HEAVY OBJECT:Volume 19

From Baka-Tsuki
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Novel Illustrations[edit]


Prologue[edit]

Report #380091A (Urgent)

Report from 37th Mobile Maintenance Battalion Commander Major Frolaytia Capistrano.

A ground survey using our Baby Magnum matches the predictions made by our electronic simulation division. The following concerns have been proven valid:

  • The continual rapid movement of Objects weighing as much as 200 thousand tons has placed the earth’s crust under severe stress.
  • The limit depends on the specific amount of energy built up in the local geography and plates, but once that limit is reached, it could trigger massive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Remotely triggered earthquakes are a known phenomenon. The Hoover Dam located in Western America’s Central Valley District has in fact caused earthquakes from all its gathered water placing an abnormal burden on the plate there. And unlike an artificial earthquake caused by directly shaking the ground with explosives, the time, location, and scope of these are impossible to predict until the moment they occur.

That means the local residents cannot be evacuated in advance of an earthquake caused by an Object’s effects on the plates. It is even possible the Objects fighting in a battlefield country could affect a safe country on the other side of the planet.

Several major earthquakes in Legitimacy Kingdom territory were likely caused by Objects, including the Volga District Earthquake that triggered the Great Moscow Fire which led to more than 30 thousand deaths 8 years ago and the Braganca Coast Earthquake Swarm in the Amazon District that devastated more 250 thousand homes in four different cities. Include the other world powers and the numbers suggest 15.5% of the Magnitude 5 or higher earthquakes in the past 20 years were caused by Objects. If this is correct, the resultant loss of life is more than 190 thousand and the monetary damage is incalculable. Wars are still being fought over the money and resources needed to make up for those losses. And when it comes to civilian-level riots and looting, the numbers are too great to get accurate statistics. More lives and assets must have been lost than from the quakes themselves.

None of these losses needed to happen.

These are the simplest and most obvious concerns, but other secondary effects can be seen as well. For example, the rapid movement of 200 thousand ton behemoths will move the air and thus create violent winds and the firing of low-stability plasma and laser beams creates localized pockets of heated air, which changes the air density. These pressure changes could lead to cloudbursts.

Also, the Object itself weighs 200 thousand tons. Their construction requires a vast amount of iron ore and other underground resources. The rush to build more has led to a massive amount of excavation in the same locations, which has led to resources drying up in localized spots. It can be hard to see the big picture when just looking at individual mines, but we can assume the planet’s resources are close to depleted at this point.

Objects have a large effect on the natural environment. On a global level.

It is up to you whether you ring the alarm bell or find some clever way of using this.


As a side note, supposedly foolproof teaching methods and diets are being announced and published every single day. In the same way, no human being has ever managed to fully control nature. If any one attempt were successful, we wouldn’t need a new theory afterwards. So do not let the scientists’ false confidence fool you and remember that technology is never perfect. I strongly hope all of you home country officials will make the wise choice.

That is all.




The above report must be fully erased.

If necessary, “fully” could mean purging its author and that author’s battalion.

This is a joint decision of all four home countries: Paris, Los Angeles, New York, and Rome.

This matter has already been settled. No one must be allowed to question the existence of Objects.


Chapter 1: The White Witch Takes Flight >> Attack on the Ocean Border of the Northern Restricted Zone[edit]

Part 1[edit]

Mariydi Whitewitch.

On charges of disobeying orders, unauthorized combat outside of the operation zone, and attacking an unidentified craft not designated an operation objective, you are to be detained by Royal Air Force Inc.

You are relieved from all duties until an accident investigator from your Sky Blue Inc. arrives from Los Angeles. At that point, a court martial will be held in accordance with Capitalist Corporation military regulations.

I’m sorry, but that’s all I can tell you.


“…”

She was a small girl of around 12.

Her long blonde hair was splayed out on the floor while she lay motionless in the fetal position. This 5m cubic space made of a special alloy was her entire world at the moment.

This was the Northern Restricted Zone and it was currently February.

She was indoors, even if the building wasn’t exactly luxurious, but she could see her breaths. In this environment, turning off the heater was more than enough to function as torture. Yet if she tried to complain, the general public would scoff at the idea of a war criminal deserving anything as nice as a heater to warm her cell.

It was surprisingly hard to find sympathy when it came to the true necessities.

“Mariydi. Mariydi Whitewitch.”

Someone in the next cell over knocked on the metal wall, but only weakly. He was starved for entertainment, but solitary confinement had drained him of all his strength. He had a habit of ending up in these cells. He was a known troublemaker within the Royal Air Force PMC. His instincts may have told him either his mind or body would break if he didn’t distract himself from the cold.

“Heh heh heh,” laughed the vulgar man. “So what’d you do this time? I’m sure a picture-book lady knight like you’s got a good story. Especially if it got you a night in the same filthy detention barracks as me.”

“Oh, shut up. I’m in here for the same thing you are: breaking the rules.”

The small girl grumbled back without getting up from the hard floor, but that only drew the man’s attention.

“You think you’re on the great Klarheit Rubyhunter’s level? You wish. I’ll have you know I’m in here for emptying three bottles of vodka before flying a nondescript stealth fighter. And now that I’ve sobered up, I’m in the mood for a fairy tale, so hurry it up.”

Mariydi felt fairly certain this man needed counseling with a doctor, not a date with a cell, but the battlefield was always cruel. Not everyone would get the care they needed.

She gave in and sighed, disgusted that she could see the breath. She sat up and her long blonde hair fell on her shoulders. But she was less interested in talking than she was in getting her cheek off of the cold floor.

“I disobeyed orders and left the Northern Restricted Zone.”

“What led you to do that?”

“I happened to detect a Longshot CM flying at low altitude toward a large safe country city. That’s the type of cruise missile that snakes along in an S-shape to slip past the ground-based radars. If I hadn’t shot it down, Warsaw would’ve been wiped off the map. It had an FAE warhead.”

“Ah ha ha hya ha!!”

Klarheit guffawed in legitimate amusement.

Mariydi had been altered by the same technology used for Pilot Elites, but she hadn’t been involved in any esper research. Still, she could easily picture the man holding his sides and rolling in his cell beyond the thick metal wall.

“I had no idea that kind of fairy tale was going on while I fought the tremor in my fingers in this frigid box! Goddamn, I chose the wrong time to get thrown in here again. If I’d joined you, I could’ve used the nearly 10 Gs to enjoy the best drink I’ve had in a while!!”

“You like drinking while holding the stick and doing the cobra? It takes a certain kind of talent to drink while experiencing gravity as strong as on Venus.”

“The high Gs constrict your blood vessels, so the alcohol hits your body different. Don’t worry, you’ll understand once you’re older. Once you’ve had a drink while dancing with the angels in heaven, you can never go back.”

Humans had the weird ability to pour any amount of effort into their personal hobbies and entertainment. But maybe Mariydi had no right to judge his obsession since she had never had any alcohol to drink. The sharp-eyed girl had been personally obsessed with coffee and chocolate since she first had them. Although that was less an intentional obsession and more just something that happened on its own. She could guess that alcohol was the same thing for some people.

Then she heard a heavy metallic creaking.

That was not the door to any of the cells in here. It came from further away. Most likely, that was the entrance at the very end of the hall.

“The emperor has arrived in his new clothes.”

Klarheit’s mockery proved accurate.

Solid footsteps approached with the precision of a ticking clock. The face Mariydi spied through the door’s slit made it clear this was someone who had never had any difficulties in her life and handled everything with digital financial data. The woman wore a professional tight skirt suit.

This emperor was in fact an empress, which changed the lush’s attitude entirely. He even made a poor attempt at a whistle.

The cold woman either wasn’t interested or was tuning him out entirely because she placed a hand on her hip in front of Mariydi’s cell door.

“You are the criminal, Mariydi Whitewitch, I assume?”

“Until the court martial, I think you’re supposed to say ‘alleged’. I fully expect that court martial to be rigged against me from the start, but still.”

“I am Samantha Beeskiss, an accident investigator from Sky Blue Inc. It is my job to supervise all court martial proceedings, indict any employee behavior that would harm the company’s bottom line or public image, and to defend you in your court martial which is sure to involve a lot of classified information.”

Was that supposed to be comforting? This was one of the problems with the Capitalist Corporations where the companies held judicial and legislative power.

How could Mariydi expect a fair trial when her attorney was also tasked with protecting the company? The woman was openly announcing she worked on the side of plaintiff and defendant at the same time. Even a fair judge could be manipulated any which way if the prosecution and defense were colluding behind the scenes to control how the trial played out. She could do just about anything in her position.

The woman swiped her finger across a tablet she held like a clipboard. Maybe all the legal calculations were made by the machine and her only real job was to wait for the flat tablet to give her the result. If so, that was just plain sad. She would think she was on the path to a successful career without realizing she was just a pawn.

The computer age had arrived for aerial combat as well. No one flew a fighter jet without any assistance. But pilots still had their pride. They had the pride of a falcon telling them only they could take control of that unruly mechanical beast and bend its flight to their will.

“There are a few things I wish to confirm before the court martial.”

“As my defense attorney, or as the prosecutor?”

“On February 3, 19:20 local time, you ignored ground command’s instructions and left the operation area during Operation Freefall, a joint operation with Royal Air Force Inc. And at around 19:30, you attacked and shot down an unidentified craft flying rapidly outside the Northern Restricted Zone, without even confirming its affiliation first.”

“You can find all the records in my flight recorder.”

“Only wreckage was found from the unidentified craft. The investigation on the surface continues, but it is not looking promising. That means you may have shot down a civilian craft.”

“Nonsense. That was a Longshot CM flying at low altitude for Warsaw. Missiles don’t answer your hails last time I checked and if I hadn’t shot it down then, 1.8 million people would have been roasted.”

“With no way to objectively prove that, the current situation is not in your favor.”

How was she supposed to find objective proof while stuck in a cell and unable to contact anyone? But Mariydi wasn’t stupid enough to ask that out loud. The company clearly wanted to get the trial over with and bury the entire incident ASAP.

“Did that missile scare you that bad?” she asked with a snort of laughter.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“That Longshot CM weaved right past all the ground radars. That means it could also slip past one of your precious Objects. The Sky Blue executives, or maybe someone even higher than that, want to preserve this peaceful age, so they don’t want the fear of missiles making a recurrence. Because…”

“You should fix your habit of speaking based on unfounded speculation and delusions. Unless you’re trying to anger the prosecutor into making a ‘mistake’.”

“The fear of missiles leads right to another fear. The fear humanity supposedly conquered with the adoption of those monstrosities you call Objects. This one was only FAE, but they could always load a more powerful warhead in one. Like – oh, I don’t know – a nuc-”

The metal door gave a scream.

Samantha Beeskiss may have drawn her sidearm and shot the door.

And without batting an eye, she continued speaking.

“Do try not to spread careless rumors. It leaves a poor impression.”

“…”

“You shot down an unidentified craft without permission and without even attempting to identify it. Those are the facts. Any baseless speculation beyond that has no place in a court martial.”

This world is diseased, thought Mariydi.

People claimed they had overcome their fear of nukes, but nothing could be further from the truth. They wouldn’t have spread “nuke resistant” Objects all over the world if nukes really were a relic of an older age.

They were terrified, so they did everything they could to defend themselves.

And they failed to realize their actions were based in fear.

Almost like someone guzzling pain killers every day and then claiming they needed the medicine because their stomach was constantly upset. And when someone pointed out the source of their fear, they would react violently.

Just like people reacted very differently to self-deprecatingly calling themselves stupid and being called stupid by someone else.

“Heh heh. You claim you shot down a Longshot CM that can slip past a radar network? You had better hope the court martial accepts that a fantasy like that exists.”

“It did exist. I know because I shot it down myself.”

“Personally, I would find it more believable if you claimed you had captured a ninja on the battlefield.”

The woman on the other side of the door didn’t seem to care what happened to Mariydi.

The look on her face said she had no intention of protecting a Sky Blue Inc. employee. She was here to protect the company, not Mariydi.

She pulled out a satellite phone with a thick antenna.

“This is Samantha. The interview is complete. Even if it is just a ritual required for the paperwork. God, I hate the Northern Restricted Zone. I can’t wait until I’m back on the company plane where I can take a shower and- eh? What’s that? Hello? You’re breaking up.”

“Hey.”

“The court martial will proceed as scheduled. Yes, a secret trial with a predetermined outcome. Now, if you will- what? Um, hello?”

“Hey!!”

Mariydi shouted through the door’s slit and Samantha clicked her tongue and removed the satellite phone from her ear.

“Yes? Are you under the false impression that I am accepting complaints?”

“It’s not that. …Are you having signal trouble? With one of the PMC’s specialized satellite phones?”

“Yes, what of it?”

“That’s not good.”

Mariydi Whitewitch looked up at the ceiling and groaned.

Climbing under the bed wouldn’t do any good. She thought for a moment and moved to the very corner of the cell, which would structurally be the sturdiest part, and curled up as small as she could manage.

“Like, really not good!! If the interference is coming in intermittent bursts instead of gradually but steady, then this isn’t the aurora. You need to get down too! Hurry!!”

“?”

Samantha Beeskiss looked puzzled and probably never did realize what Mariydi was talking about.

Now, what was it Mariydi had mentioned several times now? The enemy was using cruise missiles that took a curving, low-altitude path that could slip through the gaps in a radar network.

And needless to say, a flying object could interfere with an EM signal.

Even if they had been programmed to avoid the stationary radar network, they had no way of avoiding more irregular communication signals.

Part 2[edit]

The result was simple enough.

On that day, 104 cruise missiles struck Capitalist Corporations Royal Air Force Inc.’s Jotunheim Air Base.

Part 3[edit]

The ceiling suddenly dropped to half its height.

The flickering fluorescent lights went out, but was that darkness actually a blessing in disguise? No, the unseen pressure still bore down on Mariydi.

The thick metal door was blasted into the cell and chunks of reinforced concrete bigger than Mariydi flew through the air in lieu of an explosive blast.

(!? I don’t know who’s behind this, but the morons actually did it!!)

That had been a lot of missile blasts. She couldn’t see the situation outside, but the sound told her these weren’t equipped with FAE warheads. If they had been, she would have been dead too. Were those too valuable for the enemy to use them here?

She didn’t hear any sirens.

She hoped that was just her own hearing going out temporarily. She didn’t want to find out the base had been so thoroughly destroyed it couldn’t even sound the alarm.

“Damn.”

She couldn’t just wait in here.

The ceiling fell down further, crushing more than half the surface area of the cell’s floor. The simple bed made of pipes and the porcelain toilet cracked as they were deformed beyond recognition. It was obvious what would happen to a human caught in that.

“Hey.”

Then Mariydi heard a groaning voice.

That meant her ears were functioning, a realization that made the icy girl click her tongue.

The voice came from beyond where the cell’s door had been, but the voice was the unusually cheerful one of the man from before. This was Klarheit Rubyhunter, problem child (…child?) of Royal Air Force Inc.

“Ha ha. We’d better thank the big man upstairs. Those infuriating doors are sitting wide open!!”

“Hold it, you drunk. You haven’t left your cell, have you? Breaking out will get you shot.”

“Sticking around’s not exactly an option.”

Mariydi let out a visible breath and tilted her head.

“The place is on fire.”

She had to look up at the ceiling that was half crushed down by so much pressure.

“And what are we supposed to do about that!? My cell’s exit is sealed up with concrete rubble!”

“A normal soldier’d be screwed, yeah. But not you. Curl that tiny body up like a kitten and climb through the gaps. You can’t afford to wait until the concrete is red hot.”

“What happened to that educated woman!?”

“Couldn’t tell you for most of her, but there is an arm in a Sky Blue arbitrator’s sleeve on the floor over here. Still holding that tablet even.”

The important part was Mariydi wouldn’t be shot the instant she evacuated her cell for her own safety. She took a deep breath to calm herself, got down on all fours, and lowered her head. The exit looked like the toothy maw of a dragon, but there were indeed a lot of gaps between the concrete rubble.

(I hope this is safe. I hate leaving things up to chance. Your calculations are meaningless.)

She stuck her head in a triangular gap and slowly crawled through.

She found a surprise inside.

A thick liquid dripped down on her.

“…”

When she stopped and silently looked up, she found herself eye to eye with someone.

Samantha Beeskiss had been crushed to the point that she was basically part of the concrete rubble now.

“Uh.”

Another attack must have hit the base because the world shook violently around them. Mariydi never did hear what Samantha was trying to say. The jagged concrete pieces slammed together, chewing up the still-living woman.

Claustrophobia pushed in at Mariydi’s heart from all directions.

But backing away wouldn’t solve this. If this hole was sealed, she would be stuck in her cell while the flames and smoke cooked her to death. Her corpse might not rot for three weeks if she was turned into human bacon, but at 12, she wasn’t yet old enough to worry about the condition of her skin.

She clenched her teeth to bear with the rusty smell surrounding her.

She kept crawling to reach the other end of the creaking hole.

Then she heard a dull cracking sound and something else collapsed.

HO v19 BW1.png

The electrical system must have shorted out because several explosive sounds and flashes of light followed.

“Bwah!!”

Once she finally reached the other side and arrived in the hallway, she found a lanky man with a stubbly chin and messy blond hair looking down at her. That would be Klarheit Rubyhunter. He was skinny but did not look remotely healthy, which may have been thanks to his self-admitted alcoholism.

“Ha ha! Stained with the blood of your enemy!? I thought the legendary ace was supposed to look more presentable than that.”

“I’m just glad that well-dressed woman’s gut didn’t burst. I’d have been covered in her shit, puke, and guts then.”

That was the extent of their conversation about Samantha.

Soldiers never lost much sleep over the death of a superior officer they weren’t fond of.

The space in the hallway felt luxurious after her cell. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the chilly subzero air.

She grimaced at the smoky smell.

The fire didn’t appear to be all that bad, but she still held a hand to her head and groaned, feeling like she had just been handed a cup full of chlorinated tap water after running a full marathon.

“That was more than just one missile that hit. What are things like out there?”

“We’ll know soon enough.”

The hallway was better than her cell, but it was still badly damaged. First of all, the lights were out. Even the lights for the emergency exit and fire alarm were dead. Thick cracks ran through the concrete walls, fluorescent lights had fallen from the ceiling, and sparks flew where wires came into contact. At this point, it was no surprise the fire alarms and sprinklers weren’t working. Some more fundamental system had been destroyed in Royal Air Force Inc.’s Jotunheim Air Base. The whole building could collapse at any moment, but Mariydi felt a great tension and pressure when she considered checking on things outside.

(I was the only one being punished. If Ice Squadron was following their original schedule without their leader, then they would have joined Sky Blue’s Aurora Wing to help defend the mine. So don’t worry. My idiots are up in the sky. They weren’t caught in this bombing, so they’re all fine.)

“Hey, hey.”

The man called out to her like their surroundings didn’t bother him in the slightest. That seemed inappropriate, but maybe it just meant he had nerves of steel.

“So what do you think’s going on here?”

“What do you mean?”

“I get that the real threat is the cruise missiles making a comeback in the age of Objects. You’re not the lying type and I’m glad you had your point proven so eloquently here. …But here’s my question: was this just an emotional act of revenge? Or was there some coldly calculated objective behind the attack?”

For a moment, she was a little surprised by how calculating this man was. Klarheit Rubyhunter was far sharper than she would have expected of a drunk.

She let out a visible breath before answering.

“Whoever fired that missile realized they can’t use their secret weapon as long as the Capitalist Corporations hold the skies. And someone must have seen me land here at Jotunheim Air Base after I shot down the missile.”

“So the bastards’ plan isn’t over yet?”

“They seem to have plenty of missiles, but they might not have many FAE warheads. So they blew away the air base to clear the way for their next attack. Damn, that means Warsaw is still in danger!”

She belatedly wished she had Samantha Beeskiss’s satellite phone. The tablet had still been in her severed arm, but its screen had cracked, rendering it useless. The woman was trouble alive and no help dead. In an age where phones and tablets outnumbered the population of the earth, Mariydi would have to deliver her report on foot. She would have to cut across a runway larger than a soccer field and deliver the bad news to the control tower. All while praying she wouldn’t be shot on sight.

With that in mind, she took a peak outside through the bent door.

The biting cold of the Scandinavian night reached her soft cheeks.

What she found was even worse than she had feared.

She instinctively ducked back inside after hearing a sound just as loud as the cheers at a hard rock concert. Something was severely wrong at this air base. For one thing, the runways were supposed to be illuminated at all times, similar to baseball field lit up for a night game, so why was it all wrapped in darkness?

After ducking back inside, she clicked her tongue.

“Why are a ground unit’s tanks driving right over the fence!?”

“So this wasn’t just a long-range bombing? We’re looking at a full-on war here?”

Mariydi heard a quiet sound.

Noticing a soldier casually peeking inside, she slammed a hunk of concrete larger than her fist into the man’s face. And this particular hunk had a piece of rebar thicker than her pinky sticking out. She gave the blunt weapon enough force to knock him over and splatter the contents of his skull across the floor.

The stubbly man behind her took a glance at the dead man’s guns.

“A 9mm handgun and an assault rifle with its aiming assistance computer spread out across multiple parallel processing components instead of concentrated in the scope? So we’re dealing with the Legitimacy Kingdom?”

“But he’s picked up some ‘loot’.”

Mariydi grabbed a familiar Capitalist Corporations communicator and mobile device. They were both covered in blood. He had probably intended to bring them back with him, check them for valuable data, and score some points with his Legitimacy Kingdom military.

Mariydi kept an eye on things outside while she unlocked the communicator in the usual way. The LCD screen’s backlight was terrifying in the dark, but she had no choice at the moment.

“CT, CT!! This is Mariydi Whitewitch of Sky Blue Inc. I’m currently at the front of the detention barracks. Are you willing to hear me out now? This attack was meant to clear the way so their cruise missile can reach its target!! And it looks like it’s the Legitimacy Kingdom that wants to bring us back to an older age.”

“Ksh, ksh, manually…changing…radar angle…ksshh!!”

The signal noise was really bad.

Mariydi clicked her tongue. She had seen this before. The noise in Samantha’s signal had preceded the first downpour of missiles.

It wasn’t over yet.

“Another attack is on the way! This is a message from the base commander! Anyone pilots remaining on the ground are to board any craft they can reach on the runways. If you can fly, escape to the sky. I repeat, every last person who can fly needs to escape into the sky!! Ksshh!!!!!”

The transmission ended at the exact time a great tremor ran through the base.

Only afterwards did Mariydi realize one of the tanks’ 120mm guns must have hit the control tower.

(Damn.)

She gnashed her teeth, but then the drunk cried out in surprise while aiming the stolen assault rifle out from a gap in the bent door.

“Whoa!? Why the hell are our own people firing on us!?”

“Because you’re making all that noise firing a Legitimacy Kingdom toy, you dumbass.”

She quickly had him lower the gun.

That had drawn some unnecessary attention on them and the Legitimacy Kingdom tanks and armored trucks were driving around the runways like they owned the place. Without some kind of plan, they would be turned to Swiss cheese or even mincemeat the instant they stepped outside.

Trying to fortify their position behind a thick wall was meaningless against a tank’s gun, so Mariydi Whitewitch crouched down and faced the dead soldier.

“Two smoke grenades, a signal flare, and…is this a smoke bomb? I would love to at least blind that tank…”

“Hold on. Do you have any idea how many runways there are out there? We’re talking about five times the size of a soccer field with no cover the entire way across. You can’t cover all that with smoke.”

He was right. The threat wasn’t over once they left the detention barracks unharmed. They had to survive long enough to board one of the aircrafts on the runways and fly out of here.

The control tower operator had said another attack was on its way, so they didn’t have long until hundreds of cruise missiles rained down on their heads.

However…

“How much ammo does that assault rifle have left?”

“Two magazines. That’s not enough for a surprise attack on an enemy base. That dead guy may have had a supply truck or one of those bovine robots with him.”

“Don’t worry about preserving the battery. With all those sensors, even an amateur can shoot like an expert sniper. The problem is how dark it is with the lights out. Aim carefully and fire. Your target is 600m away at 10 o’clock.”

“But that horrible grinding is coming from a Legitimacy Kingdom MBT!”

Mariydi snatched the rifle from sickly skinny Klarheit and swiftly aimed it.

She had been asking him to shoot that tank.

“Gyah!?”

Needless to say, an ordinary bullet could not defeat a tank. The alcoholic gave a pathetic scream when he heard the gunshot. He may have considered her action similar to throwing a pebble at a giant bear.

But she knew what she was doing.

The tank was soon surrounded by something like white cotton candy. She had shot the smoke bomb launcher attached to the side of the tank gun. That was essentially a giant smoke grenade. The smoke produced by those had chemicals and a metal powder mixed in to block sensors and radar in addition to ordinary vision.

The smoke bombs were meant as a lifeline to protect the tank from its natural predator, the attack helicopter, but covering the tank itself with the smoke would impede its own functioning. Using a smoke defense near infantry was a good way to run over your own people by accident. That was a lesson people often learned the hard way in the Northern Restricted Zone.

Mariydi couldn’t cover the entire base with smoke, but she could pinpoint target the tank that was the biggest threat.

“Let’s go.”

She used her other hand to toss the 9mm handgun to Klarheit, grabbed a plastic bottle from the ground, and duct-taped it onto the assault rifle’s muzzle. She doubted that would actually function as a suppressor, but if she didn’t alter the shape of the muzzle flash and sound of the gunshot, she could get shot by the other Capitalist Corporations soldiers.

With that done, she stepped outside.

Into the night.

The ground came in two varieties: ice-cold asphalt and soft Scandinavian soil where little grew.

The air base was quite large. And to efficiently operate the aircraft, it was made flat with all unnecessary obstacles removed, leaving almost nothing to use as cover. It was a very bad place for a firefight.

As Mariydi herself had pointed out, the outdoor lights were dead.

Even the backup power had been dug up. That succinctly told her just how badly damaged the air base had to be.

Before another tank could turn its gun their way in the darkness, Mariydi accurately fired the assault rifle into the smoke bomb launcher on its side. She could feel the squeezing of her heart when the muzzle flash shined as bright as a reporter’s camera.

A Legitimacy Kingdom soldier aimed her way while she was focused on the tank, but the alcoholic man blew that soldier’s brains out with his handgun.

The two of them swapped places and rapidly repeated the process.

If they ever fell even a second behind the enemy, they would lose their lives on this hellish battlefield. Again, there was no cover out here. The darkness was no help when the enemy had cutting edge sensors and all the muzzle flashes would reveal their silhouettes anyway.

And those lights were not like the large illuminated signs decorating a safe country city.

Each and every flash was paired with a bullet launched toward a living human.

Surviving here was like being asked to block a real bullet with a phony magic trick. As soon as the enemy saw through the trick, they would be riddled with bullets.

Unable to aim properly with its own smoke in the way, the tank fired its 120mm gun in the wrong direction. It ended up blowing away one of the Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers instead of Mariydi and Klarheit. Mariydi resisted the reflex to get down on the ground and jerked her chin over to indicate something.

“Look…that’s a Zig-27. Hey, what’s your job anyway? You said you like to fly with a liquor bottle in hand, but you aren’t gonna tell me you’re just a gunner who never holds the stick, are you?”

The drunk suddenly veered away from her.

Her eyes widened.

“Hey!”

“There’s a bomber not far from here. If I get that sleepy-head’s engine up and running, we can rescue some of the non-pilots too. The cockpit only holds two, but it can hold over 100 times as many if we clear out the bomb bay. They’ll probably want to duct-tape themselves to the floor or wall and keep an oxygen tube in their mouth, though.”

Mariydi didn’t have time to stop him. By the time he was done talking, he was already off toward the slow and heavy bomber. The Rev-51 all-altitude, all-speed adjustable wing bomber had its long main wings flowing back from its fuselage, giving it the sharp silhouette of an arrowhead.

Mariydi watched him leaving in the darkness and sighed.

“I thought he was just some asshole, but he’s got a surprisingly good heart,” she whispered too quiet for him to hear.

Just then, the drinker was engulfed by an explosion and dust cloud caused by a tank gun.

Mariydi groaned, held her fingers to her temples, and then climbed up to the fighter’s cockpit. Without a ladder, climbing the unique streamlined nose was a lot like some quick bouldering. The secretly tearful girl bit her lip and kept her silence.

(This is always what happens when someone tries to be kind. War can be so cruel!!)

She did not have time to move the flaps and rudder for the preflight test. She skipped all that and simply ignited the engine, pushing the Zig-27 forward. Once it began accelerating, it was even faster than a red luxury car.

“Tch. Another headset-style oxygen tube. These things must work a little too well because I’m seeing them everywhere.”

The engine’s flames were a frightening thing in the darkness.

A tank gun broke through the wall of smoke to aim her way.

She launched all her emergency evasion flares while still on the ground. More and more of the round balls of light were expelled behind the fighter, bouncing along the runway. The bright lights and extra heat sources confused the tank gun, so it fired in the wrong direction.

She had nearly reached takeoff speed.

That was when a Legitimacy Kingdom infantryman launched a personal rocket launcher.

It was a simple anti-tank weapon, so it was not guided. It was likely meant to destroy the runway ahead of her rather than hit the fighter itself. Just like you could stop a train by removing the track.

The asphalt was torn up and more than half of the runway’s usable length was taken from her.

She gulped and checked the airspeed gauge. She had not reached 200km/h yet. That was not enough for a stable takeoff with this large air superiority fighter, but she had no choice but to pull up on the stick.

The wheels lifted from the runway, grazing the jagged asphalt at the last second, and then the Zig-27 broke free of gravity. The accumulated lift quickly raised a hunk of metal heavier than a large truck. It might sound surprising, but fighter craft were very vulnerable when taking off. For the pilots who shared their craft’s fate, that moment felt as unstable and flimsy as a kite tossed about in the wind.

Nevertheless, she had managed to take off without dying.

She now had the advantage. The tanks and armored trucks may have been unstoppable on the ground, but now she could attack their fragile roofs from the sky. Now was her chance to strike back.

“Ksh. This is Lieutenant Colonel John Foxtrot in Capitalist Corporations Royal Air Force Inc.’s Ground Command Vehicle. With the CT destroyed, we have to skip the formalities, but I can see your signal on the screen. I’m glad at least one of you got out.”

“Ice Girl 1 to ground personnel. Raise your anti-friendly-fire cards and hold on just a bit longer. I’ll gift these bastards everything I’ve got hanging from my wings!!”

“That’s air-to-air equipment, so don’t worry about us. You’re from Sky Blue, so you have no obligation to stick with us. Ice Girl 1, do whatever it takes to survive. And I don’t mean in the current shoot-or-be-shot situation. Find a more fundamental way to get back at them. Ksh!! Protect the safe country. Save Warsaw. Ksh, so do whatever you need to do. I grant you authorization for it all. This is the final command Royal Air Force’s Jotunheim Air Base has for you in our joint operation. I’m glad we had this chance to work together.”

“Shut up and stop glorifying your deaths!!!!!! Money is everything in the Capitalist Corporations, so there’s no place for self-sacrifice here. Besides, this disaster is the direct result of me landing here, so I’ll clean up my own mess. Listen, I’m going to save all of you no matter what you say and even if you try to pull rank on me!! So-”

But she didn’t have time to turn around in a big circle and support the air base.

The night sky split open.

And not just in one place. More and more long, skinny contrails were drawn out from the same direction as a shower of cruise missiles poured down on the surface. Mariydi recklessly charged straight into the swarm of missiles, but shooting down just one of them wouldn’t change anything. The entire air base was filled with deadly explosions with the exception of the predetermined evacuation spots known only to the Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers.

After that bitter intersection, the dark world was dyed white below her.

Half the control tower had already been torn down, but now the sturdy fortress at the bottom was also obliterated. She hadn’t seen where the command vehicle was located.

These weren’t even FAE. The snooty Legitimacy Kingdom nobles must not have considered the air base worth using their prized weapon on.

But a home to so many soldiers was destroyed all the same.

Jotunheim Air Base was annihilated.

There was no point in providing air support now. And Mariydi herself could not relax either. She released chaff and made a turn to avoid anti-air missiles launched by the enemy troops who now occupied the pile of rubble below.

“Kh.”

She clenched her teeth, but she could not let herself die here.

She did not fear the attacks from the surface, but she no longer had anywhere to land. She was hundreds of kilometers from the closest PMC air base. She didn’t know if her fuel would last that long and she didn’t know what areas were enemy territory or where their anti-air network was located. While she did some swift calculations in her mind, she noticed a dot on her radar.

That wasn’t a missile. It was too big and slow.

Times like this were so irritating when she was tightly strapped in. She turned her head to look back and satisfy her curiosity.

“Hey! You there!?”

She received a transmission in violation of military regulations. It was the same voice she had first heard in her cell.

She clicked her tongue.

“Ice Girl 1 to unidentified craft. How in the world are you alive!?”

“That was a tank gun, remember? An armor-piercing round that fires on a single point. These things happen all the time in the Northern Restriction Zone. If it isn’t a specialized high-explosive round, it’s surprisingly easy to survive even within the lethal range of the blast. And with you gathering all the attention, taking off was a breeze.”

Mariydi heard the roar of an engine very different from a fighter craft.

It came up alongside her.

She now shared the sky with a bomber that weighed more than seven times what her Zig-27 did. Needless to say, this meant Klarheit Rubyhunter had managed to get that 215ton Rev-51 into the air during that frenzied battle. He made it sound like nothing, but his luck may have been greater than Mariydi’s own.

“How many people did you collect?”

“85.”

That may have ben a drop in the bucket for an air base of more than 2000 when including everyone from the pilots to the perimeter guards. Big picture, this had been a devastating defeat.

But Mariydi Whitewitch smiled a little with her hands on the stick.

They had managed to save some lives in this battle.

She could just imagine those monsters howling with rage.

“Ice Girl 1 to unidentified craft. …I won’t let those 85 die no matter what.”

“Call me Oversize. Even if I just made it up.”

“Really? Trying to brag about having a big dick now of all times?”

“Get your mind out of the gutter, you dirty girl. I’m talking about the size of the bomber. Anyway, my massive antenna just intercepted a secret transmission. Its encrypted and I can’t tell you what it says, but I can tell you where it was transmitted from. That’s gotta be the Legitimacy Kingdom HQ where they’re sitting back and enjoying the fireworks show they ordered. Ooh, I just found some whisky hidden next to the seat. Ha ha! Guess I’m not the only one who likes stealing a drink above the clouds. Yet I’m the only one who gets in trouble for it. How’s that for unfair, eh!?”

“Hold on, what did you just say?”

“Hweh? I’ve got 13 years’ experience as a dancing drunkard, so I’ll be fine.”

“Not about the booze!! Oversize, are you thinking of fighting while dragging that huge ass around with you!? You need to get to safety! Or are you going to get those 85 people killed!?”

“Don’t give me that, girly. Did you forget our final orders from the CT? They knew that was their final moments on this earth. They said they’d changed the radar angle, so those officers would’ve seen the all those missiles approaching the base. They could run a countdown until their death, accurate to the second. But those respectable dumbasses choked down any final message they might’ve had for their families or lovers and suppressed their shaking long enough to tell us pilots we were free to fight. Don’t tell me their determination didn’t reach the heart in that little chest of yours.”

“…”

“C’mon, don’t go soft on us now, Ice Girl 1. Even a drunk like me knows you’re sharper than the rest of us. So use us. Remember, this ain’t a transport plane or a spy plane – it’s a bomber. And you might think of the 85 people in here like precious baby birds you need to handle with care, but every last one of them is begging to be given some way to fight. They’re willing to rush in front of the bullets as a human shield if it’ll get back at the bastards who did this to our base. You weren’t the only one who heard that final order, you know? And a Capitalist Corporations PMC doesn’t need to see the money come in on their bank account before they act. Don’t deny these adults their pride with your childish reluctance.”

Those were the grounded members of the air force.

The personnel the drunk had collected were the businessmen in nice clean jackets and the experts who processed data at a computer on the ground.

For meals they would eat lamb sauté or fish à la meunière in a nice dining hall (because they could push for living condition improvements in a way the Legitimacy Kingdom and Faith Organization could not), so they never had to eat simple rations out of a packet. They were officially known as soldiers, but most of them ended up retiring without ever holding a gun outside of training.

(But I guess a soldier is still a soldier.)

They still had their fangs.

They weren’t going to back down after seeing their base obliterated by such a merciless surprise attack.

They knew they were essentially throwing away their lives immediately after having them saved, but they felt they had to do something for their colleagues who had not made it on board a plane.

Mariydi rubbed her thumb along the protective cover at the top of her control column.

“What is that bomber loaded with?”

“250kg of smart bombs and a full set of ASMs. Oh, and listen to this. In a happy bit of irony, I’ve got a nice big FAE bomb in here. The scary part is how all this is after unloading half its capacity. Hic, and for anti-air defenses, I’ve also got the machinegun and some shortrange AAMs. Ugh, I could really go for a snack right about now.”

“I see.”

The idiot appeared to be drinking already, but Mariydi smiled.

There was nothing to hold them down as they flew through the clear night sky with the round moon shining on everything.

She too wanted to do whatever she could to strike back.

“Understood, Oversize. I’ll clear the path you need to drop everything you’re carrying.”

This attack was only the beginning.

With the air base gone, the primary cruise missile would be flying straight for Warsaw.

They needed to strike back before that happened.

Protect the safe country. Save Warsaw.

Do whatever you need to do. I grant you authorization for it all.

Her final order from Jotunheim Air Base was still in place.

Part 4[edit]

The Rev-51 bomber was much larger than Mariydi’s Zig-27 fighter, so it came equipped with a high-spec radar and computer. Based on its analysis of the encrypted transmissions, the Legitimacy Kingdom cruise missile launchers were divided between three locations. The launcher vehicles were spread out in a fan shape with the HQ sending them orders located at the center.

“Oversize to Ice Girl 1. Which one should we destroy?”

“All of them.”

(I really want some hard rock to listen to. I miss my music. Damn, am I not so different from that drunk after all?)

The enemy was aware of their presence too.

When many more dots suddenly appeared on Mariydi’s radar, it wasn’t because some stealth fighters had blasted their engines to rapidly accelerate.

(Did they reuse the launchers to launch the fighters themselves straight up from the ground?)

She was honestly impressed while she sucked some oxygen in through the tube at her mouth. The use of mobile launchers meant the Legitimacy Kingdom waned to hide their location as much as possible, so they couldn’t’ have an anti-air unit flying around overhead where various types of radar could detect them. But this system gave no thought to the high Gs it would subject the pilots to. Were the pilots considered disposable?

“Damn the Legitimacy Kingdom,” said Klarheit. “Did they lure in some drugged-up delinquent soldiers with some kind of extralegal reward? Ha ha! Are their supply crates labeled morphine? Or is it some cocktail designed to boost their fighting spirit?”

“That’s hardly funny coming from a guy who reaches for a liquor bottle while flying at Mach 1.4.”

The scrambled fighters had created a total of 8 dots rushing toward Mariydi and Klarheit on the radar.

This was the Northern Restricted Zone, so they couldn’t expect anything as polite as a transmitted warning and a warning shot demanding they leave this airspace immediately. As soon as the enemy had a lock, the missiles would be flying. Once they were visible, the hornets would be fighting to the death with their sharp stingers.

“Ice Girl 1, engaging.”

“Oversize, ditto.”

Mariydi opened up the throttle and flew out ahead of the bomber. Klarheit intentionally reduced his speed to keep his distance.

Both sides now perceived this chunk of the night sky at 7000m up as a hotly contested battlefield.

Again, there were eight enemies here.

They approached head on while sticking in formation.

Aerial battles were all about technology, but superior numbers still gave an undeniable advantage. And Mariydi was restricted by her need to protect the bomber as she fought. In dogfights, you were swiftly shot down if you became trapped and unable to move.

If she fought normally, she wouldn’t have a chance.

But she had been trained in the Northern Restricted Zone, so she would never fight normally.

“Attack gun.”

With that casual announcement, she fired her machinegun instead of an AAM.

