Chapter 88: Flight of the Few

(January 25, 2002 Friday) (00:15 AM) (Matsuyama Expressway) (Shikoku Island)

A flight of two F-15 Eagles with U.N. color codes hovered over the darkened sky that night, patrolling the crumbled roads of Shikoku Island. It was a small reconnaissance team maintaining an average altitude over the surface while quietly shining their search light on ground, hoping to catch a glimpse of something unusual. The two pilots of those TSFs expected the search to be empty but they came upon far more than they bargained for.

Amongst the ruined buildings below, they noted several immobilized military vehicles and nearly hundred of damaged Tactical Surface Fighters all buried under a thick sheet of snow. The leftovers of a military force were all the evidence of a great battle that was fought here. They could only imagine that some of these equipment were left abandoned and that the soldiers that piloted them were not buried somewhere among the cold.

"This is Recon Team 6" Said the helm of the flight to the operator on the other end. "We've finished sweeping the East end of the Matsuyama Expressway. No sign of the suspects… or anything at this point. We've spotted a few heat sources but they're mostly from derelict weapons scattered around the area"

"Understood Team 6. Team 2 has secured the crash site of the downed plane and is searching Tokushima City with Team 1 and 4. Increase your search radius around the road to 150km. Another division will be joining you"

"Roger that. We'll refuel back at the carrier and continue our search. ETA 5 minutes. Team 6, out"

"Captain. You sure about this?" The wingman questioned, seeing the futility in the search. "They really expect us to find someone in these conditions? This whole place is littered with old Imperial Army equipment and I can't tell heads or tail from my radar. It'll be impossible to conduct any kind of search in this weather too. Maybe we should call it quits for now and wait for this storm to blow over"

The flight lead simply laughed softly at his comment. "That's a tempting offer. A cup of hot coffee by the fireplace will be a good change of scenery. And our enemies probably know that we can't find them in this situation either. I'm not exactly comfortable going against the Ace from Yokohama Base either"

"Eh? Wait. The Ace? As in… the Legendary Rookie? Damn. If he's half as good as they say he is, what chance do the two of us have to go against him?"

"I don't like it anymore than you do. But… we have our orders. We'll do one last sweep of the area before we head back but this time, maximize your broad sensor's output"

"Roger" The wingman followed his instructions but like before, his radar was buzzing like a TV with a terrible reception. "Ugh, this is a waste of time. Those fugitives could be long gone by now. We'll have a better chance finding a needle in a haystack"

"That's easy. Just get a really big magnet" The captain humored to himself only to note that his wingman didn't understand the joke. "Forget it. You probably don't—(Beep…) Huh?"

"What is it sir?"

"Shhh! Quiet. I thought my sensors picked something up" The captain checked again to hear the beeping noise but his instruments were all quiet. It almost felt like an animal had made an error of being caught and quickly returned to its burrow. "Over there, by the rubble. Do you see anything?"

The wingman quickly directed his searchlight in the general area and noted a large number of TSFs clumped together in a mess. He clicked the scans and came upon the answer. There was one TSF with its cockpit open and from the looks of it, there was still some hint of power left inside.

"It seems to be distressed beacon" He assumed to his commander. "Looks like the pilot left it on while he was rescued. I don't see anyone. No life signs… no other heat sources either. (You sure?) Positive. Seems like this thing is running on backup power. It's a miracle how it lasted this long"

"Alright get back here. We'll land aboard the Osumi and refuel before we begin another search. Most of these things will probably be picked by the Nomads by that time though. Let's move out"

And after their search was done, the two Eagles departed at maximum speed, leaving a trail of snow behind them, not knowing how close they were to finding their mark.

(Takeru's POV)

Phew… looks like they're gone. That was a close one. Burying ourselves under the snow seemed like a good idea but I doubt that'll work the next time. We have to be more careful if we don't want to get caught in the crossfire.

"Alright, it's all clear. You can come out now" I quickly signaled Kashiwagi's unit that was buried next to me. The chassis of her unit was different from the rest of the units here so she would've stuck out like a sore thumb.

