HEAVY OBJECT:Volume 16
Happy Tepes!! This is Monica, the idol reporter who can both dance and kill! How do you like my black cape and bat bikini vampire costume?
I’m here in the southern part of Eastern Europe’s Transylvania District. That’s the famous tourist destination where the wealthy have gathered. It will soon be 8 PM local time.
Voting soon begins for a local referendum and a crowd is gathering outside of Vlad III Stadium which is being used as a polling location! It’s truly a rush to the polls!! As I’m sure you’ve heard, if this referendum passes, the southern tourist area, where most of the wealthy live, will break away from the existing Transylvania District. This drive for independence comes from complaints about the tax system and the rising crime rate from the northern Transylvanians visiting on the weekends.
Simply put, the wealthy are sick of having to put up with the poor.
Rumor has it the referendum has a lot of support and more and more analysts are predicting it will pass, but since the southern tourist area is a massive source of income thanks to Transylvania’s popularity in the vampire mythos, it seems unlikely both the north and the sound will accept each other’s demands without issue. There have been a few events that sound a lot like political sabotage, such as the tabloids and online news releasing a bunch of scandals about pro-independence city councilors or the Rifle Bureau performing unorthodox forced inspections of political offices, so the political response to the referendum’s result is going to be something to keep an eye on.
By the way, the south will establish a new constitution after they break away, so full-auto weapons, the organization of prostitution, and gambling with no upper limit will suddenly be legal. And there is even talk of legalizing marijuana (while claiming it’s for medical purposes) and the opening of a tax haven for investors. Sounds like fun!
Now, setting aside how many of those promises they’ll actually follow through on, I bet the ‘no’ side is afraid the referendum will gain a lot of ‘yes’ votes for those things alone. The managers of tourist sites already refer to the southern tourist area as perfect for visiting but unpleasant to live in, so I bet this will only push things further in that direction.
This sure is a lot of noise. It’s almost like an earthquake! It seems the polls have finally opened. On cable channel 2929, you can watch my concert to celebrate this historic-…oh, no! Can you believe it? The free broadcast just so happens to end now at 8!! If you want to catch every second of this event, now is the time to call or log on and sign up as a premium viewer for only 19.99 euros a month.
Chapter 1: A World Where the Flamboyant Die >> Covert Operation in the Transylvania District
The November sky felt more like winter than fall.
Gentle sunlight shined on a grassy land of rolling hills. The vast land was surrounded by cobbled-together wooden fences and it might have looked like a golf course at first glance. But it was not. Busty, silver-haired Major Frolaytia Capistrano lay face down on a picnic sheet while wearing her tight skirt military uniform and with a teriyaki burger and matcha latte next to her. She was peering down the scope of a semiauto sniper rifle supported by a bipod.
A few 7.62mm shots rang out in quick succession.
“You’re really going for it, aren’t you?”
“Speaking to me now is rude, colonel.”
“You’re only doing this to blow off some steam. That gun is a Technopics model, isn’t it? Really, I’m not sure you should be wielding a gun as casually as a bat in a batting cage. Oh, and feel free to keep smoking. I’ll be smoking too.”
An old man was crouched down next to her.
Smoking and sniping was the ultimate luxury only possible in training. Even the civilian hunters who helped eradicate harmful animals on the weekends had to pay attention to the wind direction. Another scent mixed in with that sweet aroma which would be taboo during a real battle. This was likely a thick cigar from Central America.
Instead of a sniper rifle, the old man reached for an observation device that was like a monstrous pair of binoculars with other electronic devices attached.
“After all, this is the perfect way to have a private chat.”
“Out in the open like this? There are satellites spying on every part of the world these days.”
“Ha ha ha. Satellites aren’t as all-powerful as they might seem. A parasol lined with a thin layer of lead is enough to block them. Although satellite avoidance can get addictive if you start getting paranoid. Also, you never would have agreed to meet me in some closed room somewhere. Although if you would prefer, I could fill a hotel bar with bodyguards in black.”
Frolaytia fell silent for a bit.
Her irritation did not come from the deer that walked calmly by the paper target, oblivious to the danger.
“But don’t worry. I’m not about to make a serious pass at someone young enough to be not just by daughter but my granddaughter. So let’s get down to business.”
“I want to use your 37th. It’s an urgent matter, but I want to keep that fact hidden to enemy and ally alike.”
“My 37th is a 1000-soldier mobile maintenance battalion with a 50m Object, colonel.”
“Yes, and that’s what I want. Trying to sneak around would only stand out in this case. It’s a delicate matter that is bound to leave some noisy footsteps even if you tiptoe. So I would prefer to just make a complete mess of things. Those footsteps will go unnoticed in the roar of the stadium, right?”
…In other words, it was yet another dirty job. It felt like reaching into the campfire and burning your hand just to grab the pile of shit someone else had squeezed out.
“If you can promise me one thing.”
“Sure. I quite like how you ignore our hierarchical society to worry about your subordinates’ lives.”
“We will handle everything from beginning to end. Do not send in an assassination team behind our backs.”
“So you want to keep your territory clean, hm? Fine, but this is not going to be an easy one. Let’s hope your subordinates aren’t the ones who have to pay the price for your convictions.”
“So what is it?”
“Simply put, it is a retrieval operation. I want you to take back something that was stolen. The culprits are a local criminal organization named Ivory Garden, but the details are unknown. They might actually be something else in sheep’s clothing. Also, failure here would be an international incident. The stolen item is extremely valuable, you see. If you were to rent it out to another country, it would probably be…yes, I think 2 or 3 million euros a year. Your 37th is performing scheduled military exercises that double as a show of force to maintain our influence in the Eastern Europe area, so make it look like you happened across the item by chance.”
The military brought together the government and private sector, so everything tended to come with a high price tag. Still, this was unusual.
Both the price, and…
“Rent it out? It’s a rental item? Like an anti-air radar or datalink server?”
“No. I joined the military when I was much younger than you. It’s been 50 years since then, but this is a first for me as well.”
For the first time, Frolaytia removed her eye from the scope for something other than tending to her long, narrow kiseru.
“It’s a first for you, colonel?”
“Then is it something Object related? Or one of the nukes that long since fell out of use?”
“No, it is a panda.”
She thought this had to be a code word, but apparently not. She froze there with her mouth hanging open, so the serious man explained.
“A baby panda. For the culprits, it is a valuable political tool and a stable source of money from renting it out. This is a painful blow to us since it belongs to one of our zoos, I would like for you to rescue it. No matter what.”
And in a desolate battlefield country of Eastern Europe, while the main battle was fought between two Objects, the Legitimacy Kingdom’s 37th Mobile Maintenance Battalion found themselves in a harsh battle of their own on the frozen land infamous for its war crimes. Now, how to explain what it was they found there? This may be the best place to start:
The Panda War had begun.
With sweat soaking his face, Battlefield Student Quenser Barbotage shouted at the top of his lungs despite knowing it would never reach the roaring jet engine passing by overhead.
“Wait, you dumbasses!! We’re on your side! Fire on the enemy!!”
“Who the hell called this a battle of love, justice, and humanitarianism? There’s something wrong when they get paid more than us!”
A double delta attack plane protected by thick armor had sprayed its Gatling gun at them right from the beginning, so the armored truck carrying Quenser and Heivia had come to a stop on the cracked asphalt. They had gone to the trouble of chasing the poachers down a curvy highway while ramming their vehicles against each other, but then that son of a bitch in the sky had fired a machinegun down at them while showing off its threatening paint job that looked a lot like the eye pattern on a moth’s wings. Thanks to that, the difference between enemy and ally meant squat. Both trucks had overturned and Quenser, Heivia, and the others were forced to use the half-scrapped military truck as a shield. Idiots were never rewarded for trying to do a good deed every once in a while.
Perhaps due to the cold, the land was rough and short on vegetation.
Some conifer trees dotted the bare wasteland, a jagged mountain rose in the distance, and old monasteries and castle spires could be seen on its slope. When it came to both plants and animals, it was unclear what people were supposed to eat to survive in this area.
And now was not the time to be getting a tour. The overturned Ivory Garden truck was only about 10 meters away. They would not have been wiped out in that one blast, so a close-range battle was about to begin.
“Let’s end this quickly, Quenser.”
“Using a bomb at this range would just blow us all up, but why are you so motivated today of all days?”
“Because that thing that zoomed by overhead is making a U-turn! If we don’t end this before it comes back for a second pass, we’ll end up as mincemeat!!”
But this also meant something important.
Objects were equipped with anti-air lasers powered by the ultra-high levels of energy from their JPlevelMHD reactors. So there was no place for aircraft in a clean war between Objects.
That hinted at the situation Quenser and Heivia found themselves in.
This was not a clean war.
It was a unilateral purge of a criminal group without an Object.
“I still can’t believe they sent human beings to engage in a firefight just to rescue a baby panda. Are human lives less valuable than animals these days?”
“It’s a panda, so what’re you gonna do?”
“Yeah, they’re cute, but still.”
“They apparently go for 2 to 3 million euros a year when rented out to a zoo. Human lives? Worth way less.”
“That damn thing is making as much as a sports star on nothing but its cute face!?”
That was when they heard a quiet sound.
Whether they had high-level training or not, both sides’ lives were on the line here. An enemy had apparently done his best to not make a noise as he circled around the Legitimacy Kingdom armored truck. The young Eastern European poacher held a large knife instead of a gun.
“Oh, crap!” shouted Quenser in horror. “At close range, a blade is faster than a bulle-…”
Heivia fired his assault rifle like normal, the bullets punched a few holes in the chest and gut of the Ivory Garden soldier like normal, and he collapsed to the ground like normal.
Quenser’s mouth flapped wordlessly with an indescribable look on his face, so his awful friend spoke up in annoyance.
“Stop looking so disillusioned. Of course a gun is faster than a knife. Not even a kung-fu master can beat a gu-…”
A second man showed up while Heivia was speaking and stabbed the boy in the side.
“Cut the theatrics and actually help me!!”
The idiot was doubled over, but he seemed fine. The tip of the blade had apparently been stopped by his magazine pouch. But despite Heivia’s insistence, Quenser could not use his Hand Axe plastic explosive while within 2m of the enemy. The idiot and villain were grappling, so in a split-second decision, Quenser grabbed a giant wrench meant to remove the lug nuts on the side of the armored truck’s tires and he swung it down on top of the criminal’s head.
Crash! And now the man was seeing stars.
…Well, that was the idea, but instead, blood and spinal fluid splattered around and the second man collapsed to the road. His face looked kind of funny since his skull had been split open. His skin was stretched and distorted like a robber with a stocking over his head. Quenser felt like he had even ruined the guy’s funeral.
And he was unsure what to say when the wrench proved more destructive than expected.
“So what now? Is it gonna turn out shovels are unmatched on the battlefield?”
Surprise attacks lost their effectiveness once the surprise wore off. While Quenser felt his balls shrivel up at what he had done, Heivia, Myonri, and the others managed to calm down and began suppressing the enemy with their assault rifles. The rest was over in a blink of an eye. Light bursts of gunfire snuffed out lives.
One of the young men on the ground held a grenade.
His courage on the verge of death was commendable, but Heivia used his foot to roughly roll the man over.
There was a muffled boom, but the wall of flesh was enough to suppress a normal grenade blast. After having the enemy clean up his own mess like that, Heivia shot the bottom of the overturned poachers’ truck, opening a hole in the gas tank. The Ivory Garden members fled from their vehicular shield and were shot for their trouble.
“Man, today is nothing but disappointments. Why didn’t the truck blow up when you shot the gas tank?”
“Reality has a way of robbing people of their dreams, Quenser.”
As soon as Heivia said that, sparks scattered on the road and an explosion erupted out. The two idiots were knocked onto their asses together. Quenser did not bother getting up and instead climbed on top of Heivia and threw a straight-A-student punch.
“You dumbass!! This is what happens when an idiot tries to act smart!!”
“Ow! Shut up and get off of me or I’ll shoot you along with the enemy, Quenser! The leaking gas vaporized and reacted to the static electricity! It wasn’t the liquid gas in the tank that exploded!”
However, there was no more resistance. The explosion must have taken out the rest of the enemy. All that remained was a container that looked like a thick acrylic die. It was an incubator for the baby panda that could earn a yearly salary of 3 million euros.
“There’s something wrong when an animal gets thicker armor than our bulletproof jackets.”
“I don’t even want to imagine what would have happened if it had blown up along with the poachers. Thank goodness it’s all righ-…”
Quenser trailed off.
He picked up the large transparent die and viewed the target within from multiple angles.
“This isn’t a panda.”
“I-it’s a bear cub made to look like one with white powder camouflage!! Who would this ever fool!? It’s like those legendary dyed chicks at Island Nation festivals!”
The soldiers of the 37th Mobile Maintenance Battalion were exhausted, but they were called to gather in the briefing room.
But not because some idiot had forgotten to attach the infrared ID marker to their truck’s roof and the aerial unit had wasted some bullets and reduced valuable equipment to scrap.
Frolaytia stood up on the podium and got down to business.
“Now, I thought we would be done here after recovering the baby panda, but we found a very concerning document in Ivory Garden’s truck. Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause for Quenser whose sticky fingers led him to dig around in the dashboard and find this material.”
With shouts of “why couldn’t you have left well enough alone, you idiot!?” and “no one wants a hard worker!”, the overworked and angry potatoes surrounded the battlefield student and started kicking him.
And when Frolaytia saw the behavior of her shabby and unshaven subordinates, she only toyed with her silver bangs with an annoyed look.
“I bet that old man knew it was a dyed chick from the get-go. This is looking a lot more like one of those shitty odd jobs he always forces onto us, but we are civil servants fed by the people’s tax money and the military is especially picky about the chain of command. I might not have known what I was agreeing to, but I can’t back out now. This is a pressing situation, so we have to keep going.”
“God, what a pain in the ass.” Heivia looked dejected. “Can’t we just have the Baby Magnum blow everything up and call it a day?”
The Princess must not have cared whether it was a panda or a bear cub because she was busy looking after the baby animal with a bottle in hand.
“Here, have some milk. Once you’re full, you can take a nap with mommy, okay?”
She had been in full mother mode since they got back with the bear, so it seemed unlikely she would agree to a bloody battle. The old maintenance lady had been observing her while pretending to give advice, but she shook her head. It looked like the Princess would exercise her right to refuse this mission.
The delinquent noble held his head.
“Is there really no other option?”
“Relax, Heivia,” said Frolaytia. “I’m on your side this time. I say we all beat up Quenser together. Now, I really would like to end this with a long-range main cannon blast, but that won’t work this time since we need confirmation of the target’s destruction. I want to avoid spending months digging through piles of rubble to get that confirmation. Plus, Eastern Europe is headed toward its snowy winter. If the white snow keeps piling up no matter how much we shovel it out of the way, we’ll never be able to dig through the rubble. None of you wants to die from overwork, right?”
“The target’s destruction? This isn’t about retrieving some rare animals that the something-or-other groups are up in arms about?”
“Ivory Garden’s secret transportation route is apparently being used for a different item: an Object reactor.”
That sent a stir through the room.
Those reactors had created the current age. With nukes eradicated, Objects were the new trigger for humanity’s destruction.
“Let’s not waste our valuable time asking questions like ‘why’ or ‘how’. This is all based on the list of transported goods on the document Quenser found. The details and the accuracy of the document are for the intelligence division to worry about.”
“Gulp. Then it would be best to act on the assumption it’s real?”
“Someone punch him right in his serious face. And that’s an order. Quenser, do not forget that I too am burdened by this extra work you brought us.”
His inaccurate shout of “But I was only trying to do the right thing!” vanished into a flurry of blows. He had only been searching through the enemy dashboard in the hopes of finding some loose change.
Frolaytia took a puff of her long, narrow kiseru to help deal with the stress.
“Speaking of local trouble, the Transylvania District is nearby, isn’t it? That is an Information Alliance safe country, but the extreme wealth disparities have led to a lot of crime. The peace-loving wealthy want to throw out the burden of the poor, so the southern tourist area known for its vampire legends is planning to declare its independence. In fact, a local referendum passed with a majority voting ‘yes’. I don’t know how many of them were serious about independence and how many were just trying to make a point, but now that the vote has passed, the local celebrities supporting it have no choice but to go through with it.”
“Hm? But isn’t that looking like trouble? I heard the overall Transylvania District refused to accept the south’s independence so they’ve sent a giant Object to the proposed new border. They were saying something about declaring war and taking back the south less than a second after the south declares independence.”
“We’re only talking about a conflict between safe countries. An actual war won’t break out that easily. The Transylvania District is really just threatening the southern tourist area like they have knife to their throat. …But what if the supposedly powerless south managed to secretly acquire an Object of their own?”
An unpleasant silence hung over the room.
No one wanted to answer that question.
“Then we would have an unprecedented conflict in which two safe countries use Objects against each other. If the flames of war spread from there, it could drag entirely unrelated regions into war. Do not forget that includes the Legitimacy Kingdom safe country that borders the Transylvania District. The electronic simulation division is busy calculating out the estimated number of deaths including noncombatants, but we can be certain the war would be one of the worst in history. It would eliminate the taboo set in place by the Northern Restricted Zone when the reactor buried below a city of 5 million blew up during an intense artillery campaign.”
“But, um, squeal, we’re talking about an Object, right? Squeal.”
When Quenser was finally released with his face beaten and swollen, he asked a question with some pig language mixed in.
“Ugh, cough. I-I mean, those are 50m colossuses. It takes years to construct one. Building one in secret is easier said than done. Is it even possible?”
“The south’s independence is supported by the wealthy who have more money than they know what to do with, so they could afford the 5 billion dollar budget. And on the technology front, there were some rumors floating around for a while that the main stumbling block was the inability to build a JPlevelMHD reactor on their own.”
“In other words, they could have secretly built the rest…”
“The wealthy are all alike. Whether it’s a masterpiece painting, rock candy, an idol, or a slave, they try to fulfill every last one of their desires with money. And it seems someone is trying to purchase an extra-large gem to fill their empty jewelry box that was previously a bluff.”
Frolaytia sighed in exasperation.
Was the human race trying to wipe itself out? At this point, it was hard to tell if they were just dumb or if this was a clever form of atonement.
“The southern tourist area plans to announce their independence at midnight two days from now. In what I can only imagine is part of their vampire culture, they are apparently holding a lavish party with a fireworks show at a hotel deep in the mountains. That will be when the Transylvanian Object waiting at the new border will make its move. No, maybe I should say it will be forced to act then. Governments and militaries are all about appearances, so they won’t be able to stop when someone makes a fool of them. We know the time limit. We have less than 48 hours. We can’t afford to lose even a second, so there’s no time for naps. Do you get what I’m saying, you poor civil servants? I’m exhausted already, so won’t someone hit Quenser again to reward him for his hard work!?”
“Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill.”
“Hey, we’re stuck doing this now, so how about we focus on that? Okay!?”
Quenser gave a smile faker than an infomercial host while a heavy atmosphere drove everyone crazy in the back of an armored truck.
Tanks, armored vehicles, and armored trucks were all driving in the same direction. All the spare potatoes had been gathered. Their goal was to find the stockyard that Ivory Garden used to temporarily store their ill-gotten goods, covertly attack it, and do something about the Object reactor being sent through that secret transportation route.
All they found was the occasional conifer forest in a vast, wild plain that looked like god had gotten lazy when designing it. The only artificial thing in sight was the asphalt road that continued all the way to the horizon and beyond. There were no telephone poles or guardrails. Nor were there any obvious guard towers or thick concrete walls.
Quenser held an analog pair of binoculars that provided no electronic assistance.
“When you get down to it, there’s a bunch of land here and no one has found any value in it. It’s hard to maintain so much land, so that ends up being a job for satellites and drones.”
“Ivory Garden has to have done more than just find a way to slip past those mechanical searches. There’s nowhere to hide! Or did they dig some long-ass tunnel underground!?”
“They aren’t hiding from humans, so they didn’t need to do that.”
“So, what? Did they hack the devices or something? That’s crazy when we’re talking about a military datalink!!”
“Don’t overcomplicate it. Glasses and masks for people who dislike facial recognition are fairly common nowadays. They’re using camouflage. If they hide their entire base with electronic camouflage specialized for mechanical eyes, the overhead searches won’t find the people and trucks running and driving around right in the open.”
“Why do you know so much about this?”
“If I just sat around, I was pretty sure all of you were going to surround me and shove your feet up my ass, so I worked my ass off studying. Like my life counted on it! I checked through the last few years’ worth of newspaper articles and non-fiction books!! Three cheers for the modern age of everything getting a digital release!!”
Deceptive patterns meant to blend into the scenery had been used by insects and such long before humans invented military camouflage. But because the animals’ predators saw colors differently, they did not always seem very well hidden when viewed through human eyes.
It was the same with cameras and sensors.
Camouflage patterns differed greatly depending on who or what you were trying to deceive. When trying to avoid detection by satellites or drones, you had to take infrared, ultrasound, and microwaves into consideration.
But on the other hand, no matter how conspicuous it might appear to human eyes, mechanical security would completely overlook it if the right conditions were met. The designers had started using terms like “AI” and “machine learning” to improve their image, but the programs were still just programs. They could not do what they could not do. No matter how minor the trouble, the entire system would freeze.
“They’ll be worried about eyes in the sky, so we should be able to see something different if we view things from the ground like this.”
“I get that, but where exactly are we supposed to search?”
“The enemy will be using patrol drones too. I doubt they’re dumb enough to directly send control signals out from their secret base, but it looks like they have a few launch areas set up a short distance away. Let’s mark a few of those points on the map and use them to draw a big circle. I bet we’ll find them at the center point. In other words, around here.”
“Hold on. Hand me those binoculars. Look to 5 o’clock. There’s a thin trail of smoke.”
“Are they having a barbecue for dinner? They must be enjoying their outdoor lifestyle.”
“That’s not funny when we’re talking about poachers. I hope they aren’t eating mermaid meat or something.”
In the distance, they could see the remains of a forest burned to the ground, but it was unclear what the story was there.
The poachers had already clashed with the 35th over the panda(?) baby, so they might be on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary close enough to notice something with binoculars. So even after detecting the oddity, Quenser and the others kept driving slowly along the road instead of slamming on the brakes.
“Let’s jump out.”
“This scares me more than some flashy firefight.”
While preparing for the worst, Quenser, Heivia, and the others secretly hopped out of their truck while any attention would be on the military caravan. They could only bring around 20 people with them.
“Ivory Garden must have drones in the air. Staying low is useless if they can see us from above. What do we do?”
“Let’s not copy the poachers. We’re a proper military force, so let’s do this the fun way.”
Just then, something like a thick wall approached them, swallowed them up, and blinded them all at once. It was not quite the same as a thick fog.
The wind had already been blowing in this direction, so…
“Bweh!? Cough, cough. What’s this, a sandstorm!?”
“This is part of our standard patrol and training process, remember? The Princess is running the Baby Magnum’s static electricity propulsion device from more than 20km away. We claim it’s maintenance and stress testing for the undercarriage to make it seem unrelated. Now, let’s use this nuisance of a sandstorm to sneak in.”
This was clearly abnormal, but Ivory Garden needed to hide. No matter how much of a stench and a racket their neighbors were causing, they could not file a formal complaint.
With the sunlight blocked, the area grew as dark as during an eclipse. Quenser’s group put on dust masks and goggles so they could move freely and then they continued the investigation.
“I hope we can do something about their electronic camouflage. If it fools mechanical eyes, it might affect Objects too.”
“Is it really that effective? No one knows what color to paint their Objects because there’s no way to hide something so big, right?”
“But if it does mess with the Baby Magnum’s aim, we’ll be the one’s blown away on accident.”
“See what I mean? Let’s make sure to destroy it all just to be safe.”
Fortunately, they found the base itself pretty quickly.
After spotting the giant silhouette and hiding in a conifer forest, they contacted the Princess and had her lower the density of the sandstorm. They could see again and the sunlight grew a little brighter. Now it was more like evening than an eclipse.
And when they peered through their binoculars…
“What is that? An airplane graveyard?”
“Well, it ain’t a strip club, I can tell you that.”
A few large passenger planes were sitting around in various states of damage or disrepair: the head portion cut away, one of the main wings missing, etc. A puddle continued in a straight line for kilometers, so that may have been the remains of the unpaved runway where the planes had made their final landing. There were also small air cargo containers lying around. Those 2m aluminum dice likely functioned as tents. People stayed in the planes and animals stayed in the containers.
“Continental Line, Citizen Jet, and Sky Hotel. They’re all from different airlines. Although it feels more like an illegal dismantling yard than a shared recycling plant.”
“Hey, you aren’t marking this on the map are you? Once the sandstorm gets thick again, you won’t even be able to see the map in your hand!”
Overall, it appeared to be about the size of a school campus. It was impressive they had managed to escape satellite and drone detection for so long.
“What are those covering them from above? Tents???”
“Those would be the satellite countermeasure. I can’t see it from here, but I bet they’re covered with a striped barcode-like pattern.”
A tent of a thick, artificial material that rivaled a circus tent in size was covering each of the passenger planes. The containers and other surface facilities were covered by long, narrow tents forming roofed walkways between the big tents.
Some canopied trucks and patrolling infantry were keeping guard.
The soldiers were armed with cheap submachineguns, but their stability was forcibly increased using large wooden stocks and grips as weights. Those accessories seemed to eliminate the light weight that was the entire point behind a submachinegun. The weapons appeared to be camouflaged with a special kind of tape instead of spray paint. They looked difficult to disassemble and maintain.
Their uniforms used an unfamiliar pattern. It was a lot like the static on an old TV. Had they painted it themselves? Heivia tried viewing it through his electronically-enhanced assault rifle and clicked his tongue. It must have been screwing with all of the assistance features.
“That’s it all right.”
“But what do we do about it? The Princess’s glasses might be the wrong prescription too. The cleanup would be a pain if she did shoot them, but it would be best if she could threaten them in a nice, safe holdup. So do we just have to send her the coordinates???”
“I’d be afraid we’re working from two different sets of coordinates or something. The only real option is to get closer and do something about those tents. That sounds like your specialty, Heivia. Can I pass this off to you?”
“I had a feeling you were going to dump the whole mess in my lap before long. Although I’m praying this doesn’t end up being your specialty. Let’s get going.”
Quenser watched as Heivia and the others attached suppressors to the front of their guns.
“These are cheap, so they’ll start letting the sound through before long. We can’t just go in guns blazing.”
“That’s better than chucking a bomb into their base and starting a commotion right away. Take care of this.”
They contacted the Princess and had her intensify the artificial sandstorm again. Quenser and Heivia used that as their chance to approach the temporary stockyard of the international poaching group called Ivory Garden.
Both sides could only see 5m away at best and sounds were hard to make out through the endless noise much like scratching sandpaper.
Once they reached the stockyard’s perimeter, Quenser and Heivia crouched down. This wasteland had no trees or even bushes to hide behind, but the guard walking by nearby did not seem to notice them. Heivia considered killing the guard, but he decided to let the soldier go.
“(So how far into the base do I need to get you?)”
“(To the tents. There are a few points where the thick wires are anchored in the ground, right? I’ll set a bomb on each of those and then blow them all up at once.)”
The wires were thicker than Quenser’s thumb and they were anchored with a J-shaped peg thicker than his arm which was embedded in concrete. The tents meant to hide a 70m passenger plane had 8 such wires. With that kind of tension, even slight damage would cause them to snap all on their own.
Inside the raging sandstorm, Quenser gently patted a peg he had finished attaching the bomb to.
“A Spider? Is it called that because of the camouflage or because it’s like a spider web?”
“Hm? Why’s there a product name on it? You mean these aren’t handmade by the poachers?”
A sound like an electric razor hummed by overhead.
“God, that’s scary. Is it one of their drones?”
Heivia ducked down, but if it had noticed them, a siren would have sounded and they would have been surrounded. After waiting for the hunk of plastic and rare earths to fly off into the artificial sandstorm, the potatoes made their way to the next peg. The size was incredible, but the shape was not all that different from the tents used to keep the sun off at a cookout.
Quenser’s group was trying to locate and retrieve the reactor, but they wanted full support from the Baby Magnum before they attempted that.
“There are three planes: Sky Hotel, Citizen Jet, and Continental Line. Each tent has 8 wires, so…”
“Are you kidding me? That’s more than 20 in all.”
They heard the fierce barking of a dog. It seemed to be one of the military dogs raised in the air cargo containers that looked like aluminum dice. Heivia quickly aimed his suppressor-equipped handgun that way, but Quenser stopped him with a hand. Corpses would leave evidence of an abnormality, even if it was an animal’s.
They waited for a bit and the dog kept barking inside the fenced-off container, but none of the guards came over to check.
“They probably think it’s just worked up over the sandstorm.”
“These are people who can ignore the screams of the animals they kill. Yet it might have saved their lives here if they had any love for their dog at all. You could say they brought it on themselves.”
Of course, if they had not become poachers in the first place, they would not have a national military bearing down on them.
After that, they finished going around attaching clay-like bombs to the Citizen Jet and Sky Hotel pegs that were on the perimeter of the facility. For the rest, they needed to move deeper into the stockyard.
“Hey, this is scary. Do we really need to attach bombs to every last one? As long as we get rid of the tents, can’t the Princess handle the rest?”
“What if that partial detonation doesn’t work? Then we’ll have to head back to get rid of the tent properly. Do you want to go grab the hornet’s nest you knocked to the ground? Besides, we haven’t gotten any of the Continental Line pegs.”
Despite their argument, the Legitimacy Kingdom potatoes were relaxing. The pleasure of success could be a tempting demon. The fear of death was fading now that they had proven they could approach the enemy without notice. The human ability to grow accustomed to most anything had a way of creating openings.
A wet sensation hit Quenser’s cheek. In the time it took him to wipe off the drop, many more began to pour down.
The back of his hand was stained. The rain had absorbed all of the dust the Princess was sending into the air.
“Oh, no! It’s bringing down our curtain!!”
Buckets of rain poured down. The tents covering the three large passenger planes and dice-like metal containers were gigantic, but they were tiny compared to the immensity of nature. The Princess was producing the dust from 20km away, so the sandstorm was knocked down by the rain before it ever arrived.
The thick curtain blocking the enemy’s view was visibly thinning. An unfamiliar silhouette wavered quite near Heivia. And that silhouette held a customized firearm created by attaching a large wood stock and other weights to a submachinegun to forcibly increase its stability.
Heivia immediately fired two quiet shots with his suppressor-equipped handgun, but he was still nervous, so he pulled out a knife and stabbed the guard with it.
However, that was all he could manage.
There was no safety here.
Quenser somehow managed to tug on his awful friend’s arm and dove behind a nearby plastic trashcan.
It was clearing up.
Their vision was becoming hopelessly clear.
First, one of the drones that sounded like an electric razor spotted the corpse with its cameras and then a shrill alarm sounded from the radios attached to all the guards’ shoulders.
“This is a disaster!!”
The difference in numbers was approximately 20-to-300.
They could never win in a normal fight, but they had still had the tanks and armored vehicles they had let drive right by as a diversion. Not to mention the Object.
“We need to buy some time, Quenser. 10 minutes! That might not sound like much, but a submachinegun can fire 6000 shots in that time on full-auto. If we don’t work our asses off to survive, we’ll be headed home in body bags!!”
“Wait, Heivia! There’s a smarter way to do this! Come with me if you don’t want an emotional death scene!!”
“I’m sick of your riddles! Just tell me what your plan is!!”
Quenser started by using his radio to detonate all of the plastic explosives he had attached to the pegs. With a loud boom and a shockwave, Ivory Garden was thrown into chaos and a canopied truck near one snapped wire was torn in two.
One of the tents acting as a roof collapsed and covered up the passenger plane bearing the Sky Hotel logo.
Once he knew the enemy’s view was blocked, Quenser raised his voice.
“The drones take priority! Don’t let them see us from above! We can hide from the soldiers on the ground a lot more easily!!”
Heivia leaned out from behind cover and fired a quick spray of assault rifle bullets to bring down a drone flying by like a toy.
“That took down the tents, right? So mission accomplished!”
“It’s not enough! We have to go a bit further!!”
They heard thundering footsteps. No matter how careful you were, there was nothing you could do about mud and puddles. Heivia pulled the clear plastic sheet off a nearby container, threw it over his and Quenser’s head, and got down on the wet ground.
Four or five guards arrived after presumably seeing the final image from that drone. If they fired their submachineguns at this close range, not even a pocket watch with your beloved’s photo in your breast pocket could save your life.
Quenser’s eyes bugged out, but Heivia covered the student’s mouth.
A military boot stepped right next to their faces.
Staying still required immense patience.
Once the guards had passed by and were showing their backs, Heivia quickly dispatched them all with a spray of rifle bullets.
Heivia glanced at the suppressor at the end of the barrel.
“Green and brown aren’t the only kinds of camouflage. When it’s pouring rain like this, people will assume a patch of something shiny on the ground is just a puddle.”
Translucent jellyfish were not necessarily invisible to other creatures. When the sun was shining into the sea, they would reflect that light to hide themselves.
Stealing some enemy uniforms would be one way to hide, but the uniforms would be less than convincing when full of holes and stained with blood.
And then Quenser noticed something.
He may have had the pouring rain to thank.
He clearly saw a thin red line of light slowly sliding along in front of his nose.
Heivia grabbed shouting Quenser’s arm and dove into the area full of dice-like containers. There was a lot of cover, but dogs started barking wildly from the surrounding containers.
“This isn’t much of a hiding spot!!”
“Heivia, check the untouched Continental Line. The sniper is on the plane’s roof. Can you shoot the tire below it? Planes are generally supported at three points, so take out one of those and the plane will fall over!!”
Heivia fired a few shots with his assault rifle, realized that was not going to cut it, and rested a missile launcher on his shoulder. With a loud sound and a line of smoke, the explosive flew out and destroyed the metal leg instead of just the giant 12-in-1 tire. The Continental Line plane wobbled to the side and then toppled over, breaking its right main wing under its own weight. It must have only been made of an aluminum alloy. The sniper on the roof must have lost their balance and fallen.
By the way, it seemed the plane was still usable on the inside.
Quenser’s eyes widened when he saw the liquid joining the rainwater after leaking out from the cracks in the right main wing. And the leftover flames from the missile were still emitting some light here and there.
His warning was meaningless.
The jet fuel ignited and caused a large explosion. The sniper must have been fried nice and crispy where they had fallen to the ground. But they had everyone inside the plane for company.
“This game of hide-and-seek isn’t all bad. If not for the sudden rain, we couldn’t have seen the sniper laser from the side.”
But the shockwave had unlatched a few of the nearby containers.
The trained Dobermans had been released.
“It’s always something, isn’t it!?”
They could not hope to defeat the dogs in a test of strength or speed, so they instead used the dogs’ instincts against them. Heivia held his assault rifle out horizontally, let the military dog bite it like a toy bone, and then swung a large knife down at the thing’s head.
“Ugh, now this is heartbreaking. I’m gonna be having nightmares about this.”
“After all the humans you’ve killed?”
More importantly, they could not stay in one place. They were still outnumbered after all. They had to make sure they were not caught in the smoke, but the thick black smoke from the burning jet fuel was a decent replacement for the sandstorm. Fuel fires could not be put out by the rain so easily.
“When are our reinforcements getting here? The soldiers in the Citizen Jet and Sky Hotel are going to crawl out from under the tents before long!”
Driven by fear, Quenser grabbed a nearby burning stick and chucked it toward the Sky Hotel passenger plane. That was the only way he could think of to keep back the guard he saw lifting up the thick sheet to approach him and the others.
But it burst into flames.
His aim was bad and the torch did not even come close to hitting the guard, but it did land on the edge of the electronic camouflage tent covering the passenger plane and that petroleum product began burning and visibly losing its shape like a melting slice of cheese.
So what was happening here?
The passenger plane was transformed into an oven with around 100 people trapped inside the turkey’s belly.
“Wah. Wah! Waaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!?”
“Damn. Why don’t any of the war treaties ban this?”
There was no stopping the conflagration now that it had started. Quenser quaked at the nightmarish image before his eyes, but Heivia grabbed his arm and got him to hide behind the curtain of dark smoke.
Heivia sensed a presence and aimed his assault rifle over, but it was someone else in a Legitimacy Kingdom uniform who emerged from the smoke.
“Oh, it’s Myonri. Then where’d the enemy go!?”
“M-maybe we got them all?” suggested the girl.
There was little chance of that.
It was unclear how effective the smoke was, but then a bright fog light shined in from the side.
They quickly rolled out of the way just in time for a canopied truck to burst through the black curtain.
And it was not alone.
More heavy truck tires passed by right next to Heivia’s lowered head. Like the blade of a guillotine.
The potatoes just barely managed to avoid death, but the enemy was not focused on them. Instead of making a U-turn, they continued outside the camp.
“They ran away.”
“What happened to the Object reactor? Did they take it away? If we don’t know, this was all for nothing!!”
Several powerful booms followed. Legitimacy Kingdom tank shells pierced the belly of the Citizen Jet passenger plane and it burst from within as it too burned.
Now all three planes were in flames.
The battle was over.
“The reinforcements sure took their sweet time!”
Quenser and Heivia hopped onto an 8-wheeled armored vehicle that drove up, climbed up the side bumper that was like a birdcage meant to scatter a light rocket blast, and crawled onto the flat roof. A young woman had her upper body sticking out of the hatch and her boobs jiggled as she fired the heavy machinegun to mop up the remaining Ivory Garden poachers. Heivia lightly slapped the back of her head. But instead of being an abusive Island Nation husband who was always overturning the tea table, he was just trying to get her attention over the deafening gunfire.
He shouted into her ear once she noticed him and stopped firing.
“Enough of that! Leave it to the tanks! Get the faster vehicles to the south and chase after the fleeing trucks!!”
“Myonri, work with the others to mop up the enemy base. Finish off the remaining poachers and don’t forget to gather the animals from the containers for protection!”
With the roar of a diesel engine, the 8-wheeled armored vehicle accelerated once more.
To be blunt, tanks and armored vehicles were not designed with acceleration in mind. They could reach speeds upwards of 100km/h, but they would fry their engines if they maintained those speeds for long. Their one advantage was that the Ivory Garden trucks were driving along the open wasteland instead of asphalt. The 8-wheels and continuous tracks were there for that purpose.
After passing through the charred remains of a forest that had burned down for some reason or another, the enemy armored trucks made their way toward the empty wasteland. Even with 4-wheel drive, they lacked the horsepower to drive right over the thick tree trunks.
“Oh, looks like the tanks are coming with us.”
“Because some stupid officer posted on social media that tanks weren’t needed when you can stick a turret on top of an armored truck. That’s a sore spot for the tanks since they’ve always had to fight against crazy ideas like multiple turrets or an open top where the entire roof comes off. And actual results in battle are the best way to shake off those old nightmares.”
Four hundred meters ahead, around five canopied trucks were struggling with the hilly terrain after the rain loosened up the ground. They must have been in a rush because plastic bottles and snack wrappers were falling from the back of the trucks. That distance was a bit much for forcibly stabilized submachineguns fired from a shaking truck, but it was nothing for the Legitimacy Kingdom heavy machineguns which were designed for a range of 2000 meters.
“Blow them away already, baby.”
“This won’t blow up a reactor, will it?”
While they discussed that, a thick tank following along behind them was suddenly blasted up from directly below.
“Hey, what just happened!?”
“It didn’t look like something flew in and hit it.”
Meanwhile, an armored vehicle alongside theirs was flipped over by an explosion. It nearly rolled into them, but their 8-wheeled vehicle took quick evasive action. Quenser grabbed onto the hips of the curvy young woman whose upper body was sticking out from the hatch. Heivia reached out to do the same, but he got a heel to the chin.
They had not heard anything being fired or flying through the air.
Nor did it seem to be an invisible laser beam or microwave attack.
Quenser finally figured out what was going on.
He pressed the top of his head against the busty young woman’s navel instead of her softer bits and shouted down through the gap between her stomach and the hatch’s edge.
“Don’t just follow after them! Spread out to the sides!!”
“Dammit, Quenser! Quit taking the center spot and hogging her to yourself!!”
“The thought of sharing with you creeps me out. Anyway, those trucks are dropping garbage while making it look like they’re having trouble, right? There are plate-shaped anti-tank mines mixed in!! That previous truck blew up as soon as it drove on top of an empty pizza box!!”
To the very end, these people were all about disguise and camouflage. After sharing that information via radio, the Legitimacy Kingdom tanks and armored vehicles split into two formations on either side to approach the canopied trucks while avoiding the booby traps stuffed in lunchboxes or sandwiched between tied stacks of pinup magazines.
Quenser held the young woman tight as he looked up at her past her ample bust.
“Get back at them for what they did! Fire!!”
“No, don’t fire, you idiot! Ahh! We have them surrounded, but the bullets are flying past the target and hitting our allies on the other side! If you’ve tamed her, then make sure you don’t screw up your instructions for her!!”
“Oh, shut up! Those are tanks on the other side, right? This machinegun can’t punch through their thick armor, so it’s okay.”
But this was no time to breathe a sigh of relief at that news.
A shrill alarm sounded from the equipment inside the vehicle and passed through the young woman’s body to reach them outside the hatch.
Heivia’s eyes widened.
“An IR lock!?”
“Eh? The poachers have another weapon?”
“Don’t be dumb! It’s from our tanks!!”
With a low roar that shook in their gut, an armor-piercing shell flew their way. Maybe because of the intense rain, it veered off course a bit and hit the ground nearby, but the shockwave was enough for the armored vehicle to lift up on half its wheels.
“They’re firing a tank gun when this thing’s only got thin armor!? Are those idiots seriously trying to get us killed!?”
“Okay, just take them out before they take us out! Hey, machinegun girl, use the direct-view visor! Take careful aim and you can damage the tank!!”
No one was even paying any attention to the canopied trucks as they were filled with holes and blown away. The low-IQ potatoes were too busy firing on each other. Since each tank shell cost more than 10,000 euros, they might as well have been slapping each other with stacks of cash. And it was all paid for with the people’s taxes. It was truly an unforgivable battle.
“Fire, fire! Keep firing until they stop!!”
“Toyser can go to hell! I lent him 200 euros and here he is shooting at us! Let’s just kill the bastard!!”
“Did you forget you ‘lent him’ that to partially pay back the 1000 euros he lent you?”
“There’s no way I can pay back the rest, so let’s just kill him!!”
Then they were hit by divine punishment.
The Baby Magnum finally arrived and fired a shot straight into the center of the world’s most pointless infighting.
The armored vehicle finally rolled over and the people on the roof were nearly crushed by the 8-wheeled body. The young woman at the heavy machinegun was in the most danger. If she hadn’t kicked Quenser off of her and ducked down into the round manhole-like hatch, she would have found herself on the receiving end of a game of human whack-a-mole.
“Take this seriously, everyone” warned the Princess.
“You just caused more damage than anyone, dammit!”
At any rate, not one of Ivory Garden’s canopied trucks remained intact after taking machinegun fire and shells from both sides and then having an Object railgun shell crash right down on top of them. It looked like the only option was to gather up the parts scattered over a very wide area.
“So what happened to the JPlevelMHD reactor?”
