4: The Venom Spreads
28 August, 0411 (Local Time)
Berildaob Island, Perio Archipelago
“Time to get this party started... Dance for me!” Gauron laughed in a voice that crackled with madness. From the roof of the building, his AS fired its Gatling gun wildly. A Gatling gun was like a wheel of six connected gun barrels; it rotated at high speed to fire each in rapid succession, letting it rain shells down on them faster than any rifle.
“Uruz-1 to Uruz-6!” McAllen called. “Can you snipe him?”
“Negative,” Kurz responded. “I can’t get a shot from my current position. I’m on the move now.”
“How about a Hellfire, Uruz-10?!”
“Out of ammo, sir,” Nguyen replied tersely.
“Piece of shit!”
The 35mm shells shredded buildings and asphalt like confetti and sent the ground-locked machines scattering. Blinded by fragments and white smoke, the M9s continued to run at full speed.
“Uruz-7, advance! The rest of you, fall back! Give him cover!” McAllen called over the radio.
“7, roger,” Sousuke responded shortly, running the Arbalest forward in a crouch. Gauron... He didn’t even bother telling himself he was supposed to be dead. All he could feel was bitterness and exhaustion.
He was so sure he’d finished him back then, in the mountains of North Korea. But he’d been wrong. He didn’t know what kind of devil’s luck had kept the man alive—but regardless, here he was. He was inside that machine—the Venom—that stood between Sousuke and his goal.
In a situation where every second counted, he’d had no time to check if the enemy was dead. Perhaps his assumption had been mere wishful thinking?
Gauron. What are you doing here? he wondered. Was this a trap after all? The man was talking like he’d expected them. But if so, why would he show himself so readily? None of it made any sense.
Sousuke’s feeling before the charge began—that fear—began to well up again from deep inside him. He felt an itchy sensation at the top of his head. His breathing became labored, and he felt panic rising. He urged his nerves to return to their finely honed state, but they wouldn’t budge.
This wasn’t good. He couldn’t stay like this. He remembered that destroyed Dark Bushnell he’d seen, and imagined it as one of his allies’ M9s. If he messed up... If he failed... If he lost...
There would be no going back.
It’s Gauron I’m facing. I made it out of Sunan, but he... he’s come here to kill my allies again. Just like the last time. Three years ago, in Afghanistan...
McAllen’s voice snapped him back to reality. He realized with a gasp that he must have slowed down.
“Look alive over there!” McAllen ordered.
Gauron was firing grenades from a launcher attached to the Gatling gun. Small bombs rained down on them, bringing calamity in their wake. Explosions burst and popped like bubbles. Sousuke propelled his machine in a zig-zag motion, managing to weave it through the grenades.
“Uruz-7! What are you doing?!” The M9s of McAllen, Mao, and Dunnigan, which had pulled back, all fired their rifles at Gauron. Their indiscriminate barrage rained down on the Venom; 40mm armor-piercing rounds peppered its head, its chest, its shoulders, its legs... no, it only looked like they did. In fact, each round sparked and exploded inches away from the machine. There would be a warp in the air around it, and then a radial fracture would run through the building’s wall nearby—but the Venom itself remained uninjured.
“Is that the magic trick you mentioned?” Dunnigan growled.
“Affirmative. Keep away from it,” Sousuke responded, diving to the side to dodge a Gatling strafe. The immense enemy firepower made it impossible for him to close in. The data they had suggested that the effective range of the Arbalest’s lambda driver was a few dozen meters. He had to get into that range, then use that technique—“pour your will into the shot, then fire.”
“Not that we could get close like this anyway... Dammit!” McAllen cursed, hiding behind the wall of a warehouse, which was looking like a tattered old rag. It was only the M9s’ remarkable maneuverability that had kept them safe from the curtain of fire so far. If this went on much longer, none of their machines would be safe.
“Uruz-2 to all units. Don’t aim at the machine, aim at the weapon! The ammo belt for the Gatling—ah!”
