Unlimited Fafnir:Volume 12 Chapter 2
Chapter 2 - Atlantis the Electronic Fairy
A complicated maze of passages illuminated by milky-white lighting filled the interior of Marduk.
However, I already knew the internal layout like the back of my hand thanks to my link to Marduk. I first took everyone to the bridge in the top part of the ship's interior. Every shut door opened automatically in response to my intention to open it.
The bridge was a domed structure with a diameter of roughly ten meters. After I entered, the ceiling displayed images from all around the ship's surroundings. I took a look around and could even see Charlotte and the students at the harbor.
Everyone was exclaiming in awe and surprise. Accompanying us as Midgard's commanding officer, Shinomiya-sensei walked over to the seat located at the front of the domed room.
There was one seat in the very center of the domed room with three more in front on the circular edge. This looked a bit few, but I knew clearly it was enough. This ship could be used properly even if there was only one user linked to Marduk.
"This is an Atlantean weapon, huh? Although you are able to control it without problems, Mononobe Yuu, are others capable of operating this ship? Though there is a console... I cannot read the language at all. I hope there is some kind of communications channel to ensure contact with Midgard and NIFL."
Shinomiya-sensei looked a bit troubled.
Although I could feel how things were used, articulating it was quite difficult. At that moment, Tia poked out her head from beside me and answered on my behalf.
"Don't worry, just let Tia do it! Leave it to Tia!"
With a flash of electricity from Tia's red horns, static appeared momentarily on the dome-shaped monitor.
"Uh... Hmm... If I copy Midgard's... Roughly like this—"
Tia murmured to herself for a while, opening a window on the monitor in front of a seat. The language on the console also turned into letters of the Latin alphabet.
"Tia tried installing an Asgard-compatible virtual OS inside the Marduk System. Will that work?"
After listening to Tia, Ren jogged over to the empty seat.
"Mm, let's confirm. It seems very interesting."
Ren looked incredibly excited as she started to operate the console.
"......Mm. Feels like it'll work. I should be able to understand the entire system by starting here. Analyzing the ship's drive system will take time... But opening up a comm channel should be instant."
Hearing Ren's reply, Shinomiya-sensei breathed a sigh of relief.
"Excellent, then I would have a job to do. Leave negotiations with NIFL to me. Roughly three hours from now, NIFL's forces at the first defense line in the Arctic Ocean will begin to engage Bahamut... Will we make it in time? If not, then there is the second defense line set up in the waters of Norway—"
"It's fine, Marduk will definitely make it."
Sensing the ship's "power" as though it were my own limb, I asserted. There was enough time even if we traveled normally within the atmosphere. If necessary, we could even exit the atmosphere to fly along a ballistic trajectory.
"Very well, then let us set a course for the rendezvous point with the forces at the first defense line. The coordinates are—"
After Shinomiya-sensei gave the latitude and longitude, Ren immediately operated the console to display the map on the monitor.
From my senses, I learned that Marduk's systems understood that this was the destination.
The mild headache persisted, but my expanded consciousness filled me with a sense of omnipotence. I felt as though I was capable of anything right now.
"—Roger that. Marduk, set sail."
Sitting on the seat in the middle of the room, with the best visibility, I increased the depth of my synchronization with Marduk. As though moving my fingers, I retracted the gangway and locked the hatch. Main engine ignited—The ship moved forward dead slow.
Marduk began to launch slowly, gradually leaving the harbor.
I turned on the external sound output to speak with the people seeing us off.
"Well then—We are setting off."
Then I turned around and gestured to Iris and the girls with my hand.
After showing a look as though awakening from a dream, Iris took a deep breath and yelled.
This triggered everyone else to say the usual parting pleasantries. Yet to develop a sense of belonging at Midgard, Kili and Vritra did not join in, but they did not interject either.
The bridge monitor showed the crowd, gradually receding away.
'—All of you must come back!!'
Waving her hand vigorously from the harbor, Charlotte's voice from the speaker echoed in the bridge. Then came the "safe travels" well wishes from the students to send us off.
Once I decided there was sufficient distance from the harbor, I raised the engine output and took formal control of Marduk.
On the sides of the ship, the main wings swung out, activating the gravitational control devices—
The video feed on the dome's ceiling monitor began to change. Midgard and the ocean were gradually receding away.
Even though we did not feel any shaking at all in the bridge, Marduk had taken off and was already hovering in the air.
Liberated from the constraints of gravity, the ship used its wings to stabilize itself and switched to atmospheric flight mode.
"—Off we go."
I spoke briefly.
The main engine increased in output. The main thrusters ignited. Acceleration began.
Slight vibration was felt in the bridge. Due to the rapid acceleration, the scenery flew past quickly. Centered around our flight direction, the clouds were stretched radially into thin trails.
Midgard was out of sight. What extended before our eyes was the blue of the sky and the ocean, as well as the white clouds, drawn out and receding to the back.
With the blue horizon as the destination, the ship flew. Once cruising speed in the atmosphere was reached, I stopped accelerating and leaned against the seat rest.
"Phew... Now all that's left is to fly straight towards the destination."
Persistent control would increase the burden on the mind excessively, so I reduced my synchronization with Marduk and switched to auto-pilot mode. The headache, which I had forgotten while I was concentrating, resurfaced, causing me to shake my head.
"Good work, Mononobe-kun. You really nailed that captain feel."
Firill emerged from behind my seat and laughed mischievously.
"...I'm just the pilot. Shinomiya-sensei is the captain."
I replied wryly and Shinomiya-sensei looked back.
"No, regarding this ship, you are the captain. I am just the communications officer."
"I'm the sysadmin."
Staring at the monitor, tapping away at the console, Ren remarked without turning her head.
"Then what about us?"
With nothing assigned to her currently, Iris brought a finger to the side of her mouth and cocked her head.
"Hmm... Ordinary crew, I guess?"
After Ariella spoke, Shion asked Jeanne:
"cRew? whAt DoEs cRew dO?"
"Uh, let me think... People who do all kinds of work on a ship... I suppose?"
However, Kili shrugged after listening.
"But is there any work to do here?"
"Know that I have no wish to do work."
Vritra frowned and objected to working. Looking a bit exasperated, Lisa asked me:
"I shall do everything within my ability. Mononobe Yuu, is there anything I can offer assistance with?"
"No—Not at the moment. At this speed, it will take roughly two and a half hours to reach the destination... Lisa, you girls need to rest properly in preparation for the upcoming battle. Cabins for the crew are on the left and right sides of the corridor leaving the bridge. I'll unlock them now, so all of you can pick whichever cabin you prefer."
I focused my mind and opened the doors to the various cabins.
The Atlanteans were humans too, so all essential facilities were the same. Through the data in my mind, I verified the cabin layouts. They were equipped with beds and showers.
"Understood. So much happened last night and we did not get to sleep well. Let us take a quick nap to refresh ourselves."
Lisa nodded and left the bridge with the others. Only Mitsuki remained, staring at me.
"Nii-san... What are your plans?"
"I'll stay here. I can't relax too much if I'm controlling Marduk."
"I see—Then I will share a cabin with Iris-san. It would be best for me not to be alone."
With a disappointed look, Mitsuki left the bridge. Did she intend to have a word with me? I hesitated, wondering if I should chase after her, but it felt like I'd merely repeat last night's situation if I said anything—So I stayed in my seat.
Only three people remained in the bridge. Ren who was focused on analyzing Marduk's systems, Shinomiya-sensei who was currently contacting NIFL, and myself.
Even though I could not relax too much, there was nothing in particular for me to do at the moment. Having set up Marduk to fly towards the destination at a constant speed, all I needed to do was maintain the link.
No—Perhaps I could even take a nap.
The people piloting this Marduk in the past could not have worked nonstop without sleep or rest. However, piloting information was separate from the data on the ship's structure, so it was all unknown to me. Even though I could feel how to activate Marduk, I had no idea how the pilots regulated their own conditions.
That being said, attempting to take a nap would be too dangerous. All I could do was wait for Ren's analysis to finish then see if there was some kind of manual related to that.
I suppressed a natural yawn.
Having slept on a sofa last night, I would slip into drowsiness as soon as there was nothing to do. Auto-piloting had lessened my burden, causing my headache to gradually improve. I could very well fall asleep accidentally for real.
