A Modern Myth

What makes my heart stir?
From where comes this ache?
Whirlwind of sand and smoke blurs the earth,
Sweet sad passions infuse the dark air
Clad thick in armor, inhibited to confirm your presence,
Yet I feel as if we touch upon each other's wounds

Stave V. The Touching

Winds had not been gentle all day, but they were now turning vicious. It took a mere few
minutes for the sky to darken and not because of any clouds; it was quite devoid of any. It
was rather the haze of sand, stirred and raised up by the winds, that veiled the sun and
saturated all below in a cheerless shade of yellow. And in its midst people were busy at
Shrine Hill--running this way and that, running for shelter, running to shield the sensitive
apparatuses from sandy gusts, running to clear the place in anticipation of battle. These
were of course civilians. The soldiers were already at their posts preparing to confront
the enemy. All but a few, anyhow. Yushiro's convulsions had begun to subside, but he was not
yet back to all his senses. Colonel Hayakawa and Lieutenant Murai were with him. The
latter was about to administer a mild dose of tranquilizer when he raised himself with a
jerk, batting away the hand that held the syringe. He rose to his feet, his movement quick
but unsteady, his eyes wild and staring far.

'Captain Gowa?' the lieutenant called unsurely.

He blinked and would not look her way. His arms were still shivering. 'Are they here?'
said he.

'Any moment now. Are you all right, captain?' asked the colonel. A minute before he had
been certain that he would have to carry the young man.

'Yes.' Yushiro blinked a few more times and shook his head vigorously. Quickly he surveyed
the surroundings as though he was trying to banish the mirage and reacquaint his eyes to
this world. Then he snatched the dented helmet from the ground and dashed for the armor he
had abandoned.

'Captain Gowa!' cried the colonel. 'Are you sure you can--'

'Sir, I'm returning to post,' he shouted back without slowing his feet.

'Focus One will be rejoining the formation shortly,' the colonel spoke into the radio. 'Try
not to engage the enemies head on until then. Murai and I are returning to CB. Over and

'Copy that,' answered Takayama.

'Focus units, can you see the enemy choppers?' asked Tokudaiji from the command base. 'I
lost visual. They dropped too low.'

'I can. They seem to have ceased approaching--there, they are touching down.'

'Rep Three to CB,' said the radio operator of one of the three Bradley combat vehicles in
the area. For of course the company had not been holding the hill with just the four Focus
units. Once the armors had dealt with the enemy platoon, the support vehicles moved in and
secured the area. 'We are sending you video feed of the hostiles. Loading 25mm AP rounds.
The sand's getting pretty thick; it'll interfere with targeting.'

The three helicopters descended some four hundred meters away from the hollows, making it
plain that they did not themselves intend to take part in the impending fight. Each hauled,
by cables, a giant under its belly. The helicopters nearly dropped upon the horizon, and
when they climbed back to air they were free of their burdens. The giants, set upon the
ground, lurched forward and began running in straight vectors toward the site. In
appearance they were decidedly more angular than their counterparts, and coated ivory white,
blending into the desert landscape.

'You know, I just thought of something,' Kitazawa said almost absentmindedly. 'Camouflage.
Why did we have to paint everything green?'

The armored cars opened fire on the enemy units, still no less than three hundred meters
away. None claimed a hit. The enemies dispersed, increasing their speed. They trod the
soft terrain with agile ease.

'They are pretty quick. Rep units, do you have an idea of their dimension?' Ataka asked.

'Seven or eight meters in height.'

'About the same as us,' said Takayama.

'Assume their movement capacities to be equal to ours and calculate accordingly,' ordered
the colonel who had just returned to the command base with Murai.

'I'd feel much better about this,' Ataka said as she began shooting at the nearest
approaching enemy, 'if we had done at least a mock TA to TA engagement!'

The enemy squad strafed in evasion and returned fire. They continued to advance toward the
amphitheaters. They were by and large ignoring the combat vehicles except when keeping
clear of their shells. It was apparent that they intended to engage the tactical armors.

'Keep moving, people, and be ready for anything--melee combat even,' said Takayama.

'All Rep units, hold your fire,' ordered the colonel when the opposing tactical armors were
about to come in contact. 'Fall back and stay clear of the enemy TAs. Do not fire unless
you are certain you can avoid friendlies.'

'Kitazawa, shoot the one at the lead,' said Ataka. 'I'll get him when he dodges.'


The enemy armor turned swiftly aside as Kitazawa let off a stream of rounds. Ataka checked
its movement, took aim and commenced shooting. The two pilots converged their fire, trying
to pin down the target. But the enemy disappeared from their sight when suddenly thick gray
gas erupted around it.

'Smokescreen?' cried Ataka.

'I think so. The bastards are well equipped.'

Then the enemy emerged from the smoke and dust, gun raised, and another immediately behind
it. Ataka fired nearly at the same time as the enemy. She struck the chest of the second
armor. It wobbled from the impact but did not fall. Her unit took in turn concentrated
hits in the forearm, which burst into flame. Kitazawa and Takayama discharged their rifles
at the two armors. The enemies split, the one that had taken fire being somewhat sluggish.
They would have targeted this latter, but that the armor which had hit Ataka charged at
Kitazawa so quickly that they were forced to fend it off first.

'The reaction index of Focus Two has decreased 13%,' said Kaburagi. 'Focus One has booted
up. Returning to formation.'

'Focus Three, a third enemy unit is approaching from your right,' said Tokudaiji. He had
been for some time tracking the armors, friendly and hostile, on a grid display.

'Roger,' replied Takayama, and launched a grenade that shot past its object by hardly two
feet. He followed with gunshots. They too missed except for a round or two. 'Damn it,' he
growled, 'these things are definitely harder to hit than cars.'

'Focus Three, stay on your toes,' said Tokudaiji.

So the major's armor took to its feet again. The six armors were quite close now. As they
were in open space, with few elements in the surroundings that might serve as a cover, they
were obliged to adopt the least coordinated of tactics--which was to say, they had to scamper
every which way, never slowing down lest they should become still targets, firing at one
another all the while. What a sight it was, those metal titans dashing about at a pace
uncanny for their bulks, massive guns blazing. Upon this furious scene, exacerbated by the
maelstrom of sand, Yushiro's armor belatedly added its own presence. He entered the fight
with a shot of grenade which forced an opposing unit that had been advancing toward Kitazawa
to turn on a heel. The enemy abandoned its target and faced Yushiro instead.