The close-range bullets had almost no chance of hitting a target outside of missile range.

But it could still restrict her opponent’s movements

A line of tracer rounds passed just barely off the left side of the 8-craft formation. She didn’t have to hit. She just had to scare them into not turning that direction.

The distance between them rapidly shrank as they flew head on.

The first to get a radar lock was Mariydi.

“Attack Bravo.”

(Well, they can only launch their smallest fighters with those launchers, so their radars and such are so much weaker than this large air superiority fighter.)

“Attack Charlie.”

She did not hesitate to press the button on her control column.

An AAM was released from below her main wing and it rocketed through the night sky. Attack accuracy was reduced when flying head on like this, but Mariydi had set something up in advance.

The machinegun fire had restricted the enemy’s evasive action.

And the close formation prevented them from making any sharp turns toward the others in the formation. Unless they wanted to collide with them, of course.

The line of machinegun fire and their allies trapped one of the enemy fighters in place, so its dot on the radar soon blinked out.

“And Attack Delta. Strike.”

But it wasn’t over yet.

She was fortunate to have gotten an attack in before they spread out. The mangled wreckage of the destroyed fighter struck the other fighters flying only a few meters away. The single missile ended up causing a second and third Legitimacy Kingdom fighter to explode.

“Whew!! That might be a new record in cost performance,” noted Klarheit.

“Pay attention. I’m flying straight in, so now they’re going to attack me.”

It was like watching a deadly flower blossoming.

Five fighters had emerged from the wreckage intact and the radar showed them breaking from their formation and flying in large arcs to surround her.

She didn’t even need the radar at this point.

They were probably really after the Rev-51 bomber, but the small Legitimacy Kingdom fighters were soaring through the air close enough for Mariydi to see them with the naked eye. They were the delta wing style the Legitimacy Kingdom loved so much.

(Hm? Those are a lot smaller than the S/G-31s they normally use. Are these the S Cu-25 interceptors that are built small enough to take off from the highways and have their specs reduced to keep the costs down?)

But Mariydi could not afford to satisfy her curiosity. She took a sharp turn and took up position behind one of the five.

“Oversize, they’re headed your way too!!”

“What, giving me all the glory? Hic.”

The Legitimacy Kingdom’s small S Cu-25s had expected the bomber to be big and slow, so they frantically twisted out of the way. A line of light pursued the fleeing fighters like fireworks. Those were the tracer rounds of the air defense autocannon installed on the Rev-51’s belly.

Each bullet was the size of a hammerhead and more than 3000 were fired every minute. The attack was like a rotating waterfall of light, but it wasn’t enough to bring down a maneuverable fighter.

One of the small delta wing fighters must not have wanted to take damage from an aircraft it considered inferior because it carefully stuck to the bomber’s tail.

That was the most dangerous position to have the enemy in a dogfight.

But Klarheit Rubyhunter seemed to be smiling.

“Whoopsie-daisy.”

With that silly exclamation, he spread the movable wings as far as they would go and pulled the nose nearly vertical. That special maneuver was known as the cobra, something you would have to be crazy to do in a bomber. A fierce mass of air flowed back from the bomber’s main wings, shaking the enemy S Cu-25 with an invisible blow. The fighter temporarily lost its lift and stalled.

Its nose pointed down and it fell in a tailspin.

Delta wings had a variety of advantages, but one disadvantage was how unstable they were when they slowed down to match the bomber. An aircraft that could take sharp turns was also an aircraft that – for better or for worse – easily lost its balance.

“I’ve got a lot more wing to move the air than your tiny-ass fighters, so get behind me and you might just get a taste of an artificial blast of wind. Have fun in the localized turbulence.”

And he was not done yet.

One of the same skinny AAMs Mariydi used was launched from the giant bomber’s belly. Modern transport planes and bombers were equipped with counter weapons like that, but they had almost zero chance of actually shooting down a fighter gunning for them.

But things changed when the fighter had stalled and started falling in a tailspin.

Unable to take evasive action, the Legitimacy Kingdom delta wing fighter exploded.

“Attack Delta. Strike…is that the right jargon? Ha ha. I just shot down a fighter with a bomber! I think I’m setting some records up here too.”

“Celebrate once it’s all over!! Oversize, 7 o’clock and 11 o’clock!!”

“Then it’s time for some of that smart combat that’s all the rage these days. Ice Girl 1, lend me your eyes and ears.”

Mariydi clicked her tongue before silencing an enemy fighter with a missile and then pulling hard on the stick.

The Rev-51 bomber’s machinegun and missiles were far from perfect. Its oversized fuselage got in the way, creating blind spots. And with its great weight and slow turning, it couldn’t tail an enemy the way a fighter could.

One of the S Cu-25s seemed very pleased with itself after hiding in the blind spot below the bomber’s giant left wing, but Mariydi’s Zig-27 passed below the bomber and sent some radar waves its way.

“Attack Alpha, Attack Bravo, lock on.”

“Got it, Ice Girl 1. Link complete. Ditto on that Attack Bravo.”

An AAM launched from the bomber with impossible timing and at an impossible angle. The delta wing fighter that thought it was hiding in a blind spot was accurately caught and blown to smithereens.

Mariydi’s fighter had shared its radar lock data with the bomber and the bomber had used that to launch the missile.

“Attack Delta. Strike,” said Mariydi and Klarheit in unison.

The feature had been controversial with the pilots, but modern technology allowed aircraft to make locks based on ground radar data and even for their missiles on their wings to be launched remotely by a command from an aircraft carrier. The pilot didn’t even have to press the launch button.

“Oversize to Ice Girl 1. Have you noticed their weird habit of getting way too close and trying to shoot AAMs? I never could’ve shaken that one with the blast of air otherwise.”

“What about it?”

“Look above us. They’re afraid of the aurora and the magnetic storm. But their cruise missiles worked perfectly over such a long distance, so we know those don’t affect their equipment all that much. If they’re acting weird because the weather ‘might’ do something, I’m guessing these are outsiders.”

Of the initial 8 fighters, Mariydi had shot down three in the initial head-on engagement, one had been shot down by the bomber’s blast of air and AAM, one had been shot down by Mariydi, and one had been shot down by their joint effort.

Only two S Cu-25s remained.

Mariydi Whitewitch’s thumb toyed with the control tower.

“Ice Girl 1 to Oversize. I’ll take care of the rest. You prepare for your bombing run.”

“Hang on, are you sure? It’ll be 1-against-2 for you. I’d really rather not see our cool blonde lady take a pounding from both ends by two burly macho men.”

Instead of dignifying that with a response, she shot down one of the enemy fighters with machine gun fire as she flew past.

That left just one, so it was 1-against-1.

“Attack Gun. Strike. …I shouldn’t have to rely on a bomber’s acrobatic flying in the first place. Just let me do my job.”

“Roger that, Ice Girl 1. Ugh, I should probably take another drink for good luck. No, let’s make it two.”

Had this guy mastered the Asian art of the drunken fist to the point that he had incorporated it into aerial combat? Even an ace pilot like Mariydi was astonished by his skill (not that she was ever going to tell him that), so the fact that he did it all while drinking was even more unbelievable.

The Legitimacy Kingdom had to have noticed their attack target by now. But in a one-on-one battle, the last remaining fighter was forced into a duel with Mariydi and could not pursue the bomber.

Meanwhile, the Rev-51 remained steady and began its attack procedure.

“Weapons selection: smart bombs. No issue with wind direction or anything else. Speed and angle within acceptable bounds. Okay, I’m starting. On your mark, standby.”

They shared their targeting data with each other.

The metal and heat sensors revealed the vehicles and soldiers on the otherwise dark ground.

(That’s a lot. They have an entire small camp set up in the forest.)

Well, they had launched more than 100 cruise missiles in a single attack. Those missiles weighed 1.2 tons and were large enough to carry explosives skimming just off the ground. Even with three launch sites, they needed the container-style launchers, spare munitions, cranes and tractors for reloading, an encrypted communication unit, power and fuel supply, a simple barracks and mess hall, and guards. All in all, it may have worked out to a small village.

Mariydi’s monitor displayed the bomber’s ground attack markers. The predicted hit point and the blast range were shown as a red ellipse and urchin-like spikes. Everything along the bomber’s path was covered by the estimated range of the flames, blast, and shrapnel. The line of predicted destruction soon filled her small screen. All of the shapes highlighted in white were covered.

“Three, two, one, shoot. …No effective countermeasures. GPS guidance is functioning. All bombs following predicted line.”

The actual ground was engulfed in flames just like the monitor had predicted.

The chilly night air of the Scandinavian February was scorched.

Mariydi was 7000m up, so she could not hear the screams of terror and rage from the bastards who had mercilessly targeted a safe country full of noncombatants and launched a surprise attack on the air base standing in their way. But she was satisfied seeing the night’s shadows swept away, the forest’s conifers torn from the ground, and the giant launcher trucks blasted into the air while they broke apart.

“Whew!! Strike check. All bombs detonated successfully! Nice, this is what I call an eco-friendly war!!”

Even in a cutting-edge dogfight where everything was highly digitized, a rattled pilot was still a deadly liability. Mariydi saw the enemy fighter stiffen for a moment when the ground troops were eliminated, so she tore through its engine and delta wing with her machine gun.

“Attack gun. Strike. That’s the last of them. Revenge is so hollow.”

“Hee hee. You sure know how to play the cool ace. I can practically see the smug grin on your face.”

“You didn’t use up all your bombs on this, I hope? We still have plenty of targets left. Woof, woof.”

“You’re having the time of your life out here, aren’t you?”

Part 5[edit]

Even if they seemed to have the upper hand, this was a risky tightrope walk. The fact that the bomber was being drawn into dogfights was devastating for an escort mission. But when they were attacked from multiple directions, Mariydi alone had no way of protecting the bomber. Klarheit just had to make up for it with his skill.

(I really wish we could find some more fighters somewhere.)

“Hm, they were flying somewhere near here, weren’t they?”

“Huh?”

“Ice Girl 1 to Oversize. Let’s move on to the next target: the second of the three CM launch sites. And I have one request for you.”

“Oh, that’s unusual. Not just gonna boss me around this time?”

“Your bomber is loaded with flares and chaff for defense, right? Let one of them launch a missile your way on my signal. That will change everything for us.”

“Hey, you aren’t drinking too, are you? I’m the key to this whole operation! I mean, getting me shot down would change everything for us, but not for the better!!”

“That’s why you’re supposed to dodge the missile, you stupid drunk. Listen, do as I say or you’ll regret it later. This is the ant and the grasshopper.”

The Legitimacy Kingdom forces would already know one of their launch sites had been bombed to oblivion. Mariydi’s radar screen already showed some new dots. The ground launchers had sent up several fighters while reducing the pilots’ lifespans by popping all the capillaries across their bodies.

She detected 6 for now.

Stealth fighters tended to be about evenly matched since everyone designed them similarly, so in the Northern Restricted Zone, people tended to prefer ECM-equipped crafts these days. But an ECM scattering IR and jamming signals also made it hard to get an accurate reading on the numbers and location of the enemy.

Every technology had its pros and cons.

There was little benefit to jamming when too far away for the enemy to get a lock.

Fighters were also being launched from the launch site Mariydi and Klarheit weren’t currently targeting. The greater distance created a time delay, but if those joined the others, the Legitimacy Kingdom would have more than 15 fighters.

The Zig-27 was larger and higher quality, so it had the advantage in pure specs. But it would be overwhelmed and devoured by the smaller and cheaper S Cu-25s when there were this many of them.

“Here they come, here they come, here they come,” said Klarheit.

“Not yet. Lure them in further. Fly due south from coordinate 147-552 to coordinate 153-552. Your instruments are good, so don’t lose your sense of direction in the clouds.”

“They’re choosing to attack a lot sooner than before! That shows they’re more cautious now! I can’t show them any kind of opening this time. Fear is the worst trigger for war there is!!”

“I understand all that, Oversize. But this is the threshold.”

“Huh?”

“Too much fear works against you. It’s like opening an access point for people to manipulate you.”

Mariydi tilted her control column to twist her fighter around and make a large turn to the left.

She intentionally moved from the bomber to set things up for the enemy to attack.

“Hey, they’re really sending their radar my way? I’ve got an alert! They’re locked on!!”

“That’s what we wanted. C’mon, get your countermeasures ready.”

This was such a tense moment that Mariydi forget to even breath oxygen through the headset-like tube.

If the enemy didn’t do what she wanted, they would be caught in the straightforward battle the enemy wanted. There was nothing they could do in a pure 2-against-15 battle. Especially when one of theirs was a bomber.

“Don’t lose your nerve. Get the one at 3 o’clock to launch a missile. If you dodge that, a new path will open up for us.”

“That’s a lot easier said than done, you selfish princess. Here it comes – Defense Bravo!! The missile’s on its way!!”

Lots of round dots of light were scattered like something from a fireworks show.

The Rev-51 bomber had launched its defense flares.

However, that was not a perfect defense. If it didn’t work, the AAM would mercilessly tear open the bomber’s belly.

The semiconductor-controlled explosive drew out a sharp line of white smoke while shooting by directly above the bomber. If not for the flares, its proximity fuse would have activated, blowing away the bomber with the blast.

“That was way too close!!!!!!”

“But it didn’t hit. Provide precise reports, Oversize. Cancel successful. Active.”

“Don’t act like this is easy!! And what does dodging this one missile change!? I’m about to piss myself already!”

“Take it up with your guts and your drinking habit. And if you want to know what this changes, just keep watching.”

Now that he had dodged the missile launched at exactly the timing and angle she had wanted, the battle was theirs.

Overcoming that one life-or-death gamble gave them the cards they needed to safely break through 100 crises.

“I’ve noticed that the Legitimacy Kingdom AAMs don’t seem equipped with a self-destruct device. When they miss, they keep flying until they run out of fuel and fall to the ground, which is pretty dangerous really.”

She doubted they lacked the technology, so it was probably a meant to reduce the weight or cost. Fortunately, it created an opening for her.

Simply put…

“We’re at the very edge of their airspace. And if a dodged missile crosses the invisible line on the map, the people in the adjacent area will conclude they’re under attack. Even if it was just those morons in the Legitimacy Kingdom being too cheap for basic etiquette,” explained Mariydi with a mischievous grin. “You see, my Ice Squadron was sent to fly with a different wing since I was a suspect, but if I give those idiots a justification, I can drag them into our fight. And that gives us some more escort fighters.”

New radar waves were released onto the battlefield and several AAMs flew in from the side, obliterating the Legitimacy Kingdom’s S Cu-25s.

Mariydi’s plan had succeeded, but the response had been too quick.

She could guess her squadron had been waiting on the very edge of their airspace, champing at the bit for her to open the door and let them in.

Soldiers could not act just because they wanted to.

Just like everyone at Jotunheim Air Base had risked their lives to give Mariydi the freedom to fly, there was a necessary etiquette for seeking assistance. But now that she had acquired the key, there was no way they could lose.

“Ice Sword 2. Attack Delta. I repeat, Attack Delta. Strike!!”

“Ice Horse 3 to Ice Girl 1. I take it you’re inviting us to join your late-night orgy?”

“Sky Blue Inc.’s Ice Burn 4 here. Aurora Wing’s commander is the boring sort of guy who’s always flipping through the textbooks to check over everything. I doubt the old guy’s even grown any hair down there.”

Their mouths were as foul as ever.

And Mariydi had learned not to get after them for it because they would falsely claim they learned it from her.

A puzzled voice arrived from the bomber.

“Wait, ‘burn’ doesn’t seem to fit the Ice theme very well.”

“Ice Girl 1 to Oversize. We couldn’t come up with anything better. I suggested calling him Ice Pail 4, but he begged me not to.” Mariydi smiled a little. “I’ve removed your collars. It’s a simple job: use the bomber’s smart bombs and ASMs to pay them back for what they did. Care to join us?”

“Ice Sword 2. Wow, inviting us in just in time for the fun part?”

Including Mariydi, they now had four escort fighters, which gave them a lot more options. After all, these were four large and high-quality Zig-27s. Ice Squadron’s fighters could all shoot down the enemy fighters with their AAMs, but so could the slower Oversize with the datalink sharing the interception system and lock data with the fighters.

The maneuverable fighters would get a lock and the bomber would use the superior firepower provided by its greater weight capacity.

The enemy formation was rattled by the unexpected counterattack, so now Mariydi’s team was on the offensive.

The first formation of 6 had been destroyed by the time Ice Squadron had gathered together. Once the second formation of 9 from the further launch site was wiped out, the launch sites were defenseless.

The bomber passed by above the fleeing enemy ground unit and explosive flowers blossomed in its wake. Each one was a mass of scorching heat and shockwaves measuring more than 100m across, so these were the kind of flowers that would blossom in hell itself. Afterwards, they only had to repeat the process.

“Strike check. Oversize to fighters. All bombs detonated successfully. That’s the third launch site gone!!”

“Ice Girl 1 to Oversize. This isn’t over yet.”

They had only been taking out the outer edges of the fan shape.

The HQ that had sent out the coldhearted launch command remained at the center.

They weren’t going to show mercy just because they had torn off the HQ’s arms and legs. The Legitimacy Kingdom troops had mercilessly crushed Royal Air Force Inc’s. Jotunheim Air Base even after knowing they couldn’t resist. So Mariydi’s team had to thoroughly crush them to pay them back in kind.

“Oversize to fighters. Hey, I spotted something interesting on the ground observation cameras used for the strike check. I’ll share it on your monitors.”

“Hold on, don’t share some gross image. I don’t want to see dismembered corpses splattered across the ground by your smart bombs.”

“It’s not that. Check out this severed arm.”

How was that not a dismembered corpse?

This image had come from the high speed camera attached to the bomber’s belly. In a newly-cleared portion of the conifer forest, human silhouettes had been caught in the flames after the bombing ignited some gas and ammunition. But Klarheit had drawn a circle around something there.

The uniformed right arm lay there minus the man it belonged to.

But what mattered was the unit insignia.

“Do you know what this means?”

The insignia depicted a large pair of scissors cutting a thick chain. Mariydi groaned unusually loudly when she saw it.

“Goddammit, the Chain Cutters? Everyone, be on your guard!”

“Hic, friends of yours?”

“They’re infamous. They handle the Legitimacy Kingdom’s dirty work and they made their worldwide debut to rave reviews after learning all the tricks of the trade in the Northern Restricted Zone. They’re from the army, but they have no trouble targeting land, air, or sea. Their job is to ‘cut’ supply lines. They don’t care if their target is made up of armed soldiers or not. If someone’s carrying supplies that will work against their side, they’ll ‘cut’ that chain even if it’s a volunteer group or a medical team. Some of our own Capitalist Corporations soldiers and civilians have fallen victim to them. The ancient Egyptian pyramids can’t accept any tourists for the next 30 years thanks to all the landmines the Chain Cutters scattered out there. They did what they came to do, withdrew, and left an estimated 40 thousand live explosives still buried in the sand. Really, it’s probably more than that.”

“Are their army origins why they hired an outside air defense team that’s afraid of the aurora?”

“Ice Sword 2 to Ice Girl 1. So you’re saying these are some bastards well worth killing?”

“Yes. And I said they can handle land, air, or sea, right? This isn’t over. If they brought along the toys they use to cut air supply lines, we’ll be seeing more than just those rentals. Something else is coming.”

That was concerning, but they couldn’t turn back just because of a “maybe”. This wasn’t a pleasure flight where they could leave after giving the enemy a black eye to send a political message. This was a real battle that wouldn’t end until one side or the other was reduced to burning wreckage.

When two sides encountered each other on the battlefield, only one side would return alive.

That was how aerial combat worked. The Chain Cutters had trampled on that logic of aces.

And cowards like that were bound to get creative when their lives were on the line.

So what exactly would they use?

(…)

Mariydi thought while the others sent transmissions back and forth.

“Ice Horse 3 to Oversize. Thanks for looking after our cute commander. Now, I’ve got a question. Is it safe to assume the enemy HQ is really inside that fan shape?”

“Oversize. Their transmissions say so. I can’t decrypt them, but I can tell where they’re coming from. There’s this…synchronicity, would you call it? Anyway, they’ve been talking back and forth with the perfect timing. And it isn’t linked with the launch sites’ actions.”

“Ice Burn 4. …But that puts it out over the ocean.”

Ice Burn 4 was correct.

They were approaching the Bay of Aegir. The Northern Restricted Zone was famous for its many bays and straits, but this was the “inland sea” located between the north of the European mainland and the Scandinavian Peninsula. It was famous for having become a dangerous tinderbox thanks to all the oil and rare earths located there. The very center of the fanned-out launch sites would take them out over that dark sea.

This sea was littered with a lot of artificial objects.

In addition to the large survey ships and drillships were the offshore oil platforms, ocean wind power plants, solar power plants, and countless transport ships for all the resources extracted from the ocean floor. The Rev-51 bomber’s shared data highlighted so much in white that it was easy to forget they were out over the ocean.

But one thing was more conspicuous than all the rest.

“Oversize to fighters. I found it. 50km to 10 o’clock. It’s an FSPO.”

“A mining megafloat?”

Mariydi cut off her nonproductive thoughts and quizzically joined the conversation.

“Technically no. The Plant Castle is a Legitimacy Kingdom corporate energy complex. Instead of a specialty shop targeted to the individual, it’s more like a shopping mall with anything anyone might want.” Klarheit Rubyhunter chuckled. “It’s all based on the oil they suck up from the ocean floor, of course, but they also have solar panels and wind turbines spread across the ocean around them, making the place look like a huge-ass flower. I don’t know when they killed whoever was in charge and stole it from the civilian company, but now it functions as a monstrous power generator larger than a soccer field. Set up an electric-powered toy like a rapid-fire beam cannon or railgun and I bet you’d be able to use it at full specs.”

Mariydi was half impressed and half exasperated.

“A stationary cannon? How do they intend to protect themselves from the massive shockwave and radiated heat?”

“I’m sure they have their ways. It might be a makeshift setup, but their lives are on the line here. So maybe they have ablative armor that melts away and keeps the heat off of them. They’d have to replace it for each and every shot, but it was nothing but puny plastic that protected the space shuttles from the thermosphere.”

“Ice Sword 2. You must be joking. You mean they’re protecting their precious you-know-what with no more than some thin rubber?”

“Ice Burn 4 to Oversize. How can you be sure they’re on that float when there’s so much artificial crap in this ocean?”

“What, are you not picking up anything on your passive radar? They’ve been locking onto me for a while now. They’re probably using the atmospheric pressure difference to identify and track the aircraft flying through the sky.”

Just as Mariydi grabbed her Zig-27’s stick again, a lightning-like flash burned into her retinas. There was no way to dodge an anti-air laser beam when it flew at the speed of light. The image she saw burned into the night sky was only the afterimage created by her disturbed senses.

That was not something you could consciously avoid.

And atmospheric pressure tracking used the disturbance her fighter caused in the air itself, so ECMs and jamming wouldn’t help.

The Ice Squadron had only survived thanks to the bomber they were escorting.

It had opened its bomb bay just before the laser beam was emitted. An extra-large FAE bomb had been dumped out into the empty sky. That tactical weapon ignited an aerosolized explosive and scorched an area 2km across with ultra-high heat while consuming all the oxygen in the area, but that was enough to alter the atmospheric conditions.

A sharp change in air density caused by a temperature difference could lead to optical refraction, aka a mirage.

Not even cutting-edge technology was magic. It could not overturn a physical phenomenon known about for well over a century.

If the laser had not unnaturally bent just before hitting, someone in the Ice Squadron would have died. And it might have been Mariydi.

“Whew!! Oversize to fighters. If you don’t want to die, I’d recommend keeping your heads down and scattering. Atmospheric pressure tracking is easily influenced by obstacles. And don’t expect my timing to be that good a second time!!”

“You do know, Oversize, that you’re their top priority target, don’t you!?”

“Why do you think I need some hard liquor to get through this, idiot? I’ve dropped quite a few already, but I’ve still got literal tons of explosives in my belly here. Ain’t no way I’m flying sober through anti-air fire when we haven’t secured air superiority yet. I don’t want to be the grand finale of the fireworks show!!”

The dark ocean was devoid of light.

And it was covered in artificial structures, mostly for oil extraction and mining.

Flying at low altitude was tantamount to suicide, but that was why it was the only path to survival for Mariydi’s team. All the impurities in the sea breeze and ocean spray would help refract the lasers and all the various plants and transport ships could be used as cover to hide from the enemy fire.

“Oversize to fighters. At full power, Plant Castle produces more than 980 thousand kilowatts. That means the float easily supplies as much as a city. But this is the Northern Restricted Zone known for its fjords and the beautiful aurora. They make too much electricity, so they’re apparently having a hard time finding buyers.”

“Ice Burn 4. 980 thousand? Isn’t that about the same as the average nuclear plant?”

“Ice Horse 3. It’s still less than an Object’s reactor, but it would be enough to power one or two of their secondary cannons. Plus, this is the Legitimacy Kingdom’s infamous Chain Cutters. They might have another trick up their sleeve.”

That proved accurate.

They heard something being launched with explosives and several more dots appeared on their radars around the plant. Mariydi initially assumed they had launched more S Cu-25 interceptors with their missile launchers, but this seemed different.

Four fighters were flying in the sky protected by laser beams.

But while still out of range and without even locking on, they each launched two smaller dots from their wings. But these were not missiles. The mystery flying objects flew alongside the fighters for a bit before setting off on their own to surround the battlefield like hounds pursuing their prey.

The previous S Cu-25s had not done this.

The flower of death bloomed and surrounded Mariydi’s squadron like great jaws spreading wide.

“Ice Sword 2 to Ice Girl 1. Are these their aces?”

“Ice Girl 1. The enemy crafts are unknown, but those are probably remote-controlled UAVs they sent out ahead of them! Don’t let them get a lock!!”

Mariydi had done this herself.

The Zig-27 fighter and Rev-51 bomber had shared targeting data to shorten the lock on procedure and shoot down an enemy fighter using the bomber’s missile.

Were these unknowns doing the same with fighters and UAVs? Were they following the procedure described in airshow pamphlets for UAV-linked fighters developed as a countermeasure against stealth aircraft that absorbed or redirected radar waves to vanish from the control tower’s screen?

(No…)

She couldn’t forget the laser beam from earlier. If one of those short and stumpy UAVs locked onto them, the targeting data would be shared with the stationary optical weapon and they would be immediately shot down.

Now they couldn’t keep the laser weapon from getting a lock by focusing on the stationary Plant Castle and using the transport ships and mining platforms as shields. They were dead as soon as the UAVs spied on them from above.

(They’re light and they don’t have to worry about the G limits of manned aircraft. On the relatively flat ocean surface, we’ll have a hard time losing them. No, don’t give up. Even if a UAV gets a lock, we can still avoid death if it can’t get the data back to the fighter or float. That means chaff or jamming could work.)

“Oversize. Yippee! I just discovered something even worse.”

“What is it now!?”

“I can’t see what’s inside the encrypted military transmissions, but the civilian ones are a different matter. The European air routes are all abuzz. From the look of it, I’m guessing requests are coming in to clear the passenger plane air routes for a military craft that doesn’t show up on civilian air traffic control radars. What do you wager the odds are this has something to do with us?”

“Can you tell the overall route being cleared?”

“From Warsaw’s international airport to the Information Alliance’s Snorri Air Base in the Northern Restricted Zone. They’re crossing between civilian and military airspace like its nothing, so there’s no way this is a civilian passenger plane. Probably a secret transport plane. But the routes are already being redirected, so it’s going to pass over our heads before long.”

Mariydi nearly forgot about the more immediate threat.

This would mean…

“The bombing of Warsaw…wasn’t their main objective?”

“The transport plane probably belongs to the Information Alliance. They’re the only ones who could safely land it at Snorri Air Base, after all. And they’re experts at using charity and propaganda to improve their image to all the families back home. Any other world power and the civilian airports would be complaining a lot more about a military request like this.”

“Does that mean the Chain Cutters’ cruise missile bombing of Warsaw and attack on Jotunheim Air Base were all so they could target this Information Alliance transport plane? They wanted to alter their targets route to lure it into their ‘lair’.”

Samantha had stubbornly refused to accept the existence of the cruise missile, but not so with the Information Alliance. Unfortunately, they were terrified of it.

“Oversize to Clever Girl. Super aces like us can get by, but how’s a slow transport plane supposed to get past that anti-air laser? It’ll be vaporized by the very first shot.”

“Ice Sword 2. So what’s it carrying that they’re so desperate to get rid of?”

“Ice Horse 3. Probably some VIP’s priceless treasure, like a nightmarish piece of art, a classic car that breaks every exhaust regulation, or someone’s mistress.”

Needless to say, Mariydi Whitewitch was part of the Capitalist Corporations military. The Legitimacy Kingdom and the Information Alliance were both her enemy. If she encountered them on the battlefield, she wouldn’t hesitate to draw her weapon and put two bullets in their chest with a quick double tap, so she had no obligation at all to save them.

But.

This was not a 1-on-1 battle. Mariydi could not stand the way those nobles loved to arrogantly pummel a defenseless opponent after making sure they couldn’t fight back. Yes, that was a logical and efficient way to wage war. Mariydi’s great disgust and revulsion with it may have come from being an ace pilot who flew through the sky wordlessly conversing with her rivals who had polished their skills just as much as she had.

That was why she didn’t hesitate.

She was fighting to get back at the Chain Cutters for destroying Royal Air Force Inc.’s Jotunheim Air Base. She did not know what was inside that transport ship, but she knew allowing it to pass through this airspace unharmed would cause great damage to the Legitimacy Kingdom. That was bound to have a greater effect than dropping missiles and bombs on the heads of the enemy soldiers on this “small” battlefield.

“Ice Girl 1. Let’s end this before the unidentified but presumably Information Alliance transport plane enters this airspace. How much time does that leave us? These Legitimacy Kingdom bastards have left their own ideals of chivalry behind, so let’s remind them that there are still storybook heroes fighting out here.”

“Ice Horse 3. I more see this like a quick draw in a Western.”

“Ice Burn 4. Either way, it means you like getting into 1-on-1 fights, doesn’t it? Please try not to do that every single time.”

“Oversize to fighters. If you want to discuss your dreams at the bar, then get moving. I can’t see that plump turkey on my radar, but based on the talk coming from the civilian airports, we have less than 20 minutes.”

A warning icon flashed at the edge of the multifunction monitor and an artificial voice loudly repeated a warning over and over.

A UAV with a long, skinny shape similar to an AAM flew over Mariydi’s head as if drawing out a cross. A normal fighter in that position couldn’t attack because its missiles couldn’t turn fast enough to hit, but that didn’t apply to the UAV.

“Defense Bravo. They have a lock on me!!” shouted Mariydi.

Immediately, she saw a flash as bright as welding light and the nearby oil platform was melted and blown away by the laser beam.

By sharing the radar targeting data, it didn’t matter that kind of obstacle was in the way.

Mariydi only survived because the impurities in the air bent the laser beam ever so slightly. But she wasn’t going to breathe a sigh of relief quite yet. She would be swallowed up by all the rubble if she didn’t soar through at low altitude with a speed more than three times that of a luxury car. The civilian facility was crumbling that fast. She roared with raw anger while flying directly below the platform collapsing like a large surfing wave.

“Damn them!”

“Ice Sword 2 to Ice Girl 1. The plants around here are mostly automated, so there won’t be any human losses unless that directly hit the control room where the operator works.”

Meanwhile, the Zig-27s and Rev-51 continued on their way forward.

They lived in the Mach world, so 50km was nothing.

“Ice Horse 3 to Ice Girl 1. What’s our target!?”

“The antennas and other communications equipment. We need to sever the link between the Plant Castle’s stationary laser beam and its fighters and UAVs!!”

Sensing danger, Mariydi raised her Zig-27’s nose.

She rose from the ocean surface and entered an attack run that would take her directly above the megafloat that’s many smokestacks made it look like a castle floating on the ocean.

(I’m trying to use air-to-air equipment for something it’s not designed for. It’s one big piece of metal, so I can’t lock onto individual parts with radar or IR. I guess that leaves photo recognition, so I’ll aim for the conspicuous parabolic antenna!!)

The special antenna was made of a few round plates with a diameter of more than 5m each. They were gathered together like honeycombs or a revolver’s cylinder. She forcibly sent the AAMs toward the target. It felt more like dropping them into the air than taking aim and firing.

But it didn’t work out.

The missiles burst in empty air before reaching the antenna.

“?”

“Ice Sword 2 to Ice Girl 1. They’re still active. Something got in the way!!”

That hadn’t been a laser beam. She knew that because she hadn’t seen the bright light produced when metal was forcibly sliced through.

The enemy had some other trick up their sleeve.

“Ice Horse 3. Freefall bombs don’t work either. They detonate before reaching it.”

“Ice Burn 4 to Ice Girl 1. Could they be boosting the radar output to deadly levels!? I see Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers fried to a crisp on the smokestacks’ spiral staircases!!”

Mariydi’s squadron flew by above the Plant Castle.

They descended nearly to the ocean’s surface again to avoid a counterattack from the laser beam while they took a large turn to get their noses pointed toward the stationary target again.

“Oversize to fighters. It’s probably that radar at the very top. It’s normally used to link targeting data with the fighters or UAVs, but in a pinch, they can instantaneously boost its output to create a solid EM barrier. Missiles and even unguided bombs don’t work when the fuses themselves malfunction.”

“Ice Sword 2 to Oversize. Could we destroy it with our machineguns!?”

“Probably not. I’m still waiting for the highspeed camera footage to be analyzed, but that antenna is pretty damn thick. If it has a layered structure and is more than 80cm thick, then it’s as tough as a tank’s front armor. A machinegun sweep isn’t going to tear it in two.”

The target they most wanted to destroy was preventing their attempts. They wouldn’t get anywhere without coming up with a countermeasure.

“Oversize to fighters. I just picked up a nasty transmission from the Eastern Euro Weather Station! If the weather radar is being blocked by the unseen transport plane, then we have less than 10 minutes to go!!”

(How can we neutralize that EM barrier and hit that antenna with a missile or bomb?)

After some thought, Mariydi threw out that idea.

(No, don’t get caught up on that one idea. Our objective is to neutralize the Object-class anti-air laser beam, destroy the Chain Cutters, and let the Information Alliance transport plane pass through here and land safely at Snorri Air Base. We can’t get fixated on the antenna and EM barrier. Remember what war is all about. We’re Capitalist Corporations soldiers.)

“Ice Girl 1 to Oversize. Send me your precious highspeed camera’s footage.”

“What exactly do you want? I’ve got a nice profile shot of your cute face through the canopy.”

“The small UAVs that separated from the fighters. And you said the 85 people curled up inside your bomber were office workers, didn’t you? Connect me to them. I want an expert opinion.”

“?”

A few photos appeared on her multipurpose monitor and she quickly checked the distinctive tail and air intake.

(I guess they wouldn’t have the lot number printed on there for me to see. But these look more like cruise missiles than airplanes. And since they’re from the Legitimacy Kingdom, I bet the Elivan Company made them.)

An explosive roar passed by nearby.

With the laser beam weapon keeping Mariydi’s squadron out of the sky, only the Chain Cutters’ interceptors were flying there. Their main purpose was to pass targeting data to the stationary anti air laser beam cannon, but they could still fight on their own too.

They could use their machineguns to drive Mariydi higher where the optical weapon would get her.

Mariydi knew she was being targeted, but she did not hesitate to speak.

“Listen, Oversize. Your communication equipment is more powerful than mine, right? You need to launch the magic bullet over the airwaves and outside the Northern Restricted Zone. Send this: ‘To Victoria B. Input Number 1502-9163-XXXX-0853 to 6374-0081-XXXX-4517. Start with 1000 and increase if necessary.’ ”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just do it. Then we win!!”

An alarm rang in her cockpit.

A Chain Cutter interceptor was targeting her from the sky, well aware that she couldn’t counterattack.

“Ice Girl 1 to Oversize. Wake up those desk jockey soldiers. A bomber will be loaded with a huge computer to calculate out the weather conditions and Coriolis force and whatever else needed for accurately dropping bombs, right? Combine that with your heavy-duty communications equipment and prepare to make a cyber attack.”

“How!? This isn’t the movies! Where are we supposed to find a way into the Legitimacy Kingdom network!?”

“That’s easy.” Mariydi tapped her multipurpose monitor and it displayed all the necessary information. “I just bought the entire Elivan Company that worked to develop those things. As their largest shareholder, they can’t hide their internal data from me.”

Mariydi had contacted an accountant she had waiting in a boring safe county. Her command had been to disguise her identity, access the Honolulu market (since that was currently open and located in a blank region that was unofficially affiliated with the Capitalist Corporations), and buy that Legitimacy Kingdom defense company.

A trick like that would be discovered in only a few minutes with a large company closely linked to the military.

But for those few minutes, she could access all of their company secrets as the owner of the company. High speed internet allowed people to steal so much more information these days.

“Wait, the largest shareholder? How much money did you spend on this?”

“People always say I’m a workaholic who doesn’t know how to spend my money, so it just ends up piling up in my bank account. To be honest, I’m astonished I still remember my account number at Victoria Bank.”

She was an ace pilot, after all. She wasn’t on the level of a Pilot Elite, but she saw fighting as her purpose in life and had no real desire to spend the money she made. So just how many zeroes would you find on her bank statements?

“This is how the Capitalist Corporations wages war, Legitimacy Kingdom. We’re the kind of fools who buy bullets with money and then die for money.”

The 85 office workers were still soldiers.

The Rev-51 bomber’s communications equipment and computer were a treasure trove.

Once they had the vulnerability in the UAV network, they demonstrated their specialized talent in deskwork to quickly hack in and neutralize the UAVs.

“Oversize to fighters. The twigs back there want you to know they’ve severed the enemy’s datalink, so the sky is ours again!!”

Mariydi pulled up on the stick and her engine roared to an unnatural extent. Her Zig-27 shot nearly straight up from the ocean surface for a head-on confrontation with the Chain Cutter interceptor leisurely taking aim above.

They passed each other close enough for Mariydi to get a clear look inside their cockpit.

Except there wasn’t a clear canopy to protect a pilot.

She only saw the cold glitter of rounded metal and a camera lens flashing with a complex shutter, so she sighed in disappointment.

“You’re remote too?”

She pulled the control column’s trigger with an icy expression.

Since their enemy was from the army, the pilot was a complete amateur. Worse, they were down on the surface controlling it over the network.

An ace had nothing to discuss with someone so reliant on the machines and the manual. She simply chewed up the enemy craft with her machinegun.

She did not even look back after passing it by. She only heard the explosion behind her as the lifeless weapon was destroyed.

With a lightning-like flash, an anti-air laser beam shot up from the Plant Castle, but its aim was less accurate than before. Laser weapons could be bent using any kind of difference in air density. That could come from a temperature difference, the moisture, the salt density from the sea breeze, smoke particles, or anything really.

All of that could be revealed by the computer the bomber used to calculate where to drop the bombs so they would land within 20cm of their target after falling more than 30 thousand meters. And that information could then be shared with Ice Squadron.

“Ice Girl 1. Let the hunt begin. We’re going to sink Plant Castle,” calmly said Mariydi.

Now it was their time to attack from above.

In addition to the anti-air laser beams, Plant Castle had a powerful radar which could neutralize missiles and bombs by triggering a malfunction in their fuse, but their attacks could get through as long as that couldn’t target them. They chose to use their machineguns and took aim at the large storage tanks that existed on any oil facility.

Several lines of tracer rounds dropped from the sky like glowing dragons swinging their heads.

A massive explosion set the float’s soldiers on fire while dumping them into the ocean. If that was fuel oil, the seawater wouldn’t be enough to extinguish them. The entire facility slanted to one side and a portion of it began to flood. Yes, they could eliminate the stationary laser weapon by sinking the float below it. More than 10 thousand tons of petroleum and gas ignited at once, triggering an enormous explosion. It was enough to form a mushroom cloud over the ocean.

But the enemy was fighting for their lives now.