Ren and Shinomiya-sensei seemed quite busy, so I was reluctant to talk to them just for a change of pace.
My only choice was to look up at the domed ceiling, gazing at the clouds, rapidly flying past.
—What might Mitsuki and Iris be chatting about?
After spacing out for a while, this thought crossed my mind.
I had told Iris everything. Spending time alone with Mitsuki in these circumstances, she might possibly panic.
Suddenly at that moment, my vision turned blurry then within the blink of an eye, the view in front of me changed completely.
I saw one of the cabins I had opened up for the girls just now. Inside a narrow room meant for a single occupant, there was a bed, a table and a shower compartment. Iris was sitting on the bed while Mitsuki had her laptop open at the table.
"Iris-san, you should lie down. I have slept plenty enough, so let me first take care of some student council work that had been pushed back due to the festival yesterday."
"Mitsuki-chan, even now, you're still working hard at finishing your work as the student council president? You're so amazing..."
"Not really, I am simply using work to give myself a change of pace—"
I was able to listen to their conversation.
The view point was looking down at Iris and Mitsuki from near the ceiling. But of course, I was not actually there and neither did they notice me.
—Were these images transmitted to me from Marduk?
I was currently linked to Marduk and through my senses, I was able to know the entire ship's state and method of operation.
Due to being in this state, that was probably why my curiosity about what was happening inside the ship had caused the relevant scenes to be visually projected into my mind. But in terms of the feeling, it was more like I had become an invisible ghost hovering in midair rather than merely viewing images.
This was totally voyeurism. I frantically tried to pull my consciousness back to reality but my thoughts halted when I heard something Iris said.
"Mitsuki-chan, is 'instinct' not acceptable for you?"
Mitsuki stopped what she was doing and stared at Iris in surprise.
"Sorry... Mononobe told me."
"...Is that so?"
Iris apologized then Mitsuki bowed her head somewhat embarrassedly.
"U-Umm, this is what I think. Isn't instinct the source of all feelings, like being hungry, wanting to sleep, or liking someone? So if you say that's unacceptable, how should I put this...?"
The atmosphere grew more and more heavy as Iris continued anxiously. At this moment, Mitsuki smiled wryly and made a deep sigh.
"—Thank you for your encouragement, but this is not the same."
This was a very transparent but very sad smile.
"Not the same?"
"Indeed. Iris-san, of course I have already agonized over what you were talking about, but what makes me truly afraid is—"
Mitsuki simply bit her lip with a very pained expression and did not finish her sentence. Seeing the look on her face, Iris stood up from the bed and rushed over to her side.
"N-No more! I'm sorry, Mitsuki-chan, I don't know anything..."
I didn't know either what was tormenting Mitsuki. I had no idea at all. How truly disgraceful.
"...Do not let it bother you. If you are going to take a nap, how about a shower first?"
Mitsuki shook her head and urged Iris as though trying to change the subject.
"Sure... Oh, in that case, we might as well shower together! Mitsuki-chan, you haven't had a bath since last night, have you?"
"I have not, but showering together should not be necessary..."
Mitsuki hesitated in the face of Iris' sudden suggestion, but Iris clenched her fist and insisted vigorously.
"It is! This is definitely more fun than work! If you're going for a change of pace, then fun is obviously the answer! Come, up up up you go! I'll help you undress."
Saying that, Iris helped Mitsuki up and untied the ribbon at her collar.
"W-Wait! I can do this by myself—"
Mitsuki was very surprised, but I was equally flustered.
Although it was bad to eavesdrop up to this point, watching the rest would be truly unforgivable.
I tried to turn my attention elsewhere, which hopefully would switch the video feed.
—Another room, anywhere but here...!
Pale skin came into view with the unfastening of buttons at the collar—Just as I tried my hardest to avert my gaze, the two of them disappeared from view.
However, I was still looking into a cabin on the ship. My consciousness was hovering near the ceiling and I could see Firill lying forward on the bed, reading a book.
Firill chuckled happily to herself while turning the pages.
It looked like my viewpoint had switched to Firill's cabin.
This was not good either. I should switch to either an unoccupied cabin or back to the bridge next.
I focused my mind, trying to switch my viewpoint to a place of my choosing. However, Firill's kicking legs entered a corner of my view.
While reading, she was slowly kicking her legs up and down alternately. With her socks taken off, her calves were making my heart race, but the thighs were even more dangerous.
Due to the movement of her legs, the hem of her skirt was lifted, almost exposing her underwear. No, if I changed the angle, perhaps I could—
—Hey, what the heck am I thinking!?
I came to my senses and suppressed inappropriate thoughts, forcibly moving my gaze away from Firill's thighs.
Next, the view changed again. Apparently, the thought of shifting my gaze away was the trigger to changing the viewpoint.
But the next one was still a cabin occupied by one of my companions.
Ariella was silently doing push-ups. Strength training, I guess.
In preparation for the imminent battle—That wasn't right. This kind of regular training had the effect of calming one's mind. I knew that all too well.
Regular breathing noises. Sweat dripping from her brow. Heating up due to exercise, the hue of her skin looked even more seductive. I could not help but gulp.
However, just as I noticed Ariella switching from push-ups to a handstand posture, I panicked.
—H-Hey, if you go upside-down...
Just as her slender legs were about to point up to the ceiling and her skirt would flip over due to gravity, I mobilized my self-control completely and shifted my gaze.
Another change of viewpoint, but this time, I did not even get a chance to relax.
"Mama, cAn'T taKe oFf."
"Try harder, Zwei. If I always help you, then you will never learn how to unfasten your own buttons, you know?"
In the next cabin, Jeanne was watching Shion undress. Like Iris and Mitsuki, they were probably going to take a shower.
"...goT it. i'LL tRy mY BesT."
It brought a smile to one's face to see Shion doing her best to unfasten her buttons, but also made the viewer feel an urge to help her.
Jeanne must be feeling the same, she extended and retracted her hand repeatedly. In the process, she came up with an idea and hastily began to remove her uniform shirt.
"Look, Zwei. Follow what I am doing."
Saying that, Jeanne began to unbutton her shirt starting from the top.
As each button was unfastened, more of her pale skin came into view, accompanied by wobbling of her bust that was tightly constrained by clothing.
After being told off by the girls previously, Jeanne stopped trying to hide the shape of her bust deliberately. However, a male uniform was still a bit too restrictive for her chest.
When the third button was undone, her cleavage became exposed and I could not help but find my gaze drawn to it.
"Uh... Like Mama..."
Shion was staring at the motions of Jeanne's hands for reference, but it was difficult for me to remain calm after watching Jeanne expose her feminine body.
—I've got to leave and switch to another room—
Using the same principle as before, I averted my gaze and consciousness. Before the next image appeared, a high-pitched voice sounded in my mind first.
"Ahh, 'tis enough! I have stated I do not need a bath!"
"No, Mother. Since you are currently unable to replace your body, you need to take proper care of your hair and skin."
A warzone of a cabin was projected into my mind. Dressed in a camisole, Vritra was running all over the place, trying to escape Kili who was trying to disrobe her by force.
"Be that as it may, I am capable of performing the task alone—"
"If I leave it to you, Mother, isn't that the same as not using shampoo?"
"It entereth mine eyes!"
One of Vritra's shoulder straps had loosened and she was running around the room in a less than presentable manner. In many ways, this was unsuitable for continued viewing. The black dragon—"Black" Vritra—Where has its fearsome aura gone off to?
—I'll pretend I never saw this.
Making my decision, I moved my gaze away from these mother-daughter interactions that brought a smile to my face.
The view switched and the two of them disappeared. This time, it was a cabin with an identical layout, but no one was there.
I sighed mentally. Finally, an unused cabin.
Upon closer examination, I noticed a set of school uniform, properly folded on the bed, and there were faint water sounds and humming coming from the shower room.
"Why are you~~ always so~~ reckless~~♪"
The pitch and melody were not very accurate and the lyrics were probably improvised.
"I really wish~~ you could show some moderation~~ which is why I can't~~ leave you alone~~♪"
Did she feel inspired? The chorus part seemed to be sung in high spirits.
This voice—Lisa's. I could not be mistaken.
"Before I knew it, someone like you~~ has taken over an important position in my heart~~"
However, this was really embarrassing.
