Chapter 2: New World
Once they were finished with the post-battle maintenance the crew headed off to a local pub and Nami raised her glass in victory. Some music played, adding to the lively atmosphere, and glasses of beer were drained and emptied. Everyone who happened to be at the pub was treated to drinks. Curiously enough, several of the customers had actually bet on ‘Crossbow’ to win in the match and had come over to offer their congratulations.
For Nami, the fact that they had won was finally sinking in, and she was completely ecstatic.
“Everyone drink up! Today it’s our treat!” shouted Nami.
Lemon, along with everyone else, raised his glass with a hearty cheer and a red face. They had only met for the first time today, but Lemon and the Crossbow team were acting as if they were all good old friends.
“……and it’s all thanks to that bastard Dao!”
“Anyone who bet on that asshole must be pissed! If we’re lucky, maybe they’ll kill him in a rage!”
“And they were only one step away from the long-awaited A-Class, too. Aha what a great feeling!”
Many people burst out laughing at that remark as they clinked their glasses together and ate their food.
Thanks to the unexpected complete and total victory, they had received – even after Lemon collected his share – a large sum of prize money. With it, Nami and the other members of Crossbow repaired the broken parts on the old model Savage. They were also able to buy a few high-class computer parts.
As bleak as the day had seemed it had all worked out in the end. And now the future was looking bright.
All in all, they had every reason to celebrate.
Lemon and the maintenance crew belted out lyrics to some national war song – making sure everyone heard them– as they steadily made their way across the cheaply made floorboards.
“Boss! You took some good photos, right!? You’re sure to get that Peanut prize now, aren’t ya?!”
“A ha ha ha ha! That’s just the thing; I was so preoccupied with watching the match that I completely forgot to take any pictures!” Lemon laughed.
“Then, you can take pictures of my Kami-san! I’m tellin’ you, she’s beautiful!”
“Liar!” Ash, the mechanic, cut in, “Kami-san weighs over 80 kilos! How the hell is she beautiful!? Cut the crap! A picture of her wouldn’t be worth anything!”
“At the most it would be worth a Raspberry award!” someone else added.
“Isn’t that a movie award!?”
“Who cares! Bartender! Another round!”
Sagara Sousuke, holding a glass of mineral water, was sitting sullenly in a corner of the pub and watching the group continue their incoherent conversation at a distance.
The pub was cheap. There were huge holes in the walls that were patched up with iron sheets, and the roof was in a similar state. The roof must have leaked pretty badly during the rainy season. The naked, hanging light bulbs and the weak, flickering lights from the kitchen microwaves provided just enough lighting to see the worn-out Thailand movie poster and a painting of some unknown landscape on the wall. Random decorations of artificial flowers and beads glittered throughout the room. Meanwhile, a
subtle stench was seeping through the thin wall that separated the inside of the pub from the alley outside. To put it bluntly, the pub was disgusting – but Sousuke didn’t really care.
Nami broke away from the drinking and singing group and, without any hesitation, sat beside Sousuke with her back to the wall just like him.
“Having fun?” she asked.
“Affirmative,” answered Sousuke, sipping his water.
“I said it correctly.”
Nami laughed. Sousuke didn’t take any offense.
“You’re Japanese right?”
“Were you in the Japanese Army?”
“No. Such a career isn’t possible for someone my age. Besides, Japan doesn’t have an ‘Army.’ They have a ‘Self-defense Force’ organization.”
“What’s the difference?”
“I’m not sure. It has to do with some legal interpretation problems though. Probably because they are a defeated country.”
Nami quietly wondered how the topic she had started so casually had turned in to such a formal conversation.
“Where did you learn about AS technology?”
“Afghanistan.” Sousuke replied simply, “The first AS I piloted was the same model as the one I operated today. It was approximately 6 or 7 years ago. Since then I’ve learned maintenance and servicing of other AS models from all over the place. RK-91 and RK-92 Savage. Mistral. Cyclone. Bushnell. Gernsback– “
“‘Gernsback’? The M9?”
“I lied. Just forget it.”
The M9 Gernsback – the first of its kind – was the latest and most powerful AS that was officially undergoing OPEVAL (operational evaluation) by the United States Forces. Super high performance, super expensive. Even if it were second-hand, any pilot would be extremely lucky to control such power and maneuverability in combat. From what she’d read about it – assuming the data in the specialized magazines was to be trusted – it wouldn’t be unreasonable to describe this new model as a ‘monster.’ But even that one word description doesn’t do the M9 justice.
There was no way some mercenary brat could have experience operating a state-of-the-art AS like the M9.
“Afghanistan you say? They have Japanese immigrants there?”
“But you said you were Japanese. How did you get there?”
“There are various reasons.”
“Doesn’t your story seem a bit strange? No matter how I see it, you and I are roughly the same age. Plus, back then, regular armies were the only ones that had access to Savages.”
“That information is incorrect. The Guerrilla forces used ASes they stole from the Soviet forces. I have been a soldier and pilot since I was young – for as long as I can remember.”
“Oh, I see– wait, Guerrilla?! Why would a Japanese kid become an Afghani Guerrilla –”
Nami cut herself off when she noticed Sousuke casting his eyes to the floor silently.
“I’m sorry. I’m being too nosy.”
“It’s fine.” Sousuke shook his head then looked at Nami. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“Sure. What is it?”
“You’re young. That in itself is not unusual in a town like this. However, getting your hands on an AS, even in this place, is very difficult. Where did you get that AS?”
It was a reasonable question. In fact, it was a question everyone she met usually asked. Having nothing to hide, Nami obediently answered.
“I picked it up after my home town was destroyed.”
It had only happened one or two years ago, but she talked about it as if it happened decades ago.
“It was collapsed and abandoned on its back in one of the crop field ditches, blocking the way completely. Diesel oil leaking from the tank severely damaged the crops. Not that it mattered… by that time most of the townspeople had fled or were dead.”
“Yes. A war between Government troops and Rebel Forces. National Troops were appearing all over the Country, burning villages and towns, and snatching away property and assets as they saw fit. Men were conscripted into the army and sent far away to fight, never to be seen again. Women…were abducted, beaten, and raped by soldiers who were saying the towns needed to earn their food and board somehow. But that’s pretty common in situations like that.”
“You managed to stay safe.”
