Full Metal Panic! - Volume 6 - Chapter 1

Chapter 1: The Plans Are Not Yet Fixed  
December 21st, 01:35 (Local Time)   
Spratly Islands   
They’ve really done a number on this island setting up a base, Sousuke Sagara thought admirably, without even thinking about the island that his own unit used as their base.   
Using the AS’s night vision sensors, he looked over the dark green sea. Rising from the middle was the problem island, which was barely two kilometers in width. At the top of the rugged, several-hundred meter tall rocky mountain there was a thick growth of a few shrubs and dry grass.   
This was the corner of the numerous islands that made up the Spratly Islands.   
There were a few radar antennas that had been set up in some high locations. He could see the figures of sentries wearing night vision goggles. There were a lot of magnetic sensor mines floating in the ocean which surrounded the area, making it incredibly difficult for a special purpose submarine to approach.   
For a pirate’s hideout, one could say that it had some very strong security. An ordinary force would not have been able to get close to it. A run-of-the-mill force, that is.   
The Arm Slave which Sousuke piloted- the ARX-7 Arbalest, had just arrived on the north bank of the “Pirate’s Island”.   
According to the mission briefing, there was a small harbor and dock on the south bank of the island.   
For several months, the small, high-speed ship that the pirates had been using to attack merchant ships that had been passing through the adjacent waters had been anchored there. 
There were also pillaged articles, supplies, as well as a storehouse of weapons ammunitions.   
Sousuke was grappling his way up the foot of a very steep cliff. The white-crested waves violently broke over the rocks. Sousuke climbed up the north bank cliff like this, planning to assault the hideout on the south bank side from behind.   
If flesh and blood soldiers were to try to land here, the power of the waves would repeatedly throw them up on the ominously shaped rocks and kill them. A secret landing on this kind of terrain could only be attempted by the human-shaped weapon known as the AS.   
There was no light other than the dim clouds which were hiding the moon in the night sky.   
In the pitch darkness, the dark gray silhouette of the Arbalest crawled up the rocky area, the sound of the propulsion drive for its electromagnetic muscles humming faintly.   
When he arrived at a place high enough that the spray from the raging waters wouldn’t reach, Sousuke turned the Arbalest’s ECS on to Invisibility Mode. Various parts of the armor moved, exposing a lens-shaped part. A hologram screen enveloped the AS, and its form blended into the surrounding air.   
Just then, he received a communications from his allies.  
“Uruz 6 to Uruz 7. Haven’t you gotten there yet? I’m tired of waiting,” Sergeant Kurz Weber pressed him. He was in a sniping position on the south side of the island- in the middle of the calm waves.   
“This is Uruz 7. I’m not there yet. Remain on standby.”  
“Damn it, get a move on, then. You have a wire gun, right? You could hurry up and climb that kind of cliff with it.”   
“If some rocks were to fall, then the enemy guards would be alerted.”   
“Then just shut ‘em up with a taser. I swear you really are-”  
“Over and out,” Sousuke said, cutting the transmission. He then groaned under his breath, “Really...”   
He had gone through a lot of trouble up to this point in order to slip through the enemy’s alarms. If he had been an average pilot, he would have tripped up one of the mines and been killed a long time ago- if he were to be noticed by the guards, the mission would be cancelled.   
<Alert message. It is now fifteen minutes past time of scheduled attack. You must soon maneuver to Way Point Foxtrot.>   
It wasn’t just Kurz; now even Al, the Arbalest’s AI, was rushing him.   
“Shut up.”   
<Roger... however, a piece of advice first. According to statistics, in this kind of situation, the danger of making a mistake doubles because of the feeling of impatience to complete a mission.  In order to calm the mind, I recommend singing a song. I have prepared 50 of the latest hit numbers, so if you have a request-> 
This kind of joking attitude helped a little, but Al’s very deep, monotone voice started to get on Sousuke’s nerves.   
“I didn’t give you any orders to prepare music. Don’t waste storage capacity without approval.”   
<It is not a problem. It only takes up a mere one or two gigabytes.>  
“Delete them all. If you don’t, I’ll destroy you for the sake of the mission.”   
<I interpret that message to be a joke. Another joke is an effective counter-measure. I have prepared 50 volumes of jokes to make humans laugh, so if you have a request->   
“It’s not a joke, it’s a threat.”   
<Excuse me.>   
After that, Al was quiet. Inside the cockpit, Sousuke wearily shook his head; in response to the movement, the Arbalest also moved its head in the same way.   
Really, an AI that gives that kind of ridiculous advice? The controlling support system of this machine saying “sing a song”, of all things.   
Since Hong Kong, this AI’s speech and conduct had become stranger day by day. It increasingly would talk without permission, which was all the more puzzling since there were no obvious malfunctions detected. The technicians said that, by Al’s request, they would connect the circuit to FM radio or BS television so that it could receive the programming on them- but perhaps Sousuke should have them stop that from now on.   
Using its manipulators and leg spikes at the same time, the Arbalest carefully made its way up the cliff. The ECS was operating without any problems. There were several times it seemed he would fall while letting the sentries on the cliff above him pass by- Five minutes later, Sousuke finally reached the determined point. He then informed the team leader of his position.   
“Uruz 7 to Uruz 2. I have reached Way Point Golf.”   
He received an answer shortly after.   
“Uruz 2, roger. Well then, let’s get this party started, alright? Preset your ADM. Everyone, do a final check and report,” said Second Lieutenant Melissa Mao without riding on Sousuke for being late.   
“Uruz 6, nooo problems.”   
“Uruz 7, ready.”   
“Gebo 3, ready.”   
“Gebo 4, ready.”   
The two helicopters waiting on standby over the sea two miles from the island answered after Kurz and Sousuke. Thanks to 
the new low sound system that had been introduced recently, even the Arbalest’s hearing sensors were barely able to detect the sounds of their rotors and engines.   
On each of those helicopters were 20 members of the land force unit, ready to gain total control of the enemy base after the AS attack.   
“...Okay. Ahem,” Mao cleared her throat after everyone had finished reporting, then raised her voice, “Well then, begin attack! Go, go, go!”  
“Al, cancel ECS, and change battle maneuvers to military power.”   
<Roger. ECS, off. GPL, military master mode 2.>   
The ECS cancelled, and all power switched to battle maneuvers. Under the lavender night sky, the white AS surged up from the blue harbor front, appearing on the summit of the rocky mountain.   
When the one sleeping pirate in the nearby watchtower noticed, his jaw dropped. The panicked guard was indecisive as to whether to reach for his machine gun or the alarm switch, and in the end screamed and fainted without touching either. The built-in taser in the Arbalest’s palm had knocked the man out with a glaring current of electricity.   
“It’s begun,” Sousuke said without the man ever seeing him.   
Linked to Sousuke’s arms in the cockpit, the Arbalest’s arms moved. He aimed his Italian, Oto Melara-manufactured “Boxer” shot cannon at the pirate base below him. He had his choice of targets.   
The command center, munitions storehouse, old, unmanned ASes, anti-aircraft vehicles...   
Aligning his sight with the roof of the munitions storehouse, Sousuke pulled the trigger.   
