese government.” Kalinin paused several times during his explanation, gasping as if enduring some terrible pain. Indeed, the wounds on his back really were torture.
“You in pain? I guess you got it pretty bad before. Poor guy,” the man with dreadlocks said, without a trace of sympathy. He turned to the men standing behind Tessa and Kaname, “You guys ever heard of Mithril?”
“Just rumors. That they’re an elite execution squad not affiliated with any country’s armed forces, and such,” one of them offered.
“We... We spread those rumors... intentionally,” Kalinin choked out. “To help... check terrorism...”
“So dumb,” the man in dreadlocks scoffed. “Who’d ever be scared of rumors? Okay, question two.” This time, he pointed the gun at Kaname’s leg. She stared at the glossy black barrel, face pale. Her eyes welled up a little, but no more—she was far from the blubbering wreck he might expect.
I see. She’s a strong-willed girl, Kalinin thought.
“How much do you know about the lambda driver?” the man in dreadlocks demanded to know. “Do you have anything to fight it?”
“Well...” Kalinin hedged.
“I’ll shoot her.”
“I’ll talk. The lambda driver...” He grunted, strained. “We... we...” Kalinin’s voice began to fade. His back really was hurting, and so were his ribs.
“You what? I can’t hear you.” Dreadlocks strode up to Kalinin in annoyance.
“The technology... we... possess...”
“What about it?”
“Technology... that shouldn’t... exist...”
“Talk so I can hear you,” Dreadlocks ordered, “or I shoot the girl.”
Kalinin tightened his throat and flapped his mouth open and shut.
One of the other men scowled. “Hey, I think he’s in bad shape. He might be dying.”
“Shut up. I’ll make him talk before he bites it. Hey, old man. Tell me everything, or after I’m done here, I’ll give that girl an ‘education.’ You got it?” Dreadlocks seized the throat of Kalinin, who lay limply on the bed.
“What we know... is...” Kalinin’s words faded. The man leaned in close, straining his ears to hear.
That was his cue. Kalinin dropped the act and grabbed the man’s right arm—the wrist of the hand holding the gun—and twisted it unceremoniously.
“Hey—” Dreadlocks began.
Kalinin wouldn’t give him time to react. He twisted the gun, still in the man’s hand, toward his stomach, and fired. Three shots rang out. The bullets pierced the man’s body, bursting in red trails out the other side.
It took the other men a few seconds to even realize what was happening. They could do a few things, now: shoot Kalinin, even if they harmed their comrade in the process; use the girls as shields; or run out the door and back into the ship. Those were their three available options, but their hesitation left them with none.
Kalinin fired two more shots from the bed. The act was swift and mechanical: one bullet in each man’s head, as easily as one might hammer a nail. Without even knowing what hit them, the men sank to the floor.
Smoke rose from the gun’s muzzle; empty shell casings landed on the bed. Kalinin’s gunplay had left Tessa and Kaname wide-eyed in shock. “I’m glad to see you’re all right, Colonel.” Kalinin said, returning to his usual speaking pattern as he lowered the gun.
“K-Kalinin-san,” Tessa said shakily. “Your injuries...”
“They won’t kill me,” Kalinin told her. “But when this is all over, I’ll need a long rest.” His wounds roared a protest as he sat up, pressed the gun against the cuffs binding his leg, and fired. With a spark, the chain broke. Though every movement invited pain, his body would obey him for a while yet, he wagered.
Kalinin then realized that Kaname was still shellshocked. “Chidori Kaname-kun,” he said as he rifled through the men’s pockets.
“Y-Yes?” she stammered.
“I need to thank you for looking after my subordinate for so long.”
“Um... thanks. But Tessa and I only met today.”
“I’m not referring to her.” Kalinin screwed the enemy’s knife and spare clip into his belt, then ran a quick check on the gun.
Kaname stared in confusion, and Tessa clarified. “Kaname-san, the subordinate he’s referring to is Sagara-san.”
“She’s not my subordinate; she’s my superior.” After stealing everything noteworthy, Kalinin stood up. “Shall we, Colonel?”