“I was lucky. When my town was attacked, I was visiting the neighboring village. When I returned–”
The scene that welcomed her home back then flashed before her eyes. She thought she had finally reached the point where she could talk about it easily. But it looked like that was
impossible after all. Creasing her brow, Nami shook her head, attempting to shake off the looming shadows of that nightmare from her mind.
“That Savage had helped reduce more than half of the town to ashes. And for some reason the pilot had abandoned it. It had been shot – there were bullet holes scattered here and there – but it could still move. I claimed it, even though the surviving townspeople were dead set against the idea.”
Nami gazed up at the ceiling.
“But, I want to rebuild that Town.”
The bitter memories would never fade. Nor would the faces of the townspeople who died. Faces forever frozen in despair, fear and surprise.
“That’s why I came to Namsak. I needed to find a way for one young girl to earn a large income. Not like those pitiful children that tend to live in places like this, standing on street corners, selling their bodies and doing everything necessary to earn every bit of money they can. And still all they can afford to wear are worn-out rag-like clothes.
“But the Arena is different. Today’s winnings were pretty impressive, right? As long as you have the skill to win, you can earn an amazing amount of money. Especially if your team advances to A-Class status.”
“With the money I earn here, I can restore the desolated crop fields and repair the roads and bridges too. I’m sure the surviving townspeople will come back if I do that. If that happens – I could go back to school there. That’s what I’m aiming for anyway.”
“Yeah. It was the only school in the town. The building was destroyed in the bombing, and the kind teacher was killed when the ASes attacked, but it really was a good school.”
“A good school….” Sousuke muttered and looked down. His voice held a tinge of longing – as though he was homesick. Memories of a faraway place played through his mind. Memories of a completely different world he knew well, but could not be a part of.
“Uh-huh, it was a good school. They took me in, even though I was part foreign blood.”
“You’re part Japanese?”
“How could you tell?”
“You’re name isn’t very common.”
“Yeah, apparently my father was a Japanese business-man, or something. I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what my deceased mother told me. She died before the town was destroyed. She stepped on a mine.”
Sousuke murmured something, but because he was taking a sip of his water, all Nami could hear was ‘history…’
“What’d you say?”
“I said, every human being has a history.”
“I like that. It’s a good saying.”
“But it’s only common sense.”
Nami smiled and laughed.
“Yeah, I guess it is… what the–, Monsieur! Master Lemon!” Nami shouted toward the group of men.
“Are you making excuses for sabotaging your own work? Shouldn’t you be collecting data for your story before you get pissed-drunk?”
“Wha? It’s no use Nami-chan. I can’t when it’s so dark out! A ha ha ha ha ha! Come over here, come on!” said a very drunk
Lemon as he raised his glass of beer in good humor and beckoned Nami over.
“You see, I can collect data this way too. Like, for example, your bust-waist-hip measurements ha ha ha ha! No, just kidding. That’s rude.”
All the men burst into laughter.
“That’s fine, Monsieur! Listen! Measure if you like! Go on, get measuring!” Nami answered with a teasing smile
“I would never ‘cause you see, I am a gentleman – somewhat anyway. Why Nami-chan, that AS? …wait, I meant, why do you have a robot? I really want to know. It’s for my research! See? I can do my job just fine”
“Why don’t you ask Sagara? He knows the story now, he can tell you.”
“Aah! Sagara-kun you know? Not fair. Tell me too, ‘kay? Please?”
“I don’t mind… but the problem is whether or not you will remember it tomorrow morning.” Sousuke said seriously.
Lemon, who strongly reeked of liquor, promptly bounded over and embraced Sousuke. Sousuke just grimaced and turns his face away so he didn’t have to smell Lemon’s breath.
♦ ♦ ♦
It was well past midnight before the celebration was over.
Since Lemon was so drunk that he couldn’t even walk straight, it was decided that Ash, the mechanic, would accompany him back to his hotel to make sure he got there safely. After that, everyone went their separate ways. Sousuke’s hotel was on the way to Nami’s place, so they walked part of the way together. They passed the still bustling red-light district, and when they
reached the quiet –unattended– park, the two of them went their separate ways.
“There is no match scheduled this week,” Nami said before they parted, “but we have a lot to do tomorrow. There are various part-buying and maintenance processes you have to learn about. Come to the AS hanger by noon tomorrow, Okay?”
After giving him an exaggerated salute, Nami walked away. When she glanced back she could see Sousuke’s figure standing before the entrance to the cheap hotel.
She kept walking for a while after that.
The apartment she called home was only four blocks away. It may have been a small, old, and uncomfortable room, but nevertheless it was always there waiting for her when she returned home. All she wanted was to go home and relax. She was dead tired from the, all together, stressful day she had.
This neighborhood was only a little ways away from the red-light district, but it was fairly quiet right now. It was almost unbelievable that the daytime hustle and bustle could quiet down enough at nighttime for one to think clearly. A dirty old taxicab passed her by and music blared through the open window, but the tune faded into the night air as the taxi drove away.
Sensing someone watching her, Nami suddenly looked around.
She didn’t see anyone. No–
Suddenly, a man emerged from the alley right next to the sidewalk and grabbed Nami’s arm. She instinctively tried to shake free, but the man’s grip was too strong.
“Didn’t you know it’s dangerous walking alone at night?” He whispered into her ear.
A moment later her attacker’s face became visible. She knew the hideously deformed scar on his cheek as well as that pigheaded voice and that arrogant way of speaking.
It was Dao.
Had he been following her since she left the bar so he could ambush her? Nami didn’t dare take her eyes off of Dao. He had a large piece of abrasive plaster on his nose. He also had bandages wrapped around his head. Both injuries were most likely the results of today’s match.
Dao wasn’t alone. Three other men, mechanics from Dao’s team, surround her completely. The triumphant look they had on their faces would make one think they had caught over a hundred enemies in their trap, instead of just one woman.
“I didn’t get a chance to thank you for today, so I came by to express my gratitude. Understand?”
“Whoa there. You’re carrying a pistol, aren’t ya? Where are you hiding it? Here? Or here?”
Dao persistently ran his hands across her waist, thighs, and crotch in search of the revolver even though she knew for a fact that he had detected it in her pocket a while ago.
“Oh, found it!... good grief. A kid shouldn’t be carrying such a thing.”
Dao took the revolver and shoved it into his pocket easily.
