HEAVY OBJECT:Volume7 Chapter 1
Chapter 1: A Deadly Firefight between Two Idiots >> Mock Battle in Oceania
“Here we are again, Oceania-side soldiers. How many times is this again?”
Private Heivia Winchell muttered those words while smearing black and sand colors on his cheeks. Needless to say, this was a type of desert camouflage.
“It sure doesn’t feel like February. In a certain island nation, they give the sexy guys chocolate on Valentine’s, right!? That kind of lovely event would’ve been perfect for me! What happened!? Then again, getting a ton of chocolate in this horrid heat might qualify as harassment.”
In an age of sensors and other electronics on even the smallest guns, types of camouflage had been developed specifically for that age. What Heivia was smearing on his face had chemical compounds that prevented sensors from detecting his exposed skin.
He leaned up against the fence surrounding the maintenance base zone and continued applying his “makeup”. Ten or so soldiers were gathered around him and also preparing.
A short female soldier named Myonri held her face paint case in both hands and hesitantly spoke up.
“U-um, what am I supposed to do with this again?”
“You’re doing it all wrong, virgin girl. You can’t make the color so dark around your eyes! The whites of your eyes show up the most, so you have to leave the color light around them to blend them in. You gradually grow darker as you move out. You can’t have any sudden changes in color.”
“If we put camouflage on here, won’t we trap the sand in with it?”
“We’re about to start a battle, so I’d be more worried about being covered in mud and bloody vomit,” said Heivia in annoyance.
Meanwhile, he grabbed a bandanna with a large crescent moon pattern.
As each of them finished applying their “makeup”, they tied on the bandannas so it covered the lower half of their face like bank robbers in a Western. The crescent moon was positioned just right to look like a large slit of a mouth.
“That’s such a terrible taste.”
“What matters is that it shows up well.”
As he listened to Myonri, Heivia grabbed his assault rifle and pulled out the magazine. He looked down at the rifle bullets held in place with a clasp.
While feeling annoyed at his one friend’s hesitation, Heivia stuck the magazine back in the rifle and pulled back the cocking lever to load the first bullet. He then brought his radio to his mouth.
“Team A is ready. What about the others?”
“You’re the last ones, slowpokes. Teams B-D are all ready. We can begin on your signal.”
Heivia glanced over at Myonri.
Instead of a heavy weapon like a light machine gun or assault rifle, she held a small and lightweight PDW like a pilot would carry in case of an emergency landing. It was commonly known as a “full auto in a business bag”.
But she was not carrying the lightweight weapon because she was a girl.
It was because her other equipment was quite heavy.
“How’s the scissor opener?”
“I tested it three times. It really scares me to carry it around.”
“Not being slowed down by a door can make all the difference. You’re our lifeline, so bear with it.”
“This tool stabs a giant pair of scissors into the gap of the door using explosives and then uses a motor to forcibly crush the lock. Did you ever think about what happens if it goes off by accident while I’m carrying it on my back?”
“It’d be your own damn fault. If you weren’t earning all those weird qualifications, you wouldn’t be stuck with all the odd equipment.”
As he spoke, Heivia turned toward the direction of their objective.
He was not looking outside the maintenance base zone.
He was looking to the inside.
He pointed his assault rifle toward the people who he would normally have called his allies.
In the end, humans had a way of searching for enemies within if there were no enemies outside.
“Okay, let’s make this flashy. Our objective is the princess. Let’s kill her before she can get aboard the Object!!”
“Good, good. Everything’s going as planned. We can hear everything they’re saying.”
Inside the maintenance base zone, a base made up of over one hundred large vehicles, Battlefield Student Quenser Barbotage grinned. He held a military radio over which he could hear the “enemy” clear as day.
“You damn traitors. We’ll kill every single one of you.”
“Hey, can you really do that?”
A woman next to him let out an exasperated sigh. She specialized in barrier duty which meant she was one of the Black Uniforms who dealt with criminals within the military. She had introduced herself, but he had forgotten what her name was.
He lightly shook the military radio.
“It’s their fault for forgetting they’re traitors and therefore are using the same equipment. Even if the fools changed the encryption, it’s still the same format, so there’s still a risk of us intercepting it.”
They were near the center of the maintenance base zone made up of a large convoy. Quenser was hiding behind and leaning up against a wheel larger than the door to a bank vault. He was using a black military knife to draw a simple map in the sand.
“Heivia and his group are near the southern gate. They’ve already snuck into the base’s grounds while pretending to be innocent. Meanwhile, the princess is a bit south of the center. She’s receiving body maintenance in the special lodgings for the pilot Elite. They’re definitely going to attack there.”
“Once Miss Milinda Brantini enters the Baby Magnum she is almost invincible. After all, that Object is made to withstand a direct nuclear strike. So…”
“They’ll block the path from the special lodgings to the Object hangar.”
Quenser scraped X-marks into the sand along a few routes.
The blonde-haired, large-breasted Black Uniform frowned.
“But the traitors can’t just move about as they please. The watchtowers will spot them outside. If they simply pursue the Elite, they will be shot down by light machineguns.”
“Then they’ll take out the watchtowers!”
Sounds resembling champagne corks being removed rang out across the Oceanian wasteland. Quenser looked up and saw a few thirty centimeter parachutes opening in the sky. They looked like children’s fireworks, but they were not. Instead of a weight, they had a small camera attached.
“Here they come!!” shouted the Black Uniform woman.
“Ah, damn! Shoot them down before they designate the coordinates!!”
Just as Quenser tried to shout into his military radio, the Black Uniform grabbed him by the back of the neck and dove down to the sandy ground. The beautiful woman was lying on top of him, so two soft objects were pressed against his back. Nothing could have made him happier.
But such ephemeral joys had a way of being quickly destroyed.
Quenser heard a roar and saw the real attack hit the top of a nearby watchtower. The midair cameras had specified the coordinates and then the shells had been fired. It was a stereotypical and by-the-book use of mortars.
However, what happened next was not in the textbook.
For some reason, the top of the watchtower was covered in a sticky, white liquid.
Quenser and the Black Uniform woman began to tremble.
They finally realized what the rebels had done.
“Th-that bastard!! Did he take the red paint out of the paint rounds and replaced it with white!? And he turned it into a disturbingly sticky liquid!”
“Eee!! It smells funny and won’t come out of my hair!”
Quenser did not even need the radio to hear the screams of the female soldier with guard duty who had held a light machinegun in the watchtower.
The rebels seemed to be following the standard theory of making the most of the initial confusion of the attack. The sounds of assault rifle gunfire could be heard from multiple directions.
“M-my guess is all of their paint rounds will be like that, but what do you think?”
“I agree 100%,” said Quenser.
“In that case, I think you should clear an escape path to protect my dignity as a woman!! The battlefield cameramen of this peaceful world are aiming bazooka-like cameras our way, remember? I don’t want to be on the cover of a newsletter with my face covered in that sticky stuff!!”
“Guys don’t want to be splattered with sticky, white stuff either! In a way, it’s even worse for us than for the girls!!”
But shouting at each other was not going to bring an end to the battle.
Quenser sheathed his fake military knife that had a black, rubber blade and began to move with the Black Uniform woman.
Froleytia Capistrano was a silver-haired, big-breasted highly-ranked soldier. As she smoked her kiseru in the operation control room, she responded to a question from one of her subordinates.
“Well, if you didn’t seriously want to avoid being hit, no one would fight seriously.”
Simulation Number 101 (b).
Eliminate the rebels from within the unit ASAP while guiding and protecting the pilot Elite.
“Hee hee hee hee hee! If we take out the princess, we’re freed from those tasteless rations for a week! We can eat as much roast beef and garlic shrimp as we want!!”
Heivia and the others were traveling beneath the vehicles. That was an alternate way through the maintenance base zone which was made up of over one hundred vehicles. The vehicles left a space of over two meters above the ground, so they could remain standing as they ran and they could hide behind the giant wheels.
Myonri pointed her PDW here and there while moving cautiously and occasionally coughing.
“Ugh. Cough! This exhaust is terrible. We aren’t going to get carbon monoxide poisoning, are we? I don’t want to die on a training mission!”
“The human body is plenty sturdy! Don’t worry!” barked back Heivia.
He then sent a sign to the other two soldiers with them: a short girl with freckles and a muscular man.
“Girly, Basic! Drive them out from the left. Once they come out from the behind the wheel, I’ll shoot them!!”
As per Heivia’s instruction, a grenade was thrown behind the wheel.
Once a high school-aged girl frantically ran to escape the (white and sticky) explosion, he mercilessly fired a paint round.
“Stop! Not the face!!”
“Fwa ha ha ha ha! Then should I fire between those huge tits of yours!?”
Travelling beneath the giant vehicles allowed them to almost entirely ignore any bombardments that would fly in a parabola arc and fall from the sky.
But there was an even bigger reason they had chosen that route.
“Myonri! Get out that tool on your back!!”
He pointed straight up.
“We’re directly below the special Elite lodgings. Let’s cut in from below as planned!!”
“Oof… Those lodgings are made by connecting a few different vehicles, right?”
“And if we stick the door-busting tool into the joint between vehicles and force it open, we can crawl in. If they’re still keeping her in here as part of Phase 1, this’ll be checkmate!!”
Heivia lifted Myonri up on his shoulders and she pressed the special tool against the vehicle bottom that looked like a thick metal ceiling. Like a pile bunker, the “beak” portion used explosives to stab in and then a motor spread the “beak” and forced open the thick metal panels that had been perfectly aligned.
“Ahh, ahh. This is ripping the metal apart! Should we really be doing this for a mock battle!?”
“I don’t remember being told not to destroy the equipment. In fact, it was that huge-breasted commander that told us to make this as realistic as possible.”
They opened a gap just barely large enough for one person to squeeze through. Myonri’s short form was pushed up first and then she reached down and helped Heivia in.
Girly had Basic lift her up, but Basic was too large to fit in the gap.
After sending Basic off to meet up with another team, Heivia and the two girls began searching the Elite lodgings.
“This is a brilliant method. …Although it would be a one-way ticket for anyone trying to pull it off for real.”
The inside was filled with high-class furnishings that looked out of place in a military facility.
The design resembled a villa made entirely of classical mahogany. When Heivia had visited with Quenser two weeks prior, it had been a sterile place filled with white and the layout had even been completely different. It may have been to match the princess’s mental condition or to prevent an attack, but it was made to be completely rearranged in an extremely short period of time.
“If it can be rearranged, does that mean we can pry it apart with the door-busting tool?”
“This isn’t going to make proper training. Paint rounds can’t pierce walls.”
Heivia and the others swiftly finished their search of the first floor.
They counted the number of exits, set up quick traps at each one, and headed for the stairs. Before charging in, Heivia grabbed a stuffed animal and tossed it forward. As expected, this produced several gunshots.
Still hiding behind cover, he fired several short bursts toward the stairs.
“Myonri! Throw a grenade on my signal!!”
Heivia stopped firing to avoid friendly fire, Myonri leaned out in his place, and she tossed a grenade toward the upper floor.
A moist explosion and a few screams soon followed.
As Girly stared up the stairs, Heivia and Myonri frantically pulled her forward.
A short burst of gunfire came from the top of the stairs.
“Don’t let your guard down until you’re sure they’re dead, you idiot!!”
“Did you have to call me an idiot twice!?”
“It’s important!! And if you were a guy, I wouldn’t have saved you, so you should thank me! Idiot, idiot!!”
“If you say it that much, you just sound like a tsundere!!”
“Say that again and I’ll fire a paint round into your back!!” shouted Heivia as he pointed upwards. “Myonri, use that tool on the roof.”
“Eh? But there’s no seam there, so I can’t pry it apart.”
“The people up above don’t know that. You scare them and I’ll finish them off while they’re preparing to run!”
Myonri did as she was told and forcefully stabbed the “beak” into the ceiling.
A dull sound rang out and the bodyguard soldiers started to move to a safer location, but Heivia accurately took them out from the bottom of the stairs.
“Clear, clear! Let’s move on.”
“Why on earth are you a radar analyst? Wouldn’t you be more at home in a VIP assassination squad?”
“Can you sit around all day in an air-conditioned room in a squad like that? If not, I’ll pass.”
They climbed the stairs and found around three bodyguard soldiers covered in sticky white paint. They held up their hands with disappointed looks.
“Where is she, dammit? The princess has to be hiding around here somewhere. Find her!!”
The mission was about protecting the Elite, but it was unclear if she would be carrying a gun or not. There was a real possibility of being shot from a closet or refrigerator.
After coming so far, it would be a shame to lose the bonus for shooting her, so Heivia and the others carefully checked each room.
“Clear over here, too. Shit! Why is everywhere clear!? Where is the princess hiding!?”
After unintentionally ensuring their safety, Heivia began looking around and shouting angrily.
And then he felt a slight draft.
He turned toward the source and found an open refrigerator door. He finally shoved the entire thing to the side.
The mahogany inner wall had been torn open.
To reduce weight, the outer wall was covered in a thick blade-resistant sheet, but it could still be torn with the proper tools. A vertical tear had created a hole large enough for a human to escape through.
(As soon as the firefight began below the vehicles, they had already realized the risk of us breaking in. Dammit!)
He brought his hand to the 150 cm vertical slit and brushed it aside. Struggles were beginning along the routes leading from the Elite lodgings to the Object hanger. While both sides fired on each other, Heivia saw a short girl wearing a special suit and a boy tugging on her hand while running along the sand.
“Quenser!! I knew it had to be you!!” he shouted.
The boy’s only response was to look over his shoulder and raise his middle finger.
Heivia frantically moved back inside and dove to the floor. Now that the special lodgings were no longer needed, tanks began firing on the second floor with what felt like enough force to destroy the building.
Before the attack even began, Quenser’s group had snuck to the special lodgings, met up with the princess, and helped her escape. But now that they were hiding behind a tank, they had little confidence in their ability to win a normal firefight.
“Why are you even here, Quenser?”
“Ha ha ha. That question hurts, princess. If you weren’t a girl, I’d shove you out to the traitors.”
The one doing all the work was the Black Uniform woman who was travelling with the boy. As one of those who claimed to purge the military of criminals, she was used to firefights between humans even in an age where Object battles symbolized war.
