Full Metal Panic! and its associated characters do not belong to me. Full Metal Panic! is copyright Shoji Gatoh.
I just want to make a couple notes that are relevant to this chapter regarding Yugoslavia: one is that FMP takes place in an alternate world, so I essentially gave the country an alternate history. Secondly, I should note that from what I've read the Serbian and Croatian languages are different but are considered mutually intelligible. Hence, I think it's reasonable for Souko to understand the Serbian spoken to her in the flashback scene.
The Yugoslavian Connection
The air aboard the De Danaan seemed to be charged with electricity in the hours following the airliner hijacking.
Owing to its location in the Sea of Japan and its capabilities as a mobile base of operations, the massive assault submarine was one of the first assets Mithril deployed when the organisation received word of what was going on. It was surprising how swiftly the submarine had been ordered out. Almost as soon as the top brass received word of the incident the massive craft was on its way towards a position off the Soviet coast, its journey conducted almost entirely underwater. Only twice did the submarine surface –once to launch the helicopter that was sent to Tokyo to fetch Kurz and Mao, and once to recover it.
The Chief of the De Danaan's Intelligence Department saluted Tessa as she and Kalinin entered.
"Captain," he greeted his somewhat strained looking superior. Tessa managed to reply in a proper manner, but it took some effort. She was worried. Very worried.
"At ease, Lieutenant," the young Captain told her subordinate. A quick glance around the room showed the Lieutenant's small staff hard at work, pouring over the latest updates on the Xinkai Autonomous Region as well as anything else they felt was relevant to the matter at hand. Tessa turned back to the Department Chief.
"Have their been any new developments?" she asked. The Intelligence Chief shook his head.
"Not much. We've just received the latest satellite photos of the air base, but we haven't had time to do a thorough analysis of them yet. We're in the process of doing that now, and we'll forward our observations to the contingency planners as soon as that's complete."
"Good. Do you have any clue as to who's behind the hijacking yet?"
The Intelligence Chief shook his head.
"No. Baxter is going through the airport security tapes, but we haven't had much luck yet, and as far as we know the hijackers haven't issued any demands."
Tessa exhaled slowly.
As she spoke, Kalinin began moving among the analysts, checking in on what they were doing and asking an occasional question. Tessa lowered her voice.
"Do you think this incident has anything to do with Angel?" she asked. The Intelligence Chief shook his head.
"I don't know," he replied honestly. "There's a strong possibility that the two are connected, but at this point I don't have enough information to say whether or not there's any sort of definitive link between them."
Tessa studied the Intelligence Chief. She knew he wasn't telling her the whole story.
"What do your instincts tell you?" she asked.
The Intelligence Chief grimaced.
"They tell me that they're related," he replied. Tessa nodded.
"I see. That's my feeling too."
The two of them fell silent for a few moments as the work of the Intelligence Department continued around them.
"I guess all we can do for now it wait," Tessa said finally. "Wait, and stand ready."
She glanced around the Department once more, envying the people who worked in it. At times like this, they didn't have to sit around waiting for something to happen. They had a job to do.
From where he stood leaning over Baxter's computer terminal, Kalinin suddenly breathed in sharply.
"Run that one back a bit," he ordered, indicating one of the video feeds that was playing on the analyst's monitor. Baxter moved to comply with the command, and Kalinin watched for a few moments as the recording ran back.
"Stop. Zoom in on that man."
Kalinin indicated one of the figures in the picture. There were a few clicks as the orders were carried out, then dead calm. Tessa looked at Kalinin. He was staring at Baxter's screen, his eyes wide. Without warning a snarl appeared on his face.
"That's not possible," he growled. "That's just not possible. There's no way he could have survived that."
Tessa looked nervously at her subordinate as she and the Intelligence Chief came up behind him.
"What is it?" she asked. "What's wrong?"
Kalinin jabbed a finger at the monitor.
"That," he declared.
"What about that?" Tessa asked.
"That man is dead."
"Dead? How do you know?"
"Because I killed him," Kalinin replied.
Yugoslavia, several years prior…
Souko was awakened by repeated prodding with a handgun.
Still groggy, the young guerrilla fighter opened her eyes and looked around. She was lying on the floor of a ramshackle old building, in a small, poorly lit room that was almost completely empty. There was a pair of handcuffs on her wrists, and her clothing was torn and bloodied in several spots, with stained bandages showing through some of them. She could feel an additional bandage on her cheek, where she'd been cut by a fragment from an enemy grenade. There was no sign of any of her weapons.
The man sitting next to her withdrew his pistol –though he did not go so far as to holster it- and spoke a few words in a language she didn't understand, thought it seemed almost as if she should. Souko just looked at him.
"I guess you are a local," he said in Serbian, "too bad. I was hoping you'd have an interesting story to tell."
Souko took a moment to study her captor. He was a rather rough looking man –probably a mercenary- dressed in a mixture of military and civilian clothing. He held a pistol in his hand and had a locally produced Kalashnikov variant resting on his lap. His hair was unkempt, and it looked like it had been some time since he had last shaved. His most distinctive features, however –at least from Souko's perspective- were those that marked him as a foreigner, and a very distinctive one at that. She wondered for a moment whether he too might be Japanese, but she felt little desire to ask him. He was, after all, an enemy.