'I have this one,' said Yushiro to the rest of the squad.

'Be careful, Captain Gowa,' said Tokudaiji. 'That one moves differently from the others.
Don't let it get near you.'

And it was charging head on at him. Yushiro took aim for another grenade. The enemy
sidestepped the trajectory deftly. The arm had given him away, he realized; to fire he had
to level the machine's right hand at the target, and the opponent was reading the movements.
Major Takayama was right. This was going to be far trickier than shooting tanks.

The two armors clashed with a tremendous bang. Both staggered in recoil; neither drew back.
Two immense pairs of hands pressed against each other, refusing to give way. Yushiro put
forth a knee flush against the enemy's mass. It was fitted with a piston which, designed
originally for breaching concrete walls, discharged compressed gas at an explosive velocity.
The blast did not deal much damage, but it pushed the enemy back three stunned steps.

'Focus One's drive power system is 80% over standard,' Kaburagi noted.

'Are you sure you are reading it right?' the colonel asked.

'Yes, sir. Heart rate is steady at one hundred and ninety. This is atypical of his phase

Kiyoharu, who had been observing the battle at the command base since it began, leaned
toward his brother and whispered: 'What does she mean?'

'She means Yushiro is both calmer and stronger than he typically is in a state of hyper-
perception,' he whispered back. 'The output level of his TA's artificial muscles is at
almost twice the usual figure.'

'How is that possible?'

'Why would it be impossible? We don't know how Mile One works. We don't know how far its
capacities extend.'

'But he doesn't seem to be having an easy time with his opponent. Does this mean the enemy
TA is of a superior design?'

'Not necessarily. But it does make me curious to know who is piloting that TA.'

It was about then that the first of the malfunction reports came in. It was from Captain
Ataka's unit. 'Something isn't right,' she said, struggling to balance the machine at a
quick pace. 'I'm losing torque in the legs. They keep slipping.'

'You too? I thought it was just the terrain--,' began Kitazawa, but stopped with a grunt
when enemy bullets struck his armor in the thigh, knocking him off feet. Takayama returned
a volley of fire to give him time to get up.

Yushiro was meanwhile locked in a fierce duel. His opponent had briefly allowed some
distance between them only to hurl itself at him with renewed vigor. He managed to fire
just a few rounds before he was forced to deflect the attack bodily. With his weapon-
wielding arm he held off the enemy's own, to avoid being shot at pointblank range, noting at
the back of his mind that it appeared, in human terms, left-handed. Once again the two
armors wrestled together.

'Who are you?' he whispered through gritted teeth.

'Did you say something, Focus One?' asked the colonel. He received no answer.

The ivory TA's free hand pulled back, clutched a fist, and came thrusting with the momentum
of a torpedo. Yushiro caught the blow against a palm--a splendidly nimble maneuver, which
nevertheless proved insufficient when the hand that intercepted the punch snapped off at the

'Focus One, total loss of neural circuitries in the left forearm. He's lost the hand,'
reported Kaburagi.

Yushiro buttressed himself against stumbling backward with a foot dug deep into the ground.
The broken knuckle was shoved into the enemy's shoulder, and the good hand gripped the
barrel of its rifle. He could hear the crunch of metal grinding against metal. He strained
to push forward, intending to break the impasse by disabling the gun. But the leg that
propped him was not giving him proper footing; the earth was too brittle, and the foot was
already buried nearly up to the ankle. He tried shifting the armor's weight by means of the
booster located at the calf, but the device only released feeble sputter.

'Secondary articulation systems are losing power,' Murai said worriedly.

'It's the sand,' cried Tokudaiji in realization. 'Sand must be getting into joints.
Colonel, this is only going to get worse. We can't drag out the fight.'

'We don't seem to be the only ones having trouble,' the colonel replied.

That was very true. The enemy armors, with the exception of the one engaging Yushiro, had
fallen back somewhat, maintaining distance. The pace of their movement had suffered
noticeable decline, and they betrayed no sign of attempting close range combat as before.
Perhaps fortunately for both sides, this did not render targeting any easier. The sandstorm
had by then grown so violent that objects at any distance faded as dim shadows. Even motion
trackers were reaching the limit of their usefulness, able only to provide broken
intermittent pictures like a television with poor reception.

Yushiro and his opponent were in a stalemate. Pressed hard together, neither could manage
an attack maneuver. Nor would they back down. Spellbound Yushiro regarded on display the
bleary image of the enemy armor. It was terribly close, quite in his face. But for the
covering which sheltered him, he might have reached out and touched the heated white
surface. His eyes traced the machine's angular feature. It offered no discernible hint of
the human being within.

'Who are you?' said he.

The machine gave a stir, and took a step back. It lowered its gun. A certain
deliberateness in the gesture held Yushiro from taking advantage of the opening. The enemy
pulled away almost gently, the aggression gone all of a sudden, like a boxer retreating to
his corner at the sound of the gong. In silence Yushiro watched the giant withdraw into the
stormy yellow mist. For full thirty paces it did not turn its back. He thought he could
feel the adversary's gaze upon him, and wondered for the first time how he must appear
enclosed in the armor to observing eyes.

'They seem to be withdrawing. Do not pursue,' the colonel's voice came. 'Focus units,
maintain position until the hostile units have cleared the area.'

'Roger that, CB,' said Takayama. 'Have the repairs crew on standby.'

Though she knew she was not supposed to while piloting, Ataka unclasped her helmet and let
out a long breath. 'This is technically a win, isn't it?'

'I don't know. But it seems to be over at least,' answered Kitazawa. 'And not a moment too

So concluded the company's second and last skirmish that day.


