Full Metal Panic! - Volume 5 - Chapter 5

Chapter 5: His Problem  
October 23rd, 11:38 (Eastern China Standard Time)  
Hong Kong, Hong Kong Island Special Region (“People’s Liberation Committee” Side), Mid-Level 
Ten minutes passed as they continued through the spacious reception room. The master of this room- a member of Mithril’s Intelligence Department stationed in Hong Kong- had not come yet.  
The ceiling was high, and there were large windows. Abundant natural light brightened up the room. This place was built on the steep slope of Mt. Victoria with a view of the ocean, the aboveground 30th floor of a tall mansion.  
There were a countless number of structures on this steep slope- and from this building, which was the tallest high-rise apartment building out of all of them, one commanded a panoramic view of the city of Hong Kong below.  
Big and small, old and new, the buildings were closely crammed together. They had heard about it, but the density of those high-rise apartments wasn’t normal.  
Confusion. Disorder. Chaos. The scenery could only be described as such.  
“When you look at it like this, it doesn’t look like it’s changed that much, really,” mumbled Mao, who was standing next to Sousuke.  
“You’ve been here before?”  
“Many times before the restoration, yeah. Relatives on my mother’s side lived not too far from here. But they moved to New York and aren’t here anymore. Before I joined Mithril, I stayed here for about two months. Just hanging out, pretty much.”  
“Hanging out, huh?”  
“After I was kicked out of the Marines. I didn’t have the willpower to work, and I didn’t want to go back to my parents’ house in New York, since my old man would rag on me. Damn Air Force jerk...” she said, clicking her tongue.  
Because Sousuke hadn’t heard much about Mao’s personal history before, he was a little surprised to hear talk about the old days.  
“Your father was in the military?”  
“Yup. A dumb bomber pilot. He’s retired now, and works at a company. He acts all-important in spite of the fact that he’s a stingy coward. He’s also a conspiracy-monger.”  
“Yeah. When I tried to do serious work after high school, he went around behind my back and tried to marry me to some Harvard pretty boy. I was disgusted by it, of course. So I went and joined the Marines on the day of the wedding to get back at him.”  
She had probably gotten great pleasure from doing that.  
She lowered her head with a wide grin on her face.  
“I snuck out of the church by myself, and went to the recruitment office four blocks away, still in my wedding dress. The corporal on duty there, his eyes were thiiis wide. ‘Are you serious?’ he said, and I said ‘Of course.’ Everyone in the office tried to talk me out of it. ‘Miss bride, you should rethink this. Surely your parents will be upset,’ they said, and I told them ‘My dad is in the Air Force.’ When I said that, everyone said ‘Oh, if that’s the case, okay then. Sign these papers first.’”  
Yang, who had overheard the story from a little way off, couldn’t contain himself and burst out laughing.  
“What do you think of a girl like that?”  
“She’s the best... heh heh. No, she’s too cool,” he said. Yang’s shoulders were shaking in laughter and there were tears in the corner of his eyes as he gave the thumbs up.  
The atmosphere was strange. There was the tension before an operation mixed with a funny story to kill time. There was the silence of the room and Yang trying to suppress his laughter. The light from the window created the shadows of Mao and Yang clearly. In that scene, however, there was a strange melancholy looming about in the air.  
Mao sentimentally gazed off into the deep sky.  
“The best, huh...? It’s true, that was the best time. I had just made a decision, and I felt like the world had spread out infinitely before me. I said ‘No matter what it is, I can do it, and no matter where it is, I can go.’”  
“No matter where...?” Sousuke said as if he were hearing these words for the first time, but Mao just shrugged.  
“That’s right. Of course a lot of stuff happened after that, setbacks and disappointment. But I think that being that way was really great. I liked myself more than I ever had before. That was how it was.”  
Sousuke didn’t really understand what Mao meant by that. He didn’t grasp why she would suddenly tell this kind of story at a time like this.  
“Well, it was just something that coming back here made me remember. Don’t think about it too much.”  
“Mm... okay,” Sousuke answered, albeit a little confused.  
Then the door of the reception office opened, and a middle-aged, plump, white man entered the room.  
“Wow, I’m so sorry to make you wait this long.”  
He quickly wiped the sweat from his temple with a handkerchief and walked up to them. He had very friendly eyes, 
his black hair was slicked back with pomade, and he wore a mustache. He looked to be around 50 years old, but he could have been much younger.  
This man is...?  
Sousuke and Mao both looked at each other.  
He was a member of the Department of Intelligence, Gavin Hunter.  
They had imagined a stoic old war veteran from that name, but the person who had come in was a profusely sweating fat man. They were rather surprised by this.  
On the outside, Hunter appeared to be an influential trade merchant, as he was proficient in both Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese. He had a lot of pull with both the North and South armies, and seemed to go out to eat every night with their leaders.  
It was a different image from what you would call a “spy”, but it wasn’t necessary to go out on big adventures like James Bond in order to collect information. The casual remarks of the army’s leaders, the small articles in newspapers’ financial columns, as well as unfamiliar ships coming into port- one could guess a lot from just those things alone. Besides, that was essentially the job of the Intelligence Department, anyway.  
“This is probably obvious already, but both the North and South Armies have become extremely nervous,” Hunter explained. “You’ve only had a brief look at it, but the situation is very serious. Together, both of the armies have had three incidents of friendly fire, and four incidents of firing at civilians. It’s a miracle that the North and South armies haven’t declared war on each other yet. However, that is only a matter of time.”  
“And if it does happen?”  
“Then Victoria Bay will be in the middle of a terrible shootout. They can get at all sorts of weapons besides guns. Rifles, 
machine guns, trench mortar guns, rockets, anti-tank missiles... it could become scary. A sea of fire in a split second. Just like the row of houses that you see.”  
Since they divided, the North China Army and South China Army had confronted each other with Victoria Bay in between. It hadn’t progressed into battle because of the intentions of both armies, neither of which wanted Hong Kong to become a lake of fire. However, those intentions were now starting to wane due to the terrorism of the AS.  
“What about the citizens?”  
“They started throwing accusations a long time ago. The other side blames the inland people of Sangaai. Our side blames South Hong Kong and Lantao... well, it is the center of women and children. I also sent my wife to our vacation house in Lantao. Relations between the North and the South have mostly stopped due to the strict guard conditions of both. The ports have been closed, and most of the flights to the Kai Tak and Chek Lap Kok airports have been cancelled. We can only cover our eyes as stock prices and exchange rates plummet. Geez... and after we were really starting to make progress since they divided up, too. It really will become another Berlin at this rate.”  
“But it was becoming like that anyway, right?” Mao unexpectedly muttered, and both Hunter’s superiority complex and eyebrow rose in response.  
“That’s Chinese people for you. They’re cunning, full of vitality, and so commercially driven it’s surprising. They freely manipulate their official stances and real intentions, as well as the positives and the negatives.”  
“Just try some Chinese cuisine, then you will understand these people and just how much culture they have. The ideology 
that westerners have concocted in just 100 years is really quite insignificant in comparison. The drama over the division was both a danger and an opportunity for those of us in business. Some were ruined, and some became rich. That’s how it always is. Even if it is politically divided and there are two military forces present, it was relatively easy to come and go as one chose up until the day before yesterday. In short it was mutual back-scratching.”  
The triumphant tone in Hunter’s voice made it seem as if he felt he were of pure Hong Kong descent, even though he was the only white person in the room.  
“Well, what about the problem AS?”  
“As of right now, its whereabouts are where we absolutely cannot catch it. Its last appearance was three hours ago, in Shau Kei Wan on the Hong Kong Island side. They reported serious damage to two ASes as well as an armored vehicle. There were four casualties in the North China Army, as well as eight civilians wounded... such a terrible thing.”  
“And there’s no doubt that it’s hidden somewhere in the city?”  
“I can’t confirm that, but our analysts and I both think so. And my long years also tell me so. Though it would trouble that particular area...”  
Hunter spread out a map, and began the technical explanation. It was the opinion of a not-so-detailed pro, who had thoroughly and exhaustively scrutinized all sorts of information. And from every word he spoke, Mao and the others could tell how deeply he cared about Hong Kong.  
Mao and Sousuke, who were both very knowledgeable about the methods for continuous use of the invisible type ECS, offered advice as well as narrowed the scope of Hunter’s analysis. It was a profitable discussion. Mao’s group as well as Hunter’s 
group were all practical people. The discord of the intelligence bureaus in the upper departments had no effect here.  
“Anything else? Areas or conditions that we can exclude?” Hunter asked, typing on the keyboard of the AI’s computer terminal.  
“Mark out places where there are a lot of dogs or crows.”  
“Hmm. Why birds and dogs and such?”  
“Because it’s presumed that birds can see the AS, probably because the ECS can’t conceal in the ultra-violet spectrum. Crows especially will make a lot of noise and fly about, and other various annoyances. Dogs, too. They’re sensitive to the smell of the ECS’s ozone.”  
“Ha haa... I guess so. Anything else?” Mao looked at Sousuke’s profile.  
“I think that’s about it... Sousuke?”  
“Hm?” Sousuke said, looking as if he had just pulled out of his own thoughts.  
“There’s nothing else, is there?”  
“N... no. Not really.”  
To Mao, it seemed as though Sousuke had been having problems concentrating, which was rather unusual. Ever since they had left the Tuatha de Danaan.  
Just then, Hunter, who was staring at the computer terminal screen, said in a voice of admiration, “Amazing. There are 49 places on the Hong Kong side, and 78 places on the Kowloon side. With this, we can divide our forces up and cover them in a half-a-day.”  
“If the conditions are right... however. If we do find it, let’s find its weakness and nail it.”  
Without delay, Hunter’s subordinates and Mao’s group decided on who would scout out the hiding place of the enemy AS. There was no time to lose.  
They decided that Mao’s group from the Operations Department would split into three teams to help with reconnaissance.  
Sousuke and Mao would cross over Victoria Harbor and go over into the Kowloon peninsula.  
Yang and Wu would look around Hong Kong Island.  
The third team was the transport helicopter that brought them. They would activate the ECS Invisibility function and search all of Hong Kong from the skies using the ECCS (the anti-ECS sensors). Because the ECCS would be of little use in urban areas, they would be in charge of mainly the suburbs and the various-sized islands.  
The two light vans that they borrowed from Hunter had [狩人清潔有限公司] written in large blue letters on the side. Hunter’s cleaning company. That was all it meant, but to Sousuke, who was not familiar with Chinese, it was a very strange representation.  
“It looks like that old man’s business is pretty extensive...” Mao said as she folded her arms in the underground parking lot of the building. The four of them had already changed into the uniforms of the cleaning company, but they suited Sousuke the least.  
“Do you have your permits? Check your operating permits, as well. Go ahead and put your fake passports and credit cards in another pocket. Only one weapon a piece, and don’t fire it. Communicate at all times. Be careful since it’s martial law around here.”  
“What if it looks like we’re going to be held up by cars or police for inspection? There are a lot of units where Hunter doesn’t have any influence, right?” Yang asked.  
“That’s why you have to be careful. If you have to run, then run. But don’t open fire. Attacking innocent bystanders in cars is out of the question. We’ll plan the rest out later. If you’re caught, you’ll probably be interrogated until Hunter can pull some strings. Even if you’re tortured, don’t say anything. That’s all.”  
“That’s pretty tough...”  
“Also, be thinking about what to do when the enemy is located, since we don’t have consent to kill him without contact or approval. Got it?”  
“Then let’s go.”  
The four then took the cleaning company’s vans and left the parking lot.  
The two groups separated, heading into town.  
Yang’s group’s vehicle headed in the direction of Victoria Peak.  
Sousuke drove their van down a steep road surrounded by rows of trees for a few minutes, and left the heart of Central. Rows of skyscrapers seemed to jut into the sky on both sides of Des Voeux Road, and it felt like they were passing into a manmade valley. For Sousuke, who grew up in the country, the majesty of this scene was quite overwhelming.  
The cloudy sky was extremely confined.  
Central would probably be a business area comparable to Shinjuku or Marunouchi in Tokyo, but there were very few people about. Traffic was sparse, too. There was almost no one other than the drivers on the double-decker trams that ran through the middle 
of the road. The sound of the rail scraping against metal rang pointlessly throughout the area.  
“Surprising, isn’t it... I’ve never seen Central like this before,” Mao said, looking over the quiet urban streets from the passenger seat.  
When they came to a wide five-lane road, they were able to see the armored vehicles and ASes of the North China Army. They were olive colored Rk-92 Savages. They were the same type supplied by the North Koreans, with their specifications geared towards exportation.  
Heading east along the street, they passed through Wanchai going towards Causeway Bay.  
The valley of buildings continued on. The number of famous Hong Kong “zhaopai” [signboards] grew. Flashy signs in colors like red and green protruded from the buildings, thoroughly covering the sky above the road.  
To Sousuke, who wasn’t very good at kanji, they were nothing but nonsensical Japanese readings*1. Of course there were illuminated signs, and one could even see a large number of the new hologram signboards.  
They were civilian products that used a basic form of the ECS. They reached the entrance of an underground tunnel. Going 
through this tunnel would take them towards the Kowloon Peninsula, which was controlled by the South China Army.  
The entrance of the tunnel was on high alert. There were four Savages, two armored vehicles, and more than 60 heavily-armed foot soldiers. There were sandbags piled up all over the place, along with barbed wire fence and turrets established around the perimeter.  
There was a clearance gate shortly before the tunnel. Civilian vehicles were lined up in front of it, with soldiers arguing with the people inside the cars. In the end, and without approval, the civilians would make a U-turn and head back.  
The arrangement was that Hunter was supposed to call the leaders of this garrison.  
“Now, let’s see if they will kindly let us through...”  
