3: Water Pressure, Gravitational Pressure, Political Pressure
27 August, 1857 Hours (Local Time)
Sea near Republic of Perio
The Tuatha de Danaan had arrived a few dozen kilometers northeast of the Republic of Perio. The waves were peaceful, and the tropical coral reefs sparkled in the setting sun.
Below the water, a massive vessel moved, hugging the line between the burning red and the dusky darkness. It was like an image from a painting—one that symbolized looming misfortune. It had a black silhouette, like a knife, or like a shark. Its elegant curves belied the potential for slaughter and destruction. If any fish could take in the entirety of its form, it would have fled without a second’s thought.
Inside the de Danaan, preparations for battle were proceeding swiftly.
27 August, 1436 Hours (Greenwich Mean Time)
1st Briefing Room, Tuatha de Danaan
“Briefing commence!” Captain Gail McAllen declared to the chatting soldiers as he entered the room. There were 32 combatants in the briefing room in all. They were all wearing casual battledress; just before the operation itself, they would all change into their “going out clothes”—fatigues, flight suits, and AS operator uniforms.
Sousuke looked up from the book he was reading, and the other soldiers stopped their chatter. Kurz, sitting behind Sousuke, showed no such respect. He continued to talk in hushed tones to his nearby comrade, Corporal Yang Jun-kyu.
“Could you stop talking, please?” Captain McAllen asked pointedly.
From the corner of the large LCD screen, Captain McAllen glared at his subordinate. An Australian, he was Major Kalinin’s aide, and he also held the SRT’s top call sign, Uruz-1. His expression, relaxed during the bingo tournament, was now drawn taut. “Everyone here?” he called out again. “The major will now go over the plan! Listen up!”
Major Kalinin walked past him to stand in front of the group. He looked down at the clipboard he was holding then began speaking, without any preface, “As you already know, a United States military facility has been occupied by an armed group.” His tone was completely neutral, as if he was reporting next week’s cleaning duties.
“A US Navy strike team has already tried and failed to take it back,” he went on. “As this is a special case, we’ll be using our more advanced technology to hold a rematch on their behalf. Our primary mission is suppression of enemy ASes and hostage rescue, as well as preventing the destruction of that crucial facility. Here’s the party venue,” he said, turning on the large screen. He put a disk into the slot in the side which brought up a 3D map of the island: It was a small, elliptical plot of land, with cliffs on the west side that sloped gradually to a sandy beach on the east. The US base took up the majority of its area.
“The chemical munitions disposal facility on Berildaob Island in the Republic of Perio... Its purpose is to neutralize aging chemical warheads and incinerate them. This means they hold stockpiles of sarin, tabun, soman, and other nerve gases—several hundred tons of them.”
Nearly everyone in the room looked distressed. They knew that even words like “toxic” didn’t begin to cover the threat those chemical weapons posed.
“The armed group in question call themselves the Green Salvation Army. Their stated objective is to drive the tourism industry out of Perio to save the coral reefs—on threat of unleashing the poison gas.”
“If they can’t protect it, put it out of its misery, huh?”
“There’s a bad joke, if I ever heard one...”
The various team members threw in their comments. Some even let out a low chuckle, reflecting a black sense of humor.
“What’s a dangerous facility like that doing in a tourist site like Perio, anyway?”
“The hazardous nature of such facilities make them a challenge to build on American soil,” Kalinin responded. “Public opinion, state elections, lobbyists, et cetera... it’s all politics. Not that I expect that to reassure you.”
“Typical...” The soldier who asked shrugged.
“At the same time, Perio was an American territory until recently,” he went on. “Even though it’s officially independent now, it’s still under US protection and economically and militarily at their mercy. They were essentially forced to accept the facility.”
Sousuke, quietly listening to his words, found it to be a familiar story. Poor countries and regions always drew the short straw on hosting military bases, landfills, nuclear plants—facilities that were often magnets for armed conflict by themselves.
Kalinin continued his speech. “Regardless, the site is dangerous, and we need to get the Green Salvation Army out of there. Let’s zoom in on the base itself.” He manipulated the screen to magnify the 3D image. There were several low buildings, residential facilities, and offices; a short runway and a heliport, but no harbor. In the middle of the CG model was one large facility built halfway into the hillside; this was the warehouse and disposal site for the chemical warheads. “The live chemical warheads are stored in an underground warehouse here. From the information we’ve received, the terrorists have a large number of bombs hooked up to that warehouse.”
“Then if they go off—” a soldier interjected.
“The force of the blast will carry catastrophic amounts of nerve gas into the upper atmosphere, from which it will travel downwind to the islands. It takes only one milligram of this gas to kill an adult human being; it could end all life in the Perio Archipelago in a day,” Kalinin said plainly.