One soldier took aim with the tube resting on his shoulder even as he burned like a torch.

That was a personal SAM.

“Shit!!”

Tension ran through Mariydi. The accuracy of those missiles wasn’t exactly great and it was stopped after crashing into a giant smokestack collapsing from the earlier blast. But shards sharper than nails still poured down on her. A fighter was full of flammable things like bullets, missiles, the engine, and the fuel tank. Even with the armor, a cloud of shrapnel could still be deadly at her speed.

But just before it reached her, a larger form moved in between. That was the Rev-51 bomber piloted by Klarheit Rubyhunter.

“Whoa there.”

“What are you doing, Oversize!?”

“That’s my line. Don’t screw it all up right at the end like that. Then again, this makes you a lot more adorable than if you were just cold and flawless.”

The bomber flying only a few meters away had very obviously lost its balance. It was falling. She saw horrific black smoke trailing back from its tail. From her position, she couldn’t tell if its automatic fire extinguishing system was working or not.

“Oversize!!”

“Ha ha. This was bound to happen sooner or later. …Sorry, cough, but the alcohol isn’t enough to mask the pain anymore.”

“Wait, were you dying from the moment the tank gun detonated near you on the runway?”

“If the 85 people I’d saved had begged me to let them out cause they didn’t want to die, urp, I might’ve hesitated. But those dumbasses said they wanted to fight to the bitter end.”

No, the bomber wasn’t falling.

Klarheit definitely still had his hands on the stick. He knew he couldn’t gain any more altitude, but he was directing the Rev-51’s great mass toward the burning Plant Castle.

He took the exact opposite course of Mariydi’s squadron as they withdrew up into the sky.

“I’m here to play, Chain Cutters!! You wiped Jotunheim Air Base off the map just cause it was in your way, but my teacher and my friends were there. Agh, not to mention that counselor lady who actually had it in her heart to worry for a worthless guy like me. That base might’ve been hell at times, but it was also a small village. It was our hoooooooooooome!!!!!”

Nothing could stop him.

Instead of stabbing straight down into it, the bomber’s belly slid along the float’s flat surface, scattering sparks everywhere and crushing all the soldiers in its way.

Mariydi was flying through flames and smoke at supersonic speed, so she couldn’t see it through to the end. Almost like there was a river flowing between the living and the dead.

And this wasn’t over yet.

Why had Klarheit and his passengers aimed there? The answer showed itself soon enough. A new dot appeared on the radar from the giant float.

It was an escape tiltrotor.

Since it had taken flight, Oversize must have just barely missed it. A lot of people had died on both sides, but Oversize’s determination had been easily sidestepped by the Chain Cutters’ leading members who were now escaping to safety as if sticking out their tongues.

They hadn’t learned their lesson. Those people would find new soldiers, train them, rid them of all their morals, and cause further tragedies.

The girl strongly and quietly adjusted her grip on the control column. When Mariydi Whitewitch spoke again, her voice was a low growl.

“Ice Girl 1 to all. That’s our top priority. Hunt them down.”

But then something unexpected happened.

A white beam of light shot from the burning and sinking Plant Castle to slice through the night sky.

That was the anti-air laser beam.

But it was not aimed at Mariydi’s squadron. The optical weapon shot straight toward the tiltrotor and burned through the aircraft as it took off, leaving its panicking and burning subordinates to die.

It was vaporized.

The ending was almost anticlimactic.

HO v19 BW2.png

Mariydi knew of only one thing that could have manipulated the Chain Cutters’ laser beam cannon like that. Someone must have taken control of a UAV, locked onto the tiltrotor, and given its occupants their just deserts.

“Ksh…this…Oversize…ksh.”

Mariydi sighed.

Her Ice Squadron sharply changed direction and all four Zig-27s flew toward the burning float.

It felt nice fighting to protect rather than to kill.

“Ha ha. I give a dramatic dying speech and then I don’t even manage to die. Anyway, we could really use some additional air support. Fire those machineguns down here to keep those ants from swarming this dropped sugar cube!”

Part 6[edit]

It ended surprisingly easily.

The unexpectedly light resistance was likely the result of multiple factors.

The top level of the Chain Cutters had been killed in the tiltrotor, preventing them from operating as an organized group, the Plant Castle float they used as their HQ was sinking, and the Chain Cutters could not allow themselves to be captured by an enemy nation where they would be forced to confess to their past crimes after leaving the Northern Restricted Zone. The diplomatic damage would be too great.

So most of them retreated.

Some were too badly burned to move and others disarmed themselves and used lights or smoke bombs to reveal their location so they could surrender to the Capitalist Corporations, but both those groups were found floating in the cold ocean with a bullet between the eyes or through the heart. Bullets fired by Legitimacy Kingdom guns.

“Ice Sword 2 to Ice Girl 1. I only have machinegun ammo left and I won’t have enough fuel to return to base before long. The Capitalist Corporations naval police have collected everyone trembling in the ocean around Oversize. We did our job, so we can leave the ocean cleanup to them.”

“I wonder…”

Mariydi breathed in some oxygen from the tube at her mouth and turned to look at something other than her squadron.

While the four Zig-27s of Ice Squadron prepared to withdraw, another aircraft flew slowly by overhead. It was a large Information Alliance transport plane.

“I wonder what’s in that thing. So many people died on both sides, but that turkey wasn’t even scratched. Even though it’s nearly defenseless and at the center of it all.”

“Ice Horse 3 to Ice Girl 1. We did our job. The rest is someone else’s problem.”


Chapter 2: When You See a Ghost on the Battlefield >> Ghost Unit Interception in the Tunguska District[edit]

Part 1[edit]

Quenser Barbotage and Heivia Winchell were frozen half to death in the frigid ocean of Scandinavia. Their situation was dire enough for them to start fighting to the death over a single plank floating in the dark ocean.

Needless to say, they were with the Legitimacy Kingdom.

Specifically, the 37th Mobile Maintenance Battalion.

“B-brr. Brrrr.”

“Th-that’s the Northern Restricted Zone for you. The rules of the clean battlefield do not apply. We never should’ve gotten involved in this Objectless hell.”

Needless to say, Quenser and Heivia could not afford to die here.

Without any Objects, the Northern Restricted Zone brought back the battlefields of a bygone era where fighters and bombers still held sway. The people there continued to fight those emotional wars like it was normal. When ground-attack helicopters and multirole Zig-27s, which could be equipped for anti-air or anti-ground, both decided to show up, it was an all-you-can-eat buffet for those grim reapers. And currently, the Capitalist Corporations’ naval police were shining searchlights into the dark ocean from their boats. If all the Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers here were assumed to be part of the infamous Chain Cutters, then they might not even be taken prisoner.

The screams of the others after having burning petroleum dumped over their heads still rang in Quenser’s ears.

He was a self-interested person and he hated that part of himself at times.

Instead of feeling sorry for those people who didn’t even have their dog tags collected, he mostly felt relieved that he hadn’t met the same fate.

“Ugh, it’s so cold. There’s no way we can swim back to shore. Hey, skinny boy, let’s climb onto one of the mining platforms around here. We can talk after that.”

“Those are civilian facilities. If the Capitalist Corporations finds us, they’ll shoot us, claiming they were preventing an indiscriminate attack on civilians! Even though they’re the ones who attacked the civilian-run Plant Castle!!”

“Which is why we make sure they don’t find us. It’s the same game of hide-and-seek but with us out of the freezing water.”

The 37th’s potatoes were new to the Northern Restricted Zone, but they had chosen their guides there very poorly. Quenser and Heivia had never imagined the Chain Cutters would take things so far. They had evolved in a disturbing way inside the Northern Restricted Zone, so they had done things the 37th couldn’t believe fellow Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers would do. The bombing of Warsaw had only needed to be a bluff, but those madmen had swapped the warhead out for a real one behind the 37th’s back. They had also killed off the Plant Castle’s owners to take over there. None of that could be called a clean war.

“A clean war, huh?”

“Hm? You say something, skinny?”

They climbed the ladder onto the mining plant.

They were so soaked with seawater they thought they were going to turn to sherbet in the cold air. February in Scandinavia was not to be trifled with. They shivered as they snuck into a heated room.

They would be forced to kill anyone who found them, even a civilian.

That placed all the more tension on their shoulders.

But for now, they needed to send a report.

Using their military radios would only gather the attention of the Capitalist Corporations search. If they were discovered, they would be surrounded by people wielding weapons more efficient and dangerous than a chainsaw. They used the mining plant’s civilian equipment to use an ordinary wireless LAN.

They knew this transmission would be intercepted.

But that was fine. Quenser pulled a water-resistant manual from a waterproof bag. Not all encryption used complex high-level math. If they hid their real message in something other than the actual words – sighs, footsteps, rustling clothing, head scratches, etc. – the Capitalist Corporations would focus only on the actual spoken words and thus couldn’t discover their real meaning even with the full use of their finest supercomputers. Everyone else might find the transmissions puzzling and ignore them, but anyone working off of the same word list could hold a secret conversation that way.

Quenser used that method to send the following message using an ordinary prepaid phone.

“This is Battlefield Student Quenser Barbotage. The mission was a failure. Our (supposed) allies in the Chain Cutters got themselves wiped out. From what I saw of the compound eye-like ground sensors on those attack helicopters, I doubt any of them are going to survive. The transport plane has passed through our airspace and vanished deep inside the Northern Restricted Zone where we’ll have a real hard time getting at it. That means we can no longer destroy the item ahead of time. No one can stop it from being installed in the Information Alliance Object.”

But even this wasn’t perfect.

The Capitalist Corporations of course had their own large intelligence agency. They might have already cracked this old-fashioned method. If so, they would immediately detect the message and surround the civilian mining platform. Sending the message might even get some innocent civilians killed in the attack.

It was a risky gamble.

Quenser continued his message while feeling the weight of the extreme tension.

And he of course made sure to cover the real message with some boring small talk no one would bother listening to.

“Frolaytia, tell the Princess the Ghost Changer remains intact. You need to be on high alert. …We’re up against a ghost this time. Nothing can change that now.”

Part 2[edit]

Difficulty level: +2

Troop death rate +40%

“…”

Object Pilot Elite Milinda Brantini, aka the Princess, formed a small triangle with her mouth when she saw the scene.

The Legitimacy Kingdom’s 37th Mobile Maintenance Battalion had set up its maintenance base zone at an old harbor just outside of the Northern Restricted Zone.

Frolaytia Capistrano was seated with her long legs crossed, but the problem was how her butt was squashing Quenser’s cheek while he lay on his side. The many curves pushing out her officer’s uniform may have been the first thing most people noticed about the 18-year-old, but she also held a long, skinny kiseru and decorated her long silver hair with several kanzashi since she was an avid Island Nation lover. The military ruled with an iron fist, not even allowing a single undone button, so openly carrying personal items and modifying your uniform demonstrated just how much power she had here.

“So what are you doing to do about this, Quenser?” asked the kiseru-smoking demon.

“Squeal. I-I came back instead of running away, so can’t you cut me some slack!?”

Quenser and the others who had been rescued from that hell were the lucky ones. Yes, being thrown back into the February ocean by the rescue team and having to make a near-suicidal trip across the dark, cold ocean inside a human torpedo still qualified as very lucky indeed!

The results reached by the electronic simulation division were brutal. And that was without any accurate specs on the Information Alliance Object. There was a chance of some unexpected surprises to come.

The real threat this time wasn’t the Object itself. It was an add-on weapon called the Ghost Changer.

“We can still make this work. It’s not too late. Like cooking up your leftovers in curry mayo.”

“All of our initial plans need to be scrapped, Quenser. It sounds like we need to review so you understand just how badly you screwed up here.”

“Hwokay.”

“Half a month ago, the Legitimacy Kingdom and Information Alliance fought in the Hornos District. As usual, it was a fight over an important transportation route – in this case, the southernmost naval route needed to get past South America without using the Panama Canal.”

“Guh, that’s near Antarctica, so it’s actually super cold despite being in the southern hemisphere, right? Like Alaska in the northern hemisphere.”

“More or less. To be honest, it isn’t that important a position and the Legitimacy Kingdom had the advantage. It was nearly time for the carnival in Rio, so there was even talk of a temporary ceasefire if things weren’t settled by January’s end.” Frolaytia explained it all while her butt squashed his face through her tight skirt. “But then things changed. All 800 soldiers in the Legitimacy Kingdom’s maintenance base were slaughtered in a single night. There were signs of gunfire, but no Information Alliance bullets were found. That suggests the Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers were shooting each other. More than 99% of the soldiers were killed, including the base commander and the Pilot Elite. Looking at the bullet holes, the seemingly random gunfire is most noticeable, but it looks like the nature of the battle changed once friendly fire detonated the ammo dump. …Some bodies were found with bite marks in their uniforms and flesh, suggesting the fighting continued even after they used up all their ammo. The bites were deep, leaving toothmarks on the bone in some cases. And since the same corpse sometimes had multiple sets of toothmarks, it looks like they were attacked in groups.”

“Are you serious? That’s way worse than I’d heard. That’s more like a splatter film than psychological horror.”

“The few soldiers who survived that hell all have severe PTSD from the psychological damage. And they’re all saying the same thing: they saw a ghost.”

“…”

A ghost.

If something that vaguely defined was being seen on a battlefield with physical bullets flying, then battlefield morale really was dying. It could lead to a lot of unnecessary harm.

But some soldiers had seen one.

Or maybe it was better to say they had been shown one.

Curses and vengeful spirits were finally making an appearance on the battlefield.

“The accuracy of their statements is not being officially recognized, but we do know the Information Alliance higher ups were getting frustrated with their inability to end that war and lent their Object an add-on we have called the Ghost Changer. We don’t know what it does, but they are clearly using an Object to do something. There’s no other explanation for more than 800 people with different personalities, memories, tastes, and beliefs to go nuts and attack their own people at the exact same time. I’m not saying this is really a curse or spirit possession, but it’s almost like someone threw an invisible switch in all of their heads. There is no psychological explanation for that.”

“And the Information Alliance loves to use information as a weapon.”

“We don’t know what it is, but the Ghost Changer fits in a single container yet they are treating it as an even more highly classified weapon than a 5-billion-dollar Object. This is their trump card against deadlocked wars. They move it from Object to Object even though Object weapons aren’t made to be reused or mutually compatible like that, so you would never even notice it exists if you were only following an individual Object. Our intelligence pursued the unit that left South America after that job, but that container alone was sent elsewhere. They swapped out containers several times along the way while zigzagging it between the east and the west to disguise where it was going, but fortunately we were able to figure out where it was being sent next.”

“Gulp.”

Military uses of parapsychology and the supernatural were generally thought to be a Faith Organization thing, but apparently the highly logical Information Alliance were getting in on the fun too.

They had failed to shoot down the transport plane. That failure meant the estimated troop death rate was up by 40%. They no longer had any way of safely ending this before the Ghost Changer was deployed.

They would have to directly face that mysterious secret weapon which was discussed more like a legend than anything.

“Thanks to our morons’ poor performance and some mischief from the Chain Cutters who were guiding you through the Northern Restricted Zone, we lost our one and only chance. Now, Quenser, it’s time to for the real fun: cleaning up your mistake☆ You see, the higher ups are reluctant to send their own adorable troops to a battlefield where the Information Alliance holds sway and are likely to send in an Object equipped with the Ghost Changer. So I know just what they’re going to tell the 37th after we screwed up so badly: go take responsibility by crawling through the mud.”

Thanks to that, they were (punished by) being sent to a war not on their original schedule.

The stage was frigid Siberia, at an inland point of eastern Eurasia. Worse, it was the Tunguska District, which was known for its mysterious legends.

Their base equipment and large vehicles were loaded onto more than 100 transport planes that traveled from Moscow to Siberia while giving the Northern Restricted Zone a wide berth. The Baby Magnum could not be carried by plane, so it had to travel at 500km/h across the ocean, arriving on the scene from the Arctic.

Inside their plane, Major Frolaytia Capistrano gave them their mission.

All of this was new information for Quenser and Heivia.

Another new war was beginning.

“The Information Alliance has gathered their forces to kill an innocent young girl.”

The two idiots frowned.

These shitty wars were all a blend of good and evil, so a simple and noble objective was a dangerous sign. It was best to assume there was a catch.

“How did you get this information?” hesitantly asked Quenser.

“From a POW, of course.”

And what kind of horrific methods did you use to get a tough, trained soldier to talk, miss?

“(What’s with Frolaytia? Her face looks like a swollen dickhead and I get the feeling she’s close to her breaking point.)”

“(Shush. She’s just exhausted, so leave her be until that stiff nipple is soft again.)”

“I heard every word of that. And who do you think got us into this situation anyway?” noted the busty silver-haired commander while biting her kiseru hard. “Elina Silverbullet. Age: 9. Sex: Female. She only took online classes, but she has already graduated top of her class from Columbia University and has published a total of 69 academic papers to date. Her fields of expertise are geology, environmental engineering, and 31 other related fields. For whatever reason, this Information Alliance girl is living a life cut off from civilization in a Siberian log cabin. And for whatever other reason, the Information Alliance is deploying a large force to either capture or kill her.”

“Umm, why would they do that? I mean, the Martini Series is enough to know the Information Alliance has a thing for genius girls, but this feels different.”

Quenser hesitantly raised his hand and asked his question, but the others all glared at him. Not even timid Myonri spared him.

It was understandable when this entire mission was a punishment for the mistake those two idiots had made.

Frolaytia fidgeted with her kiseru before answering.

“That remains unknown.”

“Why do we always get stuck with the worst missions? You aren’t supposed to throw away your life without even knowing what you’re fighting for,” complained Heivia.

But their beautiful major was not one to be swayed so easily.

“Now, Elina was born in the Information Alliance, so securing her should only require some government paperwork, not sending in a military force. Also, she might be an unparalleled genius, but we’re only talking about a single child here. Yet they’re secretly sending the Ghost Changer to handle it. There must be more to this kid. Elina Silverbullet has something the enemy higher ups want badly enough to use the secret weapon they have worked so hard to keep a secret. I don’t know what that is, but given the size of the fore they’re sending, they must value her higher than a Pilot Elite.”

Quenser worked to organize all this information in his head while he prompted his commander to continue.

“And?”

“We don’t know what she has, but it must be a major secret. If we were to steal it from them, we are almost guaranteed to do significant damage to the Information Alliance. …Well, I think that’s the excuse that was used on the officers back at our home country. Whether she’s captured or killed, that kid is not in for a good time. If no one from the Information Alliance is willing to stop this due to the internal politics involved, we can do it for them. So let’s head out there and assist a peaceful defection. Protecting the weak and asking for nothing in return is the job of the righteous knights, after all.”

And?”

Quenser lowered his voice this time and Frolaytia couldn’t look him in the eye.

She childishly pouted her lips when she continued.

“The 37th is being honored with this mission as a punishment for failing to destroy the Ghost Changer, so I figure we might as well harass the Information Alliance as much as possible while we’re at it, right? They don’t want anyone to save Elina Silverbullet. If we succeed, some high-ranking officer over there is bound to lose their job, so giving this the most wonderful happy ending we can seems like the best revenge available to us.”

“Much better. This is finally sounding like a proper war.”

He couldn’t rest easy without some kind of ulterior motive like that. Nothing was more suspicious than your commander telling you to fight for the good of humanity. You were definitely being set up to do something shady as hell. It was less trustworthy than a mystery burger that shined bright in the light.

Frolaytia placed her kiseru back in her mouth before continuing.

“According to the intelligence division and the electronic simulation division, the unit deployed to the frozen Siberian forest is the Information Alliance’s 1st Mobile Maintenance Battalion, aka Fish. Their Object is the First Generation Retro Gunner. That rusty old hunk of junk was retired from the front line a decade ago and spent the rest of its life being used for endurance tests and testing new weapons technology.”

“Hold on. They’re using a First Generation for this?” asked Quenser.

“Weirdly troubling, isn’t it?” replied Frolaytia with a cruel smile.

Not only was it a First Generation, but it was a nearly scrapped and retired Object. It should have made for a much easier opponent than a cutting-edge Second Generation decked out with the latest tech, but that made no sense here.

“Don’t tell the Princess,” added their busty silver-haired commander. “The situation is pressing enough for them to use their secret Ghost Changer weapon, but then they send in an Object that’s a piece of junk even for a First Generation. None of it fits together. Does the Ghost Changer give them so much of an advantage the quality of the Object is irrelevant? No, that isn’t how it works. When using their powerful Ghost Changer, they would want to eliminate any chance of losing and having the Ghost Changer captured. We’re talking about one of the twisted technological wars of the current era, so they should be sending in the most powerful Object currently available. But that isn’t what they did. Why not?”

They had no answer.

Not a single one of them did.

They were risking their lives in this war, but their deadly enemy felt as elusive as an evil spirit or curse.

Something was beginning out there.

The ghost was already waiting for them away from prying eyes in the old-growth forest of the Tunguska District.

“The Ghost Changer and Elina Silverbullet would both be enough of a mystery on their own, but there may be some dangerous secret to the Retro Gunner as well. …True to their name, no one is better at manipulating information than the Information Alliance. Keep in mind that the on-paper specs of this First Generation might not be entirely accurate.”

Part 3[edit]

Quenser Barbotage was seated with his arms around his raised knees. He only found angry glares wherever he went, so he had to stay indoors. And this was the most calming place for him.

He sat within the Object hangar constructed in the colder part of Eurasia.

“Move, you fool. This is the front line for us maintenance soldiers.”

“Noooo!! Please don’t kick me out of my last utopiaaaaa!!”

“We have no need for a meatball curled up on the floor. If you want a place here, then start working that brain of yours.”

The cute Princess, who wore a skintight special suit resembling a sailor uniform with its unique collar and the pouches around the hips, tilted her head curiously while her emotionless eyes watched Quenser cling tearfully to the old maintenance lady’s leg. Her short blonde hair shook from the motion.

“Is that the latest fad?” she asked.

“Absolutely not! A wrinkly old lady dominatrix!? How niche a kink are we talking about here!? That’s like several levels of avant-garde past what I’m comfortable with. I’m still trying to figure out the appeal of moms, okay!?”

HO v19 BW3.png

Quenser’s eyes widened as he made his case, but the old lady simply kicked him away.

The rest of the battalion’s anger was not going to die down anytime soon.

The Princess, however, clasped her hands behind her back and fidgeted awkwardly.

“Quenser, I have a riddle for you: what is February’s biggest event?”

“Eh? We’re doing riddles now?”

“I’ll give you a hint: it starts with a V.”

“???”

Quenser could only tilt his head.

The Princess got most of her information from the old maintenance lady or Frolaytia, so whether they were telling the truth or just messing with her, she often had a very Island Nation-centric view of things.

The old lady, who knew a lot about Island Nation celebrations, sighed.

“That event was artificially set up that way. …Hey!! What imbecile filled up the #3 grease!? Use that stuff in the icy weather out there and it’ll freeze!!”

“Grease? Grease, huh? I guess even nuke-resistant Objects need that stuff.”

“They aren’t protected by a futuristic forcefield. They can only withstand a nuclear attack thanks to being 200 thousand tons.”

“Give me something – anything – to do. But please make sure our Object doesn’t freeze up out there. That has to be one of the stupidest ways to die.”

“Ignorant boy. Most weapons – including tanks and fighters – have a long history of battling against the dangers of ice.”

The Princess had been zoned out, but she finally responded here.

“Ice…chocolate ice cream. Yes, that could work.”

“Eh? Um, Princess? Do you like to make sweets?”

“Do you want me to make some for you? Hee hee hee.”

“Bff!?”

Quenser couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

The 37th’s potatoes lived off of flavorless rations that looked like giant erasers, so anything with real flavor that was made with an identifiable process was the greatest luxury. If you weren’t the commander like Frolaytia or the Pilot Elite like the Princess, you weren’t allowed to bring any inefficient personal items with you.

The old maintenance lady was the one who had told the Princess the legend of February 14 in the Island Nation while they were working, so she sighed while watching the ignorant battlefield student.

Quenser was trembling with excitement at this wonderful opportunity.

“You mean I’d really get a girl’s home cooking? And not just ‘home cooking’ as a euphemism for mixing gasoline and detergent to make a napalm bomb in the kitchen!?”

“If you really want me to, Quenser.”

“Hip hip hooray!! I can finally say goodbye to those boring rations! I can move beyond my days of mere subsistence and start to enjoy my life!!”

Part 4[edit]

And so they were thrown into another hellish war.

Quenser and Heivia stood in a blowing blizzard.

“Did I just see my life flash before my eyes? Where are we?”

“This can’t be real. We only got out of the truck 5 minutes ago. How are we already lost!?”

They turned around and rushed back the way they had come, but there was no truck and no tire tracks. Only the thick white curtain of snow.

Farewell, sweet treats.

The unwanted scent of war pushed in toward them instead.

They saw no sign of their fellow Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers despite how many of them were supposed to be out here. Quenser was no longer confident they had actually gone back the way they had come. He feared they were walking in circles thanks to this white screen of snow that kept them from seeing even a few meters away.

“My mobile device isn’t working either. How can we be 120km from the 37th’s maintenance base zone? The Baby Magnum should be nearby, but I can’t see that 50m giant anywhere.”

“It’s -15 degrees out here. I’d be amazed if our electronics weren’t breaking. And let’s not forget that I’m a noble. This cold had better not be killing all my valuable sperm.”

“If it’s so valuable, you should probably stop wrapping it up in a tissue and throwing it out.”

The two idiots warmed themselves with a nice fistfight.

Their objective out here was to secure and retrieve Elina Silverbullet, the genius girl hidden somewhere in this forest of spear-like conifer trees. They didn’t need to battle the Information Alliance or the Retro Gunner loaded with the Ghost Changer. But if it did come to a fight, they could probably find some reason or another to slaughter them all.

The temperature was 15 below freezing.

The thick layer of snow made it easy to lose track of distance and direction. That gave it an otherworldly feeling, like they were surrounded by greenscreens.

The trees standing more than 20m tall were packed in as close as the crowds downtown on the weekend. They were probably cedars, but they looked all fluffy thanks to the blowing snow. Quenser and Heivia knew they would be frozen solid like that too if they weren’t careful. It was colder than a kitchen freezer, so they knew their corpse wouldn’t rot until spring.

There was no sign of civilization out here.

No homes or stores and no roads or power poles.

“And if that wasn’t enough…”

Quenser Barbotage glanced to the side.

“A ghost, huh? Dreadfully unscientific, but rather amusing for Tunguska. 2000 square kilometers of this old-growth forest were reduced to ashes by a mysterious explosion. There are many theories, including that it was an asteroid breaking up in the atmosphere.” (Sladder Honeysuckle)

“Underestimate past knowledge like that and you will come to regret it. The exact same drugs developed from a complex chemical formula in a sterile lab can also be found in Chinese medicine made by crushing up tree roots over a thousand years ago. And the very idea of breaking free of gravity and flying into the heavens above came from old fairy tales like Kaguya-hime or Jack and the Beanstalk.” (Louisiana Honeysuckle)

A stubbly man and a silver-haired 17-year-old were both grinning darkly.

Sladder Honeysuckle was a mass driver researcher who had led the Capitalist Corporations’ Mass Driver Conglomerate and used the Second Generation Break Carrier to start a war so he could defect to the Information Alliance.

Louisiana Honeysuckle was a space elevator researcher who had used the Elevator Alliance, jointly funded by the Capitalist Corporations’ 7th Core, to create the 100 thousand kilometer balancing weight needed to correct the earth’s axis from the distortion caused by the use of 200 thousand ton Objects.

They were both geniuses in the bad way.

They were global-level war criminals who never should have been released from the prison located on a remote African island.

(Why are we reusing prisoners just because they can think in unique ways? I know the Ghost Changer is eating through our troops like crazy, but this can’t be a good idea. Controlling these monsters is way harder than fighting some ghost.)

Quenser gulped.

Those siblings had been given the bare minimum of camouflage, but they were not given any pockets where they could hide stuff. And to prevent them from hiding anything inside the clothing, they had belts wrapped tightly around them like a parachute harness, forcibly filling in all the internal space.

They were tough and easy to move in, but they looked more like prison uniforms than military ones.

And more than that…

Quenser heard the jangling of thick chains. Those two had long chains attached to their ankles. They also had handcuffs on their wrists. He didn’t see how they could possibly fight like this, but they were here for their knowledge. The higher ups had apparently decided they only needed enough freedom to work with their fingers and to fire a handgun for the bare minimum of self-defense. They were still basically prisoners, and they had been sent into this ghost battle without any real preparation. The higher ups didn’t expect them to come back alive any more than the 37th’s potatoes.

(And what’s this about the bare minimum? Even the puniest gun is still a gun. Did the higher ups give even a second’s thought to how we’ll feel getting shot in the back by them!?)

HO v19 BW4.png

The Legitimacy Kingdom had decided to reuse brutal war criminals.

Which meant another pair of siblings was here too.

“Oh, my beloved brother! At long last, the time has come for us to work side by side! Hee hee. Hee hee. Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!!!!” (Azureyfear Winchell)

“Nooooooo!! Please, someone tell me the blizzard is making me hallucinate thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis!!!” (Heivia Winchell)

Oops, he was starting to place Heivia in the war criminal category alongside his sister.

The girl with long blonde hair blowing in the wind was a daughter of the noble Winchell family. However, she had used the secretly-constructed Second Generation Destruction Fes to attack a civilian cruise ship and start an internal conflict with the daughter of the noble Vanderbilt family. All because she loved her big brother a little too much.

They were all bad news.

In a way, these villains were more frightening than the Objects themselves. Spending time in a prison in the middle of nowhere had done nothing to rehabilitate them. These were the human irregularities whose charisma could infect the rest of the prison instead.

Thanks to them, Quenser and Heivia’s group was the only one without an animal robot to carry their gear. Because no one wanted the prisoners to steal that gear.

“H-hey, it could be worse. Skuld and Mariage could be here too.”

“You need to fix your habit of staring at the ground and smiling, Quenser. You’ll never get promoted like that.”

“I’m not even a solider. Students don’t get promoted.”

“Oh, shut up. If we’re playing that game, then I’m a noble heir, so I’m supposed to be set for life! So why am I out here nearly freezing to death when there aren’t even any enemies around!?”

“You love to call yourself the heir, but where in the line of succession are you among all your siblings?”

“I’d better at least be above Azureyfear since she’s a goddamn war criminal, but I’ve gotta be in the top 3 at least. And with some military accomplishments under my belt, I’ll be #1. But not even I know how many candidates there are out there. I’d rather not count up how many times my relatives decided not to use a condom.”

“Y-you’re talking about blood-related relatives here, right?”

“Of course he is. But the dirty old men distantly related to us don’t care about the line of succession. They just use their money to cum inside their maids, random sex workers, orphanage directors in need of funding, and god knows who else, making a complete mess of our family tree. If we included the mistresses who claim a blood relation they don’t have and all the illegitimate children, the number of candidates might increase tenfold or more,” explained Azureyfear with a shrug (and rubbing her cheek against her big brother). Evidently, she was not a sheltered girl who was appalled by the filthy turn of the boys’ conversation. “Of course, the Winchell women with nothing but time on their hands after being kicked out of the line of succession are known to sleep around a lot too, but the risks associate with pleasure are a lot greater for women. Their fun rarely leads to us suddenly having more new brothers and sisters. Hmm, I wish they had given me some perfume when they let me out.”

“Wait, so that wasn’t just this idiot’s values being messed up? Is the entire Winchell family like this?”

“Oh, you don’t know the half of it,” spat Heivia. Louisiana must not have been as bad as them because she gave those siblings an exasperated look. “Anyway, everyone from my godawful siblings to the bastards I’ve never even heard of claim they’re the heir. And the Winchell family controls way too much wealth to simply pass control of the family to the oldest son. That’s why I have to prove my worth in the military! And I was supposed to get an easy deployment meant for hyper VIPs. I’m a radar analyst! So why the hell was I kicked out here to destroy the world’s most dangerous superweapon!? It’s not right!!”

They were already lost.

They were enjoying a nice picnic surrounded by war criminals in a white forest cut off from civilization. It could hardly get worse. It was wrong that the number of prisoners was greater than the number of jailors just five minutes after leaving the military truck. And those prisoners were armed with guns. Quenser could see them in his mind’s eye grinning past a fanned-out hand of cards. A revolt was inevitable.

“Where did Myonri get off to anyway?” Quenser felt a little dizzy. “An annoying odd job like this is perfect for that jack-of-all-trades with all sorts of qualifications that seem entirely useless in combat. Get back here, you wildflower sommelier!”

“What, does your unit have a failed idol who never got a chance at stardom? If she wants to win the guys’ hearts, she needs to throw out all those high-level qualifications and show off how good-looking but scatterbrained she is. On days off, she could strip down to something indecent and take a nap with the rest of her clothing lying around her. With lots of tossing and turning to show off her body, of course.”

“Shut up, Louisiana. Boys don’t fall for that calculated crap. And we aren’t interested in some wrinkly clothes on the floor. What matters is the body wearing them!”

“Oh, really? A funny thing to say for the guy who ate my sports bloomers and underwear. Don’t act like the sweet smell didn’t knock your brain out of commission for a bit there.”

“Ho ho?” laughed Big Bro Sladder in great interest. Like he had spotted a vintage wine at a neighborhood bar, or like he had seen someone make a highly unorthodox move in a chess game. Quenser paled, fearing the man felt a new affinity with him because geniuses were so often also eccentrics.

“Y-you’re the one that shoved them in my mouth! Listen, don’t you forget I can tighten all those belts enough to strangle you at the press of a button on my radio. And once the switch is thrown, they give off a GPS signal and the glow-in-the-dark paint and scent capsules burst. Even if you try to attack us and run off, you will be immediately shot to death. No matter where you try to run in this white forest, the dogs will track you down.”

“I thought these were positioned oddly for a harness. Is this the Island Nation’s tortoise shell bondage? You said your mobile devices weren’t working, so let’s hope the simpler radios still function. I mean, that GPS will scatter its signal everywhere once it switches on, right? I certainly don’t want to summon the enemy to us if it malfunctions.”

“Gh!?”

“Oh, don’t worry. I have no intention of running away,” spat blonde Louisiana with a shadow over her face. “Because there isn’t anywhere to run to on this planet. With all those 200 thousand ton weapons moving at such high speeds around the globe, the earth’s environment has already been fatally thrown out of balance.”

“…”

There was no point in listening to their nonsense.

If they were civilians trapped out in the blizzard, it would be better to stay in one place and preserve their strength while finding some way of letting the others know where they were. But they were in the middle of a military operation. With a time limit, waiting was not an option.

It was unclear how useful it was, but Louisiana blew on her thickly-gloved hands before saying more.

“It’s awfully presumptuous of you people to just march us out here and expect us to have some way of fighting that Ghost Changer thing. Admittedly, there are no end of UFO sightings at high altitude and space.”

“Isn’t that just the high g’s, weightlessness, and oxygen levels messing with people’s perception?”

“I refuse to accept that the human brain is that simple.”

Needless to say, no one knew how the Ghost Changer worked. The story sounded absurd, but since a maintenance base zone of 800 really was wiped out in a single night, the Legitimacy Kingdom needed to analyze this ASAP. And when they weren’t even sure if this was a bio, chemical, or physical weapon, they needed to send in geniuses from a variety of fields to analyze it.

On the other hand, they didn’t want to needlessly kill off the Legitimacy Kingdom’s treasured scientists and engineers.

That had created a need for geniuses who could be sacrificed. The criminals whose talents were going to waste behind bars were perfect for the job. And ones with a familiarity in several fields were even better.

(Why don’t the goddamn higher ups ever consider how we feel having to babysit these people!? But how could they when they’re so far up the chain of command I’ve never even seen them?)

At any rate, they needed to find Elina Silverbullet, the genius girl living in a log cabin tucked away somewhere in the Tunguska District. And they needed to do this before the Information Alliance and their Ghost Changer-equipped Object got there.

Quenser sighed.

“We know the Princess, Myonri, and the others are somewhere around here and we know they’re headed to the same place. We just have to trust that we’ll find them as we approach the log cabin.”

“Yeah, but where is that cabin? Damn, getting scared and turning back may have been a mistake.”

Heivia complained while checking the distribution of trees, the rises and dips in the terrain, and the water sources and comparing them against his paper map.

Quenser frowned.

“What will that tell you? All I see out here is fluffy white snow. It has to be more than a meter thick.”

“Don’t you know how to glean information from the terrain? A forest’s trees grow with a different distribution between sloped and flat areas and they won’t grow at all without any water. …Oh, here we go. We’re at A9. So if we follow this Y-shaped river south for 20km, we’ll find the log cabin from the satellite photo.”

“What, you could find her secret base in a search engine?”

“Apparently, it was normally hidden by a tunnel of tress, but the weight of the snow brought down some of them. Without the thick layer of snow to deflect everything from IR to UV, the heat source was impossible to miss.”

The color white tended to deflect all wavelengths of light instead of absorbing them, and that included the near-infrared often used for mechanical searches by satellites and drones. Far-infrared was absorbed on the interior, so the log cabin was covered either way. It also created an insulating layer of air like inside an igloo.

“What are you saying – it was protected by snow that never melted?”

“Don’t die out here. Who knows how many years you’ll be buried in the snow for. You’ll end up on display at a museum someday.”

They couldn’t trust their mobile devices in this cold, so they trusted Heivia’s trivia that moss grew thicker on the north side of a tree trunk because it would avoid the sunlight. Once they had their bearings, they began their hellish march through the snowy forest with criminals in tow.

Whenever a gust of wind would blow in and alter the density of the white curtain, they had no choice but to stop and bear with it. Quenser looked back time and time again, but not because he wanted to head back the way they had come. He was obsessively checking on the number and positions of the untrustworthy criminals.

Sladder grinned while frequently shaking his hands so the metal handcuffs didn’t stick to his skin in the cold.

“What are you so worried about? We’re not going to snatch you up and eat you. Life in solitary confinement wasn’t all that bad. There was a window, even if it did have bars over it. And the combination of the damp, cracked wall and the sunlight allowed some small flowers to grow.”

“Okay, Sladder. I get it. If you hold a grudge, just come out and say you want to kill me.”

20km.

They had to travel 20km. That was a half marathon, but those would be run on paved city streets, not in over a meter of snow while carrying more than 10kg of military gear. They were risking their lives just reaching the log cabin. Quenser could only pray they would not be the ones needing help when they arrived.

“We were not given any detailed information on this mission. How do you plan to retrieve this Elina Silverbullet girl once you reach her? The blizzard might obscure us, but there is still an enemy Object on this battlefield. That means anti-air laser beams, which in turn means no helicopters or tiltrotors.”

“Shut up, Sladder. And stay out of my sight because I don’t want to see tortoise shell bondage on a guy. To answer your question, that extra gear Heivia is carrying is a reinforced rubber motorboat. If we climb to the bottom of the ravine and escape along the river, we can leave the battlefield at nearly 200km/h without worrying about the las- dwah!?”

Quenser nearly bit his tongue.

His vision suddenly dropped straight down and he would have fallen 10m to the bottom of that very ravine if Sladder hadn’t grabbed his arm. The height was bad enough, but he would have fallen into rapids rough enough to keep from freezing at this temperature.

“That was a snow cornice. The snow blown from the edge of the ravine will freeze and stick out like a roof or bridge. You can think of it like a naturally-forming pitfall. Step through it and you win a one-way trip to the bottom.”

“…”

“You are one of the jailers, meaning you are supposed to look after us prisoners. We might be doomed if our caretakers need to rely on a skinny scientist like me on the physical front. I was hoping to live the good life on the taxpayers’ money, so do your part, civil servant.”

Quenser had not mentally recovered enough to respond. His heart was hammering away in his ears, but probably not because he was falling in love with Sladder due to the suspension bridge effect.

Louisiana laughed lightly, holding her handcuffed hands up to her mouth.

“Heh heh. Extremely low temperature oxidants such as liquid oxygen and ice accretion on artificial surfaces are common causes of trouble in need of a lot of research, so aerospace scientists like us know a lot about the structure and traits of ice. With an elevator, we use wires and pulleys. With a mass driver, they use grease to control the trail of the projectile.”

