1: Toy Box
25 August, 2345 Hours (Greenwich Mean Time)
USS Pasadena, Sea Near the Mariana Islands
“Con, sonar. New contact on bearing 2-0-6. Designate contact number Sierra-15.”
When the sonar technician’s report came in, the submarine’s captain, Commander Killy B. Sailor, was just about to announce his first rest break in six hours. He’d wanted to go to the bathroom. He’d planned to give command to the officer of the deck, withdraw to his quarters, let fly at the urinal, then relax with a fine Cuban cigar. But a member of his crew had just announced contact with a new target, and that meant he was stuck there until they worked out what it was.
Sailor’s first order of business, then, was to declare loud enough for the whole control room to hear: “Shit!” His strong features drew into a scowl, and his broad shoulders tensed. The fierce-looking, quick-to-anger man was often described in whispers among his subordinates as looking “like Schwarzenegger in a comedy.”
It was their tenth day out from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The boat he commanded, the SSN USS Pasadena, was currently moving on a course west at 20 knots—36 kilometers per hour—at a depth of 200 meters.
“Captain... you may want to watch your language in this particular location,” cautioned Lieutenant Marcy Takenaka, the slender, attractive young man of Japanese descent who served as his executive officer.
“Huh?! Takenaka, are you stupid?” Sailor demanded sourly. “I said ‘shit’ because I need to take a shit! Are you gonna nitpick everything your captain says now? Huh?”
“That is part of my job,” Takenaka pointed out. “The military gives me that right.”
Captain Sailor glared angrily into his XO’s unflappable face. “Listen to you, all high and mighty... You Japanese are all the same. Always sniggering and arguing with everything I say... This is why I can’t stand you.”
“Ah... You’ve said at least two erroneous things just now,” Takenaka said tactfully. “First, I am a born-and-bred American. Second, I am not ‘sniggering.’”
“Shut up, you nuclear-powered idiot!” The captain finally lost his temper and grabbed his XO by the collar; Takenaka made a noise of distress. “After two years stuck with you, I’ve finally figured it out,” he bellowed. “Takenaka, you’re a spy. A spy from our mortal enemy, trying to rob my beloved Navy of its funding—a spy from the US Air Force! Your constant nagging is the proof!”
“You know that’s not true!” he protested. “Let me go, Captain!”
The control room crew all shook their heads as if to say “here we go again.” The captain and XO were constantly butting heads, on everything from the dinner menu to the main reactor’s output.
“Um... con, sonar. Requesting orders on Sierra-15.”
His subordinate’s reminder about the new contact snapped Captain Sailor back to reality. “Oh... right. No time for this now...”
XO Takenaka gasped for breath as Captain Sailor tossed him aside, cut across the control room, and peered into the sonar shack. “Where is it? Is it far?”
“Yes, here’s the signal. It’s sporadic and weak, so we’re not sure yet...” The ST gazed at the display with a scowl, messing with dials and switches around the green, waterfall-like display of sources of sounds in the area.
A submarine had no windows; as they moved through the water, the only way to know what was around them was by sound. Another vessel could be dancing a jig inches in front of their nose, and as long as it was silent, they wouldn’t even know it was there.
“It’s a twin screw, so it must be big,” Captain Sailor predicted. “Could be a Russian boomer... but the data doesn’t match up. The DEMON is way off for that, too...” A boomer, or SSBN, referred to a large, nuclear missile-equipped submarine, designed to serve as the vanguard in an all-out nuclear war.
“Could it be a new Typhoon-class?” the ST asked.
“Not possible,” XO Takenaka chimed in. He had managed to catch his breath at some point and was poking his head into the sonar shack. “The only shipyard with the facilities to make a Typhoon-class is in Severodvinsk. A new ship like that in the water would have been sighted by the Atlantic Fleet in the Barents Sea. SOSUS would have picked it up, as well. But COMSUBPAC hasn’t issued any warnings—”
“I know all that, you vertical launch system dunderhead!” Sailor interrupted with an insult that would make no sense to a layman.
Takenaka closed his eyes. “Why do you always have to...” He stopped and cleared his throat. “Anyway. It might be better to assume it’s an entirely new model.”
“Hmm...” Sailor put a hand to his chin. In other words, a massive submarine of unknown nationality and model was sailing along on the Pasadena’s course. It didn’t seem to be Russian, but that didn’t mean it was friendly; to a submariner, all targets were hostile until proven otherwise.
“Let’s follow it a while,” he decided. “We’ll get permission from Command first—Take us up to periscope depth.”
“Sir. Should I compose the message myself?”
“If you want,” Sailor grouched.