The man glanced down at Souko, who glared at him in return.
"Are you going to say anything?" he asked.
Souko remained silent. The man casually pointed his pistol towards her head and deactivated the safety.
"You know, I could just shoot you."
"Do it," Souko replied shortly. The man laughed as he reactivated the safety.
"Maybe in a little while," he told her.
The room fell silent, allowing sounds from other parts of the building to filter in. The foreign mercenary grinned down at Souko.
"Those are my comrades out there. Most of them are local paramilitary types. They have some very nasty ideas about what to do with you."
Souko said nothing, which got her another prod from her captor's sidearm. When this too failed to provoke a reaction, he tried a different tack.
"It would probably be much better just to end it all now, don't you agree?"
Souko glared at the mercenary.
"Yes. But I'm not going to beg."
The man nodded slowly.
"I didn't think you would."
He smiled, knowing that his next words would provoke a reaction.
"You and I are very much alike."
Souko's eyes flashed, and her expressionless face turned angry with a suddenness that would have shocked most people, though it didn't seem to affect her captor.
"I amnot like you!" she spat. "We may share the same homeland, but that means nothing! I am not like you!"
The foreign mercenary continued to smile. He was neither fazed by her anger nor particularly concerned that she was mistaken about his nationality.
"Whether or not we share a homeland means nothing. The similarities between us have nothing to do with our flesh and blood. They have everything to do with the people that we are. You and I have one thing in common. We are not afraid to kill. We are also not afraid to be killed."
"It's a pity we have to meet as enemies. People like us are very rare. I would have loved a chance to mold you."
He raised his pistol again, and there was a click as he deactivated the safety.
"I am not doing this out of mercy. I am doing this because I see myself in you and I think your death should have a little dignity."
Souko did not flinch as the man aimed his weapon at her. Her gaze was steady as she stared down its barrel.
"Well?" she asked. "What are you waiting for?"
Her captor smiled.
"I just remembered that there's a man here I've always wanted to test."
As he spoke, Souko realised that she could hear footsteps coming towards the room. A moment later, a tall, silver haired man –whom Souko guessed was a Soviet advisor- appeared in the doorway. It took Souko only a few moments to recognise him –she'd wounded him during an ambush several months prior, and had been rather surprised when he'd shown up again earlier that day. He obviously had a formidable constitution.
The Russian announced his presence without hesitation, completely unaware of what he was walking in on.
"I've come to take the prisoner in. You are relie- What are you doing?!"
The smile on the foreign mercenary's face grew larger.
"Ah, Lieutenant, I'm so glad you could join us."
The Russian glared at the mercenary. His pistol was in his hand in a flash, barrel pointing right at the mercenary's head.
"What are you doing?" the Russian repeated, growling this time. His demeanour did not seem to intimidate the mercenary in the slightest.
"I'm about to shoot a prisoner in self defence. She attacked me and tried to strangle me."
The Russian eyed the scene from the doorway.
"It doesn't look like that's what happened."
"You wish it did though, don't you?"
The Russian's eyes narrowed as the mercenary spoke, his voice almost a purr.
"You don't want to turn her over to the local authorities. You know what's likely to happen to her if you do. You don't want to be party to such barbarity."
"I have my orders."
The mercenary's smile seemed knowing.
"You do, don't you? But you're reluctant to follow them. Your heart isn't in them. Deep down, you agree with my course of action. You think it would be best if the prisoner died here and now."
A hint of anger appeared on the Russian's face.
"I wouldn't be so sure of that."
"Oh?" The mercenary raised an eyebrow. "You'd rather hand her over to the local authorities? Who will do who knows what sort of nasty things to her?"
The Russian was in no mood to argue. His aim never wavered as he issued one final order to the mercenary.
"Put the gun away. Now."
The mercenary never stopped smiling as he moved his index finger away from its 'safe' position on the side of the pistol's frame.
A trigger was pulled. A hammer fell on a loaded chamber. The sound of a gunshot rang out in the confines of the darkened room.
Souko couldn't see much of anything as she and Kaname were transported across the tarmac of the Xinkain airfield in the back of one of the base's transport trucks. The two girls were seated side by side at the very front of the vehicle's cargo area, with a dense mass of armed men between them and the only possible escape route. A shield of green canvas hid them from the view of those outside. The only reassuring thing about the whole situation was that Gauron appeared to have taken a different vehicle.
Unable to think of any viable course of action other then waiting, Souko's mind drifted back to her last encounter with that man. Despite her superb mental discipline, the young soldier was still having trouble accepting that he was still alive. True, Kalinin had hauled her to her feet and led her away almost immediately after the shooting had occurred, but even so, she had rather vivid memories of seeing Gauron lying on the floor with blood running down his face. She was quite certain Kalinin had shot him in the head –or had been at any rate. Now she wasn't quite so sure.
"You and I are very much alike."
In retrospect, those words had probably held more truth then Souko had been willing to admit. Her days as a guerrilla fighter in Yugoslavia were not ones that she was particularly proud of. Despite what she'd told herself at the time, she was not much better then the people she fought, killing more to satisfy her thirst for revenge then for any sort of noble cause. Ironically, it had been Gauron's actions that had paved the way for her to see the light. Her and Kalinin both. Souko and her commanding officer had never really spoken much of the incident that brought them together, but the young soldier had the feeling that Gauron's words had prompted some serious soul-searching on the part of her former enemy.