A gloomy silence fell. Every soldier there seemed to have the same expression—their faces read: “I want to go back to Merida Island.”
“Therefore, we first need to disable the bombs,” Kalinin said, pressing onward. “Then we need to dispatch the enemy forces, while securing the American soldiers they’ve taken hostage.”
“He makes it sound so easy...”
“Talk about your crazy schemes...”
“Why is it always like this?” The soldiers grumbled to themselves.
Captain McAllen yelled over them. “Shut up! This is what you’re being paid for!” They fell back into a reluctant silence.
Kalinin continued his explanation as though nothing had happened. “The enemy forces include nine ASes and five autonomous triple-As.” The LCD screen switched to an image of one of the enemy arm slaves. Its armor was rounded; its silhouette resembled a person wearing a down vest. It was similar to an American-made M6, but it had a small periscope in place of a head. “These are the enemy ASes: Mistral IIs, made by France’s Giteau Co. They’re common throughout the Islamosphere and parts of South America, and despite their simple electronics, they’re tough little machines.”
Just then, a helicopter pilot raised a hand.
“I have a question. These Mistral IIs... they’re still in use by proper militaries, aren’t they? How did these terrorists get their hands on so many?”
Kalinin paused. “In mid-July, a transport ship set to deliver them to the Indonesian Army went missing in the ocean near Sri Lanka. It was found sunk three days later, with the cargo and most of the crew missing.”
“Ah-ha...” said the pilot. Either the crew had been bought off, or they’d been in league with the terrorists from the start.
“Back to the subject at hand. We can fight these French ASes with the standard equipment and tactics, same for the anti-air cannons. But there’s one enemy AS that will demand the strictest caution.” Kalinin swapped out the image on the screen.
It was now a picture of the “one enemy AS,” and Sousuke gulped slightly when he saw it. Kurz, behind him, let out a small groan. As if noticing their reactions, Mao glanced back from a seat some distance away. The other members of the squad frowned at the unfamiliar machine.
That was it—the same machine he’d fought four months ago. It was red instead of silver, and the shape of the head was slightly different. But there was no doubt about it—it was back. Of course, its operator at the time—Gauron—was dead now, but Sousuke had remained haunted by visions of the dangerous man’s specter roaming about the base.
“This one machine took out an entire US special forces squadron,” Kalinin was saying. “It’s unclear what country it belongs to, but it’s third-generation, like the M9. It’s powered by a palladium reactor, so it’s amazingly quiet—and while rudimentary, we believe it also has an ECS capable of invisibility mode. That’s probably why it’s painted red.”
An ECS was a stealth device capable of hiding a machine from various parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as radar and infrared. Mithril’s cutting-edge ECSes could even cloak the visible light spectrum, but technologically speaking, it was harder to mask the shorter-wavelength side of it—violet, for example. Longer-wavelength colors like red were comparatively easier to hide.
“In other words,” said one of the soldiers, “it’s like our machines—good for sneaking around and surprise attacks?”
“That’s right. Use your ECCSes.” The ECCS was the ECS counter-sensor.
“This machine is also mounted with a special device that renders normal attacks ineffective. If you run into this AS,” Kalinin looked around at those assembled, “try to avoid a direct engagement. In other words, run.”
The group was baffled by this.
“Run? No way!”
“It’s a counterinsurgency mission.”
“Why bother even having the raid at all?”
A chorus halfway between genuine and sarcastic complaints rose up, and the room was soon plunged into chaos. Captain McAllen shouted “Be quiet!” again, but it was less effective this time.
Just then, Kurz looked up at the ceiling and raised his voice irritably. “Do you guys wanna die or something?” His voice wasn’t as loud as McAllen’s, but for some reason, his words seemed to carry. All present turned questioning gazes to Kurz. “The major’s right. That thing’s dangerous. You’ve never seen anything like it. Not even 57mm shells will work on it. It basically cheats.”
“Oh? Does it use the Force, like Darth Vader?” one incorrigible member of the squad asked.
Kurz glared at him. “Yeah, that’s right. It uses the Force.”
“Sounds rough. We’d better see Yoda about some training.” The team member laughed. Kurz didn’t.
“You all seem to be laboring under a misunderstanding,” Kalinin said after waiting patiently for things to quiet down. “When I tell you to run, that is neither advice, nor a request. It’s an order. Anyone who ignores it will be severely punished. That is, assuming you survive.”
The room fell silent again.
“We’re assigning this AS the name ‘Venom,’” he continued. “It’s extremely dangerous, and we must dispose of it to finish our mission. Thus, the task of engaging and destroying the Venom will be left to Sergeant Sagara.” The other soldiers looked over at Sousuke for the first time.