So it was true. At last, Kaname had to accept it. It made sense to her that this old man, Kalinin, could be Sousuke’s commanding officer. But now Kalinin was calling Tessa his superior... He spoke to her politely, and referred to her as “Colonel.” In other words, this clumsy girl had the highest rank out of all of them.
Sousuke had been right. He hadn’t been lying. Teletha Testarossa was their leader. She was a captain, a colonel, and a commander-in-chief. But...
“Something about this doesn’t add up,” Kaname whispered, while walking side-by-side down the passageway with Tessa. “What the heck is Mithril’s deal? You sent that know-nothing war-obsessed dummy to our school; you made a girl who can’t walk two steps without doing a pratfall your commander-in-chief... It makes no sense.”
“You don’t have to put it like that...” Tessa said unhappily.
“It is a sensitive issue,” Kalinin, who was walking ahead of them, said with a sort of dry humor.
The cargo ship’s passages were dimly lit and narrow, and low enough that the tall Kalinin’s head seemed in constant danger of banging into a pipe. His v-shaped torso was wrapped in copious bandages, which were in turn soaked with browning blood. Despite the excruciating pain he must be in, though, his movements remained smooth, and he showed no sign of awkwardness.
He carries himself a lot like Sousuke, Kaname found herself thinking, falling deep into thought.
Suddenly, Kalinin stopped.
“What is it?” Tessa asked quietly.
“This way,” he answered. “Don’t speak.” Kalinin opened a nearby metal door and pushed them through. They found themselves in a cramped bathroom that stank of a mix of oil, saltwater and feces.
Kaname nearly screamed out of reflex, but Kalinin clamped his free hand over her mouth. He quietly closed the door, and they heard footsteps outside. They held their collective breaths.
There were men, several of them, running down the corridor outside. At last, they seemed to run past.
“It seems word of our escape has gotten out,” Kalinin noted.
“Well, it was only a matter of time. I’m more concerned about... ugh.” Tessa let out a slight retch, straining against the rotten stench.
“The ship’s cargo, yes?” he inquired.
“Yes,” Tessa confirmed. “I heard a sound earlier. It was like a large gas turbine engine... And not the kind used in aircraft.”
“Generating power?” Kalinin guessed.
“Most likely. I heard something like a torque converter,” Tessa agreed. “But... it doesn’t make sense. It was too large to be an AS’s generator.”
“Could it have something to do with the lambda driver?” he wondered.
“I can’t be sure,” Tessa told him. “I only know it’s for a device that requires greater than normal output. And they have Takuma now... so we need to do something.”
Kaname looked between them, feeling completely out of her depth. “Um, what are you talking about?” she asked, holding her nose.
Tessa looked annoyed about having her train of thought interrupted, but immediately recovered and said, “I’m saying... this ship may contain a weapon of incredible power. A weapon incorporating a technology that defies imagination.”
“You don’t understand?”
“Yeah, not really.”
“I thought not.” Ignoring Kaname’s glare, Tessa put a hand to her slender jaw. “Conjecture will get us nowhere, I suppose. Kalinin-san, I’d like to scout out the cargo hold. Would that be possible?”
“I think it’s necessary,” he agreed. “If they have a lambda driver-mounted AS, or something like it... we’ll need to destroy it before it activates.”
“Then let’s proceed,” Tessa decided. “Is that all right, Kaname-san?”
“We’d like to take a little detour.”
“Oh... sure. Whatever you want.” Kaname was, in fact, extremely eager to get off the ship, but she couldn’t bring herself to argue. Tessa’s ability to talk on even terms with Kalinin, an obvious veteran, imbued the clumsy girl with an all-new sense of gravitas.
After checking conditions in the corridor, Kalinin took the lead. They passed through several doors and descended the stairway. They passed down another hallway, then abruptly came out into a wide open space.
“Ah...” Kaname trailed off.