Nami’s voice trembled with a mix of anger, fear, and hatred. “Is the defeated dog getting his revenge? You really are rotten. You pathetic bastard–!”
A hand struck her hard across the cheek.
He hit her again. A muffled moan escaped her before she had the chance to stop it.
“Let me warn you, every time you say vulgar words like ‘Defeated dog’ or ‘Pathetic bastard’, I’ll automatically hit you. If I don’t like your tone of voice, I’ll hit you. Even if you say nothing at all, if I feel like it, I’ll hit you. Those are the rules. Understand?”
“Good girl. A while ago, at the Arena, I told you ‘I don’t like you.’ That was a lie. In truth, your beauty makes me shiver in excitement. Do you understand? Like this–”
Nami’s head was yanked back forcibly by the hair – exposing her entire throat – and a sense of dread slammed into her. Dao ran his tongue along the muscles of her neck. All the air left her lungs in an instant, and – of its own accord – a scream ripped from her throat.
“Ah, delicious. But, relax. We’ll get along just fine. I’ll use anything, even drugs, to make you my woman.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me! I’d rather die–”
Another slap across the face.
“I told you the rules didn’t I? Ah, here they come. That’s our ride.”
A second-hand station wagon pulled up and Dao’s friends were driving it. When the car stopped in front of them, one of Dao’s lackeys opened the back-seat door quickly.
“Oh, by the way. About that brat you hired as your pilot. I don’t know his name, but I had that guy followed.”
“You seem worried. I didn’t order anything in particular. But – well, it’s possible that that idiot is dead in that cheap hotel, with his head shoved in the toilet. Even if that’s the case, I’m not taking responsibility. It’s a shame we’ll be making work troublesome for the policemen though.”
“You’re inhuman! Fucking bastard! God damn you! He only fought in the match, because you killed my pilot! He had nothing to do with this! You–”
Two consecutive backhands across her face stopped Nami’s rant short. As promised he had hit her, twice in a row.
“Yes he did, he played a big part. He humiliated me in front of everyone didn’t he? Acting so high and mighty. Right about now, he’s probably kissing the inside of a toilet bowl with his arms and legs flailing,” Dao said, and his lackeys guffawed and laughed.
“So, is that what happened to me?”
Everyone turned to the new voice, and there, standing in the shadows on the sidewalk, was Sagara Sousuke.
“You must be Dao. Your friend is sleeping with his head in the toilet.”
“……what’d you say?”
“Release her. Get in the car and leave. I’ve also been through a lot lately. So if possible, I would like to avoid any trouble.”
Dao threw his head back and laughed, causing his grotesque face to warp even further.
“You intend to negotiate? You’ve got guts, kid. You should have escaped alone while you had the chance–”
Even if I do want your help, Dao is completely right, Nami thought.
“It’s dangerous! Run away! It’s better if at least one of us escapes…” Nami cried out as complicated feelings stirred within her.
“I can’t do that. You’re my boss after all,” Sousuke answered calmly, and Dao gave the signal to attack.
“You’ll regret that decision,” Dao said.
Knives and pipes gleamed in the moonlight. Sousuke sighed as the men stepped forward.
It was a long suffering sigh.
“Good grief… it’s hectic right from the first day,” he muttered, and took a fighting stance.
There were four people in front of him and two men in the car.
There were no firearms, but his opponents were armed with iron pipes and knives. Some of them had had military training and were holding the knives in a backhand grip and the iron pipes like baseball bats with their hands separated slightly. Against that, one unarmed punk wouldn’t stand a chance.
Even Nami could understand that.
Civil war and border disputes had continued in that area for a long time. Most of the young men that lived there were masters at handling weapons. Murder was practically an art form in that place. That’s why street fights there were completely different from those that took place in some towns in peaceful countries. This fight would get ugly.
Surprisingly, the confrontation between Sousuke and the others ended rather quickly.
When Dao attacked, Sousuke dodged easily, grabbed Dao’s wrist, and snatched the knife away so quickly that those watching couldn’t see what happened until it was too late. Sousuke twisted and pinned Dao’s arm behind his back, mercilessly pressing the stolen knife against Dao’s throat.
15cm below the ear, half of the blade sunk into the flesh, however there was little bleeding. Dao wasn’t dead yet, either. His ugly face was distorted more by surprise than fear as his eyes widened and stared in shock.
“You’d better not move,” Sousuke informed Dao’s lackeys as he turned himself and Dao to face them.
“Respiratory tract. Nerves. Carotid artery. I avoided them entirely when I cut you. However, if any of you try anything…”
“Do you understand? You’ll either die drowning in your own blood, or you’ll live and be bedridden for the rest of your life.”
Everyone froze. That town’s tropic heat was terribly humid and muggy, but in that small area alone it was completely different. Everyone there could swear the temperature had just dropped at least ten degrees.
“Give up on the girl. The team too. Never get involved with them again. Swear it and I’ll release you. This compromise is more than fair, considering you’re Rick’s murderer. How’s that?” Sousuke asked.
“Swear it slowly. An artery is already damaged.”
“…I…I swear…to not…meddle…with…th…them an-…anymore…” Dao replied, breaking into a cold sweat while he did so, he looked like he was close to wetting his pants.
“How about the rest of you?”
Startled, the other men exchanged significant looks, and with expressions of disgust they reluctantly, but unanimously, conceded.
“We get it. We give our word.”
“So let Dao go.”
Watching them cautiously Sousuke removed the knife from Dao’s throat.
“Leave,” Sousuke said, and poked Dao in the back with the knife.
Dao staggered forward unsteadily and, supported by his men, he was taken to the car. Casually, one of the men stayed behind waiting for a chance for Sousuke to drop his guard, but there wasn’t the slightest bit of an opening. Sousuke just stared at
him calmly. The look was fairly unsettling and, shivering uneasily, the man edged backwards awkwardly.
“What are you looking at?” The man stuttered weakly. “C-creepy bastard.”
The insult was as pathetic as a coward’s fleeing remark.
The car engine roared to life and once all the men were inside – before the doors were even closed – the car took off down the road toward the city-center of Namsak.
“I’m Sorry,” Sousuke told Nami as he watched and made sure the tail lights disappeared into the distance.
“Wh…why are you apologizing?”