“Oh? In my field, ice and powder are more commonly associated with stimulants and synthetic drugs. Hee hee. Like amphetamines or MDMA. Although if you’re only interested in cost-effectiveness, you can’t go wrong with LSD that can be mass-produced from the ergots on wheat infected with a certain fungus.”

Why didn’t Azureyfear notice how depressed it made Heivia to see his dangerous sister show off the expertise she had developed while securing the 5 billion dollars she needed to build a brand new Second Generation? That cute and sexy sister was not going to win the heart of her big brother (who was engaged to a rival family’s daughter) anytime soon.

To repeat, their mission did not truly begin until they had arrived at the log cabin 20km away and secured the 9-year-old girl there.

This trip was meaningless if they couldn’t get back afterwards.

They could not rush this and collapse on arrival. They had to worry about the Information Alliance army and their Ghost Changer-equipped Retro Gunner who were after the genius girl. Not to mention escaping along the ravine river.

They took occasional breaks and checked to make sure they were still going in the right way. The meter-deep snow came in handy for building a shelter since they only had to dig into it by hand to create something like an igloo.

There were no landmarks to go by when they were surrounded by a featureless white void the entire time. It was dispiriting to feel like they were endlessly walking in place like that.

At one point, Quenser nervously glanced around, even though he knew he could only see 5m at the most.

“D-did you hear something?”

“It’s just the wind. With that blowing in your ear, we’d be in a shootout already if we were close enough to actually hear someone whispering.”

Quenser had lost track of how many breaks this was, but munching on his second flavorless ration helped remind him that time really was passing. He tried looking up and found things were getting darker. He couldn’t actually see the sunset, but he knew it had to be that time of day.

“It’s finally time for the ghost to come out to play,” he said, feeling discouraged.

“Show some tact and let me sit next to my brother. And I don’t see why a ghost should only come out at night. Anyway, commoner, is this ghost of yours dressed in cold weather gear, equipped with a cutting-edge sniper rifle, and frequently contacting someone by radio?”

“?”

Quenser frantically ducked down, earning him a smack on the head from Heivia and Azureyfear both. The siblings wore identical exasperated looks. Apparently getting down was important, but moving too quickly would disturb a thick layer of snow and draw attention to them.

He could only see 5m at best through the thick curtain of falling snow, but the blizzard’s density was uneven. When the wind weakened and the white wall opened up for a brief moment, the view miraculously cleared up.

There it was at the bottom of a gentle slope.

Quenser let out a visible breath and leaned against a nearby tree while viewing the scene below them.

Snowy conifer trees surrounded a log cabin. The building was a little bigger than a studio apartment and looked to only be a single story. He saw some soldiers in white camo around it. At a glance, he noticed at least three, but there might be more behind the cabin and in the surrounding forest.

Maybe it was to fight the cold and maybe it was to hide their identity, but the soldiers all wore white masks with ski goggles over their eyes. That made them look somehow inhuman.

They had not heard anything about the 9-year-old girl being guarded by a bunch of heavily-equipped soldiers.

That meant someone had arrived ahead of Quenser’s group and taken control of the log cabin. What was happening inside there? Tension gripped Quenser’s heart, but he forced himself to stay positive: if these people wanted to kill her, they would have done so already and then left.

The delinquent noble clicked his tongue.

“What the hell? Who do those assholes belong to?”

“Wasn’t the Information Alliance supposed to be deployed here ahead of us?” asked Louisiana.

Heivia shook his head, looking disgusted.

“Those sniper rifles aren’t Information Alliance and they’re not Legitimacy Kingdom either. They’re the luxury model that won the shooting event at the Technopics. But we’re not scored by judges on the battlefield, so no pro uses them. None of the world powers issues those to their soldiers.”

“…”

Sladder was looking elsewhere.

Quenser’s thoughts turned to his backpack.

“So they’re as special and unusual as me and my Hand Axe, which is more expensive than platinum?”

“Don’t get cocky, skinny boy. And when soldiers are using nonstandard gear to hide their affiliation, you just know they’re up to no good.”

“So is the Information Alliance running an unofficial operation, or is there some third party here?”

“We can kill them either way. But first let’s check on Elina. As long as they aren’t in position to take her hostage, we can gun down all these soldiers. If they are, we start by taking out the soldiers immediately around her to keep her safe while we slaughter the rest. Simple right? First order of business is getting a look in the window, Quenser.”

Quenser did not react when his name was called.

Heivia found that odd, but then he realized what was going on. The blizzard may have been a blessing after all.

The red laser pointer line was actually visible thanks to the reflection of the snowy screen. More than 10 such lines crisscrossed vertically and horizontally to create something like a spider web trapping them.

“I know there’s supposed to be a ghost in this forest…”

Needless to say, all of those red lines were directed at someone’s chest or forehead.

Not one of them could survive.

Quenser Barbotage slowly raised his hands.

“But I hope that isn’t referring to us in the near future.”

Part 5[edit]

Their situation could hardly be worse, but it was also curious.

The enemy had their weapons trained on the 37th group’s vitals, so they only needed to fire – no warning necessary. Yet the mysterious Unit X opted to wait. That was strange and it reminded Quenser of the fact that Unit X was still here when they could have shot Elina Silverbullet and left.

The two idiots whispered to each other while being held up.

“Maybe they want the assistance of my staggering intellect.”

“No, they’re hoping to get some ransom money out of this handsome and influential noble.”

It turned out neither of them was right.

They were guided inside the log cabin by soldiers in all white jabbing them in the back with sniper rifles.

(…? They’re holding us up, but they aren’t confiscating our weapons? And our mobile devices are chock full of Legitimacy Kingdom classified data and decryption keys.)

Unit X was not interested in weapons or data.

But they had still left the Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers alive and taken them inside the log cabin.

Quenser was only more confused now. They hadn’t been tied to a chair and tortured with endless eyedrops or ear cleanings, but it was still worrying to not know what these people wanted. …In the worst case, they might be used to film a torture video using some innovative new tools, or they would be lined up and forced to clear out some landmines.

Even up close, Quenser and Heivia could not tell which world power Unit X was from. Were they even professional soldiers? They could always be guerillas or terrorists.

The log cabin had a plain interior.

HO v19 BW5.png

It was all one room except for the bathroom, so the bed and kitchen space were right next to each other. The poor excuse for a fireplace must not have been enough to keep out the cold because an extra wood-burning stove had been added in one corner.

A small girl sat in a rocking chair next to the fireplace.

The 9-year-old girl had shoulder-length blonde hair and she wore a knit poncho, sweater, and skirt which all looked handmade. That outfit had to be nice and toasty, but with that level of dedication, even her underwear may have been wool.

She did not appear restrained by the mystery unit. In fact, two soldiers in white masks carrying cutting-edge sniper rifles were standing on either side of her rocking chair like bodyguards.

She stopped moving her knitting needles to look up.

She gave the newcomers a somewhat sleepy look. How could she be so relaxed right now?

“A second group this deep in the forest? Today is the day for visitors, it seems.”

“Elina Silverbullet?”

“I don’t know what your exact mission is, but surely you know what your mission objective looks like.”

She breathed an exasperated sigh this time.

What was going on here? It seemed safe to assume Unit X was not interested in harming the girl. Having a masked and armed group wandering around your home was a lot like being under house arrest, but she seemed awfully relaxed dozing off in front of the fireplace. They didn’t seem to be her soldiers, but then who were they?

Meanwhile, Elina Silverbullet shifted her focus to someone other than Quenser.

“?”

That person was Louisiana Honeysuckle. Louisiana herself tilted her head curiously, but Elina nodded with her rocking chair creaking below her.

The genius girl slowly shut her eyes in acceptance and finally spoke.

“I see… So that’s what this is about.”

Maybe she understood, but Quenser and the others felt left behind.

Once she eventually reopened her eyes, she pointed at Unit X with one of her knitting needles.

“Are you after the same thing they are? Or have you not reached that point yet?”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“Confused? The latter it is, then. They are a step ahead of you. Getting killed without even knowing why is a tragic way to go.”

Quenser did not like the sound of that.

The guns surrounding them weighed a lot heavier on his mind.

“Everything you need is on here.”

The 9-year-old girl reached into her pocket, pulled out a flash card smaller than a stamp, and flicked it his way.

“This paper was suppressed by academia and got me branded a heretic. But if it wasn’t true, they wouldn’t have been so desperate to make sure no one read it.” Elina spoke in a pleasant but somehow cold and inhuman voice. “Do you know what my specialties are?”

“Geology and environmental engineering.”

“I also have doctorates in 31 other related fields.”

She must have been at a bragging age.

That was weirdly childish compared to her emotionless eyes.

“But all of those are just classifications on paper. If you ask me what my specialty is, I have just one answer.”

“…?”

“The severe influence on the natural environment from the dams, skyscrapers, and other massive structures we foolish humans have thoughtlessly produced – with a focus on remotely triggered earthquakes caused by distortions to the tectonic plates.”

Quenser couldn’t find anything to say, so no one stopped the genius girl from talking.

“My life goal is to divulge the devastating lies that have created the current clean wars. Especially in regard to the global artificial disasters caused by the mass usage of Objects.”

Silence followed.

Quenser and Heivia both turned toward Louisiana Honeysuckle. What had she wanted to do so badly she had even constructed a space elevator measuring 100 thousand kilometers long?

“Just one is 200 thousand tons,” said Elina in a singsong voice. That disturbing lullaby sounded like something that would summon disaster if you were to carelessly hum it. “They move at speeds of 500 or even 1000km/h and they battle with constant quick movements similar to mixed martial arts footwork. The main cannon blasts that can pierce through a nuke-resistant Object do not all hit their mark. The effect on the tectonic plates and the earth’s axis itself cannot be overstated.”

“…”

Louisiana Honeysuckle had said something similar.

The colossal Objects battling all over the world had caused the earth’s rotation to shift, so she had tried to use a 100 thousand kilometer balancing weight – the space elevator – to fix the earth’s motion before it shifted too far.

Quenser, Heivia, and the rest of the 37th had heard her claims when working to stop her.

But they had not reached a consensus on how seriously they should take those claims.

If they rejected the age of Objects, they would be throwing out the hopes and dreams that had brought them to a battlefield full of real bullets. For Quenser, that meant becoming an Object designer so a commoner like him could financially surpass the royals and nobles. For Heivia, that meant proving his worth on the battlefield so he could become the head of his family and end the fighting with a rival noble family. The others all had their own reasons as well, but the most reliant on Objects was the Princess. That was why none of them had shared Louisiana’s claims with her yet.

Quenser wished he could just forget he had ever heard it.

The difference between a genius and an eccentric was paper thin, so he had hoped Louisiana was just delusional.

But she wasn’t.

An aerospace expert like Louisiana Honeysuckle and a geology and environmental engineering expert like Elina Silverbullet had both arrived at the same conclusion from different directions. Quenser knew they were both far more intelligent than him. If it came down to their sense of what was reasonable and his, he didn’t stand a chance.

There was no escape now.

He could not look away from the coming failure of the clean wars.

“B-but isn’t that all theoretical?” asked Heivia, a tremor in his voice. He was probably trying to smile, but he only let his strained mental state show on his face. “It’s the same as the expanding sun engulfing the earth one day or the earth’s axis slowly shifting out of place over time. It might happen someday, but it’s not something we have to live in fear of today.”

“And what pray tell,” said the rocking chair girl with a cold tilt of the head, “makes you think that ‘someday’ isn’t today? It is already too late to stop it.”

Even Heivia was rendered speechless by that.

Those who profited off of the Objects were so frantic because the situation really was that pressing. They had to take such desperate measures because the change could be seen right there in the numbers. If a country was reliant on fishing or diamond mining, what would they do if their marine or underground resources dried up? They couldn’t exactly let someone publish an article proving they had nothing left to sell, so they would plot to assassinate the journalist to protect their people from starvation and thirst.

There was no time left.

The devastation had already begun.

Quenser gulped.

“Th-then are you saying the Information Alliance didn’t bring their Ghost Changer-equipped Retro Gunner out here because they wanted their genius girl’s brains? Did they send in all those forces to make sure they killed you to silence your theory that puts Objects at risk!?”

“Is the Information Alliance here too? I am not about to defend the people trying to assassinate me, but it would be wrong to treat the Information Alliance as the sole villains here.” The genius girl’s rocking chair creaked in front of the fireplace while she fully relaxed in the heat. “Maybe the Information Alliance are the only ones who directly sent troops in to assassinate me, but don’t you think the other world powers indirectly support that attempt? The Information Alliance aren’t the only ones who reap the vast benefits of this age of Objects. If you ignore the borders, it becomes obvious that the people who benefit from the clean wars control a majority of the world. Thus, all four world powers are colluding to eliminate someone who could take those benefits from them. And if you need some evidence…”

Elina Silverbullet cast her gaze at someone again.

This was the person whose presence had informed her what was going on here.

“Louisiana Honeysuckle here should be locked away deep inside a Legitimacy Kingdom special prison, yet here she is out on the open battlefield. And some other war criminals were thrown in with her to help hide that she was the true target.”

“…”

“The world powers’ plan is obvious: gather all the scientists who threaten the clean wars in one place and kill them all. And include some other notable people to hide the inconvenient truth when people see the bodies.”

The white-masked soldiers next to Elina held a hand up to their ears. After hearing something over their radios, they got moving fast.

But it was already too late.

If their comrades outside had sensed something was wrong, then it was already close. The Information Alliance’s trump card here was the Ghost Changer-equipped Retro Gunner. It was best to assume they were already trapped in the eerie ghost story that had led to 800 Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers killing each other at the frozen cape at the southernmost point of South America.

Elina had seen this coming from the moment she saw Louisiana here.

So she remained calm and composed as she spoke.

“You poor things were sent here as nothing more than camouflage corpses.”

An unbelievably powerful attack crushed the log cabin like it was a tissue box.

Part 6[edit]

HO v19 BW6.png

It was a very strange Object.

Shockingly, the spherical main body was only supported by one leg. The leg was jointed like an excavator or a desk lamp and it was attached to a long propulsion device that extended backwards like a ski. The device did not use static electricity or an air cushion. It was more like a roller skate.

It likely distributed and managed the 200 thousand ton weight with rows of countless massive, heavy wheels. Even with the sturdiest metal wheels, the axles wouldn’t survive otherwise.

The main cannon was a set of three large-caliber railguns attached near the top of the spherical main body’s front side. The trio of powerful weapons lined up in a row like that could look frightening, but it was also a sign that the designers had not been confident in its accuracy. It lacked the accuracy to hit the enemy in a straight line shot, so it fired three in a row to hopefully hit even if its aim was a little off.

It was a rusty scarecrow.

That old-style Information Alliance First Generation was close to being scrapped. The outdated thing had been pulled from the front line to test fire new weapons and test out new technologies.

But if that was truly all it was, they never would have given it the Ghost Changer. Not when they couldn’t afford to have that secret weapon captured by the enemy.

There had to be more to this First Generation that balanced itself with sliding weights on its rear side.

The true hell was about to begin.

“Pant, pant.”

Quenser Barbotage kept tripping and falling in the thick snow as he frantically left the log cabin…or what was left of it. It had only been a bit bigger than a studio apartment, but it had still been a building. Seeing it crushed like a tissue box underfoot was enough to get a feel for how ridiculously huge Objects were.

Gunfire erupted all around him.

“Yikes!!”

He kept his head low, but he had no idea if that was the right thing to do.

He could hear different types of gunfire: the lighter repeating sounds of submachineguns or PDWs and the heavier singular sounds of sniper rifles. He guessed the Information Alliance troops were clashing with Unit X surrounding the log cabin. He still didn’t know who Unit X was or how powerful they were, but they were outnumbered here. A small unit of elite troops attacking a large army with their own Object would meet the same fate as a swarm of army ants being swallowed by a lion.

Quenser kept nervously looking over his shoulder while trying to figure out how he was still alive.

(Those morons are attacking each other when no one asked them to. That means I’m only free to move until they recover from their confusion. I need to get as far away from here as I can now, or I’m in trouble!!)

He couldn’t look after Sladder, Louisiana, and Azureyfear like this.

He wasn’t even sure where Heivia had gotten off to.

But he wasn’t alone. He held a skinny wrist in his hand and tugged its owner along with him.

He was accompanied by Elina Silverbullet, the 9-year-old genius girl.

“Not what I would call a wise decision. If you were hoping to survive by abandoning your comrades, taking me with you was the worst thing you could have done. In case you have forgotten, I am the top priority of all sides of this conflict.”

“Shut the hell up. You say we’re just decoy corpses meant to disguise the deaths of the geniuses who’ve discovered the truth? To hell with that. I am not dying for such a stupid reason.”

No matter where he looked, all he saw was the white curtain of snow.

Until he saw a dark shape moving up ahead.

“Wh-who’s that!?” he shouted, stabbing a pen-like electric fuse in a Hand Axe plastic explosive resembling balled-up clay.

“Don’t throw that,” said the shape. “If I am attacked, I have no choice but to shoot.”

“?”

Their visibility would be as bad as his, so they would only be able to see him as a vague shape. So why had they known he was using a bomb instead of a gun? After a moment of thought, it hit him. Elina Silverbullet breathed a visible sigh of exasperation.

“This must be one of your people. Otherwise they wouldn’t know your unorthodox means of attack.”

“S-Sladder?”

‘Yes.”

The criminal approached in his handcuffs and with the chain around his ankles. The stubbly mass driver researcher was not alone. A gorgeous blonde stood by his side.

“I captured this scrawny scientist when he was wandering off on his own through the hail of bullets. Ha ha. The entire Legitimacy Kingdom should thank me really. …Anyway, where is my brother?”

“Louisiana is missing too. I hope Heivia has that criminal restrained.”

“(Why oh why am I stuck with the commoner? This pairing is all wrong.)”

“Agreed. I find Louisiana so much easier to deal with.”

After exchanging a glance and checking on the survivors, the natural question came to mind.

Louisiana Honeysuckle was also one of the geniuses who had discovered the truth, so she was a top priority target for the Information Alliance – and maybe all four world powers. But their current complement of weapons was Quenser’s bombs and the two prisoners’ self-defense handguns. It would be suicide to pursue Heivia and Louisiana while the Information Alliance and Unit X clashed and an Object was on the loose. Most likely, they would be spotted through the curtain of snow and filled with bullet holes.

Then a deafening boom and a shockwave temporarily swept that snowy curtain away.

“Whoa!?”

The Retro Gunner’s main cannons were a trio of railguns.

The forest had a lot of steep ups and downs, but it still wasn’t an actual mountain. Yet powerful rumbling in the distance caused part of the white ground to slide. Similar to a thin layer of sand sprinkled on a vibrating panel of glass, a thick layer of snow was moved by the trembling ground below. Quenser’s arms scrambled for purchase but found none. He was nearly swallowed up to the hips by the snow.

“Ugh, dammit. A-are you still alive, Elina?”

“Yes. My lighter weight makes it harder for me to sink into the snow.”

Buried so deep, Quenser could not crawl back out on his own, so he actually needed the 9-year-old’s small hand to help pull him out.

The Object attack had silenced the sniper rifle gunfire. Conversely, the submachineguns and PDWs had grown much more intense.

That meant fewer enemies, but that was nothing to celebrate. With one side of the Unit X and Information Alliance battle gone, Quenser’s group would be the next target.

Sladder stared into the distance as if he could see through the blizzard.

“Splitting the power between multiple cannons reduces their individual initial velocities. That’s about as insulting as being served instant coffee, but I suppose it is sufficient if you don’t need to reach orbit. …Those railguns have turned the tide.”

“A-a-a-anyway, we need to get out of here,” said Quenser. “I don’t know who Unit X is, but I doubt they turn this around now. With the chaos dying down, the Information Alliance will use their superior numbers to seize this area. Once they can set up a perimeter or checkpoints and begin the hunt, we can’t escape them just by hiding in the forest. We need to escape the battlefield before they have us surrounded.”

“That is all very sensible.” Elina Silverbullet did not seem particularly bothered that her home and possessions had been flattened. “But how exactly do you suggest we escape ahead of them? Surely not on foot.”

“…”

The plan had been to ride a rubber motorboat down the cold river. The river running down a V-shaped ravine had a rapid current, so it would carry them from the battlefield at nearly 200km/h without the Object noticing.

But that was no longer an option.

Heivia had been carrying the inflatable boat, but he was currently missing.

(Heivia wasn’t the only one with a boat. Damn, what is the Legitimacy Kingdom doing? This is a job for the Princess’s firepower or for jack-of-all-trades Myonri’s bag of tools that are barely ever useful!)

Quenser had a radio, but the electronic device was malfunctioning in this -15-degree hell. And if he did send out a Legitimacy Kingdom signal here, the Information Alliance might notice.

His bones still remembered the rumble from that triple railgun.

Even if the metal shells didn’t hit him directly, he would still be blown away with enough dirt to form a crater.

“We have to make do with what we have. For now, let’s follow the ravine downstream.”

“They will catch up if we move on foot.”

“We can’t contact the rest of the Legitimacy Kingdom, but they must be spread out across this area. Each team was supplied a boat, so we just have to run across another group and hitch a ride on their boat!”

That was no guarantee of course.

But if they wanted to increase their odds of survival, they had no choice but to trust that the others would still be following the plan.

He was worried about Heivia and Louisiana, but they needed the Princess to deal with the Retro Gunner. Since he couldn’t trust his radio enough to send out a signal, they couldn’t request a rescue until they escaped from here.

The only way to save their stranded comrades was to escape alive and call in the rest of the Legitimacy Kingdom forces.

(No, that excuse won’t convince Heivia. He’ll resent me regardless.)

“Pant, gasp. How am I still walking? I thought for sure I’d be worn out after walking a half marathon in the snow, but my body actually feels light.”

“Oh? Standing downwind of me must have given you a boost of energy,” said Azureyfear. “I didn’t realize you were the kind of pervert who gains endless stamina from smelling girls.”

“P-please don’t talk about fetishes in front of a 9-year-old. I-i-i-it makes me feel guilty.”

“I notice you aren’t denying it. And did you know that taste can be weakly absorbed and sensed through the skin and intestines, not just the tongue? And taste and smell use the same chemoreception process, so you may be able to absorb scents through your pores. You can never let your guard down around a pervert. They could be stealing away your precious flavor and aroma at any moment. Ah ha ha. Now, what happens if I brush my hair back upwind of you?”

“Stop!!”

The already darkening sky was approaching actual sunset.

The white world was changing to black.

The log cabin had been the one artificial structure out here, but it had been flattened. The darkness was dreadfully deep in the empty wilderness. Especially on a moonless snowy night.

It was a simple matter, but it still robbed Quenser of his previous confidence.

“We need to go…damn, where’s the moss on this tree? No, there’s too much snow caked on to see it!”

“Even in this blizzard, using a light would be suicide right now.”

“Then what do you suggest, Sladder!? If we can’t see, we’ll step on one of those snow cornices, or whatever you called them, and fall into the ravine. We’re trying to walk along a ravine’s edge in the dark, remember!?”

“Hee hee. If you had half a brain, you might have considered finding a 2 or 3 meter stick to poke at the ground ahead of you. The eyes are not the only human sensory organ, after all. …Oh, if only my brother were here so I could give him a hands-on lecture on the topic.”

Azureyfear made sure to mock him as she provided some advice, but he decided he could trust her advice since she wouldn’t want to freeze to death with an idiot like him. He wasn’t happy about it, but he followed her advice. He broke off a young tree that was only about as thick as his thumb. The base of the tree was buried in the snow.

“Don’t worry. This will work just fine,” muttered Quenser, mostly for himself. “You can test the ground ahead of time. I don’t have to worry about stepping right through the snow if I test it first.”

“That is not the only threat found in the forest. This is Siberia, home of the world’s largest bears. And unlike Alaska, there are tigers here too.”

“Can you please just shut up!!”

Battlefield etiquette was quickly collapsing with Heivia missing. He was forced to begin a nervous escape without a guide.

Fortunately, the Retro Gunner did not immediately notice and pursue them. It may have simply not seen them, or it may have had another target it wanted to destroy first. That other target might be remnants of Unit X, or it might be Heivia, Louisiana, and the others. War was frighteningly equal. When one person was given a chance to survive, it meant someone else’s life was at risk.

“Brother…”

Azureyfear Winchell placed a hand on the side of her head and held down her long hair while looking back.

They found the escape river quickly enough. The fluffy layer of snow suddenly ended and they saw a dark ravine that seemed to have absorbed the colors of the night. It looked like a pitch black fissure in the earth. It felt like a wound allowing shadowy blood to seep out from the depths of hell, which made it terrifying. The sound of the water below was unusually loud, giving them an idea of how rapid the current was. The current was enough to avoid freezing. Had they really wanted to descend that 10m cliff and ride a rubber boat on that?

There was still nothing but nature surrounding them.

There had to be some Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers around, so the plan was to hitch a ride down the river on one of their rubber boats. …But had that been too naïve? It at least seemed more realistic than felling some nearby trees with bombs and tying them together with rope to create a raft.

Quenser brought a hand to his chin and muttered under his breath.

“The temperature is 15 below and the water is probably 1 or 2 degrees. A handmade raft? Tried and true professional military gear is one thing, but attempting a handmade vessel without any testing would definitely dump us in the water and turn us into frozen dinners.”

“Hm? What are you talking about?”

Elina Silverbullet tugged on his sleeve. His life was truly over if a 9-year-old was worried about his mental fortitude.

(We’ll get lost if we stray from the plan. We’ll end up walking circles forever. We need to keep going. Maybe it won’t show results right away, but someone has to be traveling down the river by boat. If I’m right about that, we’ll run across them eventually. We only have one real choice, so what can we do but keep choosing it? If we get worried and start focusing on other things, we’ll lose this one chance we have.)

He tried to convince himself of that while poking at the thick snow with his long stick.

But he felt something odd this time.

That wasn’t snow. It was a dry, light sensation, like the sugar figures on top of a cake crumbling away.

“…”

That wasn’t entirely inaccurate.

He had found a figure doubled over and lying on its side. It was too badly burned to identify the clothing, the face, the gender, or even the age. And it was still wrapped in pale flames like burning alcohol.

It was a human corpse.

His poking stick had easily broken off the arm, punched into the chest from below the arm, and burst out the other side.

The corpse easily crumbled.

Quenser Barbotage screamed.

Part 7[edit]

He did not remember what he had yelled.

He only vaguely remembered that he had shouted so much his throat and stomach squirmed like they were turning inside out and he had spewed the undigested contents onto the snow.

Azureyfear had him restrained while he trembled. He may have rolled off the cliff otherwise.

That corpse was not the only one.

And not all of them had been burned. Something dark red had been splattered across a large rock sticking up from the white snow, but was that human mincemeat? Several internal organs were still dripping blood while skewered at the spear-like top of a conifer tree.

There was real cruelty on display here.

This was the result of someone who found humor in death, not someone who wanted to kill with maximum efficiency.

(Goddammit.)

Quenser was soaked with sweat and too disturbed to even think of covering young Elina’s eyes.

(These aren’t Information Alliance or Unit X. These bloody uniforms and scorched guns…were they Legitimacy Kingdom!?)

For some reason, Sladder Honeysuckle spoke while staring down at the crumbling carbonized corpse on the snow.

“It happened at 7:40 AM on June 30, 1908.”

He was referencing a certain legend.

It was one of the few remaining “living legends” because not even all of modern science had arrived at a clear answer.

“The Tunguska event. Suddenly and without warning, an unidentified explosion burned down 2000 square kilometers of old-growth forest. The damage was mostly to undeveloped forest, but the actual human damage is unknown. The explosion was so powerful that unnatural noctilucent clouds appeared across Europe and the land over a several dozen kilometer radius of the blast site remained barren for more than 20 years. The most likely theory is an asteroid breaking up in midair and scattering heat and shockwaves in all directions, but there are plenty of other theories.”

“What?” Quenser wiped at his sour mouth. “Are you saying a ghost did this? You must be joking!! This a modern battlefield ruled by bullets and blades! If someone burned, then there was a weapon here that burned them!!”

“This wasn’t just a flamethrower or incendiary bomb.”

“What, how can you possibly know that!?”

“The method is different.” Sladder pointed at the corpse’s chest – at the disturbingly dry wound that Quenser had accidentally caused. “When your stick poked through the carbonized corpse, did you notice how little resistance there was? And why is it still burning in this blizzard of 15 below?”

“What is your point?”

“Wax,” stated Sladder. “It wasn’t just the proteins of muscle and calcium of bone that were burning. That would only cook them even with a specialized flamethrower. This was wax. The entire body has turned to wax. That allows it to function just like old-fashioned candles. The uniform, equipment, and hairs are the flammable wick and the fire that starts there is supported by the waxy body. That explains the body’s unnatural softness and how it can continue burning out here.”

Wax.

A candle.

Quenser did not understand what he was hearing. What did any of that have to do with humans and corpses?

But Azureyfear placed a hand on her chin.

“Come to think of it, I have heard of corpses remaining stable instead of rotting in certain special environments: when dried, when frozen…or when the body is turned to wax.”

This didn’t sound like a contagious panic.

Quenser was too terrified to think, but the villains like Azureyfear and Sladder could still calmly access their knowledge.

Sladder sighed.

“If you want to turn the human body into wax, you have to cut it off from all oxygen and leave it in a damp location for an extended period of time. Simply put, you either submerge it in water or bury it in the ground where no germs can grow.”

And.

He had one last example.

“Buried below a thick layer of snow works too. Any corpse left to be buried by the blizzard in the Tunguska District might end up like this.”

“Then…then what is this? Is the Information Alliance using a new weapon that doesn’t just burn people – it turns them to wax?”

“That isn’t possible.” Sladder had supposedly made the suggestion, but he shook his head now. “Fully turning a body to wax requires a lot of time. At least a few months, but it could take years. You can’t turn a corpse into wax with the speed of making instant noodles.”

“Then what is happening out here?”

Quenser sounded lost.

Sladder looked away from the carbonized corpse half buried in the snow. He viewed the soft organs caught unnaturally at the top of a spear-like tree.

“There are more puzzling factors.”

“What…wait! I’m still trying to work out what I’m looking at down here!”

“Those organs in the tree…or should I call them a piece of a corpse? Don’t they look awfully soft for something exposed to -15-degree winds? They only seem to be freezing now.”

“True. But the Tunguska District is so cold a wet towel will freeze solid in only a minute if you hang it out to dry,” noted the local(?) girl Elina Silverbullet in a monotone voice.

Quenser’s spine finally froze.

He only now realized what Sladder was getting at.

“Hold on. Then when was this person killed?”

“A lot more recently than we were thinking, it would seem. If that girl is correct, then there is something out here close enough to reach us through the thick snow in less than 60 seconds.”

Quenser quickly looked side to side, but he couldn’t see anything through the white screen. Not the Information Alliance, not Unit X, and not the Ghost Changer-equipped Retro Gunner that had to be out there somewhere.

Those organs still hadn’t frozen.

Did that mean whoever had killed that person and cruelly decorated the forest with their organs was still nearby?

But who had done it?

And how?

Footprints wouldn’t disappear in just a minute, yet there was nothing. Visibility was poor, but Quenser’s group would have heard any gunshots. And if an Object had fired some strange superweapon, they should have at least passed out from the shock. Yet this gruesome corpse was sitting right there unfrozen.

And that corpse was not the only one. Another was splattered across a rock and more gore could be seen in some more distant trees. If that many people had died, there would have been screams and defensive gunfire, but they hadn’t noticed anything. Had the victims not even had the chance? Had their assailant been that overwhelming?

Something out here could creep up behind its target without making a noise and then mutilate professional soldiers with just a touch.

Almost like a ghost.

A silent fear crawled up into Quenser’s mind. This was very different from the threat of bullets and bombs that made so much noise. It felt like time had been stolen from the victims. A human body was only supposed to fully transform into wax after months or years under special conditions and the mincemeat and organs should have frozen solid in this frigid forest.

What could possibly lead to this result?

Could some new tech mess with special relativity to speed up time at a specific coordinate? Could some special camo fully neutralize a human’s senses? No, thought Quenser, shaking his head. Those weren’t physically possible. He kept working his mind to come up with more ideas, but none of them held any weight.

There had to be something out here.

But was it really time to conclude none of the rules he knew could explain this?

For now…

“Then…then what was this? Did the Information Alliance use the Ghost Changer to summon the ghosts of the soldiers and hunters who died during the Tunguska event? Are they dooming people to the same fate they met turning to wax under the thick snow?”

“We can’t even say we know for sure what caused the Tunguska event. There are plenty of theories beyond the asteroid one. And since the event actually happened and was recorded, those theories cannot be ruled out no matter how absurd they might be.”

“…”

“We really only know two things for sure here: The Tunguska event happened and the Information Alliance brought their Ghost Changer weapon here.”

Azureyfear took a step away, crossed her arms, and viewed silenced Quenser in an appraising way.

Young Elina tilted her head with no readable emotion on her face.

“If we fail to identify the cause before it reaches us, we might just get to experience it firsthand. I am the Information Alliance’s top priority target after all.”

She accurately stated the conclusion none of them wanted to think about.

The two geniuses were in agreement: what they saw here could not be explained with ordinary chemistry and physics.

Quenser still couldn’t believe it. He may have wanted someone else to objectively deny it for him.

Because the terror would capture him otherwise.

He felt like laughing at himself for having such a silly concern after seeing all of this.

What had the Information Alliance awoken in this land? Sladder was right. The presence of those mutilated corpses meant the ghost was something physical. It wasn’t just an illusion like a chemically induced hallucination or an image projected on the snow with laser art.

This was a physical ghost.

That increased the danger level considerably.

The Ghost Changer was not just a bluff. Their “ghost” was undeniably lethal.

“A-animals…”

Quenser was nearly taken in by the atmosphere, but he quickly shook his head.

He couldn’t start arguing over whether this was a natural or artificial ghost. Starting the discussion there meant he had more or less accepted it already. He wouldn’t disprove a thing that way.

He had to stay calm.

A curse? Spirit possession? But ghosts didn’t exist. He wasn’t going to give in on that point.

So he forced himself to laugh it off.

“Sladder, you yourself said earlier that the Siberia is home to the world’s largest bears. A ghost isn’t the only explanation for all this. A wild animal could have attacked the soldiers after some kind of image was used to panic them.”

“Yes, the human sherbet splattered on the rocks and tree trunks could have been from a bear attack and the organs in the trees could have been birds of prey hanging them up to save them for later. And wild animals might be able to swiftly hunt down their human prey without us noticing,” said Azureyfear. “But that does not explain the initial carbonized corpse. Animals do not ordinarily use fire. I did not notice the flash of lightning or rumble of thunder and I doubt there is an active volcano here. Besides, this would require fire hot enough to carbonize the body down to the bones. Even a crematorium needs several hours to accomplish that.”

“We misjudged the initial conditions. Forget about the burning human being remade into wax. They would burn more easily like that.”

“There has to be more to this!! That’s so much more realistic than thinking some formless grudge or curse mutilated these people and set them on fire. Battlefields are chock full of death and grudges. Movies love ending on a beautiful image of a soldier dying with a satisfied smile, but that’s bullshit. If curses could actually kill, then the winning side of every war in history would have been slaughtered shortly thereafter!!”

Sladder, Azureyfear, and Elina.

Those abnormal geniuses all shrugged after watching Quenser sweatily yelling in the -15 degree weather. With so many bizarre things happening around him, he wanted to find some stability by reconfirming the “common sense” he took for granted. Did that ordinary way of thinking really make him the odd one out in this bizarre alternate dimension?

Or was his idea of common sense really that different from theirs?

He heard a scraping of metal coming from somewhere.

It was an artificial sound that clearly did not belong in this biting blizzard.

“Sh!”

With a quick warning, Quenser grabbed Elina Sliverbullet’s hand and got down on the snow. The genius girl did not bat an eye.

It appeared to be a truck.

But it had no obvious headlights. Driving like that through the forest during a blizzard on a moonless night seemed like suicide, but the military truck was approaching them all the same. It was driving slower and more carefully than normal, but it was definitely coming their way.

The next threat had arrived.

Quenser tensed while Elina asked a quiet question without even moving her lips.

“What now? If that is the Information Alliance, this is insufficient to hide from them. They will detect us with ease if they have a thermo sensor, an anti-personnel radar, or light-amplification night vision gear.”

“Quiet. We wouldn’t have a chance on ordinary ground, but this is the snow.”

Sladder and Azureyfear seemed hesitant, but they ultimately got down to join Quenser.

The deep rhythmic rumbling of the machine gradually grew louder.

But the loudest sound for Quenser was the beating of his own heart.

(We’re dead if they find us. One call for support and the Retro Gunner will be after us. Or that ghost will kill us.)

The sound did not stop.

He started to worry the truck wouldn’t notice them and they would simply be run over by its thick tires.

It approached, approached some more, and then passed them by.

The source of the sound continued on behind them without them ever even seeing what it was.

“?”

“(Be quiet.)”

Confused, he started to lift his head to look, but Azureyfear forced it back down with a hand.

“(That engine sounded like an Information Alliance four-wheel-drive military truck. And it was on the other side of the ravine. That’s why only the sound passed us by.)”

Quenser had been afraid they were dealing with a ghost truck now, but apparently not.

Azureyfear was definitely a bad person, but he found himself tempted to rely on her strength here. That may have been the negative sort of charisma found in gang bosses.

The ravine was more than 10m across. The blizzard made it impossible to see anyone at that distance, but a truck was a different story.

Quenser regained his cool and took a look.

“I see something swiveling on top of that truck.”

“You aren’t as clever as my brother, are you? If they are using active night vision, that is probably emitting IR or radar waves.”

The thick layer of snow would reflect light, which meant thermo sensors using infrared would have trouble detecting someone hiding below the snow. Same for night vision that mechanically amplified even small levels of light. Anti-personnel radars detected a target’s location from the reflected microwaves, but you had a chance of escaping detection if you curled up to mask your distinctive human shape.

Quenser breathed a sigh of relief just before he heard some dry gunshots ring out.

He felt a squeezing at his heart.

He forced his hands over his mouth to suppress a scream while tears spilled from his eyes.

After a short scream, he heard a few more gunshots followed by silence. Someone had just been shot. As a student, he didn’t know all that much about guns, but even he could tell only one type of gun had just fired. The lack of return fire suggested someone had just been shot after surrendering and begging for their life.

And that someone was probably wearing the same Legitimacy Kingdom uniform as him.

If that truck had driven along this side of the ravine, Quenser’s group would have met that same fate.

The sound of tearing metal was probably one of the gear-carrying animal robots the other groups had been given.

“Damn.”

“Looks like the ghost isn’t the only thing to fear,” said Sladder while the roar of the engine slowly faded into the distance.

Driving along in a loud vehicle with the heater running felt really brazen.

“And this may be our chance.”

“?”

Quenser tilted his head, so Sladder explained.

“The Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers were issued rubber boats, remember? We might just find what we need if we search those foolish corpses.”

Quenser couldn’t stand it anymore.

He pulled a softball-sized stone from the snow and chucked it at the war criminal without so much as a warning.

Part 8[edit]

But no matter how cruel it might seem, it was still the most logical choice.

Quenser was forced to accept that fact when Azureyfear Winchell used some kind of self-defense technique to send him spinning through the air. Sladder simply shrugged without a scratch on him. Quenser had been right next to the man, so he really wished he had just hit him with the rock instead of throwing it.

The prisoners were handcuffed, but they had him overpowered.

While he groaned down on the snow, Elina Silverbullet whispered in his ear.

“I envy you.”

“?”

“When I heard the gunfire, I too considered how we could use it. That must mean I am more like them than you.”

If they had some way of crossing the ravine, they might just find a rubber boat with the Legitimacy Kingdom corpse. But there was no sign of a bridge and any bridge that did exist would be a crucial point. The Information Alliance would definitely have at least one guard there.