Sousuke wasn’t particularly surprised; he was expecting to be pitted against it. “With the Arbalest, you mean?” he asked, as if in confirmation.
“Yes,” Kalinin confirmed. “If you encounter the Venom, you’re to assist the others in withdrawing. Keep it locked down with coordinated attacks and melee, and keep it completely occupied. That’s our only path to victory.”
“And if I fail?”
Meeting Sousuke’s gaze head on, Kalinin responded evenly, “Then the mission fails. The Venom will destroy all of your allies.”
Sousuke fell silent, as if the weight of everyone else in this room had been placed on his shoulders. He’d faced the possibility of death in countless missions before now, but it had always meant his death alone, as a single combatant. If he’d made a mistake, he’d have been the only one to die. Of course, that was no laughing matter—but the point was, he bore no more responsibility than any other member of the team. He was a mere mercenary, a supporting character; just one more notch on the death tally.
At least, he had been. That had all seemed to have changed that day—the day he met the Arbalest and Chidori Kaname. The existence of that AS, and of that girl, meant that failure was no longer an option for him.
I can’t afford to lose, he realized. I can’t afford to make any mistakes. I’m not even allowed to die... The pressure was horrifying. Yet Sousuke simply gazed at the floor with his usual sullen expression, and responded, quietly, “Understood.”
“Good. Do your duty as an NCO.” Their operations commander turned back to the group. “Deployment will be aquatic, retrieval by helicopter. We’ll be sending six ASes divided into three teams: strike team, sniper team, and bomb disposal team. And I have good news for the bomb disposal team, regarding your infiltration route. This concludes the mission outline; the captain will explain the details. McAllen?”
“Sir.” Kalinin stepped back and McAllen stepped forward.
“First, the makeup of the AS teams! Strike team will be me and Sagara. Sniper team will be Weber and Nguyen. Bomb squad will be Mao and Dunnigan. The rest of the SRT will stand by in the helicopter as commanders for infantry squads! In addition, radio frequencies will be—”
27 August, 1621 Hours (Greenwich Mean Time)
Main Hangar, Tuatha de Danaan
After the briefing, Sousuke headed for the main hangar for a discussion with the head engineer.
The ARX-7 Arbalest had been painted dark gray overnight. It was a pure stopgap measure; its white armor stood out too much for a stealth mission, so they were covering it up with the same dark gray paint used for the M9s.
Like the M9s, the Arbalest had a human-like silhouette. It had flexible joints and long, slender limbs. At the same time, it had power—it brought to mind the image of an agile, yet strong, warrior. The shape of the head was also strange; below the keen eyes of its dual sensors sat a hardpoint for holding a weapon. It gave the Arbalest a distinctive face, like a ninja with a scroll in its mouth from some old period piece. There were two feather-like attachments on each of its shoulders—heat sinks that helped with cooling. You could also affix subcapacitors of a similar shape, or even weapons to them.
These distinctive parts and sharp-looking form gave the machine an air of the divine; it was as if just touching it would be blasphemy. That was the first impression that most people got... and it wasn’t actually wrong. The equipment of that inscrutable device known as the “lambda driver” really did make the Arbalest a kind of mystical presence.
According to the engineer who looked after it, the lambda driver was comprised of three major components:
The first was a device called the TAROS, which connected to the cockpit. This was short for “transfer and response omni-sphere,” but no one knew what it meant, including the engineer herself. What she did understand, if vaguely, was that it picked up pulses from the pilot’s nervous system and converted them into special kinds of electric signals, which in turn activated certain functions in the machine.
The second was a small module, about the size of a mini-fridge, that formed the lambda driver’s core. Inside it was apparently a cylinder of laser-like rainbow light, but she had no idea what function it served. Activating it seemed to consume a massive amount of power in an instant, which was why the machine carried spare capacitors. This module was directly connected to the machine’s AI, Al, but no matter how many times she analyzed the software, she couldn’t figure out the nature of their connection.
The last was the skeleton that served as the machine’s framework. It was fundamentally identical to the M9’s, made of a titanium alloy and ceramic composite, but its core had been infused with a strange material. Delicate crystals wove together in complex patterns like nerves, changing their arrangements when hit with an electrical current. But once again, what function that served was a mystery to her.
In other words, it was a cascade of things she didn’t understand.
Whenever the AI Al was booted up, the display insisted, “Sergeant Sagara’s presence required to activate lambda driver.” It didn’t reject other operators, exactly; the lambda driver simply wouldn’t activate for them. All attempts to delete the requirement had failed; formatting Al didn’t work, either. Any other methods they’d tried to strong-arm it simply caused Al to display an error message and lock up.
“And that’s basically it. I give up,” the young chief engineer, Lieutenant Nora Lemming, said as she threw up her hands lightly. “All I can say is that this machine ‘amplifies mental energy’ or something like that... not that I’m a fan of that woo-woo sort of thing.”