There was a heavy shock. The anti-armor shrapnel, which was loaded into the Boxer, blew the roof off of the storehouse, and ignited the ammunition inside.   
There was a tremendous explosion. A pillar of fire scorched the night sky, informing everyone that the battle had started.   
<E3 destroyed. Great balls of fire.>   
“Quit talking nonsense.”   
Al’s words were sounding like Kurz’s jokes. Clicking his tongue, Sousuke aimed for the next target.   
♦ ♦ ♦ 
Ten seconds into the battle, the victor was already pretty much decided.   
Without any resistance, the surprise attack from Sousuke and the others destroyed the pirate’s control center, munitions storehouse, and high speed ships which had been anchored down, causing the pirates to collapse into a state of chaos. What was this kind of solitary island equipped for? The old Soviet made ASes, Rk-89 Shamrocks, which were lined up in the center of the base, were destroyed before the pilots could board them by the ruthless marksmanship of Mao’s AS from the sea.   
While Mao’s AS- an M9 Gernsback- was submerged up to the hip in the ocean water, it slowly advanced towards the pirate’s harbor. Kurz, who was behind her in a sniper’s position, and Sousuke, who was at the summit of the mountain, provided cover-fire for her.   
“Hah hah. This is like playing at a game center!” Kurz laughed over the radio.   
“Uruz 6, don’t get careless. We still haven’t taken control of the base yet. Most of the time, just when we get all caught up in the moment, then-”  
A loud roaring sound cut her off, and a large waterspout rose up close on the right-hand side of her machine. It was caused by a detonation at point-blank range.   
“...!! What was that just now!? It didn’t come from the base!”   
Mao’s machine turned aside as it was doused in a sheet of spray, turning its head radar left and right.   
“Uruz 2! From the direction of 3 o’clock, distance four. Eight high speed enemy ships,” warned Sousuke, whose position at the top of the mountain gave him a wider field of vision than Mao below him. Using the high speed ADM (advanced data modem), Al silently forwarded the information caught by the Arbalest’s sensors to the ally units.   
Eight high-speed boats approached, wrapping around the island’s west bank. Since it was also a blind spot from where Sousuke was, he had been late in detecting them. More than likely, the pirates were on their way back from a raid. It was the worst timing.   
Their speed was 40 knots. That would be about 74 kilometers an hour*2.   
They were rather small, but it seemed that they were equipped with 20mm Gatling guns and bazookas. The eight ships kicked up the spray from the waves, and attacked Mao with various weapons.   
As these new enemies showered her with a barrage of concentrated fire, she cursed out loud.   
“Ahhh... son of a bitch, what the hell happened!? All their boats are anchored at the base, right!? Why are new ones coming!?”   
“Same thing as usual, of course. The information was wrong. I wish they’d give us a break already...” Kurz muttered.   
“Stop complaining and do something!!”   
“Do something, she says... I’m already on number two!”   
The 76mm bullet shot by Kurz’s machine hit, and the pirate ship blew up.   
“You’re only on two!?”   
“Don’t be absurd. I’m far away- and the target is fast. Damn it, if only I had a Hellfire or a Versailles,” Kurz said as impatiently as usual.   
“Hellfire” and “Versailles” were the names of guidance missiles that the ASes used. The position in which Kurz was assigned to provide cover fire was at a perfect distance for secure aim, but it wasn’t suitable for aiming at high-speed targets moving at forty knots. You could almost call it a miracle that Kurz had been able to sink two of them already.   
There were still six left.   
Those six boats made a dash to surround Mao’s M9, and mercilessly bombarded her machine with shells and rockets. The machine gun on the head area of Mao’s machine roared, already filling one of the boats full of lead- but there were still five left.   
“Eeei, those restless sons of...! ...this is really bad!”   
Slashing through the heavy ocean water, the M9 bravely took up evasive maneuvers as violent waterspouts spurted up one after the other all around it. Even though the M9 was agile and impervious to bullets, it was probably impossible for it to beat the enemy’s fierce attacks.   
♦ ♦ ♦ 
<Sergeant. Uruz 2 is in danger. Fire at the enemy high-speed boats.>   
Al said to Sousuke, who was only watching from the rocky mountain without even providing any cover fire.   
“It would be useless from this distance. There’s also not enough ammunition left.”   
<Fire at the enemy high-speed boats. There are no other options.>   
“Options, huh? In that case, there is one,” and as soon as he said it, Sousuke made the Arbalest step back a few paces, then judging the timing, he suddenly sprinted forward.   
<Sergeant. This angle is->   
“Shut up and help out.”   
A moment later, the Arbalest kicked off of the edge of the mountain and jumped towards the sea.   
The slim silhouette of the Arbalest danced in midair against the background of the silver moon.   
When the machine started to fall in an arc, Sousuke shot the wire gun located in his arm.   
The anchor on the end of the wire sharply pierced into one of the high-speed boats beneath him.   
He quickly recoiled the wire. The machine, which had been swimming around in mid-air, was instantly pulled forwards and made a “landing” on one of the high-speed boats.   
There was the shrill shriek of metal and a sheet of spray.   
The boat sank down so far it almost capsized, and the hull was crushed.   
On a human scale, it was like someone jumping onto a rowboat.   
“Hey hey hey...!!” Kurz yelled in surprise.  
The men on the boat on which the Arbalest had landed were literally on their butts staring up at the Arbalest. Sousuke thrust his monomolecular cutter into the deck, skillfully balancing his machine, and fired the 12.7mm machine gun on the Arbalest’s head. He made beehives out of the engine compartment and weapons equipment, and in a moment the boat was helpless.   
“That’s the gist of it. Now we’re going to jump from one boat to another.”   
The Arbalest then kicked off of the boat from which black smoke was now rising, jumping towards the next. He aimed at the high-speed boat which was sailing ahead, and once again fired the wire gun from his left arm. The high-output motor in the gun then retrieved the wire very quickly.   
He used his machine gun to sweep across the violently shaking boat, destroying the engine and gun turret.   
The Arbalest’s sensor quickly scanned the surrounding area. The closest sailing ship shot a rocket in Sousuke’s direction.   
A red light was coming straight towards him.   
Just before the shell hit him, Sousuke jumped for a third time. The high-speed boat that he had just been on a moment earlier was hit by the rocket and exploded. With the flames to his back, Sousuke twisted the Arbalest around in mid-air.   
He aimed at an enemy boat bombarding him with fire, and rushing down on it from the sky, the Arbalest made its third successful landing. The pirates scrambled to run away, jumping into the dark sea.   
<Sergeant. These kinds of tactics are unimaginable. This is nonsense.>   
“You think so?” Sousuke said as he maneuvered the machine. “Well then, tell me the meaning of nonsense.”   
<Unreasonable, absurd, lacking common sense.>   
“You really are just a machine.”   
Taking aim at the now empty gun platform and engine compartment, the Arbalest discharged its boxer canon.   
♦ ♦ ♦ 
After that, a one-sided fight continued.   
All of the high-speed boats were destroyed, and the pirates on the base were routed.   
Mao’s M9 landed on the island, and proceeded to go around smashing the remaining weapons from one end. She then switched on her external speakers, and in Cantonese, Mandarin, and three dialects of Vietnamese advised the pirates to surrender. She mercilessly called on her taser against those who stubbornly resisted.   