“I probably should have killed him after all. He doesn’t seem like the kind of person that will back down quietly.”
Nami watched his profile as he gave his reason, and some feeling awoke inside her.
In a punk fight in some other peaceful town, this fight might not have been sensibly resolved with one or two exchanged curses. That’s because they wouldn’t realize Sousuke’s strength. But for those who grew up in battle, like Nami, Dao, and the others who live in Namsak, they understood it well.
Sousuke was strong.
He clearly had an experience of bloodshed that others just couldn’t compare to. If the enemy had five or ten men, he could still have silenced them.
It wasn’t only his body language or the way he spoke. During the fight his behavior was relaxed – not showing even the slightest bit of tension – wasn’t that appearance enough to indicate the power he possessed?
“I wonder,” Nami finally answered while quieting down her excited feelings. “It’s true that your opponents were idiots, but do you really think they didn’t realize how strong you are?”
“That’s only speculation, I am only one man, after all,” Sousuke said. “I know all too well, there is only so much one soldier can do.”
Strangely enough, his voice was slightly forlorn and self-mocking.
“Humility…man, that’s an extreme weakness. I don’t understand you more and more.”
“Is that so?”
“Yeah, but thank you for saving me.”
Considering the fact that she was always acting tough with the people around her, and saying stuff like ‘Help? I don’t need it’, she was pretty shocked herself that her eyes and body could express her gratitude so genuinely.
“You’re my boss. One should protect their employer.”
“…That’s the only reason?”
“Also because you are a good woman.”
He said this with such a serious face, Nami was taken aback.
“Uh, um w-what… do you mean by that?...”
“I mean you are a good person. That’s what I’ve thought since you told me your story at the pub.”
Way to completely ruin the mood, Nami grumbled internally.
“As I thought, I don’t understand you at all. You’re just too……weird.”
“Uh-huh, weird. Really weird.”
“I’ve been called that before.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me……Hah-, ha ha ha ha!”
After laughing for a while, Nami calmed down enough to say, “… well, this street seems to be dangerous at night. Will you be walking this helpless, beautiful girl back to her home?”
Sousuke did escort her home, but left immediately afterwards. There was nothing she needed to worry about. He just wasn’t interested in that sort of thing.
A lot had happened in one day. Nami’s adrenaline was still pumping. She really needed to cool her head and get a good night’s sleep.
After having a cold shower, Nami put on underwear and a tank top and climbed into bed.
The moment her head hit the pillow, the doorbell rang.
It couldn’t be Dao and his lackey’s again, could it?
Nami got up and silently padded over to the door. Unlocking it, she opened the door cautiously and peered outside.
Standing right in front of her doorway was none other than Sagara Sousuke – knapsack and a big heavy duffle bag in hand.
“Wh-what’s the matter?”
“I was kicked out of the hotel. I need a place to stay.”
The hotel owner had found out that Sousuke had nearly killed the member of Dao’s gang, who had attacked him, and left him in one of the hotel’s toilets. When Sousuke had returned, the hotel owner had told him, “Leave.”
“…b-but. You see? I-… by my-… but I live alone,” Nami managed to say. Suddenly she remembered her state of dress – she was half naked! – and quickly hid behind the door.
“I know that,” Sousuke answered, clearly not seeing what the problem was. “It will be more convenient in case Dao and his friends decide to target you again. I’ll become your bodyguard. I don’t mind if you subtract the lodging fees from my pay.”
“Eh, but, um, something like that is…”
“You don’t want to?”
“…I understand what you’re saying, and it makes sense. But, you see? This kind of thing… isn’t it strange?”
“I’m not sure what you mean. Perhaps you would like it if it was me along with another person?”
“Eh? No, that’s not what I meant-… sigh, whatever.”
Hearing the vague, hurried reply, Sousuke nodded.
“Understood. Then, get dressed.”
“I’m going to Lemon’s place. You’re coming too. His hotel is some distance from here, so it will be difficult to run there if you’re wearing that.”
“Eeehh? Why do I have to”
“I’ll lodge here then.”
Nami finally gave in and headed over to where Lemon was staying, trying to fight off her drowsiness during the 1 km walk through Namsak at night.
The next morning, Michael Lemon woke up from his half-dead drunken stupor to find Nami sleeping peacefully in bed beside him, wearing only her underwear.
“Eh? No way! What? EEEHH!?”
I got drunk and slept with a minor?! Lemon panicked at the thought. Face draining of color, Lemon let out a shriek as he scrambled off the bed, and landed in a heap on the floor.
Ok, now he was really confused.
Lemon took in the scene as he stared underneath the bed.
Sagara Sousuke was sleeping soundly under the bed.
His eyes slid half open, sending Lemon an enquiring look.
And in one hand he grasped a knife.
♦ ♦ ♦
When all was said and done, Nami and Sousuke ended up living together with Lemon.
Surprisingly this wasn’t a result of Sousuke’s insistence, it was Nami’s. This way she didn’t have to worry about Dao targeting her again and the hotel Lemon was currently staying in was considered high-class in that town. It was simply too good of an opportunity to pass up. This ulterior motive on her part, of course, was more than clear.
“Look, I’m pretty,” Nami informed Lemon nonchalantly. “It wouldn’t look good if a girl like me lived alone with a man. I’m Catholic. So, if the three of us live together, that shouldn’t be a problem – that’s what I think anyway.”
“You have nothing to worry about, because I’m not that kind of guy at all,” Lemon answered.
“Then do you want to kick Sousuke out and have you and me sleep together?”
“You’re such a pain.”
“I knew it! That’s your ulterior motive,” Nami laughed.
“Why has it turned out like this!?”
“There, there. It’s fine, isn’t it? It’s only for a little while anyway. That’s just how it is. So, look after us, ok? Now that this talk is over, I’m going to borrow your bath.”
Ignoring any further objections, Nami made a beeline for the bathroom.
Sousuke was silently unpacking his bags and Lemon’s shoulders sagged in defeat. He still had little more than a month scheduled to stay in that town, and he had a feeling both Nami and Sousuke had every intention of rooming with him for the rest of his stay at the hotel.
And so, these three peoples’ life together began.
With Nami sleeping on the bed, Lemon on the couch, and Sousuke under the bed.
For some reason, it turned into that kind of an arrangement.
