Chapter 1: Arena
An enormous steel foot slammed onto the cracked asphalt.
Walking on the right-hand side of the street, only dozens of centimeters away, Michael Lemon had been very close to being crushed under said foot.
Just like a lemon being squeezed and drained of all its juice, he thought.
That was also the impression he got from this town. It was almost expected, really, for the police officers, forced to clean up a town like this, to become cold-hearted, dirty cops.
The climate in this area was like a tropical heat. It soaked in, bit by bit. It completely zapped you of your energy if you weren’t accustomed to it. Nevertheless, when the AS’ foot slammed down beside him, Lemon let out a hysterical shriek and leapt back onto the crowded sidewalk. Unfortunately, his back collided with another pedestrian.
“Watch where you’re going, bro’!”
The person he collided with was a young man.
The stubble on his face, combined with his slightly dirty work-clothes, gave him a scruffy look. However, the twisted scar that took up most of the right side of his face didn’t help. A former soldier perhaps? For a soldier who ran away before the end of the war, day-to-day employment was probably the easiest way to survive.
In the short time that passed, Lemon forgot what he was going to say.
It was evening already. This town he was visiting, in Southeast Asia, was sweltering hot and overflowing with a painful concoction of sounds. Civil war and international border disputes for dominance plagued the areas that touch the border. It was that chaos that this strange town thrived on.
Rickshaw bicycle. Three-person scooter. Overloaded lightweight truck.
Mixed in with these crude vehicles, the old model Arm Slave calmly strode down the street. It was a Soviet and Chinese made type called ‘Savage’. The stout body and large head often give people the impression of a frog. An orange human-shaped weapon that stands taller than a two-story house.
However, it seemed this AS’ weaponry had been removed. A big searchlight was installed in place of the machine gun in the head, and fully loaded to its back were a shovel and crane for construction work.
The AS’ diesel engine gave a distant groan. Michael Lemon watched, completely bewildered as the AS, which only moments ago had almost crushed him under foot, gave him a good-natured wave. Up until now, for some reason or another, he hadn’t seen any newspaper photos or images of an AS at such a close range. It was a little too close…
“Bro, are you listening!? Hey!!”
A rough jab to his shoulder brought him back to his senses.
Realizing that he hadn’t even apologized to the person he ran into, Lemon clumsily lowered his head.
“M-my apologies, that was inexcusable, Monsieur…”
“It’s not ‘Monsieur’, you gay bastard! Shit! That’s all you have to say to me, after I’ve been patient, while you stand there all pale-faced and dazed!? Well!?”
Honestly, this man was over exaggerating. Actually, Lemon was a young man of delicate appearance. He wore frame-less glasses, and his normally pale face was sun burnt. His shoulders and back were broad, but compared to the men in a town where males are quite dominant, his arms and legs were thin. He’s the type of guy who’s more suited to working in an air-conditioned building, rather than hanging out in a place like this.
“Ah, no. I appreciate your concern, but it’s nothing. I seem to be fine-”
“Who’s concerned about you!? Geez!”
Lemon wobbled dangerously when the man roughly grabbed the sleeve of his shirt.
“Come here!” With unexpected brute strength, the man dragged Lemon to a nearby alley across the street. Lemon voiced his complaints with “Stop it already,” and, “That hurts.” But was largely ignored.
Honestly! He’s not concerned at all, Lemon thought, irritated.
“Hey, would you just wait a second? It’s not like I bumped into you on purpose, is it? There would be no point. You have a right to be angry but if you would just calm down-”
A sudden fist to the nose shut Lemon up.
Stars burst before his eyes and a wave of dizziness washed over him, prompting him to crouch down and hold his face in his hands. He vaguely realized his attacker was speaking to him and he turned his head to the side in order to hear what he was saying.
“…Going on and on like that! Enough already! I’m really getting pissed off. So here’s the plan: How about you pull it out? Okay?”
“Pu-pull what out…?” Lemon barely managed to sputter out. Blood was spilling from between his fingers. It made a drip drip noise when it hit the ground. There was no sign of life in the filthy alley, but it produced a stench that enveloped everything.
“You’re French, right?” the man with the scar asked.
“What’s your occupation?”
“That means you must have a camera. Hand it over. Along with all your foreign money. Euros or Dollars, it doesn’t matter.”
“C-camera… that depends … as for foreign money, I don’t have any.” Lemon said.
“Don’t play dumb with me!”
With tremendous force, Lemon was thrown to the ground. The shock he received when his recently washed shirt got wet from the floor of the filthy alleyway was nothing compared to the pain that shot through his back as it hit the ground, hard.
The man straddled Lemon like he was straddling a horse and sat on his chest. Wrapping his hands around Lemon’s throat, he forcefully tightened his grip.
“You know something? A little while ago, when you were stumbling along the roadside, I saw you coming. I’m the great Janristo-sama, got it!? I’ve got alcohol expenses to worry about! All you had to do was hand over your pocket money. You think you can get away with disappointing me? Huh!?”
How did this – he was targeting me from the very beginning … Lemon finally realized.
If he thought about it, what he’d been doing up till now: restlessly surveying his surroundings while wandering around, occasionally stopping to look at a camera that catches his eye. A Caucasian male stood out quite a bit in a chaotic town like this,
didn’t he? He hadn’t been aware of it, but somewhere along the line, he’d been followed.
If that’s the case, then, evidently, to the local punks I’m as good as a sitting duck. This really is an awful way to be defeated, isn’t it? But honestly, this is over doing it.
Showing no mercy, the man’s fingers dug into his throat. The additional pressure wasn’t enough to kill him, but it was still a terrible strength.
Just then, a woman’s voice called out from the mouth of the alleyway.
“What are you doing this time, Dao?” Over the man’s shoulder, because of the light behind her, all Lemon could see was a silhouetted figure. But she was definitely small in stature. Even her voice sounded young – almost childish.
“Nami? Keep walking,” the man called Dao replied, clicking his tongue in disgust.
“I’m not going anywhere. Doing whatever you please and mugging people causes problems, you know? It’s because of people like you that this town’s reputation gets worse and worse. The whole point of the ‘Arena’ was to bring in tourists. That’s why the number of tourists has increased lately.”
“So what? It doesn’t matter either way. This place is a dump.”
