WEW.

First, I'd like to apologize for disappearing for a month and a freaking half beyond my initial break. I just sorta lost all will to write after the end of Storms Overhead and my projects kind of just… died. Helios however, is in the works, and thanks to this story, I've gotten back into the swing of things. So expect an update for that… soon. Ish. Hell if I know XD

I feel a little worried about this story, I guess. Not so much in the terms of writing quality, but more like… it's a new thing for me. It's going to be a lot different than what I've written before, I suppose, especially in regards to IS fanfics. Bah, probably gonna be wrong on that one, though.

So, this story… well, let's just say over break I played AC4 and AC5 with my friends when I wasn't at college and we had some fun toting ideas around, I played through the Grisaia franchise and watched the anime version of it too, and then had a spark.

Here goes.


Chapter 1: The Answer


The klaxon sirens ring on as I march through the hallways, my feet hitting the catwalks of the ship as I mentally prepare myself for my opponent. The walkways creak under my feet and I hear their rattles as commands blare out overhead.

It's a target we've never fought before. It's something straight out of science fiction—a mechsuit—that would be the best way to put it. They've already identified it as the same suit that dealt with the missile incident a while ago. Two thousand missiles… sensationalist headlines if I ever read them. I doubt even a single AC could deal with two thousand ballistic missiles launched at a country. Well, it might. It'd be rough if they were nuclear to not set them off by accident. It'd be unlikely a single AC would be sortied for such a mission.

"Weiss, where are you?" A rather husky, female voice calls with an air of force behind it, the impatience clearly evident. I can practically feel her right foot tapping on the floor.

"Making my way to my assigned hangar." I say, my feet picking up the pace, pressing and holding the button to let the communicator receive my voice.

"Okay. Hurry it up, it's getting hectic out there."

"Are we still going through with this? We've got a lot of ships from several nations coming in… No one's approved using an AC yet, right?"

"Not as far as we know. Finally managed to get some time to get a hold of you for a personal briefing. You'll be using a prototype Vanguard Overbooster. It's the only way to shoot past all the mounting forces. We want to wrap this up before anyone deploys an AC."

"Figures."

"Meister will fill you in on the details when you get to your unit, but as a heads up… this enemy isn't like anything we've fought before. Stay safe. We'd rather not sortie you… but we're sending you because you're the best. Make it back home, Weiss."

"Roger that, MT."

"All right. Good hunting out there."

I nod, starting to jog to the hangar. It's about two minutes before I get there. The place is bustling with activity—ACs are being loaded up, and the new AC that we've prepared just for this operation, the one that I'll be piloting, is standing tall with its fresh paint job of light grey. Shouts and loud vehicles are heard all over the place and a storm of whirling direction lights tell people where to go. While I'm the only one to be sortied, if it goes poorly or need to stall other ACs, it's likely the others will head out.

"Weiss, is that you I see down below?" Another female voice, far younger to the one that spoke to me before, roughly in the teens, calls over my headset as I start climbing down the ladders to reach the cockpit area, contained in the head of the unit.

"It's me, Meister. I'm heading into the unit as we speak."

"Good. Get in and get booted up, we'll attach the Prototype Vanguard Overbooster."

The cockpit opens up with a hisssssss, revealing the insides where several screens and the controls for the unit are. Once I'm inside, I pull down on the red lever labeled COCKPIT CLOSE, causing another set of hisses to cry out as the doors seal me inside with a loud CRHHHSUH.

I sit down in the pilot's chair and lower the small headgear attached to it, feeling the cold metal band go around my forehead. My left hand grips one of the control units while my right hand flips through the switches all around the cockpit.

Several screens light up around me, giving me a view outside. The screens are labeled one through nine, giving me a roughly equivalent field of view with my human eyes. It helps with not getting disoriented with a unit. The screens can also have overlays if someone needs to communicate with me as well.

"Syncing comm headset to AC radio… Meister, can you hear me?"

"I hear you, Weiss. We'll begin attaching the unit now."

"Good." I reply, going through my equipment list. "…do you honestly expect me to win with this…?"

"I'll go over your orders now. This is an expeditionary mission. You're to go in and evaluate the target's combat capabilities. If we had known about this sooner, you'd have been sent in with your optimal load out. But you need the lighter frame because you need to get out quickly. For this mission you'll be undergoing the title of 'Sea Glass'."

"I see…"

"You can engage if you want. We'll be using the combat data to evaluate how dangerous the target is."

I nod, still paying attention to the status screen and noting that the booster has been attached. Two pistols and then two hangar blades… This is… I haven't used this in a while, huh…

"—Weiss?"

"Sorry, just a bit nostalgic."

If anything from the reports is to go by, this is a faster enemy than normal. Smaller, too. The blades will be harder to get a hit on, but I have a feeling if I can score a hit, it'll be over very quickly.

"Alright. I'm connecting to the unit now."

"Got it. Prepare for escalation in fifteen minutes."

I nod again and close my eyes, taking a deep breath. My right hand goes back onto the other control unit. Feeling the cold metal, I let out another deep breath.

My voice echoes out in the small cockpit, this coffin of death, from which I have seen many lives destroyed and have had my life at risk many, many times. Without quivering, without fear, I activate the system that will decide my fate.

"A.M.S., engage."

I let out a small gasp as I feel the connection take place. AMS… the reason this machine can spew death. The reason it can move and react like a human. Because of AMS, I can have a one-to-one movement with the AS. In a way, one might say that I am the Armored Core and the Armored Core is me. It is slightly true, perhaps. Some AC pilots died out of shock… that is to say, they took so much damage with the link to the pilot's nerve system they simply died of shock.

My AMS compatibility is rather high for someone my age. The doctors theorized it might have to do deal with the fact I was exposed to piloting at such a young age. Of course, it comes at a cost. One that we're not even quite sure of what it is just yet. But one benefit is that for someone like me, piloting becomes second nature. It's as if I'm moving on the battlefield, not the unit itself.

About ten minutes before we surface, I'm told to move the unit to the staging area. Several trucks pull me along to the long stretch of empty hangar, where several clamps attach themselves to the AC to prevent it from moving around. Above this ceiling would be the blue ocean, huh… Well, either way, I should prepare to launch.

