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Full Metal Panic! Bonds

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“I think that technologies are morally neutral until we apply them. It's only when we use them for good or evil that they become good or evil.”
-William Gibson

 

Dancing Very Merry Christmas

 

December 23, 1558 hours, local time
Meridia Island Whispered Research Facility
578 miles south of Japan

 

“...Base material of the intervertebral disk dampener...chemical reagent for the palladium reaction...total invisibility incomplete...laser screen oscillation system overload...ozone smell...”

The words murmuring out of the blue-haired young woman's mouth were an incomprehensible jumble of technical jargon related to Arm Slaves and black technology, but the activity stemming from her hands, her fingers a blur as she keyed in information she neither saw nor fully comprehended, was as clear and concise as any scientific journal. Technicians scattered at workstations around the room struggled to keep up with the stream of data flowing from the young woman’s mind through her fingers, processing and sifting the information to the workstations where it would be most relevant.

To anyone who had not seen the process before, or did not work with it daily, it would have been a mind-numbing experience. To Sergeant Major Sousuke Sagara, mercenary of MITHRIL, Arm Slave pilot, and boyfriend of the young lady in the coffin-like glass chamber, it was unnerving and disturbing to watch. A chill crept down his spine at the sight of the blank, almost lifeless expression on her face, the absolute flat tone to her words.

Shaking himself out of his discomfort, he turned to look down at the workstation he was standing behind, feeling a migraine coming on as he attempted to make some sort of sense out of the stream of numbers and words flowing across at a pace that seemed impossible to track with the human eye. Tearing his eyes away from the screen, he glanced at his wristwatch, a very fancy timepiece that had been a six-month anniversary gift. This session should be over shortly.

“Early as usual, I see, Sergeant Sagara,” a warm voice called to him.

He turned to see the lead research technician, one Doctor Julia Vasser, approach him, carrying two plastic cups of water, which were both handed to him. Nodding his thanks, he consumed the contents of one, then held onto the other, which was intended for his girlfriend once the session had ended. “I always plan to be ahead of schedule,” he answered politely. “Except for my funeral.” And other events I won’t name to anyone but Kaname, he thought to himself, fighting hard not to turn red.

Doctor Vasser smiled. “Yes, it’s always best to procrastinate in arriving for one’s own funeral,” she said, then glanced at a clock on the wall. She turned to another technician and said, “Joe, bring her out of it. We’re done for today's session.”

“Powering down neural resonator,” the technician reported, entering commands into his station, turning dials, and flipping switches. A steady humming sound appeared in the room, then began to lower in volume. “REM amplifier offline. System disconnect in three...two...one...” He completed this report by pointing to the glass chamber, the lights within which had gone off.

Nodding, Doctor Vasser turned toward Sousuke and gestured to the chamber. “She’s all yours, Sergeant,” she said with a faint smile. “Remember to approach slowly so that she can acclimate to the presence of your aura and come out of her trance on her own time, give her the water, and then see to it that she has something substantial to eat in the next hour.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sousuke answered automatically with a nod. It was all business as usual to him, now. He still didn’t understand any of the talk about his aura, despite having it explained to him several times; he had been told that when a Whispered’s abilities come out of their dormant state, they usually key to and resonate with the closest figure with whom the Whispered has formed an emotional attachment. This resonance allows the Whispered to automatically enter what is referred to colloquially as the ‘Whispered trance’ whenever the other figure is in a potentially-harmful situation that the knowledge and abilities of the Whispered in question would be able to influence. The resonance is also useful for slowly coaxing the Whispered out of their trance in a manner that does not cause any psychological harm, otherwise the rapid transition from the mentally-heightened state to normal mental activity could cause irreversible brain damage.

All that meant to Sousuke was that he would be nearby at the beginning and ending of each of these sessions.

Sousuke turned from the doctor and began to slowly approach the resonance chamber, attempting to project an ‘aura’ of comfort and stability as he neared. It wasn’t hard; all he had to do to put comfort and stability on his mind was reflect on the fond memories of the past two and a half years. As he neared, he watched her shift slightly in the chamber, a smile lighting up her face. Over the past several years spent researching the Whispered, it had been learned that they possessed the ability to view surface images of the person they resonated with while they were in their trance. Though it wasn’t outright telepathy, some theorized that, with practice, a Whispered could learn to read the thoughts of the person they resonated with.

Less than two paces away from the chamber, it swiftly lowered from its inclined position to a flat horizontal plane, looking all the more like a coffin, if not for the happy expression on the face of the girl within. Stopping beside the chamber, Sousuke watched her for a few moments, unable to resist a smile of his own, then reached over and pressed the chamber release button. With a hiss of compressed air, the top of the chamber rose on hinges on its left side, just as the girl opened her hazel-colored eyes.

Smiling up at Sousuke, she took a moment to stretch languidly like a cat, then sat up on the lower part of the chamber and accepted the cup of water from him, sipping slowly. She wore a gown identical to the kind seen in hospitals across the world, and over it was Sousuke’s old high school uniform jacket. The technicians allowed and even encouraged her to wear it; the smell of gunpowder and machine oil soaked into the jacket was a smell that Sousuke himself carried, that scent a familiar source of comfort for her. The technicians had explained that the familiar scent would help keep her relaxed during the sessions, and allow her to focus the direction of thoughts in her trance, as opposed to drifting along on them like so much flotsam.

“Welcome back, Kaname,” Sousuke said warmly.

Grinning, she reached out her left arm toward him, still holding the cup in her right hand. He obligingly leaned forward, allowing her to wrap her arm around his neck and pull him down toward her, where she then kissed him softly. “How was your day?” she asked, frowning when her dry throat caused her voice to crack halfway through. She quickly gulped down the rest of the cup.

These sessions only lasted two hours, and required her to take no additional time out of her routine to prepare for them, so her question was more a formality than anything else; she had spent most of her day with him, in and out of their classes. “Ayame called,” he told her, softly kissing her forehead as he helped her down from the machine. “She ordered me to remind you that her birthday is next month, and she’s expecting, in her words, ‘tons of presents from big sister.’”

“Looks like we’ll have to go shopping this weekend.”

He nodded and wrapped his arm around her shoulders, walking alongside her toward the changing area. “Kyoko also called. She’s in town for a few days and wanted to invite us to dinner.”

“You accepted?” she asked, tucking her head into his shoulder.

“Of course,” he answered, giving her shoulder a quick squeeze. “I told her that we’d love to join her. She’ll be meeting us at our apartment at seven.”

She took a quick glance to a wall clock. It was seven minutes past four. “Okay, we still have time,” she said. “Let’s get back home so we can get ready, hm?”

“Miss Chidori,” a technician called out to her, causing the couple to pause. He held a clipboard in his hands, no doubt the preliminary results of the day’s session. “Are you interested in seeing what we’ve discovered today?”

“No, I can’t today,” Kaname Chidori apologized, bowing slightly to the man. She had no love for her Whispered status, but she usually wanted to see what came out of her head during her muttering trances. “We have a dinner date that we have to get ready for.”

The technician was not put off in the least. “Of course, Miss Chidori,” he said, smiling understandingly. “See you in two weeks, then.”

---

December 23, 1915 hours (Japan Standard Time)
Chofu, Tokyo, Japan
Maison K Apartment Building

 

“I can’t believe it's been so long now,” Kyoko Tokiwa mused as she stared across the dinner table at Sousuke and Kaname. After the couple had returned from Meridia Island, the three had unanimously decided that they would rather have a quiet order-in dinner at Sousuke and Kaname’s apartment, rather than deal with the hassle of eating in a restaurant. “It almost seems like just yesterday that Sousuke was blowing up his first locker.”

“How the times have changed,” Kaname agreed, leaning over and nudging the mercenary with her shoulder. “It’s been what? Two months since you pulled your gun on anyone?”

“Affirmative,” he answered, purposely reverting to his old speech patterns, taking his time in destroying his plate of curry rice. “I have not seen need to use force in the pursuit of protecting Kaname for some time. It has been a very peaceful period.”

The Whispered girl sighed theatrically and shook her head. She knew he was teasing, but she reached over and pinched his side anyway. “And it’d better stay that way, Mister,” she said. “I’ve grown to like not having to worry about what you’re going to blow up.” She leaned in close and whispered, too quiet for Kyoko to hear, “And I bet MITHRIL’s just as happy that you're not wrecking things.”

Kyoko smiled at her friends’ antics. “And you guys have been dating almost three years,” she said in between bites. “It’s amazing you guys haven’t killed each other.”

Sousuke and Kaname exchanged looks, smiled, then she reached over her left hand to grab his right, lacing her fingers together with his. “Yeah, who would’ve thought we’d have ended up together?” Smiling wistfully, she took a moment to review her fondest memories, not the least bit surprised to note that some of them came from before they ever began dating. She squeezed Sousuke’s hand and grinned. “It’s just...”

“I know,” Kyoko said with a knowing smile. “You two are just made for each other.” She paused to take a sip of her tea. “So, have you guys talked about marriage yet?”

“We’ve-”

“Somewh-”

Both of them stopped, having begun speaking at the same time. Kaname blushed, squeezed Sousuke's hand again, and said, “Go ahead, Sousuke.”

He nodded, turned to Kyoko, and answered, “Some discussion has taken place. We haven’t made any decisions yet, but we’re content to take our time.”

Kaname nodded in agreement. “We’ve talked about waiting until we graduate from college, or after this year is finished.” She shrugged, then bit her lip and smiled at Sousuke. “I guess it’ll happen when we decide we don’t want to wait anymore.”

Sousuke nodded. He knew that what he was about to say would earn him a thump, but teasing Kaname was worth it. “Kurz, a penultimate sniper, has commented that my patience knows no bounds,” he said off-handed. “So it will be whenever you don’t want to wait anymore.”

Spitting the mercenary with an icy stare, Kaname pinched the skin between his fingers hard enough to leave a mark. Before she could say anything, Kyoko spoke up in Sousuke’s defense, “He said it before I could, Kaname. We all know that you’re not exactly patient, Kaname.”

Sensing that Kaname was a time bomb about to go off, Sousuke leaned over and whispered something in her ear, causing her to flush bright red and swat at him playfully. The situation successfully defused, he returned his attention to dinner. “You’ve gotten too good at that,” Kaname murmured.

“Necessary survival trait,” he quipped around a mouthful of curry.

She fixed him with another glare and raised her hand as though to swat him. Once again, Kyoko came to the rescue. “You guys are soul mates,” she said, sighing dreamily, and not a little bit jealously. It wasn’t that she had any designs for Sousuke; she’d been the couple’s most ardent advocate since the second day he came to Jindai High School. No, she was jealous that they had managed to find their destined partner, something she had not done for herself yet.

“Soul mate?” Sousuke asked genuinely.

Kaname turned a curious look to him. “You’ve never heard that before?” She was taken aback when he shook his head. “Wow, that... I’m surprised... Well, some people believe that every person has one person out there that they’re destined to love and spend their life with. Some say that this person is their other half, that they complete them.” Leaning over to Sousuke, she turned his face toward her with a finger on his chin and pressed a soft kiss to his lips. “In Japan, it’s said that a red string is tied to the pinky fingers of two of these people.”

Obligingly, Kyoko passed a ball of red string to Kaname, who swiftly cut off a length with her knife, then proceeded to tie one end to her pinky, the other end to Sousuke’s. Then she lifted her hand and grinned at the mercenary. “See? That makes us soul mates.”

Sousuke smiled. “Destiny, huh?” he asked, staring at the string attached to his hand. “That sounds great.”

---

December 23, 2018 hours (Japan Standard Time; 1118 Greenwich Mean Time)
Pacific Ocean, Surface
Amphibious Assault Submarine Tuatha de Danaan

 

Captain Teletha Testarossa stood in the spacious hangar bay of the palladium-powered assault submarine that she had personally designed, flanked on either side by Commander Richard Mardukas and Lieutenant Commander Andrei Sergeivich Kalinin, a clipboard in her hand that she scanned the contents of.

“Resupply is coming along smoothly, Captain,” Mardukas reported. “All supplies will be aboard and stowed away no later than 2100 hours.”

“Excellent,” Teletha said, passing the clipboard to her left hand in order to twirl her silver-blonde ponytail around her fingers. “And we’re picking up a new member of the SRT as well.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Kalinin answered. “A freelance mercenary with a sense of honor and morality. Something of a rarity in this day and age. He’s done work for the United States CIA, the British SAS, and also fought in the joint SAS-USMC action in central Russia two years ago.”

“The Russian Ultranationalists and the missile scare, yes?” Teletha asked, looking up at the taller man.

Kalinin nodded. “Yes. MITHRIL also had forces in that operation, which is where we first encountered him. He disappeared for a while after that, and when he reappeared in Japan just recently, we extended him an offer of employment.”

“And this will be him, now,” Teletha said, lifting her head and nodding toward the figure striding from behind an MH-60 Sea Hawk, military duffel slung over his right shoulder. The figure made a beeline directly for the command trio, and as they waited, Teletha brought the clipboard behind her back, taking a moment to give the man a cursory inspection. He was from America, according to his dossier, and that certainly explained his height, topping out at 6’ 2”. His body type, not easily determined due to the baggy military flightsuit he wore, likely conformed to the athletic build commonly found in soldiers. The dark tan visible on his exposed skin spoke to many days spent fighting in the fields of war, and the unkempt mop of brown hair on his head likewise spoke that he hadn't seen a barber’s scissors in several months.

Stopping in front of them, the man dropped his duffel to the ground, stood at attention, and snapped off a smart salute. “Permission to come aboard, Captain?”

Schooling her features into military neutrality, Teletha returned the salute and answered, “Permission granted. Welcome aboard the Tuatha de Danaan, Mister Crayson.” Lowering the salute, she extended her hand toward the man. “I look forward to working with you.”

“As do I, Captain,” he answered, surprising her by not shaking her hand as she had expected. Instead, he grasped her arm by the wrist, the kind of grip normally employed to pull a comrade out of harm’s way. Teletha instinctively matched his action, and he glanced down at her firm grip on his wrist, smirking in amusement. “Nice grip you’ve got there, Captain.”

Neither of the three commanders of the Tuatha de Danaan knew what to make of this. Kalinin looked curious, Mardukas looked on the verge of dressing the soldier down, and poor Teletha just looked confused. “Umm... you have a strong grip as well, Mister Crayson.” Clearing her throat, she reached up and twirled her ponytail nervously, then turned toward the exit of the hangar bay. She motioned for the mercenary to walk beside her, then began a small tour of the submarine. Mardukas and Kalinin followed behind. “So, Mister Crayson, according to your dossier, you claim your nationality as Malaysian?”

He chuckled slightly, shouldering his duffel again. “No, Captain, that comes down to an error in the personnel computers,” he answered. “I told them that I was Mandalorian, and they misinterpreted it as Malaysian.”

Teletha looked up at him quizzically. “I’m afraid I don't recognize that nationality.” She blinked, realizing how that had come out. “I mean, I’m not trying to invalidate it. What I mean to say is...” She cleared her throat again, and once more set her ponytail to twirling. “I’m unfamiliar with it, is what I mean.”

He nodded in understanding. “Less a nationality than a culture, really,” he explained. “A way of living one’s life. It’s quite a long process to explain.”

“I see,” Teletha said, an interested note in her voice. Kalinin and Mardukas exchanged weary glances; the captain’s innate curiosity tended to cause trouble. “I’d like to take the time to learn about that at some point, if you wouldn’t mind.”

As the quartet passed out of the hangar and into the corridors of the submarine, considered spacious by normal submarine standards, the mercenary was silent for a moment, then gave Teletha a sideways glance. “The basics, sure, but I can’t tell you any of the serious stuff,” he said finally. “That’s only for those with serious intent to become Mando’ade.”

At an intersection, two approaching crew members stopped to salute the passing entourage. Teletha turned to return their salutes, then fixed the mercenary with a confused look. “I'm sorry. Become what?”

Mando’ade,” he repeated. “Mandalorians. It’s our word for ourselves. We have our own language.”

Teletha’s eyes all but sparkled. The young captain craved knowledge, and this sudden revelation of an unknown culture with its own language was a tempting lure. “Oh, that’s...wow.” She brushed her ponytail against her lip, feeling a thrill rush through her at the thought of new things to learn. “Maybe, could you teach me some of the language, at least?”

The mercenary opened his mouth to answer, but before he could, Mardukas cleared his throat and announced in a testy voice, “Captain, Mister Crayson needs to be assigned quarters and be informed as to his assignments.”

“Oh!” Teletha started, her cheeks tinging pink, as she turned an apologetic expression up to the mercenary.

He gave her a knowing smile, rolled his eyes at Mardukas’ intolerance, then mouthed the word, “Later.”

Teletha beamed upon understanding his meaning, then cleared her throat and coughed into her fist. “Yes, yes, thank you, Commander,” she told Mardukas. She turned to the mercenary. “Having accepted a commission from MITHRIL, Mister Crayson, your prior battlefield experiences will earn you the pay grade of E-7, with a bi-weekly stipend of two and a half thousand US dollars, which can be easily exchanged to any existing global currency you wish with no penalty. You will earn an additional five hundred dollars per combat mission per pay period. The bonus is a flat rate, but can change upwards depending on the difficulty of the mission in question.”

“Outstanding,” the mercenary said, walking beside the captain with his hands clasped behind his back. “Getting paid even when I don’t have to go out and kill anyone.” He glanced over to his new commander, noting the stricken expression on her face. “It’s a joke, Captain. If I thrived on killing, I would have continued to sell my services to the highest bidder.”

“We’re pleased to have you with us,” Teletha said with an easy smile, then sobered again. “You’re assigned to the Special Response Team, filling the position of Urzu Five. You have operated Arm Slaves before, correct?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ve driven everything but that shiny one I saw in the hangar back there and those new Soviet models.”

“Good.” Teletha nodded in approval. “Then there’s no need for you to undergo training. You are ready to undertake a mission at any time?”

“You point, I shoot, Captain.”

“Quarters have been assigned to you,” she said as the group entered a stairwell and descended one deck. “Do you have any other belongings?”

Shaking his head, he hefted the duffel. “Here’s a freebie about Mandalorians. We’re nomadic by nature, and that means we have to be ready to pack up and move at the drop of a hat. If it’s not useful or weighs you down, it’s not worth having.”

Teletha carefully observed the mercenary as he said this, then turned away, the rest of the walk to the crew quarters made in silence as she appeared to be considering his words, weighing the message as though it were a precious gem. Finally, they stopped outside a set of quarters that the door was not closed to, and Teletha motioned toward it with her clipboard, twirling her ponytail around the index finger of her other hand. “These are your quarters, Gunnery Sergeant,” she said. “Settle in at your leisure. There will be a morning briefing at 0800 tomorrow. You’re off-duty until then.” She gave him a look that very plainly pleaded for him to find time to teach her what things he could about his culture and language.

He nodded and stepped through the portal into his new quarters. “Yes, ma’am, I’ll be there. Is there anything else you need, Captain?”

“No, that will be everything, Gunnery Sergeant,” she said, then smiled and headed further on up the corridor.

Mardukas and Kalinin turned and went back the way they came. “Garon Crayson,” Kalinin mused aloud. “An interesting young man. I find it somewhat amusing that his name is so similar to Gauron.”

“I find it distressing,” Mardukas scoffed. “And this nonsense of his, this mercenary culture, these...”

“Mandalorians,” Kalinin supplied.

“Yes. You noticed how he flaunted that nonsense to distract the captain?”

“I think the nonsense is in your reading of the events, with all due respect, Commander,” Kalinin said. “You know the captain as well as I. She craves knowledge on all new things, and this Mandalorian culture is new. She will learn all of it that he allows her to learn, and things will return to normal.”

“I can only hope, Mister Kalinin, that for your sake, you're right.”

---

December 23, 2110 hours, local time (1210 hours, Greenwich Mean Time)
Pacific Ocean, Surface
Tuatha de Danaan Deck 1, Corridor C

 

Now hear this, now hear this,” the stern voice of Commander Mardukas droned over the ship’s intercom. “All hands, rig for dive. Normal operations mode. All hands, rig for dive. Normal operations mode.”

“Vending machines on a submarine,” Garon mumbled to himself as he looked over the available selection, ignoring the announcement. He reached out a hand to grab the side of the machine, bracing himself as the deck tilted beneath him. “I can see why the US Navy calls this thing the Toy Box. All sorts of amenities and extras you’d never find on a Virginia-class...”

The deck remained tilted for several minutes, before finally leveling off. Having never served on a submarine before, Garon had no idea how deep they had gone; even if he had served on a submarine, he knew that the unique characteristics of the Tuatha de Danaan allowed the next-generation submarine to dive faster than any known boat. Once the ship had leveled, he looked up and down the corridor, shrugged, and let go of the machine.

“Now, about my choices,” he murmured, stroking his bottom lip between thumb and forefinger as he leaned over to inspect the snack food vending machine. “Wow, tons of regional stuff from all over the world in here... What’s a guy gotta do to get a bag of Doritos?”

“A7,” Teletha’s voice called out from his left.

His gaze immediately snapped toward her, followed by his body snapping to attention as he gave a crisp salute. “Captain.”

Teletha promptly returned the salute, then gestured to the machine. “A7 isn’t exactly Doritos, but they’re a Japanese equivalent. They taste the same.”

“Ah, thank you, Captain,” he said, tapping the code into the keypad and watching the machine dispense the bag as Teletha stepped past him and perused the choices of the beverage machine.

“Have you had a chance to explore the ship, Mister Crayson?” she asked, brushing her ponytail across her lip.

“Somewhat,” he answered, peering closely into the snack machine again. “Aha! Sour skittles, there you are, you sneaky little di’kut.” He pleasantly tapped a new code into the keypad after inserting the proper coinage.

Teletha pursed her lips in concentration as she attempted to decipher the meaning of the foreign word he had used through context and intuition. As she did so, she absently tapped her fingers across the selection row of the beverage machine. She didn’t realize she’d pressed down a selection button until she heard the heavy metallic thunk of the can landing in the access tray. Looking down, she blanched when she realized that the beverage she had inadvertently chosen was not one she enjoyed. “No! I didn’t mean to hit that button! I don’t want that one!”

Garon looked over at her curiously. “Captain?”

Still fuming, she huffed out, “Oh, I was just standing here trying to see if I could figure out what that word meant, and I hit that button on accident and got a drink I don’t even like.”

He leaned over to look at the can lying in the tray, then shrugged, leaned over, and inserted enough coins into the machine to pay for a second beverage. “Here, I’ll take that one, since I like it anyway, and you can pick what you want.”

Momentarily forgetting that she was the commanding officer of a multi-trillion dollar assault submarine, she clapped her hands together happily and squealed, “Oh, thank you, Mister Crayson! That’s so generous of you!”

“No worries, Captain,” he said, leaning down to collect the can already in the tray. “And the word di’kut is usually a derogatory word for an idiot or a moron. But in the context I used, it’s harmless, and could be similar to the phrase ‘you sneaky little bugger’ or whatever.”

Nodding her head, Teletha pressed the button for her favorite drink, a fizzy strawberry-flavored milk. “I don’t imagine I would’ve figured that one out,” she said as she watched the can crash down into the tray. After retrieving it, she looked up at her newest crew member, restraining a giggle at the arm full of snacks he carried. “Are you busy at the moment, Mister Crayson?”

“Not at all,” he answered. “What do you need me to do, Captain?”

“I’m off-duty right now, so please call me Tessa,” she said. “If you don’t mind, would you join me in the recreation room? I’d like to start learning about your language and culture.”

He nodded. “Of course. Lead the way, Cap—” He cleared his throat. “Excuse me. Tessa.” Falling into step to the captain’s right, he allowed her to lead the way to the recreation room as his brow furrowed in thought.

Teletha picked up on this. “Something on your mind, Mister Crayson?”

“Just an idle thought, really,” he answered, shrugging. “You prefer it when people call you by your nickname when you’re not on the clock, right?”

She nodded, curious as to where he was going with his questioning. “Yes, that’s right.”

“Very well.” He nodded to himself, as though he’d just come to a decision. “Please don’t take offense, but it feels strange to me to say a name like ‘Tessa.’ So, if it’s okay with you, I’ll call you Tel’ika.”

She tilted her head to the side, wordlessly calling for an explanation.

“’Ika is a diminutive modifier to a name,” he explained. “You take the first syllable of a name, two at the absolute most, cut off the rest, and add ’ika to the end. It means ‘Little...blank’ and is often used for children, but it also is a term of endearment, or a nickname.”

For a moment, she’d almost taken offense at the meaning of the modifier; she was terribly self-conscious about her short stature, after all. But then she saw the new nickname for what it was: his recognizing her desire to learn about his culture, and his cooperation by applying a little bit of his culture to her.

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” she said, smiling. “But since it also is a term of endearment, I’m afraid I can’t allow you to call me by that. I don’t know you well enough yet.” She modulated her voice up higher at the last sentence, then barely stifled a giggle and skipped around the corner into the recreation room.

Left in the corridor with an arm full of snacks and a raised eyebrow, Garon regarded his captain curiously. “Did she just flirt with me?” He shook his head slowly. “Poor girl has obviously never dealt with a Mando before, and it therefore falls to me to teach her the proper manners.”

Walking into the recreation room, Garon took quick stock of the place. A row of tables along the far wall held four desktop computers. Unsure of the mechanics of the internet as concerned a submarine when underwater, he stopped short of assuming that they had internet access or were used for gaming. Three couches lined the wall immediately to his left, along with two more couches facing the wall on his far left, where a flat-screen plasma television sat silently. A pool table was situated behind the couches, followed by three groupings of large tables for eating, socializing, and that sort of thing. Teletha was sitting on one of the couches facing the television. Crossing the empty room, he came around the side of the couch, which could comfortably fit three people, and sat down at the opposite end from the captain.

“For starters,” he said without preamble, “that curious greeting I introduced to you earlier. It’s the Mandalorian equivalent of a handshake. The reason for the hand-to-wrist grip is to prove that you’ve got the strength to haul a wounded comrade to safety.”

Teletha nodded; she could see the reasoning behind that. She was silent, her eyes pleading for more information, as she sipped the fizzy drink and carefully observed the mercenary.

“The most traditional Mandalorian greeting is Su cuy’gar, which literally translates to ‘So you’re still alive.’ Generally, it’s shortened down to Su’cuy and means the same thing when said that way.” He scratched his head for a moment, then took the time to open the bag of chips and tentatively taste its contents. Satisfied with the taste, he nodded his head. “As you may have already inferred, the Mandalorians are a nomadic warrior society, and usually they produce a lot of mercenaries and bounty hunters. It’s kind of hard to explain.”

Teletha shook her head. “No, no, I understand perfectly. Please, continue.”

He nodded, then leaned back against the couch. It was quite comfortable. “Many view the Mandalorians as a bunch of thugs and honorless brigands who’d cut your throat just as soon as look at you. This is not true. The people who assumed that just broke one of the rules of socially interacting with Mandalorians. They’re simple and easy to understand.” He raised his left hand and began ticking off points. “First, always speak your mind. Second, never turn down a meal if you’re offered one. Third, always look a Mando straight in the eye when you’re talking to one. Fourth, take off your boots when you're a guest. Fifth, pay your debts. Sixth, respect the elderly; if they’re old, that means they’re crafty and skilled enough to have survived to old age, and that means they’ve earned the respect. Seventh, fuss over Mandalorian children. Believe it or not, the Mandos are actually a very family-oriented bunch. And, lastly and most important, never make a pass at a Mandalorian of the opposite sex unless you intend to go all the way, and by that I mean become a Mandalorian yourself.”

At the last point, Teletha blushed and looked away, then blinked, remembered the third rule of dealing with Mandalorians, and forced herself to turn back and meet his gaze. In order to hide her embarrassment, she asked, “How does one become a Mandalorian?”

Smiling, feeling his point to be made, he leaned back into the couch and munched a few more chips. “That’s fairly easy. Follow the Six Tenants, or the Resol’Nare, as we call them. Ba’jur, beskar’gam, Ara’nov, aliit, Mando’a bal Mand’alor- An vencuyan mhi.”

Swamped with so many new words, Teletha wavered in her seat, seemingly about to pass out from sensory overload. She quickly took a sip of her drink, and this managed to calm her down considerably.

Obligingly, he explained, ticking off points again, “Ba’jur. Education. Raise your children as Mandalorians. Beskar’gam. Armor. Wear the Mandalorian armor. I’ll explain that another time. Ara’nov. Self-defense. Defend yourself and your family. Aliit. Clan. Help your clan succeed and sustain itself. Mando’a. Our language. Gotta learn it. Mand’alor. Our leader. When she calls us to arms, we answer the call. An vencuyan mhi. All help us survive. Live the Resol’Nare, and you’re a Mando. That simple.”

Nodding her head in understanding, Teletha considered, for a brief instant, to make a joke that she was already working on learning the language. But in a flash of insight, she realized that it would be a gross insult to make light of one of the core principles of being a Mandalorian. “Yours are a very complex people,” she said. “Sadly, I don’t think that either of us can devote the necessary time for me to learn the language in these kinds of informal meetings. Would you happen to have a written translation dictionary, or better yet, any instructional books on learning the language?”

“A translation dictionary I can give you,” he answered. “I’ve got one stored on a memory chip in my kit, my besbe. No go on instructional books, though. Nobody who would be of the mind to write one took the opportunity to learn the rules on how to socially interact with Mandalorians beforehand.” He grinned darkly. “Most people who don’t know those rules usually end up in a world of hurt.”

Teletha smiled, either oblivious to or unconcerned with the unspoken statement that ‘world of hurt’ usually meant ‘just plain dead.’ “Then since I do know the rules, perhaps I can write just such a book.”

Garon raised his drink can in a toasting gesture. “That would indeed be something to see, alor’ad.”

“Captain,” she stated confidently.

He smiled. “You’re a fast learner.”

---

December 24, 2022 hours (Japan Standard Time)
Chofu, Tokyo, Japan
Maison K Apartment Building

 

Kaname and Sousuke sat snuggled together on the couch in the living room of their apartment. The lights in the living room were turned off, leaving the only illumination in the room coming from the multicolored light strings wrapped around the Christmas tree in the corner. Turning her gaze over toward the tree, Kaname sighed happily and nuzzled her head into Sousuke’s chest, warmed from without by the heater keeping their apartment cozy, warmed from within by Sousuke’s embrace around her.

Looking down at the peaceful girl in his arms, Sousuke wrapped his arms around her, hugging her tightly, then kissed the top of her head. He took a deep breath, drinking in the scent of almonds and vanilla that came from the particular shampoo she used. Bringing up his right hand, he traced his fingers through her hair, starting from her scalp and slowly threading his way through the soft strands down to their termination point at her hip. She let out another sigh at this contact, reached back to untie the ribbon from her hair, then shook her head, setting the water-colored mane streaming across her shoulders and back.

As she settled herself against him again, Sousuke looked over to the end table at the end of the couch. Reaching over, he tugged open the drawer, reached inside to produce a small, wrapped rectangular box, then closed the door, held the box within Kaname's range of vision, and said, “Happy birthday, Kaname.”

“Hm?” She lifted her head reluctantly, opening her eyes, blinking as she saw the offered box. “Sousuke?” She sat up and took the box in her hands, looking over it, smiling as she saw the tag that read ‘To: Angel’ in Sousuke’s handwriting. Slipping her finger beneath the taped flap at the end of the box, she broke the tape seal, unfolded the end of the wrapping paper, and slid the box within out. Her eyes widened when she saw the name of the jewelry store Zales on the box. She flipped open the box, and nearly dropped it. “Oh, Sousuke...” she breathed, covering her mouth with her free hand.

Sitting inside the jewelry box, glistening in the light of the Christmas tree, was a beautiful bracelet with eight blue topaz gems outlined with diamond-accented sterling silver. She turned the box in her hands, watching the gems sparkle as they reflected the tree’s lights. Feeling tears welling up in her eyes, she looked toward Sousuke, who was watching her carefully, his expression akin to that of a puppy who brought the newspaper to his master and was waiting for praise.

Smiling, Kaname carefully set the box down beside her, then leaned over, wrapped her arms around Sousuke’s neck, and demonstrated exactly what she thought of his gift. When she pulled back moments later, Sousuke was gasping for breath, and she, herself, was likewise breathless. “Thank you, Sousuke,” she whispered. “I love it.”

He smiled and kissed her forehead. “I had an idea, that since your birthday is the day before Christmas, perhaps we should celebrate both on your birthday.”

She grinned. “Thoughtful and efficient,” she said. “Things have changed so much since we first met.” She leaned down and kissed him again. “But I wouldn’t trade anything that’s happened. And I also think that’s an excellent idea. I’ll pass out the presents.”

Standing up off the couch, she took a moment to stretch out her muscles, rising up on her toes and reaching up toward the ceiling, giving Sousuke quite a pleasant view. She then strolled over to the tree in the corner, sat down, and beckoned her soldier to join her. As he stood up to sit beside her, she leaned over and grabbed the first present beneath the tree, looking at the tag on it. There weren’t even half a dozen presents under the tree, but it was something that Kaname took great pride in. Sousuke had spent his entire life on the battlefield, and she was determined to ensure that he could enjoy the things that normal people took for granted.

“This one’s yours, Sousuke,” she said, smiling, as she held it out to him. As she started to reach for another present, she suddenly remembered what that one was, and paused with her hand resting on top of a bow in order to watch, holding her breath, as he opened the present.

Unaware of her eyes on him—it had taken them both many months to train him so that it didn’t set off his combat instincts whenever she watched him—he went about unwrapping the present with as much meticulous care that he would approach assembling a sniper rifle and setting up an observation point. Setting the wrapping paper aside, he pulled the top of the box off, and she caught the subtle upward motion of his eyebrows. Reaching into the box, his hand came back out clasped around the grip of a boxy pistol half the length of his forearm.

“Oh, please tell me that you don’t already have one of those,” Kaname pleaded, wincing slightly. “I looked through all your weapons and didn’t see one like that...”

“Heckler and Koch MP7A1,” he said, turning the weapon over in his hand. “I’ve...I’ve been wanting to have an opportunity to requisition one from the MITHRIL armories.” He looked up at her. “How did you get this?”

She smiled, pleased that she had chosen the correct weapon. “Kurz and Melissa helped me. I paid for it, they used their credentials to buy it and have it brought here, then I had a bit of custom work done to it. Look at the bottom of the stock.”

Tipping the weapon up, he turned his eyes to the lower end of the rear of the retractable stock, seeing that a Valentine heart had been laser-engraved into the metal of the weapon, with the initials SS and KC inside it. Though it was little more than a schoolyard symbol of young love and affection, it was nonetheless special to Sousuke, who always felt as though he was playing catch up in matters of love.

He looked up at her and smiled. “Thank you, Kaname. I’ll always keep this with me, and it’s just one more reminder of why I need to come home safely from missions.”

Kaname literally glowed, then turned and picked up the present she had been resting her hand on, which also was Sousuke’s. She held it out to him, then turned and picked up the next present, labeled for her, and the two opened their presents together. Both were books, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War for Sousuke, and The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide, which was a complete collection of all five Douglas Adams books, for Kaname. Kaname had been a fan of Douglas Adams since before she’d ever met Sousuke, and the young soldier became fascinated with the tactics and strategies presented by the Max Brooks novels.

Reaching back underneath the tree, she pulled out a large boxy item with her name on it. Curious, she tore off the wrapping paper, and found herself staring at the harisen she had once used to forcefully adjust Sousuke's attitude, framed, and with a plaque attached, which read, ‘A faithful soldier.’ Kaname laughed and looked over at Sousuke. “Okay, who gave you the idea for this? Was it Kurz?”

“No.”

“Melissa?”

“Negative.”

“Shinji?”

He shook his head.

“Kyoko!”

“I thought of it on my own, Kaname.”

She giggled and looked down at the framed harisen. “Who ever would’ve thought? Sousuke Sagara giving a gag gift.” She smiled up at him. “It’s very special, Sousuke. You did good.” She looked back under the now-empty tree, and her heart began to hammer in her chest. Now’s the time...

Taking a deep breath, she set the framed harisen down, stood up, then grabbed Sousuke’s hands, pulled him to his feet, and guided him back over to the couch. “I’ve got one last present for you, and it’s a surprise,” she said, pushing him down onto the couch. “Now close your eyes, and don’t open them again until I tell you.” She smiled, then added playfully, “That’s an order.”

“Understood,” he answered automatically, closing his eyes and waiting with his hands on his knees.

Giggling quietly to herself, Kaname reached into the drawer of the end table, grabbed a roll of red wrapping ribbon, and placed the end of it between Sousuke’s fingers. “Hold that. Don’t let it go.”

“Uhh, okay,” he answered, clasping the ribbon in his fist securely.

Several minutes passed as Sousuke waited, eyes closed obediently. He had heard Kaname’s door shut, heard her shuffling around inside her room. He assumed that she had hidden this last present in her room, but couldn’t make any sense of the reason she’d handed him a ribbon. After a few more moments, he could no longer hear any movement from Kaname’s room. Then he heard her call out, “Okay, Sousuke! Open your eyes and follow the ribbon to your present!”

Opening his eyes, he immediately stood and pulled the ribbon up, walking along its length to its source. Finding it wrapped twice around her doorknob, he paused, looking at the point where the ribbon disappeared around the door. Taking a deep breath, he turned the doorknob and pushed the door open, and nearly collapsed where he stood.

There, sitting on the bed, her face burning red, Kaname watched him. She was not wearing the clothing she’d been wearing in the living room. Instead, she was clad in very revealing lingerie designed like the wrapping on a Christmas present, with a large bow covering her chest. The ribbon he held in his hand led directly to her, tied to the end of the bow.

Smiling past the massive blush on her cheeks, she asked him, “Well, aren’t you going to come open your present?”

 

Chapter Text

"You can't say that civilization don't advance, however, for in every war they kill you in a new way."
- Will Rogers

 

All In

 

December 25, 0700 hours (Japan Standard Time)
Chofu, Tokyo, Japan
Maison K Apartment Building

 

Kweh! It’s morning! Kweh! Get up, Kaname! If you don’t, you’ll be late!”

A distinctly un-lady-like groan reverberated from beneath the covers of Kaname’s bed as the infuriating drone of the alarm clock drew her from her blissful slumber. Arms snaked out from beneath the sheets, gripping the ends of the pillow and pulling it down hard over her head. “Dammit, I forgot to turn that thing off last night...”

Kweh! It’s morning! Kweh! Get up, Kaname!”

Her groan now turning to a growl, Kaname called out, “Sousuke!”

The vaguely human-sized pile of blankets directly beside her grunted, then responded, “Yes, Kaname?”

“Shoot that thing.”

“Yes, Kaname.”

The pile of blankets shifted slightly, then Sousuke’s arm reached out from beneath the pillows and covers, his hand clutching the MP7 that he had received from Kaname. A single shot rang out in the room, and silence descended once more as bits and pieces of the alarm clock scattered all over the room. The hand holding the weapon set it down on the dresser where the alarm clock had been.

“4.6 by 30mm,” the soldier pronounced, his voice muffled beneath pillows and sheets. “Designed to penetrate modern high-quality body armor. Overkill against the alarm clock.”

“Sousuke?” Kaname asked drowsily.

“Yes, Kaname?”

“Quit your otaku talk and go back to sleep.”

“Yes, Kaname.”

---

December 24, 2355 hours, Greenwich Mean Time (December 25, 0755 hours, local time)
South China Sea, Depth: 100 meters
Amphibious Assault Submarine Tuatha de Danaan, Deck 1, Recreation Room

 

The off-duty crew members of the Tuatha de Danaan had turned the recreation room into a standing, come-as-you-will Christmas party. One of the other pilots in the Urzu team had taken his Arm Slave to a remote forested area in Russia, cut down an appropriately-sized tree with the mech’s monomolecular cutter, and brought it back to the submarine to be decorated and set in the corner of the recreation room. A number of wrapped presents had found their way under the tree the previous night, courtesy of a mysterious figure wearing a red suit, whom eyewitnesses swore resembled Lieutenant Commander Kalinin.

The presents were mostly gone now, shreds of wrapping paper scattered around the room in their wake. Only those addressed to crew members currently on duty or off the ship remained. A veritable feast had been prepared by the kitchen staff and set out along tables on the rear wall of the room, allowing the crew to come in at their leisure and eat whatever they liked. Trays that were cleared were summarily removed and replaced; the gathering was an all-day event.

A number of off-duty mechanics had monopolized the television, watching some recent movie that one of them had received as a gift. Several small groups of crewmen were gathered around, chatting amiably and enjoying the relaxed duty day. Garon stood at the food table, a steaming cup of hot cocoa in hand, perusing the available food. After a few moments, he grabbed a handful of crackers and cheese from a snack tray, deciding to simply snack for the time being.

Turning away from the food, he began to head toward the couches, and nearly ran over Teletha, who was standing a few feet behind him. He managed to check himself in time, his upper body heaving forward as he slammed to a halt. Keeping hold on the cheese and crackers wasn’t a problem, but the hot cocoa was more of an issue, splashing up around the sides of the cup, scalding his hand. He grimaced, but at least he hadn’t spilled any on Teletha’s uniform.

“I’m sorry,” she said, bowing her head toward the mercenary. “I didn’t mean to surprise you, Mister Crayson.” She broke into a beautiful smile. “I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas.”

He gave her a lopsided smirk, then stepped around her and set the cup down on the nearest table. “Got something for you, Captain,” he told her, brushing excess liquid away on his pants, then reaching into his breast pocket and withdrawing a memory disk for a datareader, the new-age replacement for paper books. “Merry Christmas to you, too.”

She accepted the disk and turned it over in her hand, looking at the word “Mando’a” written on a scrap of paper taped to its surface. She smiled, then slipped the disk into her own breast pocket. “Thank you very much, Mister Crayson.” Suddenly, as though just realizing something, she gasped and placed a hand over her mouth, then blushed and turned away. After a moment, she looked back at Garon. “I’m so sorry, I don’t have anything for you!”

“Don’t worry about it, Tessa,” he said, ignoring his own distaste for such an unusual name in order to try to cheer up his diminutive captain. “I’m the new guy, so it’s okay that you didn’t—”

“No, it isn’t!” She immediately put a hand over her mouth, looking around in embarrassment at the volume of her outburst. A few crewmen looked over, but upon seeing that it was their captain, they turned back to what they were doing. The notion that they were familiar with these sorts of things made her blush even harder. Clearing her throat, she continued, “Umm, as I was saying, as captain of the ship, it’s my responsibility...”

He put a hand on her shoulder. “I understand,” he said quietly. “You’re one of those rare breed of commanders, the kind that’s always looking out for the welfare of their soldiers, and not just because of their strategic value. You look out for us because you care.” Lowering his hand, he reached out and took hold of her left hand, squeezing it gently. “Never lose that outlook, Captain. That makes you one of the rarest and best commanders in the world. I’m honored to serve under you.”

If at all possible, Teletha blushed even deeper. She looked down at her hand clasped in his, hers seeming tiny in comparison, then up at his face, at the sincerity behind his words. She smiled faintly. “I... Th-thank you, Mister Crayson. That means a lot to me.” Slowly, she extricated her hand from his, then looked at a clock on the wall. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to report for duty.”

She walked out of the recreation room, her thoughts swimming in her head, not a single one of them having anything to do with Whispered, black technology, or the itinerary of the Tuatha de Danaan for the day. She was feeling strange, a tightness in her chest that she was unfortunately all-too-familiar with. She knew she had already formed a connection with the new mercenary, but was she really like all those foolish girls in anime she had seen who fell in love so quickly? She hadn’t even known him for two full days yet.

Three and a half years had gone by since Sousuke’s initial assignment to protect Kaname, three and a half years since Teletha had encountered her first love, and her first loss at love. She was twenty years old now, and she liked to think that she had grown past and learned from those events, but on some days, she still felt that ache in her heart from having lost the contest, but she did not begrudge Kaname her victory. She’d learned the meaning of the saying ‘if you love something, let it go’ when she had bowed out of the battle for Sousuke’s heart.

Like Sousuke, Garon did not treat her as an unassailable authority figure, instead like a fellow warrior, one who held authority and deserved respect, but was still a human being, thus still susceptible to mistakes and melancholy. He treated her exactly as she was, a young woman with an enormous responsibility thrust on her shoulders, who often felt isolated and alone in her position. Despite being brand new to the ship, and thus by most military standards having no business being so familiar with Teletha, Garon treated her like a friend, and sometimes, that was exactly what she so desperately needed. Even knowing that that camaraderie was the cause of her tender feelings, that knowledge did nothing to help in controlling those feelings.

Letting out a vexing sigh, Teletha stopped outside the door to the bridge, took a few moments to compose herself, then keyed her personal access code into the keypad beside the door. A moment later, the keypad beeped, then the door slid open into its housing, allowing her to step inside into the theater-sized brain of her submarine.

“Captain on deck!” a bridge crewman called out. Those who were seated remained seated at their stations, though they sat more upright, and those standing snapped to attention.

“As you were, gentlemen,” she announced, pushing her personal issues away from the front of her mind and focusing on duty. “Mister Mardukas, I have the conn.”

“Aye, Captain, you have the conn,” Mardukas responded, taking his normal position to the right of the command chair.

Swiftly crossing the bridge, Teletha seated herself in the command chair, leaning back into the leather cushions. A brief sigh escaped her lips as the comforting contours of her chair eased some of her tension. She looked up as an ensign appeared at her left elbow, holding out a datachip. “Thank you, Mister Westen,” she said, then plugged in the datachip into the electronic reader in the armrest of her chair.

Only half-listening to the standard drone of noise on the bridge, Teletha scanned through the duty report for the morning, tapping the right armrest of the chair with a stylus as she read, giving her electronic signature where necessary, and paying special attention to any potential hotspots that may require the Tuatha de Danaan’s attention. No new hotspots had appeared, nor were any existing situations escalating, so she let the submarine’s alert condition remain at blue, following the five-step color-coded war readiness system developed by the United States; blue was the second-lowest out of five.

“There’s relatively little going on in the world today,” she mused quietly. “Helm,” she called out, “set course to zero-nine-two, one-third speed, maintain present depth.”

“Course zero-nine-two, one-third speed, maintaining depth, aye, ma’am,” the young woman at the helm answered, turning the submarine onto its new course.

As the deck tilted slightly with the new heading, Teletha ejected the daily report’s datachip, handing it off to Mardukas, then reached into her breast pocket and removed the chip that Garon had given her. Normally she’d never use the command chair’s electronic reader for personal use, but with so little activity going on that would require their attention, the lack of anything to do would make her day drag on. She inserted the disk into the electronic reader, then crossed her legs and began to thumb through the words in the very-thorough dictionary, murmuring them quietly to herself as she read.

---

December 25, 0130 hours Greenwich Mean Time (1030 hours Japan Standard Time)
Philippine Sea, Depth: 100 meters
Tuatha de Danaan Deck 1, Main Hangar

 

Garon sat upon the shoulder of the M9 Gernsback Arm Slave to which he had been assigned, an electronic reader in his left hand displaying the blueprints of the humanoid mech, his right foot resting on one of the cockpit panels. He paged through screens of schematics, brow furrowed in concentration. “More difficult than I had expected,” he murmured to himself. “I’ll end up having to take this thing down to nothing. That or requisition my own to tinker with. Good thing I’m so well-paid. Month or two, three or four missions, I could buy a new M9.”

The main hangar of the TDD-1 was almost cavernously empty in its lack of personnel and the tidy arrangement of equipment, vehicles, and Arm Slaves, with most of the off-duty personnel at the Christmas party and only a half-dozen or so personnel, mostly maintenance crew, on duty with no impending missions. The only activity going on in the hangar consisted of a crew of mechanics servicing the ship’s small fleet of F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighters.

Looking up as a dropped wrench hit the deck with an echoing clang, Garon looked over the neat rows of the multirole combat fighters and transport/assault helicopters nearby. He shook his head slowly. “Submarine acting as an aircraft carrier,” he mused. “The things that are reality nowadays that you used to only see as science fiction or in anime.”

Two figures stepped out of an adjoining briefing room, heading toward the row of M9s and the single unique unit, the ARX-7A, codename Arbalest. As they approached, their identities became clearer: the shorter figure was Second Lieutenant Melissa Mao, second in command of the Urzu special response team on board the Tuatha de Danaan, and the other figure was Sergeant Major Kurz Weber, the marksman of Urzu team and Garon’s de facto wingman. As they drew closer, Garon stood up on his M9 and tossed a salute to Melissa.

The Chinese-American woman returned the salute half-heartedly, then called up, “Hard at work, eh Gunny?”

“Just scheming up some modifications to my unit,” he answered, sitting back down. “It’s going to end up being a lot harder than I had first thought.”

Kurz laughed and said, “What’ve you got in mind? Some nice rims?”

“More like a complete redesign,” the mercenary answered, tossing down his electronic reader. As Kurz caught it and looked over the plans he’d come up with, he outlined the major details, “Drastic change in posture, enhanced propulsion units, additional weapon hardpoints, that sort of thing.”

The slack expression on Kurz’s face spoke volumes. “Wow,” he said. “This is just...You really think you can do this?”

“I’ll probably have to buy another M9 and build it from the ground up,” Garon answered, shrugging. “But just think. In the same way that an air force has its air superiority fighters, multirole fighters, and high-end bombers, that design you’re holding right there may end up being the B-52 of AS’s.”

Melissa took the electronic reader from Kurz and looked over the design blueprints. It was all intricate and well-designed, detailing a mech that slightly resembled a metallic facsimile of a large felinoid, albeit with massive clawed forelimbs that looked capable of ripping the TDD-1’s hull to ribbons and huge wing-like extensions that housed high-capacity engines. “Nasty little machine you’re designing here,” she said. “What’s it called?”

Bes’uliik,” he answered.

“Gesundheit,” Kurz quipped.

Recognizing that he was speaking in a different language, Melissa clarified, “Now give it to me in English.”

“Basilisk,” Garon filled in, then smirked. “See? Not everything in Mando’a is some weirdly-contrived assortment of letters and sounds that barely produce a word. Some you can recognize their basis.”

Kurz grabbed the electronic reader back before Melissa could toss it up to Garon, and carefully inspected the schematics. “Hey, wait, this is starting to make a weird sort of sense,” he said. “See, when you talked about being Mandalorian, I thought I’d heard that somewhere before. And now, looking here at this thing, and with the name, it’s all come back to me. You talking about the Mandalorians from Star Wars?”

Garon grinned. “Well it’s about time somebody figured it out,” he said. “Gold star for you, Sergeant Major. Oops, I’m fresh out of gold stars.”

“So, you actually think of yourself as being one of this fictional culture?” Kurz asked. He didn’t have to say that it made Garon sound like a mental case, his facial expression did a good enough job of conveying that statement.

“What makes it fictional?” Garon asked coolly, staring down at the German AS pilot and sniper. “The fact that its origins come from a science fiction franchise? The Mandalorian culture is a unique thing in that its very structure allows for it to be transitioned very easily into the real world. Sure, we don’t have beskar or starfighters or jetpacks, but the ideals that comprise the Mandalorian way of life, the Resol’Nare, need no technology or equipment.”

Kurz was silently for a moment as he thought about that, then shrugged. “Yeah, I guess you’ve got a point there,” he said, conceding the point. “Question, though. You Mandalorians have a leader figure...”

Mand’alor,” Garon helpfully supplied.

“Yeah, you got one of those?”

Garon smirked. “Yeah, we do, scrappy little thing.” He shrugged, and caught the electronic reader one-handed as it was tossed up to him. He spent a few moments flipping through the Bes’uliik schematics, then tossed the reader into the cockpit. “You wouldn’t know her even if I named her. She came out of nowhere in our ranks and it was a pretty unanimous decision to name her Mand’alor. She’s got the spirit and the political savvy for it.”