In a matter of hours the sandstorm which proved a mixed blessing for the armor company
spread to engulf the northern half of Belgistan. For eighteen hours it raged, enforcing
during that interval a virtual ceasefire across forty thousand square miles of desert
territory. Relieved by American reinforcements, the company left Shrine Hill and returned
to the headquarter base that same afternoon. They were surprised to learn there of the
intense interest which their first combat engagement had engendered in the media. There had
been, unbeknownst to the combatants, a crew of journalists not far from the hill at the time
of the fight. Noting the helicopters that carried the enemy armors, they rushed to the
battle site. Though they did not reach the hill in time for a close look at the combat,
they managed from distance to capture the silhouette of a mechanical giant, half obscured in
the storm. The image quickly made its way to an American television network, there to be
delivered to the living rooms of the world's news-watching public. By the time of the
company's return to the base it was common knowledge. Already the suspicion of Japanese
origin was being spoken of in the news.

Not that the soldiers had the leisure to give any of it much thought. The aftermath of
their first battle left them in no shortage of immediate concerns to deal with. All four
armors were in need of repair. And though with conventional weaponry that might be left
entirely to the care of the maintenance crew, the nature of the tactical armors, which
needed to be fine tuned to the pilots' unique attributes, demanded that the soldiers be
present to test the machines throughout much of the repair effort. As suspected sand turned
out to be a great trouble. It had penetrated every nook that was the least bit exposed,
particularly the joints. The limbs had to be stripped of armor plates, and the parts inside
meticulously cleaned of impurities.

'We're having to peel it off because vacuuming wasn't enough,' the crew chief told Captain
Ataka at the hangar before the half-flayed form of her unit. 'We will also have to replace
a number of modules in the arm that got hit.'

'Can you do it by sundown? I'd really like to test it in fully operational condition before
going to bed.'

'We'll do what we can. We aren't sleeping tonight anyway.'

'Is it that bad?'

'Well, we want to give each unit a complete checkup besides the repair. A desert engagement
is really the worst debut it could have made--we need to determine what exactly sand can do
to the system. Focus One and Two are receiving priority because they were damaged worse.'

Ataka thanked the crew chief and returned to the break room, where the other soldiers were
still at the table supping. They had mostly finished eating and the room was quiet.
Kitazawa sat off to a corner on the floor, absorbed in a handheld video game player.

'It looks like sand, more than the enemy, is the issue at the moment,' said she.

Colonel Hayakawa stood at a window observing the hazy vista outside. 'That isn't the only
issue we have,' he said in a low voice.

Ataka then noted Yushiro at the table, eyes downcast and silent, and standing next to him
Kaburagi with an impatient expression. There was no tray before him, and she wondered if he
had at all eaten. A prominent bruise ran from his left cheek down to the jaw. He had not
fallen down gently when earlier the sniper's bullet came near claiming his life.

'Answer me, Captain Gowa,' said--continued--Kaburagi, clapping a palm on the table. 'Help us
understand. What in the world was that about?'

He would not speak. Kaburagi grew still more impatient.

'Your action compromised the mission. You have an obligation to explain your behavior,

He only fixed his attention on the metal surface of the table. The others would not look at
him either. Kaburagi's voice rang shrill in the room, the rest of the men having sunk into
a tense, almost embarrassed silence.

'I thought you blew a fuse,' said Kitazawa after awhile, not looking up from the ongoing
game. 'I've heard about fellas who go haywire once they get a whiff of real war.'

'Is that what it was?' Tokudaiji asked, half rising. 'Just a failure of the nerve? To me
it felt more like--'

'Like?' said Takayama.


'Then again, you did fight well,' added Kitazawa. He reset the game for another round.

'Performance is not in question here,' Kaburagi said. 'This stems from the fact of having a
civilian on a frontline assignment.'

'I will be the one to judge that,' interjected the colonel, at last turning from the window.
He addressed the young man who during the exchange had not so much as moved a muscle.
'Captain Gowa, do you wish to say anything at this time in your defense?'

'No, sir.'

'Then you may go.'

With gratitude Yushiro accepted the leave. Lieutenant Murai let out a sigh when the door
closed behind him, glad that the confrontation was over for the time being. 'Sir, will you
be disciplining Captain Gowa?' she asked cautiously.

'Bizarre as his conduct was,' replied the colonel after some thought, 'his only fault was in
leaving his armor unauthorized. I don't believe his intention was to desert his post. We
also cannot doubt that his behavior was in some way affected by... physiological factors.'

'Such that he could not of his own will control them, sir?' inquired Kaburagi.

It was a difficult question to answer. To affirm might further bolster the notion that
young Gowa was too unstable for combat duty. To deny would necessarily imply his willful
neglect of protocol. 'I meant, captain, that it seems very likely that the factors behind
his conduct were the same responsible for his unique strength as a pilot.'

'I wonder if it is a strength,' Kaburagi said.

'How do you mean?' Ataka asked, frowning.

'I mean what we have taken to be superhuman may simply be an instance of the abnormal.
Earlier Yushiro's heart rate reached the maximum of 318, and this when he was not even
geared up. How is his body enduring the strain, and what's more, why does it induce such
extreme conditions on its own?'

'We are not going to find out by questioning him,' offered Takayama.

Ataka nodded gravely. 'He doesn't understand it himself, Kahoru. And he wants to, badly.
After coming out of one of his phase shifts he's always terribly quiet. He isn't happy.'

'Rin, I am not trying to persecute him,' replied Kaburagi. 'I just wonder what we are doing
dragging him all the way here. He's seventeen, for mercy's sake. He should be going to
ballgames and studying for college, not getting his head almost blown off in some foreign

'He go to school?' asked Kitazawa.

'Tutors,' replied Takayama. 'I don't think he gets out of home much when he's not with us.'

'Buddies? A sweetheart? I mean, a pretty-faced rich prince like him?'

'He sure hasn't mentioned any.'

'What does he ever mention anyway?'

The conversation seemed to run down after that. No one offered a remark though all were
thinking of the youngest and most enigmatic member of their company. Tokudaiji rose and
began collecting the trays, and Murai helped him.

'Well,' Kitazawa said as he started another game. 'He did fight well.'