“What is it?”
“I’m okay. Minor damage. Hurry!”
Without even a “roger,” McAllen and the others opened fire. Some leaped, others crouched. They were aiming at the Venom’s right side. Most of the shots were blocked by the usual forcefields, but—
Gauron cackled. “You know it’s pointless... hmm?”
A flash. An explosion. A shot had managed to hit the Gatling gun’s ammo reserves, igniting the gunpowder. This started a chain reaction through several hundred 35mm rounds, sending shrapnel bursting all around.
The force of it pulverized the building, and wreathed the area in swelling flames and black smoke. Gauron’s AS was nowhere to be seen. Had he been blown to bits, or had it simply flown clear?
“Did we do it?”
The Venom seemed clothed in flame as it tore through the smoke from above. It appeared completely undamaged from the point-blank blast.
“Well, well!” Gauron remarked casually. “Not bad at all!” He landed with a crunch, then bolted into a charge, kicking up concrete like sand. The Venom’s spontaneous power was equal to—no, greater than the M9’s.
“The hell is that thing?!” Dunnigan shouted.
“12, fall back!” Sousuke ordered as he faced down the machine’s charge. Now was the time to use the lambda driver; he fixed the shotcannon at his mechanical hip and took aim. He could see the Venom in his targeting box, holding a large monomolecular cutter in each hand.
“Kaaashiiim!” Gauron laughed, prolonging every syllable. It was exactly like that moment four months ago.
“It’s time...” Sousuke whispered. I can do this, he reminded himself. I’ve done it before. I will make it work. If I don’t... if I fail... he swallowed hard.
Calm your mind—You have to stay calm. Focus your will—You have to focus. Imagine the shot—Imagine it. The image is important. It’s absolutely crucial.
Sousuke pulled the trigger. The shotcannon blasted out a 57mm shell. His aim was perfect. The winged armor-piercing shot flew right into Gauron’s AS—No. It exploded into sparks just in front of the Venom, as every previous shot had done.
Sousuke’s jaw dropped. Nothing had happened. He’d just fired a normal shot; the lambda driver hadn’t activated. He gritted his teeth. The Venom was already flying at him. Its knife-wielding hands were spread wide, as if to take the Arbalest in an embrace—
Before Gauron’s knives could tear into the Arbalest’s cockpit, another M9 came flying from the side and tackled Sousuke out of the way. The two machines fell together in a tangle; the knife’s point sliced through the air where he’d been a second earlier.
Sousuke sat his machine up. “Mao?” he questioned.
“Get it together! Are you even paying—” That was as far as Mao got.
Gauron had stopped on a dime and turned to face them. He thrust out his right hand, and with his index finger pointed at Mao’s M9, he whispered, “Bang.” There was a sudden warping along a line of empty space between the Venom and her machine. Something ran along that line, an invisible power that slammed into the M9 and—
The noise that followed was unsettling: a low, dull thunk; cracking and screaming of the machine’s metal frame; fluid bursting out of something elastic...
An internal explosion of some kind caused the M9’s head to fly out of its socket—it dangled limply against its back like a rokurokubi, trailing various broken cables and pipes. Shock absorbent bled from the pipes and pooled on the ground below.
“Mao?” Sousuke called out nervously. There was no response. The M9 lay limp and motionless in the Arbalest’s arms, with no sign of movement at all. He didn’t even have time to check on the pilot’s safety; Gauron had already turned his “finger gun” to the Arbalest. Instinctively sensing the danger he was in, Sousuke had his machine pick up the M9 and beat a swift retreat.
Gauron released a low chuckle. “Come on, why so scared? I just pointed at you, that’s all.”
Sousuke bared his teeth, and glared ahead of him as he laid Mao’s machine on the ground.
“Uruz-7, what happened?!” McAllen’s and Dunnigan’s M9s took up his flanks and fired their rifles at Gauron from several hundred meters away.