Now it was Melissa’s turn to consider what he had said. “Your ranks? Just how many of you are there?”

Garon looked down for a moment, making a show of counting off on his fingers. “Right about....hundred thirty or so last I checked,” he answered. “Admittedly, I’ve been rather neglectful in seeking out others who live the Mando’ade lifestyle, but the few I have spoken to have no complaints about our Mand’alor.

Kurz let out a long exhalation. “Hundred and thirty, man that’s kinda crazy to think there’s that many of you out there,” he said, turning to sit on the foot of the M9. “And you’re all fully-kitted mercs, eh?”

The mercenary nodded his head. “That’s right, every last one of us. We mostly keep to ourselves and do our own thing. I’m a bit of an outlier, joining up with a big faction like MITHRIL.”

“You know, with the reputation the Mandos have, I’m surprised there aren’t a bunch of you working with Amalgam,” Kurz remarked, rocking his leg from side to side idly.

A confused look crossed Garon’s face for a moment, then he tipped his head back with a look of understanding. “Ahh, those guys. Yeah, we’ve got a guy on their payroll.” He held up a hand to forestall the looks of alarm he could see rising on the faces of his two fellow pilots. “Don’t get your knickers in a wad. We may call him Chakaar, but he’s loyal to his vode first and foremost. He’s about as loyal to Amalgam as Loki would be.”

Melissa and Kurz exchanged looks—which did not go unnoticed by Garon—and then Melissa shook her head, deciding to put that particular discussion off until later. “Alright then, Mister Mando,” she said. “You done your linkup with your M9 yet?”

“No. I could do it now.”

The lieutenant nodded. “Get on it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Garon said, then stood up, dropped into the cockpit of the M9 and booted the Arm Slave up. The four primary viewscreens that could be accessed while the hatch was open came online, the three peripheral screens remaining blank as the central screen first displayed the insignia of MITHRIL, followed by a standard initialization screen.

Welcome to M9 Gernsback initialization process,” the mechanical, vaguely-masculine voice of the onboard AI reported. “Now beginning uplink of Direct Operational Awareness Telemetry Enhanced Coordination Hardware Artificial Intelligence unit.”

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” Garon said.

“What?” Melissa asked, having climbed up onto the shoulder of the M9.

“The AI program,” he answered. “DOATECH? Dead or Alive?”

The lieutenant shrugged. “I didn’t name the thing, just finish the initialization.”

Please speak your name, rank, and identification number in a clear voice in order to provide a clear vocal print sample,” the program commanded.

“Gunnery Sergeant Garon Crayson, identification B-3267,” he said slowly and clearly.

There was a momentary pause, then the AI’s voice reported, “Voice print confirmed. Gunnery Sergeant Garon Crayson identified as primary authorized user of M9 Gernsback Unit 998734.”

Garon looked up at Melissa. “Have there really been nine hundred thousand M9s created?”

“I seriously doubt it,” Melissa answered. “You’re not done yet.”

Beginning personalized user preference settings,” the AI reported. “Please provide new designation for Direct Operational Awareness Telemetry Enhanced Coordination Hardware Artificial Intelligence unit.”

“So I get to name this thing?”

Melissa nodded. “And program a rudimentary personality, if you want.”

“Interesting. This thing’s definitely a step up from the US military’s M6.” Leaning back in the control seat, Garon tapped his fingers against his chin for a moment, then reached forward and keyed letters into the provided keypad. “New unit designation is ‘Orar,’ O-R-A-R. Confirm and accept new designation.”

New designation confirmed. This artificial intelligence unit is now designated Orar. Training question: This word is not present in any known language database. Please define.”

“It’s the Mando’a word for thunder, because you and me, pal, we’re going to bring the thunder.”

Understood. Training question: What is Mando’a?”

“It’s a brand-new language that I’m going to program into you along with your new personality core.”

Understood. Now commencing pilot preference settings. Please determine preferred default bilateral angle...”

---

December 25, 1215 hours, Japan Standard Time
Chofu, Tokyo, Japan
Maison K Apartment Building

 

After the incident with the alarm clock, the young couple had returned to sleep, and had stayed that way until nearly noon, at which point Kaname had crawled out of bed and dragged Sousuke behind her into the bathroom. One overly-hot shower was immediately followed by an extremely cold shower and then, properly cleaned and dressed, they had headed into the kitchen to prepare and eat a late brunch.

“So, what do you want to do today, Sousuke?” Kaname asked, holding a glass of juice as she looked across the table at him. “Want to try a movie?”

He looked up at her curiously. “There are theaters open today?” he asked.

“Yeah, but they only have late in the day showings,” she answered. “We can look online to find any movies after we eat, okay?”

Nodding, he reached across the table for the salt shaker, and froze with his fingers just barely touching it as a familiar sound began to echo through the apartment. Sousuke owned two cellular phones, one he used in his everyday life that was loaded with numbers of the various friends he had made over the years, the other one being the one that MITHRIL had given him in order to contact him for a mission.

The mission phone was the one ringing.

Slowly, Sousuke turned his attention from the distant ringing to the face of his girlfriend, the emotion on which he was having trouble placing. He couldn’t decide whether she looked like she wanted to cry or deck him. Usually, those events followed one another. Without a word, he stood up and walked into the bedroom.

Behind him, still sitting at the table, Kaname set her glass down, then covered her eyes with her hand, biting her lip in an effort to not cry. She didn’t know why it bothered her this much that he was being called for a mission on Christmas. They had celebrated both that holiday and her birthday the previous night, and other than it being Christmas, the day held no special significance. But even still, the fact that he was being called away made her want to scream and cry and just hurt things.

She could hear him talking in the other room: “Urzu Seven...understood...yes...roger...”

Then, a few moments later, he walked back into the kitchen, still holding the phone in his hand. She looked at it as though it were a weapon pointed at her which, as far as she was concerned, it was. She had to resist the delicious urge to rip it from his hand, smash it underfoot, and then throw the remains out the window.

Then, to her great surprise, he handed the phone to her. Blinking, completely thrown for a loop, she accepted the phone, raised it to her ear, and tentatively said, “Hello?”

A male voice she didn’t recognize said, “Please confirm your codename and passcode for security purposes.”

Her stomach clenched, hoping against hope that the call had been Kurz playing a prank, but the official nature of the call seemed to indicate otherwise. Sighing quietly, she answered, “Codename Angel, security passcode five-nine-three-eight-two-Kay-See.” On the other hand, this may have had something to do with her session at Meridia Island several days ago. She clung to that faint hope.

Identification confirmed,” the voice said. “Wait one moment, please.”

There was the sound of the phone passing between hands, then a voice she was all too familiar with bellowed practically in her ear, “Merry Christmas, Angel! You get Sousuke anything goo~ood for the holiday?”

Now she wanted to break the phone again, but for entirely different reasons. “Kurz!” she all but screamed into the device. “Did you set up this call? You’d better pray that Sousuke really does have a mission to go on, or I’m going to wring your scrawny neck next time I see you!”

Sitting down across from Kaname, Sousuke smiled faintly, letting his friend and squadmate reap his just desserts from having made them both think that he was going to be called away. For a full minute and a half, he munched calmly on his food as he listened to the love of his life rake the sniper over the coals, then immediately launch into a complex discourse on the German’s chemical composition, with not one of the ingredients fit to be discussed at a dinner table or in polite company. Finally, once she started repeating herself, Kaname stopped, took a deep breath, and visibly calmed down. “You’re a real ass, Kurz,” she finished up with.

Chuckling, Kurz answered calmly, “I know it, Angel, but I just couldn’t resist the temptation to prank both of you at once. In all seriousness, hope you guys are having a good time up there on dry land.”

“We are,” Kaname said, back in a good mood again, knowing that there was no mission waiting for Sousuke. “He got me this gorgeous bracelet...”

Yeah, I was there when he picked it up,” the sniper cut in. “No, I didn’t pick it out for him. He just wanted my second opinion. He picked it out all by himself.”

Hearing this, the blue-haired woman gave Sousuke a brilliant smile, then said to Kurz, “He did, did he? I’m not surprised. I have been teaching him very well over the years.”

Most definitely, and let me be the first to say that the crew of the Danaan really appreciates that. His mission standards have improved all across the board, and he’s a lot more social aboard the boat than he was before you came into his life.”

“I’m glad to hear that I’m making such a positive change,” she beamed. “So how are things going for you guys? I know you can’t tell me where you’re at or what’s really going on...”

Well, that’s just it,” Kurz said, laughing. “This is shaping up to be a boring few days. There aren’t any hot-spots at all.”

“That’s definitely a good thing.”

Yeah, we get paid either way. Anyway, aside from pranking both of you, and wishing you both a Merry Christmas, Commander Kalinin wanted me to pass along a request to you guys.”

“Really? What’s that?”

There was a brief pause, as though Kurz were looking around to make sure that someone was absent, then lowered his voice considerably and said, “Well, being as last night was Tessa’s birthday, Commander Kalinin had the idea to throw her a surprise party. Since it’s your birthday too, we thought we’d invite you and Sousuke, too.”

“Hey, that’s a great idea. Where and when is the pickup?”

You guys are going to have to make a HALO again,” Kurz warned.

“Ugh.” Kaname put her hand to her forehead. “Well, I guess if it’s necessary to keep the surprise. Yeah, I’m okay with it. Time and place?”

LZ Sierra just outside your apartment at 1310. You guys can be ready by then, right?”

Kaname glanced over at the nearest clock. They had over half an hour. “Yeah, that’s fine. See you later.” She hit the call end button and set it on the table, then turned to Sousuke. “Alright, buddy, let’s hurry and finish eating, then pack up. We’ve got forty minutes until our pickup.”

“Pickup?” he asked, a confused expression on his face. Kurz hadn’t told him about the plan for the surprise party, only the plan to prank Kaname.

She nodded her head solemnly. “Kurz told me that the crew’s planning to hold a surprise birthday party for Tessa and invited us. So hurry it up!”

Chapter Text

“Either war is obsolete or men are.”
- R. Buckminster Fuller

 

No Fighting in the War Room

 

December 25, 1407 hours (Japan Standard Time)
Pacific Ocean, 186 miles south-southwest of Tokyo, Altitude: 5,000 meters
MITHRIL SH-60 Sea Hawk transport helicopter

 

The oblong rotary-wing transport cruised high over the ocean at nearly its maximum rated ceiling, its electronic camouflage system rendering it invisible to the naked eye and radar sensors. Both bay doors were tightly shut, and warm air was filtering through the troop bay. Within the bay, Sousuke and Kaname sat beside each other in the rear of the craft toward the right side, and the crew chief rode near the divider into the cockpit.

The sergeant major and the Whispered girl wore form-fitting wetsuits; as cold as it was, no simple swimsuit would be able to maintain their body temperature during the swim down to the Tuatha de Danaan. Kaname leaned against Sousuke’s shoulder, the warmth of the troop bay and the humming of the engines threatening to drag her to sleep. She shifted her head slightly and looked out the near window, watching the sunlight reflect from the ocean’s surface far below. Beside her, Sousuke was busy double-checking their gear for the drop, making certain to leave his left shoulder stationary while doing so in order not to disturb her.

“Two minutes, SarMaj,” the crew chief said into the boom mic of his headset.

Both Sousuke and Kaname were also wearing headsets, and the mercenary nodded and answered, “Understood.”

Beside him, Kaname forced herself to sit upright, and then stretched, trying to work the lethargy out of her muscles. Once she was suitably awakened, she turned her attention to the stack of gear that had been placed before the couple that they would use in their free-fall and subsequent dive to the Tuatha de Danaan.

She reached down and picked up the helmet that looked like those worn by fighter pilots in all the movies and video games she had seen, but before she could put it on, Sousuke gently touched her arm. She looked over at him as he held out a small headset toward her, the size of a cell phone earpiece. “This goes on first, so we can communicate,” he told her, then removed the helicopter headset and pointed to his own that he’d already placed over his right ear.

Nodding, Kaname removed her own headset and then set the device in place, turning her head so that he could activate it for her. With that done, she pulled the helmet on and sealed it against the collar of her wetsuit. Sousuke began to connect hoses and air tubes. “The air is very thin at this altitude, so this supplemental oxygen is necessary to avoid hypoxia,” he explained, running tests on the oxygen tanks. “The helmet is pressure-rated, so we can also use it just like a standard scuba tank once we’ve reached the water.”

These were all things she knew, of course, but she felt no sense of irritation at his words or actions. She knew that her safety was his primary concern and that he was doing his best to see to it that she was well taken care of; he would trade his own life to prevent her from being in harm’s way in an instant, and he had said and demonstrated that very desire on many occasions. Many people would find this attitude from Sousuke to be overbearing, but she didn’t. She knew that it was the easiest way for him to show that he cared, and besides, she found it rather endearing.

He gently tugged her to her feet and helped her pull on and secure her parachute, then checked to make sure that all the straps and harnesses were in place and properly-situated. With that done, he clipped the waterproof duffel that contained the handful of things they’d brought with them to his own harness, then turned toward the right side door. He could feel Kaname’s hand on his shoulder, and knew she was right behind him.

The crew chief held up three fingers to Sousuke: Thirty seconds. Sousuke nodded, then the crew chief turned away, and with one full-body flex, heaved open the door. Cold air immediately flooded the bay, causing Kaname to shiver so violently that Sousuke felt it through the minuscule touch of her hand on his shoulder. He turned around to face her, and hugged her as best he could past the bulky parachute harnesses.

Touched by his gesture, Kaname smiled, but soon realized that he couldn’t see her face through the polarized helmet faceplate. So she reached up her right hand, and traced two fingers across the faceplate of her helmet in an upward-curving half-circle, the picture of a smile. He mimicked the gesture, then squeezed her arm, turned back to the crew chief, and stepped to the edge of the bay. The crew chief slapped Sousuke on the shoulder, and then suddenly the mercenary was gone.

Swallowing past the sudden nausea that had come up, Kaname stepped up to the edge of the bay, gripped the metal edges of the craft, and looked toward the crew chief. He gave her a reassuring thumbs up, then pointed out of the bay, to Sousuke’s free-falling form already hundreds of feet below. Taking a deep breath, Kaname closed her eyes, and shoved forward.

The ripping vortex of wind that had been present inside the helicopter vanished as soon as she was out of the enclosed space, replaced with a steady, rushing cold wind as she fell through the sky. Her stomach dropped out from beneath her as she opened her eyes and saw nothing but the ocean so far, far below.

Sousuke’s voice crackled in her ear: “Kaname, are you alright?”

Forcing herself to steady her breathing, she listened to the hiss of the rebreather for a moment, then flashed him an ‘okay’ sign and answered, “Yeah, I’m okay. Just a little anxiety.”

That’s understandable. This is your first solo jump. Just remember to do exactly as I tell you, when I tell you.”

“Got it!” she answered, reaching over and hooking her fingers in the ripcord for the parachute. Now that she was over her initial anxiety, it was actually rather fun. As far as she could see, there was nothing but blue sky, white clouds, and the blue sea shimmering below her, and Sousuke in the corner of her field of vision. She felt a thrill of exhilaration at the sensation of free flight, and for the briefest of moments managed to forget that she was a hot commodity, a Whispered who held knowledge of black technology that people with unscrupulous morals would do anything to get their hands on. For just that moment, she was nothing but a girl, free-falling through the sky in a parachuting adventure with her boyfriend who, by the way, had nothing to do with a top-secret mercenary organization for which he was the most capable LAMBDA Driver pilot in the Pacific Fleet.

For several minutes, she relished in that feeling of freedom. What other girl got to skydive over the ocean? She looked over at Sousuke as he positioned his body in a way that slowed his descent, allowing her to catch up with him.

Then, as they passed below fifteen hundred feet, Sousuke’s voice once again came into her ear, “Get ready, Kaname,” he told her. “We’ll release our parachutes in ten seconds.”

“Okay,” she said, then reached over and grabbed hold of the ripcord. “Ready.”

Now!”

She jerked the cord outward with all her strength, and suddenly felt as though she’d slammed into a brick wall, her body changing positions from horizontal to vertical inside a second. The only thing that prevented her head from snapping forward with potentially-fatal repercussions was the hard lining of the oxygen helmet that kept her head in place. Looking to her right, she found Sousuke only a dozen feet lower than her, his helmet turned toward her in that same moment. With the sudden lack of wind due to their low rate of descent, it seemed even more like the two were the only people in the world. Despite the wetsuits, helmets, and parachutes intruding in the scene, their present situation suddenly felt very romantic to her.

Grinning to herself, she gave Sousuke a thumbs up, then said, “All good, right?”

It’s not a problem,” he answered, and she could hear the smile in his voice.

Looking down into the water, Kaname caught sight of a dark shape cruising beneath the surface in the general area where they were heading, and her heart immediately seized up with the fear that they were parachuting into shark-infested waters. After a moment, rationality prevailed and she forced her breathing to slow, willing her heart back under control. The dark shape was far too large to be any sea creature; it was obviously the Tuatha de Danaan, cruising close enough to the surface to recover them.

“They’re waiting for us, over there to your right,” she told Sousuke.

He turned to look in that direction, and nodded. “Right. We’ll ditch our parachutes right before we reach the surface, then we’ll pick up one of the turtles and head right on in.”

---

December 25, 1405 hours (Japan Standard Time)
Pacific Ocean, Depth: 100 meters
Amphibious Assault Submarine Tuatha de Danaan, Deck 1, Bridge

 

“Now passing waypoint Delta,” the navigator reported.

Conn, Sonar, no contacts detected,” the voice from the sonar room reported over the intercom. “We’re clear, Captain.”

“Thank you, gentlemen,” Teletha said as she signed off a report that another crewman held out to her. “Reduce speed to two-thirds, maintain heading to the next waypoint.”

“Reduce speed, aye.”

“Maintain heading, aye.”

“Everything is proceeding smoothly, Captain,” Mardukas said. “We should be back at Meridia by nightfall.”

Nodding, she picked up her electronic reader and opened a new memorandum file, keying information into it. “I’ll issue an overnight and day leave for the crew long enough for this meeting with the brass to be finished,” she said. “Then tomorrow night, we’ll return to our tour of duty.”

On her left, Kalinin smiled faintly at his commander. “A Christmas present to the crew, Captain?”

She smiled as well, finished the memorandum, and signed off on it. “They deserve no less,” she answered.

Captain, please report to the main hangar,” Melissa’s voice called over the intercom.

“Oh, I wonder what that could be,” Teletha said absently as she stood up from the command chair. “Commander Mardukas, you have the conn.”

“Aye, ma’am, I have the conn,” he repeated, watching the girl discreetly from the corner of his eye as she departed the bridge. No sooner had the door closed behind her than he gave Kalinin a sour look, then called out, “Helm, reduce speed to three knots, up angle twenty, come to periscope depth.”

“Three knots, aye sir. Up angle twenty, rising to periscope depth.”

The angle of the deck inclined slightly. Mardukas gripped the back of the command chair to remain upright, while Kalinin simply leaned forward. “Operations officer, please release turtle two on the port side and prepare port hatch number seven for recovery operation,” the Russian land combat commander ordered.

“Aye, sir, deploying turtle now.”

Mardukas looked over at Kalinin again. “I still don’t know why I’m agreeing to go along with this scheme.”

“Sure you do,” Kalinin answered calmly, leaning down and removing the small scrap of paper with the word ‘Mando’a’ that Teletha had left on the arm of her chair. “The same way you knew why you agreed to it when it was first proposed. Madam Captain may be the commanding officer of this battlegroup, but she is still a young woman who feels insecurities about herself, and thus needs to occasionally be shown that she is cared for.”

---

December 25, 1420 hours (Japan Standard Time)
Pacific Ocean, Depth: 58 meters
Tuatha de Danaan, Deck 1, Corridor C

 

“Sorry to have had to call you down like that, Tessa, but you know that you’ve got to sign off on all new AS pilot linkups,” Melissa apologized as she, Teletha, Kurz, and Garon headed up the corridor toward the bridge. Or at least, that’s where Teletha thought she was going. In fact, the trio of pilots were going to corral her into the rec room, but she didn’t need to know that.

“It’s nothing to apologize over, Melissa,” Teletha answered with a smile to her friend. “Though usually you just send a report and don’t call me down personally.”

Taking immediate advantage of the opportunity he sensed, Kurz butted into the conversation and said in a singsong tone, “But Tessa, we just wanted to give you another opportunity to see our new SRT pilot.” The German grinned that insufferable grin of his. “I hear that you’ve taken a real fancy—”

Melissa and Garon both reacted immediately, the Chinese woman sweeping her leg at his feet as the new mercenary swung his arm at Kurz’ neck in a clothesline. Even as they did this, Teletha’s face turned a brilliant crimson at the implications of the playboy’s words. Before she could start to stammer out a response, Melissa removed the need to.

“Jesus Christ, Weber, do you ever take a break? It’s bad enough that you’re always on Sousuke’s ass, but can’t you at least give Garon a grace period before you start in on him?”

“Oh, no, let him fire away,” Garon said, standing over Kurz with his arms crossed. “There’s nothing he could say about me that’d bother me in the slightest. And I see that you’re more than capable of handling his shenanigans yourself, Lieutenant. Let him pick on the captain again, though. I’ll teach him some manners, the good Mando’ad way.” An evil smirk graced the mercenary’s lips for a moment as he paused to crack his knuckles.

It didn’t occur to him at all that the way he phrased his statement made it sound like he was coming to Teletha’s defense for personal reasons. It did to the other three though, causing Melissa to put her face into her palm, Kurz to grin despite his position, and Teletha to turn away in order to fan at her excessively-hot face with her hand.

Oblivious to this, Garon reached down, grabbing Kurz in that same hand-to-wrist grip that he was fast becoming known for, and hauled the pilot upright. “Okay, soldier, on your feet. I know you’re most comfortable down there like a dog...”

“Oh, ouch,” Kurz whined, clutching a hand to his heart as though Garon had struck him a mortal blow. “Sis, I know that you’re cruel enough to stand there and let me endure this,” he said to Melissa, then turned pleading eyes to Teletha, “but you can’t just stand by and watch this guy fillet me, right Tessa babe?”

Teletha looked at him for a moment, then tilted her head to one side, tapped a well-manicured finger to her chin as though trying to remember something, and then pronounced, “Kaysh mirsh solus.

Kurz and Melissa looked at her as though she’d grown a second head, but Garon’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head before he bent over double, guffawing with laughter. “What’d she just say?” Kurz whispered to Melissa, then turned to Garon. “Hey! What’d she say?”

“She said...” Clutching his knees so as to remain upright, Garon gasped in a deep breath of air, then let out a few more chuckles and continued, “She said... that your brain cell is lonely.” And then he dissolved into another fit of laughter.

Kurz still looked confused. Melissa rolled her eyes. “She called you an idiot,” she explained, then looked over at Teletha. “In Mando, right?”

Beaming, very pleased with herself for remembering how to pronounce the words properly, Teletha nodded.

After a moment, Garon recovered enough to stand upright, upon which he tossed Teletha a two-fingered salute. “Kandosii, alor’ad,” he praised. Good job.

She paused a moment, as if considering something else, and then said, “Vor entye.”

He smiled. “Even in Mando’a, still so proper.” The group resumed their journey along the corridor, this time with Garon up front beside Teletha, as opposed to Melissa. “You’ve only had that dictionary what? Six or seven hours? You’ve memorized it already?”

“Not all the way,” she answered, looking away shyly, as though she expected to be finished learning in that amount of time. “I’ve only fully memorized about a hundred or so words and phrases.”

This prompted a choke out of Garon. “Osik,” he muttered, then cleared his throat and looked over, seeing the young woman in a new light. She truly was the genius that everyone said she was. “It took me two years to learn all of Mando’a. To learn what you’ve already learned in just six or seven hours, was three months of study for me.” He grinned. “We’ll make a proper Mando’ade out of you, yet.”

She smiled faintly, then shook her head. “I still haven’t made up my mind about that, Mister Crayson,” she said teasingly. “I’m going to learn as much as I can about your people before I make up my mind.”

“Of course, Captain,” he said, crossing his arms behind his back. “I would expect nothing less. I have several books which might help you learn a little more about our culture. You like to read, don’t you, Captain?”

“Yes, yes, I do.” She looked up at him, a mischievous look in her eyes. “Do you have them with you?”

“One, but it’s the most recent in a series of books, so I can’t let you read it yet. I’ll have the others sent for.”

She raised an eyebrow at this. “Real books?”

He shrugged. “What can I say? I’m a connoisseur.”

As they neared the rec room, Kurz and Melissa, walking in the back, exchanged looks, and Kurz performed an elaborate pantomime that left no doubt that he was predicting that their captain and their new teammate were on the fast track to hooking up. Melissa shrugged and swatted the sniper, but secretly had similar thoughts.

“Have you eaten yet, Tessa?” Melissa asked.

“No, not yet,” the submarine captain answered. “I was hoping to put it off a little longer...”

“Well hey, you left Commander Mardukas in charge, right? He can handle running the ship for another half hour. You need to eat, you know. You’re still growing!”

Teletha took the bait just like Melissa knew she would. “That’s not true!” she exclaimed, clenching her fists like a petulant child. “I’m all grown up now!”

Udesii,” Garon murmured, but was unheard.

Melissa grinned and patted the shorter girl on the top of her head. “Sure you are, Tessa, you just keep thinking that. In the meantime, I’m not kidding about eating. You’re going to each lunch with us right now, and that’s final.”

“I...you...!” Teletha sighed. “Alright.”

The Chinese-American woman grinned. All according to plan. They had reached the rec room by now, the door of which was shut. Any other day, bringing Teletha to the rec room instead of the galley would have been suspicious, but with the Christmas party going on and the all-day revolving door of food, they could get away with it. “Urzu-Five, if you would please?” she gestured to the closed door, then planted her hands on Teletha’s shoulders, in the off-chance the girl attempted to run when she saw what was on the other side.

“Right away, sir,” Garon answered, doing a passable job in mimicking the voice of Temuera Morrison, the man who had done the acting of the clone troopers in the Star Wars prequels. He grabbed the handle of the door and shoved it open, following the door into the room. Behind him, Melissa pushed Teletha into the room.

Inside, a good majority of the crew of the Tuatha de Danaan stood facing the doorway, holding various party favors. A banner proclaiming ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TESSA’ hung across the far wall. As soon as Teletha appeared in the room, the assembled crew all roared out, “SURPRISE! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” and the like as party poppers went off like gunshots and celebratory confetti flew like shrapnel.

If the crew of the Tuatha de Danaan took nothing else away from that experience, they would take away one nugget of information: Teletha, their captain, had a weak constitution.

She promptly fainted.

---

December 25, 1446 hours (Japan Standard Time)
Pacific Ocean, Depth: 300 meters
Tuatha de Danaan, Deck 1, Recreation Room

 

It had taken only two minutes to bring Teletha back around, then another ten to find and catch her after she’d run off in embarrassment. Once that had been taken care of, the party had gotten off to a good time; after all, most of the guilty parties that had arranged the surprise party in the first place remembered how dejected Teletha had been during the Pacific Chrysalis operation several years back, due to how much of a hindrance she’d considered herself, and on her birthday of all things.

A genial atmosphere filled the room, with Teletha largely at its center. Sousuke and Kaname stayed with her for the duration, and in between the crew’s well wishes for Teletha, the trio spent their time catching up on events in their lives. Teletha and Kaname had become better friends over the years, particularly once Kaname had agreed to assist in MITHRIL’s research and development with her Whispered abilities, and in no small part due to the fact that neither held a grudge over the other for their old feud over Sousuke. Due to their various conflicting schedules, Teletha and Kaname rarely had the opportunity to sit down and talk like two young women with nothing weighing on their shoulders.

“I must say, I’m quite surprised to find you two here,” Teletha said, sipping from a cup of tea.

“You can thank Kurz and Kalinin for that,” Kaname answered. “Kurz called us up, using Sousuke’s mission phone, to tell us about the party!”

The ship captain quirked one thin eyebrow. “That equipment is meant only to be used to contact Sergeant Sagara under mission-related circumstances,” she said, then smiled. It wasn’t a friendly smile. “I’ll have to remember to see to it that he’s reprimanded for that.”

“Ooh, there’s some steel hiding underneath that silk,” Kaname quipped, grinning at her friend. There wasn’t any doubt that Teletha had some serious spine, at least as far as combat situations from the command chair of the Tuatha de Danaan went. In other settings, not so much. But even for Kaname, it was strange to suddenly see that side of her peek out in a normal situation.

Just then, Melissa wandered over to the trio and flopped down in the chair next to Teletha. “Hey, you guys met Tessa’s new boyfriend yet?” she asked with a grin that’d put the Cheshire cat to shame.

“Melissa!”

“Captain?”

“Whoa! Tessa?” Kaname laughed and leaned across the table at her fellow Whispered. “Spill! What’s he like? Where’d you meet him?”

“I do not have a boyfriend,” Teletha said, the commanding tone of her voice silencing all three of them. “What Melissa is trying to make you believe is that I have feelings for the new SRT member. I do not. He’s simply from a new culture and I’m interested in learning about his culture.”

“That’s what she says,” Melissa commented off-hand. “But the way she looks at him?”

“With that dreamy look in her eyes?” Kaname asked.

“Like a little lost puppy,” Melissa answered with a chuckle.

“Yeah, I know that look,” Kaname said. “She aimed it at Sousuke enough, back in the day.”

As the two carried on, Teletha sighed and looked down into her tea, staring glumly at her reflection. It wasn’t that Melissa was exactly wrong, per se. She did find Garon somewhat interesting on a personal level, but she wasn’t willing to admit to herself that there might be something there. Besides, even with the time that had passed since she had lost to Kaname, she still didn’t want to open herself up in that way, in the fear that she would be rejected again.

In the midst of these depressing musings, she felt a hand settle on her shoulder. She looked up at the face of her former love interest, who was smiling apologetically at her. A faint twinge touched her then, a remnant of the flame she’d once held for him. It wasn’t there any longer, but sometimes the ghost of it still reached out to haunt her from the past. He said nothing, but the reassuring gesture was understood regardless. She returned the smile, then reached up and patted his hand.

Kaname noticed the exchange, and all the mirth disappeared from her face. “Tessa?” she asked quietly. “Are we upsetting you?”

“No, it’s just...” She didn’t realize she was crying until she saw her tears splash down into her cup. “Oh, no...” She brought up both hands in a feeble attempt to stem the flow of her tears.

“Come on, let’s get her out of here,” Melissa said, standing up and gently pulling Tessa to her feet. She stepped aside to allow Kaname to sidle up next to the girl and wrap her arms around her, then she and Sousuke took positions ahead and behind, just as though they were leading a VIP out of hostile territory, and headed out of the rec room, moving toward the captain’s quarters one deck down.

The last thing Sousuke saw of the party was the new SRT pilot, Garon, haul back and smack one of the engineers with the plastic guitar controller following a vicious duel in Guitar Hero 3.

---

Tuatha de Danaan, Deck 2, Teletha’s Quarters

 

First in the door, Melissa flicked on the lights for the captain’s quarters, then directed Kaname to the small bedroom, which the blue-haired girl immediately led Teletha to, setting her down on her bed. Sousuke, Kaname, and Melissa then crowded into the small room as the diminutive captain sat staring down at her clenched fists, biting her lip in a vain attempt to stifle the sobs as teardrops continued to rain on the backs of her hands.

“I’m so sorry...” she whispered to her three closest friends, swiping the back of her hand across her eyes. “I must seem pathetic to all of you...”

“No, you’re not,” Kaname said quietly, kneeling down before Teletha and taking her left hand gently between both of hers. “I know what you’re feeling, Tessa. Really, I do. I was in the same position before with Sousuke, remember?”

Teletha’s small body convulsed as she hiccuped. “I don’t see how you had the strength...”

“It wasn’t easy,” Kaname said with a smile. “The first thing I had to do was admit that I really did love Sousuke. That’s the hardest part.”

“But...you took six months and three serious incidents to come to terms with your feelings,” Teletha said dejectedly. “I don’t...my heart hurts so much...”

Kaname gently brushed a few strands of hair from Teletha’s face. Sousuke and Melissa stood back and watched, suitably impressed with the blue-haired girl’s ability to empathize. “I know, Tessa, I know.” She leaned forward and hugged her friend. “I felt exactly like that during the Hong Kong incident. When Sousuke was gone, it hit me then how much I needed him.” Laughing quietly, she tugged gently on Teletha’s ponytail. “You’re lucky, getting to skip that six months of hell.”

Despite herself, Teletha smiled, then sighed into Kaname’s embrace, before she leaned back and looked up into her friend’s understanding hazel eyes. “But...I’ve only just met him...”

“Love’s like that, Tessa,” Melissa spoke up. “Sousuke was sweet on Kaname from the first time she cooked for him. Even though she still won’t admit it even to this day, it was pretty much the same for Kaname.”

“It just goes to show how good at his job he is,” Kaname said, leaning over and squeezing Sousuke’s hand. “He managed to infiltrate my heart and dig in without even me realizing it.”

The quartet shared a smile at Kaname’s knowing use of military talk. Teletha giggled longer than the others, and then said, “I’m sorry, I just had a picture in my head of a chibi Sergeant Sagara with a K-bar in his teeth, digging a trench on a little heart-shaped island.”

“Show me!” Kaname blurted, grinning. That was definitely an image she wanted to see.

Nodding, Teletha closed her eyes and clasped her hands with Kaname’s, resonating with the other Whispered girl just long enough to project that image. A moment later, Kaname fell back from the contact, literally dropping on the floor and clutching her sides in laughter. “Oh God, that’s just great!” she exclaimed, reaching up to wipe tears from her eyes. “Complete with barbed wire and land mines and everything!”

Teletha giggled as well, and not for the first time, felt profoundly thankful to have friends like the three in her room. “And the poor Arbalest is left out on the side.”

“An unnecessary piece of equipment,” Sousuke put in. “I need no equipment other than my own hands to protect Kaname’s heart from unwanted suitors. Despite this, using the Arbalest would allow me to adhere to the Geneva Convention’s rules against cruel and unnecessary torture.”

Silence met that remark as the three women exchanged glances. “Classic Sousuke,” Melissa said.

“And yet, oddly romantic...” Teletha mused.

“Yeah, that’s what scares me,” Kaname deadpanned.

The three women nodded in mutual agreement. “Anyway!” Melissa called out. “Like I was saying, you can’t call love. It took about a couple days for Sousuke and Kaname to actually fall in love, though it took them six fuckin’ months to admit it.” She shot the couple a glare at that. “It’s different for other people. It can be different for the same person at different occasions. I mean, Sousuke served on the ship under you for three years and you didn’t develop any feelings for him until the A21 incident.”

Kaname nodded. “Your heart told you to love Sousuke then. It’s telling you to love this guy now.”

“But that doesn’t mean you’ve got to go right out and jump into bed with him, Tessa,” Melissa said. “If you’ll just admit to yourself that you have feelings for him, then you’ll find that you’ll be able to wait until you feel like the time is right.”

“Don’t be a fool like I was,” Kaname added. “I could’ve started dating Sousuke right after the hijacking in Khanka. I realized right then that he was special to me. But I was afraid of having those I cared about taken away from me.” She leaned down and tilted Teletha’s chin up to look her right in the eyes. “You were much braver than I was, admitting your feelings for Sousuke as soon as you recognized them. You’re a braver girl than I am, Tessa. I know you’ve got what it takes to get what you want.”

Teletha smiled faintly at Kaname’s words. I know you’ve got what it takes. What it takes. She knew one word now that could say those three. Mandokarla. Garon had praised Sousuke with that word when they’d been introduced, and Sousuke hadn’t understood the honor that Garon was offering him. Did she want to be mandokarla? She still wasn’t sure, just as she wasn’t absolutely sure of her feelings for the new mercenary, but it suddenly seemed very appealing.

She was all but willing to admit that she felt something for Garon, but for the one doubt that she had until recently used as a shield to hide those feelings behind. Above all else, he and his Mandalorian culture and language did represent something she did not know and held wanted to learn, and she had responded to such new knowledge in the past with single-minded devotion. That was the source of her doubt. She couldn’t honestly tell if her interest was to him or the information he had that she didn’t.

She focused on Kaname’s face again, and the other girl took a step back in surprise. She’d never before seen the expression on Teletha’s face; it was the face she wore when she engaged the enemy beneath the deep blue sea. “I’m not exactly sure what my feelings are about Mister Crayson, but I want to learn.” Kaname started to say something encouraging, but Teletha held up a hand to forestall her. She needed to get this off her chest now. “For so long, I was resentful of you, Kaname. You were always the one that Sousuke was looking at. Even after the two of you became a couple, I was jealous. I wanted so badly to be in your shoes. Though it shames me to admit it, there have been some occasions where I wished that we had not always been so successful in protecting you.”

She looked up at the other Whispered, expecting to see anger, hurt, condemnation. She couldn’t bear to think of what Sousuke thought of this revelation. But, to her surprise, Kaname didn’t seem angry or upset. Instead, it was understanding she was reading in those hazel eyes. The blue-haired girl nodded her head, indicating for her to continue.

Taking a deep breath, she did. “Even after I got over the two of you together, I was still jealous, but it wasn’t of your having Sousuke, it was of the special bond that the two of you had with each other. I wanted that kind of bond with someone. I...”

The lights aboard the ship suddenly burned orange. The voice of Mardukas came over the intercom. “All command personnel, report to briefing room one. All command personnel, report to briefing room one.”

“Shit, what now?” Melissa swore.

“Is something happening?” Kaname asked as the three military officers stood up.

“A new hotspot probably appeared,” Teletha said as she worked very hard to fix her appearance.

“That means there’ll be a mission, won’t there?” Kaname asked, her face falling.

Looking sympathetically at her friend, who had just done so much to make her feel better, Teletha laid a hand on Kaname’s shoulder. “If the situation doesn’t require the LAMBDA Driver, Sousuke won’t be sent out,” she said. “I give you my word.”

Smiling, Kaname shook her head and stood up. “No, you don’t have to do that,” she said, then threw her arms around Sousuke’s neck and kissed him. “Sousuke’s the best you’ve got.” She focused her attention on her boyfriend. “Remember that song, Sousuke? From three months ago?”

He smiled and held her tightly. “You are free, because of your soldier.”

---

December 25, 1824 hours, local time (0624 hours Greenwich Mean Time)
Pacific Ocean, 158 miles west of Pararakelse Island, Surface
Tuatha de Danaan, Deck 1, Main Hangar

 

The Intelligence Division had passed along information that it had discovered about an Amalgam-backed terrorist group assembling a unit of Arm Slaves on the remote tourist destination of Pararakelse Island, for the intent of overthrowing the monastic government on the nearby island nation of MolMol. It seemed that the enemy consisted of nothing but RK-92 Savages and a single Zy-98 Shadow, no ‘Venom’ types or any other unit equipped with a LAMBDA Driver. Because of that, the primary combat team would be Melissa, Kurz, and Garon, with Sousuke on standby with the Arbalest in the event that a Venom appeared.

“We’ll be doing rapid entry via XL-2 boosters,” Melissa explained as the three M9s gathered on the flight deck. “Urzu-Six, standard job fare for you, long range sniping support. Urzu-Five, you and me are going in hard and fast. Destroy every Arm Slave and any secondary equipment you come across. This is a standard dash-and-trash mission, we’re not here to recover any material or grab any VIPs.”

Kaname and Sousuke were also present for the micro-briefing, standing with the other three pilots at the base of Melissa’s M9. Sousuke was clad in his piloting suit, in the off-chance that he would be called for support. Intelligence was as solid as could be on this mission, but they always could have missed something.

“MolMol is aware of these guys, and also of us, and they’re watching to see if we’re the kind of allies they’re looking for. So let’s put on a good show for them. Five minutes. That’s our mission window. Sousuke, keep the light on for us, would you?”

“It’s not a problem.”

“Okay, let’s do it,” Melissa said. “Urzu-Six, you’re up first on deck. Five, you’re next. I’ll follow up last.”

“Rules of engagement?” Garon asked.

“Crew expendable.”

---

The Same Time
Tuatha de Danaan, Deck 1, Bridge

 

“Urzu-Six is ready on the catapult. Preparing to launch.”

“Good luck, Urzu-Six,” Teletha said over the open circuit.

No need to worry about me, Captain,” Kurz answered, as the visual feed from the flight deck showed his AS giving a thumbs up. She could faintly hear the strains of the Kenny Loggins song ‘Danger Zone’ playing in the background of his transmission. “You’ll just have gotten the blast of my takeoff out of your ears by the time I’m back.”

“Urzu-Five has locked in on the catapult. All sections, prepare for launch.”

Cut the crap, Urzu-Six. Just take that big stick of yours and cover my shebs.”

Hey, you’re the new guy on the team. Should you be talking to your superiors like that?”

“Superior? Hah. I bet I score more kills than you.”

You’re on, Mando-boy!”

Shut up, both of you,” Melissa’s voice cut in. “Is it too late to switch one of them with Urzu-Seven? I swear, you’re both like a couple of kids.”

Teletha smiled. “Let it slide this time, Urzu-Two,” she said. “After all, Urzu-Five is new, and needs to establish his place on the team. Am I right, Urzu-Five?”

Hey, I’ll use that as an excuse.”

She giggled, then swiftly smothered it beneath her hand. “Just this once, I’ll encourage your competition, gentlemen.” She took a deep breath, feeling the heat rise in her cheeks, not believing what she was about to say. “Urzu-Six, Urzu-Five, whichever of the two of you scores more shot down, I will give that person a kiss.”

Whoo-hah! No way I’m gonna lose now!” Kurz exclaimed. “I’ll let you know what it feels like afterwards, Urzu-Five.”

Teletha held her breath. Garon’s reaction to the prize she was offering would give her an idea of how he felt about her. Unconsciously, she crossed her fingers.

Let me know what the taste of defeat feels like, Six?” The Mandalorian pilot chuckled. “Like I needed any more of an incentive to mop the floor with your AS.”

Teletha frowned. That wasn’t exactly the reaction she was hoping for, but it wasn’t necessarily a negative one either. She watched on the view of the flight deck as Melissa’s M9 turned toward her point of view and offered a shrug.

“Enough of the banter, Urzu Team,” Kalinin cut in. “Duty officer, begin launch immediately.”

A muted vibration coursed through the ship as Kurz’ M9 was hurled skyward on a tower of flame. Garon’s was next, crouched down on the catapult, the red glare of the booster engine glowing ever brighter.

“Urzu-Five,” Teletha said suddenly.

Captain?”

She hesitated for just a moment. “K’oyacyi,” she said. Come back safely.

There was a delay on his end as well, as though he couldn’t decide how to answer her. Finally, he said, Ret’urcye mhi,” just before his AS was launched skyward.

Maybe we’ll meet again. Teletha had already learned that the Mandalorians put no stock in empty promises. They called it the way they saw it. That was the best she could hope for.

Come back to me.

---

December 25, 1836 hours, local time
Pararakelse Island, Desert of Death, East
Terrorist Arm Slave Camp

 

From overhead, the camp was mostly camouflaged against detection from reconnaissance flights and spy satellites. Sand-colored tarps had been hung over the ammunition and fuel stores, effectively masking them. Two of the Savages were likewise concealed beneath the tarps, the others out on training and familiarization runs, and the sole Zy-98 Shadow was nowhere to be found. A number of tents, equally-camouflaged against detection, were scattered throughout the camp, and approximately forty terrorists were currently in the camp, going about their daily activities.

With no warning at all, one of the ammunition dumps exploded. The camouflage tarp covering it immediately incinerated as secondary explosions sent fireballs high into the twilight sky. Stored rifle rounds cooked off, causing terrorists to dive for cover as bullets began to fire in all directions across the camp, snapping and sizzling as they hit the sand, striking the armor of the Savages with off-key metallic twanging sounds.

Then, before the terrorists could begin to make sense of what was going on, two Arm Slaves were suddenly in their camp. One machine, equipped with an additional electronic warfare antenna, stood at the perimeter of the camp, unloading its 40mm assault rifle into the remaining fuel and ammunition stores, sprouting more flaming explosions and thick, acrid clouds of black smoke into the darkening sky. The second machine pumped two shots from the 57mm Bofors cannon into the stationary Savages, then turned and released a hail of 12.7mm chain rounds into the tents.

Inside the cockpit of his M9, Garon glanced around at the various sensor readouts, then called into his communications panel, “Come on, Six, ammo dumps don’t count as a shoot-down. I’m 2-0 on you here.”

Those had no operators,” Kurz grumbled. “They shouldn’t count either.”

A shoot down is still a shoot down, even if the Arm Slave has no operator,” Teletha’s voice cut in. “So far, Urzu-Five is leading.”

Garon’s radar flashed a warning, and he turned to find seven Savages rushing toward his and Melissa’s position. The lead units opened fire, forcing the two MITHRIL pilots to strafe to either side to avoid the enemy shots. As Garon raised his Bofors cannon to counterattack, two of the Savages suddenly detonated, victims of Kurz’ fire from a nearby mountaintop.

Two-two, Mando-boy,” the German’s amiable voice called out. “Better step up.”

Garon and Melissa spread their units out as they charged the Savages, moving to engage the four remaining units from the flanks. The difference in power between the two different types of units was obvious as the M9s smoothly avoided the fire from the Savages, while the Russian-built units were not so lucky. Garon’s first shot from his cannon blew the leg off one Savage, sending the machine sprawling awkwardly into the sand. Still advancing, he drew an anti-tank dagger from the place beneath the right arm of his unit and drove the explosive bladed weapon into the downed Savage’s reactor.

“Three down.”

Another of the Savages rose up behind his M9, intent on smashing the stock of its rifle against his machine, but an explosive bolt fired from beyond sight range blew the entire center mass out of the Savage. It stumbled backward and exploded violently as the head of Garon’s M9 turned back slightly to regard the destruction.

Still even.”

Damn, you guys are worse than kids,” Melissa growled, abandoning anything fancy in favor of sweeping the remaining three Savages with the last of the ammunition in her assault rifle’s magazine. “Now I’ve got three to match you guys’ three, and if I score more kills, then you’re both shit out of luck.”

Garon stood his machine up and looked around as Melissa swapped cartridges in her rifle. “Only nine Savages? Where’s that Shadow?”

Warning!” his AI called out. “T-84 detected, two o’clock low, targeting Urzu-Two.”

Melissa obviously received the warning at the same time from Friday, her AI, but she was still in the process of swapping out magazines as she turned her Arm Slave toward the new threat. She wouldn’t be able to counterattack it.

Garon dashed forward, grabbing Melissa’s M9 by the shoulder as he leveled his Bofors left-handed at the tank. He pumped round after round into it, knowing that the reactive armor the tank sported would stop several of his rounds. The enemy tank, off-balance from the kinetic power of the 57mm rounds, failed to fire on Melissa.

Bofors cannon ammunition depleted. Reload, reload,” Orar warned.

Cursing, Garon stooped his M9 to begin reloading. Were he on foot, his posture would have put him behind cover to protect from enemy fire, but there was no cover large enough to protect an M9. Still, it was an old habit that died hard, and he didn’t want it to die at all.

Fortunately, Melissa had completed reloading her assault rifle by then and raised the weapon, unleashing a hail of 40mm fire on the T-84. Its armor compromised, the tank was defenseless before the onslaught of her rounds, vanishing in a cloud of churned-up sand. When the dust cleared, the flaming tank resembled finely-tended swiss cheese.

Thanks for the cover, Urzu-Five,” Melissa said.

“Anytime, Two.” Stepping away from Melissa’s M9, Garon directed, “Orar, bring up our scanning to maximum, set ECCS mode to wide-sweep. I want to know when that Shadow appears before it does.”

Roger,” his AI unit answered. “All sensors at maximum, ECCS scanning active.”

Alright, we’re missing three Savages and the Shadow. Urzu-Six, do you have visual?”

Negative, I got nothing.”

Understood.” Melissa’s M9 turned to face the west. “Urzu-Five, finish up the camp. We’ll keep watch for the other enemy units.”

“Roger that, Two,” Garon said, striding his M9 back to the terrorist camp. As he approached, he watched as a terrorist came stumbling out of the mess tent, looking none the more concerned, or even aware, of MITHRIL’s attack team dismantling their camp. He looked to be carrying a bottle in his hand, which made sense to Garon. He was drunk. A half-second burst of 12.7mm rounds sobered him up. “You deserved every bit of that for drinking in the middle of the day,” he quipped.

Turning his Arm Slave, a shot from the Bofors cannon obliterated the barracks tent and the nearby operations tent. “Sleep tight.”

Urzu-Five, personnel running, your five o’clock,” Kurz reported. “I’ll make too much of a mess engaging.”

“I’m on it,” Garon answered, swiveling the upper half of his Arm slave toward a half-dozen terrorists attempting to flee into the desert. Depressing a trigger beneath his left thumb, he moved his head a fraction of an inch to the right, and the resulting bilateral angle translated that into a sixty degree sweep of the head with the integral chain gun firing, cutting down the fleeing terrorists.

You got ‘em,” Kurz said, then chuckled. “Yeah, I see lots of little pieces.” There was a pause, then he said again, “Enemy vehicle at your six.”

Garon turned again, sighting a pickup truck filled with terrorists attempting to slip out from beneath the watchful eyes of the MITHRIL attack team. They might have succeeded, were it not for Kurz playing spotter from so far away. Garon leveled his Bofors and put a single round through the engine block.

Whoa!” Kurz exclaimed as the vehicle detonated brilliantly. It appeared to have been a vehicular-based improvised explosive device. A number of smaller explosions went off as well; it appeared to have been carrying additional fuel and ammunition as well. “Lots of secondaries.”

Urzu-Six, Urzu-Five, I’ve got movement,” Melissa reported. “Checking... Yes. I’ve located the three Savages and the Shadow. They’re due west, range five hundred meters. They’re trying to run!”

No big deal,” Kurz answered. He was almost certainly adjusting his aim. “M9s are faster than Savages. So. We’ve got the three Savages and the Shadow. One Savage a piece, winner takes the Shadow?”

“Might as well,” Garon said, already setting his M9 to pursue the enemy.

I don’t give a shit,” Melissa said. “Your little competition doesn’t mean a damn thing to me.”

Alright. Then I’ll take your Savage.”

Ahead, one of the enemy Arm Slaves disappeared from radar.

Bringing his unit to a halt, Garon knelt down, sighted down the Bofors cannon, and fired two quick shots. The other two Savages went down.

“Five-four, Weber,” the Mandalorian pilot said. “I’ll take that Shadow, too, and score that kiss from the captain.”

Knowing that their communications were being monitored from the Tuatha de Danaan, Melissa switched over to a private frequency with Garon. “Urzu-Five, I’ve got a private question for you.”

Swapping over to that frequency, Garon stood his unit up again and set off in pursuit of the Shadow, which was now moving evasively to avoid Melissa’s fire. “Go ahead, Two.”

What do you think about the captain?”

Narrowing his eyes, Garon realized that there was something more behind this question. Taking his thoughts from it for a moment, he broke to the left, sweeping out to the side. Melissa, noticing his movement, began directing her fire to corral the Shadow toward him. “She’s one of those rare commanders, the ones that care more about their soldiers than the mission—”

I mean on a personal level,” Melissa interrupted.

He paused, sliding his M9 behind a sand dune and then going prone against it, aiming his Bofors over the top of the dune. “Well, she’s cute,” he answered warily. “Sweet-natured, and really cares. Bit hard on herself, though.”

Melissa chuckled, spraying fire at the Shadow, keeping Garon’s dune in sight. “Most definitely. You wouldn’t be interested in her, would you?”