But just then—“Wait, Captain. I just determined our distance,” the crewman working the close-range HF sonar whispered. His face was pale with fear. “It’s close. It’s big. Less than 600 yards and closing.”
Six hundred yards—their distance was only about five times the length of their own vessel, which was close enough to make an impact likely. When the hell had it gotten that close?!
The captain goggled. “What’s its depth?”
“Five hundred feet! We’re going to hit it!”
Before the report was even finished, Captain Sailor began to shout, “Right full rudder to 3-3-0! Make your depth 800! Maximum dive angle, hurry!”
“Aye, sir! Make your course 3-3-0, depth 800, maximum dive angle!” The XO sprang back to the control room and gave detailed instructions to the dive station. The helmsman and planesman tensed up but did as they were told, both swiftly and carefully.
Immediately the boat tilted, moving on a desperate course to avoid collision with the unknown vessel. The turbulence caused by the sudden change in direction banged loudly along the hull, and the bulkheads groaned from the stress.
“Dammit, even the surfers in Honolulu can hear us!” Captain Sailor exploded. “Sonar! Any sign of attack?!”
“No, sir! We’re too close to tell!” The sudden, violent movement had unleashed pandemonium in the Pasadena. “Th-The other vessel is moving, too! It’s closing! Range 400! No, 300?! 250, 200...” the ST screamed, gripping his headset. The approaching Sierra-15—the mysterious large submarine—was heading straight for them on an impact course.
“Shit! Shit, shit, shit! Why won’t it avoid us?” Sailor screamed. “They have to know we’re here!”
“Captain, we can’t dodge it!”
A cold chill went up Sailor’s spine. An underwater collision was the one nightmare every submariner shared. It wasn’t like a car crash at an intersection; the crushing pressure that encased them at all times would exploit the slightest crack in their hull. If the hull ruptured, and water came rushing in? There would be no way to stop it. Every scrap of the metal, all the oil, the nuclear fuel—and all 133 souls on board—would be pulverized by the force and left scattered along the ocean floor!
“Range... 100... 50! It’s gonna hit!”
“All stations, brace for impact!” Sailor shouted into the microphone.
Every man on the ship grabbed whatever was handy. Sturdy railings, console panels, backs of chairs—some even grabbed pens or frying pans. One odd crewman, for whatever reason, grabbed his own balls through his pants.
One second later—
A powerful, destruction-sowing crash—
The hideous shriek of twisting metal—
—did not come.
The Pasadena continued its ear-grinding turn, but no more. They’d passed the expected point of collision, yet their world remained whole. The XO was the first to come to his senses; he ordered dive control to steady their course and depth.
Immediately, the ship went quiet. Looking sick to their stomachs, the crew timidly looked around them. The attack they’d expected had simply not come, and the 133 crew aboard all shared a common feeling—that unsteady calm that followed the end of a bout of hiccups.
“Sonar, con. Where’s the Sierra-15?” Sailor asked in a whisper.
“Sonar,” the crewman reported. “It... well, it disappeared.”
“What did you say?”
“It disappeared. Even our shortwave array... it doesn’t pick up a trace,” the ST insisted, with a tremendous lack of confidence.
A target as big as a Soviet Typhoon-class... just gone, in an instant? Half-disbelieving, Sailor ordered an all stop. The ship continued to turn on its soundless inertia as they investigated the area carefully. But even then...
“Nothing,” the ST said helplessly. “There’s nothing here.”
“Not possible! Check the BQQ-5. I want a thorough test!” Sailor ordered, expecting an instrument malfunction.
“Captain. I won’t argue with your request... but I don’t think it’s a glitch,” Takenaka said hesitantly.
“Huh? What makes you say that?” Sailor demanded. “Can you back it up?”
“Well, no, but... I think what we just witnessed was... the Toy Box.”
“There are rumors of a ghost submarine, unfathomably huge,” Takenaka told him. “It appears without a sound and disappears the same way, traveling at incredible speeds. Several of our allies have seen it, but none have successfully managed to track it.”
The US Navy’s “Improved Los Angeles-class” of submarines, which included the Pasadena, were some of the world’s most advanced. It was no exaggeration to say there was nothing they couldn’t detect. For so many high-tech vessels to fail at tracking it...
“That’s stupid,” Sailor scoffed. “So you think what we just saw was this ‘Toy Box’ thing?”
“Well, it just seems very likely,” Takenaka said defensively.
Sailor fell into a sullen silence and tapped his temple with his index finger. “I don’t like it. A ship of unknown nationality that not even we can track, just wandering around the ocean, answering to God-knows-who... What if it’s got nukes on it?”