Then the support transport helicopter unit arrived. One platoon completely armed with massive bulletproof clothing and bulletproof plastic shields dropped from the helicopters hovering under the protection of Sousuke’s team, and raided a room that the ASes couldn’t reach. Finally, reports were received from every unit charged with gaining control of their respective areas.   
Within a few minutes, the surrendered pirates were tied together and gathered on the dock.   
And with that, the mission was complete.   
“Good grief, that was an unexpected pain in the ass.”   
Kurz’s machine beat its way through the smoke to finally make it back to the island from its previous sniper’s position in the middle of the ocean. The silhouettes of his and Mao’s Gernsbacks 
looked very much like that of the Arbalest, with their long, slender arms and legs, and their almost squished hips. The gray armor was drenched with ocean water, and drops of water were trickling down here and there.   
“We should be happy just because Venom wasn’t here,” Sousuke said as he returned the shot cannon back to the hard point on the Arbalest’s waist.   
To the Arbalest’s side were the pirates, who had thrown away their weapons and were sitting down, as well as the land soldiers who were watching over them.   
The pirates had looks of discontent- like they had just lost in an unfair game. They just couldn’t comprehend how their stronghold, which they had thought to be impregnable, had been so easily defeated by the weapons called ASes.   
“This is Uruz 9. The land unit has gained control of every section. The damage to our side was only two with light injuries. There are no obstacles to our movements. On the pirates’ side, there are eight dead, four seriously injured and ten with light injuries,” the leader of the infantry unit, Corporal Yang Jun-Kyu, reported over the radio.   
There seemed to be some pirates who were shot to death resisting. However, they were people who attacked merchant ships and killed many of the crews on those ships. Using tasers and tear gas bombs to convince them to surrender- they had been nice until now, so any deaths were due to their own stubbornness.   
“But was there really a need for Mithril to get involved against these kinds of pirates?” Kurz complained, looking down on the group of prisoners with the head sensors.   
“This is the Spratly Islands. North and South China, Vietnam, Taiwan... each nation’s sphere of influence has been jumbled together into a mosaic. Just because of that, it would be 
difficult for a regular army to carry out a large-scale operation. This was explained in the briefing,” Sousuke said, and Kurz’s M9 waved its left hand impatiently.   
“I already know that.”  
“Also, this operation was not simply about suppressing the pirates. The name of this island is very important.”   
Badamu Island. The name of this one island, which had become the base for a group of pirates. This island had many names from the countries that contended possession of the Spratly Islands as well as from the Westerners who once ruled these islands. In Mandarin, the island’s name was “Badamu”*3, the word he had heard from Gauron in Hong Kong.   
Since it was a commonplace name without any connections, even Mithril probably had not noticed it. However, it was a different story that the island had been named the base of the pirates who were causing commotion in the Spratly Islands coastal waters. After careful investigation and reconnaissance, there seemed to be only a small possibility that this island was connected with Amalgam, but- on the other hand, they couldn’t disprove it, either.   
“This is Uruz 8 to everyone,” Corporal Spake, who was investigating the warehouse area of the pirate base, reported over the radio just then. “There’s only weapons ammunitions and heroin here. There are also containers of vanadium, but- it’s just things they plundered. Probably the cargo from the Peru merchant ship that they attacked week before last.”   
“It’s a rare metal. The M9’s you guys are piloting even use it. Because of the civil war in the Soviet Union, the trouble in Nan’a... for the past four or five years, the price has been going up. Well, it falls short of heroin, but it’s hard to trace.”  
“My, aren’t we just the expert?” Kurz groaned in a small voice.   
“I’ve been trading stocks recently. Read the business section or something for a change. If all you do is fight, you end up looking stupid.”   
“Shuddup, you gambling freak.”   
Sousuke then interrupted the verbal exchange between Kurz and Spake.   
“There are no other important goods, are there? Precision machinery or AS parts?”   
“Nothing. This is just an authentic pirate’s safe house. There doesn’t seem to be any connection with Amalgam.”   
“We don’t know that for sure, yet. We haven’t tried questioning the commander of the base,” Mao said. Her M9 then moved to the summit of the rocky mountain, and kept a lookout over the surrounding area.   
“This is Uruz 9. Ah- ...about that commanding officer, well, it doesn’t look like he’s among the prisoners. It’s not like... he wouldn’t be on the base, but...”   
“This is Uruz 7. He may be dressed up as one of the subordinates and hiding as one of them. Or he may still be somewhere on the island...”   
Just as Sousuke said that, he noticed something.   
The Arbalest’s sensors projected the slope of the mountain. He saw a man’s shadow moving on the other side of a bare rock overlooking the port. The darkness and the smoke from the fires made it terribly blurry, but it seemed to Sousuke that the man was carrying an anti-tank missile over his shoulder.   
No- there was no mistake about it. He was aiming the anti-tank missile straight towards him from overhead.   
Just as Sousuke confirmed it, the man fired the missile.   
“Sousuke, just now-”   
<Warning! ATM!>   
Kurz and Al alerted him at the same time. It was at short range, but with the Arbalest’s mobility, it would have been easy to quickly jump back and avoid it. However, behind him- in other words, there would be dozens of prisoners as well as allied infantry straight in the missile’s path.   
If he avoided it, they would all be hit by the missile.   
It was a split-second decision. Sousuke, without making any maneuvers to avoid, turned to face the oncoming missile straight on.   
There was a bright flash and thunderous roar.   
The anti-tank missile had hit the Arbalest straight in the chest.   
“Damn it!”   
In the blink of an eye, Kurz’s M9 fired the 12.7mm machine gun on its head at full auto.   
Immediately, dozens of bullets about the size of Tabasco bottles were discharged, and the body of the man who shot the missile was blown off of the rock, scattering in all directions.   
“Sousuke!?” Kurz yelled, looking back.   
In the middle of the clearing smoke, he saw the form of the Arbalest still intact. It was standing with its arms crossed against its chest, but there wasn’t one scratch on the armor anywhere.   
Ordinarily, a direct hit from a missile should have partially destroyed it.   
“...there’s no problem,” Sousuke said.   
The missile’s explosion had been entirely stopped and dispersed by the invisible wall that had been created in front of the Arbalest.   
“This is Uruz 2, what just happened!? Report the situation!” Mao said in a tense voice.   
“This is Uruz 7. We were attacked by a surviving enemy’s missile, but Uruz 6 took care of it. No damages to our side.”   
There was a small sigh of relief over the radio.   
“Uruz 2, roger... be careful, okay?”   
The communication ended, and Sousuke had the Arbalest stand up. Kurz’s M9 was just staring at him and the Arbalest.   
“Sousuke. Just now, are you...”   
“Yes. Are you okay?”   
“I think... I saw it. Was that it?” Kurz answered, confused about the machinery he was not used to using.   
“Al. It was operating, wasn’t it?”   
<Affirmative. No structural damage detected. Main condenser output stable.>   
“Good. Then go ahead and store all of the data from the previous 120 seconds uncompressed into file Zulu-1.”   
He felt like he had grown to understand the trick to it.   
Sousuke and the Arbalest were getting used to handling the Lambda driver.   