“If Hunter’s connections are certain.”  
A soldier with an AKM rifle over his shoulder spread his arms out in front of the gate and told them “Stop” in Cantonese. He walked over to the driver’s side, and quickly spouted something over the window. Since he had only memorized a few everyday phrases on the helicopter ride over, Sousuke didn’t understand anything of what the man said.  
“Mao, would you help?”  
“Ming baak laa. Hoi cheung.”*2  
“He said ‘Understand? Open the window.’”  
Sousuke obeyed, opening the van’s power window. After that he only watched from the side as Mao spoke fluently in Cantonese to the soldier. She showed him their operating permit and passes, and when she explained something to the soldier, he faced Sousuke and said, “Ho yi.”  
Mao poked Sousuke’s shoulder and pointed in front of the van.  
“Nei tai. Ngodei ho yi jau laa.”  
The gate in front of them started to noisily open. “Go” was what Sousuke interpreted it to mean, and he took off. It had been set up so that they would clear this first barrier without any problems.  
They crossed through the tunnel that ran underneath Victoria Harbor. There were no other cars around. Their van was the only vehicle on the spacious three-lane road.  
“This is unbelievable. This tunnel used to always be backed up.”  
“It seems everything’s surprising.”  
“Of course it is. Anyone who knew what Hong Kong was like before would be shocked.”  
“Is that so?”  
“Try to imagine how you would feel if Tokyo was like this.”  
This surprising statement unexpectedly hit home to Sousuke.  
“If Shinjuku and Ginza were divided in two, and the two sides were one step away from war. A town where there’s supposed to be fashion-conscious kids shopping or eating ice cream- now full of armored cars and ASes. On a bayside perfect for taking a stroll, there are gigantic pillboxes and hidden trenches. In Hong Kong, of all places! It’s weird. This world has gone mad.”  
For the first time, Sousuke finally understood the “peace” of the city he had lived in for a half a year. There were no tanks. There were no ASes. There weren’t any policemen or soldiers 
demanding bribes. Cars and people flooded the streets, and there were the sounds of lively music and laughter in the air.  
Peaceful Tokyo. A peaceful school. A peaceful classroom. And-  
“What’s wrong?”  
“, it’s nothing.”  
Sousuke shook off the image of the face that almost came to mind.  
“Be careful. There’s the South Army’s Gate.”  
They hadn’t reached the exit of the tunnel yet, but they could see the gate sealed up by wire netting. It was the entrance into the South China Army dominated Kowloon Peninsula. Hunter was supposed to have pulled some strings with this commander, as well. After two or three exchanges, the soldiers quickly let them pass.  
“So this is how it is.”  
“Surprising, huh?”  
The two were disappointed that it had been so easy to pass inspection at both camps. It was strict guard, after all. They had prepared themselves for anything that would give them the slightest shiver.  
“It appears that Hunter is a pretty important person.”  
“I know, since he’s had influence with both of the armies up to this point. I can’t believe that he’s a completely respectable merchant.”  
“Probably not.”  
More than likely, he was in the business of buying the black market goods from the munitions stores of both armies. 
Selling favors to the military leaders who were working hard to build their fortunes, while at the same time taking advantages of their weaknesses. For a member of the Intelligence Department it was killing two birds with one stone. Sousuke had seen a lot of trouble with men like that.  
“We’re almost there now, it’s this area.”  
They entered a street lined with modern hotels. This vicinity was one of the places on the list, right in the middle of a construction site for a trade center- the perfect place for an AS to hide. In Hong Kong, Malaysian merchants without much in the way of an actual track record were accepting these construction projects, and there were many various obscure points in their contracts.  
“Wonder what we’ll do if we find it right off the bat.”  
“There’s nothing to wonder. We should always have that intention.”  
They passed in front of a wide park surrounded by hotels and shopping centers on three sides.  
There was a South China Army AS standing guard at the entrance of the park. It was an early model “Bushnell” M6, a model intended for export and not equipped with ECS. Right next to it there was a British-made electric car. It was connected to an outside power supply, probably because it had been on standby for a long time.  
That electric car...  
He suddenly remembered. That electric car was the same model as the one that he had stolen from the enemy right after he had saved her in Shun On. She had made such a racket, making it hard to explain the situation to her. Without even trying to believe what he had told her, and with enemy bullets flying all around them, she had admonished him saying  
“Sagara, get a grip. You’re confused and clinging to these wild ideas of yours!”  
That’s right. That’s what she used to call me back then. When did she start calling me ‘Sousuke’? That’s definitely-  
Mao screamed. Sousuke snapped back.  
The van he was driving had just run the red light at an intersection.  
It was a noisy pile up. There was a taxi coming from the left. He squealed the brakes. The van pitched forward, and the bumper scraped along the asphalt. There was a shrill sound, sparks, and impact. The taxi had torn off the van’s bumper.  
The car went flying right as if it had been kicked, and glass and metal fragments scattered as it skidded sideways.  
♦ ♦ ♦ 
Sousuke and Mao’s van was stopped in the middle of the intersection.  
The driver of the wrecked taxi jumped out of the car and was yelling something at them. Four soldiers from the park that they had just passed a moment ago were running to the scene. The M6 had not moved from where it was standing, but its head was fixedly staring in their direction.  
The color drained from her face, Mao looked at Sousuke from the passenger side. She looked as if nothing would come out other than abusive language.  
“... Anyway, let me handle it. You just stay quiet.”  
“Never mind, just don’t do anything!” she snapped, and got out of the van.  
Mao headed towards the soldiers who were running up, and called out something in a very embarrassed voice.  
“Mafaan chan nei...”  
It probably meant something like “We’re sorry, he wasn’t careful.” However, without even responding to her somewhat stupefied remarks, they suddenly thrust their rifles at her.  
Shut up, or something like that, they yelled at her.  
The soldiers’ demeanor turned bloodthirsty at anything that went wrong, probably because these past few days of being on alert had worn down their nerves.  
They caught Mao by the shoulder and forced her down on the ground, then pulled Sousuke out of the driver’s seat. They seized the driver of the taxicab as well in the same manner. The taxi cab driver cried out in a pitiful voice, clinging to the soldiers and pointing at Sousuke and Mao in blame.  
With her hands tied behind her back, Mao was desperately explaining something to the soldiers. It was a cleverly pitiful voice that called out for sympathy, but its effectiveness was doubtful.  
This was terrible.  
A mistake in judgment during battle would have been better, but this was a traffic accident due to his carelessness. He had never made such a stupid mistake before. This was a failure that even Sousuke’s own pride could almost not accept. Being restrained like this went well beyond reconnaissance. He had to think of something- he thought.  
Just then, a thunderous roar rose up from the M6 standing 30 meters away, and its knees dropped.  
Its long, slender head was forcibly twisted off by some unknown power. Sparks and flames gushed from the neck, and with cables and pipes pulled out, it looked as if it were the severed head of some ghost floating out into the empty sky. The broken metal went into death throes. The stumpy figure of the M6 writhed, its arms and legs flitted around, and it tried to make a grab for its invisible attacker.  
The large body of the M6 let out a loud roar, and went flying like a slingshot.  
Crossing over the road, it hit some hotels on the other side of the park, and pieces of concrete and glass flew everywhere. White dust suddenly arose, enshrouding the area in a solid cloud, when a large bolt of lightning flashed amid the confusion.  
ECS Invisibility mode.  
In the remnants of the blue light, one could see the shape of an AS.  
Its upper body had the shape of an inverted triangle, with a head shaped like a diamond. It was gray and dark green camouflaged. It also had what you would never forget after the seeing it once- that one red eye.  
It was Venom.  
The soldiers gasped, their eyes fixed on the figure of that very ominous machine.  
The Venom took the head of the M6 that it had just torn off and simply threw it on the road. The lump of a machine gun and deformed sensor fell on a Benz that was parked nearby, smashing its front windshield. The Venom then took the assault rifle from its back, aimed it at the M6, which was still trying to move, and opened fire full out at point-blank range. The M6 was helpless as its arms and legs were shot to pieces, and blew up.  
The tremendous sound, hot wind and shock wave from the explosion reached all the way to the intersection where Sousuke and the others were. Mao grabbed the driver of the taxicab and forced him to the ground. Immediately after, when she noticed Sousuke standing there dumbfounded, her eyes widened in shock.  
Hearing the uproar, another M6 on alert in a neighboring vicinity had rushed over. It exposed half of its body from behind the corner of a hotel across from Venom, and took aim with its rifle. Mao got up, this time jumping on Sousuke.  
It shot.  
The Venom raised its left arm. Just in front of it, numerous shells burst open. There was an invisible shield. The diverted ballistic shells hit the surrounding buildings and signboards, and a storm of destruction swept over the area.  
“Gau meng a...!”  
Even its movements were unpredictable. The soldiers screamed out amidst the chaos. Debris rained down incessantly all around Mao and Sousuke.  
The Venom quickly crushed the newcomer M6 with its rifle, and then ran back towards Sousuke and Mao’s direction. Someone cried out in despair. The gray machine drew in close, then kicked the ground just in front of them. As if it had exploded, the asphalt was smashed into pieces by the impact. The Venom then suddenly disappeared.  
Brushing away the thick dust, they looked up overhead. The Venom had landed on top of a twenty-story building. It had probably had used a wire gun to help it make it that far so fast. It had jumping capacity second only to that of the M9.  
The machine’s red eye paid absolutely no attention to Sousuke and the others, but looked off in the distance. It had 
probably confirmed the movement of the South China Army’s forces.  
After glaring over the entire vicinity, the Venom turned around and activated its ECS system. As its gray body became invisible, it disappeared beyond the rooftop.  
That was the end of the battle.  
The intersection was covered in smoke. A soldier whose arm was injured by some flying debris was making a loud racket. Another one appeared to be injured as well, saying “that’s not it, this isn’t it,” very quickly. The one who appeared to have the most experience out of the four was yelling something into his radio, and the remaining soldier was just standing bewildered in the middle of the intersection.  
The South China Army soldiers seemed to have completely lost interest in Mao and the others.  
Mao started to talk to one of them, and after rattling off an answer to her, he hastily ran in the direction of the burning M6. She said something to the taxi driver and then pointed her thumb up at the van with Hunter’s company written on it. He looked a little dissatisfied, but when Mao said something else, he then seemed to understand, and then walked back to his own car.  
“Let’s go,” she whispered in a low voice in Sousuke’s ear as she approached.  
“Is it okay...?”  
“He said ‘If it hadn’t been for your accident, we would’ve probably been crushed to death next to the M6, so we’ll let it pass,’” she said, quickly getting into the now bumper-less van. Naturally, she got into the driver’s side.  
With no reason to cite dissatisfaction, Sousuke silently sat in the passenger seat.  
A car accident and seeing Venom. Completely unexpected events happened as if they were pressing him for answers, and it disturbed Sousuke considerably. Being relieved of his guard duty of Kaname, his utter defeat to Clouseau in their match- it was the shock of all of them lined up together.  
What in the world am I doing?  
If Venom had not have shown up when it did, they would have probably been restrained by those South Army soldiers and been in even more trouble.  
Where was the irony?  
The irony. He had absolutely no control over this reality.  
His arms and legs were numb and senseless as the feeling of helplessness ate at his mind and body. Right now for Sousuke, everything had stopped making sense.  
Starting the engine, Mao said, “You missed the light. We could’ve died, you know.”  
“I’m sorry.”  
“Were you thinking about her?”  
When he didn’t say anything, Mao suddenly grabbed his lapel.  
“Forget right now. If you can’t do that, then get out. You know the situation. But now- I’m not that nice of a babysitter. I’m not gonna die because of you...! If you’re gonna be like this, I’d be better off by myself.”  
What she was saying was right. She took up this severe attitude especially because she recognized their equal relationship. Showing sympathy here, either as a colleague or as a friend, would be a mistake.  
However, that correctness right now was helplessly unpleasant to Sousuke.  
“’re right.”  
Sousuke grabbed his bag with the radio and other equipment, and opened the passenger side door.  
“I’m sorry. I... can’t do this anymore.”  
“Please continue the mission.”  
Getting out of the van, he stepped on the road now covered in building material and rubble, and walked off alone. He had nowhere to go, of course. Mao yelled something at him from behind, but he didn’t hear it.  
It didn’t matter what happened. Nothing did. Not Mithril’s mission, Venom, Arbalest or Al, or the fate of this city.  
♦ ♦ ♦ 
October 22nd, 19:53 (Eastern China Standard Time)  
Hong Kong Island Special Region, Sheung Wan  
It had already been three hours since they parted with Mao and Sousuke.  
In that time, Corporal Yang and Private First-class Wu had finished checking eleven of the possible hiding places on their list, and had come up with nothing.  
Yang and Wu slowly drove through an area with a line of tall apartment buildings in one section of Sheung Wan. In this town, which was constructed on the slope of Mount Victoria, there were many steep and narrow curves.  
“...I wanna drive.”  
Being on a road such as this one, on the outskirts of his hometown of Daegu, brought back the excitement of that time 
when he would attack the passes almost every night. And he kept asking himself “Why am I in this kind of place, doing this kind of mercenary work?”  
The answer was because he had no money. Being the third son of the owner of a small car garage, he had not had the economical luxury to aim at being a racer. And it was even more ironic that he was favored more for his talent as a soldier than for his gift to drive. He grudgingly entered the army because of the draft, and while he grudgingly managed through his training, a commissioned officer on base spotted him and sent a letter of recommendation to the air force. After that, because of some mistake, even his own country was involved in a secret operations “battle”- he didn’t care what happened afterwards, though.  
And yet, he was still here. In this van, in the passenger seat.  
“No, Corporal,” Wu warned from beside him. “Don’t get anxious. If we screw something up, we’ll be killed by the president instead of our enemies.”  