“So disobedient,” She sighed, and took something out of her handbag.
The small sound of metal clicking metal, a sound that suited her diminutive size, reached their ears. It was the sound of a gun’s hammer being cocked.
“Hey, hey! You serious…?” Dao exclaimed in disbelief.
“I’m not a murderer. However, I can inconvenience you to the extent that it would take you 2, maybe, 3 months to recover.”
“You’d shoot me just to protect some bastard you don’t even know?! Me? A member of team Ogre?!”
Dao’s face turned pale, his voice trembled in anger. His grip on Lemon’s neck loosened as he glared at the woman’s face.
“Weren’t you saying you needed drinking money? In that case, if I can get you that, problem solved. Here.” Walking briskly toward the two men on the ground, she shoved some wrinkled paper bills – real money, the kind that the border zones usually use – in front of Dao’s face.
“I won’t forget this.” Dao threatened.
“This isn’t for forgetting. It’s for disappearing.”
Snatching the money extended before him, Dao stood up, spit on the ground, and promptly left the ally. Lemon sighed in relief. Even though his rescuer, who was still holding the gun, didn’t seem to care at the time, Lemon had been worried that Dao would have attacked her.
At the sound of his voice, she turned to him, and this time he could actually see her. This woman – no, this girl – grasped the pistol with certainty. He didn’t know the maker or the model number, but it was a cheaply made revolver. It was probably an illicit manufactured good purchased on the black market from the Philippines or its surrounding areas.
In this day and age, in what way is that gun threatening? He thought.
Seeing the doubt on his face as he looked at the revolver, the girl laughed.
“Ah, this. It doesn’t shoot any bullets. It’s broken.” As she said this she turned and pointed the gun straight at him. With a
completely serious look on her face, she pulled the trigger. Jolting in shock, Lemon, who was still on the ground, scrambled back. He must have made quite the sight because the girl laughed again.
“What the hell are you doing!?” He demanded in a voice slightly higher than normal.
“You’re not a fast learner, are you? I said it’s broken. It won’t shoot any bullets…” she paused and gave the gun a thoughtful look, “at least, I don’t think it will.”
“Well then, Monsieur.” The girl spoke over him. She was leaning in as she peered into Lemon’s face, he could have sworn that her eyes started to sparkle. “With the money that I handed over to that guy plus the handling fees, that will be a total of $4000. Sounds fair, right?”
♦ ♦ ♦
This girl, who demanded a $4000 payment, called herself Nami.
Upon closer inspection, she appeared to be no older than 15 or 16 years old.
Her brown, unkempt, hair was tied back into a ponytail. Even though she didn’t wear any make-up, her eyes stood out. Her eyes were large and mischievous, but they also left the lasting impression of a marked intelligence floating just beneath the surface. She was wearing oil-stained work clothes, which consisted of well-worn denim jeans and, instead of the conventional t-shirt, she sported a form-fitting tank top. Most likely, she was either an electrician or she worked in a repair shop somewhere.
“$4000? Don’t be absurd! That’s way too much money!” Lemon complained, as he trailed after Nami.
They reached the mouth of the alleyway and stepped out onto the bustling street. Nami curled her lips in irritation at his protest.
“Should it be cheap!?” she rebuked hotly. “That Dao guy, he’s famous for his temper! You know why? He killed more than 30 people during the war. Seriously. You would have been no exception. He would have killed you and torn your body limb from limb.”
“Ah…I see. You have my thanks then.” Lemon stated dryly as he wiped the blood from his face. With his other hand, he removed some money from his pocket and rudely shoved it at Nami. If it was converted into dollars, it would be approximately $300.
“What the hell is this? This isn’t enough at all!” Nami whined, making herself appear even younger than she actually was.
“In this town, with that amount of money, you can live quite comfortably for at least a month. Besides, naturally, I wouldn’t be carrying such a large sum of money around. That’s all I have on me. You should be happy that you got anything at all.”
“Well, then give me your camera. Your PDA and cell phone, too. Give me everything.” Nami’s child-like eyes sparkled with amusement.
“This isn’t a joke! It’s a business agreement.”
“You’re so disobedient”
Lemon quickened his pace, forcing Nami to almost run to keep up with him.
“A ‘Business agreement’, huh? You’re pretty good with words. I guess that’s why you’re a reporter.” After considering him for a moment she asked, “Are you seriously a reporter?”
“Uh huh. I’m just a rookie though.”
“Do you write for a magazine or something? I bet you get paid a load of money for something like that.”
“Not as much as you might think. Besides, the system they use to determine how much I get paid makes no sense to me. It all depends on the story, I guess.”
“The story, huh… hehehe.” A wide grin spread across Nami’s face. The look on her face was very similar to the look a stray dog makes when it finds an unexpected feast on the side of the road.
“Is it really so interesting here that you would come specifically to Namsak?” she commented casually. “Don’t tell me. You’re here because so much reporting these days is sympathetic toward rich people and written from that point a view. So you’ve decided to do a story on how the poor people, who are left behind, make a living in this post war prosperity. Is that it?”
“What are you talking about? Would that even make a good story?”
“Ah yeah yeah. You could say that. But that’s not why you’re here, is it?” using her index finger, she poked Lemon’s cheek to emphasize her point. Not really able to honestly deny her assumption, Lemon stayed silent.
“Even when there is a good story like that playing out in one place, most likely, there is something else going on somewhere else in the world that’s similar. But, that’s not the case with Namsak. We have something here that you won’t find anywhere else. You’ve come here to see ‘that’, right?”
The sun sunk beyond the horizon and night quickly blanketed the town.
Unintentionally, Lemon stopped walking and gazed further down the street.
Beyond the busy street they were standing on— right in the center of groups of glaring neon buildings – stood an imposing soccer stadium. No, at one time it might have been a soccer stadium, but not now. It was built before the war, and in the middle of all the chaos it had been neglected. Not long after that, this building, riddled with bullet holes, came to be used for a completely different sport.
Endless amounts of heat and noise flowed from the stadium.
A roar of a gasoline engine that had no muffler.
The high-pitched screech of metal clashing against metal.
And—Enthusiastic cheering, angry voices and cries of admiration completely drowned out everything.
