HEAVY OBJECT:EX Chapter 3
The hellish night had come to an end.
Morning came early for the soldiers…but that did not mean they had an easy time waking up. After being woken by an explosive blast from a cheerful idiot with a trumpet, Quenser rubbed his eyes in the top bunk of a triple bunk bed crammed into the barracks and he said good morning to the large nude poster within arm’s reach on the ceiling.
Unlike an officer like Frolaytia or a Pilot Elite like the Princess, the lowly soldiers and the student (who was nearly a freeloader) were crammed in together at night. The boys and girls were split up and then they had to climb into the beds stacked up almost to the ceiling. The comfort level was greater than a hammock but less than a capsule hotel.
He did not have time for a leisurely morning shower. He finished the bare minimum of preparation to make himself presentable and grabbed the day’s rations from one of the boxes piled up in the mess hall. That careless setup would allow a glutton to sneak off with more than their share, but since they were flavorless and odorless lumps reminiscent of soap or an eraser, no such trouble had been reported.
This was a maintenance base zone located near the coast.
Over one hundred large military vehicles had been gathered together. Even their barracks were built on top of a giant flat vehicle with at least thirty or forty wheels.
Quenser sat on the stairs up into the vehicle and nibbled on a corner of the rations while looking like he was facing the end of the world. He then noticed Myonri, a colleague of his, sneaking around out front.
“Hey, Myonri. What are you doing out so early? …Are those blueberries?”
The girl’s shoulders jumped and she looked back while holding a basket in both arms. The basket was filled with small fruits that must have been picked just that morning because they still had thin vines and leaves attached.
“N-nothing? There certainly isn’t an alliance trying to create pastries because we’re fed up with the flavorless rations. And I’m definitely not on my way to boil these to make jam!”
“Wait! You were sneaking around selecting ingredients while some of us were running around a hellish battlefield in the middle of the night!? Inexcusable! Share some of those with me. Simply inexcusable!!”
“Wahhhh!! My share always shrinks and shrinks like this!!”
According to teary-eyed Myonri (most likely to divert the predator’s attention), there was a rather large group that took issue with the tasteless rations and a number of communities had formed there. Some would try to get salt by boiling down seawater and some would try to make margarine using the oils from plant seeds.
Not only were the completed products tasty, but they could be used to trade for other seasonings.
“Rumor has it there are hidden groups making mayonnaise or crushing grapes to make wine.”
“The depths of the Legitimacy Kingdom’s darkness know no bounds! Absolutely inexcusable!!”
“Wahh! Quit trying to distract me!!”
Quenser was not going to wait until the jam was made, so he grabbed a few of the blueberries as-is and used their perfect acidity as an accent between the flavorless bites that seemed to sap his will to live.
“There’s so much variation in individual preferences that they can’t satisfy everyone. Since they don’t want the food to affect people’s combat-readiness, they go for something everyone finds tasteless, but there’s got to be something wrong with that reasoning.”
“Ah ha ha. But taste aside, those rations are supposed to be quite useful. They’re nutritious, they preserve well, they’re portable, and so on.”
“Really? I’ve seen rumors online that they dry restaurants’ leftover rice into a powder and cook it in the used frying oil.”
“C’mon, c’mon. That can’t possibly be…wait…”
Myonri rejected the idea with a smile, but then she realized she had no basis at all for doing so. She must have sensed that staying out in the open too long would let other soldiers notice her blueberry basket and thus take everything she had collected, so she said a quick goodbye and left.
Quenser used his dull mind to think about how peaceful things were here in the middle of the battlefield, but…
“Surely that’s just a preposterous rumor like the worm burgers, right?”
He had himself worried now.
In truth, the Legitimacy Kingdom’s 37th Mobile Maintenance Battalion was in a state of limbo.
“Eh? We’re not waiting for a one-on-one fight with the Trinity Style?”
Quenser frantically spoke up inside the Object maintenance facility. The old maintenance lady sighed, but she was not working on the Baby Magnum. She was photographing the various remains of the small robots known as Dvergr and the armor panels that had come from the Trinity Style the night before.
“It’s true the Faith Organization probably wants to take a bite at us, but they’re taking their time after raising the White Flag themselves. They’ll want to get back at us since we injured them and they’ll also want to silence that Pilot Elite. …Skuld Silent-Third was it?”
She sounded disinterested.
“But that’s only what they want, so we have no reason to go along with it. We completed our original plan by attacking that flower garden with its intentionally contaminated pollen in order to end the production of the new drug they use to make Elites. There’s no reason to stick around now. A unit costs tax money every day it’s deployed like this.”
“Then why don’t we withdraw already?”
“By carelessly damaging the Trinity Style and forcing it to withdraw, you seem to have nearly changed the minds of the bored higher ups in the safe countries. They aren’t sure if we should withdraw immediately or keep going and maybe destroy a 5 billion dollar Second Generation and take its tech for ourselves.”
“There’s also something else preventing us from moving on.”
The Pilot Elite Princess must not have had anything better to do because she walked over to join them. Her unreadable eyes observed the wreckage lined up like a scene from an airplane crash investigation.
“Even under normal circumstances, we have to worry about being attacked while withdrawing, but now we have so many more people,” said the Princess. “A withdrawal is going to take time, so waiting around is dangerous.”
“Yeah, the Trinity Style ran off, but the Faith Organization soldiers were left on the battlefield,” added Quenser. “We took them all prisoner, didn’t we?”
“Frolaytia wasn’t happy about that,” said the old maintenance lady. “Even POWs need clothes, food, and shelter and that costs money. She was complaining about how you don’t even need to develop a new weapon to end the war. She said you just need to have a billion of your people surrender to the enemy in order to apply financial pressure.”
“Hold on. That doesn’t mean our rations will get even worse, does it? I’m not sure I want to see how that’s even possible.”
The Princess looked up at Quenser while she crouched down and poked at the wreckage.
“But those are good,” she said innocently. “They’re like a special treat.”
“What the hell!? Are you one of those people who thinks hospital food is something special!? You have a fridge and microwave in your cockpit, so you know nothing of our suffering!!”
“I’m so sick of pizza and burgers. There’s no surprise in the flavor…”
“Stop that, boy. Overwhelming anger is no reason to strip.”
At any rate, the entire battalion had nothing to do until their next orders came in. And even if they were to withdraw, it might not happen very quickly due to the Faith Organization POWs inflating their numbers.
(Well, I don’t really care as long as I can study Object design here.)
Then a transmission from Frolaytia reached the old lady’s tablet.
“Any luck analyzing that Dvergr?”
“The individual tech isn’t anything special. It looks more suited to a space station or a remote controlled Mars rover than military use, though.”
The old lady glanced over at the crushed robots.
“Then there’s the tech used to link them together into a solid fifty meter, two hundred thousand ton mass. I haven’t a clue what kind of pattern they use. These crushed ones aren’t enough. I’d need quite a few ‘living’ samples to even know where to start.”
“So it’s like the difference between pencil lead and carbon nanotubes even though they’re both carbon?”
“I’m glad you understand. The electronic simulation division was all excited about digitally reproducing it, but we’ll see if that gets anywhere.”
“That means Quenser is just wasting time over there, doesn’t it? Could you send him over here? I think I have a more important lesson for him.”
(What’s this, what’s this? Is busty silver-haired Frolaytia going to be loosening her collar to give me some ‘adult’ lessons!? O-oh, no! I have to make sure she wears glasses when in teacher mode!!)
Quenser started straining his ears to listen in, but Frolaytia’s explanation led elsewhere.
“Now that she’s had a night to recover her energy, I think it’s time to begin the interrogation of Skuld, the Faith Organization Pilot Elite. If you’re interested in enemy technology, then come watch, Quenser.”
Quenser left the Object maintenance facility and started toward a different building, but he ran across a vehicle having engine trouble on the way.
“What’s this about, Heivia? Did the thing stall out inside the base?”
“Oh, shut up. …Goddammit, I can’t believe this!? Again!? I already opened up the hood and dealt with this!!”
“That’s unusual. Did someone get lax with the maintenance?”
He glanced inside the hood and saw something like white steam rising from within.
“No, it’s bugs.” Heivia sounded utterly disgusted. “I don’t know how they’re getting in, but they must think the dark and cramped engine grill is the perfect bed. You know how you’ll find a ton of them when you turn over a heavy rock? Well, they’re messing with the engine and burning onto the thing.”