The United Nations representatives made full use of the brief unofficial ceasefire to carry
on a talk with the Belgistani leadership. Their hope was to make the ceasefire permanent,
but it failed to materialize when Belgistan refused to accept the proposed plan. The
development puzzled politicians and analysts alike. Facing full-scale aerial bombing,
against which the country had no conceivable defense, what could Stilbanov hope to gain by
his obstinacy? It was by then a widely shared opinion among experts that an unknown third
party was lending the dictator substantial assistance in war efforts. But even so did he
truly expect to win this war against a coalition of superior armies? At any event the talk
was broken off, and with a new and calmer dawn the fighting was set to resume. The
mechanics of the tactical armor company worked tirelessly to restore the machines to perfect
working order for the new day. Kiyotsugu's team of technicians were also busy analyzing
the freshly obtained data. Kiyotsugu and Kiyoharu, in particular, irritated Colonel
Hayakawa by lodging at the very base where the company was quartered, since this meant he
had to deal regularly with the older Gowa brothers' nagging presence. There was nothing to
be done about it. The colonel's order was all but to regard them as members of his own
outfit for the duration of their stay.

'May I put them on laundry duty then?' the colonel asked his direct superior when he phoned
him to complain about what he saw as Gowa's intrusion into a military operation.

'Don't mind them and just let them conduct their studies,' answered the general with a
laugh. 'I don't like these corporate types any more than you do, but they did put the TA
together for us.'

'Still, sir, on a combat operation?'

'Of course they may not interfere with combat. Their access is limited to information
salient to research purposes.'

'I would rather if they were given no access at all, sir.'

'I can't help you there, colonel. Gowa's participation was one of the provisos in the prime
minister's authorization to mobilize the company.'

And there was an end on it. Kiyotsugu became afterwards a regular presence at the hangar
where he was already acquainted with many of the crew personnel who had worked for Gowa. He
was especially interested in what little information they had yet gleaned on the enemy
armors. And it was to discuss these that he called Yushiro to the hangar early in the

'Have a look, Yushiro,' Kiyotsugu said, showing him the recorded footages of the previous
day's fighting. 'They are impressive machines, aren't they?'

'Yes,' answered Yushiro.

'In mobility, armament and firepower they are, from what I can tell, every bit our match if
not better. Would you agree with that assessment?'

The boy nodded.

'A shame that the battle took place where it did,' continued Kiyotsugu. 'It held back both
sides from demonstrating their full capabilities. We designed the TA primarily for urban
environment where its ability to negotiate obstructions would come in the handiest. And if
I were to guess I should think the enemy TA's were built on the same principle--which, along
with other considerations, speaks against their being a native invention.' He pointed to
the screen. 'Now, look at that. This was taken by your TA.'

Yushiro flinched involuntarily. The footage was replaying just what his eyes had witnessed
the day before when he dueled the ivory armor. There it was again, close in his face, arms
outstretched to grapple with his. But then Kiyotsugu paused the screen, and the armor's
looming figure was stilled. As he exhaled he felt his heart settle from a momentary spell
of fierce pounding.

'See this insignia?' said Kiyotsugu, pointing out the green and white marking on the armor's
left shoulder. 'Flowers--I think lily bells. I went through the other TA's recordings too,
and only this one had an insignia of any sort. This unit was the one that hit Focus Two and
disabled your arm. And let's see...' He rewound through the recording briefly. 'Ah,
there. See that? The same armor, recorded by Focus Three. See how it slides down the
slope like a surfer riding a wave, and holds its balance perfectly? Amazing control. Could
you manage the same, Yushiro?'

He stared long at the screen and did not respond to his brother immediately. 'I don't know.

'You were in contact with that unit longer than your teammates. Did you notice anything
about it aside from the pilot's obvious skills?'

The answer was equally slow in coming. 'I had other things on mind.'

Kiyotsugu glanced at his younger brother. 'All this, it isn't easy on you, is it?' said he
with a humorless grin, turning back to the desk. 'Since it's just us here, I will say this.
I like you, little brother, and I wouldn't want to see you come to harm. I know much is
being asked of you, but bear with us and trust us that we will bring you through it. It's
important for the family.'

'The family,' Yushiro muttered.

That afternoon Colonel Hayakawa was called to the office of Brigadier General Dole. The
general informed the colonel that an all-out offensive on Kaha, preceded by intense bombing,
would soon be underway. He had a special mission for the TA company. He wanted an enemy
bipedal weapon seized whole--unscratched if at all possible. Spy satellites had photographed
a small group of odd-looking machines stationed in an apparently civilian settlement.
Analysis identified them as the same that had engaged the tactical armors at Shrine Hill.
The town was otherwise undefended. So it was decided that the company would set out the
following morning.


During the preceding two days the multinational forces had pushed the frontline considerably
farther north and secured a number of major supply routes. Accordingly the company
approached the target area by land this time. The convoy consisted of a combat vehicle
modified as a command base, additional support vehicles, and two specially designed
trailers, each carrying a pair of armors as well as the crew. A helicopter accompanied them
for air cover and reconnaissance.

Captain Tokudaiji drove one of the trailers. Next to him sat Kitazawa and Lieutenant Murai.
The road was terribly uneven, making the passengers jump about in their seats as the
vehicle shook over bumps.

'Coordinates 130, 30, 921,' read Murai who held the chart book. 'It's supposed to be an
abandoned village, fairly far from other towns.'

'Right. Sit back and rest up, both of you. We'll be on the road all morning,' said

'In that case can you drive a little more gently?' Kitazawa asked. The car quaked so much
that his teeth chattered when he spoke.

'It's the road, not my driving.'

'So, an abandoned village, eh?' Kitazawa said after an interval. 'No garrison, no defense,
no camouflage?'

'You think this may be a trap,' observed Murai.

'I'm sure the colonel has speculated as much.'

'Ordinarily you would of course drop a few thousand kilos of TNT on them and be done with
it,' Tokudaiji said. 'There is a reason we are being sent in. Whether or not it's a trap
makes little difference for us.'

'Captain Kitazawa, are the TA's all in good shape?' asked Murai.

'I tested mine earlier. Good as new.'

'Let's hope it stays that way,' Tokudaiji said. 'With luck we may be able to carry out the
raid unopposed.'

'I don't know. I think we'll end up fighting today.'

'You're sounding like Captain Gowa,' Murai said.

'Huh? Oh,' said Kitazawa, recalling Yushiro's prediction from their first day in the
country. 'You know, I haven't thought about that since. What do you know?--he was right.'

'I wonder--,' began Tokudaiji, but stopped himself.


'Never mind.'

'What is it?'

'Well, with his family business involved in the operation like this, I wonder if the boy
knows something we don't.'

'About the mission, you mean?'