There was a low pitched squealing noise as the transport truck's brakes were activated, and Souko could feel an ever so slight shift as the vehicle rolled gently to a stop. There was some movement near the back of the cargo area as a few of the occupants shifted position to get a better look at their surroundings, but no one made a move to disembark. Leaning back against the front of the cargo bed Souko glanced over at Kaname, who had been uncharacteristically silent since being led off the airliner.
The other girl was hunched over, her eyes on the floor and her long black hair partially obscuring her face. Despite everything she had been through, she did not seem frightened –she did not tremble, and there were no tears running down her face. She seemed more resigned then anything else, though Souko thought she detected some subtle signs of nervousness, which was understandable given the situation. Souko was feeling a little nervous herself.
Footsteps were heard outside, words were exchanged, and then Gauron appeared at the truck's tailgate, flanked by two of his associates. He motioned to the truck's occupants.
"The two girls will come with me now," he said, indicating Souko and Kaname. Moving carefully so as not to draw the ire of the truck's other occupants, Souko rose into a half crouch and took hold of Kaname's hand, leading the less agile girl through the narrow path cleared by their guardians. A slight drop to the ground, and the two of them were standing in front of the jeep-like base security vehicle that had been tailing the truck. The vehicle's crew paid the two girls little heed as they scanned the surrounding area. Gauron too spared them only the briefest of glances before turning and walking towards an inauspicious looking box truck -inauspicious looking, that was, except for the quartet of heavily armed Xinkain soldiers who stood guard over it. Whatever was in the vehicle, someone obviously didn't want people nosing around it too much.
With the hand of one of her escorts placed firmly on her shoulder, Souko followed Gauron up the portable staircase that had been set up at the back of the truck and into the vehicle's dimly lit interior. What she saw there surprised her.
The left wall of the vehicle mounted several LCD displays, as did the right wall. Storage lockers were scattered throughout the area, their contents hidden from view. In the centre of the room there rested a large glass-sided cylinder. Souko's eyes narrowed for a moment when she realised that cylinder –which looked to be some kind of machine- was just the right size to hold a human being.
What are they doing here? the young mercenary wondered. Whatever it was, it wasn't taping a video for the media. Not unless it was a very strange video.
A woman in a white lab coat rose from a chair to greet Gauron.
"Are these my new test subjects?" she asked. "I thought I was only supposed to run the tests on one girl."
"You are. The other one just happened to pique my curiosity a little. I'm leaving her here until I have time to deal with her."
A flash of annoyance crossed the scientist's face.
"I'm not a babysitter," she informed Gauron. "I have work to do."
"So do I," Gauron countered. "I need to get ready in case there's any trouble coming our way."
"So you're passing her off to me?"
"Yes. Do you have a problem with that?"
The look Gauron gave the scientist told her that she better not. The scientist swallowed before replying in a haughty sounding voice.
"No. Just make sure she stays out of my way."
Gauron indicated his companions.
"These two gentleman will see to it that she doesn't cause you any trouble. You need someone to keep an eye on the locals anyway."
He turned to his comrades.
"I'll send someone over to relieve you in a few hours. Until then, I want you to keep an eye out for trouble. If you see anything, radio me at once."
The two men nodded to Gauron, who then turned and left the vehicle by the rear doors. Despite her mental discipline Souko felt tempted to let out a sigh of relief once he was gone. She had to remember that things were not over yet. In fact, they were just beginning.
Tessa stared at Kalinin as her subordinate's words sank in.
"You killed him? When? Why? How?"
A flurry of questions whirled through the young Captain's head. How could a dead man be alive? What did Kalinin know about the figure on the screen? Why was he so affected by the sight of him?
Still standing over Baxter's monitor, Kalinin took a moment to regain his composure. Denying the truth when it stood right before him was not the way a good soldier was supposed to act. If he couldn't come to terms with what he saw on the monitor then he wasn't fit to be in command.
Sighing, Kalinin turned to face Tessa.
"I assume you know the background of the current conflict in Yugoslavia, Captain?"
Tessa nodded. While it was outside of the De Danaan's usual theatre of operations, she was familiar with the general details of the events that had occurred in that trouble spot.
"Yes. Following Marshall Tito's death in 1980 long standing disputes between the country's different ethnic groups started to flare up and led to rapid destabilisation. The Serb-dominated central government was soon fighting against a variety of locally based independence movements, a situation that has persisted with varying levels of violence until the present day."
Kalinin eyed his commanding officer.
"And you know about the role played by the Soviet government?"
Tessa nodded again.
"Yes. They sent arms and advisors to the country, ostensibly as a gesture of support for another communist regime. In reality, their actions were motivated by a desire to gain political leverage with the country's new leadership following the years of strained relations they had experienced while Tito was alive."
This time it was Kalinin's turn to nod. He'd never spoken much of his experiences as a Soviet 'advisor' in Yugoslavia.
"Five years ago, I was on assignment as a Soviet advisor in the country. I was assigned to work with a government backed paramilitary unit operating in a primarily Croatian region of the country. One of the men under my command at the time was the man you see in that security image. He is a mercenary who goes by the name Gauron. I shot him in the head when he threatened to execute a prisoner in an impromptu fashion."