That woman was currently looking toward the Elite lodgings in annoyance.
The rectangular building sat atop several large vehicles and its top half was covered in a poisonous red. It looked a bit like a horrible cranberry tart.
“Tanks in a mock battle? Couldn’t that have killed them?”
“The paint rounds can’t pierce walls, so it doesn’t count. If you assume they’re dead, it’ll come back to bite you later.”
Once mock battles began creating unique rules, there was a danger of losing any experience usable in a real battle. But at the same time, some differences were unavoidable if one was not going to train with a real battle.
“Two hundred meters to the hangar.”
“Once we get in there, I just have to board the Baby Magnum. I can use the sensors to slaughter them all.”
The Black Uniform smiled bitterly at that dangerous statement and asked a question.
“Now, how will the enemy handle this?”
“They’ll have to set up a wire along a route the princess has to pass through. That could be the entrances to the hangar or the Object’s hatch.”
This mock battle was based on the possibility of traitors within the military. The bandannas around their mouths were to make them easy to distinguish, but the maintenance soldiers were kept in a gray area. It was possible an enemy could approach while pretending to be an ally.
“I will not fall for such a simple trap.”
“Research shows the people who think that are the easiest to catch in a trap.”
“Mh. Quenser, do you think I am clumsy?”
“Sorry, but I’ve never seen you act particularly sharp! I can think of a few times when you almost killed me with the Baby Magnum. That time in Gibraltar for instance!!”
“Quit complaining, Quenser.”
“Why do you think I’m complaining? It’s because our lives are on the line!!!!!”
“Calm down,” cut in the Black Uniform. “Let’s get back to the issue at hand. The wire traps are passive. We might hit them and we might not. I doubt the enemy will rely on them alone.”
“The traps are meant to slow us down. While we spend time deactivating them, they’ll attack from a distance with snipers or something.”
“I’ll find the traps and deactivate them. You gather what people you can and be on the lookout.”
During a mock battle that uses paint rounds, even a tank could not pierce a thick blade-resistant sheet.
But the close-range blast had still left Myonri dizzy. While writhing in pain due a sharp earache, Heivia turned toward Girly. She seemed conscious, but she had completely lost her nerve. She had fallen to the floor and was waving her hands around with tears in her eyes. Her expression made it clear taking a single step would make her wet herself. It resembled the shock of receiving the full effects of a stun grenade.
Heivia took a few seconds to recover and then walked down the stairs of the Elite lodgings and exited on the first floor. There he found an enemy soldier, took them out with a handgun paint round, and then lay down behind cover.
His assault rifle had excellent rapid-fire and piercing ability, but it could perform accurate mid-range sniping with full use of its sensors.
(As long as I have line-of-sight, I can hit. And I have a direct line on the Object hangar from here!)
He licked his lips as he peered into the scope lens that was more of a small monitor with several types of information displayed.
He was targeting the main entrance to the hangar where a trap had been set up.
The trap prevented anyone from running through and he would shoot anyone who stopped for even an instant.
“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon! I don’t like splattering guys with this stuff, but I won’t be satisfied until I get back at you!!”
While paint rounds were being used, a hit anywhere on the body counted as a kill, so he could not target the leg and then target any enemy soldiers who came to help.
He could not use any tricks. He could only target them directly.
He lay on the ground and waited.
His index finger stroked the surface of the trigger as he tried to alleviate his tension even slightly.
(What’s going on? Don’t tell me they chickened out.)
He waited a few minutes, but nothing happened.
When assassinating a VIP, it was not unusual to wait for an entire day or two, but this was a frenzied battle. If he did not remain on the move while keeping a general idea where the target was located, enemy soldiers could sneak up behind him.
(They won’t be taking this slow by staying put until they eliminate all the enemy snipers. After all, the princess would be exposed the entire time. What is that guy thinking?)
And then he froze up.
Something unpleasant had entered the scope.
The giant mass of steel was known as an MBT or a main battle tank. Even the name was outdated and rarely seen on the modern battlefield.
“What the hell!? Did he throw the princess in there to protect her from snipers!?”
If the tank climbed the diagonal slope and charged through the gate, the snipers and traps would be meaningless. The anti-personnel traps would be crushed and the princess would be safely carried to the Object hangar.
Heivia tossed aside his assault rifle and grabbed the shoulder-fired missile launcher on his back.
Whether it was a tank or an attack helicopter, he could neutralize them with a direct hit from a shoulder-fired missile (loaded with paint). Those were the rules for this mock battle. One could complain it made no sense as the same weapon could not even pierce the thin walls of a building, but armored weapons would become invincible if some compromise was not made.
At any rate…
(Damn him. I don’t like having only one shot at this.)
Given their size, he could not carry around multiple missiles.
It was essentially a single-use weapon.
“But that bonus is mine if I make this one shot! And this makes my target way bigger, so it isn’t all bad!!”
He placed the launcher on his shoulder and peered into the sight on the side.
Both infrared and ultraviolet were used to lock onto the MBT heading for the hangar.
Immediately afterwards, the tank’s turret began to turn.
It stopped in exactly the right spot to stare at Heivia.
(They weren’t trying to get the princess through! The tank was a bluff used to locate everyone targeting the hangar door from afar!! Dammit. Did it detect the infrared signal I used for the lock!?)
He frantically jumped down from the large vehicle supporting the special Elite lodgings and tried to hide behind one of the giant wheels.
But he was too slow.
A beautiful Black Uniform woman popped up from a hatch on the top of the turret and fired her anti-personnel heavy machinegun.
Heivia had been close enough for mid-range sniping, so they could target him in the same way.
And the enemy’s weapon had three times the range of his assault rifle. Being hit by that thing from close range could have resulted in a “training accident”.
“Bhah!? Cough cough!! Fuck that hurts! Are you trying to make me hate tanks!?”
Froleytia let out a sweet-smelling breath mixed with smoke.
The giant monitor in the operation control room displayed a detailed map of the maintenance base zone and the locations of both sides.
After seeing that the pilot Elite princess had entered Baby Magnum’s cockpit, she clapped her hands together lightly.
“That settles it! As per our crisis management manual, the Elite was safely brought to the Object where she can settle the rest. That ends the mock battle!!”
That was the special privilege of a first generation Object.
Unlike second generation Objects which were designed solely for Object vs. Object battles, the Baby Magnum was equipped with anti-fighter weapons, anti-tank weapons, and enough anti-personnel weapons and sensors to exterminate anyone. If one ignored the damage it would cause to the maintenance base zone, the enemy soldiers would be blown to pieces instantly no matter where they hid.
In other words, the battle was essentially over as soon as the princess boarded the Baby Magnum.
(But no one gets the all-you-can-eat prize yet again. It’s what I expected, but it’s still boring.)
As Froleytia thought, a female operator gave a hesitant report.
“U-um, major. You have a call.”
“Hm? Then hurry up and-…”
“No, um. It is a direct call to your cell phone. I thought it might be private. U-um, but I still have to pass it through my switchboard!!”
Froleytia waved a hand to give permission.
While serving in the military, there was no avoiding having her communications monitored. She could only think positively and view it as proving to a third party that she was not doing anything suspicious.
(No one with any sense would call my private number now, so maybe it has to do with my family.)
With that depressing thought, she reached for the cell phone in her uniform pocket.
She did not need to give a sign like in an old police drama. She simply pressed the call button and answered.
It was a male voice.
And oddly enough, he seemed to be using a voice changer.
“We have your daughter,” was the very first thing he(?) said.
An unpleasant silence fell over the dim operation control room.
But it was not complete silence. Whispered voices could be heard here and there.
“Eh? Major Capistrano has-… Eh!?”
“She has a kid!? It can’t be! It just can’t be!”
“But she is 18… It’s a bit early, but it’s possible, right?”
Froleytia remained silent for a moment.
She was trembling a bit.
As the man(?) told her not to call the police, how much the ransom was, and how to deliver it, she slowly spoke as if crushing the words in her mouth.
“I am a virgin.”
“Eh!? Major Capistrano is-…!?”
“It can’t be! It just can’t be!?”
“But she is 18… It’s possible, right?”
The intensity of the whispered voices grew threefold. This time, female voices were mixed in accusing the guys of being disgusting.
Finally, the man(?) on the phone seemed to catch on.
“Huh? A virgin, but…huh? W-wait a minute! Don’t you have a nine-year-old daughter? Or…but…you can’t mean…!!”
“You. Have. The. Wrong. Number. You idiot!! You have guts making a threatening phone call on a military line. Don’t you know that the Legitimacy Kingdom accepts any fight someone picks with it!?”
“Ah wah wah wah wah wah!!” cried the voice frantically.
With a click, the line went dead.
The operator turned her seat toward Froleytia with a hand to one side of her headset.
“U-um, I traced his location. …What should we do?”
The duty of Froleytia and the other Legitimacy Kingdom troops stationed in Oceania was to prevent any other countries from invading the country during this chaotic time after it lost its military.
In other words, it was not their job to deal with criminals and terrorists. This was not a war, so it was a job for the local police. If the military acted here, they could be accused of intervention.
“During this unstable period, I hear there are a lot of delinquent police officers who are paid off by the growing criminal organizations. A kidnapping for ransom is likely an organized crime, so they likely have pawns hidden within the police. In other words, the local police will be of no use.”
“Is this really okay?”
“The threat was sent to our military, not Oceania. If they pick a fight with us, it doesn’t count as intervention.” Froleytia adjusted the kiseru in her mouth and shrugged. “Our new mission begins now! Gather the necessary personnel and equipment and form a rescue team!! I authorize the use of weaponry suitable for attacking a concentration camp!!”
Despite her orders, the whispering seemed to never end.
“She’s a virgin.”
“Major Capistrano is a virgin!”
“She’s a noble’s daughter and a military officer. That’s one hell of a target!”
“You guys are disgusting!!”
Froleytia puffed smoke from her mouth like a demon king.
That trembling Legitimacy Kingdom officer hated damage to her pride more than anything else.
“I’ll show you just who you picked a fight with, you thieves.”
And so Quenser, Heivia, and the other soldiers exhausted from the mock battle were loaded into the back of military trucks and carried over cracked asphalt. Each and every vibration of the trucks made them feel like they had been cursed by god.
“This isn’t funny… This isn’t goddamn funny!! I lose the all-you-can-eat kill bonus and now our commander is sending us off to rescue some kid for nothing but righteous indignation!? There’s not a single good thing about this. Please tell me a girl in a micro bikini is gonna show up soon!!”
“I hear the girl who was kidnapped is nine. We need to put the work in now to enjoy a lovely micro bikini ten years from now.”
Feeling fed up with it all, Heivia looked up toward the sun.
It was so bright it looked right off an orange juice package.
“And another thing,” he spat out.
An official Legitimacy Kingdom battlefield cameraman was with them on the truck. That in and of itself was no problem, but they recognized this particular cameraman and not in a good way.
“Why is he with us?”
“I went through all the proper channels,” smoothly answered the man who had a history with Oceania.
His name was Sewax.
He had previously slipped into Oceania with a press non-combatant permit, but he had broken tons of international laws by disturbing the battlefield with a sniper rifle.
“This time, I only have my camera. I’m not armed and I have no intention of getting in your way.”
“I should damn well hope so!! I doubt you’ve made up for the lives you took!!”
Heivia almost grabbed at the man, but the surrounding soldiers held him back.
This was not because they disapproved of how he was handling this civilian. Their expressions made it clear they simply did not want a disturbance within the limited space of the vehicle.
“Try to keep your cool. Punching him isn’t going to summon girls in micro bikinis.”
Hearing that, Heivia clicked his tongue and muttered something in a low tone.
“Y’know, Quenser, it isn’t like all you need is skimpy clothing. What you need for a beautiful woman is-…”
“I know, Heivia, I know. It’s what’s inside that counts, right? It doesn’t matter if some side character is suddenly wearing a micro bikini. What we’re after is more than simple sexiness.”
They continued chatting as the truck shook.
They showed no concern for the deadly firefight that lay ahead.
“So about this kidnapping. Is this area really that dangerous?”
“Mafias and gangs from around the world used the confusion of this postwar period to work their way in. Plus, the remnants of the old military government are still trying to earn funds to continue the war. And since the black market has become necessary for your average citizen, the criminal organizations are being welcomed.”
“What? Oceania wasn’t that bad last time we were here. Wasn’t it pretty peaceful and wasn’t everyone smiling?”
“Haven’t you heard about the wild fluctuation of the Oceanian dollar? The assistance from distant countries and relief funds from charities have come in large amounts, but they’re sporadic. Huge amounts of money briefly come flowing in like some kind of fad or sudden idea. Intermittent support is the most difficult to deal with. You can’t rely on it as a lifeline, so the local people end up finding a dirty but stable way to earn an income and supply products.”
He could have left well enough alone, but Sewax decided to butt into the conversation.
He held up his camera.
“You have to ignore where it came from, but the quality isn’t bad. One of my lens case sets was stolen at customs, but I found an identical one on the black market. I should actually get some work done now.”
Heivia seemed to decide yelling at the man would accomplish nothing, so he restrained himself while the veins on his temple bulged out.
Quenser glanced toward Sewax.
“If they just want to profit from the black market, they wouldn’t kidnap someone.”
“I’m just saying they’re no Robin Hood. No matter what they claim, they’re villains who gather money for their own convenience. They aren’t really thinking about the starving people or the fate of the country.”
The clattering line of trucks was headed toward an old industrial city along the eastern coast of the ocean. During the time of the military nation, only the discriminatory privileged class had lived there, so it had been destroyed by an Object.
All of the nearby buildings had toppled over and large piles of rubble could be found even on the road.
Only the so-called “white targets” such as schools, churches, and hospitals remained. They were completely untouched, so it showed just how frighteningly accurate the Object’s carpet bombing had been.
Heivia let out a whistle.
“Welcome to the Mouth of Truth.”
“It’s a sightseeing spot in Rome. If you’re a student, try studying some history.”
“I don’t know anything about the Faith Organization.”
Heivia pointed toward the scenery with his thumb. Quenser could see remains of crumbled buildings that had piled on top of each other so they looked like mille-feuille.