♦ ♦ ♦
Sousuke’s life as a member of team ‘Crossbow’ officially began. Lemon became the team sponsor, but he was treated more like an errand boy – doing odd chores here and there, and being bossed around by Nami and the others.
The Arena matches usually took place in the evening. The majority of the matches happened on the weekend, leaving the smaller and weaker teams below B-Class competing against each other on the weekdays.
After hiring Sousuke as their pilot, it took team Crossbow approximately one week to get all the RK-91 maintenance done on their Savage. They replaced the highly deteriorated muscle packages with fresh ones, exchanged all the heavily damaged armor-plates with brand new ones, and also completely replaced the faulty parts in the hydraulic system that had been causing the fluid leak. When they were finished, the AS was in much better shape.
Right now, everyone was currently discussing what color they should paint the Savage. The budget had enough of a margin to allow them to buy paint, but they couldn’t agree on what color. That was how the huge group argument began. During the confusing uproar, Sousuke quietly left to go shopping and returned to the hangar carrying two cans of paint.
Nami asked and Sousuke answered. Without hesitating, he poured the paint and solution into the airbrush gun’s cup, put on goggles and a mask, and without permission, walked to the Savage and started painting it.
The color was matte white.
When he was done with the white, he painted the shoulders, elbows, knees, and part of the head a dark – almost black – blue.
Nami watched him work while she ate her lunch. She looked at the ‘white Savage’ and thoughtfully tilted her head to the side.
“It doesn’t look bad or anything… but, doesn’t it make it look weak?”
“It’s the same color as the last AS I operated.”
“It wasn’t weak. This is a good omen.”
“Y-you sure about that?”
“Yes. Forgive me for being selfish, but from now on I’ll be calling this unit ‘Al II’,” Sousuke said with a nod.
He looked satisfied with the white Savage – he was gazing up at the freshly painted ‘upright frog’ like it was some kind of hero. Coming back to his senses, he noticed everyone was sending him questioning looks.
“Is that weird?”
“Uh-huh,” Everyone answered at the same time flatly. Some ask him to “repaint it”, but Sousuke didn’t yield.
It was rare for a guy so usually reserved to get so insistent over such a thing, and since the paint job didn’t look bad, everyone just decided to let him have his way.
“I guess even he has his cute side,” Lemon whispered to Nami later. “You know, that color makes it look just like a robot from an anime I used watch when I was a kid.”
“Heh, what robot?”
‘Goldorak’ was the name of a Japanese animation that was a big hit in France a while back. Its original Japanese title was
“UFO Robo Grandizer.” The series had been released pre-AS era – before ASes were invented.
“It looks nothing like it.”
“Yeah, I guess not… -wait, how would you know!?”
“I watched it when it was rebroadcast here. But, that doesn’t matter. Get back to work! Work! The next match is tomorrow! Until then, we’re going to work on this guy until he’s completed to perfection!” Nami yelled to the entire crew.
Nami, with wrench in hand and completely revitalized, turned and headed toward the Savage.
The match the next day was a total victory.
As was the next match, and the one after that. Within a month, Crossbow came to be known throughout Namsak as the new rising star.
♦ ♦ ♦
The ear splitting warning siren wailed.
The roaring engine rattled the cockpit.
Up and down, left and right – from every direction the cockpit shook.
A close up of the opponent’s 2nd generation AS was displayed on the main screen.
Its silhouette was short and stout with angled armor. It didn’t have a head. Instead, it had a sensor turret extending from the body, which often reminded people of a tank or armored car.
The AS – a Mistral II – charged forward swinging the huge grappling hammer it was holding. Sousuke, manipulating his machine smoothly at the last moment, dodged the attack.
Limbs maneuvered accordingly.
The scenery flowed by.
The audiences’ enthusiasm penetrated the armor which was reflecting the glaring lights.
Sousuke commanded and moved the master arm effortlessly and the mechanical body responded obediently, cleanly tripping up the Mistral II.
The opponent staggered and tried to regain balance, but it missed its opponent’s movements until it was too late. Its left hand was grabbed and yanked in the opposite direction, throwing the off-balance AS down.
To make it interesting, the Mistral II was slammed onto the Arena ground hard.
But the extent of the shock wasn’t that terrible, and the Mistral II pilot managed to withstand it.
But it was still flat on its back and vulnerable because the pilot’s movements were sluggish due to disorientation. Sousuke didn’t hesitate. Showing no mercy, the Savage swung down its boorish weapon – a huge battle axe. Even though it’s called an axe, it doesn’t cut the opponent. Mostly, it’s a weapon very similar to a hammer.
A vital part of the generator was completely destroyed, instantly causing overheating and system failure. White smoke gushed out of the Mistral II’s abdomen accompanied by a thunderous roar that rattled the atmosphere.
At the declaration, the Arena spectators suddenly erupted in cheers. Without responding to the enthusiasm that permeated the Arena, the ‘white Savage’ quickly returned to its paddock.
Over the radio Sousuke could hear Nami and the rest of the team’s excitement. Saying things like:
“Thanks for the hard work!”
“You’re the real deal, kid!”
“Just a little ways to go till A-Class!”
And so on and so forth.
“No problem,” Sousuke said and reset the AS’ power level to idle.
Apparently, this was how he felt. There were times when he felt nothing at all. Neither malice nor pride. No matter how many people lavished him with praise, it didn’t raise even a ripple in Sousuke’s heart.
Especially when it came to battle maneuvering at this level.
That’s just the way he felt about it.
These battles were not real. After all, it was only a sport. Real combat – the area overflowing with killing intent, the sensation of life and death throbbing deep inside your bones right up to the final moment – where a instant feels like a prolonged eternity of tension. These mock battles couldn’t even come close to that.
What exactly am I doing?
Every time he felt so many eyes watching him, he could feel the irritation inside of him expanding. Sousuke just couldn’t fight normally under these conditions.
Even these battles were part of a larger plan though. Leaving Tokyo, drifting to this town, participating in the Arena entertainment – there was a reason behind it all. This was all just the next stage in the plan that would point him in the direction of the greater battle. Sousuke didn’t even have any confidence in whether or not he’d find the enemy. But there was only so much he could do by himself, and he was well aware of that fact.
However, at the same time, Sousuke felt a certain kind of comfort living in Namsak.