Kalinin looked down at the image on Baxter's monitor.
"I thought I'd killed him. I guess I was wrong. Perhaps it was only a glancing hit."
Tessa nodded. She could tell Kalinin was disappointed by his failure to kill the man.
"If he served under your command, is there anything you can tell us about him? Anything that might be useful for figuring out what is going on?"
Kalinin's face darkened.
"I can tell you this. That man is a ruthless killer, with no qualms about ending the life of anyone he comes across. He was involved in several brutal massacres prior to my meeting him. I can also tell you that that he is very skilled. Reckless, but highly skilled. He is not a run of the mill brigand, and he is not the sort who would fight for causes. If he is involved in the hijacking, I think we can rule out petty terrorism."
The silver haired Russian looked at both his Captain and the Intelligence Chief.
"You know what that implies about the situation we're facing, don't you?"
The Intelligence Chief looked like he was concentrating intently for a moment, then his eyes widened.
Tessa glanced back and forth between her two subordinates, wondering what was going on.
"What is it?" she asked. "What's the problem?"
Kalinin looked down at his superior.
"Captain, if you were trying to kidnap someone like Angel, it would make sense to have a way to cover your tracks, wouldn't it?"
"Yes it would. What are you saying?"
Kalinin eyed Tessa.
"If you were utterly ruthless, and had no qualms about slaughtering innocent people, what would be the simplest way of hiding the fact that you'd ever taken your target off the airliner?"
Tessa though about it for a moment, then her eyes also widened.
"Oh My God!" she breathed, "We have to do something!"
Kalinin nodded his head.
"I agree, Captain."
Tessa unconsciously began to toy with the end of her braid, a habit she had a tendency to partake in while under stress.
"Do you think there's any chance we'll be able to establish contact with our on site operative? Perhaps she can help us."
"I'm sorry Captain, but I'm afraid it would be best if we proceeded on the assumption that our on site operative is dead."
Tessa's eyes widened.
"What?!" she demanded.
Kalinin sighed and briefly explained Souko's role in the incident in Yugoslavia. Hearing what he had to say, Tessa felt like a gaping hole had been torn in her heart. Souko wasn't exactly the best person to discuss personal matters or the latest gossip with, but Tessa still felt like the young Arm Slave pilot was one of her few friends. They were the only people their age aboard the De Danaan. They'd each had experiences few could relate to, and missed ones that others took fore granted. Because of that, it seemed to Tessa that the two of them shared a bond. It seemed to her that they were comrades, even if one had never fired a shot in anger and the other had never sat in a ship's command chair.
"You think he recognised her then?" Tessa asked, eyes darting around the suddenly oppressive confines of the Intelligence Section. Part of her wanted to cry. Part of her wanted to scream. Part of her wanted to pour her heart out using any method available. But she couldn't do that. Not in front of her subordinates. She was their Captain. She had to maintain her composure.
If Kalinin shared Tessa's feelings about the possibility of Souko's death, then he gave no sign of it as he answered her question.
"It's impossible to say. Given the size of the airliner, Gauron may have missed our operative entirely, and even if he did see her there's a chance he wouldn't recognise her, as she's several years older now and the wound on her cheek hadn't had time to develop into a scar the last time he saw her. Nevertheless, there are two things that make me think he did recognise her. The first is that our field reports indicate that the operative developed a rapport of sorts with Angel, which would indicate that the two of them might have been in close proximity while they were aboard the aircraft. The second is that our operative has failed to check in with us. Given those factors, I think it would be best to base our plans on the assumption that our operative is dead, or at the very least incapacitated and unable to help us."
Tessa felt like her blood was boiling. She felt like she wanted to strangle Kalinin. The man was like a father to Souko, or at least the closest thing the young soldier had to such a figure. How could he talk about the possibility of her death in such a calm fashion? How could he stand there like nothing out of the ordinary had happened?
How could he be so callous?
The young submarine commander sighed inwardly. It was because he was fit for command, that was why. He was setting an example that she, as a Captain, should be following. Even if she didn't want to.
Tessa knew that some of Mithril's higher ups didn't think someone her age should be given the responsibility of commanding a submarine, regardless of whether or not she was the one that designed it. She also knew that there were times when she wholeheartedly agreed with them.
The young Captain nodded in agreement with Kalinin's analysis.
"I agree, Lieutenant Commander. Please begin making plans for a rescue operation. I will go inform the High Command of our findings and see what sort of support elements they can provide us with. Lieutenant, please focus your department's efforts on gathering intelligence that will be useful for planning an assault on that airfield."
Kalinin and the Intelligence Chief saluted, showing no hint of what they thought of her actions.
"Aye Captain. With your permission, I would also like to speak to Sergeant Weber and Sergeant Major Mao. The situation will likely require that they be informed of our findings, and I want to ensure that they are still capable of performing their duties under such circumstances."
"Permission granted, Lieutenant Commander."
"Thank you, ma'am."
Kalinin stayed to have a few more words with the Intelligence Chief as Tessa left the room. The young Captain waited 'til she'd turned a corner in the hall, then stopped to lean against an exposed pipe, her face pressed up against the cool metal. She did not move again until she heard the sound of footsteps coming her way.