“...I know that. Look, we’re here.”  
They stopped in front of a high-rise apartment building under construction. It had an ideal underground parking lot that an AS could hide in, and disreputable foreign merchants were accepting the construction work.  
“The is Uruz 9. We’re about to inspect point 28. If there’s no contact for 15 minutes, shrink the perimeter.”  
“Uruz 2, roger,” Mao’s voice replied curtly over the radio. For some reason, Sousuke didn’t even reply once. He had heard about Venom showing up in Kowloon, but had there been some kind of trouble?  
“Wanfu Headquarters, roger. Be careful.”  
That was Hunter.  
“Let’s go. Be on your toes, Wu.”  
“Yeah, yeah...”  
The two men got out of the van and approached the high-rise apartment building.  
From Hunter’s information, it seemed that construction on this building had stopped three days ago. The reason seemed to be because of a “Labor Strike”, but that had not been confirmed.  
Going around a bamboo scaffold and net, they entered into the dim building.  
They took out their automatics with silencers attached. There was no sign of people inside. They went down the stairwell carefully so as not to make a sound. The entrance to the parking garage didn’t have a door. In front of the empty doorway, they strained to hear anything, and Yang signaled to Wu with a look and hand signal. Then they stepped noiselessly into the underground parking garage.  
It was an empty concrete room. There were no cars at all- only construction equipment.  
“Nothing. This is the eighth one-”  
In the shadow of some bags of carelessly piled cement, he saw a leg. Someone was lying on the other side of the cement bags. When Wu noticed, he shut his mouth.  
While signaling warnings to each other, the two men approached the area.  
It was a man in his forties, wearing dirty work clothes. He had been shot in the head.  
“-buh... you think it’s one of the construction workers here?” Wu said, looking away from the corpse.  
“Yeah. I guess he forgot something and when he unexpectedly came to get it, he ran across someone and they shot 
him. Pity. I’d say it’s been... around two days since he was killed,” Yang said as he calmly searched the corpse.  
With his bare hands, he opened up the mouth, which had small maggots coming out of it, and checked the mouth cavity. There didn’t seem to be any kind of explosive device hidden inside.  
“You know the time pretty well.”  
“The rigor mortis has relaxed, and decay has set in. Other factors, such as the mucous membranes drying out, the state of the eye sockets, and the color all indicate that’s probably how long he’s been dead. But there’s no way to pinpoint an exact time of death without an autopsy.”  
“Ha hah... this was a safe house, then?”  
“I don’t know. Anyway, even if he had used it as one of his hiding places, the enemy probably won’t come near here again. Anyway, keep an eye out for the criminal’s ‘parting gift’.”  
“Parting gift?”  
“A trap. A bomb in place of an alarm.”  
Suddenly looking extremely uneasy, Wu looked back and forth all over the area.  
“It’s alright. Just don’t touch anything other than what I’ve already touched. Got it?”  
“Understood. Just... you’re definitely in the SRT.”  
“No, never mind... anyway, that’s man’s chest...”  
Yang also had noticed. He could see a strange stain on the T-shirt the body was wearing underneath his work uniform. At first he had thought it was the color of faded blood, but that didn’t seem to be it. While watching for any traps, he very carefully pulled down the zipper.  
It wasn’t a stain. It was a message written in magic marker, in English.  
“To the Tiger Cub of Badakhshan. Meet Hamidallah in Tsim Sha Tsui.”  
That was all.  
“ you understand what it means?”  
“Not at all,” Yang shrugged, and turned the radio on.  
♦ ♦ ♦ 
October 22nd, 16:14 (Eastern China Standard Time)  
South China Sea, Tuatha de Danaan  
It was extremely congested overhead. Because it was now prohibited to enter the port, many ships were now on standby just on this side of Hong Kong.  
Because of the number of ships that didn’t think this was normal, it was the first time that the sonar room and TMA system had been this busy since the ship had first set out.  
Tessa decided to have her own ship approach by creeping along the bottom of the ocean floor. If they unskillfully tried to rise up to periscope depth, they would be in danger of it colliding with the merchant ships. While very carefully probing the floor’s terrain with high frequency sonar, they slowly moved along, making it look like the dance of a whale. It was a maneuver that not only took time, but was also grating on the nerves; however, it was better than being detected by South China Army patrols.  
<Captain. There is an incoming message from the Intelligence Department.>  
The ship’s AI, Dana, informed her. Tessa looked over the information.  
The situation had gotten much worse. The North China Army was starting to believe that Venom’s destruction was mostly the handiwork of the South Army.  
The North China Army was calling the spread of destruction into districts on the South Army’s side “a lesson learned from their own mistake”. Chairman You Shoukon*3 of the Beijing Government (People’s Liberation Committee) proclaimed, “If the risky provocation of the Guangzhou puppet force continues, we will prepare to raise appropriate military action in order to protect the interests of the citizens of China.” From the looks of the Northern China Army on the footage captured by Mithril’s spy satellites, it was clear that this was not just a threat.  
The Belvedere Secretary-General of the Guangzhou Administration (Chinese Democratic Alliance) Chou Kou*4 also appeared in a mass communication to the west side, criticizing the reaction of the North side. The reason: “Beijing is using this situation to try to gain control over the Sanxia Dam. We, the democratic government, will not yield to any kind of military threat made by the North Army.” The South Army forces were also entering into a response formation.  
The North Army had set the time limit. Today at 2200 hours. They were basically saying that until then, as far as the conclusion of the situation in Hong Kong, if the South Army didn’t show some kind of good faith, whatever happened after that would not be their responsibility.  
In other words, the revival of the civil war. Meaning that many people would be caught up in the war and die.  
Tessa looked at the clock. Right now it was 1631 Hours. There were only five hours left.  
“That’s not enough time. What a thing to say...”  
She was right. There wasn’t enough time. If they would just wait another eight hours, Mithril would bag Venom. The reconnaissance mission of Mao’s group and the Intelligence department had been designed for at least that much time.  
What were Mithril’s upper levels doing right now? If they didn’t persuade both armies using the intelligence that they possessed, then there would be nothing that her own force could do by themselves. Did they plan on entrusting everything to a 16-year-old commander and a squadron of 200 men and women?  
“Connect to the Department of Operations Headquarters. Line G3.”  
<Although very small, there is a risk of interception on line G3.>  
“I don’t care. Hurry.”  
<Aye Ma’am... There is a message on G1. It is Uruz 2.>  
This time it was a communication from Hong Kong. It was urgent.  
“Put it through.”  
<Yes Ma’am.>  
It was Mao reporting from Hong Kong.  
It was about the strange message and dead body that Corporal Yang found. In the second instance, the Information Bureau’s reconnaissance team discovered the same message in an entirely different place. It wasn’t on a corpse, but had been scribbled on the walls and floor. And in the third instance, the same message had appeared in a three-line classified advertisement in a local newspaper.  
“‘To the Tiger Cub of Badakhshan’...?”  
Tessa raised her eyebrows when she heard the message.  
“I wonder what that means? It doesn’t sound like a threat... or a diversion,” Mardukas said.  
Tessa had heard of Badakhshan before. It had been four months already, but there were two people around her who had deep involvement in that area.  
The ship’s AI, Dana, analyzed the message, but not matter what kind of cryptanalysis it used, it was not able to guess as to the meaning.  
“Badakhshan” was the name of an area in Northeast Afghanistan. “Tsim Sha Tsui” was talking about the district in the heart of the Kowloon Peninsula. And “Hamidallah” was a very common Arabian name. They found four people when they looked up residents by the name of “Hamidallah” in Hong Kong. They sent orders to the Intelligence Department asking them to catch these four people.  
Just then, Kalinin came up from the hangar.  
“I’m back.”  
“Perfect timing, Lt. Commander. Please take a look at this.”  
When he looked at the message on the display screen, the wrinkle in his brow became even deeper.  
“Do you understand something, Mr. Kalinin?”  
“ part of it. The ‘Tiger of Badakhshan” is the nickname of the legendary commander of some Afghani Guerrillas.”  
“Yes, Ma’am. I fought him many times, as well. In order to get rid of him, the Soviets would often send assassins to his camp. There was one assassin there who wasn’t even eight years old. However, the assassination attempt failed completely. Deeply compassionate, he took in the very young assassin as his own, and gave him a new name. That name was-”  
Kalinin was quiet for a moment, then continued.  
She recognized that name from the Arbalest’s mission recorder during the sea jacking incident two months before.  
“Captain. Can we get a hold of Sergeant Sagara?”  
“Yes... TDD-HQ to Uruz 2. Put Uruz 7 on the line.”  
“This is Uruz 2. Umm, well...” she said over the noise, with hesitation in her voice.  
“What is it?”  
“I’m sorry. Uruz 7... isn’t here.”  
♦ ♦ ♦ 
October 22nd, 17:08 (Eastern China Standard Time)  
Kowloon Peninisula Special Region (“Chinese Democratic Alliance” Side)  
A weak wind swept by, blowing garbage across the road.  
This is a strange scene, thought Sousuke.  
There were numerous signboards. There were numerous shops. Normally, this district would probably be cluttered with shoppers and automobiles.  
Now it looked as if it were ruins.  
Even Sousuke didn’t know where he would go from here.  
No kind of plan came to him. If his body were the body of an AS, he wanted to hand over the controls of the machine to someone else. Almost like that white AS, right now his own existence was an unpleasant thing.  
Mithril would probably not trust him a second time, now that he had abandoned his mission. When he thought of the looks of disappointment on his colleagues’ faces, as well as the looks of contempt, his heart felt like it had fallen into his stomach. Even 
with the Arbalest, he didn’t think they would want to rely on him anymore.  
He also thought a little about returning to Tokyo.  
However, he would no longer be a student at that school, nor would he have a place to live. He also wouldn’t have a mission to guard Kaname. Also- he couldn’t earn a living there, since there was no war. His only saving grace was his ability to fight. He didn’t know how to do anything else.  
Maybe going north of this city into the mainland of China would be a good idea. As long as he had money, he could head North or West, and he would surely hit a war zone along the way. And they would probably have an unlimited need for mercenaries. He would live fighting one battle after the next, without principles or pretensions, just like he did before he joined Mithril. And then he would die like that one day.  
That was starting to sound like an attractive plan.  
What would his colleagues do in this kind of situation? The mercenaries he had met before joining Mithril would often drink. They would drink like they were bathing in it, make a lot of noise, fight with each other, then throw up all over the place. It didn’t really look like much fun, but even so, it seemed like some kind of diversion. That was what alcohol was for.  
I’ll try it, he thought to himself. According to what the old soldier Jacob had taught him, drinking was a foolish act. But because of the circumstances, Sousuke didn’t care. And in any case, Jacob was dead.  
There was a 7-11 open. Impressed a little, he walked inside. Most of the grocery shelves were empty. The neighborhood residents must have bought them up because of the uproar.  
Sousuke grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and an English newspaper and went to the register. When he paid with the 500-dollar bill he had, the middle-aged female clerk gave him a hateful look and handed him back a lot of small change.  
He walked to a small park about a block away, and then opened the bottle of whiskey.  
Without hesitating at all he gulped down a large drink. A moment later, there was a strange pain followed by a sudden rush of fever that felt like his throat was burning. He immediately choked and started coughing violently.  
It was a terrible taste. Why did everyone drink this stuff like it tasted good? Jacob was right.  
He threw the bottle in the recycling bin and opened up the newspaper. All the articles were about Venom, but of course, they didn’t know the code name “Venom”. They listed all sorts of information about the mystery AS as well as all sorts of speculation, and there was a list of the comments made by military critics. Frightened citizens. Evacuation highway congestion. The impact on the economy. Everything was terrible.  
Then suddenly- his eyes stopped on one of the small advertisements in the classifieds. 
 “To the Tiger Cub of Badakhshan. Meet Hamidallah in Tsim Sha Tsui.” 
More than likely, that message was meant for him- and Sousuke realized at a glance that he was probably the only one in the world who could discern its meaning.  
♦ ♦ ♦ 
It was barely a ten-minute walk from Jordon to Tsim Sha Tsui.  
His head felt a little clouded and as if his field of vision had narrowed. Probably because of the drink earlier.  
He went into a lone open tourist camera shop, and asked the salesperson questions about this and that.  
“If you’re looking for an office block full of Arab stores, there’s one near here,” the salesperson answered in perfect English. Sousuke thanked him, and headed that way.  
There were a number of dark-skinned young men with mustaches hanging around in the narrow entrance. They stared at Sousuke, but none of them went out of their way to talk to him.  
The block was crammed full of small shops all muddled together. It was mainly a marketplace and a very noisy area.  
In great contrast to the quiet main street, inside people were overflowing. Many various goods- clothing, foodstuffs, electronics, and video software, were jutting out on display into the narrow pathways as they usually did. Popular music was blaring from somewhere, people were doing business in loud voices, and men with time on their hands were shooting the breeze with each other about various things. It didn’t look like this area was concerned at all about the threat from Venom.  
All of the men going back and forth through these pathways were Arabs, probably men who came all the way here to work here. Most of them were from Iran, but he could also see a number of black people from Africa.  
“Is there an electronics shop run by an Afghani? Or a Turkish person would do, too,” Sousuke tried asking a man idling at a T-shirt shop in the Afghan dialect of Persian*5. He was surprised by how rusty his pronunciation was.  
The man didn’t answer him. He simply looked at Sousuke blankly with his mouth half-open.  
Sousuke repeated the question, but the man still didn’t answer.  
He gave up, then asked the shopkeeper in the CD shop next door.  
“Third corner up ahead, on the right. There’s a sign for it inside,” the shopkeeper told Sousuke without even trying to sell his goods to him, and pointed to the opening to a narrow passageway.  
