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Full Metal Panic! - Volume 5 - Chapter 3.2


Chapter 3: Black and White (continued)  
 
 
October 20th, 19:05 (Western Pacific Standard Time)  
Northern Part of Merida Island Base  
Practice Grounds  
 
Waves of information came surging in over the battle-status cockpit screen.  
The digital images of the scenery captured by the optical sensors were streaming in very fast.  
The jungle had started to cool down in the twilight, and the sky was harmoniously dyed in shades of crimson and purple. The sudden gusts of wind that the ASes caused violently shook the now-darkened trees.  
The afterimages of everything appeared at the top of the screen and vanished.  
 
There were many types of gauges. A G-meter going up and down little by little. A bearings grid rotating left and right. A variable grappler mode reticule. The target box and motion indicator ran wild, the power gauge expanded and contracted, and the AI’s buzzers sounded off in rapid succession.  
 
<Movement detected!>  
From the direction of 8 o’clock, behind from the left.  
Lieutenant Clouseau’s M9 closed in on the Arbalest, which was hidden in the dense thicket.  
 
The jet black AS was approaching. It had two flaming orange eyes.  
“...!”  
Impact.  
Sousuke’s Arbalest narrowly dodged it. The black M9’s training knife grazed its armor.  
There was also a sharp flash. He lunged, swung at him, then reeled off a succession of roundhouse kicks.  
 
While provocative, it also had a unique rhythm to it that felt like some kind of serene dance. And while full of energy, somewhere within it one could feel the silence and depth of a lake.  
What are these moves?  
Human; extremely human-like moves. He couldn’t believe that his opponent was an Arm Slave. Throbbing muscles and the smell of sweat, a beating heart, even bones crunching- he could almost sense these in it.  
But above all else, this black M9 was-  
Strong...!  
That’s right. He was strong. He was Sousuke’s equal- no, even better than him. This was the first time that he had ever met a pilot with this much skill in battle.  
Lieutenant Belfangan Clouseau. What in the world was he?  
Sousuke used some diversion fire and jumped in from behind.  
The leaping power of the “Third Generation ASes” such as the Arbalest and M9s far exceeded that of previous models. If you put it on a human scale, it had the power to jump over a two-story house with ease. By adopting the joint structure of a grasshopper’s leg, it now surpassed the explosive acceleration capability of any kind of vehicle or aircraft.  
However, Clouseau’s attacks were extremely persistent. The black M9 jumped up one beat later and went after the Arbalest in midair. It seemed as if they were going to collide like that, but then he caught hold of the Arbalest’s ankles and-  
“!?”  
By the time Sousuke noticed, the sky and ground were upside-down.  
Using the momentum of his own AS, Clouseau pulled the Arbalest down. The M9 then clasped around the Arbalest as it started to fall face down.  
Clouseau planned to fling the Arbalest into the ground while sitting astride it like a horse.  
Sousuke maneuvered his AS, and by kicking and elbowing, managed to shake his opponent off of him. The ground was close. He wouldn’t make it. He turned the machine around and landed on his shoulders. The Arbalest rolled across the ground, spraying up mud. Sousuke felt the impact, that even the newest model shock-absorption system couldn’t handle, throughout his entire body.  
“...uh”  
Among the bad-mouthed soldiers, the AS was called a “cocktail shaker”. This term came from the terrible impact that occurred during combat, when this kind of relentless treatment would befall the passenger. And sure enough, Sousuke had been the abused ice in the bartender’s shaker just now.  
Sousuke disregarded the pain and jumped back on the controls. He quickly checked the damage report on the screen, and turned around to face his enemy. Clouseau’s M9 slowly stood up.  
“Just like I thought. Sergeant Sagara, you’re a second-rate pilot,” Clouseau said over the radio.  
“What?”  
“Your fighting style has “skill”, but no “art”. You understand what that means?”  
“...”  
“You don’t, huh? That’s why I said you’re second-rate. The second-rate subordinate of your previous second-rate commander. And I’ve been assigned to such a team, too.”  
Previous commander. He meant Captain McAllen. It seemed that he was going to keep bad-mouthing him until the end.  
In front of Sousuke’s watchful eye, Clouseau slowly turned around and flung his training knife away. The edge of the training knife contained paint-covered urethane foam. The tip had the same structure as a felt-tip pen. Unlike the monomolecular cutter that they used for actual combat, only paint was left on the “cutting” section, so that there would be no danger of killing your training partner.  
“...?”  
“Throw that toy away. Why not fight for real?” 
The black M9 then pulled out a large-scale knife from the hard point on its hip. Actually, it was more accurate to call it a “small sword” instead. It had twice the length and width of an ordinary knife, and there was something ominous in the M9’s look.  
It was an Israeli-made monomolecular cutter, a “Crimson Edge”.  
It was a larger model of the “Dark Edge” series, which were widely used due to their reliability. The AS unit of the Israeli Army had taken out the Rk-92s and Mistrals of the Islamic countries with these weapons. Forged in combat, they had a simple yet sturdy form that had been repeatedly modified. The “Crimson Edge” had a design that made it capable of inflicting a lethal blow on a heavily-armored enemy.  