“Well...” Takenaka hesitated for a moment. “If it wanted, it could wipe any city or base off the map in a second.”
“That’s right,” Sailor retorted. “Before anyone even knew it was there.” It could trigger a hot war between the US and the USSR. Just who had made the thing? No, the more immediate question was: could they afford to simply leave it at large?
Sailor stood up, as if coming to a decision. “Let’s report it to Command. Take us to periscope depth. In the meantime, there’s something I need to do.”
“Where are you going?”
“The head!” he declared, passed command to Takenaka, and strode purposefully out of the control room.
Still, Commander Sailor thought to himself as he walked down the narrow hallway. If that thing we met really was this “Toy Box”... I’d love to get my hands on the captain. Messing with me like this... I bet he’s a real twisted psycho asshole.
“Just you wait, Toy Box captain... Next chance I get, I’ll make you wipe my ass,” he growled. “You’ll see. And you’ll do it with your tongue!”
Same Timeframe, Amphibious Assault Submarine Tuatha de Danaan
“What’s the matter, Captain?” asked the XO of the Tuatha de Danaan, Lieutenant Colonel Mardukas, as Tessa let out a sudden shiver.
“Oh, I just felt a sudden chill... I wonder if the air conditioning is malfunctioning.”
“Do you think?” he questioned. “I feel fine.”
“Maybe it’s just my imagination... I’m sorry. Don’t worry; I promise I’m not catching cold.” She pasted on a smile then looked back at the nautical chart projected on the nearby screen.
The occupant of the captain’s chair, Tessa—Colonel Teletha Testarossa—was a girl of just 16 years. She had large gray eyes, skin like fine china, and ash blonde hair, which was tied into a neat braid.
The control room of her amphibious assault submarine, the Tuatha de Danaan, was far larger than that of the Pasadena. It was more like the “mission control” you see in shuttle launch images, if smaller and with a lower ceiling. The lighting was dim enough that the blue and green display screens provided much of the room’s illumination.
Before her were three large screens and fifteen seats; each member of the crew there had one job which they specialized in. The helmsman and the planesman, the navigator and the fire control officer, the engineer and special engineer, the officer of the deck, and so on. There were also seats for crew who oversaw ground operations when they were surfaced, but these were only filled when necessary.
The next rooms over were the sonar shack—the ears of the sub—and the communications and electronic warfare room. They’d just gotten a report from the sonar shack: “Con, sonar. Con, sonar. Our friend the Pasadena is heading for the surface. It’s... yeah, rising, it’s over the thermal layer. It doesn’t seem to realize we were hanging on its tail. Hah.” The sonar technician, Sergeant Dejirani, spoke the words with a strange rhythm.
Mardukas furrowed his brow but said nothing. He held back the urge to rebuke him, and nudged his glasses back up on his nose. That’s right... this isn’t the same military that I came out of, he reminded himself. Steady on, steady on...
Tessa, for her part, showed no signs of displeasure with the ST’s attitude and made a flick with her stylus. The display of detailed information about the Pasadena was minimized and banished to a corner of the large front screen. “Yes, well done,” she said absently. “I feel we played a rather mean prank on our friend, the Pasadena. I hope they aren’t too upset with us...”
“That’s a rather tall order. If it were me, I’d take it as a bad blow to my pride,” Mardukas responded. Lieutenant Colonel Richard Mardukas was a skinny man in his mid-40s with thinning hair that he kept hidden beneath a baseball-style cap he’d kept from his British Navy days. Stitched onto the indigo cap were the words “S-87 HMS TURBULENT.”
The Turbulent was the last submarine he’d commanded, but he couldn’t have been a less likely fit for that name; his pale skin and dowdy, silver-rimmed glasses put him as far from the archetypical Navy man as you could get. He’d look more at home packed into a commuter train at rush hour than standing on a submarine’s bridge.
“Pride... Do you really think so?” Tessa asked.
“But there’s nothing to be done about it,” she lamented. “We don’t have anyone else to practice on...”
“Also true,” Mardukas admitted. The military organization to which this vessel belonged, Mithril, had four battle groups across the world. Hers, the Tuatha de Danaan, oversaw operations in the West Pacific, but they only had the one submarine under their command.
Given no one else to practice with day in and day out, the de Danaan had to test approaches, attacks, tracking, and evasion on the submarines of various militaries’ navies. Generally, they stuck to clandestine approaches that left their subjects’ captains none the wiser, but now and then—as in this case—it was necessary to get a little rough. Of course, she knew this couldn’t be any fun for their unwitting and unwilling practice partners.