He then said in a thin, low voice, “I won’t say anything bad. When you’ve finished your business, hurry up and leave the building. You look like a cute little kid here.”  
“I know.”  
Certainly a number of the people passing by were looking at Sousuke like that. Since he was a 16-year-old Asian male with smooth skin and no beard or body odor, there was nothing he could do about it. Even when he had been with the other group of guerrillas a long time ago, they had always been unusually kind to him. There were also many times when it seemed that they would attack him in his sleep.  
Sousuke soon found the shop he was looking for.  
It had an old, worn-out neon sign. It was an electronics store.  
“To the Tiger Cub of Badakhshan. Meet Hamidallah in Tsim Sha Tsui.”  
To Sousuke, that message was a very simple code.  
The Tiger of Badakhshan. That was the nickname of a man called Majid, who won fame from leading one of the Afghani guerrilla groups. He was a tactician beyond compare when it came to fighting in mountainous areas, a poet, and a scholar in architecture as well.  
Until the early nineties, his band of guerrillas was invincible. But when the Soviets brought ASes into Afghanistan, 
the situation changed completely. Unlike the land weapons that they had used up until then, the human-shaped weapon called “AS” could move freely into the impregnable mountainous region. There really wasn’t any way for the flesh and blood guerrillas to oppose these new weapons. Majid’s forces fought a good fight, but for several years they took too much damage and were substantially annihilated.  
The whereabouts of Majid himself since then were unknown. Sousuke didn’t even know whether he was dead or alive.  
Until three years ago, Sousuke had been a member of those guerrillas. The name “Kashim” had been given to him by Majid. When the war situation still looked favorable, Majid had given custody of Kashim to his right-hand man, the old soldier Jacob, and ordered him to teach him the art of war as well as compassion and mercy.  
So in other words, “The Tiger Cub of Badakhshan” was talking about Sousuke. Majid had many other sons, but when he read that one sentence, he didn’t think that possibility was likely.  
“Hamidallah” was the name of one of Sousuke’s dead associates. He had formerly owned an electronics store in Kabul, and when he lost his shop in the civil war, he joined with the guerrillas. Hamidallah repaired half-damaged enemy ASes so that Sousuke could use them. Lt. Commander Kalinin also had an acquaintance with Hamidallah, but he wouldn’t know his name or occupation. Because of that, even the Lt. Commander wouldn’t understand this code word. Sousuke was the only one who would know the dead guerrilla soldiers.  
This message more than likely was saying “To Sousuke Sagara. Meet the Afghani owner of the electronics shop in Tsim Sha Tsui.” He couldn’t think of anything else.  
Was one of his former colleagues still alive? No, that wasn’t it. He had seen their bodies with his own eyes.  
Then maybe one of their friends or family members...?  
It was possible. But if it were, how did they know that he would come here to Hong Kong? Did that mean that there was some connection with the Venom disturbances...?  
Was this a trap, or someone trying to help? He didn’t know.  
But he couldn’t disregard it.  
He had come this far.  
The electronics store was in the very middle of the dim pathway. There was no sign of anyone there. He reached for the pistol that he always kept underneath his work clothes, and checked to see if there were any guards. The feeling that someone was following him was probably sheer habit, but he felt foolish a moment later. He didn’t have a mission now. Even if he did die, no one would care.  
He looked into the shop. There was an old man sitting alone inside whom he didn’t recognize. Sousuke approached him, but before he could say anything the old man opened his mouth.  
“Are you Majid’s son, Kashim?”  
“That’s right.”  
“You stink of whiskey... worthless brat. You trying to disgrace the name of Badakhshan Tiger?”  
“You know about it? Tell me your business.”  
The old man looked displeased as he thrust out his left hand. He was holding a small folded up piece of paper.  
“I was only asked to give this to you.”  
“By who?”  
“A man from Hong Kong. I don’t know anything else. Now take it and scram!”  
Sousuke took the piece of paper, and without saying any word of thanks to the man, left the shop.  
He opened the note. It was one section of a tourist map.  
The fountain in the Kowloon Park a few hundred meters away had been circled in red.  
♦ ♦ ♦ 
October 22nd, 18:09 (Eastern China Standard Time)  
South China Sea, Tuatha de Danaan  
In order to save time, they communicated with the Operations Headquarters over a real-time G-line. Even while they were notifying them, the situation had become rather sticky.  
“There is no longer any time to waste on reconnaissance. We’re discontinuing the plan to sneak up on him,” the voice of Admiral Borda echoed painfully.  
“The TDD-1 is to deploy all of its M9s. Bring it down with a concentrated force. However, use of the Arbalest is prohibited. I don’t want that machine jeopardizing that mission.”  
“P... please wait,” Tessa protested, leaning out of her Captain’s chair. “The counter-measures against Venom are still incomplete. If we make them sortie like this, we don’t know what kind of damage they will receive. At least give us two more hours.”  
“I can’t. Even Sir Mallory agrees.”  
“The tension between the North and South army is at its limit. And there are more casualties each time Venom appears. We can’t allow any more damage. How many more people should we let die by ‘waiting’?”  
It was a harsh thing to say, and Tessa lost the will to object to the Admiral’s point.  
“The Venom’s weaknesses are exposed during the time that it’s operational. We have no choice but to take advantage of them. We will be relying on your subordinates, so for that reason, they will be the most elite.”  
This was different from a normal mission. Most of the pilots who would go out on this mission might not be coming back. This order was more than just understanding that.  
“It’s hard, isn’t it, Teletha. But I told you about the precariousness of the road you’re following. And even though you knew that, you didn’t separate yourself from that chair. Am I wrong?”  
“ It’s just as you say.”  
“Right. Then execute the mission, Captain Teletha Testarossa.”  
She ended the transmission, and took off her headset.  
With her head bent down, she told Mardukas, “Surface to periscope depth. Have the M9s on standby depart underwater. Also, please have the ARX-7 equipped with an emergency expansion booster. Arm it with a Boxer Shot Cannon and have it on standby in the elevator.”  
“Captain. Wasn’t use of the Arbalest prohibited just now...?”  
“We’ll use it as a decoy. Even if it’s only by a little bit, I want to decrease the danger to the M9 team as much as possible. Besides... Sagara is still...” Tessa mumbled, to which Mardukas gave a small rebuke.  
“You say that, Captain. But you have to take into consideration that Sagara abandoned his mission. It’s an obvious mistake to rely on him or that AS.”  
“That’s not the only thing, is it?”  
“This isn’t a school club activity.”  
“I’m well aware of that. Are you lecturing me?”  
The voices of the Captain and Vice-Captain resounded all throughout the command center. Even the crew was watching them in astonishment. Mardukas noticed this and hesitated for a moment, but without losing his determination, he continued his admonitions.  
“No, but I won’t keep silent this time. You’re going by your own interests and going so far as to twist the orders from headquarters. What about structure and discipline? Giving special treatment to an officer who abandons his mission is out of the question!” the veteran officer said in a voice so severe that it would made one cringe, but Tessa didn’t back down.  
“Very well. Then tell me, who are the ones that always get a ridiculous amount of responsibility forced on them?”  
“We are! Correct me if I’m wrong!”  
“Six months ago, who was the one who brought us valuable information in an air field full of enemies with no regard for his own safety? Four months ago, who was the one who fought in an impromptu performance against an enemy so powerful that it made Venom look like nothing, and won? And two months ago, who was the one who struggled to protect this ship?”  
“Say it! Who was it!?” The command center was completely silent. Mardukas was stunned for a little bit, but he sighed and said it.  
“...Sergeant Sagara.”  
“That’s right. Yet you still condemn him? Do you think he’s that much of a coward?”  
“I’ll admit it since you want me to. I like him. But my feelings have nothing to do with this. I give you my word; he will definitely come to help. He could never forsake us. No matter how bleak it may look right now, human nature does not change. He- he’s strong, and kind.”  
“Strong and kind?” Mardukas said after a very long pause. “Captain, am I supposed to be satisfied by that?”  
“That’s not the issue, is it? Do you trust me? Or do you not? Every time up till now- everything I’ve done up till now. Choose!” she said resolutely.  
The Commander turned his back to the Captain, and took off his hat. He looked down at the hat that he had received a long time ago from someone as a memento, and ran his thumb along the embroidery.  
“You’ve become quite strong,” Richard Mardukas said, as if he were alone. “Roger, Captain. We’ll put the Arbalest on standby.”  
“Thank you. I... just want everyone to come back safe,” she said downheartedly.  
♦ ♦ ♦ 
As a matter of fact, their quarrel had somehow been broadcast throughout the ship, and had been directed through to the M9 pilots on standby.  
“...that’s what I’m saying. The communication just started by itself. Did someone want us to hear it on purpose?” Kurz said to four of pilots on standby over a private line.  
“No... I don’t know,” Lieutenant Clouseau replied.  
“Perhaps the Lt. Commander?”  
“Besides, what they said about him abandoning the mission... is that true? Sagara did? I can’t believe it,” said “Uruz 8”, Corporal Spake.  
“That’s only what the Commander said. Don’t believe everything you hear.”  
“Have you not heard anything, Lieutenant Clouseau?”  
“I’ve heard the particulars. However, I can’t judge based on just that. Lt. Commander Kalinin feels the same way. Either way, Sagara and the Arbalest have immeasurable power.”  
“What do you think, Roger?”  
“...I don’t know what kind of person Sagara is. But the Captain did have a point. A falcon is a falcon till the day it dies.”  
“A falcon is a falcon... huh?”  
After they had expressed their thoughts for a while, the SRT men resumed checking their machines.  
“Even so, for Tessa to argue so intensely with the Commander...”  
“She likes Sagara, right? They are the same age.”  
“That’s not the only reason,” Kurz said in almost a criticizing voice.  
“‘I just want everyone to return safely,’ is what she said. What do you think, gentlemen?”  
“Of course she would want that,” said Clouseau.  
“It’s not like we can make our princess mourn for us, now can we?” said “Uruz 3”, Lieutenant Castero.  
“She’s been worried about us before now. What, was she moved to expressing her true feelings?” said Corporal Spake.  
“That’s enough,” said “Uruz 5”, Lieutenant Roger Sandarapta.  
Everyone sank into their own thoughts. There were thoughts of Danigan and Guen, but they thankfully and uncertainly believed in Tessa, who trusted them absolutely.  
Just then, the order from the command center for all units to sortie came over the regular line.  
“This is Uruz 1, gentlemen. You heard the order, right? We will meet up with Uruz 2 at the actual place, then stand by on alert. All of the orders will be given by Lt. Commander Kalinin from the air. If you are a pro, live up to his expectations. I won’t make a mistake. You guys won’t mess up, either. If you don’t, then everything will work out. Got it?”  
♦ ♦ ♦ 
October 22nd, 18:24 (Eastern China Standard Time)  
Hong Kong Island Special Region (“People’s Liberation Committee” Side)  
Mithril’s Intelligence Department, Hong Kong Branch Office  
The same altered orders that Teletha Testarossa now faced had been handed down to Hunter from the head of the Intelligence Department, General Amit.  
“ other words, our time is up?”  
“That’s correct. We will leave the rest to the Operations Department.”  
“Very well, then.”  
When Amit’s figure disappeared from the screen, Hunter cursed out in a loud voice.  
“God damn it!”  
Just when he thought that taking on a favor from Melissa Mao and her superiors and dividing up his valuable people would somehow result in them catching the enemy by the tail. If only- if only they would give him two more hours. If they did, then maybe they could make it through this without much gunfire.  
“President... excuse me? President Hunter?” his native Hong Kong secretary said as he entered his office.  
“What is it?”  
“Visitors to see you, Sir. They came in earlier, saying they had some urgent business...”  
“Send them away, please. Right now I’m in an exceedingly bad mood. I don’t care what excuse you give.”  
The secretary started to bow, but then the two guests stepped into Hunter’s office, pushing the secretary out of the way. One of the people was an old friend from the Intelligence Department, and the other- was an Asian person he had never seen before.  
“Hey, old man? Just how long are you planning on making us wait!?” the girl yelled as she approached Hunter.  
♦ ♦ ♦ 
October 22nd, 18:31 (Eastern China Standard Time) Kowloon Peninsula Special Region (“Chinese Democratic Alliance” Side), Kowloon Park  
With the tourist’s map in one hand, Sousuke walked to the deserted park.  
In the middle of the Kowloon Peninsula, which was full of buildings, it was a place that opened up like a green island- that 
was Kowloon Park. The atmosphere was like that of Central Park in Shinjuku.  
There was a fountain with the water stopped. It was the place marked on the map. Without showing any caution, Sousuke sat down on the bench beside it. It would be troublesome to check the area, and he just really didn’t feel like doing it. If someone wanted to kill him, that was fine with him. It would be easier that way.  
The streetlights were bright. He could see tall buildings lined up in the distance. There were about five very low but perfect places to snipe him from.  
No one came. Five minutes passed.  
An electronic sound rang from a nearby wastebasket. He moved over and looked inside. Underneath a snack cake wrapper was a ringing cell phone.  
He picked up the cell phone and pressed the respond key.  
“This is Sousuke Sagara, right?” said the voice of an unknown man.  
“That’s right.”  
“Are you alone?”  
“There’s a taxi waiting at the North exit of the park. Take the cell phone and get in it.”  
That was all he said, then the call cut off. Sousuke heavily stood up, then made his way to the North exit.  
When he left the park, there was a taxi stopped in front of a convenient store. There were no other vehicles; only the sound of an ambulance siren in the distance.  
He got into the taxi, and after the driver said something to him they took off. It didn’t look like the driver understood English, and Sousuke didn’t understand what the driver said. They went 
north on the main street, going towards the squalid downtown area. There were very few people out.  