They checked over the radio and discovered that Myonri and the others had not found anything while searching the poachers’ burning hideout and stockyard.
Quenser clicked his tongue.
“Damn, does that mean they’d already sent it away!?”
They had advanced to the next phase.
Night had long since fallen.
Quenser, Heivia, and the others returned to the maintenance base zone, but no one came out to greet them.
Everyone was otherwise occupied.
Specifically, Major Frolaytia Capistrano was using her laptop to argue with a carefree female operator of about college age.
“What!? You can’t release the information!? Now of all times!? Are you insane, operator!? The reactor has already been taken to the tourist area in the south Transylvania District. If they install that in their hollow model, there will be no avoiding disaster!! Just put me through to the colonel!!”
“Again, I must apologize, Major Capistrano. Nothing you say can give me the authority to do that. When passing strategic intelligence to another world power, Article 55 Paragraph 8 requires the establishment of a special committee made up of both military and civilian experts under the management of a royal so they can vote and approve of the release based on the principle of civilian control.”
“Time is of the essence and we sweep this stuff under the rug all the time, so why are you so picky now!? Oh, I get it. It’s the end of the year, so I bet you have an auditor standing right behind you! But this isn’t just about the Information Alliance! A Legitimacy Kingdom safe country sits adjacent to the Transylvania District! How many tens of thousands of innocent people do you think are going to die!?”
“Please stop this, Major Capistrano! If you pressure me any further, it will only serve to harm my health! And I can’t charge my stomach medicine, hot milk, and homemade Frolaytia body pillow cover as business expenses!!”
“Wait, hold on, don’t hang up! And what the hell was the last item on that list!?”
“Ordering the same brand of tobacco as my waifu Tia wasn’t easy, but getting the scent just right is so important. And let’s not forget this oh-so-wonderful boobs mousepad!!”
The static of a closed connection rang mercilessly from the laptop.
There seemed to be a fair amount of chaos in the chain of command during this emergency. The level of tension was entirely different. There seemed to be a discrepancy in the information they were working off of.
The superbly huggable busty silver-haired officer was extremely irritated at being brushed off by the carefree operator (♀) who was in her third year of service.
She was not a fan of the clever and efficient working style praised by those office workers who thought it made them interesting to eat nothing but curved bananas and sticky Greek yogurt.
But when the two idiots peeked inside the room to see if it was safe, they felt the same sense of despair as noticing a grenade on the doorknob only after it was too late.
After all, this was that busty sadist. Their experience told them this mood of hers never ended well for them.
“(What do you think?)”
“(If we’re lucky, she’ll just step on us with her boots. She might have us get on all fours to use as chairs, but I’m actually okay with that.)”
“(What, that’s all? Why was I even worried then? Both of those sound more like rewards to me.)”
“(I’d say borderline acceptable is that thing where she grabs your legs and steps on your you-know-what with her heel. That one’s tricky because the slightest shift in her weight can send you to heaven or hell.)”
But when Frolaytia lit her long, narrow kiseru, she spoke up in sudden realization.
“Oops, I forget my ashtray. Now, what to do with these hot ashes?”
“Whoa, whoa! That’s taking it a step too far!!!!!!”
“Whoa, whoa! That’s taking it a step too far!!!!!!”
Her love was too much for their bodies to bear, so Quenser and Heivia had to let their commander vent her anger verbally instead.
“The Transylvania District is ready to blow and the fuse has already been lit, but they’re still treating it like an Information Alliance safe country. We could end this without any victims if we act now, but they refuse to send a single warning because of the silly politics between world powers.”
“So what’s the situation?”
“Things go kablooey the instant the southern tourist area declares independence from the Transylvania District. At this rate, there is no stopping the two safe countries from using Objects against each other. The south used their wealth to acquire a reactor, so I’m sure they’ll use that gem to fill their empty jewelry box.”
“The Transylvania District sent an Object to the proposed new border because they naively assumed the wealthy south did not have an Object. If we could only inform them of the threat, they could at least avoid an unexpected battle there.”
“This is an emergency, so why not send out a pirate broadcast or post an online video disguised as a leak?”
“Heivia, I appreciate the courage, but it would never be appreciated during your lifetime. Only so many people have the necessary information, so even if you disguised the source, the Black Uniforms would still track you down. Schools around here might erect statues in your honor a hundred years after your death, but is that good enough for you?”
The two idiots responded with halfhearted smiles.
They were on the battlefield for the extremely pragmatic reason of earning money and social status, so they were not going to get themselves killed just because it was “the right thing to do”.
However, they were also not mature enough to just let these things happen. After all, this would be a disaster even greater than the Norther European Restricted Zone created by historical taboo of a city with an Object reactor buried beneath it. And this was not something that had already happened. They were being asked to sit around when they knew it was about to happen. That was too heavy a cross to bear. They did not want to be stood against a wall and shot for violating military regulations, but nor could they want to struggle to sleep for the next 80 or 90 years of their lives.
Philanthropy could go to hell for all they cared.
This was for themselves. The two potatoes and their busty silver-haired commander worked together to think.
“I guess we have to go with our last resort.”
Frolaytia did not sound at all pleased with the idea.
The two idiots leaned forward.
“Eh? Eh? You have something up your sleeve, Frolaytia!?”
“I knew it. The higher ups always have a fish story or scapegoat ready to go when things get dicey. She’s settling down on her nice childbearing hips and has no intention of turning tail and hauling ass. That means she’s still got some hope in her gut there.”
Frolaytia kicked Heivia’s shin below the table.
“I really don’t want to do this. It’s like an AED or fire extinguisher. It’s a relief to have on hand, but it doesn’t fully solve the problem in front of you. Hey, Quenser, why do you think professional soldiers are willing to take in battlefield students like you? There has to be something in it for us, right?”
“You mean other than raising future engineers to increase the overall quality of the Legitimacy Kingdom military in the long run?”
“Ha ha ha. Do you really think those decrepit old councilors care about anything after their own deaths? The seven-day forecast puts them to shame when it comes to long term planning.”
He was not sure what to say to that.
The busty silver-haired commander pointed her kiseru toward his nose.
“Soldiers like us are bound by regulations, but battlefield students like you exist outside that system. It’s a gray area, but there are times when you can’t be punished for acting outside of the military’s rules. It’s like playing cards or a revolution of the wealthy. It might be tricky to get the conditions just right, but by keeping the possibility on hand, we can sometimes effectively sidestep all the pain-in-the-ass politics between military units and political factions. So most large units will accept one or two students as a trump card you would prefer not to use.”
“Hold on a second. I don’t like where this is going.”
“Mister, it’s time you snuck across the national border.”
This was the problem with people who took their job seriously.
They did not know when to stop. Just when you thought they might be cutting loose for once, they dropped a major bombshell. Why did those idiots not understand how manners or wabi-sabi worked?
“Go to the southern tourist area of the Transylvania District, an Information Alliance safe country, and stop them from placing their new gem in their empty jewelry box. If a professional military unit snuck across the border for an assassination mission in a demilitarized area, it could easily start a world war, but you are the exception, Quenser. We will consult the legal department to work out the formalities. Yes, I know. We can say you were fed up with being overworked on a daily basis, so you ran off like a coward. You crossed the border without meaning to and happened across the party for the declaration of independence, but as an Object-obsessed freak, the discovery of the hidden Object put you in a geeky fervor and you ‘accidentally’ damaged some important component while poking around. But the south can’t demand you pay for the damage to the Object since it doesn’t officially exist. Well, we can work out the details later, but that sounds good as a general idea.”
She rattled it all off a little too smoothly.
He was almost certain she had worked this all out well before opening her mouth. It was like going on a date with someone while they hid a very important ring behind their back all the while.
Frolaytia had already thought up this other plan (even as she snapped at the carefree operator earlier), so now she winked while the kiseru wiggled in the corner of her mouth and she rested her elbow on the table.
“Of course, it won’t just be you, so don’t worry. Quenser, visit the intelligence division and ‘steal’ a radio set.”
“Ah, ah, ahh. Test, test. Is the audio good? Is the camera working? The lights really make my skin shine, so do them right. You’re going to count down from 10? Director, give me my cue. Let’s get this done together! Okay, this is Monica, the idol reporter who can both dance and kill, beginning her live broadcast!!”
Modern idols did not have it easy. The blonde girl flapped her vampire cape with both hands to provide glimpses of her bat bikini chest and her hips as she motivated the staff with her charm before directing that charm at the audience. Quenser kept his head low and snuck around while viewing her from a distance. She likely had an insulating gel on her skin, but it was still impressive to be dressed so skimpily in November.
It was the following day.
The sun was at its peak overhead.
The morning’s milky white fog had entirely cleared away.
It was the perfect weather for an event.
In less than half a day, the south would declare its independence and two Objects would clash within a safe country.
He was at a thick oak door in a fortress wall filling the gap between a steep slope and some old stone buildings.
But this was not the city entrance.
The south was something of a fortress city with plenty of orange-roofed old castles and monasteries, so there were ancient walls and gates all over. But you could still get public wi-fi while drinking coffee at Farbucks, so the world was a strange place.
(I still can’t believe I crossed the border like that. This is the Information Alliance. If something happens, the Legitimacy Kingdom is bound to throw me under the bus and claim they knew nothing about this.)
“Quenser, we can see you with the satellite. You’re a tourist now, so act suspicious and their security camera programs will trigger an alert. Walking like normal is the best camouflage.”
“Frolaytia, what am I supposed to do with this flimsy fake ID?”
“Don’t worry. It was made using one of the real devices. After all, we found it in Ivory Garden’s stockyard.”
“Am I just doomed, is that it!?”
There was no tension in the voice in his ear. That was what it was like watching from afar.
Then he heard a dull clunk.
The heavy bar had been removed from the castle gate three times his height and it was slowly opening.
“Hurry on in, Quenser,” said Heivia who was actually there with him. “If you’re not in there, we lose our justification to be here.”
“Are you sure I should do this?”
Quenser made a home visit despite the unresolved questions rolling around in his gut. Heivia quickly recovered the synthetic rope and stainless steel piton he had used to scale the wall.
“We are acting on the pretext of retrieving the idiot who fled our base,” explained Frolaytia in his earphone. “A runaway soldier shames a military unit, so we would never want to ask for help searching for one. And it becomes an international incident if they have crossed to another world power’s territory. We could not possibly make a request then.”
“That doesn’t make it okay to send a fully-armed assassination squad across the border to walk around the back alleys.”
“But it’s good enough.” She did not seem to care at all. “Object or not, the south will face a great many trials once they declare independence. For example, diplomacy. The Transylvania District’s connections will be off limits to them. But what if they gained a supporter early on? It wouldn’t hurt them to learn of some unrelated country’s mistake or scandal, right?”
“I didn’t realize I was getting involved in such a dirty job.”
“Those dirty jobs are what maintain peace. There are times when the powerful would rather do nothing but have to take action to keep up appearances because they cannot control the public video sites and pirate broadcasts that Heivia mentioned in the conference room. But this is different.”
“Is it about deception and camouflage again?”
“Exactly. If they have any sense at all, they will overlook this. They will let you and Heivia’s team go free. Pressure from exchange rates and tariffs and embargoes on food and fuel are all ways of using money to crush a new country with little productive power. The south will be familiar with those cases, so they will want to preserve any secret connections they can set up with the Legitimacy Kingdom.”
This was especially cruel because, even if they turned a blind eye to Quenser and Heivia, those potatoes did not have the authority the south would want. In fact, they were here to take away the south’s greatest trump card. Quenser could not help but feel bad for tricking them like that.
“Don’t relax based on what she says, Quenser,” said his awful friend. “Everything she said assumes the south will act rationally. They’re about to declare independence remember? They’re at their highest moment. If they’re high on adrenaline while shouting nonsense about autonomy and sovereignty, they might just follow their emotions and gang up on us without considering the consequences. So be on your guard. We know from experience just how bad a day you have when you rest your hopes on that busty commander’s predictions.”
“So there’s no such thing as safety around here, huh?”
“This is enemy territory. Now get moving, turkey.”
With Heivia, Myonri, and the others pushing him forward, Quenser ran through the old fortress streets with stone paving and distinctive orange roofs while surrounded by curving fortress walls and wild mountain slopes.
The old city was built along the base and slope of the mountain, so its stone walls and sloping roads formed something like a tiered field. But instead of crops, spires and chimneys stuck up and the people were all gathered inside stone and brick apartments. More and more walls had been built over time like the rings of a tree, so the inside was somewhat labyrinthine.
It felt like the solid city was clinging to the ground amidst the dark mountains forests surrounding it. It did not look like a kind place for moving companies and online stores.
“We’re just talking about one province, right? Do we have any guesses where the reactor is?”
“That southern city is almost entirely registered as a world heritage site. What you see on the mountain slope is just the tip of the iceberg. The underground is riddled with wine cellars, catacombs, and secret torture chambers.”
“Post-independence, 80% of their income will be reliant on tourism. They wouldn’t want to destroy their old fortress area to hide the Object.”
That explained why the roads were still paved with bumpy stone despite the trouble that caused for cars. Quenser pulled a free pamphlet from a stand that functioned as a visitor’s center.
“Hm, looks like the higher up on the mountain you are, the higher up in the hierarchy you are. Sounds inconvenient. I guess it’s just like high-rise apartments. Or how they say idiots like to climb as high as possible.”
“The very top will be covered in clouds depending on the weather, so I imagine it’s more about gravity than the view. Both rainwater and sewage flow down through the pipes.”
“Can you see anything with the satellite?”
“At the very least, there is no sign of a 50m machine.”
“Then is it underground? But it must not be directly below this old fortress.”
A crumbling wall was decorated with a banner saying “History Changes Tonight at Midnight!” Mobile homes were lined up on the side of the road, so all the hotels remodeled from old castles and monasteries must have been full. A digital countdown was running on an electronic sign decorated with Halloween-like bat characters. To Quenser, it looked like a giant time bomb. To go with the vampire motif, the small child passing by with her mother was holding a bat-shaped balloon. Quenser walked past them while marking the pamphlet’s map with a red pen.
“Frolaytia, have they bought a ton of bricks in the past few years? They could have claimed it was for a pizza oven, a kiln, or whatever else, but I mean bricks that use alumina.”
“A young wife with too much time on her hands gambled on a large quantity of futures. She lost a ton of money, but she didn’t complain much on social media. Her posts don’t sound like someone who ran across an unexpected accident of that magnitude. Could this be it?”
“Those are used in blast furnaces too. Bricks with alumina for heat resistance have a higher melting point than iron, so they’re perfect for lining the buckets to carry molten metal.”
Quenser always grew loquacious when it came to topics like this. Frolaytia’s fish story may not have been as implausible as it might seem. Even if the human race threw out their weapons and advocated love and peace, this boy would still be chasing after Objects with a sparkle in his eyes.
“Frolaytia, given your obsession with the Island Nation, I’m sure you’ve heard of their giant Buddha statues. Those bronze statues can be several dozen meters tall, but they weren’t built up with nuts and bolts from the bottom up. They started by making a giant mold out of earth and bricks and then poured molten metal inside.”
“Are you saying the same could be done with an Object?”
“It isn’t that simple since the onion armor requires a bunch of thin layers of armor, but they can use the general concept. The people here have a long history of building underground rooms. They could have built a framework and scaffolding like they were digging a mine and then used the entire mountain as a giant womb. And of course, they would make sure to select a silhouette-obscuring wedding dress to hide the pregnancy necessitating the marriage.”
When red-banded sand wasps captured a caterpillar, they would take it back to their nest alive and lay eggs in its body. Once the larvae hatched, they would grow while gradually consuming the host’s soft body from within. This Object was similar. Instead of creating a single giant space all at once, they had dug into the mountain bit by bit and then gradually carried in and assembled the metal armor and mechanical parts until they had an entire colossal weapon underground. It had been waiting all this time to break through the mountain surface and emerge, almost like it had consumed the mountain from within to grow its metal body.
It sucked the mountain dry.
Like a blood sucker.
Quenser placed a finger on the pamphlet map and then looked to the mountain slope a short distance away.
“Frolaytia, check Moldoveanu Peak. The info on the pamphlet doesn’t match what I’m seeing. There are a few extra monasteries.”
“Based on the database of a local university, there was a risk of acid rain eroding the limestone slope, so all of the valuable buildings were moved and evacuated to safe locations.”
“And were those the world heritage sites you mentioned, or everything else that could be wrapped up in packing material?”
“It’s camouflage. Unless this is an elaborate trap, that mountain must be the womb. It’s like using leafy branches to hide a tank in the grass.”
“I can’t believe it. Even if they missed out on being world heritage sites, that monastery has a history four centuries long.”
“When you’re at risk from an aerial bombing, you’ll break off a thousand-year-old cedar’s branches to hide your tank. Your life is on the line after all.”
The completed Object could not be removed without breaking through the frame of dirt and sand. It was like a piggy bank in that sense. The southern tourist area was not joking around.
“What should I do?” asked Quenser.
“You don’t need to head inside. Just wander around near the monastery in question. Heivia and the others can search inside on the pretext of pursuing you. They can ‘happen across’ anything they discover.”
With a sound much like an electric razor, a drone arrived overhead. The delivery box it gave him contained extra equipment, including glasses for blocking the facial recognition of security cameras. Then he walked against the flow of tourists to make his way across the stone pavement, through the fortress walls, and up the mountain slope.
On the way, he passed by some high school girls who wore submachineguns over their shoulders. The wood stocks had a very Eastern European feel and they folded up like a wire hanger. The girls wore what must have been the uniform to their school: a vampirish bat-patterned black cape worn over a blazer. Their legs were bare even in November. It looked like he might be able to blend in here better than somewhere full of camouflage uniforms. But as courageous as the girls might look, their weapons showed no sign of local production. They all had different caliber guns from different companies and different sling belts.
“Do they have a draft system or universal conscription here?” asked Quenser.
“The suggested new constitution they’ve released online says their military will be entirely voluntary,” answered Frolaytia. “Although that volunteer service might come with certain advantages.”
“If they make it so you can’t enter higher education, get a job, or get married without serving, then is it really any different from conscription?”
There was also a nervous-looking glasses girl holding the leashes of a bunch of Dobermans, but it was unclear if she was taking them for a walk or if they were dragging her around. Was she from the school’s animal care committee? Quenser was honestly more afraid of them than the drones made of lightweight materials. Their drool-covered teeth were quite intimidating.
Quenser kept his pace unchanged and continued his casual stroll.
“On-site team, I’ve arrived at the suspicious part of the slope. I’m going to ignore the monastery that was clearly added only recently. I just walked past it, but there is a truck parked unnaturally alongside a cliff here. I bet it’s covering the manhole used as an entrance, but I’m not a legendary ninja. I doubt I could move the truck and get inside without anyone noticing.”
“Leave it to us. We just needed to know where to check, so you go search elsewhere. Pretend you’re lost and sneak right into their bedroom.”
In order to help out Heivia’s group, Quenser dropped an SD card with wireless LAN support and kicked it underneath the truck. It would be unnatural for them to search there for no reason, so they would want some kind of hint or excuse to use as justification.
A high school girl on the slope groaned, but Quenser did not want to stand out by turning his head to look. Someone from Heivia’s team had likely snuck up behind her and eliminated the obstacle before heading underground through a vent or whatever they had found. It was not often in life that you got a chance to sneak up behind and knock out a miniskirt high school girl instead of some filthy old guy, so the potatoes may have been more motivated than usual. Quenser walked away with an oblivious look on his face and the free pamphlet in hand.
He knew more or less where to go.
He stopped to think at about 50m from the first point. After climbing some stone steps to reach a higher level of the slope, he took out some of the “evidence” he had gotten from the drone – an electronic dictionary, a translation device, and other electronics with just enough personal information to make them a security risk – and dropped them in the ditches and manholes. Heivia’s team had already made their way into the secret area to begin their sabotage, but it was best to give them as many openings as possible.
Then Frolaytia contacted him.
“Quenser, wait just a second.”
“Am I leaving too much evidence? Sorry, I wasn’t sure how much was best.”
“Not that. We’ve lost contact with Heivia’s team.”
At first, Quenser was unsure what she meant. But this did not seem to be a metaphor or a joke.
“We have no idea if they’re even still alive. This is entirely unexpected and the satellites and drones can’t tell what’s happening inside there. Be on your guard, Quenser. You are alone out there!”
“The enemy took them out? But we’re talking about people who could only just barely manage to gather the parts of an Object using their excessive wealth. The soldiers I saw were normal high school girls. They were wearing vampire cape cosplay! I’m not about to claim we’re the world’s best special forces or anything, but I seriously doubt we would lose to them!!”
“At the moment, we can’t rule anything out. Maybe this is only technical trouble and maybe the south hired a PMC to strengthen their forces. But we need to prepare for the worst, so take a weapon from the drone, Quenser. You need to ensure your own safety first! Don’t die on us before reinforcements can arrive!!”
The situation had changed.
With his anti-facial-recognition glasses on, Quenser used the body of a car parked on the curb and the show window of a musical instrument store to get a look behind him without turning around. He desperately tried to gather information as naturally as he could as a way to keep the anxiety from crushing him. He was in enemy territory. This was the Information Alliance. Running around screaming wasn’t going to help.
He passed by a drunk with a balloon tied around his head like a headband. Since this was a vampire tourist location, the food carts all sold mystery foods like garlic-free peperoncino or garlic rice sans garlic.
Everything looked like a threat at the moment.
He met up with the drone in a deserted area.
The package it delivered also contained a knife and handgun, but Quenser only took the Hand Axe plastic explosive and electric fuses he was familiar with. If he tried using a gun or blade, he could easily shoot or stab himself in the thigh if he tripped.
It was already evening.
The sun set early in November. The loneliness crept up on him along with the chill.
Nothing he did would rid him of the same sense of despair felt by a small child left behind at a tourist location. Any further attempt would be like a person with OCD endlessly washing their hands.
Heivia and the others skilled in normal combat had vanished all at once. Even if a spirit of justice awoke within Quenser, entering that secret area alone was not an option. Any rash actions would only add another name to the list of victims.
But if he turned tail and fled, the countdown would end at midnight and tens of thousands of civilians, if not more, would be transformed into lumps of flesh and blood.
“Still no response from Heivia, Myonri, or the others,” reported Frolaytia.
So he could only stay where he was.
He gathered the same useless courage as someone standing tall in an open field when a sniper was lurking somewhere.
“This is Monica, the idol reporter who can both dance and kill! I’ll be bringing you the latest news from the southern tourist area in a vampire costume made from a black cape and bat bikini!! Just six hours to go until they declare independence. If you think of it like a nice round pizza, this cuts it neatly in half. Make sure to tune into cable channel 2929 for this historic moment!”
Six hours to go.
After coming this far, it seemed unlikely the south would let go of their reactor and not place that gem in their otherwise empty jewelry box. They would want to use their Object to deter the Transylvania District and to impress the reporters from around the world gathered at the ceremony. The disappearance of Heivia’s team had not changed things. It best to assume the 3D puzzle was already complete.
The Legitimacy Kingdom would only get one more shot at stopping this master plan.
And with Heivia’s team defeated, it was unlikely a rushed attempt would accomplish anything.
“We’re using the satellite to check the exact coordinates where Heivia’s team disappeared, but multiple sources would be best. Tell us the location based on your observations. That will help us make the final decision.”
“Is there anything left we can do?”
“What we most need to avoid is a direct clash between the Objects of the Transylvania District and the southern tourist area and a chain reaction spreading the flames of war to other safe countries. We need to assume that will lead to millions upon millions of civilian deaths.”
“If it comes to it, we will have the Princess fire.”
That hit him in the chest.
Hearing it was like having a stake driven into his heart.
“The south’s Object is in the mountain, right?” continued Frolaytia. “We can use the location where Heivia’s team disappeared to judge where the chrysalis is located. As long as the two Objects don’t directly fight, we can avoid that worst-case scenario. If we make a preemptive strike, the south’s Object can’t dodge since it’s hidden in the mountain.”
“Wait just a second. Wait!”
Pointing out that Heivia and Myonri were in there would not stop Frolaytia. Saying you would never abandon your fellow soldiers was lovely, but it made no sense to sit back and let millions of civilians be engulfed in flames because you were waiting for some subordinates who might very well be dead already. He knew that. He understood it.
But was it really over?
Could they only act on the assumption that their missing comrades were dead?
He needed something.
He needed some way of arguing back.
“Oh, I know. Officially, no one knows there’s an Object in the mountain. So no matter what our goal is, the Princess would be using an Object main cannon to attack an enemy safe country, right!? That would start a war!”
“But that would be one of the clean wars contained to the battlefield countries. It would do a lot less damage than the chaos that would burn through so many safe countries if we let this continue as is.”
“The Princess would be executed for treason!!”
“Don’t worry, Quenser. Everything we say is being recorded, so if the bored masses demand a dead body, it would be me, the rogue commander, on the gallows. I’ll make sure of it.”
“That’s not what I meant! We need to sit here and think up a way of saving everyone: you, the Princess, and Heivia’s missing team!!”
What would they do?
What could they do!?
With the anti-facial-recognition glasses on, Quenser came to a stop, bit his thumbnail, and racked his brains. He did not have it in him to act all clever at the moment. He had to be standing out from the crowd to a comical degree.
He gave up on immediately coming up with an answer. He could go with the process of elimination. He started ruling out every option that was entirely out of the question in order to approach the right answer, much like chipping away the stone to find the sculpture within.
Doing nothing and letting the Transylvania District and the southern tourist area clash was not an option.
That clash might be avoidable if they could get word of the threat to the Transylvania District, but they had no way of doing so.
Even if he disguised it as a leak of military secrets through a pirate broadcast or video site, the Black Uniforms would see through it and he would be charged with treason.
Now that contact with Heivia, Myonri, and the rest had been lost, there was almost no chance of finding and destroying the reactor before it was installed in the Object. They had to assume the south’s Object was complete.
They could end this by locating the Object before it left the mountain and having the Princess fire a main cannon at the slope.
But then the Princess or Frolaytia would be criticized by the ignorant international society and ultimately shot for treason.
He honestly found himself ruling out every option that came to mind. But that did not mean he was stuck. Instead, it meant he had chipped away so much of the stone that he had nearly completed the sculpture of the butt-naked young man.
That was right.
Quenser placed his hand on the window of a privately run electronics store which had TVs of varying sizes on display and he stared at his own face with the anti-facial-recognition glasses on.
“Reinforced glass, huh? Even if it doesn’t use a film, it could use a wire mesh.”
“A swing of my fist could shatter the window, but if I slowly press my palm against it, the glass can support my weight without breaking. A hierarchy based on gravity. That Object is a red-banded sand wasp larva. It fattened up to 200,000 tons while gradually consuming the mountain. Camouflage. To avoid detection by satellite or drone. But since it’s in the mountain, it can’t move like it might want to.”
Would it work?
There was hope.
But he needed more concrete proof. He wanted as accurate a map of the southern tourist area as he could get. He would also need to calculate out the necessary amount of materials, the placement, and the weight distribution.
He was lucky he still had a connection to Frolaytia. If had been truly alone in enemy territory, he really would have been without options.
“Frolaytia, can you connect me to the electronic simulation division? And tell material management to get ready for some work. Yes, the ones who construct the mobile maintenance base zone!!”
Happy Tepes!! It is now 10 PM!
I’m here in the mountains of the southern tourist area where excitement is building in advance of their declaration of independence. The area is known for its fog, but that apparently really only happens in the early morning. Look how clear the fireworks are in the sky!! Black cape flap flap!!
Fireworks decorated the night sky with red, green, and other colored lights that reflected brightly off the walls of the old castles and monasteries on the mountain slope.
The time limit was only 2 hours away.
The world would not end the instant that time limit ran out, but the die would already have been cast. There would be no turning back at that point. No one could guarantee the south’s success. In fact, they might be entirely wrong and fail miserably. But despite those anxieties, they could only charge full speed ahead at this point.
(The ‘insertion’ was successful, but it stinks a lot worse than I expected.)
A faint smell like burning rubber and the chill of November had arrived at the mountain fortress city. Quenser could see his breath as he felt impatient. Fortunately, the children with their parents were carrying vampire balloons and the drunks had a long, skinny balloon wrapped around their heads like a headband. It would help if the newly arrived Legitimacy Kingdom potatoes would notice that and sabotage a balloon seller to give another reason for the smell.
He was on the mountain slope.
A small hand grabbed Quenser’s while he weaved through the crowd of people in a circular plaza surrounded by fortress walls. It was one of the new potatoes. Without looking in that direction, he glanced down at the note he had been given.
(Still no word from Heivia’s team.)
Quenser, who was still wearing the anti-facial-recognition glasses, was honestly worried about what had happened to those idiots. Was it simple concern for his friends? That was definitely part of it, but it was not all that pure. This was enemy territory and he could easily be next. He wanted to believe nothing bad had happened to them.
Colorful fireworks burst overhead.
He could feel the tremor of stadium-like cheers. They reached him from ahead and behind like waves and they really did shake the mountain slope and the city’s fortress walls. The large live-viewing monitor set up in the plaza had changed channels to show a variety show with a battlefield idol reporter. It was being broadcast from some old castle or monastery and it showed a stone balcony carrying a speaking podium and an old man.
“Frolaytia, the ceremony has begun.”
“We can see it on the online video. And I have some bad news. The satellite caught plenty of maintenance soldiers leaving from a disguised entrance on that mountain slope. Did you call the Object a red-banded sand wasp larva? Well, all of the tunnels should cave in once it leaves, so we should assume they are evacuating before that happens.”
“They’re already preparing to act? But their declaration of independence isn’t for another 2 hours.”
“They might be jumping the gun because they’re so eager to get going. Damn that southern old man. He’s nothing but toxic masculinity in a suit. I bet he wanted to give his speech while showing off the Object that symbolizes their power.”
“So he’s an exhibitionist with delusions of virility? We need to expedite our schedule before he opens his coat and pulls out his tiny you-know-what.”
“Yes. It looks like they might clash with the Transylvanian Object before midnight. Quenser, how are things on your end?”
“The insertion is complete, but it will take time to stabilize. We only have one chance at this, so failure isn’t an option. We should wait an hour to give it plenty of time.”
“Then buy the necessary time. Do whatever it takes. Formal ceremonies are accident prone, so find some way of drawing out the principal’s boring speech to fit our timetable!”
(Are you kidding me with this!?)
Quenser cut in front of a security camera since he wore the anti-facial-recognition glasses, joined the new Legitimacy Kingdom potatoes blending into the crowd, and made his way to the site of the speech. After smiling and speaking to some cheerful men unsteadily holding mugs of a local beer colored oddly red (likely due to being mixed with blood orange or tomato juice), he easily learned the speech was being held at a luxury hotel made from an old monastery. The men with balloons around their heads like headbands did not seem to find his question suspicious.
One of the new potatoes, the busty young woman who had operated the heavy machinegun in the armored vehicle, tilted her head.
“That would be the Weinrichius Monastery.”
“Isn’t that the vampire known as the Shoemaker of Breslau who the city council took official measures against long ago? Why would they name a monastery after him?”
“Probably because this region is known for an even more famous count. I mean, everyone’s dressed in costumes when it isn’t even Halloween and the souvenir shops are all selling bats and coffins and things like that.”
They had no time to spare. While hurrying to the monastery in question, Quenser and the others held a quick strategy meeting.
“If the hotel was made by remodeling an old castle or monastery, it can’t have many rooms. Every room will essentially be a suite,” said the young woman. “And with the ceremony occurring there, I imagine the entire building will be rented out to keep normal people away.”
“So you think it won’t be easy to get in? You should work at gathering some more information before jumping to conclusions.”
“It’s being televised. Your strictly-guarded ceremony is meaningless as a press conference if you don’t let any cameras in. In the crowd shots earlier, I even saw a Legitimacy Kingdom press team. Let’s sneak up behind them and swipe their IDs.”
“Understood. We can handle the dirty work.”
The busty young woman who had dealt with the armored vehicle before was apparently the carnivorous type.
They worked out the frequency the target press team was using to relay their signal, used some pinpoint targeted jamming, and snuck up behind the staff members that came running tearfully out to their broadcast equipment to see what the problem was. The one knocked out by the busty young woman had a smile on his face since she had pressed against his back to strangle him.
“Huh? That discount battlefield idol reporter is here. A vampire costume? A bat bikini on a November night? Even with insulating gel, that’s impressive. …Now I wish I’d gotten her autograph.”
“Monica’s here? Why does that childhood friend have to be here? She’ll crush my balls if she notices me.”
Quenser was nervous, but they used plastic tape and zip ties to tie the TV crew’s hands behind their backs and checked through their possessions to borrow their film equipment and professional makeup. You never knew what would come in handy down the line. And those possessions of course included the ID cards they had originally wanted.
“Say cheese,” said Quenser.
“Phones sure are handy,” commented the young woman.
“C’mon, don’t cover your eyes with one hand give a peace sign with the other. This is supposed to be an ID photo!”
They received a portable card printer from a drone’s delivery box. All they had to do was cut out the photo with a knife and paste in their own photo and data. They also borrowed the staff jackets just to be sure. They disassembled their guns and stuck them in the duralumin camera cases. But in the cushioning on the sides instead of the normal storage space.
With their cards hanging from their necks, the new potatoes walked right on into the luxury hotel made from Weinrichius Monastery.
They were immediately surrounded by the gentle air presumably created by a fireplace.
“They aren’t even doing an X-ray scan of our bags. How careless.”
“They assume our backgrounds were checked when we entered the country. And even in this age of digital cameras, a lot of professionals still use strange kinds of film.”
Quenser had expected a monastery to be all patchwork robes and pea soup seasoned only with salt, but he instead found red carpet, giant chandeliers, mysterious oil paintings in pure gold frames, marble statues of naked men and women in an embrace, and beautiful maids pushing around wagons carrying bottles of vintage wine and various foods cooked in a garlic-free al ajillo style. (Do not point out that this is nothing more than soaking the food in olive oil. It’s part of their culture!) It was apparently an age of excess even in the monasteries.
It was about 20 past 10 at night. The old man was so excited at having everyone’s eyes on him he was about ready to blow his load early, so who could say when his precious Object would break out through the mountainside.
“Let’s interrupt that old man who might as well be a pervert out on the streets in a trench coat. This is all over once he gets carried away and flashes his Object.”
“Fine, but we can’t just go in guns blazing.”
“We only have to get his tiny you-know-what soft, so avoiding a serious incident would be best. Let’s cause some kind of trouble or accident while keeping things peaceful.”
“Prepare a prepaid phone with no private information on it.”
Quenser stopped in front of a map of the building on a hallway wall. His anti-facial-recognition glasses did not have prescription lenses, so he could read it just fine. The old man was giving his speech from a balcony on the third floor, but the boy pointed to the floor below that.
“All of the press will have their phones on silent during such an important speech. But the balcony sticks outside and there are no walls, so sounds from the other floors will reach him there. Let’s set off a ringtone at max volume to ruin his speech. And if we play a bunch of words you can’t say on TV, he’s done for. The broadcast will be cut off. He’ll have to postpone his greeting until they find the out-of-season cicada.”
“I’m praying you will learn to grow up someday,” said the young woman. “Okay, let’s download as filthy and dirty a song as we can find. Something you could never play in the family living room.”
“Yeah, the more obscene the better. Like Lady Sprinkler.”
“Don’t you dare speak ill of LS in my presence!! Those lyrics are perfectly calculated out based on the principles of Satanism in a complex and high-level approach to finding the universal beauty in the destructive and the ugly!!”
You found fans of the weirdest things sometimes. She had also reacted positively to Monica’s vampire costume, so she may have been the type who enjoyed wearing black roses, silver crosses, and plenty of frills and lace. She just about sent Quenser to heaven as she strangled him with both hands, but he was actually kind of into it.
That was when they received a radio signal. He focused on his earphone, assuming it was from Frolaytia, but it was not.
It was a very staticky signal, but he did manage to hear a male voice over the sandstorm.
“…need help…captur…tell you our location…rescue team…”
He felt like someone had directly squeezed his heart.
But when the busty young woman started to respond, Quenser quickly stopped her.
“Wait, wait! Send out a signal and you’ll give away our position. They would definitely question a signal coming from within the monastery hotel and everything would fall apart!”
“Those are our comrades! Heivia was asking for help! The radio signal had the appropriate identifier.”
“Heivia’s team was lost and it seems likely they were either captured or killed.”
“And that’s why we have to help them ASAP!”
“No matter what happened, it’s almost guaranteed they had their equipment taken!”
Quenser and the young woman glared at each other.
They had been placed in a very dangerous situation without warning.
“That transmission didn’t mention any names, units, or ranks! It tried to sound legit, but there wasn’t really anything there! They were afraid any details would give them away!”
Of course, neither of them had any solid proof that would hold up in court.
This was enemy territory.
They could not gather any real evidence, so they could only base their arguments on speculation.
“If that was really them asking for help, you’re telling us to ignore our allies’ screams.”
“And if it was an enemy act, we’ll be turning our backs on the many safe countries we could have saved from the flames of war. Our names will go down in history as utter scum.”
“If that happens, millions of civilians will be crushed and blown to bits by stray Object shots. Those shells will kill babies and the elderly alike, even if they take shelter in schools or hospitals. Is that what you want?”
“~ ~ ~!!”
“We have no time whether we head back to save Heivia’s team or continue on. That spirit of justice is fine and all, but you’re in no position to just get angry and shove all responsibility for the choice onto me. You can’t act like a prophet after it’s all over and claim you knew what was going to happen. So tell me clearly right here and now: which will it be!?”
The young woman shouted as she cut off the screams coming from her earphone. They did not throw everything out despite a lack of evidence, shirtlessly grab a Gatling gun, and go on an emotionally driven rescue mission. That was what proved they were a proper military and not a rural gang of delinquents.
“You’re going to lose friends like this,” she said.
“You really think giving into emotion and responding would be the considerate thing to do? Don’t be ridiculous. Once the enemy learns this works, they’ll escalate things just for fun. Do you really want to see a live feed of a torture show?”
“Did you think I hadn’t thought this through? We only have one shot at this. People’s lives are on the line, so we can’t impulsively roll the dice early.”
They climbed the stairs to the second floor. They wanted to be directly below the third-floor balcony where the old man was giving his speech. But just as they turned a corner to reach their target room, they quickly ducked back around the corner.
The young woman suddenly grew all cute and flustered.
“Why are the bodyguards ditching their jobs to have some, uh, quality time together? Now we can’t get to the room. Do we have to wait until they’re done making out!?”
“We have the TV crew’s equipment, right? Someone get a camera ready.”
“No one wants their adult ‘quality time’ revealed to the world. Especially when they’re supposed to be working.”
They showed no mercy.
The pen was mightier than the sword, so they drove the bodyguards away without firing a bullet. Once that was complete, Quenser and the others walked down the hallway once more.
“We can find the key in this floor’s linen room. There should be a master key for cleaning.”
They were finally inside.
Quenser cut across the empty suite to reach the balcony sticking out from the window. The chill of the November night immediately hit him. The balcony was large enough for a decent sized tea party, but he was focused on the next floor up.
“Yes, so we decided to gauge the will and passion of the south’s chosen people via a public referendum. To build a better future for ourselves, we must declare our freedom and free ourselves from the bonds of the Transylvania District’s methods.”
Cameras flashed intermittently and the old man’s microphone-amplified voice reached him. Was this a form of camouflage as well? Was he shifting blame away from himself and onto the referendum’s result?
But from this position, the old man could hear Quenser if he spoke loudly. After confirming that proximity, he placed the prepaid smartphone in a gap of a planter filled with small flowers. It was a plausible location for a dropped phone, but it would also go unnoticed at first glance.
“It’s in place. Time to make some noise.”
The busty young woman was checking on the hallway through the cracked-open door.
“There’s a maid diligent enough to be cleaning rooms this late at night. We might be in trouble if she catches us leaving a supposedly vacant room.”
“The phone is already playing the vulgar song. Someone will be by to look for it soon.”
“LS is one of the greatest cultural products of the modern era, you pleb!! This is only the 2nd floor, so couldn’t we jump down from the balcony?”
“No. They’d be sure to see us from above!”
Quenser held a hand to the side of his anti-facial-recognition glasses and hurried across the large room to reach the door. He and the young woman huddled together to check out in the hallway and he found she was right.
This was not a fake one squirting ketchup on some omurice. A maid with a standard long-skirt uniform was moving up and down the hallway. She seemed to be suspicious of something, so she may have found evidence of them breaking into the linen room.
“She’s trying to buy time. I bet she’s waiting for security.”
“This really isn’t good then.”
The young woman’s eyes grew dangerously sharp.
She was clearly wondering if they could eliminate just the one maid. But Quenser preferred kindness when it came to kittens in the rain, little match girls, and courageous maids, so he thought for a bit. He really did not want to see the fierce woman-on-woman battles that were fought every day in break rooms and locker rooms.
“So we just have to find a way to leave without worrying that maid, right?”
Quenser walked across the large room and opened the giant closet. This was a luxury hotel with a classic motif, but he found more than just silk gowns there.
After all, this luxury hotel had been remodeled from an old monastery. When it came to simple equipment, it could not hope to match an apartment made from modern materials. And the hotel existed partially for cultural preservation purposes because empty buildings fell into disrepair quickly. And why would people bother visiting a hotel deep in the mountains? Delicious food? To relax and forget all about the passage of time? No. The people who came here were paying all that money to enjoy noble pastimes. Quenser was from the Legitimacy Kingdom, so he knew exactly the kind of scummy desires were bred by those class differences.
He knew exactly what he would find there.
“I really shouldn’t be doing this, but it looks like the day has come to break the seal and bring her back.”
“I’ve got no choice. And if we’re doing this, we need to do it right. It’s time to get all dressed up with the ultimate camouflage.”
Quenser and the others could not turn invisible. Nor was there a secret rotating door in the wall or a blind spot in the hallway they could hide in.
The diligent maid overlooked the new Legitimacy Kingdom potatoes. They were in view, but she did not see them. Even though she would have found it highly suspicious if anyone but hotel staff left a room that was supposed to be vacant.
So what had happened?
The answer was as follows:
They changed into the maid uniforms supplied in the closet.
That of course included the busty young woman.
But it also included Battlefield Student Quenser Barbotage (♂).
He greeted the maid by grabbing his skirt in both hands and giving a polite curtsy. No one questioned glasses maid Quenser.
It would look unnatural for anyone but a cleaning maid to be in a vacant room, so they only had to become internal staff. Instead of sneaking around, it was best to walk out like they belonged there.
The real maid did not doubt him for a second, so it was the young woman who whispered in disbelief.
“(Are you serious? Why do you look so at home in a maid uniform!?)”
“(Heh. I am Quensette, the legendary star of my safe country’s local cultural festival. Although I’d sealed this away ever since Monica tearfully kicked my ass for stealing the spotlight from her when she was just getting started.)”
Adding a thick layer of makeup to the surface would not help. Creating a proper foundation underneath mattered more, so it was lucky they had acquired some professional makeup equipment after attacking Monica’s group earlier.
This was not about the insulating gel that let the idol wear a black cape and a bat bikini during a November night.
Quenser did not have the subcutaneous fat of a girl, so the collagen gel helped prepare the skin which would act as a foundation for the makeup.