“But it wasn’t for naught,” Mardukas pointed out. “We now know to adjust our expectations of silence during normal propulsion.”
“True. I thought they wouldn’t hear us for another ten seconds...” Tessa whispered, looking up at the ceiling. Her boat hadn’t seen many days at sea. It had been through live combat, but there were still countless things about it to be tested and fine-tuned. They had no choice but to impose on others if they wanted to get the de Danaan working its very best.
Incidentally, “Tuatha de Danaan” was both the name of the vessel and the name of their battle group. Since they were an extremely small-scale operation, it was appropriate to treat them as equivalent. That made Tessa both captain and commander-in-chief; this concentration of power was convenient in operations where precision and speed were required.
At any rate, the test had concluded successfully, and the Pasadena had departed. Their brief three-day voyage was over, and it was time to return to their base on Merida Island.
“Well... perhaps we should head home as well,” she sighed. “EMFC to passive; resume normal propulsion. All ahead standard.”
It was an awfully gentle voice for someone commanding the world’s largest high-tech submarine, but that was unavoidable. Mardukas repeated the officer’s order. “Aye, Captain. EMFC, passive.”
“EMFC station. Passive mode, aye. Engaging turbulence control. Fifteen seconds. Ten. Five. All devices, phase adjustment complete.”
“Normal propulsion, contact,” Mardukas continued.
“Maneuvering. Normal propulsion, aye. Engine one, ready. Engine two, ready. Normal propulsion, contact.”
“All ahead standard,” he finished.
“All ahead standard, aye.”
As the head of each station reported, the de Danaan’s twin variable pitch screws began to spin. These propellers, made of dozens of layers of shape-memory alloy, changed shape like living things and were the most quiet and efficient propulsion there was. The over-30,000-ton vessel smoothly began to move forward. The floor vibrated just a little, but made almost no sound.
“Captain. Current speed, 30 knots.”
“Right. This should do it. Sonar, keep an ear on bearing 0-5-0. There are Japanese fishing boats in that area.”
“Right. Why?” the ST asked.
“You sometimes see accidents with snagged fishing nets... It wouldn’t harm us, but we’d capsize them.” It was true. It was the kind of accident even a veteran captain could cause, though officially, such incidents were not acknowledged by any countries’ militaries.
“Ah... I see. Roger,” the ST responded easily enough.
Mardukas felt deeply touched as he listened to the exchange and noted how smoothly things were running. When the de Danaan had first set out, most of the crew had behaved with hostility to Teletha Testarossa. It was understandable; what kind of military organization would accept a girl who couldn’t even legally drink as their captain?
Moreover, the crew had been chosen from all over the world to staff the de Danaan and were leading professionals in their fields (if also eccentric enough to have been kicked out of proper armed forces). Their pride in their work was not inconsiderable.
Mardukas remembered the first time he’d brought her out in front of the crew: “I am your executive officer,” he’d said. “This girl here is the captain.” It was as if he’d told them, “The Pope has expatriated to China.” But then, after various twists and turns, the crew’s opinions about her did a complete 180.
The Sunan Incident four months ago had been particularly decisive; her leadership then had been nothing short of breathtaking. While depth charges rained down from the North Korean patrol boats, she’d gotten that massive sub moving like a jet fighter to break through their blockade. As its designer, Teletha Testarossa had an intimate knowledge of the vessel as well as a unique ability to unleash its full potential. Even Mardukas, a submariner with 25 years of experience, was impressed by her skill and daring.
Now that she had proven herself, a unique atmosphere had come over the de Danaan. Normal submarines, crewed by nothing but men, naturally formed into a patriarchal society: The captain was the father and the absolute authority. The de Danaan was more like a matriarchy with Tessa as chief; the men found fulfillment in serving and protecting her, and the fact that their “princess” possessed seemingly divine wisdom and beauty just made it better. It was a vessel truly worthy of the name Tuatha de Danaan, “tribe of the Goddess Danu,” the name of the pantheon in Celtic mythology.
“The EMFC is working well. At this rate, we should return to base by noon,” Mardukas said after checking the data on his personal display.
“Yes, I’m glad. Then we can hold the birthday party... Also, I expect a guest on the island tomorrow.” Tessa looked very pleased by the idea.
“What do you mean?” Mardukas asked.
“Chidori Kaname-san,” Tessa clarified. “I told Sergeant Sagara to bring her to Merida Island when it was convenient; I’ve hardly talked to her since the Behemoth incident.”
“I see.” Mardukas didn’t miss the note of glee in her tone when mentioning Sergeant Sagara. Since the battle with the giant arm slave two months ago, Captain Testarossa had been frequently mentioning the young sergeant’s name, though she likely didn’t realize it herself.