"It doesn't look like they've noticed us either. If we move now, we might slip pass them without being noticed"

"Yeah… but that's the fourth patrol we encountered on the road. They'll probably bring more of their friends the next time they come through. How's your unit holding?"

"The controls are stiff but nothing I can't handle. It's the language option that needs changing. I should be able to keep up with you. The pack mules are also fine. Though we have worry about fuel"

"Yeah. That's another thing" I quickly brought up the map showing waypoints leading to our destination. Lt. Piatif was kind enough to mark locations on the map of the places that we'll most likely find the supplies we need to continue on our journey. "The supply base that Piatif marked on the map is just a few kilometers from here. Searching that place will be hard if the patrols are this close"

"But we're not even sure if there's anything there worth searching. We already searched 3 other bases and they were striped clean"

She's right. We already pass three other depots since we left Tokushima City. The Imperial Army left little to be salvaged here, especially fuel. We scavenged what we could find but there didn't seem to be much we could use. The next one could be the same as the others and we would just be wasting our time. But still… without extra fuel, there's no way we can make it to Fukuoka.

"We have to try either way" I said finally after rattling the thought in my head. "Without fuel, we won't make it very far. If we can't find any in the next 2 places we stop by, we'll try siphoning them off some of the TSFs scattered around"

"Alright. I'll follow you on that. Let me get our pack mules ready. Give me a minute to restart them"

"Ok. I'll call up the others. Lt. Piatif, are you there?"

Our operator's face appeared on my headset. "This is Piatif. Status, nominal. All four of us are contained"

"Great. We'll be moving out soon. How's Kasumi and?"

"She's fine" The Lieutenant smiled my worries off. "A little wobbly but she's resting now. I had her take a motion sickness pill just in case so there shouldn't be any negative effects. What's our current position?"

"We're a little off ways from the old Matsuyama Expressway nearing Shikokuchuo. We just passed Awa, Mima and Miyoshi and encountered a few scouting parties all with U.N. markings. I was hoping you could plot a course using the off-road instead. That way we'll have less chance meeting up with them"

"Hmm… I'm afraid that might be difficult. There aren't a lot of off-road landmarks that'll make a good waypoint and the mountains around means we'll have to travel at a higher altitude meaning that we'll be wasting more of our fuel starting and stopping"

"I know. But we can't afford to be spotted either. You think there's an alternate route we can take other than the main expressway?"

"I will… try to revise our path. Please give me a moment"

"Thanks Lt. Piatif. Oh and… how are the other two?"

"Still asleep. The Cerberus pilot has shown signs of waking but I think she's still too weak to become a threat. The other girl however appears to be a deep coma. I'll keep you posted on their activities. Out"

We lifted off the moment Kashiwagi got our pack-mules in. The road was jagged and wrecked like all the towns and cities we passed by. There were abandoned trucks and TSFs that littered literally everywhere. It reminded me a lot of the ruins outside of Yokohama Base. But this time, you could feel the hope and disparity of those abandoned equipment.

Each one of these machines, both vehicles and TSF were all facing in the same direction, towards the northern sea. I can only imagine that the soldiers who were all withdrawing from the G-Bombs that dropped here were trying to catch a boat or some manner of transportation to get out of this snowy hell. They were all desperately trying to reach the port in any way they could and when their vehicles died out, they ditched where it died and continued on foot. The trails that those soldiers left behind had already been buried deep from the snow, but a feint trace could still be felt here.

I think I understand what was going on through their minds when they were making their way to the port. I can relate to it to our defeat at Yokohama Base in my last loop where… many of us died…

Hayase… Suzumiya… and everyone there…

Ah… this is no time to be having a relapse of my failures. We're beyond that now. I have to focus on the present if I want to keep my head in the game.

"Takeru?" Hmm? Kashiwagi? "Are you alright? You're slowing down"

"Ah sorry. I was trying to conserve fuel using efficient speed"

"Alright. We'll be coming up on the next depot in 2 minutes. The air here doesn't seem to be polluted but we shouldn't take any chances. Have your respirator handy just in case"

"Roger. We'll touchdown on that empty parking lot over there. Let's make a quick search and find anything we can use. Meet you on the ground. (Understood…)"

We parked our TSFs near the old Imperial Base and got out in a moment's notice. This is the fourth supply base we came across. Out of the three, the only thing we've only been able to salvage were unused weapons that were left behind. We couldn't carry them all so we took only those that were necessary. A few blades for me and a few magazines for our long ranged weapons. We even found a set of LRMs that was left behind by another team.

