27 June, 0236 Hours (Japan Standard Time)
Akami Pier, Koto Ward, Tokyo
Sousuke was sure it was an optical illusion. Though he was at a distance now, it still took him some time to process it as “humanoid.” It was so big, his mind just wouldn’t accept the idea.
But the truth remained, no matter how his instincts might protest: The seawater-soaked red armor, the broad upper arms and thighs... Its head couldn’t be seen from below; the protrusion of the chest blocked it from view. The four of them, Sousuke included, could only stare up at the huge arm slave and gape.
“What in the hell...” Kurz whispered.
Sousuke furrowed his brow, his expression intense. “It’s absurd...” he breathed. He’d seen the thing in the hold before, but from up close, he’d been unable to really grasp the shape of it. He’d simply parsed it as “some giant machine.” It was hard to fault him for doing so; who could imagine an arm slave that was five times the height of a normal one? Even as someone who knew ASes inside and out—rather, perhaps because he knew them so well—Sousuke had never even considered that one this size could exist.
There were reasons why most ASes were about eight meters and ten tons: Skeletal endurance; the EM muscle actuators’ optimal output; size of generators; covertness; ease of maintenance; efficiency of production; mission objectives; size needed for corresponding firearms; et cetera, et cetera... Careful calculations had been done taking all of these elements into account, and that was the size settled on as most effective.
The massive AS had a simple outward appearance, with none of the intricate armor plating of the M9. There was something ancient about its presence, like a mythical giant armored with piecemeal iron sheets. It felt less like a product of technology, and more like a clockwork figurine, given life by magic.
Gripping the M9 tightly below the waist, the giant AS began to squeeze. Its armor creaked, on the verge of splitting.
“I c-can’t move!” Mao screamed.
Tessa snapped out of her daze and shouted into the radio, “Melissa! Use your monomolecular cutter on the thumb!”
“Thumb? What thumb?!” Mao didn’t seem to realize she was in the grip of a colossal AS. She was too close to catch the scope of what she was dealing with, and her AI’s likely inability to identify the enemy must be adding to her panic.
“Right now, there’s an enormous—” Tessa’s attempt was interrupted by a new shriek from Mao. The giant’s other hand had grabbed the M9’s top half; it had turned her machine on its side and begun to twist.
The giant yanked its hands apart, tearing the M9 in two.
Milky white liquid—the drive system’s shock absorbent—sprayed like blood from its severed torso, as its upper half jerked around in a series of eerie convulsions.
“Melissa!” Tessa screamed. Even Kurz went pale at the sight. Kaname averted her eyes and grabbed tight to Sousuke’s arm.
The giant AS—if you could even call it that—held the severed M9 halves up high, as though offering tribute to the Goddess of Night.
Hoh... A low, muffled sound echoed through the harbor. Hoh... hoh hoh hoh hoh...
It was a voice. It was coming from the giant. Woofers, installed somewhere on the machine’s body, were conveying the operator’s laughter to the outside world. It seemed to well up from the ground below; a foreboding sound that sent a chill up the spine despite the hot and humid summer night.
The giant tossed the M9’s remains aside; each half hit a separate part of the ocean, raising up a splash in turn.
Sousuke was about to rush out, but Kurz held him back. “You’re gonna jump into the ocean with that thing right there? It’ll crush you like a bug!”
“I’m worried about Big Sis, too, but we’ve got bigger things to worry about... Look.”
The giant had bent slightly at the waist to examine Sousuke and the others. The head, previously hidden behind the chest, could now be seen in the dim light. It looked like it was wearing a cylindrical helmet, but the place where its mouth should be was instead home to a line of four machine cannons.
“I think he likes us,” Kurz said.
The giant gazed at them with hollow eyes. It looked ready to attack at any time, but... instead it turned away, slowly rotating its upper half to face the arriving police and JSDF battalions.
The officers and soldiers, piling out of their patrol cars and transport trucks, stared up at the giant in disbelief. Three JSDF ASes (the Type-96, a 2nd generation machine) brought by trailer were already activated and on the ground—but they, like the people at their feet, simply looked blankly up at the giant.
“Sagara-san, do you have a satellite communicator?” Tessa asked.
“My radio can transmit,” Sousuke told her.