For the first time since Sousuke started living in Tokyo, he wasn’t facing any hardships. There was no desperate struggle with ancient literature and Japanese history. He could casually reveal his AS operator and self-defense techniques without having to worry that someone would think it was strange. It was a relentless strategy of living naturally in front of a formidable enemy and not confronting it.
Then there was Nami, Lemon, Ash and the maintenance crew.
His relationship with the members of team Crossbow was more similar to the one he had with his ‘Mithril’ colleagues, rather than the one he had with his friends at school. Naturally, Sousuke had fun in the time he spent with his classmates, but Nami and the others – with their dry humor – were easier for him to talk to. The connection between them wasn’t the so-called ‘Japanese Passion’, the bond they had was more logical. Nami was the owner, Lemon the sponsor, Ash and the others were the crew, and Sousuke was the pilot. A contract bound them together and with that in mind they could keep associating with each other easily.
Living like this wasn’t so bad.
Sousuke was surprised he felt that way.
After all, not much time had passed since the incident in Tokyo.
“Sousuke, are you listening?”
Nami’s insistent voice over the wireless radio brought Sousuke back to his senses.
“Argh! Hurry up and turn off the engine! Fuel isn’t cheap, you moron!”
“Roger. I’m turning it off now.”
After making sure the Savage stopped within the parking-pad lines in the paddock, Sousuke cut the diesel engine. Using the power remaining in the condenser, he lowered the AS into the landing position and locked the joints. Then, according to procedure, he turned off the control system.
When he opened the hatch and climbed down from the AS, Ash and the rest of the crew swarmed around him, making a fuss and beaming with joy. Behind them Lemon was busy trying to get his camera quickly, but securely, set up. Lemon had originally planned to take a picture from the audience during the match, but the match had ended – and Sousuke had immediately returned afterwards – before Lemon even had a chance to get his camera ready.
“Jeez, too much running around! Hey, out of the way, out of the way!”
Nami shoved Ash out of her way and stood in front of Sousuke.
Clearing her throat awkwardly she said, “Thanks for your hard work. Here, it’s today’s pay.”
Sousuke accepted the paper currency Nami handed to him.
“Um… it was a good performance.” Nami said, casting her eyes upward, and then as if she was embarrassed about what she said, she hastily retreated deeper into the paddock.
“If I’m not mistaken, she’s becoming quite smitten.” Ash said several days later during lunch at the eating area in the maintenance garage.
Ash was a former maintenance solider of the East German army. In the early 90’s trouble was occurring in the Soviet Union, but before that devastating storm of purging and oppression swept over Eastern Europe, Western Germany managed to a have a
miraculous unification – Ash was one of the only ‘East Germans’ graduating from the east side that failed to get employment. Just before the unification, with the deployment of the RK-89 by the Warsaw Treaty Platoon, he had gained three days of maintenance experience. After that he eventually drifted to this Southeast Asian town, where he now worked for Nami.
“Who is? With who?”
“Nami is, with you.”
“I see. It’s not unreasonable, it’s a definite possibility.” Sousuke said as if it were nothing, and Ash’s eyes became round.
“Oooh!? Those are strong words, boy!”
“As far as I can tell, compared to the town’s standards, my piloting skills are extremely high. It’s only natural for her, as the owner, to evaluate me.”
“No, that’s not what I meant…” Ashes shoulders slumped in exasperation, “What I meant was that she is becoming fond of you in the same way a woman likes a man.” Sigh, “If you watch her you’ll notice Nami’s pretty popular, right? She’s the type of girl that doesn’t care about crude or indecent language. She’s fairly tough no matter what happens. Lots of the guys from the crew, other players too, have made advances on her, and they’ve all been rebuffed. Of course, so have I.”
“I think you’re wrong. She speaks with Lemon longer than she ever speaks to me.” Sousuke said without getting the point.
The three of them were still living together, but most of the time it was Nami and Lemon talking to each other non-stop. By nature, Sousuke was a man of few words. He only spoke when there was something to be said. So usually, unless someone specifically spoke to him, he would not join a conversation. He also wouldn’t argue. All Nami ever said when she came up to him, pushing a pastry or a drink at him was “You want this?”
“That’s just because she can speak comfortably with Master Lemon, right? But when she tries to talk to you, it’s like she can’t find an opening. I find it rather amusing.”
“Isn’t that just me being hated?”
“I don’t think that’s quite it” Ash laughed, “When you’re not around the paddock, do you know what Nami will always ask? ‘Where’s Sousuke?’ She wouldn’t act like that over a guy she doesn’t like.”
“I don’t really understand.”
“How about you, kid?”
“Nami. What do you think of her?” Ash prodded, and Sousuke, for the first time, seriously considers his feelings for her.
I like Nami.
That’s how he probably felt. After all, it was fun when they were together and he could relax when, along with Lemon, the three of them talked about trifling things. He thought Nami was beautiful when she stood before the mirror in the morning, towel drying her hair and tying it into a ponytail before she left to go to the paddock.
Then, why is that? It felt like the hazy feelings he’d been caught in before.
It’s because Nami resembles her. Energetic, knowing compromise, and without mercy, taking refuge in laughing at Sousuke. Carefree. Radiating so much fighting spirit. Maybe he was just naturally weak when it comes to that type of woman.
“It’s possible that I like her,” Sousuke said in a voice that held no significance.
If any woman who knew him heard him say such a thing in that tone, they would become extremely angry. However, no one ever taught Sousuke that yearning for someone earnestly and
wholeheartedly is a virtue. And that’s because he had lived in a world that was unrelated to love in itself for so long. The comrades he had had before he had joined Mithril used to say it was like being a sailor. A woman is a port. His comrades had long-distance relationships with their girlfriends. For a man who grew up in such an environment, Sousuke showed Kaname his feelings the only way he knew how, by being exceedingly honest and faithful. That is why he was fighting in this place.
She is the most important to me, Sousuke thought. No one was forcing him, and it had nothing to do with being virtuous.
That was why, in the hand of the Arbalest, descending from the sky via parachute on that Christmas night, he did not avoid answering Tessa Testarossa’s question. He probably loved her, that’s just how it was. Even now, he still thought that.
Then what if –
If Nami asked him the same question Tessa did, how would he answer?
I don’t know. Sousuke was surprised to notice his lack of confidence.