But weapons can only go so far. Without fuel or energy supply, those things will be nothing more but deadweight.

The base we came across looked like another standard refueling station for TSFs. It wasn't that well defended. It was sizable with only a barbed fence surrounding it. There was a checkpoint on each side of the base connecting to the road, a guardhouse barracks and a warehouse where we hope to find some of that fuel that we hope they left behind.

"Takeru…" I turned around and saw Kashiwagi approaching me with her air-filter on. "You ready?"

"Yeah. Let's make this quick while the lights are still out. We only have a few hours till the sun comes up and I want to be as far away as possible from any more patrols"

"Right. I'll follow you"

We entered through the front checkpoint of the base, slowly making our way towards the warehouse. The place was empty with absolutely no one manning any of the stations here.

There was an APC of some sort parked at the front of the depot. I think I've seen it before but I can't pin the name.

"Bradley APC. An American made vehicle" Haruko voiced an answer on my unasked question. "One of the most reliable infantry transport carriers since the Cold War. It shouldn't be a surprise to see one of these in various places. The U.N. uses them too for mechanized infantry"

"You know them?"

"I drove one before when I was still a cadet" She explained chuckling under her mask. "Instructor Jinguuji taught us how to operate one just in case. Though of course… we never fired the main gun before. You should've seen how disappointed Akane was when she realized we can't fire the turret. Did you pilot one?"

"I think I skipped that lesson" I laughed. Though it would've been really fun to fire the main gun just for fun.

We quickly went around the vehicle but came to an immediate stop when we got to the back of the APC.

There was a trail of blood on the back ramp of the vehicle, a long flat trail that seems to indicate that someone was dragging something or someone. And unsurprisingly, that trail seemed to lead to the door of the warehouse.

Kashiwagi and I traded looks and we both knew that something bad happened here. We quickly took out our side-arms and slowly approached the door.

I tapped the doorknob a few times and noted that it was locked from the inside and we didn't have the time find the keys. So in synch, Haruko shot the knob and I kicked it in.

My breathing hastened as well as my heartbeat. The trail of blood continued inward through the hall twisting and turning through several rooms before finally stopping at the main wing of the warehouse.


Oh come on! God damn it! Not again!

"Blast it all! It's empty!" My yell echoed within the giant open room leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. The warehouse we came across was empty to every corner. Not a single crate of any useful item or a single tank of jet-fuel that made this tripe worthwhile. Another wasted effort.

I really wanted to yell but I'm even too depressed to do that. I was just hoping… for something to go right just once. After all the crap Kashiwagi, Kasumi, Piatif and I have gone through I just wished we have at least some slim chance of help. But I guess life isn't that kind, especially in this universe.

The emptiness of this warehouse almost reflects the void in my spirit. If this keeps up, our little resistance operations will probably end before it has a chance to begin.

"Takeru…" Kashiwagi called out to my attention. She gestured her head, directing her flashlight on the other end of the warehouse. I turned my side arm to that area and noted the trail of blood we were following earlier. The red ink sunk into the tip of my toes. The hardened liquid felt like mud from the swamp of the southern island where we had our Comprehensive Combat Skill Evaluation. It was thick and probably damn hard to remove too.

But my train of random thoughts came to an immediate stop when we discovered the owner of the blood trail.

Our hearts sank and my mood went from angry to just plain sad. Even with this mask on I still felt like I want to pinch my nose. We averted our eyes for a moment before finding the stomach to look back at it again.

Sitting there, alone, buried under a thin coat of snow was a dead soldier with his guts spilling out of his stomach. Upon distanced inspection it seems like something tore through his three layered jacket and ripped his ribcage wide open. Judging from the view of his wound it seemed like someone was trying to stitch the wound but stopped midway.