(But this means Monica is still using that same gel. She’s upgrading to a more professional version, but it’s the same brand. Is she still using the makeup technique I taught her way back when?)
…No one could ever be allowed to know that an idol like Monica had learned how to put on makeup from a boy!!
Only beginners used the chest, hips, and thighs to show off their femininity.
The nape was much more destructive.
Quenser had always been androgynous enough to look like a boy when wearing pants and a girl when wearing a skirt, but everyone was forced to consider the wonders of the human body when they saw that “transformation”.
They heard some hurried footsteps. The men in black were likely the old man’s bodyguards. They walked right past Quensette and the rest of the culprits and barged into the room where the phone was hidden.
“It’s been about 10 minutes since the speech was interrupted, right? We need to buy another 30 minutes, but won’t they find the phone almost immediately? I know you hid it in a planter, but it’s making noise. You can’t hide it like that.”
“Knowing this works is enough. Next, we’ll go one floor above the 3rd floor balcony. And to fix the flaw you mentioned, I want something they can’t remove so easily. Yes, a rotten stench would work nicely. But something utterly ridiculous instead of something that might be a toxic gas. We can walk around the back of the hotel in this maid camouflage, so let’s put something together using what we can find in the staff rooms and storage.”
“Do you get bolder when you crossdress? Like someone whose personality changes when they get behind the wheel?”
He ignored her nonsense and got down to business.
“A hotel should have a powerful industrial acid detergent. We use the undiluted stuff as a base, add raw eggs and mayo, and maybe include some onion and garlic…well, if they have it. Add some alcohol even if it’s only disinfectant. Crab and shrimp would be nice if you can find it, but the real secret ingredient can be either vinegar or Italian dressing.”
“You sound like you’re planning a meal, but some of the ingredients don’t fit. What are you trying to make?”
“A powerful vomit smell.”
“Stomach acid contains hydrochloric acid. Pure gastric juices don’t actually stink very much; it’s the food being dissolved that really makes an odor.”
The young woman fell silent with her mouth forming a small triangle.
That was the proper reaction for a woman…no, for a human. There was something wrong with anyone who could discuss it with a straight face.
Let us discuss the school Quenser attended.
The professors there had made historic discoveries directly linked to Object development and they all fell under the category of “something wrong with them” because they would laugh their butts off while doing this kind of thing. If you forgot your homework, it was not unusual to be punished with an iron claw to the face using an extremely intimidating glove. Quenser remembered when the usually indomitable Monica had ended up in tears after receiving one of those. It was a bitter memory because he had been punished in the same way for trying to cover for her.
“Although it’s a lot faster to run into the bathroom and shove a finger down your throat than to try to precisely reproduce it with chemicals in the lab, so you could say this is the world’s most pointless field of research. But when building it up from scratch, you can adjust the concentration to your liking, so you can create a much more pungent odor than the real thing. Now, old man, how long can you preserve the serious atmosphere you’ve created?”
The old man on the podium knew some unseen person had infiltrated the hotel to ruin his time in the spotlight.
A biting chill ruled the November night.
So he could see the fireworks, he spoke from a balcony large enough to hold a tea party.
“For my next question, urp, I imagine the rivers flowing in from outside your borders – cough! Oh, excuse me – will be your primary water source after independence, but…ugh!!”
The press were forced into a constant battle with themselves. Smells were invisible, but their footage would not be fit for broadcast if they vomited. They had spent an absurd amount of money for their press passes, so they could not ruin it all by replacing their live broadcast with a “please wait a moment” graphic.
It was truly a trial.
The press’s pride was being tested.
This is a rather vulgar topic, but while shit and piss are the usual examples used for odors, vomit was actually more “contagious”. Few people would vomit the instant they set foot in a public bathroom, but it was easy to imagine other people following suit after someone used a barf bag on a closed bus or plane. Different smells affected the vomiting center of the brain differently.
With dangerous chloride gas or propane gas, they would probably have put on serious expressions, called off the press conference, and quickly evacuated.
But this was different.
Could they really call off a historic event because something smelled like puke? This was the south’s independence, the first page of their new history, and their first national event, so how could they cancel it over something like that? It would forever remain in the public record!!
“(Where is that coming from? They are serving alcohol here. Someone didn’t drink too much, did they?)”
“(This is an old hotel. Maybe a pipe in the wall burst.)”
There was no denying this was out of the ordinary.
But no one was willing to say anything about it. They were afraid of that wise old adage: whoever smelt it, dealt it.
“Calm down. Please calm down everyone.”
The old man’s low, deep voice was not enough to settle them down. It was looking more and more like anyone who tried to take the situation seriously would be seen as a fool.
His schedule was being delayed.
The more this was drawn out, the further he would fall behind. And the more delays, the more the damage would grow.
The old man knew what to do at times like this.
(I must get things moving to reset their impression of me before this gets out of hand.)
“There are no more barriers standing in our way. Any problems we face have been transformed into mere hurdles which will only strengthen us as we overcome them. We have gained the power to grow. Just as a snowball grows as it rolls down the hill, there will be no stopping us now that we have picked up speed! Allow me to introduce you to the power we will use to take an equal position in international society. This is the Shield Machine 002!!”
The maids stared in shock at the TV app on the smartphone they held sideways.
“The son of a bitch just blurted it all out there real quick!!”
“I don’t think he’s even stopping to breathe.”
“It’s 10:50.We have to find a way to stall for 10 more minutes!”
“But how can we interrupt now? We already used the 4th and 2nd floors located directly above and below the 3rd floor balcony!”
According to the intelligence division, the Object had a scorpion motif. It weakened the enemy with the two coilgun main cannons on either side, approached once the enemy had lost mobility, and then rotated 180 degrees. The circular shield machine on the end of the tail on its back would tear through the onion armor to finish them off. It was equipped with the bare minimum of anti-air lasers and such, but it was mostly just a hunk of steel. Quenser wanted a chance to see it to help learn about Object design, but he was not going to sacrifice the world for that chance.
Was there any gimmick he could use to interfere with the large room and balcony where the speech and press conference were being held?
“This declaration of independence is meant to state their intentions to the world. It’s meaningless without any cameras.”
“Then are you going to target the TV crews? But how!?”
In his anti-facial-recognition glasses, Quenser thought of all the vertical pipes he could think of: the water pipes, the sprinklers, the air ducts, the fiber optic cables, the power cables, and the chimneys. But…
“No, that won’t do it. We would be cornering ourselves in a dead end.”
“Since we’ve used up the 2nd and 4th floors, there’s only one option left: the 3rd floor!”
“They’ll notice if we go there now! Cameras from all around the world are focused there!”
“Then what about the next room over? I need a few of you to collect a few drones from the windows. Can you do that for me!?”
They would have been too conspicuous dressed as classic maids and carrying lightweight drones on their arms like hawks, so they stuffed them in translucent laundry bags and carried them around like that.
“Are you going to send some drones down to mess with the old man on the balcony?”
“Flying off with his toupee while the cameras roll would be pretty funny, but we don’t have time to mess around. Just come with me.”
The master key from the linen room apparently worked on every floor, so they had no trouble entering the room adjacent to the press conference.
“Frolaytia, check the list of press in attendance. Do any of them use a pacemaker or breathing device!?”
“They’re all healthy. Why do you ask?”
Quenser the Maid (whose anti-facial-recognition glasses were perhaps the least interesting part of his outfit) entered the room so none of the hotel workers could see him, placed the drones on the floor, disassembled them with a flathead screwdriver, and bound some of the internal parts together like honeycombs. Altogether, it was about the size of a tray.
The busty young woman tilted her head.
“The collision-avoidance microwave radars?”
“The event is ruined if the press can’t broadcast it to the world. We don’t have to pass through the walls or ceiling ourselves. And a centuries-old monastery won’t use rebar. It isn’t as flashy as an EMP, but it should be enough for the exposed electronics of civilian devices.”
He pressed the honeycomb device against the wall with both hands and flipped the switch with his thumb.
“After all, microwaves are used in anti-electronic EM bombs.”
The actual attack produced no light or sound detectible to their eyes or ears.
So the thunderous explosion of sparks they heard beyond the wall would have come from the press’s cameras, digital recorders, and communication devices after the microwaves hit them.
“Did that do it!?”
“I can’t tell,” said the young woman. “The TV broadcast, online video, and official account have all gone silent!!”
“Then it worked. If none of them are getting an exclusive scoop here, then they were all wiped out. Either way, it’s 11 at night. We bought enough time!”
A moment later, they felt a rumbling.
Not a single lightbulb survived in the adjacent room or the balcony. With all the communication devices out, the old man and his aides could not get their instructions to the Object on a different mountain.
But the go sign had been given beforehand.
Their Pilot Elite would be unsure what to do, but they would normally decide their orders stood until they heard otherwise. So they were starting to move despite their doubts.
The Object had grown fat while devouring the inside of the mountain like a red-banded sand wasp larva and it was preparing to break out. Even if that meant destroying a 400-year-old monastery and dumping dirt down on the city as if building the foundation of their new country.
The busty young woman grew pale.
“This is bad.”
The new Legitimacy Kingdom potatoes, the old man who kept running into trouble, and the Pilot Elite, who was being pressed to decide whether or not to act, all felt fear and anxiety about the unpredictable future.
There was one exception.
Only Quenser Barbotage had a fearless smile on his face.
“It’s past 11. That means checkmate.”
There was definitely a muffled rumbling.
But that was all. The mountainside did not crumble, the city was not buried, and the 50m weapon did not appear.
“It would be one thing if the Object had a running start, but right now the mountainside acts more like a straightjacket. And if it tries to blow some holes in that using its coilgun main cannons and laser beam secondary cannons, it should just blow itself up since the barrels are all plugged up.”
He had bought the time needed.
He had wanted at least an hour to be sure.
That was the entire reason he and the others had been risking their lives moving back and forth through the monastery hotel.
This was the crux of the issue.
“With normal dirt, it could probably force its way through using its reactor and propulsion device. That’s why I needed an extra trick. With the ditches, storm drains, manholes, and so on, there’s a network of pipes running across the entire slope, so I poured in the filler material used when creating the maintenance base. That created something like the wire mesh used to reinforce windows.”
He only had to reinforce the mountainside.
Then the Object could not break out. Its greatest weapon was the shield machine on its back, but not even that excavation device could use its full power while buried alive. And even if it could, he doubted it could bore a hole wide enough for the entire Object to pass through. And since it did not officially exist, it would vanish into the darkness if it never showed itself. If its public debut failed, it would never clash with the Transylvanian Object.
The south’s path to independence was gone.
“Now for the finishing touch.”
“Eh? Isn’t the Object trapped in the mountain?”
“There’s still an important job left.”
He no longer needed to rely on the anti-facial-recognition glasses.
Quenser the Maid removed the unfamiliar glasses, threw open the large door, and walked into the chaotic press conference without worrying about camouflage or his footsteps.
The doors to the balcony were wide open, so the winter chill reached him.
He walked to the back of the dark room and shined a phone’s LED lights on the large balcony.
The 100 members of the press?
He did not care about them at all. It did not matter how many there were when none of them had anything to record him with. They could witness the truth of the world here, but they could not leave with any objective proof.
“Hi, old man! I don’t know your name and I don’t care to find out. A legendary maid is here to say what must be said, so make sure your senile old brain is paying attention. A mistake here would destroy what history you do have here.”
The bodyguards belatedly aimed their handguns Quenser’s way, but he only scoffed and continued without putting his hands up.
“Are you sure you want to try that? Powerful EM waves do more than mess with electronics. They can also cause malfunctions in sensitive fuses and detonators. Do you want to see one of your precious bodyguards get a hand blown off by their own gun? Or a bullet could fly off course and blow out your brains. This hotel is made of solid stone, so are you sure you can calculate all the ricochets?”
“Was it a satellite weapon? Or a drone? Maybe a bomber? Did it come from above at all? Hell, it’s possible this was the work of geomagnetism or volcanic activity.”
It was okay for this to be a bluff.
It was already over. The old man and his bodyguards had no idea how much this EM attack could do. They were trapped in the darkness with no information, so they would grow paranoid all on their own. The greatest camouflage was not a pattern of colors or light; it was the activity of the human brain itself.
“I have one demand.”
The southern tourist area, the global press, and the Legitimacy Kingdom maid potatoes, who had shown up a little late, were all taken aback as Quenser faced a definite goal.
Yes, he had needed to raise his own status to the point that he could make a demand.
“We will be taking back our kittens that wandered into your secret base, so we would like them returned immediately. If you say you can’t, then you will regret that decision until the day you die.”
The old man must have realized the many members of the press were of no use right now.
This had clearly become a negotiation between just two people.
“What if I told you they were already dead?”
Quenser casually tossed a plastic explosive toward one of the bodyguards. It did not have an electric fuse, but it was enough for the tough-looking man in black to panic and fall onto his ass.
“The next one will have a fuse, so let’s cut the crap and actually negotiate. If you try anything, I just have to blow you up and try again with your #2.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“Do you think your life has infinite value or something? To me, you’re nothing but one possible contact point. If you aren’t working, I’ll swap you out for another.” Quenser showed no mercy. “Also, I’ll be telling the Transylvania District that the south secretly built an Object to slaughter them and their people, but ultimately failed. But I’ll make sure to mention that your foolish desire for mass murder remains. I doubt they’ll show any mercy after hearing that. They’ll make me seem downright friendly. Now, do you really think you can survive that without an Object?”
“Think carefully and either nod or shake your head. If you make the right choice, this legendary maid will tell the Transylvania District a very different story. We are from the Legitimacy Kingdom, but we don’t want to see the unilateral slaughter of civilians in an Information Alliance safe country. If that is what they try to do, then we will have a humanitarian reason to view the Transylvania District as a battlefield country and we will destroy their Object and all of their major military facilities. So which will it be?”
“What makes you think I have to choose?”
“Is that how you see it? You can try to act tough if you like, but the Transylvania District will act at midnight no matter what happens here. Let’s hope you can come up with some kind of miracle plan before then. Now, if you want our help, you need to release all of the kittens you captured. If even one is missing, I’ll wrap a bomb around your neck and move on to your #2. So which will it be: yes or no?”
And so he had a tearful reunion with his awful friend once they had both returned to the mobile base zone.
Quenser yawned while back in his usual military uniform.
“So where were you while we did all the work? It seems unlikely they had the help of some mysterious foreign mercenary unit that took you out in a flash.”
“They blew up the tunnel and buried us alive. It was like a mineshaft, so we were too deep in the mountain for our transmissions to get out.”
That was what had happened.
It had seemed unlikely the southern tourist area had any proper army when they had cosplay schoolgirls out on patrol, so when Heivia’s team of potatoes had suddenly been lost without a single scream or SOS signal, there had really only been one option: a surprise attack that cut off their communications.
In the end, that had been another form of camouflage for the south. They had wanted to keep out any unseen intruders by hinting at the presence of some highly-trained assassin squad. Although the phony call for help with the proper ID signal suggested they might have a competent hacker.
That was supposed to be the whole story. But was it?
“There’s one thing I don’t get.”
If the south had really been complete amateurs in military matters, how had they managed to build an entire Object?
And how had they acquired a Pilot Elite who required a high-level and complex training program? Elites could not be mass-produced. They were a unique element that had to be created alongside the Object built exclusively for them.
“Someone supplied them with what they needed. Someone who was targeting them for their immense wealth.”
Someone had provided them weapons at a high price.
The assault rifles and landmines were one thing, but this included a colossal Object and a Pilot Elite.
Whoever that was would likely be the potatoes’ next enemy.
“A weapons dealer.”
Between the Lines 1
See, what did I tell you?
It didn’t work.
It’s true this is the golden age of Objects. You can’t do business while ignoring that fact. However. A 50m and 200,000-ton mass isn’t going to go unnoticed. There are too many watchful eyes. And our clients don’t want to stand out. Because they don’t want international society to gang up on them. The supply and the demand are both off base here. There’s no point in even criticizing the marketing. The entire business model is a failure.
It costs 5 billion dollars to build a single Object and it takes years to reach completion, so if it’s discovered midway and international society puts a stop to it, our precious clients will be obliterated before they can pay us. You get that, don’t you? It’s too risky!!
That’s why I’ve always said that way won’t work. And just because it’s the age of Objects doesn’t mean we have to build a whole damn Object.
We aren’t a world power with tons of backers. But that’s also why we’re free to do things they can’t.
We shouldn’t let our situation restrict us.
Motivation is crucial and thinking outside the box is the key to success. It’s all about innovation, creativity, and…what other word was I looking for?
Well, the exact words don’t matter.
Now, let’s enjoy war!
I can start putting together the Parasite Plan now, right?
Chapter 2: We’ve Started Lending Out Weapons >> Technical Analysis Operation in the Hawaii District
Hi, everyone! It’s Monica, the battlefield idol reporter who can both sing and kill.
Am I ready to go?
No, not really.
So Quensette, huh? Did you see the search engine’s trending terms? That legendary maid is right there at #1. Why must that demon in a maid uniform always go viral and stand in my way? Eh heh heh heh heh heh heh.
Oh, yes, yes.
I’ll do it! I’ll do it, okay!?
Ahem. Today I’m in the Hawaii District which is effectively controlled by the Capitalist Corporations. Aloha! It’s technically a neutral blank zone, so it’s full of tourists from all four world powers.
The Hawaii District has long been an important point in the ocean and they say whoever controls Hawaii controls the Pacific as a whole.
But not all islands are the same, so people will focus on them for different reasons. Some have the fresh water and crop land needed to be self-sufficient and some are a waypoint along several different ocean currents. And while Guam and Hawaii get all the attention, why were Easter Island and its Moai dropped from the front line of history despite being in the Pacific too? Pursue that question and you might just realize what it means to be an important point in the ocean. If you’re interested, tune into Channel 2929.
Hmm, how was that for a rehearsal run?
4 minutes 30 seconds? Ugh, this is a 5 minute section, right? Wahhh, it’s way too short.
I can’t do this. The human body isn’t made to function without carbs. I can’t do anything without some foooood!! Assistant director, do a search and find somewhere nearby with good loco moco!
Eh? That was good?
Wait, wait, wait, wait!! Wait just a second!! I don’t like the looks of that smile!! You had better use a different take! I can’t let everyone see me looking so unprofessional!!!!!!
No swimming!! Lots of sharks this year!
The two Legitimacy Kingdom idiots did not bother asking why they had traveled all the way to Hawaii.
A warning was pasted over a sign that normally introduced a legend in which a god fished the islands out of the sea, but the problem was not that warning in the middle of the beach. No, it was the shocking scene before them.
“Why are those cuties in swimsuits running barefoot across the white sand to reach the ocean?”
“Didn’t you know, Quenser? Humans are the creatures that attacked giant mammoths because we wanted to eat meat. Survival is just an excuse since we could have subsisted off of smaller prey like deer or rabbits.”
They were on the beach.
To be more specific, they were at a restaurant that sold nasty frankfurters and toxic-looking sodas at tourist prices. It was like a fusion of an Island Nation seaside restaurant, a gas station, and a motel. It was actually a camouflaged observation bunker prepared by the Legitimacy Kingdom in the Hawaii District since that was technically a blank zone which belonged to no one. They used terms like crime prevention, intelligence, security, data collection, and sampling to make it sound better, but it all boiled down to some peeping by utter perverts. Sitting in an air-conditioned 2nd-story room using binoculars to spy on the skin nearly spilling out of so many bikinis counted as an official duty that earned a stable income from the people’s tax money, so whoever approved it really deserved to be punched.
“Oh, the next bus is here.”
“How many times have we switched busses now, dammit!? We’ve zigzagged around so much I feel like we must have made 3 full circuits of Oahu by now!”
This “bus” was really a canopied truck with the name of a pineapple plantation written on the side in the local language. By now, they were used to their hips taking a beating from the shaking of the poor suspension in the back of the deadly un-air-conditioned trucks. The two idiots and the rest of the potatoes climbed into the back of this new one with dead eyes.
They had been shaken around by those trucks for 3 hours now, but they had yet to be informed where they were going.
“This is the worst. It’s too damn hot for war. We came all the way to Hawaii, so why are we stuck smelling like an Island Nation judo uniform?”
“Neh heh heh.”
Quenser heard an odd noise coming from Heivia, who was curled up in the seat next to him. This was not all that unusual for the harsh Legitimacy Kingdom military. The living conditions were so bad that following your orders and doing your duty was a good way to end up with a runner’s high.
As the boy set off for a dream world with no help from certain substances, words began to escape his lips.
“Quenser, did you hear about the legendary maid that appeared in an Eastern European monastery hotel?”
“The hotel staff said they have no idea who she was. Press from around the world saw her, but all their equipment was broken and no one managed to even snap a photo. ‘Legendary Maid’ is the top trending term right now. Rumor has it she’s the ghost of some super cute maid who made an appearance to tell them how dangerous it would be to forcibly declare independence using an Object.”
An unpleasant sweat soaked Quenser’s back.
The story was taking an unexpected turn.
Legendary Maid Quensette had apparently reached the level of inhuman beauty. At this rate, the Capitalist Corporations’ TechCiv would create a speculative design and the Information Alliance would create a 3D model to give her a life of her own as a Virtual Whatever-tuber.
The pineapple plantation truck arrived at a processing plant on the coast. It pulled up below a roof and Quenser spoke to a man in a work jumpsuit after leaving the truck.
“What do we do now?”
“Take a rubber motorboat out to sea. You’ll join a destroyer battleship waiting there!”
“Damn the navy. Just because Objects have stolen their thunder is no reason to start inventing weird new kinds of ships.”
Quenser and Heivia went in the direction indicated with a giant machete probably used for chopping the leaves off pineapples. Any leisure shop in Hawaii would probably have something nicer than the rubber motorboat they found waiting for them. To keep sharks away, the bottom was covered with bright red and orange warning colors reminiscent of an anemone and it was loaded with sugarcane.
They left the concrete bank.
Traveling straight from the pineapple processing plant to the destroyer battleship would blow their cover, so they made sure to pass below a random bridge and toss all the sugarcane into the sea to change their appearance for the satellites.
While they soared across the ocean, the water split open right next to them and a large silhouette jumped out.
But this was nothing as adorable as a dolphin swimming alongside them. This was an 8m mass of muscle the size of a truck.
It was a real great white shark.
Once Heivia realized what it was, he drew a military handgun known as the Bear Killer, but the giant shark moved away as if it had lost interest.
Quenser had felt entirely helpless, so he wiped sweat from his brow.
“The entire ocean is learning. The shark understood the threat your gun posed. This is like a river full of black bass that can’t be caught with normal lures.”
“Yeah, this isn’t looking easy.”
Heivia did not return the gun to its holster for a while. It might have an engine, but they were in a rubber boat.
“With this lend-lease program, I can only imagine our mission is going to end in failure and pain.”
Boarding the destroyer battleship as soon as possible was the only option they had.
Why did that ship have a name that made it sound both big and small at the same time? Quenser was imagining something like a monstrous magnum that was a handgun but required a shoulder rest to avoid breaking your wrist, but as they continued on in the rubber boat which was (fairly ineffectually) protected from sharks by its anemone warning lights, they arrived at an old-fashioned heavy cruiser with its anchor lowered. The gray ship was nearly 200m long and covered in giant rapid-fire gun turrets and vertical launched cruise missiles. It also had jet stream propulsion devices extending from either side.
“So they’re just trying to make it as powerful as possible? Do they think they can reach an Object’s level by moving faster or something?”
“That’s ridiculous. Think of a car’s speedometer. The max speed on a straightaway is entirely different from the normal speed while making small turns. If this ship tried to sidestep at speed, it would break right in half.”
The ship lowered what might as well have been a rope ladder, so Quenser and the others boarded the baffling destroyer battleship (which had likely soaked up a ton of the people’s tax money).
Before entering the conference room inside, they found Frolaytia in the smoking area partway down the narrow corridor.
There was no definite “right answer”, but their attempt to make a quick exit was a mistake today.
“Oh, oh, oh? What’s this? Shouldn’t you be showing a bit more respect for your commanding officer?”
“Oh, no. She’s sulking even more than I expected! Y’know, it takes some doing to be this much of a pain in the ass when you have the silver-hair, giant tits, 18-years-old, and beautiful commander things going for you!!”
“Curse that clingy commander. If she wants our attention, she’d better change into a bunny suit.”
But in the extreme hierarchy of the military, there was nothing they could do. There was something wrong when they were government workers, but the labor supervisors had no authority here. There was little chance of them getting any vacation time or a mid-day siesta any time soon.
“I had thought this sounded complicated from the beginning,” said Frolaytia.
This was dangerous.
It was like starting a conversation with, “You know how I can be really dumb sometimes?” They were about to have to keep nodding like a machine to get through a long story rivalling a school principal’s speech.
“They said it was a lend-lease program for old model weapons.”
“That thing where we let other people use the weapons we’re no longer using, right?”
Quenser frowned even as he tried to be conversational.
Lending out their old weapons had a number of merits.
By strengthening the enemy of your enemy, you could attack your common enemy from multiple fronts at once. And even when that was not the case, weapons were sometimes lent to outsiders as a bit of a gamble. That was especially useful when you wanted a certain war result but did not want any of the deaths officially counted against you. It could also be lucrative to force an exorbitant asking price onto the buyers.
Needless to say, war cost money and it killed people. If that was a problem, you could always find someone to work some magic on the paperwork and rewrite those numbers in the official records.
“Money and lives. If they’re worried about the numbers on the strategic documents…”
“The year goes by quick, doesn’t it? We’ve already reached the customary end-of-the-year performance. Although if it weren’t for this, we would start seeing anti-war protests demanding we protect the precious lives of the youth and stop wasting tax money.”
Simply put, it was an underground business run by the government.
It was the same as a country spreading white powder around and calling it a drug war. In this case, they were lending out tons of weapons like an arms dealer in order to rebalance the war situation.
In this case, it was about the influence the four world powers had in the Hawaii District.
That said, weapons were full of secrets, so if you let someone else use them, they were sure to be analyzed down to the last screw. It was an odd world where you were telling stealth fighters not to crash and tanks not to get stuck in the mud even if they were destroyed. No matter how thoroughly you checked the buyer’s identity, it was insanity to hand over a weapon with the maintenance manual included. You might as well be throwing all your military secrets in a shared folder.
Frolaytia slowly shook the long, narrow kiseru in her mouth as she spoke.
“That’s why they chose the outdated weapons that are past their expiration date and about to be retired from service.”
“Have they never heard of intellectual property!? You never know when that will lead someone to a breakthrough in whatever tech they’re trying to develop!”
“These things have been in service long enough that they’ll have already been pried from a corpse’s hands and analyzed.”
It was nothing but excuses. It sounded like asking someone if they had done their homework and having them say, “I was about to, but you just killed all the motivation I’d worked up!” The words of an engineer – especially one in training like Quenser – did not hold much weight.
“This was originally meant to send weapons to those that want to break free of the Capitalist Corporations’ control over the region, right?”
“That’s oversimplifying things, Heivia. First of all, the Hawaii District is a blank region, so no one controls it. Even if the Capitalist Corporations act like they own the place.”
“And we’re trying to get in their way?”
“Not yet, Heivia. Don’t be hasty.”
Frolaytia breathed an exasperated sigh mixed with tobacco smoke.
The Hawaii District did not belong to anyone, so each of the four world powers was doing them the “favor” of protecting it. The Legitimacy Kingdom armed the coastguard, the Faith Organization worked to preserve the Hawaii and Polynesian mythology and culture, and the Information Alliance ran the mass media stations, but the Capitalist Corporations had the most control by maintaining the power and water infrastructure. And when you had a monopoly on the schools and hospitals, you would have the most influence.
“The problem is the charity work they’re doing: the Oxyocean Operation. They claim to be bringing life back to the hypoxic area of ocean known as the Sea of Death, but…”
“Are they pumping air in like for a tropical fish aquarium?”
“Yes, that. Although the scale is far greater. They’ve set up a ton of ridiculous pumps that dissolve oxygen into the ocean at a rate of tens of thousands of liters per minute.”
“Isn’t there only so much that can dissolve into the water no matter how much they send in?”
“Don’t ask me.” Frolaytia dismissed the student’s question. “Although I was told they draw the seawater into the device, apply a massive amount of pressure while dissolving the oxygen using microbubbles, and send the processed seawater back out. It kind of sounds like the oxygen would separate out and escape as soon as it returned to normal pressure, but I guess the hypoxic Sea of Death does the most damage in the deep sea pits. The pressure is already high there, so maybe it isn’t a problem.”
But why were they so interested in altering the water quality?
Why would their military be interested in it?
Frolaytia had the answer.
“The Capitalist Corporations apparently want to revive the treasure trove of valuable fish around here. Most importantly, the sharks. Shark fin is a valuable ingredient and used for makeup foundation, so it can be sold as a luxury product.”
They had already seen this information in the email they were sent, but they did not look exactly pleased about the reminder.
“You mean they’re intentionally increasing the shark population for profit? Are you kidding me? Not even the protective nets are perfect. Do you know how many surfers were eaten this summer alone?”
Heivia sounded disgusted, but Frolaytia remained somehow apathetic.
“Tourist locations with travelers from every world power are always a spy paradise. That isn’t great news for the Capitalist Corporations who want absolute control over the Hawaii District, so they want to change things. Although they need to show how doing so will also make money if they want approval.”
“So they’re making money off of their own vague conspiracy? Aren’t they afraid of hackers?”
“It doesn’t matter to them if they’re found out. They just want all the tourists to leave. And if they spread a fear of shark attacks, it should enliven the insurance industry. We might even see a boom for cheap disaster B-movies.”
They would always find a way to keep the cash flowing.
And of course, the Legitimacy Kingdom wanted to put a stop to this. They wanted Hawaii to be full of tourists to maintain the spy paradise there. They did not want their binoculars to show all that bikini-clad flesh being chewed to pieces. Quenser did not know how to use a gun properly, but that may have been why he groaned in a know-it-all way for no real reason.
He shrugged in a way that was unusual for him.
“But isn’t that what the leased weapons are for? To hunt down the sharks! Is our coastguard doing that badly?”
“Hard to say. For one thing, it isn’t sharks they’re fighting.”
Frolaytia started down a mysterious digression.
They had not heard this part of the story.
“Now that they have more firepower, they seem to have started targeting the air pumps causing all the trouble. Those things use tons of pressure to process tens of thousands of liters every minute. So unless that oxygen supply is stopped, the shark population will only continue to grow.”
“This is what happens when you give an idiot nothing but a tool. And it’s the problem with the lend-lease program. They attacked the Capitalist Corporations base with nothing but some old machineguns that were close to breaking down. And that-…”
Frolaytia Capistrano was cut off by a loud boom.
It sounded a lot like a nearby tree being split in two by lightning and the strange 200m destroyer battleship shook vertically.
It was not that anything had hit them. The ship had only been shaken by the waves created as a side effect.
Frolaytia placed a hand on the wall.
“And that woke a sleeping tiger: the Capitalist Corporations’ Second Generation Over Cavitation. Our Baby Magnum is currently going on a diet to shave off the excess pounds.”
Frolaytia audibly dumped the contents of her kiseru into an ashtray.
That meant she would explain the rest in the conference room.
With the two idiots in tow, the busty silver-haired commander threw open the large double doors and made an immediate announcement.
“Everyone! We are running out of time, so I will keep this short. Make sure you’re ready to fight some sharks!”
She used the projector to display a map of the Hawaiian Islands and the surrounding ocean.
“Currently, the Princess and the Over Cavitation are engaged in a naval battle, but you don’t need the details on that. Sending a bunch of idiots in won’t help her any. Your lives will be used for something a little more useful, so be thankful in your own idiotic way.”
She set that topic aside as readily as a cooking show stepping over and pulling out a version of the dish that had been allowed to sit for 30 minutes.
The Princess really must have been short on time.
“Based on our analysis of past battles, the Over Cavitation is quite skilled. But at the same time, it has an odd tendency to only fight when it has plenty of weather and ocean data support. That’s the kind of demand it can only make because it’s won so often, but it also gives us a target.”
With a sound like an analog camera shutter, another image appeared on top of the map. There were now Xs across Hawaii’s 8 main islands.
“The Hawaii District is a disaster-prone area thanks to its several active volcanos and the more than 30 hurricanes that hit every year. That means it has plenty of weather stations and ocean observation stations. It’s the perfect place to provide the glasses that the ace Over Cavitation desires.”
To finish it off, Frolaytia tapped an extra-large X with her long, narrow kiseru.
“This is the Rocky Coast Ocean Meteorological Research Lab. All the data is gathered here and then sent to the Over Cavitation. Taking out this lab will shake that Object. And if we shake it, the Princess will have a chance for a cross counter.”
The Princess was already in the ring.
They had to give their cute kitten a chance to strike back before she collapsed, could not get back up on all fours, and started convulsing with her little butt sticking up in the air.
The Rocky Coast Ocean Meteorological Research Lab was located on the coast of Oahu near some sheer cliffs. It was located there to help look after the “tropical fish tank pumps”, so approaching from the ocean by motorboat would be fastest. However…
The rubber boat was tossed around by the loud boom, the shockwave, and the waves. The red and orange anemone pattern on the bottom of the boat came into view. The boat could entirely capsize at any time, but they could not afford to forget that the Capitalist Corporations VIPs were raising tons of sharks here to profit off the luxury ingredients.
“It’s no use! That catfight is causing too much chaos! We should take a land route, even if it’s a bit of a detour!!”
“Dammit, but we can see the landing point right over there…”
They were not paid nearly enough to make an emotional charge, get thrown out into the ocean, get chomped by 8m great whites, and have a movie made out of their lives that would get popcorn tubs thrown at the screen. The potatoes were lacking in a spirit of loyalty and service, so they changed course and made their way to an area of coast shaped like a knife blade.
“Where are we anyway? …Oh, hell! This is easily 8km away!! The current dragged us on way too much of a detour!!”
“Once we walk those 8km, it’s time for combat. But this isn’t a battlefield country, so are you really brave enough to shoot them?”
“Oh, shut up. They’re equipped with rifles and grenades more expensive than ours and they’re selling secrets to the Capitalist Corporations, so they don’t get to claim they’re civilians.”
“Maybe not, but could you say that if it turns out we’re up against some cute girl who’s down on her luck?”
They could already see the Object battle from the coast.
One of them was the Baby Magnum.
An extra naval float was attached to the static electricity propulsion device shaped like an upside-down Y and the 7 weapon arms attached to the back of the giant spherical body held the main cannons which aimed for its target from multiple angles.
The other was the Over Cavitation.
This one was built exclusively for naval battles. The float stretching back from below the spherical body was a specialized air cushion. It omitted the usual shark anchor weights used to maintain balance, but that may have been for its nimble footwork. It could not move over land despite floating up from the surface, but that was apparently because it used salinity to make minute adjustments to the air’s viscosity. It also had several metal pipes spread out on either side like wings. The world looked somewhat hazy, so it may have been sucking up the seawater and converting it to vapor with the immense heat produced by its reactor. That steam power was used to slide the 200,000-ton mass side to side.
It had a single main cannon on the front.
Two bipod-like parts extended to the ocean surface from the base of the cannon, so they likely supported its long barrel. It also seemed to have laser beams and low-stability plasma cannons as secondary cannons, but instead of covering the sphere like a sea urchin or chestnut burr, three specialized towers were built on the top and the secondary cannons were installed on them. Had they needed to shift those parts elsewhere to surround the entire Object in water and steam, or had they been worried the steam would slightly divert the lasers and plasma if they were not that high up?
“That’s insane,” groaned Heivia as he viewed the distant fight. “Those are steam spears. It’s using that stuff to attack. An Object’s onion armor can survive a nuke, but that’s a steam engine! How is our Princess being shredded by that steampunk stuff!?”
“It’s not just slicing through with the steam pressure. It uses cavitation, Heivia.”
Cavitation used the same process by which the air bubbles in the water applied pressure to and ultimately destroyed a ship’s propeller. And when using that as an attack, you needed a fuse of water to get all those small air bubbles to the target.
“Cavitation can be created by quickly passing a large mass through the water, but it can also be created by sending out a supersonic wave to raise the sound pressure. I’m betting this Object fires a water spear and sends a supersonic wave through that to transform it into a bunch of air bubbles. From there, Bernoulli’s principle hits the target with the water attack.”
“Calm down your science boner and actually explain it this time.”
“It’s a 10km-long pile driver. Or you can think of it like a giant battering ram meant to break through a castle’s gate.”
The Over Cavitation transformed the water itself into a weapon that stripped away the Baby Magnum’s armor.
It was frustrating, but cheering on the Princess from the stands would not transfer her some miracle power for a mysterious awakening.
“Let’s get going, Heivia. We have a job to do.”
“What do you think we can even do? Jerk off and go to bed!?”
“At least tell me who I’m allowed to kill!! Can I just slaughter everyone in that lab!?”
That was not an option, so they had Mr. Drone do some recon. They received the report from Thomas, who operated the same model of drone that had helped them at the Eastern European monastery hotel.
“Found it. There are flashing IR signals. You can’t see them with the naked eye, but they have markers on their right arms to make sure the Object doesn’t blow them away by accident. Those are official military equipment, so whether they’re wearing camouflage, a Hawaiian shirt, or nothing at all, these are definitely Capitalist Corporations soldiers.”
“Are you sure they aren’t lent out like our scraps?”
“They’re using a Class 3 military standard, so the company president or whoever must be afraid of the signal’s encryption being broken. They updated to this latest version only two weeks ago and they’re careful to retrieve the devices from dead soldiers along with the dog tags, so there’s no chance they released them on a lend-lease program. We’re not talking about a disk of porn; you won’t find these on the shelves in their private viewing booths.”
That settled it, but infrared signals were invisible. If anyone got some footage of the aftermath, it would be tagged “horrific slaughter’ and uploaded to video sites to harass the Legitimacy Kingdom, so even though they knew who their target was, they wanted more obvious justification before entering “kill everyone” mode.
And this aerial vantage point let them view the distribution of enemy troops before the fighting began. The Ocean Meteorological Research Lab was surrounded by guards wearing ghillie suits despite the heat and carrying a type of bolt-action sniper rifle that had started out as a hunting rifle before making its military debut, but the wider wilderness around them looked peaceful. The smaller heat signals they detected were likely wild animals. The long-range sniper rifles were probably a way of covering as wide an area as possible with limited personnel.
In that case…
“Be on the lookout for mines just to be safe. Sniper rifles like that are weak to a charge from a unified group of people. They generally try to stop people and then shoot them. If they don’t have any barricades set up, they might have something buried in the dirt.”
“You’re kidding, right? This is a tourist area.”
Quenser heard a plastic clasp clicking into place.
Heivia had attached something to the end of his assault rifle. Its shape was very different from a bayonet. The round part was similar to the kind of simple metal detector used by the bouncer at a club.
“This is a blank area, so it technically isn’t a safe country. Neutrality isn’t always a good thing. It isn’t clear which of the four world powers makes the rules here, so there are no definite rules in place and they’re free to do whatever they want.”
But then Thomas interrupted again.
“Wait, wait. We can attach the mine detector to the Vehicle.”
“The land drone. You can think of it like an RC car you can control from really far away.” Thomas seemed a little overexcited. “The mine detector isn’t perfect. It won’t detect glass or plastic mines, so let’s have this thing go on ahead. If it detects the mine, we know it’s there. If it misses one, only the toy gets blown up.”
“You’re sounding awfully Information Alliance-y to me.”
“If your knight’s honor matters that much to you, then you can ride on ahead on a white horse. We need to absorb the good points of the other powers. There’s nothing sadder than a giant who can’t keep up with the changing times. Weapons these days are all IoT, so-…”
They heard a bang from up ahead.
It came from a mere 5m away. Thomas took a shot to the temple and collapsed to the side. It happened so suddenly that the two idiots only stood and watched.
Also, what was that?
What had just happened!?
“That was a gunshot.”
“But from where!?”
Heivia held out his unwieldy assault rifle with mine detector still attached, but his aim wavered uncertainly.
They were on a section of the coast that jutted out like a knife and it gradually sloped upwards on the way to the lab. There were a lot of rough boulders lying around, but there was nothing close enough for the 5m distance of the sound they heard. Only a few smaller rocks. Also, Thomas had sent out a drone and observed everything from the sky before he was killed. Even if someone was hiding behind cover, they should have been visible when viewed from above.
(Is there something buried here? Not an explosive, but a remote handgun that swivels like a fan?)
Something moved behind one of the smallish rocks.
There was definitely something there!
“Is it a drone!? Dammit, what is going on!?”
“We can figure everything out after destroying it!!”
Quenser felt just as disgusted as he would have been if he found a colorful bug larger than a slipper. He cut off a decent-sized piece of plastic explosive, stabbed an electric fuse into it, and wrapped a hard zip tie around it. Detonating that would scatter pieces of the zip tie like shrapnel.
Heivia yelled when he used the assault rifle’s scope to see and circled around to get a view of the assassin hidden behind the rock.
This was yet another thing technology had sent to the battlefield.
It was a monkey.
The 60cm monkey was…holding a handgun with an oddly large chamber that had probably been made with a 3D printer?
It gave a short screech of warning.
No matter who or what was holding it, a gun was a gun.
Before the monkey could move its finger, Heivia fired a short burst of gunfire into the center of its body.
“Is this a joke!?”
The atmosphere had changed.
Had they even fully accepted that their comrade had been killed?
More and more monkeys appeared from behind rocks and on branches to aim identical printed guns their way.
“Are you kidding me!? Thomas lost his life to this!?”
They did not have time to sit around complaining.
There were more than 100 of the monkeys and they were all armed with real guns. Quenser threw his handmade grenade made from a plastic explosive and quickly sent the detonation signal via radio. He was not even thinking about wiping out the monkeys. He just wanted some cover to hide behind and use as a shield.
A temporary smokescreen was good enough for now.
After breaking free of that situation, Quenser and the others hurried to the thick tree trunks in the area. The soldiers that were not going to make it in time jumped toward the coastal cliff instead.
Heivia aimed his assault rifle up like he was firing a salute or a warning shot and he brought down the monkeys in the branches to secure their safety.
“This isn’t an easy job at all. I thought our job was to safely bring the Over Cavitation to a stop!”
Some other cheap gunshots rang out.
Luckily, the monkeys’ guns used light 9mm rounds. They probably could not endure the recoil of anything more powerful than that. The tree trunks could block those bullets.
“So what is this? What in the hell is this!? What is happening here!?”
“The enemy must have given them these weapons.”
“They gave animals guns to shoot at us!? Isn’t that a bit nightmarish for a fairy tale!?”
“I remember seeing an online news article about a monkey picking up a camera someone left in the woods, messing around with it, and eventually taking selfies.”
“What’s that got to do with-…wait.”
“They can aim a camera at something and take a picture. Aiming a gun and pulling the trigger isn’t much different. With a bit of training, you can get them shooting. Those printed guns are generally disposable, so they don’t need to think about anything complicated like taking them apart for maintenance.”
“But they’re monkeys!”
“Using animals as weapons doesn’t violate the war treaties. Everyone’s familiar with military dogs, right? It depends on the exact conditions, but if they don’t have a semiconductor plant, they might be able to mass produce these faster than plastic and rare earth drones. They probably made sure to choose a non-protected species. I remember hearing about hundreds of thousands of monkeys being experimented on for neuroscience research, so there’s definitely a loophole there!”