“Engage ECS,” Garon ordered his machine, one eye on his radar. “We’ll catch him by surprise.”

Roger, engaging ECS.” Vents and nozzles on various parts of his M9 came open, and then the unit disappeared behind a laser screen that rendered it invisible to the naked eye and radar.

“I can’t really say at this point, Urzu-Two,” he answered Melissa’s question. “I’ve only been on the ship for two days. I mean, that’s not to say I couldn’t get to like her. She’s definitely an intriguing girl. It’s just too soon yet to say.”

Understood. Thanks, Urzu-Five. I’ll have him in range for you in a second.” The channel to Melissa closed.

Training question, Sergeant,” Orar spoke up.

“Go ahead.”

I do not understand the nature of the dialogue with Urzu-Two.”

“Seems she was asking me if I find Captain Testarossa to be a suitable choice of mate,” he answered, using the most basic terms that a computer would understand.

And do you?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

There was a delay as the AI processed that, then it answered, “Understood.”

Orar, purge all records of the private communication from Urzu-Two and encrypt the training discussion we just had.”

Roger. Purging records... Encrypting records... Complete. Target is within optimal range.”

The targeting reticle for the Bofors cannon burned red. He squeezed off a shot aimed for the cockpit, but the enemy pilot was nothing if not perceptive. The Shadow strafed to the right, causing the shot to blow its left arm off. Turning directly toward Garon’s unit, the Shadow leapt up into the air, drawing its monomolecular cutter and coming down to impale him.

“What kind of idiot are you?” Garon asked, bringing up the Bofors and firing again. This time, the Shadow had no way to dodge, and the 57mm round neatly bisected it in the middle. The two halves fell to either side of Garon’s M9. “Only melee if you know how.” Standing up, he kicked the upper half of the Shadow with his metallic foot, then put another Bofors round into its cockpit, just for good measure.

Was that necessary, Urzu-Five?” Kurz asked, having watched through his scope. “You already blew it in half.”

“Rule number seventeen. Always make sure they’re dead.”

Urzu-Two to TDD Control,” Melissa reported. “We’re all done here. Camp destroyed, all Arm Slaves eliminated.”

Understood, Urzu-Two,” Kalinin’s voice responded. “Good work, team. Extraction helicopters are en route.” There was a pause, then he continued, “So, Urzu-Five, it seems you won the competition, six to four.”

“Yes, sir. Six shot down, instant ace. Not bad for my first mission, wouldn’t you say?”

Not bad at all, Urzu-Five.” In the background, they could hear Teletha’s voice say something in a rush, but not make out the words. “Uh, it seems the captain will be waiting for your return with your prize.”

“R-roger that.”

---

December 25, 1902 hours, local time (0702 hours, Greenwich Mean Time)
Pacific Ocean, 158 miles west of Pararakelse Island, Surface
Tuatha de Danaan, Deck 1, Flight Deck

 

“I bet you feel like Tom Cruise coming back at the end of Top Gun, don’t you, Garon?” Kurz asked in a jovial voice. He was upset about getting shown up in the field, but he didn’t begrudge the new pilot the prize waiting for him. He was part of the ersatz crew that wanted to bring Garon and Teletha together, anyway.

The Mandalorian shrugged and worked his stiff neck muscles. “Nah, not really,” he answered. “Good movie, though.”

Kurz leaned forward in the bucket seat he occupied in the rear of the SH-60 with the other two pilots. “One of the best, no doubt.” He reached forward and slapped his squadmate’s knee. “So, spill. Looking forward to getting that smooch from Tessa?”

Garon rolled his eyes, gave a game grin, and answered neutrally, “Hey, I’ll never turn down a kiss from a good-looking lady.”

“That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” Kurz said, grinning as well. “Me and you are gonna get along just fine, I tell you. We’re like complimentary halves, you know? I’m long-range, you’re close range.”

“Don’t get too comfortable there, Weber,” Garon answered, looking out the open bay doors as the helicopter lowered down onto the flight deck. “I don’t dig guys.”

“Yeah, I hear you.” Grinning, Kurz made elbow-nudging motions at the other man. “You more dig the sweet, petite blondes, right?”

Garon rolled his eyes again. It was Melissa who spoke up. “Give it a rest, Weber. You’ve got no tact.”

With a thump, the helicopter set down on the deck. The trio waited for the rotors to begin spinning down before they stepped out. Melissa looked out to see Teletha standing with Sousuke and Kaname beyond the range of the rotors. Mardukas wasn’t there, which meant Teletha must have left him in charge.

Giving the appearance of a respectable combat team, Garon, Melissa, and Kurz strode in a line toward their waiting commander. At once, they stopped two paces before her and saluted. Melissa reported, “Ma’am, Urzu Team returning from a successful mission! Requesting permission to board the ship!”

Teletha waited the appropriate beat, then returned their salutes and answered, “Permission granted, Lieutenant Mao. Excellent job, Urzu Team.”

As one, the three AS operators called out, “Thank you, ma’am!”

Teletha fixed her gaze on Garon as she took one step forward, hoping no one would notice how her heart was thundering inside her chest. “Sergeant Crayson, you shot down six enemy Arm Slaves to Sergeant Weber’s four, earning yourself the status of ace within MITHRIL’s pilot corps, and winning the challenge. According to the rules of the challenge, I now owe you a kiss. Are you prepared to accept your prize?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Garon answered, his eyes fixed over her head.

Teletha took that last step forward. If the assembled crew had expected her to give him a chaste kiss on the cheek the way she had with Captain McAllen, they would be shocked to the core when she grabbed him by the collar of his pilot suit, pulled him down toward her, and kissed him full on the lips.

 

Chapter Text

All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.”
- Edmund Burke

 

Last Call

 

She felt as though she were floating. A sea of darkness surrounded her, and in that darkness she was aware only of herself, could see herself, drifting in the impenetrable miasma as though she were watching a computer-generated cutscene of a next-generation video game. The whispers would soon follow, she knew. She had had this dream many times. She did not fear it.

Just as the whispers began, the way she had expected, they were suddenly repressed. This was new. It was different. She didn’t like different, especially where the Whispered were concerned. The whispers were still there, a background murmur at the very edge of her thoughts. She looked around her, suddenly viewing things from a first-person perspective. She could see flashes of words and formulas far away, like distant lightning flickering between storm clouds.

What a dreadful scene. The voice wasn’t hers. It was male, and suave, and arrogant, and it was wrong. It was a voice she hadn’t heard in years, a voice she never wanted to hear again, one that made her blood boil.

Its presence meant only trouble. She didn’t know how but deep down she knew: the coming days would bring only pain.

You! That voice was hers. Righteously indignant and angry. Her mind, her dreams, were her private sanctum, her own personal theater for reviewing choice memories, all of them having to do with a certain sergeant major and not a single one having to do with the owner of the voice invading her head.

Me? The voice affected surprise, a lack of concern. Why, of course me. Why not me?

Get out of my head! I hate you! She gripped her ears with her hands, and even watched herself do so. She was suddenly viewing from a third person perspective again. Dreams were confusing and strange like that.

Do you? I don’t think so. A light came on in the darkness, like an overhead spot lamp shining down dramatically on the hero or the detective in an interrogation scene. But the figure illuminated was no detective, and by no means a hero. It was just the same that she remembered him, that black outfit, the ashen-colored hair that was too light to be gray, too dark to be blond. His back was toward her, hands in his pockets, and he was standing on an odd angle. But it was a dream world. Such things were okay. I think you hold a special place for me, deep in your heart.

Yeah, the place for people I want to see burned at the stake! You’ve got a reserved seat right there alongside Gauron and Hitler!

She could hear him laugh, but it was not the mocking laughter she half-expected. He was sincerely amused. Such a fiery spirit! That’s what draws me to you, of course.

No, don’t say it...

That’s why I love you.

No! I hate you! I hate you and everything you stand for! You’re cruel and arrogant and so damn sure that you can just take whatever you want no matter the cost!

He scoffed, and she watched as his image picked at the shoulders of his coat, as though her words were mere lint he could brush away. And what of your dear Sergeant... What was his name? I can’t be troubled to recall the names of the rank and file.

Sousuke Sagara! She all but screamed, clenching her hands into tight fists. That’s why you piss me off so much! You’re so high and damn mighty! Well you know what, Leonard Testarossa? You’re garbage! You’re nothing but a worthless piece of corporate slime!

Even corporate slime has its place on the food chain, certainly a much higher place than your Sergeant Sagara. He spat the words as though they were a distasteful foodstuff. That attitude only served to spur her own insolence.

Oh yeah? She mocked. She couldn’t see herself, but she knew that she’d stepped into her traditional defiant posture, feet planted shoulder-width apart, fists firmly attached to her hips. As far as I’m concerned, Sousuke’s at the top of the food chain!

Hmph. Even murderers have their place in their own little food chain, I suppose. After all, higher beings such as ourselves aren’t meant to be in the food chain with the beasts, now are we?

Where the hell do you get off talking like that!? Higher beings!? Comparing you with Hitler was more accurate than I thought!

In terms of people killed, it would be more accurate to compare Sergeant Sagara to Hitler. Why, he’s killed hundreds of men in his life, and that’s just of the missions of his we could attribute to MITHRIL. Who knows how many he killed in Afghanistan?

She snarled and tightened her fists. She wanted nothing more than to knock that smug expression right off that pretty little face. Killing in war and killing because it suits your ends are two different things, asshole! Everyone Sousuke has killed has been a soldier intent on killing him. Or an assassin sent by you people to kidnap me! He may have killed more than a thousand people for all I know, but I can sleep at night knowing that that means there are a thousand evil men who are dead and can’t cause harm to innocent people!

But I’ve never physically killed another human being in my entire life, Miss Chidori. How can you even begin to approve of his atrocities while condemning an innocent man like myself?

You bastard! You ordered that robot thing to kill that girl by choking the life out of her . It’s different than shooting her or cleanly breaking her neck. Sousuke’s never gone out of his way to make his enemies suffer like that! What, did you think some supposedly-macho thing like choking to death that girl would make me swoon because you were doing it to protect me? You make me sick! Oh, and while I’m at it? Let’s not forget that your organization supports and gives arms to terrorists! So you’ve got the blood of all the innocent people that they have killed on your hands! Sousuke may have the blood of a few hundred soldiers on his hands, but you’re drowning in the blood of thousands!

Is there some point you wish to-

Shut up! I’m not done with you yet! I know your type, I know you’re going to try to dissuade me by telling me that not every soldier he killed was evil, that they might have been good men that left behind wives and children and families. Tessa told me a quote regarding that once, and knowing it, that absolves Sousuke of all blame for doing what he had to do to survive. Ready for it? “Neither enemy faces, nor the mothers that love them, come to mind when one is thinking of nothing but endeavoring to survive. Philosophizing about war is useless under fire.”

Leonard’s image turned toward her then, and he smiled a disarming smile. She wasn’t fooled by it, however. Even still, he said, How true, Miss Chidori. You also support my claim of greater innocence than Sagara with that quotation. In ordering—

Stop it! You’re so full of shit your eyes should be brown! You’ve never been the one lying in the dirt and mud having to worry about when the next artillery shell is going to land right in your foxhole—

And neither have you, Miss Chidori. Arguing semantics will get us nowhere.

She continued right on, as though she’d never heard him. You’ve never sat inside an Arm Slave worried about if you were going to face an enemy you couldn’t beat. You’ve always been the one to sit back in some air-conditioned office five thousand miles away from the battle zone, talking about necessary expenditures of material and resources when those ‘expended resources’ are human lives! How many people have you sent to their death trying to kidnap me? How many have died because of you and the battles you’ve sparked!?

Do you really want to know?

This shorted out her tirade. She drew back suddenly, having expected more denials, more attacks against Sousuke’s character, or even an angry outburst. She had not expected that.

Do you really want to know, Miss Chidori? He looked off to the side, seeming to be considering the equation himself, as though remembering the number of the dead were beneath him. As of yesterday, ninety-nine thousand, six hundred and fifteen.

She blinked, and stepped back even further, horrified at that revelation. You...you monster! How can you dare stand there and accuse Sousuke of being a murderer, when you’ve gotten that many people killed!?

It’s a matter of perspective. You and I, Miss Chidori, are cut from the same cloth.

No! There’s no way! I could never send people to die like you have!

That point is open to debate, but it is not what I meant. I meant in what we are, what we possess. The image of the white-haired youth tapped the side of his head. We are superior. You, I, even that clumsy foolish sister of mine. Can it really be considered murder, for those of our stature to make use of those who are inferior to us? It’s like riding a horse into battle, and continuing until it has tired itself to death. It is not wrong if the beast has no means to oppose. Or, if you like, you can compare it to the use of your dear sergeant’s ‘Arbalest.’ It, like those who have died, serves no purpose but that of a tool.

She felt a chill run through her, and she shivered at the cold, neutral tone of his words. He truly believed that there was nothing wrong with what he was doing. All the fire was gone out of her in an instant. Facing Gauron had been one thing; at least he knew he was a murderer and a psychopath. Leonard Testarossa believed that he was what? A superior being working on some misguided sense of destiny?

That brings me directly to my point. Though no more than resources to be expended, the lives that have been wasted on your capture are costly regardless. We are tired of the game. We intend to get serious. Because I love you, I am offering you an escape. Come with me, and no unnecessary lives need be lost. I will even spare your Sergeant Sagara, despite my better judgment, because I am a benevolent man.

You’re...what are you saying?

We, Amalgam, are going to destroy MITHRIL. They have been a thorn in our sides for far too long. You will also be coming with us, whether you like it or not. You can either go willingly, or I cannot guarantee that your precious Tokyo will not drown in a sea of flame.

Despite the immense mental pressure he was forcing on her, she felt something stirring at the back of her mind. It, like the Whispered dreams, was something she was familiar with, something that instantly refueled her wellspring of determination. She grinned and crossed her arms. You’re a sick, sadistic, son of a bitch, Testarossa. You have delusions of godhood and apparently think that laws and rules don’t apply to you. You’re also apparently convinced that you can just snap your fingers and make me fall for you. News-flash, buddy, it don’t work that way! You don’t have a damn clue when it comes to women, and you definitely don’t have a prayer with me, buddy. I belong to Sousuke Sagara, heart, soul, and body!

Something dangerous flashed in his eyes, and she grinned, knowing that she’d struck a blow to his massive ego. Ooh, don’t like that, do you? Thought you were hot shit when you stole my first kiss, didn’t you? You don’t like that it was Sousuke who I gave my first time to, do you? She tapped her chin and looked off to the side, then started counting on her fingers. And my second, and third, and fourth, and... She threw in a giggle then, just to further taunt the pompous white-haired boy. Oops, I guess it’s wrong of me to kiss and tell, huh?

He was quiet for several moments, and in that time she felt that familiar presence drawing ever closer to her, and she knew that she’d be safe soon. But he had one last barb to throw out. That Sagara has violated you is unfortunate. His voice was low, quiet, dangerous. She felt a chill run up her spine, and thought that she might perhaps have pushed him too far. I see that I must take the necessary steps to ensure that you are removed from the clutches of that barbarian and kept protected. He will regret having spoiled you, and you will soon come to learn where your loyalties truly lie.

The black sphere of whispers broke behind her, allowing a brilliant white light and incredible warmth in to surround her. She could feel his hands, strong and comforting, take hold of her. Staring the image of Leonard directly in the eye, she calmly answered, I know where my loyalties lie. With the man I love.

And then everything around her went white.

---

January 17, 0615 hours (Japan Standard Time)
Chofu, Tokyo, Japan
Maison K Apartment Building

 

Kaname woke to find herself cradled in Sousuke’s strong, warm arms. She made an incoherent noise and pulled his arms more tightly around her, nuzzling back against his chest. He was content to lie there, holding onto her, gently nuzzling the top of her head as she fully came to consciousness.

Though they had been living in the same apartment for two years, they had, up until Christmas, had separate rooms. Afterwards, they had moved him into her room, and his former room then became a guest bedroom. She’d broken him of his habit of sleeping underneath the bed in a hurry, but in a half-hearted attempt to make up for it, he usually slept completely covered by sheets, covers, and pillows. It was always amusing to watch Sousuke crawl out from underneath her covers, especially since Sousuke, being who he was, didn’t care that the bedspread was decidedly feminine in nature.

This morning he was half-tangled in the light pink covers, holding her close, having pulled her entire body flush against his as he always did whenever she had one of her Whispered dreams. True to the scientists’ conclusions, his mere presence allowed her a degree of control over the dreams, allowing her to end them at her will. The only reason she had not been able to end her dream this morning as swiftly as she desired was due to that bastard forcing the link to remain open. It was mostly Sousuke who had pulled her out.

She whimpered and held tightly to his arms.

This immediately alerted him. “Kaname?” he whispered into her ear. “What’s wrong?” His brow creased in concern. “You were calling my name in your dreams. You sounded upset.”

“I had reason to be.” Her voice was deathly quiet, as though she feared speaking too loudly would cause him to suddenly appear from nowhere. “I...He resonated with me in my dream.”

There was no question about who he was. She felt Sousuke’s arms tighten almost imperceptibly, protectively. “What did he say?”

“He said...that Amalgam was going to take care of MITHRIL soon.” She shivered, despite the warmth of Sousuke’s embrace, of their bed, of the apartment’s heater. “He said that they were tired of playing games with me. That they were going to take me, and that people would suffer if I didn’t go along quietly. He tried to make me doubt you, Sousuke. Tried to make me think you were a murderer.” It was all flowing out like water from a dam, now. Her sergeant said nothing, letting her speak, letting her get it off her chest. “I knew better. You’re a good man, Sousuke. You’re a soldier, not a killer.” She paused. “No. You’re a specialist.”

They both smiled. He pressed a gentle kiss to the back of her neck. She sighed, and turned over in his arms, bringing herself as close to him as possible. “What’s going to happen?” she asked, her voice bleak.

He held her tightly to him, reassuring her with his proximity. “I’ll warn MITHRIL, and then I’ll do what I do best.”

She looked up at him, and just then, she saw a flicker of the man he used to be in his eyes. She could see Kashim in his eyes. But it didn’t cause her fear, the way it had when she’d glimpsed Kashim so long ago in Khanka. She knew that the Kashim she saw was a beast on a leash; that Sousuke had him controlled. “What you do best?”

“Leonard Testarossa, and all these men he’ll be sending after you...” Sousuke’s voice was quiet, similar to how quiet Leonard’s had been, but the tone of Sousuke’s voice brought her comfort, not fear. He was a trained professional, and he would strain every skill he had ever learned to its breaking point in order to protect her. “...I will make them wish they had never even learned your name.”

---

January 19, 1202 hours, local time (0202 hours, Greenwich Mean Time)
Meridia Island West Pacific Fleet Base, 572 miles southeast of Japan
THREAT CONDITION ALPHA

 

On its own, Meridia Island was considered a fortress. A crescent-shaped island that spanned seventy-five miles from northeast to southwest end, the western side of the island was protected by sheer cliffs a hundred meters tall with rocky breakwaters that made assault from the west nigh impossible. Heavy forests to the north and south prevented vehicle travel, and strategic minefields and other traps were in place to make infantry assault a nightmare. The beaches along the eastern inner crescent of the island were the most viable assault path, but that would by no means be an easy attack. Swaths of self-propelled anti-shipping mines with constantly-changing positions were designed to reduce any potential landing force by nearly two-thirds before any enemy soldiers ever set foot on the island. The beaches themselves were equally-mined, combinations of standard explode-when-rolled-over mines, US-made M93 Hornet mines—a nasty design that can hit vehicles from over 100 meters away with top-down explosives—and various anti-personnel mines including M18A1 claymores and M16 mines: special “popper” mines that bounce out of the ground and deliver their payload in a circular area. Bunkers, pillboxes, and automated weapons covered every square inch of beach, and artillery positions inland had firing solutions capable of covering every spot on the island.

The submarine pens, command structures, barracks, armory, and another buildings of importance were all located deep underground, with concealed entrances and multiple paths of exit to escape tunnels. In the event of overwhelming enemy invasion, MITHRIL followed a combined doctrine of scorched earth and the Soviet resistance policy against the Nazi invasion in World War II: for every inch of land conquered by the enemy, the price would be paid in the blood of one hundred of their soldiers. Should any enemy attack that MITHRIL could not hope to repulse, they would burn the island to the ground, destroy all files and important buildings, and kill as many of the enemy as they could.

Sousuke’s warning had put MITHRIL on high alert. In normal circumstances, weapons were only seen on the base when an assault team was being assembled for a mission. Now, armed and armored soldiers were everywhere, standing guard outside critical entryways, patrolling the interior of the base, and keeping alert in watchtowers in the jungles above. All personnel carried a minimum of a standard sidearm, but many carried assault rifles or submachine guns of various make as well. In all of MITHRIL’s bases all over the world, the scenario was the same. They were as prepared as they could be against the threat of Amalgam.

Beneath the sea on the west side of the island, the Tuatha de Danaan entered an underwater cove that led to one of the submarine pens. Tension aboard the multi-billion dollar submarine was high; they knew that their ship was one of Amalgam’s primary targets for the unparalleled destructive capacity aboard. They were returning to the island long enough to refuel the ship’s palladium reactor and stock up with as much ammunition, supplies, and other equipment they could possibly carry. Afterwards, they would be going dark, out of contact with the rest of the Pacific Fleet, until the threat of Amalgam had blown over. The remainder of the Pacific Fleet, a full aircraft carrier battlegroup, was resupplying at Midway Island. The nature of the Pacific Fleet was an absolute secret; the carrier battlegroup that comprised the rest of the fleet, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, was the property of the United States. As far as MITHRIL knew, Amalgam had not learned the true nature of the CVN-79 USS Arizona, named in commemoration of the battleship that sank during Pearl Harbor, and the rest of its battlegroup.

As the tunnel the submarine passed through stopped being water-worn rock and became smoothed steel and concrete, and the tunnel rose high enough above the water to allow the ship to surface, Teletha ordered the Tuatha de Danaan to all stop.

It was a different atmosphere on the bridge of the assault submarine. Gone were the standard day uniforms normally worn on the ship, instead replaced with service dress uniforms, identical in design to those worn by the United States Navy, save the presence of related MITHRIL insignia to replace that of the US Navy.

“Helm, all stopped, Captain,” Mardukas reported.

Teletha nodded and tugged at the jacket of her service whites. “Bring us to surface, ready all nonessential crew to man the rails,” she ordered.

“Aye, Captain.”

Mardukas reached over and activated the ship’s intercom. “Now hear this, now hear this. All nonessential crew report to the flight deck. All nonessential crew report to the flight deck.”

Teletha waited for several moments, then stood and said, “Mister Mardukas, you have the conn. Mister Kalinin, if you please.”

“Aye, Captain, I have the conn,” Mardukas answered.

“Aye, Captain,” Kalinin answered automatically, falling into step with the young woman as she left the bridge and headed toward the hangar.

With most of the crew already gathered in the hangar, the corridors they passed through were deathly quiet. Glancing up at the imposing figure of the former Russian commando beside her, Teletha felt nervous. “Mister Kalinin.”

“Yes, Captain?”

She took a deep breath, gripping the hem of her jacket so her fingers wouldn’t shake and betray her nervousness. Even so, she figured that a man like Kalinin could sense fear in others, especially with people who were terrible at hiding their emotions, like her. “Mister Kalinin, how many regulations would it violate if I asked Mister Crayson for a date?”

He was quiet for a moment, then answered neutrally, “American regulations or MITHRIL regulations?”

“Either.”

“Well, as you know, American regulations are clear against fraternizing between officers and enlisted personnel, particularly between crew on the same ship, particularly in the case of senior officers, as well as the regulations against public displays of affection. MITHRIL, on the other hand, has no such stringent regulations in place, but such activities are frowned upon.”

She sighed heavily. “So even if I wanted to, he’d probably turn me down because of the familiarity with US regulations and because of the impact it might have on crew morale.”

Kalinin looked down at the top of her head. He could hear the dejection in her tone, even if he couldn’t see her face. He smiled faintly. Ah, young love. “I wouldn’t necessarily think so, Captain,” he said. “Sergeant Crayson seems to take a rather liberal view of the regulations, particularly in light of the incident with Seaman Kelly during your birthday celebration.”

She tried hard to suppress her giggle, and managed to stifle it midway through. “Yes, I suppose you have a point there.”

“Even still, Captain, I would advise caution, if for no other reason than the current situation with Amalgam,” Kalinin said.

“Yes, I understand,” she said solemnly, schooling her features back to neutrality. “However, this may be the last chance I have for a while...”

Kalinin smiled and rested a hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. “I wish you luck, Captain.”

She smiled as they entered the hangar. “Thank you, Mister Kalinin.”

Inside the hangar, the last group of crewmen were waiting on the elevator that would bring them up to the flight deck, waiting on the six Urzu pilots stationed on the ship to initialize their Arm Slaves and load them onto the elevator. Garon came out of the locker room adjacent to the entrance at a half-trot, sealing up his piloting suit as he headed toward the row of machines.

“Mister Crayson!” Teletha called out, thankful that the noise of the hangar partially-drowned the volume of her shout.

The pilot looked over at the call, and hastily came upright and snapped off a salute. “Yes, Captain?”

Glancing around the hangar bay, ostensibly to give a cursory inspection to landing preparations but in reality it was to make sure no one was paying an excessive amount of attention to her. Nodding her satisfaction, she walked over to stand before the pilot, crossing her arms behind her back. “Mister Crayson, what are you doing after landing ceremonies?”

He thought about it for a moment, then shrugged. “Probably hit the armory and add some more tools to my kit. Then just wait until we ship out again tomorrow.”

She nodded her head, then rocked slightly in place on the balls of her feet. “Then... if you don’t have any other plans, would you mind accompanying me to a late lunch on-base? You needn’t wear your uniform.”

If it had been anyone else, he would’ve snapped off a snarky—not to mention lascivious—one-liner about the uniform statement, and he even checked himself with his mouth open prepared to let off just such a quip. However, due to the conversation with Melissa during his first mission, and the various cat-calls and remarks he’d earned from the rest of the crew due to the kiss he’d gotten, it was obvious that the captain was tender for him. It had probably taken her a lot of courage to ask him. It wouldn’t be proper, by Mando or otherwise, to let that courage go to waste.

He gave her a half-smirk and a thumbs-up. “Sure thing. I’ll be happy to join you.”

Her face lit up in happiness as though she were a light bulb. Before she could say anything, they heard Melissa’s voice call out, “Hey, Garon! Stop flirting with Tessa and get your ass into your machine!”

The pilot turned away to give Melissa a rude hand gesture, then started to head toward his Arm Slave. Pausing, he glanced back at Teletha. “So, where and when?”

“Oh, um... How about the Cubi Bar Cafe at 1400?”

He nodded. “It’s a date.” Then he waved, turned, and ran over to his machine.

Placing a hand over her fluttering heart, Teletha smiled, then ran and joined the rest of the crew in waiting on the elevator. Garon, the last pilot to enter his machine, hurried through an abbreviated power up sequence as the other four M9s on the ship either watched his process or moved onto the elevator. There would be no seventh Arm Slave on deck for the manning the rails ceremony; the Arbalest had been launched the previous day to assist Sousuke in protecting Kaname.

A few moments later, Garon stood his M9 up and joined the others on the elevator. The large platform carried them up onto the flight deck, where the Arm Slave pilots separated to exit the ship via hatch four, designed specifically to accommodate Arm Slaves, and the other personnel exited onto the outer hull by way of standard boarding hatches. Once there, the crew lined up along the starboard edge of the hull at parade rest, while the six M9s likewise stood at rest in the center forward section of the ship. With everyone in position, the Tuatha de Danaan continued the rest of the trip to its berth in the submarine pen at reduced speed.

‘Manning the rails’ was an old navy tradition, dating back to the days of sailing ships. It was customary for ships entering port to line the rails of the ship, or simply the deck in the case of the Tuatha de Danaan, with all nonessential crew in full service dress facing the direction of their debarkation point. Some commanders would have waived the tradition considering the extraordinary circumstances facing MITHRIL, but Teletha felt it necessary to stick to tradition to provide a sense of normalcy to the crew.

I’m so glad I’m in the SRT,” Kurz said over a private frequency with the other AS pilots.

No kidding, right?” Yang Jun-Kyu, Urzu-Nine, answered from Kurz’ right. “We don’t have to wear those damn uniforms.”

Stow it, both of you,” came the authoritarian voice of Belfangan Clouseau, the hard-edge leader of the Urzu Team. “The bridge can still monitor our communications, even if we’re not transmitting externally. Show your so-called professionalism.”

Sir,” Kurz and Yang answered simultaneously, in identical downcast tones.

As the ship pulled into her assigned berth and came to a halt, there was nobody waiting on the docks to meet them aside from the dock workers on duty at that particular time. There was no greeting party from the commanding officer of Meridia Island. There were no off-duty friends of various crewmembers gathered in a loose crowd awaiting their arrival. It was a solemn and somber docking.

Once Teletha dismissed the crew, many headed immediately down the extended gangplanks and into the base. The rest returned belowdecks to change out of their service uniforms before going ashore. Teletha herself sighed and sat down heavily on the dark steel hull of her ship, letting out a sigh of vexation.

She felt the armored plating vibrate beneath her, and looked back to see Melissa’s M9 stooped down on one knee behind her. “Hey, Tessa, something the matter?” the Chinese-American woman’s voice asked over the external speakers.

“Oh, I don’t know...” the captain sighed, resting her chin in the palm of her hand. “I just...feel so down.”

Melissa chuckled. “What, did Garon shoot you down or something?”

Teletha blinked, then raised her head and looked back at the Arm Slave. “Huh? Oh, no. Actually, I have a lunch date with him at 1400.”

Wow, really? Way to go, Tessa!” The Arm Slave raised one massive hand and gave her a thumbs-up. “You’d better cheer up before then. Wouldn’t want to go into your date in a bad mood, would you?”

She smiled faintly. “No, I guess not.” She checked the time on her wristwatch; it was a complex and expensive timepiece that could display both GMT and the time zone it was currently in, perfect for the captain of a submarine. “I just hope I have enough time to finish everything...”

Tell you what, Tessa,” Melissa said, then demonstrated her remarkable piloting talent by gently nudging her friend’s shoulder with one finger of the M9. “I’ll handle all your paperwork for you, so that all you’ve gotta do is sign it when I’m done. That way you’ll have plenty of time for your date.”

Teletha pulled herself up to her feet by using the M9’s hand as a brace, then turned and smiled at the machine. “You’re the best, Melissa.” She then set off down the gangplank, intending to head immediately to her overnight quarters to prepare for her date.

---

January 19, 1359 hours, local time
Meridia Island West Pacific Fleet Base
Cubi Bar Cafe

 

The Cubi Bar Cafe was actually the officers’ club on Meridia Island, its doors open to both officers and SRT pilots. It was a two-part cafe that featured an ‘outdoor’ patio eating area that sat within the larger open area of the recreational commons at the barracks, and an ‘indoor’ bar. Teletha sat at the first barstool inside the door, leaning against the bar and nursing both a shot glass of water and the churning anxiety in her stomach.

Owing to her lack of civilian clothes, she’d had to run to the commissary to purchase something non-uniform to wear. Luckily, the benefit of MITHRIL being a mercenary organization as opposed to a traditional army meant that the commissary more resembled a Walmart from the United States. From the clothing section, she’d managed to pull together an outfit consisting of beige pants that were a few steps removed from tight-fitting and an indigo long-sleeved shirt with dark blue trim. The PT tennis shoes she usually wore around the base went fine with her new clothes.

Pulling the shot glass from the bar, she sipped at the water as she felt another nervous strain coil through her stomach. She grimaced at its intensity, then sighed. She was no longer the little girl she’d been three years ago when she’d been infatuated with Sousuke. She had hoped she wouldn’t have been struck with this kind of nervousness, but the more she thought about it, the more she figured that it was going to happen. After all, she couldn’t help having a naturally-shy personality. She also suspected that she’d developed a rejection fear complex after Sousuke and Kaname had become a couple. And that wasn’t even bringing into account the inferiority complex she’d had since childhood as a result of her brother.

No, no, just don’t even think about that, she thought to herself, grimacing as she rubbed her forehead. What he’s done for Amalgam, those things Kaname said he told her when he resonated with her. He’s become a monster. It makes me sick just thinking about him.

“Credit for your thoughts?” Garon’s mid-range voice called out from behind her. She spun on her barstool to find him standing just inside the door, eyes on her. “You weren’t waiting long, were you?”

She shook her head fiercely, her ponytail snapping like a whip. “No, not long at all,” she answered, smiling at the pilot. “I just got here a few minutes ago.” Stepping down off the barstool, she reached into the small purse she had brought, another purchase from the commissary, and left several American dollars on the bar. She then turned to Garon. “So, inside or outside?”

“Inside,” he answered. “I like the atmosphere in here.”

He looked around and, spotting a small table along the far wall, he directed her to it with a gentle touch at the small of her back. He pretended not to notice when she jumped at his touch. Once they had reached the table, he held out her chair for her, eliciting a blush at his actions, then sat down opposite her and picked up a menu.

She took the opportunity to look over his appearance before he sat down. He wore a dull gray tee shirt and jeans that had probably began their life as black, but were now faded to a gunmetal color. A leather holster hung from his belt with a leg strap that secured it around his right thigh. The rubber grip of the USP Expert secured in the holster had a well-worn appearance. She couldn’t immediately tell what caliber the weapon was chambered for.

The presence of the sidearm only served to remind her of the terrible threat that all of MITHRIL faced. She was armed as well, the .22 Walther TPH she had used aboard the Tuatha de Danaan during the would-be seajacking was in a holster around her right ankle, but the weight of the weapon was so inobtrusive that it was easy to forget about. She sighed just a little.

Glancing up from the menu, he noticed her eyes on him, and assumed that the sigh had come from his manner of dress. He smiled sheepishly. “Sorry,” he told her. “These are the only civilian clothes I have. Didn’t want to come in a uniform, and I didn’t think you’d appreciate the stares we’d have gotten if I’d worn my beskar.”

She blinked. “Oh, no! No, your clothes are fine.” She closed her eyes and smiled shyly. “I was actually just thinking how depressing it is that we have to walk around the base carrying weapons.”

He made a sour face. “Yeah, I don’t care for it any, either.” He shifted slightly in his seat so that his sidearm was hidden by the table.

“In any case, I’d love to see your armor,” she said. “Is it like those cosplay people?”

“No, it’s as close to the real deal as we can get,” he answered with a chuckle. “The plates are titanium, the fabric underlay is interwoven Kevlar and dragon skin. Helmet’s got an integrated heads-up display with a communications linkup and audiovisual enhancers. Still working on figuring out a way to smart-link firearms to it to get a real-time ammunition counter and a targeting reticle.”

Teletha’s eyes widened at the description of his armor suit. “That must have been rather expensive,” she said. “And you can actually wear it into combat?”

He nodded, and smiled. “I have. Once or twice. It was fun.”

She smiled as well, feeling her anxiety fading away. This was how things normally progressed when they got together to ‘talk shop,’ or rather, the times between their busy duty schedules that they could snatch for him to teach her about his people. Over the past few weeks, she had learned an incredible amount about his culture, and had secretly begun her own notations that she would later assemble and use to create that book on his culture she had joked about when they had first met. She kept that information secret from him, wanting to surprise him with the finished product.

A civilian waitress came over to their table. “You two ready to order?”

“Well, I am,” Garon said.

“Oh, just give me one second,” Teletha answered, picking up her menu and quickly scanning it over. After just a few seconds, she nodded, set the menu down, and then said, “I’ll have the Westpac croissant, please.”

“Turkey or ham? And what to drink?”

“Turkey, and an iced tea, please.”

The waitress made notes in her pad, then turned to Garon. “And you?”

“The Mach 1, please, with a coke, no ice.”

After a few seconds of writing, the waitress nodded, then collected their menus. “Okay, should only be about five or ten minutes.”

Once she had departed, that left Garon and Teletha to their own devices, and without any menus to distract themselves. After a few moments of awkward silence, he asked, “So, uh, how’s your study on Mando’a coming?”

She smiled happily and tapped her fingers on the edge of the table’s surface. “Very well,” she answered. “I think I know enough to be able to carry on a conversation in Mando’a.” Pausing, she looked off to the side, apparently thinking about something. “That makes me wonder. Why don’t you use Mando’a more than you do?”

He shrugged. “It’s just like any other language, you know? It wouldn’t really make much sense to speak half in English and half in Japanese, would it?”

“No, I guess it wouldn’t,” she said, laughing.

“That, and it adds a good bit of mystery to sprinkle bits and pieces of Mando’a into everyday conversation. Good flavor.”

“Yes, like Sergeant Skirata, right?”

He’d gotten the three books of the Republic Commando series delivered to Sousuke, who had brought them with him during one of his mission calls, and then he, Garon, had handed the books, along with the fourth that he already had, over to Teletha. At first, she hadn’t been at all pleased to learn that the Mandalorians came from a fictional origin, and hadn’t spoken to him for two days. Then she came and apologized for not speaking to him, and things had continued just as if it had never happened.

He smiled. “Good ol’ Sergeant Kal,” he agreed.

Kal Skirata was one of the principle characters of the Republic Commando books. He was a Mandalorian sergeant who had trained several squads of clone commandos. He was a living embodiment of the Mandalorian ideal, on the one hand a devoted and loving father figure, and on the other hand a ruthless warrior who would stop at nothing to see to it that those he considered his family got what they needed from the galaxy at large.

“You know,” Teletha said, tracing idle patterns on the tabletop with one finger, “you remind me a little of Kal.”

Garon leaned back in his seat, one eyebrow raised. “Do I?” he asked, complete sincerity in his voice. “Huh. Thank you.”

She blushed and looked away, straining to think of something she could say to keep the conversation going. She was saved from having to do so by the arrival of the waitress with their drinks and food. Her plate held a large croissant with sliced turkey, swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, and a small cup of honey mustard; she’d be able to make a sandwich to her liking using the silverware on the table. His plate was largely buried beneath the shredded pulled pork and kaiser roll situated on it.

She looked at what he had ordered and giggled. “A good Mando lunch,” she said teasingly.

He paused with his glass almost to his mouth, looked at her over the rim of the glass, and grinned. “Oya,” he answered. That one word had more definitions and translations than any other word in the Mandalorian language. In lieu of trying to remember them all, Teletha went under the assumption that it could be used under any positive or triumphant circumstances.

The two ate their food in silence, but it was a comfortable silence, not the awkward ones that had come before due to a lack of anything to say. She didn’t know why, but she attributed it to that short exchange of words between them just before they had begun eating.

They had just finished eating and were debating dessert when the call came over the public address system that they could not ignore, “Captain Testarossa, please report to Delta Sector.”

Garon turned a lazy eye to the speaker set up in the bar. Teletha glared at it with all her might. After a moment, she sighed and looked down at her hands in her lap. “I-I’m sorry...” she whispered.

“Hey, don’t be,” he responded unconcernedly. “We finished eating, didn’t we?”

She looked up at him then, on the verge of tears, almost unable to believe that he could take it that simply. But then she caught herself, and began to smile. It was that Mandalorian pragmatism, and somehow it always made her feel better. “Yeah, we did.” She cleared her throat. “Umm, I don’t know how long this will take so... I guess I might not see you again until we ship out tomorrow.”

He nodded. “Yeah. And lunch is on me, by the way.”

She smiled again. “Okay.” Reluctantly, she stood up. She wanted to hug him or, heaven forbid, kiss him again, but she knew that she didn’t have the nerve. “Then, I’ll see you tomorrow. And the next one is on me.”

Purposely, he waited for her to get a few feet away, then called out, “Hey, Tessa?”

The fact that he had called her by the nickname she preferred stopped her in her tracks, causing her to jump as though she’d been hit by a bolt of lightning. She turned back. “Yes?”

“I haven’t been fighting since I was a kid, like Sagara, but I have been a soldier of fortune most of my life.” He was sitting in a relaxed position in his chair, but she knew him well enough by now to know that he was choosing his words carefully, and wasn’t having an easy time of it. “This emotional stuff, dating and everything? It’s not easy for me either. So don’t be so hard on yourself if you’re confused or if you’re too shy to do something. Because I’m learning it as I go, too.”

Her eyes widened and she brought up a hand unconsciously to cover a gasp. She could feel heat rising to her face, and knew that she had to be red as a tomato when she saw a brief smile flicker across his face just before he looked away from her. He knew she hated it when she blushed, and hated it more when people saw her blush. She turned and dashed out of the bar before she could make a fool of herself.

Garon waited ten minutes, then paid their bill and left. He wasted no time, heading directly for the barracks and the room he had been assigned with Kurz.

The German sniper was reclining on one of the couches, reading a magazine, when he entered. Without taking his eyes from the page he was on, he called out, “So, how’d it go?”

“Well,” Garon answered, crossing the room to flop down on the other couch.

“Anything serious happen?”

Garon was almost surprised at the no-nonsense way in which Kurz was carrying on the discussion, especially knowing the playboy’s penchant to mercilessly pester Sousuke over his relationship with Kaname. The reason was simple: Sousuke, for most of his life, had been a clueless idiot, and Kaname was a tough girl. Sousuke needed it, Kaname could take it. Teletha, on the other hand, was much more emotionally-delicate, and while good-natured teasing was one thing, Kurz was whole-heartedly among the small but growing number of Tuatha de Danaan crew that thought Garon was good for her.

Besides, he felt a kinship with the self-proclaimed Mandalorian, and they did make a frighteningly-effective combat team.

“She said I reminded her of Skirata.”

Kurz chuckled. He’d read the books as well. “Wow, she’s throwing out the high-powered compliments, eh? Still not sure about her?”

“No, I’m getting pretty sure.” Garon let out a sigh as he stared up at the ceiling. “Was Sagara this bad?”

Kurz laughed outright at that one. “Hell no, Sousuke didn’t have it anywhere near as good as you. You at least know what you’re feeling. You’re only hesitating because you don’t want to screw up and hurt her.”

“And I really don’t want to have to explain garroting Mardukas to the higher ups.”

“Ugh, no kidding.” Kurz made a sour face. “If you and Tessa hook up, I think he really would try to fire you out a torpedo tube.”

Try,” Garon scoffed. “You only ever cross a Mando once. And that’s a lesson the crew will be learning. Mardukas wouldn’t survive to benefit the knowledge.”

“Just sell me a ticket before it goes down, will ya? And try to catch Clouseau in the blast radius, will you?” The German turned the page in his magazine, his face still buried in it. “Still, it was pretty forward of Tessa to ask you out like that. She dress up for you?”

“I think she’d just bought that outfit.”

“Hah, she went out and bought new clothes for her date with you? Man, she’s got it worse than we thought.”

“Yeah, I guess so...”

Kurz peeked out from beneath his magazine. “Dude, what’s wrong? I thought you said the date went well.”

“It did. I just... Weber, what does she see in me?”

“I got no idea, man.” This wasn’t delivered with any amount of malice or spite. It was the honest truth. He had no way of knowing what drew Teletha to him. “Don’t be thinking like that, though. Seriously, man. She digs you, you dig her. Don’t give me any of this ‘she’s too good for me’ crap that we had to put up with from Sousuke.”

Garon rolled over on the couch, laying facedown on it. “Yeah, I know,” he said, his voice muffled slightly by the cushions. “But sometimes I just feel like all those people who think the Mandalorians are just a bunch of thugs are right, and I’m the friggen poster child for it, and then I’m like, well how does a jackass like me deserve a girl like her?”

“Simple, you don’t,” Kurz answered, throwing his magazine at his wingman. “But she likes you, and you like her. That’s all you need. Besides, you’ve made it sound like you’re the Boy Scout of the Mandos.”

“Guess I just need to grow some balls.”

“No shit.”

The conversation subsided then, everything that had been needed to be said having been said. Garon tossed Kurz’ magazine back to him and laid there on the couch, contemplating taking a nap before making a last-minute commissary raid to see if there were any new books out that he wanted to read.

Those idle thoughts went out the window when the lights suddenly burned red, and the keening wail of the air raid klaxon began to echo in the hallway outside.

Both pilots were on their feet immediately, looking first up at the lights, then at each other. They nodded, and began moving swiftly throughout the rooms, gathering what belongings they had scattered, throwing everything into the duffel bags they’d brought with them. The last thing they grabbed were their personal weapons of choice, a G36C for Kurz, and an M4A1 SOPMOD for Garon. They had no idea if the enemy was already upon them, but they would let nothing stop them from reaching their Arm Slaves.

Kurz kicked open the door for no other reason than the desire to do something cool. The German pilot led the way toward the submarine pens, moving carefully and checking the passages, wisely acting under the assumption that enemy infantry was already in the base, though it was against all likelihoods. Garon kept watch over the path behind them, wordlessly operating under the same assumption, the two pilots moving as the merchants of death they were.

Business was about to pick up.

 

Chapter Text

Every night we lay in a filthy foxhole prayin’ the enemy won’t slit our throats. Every day we crawl through the mud and dirt while bullets whistled all around.”
- Sergeant Reed Roebuck

 

Breaking Point

 

January 19, 1432 hours, local time (0432 hours, Greenwich Mean Time)
Meridia Island West Pacific Fleet Base
Submarine Pen Arm Slave Storage Hangar A1

 

There was no time for a lengthy mission briefing. Explosions were already rocking the island every four or five minutes, and the fact that they could be felt so far underground meant that they were big. Kurz and Garon arrived in the hangar just in time with one of the explosions, sending the Mandalorian pilot sprawling. Kurz helped his squadmate up, then looked toward the frenetic activity in the hangar. Clouseau’s black M9 was already powered up, and Melissa was running toward hers. She caught sight of them, screamed for them to get into their suits.

“Hurry and toss your bags into that pile over there,” Clouseau ordered, pointing to a pile of the other pilots’ personal belongings. Service crews will load them aboard the Danaan. Stow your weapons inside your M9s.”

There was no time for silliness and banter. Kurz and Garon threw their bags onto the pile and ran into the male locker room. They skipped the standard shower before suit up, stripping off their clothes and changing into their piloting suits in record time. The wail of the air raid sirens keened a steady beat to their activity. They came out of the locker room at a full run, pausing only long enough to stuff their clothes into their bags.

They gathered with the other fourteen pilots around a holographic display on the hangar wall. Clouseau and Melissa stood on either side of the screen, the former holding a datapad with continually-updating tactical information. The Canadian commander looked up at the gathered pilots and began his briefing without preamble, “Gentlemen, Amalgam is launching an all-out attack against us. An air force we didn’t know they had is currently seeking to take control of our airspace. Luckily, the USS Ronald Reagan was in the area at the time of their initial strike and has scrambled her carrier air wing to fight against Amalgam’s forces. It’s unfortunate that we’ve drawn America into our battle, but we must be grateful to them for their assistance.

“At any time we expect the enemy to launch their next wave, a force of Arm Slaves, likely Venom models.” He paused for just a moment, judging the pilots’ reactions. Though all of them knew that the likelihood of facing Venoms meant their death, they knew that their job was to delay and harass the enemy long enough for key figures, and the Tuatha de Danaan, to escape the island. “Our job is to intercept these landings and prevent them from gaining access to the inner facilities.”

A Middle Eastern pilot, Castello, scoffed and raised a hand. “‘Intercept,’ huh? As if it were that easy. Those LAMBDA Drivers are going to make this into an impossible mission.”

Melissa crossed her arms and glared at Castello. “That’s right, normal attacks are usually impossible against a LAMBDA Driver,” she responded. “Without the Arbalest, we’re disadvantaged, but we do have the Fairy Eyes on all our units. With our training and the home advantage, we can take down Venoms.”

Castello wasn’t convinced, waving her arguments off. “I’ve read the reports. This is still ill-advised.”

“Even so, we have to confront them,” Clouseau stated, in a voice that would brook no arguments. “This base is built to withstand bombardment from the air, but the Danaan is still undergoing maintenance and is incapable of defending itself in drydock. If their Arm Slaves breach the perimeter and reach it, then it will be destroyed.”

“Well, yeah—” Kurz began.

“It’s our only means of escape,” the Canadian interrupted, fixing the German with a harsh glare that instantly silenced him. “This is an isolated island far out at sea. If we lose the Danaan, then we all die in these caves. The only way to survive is holding their Arm Slave force at bay.”

Standing near the front of the group, a blond pilot lifted his pointer finger and called out, “How about this, then?”

All eyes of the pilots instantly turned to him, and he shifted his posture to that of a man about to make a statement so obvious that all of them should have already come to it. “Stop fighting this losing battle,” he proclaimed, as though it were the simplest solution in the world. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, in the direction of the command sector of the base. “How about we take some guns and go to the command center?”

Looks of shock exploded across the faces of all the pilots, even the typically-stoic Clouseau.

“Knock it off, Spake!” Melissa barked, her eyes darting to the left to catch Garon’s reaction to this treasonous suggestion.

Spake’s smug look suggested that he’d figured out the most clever way of solving this entire problem. “I bet if we handed over Tessa and the Danaan without a fight, the enemy would go for it. I think they’d be happy to settle this with a business-like agreement.”

Sheer murder wrote itself across Garon’s face as the Mandalorian dropped his left arm in a deliberately-unnatural movement. Kurz immediately seized his partner’s arm to stop him from completing the motion that would end with a knife in his hand and ready to find a new home in Spake’s spine. The two partners glared at one another, the burning fury in Garon’s eyes contrasting with the chilling fear in Kurz’s that the rampaging Mandalorian might go through him to get to Spake.

Clouseau’s gaze flicked to them for a moment, but sensing it under control, he turned his attention back to Spake. “Go on, keep saying that garbage,” he said calmly. “I’ll consider it treason.”

Spake shook his head, grunting in frustration. “Oh, come on, I’m just a hired gun. Are you telling me to happily die for my team? For my comrades?” He looked around at the others, appealing to their sense of self-preservation. “I don’t want to waste my life, for the record. Don’t you all agree? What about you, Mandalorian?”

Hutuun!” Garon roared, shaking free of Kurz’ grasp and flicking his arm to the side. An 8-inch Ka-bar dropped into his left hand, and he rose it into a striking posture.

Kurz, Yang, and a third pilot—this one looking as though he’d walked away from a lucrative career in the NFL—all tackled the enraged man. Between the three of them, they couldn’t bring him to the ground, and in fact struggled to keep him separated from Spake.

“You don’t know a fu—” Garon shouted over the three of them.

“I did warn you,” Clouseau’s voice boomed above even Garon’s, drawing eyes back to him. “Corporal Spake, the sentence for treason is death. And Sergeant Crayson looks far more than willing to—”

“You would sell me out for your own skins?” Teletha’s voice interrupted, catching all of them off-guard. “That’s a rather fine idea.”

The pilots turned to see Teletha striding surely toward them across the hangar, flanked by two heavily-armed soldiers. She was still wearing the outfit she’d had on for her date with Garon, but that did nothing to detract from the sheer weight of authority she exuded by poise and expression.

“I suspected that topic might come up,” she said calmly, as though discussing the weather, “so I thought I would come and see for myself.”

“You were listening?” Spake asked, his eyes flicking repeatedly to the barely-restrained Mandalorian still struggling to carve that stupid smirk off his face. The would-be turncoat shrugged innocently. “It’s nothing personal.”

Coming to a stop beside the dogpile that was the only thing preventing Garon from committing murder in the first degree, the young woman reached out her right hand and gently grasped the Mandalorian’s wrist. Garon stilled instantly at her touch, ceasing his struggles and allowing the other three to push him back. He looked toward Teletha, and though her expression was outwardly unchanged and she did not look at him, he felt an odd sensation of relief that wasn’t his own. This alien feeling further applied the proverbial brakes, and he watched to see what she had planned.