“And that means I’ve got to use a brush to scrape off the bugs that are burned onto the pipes and stuff. Experimental Battlefield Madagascar can go straight to hell. These strange bugs are everywhere.”
“Well, Heivia, Frolaytia called me in to help with Skuld’s interrogation, so I’ll catch you later!”
“You coldhearted bastard!! And what’s this about interrogating a girl!? Is it gonna be sexy? And how far are you going? Is it gonna be one-on-one between that busty commander in black leather bondage gear and Skuld with a ball gag!? As your mother, I cannot allow that kind of closed-door investigation!!”
Since his awful friend would not stop complaining, Quenser raised his middle finger and continued on to the facility where Frolaytia and Skuld awaited.
The detention barracks were normally used to hold soldiers who had screwed up and it normally ate up maintenance costs without getting much use, but the problem was how indispensable it was at times. That may have been why Frolaytia seemed to be in a bad mood as she leaned against the wall with her arms crossed.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
“Well, I’m just watching, so I’m ready when you are. This place really is packed full of Faith Organization people, isn’t it?”
“There are 203 including the Elite, so it’s like a small school. The lower level has the group cells and the upper level has the individual cells.”
Still leaning against the wall, Frolaytia used her chin to gesture down a corridor blocked by metal bars and doors at a few points. One wall contained a row of doors with peepholes and the other wall contained a row of windows covered with a thick wire mesh. The signs painted on the walls and floor indicated there was a stairway at the end.
The cells behind the bars had originally been individual cells, but they had been left with no choice but to throw up to about ten people into each one. While they had air conditioning, they had to share the blanket and toilet, so it was not exactly a comfortable living space.
“Skuld has her own cell, but the others are all in there together. Of course, asking for funding to expand the detention barracks would be an embarrassment to our unit.”
Frolaytia opened a nearby door.
Instead of Skuld’s interrogation room, it was the neighboring room. One wall was a one-way mirror and the rest of the room was filled with flat screen monitors and analysis equipment. Two indoorsy-looking soldiers were already in there. They may have been specialists in determining the veracity of a statement based on the speaker’s expression and eye movements.
The room beyond the special mirror had a table and two chairs just like a scene from a police drama. However, the furniture was bolted to the floor and the girl in one chair had her arms handcuffed to the top of the table.
It was Skuld.
She was the Trinity Style’s Pilot Elite. Or rather, she was one of its Elites.
On the other hand, the interrogator sitting across from her looked to be from the intelligence division.
The woman wore her uniform perfectly by the book in a different way than Frolaytia did. She had long black hair, thin-framed glasses, and giant breasts.
“Damn, I need to be careful. If I’m not, I might accidentally call her ‘Class Rep’.”
“Quenser, the intercom is active.”
He quickly began to cough, but the blushing glasses woman beyond the one-way mirror could not stop her shoulders from trembling.
Frolaytia casually spoke into the microphone sitting on top of the equipment.
“Sorry about killing your enthusiasm like that, Second Lieutenant Elfily, but duty is duty. Please get this started.”
“Understood. …Now, let’s try this again. Nice to meet you. My name is Elfily Classic. I belong to the 37th’s intelligence division and my rank is second lieutenant. I have been placed in charge of your interrogation.”
“Now for some jabs. How about we start with what is protected by international law? What is your name and affiliation? …Telling me that should not qualify as treason.”
After her name, the discussion continued to age, blood type, birthplace, height, and weight. It was all personal information, but it was made to gradually dig into one’s privacy and complexes. The questions were sometimes gentle and sometimes rude. It was all so varied that Quenser could not tell what the point of the questions was.
“She called these jabs, remember?” commented Frolaytia. “We’re observing the girl’s reactions.”
“This room is filled with two million euros’ worth of equipment and it isn’t just for decoration. We’re monitoring body temperature, perspiration, eye movements, facial muscle tension, changes in breath volume, and really just any kind of reaction people make when they lie. That said, an expert can fool all of that, so we like to fine-tune the equipment as much as possible before getting to the questions that truly matter.”
As the boring(?) questioning continued, Quenser finally heard a topic he cared about.
“I would like to ask about the Trinity Style.”
“Are you going to inject me with something if I don’t talk? Oh, but I hear using the mucous membrane of the nose is the latest trend. It leaves less of a mark after all.”
“The Object in question uses three Pilot Elites at once. I have a report saying you yourself admitted to that, so will holding your tongue do you any good here?”
“Curse him and his loose lips…”
Even through the one-way mirror, her low voice made Quenser’s heart skip a beat. It was impossible, but he still felt like she was looking right at him.
Meanwhile, the Class Re-…no, the second lieutenant in glasses continued speaking.
“This concerns your own safety in addition to our technological investigation and understanding of our enemy’s capabilities. How valuable you are to the Faith Organization will tell us how likely they are to target you while you are restrained here. If we do not understand that, we cannot continue to the next stage. That remains true whether you wish to return to the Faith Organization or to defect to the Legitimacy Kingdom.”
Skuld fell silent for a while, but she finally rattled the handcuffs holding her arms to the table. She clasped her fingers together and slowly provided the desired information.
“Our Norn always uses three pilots. The Elites are Skuld – that’s me – as well as Verdandi and Urd. You know where those names come from, don’t you?”
“Three goddesses from Norse mythology. They were the goddesses of fate or of time.”
“Not only do we work together, but we really are blood-related sisters. And that’s why I doubt they’ll show any mercy.”
“Did you think we got along just because we’re sisters? Once the disappointment starts to spread, the familial hatred will settle in. Their heads will boil with anger as they go on about me being a blot on the family name.”
“You mean they will not consider you expendable and leave you here because they have multiple Pilot Elites?”
“They’ll come after me for revenge. I 100% guarantee it.”
Skuld gave an exasperated shake of the head.
“As you know, the Norn’s design and specs can change. That changes who the Object’s main pilot is. …That previous one was Urd’s, but if Verdandi takes over, the Object’s traits will change entirely. What you did last time won’t work again.”
Frolaytia spoke without using the microphone.
“That also means Verdandi is the only card still up their sleeve. We don’t know what Skuld’s mode is, but they can’t use it with her here. Maybe it would be safer to make an attack and reveal that card.”
“No, not necessarily,” reflexively replied Quenser. “We can’t completely trust what Skuld says. That might have been Skuld’s mode last time, leaving them both Urd and Verdandi’s modes in reserve. It’s also possible all three sisters can use all three modes and they’re just better with their own than the others. If so, that’s three Objects times three people for nine patterns overall. With one person out of the equation, they still have six battle patterns left.”
“Perhaps. On top of that, we have no guarantee each sister only has the one mode. If each one has three or four, the combination of cards grows indefinitely.”
“My sisters will kill me,” said Skuld in the interrogation room.
The scratchy, resigned voice sounded out-of-place coming from such a young girl.
“They will come to kill me no matter what. Fate is absolute to the Norn, so they honestly believe that throwing off our plans for victory is a violation of our proper behavior. That is why they will kill me.”
“We have heard that the Faith Organization has developed a unique process for converting belief into a fighting spirit. Is that what this is?”
“Have you heard the term ‘berserker’?”
“Doesn’t that primarily refer to a method of numbing foot soldiers’ fear before making a charge?”
“It’s based in mass hysteria. Just like a rock star’s enthusiasm spreads to the audience during a concert. We act as an amplifier to boost the berserker effect. The greater our enthusiasm, the greater the frenzy among the berserkers. That atmosphere is then sent back to us, creating an even greater explosion of emotion. Then the process repeats.”
“In that case…”
“Our base zone is probably filled with war cries right about now. They’ll be yelling for the traitor’s head. What my sisters hate most of all is letting the heat die down. They will be keeping the engine running no matter what it takes.”
It was not a pleasant conversation.
Quenser decided to ask Frolaytia a question.
“What’s going to happen to Skuld now?”
“That depends on what she wants and what the higher ups are willing to allow. It’s possible she will defect to our side or she might be thrown back to the Faith Organization. She also might be treated as a hostage and used in a prisoner exchange to settle some troublesome diplomatic issue or another.”
What she was saying sounded simple, but there was no emotion in Frolaytia’s voice.
She then changed the subject.
