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Full Metal Panic! - Volume 4 - Chapter 1


Chapter 1: Silent Commandment  
 
 
October 13th, 20:42 (Western Pacific Standard Time)  
Mithril Merida Island Base, Western Pacific Ocean 
Meeting Room  
 
Teletha Testarossa and nine ghosts were encircled around a black table. They were ashen, colorless, and pale figures of men, obscured in the middle of a veil of static noise.  
They were executives who were spread throughout various places in the world, assembling this time in an online meeting.  
The low resolution of the holographic screen that projected the men was caused by the high level of encryption in the satellite communication. Their movements were by no means replicated smoothly, as the frequencies were switching at about two second intervals. The jerkiness in the movements of the figures was reminiscent of an old claymation cartoon.  
“And to conclude-” said the staff officer from intelligence headquarters, after dragging the explanation of the summary out for 30 minutes.  
“Here at Intelligence Headquarters, we feel that tracking John Howard Danigan and Guen Bien Bo’s movements beforehand is impractical. We are physically limited on the follow-ups we can do on individual members’ pasts, temperaments, and the state-of-affairs concerning their assets... therefore, we believe this was not all owing to the dispositions of the parties responsible. That is all.”  
Voices of ridicule came from four of the nine executives. Three of them were commanders of their own squadrons like Teletha, and one was the head of military operations, Admiral Jerome Borda. The reason the commanders were complaining was 
obvious. Even though it was the job of Intelligence to check all Mithril personnel, they were asserting in a round-about way that the “final responsibility rests upon the commanders”. All that was left for the commanders to say was “That’s preposterous!”  
In fact, that’s just about what Admiral Borda said.  
“The whole past 30 minutes was a joke, wasn’t it? Give me a break.”  
He was normally a good-natured sort of man, but there was a rare sharpness in his voice. The three other commanders echoed the sentiment.  
“Really, let’s listen to a more constructive opinion.”  
“It’s like the automobile maker who ships defective parts saying ‘The accident was your fault’. Well then, what should we do? Walk a hundred kilometers without using a car?”  
The staff officer from the Intelligence agency flinched uneasily, but his superior, the President of Intelligence, General Amit, did not seem to be perturbed.  
“These are just the hard facts of our investigation,” he said quietly. “In particular, the members chosen to be SRT replacements lack a high amount of experience and connections, as well as intelligence and cunning. It is because of this that we are in need of talented men. If someone were using a very elaborately set-up secret account and receiving money from a third party, gathering information about him would be a monumental task, wouldn’t you say?”  
“So you’re saying you can’t help it one way or another!?”  
“I’m saying we can’t help it at all, Admiral.”  
The President of Intelligence remained calm.  
“Put the members that take such an important office under 24-hour surveillance, right? Or would that encourage betrayal? It’s nonsense. The ones who would hate such a way of doing things 
would be the SRT replacements.” That was the final rebuke. The organization called “SRT” (Special Response Team) that the commanders used was the one reason they produced such fit results, due in part to their excellent independent spirits, flexibility, and survival skills.  
“This is a structural problem. As long as Mithril is a mercenary unit, there will be a limit to the soldiers’ loyalty. No matter how adequately we compensate them (if I am to believe Sergeant Weber’s report, it was $500,000), dangling that amount of money in front of them would even attract enemies. The human conscience is a weak thing.”  
“...”  
“And we can’t forget that they were using Major Bruno. There were no other Operations departments, right?”  
Major Bruno. He had been staffed in Operations Headquarters and arranged for Danigan and Guen to be assigned to the Tuatha de Danaan. The opinions that Major Bruno was a member of the “enemy organization”, and that he had been guiding terrorists through were ones that both the Intelligence Department and Operations Department agreed on.  
Immediately after the incident on the Tuatha de Danaan, Bruno ran away from Operations Headquarters.  
Because of that, Mithril was forced to change a large amount of classified information: code systems, security protocols, supply routes, safe house locations. Facilities which were physically impossible to move, such as the Merida Island Base, remained as they were, but implemented stronger security measures. But a budget had been necessary so that all of the operations wouldn’t get out of hand.  
 
  
“If the news of what had happened on the TDD-1 had not been made known, Bruno probably wouldn’t have even had any doubts. He would have stayed in the organization- excuse me.” 
The President of Intelligence cut off his statement and lit a cigarette. His virtual body blew smoke out smoothly.  
“-he would have stayed in the organization, and might have caused even more damage.”  
“But that didn’t happen, all thanks to Captain Testarossa’s quick thinking.”  
“Right. And because of that, she became ignorant of her management responsibilities. That’s the complaint, isn’t it?”  
The obscure figure of the President of Intelligence glanced over at Tessa. She looked down at her hands without saying anything.  
“The TDD-1 almost sank. Our assault submarine- our greatest asset with the greatest fighting power.”  
“As long as there are weapons, there will always be the possibility of losing them. We expected to resolve this a year ago, since, at the time, we decided to entrust the ship to a fifteen year old girl and send it out to sea.”  
“...” 
Admiral Borda snorted his nose a little, and was quiet like someone discouraged.  
“...Is that all?”  
When he perceived that no one else had a remark, Sir Mallory, who had been silent up until now, opened his mouth to speak. He was an elderly gentleman who wore an eyeglass and three-piece suit. He was considerably advanced in age, but still carried himself well.  
“Very well. Then please allow me to state my opinion... The structural problem which Mr. Amit pointed out has been expected since the very creation of this organization. Unlike the regular army, Mithril doesn’t have the support of nations, religion, or national policies; we are called the “Interceptors of International 
Disputes”, and we have to believe in our ideals, even if others have objections to them. Besides, I thought that you were the ones who were fighting, but... am I wrong?”  
Sir Mallory looked around once. Not one person said “nay”.  
“Good. Then I assume we’re through placing blame concerning this problem. Of course, please strike up a counter-plan. I expect it’s possible to turn a 1% danger into one that is only 0.5%. We will reconsider our present procedures in order to propose feasible countermeasures. Also-” He stopped mid-sentence and adjusted his eyeglass. “We will resume the investigation into the enemy in the same way we always have... That is all. I bid you farewell, gentlemen.”  
The old man’s figure and voice disappeared, and nothing remained in the empty room except for the words “Line Terminated. Call Hang-up”. That was the signal for each of the world’s executives to disappear one by room from the online meeting.  
In the end, only Admiral Borda remained.  
Borda was a middle-aged man who had an abundant amount of black hair with some white beginning to mingle in. His physical condition was dignified for his age, and his face and arms were sunburned and firm.  
He looked at Tessa and spoke comfortingly.  
“I think they’ll object to losing a subordinate. You’re the only one who can do it.”  
Mithril was divided into three large sections: Department of Operations, Department of Intelligence, and the Department of Research. In this, the Department of Operations, four squads from Operations Headquarters made up the Tuatha de Danaan. They collected necessary information for operations, which the Department of Intelligence analyzed and evaluated- Admiral Amit 
was pinned as the “person responsible”. The Intelligence Department and others act as an information supply to give advice to each nation, trying to make it so that the Operations Department could minimize the “use of force”.  
However, it couldn’t be said that the Operations, Intelligence and Research departments got along well. It didn’t go as far as hostility, but... nevertheless, they didn’t go so far as to roll up their sleeves to get along, either.  
Since it was routine for the Department of Operations to rage on, saying “The information you presented was incorrect. Thanks to you we almost died. Why did you do that!?”, the Department of Intelligence would always come back with “Even though we’ve collected this much information, you still think we’re the problem!? Don’t be so arrogant!” Although this wasn’t just limited to Mithril, what other organizations had these kinds of problems?  
“However, that jerk Amit’s got a point. This is something always beset with risks. And there are still many scenarios where we will have to pay the price...”  
“I understand,” Tessa replied half-heartedly.  
“What should you do? Of course, I can’t see things from your standpoint. Even if there had been no incident, you still have a lot of school left. Come back to Operations Headquarters. There are also important jobs in the Department of Research, so you could have Mardukas and the others take control of the ship. How does that sound? You can begin-”  
“I have said it many times: I will not leave this department,” she stated flatly.  
“I could officially order you to.”  
“If you do, I will leave Mithril.”  
The solid image of Admiral Borda just sighed.  
“Really, you’re just as stubborn as your father. He also caused me problems.”  
“I’m sorry, uncle. But they’re important friends of mine. And-”  
“You’re talking about Leonard, aren’t you?”  
Borda had read her earlier, and she dropped her head.  
“...yes. He appeared. And he was horrible. If we had to stand up to him, we would definitely need my power.”  
“Granting that, is it really okay? We don’t know his intentions, and at the very least it seems he’s not on our side. If you face off with Leonard, it will be more painful for you, won’t it?”  
“...”  
“You still blame yourself for Bani.”  
“...”  
“Well, that’s enough... Anyway, there’s this affair with that traitor, Vincent Bruno.”  
At that, she gave a restrained smile.  
“Yes. That is currently in progress at present. He’s very far away...”  
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
October 13th, 22:30 (Central European Time)  
Southern Sicily, Mediterranean Sea  
On the outskirts of Agrigento  
 