What was this soldier doing here in this warehouse? Was he brought here or did he drag his wounded body in here and tried to patch himself up?

"Is… is he…?"

I tapped the soldier's head to find a response… but not surprising, I discovered none. From the looks of things… this soldier has been dead for a long time now. As I kneeled closer to him, I noted a gunshot wound on his head. There was also a shell casing a few centimeters from him. I can formulate a few different scenarios for this scene and regardless of what I choose, I can't find it in my heart to hear how the story ends.

"No pulse" I confirmed it to Haruko who sighed solely to herself. "Seems like he's been dead for weeks. Looks like someone tried to help him but… I guess it was too late. He appeared to have been shot too…"

"Did he… kill himself?"

"Or someone put him out of his misery" I added before standing back up. There was no indication of another soldier here either so this guy must've died alone in the cold. "Either way, there's no point in making any kind of assumptions. Let's head back and move on to the next base. Hopefully our fuel outtake will be able to handle the journey to Shikokuchuo. We'll figure out things from there on. (…) Hey, Kashiwagi?"

"Yeah… sorry. We should… we should probably leave…"

(Marimo's POV) (Temporary barracks of Squad A-01 Special Task Force)

My body slumped to a hunchback when I was released from interrogation. Anyone would be exhausted with 5 hours of questioning. I'm starting to understand why students tend to fall asleep in class. The sheer boredom of random answers and questions really can tax your mental capabilities.

By the time I arrived at our new temporary quarters, I noticed several familiar faces already waiting inside.

"Ah, 1st Lt. Jinguuji" Kazama Touko was the first to greet me. "Welcome back. How are you feeling?"

"Ah… not too bad. After interrogation, I feel rather hungry" I answered honestly, gesturing to my stomach. "Am I the last person back?"

"No. 2nd Lt. Mitsurugi hasn't returned yet. Everyone else seemed to be finished though. As you can see. Only Lieutenant Suzumiya and I are here. Akane, Yoroi and Tamase have gone to sleep. Captain Isumi came to check up on us earlier but was recalled to the briefing room" The briefing room? Does that mean we'll be deployed again in this state? "1st Lt. Hayase went with her. Misae san left to get some food from the PX. Sakaki and Ayamine san went for independent training. I'm sure they're fine"

"I see…" I breathed a small sigh of relief knowing all of my comrades are still kicking. "That's good. I'm glad to see you all made it safely"

"Would you like some tea? Haruka and I would enjoy your company—or… perhaps you'd retire for tonight?"

I scanned the room that we were given and quickly recognize that this was once the old storage place. A couple of futons were laid out to make up for our beds, a few makeshift pillows were given and unsurprisingly someone had the foresight to use some of the empty boxes to make an improvised table. This kind of accommodation would probably be considered meager but if you look at the state of our base now, a soldier would probably call this a 4 star motel. And it's not like we can use our old barracks either. After the explosion, the investigation division quarantined it off as a crime scene.

I'm certain that hundreds of other soldiers will be sleeping under the snow tonight. Simply having a roof over your head is probably a god-sent already.

"Actually… some tea would be nice" I graciously accepted 2nd Lt. Kazama's offer and joined Suzumiya on our makeshift table. The sweet aroma of Oolong tea was enough to make me forget the long trial of the interrogation. It was probably the first time I felt so relaxed since the attack.

"Here, Jinguuji san" Suzumiya graciously poured me a cup and its contents warmed my soul. Despite her being restricted to a wheelchair, she never fails to do her best. "I'm sorry if there's nothing for us to eat. Ah… but I'm sure 1st Lt. Munakata should return soon with something for us"

"It's fine. I can handle a little bit of hunger now and then" I waved it off before taking another sip from my cup. There was a brief pause between us. An echo of silence. I'm not surprised. After what happened today… it seems like all the lightheartedness we had over the last few weeks just… blew away. If it wasn't for the attack, we'd probably be in our rooms huddling over our private heaters warming ourselves over a hot cup of coffee.

I remember having a rather pleasant conversation with Suzumiya san right before things went south. It felt like it happened years ago. Ah… man… where did our peaceful yesterday go?