The rest of the ten minutes go by quickly. The lights outside flash switch to a rapid yellow-orange blinking on as the command goes through.

"All crew, prepare for surfacing!"

The entire place explodes into noise.

"Ribbon Stream is surfacing—"

"—systems all green—"

"…no ships detect—"

The radio chatter runs crazy as everyone begins giving alerts. Hundreds of voices giving status updates, yells, and confirmations on what's going on as we move closer to the surface.

I suppose the place is also lurching, too. But to me, it means nothing. I withstand G-forces far greater than that due to the connection with AMS on a normal basis while fighting in AC units. As we rise, the hangar lights up like a runway, with small red lights showing me the path forward.

"Sea Glass, can you hear me?"

"I copy you, Operator. Sea Glass is ready for operation."

"Prepare for launch. As soon as we break through to the surface, you'll be sent out. We've already set you to face the target's last known position. The VOB will allow you to cross the roughly two hundred mile distance in six minutes."

"Damn, this unit's fast… Is command absolutely sure about sending me in this unit?"

"It's all we've got to avoid being fired on."

"Haaa…" I grip the controls as the sirens go off and an alert comes up on my screen alerting me to the hangar opening up. "VOB, charging."

"Good hunting, and stay safe. Hold on, I've got an update. Breaking surface in sixty seconds! Prepare for deployment!"

"Understood. Say, Operator, since we're going to take off as soon as we break, I got a question for you."

"Shoot."

"Will you guide me to victory?"

"Of course I will. I got your back."

The klaxon sirens begin firing off even more as I see a timer pop up on my screen. It begins counting down as I grip the controls. I exhale and focus. Here we go.

Five.

Four.

Three.

Two.

One.

"Surface broken! Ten seconds to stabilizing and opening hatch!—Hatch is opening! Hangar is being converted to quick launch flight deck!"

Gears and engines churn all around as the ceiling unfolds, letting the color of the clouds filter into the hangar area. The sky's a mix of greys, with the sun not even visible. Normally the folds would go all the way down and the ship would become one hell of a battlecruiser with AC and jet launching capabilities, but the limited version allows us to launch an AC and then dive right away.

I activate the VOB—"Vaulted Overbooster activated and charging, everything looks good!"—and see readouts flare on the screen. One hundred percent.

"Catapults active!"

The catapults here give me a headstart but as soon as they finish launching me out of the hangar, I let the charge go. My speedometer spikes to something around two thousand kilometers per hour. The world zooms by through the screens, the high speed cameras doing their work. My screens update, giving me wind, temperature, altitude, my speed, and all sorts of relevant battle information appears overtop the camera outputs of the top right screen.

Five minutes pass by quickly.

"Warning, VOB exhausted in thirty seconds!"

"Got it!"

"Outsider ships detected!"

"Watch the cameras, Meister, get me some identities! Tap into their comms if you can! I'll shoot past them, there's no way they'll be able to hit me at this speed!"

The radiation shouldn't be too much, either. The VOB won't expose them too much, so we're still within mission parameters. Using these types of equipment is… rather rare, and getting our hands on them is rough considering the legislation against them.

Those thirty seconds go by quickly, upon which I eject the equipment and the thrusters all over my unit fire, pushing me forward. Still maintaining a decent amount of speed. Four hundred kilometers an hour…

"Ah… Lots of open chatter asking who the hell that unit is! Also, I've got Canadian and American ships—looks like I've also got Japanese and Australian ships!"

I use the unit's own Overbooster and charge forward, avoiding create too much of a wake and stirring them up. However, this unit shouldn't be in any database.

The target was roughly thirty five kilometers ahead. I'll make it in just over five minutes, traveling at about six times their speed.

"Give me the classes of those ships, I wanna know what's behind me." I say, now putting plenty of distance between me and the small fleet.

"They're just small expeditionary force. Twenty four ships. Australian navy, I've got two Anzac classes, one Leeuwin class—this one's the scout, and three Adelaide class frigates. From Canadian forces I've got six Halifax class frigates. Japanese fleet, two Izumo class helicopter destroyers, three Akizuki classes, and a looks like a Atago class destroyer. As for the American fleet, four Ticonderoga class cruisers and two Arleigh Burke classs destroyers."

"A lot missile systems, huh… Against an enemy rumored to be able to cut down missiles."

"Not too many people have guns anymore. A lot of navy power is guided missiles and aircraft."

"Mhm. A small expeditionary force… looks like not everyone's willing to go all out. Smart. How long do I have?"

"Thirty minutes, give or take. You're traveling at roughly four hundred kilometers an hour, just over six times their speed."

"Long enough, then."

There aren't any disturbances for the next three minutes.

"Warning, I've detected the enemy from your radar unit. It's stationary. Open waters… it'll be thirty seconds until you can clearly see it. One minute until you're into engagement range."

"Copy that."

"It's probably detected you, by the way. But it's remaining stationary despite the fact I'm pretty sure those radar detections are coming from it."

"Got it. Let's go."

"Warning, looks like we've got a storm incoming. Try to wrap it up by then. Picking you up during a storm is never fun."

"Got it."

I switch my broadcasting channel over with nothing more than a thought.

"Hey there." I say, broadcasting my voice out, albeit through a vocal changer. "What the hell are you? A drone? Some new type of Armored Core?"

I'm already looking at the data from weather readouts and preparing on how to eliminate my opponent. The arms of the unit start shifting, aligning to shoot the rather fearsome looking unit. It looks something like a knight out of some sci-fi book.

…no response.

"Hmph." Thermal scans… there is definitely a person in there. But they simply won't acknowledge me. "Do you at least have a name?"

Sile—

"White Knight." A cool, somewhat androgynous voice says back as the enemy target activates an energy blade, still standing in the air.

"Sea Glass."

With that, all talk stops. Only the sound of the ocean waves crashing and the wind going at approximately two kilometers per hour north-north-east make sound. The two of us stop there. The air thickens. I lock onto my opponent, the mechanical arms of the AC shifting ever so slightly. Ten seconds pass by.

And with a white flash of light from my Quickboosters, guns firing, the enemy's sudden charge, the battle begins.


