Chapter 4: Damage Assessment
Inside the violently shaking cockpit, the voices of Mao and the AI, as well as the sounds of numerous alarms, were flying around in disarray.
<Damage report. Class B damage to right thigh area. Activated ADC (Automated Damage Control System) and AML (Active Motion Limitation System)>
<Roger. AML off. Waiving protection of the damaged area>
“How much longer will it last?”
<Question. The specific area has->
“I meant the damaged area.”
<Estimated between 45 and 160 seconds. Recommend immediate suspension of battle maneuvers>
“There’s no time.”
The 30mm bullets that the enemy had shot into the right leg of Mao’s AS had damaged the muscle package of the thigh and part of the shock absorption system. The muscle package, just as the name implied, was the muscles of the AS. With conductive shape memory plastic twisted into coils of fiber, the joints could be maneuvered with the flexibility of the human body.
The “muscle” of the right leg was starting to tear due to the damage and the load it had to carry. The micro fibers were being torn off one by one, and eventually the entire thing would fracture all at once. If that happened, this machine wouldn’t even be able to walk in front of the enemy. The bundle of muscle that the right femur was gradually losing- this was Mao’s only lifeline right now.
The machine’s AI was suggesting prioritizing protecting the damaged area, but Mao turned it down. Other than abusing the almost-broken right femur, there was no other way of hiding from the enemy’s attacks.
<I recommend immediate withdrawal from the battle area>
“Run away? Hah, where in the world would I go-”
<Missile alert. Four o’clock, distance four, three missiles>
A remarkably loud alarm rang out. Three smokeless missiles were approaching from Behemoth A, which was nearing the beach.
The M9 stopped suddenly from a full-out sprint, throwing up a cloud of earth and dust as it skidded across the scorched earth on its left foot. There was a violent impact. She felt as if her internal organs were about to rush out of her body. The missiles altered their course a little; they were headed straight for the M9’s head. She fired the head-mounted machine gun at full-auto.
Because they were caseless rounds, there wasn’t a cartridge. She issued forth a barrage of depleted uranium bullets. One missile blew up. The seeker portion of another missile was blown off, and it lost its guidance system.
The last missile had made it that far, so she had no choice but to evade. After a sharp step to the right, the machine, using all of its power, jumped in the opposite direction. The damaged right leg gave out a scream as it was further burdened. The missile barely damaged Mao’s machine as it hit the surface.
The duration of the flight was short. Mao’s M9 plunged into smoke, tracing a low parabola, and leapt towards the burning jungle. She wanted to land on her legs, but she was worried about the damaged area. Twisting the AS, she landed by rolling forward on the left arm. The 10-ton machine mowed down all kinds of trees
as it rolled over, and Mao blacked out from the merciless shock and gyration.
But there wasn’t any time to rest. The same alarm hit her ears again.
<Missile alert. Eleven o’clock. Distance three, three missiles>
Three more missiles were approaching. And Behemoth A was also firing its machine gun.
And the crisis continues. Behemoth fires three missiles. The violent shock runs at Mao's machine.
It wasn’t even giving her any time to stop and attack. She jumped up as she rolled along the ground, setting off again, exchanging fire with the enemy. The “muscles” in the right thigh, despite the fact that they were already tearing, had gone strange. She left the irregular, random maneuvers to the computer. It was a flat contest between it and the enemy’s motion prediction
programs. It kept after the running M9, barraging the AS’s surroundings with countless shells.
The three missiles drew nearer. She attacked as she ran, which messed up her alignment, and she barely managed to destroy one of them. While her ECS was functioning at its highest capacity, she jumped back. The veil of pale light left a trail. She changed the electromagnetic camouflage system to stealth, and the two remaining missiles lost their target.
The missiles exploded. It was a narrow escape. Looking as if it were falling on its backside, Mao’s M9 sank down to the earth.
But the crisis wasn’t over. Behemoth A was aiming at her even now. If she didn’t move soon, she would end up like a beehive. She got up using the jackknife maneuver, and tried to jump yet again.
But she couldn’t. Her AS didn’t have the power.
Using the power-hungry ECS and performing battle maneuvers at the same time had momentarily emptied the condenser power. It would need ten seconds to charge back up.
Also, the muscle package in the right thigh had finally broken. She could no longer even stand up.
She cursed as she crawled. Mao’s cornered M9 could only move away on its back through the mud.
She had nothing left. She had used up all of the weapons she could control remotely by using the ITCC-5. Now that the Behemoth had reached land, the self-propulsion mines were useless. The land mines buried along the beach had long ago been blown up by the persistent bombing.
Raising the only weapon she had left- a 40mm rifle, over her head, she shot on full auto. It was no good. It just wasn’t effective. Everything was deflected.
The giant Behemoth loomed closer like a mountain.
The enormous silhouette blotted out the sky. Its armor was dripping large amounts of ocean water. It was an overwhelming, completely overwhelming, violent image.
The Behemoth pointed its huge gun at Mao’s machine, and was soon dissuaded. It probably perceived it as a waste of ammunition. It calmly proceeded on without change, raising its right foot over the struggling M9.
It was planning to crush the M9 all at once. Slaughter the AS like a human soldier.
This is it, huh? Shit.
Facing a hopeless death, Mao was curiously relieved to find awakening within her more chagrin than dread, more of an inexhaustible fighting spirit than desperation. She was proud that she didn’t let out a shameful scream of terror. The life she had led from the Marines to her current one as a soldier wasn’t a waste- so she believed. At the very least, she thought, I wasn’t the kind of “girl” the guys would laugh at behind my back. I was able to prove it.
Viscid mud and ocean water rained down incessantly from the sole of the foot, which was almost the size of a tennis court, all over Mao’s M9. She couldn’t see the sky at all. There was no escape. Just the sole of the enemy’s foot, which had now become an enormous press machine, was all that filled her vision.
In a moment, the M9’s armor would be crushed, flattening the cockpit, turning the pilot into mush. Would there even be time to feel any pain-
She shut her eyes tight, but the moment she prepared for never came.