(It’s around a dozen meters across. All we have to work with are dirt, snow, rocks, and trees. It’s 15 below. The trees are tall and straight, so maybe we could turn one into a bridge. Or…?)

Quenser shook his head.

No, they didn’t even need to cross the ravine. Hadn’t he heard metal being destroyed too?

“The burning wax corpse, the human sherbet on the rock, and the organs caught in the trees.”

“You mean the ghost victims? What of them?”

“They were Legitimacy Kingdom too, so the animal robot carrying their gear might still be wandering nearby!!”

He shouldn’t have had to explain that, but the obvious solution had slipped their minds entirely.

Maybe they had been too focused on needing to cross the ravine and maybe their fear of the ghost had worn them out too much.

They soon found a deer-like shape moving through the trees. That was the robot. The corpses may have been too mutilated for it to recognize them. Without a controller, Quenser had to trip it with his long stick and then the prisoners broke its lenses and legs with their chains. He opened one of the bags it was carrying. It only carried some bent assault rifles and some mobile devices with cracked screens. Azureyfear clicked her tongue when she saw the useless rifles. They were made to fire grenades too, but that didn’t look promising either.

“I doubt these fuses will work anymore. Carrying those around would be too dangerous.”

“You were given handguns for self-defense, weren’t you? You could always pick up some ammo.”

Quenser wasn’t interested in the weapons. He wanted a way to escape, not to fight.

He glanced over at the broken robot.

(Sorry, but I need to borrow your gear.)

He feared the thick military rubber boat would have been broken by all this damage. And even if the boat was intact, would the large motor run? For that matter, those mutilated soldiers might not have even had a boat.

He feared more and more that he had been clinging to false hope here.

Then he opened another bag and felt something inside.

“Yes,” he said on reflex. “I found the boat!! I was right after all!!”

“But…hasn’t it melted from the heat?”

“That doesn’t matter, Elina. The boat might have a hole, but we have the motor and battery. As long as we find an intact boat, we can combine it with the surviving parts. We might even be able to press the hole against part of another boat and melt them together with some fire. That’s the beauty of standardized devices.”

It turned out only the exterior bag was damaged and the actual boat inside was fine. That saved them the time of patching it up.

“Now we can travel down the river.”

They would still have to be careful about the noise from the motor, but the Information Alliance patrols would be easy to detect since they were using trucks. Switching off the motor whenever they heard those loud engines would be enough. And since the Information Alliance had let the gear robot survive, they must not have done much recon work. If they didn’t know the Legitimacy Kingdom was carrying boats, they wouldn’t think to focus their search on the frigid ravine river.

The bright path to survival was finally in sight.

They approached the ravine with the deflated unit. Quenser used his stick to check for a snow cornice and then looked down to see it was more than 10m to the bottom. Climbing down to the river might sound simple, but now they needed an actual method of doing so.

Still, it was better than no plan at all.

Azureyfear whispered to Quenser while he looked down into the ravine.

“About the ghost.”

“?”

“Animals don’t use fire and we still can’t explain how that one soldier was turned to wax, but I think your observation was decent for a commoner. I think we should divide the ghost victims into two categories: those that were killed by the ‘ghost’ phenomenon and those who died to something else.”

“Died to…something else?”

She held her long hair down with a hand to peer down into the deep ravine while she nodded.

“We still haven’t seen for ourselves what this ghost even is. I am worried about my brother…but the ghost produced by the Ghost Changer may be something surprisingly mundane. Something that only becomes so unimaginably deadly when used in the Tunguska District.”

The Tunguska District was the origin of a mysterious event.

An explosion with no apparent source had instantly turned 2000 square kilometers of old-growth forest to charcoal and left the land barren for decades. It was covered in green again now, but the legend remained.

Quenser thought for a bit and then groaned. He had only learned one thing: no immediate answer was forthcoming.

“I can’t believe this. Does that mean we have to solve the mystery of the Tunguska event on top of the Ghost Changer? I thought people had settled on it being an asteroid breaking up in the atmosphere?”

“Ah ha ha. But doesn’t that make it a lot easier to investigate? Whatever the answer, it was a natural phenomenon, just like a wild animal attack. When people find the answer, they go ‘oh, is that all’ and lose interest. That’s the kind of secret you can find just lying around, unlike a new piece of military technology protected by countless layers of security.”

Sladder, the expert who had developed mass drivers capable of reaching the moon, had hinted at another possibility earlier. Quenser only had a passing familiarity with it due to its relation to Object main cannons, so the man would know more about it.

Something about this bothered Quenser, so he looked up from the ravine.

He wanted to gather all the necessary information before continuing.

“Hey, Sladder. What exactly caused the Tungus-”

He trailed off.

That wasn’t Sladder Honeysuckle standing next to him.

It was someone with half his face melting off.

Quenser’s breath caught in his throat and he couldn’t even scream.

But the half-melted face did scream, shoving Quenser away with both hands.

“M-monster!!!”

“?”

Did Quenser look like a monster to him?

But he didn’t have time to ponder that. He had just been peering down in the ravine while on the lookout for snow cornices, so what happened when he was shoved hard?

He staggered back into the deflated rubber boat and the small child standing nearby.

He and Elina Silverbullet fell from the 10m ravine as a chunk of snow broke free below them.

Part 9[edit]

Ten meters was a tricky height. You might survive if you landed on a soft flower bed, a sheet iron roof, or the thick cushion used for the pole vault, but you didn’t stand much of a chance if you landed on the jagged rocks at the bottom of a ravine.

On instinct, Quenser held young Elina tight in one arm and used the other hand to pull in the elliptical object floating next to him. Then he used his mouth to pull hard on the thick cord.

Nitrogen gas burst out, rapidly inflating the rubber boat. It probably worked similar to a car airbag or a fire extinguisher.

Of course, it didn’t slow them as much as a parachute. The boat dropped quite rapidly while still bent nearly in half with Quenser and Elina contained within. Then it hit the hard ground.

They bounced.

Fortunately, they didn’t have to worry about jagged rocks piercing their bodies. These military boats had been designed to accommodate rough landing operations anywhere from a sandy beach to a rocky coast, so the cushioning of the air within was nothing to sneeze at.

But it was too soon to breathe a sigh of relief. Gravity seized ahold of them again after their bounce. This time, they landed in the dark river running down the center of the V-shaped ravine.

Quenser thought his heart was going to stop when the liquid touched him.

He reflexively curled up, but then he realized he had let go of the girl and she was vanishing into the dark river!

“Pwah!! Elina, where are you!?”

When his head breached the surface, the biting wind grew twice as powerful. His bangs began to freeze starting from the tips. He had never imagined 1-degree water would actually feel warm to him.

And his cries received no response.

The current was even faster than it had looked from above. If he hadn’t grabbed onto the boat with aching and rapidly numbing fingers, he would have been tossed about wildly. There was no way a 9-year-old like Elina Silverbullet could swim while fully clothed here.

Quenser held onto the boat for dear life and turned on his light despite the danger.

He was risking his life with that light, but it barely helped.

Steam was rising from the river even though it was only 1 degree. That was just how deadly the air was.

A dark and gloomy feeling pressed down on him, but then he spotted something. That wasn’t just an illusion brought on by the wavering steam. A small hand stuck straight up out of the dark water a short distance away.

This wasn’t something from a ghost story. It was a living human being still trying desperately to survive.

“…”

She was about 10m away and upstream of him, but if he waited too long, her hand would sink back below the water and probably never resurface. Yet if he let go of the motorboat in these rapids, he would lose his means of getting downstream.

He could choose the girl or the boat.

Quenser Barbotage clenched his teeth and made his choice.

“Argh!!”

He tore away his fingers that were half freezing to the boat and he fought the current.

He couldn’t use his light anymore. Darkness surrounded him once more, hiding the small hand from view.

He ended up relying mostly on intuition.

He trusted the sensation he felt in his fingers, grabbed tight, and pulled up.

“Cough!! Cough, cough!?”

“No, Elina!! Don’t breathe in through your nose!! Gather the air in your mouth and let it warm up before breathing it in. You’ll damage your lungs otherwise!”

To prevent coughing Elina from reflexively delivering a finishing blow to her own body, Quenser forced his wet hand over her small face and warned her. The nose could inhale more air than the mouth and you could not hold the air between your cheeks when breathing through the nose. It went without saying what would happen if you sent this piercing cold air directly to your lungs.

(But what do we do now!? We’ve lost our boat!!)

For now, he focused on staying afloat while they held each other close and let the current carry them. He kept one arm solidly around Elina’s shockingly small hips and used the other hand to shine his unreliable light around.

The light reflected off of something.

It was the abandoned rubber boat. It had been swept downstream, but it must have gotten caught on a sharp rock jutting up from the riverbed.

He reached desperately for it.

Grabbing it must have affected its balance because it resumed moving. It flowed downstream once more.

There was no saving them if they remained in the 1-degree river.

It was difficult with just the one arm, but since Elina was buoyant, she didn’t feel as heavy in the water. He held his light in his mouth and first pushed her small body up into the boat. Then he climbed in after her. If she hadn’t moved to the other side, the boat might have capsized under his weight.

But boarding the boat did not make them safe.

He thought he could actually hear it when he saw Elina’s hair and poncho freezing. He could guess the same was happening to him.

It was 15 below zero out here.

The white hell of Siberia had truly bared its fangs now.

The two of them held each other tight. There was no room for shame here. If they didn’t overcome this cold, their ears, fingers, and whatever else would get frostbitten and fall off. Elina’s fluffy knit clothing was designed to store air to insulate her from the cold, but cold water was its worst nightmare. There was no preventing the wool from soaking up all that water.

They shivered while looking out ahead – downstream.

The motorboat was supposed to let them escape the battlefield at nearly 200km/h, but that felt like a joke now. The V-shaped ravine curved this way and that through the darkness and sharp rocks stuck out of the water all over the place. Quenser was hesitant to start the motor up at all, much less travel at nearly 200km/h. Simply letting the current take them was terrifying enough. The most he could do was shine his unreliable light out ahead and cling to the rear motor unit to operate the rudder.

(Another example of Frolaytia’s ultra optimism. When I get back, I’m warming my fingers on her boobs until they stop trembling.)

As sturdy as the military boat was, a tear from one of the fang-like rocks would still sink it. And just because it had survived last time did not mean it would survive next time. The damage would not go away on its own. Unfortunately, shining his light on the river ahead did not tell him what was lurking below the surface.

(This won’t last long.)

Quenser felt dizzy while he held Elina with his teeth chattering.

He could feel his pulse more than ever before, but that felt more like a last-ditch effort than anything. And if his heartbeat weakened, he doubted it would ever recover. The upper limit would gradually fall until finally reaching a flatline zero.

(We’ll both die if we don’t find some place to dry off and change clothes!! Even if we do make it downstream, we won’t make it to the Legitimacy Kingdom evac point 120km past that!!)

“Wh-what is…that?”

Elina Silverbullet was shivering too, but she pointed her small finger elsewhere. She was looking up at a dark shape in the distance.

“A bridge?”

“Shh!”

Quenser wrapped both arms around her and lay down in the boat.

The Information Alliance probably had the area surrounded while they gradually worked their way inwards, but they would be focusing their inspections and hunting on the known land routes. They wouldn’t be focused on the ravine river, but a bridge where the road met the river was bad news. He didn’t see any searchlights, but he knew they had been driving a truck around with the headlights off and shooting any Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers they found.

The bridge was more than 10m above.

They could be sending something invisible down into the ravine even now. Whether it was IR or microwaves, he, Elina, and the boat would be shredded by a machinegun or grenade launcher the instant they were detected.

It was risky, but they couldn’t turn back either.

He had no plan, but their only option was to let the current carry them. Forcing the motor to fight the rapid current would make a dangerously loud noise. Besides, running away would just get them frozen to death. This was another danger to contend with, but their best bet was still to travel downstream and try to reach the Legitimacy Kingdom maintenance base.

He steeled himself as they approached the concrete bridge spanning the ravine.

Would they make it through or not?

His tension rose to its peak.

“…”

The boat came to an unexpected stop. He looked around in shock to find the boat’s path was blocked by a metal fence placed across the water’s surface.

It was an unusual thing, so the Information Alliance must have done it.

“What now?”

“We can’t keep going! There don’t seem to be any soldiers above us, but the fence might be electrified. Touching it might have triggered a sensor!!”

At least it hadn’t been linked with a naval mine that detonated as soon as they touched the fence. Maybe the Information Alliance hadn’t wanted large fish or trash triggering it on accident.

Fortunately, there was a metal staircase installed on the ravine wall, presumably for bridge inspection and maintenance. On the other hand, that meant there was only the one path up. They had to run up there and vanish into the night before those Information Alliance freaks came to investigate.

He grabbed the fence and pushed his body against it to slide the boat over. Once at the edge of the ravine, he picked up Elina, hopped onto land, and climbed the metal stairs.

Climbing a 10m spiral staircase was a lot like climbing 3 stories.

He needed to clear those stairs before any Information Alliance soldiers showed up. With that and the biting chill, he ran up the stairs without worrying about his clanging footsteps, but he thought his heart was going to stop once he reached the top.

He saw simple structures similar to boxy metal containers, the unique silhouette of a radar facility, and even giant hangars resembling gyms with semicircular roofs. They were so surrounded on all sides that the curtain of snow wasn’t enough to hide it.

This was the Information Alliance maintenance base zone.

They must have been restricting light usage because the entire place was dark.

The bridge across the ravine was crucial to transportation around here, so they could monitor who moved in and out by setting up a checkpoint at that one point. So the Information Alliance had set up their easily-deployed maintenance base around the bridge.

(Well, this sucks.)

They really had hit a dead end now.

An Object maintenance base zone would hold anywhere between 800 and 1000 soldiers. There was no way an amateur battlefield student could sneak his way through there without being spotted. But returning to the ravine wasn’t an option either. If that fence had been electrified, the Information Alliance would send an armed team down to investigate the alarm he had triggered.

They were in a real “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.

The tension was enough to distract him from the cold, but then Elina spoke from his arms.

“Umm.”

“What is it? I’m trying to come up with a plan here.”

“It’s not about that. I was wondering what happened here.”

He wasn’t sure what the genius girl meant.

She must have noticed because she clarified for him.

“Like you said before, there are no soldiers up here.”

“Oh.”

“But this is undeniably a military facility. And a large one at that. So isn’t it odd that there’s no one around?”

He had a bad feeling about this.

Come to think of it, he hadn’t seen any guards around. And not just because they were using night vision goggles and didn’t need their lights.

The place felt deserted.

The lack of artificial lights could be explained, but could a “small city” of at least 800 people really stay as silent as an old-growth forest in midwinter?

Quenser gulped and took a step away from the stairs and into the Information Alliance maintenance base zone.

His bad feeling had been right on the money.

Countless corpses had been mutilated, burned, and splattered against the walls in ways that couldn’t be explained with bullets.

The base was littered with victims of the ghost.

Part 10[edit]

Quenser had hit his limit.

He wanted to run away somewhere – anywhere – but the maintenance base surrounding the bridge was filled with death and gore.

With his psyche pushed to the limit, he simply obeyed his sense of danger. He picked up Elina again, accidentally kicked aside a flare gun buried in the snow, tackled open a nearby building’s door, and stumbled inside.

The gentle, heated air washed across his half-frozen skin and hair.

Was the dampness he felt in the corners of his eyes really just the frost and ice melting?

“What happened here?”

An Information Alliance truck had been out on patrol earlier, but they wouldn’t be following those routines if this were happening. So had this only just happened?

The building he had entered looked like a barracks or medical room. He still felt dizzy as he tossed Elina Silverbullet one of the towels hanging on the wall. He couldn’t support his own weight, so he sat down on a nearby bed.

A broken radio sat at his feet, like it had been thrown against the floor. Who had its owner been unable to contact? Was the ghost interfering with radio communications too?

“Wasn’t the ghost supposed to be something caused by the Ghost Changer loaded onto the Information Alliance Object? So why were their own people killed after being cursed or possessed or whatever!?”

He was shouting at the top of his lungs in the Legitimacy Kingdom language, but the Information Alliance never showed up to surround him. No one was left to hear him. The base was entirely dead.

Elina did not seem to have an answer either.

She simply sat there in thought with the towel over her head, so Quenser crouched down and wrung her knit clothing out like a rag to try and get the cold water out and then dried her off with the towel as best he could over her clothing. Otherwise, she could easily freeze to death inside this heated room.

Not even a well-supplied Information Alliance base would have a uniform that fit a 9-year-old girl, so her only real option was to soak up as much of the water with the towel and then stand in front of the stove to dry the rest of the way off.

“Nh, nhhh.”

He was making these decisions for her, but the genius girl seemed fairly satisfied. Either she was surprisingly defenseless or she had opened up to him more than her emotionless eyes let on.

“Let’s start by listing off the possibilities,” she said. “Did the Information Alliance lose control of their ghost and self-destruct? Or were they not the ones who released the ghost on the battlefield in the first place?”

“Neither of those makes sense.”

Quenser shook his head.

He was looking after Elina and keeping her alive. Without that simple heroism, he may have succumbed to the fear, searched out a gun, thoughtless fired on the wall as a way to lash out at sharing a base with so many corpses, and been killed by a ricocheting bullet.

The responsibility changed the way he thought.

But not even he could say if that was a positive change.

“This isn’t the Information Alliance’s first time using the Ghost Changer. They move it from Object to Object as an add-on weapon to hide it from the records, but they must have some kind of detailed manual or routine they share. I doubt they would have screwed things up so badly it killed the 800 or 1000 people on the base.”

“In that case.”

That did not stop Elina.

Her cold expression remained, but she may have needed to keep thinking to distract herself from her anxiety. She laid out her thoughts while he dried her hair with the towel.

“Could the Information Alliance’s ghost not be what killed these soldiers? That would mean there is another mysterious cause of death out there.”

“…”

Something hidden in this land had caused the Tunguska event.

That something had blown away an area of 2000 square kilometers, filled Europe’s sky with an eerie glow, and left the site of the blast barren for decades afterwards.

When the Information Alliance had tried to conquer this battlefield with their dreadful technology, had they awoken something else they hadn’t known was here?

“Even if their skills had dulled with Objects ruling the battlefield, what could possibly wipe out a base of 1000 before they could even send out an SOS?”

“Every possibility falls under one of two categories.”

Elina did not have all the answers.

She looked like a loner genius girl, but she may have actually been the type to take inspiration from discussions.

She stood in front of the stove to dry off and watched Quenser transform the hot water in the kettle into a hot drink using the cocoa powder at the bottom of the mugs.

He knew having wet underwear felt awful, but he frantically slapped her hands down when she started to lift her knit skirt in front of the stove. What exactly was she trying to warm by the fire there!?

Her desire for warmth was greater than her shame, but her restless hands instead reached for a pocket-size plant guide. Had the Information Alliance soldiers been looking for edible plants in between shifts?

“Either the Information Alliance destroyed itself from within, or it was slaughtered from without. Whatever theory we construct will be greatly influenced by that.”

Even with their Object out and about, the 1000 soldiers at the base would have been well armed with guns, artillery, tanks, and armored trucks. Not even 1000 bears would be enough to slaughter them in the blink of an eye.

Was the ghost’s curse or possession even more powerful than that?

External heat was not enough to keep the cold out, so Elina took the mug Quenser offered her, wrapped her small hands around it, and tested the hot cocoa with the tip of her tongue.

“It could have been a gas or bacteria. What if a sealed container was sent down from upstream and detonated when it hit the fence at the bottom of the ravine near the center of the base? Hot.”

“The corpses were mutilated. Some kind of macro force was used to kill them.”

“Foo, foo. Then maybe a large unit of powered suits attacked. Maybe another part of your Legitimacy Kingdom force.”

“Powered suits aren’t as convenient as they look. A tank or attack helicopter can overpower them, so you can think of them as stronger than infantry but weaker than an armored truck. They can’t unilaterally slaughter an entire base if you have enough of them. There would definitely be some Legitimacy Kingdom corpses, wreckage, and bullet holes, but I don’t see any.”

“Oh, this isn’t just sugar. It has coconut and caramel too… Then could it have been something more powerful than a tank or attack helicopter?”

But what exactly could it have been? They were right back to discussing an unidentified ghostly curse or grudge.

Still, something bothered Quenser about it all.

Some corpses had been burned with an intense heat. Others had been crushed by a powerful shockwave. All of the gruesome deaths were reminiscent of the legendary Tunguska event.

However…

(Huh? What was it Frolaytia told us about the Hornos District at the southernmost part of South America?)

Now he wished he had secretly recorded her. He had unfortunately filled up his memory with the sensation of her ass on his face. He held a hand to his chin and tried as hard as he could to remember. This time, the conversation mattered more than the butt.

Yes.

This is what she had said…

“But then things changed. All 800 soldiers in the Legitimacy Kingdom’s maintenance base were slaughtered in a single night. There were signs of gunfire, but no Information Alliance bullets were found. That suggests the Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers were shooting each other. More than 99% of the soldiers were killed, including the base commander and the Pilot Elite. Looking at the bullet holes, the seemingly random gunfire is most noticeable, but it looks like the nature of the battle changed once friendly fire detonated the ammo dump. …Some bodies were found with bite marks in their uniforms and flesh, suggesting the fighting continued even after they used up all their ammo. The bites were deep, leaving toothmarks on the bone in some cases. And since the same corpse sometimes had multiple sets of toothmarks, it looks like they were attacked in groups.”

Part of that caught his interest.

“Friendly fire?”

“Hm? Did any of them have bullet wounds?”

Elina tilted her head while holding the adult-sized mug which was a little too large for her hands.

Yes, they hadn’t seen that here. All of the corpses had been mutilated, blown away, turned to wax, or reduced to mere organs. No actual autopsies had been performed and it was still possible they had been mutilated after being shot in the head, but it still didn’t look like these soldiers had killed each other. If they had been firing wildly like that, there would be bullet holes in the walls and floor, but none of that was in evidence.

The most material damage they had seen was the radio thrown against the floor and the flare gun buried out in the snow.

But the Ghost Changer itself was the same piece of equipment.

It had to have the same affect as last time. This might look like an entirely different result, but it had to have the same cause. Both attacks started in the same place but then branched out differently for unknown reasons. So what was the real cause? And what had caused this difference?

A ghost.

The Tunguska District was a special place.

But was that really what he needed to focus on?

“Because there isn’t anywhere to run to on this planet. With all those 200 thousand ton weapons moving at such high speeds around the globe, the earth’s environment has already been fatally thrown out of balance.”

“Animals don’t use fire and we still can’t explain how that one soldier was turned to wax, but I think your observation was decent for a commoner. I think we should divide the ghost victims into two categories: those that were killed by the ‘ghost’ phenomenon and those who died to something else.”

“What are you so worried about? We’re not going to snatch you up and eat you. Life in solitary confinement wasn’t all that bad. There was a window, even if it did have bars over it. And the combination of the damp, cracked wall and the sunlight allowed some small flowers to grow.”

Quenser Barbotage looked up.

“Could it be?”

Part 11[edit]

There was no good and evil in war.

The Legitimacy Kingdom and the Information Alliance would have their own reasons for their actions here in the Tunguska District. The mysterious Unit X would also have been desperate to stay alive. The Ghost Changer-equipped Object was like a nightmare for Quenser’s group, but it may have looked like a legendary sword to the Information Alliance who wanted to protect their comrades’ lives however they could.

So there was no point in discussing who was the villain here.

Or at the very least, reflexively declaring the Information Alliance evil wouldn’t be productive.

And in this case, Quenser couldn’t just chalk it all up to a conspiracy of the four world powers. That was the same as insisting everything that had ever gone wrong for him was due to a mysterious curse interfering with all the critical moments in his life.

But there was a villain here.

And Quenser had seen them himself.

They had been within arm’s reach.

They were out here on this battlefield, but not as a bizarre ghost story – as a living, breathing human.

“Elina.”

“Yes?”

“I’m going to end this, but we’re the ones who brought this battle to your doorstep, so you have no obligation to accompany me. If you don’t want to die, you can stay here in this warm base, waiting for someone to rescue you.”

“I do hate to say goodbye to this warm stove and more hot cocoa, but I too played a role in this.”

The fear of the battlefield would have soaked into her very bones – the terror of the cold, the bullets, and the eerie ghost’s curse or spirit possession.

But the emotionless genius girl did not hesitate.

“Whatever the actual method is, I was the one who set the stage for it by living here in the Tunguska District. I knew I would have to face some kind of problem like this if I refused to back down on my suppressed paper. But I refused to give up and that led to this war. If not for my selfishness, this plan may have never panned out.”

“…I see.”

Her cold and robotic demeanor made it hard to tell, but she did have emotions.

Intelligence had its pros and its cons. She would have been happier if she had never arrived at that answer.

She may have felt somewhat responsible for this battlefield littered with Legitimacy Kingdom and Information Alliance corpses. But whatever calculations the true genius’s conclusion were based on, that average student could confidently tell her she was wrong. This war was something they had brought to the Tunguska District. None of this was her fault and she shouldn’t feel any of that weight on her shoulders.

But the risk to her would not go away if he left her behind. The corpses covering the base were enough to know the place was not safe.

He sighed and nodded.

“Then I’ll take you with me. …To be honest, I was terrified of having to reenter that frozen forest on my own.”

“I don’t know what you intend to do about that ghost, but I am honored you consider me worthwhile to have around. It tells me I’m not just dead weight.”

They were both ready to go now.

The boy had said from the beginning that they already had the greatest weapon against them. He had said trying to run away would only lead to death, so it was best to not even try.

So now there was just one thing to do: begin to fight.

He pressed his radio’s switch.

He sent out the emergency signal that restrained the prisoners and transmitted their location.

“Found you.”

He glanced down at his mobile device instead of his radio.

He had booted up the military’s highly accurate map app.

“Sladder Honeysuckle!! I have his GPS signal and I’ve detonated his glow-in-the-dark paint and scent capsules. He can’t escape now!!”

“Sladder?” Eliza clearly didn’t understand. “And I thought you said your radio and mobile device weren’t working in the cold.”

“They weren’t actually broken.”

Quenser smiled and looked around while drying his hair with a towel.

The Information Alliance maintenance base would be stocked with all sorts of weapons, from handguns to missiles, but Quenser and Elina couldn’t use weapons like that. He guessed this would come down to throwing Hand Axe plastic explosives.

He searched through all the gear and only took a flashlight that looked more powerful than his own.

“We just couldn’t trust the signal it was showing us. The blizzard screwed with our sense of direction and distance, so we started to doubt what the machine was showing us. We’re 120km from the Legitimacy Kingdom maintenance base. I had my doubts when I checked the display, but looks like it was right. The truth is a funny thing. If I’d thought about it more, I would have realized of course the digital numbers are more accurate. I just wasn’t in a mental state that let me think straight.”

“Because of the ghost?”

“Once you get how it works, it’s kind of silly.” He snorted with laughter while walking toward the door. “We kept talking about the Ghost Changer-equipped Object, but we don’t actually know what the Ghost Changer looks like. Why is that? The Object is 50m tall and we saw it ourselves when it crushed your log cabin. The Ghost Changer is an unconventional weapon since it can be passed between Objects. But if they were adding a huge cannon or lens, it would mess with the Object’s design philosophy. So how did it work?”

“?”

“It’s simple really.”

He threw open the thick metal door.

The -15 degree air was like poison now that they were accustomed to the heated building.

But now that Quenser understood the trick, he saw the view out the door as an open world full of hope. It was now his turn to attack.

“The Ghost Changer is a special grease. The gears, cylinders, joints, the axles for its steamroller-like wheels, and every other movable part on the Object is intentionally allowed to rub together and burn the oil with friction. And the subtle flavors and smells that creates messes with the human brain!!”

They intentionally had the Object damage itself.

Was that why hey had chosen the Retro Gunner instead of a new model? Was the cost of damaging a functioning Object just too great? Or did an old piece of junk enhance the effects? Was it like how a rusty saw was more frightening than a sharp knife?

“Are you saying the Ghost Changer is like a chemical weapon spread by the smoke and steam created when burning it?”

“You wouldn’t need an Object if it was. Since they use that thing’s joints, I bet this is about high pressure physics.”

“You mean how graphite turns to diamond at a pressure of about 50 thousand atmospheres?”

“Objects weight 200 thousand tons, so the pressure on their joints is far greater than the average press. Labs and factories can apparently produce a few million atmospheres using the shockwave of an explosion, but this might be even greater.”

“I see. I have heard some other unusual reports from the world of high pressure physics, such as ferromagnetic iron becoming paramagnetic or germanium’s electrical conductivity increasing a millionfold.”

“It produces phenomena that don’t add up based on our normal understanding of physics. I doubt the Ghost Changer grease would work if you just heated it with fire. I bet the weapon only works if you use the magic of high pressure to bend the rules of property change.”

The two of them soldiered on through the blizzard.

The Information Alliance flashlight was quite bright, so it pierced a good distance through the darkness. If he wasn’t careful to angle it down a bit, it would reflect off the blizzard and dazzle his eyes. The Information Alliance seemed to prefer night vision using IR or microwaves, so he would make better use of the flashlight than them.

“Ugh…”

“What is it, Elina? Did you drink too much hot cocoa, so now you need to pee? If you can’t keep that dam from breaking, try to do it at the base of a thick tree. Any pursuers might mistake it for wild animal markings.”

“Having him caution me about being indecent was the greatest mistake of my life.”

The 9-year-old was getting ahead of herself and deciding she had already seen the worst her life had to offer. Her voice dropped terrifyingly low, but the cold was still too powerful and she remained clinging to Quenser.

However, the genius girl’s groan had not been the result of pressure building below her stomach after leaving the warm room for the cold outdoors.

“So you were saying the ghost is created with smells and flavors?”

“More accurately, they create an atmosphere where a ghost seems likely. You begin to doubt your common sense, you throw out all your accurate digital data, and you close yourself up in a shell. That makes you the perfect target for any sort of superstition. Your brain starts to misinterpret things, like the rustling leaves sounding like whispering voices or the swaying branches looking like spying people.”

“Misinterpret?”

“You know how the voices you hear over the phone are really the physical voice being recreated using a combination of electric tones, right? Or how cheap meat can seem fancier when injected with fat? People love to label the things they’re experiencing by comparing them to the categories in their head, so our senses are actually pretty inaccurate.”

“But you expect me to believe this works on everyone, regardless of physical constitution and mental structure? What kind of miracle drug is this Ghost Changer? The Island Nation’s Hangonko was theorized to use mustard, but it’s actually just a legend with no real chemical formula. Talk of hallucinogens might sound convincing, but it’s not like they ran a proper clinical trial to make sure it would cause everyone see the exact same ghost. That claim is as absurd as saying zombie powder can damage anyone’s brain enough to turn them into a puppet just because it uses pufferfish.”

“Admittedly, it would be difficult with ordinary flavors and smells.”

He already knew their destination.

The Legitimacy Kingdom and Information Alliance had been removed from the battlefield. Same for the mysterious Unit X. Now that he knew that, he didn’t fear using a flashlight or activating his mobile device’s backlight. He only had to follow the GPS signal through the dark and snowy forest.

“But did you know, Elina, that flavors and smells are sensed using a process called chemoreception? Your body can detect the change in your cells when exposed to certain chemicals. That change just so happens to be greatest on your tongue and in your nose.”

“You mean how the spiciness sensed on the tongue is similar to pain or burning?”

“More or less, yes. But that’s the real issue here. We tend to think that our five senses are sensed using five different organs, but taste can actually be sensed on the skin and in the intestines, just to a much more limited extent. And the same might be possible for smell since it uses the same chemoreception process. There is also research that suggests our skin and blood vessels can just barely sense light.”

“Sensing taste and light through the skin?”

“It could be anywhere really. We think of vision as coming through the eyes, hearing through the ears, smell through the nose, taste through the tongue, and touch through the skin. But if we start to absorb sensory information through parts that don’t fit that mental mapping…well, humans like to manage the things they’re perceiving by applying labels to them. When heating food in the microwave, you think of it in terms of how long you heat it, not how many degrees or watts you use, right? You don’t question it when you heated it ‘long enough’, but the inside is still cold, do you? Most everyone is willing to accept that because they’ve never been burned by microwaves. We can swap out the labels for stimuli we can’t perceive. Same for units and quantities. If you hold a fluffy sweater in one hand and a ball of yarn weighing the same in the other hand but you aren’t told they weigh the same, you will sense the smaller ball of yarn as weighing more. Your knowledge alters what you’re sensing.”

In the military world, it wasn’t uncommon to develop weapons that secretly provided unseen stimuli.

For example, a handheld laser weapon that damaged the human eye from a distance or an acoustic weapon that induced psychological changes through long-term exposure to ultrasound or high pressure. Chemical weapons were the same. The tear gas and vomiting gas used to neutralize rioters could be viewed as weapons using taste and smell. Even stun guns and the like could apply in the sense that they applied an extreme tactile or pain stimulus.

The Information Alliance had taken that a step further.

They had increased the specs until their weapon could summon a “ghost” to the battlefield.

“People can’t fight data inputted through the ‘subconscious perception’ created when their body’s structure is at odds with their mental map of their senses. You should at least be able to imprint them with an idea more effectively than subliminal messaging which may not work at all.”

“They use stimulus signals the human mind can’t classify? That’s cheating worse than using a cryptid.”

“Probably why they call it a ghost.”

“But how does that connect to that man’s conspiracy?” Elina let out a white breath and looked up at Quenser. “Sladder Honeysuckle, I mean. Didn’t you say he was held in a Legitimacy Kingdom special prison? How could he be involved in an Information Alliance secret weapon?”

“…”

Quenser did not answer.

They were approaching the signal.

This would be checkmate if they found Sladder constricted by the belts and giving off this GPS signal, but Quenser doubted mechanical security would work against such a skilled engineer.

The odds were slim.

(Sladder was under constant surveillance just like the other prisoners. He only had freedom after shoving me off the cliff and before I hit my radio’s switch.)

When Quenser had fallen into the ravine, Sladder had looked like a ghost with a melting face, but that didn’t necessarily mean Sladder had seen the same thing when looking at him. Quenser had only heard the man shout “monster”.

It was always possible he had been entirely rational and shoved the boy while hiding a smile.

(He couldn’t have had more than half an hour. That isn’t enough time for specialty work, especially in an old-growth forest without any tools.)

He may not have slipped his restraints until Quenser’s signal reached him. So even if he had escaped, he couldn’t have gone far. Quenser was certain he could find the man by looking for a silhouette covered in glow-in-the-dark paint or following the footsteps that smelled of the tracking scent.

He was right about that.

In a manner of speaking, anyway.

The snow right next to Quenser was blown away shortly before he heard a pleasant gunshot.

Quenser immediately picked up the genius girl and rushed behind a nearby tree. That gunshot had not come from a small self-defense handgun. Sladder must have stolen a sniper rifle from a dead soldier.

And that specialized gear had worked against him.

Sladder hadn’t needed to give a warning shot there, so that meant his shot had been blown off course by a crosswind. Sladder Honeysuckle, leader of the Mass Driver Conglomerate, was a master strategist who had set a global conspiracy in motion, but he had never been all that great a shot. At the end of the Break Carrier battle, he had fired a handgun several times at close range and still failed to kill an amateur like Quenser.

Quenser brought his radio to his mouth while hiding behind the tree.

He didn’t know if that sniper rifle was Legitimacy Kingdom or Information Alliance, but surely Sladder had stolen a communicator too. He chose to send an unencrypted signal across all bands.

“Sladder!! I know more or less what it is you’re trying to do here. …Yeah, you were originally planning to defect from the Capitalist Corporations to the Information Alliance, using your precious mass driver tech to get them interested. But we stopped you and you were thrown into a Legitimacy Kingdom prison instead. You’re upset your deal never went through, aren’t you? It’s only natural you would try to join the Information Alliance if you had the chance!!”

There was no response, so Quenser continued on his own.

“You were the first to notice when we were surrounded by Unit X at the log cabin, but you didn’t warn us and held your tongue to get us captured.”

HO v19 BW7.png

Was Sladder afraid Quenser would trace the signal to locate him if he responded?

“When the Retro Gunner attacked Elina’s cabin, Azureyfear said she captured our ‘scrawny scientist’ when you were trying to head off on your own. You were hoping to slip away in the confusion, meet up with the Information Alliance, and complete your defection, weren’t you?”

Quenser took the splinters of a tree branch that broken underfoot, shoved them into a small piece of Hand Axe, and threw it in a random direction. He detonated it with his radio, spreading flames and smoke around.

The darkness was swept away, revealing their positions to each other.

They were 200m apart.

The silhouette visible through the snowy curtain revealed that Sladder still had the chain around his ankles, but he had removed the belts and handcuffs. That explained how he could use the sniper rifle.

But that also meant he hadn’t had enough time to remove the chain. He had stopped working after noticing Quenser and Elina approaching. Things were not progressing according to plan for him, which Quenser counted as a win.

There was no more point in hiding his position, so static ran through Quenser’s radio.

“What are you hoping to accomplish with this conversation?”

“What happened to Azureyfear?”

“I shot her.”

Quenser clenched his teeth hard enough to cause an odd sound from his back teeth.

200m apart was midrange, putting them just out of handgun range for a professional soldier. That was too far for Quenser’s throwing arm to get a bomb to Sladder.

But what about Sladder?

Quenser could only hope Sladder could not draw on the sniper rifle’s full specs using the multipurpose scope that made use of several sensors and lenses.

“After I used the ghost panic to shove you two into the ravine, it was only us two prisoners left at the top. If I told her how to remove her restraints, I thought for sure she would leap at the opportunity, but it turns out Azureyfear Winchell is the type of prisoner who still finds value in belonging to the Legitimacy Kingdom. She was in my way, so I had to dispose of her. But to be frank, I only won by pure luck.”

Of course he did.

Azureyfear was an expert sniper who was more comfortable wielding an anti-materiel rifle than a tennis racket and she had forced herself to board an Object despite not being a Pilot Elite. She was like a beautiful manifestation of war. Sladder never would have stood a chance in a fair firefight.

Which meant he had not fought fair. He would only need a momentary opening. Some kind of dirty trick that would get her to pause.

“She is obsessed with that brother of hers, so I only had to tell her I could remotely detonate the lithium battery of the mobile device in his breast pocket. Such a silly bluff and she still fell for it. Frankly, I was flabbergasted it bought me two whole seconds.”

“Sladder…”

“Technology is to be used. Anyone who lets it use them has no future. You should know that as a future engineer yourself.”

“You’re not using it; you’re abusing it. You’re a disgrace to the field of engineering.”

Now Quenser had a reason to kill him.

That just left finding a way to do so. Fortunately, he had an idea already.

Elina’s small hand tugged on his coat.

“Is Sladder Honeysuckle really behind this war using the Ghost Changer? But how? I understand why he would want to defect, but how could he have been involved in an Information Alliance secret weapon while in prison?”

“You can make a good guess, can’t you?” said Sladder.

“Your cell had a window. I believe you said the combination of the damp, cracked wall and the sunlight allowed some small flowers to grow,” said Quenser. “And one barred window is all you would need to exchange information and materials with a flying drone. You drew up the plans in your cell, folded up the paper, and handed it over to the Information Alliance drone. And thus the Ghost Changer was born. That’s how the add-on weapon built by the Information Alliance was really a toy created to help you break out of prison. Isn’t that right?”

“Well done.”

Sladder was not remotely shaken.

He was creepier than a vengeful ghost.

“Zero-g life leads to hallucinations. When people are thrown out into the vacuum of space wearing a perfectly sealed spacesuit, they can still panic after thinking they smell the burning grease from a nearby wire.

“So you had already planned for the 37th to be involved?”

“Yes, but I couldn’t be certain it would happen. That was more the result of coincidence than a plan. I had predicted the 37th would be involved to an extent, but I never really cared about Elina Silverbullet. Any battlefield would have worked as long as the Ghost Changer was there.”

The focus of this entire battle had been a lie.

All the death and destruction was a great vortex spiraling around Sladder, not Elina. And once you knew the truth, so much clicked into place.