"Sea Glass, watch your AP!"

I zip around the battlefield, down to only my back up energy blades. The reduced frame allows for quick movement, putting me on equal terms with my opponent in terms of speed—no, better. My speedometer is giving me something about two thousand KPH when I QuickBoost. More than enough for dealing with the swarms of missiles launched at me.

It zooms forward, intending to cut me with its short energy blade. The small frame of the enemy makes it hard to hit, but compared to me it's very slow. I've only taken hits because the expeditionary force has been attempting to hit both us and the unknown unit.

My QuickBoosters fire up, creating an amazingly bright white flash in the pouring rain from the storm that came in. As soon it tries to pull away, I counter attempting to cross-slash my opponent. The energy blades burn through the night, but my opponent—while lacking in sheer speed, has much more flexibility compared to the Armored Core.

Whatever that human-sized system with the mechanical suit is, it's nimble. It navigates the space through my blades easily, but when it tries to whip around and attack the cockpit of the AC, I trigger another QuickBoost and get away.

We're at an eternal statement. At this point it's all a matter of who fucks up first. Neither of us have really made a daring attempt at a finishing move due to the sheer amount of ships around us. Putting ourselves in a risk position might mean that one of these outsiders might be able to take us out.

The battle rages on and on. No one can get the upper hand.

"Sea Glass, Command's orders! Retreat!"

"The hell are you talking about?!" I grumble, knowing that if I just ignore the ships around us, I can finish this.

"Too many for Command's liking! Not to mention that they're hitting you! Pull out right away, we can't risk you being too vulnerable!"

"Screw that noise…!"

"Sea Glass, retreat! That is an order from High Command!"

A different voice this time. Dammit…

My AP's at six thousand. One more hit… one more hit…!

"…fine. Sea Glass is withdrawing from the battlefield." I say, charging up my Overboosters again.

And with a flash of light, I vanish.


My eyes shoot open, revealing the ceiling of a dim room that looks more like a metal box more than a living quarter.

"…Goddammit."

"Someone's in a cheery mood."

"Put a sock in it, Mei." I mutter, rising from my cot to grumble at the girl who's in the bed next to mine. At the moment she's fixing up her chestnut colored hair while looking in a mirror that reflects her light green eyes. "Status report?"

"Nothing major going on, though it's current seven hundred and thirty hours. What's got your panties in a knot?" she replies, firing back words seamlessly. As expected of my Operator.

"I had that dream again. Operation Checkmate."

The smile on her face quickly vanishes as she sighs, sitting down on her bed that's next to mine. "Still upset about that? That was three, almost four, years ago."

"I could've won." I immediately say back.

"Your AP was below ten percent. Not to mention you couldn't focus on the target, all those ships were firing on you and you had instructions not to kill them. A bit of an idiotic command in hindsight, but it would've resulted in a lot more covering up if we had to deal with twenty four manned ships vanishing."

"All I needed was one more hit. White Knight needed at least six more. I could've won." I mutter, standing up from my bed. "Great, not even eight o'clock and I'm already pissed. I guess if you're not in a hurry, then we're off again today."

"Isn't that the norm?" Meister asks with a bitter shrug. "After all, no more resources tend to go out to AC pilots, so there's rarely anything that requires us to sortie. But to answer your question, it's fairly quiet today. A little too quiet for my tastes… entire base seems to be on standby for something. Higher ups have been fairly quiet about it, though."

"…Hm."

"Seemed to be a lot more guards than usual, especially when I went for my early morning run today. You know how I usually only pass through two checks? Four today."

"Odd." I mutter, putting a shirt on and stretching. "You shower yet, or are you just waiting for me to get my ass in gear after sleeping so much?"

"I mean, you had an operation two nights ago so I don't blame you." Her eyes and smile suddenly turn into a teasing one. "And… is that you saying you want to shower with me?"

"Yeah sure, if I want Emma to castrate me. Meet up at the mess hall?"

"Mmm."

Mei gives me a laugh and ruffles my hair before leaving the room. We're back on the ground base compared to where Operation Checkmate took place, on the submarine AC launcher Ribbon Stream. Usually we stay on the land base and take a plane to be dropped in or we'd have a flight launcher from Ribbon Stream after boarding that submarine. The base is situated on an uncharted island, so there's a port for the submarine. Quite useful.

I do a few pushups and stretches before taking a small rest and then going to the men's showers, opening up my locker and pulling out my usual shower kit. Unfortunately it's a cold shower this morning, but I guess I'm awake.

Afterwards, I put on the standard uniform of the company, combing my dark brown hair in the process. The uniform itself is nothing fancy for pilots. Just a standard anti-g suit that's dark grey. On the right shoulder is their emblem, designed as two Hs that partially overlap one another. The rest of the world has many titles for our various operatives who take on missions across the world; however, I suppose none of them know our true name, Hidden Hand.

I blink a few times in the mirror, confirming that I'm recovering from my sleepless nights as the blood around my red eyes is starting to fade away. With a little more jig in my step, I walk over to the mess hall, where I find Mei waiting for me with her back against the drab wall, arms crossed and her right fingers tapping her left arm. What are you, some schoolgirl waiting on a date?

"Took you long enough. Now all the good stuff's going to be gone."

"Give it a rest." I say, not bothering to mention we all get the same shit anyways.

Breakfast is a simple affair. As per usual, I end up trading my oatmeal bowl for Mei's bran muffin, leaving me with my apple and orange juice.

"I still don't understand why you can't eat oatmeal, but will eat that damned tasteless muffin."

"Probably the texture—"

"ATTENTION!" someone calls out. "VIPs!"

Everyone in the hall, including us, immediately stand up and hold a stiff salute while whipping around to face the origin of the call, adjusting our sights to look for the VIP. Two people who we don't usually see, but everyone knows about, walk in dressed as if they were about to go to a corporate meeting. Garvin Medalia and Rebecca Ivorin, the negotiators and might I say head honchos of Hidden Hand.

My question of What the hell are they doing here is answered after they tell us to be at ease: just nothing more than an announcement that the testing bay will be closed for today due to some unforeseen maintenance. Which I guess is the official statement for all of us, but the fact that it's them telling us means "Don't you dare question it" without actually having to say that. Meaning that our affiliates are probably watching.