Her AS was being carried by another M9, riding fast across the ground. She soon understood. It was Lieutenant Castero’s AS. He had rescued her machine at the last moment from the Behemoth’s foot, which had been coming down like a hammer. At the same time, shots had been fired in the vicinity of the Behemoth’s head, and had scattered in all directions. It was Kurz’s AS sniping at it. It couldn’t see where he was shooting from.
Kurz and the rest of them had taken care of one Behemoth, and had somehow come to her rescue-
“Are you alive, Mao?” Castero’s voice rang out over the radio. His M9, which was reflected on her screen, was in terrible shape. The head was half-destroyed, the shoulder armor had been blown off, and the left arm was missing below the wrist. Their speed of movement was discouraging, due to him carrying Mao’s mostly immobile M9.
“No Lieutenant, any second now-”
Despite Kurz’s support, the angry Behemoth started to spray them with its machine gun. He took evasive maneuvers, but couldn’t avoid it. A number of 30mm bullets scored direct hits, knocking off pieces of armor plating. Castero’s AS lost its balance, and the two machines tangled up as they went tumbling.
Kurz persistently fired as Behemoth A moved in for the kill. He was far from mortally wounding it, but to the enemy, it was probably a fairly annoying attack. The Behemoth let out a roar, and pointed the howitzer it was holding at Kurz.
The barrel of that huge gun-
The bullets fired from Kurz’s gun plunged into it.
It was a miraculous shot, exactly like threading a needle. Sparks flew. The barrel warped, the shell deep within the mechanism detonated, and there was a large explosion in the Behemoth’s hand. It staggered around, dropping the gun. Numerous trees were crushed as the howitzer landed on the ground of Merida Island, along with a thunderous crash.
“Heh, I got ‘em again. Damn simpletons...” Kurz said, his voice full of contempt.
But despite being deprived of its main weapon, Behemoth A still had a very powerful machine gun. Kurz was at his limit for covering the others.
Castero’s machine could still move, so using all of his power, he tossed Mao’s AS behind a nearby rock, then jumped away as soon as he turned around.
“I’ll lure him off. Abandon your unit and run to the base.”
“Don’t do it or-”
“That’s an order, Lieutenant!”*1
And without leaving any room for argument, Castero’s battered AS went to face the Behemoth alone.
♦ ♦ ♦
They should have assigned us to our enemies the other way around-
Clouseau gritted his teeth as he moved his M9 left and right in his attempt to draw in Behemoth C. This rocky area had considerably more places to hide than the area on the north coast where Mao had fought. His machine still had power, ammunition, and he still had the ability to think.
He was fit to give aid to Mao and the others, but he would be no help. He had his hands full with this enemy, who was
noticing that Clouseau was by himself. The bluff was almost at an end.
Far off in the distance, he could see ten-odd large enemy helicopters landing one by one on the western shore of the island. Now that the defense systems were destroyed, there was no chance of stopping them.
Clouseau adjusted his grip on his controller.
“Move ZA-3 into parallel position. Fire-at-will at Behemoth C.”
An unmanned M6 waiting on standby in a rocky area 800 meters away- his last one, began firing super-high speed missiles at the Behemoth. The enemy’s attention was diverted, and
Clouseau’s M9, Falke, quickly jumped from its hiding place, firing its rifle as it ran at full speed.
He then received a transmission from Lieutenant Commander Kalinin at the command center.
“This is Headquarters to Uruz 1. About how much longer can you distract Behemoth C?”
“Five minutes at the most.”
“...Understood. When you can no longer hold him off, return to base. There is hand-to-hand combat going through the cellars.”
“They might use BC weapons.”
If they pumped chemical weapons like Sarin or Tabun into the underground base, they would have no trouble gaining total control of all of the officers. This enemy hadn’t shown any compassion for humanity with anything they had done up to now.
“I know. If they take away the air-conditioning facilities in area C3, it’s all over. We are gathering all of our fighting potential. Concentrate on your opponent for now.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Destroyed. Shot down. Emergency landing. Serious damage. Fires breaking out. Minor injuries. Serious injuries. Critical condition. Dead. MIA. Contact impossible.
Tessa, as the commanding officer, was carpet bombed by such reports as these. Whenever she received a report, she would give instructions without any change in expression, then rearrange everything around in her head.
Even when she heard that Spake was dead, she quickly assessed the loss of “one M9” and “one skilled pilot”, revised the fighting power they still had, then, based on that, reworked the situation and counter-measures she expected from then on.
That was really all she thought about when it came to his death.
The much bigger loss that went along with that, though- his spiteful talk, cynical smiling face, the way he had been standing to attention with all his heart in the end- the reality that he wouldn’t be coming back again was something that she kept completely locked from her face.
“Captain-” Kalinin reported.
The enemy’s landing force had arrived on the island’s west coast ten minutes later than she had anticipated, thanks to the destruction of Behemoth B. Although it was one out of three, it must have been very detrimental to the enemy. Those ten minutes, along with the emotional damage, were very precious resources in the current situation.
It would be another ten minutes before the landing force could penetrate underground; thirty minutes at most if they were
held up by traps. The base’s ground troops could put up a good fight, but how long could they hold out? And how much loss would come of it?
“Captain-” reported Mardukas, who was supervising the maintenance in the underground dock.
He said that it would be two and a half hours until the attack submarine Tuatha De Danaan would be completely ready to put out to sea.
The biggest problem was the reloading work on the palladium reactor’s fuel pellet, which was the power source of the ship. It was possible to give up on this, but- if they did leave without finishing, the ship would only last a few weeks until it would no longer be able to move. If they got caught in a bad situation, then it might be even less. The palladium reactor was different from the usual nuclear reactors used in warships, which could operate without supplies for more than ten years, in that it had “run out of fuel”. If they completed the reloading work that was taking place right now, the de Danaan would be able to stay submerged for up to eight months (if you left out the food for the crew, that is).
But the palladium reactor wasn’t the only problem. If they went out to sea without completing repairs to the compressors which controlled the compressed air essential to the ship’s controls, they would make potentially lethal noise under certain conditions. And there was still about a 40 percent chance of loading all sorts of supplies, including food.
It would be two and a half hours until the de Danaan was at least in proper condition.
That’s what Mardukas was telling her. If they finished normal operations, they definitely wouldn’t be able to shorten it anymore than that.