The taxi stopped in front of a hardware store with the shutters down. The driver motioned Sousuke to “get out”. It seemed that he didn’t need to be paid.  
The taxi then took off.  
The downtown area was still and silent this evening. Countless signboards covered up the gray colored sky.  
The ringing of the cell phone in Sousuke’s hand resounded against the lonely street lamps.  
“There should be a yellow signboard. Inside, there’s a key in postbox number 13. Get it,” the man’s voice told him. On the other end of the line, some kind of power source let out a humming sound.  
“Next to it is a staircase. Go to the second floor. There will be a corridor. Open the fifth door and go in. ‘He’ is waiting for you.”  
“‘He’? Who are you talking about?”  
“Think about the name of this place.”  
The phone hung up and that was it.  
Kowloon Walled City. It didn’t ring a bell.  
No- Kowloon.  
No. It couldn’t be. It was impossible. This time?  
But now everything made sense.  
Since he had come this far he couldn’t turn back now. Sousuke did just as the man over the phone had instructed him, taking the key from the postbox and going up the stairs next to the hardware store. He walked down the corridor of apartments, and stopped in front of the fifth door.  
Even Sousuke, who had lost most of his will, felt a good amount of tension come back to him. He inserted the key and opened the door. Inside was a cramped, one room apartment. It was even smaller than his apartment in Tokyo, and had almost no furniture at all.  
Sousuke slowly made his way into the dark room. He was unconsciously aware of himself looking for wire or laser traps. Before he knew it, he had drawn out his automatic. He was a fool. This was a trap, and he was walking straight into it headfirst.  
Even so, he didn’t stop.  
He moved into the living room. Light poured in through the window. In the center of the room, in the deep darkness, there was a bed. Someone was lying on that bed.  
“Yo...” an electronic voice reverberated in the pitch-darkness. But- it was speaking Japanese.  
“I’ve been waiting a long time, Kashim.”  
The reflection of a car’s headlights from outside of the window, just for a moment, illuminated the face of the man lying on the bed. When he saw that face- even though its features were drastically different from before, Sousuke muttered:  
♦ ♦ ♦ 
In the Cantonese dialect, the characters <九龍> were pronounced as “Gauron”.  
Kowloon Peninsula. Kowloon Park. Kowloon Castle.  
Why hadn’t he noticed it? No, why had he noticed it, but hadn’t thought of him? Also- he even knew his name of “Kashim”. Even though he was the only one other than Kalinin to know about him and Hamidallah.  
But there shouldn’t be any reason for him to still be alive.  
He was a small man.  
His arms were gone. His legs were gone. All that was left were his right thigh and the upper part of his left arm- other than that, all four of his limbs were missing.  
There were quite a few intravenous drips and tubes. There were a number of cords connected to medical appliances, which were making low, humming noises. He probably could no longer live without them.  
His face was in pitiful shape, as well.  
The skin on the left half of the face was peeling off and becoming keloidal. The left eye had been crushed, and in the socket where an eyeball was supposed to be, there was only a gaping hole. His mouth drew up and he smiled at Sousuke.  
That man, lying on a clean bed and with just one eye, gazed at Sousuke in delight.  
“I’m glad to see you, Kashim,” said an electronic voice. It was the sound of an electronic voice box.  
“You want something to drink? I’m afraid this place is self-service, though.”  
“Why are you-”  
“‘Still alive?’, right? That’s the third time you’ve asked me that. But don’t worry. This will be the last.”  
A rough, dry noise echoed through the room. He was probably laughing.  
“You haven’t forgotten, now have you? That my Codarl was equipped with a Lambda Driver? When the time came, it was able to protect the operator from self-destruction... well, at least as much protection as this. Heh heh heh.”  
“How did you survive in that storm...”  
“A fishing boat unexpectedly passed through the area. Half of my body had already become fish food. The sea is a mysterious thing, you know. I’m half dead. I’m in a pretty horrible state.”  
Sousuke pointed his gun at Gauron’s head.  
“I’ll put you out of your misery, this time for sure.”  
“That’s fine by me. But look at the state I’m in. I don’t think you can speed it up by much.”  
“...what do you want?”  
“I wanted to talk to you.”  
“Get serious.” 
 “I’m telling the truth. Heh heh... as you can see, my time is almost up. That was the reason for the elaborate act up till now. I stole the Codarl M from my organization and set it loose on this city. I figured that if I did, you and that white AS would be called out here. I went ahead and scattered that message all over the city, in places you would investigate, as well as the media you might run across. That kind of thing.”  
The classified ad that Sousuke read was one of them. Maybe Mao or Yang had also found that message, but they wouldn’t understand its meaning.  
“And so you’ve come. I thought you might bring along your friends, but... you’re alone. What happened?”  
“It’s none of your business,” Sousuke tried saying in a composed manner, but Gauron appeared to be having a small problem with air, and gave out a somber laugh.  
“Hmm, I wonder if that means you’ve become uncomfortable? ...heh heh heh.”  
“In Mithril, I mean. Being in a unit that has the pretensions of being on the side of justice- it would get on anybody’s nerves. Especially a man like you.”  
Get on anybody’s nerves- Sousuke could not deny those words. Since he didn’t feel like talking about it, Sousuke changed the subject.  
“Tell me about the organization supporting you.”  
“And yet your work is still important to you? Heh heh heh...”  
“Fine. This is a service to you. It’s also some revenge on my colleagues,” he stated flatly, and began his verbose explanation.  
“‘Amalgam’. That’s the name of the organization that I was working for. Its objectives for now are the research and development of new weapons and testing them in combat. It’s for that reason that they wage terrorism and cause regional conflicts. There are a large number of Amalgam sympathizers who have penetrated into the hard-line factions of each nation. There are a lot of guys in the east and west who want cold war formation and munitions preservation. The fifth dispute in the middle east, the Chinese Civil War between the north and south, the Soviet Civil War- it’s said that Amalgam had a hand in all of them.”  
“And the trouble here in Hong Kong, as well?”  
“...heh heh heh. That’s my handiwork. Right now Amalgam is probably all in a panic. A long time ago, I raised a couple of brothers whose circumstances were a lot like your own. I ordered them to cause this riot. Just look at these clean sheets. This is also the best medical equipment money can buy. Those guys’ devotion really brings tears to my eye.”  
“And the Venom’s chaos...?”  
“If you’re talking about the Codarl M, yes.”  
“Where is it hidden?”  
“No reason to tell you, is there? What’s in that bag? The answer- a radio. I’m not that senile yet.”  
“Tell me.”  
He pointed his gun. Gauron only laughed.  
“Hey, hey. If you think I care about living, then you’re the one who’s senile.”  
Reluctantly, Sousuke lowered his gun.  
“ called it ‘Amalgam’, right? Are there any ‘Whispered’ in this organization?”  
“There now, that’s the kind of question to ask. The answer is yes. Actually, he’s becoming one of the leading members. He’s a disgusting brat, but he’s interesting.”  
“If there’s a ‘Whispered’ there, then why are they targeting Kaname Chidori? They don’t need her, right?”  
“Because it’s not perfect. It seems that the information brought about by a ‘Whispered’ is different depending on the individual. If there’s a person whose strength is in the theory of Lambda Driver technology, then there’s one whose only strength is in submarine technology. There are different areas, so when a new ‘Whispered’ has been discovered, it’s necessary to first find out where his or her strength lies. It seems the examination of that girl in Shun On was to find out whether or not she really was a ‘Whispered’, and then find out what type of individual she was.”  
“What were the results?”  
“She’s a ‘Whispered’ without a doubt... but I wasn’t told what kind of ‘specialist’ she was. Amalgam’s intentions were ‘to watch her carefully’. It would have been a better story if they had checked out kidnapping her again, though. I don’t know their reasons.”  
“Where is Amalgam’s base? Who are the main people?”  
“Heh heh heh... you’re going to keep pumping me for information, huh? A hint is ‘Badham’.”  
“I’m not going to tell you anything else, now. Give me a break, this conversation isn’t interesting. Although I don’t mind talking at all. Boring talk- this isn’t the point,” Gauron said in a bemused manner as Sousuke looked silently down upon his drawn-up face. He was thinking of how disgusting it would be to suck up to this man even just a little bit, but even so, he said:  
“Tell me. Please.”  
That will definitely make him happy, Sousuke thought as he clenched his teeth and waited for an answer.  
However, Gauron was not pleased.  
On the contrary, he shot Sousuke a look of open scorn and impatience.  
“‘Please’, huh? Hearing those words from you makes me wanna puke.”  
“Did you sell your soul to those revolting Mithril scumbags?”  
“That’s right. Cough, cough... here’s the point,” Gauron said after he coughed. “Think about it. An organization that has no telling how many billions of dollars invested in it, and uses that kind of submarine? What I’m saying may be a little embarrassing, but how many tens of thousands of poor people do you think you can save with that same money? Controlling regional conflicts? Making peace? It’s all a joke. How is Amalgam different? They always dig wells in poor countries first. Don’t you agree?”  
“That’s just covering up the problem.”  
“Exactly. But there’s no way to mop up the suspicion. The betrayal of those guys Danigan and Guen was rather pleasing.”  
“And you’re in that same Mithril. To me, the you right now is hopelessly unnatural. That Kashim. He was indifferent to anything except his own life. He was as emotionless as a puppet. Just like a loyal pet dog, that Kashim would just keep on killing enemies.”  
When he said this, Sousuke’s memories of the time before he joined Mithril came back to him.  
“You remember. What were you doing the first time I met you?”  
That was already five years ago.  
♦ ♦ ♦ 
Gauron was a mercenary training camp instructor who had been placed in the Afghanistan territories. Kashim was a guerrilla soldier fighting against the Soviet forces in the mountain districts no too far from Gauron’s camp. Their encounter was somewhat of a coincidence, and at that time the two were not enemies. Of course they weren’t allies, either, but their mutual interests did not oppose one another’s.  
The first time Gauron met him, Kashim had destroyed part of a platoon of Soviet ASes, and was in the middle of arranging the bodies of the enemy soldiers.  
Even to this day, he remembered the first thing Gauron ever said to him.  
“You’re working pretty hard there, kid. Did you kill all of those guys?” Gauron had said to him.  
He had been passing by and had pulled his jeep over to the side of the road. He still had all four of his burly limbs, and there was no scar on his forehead.  
Kashim answered, and he looked out over the scattered wreckage of ASes and armored vehicles, as well as the corpses of charcoaled bodies lying around the area. There was only one machine in the middle of all of this, his own Rk-92, which was in a kneeling position.  
Gauron then gave him the same kind of dark smile that he was giving him now, and said:  
“If that’s so, then I truly look forward to you in the future. What’s your name?”  
“Kashim. You guys are losing the war in this area at the moment. Why don’t you come to my camp? There’s food, ammunition and AS parts there.” 
“I refuse.”  
“I see. Well, keep going strong, then.”  
And Gauron sped off. Kashim returned to arranging the bodies.  
And that was all for that encounter.  
♦ ♦ ♦ 
“You were silently arranging those charred corpses,” Gauron said. “When I was the same age, I was in Cambodia. And every day, I silently arranged the corpses of the people my Pol Pot colleagues had massacred. So at that time, I didn’t feel like you were a stranger... heh heh.”  
“What... do you mean?”  
“Back then, you truly had a good look in your eyes. No worries, no hesitation, no pain. They were the eyes of a wild animal- no, a saint. You wouldn’t be taken by surprise no matter what happened. You would kill a person as easily as taking a 
breath, and there was no value in the loss of a human life to you. I think it’s alright to call that ‘beautiful’. Do you understand? In other words, you were consistent. You had no contradictions. Well? I’m quite the philosopher, ain’t I?”  
“Then we met again in Shun On. I was overjoyed... heh heh. Even then you had the same look in your eyes. You were indifferent to human life. It would be wonderful to kill that kind of you, I thought. I thought about dragging your dead body out of that AS and fucking it up the ass. Nah, just kidding. Heh heh... Eeee-, he he he! No, no, seriously!”  
The man who was no more than a large cushion laughed out loud in a frightening voice, shaking on top of the bed. It was a horrible sight that would have made anyone watching it shudder.  
“So- what’s that face for?” Gauron said and he stopped laughing altogether.  
“Your face looks like that of a worthless brat. Are you worried? Are you lost? What happened to that saint you once were? What a disappointment. What kind of petty, shitty stuff have you been pulled into? Now you’re full of contradictions. You’re an abomination uglier than even me. You’re not even worth killing.”  
“Shut up.”  
Sousuke pointed his gun at Gauron once again.  
“And we were even two of a kind. What, are you trying to become some regular pushover? It makes me sick.”  
“I told you to shut up.”  
“Nooo, I’m gonna say it. Meeting up with Mithril and those school kids has made you into nothing. You’ve been seduced by those farty, super-weak, super-soft colleagues of yours, and have become boring. I said something was ‘getting on your nerves’ earlier, remember? That’s because of your friends. Humanism. It’s just word for describing the resentment of the weak. Now there’s no way to meet that murdering saint, Kashim, since you’ve given 
in to those people around you. Do you understand? The weak are just parasites on the strong. They dangle sweet things like ‘friends’ and ‘future’ in front of them, then suck up all their strength all the way down to the marrow.”  
Sousuke didn’t want to listen. But he couldn’t help but admit that what this man was saying was right. It was a rather frightening thing that only his bitter enemy could perfectly guess the reason that he was feeling the way he was right now.  
However- he really had become weaker. Much weaker. When did that happen?  
Since he had met up with Mithril, Jindai High School and her.  
“Tell me why. Is it really that much fun to hang around with those weak bastards?”  
From the middle of the bed in the darkness, something he couldn’t see seemed to be beckoning to him.  