“But, that was really surprising,” Kurz said in admiration, “seeing it from so close. A direct hit from an anti-tank missile? And so easily, too? That’s some frightening equipment.”   
“The first time I saw the ECS invisibility mode, I thought so, too,” Sousuke said. “It doesn’t require deep thought. This kind of thing may even become natural, eventually.”   
“Well... that might be true, I guess,” Kurz said over the radio with some discretion in his voice. “But if we do that, I have a feeling we will be forgetting something important, if we were to think ‘it’s natural’, no matter what kind of outrageous equipment 
we have. The machines that we pilot... even these ASes, there’s some kind of malaise in them.”   
“No, I’m just babbling. Anyway-” Kurz said, changing the tone of his voice, “This is Uruz 6. They said that we still haven’t found the commander of this base. So let’s hurry up and find him so we can interrogate him. I wanna go home and get some sleep already.”   
“This is Uruz 9... umm, according the prisoners, the commander-” Corporal Yang, who was standing in front of the group of prisoners, said over the radio. The prisoners were exchanging glances and pointing in the direction from which the missile had come.   
“What is it? Hurry up and tell us already.”   
“The commander- was the person who shot that missile, who Kurz just blew to pieces with his machine gun.”   
“Eh? ...ah... is that right,” Kurz said in a wretched voice. Just then Mao’s voice broke in.   
“What did you say? Blew to pieces? You killed him!? Why didn’t you use the taser!?”   
“How could I have known!? It was all so sudden!”   
“Shut up! We were told to bring the commander in alive, and you go and do this! This was my debut fight as a second Lieutenant!”   
“B-be quiet! He was a bastard who killed god knows how many innocent sailors, wasn’t he!? He went fishing with 50 caliber bullets!”   
“That’s not the problem, is it!? Are you suggesting we interrogate a corpse!?”   
“He shot Sousuke, didn’t he!?”   
“Huh!? Then Sousuke, how are you doing?”   
“No problems here.”   
“Ah, you bastard...”   
“See!? It’s your fault, isn’t it!? ‘Cause that’s what I’m going to detail in my report! Ah, dammit, when we get back Ben’s going to rag me about this for sure. With you giving me such problems, there’s no meaning in becoming an officer! It’s settled, then- next time you’re buying me a drink! I swear, when it comes to you, there’s an incurable, simplistic, single-minded-”   
“Shut up! Now you’re just rattling on, you know! Just last week in practice you blew a car filled with hostages away with 40mm shells! That’s-”   
“Yeah, yeah, excuse me! That was practice! This is the real thing!”   
Sousuke, fed up with the two arguing back and forth, interrupted the heated exchange.   
“Both of you. Move past who’s to blame- I want to get ready to leave. If I go back now, I can still make it in time for my Classical Literature make-up exam. Mr. Fujisaki is strict. At this rate, my credits will-”   
“Quiet! Part-timers should keep their mouths shut!” both Kurz and Mao yelled over the radio at the same time.   
<I agree, Sergeant. In this situation, it is prudent to maintain silence.>   
“Al, you bastard-”   
<Excuse me. I will be quiet.>   
I should go ahead and destroy this AI, Sousuke thought seriously just then.   
♦ ♦ ♦ 
December 21st, 03:51 (Local Time)  
West Pacific Ocean, Depth 250 Meters  
Tuatha de Danaan, 1st Briefing Room  
“In other words, well...”  
It was the end of the debriefing after the pirate base operation. When it came to the part where the Arbalest was hit by the missile, Melissa Mao evaded the explanation.  
“In that moment, both a good thing and a bad thing... happened at the same time.”  
“Well, then, will you tell me the good thing first?” asked the leader of the SRT ground unit, Belfangan Clouseau, as he listened to the sullen story. He was a tall, black man, around age 30, with sharp eyebrows. He was wearing field clothes and a fearless expression.  
Mao spoke.  
“The Arbalest used the Lambda Driver and stopped the explosion from the anti-tank missile. He also collected a lot of data.”  
“That’s the most important thing, then. Even though it was accidental, good job, Sagara... however, deal with attacks ahead of time from now on. It’s an unnecessary risk.”  
Sousuke, dressed in field clothes and sitting in a chair, nodded silently.  
“And? What’s the bad thing?”  
“The commander of the pirates who shot the missile was blown away by Kurz. He used the 12.7mm machine gun on the head, and- well,” Mao looked down at the clipboard in her hands, “he used 54 rounds, so there’s nothing left.”  
He didn’t seem surprised since it had been a possibility- but even so, Clouseau closed his eyes, his temples twitching.  
“Wonderful. Well then, how do we interrogate the commander who was blown away into nothing? Please tell me, Weber.”  
“Ha ha ha. That’s impossible. We’ll have to ask a psychic from Mount Osore*4. But we’ll need one who can speak Chinese,” Kurz Weber, who was sitting in the seat next to Sousuke, replied sarcastically with a dry laugh.  
“I was just kidding, Sergeant...”  
“I know, Lieutenant.”  
Clouseau and Kurz exchanged threatening glances, and from beside them Mao let out a small sigh.  
These two hadn’t gotten along at all, not since their terrible first meeting. These two had been in several combat situations together, but it was a miracle that Kurz had not “accidentally” shot Clouseau in the back.  
“Umm, excuse me,” Yang Jun-Kyu said reservedly, holding up his hand, “but I don’t think there was any other choice at that time. From the position of Kurz’s M9, a taser would not have been effective because the range just above him was thick with smoke. There was also no guarantee that the enemy had not prepared a second shot, so quickly rendering the subject powerless was the only alternative.”  
Yang was the one who did the follow-up in these situations.  
“...anyone else have an opinion?” Clouseau said, looking around at the others in the room. Although everyone, including Mao and Sousuke, was passive, they nodded their heads in agreement. Clouseau finally accepted the judgment of his subordinates.  
“Very well. In that case, it was unavoidable. I will report it to the Lieutenant Commander. That pirate hideout probably has no connection with Amalgam. That means we’ve lost another possibility. We’re now at a total loss as to where the bases of their colleagues are or even the true character of their organization.”  
“What about the results from the analyses of Venom and Behemoth?” Mao asked.  
Mithril had recovered the wreckage of what could be called numerous “Amalgam-made” enemy ASes from the battles so far. It had almost been six months since they recovered “Behemoth”. If the Department of Research and the Department of Intelligence would do some serious analysis, they would be able to identify some of the companies that were connected with manufacturing the parts.  
“It seems the important parts are mostly ‘Source Unknown’. The electrical components are Western or Japanese-made and could be from anywhere.”  
“You’re kidding me. They should be able to pinpoint factories that can make that degree of specialty parts.”  
“If it’s a Western factory, yes. They let us analyze their design habits, common features and such- but when it comes to Venom, there’s a strong opinion that it’s a prototype of a Soviet-made next generation model AS.”  
“You mean the one called Shadow?”  
The Zy-98 Shadow. The code name of the next powerhouse AS to replace the Rk-92 which was currently in development by the Zeya Department of Planning.  
The existence of this new-type AS had been made known to those with military connections in the West only one month ago. Even Mithril did not have all the particulars, but it was said that they had succeeded in creating perfect electrical propulsion due to 
a small-size, high-power palladium reactor like that of the M9. Not only that, but it was said to actually surpass the specifications of the M9, as well.  