Two and a half hours.
Could they hold out that long?
Drowning men have no time to worry about the coast they crawl up on. She quickly gave Mardukas instructions.
“Stop reloading the reactor, and stop repairs on the compressor. Transfer the remaining crew to inspecting for water leaks.”
“...so that’s all we can do. Understood.”
There was a bitter edge in Mardukas’ voice over the phone, but it didn’t seem that he had any objections.
Probably overhearing the orders Tessa had given, Kalinin looked at her.
“We won’t last that long, will we? For two and a half hours, I mean.”
Kalinin was silent for a moment, then said “Unfortunately, no.”
It was strange.
Most people probably wouldn’t have noticed, but Kalinin was acting differently than usual today. It wasn’t that his orders or directions were strange. No matter how you looked at it, his command was nothing more than quick and accurate.
But something wasn’t right.
Was it shock?
It might be. But a veteran officer formerly of the Russian Special Forces like him had probably passed through many scenes of even more horrific carnage. The situation right now was also pretty horrific, but she didn’t believe that was the reason he was disturbed. This man, someone who had been schooled in adversity, was possessed of a cool-head as well as a steel will that separated
him from ordinary people- he especially shouldn’t have been upset at a time like this.
When Tessa looked at him, he appeared to be-
Yes, hesitant. For Kalinin, there appeared to be something, an even bigger dilemma, an even bigger proposition that was weighing on his mind. Something beyond even the problems currently confronting this base.
It was as if he were watching something in the distant past, while staring into an ashen future at the same time.
“Excuse me, Captain. We must do what we can, but-”
Just then, they received a communication from Kurz, who was in the middle of battle.
“Uruz 6 to Headquarters. I’m currently fighting Behemoth A-” There was no trace of the energy or vitality that was usually in his voice. “Behemoth A’s main weapons are just about useless. The Howitzer’s been destroyed, and it seems the Avenger*2 is just about out. As for other missiles and stuff, as far as I can confirm, there doesn’t seem to be any left. However...”
This should have been good news, but his voice sounded stricken and destitute. Before they could ask why, Kurz said, “However, Uruz 3 was destroyed. That old fart Castero is dead. He took a lot of 30mm bullets from point-blank range, and was smashed to pieces in the hands of the Behemoth. I can confirm it.”
“...Headquarters, roger that. Good work, and return to base,” Kalinin said.
“No. I can see the enemy landing party. I don’t have much ammunition left, but- after I’ve stopped them the best I can, I’ll return to base.”
“That won’t be necessary. Hurry back.”
“Thank you, Tessa. But, well, I want to try and hold out a little longer. If I don’t, then...”
Kurz gave a sigh over the radio.
“If I don’t, then I won’t be able to face them, you see? I also don’t know what’s happened to Mao, so... well, take care.”
And before Tessa could stop him, Kurz cut the transmission.
♦ ♦ ♦
A helicopter traversed the chilly Tokyo skies.
The information captured by the Arbalest’s dual sensors showed that the helicopter belonged to the police department. Four kilometers west there was a helicopter belonging to a newspaper. He could hear the sirens of police cars in the distance. Also- infrared sensors, which could see long distances that couldn’t be seen with the naked eye, told him that transport helicopters carrying the ASes of the ground self-defense forces were on standby while they flew their normal routes.
Right now western Tokyo was in a grand scale panic, shaken by unidentified fighting.
Everything was because of the mess he and the enemy had created. But the city appeared to be carefree despite all of this. It was different from Kabul or Beirut. Most people, despite their anxiety, were going on with life as usual.
But that wasn’t right. That wasn’t it.
The school was different.
Sousuke piloted the Arbalest, jumping from building to building, cautiously taking a route that led to Jindai High School. Even more than before, he had no intention of giving up this machine.
He moved the Arbalest to the closed factory in Sengawa at eleven o’clock, then put in on standby with the hatch open-
That was the agreement he had made with the enemy over the phone, but Sousuke had no intention of honoring his promise. The other side probably wouldn’t, either. They probably would use every means available to be sure to overpower him. Torture, drugs, lie detectors. After that, who knew what.
What Sousuke had gained with that agreement was time.
He had at least been able to stop the enemy’s reckless violence until eleven o’clock. That much was very important. Of course, they were probably aware of that, too. It wasn’t a sense of honor keeping them from pressing the button to blow everything up. They wanted the time to make preparations to seize that one person. Now that the police and media were all over the place, it had become even harder to move around than before. Sousuke had the power to take out two or three patrol cars, but not enough to take out fifty.
He had to quickly give up on the idea of having the Arbalest try to find the bombs. When he had tried some reconnaissance from a distance, just as Kaname had bitterly remarked, it seemed the enemy had cast a heavy net. Optical sensors, infrared sensors, ultra-broadband radars. And of course, human surveillance.
Even though he was using ECS, if Sousuke had come near, he would have been detected.
He couldn’t use the Arbalest to find the bombs.
After he had moved to the roof of an office building one kilometer north of the school and carefully scanned his surroundings with the passive sensors, Sousuke said, “Al.”
“If you were on full autopilot mode, what’s the shortest amount of time it would take you to get from here to Jindai High School?”
<About 40 seconds>
“And after you had gotten there, how long could you run the anti-aircraft ECM (Electronic Counter Measures) at full-power?”
<This is approximating depending on the situation, but around 150 seconds>
After Sousuke did some simple calculations in his head, he pressed the button to open the cockpit hatch. He took a submachine gun, handheld radio, and digital map from the rack on the other side, then nimbly got out of the AS.
“Maintain ECS. Keep watch on standby in Mode 4. Come as soon as I call you. The coordinates are-”
He read off the display of the digital map, denoting coordinates and several establishments.
<Roger. Closing hatch>
The Arbalest’s chest area slid, and the hatch closed with a “clang”. When Sousuke started to turn his back on the still transparent machine and make his way toward the roof’s exit, Al called after him.
“What is it?”
<Please don’t leave me here like this>
Sousuke raised an eyebrow at Al’s strange words.
“I said ‘I’ll call you later’, didn’t I? I’m not leaving you. You’re on standby.”
“Why did you say such a thing?”