Knowing that he was pacified, Teletha lifted her hand from his wrist and held it back toward the soldier on her right, never once breaking eye contact with Spake. “May I have your sidearm, please?” she asked politely, sweetness and light dripping from her every word.

Without hesitation, her guard unsnapped the clasp on his hip holster and drew his M1911, spinning the weapon in his hand to offer it grip-first into her palm. She took the weapon in both hands, raising it in front of her with the barrel aimed toward the floor, and theatrically cocked back the hammer.

“Tessa!” Melissa called out in alarm.

The young captain let her arms rest in front of her, right hand pointing the pistol at the ground—exercising proper trigger discipline, of course—and left hand casually resting on her other wrist. “Some of you are probably inclined to agree with Mister Spake,” she said calmly, looking across the myriad of expressions on the faces of her pilots: from Clouseau’s stoicism, to Kurz’ disbelief, to Yang’s shock, and Garon’s rage. “But I won’t allow it. If anyone among you is contemplating treason, have the balls to step forward and say it to my face. I’ll execute you on the spot and get it over with.”

Spake took a step back, raising his hands in a warding gesture before him. “Whoa, okay, let’s be reasonable,” he stammered, stumbling over his words, crumpling under the weight of Teletha’s unflinching gaze. “I think you’re a great girl and all, but—”

A single gunshot silenced him, the spent .45-caliber casing clattering noisily to the hangar floor at Teletha’s feet in the sudden silence that smothered the hangar. To the surprise and admiration of the SRT pilots, she hadn’t flinched at the gunshot, her expression as unchanged and her body as still as if she was carved from granite.

She took and released a deep breath, expelling some of the tension from this entire fiasco. “Reconsider your attitude, Corporal,” she commanded simply. “Perhaps you thought I was going to come all the way here to beg you to cooperate with tears in my eyes?” She watched as Spake’s face fell in shame, and knew that he’d expected exactly that. But just as if he were the commander of an enemy submarine, she was not inclined to show mercy. “That I’d ask for a mix of sympathy and loyalty, banking on your commendable goodwill?”

The would-be turncoat gritted his teeth; she had him dead to rights and he knew it.

But still, she didn’t let up. “Doesn’t the fact that you’re here mean that you, too, walk the path of the warrior? You arrived at this predicament via your own free will.” She paused for a brief second, allowing the weight of her utter victory to sink in. “Am I wrong? Did you think that I was some princess in name only?”

He looked away in shame, muttering under his breath, “No...”

“Tell me who I am!” she demanded.

Garon, having been just as blindsided by this unexpected ruthlessness on the part of the otherwise wholly sweet-natured young woman, struggled to prevent a smirk from crossing his face, and glanced over at Kurz and Melissa to find his two ‘partners-in-crime’ just as tickled by this utter verbal curbstomping.

Sweating profusely, Spake looked around at the other pilots for any sign of sympathy or support, but found himself met with only silence, stillness, and stoicism. The one exception to this was Garon, who glared at him with the fury of a molten river and silently passed his knife back and forth from one hand to the other. The tipping of the Mandalorian’s head sent a message that was abundantly clear: Answer her...or else.

Spake fixed his gaze on the ground, his body flushing with shame as he answered, “Captain Teletha Testarossa. Commanding officer, Tuatha de Danaan, MITHRIL West Pacific Fleet.”

“Then recant your treasonous words and apologize,” Teletha pressed. “Immediately.”

If at all possible, the thoroughly-chastened man shrank even further unto himself. “I withdraw my earlier commentary,” he said. “It was out of line, and I apologize.”

“Very well.” Silently, she raised the M1911 to point its barrel toward the ceiling, flicking the safety lever into the safe position with her thumb. Then she passed it by the barrel to her other hand and returned the weapon to its owner.

With that done, she returned her full attention to the pilots. “Mister Spake, your team is in need of your skills,” she said, the biting edge gone from her voice. “I will overlook your treasonous instigation once we all survive this incident.”

Despite having been thoroughly rebuked, Spake’s underlying doubts still remained. “Survive?” he asked, with appropriate humility. “How do you figure that’s going to happen?”

“You seem to have the wrong idea,” she answered simply. “The men and women under my command cannot die. Not unless I have given them the order to do so. I have never once ordered any of you to ‘die’. I never have, and I never will.”

She turned as though to depart, taking two steps before stopping suddenly and looking back over her shoulder. “Survive! That’s an order!”

As a single unit, all of the Arm Slave pilots snapped to attention, barking out in reply, “Yes, ma’am!”

“Good luck,” she said, and turned away.

The assembled pilots looked on in silence for several moments, then Spake nervously rubbed the back of his head and turned to face his fellows. “Shit...” he muttered. “Sorry about that. But it crossed your minds too, right? Don’t look at me like that.”

“Then don’t say it in the first place,” Melissa and Garon echoed at nearly the exact same moment. Holstering his knife, the Mandalorian further added, “Ya’ dick.”

“You miscreants...” Clouseau grumbled good-naturedly.

Castello crossed his arms and mirthfully remarked, “Looks like we’ll just have to rack our brains and strain our training and the Fairy Eyes to their limits. I guess our payment for the mission is our lives.”

“It’s a fitting fee,” the third pilot who had helped restrain Garon added.

Kurz grinned. “Things just might work out, somehow.”

“That does it!” Spake unexpectedly proclaimed, slamming a fist into his palm. “I’m going to marry her!”

Most of the pilots laughed at his obviously-joking remark, but Garon felt a stab of jealousy, and Melissa and Kurz soon stopped laughing when they realized that their Mandalorian teammate wasn’t taking well to the joke.

“Too bad,” Clouseau remarked, taking the others off-guard. He smirked at Spake. “Anyone who outranks you gets to propose to her first.”

The wholly unexpected joke from their usually-serious commanding officer had the majority of the pilots howling with laughter. Melissa was the first one to see the murderous glint return to Garon’s eyes, and she met eyes with Kurz, tipping her head emphatically at the German’s partner. Understanding her unspoken message, Kurz elbowed Garon roughly, and when his partner looked at him questioningly, the blond man tipped his chin across the hangar, in the direction that Teletha had gone.

Looking in that direction, Garon saw that she hadn’t left the hangar entirely yet. She happened to be looking back toward the pilots at that exact moment, and their eyes met across the length of the hangar. In that instant of held gazes, unnoticed by anyone around them, her command mask slipped, and he could see sheer terror on her face. In a glaring moment of clarity, he knew that the terror was not due to Amalgam’s sudden attack. No, he knew that she recognized that Amalgam would be throwing their best against them. That meant Venoms, and without the Arbalest, they were in for a tough slough.

He knew that the fear in her eyes was fear for him, fear that he would die in the fields before they had even become anything together.

His heart was hammering in his chest, clenched in the painful grasp of ugly jealousy, and cold spiky adrenaline coursed through his veins. He was an Arm Slave pilot about to go into battle with a technologically-superior foe. He could very well die in the jungles above. It was then that it struck him directly, just how much the young woman standing thirty meters away meant to him. He would not face death without letting it be known.

He shoved his piloting headgear into Kurz’ chest, which the German was preemptively prepared to take, as he could see what was about to happen coming a mile away. Turning away from the other pilots, Garon strode swiftly toward Teletha, an intent and determined look on his face.

She stopped as well, turning back to face him, blinking in confusion as he drew near. “Mister Crayson, what...I—”

With neither word nor ceremony, he reached her, pulled her into his arms, and claimed her mouth with his, silencing her words. Her eyes widened in shock at the boldness of his actions, then she relaxed into it, closing her eyes and leaning up into him on the balls of her feet. In that instant, the thunder of the moving Arm Slaves, the wail of the air raid sirens, the shouting of pilots and technicians, all of it faded into the background, leaving the two in a world all their own.

But all too soon, he pulled away from her, left with a delicious blueberry taste and the scent of apple from her hair. He looked down into her wide, questioning eyes. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. He knew she could hear him. “But I couldn’t go out there without...” Without what? Doing that? Letting her know how he felt? Making it clear to any would-be suitors that there would be a fight over her affections? There were better ways to go about it. He was an idiot. Had he just stolen her first kiss?

She smiled softly, sucking in short, heavy breaths, her cheeks as red as the alert lights blazing overhead. “No, I... I understand.” She reached up and touched her lips gently, as if not wishing to disturb the sensation of his kiss that still remained. “Vor’e,” she said, and meant it.

“Whoo!” Kurz and Melissa cheered from among the pilots, the German throwing in a wolf-whistle for good measure.

“Look at that big damn kiss!” Melissa teased.

The others looked back to find their captain and their newest pilot embracing, prompting several of them to join in Kurz and Melissa’s cheering. Spake fell to his knees in mock despair, raising his arms as though cursing the heavens.

“Sergeant Crayson, if you’re done fraternizing with the captain...” Clouseau remarked, though his tone was light and the faintest hint of a smirk was visible on his face.

Pro-ceeding, sah!” Garon called back with a faux—and terrible—British accent, letting go of Teletha and turning back toward his fellows.

The captain reached out and grabbed Garon’s arm before he could get out of her reach. He stopped immediately and looked back at her. She looked down at his arm that she held, sliding her small hand into his gloved palm and squeezing. The thought of him dying was unbearable, and she cursed herself for being so weak. “Please,” she whispered, staring down at the floor. “Please, be careful.”

He stepped back to her and tipped her face up with his free hand, then smiled gently, leaned in, and kissed away one of her tracts of tears. “I’ll live,” he whispered to her. “Because I finally have someone to come home to.”

She was left speechless, unable to respond as he ran back across the hangar and rejoined the others, accepting a round of backslaps and assorted banter from the other pilots. Finally, after several long moments, she forced herself to turn away and resume her path to the command center. He had his duty to do, and so she had hers.

But even as she and her guards left the hangar, she smiled and touched her pleasantly-numb lips again.

---

“...no one else honestly ever had a chance in the first place,” Kurz was saying, one arm thrown in amusement around his partner’s shoulders. “She’s been sweet on him since day one.”

“Day three,” Garon corrected.

“Alright, alright, back to the strategy meeting,” Clouseau cut in before they could run off on another tangent. “Back to the strategy meeting. We’ll deploy from the hangar and split into pairs, taking up positions throughout the jungle. Each pair will be equipped with anti-aircraft missiles in addition to normal equipment. If we get a chance to shoot down their transport aircraft before they can deliver the Arm Slaves, so much the better. Once they’ve landed, we’ll hold them off to the best of our ability until the Danaan is ready to leave port. As it’s leaving, the captain will broadcast an Omega signal. Upon receipt of the signal, retreat with all expediency and regroup on the Danaan. There’s not enough room aboard to stow all of our Arm Slaves, so we’ll take as many as we can, and then abandon the rest in the sea.”

Clouseau looked at the assembled pilots. “You heard the captain,” he said simply. “Nobody’s allowed to die out there without my explicit permission. We don’t want to have the captain crying over our deaths tonight.”

He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then bellowed at the top of his lungs, “Mount up, you dogs! Do you wanna live forever!?”

The pilots roared again and broke to rush to their Arm Slaves in a frenzy.

Garon climbed into his M9, decorated with the tusked skull that was the symbol of the Mandalorians on its left shoulder. Within seconds, the Arm Slave’s sensor flashed green and it rose to its feet, casting one last look in the direction Teletha had gone; she was probably back in the command center by then.

Garon sighed within the cockpit of his M9, stricken with the fear that he may never see her again. “Vercopa mhi cuyani...” he whispered to himself.

Agreed, vod,” Orar spoke up. Over the intervening weeks, Garon had programmed the Mandalorian language and a personality that befitted a Mandalorian into the AI of his Arm Slave. “I also wish for us to survive.”

He grinned. “Let’s go earn our pay, right, Orar?” Switching over to the general frequency, he called out, “Oya! Oya, ner vode! Oya, Mando’ade!”

All of the other Arm Slave pilots were brother warriors, fellow Mandalorians, today.

It was time to hunt.

---

Meridia Island
Alpha Sector Command Center

 

Teletha had regained herself by the time she reached the command center. She could not afford to be a lovestruck girl swooning over the object of her affections right now. Right now, Garon and the other Arm Slave pilots were deploying to fight off the invaders. She would support him in the only way she could at the moment, with the timely flow of information to where it needed to go.

The command center was a high-tech information dominance facility. Its central fixture was a holographic, 3-D topographical map of Meridia Island, from 100 meters below sea level to thirty thousand feet above. Real-time holographic images of the battle going on in the skies overhead filled the air over the display. It was also touch sensitive, allowing users to zoom to any part of the battle, and tap any unit to gain both immediate vital statistics and a point-of-view camera angle from the mission recorders carried by all of MITHRIL’s forces, both infantry and vehicular. The command map unnerved Teletha every time she was forced to use it, it made the brutal nature of war seem too much like a video game to her.

This is Commander Windhover of the Reagan 15th Carrier Air Wing,” an American pilot’s voice called out over the speakers in the command center. “The enemy is expanding their area of attack. Stay alert.”

Ignoring the background chatter of the technicians, Teletha watched as the command map passionlessly displayed the ongoing air battle, marking the American fighter pilots in allied blue, and Amalgam’s air forces in red. American pilots primarily consisted of the F/A-18E or F Super Hornets and the same F-35B Lightning II used by MITHRIL’s own pilot corps. Amalgam’s forces were far more assorted, everything ranging from Vietnam-era F-4E Phantoms to Mirage 2000s to their own assortment of Super Hornets. Interspersed among the fighter aircraft were bombers, ECS-equipped B-52 saturation bombers.

Focus all antiaircraft fire on those bombers. Don’t let ’em get any closer!”

Reaching up her hand, Teletha touched one of the allied F/A-18F Super Hornets and watched its data appear in a side bar. The unit’s designation was Garuda One, pilot callsign Talisman. She watched the point of view camera as the pilot dove down onto an Amalgam bomber, the integral 20mm Vulcan cannon shredding through the bomber’s fuselage. As the Amalgam aircraft flamed out, Garuda One sliced beneath it with barely meters to spare. Judging by the listed kill score in the combat, and his skill in aerial acrobatics, Garuda One was the US Navy’s ace pilot the way that Sousuke was MITHRIL’s own ace.

Garuda Team, watch your necks out there,” the EA-3 Prowler airborne warning and control system flying over the battle, designation ‘Ghost Eye,’ called out. “Stick with close range targets and run them down.”

“Issue the evacuation orders for all non-essential and non-combat personnel,” Teletha ordered. “We’ll evacuate using our C-17s under cover of the air battle overhead.”

Pilot reports crowded each other over the airwaves as Teletha stared at the monitor, watching the multi-ton fighters swoop and dive as gracefully as naturally-born birds, attacking one another with missiles and integral cannons. If she allowed herself to forget the situation at hand, she could consider the ongoing aerial battle to be a thing of beauty. She watched as Garuda One rose out of the cloud of embattled fighters, gaining progressively more and more altitude as though he intended to leave the atmosphere. Four Amalgam fighters rose after him, but before they could enter firing range, another Super Hornet designated ‘Garuda Two’ swept in from the side, catching them all and burning them down in a devastating gun strafe. At the apex of his climb, Garuda One heeled his fighter over and screamed back down through the sky, launching missile after missile at the enemy fighters from above.

“Arm Slaves deploying from the south hangar,” a technician reported.

So, these bastards think they can barge right into somebody’s house without even calling first?” Yang put in.

Unbelievable,” Kurz responded. “I say we teach ’em a few manners before we kick ‘em out.”

Sixteen new signals appeared on the ground, the M9 Gernsback units whose pilots she had just spoken with minutes before. Immediately, they spread out into two-man teams, taking cover in the jungles and adding their considerable firepower to the antiaircraft artillery pumping shell after shell into the sky. She had to fight to resist the urge to tap the unit “M9 Gernsback ‘Orar.’” Though vastly outnumbering the allied forces, Amalgam’s fighter corps could not keep up, neither their pilots nor their machines, against the superior skill and soaring morale of the US-MITHRIL forces. For now, the battle was going in their favor.

---

The Same Time
Jungle, Western Cliff Edge
Urzu-Five, Urzu-Six On-Station

 

Kurz and Garon stopped their Arm Slaves in a small clearing offering a commanding view of the air battle overhead. The German pilot carried his traditional ARMSCORE AX-8 70mm anti-material sniper rifle, while Garon had brought along his favored Bofors 57mm cannon and a loadout of ASM-119 surface-to-air missiles, a vastly scaled-up Arm Slave-sized version of the FIM-92 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles used by infantry.

As Garon set up the first launcher, Kurz went prone on his back, aiming his sniper cannon up into the sky. He watched the contrails of the dozens of fighters loop and twist in the air through his scope as the targeting radar began designating priority targeting. “Man, they’re havin’ a party up there,” he remarked. “You ever wanted to be a fighter pilot, Urzu-Five?”

What kid hasn’t?” Garon answered as he laid out assembled and prepared launchers in a line. “I went out for the US Air Force. Couldn’t handle the high-end acceleration stresses. And I’m better on the ground anyway.”

Ghost Eye, connecting ESM for Urzu-Six and Urzu-Five.”

Kurz clucked his tongue. “Shame. Guy like you would’ve made a hell of a fighter pilot. How’s about you take out all that frustration on these Amalgam bastards, huh?”

Sounds like a good plan to me, Six.”

This is Urzu-Six,” Kurz reported over a frequency that had been secured to allow the American and MITHRIL forces to communicate. “On station in the west jungle with Urzu-Five. Leave those bombers to us. Opening up.”

He aligned his rifle with one of the low-speed bombers and fired. The heavy 70mm shell crossed the distance instantaneously and blew the front end of the craft completely off. Trailing flames and smoke, the bomber tipped over to crash into the ocean. A heavy thump and a cloud of smoke billowed through the clearing as Garon launched the first Stinger, discarding the launcher even as the missile blasted the wing off of the targeted F-16C Falcon.

The enemy threat level has been reduced,” Ghost Eye announced. “You should be able to hold out against them.”

Negative, negative,” Teletha’s voice answered. “We’re expecting attack from enemy Arm Slaves at any moment.”

Urzu-Nine here,” Yang reported from the southern end of the island. “I’ve got CH-47 transport choppers on my radar. Engaging.”

Understood. We’ll keep our fighters in the air to help try and shoot them down as they come.”

Kurz continued to fire, regardless of the smoke from Garon’s missile launch. The enhanced radar and sensors of the M9, coupled with the electronic support mission from the orbiting AWACS plane, allowed Kurz to continue shooting down the Amalgam bombers with a precision that made the controllers of the anti-aircraft artillery jealous.

Enemy bombers have been shot down,” Ghost Eye reported. “You’re doing good, pilots, just hang in there.”

Let’s take it one plane at a time, guys,” Garuda Two, callsign Shamrock, added. The pilot sounded quite similar to Kurz.

Transport planes, begin takeoff from eastern runway. Ghost Eye, can you give our transports cover?”

This is Wildfire reporting,” a ground unit called out. “We’ve finished evacuating the west sector. Now moving to clear the south side.”

You got it, Baseplate.” Baseplate was Meridia Island’s callsign. “Avalanche, take your squadron and escort the C-17s out of the combat zone.”

Copy, Ghost Eye.”

Man, this seems to be going too easy,” Kurz said as he sat up his M9 and laid the sniper rifle down beside his unit. With the obvious targets of the bombers out of commission, he didn’t want to waste ammunition he’d later need in the inevitable Arm Slave battle against fast-moving fighters he wasn’t entirely certain he could hit.

Garon, likewise, was conserving his weapons. Every one of those Stinger missiles he had left had the name of an Amalgam Arm Slave transport painted all over them. “We caught a lucky break with the US carrier group so close by. Amalgam probably wasn’t expecting that. That just means that most of our forces will survive to the next stage of the battle.”

Yeah, that’s definitely a good thing,” Kurz agreed. He idly reached out the left hand of his Arm Slave and flicked a fallen tree out of the clearing. “So that was pretty bold of you back there, that pre-mission smooch with Tessa.”

Settling his Arm Slave down, Garon listened to the humming of monitors inside the cockpit and shrugged, his M9 mimicking the movement. “Maybe I shouldn’t have done it. The rest of you guys were talking shit about wanting to be with her, and it ain’t cool to admit it, but that got me feeling pretty jealous.”

“You know they were all joking,” Kurz deadpanned.

“Like you haven’t done stupid shit over a girl.”

The German’s M9 rested a hand over its chest, pantomiming having been inflicted a telling blow. “Guilty as charged. Still, you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

There was a pregnant pause.

“On that front, maybe... I’ve got a bad feeling about this mission, Weber. I didn’t want to go out and probably die without letting her know that I’m genuinely interested in her.”

Kurz’s M9 reached over and swatted Garon’s on the shoulder. “Hey, don’t give me any of that fatalistic talk, partner. I don’t know about everybody else, but I definitely speak for Sis and Yang when I say that today, I’m willing to take a bullet for you. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to Tessa, and we want to keep you alive to make her happy. We’re willing to give up our lives for you, at least today.”

Garon shook his head, and again, his unit matched the movement. “I hope none of you will have to make good on that commitment. We’re all going to go home tonight Weber, you hear me?”

Loud and clear, buddy.”

---

Meridia Island Command Center

Teletha stared intently into the command map, searching the scrolling holographic figures and pale blue imagery for any sign of the second wave of Amalgam’s attack. The first wave of bombers and fighters they had sent were almost wiped out now. They had to be sending in their Arm Slaves at any time. Unless this was only a warning attack. But if it was, they wouldn’t have sent so many fighters with the intent to wipe Meridia off the map.

We’re moving on to Sector Echo-Two. We’ll leave the rest to you now.” At least the evacuations were coming along smoothly. Most of the personnel on base would be gone inside an hour.

“What’s the status of preparing the Danaan for sea?” she asked, looking away from the command map.

The young lieutenant beside her shook his head and handed her a report. Refueling the palladium reactor was a slow and delicate process. It would be at least another three hours until the ship was ready to depart.

Teletha bit her lip, her hand automatically rising to clutch her ponytail and tug nervously on it.

The US Navy’s not half bad. The enemy’s cowering like babies!”

“High-speed object approaching from the southwest!” a radar technician shouted above the noise. “It’s breaking up...Deploying someth- Cruise missiles! Cruise missiles incoming! Range three hundred! Impact in ten seconds!”

W-What the hell is this?”

Missile attack?”

Stay focused! Shoot those cruise missiles down!”

Teletha gripped the edge of the command map as the speeding points of light representing the cruise missiles streaked down toward the island. The fighters in the air would not be able to react fast enough to attack the missiles from the air, and they had appeared too suddenly for the PALADIN anti-missile defenses to react against.

Garon!

He was out there, unprotected, too far away from the nearest shelter, with cruise missiles coming down like steel rain. She bit her lip so hard she drew blood, willing herself to maintain her composure, in agony on the inside that she was helpless to protect him.

The force of the explosions threw her from her feet, eliciting an instinctive shriek as she was hurled to the floor. Her head impacted against the leg of a steel chair with such force that she gasped aloud, seeing stars dance before her vision. The noise in the command center tripled as more alarms began to ring, drowned out by the shouted reports of personnel in the room and the overlapping exclamations of the pilots and personnel over the radio waves.

“Warwolf Three, your radio’s down!” an American pilot called. “Warwolf Three, where are you?!”

It all slammed down around Teletha like an iron casket, and she instinctively covered her ears with her hands in a bid to make it all stop. For a brief moment, she curled up into a fetal posture on the ground, just wishing that everything would stop, that everyone would go away and leave her alone.

Snap out of it, Tessa! She blinked and gasped at the words and their tone. They were in her own voice, from a part of her that was commanding her not to just lay down and die. How dare you, Teletha Testarossa? How can you just lie there pitying yourself when Garon is out there fighting and maybe dying for you!

She whimpered, her overactive imagination handing her an image of a burning forest clearing, interspersed with the shattered wreckage of an M9 bearing the Mandalorian insignia, and trapped inside was the mangled, half-incinerated corpse of the man she had only so recently extended her heart to.

Get up! Get up! He’s said that you’ve got what it takes. You are mandokarla in his eyes. Stand up and prove it!

Forcing her eyes open, she grabbed the edge of the command map and pulled herself upright. “Urzu Team, report!” she shouted, her voice cracking with the emotion in her words.

Urzu-One and Two, still functional,” Clouseau reported back immediately, sounding winded.

Urzu-Twelve here. Four is gone. I repeat, he’s gone. Those missiles blew him away.”

Urzu-Nine, I’m still standing. I’ve taken some damage, but I’m still ready to fight.”

One by one, sometimes in pairs, two-thirds of the original Arm Slaves deployed reported still functional. Three of the pilots were dead, one was still alive but with a destroyed unit.

“Urzu-Six, Urzu-Five, what is your status?” Teletha demanded, wringing her hands worriedly.

Ow, dammit!” Kurz’s voice broke over the radio. “Urzu-Six, I’m still here. Shockwave from one of the missiles put me on my ass.”

“Urzu-Five!”

He’s okay, he’s still alive,” Kurz reported. “His communications were damaged in the missile strike. He’s asking me to report 'su’cuy' to you, Captain.”

Teletha let out an explosive breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. He was still alive.

What the hell was that!?”

“Multiple cruise missiles have detonated in midair and on the surface,” the radar technician reported. “One-third of the American planes have been destroyed. All remaining Amalgam aircraft are confirmed down.”

“Another high-speed object detected! More cruise missiles!”

“Urzu Team, take shelter immediately!” Teletha cried out. “Hide in the craters from the last wave! They won’t be targeting the same place twice!”

Evade like hell if you want to stay alive!” Windhover ordered the airborne pilots.

“All personnel, brace for impact!” Teletha shouted, heeding her own order by dropping to her knees and holding onto the edge of the command map.

The explosions that followed were no less violent than the first set, but fewer personnel were thrown around due to their preparation. A console station in the far corner of the room exploded, showering its operator with shrapnel and sending that person dead to the floor. They hadn’t even had time to scream.

“Damage report!” Pulling herself upright, Teletha realized that the command map was no longer functional. The air above the table was filled with hazy static, the ominous words 'SIGNAL LOST' hanging in midair.

“Radar is down, communications subsystems are in shambles, antiaircraft batteries one through twelve and eighteen on have been destroyed.”

“New contacts! Transport helicopters, Arm Slave carriers, approaching from the west!”

Ghost Eye to all pilots, intercept those transports! Don’t let any Arm Slaves land!”

Windhover, roger.”

Garuda, roger.”

Sky Kid, roger.”

“American fighters are engaging the enemy transports.”

Teletha stared into the useless command map, listening to the static-filled reports from the American pilots. Signal integrity was growing worse by the minute. With an angry vengeance, the Americans had fallen upon the transports, ruthlessly tearing them apart, preventing a second and third wave altogether.

She narrowed her eyes. That made no sense. Amalgam had ECS technology on par with MITHRIL’s. Why would they send in their transports with no cover and visible to the...

No.

She realized what had happened seconds before Urzu-Twelve’s frantic radio call, “Shit! Where the hell’d that Arm Slave come fr—”

“Urzu-Twelve’s Arm Slave has been destroyed,” a technician tonelessly reported.

Those transports that the American pilots had downed were mere decoys. The true transports had been cloaked and moved around to attack from the other end of the island while the pilots were distracted. Now they had unknown numbers of enemy Arm Slaves and ground troops already on the island.

“All forces, be advised,” she said. “The enemy has snuck in a landing force of unknown size. All callsigns, be alert for enemy Arm Slaves and infantry of unknown number. Good luck, everyone.”

Enemy Arm Slaves have made it to the ground and are moving toward us,” Clouseau reported. “Prepare to engage!”

“Urzu-One,” a communications technician spoke, “report the nature of the enemy Arm Slaves.”

Venom units,” he said immediately, without hesitation, and thereby confirming their worst fear. “I see a dozen so far. They’re moving to different points on the island, presumably to engage the rest of the Urzu Team.”

All pilots,” Ghost Eye said, “get back to the island at once and hammer those enemy Arm Slaves.”

“No!” Teletha shouted. “Ghost Eye, your men mustn’t engage the Venom units! They have a device equipped on them that can stop and reflect any attack.”

Are you serious?” Garuda Two cut in. “What the hell kind of fantasy technology is that?”

“I’m afraid it’s not fantasy, Garuda Two,” she said, sighing slowly. “Gentlemen, on behalf of MITHRIL, I thank you for helping us repel the enemy fighters. But now, we’ll have to fight the rest of this battle alone. Please evacuate immediately toward the east.”

What, that’s crazy!” Windhover called back. “You can’t expect us to follow that order!”

She’s right, Windhover,” Ghost Eye said. “We’re at a severe disadvantage militarily. Follow her orders and evacuate to the east. Baseplate, we’re scrambling a Marine Expeditionary Force now to help you fight the ground forces. We can’t help you against those Arm Slaves, but at least we can do that for you.”

A massive explosion rocked the command center. A frantic soldier called out over the radio, “Enemy troops have entered the base! Enemy troops have—”

The transmission died in a burst of static.

“Understood, Ghost Eye.” Teletha took in a deep breath, closed her eyes, then let it out in a slow sigh. “I apologize for the lives of the men you’ve lost coming to our aid.”

No need for that, Baseplate. You and we are kindred spirits. We were glad to be able to help you guys out for once.”

---

The Same Time
Meridia Island Western Forest

 

The first kill had been luck. The Venom unit, having seen Garon and Kurz laying haphazardly in the craters of previous cruise missile strikes, had foolishly assumed that their units were wasted and ignored them. A 70mm round through the cockpit fixed that assumption in a hurry. After ensuring that the Venom was indeed down, the two rose up and checked their surroundings.

Urzu-Six here,” Kurz called out. “Trashed one Venom. Overconfident fool thought we were dead. Well, we made some nasty corpses.”

Good work, Urzu-Six,” Clouseau answered. “Stay focused. I count eleven more.”

Kurz chuckled. “Whaddaya think, Urzu-Five, there’s like twelve of us and eleven more Venoms. Think we can handle ’em?”

We’d better be able to,” Garon answered, turning his M9 in slow circles. “Otherwise Tessa and everyone else are toast.”

Hey, you called her Tessa.”

Doesn’t feel so weird once you get used to it, I guess.” His M9 raised its right hand and gestured toward the south. They’d have much better odds if they regrouped with the others. “And yeah, that’s right, I’ve staked my claim. The whole SRT group saw me do it.”

She was really worried about you after those cruise missiles hit.”

I know.”

Keeping twenty meters of separation between them, Garon and Kurz stalked silently through the forest. The two pilots were tense, eyes scanning in all directions. They kept their sensors on passive mode in order to prevent drawing excess attention to themselves. The overall silence of the jungle descended around them, allowing them to hear the distant fire and explosions from other battles.

“Buruk! Aru’eulur, at e’tad!” Orar warned.

Enemy at seven o’clock! Garon thought, spinning his Arm Slave to the left.

That action was all that saved his life. The anti-tank dagger of the Venom that had been aimed squarely at his cockpit instead sheared through his unit’s left arm. In a reactionary movement, carefully calculated, Garon raised the Bofors cannon and fired it at the Venom. Predictably, the shimmering multicolored shield of the LAMBDA Driver came up immediately, destroying the shot. The Mandalorian pilot took the same opportunity, leaping up and using the physical surface of the shield as a springboard to propel his unit away from the Venom, firing the Bofors as he flipped through the air to keep the enemy pinned.

Rather than appearing to be pinned down, however, the Venom appeared annoyed at his insolence, redirecting several of the 57mm rounds back at the M9. One struck Orar’s head, shattering the glass over the sensor and slagging the right side of the head. Another struck the left shoulder, further destroying that limb and knocking the airborne unit off-balance, sending it sprawling to the forest floor, the Bofors cannon cartwheeling away.

Garon shook his head sharply, shaking the dizziness from striking it against the piloting frame away. Shusha shuk’la, payt irud shuk’la,” Orar reported the damages. Main sensor destroyed, left arm destroyed.

The Venom loomed above, aiming the cannon that Garon had dropped at his cockpit. He scowled up at the enemy machine. “Orar, we got anything left?”

“Nayc.” Negative.

“Think we can take him with the self-detonation device?”

“Cyar’ika,” Orar answered swiftly, not even bothering to answer the question properly. The machine was warning Garon of Teletha, sweetheart, waiting for him.

“We’re gonna die either way, tinnie,” Garon snapped. “Can the self-detonation device take him out?”

“Nakar’mir.” Unknown.

A 70mm round from the forest struck the Venom while it stood gloating over its imminent kill, striking sparks from the machine, which had been caught unawares with its LAMBDA defenses weakened, by Kurz’ attack. The Venom immediately turned its back to Garon, a fatal mistake.

“Vod, receiving ‘Fairy Eyes’ data from Urzu-Six.”

Kandosii!” Garon hissed, bringing up the display on the main monitor.

Over the years that Kaname had been working for the R&D division of MITHRIL, it had become learned that her specialty lay in weapons technology, specifically new and smaller systems relating to Arm Slaves and the LAMBDA Driver. While they had not yet reached a breakthrough allowing LAMBDA Drivers to be installed on other units, she had created an enhanced sensor package that detected the presence and density of a LAMBDA Driver field, revealing to average pilots a potential hole in the defense field that they would not otherwise have noticed. The Fairy Eyes sensor she had created allowed mundane units to stand against the Venoms, a fact which significantly reduced the number of missions that Sousuke was required to participate in.

The real-time image on the screen displayed the image of the Venom, the green omnisphere of its LAMBDA Driver focused in an opaque screen in the direction of Kurz’s hidden M9, firing the appropriated Bofors indiscriminately into the forest.

Can you believe this guy?” Kurz called over the radio. “Using your cannon like it belonged to him.”

“I’ve got him,” Garon murmured, intently watching the fluctuating shield. He reached back the M9’s right arm and drew the monomolecular cutter, then focused on remaining absolutely still, gambling on Kurz to draw the Venom pilot’s attention to himself.

I’m about to fire,” Kurz alerted.

Right on cue, a volley of 70mm shots raced out of the forest, streaking in at the Venom’s head and center mass. The LAMBDA Driver adjusted to intercept the shots, and in that briefest instant, the green field vanished from the back of the Venom.

Garon reacted instantly, overboosting all the remaining leg muscle packages in his M9 to fly at the undefended backside of the Venom, driving the monomolecular cutter in deep, seeking the Arm Slave’s reactor. The attack was so sudden, so vicious, that Garon had already activated the chain edge of the cutter and was sawing the Arm Slave-sized combat knife toward the cockpit before the Venom even reacted.

The Fairy Eyes showed the LAMBDA field coming back around, slamming against his Arm Slave in an attempt to dislodge the M9. Waves of power washed over his unit, melting the sharp edges of the machine. Sparks cascaded inside the cockpit as red warning lights and alarms filled his senses.

Against the unbelievable pressure, Garon gritted his teeth, shoving forward the right arm with all the power he could bring to bear. The left leg crushed under the pressure of the enemy machine’s LAMBDA Driver, but Garon quickly rebalanced his unit, Teletha’s face flashing before his vision. He snarled. You will not take me from her...

Ke nu jurkad ti Mando’ade!” he screamed, igniting the right arm muscle packages, the force from their explosion jamming the cutter up into the cockpit of the Venom.

The enemy Arm Slave went slack, its arms falling limply to its side, the LAMBDA Driver winking out immediately. The Venom leaned forward, overbalanced, and collapsed with a heavy thud to the forest floor, secondary explosions from damaged systems blowing holes in its frame. Garon’s M9 collapsed in the other direction, left arm and leg missing, cracks throughout the frame of the right leg, a massive dent over the cockpit, the right shoulder smoking, the arm gone from the elbow down.

He laid in the cockpit, breathing in short, shallow breaths, trying not to breathe in the smoke filling his cockpit. All of the displays were dead, leaving the cockpit in darkness broken only by the flashing red emergency lights, hearing nothing but the incessant alarms.

“Orar, are you still functional?”

It was a moment before the masculine voice answered, Elek, vod.” An ominous amount of static filled the AI’s voice.

“Damage report.” Garon slipped his left arm out of the control wado, tentatively touching a sore spot on top of his head. His hand came away bloody.

“An tolase down. Mobility zero. Palladium reactor compromised. Besbe’trayce tolase offline. Communications tolase offline.” All systems were down. Weapons and communications were offline.

The ground vibrated beneath him, causing him to wonder if it was Kurz riding to the rescue or another Venom coming to finish him off. A horrible screeching sound reached his ears, and then suddenly the chest cavity and forward displays were ripped away, revealing Kurz’s M9 standing over him with an anti-tank dagger in one hand and the missing part of his own unit in the other.

Come on, buddy,” Kurz called over the external speakers. “You’ve done your job. Now it’s time for you to get to Tessa and get her to safety.”

“Wait,” Garon said, digging in the sealed pouches of his piloting suit for a data chip. “Let me download Orar’s program so—”

“Nayc, Ruus’alor,” Orar interrupted. The AI hadn’t referred to him by rank since he’d reprogrammed it. “I have served my duty, vod, now you must go serve yours. Ke cabuo gar cyar’ika, ner vod.” Go protect your sweetheart.

Garon sighed, closing his eyes. He hadn’t realized how attached he’d gotten to the M9’s AI. “Ni su’cuyi, gar kyr’adyc. Ni partayli, gar darasuum. I’ll add your name to the list, Orar.”

“Vor’e, vod. Oya! Oya!

Garon grabbed the M4A1 SOPMOD from the storage bin beneath his seat and climbed out of the cockpit, pausing long enough only to break a fragment of armor off of the destroyed left arm, then climbing into the outstretched hand of Kurz’s M9.

Mandalorians were a sentimental people. Owing to their nomadic nature, very rarely did they bury their dead. Instead, they took parts of the armor or kit of their closest fallen comrades, always small enough to be easily-carried, as remembrances of the dead. Many also participated in a daily remembrance of their fallen comrades and loved ones, reciting an ever-growing list of names with the belief that, “I am still alive, but you are dead. I remember you, so you are eternal.”

He tried not to notice when the jungle behind them shook violently, and a white light filled the edges of his vision.

---

January 19, 1555 hours, local time
Meridia Island Alpha Sector Command Center

 

Baseplate, this is Ghost Eye. Our landing force has reached the remains of the outer runway, and will be entering the base in less than five minutes. Please transmit orders to your soldiers regarding our arrival.”

“Understood, Ghost Eye, we are passing along the orders now.” Teletha made strong hand signals to the communications officers, and they began relaying the information to MITHRIL’s defense forces fighting valiantly in the base.

We’ll be off the grid for a few moments, we’ve detected a large mass near our fleet and we’re dealing with it now.”

“Good luck, Ghost Eye. Baseplate out.” She sighed, wiped a hand over her face to clear away sweat, then said, “Report of the enemy activity.”

“Enemy forces have penetrated deep into the base. Our forces are capable of dealing with their normal infantry, but the enemy is inflicting heavy casualties with their Arastol units. The west sector has been overrun by the enemy, and we’re holding them back in the barracks, barely.”

“Madam Captain, we’ve lost contact with the ventilation room.”

That report was the most harrowing of all. If the enemy managed to gain control of the ventilation system, then they could easily introduce a deadly nerve gas into the vents to kill all of MITHRIL’s remaining personnel without a fight.

There was no other choice. The enemy could not be allowed to take control of ventilation system.

Baseplate, this is Bravo-Six, Lieutenant Vasquez commanding,” an American soldier’s voice announced over the comm. “We’re moving in from the northwest, repeat, moving in from the northwest. Check your targets and confirm, over.”

Teletha gasped. Could their luck really be that good? The American forces would be heading directly past the ventilation system. “Bravo-Six, this is Baseplate,” she said. “You’re in the area of the ventilation system. We’ve lost contact with that area and need to keep it out of enemy hands. Can you assist?”

Copy that, Baseplate. Moving out to secure the ventilation system. What intel can you give us on the enemy, over.”

“Be wary of large enemy robotic units called Arastols. They’re heavily-armored. Heavy weapons are required to engage.”

We’ve got that covered,” Vasquez answered. “We’ll check in after securing the ventilation, over.”

Urzu-Six to Baseplate,” Kurz called in. “Urzu-Five and I have taken out another Venom. Urzu-Five’s unit was destroyed in the fight but he’s still alive. Say again, Urzu-Five is one hundred percent. I’ve got him aboard and am bringing him back to base.”

Teletha forced herself to maintain her focus, and did not order Kurz to bring him directly to the command center. Protocol dictated that Kurz drop Garon off at the nearest base entrance and then return to battle.

This is Urzu-One,” Clouseau reported. “Five total enemy Arm Slaves destroyed, the rest are pulling back. The rest of this battle looks like it’s going to take place inside, Baseplate.”

“Casualties, Urzu-One?” a technician asked.

Urzu-Three, Urzu-Twelve, Urzu-Eight and Urzu-Four are dead.” Clouseau’s voice was hard, and thick with emotion, even past the radio distortion. “Urzu-Nine, Urzu-Six, and myself are the only units still active. Urzu-Two’s unit was heavily-damaged and found abandoned in the forest. No idea as to Urzu-Two’s status.”

“Why are they pulling back?” Teletha whispered, almost wishing that she had the command map available to her.

“Understood, Urzu-One,” Kalinin answered in her stead. “Urzu-One, Urzu-Nine, and Urzu-Six, return to the hangar and join the infantry battle.”

Urzu-Six, negative,” Kurz answered. “I’ve got eyes on another enemy landing party on the beach. Our auto-defenses are trashed so I’m going to go over there and mess them up. I’ll return after that.”

“Belay that, Urzu-Six,” Kalinin ordered. “That’s not necessary. Return to base immediately.”

Sorry, but I have to do everything I can, you know? If I don’t...” Kurz sighed. “Castello, Spake, Sandraptor. If I don’t do everything I can, then I won’t be able to face them, you know? Garon’s on his way to you, Tessa. You two take care and get out of this alive, will you?”

“Urzu-Six!” Teletha called out.

But it was too late. Kurz had disconnected the transmission.

Baseplate, this is Urzu-One.” Clouseau’s voice was subdued. “Urzu-Six is an idiot, but he’s right in this case. We’ll do everything in our power to delay the enemy landing forces and regroup as planned later. Urzu-One out.”

Teletha bit her lip again, straining against the tears she could feel building up. She shook her head once, savagely. “Status on the loading of the Danaan?” she demanded.

“Not good, Madam Captain. It’ll be at least another two hours before she’s ready to depart.”

Two hours was far too long. They would all be dead in two hours. She had no choice. Amalgam was backing them into a corner, and in order to escape, they’d have to blow the wall out behind them. “Abandon refueling of the palladium reactor. Transfer all crew to checking for water leaks. Begin loading extra supplies and crew belongings. You have thirty minutes.”

Without the a fully-refueled palladium reactor, the Danaan had perhaps a month at sea. Even less if they encountered hostile forces.

“I suppose that’s our only option at this point,” Kalinin said. There was something strange in his voice. He almost sounded hesitant. As though he were about to do something he would horribly regret. “We have to hold them until the Danaan and all other transports are away.”

“Madam Captain,” a voice called from the exit of the command center. Teletha turned to see two soldiers wearing the arms and armor of the US Marine Corps standing in the doorway. “We need to get you to safety, ma’am. If you’ll follow us, please.”

She shook her head and turned away. “No, I have to continue coordinating this battle.”

An explosion from somewhere, either above or within the base, they didn’t know. The combat was drawing closer to the command center. Teletha glared up at the ceiling as debris and plaster rained down on her.

“Madam Captain, these gentlemen are correct,” Kalinin said. “We can’t risk your capture by the enemy. I will coordinate the battle in your stead. Please evacuate now.”

But Garon will be coming here to the command center, she thought. She couldn’t bring herself to say it. She sighed, then nodded and turned to move between the Marines. “Very well.”

As the trio departed from the command center, Kalinin turned to the technicians and ordered, “Begin evacuating remaining ground staff. All non-combat essential personnel, please leave now.”

---

The Same Time
Meridia Island Base Underground Ventilation System
Sergeant Paul Jackson, 1 st Force Recon Company, USMC

 

Lieutenant Vasquez, this is Five-Delta-Six,” one of the MITHRIL assault teams reported. “We’re clearing these rooms and heading to base security, over.”

“Copy that, Delta-Six,” Vasquez answered from two men ahead of Jackson. “We’re right above you in the vents, watch your fire.”

Copy that, sir.”

Bravo-Six had discovered the base’s ventilation output shafts in the jungle overhead. Uncertain that they’d have found any better entrance, they’d cut through the grates covering the openings and rappelled down into the base. They could hear the sounds of gunfire and shouting as they traversed at a crouch through the very vents that the enemy were seeking to gain control of.

Jackson glanced out of a grate overlooking a hallway in time to see one of the Arastol units marching slowly down the hallway, its armor material causing a hailstorm of bullets from the MITHRIL soldiers down the hall to spark harmlessly off its form. Grimacing, Jackson fingered the M203 grenade launcher attachment on his M4A1 SOPMOD, hoping that a 40mm grenade would hamper those beasts.

Baseplate, this is Two-Yankee-Six. We’re meeting heavy resistance in the south wing. They’ve locked down our access point, over.”

Regroup with Team Two and move to reinforce the security room,” Kalinin’s voice answered. Jackson wondered if something had happened to the young woman that had been giving orders previously.

Roger, moving to meet up with Team Two. Two-Yankee-Six out.”

Bravo-Six dropped out of the vents in what was apparently a locker room. The faucets of the shower area they had dropped into were running, leaving a pool of water mixed with the blood of the two dead MITHRIL soldiers in the stall all over the floor. Staff Sergeant Griggs, the squad’s M249 SAW machine gunner, knelt down next to one of the soldiers.

“Holy shit, look at this,” he said, rolling one of the dead men over. There was a gaping hole in the center of the man’s chest, allowing the gathered American soldiers to see clear through the other side. Jackson thought that the hole would neatly fit one of the massive fists of those robots he’d seen earlier in the vents. “Glad we didn’t run into any tanks. If those big robots can do this then I know exactly what we want to use our LAWs on.”

“Lock and load, Marines,” Vasquez ordered, already walking out of the shower area. Two more dead soldiers were slung against the wall just opposite the door into the shower area, with telling blood stains on the wall just above their heads. “Stay frosty. Baseplate, this is Bravo-Six. We just came out of the ventilation shafts into a bathroom. We need directions to the vent room, over.”

The hallway immediately outside the bathroom was clear. Bravo-Six filed out into it, covering both ends of the open hallway, and took cover behind crates and pipes scattered throughout the hallway.

Left out of the bathroom leading to a corner, then follow that hallway directly to the ventilation room.”

“You heard ‘em, Marines, let’s move out,” Vasquez ordered, swapping his assault rifle for a combat shotgun, with a pistol grip for easier use. “Jackson, take point.”

“Sir,” Jackson said smartly, raising his SOPMOD and advancing. He kept one hand on the M203, ready to let off a grenade at the first sign of Arastols.

As soon as he turned the corner, he caught sight of enemy soldiers coming down the hallway in the squad’s direction, three of them. His first burst of fire took the nearest enemy off of his feet, as well as the top of his head, as Jackson stepped back behind the corner, rifle fire hammering the hallway. Private Wilson threw himself across the open hallway, braving the enemy fire, and slid behind the concrete projection that provided him cover from the enemies.

Without looking, Jackson stuck his carbine around the corner and fired, the loud report of his unsuppressed weapon sending the enemy ducking to cover. As he was doing so, Wilson had primed an M9 fragmentation grenade, the pin and safety spoon sitting at his feet as he counted down. “Grenade out!” Wilson shouted, hurling the pineapple down the hallway.

The resultant blast sent fragments of concrete skittering back past them on the floor. Vasquez swept around the corner, shotgun leading, followed by the rest of the squad. Two quick belches from the shotgun marked the end of the first encounter.

Taking point again, Jackson, with Wilson right at his heels, advanced around the next corner and into another long hallway with two sealed doors on the left, one on the right. Halfway down the hall, Wilson pointed out the shadows of enemy troops gathering at the corner. Jackson planted himself in the middle of the hall and sighted down his rifle at the corner. Wilson pulled out two more frags and crept quietly down along the left side, his movement concealed by the keening alarm sirens.

Jackson reacted immediately when he saw one of the enemy soldiers peek around the corner, and rewarded the man for his efforts with a trio of 5.56x45mm full-metal jacket rounds in his face. Wilson armed the grenades and rolled them down the corner. Surprised exclamations of enemy soldiers were drowned out by the twin concussive blasts of the explosives. A disconnected arm flew into the hallway and hit the far wall with a wet splat.

Bravo-Six, be advised, you’re right outside the ventilation room. Enemy Arastols are confirmed inside the vent room. Proceed with caution.”

The warning came a moment too late. One of the massive robots came around the corner, its red sensor scanning the soldiers in the hallway. Then, almost as an afterthought, it raised its right hand toward Wilson, and the shot cannon mounted to its arm damn near evaporated the soldier’s head.

“Jackson, drop!” Griggs shouted.

Jackson immediately went to the floor, and as soon as he was clear, Griggs unleashed on the robot with the squad automatic weapon. Though it used the same 5.56mm ammunition of the carbines and thus lacked the penetration power necessary to sufficiently harm the Arastol, the sheer volume of fire staggered the beast. Jackson maneuvered to face the robot and aimed the underbarrel grenade launcher at it. His weapon bucked, then a heavy thumping blast washed over him. The beautifully-aimed 40mm grenade blew the Arastol’s head completely off. The destroyed machine slumped down on top of Wilson’s corpse.

“West, get that Javelin into direct-fire mode,” Vasquez ordered. “Hit ’em hard and fast. High speed, low drag, Marines.”

Griggs walked to Jackson’s side and pulled the Marine upright, then moved up to the corner leading into the ventilation room. Jackson tossed an M84 flashbang grenade around the corner. As soon as the blast went off, the two Marines burst around the corner, firing their weapons suppressively. Five flesh-and-blood Amalgam soldiers died instantly from Griggs’ heavy fire, while the six Arastols were still stunned by the sensory overload of the flashbang.

Private West stepped around the corner as Jackson dropped behind a concrete pillar to reload, an FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile launcher balanced over his shoulder. He sighted in on the first Arastol and, without preamble, unleashed. The roar of the firing missile temporarily deafened Griggs and Jackson, followed by the massive blast of the anti-armor missile completely obliterating the miniature Arm Slave.

As West stepped back to reload his cumbersome weapon, two more Marines cleared the corner balancing AT4 portable anti-tank missile launchers. The two Marines fired in tandem, reducing the Arastol threat by half. Dropping the expended launchers, they brought up their carbines and moved forward to take cover behind the bulky air conditioner units.

Jackson popped back up with a new magazine and a new grenade loaded into his carbine as the fourth Arastol recovered from the grenade and aimed the machine gun in its left arm at him. He fired at the same time it did, his grenade shattering its torso armor and knocking it to the floor as one of its 7.62mm rifle rounds passed through his left shoulder.

“Don’t let ’em recover!” Vasquez shouted, hurling a fragmentation grenade at the one Jackson had knocked down.

Another Marine stepped forward and grabbed Jackson by his uninjured shoulder, dragging the wounded man back from the field of fire. Several more moments of gunfire punctuated by explosions passed, then all went eerily silent.

Vasquez made a sweep of the room, ensuring that all the Arastols were indeed destroyed, then he called it in. “Baseplate, this is Bravo-Six. We’ve secured the ventilation control room.”

Excellent job, Bravo-Six. We’re abandoning the base. Set charges to destroy the ventilation system, then fall back following the signs to the submarine pen.”

With hand signals, Vasquez signaled orders and then responded, “Understood, Baseplate. We’re setting the charges now, but we’ve got our own ride out of here.”