The boss Capo, a physically well-built person, entered into the old barracks-styled room. Behind him were two people, young members of the family acting as guards. At the man’s signal, they bowed and stepped outside of the room.  
Already Bruno had risen from the couch and greeted the boss, exchanging a warm embrace.  
“Vincent Bruno. I wonder, have you gotten used to staying here?” asked Capo.  
“Thank you, your Excellency. I am quite comfortable.”  
Bruno always answered that way when he spoke in Italian.  
“Just ‘Papa’ will do. I’ve always thought of you as my own son. Lately the number of people calling their fathers ‘Bossia’ has become less, same as the number of women who attend college has increased. It really is deplorable. However, it’s interesting as well.”  
As he said this, a big grin spread across his face.  
In truth, their ages weren’t so different that you could call Bruno and Capo father and son. Bruno was an American who was past 40, of medium stature with brown hair. He didn’t have any decidedly sharp features, but there was a kind of impudence and mischievousness in his blue eyes. He had left Marine Officer School, and had been one of the elite who served at the U.S. Department of Defense; but now he was a free agent. He also had money.  
Until just a few weeks before, Bruno had been one of the staff of Mithril’s Operations Headquarters in Sydney. At the same time, he was a spy for “Amalgam”- he had been paid a large sum of money in return.  
Even so, Bruno hadn’t thought of this as treason. It was fine since he was serving his country, but his being there had made it into a grandiose security company of sorts. It wasn’t that he hadn’t pledged his loyalty; selling information to other organizations was little more than a small side job.  
Besides- “Interceptors of International Disputes”? There was no reason for great men to be associating with those claiming to be on the side of justice. World Peace! That would indeed be 
wonderful. But that was just the wishful thinking of his fat old colleagues. Right now, since most of the world is starving, we won’t eat as much.  
However, only his spy activities counted. All he had done was give Mithril’s password programs numerous times to the black market and change the assignment of two SRT personnel to the Western Pacific Fleet.  
Because the scandal was still being smoothed over, he had no choice but to run away from Mithril. It was disappointing, but that was life, and it was better to think about profit.  
He hadn’t tried to rely on “Amalgam”. It was easy to imagine such characters’ unknown organization, as well as how they would deal with unnecessary traitors. Right now, both “Mithril” and “Amalgam” were the same kind of threat to him.  
That’s why Bruno decided first of all to approach the main body of the remote Sicily Mafia. The Barbara Family group was rapidly pouring weapons into North Africa and the Middle East from Europe, while at the same time stocking up on heroin. Bruno had also accommodated their weapons smuggling on more than one occasion. Clever humans walk this kind of tightrope carefully.  
Their military power was equal to that of a small country. Of course, there were assortments of heavy weapons, armored cars and armaments, and in the end would probably not be used- they even had 2nd generation ASes. Because of this, not even Mithril could easily get their hands on them. Neither could Amalgam.  
“Just relax. Everyone here is on my side,” the Barbara leader, ‘Capo di Capi’, reassured Bruno. “I also have many supporters in the police, as well as the military. If by some chance men from those organizations were to come to this island, as if by magic, I would be informed of it.”  
“If they are dependable, that is.”  
Bruno had already informed the Barbara boss of the looks and countenance of men who would possibly come to capture him. Mithril’s Mediterranean Squadron, “Partholon”. He wasn’t able to steal face shots of these SRT replacements, but they were in his head. If they infiltrated this scenario, it was clear that he would be dead within a day.  
After chatting for five minutes, Barbara patted him on the shoulder.  
“Anyway, enjoy tonight. It’s my daughter’s birthday, after all.”  
“If you will let me toast to your lovely daughter,” said Bruno, lifting his wineglass in respect.  
After the toast, Bruno parted with Capo and proceeded to the large hall.  
Built in the 17th century, this glorious mansion had also undergone additional reconstruction many times, flooding its solemn interior with a sense of liveliness. The walls and ceiling were painted in a calming gold color, trimmed with complex lines. Elegant music filled the air, gourmet cuisine eaten, fine wine drunk, and many, many people were about... The banquet reached its final peak in the late hours of the night.  
There were also many elegantly dressed women there. The genes of people from assorted nationalities remained here because people with various looks lived together. If there were dark-skinned beauties from the Mediterranean, then there were also blond-hair blue-eyed women from Northern Europe. If Bruno admired them, the girls would smile back and lightly wave at him.  
“La bella Sicilia...” he mumbled to no one but himself.  
Really, this is heaven. It’s a good thing I came here...!  
As Bruno wandered around the assembly moderately intoxicated, he was approached by a young woman.  
She was beautiful. There was probably some oriental blood in her, and her eyes were slightly slanted. She wore her long, black hair in curls, and an exotic scent emanated from her. She wore a black floor-length dress which seemed to have a slight design at first glance, but on closer examination, the back was so boldly exposed it was almost startling. There were also slits up the sides so high that you could almost see above her hips.  
Bruno’s heart started to pound, aching with lust.  
“Are you enjoying yourself, Sir?” she said in perfect English.  
Although somewhat surprised, Bruno grinned back at her.  
“Very much so. It’s pretty nice here. When I arrived recently, I was pretty disgusted by the rows of shoddy-looking houses.”  
There were only a handful of luxurious places like this mansion in Sicily. Most of its residents led simple and peaceful lives.  
For a joke, it wasn’t funny, and she only returned a manufactured smile.  
“You’re an American, right? I lived over there for two years.”  
“Is that right? Guess that’s why you can tell, isn’t it?”  
“Yes, kind of. You’re from the city... and upper-class... well, something like that. And you smell different from the men over here.”  
“That’s a problem, then. It’s better not to stand out,” he said, but didn’t wipe the smile off of his face. The superior attitude of a city man. In her eyes, he didn’t miss what seemed to be the secret innuendo that she had thrown out.  
“Where did you live?”  
“Baltimore.”  
“Eh?! That’s really close to where I lived.”  
“Really? That’s unlikely, isn’t it?” She giggled and smiled.  
“It’s true. Although it’s a very old story.”  
With the power of alcohol and past memories spurring him on, Bruno made advances on the lady with great zeal. He talked about memories and local news. Of course, he didn’t forget to compliment the lady, either. She didn’t seem dissatisfied with the conversation, and nodded her head in the right places. She then made a proposal to him.  
“What do you say we move to a quieter place? It’s too noisy in here.” Without a moment’s hesitation, Bruno agreed.  
“Good idea. I’m staying in one of the rooms here. Shall we have another drink there?”  
There was a bed there, and a bathroom. His companion also knew this, and without any apprehension, took his arm.  
The two of them left the party. In the corridor that continued towards the annex there stood two of the family’s large soldiers. Each of them carried a gun over their shoulders and wore sunglass-type goggles equipped with night vision sensors.  
“Signore, who is this woman?” asked one of the soldiers politely in a monotone voice.  
The mafia had high-tech equipment these days. Even soldiers were receiving special training. The guns that these two had weren’t the Tommy guns you’d see in a gang film, but were Belgian-made new model sub-machine guns. Their compact box-shaped appearances made use of the reinforced plastic parts and as a result they were able to shoot their ammunition at a speed high enough that it could easily penetrate a normal bulletproof vest.  
“Don’t ask such a boorish question,” said Bruno, taking the girl and passing by in front of the soldiers.  
I’m glad that the guards are so strict, but at a time like this...? he thought and smiled bitterly.  
“Sorry about that. They even treat VIPs that way,” he whispered. She gave a surprised look and let out a giggle of excitement.  
They arrived at his room before long, where he embraced her slender waist. She was a bit busty, but a dream come true for a man with taste in thin women.  
“Now then, what should we do? By the way, I didn’t ask what your name was...”  
“Heh heh, wanna know?” she said, flashing him a mysterious smile.  
Up close, he could see the details of her delicate skin. Young women were the best. Expectations and excitement overtook him, and Bruno snorted wildly.  
“Of course I want to know. If I don’t, then I can’t call it out when the time comes.” He drew her close to him, pulling open the slit in her evening gown to get a better look at her slender, shapely legs.  
“Just my name? You don’t want hear about anything else?”  
“Of course I do. We’ll take the other stuff slowly...”  
“You want to know everything?”  
“Yes, tell me everything. Everything, everything...”  
“Fine. Well then, I’ll tell you,” and in the next moment, she got up. Bruno didn’t understand.  
She pushed him up against the wall, and he felt a violent pain run up through his front teeth- she had just thrust a very large pistol in his mouth. A Heckler & Koch .45 caliber. The model that the special forces first combat operations squad used. It was too rugged a weapon for a woman to have.  
“Ga...? A...a?!”  
 