I notice Mei looking around the room too, for anyone who doesn't quite seem to belong in this room as the two heads leave. As soon as everyone calms and sits down, Mei leans in close and starts whispering.

"Ooooh, what do you think is going on in there?"

"Whatever it is, it probably has to deal with the added security. Keep your voice down, too."

"Pleh. Everyone else is clearly talking about it, though."

"But do you want to be brought in for questioning?"

"Weiss. Meister." A somewhat smug and commanding female voice (on the lower pitches of that, too), calls out to us. Mei and I immediately snap our backs straight as a blonde, curly-haired woman sits down in front of us. Some of the buttons of her dress shirt are starting to slip out of their holes as if they were haphazardly done, but her brown jacket is hiding it well.

Also I neglected to mention that while I call Mei… well, Mei, her official name on the books is Meister. Strange, but that incident goes a while back.

The woman in front of us at the moment—and infinitely more important, too—is our handler for Operative Unit 4034, or Mei and I, the Pilot and Operator of Armored Core unit Orbital Static: MT. She has said that in casual times, it is okay to refer to her as Matilda, however I do not believe for a second that is her real name and is another safeguard in the event pilots are captured.

"Calm down." She says, with Mei and I slightly relaxing. "At nine hundred thirty hours, you two are to report to Briefing Room Three."

Both of us nod silently, though I give Mei a small glance without moving my head. I notice Mei does so too, and in the span of a millisecond, a silent conversation occurs.

"Any idea of what's going on?"

"I don't know. Surprise operation?"

"We would've just been carted there and given details on the way."

"Probably secret."

"Think it has to deal with security today?"

"Probably."

"Do I have confirmation that you'll both be there?"

"Yes ma'am." We say together in unison. With that, MT nods and then leaves us, Mei and I each breathing a sigh of relif. However, the anxiety doesn't go away. Both of us being called… that would imply we have a piloting mission. But I've kept up and it seems most of our pilots that aren't currently deployed are here. If it was anything to the point I was sure I'd be sortieing, I'd have known about it. Operative Unit 4034 is not deployed for just anything. The last time I was surprised for any sortie was Operation Checkmate.

After about thirty seconds of silence, Mei and I wrap pinkies around each other for a brief second, shake them, separate, and go back to eating quickly.

Just as instructed, we arrive to Briefing Room Three at the proper time. As soon as we're led inside, the two of us snap another sharp salute. The head honchos…

"At ease, the two of you." Garvin says, a small grin on his face. He's an aged man and it shows, with the wrinkles on his dark skin and greyed hairs. "Please, have a seat."

With that, the door closes behind us. Mei and I give a brief glance to each other before taking our seats in unison, moving as a unit. The positioning of the room is that to our right is our handler, MT, and to our left are the heads. There's a projector in here for displaying anything like video if needed as well. The lights are still on, too.

"You should already be aware that anything that is said in this room is top secret." MT says in her usual rough and steady voice. "Not a single person outside this room is to be told about what goes on in here."

"Yes ma'am." We snap back as usual, before the silence comes back in.

"What do you want from us, sir, ma'am?" I say, taking the initiative after about ten seconds.

"We are here to discuss a potential opportunity… regarding the closure of the training bay today." Rebecca says after a cue from Gavin. "The added security is due to the presence of Infinite Stratos testing."

I sense she pauses as it's probably visible—no, completely visible that I'm pissed. It's not a secret on base what happened during Operation Checkmate. I was almost put on suspension and in containment because I was absolutely seething after that command to withdraw. Pretty much I wasn't put on a mission for a good damn two weeks until I was cleared.

I know those enemy ships were there but I know I could've won if I just ignored them for just a damn second. And the fact that battle was a key launching point for the IS…

"C-continue, please, ma'am." Mei says after coughing to clear her throat.

"It's relevant to the both of you. You two are both well aware of IS Academy, correct?" Both of us nod. "And the two of you are roughly of age. A bit on the older end for a first year student, but young enough that the Academy will take you."

"Um, permission to speak freely, sir?" Mei says as Gavin pauses.

"Go ahead."

"Why is Weiss here, then? IS Academy only takes female students."

"You two have operated as a cohesive unit for piloting ever since you two arrived here. Considering that Weiss is this company's ace pilot despite being so young, if you were to become a student there, Meister, Weiss would need to find a new operator."

Mei immediately stands up, pushing her chair back and putting her hands on the table. "I won't do it. Weiss and I are a unit, sir. Besides, there aren't any spare operators who can keep up with Weiss and know him well enough."

"Please, let me finish."

I put a hand on Mei's left hand, giving her a comforting nod as she turns to look at me. She lets out a long sigh before sitting back down.

"I apologize for my outburst, sir."

"It's fine. Ahem, where was I… Ah yes, we will also be attempting to get Weiss in as a special student training to become an Infinite Stratos Operator, filling in a role similar to you right now. He already has the credentials for it, seeing as that when Weiss has been unable to pilot and you were unable to act as an Operator, he filled in your shoes quite well."

Neither one of us argue against that, mainly because we don't like to talk about those incidents. The times because of my mistakes, I forced Mei to pilot.

"Though, I would also like to stress that you don't fail the synchronization test on purpose. We also brought you here because if this doesn't work, then you two will be part of our experimental rehabilitation program for the retirement program."

The two of us blanch at the mention of the r word. Retirement…

"I won't lie to the two of you. With the rise of the Infinite Stratos, it looks like the age of the Armored Core is coming to a slow and quiet end. It's very costly to sortie and maintain Armored Core units. A lot of money is going into funding Infinite Stratos research and more places are seeing them as the replacement to the Armored Core.

It's fishy, if you ask me. The AC has better shields, better armament capabilities, better armor if the shields run out, and is well worth its extended costs. The only downside I can really think of is the fact AMS is very likely to be fatal if you're piloting a NEXT, but even then it's not like NEXT units are running around willy-nilly. As I've seen the AC slowly being phased out, I just feel... there's something deeper behind this.

Regardless... It'll be tricky due to the laws governing Infinite Stratos usage and all that, but there's no doubt in mind that one day organizations will be able to purchase the usage of Infinite Stratos units like Armored Cores.