Understood. Thank you for your assistance. Baseplate out.”

“Let’s move it, Marines!” Vasquez ordered, even as the last C4 charge was set. “We’re out of here in ten minutes.”

Lieutenant Vasquez, this is Team Two at base security. We’ve located a vehicle depot that’ll be good for helicopter extract. I’m sending you the coordinates.”

“Copy that, Team Two. Let’s get out of here, Marines! Griggs, blow those charges as soon as we’re clear.”

---

The Same Time
Near the Submarine Pen, One Kilometer South of Bravo-Six’s Position

 

Teletha stumbled as a massive explosion rocked the base. The Marine on her right caught her elbow and roughly pulled her upright. She frowned, resisting the impulse to tear her arm out of his grasp. The lights in the corridor flickered, and several didn’t come back on. She heard a heavy ticking sound coming from the nearest air vent, but recognized immediately that it was the tick of strained metal, not the tick of an armed and counting explosive.

“The ventilation system,” the Marine on her left said, also reaching the same conclusion. “Looks like they blew it up.”

Her eyes narrowed. What does he mean ‘they’? Isn’t he one of them as well? She had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach.

All personnel, defense code Alpha-One. Prepare for immediate evacuation.”

“That’ll be it, then,” the Marine on the right said, looking up at the overhead speaker. “Party’s over, then, huh?”

“Yeah. Better get her back to the ships.” The Marine on the left made to guide her down a corridor that did not lead to the submarine pens.

She felt as though a refrigeration unit had been installed into her stomach and turned on full-speed. She cursed herself for not being suspicious when soldiers of a foreign military force knew her rank despite her lack of uniform. Anxiety twisted in her gut, and she planted her feet firmly in the hallway, refusing to move from the course she knew would take her to the Danaan, and safety.

The left-side Marine sighed, drew his M9 Beretta, and aimed the black pistol at her leg. “Move, or I shoot you, and we carry you.”

“Can’t believe this stupid little brat is the enemy commander,” the other ‘Marine’ said, dropping the charade.

“Yeah, but she matched the description,” the first said as they pulled her down a darkened hallway. He gave her a scathing glare. “Look at this outfit. Think we interrupted a date with our invasion?”

His fellow chuckled. “Yeah, probably. So who was the lucky guy? One of those AS pilots up there? He’s probably dead by now.”

Her response surprised even her. Her left hand came around in an open-palmed slap that left a mark on the second soldier’s cheek and staggered him back several steps. She stared at him with a furious rage burning in her eyes, daring the son of a bitch to speak poorly of Garon again.

The man instantly raised his hand to his cheek, and after checking to make sure that she hadn’t broken skin, because it sure felt like she had, he reached out, grabbed her by the braid over her shoulder, and hauled up until she was painfully standing on the tips of her toes. But she didn’t cry out, instead continued to fix him with that furious glare.

“You’ve got some spirit in you, girl,” the slapped man spat. “I wonder how strong it is. Hey, Sarge, they said they wanted her alive but not necessarily in good shape, right?”

“Affirmative.” The similarity to Sousuke’s normal answer to queries made her heart hurt. “Nowhere in our mission brief did it state that we couldn’t enjoy ourselves a bit.”

“Good.” The soldier she had slapped shoved her, hard.

Her back slammed into the door of a utility closet, breaking it off its hinges. Pain shot through her limbs as her head hit the door on landing. The soldier she had slapped stepped through the door, the stolen combat jacket and body armor already falling to the floor. He knelt down in front of her and grabbed her by the throat. His other hand held a Ka-bar that he dragged threateningly over the front of her shirt. “It’s a good thing that pilot of yours is fertilizing the landscape out there,” he said quietly, dangerously. “Because when I’m done with you, well...” He left the threat unspoken as he reached down for her pants.

There was a clatter in the hallway, and the soldier looked back to find his partner lying on the ground in a slowly-expanding pool of blood, and a battered-looking figure in an AS piloting suit carrying a Ka-bar in its right hand that steadily dripped blood. The figure carried an M4A1 SOPMOD in its left hand, which it used to club the soldier in the forehead, sending him rolling off Teletha.

“Your first mistake was to remove your body armor in a hostile environment,” Garon said as he leveled the carbine and fired a burst into the soldier’s stomach, a not-immediately-fatal but decidedly painful wound. He tossed aside the weapon and shifted the knife to his left hand, grabbing the infiltrator by his undershirt with his right. “Your second mistake was to assume that I was some two-bit hot-shot who doesn’t know how to take care of your osikla mechs.” He pulled the man close, so that he could see the fire burning in his eyes. “Your worst mistake was to lay your filthy hands on my girl.”

And then he rammed the Ka-bar up into the man’s head from beneath his jaw with such ferocity and speed that Teletha, watching, involuntarily gasped and covered her mouth with both hands. Garon threw the dead man to the ground, then spit on his corpse and pronounced, “Chakaar.”

Teletha laid there on the broken door, staring up in wonder at him. In the dim light, his posture and expression lent the appearance of an avenging angel of death. She tried to speak, to thank him for saving her, to praise his skill at surviving and getting to her against all odds, but the words died on her lips as she remembered that there was no word in the Mandalorian language for hero.

He said nothing as he reached down and took her hand. That one touch of his hand, which had so ruthlessly and violently ended a man’s life not one minute ago, brought her more comfort than she could imagine. That, she realized, was the duality of the Mandalorian culture.

She felt that she was ready to write that book now.

She threw herself against him when she was back on her feet, her fingers clawing at the material of his piloting suit in an attempt to find something to cling to. Warmth the likes of which she had never known engulfed her when his arms did, and it took her a moment to understand why he clung to her so hard.

The rest of his comrades were still out fighting, and it was killing him, as surely as a blade twisting in his gut, to not be out there with them. He was holding to her so tightly because she was his rock, his touchstone, the one stable thing he knew in a maze of uncertainty between life and death.

It was amazing the things you learned about yourself and those around you when your life was on the line.

She wanted to kiss him, and was in the process of leaning up to do exactly that when she heard Melissa’s voice from out in the hallway, “Guys, we have to go.” The urgency in her voice drew the unlikely pair into the hallway.

Melissa held up the hand radio she’d picked up from the first infiltrator. It was Ghost Eye, repeating a report. “Seal Team Six has located a possible nuclear device the enemy has left in the armory. NEST teams are en route. Until the device is verified safe, all forces are to fall back to the east, over.”

“Those bastards at Amalgam are serious,” she growled. “They brought a nuke here to take us all out!”

“No kidding, we have to get out of here before that thing goes off,” Garon agreed, the M4A1 held in his right hand, Teletha tucked protectively under his left arm.

They met up with another group of survivors in the midst of a firefight with Amalgam forces. Garon passed Teletha his USP Expert, then moved into the fray, opening with a 40mm airburst grenade launched from the underbarrel M203 of his SOPMOD rifle. Melissa moved to join him, and unwilling to be worthless, Teletha moved under cover to the soldiers they had met up with as Garon and Melissa ruthlessly executed their fury at being shot down on the hapless enemy.

“What’s the situation?” she called over the gunfire.

An older British gentleman wearing a boonie hat looked over at her as he exchanged magazines in his G36C. “We’re the last group out, ma’am,” he told her. She recognized his voice from the radio chatter. He was Wildfire. “These buggers’ve been nippin’ our heels for the last ten minutes.”

She looked around, not seeing Kalinin or any of the other personnel from the command center. “The command center personnel?”

“Most of them already escaped to the submarine pens,” Wildfire answered. “Perth-One and some of my men ran into some snags on the way and are holding up the enemy reinforcements, but we can’t wait for them!”

Perth-One was Kalinin’s callsign. She didn’t know why, maybe it was because it had failed her with the two infiltrators, but her suspicion hit her hard. Shaking it off, for there was nothing she could do and no way to prove it regardless, she nodded to Wildfire. “Right. We’ll take your unit aboard the Danaan and make our escape.”

Almost on cue, the gunfire from down the hall stopped, and Melissa and Garon came strolling back, casually swapping ammunition magazines, looking as though the brief firefight had annoyed them rather than endangered their lives. The soldiers in Wildfire’s squad stood from where they had taken cover, changing ammunition as well, and the larger group immediately made for the submarine pens.

Jogging alongside Garon, her hand held firmly and protectively in his, she tapped his arm with the butt of his USP Expert, then offered it back to him when he glanced her way. He just shook his head. “You need something better than that Walther pea-shooter,” he teased.

“TDD Control, this is Wildfire,” the soldier called out as they neared the pens. “We’re almost to your location. Have acquired two of your Urzu strays and precious cargo Ansuz.”

Copy that, Wildfire. You’re the last group, so bring it on home. We won’t shoot you.” It wasn’t just idle talk. As they came around the last corner, they found themselves staring at a maze of hastily-erected barricades, manned by over a dozen MITHRIL personnel with weapons ranging from assault rifles to the heavier anti-tank weapons needed to down Arastols. As soon as they were inside the dock, Commander Mardukas nodded to the soldiers manning the barricades, who retreated into the dock and detonated set charges to bring the hallway down behind them.

Teletha looked out over the scene that awaited. Several hundred personnel had been ordered to evacuate aboard the Tuatha de Danaan, and they all stood lined up in three perfect rows before the ship, disciplined even in this hour of MITHRIL’s greatest crisis. Mardukas came to the front of the line, covered with oil and grease, and his face displayed not even a hint of disapproval as he regarded Teletha and Garon’s joined hands. He came to attention and saluted.

“Madam Captain, the strongest submarine in history to ever dominate the seven seas, Tuatha de Danaan, is ready to sail when you are! Your orders?”

She withdrew her hand from Garon’s only long enough to salute and order, “All hands, to your stations!”

The rush to board the ship and cast off mooring lines took less than two minutes, and within five, the Danaan had submerged and steamed toward the underwater exit to the cove. The communications officer broadcast the Omega signal without any prompting from Teletha.

In the first deck corridor, heading to the hangar to see if any Arm Slaves were left, Garon was intercepted by Mardukas. “Mister Crayson, you will accompany me to the bridge.”

“Sir?” There was no masking the confusion obvious in Garon’s face and words.

Mardukas stared him directly in the eye, earning the man a little more respect from the Mandalorian. “While I do not personally approve of your relationship with Madam Captain, your presence eases stress in her. At this crucial hour, she needs as much stress reduction as she can get.”

Garon nodded and turned to follow. Teletha didn’t react when she heard the bridge door open, signaling their arrival, but she did snap her head around with an expression somewhere between surprised and ecstatic when she felt his warm, familiar hand rest on her shoulder.

She swiftly returned her attention to the business at hand. “Once we’ve cleared the cove, all stop and bring us to the surface, then open hatch number four.”

“Ma’am?” the helmsman asked. “Shouldn’t we be trying to put as much distance between us and the island as possible?”

“All in due time,” she answered calmly. “But first we will see to the safety of cuun verde.” Garon smiled. Even now, she was prioritizing recovering Clouseau, Weber, and Yang.

“Aye, aye, ma’am,” the helmsman said, a little uneasily.

It was a long five minutes as the submarine cleared the tunnel and surfaced. No sooner had it done so, however, the ship trembled as Kurz’s standard M9 and Clouseau’s custom black machine leapt onto the deck. The images showed Yang cupped in Clouseau’s unit’s right hand.

Aren’t we awesome?” Kurz called out over the radio.

For once, I agree with this idiot.” Clouseau’s voice sounded strained. “Requesting permission to board, Captain.”

“Permission granted,” Teletha answered. “Please hurry aboard.” She nodded to the communications officer, then said, “Ghost Eye, this is Toy Box. We’ve cleared the island and are recovering our last AS pilots. We’ll be going dark once we’ve done that. I appreciate everything you’ve done to assist us.”

There was a momentary pause, as if it had to sink in to the operators aboard the AWACS that they had been fighting on the same side as the mythical Toy Box—the thorn in the side of the US Navy—the entire time. “Roger that, Toy Box. We are in the process of evacuating our own personnel from the island. I’m hoping that that nuclear device is just a threat meant to scare us away.”

“So do I, Ghost Eye. Toy Box, out.”

“Ma’am, Urzu-Six and Urzu-One are aboard, all hatches sealed.”

Teletha nodded. “Make our depth three hundred meters, twenty degree down bubble. Set our course to zero-six-five once we’ve passed periscope depth and bring us up to flank speed. We’re running hard and fast.”

The orders flooded back to her as the Tuatha de Danaan slipped beneath the waves, and Teletha leaned back in her chair, reaching up automatically to twirl her ponytail as the ship steamed away from Meridia Island. They were going to make it.

In the churning seas near the rocky cliff face, the unmanned micro-submarine made use of the sonar noise to sneak in close and attach itself to the side of the massive submarine, biding its time until it received its orders...

---

1704 hours, local time
Meridia Island Northern Access Vehicle Depot
Sergeant Paul Jackson, 1 st Force Recon, USMC

 

“Go! Go!” Vasquez’s voice boomed over the radio. The noise of the CH-46 Sea Knights’ rotors made normal communication impossible.

Jackson was the first up the ramp into the transport helicopter, and as he passed, the crew chief called out, “Get on the Mark 19, Jackson!”

“Sir!” the Marine answered, letting his M4A1 drop on its sling as he stepped up to grip the handles of the belt-fed 40mm grenade launcher, turning it experimentally a few times to get a feel for its range of motion. The wound to his shoulder throbbed painfully, but he wasn’t about to pass up his chance to leave a bit of a parting gift for the enemy.

The rest of the squad, along with two surviving MITHRIL soldiers, piled into the back of the Sea Knight and fell into the bucket seats wearily, anxious to be away from the hell that the former island paradise had become. The rear ramp closed and the helicopter rose slowly into the air, turning east and running toward the edge of the island. An AH-1Z Viper swept up along the right side of the transport, providing cover and overwatch.

It took Jackson a moment to recognize the white streak that suddenly rose out of the forest, and his mind didn’t connect with his mouth to shout a warning until the missile had already slammed into the tail of the Cobra, snapping it off and sending the helicopter into a flat-spin.

We’re hit, we’re hit!” the female pilot reported. “I’ve lost the tail rotor! Mayday, mayday, this is Deadly, going in hard!”

It lost altitude in a hurry, descending toward the forest below. The right stub-wing snapped off explosively as it struck a tree, hurling the vehicle the rest of the way down to the ground. The Sea Knight immediately turned back and circled the crash site several times. Jackson fired several rounds from the Mark 19 to kill the few approaching Amalgam soldiers he could see moving in on the crash site, and he could see bullets heading out of the downed bird.

We have a Cobra down,” their pilot reported. “I repeat, we have a Cobra down. Deadly, this is Outlaw Two-Five, come in, over.”

There was no response. As they continued to circle, Jackson fired more grenades down as more and more enemy soldiers were appearing.

Command, I have a visual on the crash site. I see small arms fire coming from the cockpit. Request permission to initiate search and rescue, over.”

Copy, Two-Five, be advised you will not be at a safe distance in the event that nuke goes off,” Ghost Eye answered. “Do you understand?”

Roger that. We know what we’re getting into.”

Ghost Eye’s radio operator sighed. “Alright, Two-Five, it’s your call. Retrieve that pilot if you can. Out.”

The Sea Knight immediately banked to set down in a forest clearing less than thirty meters from the downed bird. The pilot tried again to reach the Cobra’s pilot. “Deadly, do you copy? Say your status, over.”

Static whistled for a moment, then Deadly answered, frantic, “I’m here!” She coughed twice. “Keating is KIA. Hostiles moving in fast! I sure could use some help down here!”

Hold on, we’re comin’ to ya.”

The rear bay dropped open, and Jackson abandoned the Mark 19, scooping up his M4A1 and following the rest of the squad down the ramp. He broke into a sprint as soon as he was clear, leading the group toward the fallen Cobra.

Be advised, Two-Five,” Ghost Eye warned. “Hostiles advancing parallel, southwest of your position toward the crash site.”

Vasquez gunned down an Amalgam soldier lying in ambush, then looked up to see Jackson tearing toward the downed Cobra. “We got ninety seconds, Jackson,” he called out over the radio. “Get the pilot. No one gets left behind!”

“Sir, yes, sir!” Jackson shouted as he came around a tree to find an enemy soldier right in front of him. He slammed the butt of his rifle and his arm into the man’s head, then ran on, leaving the wounded enemy for his comrades to dispatch.

Enemy gunfire hammered all around him as he came to the Cobra, which had ended up nose-down in the dirt, propped up against a series of bent and burning trees. The canopy over the pilot’s seat facing him had been blown out in an escape attempt; he could see shrapnel protruding through her right leg that prevented her from fleeing on her own. Slinging his assault rifle, he grabbed her harness with both hands and hauled her bodily out of the cockpit, pulling her onto his back and turning away from the downed bird.

Get to the Sea Knight!” Vasquez ordered. “We’ll hold them back! Move!”

The squad began to retreat toward the waiting helicopter, pulling back in standard hopping fashion. Jackson struggled to maintain a good rate of speed with the weight of the pilot on his shoulders.

Lieutenant Vasquez, this is Outlaw Two-Five. Now would be a good time to get the hell out of here, over.”

Roger that, we’re on our way.”

Jackson had already reached the Sea Knight by then. Ignoring the enemy fire striking the armor of the helicopter with off-key musical sounds, he slid Deadly off his back and dropped her into a bucket seat, eliciting a cry of pain from her, then stood to the side of the ramp opposite the crew chief, firing back over the squad’s head to suppress the enemy.

Outlaw, this is Ghost Eye. We have a probable nuclear threat in the base. Proceed to the minimum safe distance until the all clear is given by the NEST team.”

Vasquez was the last man aboard, shouting, “Go! Go!” as he turned and knelt in the center of the ramp, firing out the back of the helicopter as Jackson reloaded.

The pilot immediately pulled the helicopter into the air, not wasting time with closing the ramp as he banked to the east and put all available speed into getting the hell away from the island. They could see other Vipers and Sea Knights in the air behind them, the last stragglers of the American assault force now rushing to get away from the potential blast radius.

All US forces, be advised. We have a confirmed nuclear threat on the island. NEST teams are on site and attempting to disarm. I repeat—”

Ghost Eye’s transmission died in a burst of static as a brilliant flash of light almost took Jackson’s vision away. He watched as a massive fireball swept toward the sky, followed by a fiery debris cloud that spread out from the point of detonation, almost casually swatting the helicopters that had been following Outlaw Two-Five out of the sky.

Everyone, hang on!” Vasquez shouted.

The Sea Knight shook violently as the blast wave reached and bypassed them. Jackson wondered for a brief moment if the loss of control was due to the electromagnetic pulse that accompanied nuclear detonations or the force of the blast wave, then the helicopter was in a flat spin, centrifugal forces slamming him against the wall behind him as the helicopter spiraled out of control. He could see beach and ocean passing in a steady circuit beneath them. Motion to his left drew his attention, and he watched helplessly as the crew chief began to be pulled by the aforementioned centrifugal force toward the open ramp. He reached out toward the man, but his fingers just barely brushed the crew chief’s hand before the man was ripped out the back of the Sea Knight.

And then suddenly the ground was upon them, and the Sea Knight slammed into the beach at high speed. Jackson felt a brief instant of flying, then his head struck the wall behind him and he felt no more.

---

January 19, 1610 hours, local time (0710 hours, Greenwich Mean Time)
Airspace Over Tokyo, Japan
Ilyushin Il-76 Heavy Transport

 

...and what appears to be an explosion of epic proportions—d”

Leonard Testarossa depressed the button on the remote control to turn off the television. He would have been surprised at how quickly the international media covered the event if things had gone according to plan. Unfortunately, the initial air attack had been noticed and intercepted by the US Navy, which immediately drew media attention, which meant that CNN, Fox News, the BBC, and others had their cameras focused on Meridia Island when the assault team had remote-detonated the device. It was unfortunate, but the organization could doubtless find some way to turn the international media attention to their benefit.

It was an annoyance that the US military had gotten involved and thereby saved some of the MITHRIL personnel that were otherwise scheduled to die on that little island, but they had been taught the error of their ways when the Behemoth unit that would otherwise have assisted in the assault had been set loose to decimate the US fleet. And most of the ones that would have otherwise died had escaped on his sister’s precious little toy, which wrapped things up rather nicely.

Picking up a second remote, he depressed the only button on its surface, which sent an encrypted information packet to the unmanned sub currently attached to the hull of the Tuatha de Danaan, orders to carry out its mission.

“Sweet dreams at the bottom of the ocean, dear sister,” he said coldly, then turned and headed to the rear of the cargo plane.

He had his own mission to perform.

---

January 19, 1715 hours, local time
Pacific Ocean, 36 miles southeast of Meridia Island, Depth: 300 meters
Tuatha de Danaan, Deck 1, Bridge

 

The crew of the Tuatha de Danaan was unaware of the nuclear cataclysm they’d barely managed to escape. The situation was rather grim. They had lost Meridia Island, along with large numbers of personnel and equipment. There had been no communication from any of the other MITHRIL bases, which meant they must assume that contact had been lost. Amalgam had declared all out war on MITHRIL, and had initiated it with a devastating blitzkrieg.

Despite this, Teletha couldn’t help but have raised spirits. They had destroyed five enemy Venoms using M9s and inflicted significant casualties on the enemy infantry. A large number of personnel had been saved due to the timely intervention of the US Navy. And she and Garon were now official. He had asked to see her regularly, and she had agreed, before he had left the bridge to change out of his piloting suit.

And in less than ten seconds, twice in the same day, her world crashed in around her. The Tuatha de Danaan lurched as though a giant beast had punched it in the side, forcing Teletha to grip the armrests of her chair or be thrown from her seat. The bridge lights burned red. Alarms sounded throughout the ship. “Report!”

“There’s been an explosion on the starboard rear quarter. It blew the hull off all three decks in the damaged sector. Watertight doors are malfunctioning all over the ship.”

All the color drained out of Teletha’s face. The next report did nothing to help. “Conn, engine room. That blast knocked out the engines. The palladium reactor’s received critical damage.”

In short, whatever had hit them had done so to effect the maximum damage to the ship. With sections of all three decks open to the sea and watertight doors malfunctioning, the Danaan would sink in a matter of minutes. If the reactor didn't tear itself apart and destroy the ship before then.

She wanted to cry. Thankfully, years of commanding the submarine took over. “Evacuate all crew to the forward section and the life pods there,” she ordered. “Try to bring us to a stop, then abandon your stations and get to a life boat.” She reached over and pressed a button on her chair. “All hands, this is the captain. The Danaan has received crippling damage. We are abandoning ship. All hands, proceed to the nearest life boat and abandon ship immediately.”

Mardukas was the last one standing at the bridge exit. He stopped and looked back at Teletha. She gave him a thin smile. “I have to lock in the last of my orders, then I’ll be along,” she said.

Nodding, Mardukas vacated the bridge.

Alone on the bridge, Teletha sighed and rubbed her hands over her face. All these years, and to finally lose her prize ship on this day, of all days. “Dana, lock the bridge door and delete all command access codes except my own.”

Done,” the shipboard AI reported.

She felt numb, all emotion drained from her body. She was acting on autopilot now, her mind having shut down from all the stress and trauma of the day’s events. “Monitor all crew remaining aboard and the life boat launches. Once all crew have escaped that are capable, set the auto-destruct sequence, authorization Testarossa-three-seven-golf-charlie. Destruct sequence, alpha-one. Fifteen minutes.”

Auto-destruct sequence activated. Self-destruction countdown will begin when conditional modifiers have been met.”

There. Now Amalgam would not be able to salvage any technology from the wreck of the Tuatha de Danaan. Having given her final order, Teletha leaned back in her seat and stared around at the empty crew consoles. “We’ll go down together, Dana,” she whispered. The AI was silent, having no idea how to respond to that.

Alone on the bridge of the ship she had personally designed, awaiting a fiery death from the self-detonation device, Teletha leaned her head back against her seat and cried.

 

Chapter Text

“We never understand how little we need in this world until we know the loss of it.”
- James Matthew Barrie

 

End of All Hope

 

January 19, 1610 hours, Japan Standard Time
Chofu, Tokyo, Japan
Maison K Apartment Building

 

Her scream could have been heard on the floors immediately above and below theirs. It invoked a slamming sound from the third bedroom that Sousuke used as a small office as the chair he’d been sitting in hit he floor and he came rushing out into the living room, MP7 in hand and sweeping the area. He found no enemies, instead only found Kaname standing in the center of the living room, fixated to the spot, her eyes focused on the news channel on television.

The screen showed an island in the western Pacific, crescent shaped and forested, an angry mushroom-shaped cloud rising into the sky above the ruined island. “...details remain sketchy and unconfirmed at this time, but it appears that someone has set off what appears to be a nuclear explosion...”

Setting the personal defense weapon down on the coffee table, he walked up behind her and rested his hands on her shoulders. A shiver ran through her at his touch, then she leaned back into him, seeking comfort and solace in his touch. He moved his arms down to hold her around the waist, watching the news report over her shoulder with a heavy feeling settling into the pit of his stomach.

“That...that was Amalgam, right?” she asked, a frightened desperation in her voice. “MITHRIL wouldn’t nuke their own base, would they?”

He shook his head, then rested his forehead against the back of her head, whispering into her hair, “MITHRIL’s scorched earth policy entails destroying key areas of the underground facilities with high explosives, not nuclear weapons.”

She shivered again, fighting against the cold block of ice trying to settle in her stomach. “Then Amalgam’s...they’re serious... They’re stopping at nothing to get what... they want.”

His arms tightened around her, an unspoken message passing between them. They will not take you from me on pain of death, theirs and mine. He unwrapped his arms from around her and took one step back. As he had expected, she turned and latched onto his arm. He nodded, smiled faintly, and walked her into the office.

The desk chair was not made for two people, but she refused to leave from physical contact with him. He rolled the chair over in front of MITHRIL’s communication equipment, sat down in it, and she promptly sat down on his lap. He kissed her neck to assure her that it was not a problem, then reached around her and began to manipulate buttons and switches, inputting security codes and not caring that she could see them when she wasn’t authorized to know them, attempting to contact one squadron after another.

Kaname, so attuned to reading Sousuke over the years, could sense his frustration and unease as each contact attempt met with failure. She wrung her hands as she listened to him repeat the words “Urzu-Seven to any allied forces,” “This is Urzu-Seven calling any allied unit,” “Respond on emergency frequency one-one-seven-mike-charlie” over and over again.

After ten minutes, he put the radio headset down and sighed. The Atlantic Fleet, the Mediterranean base in Greece, the Indian Fleet, the main headquarters at Sydney, Meridia Island, Tuatha de Danaan. Nothing but silence and static from all of them. The Pacific Fleet itself apparently still existed; he had heard encrypted radio chatter when he switched to their frequency, but it seemed that they had changed their encryption protocols. He wasn’t able to communicate with them.

“We’re on our own,” she whispered, staring dully at the radio gear. “No one’s coming to help us.”

“We have each other,” he replied, reaching up and laying his hands on her shoulders, squeezing gently in an effort to massage the tension out of them. “We can do anything, Kaname, as long as we’re here for each other.”

She smiled and let her head loll forward, sighing happily from the feeling of his hands on her shoulders. “And we have Al, too. Now that you guys are working together so well, we’ll get out of this okay.” She took a deep breath, then sat up again and raised her hands to take hold of his. “So, Sergeant Sagara, first we have to get out of here. After that, we grab Al. Then what?”

“Then we run,” he answered. “We run, and don’t stop running, until someone from MITHRIL gets hold of us or we get far enough away from them that we can go dark.” He swallowed, and his throat thickened uncomfortably. “I-I’m sorry, Kaname... You might have to see me kill a lot of people in the foreseeable future.”

That big idiot. Their very lives were in danger, and he was concerned about doing something that might upset her. She shook her head. “Without question, Sousuke, every person you have to kill from this point on is someone working with Amalgam, which means they are unequivocally evil. Stopping them means that they will not harm others. By taking their lives, you save countless others.”

He was silent for several long moments, digesting her words. She sat there with him, shifting on his lap to face him, holding his hands in both of hers just so that he would know that she was there, that she loved him, and that she saw him as a good man who would never do anything to hurt her or anyone who didn’t deserve it. She’d never voice it in these exact words, because he’d inevitably draw a connection with Gauron, but Sousuke Sagara was a saint in her eyes.

Finally, she saw the focus return to his eyes. He smiled at her, and said, “Pack lightly.”

---

January 19, 1622 hours, Japan Standard Time
Chofu, Tokyo, Japan
City Street

 

They had gotten out of the apartment without being noticed. At least, noticed by anyone they didn’t want noticing them. Sousuke had spotted a glint of light from an adjacent building as he and Kaname had climbed into their escape vehicle. The Intelligence operative ‘Wraith’ was still alive, still watching. They had at least some help.

The escape vehicle was not an unmarked white van. It was a second-rate compact car, like the countless others seen in Japan. It was over ten years behind the current make, but otherwise looked to be in good condition. The exterior was maintained, but not to a perfectionist’s degree. All-in-all, it was a lot less conspicuous than an unmarked white van would have been. Everyone knew the unmarked white van trick.

Sousuke stood at the gas tank of the small compact, watching the numbers on the pump scroll higher. Kaname was inside the convenience store, having gone to pre-pay for the gas, and probably grab a few handfuls of snack food and drinks while she was at it. He wasn’t worried for her; another thing to come from the years of working with MITHRIL had been self-defense training. She could shoot, she could disarm any foe who got close enough and assumed her to be helpless, and she was armed with both the Taser she had defended herself against the assassin with, and Sousuke’s old Glock 17. He had given the weapon over to her permanently after she had gifted him the MP7. It was, after all, the firearm she’d trained on, and was most familiar with. She was incredibly accurate with it.

His phone vibrated. He reached into his pocket, ignoring the potential dangers of using a cellular device while operating a gas pump, and retrieved the device. It was his personal phone. He scowled; this was the first time since meeting Kaname that he was wishing for the mission phone to ring. The number was unknown. He stared at it for several moments, knowing that to answer was foolish. Then he caught a glint of light reflecting into his eye, and he answered it immediately.

“You know I never answer unknowns,” he said without preamble.

I can’t help it,” an electronically-modified voice answered. “The equipment automatically scrambles the number.”

“Understandable. What is it?”

We need to be coordinated with this, Sergeant. Let’s arrange a standard communication schedule. Once every half-hour, unless something serious comes up.”

“Good plan. You’ll be able to keep up once we’ve recovered Al?”

I’ll disappear on my own after that. Like you, I have accounts set up, places I’ve prepared for this eventuality.”

“Then after today, I really will be the only thing standing between Kaname and him.”

I pity him.”

“Not enough. She’ll be upset, you know.”

I can’t see why. It’s not like I ever did right by her.”

“You brought her to me, then. That’s all she needs.”

I suppose.” There was a slight pause. “I’ll call again in half an hour.”

“Understood.”

The call ended, and Sousuke returned the phone to his pocket. The gas pump came to an abrupt halt as the tank filled up. Kaname was waiting in the car by the time he’d returned the pump to the station and gotten in himself. He smiled at her, turned away to close the door, and almost swallowed her hand that was extended toward him when he turned back. He recoiled slightly, and focused on the object she was holding out toward him.

It was a small metal charm dangling on a nondescript chain. The charm held an image of a winged man carrying a sword in one hand and a crossbow in the other. Words around the rim of the charm read ‘Saint Michael’ and ‘Pray for Us.’

“For you,” she said quietly, as though she feared her trinket would be rejected. “I found it inside and decided to get it for you. It’s Michael the Archangel, the patron saint of soldiers.” She gave him a smile, but he could see right through her. She had gotten the charm as much for her as for him. It allowed her to believe in the faint hope that Sousuke would have divine providence looking out for him as long as he wore it. She had a horrible feeling about everything that was going on.

Gently, he took the charm from her, and immediately unhooked the chain, then wrapped it around his neck and secured it again. The charm nestled easily with his MITHRIL dog tags. He took her still-extended hand and kissed her fingers. “Thank you,” he said, smiling.

They left the gas station, and drove north. The radio was tuned to a news station, which continued to repeat the same dry lack of details concerning the attack on Meridia Island. Of course, the island was never named as such, as MITHRIL had paid a great deal of money to ensure that Meridia Island did not appear on any almanac.

Sousuke turned up the radio. “...indicate that the USS Ronald Reagan and her carrier task force were attacked and sunk by the same radical group that detonated the nuclear device. White House officials have declined comment, stating that the United States is doing everything in its power to find those responsible for the first sinking of an American aircraft carrier since the Second World War. So far, no groups have claimed responsibility for either attack...”

“Why would Amalgam attack an American task force?” Kaname asked.

“I can only imagine that the task force caught Amalgam’s attack on Meridia Island and were destroyed either because they witnessed it, or as retaliation for assisting our defense forces,” he answered, glancing in the rear mirrors.

She paled, struck once again by the absolutely ruthless ends that Amalgam was taking in all of this. Fear twisted in her guts, fear of what lengths they would go through to get her.

They drove to a run-down factory complex just outside of Tokyo. As they passed through the abandoned buildings over the cracked pavement, Sousuke’s field radio buzzed. Kaname reached it first, turning up the volume before passing it over to him. He mouthed his thanks to her, then raised the radio and said, “Urzu-Seven.”

You are late, Sergeant,” the familiar tone of the ARX-7’s artificial intelligence, Al, announced in a tone nearing joviality.

“Car needed gas,” Sousuke answered, a false note of irritation in his voice.

How careless of you, Sergeant. Perhaps I should look for a new operator. Miss Chidori, would you like to be my operator?”

Smiling, Kaname reached over and pulled Sousuke’s hand, still holding the radio, toward her. He obligingly held down the transmit button. “Maybe for a little bit, Al, at least until I design my own unit, huh?”

Does the design of the ARX-7 displease you, Miss Chidori?”

“It’s too much of a guy mech,” she answered, grinning over at Sousuke. “And I don’t want to drive an Arm Slave that looks like a ninja. Don’t worry, though. I’ll transfer you into my new unit and leave Sousuke with some second-rate AI.”

Befitting a second-rate pilot.”

Kaname giggled, and Sousuke took back the radio and cheerfully snapped, “Stop trying to act human, you annoying scrap heap.”

This caused Kaname to giggle again. Sousuke and Al had a mutually-abusive relationship, but working in combination, the Sousuke’s piloting skill and the power of the ARX-7 Arbalest were an unstoppable force.

“Status report,” Sousuke said. “What’ve you got on the situation with MITHRIL?”

The news is not good, Sergeant.” For a machine, Al did a damn good job of adopting a somber tone. “Live communication, meaning communication from living personnel, with Meridia Island ceased at exactly 1637 hours Western Pacific Standard Time. Automated communication with Meridia Island ended at exactly 1706 hours Western Pacific Standard Time.”

“When the nuke went off,” Kaname said.

Correct, Miss Chidori. From the images I have observed from international news networks, the device was in the ten-to-fifteen kiloton range.”

“Castle Bravo.” Sousuke grimaced.

Correct. Miss Chidori, are you aware of the event in discussion?”

She nodded her head automatically, even though Al was nowhere near them. “Yes, one of the series of US nuclear weapons tests in Bikini Atoll. The device in question was intended to be only of a four kiloton yield, but new and unpredictable fission materials ended up generating a yield of fifteen kilotons.”

Al sounded both pleased and surprised. “Correct. The device used on Meridia Island was of similar yield, with similar destructive power. I surmise it is more accurate to refer to it as Meridia Archipelago.”

Sousuke tried not to think about that. “And what about the Danaan?”

She is in dire straights. Automatic communications as of 1718 hours West Pacific Standard Time have indicated that an explosion of unknown origin has crippled the engines and ruptured all three decks in the starboard rear quarter. All transmissions with the Tuatha de Danaan ended as of thirty seconds ago.”

Kaname couldn’t stop the horrified intake of breath that she tried to cover with both hands over her mouth. Sousuke was shocked too, by the way that his hand tightened on the radio and he clenched his teeth. Damned Amalgam. All of the MITHRIL bases and fleets, silenced and very likely stricken from the map. Meridia Island, reduced to a charred, radioactive wasteland. The Tuatha de Danaan, sinking to the bottom of the ocean even as they spoke. And there was nothing, nothing he could do about it.

Glancing over at Kaname, he realized that wasn’t right. There was something he could do about it. He could keep them from getting their filthy hands on her, deny them a one hundred percent victory. He would take her, take the Arbalest, and disappear into the darkest hole in the face of the planet, and Amalgam would never find her. He would gather resources, cull contacts and survivors, and before long, they would begin a guerrilla campaign against Amalgam, striking from the shadows and melting back into the night. In the long run, it was probably a useless gesture, but he had always felt that striking out was better than doing nothing.

A glance out of the corner of his eye told him that Kaname was shaking, likely in fear. He set down the radio, reached over, and took one of her hands in his, squeezing gently. “The Danaan has emergency life boats, enough for the entire crew and a hundred additional. There will be survivors. Amalgam will not have you. I have you, and I have the Arbalest. With you on one side of me and Arbalest on the other, I’m unbeatable.”

It would have sounded like ego coming from anyone else. But to Kaname, it was the most true and reassuring thing she’d ever heard in her life. “I will never accept defeat,” she said, dangling a reference she knew he’d understand.

He smiled, and caught it. “I will never quit,” he answered.

“I will never leave a fallen comrade,” they said together.

Citizen Soldier. It was their private touchstone.

Sousuke pulled the car into an abandoned warehouse that was positioned in just such a way that the doorway was never revealed to direct sunlight, leaving the interior darkened and dismal. Pulling the vehicle into the edge of the deepest and darkest shadow within the building, he turned the compact off and stepped out. Kaname stepped out of the other side, and he moved to the trunk to retrieve his duffel and her Boston bag.

“Al, scan the surrounding area, ECCS mode active. Make sure that there are no threats in the vicinity.”

There was silence for a moment, then the AI’s voice boomed from the darkness. “No threats detected. Disengaging ECS.”

There was a sound like the snap of wood, then a brief flicker of lightning as the ARX-7 Arbalest materialized in all its glory, kneeling down beside where the car had stopped. Kaname looked up into the machine’s dully-glowing sensors, made to resemble human eyes, and the monomolecular cutter hardpoint that gave the AS the appearance of a ninja carrying a scroll in its mouth. The massive hand lowered to the ground, palm-up, before Sousuke and Kaname.

The couple stepped onto the hand, which brought them up to the level of the hatch. The Arbalest had originally been designed as a single-seat unit, but an idle thought from Sousuke one day had sparked a redesign. Reasoning that the likelihood that the Arbalest would one day have to be used to transport Kaname to safety, Sousuke had pointed out that having to carry her in the unit’s hand drastically reduced his combat ability. So Kaname and several of the engineers at MITHRIL had redesigned the Arbalest with a slightly expanded frame that supported a non-control seat closer to the unit’s center of gravity. Kaname had insisted that a communications and sensors console be added to the seat; she hated feeling worthless, and therefore reasoned that if she was ever forced to ride along inside the Arbalest in a combat situation, that she could help Sousuke by handling communications and monitoring threats. It was made so, and thus, the unit was redesignated the ARX-7A Arbalest.

It surprised everyone when, the first time that Kaname had sat inside with Sousuke in a tactical training situation, Al had registered Kaname as an authorized user. So, if necessary, she could have piloted the Arbalest on her own. With the advanced nature of Al, she imagined that she could pilot the Arbalest with little real difficulty.

Kaname, since her seat was lower down, entered the Arbalest’s cockpit first. As she passed by the master control chair on the way down, she looked over to see the picture Sousuke had taped to an empty section of the control panel. It was a picture of the two of them dancing at Jindai’s senior prom, oblivious to everything around them. The picture had been thoughtfully taken and later supplied by Kyoko. Smiling, she continued down and dropped into her secondary seat. It was not a control chair and so featured a five-point harness restraint. She busied herself by securing the harness as Sousuke dropped into the master control chair above her.

The cockpit hatch closed, sealing them in darkness temporarily, before both his and her screens came online. She ran her hands across the console before her, checking the communications and sensor equipment with a speed born of practice and familiarity.

“Master mode four, set bilateral angle to three-point-five,” Sousuke ordered as he slid his arms into the control wados.

Bilateral angle set, standing by. Power level confirmed as mobility stage.”

“Kaname, set one of our frequencies to monitor a news station. I want to know if anything suspicious is going on around us.”

“Got it,” she answered, moving to complete the task as she felt the ground fall out from beneath her as Sousuke stood the Arm Slave up. Once she had set the frequency, she dialed down the volume so that it could just barely be heard over the humming of the palladium reactor. She then set the ECCS sensor into passive mode and reduced the detection range of the normal sensors to a 70-meter sphere around their unit.

Sousuke nodded at Kaname’s speed and precision on the secondary systems as he directed the Arbalest to retrieve the Boxer shot cannon from the weapon pod that had been deployed with the Arm Slave. With that done, he activated the electronic concealment system and crouched to exit the warehouse without leaving an Arbalest-shaped hole in it. Once outside, he turned the machine to the north and began to march, actively refraining from watching the sensors; he did not want to step on Kaname’s toes, after all. He trusted her to alert him to any potential threats.

They had not gone five steps when he heard her curse and turn up the gain on the frequency that was monitoring a Japanese news station. “...purpose is not yet known, nor is it known whether they are hostile or not.”

“Al, link to this news station and see if you can get me an image,” she ordered. As the AI set about that task, she called up, “Sousuke, there are Arm Slaves in Tokyo, of an ‘unknown’ model. They’re probably Venoms.” He heard the equipment beep, watched the light intensity from below change as an image was projected on her central screen. Her voice was sour. “No, they’re definitely Venoms.”

He cursed as well. “They know we’re gone. It’s almost certainly a trap to—” His phone began to ring again. He groaned. “Al, link with my cell phone and connect the call.”

Connecting.”

Have you seen the news?” Wraith’s electronically-filtered voice asked.

“Yes,” he answered. “How many are there, and what are they doing?”

Thirteen Venoms. So far, they’re doing nothing except intimidating the local defense forces.” Wraith paused for a moment. Even through the distortion, his...her...its voice sounded confused. “Several of them seem to be focusing around the Jindai High area. I don’t understand why; you two are long-graduated from there.”

It hit Kaname before it hit Sousuke. “Shit!” she cursed. “Sousuke, the class reunion!”

“Yeah,” he said, nodding. Looks like they’re targeting our old classmates...

“W-We shouldn’t...we shouldn’t go back...” she whispered. “It’s a trap. They want us to go back.”

But they both knew that they wouldn’t continue north. Their forward momentum slowed, then stopped, and Sousuke brought the Arbalest around to head back toward Tokyo.

This is going to be dirty, Urzu-Seven,” Wraith warned. “You can’t fight Venoms in a city without leaving a mess.”

“We’ll see,” Sousuke answered, then disconnected the call.

---

January 19, 1654 hours, Japan Standard Time
Chofu, Tokyo, Japan
Jindai Metropolitan High School

 

It was supposed to have been a fun-filled gathering of friends from Sousuke and Kaname’s graduating class. True, by most standards a high school reunion was supposed to take place every five years following the graduation of the class in question. It had only been two years since the former 2-4 had graduated, but none of them particularly cared. They arranged the class reunion anyway.

Now, they felt as though they should have stuck to tradition.

The steel-grey Arm Slaves had literally appeared out of the thin air of the waning afternoon light, surrounding the school, ordering everyone inside to stay where they were and not try anything foolish. Armed men in military-style fatigues and bulletproof clothing had entered shortly thereafter, patrolling the school with their weapons on hand. So Sousuke and Kaname’s former classmates remained inside the gymnasium where they’d been when the hostage situation first erupted. One of them rolled in a TV from one of the adjacent PE rooms and turned it to a news station. What they saw disturbed them.

There were only four of the grey Arm Slaves standing watch over the school. There were nine more rampaging through Tokyo, seemingly-intent on causing rampant destruction. The apartment building that Kaname and Sousuke lived in had been smashed by one of the grey machines, the train station filled with holes, a ruined train accordioned on the tracks. Countless buildings had been destroyed, and fires raged in an alarming number of places, filling the sky with a thick, smoky haze. If Japan had ever been invaded by the Allies in the Second World War, no doubt this would have been the scene then.

“What are they up to?” Shinji Kazama, the class’ second greatest otaku and Arm Slave guru after Sousuke, pondered, sitting close to the TV to observe the actions of the grey Arm Slaves. “They’re not even attacking any strategic targets, just causing destruction at random...”

“It kinda feels like they’re trying to call someone out,” Kotaro Onodera—Ono-D to his friends—put in, also watching.

“But who?”

We’ve received a message that states it originates from among the pilots of the unknown grey Arm Slaves attacking Tokyo,” the newscaster was saying. “It reads, ‘We have taken the students and alumni of Jindai High School hostage. To the pilot of the white Arm Slave, you have one hour to deliver Angel to us, or we will begin killing the hostages.’”

“White Arm Slave?” Ono-D asked, looking to Shinji, the expert on Arm Slaves in the room.

The bespectacled boy shook his head. “It’s not even information to go on,” he said. “But I know this, that no existing models of Arm Slaves in use by the military forces of the world use white paint schemes. That stands to reason that the Arm Slave in question is either a customized unit, or a model which hasn’t been revealed to the public yet.”

“Probably a new model,” Kyoko offered, moving to join the pair. “I don’t really know much about Arm Slaves, but from the strange things we’ve been watching these guys do, I don’t think they’d be given any trouble by the models that are in use today.” The strange things she referred to were, of course, the Venom units using their LAMBDA Drivers to either destroy buildings or defend themselves against poorly-coordinated counterattacks.

The conversations in the gym idled on, the white Arm Slave being the topic of most of them, particularly whether or not there was such a unit in Japan, if it would come, why they had been singled out in an attempt to lure it out, and what this ‘Angel’ was.

Kyoko felt a dread deep inside her. ‘Angel’ was one of Sousuke’s pet names for Kaname. She hoped that the terrorists weren’t demanding her. She looked up as the shadow of one of the patrolling grey Arm Slaves fell over them, taking the opportunity to study the machine. It sported an assault rifle that looked like a scaled up AK-47, and its single red sensor gleamed menacingly in the waning afternoon light. The thing she found most unusual about it was the wispy bundle of material streaming from the top of its head that looked to her like human hair. Just what was the purpose of that? Aesthetics? She found it unbecoming.

And then, as if a higher power had understood her distaste with the cooling coils of the Codarl-class Arm Slave and manifested that displeasure, the grey unit’s head was suddenly no longer there, and it was collapsing forward in a broken, decidedly nonhuman manner. It was halfway to the ground before she registered the sound of its head exploding.

A distant part of her mind told her that just destroying the head didn’t permanently put down an Arm Slave, because the cockpit was located in the torso. Again, as though answering her thoughts, a new, white Arm Slave appeared, a scaled-up looking shotgun in its left hand, a monomolecular cutter with the chain blade spinning in its right. The white Arm Slave slammed to the ground beside the fallen grey unit, driving the cutter into its back and into the cockpit, permanently grounding the unit.

The other grey Arm Slaves were nothing if not quick on the uptake. They immediately turned toward their enemy and concentrated fire on it. Kyoko watched, breathless, as four long, thin metal rods extended from the back of the white Arm Slave, then a shimmering, spherical, multicolored sphere of energy formed around the crouching unit, defending it from enemy fire.

Shinji was at her side in a heartbeat, all but scrambling over himself in an effort to get a better view of the battle. “Is that it!?” he demanded of no one in particular. “Is that the LAMBDA Driver!?”

Apparently, the pilot of the Arm Slave had its audio sensors tuned up very high, because the unit’s head turned to stare directly at him, its eyes flashing green, even as it ignored the enemy fire hammering away uselessly at its shield. The white Arm Slave stood up, turning toward the nearest enemy unit, apparently intent on giving a demonstration.

It fired a shot from its Boxer shot cannon at the targeted Arm Slave, but Shinji had seen Boxer cannons used before, and the shot that came from that weapon did not look like an ordinary Boxer round. The round was encased in the same shimmering energy field that protected the white unit from enemy fire. As it streaked in at the grey Arm Slave, that unit stopped firing and raised a hand toward the incoming shot, and a similar field of energy rose in front of it. Shinji’s heart fell; the enemy units were also equipped with LAMBDA Drivers which—if the rumors he had heard were true, and they were judging by the white unit’s ability to negate all hostile fire—meant that the white Arm Slave’s attack would be just as ineffective.

As he had expected, the shot from the Boxer cannon struck the energy field and stopped. But to his surprise, it was not instantly disintegrated the way that the rounds that had struck the white Arm Slave’s shield were. A moment later, the grey unit appeared to be struggling against the shot, which apparently was not taking too kindly to being rejected. Then the grey unit’s shield imploded, and the shot from the Boxer cannon hit, penetrated, and kept going as though the Arm Slave wasn’t there. The enemy machine fell to pieces, not exploding.

Shinji felt like smacking himself for not realizing it sooner. The LAMBDA Driver was both offensive and defensive; its very acronym said that much: Linear Accelerated Motion-Bypass Defense/Assault, LAMBDA. The white Arm Slave’s pilot was using the system to its absolute fullest potential, as both a defensive countermeasure, and an offensive enhancement. And doing both at the same time, to boot.

Before he could blink, the white Arm Slave was suddenly facing the other direction, its Boxer shot cannon barking again, and the round it fired blew through the cockpit of the grey unit that had been firing on it before the enemy even had time to realize he was in danger. The speed and reaction time of the pilot was unbelievable.

Vibrations and heavy impact sounds came from the other side of the gymnasium, and Shinji and the others looked back to find the fourth grey Arm Slave hanging in the air at the apex of a massive leap, aiming to come down on top of the white Arm Slave. Shinji narrowed his eyes, staring at the grey unit. No, its angle was all wrong...

It was going to come down on top of the gymnasium, killing them all!

At least, that had been its intent. Motion from the white Arm Slave drew his attention, and he watched as the energy coalesced around its empty left hand, and then it thrust that hand in the direction of the grey Arm Slave. A pressure wave of energy roared out of the white unit’s hand, slamming into the grey unit with such ferocity that it partially-shattered on impact. What was left of it flew backwards to crash brokenly into the road running alongside the school, sparking a series of traffic collisions.

The armed terrorists had not spent the battle idle. Many of them now stood holding hostages before them as shields, Kyoko included. The white Arm Slave looked on into the gym, and if Shinji didn’t know any better, he’d say that the unit’s “eyes” were burning with rage. It stood still for several minutes, as if considering a course of action, then it simply disappeared. Literally. Shinji assumed it had activated its ECS stealth mode.

A clinking sound drew Shinji’s attention, as well as everyone else’s, to the center of the gymnasium. He regretted it when, a second later, the M84 flashbang grenade exploded, rendering him blind and deaf for many seconds. When the ringing finally cleared, he could hear gunfire, a harsh automatic rifle’s report echoing thunderously in the wide open area of the gymnasium. Students and teachers screamed out and dove for the deck. Shinji blinked his eyes rapidly to clear them, and when he could see, he was taken aback by what he did see.

Sousuke Sagara stood in the center of the gymnasium, directly where the grenade exploded, clad in a red-trimmed Arm Slave piloting suit, taking out the terrorists with frighteningly-accurate bursts of gunfire from the G36C in his hands. He didn’t bother to take cover or even move from his position, merely turning in place, one terrorist after another falling to his methodical, surgical fire.

A mechanical voice came from high overhead, “Sergeant Sagara, the remaining Venoms are en route to this location. Their ECCS will detect me.”