“Anyway, that’s about as much as we can ask about her personally. Quenser, if you have any questions about the Trinity Style, tell Elfily through her intercom. If she’s in a good mood, she’ll ask about it.”
Quenser thought for a moment before doing so.
“Miss Elfily, if you have the chance, can you ask about something? The Trinity Style is composed of a bunch of small robots, so why are they fixated on making a giant Object? If they have spare robots, they should be able to make a second identical one. If it’s about the reactor, they could always put in a prototype one. Just thin out the armor a little and they might have been able to use two at once.”
Beyond the mirror, the glasses woman casually changed the flow of conversation.
“Miss Skuld, I have a question somewhat concerning your relationship with your sisters. The Trinity Style is composed of small robots…”
“Oh? I thought she might still be mad about what you said at the beginning, but it looks like she actually likes you, Quenser. Maybe that Class Rep has a thing for baby faces.”
“Frolaytia, the intercom is still on.”
Frolaytia started coughing, but it was too late. It was becoming unclear whether they were watching Skuld’s interrogation or enjoying how embarrassed the busty glasses Class Rep had grown.
Regardless, Skuld answered the question presented to her.
“The Object only has meaning by being an Object.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You don’t get it? It’s true we could make all sorts of things with the Dvergr. We could make a great number of them if they were on the level of tanks or armored trucks, but that would be meaningless. No one would fear that. The battle begins before a weapon is used. Only a second-rate weapon does not strike fear in the heart of the enemy before it is ever used. That is why we have no interest in anything but the most powerful Object. If we lowered the specs to split it into two or three, the enemy would just pick them off one by one.”
That was indeed one aspect of the clean wars touted by the world powers.
It was not enough to say you could never know until you tried.
When facing normal weapons like tanks or fighters, it was best to make sure the enemy never even thought about trying to use them against you. When facing another Object, you had to make sure the enemy knew their specs were hopelessly inferior before the battle began. That prevented wars from dragging on, that kept them clean, and that preserved world peace.
That was the modern trend.
And that was exactly why Skuld had reached her conclusion.
“My sisters will kill me.”
She had returned to her initial claim.
The danger she sensed was finally coming into view.
“The Norn must be the most powerful. All else must be sacrificed if it means maintaining its special position at the top. The Elite being captured alive will mar the ‘legend’. That is why Urd and Verdandi will do whatever it takes to resurrect that legend. The first thing they need to do is make a bloodbath out of the one who harmed the Norn’s status as the strongest.”
They left Skuld in the interrogation room and took a coffee break.
A time of elegant ladies and gentlemen began while watching the prisoner through the one-way mirror.
“Hey, no fair! The intelligence division gets coffee!? All we get is soap-like rations and lukewarm water!”
“This is a strategy to let the scent reach the restrained Elite and shake her heart by reminding her of the finer things in life. More importantly, you two!! Why do you keep calling me a class rep while I’m trying to work!?”
Quenser and Frolaytia both began coughing.
At any rate, Quenser used the confusion to grab some iced coffee for himself and began the discussion as if simply chatting.
“Man, that was some surprisingly heavy stuff back there.”
Quenser was a little disheartened, but Frolaytia and Elfily must have been used to it. The Class Re-…no, Elfily smiled his way.
“With Elites, it isn’t uncommon to find they were taken into the military for ‘protection’ due to a complicated upbringing or family environment. If the military feels like the most comfortable place for them, they won’t get any unwelcome ideas. That kind of restraint is quite effective given the modern system of clean wars settled by one-on-one battles.”
“(Hm, she really does look happy. Maybe she’s less a class rep than she is a gentle liberal arts teacher.)”
“Major, do not forget that I belong to the intelligence division which excels at gathering information!”
When Frolaytia started to cough on reflex, some ashes burst from the end of her kiseru like a tiny eruption.
Quenser was sitting across from her, so he was hit full in the face.
“Hot!? Wait! Low temperature candles are one thing, but I think pipe ashes are a little too advanced for me!!”
“Ah! What are you two doing!? C-come here. Start by cooling your forehead with this glass of iced coffee. …Um, is there anything in this survival kit I can use?”
“(She really does like to take care of people. Could it be…?)”
That was when Quenser and the two women heard an odd sound. It sounded like a great number of small things hitting the wall. Quenser initially thought of rain blowing in the wind, but it had been sunny outside. More importantly, the monitoring room next to the interrogation room had no windows. The walls were too thick to hear the rain so clearly even during a cyclone.
“Hm? What is that?”
Asking was not going to help, so Quenser walked to the door with the glass of iced coffee still pressed against his forehead. He could see what was going on through the corridor windows which were covered with wire mesh to prevent anyone from escaping.
At first, he had no idea what was going on.
It was completely dark. Unlike the windowless interrogation room and monitoring room, the corridor’s fluorescent lights were kept off during the day. Even so, it should not have been as dark as a school or hospital at night. It was almost like the sunlight from the windows was being completely blocked off.
The mystery sound had grown much louder.
When the boy looked over, the situation finally dawned on him.
It took a moment longer before the intense revulsion and terror assaulted him.
Black bugs were covering every inch of the windows.
The outside world had become a storm of tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of winged insects.
He did not know what to do.
He could not even tell if he had decided to step back. Whatever the case, he fell back onto his butt and screamed the only syllable that came to his blank mind.
His scream brought Frolaytia and Elfily from the monitoring room. They too were shocked when they saw it.
And by this point, Quenser had realized how strange this was.
“Wh-where are the guards?”
They were in the detention barracks, the prison that one’s own war criminals or captured enemy soldiers were thrown into. Unlike the other facilities, it had strict security, but no one showed up when Quenser screamed and no one had reported on the bugs. They had not even received a radio transmission.
What was going on outside?
Were those bugs really so violent that they could bring down soldiers equipped heavily enough to deal with escapees or rioters?
“Wh-what is this…?”
Elfily was dumbfounded by this threat that went beyond mere bullets or knives. Her mind’s ability to face a threat may have short-circuited. Quenser understood all too well what that was like.
The only one with any real guts was Frolaytia.
She narrowed her eyes and observed the black bugs covering the entire surface of the windows.
“They look like a type of bell cricket. I don’t know the exact name, though.”
“Because their chirping sounds like a bell. These look a lot like the ones I saw in a pet shop that specialized in the Island Nation.”
Frolaytia blew smoke from her seductive lips, but it did not reach the insects on the other side of the window.
“But this might be bad.”
“Why? When raising crickets, you feed them sliced cucumber or eggplant, right? Then this isn’t as bad as wasps or scorpions.”
“Bell crickets are omnivorous. They will even start eating each other if they aren’t given some occasional animal protein like dried sardines or ham. So with this many… Take a look at that, Quenser.”
“I-I’d rather not look at that disgusting mess!!”
“Just do it. Besides, bell crickets are nocturnal, so it isn’t normal for so many to be out during the day. They also generally can’t fly despite having wings, so it isn’t normal for so many of them to be covering the window. Most of all, most of these have faded to a slight brown instead of being pure black. Do you know what that means?”
“You don’t mean…”
It was busty Elfily who answered, not Quenser.
“Their instinctual behavior and color are meant to keep their natural predators from attacking them, right? So if they’ve abandoned that effort…”
“This might be what you call ‘brazen bugs’. When a swarm of locusts grows too large, they abandon their camouflaging coloration and begin attacking other animals and plants. This must be a similar phenomenon with the bell crickets.”
Frolaytia brushed up her bangs with a hand.
“And bell crickets are omnivorous. They normally only eat small bug carcasses and they wouldn’t think about actively preying on other creatures like this, but as you can see, things change when there are tens or even hundreds of thousands of them. Even we could be bitten to pieces if they swarmed us.”
It was not a nice death to think about.
Their focus naturally turned toward the window. Even the group that had been carefully observing Skuld through the one-way mirror was looking out into the corridor.
Some of the crickets were chewing on the wire mesh installed on the outside of the window and some kind of strange liquid was flowing out. Was that because they were squishing each other under their combined weight? Or had they started feasting on each other?
This was different from a bullet or knife. It was also different from being attacked by a lion or tiger. The thought of being brazenly eaten by creatures lower on the food chain brought feelings of humiliation and disgust. The worst part of all was the cruelty of how they could not be communicated with, how they could not be killed easily, and how they were entirely indiscriminate.