Gauron, who appeared to regard their attack as no more than a light drizzle, hunched over, as if gathering power. “All right,” he said, “let’s try this again.” Gauron brandished his monomolecular cutters and went back on the offensive.
Sousuke flew back again, releasing a blast from his shotcannon. “Uruz-7 here. 2 is... down. I don’t know her status. Check on her while I draw the Venom’s fire.”
“What? Say that a—”
“I said Mao’s down! Check in on her already!” He fired and fired, but Gauron was relentless. Each shell from the shotcannon was deflected; he didn’t even leave a dent.
This isn’t... like before! Sousuke realized. The last time they’d fought, his opponent’s use of the lambda driver had also appeared limited. But now it was different; there was nothing holding Gauron back. Even total surprise shots weren’t fazing him.
On top of that, Sousuke couldn’t use the device he needed to fight back. No matter how he focused, he couldn’t get the lambda driver to work. He was panicking too much to use it, and his inability to use it increased his panic. It was a terrible spiral.
Just then, he received a communication: “Sousuke. It’s me.”
“Kurz?” Sousuke asked with surprise.
“Lure the Venom to the east side of the island,” Kurz told him. “Get it back to building D1.” Building D1 was the one Gauron had appeared on earlier.
“What’s the plan?”
“Don’t ask; just keep cool and get going. Leave this to me.”
“All right,” he eventually agreed. As instructed, Sousuke raced his machine to the northeast building. Kurz’s voice seemed awfully composed for someone who must have heard what happened to Mao—but Sousuke knew that was no reason to take him lightly. The mask he usually wore—of the perpetually laid-back, shallow man who irritated his comrades—there in the cockpit, hidden from the eyes of others, he had let it fall away.
Gauron pursued the Arbalest. They were a match in agility and explosive power, so it was hard to completely shake him.
“Are you just going to run away forever?” Gauron jeered. “Why won’t you play along?”
Sousuke had managed to get close to the building. It was 10 stories tall, five or six times an AS’s height—but the floors from the sixth up had been ravaged by the Gatling gun’s explosion.
“All right. Get in front of it and hold there,” Kurz told him.
The Arbalest stopped near the entrance on the building’s east side, which was littered with the remains of cars and concrete, and turned to face his pursuer. That’s when Sousuke realized: the place he’d arrived at was in the direct line of sight from Kurz and Nguyen’s sniper point. He increased his sensors’ magnification and saw an M9 readying a large rifle far off in the ocean. Right ahead of him, Gauron’s AS was drawing close. Sousuke turned his shotcannon toward the red machine and fired off a few shots. Each one was deflected.
“I’m disappointed, Kashim,” Gauron commented lightly. “I was hoping you’d have grown a little more skilled...” His knife flashed through the air. Sousuke blocked it with the shotcannon, which Gauron sliced in two. There was another flash, and part of his machine’s shoulder armor fell away.
A sharp thrust came at him from either side. Sousuke launched his machine forward hard, and managed to grab his opponent’s wrists. A normal operator would be dead before he’d reached this stage.
“Fighting hard, I see. But...!” The hands holding the knives continued to push forward. The Arbalest’s electromagnetic muscles creaked from the force as they tried to push back, pitting mechanical strength against strength. But the power of the enemy machine was incredible, and it had gravity on its side.
The Arbalest was forced back one step, two steps—until its back hit the wall of the building. Its frame creaked. The tip of the swiftly rotating, vibrating monomolecular cutter inched its way toward the Arbalest’s chest. “Ngh...” Sousuke groaned.
“Well, what now?! You’re about to die!” Gauron screamed. “And that girl you love so very much—”
“Uruz-7,” Kurz said calmly, “stay put.” The next instant, Gauron’s machine took a hit from the side. Shards of shredded metal went flying, and the enemy machine’s head snapped back. Even from four kilometers away, Kurz’s shot had flown true.