"I'll spare you the details as well, but it seems there's been an understream movement to push the AC out of the picture. This has a twofold effect as well. If we do not face removal, then there is no doubt we will be pitted against the IS, both socially and also on the field of combat. Meister will be there to learn fighting, and Weiss, you will be observing, so that in the hopefully unlikely event you are called on to fight an IS, you will have the techniques and knowledge of how to deal with them."

Mei and I glance at each other before Gavin takes out a cigarette and lights it, giving a puff. "With that… we may very well be facing the retirement of the company. Thus, since you two have a lot ahead of you, you two will be the experimental group. Go and start living a normal life, or as close as you can to one. Forget Hidden Hand existed."

"But…" Mei mutters softly, but in this quiet room it doesn't matter at all. Everyone can hear her. "…this is home."

Rebecca gives a smile. "I know it is. This base is home to many of us too. Lots of us have seen the AC through its various generations, back when they were just Normals to the rise of the NEXT, Hidden Hand has always been in the background, somewhere, carrying out missions for the highest bidder. No sense of right or wrong, just who would pay the most. But who knows, we've got assets. We can turn it into a company. You two might graduate college after IS Academy and perhaps one of our covers would hire you…"

She trails off, although that's a nice way of thinking.

"Sorry." She says, muttering an apology. "Like Gavin said, it's experimental. You two will be part of that if the IS Academy plan isn't successful."

"Even if I do pass that sync test, unless Weiss is confirmed going, I won't go."

"Unfortunately, you don't have much of a choice. Our… benefactors—" By that, he means the US government, which picked us up when Hidden Hand hit a really bad spell a while back—"are cracking down rather hard due to your exploits, the two of you. We might not be too affiliated due to our relationship to them, but those are our orders. If you pass, I don't think they're going to let you go."

So we're caught on all sides. There's no way out.

"…I'll comply. Should I report there right away?"

"The test will commence at twelve hundred ours at Test Bay Four, no need to go there now. If you have no further questions, the two of you are dismissed. You have no duties for today."

"Yessir!"

The two of us quickly head back to our room, not saying a word until we're both inside. Mei closes the door behind me and not a second after I hear the click of the door, I feel something press up against my back and two arms wrap around me.

"Promise me something, Kazuma." Mei whispers.

"What is it, Mei?"

"…kill me if I pass."

"The hell?!" I break free and turn around, putting my hands on her shoulders. "The hell are you talking about?"

She looks up into my face, her bright green eyes having tears building up and then streaming out of them. Her mouth opens up multiple times but the words keep dying in her throat. I can feel her shaking as she pulls me in closer for a hug, crying into my chest.

"I… I don't… I don't want to become one of them!"

Ah…

For some of the missions, we don't just head out with an AC. Some of those missions involve heading out on foot. Sometimes it's for sniping. Sometimes it's an assassination. Sometimes infiltration. But it's how we keep up with society. Mei's speaking of how she's seen a real twist in society. More specifically, to how most of the world has suddenly adopted this really crappy 'men are weaker' mentality because everyone's forgotten what it meant to fight without an IS. Because only females can pilot an Infinite Stratos unit. Makes for some easy cover, I guess, when it's Mei and I infiltrating together.

"I won't let you." I say, pulling her closer. "Because I won't lose you."

She's silent about that.

I won't let you fall like that. Because it's my fault. If I had just won that day… if I had just defeated White Knight… this wouldn't have come to pass. So because of that, I will not let another thing be taken away from me.

"I won't kill you. But I will make sure, absolutely sure, you do not fall like that."

"…Mmhm."

"…You will be fine. I believe in you."

At noon, she has her test. I'm not allowed near the machine at all, so I'm forced to watch from afar behind the glass. I honestly don't know whether or not I want Mei to succeed or fail. It'd be nice if we could just… go together into a new life, but on the other hand, it just wouldn't be the same.

I can see a few suits here as well, along with MT and the head honchos. They don't pay me any attention as I'm not doing anything just yet. I can understand why Mei doesn't want to go alone, though.

…We've been together for as long as we can remember. Early on, during a family trip in Africa or at least, that was the case for me, I got taken in. Parents killed. Put in a camp. Raised a killer. Was assaulted in various means. Mei got stuffed into the same camp. We learned to fight. Learned to kill. Learned to murder. PMCs ravaged those lands, where AC usage was a lot harder to control. In more developed countries you had governments with branches and whole squads dedicated to this thing. It got worse when we they got their hands on NEXT units. It was bad enough with Normals.

I became something a nightmare among the lands due to my high AMC compatibility. The dreaded Nightmare Breeze that left only dust behind. Around that time, Mei took over as my operator because she got clingy to me. She was smart enough to know she couldn't show it, though.

One day my crew got real gusty. Hit an American base in a raid. Wiped it off the map. We didn't expect Hidden Hand coming down on our ass. Ah, I should explain. Hidden Hand isn't from the US, but we're affiliated via mercenary and preferred client. However, circumstances over the years have forced them to get closer in, which might explain why Mei's being tested.

Hidden Hand has another, more concealed motive as well. They were also trying to stop the AC from ravaging the world. It has so much potential for destruction. Hell a NEXT is pretty much a walking sentient weapon of mass destruction. It was something that started recently. But regardless…

…we were met with annihilation. My unit was recognized and Mei shouted for me to get out and shut off AMS. They traced her signal and she surrendered but I wasn't about to let her go. After some negotiation, I stepped out of the unit, surprising everyone when it was a kid.

We were reeducated, rehabilitated, and brought into their fold. I wasn't fully indoctrinated, I had managed to keep my head along with Mei. I must've been… eleven, something like that. That's how fucked up those years were. About three-four years back, I took on White Knight in Operation checkmate.

Ha…

I wonder how things would have been in my normal unit. Well, perhaps it's not mine. Orbital Static was the previous ace pilot's unit. I was taken under his wing when I was brought on board. He… unfortunately passed away.