I had done something similar before, but singing in the shower was usually kept for occassions with no one else present. If someone heard me, I'd feel so embarrassed that I'd lock myself in the room for a while.
Just as I was feeling guilty, the water stopped and the shower room was opened.
My heart shook violently. Now I realized it was no time to be laid back.
White steam flowed into the room as Lisa emerged naked from the shower room—
Although I knew she could not hear my voice, I still apologized on reflex and closed my eyes.
The sounds vanished instantly and I knew the scene had shifted again.
I slowly and carefully opened my eyelids—those of my consciousness rather than my real ones.
However, I could not see anything.
I was surrounded by white mist and there was the sound of running water.
—Where... is this?
Just as I muttered in my heart, the mist moved—Then came a loud voice.
"Oh—Yuu, what are you doing there?"
The water stopped and the mist thinned out a bit, then Tia's figure came into view.
Obscured by the mist was her naked body. Only then did I realize I was inside the shower room.
More surprisingly, Tia was looking up at me.
—T-Tia? You can see me?
No one so far had been able to notice me as a mental projection nor hear my thoughts. However, Tia nodded matter-of-factly. As Yggdrasil's successor, Tia's ability to interfere with "information" had probably allowed her to sense my consciousness that was synchronized with Marduk.
"Of course Tia can see you. Yuu... Did you come to peek on Tia?"
Tia blushed shyly and used her hands to cover her breasts and lower abdomen.
—No, I didn't do this on purpose! It's just that after linking with Marduk, images from inside the ship have flowed automatically into my mind—
"Images from inside the ship? So Yuu not only peeked on Tia but everyone else?"
—Urgh, well, although I didn't do it on purpose, that's what it ended up being...
Unable to refute her, I admitted it. After all, it was the indelible truth that I had peeked on everyone while they were unguarded.
"Yuu, peeking is bad. Even if it wasn't on purpose, you need to be punished for doing bad things."
Tia stared at me and spoke in Lisa's tone of voice.
"So, come to Tia's cabin right away, Yuu, in your real body."
—F-Fine. But how do I switch my viewpoint back?
"Tia will help you."
A flash of electricity sparked across Tia's red horns. The blinding light made me closed my eyes. When I opened them again, I was already back in my seat in the bridge.
Ren and Shinomiya-sensei were working at their positions in front and did not seem to have noticed my consciousness moving away.
I was slightly unsteady when I stood up. There was a sharp pain throbbing in the depths of my head.
Including the fact that I could not control my viewpoint, it looked like I had yet to master Marduk's control.
Saying I was going over to Tia, I left the bridge.
Along the sides of the passage, illuminated with milky-white light, were a series of doors. These were the cabins the girls were using.
Which one was Tia's? Although I could find out immediately by searching the interior of Marduk through my senses, this could end up turning into "voyeurism" again. Just as I was hesitating, a door opened automatically as though it had read my mind.
I approached the cabin and peered inside from the entrance.
I called her name and got a response from the shower room.
"Yuu, come in."
It looked like it was Tia's cabin. I entered as instructed and the door closed automatically.
"Uh, sorry for just now. While you were showering..."
Somewhat embarrassed, I apologized to Tia.
"Tia is not angry, after all, you are Tia's husband... But doing bad things means you have to be punished. Tia will work hard too."
From behind the door to the shower room, I could hear Tia's voice not very clearly.
In the past, Lisa had punished Tia to cleanse her of her guilt. Tia was most likely recalling that scene, which was why she was imitating Lisa.
"—Got it. Then I'm counting on you."
When answering, I prepared myself to be punched.
"Then come over to this side."
This unexpected answer made my voice go off key. I asked in puzzlement:
"Wait, Tia, aren't you in the middle of a shower?"
"Yes. Which is why Yuu will help wash Tia's hair as punishment for peeking just now. Usually, Lisa does it... But today, we are in separate cabins."
"W-Wash your hair—"
"...You can't do it?"
Tia's question interrupted my attempt to refuse.
"I can—But speaking of which, why did you pick separate cabins from Lisa?"
I needed some time to adjust my mindset, so I asked her a question.
From Tia's whisper, I could hear hesitation and unease.
The weakness in her voice made me realize that perhaps the reason why Tia had called me to her cabin was not only to punish me.
Last night, Tia had extracted data on the seventh dragon from Yggdrasil's Akashic Record, but due to the sudden emergence of the Bahamut, we had not had time to ask her about the result.
"Sorry, I won't complain. I'll accept your punishment, Tia."
Deciding that now was the time to be by Tia's side, I started removing my uniform.
I heard a happy voice behind the door.
After undressing completely, I took the towel that was placed in front of the shower room and wrapped it around my waist, then nervously pushed the door open.
White steam flowed out of the shower room warmly while the sound of the shower echoed throughout the entire cabin. With her hands over her privates, Tia looked up at me, blushing intensely.
"...I-I'm coming in."
I closed the door after entering. The shower room was too cramped for two people, forcing me and Tia to be in close proximity. It felt like any movement would make us touch each other.
Still running, the shower poured water over my entire body below the chest. For Tia, this height was just right, but it was too low for me.
"Yuu... Can you wash my hair?"
Fidgeting, Tia looked up and inquired with her gaze.
"—Yeah. Could you turn around?"
Although the feminine fragrance filling the shower room was making my heart race, I still nodded while maintaining a serious face and used my palm to receive some shampoo.
Tia turned around obediently. In the process, her petite shoulder touched my abdomen, causing both of us to shudder.
I convinced myself this was punishment for peeking then reached towards her blonde hair that was almost pink.
Normally tied into twintails, her hair was let down and reached waist level. Indeed, washing it herself would be quite a hassle. I now understood why Lisa helped out.
"Then let's start."
I inserted my fingers between her hair near the top of her head, gently massaging her scalp while making suds with the shampoo.
"...Fufu, this tickles a bit."
Her shoulders trembling slightly, Tia laughed.
"Does it itch anywhere?"
I asked like an owner of a hair salon.
"No, Tia's hair is washed clean every day, so it doesn't itch."
After listening to her, I continued to wash her hair carefully, but whenever my fingertips touched the red horns, Tia's voice got shrill and excited.
"Hyah!? Y-Yuu, don't touch the horns suddenly! They're very sensitive!"
Tearfully, Tia looked back and glared at me.
"Oh—I see, sorry. Then should I avoid the horns?"
"...Don't worry. Tia hopes Yuu can wash the horns clean too. As long as you're gentle... It's fine."
Making her decision, she turned her back to me again.
"Got it. Then I'll be more gentle—"
I gathered suds on my fingertips and touched Tia's red horns gently.
Tia trembled and moaned, but this time, I went with the flow and continued without stopping.
"Does it tickle?"
"Oohh... I-It's okay—Ahmm... Ya... Mm..."
Tia's sweet voice echoed in the shower room, rocking my sanity greatly. I focused my mind on my fingertips to banish unnecessary thoughts.
I used the inner side of my fingers to gently rub the smooth and shiny surface of the horns while controlling my strength to scrub the interface between the scalp and the horns.
"Oh... Th-That part... Yuu... This feels so nice... Mm—"
Tia moaned in ecstasy, looking like she had gotten used to this stimulation. Her body also relaxed greatly.
It seemed that rubbing the base of the horns was quite pleasurable so I focused on cleaning it for a while. Then I combed her long hair with my fingers and carefully washed all the way to the tips. Finally, I washed off the suds and applied conditioner before rinsing with hot water—Thus I completed the punishment Tia had given me.
"Okay, it's done."
"—Tia's mind feels blank."
With blushing cheeks, Tia turned her head back then rested it against my body.
"Tia, are you okay?"
I bent down and caught Tia with my hands as she leaned back. Her petite body was warm and soft. Although there were suds lingering on her body, washed from her hair, it was not enough to cover her pale, nude body. I really had no idea where I should direct my gaze.
"...So weird. Just a shower, yet it feels like Tia soaked too long in a bath."
Tia murmured in puzzlement.
"Then let's get out soon."
I switched off the shower and was going to pick up the limp Tia in my arms, but she frantically grabbed my arm forcefully.
"Oh—Wait! Tia still wants to stay here with Yuu longer."