The stadium’s lights were strong too. It was like high-class sake reflecting the light and shining the prismatic colors into the night sky, all from a gigantic sake cup that was placed, imposingly, in the center of the town.
“Is that it?” Lemon asked.
Again, the grin spread across Nami’s face.
“Yep, that’s right. The ‘Arena’.”
♦ ♦ ♦
The stadium was packed full with spectators. In the field of the modified sports stadium, right in the middle, two human-shaped weapons—Arm Slaves – clashed.
They were both ‘Savage’ models.
The Savage model isn’t a new AS by any means, but it’s used the most. Plus, because the model is mass-produced, it’s the AS that is most widely spread around the world.
One of the machines, a derivation model of the RK-92, was painted florescent pink. It was a relatively newer version; it had a gas-turbine engine that ran on jet-fuel.
The other AS was also an RK-92 but it was painted yellow and black—tiger stripes. It was one of the first models of the Savage. The fundamental design was the same, but its power source was a diesel engine. A considerable amount of these models are sold, legally and illegally, all over the world.
Florescent pink and tiger stripes.
Definitely a far cry from the paint job the military AS’ received.
The audience went wild as the two ASes grappled, punched, and kicked each other.
The florescent pink AS charged at full speed and leapt into the air. Its heavy metal body seemed to float in mid-air. Letting gravity do its job, with all its weight it dealt an explosive dropkick to the back of its opponent’s neck.
The collision sparked a violent sound.
The tiger striped AS, whose head had been mostly blown off by the attack, was thrown more than 20 meters away, and slid over the concrete that marked the outer boundary of the field. It crashed into a water tank. Tons of water sprayed over the area and the AS stayed motionless.
The shrill shriek of a siren signaled the conclusion of the match. The entire audience was on its feet, the tempest of cheers and boos gushed forth and echoed throughout the grounds. Countless scraps of colored paper danced through the air.
“Winner! Bloody Queen!!” The announcer’s voice boomed throughout the stadium. Lemon, who was sitting in the guest area, frowned slightly when he heard this.
“Bloody Queen? Is that the fluorescent pink frog that’s still standing?”
How the hell do you get the name ‘Bloody Queen’ from that color? Lemon thought silently. As far as names go, wouldn’t ‘Porno Queen’` or ‘Missile Girl’ suit it better?
“They didn’t have any other paint available,” Nami, who was sitting next to him, answered and shrugged, “it was the only color they had. After that, I guess you could say they were stuck with it. Yep, stuck.” She finished with a nod.
“Ha ha. Wow, that’s…”
It was just as he suspected though. They didn’t use firearms. However, with the AS receiving so much damage and ending up in that condition, the pilots safety couldn’t be guaranteed by the end of the match.
In fact, at that very moment, the pilot was being dragged out of the defeated AS by the medical staff. He was completely limp as they placed him on the stretcher in order to transport him off the field. Even from a distance, he could see the pilot’s left arm was bent in a bizarre direction and dangling heavily at his side.
The AS’ movements had surprised him. Its short and stout body gave the impression that it was slow-witted, but its footwork was the complete opposite of its appearance. Its movements were quick and agile, very similar to a pro-wrestler.
I see… I guess you could say this is the best way to collect the data I need, Lemon thought.
“That’s amazing strength.”
“Isn’t it?” Why did Nami look so proud when he said that?
“I don’t know who started it, but after the cease-fire at the end of the war, they started using ASes for pro-wrestling and started gambling on them.”
“With military weapons? There is no way that using ASes for such a sport is authorized.”
“It isn’t authorized. It’s completely illegal, but the police say and do nothing about it. The association that’s promoting the sport is bribing them, it’s an underhanded method, but it’s effective.
It’s unclear in the first place if the police’s power itself actually comes from this country.”
Namsak was strategically placed on the border of three different countries where traffic was heavy. It had been exposed to the harsh chaos of the civil war and border disputes for years. Right up to the time of the cease-fire agreement, initiated by the leaders of the United Nations, had been exchanged. However, even with the cease-fire deal, the control of the town was still random and always uncertain. Moreover, because of the treaty, no country would station armed forces near Namsak, so the disorder and confusion there continued.
Because of its location, Namsak constantly attracted both people and money, which resulted in a suitable amount of trade. With the constant traffic moving through the town, the place was pretty lively. It was common knowledge that in that place, money – not an armed force – was the deciding factor that allowed one to seize substantial control of the town.
“So, the Arena is a big seller. People travel through Namsak just to see it. At first it only used the ‘Savage’ model that had been released in Cambodia. Now a great number of second-hand ASes are gathering up and flowing in from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Plus, the ‘Mistral’ from France, the ‘Dorahay’ from Germany, the ‘Cyclone’ from Great Britain, and then there’s the ‘Bushnell’ from the United States. There are quite a few more besides those ones, too.” Nami said, naming the AS models with ease. “It’s just a bit of international trade fair.”
Lemon could only stare at her with a dubious look on his face.
“That’s extremely detailed. You sure do know a lot.” He finally said.
“Hehe Ah, well, I guess. I am the team owner after all.”
“We’re a first-rate team, and our AS is first-rate too.” Chest puffed up in pride, Nami raised her chin into the air.
A moment passed as Lemon gave her a blank look. All he could really do was shake his head. He was very temped to just walk away all together.
“What’s with that reaction!? You don’t believe me!?”
“Of course I don’t. There’s no way a girl that pesters a greenhorn like me for a ridiculous amount of money, on a street corner, I might add, could own that kind of robot.”
“But I do own one!”
“Then why don’t you sell it? You could easily make tens of thousands of dollars by selling something like that.”
“Aaagh enough already!! You’re so disobedient. I need the money for the cost of parts, and I must have them by all means! They’re essential! Two hours have passed already!”
With a determined look on her face, Nami grabbed his arm.
“Part costs? Two hours?”
“That’s right! Now come with me.”
Nami began walking, forcibly dragging Lemon along by his arm.
He could hear her muttering “So disobedient” under her breath as she pushed her way through the crowd. For some reason, it seemed to be her favorite phrase.
“Hey, hey…” Although he was at a loss as to what to do, he didn’t resist or become unreasonable.