With that cutter, he would be able to sever an arm or leg of the Arbalest with just one cut, or even split the cockpit block in two.  
“What’s the matter, are you not going to take it out? You should have a GRAW-2 in there.” 
He meant the GRAW-2 monomolecular cutter that the Arbalest was equipped with.  
Is he serious...?  
Just as Clouseau had indicated, right now the Arbalest had a GRAW-2 stored in its equipment hatch. However, this was now crossing over the point of being just a fight to end a barroom quarrel. Fighting using expensive ASes wasn’t admirable to start with, but a battle using real weapons was another story.  
Surely there were no commissioned officers who would come this far to kill some time out of boredom, right? What was this guy trying to-  
“Let’s go,” Clouseau said, and kicking up mud, the black M9 made a dash at him.  
“!”  
He approached suddenly. The large, dark gray knife flashed, and came down in an arc close to Sousuke.  
The moment he drew back half a body-length, he heard the ear-piercing screech of cutting metal resound. The blade of the training knife that the Arbalest was holding had been sliced in two. If Sousuke had not have moved, the cockpit area would have been sliced down the middle as well, without a doubt.  
Clouseau came at him relentlessly. He swung from the bottom up, then sideways, then slashed diagonally downwards. Glaring sparks scattered as he cut into the Arbalest’s armor. Sousuke could feel the ice-cold malice from these efforts.  
He is serious. 
No longer hesitating, Sousuke pulled the monomolecular cutter from the equipment hatch on his machine. He didn’t even bother saying “Wait a minute” or “Why?” If this was how his opponent was going to be, he couldn’t show any mercy either.  
“That’s right. No more stalling.” 
Leaping out of the mud, the two went after each other.  
“Al! Maximum GPL. Switch the motion manager to D1, and cancel all practice limiters!”  
<Roger. GPL, maximum. Run, Delta 1. Release, all PLD.>  
The AI repeated. Generator output began to rise, and the motion control software changed completely to battle mode.  
<Warning. Recommend setting motion manager to Charlie 1.>  
“What?”  
<It is the assumption that Charlie 1 is appropriate for use of the Lambda Driver. There are six reasons for this basis. One, statistics from the previous five battles. Two, according to the developer, Bani Morauta, the initialization was C1. Three, the bilateral angle setting with regards to Delta 1 is->  
“Tell me later!!”  
<Roger.>  
Clouseau’s M9 was approaching. The Arbalest braced for impact.  
On the maneuvering ground in the fading light, the two machines violently collided.  
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
On the large screen in the base command center, the information on the battling ASes was being projected from various angles.  
Tessa held her breath as she watched the fierce fight.  
The silhouettes of two machines ran around here and there in the darkening forest.  
It was a dance as the large figures met with each other then moved away. Their steel extremities breaking the trees all around them-  
“This is not an impressive way of doing things,” said Commander Richard Mardukas, who was standing next to Tessa. “No matter what the purpose, this reflects our tolerance of personal fights to the soldiers. It sets a bad example. Rules have to be followed.”  
He pushed his glasses up and looked suspiciously at the screen. Tessa gave him a sideways glance and let out a small sigh.  
“We didn’t have a choice. If we don’t try this, we probably won’t be able to draw out the Arbalest’s power...”  
“Captain. That’s what I don’t understand. If they are to practice with the assumption of real combat, we should be doing it every day. Besides, why use this kind of farce? Making him pick a fight in a bar, use military equipment without permission, not to mention that it’s dangerous combat equipment...”  
That’s right. This fight had been set up from the very beginning.  
It had been Clouseau’s suggestion, and Tessa had approved. The provocation, contempt and fight were all to drive Sousuke against the wall. By doing so, they would be able to see whether or not he would be able to use the Arbalest’s Lambda Driver- or at the very least, be able to gather data close to its driving force- that was the intention.  
“I don’t plan to take it easy on him. Please be ready for the worst, for him to die,” Clouseau had said to Tessa.  
When she tried to say “There’s no point in that”, the new Lieutenant added in a cold voice:  
“If he is almost killed by me, that’s his result- and the result of a piece of rubbish machine. Operations Headquarters is starting to believe that they can’t rely on that machine anymore, right?”  
Tessa could not object to those discerning yet logical words. If she had said “No”, it would mean that she had no confidence in Sousuke.  
Staring at the screen in the command center, Mardukas continued on.  
“When you think about it from a safety standpoint, this is going a bit too far. Even though we are a group that fights for a living, we are not some petty street gang. The use of violence should be planned out and orderly, and carried out in a gentleman-like manner. This kind of uncivilized shootout is-”  
“War is neither civilized nor gentlemen-like, is it not?”  
Mardukas was a little surprised by Tessa’s unlikely statement.  
“I guess that was a little harsh.”  
“...no. You’re exactly right, Captain,” he answered, and for just a moment, a look of sadness and pity washed over his eyes.  