Mardukas didn’t know much about Sagara Sousuke, but he’d heard that he was a sober and skilled NCO. He knew that he was an elite member of their ground forces’ special response team and that he was currently assigned to a mission in Tokyo. He was also the only one who could pilot the de Danaan’s unique AS, the Arbalest.
It occurred to Mardukas that he should probably talk to this Sagara personally and get a read on him soon; depending on what he saw, he might need to get him away from her, perhaps via reassignment. It wasn’t that he was trying to play her father, but it was his job as XO to keep an eye out for unsavory activities. He’d already confiscated a small mountain of pictures of Captain Testarossa from various members of the crew and ground forces. He was hesitant to burn them, so he’d left them with Captain Goldberry, the on-board doctor.
They’d been traveling at normal propulsion for about an hour when the de Danaan’s mother AI let out a small alarm calling for the captain’s attention.?Captain. Tasking message on channel E2. Now receiving,?the AI’s feminine voice said.
“Understood,” Tessa answered. “When you’re finished, send it to me.”
“Aye, ma’am.” ELF communications were the only way to communicate with a sub on a dive, and these “telegrams” took time to receive. Therefore, it was five minutes before the message could finally be displayed on the captain’s screen.
Tessa read it and let out a small sigh. “Mardukas-san,” she said.
“We can’t return to the base just yet. The party is likely canceled as well... We need to turn south instead,” she said, and then handed the telegram she’d just received to Mardukas. The message, already decrypted, contained a brief order issued by the head of Mithril’s operations division:
Priority order 98H088-0031
From: United Operations Division Headquarters; Operations Department Head Admiral Jerome Borda
To: TDD-1 Tuatha de Danaan
A: Situation B26C in progress at Sector L6-CW
B: Tuatha de Danaan to cancel current mission, board ground force, arrive at 09-30N 134-00E and stand by.
C: Rendezvous with ground forces permitted at sea north of 17-00N.
D: Ground force scale and type should be determined by necessities of situation B26C.
E: ROE are as in peacetime until instructed otherwise.
“Really... The admiral is such a slavedriver...”
“The sector in question is... the Perio Archipelago, I believe,” Mardukas said without needing to open a nautical chart.
Perio was a nation of beautiful coral reef islands far to the south of their current location. It had gained independence just a few years ago, and while it styled itself a republic, in practice it was a protectorate of the United States. It was a minor nation with a population just under 20,000, which received most of its economy from tourism.
Mardukas couldn’t recall what kind of situation B26C referred to off the top of his head; Mithril had at least 100 hypothetical “military crisis” scenarios, and while he knew most of the common ones, he couldn’t possibly memorize them all.
Apparently the same did not apply to Tessa, though. Before Mardukas could open the data file to check, she whispered, “It means that chemical weapons are involved. That a storage facility has been attacked and occupied by an armed force of some kind.”
Chemical weapons... sarin, tabun, VX gas, and other weapons of mass killing. Even after achieving independence, the Republic of Perio still played host to a few American bases. Mardukas remembered reading somewhere that this included a facility for disassembling and disposal of “special warheads.” A poison gas storehouse in the middle of a tropical paradise in tourist season, occupied by terrorists...
“It’s a terrifying thought,” he concluded. “If that facility goes up...”
“Yes,” she agreed. “All 20,000 people living in Perio... and tens of thousands of tourists, would suffer. The entire nation could even be wiped off the map.”
“But the United States military will surely attempt a counterinsurgency,” Mardukas predicted. “They have people always ready for this kind of thing, and if they send their AS-equipped special forces, they should take it back easily enough.”
“I hope you’re right. But if something goes wrong...” Tessa trailed off and glared at the screen ahead of her. “Then we’ll need to act. Back into the fray...”
26 August, 1330 Hours (Japan Standard Time)
Over Pacific Ocean, 200 Kilometers Southwest of Iwojima
Sagara Sousuke was feeling uneasy.
He was en route to Merida Island, Mithril’s base in the West Pacific, which lay 1500 kilometers south of Tokyo. The twin-engine turboprop aircraft vibrated in flight about 1000 meters over the ocean, and powerful sunlight streamed through the windows into the cabin where he was sitting.
Chidori Kaname was seated across from him, and the backlighting made it impossible for him to read her expression. She seemed to be upset, but he couldn’t begin to guess why. It’s a total mystery... he thought.
When he’d gone to her apartment that morning, she’d been in high spirits, greeting him with a beaming smile and a travel bag full of clothes.