I did not understand so I asked for the reason. Her face all red, Tia spoke:
"...It's cramped, here... If it's here... Being close to Yuu won't be strange... Not because Tia is weak..."
Tia squeezed out these words before wrapping her arms around my neck.
Direct contact with tender skin made my heart jump, but I calmed down after noticing Tia's trembling.
When I asked why she had picked separate cabins with Lisa, she had acted strangely.
"...Did something happen?"
I controlled my emotions and asked in a gentle tone of voice. At the same time, I moved my hand to the back of Tia's petite back and gently patted her to soothe her.
"Yuu... Tia... did as Vritra suggested, to search the memories of Yggdrasil's predecessor—'Verdant' Kiskanu—about the seventh dragon."
Hugging me tightly, Tia whispered in my ear.
"Then you saw something scary?"
Holding her delicate and young body, I inquired, but she denied it.
"No... Nothing could be seen, total darkness."
"Something black was spreading throughout the Earth—devouring forests and grasslands... Kiskanu became unable to think. Due to the excessive loss of plant life, not enough computational power was left. So almost no analysis and recording could be done."
Then Tia paused, hugging me tighter.
"...So scary. 'Death'... turns out to be so painful, so sad... So lonely... Tia never knew."
Hearing this, I understood why Tia was trembling.
Digging through Kiskanu's memories, Tia had experienced "death."
I had also stood on the brink of the abyss of death, but in my case, there was still a chance to return. It was impossible for me to imagine true death.
"You worked really hard."
Consolation did not seem right, so I chose to praise her effort instead.
"Yes, Tia... worked really hard. But Tia needs to continue working... continue thinking."
Tia nodded lightly then moved her body away slightly. With our noses almost touching, she looked at me squarely.
"After destroying the world, where exactly did the seventh dragon go... That pitch-black darkness—what Kiskanu called 'end matter'—what is it exactly...? Why Bahamut reappeared now of all times.. Tia must think to find answers. This is a job that only Tia can do by using Yggdrasil's Akashic Record."
Tia finished with determination but her body was still trembling a bit.
"You're not overdoing it, are you?"
"...A bit. Tia actually wants to go to Lisa and hug her tight. Lisa is so kind and will definitely ask Tia to stop straining. But... That won't do."
So this was her reason for picking a separate cabin from Lisa, huh?
Saying she was not weak earlier was definitely just putting on a brave face.
"Will you be able to hang in there?"
"Yes—Leaning close to Yuu, Tia feels warm... It's fine now. For the husband, the wife will work hard!"
With scarlet cheeks, Tia made dazzing smile. These words came from the heart instead of putting on a strong front.
Hearing these words filled with intense affection while locked in a nude embrace, I was starting to feel my cheeks heat up.
Tia drew her face near and the tips of our noses happened to touch. Then slightly shyly, she smiled. A sweet atmosphere filled the entirety of the cramped shower room and I could feel each other's heartbeats speeding up.
At that very moment, the light in the shower room suddenly flickered.
Just as Tia and I looked up in surprise, the shower suddenly poured out a lot of cold water.
As we screamed, the water flow from the showerhead increased further, even causing it to fall from the hook and jump all over the place.
The jumping showerhead struck me in the forehead, making me see stars.
"Y-Yuu! Hurry and turn off the shower!"
"Yeah—But I'm pretty sure I turned it off just now—"
While dodging the showerhead that was rampaging like a snake, I adjusted the water flow and temperature.
However, the shower flow did not decrease. Smashing into the wall, it continued to spew cold water.
"Ooh... So cold."
Clinging to my back, Tia avoided the shower. The mild bulge of her bosom and tender skin was making my heart race, but this arousal was instantly put out by the water.
"...L-Let's leave first."
I gave up on shutting off the shower. Carrying Tia in one arm, I walked out of the shower room.
But in the process, I shuddered from the cold.
"S-So cold again."
Huddled in a ball, Tia commented on the cabin's condition.
Yes—The cabin's temperature was abnormally low. Did the air-conditioning malfunction? It was blowing cold air at maximum output.
The coldness seeped into my wet body, causing my teeth to chatter. I put down Tia then immediately operated the panel to control the air-conditioner, but like the shower, it did not respond.
"Yuu, the door can't open either!"
Unable to bear to cold, Tia slammed her hands against the door to the corridor and cried out anxiously.
"Could it be that... Marduk has gone out of control?"
I focused my mind and increased my synchronization with Marduk. Then I tried to use my mind directly to operate the cabin's functions.
However—I failed to convey my thoughts to the cabin facilities. It felt like something was blocking the transmission of my commands.
Next, the ship's operating system seemed to show abnormalities. The ship's body also shook heavily once.
"Sorry, Tia, it looks like I can't control Marduk. In truth, my head has been hurting and I thought I could keep it under control..."
"Got it. Then Tia will try interfering with the systems."
Tia nodded and closed her eyes to focus her mind. Electrical sparks erupted from her red horns. However, the air-conditioning did not stop and the door remained locked.
"—Something is in the way."
Tia showed a surprised look then turned her head to sweep her gaze around the room. Finally, her gaze settled on the ceiling near the air-conditioner.
"Yuu, look! Something's there!"
Despite looking in the direction Tia indicated, I still could not see.
"Just like when you were peeping, Yuu, it can't be seen normally."
After hearing that, I tried using "Marduk's viewpoint" to get a grasp on the cabin situation.
I concentrated and synchronized myself with Marduk further. From overhead, I observed this room—
Then I noticed a tiny glowing dot flitting about in the cabin.
However, the glowing dot immediately vanished after leaving a bright trail.
"It noticed that we discovered it and hid. Something must have invaded Marduk's system, so it's not Yuu's fault."
Saying that, Tia quickly dried herself and put on her uniform. I picked up my clothes while trying not to look in her direction and asked:
"Invaded the system... But this is a pre-civilization weapon filled with lost technology, right? Is that even possible?"
"But it's true we've been hacked. We'll know once the culprit is caught. But it's hard unless Tia goes all-out... Yuu, you might feel numb... Okay?"
Tia asked hesitantly.
"Yeah, no problem. Go ahead."
Since I could not do anything, relying on Tia was the only way.
"Got it. Okay, electronic warfare—Begin."
Tia had already put on her clothes. A blinding flash of electricity was released from her horns. The electricity zapped throughout the cramped cabin. I guarded my face with my arms and held my breath. My physical body took almost no damage but the feeling of being synchronized to Marduk was numbed for an instant.
This was evidence that Tia's interference had spread throughout the ship. Most likely, Tia had held back earlier to avoid affecting my link with Marduk. The numbing feeling probably referred sensations on Marduk's side.
After subduing Yggdrasil, Tia had gained the power that Kiskanu had used to destroy "Ultimate Wisdom" Atlantis. This authority allowed her to control electromagnetism and dominate all kinds of "electronic information."
A forcible search through the systems of Marduk, an Atlantean weapon, would be a piece of cake for Tia.
The cabin's illumination flickered and went out.
When it brightened again, the air-conditioner stopped blowing cold air and I could hear that the water in the shower room had stopped.
"—Control over this cabin has been seized back. Yuu, if something doesn't feel right in the ship, tell Tia."
Having dressed, I nodded then checked Marduk's state as though examining my own body.
Marduk's numbed feeling, due to Tia's interference, was gradually recovering. Although a bit of numbness remained, preventing precise operation of the ship's facilities, finding irregularities was still doable.
"Considering the shaking earlier, something must be wrong with the drive system—Main mechanism normal. Others... Hmm? There's something off about the gravitational control device on the left main wing."
"Got it. It must be there!"
Tia nodded and her horns released a flash of electricity.
The blinding light made me narrow my eyes while watching her fight. I could not imagine what kind of battle was taking place inside the system. Marduk's senses were also showing localized paralysis and numbing, which told me where the electronic warfare was taking place—but I could not get a grasp on further details.
After a while, Tia smiled victoriously and held my hand.
"Yuu, go to the bridge! The culprit is over there!"
Pulling me, she walked towards the doorway and the door opened automatically.
"By over there, you mean—"
Before I understood the situation, I went with Tia to run along the corridor to the bridge.
After the door to the bridge opened, we stepped into the domed room. Shinomiya-sensei and Ren were looking up at the monitor that was filled with static.