This was the ship’s cargo hold. It was structured a lot like a school gymnasium, and ringed by a catwalk—a thin metal corridor, suspended halfway up its towering walls. If it were empty, it could probably be used to hold basketball games.
The stinging smells of fuel, burnt plastic, and metal filled the air. There was no sign of anyone there. It was dark in the room, but with the faint light from the windows, they could make out the vague forms of machines of all sizes. Small cranes and compressors, large batteries, storage tanks of some kind... Cables and pipes were strewn messily about the floor.
At the center of the hold—or rather, taking up nearly all of it—lay a massive machine. Kaname looked at it curiously. At first, she thought it was a large submarine, but the structure was far too complex for that. It couldn’t be an AS, either. This was much larger than an AS could ever be—ten standard-size ASes could fit easily into the space taken up by this one machine. It was so large, in fact, that from their current vantage point, they couldn’t even take in its entire scope.
Was it meant for water, air, or land? Kaname couldn’t even work out that much. The smoothly curving exterior—was that armor?—was dark red. It was made up of a complex arrangement of interlocking parts, and it seemed to have enormous weapons attached to it.
“What is this thing?” Kaname asked, but Tessa didn’t answer her. In the dim light, she could see her face frozen up in shock and tension.
“Preposterous,” Tessa whispered. “If it were to activate... there would be no way to stop it. So many people would die. We have to do something.”
“But we’d need more than a grenade to even make a dent,” Kalinin observed.
“It has to have a fuel tank,” Tessa argued back. “If we can—”
Just then, the cargo hold’s lights went on. Mercury lamps brightly illuminated their surroundings. Kalinin silently readied himself, hiding Kaname and Tessa behind him.
The catwalk was lined with their enemies. Each carried a rifle or a shotgun, and all were pointed straight at them. They lined the opposite corridor, as well, and two blocked the entrance they had come through. They were completely surrounded.
Above them, Kaname could make out one familiar face: It was Takuma, dressed in an arm slave operator’s uniform. She was a little surprised to see him like that. That gutless wonder is gonna fight? she wondered. Kaname had seen the power and maneuverability of an AS firsthand. She couldn’t even imagine Takuma in the pilot’s seat.
“I knew you’d come here,” Takuma said. “You have many skilled acquaintances, Testarossa-san. Yang-san, Sagara-san, and now the wounded gentleman there... You know how to cycle between men, I see.”
“And you’re very capable of sarcasm,” Tessa responded.
Takuma smiled and gazed down at the giant machine. “What do you think? They call it the Behemoth.” His voice had a monotone quality, as if his interest was only passing.
“You’re all mad,” Tessa retorted. “This thing has no purpose but destruction. There can’t be a strategic objective. It can only spread terror, like nuclear or chemical weapons.”
“Terror is our objective, Testarossa-san.”
She held her tongue.
“Personally, I’m not trying to get anything material out of this... It’s an act of expression,” Takuma explained. “Very minor self-expression. Within a year, most people will forget about it.”
“Like Takechi Seiji?” Kalinin said, and Takuma and the other men looked slightly surprised.
“That’s right,” Takuma replied after a moment’s silence. “That man was like a father to us, and the world needs to pay for rejecting him. That’s part of it. But that’s not the only reason... You don’t understand how we feel at all, do you?”
“Of course I don’t,” Kalinin retorted. “Besides, I would never even try to use something like that thing. It isn’t remotely practical.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. It’s invincible, when piloted by a chosen warrior like me. I’ll spread destruction and death and make Big Sister happy. And then I’ll be happy, too.” Takuma leaned over the railing with a bright smile. There was no particular malice in his expression, which just made it more unsettling. “Anyway, I’d better hurry up and get things ready. I’ve heard the police are on the way, with a squad of JSDF ASes. We can be sure now that they’ve taken no measures to fight our Behemoth, so we have no further need to question you.”
“Stop this, Takuma,” Tessa begged. “It’s not too late.”
“But it is too late, Testarossa-san. I really did like you. But it’s time to say goodbye.” Takuma didn’t give an order, exactly, but the men used that moment to take aim with their guns.