“Okay, let’s get rolling!” she’d said cheerfully.
When he’d led her to Chofu Airport and explained that they’d be taking a chartered Cessna, she’d begun to marvel, saying things like, “Sousuke, are you super rich?!” in open astonishment.
Then, as the Cessna took off for Hachijojima, she’d seemed beside herself with joy. He continued to receive comments like “I underestimated you” and “I didn’t know you were so resourceful” as she gazed out, enraptured, at the scenery below.
It was after arriving in Hachijojima, when they’d changed to the twin-engine plane to Mithril, that the problems had started. Kaname had apparently thought they would be staying, and she’d been stunned when he’d told her they were just changing planes. At last, deciding it would be all right to tell her their destination, he’d said, “We’re going to Mithril’s West Pacific base. Colonel Testarossa wants to see you.”
For some reason, she’d fallen silent after that. After a clipped response (“fine, then”), she hadn’t said another word for four hours.
Strange. Have I overlooked something very important? Sousuke had been working the problem over in his mind all this time, and he still couldn’t figure it out. Once they passed 20 degrees north latitude, he cleared his throat and addressed her. “Chidori...”
“Yes? Can I help you, Sergeant Sagara?” There it was, all of a sudden. An inscrutable malice came through in her words.
“If I’ve upset you somehow, please tell me. I’ll do anything I can to make it right.”
“Oh. Well, actually—” Kaname gave him the most sarcastic smile she could manage. “My problems are things you can’t possibly solve, so I should probably keep them to myself.” She left no room for discussion.
He’d been thinking of taking Kaname somewhere, after her business with Colonel Teletha Testarossa was finished... But at this rate, it seemed he’d have to give up on that plan.
As if to punctuate the fact that they had nothing further to talk about, Kaname turned and looked out the window. Her earring caught the light. Wait... does she usually wear earrings? he realized.
Just then, the copilot poked his head into the cabin. “Sergeant Sagara. Message from Merida Island. It’s for you.”
“I’m on my way... Chidori, I’ll be stepping away for a minute.”
Kaname didn’t respond. With a grimace, Sousuke lowered his head and entered the cockpit, and took the headset from the copilot. “Sagara here.”
“Hey, it’s me.” It was a fine baritone voice with a slight note of jocularity: Sousuke’s comrade, Sergeant Kurz Weber.
“Kurz,” Sousuke acknowledged him. “What is it?”
“We got a standby B order. It includes you. We need to board the de Danaan en route ASAP; we’ll be taking a helicopter there in a few minutes.”
Sousuke wanted to let out a groan. A standby order, now of all times? Ground soldiers like him and Kurz weren’t required to be on the amphibious assault submarine, the Tuatha de Danaan, at all times. They remained on land for daily training and other missions, and they were only called to board and stand by when absolutely needed. There were a multitude of things that could happen after they came aboard: sometimes they ended up seeing combat; sometimes they waited for days and nothing happened.
Since they’d gotten the order to board the de Danaan on maneuvers, Kurz and the others on Merida Island would be taking helicopters to the rendezvous. But Sousuke was still en route from Tokyo; there was no way he’d be able to join them on their flight.
“They can only wait twenty minutes, tops,” Kurz told him. “Can you make it?”
“Not a chance,” Sousuke told him grimly. “We’re at least two hours from Merida.”
“Then you’ll have to take that way. Don’t catch cold. Of course, people like you never do...” Kurz laughed with a trace of mockery, referring to the old Japanese adage that “idiots don’t catch colds.”
“That isn’t the problem,” Sousuke said. “It’s Kaname. What should I do with her?”
“Ah, that’s right. Since Tessa’s underwater...”
“Should I have Kaname wait on Merida Island, or send her back?” Just saying the words out loud brought a cold sweat to Sousuke’s forehead. Kaname was already in a bad mood, and now he’d have to say either, “something came up, please kill time at the base” or, “sorry, but please go back to Tokyo”... How was he going to do it? He was the one who’d invited her here.
“Are you absolutely certain you need me on the board?” he asked anxiously. “I’m sure there are others who can take my place. If you just let me talk to the Colonel—”
“Ah, hang on a second... Huh? Oh, it’s Big Sis.” He could hear Kurz holding a muttered conversation on the other end of the radio. Sousuke waited patiently, and soon Kurz returned. “Right. Got word about that at just the right time. Apparently Tessa says, ‘If Kaname-san wants to come, bring her on board.’ Nice, eh? The civilian gets to join us. Just bring her along.”
“You expect me to put Kaname through that?” The method for boarding the de Danaan underwater was slightly... unusual.