"She'll have to past the test if she succeeds." MT says as we she walks over to me, the two us watching Mei walk out in her piloting suit which looks like fetishized latex. How the hell are you expected to breathe and move around in that sort of thing? Let alone if your shields fail, you have nowhere for any additional equipment. How smug, to not have any other protection than that unit. Even for me, there's emergency storage in my AC if I am forced to get out. There's been a few times that I've had to break AMS forcefully and eject out.

"…We both know that Mei will pass that test with flying colors if she wants to. She knows the inside and outs of an Armored Core and everything you could know about them. Give her a unit to study and she'll easily pass it."

"You put a lot of faith in her."

"Mei is my operator. She is my lifeblood and savior on the battlefield. I trust her because of that. She has my back and I have hers. Any progress on the operator business?"

"Progress has been slow. It seems we're making a stand though… the IS Academy staff is a little reluctant due to the fact they've prefer to have domestic students try it out first, but…"

"Our created profiles would make it easy to create a case, right? I'm guessing that it showcases me as an operator and her as the pilot of the AC?"

She sighs. "Yes. It's a shame your piloting record—"

"Screw my record, MT. It's nothing more than a list of what I've done."

"Still though, you're a prodigy. It's a shame your achievements have to be credited to someone else."

"Ha, prodigy." I give a bitter laugh. "That term is for those who work to be good from an early age. I didn't work as much as I was forced to in order to survive. I don't mind it going to Mei either, it's for the both of us, after all."

MT gives a small smile. "Thought you'd say that."

"Must've been a pain setting those profiles up, with all the paperwork you'd have to flip around." I say as Mei activates the test unit, donning it and moving around. "By the way… do I get a license?"

She gives a long sigh. "We're thinking about it. As long as you make sure not to make anyone pass out. I still don't know how you made Wei—er, Vacian pass out."

"It wasn't hard."

"That's not a good response!" She turns to look at Mei, who's kicking around and seems to have decent sync. "…she's a natural, isn't she?"

"Looks like it. How long do we know whether or not I'm going in?"

"You're second priority, unfortunately."

"…I know you're pissed. It's frustrating for me too. You two are my best team. I've seen the two of you become godlike on the field. Knowing my best team is being torn apart is annoying as hell. But orders are orders."

"Hmph. I know those words too damn well. If you'll excuse me."

"Heading over to Orbital Static?"

"Yeah. Tell Mei I'll be there."

I walk over to the hangar, where my usual unit Orbital Static, is standing proud and tall. It's based off the Y01-TELLUS, with a few modifications. While it's great for energy weapons, it does have a bit of problem with stabilization, but that's where Mei's skills as an Operator come into play.

She's amazing at programming along with being an Operator. She built an entire system for helping me stabilize the loadout and weigh distribution so I have roughly equal performance in all directions. There's also a problem with the arms in that they originally weren't great with recoiled weapons, but with some tuning that was fixed.

I climb up with some ladders and then enter the cockpit, not leaving it shut as I get into the seat. The setup is roughly the same as in Sea Glass, with all of those screens. I don't bother putting on the band for AMS, but sit down in the seat regardless.

"Hey."

I lean over and turn my head around, finding Marisa—rank twenty three and pilot of Sky Receiver, a quad-leg type AC with a ridiculous amount of firepower—walking in with her piloting uniform that's just like mine. Her medium length blonde hair is tied into a sidetail on her left side with a brown band that matches her eyes. "Oh, what brings you here?"

"Some of the other guys said you walked by and looked rather down. You wanna talk, pilot to pilot?"

"I can't divulge any information that I'd like to talk about."

"Ah. What can you talk about, then?"

"Well, I guess you could say that there's some operator changes." I say, sitting back in a normal sitting position as Marisa comes into the cockpit. "I might be moved off piloting duty. Medical stuff."

"Medical stuff?"

"AMS is a bitch, apparently."

"Ah, right… you've got really high compatibility."

"Turns out it has a price." I say seamlessly, without a single hint of it being a lie. "So looks like Mei might be moved off me. Being the ace pilot didn't really help out when it's possibly going to be a liability on the battlefield. That's about all I can say."

"Ah… well… hey, if you ever need us around, we're here for you. All the pilots are. Just come to us, mmmkay?"

"Heh. I'll give it a try. Say, I think it's another quiet day and it'll be the same going into the night."

"Pilots' night out?"

"Let's make it happen."


Mei didn't return that night. Or the next. But on the third day after that…

"H-hey…" Mei says as I walk into our room.

I find Mei packing her things into a bright pink rolling suitcase. Probably part of her cover.

"A-ah… I um… I passed. They didn't want me talking to you, orders…"

"I get it, don't worry. MT say anything?"

"She wasn't there."

"I see."

Before I can say anything else, Mei dashes over and hugs me.

"…you better make it. I'll be waiting for you for you to arrive. MT said you could be my operator, right? I won't be able to pilot unless I've got a really good one. And there's no one else I'd rather trust in the world with my life except for you. The only person who deserves to be watching me on the battlefield is you."

"I'll be right behind you. I won't go down fighting. Now… I'll leave. I'll just be a distraction. But until I arrive as your backup, remember this." I say, breaking away. "…You need to focus. This is an assignment. You're obligated to give it your full attention and capability. Allow for no distractions."

"Of course!"

"Good. Now… I'll eliminate a distraction for you. Excuse me…"


The next day I wake up, feeling somewhat empty. It's still seven o'clock in the morning. I take a look at my phone and note a message from MT.

"AMS test cancelled today. Another day off."

Figures. A sudden drop in incidents as slowly we've been taking care of them while the world shifted to the Infinite Stratos… we should've left all those war torn zones the way they were.

No, that's bad thinking. It still annoys me that we're being replaced like this.

I get up and go for a jog to clear my head. When I get back, MT is sitting on Mei's bed, waiting.

"MT."

"Weiss." She says, standing up. "Just thought I'd give you a progress update in person."

"I guess you've got a lot of time on your hands, then."

"You could say that." MT grumbles, crossing her arms. "All I've been doing is monitoring Mei. Getting her acquainted with IS Academy. How boring. It's not like she can't handle school life, and Mei has blended in easily before. Honestly…"

"Progress?"

"Slow. It's a back and forth negotiation the whole way. But we may be making some traction."

"Any news of a backup Operator?"