The Venom was said to be an adaptation of the Shadow.  
“We still aren’t out of the guessing stage, though. Speaking from the standpoint of the structure of the machines, it looks like there’s a connection between Zeya’s new AS and the Venom and our M9s and the Arbalest. Anyway, we’ll pay attention to the keyword ‘Badham’ that Sagara heard. But then again, Gauron may have misled us to screw with us.”  
“Lieutenant. There is no mistake that that word was some kind of hint,” Sousuke said.  
Clouseau’s surmise could very well be correct, but for some reason, Sousuke couldn’t believe that the word Gauron told him in Hong Kong was just nonsense.  
“I understand. Or it could be a trap... either way, the plan is to be on guard... but for now our job isn’t information analysis, it’s extermination of pests. From now on any mission where there’s the potential to gather information about the Venom-type AS, even if it’s only a little bit, will be carried out perfectly. Lieutenant Commander Kalinin is of the same opinion on this. Remember that.”  
Everyone present each gave replies of “understood” or “yeah, yeah”.  
“Well then, you each have until seven o’clock tomorrow morning to file your reports. I will need three people to guard the pirates- Weber, I’m recruiting you.”  
“Eeh!? Why do I have to-”  
“That’s an order. Take charge, choose some guards from the PRT personnel, and give them directions. Got it? Everything is your responsibility. I don’t want a repeat of the Perio Islands.”  
“...understood,” Kurz answered in a more respectable voice when he thought of the death of McAllen, Clouseau’s predecessor.  
“Then you’re all dismissed. Good job today.”  
Everyone stood up and left the briefing room, talking about various topics.  
“What is it?” Clouseau said to Mao, who had stayed behind.  
“Why did you make Kurz do it? If it’s guard duty, I could have done it.”  
“He needs some experience doing some officer duties. It’ll make him learn some responsibility.”  
“Ah, so that’s it,” Mao nodded in comprehension.  
“That’s not the only thing, though. I’ve talked with Lieutenant Commander Kalinin and Captain Testarossa. You’re a Second Lieutenant... now we need to promote someone to sergeant major of the SRT unit. Those who we could promote are Sagara, Sandarapta, and Weber. But since Sagara is too young, and he’s only part time, and Sandrapta isn’t suitable for command, and also-”  
“And also?”  
“According to that girl, Kaname Chidori, during the Perio Islands incident, when McAllen turned to Guen for the last time, he told him ‘Get Weber and the others’. The Lieutenant Commander was gone and you were injured. So the name he gave him was Weber’s. The Captain was also watching over him, wasn’t he?”  
“He’s a disagreeable man, but he has character. He puts his colleagues first. I want to put him through the ringer for a while, and see what we get.”  
When he noticed Mao smiling, Clouseau raised his eyebrow.  
When it was just the two of them, Clouseau quickly reverted back to the way he was in the old days when they were both non-commissioned officers.  
“Nothing. I just think I see it when I look.”  
“Don’t tease me. The Lieutenant Commander is apt to leave. Then there won’t be anyone here but me.”  
“That’s true. We’re counting on you, Ben.”  
“For heaven’s sake...”  
With a sullen look on his face and his briefcase under his arm, Clouseau walked out of the room.  
When he returned to the SRT-use standby room, Sousuke booted up his laptop computer and started writing his report.  
Kurz grumbled and complained, but nevertheless went to take over guard of the prisoners. After that, the room was quiet. If he hurried and finished up the paperwork, Sousuke might be able to get a helicopter ride to Tokyo after the submarine surfaced. There were some of the crew who felt that a non-commissioned officer such as Sousuke shouldn’t receive such special treatment, but it wasn’t his concern. He was in danger of failing. “Transportation accommodation will be provided if possible,” was firmly stated in his new contract (he had to pay for the price of fuel, though).  
“Where are you going?” he heard Mao, who was typing on a similar type of laptop, ask as he stood up.  
“To get some food.”  
“Ahh... I see. Well, take care, then.”  
“See you later.”  
Just before he left the room, he watched Mao excitedly pick up the ship’s internal telephone, but he wasn’t especially interested in what she was doing.  
He climbed up the nearby stairs, and walked leisurely down the passageway.  
When he reached the second signboard he unexpectedly ran into the Captain, Tessa, in a corner with no one else around.  
“Ah... Mr. Sagara,” Tessa- Teletha Testarossa said.  
She was a thin, diminutive girl with braided ash-blonde hair, who was the same age as Sousuke. Her captain’s insignia gleamed on the shoulder of her khaki-colored uniform. For some reason, she was out of breath.  
Before, Sousuke’s back would have straightened up and he would have given her a conscientious salute- however, he had since learned that she hated that kind of behavior. She let him just give her a light nod.  
“Are you taking a break?”  
“Yes, since the ship is only cruising for now. I’m a little hungry, so I left the rest to Mr. Mardukas.”  
She then continued, looking up at him, “Would you like to eat together?”  
“In the cafeteria?”  
“Yes. If it’s alright with you, would you accompany me?”  
“Yes ma’am, since I was headed that way already.”  
The two of them walked along together. The cafeteria had closed not long before they arrived. There was no one else around since it was past midnight, nor did there seem to be any food left, either.  
“You sit over there. I’ll make us something,” Tessa said one-sidedly, and went into the kitchen. Sousuke started to panic.  
“Captain, this is a problem. I should be the one doing such a-” he started to say, but stopped when he saw Tessa staring accusingly his way.  
“Can you not eat my food?”  
“No, that’s not what I-”  
“Even though you always eat the food Kaname makes.”  
When she saw him at a loss for words, Tessa giggled.  
“It’s okay. Why don’t you try my cooking out for a change?”  
“Understood. I will let you treat me, then.”  
Before, he would have awkwardly tensed up and said something like, “I’ll do it myself,” or “How can I help?” but-  
Well, it’s okay.  
Sousuke thought better of it and sat down in one of the cafeteria chairs.  
“I heard that you had a tough time on Badamu Island,” Tessa said from inside the kitchen. He could hear the sounds of her opening and closing the refrigerator door and shuffling cooking implements around.  
“No ma’am. It was an easy mission.”  
“But you had to use the Lambda Driver, right?”  
“I apologize. If I had not have been careless, I wouldn’t have had to use it.”  
“Everything turned out alright, though. It looks like you are getting used to the Arbalest.”  
“Yes ma’am. But I am annoyed by Al’s nonsense. It goes on talking about unnecessary things one right after another- I’ve never heard of an operating system like that.”  
“It’s not an operating system.”  
“I’ve told you before, right? The Arbalest is your alter ego. For example- if you had grown up under different circumstances, you might have been like Al.”  
“Please don’t say such a thing,” he said with a grimace, and the sound of a knife hitting against the cutting board suddenly stopped.  
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said in a surprised voice.  
When he suddenly realized that he had carelessly been rude to her, Sousuke started to apologize.  
“I’m sorry. I was just-”  
“It’s okay. You were acting like you were talking to Melissa or Weber just now.”  
“I was?”  
“Yes. I’m a little glad... fu fu.”  