 
She grasped the gun and faced Bruno, who was really surprised this time. She spoke.  
“Listen up. My name is Melissa Mao. Mithril Operations, Tuatha de Danaan. Ground Force SRT unit. Rank: Sergeant Major. Call sign: Uruz 2...”  
Impossible. The Tuatha de Danaan? The Western Pacific Fleet under the command of Testarossa or whatever her name was? Why in the world were they in a place like this...?!  
“Ug... Aa...!”  
“Just so you know... a few days ago, a superior officer that I cared about was killed because of you- so I’m dying to pull the trigger,” she said. Her eyes were cold, filled with a terrible hatred and thirst for blood.  
He started to cry and shake his head as she held the large barrel of the gun in his mouth. Mao couldn’t help but get irritated.  
Please, please don’t kill me, his eyes pleaded wholeheartedly. There wasn’t an ounce of dignity or hunger in them. If he had been a man with just a little more impudence, she would have been more than happy to pull the trigger. But seeing him in such a miserable state cooled her temper.  
She withdrew the automatic from Bruno’s mouth, and changed her aim to his throat instead.  
“Please don’t kill me. I beg you, please don’t...”  
“Shut up. Be quiet.”  
In the nearby corridor, mafia soldiers carrying radios were swarming. In the history of the mafia, you almost couldn’t find another family as vicious as the Barbara Family.  
The leader of the Barbara Family appeared on the outside to be a friendly man of importance to the local community, but his real personality was actually very different. The boss was the type of man who would kidnap a judge who turned down his bribe, cut off his head, stuff rolls of banknotes into the mouth, and then send pictures of the grotesque scene to the family.  
A mansion like this would definitely be guarded by many war-minded professionals whose consciousnesses were easily bought. And the equipment there was insanely high-tech. If her kidnapping objective cried out, Mao wouldn’t be able to bring him in.  
“Don’t shoot me. I’ll do whatever you want... please.”  
“Then shut up already.”  
“I’m shutting up. Right now. Please forgive me, I was an idiot. I never intended to become an enemy of Mithril, it was just a mere whim. I regret it now... please... oh, please, please...”  
“Hey, what did I just say now? Geez...”  
Mao pulled a pistol-shaped syringe out of her handbag with her free right hand, pressed it against the nape of Bruno’s neck and pulled the trigger. In just about 10 seconds, Bruno, who was repeating “please” over and over again, dozed off and fell over unconscious.  
“Good grief...” she muttered as she took off her fake eyebrows and wig, revealing her shaggy and very short black hair. She scratched her head.  
In her ear she found the skull frequency with the ultra-small transmitter that she had prepared and relayed a transmission to her counterpart. “This is Uruz 2. Target acquired. Proceeding to neutralize the alarm.”  
She then took some kind of tool out of her handbag and began work on disabling the alarm. After she easily bypassed the circuit, she turned the alarm switch by the window off. The light, which normally should have turned red, remained green.  
That should do it. If you tampered from the inside, an alarm such as this one was a piece of cake.  
Mao then compromised the window, unfastening the lock and opening the frame.  
From the small terrace on the fourth floor, you could see a stone annex as well as a high fence. Looking in that direction, one commanded a view of a gently sloping hillside underneath the dim moonlight. The light from some streetlamps off in the distance stretched faintly out into the horizon.  
“Now then...” she said, leaning against the handrail. A refreshing night wind tickled her cheek. It was almost easy to forget the fact that she was in the middle of enemy territory.  
“It’s like a painting, and you’re Hecate, goddess of the night,” said a voice right behind her.  
From the other side of the open window stood a man in the transparent darkness of the corner. He was leaning up against a stone pillar with his arms folded in almost a cocky manner.  
“How long have you been there?” asked Mao in a curt voice.  
“Since that jerk stopped touching your ass,” he replied, stepping out of the darkness. The moonlight revealed the form of Kurz Weber, dressed in a tuxedo. He was a rather handsome man with blonde hair and blue eyes, and right now there seemed to be an air of nobility about him dressed up as he was in rich clothes.  
“I told you, didn’t I? You definitely look good in that dress.”  
“Of course I do. I seduced him with one shot. But I won’t be wearing these kinds of clothes again, sorry. I look like one of those stupid women at the Oscars or something.”  
He approached her in a very elegant gate, and whispered in her ear, “That’s not true. I think it suits you veeery well.”  
“For someone like you with perverted tastes.”  
“No really, you look great. Like a mysterious loner, the way the back is exposed... Did you know? Hecate was also the goddess of vengeance. And that certainly fits you tonight...”  
“Are you drunk?”  
“Si, Signorina. I’m intoxicated by your charm, in the words of a poet. Heh heh heh heh...”  
“Give me a break.”  
Kurz came up behind her and hugged her shoulders firmly but gently. The faint scent of whatever citrus cologne he was using drifted in the air. If she had been off her guard, she could have stayed almost trance-like in that position, but-  
Unfortunately for Mao, the mission came first. She bent her head down and snapped it back with great deal of force. The back of her head hit the bridge of Kurz’s nose, causing a blast of pain down his neck.  
“Bu-..!!”  
“Alright now. We have work to do... work.”  
“Owww...why the hell’d you do that?!”  
“Be quiet and pay attention. How about you wake up to the situation? There are some scary looking characters parading around here.”  
“It’s such a sad reality...”  
“Just take out the equipment already.”  
“Che-”  
With tears in his eyes and pressing his nose, Kurz reached for the daypack he had placed in the corner of the terrace. The day before, he had slipped some equipment in with the decorations and food ingredients for the party. Having to keep up with preparations as well as sneaking in as a party attendant had been pretty tough. Since it was possible that there were still spies in Mithril, they had to carry this mission out completely on their own. There hadn’t been any objections by the Department of Intelligence or the North Atlantic Submarine Fleet. They had been able to infiltrate this unfamiliar land thanks to the influence of their superior officer Lt. 
Commander Kalinin, Mao’s own excellent computer skills, and Kurz’s connections from his mercenary days.  
Kurz took a very small winch and a wire out of the bag, and then both he and Mao carried the unconscious Bruno out on the terrace. While they were doing so, Kurz mumbled complaints under his breath.  
“Really, that was a cold thing to do. And after I went and shook myself free from a beautiful young woman who was keeping me when I said I’d meet her behind the party hall...”  
“A beautiful young woman?”  
“That’s right. A multi-millionaire widow from Milan. Ohh, the size of the diamond around her neck... the mood was so nice.”  
“You’re lying.”  
“It’s true. I made her slit eyes become misty, and she went so far as to say ‘I would marry as long as it was with you.’“  
“Is that right?”  
He fastened the winch to the hand railing. There weren’t any security guards to be seen in the courtyard, probably because Kurz had knocked them out with a stun gun before climbing up. As Kurz began to climb down into the thick shrubbery on the ground, Mao stopped him.  
“Hold on. I’ll go first.”  
“It’s not like I care or anything, but how come?”  
She didn’t answer him. If he knew that she wasn’t wearing any underwear right now, the pervert would be overjoyed. Since the upper part of the dress was pretty thin, and there was barely any back at all, it had made it impossible to wear undergarments. However, since the slits were pretty high, if Kurz were below her and a strong wind were to blow, well...  
He would be able to see everything.  
“Hey, is something wrong? Why?”  
“Shut up, already- it doesn’t matter, does it?”  
She took off her high heels and hurriedly got on the handrail. Without much difficulty, she nimbly climbed down into the bushes on the ground. Next they lowered Bruno down using the winch, and Kurz climbed down last of all.  
“How’s the route to the car?”  
“Won’t be a problem. All the guards around here are knocked out.”  
“Good. Shall we make our exit now?”  
If they could make it to the attendant parking lot, then all that would be left would be for them to put Bruno in the trunk of the Ferrari they came in and then ride away in triumph.  
Kurz carried the limp body of Bruno over his shoulder. Mao, holding a silenced pistol in one hand, walked out to the attendant parking lot when-  
“Signore!” cried a woman’s husky voice from the courtyard.  
“Geh...?”  
“Signore Kalius! Please wait!”  
From the direction of the annex ran a middle-aged woman wearing some very flashy jewelry. She was a rather large and well-rounded lady. She was neither lacking in the size of her bust nor her stomach, and whenever she moved, her figure bounced up and down just like a large rubber ball.  
“Don’t tell me... that she’s your ‘beautiful young widow’...?”  
“Eh? N-no... it’s not...”  
“Besides that... ‘Kalius’?”  
“Just an alias. It was the name of the old man who worked at the pharmacy in my dad’s town. When I stayed during the summers, he would let me play. Why there are Japanese Toy Model tanks and even mountains that have that name, I don’t-”  
“Kalius-!” she cried, rushing straight into him. She clung to the now dismayed Kurz, who was shouting “Women are crazy!” in a furious voice. She didn’t seem aware of their situation, what with Kurz carrying an unconscious Bruno over his shoulder and the presence of a very stunned Mao.  
“Ah...Kalius, my love. How I’ve looked for you! You left me! Where are you going?”  
“No, well, uhh...”  
“I apologize if I said anything that offended you. What a sensitive man you are! But I understand- I can see the grief hidden deep within those blue eyes of yours! Why don’t we talk some more? Love is like a plant- it takes root, but it takes time before the flower blooms. But I’m sure that we will be able to understand each other. That’s why, that’s why...!” she cried, her voice getting louder. Mao and Kurz went into a panic.  
“Hey, hey now Miss, could you keep it down right now? Okay? Just give me-”  
“Please, Kalius! Please don’t leave me here-!! Per favoooreee! Ah! Waa- a-a-a-ah! Aaahhh!!”  
“No, even crying like that I-”  
“Will you shut her up...! If someone hears her wailing like that...”  
If someone were to hear her, the rush would probably take 30 seconds at most. But there was plenty of time until her voice reached the nearest people.  
Just then the form of a man dressed in black and carrying a sub-machine gun appeared from around the corner about 20 meters away.  
“What’s all the commotion about?! ...ah-”  
There stood a large woman crying, as well as a young woman holding a pistol. And also- a pretty boy carrying their VIP 
American guest, who appeared to be passed out. When he realized what was going on, the security guard went pale.  
“Intruders! Intrudeeeers!” he cried out, drawing his sub-machine gun at about the same time that Mao pulled the trigger of her pistol.  
She hit the mafia guy in the shoulder and the side, who aimed at ground as he fell forward, pulling the trigger. The muzzle point lit up, and clouds of dust rose from the earth.  
The sound of the sub-machine gunfire drowned out the cries of the widow.  
An alarm that sounded very much like a patrol car’s siren went off throughout the premises.  
From the main house and annex, as well as the guard’s station and guesthouse, mafia soldiers started pouring out in an avalanche. The sound of successive gunshots as well as excited yelling rang out in the night. The ferocious barking of attack Dobermans could be heard as they were released. Numerous spotlights chased after the intruders.  
All the noise around the antique mansion made it seem like a nightclub.  
“Dammit!” Mao cursed amid the incessant downpour of bullets. After hiding behind a stone wall about waist-high, she cried out through half-teary eyes “And this time I thought we’d be able to leave elegantly, too! But no, we end up pulling out the guns after all! Why does it always end up like this?!”  
“That’s just the breaks,” refuted Kurz, rushing behind the wall at the last minute. He was out of breath from running around while carrying Bruno’s heavy body over his shoulder.  
“It’s because I’m too nice... to put it politely, I was just saying this and that to compliment her- but that lady, she was 
serious. But I kind of understand her reasons, what with her husband’s early death and all-”  
“Can you be sentimental some other time?! We’re probably gonna die out here!”  
Incidentally, when the gunfight suddenly erupted the aforementioned widow had fainted where she stood. Mao and Kurz had abandoned her, making a break for it across the grounds and running until they had reached the corner of a large flower garden, when they hit a dead end.  
“Behind us there’s a three meter high wall, and in front of us there are about 100 mobsters. There’s nowhere to run! Not to mention we only brought one Socom pistol and a stun gun!”  
“But it’s good, too, isn’t it? Those guns were pretty expensive, and they hadn’t been used in actual combat. Weren’t you complaining recently that they were a ‘waste of money’?”  
“That doesn’t make it any better!”  
-But she was cut off mid-answer by a spray of enemy fire around them. The rock fragments and black earth blowing up around them came raining down on their heads.  
“Ah, shit!”  
From their hiding place, she aimed the pistol in question and shot off five rounds rapid-fire. She hit a couple of Dobermans that were making a rush at them, and they fell to the ground, writhing.  
“Aww, poor things.”  
“I didn’t know. Would you have rather been their dinner?”  
  