'Not implausible, I guess.' Kitazawa chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully, and at once
regretted it when a jolt caused a painful bite. 'Ow! Damn this road! But, sure, it would
be strange if he didn't know a few things unofficially. I mean he has two brothers and a
cousin right here working on this. Those people get on my nerve.'

'And on the colonel's,' Tokudaiji said. 'Apparently there was a Gowa present in the room
both times he spoke with Dole. He wasn't happy about that either.'

'That nosy lieutenant, eh? Didn't like him one bit on sight.'

'Him the first time, and the one with glasses yesterday.' ('Mr. Kiyoharu,' Murai
interjected.) 'I wonder what they want.'

'What do all big corporations want? That's not much of a question,' replied Kitazawa. 'I
don't care really--I mean with Gowa being what it is, I wouldn't expect any different--but
they had better not spoil our mission. I won't be easy on the kid either, especially if he
knew something all along and didn't tell us.'

'That's a mean way to speak of a comrade, captain,' Murai said, genteelly upset but
hesitant. 'The weird episode aside, I think he has been exemplary in the past year given
his inexperience.'

'Look, I have no problem with him. But I don't trust his family or what they may be up to,
and obviously he is doing as they tell him.'

'He doesn't seem to enjoy it.'

'And why would you think that?'

'Well,' she began with some reluctance, 'I don't want you to think I am an eavesdropper.
But after the briefing last evening Captain Gowa followed the colonel out of the room. They
were talking in the hallway, and the door was left open, so I--'

'--Eavesdropped,' finished Kitazawa.

'It was pure chance, I tell you,' she said a little testily.

'Right, lieutenant. So you overheard them say--,' prompted Tokudaiji.

'Captain Gowa asked him, would his brothers be present on the field for this mission also?
The colonel said, no, he didn't intend for them to be--unless they meant to invite themselves
without his knowledge. Captain Gowa then asked, is that what they had done the last time?
The colonel said, yes, and he abided it because they were a part of the investigation team,
whose protection was on the mission agenda. Captain Gowa said, but the upcoming mission is
strictly a combat operation. The colonel said, correct. Captain Gowa said, then if his
brothers should request to accompany the unit again? And the colonel answered: for their
safety I would deny the request. And the captain said: thank you, sir, that was all I
wanted to know. I glanced at him as he left, and I thought he looked almost...'

'Almost?' Tokudaiji said.

'Well, relieved.'

The soldiers mulled awhile over that. Kitazawa was the first to speak. '...Suppose they
get on his nerve too?'

'It sounds like he hadn't realized his brothers were coming to Belgistan,' said
Tokudaiji. 'A curious bunch, these Gowas. Why keep one of their own in the dark?'

'Maybe they don't get along. Big brothers are almost as big a pain as little brothers.'

'I didn't know you had big brothers.'

'I don't. I am one.'

'So you know you are a pain, eh? How many siblings?'

'A brother and a sister. She's still in college, but he is just two years younger than
me. We were fighting on our last day under the same roof.'

'And now?'

'Oh, we're great now that we don't live together.'

'I don't think that's what it is at all,' said Murai. 'You two--ahem--elderly may not
understand, but I remember what it was like to be the only teen in the house. Everyone
tells you that you are an adult now and should start acting it, and then treats you like a
child because you are ¡°too young,¡± et cetera. Why not let the little brother know they
are flying in? Well, why should they bother?--he's only a boy.'

The backdoor to the passenger compartment opened, and Major Takayama poked his head in. He
was thirsty and wanted a drink from the ice box. The conversation ceased, not because of
the major but another who sat far towards the end of the compartment, back erect against the
seat, eyes closed, and helmet in his lap: Yushiro. As the major was about to close the door
Lieutenant Murai asked him if their talk was audible through the wall.

'No,' he replied with a suspicious frown. 'What were you talking about?'

Two and half hours later the convoy arrived at the destination.

They did not approach the village directly. A cliff overlooking it provided a vantage
point, outside the enemy's scope, from which to observe. The colonel ordered an unmanned
spy glider sent up first. This was not unlike a metal kite, with movable fins and tethered
to the command base by a long stretch of wire, and equipped with a digital camera. It gave
them a clear live view of the village--clusters of small blocklike houses, thoroughly coated
yellow in sand, with few multistoried buildings among them. It was a very humble desert

The colonel wanted the entire site scanned in close range. But before the camera could zoom
in the screen went blank unwarned. The transmission had terminated.

'What is it?' he asked Kaburagi.

'No response, sir. It may have been shot down.'

'No room for caution after all?' he murmured to himself. 'All Focus units, prepare to
engage. We are now at Defcon Four.'

The tactical armors, hunched under wraps on the trailers, were unveiled in a hurry. Yushiro
climbed onto his machine and was stooping to enter when Ataka called out to him. 'Captain

He looked to his left. She stood at the foot of her armor, visor raised.

'That baby doll TA with the flowers, I will leave it to you. All right?' said she.

He considered a moment. 'If she is here.'


'Never mind.'

'How is that bruise?'

'It's all right now.'

'On the double, Platoon A,' said Tokudaiji, and the pilots took to their posts.

'Dopamine receptor index' Platoon A: Focus One and Two, no irregularities,' said
Kaburagi when all the armors were on their feet.

'Platoon B: Focus Three and Four, no irregularities,' Murai followed.

'System up.'

So the armors marched towards the village. And it was marching, because for them there was
no option of stealth. If there were enemy in the village they could not fail to see them
approaching under the noonday sun. The armors were spread in a wide arc, as though laying
siege to the town, in company of support vehicles.

'Colonel, I think we ought to move in quickly,' said Takayama. 'Assuming they've got
any amount of defensive firepower, let's not give them a chance to use it in open space.'

'Roger that. All units, increase to sixty kilometers per hour. Reduce to march speed at
thirty meters to entry.'

As one the armors broke into a sprint, kicking upward a furious trail of dust behind them.
They closed in upon the village border in a minute. Not a shot was heard during the run.
The armors regrouped in pairs outside the village. Yushiro and Ataka would enter by way of
a street from the northeast, Takayama and Kitazawa from the southeast. The combat vehicles
were to remain on stand-by outside.

'We are at the breach point, going in,' Ataka said.