They’re going to shoot us, Kaname realized. The moment that thought entered Kaname’s mind, a roar filled the cargo hold.
It was the shockwave from an explosion. The entire ship shook. It had come from somewhere on the ship—perhaps beneath it. It felt like a hit from a torpedo.
The floor tilted hard to the left. Various things inside the room slid, rolled, and toppled toward the port side. The enemies on the catwalk lost their balance and had to cling to the handrail.
Kaname cried out as she fell and slammed her back against a mini-crane.
“Hide!” Kalinin shouted as he sprang into action, running at full tilt while practically carrying Tessa.
Kaname could see human figures on the catwalk readying their guns again. If I stay here, I’ll be shot, she realized, and in that instant, her body began to move on its own. Half-crawling, half-tumbling, she began to get her distance.
Bullets rained down, and sparks flew from every direction. She let out a series of panicked cries as she moved, then hid behind the closest thing she could find: a small compressor.
The sound of gunshots continued on the other side of the hold; Kalinin was probably trading fire with them. He and Tessa seemed to have retreated in the opposite direction, so there was no way for her to join back up with them.
She was isolated. The ship was rocking. Bullets were flying all around her. It was hell.
Kaname felt seized by terror, a sense of powerless, like an astronaut on a spacewalk whose lifeline had just been cut. She had no weapons, nowhere to run. What could she do all by herself? What can I do? Wh-Wh-What... do, dododo...
“Huh?” she breathed. She’d heard a strange voice in her ears. Her heart was pounding so hard she could feel the pulse in her neck. Beyond it, she could hear someone whispering to her. Fif-fine... fineineine, it’ll be fine. Inein. Coming.
“What?” she said. “Again?” The sound of a loud ricochet close to her caused the voice to vanish. Kaname let out a yelp. She couldn’t stay here.
Desperate and confused, she ran along the wall of the cargo hold. She tripped over a cable, banged into a steel pillar, and nearly fell. The rocking was awful. After managing not to get hit by any bullets, she hid behind a toolbox as large as a desk, took in a breath, and cried, “Why does everything happen to me?!” No answer came.
Instead, one of the enemies vaulted a piece of machinery and began heading in Kaname’s direction. He wore a combat uniform and a mask. He must have known that she was unarmed; maybe he thought it would be easier to finish her at close range than to keep shooting at her while she was on the run.
Kalinin and Tessa were on the other end of the cargo hold; there was no way they’d be able to help her. If she tried to run, she’d be shot in the back. Realizing that, Kaname reached into the toolbox beside her, pulled out a large wrench, and threw it as hard as she could, in desperation. The soldier was hit in the shoulder and cried out, reeling back in surprise from her unexpected reaction.
“Okay, you asked for it!” She picked up a crowbar as long as her arm and, while teetering under the weight, charged at him with it. For some reason, the man didn’t shoot her, but just waved a hand in panic. It was like he was saying “stop,” but...
“Take this!” She swung the crowbar at him. The masked man just barely managed to block the strike with his rifle, but the momentum carried and struck him in the neck. The man staggered, but kept his balance, tenaciously.
“Why, you...!” She hit him again. This time, the rifle warped. The man dropped it, fell backward, and slammed into an iron pillar behind him.
“W-Well? You want another whack?!” Kaname shouted, readying the crowbar for another strike. Her legs were trembling, and she was about to weep out of fear, but she ignored all of it.
The man shook his head and held up both hands in surrender. “You really are full of mysteries,” he said at last.
Kaname started. “What are you—”
“It’s me, Chidori.” The man took off his mask and slowly picked himself up.
As Kaname caught the face in the dim light, she let the crowbar clatter to the floor. “Sousuke?”
On the other side of the cargo hold, the firefight was still raging. The ship’s rocking wasn’t as violent as before, but now there was an eerie creaking sound moving through the hull. Her head was pounding from the sound of gunshots and ricochets echoing all around. She could be shot from any direction at any time, and it was much too soon to relax.
Nevertheless, she threw herself into his arms.