 
 
“You have a point- whoa oh!”  
Just a few meters away, a man made a jump for them from the other side of their shelter. Kurz fired, and a sharp bolt of lightning crackled through the air. The man fell to the ground.  
“Damn, I wish I had a rifle. I can see a guy that looks like their commander or something in window of the main building...”  
Kurz definitely would have been able to fell the commander from there. His name might suggest that he was “short” or something like that, but when he had a rifle, no matter how far off his enemy, he could reach him.  
“Well, taking out their commander now would be pointless.”  
“But we’re in a predicament here. We’re about to be surrounded,” said Kurz, switching out the battery in his stun gun.  
“It’s your fault. If this is how it’s gonna end, then we should do something about this guy before we get killed...” Mao changed out the cylinder in her gun and looked down at Bruno, who was sleeping peacefully.  
“You mean kill him? Even after we came here to kidnap him?”  
“Just kidding. I just wish we could.”  
Right after she said that, she heard a new voice come in through her earpiece.  
“Don’t give up just yet, Uruz 2.”  
“Eh...?”  
“Looks like I made it in time. Keep your heads down.”  
“What? You’re coming over here? Sou-”  
But a deafening roar and a sudden blast cut off the rest of Mao’s words. The back wall exploded, scattering flames and fragments violently.  
Someone had blown up the wall from somewhere outside of the premises.  
The black smoke from the explosion had temporarily made the field of visibility zero. One could hear the voices of the mafia guards shouting and running into each other, as well as the sound of haphazard gunfire.  
“...?!”  
“Behind the wall, four o’clock. Run!”  
The smoke stung their eyes. Holding back the tears, Mao tugged on Kurz’s shoulder and ran as she was told in the direction of four o’clock- behind them and to the right. Almost a two-meter wide portion of the tall wall had collapsed, blown up by a bomb or something from the other side.  
As they stepped over the rubble and made their way to the outside of the wall, they heard the sound of braking come from the other side of the smoke.  
“This way!”  
They then saw an old Fiat parked on the road that encircled the estate. It was a cream-colored square coupe, and looked as if four people would be very crammed inside of it. It was a small car.  
Mao and Kurz did a double take when they saw who the driver was.  
“Sousuke?!”  
The one rushing towards their position in the car was their colleague, Sousuke Sagara.  
His black hair was a mess and he wore a serious look on his face. Over his black combat clothes he wore an olive-colored flight jacket.  
It was only natural that Mao and Kurz were surprised. Sousuke had not been included in this mission, and was supposed to be in Japan right now.  
“What are you doing?” said Kurz as he flung Bruno into the backseat. “You have midterms today, don’t you?!”  
“Affirmative. However, your escape route has been changed. I was ordered by the Lieutenant Commander to deliver that message and to help you escape.”  
“Changed, you say?”  
“The sea route bound for Marseilles has been cancelled. It seems the captain of the fishing boat that we hired was hospitalized for alcohol abuse. Some strings were pulled, and we’ll take-”  
Enemy bullets pierced through the smoke and shattered the Fiat’s rearview mirror.  
“Fini...?”  
“...we’ll take an air-route from the NATO air-force base to Turkey. There is a shuttle flight that always goes out that way. Tomorrow morning at the post office in Catania, we will get IDs and directives from the US armed forces, as well as marine uniforms-”  
“Save the explanations for later, just get us out of here!”  
“Roger,” he yelled at Mao, who was trying to get into the passenger-side seat when Sousuke stepped on the accelerator. The engine groaned and the rear wheels spun out, throwing up pebbles and dirt. The Fiat took off as if something had kicked it from behind.  
“...whoa! Isn’t that dangerous?!” Mao yelled as she checked the rear. Her expression changed as the hem of her skirt fluttered wildly around her.  
“The enemy is also dangerous,” Sousuke replied. “Even so...” he trailed off, giving Mao a side-glance.  
“It changes into a swimsuit? Were you planning on swimming to Marseilles?”  
“No! It’s not a swimsuit; it’s used in high society!”  
“Is that right?” Sousuke cut the wheel sharply. The car tilted wide left, causing Mao to hit her head on the passenger side 
window. The road was unpaved and extremely uneven; one would expect it to tear up this type of everyday car.  
“Your driving is horri-...!”  
“No problem.”  
“By the way, Mao- what are we gonna do about the Ferrari we left in the parking lot?” Kurz asked.  
“Leave me alone. It’s a rental, anyway.”  
“But the satellite communications equipment and whatnot is still in the trunk...”  
“What?! You idiot...!”  
“I set up some explosives, too. I press this switch, and 15 seconds later... BOOM. I can take care of it right now, but...”  
They had abandoned communications equipment that had the passwords entered in them. Sitting next to a now speechless Mao, Sousuke asked in a restrained voice.  
“What should we do? Turn around?”  
“...no way to, is there?! Right now-”  
Shuun! The sound cut through the air just above their heads, bullets flying everywhere.  
About 100 meters back on the road behind them was a black 4WD Cherokee coming straight at them. Men with the upper half of their bodies hanging out from the sunroof were shooting at them with their sub-machine guns nonstop.  
Crack!  
They heard the dry sound of bullet impacts. Holes appeared in the Fiat’s rear windshield, and shattered pieces of glass fell all over the inside of the car.  
“Turn around in this situation?! Press the detonation switch! It’s okay. Blow it up!”  
“Roger... and-”  
Kurz pressed the button on a remote switch about the size of a cell phone.  
“Okay, it worked. Farewell, Ferrari. Hello, Fiat.”  
“This car isn’t a piece of garbage.”  
Sousuke held on tight to the struggling wheel and stepped on the gas, but nothing could help the car’s lack of power. However, the pursuing 4WD had more than twice the power of the Fiat.  
“They’re gaining on us.”  
And in an instant, the black car was threateningly close by. When Mao realized that there was a big curve up ahead, she jumped halfway out of the Fiat’s sunroof.  
“Dammit...!”  
Clutching her gun tight with both hands, she aimed and fired. The enemy gunman was hit and fell into the car.  
She fired again and sparks flew off of the body of the Cherokee. It seemed to have bulletproof coating that her bullets couldn’t penetrate. Nevertheless, she obstinately kept firing until the magazine was empty.  
With just ten bullets left for her .45, she focused on the driver’s seat. The enemy’s bulletproof glass didn’t altogether stop the bullets- a number of small cracks developed, and the surface of the windshield turned white. The sharp curve was close.  
Knowing what she needed to do, she loaded up her last clip and fired again. She shot three bullets into each of the headlights, knocking them out.  
“We’re turning!”  
Immediately following, the Fiat grated against the bank and lunged into the turn. The body of the car leaned wide and the right-side tires rose off of the ground. At the same time, Mao, Sousuke, and Kurz moved to the right side of the car-  
“Whoa-”  
The car fell back down, its tires on the ground. The Fiat, now back under control, had somehow managed to make the turn. Shuddering like a baby on tottering legs, the weak car took off for a second time.  
On the other hand, with its front windshield cracked and both headlights busted out, the driver of the pursuing car didn’t see the turn. Without slowing down much at all, the Cherokee went over the curb, running the front wheels up the sharply inclining slope that ran along the roadside.  
The black car, along with the sound of the high-pitched squeal of the engine, rose up into the night sky.  
Their flight was of short duration. It rolled over on its left side, smashing along the ground.  
It turned over two or three times, scattering various-size parts and accessories. In an instant the Fiat was far away from the seriously damaged and now blazing 4WD.  
“Poor things. If they’d had wings, they could’ve flown, heh heh...” Mao said, saluting them by throwing a kiss.  
“Man, today’s been like a spy movie...” mumbled Kurz.  
The Fiat swerved off of the back road and up onto paved road.  
To the right and left side of the road the hilly landscape nearby was drawn in gently sloping curves. There was very little oncoming traffic, owing to the night. One minute, two minutes. The car was doing favorably well on its night ride.  
“Is it over already?”  
“That was almost too easy...”  
Then they saw the light from a pair of headlights come over a hill straight behind them. It was being handled very roughly and coming very fast. It looked like they were in for a fresh chase.  
“Is there just one?”  
“Just one is bad enough. I’m already out of...”  
“No, look,” said Sousuke.  
At first there was just one car. However, further down the road the angle changed, and as they got a better view over the hill, they saw another pair of headlights. And another. And another. The line of lights continued successively without interruption, until-  
“Th... thirteen...”  
Kurz’s jaw dropped.  
“Sousuke, can’t you go any faster?!”  
“It’s already at its limit. There’s too much weight,” Sousuke replied calmly. This car was just a compact city car with no power; of course it hadn’t been made to handle four adults in a car chase. But they didn’t have any weapons. If by some miracle they managed to escape, there were some weapons and ammunition hidden in a country church. But they were still a long way away from that church.  
Mao looked back at Bruno, who was snoring easily in the backseat, with a serious stare.  
“Well, it seems we could kill him and throw him out...”  
“Yeah. That seems to have become a good idea all of a sudden...” Kurz replied. They were fairly serious in their talk, and the problematic Vincent Bruno didn’t hear a thing.  
“You mean to make the car lighter?” Sousuke asked.  
“That’s right. If we don’t, they’re gonna catch up to us.”  
“In that case, that man’s weight alone won’t be enough. I put some weapons under the backseat that you can throw away. There’s an assault rifle, shotgun, disposable rocket launcher, and high-power grenades. Since all of it together weighs about 40 kilograms-”  
“What did you say?!”  
They shoved Bruno over, struggled around in the cramped quarters for a few seconds, and then lifted up the backseat. Inside were those pesky weapons. There was a German assault rifle, an Italian shotgun, and an American rocket. There was also a hearty supply of heavy arms that could easily pierce bulletproof glass.  
“Why didn’t you tell us before, idiot?!” yelled both Mao and Kurz in unison, their faces turning red in anger.  
“I didn’t?”  
“No, you didn’t! ...oh, for heaven’s sake!”  
They cut short their verbal abuse, took up the small arms, noisily cocked the levers, and verified that the ammunition was taken care of in each. Kurz broke out the rear windshield, which was already full of holes, and took aim with his rifle. Mao went back up through the sunroof and leveled out her shotgun, now filled with slug bullets.  
“All right, shall we get this party rolling again?”  
The cold touch of the steel settled within her, and the sensation put her in a trance.  
“Are you bastards ready?!”  
“Anytime.”  
“Any place.”  
The enemy cars got closer.  
Soon they would be there.  
Yeah. I like this kind of ride after all, thought Mao.  
“Rock and Roll!!” she yelled in a voice that could have beaten down a storm, and immediately started firing.  
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
“This is the first time I’ve ever been disgraced like this!” yelled the leader of the Barbara family in outrage. “This was my daughter’s birthday! The guests were checked, yet these burglars have managed to shake off my soldiers- and are still escaping even as we speak!”  
“I’m very sorry, Capo di Capi,” the head of security apologized humbly. Almost half of the vehicles that had been parked in the parking lot of the mansion were out in pursuit of the burglars.  
“However, they won’t escape this time. We’ve got them surrounded. We will get Mr. Bruno back, and make those bandit bastards suffer...”  
“I don’t give a damn about Bruno!” said Barbara, finally voicing his real opinion. “That guy’s just a nuisance. Kill him with the others, I don’t care! Use any means! Throw the ASes at ‘em! Anyone that gets in the way, even if it’s a bunch of little girls, you crush them like worms!!”  
“Th... the ASes, too?”  
“That’s right. I bought those robots for exactly this kind of situation. Make all of the soldiers move out now! Got it? Kill them! I want to see those bastards’ heads lined up in front of me!”  
“But if we use the ASes, the state government will surely-”  
“I don’t wanna hear it! If those bastards escape, I’ll twist off your head!!”  
“Understood. Please excuse me, sir...!”  
This was probably just military habit. The head of security stood straight up, then broke into a headlong run for the guard center.  
“Hmph...!” Barbara snorted, watching the retreating figure from behind. He laboriously took out a cigar and lit it. He had thought it would calm him down a little, but it didn’t help at all. 
When he thought about how he had been humiliated, he felt as if his head would explode in anger.  
Before he had ascended to his current position, he had always dealt out punishment to his enemies himself. It didn’t matter what kind of people they were, he would kill them and their entire family. Of course, he had even killed little children as well; but he had never felt any regret for it. He did it all in order to instill fear and hesitation into his enemy. He made sure that their children witnessed this spectacle with their own eyes.  
That’s right. He had to cheer up his daughter. His very delicate daughter must have received a terrible shock.  
Barbara reconsidered, took a guard and started to leave the parking lot. There was an array of the guests’ high-class cars: Jaguars, Lotuses, Porsches, Rolls-Royces, and Lamborghinis. Taking long strides, he started to pass by a cherry-red Ferarri-F40, when...  
He heard an electronic beeping sound, coming from the Ferrari next to him.  
“...?”  
In a moment, the electric tone got higher. Without thinking, Barbara stopped in his tracks and looked into the Ferrari, which was now emitting a different sound.  
Inside he found five kilograms of plastic explosives, which exploded a moment later.  
The blast reduced the car’s body to pieces in an instant. The gasoline caught fire and became a ball of flames, sweeping through the surrounding perimeter like a terrible and destructive storm. The hood was blown off, splitting the air like a Frisbee and hitting the wall of the main building some 50 meters away.  
Barbara, however, noticed nothing except his own death.  
Unfortunately, the kill orders he issued remained in effect for some time after.  
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
Same Time  
Choufu-shi, Tokyo, Japan 
Jindai High School  
 