The biggest advantage of guns was that they gave everyone the same ability to kill or wound. Even if it was a nonhuman creature that was only taught to pull the trigger without understanding the actual meaning behind it.
“How many times do I have to remind you these are animals!? How am I supposed to believe this, Quenser!?”
“If you’re just repeating the same thing, it means you’ve stopped thinking, Heivia. We don’t have time to deny reality. We can think about what to do next after we deal with these monkeys to secure our safety!”
Heivia and Quenser started moving while coordinating with the other Legitimacy Kingdom potatoes pressing against the other trees.
They were lucky in one way.
There were a lot of monkeys, but their cheap, 3D-printed guns only fired weak 9mm bullets. This was clearly designed to get some lucky shots in but not achieve a definitive victory. It was quantity or quality. Thomas had been taken out from 5m away, so they probably could not hit unless they got really close.
Meanwhile, Heivia and the others were equipped with sensor-enhanced assault rifles with an effective range of 400-500 meters against a moving target.
They opened fire.
Once they were aware of the threat, this was how it went down.
Also, dead Thomas’s drone detected the monkeys’ movements just fine. He had only overlooked them because he assumed only humans were a threat. They had been right in front of him, but he had failed to see them. It was another form of camouflage.
But now the soldiers understood.
They had updated their definition of “enemy”.
Heivia, Myonri, and the rest used the trees as shields and fired their standard equipment to swiftly eliminate the threat.
“What’s next!? Bring on the Woodpecker Unit or the Otter Squad!! Attention all tool-using animals, the exterminator has arrived!!”
“Is this really official Capitalist Corporations equipment? Setting aside how easy it is to get the animals to reproduce, the guns they’re using are too cheap. I’ve never heard of soldiers going to battle with printed guns.”
They had a bad feeling about this.
One problem remained unresolved after the incident in the Transylvania District: the arms dealer.
“Is that mystery dealer sending weapons to the Capitalist Corporations like we’re lending weapons to the coastguard? We’re not trying to wage a drug war here!”
“This is turning into a proxy war like kids getting rhino beetle to fight each other. Who are we benefitting as we grab at each other’s hair like this?”
The advantage of numbers was not enough, so there was no fear of being defeated once the surprise wore off. It was the same idea as quantity over quality. A female soldier everyone called “mom” (age 17) woke everyone up by scattering the monkeys with a full-auto blast of a light machinegun. Then everything changed. The gun-wielding monkeys started to flee, but Heivia and the others mercilessly shot them in the back. They were enemies as long as they held those guns. If the monkeys got away, they could attack from a ditch, a roof, or a tree hollow at any moment.
These were not humans.
If the enemy was using that to their advantage, the Legitimacy Kingdom potatoes would use it against them as well.
Then some bark burst from the tree Quenser was hiding behind. He ducked his head down on reflex. That had not been a cheap 9mm round from one of the printed guns. It was heavier.
“Snipers!!” shouted Heivia. “That one was a human. The lab guards are targeting us, but we can’t reach them from here!! Dammit, why do I always get the short end of the stick? Well, I’m not dying until I get a chance to see that legendary maid!!”
“Please don’t talk about that right now!!”
“Anyway, Heivia, hand over what Thomas left behind. Machines are my specialty, so I’ll make that drone more deadly.”
That was a simple task.
He did not even need to attach a bomb that would only unbalance it. To keep it airborne for long periods of time, the military drone used a large lithium ion battery and it only took a bit of reworking to make one of those explode. Once it was ready, he sent the drone high in the sky. Then he used it to spy down on the enemy, flew it over their heads, and stopped the motor to drop it right on top of them.
In this case, it did not matter if the snipers shot it down.
The conservation of mass was absolute. Even as wreckage, the explosive would reach the ground.
After detonating it with his radio, they only had to eliminate the scattered snipers.
The snipers’ ghillie suits made from dried grass and palm bark proved to be a mistake. The explosion ignited them and the snipers went up in flames.
“Wow, look at them dance. Why not get to shooting them, Heivia?”
“No, that just sounds like a pain. And it scares me how you can spy on them and then attack them from above even though they’re hiding behind cover. I feel like we’ve reached the end of 2D battles.”
“It’s not as convenient as it sounds. They’re developing countermeasures that let airport security use jamming signals or powerful IR signals to take control of the drone and force it to land. It’s also possible a cyber attack could turn it around and have it attack us instead.”
They heard gunshots coming from the human fireballs. Either the spare ammo in their pouches was going off, or they had gathered their last ounce of strength to draw a handgun and shoot themselves in the head. With the snipers gone, there was nothing to stop the potatoes. They did not even need to hide behind cover. They walked toward the Rocky Coast Ocean Meteorological Research Lab while occasionally using their assault rifles to take out the few remaining monkeys.
“They’ll know something’s up. Watch out for a jack-in-the-box cause you never know when something will pop out of that hive of intellectuals. We’re talking about the Over Cavitation’s favorites after all.”
But whether there would be traps, an ambush, or a mysterious superweapon from an ancient civilization, Quenser and the others did not have any tanks or armored trucks to shield them and all the cover on the ground was only large enough for the monkeys. They settled on spreading out as much as they could to make sure they were not all wiped out at once by a spray of bullets or an explosion.
“I hope our lives are still more valuable than some plastic toys and pet shop rejects.”
“Whatever the case, our lives are more valuable than theirs. It’s time for a year-end sale.”
The lab in question was on a cape-like point of the coast. Reaching it from the cliff would have been easy, but that had not been an option. They had been forced the long way around with the Princess’s battle stirring up the ocean so much.
As they approached through the human, animal, and drone remains littering the ground, they came across what looked more like a prison than anything. There were barbed wire barricades taller than they were, a double wall of reinforced concrete, and guard towers at each corner. None of it looked like later additions. Whatever it was officially registered as, this place had been constructed to military standards from the beginning.
“What do we do?”
“Send out a radio signal. If they don’t respond, that counts as hostile intent and we wipe them out. Our goal here is to trip up their Object, so let’s get back at those intellectuals and their Over Cavitation.”
“Will anyone but Martians even be able to receive a signal on this core band?”
This was how war worked when you were winning. There were no snipers in the guard towers, so they may have retreated inside. There were heavy machineguns that swiveled without anyone manning them, so they had jack-of-all-trades Myonri switch to an anti-materiel rifle to silence them. After that, they sliced through the barbed wire with a large knife, continued on in, and approached the reinforced concrete walls.
“Myonri, take out the cameras around here and then knock on the front door.”
“This can’t punch through that steel gate.”
“You only need to warn them to keep clear.”
They knew the layout thanks to the aerial drone footage, so they decided to go for the building closest to the wall. While Myonri knocked on the giant main gate with her anti-materiel rifle, Quenser set up a plastic explosive.
“Myonri, match your timing to mine!”
With a ridiculously loud explosion, they blew down the wall. They used the large hole to walk a few meters inside and then attached a bomb to the building wall there.
“While you’re at it, destroy the switchboard on the courtyard-facing wall to take out the security. We’re counting on you!”
“Sure, sure,” replied Myonri.
A loud gunshot joined the next blast.
None of the building’s cameras or sensors were working anymore, so the potatoes snuck into a hallway which lacked air conditioning now that the power was out.
Once inside, Quenser hung back to let Heivia and the others take the lead. Myonri also switched back to her submachinegun.
At first glance, there was no one there.
But this was not like a school at night. They sensed the strange pressure of people holding their breath and waiting.
“Watch out for an ambush.”
“We don’t necessarily need to kill everyone, Heivia. Focus on taking out the weather and ocean data support to shake the Over Cavitation.”
“Do you want to get shot in the back because you decided to go easy on them? Getting killed by some skinny researcher is even worse than by your own pet. Do you want that written on your gravestone?”
According to the map on the wall, there was a large boiler room in the basement. If they set up a bomb there, they could probably blow up the entire facility.
They heard a heavy metallic scraping sound coming from around the corner to the stairs leading down there.
Heivia aimed his assault rifle that way and Quenser cut off a grenade-sized piece of plastic explosive just to be safe.
They first focused on the floor at the corner.
That floor reflected the light and they glimpsed a blurry figure in that reflection.
That settled it.
There was someone there.
But they still were not sure how that person was equipped or if they were alone.
Heivia took the lead with his assault rifle. Myonri followed a short distance behind with her submachinegun. It might seem harsh, but this formation allowed her to swiftly eliminate the enemy if Heivia was shot.
Heivia came to a stop just before reaching the corner. He pressed against the wall so he could freely swing his gun around.
He was prepared to eliminate the threat in the blink of an eye.
But that was when Quenser noticed something on the wall at the corner. He saw something reflected in the window which had a thick wire mesh across to keep anyone from getting in or out.
He threw his ball of clay at Heivia’s temple while that boy readied his assault rifle in 120% serious mode.
“Wait, Heivia, you idiot!!”
He had expected it to be light, but it was apparently quite heavy. Heivia collapsed to the floor like someone had swung a bag of apples at his head.
Myonri’s eyes widened.
“Quenser, are you finally sick of how he treats you!?”
“He framed me when he was caught searching for porn on a military computer! When I kill him, you can expect a much more devious plan! Anyway, everyone needs to wait!!”
After shouting and having them lower their guns, Quenser peered around the corner.
A brown-skinned girl of about 12 was sitting on the floor with tears in her eyes.
And a grapefruit-sized metal ball was chained to her skinny ankle.
Things could hardly be worse.
The girl wore a Hawaiian shirt and a tennis-style pleated skirt. She had a hibiscus flower decorating her semi-long black hair and a straw skirt accessory worn over her actual skirt. The overall outfit provided a tropical mood, but the tears in her eyes and metal ball chained to her ankle filled the air around her with a gloomy weight.
“Excuse me. I just want to take a look.”
Quenser crouched down to her eye level and reached toward her slender ankle while she remained sitting on the floor. He could just about see her underwear up her short skirt, but she held the skirt down with one hand while he touched her warm and slender ankle.
He was interested in the shackle.
Even this much was progress. She gave a shrill cry whenever Myonri or the others approached. The armed potatoes may have looked like a gang of villains to her. Given what had happened, that was not too surprising, but she seemed to view Quenser differently since he had hit and silenced Heivia before the boy reached her.
Quenser felt a little guilty when he realized it was a lot like the good cop, bad cop routine.
“It’s a lot lighter than it looks. It’s a capsule made of aircraft materials. Does it have a GPS transmitter inside?”
Speaking loudly or looking down at her from above seemed to scare the brown girl, so Myonri made sure to be careful when she spoke up.
“Is this what they use to monitor sex criminals? Why are they using that to track a young girl like this? …Wait, but aren’t those attached to the ankle with a belt? That way you can hide it in your pants leg and live a normal life.”
“They’ve intentionally designed this one to eliminate the wearer’s dignity. Is this what the Capitalist Corporations does with all its cash?”
But unlike a narrow wire, they could not cut through this with a knife and their guns and bombs were too powerful. They had plenty of special tools back at the maintenance base zone, but…
“Lady, do you mind if I take a look at this?”
Quenser borrowed the ID on the girl’s flat chest.
It had a sticker of a cartoonish man carrying a fishing pole with the sun in the background. It may have been some kind of local mascot.
“Hina Liqueurball? I’m not familiar with that last name.”
“If she isn’t from the four world powers, is she a local Hawaiian girl?”
“But this ID is for a researcher at Kilauea University with a student loan. Hm? That’s odd.”
She was 12 years old, but Quenser had seen plenty of students who skipped grades back in his safe country school. It sounded like something from movies or dramas, but it did actually happen. However, it was something else he found odd. Why did the ID need to specify that she had taken out a student loan? He could only guess that was a Capitalist Corporations thing. This showed how they viewed people who had no money and had to borrow money to get by. That would also be why she had to wear the humiliating shackle designed so she could not hide it.
The Capitalist Corporations had effective control over Hawaii.
That was an unofficial thing and it was not actually registered that way, but the Over Cavitation was already acting like it owned the place.
Quenser looked up toward heaven.
“I think I get it. Their major corporations and investors are recruiting talented people, trapping them here with student loans, and promising to pay off the loan if the students work for them. That’s what’s happening here. This lab is near the front line, so they man it with those indebted students.”
That must have been entirely normal here because brown-skinned Hina only tilted her head. Myonri felt a chill when she realized what they had nearly done.
“They’re all innocent students. I’m glad we didn’t carelessly shoot any of them. Good work, Quenser.”
“Please, please. That’s not nearly enough praise.”
By the way, after being hit in the temple by Quenser’s “good work”, Heivia remained collapsed in the hallway while convulsing a bit, but no one was paying any attention to him.
“Lady, were the people with scary guns friends of yours?”
“No, I don’t know them. They came from the army.”
Quenser had suspected as much, but the confirmation was still a relief.
Even if those snipers had opened fire first, they had still been burned alive in their ghillie suits. Sleep would have been hard to come by if it turned out those were civilians.
Those snipers had been professional soldiers. Since Hina had not been supplied with anything to protect herself, the Capitalist Corporations military must not have trusted her or the other indebted locals. Those locals had plenty of reason to hold a grudge, so the soldiers had been afraid to give them guns.
Quenser was thankful for that.
That gave them a convenient way to tell who they could kill and who they had to keep alive. If the civilians had been forced into some kind of combat training, the distinction would have been a lot harder to make.
“So are all the researchers like this?” wondered Quenser. “We need to evacuate them before blowing the place up.”
“Um, do you think they’ll actually listen to us at this point?” asked Myonri. “We did break into the place looking ready to kill everything that moved.”
“Here, take a look at this.”
Quenser showed her the colored ball launcher he found alongside the axe in the emergency box on the wall. It used compressed carbon dioxide gas to fire those things found next to convenience store registers. It was shaped a lot like a single-shot grenade launcher.
“I’ll mess with its power output so it will knock people out. The rest of you create projectiles by stuffing socks or stockings full of rice or flour. Make them the same size as these colored balls. If you can’t find any grains, you can use the stuffing of a beanbag or pillow, but don’t use any kind of metal balls. Those will kill someone.”
“If they refuse to listen, just knock them out like Heivia over there and drag them outside. We don’t have much time. If we don’t do something, the Princess will lose to the Over Cavitation. Don’t aim for the face because you take an eye out. Also make sure they aren’t near anything they could hit their head on like a desk corner or a protrusion on the floor.”
“Wow, you definitely don’t put the ‘gentle’ in gentleman, do you?”
The potatoes could be a little too passionate about ditching work and getting sidetracked, but they could still get the job done once they had a clear goal in mind. Quenser started by making five of the modified launchers.
“Heivia, wake up. It’s work time.”
“Ugh, what happened?”
“A nightmarish superweapon showed up and we were facing certain doom, but my courageous actions saved us all. You can use this, so make sure to pay me back for my moving heroics.”
After Quenser made up a story and gave the other boy a launcher, they cleaned up the facility with Hina Liqueurball in tow.
“Excuse me, lady.”
Quenser had a simple reason for grabbing Hina’s small head with one hand and having her press against the side of his hips: her Hawaiian shirt was pretty baggy, so when there was space between them, looking down at her would have given him a tunnel-like view of her undeveloped chest. He had needed to prevent that somehow.
The launchers were never put to use. It was over before they could even think about firing. As soon as the red laser pointer dot reached them, the chocolate-colored researchers (no, given Hina’s circumstances, they may have been indebted students as well) shrieked and put their hands up. Some of them were carrying a cat or a birdcage. They were generally harmless, so the potatoes felt bad doing this even though it was necessary.
They also spotted the occasional squid and eel mascot character that may have come from a local legend, but that was all. There were no cruel tricks like a grenade on the doorknob.
“Damn, there’s a lot of them!” said Heivia. “Does this lab have bus service? If not, we can’t bring them all back with us!!”
“Why would we bring them back with us, you idiot?” replied Quenser. “Once they’re outside, they can get back to their own homes. Unlike us, they aren’t being targeted by the Capitalist Corporations.”
“What about their GPS signals?” asked Myonri. “I’d prefer they weren’t advertising their location while they’re with us.”
“Lead is the all-time champion when it comes to blocking signals,” said Quenser. “This uses microwaves just like a cellphone, right? Then we can block it with a fine wire mesh like they use in microwave doors.”
A couple of gunshots rang out.
This was not from the nonlethal launcher Quenser had given them. Heivia clicked his tongue with a large military handgun in his other hand.
“Someone else stole a Hawaiian shirt from a locker to hide among the researchers. Check out the tattoo on his arm. He’s from White Harpoon, an elite naval PMC. But he was obviously a fake since he didn’t have the ball-and-chain on his ankle. That’s what you get for lying, buddy.”
“Hey, couldn’t you have used the launcher?” asked Quenser. “You just cratered all the good will we’d been gradually building up.”
“Was he the last one?” asked Myonri. “I found this high-quality thermal sensor in here. It’s meant to read the water temperature, but it interfaces with my gun’s multipurpose sight just fine and it isn’t showing any other heat signatures.”
“We can have them do a roll call. But if anyone is hiding their thermal signature behind a special shield, we know they’re not a civilian. And who cares if some professional soldiers were late to evacuate and get killed. Sounds win-win to me.”
“We’re never getting that good will back, are we?”
Quenser sounded exasperated while Hina tearfully clung to his hips like she was hugging a giant stuffed animal after having a nightmare. He could feel her somewhat high body temperature and a faint sweet aroma coming from her black hair tickled at his nose. The more the others scared her, the more she felt she could only rely on Potato #1.
During all this, they had set up the bomb on the boiler in the basement and Quenser contacted someone with his radio.
“Aloha. How you doing, Princess? It looks like you’re being carved up a fair bit, but it’s not at the level of a gore video yet, is it?”
“Hurry up. I feel like I’ve lost 2 kilos from the tension alone.”
“Ha ha ha. So you’re a kilo away from getting down to your original weight?”
A powerful blast stabbed into the ocean nowhere near the enemy.
“Hold on, don’t draw the enemy’s attention this way!!”
“I have not gained weight. I know how to manage my health.”
“I bet it’s all that coconut milk. Maybe you should rethink having a fridge in the cockpit. Anyway, we’ve secured the lab, so we can stop the transfer of weather and ocean data at any time. I’ll leave the detonation timing to you, so tell us when to trip up the Over Cavitation.”
Quenser gestured for the others to leave the lab.
“Start the countdown at 30 seconds,” said the Princess.
“Will do. If things change, feel free to cancel the countdown and start over. Don’t do anything dumb because you feel bound by the time you set.”
“Who do you think you’re talking to?”
“The person who’s losing and having her dress shredded. Okay, begin the countdown.”
Fortunately, they did not need to redo it.
It was the Baby Magnum vs. the Over Cavitation.
After walking outside the reinforced concrete wall and looking to the ocean, Quenser heard the end of the countdown.
“3, 2, 1.”
An explosion burst up from the ground behind him and the prison-like research facility collapsed.
The change was readily apparent from the Baby Magnum’s cockpit.
The Over Cavitation had been moving side to side so much before, but now it caught a bit like the needle skipping on a record.
(I can do this.)
The weapons system got to work when the lasers in the Princess’s goggles read the movements of her eyes. To maintain her extreme focus, she reached for a drink bottle with a straw sticking out from it. She regretted it when she tasted the sweetness of that first sip. Quenser’s words had pierced the teenage girl’s ultra-sensitive heart, but she could not spit out the coconut milk now.
“Princess, the Over Cavitation uses an aircushion to stay afloat, but that means the status of the waves influences the layer of air. It also uses the salinity of the air to create a kind of ‘stickiness’, so it should be restricted to naval battles only. It probably uses its data support to receive accurate information on those factors.”
At any rate, the Princess’s widened eyes focused accurately on her target. She selected the appropriate weapon and 7 low-stability plasma cannons accurately locked onto the Over Cavitation now that its movement had been slightly disturbed by the lack of data support.
She would not miss now.
A cross counter was fine. The battle would end here, so taking more damage was not a real problem as long as it was not critical.
Defeating the enemy took priority.
(I will end this here!!)
A “leg” appeared out of nowhere, kicked at the water…and launched it sideways???
The Princess was dumbfounded after she fired the 7 main cannons. This was supposed to be a sure thing, but the enemy Object suddenly hopped to her right and escaped the 7 beams fanned out over the expected range of its evasive actions.
It was the main cannon.
Or more accurately, the two bipod-like parts at the base. One of those had extended like a police baton and suddenly kicked the ocean surface.
The steam pipes spread out like wings and the very edge of the spherical body had their onion armor shaved away with an orange light, but that was all. The Over Cavitation could still move. It aimed her way with the long white spear of a main cannon created by combining water vapor and air bubbles.
(It didn’t work.)
The Princess tried to force her Object into evasive actions of its own, but the machine could not keep up with the rapid back and forth movements she was demanding of it. It groaned like a settling house and inertia squeezed at the organs inside her slender body.
What was that “leg”?
No one had told her about that!
The Over Cavitation had unleashed a merciless attack.
Quenser was as shocked as anyone as he watched from the coast.
“Are you kidding me?”
His trembling hand reached for his radio.
“Are you kidding me, Frolaytia!? This isn’t what we were told! We did what we were supposed to and so did the Princess. So were you planning to have a good laugh while we died because you kept secrets from us!?”
“We don’t know what this is either!! None of the records of previous battles include this propulsion device. This was a troublesome enough Second Generation already, but it looks like it was modernized at some point!!”
“What happened to the Princess?”
“She took a main cannon hit but just barely managed to avoid complete destruction. Frankly, it’s a miracle she’s managing to stay afloat and keep fighting.”
Complaining was not going to help.
No matter how unfair it was, they had to accept the reality before their eyes and figure out what was going on or else they would be slaughtered without accomplishing a thing.
This new equipment was not a part of the Capitalist Corporations’ official specs. So what outside entity could have supplied a propulsion device from a completely different line of technology?
“The arms dealer,” said Quenser.
“Huh?” said Heivia. “You mean the one from Eastern Europe?”
“They’re learning!! It takes years to build a whole Object, but a single part reduces the cost and time by a considerable amount. The incident at the monastery hotel came to light ahead of time because it took too much time and effort, but this method keeps the watchful eyes of international society from keeping up!!”
“B-but a Capitalist Corporations Object belongs to the Capitalist Corporations, right?” said Myonri. “Wouldn’t they just use the arms dealer for as long as it took to complete the modernization and then arrest them?”
“What if the arms dealer is the only one who can maintain and supply spare parts for something as crucial as the Object’s propulsion device or main cannon? The Over Cavitation would only have struck a deal with such a suspicious figure if it had a complex about something. They were told this would improve and strengthen the Object, but the arms dealer was essentially hijacking it. The Capitalist Corporations can’t just get rid of them if they’re needed to keep the Object running. Once they’ve worked their way deep enough into the system, they’ll become a criminal organization with official protection!!”
That may have mattered more than the Object deal itself. It was like threatening the executives of an above-the-board corporation and turning it into a front for a criminal organization.
“What do we do, Quenser!? This is all for nothing if the Princess is taken out. We’ll lose our trump card!!”
“I know that!”
Right now, he wanted accurate information about the Over Cavitation’s undercarriage and new propulsion device. But the damaged Princess would not last long enough for a complete analysis made from observations during the battle.
He needed a shortcut.
And he had an idea.
“We find the arms dealer hidden in the Hawaii District. That way we can steal their plans for the propulsion device they’re using to protect themselves!!”
Quenser and the others had originally planned to approach by sea in rubber motorboats. That meant they had no land vehicles. They ended up hopping into the back of the military truck Frolaytia must have arranged after being informed of the situation. The rude cowards driving the trucks had refused to approach until the threat was gone.
“Hey, do we even know the arms dealer is here? You can buy anything online these days, so they might be relaxing on the other side of the globe.”
“They’re keeping themselves safe by keeping the secrets of the new propulsion device to themselves. They wouldn’t hand the plans or manual to anyone else. They’ll be on the scene to boss around the maintenance soldiers while never letting them see the whole picture.”
“And why is that Hina girl still clinging to you?”
“Wow! When did you sneak in here, lady? The other truck will take you home!”
That belated instruction was meaningless because the truck headed to Oahu’s urban area had already left. It was too late to change trucks now.
Also, Hina Liqueurball puffed out her cheeks, clung to him like he was a giant stuffed animal, and made no attempt to move. He could sense her high body temperature and faint sweet scent. She must have picked up on his name from the conversations she overheard and she said it with bit of an accented pronunciation. This was looking more like Stockholm syndrome than popularity with the ladies. The soldiers spoke up in annoyance because they did not like being used as the bad guys in that scenario.
“Make sure you look after her yourself.”
“If a stray bullet flies her way, you had better take it for her. Let Hina die after all this and all four world powers will hunt you down.”
“What are you people expecting of a battlefield student who can’t even fire a handgun? I’m not a shirtless macho man with a Gatling gun who can soak up bullets without ever dying.”
At any rate, Heivia had given up on overturning Hina’s view of him, so he simply tried not to scare her.
“Now, you say they’re in the Hawaii District, but that’s more than 130 islands if we count the small ones. Where is this truck headed? I assume you have some kind of idea.”
“Hina is our hint.”
“Hm? I am?”
The brown girl looked confused.
“Or rather, the ocean meteorological research lab we found her in. It was located on the point of a cape so it could look after their precious equipment.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just let him ramble. Tune back in 10 minutes from now and you’ll get the actual answer you want.”
Myonri must have been tired because she did not hold back in the slightest, but Quenser did not let it get to him.
“The arms dealer will be living comfortably in Capitalist Corporations territory and they will have an escape route ready in case the Capitalist Corporations turn on them. They’re on an island and there’s a laser-covered Object here, so the only real option would be a sub. They’ll have planned this out carefully, but that narrows down the possibilities. The ocean surface looks flat, but it has varying terrain as well. There are only so many places where an emergency sub can avoid detection by sonar thanks to thermoclines and brackish water.”
“Could you be more specific?”
“We can check the ocean terrain with Hina, but anywhere the Object overreacts to would be the most suspicious. Heivia, do you remember why the Baby Magnum and the Over Cavitation started fighting in the first place?”
“The coastguard armed with the weapons borrowed from our lend-lease program were attacking the air pump facilities the Capitalist Corporations is using to increase the shark population, so they decided to take a gamble and…”
Heivia trailed off when he caught on.
Quenser snapped his fingers and continued.
“That was their biggest overreaction. There’s something there they want to protect badly enough to send out a Second Generation. The arms dealer is located at one of the Oxyocean Operation air pump facilities. This one.”
The military truck took them to a point on the coast. This time, there was a long bridge heading out to a square artificial island with sides longer than a kilometer. According to Hina, the entire island absorbed the seawater, applied tons of pressure, used microbubbles to infuse it with oxygen, and sent that back down to the deep pits where the hypoxic Sea of Death was located.
Quenser and the others were not reckless enough to ride the truck down the straight bridge with nowhere to hide.
It was known as Tunaroa Bridge and there was no stopping once they started down it. The potatoes climbed out of the military truck after it stopped in front of a sign bearing an illustration of a man with a fishing pole, a giant eel, and a girl.
“Watch out for a monkey army wielding cheap printed guns. Those probably came from the arms dealer.”
“Do you think they’ll try the same thing twice?”
“Watch out for the Object too. Don’t forget that it was the coastguard poking at this hornet’s nest that called the Over Cavitation here in the first place.”
“Oh, god. What can we even do by ‘watching out’? That’s about as useful as learning the weather forecast predicts an extra-large meteor shower raining down on the earth this afternoon.”
Hina Liqueurball was a 12-year-old civilian, so they left her in the military truck.
Would they simply walk across the bridge, or would they use one of the rubber boats with the anemone-like red and orange warning colors on the bottom?
When you could not figure out the right answer, you just had to split your personnel and choose both. Even if one group died, the other would reach the destination.
“Lives are on a really good sale today. It’s like we have clearance stickers on our souls.”
“Why the hell did you bring Hina on this crowded boat, you idiot!?”
Quenser looked over in shock and yelled, but it was too late now. She had joined them without anyone noticing. And the rubber boat was already headed out to sea with its motor running. If they hung around in one place for too long, a great white shark would probably show up.
Myonri’s group would be walking across the bridge directly overhead. And to be extra careful, they would be sending a drone to scout out ahead.
“There’s less here than we thought. I was expecting an ambush and a big shootout.”
“Let’s just hope we don’t find the place abandoned.”
The boat was faster than on foot, so Quenser’s group landed on the artificial island first and used their guns and binoculars to make sure they were safe.
Myonri’s group joined them shortly thereafter and the girl spoke up with a cheerful smile.
“Wow, no one died this time. That’s pretty unusual.”
“Myonri, is this what you’re like on your period?”
That comment just about got him shot, so Quenser used Heivia as a shield for the rest of the conversation.
“Anything here?” she asked.
“Not that we can see from the ground. Did the drone see anything?”
This was only getting more baffling. They could not find the enemy. It would normally delight them to avoid a deadly battle, but it was still worrisome. It was unnatural and unnerving.
Regardless, they knew this artificial island held something that had led the Over Cavitation to exacerbate the war. And the damaged Baby Magnum had no time. They could not come to a stop just because the place was so unsettling. They wanted accurate information on that Second Generation’s undercarriage. And they wanted it now. No matter how suspicious this felt, they had to investigate.
“If this was a horror movie, continuing the mission would be what gets us all killed.”
“Would you prefer waiting out here all alone? That’s the guy who always gets killed almost immediately.”
They also could not leave Hina by herself. It was the Capitalist Corporations who saw value in her intellect, so the arms dealer might see no reason to keep her alive.
With no advance knowledge, the artificial island would have looked like a square piece of land covered in factories and pipes. The buildings were of varying heights, which created a warship-like silhouette. The space was crammed full.
“The arms dealer is all about being cheap and reliable. You can see that in the experimental monkeys with printed guns and you can see it in the modernized undercarriage for the Over Cavitation. The ideas are really out there, but they’re still sensible. This is not going to be a fun opponent.”
That was when they heard some quiet noises in the distance. These were not gunshots or explosions. It was more like steam valves opening. The island was an air pump facility, so it was sure to have tons of that sort of equipment.
So they assumed that was all it was.
But then a squall of metal balls rained down right next to Quenser.
It was such an extreme change that his mind failed to keep up at first. They had been relaxed a moment before. They had been smiling together about how no one had died. They had breathed a definite sigh of relief and they had all been alive.
Yet now orange sparks tore away the asphalt.
Metal ball bearings larger than a pachinko ball crashed into the hard ground and bounced back up.
They had been dropped from a great height.
But worst of all, the colors red and black were splattered across the ground.
That was all that remained of their allies. There were no recognizable uniforms, weapons, human flesh, or even dog tags.
They had been reduced to something like jelly.
Their merciless death had been like an invisible giant crushing a row of ants underfoot. If that squall had been directed just three meters to the side, it would have been Quenser and his immediate group that were killed.
Quenser belatedly got on top of Hina to cover her young eyes, but then he heard the same sound again.
It sounded a lot like air escaping something. The breath of the grim reaper was quiet enough to entirely miss it if you were not focused.
“We need a roof! It doesn’t matter what, just get below something that will shield you from the sky!! Quenser, you take care of Hina!!”
Heivia gave a shout while Myonri and the others took off running. It was no time to worry about moving as teams or staying in formation. Quenser had both his hands free, so he scooped up Hina’s small body in a princess carry, pushed open a nearby metal door with his back, and practically fell inside.
The deadly squall filled the outside once more.
“Wh-what is that, Que’ser? What is that!? Don’t go away! I’m scared!!”
“Never fear, lady. It can’t hit us now that we’re inside the building!”
Quenser decided explaining the details would only worry her, so he got straight to the point. And if he kept holding her, he was afraid she would notice he was trembling.
Sometimes people would fire a handgun straight up as a warning shot. It was a common sight in movies and dramas, but where would that bullet land? Just as a screw or bolt could become a weapon when dropped from a skyscraper roof, the bullet had to land somewhere and it would be quite deadly from the fall. In major metropolises, that probably took more accidental lives each year than lightning strikes.
The arms dealer had properly weaponized that phenomenon. A thick tube was probably stuffed with metal ball bearings and then compressed air or carbon dioxide gas launched them more than 100 meters into the air. That created a squall-like quantity of weapons to suppress a general area when accurate targeting was not needed.
You could not hope to dodge it.
It was a lot like being crushed by a falling ceiling covered in spikes.
It took a bit of work to set up, but it was far cheaper than a standardized machinegun. After all, durability, fire rate, precision, and accuracy could all be ignored. You just had to launch them into the air. If you could ignore its quality as an industrial product, you could cut a lot of corners.
Cheap and reliable.
This new product took lives with cost efficiency.
Quenser clenched his teeth and grabbed his radio.
“Heivia. We can’t take the shortest route to regroup outside! Can we find a route that stays below a roof at all times?”
“That squall shot down our drone. We have the general aerial photos on our mobile devices, but that doesn’t tell us the exact internal layout. This place is as cluttered as a warship, right? There’s no guarantee we can regroup right away. Everyone, use what range of movement you have to eliminate the enemy. Let’s clear one safe zone at a time until we can finally regroup. Like water droplets joining together on the window.”
“I don’t have a gun…”
“But you have Hina who should know a lot about these facilities. You haven’t abandoned her, have you? Get her advice as you move along. You came here to fight a war, didn’t you?”
“Are you serious?”
“We all got the short end of the stick here. Dammit, I swear I’ll survive and meet that legendary maid. I’d love to go on a personal scouting mission in search of her.”
“(Is no one on my side anymore!?)”
Quenser clicked his tongue and pulled some Hand Axe plastic explosive from his backpack. He could use that like a grenade if need be…but that raised a crucial question: could he win this labyrinthine indoor battle with nothing but grenades?
(In the worst case, I’ll blow myself backwards with my own blast.)
The arms dealer would have more than just the one weapon. The first weapon had eliminated the outdoors area as an option, so the next step would be to pick off the separated potatoes one at a time.
He would have to protect himself here.
And he was not allowed any mistakes with Hina clinging to the side of his hip and giving off a sweet scent from the hibiscus decoration in her black hair. His death would mean her death.
Fortunately, her small size was an advantage here.
Quenser found some duct tape, copy paper, and plywood nearby and created a rectangular shield she could fully hide behind.
“It’s a bit heavy, but if you hear any noises, hold this out toward it with both hands. Press the bottom of the shield against the floor so there isn’t a gap.”
“Despite what movies and dramas would have you believe, you can still die of blood loss when shot in the hand or foot, so make sure you stay fully hidden behind the shield. Got that?”
“What about you, Que’ser?”
He would be entirely exposed.
He did not have a single bullet to fire.
They had no idea how many enemies there were or what kind of equipment that enemy had.
Heivia and the others could not rush in to save him no matter how much he asked for help.
The girl’s question forced him to focus on those various aspects of reality, but he forced down those thoughts.
He could not let Hina notice his fear while she looked worriedly up at him with the handmade shield, so he shook his head and spoke.
“I’ll be fine. C’mon, let’s get going.”
He had given Hina the shield to protect her from the arms dealer’s bullets and from any nearby explosions. He knew he had to do it, but he could not predict what exactly would happen once he started throwing bombs around in this labyrinthine space.
Also, the shield might double as a blindfold and prevent her from seeing the splattered corpses.
“Hina, let’s ignore the arms dealer side of things for now. How many workers would they need to keep this place running purely as an air pump facility?”
“Hm. Probably none.”
He had not expected that answer.
“They stepped outside their field of expertise and developed an unmanned factory OS for it. Although I think they keep three people here in case of any trouble.”
“How can I tell them apart from the bad guys?”
“They’ll understand the local language. The foreign soldiers only ever look puzzled when they hear us speak.”
“You mean like aloha?”
“Que’ser, that means both hello and goodbye. Did you know you say that at funerals?”
Heivia had been right. Hina was a valuable ally. Maybe even more than an industrially produced handgun.
In this case, they did not have a single set goal such as destroying a turret or reaching the power station. They had to check every room they came across to make sure everything was as safe as possible and eliminate any enemy soldiers they came across. It was a lot like walking around a minefield to find the explosives. You wanted to detect them in advance so you could dig them up. Eliminating them by stepping on them would not be fun.
The corridors were unlit, perhaps because the place was designed to be unmanned. It was all plain concrete. As Quenser walked along with Hina, the imitation ball-and-chain unavoidably made a scraping noise as she dragged it behind her skinny ankle. The chain was too short for her to carry it around in her hands and wrapping a towel around it would not actually help all that much. On straightaways, he tried to make sure there was always a door they could jump inside at a moment’s notice. The light through the windows highlighted the dust in the air like a projector bream. There was no air conditioning, so both the heat and the tension made it hard to focus. He felt like he was rotting from the fingertips.
They continued further in while Hina explained that they were in a transformer room or in a storage room for the hunks of salt that came from the seawater due to electrolysis. The salt sounded like it would be easy enough to sell, but the impurities were apparently concentrated along with it and people could not eat it. Pufferfish and shellfish toxins were gathered from the plankton the animal had eaten, so you could not underestimate concentrations of anything from the sea.
But there was no one around.
The arms dealer had weaponized monkeys to keep anyone out of the lab and an enemy waiting behind a door would have been enough to defeat Quenser when he only had bombs to work with. The tension only continued to grow, but there really was no one there.
“This is weird.”
He had not wanted a tour of the factory or to explore an abandoned building. The metal ball squall was enough to know the enemy was definitely there. They were not simply in the wrong place. The arms dealer had intentionally let the potatoes cross the bridge and only used the squall once they were on the artificial island so they would flee indoors. They had essentially been split up and trapped. He was certain there would be further attacks. And yet…
Hina moved right up next to him while holding the handmade shield in both hands. As if covering him with the shield too. Was she worried and trying to protect him?
Her high body temperature and faint sweet scent reached him.
Quenser longed for his radio. Or rather, he missed the presence and reactions of other people. He knew it was meaningless, but he pressed the switch.
“Heivia, has anything happened there?”
Only static answered him.
The enemy was here.
The arms dealer had intentionally invited them in. There was no escape inside this building or on the artificial island as a whole. While trapped in that double prison, they could be easily finished off.
In that case…
“Hina, have your shield at the ready.”
“Why? Are the others being attacked?”
The brown girl looked worriedly up at him, but he said nothing more.
…That was not it.
The jamming was affecting Quenser and Hina. That meant they were the ones being separated from the Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers. They were the ones surrounded by the hounds.
The battle was approaching.
(The jamming means I can’t detonate the fuses via radio.)
This eliminated one of the few cards in his deck. The pen-like fuses could be set to a timer, but timing it right probably took practice.
And as he carefully checked inside each of the doors around them, he noticed something odd.
“What is this?”
There was a large space there.
Whatever the space had been originally designed for, there was now something sitting in the center of it.
It was a flat cylinder that glinted with a silver light. It looked thick and solid and it was larger than a school classroom. The airtight door on the side had a round handle that was turned to open it, just like on a submarine. If not for that door, he probably would not have recognized it as a room.
This was clearly different from everything they had seen so far.
It did not fit in with the rest of the facility.
Hina tilted her head too.
“I don’t recognize this. What is it? A pressure cooker?”
She had a good reason for saying that. The scale was different, but the safety valve on the top used the same principle as a pressure cooker. She looked like a small girl, but she was already in college. She may have had even more knowledge than Quenser and it was that knowledge that led her to view this as a pressurized container larger than any she had ever seen.
“Is it a hyperbaric oxygen chamber?” muttered the boy.
Come to think of it, wasn’t this an air pump facility meant to increase the valuable shark population by artificially infusing oxygen into the hypoxic Sea of Death?
It was part of the Oxyocean Operation.
It was true that facility’s horsepower could be used to run some extraordinary equipment, but…
“That isn’t possible.”
It was not that Hina had lacked the knowledge.
In fact, it was her knowledge that had prevented her from considering the idea and that now led her to oppose Quenser’s suggestion.
“Hyperbaric oxygen chambers are used for medical therapy, not industrial work, right?”
“This island’s air pumps are especially large so they can dissolve oxygen into seawater at a rate of 90,000 liters per minute. If you put a human in such a giant pressure cooker, they wouldn’t just hyperventilate. Their red blood cells would rupture or they might just be crushed by the pressure.”
“Maybe for a normal human.”
It was gradually coming into view.
He was gradually realizing why the Over Cavitation’s undercarriage had been secretly modernized and why it had wanted to protect this air pump facility that contained a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. How had the arms dealer made themselves indispensable to the Capitalist Corporations? Also, what crucial core component for the Object had they supplied?
Why were civilians like Quenser and Hina being targeted ahead of Heivia, Myonri, or the others?
That was when he heard a sound like an electric razor coming from outside that large space. It was not particularly loud, but he would have heard someone dropping a ball-point pen in this deserted place.
(Is it some kind of drone?)
“(Sh! Over here, Hina.)”
They circled behind the giant pressure cooker of a hyperbaric oxygen chamber.
The sound came from the hallway.
This was a large space, but it had no other exit. He did not know if his explosives could break through the wall and an explosion could ignite the highly concentrated oxygen in the pipes. Detonating one in an open space like a grenade was one thing, but attempting to blow down a thick wall made of who-knows-what would be too risky.
They just had to wait it out.
They just had to hope whatever this was continued right on down the hall.
Hina fearfully squeezed the handmade shield in her hands.
The electric razor sound had stopped near the door. It was not continuing on. It was staying. It was sealing the exit while waiting to see what happened. The machine(?) knew they were here.
“(I’m scared, Que’ser. Is there anywhere with a lock? Oh, I know. Let’s close ourselves in the oxygen chamber.)”
“(They could operate the machinery to knock us out with the pressurized oxygen.)”
This was no time to panic.
The train known as reality was still roaring down the tracks. Gathering the resolve to jump off was useless if it had already passed the station you wanted to reach.
They had to change how they viewed this.
This was still an opportunity.
There was just the one entrance.
Whatever this enemy was, it would have to pass through there. The plastic explosives were not the easiest thing in the world to use, but he could hit the enemy with the blast if he tossed one toward the door. It was too late if he waited until it was already in the large room and could move wherever it wanted. This was the neck of the gourd or hourglass. Taking out the enemy here was his best bet.
“(Hina, wait here with your shield at the ready.)”
“(You’re going on your own? Wait, Que’ser.)”
The hyperbaric oxygen chamber in the center of the large room was a flat cylinder much like a petroleum tank. Unlike a boxy building, it had no corners. That made it difficult to tell how far he could go while staying just out of sight.
The tearful girl ended up following him. If he was killed now, the enemy would not just leave, assuming they had killed everyone. If he died, they both died. The look in his eyes grew a bit sharper. He had to take this seriously. Ensuring their safety by crushing the enemy was the only option left.
While leaning against the curved metal wall and slowly moving forward, he rolled a ball of plastic explosive and stabbed in a pen-like electric fuse. The jamming kept him from using a remote detonation, but the timer would work fine. If he set it to three seconds, he could use it just like a grenade.
Although that was still a problem since Quenser was not all that familiar with using normal grenades.
He was pretty sure he had gone as far as he could without being seen from the door.