"Oh right. One of the Commanding Officers dropped by earlier" Touko announced as if trying to find a start in our conversation. "No soldier or officer is allowed to leave the base on strict notice until the case has been solved. We have been given freedom to walk around the main complex, we can't go to our hanger or the left wing of the compound"

That must be their little warning. They don't want pilots going near their TSFs and the left wing is where the armory was located. It seems like they don't have any evidence to convict us of crime but that doesn't mean they'll allow us to arm ourselves. They didn't even bother to return our side arms for protection.

"So they released us?" I asked for confirmation to which they both nodded. "That's good. At least we won't have to worry about repercussions. How are the other girls?"

"Most of us went to sleep the moment we came here. I guess all the questions must've tired them out" Touko gestured to Yoroi and Tamase who were sharing a futon together. I guess two best friends sharing their warmth must be nice.

"Has there been any word to what really happened here?" I inquired to which Touko answered.

"They're still counting the bodies. The death toll reaches to almost a thousand and more than two-thousand wounded. It's been confirmed that the attack was instigated by the same terrorist group that struck Yukon base last year in Alaska"

The RLF…

It was already obvious by the time Suzumiya and I took out the sniper at the front gate that day. Their methods were so similar they could probably say it was copied and pasted in the same event. The U.N. Armed Force High Command must be pulling their hairs out by this humiliation. To be struck by the same terrorist group on the same incident in the same event must've made them look bad in public. I'm betting they're not gonna let this one slip without some kind of retaliation. They'll probably want revenge and they'll do whatever they can to get their pride back.

"This is horrible…" I muttered plainly to no one in particular. "To think that a simple terrorist group could do so much damage. Do we know what their objectives were?"

"Intelligence believes that they were trying to reach the G-Element storage facility at the vault" Suzumiya answered. "A large detachment of their forces were concentrated there but fortunately enough they were intercepted by the guards before they could do any permanent damage. I don't really know the details but that appears to be their prime motive"

It seems like that's all the information I'll be getting. I doubt we'll be able to find more in our current position.

"Oh and that reminds me" Touko directed my attention. "The Captain sent the remains of Kashiwagi back to Yokohama Base. She will be given full honors and a proper funeral when we return"

I see. So it really has been confirmed that 2nd Lt. Kashiwagi was killed in action. I hoped that it was just false rumor but I suppose there was no helping it. Casualties are expected especially in that fight. But I can't find it in my heart to believe that Shirogane would be the cause of her death.

It was difficult finding a topic to talk about after that. We were all awkwardly concealing our insecurity but it seems obvious that we were just trying to break the ice that has been hardened over the course of the attack. Losing someone from such a manner seemed… wasteful even for me.

I knew 2nd Lt. Kashiwagi when she was still a cadet. In fact, I was the one who trained her. She was an exemplary soldier, motivated, determined and skillful. She also had a great knack of keeping those under her in line. In my opinion she would've made a brilliant squad leader but Akane held that position from her.

The Captain would've filed in a condolence letter to her family by now. I hope they would at least return the body for a proper burial.

"Uhmm… onee-chan…" We all turned to the younger Suzumiya who was mumbling in her sleep. She was twisting and twirling in her bed like she was trying to reach out for an extra pillow.

1st Lt. Suzumiya sighed and quickly dismissed herself. "I'm sorry, but Akane chan has a hard time sleeping after a serious fight. She usually has nightmares if I'm not around"

"Don't mind us" I waved it off. After a quick bow, the wheeled girl returned to her sister's side, comforting her by holding her hand.

Touko noted this and decided that it was best to leave the conversation short. There would be a better time for us to meet. "We should get some rest too. I have no doubt that this craziness will not end till morning"

"You get some rest" I urged her. "I would like to grab something to eat first. I'm sure there's something at the PX for us to eat"

I left the room soon after. By the time the door closed behind me, I let out a long and exhausting sigh. Everyone seems to be doing well on their own but you can tell that these girls have a lot of questions that they need answering. The Captain will probably have a field day when she gets back. I'm worried she might know less than we do.