<Because I have a feeling>
<A feeling that we will be parted>
♦ ♦ ♦
Mao, who had abandoned her machine and escaped carrying a submachine gun in one hand as she ran through the burning jungle, knew nothing of the loss of her ally.
Her entire body was soaking wet, as well as caked in mud.
But she ran. Somehow she would make it to the base. That was the only thing she could do right now.
Although it was a solitary island in the distant seas, Merida Island was quite vast, about as wide as the heart of Tokyo. And there was little terrain that an injured pilot could pass through unhindered.
She jumped over the roots of a huge tree, then plunged into a small river. Choking on the thick smoke, she plowed through the muddy water.
Overhead there were the sounds of jet helicopters. They were not the Pave Mares of her allies. They were transport helicopters; more than likely, it was the sound of Super Stallions.
Were they looking for her?
No, they weren’t. The enemy’s objective was to take control of the base. They didn’t have the time to worry about a single person like her. She climbed up the bank of the river, cut through the grass, and trying to brush aside ivy that wrapped around her, tried to aim for southeast.
But she didn’t even know that direction. It was a pitiful thing, but she couldn’t get her bearings without a compass in this jungle, which was almost like a backyard to her.
And there was also this bushfire.
It was hard to breathe. Her entire body hurt. If she encountered the enemy in this state, she would die.
Spraining her knee had become a habit ever since she injured it long ago- and escaping from the damaged AS earlier had done it again. Every step she took was torture.
Where’s the base? I need ammunition.
I can still fight.
In a daze, she stumbled along an animal trail, where she met a white tiger.
It had a very supple body. The design was beautiful, as if it had been drawn with India ink on rice paper, without leaving a single spot or stain. The figure floated there dimly from across the smoke-filled forest.
Is this a hallucination?
She thought as she rubbed her eyes. But when she did, the tiger jumped easily, disappearing into the windward direction. The retreating figure seemed to be saying “Follow me” to Mao.
She gritted her teeth, and clinging to the nearby brush, set off after the phantom.
♦ ♦ ♦
He would probably not be able to get close until the last moment.
However, it would be almost impossible to sneak into the school under the strict surveillance by the enemy. Maybe if it were
before or after school, but right now everyone was in class. A person approaching the hushed school building would be conspicuous to anyone.
So trying that step was out.
So, how would he find all of the explosives that the enemy had hidden? Bombs arranged here and there all over the school. There were a number of valid locations. He didn’t know how many in all, or how to accurately find them.
And it wasn’t as if there was such a way to do it in the first place.
No matter how much time he had, he would only be able to disable one bomb by himself.
He wouldn’t be able to dismantle all of them at once.
Sousuke, who had made it to the corner of the shopping district several hundred meters from the school, ran to a telephone booth. He opened Kaname’s cell phone, found the appropriate number in her address book, then quickly dialed it on the pay phone.
“The number you have dialed is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later.”
That’s right. They were in the middle of class over there. Even so, Sousuke tried again.
“The number you have dialed is temporarily-”
It was the same. He hung up and tried again. The electronic voice patiently repeated its message. The tone of it was almost irritating.
“The number you have dialed is-”
Finally, he had reached him. It was the calm, deep voice of a man.
“Sir, I have a favor to ask,” Sousuke said without any sort of greeting, and after just a short moment, the other person- Hayashimizu, said, “There’s trouble, isn’t there?”
“Understood. What do you want me to do?” he replied without asking for details of any kind. Sousuke swallowed once, then explained what he wanted.
“That’s a lot to ask. I could get suspended.”
“It’s okay, I was just joking. I’d be glad to.”
“It’s not a problem. But-”
Hayashimizu gave a small sigh.
“-this means goodbye, doesn’t it?”
“...more than likely.”
“I see. Take care, then. ...I enjoyed these past ten months with you. I really did.”
“So did I. It was fun.”
“Please go ahead and tell her to take care for me. And that I will help in any way I can.”
He hung up, leaving the monotonous sound of the dial tone ringing in the receiver.
♦ ♦ ♦
That man- Kurama, didn’t find any considerable meaning or significance in blowing up one ordinary school.
He was a large man. He had short-cropped hair, grey stubble, and was wearing small, round glasses.
Kurama was a mercenary. He wasn’t particular about battle tactics, but that didn’t mean he went in for easy-going cruelty, or swung the other way towards humanism.
He would do anything that needed to be done.
That was all.
And Kurama’s experience, along with his own feelings, said unanimously:
There’s no need for mercy. Blow it up.
Dealing with vague correspondence was, in and of itself, inviting trouble later on. Any kind of word could function as an agreement. Beyond intimidation, if you couldn’t practice it, there was no point.
But that wasn’t all. For Kurama, who had lost a number of his subordinates due to Sousuke’s resistance, there was a right to retribution. No- at the very least, that’s what he himself thought.
After considering everything like that...
Kurama felt no concern at all with pushing to button to blow it up.
That was fine.
That man should suffer more.
That was the extent of Kurama’s feelings.
“Has the white AS shown up?” he asked one of his subordinates, who was waiting at the closed factory, over the radio. The man gave a little groan.
“No, not yet.”
He quietly took the safety off of the detonator switch he held in his hand. Once they received the electromagnetic waves that corresponded to the code oscillating from this device, the bombs hidden in eight areas around the school would blow up at the same time.
Just a push of the thumb. Then it would be finished.
After that, he didn’t know.
Fight, kill. Just like always. There was no hesitation.
Just then, a member of the surveillance team entered. “The fire alarms are going off in the school,” he said.
That was probably Sousuke Sagara’s handiwork. He had recruited someone inside the school to sound the alarm.
But- if he did, how could this kind of evacuation be useful? How long did he think that more than a thousand high school students, who only practiced fire drills once a year, would take until they were completely evacuated from the building? Even though this was the only switch.
A microphone stopped the commotion. Shrill bells reverberated throughout the area. Then there was a broadcast inside the school, to further pound the issue.
“Testing, testing. This is the student council,” the person said in a calm voice. “A serious situation has broken out in the north school building. The current student council aide- yes, just as you thought, him- some chemical weapons that he had brought with him have leaked due to an unfortunate accident. Please evacuate to the schoolyard within 100 seconds. If you are even a little bit late, you will die. Please hurry.”