The glow of wall mounted LCD screens cast a dim light through the dark interior of the mobile laboratory. Confused as to what was going on, Kaname watched as the woman in the white lab coat moved from one set of controls to another, making occasional adjustments. Finally she stood back to survey the readouts in front of her.
"Alright, I think we're about ready to begin."
With that, the scientist walked over to a set of lockers, took out a key, and opened one of them. She then glanced back at the group standing against the opposite wall, her eyes surveying the two girls in the group and settling on Kaname.
"You are Kaname Chidori?" she asked.
How did the scientist know her name? No one had mentioned it to her…
The scientist nodded and extracted something white from the locker.
She walked over to Kaname and placed the object on the glass cylinder.
"Strip," she ordered. Kaname cheeks went bright red.
The scientist paid little attention to the girl's outburst.
"You can keep your underwear on. When you're finished, I want you to dress in this."
She unfolded the white object, revealing it to be a rather skimpy medical gown. It took Kaname a few moments to get over her shock.
"The two gentleman will wait outside while you change."
The one guard looked quizzically to the other, who shrugged. They had no desire to get in an argument, so they quickly extricated themselves to the platform behind the truck. The scientist looked at Kaname impatiently.
Kaname glanced nervously at Souko, wondering quite how she should put things. Souko saved her the trouble by politely turning her back. The scientist took note of this and commented on it.
"You're quite a shy one, aren't you? You might want to get over that soon. Modesty isn't going to serve you very well if the initial tests today prove successful."
"Initial tests?" Souko asked, suspicion clear in her voice. "What are you planning to do to her?"
The scientist shrugged her shoulders.
"Nothing much. We need her to watch a video and see how she reacts to some medications."
Souko's gaze, hidden from the scientist's view, was intense.
"What sort of medications? Will they harm her in any way?"
"No. She'll likely suffer from headaches and mild nausea, but nothing worse than that."
Souko nodded and let some of the tension flow out of her. She'd been ready to take the scientist hostage and try to use her as bargaining chip, but if the tests weren't likely to cause Kaname much harm, then it was best to wait for a better opportunity. It wouldn't do either of them much good to if she made her move too early.
Kaname changed garments in record time, worried that Souko might turn around at any moment. Her uncertainty regarding the other girl's preferences still caused her some anxiety. Thankfully Souko seemed to respect her privacy.
Once Kaname had finished folding her school uniform and stowing it in the plastic bin she was provided with, the guards were allowed back into the lab and the scientist provided her test subject with a plastic cup that held an odd light green liquid.
"Alright, I need you to drink this. It's necessary for the tests we're about to perform."
Kaname eyed the liquid warily, imagining it to be something horrible, but found it to be nearly tasteless when she actually drank it. Souko too, had some concerns about the liquid. She wished she'd been able to see the scientist's face when she'd answered her questions. It might have eased her concern that the woman might have been lying.
When Kaname had finished ingesting the 'medication' she'd been given, she was instructed to lay in the cylinder in the centre of the room, whose glass front slid aside to allow her entry, and to put on a strange visor, which appeared to contain some sort of screen.
"You may as well get comfortable," the scientist told the Jindai student. "This could take a while."
There was a hissing noise as the glass slid into place above Kaname, and then a strange series of images began to play.
Kurz and Mao found someone waiting for them when they disembarked their transport helicopter in the De Danaan's hangar bay.
His expression as cold as ever, Lieutenant Commander Kalinin stood on the deck as the two SRT members descended from the MH-67 Pave Mare that had brought them from Tokyo and snapped off a crisp pair of salutes.
"Sergeant Major Mao and Sergeant Kurz Weber, reporting for duty sir."
Kalinin looked at the two of them, then spoke in a grave voice.
"I need to speak with you two."
Kalinin quickly filled the two of them in on the situation with Souko. By the time he finished their expressions were grim.
"The thing I need to know," Kalinin told his subordinates as he eyed them with a steely gaze, "Is whether or not I can trust you to perform your duties properly under such circumstances."
The implications of his words were clear: there were to be no reckless acts of retribution. No abandoning of mission objectives to rush off in a frantic search for their missing comrade. He expected them to perform their duties properly, and he expected them to perform them at their best. Otherwise he would find other Arm Slave pilots to replace them for this mission, even if those pilots were less skilled. Kurz and Mao looked at each other for a moment before answering.
The first response was from Mao.
The second response was from Kurz, who was uncharacteristically subdued. Kalinin studied the two of them for a moment, his gaze seeming to pierce them to the very depths of their souls.
"You are sure of that?"
There was a pause for a moment.
The blonde sharpshooter's face was sullen.
Kalinin eyed the young man for a few more moments, then nodded.
"Good. Your briefing is in fifteen minutes."
Mao nodded her head, barely trusting herself to speak.
"Aye sir," she said quietly.
Kalinin turned and walked slowly across the hangar bay, finally disappearing through one of the exit doors. That left Kurz and Mao standing alone among the bustle of the maintenance personnel's pre sortie preparations.
"I feel like a bully just beat up my kid sister," Kurz said finally, in a quiet voice that contained no trace of his usual humour. Mao nodded in agreement. For all the lewd jokes Kurz might have made about Souko, he truly did think of the young soldier as being like a younger sister. There was a reason he'd never tried to pull the moves on her the way he had with older Mithril women like Melissa.