Huaaa… I do not envy her at all.

Anyway… I should probably get to the PX. Hopefully they would leave the leftover table open for us latecomers.

"Mushi mushi mushu…"

Hmm? That boy over there. What's he doing leaning out of the corner? He looks a bit young to be a soldier, but then again, most of my squad consists of nothing but teenagers. Still… he doesn't look like he belongs here.

"Nin nin nin nin"

Nin? What's that supposed to be? A ninja lingo or something? If he was trying to sneak in, he's doing a terrible job in doing so.

"Yosh… the coast is clear…"

"Hey! You there! What are you doing!?" I yelled out, startling him.

Quickly his face distorted with an alarm. "Ah! Crap! I've been discovered!" That sets it. This guy is definitely suspicious.

"Raise your hands where I can see them!"

"You'll have to catch me first!" And like a startled animal, he bolted off into the wind. But he didn't get very far when he stepped on a leaf rake which swung up, smacking the wooden end on his face. "Gohhh!" He stumbled backward and hit his head on a cleaning tool cabinet which all of its contents fell on him. "Bwahhh!" He tried to get back up but his feet suddenly slipped on a towel making him lose his balance and fall right into the cleaning cabinet he emptied out. And to add more injury to his pride, the cabinet fell on top of the mop bucket rolling him to my feet.

"He~~~~~lp…" And when you think he couldn't drop any further from his shame, he pleaded for aid. I don't really know what to make of it. A supposed spy handed himself to me on a silver platter. If that locker had a ribbon stuck on top, I would've called it the weirdest Christmas present I ever had. Heck… I actually felt sorry for the guy inside and I actually thought that calling for security would make this poor spy feel even more miserable.

"Who… are you?" I asked, feeling a bit ridiculous talking with the janitor's locker. "What are you doing here? Who sent you? You have ten seconds to respond before I hand you to the authorities"

"No! Don't hand me to security, please! I… I can totally explain my reason for being here. (Oh?) Yes. Just please don't rat me out. I'll be in big trouble if they catch me"

I don't think you can be in anymore trouble that what you're in now. "So? Who are you? What are you doing here?"

"Umm… I'd love to tell you but first can you pull me out of here? My uh… hehehe… my arms are kinda stuck together and I can't push the grate"

Is this guy an idiot? "Do you take me for a fool? Why would I help you? The most logical thing for me to do is to turn you in for sneaking into restricted areas. We don't take kindly to spies"

"Wait wait wait!" He pleaded again in a desperate tone. "I'm not a spy, really! I was just here to see someone. Please believe me"

Well… it's not like I can prove this guy was a spy anyway. Besides—after watching that miraculous and clumsy stunt he pulled off, I highly doubt this guy has the ability or dexterity to even be a 3rd rate agent.

Reluctantly I pulled the lid off the locker and stepped away while the boy inside pulled himself out. He wasn't tall and he was definitely younger than all of my squad mates. He had this messy chestnut hair with matching colored eyes, a lean figure and a small stature that made him look petite. I'd say he's not much older than the youngest cadets.

But what caught my attention the most was the uniform he was wearing. I recognized it the moment I got a closer look. It was an Imperial Army Eishi uniform. The patches on his should indicate that he was a 2nd Lieutenant.

"You're… from the Imperial Army?" I inquired oddly about this boy's placement as he wipes the dust from his outfit.

"Ah… I guess I can't hide that. Ahehehehe" He gave a weak laugh as if trying to pass this whole mess as a joke.

"Well? I'm still waiting for an explanation. Depending on your answer, I may have to turn you in to the security. I only released you because you said that you had a reason for being here. (Ah… y… yeah) What's your name?"

"Ah… Hibiki… I mean, 2nd Lt. Tatsunami Hibiki, ma'am" He saluted sharply to disguise his previous offense. "I'm from the Imperial Army Fuji Tactical Training Group, 3rd Battalion"

The Fuji Training unit? That's right. The Imperial Army was not totally disbanded. They decided to pull some reserves to make up some sort of military strength to show the citizens that the Japanese Army still had some fighting strength left. They lost many of their veterans back in Shikoku and the lost of their headquarters in Tokyo drained them of their strength. If he's in the Fuji Training Group then that means he's a commissioned officer in training.