All kinds of information was being transmitted from the relay on the Arbalest. The pilot’s heart rate and brain waves, magnetoencephalogram, infrared radiation levels, frame temperature and distortion of the AS, status of the AI, “Al”, etc... Everything was recorded, and the technical officer, Second Lieutenant Lemming, checked over it all in minute detail.  
If he knew that he was being used as a guinea pig like this, what would he think?  
What would he think of the one who led him into this?  
He would probably hate her.  
It had only been one day, but she felt that he was rapidly becoming more distant to her.  
Much further than just the distance between Tokyo and Merida Island.  
Bani...  
The face of the boy who was no longer here crossed her mind.  
Do I really blame myself? You died, and being at a loss for how to go on, I became attracted to him. That machine that you left behind has saved us many times, and I can’t express my gratitude for it. But at the same time, the existence of that machine is becoming a gap between him and me. A gap that I can’t fill.  
Why did he have to be the one to pilot the Arbalest during the Shun On incident? Why couldn’t it have been someone else?  
She was actually only lost in these thoughts for a few seconds.  
Tessa then took notice of Mardukas’ still-discontented appearance.  
“...the Lambda Driver won’t work with only the stress of regular exercises. A soldier’s mentality in a combat situation is very different from that of just a training situation. You know that very well, don’t you, Mr. Mardukas?”  
“Of course I do. I learned that in the Fauklands.” Tessa remembered that Mardukas worked as a vice chief on an English Navy attack nuclear submarine at the beginning of the Faulklands War in the 80’s.  
“Captain, my saying ‘I don’t understand’ refers to why we have to go this far to see the effectiveness of that machine. A weapon that you’re not sure will work when you pull the trigger is not a weapon. Can we not come up with another plan without having to rely on such a thing? Reliability is absolutely necessary with weapons systems- not innovation or destructive power.”  
“Are you saying that the Arbalest is defective?”  
“Yes, I am. I don’t like that machine.”  
She felt an ironic humor in those words. Tessa was aware that Mardukas wasn’t fond of Sousuke, yet she realized that both he and Sousuke shared the exact same opinion of the Arbalest.  
“Sergeant Sagara feels the same way... and that’s the problem.”  
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
Offense and defense, defense and offense. The black and white silhouettes almost intertwined running through the forest, thunder and lightning streaking through the sky. A squall had blown in, bringing violent winds along with it. The foliage danced as it was whipped around by the storm.  
“Terrible. Your fighting style is just terrible,” Clouseau said.  
“Terrible?”  
“Like a tin-doll. Clumsy and-” 
Coming at Sousuke from his blind spot, he attacked the Arbalest with a roundhouse kick. Sousuke stepped up, and making to ram into his opponent, forcibly softened the blow.  
“Overbearing and-” 
Entrusting himself to his balance coming down, the M9 did a spin-kick in mid-air. His knife also picked up the rotational speed, and this super fast attack slashed through the Arbalest’s left shoulder. He lost one of the two shuttlecock-type radiation units, and the shock-absorption tank ruptured.  
“...no flexibility, either.” 
Doing a one-handed handstand, he let loose some wild kicks almost like a whirlwind. The right foot, followed by the left. He struck the Arbalest in the neck from the side, causing it to stagger back.  
“...!”  
Riding the momentum as he spun around like a top, the M9 stepped firmly on the ground, back in an upright position. The Arbalest dropped back, white smoke rising from its shoulder.  
“How’s that? If you use an M9-type AS, I want you to at least do that.” 
“Bragging about acrobatics?”  
“Oh?” 
“If I were you, I would finish up first.”  
“I see you still have the energy to flap your mouth... well then, I’ll give you what you want”. 
While stepping lightly, the Arbalest made a straight dash at the enemy. Clouseau crouched down and avoided it, at the same time trying to cut off the Arbalest’s torso. At the last second, Sousuke twisted his hip and jumped out of the way to dodge the attack.  
The truth was that Sousuke had said what he did because he was in a hurry.  
Clouseau was strong. What’s more, it wasn’t just ordinary strength. He felt a kind of harmony in his movements, almost like the flow of water. Since he wouldn’t be taken in no matter what the temptation, he had seen through every feint. Also- if Sousuke showed any hint of carelessness, Clouseau’s flowing water would become a raging stream and would certainly crush his defenses.  
Without letting up on his attacks, Clouseau said:  
“How about you cut the crap and get serious? In Europe, there are pilots of your caliber scattered around all over the place. If you were on the SAS assault team, you’d be on a level where it’s faster to count from the bottom.”  
“You were in the SAS?”  
SAS. The English special military force that boasted the best efficiency and results in the world. Sousuke had wondered whether he was French-African from the name Clouseau, but-  
“That kind of thing means nothing to me.”  
An even more thunderous roar and vibration attacked Sousuke. Clouseau’s dagger plunged deeply into the Arbalest’s abdomen.  
“-but before that, you’d better worry about your life. That coward McAllen is waiting for you.”  
“...!!”  
The AI began reporting damage in rapid succession.  