Sousuke cursed, the index finger of his right hand tripping the magazine release button in the G36 even as his left hand produced another flash grenade and threw it toward the cluster of terrorists that were still alive. He caught sight of a large man with close-cropped hair, gray stubble, and small sunglasses before he turned his head to protect his vision, knowing his piloting helmet would protect him from the massive decibel level. He waited for the grenade to detonate before he answered, “Kaname! You have to pilot it!”

Kyoko, already flabbergasted at Sousuke’s appearance, stared up in disbelief at the area where the voice had come from. Kaname was being targeted by these terrorists, and she was inside the white AS that had so effectively demolished the enemy units. “Kaname...” she whispered.

Are you crazy!?” Kaname’s inimitable voice shouted down from the cloaked mech. “I-I’m not trained to drive this thing!”

Sousuke slammed the butt of the assault rifle onto the forehead of a terrorist that had only been wounded, finishing him off, then hauled the corpse from the floor and used it as a shield as he advanced on another pocket of terrorists. “You scored exceptionally on the M9 simulator! Al can do some of the work, but he can’t fight off nine Venoms without a human pilot! Unless you’d rather switch places with me?”

There was a heavy thumping sound, then the white unit became visible again as it stood up and deactivated its ECS. “O-okay,” Kaname said, sounding a little unsure of herself. But that recognizable determination was underscoring her words. “I’ll keep them off of you, Sousuke.”

“Good luck...” Sousuke whispered, his words inaudible over the roar of the gunfire.

---

Kaname’s palms were sweaty as she gripped the control levers at the end of the arm wados. True, she had practiced on an M9 simulator and scored within a high enough range that Tessa had jokingly offered her a place on the Urzu Team, but that had been simulated combat, and not against nine Venoms. She was only thankful that the Arbalest had an identical control setup to that of an M9.

Do not relax, Miss Chidori,” Al advised her, contrary to everything she was expecting to hear.

“What? Don’t relax? What’s the meaning in saying that? Sousuke’s right, you are a piece of junk!”

There was mirth in the AI’s voice. “I have observed that Sergeant Sagara makes successful utilization of the LAMBDA Driver under two frames of mind. Panicked, and determined to protect the one he loves.”

She grit her teeth and squeezed the controls. “Then I’m gonna tap that determination,” she said. “These guys aren’t gonna get to Sousuke!”

She manipulated the controls, and the Arbalest leapt high into the air, the LAMBDA Driver mounted to the back of the suit glowing white as she leapt from building to building. To her great surprise, the massive weight of the Arm Slave left hardly any damage to the rooftops it moved across. She felt incredible power surging through her. The Arm Slave around her felt as light as a feather.

So this is Sousuke’s world... she thought to herself.

The first Venom in range fired at her, not a 40mm assault rifle, but a Versile II anti-Arm Slave missile. She didn’t even think about it. The LAMBDA Driver’s shield flared to life, not the spherical omnishield that she was accustomed to seeing Sousuke use, but an energy manifestation that resembled a true shield. As the missile struck, the shield angled its upper surface outward and then shoved back, sending the missile back to its original owner.

One down,” Al announced.

Kaname sent the Arbalest roaring through the sky toward the next enemy machine. She may as well not have been armed with the Boxer cannon. A shimmering sword of pure energy manifested on the right side of the Arbalest, driving forward, piercing the defensive shield of the Venom, and impaling the Arm Slave to the concrete. The sword dissipated, and re-manifested before the Arbalest, even as the shield rematerialized on the Arbalest’s left.

“Two!” Kaname cheerfully called.

Don’t say it before me,” Al admonished.

Scowling, Kaname twitched her left arm, causing the Arbalest’s left arm to swing up and smack its own head. “I’m not Sousuke, Al. You don’t get to order me around. Target the next Venom.”

Truthfully, the way the LAMBDA Driver was performing for her was amazing even to her. She had thought Sousuke was a masterful user of the device after having seen him put it to use in Hong Kong. But even she had to admit that what she was doing was almost an art form. Perhaps putting a Whispered whose knowledge expertise was weaponry, like her, in a LAMBDA Driver-equipped Arm Slave exponentially-increased the output of the Driver.

She wanted to see what she could make it do.

Leaping high up into the air again, she watched as the shield effortlessly expanded from the equivalent size of a buckler to that of a tower shield and maneuvered to intercept all incoming fire. She wasn’t even thinking about it! She leveled the Boxer at the offending Venom and fired. Her LAMBDA-enhanced shot smashed through its defense shield in the blink of an eye, scattering grey-painted pieces all over the landscape.

That’s three!” she and Al announced simultaneously.

The fourth Venom leapt up at her, and she panicked momentarily, wanting to kick it away, but she hadn’t learned any aerial maneuvers in her training on the M9. Al came to her rescue then, orienting the Arbalest and slamming both feet into the Arm Slave, crushing the head down into the body. It slammed to the ground, and a burst of fire from the head-mounted 12.7mm cannons into the cockpit finished it.

“Four...” Kaname hissed between clenched teeth. It was difficult, but she was doing it.

Venoms five and six had at least some sense to them. The fifth enemy rushed her with its anti-tank dagger out, forcing her attention onto it as her shield moved to stop the explosive blade from piercing her armor. As this was happening, the sixth Venom moved behind her, aiming for her unprotected backside with its shoulder-mounted machine cannon.

She wasn’t sure how she had managed to do it, but she stepped back and to the left, using the manifested shield as a shunt to rip the anti-tank dagger from the hand of the Venom before her and sending it hurtling toward the one behind her, even as the shots from that Venom passed through where she had been standing and penetrated the one before her. The two units exploded simultaneously.

Miss Chidori, your skill with the LAMBDA Driver surpasses anything in my records,” Al said. Even the computerized AI sounded astonished.

“I don’t get it either,” she responded, burning down the seventh Venom with a shot from the Boxer cannon almost casually. “I think it has something to do with my area of knowledge being in weapons and Arm Slaves.” There was one way to find out. “Al, calculate the output of the LAMBDA Driver when used by Sousuke, and then when used by me.”

The calculation was instant. “LAMBDA Driver output under the control of yourself, Miss Chidori, is three hundred percent higher than Sergeant Sagara’s highest-recorded output, that being the mission in Hong Kong.”

So the Whispered were good for more than just the ‘black technology’. The thought made Kaname shudder.

The last two Venoms likewise decided to attack her simultaneously. That was fine. She was ready to end this fight, anyway. She rushed forward to meet them, the energy sword twisting in the air. She fired the Boxer cannon at the eighth Venom while simultaneously directing the sword to strike at the ninth and moving the shield before her for defense. Two attacks and defense, all at the same time. The power was immense. Both Venoms detonated.

All Venoms eliminated. No hostile threats detected. Congratulations on your first combat victory, Miss Chidori.”

“Th-thanks, Al-l-l-l...” she hissed through chattering teeth as she returned the Arbalest to Jindai High. Her limbs were shaking, and at first she thought it was from guilt at having killed nine people. She had a brief epiphany; it was not guilt, but adrenaline letdown. As she neared, she caught sight of a group of terrorists clustered outside the gymnasium, obviously intent on bursting in and ruining Sousuke’s rescue attempt. A sustained burst of 12.7mm fire changed their minds.

All over the wall.

Pointedly ignoring the mess she had made, she maneuvered the Arbalest to kneel down where it had been before Sousuke had jumped onto the gymnasium to disembark and fight the terrorists on foot. The fight looked entirely over now. A dozen and a half terrorists lay dead, scattered across the gymnasium floor. None of the hostages had been harmed. Sousuke had done it. He had saved them all.

At the edge of the crowd, Kaname saw Kyoko. The pig-tailed girl turned toward the Arbalest and, knowing that Kaname was currently piloting it, smiled and waved happily. Grinning, Kaname directed the Arm Slave to return the wave. Kyoko turned and started to walk toward the giant machine, probably to get a picture of Kaname in the cockpit. In a preparatory obliging move, Kaname triggered the hatch to open.

No one noticed the claymore mine in Kyoko’s path until the hapless girl triggered it.

---

The boom of the exploding mine instantly snapped Sousuke’s head toward its source. Former students and other hostages screamed once more and dove for the deck. All he heard was Kyoko’s scream, and Kaname’s shriek, enhanced as it was by the external speakers of the Arbalest. He dropped the G36 to the ground, running toward his and Kaname’s mutual friend as the girl collapsed bonelessly to her knees, then slumped toward the ground.

He reached her at the same time another woman did. This woman was Korean in appearance, with short, dark hair, a thin, angular face, and eyes that spoke of a deep, dark past. She dropped to her knees beside Kyoko, checking over the girl. “She’s still alive,” she pronounced. “Pulse is weak.” She held a hand over Kyoko’s open mouth. “Shallow breathing.” Without preamble, she produced a Ka-bar and cut open Kyoko’s shirt. Her torso was peppered with nearly a dozen bleeding shrapnel wounds. “Whoever set that claymore was an idiot. They set the tripwires too far out. Stupid for them, lucky for this girl. Even still, I have to get her to a hospital.”

Kaname was suddenly there, kneeling down in the pool of Kyoko’s blood. Tears flowed from her eyes, but there was also an anger brewing deep within. She grabbed her friend’s limp hand, squeezing tightly, and stared up at the Korean woman. “Wraith, is she going to be okay?”

The woman, Wraith, tilted her head to one side. “If I can get her to a hospital in time, maybe. Otherwise, no. I think she has some organ damage.” She leaned over and scooped the motionless girl into her arms. “I’ll do what I can.” She turned a fierce glare on Sousuke. “Protect Chidori, Sagara.” And then Wraith was gone.

Kaname wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. When Sousuke reached out to comfort her, she looked up at him, her eyes burning with fury. “Kyoko could die,” she whispered, and the tears did nothing to dull the anger. “They’ve done so much... So much horribly wrong... Make them pay, Sousuke. Make them pay.”

He nodded his head slowly, squeezing her shoulder, then leaning forward to kiss her forehead. He was already envisioning the tools he’d need, the techniques he’d apply, in his mind.

Sergeant Sagara,” Al reported. “Unidentified Arm Slave unit approaching from the west at a high rate of speed.”

“Go,” Kaname urged him. “Make them regret what they’ve done.”

He kissed her one last time, then rose and ran to board the Arbalest. Dropping into the master control chair, he slid his arms into the control wados, then keyed the cockpit hatch shut. Panels opened all along the Arbalest’s form, venting clouds of steam and excess heat as the LAMBDA Driver cooled in preparation for the coming battle.

Arbalest leapt up and over the gymnasium, landing near the wreckage of the Venom that it had blasted into the street. Sousuke turned to face the new enemy’s direction, but found no enemy. Narrowing his eyes, he brought up the ECCS. Again, nothing.

Six o’clock, range zero!” Al warned.

Sousuke spun his machine, taking in details even as he went on the offensive. A triangular head, angular shoulders, wing-like extensions rising from the machine’s back. Its arm was like that of an insect, hard and angular, with sharp-edged fingers on its hands. The Boxer shot cannon thudded in Arbalest’s hands, a LAMBDA-powered spread of buckshot aiming at the unknown unit.

The enemy unit shimmered in midair, and then disappeared, the shots passing harmlessly into the distance. The Arm Slave reappeared before Sousuke in a static blur, and he knew it had nothing to do with an ECS. It was almost like the thing had displaced itself to avoid the fire. It struck out with its left hand, shearing the Boxer cannon in half.

Sousuke tossed the weapon before it could explode on him, then opened fire with the head-mounted chain guns, reaching underneath both arms to draw both its anti-tank daggers. The 12.7mm rounds disintegrated on contact with the azure spherical shield surrounding the enemy. Undaunted, he put the power of his LAMBDA Driver into the stab with the dagger in his left hand, but still, his attack was stopped cold. There was a flash, and then the anti-tank dagger exploded. But it wasn’t done there. The left arm exploded as well, all the way up to the shoulder before Sousuke could pull the Arbalest away.

“Al, is the LAMBDA Driver working?” he demanded.

Affirmative. LAMBDA Driver is one hundred percent functional.”

He swore. That meant the enemy had a greater LAMBDA output than him. He was outmatched. But still, he couldn’t give up. Not now. Not when he had so much riding on the line.

Drawing back the right arm, Sousuke hurled the second anti-tank dagger. The enemy raised its right hand, halting the weapon in midair. It made a twirling gesture, and the blade turned around to face back the way it had come, then a flick of the hand sent the dagger screaming back toward the Arbalest’s cockpit. Sousuke dodged to the side and threw up a defensive field, but the dagger pierced it in an instant, and the dagger lodged in the collar of the Arbalest and exploded, shearing off the right arm and part of the head.

Following up, the enemy unit shoved both hands toward the Arbalest, and a massive pressure wave the likes of which Sousuke had never before seen slammed into him, hurling him backwards through the air as the armor all along the front of the machine crumpled like cheap tin foil. The Arbalest slammed down hard on its back on the spot it had originally vacated.

Alarms pulsed inside the cockpit, drowned by Al’s static-filled, choppy voice, “Main drive units...down...palladium reactor, compromised...” The cockpit hatch groaned open, the damage to the armor preventing it from coming completely open, and the pilot harness slid open. “Aba-n-n-n-n-don...”

“Sousuke!” Kaname’s voice shrieked from somewhere beyond the haze of pain that clouded his mind.

He tumbled out of the cockpit, landing heavily on his shoulders. Struggling to roll upright, he reached down and drew the MP7A1. From the gymnasium, he could see Kaname running toward him. Looming over the school, he saw the enemy Arm Slave. Coming from the front gate, he could see enemy soldiers, and Arastols.

“Run!” he shouted, his voice hoarse. He raised the MP7 in a shaky grip and fired. One of the enemy soldiers in the front of the group dropped. “Run, Kaname!”

She didn’t. She drew the Glock 17 and also opened fire. Another soldier fell. “Come to me, Sousuke!” Terror and desperation rimmed her words.

Sousuke began to move toward the gymnasium. He needed cover, and had none here. Bullets snapped around him, clanging from the armor of the destroyed Arbalest. He sighted carefully, fired, and the main sensor of one of the Arastols shattered. His luck couldn’t last, wouldn’t last.

It didn’t.

Pain shot through him as a bullet exploded through his left shoulder. Grunting, ignoring the pain, he spun and fired two shots in the direction the bullet had come from. Another Amalgam soldier died, but there were more, and more Arastols, coming from the other side of the school. He took cover in the ruined left armpit, spraying automatic fire over the group coming from the front gate. The high-powered ammunition of the PDW was frighteningly-effective against the Arastols.

With that group eliminated, he turned his attention to the enemies from behind. One soldier, perhaps a raw recruit, perhaps intimidated by Sousuke’s sheer-cussed willpower, fired indiscriminately toward the downed Arbalest. Sousuke took careful aim and dropped him.

Kaname dropped the Glock and ran for Sousuke. As she did, she saw one of the soldiers from the first group, wounded but not dead, struggle to sight in on Sousuke with an M9 Beretta. She screamed his name. He turned toward her, catching sight of the soldier’s movement as he did so, and swung his weapon around.

For the first time in years, the sound of a gunshot was impossibly-loud for her, causing her to flinch. Sousuke and the soldier fired at the same time. Sousuke’s shot took the soldier directly in the heart. The soldier’s took him just below his right lung.

A look of confusion exploded on his face as the MP7 clattered out of his numbed fingers. He leaned back against the wrecked Arbalest, looking down at the gaping holes in his chest. Pulling himself away from the ruined Arm Slave, he managed to get half a foot before his arms gave out on him, sending him sprawling onto his back.

Kaname was on her knees at his side almost before he hit the ground. “Sousuke!” she shrieked. “Sousuke! Stay with me!”

She wracked her brain, thinking back on all the first aid lessons he’d given her. She pressed her hands down hard on his wounds, causing him to cry out in pain. Tears streaked down her eyes as she watched him writhe in agony beneath her. “Look at me, Sousuke, look at me!” She lowered her face directly over his. “Don’t do this to me! Sousuke!”

“R-r-run...” he choked out, gripping her arm over his chest wound with trembling fingers. “Ge-get a-a-away...”

“No! I won’t leave you!”

Oh, my, what a touching scene,” a haughty voice echoed mockingly.

She shot a tear-streaked glare over her shoulder at the unknown Arm Slave standing over the battlefield. “Get bent!” she shouted.

The Arm Slave rocked back as though she’d struck it, and it placed one massively-clawed hand over its chest. “You wound me, my dear. Here I’ve come all this way to rescue you from this mongrel, and that is the thanks I receive?” The unit made a dismissive hand wave. “Finish him off.”

An Arastol stepped forward and leveled its shot cannon at Sousuke’s head. He stared up at the machine, glaring for all he was worth, left hand scrabbling from the MP7 that was just out of reach.

“No!” Kaname shouted. “Stop!”

The Arm Slave raised a hand. The Alastor froze. “Is there something you wish to say, Miss Chidori?”

She ignored him at first, turning and draping herself over Sousuke. She wiped as much of his blood from her hands as she could and grabbed the sides of his head, forcing him to look into her eyes. “Listen to me, Sousuke Sagara,” she whispered fiercely. “Listen to me like you’ve never listened to me in your life. Do not die here, Sousuke. You have to get better. You have to come save me. I love you.”

She kissed him then, needy and desperate.

“I love you and all your weapons and your quotes and your military brain and everything. I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” She kissed him again, tasting salty, bitter tears, and she didn’t know if they were his or hers. “I want to get married and have kids and grow old with you, Sousuke. You have to live.” She brushed her hands over his face, her eyes closed, lips moving in silent whispers as she attempted to memorize his feel, his taste, his scent.

If you are done saying your goodbyes, Miss Chidori, move aside. I would hate for you to be caught in the blood spray.”

“Don’t kill him!” she pleaded, one hand still gently stroking his face.

And why should I not?”

“...I’ll go,” she whispered.

I’m sorry, this unit is new and I suppose there are still some bugs to work out, in the audio sensors, it would seem. I couldn’t quite make out what you said.”

“I said I’ll go!” she shouted, squeezing her eyes shut. She could feel Sousuke’s right hand reaching for her, and she grabbed it with her left, squeezing his hand with all of her strength. “I’ll go, so don’t kill Sousuke...”

She knew the sick bastard was smiling, boasting in his triumph. She could hear it in his voice. “Very well. The actions of such insects are beneath me anyway. Escort Miss Chidori to the transports.”

“Kana...me...” Sousuke breathed.

“Don’t die on me, Sousuke!” she pleaded, as the Arastol grabbed her around the waist and threw her over its shoulder, tearing her hand away from Sousuke’s in the process. He still reached out for her, and she did as well, their fingertips brushing one last time. “I order you to stay alive, Sousuke! You have to come save me! Promise me, Sousuke. Promise me!”

“Pro...mise...yes...” he whispered, barely a ghost of a breath.

But she heard him, and gave him a brave, but watery, smile. It was the last thing he saw of her, the last bright hope that he desperately clung to as the darkness swam up to swallow him.

 

Chapter Text

Heaven knows its time; the bullet has its billet.”
-Sir Walter Scott

 

Bullet Never Lies

 

January 19, 1720 hours, West Pacific Standard Time (0720 hours, Greenwich Mean Time)
Pacific Ocean, 37 miles southwest of Meridia Island, Depth: 309 meters
Tuatha de Danaan, Deck 1, Port Lifeboat Deck

 

Garon watched the bridge crew appear from the corridor and head immediately for the lifeboats. He recognized the helmsman, and of course there was Mardukas at the back of the group. But no Teletha. He frowned, stepped forward, and grabbed the executive officer by the shoulder. “Where is she?”

Mardukas looked back, but could not see her coming down the corridor. “She remained behind to lock in her last commands,” he answered. “She should be right behind us.”

The pilot had to bite back the urge to swear, violently. “Right. I’ll head back and make sure she gets here safely.”

This time, it was Mardukas’ turn to grab his shoulder. “She’ll be along,” he said. “If you don’t get off this ship now it may sink before you get back here.”

“Then I’ll swim!” Garon barked, pulling his arm from the older man’s grasp.

He ran through the badly-angled corridors as fast as the angle of tilt would allow, pushing off from walls to ensure that he remained in the center of them. As he passed an intersection that led to the stairs down to deck two, he heard rushing water, which meant that the second deck was flooding fast. He cursed and picked up the pace, now using the projections from the wall to grab hold of and propel himself along.

Fortunately, it was not far to the bridge. He stopped just outside the door and, knowing it would not admit him because he was not authorized to enter the bridge, he placed his ear against the metal. He could hear the alarms, and something else. Furrowing his brow, he covered his other ear with his hand and listened harder.

It was muffled sobbing. She was in there. She might have been injured.

“Tessa!” he shouted, hammering his fist on the door. The metal rang with his blows. “Are you hurt!? Have Dana open the door!”

On the other side, Teletha turned her chair toward the commotion, and her heart soared as she heard Garon’s voice calling out to her. She hiccuped, then covered her mouth with her hand, stood up, and walked over to the door. “Dana, mute bridge and entry corridor alarms,” she ordered.

The alarms cut out at the same time the AI reported, “Task complete, Madam Captain.”

She took a deep breath. “Garon, please get back to the lifeboat deck and abandon ship,” she said, loud enough for her voice to carry through the door.

“Open the door, Tessa, please.” The desperate plea made her heart hurt. She reached up and clenched the fabric of her shirt over the center of her chest. “You don’t have to die here. Don’t do this to us.”

“So many people have died,” she whispered. “I caused many people to die today. My ship. The Danaan...”

“Many people did die today,” he agreed. “But they died to let all the rest of us continue living. They gave their lives for the hope of a brighter future. Do you remember what Kurz said? ‘If I don’t do everything I can, then I won’t be able to face them.’ Yes, people died to let you escape today. How could you face them if you give up and die here?”

“Please, Garon... Get out of here. Go, survive, live your life, find someone else, be—”

“Don’t you dare finish that sentence, Teletha Testarossa!” he shouted, and the range of emotions in his voice startled her. Aside from the obvious rage, she sensed hurt, mostly. Her depression-mired mind couldn’t connect anything else. “Don’t you dare tell me to find some other girl and be happy with her. You’re the one I’ve chosen. And come Hell, ’cos the high water’s already here, I will not give you up without a fight.”

She was silent at this, and her tears flowed once more, causing her to press her hand tightly over her mouth to prevent herself from sobbing outright. “I’m...sorry...”

“Tessa, please open the door. If you’re not going to leave, then neither am I. Let me at least die with the girl I love in my arms.”

She sobbed again, and was barely able to get the words out to order Dana to open the door. It slid open without a vocal confirmation from Dana, and as she had been leaning heavily against it, she fell forward, right into Garon’s arms. She looked up at him with red-rimmed eyes.

“Hello, beautiful,” he said with a smirk.

She blushed and buried her head in his chest, clinging tightly to him. She pulled herself across the deck to sit closer to him, then shifted her position to rest her head on his shoulder. “You’re about to pick me up and carry me out of here, aren’t you?” she asked dryly.

“You Whispered are a clever lot,” he said, leaning forward to kiss her forehead. “I’m not going to let my girl just throw her life away like this.”

Nodding slowly, she sighed and sat up. She felt completely emotionally drained. “We should probably hurry, then. The self-destruct sequence should—”

All predetermined parameters have been met. Auto-destruct sequence is now activated. Fifteen minutes remain until destruction.”

She nodded, her mouth twisting into a wry smile. “Yep, there it is.”

He stood up, then gently pulled her to her feet and wrapped his left arm around her. “Deny the ship from Amalgam’s recovery teams. Clever girl. What were the ‘predetermined parameters’?”

“Escape of all crew that were able to get to the lifeboats,” she answered as they began to make their way down the steeply-angled corridors.

“So that means all the lifeboats are probably gone,” he mused, turning at a corridor intersection and struggling against the unnatural tilt of the corridor. “We’ll have to get creative, then.”

Fear momentarily seized her, the turn away from the direction she was expecting dredging up the memory of the two Amalgam infiltrators who had almost captured her, and were intent on raping her as well, had Garon not arrived. She calmed herself swiftly, remembering just who it was that held her under his arm. “The lifeboat decks aren’t this way,” she pointed out in a deadpan.

“No, they’re not. We’re going to the hangar.”

She was confused. There would be no way to escape from the hangar. Sure, if the Danaan was sinking from the surface, they’d be able to open the flight deck doors and leave, but failsafes within the AI programming prevented the flight deck doors from opening underwater. “Why the hangar?”

“Desperation is the mother of inventiveness,” he answered.

She smiled faintly. “I think you mean ‘Necessity is the mother of innovation,’” she corrected.

“Same thing.” He pushed the hangar door open, pulled her in behind him, and then leaned against the door to shut it again. The angle of the deck was severe enough that he could almost sit on the door. This chance at escape would only be open so much longer.

Auto-destruct will complete in twelve minutes.”

Scowling up in the general direction of the ceiling, he moved over to where the only two Arm Slaves they had recovered from Meridia Island, Kurz’s default M9E and Closeau’s black M9D, were located. “Tessa, can you override the pilot authorization sequence and unlock these M9s for me to move?”

It still caused her to blush when he called her Tessa. She felt her face heat up as he climbed onto Kurz’s Arm Slave and triggered the cockpit to open. “Yes, I can.” She thought about how he had asked about using both units, and took a stab at trying to figure out his plan. “But even if we could get the flight deck doors open, I don’t know how to pilot an M9.”

“Close, but that’s not my plan,” he said waving her up to join him. She did, climbing as swiftly as she could while not losing her balance, and leaned into the cockpit, keying in her authorization override into the unit. He tried not to stare at her backside on display in front of him.

Auto-destruct will complete in eleven minutes.”

She looked back over her shoulder at him, her ponytail swinging almost playfully behind her head. “What do you need me to do, then?”

He tapped a finger against his chin. “About how long does it take for an Arm Slave to reach from the catapult to the location of the doors when they’re launching?” he asked, thinking. “Is it two seconds or three?”

“An Arm Slave travels the length of the launch catapult in two and a half seconds,” she answered automatically, the stats of her submarine engraved in her memory.

“Okay, then set the self-detonation device for... one minute four seconds. Should give me the time to move back and seal the other unit.”

She paled. The detonation of an Arm Slave inside the hangar would blow out the walls. That would... Oh, she wanted to smack her forehead. That was his plan. He knew that the bay doors could not be opened underwater, so he’d use the blast of one Arm Slave to destroy the doors, and then escape to safety in the other.

She smiled and nodded, then began setting the device. “Yes, of course. Then I’ll remove the pilot recognition protocols on both Arm Slaves, and disable the automatic securing of the pilot harness in Captain Closeau’s unit.”

Another blush tinged her cheeks as she said that. M9 Gernsback units had absolutely no space to squeeze in a passenger. The only way they’d both be able to ride inside it would be to block the harness from automatically closing around the pilot, that way she could squeeze into the harness with him, ending up almost literally sitting in his lap. It was a good thing she was small.

Auto-destruct will complete in ten minutes.”

As soon as she had finished with Kurz’s M9, she moved to the other unit and Garon slipped down into the cockpit and into the master control seat. Without bothering to seal the cockpit, he stood the Arm Slave up and marched it toward the elevator to take it up to the flight deck. When it was in place, he came back and climbed up into the black M9, leaving the hatch open again so that Teletha didn’t have to sit in the control seat with him yet. She sat on the shoulder of the control seat and held tightly to his arm so she wouldn’t be jarred loose.

When the black M9 was in place, she called out, “Dana, bring elevator three up to the flight deck, please.”

Aye, ma’am. Auto-destruct will complete in nine minutes.”

While the elevator was rising, he climbed out of the black M9 and got back into the other unit. Once the elevator had locked into place, he marched the unit to the catapult and maneuvered its feet into position. Teletha called out, “Override catapult safety failsafes. Disengage locks on the catapult system, prepare side one for launch.” No vocal confirmation was given, but the clamps used to hold the M9’s feet to the deck while it launched snapped into place. A lever grip swung up from the deck, and he locked the M9’s right hand to it. Then he entered the final command keycode to activate the suit’s self-detonation device. A countdown timer that read “00:01:04” appeared in the center screen and began to count down.

He leapt from the crouched Arm Slave and ran for all he was worth back to the black M9, counting seconds in his head. Scrambling up the machine’s leg, he settled into the master control seat, then looked over to Tessa. “I apologize in advance if I just happen to have a reaction to having my girl pressed up against me in the cockpit of an Arm Slave. We have thirty seconds.”

She blushed again, then obligingly slid into the small space that remained between him and the front of the pilot harness. With nowhere to put her hands, she laid them over the top of the arm wados, then situated herself in a manner as comfortable as possible for herself and him. He sealed the cockpit hatch, then waited.

Auto-destruct will complete in eight minutes.”

The twenty-five seconds that passed were the longest in his life. Teletha’s small frame naturally meant that she would be very light in weight, but with the miniscule amount of space available to them in the control seat harness, she had ended up pressed against him in a number of locations. He couldn’t see the central screen for her head without moving his to one side or the other, and it was a good thing that they weren’t going into combat. Despite everything that had happened, she still smelled strongly of freshly-cut apples. It was a scent that made his mouth water, whether for her or for the apples was something truly up for debate.

“There’s a risk that the force of the Arm Slave exploding within the pressurized sub may kill us,” he said, though it was nothing she didn’t already knew. “I’ve heard a lot of stories about your lack of luck in the romance department. And in case the risk happens to come to pass, I don’t want you to die without hearing someone say it to you. I love you, Tessa.”

Her face burned like an engine in the middle of a flameout. She knew that was how he felt toward her already, and she herself felt the same, but how forward! Still, in this kind of situation, it’s mostly what one came to expect. She smiled, and traced idle patterns on the exposed parts of his arms inside the control wados. “Thank you,” she said sincerely. “I.. I love you, too.” She fidgeted. “You can...you can call me Tel’ika now, if you want.”

He smiled and rested his forehead against the back of her head. “Since I’ve gotten used to saying it, I’ll call you ‘Tessa’ around everyone else,” he said. “Tel’ika will be my private name for you.”

She giggled and nodded, then looked over to the countdown display in the corner of the central screen. They had five seconds left. “Dana! Launch catapult one!”

Launching.”

As the catapult launch system hurled Kurz’s M9 toward its destiny of allowing Garon and Teletha to escape, he turned the black M9 to present its backside toward the inevitable explosion and knelt down, pressing its hands to the deck for added stability. Inside, Garon shifted his body to put as much of himself between the explosion and Teletha as he could, despite knowing that it wouldn’t help buffer her at all any more than the Arm Slave already would. It was an instinct more base than breathing, than shooting a man before he shoots you.

Protect your sweetheart.

Even Orar knew of that instinct, despite being a second-generation AI.

Auto-destruct will complete in seven minutes.”

The sound of the M9 slamming into the sealed hangar doors reverberated loudly throughout the flight deck, and Garon, under a fleeting intuition, swiftly reached over and turned off the external audio sensors. Even despite this, the roar of the M9’s explosion within the narrow confines of the enclosed flight deck was deafening. Their M9 rocked violently, the only thing keeping it from collapsing was the fact that it was already on hands and knees.

“And now, water,” he muttered, switching the air filters over to submerged mode.

The air filters of an M9 were capable of scrubbing chemical toxins and nerve gas from a nuclear/biological/chemical-contaminated land environment, allowing the machine to still function in an area where chemical or biological weapons had been used. Standard M9E Gernsback units weren’t radiation-shielded and couldn’t operate in a fallout zone; the specialized M9R (R for radiation) Blackjack was required for such environments.

M9 units’ air filters also featured an underwater mode, in which they’d function like a combination of a fish’s gills and the photosynthetic cells of plants. They would filter oxygen out of water, and in the process use the waste hydrogen as a backup fuel source for the palladium reactor, and also use a mechanically-recreated version of photosynthesis to turn the occupants’ carbon dioxide waste gases into breathable oxygen.

Water flooded through the hangar almost instantly. Garon threw the M9 to its feet and shot out the right hand, gripping onto the reinforced piping and bending the unit’s knees. “Hold on,” he whispered to Teletha in as soothing a voice he could manage. He knew it wasn’t easy for her. Being a submariner, drowning had to be one of her greatest fears. And with a veritable wall of water rushing toward them, that fear had to be nearly paralyzing her.

He could hear her quietly whispering something as she held tightly to the arm wados. Barely audible over the noise of the rushing water, it sounded like she was praying. He wished her results. He wasn’t on good terms with the higher powers.

The blow of the rushing water struck the M9 like a hammering fist, staggering it back, but not ripping it away from its handhold. Metal shrieked and groaned as the force of the impact dented the torso armor. But it didn’t wash them away, and after just a few seconds, the pressure faded as the flight deck was completely flooded.

Auto-destruct will complete in six minutes.”

“Now comes the hard part,” Garon muttered, engaging the M9’s thrusters and directing it out of the shattered hole in the front of the flight deck. “I hope we can find an island somewhere nearby that hasn’t been affected by the fallout...”

Teletha said nothing. She wanted to hug him, but couldn’t turn around in the confined space, and so to appease her almost burning need for some kind of physical contact, she ran her fingers over his elbow where the arm wados didn’t cover his arm.

He could sense how badly she needed the contact. She wasn’t the captain of a multi-billion dollar submarine with the responsibility and well-being of hundreds of crew and personnel on her shoulders right now. She was just a twenty-year old young woman whose entire world had been ripped out from underneath her, whose chances of survival at the moment could generously be called low, and the only thing she had going for her right now was the fact that she was still alive and that she had someone who loved her. He could almost hear her heart crying out for reassurance.

He leaned his head down and softly kissed the back of her neck. She reacted to that, craning her head back at the ticklish sensation. He wanted to do more, to kiss away her fears, but his position controlling the Arm Slave prevented him. “Lean back,” he whispered into her ear. “Lean on me. It’s part of the job description, after all.”

She laughed softly, a sound more pleasant to him than the singing of an angelic chorus, and leaned her back onto his chest, leaning her head back against his shoulder. He couldn’t focus on her face without going cross-eyed, but he did anyway, and did his best to kiss her because she looked so damn kissable in the position she was in. Their positioning was a detriment, and so he only managed to kiss the corner of her mouth, but she smiled anyway and treated his effort with a light-hearted giggle.

It was hard to remember that they were still in the middle of a life-or-death situation when these moments managed to sneak in on them, and that’s what made them all the more precious. During these small moments, regardless of whether they came in the cockpit of an Arm Slave or in the lull of a pitched battle, they were allowed to momentarily forget that they were a mercenary Arm Slave pilot and a naval captain fighting a losing war against a technologically-superior foe. These moments allowed them to be nothing more than a young couple enjoying their new relationship.

They both knew that they would come to depend on these quiet moments to preserve their sanity in the months ahead.

---

January 19, 1925 hours, West Pacific Standard Time
Pacific Ocean, 186 miles east of Meridia Island, Surface
CVN-79 USS Arizona

 

The Sikorsky-built CH-53K Sea Stallion heavy transport helicopters settled down onto the flight deck of the supercarrier USS Arizona, carrying the former occupants of three of the Tuatha de Danaan’s lifeboats. Beleaguered personnel, directed by the flight crew of the Sea Stallion, disembarked into the waiting care of the Arizona’s medical staff.

Captain Vincent Blake, a long-time navy man who had joined up with MITHRIL and been given command of the Arizona carrier battlegroup following his retirement from the United States Navy, stood outside the diameter of the whirling helicopter blades, looking calm and unflappable in the heavy wind generated by the downwash of the rotors. As Richard Mardukas approached and saluted, Blake returned the salute and started walking toward the command island.

“My apologies for having to recover your men from such a distance, Commander Mardukas,” he shouted over the noise of the flight deck. “We had to recover survivors of the Reagan battlegroup first, and then wait around because we knew Amalgam had eyes in the area. We couldn’t be seen to rescue the personnel of the Danaan and still be able to keep convincing them that we’re not the rest of the Pacific Fleet. As soon as we knew that their reconnaissance vehicles had left to refuel, we rushed in to recover your people.”

Mardukas gave him a confused look. “Survivors of the Reagan? What happened to them?”

Blake’s expression soured. “Amalgam hit them with a Behemoth in retaliation for the help they gave you guys at Meridia Island,” he answered. “It was...hard to watch that happen to another carrier.”

“So they’re so arrogant as to presume that they can openly provoke the United States that way?” Mardukas shook his head.

“The US has nothing that can combat the LAMBDA Driver, and everyone involved knows it.” The island was relatively soundproofed against the noise of the flight deck, at least allowing them to stop shouting to each other. “In any case, we’ve scattered the wreckage of several lifeboats in the area the Danaan went down. With the rest of the debris in that area, hopefully they’ll assume that she went down with all hands aboard.”

“They’ll get nothing from searching,” Mardukas said calmly. “The Danaan’s self-destruct system is very thorough.” He paused. “You recovered all of our AS pilots?”

“Closeau, Mao, Weber, and Yang.” Blake nodded. “Got all four of them.”

“Put them to use as you see... Wait. There should have been five pilots. Did you not recover Crayson?”

“Not unless he was on the Sea Stallion that you came in on. Since you’re asking about him, I’d assume he wasn’t.”

“No. And what of the captain?”

“We...Captain Testarossa was not among the personnel we recovered from the lifeboats.”

Mardukas halted in his tracks. He stared at the welded metal deckplates. “You’re certain of this?”

“We’re MITHRIL also, Commander, not the US Navy.” Blake was trying to break the tension with levity. It wasn’t working. “We know what our personnel look like. I am sorry, Commander, but to the best of our knowledge, Captain Testarossa did not get off the Tuatha de Danaan before she self-detonated.”

---

January 21, 1321 hours, Japan Standard Time
Tama, Tokyo, Japan
Tama City Central Hospital, Recovery Ward, Room 3

 

He could hear faint beeping sounds. His foggy mind connected it with the beeping of a targeting system acquiring a lock on an enemy vehicle. Then his overactive imagination added voices to the white haze filling his mind. ...anyone out there...seven...any sign of...negative...lost him...Sousuke!

It was her voice screaming his name amongst all the other voices from past missions that snapped some switch in his mind, brought him directly to consciousness. His eyes snapped open, blinding him with the brilliance of overhead ceiling lights. It was that flinch that prevented him from suffering a full-body flinch, which would have ripped the intravenous lines that he was just now beginning to notice out of his arm.

Steadying himself, he turned his head to regard the bank of medical devices set to monitor his heart rate, blood pressure, deliver nutrients and fluids via the IV drip. Some of the machines he recognized, some he didn’t. He turned his head back toward his left, and the heart rate monitor made a an audible recognition of his surprise when, through his hazy vision, he saw that familiar blue hair sitting in the chair beside his bed.

“Kana—”

“Wrong.”

His vision cleared, and it was a black-haired woman sitting in the chair, not the blue-haired one he had hallucinated. The heart monitor’s pace dropped, and he felt as though he’d had the rug pulled out from beneath him. “Oh.”

“Yeah.” Wraith glanced over to the sophisticated medical equipment, then made a face. “Don’t you even want to know?”

His gaze tracked to the equipment as well. She was obviously referring to his state of health. “Will it matter?”

The Intelligence operative shrugged. “I suppose it doesn’t. Then I’ll come right to the point. We’re moving you out tonight.”

He turned back to look at her, then looked pointedly at the large amount of medical equipment. “That seems a tall order,” he said bitterly.

“It’ll work out, somehow.” She sounded tired. Tired and crushed. “If you stay, you die.”

“It would seem that the medical professionals did their job superbly.”

“Assassins, you ignorant asshole,” she spat. “I’ve already had two attempts on me. We have to move you to a secure location before they find out where you are.”

At the mention of the assassination attempts, he looked over and scrutinized her carefully. He could see there was dried blood on her hands. It looked old. He nodded toward it. “You’ve got some red on you.”

She raised her hands, inspecting the blood stains for a moment. She chuckled. “Assassin last night. This is the result of two days of stress and a bad mood after having one’s life destroyed. It took him three hours to die.”

He wasn’t disturbed by that revelation. Honestly, he could probably do worse. He turned and looked over at her. There was a distant look in her eyes, as though she were reliving the killing of the assassin, and wasn’t liking what she saw.

“Do you think God will forgive us for what we’ve done?” she asked quietly.

He was silent for a moment, unsure of how to answer that. Finally, he admitted, “I don’t believe in God.”

“...If you did.”

“No,” he answered immediately.

“I thought not.”

“Two days?”

“You’ve been in the hospital for two days,” she answered with a nod. “The surgery went well, and the second bullet missed your lung. Barely. You’ll recover fine.”

“Kyoko?”

Wraith’s mouth reduced to a thin line. “She was in a bad spot when I brought her in. Shrapnel damage to nearly every vital organ. It was touch and go for a long time, but she managed to pull through intact, minus a few pieces she can live without. Kidney, spleen. You can live with one of the first and without the other. She’ll be in the hospital for quite a while, unfortunately.”

He scowled. “She was hurt because of us.”

Wraith moved so fast that at first he couldn’t be sure that she had moved. But the stinging pain in his right cheek, and the sight of the Intelligence operative drawing back her hand and sitting down again were proof enough. “She was hurt because of Amalgam, you son of a bitch,” she snapped. “Just like Kaname is gone because of Amalgam.”

His heart lurched at the mention of her name, and a violent pain seized his stomach. “Gone...”

Wraith had him by the front of his hospital gown in an instant. “Don’t you lose yourself on me, Sergeant,” she hissed. “I know you, Sagara. You’ve got a caged hound in you. A wild animal whose mate has been stolen. The plan from here on out is simple, Sagara. You are going to heal up. Should take less than a week. We are going to set you loose. Then they are going to regret that they ever looked in Kaname’s direction.”

---

January 22, 0342 hours, Japan Standard Time
Hinohara, Tokyo, Japan
Unspecified Safe House

 

In the darkest recesses of the night, Sousuke sat on the edge of the bed that he had been moved to several hours earlier. It had been far easier than he had expected; the heart monitors and other equipment had been a mere formality, as all he truly needed at this point was rest and the replenishment of fluids from the IV drips, which had been easy enough to bring along. The traditionally-built home he’d been brought into was small, but it served its purpose well enough.

A half-consumed bottle of Jack Daniels sat on the nightstand, along with his Glock 17. He hated that he was conscious. No, scratch that. He hated that he was alive. His failure to protect her lashed him mercilessly like the bosun’s whip when he was awake, and whispered the harsh reality in his ears as he slept. The worst part was that the whispers came in her voice.

She trusted you, the voice whispered from the darkness. She loved you, and you failed her.

He took her away from you, and you let him do it.

She’s his, now. You have no place in her life.

Scowling, he reached over toward the bottle, his reflexes and spatial judgment ruined by half the bottle’s contents already being down his throat. His hand smacked into the neck of the bottle and knocked it over, dribbling some of its contents on the floor. Swearing, he grabbed the neck of the bottle and jerked it upright, listening to the liquid slosh inside. He reached for the shot glass, missed, and knocked it off the table. He scowled as he listened to it shatter on the wooden floor. Grumbling, he simply raised the bottle to his lips and took a long pull from it.

He felt cold suddenly. A shiver coursed through his body, almost jerking the bottle out of his fingers. He kept a death grip on it to keep it from falling. Why couldn’t you hold onto her hand that hard? Keep that damn robot from walking her out of your life? He grunted and slammed the bottle back onto the nightstand, then picked up the Glock. Despite his drunkenness, his handling of the weapon was steady and sure. No less could be expected of a specialist.

Specialist. Hah. Fat lot of good that did. Being a specialist must not be worth much, if you got walked all over by a spoiled brat in a shiny new toy.

He scowled again and grabbed the slide of the Glock, ripping it backwards in anger. The weapon ejected the unused bullet that had been in the chamber, and he positioned his hand beneath the falling round. His timing was shot due to the alcohol. He didn’t even begin to close his hand until the 9mm round had already rolled out of it. It made a faint, melodious clinking sound as it struck the wooden floor and rolled away.

He frowned and pulled the slide back again. Another unspent bullet flew out of the chamber, reached the apex of its climb, and came back down. This time, Sousuke’s positioning was off. The bullet barely touched his middle finger on its downward path, sending it into an end-over-end spin before it joined its comrade on the floor.

How far the mighty have fallen. You can’t even catch a bullet anymore.

He repeated the process again, seeking to prove the voice and its nagging doubts wrong. Even though it sounded like her, he knew it couldn’t be Kaname. She had never been so cruel to him. Another bullet flew. Another failed catch. The voice struck him again with its verbal lash. What pathetic instincts. How is it that you were MITHRIL’s top pilot?

But regardless of his bad timing, he could still count. His Glock 17 came with a ten-round magazine, and that meant there were seven more shots left in it. He jerked on the slide again. He didn’t even get his hand into its flight path. I can see why you could never manage to master the power of the LAMBDA Driver. Even she used it far better than you ever could.

Maybe more alcohol would drown out the voice. He grabbed the whiskey bottle and chugged. It was down to a quarter of its original contents when he dropped it back onto the table. He wished he could develop alcohol poisoning from downing the entire contents of the bottle, but despite it being eighty proof, he’d need a lot more than what he had on him. If only Mao were around. She seemed to be a bottomless source of alcohol.

He lifted the Glock and pulled back the slide again. He lost sight of the bullet’s brass casing as it flew up into the darkness of his room, dimly hearing it clatter to the ground somewhere behind him. Too bad, so sad, Sergeant Somber. You’re not getting rid of me that easily.

Five shots. Or was it four? No, it was five. There were only five left in the Glock. He pulled the slide back. Another bullet shot into the air, coming down directly centered on his waiting fingers and bouncing back up. He snapped his fist shut, a brief feeling of success rising within him.

Take that, voice.

It all came crashing down when the bullet hit his closed fingers on its return from the bounce, and rolled onto the floor. Jumped the gun on that one, pardon the pun. Just like when you jumped the gun on taking on his Arm Slave. Look where that got you.

A low growl escaped his throat. If the voice had a physical presence, he’d shoot it in an instant. Even if it took on Kaname’s form. She was not as cruel as the voice was. At least, he didn’t think she was. Was she? It was hard to remember, now. The alcohol was badly fuzzing his train of thought. He pulled back the slide. Another failure. He didn’t wait for the voice to taunt him again. He pulled it back two more times in rapid succession. Two more failed attempts to catch the flying bullets.

How utterly worthless. You’re pathetic, Sagara. You failed to protect a friend from harm. You failed to defeat his Arm Slave. He’s a far better man than you. He deserves her, not you. She’s forgotten all about you by now. He’s the new man in her life. You’re not even a memory.

It was his head. His head was the source of that damned voice, and all of his problems. Good. He now had a clear enemy. With trembling, numbed fingers, he pulled the bottle of whiskey from the table, and emptied its contents in one long pull. His throat burning from the alcohol, he turned the Glock in his hand and disengaged the safety. She’s better off without you.

With neither hesitation nor remorse, he set the barrel of the Glock against his temple and pulled the trigger.

It took him exactly three seconds to puzzle through and understand that he hadn’t blown his brains all over the bed and the wall behind him. He was still breathing, his vision was still cloudy from alcohol, and his heart still felt as though a steel clamp had been placed around it and squeezed. Slowly, he moved the Glock to the center of his vision, expecting to see the slide locked back because he’d miscounted and had ejected all the bullets already.

But no, there had been a bullet in the chamber. It was blocking the slide from coming back, wedged into the tiny space there.

The round had misfired.

Poor seating? A dimple on the primer? Any number of things could have caused it.

He reached up and pulled the slide back, and the mechanism ejected the bullet with less gusto than it had the others.

He caught this bullet easily. He turned it over in his fingers, setting the Glock down on the table beside the empty bottle of whiskey. Aside from a slight triangular dent in the casing caused when the slide had pinched it, the bullet was unremarkable, no different than any other. If he reloaded it and tried again, he’d probably succeed at killing himself. Then he’d be out of his misery.

Promise me!

He jerked involuntarily, nearly losing the bullet, and clenched his fist around it to keep from dropping it. That had been Kaname’s voice again, but it wasn’t the venomous taunt that had been mercilessly beating him ever since he’d awakened. It had been her real voice, her real words, the last words she had said to him before she’d been taken away from him.

A cool shiver worked its way down his body and he closed his eyes, squeezing the bullet tightly in his fist. He had promised to rescue her, because she’d told him that she loved him and wanted to marry him, and he’d nearly thrown it all away in a bout of drunken depression. It would be one thing if he got killed in his one-man-army attempt to rescue her. He would’ve died fighting, fighting for her. But to die a broken man in an alcohol-blurred downer would have marred everything that they had built, everything they had suffered through to get to the point in their relationship where they were.

He opened his eyes and turned the bullet in his fingers, regarding it in a new light. Wraith’s words came back to him, then: Do you think God will forgive us for what we’ve done?

No. He didn’t believe it then, and he didn’t believe it now. God, if there was one, did not spare him from the bullet because he deserved it. With the lives he had taken, there was no way he deserved that mercy. But then, he had always believed that he didn’t deserve Kaname Chidori’s affections, but she loved him just the same and assured him that he did deserve her whenever she detected those thoughts.

He wasn’t saved for mercy. He would much rather believe that God had saved him, because God had a different role in store for him. This bullet, one way or another, would be part of it.

 

Chapter Text

People say I am ruthless. I am not ruthless. And if I find the man who is calling me ruthless, I shall destroy him.”
- Robert Kennedy

 

A Day at the Beach

 

January 19, 0645 hours, local time (1845 hours Greenwich Mean Time; January 20, 0345 hours Japan Standard Time)
Pacific Ocean, Unidentified Island 1 Mile East of International Date Line
Beach

 

Garon’s first encounter with consciousness was feeling a weight pressed against his torso, preventing him from moving. The second thing he noticed was the faint scent of sliced apples teasing at the edge of his sense of smell, tugging him along toward consciousness. A series of short, backwards tugs informed him that his hands were currently immobile. He remembered piloting an Arm Slave. Yes, that made sense. His arms couldn’t be moved because they were still secured in the control wados.

He opened his eyes slowly, and was met with the sight of Teletha laying against him, eyes shut, breathing steadily. Pulling his right arm out of the wado, he reached up and brushed his fingers lightly across her forehead, tracing his fingers over her bangs. Her gentle breathing hitched slightly, and she snuggled deeper against his chest. He still wasn’t sure how she’d managed to get turned on her side with the incredibly-confining master control seat harness restricting her movements. He smiled and brushed a strand of hair behind her ear, watching a smile dance across her features.

He needed to get out of the unit and scout around the area, but he didn’t want to wake up the angelic vision currently sleeping on his chest. The more time he spent still in the cockpit of the Arm Slave was more time that they were vulnerable to detection by the enemy, and the thought of harm coming to her because he was unwilling to move finally spurred him into action.

Before he could form the words to whisper her to wakefulness, he heard hydraulic servomotors come to life as the heavy slabs of metal that comprised the cockpit hatch slid up and out of the way. He leaned his head back to look out the opening and found two men standing on the collar of the M9 wearing boxy green armor plating that covered the vital areas of the body. They were aiming rifles at him, the design of which he had never seen before. He spared a cursory glance to the lengthened barrels, suitable for accuracy at long range, the optical scopes attached to the accessory rail on top, and the bullpup design of the weapon that featured the magazine housing behind the grip.

Osik,” he groaned, pulling his left arm out of the wado and raising both of them above his head.

“Two occupants,” one of the soldiers reported. “Man and a woman.”

“Get them out of there,” a richly-accented woman’s voice ordered.

The soldier nodded, then centered his weapon on Garon’s forehead. “Alright, you and the woman, out of that Arm Slave, now. Nothing funny.”

“Okay, okay,” the mercenary answered, lowering his hands. “She’s sleeping. I’m going to wake her up first.”

“Be quick about it.”