"What's an Eishi from the Imperial Army doing in a U.N. main complex without an escort especially during a crisis? (Ahehehe…) Well?"

"Awawa! Well… I was just… passing by and I well… I kinda heard from… one of the guards saying that well… the… the A-01 Special Task Force was stationed here"

The A-01? "You were looking for us?" I demanded.

"Ah… well… not the squad particularly. You see. I um… I wanted to see if Shirogane sempai—ah I mean, 1st Lt. Shirogane was around… ahehe"

"Shirogane?" My head recoiled as I slapped my mouth shut from shouting his name too loudly. I looked around to see if anyone was around to hear but fortunately we were alone. My tension died out before I inquired any further. "Why do you wish to see him? What's your relation with 1st Lt. Shirogane?"

"Well, I'm kinda sorta his… apprentice…?"

"Apprentice!?" Is he for real?

"Yes ma'am! Shirogane sem—I mean 1st Lt. Shirogane san has been teaching me his piloting techniques. I have been studying under him since we made a promise between men! (…) So I was hoping to see if he was around and maybe I could ask for some more tips?"

All I could do was stare blankly at the boy's almost-too-honest statement. I felt like I was really talking to a greenhorn. Of all the things he could've been he had to be an obsessive fan stalking one of my soldiers. I'm actually considering sending this boy to the authorities but it doesn't seem like he had any hostile intentions.

That innocent grin and that spirited personality of his made me almost wish he was a spy in disguise. But I never heard of Shirogane ever having an apprentice or someone as close as this guy. It seems like there's more to that boy than we know. Still… there's nothing suspicious about the boy in front of me.

"Umm… 1st Lieutenant?" Hibiki looked at me with puppy-dog eyes.

"Sorry. But 1st Lt. Shirogane is not here at the moment" I reassured him. "He's already out for… another assignment. You won't find him anywhere in the base"

"I… I see…" He let out a disheartened groan which didn't last long before he perked back up. "Well that's Shirogane sempai for you. Even after a big attack he gets right back on his feet and back into the fight again. I expected nothing less from my Master"

Either this kid was as dumb as he runs or he's just an optimistic ball of energy. Either way, he was harmless.

"Well since you no longer have any business here, I guess you should go now" I urged him. "I won't report you to the security, but if I catch you here again, I won't hesitate to throw you in the brig myself"

The boy saluted sharply as he recoiled back from my threat. "Y… yes ma'am! You won't regret this. Thank you very much! I hope to see you again!" Whoa wait. Watch out for that…




(Takeru's POV)(Matsuyama Expressway near Shikokuchuo) (03:10 AM)

It was quiet…

After we left the supply depot empty handed, I urged our team to proceed through the usual route following the old expressway. We didn't encounter any other patrol from there on.

Piatif suggested that we may have gone over our enemy's search radius since they're probably focusing their attention around Tokushima. Obviously they wouldn't know that we were heading westward towards an old military base which we will use as our staging ground for further operations. I can only hope that our luck holds out just long enough for us to find supplies because we won't last long with what we have. And if we run out of fuel before we reach the peninsula, this mission will be scrapped.

But still… the airwaves are deathly quiet. Kashiwagi hasn't spoken much since we saw that abandoned soldier in the warehouse. I think it may have affected her and I can relate.

To be left behind in the snow, forgotten like that. I wouldn't wish that fate on anyone. I can only hope someone did out him out of his misery and he didn't perform a suicide kill for himself.

Maybe I should try calling her. A little chat wouldn't hurt and it would certainly take her mind off that corpse.

"Kashiwagi. Do you read me? (…)" Hmm? Odd. She's not picking up. "Kashiwagi. This is Shirogane. Please answer"

Is her radio dead or something?

"Haruko? Are you there? (Beep) Oh…" There we go. She finally picked up. Geez, don't scare me like that. "How's everything on your end? Anything out of the ordinary?"