<Warning! Generator, damaged. Extent of damage, unknown. Main power cable, severed. Secondary radiator, not functional. Abdomen actuator, damaged>  
It wasn’t in the AI’s report, but it seemed the damage extended to the air-conditioning system. The smell of burning metal permeated through the normally tightly-sealed cockpit.  
“What’s wrong?” 
Another unforgiving blow.  
“Where are you looking?” 
Another merciless strike.  
“Do you plan on doing something...!?”  
Clouseau kneed the staggering Arbalest in the flank. The eight-ton AS went sailing backwards into the ground.  
The AI’s warnings and shrill alarms went off. The shrieks of the frame, muscle and armor.  
At this rate, I’ll...  
Sousuke just could not think of a move that would deflect the severe connecting blows and deliver an effective hit to his opponent.  
“I thought I told you to get serious!!”  
The M9 jumped high up into the sky, arm raised overhead and gripping its knife backhandedly. It dived straight for the Arbalest. It was like a ferocious eagle swooping down on its prey.  
In a hair’s breadth, Clouseau violently thrust his dagger at the Arbalest. Sousuke intersected it with a sideways strike from his own knife, cutting the Crimson Edge right in two.  
In an instant, the Arbalest used its back to spring back up into the air from its position laying face up on the ground. This maneuver was called the “Jack Knife.” Because of this move, which imitated the jump of a click beetle, an AS was able to nimbly and quickly return to an upright position better than just using its arms and legs.  
With a speed impossible for a human, the Arbalest at once recovered its posture while raising its own knife at the same time.  
However, when he noticed, the M9 suddenly stooped down and concealed himself under the Arbalest’s chest. He dropped his hips deeply, and reversed sharply- and the moment Sousuke was alerted to these unnatural movements-  
“!?”  
The Arbalest was pulled forwards.  
In only a second, Sousuke felt almost like the direction of gravity was horizontal. Immediately following a heavy impact, the Arbalest was thrown backwards by some overwhelming power.  
The eight-ton AS cut through the forest, mowing down many trees. Landing on its back, the Arbalest was then enveloped in a solid cloud of mud and sank down into the ground- white steam rolling up from it, the Arbalest feebly laid there.  
“Im...”  
Impossible. The shock just now.  
His head was spinning and his entire body was numb because of the impact. This hadn’t just been a simple hit; it was something he was unfamiliar with entirely.  
Did that machine have a...?  
The two eyes of the black M9 stared straight at him.  
“...it can’t be,” Sousuke gasped out.  
That black M9 couldn’t be equipped with a Lambda Driver. The only machine equipped with a Lambda Driver that Mithril possessed was his own Arbalest. He had drawn the short straw because of that. An unreliable weapon was being forced on him, as well as duties that he was reluctant to accept-  
“Stand up, Sergeant,” Clouseau said. “Try using all of the power you have in that machine. Do you understand? All-of-it. If you don’t, you’ll die the next time.”  
The Arbalest stood up. Knees shaking, shoulders heaving. The damage to Sousuke’s own body was being expressed through the machine’s actions.  
I have no choice but to use it...!  
The Lambda Driver. The strange and unknown function of this machine that was giving him a hard time. In this kind of situation, he had no other choice but to rely on it.  
But could he really use it? Wouldn’t this machine just betray him again? Wasn’t this just an absurd fight? Wouldn’t it be a good idea just to abandon the battle and run away?  
“Come at me.”  
“...”  
He took a deep breath. Bracing both legs in an oblique stance, he came face to face with Clouseau.  
The M9 kicked up the earth. The black AS drew closer.  
The Arbalest brandished its right fist as if drawing a bow.  
An image of power. He poured all of his destructive power into that one point-  
Come out...!  
He released his fist. Clouseau was moving.  
In the next instant, the Arbalest, in the way of a bow and arrow, was thrown forwards. There was a violent impact to the cockpit, stunning Sousuke. The sky and ground became a nonsensical blur, and the trees and scenery rotated over and over in chaos. The moment that he struck the ground, everything went black and then he could see stars.  
The AI was reporting the damage and noisy alarms were going off everywhere, but Sousuke didn’t hear much of it.  
“You’re weak. Useless,” Clouseau said. “Nothing but a pet dog after all.”  
“...”  
It was no good.  
Just as he realized this, Sousuke plunged into a deep darkness.  
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
“Guess it’s over now,” Mardukas said, raising his dark-blue hat. Then taking off his black-rimmed glasses, he rubbed his tired eyes with the back of his hand. The room seemed hot.  
“Just as I thought, nothing happened. This proves it’s useless.”  
“We can’t conclude that nothing happened just yet... Ms. Lemming. The evaluation?” Tessa instantaneously answered, then called out to the technical officer, Second Lieutenant Nora Lemming. She opened up the notebook computer on the seat next to her, inspecting the data from the M9 and the Arbalest, and without taking her eyes away from the monitor, calmly replied:  
“It didn’t extend to the battle on Berildaob Island. The TAROS is detecting the usual brain waves- gamma waves, but they are extremely low. The core module’s phase quantum wave interference element is changing the spectral distribution. From the N-pole of the column thalamus axis to mainly the vicinity of plain 15 in the E-region. It separates a little, in the vicinity of 90 degrees in plain 42 of the P-region.”  