He would be spotted if he went any further.
He silently came to a stop and raised the ball of plastic explosive to shoulder height. He of course held it in the hand opposite the wall to his side. This would be a side throw. It was basically the same as a grenade, but it was soft like clay and he could not expect it to bounce and roll. He had to picture it flying in a parabolic arc and landing right where he wanted it.
The electric razor sound continued.
But he also heard some light footsteps.
This was not just a drone. Was there someone with it? He was still confused, but the situation did not wait for him to figure it out. The sound of the footsteps changed.
The person had moved from the hallway to the large room.
He had no idea who this was, but they had just walked through the door. That was the neck of the gourd or hourglass. The difference in skill was irrelevant. This was his first and last chance for an amateur’s explosion to actually work!!
His life was on the line, but…no, so his thoughts were of secondary importance. The fuse was set to three seconds. The pressing situation led him to lean out and throw the hunk of clay. It was a side throw that sort of tossed it around the wall of the oxygen chamber.
And he realized something once he leaned out.
The enemy was a human woman.
But he was not sure if he should call her a soldier. After all, she was not wearing a military uniform. She may have been that kind of person because other than her military boots, she only wore a small bottle hanging from her neck by a thread and a thin ribbon wrapped loosely around her. The tall woman with radiant skin walked casually through the door with her long red hair fluttering behind her.
And she had giant red wings behind her back.
Was she not actually human?
This was a greater shock than her radiant nudity.
What was she? What in the world was she!?
With a loud compressing sound, the wings roared to life. It looked all the world like they had melted into a streamlined shape, but that was not it. The electric razor sound remained and the wings were technically not connected to the naked woman’s back.
(That sound…is it the same rotors that drones use? Did she attach armor to a flying car!?)
He did not have time to speak out loud.
The wings roared through the air and accurately struck the clay to knock it back toward Quenser with a sound like a metal bat.
With the jamming in effect, he could not use a remote detonation and had instead used a timed one.
He had set it to three seconds.
It was just like a grenade.
He did not have time to hit it back into his opponent’s court like a game of badminton.
The Hand Axe mercilessly detonated above his head.
More than his ears, it felt like all the organs in his gut were being squeezed. It may have been an issue of pressure instead of the noise or shockwave.
Quenser doubled over but was not blown to bits. There were a few reasons for that. First, he had not modified the plastic explosive for anti-personnel use, such as wrapping a hard zip tie around it or filling it with metal balls. Second, it had blown up in the air a short distance away from him instead of right at his feet.
Hina Liqueurball had stepped forward and held the handmade shield overhead. The one blast broke through the cushioning made from copy paper and snapped the plywood in two, but he would have been killed without it there.
Hina was defenseless without the makeshift shield, so he picked her up with both arms and moved back on unsteady legs.
The woman with only a loosely wrapped ribbon covering her nudity had yet to do anything.
She spoke for the first time.
She was finally taking action.
Were the red wings meant to make her look like an angel or like a demon?
She grabbed a red flower petal from the small bottle hanging from her neck and placed it on her tongue like it was the forbidden fruit.
In what almost seemed like an afterthought, the symmetrical weapons – probably an armored version of a flying car – moved casually out.
They gave a roar of their electric razor sound.
Now it was Quenser’s turn to save Hina. He got on the ground with her below him while the wings passed by overhead with a weight closer to a car than a motorcycle.
“Don’t worry, lady. We’re still alive!”
A single hit would kill them instantly.
Hina’s body temperature and sweet scent were the only things proving they were not yet ghosts.
Flying cars might sound impressive, but some were modeled after airplanes and some after helicopters. These were something like multicopter drones weighing more than a ton. Their streamlined bodies did not have the crane fly shape of the recon drones, but that was only because the rotors were contained inside and the air was released through vents, just like fans that hid their blades.
“Wait, I thought they were all about cheap and reliable!!”
Quenser gave a shout and somehow managed to get back on his feet. He grabbed Hina’s warm hand and half-dragged her back some more. Being in that naked woman’s field of vision was too dangerous. The red wings had not returned after passing by, so they must have circled all the way around the cylindrical hyperbaric oxygen chamber so she could retrieve them. They were cars, after all, so they moved much faster than people.
An unhealthily saccharine voice reached him from around the curved metal wall.
Had his comment drawn her attention, or was she trying to distract them while she planned an attack from behind?
“These are actually surprisingly cheap.”
Once they saw each other once more, one side or the other would lose their life.
And at this rate, it would be Quenser and Hina.
“We have already built a commercial model. As long as you don’t have any weird dealers acting as middlemen, you can buy these for as much as a used car.”
The cost of various different military vehicles varied wildly, but the most expensive tanks could cost as much as 10 million euros each. Not even hitting the jackpot at the lottery would be enough for that. Given the price of vehicles that could survive in this field, that probably was incredibly cheap.
“Dora Blue-Hawaii. You can address me as queen, mistress, honey, or whatever you like really.”
He was not about to just believe her. That was indeed a Capitalist Corporations last name, but it seemed a little too convenient to find someone with “Hawaii” in their name while actually in Hawaii. Plus, he doubted someone from a criminal arms dealer would offer their real name so easily.
“I assume you already know what this place is used for. And why I ignored the others to eliminate you first.”
Small Hina tugged on Quenser’s uniform. She pointed past the cylinder wall behind them. She probably wanted to say that continuing to move back would take them all the way around and back to the exit where they could escape the room, but Quenser doubted it would be that easy. When he patted the top of her head to calm her elevated heartrate, she had a somewhat ticklish reaction. They would only have an instant to act. For example, if Dora sent the two wings around the cylinder in different directions, Quenser and Hina would be caught between them at some point.
(If they really are as bulletproof as an armored truck, a normal gun won’t work. Throwing a randomly balled-up bomb won’t work either. I need something made to pierce armor. I don’t know how we win without a shoulder-fired missile like Heivia carries around.)
It was a lot like a driverless car with impenetrable tires charging straight toward a checkpoint. If you could not shoot out the tires or the driver, stopping it with bullets would be no easy task. And what if the entire thing was covered with thick bulletproof armor?
These things could crush the enemy with their speed and weight and they could also act as a shield to protect their user from gunfire. This special equipment was the best of both worlds.
“Your product wasn’t a new propulsion device. It was a much more important core component.”
“That is correct.”
“What we saw out there was no more than an optional feature added for balancing purposes. It was not the main point.”
“Exactly. Which is why I must kill you for revealing our precious Parasite Plan. Although after coming this far, I would still silence you even if you were completely off base.”
Either Dora felt no need to carry a gun herself or she was not accustomed to using her own “products”. He had no definite proof, but Quenser decided not to be optimistic. No matter how absurd it might look, this woman had found a way to survive on the front line. And she did so without joining a world power or using the clean war system. That was a shocking thing for someone who was protected by the system.
“That explains why the Capitalist Corporations couldn’t ignore you. And why they immediately sent out the Over Cavitation to protect a foreign criminal group.”
“Oh, is that what you call her? The Second Generation Antoinette is already ours. The parasite process is complete. It now works for us more than the Capitalist Corporations. Nh, hh.”
She punctuated her sentence with an odd breath because she had removed a flower petal from the small bottle and placed it in her mouth.
That said, if she was following them around, there was a way to fight back. He could not change the plan on the fly with the remote option removed, but if he set the timer to 30 seconds or a minute and placed the explosive on the metal wall or a corner bordering the floor, he could lure Dora into the blast range.
(And those wings are flying cars. She can have them charge toward a destination point, but they shouldn’t be able to remove any garbage located around the corner. That’s the hardest part of designing a cleaning robot!)
They no longer had the handmade shield.
Simply circling around the curved metal wall was not enough. At the moment of detonation, Quenser tightly held Hina’s warm body and curled up.
A deafening boom filled the space and a faint sweet aroma scattered around.
This one had not been knocked back. It would have exploded at her feet.
“So did you really think you could kill me with that?”
(It definitely went off! Wait, did she do what I think she did!?)
“My shields are much more precise. Do you want to try a chemical round next? Maybe some napalm or white phosphorous? These multirotor ‘flying cars’ are giant fans powerful enough to keep a 1-ton mass afloat at all times. Did you honestly think flesh-and-blood soldiers stood any chance against their control of the air currents and air pressure?”
That powerful wind pushed up a literal ton of metal.
They could divert the current of poison gas or a flamethrower. It was possible even a long-range sniper rifle would be useless against her.
Either the thick shields would deflect it or the air power would divert it. Either way, her defenses were impregnable.
(What do I do?)
There was no time.
She was not going to wait around for him to think.
(Normal explosions don’t work. I can’t even touch her without doing something about those wings first! But how is she controlling them with this jamming in effect!?)
Due to the explosion, they had circled a good bit around the cylindrical hyperbaric oxygen chamber. When viewed as the face of a clock, Quenser and Hina were at 4 o’clock, Dora was at 9 o’clock, and the exit was at 12 o’clock. Hina tugged on his uniform again, but this was not really their chance to escape. Dora was trying to end this inside the large room. That meant 12 o’clock was their time limit. It was a giant hornet’s nest. If they thoughtlessly arrived there, she would immediately send both red wings their way. She would have them circle around on either side at more than 100km/h. They would be trapped between the two weapons with no escape.
(All signals are being jammed. IR would be easily blocked by fire. Ultrasound would be affected by the strong winds. Are they just fully autonomous using an offline program? No, that would put her life at risk. If they malfunctioned like a shoplifting sensor, she’d be screwed, so she wouldn’t rely on that. There must be some kind of wireless interface that lets her make direct adjustments!!)
He would only be able to make one or two more moves.
There was little time left until the flying armored cars made their final charge, but he could not afford to make any mistakes.
“The Parasite Plan? You mean your product was the Pilot Elite, don’t you!?”
“The Antoinette was an excellent Second Generation, but it seems her Elite came down with an endemic disease. It would have taken a while for them to finally die, but it was not difficult for us to ‘fine-tune’ a new one.”
That had to be a lie.
It could not have been that easy, but Dora made it sound like nothing.
“That said, Objects are generally only compatible with the one pilot. It is not easy for two Elites to pilot the same Object at the same level. So the Parasite Plan needed to alter the structure of the Object for the new Elite while keeping the basic frame the same. So we had to create the world’s best Object for her specifically.”
Even the best Object was worthless without someone to pilot it. A weapon that only absorbed maintenance expenses would only create greater and greater losses as it sat in storage. It would have to be scrapped.
But the arms dealer had said they could breathe new life into it.
For the Capitalist Corporations, it must have felt like selling their soul to the devil.
“This hyperbaric oxygen chamber might look like an execution device, but it was actually used to make adjustments to the Pilot Elite, wasn’t it?”
“It apparently feels like a comfortable hammock to her. But, well, it has made her very concerned about weather data. She apparently gets headaches when the pressure changes.”
Quenser doubted the outside pressure could actually affect someone inside an Object cockpit, so it was probably a psychological thing. What had happened to the original Elite who fell ill? Had they had headaches, or had they requested the meteorological data for some other reason? There was no way to know now.
Quenser came to a stop.
Hina kept tugging on the side of his hip and turning toward the exit with a sweet scent coming from her black hair, but they could not fall back any further than this.
They had arrived at the oxygen chamber’s submarine-like door and console.
Quenser fought with his pounding heart.
(She has those armored flying cars, she’s naked and doesn’t have a gun, and those things always stay by her side to protect her. The jamming isn’t causing her any trouble and they can manipulate the air. There has to be something there. There has to be a logical solution!!)
While clinging to his hip, Hina looked up at him and spoke as if her heart could not bear the pressure.
And he looked down at her.
He saw the tears welling up in her eyes, her healthy chocolate-colored skin, her glossy black hair, and the hibiscus decoration on her head.
(Could it be?)
It was like a piece of trick art.
He had not noticed it at all before, but once it occurred to him and he observed his surroundings again, something was definitely off. It made no sense for that to be here. And if that meant Dora must have snuck it in for her own purposes.
He had to bet on this.
He gripped some of the clay-like Hand Axe plastic explosive.
“Come to think of it, I never got your name.”
A single hit would mean instant death.
Neither one knew the other’s real name, but they both prepared their deadly weapons as the final clash began.
There was no reason for concern.
Dora Blue-Hawaii only had to do the same thing again.
She audibly swallowed the red flower petal in her mouth.
She sent it to her stomach.
She had one of the red wings remain by her side to protect her while she sent the other toward the target. A 1-ton mass of armor would collide with them at 80km/h. That would be even more deadly than an anti-materiel rifle. Her opponent would be torn to pieces even if they wore a full-body powered suit.
This would end it.
Or so she thought.
But the naked woman frowned in confusion when she walked casually around the curved metal wall. The boy in what appeared to be a Legitimacy Kingdom uniform had indeed been knocked to the ground, but something was wrong. He was too clean for someone hit by a head-on collision with a 1-ton mass moving at highway speeds. The figure the local girl was tearfully clinging to did not look at all broken.
Dora toyed with the ribbon wrapped loosely around her.
(Did it miss? Did it only catch at the end of his clothing?)
The machine would not malfunction without a reason. There had to be an explanation for why it had missed. Dora removed a red petal from the small bottle, placed it on her tongue, and tried to call back the wing she had sent out, but then she gasped.
She took a step to the side in her boots.
The red wing maintained its speed and violently crashed into the floor. The solid floor dented in. If she had stayed where she was, it might have turned her to mincemeat.
This was a first.
It had looked casual, but Dora had still taken evasive action.
She saw the other one – the one she had kept with her for defense – wobbling unnaturally. It was not completely out of control, but it could stall and fall to the floor at any moment. And it was a literal ton of metal, so it could easily be a disaster if it so much as fell on her little toe.
What had that uniformed boy done at the last second? It had not looked like he threw a plastic explosive as the one trick he knew.
Just then, Dora Blue-Hawaii finally noticed something on the curved metal wall. The airtight door to the hyperbaric oxygen chamber sat partially open and the console’s light was flashing.
Plastic explosives were a special kind of explosive made by combining normal explosives with malleable rubber. They were stable enough that they would not explode without a special fuse, but they also inherited the traits of the rubber. If you dumped them in hot water, they would melt. If you removed the plastic packaging and left them in the open air for a long period of time, they could grow cracked and dissolve.
Left in the open air.
So if you threw one into that hyperbaric oxygen chamber that used the air pump facility’s power to produce enough pressure to kill the person inside…
“It wasn’t EM, IR, or ultrasound.”
The boy spoke from the floor.
He was weak, but he smiled and raised his middle finger.
“It was the smell. They use an ion absorption sensor. You’re naked because you control them using the adrenaline or whatever that’s mixed into your sweet sweat. That’s also why you keep taking petals out of that bottle and eating them. You didn’t want to use a gun because you had to keep the gun smoke smell out of your hair. Those giant fans don’t just blow out air; they’re made so one of them absorbs the air and the other blows it back out. Although that means you can’t send them very far even though they’re unmanned.”
“When I hold Hina, I can sense a sweet scent from her hair. …You never know what will give you the inspiration you need to turn everything around. Hina can smell like that since she’s a civilian, but I shouldn’t have sensed the same thing from someone on the battlefield like you.”
Of course, not just any scent would have done the trick. Dora had said she could handle poison gas and white phosphorus.
But everything changed if he could guess what she used to make the judgment. He hated to admit it, but Dora had a nice body. It was hard to imagine a bitter or sour smell coming from her skin or hair.
It was sweet.
The unique stench of melting rubber could sometimes seem sweet.
That had confused the controls.
Dora gave a shout and sent in one of the red wings. The boy in the military uniform pulled the brown girl close and rolled to the side. Normally, that would never be enough to dodge it, but things were different now. It failed to keep up with his amateurish movement, just barely missed him, and crashed into the half-open door to the hyperbaric oxygen chamber, slamming it shut.
A failed attack was acceptable.
But she also had to question the precision of their defenses. A single mistake there could literally cost her everything. That was the much bigger problem.
Dora Blue-Hawaii made a swift decision.
She still had an overwhelming advantage. It would be a problem if the intruders destroyed the hyperbaric oxygen chamber, but there was no need to finish this here. She could fall back and try again later. She could escape elsewhere and then make an attack with the pair of red wings to turn those small fries to mincemeat in a single second.
A floral scent snuck into Dora’s nose.
The wings casually fell to the floor. The naked woman came to a complete stop. The flying cars had not completely ceased functioning, but they weighed a literal ton each. If she tried to send them out while imbalanced like this, they might run wild like a pinwheel firework and crush her instead.
That boy had said you never know what would give you the inspiration you needed to turn everything around.
It was that chocolate-colored girl who Dora had thought was powerless.
She had a hibiscus decoration in her hair. Was it not just an imitation? The boy had grabbed that flower and crushed it in his hand. All so he could scatter the sweet scent created by mixing a girl’s sweat with a flower’s nectar.
That was the same as the scent created by the contents of Dora’s bottle after it passed through her female body.
She could not have wielded these weapons like this on a normal battlefield. Soldiers generally wanted to remain odorless to not give away their position to the enemy, so they would avoid not just perfume but soaps and clothing starch too.
But things were different here.
All four world powers had a presence in the Hawaii District and it was not a battlefield country. It was a blank zone that belonged to no one. The civilians living in the cities would be covered in all sorts of scents.
Dora heard someone tearing a plastic explosive away from collapsed Quenser’s hand. It was Hina Liqueurball.
The deadly weapon looked entirely out of place in the 12-year-old girl’s hands.
She nervously turned toward the naked woman.
“Oh, what do you know,” said Dora. “I recognize you.”
“I visited the Rocky Coast Ocean Meteorological Research Lab a few times, so you recognize me, don’t you?”
But she was not asking the girl to spare her.
“But I’m surprised. I thought you were more obedient…no, more powerless than this. I mean, the Oxyocean Operation run by that lab is increasing the population of dangerous great whites. Surely you aren’t going to say you have forgotten how your parents died.”
It was Quenser and not Hina who gasped at that.
And Dora’s words continued as if mercilessly digging into an old scar.
“You gave up and decided it was useless to resist when they threatened you with guns and brought up your debt, didn’t you? You knew you could not fight the grownups. And you used the very intellect your parents rubbed your head and praised you for to assist a program creating more of the very sharks that ate them! Ah ha ha!! So is this a belated attempt at a moving revenge scene? Don’t make me laugh! We both know you’re just a weak little puppy that wags her tail for whichever side the seesaw is currently tilting toward!! Do you really think you can take back your life now!?”
Thinking back, it would be hard to say Quenser had not noticed anything out of the ordinary.
When the Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers had blown up the lab’s prison-like walls and stormed the facility, why had Hina stuck so close to Quenser? Why had she followed him here instead of returning to her safe home?
She had wanted the power to fight.
Even if she did return home, she would not have found any warmth there.
She had wanted someone to rely on.
He was just some older boy she had happened to meet that day. He was little more than a stranger, but she had longed for someone who would take her side. She had wanted to hear someone speaking out against the increase in man-eating great whites.
So she had felt like maybe it was possible to go back to the way things were.
With only the loose ribbon to cover her nudity, Dora gave an odd smile and spoke to the girl.
She was one of the arms dealers that had tried to absorb even the greedy Capitalist Corporations military.
“We both know you can’t do it. You would come to regret it. Do you think the Legitimacy Kingdom will accept you as one of theirs if you help them!? They’ll be gone before you know it, you’ll be left all alone again, and the seesaw will tilt back toward the Capitalist Corporations! But you’ll have been branded a traitor, so who will save you then!? First your parents, then the soldiers!! Everyone will abandon you, just like they did m-…”
She was cut off by a quiet sound.
Something had bounced off the center of her bare chest.
It was a pen-like electric fuse Quenser had tossed over from the floor.
The timer was set to three seconds.
The fuse alone produced a bang louder than a firecracker. The small bottle at her neck shattered, the ribbon wrapped loosely around her shredded, and her soft flesh burst with a dark red color. With a hole the size of a ping pong ball torn in the center of Dora Blue-Hawaii’s chest, blood gushed out and she collapsed backwards.
“Shut the hell up,” spat out the boy in an unusually violent tone of voice.
Quenser took his time standing up and pulled out his mobile device. He was of course targeting the red wings Dora had used. He attached a cable to those armored flying cars, extracted their data, and cut off the jamming.
He could finally use his radio again.
“Heivia, I have the Over Cavitation’s plans. And this is the complete version that includes the modernized parts the arms dealer added in their Parasite Plan. Use this to support the Princess.”
“You weren’t responding, so I was afraid you’d died. Where are you? We were just starting to withdraw!”
“Withdraw? Was Dora not the only arms dealer using some bizarre weapon?”
“Don’t be dumb!! Do you have any idea how bad things have gotten while you were being jammed? It’s the Object! The Over Cavitation is headed this way!! Just like when the coastguard attacked and got turned to Swiss cheese!!”
Just like then.
But Quenser had to wonder if it really would be just like then. What if the Over Cavitation’s new Pilot Elite could detect Dora’s defeat through brainwaves, an EKG, or something? It was possible the Elite would ignore all previous assumptions and blow away the entire island to get back at Quenser.
What had the Elite really wanted to protect?
If the answer was not the equipment used to maintain her, then she would be wailing in the cockpit right now.
“Hina, I have the data we need, so let’s get out of here. Hina?”
She did not respond, so he looked back to find the chocolate-colored girl named Hina Liqueurball slowly approaching the arms dealer woman.
The naked woman.
But she did wear solid military boots on her feet. That had been curious, so Hina crouched down and removed the right boot to reveal the foot below.
There was an old scar around the woman’s ankle.
It was the unique scar of someone who had spent a long time dragging around a ball-and-chain just like Hina’s.
Just like they did me.
This woman had used whatever tricks and underhanded methods she could to break free of that closed-off life.
That arms dealer had traded something for great wealth and celebrity status.
And with her dying breath, she left behind just the one word with the smile of a mischievous child.
They finally managed to regroup.
With young Hina in tow, Quenser exchanged a look with Heivia and Myonri. While Quenser had been fighting Dora, the others had searched the facility on their own and they had secured the few ordinary workers stationed there. That explained the few unfamiliar faces in Hawaiian shirts.
“Holing up inside isn’t going to help. In fact, there’s nothing but pipes and tanks full of concentrated oxygen around here. If an Object fires one of its huge-ass cannons, who knows how much of the place is going to blow up!”
They heard a loud sound from outside that was more like spraying steam than a metal shell.
They hesitantly approached a window to check.
“The bridge is falling.”
“I guess it isn’t going to let us escape.”
They were already within the Over Cavitation’s firing range. If they stood in front of it, they would be crushed immediately. They were afraid to use their radios, but they had to check on the situation.
It was unclear how much good it actually did, but they used some of the facility’s radio equipment to help disguise their signal.
“Princess, are you still alive!?”
“Just barely. And I wouldn’t be if the Over Cavitation hadn’t made an unnatural course change.”
“If you can still move your Object, then let’s end this. We have the accurate plans, including the Parasite Plan part. The new leg-like propulsion device disguised as a bipod at the base of the main canon is really just a form of aircushion. It uses a layer of air to kick off the ocean surface like it’s stepping on an invisible balloon. It only works on the water. Princess, if you follow my instructions, you can strike back at it. Do you think you can do that!?”
“Just get to the point.”
She really was a great girl who you could rely on. Just having her nearby gave you plenty of opportunities. Quenser shared the plans he had taken from Dora’s device, explained his idea, and urged them all to action.
Of course, success was not guaranteed.
They had run across plenty of accidents and unforeseen circumstances while reaching this point and more than a few of their comrades had fallen along the way.
Quenser had no way of taking responsibility if this failed spectacularly.
But everyone still set to work.
They were sick of waiting around to be killed. If there was any chance at all, they were on board. That was the thought process pushing them onward.
“Hina, if you’re going to run and hide, use that storage room over there. It looks like they added on an empty space not in the original plans. There is a panic room in case of an explosion, but if their Elite knows the layout, that will be the first place she targets. Thick walls can’t save you, but a location the enemy doesn’t expect can. Hina?”
The girl felt like she was being left behind.
She simply stood there with her head lowered, so Quenser crouched down to look her in the eye from below.
“How can you stay so positive?”
Finally, she got the words out.
“I couldn’t do anything. I knew dad couldn’t swim and mom never would have forced him to go into the ocean. It made no sense that they were attacked by sharks while surfing, but I had to believe what the grownups said!”
“I was afraid of the Object! I was afraid of all the grownups in army uniforms!! We found the arms dealer, but all I did was tremble in fear!! You were the one that ended it, Que’ser. Even though I had the bomb in my hand and the enemy was right there!!”
…Who could blame her?
She had a gun pressed against her head, her debt was used against her, the police, the military, and the law were all stacked against her, the entire adult world around her had viewed her with scorn, and the parents who should have protected her were no longer there. Who in the world could blame her and call her a coward for holding her tongue to protect her own life?
Just because no one blamed her did not meant it had not built up inside her little by little. Until it was too much to bear.
“I always knew it wasn’t an accident. Mom and dad welcomed in all the foreign people who moved here. And they said it was wrong to treat some of them better than others, so they got into arguments with people from the Capitalist Corporations who claim to be in charge here! They knew what the Oxyocean Operation would do, so on that night, they said they were going to discuss it with the people running the program! They said those people would understand if they talked it out!! But they…!!!!!!!”
Quenser spoke lightly to interrupt her increasingly erratic words.
“I think you’re confused about something, lady. We aren’t saints. Just because the people who fought di the right thing doesn’t mean the people who didn’t fight did the wrong thing. We only say that to keep the wars running smoothly. If we don’t make the soldiers look like badass heroes, no one’s going to enlist. So throw out that idea of justice and focus on the dumber things you can actually believe in.”
“But they…my mom and dad and I couldn’t do anything!!”
“Hina, your parents stayed true to themselves to the very end.”
Little Hina’s eyes opened wide.
She looked like she had stopped breathing and Quenser had more to say to her.
“Increasing the shark population for profit will get the ignorant tourists eaten first. And your parents would have known how dangerous it was to aggravate the professional killers of the military in private talks. …But they still did it. They still didn’t rely on guns. Nor did they rely on terrorism or guerilla warfare. They decided they would fight with their words and they stepped up onto the final stage with that as their weapon.”
“That’s a noble thing. The lies we tell to facilitate war have nothing on that. Lady, your parents risked their lives to stay true to that path, so are you going to defile it now? It isn’t violence that decides who’s strong and who’s weak or who’s right and who’s wrong.”
He could not say anything more.
Hina’s face crumpled as she hugged crouching Quenser and exploded into tears.
She had not avenged her parents.
It may have been the most difficult decision she had ever made.
But it was a much stronger and more human decision than someone who icily held a gun or knife over the corpse of their hated foe. Hina Liqueurball was smart enough to have pulled it off if she had put her mind to it, but she could remain a kind girl for now.
Heivia and Myonri waved over at Quenser from a short distance away.
They were done with their preparations.
With Hina still hugging him, Quenser nodded and used his empty hand to grab something that had fallen to the floor.
It was a tool that looked like a pair of wire cutters enlarged to the size of a two-handed pair of scissors.
It was a pair of chain cutters.
“Don’t worry, lady.”
He kept it short.
And he made his point clear.
“We’ll take care of all the dirty work. You don’t need to dirty your hands over this.”
There was a snapping sound.
It was a clear sign of a counterattack. It was the sound of him cutting the chain holding that binding metal ball to the girl’s ankle.
The Over Cavitation was fast.
Its target was defenseless and stationary, it knew the facility’s internal structure, and it had no need to hold back any longer. It fired spears of white steam and air bubbles while circling that 1km square of land given a warship-like silhouette by the many buildings of various sizes.
The thick concrete walls and the pipes large enough for someone to stand in were shattered and blown away like styrofoam.
Heivia’s eyes widened and he got down on the ground as rubble fell from overhead.
“We expected this, remember? Okay, it’s keeping a distance of 3km. This is our chance. That’s a lot closer than I expected!”
“This is our chance? This!?”
“After hiding and crying all alone for so long, Hina made a choice none of us could. She chose not to fight despite the situation. I can’t let that go unrewarded!”
“Tch. Fine, then!! I guess we can be the cavalry for just the one day!!”
Since Objects fought from ranges of 10km, the enemy had essentially rushed right up to them. Even though its special main cannon used steam, this was unthinkable when up against a stationary target. The Pilot Elite must have been furious.
But both sides had a reason to kill the other.
That criminal group had further corrupted the already awful Capitalist Corporations military. Quenser had made a promise to Hina who had resisted the temptation even though her parents had been killed. He would show his respect for that strength. Quenser and the others were not going to let those pieces of shit have free rein in the Hawaii District any longer.
As expected, the Object skewered the crucial parts of the facility, such as the compression tanks, the power room, and the panic room.
But that knowledge of the internal structure could be a problem. Either the Elite was unaware of the room added after construction was complete, or she simply did not even consider the sturdy storeroom where Hina and the others were hiding.
That relieved Quenser’s concerns.
Now the wolves could focus on hunting their large prey.
“Let’s get started, Heivia. We only have one shot at this.”
“You really are a freak for licking your lips at a time like this.”
The air pump facility, which removed the oxygen from the seawater via electrolysis and then sent that oxygen back into the ocean, was badly damaged, but it had already completed the action they required.
The Object was 3km away.
Quenser’s group on the island could not approach. They would be slaughtered before they could get the rubber boat out there.
Quenser slapped Heivia on the back.
His awful friend was resting a missile launcher on his shoulder.
“Fire that thing.”
With a fwoosh reminiscent of a firework being launched, the explosive flew off in a straight line. They did not have time to watch its progress to see if it did its job. It was powerful and convenient for a handheld weapon, but the smoke tended to give away the launch point and staying put was a good way of being hit by a counterattack.
A Second Generation loaded with laser beams would have any number of chances to shoot down the missile. But the laser beams and low-stability plasma cannons gathered on the three towers built on top of the Object wavered back and forth in a weirdly human sort of hesitation. The missile was not headed toward the Over Cavitation. It would fall into the ocean before reaching the Object.
But that accomplished what Quenser’s group wanted. As long as it hit the ocean surface, they did not care if it was shot down along the way.
They just needed a ball of flames to land in the ocean.
“This facility takes in tons of ocean water, uses microbubbles and a high pressure environment to dissolve oxygen into it at a rate of 90,000 liters per minute, and sends it back to the hypoxic Sea of Death found in the deep ocean pits.”
Quenser could not stop smiling as he rolled out and dove toward more cover. He could not help but smile when he did this, so he could never walk the same path as Hina.
However, there were things he could protect because of that nature.
“But using electrolysis on the ocean water gives you more than just oxygen. You also get hydrogen. What happens if you dissolve a bunch of that into the ocean instead? And what happens if you ignite it?”
The Over Cavitation was knocked upwards from below as if all the seawater below had become a single giant bomb.
It was a hydrogen explosion.
The basic concept was the same one seen in simple experiments done by elementary school children everywhere. But the scale here was very different. The shock was enough for that 200,000-ton mass to literally float up into the air.
“Modernization? A new propulsion device? Bipod-like legs? I don’t give a shit about your Parasite Plan! Did you really think I’d give you a chance to use your secret weapon!?”
Quenser yelled out at the Object, but it was not over yet.
That impact would have split the average warship in half, but the Over Cavitation had not sunk yet. It endured. Its presence seemed to loudly announce that only an Object could defeat an Object and that message was meant to squeeze at the puny soldier’s hearts.
Even its small cannon could blow them to smithereens. The two idiots had dived behind cover out of habit, but if the Object was serious about attacking them, it could break through that cover like it was wet tissue paper.
But the Legitimacy Kingdom potatoes were still smiling. They had all gone pale and were soaked with a nervous sweat, but they saw no sign of an unforeseen accident.
All of this was still part of the plan.
Quenser, the originator of the plan, shouted into his radio.
“It’s about to react! Everyone get ready!!”
Hina Liqueurball could not just sit there.
She and the air pump facility workers had hidden in the sturdy storeroom added after the initial construction, but she could not stand it any longer.
Quenser and the others who had cut the chain from her ankle were fighting on her behalf.
If they lost, they were sure to die. If they won, they could not escape the label of murderers. But they had not hesitated in the face of that harsh choice.
She opened the heavy door and left on her own.
She gave no concern for her short skirt and ran out with the legs now freed from the GPS ball-and-chain. She swayed unsteadily and tilted a bit diagonally as she ran down the corridor. She had meant to head to the exit, but the third floor wall had crumbled away, revealing the scene outside.
There, the chocolate-colored girl became a witness of history.
The ocean had changed color.
It was no longer the beautiful clear blue with a hint of green used on postcards and tourist sites. It had a sinister fury. Something like a dark clump of rock jutted out from it. It must have been quite hot because steam was rising into the sky with more intensity than smoke from a chimney.
It was a submarine volcano.
Quenser and the others had filled the air pumps with hydrogen and sent it into this area of ocean. But how far had it gone? Not just in length or width, but in depth. If the “single bomb” that had created reached the ocean floor, it would have violently shaken the earth’s crust itself.
The pumps had been designed to send oxygen-filled water to the deep pits where the hypoxic Sea of Death was most common.
To start with, heavy pressure had been to infuse the seawater with lots of hydrogen and that was sent to the depths of the ocean.
Even if the pressure of those depths was insufficient and some of the hydrogen separated from the water, hydrogen was the lightest element. It would only rise, so large bubbles of hydrogen would have been rising from the bottom of the ocean like an upside-down waterfall.
In other words, it had all been connected.
If one point was detonated, the explosion would instantly spread to the entire area.
That created an artificial earthquake.
And that led to a forced eruption.
The Hawaii District was known as a disaster-prone area due to its many active volcanos and more than 30 hurricanes each year.
As all that lava flowed out, it had rapidly cooled in the seawater and hardened into rock. As that rock continued to grow, the ocean bottom broke the surface and formed an island.
The Over Cavitation, or Antoinette, was a Second Generation built for naval battles, so it was like a fish out of water. It could not move on land even with the new bipod-like legs.
A heavy rumbling arrived.
The battered Legitimacy Kingdom Object used a barely-functioning main cannon to slowly take aim from the distance.
As badly damaged as that Object was, it would never miss a stationary target that had been flipped onto its side to reveal its belly.
This was checkmate.
Hina had skipped all the way to college, so she understood the science behind the trick.
But she still softly gripped the ID card at her flat chest. No, she was reaching for the cartoonish character sticker she had placed on the card.
The character was from a legend known all across Polynesia, which included the Hawaii District. The generous man had never grown out of his mischievous nature no matter how much power he gained and he had taught humans how to use fire.
That god of hers was said to have fished their islands from the bottom of the ocean in order to save someone’s life.
With a deafening blast, the Baby Magnum’s low-stability plasma cannon pierced the wicked monster.
“What is this weird frequency? This isn’t our encryption format.”
“You’re already pretty badly damaged, so can you do one last thing for me? Purge one of your destroyed main cannons. If possible, break the laser beam’s solvent tank so its contents leak into the ocean. The brighter the color the better.”
“Hm? What good does that do??? It will break down on its own.”
“It doesn’t have to actually do anything. As long as it ruins their brand’s image.”
“Defeating the Over Cavitation doesn’t actually stop the entire Oxyocean Operation. Even if we destroyed all of the air pump facilities, they could always rebuild them. So I want some other way of stopping the Capitalist Corporations’ plan.”
“They’re increasing the shark population because the fins are a luxury ingredient, aren’t they?”
“If their ruined image causes the price to plummet, that business plan fails, right? Whether used as a luxury ingredient or a collagen gel for makeup foundation, the shark fins are targeted toward the wealthy. Money is everything to them. The facilities will be a liability for as long as the plan is placed on hold, so they’ll make some adjustments before they start losing too much money. The Capitalist Corporations will be forced to stop.”
“It won’t make Hina sad?”
“She won’t let a trick using fake pollution get to her. She’s smart enough to see what’s really going on. More importantly, let’s drive out those filthy SOBs who aren’t as smart as her.”
It was all over and they had returned to that destroyer battleship.
“The next time that busty commander gives us bad intel, I say we make her bow down in apology. How many people does she think died this time?”
“Have you ever heard of the Island Nation’s fantastic culture of bondage? We can also have her sit in their ‘seiza’ style and place a heavy stone slab on her knees.”
“Are there any energy drinks around here?”
“Not going to let her sleep tonight, huh? I’m in.”
The commander only consolidated the information gathered by her subordinates, so this could not be entirely blamed on Frolaytia. But the exhausted idiots could be unforgiving.
And the busty silver-haired commander did care for her subordinates, so she could not bring herself to get after them too strongly.
“…Don’t you forget how you’re treating me, you two.”
“Oh, there are two things I never, ever forget: convenient loopholes and other people’s weaknesses☆”
“You’re wearing a bunny suit at the next pre-mission briefing. You got that?”
At any rate, Frolaytia placed her long, narrow kiseru in her mouth to distract herself from her irritation.
“We received a few new pieces of data from the support device belonging to the arms dealer Quenser killed and from the destroyed Over Cavitation. The electronic simulation division has finished decrypting it, so we have learned a lot about their organizational structure and their Parasite Plan.”
“We still don’t get any time off? But I really want to go searching for that legendary maid.”
“Frolaytia, please kill him by restricting his sleep and overworking him.”
Everyone ignored Quenser’s rapid comment.
“I’ll omit the specifics and get right to the point: the arms dealer is known as Woodstock. They appear to have begun when an Eastern European gang joined with an engineering group who found no place for them in the Indian peninsula.”
“An engineering group?”
“You saw the flying cars that woman going by the name of Dora Blue-Hawaii used, didn’t you? Due to the population explosion in that region, the entrance exams and fight for employment have overheated. The people in this group were only lacking in connections, so their skill is real. They were exactly what a criminal organization would have been looking for. That is the group supporting the products used for the Parasite Plan.”
Frolaytia sounded exasperated. The look on her face said she wished they had come to the Legitimacy Kingdom for employment.
“Woodstock has a presence in more than just the Hawaii District. All over the world, they have been locating defective Objects from all four world powers and effectively hijacking them through modernization. That is the Parasite Plan. Although now that the plan has been revealed, it seems they have started a disappearing act to avoid mass arrests.”
“So is our next mission to attack their headquarters? What a pain in the ass. Aren’t there police for that? Do the special forces really have better things to be doing?”
“You might want to hear this first: Woodstock has added or replaced core components to make up for the defects in more than 10 Objects in all. It might be the undercarriage, a main cannon, the radar, the armor, the cockpit’s electrical system, or the reactor itself.”
“Wait. You don’t mean…?”
“Altogether, they have the parts for a brand new Object of their own. The Parasite Plan’s true goal was the construction of a cutting-edge Second Generation. The manufacturing process for a whole Object takes years, but this method changes that. Or rather, it doesn’t matter if their actions are discovered even if it does take years. I propose we call it the Gangster. Those arms dealers are apparently waiting for us with a cutting edge Second Generation the likes of which no one has ever seen. That undoubtedly makes this a job for the military.”
Between the Lines 2
To be honest, this was a crossroads.
And I really would have preferred for things to go more smoothly. I mean, doesn’t it feel so nice when the government and the people join forces in corruption? Everything is so much easier. There is more than one path to our goal, so there’s no reason to actively choose the harder one.
But the easier path is no longer an option.
Cruel, isn’t it?
But this is not a problem. In fact, this is just the beginning of hell for them.
If spoiling them didn’t work, we’ll just have to get tougher. It’s time to switch from the carrot to the stick. If the government and the people won’t join together in secret, then we the people must crush the useless government. They are the ones that swatted away our outstretched hand, so it’s time to teach them a lesson. Traitors must be harshly punished and we use the fear of that retribution to control both our own people and our enemies.
I really hate doing this.
That’s why I wish they had just accepted the corruption in the first place.
I was trying to keep things peaceful so this wouldn’t happen, but they took a wrong turn at the crossroads. So we must respond accordingly. Let’s show them what the real bad guys can do.
We are Woodstock.
We are the arms dealers who fell the bloody trees of the cursed forest and transform their wood into weapons.
Chapter 3: The Boundary Between Safe Country and Battlefield Country >> Elimination Operation in the Atacama District
All of a sudden: bunny girl.
Frolaytia Capistrano raised her voice with rabbit ears swaying.
“Listen up, everyone!!”
The potatoes were obviously going to listen to this. They were far more focused than usual.
They were on the west side of South America, in the battlefield country of the Atacama District. With a general altitude of more than 2000m and some areas reaching 5000m, it was the world’s most unhealthy desert because it even caused altitude sickness.
The person in the amusing costume put on a serious face and attempted to hold a pre-mission briefing.
To repeat, she was a cute bunny.
To provide more detail for the connoisseurs, she was a white bunny with the appropriate fishnet tights. She had the full set of cuffs, collar, and bowtie and she even had a lighter in her cleavage for true authenticity.
“We have details on the enemy group. They are an arms dealer called Woodstock. They started out as an Eastern European gang, but they have grown like an amoeba as they absorb criminal organizations, court-martialed soldiers, engineering groups, cults, and more from territories belonging to all four world powers. We estimate the total number of actual members is greater than 50,000, but we should assume that number increases tenfold if you include their patrons, front groups, corrupt cops they’re paying off, and others receiving indirect benefits. This is not about a battlefield country or a safe country. They have roots everywhere, so assume this is like eavesdropping on your neighbors.”
You could see how serious a matter 50,000 was when you recalled that the bunny commander’s battalion was only about 1000 strong. Since Woodstock was assumed to have a fair number of members with a military background, they had to assume all of those members had been given high-level specialized training.
People were currently being arrested all around the world, but those were either low-level delinquent boys or the aforementioned indirect benefiters like the presidents of exploitative corporations and the corrupt cops.
The real members were slipping through the cracks and fleeing their respective countries. They were using land, sea, and air routes to gather here in the Atacama District.
That was not the potatoes’ main dish.
“(There’s something up with Frolaytia, so what’s the deal?)” whispered Quenser. “(A phantom pregnancy?)”
“(I dunno, but I’m going to sit back and enjoy it,)” replied Heivia. “(But she must not know that bunny color follows the same rules as underwear color. You don’t wear white with tits like that!)”
The 18-year-old commander was actually using her body to apologize, but those idiots had completely forgotten what they demanded she do and ended up attacking her instead. Even though Frolaytia had told them not to forget how they were treating her. The old maintenance lady sighed in exasperation, perhaps because she had seen more than her fair share of people who were uncompromising about the weirdest things back in the good old Island Nation.
The one and only sensible person (who was dressed as a white bunny that could die from loneliness) trembled as she continued.
“Given the size of Woodstock, how deeply they have worked their way into the militaries of the world powers, and most importantly, the decent possibility they have prepared a Second Generation from the unique technology of their Parasite Plan, the Legitimacy Kingdom, the Information Alliance, the Capitalist Corporations, and the Faith Organization have gathered their forces for a joint operation. This mission shall be known as Operation Southern Cross Grim Reaper. That’s exactly the kind of juvenile name I would expect from the military, but keep in mind that anyone who finds it too embarrassing or annoying to say will be punished.”
“(How is that any worse than you for giving the arms dealer’s Object as straightforward a name as Gangster?)”
He was a smart boy, so he immediately fell silent.