Of course, Kaname Chidori had no way of knowing about the shoot ‘em up game going on halfway around the world.  
She had long black hair and was wearing a sailor uniform. While she had a vivacious appearance, she also somewhat carried the air of an old landlord. Her eyes had a sharp beauty to them without being flashy. Her proportions weren’t such that she could be a super-model, but she didn’t really have any flaws, either.  
A peaceful high school in peaceful Japan. The weather was also peaceful, with clear skies.  
Was this complete tranquility thanks to “him” not being here, since yesterday’s tests were also completely peaceful?  
Just before the morning’s first tests began, Kaname finished her preparations. In the seat next to her, one of her classmates answered her cell phone. Kaname overheard the conversation.  
“Ah, hello? It’s me... yeah, I’m about to take a test. Yeah, kinda. Ha ha ha... really. It sucks... but, I’ll do my best. Even Hiro knew...? Yeah... yeah.”  
She was probably talking to her boyfriend. That’s right, she said he’s a high school student.  
“Yeah... what am I doing right now? ...you were up all night? ...ah ha ha, sorry. That’s right, you had a report due, didn’t 
you? ...yeah ...yeah ...I know. I have to try hard...” she said in an enchanted voice different from normal.  
“Hmph, she sure is conceited, isn’t she...” Kaname mumbled to herself, her inferiority complex full throttle.  
Since early this morning she had been steeped in the world of the girl and her somewhere-else boyfriend.  
Really, could she be more shameless...?! She thought to herself along with other thoughts. But she would have been lying if she said that she wasn’t jealous of having a boyfriend like that.  
Having someone who would call her before she took the test because he wanted to hear her voice… what did it feel like to have someone of the opposite sex like that? What kind of conversation would she be having with what kind of guy right now?  
If I had that kind of relationship with someone, and we lived in different places- I would also make those kinds of faces, and talk in a small, cute voice like that, wouldn’t I?  
For example, if, hypothetically, he were my boyfriend?  
That’s a little beyond believability, isn’t it...  
Kaname was musing over these small thoughts when she heard the voice of her classmate, Kyouko Tokiwa.  
“Hey, Kaname.”  
“Huh?”  
“How did you do on today’s math test? I bet I did the worst on it... *sniff*”  
“Ahh... sorry, then. I think I did alright.”  
She avoided the question like any person who does perfect on a test would.  
She probably almost made a perfect grade on the English exam. She might get a modest grade in Classical Literature. She 
definitely did perfect on the Chemistry exam. And she certainly did perfect in Math II.  
And this test, too. Even though she wasn’t particularly strong in Science and Mathematics, she had the confidence that she could do perfect on it, as well.  
Tessa’s prediction had become reality. Ever since she had been awakened as one of the “Whispered”, the amount of knowledge she possessed had suddenly increased.  
It wasn’t that it felt creepy or anything. Without rousing her true feelings, she just turned her head.  
Kaname didn’t feel as if she had “become smart” about strange things. Now she was able to explain in detail the chemical formula for the conductive shape memory polymer used in the AS’s propulsion system, as well as how to make it. On top of being able to talk about the principle of the single-layer element that was used in the quantum results, she could also suggest unique and practical applications for it that no one else had noticed yet.  
But for her, it didn’t feel any different from talking about the way mackerel miso is cooked. But people in society wouldn’t know that if they garnished the miso with shredded ginger, the clean flavor would completely contrast that of the food.  
...that level of conversation.  
It was always that way, talking about watching dumb comedy shows and laughing out loud with her friends.  
Even though she was worried about many things, she didn’t think too deeply on these problems since it was just depressing. The trouble was that there seemed to be people out there who wanted to find out how to make this delicious miso soup by any means necessary, but-  
“Ah- that’s strange,” said Kyouko, and without knowing why, Kaname gathered her courage.  
“Kaname, your grades on the recent finals and math were at the top, weren’t they?”  
“No, well... it was just luck.”  
“What kind of study methods are you using? Or are you cheating? Whichever it is, tell me.” Her large eyes lit up behind her dragonfly glasses.  
“It’s a secret. Or as he would say, ‘You aren’t qualified to know.’ Ha ha ha”  
“*pfft* ...speaking of which, it doesn’t look like Sagara is coming today either, does it?” said Kyouko, bringing up the subject because of Kaname’s impersonation.  
Even though they were in the middle of the important mid-term exams, Sousuke was absent from school. Up until now there had been times where he would suddenly disappear for two or three days, but this was the first time he had missed during tests.  
“Guess not. Does that idiot not care whether or not he fails? Adding that to his already problematic behavior...”  
She may have said it in a nonchalant fashion, but truthfully, Kaname was worried. He didn’t think enough about his situation as a student. No matter how easygoing this school was, the teachers probably wouldn’t stay silent on the subject forever.  
“It really is a problem, huh? Ah-ha...”  
“Did you trying calling his cell? If you threaten him, he might come,” Kyouko said, gladly taking out her new phone. She wanted to use it for something since she had just bought it recently.  
“It’s impossible. I’m never able to get a hold of him in times like this. More than likely, he’s off in some fields or deep in the mountains somewhere fishing or something like that.”  
“You don’t know for sure though, right? It might go through unexpectedly.”  
“I said it was impossible. Just quit it already.” Kaname negligently stopped, but Kyouko continued on, putting the phone up to her ear. She was silent for a little while, quietly waiting for an answer.  
“...see? Can’t get through, can you?”  
“Hmm...”  
“That’s how it always is. I only get the answering machine service. Really, when it comes to him-”  
“It picked up.”  
“Huh?”  
“See,” replied Kyouko, handing the phone over.  
Next to her, Kaname’s predecessor was still unchanged, whispering words of love to her boyfriend over the phone. She could somehow see her own form superimposed on the girl’s. Feeling a sort of groundless embarrassment, Kaname hesitatingly took the phone and half-doubtedly answered.  
“...hello?”  
“Chidori?! What is it!?” yelled a far-off voice. There was a lot of crackling and harsh noise mixed in, but it was unmistakably Sousuke.  
“Ah... Sousuke. Where are you?”  
“Canicatti!”  
“Can cutting?...what?”  
What kind of reason is that? Just what is he planning to do? She also worried about the random time lag it was taking to receive his replies.  
“Hey... what about the tests since yesterday? Did you forget?”  
“I didn’t forget, but there was urgent business! It couldn’t be helped!!”  
“Yes it could. Just as an example, what about the three hours I spent teaching you Classical Literature, which is your worst subject? The test is about to start.”  
“I’m... sorry about that!” The noise got loud for a moment.  
“‘I’m sorry’, ‘I’m sorry’, really...! And another thing! I lied to the teacher about what happened to the car that you tore up!”  
This was the explanation that Kaname gave to Eri Kagurazaka:  
“He wanted to do you a favor by making some adjustments to your car. However, he became sick halfway through, left school early and went by himself to his family hospital. He said ‘When I’ve recovered, I will come straight back and return her car to normal,’ and wanted you to be patient for just a few days.”  
...is what she said. It was a pretty pathetic explanation, but Eri, being the good sort of person she was and with tears in her eyes, said “Is that right... this is the first I’ve heard of his chronic illness, but... if it’s like you say, I’ll just wait and not make a problem out of it.”  
For now, the piecemeal car had been left behind the school building covered by a vinyl tarp.  
“Do you understand what I had to go through!?”  
For a short while, there was no reply. Five seconds, six seconds, seven seconds. Just as she started to get annoyed, she heard a short answer.  
“I understand!”  
“No, you don’t! You’re not sincere at all! What do you think is the reason for other people’s charity!? Really! When it comes to you, why are you always, ALWAYS causing problems for others- hey, are you listening!?”  
“Yes! I’m list-”  
Right then, there was a thunderous roar. Then came a jarring and violent shaking noise, followed by high-pitched interference. Then there was a beat, and then Sousuke continued.  
“I’m listening! -they’re coming straight at us!!” Sousuke shouted. Kaname was taken aback by his strange remark.  
“Huh? Wh-what did you say?”  
“No, it was something on this end! I’m in the middle of driving right now!!” A moment later the sound of something like a large firework launching could be heard over the phone.  
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
To the distant land of Italy - The sound of a phone connected with Sousuke, Kaname remembers that she was somehow embarrassed. 
 