“Towards the blue.”  
“Right. Now look at this. These two places here... they’re connected. There’s a possibility, but it’s far from triggering it.”  
“...in the case of a defensive reaction, the N-region was zero plus or minus 40, right? I wonder if there’s a connection with Ms. Miller’s hypothesis.”  
“That can’t be confirmed. But something that’s bothering me is-”  
Mardukas could do nothing but gloomily watch as Tessa and Lemming discussed with each other in front of the 3-D images and graphs, since he did not understand anything of their conversation. He guessed that it had something to do with brain science and physics, but anything beyond that was just gibberish to him. He held a few degrees, but this discussion was well beyond his field of knowledge.  
Lemming was a talent from MIT. She had no history as a military-employed civilian, but because the Arbalest had lost its developer, Tessa scouted her out. Lemming was no “Teletha Testarossa”, but she could be considered a genius. Up until now she had met with an overwhelming number of youths like her, including engineers familiar with ASes and the ECS.  
For a long time, Mardukas had been seeing a malaise in the many new kinds of weapons that these young people invented. It wasn’t just that unreliable Lambda Driver, either. The Arm Slaves, ECS system, palladium cold nuclear fusion reactor, de Danaan’s super AI, TAROS, SCD, EMFC... all of it.  
Only 20 years earlier- when Mardukas was still considered a young man, he would have never predicted the introduction of this kind of new equipment. It was a time when they had just started equipping missiles and fighter planes with computer-like computers. Things such as “Gigantic Robots” and “Invisibility Equipment” were only words, distrusted by a career soldier’s pride. A popular game among the public, the “Invader Game,” amused everyone by just moving a lowly dot across the screen.  
The attack nuclear submarine that Mardukas once commanded was still one of the best warships in the world. However, in comparison to the Tuatha de Danaan, even that ship looked like a World War II diesel submarine.  
Teletha Testarossa was an excellent girl. However, what were these vague fears that he had about the things that she and others like her produced? She, whom he himself served under, as well as that ship and this force had indeed saved many lives. But why did he want to question the foundation of their very existence?  
Tessa and Lemming’s conversation continued for five minutes straight.  
“What about observed data from the E-005 machine?” 
“There is none.”  
“There weren’t any other electromagnetic waves to consider, then?”  
“Since the observational environment was limited in the first place, it can’t be affirmed. The equipment was improvised. A detailed analysis will probably take some time, but...”  
  
“Okay. Let’s first reconsider the hypothesis and reconstruct a simple model. We might be able to improve by some form, including the problem of leaving it to the pilot. I’m looking forward to seeing it, Ms. Lemming.”  
“Y..yes Ma’am.”  
Mardukas didn’t miss the look of doubt on Lemming’s face. Even though she was a genius, perhaps analyzing that entire system was beyond the scope of her abilities. Lemming probably felt somewhat inferior to the girl who was much younger than her but managed to say those kinds of things very easily.  
But Tessa did not notice this and turned to Mardukas.  
“...I’m going to rest for a little while. If anything happens, I’ll be in the medical center.”  
“The medical center?”  
“It’s the perfect place to take a nap. I also want to get a compress, since I’ve run out...” she said, and started to walk out of the command center. Downheartedly, and with huge strides. For someone going to rest, she looked rather in a hurry.  
She’s worried after all... good grief.  
In other words, there was no helping that she was concerned about that Sergeant’s situation.  
Just as Tessa’s back disappeared behind the automatic door-  
“Umm, Commander?” Second Lieutenant Lemming called out from behind him.  
“What is it?”  
“Is Lieutenant Commander Kalinin returning to base sometime today?”  
“He’s supposed to. What of it?”  
“Nothing. I just need to consult with him about the Arbalest. An e-mail or a direct talk... I’m a little lost.”  
“That’s up to you, but don’t trouble him more than necessary. Strange rumors are interfering with the soldiers’ morale.”  
“O-of course... besides, that rumor is just a misunderstanding. I would like to say for the sake of the Lieutenant Commander’s honor that he and I are- ” 
“I understand, I understand. That’s enough,” he said, waving his hand in annoyance. He started to head back to his own office when the sergeant in charge of communications stopped him.  
“Wait, Commander.”  
“What is it now?”  
“Well... umm. It’s a message from Operations Headquarters in Sydney.”  
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
“Hey, wake up, you useless, gloomy Sergeant.”  
When he opened his eyes, Sousuke saw the sour face of Kurz Weber looking down at him.  
“...”  
Sousuke was laying on one of the beds in the medical center. A white ceiling with sterile fluorescent lights. He could vaguely recall being pulled out of the Arbalest by the technicians, but he didn’t remember anything after that.  
“You went after him? Look at you. Shameful,” Kurz said, leaving the mess in the bar at the wayside. He seemed to be fine, yet at the same time the look on his face showed that he was seriously displeased.  