'Copy,' replied the colonel. 'Focus Three and Four, enter a step behind and provide

There is nothing so bleak to look at as an empty town. Aside from the armors' hulking
shadows the place was utterly devoid of movement. The glare of the sun only intensified the
barrenness of the scene. Carefully they navigated through the streets, which were at times
almost too narrow to negotiate.

'Focus One and Two, there should be a wider avenue ahead, intersecting the street you are
on,' said the colonel. For this operation a video link was set up between the armors and
the command base, and the colonel could see all that the pilots saw. Before him also was
the layout of the village, put together through satellite imaging. 'Turn left at the next
corner. Stick to the routes where you have some maneuvering latitude.'

'Affirmative,' Ataka said. She cringed as the ankle of her armor bumped against a large
earthen vessel outside a house, causing it to topple and shatter. The vessel spilled no
water, only dry sand. 'Pardon me. Send the bill to SSDF,' she murmured.

'I don't think you need to worry about collateral damage, Focus Two. By the look of
things this place hasn't been inhabited in years,' said Kaburagi, who also was watching
the video.

'Now this is a bit more like it,' Kitazawa said, surveying the buildings for motion.
'Just like the simulation training.'

'I don't remember seeing anything this run down in simulation,' replied Takayama. 'What
a dismal place. It's a total ghost town.'

'Look for a ghost that's whitish pale and about eight meters tall. We'll bag it and get
out of here,' offered Tokudaiji from the command base.

'Wait,' Ataka said, stopping abruptly.

'Do you see something, Focus Two?' asked the colonel.

Puzzlement was plain in her voice. ''What is that?'

For a moment the colonel did not know what she was talking about; he spotted nothing
suspicious on the fuzzy screen. But then Ataka moved her camera to the western corner,
where a large ungainly building of faded white stood, and zoomed in on the pair of objects
in front of it that had caught her attention. They were upright and angular, vaguely
manlike in appearance but much larger, with crude beams of metal for arms and legs. They
were not the armors they were looking for.

'Decoys!' cried Tokudaiji.

That was when the rockets started flying in. Like mortar shells they streamed down from
above. The pilots had no time to react. Thunderous booms rang out, and the brittle walls
nearby were battered to pieces amid smoke and dust.

'We're under attack. Disperse,' cried Takayama.

'Focus Two, Three hit, but they're all right,' reported Murai.

'All units, disperse and take cover. Locate the source of attack,' the colonel ordered.

'The shots came from west,' Yushiro said. More shots came at the heel of his words. The
armors knelt by buildings, cutting their height in half. The air was thick with dust and
raining debris.

'I think they are on the other side of the town,' said Kitazawa. 'They are firing over
the walls.'

Another rocket flew in and demolished the roof of a house. Where the veil of smoke was thin
Yushiro detected the origin of the shot. 'That building, over there,' he cried. He got
up and charged at it, keeping close to the edge of the street. In close tandem two more
projectiles burst out of the window of the building. One streaked past him. The other
bounced off the armor's shoulder, jolting him.

'Focus One hit. Minor damage to the canopy,' said Murai.

Yushiro opened fire on the structure, peppering the wall with holes. At the opening thus
created he aimed a grenade. Before he could fire his display screen flashed an alarm with a
long, piercing beep.

'Focus One, pull back!' shouted Tokudaiji.

Both warnings came too late. Those at the command base only saw Yushiro's screen fill up
instantly with dark smoke, and then it was black and silent. The building had detonated.

'Focus One, system down!' Kaburagi cried.

'What the hell was that?' asked Kitazawa. 'Large explosion, northwest!'

'They blew up the building,' replied the colonel. 'Check on Focus One.'

Murai read over Yushiro's physiological data quickly. 'Focus One, slight panic. He doesn
't appear to be injured. The armor is operational, but the shock upset the system. He
needs to reboot.'

'Contact, contact!' cried Ataka. 'Enemy TA units to the west!'

'Confirmed,' Tokudaiji said, consulting the grid layout. 'Two signatures, sixty meters
and closing. They must have been hiding.'

'Just two?' asked Takayama.

'That can't be all of them. Don't venture out far and play defensively,' said the

'Here they come.' Ataka, who was the closest to the enemy armors, began shooting. The
opponent slipped into an alley and disppeared from her sight. The second armor, farther
down the street, stopped approaching and returned fire. Ataka felt the armor quiver from
the bullets' impact, but she did not back away. 'Platoon B, haul yourselves over here and
check on Focus One on the way.'

'Right behind you, Focus Two,' said Takayama. He and Kitazawa had almost reached Yushiro,
whose armor sat on its bottom by the smoking ruin of the building that had exploded. It was
charred across its front surface. Kitazawa noticed an enemy armor peeking out of the alley
and launched a grenade. 'Captain Gowa! Come on, get up!' he called.

'To Focus units,' came Tokudaiji's tense voice. 'A fresh signature on the grid, to the
north. Focus Three and Four, he has you flanked on the right side.'

'Damn it all,' swore Kitazawa. 'Where are they popping out of? From underground?'

'Could well be,' replied Takayama, turning to spot the newcomer at the northern end of the
street. The white armor was (so he thought) staring them down. 'You pay attention to the
west,' he told his partner as he targeted the enemy. He released a rocket immediately upon
locking on. It was an accurate shot, and he was certain that he had his opponent dead in
the center of the chest. He was flummoxed when the target shifted its weight on one leg and
let the missile slip by. There was a kind of nonchalance in the maneuver, like dodging a
pebble. 'What the--'

'Focus One, reboot your system,' called Kaburagi. 'Do you copy, Focus One? Yushiro!'

The white armor stooped and hurtled forward. Takayama responded with a stream of rifle
fire, but the enemy zigzagged across the street, keeping a step ahead of his aim, and closed
upon him in a matter of seconds. As the recoil of so immense a rifle was considerable, and
the target nimble and rapid, the major paused shooting and adjusted his aim. The enemy was
twenty meters away now, and bound for a direct frontal collision. He was a blink short of
depressing the trigger when the target swerved to the right and exited his vision. With an
oath he turned after the enemy. When he reacquired the machine, it was to see its massive
rifle-carrying forearm fly in his face. He felt the stunning shock of the clash overwhelm
him, then the keener blow of his head hitting the headrest.

'Focus Three down,' cried Murai.