They knew all that, but what were they supposed to do now?
“I can’t believe this. It doesn’t matter how many bullets or explosives we have, there’s nothing we can do. We’ll use up all our ammo in no time and then they’ll swarm us,” said Quenser. “But if we ask the Princess to deal with them using the Baby Magnum, she would just blow away the maintenance base zone with us inside. …Hm? Come to think of it, what happened to the Princess!?”
He quickly pulled out his radio, but no amount of pressing buttons got any response.
He only heard even static.
“You’re kidding, right? Don’t tell me a bunch of bugs took out a colossal weapon that can survive a nuke!”
“No, they wouldn’t be able to do that much. Quenser, as a future engineer, you should know a lot of random trivia. Have you ever heard of insects being used to predict unexpected tornados?”
“When the radar picks up the bugs that are caught in the supercell, they know a tornado is probably coming. …Hold on.”
“Yes. Insects reflect electromagnetic waves. It normally isn’t a big deal, but when his many of them form a wall, they can probably cut off a weaker signal.”
That meant all the bugs swarming the maintenance base were separating the soldiers of the 37th from each other. It was like a blinding sandstorm outside and their allies had to be right there, but they could not reach each other.
“It might be best to stay put,” said Elfily while uneasily looking back and forth between the black window and the tablet that was of no use with communications cut off. “At the very least, there was no warning about this kind of natural disaster in the environmental report before this mission. That means this has not been seen in the last few decades. Plus, this is not something we can deal with using bullets or knives. We might take less damage if we wait for the storm to pass instead of trying to exterminate them with what we have on hand. Don’t these abnormal swarms of bugs tend to end fairly quickly?”
“Yes. It’s the sad story of the food chain. The more of them there are, the greater the threat, but they also end up eating each other. And as I said, bell crickets are perfectly willing to eat each other if there isn’t enough food. The problem should solve itself in two or three days.”
Quenser felt himself relax when he heard that passive solution.
He had truly been worried he would be ordered to build a handmade flamethrower and then run out to face the storm of bugs.
“Still…this is insane. Who would think these tiny bugs could paralyze a base for the weapon that ended the nuclear age and rules the current battlefield?”
“Insects and small animals were a constant nuisance in older wars too. You might cover the ultimate tank in dried grass for camouflage, but mice would use it as a bed and then chew through the wiring, turning it into a metal coffin.”
That reminded Quenser of running across Heivia having trouble with a malfunctioning vehicle. It had been something about a bunch of bugs getting into the engine. That may have been a sign of things to come.
However, this was a military facility and one made sturdy enough to prevent war criminals and POWs from escaping. Even if all hell had broken loose outside, the crickets could not get in so easily.
Or so he thought.
That idea proved naïve.
“Wait a second… What is this noise?”
He heard a bell-like chirping.
Frolaytia and Elfily looked up at the corridor ceiling in shock. It was the same reaction people gave during an earthquake or lightning strike.
“Are you sure it isn’t from outside the window?”
“No, it’s too clear for that. There aren’t many, but it seems some have gotten in somehow.” Frolaytia calmly shot down the Class Rep’s wishful thinking. “Quenser! We need to split up and check all the corridor’s windows and doors. Take some duct tape with you and apply it like weather stripping!!”
“Why just the corridor!? The cells also have windows!”
This time Elfily cut in with a powerful voice.
Quenser looked puzzled, so the busty glasses Class Rep continued.
Her face had grown pale.
“We cannot open the cell doors. The Faith Organization prisoners would rush out if we did!!”
“This is no time to be worried about that!”
They only had to press a button in the guard room.
No keys were needed. This kind of prison used strict security to keep people from getting in or out, but to ensure the bare minimum of human rights, there was always an emergency evacuation system that opened all of the cell exits and corridor doors.
But despite that…no, because of that, Elfily quickly stopped him.
Because it was easy, she could let him do it so easily.
“There are more than two hundred of them!! And there are only five of us including the analysts in the monitoring room. This might be a Legitimacy Kingdom base zone, but we can’t expect any reinforcements. If we open those doors, the detention barracks will become an isolated piece of Faith Organization territory!!”
“I can’t believe this,” spat out Quenser.
Painstakingly opening and closing each door to check on the windows would take too long. The crickets were getting in and they would quickly fill the entire building. Yet if they opened all the doors to ask for help, the Faith Organization prisoners could easily gang up on them. And fear of that had to be double for women like Frolaytia and Elfily.
The risk was too great either way.
Quenser understood that, but after thinking on it, he made his decision.
“Opening the cell doors is the only option.”
“Are you serious!?”
“The Faith Organization are human too, so we can explain the situation to them. The bugs on the other hand aren’t going to wait around! If they pour in here, we’ll definitely be eaten. There’s no persuading or threatening them! So we need to go with the option that has some slight chance of working!!”
Quenser and Elfily turned toward Frolaytia. After taking a puff on her kiseru, their commander exhaled the smoke.
“Let’s go with Quenser’s idea. If we don’t apply the weather stripping as soon as possible, we can’t survive.”
“~ ~ ~!!!???”
Elfily was about ready to stomp her feet in frustration, but Quenser ignored her and ran to the fire alarm on the wall. Once he smashed the glass and pressed the button, a shrill bell rang, red lights flashed, and all of the doors along the corridor slid open with an unsettling noise.
Men in neon prisoner uniforms rushed out, so Quenser raised his hands and shouted to them.
“If you want to head outside, be my guest!! But only if you have the guts to make an escape right now!!”
The cells had windows, so the prisoners would know the situation outside. A few of them still stepped forward with bloodshot eyes and it likely had to do with more than just being frustrated.
“What is-...? …!?”
A door slowly opened next to Quenser’s group and Skuld stepped out looking puzzled. That Pilot Elite was almost a target of reverence for the Faith Organization. The interrogation room had no windows, so she was clearly shocked by the truth she found before her eyes.
Frolaytia pulled a handgun from her waist.
However, she did not aim toward the prisoners. She aimed at the window right next to her.
That window was still absolutely covered with black insects.
“If I find I cannot expect all of you to act logically, I will immediately break this window. Then we will all be bug-food together. It would be a tragedy either way, but I’ll take that over being made into your plaything. Now, which will it be?”
“Help us. We need to apply weather stripping to the cell windows!”
Before they could waste any more time glaring at each other, Quenser tossed a few handcuff keys and rolls of duct tape to Skuld. When she saw the boy get to work on the corridor window, the twintail girl sighed and nodded. That seemed to settle it for the Faith Organization. Skuld followed Quenser and the soldiers given some duct tape returned to their cells.
“(Watch them carefully. They might be searching for something they can use as a weapon.)”
Elfily moved in close and whispered in Quenser’s ear while helping with the work.
She discreetly warned him without letting Skuld notice.
“(Wearing a plastic toothbrush down to a point is enough to kill and you gave them duct tape. Combine that with something else and they can make any kind of ‘science project’ they want. That is how things work here.)”
“I know that.”
“(I am not saying your decision was wrong, but you still need to be careful. And since you have explosives with you, you are the last one we can have falling into their hands.)”
“We’re done over here!”
A man in a prisoner uniform rushed out of a nearby cell.
Elfily ended her conversation, grabbed the duct tape from Quenser’s hand, and casually moved to another window.
The Faith Organization soldier continued speaking without noticing.
“Saint Skuld, allow me to do that so you need not dirty your hands …What is even going on here? What are those? Bell crickets!?”
“What’s your name?”
“Eric. Eric Kingsvalley. Nice to meet you.”
“I’m Quenser Barbotage. Just come with me! Oh, right…”
Quenser removed his backpack and handed it to Eric.
Elfily stared at him in shock from a short distance away, but he did not care.
“This is my Hand Axe plastic explosive. You take it. Carrying a weapon around like that is stifling me.”
“You can’t set them off without a fuse. Not even throwing them into a fire would work. I’ll keep those fuses, so now neither of us can detonate them.”
After some thought, Eric put the backpack on.
Then he and Quenser shook hands.
The hot-blooded exchange between guys must not have gotten through to her because Skuld tilted her head and cut in.
“What do we do now?”
“I don’t know! Just double check all the windows and doors! We can hear the crickets chirping from somewhere, so we need to seal up wherever it is as soon as we can!!”