"W-What happened? Did I press a wrong button?"
"...Doubt it. Calm down. Probably a virus or something."
Ren comforted the flustered Shinomiya-sensei. The omnidirectional monitor originally displaying optical images from outside was not only showing static but also had countless small vine-like images, crawling over the screen.
"Look, I'll catch it soon."
Tia pointed up.
I looked closely and saw a glowing ball moving rapidly on the screen, roughly the size of a baseball. The vines were chasing it.
Finally cornered, the glowing ball was entangled by the vines.
"This rubbish tree! Unhand me!"
Then a high-pitched voice sounded throughout the bridge.
The glowing sphere gradually dimmed and the true appearance of what the vines had caught was displayed on the monitor. It was a very petite girl with transparent wings sprouting from her back. Based on the displayed size, her height was around twenty centimeters.
Ren remarked in a whisper.
Judging from the girl's height and appearance, it was quite normal to think of this description first.
"In any case, what is the current situation?"
Unable to hide the doubt on her face, Shinomiya-sensei wanted us to explain further. Tia replied:
"The virus invading Marduk and the vaccine program Tia created are being visualized on the monitor. The fairy-like thing is the virus and the vines comprise the vaccine."
"Who are you calling a virus! I am the ultimate machine intellect, created by supreme wisdom!"
The tiny fairy instantly retorted, struggling furiously to escape the vines restraining her. However, the vines showed no signs of releasing her.
"Machine intellect...? You mean AI?"
As soon as I asked my question, the fairy glared at me.
"Do not compare me to primitive artificial intelligence! I am not something created by humans! The wisdom of Atlantis was achieved through continual self-evolution of collective machines—As such, I ought to be called machine intellect, not artificial intelligence! How dare you call me a virus, that would be an insult of the most awful and most atrocious nature... Isn't the rubbish tree that destroyed my civilization an even more deplorable virus!?"
The fairy vented in a vigorous diatribe. While her voice sounded in my mind, there was information that could not be ignored.
"What... Atlantis? What rubbish tree... Don't tell me you're referring to Tia—no, Yggdrasil?"
Seeing the fairy glare at Tia with hatred, I asked cautiously, but an unexpected source gave the reply.
'Precisely, 2nd Lieutenant Mononobe. She hates Yggdrasil with a passion—or what used to be known as Kiskanu, I suppose. After all, it was the mortal enemy that wiped out Atlantean civilization completely.'
I followed the sudden sound source, which was coming from where Shinomiya-sensei was sitting, but it was not her voice. In front of her seat, there was a square window on the monitor—A man with slender eyes was smiling.
'Furthermore, she suffered during the battle last time. The firing of the battleship Naglfar's cannon was interrupted due its system getting hacked. Let it be... It was my mistake for failing to take into account that the other side possessed the holder of Yggdrasil's authority.'
I muttered the name of the man who was smiling wryly.
He used to be my superior officer. In addition, we were opponents who had put everything on the line to kill each other. Furthermore, I had killed him with these hands of mine. Although Kili had used biogenic transmutation to save his life afterwards... The sensation of taking a life still lingered on my hands.
'Hmph... You look like you've seen a ghost, 2nd Lieutenant Mononobe. You can't possibly be unaware that I am alive, right?'
"I knew, but it still feels strange..."
With mixed feelings of guilt and relief, I nodded.
'Me too. Being able to see the face of one's murderer must be a rare experience. However, let us put this topic aside for now. Could you release her first? It appears that she entered your ship through the communications channel while Colonel Shinomiya and I were having a strategy discussion.'
Major Loki pointed at the screen and spoke. Although the direction was off, he was presumably referring to the fairy caught in the vines.
"Well, even if you tell me to release her..."
Slightly troubled, I exchanged eye contact with Tia beside me for a moment. Major Loki smiled.
'Relax. She won't take any action that would cause critical harm to any of you. She is well aware that your participation is necessary for the upcoming operation. It was merely mischief to give you a headache, that's all. Am I right, Atla?
Hearing this, the fairy restrained by the vines nodded glumly.
"Precisely. Seeing the rubbish tree messing with my Marduk, I could not hold myself back momentarily and merely sought revenge... I am terribly sorry for ending up in an embarrassing position again."
She apologized honestly, making her earlier fury seem like a lie. After hearing that, Major Loki smiled at us and said:
'—So there you have it. Even with lingering hatred, she is not your enemy. Rather, it would be better to consider her a friend currently.'
Major Loki shrugged lightly and told us not to worry.
After listening to this conversation, Shinomiya-sensei sighed mildly and looked at us.
"Release that fairy-esque being. Next, we will be fighting alongside NIFL, so trust them for the time being. However, Major Loki, you are obliged to give us a proper explanation."
I complied with Shinomiya-sensei's instructions and had Tia release the vines.
Regaining her freedom, the fairy made a face at us then flew back to Major Loki's side.
"Hmm... She didn't repent at all."
"Let's listen to his explanation first."
Tia pouted unhappily so I patted her on the head to appease her.
"Mm, machine intellect... Fascinating. From what she said earlier, it sounds like she's related to the civilization of Atlantis..."
Ren's eyes were glimmering with curiosity, urging Major Loki to start explaining. Then smiling suggestively, he began to recount.
'Rather than related to Atlantis, it's better to say she is Atlantis. The supreme machine intellect managing and running the lost civilization... Its name was Atlantis. She—Atla—was born from its restoration.'
"Yes, I am precisely 'Ultimate Wisdom' Atlantis!"
Moving inside the window that showed Major Loki, the fairy puffed out her chest proudly.
However, that childish behavior left us with visible doubt on our faces.
"Supreme machine intellect..."
Even said out loud, it did not feel real. Tia frowned and did not seem convinced.
"Doesn't look that amazing."
"Mm, too young for an AI that managed a civilization."
Ren agreed too. The fairy—Atla—went bright red in the face.
"How rude! Whether organic or inorganic, there exists no intellect higher than mine!"
Major Loki apparently saw Atla's furious image too and he said with a wry smile:
'—Atla is undoubtedly a very advanced intellectual entity. However, what we managed to restore was only her core. Due to damage and loss in the storage medium, memory data—the archives of Atlantis—have become incomplete. As a result, the avatar's behavior became a little cute... But her true identity is indisputably the "god of the old world." It would be best not to underestimate her.'
Although Major Loki covered for Atla, she was whispering "M-Master... calling me cute..." while twisting her body. The claim that she was "the god of the old world" was not convincing at all.
Unlike Ren, Shinomiya-sensei and I who were rendered speechless by Atla's words and behavior, only Tia showed an expression of extreme surprise.
"Storage medium—How could anything like that be left behind!? Kiskanu should've wiped out all electronic data when destroying Atlantis."
Tia asserted strongly. Yggdrasil's Akashic Record must have retained related records.
However, the confidence in Major Loki's smile did not decrease the slightest despite Tia's objections.
'What we unearthed were not magnetic storage devices but only stone tablets.'
Tia frowned in surprise.
'Due to the destruction wrought by dragon disasters, a site containing Atlantean ruins was found by chance and fell under secret management by Asgard and NIFL. Preserved in the ruins were a vast number of stone tablets stacked many layers deep. A language consisting of two symbols was carved on the surface of these stone tablets.
Hearing this, Ren spoke in comprehension.
"Two symbols... Could it be binary...? They used stone tablets to record electronic data?"
'Precisely. Most likely, Atlantis used durable media to leave behind data, believing future humans would be able to revive civilization. Since the storage medium involves neither magnetic fields nor electrical voltages, it is immune to destruction by electromagnetic interference. Of course, reading it is a challenge and it took us many long years to finally complete the data extraction. This allowed us to revive the machine intellect, which used to govern the Atlantis civilization, in the modern age.'
Although Major Loki sounded proud in his reply, I could see an element of self-deprecation in his smile.
'—That being said, there are limits as to what modern science and technology can accomplish. Through continued research and enlisting Atla's power, we finally finished an imitation of Marduk—this battleship Naglfar—but it is far inferior to the genuine article you have there.'
Major Loki had just said that it was the battleship Naglfar that had fired its cannon at Midgard. Equipped with a weapon similar to Babel, it was apparently Marduk's imitation.
"Major Loki, by saying 'this battleship,' does that mean you are currently on board the Naglfar?"