'Focus One's EEG shows activities reaching near 1 Ghz,' said Kaburagi. 'I don't know
what happened to him, but he's registering no response at all to my calls.'

'Bring him back to us, captain. Administer stimulants at your discretion,' ordered the
colonel. 'All Rep units, fire at will on enemy armors. Relocate if need be, but do not
enter the perimeter--try and buy the TA's time to regroup.'

By the time Kitazawa realized the major had been knocked down he found himself the next
target of the white armor. It had already stolen dangerously close, and it was not slowing
the reckless charge. Undaunted he moved to confront it. He was obliged to fire at extreme
proximity, and ended up shooting clouds when the enemy struck his arm away just as the
muzzle blazed. To allow the enemy no chance to shoot back, he tackled it. He met with no
resistance; he tackled air! The machine spun--spun, he noted with exasperated wonder--out of
his path and was in another moment standing behind him. Unlike his partner he did not see
the blow that fell him.

With both hands Murai clenched tight fists. 'Focus Four, critical damage to spinal nerve
processor. He's down. Switching to auxiliary processor.'

'Captain Gowa, please respond! You must reboot immediately,' pressed Kaburagi.

'Kitazawa, are you all right? Can you hear me?' asked Tokudaiji anxiously. Three of the
Focus units were now unmoving arrows on the map. The enemy armor that had so quickly
overpowered Platoon B was meanwhile moving on to Yushiro's position. 'Focus Four? Focus

'I'm here,' replied Kitazawa, groaning. 'Staring the earth in the face. The TA won't

'Wait until the auxiliary processor takes over, Focus Four. It'll be a few moments,'
said the colonel.

Takayama was roused from the brief faint and discovered himself half buried in roof tiles
and rubble. The impact had sent him crashing into what was once someone's kitchen, and the
armor was squatting on the mashed remains of a hearth with its back resting against a wall.
'I copy too, command base,' said he. The armor stirred and arose, causing what bits of
the house that had been left upright to cave.

'Assist Focus One, major. He's defenseless,' said the colonel.

'Roger. The bastard got me good,' he breathed.

'Was it the Lily?' asked Tokudaiji.

'It's the Lily.'

There came then the first sign of response from Yushiro's unit since his collapse. The
video feed that had gone dead flickered back to life. Slowly the cursor blinked across the
display to spell: GOWA.

'Focus One has rebooted,' cried Murai. 'Focus Four, reconfiguration complete.'

Yushiro, still on the ground, raised the rifle at the advancing white armor. He had to aim
it sideways because he could not turn sitting. He discharged a quick burst, catching the
target in the shoulder. His aim moved in immediate tandem with the evading target. Twice
he preempted its movement with judicious, controlled bursts. Then abruptly the white armor
halted. It stood poised, facing him directly--leaving itself open to fire, but unconcerned,
from all appearances, with that prospect. And once again Yushiro was compelled not to press
his advantage. He understood that he was being given time to pick himself up. This he did.
He noted Takayama's armor approaching and addressed him.

'Major, please reinforce Focus Two. She's outnumbered.'

Takayama stopped on the threshold of shooting. He was baffled with himself for doing so,
for he had had a clear shot at the unmoving Lily. And just why wasn't it moving? It would
not break the faceoff with Yushiro though it could not be unaware of the gun trained at that
very moment on its backside. He looked at Yushiro's armor, then at the Lily. He had the
oddest notion cross his fancy that for him to enter the fight would be imposition. 'Are you
sure?' he asked.

'I'll be fine.'

'That TA is waiting for Yushiro,' said Tokudaiji who had been observing it. 'It wants to
fight him.'

The colonel made his decision. 'Focus Three, regroup with Focus Four and deal with the
hostiles to the west. Focus Four, report status.'

'Status good, CB,' replied Kitazawa; he had just got back on his feet. 'I'm on my way.'

Yushiro charged at the enemy. They exchanged fire, each strafing, and drawing closer all
the while. In no time they collided. At the command base Tokudaiji was watching the battle
via Yushiro's camera, and drew back with a flinch as the enemy armor jumped at the screen,
giving it a violent jerk. 'Must they be so reckless?' he wondered. They almost seemed
uninterested in using guns!

The two armors strained against each other. Once more Yushiro applied the leg piston, with
the same result as the previous occasion. But the enemy recovered quickly and sprang back
at him. It hooked one arm over the armor's shoulder, all but clasping it in embrace. The
other arm went for the head. Yushiro felt heavy vibration, accompanied by a harsh grinding
screech, seize the cockpit. His view was entirely taken up with the enemy's bulk, and red
sparks were spilling down from somewhere above.

'Focus One, breach warning at the canopy,' Murai said.

'It's sawing into the hatch. Shake it off, Focus One,' cried the colonel.

'Lift cables, set,' Yushiro said. Most of the gadgetry onboard the tactical armor accepted
the pilot's voice command as well as manual control. The cables were located at both
shoulders, and capable, once fastened to a secure surface, of lifting the armor to the
maximum height of forty meters. But that was not what he had in mind. 'Discharge.'

The twin hooks shot out like bullets. The enemy was leaning just over the jettison ports,
and so they ran into it squarely. The force was enough to lift it momentarily off its
footing. The white armor staggered back, and Yushiro discovered a stroke of luck he had not
anticipated. One of the hooks had fastened itself to the target's arm. Quickly he backed
away and put a short distance between himself and the opponent. Then he took the loose
cable in both hands, stretched it taut, and pulled with all the strength of the armor's
mechanical muscles. The white armor tumbled forward to the ground.

'Bravo!' cried Tokudaiji, slapping the instrument board. 'That's the way to do it, son!'

The fallen armor was motionless only for a second. When it scrambled to its knees Yushiro
yanked the cable, and it was brought down hard. He was now dragging the thrashing twelve-
ton mass on the dusty soil. He did not want it standing up, for then it might just as
easily drag him down. He freed one hand and fired on the enemy's calf and ankle. If he
could disable a leg, the battle was his. But a gush of dark gas, which instantly enveloped
the enemy and then his own armor, thwarted his aim. It was smokescreen. Yushiro was a boy
thoroughly disinclined to swearing, but he did swear just then, and loudly.