“The Legitimacy Kingdom wanted as much help as they could get to fight back against the mysterious Ghost Changer, but they did not want to kill off their own valuable scientists and engineers,” said Sladder. “It wasn’t hard to predict they would choose to use any foreign prisoners with a PhD.”

“Which is why the Ghost Changer didn’t just attack the Legitimacy Kingdom. Your jailbreak was the primary goal, so if the Information Alliance here interfered with that, you were willing to sacrifice them as well.”

“I may have given them too sweet a prize up front. The Information Alliance decided protecting the Ghost Changer’s secret was more important than securing my intellect. The fools should have known that was only a sideshow before the main event. I swear this world just will not let me research mass drivers in peace.”

“So,” cut in Quenser.

He had seen a radio thrown to the floor and a flare gun buried in the snow, but who was it the soldiers had been trying unsuccessfully to contact?

“The first one to be driven mad by the Ghost Changer was the Retro Gunner’s Pilot Elite, wasn’t it? The truth of this battle was no different from the one in the Hornos District: friendly fire.”

They had seen so many crushed, mutilated, and burned Legitimacy Kingdom corpses.

Normal flames couldn’t do that. Turning a corpse to wax apparently required spending months or even years below the thick snow.

The mincemeat on the rock and organs in the tree had not frozen in the -15 degree weather, so they had concluded something had creeped up disturbingly close by without any of them noticing.

The ghost of the Tunguska District could defy the laws of physics to kill and even steal away the passage of time.

So did that mean no one could explain what had happened there?

“Don’t make me laugh. You can make wax with fat and hydrogenated oil. It can be industrially created. You don’t need to spend months cut off from all oxygen. For example, the human body will absorb the hydrogen from the air and turn to wax when under around a million atmospheres of pressure.”

“Oh,” gasped Elina.

“An Object cannon can do that easily enough. The metal shell fired by a railgun or coilgun will kill you instantly even if it doesn’t directly hit you. The thick wall of air creates a massive amount of pressure, so the corpse isn’t going to be in a pretty state. That carbonized corpse may have been considerably shorter than the poor bastard was in life.”

“B-but we would have noticed if the Retro Gunner had fired!” protested Elina. “The bodies there hadn’t frozen, but a wet towel will freeze solid in less than a minute outside.”

“Elina, I’m sure you run into wild animals living out here in the mountains, but have you ever held a tranquilizer gun?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“The ones that don’t use a needle apply great pressure to the target’s skin with a gas so they will absorb the liquid tranquilizer. And there are plenty of liquids found in nature that don’t freeze even at 15 below. For a close-to-home example, tea seed oil’s freezing point is about 20 below. Now I wish I’d brought that plant guide we found in the Information Alliance maintenance base. I’m sure there are other examples in the conifer trees around here.”

“Wait…high pressure?”

“The Object shell landed near the soldier, hitting them with a shockwave and sending plant sap and juices piercing into their body. Once their body is full of a liquid with a lower freezing point, their corpse and organs won’t freeze even at 15 below. Those Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers were killed and splattered across the area well before we arrived, but the high-pressure injection made their flesh and blood ‘hard to freeze’, so they still hadn’t frozen when we got there. That’s all there was to it. We didn’t find a crater either, but I’m guessing the blizzard had just covered it up. It wasn’t birds of prey that carried the organs into the tree branches, nor was it a ghost. An Object blast splattered them, sending their organs into the air.”

No time had been stolen. The wax corpse and the unfrozen organs could all be explained with the high pressures caused by a railgun.

At the time, Sladder had repeatedly rejected every idea anyone came up with.

He had pretended to be offering his expertise, but he had really been nipping all of Quenser’s ideas in the bud. He kept hinting at the alternative theories behind the Tunguska event, but he had never provided anything solid. Almost like he was intentionally sowing confusion and panic to more easily control the situation.

That led to another answer.

What had caused the other slaughter at the Information Alliance maintenance base zone?

“We never even needed to consider the old Tunguska event legend. They were blown away by railguns and roasted by laser beams when the Retro Gunner went nuts. Friendly fire explains it all.”

“Friendly fire?” parroted the 9-year-old girl in disbelief. “But the Ghost Changer was a special grease that intentionally grinded and burnt out the Object’s joints to create a subtle smell, right? The Object’s cockpit is airtight, so how could the smell reach the pilot!?”

“Elina, do you detect a rusty odor?”

“Eh? …N-now that you mention it. But of course I do after all the lives that were lost around here.”

“I see. But that smell isn’t real. There are no corpses or bloodstains here.”

Her shock was understandable, but it was true.

“Our sense of smell is easily influenced by our imagination. The idea of blood smelling rusty is only an imaginary link between the color red and rust. There is iron in blood, but that isn’t the same as rust and there isn’t enough of it to detect a smell anyway. Well, at least it’s a more plausible idea than trying to take a ‘blood-curdling scream’ literally. Besides, how often do you even smell rust in your everyday life? The grease’s scent didn’t actually need to reach the cockpit. As long as the Elite saw it, knew what it was supposed to do, and could imagine it vividly enough, they would ‘smell it’ just like that rusty smell you noticed just now.”

Explaining the weapon to the Pilot Elite operating it had made the problem even worse.

In a way, that was more frightening than the actual chemical substance used for the Ghost Changer. You would need the kind of detailed personal data only found through counseling or profiling and your method would need to be finetuned for the individual, but that would create a verbal weapon that truly left no evidence behind. If Sladder Honeysuckle had focused on assassinating VIPs instead of direct warfare, he might have transformed into a ghost capable of always destroying his target.

“Breaking down the established theory, huh? You sure love doing that. But don’t forget that an Object is full of communications equipment. Sladder, I don’t know whose corpse you stole that gear from, but the Retro Gunner would have picked up your transmissions if you pretended to be Information Alliance. That means you could have pushed the Pilot Elite to their psychological limits by making up some phony report.”

What you could do and what you wanted to do were not the same thing.

That had always been what made this genius suffer so much.

“So what now?” asked Sladder. “Did you think I was going to give up on life and throw myself from the cliff now that you had revealed my trick? The battle only truly begins once the threat has been identified and that is what my sniper rifle is for.”

“There is no escape for you.”

“Quenser Barbotage. I am well aware of your specs.”

“…”

“And you have no means of killing me from a range of 200m. Are you going to stuff explosives in a metal tube to build a mortar? Or are you going to load a plastic explosive on a large bottle rocket? Or perhaps apply a thin layer of explosives to the inside of parabolic antenna to build a directional mine?”

The boy clicked his tongue. He hated to admit it, but that man was the better engineer. Quenser was only a designer in training while Sladder was a top-rate professional.

“You can’t do it. If you were alone, you may have attempted a reckless last-ditch effort, but you can’t bring yourself to attempt a risky adlibbed weapon with that 9-year-old girl with you. None of that has been on the table ever since Elina Silverbullet entered the picture. And when safe and reliable options are all you have left, you are no more than an amateur. …Thus, I can shoot you from a position of safety. And I will if you insist on standing in the way of my mass driver research.”

“Is that so?” Quenser smiled in self-deprecation while pressed against the backside of the tree. Sladder was exactly right on all counts. “I get using the confusion to fake your death and leave the battlefield. With so many mutilated corpses, no one’s going to bother to identify them all. But what are you going to do about the Retro Gunner? If the Pilot Elite is still running wild after seeing the ghost, you could always be killed. Not even your genius plotting can do anything about that. And the odds of it happening seem greater than being struck by lightning while outdoors.”

“Why would I tell you that?”

“So you do have some trick keeping it from attacking you.”

Steal that and they could settle things with the Retro Gunner. Carrying a trump card that kept the Object from attacking would allow the Legitimacy Kingdom to go on the attack without fearing the old First Generation.

That meant Quenser’s top priority was Sladder Honeysuckle who had all the answers.

He had to kill that man to pave the way for everything else.

“By the way, Sladder, didn’t you say you shot Azureyfear Winchell since she was in the way of your jailbreak?”

“I did say that.”

“And you said you used a silly bluff to kill her since she was so much more skilled than you. You said you got that sister to freeze up for just a moment because you lied about detonating the mobile device by Heivia’s chest.”

“Yes, and?”

“Here’s the thing.” Quenser kept his tone light while he held Elina close and pressed his back against the tree. “You seem to be getting a hard-on over how badly you outplayed everyone, but I haven’t encrypted this radio. Every radio on both sides can read this signal. And, Sladder, you seem to think you played a perfect game using both sides to your advantage, but was your control of the board really as flawless as you thought?”

“?”

“So.”

This was war.

Had Sladder really thought Quenser’s actions here were entirely meaningless?

“What do you think is going to happen to you if the very-much-alive Big Bro Heivia and your own sister Louisiana hear all this and track you down using your GPS signal?”

Sladder Honeysuckle unnaturally crumpled to the ground before Quenser even heard the gunshot.

It took a moment before the sound of bursting explosives arrived from the side.

This kind of dirty war really was more Heivia’s thing. Sladder had missed while using a sniper rifle packed full of sensors, but Heivia had accurately shot right through his target’s thigh during a snowy night. He would only have been able to see silhouettes through the snow, but he could identify his target from the sniper rifle Sladder himself had said he had.

The mass driver engineer’s strong will could be seen in how he refused to let go of the sniper rifle even now.

But then his hand and the sniper rifle’s grip were destroyed by another shot.

He curled up in agony on the snow while someone else trudged toward him. It was Louisiana holding her small self-defense handgun.

“You absolute disgrace!! Using your tech for the public good is the bare minimum required of a genius to avoid being labeled an eccentric. But you sold it off for your personal gain, so you don’t even deserve to live!!”

“Heivia, restrain her! We can’t kill him yet! He still has a countermeasure against the Retro Gunner!!”

While Sladder had tried to build a mass driver for his own purposes, Louisiana had constructed her space elevator to protect everyone on the earth.

Quenser didn’t need to hide any longer.

He was still on the lookout for mines or bombs buried in the snow, but he doubted Sladder would have stuck with the sniper rifle then. Sladder was a strategist. If he had plenty of mines around him, he would have rolled around in pain after the initial shot to the leg, luring Heivia in to step on one of the mines.

He didn’t need any help to stop the bleeding.

At 15 below, his bloody wound would freeze on its own.

Quenser, Heivia, Louisiana, and Elina – the survivors of the ghost panic – surrounded him and he weakly looked up at them with a bullet hole in his hand and leg.

“There is an antidote.”

“I thought as much. The sense of smell is said to be 20 thousand times more powerful than taste, but it’s also very delicate since mixing different compounds easily changes their nature entirely. Perfume and artificial fragrances would be the best examples of that. …You couldn’t let yourself be affected by the ghost while out here, but you weren’t wearing a gasmask or a hazmat suit to cover all your skin. That meant you must have another chemical compound that negates its effects.”

For the Retro Gunner, it might be even simpler. The Elite was only imaging the smell due to their knowledge of the Ghost Changer, so tearing down that mental image would be enough to bring them back under control.

Quenser crouched down and stuck his hand in the neck of Sladder’s prisoner uniform. He tore something away. The man had worn it around his neck like a good-luck charm, but it actually contained a mixture of a few herbal leaves and flower petals.

Hadn’t he said some small flowers grew in his prison cell?

The human nose couldn’t detect it, but it wasn’t meant to be smelled with the nose.

“A sachet, huh? Pretty romantic, but it doesn’t suit you at all.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. All engineers should be romantics. Even if no one else understands them.”

Quenser could never agree with that.

Maybe this man was the ultimate form of a designer, but he had gone in a different direction than the boy was interested in.

“What will you do with me now?”

“I don’t know and frankly I don’t care what happens to you,” said Quenser, slowly straightening his knees to stand up. Almost like he had lost interest in Sladder. “So I’m going to make a bet with you. And I promise you, I will accept either outcome.”

“?”

“If.”

Quenser brought his usual radio to his mouth. But who was he talking to? His plan to use an unencrypted signal to share information with Heivia and Louisiana had already paid off.

But Quenser was definitely speaking to someone other than Sladder.

“If you really are dead, then no one will deliver a killing blow to Sladder. But if you aren’t quite dead, then I’d say you have a right to revenge. So it’s your choice. I will leave this all up to fate.”

Sladder seemed to finally understand what this was about.

Quenser and Heivia turned their backs on the villain. Louisiana proved to be surprisingly kindhearted since she gently covered Elina’s eyes. She looked back toward her brother just once, but her duty as a researcher must have won out. She tore her gaze from him and followed the potatoes with Elina.

And Quenser, Heivia, and Louisiana spoke in unison.

“My money is on Azureyfear being alive.”

Wherever she had heard them from, an anti-materiel rifle fired in the distance and a life was snuffed out faster than the speed of sound.

Part 12[edit]

“The Information Alliance’s Retro Gunner has sent the white flag signal. The pilot must have regained enough of their senses to realize they destroyed their own maintenance base.”

“I see,” replied Frolaytia when the electronic simulation division operator gave that report. Their “verbal countermeasure” had actually worked. Although the end of Sladder’s interference may have been what really mattered. “What about the Ghost Changer?”

“Did you not read the old maintenance lady’s report? The joints have completely burned out, so we can’t extract and analyze any of the special grease. That was probably their last way to resist before surrendering.”

“…Probably for the best.”

Even if there was an antidote, the rules of war would finally collapse altogether if the Legitimacy Kingdom copied that weapon and every side started using it against each other.

Losses had been heavy this time.

If Elina Silverbullet’s claim was accurate, then the 37th had been sent to an unwinnable war solely to kill both Louisiana and Elina. And all four world powers had been behind that decision. That meant Frolaytia’s 37th Mobile Maintenance Battalion had been stabbed in the back by the Legitimacy Kingdom.

(They want to eliminate anyone who questions the clean wars. In that case, they might see the 37th as a target too.)

Being so stupidly honest in the report she had sent to her higher ups weighed heavy on her now. Doing her job properly had only made things worse. Apparently, she was a little too used to her role as a civil servant.

But if they were a target, there were ways of using that.

At the very least, she had to consider it a good thing that she had confirmation and wouldn’t be foolishly attacking her higher ups based on delusions or misplaced frustration.

The next step was to counterattack.

Frolaytia Capistrano was not obedient enough to just accept this situation and die needlessly.

“Quenser. Heivia too. I want to corroborate Elina Silverbullet’s claim. You were there, so I want your help.”

“What exactly do you want?”

“First, tell me about Unit X at the log cabin. Elina says they were former Faith Organization soldiers. As you could guess from the Capitalist Corporations sniper rifles – and the winning Technopics model at that – they’re an illegal organization that needs to hide its identity. They call themselves a mercenary company, but there is no real word for them other than terrorists. They were kicked out of the military for promoting the theory that Objects are destroying the environment, so they plotted this mission to have their revenge.”

Frolaytia could not hide her irritation and gnawed on the mouth of her kiseru. She hadn’t known what she was doing when she submitted that report, but she felt like she was viewing the future of her own battalion.

However, there was one crucial difference between the 37th and Unit X.

Quenser picked up the explanation for her.

“Unit X used to be the Electric Drills, an unofficial internal auditing division of the Faith Organization military. They would correct any misdeeds discovered in the military and ‘drill holes’ in the figurative rotting walls…but their name is suspiciously similar to the Chain Cutters who caused us so much trouble in the Legitimacy Kingdom. I didn’t notice it before since they were only working behind the scenes.”

“That’s probably how they do things,” said Heivia. “X has secured forces all around the world to fight back against the joint will of the four world powers, but they don’t train up their own soldiers and send them in undercover. They remotely corrupt a unit that’s already established in enemy territory and reeducate them. They’re online terrorists. As long as they’re clever with words, they can inject their ideology in people and gain an endless supply of active-duty soldiers, so they can gain a top-rate fighting force a lot cheaper and faster than building their own training ground and training their own professionals there. They can also skip the process of sneaking their people into the enemy country and setting up fake identities and lives for them. …The Electric Drills were just one such group that was discovered in Faith Organization territory and had to leave.”

The Chain Cutters had readily attacked civilian doctors to cut off the shipping routes. That might seem horrific at first, but they may have had their own justification for it. Maybe they thought it was necessary to cut off the supplies and thus end all Object activity in an area with a vulnerable tectonic plate.

Not that it mattered.

Not even the greatest justification would bring the dead civilians back to life.

Frolaytia breathed out some sweet smoke.

“X. Or as they’re also known, Bad Garage,” she said.

“They apparently contacted Elina because they wanted scientific backing of their claims,” said Quenser. “The environmental destruction by Objects theory can still be found in certain corners of the internet, but someone out there has been ensuring it’s only seen as some crackpot theory. So Elina said they wanted to ‘rebut the rebuttal’ with actual numerical data and a scientific paper to back them up.”

“Would the world powers really just give up after that? Like with the Chain Cutters and Electric Drills, Bad Garage had infiltrated the militaries to set up their own people in enemy territory, so they were clearly planning something bigger than that.”

With that, their busty silver-haired commander tossed an investigation report from the intelligence division onto the table and fanned out the pages.

“This is what the criminal underworld has been up to lately. There’s the usual best sellers like drugs, weapons, and slaves, but something curious has jumped to the top of the list: counterfeit IDs. Some idiots have been buying up a massive amount of top-quality counterfeits at the asking price. They’ll be entering the country as museum curators in the name of restoring damaged artwork.”

“Are you saying we know Bad Garage’s next target?”

“They made a mistake trying to enter the country disguised as a group of government workers. Citizen’s groups always go over government spending with a fine-toothed comb and government workers wouldn’t split their group up over different trains and cars. That would have raised some alarm bells. So the key to all of this is a large bus belonging to Zodiac Tourism.”

“So you’re saying we just have to track the bus they rented in order to disguise themselves?”

“Exactly. They must want to show as many people as possible that the Objects really are destroying the earth’s environment. And if possible, they want to ensure not even a joint effort by the four world powers can cover it up.” Frolaytia spoke in a singsong voice as she looked ahead to the next battlefield. “So their best bet is to deliver a devastating blow to the world powers in the process.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? I can’t imagine I’ll like the answer.”

If having a bad feeling come true made you a prophet, then the entire human race was made up of prophets.

So Heivia’s displeased look was answered with a nod from Frolaytia.

“The Tiber District. Rome.”

“…”

“Needless to say, that is the Faith Organization’s home country. If a devastating disaster hits that densely-populated city where you can’t take two steps without running into a cross, the people will have no choice but to believe in the environmental destruction by Objects theory, the higher ups won’t be able to cover it up any longer, and the collusion between the world powers will be torn to shreds. …No phrase has torn apart friendships more than this one: why should I be the only one to suffer?”

Intermission[edit]

Once the ingredients arrived, the rest was easy.

The process was not all that difficult.

“Hm, hm, hm, hm.”

The Princess hummed quietly to herself while she worked.

The Pilot Elite living quarters were kept separate from the general barracks. She had a bathroom, bath, and kitchen here. But she had never been picky about food, so she had mostly just used the freezer and microwave.

But today she had courageously chosen to take a step outside her comfort zone.

The recipe sites had all tried to scare her by talking about how difficult the process of double boiling was for homemade chocolate, but she had discovered they made a convenient product that did it for you. It looked like one bowl sitting inside another and you only had to pour water in between the two bowls and plug it in. Then the heating element would heat the water to the perfect temperature. It was a cheap-looking set made of plastic which reminded her of a hand crank ice cream maker. It looked kind of childish, but when there was a safe and easy walking path up the mountain, there was no need to grab your ice axe and scale the sheer rock face.

Three cheers for online shopping.

She had pretty much everything she might need, from the ingredients to the tools.

She couldn’t believe the package had arrived on the designated day way out here in the remote Tunguska District of Siberia. The delivery man’s dedication to his work was truly impressive.

(I arbitrarily decided on chocolate ice cream, but is that really the best choice?)

She thought on that for a while, but that was just one of her many ideas. It wasn’t something she had dedicated herself to doing.

In the Island Nation, it was apparently important to give a present of chocolate on February 14.

She had lost a lot of allies during the battle against the Retro Gunner…or against the Ghost Changer really. But it wasn’t the 37th’s style to let that get you down. Mourning the dead was fine, but carrying that weight around would only get you killed as well. So to keep yourself in top mental condition, it was important to enjoy some cheerful events during difficult times.

The double boiling set had come with a few different molds. The heart shape was too embarrassing for her, but the square made it look too much like a piece of an industrial chocolate bar, which brought into question why she had bothered making her own. She expressionlessly groaned in thought before grabbing one of the plastic molds. It was an ordinary circular one, but it looked vaguely Object-ish to her.

Cuteness was all about curves.

Chicks and kittens were mostly round.

“Quenser is always breathing heavily when he stares at the Baby Magnum, so he must like round things too.”

While guessing at his tastes on a level as generalized as “do you prefer the north pole or the south pole”, she placed the chocolate-filled mold in the fridge. According to the manual she had found by scanning the 2D code into her mobile device, the device was made to cool the contents to the entered temperature as efficiently as possible.

It would take time for the chocolate to fully harden.

She had prepared a few different types of wrapping paper and ribbons, but the different combinations would provide very different impressions. She could use this time to think through all of them one by one.

She felt like she was making good use of the limited free time she was given between missions.

(I should go check on Quenser. That might give me a hint for the wrapping.)

That sounded like a good idea to her.

So Milinda Brantini exhaled through her shapely nose and left her special living quarters.

However.

She came to a stop in one corner of the maintenance base.

She hung her head all alone as she heard the words spoken on the other side of the door.

“The environmental destruction by Objects theory can still be found in certain corners of the internet.”

The words were spoken by Quenser Barbotage of all people.

Intentionally or not, he had never mentioned that topic when she was around. Now that kindness stabbed cruelly into her like a knife.

Yes.

That meant the theory had to be true.

“But someone out there has been ensuring it’s only seen as some crackpot theory. So Elina said they wanted to ‘rebut the rebuttal’ with actual numerical data and a scientific paper to back them up.”

Her entire life was built on a lie.

That harmful lie was the only thing giving her a place in this world.

“…”

She stood there thinking.

She bit her lip.

And she silently slipped away.


Chapter 3: The Shattering of the Four-Way Deception >> Tiber District Intervention to Defend the Faith Organization Home Country[edit]

Part 1[edit]

It was February and the carnival gave them a leg up. The Faith Organization home country was usually strictly guarded, but at this time of year they had no choice but to throw open their gates and invite in a great crowd of tourists.

This was much appreciated by those plotting to sneak in and cause trouble.

“Okay, let’s do one final check using this board game, Putana.”

“Yes, teacher.”

A cramped room was surrounded on all sides by windowless metal walls. The light hanging from the low ceiling illuminated a brown girl with her long black hair in a ponytail. She wore a green special suit designed to resemble a nurse outfit.

Her name was Putana Highball.

She had been the Pilot Elite for the Faith Organization’s Second Generation Collective Farming and she had converted her scopophobia into a weapon. She was a true monster that sense any “eyes” on her to the point that she could accurately detect a military satellite’s attention from 36 thousand kilometers away.

She had since joined the Legitimacy Kingdom.

The 37th’s potatoes could not have asked for a better local guide.

Quenser, Heivia, Myonri, and Putana sat around a table where a few game pieces sat atop a paper map.

“The former Legitimacy Kingdom thugs known as the Electric Drills have infiltrated their old home country of Rome to have revenge. That holy land contains all the higher ups who kicked them out, so I’m sure they want to go absolutely nuts. We must stop whatever war it is they’re trying to start, so we need to get into Rome too. Without permission, of course. To be blunt, we know we can’t expect the Faith Organization to protect itself after they let those thugs in.”

“U-um.” Jack-of-all-trades Myonri nervously raised her hand. “So these…Electric Drills? We know they have entered Rome, but what are they trying to do there? Not even the best fake IDs would let them sneak a 50m Object into their home country.”

Quenser shrugged.

If they had all the answers, they could have stopped that shady group before they even got to Rome. The Legitimacy Kingdom was playing catch up because they had already lost on the intelligence front.

So they needed to make up for that and get ahead of their enemy.

Heivia tossed a few photos onto the map.

“Episcia Sweetlady. Sex: Male. Age: 29. The moron was captured on a livestream of the parade, so he’s the only Electric Drill we know is in Rome. We have to capture him and get him to talk before they do whatever it is they’re planning. That’s Step 1 for us.”

The delinquent noble was not done there.

In fact, he was only getting started.

“But that isn’t the end of it. The Electric Drills – or really, Bad Garage who leads all those online terrorists – wants to prove their environmental destruction by Objects theory. They want a disaster so bad not even the joint efforts of the four world powers can cover it up.”

“So whatever those thugs are up to in Rome, an Object will be involved at some point. We don’t know how yet, but it will happen.”

“You must be joking, teacher. Rome is a home country with more than 2 million permanent residents.”

“Yeah, and that number goes past 10 million when you include the visitors for February’s carnival. We can’t let an Object rampage through such a densely populated area, so we can’t just chase after the Electric Drills. We need to get ahead of them and stop them. For good. Putana, can you guide us through Rome? Even if the place is flooded with tourists right now, we want to keep a low profile by avoiding any Faith Organization taboos.”

“Of course.”

“That’s all I needed to hear. Let’s get started.”

With that, they approached the double doors at the back of the room and threw them open.

The sunlight that rushed in was so bright it seemed to burn their retinas.

They were greeted by the deep tones of several church bells ringing at once.

They stepped out into a historical city of white stone walls and brick roads. Even the traffic light poles and wireless LAN antennae had been colored to look ancient. The densely-populated area was like a massive open-air museum where every house and store you found was registered as a world heritage site.

This was the Faith Organization’s Tiber District.

This was their home country of Rome.

Quenser and the others had changed into down jackets and comfortable pants and they carried traveling backpacks because they weren’t just in enemy territory – they were in the enemy’s home country. The “room” they had just left was the long metal container on the back of a large truck parked on the curb.

Heivia, who was carrying a thin knapsack sold as a reusable shopping bag over his shoulder, did a double take at the young man who walked past him.

“God damn, that’s Rome for you. The guy’s listening to a hymn on his phone. Is there a monthly subscription to listen to as many of them as you want?”

“They live in the modern world too. More technology doesn’t mean you have to get rid of your faith. Didn’t you know phone map apps have a service where they route you through as many church pilgrimage spots as your schedule permits? There is also an AR app that lets you hold up your phone and watch the construction of Rome in fast-forward. Also, try to talk like a Faith Organization person. Avoiding ‘god damn’ would be a good start.”

“Hey, war entertainment is supposed to be our thing in the Legitimacy Kingdom.”

“Who various legends and myths belong to is a can of worms you do not want to open. Do you have any idea how many tons of relics there are out there claiming to be part of the Buddha’s remains? Or how many lances out there are purported to be the original Lance of Longinus? Roman mythology adopted so much from the Greek gods that no one remembers what it was like originally. One look at the big picture tells you it can’t all be true, but every temple, church, and shrine out there insists that they have the truth.”

The potatoes knocked on the door to the driver’s compartment to greet Millia Newburg of the intelligence division before they calmly joined the crowd of tourists. From here on, they would be following the guidance of Putana Highball who knew the Faith Organization’s local rules by heart.

“Hey, Quenser,” said Heivia. “I could have sworn we were with the Legitimacy Kingdom. I know we’re here on that busty commander’s orders, but why the hell do we need to stop this? If the Faith Organization is going to more or less destroy itself, why not sit back and enjoy the show?”

“How is a noble so ignorant of politics and war? If an enemy home country suddenly falls, the balance between the world powers goes out the window. And the distinction between safe country and battlefield country goes with it. Then we could end up with a chaotic all-you-can-eat buffet of a world war. The Legitimacy Kingdom doesn’t want that. Have you checked how close Rome is to Paris on the globe lately? We’re right next to each other. We don’t want a ton of refugees crossing the Alps to reach us and we definitely don’t want to be the Faith Organization’s easiest target when they start lashing out for revenge. So we have to stop this to preserve the peace.”

With so many people, the tourism business was booming. The street sides were lined with stalls selling skewers of meat or red wine. This was the February carnival, so eating, drinking, dancing, and wearing costumes was the standard set. A marching band and floats covered in decorative lights formed a parade down a blocked-off road. The carnival here didn’t feature the samba and bikinis, but it was no less showy.

“Come on, Necleka, Eleanor. The concert hall is this way, so let’s go get a photo there!”

Heivia whispered while stepping out of the way of a fried shrimp in glasses leading a pair of twin girls.

“Oh, god. It’s her. No one look to two o’clock. It’s Sarasa Gleamshifter. Those Valkyries are the divine punishment group of the Faith Organization police, so they really stand out in the crowd.”

A woman with short blonde hair and cold eyes wore a skintight black combat suit. The parts worn over it likely provided some kind of muscular support, but they looked more like sexy underwear. This was the Valkyries’ home, so they had no need to hide their gear. She was armed with a short-range sniper rifle designed for use on urban criminals. (Instead of shooting an enemy soldier through the head at ultra-long range, it was designed to accurately shoot a criminal and not their hostage at much closer range.) Her presence may have been meant to show security was tight and they would not hesitate to shoot anyone who took the festivities too far.

Sarasa had not made a mistake. Heivia had only really noticed her so soon because he already knew her. Otherwise, he might not have noticed even if she was right behind them.

But that meant they needed to be careful too.

There was always a chance she would notice their familiar faces in the same way.

Putana led them through the crowd, taking a gentle turn to avoid being seen by Sarasa.

They walked through the ancient city at a casual pace while making sure not to bump into any of the passersby. No one questioned their presence here…not even the man who checked to see if he was being followed so frequently it only drew attention to him.

Putana stared at the man’s back and whispered without moving her lips.

“Episcia Sweetlady sighted. Don’t worry. His eyes are passing right over us. We have entered his field of vision several times, but he still hasn’t noticed us.”

“Even a civilian could tell this guy’s bad at his job, so you focus more on seeing if any cameras or drones have their ‘eyes’ on us. I’m more worried about the random tourists than the security at fixed locations and on fixed patrol routes, so let’s make our move when the tourists thin out.”

After gently toppling a pile of trash to keep ordinary people from following, spreading out some leftover food to distract any animals, and turning the corner into a dark, narrow street, the brown girl gave the signal. Their quarry didn’t even notice the sound of the trash.

“We’re good. No one is watching. This is a blind spot.”

“No Valkyries?”

“None.”

“You’re up, Millia.”

With a screech of tires, a large truck cut across the street to block the man’s way and slammed on its brakes. Episcia must have realized something was up because he panicked and tried to turn tail and run, but when he turned around, he found Heivia and Putana had snuck up to him. Those two sent merciless blows into his nose and gut, sending him crumpling to the ground without so much as a scream.

They covered his mouth with duct tape, copied the data from his trackable phone, and threw it out.

“All done,” said Heivia. “Give me a hand, Quenser. We need to load this moron into the back of the truck.”

Part 2[edit]

This had to be what it felt like to run to school with a piece of toast in your mouth.

The Princess was leaning forward inside the cockpit of the Legitimacy Kingdom First Generation Baby Magnum.

She was moving at her max speed of more than 500km/h.

“I’m late.”

“Don’t rush. This is the Faith Organization’s headquarters, so our schedule took into account the likely possibility of a labyrinth of mines and sensors in the ocean. Human error due to rushing is the much greater threat at the moment.”

Frolaytia sounded exasperated in the transmission.

The Princess was trying to enter Rome from the Mediterranean, but there was a problem. Her First Generation was an all-purpose Object capable of most any mission, but its propulsion device used static electricity. It needed to remove its naval floats when moving from sea to land, so the maintenance battalion needed to construct a bridgehead on the coast first.

The Object could resist nukes, but the other ships could not. The maintenance soldiers’ lives would be lost if they hit a moored mine floating in the ocean or triggered a mobile mine that fired a torpedo up from the ocean floor.

So the Princess needed to break through with brute force. She tore the labyrinth apart with her cannons and then used the Object’s own size to trigger the surviving traps, while being careful not to damage the shark anchor that extended into the sea. It was a solution only available to a nuke resistant Object.

And another Object was accompanying her.

The Information Alliance Second Generation was known as the Rush. It was equipped with two rapid-fire beam Gatling cannons, but it was an amphibious air cushion model.

A transmission arrived from its Pilot Elite, the ringlet and G-cups idol known as Oh Ho Ho.

“Ho ho ho, oh ho ho. Hohhh ho ho ho!! I pity you and your ugly low-tech excuse for an Object. Needing to expose your people to danger whenever you need those floats removed sounds like cause to declare it defective, don’t you think? Meanwhile, my Gatling 033 has no need to remove its float. I can charge right up onto land and accept my first place trophy.”

The Princess took a shot with one of her seven main cannons.

The Rush swerved in a sharp S-shape to avoid the low-stability plasma blast and lodged a complaint.

“Dwoh!? A-are you trying to kill me!?”

“I am not receiving a friendly IFF signal, so yes? What are you doing here?”

The Princess sounded casual, but she was actually astounded. She had used the eye movements picked up by her special goggles to make a surprise attack at this close range and that girl had still dodged it. And in a naval battle where the grip with the surface was a lot less stable than on land. Oh Ho Ho seemed like an idiot, but that cutting-edge Information Alliance Object would not be easy to defeat.

But her thoughts were interrupted by dark laughter.

“Oh ho ho. Very well. If you have a death wish, I wouldn’t mind a light warmup exercise before rescuing the Faith Organization home countryyyyy!!”

“Good, keep it up, Princess. Every shot we take here is a waste of tax money, so rile her up and have her clear the mines for us.”

Frolaytia Capistrano made that sound a lot easier than it really was.

Situations like this were perfect for a Gatling-style main cannon’s “shoot enough and you’ll hit them eventually” philosophy. The Princess only had to evade side to side to get the rapid-fire beam weapons to spray out more than 10 thousand shots a minute. Explosions and sizzling steam could be heard everywhere as the spider web of mines was rapidly cleared away.

“So the Information Alliance decided to join the Legitimacy Kingdom on this one?” noted the Princess. “Rome is a lot more loved than I thought.”

“Kh!! How are you still so calm when I’m starting on my third volley!? Oh ho ho. How is this outdated First Generation making a mockery of my high-tech and cutting-edge Gatling 033!?”

“No, please cool your head, my cute little chick! Please realize the Legitimacy Kingdom is using you here!”

If Oh Ho Ho heard that helpful comment from Information Alliance Commander Lendy Farolito, she might actually start to calm down, so the Princess interrupted and spoke over the foreign commander.

“Well, if you’re so sure your technology is superior, then the difference must be in the specs of the Elites. Or are you too stupid for even that simple bit of logic?”

“Kiiiiiii!!!!!!”

The Baby Magnum and the Rush approached the Italian Peninsula while repeatedly swapping positions like they were drawing out the double helix of DNA. All the mines in the way were blown to pieces by Oh Ho Ho’s shots when the Princess skillfully danced out of the way. Their expected landing point was the mouth of the Tiber. Once they held that sandy area, the Princess could have her float replaced and swiftly move inland. With a max speed of more than 500km/h, no one would be able to stop her.

“Do you…” started the Princess before biting her lip.

They were both Pilot Elites, so they would both be rendered obsolete before long.

But was that really true? The Information Alliance’s Oh Ho Ho was an Elite, but she was also a successful G-cup idol. If Objects were eliminated from the world’s battlefields, she might live a glorious life smiling in the spotlight.

She had a way out.

She had a backup plan.

There was a fundamental difference between her and the Princess, who had nothing else.

“What was that? Did you say something? Oh ho ho.”

“It’s nothing… Now, I have to support Quenser and the others who went in ahead of us.”

What happened next was enough to drown out Frolaytia screaming, “What is wrong with you!? That’s classified mission information you’re giving away!”

Simply put, the Princess added to her statement.

“I don’t have time to babysit a little kid like you, so try to behave.”

“Djlahgalgh!? L-l-little kid? How do you know about- ah!?”

“?”

“I, uh, I, uh, I mean no! Forget it! Forget I said that!!! I confirmed nothing!! Oh ho ho! That was merely an insult, calling my personality immature, wasn’t it!? You would say that to anyone you’re upset with, wouldn’t you!? So you didn’t mean anything more by it! Ah ha ha. Eh heh heh. Oh ho ho. Because what else could you possibly mean by it!? I have G-cups and they are very sexy! There is no deception to be uncovered here!!”

“You’re…happy I was insulting you? Gross.”

Part 3[edit]

When you needed an interrogation done, it was best to call the intelligence division.

Quenser called out to the blonde woman wearing a hoodie and thin pants over a bikini.

“Millia, what is that?”

“What, you’ve never seen vegetable oil before, Quenser?”

His point was how she had emptied a huge 5-liter bottle when she was supposed to be getting useful information out of a dangerous terrorist, but she didn’t seem to notice as she exited the back of the truck and tossed the unneeded empty bottle into a big metal trash can. That kind of trash wouldn’t stand out much with all the meat stalls for the carnival. There were also lots of wooden boxes and hunks of dry ice stacked up in disorderly piles. Rome must not have been much for sorting their trash.

“It’s all about experience. If you’re interested, submit a request for POW training and I’ll teach you the hard way that external pain from punches and kicks isn’t the only way to torture someone.”

Quenser vigorously shook his head.

If he went on a secret date with that sexy blonde where she tied him up and kindly taught him some new things about his body, it might just give him some new kinks to deal with. And while Quenser was interested in just about anything kinky, he didn’t want to find he needed to be looking at a cold drill or pair of pliers for the blood to gather in his lower body.

Millia Newburg didn’t seem to care.

“Myonri and Heivia are out shopping, right? Okay, Quenser and Putana. It’s a little early, but I’ll treat you to a progress report.”

“Huh? Shouldn’t we go in the truck to discuss this?”

“Our shoppers aren’t back yet and you two are about to grab something to eat, right? You’d regret it if you stepped inside that sealed container that reeks of ammonia. …Damn, I really should have stopped by a drugstore and bought some diapers even if it would have been a little conspicuous.”

“(What the hell happened in there!?)”

“(Teacher, that container is Pandora’s Box. I recommend heeding her warning.)”

Disgusted Quenser and the ever serious brown girl whispered to each other and Millia joined them with a smile. The three of them placed their arms around each other’s shoulders to form a circle and pressed their foreheads together. Needless to say, they were creating a tiny dome where their bodies hid their lips from any possible lip readers.

A dangerous discussion was held in that wonderful dome of sweet scents and girl breath.

Quenser knew he couldn’t tell Heivia about this.

Millia got things rolling.

“First, I have confirmed the enemy here is from Bad Garage. They’ve given up hiding under the guise of some world power’s special forces or intelligence agents, so we can just follow them directly.”

“That’s good news.” Quenser was truly relived by that. “He’s from the Electric Drills who work for Bad Garage, right? What are they hoping to accomplish by sneaking their entire unit in here with fake IDs? They’re supposedly disguised as museum curators, but I doubt they’re only interested in checking out the city’s art museums.”

“SM-510Gi.”

They were close enough for their faces to look blurry to each other, but Putana clearly frowned in confusion.

“That’s a model number for a vehicle’s electronic lock. A Faith Organization model.”

“You really learned your stuff in Lost Angels, Putana. Specifically, it’s a model used by the partially state-owned Sol & Mani Autos, which makes most Faith Organization military vehicles. The Gi at the end means it belongs to a large cargo model weighing at least 10 tons. Since he had the decoder for one, his job must be to unlock and steal a vehicle like that. Probably 60-70% of the trucks driving in Rome would fit that profile.”

“But why?” asked Quenser mostly on reflex, his forehead still against theirs.

Were they going to steal a truck in the city since they couldn’t get one past the highly-secure front gate? To carry something? But if they sent their people in and stole an empty truck in Rome, they would have no way to load the cargo they had left outside. A 10ton truck could be a deadly weapon in and of itself, but if the Electric Drills saw themselves as professional soldiers, they would have snuck in more convenient weapons like guns or bombs.

However, three seconds passed without a response. Quenser frowned.

“Wait, Millia. Don’t tell me you got a little too ‘carried away’ before getting everything out of him.”