“Heh. So we’re getting all buddy-buddy to protect the common feeding ground known as clean war?” said Heivia. “This reminds me a lot of Oceania.”
“Miss Bunny, just the other day, we fought the Capitalist Corporations in the Hawaii District, blew up their Second Generation, and even ruined their Oxyocean Operation,” said Quenser. “I’m fine with a joint operation, but aren’t you worried they’ll suddenly shoot us right in the ass partway through?”
“I have no interest in their grudges or any discord on the battlefield. Take care of yourselves while you’re out there. All joint operations and joint exercises have conspiracies going on behind the scenes, so there’s always a chance you’ll be killed and have it blamed on ‘friendly fire’ or ‘mysterious food poisoning’.”
She was as irresponsible as could be.
Besides, the four world powers were enemies who were always staring each other down with Objects. It was not even an issue of being betrayed. They were not supposed to trust each other in the first place.
“Woodstock has apparently long had their headquarters on the bank of a lake in the Atacama Desert. It includes some circular farms created artificially. Their main crop appears to be corn.”
The satellite photos showed a series of unnatural green circles lined up in the desert. It was like the reverse of crop circles. A few large Southern European style mansions and some apartments for servants were located near the lake providing a water source. With 50,000 people in an area measuring 2.5 kilometers long and wide, it looked something like a small town, but it still did not stand out much when compared to the scope of the farms as a whole. Those sprawling fields could extend past the horizon and were cared for by scattering agrochemicals from small planes, so this was not too surprising a size for a large farm.
…Then again, their estimates were dependent on technology and the number of personnel could be greatly reduced through use of robots and automation.
Given that, 50,000 people was probably about right.
It was unclear how much money would be lost to food alone on a daily basis, but Woodstock could manage it. Money was power and they used that power to earn the right to wage war.
“Until now, it seems they actually paid taxes with their above-the-board identities and hid themselves in the paperwork, but they must have decided there was no hiding it once they began gathering the individual parts from around the world to build their Object. Our satellites can detect clear oddities now. Wiping them out is going be a multi-stage operation.”
“But…the Over Cavitation in the Hawaii District was a naval Object, wasn’t it? Can they really use part of its design in the desert???”
“They apparently had two or three candidates for each part. It was Woodstock that set all this up and I doubt they were dumb enough to go to these lengths if they couldn’t even use the Object they were building.”
“Okay, one more question: you said we would be ‘wiping them out’, but aren’t there people working on the farms they used for cover? And wouldn’t the arms dealers have brought their ignorant families and mistresses here?”
“Yes, it is possible they brought people they know, but those people must have noticed something was up. They probably just turned a blind eye because they enjoyed the glamorous lifestyle the dirty money bought them.”
Quenser had his doubts, so he made a mental note of the issue.
He would have to think about this more during the mission.
Heivia, on the other hand, was the kind of person who would obediently kill when ordered to, so he had a different question.
“What’s our final objective? Destroying the Gangster created with their Parasite Plan, or killing the 50,000 people?”
Frolaytia Capistrano used the projector to display a middle-aged man’s face and personal information on the wall.
“Sex: Male. Age: 43. He was the top of the aforementioned Eastern European gang. He has worked as a criminal planner, a counselor, a novelist, and an organizational restructuring advisor. He has four PhDs and he is known as the current age’s most devilish godfather. He supposedly belongs to the Orthodox Church, but he apparently has at least 5 wives. Woodstock is a fusion of several different organizations, but none of that could have happened without his charismatic leadership. It would have fallen apart well before now otherwise. …After all, even after growing to this size, every single deal they make requires his personal approval. He is a true genius when it comes to creating new crimes and organizations. You have him to thank for the modern forms of fraud and online murder that have spread across the globe. Those have probably caused more damage than the wars he’s caused. At the very least, we must hunt him down. The handmade Second Generation can come second.”
“There are a number of unverified legends about Grinov, but according to the intelligence division, the truth is even more than the legends let on. We have heard more than one story about a police station announcing their intent to stamp out organized crime and then finding a bunch of skeletons in the walls of their new office. And it goes without saying whose corpses those were.”
This time, they were not up against the military of another world power.
So if they were captured, the war treaties would hold no power. Who could say what cruel and brutal method would be used to execute them.
“And like I said, joint operations always come with conspiracies. Like that incredible accident during the joint exercise in Eastern Europe. During Operation Southern Cross Grim Reaper, assume the other powers are trying to take you for a ride no matter how much they grin and rub their hands together. Don’t trust what they say, read all the fine print, and don’t let anyone but me order you to certain doom.”
“A new weapon for an irregular operation, huh?”
“This opponent exists outside the clean wars, so there will probably be traps, ambushes, and all sorts of dirty tricks. Yes, good girl. Take your time eating, okay?” At 40 degrees, the desert was truly scorching and Quenser spoke in an odd tone within the maintenance base zone.
He was talking to a military dog.
A trained German shepherd had her face shoved inside a food bowl on the ground. Dog noses were highly prized even in this modern age. Better sensors might be possible if you stubbornly honed your tech, but it was quicker and cheaper to run over to the pet shop.
Quenser was excited about it and Heivia watched from a distance while eating his soap-like rations.
“Are you sure they’re actually that cheap to keep around? Isn’t that thing eating better food than me?”
“My cute Rosa couldn’t possibly eat that garbage. Yes, good girl. Once you’re done eating, it’s time for some exercise to help you digest it. A girl needs to look after her weight after all. Let’s go patrol around the base together.”
“Skinny old Quenser is willingly going out on patrol?”
“What, is that a problem?”
“Sigh. I just don’t get it. Is this like how people go soft once they have a kid?”
“C’mon, Rosa, quit struggling. Think of it as dressing up. You want to look like a proper lady when you head out, don’t you? And this bulletproof jacket will keep you alive.”
“God, this is just disgusting to watch. Don’t let the Princess see you pampering that thing, okay?”
“Why? She was looking after that bear cub back in Eastern Europe.”
“That’s a different issue entirely.”
Without an energetic shout of “Let’s go, Rosa!”, Quenser ran off with the leash in hand. What was he going to do if he ran into an enemy soldier while patrolling without a gun?
Since this was a joint operation between the four world powers, the maintenance base zones had been partially joined together to create something like a giant residential area. More than just the one Object was stopped there.
It was like a 24/7 festival there, but how much money was being spent every day it continued? Just think about the cost of the basic necessities for thousands of people. Now odd on the bloat of government business and the price of all the equipment, weapons, and ammo. War was expensive. And since they were up against a criminal organization instead of a military or a nation, there was no guarantee they could make up for the financial losses even if they won.
“Look, Rosa! That’s a cutting-edge compound lidar sight. By linking together the sights around the maintenance base and command vehicle, the Object can keep a lock on the enemy even if its own sensors lose sight of-…”
He was cut off by a pitiful whine that did not sound at all like a military dog. That must not have been the best conversation topic for a date.
While the maintenance bases were combined, there were still fences between the different world powers. On the Information Alliance side of one such fence, a colossal weapon’s speakers produced a voice.
“Oh ho ho. So we meet again, Legitimacy Kingdom rat.”
“Rosa, don’t bristle up and growl. She’s technically an ally…for now.”
“Oh? What a cute partner you have this time. Fidget, fidget.”
“Is saying ‘fidget, fidget’ out loud one of those things you start doing when you’re an idol?”
“A world-famous idol with G-cups. Get it right. Oh ho ho. An amateur known as a legendary maid has been gathering attention of late, but my status at the top cannot be shaken.”
Was Heivia the one who had said this reminded him of Oceania? An attack on a group outside the clean wars, a joint operation between the four world powers, a desert artificially given greenery, and the Oh Ho Ho G-cup idol. Operation Southern Cross Grim Reaper had more than enough to dig up some less-than-pleasant memories.
The Rush had a rapid-fire beam Gatling cannon on either side and a cross-shaped air cushion float. It also had chainsaw-like treads that dug into the ground for emergency dashing.
It was a very different Object from the Princess’s, which was all-purpose but could be lacking in individuality. This one had thoroughly strengthened its strong points even if that meant leaving some weak points in, so it had the power to dominate in close-range combat on both land and sea.
“With this huge base set up, they must know we’re here.”
“Oh ho ho. Shouldn’t we assume they were luring us here? Of course, this mission is also being used to get some footage for my new song’s music video. I will place a price tag on this battle and make sure I come out on top.”
“You aren’t worried? This would normally be suicide.”
“There is no chance of Grinov alone escaping. His profile says he is their one-and-only godfather and he has never before relied on a body double. I also hear he has killed more of his fellow criminals than police special forces and all so he would get a greater share of the loot. Oh ho ho. He will fear anything that harms his charisma or his brand. Any attempt to defend himself, run away, or keep some insurance will only lower that parameter. Because his many subordinates are watching, he is stuck here. He cannot move. He is the sort of person who insists on approving every last deal they make, after all.”
“Everyone loves him, so he can’t say what he really thinks, huh? Sounds a lot like being an idol.”
“Please do not compare me to some filthy old man.”
In the distance, he heard several sounds like sparkling wine corks popping out.
“Oh, excuse me.”
A moment later, beams of light shot from the secondary cannons covering the Rush’s side like a sea urchin or chestnut burr. They were probably laser beams or rapid-fire beams. Lasers could not be seen from the side, but there was enough sand in the desert air to leave an afterimage as it was burned by the laser.
There were a few explosions in the air and a stir ran through the soldiers on guard duty.
“I just saved your life. Oh ho ho. Those were guerilla mortars.”
“Hey, don’t kill them. We might be able to get some information out of the Woodstock soldiers.”
“Oh ho ho. Don’t count on it. These are probably locals forced into this disposable role using debts or drugs.”
Even as she said that, Oh Ho Ho showed no mercy at all. She continued to fire over the heads of those in the maintenance base zone to blow away the 4-wheel-drive vehicle the attackers had arrived in and then vaporized those attackers one at a time. Surely this footage would not be used in her new song’s music video, right?
She represented a world power.
This was what happened to anyone who provoked the coalition force.
The German shepherd lying bored at Quenser’s feet got up and barked. That was unusual for a well-trained military dog. Curious, Quenser followed her gaze.
“Umm, this is Monica, the battlefield idol reporter who can both sing and kill… I don’t seem very excited this time? Of course I don’t. The Information Alliance has the real deal here. Am I like the guy who throws himself across the room to make the kung fu movie star’s kick look good!? We’re talking about someone who uses an entire war to gather material for the 3 or 4 minutes of a music video! Why do I have to help advertise the enemy’s poster girl!?”
When Quenser noticed, he patted Rosa’s head for informing him of the threat and started circling behind some containers piled up nearby.
“Oh ho ho. Why are you sneaking around all of a sudden?”
“Agh, why did you say that!? Why do you idols think being brainless is cute!?”
He was spotted.
His childhood friend named Monica pointed right at him.
“Ahh! Ahhh! Ahhhhh!!!!!!”
She made enough of a fuss that the nearby guards came over and restrained her. Since she could not overpower her suspicious behavior aura with her idol aura, she clearly needed more training.
Quenser was a little confused, but this was his chance.
“Hold it right there, Quenser!! That maid!! Didn’t you agree to seal that maid away forever, servant!?”
Oh Ho Ho asked a dangerous question, but his only real option was to avoid such distractions and make a quick getaway. No one could ever find out that Battlefield Student Quenser Barbotage had worn a bra before Monica ever had!!
And so he set out into the scorching 40-degree desert.
“It’s safer out here than in that base with a dangerous idol wandering around.”
“Oh ho ho. You don’t mean me, do you?”
Quenser and the others were in the Atacama Desert.
The Baby Magnum and Rush accompanied them on either side.
No, they were not the only ones on the move. All four world powers were a part of Operation Southern Cross Grim Reaper. Another unit of the same size was taking a different route from a different direction to reach the mansions and apartments for the farm owner and workers. They were trying to surround the settlement there. Since they were of the same size, the other unit had a Capitalist Corporations and Faith Organization Object with them.
“(I’m glad I’m with this unit after what happened in Hawaii. If we shared a unit with the Capitalist Corporations, they could shoot us in the back at any moment.)”
“(Yeah, act too cool and the world seems to punish you for it. I think god’s jealous of our badassery sometimes.)”
Everything was covered with fine sand and each step filled them with an unnatural level of exhaustion.
“What’s with the weird swarms of flies in some areas?”
“If you really want to know, get digging. There’s a criminal organization here, so there might be dismembered corpses buried there.”
The sun beat down on them from overhead. Was it really November? And even if it was, why hadn’t they made this attack at night? They wanted to curse so much about this operation.
Frolaytia explained via radio with obvious exasperation in her voice.
“Because the desert gets cold at night. And the elevation here is greater than 2000m. It gets at least down to freezing.”
“Would you look at that? Now we have a time limit: get back before nightfall or you’ll freeze! All we have are these thin, breathable uniforms! She just threw us out onto the front line while hiding crucial information again!!”
“Hold on! I shouldn’t have to tell you that part. It’s common knowledge.”
“If we freeze, let’s get her to warm us back up with her tits. After all the shit we’ve been through, we have to be entitled to at least that much.”
“Don’t get carried away after the bunny thing, you two.”
The area looked like nothing but empty desert, but that was an illusion created by having every surface colored the same like in a green screen filming studio. There were actually rolling dunes that soldiers could be hiding behind. And the biggest fear in this fine sand desert was the possibility of landmines made of wood or ceramic that their detectors would not find. They had brought dogs along to help with that.
There were small prefab buildings dotting the desert, but they felt no desire to approach those. What were those for? Just like cars abandoned on the side of the road, they seemed like the perfect place to hide a bomb. And even if there were no bombs, those windowless and un-air-conditioned prefab buildings with iron sheet roofs would make the perfect execution spots if you left someone tied up there in the 40-degree desert.
They were not going to approach such a visible threat.
The real issue was the invisible threats. Dogs were known for digging holes and finding food or toys, so there was no fooling their noses with some sand. When they were trained, they could accurately sniff out explosives hidden in a travel bag at the airport.
“Hey, wouldn’t it be best to let go of the leash and let the dog search freely? A mine goes off even if a dog steps on it, so you’ll be in the lethal range.”
“If you don’t trust her, then you grab a stick and poke the ground ahead of you as you walk. And take the lead so you don’t cause the rest of us any trouble.”
“The anxiety would kill me!!”
“Safety isn’t free. The dog is risking her life to do her job. Quit complaining while still reaping the benefits like an old-fashioned abusive husband. Really, you should apologize to Rosa.”
Not everyone in the unit had a dog with them. There was only one dog per 10 or 20 soldiers.
“Let’s review the process,” said the Princess. “We are acting as obvious bait, so we will move out ahead. We will cause plenty of chaos, so the rest of you shoot the soldiers that flee the hornet’s nest.”
“Oh ho ho. Our weapons would burn them to ashes. This is such a pain thanks to that Grinov Quarterdeck guy. If only we didn’t need an intact corpse to confirm his death.”
“We are monitoring things with the Object cameras and satellites, but that isn’t 100% reliable. We already saw camouflage meant to confuse sensors in Eastern Europe, so make sure to check with the naked eye too.”
It was possible the arms dealers had brought their families and mistresses.
The plan of attack sounded solid, but what were they supposed to do about noncombatants?
“What about their Second Generation Gangster?” asked Quenser.
“We will take care of it. They seem to have replaced one of their farms with an outside maintenance area. Although I imagine that makes it hard to get a baseline reading for the attitude control settings.”
“Oh ho ho. How about we see who can reduce it to scraps first? I am sick of the legendary maid topping all the trending lists. I want an exciting event for my music video footage.”
The Elites were as carnivorous as always. Modern girls were not going to sit around letting people take care of them. Those flowers of the summit were going to descend the mountain themselves.
“There they are. I see the circular farms.”
After walking through the desert with unnatural swarms of flies in places, Quenser came to a stop.
Each one had to be around 100 meters across. The characteristic circles of green had formed around sprinklers that resembled horizontal limbo bars. The circles were packed in together to fill the space, creating something like a honeycomb pattern.
The corn fields continued beyond the horizon, so the lake and the buildings were not visible from here. It was all part of the decoy used to hide the arms dealer’s true identity. The petit bourgeoisie wanted to ask why they didn’t just work toward success as wealthy farmers.
“There it is,” reported the Princess via radio. “That isn’t a radar-camouflage balloon. I have spotted the Parasite Plan’s Gangster. That is definitely Woodstock’s Object.”
Just the one artificial element rose noticeably up from the horizon.
There was a metal jungle gym of scaffolding and the 50m spherical Object enclosed within. Even at this distance, they could tell it had several thick tubes and cables hooked up to the two main cannons on the right side. Almost like a large rocket waiting to be launched.
“So,” said the Princess.
“Oh ho ho. Shall we begin?”
The two Objects moved out ahead. The hunt had finally begun. Lots of sand was blasted into the air, so Quenser and the others coughed as they worked to get a view.
“Cough, ugh. The Parasite Plan means that thing was built from the different parts they sold to the world powers, right?” asked Heivia. “Can’t we make some general predictions about how it’ll move?”
“I doubt Woodstock ever gave up the plans,” said Quenser. “Any assumptions we make could be overturned at any moment. There’s no rule saying they have to use every one of the parts and there could always be some brand new parts in the mix.”
The two Elites were only meant to destroy the unregistered Object and rattle the enemy soldiers. Shooting those panicked soldiers was left to Heivia and the others, so they could not just watch.
And roads formed even in the open desert. People generally took the shortest route between important points while avoiding the rocks, quicksand, and their own landmines. Leaving those roads could mean getting lost or getting your tires stuck in the sand, so it would lead to death. Traveling across the desert may have been a lot like in the sea or air where there were optimal routes despite the wide open space.
Frolaytia spoke over the radio.
“The Capitalist Corporations and Faith Organization are attacking as well. But keep in mind that Grinov takes precedence. There’s a reward for whoever puts a bullet through his head, so pray that money bag on legs comes running your way.”
“Man, they’re attacking too soon. They should’ve waited until we’d tightened our circle around them some more. This is like trying to grab a tropical fish out of the ocean.’
“Getting closer wouldn’t make things easier if they made a preemptive attack while our Objects waited. Look, I see some motion on the horizon. Their families and mistresses might be mixed in, so kill the ones in military uniforms and hold up the ones in normal clothing.”
“What if they’re in normal clothes but have a weapon?”
“You pretend to question them from the front while I have Rosa bark at them from the side. Humans can’t disguise their reactions when they’re surprised.”
Quenser remembered hearing that from the professors at his safe country school who waved their pointers around and navigated the border between eccentric and downright insane. Although they had used that principle by shining a bright light on students who were making excuses after forgetting their homework.
“If they carelessly react like a pro, kill them. We can confirm their identities afterwards. We just have to hope one of the bodies has Grinov’s face.”
“So we’re straight up exterminating people now, huh? The world is coming to an end, isn’t it?”
“How many people do you think they killed to build up this pile of treasure here? If you’re still not certain, then try digging around near those swarms of flies.”
While they discussed that, Quenser felt a chill in the middle of the hot desert. Then he felt dampness on his hair and skin. The simple number of 40 degrees had vanished. The effect was similar to a mist shower. The wind may have carried over some of the water from the farms’ sprinklers.
Or so he thought.
It came without warning.
It was a dull color. His vision was cut off by something thick. He initially did not know what the cream-colored thing was. It was created by the desert sand mixing with the moisture in the air.
In other words…
“A-a cloud!? Oh, right! I forgot how high up this is!!”
“You’re kidding, right? And isn’t it rumbling all around here? Don’t tell me these are thunderclouds!!”
An unnatural bolt of lightning ran horizontally from right to left.
The cloud may have gathered static electricity more easily by absorbing it from the sand in the area.
“Ksh!! Kssshhh! Watch out for weather changes! And for sudden – kssshhh!! – lightning strikes!”
“What’s that, Frolaytia!? I can’t hear you!”
“Damn her and her tits. Just telling us to watch out for lightning isn’t going to help much right now! I’m seriously gonna grope those things later…”
An open desert or farm was more dangerous than a golf course, but they could not let go of their guns and knives with a war going on.
“This is why we should use plastic ones. They’re lighter, they don’t rust, and they don’t get you struck by lightning!”
“The lightning will hit you even if you aren’t carrying metal! Heivia, don’t just stand there! Crouch down!”
“What are you supposed to do to avoid lightning? I know you’re not supposed to go near tall trees or the water, but can’t it travel through the ground and hit you even if you get down!?”
They saw flashes of light and heard screams from beyond the thick cloud. There was no telling whether those were from the world powers or from Woodstock. The natural disaster hit everyone equally.
And Quenser realized something.
“This is bad.”
“Worse than it already is!?”
“The Princess uses a static electricity propulsion device. All this lightning around her is going to mess with her movements! It could even bring her to a complete standstill!!”
“She’s fighting a mystery Second Generation right now, isn’t she?”
Quenser shouted into his radio, but it was full of static due to all the interference. He knew the risk, but he could not tell her about it.
“What do we do?”
“Our job hasn’t changed. Heivia, don’t let any of the panicked enemy soldiers escape. We’ll have risked our lives for nothing if Grinov slips right past us!”
Fortunately, the four world powers were working together for Operation Southern Cross Grim Reaper. The Princess’s trouble was not guaranteed to turn the tide of the battle. It would not be a problem if the other Objects picked up the slack. The Oh Ho Ho’s Rush used an aircushion system, so it would not have trouble moving in the thundercloud.
But Heivia sounded unhappy as he continued toward the circular farms with assault rifle in hand.
“Can she really rely on them? Don’t forget that there are always conspiracies during joint operations and joint exercises. I’ve heard the horror stories about that Eastern European forest.”
“Stop it. I don’t need to hear this now of all times.”
Of all things, Rosa suddenly turned around and dove into Quenser’s chest. Unable to support the tomboy’s weight and momentum, he toppled backwards and then he cowered down when gunfire rang out beyond the thick curtain. The sand burst quite nearby.
If Rosa had not knocked him down, he might have died.
“That was close! Are we under attack!?”
“Heivia, look where Rosa’s eyes are focused and fire!!”
A short burst of gunfire rang out and it must have drawn in the lightning because a bluish-white bolt crackled by from right to left at eye level and accurately pierced the flying bullets.
“Dammit, I have no idea what the right thing to do is!!”
Quenser patted Rosa’s head and got up. He and Heivia cautiously walked forward until they found a man in an unfamiliar uniform who had been shot and killed. Even in death, he still held an assault rifle with a wooden stock. The two idiots spoke while looking down at the corpse.
“Wow, Rosa’s nose is deadly accurate even with all this going on.”
“Let’s keep going like this. I wonder what happened with the Princess.”
The thunderclouds still left the radio too staticky to use.
While firing the occasional shot with the German shepherd’s assistance, they entered an area packed full of tall corn stalks. Rosa’s nose was still crucial to their survival. When they occasionally ran across people in Legitimacy Kingdom or Information Alliance uniforms, she remained calm and did not bark, so there was no fear of friendly fire.
“Did you get him?”
“Not yet. So no bonus for you either, huh?”
They used that short exchange to see if Grinov Quarterdeck was still alive and then fanned out across the area while approaching the mansions by the lake. The area felt more like a green field than a desert at this point. All of this was camouflage meant to hide the arms dealers’ true identities. Lightning continued shooting by horizontally, but it was focused on the sprinklers that passed by overhead like limbo bars. The metal pipes seemed to function as lightning rods in this case.
“Damn the rich.”
The general atmosphere had changed.
Things were somehow different from the desert full of weird swarms of flies and mystery prefab huts. It was possible the corpses were all abandoned or buried out in the desert to keep their own territory clean.
“He might be using a boat to cross the lake.”
“He can’t escape no matter where he goes. This joint operation gives us way more personnel to work with than normal. So why not let him choose where he wants to die?”
Heivia followed Rosa’s nose to shoot a would-be ambusher and a bolt of lightning reacted to the bullet by running horizontally into the Woodstock soldier’s wound. The soldier’s torso exploded with the sound of a tree trunk splitting vertically.
“The blessing of heaven? Now that’s scary as hell.”
“At least it wasn’t his head. Then we wouldn’t have known if he was Grinov.”
Just then, the German shepherd came to a stop after moving a bit ahead on her leash. She lay flat down on the ground and nearly tripped Quenser.
He did not have time to question it.
This was far greater than the previous lightning strikes. A giant white explosion blew away everything, including the thick storm cloud. The sunlight producing the desert’s scorching 40-degree temperature was back in full force.
What had happened?
What had blown up?
“Ah ha ha. Eh heh heh. The legendary maid is waving my way. How about you come live in my mansion and work for me?”
Heivia had apparently taken a step into heaven, so Quenser ignored him. Quenser spent some time sitting on his butt and fighting his white-scorched vision, but he eventually managed to see the corn field and an unbelievably clear blue sky.
A crumpled-up hunk of metal had fallen not far away.
When Woodstock’s Second Generation Gangster had started moving, it had purged the jungle gym of scaffolding around it and a piece must have rolled over here.
Or so Quenser assumed, but he was wrong.
It was an Object.
Both the Capitalist Corporations and the Faith Organization’s prized Second Generations had been blown up and rolled this way.
This was abnormal.
The Parasite Plan had created a patchwork Object like it was Frankenstein’s monster. The exact details were unknown and the thundercloud caused by the high elevation had cut off everyone’s vision and radar, but still.
It looked like Heivia would have trouble accepting reality right away, but there was no time for denial. His teeth chattered and his eyes widened as he lamented the situation.
“The difference in numbers is supposed to be absolute in Object battles. So how did this happen!? Are its main cannons just that monstrous!?”
Quenser clenched his teeth as he viewed the fearsome enemy.
He was scared.
But that was why he could not afford to tremble in silence.
He forced out some words.
“No. It isn’t the main cannons we should be afraid of.”
“What? What else is there!?”
Now that he saw it, he could hardly believe it took him this long to notice. It was less than 100 meters away. But instead of screaming, Quenser quietly crouched down, held Rosa in his arms, and hid behind the corn.
It had two main cannons on the right side: one at the top and one at the bottom.
There were giant ring-shaped platforms at various points around the spherical body and low-stability plasma secondary cannons were lined up along those. They were a set. That may have been a way of reducing costs.
The propulsion device appeared to be aircushion floats arranged in an equilateral triangle. They were covered in anti-air laser beam secondary cannons. For some reason, the points of the triangle were also oddly swollen.
But something else was odd too. Something was flying around the Gangster. They may have been something like the air-to-air missiles used by fighter jets, but they also had long main wings much like an airplane.
The arrow-like patterns covering their surface were probably a kind of camouflage.
But not the kind meant to blend into natural scenery.
There were patterns that made something’s speed and direction of movement hard to determine. Those flying devices and the Object they surrounded had been drawn into the world of trick art.
It was almost like a flock of small birds or a swarm of bugs. The few dozen devices flew along serpentine paths to wrap around the Object again and again. They were most reminiscent of flies swarming a hunk of rotting meat. The cold machinery somehow made them imagine the stench of death.
The swollen parts at the points of the equilateral triangle may have been efficient launchers for those things.
The trick art camouflage would not work on anyone using electronic or mechanical targeting, but since Object battles came down to a high-level battle of predictions between the Pilot Elites, it might actually be effective there.
“Those are unmanned drones with no weapons. With just the Object, you can sometimes break a lock by fleeing to the side or behind, but there is no blind spot if the radar and IR is being sent out from multiple directions. It can lock onto enemies outside of normal radar range using those. Even if the enemy is behind a building or cliff. I believe the tech was developed from the ultra-long-range locking mechanisms used in fighter planes.”
“Objects are covered in anti-air lasers, right? Won’t all those be shot down in no time?”
“It doesn’t care if they are. As long as they accurately record and report on what direction and distance the attack came from, the Object knows where the enemy is.”
Also, the wreckage of the two destroyed Objects was so full of holes they looked like sponges.
“The Gangster’s main cannons must be a coilgun and a rapid-fire beam cannon. And they both scatter a whole bunch of shells over a wide area. You can think of them like giant shotguns. At range, they fan out enough to do damage over a wide area, but once the target has been slowed, it can move right up to them and hit them with its most powerful attack. When the Gangster gets close, the enemy can enter its blind spot by dodging to the sides, so it uses those remote targeting drones to avoid that risk.”
Either way, there were two things he could say for sure.
First, the Gangster’s power was real. The coincidental weather change may have helped, but it had accomplished more than it should have when outnumbered 4-to-1.
Second, they were a mere 100 meters from the Gangster. If the Objects clashed again, they would be crushed and turned to mincemeat. It did not really matter if the Objects knew they were there or not.
What was most concerning here?
The rapid-fire beam cannon and coilgun main cannons?
The low-stability plasma cannon and laser beam secondary cannons attached to the spherical body and the triangular floats?
Or the drone formation flying around the Object like flies on rotting meat?
No, it was none of those.
“How did it target the other Objects so accurately in that thick storm cloud?” Quenser cut to the heart of the issue. “The cloud cut off normal vision and IR, radar couldn’t get through with everything electrified, and the rumbling thunder rules out ultrasound. So what was it? Does the Gangster have some special eyes only it can use!?”
“What about those fly-like things swarming around it!?”
“Their remote targeting still uses radar or IR, so that isn’t enough to explain it!!”
What mattered most in a prison meant to hold violent criminals? People might imagine it was thick walls or powerful firearms, but the answer was something else: knowledge of the prisoners’ locations.
The true master of the prison would eliminate all shadows and have a clear view of everything there.
This Object had become a blind killer.
So it was fortunate that the Gangster contacted them on all bands. Quenser and the others did not care if this was a threat or an attempt at negotiation. Instead of processing what was being said, they had to focus on sneaking away from there. They wanted to be at least 400…no, 500m away.
But did their efforts mean anything at all?
This was a blind killer who could see through any and all forms of camouflage and deception.
“We wish to avoid any unnecessary conflict. As before, we only seek sponsors! All four of you world powers worked with us. If any one of you accepts, we will offer you this Object we created with the Parasite Plan. Its abilities have already been proven through the defeat of your Objects. Our Object is powerful. You can immediately incorporate it into your forces or you can dismantle it and make the technology of the other world powers your own. Do with it as you wish! But you have only the one opportunity. If one of the other world powers beats you to it, you are out of luck!!”
The air-conditioned cockpit was cut off from the scorching heat of the desert.
The person narrowing her eyes in displeasure within the Baby Magnum was of course the Princess.
Woodstock’s Object, the Gangster, was indeed powerful. It carried the title of Second Generation, which the Baby Magnum did not. But she was not so sure she wanted it all that badly. The Parasite Plan? If the main cannons, undercarriage, armor, and reactor were all replaced, could you even call it the Baby Magnum any longer? Swapping out parts with no concern for the tech’s original development line sounded as awful as rudely releasing black bass into a clean river because you wanted to go fishing nearer to home.
She had already seen the people corrupted by these arms dealers in Transylvania and Hawaii.
When you provided power so easily, people would stop thinking and would attempt to resolve everything as quickly as possible using violent means.
They had been bad people from the beginning.
But once they had the extraordinary power of an Object in arm’s reach, their delusions could no longer remain delusions.
Some people claimed you were not to blame for the deaths caused by a weapon you sold.
But was that really true?
How many had they killed to maintain their current position in the world? How many missing people would be discovered if you dug through this desert? It might be even more than had died on the battlefields of the clean wars.
Frolaytia spoke over the radio.
“Our answer is no. I will suppress any ridiculous disagreements from the councilors. Blow it away before their bizarre desires grow too much.”
“Will do, Frolaytia.”
“Princess, blow that thing up for me as an engineer,” said the old maintenance lady. “Show them what a true Object can do, not some illegal crap made by criminals.”
“Leave it to me.”
The Princess breathed out through her shapely nose, controlled her weapons via her goggles, and grabbed the levers in her hands.
But then she noticed something.
The Information Alliance’s Second Generation Rush was supposed to be on her side, but it was now aiming a Gatling-style main cannon her way.
She did not even have time to protest.
They had been enemies from the beginning.
And the main cannon was mercilessly fired like a pistol pressed against someone’s temple.
The Baby Magnum’s rapid evasive maneuvers were not enough, so more and more of its armor was peeled away while glowing orange.
Quenser breathed in the 40-degree air and gave a shout.
“Rush!? What the hell is wrong with you!?”
“Oh ho ho. Direct any complaints to my commander. She has been a little worried lately that the internet’s recent obsession with the legendary maid will affect my popularity.”
The voice over the radio sounded annoyed with it all, but she did not show any sign of lightening the attack. She had joined forces with the Legitimacy Kingdom because they had a common interest here, but if she found something better, she would prioritize that. It was a very simple form of logic.
(I thought it was suicide to build an Object in their desert hideout and then summon the four world powers here, but I guess this was their plan. Woodstock plans to go into hiding under the protection of whoever pays them the most! If they’re invited in as weapons developers, they’ll be thoroughly hidden. They want to use that to escape!!)
Quenser clenched his teeth.
He had seen plenty of people with this same naïve thought process.
(They think they’re clever enough to outdo the arms dealers where everyone else failed. I thought Operation Southern Cross Grim Reaper was supposed to be about joining forces to destroy the evil arms dealer! This is more like a textbook example of investment or gambling addiction!)
Whatever the case, the Information Alliance had agreed to the Gangster’s proposal.
The Princess was having enough trouble simply dodging the attacks coming her way, so she would not be able to attack the Gangster.
And that Object started moving again.
“Any other offers!? Or are you fine with the Information Alliance taking everything for themselves!? In that case, our Object will eventually bare its fangs toward the world once more. But by then it will be further evolved and working toward the Information Alliance’s ends!! Are you sure you want that!?”
“Wait, we already said we’re buying it. Oh ho ho. No one said anything about this being an auction!!”
Anyone who was drawn to the Gangster’s dual main cannons, drones, and mysterious blind killer ability were being asked to work for it. Whoever helped it the most would be given the power created by the Parasite Plan. It was like throwing raw meat into a cage full of ferocious beasts to break the flimsy equilibrium and get them at each other’s throats.
A low rumbling could be heard.
The Capitalist Corporations Wired Rush appeared from beyond the horizon. It was equipped with lots of reels and thick wires and claws used to catch on the enemy Objects and drag them around. The Faith Organization’s Gigaton would stop an enemy with the low-stability plasma cannon on its front and then eject giant circles from either side so they crushed the enemy like meteors. The Information Alliance had both the Rush and the Perfect Range, which had a sniper rifle on either side, both longer than the spherical body itself.
Which ones were for the Gangster’s plan and which ones were against it?
Either way, this would be a chaotic battle with no defined sides.
True hell on earth had shown itself in the South American battlefield country of the Atacama District.
It was not just main cannon blasts that lit up the sky like a planetarium or laser show. The Perfect Range fired the countless secondary cannons attached to the very top of its spherical body like a ship’s wheel or a gear. The Gigaton fired lasers from all across the flat armor panels attached diagonally to its back. And both the Gangster and the Baby Magnum fired low-stability plasma cannons.
With those secondary cannons included, it was enough to blot out the sky.
The Parasite Plan corrupted an Object with individual components and corrupted an army with an Object.
So what was next?
If the flames of war left the Atacama Desert, they might spread across the entire planet.
For the time being, not being trampled by the confused and preoccupied giants was top priority for Quenser and the others gasping for breath and crawling across the 40-degree desert.
Operation Southern Cross Grim Reaper had completely changed without warning.
“Has the world gone completely insane!?”
Quenser could no longer see Heivia even as he heard the boy shouting. A stray shell fell a short distance away, the circular corn field exploded from below the ground, and dirt poured down to block his view.
He reached out, but he could not find his awful friend’s sleeve.
(Damn, we’ve been separated!!)
Quenser clicked his tongue.
This meant a change of plans.
“Come here, Rosa! I won’t let you die here!!”
The woof and the tug on the leash were all he could rely on.
Like a proper arms dealer, Woodstock had driven cracks through the coalition force just by making a business proposal.
While chunks of dirt larger than light vehicles flew, Quenser grabbed his radio.
“Frolaytia! What’s our plan now!? What side are we on!?”
“We do not negotiate with criminals!! Support the Princess and get us through this! Also, the Legitimacy Kingdom has sent in the Escalibor to join her. Don’t you die out there!!”
That was a relief to hear.
If he had been told to grin and shake hands with the arms dealers, he might have faked his death and deserted.
“Princess! You can manually control the reactor, right? If things get really bad, open valves 3, 8, and 12!!”
“What kind of power up is that supposed to be? It would overload the system and the secondary cannons would explode.”
“Who cares if those tiny secondary cannons blow up in a battle between Objects? Use that to create a big flashy explosion when you take a light hit. Then you can play dead until the backup Object arrives!”
“Quenser, you need to get out of here. No one will notice if you sneak away with all this going on.”
“You are our trump card. Hiding you below the table is far more useful than playing dead. We can’t afford to lose you.”
“Sorry about this!!”
“I expect you to find a way to strike back at them.”
The Baby Magnum sent more power than necessary to its static electricity propulsion device and filled the air with a cloud of dust mixed with crackling electricity.
He could not waste the chance she was giving him.
He crouched low and worked his brain.
This could not have happened naturally.
The economic and financial situation had been set up to manipulate people through profit and loss.
This looked like a chaotic brawl between multiple Objects, but he decided to assume the overall situation would work in Woodstock’s favor. Quenser needed to start by taking the first step. He did not want to be hit by a stray shell. Having an Object lock onto him was out of the question, but the circular farms were also filled with 50,000 soldiers. A lot of those had been taken out on the way here, but he doubted that was all of them.
Moving too far away was not an option. There was only so far he could travel by foot and, if he moved out into the desert alone, the enemy soldiers would spot him and surround him.
He needed a safer option.
He needed somewhere with lots of things he could hide in or behind.
And what area would be safe from being trampled or shot by the Objects?
Quenser raised his sandy head.
(The Southern European mansions where Woodstock lives! That’s a small town housing 50,000 soldiers. And they were recently gathered from around the world, so they won’t recognize each other!! If I remove my uniform, they won’t know I’m not one of them!)
With the leash in hand, he walked through the tall corn and poked his head out of the dust cloud. He heard some of the corn stalks rustling on the way, but he had no way of knowing if that was an enemy or ally wandering the field.
He crossed a few of those circular farms and approached the lake.
Breaks in the dust cloud gave him glimpses of the Southern European mansions that looked out of place in the desert, but he was certain they would be surrounded by cameras and sensors.
He needed camouflage.
He needed to transform into one of the people who lived there.
He changed his destination to one of the prefab huts he had seen in the gaps between circular corn fields. Unlike the ones dotting the desert, these ones had air-conditioning units sitting outside. When he peeked in through the window, he found this one was a combination of a storeroom and a rest area. The door was locked, but he blew off the entire knob with a plastic explosive the size of his fingertip. With the Objects clashing not all that far away, he doubted anyone would investigate such a small blast.
“Come here, Rosa. It can’t be fun having all that dirt on you. Here, I’ll brush it off of you.”
The inside of the cramped building was quite humid, so the air-conditioning must have been off.
The German shepherd whined sweetly and rubbed up against him. He grabbed a towel from the table, balled it up in his hand, removed her bulletproof jacket, and wiped the dirt off of her fur. Either because he was cleaning her or because he had removed the heavy jacket, Rosa wagged her tail happily. He looked around while looking after her.
He initially only saw some simple tea and pasta-style cup noodles, but when he opened the small box on the table, he found it stuffed full of rings and necklaces bearing diamonds and emeralds. The quality of the everyday items and the valuables was clearly out of the ordinary. He opened another box to find a luxury makeup set likely used to prevent sunburns. As a criminal organization, they were probably simply distributing their assets as something other than cash, but instead of careless, this felt more like they were so oversaturated with treasure that it had found its way out here. Just how rich were they?
He considered grabbing a few souvenirs, but he had only just been swallowed up by that thundercloud. He wanted to avoid receiving some divine punishment for trying to swipe these treasures.
He focused only on survival.
And for that, he had to change clothes.
He could take on any role as long as he changed out of his Legitimacy Kingdom uniform.
He was hoping for a farmer’s clothes or a work jumpsuit, but…
“Man, you can find these anywhere, can’t you? Well, they are using fancy mansions for their headquarters.”
He reached for the hanger on the wall and spread out the outfit it carried.
A true man would always choose the maid uniform.
His decision was greatly influenced by the luxury makeup set he had found among Woodstock’s treasures. It felt a little weird so soon after the incident with Hina Liqueurball, but the set contained high-end collagen gel. With production halted, the price of the remaining stock had to be skyrocketing. After using that for the foundation and adding some makeup on top, he just had to put on the maid uniform to complete Legendary Maid Quensette.
“Whew, this is pretty thick and heavy-duty. Is it for actual work?”
Rosa only tilted her head when he muttered to himself, so despite being a girl, she must not have known much about maid uniforms. Speaking of Rosa, he could not leave her equipped with collar, leash, bulletproof jacket, camera, and communicator. That was far too much Legitimacy Kingdom military equipment. He started by removing everything except the bulletproof jacket and stuffing it, his uniform, and his backpack in a garbage bag for fallen leaves. Digging a hole and burying it would have left a noticeable mark where he filled in the hole, so he instead stuffed the bag in the vent at the bottom of the foundation below the prefab hut.
Quensette, who grew bolder while crossdressing, looked around.
(Now, what to do about Rosa?)
Once back in the hut, he found a few bags of pet food on the shelves. The food was for large dogs and the packaging advertised how it kept teeth sharp and jaws strong. Rosa was a gourmet, so she stubbornly refused to eat the unnecessarily hard food.
But unlike in the mansions or apartments, the presence of food in a hut like this suggested they kept quite a few dogs here. He was honestly a bit worried about that. If they only kept some other breed, like Dobermans, a German shepherd like Rosa would stick out like a sore thumb. And it could still be a problem even if it was not that extreme. He did not know how many dogs they had, but it had to be fewer than the 50,000 soldiers and their families. The odds were good Rosa would arouse more suspicion than Quenser.
(Could I release her here?)
A military dog like Rosa had much stronger legs than Quenser and she could locate and avoid the mines or other traps hidden in the ground. If he released her, she would likely arrive back in the maintenance base zone pretty quickly. If he removed her collar and leash, Woodstock would have no way of knowing she was not just a stray or a pet. As long as she did not attack them, there was little chance of them shooting her even if they saw her.
She responded with a gentle woof.
She must have been in a good mood because her tail was innocently wagging.
“Rosa, you can go now. You’ll be safe then. Go, Rosa!!”
But the dog remained sitting at his feet. He was pretty sure she would follow him at a distance even if he tried to drive her away. So she could protect him while he was all alone and unarmed in enemy territory.
(Man, she’s such a good girl.)
Quenser decided to accept the risk.
He pulled a Woodstock collar and leash from the shelf and disguised Rosa with them.
“Rosa, don’t make a fuss, okay? Don’t bite anyone until I give the go ahead, even if they hit me.”
She woofed in response again, but had his instructions really gotten through to that earnest lady who would follow three steps behind him even in the modern age?