Same Time  
Northern Sicily  
On the Outskirts of Canicatti  
 
The Mafia Benz had been hit by the rocket in its tracks, shot up into the air and was gushing flames.  
The burning car was skidding along the stone-paved road backwards when the pursuing car coming from behind hit it, causing it to go into an impressive spin. Sousuke took no notice of the pursuing vehicles as they became entangled and plunged into the desolate marketplace.  
The place that they went into was an old town with stone buildings built next to each other.  
The Fiat raced down the street late into the night at high speed without any hesitation at all.  
“That’s number ten! Three more left!” yelled Mao, tossing the disposable rocket launcher away. Her dress was covered in soot and torn here and there, leaving her pretty much half-naked.  
“Was that the last rocket just now!?” yelled Kurz as he changed the cylinder out on his rifle. He had cast off his tuxedo jacket, and his blonde hair was in disarray.  
“Affirmative. We’re down to only grenades now!”  
“Dammit.”  
“Fire at their grill! I’ll keep the shooter’s head down!”  
Another one of their pursuers fired at them. Kurz and Mao returned fire. In the middle of all of this chaotic noise, over a satellite circuit- Kaname repeated herself, oblivious to what was going on.  
“Hello? In the middle of driving- what, a car?”  
“Affirmative!” shouted Sousuke over his radio headset as he roughly commanded the steering wheel.  
“That’s dangerous. Talking on a cell phone while driving is against the law, you know? Not to mention the fact that you’re a high school student. Why don’t you stop just this once?”  
“I can’t do that, either! If I stop, I won’t be able to take the make-up exams!”  
“Huh?”  
His Fiat was now in a wretched state, full of bullet holes and scratches, a running piece of scrap, so to speak. However, there wasn’t much difference between the car’s engine and its passengers, as they both seemed to need a miracle.  
“Well, make-up exams can’t be helped, can they? But are you seriously going to risk your credits? This is different from all the times you’ve skipped before.”  
“It’s a mission! It can’t be helped!”  
The Fiat crashed through a mountain of vegetable baskets that had been arranged by the side of the road. He slid the back wheels around to go up on the sidewalk and towards a small alleyway. The enemy persistently followed them. The sturdy BMW mowed down cases of sake bottles, a garbage bin, some bikes and a cart, and in a moment was pressing closer to them.  
“But you can’t explain your circumstances to the teacher, can you? If you lose your credits, you won’t be able to move up a grade, will you? You won’t be in third year.”  
“If you put it like that, I guess not!”  
Gunfire, gunfire, gunfire.  
The walls of the winding alleyway rushed by front to back at fierce speed. The pursuing vehicle hit its front bumper up against the back of the Fiat. The steering wheel struggled and the frame groaned.  
“What’ll you do if you fail? The rest of us will graduate before you.”  
“That’s a problem!”  
The engine of the enemy car was emitting smoke. It seemed that Kurz’s rifle had been effective. The vehicle wobbled, slipped and went into a spin. It hit the stone wall and moved no more.  
“Two more to go!”  
The Fiat rushed out of the alleyway. One of the enemy vehicles got there before it, cut across the street and came up close behind them.  
“...it’s a problem for me, too.”  
“What did you say!?”  
Mao and Kurz yelled out something, firing the shotgun and rifle.  
 
 
 