In fact, he was having a hard time even remembering Chidori Kaname’s face. It had only been two months. Yet her smiling face – that memory, one that should hold so much value that it was hard to exchange it for another thought, was becoming vague.
I can’t remember the color of the shoes she wore so often.
I can’t remember which wrist she wore her watch on.
But what shocked Sousuke the most was that he couldn’t recall the color of the ribbon she wore in her hair practically every day.
Was the ribbon red?
He thought it might have been red. But, he wasn’t completely confident. Maybe it was yellow.
Because of the job he had been doing, those kinds of features should be firmly engraved into his memory – in case it was ever necessary for him to describe her appearance to someone over the radio – to have them at his disposal at any time.
Will it be this fleeting?
Will he lose sight of it so easily?
“What’s with the serious face?” Ash asked after watching Sousuke’s sullen profile. “Did you leave a woman behind in your hometown?”
“No,” He muttered staring at the oil stained concrete floor.
That’s when Nami – the very person they had been talking about – entered the maintenance garage.
“Crap, here she comes.”
With theatrical flair, Ash made a gesture of zipping his mouth shut. Apparently, this conversation would stay between just the two of them.
“Ash! Isn’t lunch break already over? Now get back to work.”
“Aye Aye Ma’am.” Ash stood up with an exaggerated flourish and returned to the AS maintenance area. Nami approached Sousuke as he tidied up the empty lunch containers.
She thrust a small slip of paper in front of his face. It was filled with scribbled handwriting that was a far cry from being neat and tidy.
“The shopping list. Our maintenance stuff mostly. You and Lemon are going together.”
Taking the memo, Sousuke quietly scanned the list.
“There’s a lot of special AS parts listed here. They are not available in normal shops,” he said.
“What? You haven’t been to the ‘Market’ yet?” Nami frowned.
“Market? I’ve heard of it.”
“You can buy everything on the list there. Just head in the same direction as the eastern pass, the Market is just parallel to it.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Various carts were clustered together, full of activity. This was a town where all types of equipment were gathered. Its abundance in AS parts could easily be compared to that of an army’s front-line base. The town’s left and right flanks, for roughly 500 meters of open area, was transformed into absolute chaos. This section of Namsak was where AS parts from all over the world were gathered and sold.
This ‘Market’ that Nami spoke of was exactly what made Namsak, Namsak.
Muscle packages made in France. Optic sensors made in the Czech Republic. Titanium frames made in Germany. Cooling units made in Israel. Optical fiber made in Japan. Core processors made in the USA.
One street vendor had a decorated AS wrist on display. And the stall next to it had a bulletin board displaying the vendor’s current inventory in crude chalk handwriting.
[GTTO Corp. genuine / C122 System intervertebral / `95 year system]
[Stress inspection complete / Used Savage femur C frame / Made in China]
[IFAV standard / Rj23 system torque converter / Almost brand-new]
Mixed in with all the AS parts were electronic appliances that had been scrapped and gathered together from around the region. Things like computer parts, DVD and CD software, were vigorously being sold as merchandise to make a profit.
In fact, many of the customers were not even related to the Arena. The electronic products the vendors sold were mostly aimed at ordinary people and tourists.
Some of the people there were most likely from a small developing country. There was a group of Authorized Military Personnel there, too, who were engaged in an awkward business conversation – through an interpreter – with a parts salesman, desperate to obtain parts at a reasonably cheap price.
“It’s kind of like Akihabara.”
Sousuke remembered the hustle and bustle of Electric Town when he had accompanied his classmate back in Tokyo, Shinji Kazuma, on an outing there. Of course, this place wasn’t as big as Akihabara, but it somehow managed to give off the same feeling with its chaotic atmosphere.
Lemon cocked his eyebrow at what Sousuke said.
“Aah, a friend of mine went there when he was sightseeing, and told me about it. He said it’s a famous Porno Town.”
“It’s Electric Town.”
“That’s its old name. Because now it’s only full of hentai manga and Lolita-Complex game porno shops.”
“I don’t know why your friend would think that, but it’s probably just a misunderstanding.”
“You think so?” Lemon said, not really interested, and bit into the red hot and spicy sausage in his hand. He had bought it a while back from one of the market vendors.
“Then don’t eat it.”
“No, it’s pretty tasty.”
“I heard the French were epicures.”
“That’s just prejudice. It’s the same as our conversation about Akihabara. For your information, I happen to be a junk food junky.”
“I see,” Sousuke responded absently, pushing forward through the crowded market place.
He could see military equipment and material, as well as AS parts being sold throughout the market with ease. Though he had heard about its reputation, the vigor of this market was beyond what he had imagined.
If he had to he would describe this town as a place in the world where battle helicopters and tank parts were often for sale. As far as he knew, based on Nami’s explanation, if you played your cards right, you could even get your hands on some artillery and ammunition. Throughout the world, a town like this was hard to come by.
Access to AS parts and special machine parts had always been persistently restricted. The only means of obtaining them were through specialized arms dealers, and it was at the dealer’s rate, so the majority of the time the buyer had no say in the final price. When Sousuke was hired as a mercenary in Southeast Asia – 2 or 3 years ago – he had no idea such a town existed.
“Since when has the TI Corp.’s gyroscope been $400?” Sousuke asked with a bit of a sigh, looking at a street vendor’s signboard.
“Is that expensive?”
“No, the opposite. The lowest I’ve known it to be is $2000. That’s what it was at a year ago when we bought a dozen of them.”
“Wow. It’s really cheap now,” Lemon said with interest. “For a machine the AS is pretty widespread, isn’t it? I guess business is booming.”
“It’s not that simple.”
Sousuke suddenly remembered the words of Andrei Kalinin. It was still unknown whether that man was alive or dead.
“This world is abnormal–”
Those words from so long ago come rushing back to him, and resound loudly in his head.
The speed the current AS was spreading across the world was of a level that even he – a member of the younger generation – found strange. Especially recently, he’d been feeling this way more and more.
Compared to the evolution pace of other weapon systems, wasn’t the AS’ too abnormal?
The people in this market could never imagine the extent of power of the latest experimental machine– This was Sousuke’s opinion after his experience in piloting Arbalest, which had the ‘Lambda Driver’ installed on board, so of course Sousuke knew it well. As someone who understood the advanced AS technology, by watching these people in the market who had no clue, Sousuke realized just how unnatural that technology was.