Chemical weapons? That was ridiculous. A story like that wouldn’t work in a normal high school, would it? Saying “There’s a fire” would be much more rational.
Sousuke Sagara. Was this your strategy?
Kurama redoubled his grip on the detonator switch along with his disappointment. The indecision had probably lasted about five seconds. After a small sigh, he pressed the button. The bombs should have blown up immediately.
But they didn’t.
Two times, three times. There was no response.
It was because the wireless signal that should have reached the bombs did not.
Meanwhile, the students continued the evacuation, and not at a normal speed. It was a mad dash like there was no tomorrow. Every one of the students he could see from his binoculars had a look of desperation. This was strange.
“What’s going on!?”
“There’s an extremely powerful electromagnetic disturbance coming from point D.”
The surveillance point up on the roof of an apartment building in the north side was watching for the AS’s approach. That white AS, outrageously, was kneeling there. It had cancelled its ECS, exposing its magnificent figure. Why hadn’t the guards- although, they had probably been overpowered by now- noticed the AS approaching?
No, that could wait. That white AS had suspended its ECS, and was pouring all of its power into creating the electromagnetic disturbance. It shouldn’t be able to hold out for long, though. Probably two minutes at the most.
“Attack immediately,” Kurama ordered his subordinate. “That AS shouldn’t be able to move at all right now.”
♦ ♦ ♦
One man and one machine to protect 1200 people.
The last operation that Sousuke faced here in Tokyo, more than likely, was going to be the most difficult.
After he left the Arbalest, Sousuke snuck into the enemy’s observation point and quietly subdued the three men there watching for the AS’s approach. He stopped the surveillance
equipment, making a hole in the network, then summoned for the Arbalest to come, on autopilot, to the blind spot. Even though it was unmanned, “Al” was successful in quickly guiding the AS there.
Sousuke left the observation point on the apartment building like that, and just managed to sneak towards the school. The Arbalest waited there, the outpost now under their control.
Sousuke waited until the agreed-upon time, then put his plan into action.
The Arbalest created an electromagnetic disturbance at full power as Sousuke hurried inside the school building. His accomplice in the school- Atsunobu Hayashimizu, had already informed the school to evacuate ahead of time.
The amount of time the Arbalest could keep up the interference at full power was limited.
Only two or three minutes at the most. There was probably no school that could completely evacuate in such a short amount of time.
But this school was different.
Because it was possibly the only school in Japan that could.
That was the one flaw in the attacker’s plan. The fact was that life had become like this for the past ten months without Sousuke’s realization, almost like a joke. It was the kind of panic like in a fairy tale when they say, “The wolf is coming”. But even then, reassuring friends like Hayashimizu had tried to help. Everyone- everyone in the school was desperately evacuating like they were supposed to, scrambling over each other.
Are the things I do that frightening...?
He thought calmly, but nevertheless was thankful for it.
If everyone could manage to take refuge in the schoolyard, then all of the students would be okay even if a bomb went off.
If he left out one person.
In order to save that one person, Sousuke ran as fast as he could.
He didn’t have much time.
And even that time was critical.
The electromagnetic interference equipment loaded into the Arbalest and other M9s was the complete opposite of the stealth equipment like the ECS. Crossing broadband and transmitting powerful electromagnetic waves, it jammed things such as enemy radar detection and communications. In other words, it was like something that blared a loud siren from a speaker, drowning out any conversations or footsteps.
But it was rare that Sousuke and the others used this function. Why?
Because it would have clearly given away their position to the enemy. It was like shining a searchlight in the dark. Although they were doing it to interfere with the detonation signal for the bombs hidden in the school, it was almost an act of suicide for the Arbalest.
The emotionless voice of a man resounded throughout the area around Jindai High School.
“Warning. Heavily armed infantry, twelve. Range, one, vectors 3-0-5, 2-2-7, 1-6-4.”
It was the Arbalest reporting over its external speakers on high volume from the roof of apartment building north of the school. Sousuke had already left that building, and was running up the emergency staircase on the backside of the north school building. Right now, because of the broadband electro-magnetic interference, even Sousuke and the Arbalest couldn’t use radio communication. Since Al was using technical terminology in English, most of the residents and students wouldn’t be able to
understand it, but the enemy was different. Nevertheless, Sousuke needed to know the situation.
The enemy was approaching the Arbalest. They knew that it couldn’t move.
I have to hurry...
He was guessing the location where Kyouko was being held. When it came to all sorts of things about the school, Sousuke knew more about it than any other student. Places that no students or personnel came near at this time of day were the water supply compartment on the roof and the basement under the gymnasium. It would be difficult for electromagnetic waves to reach the basement, so that left the water supply.
He had 100 seconds left at most.
Carefully aiming his submachine gun in front of him, he went out onto the roof of the school building. He didn’t see any enemies. He ignited a smoke bomb, then cut across the roof in order to minimize the risk of being sniped. The eastern quarter section of space was partitioned off by a fence for the water tank. He finally arrived at the fence. He shattered the cheap padlock on the lattice door with the butt of his gun.
Inside the fence, tied to the steel frame support of the storage tank, was Kyouko Tokiwa.
She had her hands cuffed behind her back, a gag in her mouth, and over her clothes- a pound of explosives were tied around her stomach.
Her pale face was exhausted, worn-out by fear. Her pretty eyes stared out from her glasses, red and bloodshot, her tears run dry. When she realized that it was Sousuke who had appeared, she gave cry of desperation.
He started to come closer, then stopped when he noticed multiple motion laser sensors.
There wasn’t time to disable them. He prudently stepped over the lasers stuck at knee-height, and somehow managed to make his way near Kyouko.
“I will definitely rescue you. Don’t move.”
He cut the gag with his combat knife, and Kyouko said in a raised voice, “Th-these men I didn’t know... they said they knew Kana...”
“They lied,” he answered, then quickly looked at the bomb strapped to Kyouko.