“Let me use it,” she demanded.
“Yes, ma’am. For now, we should get our distance... Head for the car.” Sousuke took off, running for the car they had taken to the pier. The other three followed after; gawking at the thing wouldn’t get them anywhere.
“What’s she going to do?!” Kaname asked.
“Call for reinforcements?” Sousuke guessed. “Or we may need a cruise missile...”
“Reinforcements? Where the heck would you get—”
Behind them, the police were standing their ground, issuing a warning through a megaphone. “D-Deactivate your machine and come down from there! If you don’t, we... we’ll open fire! Do you hear me?! Deactivate your machine and—” There was a dull splashing sound.
They looked up, and saw that the towering giant had set a foot onto the pier. It didn’t do more than crack the asphalt below. This in itself seemed impossible; the ground should have collapsed beneath its weight.
“F-Fire!!” Like a dam bursting, the guns roared out. Shots deluged the giant with a sound like a raging waterfall.
Unfortunately, not even the ASes’ 40mm rifles could pierce the giant’s armor, to say nothing of the infantry’s small arms; they just sparked trivially against the right side of its frame.
“They’re not going to beat it that way,” Sousuke whispered as he hurried toward the car.
To Takuma, the bullet swarm was like a mild drizzle. The pain in his wound was gone now; he felt elated. It was like he was flying. He could break a standard AS in half like a toy; the slightest flick of his hand could reduce a building to rubble. He was the giant—his consciousness filled it, head to toe.
The pathetic assault continued.
“Annoying flies...” Takuma whispered, regripping his master suit lever and pressing a round button with his thumb.
Lambda driver function B, ready,? the Behemoth’s AI informed him.
Let’s have a test, he decided.
One of the JSDF ASes had readied a large rocket launcher. It wasn’t the latest model, but it was powerful enough to punch a hole in a tank—mighty though it was, not even the Behemoth could endure a blow like that.
Takuma concentrated. His will, amplified—altered, some might say—through training and drugs, crafted an image. The image he was sculpting was something like “shield”—Not just the thickness, feel, and weight of a shield, but something much more specific.
He imagined every molecule falling into place. No, “molecule” wasn’t the right word either—what he wanted wasn’t comprised of physical matter, but of a power that existed beyond substance. A power that took reason to draw together and manipulate—that was the best way to express it. The proper words to describe it hadn’t been invented yet.
A JSDF machine unleashed a large rocket. It was heading right for Takuma’s—for the Behemoth’s—chest.
An image that no one had ever seen, had ever heard of; an image that no one could even conceive of—no one except for him—his mind could conjure in an instant.
The lambda driver gave that image form.
The rocket streaking toward the Behemoth exploded just before impact. Its scalding hot, highly pressurized metal jet burst emptily against an unseen wall. There was no damage done to the Behemoth’s armor. It was a gratifying feeling.
“That won’t work.” Takuma smiled cruelly, then pulled a trigger. All four of the Behemoth’s head-mounted 30mm machine cannons began to spit fire in a move the machine’s designer had dubbed “Dragon’s Breath.”
Destruction rained down on the enemy army. One after another, police cars and SPVs were shredded and exploded. Tires went bouncing to thirty meter heights; trails of burning gasoline spread; black smoke covered the pier. Men ran this way and that—crying, screaming, crawling.
Takuma laughed. And all I did was blow on them! He’d taken out nearly all of the police vehicles, but the JSDF ASes—the Type-96s—were still around. One was drawing back, panicking, reflecting the movements of the operator inside. The leading machine still seemed to want to fight, but the knees of the one to its right were knocking.
Takuma reached behind him and drew the “tachi” mounted on his back. This was a Japanese-style sword three times the length of a standard AS, made of layered ceramic and titanium alloy. Though a tachi was traditionally a cutting sword, this one seemed more like a bludgeon.
Holding the tachi aloft, the Behemoth charged at the three ASes. This required no particular effort on his part; he just had to walk and crush.
His first swing of the tachi smashed the leader machine to pieces. Another horizontal sweep, and the second was bisected. The final machine fell onto its backside, both hands raised. He just casually kicked it away, causing it to crumple like a soda can as it flew off.