"I know. I feel the same way."
Kurz shook his head.
"She's survived so many things. I can't believe she'd fall to something as simple as one stupid mercenary."
"It's often the little things that get people."
"Yeah, but this is Souko we're talking about here. The angel of death. The goddess of destruction. The girl who fights like a demon whether she's on foot or in the cockpit of a M9. Am I supposed to believe that she fell victim to one guy?"
Mao smiled slightly.
"It is a little hard to believe, isn't it?"
"Damn straight. I'll believe that girl is dead when I see her body. And maybe not even then."
The smile on Mao's face grew into a grin.
"Thanks. I really needed that."
Kurz grinned and was about to say "No Problem" when he thought of something better to say.
"It's not a problem."
Their spirits much higher then they had been at any other point since they'd first received word of the airliner hijacking, the two of them shouldered their bags and made their way towards one of the hangar exits.
Flanked on both sides by the guards Gauron had left to keep an eye on her, Souko watched and waited as the scientist carried out her tests upon Kaname.
Hours passed. Kaname's chest slowly rose and fell with her breathing. A new pair of guards –these ones armed with rifles- arrived to take over from the first pair. Kaname was allowed a short reprieve from the testing and reported that she felt "pretty bad." Souko considered taking action when the scientist informed her friend that they needed to continue, but decided against it. Kaname might suffer some because of her inaction, but it wouldn't do either of them any good for Souko to be too rash.
Seated in front of a bank of monitors on the side of Kaname opposite the one Souko and the guards were on, the scientist checked some readouts, then sighed. She seemed irritated. Was it because the results were not what she was looking for, or was it because she was impatient? Souko guessed it might be the latter.
After a while, the white lab coated woman turned to Souko.
"You. Kaname's friend. Come over here."
Souko glanced at one of her guards, then complied with the scientist's command, making her way around the glass cylinder to stand in front of her chair.
"What's your name?" the scientist asked.
Souko considered for a moment. Part of her thought it would be a good idea to make up a name, but she wasn't sure how much Kaname was aware of what was going on around her, and she didn't want the other girl to say something that might cast doubt on what she herself was about to say.
"Souko," she replied after an imperceptible pause. The scientist rose from her chair and walked a few steps towards the rear of the vehicle before turning around again.
"Sit down Souko," she ordered. Souko did as she was told, carefully lowering herself into the seat the scientist had vacated. She might not be very socially adept, but she knew better than to raise the suspicions of the guards by acting too confident.
The scientist looked over at Kaname, who had barely moved at all since the testing had resumed.
"Did you know that your friend has the potential to radically alter the balance of power in the world?" the scientist asked. Her words drew a sharp response from one of the guards.
"What are you doing?" he demanded. The scientist shrugged.
"I'm just having a little chat with this girl here."
"You shouldn't be telling her anything."
The scientist snorted contemptuously.
"Why not? It's not like she's going to get the chance to tell anyone about what we're doing here."
The two guards looked at each other. The one who had not spoken shrugged to the one who had. They'd report the scientists' behaviour to Gauron when they were relieved from duty. Until then, they'd let the issue slide. The scientist ignored them as she turned back to Souko.
"Well, young lady, did you know that?"
Souko shook her head.
"No, I'm afraid not."
It would explain why she'd been assigned to protect Kaname, however. Unaware of Souko's thoughts, the scientist nodded and continued in an arrogant tone.
"I didn't think you would. You wouldn't know anything about the Whispered."
"Yes. Whispered. A small group of people who are born with an intrinsic knowledge of Black Technology. Your friend might be one of them, even though she doesn't know it yet."
The scientist's words were beginning to pique Souko's interest. As ridiculous as they sounded, they just might shine a light on the motives of Kaname's kidnappers.
"Yes. Technology far beyond the reach of ordinary science. It can only be obtained from the minds of the Whispered. It's already been used to develop Palladium reactors and the artificial muscles used in Arm Slaves, but that sort of thing only scratches the surface of what the new science is capable of. It's capable of far more. With enough development, it could render nuclear weapons meaningless."
Souko stared at the scientist. What the woman said seemed impossible, yet it would explain so many things. It would explain the rapid maturation of the Arm Slave as a weapons system. It would explain the advanced power plant of the M9 and the propulsion system of the TDD-1. It would explain why she had been assigned to protect Kaname. Souko looked over at her companion and saw her as if with new eyes.
Unbidden, Souko's mind recalled a memory from a recent mission. The USSR. A snow covered wasteland near the city of Khabarovsk. Her and her teammates in a race against time to find a pair of fugitives before it was too late. The mission had many professionally notable moments –including an up close and personal battle with an attack helicopter- but the memory that came to mind was that of a frightened girl with red hair, dressed in a fashion that reminded Souko of how Kaname was dressed right then. The girl was bleeding from wounds she'd suffered when she'd been throw from a vehicle and shivering in the bitter cold, but she had shrunk back from Souko's approach, eyes wide with fear. Those eyes had not looked human. They had looked like something that belonged to a frightened animal.