Just as he started to do that, Eric came to a stop.
He and the other Faith Organization soldiers looked up to the ceiling.
“What is it?”
“It might not just be the windows and doors. I don’t know the exact layout of this place, but how do the ventilation ducts work?”
“Goddammit, are you serious!?”
They all looked up. It was a tall ceiling and the ventilation duct covers were out of reach. Then Skuld beckoned Quenser over with her index finger.
“You said your name is Quenser, right? Give me the tools and bend over. I’ll ride on your shoulders.”
“Saint Skuld! Allow one of us to take your place!!”
“Shut up. We don’t have time and we need someone light on top, don’t we?”
No one argued.
A lot went through Quenser’s mind as he did as he was told.
(Instead of using two Faith Organization people, she’s making sure Eric can still move freely. She hasn’t forgotten the most basic etiquette.)
“But who cares about the details when I get to have a cute girl’s legs and crotch wrapped around my head!?”
Skuld looked confused as she climbed onto his shoulders from behind with surprisingly shameless motions.
As soon as Quenser gathered strength in his back and straightened up, he nearly lost sight of reality thanks to the sensation on the back of his neck and his cheeks.
“There, right there. Stop, stop! Why do you keep moving back and forth like that!?”
That was of course because he wanted to delay her work and enjoy her warmth for as long as possible, gravity of the situation be damned, but then something went wrong.
Once Skuld removed the ventilation duct cover and stuck her head inside, she completely lost her balance.
Quenser nearly performed an accidental suplex on her, but since diligent Eric faithfully held his hands out from behind, they only fell to the ground. Eric and Quenser screamed when they looked to Skuld who had cutely fallen onto her butt.
A single black bell cricket sat on top of her head.
Quenser quickly brushed it off and Eric crushed it underfoot.
Only Skuld looked confused.
She had likely lost her balance after looking it in the eye at point-blank range, but she must not have known it had gotten in her hair. If she had, she would have been far more panicked.
“Crap! Crap, crap, crap!!”
Frolaytia ran over when she heard the commotion.
“What is it, Quenser? Give me an intelligible report!”
“There’s…some of…a few of them in here! A few crickets!!”
“Did they eat through the gas filter?”
Frolaytia sounded annoyed and she tore her medals and battalion patch from her coat. Then she stripped off the coat.
“We need to buy some time. Stuff a few balled-up coats into the ventilation ducts to block them off. They aren’t big enough for someone to crawl through, so it should be easy to block them off.”
“B-but! There isn’t just the one duct. We would have to figure out which filter was eaten through and-…!!”
Elfily trailed off because the entire corridor shook and tilted unnaturally. No, the entire building did. The solid detention barracks creaked like a rickety suspension bridge.
Quenser grew pale.
“What is it now?”
“This is bad,” replied Elfily.
She gave a blatantly cautious look to Skuld and Eric who had the Hand Axe.
“They must have eaten through the tires. The entire maintenance base zone is made from a convoy of more than one hundred vehicles, so all of the buildings are actually a number of panels put together on top of those flat vehicles!”
The weight was distributed between thirty or forty tires as tall as Quenser was, but if one of them blew, that equation would no longer work. With the extra weight, the odds were good the rest would blow too.
And if the overall balance had shifted…
“The entire detention barracks will collapse onto its side?”
If that happened, the windows and doors would be the least of their worries. The panels of the exterior walls would bend, break, and create large gaps. Once the omnivorous crickets poured in by the hundreds of thousands, the soldiers equipped with puny guns and explosives would be bug-food.
“Does that mean we can’t hope to hole up here?”
Eric asked that while protecting Skuld and looking like even the saliva he needed to gulp had dried up.
“Then what do we do!? Are we just going to wait here for the bugs outside to eat us!?”
The rain-like sound of the bugs on the windows applied pressure to all of the human hearts inside.
Quenser thought and then looked to Frolaytia.
“Frolaytia, tell me more about the gas filter they ate through.”
“Hm? Okay. I think it was a filtration membrane type rather than an activated charcoal type. I believe several thin stocking-like membranes were placed over it.”
“Next question: Does this maintenance base have any buildings built solidly on the ground instead of on a vehicle?”
“A few impromptu storage buildings next to the Object maintenance facility. The wreckage of the Trinity Style took up some of the space for the other equipment, so I believe they threw the less-used equipment in there.”
“Then that’s our only path to survival. If we escaped to anywhere else, the tires could blow just like here.”
Elfily sounded like she was questioning his sanity.
That was hardly surprising. Anyone would think that with those brazen bugs covering the windows so thickly they blocked out the sun.
“You’re saying we should leave here and run to those other buildings!? That’s suicidal!!”
“So is staying here. And once the building does topple over, we’ll lose all chance at survival. We won’t know which direction to run. With the windows like that, it must be worse than a sandstorm out there. You won’t even be able to see a few dozen centimeters away. If we’re thrown out there while panicked, there’s no way we can survive.”
“Are you saying we can reach the sturdy storage building if we remain calm?”
Eric spoke up as the representative of the prisoners.
He continued to stand protectively in front Pilot Elite Skuld and he seemed to be choosing his words carefully in her place. He and the rest of the Faith Organization may have been judging Quenser here.
“If you have a compass and focus only on the direction, you can reach your destination without being able to see. And were you listening, Eric? The filter is only as thick as a stocking, yet it was only just now eaten through. There are still only a few crickets in here, so their jaws aren’t that strong.”
“Are you forgetting they can eat through military tires meant to bear several thousand tons!?”
“Yes, but those are on the outside, so the crickets would have been targeting them from the very beginning. That means it takes them a long time to blow a tire. Again, they aren’t that powerful. Our uniforms, Skuld’s special suit, and your prison uniforms are all sturdy. Wrap duct tape around the collar and sleeves and I think we can walk outside for a short time.”
Then he looked around and spoke to the other Faith Organization soldiers.
“Also, we can protect our faces and heads with duct tape too. We would suffocate if we covered our mouth and nose, so we’ll have to stick with towels there. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do about our eyes. We don’t have enough goggles for everyone, so we’ll just have to use our own hands to protect them the best we can. Is that good enough!?”
“I see. So only the great Legitimacy Kingdom gets to safely use goggles, hm?” asked Eric. “And are you going to send us out first to see if we get eaten?”
“That would be best,” admitted Quenser. “But unfortunately, I’m only a student. I can’t make use of that kind of privilege.”
“Wait. You mean…?”
“I’m going without goggles too. We’re all in this together, so is anyone coming with me!? Or will you stay here and wait for the building to fall over!? The choice is yours, but we don’t have much time!!”
The entire corridor gave another disconcerting creak.
The building was already twisting and it could rupture at any time. If a gap opened and the bugs got in, all of this discussion would be meaningless.
It was only a matter of time.
“Get a clue already. If we wanted to kill you, we wouldn’t have taken you prisoner. Food costs money no matter who eats it. Why would we bother spending money on you just to trick you later? It would’ve been faster to just shoot you on the battlefield. Right?”
Eric began to open his mouth, but he must not have had an argument because he glanced over to his comrades for help. None of them complained, so he finally turned back to Skuld who nodded.
“Let’s go with that. The Faith Organization and Legitimacy Kingdom doesn’t have to start getting along, but I’m only here because that Quenser took me with him when he didn’t have to.”
“If you say so, Saint Skuld.”
That settled it for them.
“Let’s get started.”
Once Quenser said that, they got down to business. They sealed off the important parts of their clothes with duct tape and covered their mouths and noses with towels.
Frolaytia whispered to Quenser from nearby.
“(You need to give Second Lieutenant Elfily a thank-you gift later on, Quenser.)”
“(It might have sounded like she was snapping at you before, but that cut off any complaints the Faith Organization might have made. If they had started a flood of complaints, you wouldn’t have been able to deal with them all. I guess she really is part of the intelligence division.)”
Quenser glanced over at Elfily who was wrapping duct tape around herself not far away, but she looked away when she noticed him.
Meanwhile, they completed their preparations.
They were of course all worried. Training books for new soldiers said nothing about situations like this, but waiting around would mean waiting for the bugs to eat them.