Wanting me to pay her $4000, Lemon shook his head slightly and fought back a smile. Of course he didn’t have that much money. But this girl had defiantly sparked his interest. The
fact was, she had saved him when he was attacked by that thug. Afterwards she could have turned the gun on him and demanded the money, but she didn’t. It seems that the outrageous greed for money that festered in this town had not infected this out-going teenage girl.
But, she said that she owned an AS.
He didn’t take her seriously. Her claim was completely without grounds, and it was very unlikely. Even if that was the case, his curiosity was peaked. If he really wanted to, he could just brush her off and head back to the Inn. But what’s the point in that? Like he said, he was curious.
“Where are we going?”
“My teams paddock. Then, after that, a performance.”
He could tell by the tone of her voice, Nami was dead serious.
♦ ♦ ♦
The area surrounding the former soccer stadium – now known as the Arena – had adapted to suit the extreme sport that now took place there. The outer boundary of the property had even been turned into a paddock maintenance area.
The makeshift paddocks had cheap tin cover roofs, and the only thing dividing one paddock from the next were walls made from iron sheets. The paddocks were lined up side-by-side, one after the other, facing the center of the grounds where the Arena stood. It appeared this was where the ASes –preparing for their next match – were refueled and received their final adjustments, Lemon thought.
The overflowing odors that assaulted Lemon’s nose made that more than obvious. It was the strange chemical stench of jet-
fuel, petrol, and machine oil fumes mixing together in the air. Combined with the smell of burnt metal, the stench was overpowering. Apparently, the people that participate in the Arena were the kind of people who couldn’t care less about fire hazard regulations.
Not only did it stink, but it was extremely noisy too. The sounds of electric drills, drivers, cutters, and pounding hammers rang through the air, painfully attacking his ears. At the same time the groans from compressors and power generators, along with the roars of diesel and gas turbine engines revving up, pounded into his head.
Lemon already had a splitting headache, and he hadn’t even been there for very long.
Nami swiftly lead Lemon into one of the paddocks – just his luck! She had led him into the noisiest garage of them all!
“Right here!” Nami said in a voice that didn’t drown out in all the noise.
There it was, right under the crane that was hanging from the steel frame of the ceiling. The AS was parked in the standard position, on its hands and knees. The armor on its back was removed.
Only three mechanics were working on the machine. They each had an electric tool of some kind in hand and were tinkering away in the interior of the unit.
“So? Impressive, right!?” Nami asked.
Actually, the AS was the complete opposite. It was a pretty common antique model Savage, however, even at a glance he could tell that this AS has seen better days. Many sections all over the unit were heavily damaged, and look neglected.
One of the eyes was smashed and remained un-repaired.
The armor on one arm was completely crushed, and had vinyl tape wrapped haphazardly around it. Surprisingly, even in that condition, the piece of armor still managed to stay attached.
One joint was so damaged that it was leaking oil in several places, creating a dark stain on the ground beneath it.
Looking over the AS carefully – from the tip of its antenna right down to the feet – the extent of the damage was terrible.
“Awful, isn’t it?” Nami asked.
Exactly what I’ve been thinking, Lemon thought honestly. But, he would have never expected Nami to admit it so frankly.
“Sure it’s banged up here and there, but all it needs is a little work, and then it will be moving fine. All I need to do is replace the muscle packs for the right arm’s tendon and the right leg’s femur. To be honest, we also need to replace a few hydraulic pipes, and the faulty torque converter needs a tune up…”
“Isn’t that a lot of work? Do you even have enough time?”
“There is time! But we need more money!”
Nami abruptly stopped talking, her back stiffened, and her hands clenched into fists.
The one that called her was one of the mechanics who was still working upon the exposed back of the AS. He was a Caucasian male roughly in his 30’s. From his accent, Lemon would say this man was either Australian or German.
“What is it, Ash?!”
“We’ve done everything we can! It’s more than 51 pipes and buffers! That’s not all, but if we don’t at least have that, then it’s over! How do we stand in terms of money?” Ash’s impatience was clear by the tone of his voice.
“Don’t worry! This gentleman is here to give us the money we need! So just wait a little longer!”
“Oh, that’s good news! Sir, please hurry! We’re counting on you!”Ash replied, not even glancing at Lemon as he returned to his work.
If he had looked at Lemon, he would have seen that their new “benefactor” looked like he was going to explode with anger.
“Why you little…” Lemon fumed in a restrained voice.
“What?” Nami replied innocently.
Lemon swore he could hear the sound of his patience snapping.
“Don’t decide stuff on your own!” he bellowed, “All I did was follow you here because you wanted to show me your AS…” Lemon pauses for a moment, before continuing in a much calmer voice “I see, that’s why you were in town. That market-place by the Arena, it has the parts you need.”
Nami nodded her head and muttered, “But we don’t have enough money and the merchants won’t hand over the parts unless we pay up front in full.”
“So that’s why you needed $4000?”
“That’s right. Now that you understand the situation we’re in, will you help? Please, I’m begging you! Become our sponsor!?” she begged, hands clasped before her, giving Lemon a pitiful look.
“But that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you! I can’t give what I don’t have! Haven’t you ever heard the saying: ‘You can’t shake sleeves you don’t have’!?”
“It’ll be alright. If you stick with my team you can get material for an amazing story, right!? You might even get the ‘Peanut Prize’!”
“It’s the ‘Pulitzer Prize.’” Lemon corrected lamely. She doesn’t listen to a single thing I say, he thought flatly.
“Right, that’s what I said. See? We agree. So give me the $4000.”
She even had the nerve to hold out her hand as if he would hand it over just like that. Lemon felt his eyebrow twitch in irritation.
“No. Even if I took it on as a story, it’s only worth $400 at the most.” Lemon informed her coldly.
Bowing her head, Nami sighed, “…I understand.” She nodded her head like she’d come to a decision.
Lemon gave her a wary look.
The next thing he knew, Nami was snuggling up against him intimately, her fingertips grazing sensually over his abdomen. Lemon’s body stiffened from shock. Using that to her advantage, Nami pressed her breasts against his arm, making him keenly aware that she isn’t wearing a bra under that tank top.
“…then, how about one night with me?” Nami suggested in a sultry voice. “It’s a good deal. Usually this would cost you $10,000, but I’ll cut you some slack. Only, you’re not allowed to beat me.”