“They go digging through all that and grab anything they can sell on the black market like music players and cans of dried milk, but if they get too greedy, the jaws of rubble bite into them.”
“…Is this country really in that bad a state?”
“Weren’t you listening? There’s nothing they can do until the local currency stabilizes. There are even rumors that straight up bartering works better. This chaos isn’t going to calm down until our euro and the other dollars stop being preferred.”
Sewax aimed his lens out the truck and toward the surrounding piles of rubble.
“When you get down to it, the liberation of Oceania is still in a period of chaos. A lot of people are being crushed underfoot. The normal people need to use the black market for food to eat and those in too much debt to use the black market are being forced to risk their lives in places like that. And they’re either working for free or for so little it barely makes a difference.”
“Seriously? We’re about to have a firefight there. And do you know what my specialty is? Explosives.”
“The area’s too dangerous, so the local police don’t go on patrol here. And the lack of police causes dangerous people to gather. But that makes the area even more dangerous. It’s a vicious cycle. All the lower level criminal organizations are crowded in together.”
The convoy of military trucks came to a stop about two kilometers away from the abandoned building that the call to Froleytia’s phone had come from. About one hundred infantry got out onto the cracked asphalt.
“Isn’t this a bit much? You’d think we were fighting a war.”
“Fighting in wars is our job. Now let’s go, student.”
A few battlefield cameramen had come along, but Sewax seemed to be travelling with Quenser and Heivia’s group. This annoyed the two boys even further.
“If you screw up, I’m not saving you. If you get injured, I’m leaving you behind. If you bring danger to the unit, I’ll use you as a shield and escape. I don’t give a crap about international law. That’s just what I’m gonna do. Got it?”
“Is your unit really weak enough to lose to a local criminal organization?”
Depending on what the enemy did, Quenser, Heivia, and the others would be forced into one of two types of battles.
First, they would besiege the enemy headquarters while the enemy was unaware they had been traced.
Second, they would pursue the swiftly fleeing enemy vehicles and carry out a car chase on the single long line of asphalt through the desert.
Either way, they controlled the satellite above, so they would not lose track of their enemy. As they were attempting to rescue a hostage, the attack on the base would be easier than a car chase.
“Would they really think they hadn’t been traced after their call passed through a military switchboard? Surely they didn’t believe the old police dramas where quickly hanging up keeps you from being traced.”
“We need to be on our guard. They might be well equipped and plan to escape after causing some damage to our first wave.”
“I pray they’re at least that smart. They need to be a worthy enough opponent for someone as great as me to head all the way out here.”
While remaining on the lookout for traps, cameras, snipers, or other dangers, Heivia and the others travelled from pile of rubble to pile of rubble. Quenser simply followed Heivia who had more or less taken the lead.
“By the way, why was a student like me sent with you?”
“God himself insisted you don’t get to lie around in bed all day while the rest of us work our asses off.”
“But I can’t take part in the firefight,” complained Quenser.
It was unclear what exactly he was taking photos of, but Sewax was pointing his camera here and there among the piles of rubble. Quenser had no idea what pictures would be worth what.
Unlike a normal stroll, they had to climb up piles of rubble that could collapse at any moment and be on the lookout for enemy soldiers that might not even be there. Even a distance of only two kilometers, a single station’s worth in a city, was rather exhausting.
“Hey, Heivia. Do you think I’ll be popular with the girls if the lower half of my body gets big and strong? Depending on your answer, I might give up right here.”
“Eh? Do you mean that in a dirty way?”
As he received an answer which earned a perfect 0 points, Quenser really did curl up on the ground. Heivia was forced to grab the stubborn child’s arm and drag him along.
“Look! That bastard Sewax is pointing his camera at you!!”
“It is my job to bring people the truth of the battlefield.”
“If you don’t want to be a source of international shame, stand up, Quenser!! Start walking!!”
As per their instructions over the radio, they arrived at a spot where they could look down on the abandoned building. Heivia clicked his tongue.
“Dammit. It’s a hospital. It survives the bombing and now it gets used for this. Let’s download a diagram and the distribution of people inside, so we can slaughter them all.”
“Just out of curiosity, what ever happened to rescuing the hostage?”
Of course, if they just had to kill everyone inside, there was no need to charge into the building. They could bombard the building from a distance and destroy it entirely.
Based on the distribution of enemy soldiers they received from the satellite, Quenser and the others used their sensors in a variety of ways to check on the details of the people inside.
“This is a pain in the ass. There are over fifty people in there.”
“Here we go. On the first floor…what is that place? Looks like an internal medicine examining room. Anyway, I found a child bound with duct tape. Oh, dear. And she has a blindfold, earplugs, and tape over the mouth. Um, I don’t see any other abducted children.”
“This is the world’s least rewarding place to peep. Let’s get this over with and peep on our huge-breasted commander’s bath.”
“Did you know that joke violates the rules regarding classified information?”
The one hundred infantry split into five groups and Quenser’s group took their position.
Sewax was still with them.
“So we get a student and a cameraman. How much variation does one unit need?”
“If you don’t need me, I’ll go set up a parasol and fall asleep. I’m not here because I want to be.”
“You all get to show the people back home that their tax money is being well spent. You should be thanking me.”
Heivia put up with a headache and spoke into his radio.
“The kid is on the first floor. Everywhere else doesn’t matter. You can make the corpses as gory as you want, so use your wall-penetrating rifles to shoot them on my signal.”
“Understood. Will you be using your pistols out of concern for the child? Seeing any corpses at all will probably traumatize her, but go to the extra effort if you want.”
“There are some lines you don’t cross. Then again, deciding where that line is for yourself is getting a bit self-righteous.”
Quenser and his group were not bothering with the strictly-guarded entrance.
They instead made their way to the outer wall of the examination room the abducted child was confined in. Quenser placed several Hand Axe plastic explosives on the wall in a systematic fashion. He finished the setup by stabbing electric fuses in.
“Just to be sure, the explosion isn’t going to blow out the kid’s eardrums, is it?”
“We saw she had a blindfold and earplugs, remember? If we handle this well, she won’t even see the corpses. So what’ll you do, PTA?”
“Tch. Let’s do this. On a count of three.”
He casually counted down three seconds.
Immediately afterwards, an explosive noise burst out. It had actually been 53 anti-materiel rifles being fired simultaneously, but the timing was so perfect that it sounded like a single explosion.
At the same time, Quenser hit the switch on his radio while pressing against the wall.
The outer wall was blown to pieces and the filthy men inside the room were knocked to the ground. Before the criminals realized what was happening, Heivia and the professional soldiers stepped in and did not hesitate to pull the trigger.
Phase 1 took only five seconds.
Phase 2 was taking out anyone they missed in Phase 1. The existence of some leftovers who had luckily escaped the anti-materiel rifles was proven by short bursts of assault rifle fire.
“Clear, clear. Help me out here, Quenser. Let’s hide the corpses before removing the kid’s blindfold. C’mon, Sewax, you help too!!”
“This was a hospital, so is there a mop and bucket anywhere?”
They could not remove the blindfold with corpses lying all over the place, but the duct tape covering the girl’s mouth could keep her from breathing. Quenser approached her and gently removed the tape over her mouth.
He expected her to cry.
But she did not.
He had a very bad feeling.
He belatedly realized her clothes bulged out oddly and he gently lifted them up.
He saw a cell phone and colorful leads.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me!!” shouted Heivia.
At the same time, someone in a distant place pressed a speed dial button.
In that instant, Quenser and Heivia took the complete opposite actions.
In order to escape the blast, Heivia immediately moved backwards. On the other hand, Quenser grabbed the girls shoulders which were duct taped to the chair. He slid her along and threw the girl’s small body underneath the examining room’s bed.
All the while, Sewax was peering down his viewfinder.
“Wh-what?” asked Heivia as he coughed a bit and leaped behind a steel desk.
The silence was almost painful.
“What the hell!? It isn’t detonating!?”
“It’s a cell phone!” shouted back Quenser. “A cheap obsolete model is being used for the detonator. There are no indoor antennae in a ghost town like this. The signal sent from here has to reach an antenna in the next town over and then come back the same way. The thick walls of the building and the metal pipes and springs of this bed are enough. As long as it can’t pick up the signal, the detonation command can’t reach it!!”
As he spoke, he climbed under the bed himself. He pulled a small knife from his survival kit. The girl did not seem to know what was happening to her after suddenly being thrown into that small space. Anyone would be in a similar state with a blindfold and earplugs.
Quenser removed one of the earplugs and spoke gently.
“It’s okay. It’s okay now. The bomb won’t go off.”
She simply sat there blankly, but that was fine for the time being as it made it easier to work.
“Can you get it off?” asked Heivia.
“Did you see this thing? I can neutralize a shitty detonator like this in 45 seconds.”
The explosive was homemade TNT and it was attached to her back with duct tape. The detonator, battery, and the like were mostly located under her arms. They all appeared to have been stolen from construction sites meant to rebuild the country.
“Honestly, is this supposed to be a school bag?”
There were three circuit boards, but two of them were fakes. He cut only the necessary leads with a knife and completely killed the detonator.
“Hey, it’s been a minute!”
“Don’t be stupid. It only took me thirty seconds to handle the device itself. It’s gently removing the duct tape that’s taking me so long!!”
The detonator was no longer functioning, so there was no need to remain below the bed. Quenser tossed the duct tape covered bomb out from under the bed and dragged the nine-year-old hostage out.
Heivia let out a breath and spoke into his radio.
“The situation has ended. The hostage is safe. I repeat, the situation has ended! I know it isn’t going to happen, but I request some ice-cold non-alcoholic beer and cured ham for when we return. Yeah, I know it isn’t happening!!”
“I thought the mission wasn’t over until we got back?”
“And call an ambulance. I’m on the verge of punching this annoying-as-hell cameraman!!”
The hostage girl looked around in confusion.
The corpses of the criminal organization had been moved to another room and the room had been quickly mopped, but the dangerous atmosphere filling the room was not so easily eliminated.
Sewax removed the camera’s viewfinder from his eye and spoke to Quenser.
“What do we do now? Do you put up posters like the ones you see for lost cats?”
“Don’t underestimate the military’s intelligence gathering ability. Her parents are probably being invited to the maintenance base just about now. The emotional reunion will take place inside the fence.”
The girl then looked up at Quenser.
She may have seen him as the easiest to talk to because he had dealt with the bomb.
“Hey, where are they?”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry. You’ll be with your mother before-…”
“Not that,” she said, cutting him off.
The unease in her voice made it seem the incident was not yet over.
“Where are the others?”
She had nothing to do.
That was how the princess felt.
No matter how many sensors her first generation Object had, there was no place for such a colossal weapon on a delicate mission to rescue a hostage. If they arrived with too much power, the criminal group could feel cornered enough to kill the hostage.
So now that the mock battle was over, the princess floated face up in a pool.
The maintenance base zone was made up of over one hundred large vehicles, but it did not contain a facility with a large indoor pool. This outdoor facility had been created by taking advantage of the sand underfoot.
Simply put, the soldiers who misbehaved had been given shovels and forced to dig a giant hole, cover its surface with plastic, and pour water in it. That had created a makeshift pool. A nearby sign said “Female soldiers only. Cameras strictly prohibited.” The princess was surrounded by off-duty women in swimsuits and they were all splashing each other with water, hitting each other with beach balls, or getting into serious fights.
There were two reasons for the pool.
First, it was a project meant to reduce the stress of the female soldiers. It was less about the pool itself and more about providing a small event that allowed them to escape the gaze of the normal military regulations. Similar projects had resulted in events based on different cultural celebrations such as the flower viewing or carnival. There had also been the sudden appearance of a swimsuit-wearing Santa Claus.
Second, it was a means of punishment. It was not fun toiling away under the broiling sun to dig a hole that would be enjoyed by the well-behaved soldiers. It would be no exaggeration to say that over half of the work had been done by a bomb-using student and a radar analyst who excelled at using firearms.
And as a result, the princess was wearing a swimsuit and floating in a twenty meter square pool while surrounded by other female soldiers.
“Oh ho ho!! Oh ho ho ho ho!! Honestly, now the unrefined Legitimacy Kingdom Elite is so exhausted she is sighing? You sound like an old woman.”
“…Why are you connected to this line?”
The princess had heard an Information Alliance Elite’s voice coming from the handheld device attached to her wrist by a rubber bracelet. The princess almost always remained expressionless, but her eyebrows twisted in clear displeasure.
The nice-bodied Elite on the screen was laughing loudly while pressing the back of her hand against her cheek.
“Oh ho ho. Have you never heard of diplomatic routes, little girl? You can disconnect from the line if you like, but a rude Elite would bring disgrace to her unit. Oh ho ho. Then again, you do not look like the kind of girl who would care about that!!”
“I get it, so let’s fight. I will blow you to pieces with the Baby Magnum.”
“Oh ho ho. Do you really think I am in Oceania? War is not waged solely with unrefined battles. I am currently preparing for a concert. I am too busy to deal with a little girl like you.”
“Then why did you contact me.”
“I am also steadily preparing to make that gentleman mine.”
A cracking sound could be heard.
As the princess grabbed at the handheld device, its waterproof outer case very nearly broke.
“I don’t think so. But do not worry. You will find out in due time☆”
Having said that, the other Elite ended the transmission.
The princess floated on her back a while longer and looked up at a beach ball flying by above her.
“A concert… Singing…”
She stared blankly up at the blue sky and muttered to herself.
“I should take a photo with Quenser at a karaoke box and show it off to that horrible girl.”
A member of the maintenance battalion’s intelligence division secretly listened to her.
The reason was quite simple: her mental state was directly linked to the survival of the entire unit!
The sky was dyed in the orange of evening.
There was no sign of the murderous sunlight which had been raining down so forcefully before. Once evening came, Oceania filled with darkness quite quickly. After only a few dozen minutes, full darkness would arrive.
“It’s a simple setup,” said Heivia as he kicked at the abandoned hospital’s floor with the heel of his military boot. He sounded truly irritated. “It’s human trafficking with no concern for age or sex. This hospital was their relay point or their gathering spot. They abduct innocent people from the nearby cities and carry them out here where the law won’t bother them. The police are too afraid to patrol this area much, so they can fully hide their tracks by swapping out their vehicles here.”