“Hey, answer me. I asked if it was really that much fun to hang around with those weak bastards, huh!?”  
“I told you to shut up!”  
Sousuke pulled the trigger.  
The gunshot echoed throughout the room. The bullet hit Gauron’s pillow, letting up a little bit of smoke.  
That was all.  
“You don’t have the nerve to kill an enemy, huh?” Gauron said with a thin smile.  
“Shut up...” was the only reply Sousuke could give in a faint voice. His face was hot, and he felt like he was suffocating. His back was drenched in sweat.  
Just then, a large shadow moved from outside of the window.  
It was Venom.  
It probably had been hiding somewhere around that area. Its diamond shaped head peered in through the square window at Sousuke and Gauron.  
“Fei Jau [Flying Condor]?” Gauron said.  
“I’ll be leaving soon,” the Venom replied over its external speakers. It was the same voice as on the cell phone.  
“I see. Keep going strong, then.”  
“Farewell, Sir,” he said, and covering its right fist with its left hand and bowing, the Venom turned around and jumped away. The gray AS easily cleared the signboards and apartments, and vanished as it headed towards the heart of the city. The sudden gust of wind that it caused shook the windows.  
“Fei Jau will probably meet up with Mithril and die. If not- then he’ll probably be killed by Amalgam’s execution unit.”  
“Execution unit...?”  
“The Commander is another angry bastard. Your ‘friends’ probably won’t be a match for him. The moment they meet up with him, he’ll annihilate ‘em. But that’s the way it goes, isn’t it?”  
“I’m about to kick it,” Gauron said, looking up at the ceiling. There wasn’t an ounce of sorrow in his voice.  
“I think I’ll go out with some traveling companions. That’s my style, after all. I ordered Fei Jau to go on a rampage until Hong Kong is a sea of fire. And as for Fei Hung- I ordered him to kill the ‘largest tumor’ that’s turned you into nothing.”  
“The largest... tumor?”  
Gauron gave him a final smile. It spread across his entire face, as if something had made him truly happy.  
“The girl, Kashim. Have you not heard yet?”  
“I’ve heard the whole story. That cute sailor uniform figure of hers, completely crushed. She was tough and didn’t beg for her life. Her last words were ‘I’m sorry...’ I wonder who she was talking about? Ahh, it makes you wanna cry.”  
“Yo... you’re lying.”  
“Am I? I wanted to show you a picture of the girl’s dead body so I could see the look of utter despair on your face, but- ah well, I’ll get over it. Well? Kashim would be alright- isn’t the damage obvious? Tokyo~~ The girl~~ You can’t save her~~ Aww, pooor, little Kaname~~ She was such a nice girl, too~~”  
Sousuke pointed his gun straight at Gauron. The gun wasn’t shaking at all.  
“That’s right, kill me! Hate me!!”  
He had no more hesitation. Sousuke aimed at Gauron’s chest and fired six rounds on end. The body shuddered, and fresh blood splattered on top of the sheets.  
The medical heart monitor made a hollow ‘beeep’ noise.  
Gauron’s face was still drawn up in a smile, and he didn’t speak again.  
His eyes were wide open, forever staring at Sousuke’s gun right in front of him.  
“ can’t be...”  
There was a loud ringing in his head.  
He didn’t know who or where he was. What did the dead body in front of him mean? That someone far away from here was dead?  
Kaname- was she dead?  
A deserted city. Alone in a gloomy room. At that moment, Sousuke was truly all alone in the world.  
He heard an electronic sound. the electronic sound gradually grew louder. It wasn’t the medical equipment. It was something else- from under the bed-  
There was something giving off a warning from the empty corner at the head of the bed.  
His body moved before any doubt could set in. He didn’t even ask himself why he was trying to run at the last moment. Kicking off of the floor, he broke through the nearby window shoulder-first.  
In the next instant, the room exploded.  
The high power explosives under the bed blew up, and the blast shook the building. A torrent of flames gushed from the windows. The shock of the blast also broke the surrounding windows, and hundreds of pieces of remnants and debris spewed out over the empty street.  
Sousuke groaned as he barely hung on to the signboard that had been sticking out in front of him. His hands slipped, and he fell on the sidewalk in front of the hardware store.  
Above him, the fire violently raged on.  
On the road, debris continued to rain down, rain down, rain down... Staggering, Sousuke got up and stared thick-headedly at the bits and pieces of flaming building material.  
Two men ran across the glass-covered street. Because they were wearing plain clothes Sousuke didn’t recognize them at first, but they were two of Hunter’s agents from the Intelligence Bureau.  
“You look terrible, Sergeant,” said one of the agents, still looking up at the burning second floor of the apartment building.  
“...why are you here?”  
“We were asked by your Lt. Commander to follow you.”  
“I see...”  
“There’s a museum of Kowloon’s Castle ruins in this neighborhood. It looks like Venom was hiding in its courtyard. But then- all that’s pointless, now.”  
From the middle of the city, the roar of artillery fire rang out. Venom was on the rampage. Then more gun fire. The South China Army’s AS had started battling it.  
No. It wasn’t the South China Army. The sound of that muffled rapid fire was that of the very familiar Oerlikon Contraves-manufactured GEC-B rifle. The South China Army was not equipped with those rifles.  
“Your colleagues’ M9s are fighting it.”  
“We ran out of time. It looks like they plan to fight the Venom head on.”  
Reckless was the only thing he could think. How did they plan to oppose Venom without the Arbalest? It was almost suicidal.  
“We just received a wireless communication. It seems the Tuatha de Danaan is sending the Arbalest.”  
“What’d you say...?”  
“I don’t know the details. We’re going to search for the things Venom left behind in its hiding place. Anyway, don’t move from this place. We were to make sure and tell you that,” one of the agents said, and they ran off in front of Sousuke.  
Left behind, Sousuke just stood there in that very quiet place.  
The Arbalest is coming...?  
However, it wasn’t as if he could use that machine anymore. On no account did he want to see that AS which had screwed up his fate. He wanted to contact the de Danaan and say “It’s useless, so just stop,” but the bag that had his radio in it had blown up along with Gauron.  
Before the explosion, if he had reacted just one second later, he probably would have died in that room. That man really had planned on taking others with him, hadn’t he...?  
That wasn’t it. He was testing him. In that moment, if he were so depressed he couldn’t move, then there would be no point in living anymore. He had lost something vital, yet he still tried to go on. Gauron had wanted to ridicule that trait. “I will die. You suffer more” was what he wanted to say, wasn’t it...?  
More than likely.  
By killing Kaname Chidori, Gauron had snatched away his hopes and dreams. If that man’s plan had gone correctly, then this curse would be complete.  
Kaname was dead.  
His feelings didn’t gush out at all.  
But he felt that somewhere in his heart there was some kind of light, some kind of warmth that would not disappear. He had seen a lot of death up until now. And she had joined the rest in one page in his dark album.  
There were no tears. Only a sense of melancholy that he had not felt in a long time.  
That kind of thing.  
Nothing would change.  
The future, from the past.  
A cold wind was blowing through the hole in his empty chest. He didn’t care about himself. He didn’t care about life. Even if someone were to die, it wouldn’t cause one ripple in his heart.  
There was a roar from the sky.  
A narrow sky covered by numerous signboards. He could see a white bird coming from the south.  
But it wasn’t a bird. It was the Arbalest.  
It was gliding along on wings of emergency expansion boosters straight towards Sousuke. The boosters stopped firing. The wings detached and the parachute deployed.  
It decelerated. It wasn’t enough. There was a second parachute. It decelerated more.  
The enormous white person separated from the parachutes, and dropped down through the numerous signboards onto the deserted street. The asphalt smashed into pieces and bounced off of the road along with the broken signboards. Nevertheless, without a break in momentum, the Arbalest changed posture, leaning forwards, and slammed into the ground towards Sousuke’s direction. The landing was messed up because of the cramped urban area.  
The gigantic machine drew closer. The Arbalest passed through the area right beside Sousuke, and crashed chest-first into the burning apartment building. The sudden gust of wind whipped Sousuke’s hair and work clothes around, but he didn’t shrink back at all. The white AS collapsed onto its right side. The flaming pieces of debris that were scattered by the impact sprinkled down all around the AS.  
It was a shameful landing. Terrible. Just like him. In the middle of the flames, the machine sank down and didn’t move. Its two eyes stared blankly at Sousuke.  
We’re the worst combination, is what the Arbalest’s eyes started to say to Sousuke.  
I know you detest me. I hate you, too. That’s why you should just leave me like this. In other words, I have absolutely no interest in doing anything, either. That’s fine with you, isn’t it?  
At the very least, that’s what Sousuke thought the Arbalest was saying to him.  
No matter who dies, you don’t care, do you? Whatever happens to Kurz or Mao isn’t any of your business. Everyone will die sooner or later. Just like Kaname Chidori. Just like your comrades in Afghanistan. They’ll all die. You will, too. That’s how this world is. Just give up.  
He felt like it was ridiculing him. He felt like it was making fun of him. He felt as if he were being scorned by this simple machine.  
Nevertheless, he didn’t get angry.  
“...that’s right,” Sousuke muttered in a cold and hollow voice.  “Just stay there and rot like that.”  
It didn’t matter. He didn’t care. Whatever happened had nothing to do with him.  
He was about to leave, when...  
In Japanese, a girl’s voice said:  
“So are you just going to stand there like an idiot muttering nonsense?”  
He turned around-  
In the middle of the road stood Kaname Chidori.  
He rubbed his eyes.  
Kaname was wearing her Jindai High School sailor uniform. She had a Boston bag hanging from her right shoulder. From the top of her head to the tip of her toes, she was the Kaname he knew so well. No- on second glance, there were white bandages here and there on her slender legs. She was wearing a supporter on her right knee, and a band aid on her chin.  
“It’s not ‘Wha-’” the girl, who could be none other than Kaname Chidori, said with a frown.  
He turns around- and Kaname Chidori is standing there. She throws her Boston bag, and storms at him in her usual way. 
He wasn’t hallucinating. She was alive.  
But why in the world was she here? How did she get here?  
Faltering, he walked towards her.  
“Chidori... you were... alright?”  
“More or less.”  
“...I thought... you were dead. Chido-” Suddenly, the Boston bag hit the side of his face with a “BOFF!!”, and Sousuke staggered over.  
“It’s not ‘Wha-’, is it!?” Kaname yelled out at the top of her lungs.  
“I went through major trouble to get here, so what’s with ‘I thought you were dead’!? Until just a second ago I thought I’d run into your arms when I saw you- that’s how I thought I’d feel. But 
that’s completely gone now. What are you doing!? Well? What do you have to say for yourself!?”  
“No, wait a minute. It’s really complica-”  
“Oh, shut up!!” She punched him in the jaw.  
“Does it hurt? It hurts, right? That’s the pain in my heart. And this...!!”  
She karate chopped him on the back of the neck.  
“That’s the pain in my body! And this!!”  
Kaname smiled, and then knee-kicked Sousuke in the stomach.  
“That’s for me! For the pain in my soul!!”  
In a Bruce Lee fashion, Kaname jabbed her fists into Sousuke, who had fallen to his knees. She was shaking.  
“What in the world... what’s going on?”  
“The Intelligence Bureau person. You know, the one called ‘Wraith’?” she said with a snort. “I told him if he didn’t want me revealing that he screwed up and almost let me die that he would bring me here. That was how I threatened him. After they showed the AS that that guy Gauron had before on the news, it all clicked. I knew you would definitely come here.”  
“Bu... but, this place is right on the front line of the war. It’s dangerous.”  
“I know that. And since there’s almost no airmail, it took an entire day to get here. It was really troublesome!!”  
“But, why...” Why was she here? Even facing this kind of danger. Sousuke couldn’t imagine her reasoning.  
Kaname looked up at him, then averted her eyes. Like a child placing blame on someone else, she said, “Because. If that was the end... then...”  
“Never mind. Wh, when you just... up and quit school and left, it really ticked me off! I was going to search everywhere and then drag you home by the scruff of your neck! Because I-”  
Kaname clenched her fists tight as if she were trying to say something really important. 
“You are?”  
She drummed her fists against her head to get with it- but finally said:  
“I’m- because I’m the class representative.”  
Sousuke just looked at her blankly. Kaname sighed deeply in front of him and said “I knew it. Just one day passes and I lose my will...” and some other nonsense he didn’t understand.  
“What do you mean?”  
“Shut up! A... anyway, what about you!? Why are you just hanging around out here!? There’s a bad guy destroying the city, isn’t there!?”  
“No, it’s just-”  
“It’s just what? You weren’t just standing there looking at that AS. What was with that face earlier? It was just like the old you.”  
“Back when I still called you ‘Sagara’. Kinda like... you didn’t care what happened to you, or something. Very cold. And sad, very sad... ahh, what am I saying? In other words? Well...” she stammered, then falteringly continued. “To tell the truth, earlier I 
heard Mao over the radio. She said that you were just about fed up. She said that you had lost your will, or that ‘I’ll do it!’ spirit, or whatever...”  
“But you know? When everyone’s in trouble, you’re the one who can’t just stand by and watch, right?”  
“I am...?”  
“But, Chidori. I... I deserted you... Even though you had no one else to rely on, I walked out on you. All because I was obeying some petty ‘order’. That kind of me, you-”  
“Well, it’s alright now. I was able to see you again like this, so... I understand. You couldn’t bring yourself to tell me, right?”  
“...I’m sorry.”  
“Well... you are a coward, after all.”  
“A coward...”  
“That’s right. A bi-g coward. But you’re strong. And very kind. You’re pretty hopeless, but you manage. That’s... that’s what I think the real Sousuke is.”  
Kaname gave an embarrassed smile. It was almost a magical smile.  
“Well... am I right?”  