“Lieutenant Clouseau...?” Sousuke asked, rising up. Kurz used his jaw to point him out. Just then, from the other side of the room which was separated by a curtain, walked out Clouseau. He was wearing a T-shirt and holding a rolled-up shirt under his arm, thanking the physician. He was now wearing a brand new bandage around his burly right arm.  
“...”  
“Your fight was an experiment. That bastard, the technology department and headquarters, all of them conspired to set it up. I also took the bait, hook, line and sinker. Dammit...”  
That had been his guess. Even though they had fought for as long as they did with real weapons, the command center had not warned them or told them to stop. Even Sousuke didn’t find it hard to believe that his superiors would tolerate or possibly encourage personal fights.  
In other words, that AS and I are Mithril’s guinea pigs.  
It wasn’t a new concept, was it? Just telling him “Fight”, without using a roundabout manner.  
What did Teletha Testarossa think of the way he was being treated? She was probably amused, at the very least. He could imagine that much.  
A young sense of defeat coiled within his chest.  
That Lieutenant didn’t have any kind of plan during the fight. Sousuke had lost simply because of the difference in strength. If it had been actual combat, he would now be dead. His fate had been tied to that expensive yet useless machine.  
It would have been better if Clouseau had attacked him and caused serious damage to that AS. So that it would be impossible to use again. Then the responsibility would fall on Clouseau. If that were to happen, then maybe Sousuke would be sent to Tokyo again-  
No. That was ridiculous. Even if the Arbalest was destroyed, they wouldn’t let him resume his mission in Tokyo. It wasn’t as if his superiors would change their minds. But wasn’t that AS the main cause of all of this...?  
Chidori...  
I’m sorry. But I just wasn’t strong enough. Not just for you. I couldn’t even defend a dead man’s honor. Or my own pride. Nothing.  
Had there ever been a time when he felt this helpless?  
“Here he comes,” Kurz whispered, and Sousuke came back to his senses. Belfangan Clouseau approached him.  
“I see you’re finally awake, Sergeant,” he said, without showing a hint of gratitude. “Go over to the hangar, and sign the papers for the maintenance team. Then make out a practice report for earlier and hand it over to me, Lieutenant Lemming, Lieutenant Commander Kalinin and Captain Testarossa by 2500 hours. If there is even one inaccurate description or blank form, I’ll make you do it over again as many times as it takes to fix it. There will be a training drill tomorrow morning at 0600 hours in front of Hangar 1. Weber, you come, too. I’m going to retrain everyone in this unit who is qualified to pilot an AS.”  
“...”  
“It seems McAllen was soft on you guys, but I’m different. When you die a dog’s death, I don’t want to be blamed for incompetence. Prepare yourselves.”  
Sousuke and Kurz said nothing. They had both lost to him. There was nothing they could do except put up with his contempt of the captain.  
“If there aren’t any questions, you’re dismissed.”  
“I have a question,” Sousuke said in a restrained voice.  
“What is it?”  
“...what was the attack you used to beat me? Is there a Lambda Driver in that black AS?”  
Clouseau just snorted his nose.  
“It was easy enough to crush you and the Arbalest without using such a thing. Meaning that in the 3rd generation AS called the ‘M9’, there is enough potential in it even when used normally.”  
“Then that shock was...?”  
“It’s a move that combines what the Orientals call the ‘Tooshi’ and ‘Sunkei’. You start off with a violent impact to the enemy machine that permeates into the operator, then continue on by blowing away the body. It doesn’t require something like the Lambda Driver.”  
Sousuke remembered the fight in the bar. It was the same move.  
From Sousuke’s position at that time, he hadn’t been able to see anything but Kurz’s jaw being hit, but there had been more to it than that.  
“That trick is more than possible in an M9. You move with your enemy, steering the flow of power the way you want. Like water, or flames...”  
“But the body of an AS is different from the body of a human.”  
“That kind of thinking is already old. There are more than twice the number of parts in the frame of an M9-type AS compared to your average 2nd generation AS. With that complexity and elasticity, the most exquisite mechanism created by God- that is to say even the human body, won’t lose.”  
“...”  
“Earlier I told you that your fighting was ‘ugly’, because without being able to trust the power that the Arbalest naturally possesses, you can only handle it like a car or a helicopter.”  
“What’s wrong with that?”  
An AS was not a living thing. It was just a machine that followed a program to move its joints. Being called “a second body” 
was nothing more than a persistent metaphor. Even though Arm Slaves had the shape of a human, they were only machines made of titanium alloy and high polymer raw materials.  
“So I have to be blunt for you to get it, huh?”  
Clouseau put his hands on his hips, and sighed in surprise. After that he looked straight at Sousuke.  
“You hate that Arbalest,” he said.  
“...!”  
“I know because I saw it. The way you stepped, the movements of your arms, the flow of your fists, your swordsmanship... there was doubt in each of them. There was distrust, impatience and hesitation. At first glance, they look like the moves of a pro- but they have no purpose. There’s no heart. Never mind the Lambda Driver. It’s a problem from before that.”  
Each of Clouseau’s words pierced Sousuke’s chest.  