“Non non non!! He was admittedly weaker than I thought and I didn’t expect him to curl up in the fetal position like that, but he isn’t dead! Yes, I got a game over, but I still have a continue left! I’m a pro, remember? I’m offended you don’t trust my skill.”

“Are you sure? You didn’t get overeager and take off a hand or a foot or something?”

“I would never! Cut off something like that and they’re in too much pain to torture properly!”

“Teachers, you’re making the Geneva Convention weep with this conversation.”

Quenser felt Putana’s sweet sigh on his face, but he didn’t have time to enjoy it.

A metallic noise interrupted. He could only compare it to something comical, like a thick wok’s curve being bent the other way. And the side of the truck’s container now had a thumb-sized hole in it.

HO v19 BW8.png

Just as Quenser realized that had been a long-distance sniper shot, Putana and Millia were both tackling him to the ground.

“Hwa ha ha! Am I finally getting the popularity I deserve!? Has the carnival gotten you to open up enough to express how you really feel!?”

“Have you gone insane with panic, teacher!?”

“The opposite, I’d say. What did you learn in Lost Angels, Putana? You know things are dire when this perv seriously addresses the crisis before his eyes.”

The lovely brown girl and blonde young woman dragged him into the shadows. Specifically, below the truck which stood well above the ground.

There was no second shot.

And not just because their swift reaction hadn’t given the sniper a chance. In fact, the initial sniper shot had been odd in a number of ways.

“What was with that first shot? Why the truck? Whoever they were trying to hit, I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t aim for us directly while we were chatting outside.”

“Putana, did you sense the enemy’s eyes on us?”

“…”

Millia’s quick question belatedly clued the brown girl in.

Putana hadn’t been alerted before the shot. That meant the sniper could hide from even Putana Highball’s nearly psychic level of scopophobia. But if they were that good, it was unthinkable that they had screwed up and missed.

They had missed for a reason.

No, they wanted to hit the truck. That shot had been successful.

After a moment, a commotion grew around them.

“What was that? I just heard a really loud noise.”

“Wait, does that truck have a hole in the side?”

“Th-that was a gunshot!! A parade bottle rocket wouldn’t leave a hole like that!!”

“Damn,” grumbled Millia below the truck. “A spy is only useful while hidden. Especially when holding a hostage to torture while undercover in the enemy’s home country. If the Faith Organization police open that truck, we’re done for. And someone set this up so that’s exactly what happens.”

“So the Electric Drills are letting their captured member escape?”

“Do you really think that terrorist is going to have a good time after the Faith Organization police find him? You have it completely backwards. This was probably an Information Alliance or Capitalist Corporations dog! They would rather reveal our prisoner to the authorities than give the Legitimacy Kingdom the credit for capturing him. Unfortunately, their method of choice is quite effective!!”

“Teacher, the normal police are bad enough, but that divine punishment group will pick up the scent eventually. We can’t let the Valkyries get their eyes on us.”

“Oh, c’mon. If we’re after the same enemy, why can’t we just get along!?”

Part 4[edit]

Three triplet sisters who were infiltrating Rome giggled while nestled together atop one of the church belltowers that grew from this city like bamboo shoots.

“Dry, I think they’re onto us.”

“Don’t, Sweet. That one shot was enough. We can’t get greedy here.”

“Dry, Sweet. Dismantle your sniper rifle. We need to withdraw while we still can.”

Part 5[edit]

Quenser clicked his tongue and reached out from under the truck. After feeling the pain in his fingers, he grabbed a piece of dry ice presumably thrown out by a food stall cooking up fresh fish. He used a cooking knife about as short as his thumb to cut a hole in the radiator pipe to sprinkle the coolant water on the dry ice.

White steam that would obscure the vision of the harmless crowd spread out from below the truck.

“Whoa!?”

Hearing a Faith Organization police officer cry out while slowly approaching the truck, Quenser and Putana crawled out from under the truck.

Several dry gunshots rang out right next to them.

Quenser looked over in surprise to see Millia sending a horizontal line of bullets into the side of the truck, pulling the pin from an incendiary grenade, and tossing it into the driver’s compartment.

“We’ve gotta cover our tracks! We aren’t supposed to be in Rome!!”

“Ugh, and that means killing the hostage?”

“Teacher. You don’t sound all that bothered by it.”

The truck was convenient, but it had always been meant as a temporary thing. They had to leave it behind now that it was time to abandon it. They contacted Heivia and Myonri via radio while quickly vacating the area. The grenade must have ignited either the fuel tank or pipe because they heard a much louder explosion behind them. It caused less of a commotion than expected, perhaps thanks to the tens of thousands of firecrackers and bottle rockets set off during the parades.

Quenser yelled to the others while hiding among the crowd costumed in masks and cloaks.

“Putana, you be on alert for snipers or the Valkyries. Millia, if there’s anything you’ve been keeping from us, you need to tell us now!!”

“Why do you make me sound like the bad guy here?”

“If we get into trouble and nearly die because you forgot to tell us something, I’m giving you a spanking.”

Millia Newburg looked exasperated while she flipped her reversible hoodie inside out to change its color.

“I honestly don’t have much more information. Only a list of radio codes, I guess. The Information Alliance code is probably the one used by the Electric Drills, but he also had a decryption program for a Legitimacy Kingdom code. I don’t know who he hoped to contact using that, though.”

Quenser came to a stop.

Putana and Millia looked puzzled, but he had some extra information he had obtained with his own two feet.

This was not his first time dealing with a Bad Garage group.

In other words…

“Stick that tight ass out my way, Millia.”

“Now really isn’t the time for that, Quenser!”

“Dammit. They have a Legitimacy Kingdom group too: the Chain Cutters! Come to think of it, we just kind of assumed they were dead and didn’t actually count their bodies or anything!!”

“Teacher?”

“Bad Garage used the internet to corrupt and recruit a Legitimacy Kingdom unit. And that godawful unit ignored their orders and fired a ton of cruise missiles in the Northern Restricted Zone. …This is bad. Are they going to fire hundreds of missiles into Rome like that!?”

He heard a deep sound like several tremors occurring at the same time.

Those were sirens.

This was an air raid warning. But did all the Roman residents and tourists really understand what that meant while they were trying to enjoy the carnival? Some assumed this was part of the parade or some other event, so they threw their hands in the air, smiled, and shouted back at the disaster speakers. A lot of the others simply aimed their phone cameras at the speakers.

A Faith Organization radar station must have detected something, but they could not get through to the ordinary people out there.

The Chain Cutters had to know the Electric Drills, another Bad Garage group, were in Rome. Were they willing to blow away their own allies if it would achieve their goal?

Then it happened.

At first, Quenser thought he was seeing giant smokestacks like those found at an industrial complex. The thick metal extended more than 100m into the air. The high-rise structures looked horribly out of place in Rome since it was known as a citywide museum where individual houses and shops were selected as world heritage sites.

He thought this must be a giant cage surrounding an especially-large temple in the center of Rome.

But it was not.

They slowly slid to the side. They were moving. They had left standby mode and were taking up the optimal position to physically eliminate the incoming threat.

“Those are the defense Objects used to protect Rome,” explained Putana Highball while watching the distant movement.

There were seven of them.

And if these were the direct defenders of their home country, they would be the best of the best.

That girl had once been a Faith Organization Pilot Elite, so what did she see when she watched those 7 smokestacks…no, those colossal main cannons. Even now, the 7 Objects were moving to the outskirts of Rome. They were like a giant flower blossoming to fortify the city’s defenses in each direction.

There was envy, jealousy, and even pure terror in Putana’s voice as she continued.

“Septimontium. Those are the ‘seven hills’ that protect Rome, teacher.”

Part 6[edit]

They sky was dyed pure white.

A total of more than 200 cruise missiles were all shot down in an instant.

Part 7[edit]

Out at sea, the Princess had stopped the Baby Magnum one step away from the Tiber’s mouth. The Rush stopped alongside her even though they technically weren’t allies.

Two or three of the many explosions were of a different type than the rest. The Princess could tell the difference since a First Generation Pilot Elite’s missions often included shooting down missiles.

(Those were FAE warheads.)

She stared through her special goggles. The flammable aerosol must have burst before spreading out enough because the explosion was small and simply resembled a somehow sticky flame.

Had they hidden their precious FAE missiles among the many ordinary ones to reduce the odds of them being shot down?

Not that it mattered when all 200 missiles were shot down at once.

Septimontium.

The Faith Organization tended to name their Objects after gods, so they must have seen those seven hills as sacred. Or had a faction wanted to make their land seem sacred by naming an Object after it?

The monitor capped the brightness of the footage it showed her, but the Princess still felt a pain in her temples.

But the loud signal noise was even worse.

“Ksh, kssssssssshhhhhhhhhh!! Prin…cess. Commun…check. Ksh!! …an eye…your surroundings…kssssshhhhhh!!!”

“Kssshhh!! This is…ksh…the same laser…as the…!!”

(No, this isn’t lasers. To cause this much interference, it must be plasma or some other kind of beam.)

“Oh ho ho. The answer is laser beams.” Oh Ho Ho rejected her idea over an unusually clear transmission due to their proximity. “Rapid temperature changes and vaporizing the moisture in the air can cause signal interference. Do not be deceived.”

Apparently the unexpected attack had not been aimed at the Princess and Oh Ho Ho approaching from the ocean. The shot passed by well above them.

And that had seemed to dye the blue sky white.

But they were not actually seeing the laser’s own light. They could only perceive the afterimage created by burning the dust and moisture in the air.

The number of beams fanned out at a high density had to be more than ten thousand. Instead of aiming at the enemy and targeting a specific point, they used a massive wall to tear through the entire space. It looked like the 200 cruise missiles had been hit, not any kind of aircraft, but it was still astonishing to see. The Faith Organization had responded faster despite being further inland than the Princess and Oh Ho Ho. They knew exactly what that meant: the Faith Organization’s radars were vastly superior to theirs.

A dull rumbling followed.

It came from near the Tiber’s mouth. Several colossal structures slowly moved along set paths. An Object’s reactor and cockpit were contained within giant main cannons standing more than 100m tall.

They really were colossal gun emplacements at that point.

It was unlikely a single cannon could produce such a high density of laser beams. The sides must have been covered with smaller openings that could fire their own beams.

They now slowly bent and tilted to take aim at the Princess floating on the ocean.

Oh Ho Ho actually sounded impressed by the overly simple concept.

“A railroad? Are they actually moving Objects along metal rails? Oh ho ho. Those idiots! Is the Faith Organization completely insane!?”

“They have found a loophole.”

HO v19 BW9.png

Once, there was a plan to bury a JPlevelMHD reactor below a city in the Northern Restricted Zone to supply power for its 5 million residents. They had also placed several layers of stationary cannons around the city, providing them with solid defenses. …Which was why the attacking Object had no choice but to slaughter all five million civilians living in the city to blast deep enough. That tragedy was the reason behind the one area in the world where Objects were banned.

To avoid the same taboo, Rome insisted they were using mobile Objects instead of stationary cannons. Of course, Objects that could only move along metal rails at the speed of a scooter could not keep up with a high-speed Object battle.

They had to win in a single shot.

They used their wall of more than a million laser beams to tear through the battlefield and the enemy Object, slaughtering any enemy, whether they were alone, in a group, manned, or unmanned. They had created a literal defensive line that was impossible to avoid, defend against, or strike back at.

Their seven hills created the perfect seven-Object system.

By surrounding Rome from seven directions and using their deadly wall of nearly 10 million lasers to repel any enemy with brute force, they had created a true sacred ground.

And in that case…

(The Faith Organization isn’t all they’re cracked up to be.)

The Princess sighed while reaching that conclusion.

Whether they had noticed or not, a radio transmission arrived from the coast.

“This is Viminalis 02 of the Faith Organization Home Country Defense Force. Unidentified Objects, please respond. If you do not, we will assume you are hostile and attack. You have already entered our territorial waters and violated our sovereignty.”

“What should we do?” asked Oh Ho Ho.

“I am not here to battle them,” replied the Princess while considering a few attack options. “This is the Baby Magnum of the Legitimacy Kingdom’s 37th Mobile Maintenance Battalion. We have discovered a critical security hole in your defenses and you have ignored our advice on three separate occasions now. Are you aware of this?”

“You mean your plan to cancel the carnival and hold a mass evacuation of our home country’s residents? I assumed those messages were meant as a provocation.”

The response came with a snort of laughter.

Attackers were always thinking up new methods, so if you weren’t willing to consider the unlikely, you made for a poor defender. If you truly understood that the residents of a world power’s home country and all its tourists lives depended on your actions, it was best to take seriously even what sounded like a drunk’s bad joke.

“This is an important group ritual for the Faith Organization, so we have a duty to keep the event running smoothly. Why would we listen to outsiders like you?”

“If you do not comprehend the threat, then you have no right to obstruct our actions. Now, I will translate that into terms simple enough for even your feeble mind to understand: get lost, you worthless excuse of an Elite.”

“Hostile intentions detected. Now you don’t get to complain when I blast you to kingdom come.”

Someone panicked when she heard that: the G-cups idol Oh Ho Ho.

“W-wait! Oh ho ho. Why does it sound an awful lot like you’re picking a fight with them!?”

The Princess expressionlessly stuck out her tongue.

“I am not here to battle them, but I have no choice if they insist on it.”

“Y-you stupid Legitimacy Kingdom potatoes!! Is everyone in the 37th like this!?”

“Fortunately, the Septimontium system has a loophole.”

“?”

How was she still confused?

Now the Princess felt guilty for expecting her to understand. Oh Ho Ho really needed to remember the Legitimacy Kingdom and Information Alliance were not allies here.

So the Princess just came out and said it.

She slid a bit to the side, silently placing the Baby Magnum behind the Rush.

“They attack with a solid wall meant to destroy everything in its path, so if I use you as a shield, I can rush in and attack them before they can charge up their next shot.”

“Bwfaldfhdslf!? Oh ho ho! Give me a break, you potatoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!”

The wall of light filled the world evenly.

Nearly in tears, Oh Ho Ho fired her Gatling-style main cannons straight down. Her main cannons were rapid-fire beams, so when they hit the seawater, they vaporized it and formed a massive cloud wall at 0 above sea level.

Needless to say, laser beams were easily bent.

Their path could be widely diverted by dust, dirt, and differences in air temperature and humidity. Create a wall of steam hotter than a sauna directly above the chilly February ocean and the sudden temperature change would alter the path of the lasers.

It felt a lot like jumping into the water to avoid a hail of bullets.

Once the fanned-out volley of death wasn’t quite so evenly distributed, she only had to shove her Object into the gap that created. No matter how sturdy they were, bent metal bars couldn’t hold a prisoner in their cell.

The Princess followed this up with a cute comment.

This was how girls treated each other once their crush wasn’t watching.

“Neat, I just found a flaw in rapid-fire beam attacks☆ You did it by firing into the ocean, but I bet a magnetic field or powerful ocean wind could alter their path too. I need to jot this down in my notes.”

“I want to kill her so much more than Septimontium!!”

At any rate, they had dodged the first slap.

Now it was their turn. If they didn’t silence their enemy before the double slap arrived, they would be critically damaged, so the Princess and Oh Ho Ho approached the coast. The other side was the first to abandon peaceful talking and open fire, so it was time to slaughter them in fully justified self-defense.

The two Objects raced across the ocean.

At 10km, they entered within range of direct shots instead of curved shots falling from the sky above. The Princess selected weapons for her seven main cannons. She set the odd ones to low-stability plasma cannons and the even ones to laser beams. The trick here was to fire the plasma first but have the faster laser beams hit first. And the wall of heat from the plasma would bend the light in ways the enemy would have trouble predicting.

“I hope you die a multitude of deaths so everyone can see your pathetic corpse!!”

“Oh ho ho. Your mother must be so ashamed.”

That slow Second Generation could only move along its metal rails, but it was doomed either way. If it followed her main cannon’s movements and responded to the first ones to fire, it would attempt to avoid the low-stability plasma cannons. Then the bent laser beams would burn right through its 100m main cannon.

And a split-second before precisely that happened, something unexpected occurred.

Part 8[edit]

Quenser’s group had lost their truck-based mobile base and they were now being pursued by Faith Organization police, but what they needed to do and where they needed to go remained unchanged.

“To Rome’s outer gate!! The big main gate that trucks weighing more than 10 tons can fit through!!”

“May I ask why!?”

Millia had a reason for yelling to Quenser even though she preferred covert operations and was right next to him.

A deluge of voices that were definitely not cheering rattled all the windows in the area. The tourists hadn’t been shaken by a truck blowing up, but this they couldn’t pretend was part of the parade or another event.

Quenser caught some glimpses of Valkyries in their black combat suits with add-ons resembling sexy underwear, but those police special forces were meant to protect the people of the city and couldn’t fight their way through the crowd to reach the spies. Quenser let the crowd carry him as he spoke.

“The Chain Cutters launched hundreds of cruise missiles and the Faith Organization shot them all down with their secret weapon…the Septimontium, was it? The Faith Organization is probably mighty pleased with itself, but Bad Garage expected that. The plan was for the missiles exploding in midair to send the crowds into a panic! Including the tourists, that’s more than 10 million people, right? Get that many people running around in a panic and the ordinary security system entirely breaks down!!”

They had already learned the Electric Drills had a device meant to unlock a SM-510Gi, an electronic lock for a large truck they presumably intended to steal.

Quenser could easily predict what the future held now.

“Their main force is waiting outside of Rome. That’s probably Bad Garage themselves.”

He was careful not to be swept away by the crowd, but he did not stop either.

The situation was pressing.

“The cruise missiles were bound to bring chaos whether they hit the city or were shot down. As the fearful people try to leave Rome, security at the gates will cease to function, which means this is their chance to break through the gate and enter Rome with their truck or whatever!!”

“We can discuss what their cargo is later, but it’s suicide either way. Maybe they can slip past the human eyes, but the gate has countless cameras and sensors. Even if Bad Garage uses the chaos to break through, the make, model, and number of their truck will be known and the authorities will catch up to-”

Realizing the flaw in her reasoning, Millia trailed off and Quenser continued for her.

“Which is why they’ll switch to a new truck as soon as they’re inside. Truck A used to break into the city will be marked, but they just have to reload their cargo on Truck B prepared by the Electric Drills and they can vanish into the city. Then they’re free to move around Rome with whatever secret weapon they have!!”

“May I ask a fundamental question here, teacher?” whispered Putana, finding two young siblings who had apparently been separated from their parents and guiding them toward the wall where they wouldn’t be swallowed up if the crowd started to collapse like dominoes. “What exactly is this secret weapon?”

“…”

Quenser had no answer.

He had predicted so much, but it wasn’t enough to catch up with the Chain Cutters and Electric Drills. Their leaders in Bad Garage were still at least a step ahead of Quenser.

He heard a vehicle honking loudly behind him.

He looked back to see Heivia driving a humongous fire truck he had gotten from who-knows-where. When the truck passed them, Quenser’s group hopped onto its side like it was a tram. It continued down the chaotic Roman street with them onboard.

This would let them escape Sarasa Gleamshifter and the Valkyrie special forces.

Myonri reached down from the top of the fire truck.

“It’s a pretty bumpy ride! If you aren’t confident in your grip, it’s safer to climb up to the roof!!”

“Thanks, Myonri. I’m giving up first!”

Everyone knew Quenser was scrawny, so he gave up before the girls. Pretending to be stronger than you were would get you killed in war, so he grabbed Myonri’s hand and crawled up onto the roof.

(Bad Garage wants to prove the environmental destruction by Objects theory. That means they want this to end with Rome being obliterated by an Object-created disaster. But what are they bringing into the city to do that? It has to be small enough to carry on a truck. I doubt they actually have dozens of trucks carrying all the dismantled parts needed to construct an Object inside Rome. That would take months undercover here.)

“No, wait.”

“Teacher?”

“Damn, so that’s it. They only need the one part. They don’t have to construct the whole thing!!”

Putana climbed up on her own and tilted her head with her black ponytail whipping in the wind. Unfortunately, now was not the time to adore how cute that was. Quenser cautiously moved to the front of the fire truck and kicked the roof of the driver’s compartment with his boot heel to get his partner’s attention.

He was practically on top of Heivia, but he still shouted into his radio.

“Heivia!! What underground spaces in Rome could you directly drive a 10ton truck into? It has to be at least 60m deep!!”

“Do you have any idea how many millions of people there are crammed into this tiny area of land?”

“Including the carnival tourists, over 10 million.”

“Your adoring student is right, Quenser. Everything looks all fancy and they insist on preserving the scenery, but that makes it really hard to do any construction and they’re forced to keep all the ugly and dirty infrastructure underground. Really, just driving into a subway tunnel would be enough to meet your conditions, so what’s your point!?”

“Bad Garage’s win condition is destroying Rome with an artificial disaster caused by an Object and they’re willing to do anything to accomplish it.”

Quenser briefly paused for a deep breath.

And he attempted to explain once more.

“So what could that artificial disaster be?”

“The first things that come to mind are an earthquake or volcanic eruption. Because an Object’s weight and footwork have a negative effect on the earth’s crust.” Millia must have been confident in her grip because she remained on the side of the fire truck while she gave her casual response. “And luck would have it Mount Vesuvius is located on the Italian Peninsula. It’s one of the world’s most famous active volcanoes, right alongside Mount Etna, and it’s only about 200km from the center of Rome. Mineral springs are fairly common around here, so there is a chance the same magma reservoir exists below the city. It’s currently dormant, but the kind of massive energy that destroyed Pompeii in a single night still lurks below the surface.”

“I had the same idea,” said Quenser. “Bad Garage just has to artificially trigger an eruption. And no matter how cheap an argument it is, they’ll consider it a win as long as it counts as Object technology causing an earthquake or eruption. That means they don’t even need some brand new secret weapon. Existing tech is more than enough to pull that off.”

“Um, Quenser? You aren’t saying what I think you are, are you?” asked Myonri on the fire truck roof, hoping he would reject the idea in her mind.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t do that. He was forced to confirm it.

“An artificial earthquake.”

“…”

“Long ago, an underground nuclear test apparently caused a malfunction in the seismographs installed on the surface, recording it as a magnitude 5 or greater. So it should be possible. They don’t even need a whole Object. If they carry the high-powered JPlevelMHD reactor in on a truck and detonate it deep underground, they can affect the magma reservoir linked to Mount Vesuvius. Then that magma will burst up from below Rome and submerge the city in an orange hell!!”

Part 9[edit]

Simply put, the enemy avoided the Princess’s surefire attack created by combining low-stability plasma cannons and laser beams. The Viminalis 02’s action itself was simple. In fact, it was so simple that she had ruled it out as a possibility because it was meaningless.

The small reactor emerged from the base of the 200m cannon.

“Wh-what!?” shouted Frolaytia.

A sphere less than 10m across was suddenly ejected. It had six parts similar to insect legs that braced themselves against the ground and used the giant cannon as a shield to escape the Princess’s laser beams.

Maybe it was a weapon and maybe it was a balancing weight, but a long tail-like part swished side to side at the rear of the sphere.

“Oh ho ho. Am I dreaming? Did that Second Generation abandon its armor to prioritize evasion!?”

“This is nothing more than suicide.”

The Viminalis 02 must have had special springs installed in those legs because it took quick, zigzagging evasive actions accompanied by a deep sound like a thick steel plate being sliced through. Amazingly, it continued to accurately avoid the Princess and Oh Ho Ho’s attacks. Its armor couldn’t have been more than 3cm thick. A single hit would cause it to explode, but that single hit never seemed to happen.

“Oh, no,” said the Princess.

The Object was only a reactor and cockpit now, but it could still use the engine that had supplied so much energy to a main cannon larger than an industrial complex’s smokestack. The Princess had feared another deadly slap if it had time to charge back up and enough time had already passed for that.

Now that the reactor had separated, she didn’t know if the next attack would also use laser beams, but she knew a second attack was coming. And the odds of death were even higher than before since she couldn’t predict what would be coming her way.

Time seemed to slow.

And finally stop.

In a cockpit where she couldn’t even trust her own heartbeat and death felt like it was physically approaching, the Princess watched the unusual situation with a weirdly detached perspective.

And a moment later…

“Huh?”

“It’s running away.”

Those dumbfounded comments from Oh Ho Ho and Lendy brought the flow of time back to normal.

The Viminalis 02 used its springs to leap back. It may have settled on a change of plans while contacting the other Objects because it gave up on the naval threat and rapidly withdrew toward the center of Rome.

Only after it vanished beyond the horizon did Oh Ho Ho speak up.

“Th-that was anticlimactic. Oh ho ho. Did it turn tail and run after concluding it couldn’t defeat us?”

“Oh, no,” said the Princess, ignoring the other Elite.

They could not celebrate yet. Their Object landing and artillery support mission had been designed to prevent exactly this from happening. Since they had failed to hold the large enemy’s attention, they had to assume their plans had gone awry.

Everything would fall apart if they didn’t fix this and fast.

Or in other words…

“Quenser and the others are in Rome. If all 7 of them shed their armor for mobility, Quenser’s group will be surrounded and ganged up on by Septimontium.”

Part 10[edit]

Some kind of shadow fell on Quenser’s group.

The battlefield student looked up without thinking because he still wasn’t fully used to being at war.

The world’s smallest Object dropped like a shooting star.

“Huh?”

“Teacher!!”

Putana tackled him out of the way just before an attack from above separated the fire truck’s front and back halves as it raced down the street. There was no sound. The slash was met with no resistance at all, like a taut electrically-heated wire melting through a foam material.

But Quenser didn’t have time to question it. He and Putana were thrown toward the asphalt which was rushing by like a belt grinder.

“Gahhh!?”

It was truly no more than coincidence they didn’t end up dead. Just before they struck the pavement, they slammed into the soft wall of a tent-style food stall set up on the roadside.

They heard a sound like straining steel muscles.

There was at least one of the things on the same road as them.

When Quenser looked up with Putana in his arms, he saw a few more round shapes on the roofs of the cathedrals and apartments lining the road. Something like a long tail swished gently behind them and six sharp insect-like legs supported them. He could guess these were Object reactors with the bare minimum of a cockpit attached.

“There are more than one? Are they Septimontium!?”

HO v19 BW10.png

They prioritized evasion over all else, so a single hit would mean instant death. The design was absurdly specialized.

All the energy produced by the reactor was focused on the triple electrodes sticking out from the front of the round body. That was pure electrical energy. That fearsome white light could probably instantly blow apart a bank vault door with only a light touch.

He thought those were electrodes like on a stun gun.

But he was mistaken.

“Those are the prongs for a power plug. That’s the plug used to send power from the reactor to those colossal main cannons, but they’re just using it as a weapon.”

“Did they design more maneuverable Objects so they could operate them in the city?” Putana looked like she had wandered into a nightmare. She might have been more sensitive to this since she used to be an Object Pilot Elite. “No, if they were only meant to protect their home country from external attack, they would have been designed to keep the enemy out of the city in the first place. That means their ability to attack within Rome wasn’t designed to defeat an external foe. They were built to attack the Faith Organization’s own people. That threat was used to scare the people into behaving, thus giving them peace of mind.”

“This is the Object’s other role. The world’s strongest internal discipline weapon.”

Instead of just providing physical attack power, it mentally bound the people with fear, ensuring they would submit.

In a way, it was exactly the kind of oddity you would find in the Faith Organization that focused so much on people’s beliefs. And a system that accepted every form of belief into a single organization would require a system to avoid infighting. A monotheistic believer could not accept the existence of any other gods, after all.

So they ruled with an iron fist to ensure their organization didn’t collapse.

So they prepared the insurance needed to fix things if it did collapse.

Those things would not hesitate to kill you even if you fled down a narrow alley, shut yourself up in a small building, or took a good person hostage.

They would blow away everything in the way even if you hid inside a historic cathedral or used one of the many world heritage sites as a shield.

Their insect legs inspired disgust in everyone who saw them, their tails moved in way that felt too emotional to be a machine, and their horrific weapons executed their targets with a direct touch of a high-voltage current so great it caused them to explode. Everything about these Objects, including their size and shape, had been designed using the science of fear.

Come to think of it hadn’t lightning become a symbol of divine punishment in the east and the west because the bright light and loud noise inspired an instinctual fear in people?

There was no use in trying to reason your way out of it, so you might as well give up.

You could avoid any harmful misunderstandings if you just didn’t think about it in the first place.

The accuracy of their killing was designed to eliminate the possibility of an insurrection before it even began, creating a dull and mentally dead world where everyone was at peace and no one physically died.

That was the Faith Organization’s home country.

That was the true face of one of the world powers. The days were calm and peaceful, but that was all their leaders gave them. It was an empty quiet where the people forgot how to create anything inside themselves.

No.

The people at the top may have been of secondary importance. In their efforts to provide peace of mind, they had gradually stripped away all else until they stumbled upon a new experience that, unfortunately, made the people feel like their prayers really had reached their god.

There were ideologies that had people approach an empty mind through harsh training, but this was fundamentally different.

This was a dead spring that had gone dry and produced nothing. No moisture would ever form in this dried nothing. And if nothing was done about it, the empty dryness would only spread from there. The people exhausted by their physical bonds, who ended up wandering the world in search of an unseen god and arrived at the Faith Organization, would have their hearts remade into a buried spring that would never produce a single drop of water.

Because they did not understand it themselves, they did not hesitate to trample the things others held dear.

They were like a tin robot wearing a suit of flesh that’s heart had rusted away until it forgot the simple fact that its own actions might bring others pain.

“No…”

Putana Highball trembled in Quenser’s arms.

But her reaction was not from fear. She was radiating anger from her entire body as she glared back at those seven demons designed for nothing other than killing internal and external threats.

“Did you think I would just accept this horrific truth? You don’t get to make a mockery of all those people who only want to pray to their different gods, purify their souls, and use their heartfelt beliefs to live good and righteous lives!”

Unsurprisingly, the seven Septimontium Objects did not respond.

They may not have understood why she was criticizing them or where her anger even came from. If so, Quenser almost felt bad for them. And he was a realist who only ever pursued whatever best advanced his own interests.

And because they didn’t even have enough freedom to feel doubt, they didn’t hesitate.

The seven detached reactors – in other words, the seven lightweight Objects – all moved at once.

Out of the corner of his eye, Quenser glimpsed Millia Newburg slipping down a side road while their attention was on him and Putana. That was definitely the right move.

“Putana!!” he shouted while nearly shoving Putana into a narrow alley and falling in after her.

“Teacher, don’t interfere!!”

“Cool your anger, Putana. Once you’re calm, tell me where exactly my gaze is directed while you lie on the ground next to me. Hint: it has to do with your naughty miniskirt.”

“~ ~ ~!? You pervert!!!!!”

She used one hand to hide the answer to his question and the other to slap him.

He was glad this anger had overwritten her previous anger, taking her off that suicidal path.

They could not forget that their objective was not to defeat Septimontium. It was to protect Rome – although their definition of “protect” was depressingly different from that of the Objects who were willing to crush their own people underfoot. Rome would be submerged in a sea of magma if Bad Garage was not stopped before they could detonate their reactor underground.

As awful as this home country was, the people who lived there had done nothing wrong.

These may have been the world’s smallest Objects, but they were still 10m spheres.

“Heh heh. Saving a cute girl, getting an eyeful, and even receiving a slap as a reward? Have I died and gone to heaven? I bet I’d get something unbelievable if I ate a fortune cookie right now.”

“Why did I take more damage from that slap than you? Stop being such a creep!”

They heard a loud crash near the entrance to the alley. One of the Septimontium Objects was trying to approach, but it couldn’t fit in a space that would be a challenge for a pizza delivery scooter. And the thing wasn’t equipped with any projectile weapons. It could gather a blinding light between its electrodes, but that energy couldn’t be launched.

However…

“We can’t relax quite yet. If that’s electricity, there are any number of ways to get it to us. We’re dead the instant it finds some water or iron powder to spread around. So face the facts, Putana! We can’t lose those monsters on foot, so we need a car or a motorcycle to-”

Quenser’s thoughts were cut off by a whooshing sound.

It was the tail.

No, they had to still be safe. The spherical body did have a tail-like part on the back, but it was only two or three times the body’s diameter. When swinging it around to attack to the front, its own body got in the way. Just like a scorpion’s stinger or a carnivorous dinosaur’s tail, it was only useful at close range, so it couldn’t reach them back in this alley like an anteater’s tongue.

They were safe.

Perfectly safe.

…So why had his fear frozen the passage of time?

“Teacher, get down!!”

Putana Highball’s shout saved him. He finally realized what was really happening. While the spherical body struggled at the alley entrance, the tail had whipped around and thrown a vending machine it had snatched off the street. The tail had wrapped around the machine like a chameleon’s tongue.

The improvised projectile weighed easily more than 300kg. If Quenser hadn’t immediately kissed the filthy ground, everything above his hips might have been torn away, leaving just his lower body still standing.

After the heavy metal device passed by overhead, Putana quickly got back up, grabbed Quenser’s arm, and pulled him to his feet. They supported each other as they made their way to another exit from the alley.

They heard something passing by overhead while the sun was briefly blotted out.

The Septimontiums were leaping between building rooftops.

“There are seven of them, so we’re completely surrounded. The one at the obvious exit is like the hound that guides the animal in front of the hunter’s rifle. It’s a combo play.”

“I get that, but I can sense their ‘eyes’ on us. That means I know when they are about to attack. This way, teacher.”

When they arrived at another exit, Putana cautiously observed things outside and then swung her leg up high. Her kick caught a passing motorcyclist on the head and she stole his motorcycle.

“Um, Putana! That’s a civilian!”

“Are you just ignoring the scrapes at the base of his thumb, his distinctive muscle balance and tan lines, and the marine tattoo on his arm? He belongs to a Capitalist Corporations PMC! Now hurry!!”

With the signs that obvious, it didn’t sound like the man was undercover. Was he just a soldier here to see the carnival while on leave? That still made him a Capitalist Corporations soldier, though.

Putana hopped onto the seat and Quenser climbed on behind her. It took less than thirty seconds to steal the motorcycle and start driving. Still, that was a critical delay. Something blotted out the sun overhead again.

Septimontium had arrived. Worse, three of the 10m spheres leaped down from an abbey roof. Their six insect legs almost looked like a complex alien maw that wouldn’t close properly.

“Ahh!!”

“Let’s get out of here.”

Putana pretended to be driving straight while actually sending the motorcycle through a rapid 180-degree turn and giving them a flying start in the opposite direction. The airborne predators had made their leap based on their prey’s expected future position, so they fell for the feint and struck at an empty portion of road. If Putana had thoughtlessly taken the direct path away, they would have been crushed to death one second later.

Quenser buried his face in the brown girl’s nape while melting like cheese. It looked ridiculous, but he was holding on for dear life.

“Ooh, you’re nice and warm. Soft too. And you smell nice.”

“Teacher, I get you’re so terrified you might wet yourself, but please do not use me to distract yourself. My patience has its limits.”

“I want to eat this ponytail. Woof, woof.”

“I will throw you off the bike, you know?”

Putana sighed in exasperation and took a sharp turn at an intersection.

Quenser tightened his grip around her hips just a bit.

“Damn, I wonder what happened to Millia,” he said.

“Don’t worry. She’s an expert at hiding in the crowd, so I’m sure she escaped. If we searched for her with Septimontium after us, we might actually put her in greater danger. We need to leave her be and draw these things away from her.”

Yes, the threat wasn’t over yet.

If those were Objects, they could handle high-speed battles fought at 600km/h. The motorcycle was far better than being on foot, but it wasn’t enough. It would be harder for those Objects to reach their top speed in this complex urban battlefield than out in an open desert or field, but a commercial motorcycle still couldn’t lose them. If those two wanted to win the battle of speed, they would need a drag racer installed with a rocket engine.

Quenser looked back with his hands tight around Putana’s hips and then he screamed.

“Here they come! Oh, god!! They’re here, here, here!!”

“Teacher, details would be nice.”

They heard what sounded like a thick sheet of metal being torn apart. These things did not use wheels or an air cushion. They only used those insect legs, which were equipped with some kind of spring. They would make short hops to zigzag back and forth in pursuit of the fleeing motorcycle.

“We’re going right, teacher. Lean that way,” said Putana before leaning her body to tilt the motorcycle.

That let a leaping Septimontium fly by overhead while their sharp right turn slid them below a hurdle-like barrier and they drove across a railway crossing that was sounding its alarm.

The Septimontiums didn’t care.

They kicked off the wall of a nearby church or hopped across the roof of a mobile home next to the railway crossing to leap over the freight train and continue their pursuit of the motorcycle.

They even used their tails to throw each other onto tall rooftops. The tails were not just balancing weights or made to look threatening. They could grab things, support the rest of the Object, and otherwise behave like a hand.

But the brown girl at the motorcycle’s handlebars was focused on something else.

“They can jump on rooftops and walls and that mobile home wasn’t crushed.”

“P-Putana?”

“They must not be very heavy. That means their armor is thin. Teacher, do you have any bombs? These Objects lack the usual nuke resistance. Ordinary weapons can defeat them.”

“How dumb are you!? Those are active Object reactors!! There’s plasma of up to 100 million degrees Celsius trapped inside there with magnetism. Blow up even one of those in this populated city and millions will die! We need a better plan!!”

“Argh, curse those things. You could say these Objects use the city to their advantage, couldn’t you? What a pain.”

They heard a grinding sound as something joined them from another street.

Heivia and Myonri were each riding a toy similar to a snowmobile. Except these hadn’t been designed for use on the snow.

Quenser’s eyes widened.

“What’re those!? Some Faith Organization secret weapon!?”

“They’re one-person vehicles. Think of them like sporty convertibles. Perfect for Rome’s complex layout, right? I see you’ve hitched a ride on a girl’s ass, like usual. You get all the luck!!”

“You won’t find a nicer smelling ride anywhere. And did you know a girl’s body is smooth no matter where you touch it? I can even feel Putana’s pulse when I hold her from behind like this.”

“…Teacher, have you ever heard the phrase ‘even the Buddha gets mad if you touch his face three times’?”

“I’m not from the Faith Organization, so I can’t say I have. Does that mean you’re in trouble after doing it three times, or do you have to go for a fourth time before there are consequences?”

Myonri wanted no part of this conversation, so she did her best to pretend she didn’t exist.

It bothered Quenser that Millia Newburg, their de facto leader, wasn’t with those two, but all the Septimontiums were after them. He had to trust this was making her safer.

At any rate, their objective was Bad Garage in the subway tunnels.

But the threat presented by Septimontium was very real. Ignore them for even a moment and they were dead.

Quenser pressed his forehead against the top of Putana’s head and clenched his teeth.

“We’ll have to take a gamble somewhere.”

“Teacher?”

“Heivia, Myonri! Keep driving, but get ready to attack. On my mark, target the Septimontiums behind us. You don’t have to twist around and aim a gun at them – pulling the pin from a grenade and tossing it behind you is enough to hit them. Get ready!!”

“Wait, are you serious, Quenser?” said Heivia.

“Quenser, are you planning to blow up those reactors in the city!?” said Myonri.

“This isn’t about the reactors! And use smoke grenades!!”

Just as they took a sharp turn, Heivia and Myonri both dropped a metal can to the pavement. Colored smoke rapidly spread out behind them.

This was in the middle of a curve and the Septimontiums used thin legs to hop around instead of using continuous tracks or wheels. Needless to say, they had no way of course correcting if they left the ground after misjudging their route.

Flailing their tail around wasn’t enough to regain their balance. With nothing to grab onto, they were helpless.

“Eek!!”

Myonri’s shoulders shrank down. They heard a deafening crash as one of the Objects failed to make the turn and broke through the wall of a belltower, embedding itself in the building.

“S-something’s coming. Ahh!?”

Furious, another Object jumped up to a building rooftop, passed by Quenser’s group, and then hopped back down onto the road ahead of them. It was blocking their way ahead while its friends pursued them from behind.