Major Loki nodded.
'Yes, I am standing by at the first defense line, aboard this Atlantean weapon that has just been revealed to the public. We are currently in a state of severe shortage in combat potential, so your side's participation is very heartening.'
Despite the goodwill in Major Loki's words, Atla suddenly interjected.
"Master, I believe we should take over Marduk after the rendezvous."
"What are you suddenly saying...?"
The sudden suggestion caused an uproar in Marduk's bridge.
However, Atla ignored our concerns and continued speaking to Major Loki.
"After entering the ship, I discovered that they are still unable to operate the ship well. At this rate, they are merely going to waste a treasure. I dare assert, only the King of Atlantis approved by me—you, Master—has the right to use Deus Dragon!"
'Hmph... Unable to operate the ship well? Is that true, 2nd Lieutenant Mononobe?'
His sharp gaze put me at a loss for words.
'It appears that the allegations are true. However... Be that as it may, I currently do not have the authority to requisition Marduk. Still I must ask, do you have any plans to ameliorate this situation?'
Confronted with his words and gaze, testing me, my body became a bit stiff. However, realizing the risk of Major Loki seizing command of this operation at this rate, I replied assertively.
"The strain of operating the ship was higher than expected. This is the truth. However, there has been no clear signs of malfunction so far, until she—Atla—wrought her mischief."
I stared at Atla, who had forced her way into Major Loki's window, and she immediately launched a rebuttal.
"One person barely keeping things under control is limited to the current situation of normal cruising. The strain will multiply several fold when battle mode is entered. Your little brain is going to burst immediately."
Atla asserted with certainty. Then Tia pouted and glared at her.
"Tia will help if Yuu is in trouble. If it's possible to operate Marduk better, Atla can simply reveal the correct method."
"Hmph, like anyone would tell a rubbish tree."
Atla turned her face away viciously. However, Major Loki seemed to agree with Tia's opinion and nodded solemnly.
'...Fair point. Atla, if you know where the problem lies, instruct them on how to control Marduk.'
"N-No way!? If you were to pilot Marduk, Master, surely—"
Atla looked very flustered, but Major Loki shook his head and interrupted her objections.
'Atla, Marduk is not the key to this operation. Atlantean weapons are effective against Bahamut to some extent, but cannot deliver a decisive blow. As such, it does not matter who is actually piloting.'
Atla agreed reluctantly. However, I was more concerned by what Major Loki's words implied.
"Cannot deliver a decisive blow... How did you know that?"
'Rather than asking me, you should be asking the one connected to Yggdrasil.'
Major Loki motioned to Tia beside me.
'Yes, after all, our—Atla's—analysis was based on the data salvaged from the remains of Yggdrasil scattered at Fuji's Sea of Trees.'
Hearing that they had done that secretly, I shifted my surprised gaze to Tia.
"Yes... If what appeared this time is truly Bahamut, then Marduk... No, any weapon will not be able to destroy it completely. Only Basilisk's authority—'Catastrophe'—is capable of destroying it."
Seeing Tia agree with his viewpoint, Loki nodded.
'Indeed, Atla also reached the same conclusion, which is why we sought Midgard's assistance. We know that the D targeted by Leviathan in the past, Iris Freyja, is able to use Catastrophe, though the official report only arrived just now.'
Major Loki's smiled was mixed with irony. Then he continued:
'Hence, she is the main star this time. The ship carrying her must not come to any harm. Consequently, Atla, I shall be counting on you, alright?'
Warned in this manner, Atla nodded unhappily and glared at me.
"You leave me no choice... I shall not repeat myself. Listen carefully, got that?"
Seeing me nod, Atla raised two fingers of her right hand.
"Marduk's control requires at least two people as linkers. If you take charge of piloting and weapons control, leaving the enemy detection system and the rest of the functions to someone else, the problem of excessive strain should be solved."
Atla spoke very rapidly, as though trying to finish a hated job as quickly as possible. However, I noticed an unfamiliar term.
"...Stop asking questions. Did I not say that I shall not repeat myself?"
"No, it'll be a problem if I don't immediately clear up the parts I don't get."
Seeing me demand an explanation, Atla sighed with displeasure.
"Pick this sort of thing up from context, will you? A linker is a pilot who performs a mental link with Marduk—Currently, this means you."
"It's true I'm synchronized with Marduk... But how do I link another person's mind with the ship's systems?"
My mind was automatically linked through the process of constructing Marduk. Although Tia could take control through hacking, we still did not know the proper means of linking to the ship.
"Good grief, asking this and that... Since Marduk's control authority lies in your hands, simply issue the order to the system through thoughts or speech and it would allow others to perform a mental link with the system."
Atla finished impatiently then flew into the background of the monitor that was showing Major Loki. Major Loki smiled wryly and shrugged.
'—So there you have it, 2nd Lieutenant Mononobe. Unfortunately, the Naglfar does not make use of the mental link system. I cannot sympathize with your pain, but if you need a co-pilot, Jeanne Hortensia would be a candidate. She should be in your company, right?'
"Yes, but why Jeanne?"
Seeing me ask with a frown, Major Loki smiled profoundly.
'Soldiers of Atlantis all had their bodies modified on the genetic level according to their responsibilities, thereby optimizing their abilities as much as possible. In the modern world, most people with outstanding talents are their descendants. In other words, the members of Sleipnir, which one could consider a gathering of such people, should exhibit relatively good compatibility with Atlantean weapons.'
A quiet comment from Vritra suddenly surfaced in my mind.
She had said that people possessing exceptional abilities do not exist without reason—Jeanne's natural talent was possibly inherited from the Atlanteans.
"Major Loki, you assembled Sleipnir not only to conduct experiments related to Code Lost but also with the idea of using Atlantean weapons?"
Wondering how many steps Major Loki had thought ahead, I asked. However, he shook his head wryly.
'Now that would be overthinking things. First of all, powerful weaponry is not needed if one possessed Code Lost. At least from the perspective of killing humans.'
I thought back to how terrifying it was to use Code Lost in its full form, capable of killing people with just a thought, and a chill ran down my spine. Furthermore, there was a cold glint in Major Loki's eyes that caused my instincts to sound an alarm.
During the battle revolving around Code Lost, I emerged victorious over Major Loki in the end and thwarted the plan to kill Charlotte. However, he never showed a loser's attitude when interacting with me.
"Is that so...?"
Although we were currently allies, I warned myself not to lower my guard while nodding somewhat stiffly. At this moment, Major Loki slowly leaned forward to the screen.
'Hmm, 2nd Lieutenant Mononobe, your tone was so stiff just now. I remember you sounded much more casual during our fight.'
Pointing this out unexpectedly, he caused my voice to go off pitch slightly.
Indeed, during my fight against Major Loki, I had intentionally avoided using polite language—
"Oh—Well, back then, we were enemies."
'In other words, I am currently your superior on the same side, which is why you are taking such a rigid attitude? Then that is truly a shame. I was hoping to have a candid conversation with you...'
He sighed in disappointment. I did not know how serious he was.
"...Then don't make me your enemy, okay?"
I retorted sarcastically, prompting the corners of Major Loki's lips to twist in a grin.
'At least for this operation, we are allies. Don't worry, I won't stab you in the back. Of course, I will tell Atla the same.'
"Sounds like it will be scary after the operation."
'Really? But I am really looking forward to it.'
Major Loki smiled fearlessly then turned his gaze to Shinomiya-sensei.
'—Well then, Colonel Shinomiya, for the operation's success, let us have a detailed discussion. 2nd Lieutenant Mononobe, kindly find a good partner before the operation begins.'
"Very well—I will take the mentioned advice for reference."
I nodded and breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Sure enough, talking to Major Loki was very tiring.
I moved my gaze away from Major Loki who had started his discussion with Shinomiya-sensei and talked to Tia.
"Tia, to prevent Atla's mischief, watch over here for now. I'll go find Jeanne first."
"Yes, okay, leave it to Tia!"
Tia nodded and Ren also turned her head back from the console.
"Mm, I'll monitor the system too."
"Great, thanks a lot."
I left the scene to those two and exited the bridge.
Although I was reluctant to obey Major Loki, from the perspective of using the right person for the right job, there was no better candidate than Jeanne.