The kidnapping incident which had started with that wrong number was being treated as resolved. The abducted girl had been loaded aboard a military truck which was taking her to the maintenance base zone.
The only people left in the hospital were Quenser, Heivia, Myonri, and Sewax the battlefield cameraman.
According to the girl, thirty to forty men and women of all ages had been there only about half an hour ago.
Quenser raised his hand.
“Then why call up and demand a ransom? If they’re a human trafficking group, they wouldn’t need to do that. They would get money by selling her.”
“It’s probably a secondary source of income. Before selling her to some distant place, they get as much money from the parents as they can. They never intended to give the girl back.”
“But who in the world would buy them?” asked Myonri uneasily.
Sewax answered while performing maintenance on his camera.
“Humans are in demand everywhere.”
“What I don’t get is the variety in age. Whether for organs, soldiers, labor, or a pervert’s toy, the younger the better, right? I doubt a criminal organization like that would go out of their way to abduct and sell old men and women.”
“They might,” replied Sewax without hesitation. “Whether it’s people who starved to death or died in a battle, the world wants obvious victims of war. For example, the leaders of a chaotic country without a proper Object system in place needs a way to obtain humanitarian aid from the peaceful countries.”
“Humanitarian aid such as food and fuel can be sold for money through the proper routes. And that money can buy guns and mercenaries to tighten one’s control over the unsatisfied country that has insufficient supplies. That’s one simple way governments oppress their countries with a dictatorship.”
“So this is a business that exports ‘extras’ to play the role of corpses,” spat out Quenser.
“But wouldn’t it look weird if Oceanians ended up as corpses in other countries?”
“To a certain extent, abducting tourists can help supply people from different regions. There are people like that cameraman who go out of their way to visit dangerous places. If they kidnap a certain number from different regions, they can divide them up to match the requests they receive.”
Quenser sounded disgusted by the idea as he spoke, but Sewax’s expression remained calm.
The student wiped sweat from his face with the back of his hand.
“Well, that explains the wide variety of people. If all the corpses were women and children, it might draw more sympathy from the people leisurely watching TV, but they probably want to mix in a macho old man or two to make it all look less contrived.”
“That means some of these people are being kidnapped and killed for the same reason as the variation in fighting game rosters.”
“Even if it’s a dummy operation, some soldiers might be hesitant to sacrifice their own people. And that goes for dictatorships, too. But some of that guilt can be eliminated by having them kill people from other nations to protect their own people. After all, that’s basically the entire reason the military exists and what soldiers are taught to do.”
That was likely what the abductors were after.
Sewax then changed the subject.
“Any guesses where the guns used here came from?”
“They were old-style assault rifles. Not only that, but inferior ones made by melting down scrap metal and reusing it. That’s the equipment Oceania used in the days of the military nation,” explained Heivia.
“Are remnants of the old military government involved in this?” asked Myonri with a look of disbelief.
Quenser chose his words carefully as he answered.
“Well, I have been hearing about those remnants trying to take back Oceania despite the Objects stationed here giving the coalition forces an overwhelming advantage.”
Sewax smiled thinly.
“I’ve heard they’re desperate to set up pipelines to other chaotic regions that are opposed to having Objects rule over them. But to trade, they need products. The old military government’s resources have dried up, so they want some kind of diplomatic commodity.”
“And that commodity is corpse extras of all ages?” muttered Heivia quietly. “The old government’s goal is to retake Oceania. In that case, it does make sense.”
“They want a way to control people and we’ve already glimpsed the initial preparations for that.”
After thinking for a second, Quenser grimaced.
“The black market.”
“It’s more of an ally to the people than the convenience stores. Without it, they wouldn’t have any food to eat. But not all of the black market’s products are gathered by crawling through the rubble. Someone has to obtain funds and buy products to sell.”
“Food earned by selling humans,” said Myonri with the same look as someone who had found a giant clump of hair in the food they had been eating. “If the people knew the truth, wouldn’t they begin to hate the old government’s black market?”
“Probably,” commented Sewax. “But by that time, the black market will have become an indispensable part of their lives. No matter how much they hate it, they can’t escape it. They need to get food and water somehow, so they’ll have to approve of what the old government is doing. People have a way of justifying the things they do.”
“They’re using a cruel incident to wash away the standards of good and evil and of common sense in this country. This is a form of terrorism.”
“Screw this,” spat out Quenser.
“Fortunately, this is likely the first wave of human trafficking.”
“I’ve been keeping an eye on the black market and the stock of products has been pretty unstable. So far, they have probably only had the products they dug up in the rubble. But as the supply began to dwindle, they started to panic. To prevent the people from turning their anger toward a black market without enough to sell, they put together a rushed plan. If they had already been selling people and earning a steady income, the black market would not have been so unstable.”
“So what?” Quenser glared at Sewax. “Either way, we need to rescue the Oceanian people who vanished here before they’re packed up and shipped away. Thirty people? Forty? They’re going to end up as corpse extras. They’ll be exported somewhere that doesn’t care about the concept of ‘clean wars’ and they’ll end up on some gory picture distributed around the world.”
“That’s the problem, Quenser.” Heivia scratched at his head. “Do you remember what our huge-breasted commander’s justification was? A child was kidnapped and a threatening call was made to a military officer. As a form of self-defense, that officer is sending out her unit to eliminate the criminal organization. Do you get what I’m saying?”
“Yes, I do. This operation began with that wrong number, so it only applies to the girl from the phone call. Now that we’ve rescued her, we have no pretext for military action!!”
“Then what do we do? Are we just going to leave those people to their fate!?”
“I don’t want to be plagued by nightmares of lines of body bags every time I go to bed, but this is a different issue entirely!”
“Either way, Froleytia will receive the same report once the girl arrives at the maintenance base. No matter what we do, the unit will take action in the end. So is there any reason to let the number of body bags grow by waiting until that delayed action begins!?”
“At least get permission!! Acting like a hero is great and all, but I don’t want to be thrown behind bars in exchange for getting a statue made of me in a safe country!!”
Sewax let out an obvious sigh and interrupted the following silence.
“Let’s go over the situation. You just finished your mission and were about to return to the maintenance base zone. You are not allowed to make a preemptive strike on a local force, but you are permitted to fight back in self-defense in the case of an unexpected battle. Is all that correct?”
“Are you telling us to say we lost our bearings in the desert and happened across the abduction organization while driving around randomly?”
“That’s a terrible excuse! That huge-breasted commander of ours would kill us!!”
“Only if we shot at them and killed them,” said Quenser as he gathered his thoughts. “But we should be able to get by if we restrict ourselves to investigation and long-distance reconnaissance. The odds are good Froleytia will act once she hears what that girl has to say. Even if we only investigate what buildings we need to attack and where the people are inside, it might change how many people we can save.”
“You sure are optimistic. What if she doesn’t act? Even if they’re a criminal organization, they still count as civilians. If she can’t justify slaughtering them with the military, there’s nothing she can do.”
“If that happens…” Quenser paused there, threw off his hesitation, and finally continued. “Then we’ll have to resign ourselves to being thrown in the detention barracks.”
There was a proper way to go about reconnaissance.
And Quenser, Heivia, and the others did not have the proper equipment.
“Who would have thought we would get our equipment at their black market?”
“I kind of think it’s our own fault.”
They bought military reconnaissance equipment centered on parabolic microphones and laser bugging devices. They also made sure to negotiate them all down to half the asking price. Unlike normal souvenir shops, the night was the busiest time for the black market. The hot night produced an odd passion in people which intertwined with the heat and filled the air with an oppressive atmosphere that permeated one’s body.
“I’m burning up… I thought the desert was supposed to be cold at night.”
“This area is filled with concrete, so it gathers heat like an urban heat island.”
“All these lights are outdated incandescent bulbs and everyone’s using diesel generators. I wonder if that’s adding to it.”
Quenser was in charge of haggling.
He was knowledgeable about machines and had a better sense of what things were worth due to his life as a commoner.
“I’m afraid of running into one of those Black Uniform women who were sent to the maintenance base. If they found out about this, they’d shoot us on the spot without bothering with a court martial.”
“How about we buy some uniforms, too? They have Information Alliance and Capitalist Corporations ones here.”
“Be my guest. But if anyone finds out, it’ll cause an international incident. Personally, I’m not gonna start a war.”
As a drunk was beaten by some of the shop owners for using shoddy counterfeit money, they bought some bottles of cider and other drinks stuck in a cooler of ice and received a radio transmission from Sewax.
They had asked Myonri and Sewax to gather some general information ahead of time.
“In an unstable country like this, the currencies of safe countries are popular. It’s a bit frustrating that the Capitalist Corporations’ dollars are better received than the Legitimacy Kingdom’s euros, but I got some interesting information.”
“Damn, it’s gone flat.”
“Just talking to myself,” said Heivia evasively. “So did you come across some bottom-level member of the criminal organization?”
“I didn’t go that far. I talked with some of the people working in the rubble called the Mouth of Truth. To help the country recover, a few of the docks at the international harbor are opened to the general public, but it seems one of them is being monopolized by a shell corporation. If they were transporting something they wanted to hide, they wouldn’t need to do that.”
“Do you have any proof the corpse extras are being shipped out there?”
“Not if ordering a few dozen more fast food hamburgers than usual doesn’t qualify as proof. It seems they also carried in a bunch of water and salt.”
Heivia and Quenser exchanged a glance.
“So once they’ve eaten, they get stuffed in a container for the long cruise?”
“If they just stuff in them in like that, will they really make it to the destination?”
“That depends on where they’re being sent,” replied Sewax. “My guess is half would die during the first two weeks and a tenth of the survivors would die off each day afterwards.”
That guess was anything but funny.
The criminal organization was not selling cheap laborers or toys for perverts. They were selling extras to play the role of corpses. Selling them alive would be best, but they could be sold at a reduced price if they were frozen after they died. When a corpse was gruesomely roasted, you didn’t have to worry about rigor mortis or anything like that. It was possible an autopsy wouldn’t even be performed.
“I also got my hands on a map of the harbor. I have a few guesses where the ‘products’ will be loaded, but I don’t know for sure. We need to go see for ourselves.”
“Well, we can’t use the military satellite without restriction,” said Heivia.
“We know the shortest course, so having to take such a roundabout route is just plain exhausting,” added Quenser.
Each time the two boys bought another piece of junk, they crossed off another item on their list.
“It looks like we’ll be able to get everything we need. Is there anything you want us to get outside of the standard reconnaissance equipment?” they asked Sewax.
“A beautiful blonde, a barrel of sherry, brandy that’s at least eight years old, cigars without any unnecessary filters, and a villa with a pool,” said Sewax perfectly casually. “Oh, and a bow and arrow set.”
The international harbor in question was located at one end of the city of rubble known as the Mouth of Truth.
Quenser, Heivia, Myonri, and Sewax stopped their military vehicle on the road three kilometers from the harbor and stepped out onto the cracked asphalt.
The abandoned buildings with no lights looked a lot different than they had during the day.
No flashlight lights could be seen in the direction of the abandoned buildings. Either searching for trash in the dark was too inefficient or they would simply be attacked if they dug anything out.
“This area is so bad they have to gather junk, so should we really leave our vehicle here? I don’t want to return exhausted from the job and find our means of transportation gone.”
“After the attack today, the people of the slum aren’t going to pick a fight with the military for at least half a day.”
Quenser and Sewax carried the reconnaissance equipment while Heivia and Myonri carried the firearms as they walked toward the international harbor that was opened to the public to help the country recover.
“If you look at it the right way, war recovery is like a tree that grows money,” complained Heivia as he wiped sweat from his brow. “And with all this equipment being moved around, people are gonna show up to take it for themselves. No one else is here, there are tons of things to hide behind, and there are any number of great spots for an attack. I can see why this area is so dangerous.”
“Are the containers shipped by land attacked because it’s a dangerous area or did it become a dangerous area because it’s a land route on which containers are shipped? It’s a bit of a chicken and the egg question,” said Sewax smoothly.
Quenser and the others did not directly enter the harbor. It was surrounded by a chain-link fence and armed workers were patrolling it. Opening the harbor up unconditionally would allow people to smuggle in weapons and drugs, so this was no surprise.
“This place is being used by human traffickers, so they’re not doing a very good job,” muttered Heivia as he hid behind some rubble.
“Just to be clear, don’t shoot them,” said Quenser in annoyance. “They’re just normal local people.”
“I know that, you idiot. But the villains might’ve bought some of them out. If this comes down to a fight, I’m classifying them as yellow. I won’t kill them, but I’ll incapacitate them.”
As an international harbor, it was quite a large place. It continued for two or three kilometers along the concrete-hardened coast. Also, about half of it had been destroyed in a fierce battle. A giant crane had broken and sunk into the ocean, and some giant metal boxes piled up in the container yard had collapsed and spread out like an avalanche.
“Myonri, where’s the dock we’re interested in?”
“N-number nine. From what we heard at least.”
Collapsed and broken buildings were lined up along the outside of the harbor. Quenser and the other three entered one of the abandoned buildings that was half-buried in the sand and climbed the stairs. They found a window overlooking the entire dock and hid by pressing up against the wall.
“Honestly, this building isn’t going to suddenly collapse, is it?”
“I’m afraid of asbestos, too. Was this thing actually made safely?”
The two idiots continued to complain back and forth.
“They’ve got someone famous here,” muttered Sewax flatly as he looked down at the dock with binoculars. “See that big man with a scar on his cheek and a false finger on his right hand? He looks like someone the major newspapers are giving an award for information on. He’s probably the man known as Blue Bottle.”
“Who’s that?” asked Quenser honestly.
“I think I heard the intelligence division whispering about that,” said Heivia in annoyance. “They were saying something about an unofficial mission to assassinate a courier that’s been making tons of money and controlling the market in Oceania by slipping past the satellites and inspections. They mentioned giving out tons of guest IDs to the maintenance base in preparation to invite in a specialized assassination team.”
“Wait a second. I thought we were in charge of wars. Aren’t we supposed to leave things like this to the local police?”
“There are always exceptions and some people force us to make an exception. The Legitimacy Kingdom, the Information Alliance, the Capitalist Corporations, and the Faith Organization are all fighting over their own interests here in Oceania, but no one is going to welcome a criminal who causes damage to everyone equally.”