Clouseau was right. He did hate that machine. It didn’t show any signs of failing, but even then he didn’t trust it. He had no choice but to grudgingly entrust his life to it and fight.  
And those feelings were making his attacks weak...?  
The man whom he had faced as an enemy had attacked him at his core, and Sousuke felt a disturbance in his heart. He wanted to resist, but could not, because what the Lieutenant was saying was probably right.  
“Listen up, Sergeant.”  
Clouseau leaned towards Sousuke, staring straight into his eyes. He was so close Sousuke could almost feel his breath. The look on his face was very serious.  
“The weapons called ASes that we use aren’t just simple vehicles. They’re an extension of the soldier’s body. The pilot’s heart shows through the machine. In a high-level fight, that little bit of difference can decide victory or defeat. Know that a man who doesn’t believe in his own body or his own power will always get beaten by his enemies. That’s all,” he said, stressing each and every word.  
 
 
Without waiting for a response, he turned around and left the medical center.  
“Just great. Could they have posted a more disagreeable guy...?” Kurz muttered, knowing full well that Clouseau might still be able to hear him.  
“...but there is reason in what he says. Clouseau certainly is strong,” Sousuke said, stating his honest impression of him.  
“Well... in hand-to-hand fighting, sure. How he is in other stuff, we don’t know.”  
“...he’s probably first-rate in other skills as well. It seems he’s from the SAS.”  
“Oh really? I wonder if it was the Canadian SAS, then...”  
In the countries belonging to a federation, like Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, they each had an SAS that boasted the same level of degree in their respective forces. Because of the vigorous people exchange, as well as the fact that the corps chapters and reputable countries were entirely the same, from an outsider’s point of view, it was difficult to obtain that distinction.  
“Now that you mention it, old man McAllen came from the Australian SAS.”  
“Yeah. It really is-” Sousuke started, but stopped short.  
There was Tessa, standing around in the doorway of the medical center facing the other side through which Clouseau had left. Her right hand was on the doorframe, and her left hand was holding on to her braid. Her eyes looked like she wanted to say something to Sousuke. Maybe it was his imagination, but he thought her legs looked a little unsteady.  
Since she didn’t say anything for a long time, Sousuke and Kurz said something first.  
“...Captain?”  
“Tessa?”  
“...umm, I-”  
Tessa had her mouth open in hesitation when the physician, Captain Goldbery, called out to her from inside the medical center.  
“Ah, she’s here, she’s here. Tessa!”  
“Y..yes?”  
“There’s a message from Dick! He said for you to return to the command center right away!”  
“Oh... understood. I’ll be right over.”  
After a little hesitation, and without saying anything to Sousuke, Tessa hurriedly disappeared from the doorway.  
“...?”  
“What was that? Seems she came ‘cause she was worried.”  
“Worried? About what?” Sousuke asked in all honesty.  
Kurz frowned at Sousuke and shook his head.  
“Really... If I were a scriptwriter for a soap opera, I definitely wouldn’t make the protagonist a guy like you, because the story wouldn’t progress any. And the ratings would gutter out.”  
“Huh?”  
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
While looking at a map of the underground base, Belfangan Clouseau walked around the barracks for the commissioned officers, and finally located his private quarters. Without locking the door, he went inside, and piled up on the mountain of his personal effects that had been brought in by some soldiers for him.  
The commissioned officers’ rooms were about the size of a regular hotel double room. It wasn’t luxurious at all, but the lights were warm and bright. It was barely furnished.  
Without starting on his pile, Clouseau went to look for an empty locker or cabinet. He didn’t find anything left behind from the person who had used this room up until two months ago.  
He walked towards a wooden desk, and looked in the drawers. There was a faint smell of paper and cigars. In the very bottom drawer there was a worn-out Bible.  
Clouseau picked up the small, leather-bound bible and flipped through it. He expected that maybe some photographs or something would be in-between the pages, but he found none.  
He then opened up to a missionary verse. It was a little dirty from fingerprints on the right side of the page.  
“A living dog is better than a dead lion.” 
It was a phrase that Clouseau heard him say occasionally during training. No matter how much of an advocate of Islam Clouseau was, he never minded him saying it at all. Probably because- Allah forgive him- he also was fond of those words.  
Captain... 
 He thought to himself, and closed the Bible.  
He carried his belongings to the middle of the room, and then turned back in the direction of the entranceway. Next to the open door stood an Asian woman. It was Sergeant Major Melissa Mao.  
“So, it was you, then.”  
“That’s right.”  
“It’s been what, a year and a half?”  
“Actually, it’s been six days.”  
“That’s right... don’t bother looking for stuff of his. They finished clearing it up earlier.”  
“I know.”  
Turning his back to Mao, he picked up a large olive-colored bag. As he carried it to the middle of the room, Clouseau asked very curtly:  
“Did... he suffer?”  
“Nobody knows. No one was there when he died.”  
“I see.”  
He stopped for several seconds, nodding his head as if to comprehend it.  
He went back and forth in the corridor many times, clearing up the baggage in the entranceway. Without even attempting to help, Mao asked:  
“...that M9, it’s a D-series prototype, right? Besides the E-series machine that I’m familiar with, I remember there was a similar AS in the desk plans.”  