“She’s tough,” Kurz told him. “She can handle it.”
“Hmm...” Of course, there would be a lot to worry about, with bringing her onto a warship on maneuvers. Then again, the cutting-edge de Danaan was also one of the safest places in the world. Maybe it wasn’t worth worrying about. “I’ll bring her, then,” Sousuke responded, and after a few more formalities, he ended the call.
Back in the cabin, Kaname was stewing. Two days ago, when Sousuke had invited her, she’d started out hesitant. “Maybe we shouldn’t be alone together,” she’d thought. Not that she thought he’d try anything, but going on a trip together still felt like some kind of invisible line was being crossed.
It wasn’t just a trip. For a normal 16-year-old girl, an overnight stay with a boy was a life-changing experience. It wasn’t like going to an amusement park on a Sunday. And when that boy was Sousuke... that brought up other important, unresolved issues.
The relationship they had—the way she scolded him every day at school, acted like his big sister, looked after him because “no one else would”—she couldn’t help but feel this trip would change that. Getting closer to him might throw them out of the comfortable rhythm they’d established. Those thoughts jumbled together inside of her and made her heart pound in her chest. Maybe I should call it off, she’d thought again and again.
But when the night before arrived, she’d had a change of heart. She shoved a few changes of clothes and her bath set in her bag, and as she went about the work, she even realized she was humming. Well, it’ll go how it goes... she’d told herself. What’s the worst that could happen?
And so, she’d found herself looking forward to the trip. Don’t worry so much; just enjoy your time with him. Eat all kinds of delicious things. Go with the flow. And if he asks for more... ah, what would I do then? No, I’m not that easy! Oh, but if the mood was right... No, I couldn’t! Oh, but could I? Hee hee hee... Such were the thoughts that consumed her. The feeling had carried over to that morning, too, and continued as they were heading out.
Then, after so much wrestling with complicated, unfamiliar feelings, after so many emotional ups and downs... they’d arrived on Hachijojima, and he’d told her “We’re going to meet Colonel Testarossa,” and she’d been hit by an extreme feeling of deflation. Oh, so that’s what it was, she realized. It’s just another Mithril mission. We’re going to some weird island, because your dearest darling asked you to pack me up and take me there. I can’t believe I spent two days worrying and wondering and letting my emotions go crazy. I’m so stupid... She’d felt about two inches tall.
In the cockpit, Sousuke was talking to someone on the radio. The plane was noisy, and they were speaking rapidly in English, so she couldn’t tell what they were saying. When he finally returned to the cabin and sat down, his face was ashen.
“What is it?” she asked brusquely.
With a timid glance at her, he said, “There’s been a change of plans.”
“I see,” Kaname replied stonily.
“The colonel has urgent business,” he told her, “and she’s not on Merida Island.”
“If it’s all right with you, I’d like to take you along to our vessel.”
“Hmm...” Kaname pondered briefly. Tessa had a ship, right? She felt like she’d heard about this at some point. The super-secret high-tech mercenary squad, Mithril, that Sousuke was involved with, had some kind of amphib... some kind of boat thing, and Tessa was the captain of it or something. It was true that she’d felt she needed to talk to Tessa for a while—the girl seemed to know something about the whole mystery surrounding Kaname—yet they’d only spoken together a few times over the phone since the chaos in Ariake.
“Okay, fine... whatever,” Kaname responded indifferently.
“I appreciate it. Please stand by,” Sousuke said, then returned to the cockpit.
For a little while after that, Sousuke came and went occasionally between the cockpit and the cabin. He would retrieve a large bag from the cabin shelf, fiddle with the radio in the cockpit, discuss something with the pilot...
About two hours after the decision to change destination, Sousuke asked her, “Did you bring a bathing suit?”
“Huh?” Where did that come from? Kaname wondered. Are we going to the island after all? “Well... I brought one, sure.”
“Put it on,” he told her. “You can use the back of the cabin.”
“Where is this coming from?” she asked. “Hey...”
“Hurry. There’s not much time.” Sousuke headed back for the cockpit, seeming strangely flustered about something.
With no choice but to do as she was told, Kaname went to the bathroom in the back of the cabin and swiftly changed into her swimsuit. It was a one-piece with orange print; she’d also brought a white bikini, but she’d lost any desire to wear it in front of Sousuke.
She came back to the cabin with a towel over her shoulders, and found Sousuke there in a wetsuit; it looked like he was wearing it over his clothes. She stared for a second. “What’s going on?”
“I’m sorry,” he apologized. “We didn’t have a wetsuit in your size.”