“Hm.” Quenser did not seem to understand very well. “So why is he called Blue Bottle? Does he roll up his money and carry it around in blue bottles?”
“It’s the name of a jellyfish. A poisonous one. Apparently, more people in Oceania die from jellyfish than from sharks. He got the name because of how he does business while slipping through the nets like a ghost.”
That meant the criminal organization led by Blue Bottle was heavily related to the human trafficking and the black market.
“Oh, oh. You can tell at a glance.” Heivia let out a whistle as he peered out with binoculars. “Those clearly aren’t harbor workers. Look at those giant assault rifles. I’m guessing there’s between 50 and 90 of them.”
“Eh? I can only see about 20 out there.”
“But they’ll have two or three shifts, so that makes 50 to 90. A soccer team isn’t made up of exactly eleven people, you know?”
“Hey, Heivia. Is it possible these are harbor workers who were given money and equipment?”
“Not a chance. Their complexion is different. The tone of your skin can change a lot in a short period of time, but the brightness of the whites of your eyes won’t change in just a week or a month. Based on what they’ve been eating, they’re clearly higher up on the hierarchy. These aren’t people hired for the day. We aren’t gonna kill them and find out they were normal civilians.”
In other words, they did not need to hold back.
Quenser looked back and forth between the map Sewax had spread out on the dusty floor and the actual dock outside the window.
“The first question is where Blue Bottle’s group is keeping their ‘merchandise’,” he said. “It looks like there’s a mid-sized cargo ship docked here.”
He pointed toward the ship loaded with the standard metal containers.
But Sewax immediately rejected the idea.
“They’re not on the ship. The lifespans of the humans is directly linked to temperature and humidity. They’ll wait until the last second to load them in the containers. It’s just like shipping fruit. They’ll last longer this way.”
In that case, they could also rule out the hundreds of containers in the container yard.
If all of those were options, they might very well have had to give up.
“Then where are they?”
“Look at where the soldiers are, student.” Heivia tapped Quenser on the shoulder and pointed out the window with his chin. “They’re at the exits, the points needed to look out for snipers, and on top of the cranes instead of lookout towers. All of those are standard spots you’ll find in any textbook, but some of the soldiers are in clearly inefficient places. Those are to prevent any escapees. The ‘merchandise’ is within that office.”
“Probably,” agreed Sewax. “It has a roof to block out the sun and an air conditioner to prevent heat stroke. More importantly, it has four walls to prevent escape. And they don’t have to worry about anyone spotting the shocking fact that they’re holding people captive.”
Quenser started to agree, but then he frowned.
He looked out the window once more.
“The outer fence isn’t far from it. If they shouted, their voice could get out. Doesn’t that give them a chance to escape?”
“And what would they do then?” Heivia grinned cruelly. “This is a deserted city. Everyone digging for junk is working for the black market. They won’t actively take part in the human trafficking, but they’ll keep quiet if Blue Bottle yells at them.”
“What about the harmless harbor workers?”
“They have to pass through the empty city to get back home alive. Do you really think they’ll cause any unnecessary trouble?”
With that said, Heivia made a sign toward Myonri.
He then tapped on Quenser’s shoulder.
“What was that?”
“You’re working with the military, so how about you try to learn our language?”
Quenser and Heivia left the abandoned building, leaving Myonri and Sewax inside. They crouched down and made their way along while hiding behind concrete rubble in the road.
Quenser looked confused when he saw what Heivia was holding.
“What are you going to do with that?”
“The office with the ‘merchandise’ inside isn’t far from the fence. You’re the one that pointed that out, Quenser.”
They approached almost all the way to the fence and stopped about 100 meters form the office. They could not approach any further. If they poked their heads out from behind the rubble, a firefight would begin with Blue Bottle’s criminal organization.
Needless to say, a battle with a metal fence in between would put Quenser and Heivia at a disadvantage when they were trying to rescue the abducted people.
The office was a two-story building made of reinforced concrete. The staircase was attached to the outside of the building.
All of the first floor windows had the blinds lowered, so they could not see inside.
But on the second floor…
“There we go,” muttered Quenser with binoculars in one hand. “I see an old woman. She’s probably about 80. Now that’s another kind of person who will make you want to protect them. She’s perfect for one of their extras, dammit.”
“Not again! Can we please run across a large-breasted waitress or beautiful secretary in a business suit!? I need some kind of motivation here!!”
“More importantly,” said Quenser in annoyance. “She’s the only one I can see from here. There’s supposed to be around thirty of them, right? Where are the others? I hope they aren’t locked up separately.”
Suddenly, Sewax spoke up over the radio.
“That’s probably where they’re being fed their last supper.”
“The abducted people will be packed in containers and shipped across the ocean. How long they survive is influenced by temperature, humidity, and food supply.”
Quenser turned his binoculars back toward the second floor of the office.
The small old woman was sitting in a chair by the window. The round table contained a hamburger and fries from a fast food restaurant as well as a cup filled with soda.
“After being packed in the container, they have to subsist off of water and salt,” continued Sewax. “If they gave them proper food, it would quickly rot in the high temperature and high humidity. That’s why they have them eat as much as they can ahead of time to maintain the freshness of their ‘merchandise’.”
“And so they would be in trouble if the people went on a hunger strike?”
“Even if they forced them to eat at gunpoint, the extreme stress could make them vomit, ruining the whole idea. That’s why they give them some hope. They’re in a comfortable air-conditioned room, the outer fence isn’t far away, and they have a nice view from the second floor window. The people are made to think they might be able to escape and so they need to eat to keep their strength up. Once they eat of their own free will, they can be shipped out.”
The small old woman had food in front of her, but she showed no sign of eating it. She simply hung her head down while sitting in the chair. The hamburger had grown cold and the grease from the fries had stained their container. Quenser could not guess how long she had been sitting there.
“She knows it’s over once she eats.”
“Damn them. It’s been a while since I saw food less appetizing than our rations.”
With that offhand comment, Heivia began assembling the military bow behind the rubble. It was a reinforced version of an athletic bow and it was covered in desert camouflage.
“Hey, are we really going to do this with so few people? If we know where all the abducted people are, Froleytia might take action.”
“I’m not going to use this to kill anyone, Mr. Happy. The second-story window is 100 meters away. If I aim high, the arrow will fall through the window. It doesn’t make much noise, so the guards wandering around outside won’t notice.”
Quenser realized what Heivia meant, so he scratched at his sand-filled blond hair.
“Are you going to shoot a radio to that old woman?”
“The arrows come with transmitters already. They’re meant to tell an Object where to fire, but with some quick modifications, we can communicate over it.”
“Who’s going to modify it?”
“If you want to prove your worth, you’d better get busy, Quenser. Taking apart some headphones and removing the oscillator is easier than disarming a bomb.”
“And who’s going to pay me?”
“Come to think of it, I don’t have an answer for that either! Why the hell am I taking this so seriously!?”
Without a soldering iron or wire cutters, Quenser had to pull a small knife meant for cooking from his survival kit. He used the knife to take apart the electronic device and combine the necessary parts. His movements were broad but accurate, so he looked a bit like a cook on a fishing ship.
After putting together the arrow, Quenser handed it to Heivia.
“How’s the window?”
“It’s open. They probably have the air conditioner on inside, but the open window increases the people’s hope.”
“You only have one shot at this. Are you sure you can get it in the room first try?”
“Easily, once I pass it through a ballistic calculation program. How about I fire it right into the hamburger on the table?”
“You got something that dangerous? Should that really be out on the black market?”
“Don’t be silly. This is for golf lovers. It just so happens you can also use it to provide targeting corrections for mortars is all.”
“So it’s like using the club to break open an ATM and take out the money?”
“This is another difference between the rich and the poor. There are people who have to dig through the black market and haggle for food, but there are others who build a green golf course in the desert for fun. Otherwise, something like this wouldn’t be there.”
The ballistic calculation program worked by attaching a handheld device to the bow’s grip and looking into a small screen. The footage from the camera would add lines along courses for baseball pitches.
It was almost all sports-related.
He held the bow up and fired a large arrow. It silently passed over the head of a guard, travelled in an arc, fell diagonally down toward the office’s second story window, and shot accurately into the room.
Just like the flag on a kid’s meal, the arrow stabbed into the center of the hamburger on the table.
“Heh. Did you see that, Quenser? That’s what the super smart, beautiful, and wealthy noble Heivia can do. You don’t get a hole-in-one by relying on beginner’s luck. You need the skill and composure of a gentleman.”
“You idiot, you scared the old woman so much she fell over backwards in her chair! And weren’t you saying anyone could do this using that ballistic whatever?”
“If you’re gonna be like that, then why don’t you try it! You always leave the physical labor to me!!”
The two idiots very nearly started a light fistfight, but they remembered this was hardly the time. They would be fine if the panicked old woman fell silent from the shock, but they would lose their chance if she caused a commotion.
Quenser set the frequency on his radio and brought it to his mouth.
The modified arrow had the oscillator and electrode from some headphones added on, so they could communicate via their voices. Specifically, the amplitude of the vibrations in the air could be converted to electrical signals of 0 and 1. Simply put, it worked the same as a telephone.
“Hey there. This is Battlefield Student Quenser Barbotage from the Legitimacy Kingdom’s 37th Mobile Maintenance Battalion. If that’s too much of a mouthful, you can call me hero or knight. I’d like to take the position of the red-clad hero, but unfortunately, my uniform only has the plain colors of desert camouflage.”
“No fair!! You’re acting like this was all your doing!”
“Sorry, Heivia, but I’ll do anything for the slightest chance of seeing a wonderful micro bikini once this old woman introduces me to her daughter or granddaughter. …In fact, I’d probably just roll over and go to sleep if I didn’t have that hope.”
“Why do you think I said it wasn’t fair!?”
The two idiots almost began grappling, but something happened over the radio. The old woman timidly approached the arrow stabbed into the table (through the hamburger).
“A-are you a soldier?”
“That’s right. Do you watch the news on TV? We’re from the coalition army. We’re the cavalry that’ll do anything from road construction to eliminating bad guys.”
“Do you have a gun? Are you different from the people wandering around outside?”
“Piano, violin, foreign languages, and dance. There are a lot of things for ladies to learn, but there is one thing they have to remember no matter how old they are. Do you know what that is?”
“How to spot a decent guy. Being able to do that can change your entire life. How about I give you an example, ‘young lady’? After this, you’ll think the world isn’t completely lost as long as there’s one attractive guy left.”
For a while after that, they heard the old woman say nothing more.
It was not that the transmission had cut out.
They heard intermittent breaths as if from sobbing mixed in with a bit of static.
As he monitored the dock from the abandoned building, Sewax explained what was going on over Heivia’s radio.
“It looks like she’s crying.”
“You don’t have to report every little thing like that,” said Heivia sharply.
He and Quenser continued to wait while hiding behind the rubble.
“I feel like smoking a cigarette right about now.”
“You’re a minor. What are you talking about?”
They waited for thirty seconds or maybe a full minute.
When the old woman spoke once more, they took it as a sign they could continue.
“What should I do?” she asked. “How can I sneak out of here?”
“First, how about we get your name, ‘young lady’. I’m Quenser, but what should I call you?”
“Also…I know. What about your home? We need to send you back there once we rescue you.”
“South Britain territory.”
Quenser and Heivia exchanged a glance.
They had been expecting an Oceanian city, but Dorothy had mentioned a Legitimacy Kingdom safe country.
“Were you…a tourist?”
“Yes. My daughter and her husband were visiting a shopping mall. All the bright lights made me dizzy, so I stayed in the car. But it got as hot as a greenhouse under the sun and I couldn’t bear it any longer, so…”
“(What do you think?)”
“(I’d say it’s about 50/50 whether that’s a justification. Civilian lives always take priority over military personnel and equipment, but we haven’t actually checked to see if Dorothy is a Legitimacy Kingdom citizen.)”
Heivia let out a short sigh and poked just the barrel of his assault rifle from behind the rubble. Technically, he was sticking out the sensors attached to the rifle.
“(There are three guards circling the office. If we sniped the high points to the west and southwest, it would be possible break in, but…)”
Sewax continued for Heivia.
“But it would be risky. And we would have to give up on rescuing the others because we don’t know where they are.”
“We have two options,” said Quenser while choosing his words carefully. He was speaking to Dorothy who was closest to the information they needed. “We can rescue you for sure or we can leave you there a little longer to figure out where the other thirty or forty abducted people are.”
“We can’t choose either option without your cooperation. You stand in the most important place, so you can make the decision. …Which do you want to do?”
“I will do it,” said Dorothy after thinking for a moment. “Please let me do it. Until you gave me this chance, I could not even taste the food, but now I am human again. And now that I know how wonderful this chance is, I cannot bear to take that chance from the others in my position.”
“Just to be clear, that option will increase the risk. You might be wasting this chance you’ve been given. Will you still do it for people you don’t even know?”
“I do know them. We were thrown in a truck together and trembled together as they aimed guns at us. That may be all, but I do know them.”
For a moment, Quenser was unsure what to say into the radio.
He could not decide which option was correct.
But he still said it.
There was no reason to let her know about his own doubts.
“An excellent answer.”
“What do I need to do?” she asked.
Quenser turned toward Heivia. His friend handed him the same type of arrow he had just fired into the office window.
Quenser held the radio between his cheek and shoulder while he used both hands to disassemble the metal arrow.
“The arrow stabbed into the table there is made so the back can be removed. Twist it like a screw and a ballpoint pen sized part should come off.
“Yes, yes. Do I need to tell you were everyone is with this?”
“No, you don’t need to say anything. We can tell where that ballpoint pen is. Dorothy, you just have to hide it in your clothes and follow the criminal’s instructions. Before all of you are sent aboard the ship, you should be gathered in a single spot. As long as we know where that is, we can use the power of the military to take control of the harbor.”
“You can’t let them know you have that hidden under your clothes. As for the rest of the arrow…I know. There’s an air conditioner near the ceiling, right? Use something as a stepstool and place it on top of the air conditioner. Eat the hamburger and… Oh, there’s a hole in the table, isn’t there? There’s a chair in that office, right? Pretend the stress got the better of you and beat the chair against the table to destroy it. Make sure they won’t notice that small hole!”