Those extremely clumsy words lifted his curse. Almost surprisingly so. Completely. He felt as if the clotted, discolored, stagnate pressure inside his body was being washed away by spring water.  
Gauron had said he was “strong”.  
However, that- that was wrong. He was weak. And on top of being weak, he had been only trying to become strong. Not being able to be a coward had made him need to become strong- 
that was the only reason. The burden of having something to protect. His former self hadn’t known what that was.  
He was a weak being, full of contradictions.  
He wasn’t a hero. He couldn’t save the world, either. Only- he was just one insignificant man who may or may not be able to save some of the people around him.  
Was such a man really sufficient to be a soldier?  
He was.  
There were such times. However ironic, he had been given those opportunities many times.  
And right now was one of those times.  
Beyond those flames, his friends were waiting.  
His life up until now- wasn’t he holding the means to fight against a dark and depressing fate? And wasn’t that means fighting itself?  
Yes, it was.  
Sousuke drooped his head down a little, then hesitating, he slowly said:  
“Chidori... I-”  
Kaname then kicked him down, and Sousuke fell face-first on the Hong Kong ground.  
“What was-”  
“It’s nooooot ‘Chidori...I-’!!” Kaname blew up at him at the top of her lungs.  
“No, it’s just...”  
“Get off it!! There isn’t any time, right!? Aren’t you in danger of failing World History!? Tomorrow, fifth period! You can still make it! So hurry up and-” She pointed at the war in the center of town. “-settle things!!”  
She then pointed at the Arbalest, which was still lying on its side.  
The two eyes of the white AS were now saying this to Sousuke.  
So, what are you going to do?  
♦ ♦ ♦ 
It was a dangerous game resembling that of a wild animal hunt. The six M9s of Clouseau’s force were persistently surrounding and pursuing the Venom, which had just destroyed one of the South China Army’s M6s.  
In the first 30 seconds after the battle began, Corporal Spake’s M9 was shot by Venom. Because of the complex town area and numerous signboards, he had misjudged the path of retreat and the enemy was able to press closer. Spake’s unit was hit by the Lambda Driver’s shock wave and completely silenced. In the confusion of battle, there was no time to confirm how much damage was done or whether the pilot was dead or alive.  
“Uruz 1, he’s coming your way!” Mao warned Clouseau sharply.  
“I saw him. Just now-”  
Bang! was the sound of a point-blank explosion. The enemy unit had thrown its anti-tank dagger at Clouseau.  
“Uruz 1!?”  
The Venom was closing in from across the flames of the explosion. Turning around to face high-rise apartments behind him, Clouseau fired his rifle. The white bullets repelled, shooting off in every direction, and building material rained down all over the place.  
The Venom drew in and threw out its fists. Clouseau narrowly stooped down. The fist cutting through the air, as well as 
the space distortion surrounding the fist, smashed the M9’s right shoulder into the building behind it and blew it away.  
There was a violent impact, and the high-pitched shriek of atmosphere. For a moment, Clouseau lost consciousness.  
Clouseau skillfully recovered his posture, while at the same time releasing a roundhouse kick like a whirlwind. The heel of the M9 caught the Venom upside the head, causing it to stagger a little. Then a knee kick. Then an elbow strike. Immediately, Clouseau tried to take out his monomolecular cutter from his hip, but- the right arm didn’t respond. No, he was missing the right arm from the shoulder down.  
The Venom approached mercilessly and raised his arm up in a knife hand position.  
“Don’t move, Uruz 1,” said Kurz. Sniping from a long distance, he shot Venom. The enemy AS jumped up as if it had been hit in the side. In that instant, Clouseau’s M9 jumped up and quickly got away. An ordinary pilot probably would not have been able to escape.  
“He’s bounced back again. Damn bastard’s like a cockroach!” 
“You’re a lifesaver, Uruz 6.”  
“That makes two times, Lieutenant.” 
“This is Perth 1 to Uruz 1. Damage report,” Kalinin, who had taken command from the helicopter in the sky, said over the radio.  
“This... is Uruz 1. Right arm is completely useless. Firearms are lost. Pilot has light injuries. The cooling system is also in bad shape. It doesn’t look like it can move much longer.”  
His right arm hurt here and there, almost as if it were on fire. It was similar to the way a burn felt. Was this also the effect of the Lambda Driver...?  
“Understood. Fall back three blocks south. There’s a three-forked road. Go southwest and lure him to Area 11A,” Kalinin said composedly, giving out precise directions.  
“Uruz 1, roger that.”  
“Uruz 6, you move west. I sent you the date just now. Establish a firing zone at the intersection at the top of the map and then wait. When the Venom jumps out, fire up to one magazine and escape south.”  
“Uruz 6 here, roger.”  
“Perth 1 to everyone. I have received a communication from the Intelligence Bureau. Uruz 8 is alive for now. The recovery operation is underway. 300 seconds have passed since the battle started. Hold out another 100 seconds. The current is changing.”  
Clouseau judged that Lt. Commander Kalinin’s surmise was pretty accurate. They were receiving some hard blows, but Venom’s movements were slowing down compared to how they were at the onset. Problems with energy, problems with the pilot- they didn’t know about those. But there was no mistaking that the enemy was getting tired.  
They could do it. They were still far from relaxing, but if they didn’t have any trouble, they would soon be able to surround and destroy Venom. Their tactics were working.  
But first, they had to get away from Venom.  
Taking small hops, Clouseau’s unit made its way through the confined street. The AI was reporting the systems’ damage. The machine wouldn’t hold out much longer.  
“This is Uruz 1. I’ve passed through the three-forked road. I’m almost to the intersection...?”  
Even though Venom was chasing after him, Clouseau came to a halt right before the wide intersection.  
“What is it, Uruz 1?”  
“Uruz 1, explain the situation.”  
“There are-”  
The intersection where Clouseau was standing. In the front corner- on top of the roof of a shopping center with the neon lights out, there were five shadows.  
Five ASes- five Venoms.  
♦ ♦ ♦ 
The five Venoms, each with a single red eye, were looking down at Clouseau. They were all dark red in color.  
“There are... five Venoms.”  
“This is Uruz 6. I can see them. It’s true... there are five,” Kurz said rigidly.  
The first Venom, which was coming closer to Clouseau, also stopped before the intersection. The gaze of the red sensor wasn’t looking at Clouseau’s unit, but was turned straight towards the five new ASes.  
“You’ve been on a rather flashy rampage, haven’t you, Fei Jau?” said one of the ASes over its external speakers. It was the voice of a man, but it was high-pitched, almost like that of a raven. It didn’t seem to pay any attention to the presence of Clouseau.  
“You stole a ‘class m’ from the organization, and then deliberately caused this kind of uproar in an outside area. Have you gone mad?”  
“We’ve both gone mad, Mister Kalium*7,” the gray Venom spoke for the first time.  
“Even though my brother and I have lost our home town, it seems Amalgam was still involved. Since we were able to scare the hell out of you guys, I’m satisfied.”  
“Hmph... your brother, huh? Shall I let you meet him here?”  
The dark Venom abruptly held out its right hand. If its fingers were the same size as a human’s, then the lump that it was holding between them would have been about the size of a small egg.  
It was a human head.  
“It was something given to me by Mister Silver. It seems he wanted him buried, but I won’t allow it. It’s appropriate for the corpses of traitors to lay exposed in a filthy street corner,” he said, and the red Venom simply threw the head away. The head made a very high arc, and fell on the other side of a far building.  
“Aww, how pathetic. U-hu-hu-hu.” 
“You bastards...!”  
The gray Venom jumped over Clouseau’s M9, straight at the five ASes.  
“And you’re pathetic, too.”  
In the next instant, all five ASes moved at the same time.  
A long spear, long sword, large knife- they attacked the gray Venom simultaneously with their respective weapons. The surrounding air violently distorted, and the outer wall of the shopping center was shattered into pieces.  
Clouseau’s AS jumped back from the area. Small bits of debris hit his armor, and a dry sound reverberated. The smoke cleared. On top of the crumbling shopping center, the gray Venom had been altogether skewered- like a hedgehog.  
The five ASes threw away the Venom. The gray AS fell to the street, scattering smoke and sparks, and didn’t move after that.  
The enemy AS that had given them that much trouble was taken care of in one moment.  
Were all five of these machines equipped with Lambda Drivers...?  
Mao’s M9 jumped over to try and help Clouseau up.  
“Did you not hear, Uruz 1? The operation has been aborted. Retreat,” Kalinin ordered.  
“I can’t. I’m out of power... I can only do minimum maneuvers.”  
“Abandon the unit. Escape quickly-”  
“By the way, you guys,” the middle Venom said to Clouseau and Mao. The way he spoke sounded as if he just now noticed their presence.  
“You’re Mithril’s soldiers, aren’t you?”  
“We really don’t have any special business with you, but... just wasting one AS wasn’t enough. This’ll be perfect combat training. You don’t mind if we kill you, right?”  
It would probably only take a moment for the five units to jump over from where they were. There wasn’t enough time to open the hatch, get out of the AS, and have Mao carry him.  
“I’ll say it again. This is Perth 1 to all units. Retreat now. Quickly.”  
“Never mind. Get out of here, Mao!” Clouseau screamed.  
“I ca-” 
On the roof of the shopping center that was now a mountain of rubble, the five ASes took up their stances with leisurely movements. Lying each of their weapons down, they prepared to jump.  
“Have you prepared yourselves? Then, farewe-” 
Immediately after, a shell from somewhere hit the lead AS in the right shoulder. The red armor ripped, smoke poured out and the machine was blown backwards.  
The Venom, which should have been equipped with a Lambda Driver, had been shot.  
The five Venoms looked towards the roof of the building diagonal to the intersection.  
“Who shot that? Weber?”  
“No, I didn’t shoot anything just now. But... does this mean that he’s finally shown up?”  
Kurz’s voice then sounded as if he were happy about something in the middle of this predicament.  
“Yep... you and your timing. This is too rich, huh?- Sousuke!?”  
“It would seem so,” said the voice of that particular Sergeant.  
Opposite of the five machines, on the roof of the tallest building, stood one AS. Its white figure was silhouetted against the glow of the dim streetlights.  
“This is Uruz 7 to everyone-”  
With his favorite shot cannon in hand, the Arbalest glared at the five Venoms.  
“Sorry to make you wait. Leave everything else to me.”  
♦ ♦ ♦ 
The AS’s power rose.  
It went from “cruise” to “military”. And then to “maximum”.  
Inside the cockpit as the roaring sound rose, Sousuke muttered, “It was operating just now, wasn’t it?”  
<Affirmative, Sergeant. The Lambda Driver was functioning.> Al answered.  
“...sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. What a completely unreliable device.” 
 <I agree.>  
“It seems you’re better at jokes than I am.”  
“You’re spiteful, huh?”  
He received a short message from Kalinin.  
“This is Perth 1 to Uruz 7. Are you back in your stride?”  
“Affirmative, Perth 1.”  
“Then have at it.” 
On the monitor, he could see the Venoms looking up at him.  
Five opponents. Could he do it? They weren’t old Savages. They were Venoms, one of which had given them enough trouble.  
He could do it.  
He believed that.  
This machine and me. We’re the worst combination- but even still, we’ve made it this far. There’s no use in complaining about compatibility issues.  
I’ll do something about the bad guys.  
That’s this machine. And that’s me, right, Chidori?  
He took a deep breath.  
He gripped the handles with both hands, and lightly toggled them. The operator controls responded, and the machine powerfully stretched out its arms to the right and left.  
“Let’s go...!”  
He jumped off of the roof’s edge. The Arbalest fell through the empty sky as if it were casually riding on the wind.  
With his head turned towards the ground, he pointed his gun up at the five ASes above him. First the right side-  
He fired.  
The armor piercing ammunition discharged from his shot cannon had a lasting trail of dazzling iridescent light, and pierced the torso of one of the Venoms. Fragments of armor and parts spewed straight from its back.  
That was just one hit.  
Using the recoil from the cannon, Sousuke changed his body position 180 degrees. He landed with his legs on the ground. The asphalt shattered, and the shock absorbers vented from the full-body propulsion system.  
“Wh-what the hell...!?” 
Surprised that his subordinates were getting crushed all too easily, the commanding machine ordered the others to deploy.  
The Venoms separated right and left, drew out their heavy weapons and fired. Sousuke stepped lightly and turned aside, blowing up a whirlwind. A lot of shells danced all around him.  
He jumped. Clearing the barrage of bullets, he landed on top of a signboard projecting out into the street. Despite the Arbalest’s weight of nine tons, the signboard didn’t break for whatever reason, thankfully.  
To the right. To the left. The Arbalest was doing somersaults in midair to dodge their fire. Then one Venom got in perfect position.  
The enemy AS crossed its arms in front of it, trying to protect itself from the shot cannon’s bullet. The iridescent shell completely penetrated the Venom’s arms. The torso was ripped right in half, and the red AS was flung into the road.  
“That’s two!”  
<Warning! Enemy approaching at four o’clock.>  
The alarm sounded. Kicking off the wall of a high-rise apartment building, the Venom was approaching from behind him and to the left. It had a Halberd-brand monomolecular cutter raised overhead, and was coming straight at him.  
There was a flash. Sousuke evaded.  
Taking the monomolecular cutter from his hip with his right hand, he cut through the enemy’s Halberd. On the return strike, he cut the Venom diagonally from the shoulder down to the waist. Numerous sparks gushed forth, and the enemy machine fell to its knees on the road. Thrusting the shot cannon in his right hand into the Venom, Sousuke fired. Flames in a vivid array of colors shot out, and the Venom exploded.  
<That’s three!>  
“Don’t say it before me!”  
The fourth Venom fired blindly as it jumped from a building overhead. In that time, Sousuke had the Arbalest easily do a front flip.  