Leaning forward, he gently brushed his hand across her cheek. “Tessa, wake up, beautiful,” he whispered into her ear. He brought his other hand around to trace gentle patterns across the back of her neck, remembering it to be a sensitive spot of hers.

She reacted immediately, giggling at his touch, craning her head back to stop his tickling fingers, and murmured in her sleep, “That tickles... Let me sleep, cyar’ika...”

He couldn’t help but smirk, that he’d influenced her so that Mando’a even appeared in her dreams. “Nayc, cyar’ika.” He kissed her forehead. “You have to wake up, or we’re probably going to be shot.”

That seemed to get her attention. Her gray eyes blinked open slowly, her gaze aimed generally at Garon’s face. She stared blankly at him, then after a moment, her eyes grew to their normal width as she focused and came fully awake. Though her face didn’t move, he watched her eyes drift over his right shoulder, then back to his. “Garon, cyar’ika, did you know that two men are pointing high-powered rifles at us?” she asked slowly.

“Yes. We apparently landed on a private island, and they want us out of this small weapon of mass destruction.”

She nodded slowly. “That’s a reasonable request.” She turned onto her back and began to shimmy her way out of the master control seat. “Well, just lay still a moment and I’ll be out. No touching.” She giggled. “We haven’t been together long enough for you to have touching privileges.”

Elek, alor’ad.”

She wiggled her way out of the control seat as best she could without causing him discomfort. He had to turn his head to the side lest he get a face full of her behind. Though he certainly wouldn’t have minded, she had forbade him from touching rights, so he was going to stick to it. Once she had gotten herself free and onto the ground, he grabbed the top of the upper screen and heaved himself out of the craft in one motion, landing swiftly on the ground, and moving to place himself in between Teletha and the armed men. Not that it made much of a difference; if they decided to fire, the rounds would penetrate right through him and still hit her.

Now that they were out of the Arm Slave, it was obvious how outnumbered they were. A dozen more of the armored soldiers stood in positions on and around the Arm Slave, their rifles aimed squarely at the MITHRIL couple. He growled, seething over his carelessness having put her into this situation. She slipped her hand into his, squeezing gently and shaking her head when he turned to look at her. He sighed and reached over with his free hand to cup her hand in both of his.

“It’s not your fault,” she whispered to him. “We did the best we could.”

A new figure came around the head of the opened Arm Slave. This one was a woman, approximately their age, wearing not the green armor of the soldiers, but a very sharp-looking black suit that gave her the air of a professional hitman. Her light brown hair was cut to shoulder length on the sides, but grew long enough in the back to sustain a mid-back length ponytail, and her blue eyes were sharp and spoke of great intelligence as they regarded the MITHRIL couple. Her face, though young and no doubt strikingly beautiful, regarded the two with open suspicion.

“You are trespassing on sovereign territory,” the woman, the owner of the accented voice from earlier, told them. “Bringing this unregistered, advanced-model Arm Slave onto our soil could be construed as an act of war, particularly considering recent events on some of our neighboring islands. There is no war here. I hope, for your sake, that you have not brought it with you.”

Teletha stepped up beside Garon, holding his hand as she addressed the woman. “Excuse me, miss, but could you tell us where we landed?”

The woman stared hard at her, scrutinizing her for any hint of treachery or deception. Teletha felt uncomfortable, but she refused to squirm. A reassuring squeeze of Garon’s hand solidified her nerve. After a moment, the woman shrugged, and her gaze lessened. “You are standing on the soil of the sovereign island of MolMol.”

Both MITHRIL personnel recognized the name. Garon’s first mission had involved protecting this island from terrorist attack from the neighboring Pararakelse Island, on the other side of the International Date Line. Teletha felt a wave of hope. Perhaps the royal family would be sympathetic to their plight...

As if reading her mind, the woman said, “We are aware of who you are, Teletha Testarossa of MITHRIL. The attack upon your organization by your enemies did not go unnoticed by us. You extended your hand to shield us once from those who wished harm upon us.” The woman gestured, and the soldiers all lowered their weapons. “And in turn, we shall offer the same courtesy to you. MolMol will become a haven for those who still survive from MITHRIL. Whether you choose to begin life anew or gather to retaliate, we shall keep your existence hidden from your foes. The MolMolian Royal Family honors the debts that it owes.”

Teletha smiled, and bowed in the woman’s direction. “On behalf of the West Pacific Fleet, I offer you my thanks,” she said. “Since you already know who we are, might you extend us the courtesy of your name?”

“Of course.” The woman placed her left hand across her waist, then bowed forward, the model of propriety. “My name is Nealla Ju, personal guardian and body-double of Her Ladyship, the Princess Kaolla Su.”

---

0702 hours, local time
MolMolian Royal Palace, Private Wing

 

After the encounter at the beach, Garon and Teletha had been brought back to the capital sector of MolMol and taken to the royal palace. They would meet with the king in an hour’s time, but their hosts were well aware that the couple had been cooped up inside an Arm Slave for nearly twelve hours, and before that, had been engaged in a battle for their lives against Amalgam’s invaders. To that end, the MolMolians had set the time of the meeting in order to allow the couple time to eat, bathe, and rest a little from their endeavors.

The woman they originally met, Nealla, was gone now, presumably back to her duties as the princess’ bodyguard. They were now being guided by another suit-clad elite, a tan-skinned woman with her long black hair styled into dreadlocks who had introduced herself as Shaiya. The corridor they were walking through was largely open to air, with morning sunlight streaming through the courtyard’s trees creating a rather picturesque scene.

“Princess Kaolla had taken a liking to the open-air baths in Japan during her study abroad there,” Shaiya was explaining, “so we recreated one here for her to make use of by converting a swimming pool that was no longer used. I think you’ll find it sufficient for your purposes.”

“Open-air bath, huh?” Garon asked, his head turned to view the courtyard that their corridor passed through. His voice was thoughtful, wistful even. “This’ll be a new experience.”

Teletha looked up at him. “You never used one when you were in Japan?” she asked, surprised. A long, hot soak in an open-air bath was one of the most relaxing things she knew of.

He shook his head and gave her a rueful grin. “Nah, too used to doing things the Western way,” he answered. “Always thought it was weird.”

Smiling, she leaned into him and squeezed his right arm in both of hers. “Well, I think you’re going to enjoy it,” she said. “It’s very relaxing.”

“Good,” he answered, chuckling. “We could use a lot of that.”

“You’re welcome to use the baths at any time,” Shaiya added helpfully. “They’re open any time of the day or night, so whenever you feel like a nice, hot soak, feel absolutely free.”

Teletha’s brilliant smile lit up the corridor as they passed out of the internal courtyard and back into the palace halls. “We’re very grateful for your hospitality,” she said, still feeling the role of commanding officer despite the fact that all her uniforms were at the bottom of the sea. “We look forward to enjoying all that your country has to offer.”

Shaiya smiled as she stopped between two Japanese-style doors, one clearly labeled with the restroom figure of a man, the other with a woman. “There’s no need to stand on ceremony nor call to impress, Miss Testarossa,” she said, then gestured to the two doors in sequence. “These are the changing rooms. Normally you’d leave your clothing in a locker, but today, please feel free to leave them on the benches and we’ll have someone wash them for you while you bathe. The exit into the baths are directly across from the entrance. Please enjoy yourselves.” With that, she bowed to them and headed on her way.

Left in the corridor, Teletha reluctantly separated from Garon and placed her hand on the changing room door. She turned and smiled at him. “Try to enjoy it, okay?”

He laughed. “I never said I didn’t want to do it. I just said it was new to me.”

Letting go of the door, she stepped over to him, leaned up on her toes and kissed him, then giggled. “You’ll like it,” she said. “I know you will.” Then, she dashed into the women’s changing room, red-faced. True, they’d only had three or four kisses, but it was usually always he who initiated. Being the one to initiate such actions made her feel giddy.

Alone in the changing room, she pulled a towel out of a closet full of them, then set it on the bench running down the middle of the room and sat down beside it. Stripping down with a speed born of practice, she carefully folded her clothes and set them down on the bench. Her movements slowed as she allowed her mind to drift toward idle thoughts of what it might have been like had Garon been assigned to the Danaan months earlier, and their relationship had progressed at an even pace. Perhaps she might have had the opportunity to invite him to the bath on the Danaan...

She jerked upright as though she’d been shocked by a burst of static electricity, then shook her head and smacked the heel of her palm against her forehead, feeling a rush of heat to her face. Such thoughts certainly were far too forward. Despite how obvious their feelings were for each other since his first mission with MITHRIL, they had only been officially together for not even a full day. Quite simply, they were nowhere near that point in their relationship yet.

Standing up, she wrapped the towel modestly around herself, then headed for the far door, smiling as she thought that perhaps they could use their time on MolMol as a sort of impromptu vacation, an island paradise on which they could further their relationship. It was still at once unusual and wonderful, being in a relationship with Garon. It brought a smile to her face whenever she thought of him as her boyfriend.

She slid open the door to the baths, closing her eyes and letting out a blissful sigh as the heat of the indoor bath washed over her, causing a warm shiver to pass through her. “Ahh, just what I need...” she said to herself.

“Guh...Tessa?” Garon’s voice called from her left.

Her eyes snapped open and she looked over to see him coming out of the door from the men’s changing room, a bucket of bathing supplies in his left hand, holding a towel wrapped around his waist in the right, staring at Tessa with an ashen face. Before she was aware of it, her eyes had already raked over his exposed torso, taking in the years of combat-hardened muscles and few scars, a testament to the bullet-stopping power of his armor, and the paleness of the skin usually covered by armor or combat uniforms.

Suddenly realizing that she was staring, she swiftly turned her back on him, squeezing her eyes shut and pulling the towel more tightly around her. “Oh God, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to look, I mean I didn’t know that they’d send us to a mixed bath so I didn’t think that—”

Udesii, Tel’ika, udesii,” he said softly, also turned away from her. He wanted to back up his words with a hug, but he knew she was mortified at coming out in front of him wearing only a towel. Her modesty only made her more cute. “It’s not that big a deal. I mean, I know you’re shy, but... Hell.” He looked over at the bathing area, closing his right eye so that he wouldn’t see her in his peripheral vision. “It’s a huge bath, so it’ll probably be okay if we use opposite ends of it.”

Blushing so hard that she was almost too dizzy to stand, she turned her head just slightly and looked out at the pool-turned-hot spring. Though its artificial origins were still apparent, it had been redesigned with a more natural feel, including replacing the concrete around the pool with a false smooth rock area, and adding in several stands of plants normally found near hot springs and even a self-recycling waterfall that emptied into the pool. The mist rising from the pool made it difficult to see the far end. After completing her observations, she nodded her head slowly. “Okay, that...sounds like a good idea.”

“You make yourself comfortable down here,” he told her, smiling, already heading toward the far end. “I’ll go down there. That waterfall is calling my name.”

“Alright, then,” she said, walking over to the edge of the pool. She waited until he was halfway to the other end before she slipped out of her towel and into the knee-deep water. Sitting down and sliding up to her neck, she let out a sigh of contentment as the hot water engulfed her body, melting away the aches and soreness she’d accumulated from being cramped inside an Arm Slave for the better part of a day.

From down the pool, she heard a startled, discomforted shout from Garon, and sat up in the water, covering her chest with her arm. She squinted into the mist, but could only make out a vague outline of him through the hanging sheet of water vapor. “Garon? Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he answered. “I just... This water’s hot.”

She giggled. “Of course it is, silly,” she said. “It’s not called a hot spring for nothing.”

“And you just got right in it, didn’t you?” He chuckled, and was probably shaking his head ruefully. “You can tell I’ve never been in one of these things before. Feels like I’m about to get boiled up for somebody’s lobster dinner.”

“It’s really great once you’ve gotten used to the heat,” she said, giggling again. “You just sit in it and the heat just soothes away all your cramps and everything.”

She could hear him hissing as he slowly forced himself into the heated water, then he sighed as his body adjusted to it and he immersed himself up to his neck. She could imagine him leaning back against the rocks, his eyes closed, the water working its magical heat over his stiff muscles. A low growl came up from her throat at the thought of him sitting naked beneath the waterfall, and as soon as she realized that she was its source, she shook her head violently, then took a deep breath and dunked her head underwater. The heat shock of the water straightened her thought processes out in a hurry.

“This is good stuff,” she heard him say as she lifted her head out of the water again. “I can see why the Japanese love this kind of thing. Feels outstanding.”

“Doesn’t it, though?” She sighed dreamily, then picked up a washcloth, dipped it into the water, folded it, and placed it on her forehead. “The bath on the Danaan was nothing compared to this...”

“The Danaan had a hot bath?”

She looked up, blinking, having thought she hadn’t verbalized that. Oh well. It didn’t matter anyway. “Well, not technically,” she answered. “I discovered that the cleansing pools for AS parts were large enough to fit people in. So whenever I felt like a hot bath and there wasn’t any scheduled maintenance for the AS parts, I’d commandeer the machine wash room and turn it into my own little hot bath.”

“I, uh, I hope those blue gold vats were cleaned really well...” he said, chuckling. “But still, mirdala. My clever girl.”

A blush danced across her cheeks, followed quickly by a grin. It wasn’t the first time she’d heard him say that, but it still made her heart leap every time she heard it. His girl. That’s me. I’m somebody’s girl.

Love had always been one of the things that she had most desired. Her parents had loved her dearly, without question, but they had both died when she was very young. Without them, she was left with her older brother, Leonard, to care for her. ‘Loving’ was not a word one could apply to the young Leonard. He had always known that he was far smarter than anyone else his age, even smarter than most adults. His intelligence had made him arrogant. He had believed himself above the ‘common man,’ and he had attempted to impress this belief on Teletha. He recognized that she was nearly as intelligent as him, and had tried on many occasions to plant the seed of superiority in the young girl’s mind. It had never taken, however; she’d always been satisfied with her friends and playmates of her age, whose intelligence was far less than hers. It had never bothered her. What good was one’s intelligence, she had reasoned, if one was lonely?

This had not pleased her brother, and he had gone to great lengths to ensure that the inferiority complex that he had caused became a domineering facet of her personality. He had been cruel, belittling, uncaring. Thus, most of Teletha’s life had been spent starved for love and affection. It had spurred her desire to treat her crew as family, and it had been a great boon to her spirits once they had started thinking of her as their ‘charmingly clumsy, beloved captain.’ Even with that, she had still yearned for the individual love of a significant other, at first believing that she had found it with Sousuke, but now knowing it was hers with Garon. She was his girl.

“Garon?” she asked softly.

’Lek?”

“Please, tell me again that you love me,” she pleaded. “Tell me that I’m not some freak.”

She could hear water sloshing from his end of the bath, knowing that he had almost not reigned in his instinct to come to her side due to her modesty. She cursed her demure nature. “Tessa?” he asked, his voice filled with concern. “I do love you, cyar’ika. What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she answered, choking back tears. “I just...I wasn’t loved as a child. My parents died when I was young, and my brother thought himself superior to other people, and hated that I had friends my age, hated that I didn’t care that I was smarter than them. He never abused me, but...”

“He chased your friends away, made you feel unloved and worthless, because of your ‘gift.’”

“Yes, that’s it, exactly. So I...”

“It’s okay. You don’t have to explain, Tel’ika.” The sheer love and warmth in his voice brought tears to her eyes. “I can’t undo your past, but as long as I’m around, you’ll never have to feel unloved again. Because there’s at least one dini’la Mando’ad out there who thinks you’re the most beautiful, charming, wonderful creature on the face of this planet.”

He certainly knew how to lay it on thick. She bit her lip and covered her mouth with her hand to keep herself from sobbing at his words. She knew that he meant every syllable. That’s why it was taking so much of her willpower to stop herself from crossing to his side of the pool and throwing herself into his arms. But damn her modesty, she still was too shy to allow herself to let him see her naked of her own free will.

She sighed and covered her closed eyes with the cloth. Between her inferiority complex and all the new emotions she was being swamped with, on top of Amalgam’s destruction of MITHRIL, she considered herself to be in quite a mess of a mental state. Perhaps she would see if the royal family had a psychiatrist available for her to seek the services of...

---

0755 hours, local time
MolMolian Royal Palace, Outside the Throne Room

 

After bathing, Teletha and Garon had dressed in their freshly-washed clothes, and had been treated to a light breakfast prior to their meeting with the king. Teletha, upon learning that Garon’s Mandalorian armor was with him in the duffel he’d managed to store aboard Clouseau’s M9 before they had escaped the sinking Danaan, had sent him off to the nearest empty room, insisting that he wear his armor to the meeting.

Shortly before the arranged meeting time, she heard footsteps coming toward her, and turned to see their source, taking an involuntary step back at the sight before her. The figure was clad from the neck down with a flexible battle dress uniform-like material into which plates of hardened armor were sewn, offering protection of the torso, arms, groin, and legs, with openings between the plates only large enough to allow full joint mobility. The underweave was a dark gray in coloration, the armor plates only a little bit lighter in color, with scratches, pits, and other signs of wear plainly visible on the plates. A dark brown, leather utility belt wrapped around the figure’s waist, the numerous pouches lining the belt doubtless filled with ammunition magazines, grenades, and other tools of destruction. Attached to the belt was a sturdy, semi-flexible half-skirt-like fabric that extended down to his knees and covered the sides and backs of his legs. A pistol holster was built into either side of the half-skirt, both of which were empty. The figure’s head was concealed by a curved, bucket-like helmet that featured an opaque T-shaped visor on the face and a small antenna poking up from the right side.

Despite knowing that the armored warrior before her was Garon, she couldn’t help the surge of intimidation that shot through her at the sight of his full kit, his beskar’gam. It didn’t help matters any that she could see a number of gadgets and devices built onto the top of either forearm plate, and had no idea what any of them did; she had no doubt that they were all lethal in some manner.

The armored soldier stopped several feet away from her and, recognizing the terror in her eyes, reached up and pulled the helmet up and off, revealing Garon’s visage beneath. He tucked the helmet under his right arm and his body leaned forward slightly, as though he were going to step forward and hug her, but some feeling he couldn’t identify made him pause. His mouth set itself into a thin line. “N’epara vu takisit,” he apologized quietly. “It always shocks people when I show up in my beskar’gam. Even in a convention full of people wearing cosplay armor, they can always tell the difference. They always know that mine’s real, that it’s really used to kill people, and it always sets them on edge.”

He fidgeted in place, and in that moment, he reminded her of the Null-class Advanced Recon Commandos from the Republic Commando novels, the ones who were no-frills combat machines in battle, and yet always seemed to resemble young children who desperately needed assurance whenever they had downtime around Sergeant Skirata.

Teletha rocked in place, her eyes widening, as she realized that she had been placed in the position of Sergeant Skirata in this instant. Here he was, all ‘cannoned up and ready to hike with an extreme prejudice’ as the saying went, and yet he was standing as though he were facing a military court-martial. He desperately wanted, needed, her approval of this part of him. After all that he’d done for her, accepting her with all her faults, she could do no less for him.

Stepping forward to close that distance that had formed between them, she tentatively raised her right hand and brushed her fingers over the armor plating over his stomach, tracing a long scar in the material that had been formed by a deflected 7.62mm rifle round, if she was viewing it correctly. Despite the many layers of material separating his nerve endings from her fingers, he flinched at her touch. It was almost cute.

Running through her memorized list of Mandalorian vocabulary to try to find a word or phrase to tell him that she approved, she was stopped by a flash of insight. Mandalorians were a people who put more focus on actions than words. What better way to demonstrate her growing familiarity with his culture than to respond in a way he would easily understand?

Reaching up with both hands, she gripped the edges of the plates covering his chest and gave them a hard tug, adjusting their fit and placement on his person. She then thumped her fist against the heavy plates, gave a satisfactory nod, then looked up at him and smiled.

The tension ran out of him like a deflating balloon. He didn’t exactly sigh in relief, but she knew that was how he felt. She giggled and hugged her armored mercenary, nearly knocking his helmet out of his grasp in her haste to get her arms around him. The armor plates beneath her ear and against her cheek were cold to the touch.

After a moment, she leaned back slightly, her arms still around him, and teasingly asked, “So, what’s a big bad Mando’ad doing wearing a skirt?”

He rolled his eyes and tapped the first two fingers of his gloved left hand on her forehead. “It’s called a kama,” he told her. “It’s a flexible material that protects my legs from shrapnel. This particular one is made of triple-layered Kevlar.”

She giggled and stepped back, then walked around him, inspecting his armor from all sides. “I suppose that I’m the only person who can get away with calling it a skirt, huh?” she asked, feeling the underweave material between the armor plates.

“No, everyone gets their one mistake in calling it a skirt,” he answered matter-of-factly, his left arm raised, an index finger aimed at the ceiling to make his point. “And you just used yours up. And you should know better anyway.”

Taking hold of his raised arm, she looked closely at the gauntlet and the gadgets installed on it. She recognized a slot into which one could insert a data disk, a magnetic compass, and a flip-up compartment that held a timepiece similar to her own submariner’s watch. What she didn’t understand, however, was the flared nozzle on the outside edge of the gauntlet that was connected by a flexible black hose to a small cylinder the size of a two-liter soda bottle hanging from the back of his belt. “Umm, what’s this?” she asked, pointing to the nozzle.

“It’s my defoliant projector.”

She gave him the same blank look that she’d given Melissa when she had witnessed the SRT pilot test an unmanned combat system by having two M9s perform the tango. “Defoliant projector,” she repeated. “You mean a flamethrower.”

He chuckled. “Of course. I mean, it’s not like I can wave my hands and say a bunch of funny Greek words to make fire, after all.”

She took a step back, staring at the flamethrower system apprehensively. “Isn’t it dangerous? What if someone shoots the line or the tank?”

“Took that into account,” he answered, patting her head reassuringly. “The tank and line are both puncture-resistant. It’s perfectly safe.”

A careful inspection of the nozzle revealed that the opening was slightly charred, a sign that he’d used it before, almost certainly in a combat situation. And any enemy with half a brain would’ve immediately targeted the flamethrower’s fuel source, so since he had not yet been flash-incinerated, clearly it was as safe as he suggested. “Well, if you say so,” she said, still a bit uncertain. She cleared her throat, then nodded to his other arm. “What do you have on that arm?”

“Emergency flares, a grappling hook and two hundred feet of line, adrenal stimulants, morphine, and a small dart launcher,” he answered, ticking off items on his fingers. “All the most important items within easy reach.”

She nodded, and hooked her right arm through his left, hugging his armored arm to her. “You’ll have to show me the full specs of your armor sometime, Ruus’alor,” she giggled, adding a sultry tone to her voice along with his rank.

Just then, the ornate door before them groaned open, and Shaiya stepped out into the hall they were standing in. She bowed slightly toward the couple. “Captain Testarossa, Sergeant Crayson, the king will see you now,” she said, then stood and motioned toward the opened door.

Teletha stepped away from Garon, mindful of the way her heart lurched when she did, and schooled her features to military neutrality. Once she had herself under control, she took a deep breath, then nodded to Shaiya. Over her shoulder, she said in a clipped, military voice, “Gunnery Sergeant.”

“Ma’am,” Garon responded immediately, lifting his helmet and setting it back in place over his head.

The pair then proceeded into the throne room, following along behind Shaiya. Garon marched a pace behind and one step to Teletha’s right, matching her cadence perfectly. With his helmet hiding his eyes from view, he didn’t feel one iota of guilt over watching his girlfriend as she followed Shaiya with a grace that one wouldn’t at first associate with anything militaristic. Not to mention that she had a backside that one wouldn’t get tired of watching in any particular hurry.

After a moment, he forced himself to make use of the features of his helmet, particularly the full three-hundred-sixty degree field of vision camera mounted into the central rim that wrapped completely around his helmet. The image recorded by the camera was displayed in a small screen in the upper right of his field of vision, above the inside of the T-shaped visor, which was made out of one-way Plexiglas. The image revealed the full scale of the throne room, a massive open area that could easily double as a ballroom, ringed with decorative pillars, and guards in white robes evenly spaced around the room armed with the unknown rifles from before as well as ceremonial scimitars. At first glance, the floor appeared to be a well-polished marble tile, but the consistency of the material as he walked over it felt off for marble. Contrary to standard arrangement, the throne dais was set in the center of the room, as opposed to against the far wall. Four thrones were present: the king’s, the crown prince’s, and two that appeared to be for the king’s daughters, the princesses of the kingdom.

Shaiya stopped fifteen feet away from the thrones. Teletha and Garon halted behind her in precise military style. Shaiya bowed. “Your Majesty, I present to you Captain Teletha Testarossa, of MITHRIL, and her subordinate, Sergeant Garon Crayson.”

Neither bothered to correct her on his rank. In perfect synchronization, they saluted the king. “Sir, Captain Teletha Testarossa, commanding officer TDD-1 Tuatha de Danaan, MITHRIL West Pacific Fleet,” she snapped off, the vast space of the room absorbing the volume of her words.

The king raised his hand, and the pair dropped their salutes. The king was a large man, built like a brick outhouse. Despite this, he exuded an aura of benevolence and generosity, a kindness that went a long way toward ensuring the prosperity of his country. “I regret the circumstances which have brought the two of you here, but you are welcomed here at MolMol regardless,” he said. “You are welcome to remain here as long as you need to, and we will put out careful statements to let other survivors of MITHRIL know that they have a safe haven here.”

“Your Majesty, I must protest,” Teletha said. “Such actions would place your kingdom at risk of reprisals from Amalgam.”

He smiled kindly to the young woman. “We remember our friends, Captain,” he told her. “MITHRIL has proven itself to be a friend of our country, and we will in turn repay that friendship when your organization most needs its friends. If you fear the devastation that would be wrought by Amalgam’s Codarl-type Arm Slaves, rest assured that we have our own functional LAMBDA Driver.”

Teletha couldn’t stop the shocked expression from appearing on her face. There were potentially dozens of reasons why this small island kingdom would possess a LAMBDA Driver-equipped Arm Slave, ranging from industrial espionage to former association with Amalgam. But the simplest explanation was the most likely. She looked around the room, assessing whether or not it was a safe place to discuss confidential matters.

The king took notice of her appraising glance. “You need not fear security leaks, Captain Testarossa,” he said. “There are none in this entire world more trustworthy than the occupants of this room. You may speak your mind freely here without fear of the enemy learning what is said.”

Still hesitant, she looked down for a moment, then looked toward Garon. His helmet turned just a fraction of an inch toward her, but she caught the motion, offering her his support, no matter the outcome. She nodded slowly, then turned her attention back to the king. “Am I to understand, then, that you have one or more Whispered here, and have utilized their particular knowledge?”

“Indeed we do, Captain. But that is a discussion for another time. For now, it is enough that introductions have been made and that we are all on the same page in the placement of our allegiances. Once you are fully settled-in, and contact has been made with other survivors of MITHRIL, we can begin discussing our arsenal and preparations for retaliating against Amalgam.”

On cue, Shaiya stepped forward again, bowing to the king, then turning to Teletha and Garon. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll take you to the quarters you are welcome to use for the duration of your stay.”

“Of course,” Teletha answered, then turned to the king and bowed. “I humbly thank you for your generosity, Your Majesty. Regrettably, all I can give in return is our word that we will do everything in our power to see that what Amalgam has done to us is not repeated in your land.”

He smiled and inclined his head toward her. “That is all that I ask, Madam Captain.”

With that, Teletha and Garon turned to follow Shaiya out of the throne room, the Mandalorian reaching up and removing his helmet once they had left, as a professional courtesy to their hosts. The dreadlocked guard led them back along the corridors they had traveled from the open-air bath, passing white-robed palace guards at regular intervals, and in pairs on patrol. Teletha glanced at one passing group of guards, taking notice of the fact that the fire selector switches of the rifles were set to three-round burst. These people were obviously not playing games when it came to security. They knew what was at stake by giving their support to the scattered remnants of MITHRIL; they were prepared for an attack by Amalgam to come at any time.

“I’m curious as to the nature of your armed forces,” Teletha said, making an attempt at small talk. “I notice that the guards we see patrolling the halls all wear robes instead of armor, and then there are those such as Miss Nealla and yourself, who wear suits.”

“Our armed forces fall under three general categories,” Shaiya answered as they turned a corner and entered the living area. “First is our standing army, such as the soldiers that escorted the two of you to the palace. Then there are the palace guards, who wear these robes over their armor. The guards are rotated amongst the army for three-month duty tours to ensure that they maintain their combat edge; it’s all very monotonous and dull information which I’m sure wouldn’t interest you at all.”

Teletha smiled faintly and shook her head. “Actually, I am interested, but it can wait for another time.”

“Tessa has an insatiable curious nature,” Garon explained, drawing a blush from his girlfriend. “It’s what initially drew her to me, after all.”

Shaiya looked back over her shoulder, taking in Garon’s armored form at a glance. “Yes, I can see what originally caught your lady’s attention,” she said with a smile. “A hint of the interesting and unusual to catch her eye to make your courting much easier.”

The Mandalorian chuckled. “Something like that.”

Teletha smoothly altered her speed to let him come up alongside her, then slipped her hand into his free hand and threaded their fingers together, giving his hand a gentle squeeze. “Not quite as easy as it sounds, considering that we served on a submarine and that he’s my subordinate.”

“So you flaunt regulations.” The tone of Shaiya’s voice prevented it from being an accusation.

“In any other military, perhaps,” Teletha answered. It was still an odd image, matching her straight-edge tone and serious expression with how she and Garon were holding hands. “Though fraternization between officers and enlisted personnel is frowned upon in MITHRIL, there are no explicit regulations forbidding such. And it’s a moot point, regardless, considering the current state of MITHRIL.”

“A good point, Captain Testarossa.” She cleared her throat. “In any event, those of us you see wearing suits are not of the regular armed forces. We are the personal bodyguards of the royal family, and it is our sworn duty to protect the members of the royal family no matter the cost. We’re highly skilled, and take great pride in our work.”

Vo’verde,” Garon said, nodding sagely. At Teletha’s confused look, knowing that she didn’t recognize the word, he explained, “Great thing about Mando’a is that you can combine words to form a phrase. Brother warriors.”

She nodded in understanding. “Ah, vo’verde.”

Shaiya smiled. “The two of you certainly make an interesting couple,” she said. The group came to a stop before a closed door, which the elite guard nodded toward. “This will be your suite. A seating area, bedroom, small bath, and kitchenette. Sergeant, your bag has already been brought here. I’ll leave you two to settle in, then.” With one last bow, Shaiya turned and headed back in the direction they had come.

“Home sweet home, then, eh?” Garon asked, pushing the door open and holding it for Teletha to proceed him.

She smiled and stepped into the room, taking in the lay of it in a swift glance. The room, like the rest of the palace and the entire island, was decorated in a mix of Middle Eastern and Indian style, faintly illuminated by the small amounts of sunlight streaming in through the large, north-facing picture window directly across from the door. To the left, from the doorway, was another door leading to the small bathroom. The kitchenette was situated beside the bathroom, and to the right of the main door, a dozen feet away to allow more room for the seating area, was the door to the bedroom.

Teletha’s brow furrowed as she moved toward the bedroom. Behind her, Garon set his helmet on an unoccupied space on the entertainment center, burning a few seconds to tweak the way it was facing out into the room. After doing so, he heard her let out a groan, and moved toward her to see what the problem was. “What is it, cyar’ika?” he asked, laying his right hand across the back of her neck.

She flinched just slightly at his touch, cursing that he’d discovered her most ticklish spot so quickly. Then she nodded her head into the bedroom. “They seem to have made the assumption that we’ve been together much longer than we really have.”

He followed her gaze, and then let out a sigh. “Seems that way.”

Their living quarters only had one bedroom, in which there was only one bed.

---

January 22, 1132 hours, Japan Standard Time
Tama, Tokyo, Japan
Tama City Central Hospital, 3 rd Floor, Intensive Care Unit, Room 315

 

The third day following Amalgam’s attack on Tokyo, Kyoko was—from a medical standpoint—recovering at an exceptional rate. Shrapnel from the claymore mine had perforated her kidney, which had necessitated the organ’s removal. There had also been minor damage to her stomach and right lung, which was the cause for her prolonged stay in the hospital under observation until medical experts could be sure that she would suffer no further ill effects from her traumatic experience.

From an emotional standpoint, she was still suffering greatly. Unknown forces had orchestrated a devastating attack on Tokyo for the explicit purpose of kidnapping her closest friend, Kaname. That kidnapping had succeeded, despite the best efforts of Sousuke to protect her, and at the cost of a grievous injury to her other friend. Further, Sousuke had disappeared from the hospital overnight, which could only lead her to believe that he had succumbed to his wounds.

It was only happenstance that many of their old classmates had taken that time to visit Kyoko, among them Shinji, Onodera, Mizuki Inaba, Atsunobu Hayashimizu, Ren Mikihara, and Issei Tsubaki. They had been recounting stories of their time at Jindai High School, hoping to raise Kyoko’s spirits, when the door had opened one more time, drawing all of their attention to it.

In the doorway, leaning heavily on a cane in his right hand, was Sousuke Sagara.

The room fell deathly quiet. As he entered the room, the harsh tapping of the cane on the tiled floor sounded like the beat of the drum at a public hanging. Sousuke stopped at the foot of the bed, his gaze drifting over the bandaged and wire-connected form of his and Kaname’s closest friend. The sight of the sorrow in his eyes, along with the hard clench of his jaw, sobered the former students.

“It’s fortunate that all of our closest friends are here,” he said quietly, staring at the foot of the bed. “I’ll only need to say this once.”

“Sousuke...” Shinji whispered, his eyes glued to the cane his friend and fellow Arm Slave enthusiast leaned on.

“It is only temporary,” he assured the bespectacled young man. “Until my injuries are fully healed. Please, allow me to speak without interruption.”

No words passed in the next few moments. Hayashimizu glanced around, then nodded to the troubled young man. “Please continue, Sagara.”

Sousuke’s head lowered further. “Thank you, sir. As you all witnessed, I was the pilot of the white Arm Slave that appeared at the school three days ago. No doubt you have all come to the conclusion that I am more than what I have led you to believe over the years. You will now hear the full and absolute truth.”

No one said anything. He took a deep breath.

“I am Sergeant Major Sousuke Sagara, Arm Slave pilot and special response soldier for a mercenary unit dedicated to anti-terrorist activity and disrupting major plots to create war and global havoc. I was first assigned four years ago to protect Kaname Chidori from an organization called Amalgam who sought to kidnap her for their own means. Because of this group, two school field trips were disrupted by agents of theirs. They orchestrated the attack on Tokyo to draw us back. We had already escaped from the area. We returned, defeated their main force...”

“Then Tokiwa was caught in that explosion,” Tsubaki growled. “It wasn’t even intended for her. Collateral damage, you’d call it.”

“And that...that demon Arm Slave, it destroyed your unit,” Shinji said quietly. “Those soldiers and robots, they were going to kill you.”

“And Miss Chidori left with them, so that they would spare you,” Hayashimizu concluded.

Bereft of words, Sousuke could only nod in confirmation to their words. “I’m sorry... for everything.”

Onodera’s eye twitched. “I’m sorry?” he spat back. “I’m sorry? People have died, Kaname was kidnapped, and look at Kyoko!” His voice rising with his anger, the incensed youth pointed a finger at the injured girl. “That bomb blew up on her because she got caught up in your bullshit! They had to take her kidney out, Sagara. They had to take out her kidney! And all you can say to her is I’m sorry!?”

“Ono-D, stop, please,” Kyoko said, her voice barely above a whisper. “Please, don’t make things any worse than they are. Yes, I got hurt, but I’ll heal. What about Kaname? Look at Sousuke. Can’t you see how he feels? He loves her, and she was taken from him. Look at him, Ono-D. Can’t you see he’s crying?”

The gathered friends leaned in to inspect his appearance, and even Sousuke himself reached up his free hand to touch his face, and then turned a confused expression to Kyoko when he found his fingers to be dry afterwards.

She gave him a warm smile. “I don’t mean literally, Sousuke,” she said. “You’re crying on the inside, because they took her away from you. I can hear it from here. I don’t blame you for what happened to me, Sousuke. It’s not your fault. You did everything right to save all of us.”

Silence filled the room following her statement, but it was not the dark, spiteful silence from before.

“What are they going to do with Miss Kaname?” Ren asked. “Will they try to get money for her?”

Sousuke shook his head slowly. “There won’t be any ransom. They won’t ask for money, which is regrettable because I could easily pay any ransom with the pay I have accrued over the years. I don’t have any information on what they want. What I do have are a particular set of skills, skills that I have acquired over a lifetime of surviving in one battlefield after another. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like them. I will look for her. I will find her.”

He turned to leave, stopping at the doorway, and looked back at the civilians that he called his friends, perhaps for the last time.

“And I will kill them.”

 

Chapter Text

“The destruction of the enemy’s force is only a means to an end, a secondary matter.”
- Carl von Clausewitz

 

Arms Race

 

January 24, 2115 hours, local time (January 25, 0215 hours, Greenwich Mean Time)
Queens, New York City, United States of America
Apartment Building, 3 rd Floor, Interior Hallway

 

Sousuke Sagara was a man on a mission.

It was by no means a simple mission. Rescue Kaname Chidori, kill Leonard Testarossa, destroy Amalgam, live happily ever after. Mostly in that order. At the very outset, he could not complete his mission without first the initial objective of finding where Leonard was keeping Kaname. Someone, somewhere in Amalgam had access to that information. Therefore, to get hold of that information, he must logically start by breaking into the system at the lowest rung on the hierarchical/information ladder to which he had access, acquire information which would lead him to the next rung up the ladder, and so on and so forth. The fact that he would be dismantling Amalgam in the process was merely a pleasant bonus.

As it stood, the only rung he had access to was a mercenary named Kurama. He had encountered the man before, prior to the time that he had joined MITHRIL, and that had allowed him to identify the man as amongst the terrorists that had been hired to act in the hostage event at Jindai High. He would have a description and maybe a name of those who had hired him. Barring that, he had his bank account numbers, and had been paid by Amalgam for the Tokyo event. That kind of electronic trail could easily be traced.

Despite the collapse of MITHRIL, codename ‘Wraith’ still had all her contacts in the international intelligence community. Having thrown in her lot with Sousuke, feeling she still owed a debt to the sergeant’s girlfriend for having saved her life so many years ago, she had culled her contacts and swiftly discovered that Kurama had immediately taken another task from Amalgam. The mercenary was clearly unaware of the threat presented by a bound and determined Sousuke Sagara out for blood. That lack of foresight would prove a fatal shortcoming.

Kurama’s task was to serve as the proverbial Sword of Damocles, the one who Amalgam had assigned to be ready to kill Kaname’s father and sister should she try to escape Leonard’s clutches by her own devices. Taking Kurama out of the picture would kill two birds with one stone: it would provide Sousuke with the information he needed to continue his search, and it would remove the immediate threat to Kaname’s family. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Amalgam would simply put another man on the job, but the pressure would be abated, for a time.

This was the purpose behind Sousuke lurking in the darkened hallway of a seedy apartment building on the bad side of New York. Power had been cut to the building thanks to a surviving operative of the Americas/Atlantic branch of MITHRIL who had complete, albeit discreet, control of the New York City power grid. A brief description of what they needed was given, and the operative had had his programs issue a false statement to the buildings’ occupants concerning a routine power grid maintenance, and the power had thus been disconnected without raising a fuss or alarm.

Equipped with black fatigues underneath Dragon Skin body armor, night vision goggles, his MP7A1, and a Mossberg Model 500 “Persuader” shotgun chambered for 20-gauge deer slug, Sousuke crept through the dark hallway like the living embodiment of the former Intelligence agent providing overwatch from a nearby building. When she’d questioned his heavy loadout, he’d given her a tired look, prompting her to mutter something about being loaded for bear and head for her lookout spot.

He’d not had any encounters with enemy forces, but he wasn’t foolish enough to assume that Kurama was working alone. There were doubtless going to be enemy units, and they were what the Persuader was for. Any associates of Kurama’s were expendable; he was the only one who needed to be kept alive.

You’re going to need me, a dark voice whispered in the back of his mind. His own voice. You’ve gone soft. You won’t be able to save her on your own. You need me.

Scowling, Sousuke turned in a slow circle as he advanced, scanning his surroundings for any potential threats. For enemies hiding in ambush, or traps that had been set to guard against attack. All were lacking. Why do I suddenly find myself assailed by voices? He wondered. Perhaps the stress has caused me to develop multiple personality disorder.

You’re not nuts, Sagara, the voice answered. I’ve always been here, ever since Afghanistan. You never heard from me because you haven’t needed me since then. But you do, now. You won’t be able to save your precious girlie without me.

Of course. This voice, this ‘dark’ him, was Kashim, the collection of his darker, baser instincts that had kept him alive in Afghanistan, that he had since gone to considerable lengths to lock away. Kashim was no one he wanted anyone who he considered as a friend to see.

Not true. I have succeeded in numerous search and res—

Oh, you’ll probably succeed, in this I have no doubt. But you’ll be a different man for the evil things you’ll have to do. Think about it. Kurama’s not going to tell you what you want to know just because you asked him nicely. Do you really think that you’ll be able to torture countless people to get what you want without being changed by it? If the metaphor says that you get blood on your hands by killing in battle, what you’ll be doing is tantamount to bathing in it. And what would dear, innocent ‘Angel’ think of that?

Kashim was right, of course, regardless of how much Sousuke hated to admit it. He could do many things by sheer-cussed willpower and determination, but even he could not go through with everything he would have to do to rescue Kaname and not become jaded, or worse, for it. He knew her well enough to know that she would remain supportive of him, but things between them would never be able to be the same.

He sneered at the implications of what he would have to do, what steps he would have to take, in order to preserve his mental stability for her. Succumb to multiple personality disorder, unchain Kashim, let him run loose on a spree of chaos and destruction...

Cool your jets there, Freud, Kashim interrupted, obviously privy to his thoughts. Remember, I’m part of you, so I want the same thing you do. That little ratshit Leonard’s going to die for taking our girl from us. I’m saving up the majority of my evil for him.

You’re not reassuring me.

Yeah, I imagine not. But the bottom line is that I can and will tap your discretion in this endeavor. Let me out of this cage and I’ll take over when it’s time to do the naughty deeds, that way you can keep your sanity or innocence or whatever for Angel.

Were it so easy.

What, you think Wraith or anyone wouldn’t know it wasn’t you? First of all, do you really think that even a casual observer wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between ‘Sousuke’ and ‘Kashim’? Second, do you think Wraith even gives a shit?

Sousuke had no answer to that, and Kurama’s apartment was nearing. This ‘discussion’ needed to end so he could focus on the task at hand. You raise valid points. If you will keep strictly to your end of the bargain, I will agree to ‘unleash’ you.

Fair enough, Sergeant. I’ll leave you be so you can go hunting. Oh, and do me a favor. Shoot Kurama, somewhere painful but nonlethal. It’ll make my task a lot simpler. And with that, the voice of Kashim receded to the depths of his mind.

He came to a halt outside of room 327, Kurama’s room. The small earbud in his right ear buzzed, followed by Wraith’s voice. “Thermal scans show ten bodies in the rooms, three in the first room.” She’d stopped using the electronic voice modifier after the Tokyo incident. “Remember, we want Kurama alive. Check your fire.”

In lieu of responding verbally and potentially giving himself away to any attentive enemies, he looked toward Wraith’s position and tapped two fingers of his left hand to his brow. She said nothing in response, and he made a final equipment check: partially racking the slide of the Persuader to ensure its first slug was loaded in the chamber, tapping the placed breaching charges, flashbang, and fragmentation grenades strapped to his tactical vest, and then performing a similar ammunition check on the MP7. Satisfied that all his equipment was in place, he reached out and quietly tested the doorknob to see if it was locked.

It wasn’t.

Sousuke shook his head. Another foolish, damning mistake on Kurama’s part. Letting the shotgun dangle by its strap, he pulled a flashbang grenade from his combat harness and silently removed the pin, holding the safety spoon in place under his palm. These apartments didn’t have an entry hall the way that the apartments that he was used to in Japan did, and that would play to his advantage.

He took hold of the doorknob with his left hand, turning it in readiness to open the door. Raising the grenade in his other hand, he rapped on the door to draw the enemies’ attention toward the door, then shifted his grip on the grenade to let the spoon fly off, cracked the door just enough to toss in the grenade, then slammed the door shut again.

As the seconds ticked away and he readied the Persuader, he could feel his blood pulsing in his veins as his body prepared itself for combat, pounding in time with one of the hard metal songs that Kurz liked to listen to on missions. Dragonforce, Fury of the Storm, he thought, identifying the song in his head. He had heard Kurz play it before. So be it. Kurz is probably dead, so I’ll carry on his musical legacy.

The flashbang went off with a muffled thump. As soon as he heard it, he kicked open the door, sending the cheap wooden fixture flying off its hinges. The weight and momentum of the flying door tripped up the armed mercenary that was standing in the entryway, bowed over and clutching at ears and eyes. Sousuke only managed to snap off a quick shot from the Persuader before the mercenary fell, clipping the figure with a scream and blood spray.

He didn’t have time to turn and dispatch the wounded enemy; there were still two more in the room. His eyes darted from one to the other as he stepped over the ruined door, ruling them both out as being Kurama in the space it took for him to level the Persuader with the nearest of them and fire. The entry wound of the deer slug was largely invisible, but the mercenary’s back exploded, spraying blood across the floor and walls. This drew the second mercenary’s attention for a fraction of a second, long enough for Sousuke to shift his aim and repeat the process.

Two targets coming out of the room to your left,” Wraith warned.

Spinning toward the door, he leveled the shotgun as the first man stepped through. In the instant it took the enemy to line up his pistol, Sousuke had already placed him in the expendable category and squeezed the trigger. The kinetic force of the shot knocked the dead man back into the one behind him.

The second mercenary, who was in fact a woman, fell under the dead weight, covered in blood and bits of bone and organs, struggling to shove the corpse aside. She freed her weapon, then looked up to find herself staring down the barrel of a Mossberg 500 Persuader. Wisely, she dropped her pistol, but before she could raise her hands in surrender, Sousuke neatly evaporated her head with a shot from that close range.

Bonus brutality points,” Wraith quipped humorlessly. “Two more coming from the kitchen. Last three are holed up in the bedroom. Kurama’s probably with them, but no guarantees.”

Halfway through Wraith’s update, Sousuke had already fed the last shell in the shotgun into the first enemy, a long-haired man who could not possibly have been Kurama. The second had managed to get off a shot, but had failed to notice the tactical body armor the sergeant was wearing, which easily stopped the 9mm round. He let the expended Persuader drop and hang by its sling rather than spend time reloading it, drawing the MP7 from the holster on his right hip. Sparing barely a glance to the laser-engraved initials in the butt-stock, he lined up the personal defense weapon and eliminated the threat, execution-style.

Efficient,” Wraith said. “Any positive IDs?”

Sousuke took a moment to double-check the bodies, even though he had already visually rejected them as the target, even though the one he’d just shot in the face really didn’t have that much of a face left to identify. “Negative,” he answered. “He must be one of the last three.”

Good hunting.”

Keeping the MP7 out as his primary weapon, he crept down the hallway and placed his ear to the door where Wraith had indicated the last three were holed up. He listened as one of the men inside ordered the other two around; he recognized the one giving orders as Kurama. One of the other two men mentioned that the door was locked. That saved him the trouble of checking and giving himself away to them, but it wouldn’t prove the impediment they were hoping it would. Sousuke reached into his gear and removed a breaching charge, a coiled length of thermite detcord rigged to a remote, then hung the coil on the doorknob, turned his back toward it, and triggered the device.

The door exploded inward, spraying the room beyond with jagged wooden shrapnel. Sousuke charged around the corner, his personal defense weapon up and sighting in on the first target under his sight. The man was too tall to be Kurama, and so got a bullet in the head for his troubles. The center man was Kurama, so he flicked his glance to the man on the far left, but for no reason; he was no threat with a spear-like piece of wood driven through his throat.

Sousuke dove across the overturned couch that Kurama had been using for cover, tackling the mercenary to the floor and seating himself on his chest. He drew back his right hand, still holding the MP7, and slammed the butt of his hand into the man’s face twice, breaking his nose on the first and sending him into unconsciousness on the second.

Have you got him?”

“Affirmative.”

Understood. Get him ready to go, and I’ll bring the transport.”

There were no more words that needed to be said. Sousuke holstered the MP7, then rolled Kurama over and bound his hands together with flexicuffs, making sure that they were on extra tight and uncomfortable. Then he grabbed the bindings between his wrists and dragged Kurama out of the room by them, down the hallway, and into the main room. Halfway there, he felt Kurama’s left shoulder dislocate, but didn’t stop to treat him or let up his pace. The man would probably be screaming bloody murder if he were conscious.

Dropping the bound, unconscious mercenary onto the floor of the main room, Sousuke sat down on the couch that faced the front door, able to watch the door and Kurama from his position, and waited for Wraith to arrive, methodically reloading the Mossberg Persuader. After a few moments, he became aware of the sound of heavy, labored breathing over the sounds of the city. Raising the Persuader and racking the slide, he stood and followed the sound, stepping over the bodies of the mercenaries he’d killed.

The source of the sound was the enemy he’d only wounded on his entry. The man had crawled under the ruined door and had been doing an admirable job of trying to play dead. As Sousuke neared, the very vision of Death itself, the man struggled to crawl back away from him. “N-No... please...”

Sousuke regarded him carefully. The wound probably wasn’t fatal, despite being debilitatingly painful. It would be unwise to let him live; he could easily turn right around and alert his superiors that Sousuke was out for information, and if that knowledge got back to Amalgam, then Leonard could easily take Kaname and disappear down some dark, deep hole that he’d never find. It was true that MITHRIL never enforced the Geneva convention regarding unarmed, surrendering enemy combatants, but still...

I’ll handle this, Kashim whispered from the back of his mind, almost soothingly, and Sousuke felt his body begin to move of its own accord as his awareness faded to nothingness.

---

January 24, 1436 hours, local time (January 25, 0236 hours, Greenwich Mean Time)
Island Republic of MolMol
Secure Hangar, Spirit of Fire Naval Air Base

 

Shaiya had brought Teletha and Garon to MolMol’s main military base, serving as an impromptu tour guide as they crossed the base, heading toward the secure hangar where all of the most secretive and experimental new technology was kept. Along the way, they passed countless soldiers, most wearing the boxy armor; as well as light reconnaissance vehicles that resembled racing trucks with armored frames and mounted tri-barreled .50-caliber machine guns, and tanks that used armored tread pods instead of traditional tread designs. The vehicles all sported the paint schemes standard to a desert environment.

“You know, I hate to be the fly in the ointment,” Garon had said upon seeing the reconnaissance vehicles, “but is there a reason why your entire army looks like it rolled right out of Halo 3?”

Teletha had given him a confused look at this, prompting him to leave himself a reminder to introduce the poor deprived girl to the world of video games. Shaiya had given him an amused smile and explained, “The official reason is convergent evolution. The true reason is that some years ago, a young woman came to our land with a most peculiar injury, which we assisted her in recovering from. In return for our hospitality, she gave us the designs for the armor, arms, and vehicles we use in our army.”

“Huh.” Garon rubbed his chin thoughtfully. His tone and posture suggested that he was giving the matter serious consideration. “I wonder if that means that the Halo series is a record of future events, and this girl came back in time somehow and handed over the designs in order to stave off the Covenant apocalypse... Maybe magic is also real, and part of her grand scheme is to reveal the existence of magic to the world...”

Shaiya’s step faltered only marginally, but it went unnoticed by her guests; Garon was too busy being amused by Teletha’s reaction, which was to facepalm and quietly wonder what she had gotten herself into by dating him. He reached over and brushed his fingers across the back of her neck, causing a full-body twitch followed by a sour look and a backhanded swat across his chest. After that, her sour expression swiftly evaporated, and she seized his arm in both of hers, smiling like a young woman in love without a care in the world.