After giving all of his instructions, Quenser ended the transmission and tapped Heivia’s shoulder.
“Sure, sure. You’re taking all the good parts, aren’t you!? Are you the type that’ll talk to anyone you lay your eyes on, whether they’re a trap or a zombie girl?”
“We would lose too much time if we waited until Dorothy gave us our answer to request assistance from Froleytia. We need to get the unit moving now.”
“How? Unless we give a justification for the military to act and prove that we can win, that huge-breasted commander will only yell at us. We’ll be stuck waiting for word from lovely little Dorothy. You haven’t escaped the delay.”
“Dorothy will give us the right answer.” Quenser raised his index finger. “But Froleytia and the others don’t know when. We can report that we’ve found the abducted people ahead of time and everything will fall into place as long as Dorothy gives us the answer before the unit arrives.”
“Are you aware providing false reports is a crime?”
“I’ll pretend I don’t. After all, I’m just a student.”
“Hah hah. That’s no different from when council members say they ‘have no recollection’ of people’s accusations. It won’t work.”
Quenser and Heivia were beginning to relax because of the difference in military might. The harbor dock was controlled by bad guys who were armed with old assault rifles and grenades, but that would be easily dealt with as soon as Froleytia sent in the power of the military.
For them, they were on the verge of having a legit military operation.
Dorothy was a Legitimacy Kingdom citizen and she would provide them the location of the others before long.
That was enough.
Froleytia would complain, but she would send in some soldiers. She might beat up the two idiots afterwards and they could even be thrown in the detention barracks, but that would be after everything had been settled.
With one word of approval, Dorothy and the others would be saved.
Quenser and Heivia had no more reason to stay there. A battle would begin if Blue Bottle’s criminal organization spotted them before they had Dorothy’s answer and the unit arrived, but that was the worst case scenario. They could prevent that from happening by leaving the rubble nearby the harbor and returning to the building Myonri and Sewax were in.
With that in mind, the two of them began to stand up.
And then a voice spoke from the radio.
It was Sewax.
“Wait a minute.”
“What? What is it? Did god finally decide to show some pity on me by dropping a supermodel from the sky?”
Sewax ignored Heivia’s casual comment as he continued.
“Something isn’t right.”
Quenser and Heivia could not believe what Sewax said over the radio.
To check for themselves, they rushed back to the abandoned building. They pressed up against the wall next to the window overlooking the harbor and swiped Sewax’s binoculars.
Without looking particularly displeased, the cameraman pointed toward one side of the harbor.
A mid-sized cargo ship was moored at the dock. A short pole was located near the bow of the ship.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me! Please tell me this is a joke!!”
Heivia clenched his teeth and checked through the binoculars again and again, but what he saw did not change. It was no mistake.
“Come to think of it, some of this didn’t quite add up,” groaned Sewax. “Blue Bottle’s criminal organization may control one portion of the harbor with a shell company, but the coalition still has several naval Objects patrolling the ocean. The cargo ships would naturally undergo surprise checks. Anyone shipping out weapons, drugs, counterfeit money, humans, or anything else suspicious would need to control more than just the harbor to be safe.”
Then what did they need to be safe?
The answer was displayed on the bow of the cargo ship.
“To hell with them.” Quenser brought a hand to his forehead. “I can see it! Yeah, I can see it! That’s the Information Alliance flag fluttering in the wind on that pole!!”
“Does that mean the Information Alliance is involved in this human trafficking?” asked Myonri.
Sewax shook his head.
“Most likely, they aren’t checking what’s onboard at all. The soldiers just give the ships a free pass in exchange for money.”
“That’s just the excuse they’ll use to prevent a war if there’s a problem and this comes to light. It’s no different than the politicians who insist their secretary was behind it all,” said Heivia in annoyance. “I doubt the Information Alliance is interested in the human trafficking itself. Even if it’s profitable, it would hurt their reputation too much. I bet they’re interested in the criminal organization that has worked its way so deeply into Oceania. Their black market is directly linked to the livelihood of the people. If they can make a connection with Blue Bottle and form a pipeline to the criminal organization, they can freely manipulate public opinion within Oceania. This lets them create pressure both officially and unofficially. If they can gain the support of the local people, they can gain an advantage in the coalition’s infighting over how much of this southern continent each world power gets.”
“Probably, but if we accuse them on nothing but speculation, we’ll be the ones left hurting.” Quenser clicked his tongue. “More importantly, what about Dorothy!? As long as the criminal organization is receiving this indulgence from the Information Alliance, they officially count as cooperating with the Information Alliance military. Froleytia won’t want to attack them blindly!!”
“So they’re technically civilians yet are partially treated like soldiers.” Sewax seemed to be thinking. “Yes, it would cause a lot of trouble if a large unit was sent in to annihilate them. The Information Alliance could easily cause a much larger battle in the name of stopping the Legitimacy Kingdom from unrightfully attacking civilians.“
“Our huge-breasted commander can’t do anything,” spat out Heivia. “She isn’t stupid enough to start a war over thirty or forty people! But then what do we do!? If we could use the proper channels and send in a large unit, they’d be crushed in five seconds, but does that mean the four of us can defeat them? It’s impossible! Especially if we have to swiftly and accurately wipe them out so they can’t take away the abducted people!!”
“Wait, where’s Dorothy? We can contact her and save at least her.”
“We can’t!” Quenser kicked the floor. “The communications device we gave her has moved to another building. That’s probably where all the others are being held. Breaking in and rescuing just her isn’t an option anymore.”
Attempting an unwinnable battle would help nothing.
Making a heroic and moving charge on the harbor might reduce the number of bad guys, but they would eventually be overwhelmed and defeated. There was even a danger of the criminals shooting the captives.
Now that they knew Blue Bottle’s criminal organization was under the Information Alliance’s protection, they could only say a political problem had arisen. The criminals could claim this was an unofficial operation meant to let these people escape the poor conditions of Oceania and reach wealthier nations. The dead could say nothing, so they only had to kill all of the captives within the containers and claim it would never have happened if the Legitimacy Kingdom had not taken hasty military action.
At best, it would start as an argument between the higher ups of the two world powers and develop into a war.
At worst, Quenser and the other three would be treated as war criminals who slaughtered the civilians.
“Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do.” Heivia covered his face with his hands and let a heavy voice escape the gaps between his fingers. “They set this up too well! Of course they did!! They’ve spent a long time building this up so it would be safe. Why would some people who just now showed up be able to ad-lib their way through it!?”
“Then what do we do about Dorothy?”
“Weren’t you listening? We can’t start a war over thirty or forty people!”
“But I was the one that asked her to help! I can’t accept this. We’re not watching a news broadcast about something happening on the other side of the world!!”
“Then you go fight on your own! As a student, you might be able to slip through the cracks of the war treaties. But you’ll be slaughtered by the criminals. And more importantly!! That criminal organization is being treated like a group cooperating with the Information Alliance military. You’re not just up against some thugs in the city. You’ll be taking on an international military force here. Are you still going to pick a fight with them!?”
Heivia heard a light noise.
It was Quenser snapping his fingers.
“What? …No, wait just a damn second. What the hell are you thinking? Why are you grinning like that? I was in the middle of shouting at you until you gave up!”
“Military cooperators. Heivia, soldiers have a duty to rescue civilians in that position, right?”
“So what if they do? I don’t see how you can twist that into keeping the Information Alliance away. If we attack Blue Bottle and his human trafficking ring, they’re gonna show up. There’s no stopping it!!”
The female soldier named Myonri then cut in timidly.
“Huh? Wait a minute. Then that means…”
“Dorothy has no reason to fight.” Quenser pointed toward his own chest with his thumb. “It was me, someone working for the Legitimacy Kingdom military! If I hadn’t pressed her to cooperate, she wouldn’t still be there in the middle of enemy territory. That means she’s cooperating with the Legitimacy Kingdom military. It’s obvious her life is in danger if we don’t do something, so what should the military that was backing her do? Answer me, Heivia!!”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” groaned Heivia.
“I see.” Sewax’s lips twisted up in an interested smile. “If Blue Bottle’s organization is protected by the Information Alliance as a military cooperator, then they can’t ignore the Legitimacy Kingdom if it claims the right to protect Dorothy for the same reason. If conflict breaks out between civilians, it’s only natural for the militaries backing them to intermediate.”
“Don’t make me laugh.” Heivia shook his head. “There’s no way it’ll work that well! There isn’t going to be a tear-jerking happy ending! Our huge-breasted commander doesn’t know we hired Dorothy and she won’t approve of it! We don’t have any documents to prove it, either!! When war is about to break out, try bringing up someone named Dorothy that no one’s ever heard of. They’ll just stare at you funny. Justification or not, our unit isn’t moving!!”
“Perhaps not,” admitted Quenser. “But we do have justification for the four of us to take action.”
“Do you have anything to prove she’s a military cooperator!?”
“She’s proof enough. But she needs to be alive to prove it, so we have to save her.”
“What we want to do and what we have to do match up,” muttered Sewax.
They could act as heroic as they wanted, but they were the ones who would be exposed to gunfire. Heivia was growing irritated because the fear was beginning to sink in, so Quenser spoke to him.
“Also, we can’t run away anymore.”
“What!? Why the hell not!? There’s no special bonus waiting for us. It’s not like we have to shoot our way out to get back to the maintenance base. In fact, we shouldn’t even be here. For once, I’m having trouble finding anything we’ll get blamed for if we just run away!!”
“And then what? Are we going to report that we recruited a civilian without permission, didn’t see it through to the end, and returned to safety while leaving her to die? Even if it doesn’t break any rules, do you really think there will be a place for us back in the unit?”
“Goddammit!! So you convince Dorothy to do this and now it’s going to bring dishonor on me? This’ll affect my chances of inheriting my family!!”
But arguing was not going to solve anything.
If he truly had an issue with what Quenser had done, he should have interrupted while Quenser was speaking with Dorothy.
“But what now? What exactly do we do!? There’re only four of us and two of those are a student and cameraman. Meanwhile, we’re up against 50-90 soldiers and there might be reinforcements from the Information Alliance. That’s too much of a difference to just charge in randomly like we’re the cavalry!”
“Our objective is to rescue Dorothy and the other captives. All of them. We aren’t just going to shoot up the place until nothing’s left moving like in a Western.”
“We need to narrow down our targets. This is like a puzzle game. We don’t have to take care of everything ourselves. If we destroy one, the rest will vanish in a chain reaction.”
The most important factor was that Quenser and the others knew where Dorothy was. They could detect her location from the communication device removed from the military arrow and hidden in her clothes.
After detecting that she had been moved to the mid-sized cargo ship, Quenser, Heivia, Myonri, and Sewax began to move.
“Honestly. This is no joke,” groaned Heivia. “We have no boat. We have no flippers or snorkels! We have nothing!! And now we have to jump into the ocean at night? We’re carrying rifles and missiles!! It’s all so damn heavy I just want to throw it away!!”
“The ship is leaving the harbor while you waste time shouting. Let’s jump in while we can catch up.”
They had left the dock controlled by Blue Bottle’s criminal organization and entered a block patrolled by the normal harbor workers. Instead of the main gate, they had cut a hole in the chain-link fence and snuck in. After slipping past the guards and cutting across the harbor, they threw themselves into the dark ocean at the tip of the harbor.
“Bwah! Dammit! They have a diesel engine. Can we really catch up to them like this?”
“The sea chart here is complex,” replied Sewax while skillfully treading water. He seemed to have no problem with being in the water, so his camera must have been waterproof. “A lot of rubble from Object bombardments has been swept into the ocean. This is worse than reefs. To safely reach open sea, they have to travel back and forth in an S-shape. If we swim along that route, the cargo ship will approach us.”
“The Information Alliance is in charge of security here and I hear they’ve blocked the sea routes with smart mines that distinguish between friend and foe. I don’t know if they’ll react to a human-sized mass, but try to be careful.”
After swimming through the dark sea for a while, the cargo ship came into view. As it travelled along the narrow safe regions, it did indeed approach them.
“Wait, wait, wait. It’s pointing searchlights everywhere.”
“They’re probably actually relying on radar, but human nature makes them want to see everything with their own eyes. But it’s dark below the lights. The bright light will cause their pupils to contract incorrectly. As long as the light doesn’t directly illuminate you, they won’t see you,” explained Sewax.
“Heivia, do you have the rope ready?” asked Quenser.
“Just as you asked, Mr. Knight! Once again, I prepare the food and you get to eat it!!”
As it approached, the cargo ship’s hull rose up like a cliff. It also tilted out toward them, so it would be impossible climb by hand.
Heivia and Myonri spun around ropes with claws attached to the end and used the centrifugal force to throw them straight up. After making sure they had solidly dug into the deck’s railing, the two soldiers climbed up the cliff and onto the ship.
The cargo ship itself was a giant mass with a large volume.
As Quenser and Sewax waited in the sea for their signal, they were tossed around by the artificial current and forced to cling to the ropes.
And then something heavy fell down from above.
Quenser looked down at what had fallen next to him and found the corpse of one of the criminal organization’s guards. The man’s throat had been slit.
With a look of disgust, he brought his radio to his mouth.
“You show no mercy, do you?”
“If you have time to complain, climb up. Sharks are sensitive to the scent of blood.”
But Quenser was only a student, so he could not climb what was essentially a building wall using only a rope.
Quenser glanced over at Sewax who quickly surmounted the wall on his own, but he needed Heivia and Myonri to pull his rope up.
“C’mon. I’m a noble and you’re a commoner, so I shouldn’t be pulling you up like this.”
“More importantly, how much time do we have?”
“They’ll figure out they’ve lost someone once the periodic report comes, so we have at most ten minutes. We have no time to spare after losing some time thanks to a certain idiot!”
Myonri looked down at her handheld device while covering the small screen with her hand to keep the light from escaping.
“Dorothy is at the front of the ship.”
“Let’s do what we can. There’s no way we can seajack this thing in ten minutes.”
After Quenser and Heivia formed a pair and Myonri and Sewax formed a pair, the two pairs travelled through the piles of containers on deck while covering for each other.