“Uh, that’s not what I—”
“Put your luggage in this bag, please. All of it.” He quickly shoved an olive-colored bag at Kaname. “Once you’ve packed it in, zip it up. It’s double-layered, so make sure you get both. You should put that towel inside as well, and tie back your hair, if you can.”
Kaname remained annoyed. “Hey, would you just tell me—”
“Sarge!” The pilot called, and Sousuke ended up having to return to the cockpit. Confused, Kaname packed her things into the olive-colored bag.
“Finished?” Sousuke returned right away.
“Yeah,” she said. “But why did you make me do that?”
“The bag is waterproof and impact-resistant.” With that non-answer given, Sousuke opened another bag and swiftly put on its contents; this was a strangely-shaped rucksack, attached to a rigging of sturdy-looking belts and metal buckles.
“Um... hey, is that...”
“Put this on,” he ordered. “Hurry... no, I’ll put it on. We don’t have time.”
“Hey—” Kaname broke off, and suddenly let out a yelp. “What are you doing?!” She could only stand there in shock as Sousuke began fastening the belts and buckles around her body; his rubber-gloved hands ran all over her arms and shoulders, legs and backside. Turning scarlet, Kaname tried to object, but...
“Sarge!” the pilot called. “One minute left!”
“We’re running low on fuel, so we won’t get a second—”
“I know!” Sousuke shouted back. “Don’t worry!”
Intimidated by the strange tension in their interaction, Kaname found her objections dying in her throat. She winced in pain as Sousuke pulled at the buckles and belts he’d secured around her, testing their strength. “Hey, what are we—”
“Thirty seconds!” the pilot cried.
“Thanks a lot!” Sousuke responded. “See you another time!”
“Huh?” Kaname said. “What do you mean ‘another time’? Hey, wait—” Sousuke got around behind her and attached his buckles to hers with a clink. They were latched together now, with him standing right behind her, arms linked under hers.
“What? Hey...” she tried again, “what’s going on?” Sousuke, who was bearing all the equipment on his shoulders—including the bag with her luggage inside—strode quickly to the right side of the cabin, as if carrying her.
The copilot, standing next to the hatch, cranked a lever in the wall. The sliding-style door flew open, and they were abruptly buffeted by the wind from outside.
Suddenly, the roar of the engine was much louder, and a cold gale was roaring around her. She could see where the sky met the sea, all in blue. It spanned out in its vastness, far below: ocean, as far as the eye could see. Tokyo Tower felt like nothing compared to the height they were at now.
Sousuke tossed a smoking marker out the hatch and watched the direction of the wind outside. Then he gave the copilot a thumbs up, and he patted Kaname on the shoulder. “Right! Let’s go, Chidori!”
“‘Let’s go,’ my butt!” she yelled back. “We’re still flying!”
“We are,” he agreed.
Kaname began to flail, struggling to get back into the plane, but because she was latched to Sousuke, it was hard for her to get traction. “What are you doing?! Hey, don’t tell me we’re going to jump—”
“Affirmative.” With a shout, Sousuke propelled himself out of the plane, taking Kaname along with him.
The floor vanished from below her feet, and a feeling surged over her, like her guts floating up inside her body. She could tell that she was screaming, but the rushing wind around her drowned her voice out, so that she could barely even hear it. In the corner of her eye she could see the turboprop plane receding.
Everything was blue. The crystal clear sky, the sparkling ocean... that, and the sun, were all that was left in existence.
“Ah...” Kaname said tremulously. She and he, alone in that cerulean world. Just the two of them, together... How wonderful it would be, if not for the force dragging them down. In a corner of her mind, she began to think she could excuse almost everything he’d put her through up until now. Yes, even the fact that he’d dragged her out on his suicide plunge. But just as that realization occurred, she felt a hard impact, and her body was jerked upward. No—in fact, their parachute had opened.
The world of pure blue vanished as an olive-green parachute came to comprise most of the view above her. The wind rushing past her near-naked body died to a gentle breeze that rustled her hair. Dangling from the parachute, they continued their downward drift.
“We’re going to die...” Kaname whispered, as she gazed down at the ocean below. There was no sign of the ship Sousuke had talked about. They were approaching the surface of the water now.
“Okay, Chidori,” Sousuke told her. “I’ll be cutting the parachute just before we hit the water. Take a deep breath.”
“Why?” she found it in herself to ask.
“So that we don’t drown,” he said. “Three... two...” They had already fallen the height of a skyscraper. She could make out the waves in detail now. “Cutting now.”
Holding back the urge to cry, Kaname filled her lungs with air. The parachute flew free; they stiffened and plunged toward the ocean.