“You two are adorable,” Shaiya said as she presented an ID badge to the guards on duty at the secure hangar. “You should visit the Todai ruins while you’re here.”

“Todai ruins?” Teletha asked.

Shaiya leaned forward to stare into a retinal scanner as she explained, “Todai was once the capital of a larger landmass that included MolMol and the neighboring Pararakelse Island. Approximately one thousand years ago, a massive earthquake split the islands into the way they are today, destroying much of Todai in the process. The remains of the city are in the southwest corner of the island.”

The personnel door slid open, and she led them inside, continuing her tale, “Our legends from the ancient times say that if two people who are in love approach the altar within the ruins on the night of the red moon, they’ll live happily ever after.” She watched as Teletha blushed and Garon fidgeted, then smiled and added, “You know, I think there’s going to be a red moon in the next few days.”

To the elite guardian’s surprise, Teletha straightened her back, squeezed Garon’s arm, and said, “That sounds like a good idea for a date, don’t you think, cyar’ika?” The diminutive captain had taken it as a challenge. That meant trouble.

The Mandalorian couldn’t help but grin as he leaned over and kissed her cheek. “We’ll have to look into that.”

Smiling, the young Whispered woman slipped her hand into her boyfriend’s, then habitually reached for her absent ponytail. Though assured that no MolMolian citizen would give away their presence, the possibility that Amalgam could detect them via satellite observation was a very dangerous threat, leading Teletha to let her hair out of the braid she usually wore it in, allowing it to fall down to its full, mid-back wavy length. Unable to resist wearing some sort of restraining device, she’d continued wearing the ribbon that she usually wore at the back of her head. She had considered dying away her unique hair color as well, but she wasn’t too keen on doing so, and Garon wasn’t encouraging her to do so, either.

Shaiya led the couple through the security foyer and a number of attached offices, then out into the hangar proper. The space within was far larger than external appearance would suggest; this was due to MolMol’s particular construction style and materials, the elite bodyguard had explained. The first thing within sight was a single-seat close air support gunship powered by a pair of ducted turbofan engines mounted to wing pylons, beneath which were slung a trio of rockets and dual auto-cannons on each pylon, as well as another auto-cannon beneath the fuselage. Both Garon and Teletha took interest in it, for entirely different reasons.

“Rotary turbofan powerplant?” Teletha asked, staring at the vehicle. “MITHRIL hadn’t even achieved a theoretical rotorfan for large scale applications, but to see here a functional combat frame...”

Garon leaned forward and placed his hand against the cockpit fuselage of the craft, tilting his head to one side and squinting hard at it. “This looks like it had design elements inspired from the Hornet, which shouldn’t really come as a surprise to me, considering you’ve got Warthogs and Scorpions rolling around.”

Shaiya smiled faintly, then nodded to the pair. “We only recently managed to successfully reverse-engineer the rotary turbofan design from the designs we were given,” she explained. “Being as it’s a revolutionary new propulsion system, we’re keeping these two XAV-12 Sparrowhawk prototypes under wraps. We’re prepared to begin mass-production once we’ve completed our operational tests to our satisfaction.”

Nodding, Garon shoved against the underslung autocannons. The weapon shifted only marginally, a good indication of its flexibility; it could move and shift, but it wouldn’t unseat from its housing. “What caliber do you have in the guns?” he asked.

“Thirty millimeter depleted uranium penetrator.”

Teletha paled slightly. Though horrendously effective at penetrating armor, which was its primary purpose, depleted uranium ammunition was considered by some to be only one step removed from a weapon of mass destruction due to the extreme radiological effects on humans attributable to depleted uranium exposure. She had never stored depleted uranium ammunition aboard the Tuatha de Danaan, but she could understand the MolMolians’ decision to use it.

Across the hangar from the Sparrowhawks were a number of Arm Slaves of a design that the two MITHRIL operatives had never seen. It was a bulkier design than the M9E Gernsback that MITHRIL operated, somewhat reminiscent of a marriage of the designs of the M9E and the M6A3 Dark Bushnell operated by the US Navy SEALs.

It featured the same reverse-knee configuration of third-generation Arm Slaves and spiked armor protrusions on the knees, elbows, and ankles, along with a bulky core that contained heavy armor for the pilot and high-output thrusters. The head unit was designed as a blunt-tipped cone lying on its side, with a horizontal sensor unit that could slide to view a one-hundred eighty degree area.

Leading the couple toward the desert-camouflaged Arm Slave, Shaiya raised her hand toward it. “This is our standard army Arm Slave, the Model 04 ALICIA. Titanium-A armor plating, palladium reactor, high-performance directional vectoring thrusters mounted at shoulders, hips, heels, and back for maximum maneuverability. Weapon hardpoints on hands, shoulders, and hips. Integral twenty-millimeter cannons on the core, monomolecular cutter on the rear waist, and the armor spikes you see are hardened and usable as weapons.”

“Huh, not very often you see thrusters on an Arm Slave,” Garon remarked. “Mobility on these things must be insane.”

“Quite the impressive beast,” Teletha agreed as she stared up into the inactive sensor, feeling a sense of quiet menace in the unit’s frame. She was thankful that his unit and the nation that built it was not amongst their enemies. “I’m to understand that these units have LAMBDA Driver capabilities?”

“Yes, the mass-production ALICIA type features a lesser form of the LAMBDA device that has only the defensive and LAMBDA-penetrating features. Our elite HOGIRE model features a fully-functional LAMBDA device, similar to the one employed on your own Arbalest unit.”

Teletha felt a cold shiver work through her body; she already knew that MolMol was aware of MITHRIL’s existence, but it came as a surprise to learn that the island kingdom knew about their highly classified Arm Slave. She felt Garon’s hand close on her shoulder in a reassuring grip, and she reached up to lay her hand over his. She knew he could sense her anxiety over the extent of MolMol’s knowledge, and she could just as easily read his unspoken message: MITHRIL and MolMol were allies now, united against a common enemy, and such data sharing was a necessity.

It was sobering how close they had grown in so short a time, that they could now communicate so easily with mere touches. Insight struck her suddenly, her eyes widening as the implications of what might have occurred came to her. When her Whispered abilities had awakened, there was no one with whom she had a close enough emotional bond to forge a permanent resonance. Had she unknowingly forged that bond with Garon?

“Earth to Tessa,” the object of her thoughts said, waving his hand before her face.

She snapped out of her reverie, blinking several times and focusing on his smirking face. She blushed, and twisted a strand of hair around her fingers. “Sorry, I was thinking about something. I’ll talk to you about it later.”

Shaiya smiled knowingly at the pair, then turned toward the rear of the hangar as she heard a commotion coming from the entrance to the underground research facility. What she saw prompted her to place her left hand across her waist and bow in the typical MolMolian fashion. “Your Ladyship.”

Teletha and Garon turned in the direction that she was facing to find the elite guard who had met them on the beach, as well as a young woman who could have been her twin; obviously the princess who she was assigned to guard. The princess, contrary to her body double, had a perpetually-happy expression and wore an outfit similar to the ones worn by Jindai students. Bouncing from foot to foot in a decidedly non-regal manner, her jubilant pace matched by her bodyguard’s measured stride, the princess came toward the group and stopped a short distance from them.

“Princess,” Nealla said, gesturing gracefully toward the couple, “may I present Captain Teletha Testarossa and Gunnery Sergeant Garon Crayson, of MITHRIL. Testarossa-taichou, Crayson-gunsou, I introduce Her Ladyship, princess of this kingdom, Kaolla Su.”

Teletha felt a familiar twinge in the back of her mind as she bowed to the princess, and the contemplative look she saw appear on the girl’s face indicated she felt it as well. There was no doubt that the princess was Whispered, the source of MolMol’s advanced technology. She glanced to the side to see that Garon had not bowed, then frowned and smacked his stomach with the back of her hand. Deciding to test her earlier resonance theory, she thought, Bow to her, Garon, she’s a princess, and watched as he twitched and looked at her funny, but complied and bowed.

So it seems I have resonated with him, she thought, then said to Kaolla, “It is my honor to have your acquaintance, Kaolla-hime.”

“You’re...” The tanned princess stared at Teletha with a hesitancy of voice and expression that the two bodyguards were unfamiliar with. “You’re like me... You... Do you hear them too?”

Slowly, Teletha came upright, tapping Garon on the shoulder to let him know he could rise as well. She looked the other girl square in the eyes. “Yes, I am the same as you.”

A technician approached the gathered group. “Princess, the item you requested has arrived.”

Kaolla’s happy attitude returned so fast that you’d have missed it if you blinked, tampered by the resolute seriousness of a professional at work. “Excellent,” she said, the grin of a mad scientist adorning her youthful features. “Bring it in and let’s begin work immediately.”

The technician bowed and said, “Right away, Your Ladyship.” He signaled behind him, and the far hangar doors ground open, admitting a flatbed cargo truck bearing an irregular cargo that appeared to be Arm Slave parts covered by a green tarp.

Garon felt a sense of unease grow in him as the truck neared. He reached out and laid his hand on Teletha’s shoulder, pulling her gently against his side. She picked up on it as well, taking comfort in his strong arm around her shoulders as she gripped the fabric of his shirt.

“Get that tarp clear, bring over the forklifts!”

A number of technicians climbed onto the cargo truck’s bed and disconnected the ropes holding the tarp in place, then dragged the covering off, revealing the ravaged remains of the ARX-7A Arbalest.

“No!” Teletha shrieked as she recognized the destroyed Arm Slave. Her knees buckled, only Garon’s arms around her keeping her from falling to the floor as she tightly gripped his arms, burying her face in his chest and sobbing with great, wracking sobs.

All pretense at propriety abandoned, Garon hugged Teletha fiercely and turned a sharp glare to the three MolMolians. Shaiya and Nealla wore concerned expressions, and Kaolla looked absolutely ashamed of herself. Good, the mercenary thought. “What happened to the pilot?” he demanded.

“Our intelligence indicates that he was wounded escaping the unit, then later disappeared from a Tokyo hospital,” Nealla said softly. “We have seen nothing of him since.”

“And there should have been a girl with him.”

The princess’ double shook her head. “She was taken by the enemy, apparently in exchange for the pilot’s life.”

Teletha’s sobs grew even heavier, and he could hear her voice somehow, faintly, in the back of his mind. My brother, her voice came, bitterly. All this because of me.

He led her toward the Sparrowhawks and sat her down on the nearest one’s landing gear, then knelt down in front of her, holding her hands between his and staring at her tear-streaked face. “Tel’ika, udesii,” he whispered soothingly to her, leaning forward and pressing his forehead against hers. “Udesii, cyar’ika. You heard them. Sagara escaped and survived. He’s still alive, and that means he’s going to tear this world apart looking for her. The same thing I’d do if you were taken from me.”

She blushed, gave him a watery smile, and then sighed, pulling her hands from his grasp to wrap her arms loosely around him. “None of this would be happening if I had authorized the assassination mission several years ago,” she whispered. “Everything is my fault.”

“No, it’s not,” he whispered back, hugging her tightly. Her despair was enough to squeeze his own heart painfully. “Showing compassion for a wayward brother is not a weakness.” He could feel her anger and distaste for her brother, growing rapidly toward hatred. This sudden ability to feel her emotions and hear her thoughts unnerved him. “You spared him because you care about—”

“I hate him,” she hissed. “Bastard. Asshole. Chakaar.” A thief, cheat, liar. Appropriate. “So damned arrogant, always thinking he can get what he wants, no...matter...” She trailed off, thinking back through the years to the times she had used her rank or position to get what she wanted, and sighed miserably. Her tone was bleak as she said, “I’m really no different, am I...”

“No,” he said crossly, a biting edge to his tone. He leaned back and tilted her chin up to hold her gaze. “You are nothing like him, Tel’ika, do you hear me? You are sweet and kind and good-natured and caring, not to mention brilliant, and radiant, and beautiful.” She blushed crimson at his praise, and he smiled and kissed her softly. “And you taste like blueberries.”

She giggled and touched her lips, her smile lighting up her entire face. “You always know just what to say to me.” The tone of her smile changed, and he felt incredibly warm looking at her. “I love you, Gar’ika.”

“Well, then I’m doing it right,” he said, brushing her tears away with his thumb, then standing up and holding his hand out to her. “Come on, cyar’ika.”

“’Lek,” she said, grabbing his hand and allowing him to pull her to her feet. Taking a moment to compose herself, she turned and rejoined the others along with Garon, bowing her head toward them. “I apologize for my behavior. The pilot of this Arm Slave is a close friend of mine.”

“No need to apologize, Testarossa-taichou,” Nealla answered, shaking her head. “We understand your feelings in this matter. Please forgive our offense for such a callous display of your fallen.”

“There is no offense to forgive,” Teletha said, then reverently approached the ruins of the Arbalest and reached out toward it. She flinched when she touched the broken armor. Behind her, Garon watched silently, absently fingering the fragment of armor he had kept from Orar, his destroyed M9. She looked back at him, then held out her hand toward him. “Your kad, please?”

She’s not about to... he thought as he turned his left arm a certain way, causing the special sheath on his upper arm to eject his Ka-bar into his hand. Spinning the knife to hold it by its blade, he held it out to her.

She took the weapon with a smile, then walked a circuit of the destroyed Arbalest. She finally stopped near the fragmented right shoulder, then used the knife to pry off a small section of armor the size of a coin, which she pocketed.

How about that... Garon mused as she handed the blade back. She’s a Mando in everything but name, my girl. He watched her with an immense pride.

“Our recovery efforts will focus on the combat data recorder and the AI program,” Kaolla said, considerably subdued. “There’s little we can do with the unit itself. With the damage it’s sustained, it’d be more worthwhile to just build a new unit.”

“Regrettable, but understandable,” Teletha replied with a nod. “Please do your best to recover the AI. It’s more valuable than the combat recorder.”

“Of course,” the princess said. “We’ll do our best, and inform you as soon as we have progress.”

Garon slipped his arm around Teletha’s thin waist. “That sounds fine.” He gave his girlfriend a pointed look. “We’ve had quite enough excitement for now. I think it’s time for us to rest a while.”

She nodded in agreement and leaned into his warm frame. “Yes, and there are things that we need to talk about.”

---

January 24, 1519 hours, local time
Island Republic of MolMol
Royal Palace, Private Wing, Teletha and Garon’s Suite

 

The kitchenette featured a small dining table at which the couple sat across from each other, a kettle between them which provided hot water for the hot chocolate they were drinking. Teletha stirred a spoon in her mug, then raised her eyes to meet Garon’s patient gaze. “How much do you know about Whispered?” she asked him.

“Very little, most of it through second-hand sources and the intel that Garbage gives us,” he answered, leaning forward and resting his arms on the table.

‘Garbage’ was his own nickname for the Mandalorian that went by the name ‘Chakaar,’ their quasi-mole within Amalgam.

“Hot commodity, being the source of black technology. All hyper-intelligent, each one seems to have one very specific knowledge area.” He gave her a lop-sided grin. “And one in particular happens to be the most wonderful girl in my world.”

She blushed a very healthy shade of red and smiled at him. “You should stop doing that. You’re going to give me a big head.”

“Maybe so,” he answered with a shrug. “But it’s very becoming when you blush.”

This, of course, only caused her to blush harder. She waved her hand before her face, then decided to continue with the original topic rather than say anything that would encourage him further. “Overall, not a lot is known about the Whispered,” she said. “We have come to learn that, for whatever reason, when a Whispered’s latent talents awaken, they form a resonance bond with the individual with whom they have a strong emotional connection. An example of this is Kaname forming a permanent resonance with Sousuke when she awakened.”

She paused to take a few sips of her cocoa, then set her mug down and continued, “The main benefit of the resonance is that it allows a Whispered greater control of the trances they go into, and reduces the mental strain when they exit the trance. The Whispered and the person they’ve resonated with can feel each others’ emotions and hear their surface thoughts. Some believe that a Whispered with greater control or more experience with their ‘gift’ can actively send and receive thoughts.”

It was obvious where she was going with this discussion. “But I thought you had been awakened for most of your life.”

“I have,” she replied with a nod. “But I’ve not had the strong emotional attachment with anyone else that I have with you.”

Well, it definitely explained why he had been able to sense her feelings and actually hear her thoughts earlier. It was new and unusual, certainly, but not particularly troubling. “So what does this mean for us?” he asked.

“Um, not much, to be quite honest?” She smiled faintly. “I just wanted you to know, that way you don’t panic when you can hear what I’m thinking all of a sudden.”

“I don’t think it’d bother me that much.” He smirked. “And since you can read my thoughts too, I guess I’ll have to cut back on my dirty fantasies about you.”

Her eyes widened, then she laughed and reach out to playfully swat him, but he pulled back out of her reach. He grabbed her hand before it could get out of his reach, turning it over and staring down at her palm. His entire demeanor shifted from teasing to tentative, she noticed, as he traced the lines in the palm of her hand with his fingers. The feathery touch of his calloused fingers on her palm tickled slightly, causing her hand to twitch occasionally in his grasp.

She frowned as she felt his emotional state. Why did he suddenly feel undeserving of her? It was hard to make out his logic; she sensed his unease with the number of lives he had taken, that she was too decent for a thug like him.

“No,” she whispered. “Please don’t think that.” He was the best thing that had ever happened to her. She did her best to convey this thought to him across their bond with all the heartfelt emotion that she couldn’t possibly get across with words alone.

You’re all I could ever want, she thought, closing her hand around his trailing fingers.

Those words, that simple thought, humbled the battle-hardened mercenary, sending a chill up his back. What do you see in a guy like me?

She smiled at him, brushing her thumb over his knuckles. Love, comfort, a companion, a future. Ner burc’ya, ner riduur, ner vod, my lover. To the surprise of both of them, she managed to think that without blushing.

He sucked in a deep breath, overwhelmed by the scope of her emotions, by how deep her feelings for him ran. Acceptance by a potential significant other was one of his foremost desires, and she not only accepted him, but she embraced his world, his perspective on things.

He would have asked her to marry him, in the traditional Mando’a fashion, on the spot, but for knowing, and agreeing with the sentiment, that she wanted to take their relationship one day at a time. Her personality made her very shy, her past experiences made her very tentative in the field of romance, and because she was precious to him, he had nothing against letting her dictate the pace of their relationship.

She could sense that current of thought, of course, and gave him a grateful smile. Unfamiliar as she was with relationships, she dreaded the idea of doing something wrong, or getting too far ahead with things she wasn’t ready for. His willingness to let things progress as fast as she was willing came as a great comfort to her.

The phone on the kitchen wall rang. The couple exchanged confused looks, then Garon, who was closer to it, hitched his chair back onto its back legs to grab the phone. Holding the edge of the table with his free hand to maintain balance, he held the phone to his ear and said, “Go ahead.”

Crayson-gunsou,” Nealla’s voice said, “have you seen the news yet?”

He raised an eyebrow. “No, but we’ll do so now.” The line went silent, and he returned the phone to its cradle, then turned to Teletha’s questioning face. “Nealla said there’s something on the news we should see.”

She nodded, and the couple moved into the seating area. She sat down on the loveseat facing the television as he turned it on and crouched in front of it in order to flip through channels to find a news station. Nice view, she thought idly, momentarily forgetting that he could hear her.

All yours, too, he thought back with a smirk as he found the channel for CNN, then stood up and moved to join her on the loveseat. Wrapping his arm around her shoulders, he leaned in to kiss her temple, then they turned their attention toward the television as the commercials ended and the broadcast returned.

The suit-clad African American anchor’s expression was more serious than one would normally find on a news station as he said, “Welcome back to the News Room. For those of you just joining us, US intelligence has just handed us a treasure trove of information concerning the nuclear detonation and related terrorist sinking of the USS Ronald Reagan. The attacks were carried out by a group known as ‘Amalgam,’ a previously-unknown organization with ties to both Europe and many Communist-leaning terrorist groups around the world. The footage you’re about to see is combat data from the flight recorder of a Navy fighter that survived the assault.” The anchorman paused, a somber note in his voice. “Some may find this footage hard to watch. Viewer discretion is advised.”

The image on the screen changed to a view from the perspective of an aircraft battle recorder. All the confidential mission data had, of course, been removed, but the images it showed were far more attention-grabbing than what had been removed: A massive red Arm Slave floated in the midst of the American fleet, literally ripping the vessels apart with its massive metal hands. Return fire from destroyers and other support ships reflected harmlessly from the multicolored shield of the LAMBDA Driver. The gargantuan craft casually, deliberately, cruelly disassembled the fleet one ship at a time. Helicopters and life boats weren’t targeted until they had filled with crew attempting to escape. Every few minutes, it swept blazing paths of autocannon fire through the ocean into groups of crew who had abandoned ship into the sea.

Even Teletha, who knew first-hand the awesome destructive power of the Behemoth, was stunned into silence by the ruthless assault. She bit her lip and leaned heavily into Garon for comfort, but refused to tear her eyes away from the screen.

What you’re seeing is a type of Arm Slave known as a Behemoth,” the anchorman said. “This is but one of the various weapons Amalgam is responsible for delivering to terrorists.”

“How did the US get its hands on the information about Amalgam and the Behemoth?” Garon asked, his brow furrowed. “Those kinds of specific details could have only come from Amalgam itself or...”

“From the Intelligence Division,” Teletha finished, watching the Behemoth footage repeat as the newscaster drew the connection between Amalgam and the Behemoth attack in Japan years ago. “This sort of retaliatory information campaign reeks of Ji-Eun.”

“Who?”

Teletha briefly glanced in his direction, remembered that he was, still a considerably new addition to MITHRIL, and explained, “Wraith, one of the few Intelligence people I consider trustworthy.”

Garon still didn’t know who that was, but said nothing, considering it irrelevant at the moment.

It’s come to light that the nuclear detonation was one of a number of simultaneous attacks meant to cripple Amalgam’s major enemy, an international peacekeeping organization backed by many United Nations member states. Nothing has been confirmed at this time, but this series of attacks seems to have achieved its primary purpose, leaving the organization’s power base fractured, its members, assuming any remain alive, scattered. Unfortunately for us all, it means that very little now stands opposed to Amalgam.”

“Yes, that’s definitely Ji-Eun’s doing,” Teletha said, nodding. “To give that much information while leaving MITHRIL deliberately unnamed.

Garon ran his fingers through her long, wavy hair, staring up at the ceiling in thought. “So this ‘Wraith’ and Sagara are still alive, somewhere, most of the Danaan’s crew survived, and we’ve got MolMol on our side now.”

“It’s a good start.” She looked up at him and smiled, for the first time feeling some small measure of hope about their situation. “As terrible as it is that we lost the Danaan, I’m glad that I have no need to maintain decorum. That I can let my hair down, as the case may be.” She giggled at her intentional pun, then smothered a yawn with her hand.

“We’ve had a busy few days, haven’t we?” he asked. “You haven’t really been sleeping well since the attack.”

She looked down sheepishly. “I hoped you wouldn’t notice.”

“It’s hard not to notice when you thrash around from the nightmares,” he said softly, using his free hand to gently stroke her cheek.

“I’m sorry.” She leaned into his caress, closing her eyes and sighing.

“Don’t be. It’s not your fault.” He slid his arms around her and held her tightly. “I’m kind of tired myself. We can just turn in, if you want. I think we’d do good with about fifteen good hours of sleep or so.”

“Yes, I think so, too.” Reluctantly, she extracted herself from his arms, then stood up and stretched, rising up on her toes, her form-hugging shirt displaying the arch of her back. She looked back over her shoulder at him and smiled. “So may I borrow a shirt and shorts again?”

“As long as you need to,” he answered, standing up as well. “They’re right where you left ‘em.”

She nodded and headed to the bathroom to change, while he headed directly to the bedroom, since he tended to sleep in whatever clothes he had worn during the day. The single bed they had available to them was what one would call a ‘harem style’ bed, a four-post canopy bed with red silk sheets, more pillows than it needed, and enough space for them to sleep on opposite ends of the bed with plenty of room between them.

Without preamble, he let himself fall onto his side of the bed and grabbed the pillow he had taken to holding onto at night; it was difficult for him to fall asleep without the presence of some sort of soft object in his arms. He considered it a sign of weakness, but Teletha found it endearing.

A few moments later, she walked into the bedroom in a plain white tee shirt and gray US Army PT shorts. She yawned and slipped into the bed on the far side from him, then crawled to the center. Normally, she slept on the edge of the bed, but she knew she wasn’t going to end up sleeping for a while, and wanted to be close to him in the meantime. From the center of the bed, she could just barely reach him with the tips of her fingers. She did exactly that, stretching her right arm out toward him, a happy smile on her face.

The childlike playfulness in her actions prompted a smile as he rolled onto his side and reached in return to her, entwining the fingers of his right hand with hers and pulling himself closer to her with his left arm. He couldn’t find the words to properly describe how beautiful she looked to him, her long silvery-blonde hair spread out like a curtain around her on the sheets.

Pulling himself into a partially-upright position, he swapped his right hand for his left in holding hers, then slid closer so that he was directly beside her. He brushed a lock of hair from her face with his now-free right hand. “I’m so unbelievably lucky to be the guy you picked,” he said, looking down at her with a softness in his voice and eyes that she’d not seen before.

She flushed brilliant red and looked away, then after a moment brought her gray eyes back to his, a smile lighting up her features. “I’m lucky, too,” she answered, “to have your love.” She traced her fingers along the white line of a healed-over scar on the underside of his jaw, visible only from the position she was in. “I’m only alive now because of you, from the Danaan and before, back at Meridia Island.”

“It’s the same for me, also,” he said. “Back in the jungle, I probably would’ve died fighting that second Venom, but then I saw you in my head, and I knew I had to live. So I put everything I had into it...”

“And you survived for us,” she finished. She was doing that a lot now, she noticed.

“For you,” he added. The husky tone of his voice sent shivers down her spine.

She bit her lip and looked away again, caught in a breakwater of emotions, at the same time new and familiar, exhilarating and frightening. Her eyes fell on the pillow that he clung to at night to sleep, the object that he grumbled over having such a childish need to hold, that she found endearing and yet cursed at the same time. She knew exactly why, too; she was jealous of that pillow. She wished it was her that he held close to him as he slept. She wanted to feel safe and protected in his strong embrace as she slept, the time when she invariably felt the loneliest.

Her heart thundered in her chest, and she could feel his pulse likewise hammering beneath her trailing fingers. She didn’t know whether or not to be surprised that their hearts were beating perfectly in sync with each other. That removed some of her unease, to know that he was just as anxious, nervous, as she was. She could see it in his eyes, feel it in the occasional, very slight, twinge in his left arm that traveled down to their joined hands.

She slid her hand around to the back of his neck, applying some pressure, but not quite pulling him down toward her. They were at a breaking point, a bridge across a river in their relationship. The next few minutes would see them either remaining at the status quo, or crossing that bridge and burning it behind them. If she kissed him now, things would change, and they both knew it. He looked down at her steadily, neither resisting the pressure of her hand, nor taking the initiative; he could not be the one to progress them to the next stage, it had to be her.

For the barest of moments, she hesitated. Then she thought of the US Air Force’s 80th Fighter Squadron and their squadron motto: Audentes fortuna juvat; fortune favors the bold. Next came to mind the motto of the British Special Air Service: Who dares wins. And last but not least, the old Latin standby: carpe diem, seize the day.

Bugger it, she thought to herself, then pulled him down to her with the same swiftness and need as their first kiss, the one he had earned as a prize for scoring more enemy kills on his first mission than Kurz.

They had kissed on many previous occasions, but this one was different, and they both knew it. Half on instinct she didn’t know she possessed, she parted her lips just enough to tease at his with the tip of her tongue, seeking entry. He nearly choked on his own tongue at this incredibly forward move on her part, then granted her the access she desired.

Owing to the lack of experience on the part of both parties, their first so-called ‘deep’ kiss ended up rather awkward and clumsy, but was no less pleasant for it. After a moment’s parting to recover their breath, they reached a unanimous, unspoken decision that they needed more practical experience. With every additional kiss, they swiftly became better at it, until they came to the point of taking turns exploring one another’s mouths, intent on learning all they possibly could.

In the living room, forgotten by the young couple, the television newscaster’s voice was the only sound in the suite of rooms: “...President Obama has vowed that America will not allow the terroristic acts of Amalgam to go unpunished, calling upon the nations of the world to join America in a campaign against the single greatest threat to global security...”

Needless to say, when Garon and Teletha finally settled in to sleep for the night, the young captain had no further need to be jealous of the pillow, which had found itself forgotten on the floor...

 

Chapter Text

We all go through periods of darkness. In such times, we can turn to the Lord, but it’s good to have friends.”

- Joshua Graham

 

Breaking Stuff to Look Tough

 

Date Unknown
Time Unknown
Location Unknown

 

When Kurama finally came to, he found himself securely bound to a high-backed oak chair in the center of an empty room. There were no windows, a single door, and no fixtures in the room at all, save for himself and the chair. The left side of his head and his left shoulder throbbed painfully, and he could tell that his shoulder was dislocated by the absolute lack of feeling in his left arm below the shoulder. He couldn’t move his left arm at all, but attempting to move his right indicated that they were cuffed together. It was difficult for him to concentrate with the on-and-off throbbing, burning pain in his shoulder.

In the occasional moments of lucidity, he knew it was all part of the enemy’s plan. He had been captured, that much he remembered. He hadn’t gotten a good look at his assailant, but if he had to bet money on it, he would have to bet that it had been Sousuke Sagara. The boy had recognized him during the Tokyo incident, which meant that he’d somehow survived his encounter with the wonder boy of Amalgam’s fancy new Arm Slave, probably by giving up the girl to survive. So he was either out for revenge or information. The fact that he, Kurama, was still alive narrowed those options from two down to one. They were going to torture him for information, and his current surroundings were a part of it.

Kurama hadn’t gotten as far in life as he had without being able to take punishment. The dislocated shoulder was causing him horrible pain, but it wasn’t debilitating, wasn’t making him think differently than he would normally. He wouldn’t break. That boy Sagara didn’t have enough experience to know enough to break him. In the end, he’d probably not leave this place alive, but at least he would take his secrets to the grave with him.

The doorway out of the room opened, but the hallway beyond appeared nondescript. Sousuke Sagara, the scar-cheeked wonder boy of MITHRIL, stepped into the room and closed the door behind him, then folded his arms behind his back and regarded Kurama almost curiously. He said nothing.

Provoking another jolt of pain from his shoulder, Kurama rocked to see if he could move himself or his seat, but it was bolted to the floor. Gritting his teeth, shaking his head to clear the haze of pain trying to pull him back to unconsciousness, he glared up at the boy and declared, “Just kill me and stop wasting both of our time. I’m not going to tell you anything.”

Sagara didn’t react. He didn’t say anything, or nod, or shake his head, or even shrug. He merely raised his hand to his mouth to politely cover a cough, then stepped forward, placed that hand on Kurama’s chest, and gripped Kurama’s arm with the other hand. Kurama could feel the pressure of the grasp, but otherwise nothing.

Oh, shit, Kurama thought, then gritted his teeth and braced himself. Sagara wrenched Kurama’s arm forward, a grinding sound emanating from the limb as the ball joint scraped harshly across the rotator cuff, followed by a crunch as the joint popped back into place. Sudden relief flooded his system as the pressure was relieved, followed almost immediately by sharp pain as the nerve endings suddenly came back awake and the formerly-restricted blood flow loosened up, the sensation akin to that of having a rusty razor blade run across the nerve endings all down his arm.

Sagara was gone when Kurama finally managed to divert his attention away from his no-longer-dislocated shoulder, having somehow snuck out the door in a matter of seconds, leaving a thoroughly-confused but no longer horribly-pained mercenary in his wake. He was expecting Sagara to start hammering away, firing questions between blows, but not a word had passed the younger mercenary’s lips.

---

January 25, 0932 hours, local time (1432 hours, Greenwich Mean Time)
New York City, New York, United States of America
Abandoned Subway Platform

 

Deep beneath the streets of New York City, beneath even the subway system, there existed the older network of abandoned tunnels no longer used by the New York City Transit Authority. It was to one of these abandoned tunnels that Wraith and Sousuke brought Kurama for interrogation. They had no idea how long it would take to break him, and so the subway was a good choice not only for the fact that it allowed them to remain undisturbed, but storing him in a utility supply room kept him from judging the passage of time, which would assist in their psychological efforts to break him.

Ji-Eun was occupied at her workstation when ‘Sousuke’ exited the supply room, so stealthy that even the Intelligence operative didn’t notice him. Her workstation consisted of a laptop computer, a wireless linkup with enough signal strength to function even despite their depth below the surface, and a television that she kept tuned to the news stations. Part of the reason she failed to notice ‘Sousuke’ was likely due to her being engrossed in her work, but the other half was just as likely due to her inattentive streak; it was that trait that had allowed Kaname to get the drop on her years before in Tokyo, after all.

Kashim, currently in control of Sousuke’s body, paused as the door closed behind him, giving Sousuke’s currently-buried consciousness a mental tap on the head to awaken him. Back to you now, ‘brother.’ I’ve done my part for now. Call me when it’s time for me to come back.

Sousuke came back to awareness to suddenly find that he was leaning back against the door of the supply room, looking out toward Ji-Eun working diligently at her workstation. It seemed this arrangement with Kashim was going well, his darker self performing the tasks he was assigned to perform without taking any unnecessary liberties while he was in control of Sousuke’s body. The soldier would remain cautious, of course, but all in all, it was going well.

Then something strange happened as he started to move toward Ji-Eun’s workstation. His body locked up in midstride, effectively halting him in place, as his vision went dark. His first thought was some side-effect of his split-personality, his second that Kashim was doing this. Those thoughts were blown away by what appeared before his eyes, more accurately, in his mind’s eye.

It was Kaname’s face, washed out in blue and hazy, shot through with static as though a holographic communication from those Star Wars movies. More images of Kaname, equally-poor in quality, flashed through his mind, overlapping one another as he heard her voice whisper into his mind, “Could you sacrifice me to complete your mission?” The images cleaned up then, showing her staring directly into his eyes, as though searching his very soul, before shifting again, the new image that of Kaname collapsing to the ground in agony. “Could you watch me die?”

His vision cleared, the voices disappeared, and his body was freed immediately afterwards. He stumbled forward as he attempted to regain his balance, this motion drawing Ji-Eun’s attention. The former Intelligence agent glanced over lazily from her workstation. “Having a problem, Sagara?”

For a moment, he briefly debated on telling her about the vision, then decided against it. She thought him crazy enough for all this business with his split personality. So he shook his head and said, “No, I’m fine.” He moved to sit in a chair near her workstation, then nodded toward her work. “Any new updates so far?”

She shook her head, continuing to type away at her laptop. “No, other than the United States seeming to be serious about what it said about Amalgam.” She reached over and keyed up the volume of the television, which was displaying recorded images of an earlier speech by Barack Obama.

...will not let this terroristic organization have free reign to do as it wishes the world over. Previously, we had enjoyed the unknown protection of a privately-funded paramilitary force that contended with Amalgam. Now, with that organization no longer capable of providing that protection, it falls to the free nations of the world to step forth and see to the safety and stability of the world by our own hands...”

“Are the American people really going to go along quietly with this?” Sousuke asked. “I’d imagine that they wouldn’t willingly get involved in another war so soon after ending the Middle East conflicts.”

“It’s the galvanizing affect of having one of their carrier fleets sunk by Amalgam,” Ji-Eun answered without looking up from her screen. “So how are the prospects with him?”

“He’s confused and in pain,” Sousuke answered, reaching into the cooler beside the desk and producing a bottle of water. “Perhaps your method will work better. Time will tell.”

Sousuke’s original plan had been to simply pummel Kurama until the mercenary gave up the information that they wanted. It was simple and efficient that way. It was Ji-Eun who had proposed the plan they were using: Kurama, being a hardened mercenary, would be familiar with and trained in the methods of dealing with physical torture. Ji-Eun’s plan was for their interrogation to be more psychological than physical, dependent on breaking his mind as well as his body. Sousuke’s darker half, Kashim, had come up with five methods to use on Kurama, each targeting a different area of the body, guaranteeing that he’d break by the fifth one.

“What of your efforts in trying to find MITHRIL survivors?” he asked her.

“Some luck,” she answered. “I’ve confirmed that the USS Arizona picked up the survivors of the Tuatha de Danaan that escaped in lifeboats. They’re hiding within the US fleet for the time being. Our headquarters in Sydney was flattened by a cruise missile strike; I doubt there will be many survivors there. As we’ve seen, the Americas division of MITHRIL survived solely because of location, and all personnel have scattered in the event that Amalgam decides they want to strike inside American soil anyway.”

“I wonder, would they stage such a raid?” he mused quietly, staring down at the corroded concrete floor. “The drawbacks from such an action would drastically outweigh the benefits, I believe. After all, Amalgam has already achieved their objectives. MITHRIL, what little of it remains, now lacks the strategic resources and the command and control structure to effectively combat them.”

And they have Chidori.

Neither of them said it. They were both thinking it.

“From the information we have, which is abysmal,” Ji-Eun answered, “you appear to be correct. However, the fact of the matter is we do not have any information of what their plans and goals are. And so, to that end, we must assume that nothing is beyond them. After all, we assumed that they would never stage a direct, high-profile blitzkrieg assault against MITHRIL, either.”

Sousuke nodded. Leave it to the intelligence expert to take a situation, review it for a few moments, and then give a concise and detailed appraisal of said situation in a way that it would take a special kind of idiot not to understand it. “I assume that US intelligence analysts have been made aware of the danger they’re in.”

“Reminded, yes.” Sousuke watched Ji-Eun’s eyes flicker from place to place on the screen of her laptop. “They’ve long since known the potential danger of Amalgam since they’ve received regular reports from our Intelligence division, and the attack on MITHRIL has been a wake-up call. They know that Obama’s little speech about not letting Amalgam get away with it is going to draw their attention down on them hard and fast.”

The ace MITHRIL pilot raised an eyebrow. “You think it’ll be Washington, then?”

Ji-Eun nodded. “What better way for Amalgam to set an example? Destroy Washington, assassinate the leadership of the United States, and though it will only further stir up the American retaliatory spirit, they’ll lack the effective means to do anything about it.”

That affirmation of his thoughts soured the taste of the water he was drinking. He scowled slightly and set the bottle down on the table. “We’re powerless to do anything.”

She shrugged. “More or less. I took the time to plan an op for elements of our MITHRIL-Americas force to extract the president, vice president, and cabinet from Washington without anyone knowing about it, but those PRT guys aren’t likely to listen to an Intelligence head. They have the plan in their hands. Whether they carry it out or not is beyond my control.” She reached over and grabbed the water bottle, tilting her head back to pour the water into her mouth without coming in contact with the lip of the bottle. Sousuke expected himself to be offended, but wasn’t. She set the bottle back down, then continued, “All that’s in my control is what we gain from whatever information that Kurama gives us.” Reaching forward, she tapped a few keys on her laptop, then turned the screen so Sousuke could see. “And this.”

He leaned forward to look at what she was showing him. He immediately recognized an Arm Slave schematic, details such as powerplant, arrangement of components, weapon power consumption ratios, the sorts of things that the thinktanks in R&D were responsible for that looked like a foreign language to him. The design was labeled ‘ARX-8 LAEVATEIN.’ The model was vaguely similar to a blend of the Arbalest and the enemy Venom units, but it was otherwise unlike anything he had ever seen before.

“A new AS model?”

“R&D had been working on it for about three months before Amalgam hit us,” Ji-Eun explained. “I managed to snag the schematics for the unit and its related systems from our system before the data scrubbers got to it. The problem is that the design team never finished it, and they’re scattered all over the Pacific Rim now.”

This was partially true. What Ji-Eun neglected to impart was that Kaname was the primary design technician on the Laevatein unit, a collaborative effort between her and Arbalest’s AI unit, tailor-built to Sousuke’s personal style of combat. It was said that Arm Slaves are an extension of the pilot’s body, and the Laevatein was designed to take that saying to the extreme. Laevatein, Kaname had said, was not a weapon, was not a machine. It was a work of art and a tool of extreme power. High Command had wanted to shut the Laevatein project down in favor of research in installing LAMBDA Drivers on other machines, forcing Kaname to reveal her trump card: Laevatein was being built around a theoretical system that could disable the LAMBDA Driver.

And now, with Kaname in Amalgam’s hands, the odds of either that system or Laevatein being completed were slim to none. However, if they could find enough Whispered, or even ‘mundane’ mechanical experts that could help the one Whispered they still had, Sarah Miller, then they might at least be able to complete the unit itself, if not Kaname’s special system.

---

January 26, 0115 hours, local time (0615 hours, Greenwich Mean Time)
New York City, New York, United States of America
Utility Supply Room

 

Kurama had no idea how much time had passed since Sagara had nearly broken his shoulder to set it back in its place, but he knew that it had been a long time. He also had no idea what the boy was planning. The pain in his shoulder was long gone, that lack of distraction giving him plenty of time to analyze his situation. Perhaps Sagara was wise enough not to simply attempt to beat the information he wanted out of him, and would rely on this isolation in an attempt to persuade him similar to putting an uncooperative inmate in solitary confinement. It was a poor plan, but it was all that Kurama could come up with that the boy was doing.

He had slept for a time, without any idea how long he had slept, but knowing that it wasn’t enough. Hunger and thirst weren’t a problem yet, though they were gearing up to become one. Perhaps that would be another facet of the boy’s plan: deny him food and drink in an effort to loose his tongue. That wouldn’t work either; Kurama knew from experience exactly how long he could survive without food or water, and he doubted the boy’s patience would outlast his ability to endure.

The door groaned open again, and Sagara stepped in, closing it behind him with a heavy metallic slam. When he turned back around, Kurama saw that he was carrying three leather belts draped over his arm and a ball peen hammer in his hand. The belts were real, genuine, thick leather, not the cheap knockoffs found in a local Walmart. They were probably going to be used to restrain his legs, but then what would he need a third one for? To lash him with it? Like that would do any good. And the presence of that hammer was rather foreboding.

As if predicting resistance, Sagara put the hammer and one of the belts on the ground a good distance away, then moved forward and began to kneel close to Kurama’s feet, a belt in either hand. The trapped mercenary lashed out with a kick, hoping to catch his captor by surprise. With the same amount of ease as though Kurama had told him exactly what he planned to do, Sagara caught the offending limb before it could pose a threat to him.

Retribution was swift and harsh.

Slamming the boot to the ground, Sagara rose in the same motion and drove a hammer fist down on top of Kurama’s most pain-sensitive region, smashing the organs there against the chair. Kurama let out an involuntary squeak of pain as his vision flashed white, sharp pain like white-hot needles driving into his nerves. It was in this fog of pain that Sagara took the advantage of time to bind both of his ankles to the legs of the chair in which he sat.

Standing back, Sagara had picked up the third belt and the ball peen hammer, and was drawing out the process of looking over the items, carefully inspecting them as though for defects that would cause them to fail during the process of whatever he was intending to use them for. Finally, he deemed them satisfactory to his needs, approached again, and draped the third belt vertically along the front of Kurama’s left leg, laying it flat over the ridge of his tibia. Kurama immediately struggled, causing the belt to slip from its place. Without a change in expression, Sagara raised the hammer and held it in place over the mercenary’s previously-assaulted groin. He said nothing, but the threat was obvious.

Seething in hatred, Kurama went still. Sagara calmly resituated the belt and raised the hammer to his chest level, drawing his swinging arm across his body. Without pausing to give Kurama time to think about what was about to happen, Sagara slammed the hammer with precision accuracy onto the belt.

Kurama’s screams filled the room as his tibia fractured in numerous places, the belt’s thickness bleeding just enough force and momentum from the strike to prevent the bone from outright breaking. Muscle spasms in his legs ground against the bone, further exacerbating the fractures into a spider-web running the length of the bone.

“What the fuck!” Kurama shrieked. “You fucking psycho! What the hell do you w—”

A mirroring strike to Kurama’s other leg cut off his words, sending him into another bout of unintelligible screaming.

---

January 26, 1343 hours, local time (1843 hours, Greenwich Mean Time)
New York City, New York, United States of America
Abandoned Subway Platform

 

‘Kashim’ stood up and brushed his arms as though to remove lint, then stood and moved to the small box that he had brought down with him. Ji-Eun watched him at work, his very movements advertising the difference between ‘Sousuke’ and ‘Kashim.’ She watched him withdraw a vial with a corrosive materials label on it, followed by a hypodermic syringe, which he used to extract exactly 30ccs of the colorless liquid.

“I assume you have a plan, then.” She was much more terse with ‘Kashim’ than she was with ‘Sousuke.’ At least ‘Sousuke’ didn’t act like an insane clown.

He turned to her then, that not-all-there glint in his eye. He cocked his head to the side and gave her a crooked half-grin. “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?” he asked sardonically. He waved his free hand dismissively. “MITHRIL has plans. Amalgam has plans. Me?” He lifted the syringe theatrically and flicked the tube several times, though there were no air bubbles within. “I’m more something of an agent of anarchy. I like to introduce a little chaos, you see.”

With that said, Kashim turned and crossed to the door of the utility room, throwing back the latch and swinging the heavy metal door open, then stepping inside and closing it behind him. He turned to look at Kurama, who was glaring daggers at him, still full of defiance. It was taking a lot of willpower not to taunt the mercenary, but that would be detrimental to the strategy.

“You’re after that girl, right?” There was an edge of pain in Kurama’s voice. Kashim almost smiled; that pain was about to get a whole lot worse. “Well, you’re shit out of luck! I don’t know anything about where she’s at!”

That’s fine, Kashim thought. I don’t expect to get directly to her through you. You’re nobody. I’ll be lucky if you know enough to get me to the next level.

Saying nothing, Kashim knelt down in front of Kurama’s bound form, raised the syringe in his right hand, and theatrically tapped the device. With that done, he grabbed Kurama’s leg above his knee, jabbed the needle in behind his kneecap, eliciting a sharp yelp from the mercenary, and then injected the colorless liquid, withdrew the needle, and stood up to leave the room.

Kurama was just beginning to scream as Kashim closed the door again behind him. The screams drew Ji-Eun’s attention. “What was in that syringe?” she asked.

“Nitric acid,” he answered, just as simply.

Ji-Eun made a face, then turned her attention back to her station. Nitric acid was a highly-corrosive acid commonly used to strip-clean corrosion from Arm Slave and aviation components. Depending on how high a concentration he used, and where he’d injected it...

“Where’d you stick him?”

“Kneecap.”

Well, that definitely explained the scream. He probably no longer had a kneecap by now. Kashim was certainly not pulling any punches when it came to the work he was doing on Kurama. Ji-Eun started to wonder what else he had in store, but checked herself in a hurry. She had no desire to know what depraved things that twisted dark side of Sousuke could come up with.

Kashim moved off to the far side of the platform, probably to do whatever it was he did to transfer ‘control’ back to Sousuke. Ji-Eun still thought the SRT pilot a basket case for this insanity of his. But he was a damned good pilot, and pretty much the only hope they had of taking out Amalgam, what with that insanely-powerful Arm Slave in their possession that she hoped the Laevetain could stand against.

She noticed that she had a new messenger window when she turned her attention back to the screen. It was from one of her intelligence contacts, and its text read simply, “It’s going down.”

Furrowing her brow, she reached to the left of her laptop, where MITHRIL radio equipment was sitting unused. Turning the device on, she dialed the frequency to the US military’s central command frequency, keying in an encryption code she had memorized hours earlier. As she waited for the static to die off and begin transmitting messages, she thought the idle thought that she was currently monitoring the US military communications in the Washington DC area. Then, all of a sudden, voices burst out of the radio, hundreds of communications from soldiers and field commanders, all transmitting over the same frequency at once.

-emy forces...lready inside the city...”

-kind of shield techn-”

-ing overrun...

-cuating civil-”

-eed help!”

“Dammit,” she swore, turning back to her laptop, her fingers flying across the keyboard. She went into her intelligence programs, the spy and surveillance systems that only those in Intelligence knew about. Hacking into the security camera feeds, she pulled up as many civilian video feeds as she could get access to; even she couldn’t access the military cameras.

The picture she was assembling wasn’t exactly clear; Amalgam’s forces were destroying cameras as they came across them. The first several feeds she only got bare glimpses of: American soldiers routed by heavy fire, the angle of which suggested it originated from Arm Slaves, a brief glimpse of a Behemoth firing its heavy cannon from the Potomac River, Arastols marching on the National Mall, cutting down helpless civilians as they attempted to flee the premises or hide with neither mercy nor remorse.

Finally, a clear, steady image appeared on her displays, from a civilian news network, showing an explosion ripping the top of the Washington Monument from its perch, debris crumbling down to the ground below. From the left of the frame, an armed figure stepped into view, not an American soldier, but a figure wearing full body plate armor with a helmet that featured a distinctive T-shaped visor. The armored figure fired several bursts from its assault rifle as several more similarly-armored figures entered the frame, until a half dozen of them had appeared and passed through the frame, escorting a number of civilians away from the battle.

“What’s happening?” Sousuke asked from behind her right shoulder.

“Amalgam’s attacking Washington,” she answered, watching as one of the passing figures knocked the camera to the ground, leaving it at a lopsided angle before the image disappeared entirely, likely cut off by either the government or at the news station. She turned to change stations on the television, bringing up a news program that was starting to cover the attack. “They’ve got a lot of M9s in the area for defense, but they don’t even have Fairy Eyes to help them against the LAMBDA Driver.”

Neither of them said anything for several moments afterwards, both watching the civilian coverage of the incident, knowing that it was far worse than what was being shown on network broadcast. Ji-Eun noticed that they were not showing the Amalgam troops, both Arastols and human infantry, killing civilians, or the destruction of an iconic American landmark.

The voice of a newscaster sounded over the images, somber and mournful, “Ladies and gentlemen, if you’re just joining us, America is under attack.”

Sousuke shot to his feet, going for the box of tools again. Ji-Eun watched silently, her attention half on her erstwhile partner, half on the news coverage of the attack. She wasn’t American, had no loyalty to the country, but something about seeing the capital of the United States under siege, its skies filled with jets and helicopters of Russian design, its streets filled with enemy-model Arm Slaves, was heartbreaking to her. In a moment of striking clarity, she realized that feeling had nothing to do with the location under attack and everything to do with the fact that, once again, Amalgam was making a successful surprise attack on her watch. That she had failed in her role as an intelligence specialist, again.

The ace pilot pulled a pair of thick gloves, a smaller box with identifying labels that stated it contained dry ice, and a thin knife of the type used to fillet fish or other meat. Without a word, Sousuke tucked the items under his left arm and stepped over to the utility room, unlatching the heavy metal door and not bothering to shut it behind him.

What Ji-Eun heard from within that room would stay with her until the day she died. She heard cloth tearing, and then the very visceral sound of that knife cutting into flesh. Kurama yelped in shock at the action, indicating the cuts, and she could hear more and more of them, were superficial and not life-threatening in and of themselves.

“This is dry ice,” she heard Sousuke’s voice, spoken in the tones and inflections of his mad alter ego, Kashim. “When introduced into these nifty little cuts in your chest, they’ll cause massive muscle spasms. Anywhere else it’d be an inconvenience and probably break bones, but over your chest, we’re looking at massive rib fractures, possible punctured lungs. Hell, you might even go into cardiac arrest. And I was never that great at CPR, just so you know. You can end this now if you give me names. Locations will suffice, too.”

Kurama answered something that was too quiet for Ji-Eun to hear. ‘Kashim’ was silent for a moment, and he made a good attempt at seeming sorrowful. “Well, it’s a shame you feel that way…”