It was just as he thought. It was not a very complex bomb. He could see that the remote detonating circuit was simple, as well as a few traps. If he cut the wire that was fastened to her waist, it would set off the bomb. If he pulled out the bare fuse- no, that would be impossible. The fuse itself had a sensor attached. It would probably take time to find a way to trick it. Dozens of seconds-
Kyouko said in a tearful voice, “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on... is, is Kana okay?”
“She’s fine. She’s in a safe place-”
There was the sharp sound of an explosion coming from the northern apartment building.
The Arbalest was being attacked. That sound was an RPG- portable rockets used by infantry. The Arbalest’s composite armor should be able to withstand it to a certain extent, but the enemy didn’t just attack once. Two times, three times. The sounds of explosions continued to ring out.
<Currently under attack. ECM functioning. 30 seconds left.>
Al’s voice. Sousuke didn’t know how much damage the Arbalest had taken, because he couldn’t see from his present position. And he still had a job to do. Twenty-five seconds left.
“Sa-Sagara, is that-”
“It’s alright. Shut your eyes.”
It was too late to disable to the detonator. Same with the trap. All he could do now was to deceive the radio equipment that received the signal. He took out his tools and tester, then ran his eyes over the bare circuit. He knew the type. He had learned from Spake, who was also a member of the SRT. He recalled the schematics. Connect the cord and bypass the circuit. There was a chance of blowing it up if he did it badly, but there was no time to choose.
Fifteen seconds left.
It didn’t explode. But there was still more to do. He read the circuit condenser number. He remembered the gauge and capacity. Clipping the tester to the terminal, he uniformly regulated the current. The digital meter shook only a little, then stabilized.
Ten seconds left.
In a rerun of a crime drama he had seen before, there was a scene like “Which one should I cut, the red or the blue...” But that wasn’t right. If there was a fifty-fifty chance, no one would be troubled. The gamble that Sousuke was betting on was much more disadvantageous.
There were sixteen leads coming from the circuit.
Fifteen of those were dummies.
Five seconds left.
He had to read into the peculiarities of the person who made this bomb; into the special qualities of the circuit. The bomb maker was probably not on the same level as Sousuke, skill-wise.
There were peculiar characteristics to the dummy circuit. It was something that only an experienced bomb maker could pick up on. What he disliked, what he hated. A type of rationale, as well as
hobbies and preferences. Where would the “dismantle” line left by the manufacturer be?
That’s right, what would I do?
Sweat ran down the hand which held the nippers.
Three seconds left.
Which one was it?
If it had been him, it would be here.
With a conviction that could almost be called ruthless, he cut one of the wires.
The moment lasted forever.
“ECM stopped. This unit will now-”
The sound of an explosion drowned out Al’s voice. It was the sound of the Arbalest being bombed. It was not the bomb in front of Sousuke.
He was right. He had made it. Al had held out.
He had been able to disable the wireless detonator. Sousuke took a deep breath, then shook his stiff right hand to try to loosen it up.
“Don’t move yet. I’ve only tricked the radio equipment. I’m going to undo the traps now.”
That’s right, it was still too soon to relax. The moment they saw that no other facilities had blown up, the enemy would realize that the explosions themselves would have no meaning. The students, who had been their other hostages, had already completely evacuated.
There was no communication from the Arbalest, which had been under attack. Had it been destroyed, or possibly withdrawn from the battle area-
“I don’t know... what’s going on,” Kyouko said in an indistinct voice.
Not knowing how to answer her, Sousuke simply said quietly, “I’m sorry,” and quickly went back to work.
“That time our plane was hijacked, Kana said that there was this bad guy who had taken her...”
“He’s dead. He’s not here.”
Recalling Gauron on that passenger plane, Sousuke promptly continued his work on the detonator circuit.
“Then, why? Also...”
Her voice was shaking. Then, as if all of the anxiety she had accumulated so far had broken a dam, Kyouko let out a barrage of questions.
“Then someone really is after Kana, aren’t they? That’s how everyone has gotten mixed up in this, isn’t it? Everyone’s suffering because of it, aren’t they? Then why-”
“Chidori’s not to blame.”
“Then why didn’t she say anything to me about it? I knew. I knew that there seemed to be something really worrying her. No matter how many times I said, ‘Tell me about it’, she never would. And I thought we were best friends. Even then...” Kyouko’s chest heaved up and down.
“You know about it. You and she are the only ones that do. Weren’t we all friends?”
A pain gripped his chest like someone had just cut his heart out with a knife.
“I don’t wanna die without knowing anything. But... what about me? Am I just an outsider to you and Kana? I don’t want to be. I can’t stand it. I’m not that nice of a person.”
“The same goes for everyone else. Wasn’t it dangerous? Why didn’t you say anything? What’s been going on? Ever since you came, something strange has been going on. I don’t know what.”
“Who are you?”
“What- what in the world are you?”
Kyouko was always very sweet, but now there was a bitter edge to her words. Yet there wasn’t any spite in her tone or on her face. She was simply complaining. She desperately squeezed the tears out. For someone confronted with a phenomenon and entity so completely foreign that they couldn’t understand it, it was an honest reaction because of too much innocence. It was the cruelest response.
What are you?
Sousuke faltered as his hand stopped putting a clip on the detonator circuit.
“He’s a killer,” said a man’s voice from behind him.
Sousuke wanted to stop and grab his submachine gun, but he couldn’t because of the dismantling work he was doing right now. If he let go, the detonator circuit would activate.
He slowly turned his head.
Three enemies had approached easily next to the water supply tank. They were pointing guns at them. They had probably waited until a time when he couldn’t take his hands away.
The man in the center seemed to be the leader. He was large, had short hair, and his face was unshaven. He was wearing a black trench coat, and his long, graceful fingers were impressive.
He had a reserved demeanor that, while it was generous, understood his own power well. This quiet and philosophical appearance was characteristic of a sniper or a hunter.
When he thought about everything in his flight since last night, Sousuke understood. The one directing the enemy pursuit was this man. Even to Sousuke, he was no ordinary soldier. He had relentlessly cornered Sousuke, trapped him in his net, and shaken him up. So far, Sousuke had probably only been able to outwit him because of his familiarity with the area.
The man said, “You’ve done well so far all by yourself.”
“That’s not true. You idiots have been lining up for me,” Sousuke said impudently, continuing his dismantling work.