He pulled at the cable again, intending to haul the enemy out of the cloud of smoke. After
only five steps the weight on the other end of the cable vanished, and he nearly fell
backward from his own momentum. The enemy had cut loose. He still could see nothing in the
smoke. 'Retract cables. Switch display mode,' said he. 'Thermal.'

In the warmth of the day which obscured much of the lesser heat sources, thermal screening
only showed the target as an indistinct splotch of red. But it was enough for him to aim a
rocket. Having launched it, and confirmed the hit by a bright orange burst that shook the
splotch, Yushiro threw himself at the mass. In a crunching collision he knocked it back
down. A flailing limb, a leg, drew his notice. He fairly stomped on it, fixed it to the
ground, and jammed the barrel into the knee joint. Another second and he would have blown
it out. But the enemy reached out--its arms were a good bit longer--and took hold of him by
the waist. Yushiro was pulled down directly on top of the enemy, his world threatening for
a moment to turn upside down as he almost rolled, which was quickly and violently corrected
when a punch against the canopy arrested his tumble and pushed him back. He was once more
on his bottom. They both were. Both struggled to rise, their movements all but
simultaneous, and as shaky as they were hasty.

Yushiro was dizzy like he had just swum his way out of a whirlpool, and could only hope the
other pilot fared no better. Now on their feet, the two opponents made no motion to strike
but glowered in silence; they read weariness in each other and by an unspoken agreement
permitted themselves a moment's respite. This ended up working in his favor. Ataka had
left the others and stolen behind the Lily, trapping it between herself and Yushiro. He had
not intended the trap and was displeased. He considered asking the captain to stay out of
the fight.

'Focus Three and Four seem to have a handle on the other hostiles,' said Tokudaiji. 'We'll
make that TA our target for capture.'

'Capture?' Yushiro repeated.

'The pilot and all. Don't you remember the briefing?' said Kaburagi.

'Rep Two to CB. Respond, CB,' came an urgent voice on the radio.

'Copy, Rep Two,' the colonel said.

'We have a pair of attack aircraft headed straight for the village. I repeat, two attack
aircraft are closing in. They are flying very low.'

'What! They couldn't be Belgistani!'

'Negative, negative. I have a positive I.D. on two Tornado fighters. They'll be flying
overhead any moment--'

A faint rumble followed the message and quickly climbed in pitch, causing all at the command
base to look up. The sound faded with equal haste but remained a menacing growl in the
distance. 'Report, Rep Two,' the colonel spoke into the headset.

'They just passed over the TA's. Wait. Wait, they are circling around. They are coming

'Dole certainly didn't mention this. What are they up to?'

'I hope not a bombing sortie, sir,' said Tokudaiji tensely.

The aircraft made a leisurely pass over the village, leaving parallel streaks of white
across the blue sky. Then they moved on.

'Reconnaissance?' wondered Kaburagi.

'CB, the enemy TA's are in retreat,' Takayama said then, calling everyone's attention.
'They are withdrawing at full speed. Pursuing.'

'What about the Lily?' asked the colonel.

'Also retreating,' Tokudaiji said, checking the grid.

'It slipped into a lane. We're going for capture,' said Ataka.

Yushiro had already pursued into the street. It was flanked by buildings on both sides and
so narrow that the armors could only run in a single file, and any maneuvering sideways was
impossible. It would have been easy for him to shoot the enemy who ran straight ahead of
him and could not dodge. But the Lily too had thought as much. A blast of smokescreen, and
Yushiro was blinded again. In the darkness he jostled against the walls and was obliged to
slow the chase.

'The Lily's signature just disappeared,' cried Tokudaiji.

'Where?' Yushiro asked, tracing down the narrow path as quickly as he could.

'About fifty meters ahead. Wait, that's where it first showed up. There must be an escape
route in the vicinity.'

Yushiro cleared past the smoke. At the northern end of the lane he spotted a gaping black
tunnel that sloped down into the ground. 'There, I see it!'

The discovery yielded no result. The tunnel was blotted swiftly out of his vision in a gray
burst that scattered debris everywhere. A fierce wave of sand closed upon him, halting his
approach. Ataka, who was not many steps behind him, stopped on her track also.

'Report, Focus One. Are you all right?' asked the colonel.

'I'm fine,' replied Yushiro, 'but they've destroyed the entry point.'

A resounding blast then roared from the west. Yushiro and Ataka turned and saw the upsurge
of dense smoke shooting above the humble blocky skyline. 'I imagine that's the other
entrance coming down,' she observed.

'Report, Platoon B,' the colonel said.

'The hostiles entered an opening that seemed to lead underground,' Kitazawa answered. 'It
blew up before we could get close. Further pursuit not possible... unless this thing's got
a drill you haven't told me about.'

'Since they destroyed the entryways they must be counting on exiting elsewhere. Can you not
detect them at all on the tracker?' asked the colonel.

'Not a blip on the radar, sir,' replied Tokudaiji.

'The mission is a failure if we can't capture an armor. Stay put and attempt to reacquire
them. They must come up somewhere for extraction.'

'Roger, CB,' said Takayama. 'We'll keep the scanner running until otherwise...' The
major's words were cut short by a loud disruption in the transmission. A sudden terrific
force from the left, in company of a blaring report, slammed his armor against a wall. The
wall held out and he avoided falling, though it was still a moment before he gathered back
his wits. 'What in blazes!'

'What was that!' Tokudaiji cried.

Similar reports began to ring out then from all quarters. Walls and houses shattered in
chaotic tandem throughout the settlement. All that the soldiers, at the base and inside the
armors, saw were the eruptions that swept across their sights.

'The fools are blowing up the whole damned place!' Kitazawa shouted.

'All units, get low and take cover!' ordered the colonel. 'Keep clear of the structures!'

And that was how the chase very quickly became an evacuation. In the cramped confine of the
streets the flying debris doubled the force of explosions. They needed to pull out. The
armors fell back to a relatively open plaza, fighting their way through the blasts, and left
the village. They did not have to consult for an exit route. The buildings in the outskirts
had by then been all but razed to the ground, and they walked out over the ruins.

The fighters that had flown over the battle site proceeded northwest towards Kaha. They were
only two among many dozens of NATO aircraft which were at that very moment bound there. That
evening a full-scale bombing of the capital began.

-End of Stave V-