While he was flipping, he fired.  
Because he shot from such an unreasonable position, the bullet only hit the enemy’s left shoulder.  
Rising up by a natural jack knife maneuver, the Arbalest braced both legs, aimed at the enemy as it touched down, and fired again.  
It was a direct hit in the middle of the chest. The Venom was thrown backwards and blown away.  
“That’s four...!”  
<That’s four!>  
Sousuke and Al said at the same time.  
As if creeping along the ground, the Arbalest ran through the deserted main street. The smell of the wind that the Arbalest felt also permeated into Sousuke’s skin.  
It was strange.  
A machine that moved with his thoughts- with his spirit.  
The perfect sense of unity that pilots occasionally feel.  
You could call it a feeling of omnipotence. He was becoming as he was thinking right now, with an overwhelming- an entirely overwhelming sense of power. This machine was Sousuke’s body. This body that he hated so much wasn’t so bad- it wasn’t a piece of garbage- was how he felt.  
No, that was out of the question. How light this body felt. It was a feeling as if he could fly anywhere.  
That’s right. No matter what, he could do it. And no one could stop him!  
He turned the corner and saw the lead Venom. It was using an unlucky South China Army M6 that had unexpectedly passed by as a shield, and shot at the Arbalest with its large size Gatling gun.  
It blew off the signboard overhead, and the Arbalest jumped into the sky. It was a large, large jump, exceeding every kind of equipment limitation. There was so much distance in the jump that he cleared straight over the lead Venom.  
He landed behind him, and the lead Venom tried to point its Gatling gun at Sousuke in a panic. There was a flash from the left hand. The Arbalest’s monomolecular cutter had cut the Gatling gun right in two.  
“S... stay away!!”  
Throwing away the Gatling gun, the last Venom thrust a handgun into the cockpit of the M6.  
“Will you kill the pilot!? Stay back! Don’t move!”  
“H-help me...”  
The M6’s control system seems to be destroyed, so it can’t move either of its arms. What should I do? No, I’ll use it. That blow that Mao received on Berildaobu Island.  
Right now, we can definitely do it.  
“M... Mithril’s Lambda Driver is incomplete, isn’t it!? No, it can’t be, that strength- who are you!? What in the world are you!?” 
“You wanna know...?”  
Sousuke tossed the shot cannon aside.  
Who was he? That’s right. He was-  
“Jindai High School, second year, class four. Roll-call number 41. Second term garbage duty-”  
And iridescent haze rose up from his right fist. A strange noise screamed.  
“-Sousuke Sagara!!”  
The Venom aimed its handgun at Sousuke and fired. Sousuke- the Arbalest easily deflected the bullets, and drove its fist directly into the M6 that the Venom was using to shield itself.  
The earth shook. The road whined.  
It sounded like the roar of hundreds of wild animals. The Arbalest released a power so fierce it would twist gravity from its fist. That power completely disregarded the M6, passing through it, and bared its brutal fangs to the enemy behind it.  
In an instant, the Venom’s entire body was shattered. The armor, frame, electromagnetic muscle and such, were blown to pieces. The fragments of the Venom, along with the broken glass from the surrounding buildings, then scattered all over the road.  
The M6 that had been used as a shield was completely undamaged. It fell down heavily on its hips and looked up dumbfounded at the Arbalest.  
“Go,” Sousuke said as the Arbalest pointed to the other side of the street. The M6 mumbled something, then hastily ran off in that direction.  
Shortly after, Al said: 
<All targets confirmed destroyed. Shall I switch to search mode?>  
“Go ahead.”  
Flipping the switch on the handle, Sousuke opened up communications line.  
“...this is Uruz 7 to everyone. All of the Venoms have been destroyed.”  
“-this is Perth 1. Did you say... all of them?”  
“Affirmative. From here, I will be returning to TDD-1-” Sousuke started to say, but then he reconsidered.  
The trouble in this city was cleared up now. Now all that was left was to be transported back to the Tuatha de Danaan by the transport helicopter. It was the same procedure as always.  
But, that kind of procedure...  
Even though he was thinking this, he needed a little courage in his report.  
“Correction... this is Uruz 7. All enemy units have been destroyed. I will move on to my next mission from here. I will be leaving the Arbalest here, so please recover it. If you don’t hurry, the South China Army will take it.”  
“Huh? Uruz 7, I don’t understand. What’s this ‘next mission’ you’re talking about-” 
“End communication!”  
Sousuke ended the transmission, had the Arbalest kneel down, and operated the open hatch switch underneath the handle. The overhead hatch slowly opened due to the power of compressed air.  
<Sergeant. You are not carrying out the end-of-operations approval procedures?> Al asked.  
“It’s okay. The operation is already over.”  
<Roger... I have a question.>  
“What is it?”  
<From every viewpoint, this battle yielded the best results so far. To phrase it in a human term- they were surprising. If it is possible, can you tell me the reason why?>  
“...the problem is resolved. Something like that.”  
<Your problem?>  
“No,” Sousuke said, patting the control panel, “Our problem.”  
<I do not understand your reply.>  
“Think about it, partner.”  
Without saying anything else, Sousuke got out of the Arbalest’s cockpit. Jumping down onto the road, he ran through the middle of the burning enemy AS debris in a big hurry.  
Because someone was waiting for him.  
And he could go anywhere.  
♦ ♦ ♦ 
When Teletha Testarossa heard the report that Sousuke Sagara had left the Arbalest behind and disappeared, she thought, Aah, I knew it.  
When they asked Gavin Hunter from the Intelligence Department, he said that he wasn’t able to get in contact with Kaname Chidori after that. According to Hunter’s Intelligence Department afterwards, the surveillance cameras at the Kai Tak International Airport caught sight of a boy and a girl that looked a lot like them.  
The fake passport he had been given during his reconnaissance mission was effective.  
The half-damaged M9, Corporal Spake and the Arbalest were safely recovered. The subordinates appeased the South China Army with the process; but even though they did it secretly, they still ran into problems here and there. There were also a few difficulties in returning to the Tuatha de Danaan.  
But all of the problems worked out somehow.  
Most of the Venoms’ wreckage was recovered, the North and South Armies took up arms in hazardous places, and the refugee citizens returned back to the center area of Hong Kong.  
It wasn’t until the day after the Tuatha de Danaan had left the coast of Hong Kong that they found out Sousuke Sagara’s whereabouts. There was a communication from the man himself, as well as information via the Intelligence Department.  
His communication was sent from a high school in Tokyo.  
Mardukas was so furious he was beside himself, and told him “Return to Merida Island immediately.”  
Sousuke said as politely as possible, “I am afraid that I cannot comply with your order, Sir. At least, not until tomorrow afternoon.”  
“Why not?” Tessa asked. Sousuke calmly replied:  
“Because I have Kanji class on Saturday, and I can’t afford to miss it.”  
When Kalinin, who was standing beside Tessa, heard this, he did something which was very rare for him- he laughed out loud.  
♦ ♦ ♦ 
October 25th, 11:21 (Pacific Standard Time)  
Mithril’s Merida Island Base  
Meeting Room 1 
Mithril’s executive officers were gathered in Meeting Room 1 on the Merida Island Base.  
As usual, they were three-dimensional images.  
Next to Tessa’s seat stood Mardukas, Kalinin, and Sousuke. Sousuke had only arrived from Tokyo thirty minutes earlier.  
“I have never been as angry as I am right now,” said the President of the Intelligence Department, General Amit, in a low voice.  
“But he is the only one who can use the Arbalest,” Tessa said. General Amit snorted.  
“You should be quiet, Captain. A Sergeant- an immature, low-ranking officer, is opposing our decisions. Not only that, but he’s doing it with threats. Did you think that we would approve of this kind of behavior?”  
“I am not threatening anyone, Sir. Nor am I opposing you,” Sousuke said, standing at attention. “What I am proposing is a 
change in the contract agreement. If this proposal is not agreeable to you, I will pay the fine for breaching my contract and leave the force.”  
“What about you leaking classified information?”  
“If that is your worry, then do as you must. Unfortunately- I have no intentions of being confined to strict secrecy.”  
Amit’s three-dimensional figure leaned forward, and looked Sousuke square in the face.  
“That’s big talk there, Sergeant. Do you think you’ll be able to get what you want by making an enemy out of me...?”  
“Then it is as you wish, General, Sir. Does that mean that you don’t think that you can handle me?”  
“What did you say...?”  
“Listen, General-” Sousuke continued, completely unperturbed and in a more disrespectful tone, “I don’t remember selling my soul to Mithril. If what you guys are doing is strange, then allow me to do what I feel is right. That’s all I want. I’ll continue piloting the Arbalest. I’ll risk my life for my colleagues. I will also continue going to that school. Everything will be like it was before. But you don’t have to pay me for my time in Tokyo. Do you have any complaints about that?”  
“Watch your language, Sergeant!”  
“Sergeant? I’m just an ordinary mercenary. What do you say to a migrant? They don’t understand something like rank. That’s something you say to a pet dog.”  
“Wa... wa ha ha ha...”  
When he heard this exchange, Sir Mallory, who was wearing his eyeglass as usual, could no longer keep silent and burst out laughing.  
“Hah hah ha... you lose, General.  
“‘The SRT soldiers can’t be tamed.’ Now who was the one who said that the other day right in this very place?”  
“That was...”  
“That’s right. You did, General. That troublesome SRT soldier is saying that he will do what he’s been doing up till now for half the pay. We should be thanking him, not getting unreasonably angry at him. Don’t you agree, Admiral?”  
“Well... that may be. But it’s not something we can just go around announcing.”  
“Dr. Painrose?”  
Sir Mallory looked over to the Head of Research, Doctor Painrose.  
“I’m looking over the report I received from Lemming. Sergeant Sagara will be indispensable regarding our research on the Lambda Driver after this.”  
“Very well. Are there any objections?” Sir Mallory asked the other executives around the table. None of them said anything.  
“Then that’s how it will be, Captain Testarossa. It seems you have your hands full with peculiar subordinates. You have my sympathy.”  
“Don’t. My subordinates are the best,” Tessa said positively, and Sir Mallory smiled.  
“Hmph. Well, I can’t say that you guys in the West Pacific Fleet don’t know your stuff. I have high expectations from you guys from now on.”  
“Yes, Sir. We are honored.”  
“Also, Sergeant- you said you’re name was... Sousuke Sagara, right?”  
“Yes, Sir.”  
“I’ll make sure to remember it. This discussion is over. Well, then, ladies and gentlemen, take care.”  
♦ ♦ ♦ 
When the online meeting ended, Mardukas immediately turned to Sousuke.  
“First of all, that was a hassle,” he said, “however, Sergeant... don’t add to my worries. When you started speaking so bluntly, I broke out into a cold sweat!!”  
“Yes, Sir... I apologize, Commander,” Sousuke said, bowing obediently. Mardukas sighed and left the meeting room.  
Kalinin spoke to him next.  
“Are you satisfied?”  
“Yes, Sir.”  
“You have the face of a man, now.”  
“I’ll treat you later. I’ll listen to Gauron’s story then.”  
“...thank you.”  
He patted Sousuke on the back with his briefcase then left the meeting room. His attitude was different from usual.  
Now only Sousuke and Tessa were left in the empty meeting room.  
“Umm...” Tessa, who was dressed in a khaki uniform, started hesitantly, “I haven’t said it yet, but... I’m sorry for the other day.”  
“The other day?”  
“You know... before the Hong Kong mission, when you and I had the big fight?”  
“...oh. No,” Sousuke answered ambiguously, without knowing what kind of answer to give. “I’m also sorry.”  
“It’s okay. I... I was jealous of Kaname. So I blew up at you...”  
“I was just weak. Because of you. But I didn’t think it was acceptable to say it, of course. I had to be able to make a fine distinction, I thought. But, because of that...”  
Looking downcast, Tessa looked into Sousuke’s eyes.  
“We’re still friends, right...?” she asked in a sad voice.  
Just then, Sousuke finally understood.  
He didn’t understand everything behind why she was crying back then or why she had flown into such a rage, but he did realize the mistake he had been making up until now.  
Teletha Testarossa was not a goddess.  
She wasn’t an omnipotent being, a saint or even an idol. There were times she would occasionally say irrational things, he would hurt her by saying something impulsively, she would resent him, then cry. It wasn’t any different with the students at his high school and Kaname Chidori. When he thought about it, there had been many times like that up till now. So why hadn’t he noticed it?  
“Of course we are, Captain,” he said when he realized it. “If- if you recognize me as a friend, then would you permit me to speak freely for a moment?  
“Eh...? U.. of course...”  
Tessa braced herself a little bit.  
So, tell her, Sousuke Sagara. If she were a friend at school, how would I talk to her right now? I should know. If she were a friend, how would I say it?  
After taking a deep breath, Sousuke said:  
“Tessa... I’m sorry for everything.”  
When he said this, he was far more nervous than when he had talked down to General Amit.  
“I... I’m always causing problems for you. You’re a wonderful girl. If I were in your place, I probably would have folded under the pressure a long time ago. So... I really respect you. You’re more than my superior officer to me. You’re a very important friend. If you have any problems... please tell me about them whenever you feel like it. I’ll support you.”  
Tessa just stared at him blankly for a while after.  
After he had said it, Sousuke was then astonished by what he had just done.  
Am I stupid? Someone like me. To someone like her. Someone of her importance. And I just spoke so rashly. No matter what, that was way out of line, wasn’t it...? Ahh, damn it.  
“...e-excuse me. But it was my true feelings. Well, then... I will be leaving.”  
Without being able to look at her face after that, Sousuke ran out of the room.  
Sousuke didn’t hear most of the strange clapping, someone dancing around in high heels and the racket of a chair falling over from behind him.  

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