“That spiteful mouth of yours is quite something, Sousuke Sagara- no, weren’t you called Kashim?”
“It seems you know a lot about me.”
“You worked with Gauron, didn’t you- Kurama?” Sousuke muttered, and one of the man’s eyebrows turned up in surprise.
“Well, this is an honor. You know me.”
“From my time in Lebanon. I came across your picture.”
“It’s a small business. You understand. Everything over there was overdone. That’s why I had a change of occupation, same as you.”
“A mercenary like you, who killed five members of the SAS (Britain’s Special Air Service), took a high school student who didn’t know a thing hostage?”
“You’re not telling me ‘You’re a coward’, are you?”
When Kurama noticed the trembling figure of Kyouko, who didn’t understand any of the conversation, he snorted.
“...Miss. I’ll tell you in his place. This man is an active professional killer. He belongs to a certain mercenary unit, and is an expert in various weapons and tactics. The story that he is some kind of high school student is a lie. He infiltrated this school with forged documents.”
“Wh-what are you saying...”
“He can kill as easily as he can breathe, if he wants to. We are of the same make. Just earlier he very neatly killed three of my subordinates without making a sound. Very skillful.”
Kyouko’s wavering eyes stared at Sousuke’s stomach, his cheeks, and the back of his hands.
His shirt and skin was caked in half-dried blood- her eyes were rooted to the dark red stains which substantiated Kurama’s eloquent speech.
“But, well- Mithril is probably getting annihilated as we speak.”
“Your base is falling. I sympathize, but... I think the policy is to take no prisoners. So no matter how far you run, no reinforcements will come. The same goes for that white AS on the run, because our ASes will be arriving soon.”
“You did well, but this is it. Give up. If you obediently hand over Kaname Chidori, I will guarantee this girl’s safety.”
“Hand over? Kaname? What do you mean?”
There was no longer any chance to retaliate. Before he could take his hands from the circuit that he had finally finished work on, he would probably be shot squarely in the head right in front of Kyouko.
Someone had come up on the roof. There was the tap tap sound of someone walking unsteadily in heels, as well as labored breathing.
“Tokiwa!? Where are you? Everyone’s evacuated! If you’re here, please answer!”
It was a woman’s voice.
He could see the woman on the other side of the fence. She was in her mid-twenties, slender, with a bob cut, and wearing a suit. Her shoulders were heaving up and down like she had been running around inside the school.
“Restrain her,” Kurama ordered.
One of his subordinates turned step, then ran to the other side of the fence.
“What, what is this, you’re...!? Th-this place is restricted to people affiliated with the school... yaaah!” the woman screamed. She tried to run, but without being able to do much at all, she was caught.
“Ow, let go...”
Grabbing the woman by the wrist, the man led her beside the water supply tank where Sousuke and the others were. Her face was pale, and her lips were trembling with terror.
“To-Tokiwa...? And Sagara? What is this? Who are these people? Why are you handcuffed...”
“It seems to be one of the teachers here,” Kurama’s subordinate said.
“Perfect. Make her kneel.”
The man violently pushed down on her shoulders, and the woman fell to her knees.
Kurama’s subordinate then pressed his gun to the back of the woman’s head, who was offering no resistance at all.
“There’s no need to pointlessly tell me where Kaname Chidori is. First, I’m going to show you that I’m serious. It’s a shame for the teacher, though.”
“A-are you okay, Tokiwa? As your homeroom teacher, I will definitely try to persuade them, okay? There’s no need to be afraid, okay?”
Kyouko was frightened, of course, but more than that, in her utterly confused state, she was staring at the face of the female teacher.
Then- she said, “Who are you?”
And around the same time the woman moved.
The woman’s movements were as fast as lightning.
She knocked away the gun behind her head while at the same time wrenching the man’s wrist up, bent over and threw him. Before he could even hit the ground, she had pulled a small gun hidden under her skirt and pressed the muzzle against his head.
She fired. He was dead in an instant.
Sousuke had also moved at the same time. Until the moment he would somehow be able to take his hand away, he flung the finished detonator circuit and pulled out his knife.
There was a glint as the knife flew towards Kurama. Kurama quickly brought his left arm up to protect his neck, and the knife plunged into his arm.
The other man tried to shoot the woman, but wasn’t fast enough. Using the man she had just killed as a shield, she fired again. Sousuke also pulled the gun from his waist and filled him full of bullets. The man took a shot to the head and toppled over.
Kurama retreated, using his left arm with the knife sticking out of it to protect his head, while firing the submachine gun in his right. Sousuke and the woman crouched down as the bullets hit the water supply tank, ricocheting and causing sparks to fly. They both fired. Kurama was hit by a number of bullets, but only staggered slightly.
They fired again, hitting him with their entire cartridges. He must have been wearing a bulletproof vest, because he didn’t take any critical damage. With movements that seemed unimaginable from such a physique, Kurama ran towards the fence.
If I can catch him and make him talk...
He changed out his cartridge as he started to go after him, but the woman stopped him.
“Wait, Sergeant,” she said in a cool voice completely different from the frightened act she put on earlier. “You can’t catch him now. Besides, there’s the matter of the bomb here.”
“Am I wrong?”
She tossed off the bob cut wig, staring straight at him. Sousuke looked at her again. From a distance, she had looked like Sousuke and the others’ homeroom teacher, Eri Kagurazaka, but she wasn’t.
The whites of her slanted, emotionless eyes were clearly visible above her thin jaw*3; and her small, white, waxy face reminded him of a Japanese doll.
“...is that your real face?”
“You’re a woman...”
“Don’t you have anything else to say?” the woman- the agent from Mithril’s Intelligence Department, “Wraith”, said sourly. “If it wasn’t me, who would willingly do something like show their true identity to you?”
Sousuke kneeled down next to the mostly dazed Kyouko and set about dismantling the last of the bomb.
“What were you doing until now?”
“I was looking for you guys. Last night, when you guys were coming home from school, I moved to the observation point near ‘Angel’s’ residence, same as usual.”
“...will you secure that infrastructure there? Is there a light? Shine it in there.”
“You have my thanks.”
“You don’t mean it.”
“I’m not lying... then what happened?”