Takuma laughed louder. What a marvelous feeling! No one can stop me. No one can escape me. I’m so glad I came here. I never should have hesitated. Now there’s no question that I’m the king of the world...
Beyond the mountain of containers, she could see an AS’s severed arm fly through the air; the giant must have already taken out the JSDF machines. Flames from explosions streaked the night sky, and shouts and screams echoed across the pier.
Ahh... why didn’t they just run away? Tessa wondered. She couldn’t help but feel responsible for the tragedy unfolding around her. If only she had killed Takuma in Sousuke’s apartment, or anywhere else along the way... If she had, this never would have happened. They might have lost Kalinin, but the enemy would have given up on activating the Behemoth, and... and...
Infinite choices. Infinite forks in the road.
Would that have been a reason to kill him, though? Could I really have made that decision?
“No, I couldn’t,” she told herself.
For the first time, I’ve been forced to face my imperfections: how I dealt with Sousuke, how I dealt with Kaname... I’ve been made acutely aware of my inconsistencies, my hypocrisies. To think that yesterday, I aspired to omnipotence... and now, how powerless I am!
Sousuke’s voice broke Tessa out of her anguished reverie. “Colonel. The reinforcements?”
“What?” she asked.
“We need to do something about that giant,” he insisted. “What are your instructions?”
Instructions? He’s still treating me as his commanding officer... Tessa realized.
“I... I’m sorry,” she told him. That’s right, she thought. I still have more to do. I can kick myself another day... Tessa turned the radio on and opened a satellite channel.
“Yes?” came the response.
“Testarossa here,” she said crisply. “Put me through to Commander Mardukas on the de Danaan. On the double, top priority.”
“Roger that. Give me five seconds.”
Exactly five seconds later, she was transferred over and her XO, Commander Mardukas, responded. “Captain. It’s good to hear you’re safe.”
“Mardukas-san,” Tessa said, “where are you right now?”
“120 kilometers south of the Kii Peninsula.”
Impossible, then. The submarine was over 500 kilometers from Tokyo; it would take two hours to bring new ASes via helicopter, and they were too far away to shoot them here with emergency deployment boosters. Even loading one into a modified ballistic missile, as they’d done during the Sunan Incident, would take at least one hour’s preparation. How much damage could that giant, the Behemoth, render in that time? Just the thought of it sent a chill up her spine.
There’s nothing we can do, Tessa realized. We’re helpless. I’m—
“Captain. Do you require the Arbalest?” Mardukas inquired, his monotone itself reminiscent of an AS’s AI.
“Yes,” she replied hesitantly.
“We’ll send it, then.”
She was stunned. “What did you say?”
“You’ll forgive me for acting in absence of orders, but... we have everything in place to fire a ballistic missile containing the Arbalest in three minutes’ time,” Mardukas clarified. “It should reach you approximately six minutes after firing—In other words, nine minutes from now.”
The process of firing a ballistic missile required the de Danaan to surface briefly to open up the flight deck, leaving it temporarily defenseless. The world’s largest and greatest amphibious assault submarine, the Tuatha de Danaan, was an object of interest for navies around the world. It was a risky move that could lead to their capture.
“Forgive me. I’m prepared to receive any punishment you deem appropriate.”
Tessa smiled as she pictured Commander Mardukas’s skinny, nervous face. That’s right. I’m surrounded by the best. To give up now would be disrespectful to them... “No, you did very well,” she told him. “Fire it at once.”
“Yes, Captain. And the drop point?”
“Let me see...” It couldn’t be here; the giant might attack it the moment it landed. They needed a place with more complex terrain, to buy the operator a minute or two to board after it dropped. Somewhere with limited sight lines, if possible. Not downtown, to avoid involving innocents. Somewhere dark. Somewhere restricted, preferably with lots of highs and lows... and...
The best location possible. A place where the Arbalest could use its abilities to the fullest. Where could that be? Tessa was navigating a complex labyrinth of thought, reviewing all possibilities in the blink of an eye. Every location she considered contained elements of uncertainty. Nothing stuck out as a singular “ideal.” But...
It’s not going to be perfect. I need to accept that, and deal with it.
“I’ve made up my mind,” Tessa whispered, then tapped Kaname on the shoulder. “What do you call that building?” she asked.