Could that girl have been a Whispered? Souko wondered. If what the scientist said was true, then such an explanation would make a lot of sense. And if Kaname was also a Whispered, then could she end up like that girl –an empty shell of a human being, wide-eyed with terror and on the very brink of losing her sanity? Looking at her lying in the test machine, dressed in that medical gown, the possibility seemed all too real.
As had happened earlier aboard the airliner, a sudden blaze of anger flared up from deep within Souko's soul. Memories of her brief time with Kaname –particularly memories of the kindness the other girl had shown her -flashed through the young soldier's head as she imagined what her friend might look like if she had eyes like those of the girl in Khabarovsk. The image she saw in her mind made her determined not to let her classmate suffer that fate.
The new fire was suppressed so quickly the guards never saw a hint of it on Souko's face, but –like its predecessor- it left hot embers lurking beneath the ash.
The interior of Tessa's quarters aboard the De Danaan was shrouded in darkness as the young Captain lay on her bed, her thoughts bleak. Officially, the reason she had temporarily handed command of the submarine over to Commander Mardukas was that she wanted to get some rest before the De Danaan had to commence combat operations. Unofficially, the reason was that she needed to be alone for a while.
Maybe I should just hand control of this operation over to him completely, Tessa had thought to herself at one point. It had been a tempting course of action. Unfortunately, it was also one that would brand her unfit for command. It would mean giving up her ship, her crew, and her pride. Part of her –the part that hated holding other people's fates in her hands- wouldn't have minded that. The other part however –the part that had been stung by her seeming inferiority to her brother Leonard- refused to accept that course of action. It was a matter of principle. Teletha Testarossa might admit that she was uncertain about her fitness to command while in private. She would never do it while in public.
Which left her with a problem on her hands. She knew she needed to make herself fit for command again. What she didn't know was how to do that.
There was a buzzing noise from the room's intercom, indicating that someone was at the door. Tessa tried to ignore it, but it was quickly followed by a second buzz. Obviously whoever it was knew she was there.
Tessa rose from her bed and made her way over to the comm panel.
"Yes?" she asked. Melissa's voice answered.
"Hi Tessa, it's me. May I come in?"
Tessa considered. She wasn't in a good state to receive visitors. If anyone saw her face it would be quite obvious that she had been crying. She sighed.
"Just give me a minute," she replied. She needed time to make herself presentable. Hopefully Melissa would buy her excuse that she'd been resting and assume that she'd needed the time to get dressed.
Ducking into her cabin's cramped lavatory, Tessa washed her face and straightened her uniform before taking a good look at herself in the mirror. When she did, she saw that any attempt to deceive Melissa would be a lost cause. There was no way her friend could miss the signs of how upset she'd been.
Grimacing, Tessa made her way over to her cabin door and opened it. She did her best not to appear too dejected when she saw Melissa standing in the hallway in her SRT uniform, but she could hardly help looking downcast. Not when she was trying to keep her friend from getting a look at her face.
"Hi," Mao greeted her quietly.
"Hi," Tessa replied just as quietly.
She stepped aside so that Melissa could enter.
"Don't you need to be getting ready for the upcoming mission?" she asked.
Mao nodded as she stepped in and stood near the door.
"Yes, but I have a few minutes, and I thought this was important. I know how much Souko means to you."
Tessa didn't answer, she just stood there, eyes on the deck.
"You're worried about her, aren't you?" Mao asked. Tessa nodded slowly.
"Yeah. I'm worried about her."
So much so that I'm worried about whether I'm still fit to do my job.
"That's okay. I am too."
Tessa was so shocked by that statement that she forgot all about trying to hide her face. One moment she was looking at the deck, the next she was staring up at Melissa and blinking in surprise.
"You are?" she asked.
"Yeah. So much so that my stomach is starting to feel queasy. I don't know what I'm going to find when I go out there today."
That statement shocked Tessa. The part about Melissa being uncertain of what she was going to find was something the young Captain could understand. But that bit about feeling queasy? Melissa never felt queasy before a mission! Not even the ones that were dangerous enough to earn her sizeable bonuses.
"Are you certain you should still go?" Tessa asked. "I'm sure one of the other SRT members could fill your spot on the mission roster if you're not feeling up to this."
Mao shook her head. Unlike Tessa, she could probably escape from the coming operation without too many consequences, but she had no intention of doing that. Souko's fate was much too important to her for her not to go.
"No. I need to do this. I might be scared of what I'm going to find when I go out there today, but I need to see it for myself. Besides, I'm not about to turn my back on Souko if there's a chance that she's still alive."
Tessa looked at Melissa.
"Do you think there's a chance?" she asked softly.
Melissa nodded solemnly.
"If anyone stands a chance, its Souko. That girl has beat some amazing odds in the past. I wouldn't be surprised if she can do it again."
The Sergeant Major smiled suddenly.
"Let me tell you something Weber told me that I found helped a little. He said 'I'll believe that girl's dead when I see her body. And maybe not even then.'"
At that, Tessa couldn't help but grin weakly. That was her friend, all right. If there was one thing Souko was good at, it was surviving. She was, as Mao might say "A real b---- to kill."
Mao watched as the grin appeared on Tessa's face.
"Feeling better?" she asked.
"A little," Tessa replied. Mao looked at her watch. She really needed to be going soon, but she intended to wrap things up before she left.