“Once you’re outside, only focus on the compass in your hand. The safe storage building is eight hundred meters southeast. Got that? Eight hundred meters! The compass will tell you the direction, so calculate the distance using your steps. There will be almost zero visibility, so you won’t be able to see even a meter away. Looking up will probably kill your senses of distance and direction! So focus on the compass in your hand!! Only on the compass!! Got that!?”
Quenser shouted at them to motivate them.
“As I said, each individual cricket isn’t that strong. They won’t break through your uniform right away! So as long as you don’t get lost, you can reach the storage building safely. Don’t think about rushing forward. No matter how many bugs get on you, keep moving in the same direction at the same pace. This is the safest way. So let’s do this. It’s time to open the door!! Are you ready!?”
Quenser and Frolaytia tore off the duct tape covering the door. They were discarding their own temporary peace of mind, but they had to say goodbye to that. That “temporary” peace of mind was a bottomless swamp. Once they sank into it, they would be stuck and could only wait for death.
That action changed everything.
Elfily and Skuld both gulped and looked to the door.
This would normally be unthinkable, but the detention barracks were of no more use. This felt like a symbol of that.
“We just have to do it.”
Quenser unlocked the door and grabbed the doorknob.
As he pressed his shoulder against the heavy metal door, he gave one last yell.
Instead of encouraging the others, it may have been to make sure he himself did not come to a stop.
“Begin! Let’s go!!”
He made up his mind and opened the door.
A moment later, he saw something truly unexpected.
An intense wave of heat struck his entire body.
Instead of a black storm, he saw an all-encompassing sea of flames.
A little earlier, Heivia had also been facing the black hell.
Since he had been fighting the stalled vehicle outdoors, he would have noticed the strange situation earlier than Quenser and the others.
“Dammit. What the hell is that!?”
At first, it looked like a black tsunami approaching from beyond the horizon.
Once the guard in the watchtower realized it was a swarm of bugs, a biological sense of fear and disgust must have come over them. Heivia could hear them firing their semi-auto sniper rifle wildly.
But even if each bullet took out a few bugs, it did not even make a dent in a swarm of tens or even hundreds of thousands.
Heivia threw his tools aside as soon as he saw the watchtower entirely swallowed up by the black mass.
His face stiffened with fear as he turned tail and fled.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!!”
He used his radio to inform the others of the oddity and ran into a nearby building. It was the Baby Magnum’s maintenance facility.
The maintenance soldiers working inside those thick walls may not have understood the gravity of the situation.
But once they saw the storm of bugs covering the windows and sounding like heavy raindrops, the fear finally caught up to them.
They quickly sealed all the entrances, but a few had gotten inside. They quickly crushed those and finally breathed a sigh of relief.
The old maintenance lady clicked her tongue.
“The radios are cut off. Now we can’t contact the Princess while she tests the Baby Magnum out there.”
“You mean I just missed her!? Why now of all times!?”
The large space meant for the Baby Magnum was oddly empty.
Heivia cursed, but that would not solve anything.
The old lady gathered the maintenance soldiers and started gathering some equipment.
They were probably making some kind of weapon to fight back.
But what would be any use against such a large swarm of bugs? Heivia looked out one of the relatively unaffected windows and saw a pillar of fire. Someone had probably made an impromptu flamethrower out of a fuel vehicle, but they were hopelessly outnumbered. They would be roasting quite a few of them, but dozens as many flew in to swallow up those people. Some of them flew to the humans while still burning, as if to take the soldiers out with them.
“What do we do? What are we supposed to do about this?”
“We just have to figure something out on our own. C’mon, if you’re gonna be useless, at least get out of the way of our work.”
Heivia looked dubiously back at the old lady. The threat of the bugs was one thing, but that old lady was oddly calm after seeing such a hopeless scene.
The old lady appeared to be gathering nonlethal gas grenades used for riot suppression.
“Listen, our opponent is outdoors! We won’t be able to kill them without one hell of a powerful smokescreen! These are made to be safe, but a few small adjustments and we can turn them into a powerful insecticide. Our resources are limited, so I can only show you how once. Anyone who screws it up and wastes one will be tied up outside as bug-food!!”
Insecticide was the best way of killing insects.
The answer was so obvious that Heivia actually laughed.
He had been too overwhelmed to even reach that most obvious answer.
And when they were only up against small bugs.
“Will that really work?”
“That depends on the wind. If we’re lucky, it’ll cover almost the entire maintenance base in a smokescreen.”
The old lady covered her nose and mouth with a scarf and quickly manipulated the strong-smelling chemical.
“You get ready for dealing with things afterwards. We have to do something about the bugs to rescue the soldiers collapsing out there, but we’re using a smokescreen of insecticide. That’s harmful to humans too, so we need to drag the victims out of there and perform first aid as soon as the bugs are dead. You remember your rescue training, right? Let’s get started!!”
They did nothing wrong.
The insecticide using nonlethal gas grenades was a more effective weapon than bullets or knives and they showed commendable courage for opening the doors protecting them to aim the gas grenade launchers outside to rescue the soldiers still out there.
But there was one ominous factor out there: the impromptu flamethrower using a fuel vehicle.
Gas grenades and hairspray were made pretty much the same. They used pressurized gas to spray out the liquid inside as an aerosol. A number of gases could be used, but due to environmental concerns, propane gas had become more common than Freon or carbon dioxide.
And thus, the gas grenades would burn.
As soon as it made contact with the flamethrower’s flames, the smokescreen meant to rescue them all detonated and created a sea of flames.
Quenser flinched back from the intense wave of heat and tried to flee back inside.
But the sole of Frolaytia’s boot kicked him in the back and pushed him back outside.
“We can’t turn back now! If the leader slows down, the odds of survival for everyone following you drops!! You started this, so get going, Quenser!!”
“Dammit! What the hell is going on!?”
Half in desperation, Quenser ran out into the outside world that reeked of gasoline.
There was nothing but fire as far as the eye could see. The heat was like a solid wall and he thought it would burn his hair away. Black smoke caught in his throat. On top of that, the swarm of crickets had not been wiped out. They broke through the screen of flames and smoke to rush toward this new “food”.
Sharp pain reached him through his uniform and the duct tape, but not because he was being bitten. It was the pain of them flying into him. He knew that, but a strange sweat still covered him and he felt like they were eating him to the bone. The source of the pain also seemed to be gradually shifting.
A dull vibration reached him from behind. He could not look back because it would throw off his sense of direction, but the detention barracks had probably toppled over. There was no going back. There were no safe walls or doors. He could only continue forward.
(My compass! The compass in my hand! I need to calculate the distance using my steps…)
He looked down at his hand to shake off the nightmare around him.
Someone was lying on the ground nearby and he tripped over them.
“Wah, wah! Waaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!”
He lost his compass as he tripped and he had no way to search for it with the low visibility. And who had that been? Had the explosion taken them out or had they been eaten by the bugs? Just what was going on here?
His mind started going blank with panic, but then someone grabbed his arm and tugged him forward.
It was Eric from the Faith Organization.
“It’s okay. We’ll be okay!! If we make it eight hundred meters southeast we can get through this, right!? I have a compass! We can survive together!!”
“It’s too late for that guy back there. He isn’t moving. But we’re alive, so we have to survive this!!”
Only after Eric grabbed his shoulders and yelled into his face did Quenser regain his focus on reality.
He shook his head and spoke while covered in bugs.
“Sorry. Let’s go. Let’s survive this.”
“That’s more like it!!”
Eric slapped him on the back to urge him onward. The Legitimacy Kingdom and Faith Organization shared a compass to slowly advance.
“What happened to Skuld? Why are you alone!?”
“Don’t look back! We got separated almost immediately. I’m worried about her too, but we can’t afford to lose our sense of direction. We can only pray that the others are heading this way too!!”
It was like a journey through hell.
There was nothing but black bugs and red flames as far as the eye could see. Eight hundred meters to the southeast was the shortest distance, but it was all over if they found a wall of flames in their way. They could not let themselves be enveloped in flames, but they also could not hope to bypass the flames with so little visibility. If they tried, they would lose their sense of direction and lose track of where their destination was.
They were nearly praying as they walked.
The pain of the crickets striking their bodies forced them to continue focusing on reality.
They could not keep up even the mental capacity necessary to think about time, distance, direction, or even the distinction between enemy and ally. Their minds went so maddeningly blank that they nearly forgot their own names. They became machines that simply moved their legs in silence.