“Then they got me again. That blonde guy and his robots snuck up behind me without me noticing. Why he didn’t kill me, I don’t know. It was two in the morning when I blacked out, and I’ve been like that ever since. Then I followed you.”
He disabled the fuse sensor, and after stabilizing the circuit, he slowly eased the electric fuse from the plastic explosives.
“Is that it?”
He cut the lead wrapped around Kyouko’s body. The needle of the tester jumped as the detonator circuit activated. But nothing happened because the fuse had already been removed.
She probably wasn’t used to this kind of bomb handling. Wraith took a deep breath and wiped the sweat off her forehead.
“...so what do you plan to do now, Sergeant?”
“You want to know where she is?” he said, intending to be sarcastic, and a fleeting shadow passed over Wraith’s expressionless face. It wasn’t anger or irritation. What had crossed was a kind of sorrow.
Averting her eyes from Sousuke’s scowling face, Wraith looked beyond the steel frame and fence.
“That man gave way, but the perimeter isn’t broken yet. Once they get reorganized, they’ll be back. The students will probably be safe like that, but we’re still in danger.”
“I’m saying that it’ll be difficult to escape.”
“That’s not true.”
This woman from the intelligence department didn’t know about the Arbalest’s autonomous maneuvering function. If Al were still alive-
“Al, can you hear me?” Sousuke called out over his wireless radio.
<Class B damage to right thigh and lower right arm. Class C damage to left shoulder and left hip. ACD functioning. Battle maneuver maintenance prioritized. AML has been suspended>
“What’s your position?”
<Nearby. Approximately 800 meters north of the school. Three enemy ASes equipped with ECS are approaching>
“Can you shake them and come here?”
<I will try>
Sousuke could see it from the roof. There was the sound of an explosion from the urban district to the north, then white smoke
rising in the sky. From the schoolyard to the south came the voices of confused students.
The city that they lived in was in chaos.
They didn’t want to see this kind of city.
“You’re gonna fight to the very end, Sergeant?”
“Yes,” Sousuke said, helping Kyouko up. “First, I’m going to take care of the enemy and escape. Then I will go to where Chidori is and we’ll run away. To somewhere... somewhere.”
“What if she says ‘No’?”
“Is there any basis for that other than your own beliefs?”
Sousuke clenched his fists.
“What do you know about it? I’m not thinking of anything other than protecting her.”
“I will protect her at all costs... I will.”
The Arbalest approached. It was trailing white smoke as it jumped from roof to roof, building to building.
“I will carry you and Tokiwa to a safe place in the Arbalest. You can do what you like after that.”
“I’m not handing Chidori over. Give up.”
Kyouko looked like she wanted to ask him something, but Sousuke placed his hands on her shoulders and said as gently as possible, “I’m sorry I’ve given you scary memories, Tokiwa.”
“I’m... just like that guy said. I probably won’t be able to come to school anymore. This is goodbye.”
“Eh, but, that’s-”
Sousuke handed the now confused Kyouko a key. It was the key to Kaname’s apartment.
“When things have settled down, please go to her place and take care of her hamster. Chidori’s worried about it.”
A strong gust of wind blew across the roof, and there was the high-pitched sound of a running engine. The concrete shattered as the Arbalest landed on the north school building.
It was damaged all over. Its white armor was dirty, and he could tell where it had been hit.
The fact that it was okay despite being hit by numerous plastic explosives was thanks to its new composite armor.
“The enemy is approaching. Please hurry.”
The Arbalest opened its hatch as soon as it kneeled down. Sousuke started to run towards the AS, stopped after one step, and yelled at Kyouko.
“It was fun. Thanks.”
There wasn’t time to wait for a reply. Almost jumping into it, Sousuke slipped down into the Arbalest’s cockpit.
“Close hatch. Mode 4. Maximum power.”
He soon prepared the cockpit’s master suit, running the generator at maximum output. The ECCS (anti-ECS sensor) responded. Three enemy ASes were approaching. North-northwest.
Range, 300 meters.
The Arbalest rushed to the water supply section and picked up Kyouko and Wraith.
Sousuke heard Kyouko’s scream on the external audio.
<Disturbance detected. 2, 1...>
He jumped. The shots fired by the enemy machines in front of and behind him made large holes in the concrete of the roof and the storage tank. The firepower of those shells was completely incomparable to a human-sized weapon. Pieces of concrete and steel flew everywhere, and sharp fragments struck the Arbalest’s armor. The Arbalest transected the road in front of the main entrance, landing in the parking lot of a small factory. He set the two of them down behind a truck.
That’s when he noticed.
Kyouko sunk to the ground. At first glance he could see she was bleeding from the head and arm, and something red was gradually soaking through her white uniform on her side. She had been hit by the shrapnel when he had evaded the attack.
Just like a new recruit who has just noticed that his arms and legs have been blown off in an explosion, Sousuke was stunned for a moment, unable to speak.
It finally happened.
Why this girl? Why did it happen to her? What should I do?
Someone was yelling.
It was Wraith. Although she was also injured in various places, she laid Kyouko on the ground and quickly took off her blood-soaked clothes.
“I’ll take care of her! You have to hurry!”
“What are you doing!?”
He didn’t need any more time to recover from the shock. He could think later. His soldier’s instincts returned immediately.
He turned around. The enemy ASes had come.
<The enemy has spread out. Designating Mike 2 as prime target>
The Arbalest broke out into a run.
Crossing the lead colored sky with quick movements, the three enemy ASes were trying to surround the Arbalest.
They cancelled their ECS.
Grey urban camouflage. Massive rounded silhouettes. Sousuke realized then. They were Venom types- what the other side called “Codarl” types.
He couldn’t use his shot cannon; he didn’t want to destroy anymore of the city.
Manipulating the controller with his right hand, Sousuke pulled out the monomolecular cutter from the Arbalest’s weapon rack.
1. Castero is higher in rank than Mao- he is a full lieutenant, she is a second or junior lieutenant.
2. Avenger is a 30mm gatling gun.
3. In Japanese, people with "sanpaku" eyes, or eyes that show the whites of the eyes on three sides, are considered chronically fatigued, accident prone, or headed for a tragic outcome.