“It... feels a little odd.”  
“I think so, too. A strange feeling,” Tessa said excitedly.  
Tessa continued cooking for a little while. He could hear her stirring something up in a bowl, the sound of water boiling in a pot, and the sound of something frying in a pan.  
It had taken him six months to be able to talk to her honestly like this; and right now, Sousuke was feeling an indescribable affection towards Tessa, whom he once thought of as a goddess.  
He thought she was a fascinating young lady. He was happy that she would talk to him like this. Watching her cooking with her head bent down like that, he got the same feeling as when Kaname was doing the same thing.  
“It’s finished.”  
Tessa came out of the kitchen carrying a large plate of pasta.  
“It’s Carbonara Spaghetti. I make it for myself a lot after work.”  
Using a fork and spoon, she put some on a small plate. A little bit of steam was rising up from it. It was covered in cheese and cream sauce, and smelled of fragrant black pepper and garlic.  
“It’s really easy to make. I at least have more confidence making this than Mr. Kalinin’s borsch. So don’t worry.”  
“That’s best, then,” he said bluntly, and put some of the pasta in his mouth. At once, both of his eyes went wide. Indeed, it was-  
For some reason, when he said that, Tessa’s body shrugged up very primly, and she made a V-sign with her fingers.  
“Yes... the crash course worked. With this, Miss Kaname’s underhanded tricks are...” Tessa mumbled from out of nowhere to no one, and Sousuke gave her a perplexed look.  
“Nothing, I was just talking to myself. Please, continue eating!”  
Being driven by hunger, Sousuke quickly ate his pasta while doubtfully pondering over what she had just said. Tessa absentmindedly watched him as he lifted his fork from the plate to his mouth and down again.  
“Mr. Sagara, do you want seconds?” she asked.  
“Yes, please.”  
Sousuke, who was in the habit of normally only eating until he was half-full, quickly handed over his plate. If this were before a mission, he would have refused since gluttony was prohibited. Being over-full clouded one’s ability to think, and in the off-chance that he or she were shot in the stomach, the probably of death increased dramatically. But he was on the ship right now, so he didn’t have to worry about having to confront something like 
that. That was as long as Kurz didn’t screw up while guarding the prisoners.  
“Is it good?” Tessa asked, changing the subject.  
“Yes, it’s delicious.”  
“Good!” she said with a grin. You could almost say her smiling face was glowing. Sousuke felt at ease, yet at the same time, a little guilty.  
“So... next week is Christmas, right?” she said a little hesitantly.  
“I don’t know the details, but it seems that way.”  
“Do you know what the 24th is?”  
“I’ve heard that it’s some event called ‘Christmas Eve’.”  
Of course, even Sousuke knew that Christmas was a Christian holiday. For Sousuke, who fought alongside the Mujahideen (Islamic Holy Warriors) in Afghanistan, it wasn’t something which held much interest for him. He, on the other hand, was more worried about Ramadan, which would start three days before Christmas Eve this year.  
Christmas was a time when the Soviet soldiers, who were his enemies during his time in Afghanistan, would let down their guard... that was how Sousuke thought of it.  
Why is she bringing up Christmas all of the sudden...?  
Sousuke unconsciously stiffened up. Tessa was supposedly a Catholic. He didn’t think that she would start a strange religious fight, but he became uneasy.  
“I see... so you don’t know...”  
“It’s nothing. Anyway, Mr. Sagara...” Tessa continued, her voice faltering.  
“Yes ma’am?”  
“Actually, on the 24th... there’s a party planned for all of the troops, right? Afterwards, Melissa and the others are planning on having another small party in my quarters or some other place. I 
was wondering, if you don’t already have plans, would you like to come?”  
She looked at Sousuke with completely innocent eyes.  
“The 24th?”  
Sousuke didn’t know what to do. That was the day of the special field trip at school.  
He had already told them, “I will make arrangements for perfect protection,” among other things.  
However, there weren’t many chances to deepen his relationship with the busy Tessa. Sousuke had vaguely been considering her kindness for the past several months. Even though such a person was inviting him like this, he was extremely hesitant to turn her down cold.  
“...I guess you’re busy with school, huh?”  
“No, that’s not it. I’m just a little...”  
As he was trying to come up with a response, he heard the sound of running in the passageway outside of the cafeteria.  
“Hey, hey!”  
Mao flew into the room, running excitedly. A moment ago, she had supposedly been using her computer to look something up, when-  
“What is it, Mao?”  
“Sousuke! You know Persian, right?”  
“A little in the Afghan dialect. What about it?” Sousuke asked without having a clue as to what she was talking about.  
Mao answered in a loud voice, “Then why didn’t you notice!? ...geez!”  
“About ‘Badham’. I’ve been looking it up. From what we know about Gauron’s history, I checked the languages he might know... and in Persian, ‘Badham’- when you write ‘Badame’ in that alphabet, you know what you get?”  
“That’s... almond.”  
“No, that’s ‘Badam’. If you add an ‘e’ to that?”  
“I don’t know,” he admitted a little embarrassed. When he was in Afghanistan, he spoke Turkish and Farsi- the Afghani dialect of Persian, all the time. He could also use Pakistani Pashto for everyday conversation. Afghanistan was a country made up of a complex mix of people.  
It wasn’t because Sousuke had a special linguistic talent that he knew so many languages. He simply just remembered using them as long as he could remember when he lived in those areas.  
However, his Farsi had become rather rusty, and he never learned to read or write it in the first place. He only knew English and Japanese characters- and a little bit of Russian.  
“So if you add an ‘e’, what is ‘Badame’?” Sousuke asked, puzzled. Even Tessa, who could speak nearly ten languages fluently but didn’t know Persian, looked blankly. She also appeared to upset by Mao’s interruption.  
“‘Pupa’. It means ‘pupa’!”  
♦ ♦ ♦  
December 21st, 15:37 (Japan Standard Time)  
Choufu-shi, Tokyo, Japan 
Jindai High School  
“Hey, Sagara,” his classmate Kyouko Tokiwa said as she approached Sousuke after school. “Did you know that the 24th is Kaname’s birthday?”  
“Hello? Heeey.”  
“Now...that you mention it, I... do,” Sousuke said jerkily.  
Since he wasn’t acquainted with the customs for birthdays and such, Sousuke had actually completely forgotten about Kaname’s birthday. But he had looked over all of Kaname’s information before he started coming to this school...  
However, he had things to do for Mithril on that day.  
There was a look of pain on Sousuke’s face for making such an oversight, which Kyouko ignored as she continued.  
“You’re going on the cruise, right? So, I was planning on surprising Kaname on that day. You know, have everyone yell ‘Happy Birthday!’”  
She glanced at the form of Kaname, who was leaning out of the window and having a fight with blackboard erasers.  
“You see, I don’t think she’s expecting something like that this year, so I want to take advantage of that. We’re talking about having everyone buy her a bouquet of flowers, so would you contribute to the collection?”  
“You don’t know? ...let’s see, a collection is when everyone gives some money. 300 yen a piece. Please?!”  
“I see. I’ll contribute, then. However-”  
Grabbing his wallet, Sousuke stammered.  
“I’m sorry, but I wasn’t planning on going on the cruise. I have other business.”  