“I couldn’t hear you! Could you say it aga-”  
They concentrated all of their fire on the enemy’s front wheels. The wheel cap blew off and bounced over the surface of the road. Up ahead was a T-bone curve, which they followed. Sousuke cut the wheel quickly.  
The pursuing vehicle, now with its front tires blown out, flew up onto the sidewalk without even attempting the turn. It plunged into a vacant restaurant, scattering broken glass fragments and dust everywhere. The shrill sound of its horn pierced the night.  
“Just one more!” Mao yelled.  
“What’s going on? Who’s there?”  
“Don’t worry about it! Anyway- what’s a problem!?”  
Grinding its tires, the last one came rushing up from behind. It was a very large pick-up truck, and it caught up without passing them. Keeping alongside the Fiat, the truck rammed into it violently.  
“Oh, nevermind... are you preoccupied by any chance?”  
“No, it’s just noisy aroun-!”  
There was a strong impact, followed by a violent shock. The little car scraped up against the wall.  
The truck rammed the Fiat a second time. The rear bumper had fallen halfway off and was scraping along the pavement, emitting sparks so bright they would be painful to look at.  
“Sousuke?”  
“It’s just noisy around here! The next one’s already taken care of!”  
“Ah, I see... you know, sometimes I get the feeling that you don’t take what I’m saying seriously, Sousuke.”  
“I’m always serious! Even now-”  
“Sousuke, hit the brakes!” yelled Kurz, pulling the pin from a grenade and throwing it into the bed of the truck beside them.  
Sousuke reacted immediately, squealing the breaks. The Fiat stopped and jerked forward, but the enemy truck kept going.  
“Get down!”  
“Hello?”  
Immediately after, the deserted hand-grenade in the bed of the truck blew up.  
The fragments flew into the Fiat as well, cutting holes in the car here and there as if the body were made of paper.  
The back half of the truck was destroyed, causing it to lose its balance. Black smoke started pouring from it as it went skidding into the town plaza, crashing into the edge of the water fountain located in the center. Even so, the truck lost none of its momentum and its body went flying, turning sideways and going into a spin, falling into the middle of the fountain- There was a large splashing sound, followed by the scream of ripping metal.  
“...”  
They quickly stopped the Fiat in front of the Plaza. Sousuke and the others looked in the direction of the fountain, and saw the blackened truck skewered upside-down upon a spire-like sculpture.  
The burnt wheels were facing up towards the sky, turning over and over and spewing smoke.  
“Now that’s art for you. Would you call that a fusion of modern with classical?” Kurz made a rectangular shape with his fingers, framing the scene.  
“And that’s zero... even though, well... it wasn’t very pretty,” groaned Mao, as she fixed the chest-area of her dress which was slipping down.  
The mafia soldiers crawled out from the open door and kicked up the water. They argued about what had happened, and then ran off.  
This was the last of the pursuing vehicles for now.  
Sousuke fixed his radio headset, and hurriedly started calling out to the other end.  
“Chidori. We’re finished. Now... what were you talking about?”  
There was no reply for a while, only an ill-tempered silence.  
“...I don’t remember.”  
“Huh?”  
“Anyway, just come to school as soon as possible.”  
“Okay, I underst-”  
“Idiot.”  
The voice cut off. The satellite circuit communication was terminated from the abandoned end in Japan. Sousuke turned the radio switch off and breathed a deep sigh.  
They had gotten the best of the enemy vehicles, but they couldn’t relax yet. It was about time for the town’s police to come out. Since they didn’t have a substitute car, they decided it would be best to leave the town while they were still in the beat-up little car.  
It was fairly shot, but somehow managed to keep going.  
“Anyway, we need to go east,” said Mao. “We’ll throw the car away in front of a town called Delia. There we’ll pick up a better car.”  
“What about the means of supplying one?” asked Sousuke.  
“The best idea is to steal one, of course. If we turn off of the main road and drive all night, we should reach Catania before tomorrow afternoon.”  
“Ahh, an all-nighter, huh? Geez,” complained Kurz. Next to him Vincent Bruno still slept, talking in a muffled voice. He muttered the name of some unknown woman, loosely grinning.  
“He really is a cocky one, isn’t he? You sure this guy’s a spy?”  
“That’s what the Lieutenant Commander and Tessa said. He also admitted to it,” Mao answered, looking into the cracked rearview mirror. She wiped the soot off of her excited face, and tidied up her messy hair.  
“I could cry,” Kurz groaned. He pulled off the butterfly necktie that was scratching his neck and threw it out the window.  
There was only the clatter of the shaking car frame and the sound of the tires kicking up pebbles.  
Their car ran along in the middle of some gently sloping hill country. In the daytime, it probably commanded a view of the plentiful, rural green landscape. However, this dark farm road was now only lit up by their one headlight, along with light from the moon and the stars in the night sky.  
I wonder if I’ll be able to return to Japan by the day after tomorrow... Sousuke thought to himself.  
Doubt crept into his mind, a small uneasiness. He had missed his tests, and he wasn’t confident that he could make it in time for the make-ups. If Ms. Kagurazaka were to investigate into the reason he had missed, how would he explain it this time? He was also worried about the matter of her disassembled car. It would be a problem if he couldn’t pass. But why- why would it be such a problem?  
He went over these things again and again in his mind. Then, as they were crossing over a small hill, Sousuke heard a noise.  
At first he thought he was hearing things, but he wasn’t.  
Then he thought it might be something wrong with the engine. That also wasn’t it.  
He could definitely hear it. From far away.  
Whirrr... the sound of turbine blades spinning at high velocity. The low, muffled sound of the exhaust. The intermittent sound of heavy footsteps. Together, they were gradually approaching closer to the area where Sousuke and the others were.  
“Hey,” Sousuke started to say to Mao and Kurz, but he needn’t have bothered; the two were already up and looking around the area. However, their field of vision was impaired by the dense growth of pitch-black shrubbery on both sides of the road.  
“It’s coming from the direction of five o’clock,” said Kurz. From behind them and to the right, a burst of leaves went flying out from the side facing a distant thicket. Whatever the enormous thing was, it was plowing down all of the trees like matchsticks.  
The sound grew louder. Now there was no doubt. It carried a gas turbine engine, and had a body that walked upon two legs. In other words-  
“It’s an AS. This is bad”  
“Is it the mafia’s?”  
“One of their colleagues’. They bought up some old models from Eastern Europe and Russia with the intention of palming them off on some African dictators or guerrilla groups. The regulations for western equipment are strict, but recently Soviet-made-”  
“It’s coming!”  
The last of the shrubbery was leveled, and a machine in the shape of a gigantic human appeared.  
It was a Soviet-made Arm Slave, the Rk-92 Savage. The eight meter-tall body stood amidst the dancing foliage. Its huge, frog-like head was attached to the top of a squat, egg-shaped torso. In its right hand it carried a small-type machine gun.  
A faint red light shone in both of its eyes, which were now fixed upon the Fiat. In the next instant, the AS was tearing up the 
earth underneath it as broke into a run with explosive acceleration and power.  
“Damn... if it’s not one thing, it’s another. They’re a really persistent bunch, aren’t they? They want to end it with this.”  
“It is the end. At this rate, we’re gonna...! Can’t you go any faster!?”  
“I keep telling you, this is the limit.”  
A small car like this could carry four people, but they were on unpaved, bad road. No matter how much he pushed it, the most it would go was about 100 kilometers per hour. This wasn’t enough against the following Savage, which, even over this kind terrain, could run about 130 kilometers at high speed. But this number didn’t surpass the catalog’s safety documentation- it would be possible to run even further if the machine had been tweaked.  
It wasn’t the only one, though. There were two, no, three of them. One by one, they broke through the thicket, jumped onto the road and started to catch up.  
“We can’t escape,” Sousuke said under his breath. Escape route guidance and make-up exams were out of the question now. If they were less than perfect, he might never be able to return to school.  
“Guess this means they won’t let us surrender.”  
“Not after they’ve gone to this extent...”  
As they were saying this, the first Savage approached the Fiat. It was traveling in a forward-bent position at high speed. The dark green AS then lifted its massive left arm over its head. It seemed it was going to strike without using its gun.  
“Get down!”  
Sousuke slammed on the brakes. The Savage’s left arm made a horizontal cut, hitting the top of the car. It tore off the roof, and the car lurched right.  
“Geh...!!”  
They were hit again. Sousuke cut the wheel and ran underneath the feet of the Savage. They seemed in imminent danger of being trampled, but they were able to dodge the enemy’s blow.  
However, the Fiat was about at its limit. There was a weird squealing sound coming from the front wheels, and white smoke was spewing from the engine. The RPMs wouldn’t go up, and their speed went down.  
The speed at which the Savage was running dropped off a little while it reorganized itself. It quit hitting the car, and instead decided to fire on it. It aimed the machine gun in its right hand towards the Fiat.  
It’s no use- Thought the three of them at the same time.  
Just then, something long and slender hit the Savage’s front armor. There was also an explosion at about the same time. After a short delay, a deafening sound resounded throughout the neighboring area.  
“!?”  
It was only visible for a second, but that was an anti-tank dagger- was what Sousuke judged. The bomb that the AS had thrown hit the enemy suit right in its center. The Savage staggered, went up in a mass of flames and fell over. The other two machines were taken aback by this sudden assault, but deployed with keen movements nevertheless.  
“Who is it? Where are they?” Mao looked all around the area.  
A vague shadow rose up from the dark farm road up ahead of them. The atmosphere was strained, and pale lightening lit up the sky. An AS appeared as if it had seeped from some 
imperceptible membrane. That was the invisibility function of the ECS.  
“An M9?”  
They knew that agile silhouette well. The figure that had just appeared was the 3rd generation AS that Sousuke and the others normally piloted, the M9 Gernsback. However, they could see some subtle differences between this one and the M9. Besides the upper arms and thighs having more volume, the shape of the head was fairly different. Actually, it looked more like the Arbalest. The color wasn’t grey, but jet black. It was completely black from the top of its head to the tips of its toes, except for a faint orange light from the sensors on its head.  
“Who are they with?”  
“I don’t know.”  
The black M9 sprinted forth.  
The two other Arm Slaves postponed their attack on Sousuke and the others and entered into battle with the unknown machine. One went to the left, and the other to the right, moving at high speed. Just as they made like they were going to pin the M9 between them-  
Before the enemy machines could fire, the black M9 jumped.  
It cleared the machine gun’s line of fire, deftly making use of obstacles in the way, and weaving through the terrain with intense movements, drew close to one of the ASes. Moving in the blink of an eye, the M9 pulled the monomolecular cutter from out of its armpit and plunged it into the Savage’s chest as it went by it.  
The armor let out an awful scream.  
It had been an exact hit to the cockpit. The pilot probably had been killed instantly. It was an efficient, but also ruthless, way of doing things. The remaining unit didn’t even having the luxury 
of flinching. While it randomly fired its machine gun, the black M9 faced it and charged. Using the enemy it had slaughtered just a moment ago as a shield, the M9 passed the bombarding fire without trouble.  
The two drew closer. The M9 threw away its shield, moving lightly. In the next instant, the last Savage blew up. The M9 had driven its anti-tank dagger into it from a close distance, and in a second had sheltered itself from the force of the blast. If an amateur had been watching, they probably would have only been able to discern that something had happened.  
The fuel tank of the AS that had been used as a shield finally caught fire and exploded, causing the unit to go up in a blaze. All around the Fiat, which could now only drive very sluggishly, the three Savages burned, sending up black smoke.  
From the first shot, the battle had lasted roughly 30 seconds.  
“...ha haa,” exclaimed Kurz. Without using any firearms, it had beaten three units with just standard issue knives.  
Even though the M9’s mobility completely surpassed that of the Savage’s, this particular unit’s pilot was quite exceptional.  
The black unit ran beside the Fiat without any appearance of stopping. The M9’s head was equipped with dual sensors like the Arbalest was.  
Like a bird of prey, it looked downed on Sousuke and the others with its sharp eyes. The M9 then let out a groan, which was the sound of its coolant ventilation system. It didn’t do much for the post-combat’s temporary radiation disposal, but it still made a noise that sounded very much like the growl of a tiger or a lion.  
“...”  
The M9 pointed its finger east, then changed course and headed west. In a moment it was far away from Sousuke and the others. They were speechless, not knowing what to say.  
  
 
 