He had no weapons and no way of contacting anyone in the middle of enemy territory, so trying to hide some Legitimacy Kingdom equipment on his person could easily mean his death. If it was discovered, he would either be killed on the spot or tortured since the war treaties held no power here. He just had to remember the strange swarms of flies and the mystery huts out in the desert beyond the circular farms. If he was in need of a gun or bomb, he was already in a situation where he would be surrounded and brutally executed. He had to stay on the attack as he worked his way further in.
Quenser’s long maid skirt fluttered as he and Rosa left the prefab hut.
(Grinov Quarterdeck! I have to capture their leader and bring an end to this ridiculous business negotiation that has the world powers so rattled!)
He might also find the plans and specifications for Woodstock’s Second Generation Gangster, but ending the business deal took precedence. At the moment, they only had the verbal promise of the Gangster’s Elite. That did not guarantee Grinov Quarterdeck himself would approve it. It was unknown what form that approval took, but it was probably done through some kind of electronic device. For Quenser, the best option was to use Grinov’s computer to stop the business deal even if it meant pretending to be Grinov himself.
His destination was beyond the corn fields. He traveled on foot while avoiding the remains of a few collapsed grain silos and a toppled-over tractor that looked self-driving. He was headed for the main Southern European mansion by the large lake that acted as a water supply. There was also a section full of identical apartments arranged like a library’s bookcases, but he was only interested in finding Grinov Quarterdeck. After going to the trouble of donning camouflage to slip past the cameras and sensors, he had no reason not to go for the main building.
The circular farms were in utter chaos, but things changed the closer he got to the lake. It was a subtle thing, but the cacophony of clashing Objects felt more distant. It was like viewing it through a pane of glass or watching a fire on the other side of a river.
Different rules applied here.
Once he was quite close to the mansion, he heard a rustling in the corn stalks right next to him.
Acing weirdly courageous was the wrong move here.
He made sure to shriek and did not forget to cower down. All while holding Rosa like a stuffed animal so she would not jump out at whoever it was.
It was two men in unfamiliar military uniforms.
They wore gold necklaces, emerald rings, and other things no actual soldier would be wearing.
“Pardon us, lady. Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“If you’re taking shelter, then head further in. But where are you from, señorita? I get wanting to have your loved ones around, but I don’t get bringing them to a battlefield country.”
One of the swarthy maintenance soldiers reached out a hand, but Quenser did not move any closer and only squeezed Rosa’s neck in his arms. He made sure to turn a frightened look toward the men’s guns and knives instead of their faces.
The man was not wearing gloves.
The large gem in his pure gold ring glittered in the bright sunlight.
The chest and butt were not the only areas of concern. Due to differences in subcutaneous fat, a man and a woman’s palm could feel quite different. He had tried to mask those differences with the collagen gel, but the fingers were a risk due to the concentration of peripheral nerves. He remembered this causing a lot of disappointment back at the cultural festival café.
He slowly stood up while acting frightened and used that time to analyze the maintenance soldiers’ intonation.
(I was expecting the kind of Central and South American Latinos you would hear talking about nachos and jalapenos, but they end their words surprisingly crisply. So is this less Castilian and more Eastern Slavic?)
The soldiers had apparently gathered from all around the world, but language habits could be surprisingly infectious. When taking a trip within your own country, it was not uncommon to find yourself slipping into the local accent after just a few days. If he wanted to work his way deeper in, it was worth checking on these things.
An identical tone sounded from both the maintenance soldiers’ radios.
“Lady, you need to get to the mansion instead of the apartments! But don’t go underground. The water purification plant was taken out and the whole place might be flooded!!”
“Sorry we can’t escort you to safety. Let’s go, Ramon! We’ve got work to do!!”
Quenser sighed while watching the two men run off in a different direction.
(Did I act too scared? I should’ve listened longer to learn more about how things are in Woodstock and what might rub them the wrong way.)
He started thinking like the handsome lead of a spy movie, but that was a bad habit for Quensette, who grew bolder when crossdressing. And he only started thinking like that after the danger had passed. If he had actually tried it and extended the conversation, they would likely have noticed something was off in a flash.
“Let’s go, Rosa. We have permission to go to the mansion.”
She gave a reassuring bark.
After continuing toward the largest mansion, he saw more noncombatants on their way there: a girl in a sailor uniform, an old woman in a nun habit, and a house-husband with a small child in tow. There were also some girls in maid uniforms. It looked like there were different designs for farm work and indoor cleaning.
They were all carrying suspicious-looking boxes and bags, so they were likely carrying whatever their criminal family members had given them without knowing what was inside. Did they contain precious metals or weapons and ammo?
(I can’t believe this. There’s even more than Frolaytia predicted.)
If they had just sent the Objects in under the assumption that “They’re all bad guys! Yahoo!”, the debriefing might have been enough to make him vomit. Had this been a lucky mistake or a joke come true?
As expected, there was no sign of any corpses around here.
Not even those global sons of bitches must have wanted their families to see that.
He had been worried about traps like mines at first, but it was looking more and more like that would not be an issue. Even if there were mines, they would not be within the circular farms. The soldiers would not want to bury mines somewhere their family or friends might be walking.
There was a maintenance soldier with a gold bracelet at the gate, but he was not asking for an ID or a biometric scan. He was only doing a simple pat down over the clothes, but he was letting most of the women and girls go right through without that.
From here, Quenser could tell the mansion had a stereotypically symmetrical design, but a garage appeared to have been added later. There was an area sticking out unnaturally on the right side. The number of windows suggested it was a three-story building, but there might be some attic and basement rooms added on as well.
It looked quite fancy from the outside.
They may have gotten the help of a famous architect for the design. Whether they used drugs or sex workers to convince the architect was the only real question there.
Quenser let the old nun go through first and then passed through the gate to reach the rose garden. It felt a lot cooler than when he was in the circular farms. Everything felt refreshing here, so it was easy to forget this was the middle of the desert. He could probably head right into the mansion now, but a small concern occurred to him.
If his cover was blown, he was as good as dead, so every little thing felt like handling unexploded ordnance. At the same time, he could not ask anyone else for help. He had to figure it all out himself.
In other words…
(Oh, no. I never checked to see if they allow dogs inside the house here.)
Those family rules could be the most troublesome. You could not research them in advance, but getting them wrong really made you stand out. Instead of going with the flow, Quenser walked through the rose garden to take a look around. He spotted a stable for livestock at one end of the property. Based on the excited neighing he heard in response to the distant rumbling and explosions, it likely held horses. He did not see any dogs around, even though there had to be quite a few of them here based on the dog food in that prefab hut.
(There don’t seem to be stables for pigs or cows either. What do I do? Are the more practical ones located off the property?)
Quenser had no intention of letting Rosa go after coming this far. He needed to come up with some method.
Then the guard with the gold bracelet gestured at him and spoke in a deep voice.
“Is there a doctor in the house?”
Quenser spoke in a coquettish voice quieter than if someone had just dumped icy water over his head. He could tell he was gradually getting into the role. Tearful eyes and an upturned glance were Quensette’s greatest weapons.
“This pup protected me from some falling furniture. She’s normally running all around everywhere, but she doesn’t have any energy since then. She won’t eat her food either. Oh, whatever am I supposed to do!?”
“Is she hurt? Like dragging a leg or something?”
“I don’t know. Ohh, I just don’t know. This is all my fault for being so slow!!”
Dogs and cats were living creatures, so he had heard they would come down with PTSD when hiding in a bomb shelter over the course of a long bombing campaign. Rosa was not eating the food because it was not what she was used to, but that was fine as long as it fit what Quenser was saying.
Also, psychological wounds were invisible and intangible. The maintenance soldier could not make a judgment right here and now.
There was more rumbling in the distance.
“Argh, just come here!”
“Um, what about her!?”
“She can come with us! …Go ask Doctor Sandra about it later. But don’t take the dog into the examining room!”
He had expected the big boss’s base to have a medic or other doctor. In an isolated hideout, you could not use the standard infrastructure, so a simple case of appendicitis or a cavity could mean a crisis. They could not exactly pick up the phone and call an ambulance.
The main entrance’s doorknob appeared to be solid gold instead of brass.
The pleasant chill of air-conditioning welcomed them inside.
Based on the mansion’s size, they may have had the kind of industrial model used for high-rise buildings.
Once he and the dog were inside the Southern European mansion, he found it to be quite spacious. It had an open floorplan, but that made the entrance hall look so large Quenser felt it had to seem lonely most of the time. There were a lot of paintings, sculptures, and other pieces of artwork and antiques, but were those the result of Grinov’s taste or simply a desire to distribute their assets in a readily liquidable form?
They were doing well enough to support 50,000 direct members and their families. Thinking of this as the headquarters of an international corporation, this may have been relatively restrained.
There was no scent of death here.
But that was not a natural thing. It felt more like antiseptic had been sprayed around.
How many deaths had they caused to distance themselves from death?
“We are safe inside this mansion! The Objects will always do what benefits us. Victory will come to us if we wait!!”
That announcement was probably more about preventing a panic than giving an actual evacuation plan. Quenser pulled on the leash and left the hall while glancing back at the noncombatants in a sailor uniform or nun habit who had stopped to listen to the DJ soldier.
The mansion itself was symmetrical and it looked like an E when viewed from above. The main hall was at the intersection between the vertical line and the middle horizontal line and a hallway extended back from there. The view from outside suggested that led to the garage. That was all he knew and he was not even certain how many rooms there were per floor.
Although the design of the doors was enough to tell the normal rooms from the supply closets and storerooms.
(Hm? Newspaper and magazine clippings???)
He tilted his head at the clippings he saw pasted on a door, but he did not have time to read through them. A patrolling maintenance soldier could show up in this hallway at any time.
“First I need a weapon.”
The storerooms were big enough to walk around in. In addition to cleaning supplies and a first aid kit, he found money counters and cash from various parts of the world hastily bound with rubber bands. He could have taken some of them with him, but given their criminal origins, the bank might freeze his account if he tried to deposit them without doing a bit of laundering first. He decided it was best not to touch them. There were hammers and saws in the tool boxes, but there was no explaining those if they were discovered hidden in his skirt. He could not forget that blowing his cover meant death.
“What are these? Ingots???”
The metal bars lying around did not appear to be gold or silver. They were printed with the text “Pt, 99.99%”. If that was true, then these were platinum. With a density of 21.4, enough to fill a 1-liter carton of milk would weigh 21.4kg. He traced his finger across that metal which was too heavy to easily lift in one hand.
(No, is this an imitation alloy given a similar weight? But why? I thought the police had developed these to use as a decoy ransom.)
He doubted Woodstock had simply been fooled.
Were they analyzing the enemy’s tech to research ways to tell the difference, or were they used to fool other criminal organizations?
“Did they use mechanical alloying? Well, that’s not important.”
He could not wield something this heavy as a weapon. He was more likely to drop it on his little toe.
What would pack a punch but not raise any eyebrows if he carried it around? After some thought, he selected the item he wanted.
(It can’t be a blade or a blunt object. So does that leave something electric?)
The heating elements for bug zappers had a surprisingly high voltage. With the farms nearby, they must have suffered from a lot of mosquitos and flies because there was quiet a selection. There was the kind that hung from the eaves and there was a portable vacuum that linked with a bug zapper box with the heating element wrapped around it, but Quenser was focused on the electric bug sprayer you wore around the neck. It was a camping supply that ran on a lithium battery, but he removed the cover, exposed the wiring, made some modifications so two metal clips acted as electrodes, and placed the cover back on.
(The standard amount would be 20,000 volts, I think. To be honest, grabbing a glass ashtray and conking them on the head might be a faster way to knock someone out at this range.)
It was small for a stun gun and there were ridiculous models out there that were more than 200 times as powerful.
Still, when he activated it as a test, Rosa looked up in surprise at a distinctive sound a bit different from the buzzing of bug wings. She was well trained, but the unfamiliar could still startle her.
A stun gun was not all that special a weapon.
The specifics will be omitted here, but you can see how ubiquitous the necessary parts are if you consider what handheld products can produce a lot of electricity at once. Of course, if you lack the proper knowledge, you are liable to shock yourself or blow up the battery, so do not try this at home. A plastic device smaller than a pack of cigarettes was now creating bluish-white sparks. What mattered now was a camouflaged weapon, not a powerful one.
Instead of hiding it in his pocket, Quenser placed the string around his neck to wear it as originally intended.
“Let’s go, Rosa. Time to search the place.”
They walked back out into the hallway.
Leaving the group and acting alone was frightening. It was not surprising he wanted the dog and a weapon to protect him.
“Sandra? Doctor Sandra?”
He was of course really looking for Grinov Quarterdeck. He had not forgotten that.
But as insurance in case he was discovered, he quietly called out the name of the doctor he had been told about while quietly knocking on and trying each of the doors he came across. This was not the time to press against the walls and hide on the ceiling like a ninja. The trick to staying alive was to limit his actions to ones he could explain if he was found.
Only about half the doors were locked.
This was Woodstock’s home base. That seemed careless for the headquarters of an international corporation of 50,000, but it felt overly strict for a home.
He saw a game room with a pool table and a dart board, a jacuzzi with a home theater system, and a bar with plenty of vodka bottles, but no sign of any people.
There were still precious metals and suspicious stacks of cash lying around, but he was more interested in the newspaper and magazine clippings. They were everywhere – in scrapbooks or on corkboards.
(An Eastern European forest, 30,000 missing people, and a joint military exercise?)
What was all that about? Were they connected to some previous job as an arms dealer?
There were also some things like an oddly scorched plastic doll and a toy plane with broken wings. That felt strange when Woodstock had all their jewels and gold bars just lying around.
(None of that is going to tell me where Grinov is.)
Quenser made a mental note of what he had seen and got back to his main objective.
He still had a powerful weapon.
(The best spot would be…here, I guess. As the master of the mansion, Grinov would want the best seat in every room. I can look at the angle of the TV, the location of the air-conditioning vent, and the position of any plants that might block the view. Now what other items are in here?)
“Rosa. Sniff this chair and…oh, I know. The stock of this hunting rifle.”
After receiving a woof in response, he had her smell the most luxurious seat at the bar which had so many cruel items around it.
Rosa was a German shepherd and she could do the work of a police hound as well as a combat canine. Even if the human eye could not see anything, her nose could pick up the trail.
…Grinov had an electric scale to measure out the powder and various small knives for carving out the wooden stock, but what was he planning to shoot with that hunting rifle out in the empty desert? Quenser really hoped it was not a bipedal mammal known for wearing clothing.
Quenser started down the hallway with Rosa leading the way while occasionally moving her nose to the floor. There was apparently a small stairway other than the one in the main hall and they used that to reach the third floor and approach one door in particular.
“Doctor Sandra, are you in here…?”
When Quenser whispered the name of someone he knew was not there and quietly knocked on the center of the door, he heard a deep noise from within.
The scent of the mansion’s master had led him here.
That had to be Grinov Quarterdeck.
Quenser removed the handmade stun gun from around his neck and glanced over at a flower pot decorating the hallway. Even with the door shut tight, there was enough of a gap to slip a piece of paper underneath. If he poured out the flower pot’s water and used the stun gun on it, he could send the electrical shock past the door. Even so, he was at a disadvantage here. He could hit the man if he casually grabbed the door to open it, but the man could always stay away from the door, pull a magnum from a desk drawer, and fire into the center of the door. Plus, there might be more than one person in the room. And it was all for naught if the man was wearing waterproof military boots. 20,000 volts might sound like a lot, but it was a far cry from a train’s high-voltage line.
Quenser could not afford to thoughtlessly wait around for the man to do something.
Several Objects were fighting a meaningless battle at this very moment and lots of soldiers had to be fleeing on the ground below them. No, in the worst case, those soldiers might be killing each other. Heivia, Myonri, and even the Princess. With every second that passed, someone he knew could be having their life snuffed out.
He had to end this as quickly as possible.
Now was the time for decisive action.
The doorknob (which appeared to be pure gold) shook.
And the door slowly opened inwards.
“Go, Rosa! Get in there!!”
Quenser threw the flower pot’s water at the door and zapped the floor with his stun gun.
And to make sure the collapsing body did not block the door, he half-tackled the door with his shoulder.
He let go of the leash and sent the dog in first.
Once Rosa started moving, she did not bark at all until she had dealt with her target.
Quenser was searching the mansion on the pretext of finding Doctor Sandra. If Grinov simply said “she’s not here”, that was that. Using that pretext was the safer option, but he would never get into the room that way.
Luckily, he heard no gunfire or yelling.
He only heard a gentle woof that would not let the rest of the mansion know anything was wrong.
The battle was over.
“What, was there no one else in there?”
Dogs did not have the ability to point, so Rosa simply kept her jaws clamped down on a large man collapsed on the floor.
That seemed to settle it.
“So this is Grinov. Grinov Quarterdeck.”
The stun gun had taken down a large white man with a Santa-like beard and short hair. He was muscular and his bare arms had a few notable tattoos.
He supposedly had his origins in an Eastern European gang, but that permafrost fashion must not have been bearable in South America. He still wore the fancy slacks, but he had removed the coat and tie and the white shirt’s sleeves were rolled up.
Quenser stepped over the collapsed man to enter the room and gave a quick pat of the German shepherd’s head when her attention shifted from Grinov to him.
“Is this Grinov’s office?”
There was a large desk and lots of thick law and economics books. Quenser ignored the usual money counters, jewels, and credit cards and passports held together with rubber bands, but there was also weapon concept art and 3D-printed Object weapon models. There was a flat-screen monitor on the desk and the tower computer itself was forcibly stuffed in the space for the chair. It looked like a fairly old model given how much money had been spent on the room. There was no sign of any tablets or AI speakers either.
Everything here had been realized and sent to the battlefield.
Quenser had worked with the military and gradually studied to be a designer while getting yelled at, so his efforts felt almost worthless when he saw all this. By using the underhanded methods of the Parasite Plan and the Gangster, this man had skipped past all that work to make the dream a reality.
How much money and treasure had he seen in this mansion?
Grinov Quarterdeck had everything Quenser wanted from his goal of outdoing the nobles as a commoner. And he had used a method the clever boy had never even considered.
Quenser had to smile bitterly when he picked up the mobile device sitting on the desk. Only those in the medical field used these anymore.
As an arms dealer, Grinov may have disliked the “extra features” of modern smartphones, like voice commands that could be recording at any time and sent the data to an external server or like mysterious data collection scripts embedded in the base OS.
Quenser’s nose detected the scent of old paper and glue.
Overall, it reminded him of a lawyer or accountant’s office.
There were some gaps in the bookcases on the wall. That gave room for doors on a wall not bordering the hallway. Opening those revealed a simple bathroom and a nap room. There was nowhere anyone else could be hiding.
He heard an odd groan.
The shock had only been 20,000 volts. Unlike in movies or dramas, a real stun gun was not guaranteed to knock someone cleanly out. You should only expect them to keep someone immobile for 30 seconds to a minute.
Grinov’s right arm shot up.
Quenser spotted the unique dull glint of metal there.
“Sic him, Rosa!”
Quenser quickly gave a command, but the bearded man was fast.
He did not even hesitate to cut the side of his own neck with a knife.
Quenser had his own situation to worry about.
All weapon deals required approval from Grinov as their big boss. That could be used to end the verbal promise on the battlefield and restore order to the chaos there. That was the plan anyway.
The German shepherd finally managed to bite the godfather’s right wrist and tear the blade from his grasp, but it was too late. Quenser quickly grabbed a piece of weapon concept art from the table, thought better of it, grabbed a design idea for a tattoo instead, and ran over. Not even the best military dog could treat a wounded person. A human was needed to roll up the thin paper and press it to the wound on the side of the man’s neck.
“Don’t die yet. At least wait until you’ve told me how to approve and reject deals first!!”
By stopping the bleeding, Quenser could at least stop the man from “quitting while he was ahead”. But unless he stabilized the man’s vital signs, he could not force any information out of him using violence. It was all over if Grinov died.
(Dammit, he took the initiative from me!!)
After making sure the bleeding had stopped, Quenser wrapped some rubber around the paper to hold it in place and left Grinov in Rosa’s care. Getting anything out of the man would be difficult, so he had to gather what information he could on his own.
The dog stood on the man’s back while he lay face down.
Meanwhile, Quenser drew the curtains and both closed and locked the door to the hallway. He grabbed the lamp from the ebony desk and used the power cord to tie the man’s hands behind his back to prevent a second suicide attempt.
The middle-aged man with the distinctive beard forcibly twisted around to get a look at Quenser while speaking with a bit of a slur in his voice.
“Oh, what’s this? Having the dog take me in the ass?”
“Rosa’s a girl, you dumbass. And she’s too good for you anyway.”
For being so muscular and having so many tattoos across his body, he spoke with a surprisingly calm tone.
He may have run the arms dealer organization using clever economic principles in addition to simple violence.
“You are dead, I hope you know. No matter what you try, you will not leave here alive. My organization uses cars for its executions. You will be stripped naked, both hands will be tied to the back of the car, lighter fluid will be poured over your foolish little head, and you will be set ablaze. Of course, no one lives to see the flames fade.”
“Rosa, if you’re going to bite anything off, make it just the one ear. Don’t kill him yet.”
This was a criminal field where the war treaties did not apply.
He might have captured Grinov, but that was a temporary thing and the man’s soldiers would act once they noticed something was amiss. This room would be surrounded and there was no hope of winning then. What would happen once they broke down the door and dragged Quenser outside?
He refused to picture the rest of the scene and made sure not to let his imagination get the better of him.
This man was an expert when it came to these things, so he would see through any bluff Quenser tried to make. That was why the falsely polite man maintained his calm demeanor despite the wound to his neck cut and the dog holding him to the floor.
(Don’t lose focus. Do what needs to be done.)
Grinov’s approval was needed for all deals.
Quenser’s goal was to capture the top of Woodstock and use the computer or paperwork to end the business deal being made with a verbal promise. The Gangster was enough of a threat on its own, so they did not need the four world powers fighting each other here.
The enemy was intentionally using a method outside the norm to rattle them.
Quenser had saved his own life with a similar approach using his plastic explosives, so he understood. If they were going to the trouble of using this nonstandard method, it meant they were not confident of their ability to defeat so many Objects with just that mystery Second Generation.
So what did he need?
(The computer seems the most likely.)
That should contain all the contract formats used by Woodstock in its arms dealing. That would include the forms for annulling or freezing a deal.
Grinov was not needed to create the form. His job was just to approve it and that should only need his computer and account. Although it might ask for an electronic signature. At any rate, if Quenser sent the four world powers an electronic form saying Woodstock would not give them the Gangster, they would at least stop their fruitless popularity contest of a battle over it.
Quenser opened the heavy desk drawer, pulled out some jewels, a cigar case, and a scrapbook detailing an accident during a joint military exercise, placed them all on the desk, and found a few cables and what looked like an earphone. There was no obvious biometric scanner to read the veins in the palm or the iris of the eye.
(An earphone, huh?)
The shape of the inner ear could also be used for biometric identification. Back at his safe country school, he had heard of a method that sent out a tone and identified people based on how it was reflected back inside their ear.
He had to try everything he could.
He was the one who had tied him up, but Quenser lacked the strength and the desire to princess carry the bearded man. He tossed out that nightmarish option and instead slid him over in front of the computer. After seating the man in the chair with his hands still tied behind him, Grinov groaned at the somewhat painful position.
“Trying biometric identification? Try my fingerprint and eye if you like. I am curious to see what happens when none of it works.”
With his hands tied behind his back, he could only shake his head which was not enough to keep the earphone out.
Quenser tried measuring the shape of the man’s inner ear using the earphone connected to the computer with a cable.
“We are a Woodstock, a criminal organization.”
Quenser tried the same thing again, but no luck.
Trying too many times could cause the ID screen itself to lock up.
Grinov gave a snort of laughter.
“We always consider the possibility of attack. Were you satisfied when you found the same face in the photo you were shown? Plastic surgery is enough to-…”
Quenser did not even bother listening as he dug through the drawers and stuck a communication cable into a slot on the locked computer.
He plugged the other end into a piece of plastic smaller than a pack of cigarettes.
After connecting the electric bug sprayer he had used as a stun gun, he tossed the device onto the desk.
“Wait, what are you doing!?”
“You don’t have a tablet or an AI speaker. You intentionally use an outdated computer so you can run a script of yours to keep it from gathering any data, don’t you? These days, everything connects to the internet. In the Information Alliance, I hear even their bidet toilets are monitoring everything with IoT functionality. Now, what about this? You intentionally limited the connections to this precious computer, but don’t you think it’ll be leaking data like crazy with this wireless antenna attached? It might be hard to tell since it’s invisible, but it’s sending its signal in every direction.”
“So what’s on here? A list of clients? Plans for new weapons? A map of all your secret transport routes? Or maybe photos of your family living back in a safe country, oblivious to these illegal dealings? I don’t care if it’s a mistress, an ex, or your first love from elementary school. Did you really bring everyone you care about to this mansion? The intelligence division isn’t exactly known for their mercy. If they find out you’re friends with someone, it doesn’t matter which of the world powers they’re living in; masked men will cross whatever borders they have to and take revenge. You can count on it. And the poor victims probably won’t know why it’s happening even as they’re being beaten and killed. But you know exactly why it would be happening, don’t you!? Even after all the people you’ve killed and buried out there in the desert, you don’t want the same thing to happen to the people I’m talking about, do you!?”
To tell the truth, he was only using the phone cable to charge the electric bug sprayer’s lithium battery. It could not transmit data and the intelligence division was not that monstrous. But the more nervous a person was in general, the more easily they would go up in flames if you gave them a spark.
“A biometric scan error? The earphone measures the shape of your inner ear. You can fool that by stuffing something in there. That doesn’t prove you’re a body double.”
“So here’s the deal: if you’re just a body double, you can ignore this, right? In that case, we’re only talking about the brutal deaths of complete strangers. But that data is making its way to the military servers as we speak. I don’t care which way this goes, so will you tell me what I need to know or will the electronic simulation division have to break the encryption to access it that way?”
Quenser only had one basis for making such a bold gamble.
Back in the maintenance base zone, Oh Ho Ho had said Grinov would not want to reveal any weakness to his subordinates and thus had never used a body double.
The muscular man with a large beard and short hear uttered a low groan.
“What do you want?”
“My friends’ lives. Just getting the data out isn’t enough to protect them. I need your identity to use this computer, so tell me how to approve and reject deals! What do I need after unlocking the computer!?”
He heard a dull thud.
The flat-screen monitor was on the desk, but the tower computer itself was below. The bearded man’s hands were tied behind the back, but he had kicked the computer as hard as he could.
For him, stopping the supposed leak of personal data was enough.
This response to the private threat suggested this really was the real one. But Quenser had pushed him too hard. Silencing the arms dealer with another stun gun blast was meaningless since the display on the monitor had already died. He detected the unique stench of burning plastic. He pulled the tower computer from below the desk, but the plastic cover had split open.
(That isn’t all. Was there a plastic pack of chemicals in the empty space of an expansion slot? This is an elevated area with lots of seismic activity. Wasn’t he afraid of an earthquake triggering this on accident?)
If the man was this cautious, it was unlikely he had sent any evidence of his crimes to an external cloud. But a search through all the drawers and the underside of the desk did not turn up any kind of flash memory.
It was hard to imagine there were no backups at all, but could he really find it in a hurry? Flash memory could be smaller than a kernel of corn. There was not enough time to tear up all of the mansion’s carpeting and search through all of the circular farms. The farms extended beyond the horizon and it was even possible the backup was buried in the distant desert like a landmine. There was no finding that when he did not even know what color or shape to be looking for.
But he did have Grinov.
That man was needed to approve all deals. It might be possible to prove it was really him using the ear-scanning earphone. The broken computer might not actually be necessary as long as he knew that method. But he could not stay here. Even if he stopped the deal for the time being, the Woodstock soldiers would surround the room and take back Grinov once they noticed something was wrong. Then their godfather only needed to place the earphone in his ear and redo the approval work.
Quenser slowly inhaled and exhaled.
The computer was broken and he could not use the big boss here. So what did he have to do? Heivia, Myonri, and even the Princess. How could he stop the meaningless battle that was sure to destroy those familiar faces?
The answer was obvious.
If he did it here, the big boss would be taken back. But if he did the work beyond the criminal organization’s reach, they could not retrieve him.
The maid looked up and spoke.
“I don’t care if you’re alive or dead when we get there, Grinov Quarterdeck, but I’m taking you back to our maintenance base zone.”
The surprisingly loud sound of the wheels wore on Quensette’s nerves.
The wheels belonged to a cleaning cart he had borrowed from the linen room on the same floor.
He was rolling it down the air-conditioned hallway to the office from which he had come.
“Is everything fine, Rosa?”
The dog barked in response.
Grinov managed a weak laugh with his hands tied behind his back and the dog keeping an eye on him.
“What do you hope to accomplish by stuffing me in there? Do you really think you can even escape this mansion?”
“If that isn’t going to work, I can always chop off your bearded head and stuff it in a barf bag. Is that what you would prefer?”
“…Are you enjoying this?”
“I have what you do not. In fact, this fate has befallen me because I have it. This is how oppressive our world is. There is no freedom here, only despair. How does it feel to prove that with your own actions?”
“We have almost certainly killed more criminals than all of you have. Everyone kills to keep themselves safe. The only difference is the set of rules we follow, but no one can really say which set is the correct one. You must know just how selfish the laws and international treaties enacted by the four world powers are. The justice you believe in is simply that which is poured from the tap when you hold out your hands. We have constructed a different set of rules on the other side of the coin. That is the truth of the matter.”
After instilling some politeness in the bearded man using a kick to his defenseless gut, Quenser chucked him into the cleaning cart and then had Rosa join him in that cramped space. What would happen to the man if he did anything to displease those two? Without the use of his hands, he could not avoid Quenser’s kicks and now there was a legit military dog right in front of him. There was no escape this time and no clever suicide was available, so it was sure to be a fun little picnic.
“Tear out his windpipe if he says anything, Rosa. Bringing back his corpse is good enough.”
It was unclear if she could actually understand such a complex command, but it only had to keep Grinov quiet.
After placing a few sheets over the cleaning cart to cover up the openings, Quenser glanced over at the drawers he had pulled out from the desk. They contained everything from documents to a handgun, but he was interested in something else: a car key.
“A Dynamix EV Grade 500s? That’s a luxury self-driving electric car, right?”
Seeing the maker’s logo reminded him of the TV commercial. It was an odd choice for Grinov who disliked the cloud and big data, but Dora Blue-Hawaii, the naked woman from the arms dealer he had met back in Hawaii, had wielded special equipment based on a flying car. He had also seen a self-driving tractor rolled over in the farms and the sprinkler system supporting those farms was program controlled. Perhaps Grinov’s personal desktop was its own thing and the organization as a whole had an online environment. …Of course, they would be paying a hacker to provide specialized maintenance and inspections of the system just like paying a personal lawyer or accountant.
Quenser could not drive a car or motorcycle, but he could not be picky. He would let the machine handle it.
A peaceful solution had ceased to be an option from the moment he stun gunned Grinov. The snowball was already rolling down the hill, so he had to leave this Southern European mansion before things got worse at an accelerating rate.
He pushed the cleaning cart down the hall now that it was much heavier than before. He could not use the stairs with this, so he needed the service elevator used for carrying food.
This was supposedly the top floor, but for some reason, there was both an up and a down button. Had they simply used the same standard panels for all floors, or was there an attic area? Either way, Quenser was only interested in going down. He pressed that button and waited.
The elevator was not like those found in a department store or hotel. It was the simple type with a metal accordion door that pulled to the side to open. It was small enough that the cart would almost entirely fill it. The wires were exposed and you could likely reach them if you stuck your hand through the gaps in the door.
Was this so plain and old-fashioned compared to the rest because the mansion’s owner would never use it?
For a while, Quenser only heard a clanking sound much like an old clothes dryer. The building was only 3 floors, but the elevator must have used a pretty cheap motor.
Standing still only fueled his impatience. He had to consciously suppress the urge to tap his feet.
How long did it really take? A minute? Three minutes?
Finally, the view through the accordion door showed a giant mass appearing in the emptiness of the elevator shaft. There was no sign of a safety device, so there was nothing you could do if your finger or clothing got caught. Quenser waited for the elevator to come to a complete stop before he reached for the door.
“Wait, don’t do that! You need to press the button before sliding the door. If the elevator starts moving, you’ll be caught in it!!”
But he was pretty sure he managed to keep it from showing on his face.
A sexy maid who looked a lot like a young wife stepped around a corner of the hallway and responded to Newcomer Quensette’s clothing rather than his face.
“Wait. Why are you wearing the outdoor uniform for indoor work?”
He just about clicked his tongue. When he put on this maid uniform back in the prefab hut, hadn’t he assumed the thick, heavy-duty uniform was meant for farm work? There was more than one variety of maid uniform here.
He did not need a lame excuse right now.
He shoved the cleaning cart into the elevator.
He left behind the young wife maid, who clearly took her job too seriously to be wasted on a criminal organization, and he rapidly tapped the down button inside the elevator. The sexy and panicked maid ran over, but just before she arrived, the elevator (which was probably older than her) started moving with that disconcerting clanking sound.
Just three floors.
His heart was pounding. If that pheromone-leaking maid ran down the stairs or calmly used a radio or internal phone to call down to the lower floors, he might find some swarthy soldiers waiting for him when the elevator arrived. He was reminded of Grinov’s amused threat about executing people by tying them to a car, dumping lighter fluid over their head, setting them on fire, and dragging them around until the flames died down.
“It does not matter if you achieve your dream or not.”
“Shut up, Grinov.”
“If an undesirable individual achieves success, this is how they are rewarded. Those in power will steal success from anyone who shows up later. And which side of that equation would you fall on? I doubt your position is as safe as you think it is.”
“I said shut up!!”
(It doesn’t matter if he’s dead. Would it have been easier to chuck him out the window and just casually walk down the stairs? Dammit!)
The best ideas always came to you after the train had passed that station.
The elevator arrived at the first floor.
The garage could not be that far away. He was sure to find it after walking 20 or 30 meters down the hallway.
But he ran across a maintenance soldier the instant he pushed the cleaning cart out into the hallway.
A gold necklace glittered at the man’s neck.
This could have been a chance for sweet Quensette to test her acting skills, but…
A low zapping sound rang out.
The instant he was in range, Quenser hit the guy with his electric bug sprayer stun gun. He had no way of knowing how far word had spread from the young wife maid on the third floor, so he had to abandon the possibility of a safe option.
He did not know the right way to do this.
Nothing he was doing may have resembled the recommendations in the manuals of the Legitimacy Kingdom military’s intelligence division.
But he had to trust that he had done the right thing.
He had seen the general location of the garage when viewing the mansion from outside, so he gripped the cleaning cart’s handle and pushed it forcefully ahead. He sped up to a run and slammed the cart into a maintenance soldier who turned around in the center of the hallway to see what was happening.
With a sound louder than a bicycle crash, the cart hit him in the back of the hip and he writhed and rolled on the floor. However, he had a friend who stuck his head out of a nearby door.
At his shout, the sheets placed over the cart were swept off from within. A dog leapt out like a jack-in-the-box and attacked before the surprised soldier could grab the assault rifle from the sling belt.
Quenser did not have time to see how it turned out.
He simply pushed the Grinov-carrying cart further on.
Then he heard a short scream.
He looked back with skirt fluttering and gave a quick shout.
“Rosa, leave her alone! Come here!!”
The dog ran right past a crouching girl in overalls.
“Dad…? No, how could this happen!?”
This is what it meant to fight the arms dealers. The only people here were their friends and family. Nothing he did here would be appreciated in the slightest.
He still had a ways to go before reaching the garage.
The German shepherd caught up and easily passed him.
He did not bother opening the door.
Instead, he used the cart’s weight to smash through the door like a battering ram and continued right on in.
The place smelled of motor oil.
The air conditioning must have been off since no one was here, so it was sweltering inside.
It was quite large for a garage. Brightly polished luxury cars were lined up like at a dealership. They looked more like they were being displayed than stored.
Quenser walked quickly across the garage while making sure he did not accidentally kick any of the imitation platinum lying around. Enough to fill a 1-liter bottle would weigh 21.4kg, so he could easily break a toe on those things. He checked the inscription on the car key he had found.
“Rosa, search with me! N-A-5-7-8-7-6-4-4-3!!”
She cheerfully barked in response.
He patted Rosa’s head when she found the car he wanted. The Dynamix EV Grade 500s was a silver 4-door, but despite looking like a sports car, it had proper 4-wheel drive. It even had a winch. It was made powerful enough to drive around in the desert here. It was also quite spacious, making it perfect for car sex.
Quenser pressed the button on the key to unlock the door.
He pulled the bearded man out from the cleaning cart.
“Do you want the passenger seat or the trunk!?”
“I would prefer to see my fate coming so I can respond accordingly. You remind me a lot of me. I can tell you wish to turn this confused world on its head even if it means breaking the rules. What you see happening to me here is a path you too will walk one day.”
Without waiting for the man’s response, Quenser grabbed his head and shoved him into the car with his hands still tied behind his back. He had Rosa sit in the back seat where she could leap at Grinov at a moment’s notice. Quenser took the driver’s seat even though he did not know how to drive.
All he could do inside the hot car was switch on the air-conditioning.
(What do I do? I’ve never used a self-driving car before! I don’t even know how to start it up!!)
For some reason, the keyhole was on the side of the GPS screen. You inserted it like USB memory. The GPS seemed to be linked with control of the car, but it of course did not have the location of the coalition force’s maintenance base zone in its map data. He ultimately had to manually input the numerical coordinates and then the 500s started up with a quiet vroom. …Although it was an electric car, so that was only a sound effect meant to sound the part.
“Oh, oh? What?”
The garage’s exit was covered by a metal shutter, but the EV continued forward regardless. Based on the ads on TV, it could even parallel park on its own and it had the image recognition and collision prevention radar needed to stop just before actually hitting something. But those ads were just CG, weren’t they? Hadn’t there been a bunch of fine print at the edge of the screen saying that scenario was only for advertisement purposes? How real had it actually been??? Quenser’s shoulders tensed up, but then he saw something: Grinov Quarterdeck in the passenger seat.
The man’s hands were tied behind his back, but he kicked through the bottom of the dashboard, pulled out the bundled-together power cables, and tore them apart.
“Only miniskirt martial artist women should be that skilled with their legs!!!!!!”
Quenser stopped the man with the electric bug sprayer stun gun, but it was too late. That wiring must have been part of the auto-brake system because the luxury EV ignored the obstacle up ahead, broke right through the metal shutter, and drove out into the garden.
A maintenance soldier stood in their way.
Quenser frantically grabbed the wheel and jerked it to the side. The self-driving car was program controlled, but it still gave priority to a manual override. They just barely avoided hitting the soldier, but there was no time to step on the brake pedal.
Stopping now would mean death.
He heard a short burst of gunfire from behind and the rear window shattered. The sweltering 40-degree air poured in. This was what he got for not killing that soldier. They must have wanted some level of bulletproofing but not wanted to be trapped in the car either because the glass was designed to break into beads with rounded edges. Rosa barked in annoyance as they landed on her.
The program was still running just fine.
However, the 500s could not use its brakes no matter what stood in its way: a flower bed, a metal fence, or a human. It was like a chaotic thrill ride.
“There is no saving you.”
Either he had yet to recover from the stun gun or he had lost more blood from his neck wound than expected because the bearded man slurred his speech a bit in the passenger seat.
“No matter what happens in the meantime, you will reach a dead end. You will ultimately be surrounded and forced to beg for your life.”
“Don’t you have anything better to do?”
Why was the man provoking him like this while within arm’s reach? Quenser used another stun gun blast to silence that king of the hill. People could get used to anything, so it looked like the electrical violence was not going to work much longer. He missed when he was looking after Hina Liqueurball back in the Hawaii District. Why were there no cute girls around here? He wanted to sulk.
They noisily broke through the main gate and went airborne for a moment as they left the mansion’s property.
There was no such thing as safety around here.
But things were about to become even more dangerous. Once they reached the circular farms, they would have reached a giants’ colosseum where multiple Objects fought.
(Oh, whoops. My uniform and explosives are still in that prefab hut. The little things don’t matter as much, but I need to retrieve the communications equipment to save us some encryption trouble. This is an arms dealer’s hideout, so they’ll definitely sell them to the highest bidder!!)
After swerving around as best he could to avoid a rolled tractor and the remains of a grain silo, the hut came into view. He slammed on the brakes, pitched forward a bit, awkwardly pulled on the hand brake, and only then noticed the shift lever. He had the order backwards, but he tried grabbing that. It was an automatic, but he pushed too hard, shifting from drive all the way to reverse, and had to pull it back into park. He made a quick comment while opening the door.
“Rosa, kill him if he tries anything funny.”
He received a reassuring bark in response.
Once outside, the scorching 40-degree sunlight hit him.
He was interested in the vent on the side of the concrete base, not the inside of the prefab hut itself. He crouched down, reached inside, and pulled out the gear he had stuffed inside a garbage bag.
He had only been gone for two minutes, but he returned to find the bearded man covered in blood. And not because his neck wound had reopened.
Quenser reacted with his expression flat.
“That’s what happens when you try to run away, moron.”
He had expected for Rosa to look proud of herself, but she was actually cowering down in the back seat. The problem seemed to be the garbage bag Quenser was carrying. She must not have wanted to put her bulletproof jacket back on. The maid(?) made sure to brush the round shards of glass out of the dog’s fur, and then…
“C’mon, Rosa. Don’t struggle. A girl needs to look nice!”
Rosa barked in protest, but this was a battlefield. The jacket could be the difference between life and death, so he had to harden his heart.
Quenser got the bulletproof jacket on her.
“There, you go, Rosa. You look cute.”
She only whined in an incredibly displeased way.
Quenser returned the shift lever and hand brake to normal and let the program take control once more.
At that very moment, the prefab hut was vaporized by a deafening explosion.
He was nearly knocked over even inside the car. No, it was the 500s itself that rose up on two wheels like someone lifting one side of a tea table.
A stray shell had hit.
By the time he realized that, the windows and mirrors had shattered and transparent flakes had poured down on his head. They were designed to shatter in round bead shapes, but he might have been soaked with blood otherwise. With those reflective additions to the maid uniform, Quensette had finally begun to sparkle.
The cool air-conditioned air was escaping the car.
A normal car might have stopped running at this point, but this was a self-driving car with its safety features gone. It forcibly returned to its designated course with an unnatural grinding sound.
The sound of corn and sprinklers being knocked down was rapidly approaching from the side.
Could anyone still call this Operation Southern Cross Grim Reaper without a care in the world? The joint operation was a complete mess.
“They’re already this close!?”
This was not to the time to shout about the Object moving right in front of them. Something fell onto the hood with a sticky splat. This was not something they had hit; it had clearly fallen from above.
It was the upper half of a soldier.
Quenser’s eyes met those fully widened ones. There was nothing he could do. When the program-controlled electric car made a smooth turn, the corpse slid to the side and off the edge of the hood.
Only after it vanished from view did he realize it had worn a Legitimacy Kingdom uniform. But after seeing that, he did not have the courage to retrieve the dog tags.
Even now, the giants were chaotically duking it out above the heads of the mere worms. It did not matter whether or not they intended to attack. They could easily hit their own allies without meaning to. And regardless, it was obvious who would break if it was human against machine.