“Why has it come to this!?” Lemon demanded, attempting to free his arm from Nami’s grasp with no success. “I don’t have sex with minors! Besides, you would have a better chance of seducing me if you weren’t covered in oil, and didn’t reek of gasoline. Lastly, what do you mean $4000 for one night!? That’s more than the market price for a high-class call-girl, you know that right?”
“To tell you the truth, I’m a little scared. But you seem like you would be a gentle escort…”
She was ignoring him again…
“Listen when someone’s talking to you!”
“Hmph– the same goes for you. You’re so disobedient” Nami retorted, easily dropping the sexy act as she clicked her tongue in disbelief. “I don’t get it. If any normal man was approached by a cute girl like me, heard how desperate I was, and received such an offer, there is no way he would refuse.
Unless…are you ‘that way’?” Gasp, “You are ‘that way’, is that why?”
“Why the hell am I suddenly ‘that way’?! For your information I am neither gay nor suffering from an erectile dysfunction!”
“Is that so? In that case, I’m not interested in chickens or mama’s boys…”
“Why is this happening? Aagh– enough!” Lemon pulled his hair in frustration.
“Whatever, the truth is, if my team participates, and wins, I can return the $4000 to you easily. Really,” she whispered soothingly into his ear.
Lemon shot her a doubtful sideways glance.
“Pft. What are the odds that you’ll actually win with that piece of junk? You think you have a chance? It’s useless.”
“We can win! Even though right now, our AS isn’t much to look at, our AS pilot is amazing!”
“Oh” Lemon replied, unenthused.
“His name is Rick. He’s a former US Marines AS pilot. A veteran soldier who’s gambled with life and death on the battlefield many times. His alias is ‘Jungle Eagle’ and he’s crushed more than 10 enemy ASes. I’ve seen a lot of people with remarkable abilities pass through Namsak, and he’s one of the best!” Nami revealed, even though Lemon didn’t really care.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of AS unit it is. If Rick is piloting it, he’ll win!”
“I wonder about that…”
“I’m serious! If it’s him–”
“Nami! We’ve got a problem!” A young man rushed into the paddock. He was most likely another member of the
maintenance crew. His face was sweaty, and he was wearing an extremely serious expression on his face.
“It’s Rick, he…”
♦ ♦ ♦
In a corner of one of the Arena restrooms, Rick clung to the urinal as he collapsed.
When someone finally discovered him, he was already dead. He had been stabbed in the back with a knife. It seems to have been a clean attack, aimed right for the kidney. Rick had probably died quickly, not even having the time to call out for help.
The culprit had not been caught. The person who discovered Rick’s body in the restroom recalled “seeing a man with a large twisted scar on the right side of his face”, but the authorities said that wasn’t enough of a description to track down the suspect. But with that description alone, Nami and Lemon knew exactly who it was.
It was Dao.
Until the police arrived, the pilot’s corpse remained laid out on the restroom floor, covered by a sheet. Nami had been kneeling near the body for some time now, not saying a word since they had arrived. Hesitant to say anything, Lemon stood back and watched her silently.
Between the strange encounter, the stupid questions and answers, and all the bickering… he had forgotten.
He’d forgotten that this lively Namsak was a dangerous town, where it’s not strange at all for someone to be suddenly killed on a whim. Most people living there think it’s normal.
“You know something…?” Nami said, her voice sounding lonely.
“I didn’t even really like Rick. I employed him because he was a good AS pilot. But he was also an over-exaggerating braggart. He always looked down on my team and me because he didn’t think a girl should be doing a man’s job. He thought I would be better off being like those young girls that he was always buying whenever he was in town. Always spending the money he earned on tits and ass. I can’t even count how many times he tried to touch me or push me down. He was a good-for-nothing son-of-a-bitch. But you know what…?” Nami’s voice shook, and her shoulders began to tremble. “He wasn’t the kind of guy who deserved to be murdered.”
Giving Rick’s forehead a gentle pat through the sheets, Nami abruptly stood up and exited the restroom with quick steps. Lemon quickly followed, calling after her.
“Where are you going?”
“The paddock. We have to participate…”
“…But, wasn’t he your pilot?”
“That’s right. I’ll have to pilot it in his place.”
Lemon nearly tripped when she said that.
“Do you have any battle experience?”
“Never in a match. But I’ve practiced, and I can move the unit fairly well.”
“You’re AS still needs maintenance…”
“We should have enough money. If I give up on the right arm, and focus on getting the Unit moving, we should have enough money for that… I’ll think of something.”
Her pace didn’t slow at all as she explained this, she just kept walking purposefully forward. Thoughts of begging Lemon for the $4000 vanished completely as her mind flew into a rage.
“Yo Nami!” A man’s voice called out to her as they neared the paddock area. It was Dao – the man who had threatened and attacked Lemon after dragging him into a back-alley. This time he had many followers accompanying him. It looked like he was also a member of a team that took part in the Arena matches.
“Did you hear? They say Rick was found dead in the toilet. Stabbed in the back, I’m told. It’s dangerous around here, isn’t it? Scary, scary” Dao said mockingly as he slowly approached. Nami glared at him. His huge twisted scar on the right side of his face was still as ugly as ever.
“I told you, didn’t I? ‘I won’t forget this,’ is what I said, right? Did you really think you could get away with pulling such a stunt on me?”
“If that’s the case, then I should have been your target…”
“Says who? I never liked that American anyway. He was always running off at the mouth, never shutting up. He made me sick.”
“…you fucking coward!”
“Are you still planning on competing in the match or are you forfeiting? Looks like I’ll enjoy myself either way. Keep each other company in the meantime. Till then, see ya” Laughing cruelly Dao and the others walked away.
“Nami, don’t tell me… your opponent…?” Lemon asked in disbelief.
“Yep. Dao’s team. They have a fairly good AS, too.”
“That guys isn’t normal! Letting a guy like that participate in such a sport… you can’t fight in this match! He’ll kill you!”
“So I should just run away and hide?!” Nami demanded, her voice growing louder. “I have to win the match to make a living! I’m useless unless I win. If I don’t–” shutting her mouth
firmly, Nami refused to say more. Wiping at her eyes briefly, Nami, once again, headed toward her team’s paddock.