Why? Why is it so urgently spreading to that extent?
That’s how he felt. He was just one soldier, he understood without having to think about it, that he was someone who didn’t have any particular power in this world, but Sousuke vaguely – and perhaps inevitably – sensed some kind of ‘hidden motives’ in the mists.
It was possible that everyone in Mithril felt the same way.
That something was strange.
It couldn’t be said exactly what, therefore no one spoke of it. The degree of malaise – bi bi, the electric blip sound, was Sousuke’s only warning.
Lemon had taken a picture of Sousuke’s profile with his digital camera.
“…taking a picture without saying anything first. Isn’t that more than a little rude?”
Sousuke stared at him suspiciously and Lemon gave him a one-shouldered shrug.
“Ha ha. I wouldn’t get any good photos if I worried about being rude and getting permission.”
“In other words, you’re particular with your work.”
“That’s right. I’m a little bit of an artist.”
“Using a pocket-sized digital camera can’t really be considered art.”
It was said in ill humor, causing Lemon to give a strange laugh.
“If I’m in a perfectly good studio, drooling over the supermodels I’m taking pictures of, then that’s a different story. However, if I’m flying across the world, this is better. If I bring a single-lens reflex camera, sooner or later someone would end up stealing it. I’m happy as long as it works.”
“That makes sense.”
“3 million pixels is plenty. It’s my art.” Lemon wasn’t gloating, he was just being honest. Brimming with curiosity Lemon continued to stare at Sousuke, “I’m interested in your art of combat.”
“You’re no run of the mill boy-soldier. That’s what I think every time I see you fighting in the Arena. Simply put, you don’t
fight solely for the sake of making a living. Your real objective is something much grander – it’s something that’s still far in the distance. If that wasn’t the case, then you wouldn’t be able to fight the way you do. That’s what it looks like to me.”
Sousuke’s eyes met Lemon’s gaze for an instant.
Right then, for the very first time, Sousuke became keenly aware that Michael Lemon was not just the happy-go-lucky reporter he appeared to be. The eyes behind the glasses were intelligent, and seeming to know that a judgment was being passed, Lemon looked Sousuke straight in the eye.
“I have a hunch that your splendid way of fighting is not just normal combat skills. I sense it as a photographer. It’s almost like it’s a form of art. When you’re piloting an AS, even an amateur like me can sense it. I know you can handle things by yourself.”
“…… I guess so,” Sousuke muttered as if it were someone else’s affair, “It’s true that it’s the only thing I do with pride.”
That’s just the way he was.
Photography, drawing, modeling, and music. Sousuke had met many people in Tokyo that had some kind of talent they expressed themselves through. They wanted to be rich, exquisite, to have people’s hearts dance when they showed them their talent.
Then what do I have?
He thought he had nothing. But from a different perspective, that may not be the case.
Combat had been the only way he had had to express himself. Was dancing through gunfire and being immersed in battle and destruction, truly the only way he could express himself?
Then Chidori, that time I–
Sousuke’s chest tightened at the dark thought.
“Uh…sorry. It wasn’t my intention for the conversation to become so deep.”
Behind them on the road, two police cars with sirens blaring screeched to a stop. People who had been shopping in the market that evening had either scattered away or stopped to watch, as soon as they had seen the patrol cars coming.
Two officers jumped out of the patrol cars, immediately drawing their revolvers out of their holsters. Using the bullet proof cars and their doors as cover – they aimed their guns at Sousuke and Lemon!
“Freeze!” Surprised, Lemon automatically tried to take cover behind a nearby merchant stall, but Sousuke stopped him.
“It’s better to do as they say.”
Lemon answered timidly. Then he straightened his back, hardened his face, and stood firmly beside Sousuke as the policeman barked more orders.
“Slowly put both hands above your heads where we can see them! Turn and face your backs to us, then kneel on the ground and cross your ankles! That’s it, nice and slow.”
“Uh, Mr. Policeman?” Lemon ventured. “I think there’s been some kind of mistake–”
“Hurry it up!”
“Sigh. Slowly or quickly, make up your mind already…”
Grumbling quietly to himself, Lemon obeyed the officer’s instructions. Sousuke did too.
A third police car pulled up.
Sousuke and Lemon were forced down into a submissive position – lying flat on their stomachs with their faces in the damp and humid road – making it impossible for them to see the policeman getting out of the third car.
The heels of his boots made a dull thunk sound on the ground as the newcomer approached.
He had sharp, slit, up-turned eyes. Yet, contrary to the glint in his eyes, his appearance left the opposite impression. His cheeks were round and bulging and it was hard to tell where his neck and shoulders begin. He was short with excess flab that swelled over the belt around his waist. It was almost like they were watching a pig standing up right and trying to act intelligent. That was the first impression they had of the uniformed man standing before them.
“It was reported that a pair of young foreigners were stealing from the market. This information is from a ‘highly reliable’ source,” the man said. His voice was high-pitched and annoying.
“We came as quickly as we could, and I’m delighted that we caught the suspects so unpredictably fast. But, this is regrettable. Who would have thought that the suspects would be members of the team that performs so splendidly in the Arena…”
It was a ridiculous story. The charges were clearly completely false. At once, Lemon lashed out, yelling angrily from his face down position on the ground.
“Huh? What the hell!? When someone murdered Rick you couldn’t have cared less, even when we… ugh!”
One of the officers grabbed Lemon’s throat tightly and forced his face into the ground, Lemon released a groan at the harsh treatment.
“Be good and stay quiet, foreigner. I am only doing my duty,” The man said and the others chuckled.
“…… you, the one who’s so eager to do his duty, who are you?” Sousuke asked in a tone that suggested he was very bored, causing the man’s violet lips to twist slightly.
“It’s not necessary for you to know, foreigner. You can simply call me ‘Chief’.”
“That’s helpful, it’s easy to remember.”
“Then, it’s another unexpected delight.”
The Chief twisted his lips once more and his slim tongue darted out and licked his lips, before it disappeared back into his mouth.
“You should remember this though. After this, if you take that haughty attitude with me–”
Swinging his, polished-to-a-shine, boot he aimed to kick Sousuke’s face, but just grazed his cheek.
Lowering himself onto one knee, the Chief stooped down close and whispered into Sousuke’s ear, “Next time I won’t miss, okay? Sagara Sousuke-kun?”