“Huh? What just...”  
It slid back its armor here and there, exposing a red lens-shaped part. It then operated its ECS, and a laser screen scorched through the atmosphere, enveloping the unit in a veil of light. At once the M9 disappeared, melting into the surrounding darkness.  
Only a thin purple-colored band remained, trailing after it.  
Silence covered the area.  
“...What’s going on? Who was in that thing?”  
“No idea.”  
“But, it was probably one of ours, right?”  
“It would seem so, but...”  
“Well, who was it, then?”  
The three just let the vanished mysterious unit pass on, dumbfounded.  
It ended without them knowing the identity of the black M9.  
Right now Mithril was supposed to be the only group in the world who employed the latest M9 models. Even in the American military, the EMD (technology, production development) was still in the test phases. Not to mention the fact that the only ones who knew about the secret operation in Sicily were Tessa, Mardukas, and Kalinin.  
Kalinin had heard from somewhere, and had even sent reinforcements... that was the most natural assumption, but without revealing any affiliation, without even saying one thing, they were left with no explanation as to why he just disappeared like that. In the end, Mao called Kalinin on the satellite transmitter that Sousuke had brought, requesting more information.  
“You are not qualified to know,” replied Kalinin in his usual, businesslike tone.  
“Even though I was there?”  
“No, not even then. Right now you just concentrate on getting out of there.”  
“...Understood, Sir. Mao out.”  
After the communication ended, Mao began ranting.  
“Ahhh, he makes me sick! Why does that old man always, ALWAYS have to be like that?! For Christ’s sake...!!”  
“Oh please. You say that, but just seeing his shadow makes the women on base squeal. Even though I’m younger, more handsome, and not to mention much nicer than he is,” complained Kurz, to which Sousuke gave a surprised look.  
“The Lt. Commander does?”  
“That’s right. You didn’t know? Try paying attention to what they say in the cafeteria. The girls in communications and the girls in correspondence are always making a fuss, saying ‘The Lt. Commander is so cool, isn’t he?’ There’s a rumor that recently he and Nora from the tech department have been having secret meetings, just the two of them.”  
“With Lt. Lemming? What kind of secret meetings?”  
“Secret meetings are secret meetings. Even the Lt. Commander’s a man. Whatever he does, he does it well. Heh heh heh...”  
“Hmm...”  
Sousuke didn’t understand one thing of what Kurz had said just now. But he guessed from the way he was laughing that it was probably the Lt. Commander’s uncharacteristic behavior.  
When it came to Kalinin’s female relationships, Sousuke only knew about his wife who died in an accident back in the Russia days. His wife Iryna was a moderately well-known violinist, as well as a fragile beauty with slender features. Come to think of it, Lt. Nora Lemming sort of resembled Iryna somehow.  
“But that’s enough of peoples’ stories for now. Let’s hurry up and blow this island already.”  
“Right.”  
Their conversation ended, and they headed towards Catania as per their orders.  
The rest of their escape went so smoothly that it was almost disappointing.  
They switched out cars in a nearby town and continued driving through the night. In Catania they obtained some fake identification papers as well as American military uniforms, and from there headed to the NATO air base nearby. Mao had formally been an officer in the Marines, and because the security at this little country base was so lax, slipping in was extremely easy.  
They also boarded a transport plane going to the Aviano air base in Northern Italy without any difficulty.  
They let their kidnap victim Vincent Bruno sleep the entire time. They dressed him in a discharged officer’s uniform and put him in a wheelchair, giving the explanation that “He was seriously injured while on a top secret mission in the Middle East, and has been in a comatose state most of the time.” Sicily was the place that held memories of him when he had been healthy, and they were bringing him there at his family’s request. Some members of his family were senators of certain renown, so this trip was a secret. It was a shame that being exposed to the smell of the dirt here hadn’t stirred his senses... that was their story.  
“He’s... unconscious? Like this?”  
The steward on the transport plane looked very suspiciously at Bruno, who was a pretty strapping guy for someone in a coma.  
“That’s right. But his internal organs are quite healthy... What’s that look for?” said Mao, who was wearing the insignia of a Lieutenant, to the steward, who was a Corporal.  
“No, it’s just...”  
“Don’t you dare look at this man like that. This man is the way he is because he fought for his country. Someone like you couldn’t even begin to comprehend one ten-thousandth of the hell that this man has seen. I won’t stand for you pitying him or scorning him!”  
“I-I’m very sorry, Ma’am. Please forgive me if I’ve offended- ” 
“No, your attitude has been incorrigible. I want your full name, rank, identification number and post right now!”  
The corporal, who now looked as if he were about to cry, gave her his information while apologizing over and over again, and didn’t press the subject of Bruno any further. They probably wouldn’t have been able to travel like this at a civilian airport.  
“You’re quite an actress.”  
“I look up to you,” both Sousuke and Kurz exclaimed after the corporal had run off. Mao’s face looked fed up.  
“Ahh, talking like that wore me out. I thought I’d slip up and say the F-word or something like that...”  
Afterwards, without any other problems arising, the transport plane on which they were riding took off ten minutes late.  
A feeling of relief swept over them.  
After this, the plans were for Mao and Kurz to continue on to Australia, bringing Bruno into Mithril’s Operations Headquarters. On the way they would part with Sousuke, who would then return to Japan alone. He would probably arrive in Tokyo tomorrow.  
The sound of the turbo propeller engines resounded inside the plane. It was a terrible noise, but not something they couldn’t get used to.  
The seats rattled, and there were only five or six soldiers sitting in them.  
The light from the autumn Sicilian sun filtered in through the windows on the plane. It was bright and made it hard to sleep. They hadn’t slept any since the night before, but they still needed time for their excited nerves to settle down.  
“Anyway-” said Kurz, settling into a crude seat. He had broken the languid silence that had continued for the ten minutes since take-off.  
“Are you okay?”  
“What do you mean?” returned Sousuke sullenly, going over World History vocabulary to himself.  
“That’s what I mean. The tests- you missed them, didn’t you?”  
“Yes.”  
It’s true, missing the midterms did hurt... thought Sousuke.  
Being called out suddenly for an overseas mission, on top of already missing school no telling how many times without any excuse were hurting his grades in a number of subjects. At this rate, just as Kaname said, he might fail.  
“However, this job is important, too. Actually, who knows what would’ve happened if I hadn’t come last night,” said Sousuke, pointing out when Mao and Kurz had been surrounded back at the mafia’s mansion.  
“Yeah, we would have been in trouble then, wouldn’t we?”  
“Mmm. Maybe so,” answered Mao arrogantly from the seat in front of them. “Actually, I had thought out several moves ahead back then.”  
“I see...” said Sousuke downheartedly, feeling a little unnecessary. Somehow he got the feeling she was really saying “It would have been better for you to take your exams quietly without tagging along with us.”  
“No,” Mao added after some consideration, “you really saved us back there. But you know, I’m a little worried about you, too. What were you saying...?”  
“About my passing?”  
“No, not that. I meant everything about your situation. Going to school while guarding Kaname, going out on missions like this, not to mention them pushing that ‘Arbalest’ on you, too- don’t you think that’s too much responsibility?”  
“...”  
“In the beginning, I thought, ‘It’s okay, it’s only temporary,’ because you were managing your job without any problems. But recently-”  
“I haven’t made any mistakes.”  
“That’s not what I meant. It’s purely a physical and temporary problem. Actually, doing this and going to school has become pretty bad for you, hasn’t it?”  
“That might be so, but...”  
“No matter how shorthanded we are, you have a limit. If I was in your place, I would let the Lt. Commander have it for sure.”  
“But!” interjected Kurz, “if you think about it, well, isn’t it okay? School and stuff, as long as he’s reasonable about it. He entered with forged papers anyway, so there’s no reason that he has to push himself to graduate.”  
Sousuke went undercover at Jindai High School in order to better guard Kaname as best he could. His profession up to this point had been as a soldier of Mithril, and being a high school student was only a temporary placement. There were fundamental 
differences between him and Kaname, as well as the other students. As Kurz had said, it was not necessary for him to push himself to graduate from high school.  
“Well, I guess you’re right...” said Mao in a dreamy voice, turning back and glancing in Sousuke’s direction for a moment. “You seem to have been listening to what we have to say about it, but... what do you think?”  
“About what?”  
“About your plans for the future.”  
“I’ll follow orders. That’s all,” he answered calmly, gazing out of the window from which sunlight was now pouring through.  
If it had been the usual Mao, she just would have laughed at Sousuke’s naïve answer- but this time, for some reason, she became irritated and snapped back at him.  
“You always say that. I’m talking about your plans for your life, here. You’re only seventeen, aren’t you? What are you going to do starting right now? Haven’t you at least thought about it a little bit? Missions, orders- you just use them as an excuse to run away.”  
“Run away? Me?”  
“That’s right. Since it’s easier to answer ‘Yes, Sir’ to what people say before you’re even asked.”  
“...”  
“You’re strangely involved in this one,” said Kurz.  
“Not really. It’s just what I’ve been thinking for a while.”  
And with that, Mao became quiet.  
From the window, Sousuke could see Mt. Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, far off into the distance. The atmosphere was rather thick, and Etna’s form was shrouded in a grey haze.  
My plans for the future... 
For all that Mao had said, Sousuke had not gotten angry. In fact, it had made him think. It had also sounded a lot like what Kaname had just said to him the night before.  
My plans for my life.  
He vaguely followed the consideration of its meaning, and when he really, really thought about it, he felt like it was the first time he had ever heard those words. If he reworded them, it meant his personal long-term goals. What would he be doing five years from now, ten years from now- look at that, and decide on guidelines for his life. That’s what those words meant.  
Up until now, he had never thought about himself five years from now. He hadn’t even been aware of that kind of existence. For most of Sousuke Sagara’s past, he had been involved in conflict and hard battles just to survive. Does a wild animal that doesn’t even know where tomorrow’s food will come from worry about what will happen five years from now? Words such as ‘future’ hadn’t resounded vacantly in his ears.  
His future? Doesn’t matter. He had chosen the security of ammunition over his future.  
That was how he had always felt. At least, until six months ago.  
He barely felt it as change had worked its way into that bleak state of mind. The life that he spent with Kaname and everyone else attending Jindai High School was beginning to affect his heart in a way that Sousuke couldn’t see. It was as if someone were dissolving a sheet of ice, so that the vague outline of what life had to offer could be shown to him.  
A future. I have one of those, don’t I?  
Somewhere in the corner of his mind, he’d sometimes wonder this to himself. He didn’t know the answer, but at the very least he had started to ask the question. This was the change.  
Days went by, and no one changed.  
There was an end to every kind of life-style, and that wave would sweep even him away.  
The normal everyday comes to an end, bringing in the next future- that indistinct truth made Sousuke feel uneasy.  
“Kurz...”  
“What is it?”  
“What will you be doing five years from now?” Sousuke asked suddenly. Kurz gave him a blank look.  
“Let’s see. Well, I’d like to be well-off living with a good-looking woman.”  
“Do you think you’ll be able to?”  
“Who knows,” answered Kurz, adjusting his military hat low over his eyes. They arm wrestled, and after a big yawn, Kurz added, “I don’t know, but... there’s no harm in going ahead and thinking it. ‘Night.”  
Kurz was silent after that. Sousuke looked at the seat in front of him, and could see Mao’s head resting against the wall and hear her quiet breathing as she slept.  
Mt. Etna receded into the distance as their plane left Sicily.  
 


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