“Sorry for causing you so much trouble, Monsieur. All that talk about the $4000, no hard feelings okay?”
“Just hold on. You…you’re not going to do something desperate, are you?”
“I might. Oh well, you gotta do whatcha gotta do.”
“But it’s dangerous.”
“I’m well aware of that,” she answered, leaving no room for further argument.
Lemon trailed after Nami and they soon arrived at the team’s paddock. He quickly spotted Ash, the mechanic he’d met earlier, along with the rest of the maintenance crew. They all looked so depressed. As all their gloomy faces looked up at the new arrivals, their eyes seemed to ask Nami “Is there no point to this?” Nami nodded firmly, and the entire crew breathed a sigh.
The sounds from the Arena, cheers of the crowd, ASes battling each other, weighed down on the gloomy atmosphere.
That was only natural, though. Dao’s team was their opponent – not only that, the psycho was also piloting the enemy AS. A former soldier who probably has some skill when it comes to AS combat. How could that girl possibly fight against that man while using that piece of junk? All it would take was one good hit and that AS would crumble and fall. Nami won’t just be humiliated, she’ll most likely be dead. The situation looked so bleak that nobody spoke.
“Excuse me, is Rick here?” a voice asked calmly, so calm that it seemed out of place, “I’m an old acquaintance of his…”
Everyone looked toward the voice. There, standing in the entrance of the paddock, seemed to be a young Asian man. It was hard to tell whether the stranger was Chinese, Korean, or Japanese,
but he was most definitely a young man judging by his medium height and build. He was wearing cargo pants and a black t-shirt, with a worn-out knapsack slung over his shoulder. His expression was sullen under his raven hair and there was a small cross-shaped scar to the left of his chin.
It was probably more accurate to call him a boy, rather than a young man. He looked to be around the same age as Nami, maybe a little older. However – his intense expression held no innocence that one would attribute to a boy, so it was difficult to describe him in such limited terms.
Upon first seeing him, Lemon could tell this young man was always aware of his surroundings. Probably even more so right now as he sensed the tension in the air. Yet, an unshakable purpose shone from his eyes. Eyes that– even though he was only a teenager – looked like those of a 30 or 40 year old; eyes that seemed to have seen many things.
“Where is Rick?” the youth asked again.
“He’s dead,” Nami informed him in a bored tone. “It just happened a couple of hours ago. He was stabbed in the back in a restroom at the Arena.”
His eyes widened slightly and his brow furrowed, but that was the only visible reaction he showed to the news.
“I see. I was constantly telling him to watch his back more carefully…that’s unfortunate.”
Even though he said this, he didn’t seem surprised or saddened by the news.
Perhaps…he was used to this type of situation, Lemon thought.
“Who are you?” Lemon asked.
“An acquaintance of his. We were both hired mercenaries during the civil war, three years ago. I heard he started to compete here, so I came to visit.”
“Ah, I see. That’s too bad. It must be disappointing to hear such news when you’ve come all this way to see an old friend. Does this mean you won’t be sticking around?”
“We weren’t friends.”
“What business do you have here then?”
“I’m here because I’m interested in competing in the Arena. However, it seems finding an employer is easier said than done.”
Stunned silence enveloped the paddock. Nami and the rest of the maintenance crew stared dumbfounded at the stranger.
“You...you can pilot an AS?” Nami asked in disbelief.
“‘A little’…. Ha ha…” Nami gave a sarcastic smile and glared at the young man.
“Oh, that’s rich! Some foolish brat, pretending to be an ace AS pilot. This isn’t some super strong robot that appears in a manga, you know. This is a complicated piece of machinery. It’s a special military weapon. If an ordinary person pilots this in combat their entire body will become littered with wounds just from being tossed around. Plus, they’d get so dizzy they’d vomit. Sprains and fractures are common-place. There’s no way a half-assed guy like you could handle a machine like this. Got it? If you get it, delusional little boy, go home and watch your TV.”
“Heh…” Lemon laughed under his breath. Talking like that to someone even though you’re probably the same age…Lemon thought in amusement, but wisely remained silent.
“Hey, what do you think you’re doing!? Don’t touch that!” Nami demanded.
The young man walked over and puts his hands on the AS. He grasped the armor frame as if he was confirming its strength. Nami rushed over and roughly yanked him back by the shoulder.
“Stop! What the hell did I just tell you!?”
“Is this the unit you use to fight in the matches?” he asked calmly. Clearly he didn’t find Nami’s aggressive behavior in the least bit threatening.
“Yeah, so what? You got a problem with that!?”
“No…. you’re pretty short on time, so you’ll have to make due,” the young man stated with a nod, and then frowned slightly. “But the damage is severe. Even with Rick’s skills, he would have had a tough time…”
“You talk big, but what would you know about this machine?” Nami asked, irritation rolling off her in waves.
“About this machine?” he replied. Then, after a short pause, he began a detailed explanation in a detached voice – as if he were reading straight from a textbook.
“This is an original model of the RK-91. This version was never given any particular model number. Approximately only 130 were ever produced. Compared to the amount of 91M and 92M that were exported – and became mainstream – the amount of this model that was exported is insignificant.
“Because it didn’t adopt a gas-turbine engine in weight and output, it is inferior to the 92. It ends up limiting this model’s level of combat mobility. However, with the 92, they spared some of the frame strength in order to make other allowances. Throwing that away so readily wasn’t a good idea, because in doing so it limits the 92’s hand-to-hand combat capability considerably. Because the weight is so end-heavy, the torque control tends to be eccentric, but adjusting the software accordingly can easily solve that. Even an average-skilled pilot can handle that without much problem.
“In regards to this unit though, the problem is the cooling system. From what it looks like, you seem to only use parts made especially for the 91. You can stop doing that, it’s unnecessary. Ordinarily, it’s said that the air conditioners available for the 92 are not compatible with this model, but for this kind of problem it will be very efficient –– at the most you’ll need maybe 15. And if or when you’re budget allows it, you’d better buy some new, unused, muscle packs. In this kind of competition, instantaneous power capabilities should be given top priority.”
The boy uses so many technical terms it was enough to send anyone’s mind reeling. Lemon only understood part of it, but
from the surprised wide-eyed look Nami was giving the young man, she understood everything he was saying perfectly.