Heivia’s chicken spirit kicked in and he started to step on the brake, so Quenser slammed the sole of his boot against the streamlined chassis of his friend’s snowmobile-like one-person vehicle.

“Don’t chicken out!! Stop and they’ll catch up and kill you for sure. Putana, keep us going straight!!”

“You can’t be serious…” protested Heivia.

“Oh, and you’ll have to figure out how to survive on your own. I don’t really have a plan for that part.”

“You can’t be seriousssssssssssssss!!!”

Heivia and Myonri’s one-person vehicles parted to the left and right to pass by near the building walls. The Object wasn’t sure which one to block on the wide road. Meanwhile, Putana’s motorcycle drove straight down the center.

The whip-like tail swept by right next to Quenser’s ear.

Putana tilted the motorcycle to skillfully slip between the insect legs like a baseball player sliding into base.

Quenser threw something while passing below the Object.

The clay-like item was a bomb with an electric fuse attached.

After seeing the clay stick, he hit the switch on his radio, detonating it. He was after one of the long, skinny legs, not the reactor. Since those legs were filled with machinery and heavy-duty springs, there couldn’t be room left for thick armor.

He didn’t even need to look back. One of the legs bent at an unnatural angle, the joint was crushed, and the Septimontium tilted like a table with a broken leg.

Another two Objects tackled the disabled one out of the way and continued pursuit.

There wasn’t even time to cheer. Myonri raised her voice nearly to a scream.

“A-aren’t those Objects operated by Pilot Elites!? How can they just shove one aside like that!?”

“Knowing the Faith Organization, the spirit of martyrdom is part of their training. Anyway, turn left next, Putana. We can get underground there!! Heivia, Myonri, you two find your own entry routes!!”

HO v19 BW11.png

Some plywood formed a ramp up to the short curb of a flowerbed. Some local kids may have placed it there for their skateboards, but Putana used it to send the motorcycle into a jump that exceeded anything the vehicle had been designed for.

They cleared a metal fence and landed on the subway track situated a level below the road. Putana shouted back some useful advice during their moment of airtime.

“Teacher, keep your mouth shut and try not to bite your tongue.”

“Wahhh, Putana!”

“You don’t get to be a spoiled child just because you’re scared!!”

After clinging to the girl’s hips and sniffing her hair in fear, a sharp impact hit him from below. They had landed on the tracks, but they couldn’t afford to slow down. Putana sent the motorcycle full speed into the tunnel entrance.

“I-I can’t believe you, teacher! Do you have no shame at all? How can you act so weak and childish around a younger girl!? Really, I just can’t believe you!!”

“Huh? Am I imagining it or is your pulse speeding up?”

“Bffff!! You are most definitely imagining it! Wh-why would you ever think otherwise!?”

The underground area had a different aesthetic from the cross-flooded surface. The tunnel had concrete walls and evenly-spaced support pillars, but those pillars had white goddess statues alongside them. They were probably designed after Roman mythology. Some might have even been from an older minor religion that Quenser wasn’t even familiar with.

“Welcome to the underground ruins dungeon.”

“Ahem. Rome was famous for its public baths, right? Where do we find one of those?”

“Oh? I sense a bath with Putana in my future☆”

“Say something that repulsive again and I really will push you off without slowing down, teacher!!”

Then a maintenance door burst open on the wall nearby. Heivia and Myonri’s one-person vehicles emerged after taking a bumpy ride down the stairs.

“Hey, Quenser! Where’re the Septimontiums!? How many are after you!?”

“Odd… None of them are. But the tunnel entrance should have been big enough for them.”

Just then, they heard a warning whistle and a sharp light shined straight out at them.

“Kyah!!”

“Watch out!”

Putana, Heivia, and Myonri all swerved over toward the walls, somehow avoiding the train that caught them by surprise. Even the blast of wind it caused felt like it was going to knock them off balance and make them crash into the wall. And this close, the arms and legs of the goddess statues were frightening indeed.

Then Quenser realized the truth.

“The tunnel itself is big enough, but they can’t avoid the trains.”

“Yeah, those things are 10m spheres, so that’s their width too. They can’t move over to the wall like we can.”

They heard screaming metal behind them.

The Septimontiums were horrific things that used their extraordinary weapons to bind the people’s hearts with fear, but they were still an official Faith Organization fighting force. That meant the government was on their side. They must have put in a call and had the trains stopped.

But this still gave Quenser’s group some time.

They had to use that time to put as much distance between them as possible.

“Heivia, let’s focus back on our original job here. Bad Garage is trying to detonate a reactor deep underground to trigger an artificial earthquake so they can plunge Rome into a sea of lava. They need to reach a depth of at least 60m for that, so what parts of these subway tunnels meet that condition?”

“Just one. But if the Septimontiums aren’t watching right now, we can lose them. These tunnels are spread out like an ant colony down here. The odds are slim they’ll find us if they have to search this labyrinth without any clues.”

That was good news.

Luring the Septimontiums toward Bad Garage to let the Objects do the job for them was always an option, but there were too many uncertainties to risk it. They couldn’t have the dumb defense unit blowing up the reactor along with Bad Garage, triggering the artificial earthquake themselves. And if the bottom-level terrorists did somehow manage to defeat a Septimontium or two, that would only give them more reactors to detonate. Those Objects had thrown out their nuke resistance, which was supposed to be their biggest selling point, to cram themselves into these narrow tunnels, so who could say what would happen now.

The baggage boy seated on the back of the motorcycle continued talking like he was actually important.

“Then let’s start on our real job and treat those terrorists to a pummeling. We owe Bad Garage for what they did to us at the start of this whole mess, so let’s go repay them with interest.”

Part 11[edit]

They needed to reach a depth of at least 60m.

Heivia guided them through subway tunnels decorated with the ruins of a religion predating the cross. They stopped their motorcycle and snowmobile-like one-person vehicles a short distance away from their destination. They of course kept them near the wall so they wouldn’t be in the way if the trains started back up.

“Th-this place feels different from before. These goddess statues aren’t Roman mythology, are they?”

“These are from before Greek mythology was mixed in. We might be seeing older ruins the deeper we go.”

Myonri and Putana held an intellectual conversation, but the two sweaty idiots didn’t have rich enough minds to observe the ruins and ponder ancient religions.

They were focused on the more immediate problem.

“How did Bad Garage get the reactor down this far? Their truck couldn’t have been small.”

“They probably held a lighter to the ceiling to activate the fire alarm. The tunnels down here are like an ant colony, remember? So there are plenty of ways to keep the trains from passing through a specific section. The trains get stopped all the time, so no one will even question trouble that causes a 5 or 10 minute delay.”

Quenser pulled some Hand Axe from his backpack and molded a ball a little larger than a chicken egg. The Faith Organization had been pursuing them before, but they had no data on what kind of weaponry Bad Garage used. And based on Bad Garage’s actions, it was unlikely they were going to like the answer.

“This is an enclosed tunnel, so I so hope it isn’t gas or a bioweapon.”

“Teacher, couldn’t they have sowed chaos through Rome much more easily if they had toys like that? They need to use an Object component to bring down the home country, but they could have still made things easier for themselves before reaching that point.”

“Good point.”

Quenser recalled how Bad Garage had in fact used cruise missiles and FAE bombs. He doubted they would have kept anything in reserve at that point.

“What’s your guess, Putana?”

“In an enclosed tunnel? A flamethrower scares me the most.”

“Dammit, can’t I at least get a painless death!?”

Quenser and Putana continued their conversation while Heivia and Myonri opened up black plastic items resembling bento boxes. No, after spinning them around like butterfly knives, they transformed into T-shaped submachineguns. Hiding guns below casual clothing wasn’t easy.

Meanwhile, Putana’s weapon of choice was a combat knife with a blade length of more than 40cm. Just as Quenser wondered if she was a close-quarters combat specialist, he noticed two small holes in the grip. It included a gimmick that fired a bullet in the direction the blade was pointing.

After walking a bit further down the underground tunnel full of ancient goddess statues, the brown girl came to a stop.

“I sense some eyes.”

“Kh.”

“But not human ones. They might have mechanical sensors set up.”

This didn’t appear to be a standard security camera. It stood on a tripod near the wall to avoid being hit by a train. It was probably a Bad Garage toy. Putana led them along the opposite wall so they could get past without entering its “field of view” and then they circled behind the tripod and yanked out the cable to silence the sensor so they didn’t have to worry about it if they needed to make a quick getaway. All the goddess statues provided plenty of hiding spots as they advanced.

They were entering Bad Garage territory now.

The tension grew while Heivia and Myonri moved out ahead with their full-auto guns at the ready.

Quenser looked back at the sensor he had disabled himself.

“They must not have all that many people. Sadly, a living guard is a lot cheaper than a high-quality sensor. They’re using money to replace old-fashioned manpower.”

“Convenient fantasies can grow without you realizing it. And then they cloud your vision. ‘Probably’ is fine, but avoid assuming something ‘must be true’. Your own delusion could get you killed.”

They took out a few more sensors on tripods or duct taped to the ceiling as they continued down the dimly-lit tunnel. Without advice from Putana based on her scopophobia, they would have been caught at some point.

And…

“There they are,” said Heivia, coming to a stop and hiding behind a goddess statue by the wall.

About 50m ahead, they could see something else moving across the tunnel: human silhouettes. They doubted this was just some tourists who had gotten lost down here. These silhouettes moved in groups of two, wore night-vision goggles over their eyes, and held weapons equipped with suppressers larger than a 2-liter drink bottle. Their PDWs were more compact than an A4 sheet of paper and they had forcibly attached suppressors larger than the weapons themselves. The PDWs were highly functional and looked somehow futuristic, but at that small size, a large man had to hunch his back when holding it against his shoulder. You couldn’t actually hold one of those in each hand and fire them with arms extended like the star of an action movie.

“(Their ‘eyes’ are missing us. They’re passing right over us.)”

But that didn’t mean they could raise a war cry and charge in guns blazing. They didn’t know how many of them there were, how far along they were on prepping the reactor for detonation, or anything for that matter. Did Bad Garage even value their own lives? In the worst case, they could trigger the explosion as soon as they spotted intruders.

After following Putana’s instructions and waiting for the group of two to leave, Quenser’s group approached a maintenance door on the wall. The subway tunnels were spread out like an ant colony, but there were also connecting corridors and small rooms for workers not found on the subway maps. Finding another way around was easy.

After circling around in a large fan shape, they spotted a few more guards. By observing the distribution of guards, they could find the central point Bad Garage hoped to hide.

The reactor would be there.

“(Based on the distribution we’ve seen, there are probably 20 or 30 of them. And no periodic radio-ins. Those tripods had communication cables laid out on the ground, right? Their radios can’t reach in these thick tunnels.)”

“Meaning?”

“We can kill them and the rest won’t notice. Now’s our chance.”

It was time for a war of courage and kindness.

Heivia and Myonri aimed their T-shaped submachineguns from a distance, but they were only there for support if things went wrong. They weren’t equipped with suppressors like Bad Garage was, so a single shot would be loud enough to raise the alarm. Instead, Putana made sure there were no eyes on her, snuck up behind the pair of guards, and used her knife to stab them in the back and slit their throat in the blink of an eye.

That Elite fought in a different way from the Princess and Oh Ho Ho.

“All done, teacher.”

“I’ll help.”

They wrapped the bodies up in a blue tarp found nearby and dragged them over into a transformer work room. They couldn’t fully get the pool of blood off the floor, so they instead covered it up with a new construction tarp. Heivia and Myonri removed the thick suppressors from the enemy weapons and used duct tape to affix them to their own weapons.

“Those aren’t the right size connector. Are you sure that will work?”

“It’s better than nothing. This should help more than holding a pillow over the muzzle.”

They had a lot more options with the guns available to them

This was the enemy’s territory, so the enemy would have the advantage in a direct firefight. But if they used Putana’s ability to sense people’s gazes and only made surprise attacks from the enemy’s blind spots, they could take out Bad Garage before the enemy could even counterattack. Putana’s ability to sense gazes was extremely valuable since it gave a surprise attack a nearly 100% success rate.

“Nope, doesn’t work.”

Quenser had bent over and checked through the corpses’ equipment. The enemy did have radios on them, but as Heivia had predicted, they only produced static. The enemy’s inability to communicate in these deep tunnels was a good thing, but that also made it harder to get a read on Bad Garage’s overall movements.

How close were they to detonating the reactor? How did they intend to detonate it without functioning radios?

“U-um, there’s something…up ahead.”

Jack-of-all-trades Myonri had pulled the short straw yet again.

More than 30m ahead was a junction where several tunnels intersected. This was the only place this deep, so did the tracks converge in a bowl shape? The space was a lot wider open than one would expect for that. It wasn’t a bad spot to leave a 10m ball. None of the trains would hit it while it was there.

The goddess statues and decorative marble columns may have been moved to clear out that wide a space.

Putana pushed her binoculars into Quenser’s hands.

“Teacher.”

“Looks like there’s a digital timer on it. so is it timed? But that might not be the only trigger. They might be able to flip a switch to detonate it right away in an emergency. Either way, the countdown has already begun. That means it’s ready to detonate at any time.”

However.

That was not what Myonri had been talking about.

An oblong piece of metal had come to an emergency stop in that wide-open space. It was a train. It must have been stopped to allow the Septimontiums into the tunnel, but this was not a cargo train. It was an ordinary subway train. That meant it had lots of windows along the side, revealing an array of worried faces.

A quick estimate suggested 100 to 200 passengers.

Armed men slowly circled that large cage full of hostages.

From this side, they could see five teams of two. They could get more accurate if they had Putana check the number of eyes, but there were probably more than just those ten. Myonri tearfully looked down at her submachinegun. That was too many to take out with just two submachineguns. And if a single one of them escaped, they could start slaughtering the hostages or just detonate the reactor.

Quenser found it curious that the guards were only around the train and none were inside the train itself. Was there some reason they didn’t want to be in there? Had they maybe installed bombs on each car’s ceiling to prevent a revolt?

Whatever the case, Heivia summed up the situation nicely.

“Well, this sucks.”

Just then, Quenser grimaced. Then he took a closer look through the binoculars.

“Teacher?”

Putana was unique even among Elites for her ability to sense the number and direction of people’s gazes. That sense was limited to any eyes on her, but she may have been able to tell Quenser wasn’t observing the reactor or the guards.

He was observing the train. There was a small boy among all the hostages looking worriedly out the window. His artificial vision analyzed the lip movements and displayed the words as text.

“They do exist.”

The boy was clutching something tight.

Had he bought it at a festival stall, or was it part of a costume? Regardless, it was a cheap hero mask. He would be here for the carnival, after all. The child clutched it tight and stared out the window.

The binoculars converted his lips movements into words.

Those words were displayed at the bottom of Quenser’s vision like a movie’s subtitles.

The train had come to a sudden stop. Their lives were at the mercy of an armed group. The Faith Organization military and police showed no sign of coming to rescue them. Work was underway to detonate a bomb large enough to submerge Rome in a sea of lava. No one could have blamed the boy for losing all faith in the world.

Quenser’s group was only here to stop the destruction of Rome.

If they were forced to choose between the reactor and the train, they would have to choose the reactor. That might seem sensible, but this was not their city and they were still the kind of bastards who deserved to be spat on.

And yet.

Even so.

“Heroes do exist.”

Quenser Barbotage sighed and lowered the binoculars.

He stared straight ahead and spoke to the others.

“You heard the boy. Raise your hand if you wanna be a hero.”

“Of course we’re all going, dammit.”

Part 12[edit]

The situation was as follows:

First, the JPlevelMHD reactor was extremely delicate when not contained in an Object. A careless firefight or explosion could trigger it, covering Rome in a sea of lava.

Second, between 100 and 200 passengers and crew had been taken hostage inside the stopped train. At least 5 pairs of guards surrounded the train and there were likely more. If even one of those was missed, they would almost certainly start firing in through the train’s windows. And the lack of guards inside the train suggested there might be a booby trap inside.

So Quenser’s group needed a plan.

The needed to come up with a way to take out the entire Bad Garage unit without giving them a chance to counterattack.

Maybe they felt out of place and maybe this didn’t feel like their job, but it was time to play the hero, at least for now.

“Will this really work?” asked Heivia.

“They’re all pointed in the same direction, but this is still an enclosed tunnel,” explained Quenser. “It will affect us to an extent, so find us somewhere to hide.”

The student unreeled a long cable. With their radios not working, they needed a wired detonation method.

Yes, detonation.

But they weren’t approaching the enemy, setting up bombs, and then slaughtering the Bad Garage bad guys with explosive flames and sharp shrapnel. That could easily detonate the reactor and any guards on the other side of the train could survive.

Quenser himself had hinted at what they were really doing.

They were inside an enclosed tunnel.

“Teacher.”

“The pressure calculations check out, so we’re all ready. What, our shelter is a supply closet?”

It was a storeroom about half the size of a school classroom.

Quenser finished laying out the long cable and stepped through the metal door’s threshold to approach Putana. He had to close the door on the cable, but that was fine as long as it could still carry a current. He closed the door gently to make sure he didn’t break the actual wire inside the thick cable. Fortunately, this wasn’t a macaroni-like fiber optic cable.

They couldn’t see anything now.

But the enemy’s location was irrelevant. If their attack covered the entire space, Bad Garage had no way to escape.

Their plan was to use a long-distance detonation.

They sent a shockwave down the enclosed tunnel like cleaning a bath pipe.

They heard a loud boom and the closed metal door bent inwards. The world seemed to shake around Quenser. The shockwave would always travel down the path of least resistance, but it still affected them somewhat.

Quenser couldn’t support his own weight and leaned against the wall while shaking his head to try and stop the ringing in his ears.

“Go, Heivia, Myonri!! The stun effect of the shockwave rattling their inner ear won’t last long. You have less than 30 seconds, so shoot them all now!!”

They had trouble getting the bent door open, but the pair armed with submachineguns still charged out into the tunnel. Quenser followed after them with Putana lending him her shoulder.

Whichever side of the train the guards were on, the shockwave and rapid pressure change would have stunned them. When an extreme pressure change filled an entire space, you couldn’t escape just by hiding behind an obstacle. And none of the Bad Garage unit had been inside the train. The hostages wouldn’t be affected since they were safely enclosed in that sealed space and a simple pressure change wouldn’t cause the reactor to explode.

The dull sounds of suppressed gunfire signaled the beginning of the slaughter. Heivia and Myonri unilaterally fired into the heads and chests of the soldiers lying unmoving on the ground, so the civilians on the train might have viewed them as the villains here. But it was game over if even one of those terrorists got up like a not-quite-dead worm. So many lives would be lost if they started firing on either the train full of hostages or the reactor.

Quenser chose to accept the people’s screams and disgust.

Putana continued to lend him her shoulder while raising her combat knife and firing one of the bullets hidden in its grip into the head of a soldier the other two had missed.

“Someone is pretending to be dead. I still sense someone’s living eyes on me!!”

The student’s inner ear had finally recovered.

He could walk without Putana’s support now, but the same applied to Bad Garage. If he could walk, they would have recovered as well.

A soldier tried to press some kind of switch with trembling fingers.

(They aren’t trying to show off their technological prowess to the military or the police and they weren’t trying to drive terror into the people by making something that can’t be disarmed. This shouldn’t be a complex puzzle of a bomb!!)

Quenser tore the digital timer from the round reactor. He threw it away just as Heivia’s submachinegun shot through the last remaining survivor’s head.

Blinding white sparks scattered across the floor. The thick metal rail had been melted by a great heat. A moment later and the reactor’s exterior would have been melted through and the plasma within would have burst out.

“Are we clear now!?”

“I think so. But the hostages are still trapped! The guards were staying off the train for some reason and we haven’t checked it for booby traps yet. It might blow up the instant we manually open the door!!”

Quenser cautiously checked through the window and then climbed below the train. There it was. Some colorful cords were tangled around the metal tank for the air compressor used to open and close the automatic door. It would indeed blow up the instant the door opened.

(Bad Garage wouldn’t have expected these hostages. The one on the reactor was simple, so they wouldn’t have had a bomb covered in a mess of cords like you see in the movies.)

He gulped and got to work. Bad Garage must have only cared that the hostages inside the train couldn’t deactivate it. He used a tester to check the current in the cords and then removed a clothespin-like clip to release the dangerous cord.

And he didn’t need to open all of the train’s doors. As long as one of them was safe, all the hostages could move between cars and escape from here.

Quenser operated the emergency release lever to force the door open from outside, gestured, and spoke in the Legitimacy Kingdom language.

“Take it slow and one at a time!! There’s a drop to the ground, so watch your step!!”

The people inside seemed nervous. They were afraid to approach the door, but they had no reason to stay inside now that it was open. They all hesitated while the small boy nearest the door nervously approached Quenser.

Quenser smiled and tried to be reassuring.

“Let’s get you all back home. So did we pull off the hero thing here?”

From the corner of his eye, he noticed Putana wrinkle her brow in doubt.

The square panel of a maintenance hatch rose up on the train’s floor near the boy.

“Teacher!! There’s more of them!!”

Something was thrown out of the open door.

The metal can was a stun grenade with the pin removed.

Any Bad Garage survivors would try to detonate the reactor.

They hadn’t seen any guards entering or leaving the train and they had found bombs on the doors, so they had assumed no one from Bad Garage was on the train.

Hadn’t Heivia said “probably” is fine, but avoid assuming something “must be true”?

“Oh, shi-”

If only they hadn’t all been focused on the one open door. A magnesium flash filled the tunnel and the entire Legitimacy Kingdom’s group had their vision and hearing knocked out.

Part 13[edit]

How much time was actually taken from him?

30 seconds? More than a minute? Quenser’s senses were blown away and his panicked mind lost track of time. In an ordinary life back in a safe country, that might have been an insignificant amount of time, but it was a very long time indeed during a battle with guns aimed at each other. That kind of time was enough to turn things around when outnumbered. The last remaining member of Bad Garage would be able to shoot each member of Quenser’s group one at a time.

Quenser focused on his backpack while trying to grab the boy and turn around to protect the boy with his back, but he wasn’t even sure of that. His eyes and ears weren’t working and his mind was so confused he couldn’t even feel the boy he knew had to be in his arms.

A flat white afterimage sat before his eyes for quite a while.

And eventually…

“Gh…”

He heard a muffled bloody groan.

But it didn’t come from his own mouth.

At close range – truly less than a meter – the man who had thrown the stun grenade from the maintenance hatch was doubled over and unmoving.

Quenser had never seen the young man before.

Putana had immediately readied her combat knife at her hip and then stabbed him in the side.

That special Elite could sense people’s gazes, so had she approached the source of that young man’s gaze even with her traditional senses knocked out?

He could have aimed directly at Quenser, but he must have also glanced over at the others, including Putana.

At first, he stared down at his own wound in disbelief.

Then he silently looked up and smiled at Quenser directly in front of him. He held a switch in his hand. Radios generally didn’t work in the tunnel, but they worked just fine when only a few meters away from the target.

“Happy…new world,” said the smiling young man.

Quenser used a hand to cover the eyes of the boy in his arms.

A dry gunshot rang out.

With the blade still stabbed deep in his side, Putana had pulled the small clasp-like trigger on the knife’s grip to fire a bullet directly into him. The impact knocked him away, forcibly pulling the knife from him. Its serrated back widened the wound further.

The young man collapsed on his side and Quenser kicked some kind of switch away from him.

He did not get back up.

But he did speak through a bloody smile.

“If you…pursued us this far…you must understand this world is built on lies.”

“Who are you?”

“Just a nobody from Deyeria Village. A village destroyed by the earthquake and lava of an Object disaster.”

Quenser had never heard of that.

It had never been mentioned before.

Not the disaster and not the village.

The young man had smiled thinly. Maybe this was why. He had already lost everything he had hoped to protect, so he had nothing left to lose. So he had hoped to cause a disaster in a home country to force everyone to look at the thing they were all trying so hard to ignore.

“It’s your turn to suffer now.”

“This is already over. This wasn’t even a war. The higher ups are starting to realize what the Objects are doing to our planet, so sooner or later they will start to work to prevent it. This won’t turn into a global disaster like you think it will.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. An Object disaster is coming to Rome.”

Quenser glanced over at the reactor. He had removed the detonator, but he was not a bomb squad expert. There was always a chance there was a second or third detonator.

But the young man rejected that idea.

“That was just insurance. Detonating that was our Plan B if things didn’t go as planned. We’d have a hard time claiming one of those 200 thousand ton behemoths did it if we just detonated a reactor, right? So that wasn’t Plan A.”

“What? You’ve still got something else up your sleeve!?”

“Wait, Heivia. He’s already dying. You can’t treat him too roughly.”

Myonri quickly stopped the pissed noble. But she wasn’t particularly worried about this villain’s rights – she just didn’t want him to die before they got more information out of him.

“You can find plenty of mineral springs around Rome. That means there’s a lot of magma spread out across a wide area underground. Rome is an unstable area since it shares the same magma reservoir as Mount Vesuvius.”

But the young man made no attempt to hide it.

Did that mean it was too late to stop it?

“We only needed to gather enough Objects here. Septimontium wasn’t enough since they only follow their rails or separate their reactor for greater mobility. So we needed to create a reason for the other world powers to send in their own Objects.”

“You don’t mean…” Quenser understood now. “The Princess and Oh Ho Ho were the real trigger!?”

Once they arrived on land, the water filling the cup to the brim would overflow. A single extra drop would exceed the surface tension’s limits and ruin everything.

Quenser grabbed his radio and shouted into it.

“This is Quenser! Princess, can you hear me!? Princess, Baby Magnum!! Dammit!?”

The young man smiled thinly from the ground.

He knew radio signals were useless in these thick tunnels. Especially if you hoped to contact the surface.

“Checkmate.”

Something shook. The ground disconcertingly pushed up below their feet.

“Happy…new world. Now we’ve rid the world of its lies. Welcome to a new, more transparent world. No one will ever believe the great scam of the clean wars again.”

“…”

“Drown in the true face of war – an endless world war.”

Part 14[edit]

“?”

The Baby Magnum’s naval floats had been removed, so it began traveling inland from the mouth of the Tiber. The Rush didn’t need to swap out floats since it used an air cushion, so it had started toward Rome earlier.

(She went on ahead, so I hope she at least took out one enemy Object for me. No, better not get my hopes up. Counting on her shoddy skills is just asking for disappointment.)

“Oh ho ho. You weren’t thinking something rude just now, were you?”

“Why do you keep talking to me? Are you lonely?”

The Princess and Oh Ho Ho were not alone. They could also see a few Capitalist Corporations Second Generations like the Under Gate and the Bullet Lens. The Faith Organization had also sent in the Zombie Powder and the Blast Samurai as ace Objects meant to defend against “unauthorized peace-keeping activities”. …Although calling in such impressive reinforcements showed just how little the Faith Organization actually trusted Septimontium.

At any rate, all four world powers had gathered here.

Rome had become as much of a tinderbox as that Oceanian military nation. Altogether, there had to be more than 20 Objects present.

Just then, the Princess noted a few small oddities.

She initially thought her sensors were acting up. Her static electricity propulsion device moved her 200 thousand ton Object by having it float. She assumed the maintenance soldiers had been in such a rush to remove the naval float that they had bumped some of the laser sensors that measured the contours of the terrain.

But she was wrong.

The distortion was growing. It was no longer just an “oddity”. The ground was shaking. And not just below the Baby Magnum. It was shaking as far as the eye could see.

“Oh ho ho. Wh-wh-wh-what is happening here!?”

“Is it shaking there too?”

It reached what she assumed had to be the peak and then continued to grow. She felt instinctual fear clutching her heart even as she sat in the cockpit of a nuke-resistant Object. She pictured this as a fatal blow. It was a lot like the unimaginable pain that kept growing when you were stabbed with a knife or shot with a gun.

“Is this the Objects’ great weight causing a-”

“Stop, you stupid Information Alliance commander! Letting them know about that won’t improve their situation!!”

Frolaytia’s panicked response was all the confirmation the Princess needed.

She hadn’t been wrong at all.

This was a fatal blow to the planet itself.

The limit had finally been reached. The planet’s thick crust couldn’t bear the shaking and shattered.

In other words, the ground itself split open and orange lava spewed from the depths.

On that day, the Faith Organization’s home country was wiped from the world map.


Epilogue[edit]

They were more than 60m below ground. That was equivalent to the height of a 20-story building. Normally, leading more than 100 civilians out from there might have taken several hours. So even with the disconcerting tremors and thick cracks running through the concrete walls and ceiling, Quenser’s group could not immediately reach the surface safely.

The sheer number of hostages trapped in the train was a problem.

They had left a motorcycle and two snowmobile-like one-person vehicles further up in the tunnels, but they wouldn’t be of much use. Some of the hostages were small children and others were elderly. They had to walk even slower than usual while making sure no one fell behind due to confusion or exhaustion.

“What do we do now? We took out Bad Garage, but it didn’t fix anything. What’s going on up top? Will a photo of that guy’s corpse and a DNA sample really convince anyone of anything?”

“Yeah, and Septimontium is still out there. We’re still wanted, so we’ll be shot if we don’t have an escape route ready.”

Fortunately, the ceiling did not collapse and bury them all alive.

There was the occasional youth whose fear or panic got the better of them and tried to run off, but Putana could generally sense it coming based on their gaze. And the best solution there was to aim a gun at them. That replaced their undefined fear with a very well defined fear. Of course, that wasn’t going to earn their thanks even if it did keep them safe.

So many of the goddess statues had toppled over. Some of their heads had even come off during the fall. The tourists silently looked away, like that was hinting at their own fate.

“Wh-why did that statue fall this way? This isn’t an ordinary earthquake.”

“It’s also kind of wet and there’s a crack in the wall. Could it have been steam?” Myonri wiped sweat from her brow. “Um, and isn’t it really hot in here? D-do you hear a sizzling sound from the other side of the wall?”

“It’s all the people. Of course it’s hot with one or two hundred people packed into this tunnel.”

Heivia tried to laugh it off, but there was a tremor in his voice.

Eventually, they arrived at the tunnel’s exit without losing a single person.

But for some reason, no one ran eagerly toward the light at the exit.

Perhaps they all had a bad feeling about what they would find there.

“Yeah…” groaned Quenser.

Everything was black and orange.

The fate of Rome was laid out before their eyes.

The yelling, screaming, and crying he could understand.

But the weak laughter he heard in front of a belltower sinking and collapsing into the lava made no sense.

Something else had collapsed in that orange sea.

It was one of the round Septimontiums.

Were the sirens coming from fire trucks, ambulances, or riot police? The occasional gunfire may have been thieves taking advantage of the chaos, but it also could have been people shooting themselves in the head after seeing their home collapsing around them.

What had become of Millia Newburg?

Could they still contact Frolaytia or the Princess?

His radio was working again now that they were out of the tunnel. That was evident from all the various civilian and military transmissions it was picking up.

Quenser Barbotage had thought they were here to save the city.

Today had been hell, but they had done their job. Maybe they would be accused of wrongdoing, but they had taken on a great burden and ensured everyone’s safety for the time being.

But his radio told an entirely different story.

“Dammit, it’s really started. The Faith Organization is so panicked they’ve lost sight of the big picture. They’ve officially submitted a declaration of war against the Legitimacy Kingdom. They claim it’s retaliation for losing their home country because we refused to share our intelligence with them, but they’re the ones who refused to cooperate! They’re gonna try and do the same to us out of revenge. They won’t stop until Paris is engulfed in flames!!”

“Do they not even care who was behind the attack? I’m not dying because they’re too mad to think straight, dammit!!”

“Hey, did you see those lights falling from the sky? Our frontline base was obliterated 5 seconds after their declaration of war. That means they launched them before the declaration, which violates so many international treaties!!”

“Listen up, everyone!! The Faith Organization has put together a largescale ground attack unit full of attack helicopters and tanks and it’s headed this way. The Alps will be our defensive line. If they get past here, they have a straight shot at our home country of Paris!! The intelligence division will erase your hard disks back home. Brave Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers like us are not going to let the enemy’s bullets reach Paris’s innocent civilians before they reach us. Remember your daily lessons and training. We will stop them even if it means lining up as a great shield of flesh and blood!!”

“Gbh, gah!! This is Corsica Early Warning Radar Base with an emergency- agh, it’s gas. They’re using banned chemical weapons!! Bwehhh!!!???”

“The Capitalist Corporations and Information Alliance are on the move too. They keep shooting down our satellites. Are they trying to position themselves on the winning side so they can steal some of our land!? Like taking a big spoonful of pudding from the world map!?”

“Our Tsar Fleet will defend the Mediterranean with our lives. Everyone else please withdraw, receive permission to send in an Object, and construct an impregnable naval defense line. Do not waste the time we are giving you. …Okay, men!! It’s hunting time!! Let’s show that Faith Organization naval Object what it means to pick a fight with sailors!!!!!”

The reports were either requesting assistance or resigned to their fate.

So many lives had been lost before this.

But Quenser Barbotage began to realize that maybe the wars he had fought hadn’t been all that bad.

“It’s begun…”

He could only stand there in a daze.

Hadn’t the four world powers been colluding with each other?

Then he really wished they would work together to bring an end to this chaos. But he knew it was too late for that. Their power balance had been like a table with four legs. If one of them broke, the entire table collapsed. The four legs couldn’t come together as one anymore. With all four legs intact, they had been able to speak in secret and plot to profit equally from the state of the world, but now the Faith Organization’s home country had been destroyed. They weren’t just going to take one for the team after that.

They were going to muster all of their forces to take out the other legs.

That was the new world they lived in now.

HO v19 BW12.png

The nameless young man from Bad Garage had struck back at the world for destroying his village with Objects. The 6 or 7 billion people out there were now at the mercy of a dead man.

There was only one word for it.

“It’s finally started. This isn’t the usual clean wars. No one’s even trying to pretend anymore. The four world powers aren’t going to stop until they have truly burned each other to the ground, bringing down the rest of the world with them. This is a true world war.”

Another hand squeezed at Quenser’s.

It belonged to the small boy he had saved earlier.

Heroes do exist.

Could he still live up to that title?

He needed to lay out everything he had and every skill he possessed and come up with an answer.

This was a world war.

What could Quenser Barbotage realistically do in a hell that burned so hot it seemed to redefine the very meaning of right and wrong?


Afterword[edit]

Now Heavy Object has reached 19 volumes.

This is Kamachi Kazuma.

When researching some exciting technology to use in this series full of colossal weapons and crazy technology, I came across the research of fear. Instead of working on the power of warheads or precision of missiles, that devilish research directly targets the inside of people’s minds. I focused on amplifying fear in the story, but there is also research into alleviating your own people’s fear. War and military actions have been trending more compact and easily controlled since the development of drones and cyber attacks, but this field is probably the exact opposite. After all, the research starts at driving people mad with external stimuli, intentionally making them lose control to give yourself an advantage.

An unseen effect causes a specific target displeasure.

And that creates an advantage for the person behind it.

Would the mosquito alarms, that you don’t hear much about anymore, count as a close-to-home version of that? I believe the intention was to keep delinquents from loitering at stores by playing an unpleasant sound that older people can’t hear, but the effects differed a lot between individuals and it’s hard to predict how exactly people will react to such things. What if it irritated someone to the point that they lashed out and robbed the place? And what about the high school or college students working there part time?

This one started with Mariydi from the Capitalist Corporations, moved on to an Information Alliance weapon attacking Quenser and the others from the Legitimacy Kingdom, and ended with an attack on the Faith Organization. The fact that it ended with the Faith Organization is somewhat important. They’re the ones who place the most emphasis on people’s state of mind, so I made Rome the final stage for this novel about the research of fear! Although anyone who has read this far knows the Faith Organization has enough internal strife already.


A smaller thing I want to draw you attention to is the one-person vehicles. With more and more IT companies getting involved in electric cars, I wonder if we’re going to see more models that don’t look much like traditional cars. I think one-person convertibles or ones that look more like snowmobiles or bobsleds would be cool, but what did you all think? Seriously though, I think people who aren’t as attached to the traditional shape of cars would have an easier time inventing a flying car (even if people don’t really talk about those much anymore).

It was fun getting to write another Putana Highball car chase after so long. I enjoy those as much as Mariydi’s dogfights. Maybe I’m drawn to the gap of such a serious person fighting as an outlaw. And like you saw in the story, her scopophobia let’s her engage in close combat on super easy mode!! She might outdo Mariydi and Catherine on the list of girls I definitely don’t want as an enemy. I’m also pretty impressed with Klarheit for surviving to the end after being hit by a tank gun’s blast and shrapnel and flying a bomber through an area without air superiority. Now, could Mariydi defeat him if he was uninjured and flying a cutting-edge fighter?


I give my thanks to my illustrator Nagi Ryou-san and my editors Miki-san, Anan-san, Nakajima-san, and Hamamura-san. From a ghost to a great disaster, this one had a lot of events that don’t fall into the military and war categories, so the illustrations must have been difficult. Thank you so much for sticking with me yet again.

And I give my thanks to the readers. This series has always made a joke out of the ugly and dirty side of humanity, but I hope you can enjoy the goodness and idealism that grows from that ruined world like small flowers blossoming from the cracks.


And I will leave it at that.


Happy new world.

-Kamachi Kazuma


Intermission[edit]

She still had a present she had failed to give. She had concerns she couldn’t share with anyone.

But none of that mattered anymore.

The Princess saw it all from the cockpit of the Baby Magnum. Her Object was equipped with countless radars, sensors, and lenses, so she may have gathered more information than the soldiers actually fleeing in a panic through Rome.

“Oh ho ho… What in the world is happening here!? Rome is engulfed in flames. Are you saying that I…that we caused this with our Objects!?”

Lava spewed forth.

Flames burned bright.

The catastrophe stretched as far as the eye could see.

(Yes.)

She lamented, but she could not speak it out loud.

Because she knew she didn’t have the right.

(It wasn’t just an unproven theory. It was true. And now our Objects have started a world war.)

A new world war had begun.

Leaving one girl’s heart in tatters.




Prev [v d e]HEAVY OBJECT Next
Volume 1 Novel Illust. - Prologue - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Epilogue - Afterword
Volume 2 Novel Illust. - Prologue - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Epilogue - Afterword
Volume 3 Novel Illust. - Prologue - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Epilogue - Afterword
Volume 4 Novel Illust. - Prologue - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Epilogue - Afterword
Volume 5 Novel Illust. - Prologue - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Chapter 4 - Chapter 5 - Epilogue - Afterword
Volume 6 Novel Illust. - Prologue - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Epilogue - Afterword
Volume 7 Novel Illust. - Prologue - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Epilogue - Afterword
Volume 8 Novel Illust. - Prologue - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Epilogue - Afterword
Volume 9 Novel Illust. - Prologue - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Epilogue - Afterword
Volume 10 Novel Illust. - Prologue - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Epilogue - Afterword
Volume 11 Novel Illust. - Prologue - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Epilogue - Afterword
Volume 12 Novel Illust. - Prologue - Day 1 - Day 2 - Day 3 - Day 4 - Day 5 - Day 6 - Day 7 - Epilogue - Afterword
Volume 13 Novel Illust. - Prelude - Track 1 - Track 2 - Track 3 - Track 4 - Track 5 - Track 6 - Track 7 - Track 8 - Track 9 - Track 10 - Track 11 - Track 12 - Track 13 - Postscript - Bonus
Volume 14 Novel Illust. - Prologue - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Epilogue - Afterword
Volume 15 Novel Illust. - Prologue - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Epilogue - Afterword
Volume 16 Novel Illust. - Prologue - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Epilogue - Afterword - ?
Volume 17 Novel Illust. - Prologue - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Epilogue - Afterword
Volume 18 Novel Illust. - Prologue - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Epilogue - Afterword
Volume 19 Novel Illust. - Prologue - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Epilogue - Afterword - Intermission
Short Stories Short Story 1 - Short Story 2
Volume EX Novel Illust. - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Chapter 4 - Chapter 5 - Chapter 6 - Chapter 7 - Chapter 8
Crossover Novel Illust. - Preface - Prologue - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Chapter 4 - Epilogue - A.E. 02 - Aterword