“What happened to the person who made it?” Sousuke’s tight frown became tighter as he looked up at the Arbalest.
“I was told that he died,” the lieutenant said carefully. “The only one who knows more about the lambda driver than me is the captain. But even she mainly seems to know about the TAROS...”
“So we can’t actually build another of this thing. Thankfully, we had some spares, so we managed to fix the arm you shot off... but if you lose your left arm again, we’ll have to start subbing in M9 parts.”
“I’ll be careful,” Sousuke promised.
“But don’t worry. You’ve successfully managed to activate it twice in a real fight. I think you have a gift.”
“Yes. A wonderful gift, given by God. So have faith in yourself, Sergeant Sagara.” the lieutenant said with a smile.
27 August, 1655 Hours (Greenwich Mean Time)
Galley, Tuatha de Danaan
Despite how interesting the place was, after a day, Kaname inevitably ran out of new things to see; the boat’s scenery became monotonous, and she had nothing to occupy herself with. Sousuke and the others had vanished off to some meeting or another, and she had barely seen Tessa since that morning. She stopped by the control room, but the other girl was talking with the guy who’d led Kaname’s welcome yesterday, and she didn’t do more than glance at her and wave.
Kaname was bored and wanted to go home. Apparently the boat would finish its job and be back in base in about two days. Kaname was told that if she wanted, a helicopter could take her and Sousuke back to base earlier, and they could head back to Tokyo from there... but that, too, would have to wait until their “job”—the mission—was finished. Thus, she’d have to find some way to kill time here until tomorrow.
Left with no other option, she’d chosen to head to the galley and help the cook. She chopped furiously through a mountain of onions, followed by carrots then potatoes. The work seemed endless, which made it a perfect distraction.
“You’re good at that, you know?” the young cook (one of the few Japanese people on the ship) said, seeming genuinely impressed with her knife skills.
“Why, thank you,” Kaname agreed.
“You know how to use an oven, too,” the cook observed. “Why not quit school and join our crew? I’ll teach you the secrets of deep-sea cooking.”
“Not my bag, thanks,” she laughed.
Just then, an announcement came over the speakers. “This is your captain.” It was Tessa’s voice. “We will soon be entering the area of operations. There will be no hostile vessels on or in the water during this mission, and this vessel is not expected to engage in active combat. We will, as usual, remain in the shadows—which should not be difficult given the power of this vessel and the skill of all aboard. Be precise and cautious and do your jobs, as you always do. May God watch over us all.” She could be heard clearing her throat, and then, “Now, proceed to secondary battle stations. That is all.” The message ended. A bell telling them to take battle stations—likely electronic, though it sounded just like a real one—rang out. From the galley, Kaname could see a handful of crewmembers, who had been relaxing in the mess, quickly spring to life and run out to take their posts.
“Ahh, here we go,” the cook muttered.
With faint trepidation, Kaname asked, “Are they going to fight?”
“Yeah, but don’t worry,” the cook reassured her. “The boat itself won’t engage; just the members of the SRT.”
“SRT?” she questioned.
“The special response team. You know, like Sergeant Sagara.”
Sousuke is going to go fight, then. The thought sent a new wave of anxiety flooding over her. She’d seen him fight in the past, and they’d certainly been through a lot together... but she’d never been in quite this situation before. Going to fight—something about the future tense made it all feel more real. “Hey... I gotta go, okay?”
Kaname ran out of the galley, leaving the startled cook staring after her. She fought her way past crewmen rushing to their battle stations, down the hall to the duty room where Sousuke and the others slept. It was already empty. Her next few guesses also turned up nothing, so she ran to the hangar and... “Ah...”
Sousuke was standing in front of his AS—it was already armed for bear—conversing with a jumpsuit-clad woman. He was dressed in his black AS operator’s outfit, holding a clipboard-like tablet. A little ways away, Kurz and Mao were hanging out with an East Asian combatant whose name she didn’t know.
“Kaname?” Kurz was the first to notice her. “Where’s the fire, huh? Oh... I get it, you ran all this way to bring me a good luck charm. It never fails! A locket with a girl’s pubic—glugh!” Kurz doubled over abruptly from an elbow to the solar plexus.
Mao, the guilty party, was rubbing her temples. “If only I knew why you were like this...” She redirected her attention. “So, how can we help you, Kaname?”
“Um, ah... I’m not really... I just...” Kaname dissembled. She wasn’t sure what she had come here for, either. She glanced in Sousuke’s direction and saw him still talking shop with the engineer; he hadn’t noticed Kaname’s presence at all. He looked extremely focused and probably wasn’t about to come over for a chat.