However, the problem was—
I recalled the scene of Jeanne unbuttoning her shirt and exposing her cleavage.
After peeking at that kind of scene, to be honest, I was not confident whether I could still look her in the eye.
"Designate target—Jeanne Hortensia—as additional linker. Transfer control over the domains of enemy detection, communications, and information processing. However, forbid readings from occupied cabins. This applies to me as well."
I raised my hand over Jeanne's head while she was standing nervously close by and ordered Marduk verbally.
Having just taken a shower, Jeanne's face was flushed red, this combined with her moist hair was quite sexy. Although she was dressed in the male school uniform, the bulge of her chest and the after-shower fragrance were all conspiring to keep me strongly conscious of her identity as a woman.
The sight of her in underwear earlier was surfacing vaguely in my mind, so I concentrated while mentally repeating the words I was speaking.
The final command was to prevent Jeanne and I from peeking into other people's cabins. Now what happened earlier could be averted.
The illumination in the room blinked strongly once and Jeanne shuddered.
Watching her from the side, Shion asked worriedly, "Mama, aRe YoU oKaY?"
"—Yes, I am fine."
Jeanne smiled and reassured Shion then exclaimed.
"Captain... This is amazing. Through Marduk's various sensors, I can capture an endless stream of information—It is like my vision field expanded several hundred fold..."
"Does it hurt?"
Noticing that my own headache was subsiding, I asked how Jeanne felt.
Although I had succeeded in making Jeanne the second linker, she might not be able to bear the strain.
"No problem. Although the volume of information increased greatly... There isn't any fundamental change. To begin with, my eyes have always been able to see things other people could not."
I could not help but feel in awe. Although I knew Jeanne had an extraordinary pair of eyes, I never imagined it would allow her to acquire information on par with Marduk's sensors in quality. Jeanne most likely had eyes that could capture wavelengths beyond the visible spectrum and a brain capable of processing all this information.
Soldiers of Atlantis whose abilities were fully optimized for their responsibilities—Perhaps Jeanne really was one of their descendants.
"Really, then cooperate with me from now on. Jeanne, are you able to transmit information from arbitrary coordinates to me?"
"—Let me try. There is a small island fifty kilometers or so ahead. I will mark it."
Jeanne nodded and I was informed of the coordinates of the aforementioned island. With this, I could get a lock on distant enemies to attack.
However, I suddenly noticed that Jeanne's face in front of me had grown even redder.
"Hey, are you okay? Is it making you feel unwell after all—"
I frantically asked about her condition, but Jeanne suddenly came to her senses and shook her head.
"N-No! I am completely fine. It is just that..."
Mid-sentence, she looked down awkwardly for some reason.
"Umm... It is like our minds are connected, Captain... It somehow fills me with joy... And elevated my temperature a little."
Jeanne explained the reason somewhat bashfully then looked up at me.
This girly behavior made my heart race. I barely maintained composure and nodded.
"I'm glad it's not making you feel unwell. However, tell me immediately if anything feels off."
"Yes, understood. I will not overextend myself and cause you trouble, Captain. Oh—"
Jeanne nodded at me then suddenly gasped and looked into the distance.
Shion called out to Jeanne in puzzlement and Jeanne looked at us stiffly.
"...Well, just now—through information sharing with NIFL, data was obtained from the Akashic Record... I found out details about the Bahamut situation, and the Earth's current state..."
She did not continue, at a loss for words.
"Is the situation that bad?"
Noticing the heavy atmosphere, I asked hesitantly.
"...Yes. Shinomiya-sensei should be explaining later, but Bahamut is a monster beyond imagination. Let me link my senses with yours, Captain."
As soon as Jeanne spoke, an image of Bahamut appeared in my mind. Its gigantic body was blotting out the sky and the sun, still reminiscent of Vritra. The shadow falling upon the ground turned into an unknown territory, impossible to probe or observe, and kept expanding to follow Bahamut's movement. Outside of the shadow was pure whiteness in stark contrast—A world of silver-white.
"The ground is completely covered by—ice? Has Bahamut reached the Arctic Circle?"
If that were the case, Bahamut's speed was faster than expected. I panicked a little, but Jeanne shook her head.
"No, not yet. What you are seeing now was originally a flowing ocean... However, the temperature around Bahamut is extremely low, causing even the ocean to freeze."
"Freezing... Is this Bahamut's ability?"
"Not exactly. The cold is at most a side effect. The true nature of its ability is the absorption of thermal energy. Bahamut is a creature that devours heat. Taking in heat from the surroundings, it grows, regenerates, and evolves. So long as there exists external thermal energy, it would be no exaggeration to call it immortal."
Jeanne's explanation made my forehead break out in cold sweat.
"Devouring heat... What a crazy ability. Then explosions and lasers will all become its food?"
"Yes. Precisely because of that, only Catastrophe is capable of defeating Bahamut. Its immortality is achieved through absorbing heat to fuel its metabolism whereas Catastrophe fast forwards time from the present point. When time goes by before Bahamut's cells can absorb energy for their metabolism, it results in apoptosis."
"So that's how Basilisk defeated Bahamut... No wait, since Bahamut reappeared, doesn't that mean it was never exterminated to begin with?"
When I voiced my doubt, Jeanne shook her head somewhat hesitantly.
"No—Had it not been exterminated, Bahamut would have absorbed all heat from the ground, turning Earth into a dead planet. It must have been completely annihilated at one point. However... I do not think the present Bahamut is fake either. Left unchecked, Bahamut will kill our planet, although at the present stage, the unknown territories are causing greater damage..."
"They've grown that big?"
I gulped and asked.
"The unknown territories mentioned before are black domes, and according to Marduk's sensors, there are a total of four great holes of 'nothing at all'—It might be better to describe the Earth as having four pieces gouged out of it."
Jeanne paused then sighed heavily.
"In particular, the unknown territories on the American west coast and the northern African continent have swallowed up areas of high population density. The number of victims has probably reached the tens of millions..."
"Hold on, it's too early to say that the people inside the unknown territories are dead. There must be a way to save them."
Just like how Mitsuki and I had survived inside the darkness—
After I said that with this hope in mind, Jeanne held her breath momentarily.
"—You are right, Captain. I have erred... I jumped to conclusions accidentally. Since responsibility for enemy detection and information processing has been passed to me, I should strive for correct judgment—I am truly ashamed."
Jeanne cringed and bowed her head apologetically.
"No, it's necessary to prepare for the worst too. But at the same time, it's better to keep the ideal outcome in mind. Otherwise, you could end up losing your goal."
I recalled my days as her captain and gently patted her on the head.
Jeanne nodded, still looking down.
"Papa, wHat iS iDeaL?"
Shion tugged at my clothing from the side.
"It means the best-case result. First we defeat Bahamut then we find a way to take care of the unknown territories—the darkness—and save all the people who were swallowed. Then we return to Midgard safe and sound. That's the ideal outcome."
Of course, the darkness inside Mitsuki also needed to be eliminated. Once I figured out the blue light capable of suppressing "end matter"—Neun's authority—and could use it skillfully, perhaps I would find a solution that was currently out of sight.
"Oh, iDeaL, aWEsoMe!"
Shion sounded impressed and smiled happily.
Seeing her face, I smiled naturally too, but a sliver of unease flashed through my mind.
—But was this truly the ideal outcome?
For some reason, this thought surfaced, There should not be any outcome more ideal than what I had just outlined.
But somehow, I had an uncomfortable feeling as though I had overlooked something.
I persuaded myself that I was overthinking things, but still could not erase the unease adhering to my heart.
"—This is all the information we have confirmed regarding Bahamut. Although the trait of heat absorption is quite challenging, there is no need for excess panic since we know that Catastrophe can defeat it. Now, we will proceed with the details of the operation."
After sweeping her gaze across each and every one of us, gathered at the bridge, Shinomiya-sensei spoke with a grave expression. Having heard the content from Jeanne earlier, I was not surprised, but the girls' expressions were relatively stiff upon learning Bahamut's ability for the first time.
"Approximately thirty minutes from now, NIFL's fleet including the Naglfar will start engaging Bahamut. However, we will not be joining the defense line. Instead, we will launch a heavy assault from behind after the fighting begins. In other words, NIFL will take on the role as bait."