Even so, they made it.
Without running into any walls of flames, their hands reached the distant storage building’s wall.
“We did it…”
Even in the middle of hell, Quenser smiled.
“We did it, goddammit!! We’ve finally arrived!!”
They had apparently been near the head of the group, so they grabbed the doorknob for the human entrance with bugs still covering their bodies. Fortunately, they did not find that someone else had already taken refuge there and locked the door. It opened like normal and they poured inside.
Frolaytia and Elfily arrived together.
There was still no sign of Skuld, the Pilot Elite who had been with them when they had left.
“Hurry,” said Elfily. “Hurry up and shut the door. This is all meaningless if the crickets get inside!!”’
Quenser turned around in shock, but the eyes behind her glasses were serious.
“We can’t! We can’t do that, Miss Elfily! There are still Faith Organization prisoners out there. They risked their lives to reach this building! If we shut them out, they’ll all die!! We’d be betraying them after convincing them to do this!”
“The same fate awaits them if the building fills with crickets. They can’t escape hell whether they arrive or not, so shutting the door is the only option!!”
“They would have shut us out if the roles were reversed. We just happened to get here first. That’s all this is. Or am I wrong!? Do you have some proof that they would have let us in!?”
“I don’t care if they would or not!!”
“Shut the door, Quenser Barbotage.”
The student heard a quiet metallic sound as Elfily pulled a handgun from her waist and aimed it at his face.
Still, he shook his head.
“Shut the door, Quenser!!”
She shouted at him, but he pressed his back against the open door. Even if she shot him, he would collapse against the door and continue to hold it open.
Just as she clearly clicked her tongue, the second group arrived.
Then the third and the fourth.
As the number of Faith Organization soldiers grew, Elfily lost her influence. She would be unable to deal with all of them even if she fired every bullet she had on hand.
And of course, plenty of bugs flew in with the people.
There were more than two hundred people in all.
After grabbing Skuld’s arm and pulling her in last, Eric shouted from within the bugs.
“Is that everyone? Okay! Close it, Quenser!!”
“Is everyone accounted for!?”
“Yes! It really is okay! I’m not lying!! So close it!!”
He shut the door with his entire body.
A deluge of bell-like chirping filled the building. More than just a few hundred had gotten inside. The number covering the floor and walls clearly reached quadruple digits. Normally, this would mean the building was contaminated and far from safe.
But that was not the case.
“Huh? They aren’t attacking us?”
Elfily looked confused as she kept her gun in her hand and breathed heavily.
Frolaytia explained as she observed the situation.
“These are ‘brazen bugs’. They ignore the normal pyramid structure to attack even large beasts when there are hundreds of thousands of them. …But if there aren’t that many, they lose their advantage and return to being obedient bugs.”
This was just like the cricket Quenser had seen in the duct.
It had been so close by, but it had only sat there chirping. Without a giant swarm, they would not try to bite people.
“Split them up and they’re just bugs.”
Quenser slowly stood up.
“They don’t stand a chance against us now.”
The insect extermination began.
It was officially to ensure the safety of the storage building, but was that really why? As they crushed the nearly defenseless bugs with their boots or with mops, they may really have been releasing their built up frustrations.
They did not feel sorry for the bugs or find the action unpleasant.
Their hearts had entirely numbed over.
“Goddammit! Goddammit goddammit goddammit!!”
As he crushed them underfoot, Quenser’s chest filled with a hopeless lethargy and emptiness.
With an opponent that fought back and would try to eat him if he let his guard down, he would have been able to slaughter them without issue. But these crickets were different. They just stood on the floor, stared up at him with emotionless eyes, and vibrated their wings to create the clear bell-like chirping. It felt like they were placing all the blame on the rampaging humans.
He started feeling silly going along with it, so he moved away from the commotion and leaned against a wall without any bugs on it.
He removed the towel from his mouth and nose.
“What the hell is this…?”
He slid down to a seated position.
Even with the sea of flames outside, the swarm showed no sign of being wiped out. And yet having the Baby Magnum work toward exterminating them would only blow the maintenance base to smithereens. Could they open the door and lure small groups of them in at a time to squish them like they were now? How many days would that take to finish? The Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers still outside would be eaten to the bone by then and Quenser’s group had no food or water. They could not live in this storage building forever.
So what could they do?
How were they supposed to survive this?
That was when Eric of the Faith Organization spoke to him. Quenser slowly looked up and then looked puzzled. Eric was not alone. He was gently guiding Pilot Elite Skuld by the hand like an escort at a dinner party.
“Saint Skuld wishes to discuss something with you,” said Eric. “She said she could trust you.”
“Skuld did? What do you want?”
He honestly did not think they had much of a connection. They had spoken a bit in the detention barracks, but they had been enemies during the battle the night before and she would not know he had been listening to her interrogation through the one-way mirror.
But she seemed to see things differently.
“You hold a special position among the Legitimacy Kingdom,” explained Eric. “Being a student instead of a soldier definitely helps. To be honest, I’d prefer to use you as a point of contact than those young women.”
“I see. So what is this about?”
Skuld casually held her hand.
One of the bell crickets was clinging to the gentle curve of her palm.
“It’s okay. This one won’t bite anymore.”
Skuld remained calm and gave the chirping insect an emotionless look.
“There’s something that bothers me about these bell crickets.”
“Something that bothers you?”
“I’ve seen them before.”
At first, Quenser did not know what she meant. Insects were not exactly rare. The issue here was the ridiculous number of them.
But Skuld had more to say.
“These are not naturally occurring bugs.”
“The Faith Organization has a project known as Draupnir. Do you know what that is?”
Quenser tilted his head, so Eric answered for him with a bitter smile.
“It’s a story from Norse mythology. It’s a gold bracelet owned by the god Odin and it increases in number after a set number of days. Just like the biscuits in that Island Nation nursery rhyme. So no matter how much money Odin spends, he will always have more. It’s a symbol of wealth.”
“Our Draupnir project was meant to secure a large amount of food,” explained Skuld. “The Objects stand out the most, but food is a necessary part of war, right? If we could develop a food source that would never run out, don’t you think we could wage war much more easily?”
At first, the bell crickets did not seem to have anything to do with a project to develop a food source, but if he removed all of his presuppositions…
“Hold on!! Are you saying these crickets are your food source!?”
“Apparently so,” said Eric. “I’ve only heard rumors, but bugs are near the bottom of the food chain and they can multiply endlessly in the right environment. Apparently some old guys in a lab were all excited about it being a more efficient source of protein than raising cattle or pigs.”
He made it sound like some theoretical issue, but then Skuld cut in.
“Oh? Aren’t the fries the most popular dish among the infantry berserkers? What do you think they squish up to shape into those?”
Eric faced the other way and spewed some noises that will be omitted here.
Skuld remained calm.
“Draupnir is a genetically modified food insect and I believe that is what these are. For one thing, there are no bell crickets in the Antsiranana District’s Experimental Battlefield Madagascar. They should only be found in the Island Nation and Asia.”
“Frolaytia did say she’s seen them in a pet shop that specialized in the Island Nation.”
It was possible there were nocturnal chirping bugs on this island and an amateur might not be able to tell them apart, but that changed when they were clearly bell crickets.
Unnatural insects had been brought to an unnatural place.
Had it all been intentional?
“So they’ve been genetically modified to breed like crazy and never run out no matter how many you eat?” groaned Quenser. “I did hear crickets chirping all over the place last night. Had they already started multiplying then?”
“Let me make one thing clear. The Faith Organization only sees Draupnir as a project to provide the soldiers with food. I swear to you that they were not developed for use as a biological weapon.”
“I understand that. These are far too difficult to control to use them like that. We just have to pray your higher ups don’t see what happened here as a success.” Quenser wiped the sweat from his brow. “But this has given me some hope.”
“Skuld, you said these bell crickets have had their genes messed with, right? That’s fine, but do you know how that was done?”
“Only in general. I think a few of their chromosomes were intentionally damaged with chemicals and then they were crossbred for generation after generation. In a way, they had their genes damaged.”
“In other words, the abnormal level of breeding and growth came from damage to their chromosomes?”
“What about it?”
“It’s simple. The simpler a creature’s structure, the more easily their genes change due to outside stimuli. It’s enough for the flu to be different every year. And between humans and bugs, the bugs are much more easily affected.”