"None. At this point… it'd take White Knight showing up against or news of some unknown IS circulating our information networks for us to even consider sortieing you again…"

"Dammit. My skills are going to fade at this point." After saying that, I go over to my bed and sit down, putting my right hand on my chin. "I haven't sortied in an AC for three weeks. Our training has been reduced to VR rather than live fire exercises. My last deployment was right before Mei took her synchronization test. I know it takes a long time for skills to get rusty, but this ridiculous."

"…we're facing retirement, obviously."

"But even then, to not even have an operation on foot… MT, is there another group?"

"You aren't authorized to know if there even is one." She says, putting her middle finger and pointer finger on the corners of her mouth. So, she's not completely sure yet.

"Given the circumstances, it seems that there's a more convenient group than us."

"Four oh three four."

My back snaps up straight. If she's using those numbers…

"That's dangerous talk. And nowhere near your area of dealing."

Dangerous talk. Right… saying something like that might make me a danger if I can put the pieces together.

"…right. Sorry. I should just stick to piloting and following orders. Conspiracy theories are just that."

She smiles, although we both know this is all an act in case someone's listening. "Correct."

Sending Mei out might be a way to preserve personnel. There's no doubt Mei is a skilled operative. Train her and bring her into the IS fold, they don't have to… retire her by forced means. We should all recognize that we're at risk here. We have intel on several operations of an unfavorable nature. If we cannot be brought into service, then we will be eliminated to clean up loose ends.

That is why I doubt this whole retirement plan. It sounds like a farce to move onto something else. Of course, it'd be better to just keep my head down and act like a faithful dog in order to not attract any unwanted attention. I'm sure our benefactors would not appreciate someone asking too many questions.

"…how's Mei doing?"

"Fine. It seems she's made a few friends already, blending in quite nicely with the other girls from the US that are going to the Academy."

"Well, Mei never did too much killing now. That was more of my role. She just spotted most of the time, but wasn't afraid to kill when necessary. We survived those wastelands, after all."

"Mmm. A fact that will never change. Anyways, I need to go for a drink."

"MT, it's not even nine in the morning."

"Negotiations went on for a long time and I woke up not even two hours ago, the next meeting is in two days. I'll do as I need." MT says, standing up and walking over to the door, opening it.

"Keep me posted."

"Will do. Keep yourself sharp, Weiss."

"I'll try, but having some live fire would keep me at my peak. I'll dull and rust if I just run exercises over and over again."

"Do what you can. After all, the legendary four-oh-three-four wouldn't be laid so low by a vacation now, would he?"

"4034 is a unit." I mutter as she exits, closing the door behind her. "4034 has always… been a unit, after all."

As the door completely closes with a click, I'm left alone. I collapse onto the bed, splaying out my limbs and looking up at the ceiling.

…Four-oh-three-four… what's going to happen to us?


Armored Hearts


MT brushed up against a fake plant in the hallway, triggering a mechanism that began scanning. She looked up at the fourth tile from the left, roughly three meters ahead of her, on the ceiling. The small embedded scanner locked onto her eye and scanner, triggering the next one roughly twenty seconds later after she turned right at the intersection. This one scanner her right eye before setting off the next trigger.

Her feet tapped on the row of tiles next at a normal walking pace. The timing was impossible to put a pattern on, but it was a successful run. As she pushed the button for the elevator, it scanned her fingerprint, granting her special access.

She entered the elevator and pressed the 4 button before leaning back and resting on the rail, pushing another hidden button disguised as a screw.

A lot to remember, but it's for safety.

The preloaded footage of her getting off loaded into the security footage as she stepped off on the incorrect floor, finding several key movers and shakers of Hidden Hand sitting around.

"Sorry to keep you, but I needed to ensure 4034-A wasn't going to do anything drastic." MT said as she sat down at her appointed seat. "Reporting that 4034-A and 4034-B are undergoing separation treatment as expected."

"Good." Rebecca said, all the warmth in her voice gone.

"Although, I'd like to also report 4034-A may be getting suspicious of the 'retirement' program."

"Keep him in line. We can't have anyone outside the organization wanting to get their hands on him because he's thinking too much. Or at least, not vocally. As long as they don't get wind, it's fine." Rebecca fired back before looking at Gavin, who gave a nod. "We'll have him sortie in two days. Acting sniper to a squad. Nothing major, we'll just get a metric on his performance. We've already gotten the permission for him to go, but we'll hold off just a little longer."

"Understood, ma'am."

"The others, status reports on our investigations?" Gavin chimed in after MT leaned back in her chair.

"White Knight investigation still at its last reported state."

"Sea Glass incident leaks making some progress, but tracing who leaked them is causing some delay."

"Synchronization Sickness investigation is simply awaiting more data to analyze."

"Good. Now… as soon as 4034-A is sent to IS Academy and we have confirmation, we will commence Operation Melancholic Set. Also…" Gavin pushed a button, displaying a hologram in the middle of the room of what appeared to be an AC, although upon closer analysis, looked more like a bastardization between a NEXT and a Normal. "…we will now be covering the progress of our latest project codenamed VERDICT DAY."


Armored Hearts


I open my eyes, finding the same ceiling again. I've been getting used to waking up without Mei. I wonder how she's doing. How many friends she's made. It's been about a month since she's left.

I had another sortie a two nights ago. Playing sniper. It wasn't hard despite the suboptimal conditions. Really makes me appreciate having locking systems on the AC.

…Really though, I wasn't raised a sniper. It's an effect from what they've been calling Synchronization Sickness. The previous 4034 and the pilot of Orbital Static was said to have piloted so much that his nervous system almost became one with the AC due to the link between nervous system and electronics.

Enough that when I inherited the title of 4034-A, the pilot, that when I linked into that unit, it seems my nervous system has partially changed in order to fit his own unit. I inherited his reflexes at sniping, his skill with it, by getting neural pathways I didn't have before.

The price for it though… even then, the medical staff isn't sure of what it is. It's certainly given me certain benefits, putting me on the level of 'super soldier' both in and out of the AC. Perhaps the price is my way of thinking is just off. My personality is fragmented. It's strange.

I guess the occasional nightmare is a price too, but it's not really something worth mentioning. They've at least gotten pills for that, since the former 4034 had pills for nightmares of the battlefield.