As an unpleasant sweat dripped down his face, Heivia muttered to himself.
“Don’t use your gun. Rely on your knife. Don’t use your gun. After a single gunshot, you’ll have to jump into the ocean.”
Fortunately, the large number of containers (which were likely there as decoys to hide the human trafficking) provided a lot of cover. The four of them carefully travelled toward the bow of the ship while making sure they did not run into any guards.
And suddenly, they heard the roaring of the wind.
Except this was no normal wind.
“(Get down, you idiot! Don’t move!!)”
Heivia whispered quietly, grabbed the back of Quenser’s collar, and got down on the deck. Ahead of them, Myonri and Sewax pressed their backs against metal containers and held their breath. Their faces were obviously covered with an unusual amount of sweat.
Quenser belatedly realized what was going on.
What he had thought was the wind was actually a disturbance in the air caused by the movement of a great mass. It was similar to when a train rushed by a subway platform.
A sealed tunnel was one thing, but not much could do the same on the open sea.
This was the symbol of war.
It was the trademark of the era that could destroy every other weapon on the battlefield.
In other words…
“An Object!!” he groaned while lying on the deck.
Even the mid-sized cargo ship towered above the ocean surface like a cliff, but the Object was on an entirely different level. Its spherical main body was around fifty meters tall and equipped with over one hundred different cannons. Despite the cargo ships’ immense size, it looked like a plastic miniature next to the Object.
Its presence was overwhelming.
Its sense of intimidation was overwhelming.
The sense of danger it radiated was overwhelming.
Everything about it was overwhelming.
“They’re from the Information Alliance,” said Heivia as he almost lay on top of Quenser and looked like he was about to cry. “These are second generation Objects from the Information Alliance. I think that’s the Simple Is Best and the Catapult Cargo. This is no joke. There’s no way we can take on an enemy like this.”
Heivia listed two names.
The meaning of that fact arrived along with despair as Quenser forced his neck around to observe the situation.
The cargo ship was passing between two Objects that were patrolling the dark sea. As he looked up at the towering armor and countless cannons, it somehow reminded him of a thick green tunnel made of trees.
If any one of those cannons was fired, Quenser and the others would be blasted into pieces too small to even make fish food.
But at the same time…
“We were right,” he muttered. “Even if second generation Objects are specialized toward fighting other Objects, they would have detected us if they were making full use of their sensors. But they aren’t attacking and they haven’t contacted Blue Bottle to send out his men.”
“That means this ship is not being checked. If they scanned it, they might detect all the people stuffed in the containers. The data would remain in the Object’s recorder and it would be a pain to alter it.”
But that did not mean they could move around freely.
Objects were the rulers of the battlefield. They were a non-standard monster with no natural enemies that could freely devour all other life forms before them. It was as if they had been born due to some kind of bug or mistake.
No one was stupid enough to stick their own arm in the beast’s mouth to see whether it had been tamed or not.
No one wanted to be the pitiable guinea pig.
Quenser and the others held their breath and watched the two Objects slowly move away from the cargo ship. Even then, they did not move. An uncomfortable sweat grew below their uniforms.
It came down to their intuition rather than logic.
Once the Objects were several hundred meters away, Quenser finally let out a long breath.
That was still plenty close for the second generation Objects to attack, but he still felt the relief of being in the clear.
Heivia used his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his face as he got up off of Quenser.
“Try to remember what it is we’re fighting, lady killer.”
“Now that we’re here, we have to go through with this regardless.”
The four of them began moving at the same time.
Myonri jogged ahead from one pile of containers to another. She then pointed at the first level of containers with her thumb.
“Dorothy is in here. What should we do?”
“We might as well use this chance to rescue as many of them as we can. Quenser, set up your trick as planned!”
The four of them all moved in different directions.
Heivia and Myonri grabbed the metal lever.
But then Myonri frowned.
“Wait a second. I just noticed something.”
“What is it? I don’t see any tripwires.”
“It isn’t that.”
Myonri let go of the lever to open the door and traced her finger across the string of letters printed on the metal door.
“This is a refrigerated container. This thing is basically a gigantic freezer.”
“Why the hell would they throw an 80-year-old woman in there!?”
They forcibly pulled the lever and opened the door.
As soon as the metal door opened, chilly air seemed to cut at their cheeks. Just as Myonri had said, the inside of the wall was covered in white frost.
A small figure was lying on its side in the fetal position.
And it was just the one person.
“What the hell…? What the hell!? I thought Blue Bottle’s group was working in human trafficking? Why are they freezing them from the get-go!?”
“Wait! Don’t carelessly pick her up! Her exposed skin might be frozen to the container floor!”
Fortunately, Myonri’s fears were unfounded. The old woman’s hair seemed frozen, but her skin did not stick to the floor.
Heivia picked up Dorothy and carried her out of the container.
“They might have been trying to simulate hibernation,” said Sewax as he read the writing on the container.
“There are cases of people surviving without food or water for over a month in cars buried in snow. Only one in nine survive, but their ‘merchandise’ can survive the long trip if the conditions are artificially recreated. It has better odds than leaving it up to luck after throwing them in a hot and stuffy container with water and salt.”
“I see. So that’s why they put them in separate containers.” Myonri let out a groan as she thought about this demonic plan. “It’s the same as anesthesia. The temperature is carefully calculated out based on the person’s weight, so they all need their own container.”
“So what? This isn’t going to work 100% of the time. For one thing, humans aren’t meant to hibernate like a bear! If they force it, it has to fail and cause frostbite or hypothermia in a lot of them!!”
“True, but there’s a countermeasure that’s popular among people stranded in snowy mountains. If you warm the outside of the body with lukewarm water and eat food, it will cause an increase in body temperature.”
“I guess a normal water bottle would be warm enough on a warm night like this. I only have disgusting rations for food, though.”
“If they’re conscious enough to complain about that, there’s nothing to worry about.”
Heivia and Sewax’s discussion must have brought her back to her senses because Dorothy slowly opened her eyes while her skin was oddly cold.
She looked like someone who had just woken up in the morning, but the situation was completely different.
For one thing, she had not been sleeping. Her mind was muddled enough for her memories to be a bit vague.
“Yes! That’s right! We’re here to save you. There’s nothing more to worry about.”
“Are you…the one named…Quenser?”
“Sorry, but there are even better guys than him in the world.”
They could not force her to do anything more.
Heivia frantically pulled out a ration that resembled a tasteless and odorless eraser and a bottle warmed by the warm night and his own body temperature.
And then he heard a noise.
Someone was peering out from behind a pile of containers. Heivia did not know who it was, but he made up his mind when he saw the shoddily-made assault rifle in his hand. He was a criminal organization guard on patrol.
He was only seven meters away.
The assault rifle hung from his shoulder on a sling belt, but he was not holding the rifle. He held a different weapon.
But it was not a handgun or a knife.
It was a glittering black sphere about one size bigger than a golf ball.
All of Heivia’s hair stood on end when he realized what it was.
In that instant, Sewax held up his heavy camera as if pulling a handgun from its holster and he stared through the viewfinder.
(Oh, I’m dead.)
Time seemed to flow strangely slow, but he did not try to hide or cover his face with his arms. He stood stock still and continued to keep the armed man in the center of the small world cut off by his camera.
He held a Gr-021, the grenades used by the old Oceanian military government. They were rumored to be cheap copies of the Information Alliance’s grenades. They had a kill radius of five meters and an injury radius of twelve meters. The soldier may not have known how to use it properly because he was liable to be caught in the blast that killed using shrapnel rather than the explosion itself.
If the guard holding the sphere relaxed his grip, pulled out the pin, and released the safety lever, over two hundred metal grains would fly in every direction with deadly speed exactly five seconds later. Man, woman, adult, and child alike would be turned to mincemeat.
Even so, Sewax operated his camera as if it were his mission.
He wanted to take a photo that would change the world.
War would never end no matter how many hundreds of bullets were fired. The people whose bank accounts grew every time the money-devouring Objects were sent out would continue applauding in dark rooms as more blood was shed. To truly end it all, the people’s hearts had to be moved outside of what the people in charge had to gain. That was something bullets could not achieve. No matter how great a tragedy was, it would resound in no one’s heart unless a battlefield cameraman recorded it.
He had wanted an opportunity to do just that.
It did not matter if it would take the lives of a few people here. It did not matter if that danger applied to him as well. He would not regret the loss of an arm or a leg. He was willing to lose half his body if that was what it took. If he could bring home the picture that would change history and bring peace, he would proudly say he had won.
As the person who had once relied on bullets in this very country, he felt this was something he had to do no matter what.
(Is that really okay?)
Through the viewfinder, he saw Heivia crouched down while frozen in place. At his feet was a small old woman who lay groggily on the ground after being rescued from an extreme low-temperature environment.
If they died, it would likely shake some people’s hearts.
If he stored that shocking bloodshed in the small memory of his camera, he could use it to convey the truth of the battlefield.
(But is that really okay!?)
There was no point in saving just a few lives. It would mix in with all the other boring news and reach no one, so it might as well not exist. Information that reached no one was no different from information that vanished from the face of the earth. At that very moment, the people within safe countries thought the world was a peaceful place. They truly believed it. And yet the war in Oceania had yet to truly end. To ultimately end war, those people’s help was needed.
To stop the tragedies, Sewax hoped for a tragedy to occur. That contradictory mindset led him to hesitate over whether to accept or reject this situation.
He finally made his decision.
A metallic sound of impact brought Heivia back to his senses.
The battlefield cameraman named Sewax had removed the neck strap attachment to the camera he valued more than his life and he threw it at the guard holding the grenade.
“I’m not going back to the way I was. I swore I would stop doing that!! I swore during that war in Oceania!!”
As Sewax shouted out in desperation, Heivia began to move. The camera was heavy, but it was not enough to knock out that large man by striking his upper body. However, the man decided to prioritize his own safety by protecting his body with his arms. And he still held the grenade in his hand. He had not released the pin or safety lever.
They had a chance.
Heivia immediately let go of the ration and water bottle and drew his large military knife with a flowing motion of his right hand. He even had enough composure to cover Dorothy’s eyes with his left hand.
He threw the knife without hesitation.
After rotating exactly ninety degrees, the tip of the blade stabbed accurately into the guard’s throat.
But Heivia’s expression twisted silently.
The man did not collapse. It was a fatal blow but not enough to kill him instantly.
There was going to be a lag of a few seconds to a dozen seconds.
(I missed the center. The blade didn’t hit his spine!!)
As Heivia watched, the man’s fingers writhed like caterpillars and reached for the grenade’s metal pin. One finger passed through the ring of the pin.
All he had to do was release it now.
Pulled by gravity, the explosive fell straight down. The pin attached to his index finger was pulled out. The shock of the round grenade striking the deck was enough to release the safety lever.
It was ready to detonate.
Heivia saw Myonri immediately pull out her handgun, so he took action. While still crouched down, he ran forward like a beast. The man with the blade in his throat could not speak, but he glared at Heivia. The ring-shaped pin on his index finger glittered in the light like a cruel piece of jewelry.
The kill radius was five meters.
The injury radius was twelve meters.
It would explode in only five seconds.
(Just killing him isn’t enough. We’ll all be caught in the blast!!)
As the guard started to fall backwards, Heivia grabbed his collar. This was not a gentlemanly attempt to support the man. He grabbed the man’s right arm, spun him around, and used the man’s waist as a fulcrum to throw him to the ground.
He threw the man on top of the grenade he had dropped.
A muffled explosion arrived an instant later.
The cheap bulletproof plate and the living flesh and bone were enough to suppress the explosion of a grenade meant to kill with shrapnel rather than the blast. In textbooks, this method was given as a means of bravely protecting one’s fellow soldiers.
Heivia was splattered with blood and guts and he desperately shouted out with a ghastly look on his face.
“Ugh, shit!! Is anyone hurt!? If not, jump into the ocean. That explosion will draw the rest of them here!!”
“Wh-what about Quenser!?”
“He’ll have heard the explosion too!!”
Myonri grabbed Dorothy who could not move properly on her own and the girl frantically jumped over the railing. Sewax picked up his camera and followed suit. Heivia grabbed a few polyurethane foam floats from the railing and threw them in the sea before jumping into the dark water himself.
The shock of falling or having her entire body covered in lukewarm seawater seemed to have helped Dorothy recover a little from her hypothermic symptoms.
She repeatedly blinked while Myonri supported her so she would not sink.
“Where is everyone…?”
As her mind cleared, her memories seemed to recover.
Her question was filled with panic.
“Where are all the others!? They were brought onboard that ship!! There are a lot more than just me!!”
It was a legitimate question, but Heivia and the others did not answer her.
The cargo ship would be on its guard now, so it would be difficult to make their way back onboard. It would be tough to fight a few dozen armed men with only four people. On top of that, there was no guarantee they would make it back safely as things were.
And then a new figure fell from the cargo ship and into the dark water.
It was Quenser who had gone elsewhere on the boat.
“Uuh… I’m gonna sink. Give me a float, too.”
“Since you escaped with that stupid look on your face, I take it you at least completed your preparations.”
“Who do you think you’re talking to here? More importantly, what was with that explosion!? You sure screwed up badly!”
With a look of extreme confusion, Dorothy looked back and forth between Quenser and Heivia.
Quenser spoke to the old woman.
“Defeating Blue Bottle’s entire organization with just the four of us would be difficult. The same goes for rescuing all of the people trapped in separate containers. And that cargo ship is under the protection of the Information Alliance, so we’re unlikely to get any help even if we ask for it.”
“Then you are going to give up? I don’t want to be the only one rescued!!” shouted Dorothy.
Quenser smiled and waved his index finger.
“But there is a wonderful magic item that can completely turn around that hopeless situation.”
That comment caught Dorothy off guard, so she stared blankly at Quenser as he spread out the “prize” he had won on the boat.
“This is it. Do you know what this is?”
(This is a strange ship.)
The man referred to as Blue Bottle, the name of a poisonous jellyfish, thought blankly to himself as he sat in a chair in the cargo ship’s control room.
Ships used fuel to move. Fuel efficiency was greatly affected by the weight loaded on the ship. Normally, cargo ships were almost entirely automated and had only around a dozen people in their crew. The people themselves weighed something and they needed food and water to last them anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, so the number of people onboard was kept to a minimum.