The screen behind her no displayed Major Loki's face. The omni-directional monitor was filled with the color of the sky with sunlight shining from above.
"The success of this operation depends on whether we can get Catastrophe to strike the target directly. Hence, we will rely on your powers as Ds and Marduk's equipment to open a path, to get as close to Bahamut as possible for Iris Freyja to fire Catastrophe. You are the key—We are counting on you."
"Y-Yes! I will do my best!"
Iris saluted and answered in a slightly shrill voice under Shinomiya-sensei's gaze.
"Mononobe Yuu and Jeanne Hortensia will confirm Bahamut's present location while adjusting the ship's speed. Until NIFL launches their attack, do not make a move under any condition."
Jeanne and I expressed acknowledgement and Shinomiya-sensei continued to issue orders to the rest.
"Lisa Highwalker and Firill Crest will remain outside the ship to guard the starboard. Ariella Lu and Ren Miyazawa will be in charge of the port side's defense. Avoid using lasers or explosive transmutations when attacking. Find opportunities to conduct freezing attacks using low-temperature matter. It is very likely that stealing heat will slow down the target's movement and regeneration speed. But if necessary for opening a path, go ahead and attack with heavy firepower. Our main objective is to approach close enough to enter Catastrophe's range."
"Understood. Simply stated, we are taking the role of carrier-based aircraft."
"No problem. It's the same as the Dragon Subjugation Squad's usual work."
Lisa answered with her chest out while Firill made thumbs-up. Ariella and Ren also nodded firmly.
"There's nothing to do inside the ship, anyway. Let's go outside and raise some hell."
"Mm, adjustments to the OS are done. All that's left to do is fight."
However, Tia tilted her head curiously because she had not been named.
"Tia doesn't need to go outside?"
"You should stay at the bridge, prepared for electronic warfare. Although there has not been any reports of Bahamut being able to interfere with electronic equipment, better be safe than sorry. Furthermore... Who knows if NIFL will be our ally to the very end."
Shinomiya-sensei gave a wry smile sardonically. Stationing Tia at the bridge was mainly to defend against Atla, most likely.
Then Shinomiya-sensei's gaze shifted to Kili, who was standing behind everyone else.
"Kili Surtr Muspelheim, you will be in charge of guarding Iris Freyja. To avoid missing the opportunity to attack, Iris Freyja will remain on standby on the deck—However, it is probably impossible to stand on the ship's exterior without a barrier."
"Why do I have to do this sort of thing..."
Kili grumbled quietly in displeasure, but Iris held her hand with a radiant smile.
"I'm counting on you! With you protecting me, Kili-chan, I am reassured! Let's give it our best together!"
"—Placing such heavy trust in someone like me. Fine, since you've said this much... I will try my best without exerting myself."
Kili nodded a little helplessly.
Watching their conversation, I raised my hand.
"Hold on—I can go out to the deck too after the battle begins. I don't need to be in the bridge to control Marduk and it's better to have more people protecting Iris."
Iris was happy to hear my suggestion.
"Good point, since you say so, then it is fine. After all, you are still Marduk's captain."
Shinomiya-sensei nodded in a slightly joking manner then said to the rest of the girls:
"Shion and Vritra will wait in the ship. Mononobe Mitsuki will be in charge of looking after them."
Mitsuki exclaimed in surprise.
Although Mitsuki was asked to look after them, this placed her in a position no different from Shion or Vritra. Rather, it was more like placing those two by Mitsuki's side on account of her condition.
"W-Wait! I need to fight too! This is no time to be holding combat potential in reserve!"
Seconds later, Mitsuki realized and suggested.
"I understand, but currently, it is very risky to let you go outside the ship. Since Bahamut is related to what is sealed within you, no one can predict what will happen if it came into contact with you."
At a loss for words momentarily, Mitsuki looked at me for support.
She probably thought that as the "captain," I could overturn Shinomiya-sensei's decision, but...
"I'm sorry, Mitsuki, I feel the same way too. It's not that I don't want you to fight, but I hope to keep you away from danger as much as possible until the time when your power is truly needed—"
"...Enough. I understand."
Mitsuki interrupted me and turned her face away in extreme chagrin.
Just as the atmosphere in the bridge turned very awkward, Shinomiya-sensei announced in a loud and clear voice.
"Well then, everyone, prepare for battle. Those assigned outside the ship, head to the respective hatches."
Obeying orders, we made our way to the bridge's door. I looked back just as I was exiting into the corridor, only to see Mitsuki with her head down, her shoulders trembling slightly.
"For what purpose exactly... did I come here...?"
I—Mononobe Mitsuki—gently stroked Shion-san's fluffy hair, murmuring quietly while sitting on the bed.
My feeble and helpless voice echoed inside the cramped cabin but no one could answer me.
Sleeping on my lap was Shion-san, who had already entered the sweet realm of dreams. Vritra had stayed at the bridge, so there were only two occupants in this cabin.
Residing within me was the ninth dragon... That darkness, it was possible to suppress it using two holders of Neun's authority including myself. However, this was only currently.
Hence, Shion-san was doing her job properly even though she was sleeping. She was a mate of Nii-sans's—One of those selected by Nii-san to become Neun.
As for Vritra, whose powers were sealed, she had also stayed behind on the ship as a key individual for figuring out the darkness.
"I am the only one of no help at all..."
Gazing upon Shion's sleeping face that reminded me of my best friend, I could not help but speak in self-deprecation.
I knew that ordering me to standby here was the appropriate judgment call. Were I the commander, I would have issued the same order. I was currently akin to a bomb whose detonation could destroy the world. How could someone like me possibly be sent to the front lines?
Hence, everyone was protecting me. Nii-san and all the others were risking their lives to protect me.
I had no doubt that they were going to be victorious.
Although I told Shinomiya-sensei that it was no time to be holding combat potential in reserve, Nii-san would surely overcome all obstacles. Even if he were to fall somewhere, he would always stand up again to seize final victory.
After all, my Nii-san—Yuu-kun—has always helped me like this.
However... I am afraid of the arrival of that moment, even to the point of not wanting the fighting to end.
I had never told anyone this. I will never reveal these reasons.
Iris-san had asked me whether instinct was unacceptable. She also said that ultimately, whether love or affection, everything came from instinct.
I agree. Even if Nii-san's reason for placing me first in his heart was borne by instinct, I cannot assert that it is fake. However, it is wrong. What I feared was what would come after that—
Nevertheless, I must endure this fear.
Even if there was nothing I could do, I had to pray for Nii-san's victory at least... Until that moment arrived, if I stayed by his side as much as possible—
'Are you really fine with this?'
Someone rejected my mental efforts to persuade myself.
I suddenly looked up and surveyed the cabin. Only Shion-san and I were present.
'Mitsuki, are you really fine with this?'
This was no hallucination. The voice came from my feet—from my shadow formed from the light in the ceiling. Futhermore, that voice and manner of speaking sounded very familiar.
Trembling, I called out that name.
Yes—That voice just now was undoubtedly the voice of Shinomiya Miyako—My best friend who had passed away two years prior.
And Miyako's daughter Shion remained asleep on my lap, apparently unaware.
I was frozen in surprise while the shadow at my feet began to quiver. The darkness undulated like waves.
Forming a blurred outline, the black shadow smiled with my best friend's face.
'I am on your side, Mitsuki. So—let's go realize your true wish together.'
My mind went blank. A moment later, wrath took over my heart.
The dragon mark on the back of my neck heated up. At the same time, the dragon mark on Shion-san's forehead glowed blue.
"The one known as the ninth dragon... I cannot believe it would stoop to such nonsense. How appalling—Shut up. Miyako is the only one allowed to smile using this face."
Following my impulse, I stomped hard on the shadow's imitation of Miyako.
A blue pulse spread in the darkness, causing Miyako's figure to gradually disappear.
I panted then slowly raised my foot—My shadow had returned to its normal state.
Shion-san's dragon mark had stopped glowing and I knew that the crisis had passed.
This most likely happened because my mind had grown weak, but just as Vritra pointed out, it was still possible to suppress the darkness with two Neuns present.
I must carry myself with greater fortitude and willpower—
To encourage my unworthy self, I clenched my fist.
However, that voice remained in my ear, impossible to dispel. Again and again, again and again, her voice questioned me.
—Are you really fine with this?
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