“You’re not coming? Weren’t you excited about it the other day!? You said ‘I will be completely armed and ready,’ or something like that.”  
“Umm... no. That’s...” Sousuke mumbled incoherently.  
“And what about Kaname’s birthday?”  
“I’m sorry, but I have a previous engagement.”  
“Eh? Kaname’s gonna be disappointed, you know.”  
“It can’t be helped.”  
“What kind of business is it?”  
However, a student from Jindai High School couldn’t know about the existence of Mithril. Of course, that went for Kyouko, as well.  
“I can’t say. I’m sorry...”  
Just then, Kaname aimlessly got closer to them. While she was putting the erasers back on the chalkboard and arranging the chalk, she asked them, “What?”  
“Huh? No... it’s nothing. Ah hah hah.”  
“Huh? What’s going on?”  
“A... anyway, get this, Kaname! Sagara said he’s not coming on the cruise! Doesn’t that suck?” Kyouko said with a clenched fist, changing the topic. As she did, Kaname suddenly stopped lining up the chalk with her hand for a just a moment.  
“Oh, is that so...” she said curtly.  
“I have a lot of things I have to do. Sorry.”  
“Hmm... so what are you apologizing to me for?”  
“Huh? No, I was-”  
“It’s okay, isn’t it? At least that way it’ll be quiet. I don’t know what kind of mission or whatever you have going on, but I hope you have a fun Christmas, ‘cause I don’t care one bit.”  
“No, it’s just that day is-”  
“What’s that day?”  
Looking to the side, Sousuke faltered. Since Kyouko was right next to him, he was hesitant to refer to Mithril.  
“Heh, it’s something so important that you can’t explain. Well... it has nothing to do with me. See ya. Don’t expect a souvenir,” she said in a somewhat cold voice and quickly left the room.  
Kyouko, who had been watching the exchange from the side, sighed deeply.  
“See there!? She’s getting really upset now!”  
“I... it looks that way,” Sousuke said with sweat on his forehead. “But I don’t understand it. Why did she get so mad about it?”  
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? It’s her birthday, right? She’ll be disappointed if you don’t come. Since Kaname is so stubborn, she can’t say that she’ll be ‘lonely’. You should be able to tell that at least.”  
Kyouko’s words were logical, but even so, Sousuke still had a hard time understanding their meaning.  
“I don’t understand. Are birthdays so important?”  
“Whatever! Just pound it into your head!”  
“...roger,” Sousuke said for the time being. “But still, I’m sorry. There’s no way I can make time on that day.”  
Kyouko’s pigtails dangled coquettishly.  
“I see... is it a party somewhere?”  
“A party. That’s it. That kind of meaning. The plans for the party became another party.”  
“No, don’t worry about it.”  
After school, Kaname headed to the Sengawa Station shopping district by herself.  
She went into a fancy shop that had cute stuffed dolls and other stuff lined up in a row looking for a stuffed Bonta-kun, when the business-looking man beside her approached.  
“Miss, would you like to go somewhere with me?” he said in a somewhat clumsy voice.  
“I said come the day before yesterday, Barlow.”  
“You say that, but... I’ll treat you to something nice.”  
He also said this in a reluctant voice. When she heard these words, she snorted a little.  
“Very well. It looks like you remember the password perfectly.”  
“Can’t we pick a better phrase and location...?” the man said in a lower voice.  
“That was unnatural. If they knew about this kind of communication, what would your superiors at the Intelligence Department say...?”  
“You can be quiet now.”  
Kaname gave him a side-glance.  
This man was an agent in Mithril’s Information Bureau. His code name was ‘Wraith’. His mission was observing and guarding Kaname (although the guard part was doubtful).  
He was like a master of disguise who had a different form whenever he came out. Sometimes he was an elegant old woman, sometimes he was an irresponsible young man. He’d also been a middle-aged businessman, a 40-something year old housewife, a construction worker, insurance salesman, and many, many other variations. Kaname didn’t even know whether or not this agent was even a man.  
Kaname deeply admired Wraith’s ability to disguise himself. He was even able to freely change the tone of his voice.  
“But you know... you are clever at disguising yourself. Wouldn’t it be more profitable to quit a job where you have to wear a tie such as a spy and become an actor instead?”  
“Mind your own business.”  
Wraith became insistent and squared his shoulders.  
“Ah, I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.”  
He might have wanted to become an actor a long time ago. But he probably got caught up in the raging sea that is reality, his dreams destroyed, until he was carried along and until he then ruined himself by becoming a spy for a suspicious organization. This is what Kaname imagined, and without realizing it, she was looking at him with sympathy in her eyes.  
“If I said something insensitive, I apologize. That wasn’t my intention...”  
“...what, are you imagining something really rude?”  
“No. Humans just have to go through a lot in order to live. So cheer up.”  
“That’s a strange way to lie...”  
“But even this kind of job could make you a really good actor, too.”  
“That’s why I have no interest in acting...!”  
This was the state of Kaname and Wraith’s relationship recently. Somehow, she had a talent for upsetting the pace of all kinds of people like mercenaries or spies.  
When she had something she wanted to know, or just some free time on her hands, Kaname would often call Wraith. Naturally, he and Sousuke had never had met in person. Due to Wraith’s obstinate claims, it was decided that she was not to call him when Sousuke was with her. Kaname could vaguely guess from the way each of them spoke that Wraith, who was from the Intelligence 
Department, and Sousuke, who was from the Operations Department, did not get along at all.  
“So, did you look into it?” Kaname said, getting down to business.  
“...more or less. But since it’s the Department of Operation’s plans, I can’t be positive. Concerning the squadron of the Tuatha de Danaan, there are no plans for any special military operations around Christmas. It seems they are planning a banquet, though.”  
“Hmmm... I see,” Kaname’s face fell all of the sudden.  
She had thought that Sousuke wasn’t coming on the cruise because he had a mission for Mithril.  
But it seemed that wasn’t it.  
He cancelled going on the special field trip to go to his squadron’s party or something, since there he had friends whom he trusted with his life- as well as that girl.  
She wished she had confronted Sousuke directly about it- but when she got nervous about having that kind of relationship, she couldn’t bring herself to ask.  
“What kind of party is it, I wonder...”  
“Like I would know. Are you worried about the field trip?”  
“You checked that out, too, right?”  
“I did. According to our analysis, there doesn’t seem to be any problems with the ship. Its background check also came out clean. But there’s no guarantee that an enemy like the ones in Shun On won’t get their hands on it.”  
“You mean a sea-jacking?”  
“Yes. However, the possibility of that happening is extremely low. Even enemy organizations realize the awesome mobility, power and strength of the TDD’s squadron. They 
probably wouldn’t use such a strategy in order to kidnap you. However, that alone is...”  
Wraith hesitated.  
“That alone is... what?”  
“Nothing. I just meant that the danger of you getting attacked any other day is higher.”  
“But no enemies will come. They should just let you move around freely and watch you. If they get worried, they might have the confidence to get rid of either me or Uruz 7 and take you away.”  
“’re pretty calm about it.”  
“I’m only stating the truth.”  
“But aren’t you guys just letting me move around at will, too?”  