Nevertheless, this ship had a large number of people onboard.
Officially, they were exporting scrap metal from Oceania’s ruins so it could be recycled in other countries, but a quick calculation would show some things did not add up.
“That was an explosion,” said Blue Bottle.
“We will look into it right away,” immediately replied a man staring at the instruments.
Blue Bottle doubted the refrigerated containers with the human trafficking “merchandise” inside could be opened from within and he doubted the merchandise inside could resist or escape after being kept at such a low temperature.
But his men were not proper soldiers or even trained mercenaries.
They were nothing but thugs. It was possible one of them had forgotten to lock a container or turn on its refrigeration mode.
Nevertheless, he seriously doubted they were stupid enough to let an unarmed civilian steal a gun or grenade and fight back.
Blue Bottle’s expression showed no panic or concern.
“Tell them to be careful if they kill an escapee. Just like preserved fish, their value goes down if they die. And the amount it drops changes depending on how they are killed. Blowing them to pieces with a grenade is out of the question.”
“I will tell them, but I can’t guarantee they will listen.”
Blue Bottle did not bother listening to what the other man said.
The cargo ship was not headed directly toward the country the “merchandise” was being shipped to. It would instead travel to a certain island just outside Oceanian territory and load the containers onto a different ship. Blue Bottle would remain with this cargo ship in its short journey back and forth. To make the best use the free pass given by the Information Alliance, he had wanted a setup that travelled through that area of sea as frequently as possible.
Suddenly, the same man as before continued speaking despite the conversation having ended.
“This is from the Information Alliance Object. They want to speak with you.”
“Hand it over.”
The man sitting in front of the console removed his headset and tossed it over. Blue Bottle caught it in one hand and brought the microphone to his mouth without putting it on his head.
“What is it? We paid the fee. If you cause any unnecessary problems here, the Objects from other world powers will notice. The Information Alliance doesn’t want to damage its public image, does it? You can’t have our arrangement come to light.”
“That’s why I contacted you,” replied a staticky and slightly irritated voice. “Why are you not following our arrangement? Our free pass means nothing otherwise. We are forced to handle this normally.”
“Wait. I don’t understand. Explain what you mean.”
“The flag.” The polite Elite spoke slowly as if kindly speaking to a young child who was only just learning to speak. “Our Information Alliance flag should be on the bow of your cargo ship. Without that, we cannot prove you are under our protection. If you do not obey our arrangement, we must perform a surprise check like we normally would.”
As Quenser entrusted his life to a hard float in the dark ocean, he threw away a piece of cloth printed with the Information Alliance logo and spoke.
“Their ship was treated differently because they were announcing that they were under the Information Alliance’s protection by displaying their flag. They have a free pass with the Information Alliance and it would cause conflict if the Legitimacy Kingdom or Capitalist Corporations performed a surprise check on a ship approved by them. They had intentionally set up that situation so they could carry out things they wanted kept secret.”
“Th-then…” Dorothy looked toward the flag floating away on the waves. “If you take that flag…”
“At the very least, they won’t be treated differently anymore. The Information Alliance will have to perform the same check as with a normal ship. If they let them go, the Legitimacy Kingdom or Faith Organization would try to perform a check instead.”
“B-but!” frantically exclaimed Dorothy because there were human lives on the line. “Will that really save everyone? I thought the Information Alliance was friends with that ship. Won’t they perform an intentionally insufficient check and give their approval without looking inside the containers?”
“Perhaps. In fact, that would be the best option from their point of view. They need to perform a check before the other world powers can. They can give their approval and announce that no one else needs to check the ship. Then no one will find out there are people in those containers.”
“But,” said Quenser, cutting off Dorothy. He held a radio in his hand. “That’s why I set up another trick.”
The Information Alliance’s naval patrol boat rushed over.
The others in the cargo ship’s control room muttered nervously, but Blue Bottle was not worried.
It was not that he had given up.
It was quite the opposite.
An Information Alliance group he held sway with had taken action before security teams from the other world powers could intervene. Once the Information Alliance group boarded the ship, they would perform an intentionally shoddy inspection and give them approval. Rechecking the ship would be seen as doubt in the Information Alliance, so doing so was implicitly stated to create cracks in the friendly relationship between coalition members.
Why had their flag vanished?
That mystery remained. One of his men may have forgotten his instructions, it may have been poorly attached and blew away in the wind, or someone may have maliciously removed it.
But no matter the reason, they could recover.
An oddity of that level would not defeat Blue Bottle.
“The Information Alliance security team is requesting permission to board. What should we do?”
“Hide nothing. Give them permission according to normal procedures. Do not leave any unnatural actions in their records. There is no reason to panic here. This group is in on it.”
Having said that, Blue Bottle took several men and left the control room. He was on his way to greet the Information Alliance security team. And that was not a criminal euphemism for shooting them. He was truly going to greet them.
He stepped out onto the deck and found several thick metal devices attached to the railing. Synthetic fiber ropes were attached and men dressed all in black were climbing up from below.
One of the men gave a polite salute to Blue Bottle while carefully articulating each word and syllable of his script.
“This is a surprise inspection in order to stop international crime within Oceania. We will be inspecting your crew and cargo.”
“Fine. Do as you wish.”
Upon receiving permission, the men in black formed teams of two and scattered across the ship.
All of this was pre-arranged.
It was possible the other world powers forming the coalition were watching with a satellite or an Object’s ultra long distance sensors, so they had to perform a bit of role playing for safety’s sake. Nothing would go wrong and anything illegal would not be recorded. That was the agreement.
Blue Bottle spoke to one man in black standing nearby.
“How long should this take?”
“There are a lot of containers, so we would like an hour to check through them all.”
“…That’s a long time.”
“We are not doing this because we want to.”
That last comment sounded like an implicit accusation regarding the missing flag.
Even if it was meant to keep them safe, it was hard to put up with this when it would accomplish nothing. Every minute and every second seemed to stretch on forever. He had to maintain his expression and attitude in case they were being viewed from afar, but he felt as if he would yawn if he let his guard down.
But then he heard what sounded like a light explosion.
It came from the ship and it was clearly the sound of gunpowder exploding.
“I won’t let it all go so smoothly,” said Quenser while pressing the switch on his radio. “The leaders of this Information Alliance group and criminal organization have an agreement to get along, but not all the criminal thugs will be privy to all that information. After all, secret arrangements are made behind closed doors. The more the big boss handles those things on his own, the less the men working below him know.”
“Heh. So even if this is actually all a farce, you’re saying not everyone in the criminal organization will be aware of it? All they know is the Information Alliance security team has boarded them after some kind of mistake and the cargo ship is full of their half-dead human trafficking ‘merchandise’. They can’t let that get out, so they’ll be staring at the Information Alliance’s guns with their heart pounding.”
The same naturally went for the Information Alliance security team.
The leader would know about the understanding with the criminal organization and the soldiers underneath him may have received an explanation. But could they really trust those criminals? They might have been lying. Who knows when those uncontrolled criminals would fire. They would be filled with those fears.
“So.” Quenser slowly shook the radio. “With a small impetus, the guns they have pointed at each other will start to go off. For example, a radio signal could lead an electric fuse to cause an explosive noise and they could mistake it for the ‘first shot’.”
Fuses were tools used to induce the detonation of an explosive by providing a strong stimulus.
They were made to create a more intense explosion than a firecracker.
And the ocean night was filled with countless bursting noises.
A few of them were the electric fuses Quenser had prepared ahead of time, but some of the noises were clearly different. If one paid careful attention, they were obviously different noises, but these people were not calm enough for that.
Blue Bottle covered his ears with his hands and approached a pile of metal containers while yelling at the nearby Information Alliance man. If he had not yelled, his voice would have been drowned out by the explosive noises.
“Which side shot!? It doesn’t matter! Stop them!! This is a meaningless battle. Didn’t your higher ups explain this to-…!?”
Blue Bottle trailed off.
With a damp noise, the man in black he had been speaking to collapsed to the side. His head slammed into the container and red blood splattered across the wall as if a fruit had been crushed there. Simply slamming his head against the wall would not cause that much blood. A bullet had obviously disturbed the contents of his head. The cargo ship was enveloped in such chaos that it was impossible to tell which side of the conflict the bullet had come from.
Blue Bottle felt a chill run down his spine and pulled his handgun from its holster.
And then his gaze met that of an Information Alliance soldier.
A short pause followed.
As soon as his thoughts recovered, Blue Bottle realized he had committed a fatal mistake.
“N-no!! I wasn’t trying to fight!!”
His words did not reach the soldier.
As soon as the soldier’s gun barrel moved to target him, Blue Bottle reflexively fired three bullets into the foolish soldier’s upper body.
Naturally, everyone aboard the chaotic ship witnessed it.
There was no going back now.
A hopeless battle with one of the world powers had begun.
Froleytia Capistrano held her head in her hands.
A female operator’s reserved voice filled the operation control room.
“The battle has ended aboard cargo ship Mistral near St. Frank International Harbor. Level of damage to the Information Alliance team is unknown. It appears they have successfully retreated. The bodies of the crew are still being counted. They have likely all been killed.”
A sudden firefight had been detected aboard a cargo ship near Oceania. A Legitimacy Kingdom naval security team had intervened in the name of aiding the Information Alliance team being attacked.
The problem was the fact that Quenser and Heivia of the 37th Mobile Maintenance Battalion were floating in the ocean near the cargo ship. They looked pleased with themselves and carried an old woman with them.
“Thirty nine civilians have been discovered within the refrigerated containers. This matches the information from Quenser Barbotage and Heivia Winchell.”
“Also, a man closely resembling an important criminal known as Blue Bottle has been discovered among the corpses. His identity is currently being checked, but if it really is him, they are likely correct about the Mistral being owned by a criminal organization active across Oceania.”
“One filthy man isn’t enough to make up for this,” muttered Froleytia under her breath.
She changed her train of thought and focused on her transmission with a distant superior Legitimacy Kingdom officer. Even if Froleytia controlled an entire battalion, she still had to refer to this person as a superior officer.
“The human trafficking organization has been eliminated, but the Information Alliance has evidence that men from my unit intervened. They will begin applying diplomatic pressure before long. This might also start another military conflict.”
“Oh, I’d say it’s 100% guaranteed to do that,” replied the young man in a lighthearted tone. “But this would have ended the same even if your men had not acted.”
“What if they had learned of the human trafficking organization, but returned without doing anything? Or what if you had done nothing in response to the wrong number from the kidnapper? Once harm had come to Oceanian civilians, the Information Alliance would have anonymously blamed the Legitimacy Kingdom. They would have called us despicable cowards who sacrificed civilians to protect ourselves from the mafias and gangs. They would have said someone like that has no place on the coalition that is provisionally ruling the peace of Oceania. From the moment this began, we had no choice but to accept the fight they were picking with us.”
“Then that wrong number…”
“It seems odd, doesn’t it? Most likely, the Information Alliance intentionally gave the criminal organization the wrong number for the girl’s home. I also read in your report that the girl was strapped with a bomb when she was rescued from the abandoned hospital. A bomb that would be activated with a phone.”
“I get it now. If they simply planned to get as much money from her family as they could and never intended to release her, they would not have needed such a dangerous setup.”
“They wanted to create an obvious civilian victim right away. If you had failed there, they would have their justification to say we were exposing the people of Oceania to danger and needed to be eliminated for Oceania’s sake.”
It made sense.
It was obvious what they gained from it.
The housewives in safe country living rooms watching variety shows with popcorn in one hand would accept that reason for war.
“In that case, the Information Alliance dug their own grave,” said Froleytia. “They created a pipeline with human traffickers of all things.”
“I doubt they were careless enough to leave any conclusive evidence behind. They are the world power that puts the most emphasis on information, after all. No matter what anyone claims, they can insist it was nothing but a desperate bluff on the criminal organization’s part.”
The superior officer’s tone remained lighthearted.
Yet his words cut accurately into the history of mankind.
“But if we are going to go to war regardless, it is easier for us on the political side if the reason has less of a bad aftertaste. You did well. And we will accept the fight they were so insistent that we begin.”
The transmission came to an end.
Froleytia let out a long sigh before finally speaking quietly.
“Then let’s begin talking about war.”
Quenser, Heivia, Myonri, Sewax, and the old woman named Dorothy were brought back to land by the Legitimacy Kingdom naval security team’s patrol boat. A military vehicle from the 37th Mobile Maintenance Battalion picked them up there and took them to the maintenance base zone. On the way, they were repeatedly asked what had happened from people with curious looks. Each time they repeated their tale of heroism, they were struck lightly by a fist. However, the soldiers that complained and struck Quenser and Heivia all had smiles in their eyes.
“Where are we going?” asked Dorothy as she stared at the cityscape outside the window.
“You will be brought home…or to your hotel since you’re a tourist. Anyway, it seems your daughter and her husband have been invited to the base, so you can have your emotional reunion there,” replied Quenser casually.
The military four-wheel drive vehicle returned to the familiar maintenance base zone. When the soldiers on guard duty at the gate heard what had happened, they stared at Quenser and the others like they were some kind of rare animal.
“Hey, Quenser. Doesn’t it look like the rumor has already spread throughout the base?”
“I wish I could view that in as positive a light as you. We might be on our way to the detention barracks.”
The maintenance base was made up of over one hundred large vehicles. They thought they were being led to the section used for lodgings, but the military vehicle stopped partway there.
They had likely been spotted through the window because a man and woman who looked like tourists run out of the lodgings.
Dorothy’s eyes opened wide and she moved her trembling lips.
She looked like she was seeing people she had never expected to see again.
“That is my daughter and her husband… My grandchild is there too.”
Quenser opened the vehicle’s door.
Dorothy used all her strength to run through the maintenance base which was lit up by so many lights it did not seem like nighttime.
In that moment, the battlefield cameraman named Sewax naturally peered through his camera’s viewfinder.
A photo of a family tearfully embracing may not have been sensational or shocking enough to be titled “the truth of the battlefield”.
It was not going to win any world-famous awards and it was not enough to make one’s name as a photographer.
But that photograph surely had something powerful enough to move the world.