“Wha…?” Nami’s face turned red in embarrassment, struggling to find something to say.
This young man’s knowledge regarding this might just have been superior to her own.
“All that goes without saying! This is our precious AS unit, you know!? It’s–”
“Of course it is. You’ve done a good job maintaining it,” he says kindly, with honest approval. The complete lack of sarcasm in his voice left Nami at a loss for words.
“The parts you need should be available in any parts store, and you can dismantle it as usual. But I’m amazed in the first place that you have an original RK-91 model.”
“How do you know all that? You some kind of overzealous military maniac? I bet that’s it. Even if you have that self-important expression, you’re still just an amateur aft-”
“I’m not an amateur,” the young man stated flatly. “I’m a specialist.”
His tone wasn’t resolute, nor was his attitude overbearing when he said this. He simply spoke as if his being a specialist was only natural. His presence held a silent persuasive power making the way he spoke unimportant.
“Oi, Nami…” Ash, of the maintenance crew, said. “What should we do? It looks like this kid is a willing player. Rather than arguing, we might as well ask…”
Nami didn’t immediately deny it either.
She was at a loss as to what to do.
From the lecture she has just heard, it was obvious this guy wasn’t a novice.
And time was running short.
“You some kind of overzealous military maniac? You’re just an amateur”.
“I’m not an amateur,” he said flatly, “I’m a specialist.”
Assuming they could arrange the necessary parts, this last minute maintenance would be cutting it close.
Truthfully, she didn’t have faith in her own piloting skills. It was a fact that they would certainly lose if she piloted the unit. But, to take the risk and let some no-name boy who appeared out of nowhere pilot it…… either way they’d be at a disadvantage.
Even if it was from the side, seeing Nami so conflicted by this bothered Lemon greatly.
“Argh– Geez! It doesn’t matter anyway.” Nami pulled at her hair with both hands and glared at the youth before her.
“Alright. It just so happens that we don’t have a pilot. If you’re interested, I guess I can let you do it,” she offered somewhat stubbornly.
The young man nodded, his expression remaining unnaturally serious. He didn’t smile. Lemon wondered why he felt that this boy, even though he was so expressionless, was oddly charming.
“But this unit is in really bad shape,” Nami began to rant. “We have no money. No parts. And we’ve exhausted all our resources– which I’m trying really hard not to be too bitter about.”
“Um, regarding that,” Lemon called out modestly.
“What is it Mr. Benefactor? Still plan to help?” Nami asked sarcastically.
“Unfortunately, I just remembered I only have, approximately, $3000 at my disposal.”
“…eh?” Nami blinked a few times and just looked at him blankly.
Well, that reaction was only natural. Lemon himself could hardly believe the words that were coming out of his own mouth.
“If I use my entire cash-line of credit on my credit card…but how will I do that? Is there an ATM nearby that I can use?”
“Not that I’m not grateful…but are you sure? You were dead set against it earlier,” Nami managed to say, trying not to get her hopes up.
Lemon mustered up as much affection as he could and winked at her.
“If you win I’ll get it back, right? If you lose…I guess I’ll have no choice but to return to my country. But making a gamble on these kinds of odds is what makes it interesting.”
“That amount is fine,” the nameless young man stated with certainty.
“Ha ha. I don’t why I’m doing this, but I’ll leave it up to you, kid.”
“Thank you, Mr. Benefactor!”
Nami’s expression crumpled as she threw her arms around Lemon. Staggering back under her weight, Lemon managed to steady them. His face quickly turned red. He was completely bewildered by the emotional girl clinging to him, and it quickly turned into embarrassment.
“Aw, it’s nothing,” Lemon said and turned to the new pilot.
“My name is Michael Lemon. I’m a Journalist. This is Nami.” He indicated the girl still clinging to him. “What about you?”
“Rick knew me as Seagel…” he paused and looks thoughtful for a moment. “Sagara. Sagara Sousuke.”
“Are you Japanese?”
“Yeah…” Sousuke’s gaze became distant, and when he spoke again it was more to himself, “I came here looking for something.”
♦ ♦ ♦
A low rumbling sound of a sluggish engine echoed throughout the Arena as Sousuke, piloting the Savage, stepped in. The thunderous roar of the crowd cheering and jeering filled the Arena as well, compounded by a steady chant “Kill! Kill!”
Lemon grimaced at the overflow of noise and adjusted the camera he was holding.
“Is this really ok!?” he asked loudly.
The sponge and the nylon of the headsets they were wearing, plus the noise of the Arena, made it difficult to hear. Nami leaned in closer to Lemon in order to hear what he was saying.
“If he dies, I’ll feel responsible. So I’m starting to wonder if this is such a good idea.”
“I don’t know,” Nami replied with a shake of her head. Looking down, she mumbled, “It’s unexpected, but that guy might be able to do it.” She wondered why she felt like she was reassuring herself more than Lemon.
“Huh? What makes you think that? Tell me. Maybe it’ll ease my heart a little.”
“Everything he said about the Savage was completely accurate. Normal people don’t know those kinds of details. Besides, his body… his torso, his arms, his legs…he doesn’t have a shred of fat on it. He’s completely fit. But around his shoulders he’s
surprisingly solid. These are common characteristics of AS-pilots who have been involved in intense training.”
“Hehe, really?” Lemon gave her a sly smile.
“Don’t look at me like that! It’s not like I was checking him out!” Nami blushed. “I noticed it when he was changing, Okay!? It was only for a moment, but I noticed the skin of his wrists and elbows were thick and calloused.”
“That’s a lot of detail to get just from a quick peek,” Lemon teased.
Nami continued on as if he hadn’t spoken, “When you operate the master-arm for long periods of time, those areas are constantly rubbed against. It’s possible that Sousuke is–”
Just then, the Savage, on its way to the center of the field, stumbled so badly it nearly fell forward.
Sousuke slowly steadied the AS, and thousands of spectators roared in laughter.
“Um…did he just trip…?” Lemon asked weakly, all good humor completely wiped from his voice. His unease was in full swing again.
“I take it all back. He really is useless.” At her wits end, Nami buried her face in her hands.