Still though… this entire thing is a mess.

"Weiss."

I immediately sit up and throw on a shirt, recognizing the voice. "Door's unlocked, MT."

She opens the door and closes it behind her. She's holding a manila folder in her hands that she silently hands to me.

I take it and then turn it around, looking for the label. Another mission?

"Holy shit, no."

"It went through." She says as I open up the folder labeled [INFINITE STRATOS ACADEMY OPERATOR ASSIGNMENT]. "Then again, I argued that Mei was your stabilizing factor. If they wanted to use you as their ace pilot again, without Mei you might go off the rocker. And no one even compares to you when you're at your best."

"…thanks." I mutter, reading over the papers. Looks like I'm supposed to blend in, just like Mei.

"Hey, I had some stake in it too, you know. Don't think I did it all for you."

"I keep you employed, huh?"

"Shaddup." She says, lightly whapping me on the head. "…I won't lie, though. Document R-3. This is part of your and Mei's retirement program."

"What."

"Yes, you heard me." She says as I find the relevant document. "If everything goes well… you won't be piloting an AC anymore. Or at least, you won't be intended to. It's not immediate, it's a three year long phase period. Once you graduate IS Academy… you'll have been officially retired from Hidden Hand. Looks like we can't stop that."

"Ah…"

"The era of the AC comes down to this, slowly fading away into the pages of history… what a shame. It couldn't have gone out in a blaze of glory."

"Hmph. But what if I'm suddenly needed?"

"It's over a period of three years. The retirement program is planning for us to speed up everything. You'll only be called if it's absolutely necessary, but the rest of us will be trying to wrap everything up. That way, any loose ends are tied up, any incidents or factions that are troublesome will be taken out ahead of schedule."

"Question, MT."

"Speak."

"Is there really a three year long retirement program?"

We both know that the world isn't at true peace. Especially with the IS core distribution. It's a very unstable peace, which isn't peace at all. Not to mention that I'm sure that people have been trying to make inroads so they can try to hire an IS in private since it's a lot less obvious than an Armored Core attack… there's no way it'll only be three years.

"Of course. This comes from our benefactors and the heads of the company. You do trust them, of course?"

Her eyes flash dangerously, daring me to say otherwise. To question that would be… rather unwise if I kept at it.

"Sorry, it's just that you know, gotta be sure." I mutter back, watching MT curling her middle and pointer fingers in the air while reading over own papers. Ah, so that's how it is. "…I'll miss Orbital Static. When they scrap her… call me. I want to be able to say goodbye."

"Of course. I'm sure it'll be good for you. Should I inform Meister that you'll be arriving?"

"Ah, right. You needn't do that… oh, that's unexpected. I didn't think you'd go so far as to get me a full license."

"I didn't tell them—what."

I hold up a small plastic card that I pull from the folder. A full driver's license. No, not just a driver's license. It would be more along the license of simple small vehicle operation. Not limited to just automobiles. With this I could legally operate a small boat or aircraft too.

"Oh dear God…" MT says with a long sigh. "But, Weiss."

"MT."

"Just… even if you're supposed to forget everything about Hidden Hand, when you go to the Academy, don't forget your origins of the Armored Core. You're acting as representatives of the Armored Core—to pilots everywhere, that no matter system, you'll kick ass. And eventually… you'll be put into the future systems. You and Mei need to show your stuff out there. Even though you're supposed to effectively 'retire', don't forget the house that built you."

"I would never dream of it. But what about you?"

"I don't know… I was thinking a condo somewhere on one of the Japanese shores. Maybe adopt you and Mei. Maybe try to adapt to society. It's going to be rough, considering home has been here for so long. Most of us are… not exactly happy about the retirement, mainly concerned we're going to be replaced with some other group just by the fact we're not an all-female group. Ha… well!" she snaps her hands together. "You need to hurry. Your flight is soon, after all. You've got a lot on your plate. You won't have to take the test though, as you're not really in for piloting an IS but just backing one up, but you've got to be prepared."

"I suppose. I have to mentally prepare myself, as well."

"Now, for the small details. Mei was shipped off to begin some crash course training for the IS to get her prepped up off to the side with those other girls who were selected to go to IS Academy from the US. You will be undertaking the similar treatment, but for Operators, so you aren't just spouting off what Mei has done for you."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Now get packed. You've got a lot to cover in a short amount of time."

That I do…

…so it looks like things are moving forward. With too many things happening in the background, for my tastes…


Whew. Long chapter.

But I had a lot of fun with this idea. A world with the AC at first, but then the IS slowly (well, more like not-so-slowly) phasing it out. Note that Weiss has had doubts about the sudden shift, so there's quite a lot to dig up. But man, I had a lot of thoughts going into this one and after like, four attempts at writing this chapter, I think it's good.

You might say I was partially inspired by the Grisaia series along with Full Metal Panic on this one, with the whole child solider brought into organization, turned loose on normal-ish society, since no doubt the society and world culture in the IS series is very different than what one would have in real life. And yes, it does slightly bother me with the timeline as well, but oh well, it was to avoid having Weiss piloting the AC to fight White Knight at like, 8 years of age. There's a lot to uncover.

I'll be trying to incorporate some elements from AC (such as the companies) into the world, but you'll notice I definitely glossed over Kojima particles. I haven't quite figured out how I'm going to put that in there, but I'll see if I can. I was tempted to just leave it out of there, but it was such a crux part of AC4 (and even moreso in 4A) I feel obligated to put it in there, but if it becomes detrimental to do so, well, I'll leave it out. I'd rather not drag down the whole story for one mechanic. I did slightly sneak it in there with Weiss noting the rare usage of the VOB and the legislation.

ANYWAYS, meta stuff.

Holy crap, this story. I felt so alive while writing it, like, getting back from the low that finishing Storms Overhead left me at. It felt so nice, playing around again and just… yeah. Like, it's hard to describe, but I feel like I'm enjoying writing again. An idea that I want to take all the way and just see how it plays out, and all that. Yeesh.

I don't know how often I'll update on this, depends on the reception really. But regardless, I really feel that I'm back in writing. And I'll ride this new high for as long as I can.