“That’s right. There were only two of them, called ‘Falke’*1 types, manufactured at the Geotron Company’s Dortmund factory. Other than a small surplus in payload, there really isn’t much of a difference from a regular E-type.”  
“Is it equipped the same as the Arbalest?” she asked, and Clouseau understood why she had come.  
“Does it worry you?”  
“Well, I was almost killed twice by enemies who had those things.”  
“That’s right. I read the reports. The answer is... no, it’s not. There were plans to, but the developer committed suicide before then.”  
“So, there really is only one Arbalest in Mithril?”  
“That’s right. That’s why I’m here to train you guys and that sergeant. Thoroughly.”  
And they had to think of countermeasures. If the Arbalest became able to use the Lambda Driver at will, then they would be 
able to research a way to oppose it even in an ordinary M9. If they reported these results to the other squadrons, they could gain an advantage over the situation with modern equipment. This was Lieutenant Commander Kalinin and Captain Testarossa’s intention.  
“I know, but it’s not like you. It’s almost Spartan.”  
“I think so, too,” Clouseau said without any expression, shrugging his shoulders.  
“...that guy named Sagara...”  
“Hmm?”  
“He reminds me of myself a long time ago. He boasts without being able to see anything around him, and tries pointlessly to fit in. He looks like he’d push himself to sit in a chair that was too small for him. Although if he worries about it, he could widen his limits.”  
“I wonder if he can do that.”  
“I don’t know. But at this rate he’ll probably end up dead.”  
“...”  
“Or- become a real loser.”  
“Loser?”  
“I’m talking about the colleagues that we normally compete with. It slowly breeds malice. First we lie to ourselves, then we resent everything around us, and in the end scorn everything in the world. Slowly. Like the hour hand on a clock, he’s slowly changing. That’s why it’s so terrible.”  
“Sousuke? That can’t be.”  
Clouseau didn’t answer Mao’s statement.  
“Today wore me out. I wanna rest a little. You should go, too.”  
He opened up the bag on the floor and took out a clean towel and bar of soap. Clouseau started in the direction of the shower room- then stopped at once.  
“Melissa?”  
“What?”  
“Don’t tell anyone about McAllen and me, please. It’ll be a problem if the company holds back.”  
Mao gave him a bitter smile as she started to close the door.  
“As you wish... well, good night, Ben.”  
“‘Night.”  
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
When Tessa returned back to the command center, Mardukas greeted her with a stern face.  
“I’m sorry, Captain.”  
“Is there an emergency?”  
“No. It’s still the matter at hand. We’ve received D-standby orders from Operations Headquarters. A B12a situation has arisen in zone J5-CS. We’ve completed correspondence protocols up to 3a, and 3b is in progress.”  
D-standby was the order for the attack submarine Tuatha de Danaan to prepare to depart. It maintained the conditions so that as soon as the order to sortie came down, the submarine would be able to set out to sea within two hours. But it was usually the case that it was more of a “the TDD-1 might be needed, so go ahead and be ready” situation than one where they actually had to sortie. They could be on standby for a few days or a few weeks.  
As for a B12a situation, that meant “destruction caused by a single, or possibly multiple ASes”. The incident in Tokyo that occurred in June- that example was somewhat unique, but- it applied here.  
Terrorism by an AS. There was a foreboding feeling in this.  
“You said zone J5-CS, right? Where is that?”  
“Hong Kong.”  
 
♦ ♦ ♦ 
 
Same time, Somewhere in Hong Kong  
 
Patrol cars passed through the main street with sirens blaring. There was a pile up in the intersection. Andy Hui’s hit song could be heard from the neighborhood shop facing the street.  
In a room faintly lit by the red and green lights, a man stood.  
“I’ve returned, Sin sang [sir]*2,” he said. “Just as you ordered, I’ve stirred up the sentries in the South army with the ‘Godard m’. I’ve also received information from my little brother in Dung Ging [Tokyo]*2. The preparations have been arranged. If you so indicate, I’m sure he would strangle the girl to death at any time.”  
There was no reply. In the middle of the room where someone was supposed to be, maybe something illuminated, it was pitch black. It was a darkness where light was swallowed up and never escaped again. There was a very- very profound darkness.  
In the center of that darkness, something moved.  
“Then tomorrow evening?” he asked, and a thick, husky mechanical voice resounded from the darkness.  
“-”  
“What kind of death do you want?”  
“-”  
“...yes, sir. Then I will tell my little brother to kill the girl called Chinniu [Chidori]*2. Will that be alright?”  
The dark master answered the man’s question in silent affirmation.  
Translator’s Notes:  
1. “Falke” is German for “falcon”.  
2. He is using Chinese pronunciation for these particular words, but the meaning is understood in Japanese, as well. Because of this, I translated the words out to the side for clarification. Since I am no expert on the romanization of Chinese, there may be mistakes. I’ve tried to use the Cantonese spelling for things since they are in Hong Kong.  
 


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