"If Souko's alive out there, you can sure as hell be certain that she's doing her job, and that she's expecting us to do the same. We're her comrades and her superiors. It's our job to make sure we do everything we can for her."
Tessa nodded once, her jaw set as she took up an expression of steely determination. Souko needed her help. Souko was her friend. She was also her subordinate. As her Captain, she could not simply abandon her. The other girl might not be alive, but as long as there was a chance that she still was, then there was no way Tessa could let her down!
"We will," she said softly, but with absolute certainty. Mao smiled.
"Looks like you're ready to command again, Captain."
Tessa nodded her head.
"Yes. Thank you for your help, Sergeant Major."
"It's my pleasure, ma'am. I'm afraid I must be leaving though. I need to do some pre-mission checks on my M9."
Tessa nodded again.
"Good luck, Sergeant Major."
Mao saluted crisply.
"Good luck, Captain."
With that, Melissa turned and left the room at a brisk walk. Behind her, Tessa smiled as she felt a new confidence grow inside her, a confidence that seemed to spread outwards until it had encompassed her entire being.
She would do her job, and she would do it well.
Striding over to her closet, Tessa removed a fresh uniform, then proceeded to the lavatory to take a shower. She'd use what time she had left in her rest period to make herself presentable.
Forty minutes before the first wave of the strike force was to be launched, the De Danaan's Captain strode briskly onto the submarine's bridge, her uniform so neat she looked as if she was about to receive Mithril's top brass. Commander Mardukas rose from the submarine's command chair and saluted.
Tessa nodded to him.
"At ease, Commander. What's our status?"
"We're on schedule, Captain. All systems are normal."
Tessa lowered herself into her chair.
"Very good, Commander. I will be resuming command now."
Tessa glanced at the De Danaan's event timer. Thirty nine minutes, twenty four seconds until launch. A small smile crept onto her face.
Hold on Souko. We're coming to help you.
Lying on her back in the cylindrical confines of the glass sided test machine, Kaname Chidori was beginning to show signs of strain.
At first, the testing hadn't seemed that bad, though it was a little on the strange side. Words and symbols swam slowly through her mind, but that wasn't a problem for her –she could deal with that. What she couldn't deal with was the pressure that accompanied it. Small at first, but growing steadily, that pressure increased to the point where she could no longer take it and was forced to squeeze her eyes shut in an effort to clear her head. It did her little good however. She knew that the moment she opened her eyes the symbols would be back, and that if she continued to view them the pressing would increase until she went mad. She had to do something. She had to make the symbols stop.
Having been returned to the custody of the two guards after her conversation with the irritated scientist, Souko observed her classmate's situation with growing concern. She might not be getting a good look at Kaname's face, but the increasing pace of the other girl's breathing –in which sharp intakes of air now replaced the slow and steady inhale and exhale that had previously been present- told her that something was not as it should have been. She was about to inform the inattentive researcher of what she was seeing when Kaname decided to take the matter up herself.
"Stop it!" she suddenly yelled, pounding her fists against the inside of the cylinder. "Stop it! Let me out of here! I'm going insane!"
The scientist looked up from the status monitors with an annoyed look on her face.
"Pay attention to the images!" she commanded. Kaname ignored her and continued to pound the glass.
"No! I can't take this anymore! Let me out of here!"
Grabbing hold of the visor she wore, Kaname tore it off, revealing eyes that looked slightly wild. The scientist exhaled slowly and looked over at the men who were guarding Souko.
"Looks like the brat is going to need to be pacified. Can one of you gentleman restrain her for me?"
The shorter of the two guards nodded his head and stepped forward, leaving his rifle leaning against the wall as he did so. His companion placed a firm hand on Souko's shoulder as a warning against trying to interfere.
The scientist touched some controls on the cylinder, and the glass panels that formed the front of the machine slid open. Almost instantly Kaname was sitting upright and swinging her legs over the side, intending to get to her feet before the guard had a chance to restrain her. She'd obviously underestimated the man though, because he had no difficulty flipping her onto her stomach and pinning her arms behind her back. Whatever else one could say about the guard, he obviously knew his stuff, as was to be expected from a man hired to carry out an operation as delicate as the one he was involved in.
Her charge now suitably restrained, the scientist walked over to one of the equipment lockers and removed a vial and a large syringe, which she filled with a considerable quantity of the unknown liquid that the vial contained. It was completely clear, without a trace of colour, but in a way that seemed to make it even more sinister, as it gave no hint as to the nature of its composition. Turning to face Kaname as she loaded her syringe, the scientist smirked.
"I wasn't planning to use this drug while we were still testing you," she informed the frightened girl. "It's got some fairly nasty side effects. It's your own fault that I'm having to use it though. I was trying to be nice, but you didn't co-operate."
Even from her position behind Kaname and the man who was restraining her, Souko could tell that her classmate was quivering with fear. She was also trying to struggle, but there was very little an untrained person like her could do against an expert who had her pinned the way the guard did. As she watched the scene unfold from her position near the wall, Souko forced herself to relax, and was rewarded by a slight loosening of the grip on her shoulder. A single though flashed through her mind.
Taking a single step forward in the cramped confines of the lab, Souko raised her arm and swung it backwards with all her might, aiming straight for the unprotected chest of the man behind her. The time for restraint was over. The time for action was about to begin.