Quenser paused for a beat.
“These Draupnir are easily-altered bugs to begin with and their genes will be even more unstable after the intentional damage done to them. That means we just need one last push. If we damage the chromosomes of these killer crickets, we might be able to wipe them all out as their cells break down.”
“There are a few ways to alter genes. As you said, the easiest and most effective method is getting some help from chemicals, but you can also use UV, IR, coal tar, or asbestos. I think the solvent used for printing would work too. Really, just anything that’s been labelled carcinogenic should work.”
“Printing solvent? So what about Object paint?”
“They wouldn’t let our Elite Princess anywhere near something dangerous like that. Plus there’s something else that’s even more common.”
“Extremely high-power microwaves. If we send out radar waves at max levels, we can exterminate all of the crickets swarming the maintenance base.”
After they suggested their plan, Frolaytia created a map of the maintenance base zone using the tools and cans in the storage building. Normally that would not be something to show the Faith Organization POWs, but the base zone was made of vehicles and could thus be freely rearranged. If they did things right, this would not reveal any critical information.
“It’s nearby. The control tower and radar facility are only fifty meters west of here. Head there and we can send out high power radar waves just as Quenser suggested.”
They knew what they had to do.
Then something strange happened.
No one had been moving in the slightest, but as soon as Quenser raised his hand, Skuld did as well. And she was not the only one. Eric and Elfily did too.
“If Saint Skuld is heading out there, of course I am too.”
“The people suffering out there are Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers. We have to do something.”
Finally, more and more hands were raised by Faith Organization soldiers who Quenser did not know or recognize. He realized this was never going to end if he did not put a stop to it himself.
“Okay, okay!! We’ll be going, so the rest of you wait here. We wouldn’t get the work done any faster even if we all went!”
They once more covered their mouth and nose with towels and used duct tape to close up any part of their clothing the bugs could get in through. That did not take much for Skuld whose skintight special suit already covered her entire body.
“Then let’s go. Close the door behind us as soon as we’re out.”
Their march through hell began anew.
Everywhere they looked, they only saw bugs, bugs, bugs!! The sea of flames was still burning just as strong, so the bell crickets were flying around like sparks as they themselves burned. They nearly lost track of distance and direction when faced with the overwhelming sight, but they desperately put up with the pain and supported each other’s bodies as they relied on their compasses to take one step at a time.
A mere fifty meters felt like it took years off their lives.
Quenser was gasping for breath by the time he placed his hands on the control tower’s wall. Technically, it was the giant tire of the vehicle at its base. He felt along to circle around it in search of the stairs up into the control tower.
Suddenly, the reliable feeling of the tire vanished.
The visibility was almost down to zero, but when he strained his eyes, he saw the tire floating upwards, despite being taller than he was.
No, it was not floating.
“Waaah!? I-it’s falling! It’s falling over!!”
“Move away, Quenser!!”
An arm that likely belonged to Eric pulled him back just as the air was stirred up. A gust of wind caused by great pressure briefly blew away the black smoke and crickets. The screen blocking their view was split apart as if by a giant’s sword.
What had caused this was obvious.
It was the same as the detention barracks they had come from. A few of the tires had been eaten through and the weight distribution had collapsed, causing a chain reaction of bursting tires. Then the building had been unable to maintain its balance. And since this was a control tower rising toward the sky, its center of gravity was higher up, making it easier to lose balance. It fell over all at once.
A deafening roar and tons of dust scattered out, blowing away the flying insects.
“Ahh.” Elfily cried out in despair. “The control tower! The radar! Now we can’t give it our commands. They machinery inside must have been smashed to pieces!!”
The swarm of crickets filled the empty space and the world became hopelessly closed off once more.
Even so, Quenser clenched his teeth and walked over to the collapsed control tower. He felt the sharp pain of the insects tackling him and they covered his body, but he could not give up now. He had no idea how many soldiers were collapsed across the base. He could not calculate how many lives were depending on his decision here. He could not just give up and head back.
A cricket flew into one of his eyes, narrowing his vision. A dull pain stabbed deep into his brain.
He managed to climb inside through a broken window. There were already tons of bugs inside. The bloody soldiers groaning in pain had likely been the ones working inside when the tower collapsed. There were countless bugs covering their bodies, but pulling them off one at a time would be meaningless now.
Quenser looked around the smashed-up room and approached what looked like a radar screen.
He reached for it, but Skuld, who had to know more about radars than him, shook her head.
“The display isn’t right. In fact, it’s completely dead. I don’t know if it was the impact of the fall or the crickets chewing through the wiring, but this radar is useless.”
That was the last thing he had wanted to hear.
As the world grew dark before his eyes, he grabbed a nearby microphone. He was almost drowning in a sea of bugs, but he managed to force out a voice.
“Control to Baby Magnum, control to Baby Magnum …Can you hear me, Princess? If you can, then help us!!”
“What will this accomplish?” groaned Eric who was similarly buried in bugs. “No one can help us even if we do get an SOS out. Firing an Object’s cannons will just turn us to mincemeat.”
But Quenser viewed things differently.
This was not just a desperate shot in the dark.
He gave his answer as Skuld looked puzzled next to him.
“It never had to be this radar that we used. As long as I had communications equipment powerful enough to break through this swarm, I could ask the Princess for help. Isn’t that right?”
He looked to Skuld as if he were confirming a perfectly normal fact.
“Objects are covered in weapons, so their radars have to be even more powerful than the base’s!!”
There was no light and there was no sound.
The Baby Magnum simply scattered powerful radar waves in every direction. Soon thereafter, the tens or even hundreds of thousands of bell crickets fell to the ground like their power switch had been flipped.
Quenser gasped for breath while tearing the duct tape from his body.
Exterminating all those bugs was not the end of this. First they had to rescue the injured. Then they had to report on the damage caused by collapsed buildings and chewed-through wiring. They also had to extinguish the sea of flames. And if they did not dispose of the bug corpses littering the base, they could easily become a hotbed of disease.
A few of the prisoners did not show up when they were counted.
They had probably used the commotion to escape and were currently running through the humid jungle. If the Faith Organization learned about the damage here, they could make another attack with the Trinity Style piloted by Urd or Verdandi.
“Now I’m nervous,” he said without thinking.
“Yes,” replied the person next to him.
It was not the Princess or Heivia.
Faith Organization Pilot Elite Skuld sat on the ground there.
“But this was always going to happen. Urd and Verdandi will never forgive me. Even if I tried to escape this island, they would attack at some point along the way.”
“What is it?”
“Nothing really.” Quenser shook his head. “I just realized you didn’t run off is all. It does seem some of the prisoners fled into the jungle.”
“We have no idea if those were the only Draupnir around here. Besides, they have a base to return to while I’m being hunted by my own people. Frankly, I’m amazed that the people like Eric decided to stay.”
Quenser took another breath.
It had been a horrible day since morning, but this seemed to signal the end of that.
“Then we’re in this together. Once again, it’s nice to meet you.”
Skuld stared at the proffered hand in shock, but then she hesitantly reached out her own hand and grabbed it.
Panting breaths filled the jungle.
They were carelessly rustling through the underbrush, but they did not notice they were leaving plenty of hints for any pursuers. They just wanted to get away from the Legitimacy Kingdom maintenance base as quickly as possible and then return to the Faith Organization base. That was the only thing on their minds.
They were optimistic.
They had only been captured because the Norn had retreated without fighting in the very, very end. They had been left behind. The military would feel indebted to them for that and they could provide useful information on the damage to the Legitimacy Kingdom. They were confident they would be warmly welcomed back instead of judged as fools who could not even make a suicide attack.
If a surprise attack was made on the maintenance base zone, the prisoners like Skuld and Eric might be killed too, but these soldiers cared about their own wellbeing first and foremost.
Yes, they were optimistic.
“…!? Hey, what are you doing? Don’t stop! You’re in the lead, aren’t you!? What’s the holdup!?”
“No, wait. Be quiet…”
They came to a stop and strained their ears.
Even their own breathing seemed in the way.
And soon, they knew they were not just hearing things.
They heard clear chirping.
It was the very last sound they had wanted to hear.
Unpleasant sweat poured from their bodies and they just about started hyperventilating, but they still slowly, slowly turned around as if an invisible hand held their heads.
And there they saw…