“Whose Object is that!? Which side are they on!?”
He tried to look up and check, but they were too close to see past the bottom. It was hard to look straight up while inside a car. He remained uncertain of anything as the windowless car ended up passing between the two fighting Objects.
And that was not the only battle.
It was happening everywhere.
The neatly-maintained circular corn fields were blown away, self-driving tractors burned on their sides, and all the grain silos had collapsed. Fresh water was precious in the desert, but it gushed from the broken sprinklers. Some horses must have escaped from somewhere because they were running around in a panic. This was hell on earth. And it was gradually approaching that mansion filled with noncombatants, even if they were the friends and family of the arms dealers. The end result was not a pleasant thing to imagine.
“Oh, right. My radio.”
Since it was a self-driving car, Quenser was free to take his eyes off the road(?). Before he even twisted around and reached into the back seat, Rosa had already dug through the garbage bag and grabbed the device in her mouth. He gave her a quick pat as he switched it on to hear different voices describing the state of the battlefield. It was a little like the audio tour at a museum.
“Ho ho. Oh ho ho ho ho! To be honest, my Gatling 033 is perfect already and has no need for a scattershot weapon, but you would make for a nice, if pitiful, backup dancer. Now watch in awe and think about how you could help accentuate what I can do. Oh ho ho ho ho ho ho!!”
“Nice, that one earns you a lot of points. The Capitalist Corporations is edging out the Faith Organization now! Is that the final offer? Anyone else want to show off what they can do for us!?”
“Ehhh? Sticking with it longer will increase the price of fuel??? Then what’s the point of any of this!?”
“This is a gift from god! It is no mere coincidence that a cutting-edge Second Generation is within our grasp here!! Just take apart the words ‘Parasite Plan’ and rearrange them. We must not waste this opportunity!!”
“It’s almost laughable how much they’re all letting this arms dealer mess with them…”
It was complete chaos.
They had set up a temporary joint channel for Operation Southern Cross Grim Reaper, so everyone’s reports were jumbled together.
Quenser clicked his tongue in the driver’s seat and looked off into the distance.
There he saw a familiar Object: the Baby Magnum.
It had been half-dead when he left, but it was still under attack from multiple other Objects. The Legitimacy Kingdom’s Escalibor must have had trouble joining the battle, so it had yet to show itself.
Was the Legitimacy Kingdom the only one opposing the fight to take the arms dealer Object for themselves? She had to treat every other participant in this giants’ fight as an enemy. Even more than the illegal Second Generation Gangster had to.
The others were ganging up on the weakest one so they would not end up in last place themselves. They had been tricked into thinking that was the right thing to do. This was the cold principle of “survival of the fittest” applied to the economic and financial fields. This was how Grinov Quarterdeck manipulated people using profit and loss.
Simply listening was not enough.
The Princess would never last at this rate. As long as the Gangster remained at the center of it all, the coalition force would continue to be manipulated and they would continue ganging up on the Princess who was insisting on what was right.
It did not matter if they would not listen to a reasonable argument. Quenser decided to do this according to the dirty logic of the arms dealers and their Parasite Plan.
He needed to move the eye of the storm.
He hit his radio’s switch in order to save the Princess.
He had just one goal:
“What the hell, Oh Ho Ho!? Are you still stuck on something so shallow!?”
“You’re free to invest in whatever you want, but if you don’t get Woodstock’s Object, everything you’ve spent on it goes right down the drain. Do you have any idea how much a single shot from an Object costs!? Surely you know wars between powerful nations are a lot like throwing attaché cases stuffed with cash at each other! This is your choice, so it’s your responsibility. You do understand that the more you pay, the riskier a gamble it is, right? Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the future idol of newspaper clothing, lady of a cardboard home, and saint of styrofoam!!”
Weapons, ammo, fuel, and personnel. War was expensive.
They might be hoping to confiscate money and valuables from the criminal organization.
They might be after the resources in the nearby salt lake.
They might be filming material for a music video.
They might be using the result to demand funding from an international anti-crime foundation.
…After all, this was not the usual clean wars fought against other nations. You did not earn money simply by defeating dirty criminals. And no one wanted to go into debt. The world powers had only joined this fight after counting their chickens before they hatched and assuming they could make some money from it.
But what if it did not work out?
Without the income they assumed they would receive, all the money they spent would not be coming back. It was the same as investing in wheat futures or flipping real estate. If their estimates proved naïve, the amount they invested went down the drain and the VIPs in a supposed position of safety would lose their jobs.
“By the way, Oh Ho Ho, what happened to the Information Alliance’s Perfect Range? If it was blown away into scraps, you’re going to have a real hard time making up for that loss.”
Who would be forced to take responsibility there?
A deadly game of musical chairs was fast approaching.
“Ho, oh ho ho. Don’t be silly! War is a serious matter that cannot be discussed in terms of simple morality and heroism. Be a sore loser if you like, but your bluffs cannot rattle me…”
Quenser ignored her and instead held up his mobile device. He made sure he and the restrained arms dealer boss were in the frame, snapped a photo, and uploaded it using the coalition force datalink.
“Grinov Quarterdeck has been captured. Can you really continue your deal with Woodstock if I slit his throat? Every deal they make requires his approval. These are criminals we’re talking about, so you can’t expect them to follow a verbal promise made on the battlefield. And with their boss out of his mansion, who’s going to sign the contract!?”
A tremor raced across the battlefield.
Operation Southern Cross Grim Reaper had entered a new phase.
A tiny dot on the map held Grinov Quarterdeck’s life in his hands. If he threatened the big boss with a knife or gun, Woodstock might ignore the world powers’ courtship dances and sell their Object to him instead.
This was not a metropolis with EM signals flying around 24/7. They needed to locate the source of the radio transmission and decide whether to protect it or attack it.
It was a tangle of various information and intentions.
Frolaytia Capistrano was trembling in the Legitimacy Kingdom maintenance base zone.
The coalition force had their bases set up adjacent to each other and a direct attack in violation of the war treaties could come at any time. The base commander was forced to keep a carbine on hand, but the busty silver-haired officer ignored that abnormal situation as she raised her voice.
“Who in the world is that maid!? Why does she have our equipment!? That’s Quenser’s ID number, so…did she find his radio somewhere? Investigate this immediately!!”
While crawling through the desert of fattened flies, Private Heivia Winchell stared in disbelief at the screen of his mobile device along with Myonri who had entered nightmare mode after her eyes met those of what was buried below the sand.
“The legendary maid? What is she doing here!?”
In the Information Alliance maintenance base zone, silver-haired and brown-skinned Lieutenant Colonel Lendy Farolito said something she could never say in earshot of the girl she was producing as a world-famous idol.
“This maid…has what it takes!!”
All four world powers roared at once.
“The holy girl seen at the Eastern European monastery hotel has reappeared here!? The goddess of victory is smiling upon us! This battle is ours!!”
(Oh, crap. I forget I was still Quensette.)
Quenser only realized that after he had uploaded the photo, but this was no time to worry over it like a social media mistake.
Definite killer intent turned his way from all across the battlefield. Those 5 billion dollar giants focused on the bug crawling around at their feet. And they took action to exterminate it.
“Did you really think you could change things?” The muscular bearded man scoffed from the passenger seat with his hands still tied behind his back. “There is no changing the outcome now. This is what happens when you try to create a world not bound by the four world powers! You squandered what little chance you had. How could someone like you stop so many rampaging Objects!?”
Quenser punched Grinov from the driver’s seat in the 40-degree air entering through the broken windows, but it did not silence the man.
“What did you see in the Hawaii District? What about in that Eastern European tourist region struggling for independence from the old system?”
“There is no such thing as pure evil. We simply wished to walk a different path from those corpulent monstrosities seated above us and devouring so much money. That was all! We couldn’t trust the laws or international treaties decided by those world powers, so we tried constructing a different set of rules. We tried clinging to the other side of the coin!! We have killed more criminals than all the police in the world. Were we good or evil? A ridiculous question. If you insist on categorizing everything that way as an excuse to take all the lives you want, then we were the ones standing on the side of justice!”
“So what? Did you think you could do anything just cause you were clever enough to break free of the yoke? How many people do you think died for your selfish ends!? We act like Hina’s case was resolved, but was it really? It’s not like she gets her parents back after they were fed to sharks in a cruel execution!!”
“Woodstock had its beginnings making guns from the wood of a bloodstained forest and selling them to spread chaos throughout the world.”
The man gave an odd smile.
It looked like an overinflated balloon that would pop as soon as someone touched it.
“It was a joint military exercise, so they claim no one knows which side shot that shell. More than 30,000 innocent people died, but no one was punished. So many were slaughtered and not a single person was arrested or thrown in prison. And everyone forgot all about it not two months later. By then the headlines were all about how cute some panda in the zoo is!!”
“My dream was to discover the truth and reveal it to the world. I needed enough power to prevent the countries and their governments from suppressing it. But the more power I gained, the more they interfered and worked to hide the truth!! No matter how big the organization grew. What is your dream? Whatever it is, you will one day walk this same path whether you have power or not. Because that is how our world works!!”
They had seen something while pursuing the Ivory Garden poachers in Eastern Europe.
A black forest unnaturally burned to the ground.
The electric car played a simple “vroom” sound effect as it bounced over a bump in the ground.
“Who is it you resent?” asked Quenser. “Because you’re as much a killer as them now.”
“The same fate awaits you.”
They left the torn-up circular farms and reached the rolling sand dunes of the desert. That land of scorching sand contained mystery huts and unnatural swarms of flies that carried an atmosphere of death. The car used a program to drive, but it seemed to be sliding to the side more than before. Quenser’s stomach was squeezed by a unique fear different from slipping on ice.
What did Grinov himself think?
In his attempt to outdo everyone else and make a case for what was right, he had created tons of secrets he could not reveal even to his family and he had been forced to bury them all in the desert.
Was he plagued with nightmares, or did he not bat an eye at it anymore?
“Welcome to the beyond.”
It was like the words of death itself.
The muscular bearded man with distinctive tattoos all over his body spoke with an odd nervousness in his voice.
“These are the farthest reaches of the earth, outside the world powers. All is permissible here, no matter how unreasonable. A world where 1 plus 1 does not equal 2 is a very cruel thing. Now tremble as you see white become black before your eyes.”
Quenser considered using the stun gun again, but things changed before he could.
The earth rose up before them. The Dynamix EV Grade 500s flipped sideways like it was caught on the tea table as a giant overturned it.
With the windows already broken, the sand rushed in and his head was nearly taken off, but he did not have time to writhe around while upside down. An Object had targeted them. He grabbed Grinov’s shoulder, called out to Rosa in the back seat, and crawled out through what had once been the windshield.
The direct sunlight stabbed into him in that 40-degree hell. He would have to travel by foot in the scorching desert.
(5km to go. But I can’t reach the maintenance base zone!!)
A shadow enveloped them.
The first to arrive was…
“Oh, dear? Oh ho ho. You have the makings of an excellent idol, but who are you? Are you the legendary maid the internet is making such a fuss about? …No, wait. This can’t be. This voiceprint belongs to…no, no. This must be an error.”
Not even an Object’s high-quality cameras had revealed Quensette’s identity. Quenser was a little impressed with himself for that, but for now he reached an arm around Grinov’s back to squeeze at his injured neck and stuck a pen-shaped electric fuse in the man’s nose.
“I hold Grinov Quarterdeck’s life in my hands! This fuse is enough to blow out the son of a bitch’s brains. An Object is powerful, but you can’t shoot just me like a police sniper, can you!?”
“Oh ho ho. What a filthy mouth you have, Miss Legendary Maid. But you must not underestimate Objects. I would hate to eliminate such a promising future idol, but if you do not watch your mouth, social media will not be so kind to you.”
He glimpsed some Information Alliance uniforms from beyond the dunes. They were coming his way. If those more precise soldiers surrounded him during his standoff with the Rush, it was checkmate. It was idealistic, but Quenser was convinced he had a way out.
Why had the Dynamix EV Grade 500s driven along the ridge of those dunes as if avoiding something?
“Call your soldiers off.”
“Oh ho ho. Why should I?”
“They’ll have nightmares if you don’t.”
There was a short shriek.
The secretly buried landmines would not be recorded on the GPS system’s map, so if something had caught those soldiers, it had to be a natural trap. For example, some quicksand that acted like a bottomless bog.
He had thought it was suspicious due to the flies swarming around.
The Information Alliance soldiers might be all about rationalism, but he doubted they could just laugh and accept the company of some dismembered and rotting corpses.
The dog dragged the winch wire out from the overturned four-wheel-drive car and threw it to the Information Alliance soldiers seeking help. But Quenser could do nothing more for them since his life was at risk here.
“Looks like you can’t rely on those soldiers. If you think you can save Grinov with those giant cannons, then try it.”
“Ho, oh ho ho.”
“Operation Southern Cross Grim Reaper? All deals require Grinov’s approval, so any business with Woodstock goes out the window if you turn him to ashes. And a single shot from your main cannon is like several attaché cases. How much have you spent already? Do you want to live a life of never-ending debt, idol of newspaper clothing!?”
He heard a clear tongue click over the radio.
The Rush turned 180 degrees around and spoke to the Faith Organization Second Generation that soon showed up.
“Oh ho ho. The Information Alliance will settle this! The rest of you slowpokes can stand back!!”
“It is up to the lord to decide what happens, not us lowly humans. Now, let us pray to god! Succeed or fail, it is all part of his plan!!”
“You damn endorphin junky!!”
The aircushions gave a roar as the two Objects began a meaningless clash.
The center of the conflict had shifted from the Gangster to him. The Objects were fighting over him now. It was like he had uttered some magic words to change the flow of battle and bring death to different people. The maid student slowly walked backwards while using Grinov as a shield.
He was 5km away.
If he crossed the desert, he would find the Legitimacy Kingdom maintenance base zone waiting for him. If he brought Grinov there, the others would no longer be manipulated by the possible business deal. Whether it came down to a plea bargain or hellish torture, they could get the man to “officially” annul the Gangster’s verbal promise.
“Princess, the overall formation has changed. Find a gap in the chaos and escape! I’ll take care of myself, so you don’t need to force yourself to support me!!”
“Quenser, where are you? If I don’t have a clear signal, I might hit you with a stray shot!!”
“…It is no use,” said the bearded man.
“Shut up, Grinov. You aren’t some revolutionary commander or strategist. You’re nothing more than a stamp of approval for us!”
“Do you think you will keep your life if you always make the reasonable, safe, and secure option? This is the beyond, where 1 plus 1 does not equal 2. The more you outdo the others and break free of the rules, the clearer the outlines of the grim reaper grow.”
“If you don’t want one of these fuses up your ass, then shut your trap!!”
Quenser did not so much hear the deep rumbling as he felt it shaking the entire desert below his feet.
This was coming from much further away than the nearby battle between the Information Alliance and Faith Organization.
Woodstock had lost its original form as the truth it wished to reveal was suppressed. They had eventually built the Second Generation Gangster.
It was supposedly a close-range Object.
Remote targeting drones flew around it like flies, perhaps to cover its blind spots. The arms dealer Object was reminiscent of the stench of death despite being a machine. Its main cannon was a double shotgun made from the coilgun and rapid-fire beam cannon on the right side. It was designed so it could not aim very precisely.
But the next thing Quenser knew, muscular bearded Grinov was moving his mouth while bound and used as a shield. He was not actually producing any sound, but he could still communicate with someone who could read his lips via a long-range camera.
“What did you tell them?” Quenser roared into the man’s ear while shoving the pen-shaped electric fuse hard enough to give him a nosebleed. “What did you tell that monster, Grinov!?”
“A 20-digit random alphanumeric string. A temporary emergency authorization code in case I cannot use biometric identification.”
“It can’t be.”
“Woodstock is a criminal organization supported by its charismatic leader, Grinov Quarterdeck.”
His entire body had gone limp.
After giving up on everything, he may have been enveloped in a sort of ecstasy.
Hadn’t he immediately tried to slit his own throat when Quenser initially knocked him out with the stun gun!?
“I told them not to leave any trace of my body. As long as no definite proof remains, people can claim I am still alive.”
He said nothing more.
Quenser shoved muscular Grinov away and got down on the desert sand such that he lay protectively on top of Rosa.
And a moment later, it all swept toward him like electron beams reflecting through a storm of heavy metal.
There was no attempt at all to rescue the hostage.
His entire body groaned with dull pain. It was like all the cartilage in his body had been replaced with instant glue. It was hard to move and forcing it felt like it would cause something to snap.
He was soaked with cold sweat.
He could almost forget this was the 40-degree desert.
“…Rosa…” groaned Quenser while trying to catch his breath.
The Rush had tried to jump into the line of fire, but how effective had that really been?
“Are you okay, Rosa?”
Even the weak whine he got in response may have been a blessing.
There was an unnatural dent in the dog’s bulletproof jacket. Had a shard of stone hit it?
Spots of the desert were melted orange. When they cooled and hardened, they would likely become muddy glass. The shape of the rolling dunes had been torn away.
“Dammit, did they really kill their own boss?”
Grinov Quarterdeck had “disappeared”. And he had passed on the temporary 20-digit code needed to approve a deal without their godfather’s biometric ID. Now on one could overturn the Gangster’s verbal promise.
Was it now impossible to stop the dirty business deal of the Parasite Plan? Was there no preventing the Objects of the four world powers from continuing to tear each other apart with this needless fighting?
That man had acquired a vast fortune by selling weapons all so he could rise above the existing hierarchy of power and have his way.
It was possible to view him as a predecessor to Quenser on his journey to be an Object designer.
But that man was now dead.
And his death had closed off the future.
“Not yet, Rosa! Bring me that head over there!!”
With a woof, Rosa ran over while avoiding the boiling sand puddles. It was a horrific game of fetch, but it contained a glimmer of hope.
It really had been a scattershot weapon.
Its aim was poor at mid-range. Grinov Quarterdeck had been killed instantly and mostly vaporized, but a few body parts remained. The Gangster’s Elite might claim the man was still alive if it was only a hand or a foot, but the head was a different matter. The brain and heart were too decisive. If Quenser brought that back to the maintenance base zone, he could prove Grinov was dead. Without their charismatic leader, the arms dealer would fall apart and they could not guarantee their verbal promise. The Object’s Pilot Elite had been given the temporary authorization code, but it was only temporary. It was not enough to overturn Grinov’s actual biometrics.
(It had secondary cannons on its spherical body and float, but that Second Generation is illegal and it wasn’t built under normal circumstances. It might not have been given proper anti-personnel weapons.)
Grinov had used a scan of his inner ear to identify himself.
As long as his head remained, they could stick the earphone in his ear and pass the biometric scan.
The godfather’s official code would have greater authority than the temporary authorization code.
And who would trust the Elite who had directly killed Grinov Quarterdeck?
They may have been a faithful subordinate who only did as told, but the dead boss could no longer vouch for the Pilot Elite.
The Elite was on the precipice.
“Wait, Grinov’s…head!?” exclaimed Oh Ho Ho. “What am I supposed to do now!?”
“Do you really think the deal is still on? From here on, Operation Southern Cross Grim Reaper is all about staying out of last place. Will you continue spending money throwing attaché cases at each other, or will you pull back your hand while the burn is still light!? Think for yourself, idol of newspaper clothing!!”
It would have been too grotesque just to carry it around, so Quenser pulled the windshield sun shade from the flipped-over electric car and wrapped the bearded head in that.
“This is an economic shock. All four world powers are carrying some debt thanks to that idiot’s manipulation. At the very least, you aren’t making money here! So whoever ends up with the least debt is the winner!! It’s the logic of the insurance industry: think of other people’s misfortune as your profit. You want to take a relative view and get the last laugh, don’t you!? You win this battle if you aren’t the world power in last place!!”
“Argh, I can’t stand feeling like an amateur maid is bossing around an idol like me!!”
“Hear me out, little lady. I’ll treat you right.”
He could not flip the car back over, so he was facing the nightmarish visual of a maid making a deadly trek across the desert with only a severed head and a German shepherd for company.
There were of course those who pursued him: the Gangster who did not want Grinov’s death to be proven, and the Faith Organization that was still after their tech.
Incidentally, the previous conversation was held over the coalition force’s shared datalink.
That meant it had gone out to all four world powers who had initially been allies. All four armies had learned which side would benefit them the most and how the battle’s win conditions had changed.
It probably took them a few seconds to think about it.
And then everything changed.
The masses of metal belonging to the Legitimacy Kingdom, Information Alliance, and Capitalist Corporations turned to face the Gangster.
At this point, it was bizarre that the Faith Organization was still siding with the arms dealers, but they were working off of the mysterious idea that both success and failure were a gift from god. So once they had a plan, they intended to stick with it to the end.
It was now 3-against-2.
The Princess’s Object was barely functional, so it may have been more like 2-against-2.
In the initial thunderclouds, the Gangster had come out on top despite being outnumbered. This was not enough to say anything for sure, but the situation was much better than when everyone had been ganging up on the Princess.
This was the beyond.
Grinov had called it an unreasonable world where 1 plus 1 did not equal 2 and white could become black. Quenser was protected by the world powers, so he could not even imagine what kind of reality the man had faced in that bloodstained forest. But the world was gradually catching on to the all too obvious result of letting a criminal organization influence them.
He had to keep this going.
He had to return everything to the original rails
It was only 5km. No more than that. Traveling across a scorching desert of fine beach-like sand and rolling dunes was completely different from walking across asphalt. It was a lot easier than dragging around an entire hostage, but if not for the situation, he would have tossed aside the head which was far more disturbing than a roast turkey. Rosa the German shepherd easily passed him by and repeatedly looked back and waited for him to catch up.
Quenser did not care what happened to the other Objects as long as the Princess was safe.
He could determine the flow of battle as long as he brought the big boss’s head back to the maintenance base zone as material evidence of Grinov’s death.
His exhaustion was at the limit.
His thighs and calves would have started convulsing if he let his guard down.
A deafening roar blasted his naïve assumptions to smithereens.
The attack had come from the side. By the time he flinched back, an orange river cut across the desert before his eyes. It was the reflecting attack made from a mixture of a metal coilgun and a rapid-fire electron beam cannon. This cut off the direct route. There was more than one kind of glass, but pure silicon glass required something in the neighborhood of 2000 degrees. He was almost to the maintenance base zone, but this had stopped him.
The Object must have shot down some of its own drones because the destructive power was so great
The Gangster’s “winged eyes and ears” covered with arrow-like patterns had crashed into the scorching desert in a few places. Quenser’s sense of scale had been thrown off when they were flying in the sky, but now he could tell they were larger than a light car.
He heard a low rumbling coming from the side. The Gangster had approached surprisingly close.
It aimed its scattershot main cannon at a mere human. It wanted to erase any and all proof of Grinov’s death.
Quenser practically rolled along the desert to slide down one of the large dunes. There was a deafening blast and blinding light, but the massive mountain of sand would be melted instead of blown away. It would function as a shield.
But he doubted it would last forever.
He looked down at the wreckage of a drone that was half broken and stabbed into the sand.
The large cross section was larger than a small bed and broken shards of silver metal were strewn across the hot sand.
(That’s not steel. Is it aluminum? Or silver? No…)
He traced his fingers across the brick-sized chunk and then tried to pick it up, but it was so unusually heavy he nearly hurt his back. It was too heavy to lift with one hand.
The density was much greater.
Lead wasn’t enough and not even silver would provide this kind of weight.
Quenser could only think of one option.
(Platinum…? Why would they use that?)
“No, wait. Is this the imitation alloy I saw in Grinov’s mansion?”
But even so, it was made to imitate platinum, giving it a density of 21.4. Enough to fill a 1-liter carton of milk would weigh 21.4kg. He could see why trying to lift it with one hand had nearly hurt his back.
But that only raised further questions.
In every branch of the military, vehicles were generally designed to be light and sturdy. Whether the power came from an engine, a motor, or a sail to catch the wind, it was a set amount of power. That meant the key to harnessing that power was reducing the vehicle’s weight.
Objects were the 200,000-ton behemoths they were because they had been crammed full of everything needed to end the nuclear age. That was their completed form with nothing going to waste.
Why would someone intentionally make something heavier by filling it with weights? This was different from a rich person covering a vehicle with gold metalwork to show off. When Quenser looked inside the cross section again, most of the car-sized drone looked like a weight made from the imitation alloy.
(Were they designed to make ramming attacks if necessary? Do they use the absorption of hydrogen? No, then they would use a cheaper and more effective material like lead or titanium. Also the imitation alloy is just an imitation. It only resembles platinum, so it doesn’t have all the same traits. But it does have the 21.4 density. Was Woodstock attracted to its weight, like with tungsten or depleted uranium?)
Rosa barked next to him.
It was hard to find anywhere to hide in the desert, so he could not just stand out here in the open. He knew that, but he could not stop thinking either.
This was something he could not afford to slip past him.
It was crucial.
The Gangster could circle around and fire on him from a different angle and, even if it missed, it would only create more deadly orange rivers. If he was surrounded by that melted glass, he would be stuck here.
Fortunately, the business deal had almost entirely collapsed. The other Objects would fight the Gangster as long as that was in their best interest. Quenser did not need to charge toward it with a bomb in hand. What was its weakness? Where was the weak point that could take it out in a single hit!?
(It’s a blind killer that can see through all forms of camouflage, deception, and cover. But if it was really that convenient, they would have built the entire Object around that. Think back to the attack from the thundercloud. How did it overturn being outnumbered? The scattershot weapon? Why is that most effective!? The two different systems have to add to the maintenance costs, so why bother with the dual main cannon system!? It shouldn’t have been able to see through the cloud and the lightning would have affected radar. What’s the purpose of the drones swarming it like flies and why are they filled with that imitation alloy!?)
He heard a loud sliding sound as a bunch of sand pushed toward him like something from a surfing video.
“Quenser! I don’t know where you are, but check your map. I’ll create a path for you!!”
It was the Baby Magnum. The Princess was intentionally scraping the ground with her static electricity propulsion device to cover the orange river with a mountain of sand. Sand was the most primitive firefighting method, but it was also the most effective if you had enough of it. The scale was quite different, but the principle was the same as a campfire. If a thick layer of sand covered it faster than the heat could propagate, you could walk over the top.
(She’s such a good girl, but she’s way too reckless!!)
The Gangster’s dual scattershot weapons would be aimed at the intruder. The coilgun and rapid-fire beam cannon were powerful enough at midrange, so what would they do at close range? A clean hit could blow away the already-damaged Princess’s reactor.
This called for a gamble.
Quenser hit his radio’s switch.
“Fire either a railgun or coilgun into the sand below you!!”
This attack was like a smokescreen.
Sand burst up in front of the Baby Magnum like a cumulonimbus cloud and the hit to the ground knocked Quenser from his feet.
But that did not matter.
The thick cloud of sand was immediately torn apart as the frightening scattershot attack flew toward the Princess.
There was no dodging it.
Lots of sparks flew from the already-damaged Baby Magnum’s armor.
It was a direct hit.
And from close range, where the scattershot weapons could deliver their full power.
The Princess hesitantly spoke after receiving the scattershot storm.
The villain was apparently confused as well. The Gangster moved horizontally and fired its dual scattershot weapons from a different angle. By unleashing both metal coilgun shells and the electron heating beams, it should have produced a deadly storm that not even specialized armor could stop.
A massive cloud of scorching sand rose from the 40-degree desert.
There was a loud scraping sound and orange sparks blossomed wildly from the surface of her Object, but that was all. That violent scattershot weapon did not make its way inside the Object. It was deflected by the armor.
“What just…happened?” asked Oh Ho Ho.
“It’s the rate of convergence,” whispered Quenser. “Scattershot weapons are so powerful at point-blank range because the target is hit by all of the scattering shots. At mid and long range, the target is only hit by a few of the small shots, so it doesn’t do enough damage to kill instantly. The damage is spread over a wider area. …That must have felt like a waste, so they used the lead scattershot to reflect the electron beams to provide the optimal rate of convergence as the scattershot blast spreads out over a fan shape.”
The initial clash had happened in thick thunderclouds that rendered all forms of sensor unusable.
Yet the Gangster had unilaterally slaughtered its enemies.
How exactly had it done so?
And if its advantage had really been that unilateral, wouldn’t it have been racing freely across the battlefield?
No, that was not it.
The most effective attack with a scattershot weapon was to move in to close range, but the Gangster had made no real attempt to do so.
It had shown no real sign of moving around. It had fired its main cannon from one direction and then blown up the scattered coalition Objects one at a time. That was odd when its scattershot weapons could not use their full power unless it moved in close. It had instead responded from mid and long range.
Even while inside that thundercloud.
“So how did the Gangster accurately measure the distance from its target? Normal vision and laser beams were useless in the thick cloud, the electrification rendered radar waves useless, and the noisy thunder did the same for ultrasonic sonar! Come to think of it, those red wings in Hawaii were the same. And the Transylvanian Object never made its debut, but it may have used some kind of special sensor system too! That must be Woodstock’s trademark!!”
“What are you trying to say, Quenser?”
That was obvious.
Once you understood this, the fearsome Second Generation Gangster was a complete joke.
“The desert might look like pure sand, but it’s actually full of sharp rocks. GPS systems choose a single path through the vast desert to make sure you don’t blow a tire on those obstacles.”
“What…what does that matter?”
“If the density of the ground changes, so does the speed at which waves propagate through it. In fact, a ground of sand and a mineral deposit containing iron ore cause a slight different in the earth’s gravity.”
In other words, this was the crucial sensor system.
This was the secret behind the blind killer that could see through any camouflage, deception, or cover.
“It uses gravity surveying! It searches for the slight differences in gravity created by the giant hunks of metal that are Objects!!”
His hint had been the drone the Gangster had shot down itself.
It had contained a valuable and unnatural metal that only served as a weight.
At more than 20 euros a gram, platinum was the king of precious metals. Although this was only an imitation alloy.
“Gravity surveying? Isn’t that used for mining?”
“Yes. The earth’s gravity isn’t uniform. For example, there’s a bit of a difference between the North Pole and the Equator and the reading would change if there was a vein of heavy iron ore in this sandy desert. So by placing a bunch of sensors out there in a grid, you can tell if there’s a difference in just one spot. Dig there and you find the vein.”
“Heavy iron. So it works for an Object too?”
“That’s a bit too imaginative.” Quenser grinned. “The Gangster probably has high-precision electronic scales inside it. Some of those can measure down to a 10 millionth of a gram and it’s the exact same equipment gangs use to work with white powder.”
Of course, that would not be used to simply measure something’s weight.
Scales could be used for more than just that.
“It’s using those as accelerometers to measure its own speed. Usually, you only feel an inertial vector opposite to the direction of movement. Just like how you feel a floating sensation in an elevator. But the needle will wiggle if there’s a giant mass nearby. It’s small, but another vector is included and the value changes.”
“The drones flying around the Gangster were loaded with a lot of imitation alloy. That alloy has a density of 21.4 and is normally used to fool the other party in an illegal transaction. Filling them with that sort of ‘decoration’ makes no sense when designs should be aiming for light and sturdy. That means the weight was necessary. And unlike tungsten or depleted uranium, this imitation alloy could be acquired cheaply and in large quantities. They wanted something heavy enough to cause a 10 millionth of a gram error in the electronic scale even at a distance.”
In other words…
“They’re an alternate form of remote sensor that uses gravity. There are invisible threads of gravity between the Gangster and the drones. If something – yes, like the tug of gravity from an enemy Object – slightly alters the movement of the drones, the Object can sense it through the invisible threads. It’s kind of like having your hair blowing in the wind. There aren’t actually nerves running through the hairs. It wasn’t light, EM, or sound. It was universal gravitation itself. With that information, no Object can hide from it!!”
The gravity surveying might be able to see through any form of camouflage or deception, but it was not without weaknesses.
“When you get down to it, it’s all dependent on a reaction in the invisible threads connecting the Object to the drones. It’s the same as a cheap wind gauge. If you prepare plenty of obstacles to tug on a bunch of the hairs at once, it will get a bunch of false readings! There’s nothing it can do when there are too many dots on the map to process. It blinds the Gangster like a stun grenade!!”
The thunderclouds and clouds of sand had obscured their vision back at the beginning, but those were natural phenomena. With accurate meteorological data, you could predict the flow of the clouds and sand and make corrections in advance. That Object had planted its roots here in the desert, so unlike the newcomers of the coalition force, it could respond to sudden downpours and other weather phenomena that were hard to see coming with no more than a satellite weather map.
But this was different.
It was intentional obstruction.
There was no way to predict it in advance and apply a filter.
Once you understood that, there was nothing to be afraid of.
No matter how powerful it was, a weapon you could not aim was the same as a gun with a broken sight. A main cannon that could not defeat an enemy head-on and at close range was meaningless. And like anything on the battlefield with no means of attacking, that Object was now a sitting duck.
The Gangster had plenty of secondary cannons on its spherical body and float, but there was almost no chance of those breaking through an Object’s thick armor.
“Attention all armies.”
Quenser held the radio to his mouth.
And he gave the death sentence.
“The Parasite Plan? Are you really going to keep throwing around attaché cases full of your own cash to get your hands on a defective weapon cobbled together by amateurs?”
Wartime interests could be truly coldhearted.
Woodstock had to understand that deep down after trying to use exactly that fact even if it meant trampling on the line between good and evil.
It was like taking an insect with excellent camouflage and throwing it onto a hot pink floor.
Once revealed, its grotesque insect side was all anyone could see.
This time, the entire coalition force aimed at the criminal organization’s Object.
Even the Faith Organization had snapped out of it.
The Gangster’s scattershot weapon was of no use and it had no white flag signal since it did not belong to a proper military.
This was the beyond, the ends of the earth outside the clean wars.
It was Operation Southern Cross Grim Reaper.
Woodstock had made a risky gamble that traded safety for freedom.
And the pig had just been dropped in the piranha-infested river.
This one really had been the worst.
Trying to calculate how close a shave it had been would result in an underflow error.
After trudging across the 40-degree desert and returning to the maintenance base zone, Quenser spoke to Frolaytia who rested a carbine on her shoulder and held her long, narrow kiseru in her mouth.
“Here you go, Frolaytia. One piece of shit’s head. Just like you ordered.”
He tossed it her way.
That man had acquired a vast fortune by selling weapons all so he could rise above the existing hierarchy of power and have his way.
And this was where it got him in the very, very end.
(I’m not giving up.)
Not psychologically anyway.
That was all Quenser had.
And that was why he had not stopped working toward survival all that time.
Tricks would get you nowhere. He knew that.
He was not like that man.
That was a baseless belief born of self-consciousness and every investor and gambler probably believed the same thing. But even if it was an empty illusion, he needed to rely on it to keep himself going.
Meanwhile, Frolaytia caught the severed head in one hand and gave a casual comment.
“Oh, I see Rosa made it out okay.”
“To be honest, she’s more useful than Heivia. You should definitely buy her some better food and toys.”
“Clearly she’s too valuable to have left with you…”
“Speaking of Heivia, where’d he get off to during all this!? I think you should make him go without food for a week!”
“I’m glad to see your friendship is strong enough to trust he’s still alive, but going without food that long would kill him. Go stop by the med room later to see him. The new uniform for the medics may have been a mistake. Everyone’s so busy staring at the nurse’s butts they refuse to leave.”
“Wait, Quenser. Don’t try to carve up your stomach with that knife. And besides…”
“Yes? Is there more???”
“That’s, um, quite the getup there. Why are you dressed as a maid???”
He started coughing and looked away. He needed to change the subject and fast. Quensette of Love and Justice had to remain hidden from the world! …Because if she was not, Monica would be so jealous of her popularity she might just curse him. Femininity? No one could ever learn that he and that childhood friend had once puzzled over some menstrual products together!!
“Oh, could that legendary maid everyone’s talking about online actually be-…”
“Let’s stop that line of thought right this instant, Frolaytia. The truth is an awful thing.”
“Y’know, some volunteers are putting together a team to search for that legendary maid, so how do you plan to fix this? They’re on the verge of working themselves to death and I feel like the legendary maid is the last ray of hope keeping them going.”
“If they find out, those exhausted potatoes will murder me, so let’s keep this quiet, okay!?”
This secret gave Frolaytia leverage over the lovely maid, but she looked less than pleased.
She may have been having trouble finding an effective way of playing that card.
He had to change the topic while he could.
“Frolaytia, what’s with the carbine? Was there some chaos on the base zone too?”
“I was thinking about using the confusion to murder a certain Information Alliance officer, but you ended the battle a little too quickly. Honestly, I was so close too!”
That was it right there.
He felt like he had wasted his time giving any thought at all to good and evil on the battlefield. The world was made up of people trying to take advantage of that. It was all groundwork set up for deception and camouflage. Only those who could hide could survive.
Or maybe it was Woodstock who had actually been facing the issue of good and evil. But that was what had made them stand out so much. The result could not have been more obvious: they had vanished into the South American desert.
Quenser latched onto that.
“What happened to the people on the farms?”
“They’re pretty clever. As soon as they realized they couldn’t win, they used a satellite connection to start broadcasting some live footage. Imagine what this result looks like when you don’t know what led up to it. If we ‘mopped up’ the people in those mansions with a flamethrower, the young wives back in the safe countries would start screaming about their firm opposition to the slaughter of civilians.”
There had been a lot more noncombatant maids and nuns than Frolaytia had estimated. Quenser was honestly relieved that this would end without those people being “mopped up”.
Experiencing life in the target area was a bad thing. The atmosphere there was infectious. He could tell he was starting to sympathize with the losing side, but it was not an easy thing to rid yourself of.
He recalled hearing that kittens and chicks looked so cute because those were the only ones that were not abandoned by their parents and survived the natural selection process.
“The engineering group that supported the Parasite Plan and built the Gangster must be there. We can’t just ignore them. If they spread out across the world powers and are secretly recruited by military labs, their infection will still spread. The arms dealer will simply have found another way to operate. They will still work their way into the world powers and build an Object in a safe environment.”
Those engineers had already caused so much trouble. Even if they had a ball-and-chain attached to their ankle like Hina and even if their GPS position was constantly being monitored, Quenser had a feeling they would still find a way around it. They could easily include a secret ROM or virus inside what appeared to be an obedient Object. And with an Object, it would be too late once the problem rose to the surface.
With the carbine resting on her shoulder, Frolaytia winked and removed the long, narrow kiseru from her alluring lips.
“The world powers apparently plan to pool their funds and build a prison. It will exist on the shared land of Antarctica and it will run on only the shared international laws. Everyone is hurting financially after being played for fools by the arms dealer. Because firing a main cannon is a lot like throwing stacks of cash around. They’re all rushing toward a major public works project to fight a recession. Plus, it is the end of the year. A public works project crossing borders will create a complex stream of money. They’ll be able to launder their public funding all they like.”
“That was quite the speech back there, Quenser. But the monsters at the top are far greedier than you think. The officers at their desks are supposed to find a way to make up for a loss by earning twice as much. So the economy won’t collapse even as we waste so much money throwing stacks of cash around the whole year round. Those four giant blobs of fat won’t let it happen.”
Quenser had to wonder what he had been doing.
Obeying the world powers was easier, but then you had those blobs of fat holding you down.
But while breaking free of those rules gave you freedom, it also placed a dreadful risk on your shoulders.
He was a battlefield student.
He wanted to be an Object designer.
His goal was to break through the hierarchy of commoners, nobles, and royals and end up a winner in life. But was that dream really so innocent a thing? Would he end up a slave of the world powers or a ghost of Woodstock?
“Disillusioned?” asked Frolaytia with a scoff.
Just like Quenser, that busty silver-haired officer had placed herself on the battlefield for her own reasons.
“But if you stop moving forward, you will be left behind. People as greedy as us can never be saints who are satisfied meditating in some secluded corner of the world.”
And with that, this is Kamachi Kazuma!!
Heavy Object has reached its 16th entry? The theme this time was camouflage and deception. I’ve long been interested in the military application of the mimicry used by insects and marine life, so I put in all the material I had stored up.
And I finally used Legendary Maid Quensette who’s been mentioned for a while now! Now, everyone, let yourselves be confused. If I was doing this, I knew I couldn’t limit it to a single gag scene and I did my best to keep the maid thing going throughout the serious scenes too. And since I was writing a novel with a camouflage and deception theme, I knew this had to be the place for it.
From a more internal perspective, I found the series getting more extreme than I expected while I was writing Volumes 14 and 15: The Wisest Abandonment of Thought as the first two-parter for the series, so I decided to shift things back into neutral. I especially wanted to write about Quenser and Heivia’s idiocy instead of running away from it. Thanks to that, the actions in this one were more one the positive side and I kind of set aside the whole concept of good and evil seen in standard entertainment. It might have been even more psychedelic than something in Blood-Sign, another series of mine. But I did originally start this series to achieve a kind of exhilaration I never could in A Certain Magical Index which directly deals with the concepts of good and evil. Seriously using a vomit weapon, hitting your partner in the temple with an explosive, and playing rugby with the villain’s severed head in the climax. I think it’s best for those to be things I can only do in HO, but what do you think?
Don’t overlook that the Dobermans appeared as enemies in Chapter 1 and Quenser fought alongside a German Shepherd in Chapter 3, or that Quenser got all fired up about Hina Liqueurball who as struggling against a world power in Chapter 2 and yet he mercilessly attacked Woodstock who had been similarly rejected by the world powers in Chapter 3. The burned-down forest and collagen gel are also important points. Also, Woodstock was a hint at what happens to the people who actually rise up in the world using dirty tricks like Quenser and Heivia always want to do.
I already had an Object designer final boss with Sladder Honeysuckle in Volume 2: Adoption War, but Grinov Quarterdeck should have had a different flavor to him. Instead of a genius who stood out as an individual, I wanted him to be the charismatic type who absorbed people’s frustrations and spoke on their behalf. …To put it another way, he could not have had so much influence if he was not hiding behind all those other people. You can think of that as using the crowd of people for camouflage and deception.
But while the four world powers use their wartime propaganda to twist good and evil as they see fit, they are using the concept of “justice” to hide their true plans. I think that might be the greatest and most wicked form of camouflage, but what do you think?
I give my thanks to my illustrator Nagi Ryou-san and my editors Miki-san, Anan-san, Nakajima-san, Yamamoto-san, and Mitera-san. I imagine Quensette was a tough one. The lead is always the biggest pain, so I really am sorry for all the trouble!!
I also give my thanks to the readers. With Dora Blue-Hawaii and Grinov Quarterdeck, I was trying to include a hint of bitter retaliation to keep it from being an entirely positive ending, but how did you like it? I think this too was something I couldn’t have done in my other series. I hope you enjoyed it.
And I will leave it at that.
Noooo!! I was so focused on the serious story last time I missed Halloween!!
“By the way, Frolaytia, about that Antarctic prison you mentioned. Who is it meant to hold?”
“Hm? The Pilot Elite who accidentally fired on that Eastern European forest and all the related military officials, of course. We make our money with the clean wars, so we can’t go easy on anyone who threatens that system.”
“Yeah, I had a feeling…”
“I’m sure they’ll have a blast being locked up together. Some Woodstock members might even be willing to pay to be imprisoned there with them. Anyway, it’s time for the next battle. We need to capture the bastards trying to avoid punishment by hiding within the rest of the coalition force!!”