Towering in the distance, across the water, stood an illuminated building that resembled an inverted pyramid.
“Huh? That’s the International Exhibition Center... the Tokyo Big Sight, I think?”
Takuma activated the Behemoth’s sensors. The cameras and infrared detectors, mounted in a dozen locations, searched tirelessly for his targets. He was tens of meters tall; nothing could escape his sight.
He immediately caught the heat signatures of four people hiding behind a warehouse one block away. Running figures—two men, two women.
“There you are,” he whispered. Teletha Testarossa and her companions... I’m surprised to see Sagara Sousuke still alive, but I’ll kill him now. He pointed a gun at me and threatened to kill me. It scared me. That humiliation... I haven’t forgotten it.
Yes... It’ll feel even better when I step on him. And I’ll teach that impudent and vulgar female, Chidori Kaname, a lesson, too...
If Testarossa dies with them, Takuma told himself, it’s an acceptable loss. No, in fact, it’s better that way—She’s only ever looked down on me; she never noticed my affection. Better to destroy her, if I can’t have her.
“That’s right...” he muttered out loud.
Plain, unadorned legs, like those of a tin toy, pushed forward through thick black smoke. The Behemoth had begun its slow march through the flames.
Sousuke and Kurz had parked their truck behind a warehouse, a block from the giant’s stalking grounds. It was a secondhand kei truck, with “Takasawa Fish” written on the side of the bed.
“You sure this is our only option? It kinda reeks...” Kaname said, sniffing the air.
“Now’s not really the time to complain,” Sousuke observed.
“Hey, guys. I think Colosso’s on his way,” Kurz warned.
The giant’s footsteps had grown louder. The containers and streetlights around them shook each time it took a step. They couldn’t see it through the stacks of crates in their way, but they could tell it was coming closer. Did it know where they were?
“Perfect,” Tessa whispered, as if she had something in mind.
“Huh?” Kaname said. “What do you mean, perfe—”
“Get in! We need to go!” Sousuke shouted, leaping into the driver’s seat. Kaname scrambled into the passenger’s side, and Kurz and Tessa jumped into the bed.
The giant’s head appeared, peering over the mountain of containers; simple, bucket-like armor with two round eyes and a mouth. Its face, reminiscent of an old wind-up toy, slowly turned toward them, then tilted.
“Get going already!” Kaname screamed. Chilled by the giant’s gaze, she drummed her fists urgently on Sousuke’s shoulder.
“I know...” he said, and the second the engine turned over, the kei truck sped off. As it turned the corner of the warehouse, the weight of its four riders caused it to veer wide to the left.
“Listen, Sagara-san.” Tessa leaned forward from the truck bed to address Sousuke in the driver’s seat. “You need to keep that giant’s—the Behemoth’s—attention.”
Sousuke couldn’t believe his ears. She wanted him to lure the Behemoth? To where? And how? Wasn’t that suicide? “But Colonel—” he protested.
“Do it,” Tessa replied in the harsh, cool tone of command. “It’s what Mithril pays you for. You don’t have to make my safety a priority. I’ve decided to put my faith in your skill.”
With that one statement, Sousuke felt a strange change come over him. It was the unique confidence and daring of one who had been given another’s trust. “If you insist, I’ll make it happen”—was the feeling it inspired.
“Very well,” he replied. “Where do we go, then?”
“Keep straight for now,” Tessa instructed. “Turn right at the intersection, then head to the International Exhibition Center—that building, there. The monorail track will help to shield us on the way.”
Of course. An excellent escape plan, Sousuke decided.
“The Arbalest will drop on the Center’s western side,” she continued. “We’ll buy you time until you can board it.”
“You want me to pilot it?” Sousuke asked, with a glance back to Kurz.
“Yes,” she affirmed. “You’re the only operator whose settings it recognizes at the moment. In the incident two months ago—”
“It’s coming!” shouted Kaname, who was keeping watch behind them.
The giant was striding toward them, kicking over streetlamps and roadside trees. Though it wasn’t running, it was still moving fast enough that it could catch up at any minute. It was just so big; its stride was unreal. They could see the giant’s head turning to face them. Was it going to unleash its machine cannons?