Wraith always clammed up whenever she touched upon this subject.  
Trying to suppress her feelings of anxiety, Kaname’s voice became sharp.  
“If you ask me, you people at the Intelligence Department and the ‘enemy’ both smell fishy to me. Setting aside Sousuke and Tessa, I don’t get what the higher-ups at the Operations Department are thinking, either.”  
“I can understand your misgivings but, Kaname Chidori, I want you to accept my sincerity just a little. If they discovered that I was contacting you in person, I would be in a lot of trouble with my superiors.”  
“Thank you for that. Come to my place next time, and I’ll make you something to show my appreciation. What kind of dishes do you like?”  
“I really like Chige-nabe*5, no I don’t! Did you really get what I was talking about just now!?”  
“Yes, yes. Don’t call you out whenever, right? I get it.”  
“For heaven’s sake...” Wraith sighed. He turned his back to Kaname and started to leave, but then he stopped and said, “Anyway, be careful on the trip. I’ll be undercover as one of the guests to make sure.”  
“I see. Keep up the good work.”  
She wondered what he would be disguised as.  
Kaname watched Wraith’s back as he left the shop.  
She imagined a cruise without Sousuke.  
Mithril is more important, she thought. Feeling depressed and without buying anything, Kaname left the store.  
Outside the air was cold, and she could see her breath.  
It was the season where the sun only shone for a short part of the day; but even though the sky was pitch black, the shopping district was very alive. Christmas songs were playing, people were talking, and the sound of laughter could be heard everywhere.  
Standing in front of an old shoe store diagonal from the shop Kaname came out of was Sousuke.  
Crossing through the hustle and bustle, he made his way towards Kaname. Before she wondered if he had seen her meeting with Wraith, she hoped he might have come to say “I’ve decided to go on the cruise”.  
But despite those feelings, she ended up saying “What are you doing here?” in a curt voice.  
“I was waiting for you to come out. I saw a suspicious man go in and come out of the store, but- I guess nothing happened,” Sousuke replied.  
“N-not like something would. So put the gun away already.”  
Sousuke then put the automatic pistol he was hiding behind his briefcase back in the holster under his jacket.  
It seemed that Sousuke hadn’t noticed Wraith after all. Or he might have some suspicion.  
Of course, that didn’t make Sousuke an idiot. Wraith’s skills at disguise were top notch. Kaname kept arguing him down lately, but it seemed that he was an excellent agent. If he slipped into a crowd of people, Wraith truly became an “invisible” presence. It seemed that even Sousuke, who was well attuned for sensing murderous intent, didn’t pick up on anything coming from him.  
Kaname walked along with Sousuke following behind her.  
“You’re not hiding something from me, are you?”  
“Ever since we came back from Hong Kong, sometimes it seems you are- no, it’s probably just my imagination.”  
It seemed that Sousuke wasn’t sure, but he could somehow feel that there were some things she wasn’t telling him- her meetings with Wraith for the past two months while he was gone- as well as that boy named Leonard.  
She was thinking of telling him about Wraith when she got the chance. She had been half-serious in her joke about making dinner. She had the mind to make Wraith and Sousuke sit down together and treat them to dinner. Since Wraith really didn’t seem like such a bad guy, she thought that it would be good to have him reach a compromise with Sousuke.  
But she couldn’t tell him about Leonard.  
She told him that she had been chased by an assassin over the hotel rooftops, and that another “person” dealt with the assassin. She also told him about the robots she had seen. However, the conversation she had with that “person”, and well as what he did- she just couldn’t bring herself to tell him about those.  
So far, Sousuke also had never pursued the subject. But today was the first time he had asked about it. He probably felt some uneasiness because of the near miss with Wraith earlier.  
“You think I’m hiding something?”  
“No... I wouldn’t go so far as to say ‘hiding’. Is there something bothering you?”  
“No. Besides, aren’t you the one hiding something?”  
Kaname couldn’t stop the sharpness in her voice.  
“About Christmas. Why are you skipping out on the special school trip?”  
“There’s an operation.”  
Another lie, Kaname thought.  
Even though it was just a party for Mithril. Was it so he could make a ruckus with everyone and get friendly with that girl? She hadn’t thought he was the type of man to tell such a lie. She couldn’t remember him pulling such a dirty trick in the eight months since he had come to Japan.  
“I see. An operation, huh? Operation, operation, operation... or better yet, why don’t you just get married to ‘Miss Operation’?”  
“I don’t really understand what you mean. If there’s something you want to say, could you be a little more specific?”  
“Are you serious!?” Kaname said, glaring at Sousuke. “You’re always, always... if you think you can pull one over on me by pretending to be clueless, you have another thing coming! Because I’ve got the proof!”  
“Huh? I don’t know what you mean... anyway, concerning that subject, there’s something I want to go ahead and tell you-”  
“Ah, just shut up! I don’t wanna hear it!”  
“Don’t hang around me. You’re annoying!”  
“I always am! Why are you-”  
“I said I didn’t want to talk about it!” she said sharply, and with large strides, Kaname left Sousuke and passed through the crowd.  
That night, as usual, Kaname was of course regretting her speech and conduct earlier. However, no matter how many times she tried repeating the exchange over in her head, she couldn’t stop being angry.  
Why do I...with that kind of guy- she thought.  
From there, her usual thoughts stopped. Normally, she would simply think of his strong points and charms- but they disappeared, and her head filled with negative thoughts.  
How come he, without a shred of consideration, makes me feel stupid, and always acts like he’s sincere by acting oblivious? Come to think of it, when you really, really think about it, isn’t lacking that much common sense a little strange? Hasn’t he just pretended to be that kind of character all along? If he has, then he’s just a huge jerk! The worst kind of scumbag! And for just a moment, I felt bad for letting him have it. I’m so glad that I didn’t tell him how I felt. All men are liars, anyway, jerks that’ll tell one lie after another just to preserve their own reputations. You can’t trust them at all, they’re the lowest form of life on Earth.  
I definitely, DEFINITELY won’t hang around with a guy. Especially HIM!  
Sousuke, I hate you!  
For several days following, Kaname barely talked to Sousuke at all. There were many times when Sousuke reluctantly 
tried talking to her, but Kaname wouldn’t even give him the time of day.  
He sent a message to her phone, but she deleted it without even looking at it. When he asked her, “Did you get my message?” at school, she replied, “Yeah, yeah, I got it. So don’t talk to me, okay?” and drove him off.  
They had fought like this many times before, but-  
This time, there ended up being a small mix-up because of it.  
Translator’s Notes:   
1. Due to my total lack of ability to describe this, I’ve just simplified it for reading. The author says that Kaname used a “ketaguri” move on Sousuke. In the sport of Sumo, ketaguri is a move in which the attacker leaps to the side and sweeps his opponent’s lead leg from the inside while slapping the shoulder to pull the arm closest to him.   
2. That’s 46 miles per hour :)   
3. Since we’re unsure of Gauron’s exact meaning, this could simply just be a word that sounds similar to what Gauron said.   
4. Mount Osore is a mountain in Japan believed to be a place where the world of the living meets the world of the dead.  
5. Chige-nabe is a Korean dish of hot soup containing boiled vegetables and fish with red pepper and seasoning.  

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