But—could it even guard against surprise attacks from that distance?—the 76mm shell still wasn’t enough to pierce the enemy’s force field. Fortunately, the sheer force of the hit did set the red AS off-balance, and that was enough to create a crucial opening. Immediately, Kurz poured on more shots: a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth. These shots were not aimed at Gauron; they were aimed at the half-demolished building behind him—each precisely-aimed blast took out one pillar or support. With the building’s upper half already holding on by a thread, the removal of these braces caused the whole structure to snap.
No, “snap” failed to capture the gravity of the situation—it was a cacophony of steel supports being wrenched apart, of concrete imploding, of every piece of glass in the building shattering immediately to powder. Hundreds of tons of building material were collapsing down from above in an earth-shaking, ear-splitting tumult... all headed straight for the Arbalest and its enemy.
“Get out of the way!” came Kurz’s warning, but it wasn’t needed. Sousuke dropped his machine down to sweep Gauron’s legs out from under him. Its balance lost, the red AS fell to its knees. Without even a glance back at the enemy, the Arbalest then leapt away, low and fast, like a bat out of hell.
An instant later, the collapsing building hit the ground, crushing the red AS beneath. The ground shook and roared. Pulverized building material, walls, floor, pipes, and furniture were scattered everywhere. There was so much dust in the air that the whole world seemed to go white.
“Sousuke,” Kurz asked, “are you alive?”
“I think so...” he replied. The Arbalest, which had thrown itself to the ground in its escape, slowly picked itself up. That was a reckless move on Kurz’s part, Sousuke thought. One wrong move and Sousuke would have died with Gauron. But he also had to admire his marksmanship—from a distance of four kilometers away, the pillars of the building must have looked like needles, yet he’d gone four for four, taking them all out in seconds. “Your skill is impressive,” Sousuke said in tones of great admiration.
“Bet your ass it is,” Kurz grumbled.
Just then, Dunnigan’s M9 came running. “You get him?”
“I’m not sure... Give me your gun,” Sousuke ordered, “and then stand back.” The Arbalest took the 40mm rifle from Dunnigan’s M9. He checked the remaining rounds, then kept the rifle carefully pointed forward, held in both hands, as he approached the mountain of rubble. He had no confirmation yet if Gauron was dead or alive. Surely, not even the lambda driver could hold up against a destructive force like that... right? But what if he was lying under the rubble, waiting for an opportunity to burst out and fly at them? Then he’d have to use the lambda driver to finish the enemy off once and for all.
But... can I do it? Sousuke wondered. His hands were soaked with sweat. Just then, there was movement in the rubble. Sousuke was startled; it wasn’t a sudden movement, just chunks of reinforced concrete slowly swelling upward and falling away.
The red machine appeared. It wasn’t holding a weapon. Its hands were both raised, and it spewed steam from its joints as it straightened up awkwardly.
Uncertain of his opponent’s intentions, Sousuke’s finger hesitated on the trigger. He hadn’t let his guard down, but he also wasn’t certain that shooting him would work.
“I guess you win this one... I overheated again,” Gauron said at last. There was a sound of depressurization. The red machine’s chest trembled then slowly split in half. He’d opened the hatch. For any AS operator, opening a hatch in front of the enemy was a sign of surrender. ASes were modeled after the human body, and given their skeletal structure, it was nearly impossible to move with the torso split like that. As far as Sousuke could tell, the Venom was no exception.
“It seems our positions are reversed from the last time,” Gauron chuckled. “I surrender; do with me as you will.”
Sousuke quietly seethed. “Get down from there.” He was struggling to keep his voice soft and calm.
“You’re not going to shoot me? You may find yourself regretting that...” That was the last word from the external speakers. A few seconds later, a man’s figure emerged. He was wearing a dark red operator’s uniform. There was a vertical scar on his forehead and a burn scar along his neck. He looked thinner than he had four months earlier, but it was Gauron, no question.
“So? What will you do with me?” asked the terrorist with a rueful smile.