“You’re so rude. I’ve realized that’s a bad habit of yours,” Sousuke retorted. Nami and Lemon could hear him clearly through the headsets they were both wearing.
“That’s nice,” Nami replied flatly.
By now, the opponent’s AS was also on the Arena field. Each shoulder of the armor was painted with the eye of a monster, and, even though they would be ruined by the end of the match, Dao’s team had decorated the unit with ornamental lights that glared under the night sky.
The MC’s voice reverberated throughout the stadium as he introduced the two players. “Ogre” was Dao’s ring name and team name. Many of the teams’ nicknames were over-exaggerated, full of bluffs. However, if you looked at the amount of wins they had, and the nature of the team’s members, Team Ogre’s name couldn’t be more accurate. Sousuke’s ring name, “Crossbow”, was the name of Nami’s team.
“Crossbow? That beat up old thing?”
“That’s right. You think it sounds bad?”
Crossbow: A reliable deadly weapon that strikes with a peculiarly heavy blow. In its own way, this name stirred something deep within her, so Nami had decided to use it as a ring name. But the look Lemon had given her when he’d heard the name made Nami feel a little foolish.
“It’s a good name.” Sousuke had reassured her, “But it still can’t compare to ‘Arbalest’.”
Facing each other, the ‘Ogre’ and the ‘Crossbow’ halted once they reached the center of the field.
A brief quiet fell over the stadium.
The ASes’ engines roared to life as their output steadily climbed. Hot air gushed down from the open engine vents, kicking up clouds of dust from the Arena field. Both units took their ready-stances.
The crowd’s chants of “kill” got louder and faster as a small siren buzzed and a donated traffic light illuminated. Then, the count-down began.
Dao’s loud obnoxious laughter boomed from his AS’ external speakers.
“You’ve got a lot of guts to actually show up in that piece of junk! Did you come here to beg for your life?”
Sousuke didn’t respond to the jibes. The Crossbow’s external speakers couldn’t be used anyway, they were broken.
The crowd’s yelling got more violent.
“Kill. Kill. Kill.”
“Tear him to pieces! Bash his head in! Pry open the cock pit and drag out the pilot!”
Nami unconsciously gripped the cross hanging low from around her neck, a weak “Please” escaped her lips.
The countdown continued.
An overly loud siren screamed, and an electronic bulletin board flashed ‘START’ in large bold letters.
Immediately both ASes charged at each other.
The enemy M6’s instant explosive power was by far superior. The Ogre charged forward with the force of a freight train. In comparison, the Crossbow’s speed was irritatingly slow.
It was clear to everyone watching which AS would be blown away when the two machines collided.
But they never collided. When the Ogre lunged to tackle the Crossbow, Sousuke sunk the body so far forward that it was in danger of falling over.
This was what everyone who was watching, including Nami, thought – but the instant the two units passed, the Ogre’s legs were swept out from under it, effectively destroying its precarious balance. The unit went air-born, doing a full forward flip in the air.
No, only a half flip!
Dao’s AS crashed head first into the ground. An ear splitting crash boomed through the stadium from the force of the fall and clouds of dust kicked up into the air.
The entire stadium fell into shocked silence at the unexpected turn of events.
The Bushnell didn’t move. It just laid there on the ground, arms and legs splayed out. Dao’s unit looked like it received very little damage. So most people didn’t understand what had happened.
It took at least ten seconds before the audience began to stir.
Eventually the judges had no choice but to proclaim that the Ogre was unable to continue fighting, and announce Crossbow as the winner.
The crowd responded with protests and boos, and tickets were thrown up to scatter in the air.
The entire stadium was in an uproar at the results.
“What the…?” Lemon muttered, he was clearly one of the people who didn’t understand what had happened.
Nami, for her part, could hardly believe what had unfolded before her very eyes.
“Most likely… the pilot fainted.”
“Fr-from only that?”
“What do you mean ‘Only that’? Don’t be stupid. The shock absorption system is the only thing that protects the pilot against violent falls or intense collisions. An AS can be hit by a car going 100 km/hr, and the pilot can remain completely untouched. But –”
Nami paused and gulped.
“What we just saw – if an AS makes an extreme turn unexpectedly, the shock absorption system can’t keep up….How can I explain this? Think of it this way: The shock absorption system is like a spring. If the spring is already compressed, then it can’t bounce, right?”
“Then, it can’t absorb the shock?”
“Exactly. But it varies depending on the AS model. In order to actually use it to your advantage you have to have extensive knowledge of your opponent’s unit, and you would need to be an extremely skilled pilot. Otherwise it would be impossible. In other words –”
It was not a move any normal pilot could pull off.
“Good skills. Amazing.”
Nami was so astonished by Sagara Sousuke’s performance that she completely forgot to be overjoyed over the victory. She shivered as she felt the prickle of goose bumps rise upon her skin.
Just who is he?
This was the one thought that resounded loudly through her mind.
Rick – their American pilot who was murdered – had been a ‘good pilot’. But that had only been because, as a soldier, he had been through hundreds and thousands of hours of vigorous training, repeatedly.
But Sousuke was extraordinary in comparison.
In all the pilots that come and went from the Arena, this was the first time she’d come across a pilot with such presence.
He’s so mysterious.
Eventually, Sousuke turned his back on the Arena and took the Crossbow back to the paddock.
“It was nothing,” Sousuke said to the delighted team members of ‘Crossbow’. They had surrounded him the moment he’d dropped down from the AS back in the paddock. “If you look around, you can find dozens of military pilots with my abilities.”
“Even so, it was amazing!” Lemon said. He was all smiles, overjoyed and relieved as he hugged Sousuke enthusiastically with more passion than even a French-kiss warranted.
“….telling me you’re grateful would have sufficed,” Sousuke stated uncomfortably.
“Thank you. You really helped us out.”
“No problem. Besides…”
Sousuke turned to Nami and, with a serious face, looked into her eyes.
It startled her a little bit.
Not because the look scared her, but the opposite. The look had a mysterious charm to it. It gave her the strange impression of a large, hungry dog, quietly begging for its favorite treat by sitting there politely and wagging its tail.
“I want to know if you’ll hire me as your pilot, it would guarantee that have 3 meals a day and that I have enough to pay for lodging.”
In that moment, Nami had no reason to decline his request.