"No… nothing…"

"Really? My radar is messed up. I'm getting a lot of interference here. Keep a lookout on your monitors and switch them to thermal. It's the perfect vision for snowy fields like this. (Yeah…) You know. I've never seen Shikoku Island so close before. I've always been stuck on the mainland and never thought about visiting. I hear they used to hold this festival called Doi Taiko about two or three days a year. They use these huge drums and make all kinds of noise that goes all over the countryside. Of course… I never saw it myself. I just… hear thing about it…"


"Oi, are you really alright? At least answer me properly. (…) Hey… Haruko…" Ugh… maybe it would've been better if I just didn't talk. Now her silence makes this conversation even more awkward than before. "So uh… yeah. I'll just… sign off for now. If you need anything just… (Hey… Takeru…) Huh?" She spoke!

"Remember what you said about me before? About me being Squad Leader material? (…?) I think you may have been wrong about that" Huh? What's she mumbling on about? "I don't think I'm qualified to be a leader. Leaders are supposed to be calm and composed. They're supposed to think on the battlefield. They can't even let the biggest thing bother them… (…) I can't be like that. I can't be like Captain Isumi at all…"

"What are you talking about?"

"You saw how I reacted. I don't think I'm really cut out to lead my own unit. I may have some good ideas in my head but if I were on the field I think I would freeze up and panic"

"Hey, it wasn't that bad. I think anyone who saw something as sad as a soldier being left behind would have the same reaction"

"You know that's not true" She urged out. I tried to debate but it seems like I wouldn't make a solid case with her. "Even before that, back in… Kyoto. When I thought that my brother… died out there I was… I was really out of it. I kept thinking about him being out there somewhere… alone and buried under a ton of snow. And inside the Carrier Class…"

"I thought we promised never to bring this up anymore. (…) I told you already. I don't worry about that at all. Besides, you weren't thinking straight. You were in an emotional state. (But…) No buts. I'm not having this conversation again. What's done is done. I don't blame you for what you tried to do back then. I already forgave you. Isn't that enough already?"

"Y… yeah…" She sounds unconvinced. "I guess you're right. I shouldn't dwindle on the past"

"And I'm not wrong, Haruko. (…?) You're definitely Commander Material. Even if you don't see if, I do. You have good instinct and good judgment on the field. You probably haven't noticed it because you've been taking orders from everyone these last few weeks. (…) Remember back when we fought the Infinities? Right when Hayase was taken out you kept your head in the game and brought me to my senses. You have that kind of charisma that reminds me a lot of the Captain. Me… I'm just a pilot. I usually let people tell me what to do"

"Heh… you're just trying to compare me with you"

I laughed. "I'm telling the truth. I'd make a terrible commander. I can't spout orders and fight at the same time like Hayase or Munakata but I can definitely kick more butts than those two combined"

"Ahahaha… Hayase would cream you if she heard you say that"

"Hey, she's not here right now so I can say as much as I want. At least this time I can talk about her without looking over my shoulder every second. Honestly, I think she has the ears of a wolf. The moment I step into the PX, her eyes are already on me"

"A wolf huh?" Haruko smirked. "I guess she just wants a taste of the Alpha Male"

"If that was the case, I'd probably leave that position to another poor runt and devote myself as a Eunuch"


And just like that, we both burst out laughing on the radio. It felt relieving for some reason. It felt like forever since I last laughed so hard. All the fighting and running made me forget. All the simple, everyday things that we used to do, can bring so much happiness.


Beep beep!

Whoa! What the hell!? Suddenly an alarm went off in my systems.

"Haruko! What… what's going on!?"

"I… I don't know. Give me a moment" Damn it. Were we discovered by a patrol? There shouldn't be anyone out here! I readied my weapons on instinct and scanned my surroundings. The thermal scans aren't picking any heat signatures in my immediate area. But if… that's the case then maybe our enemies could be using stealth tech. But… that's not possible.

"This is Piatif. What happened?"

"Hold on Elena san. There's something wrong. Strap yourselves in. I'll call you again once I've gotten hand of the situation. Haruko, settle the two units now!"

"I'm on it!"

"I'm readying my weapon payload just in case. (Bzzt!) Damn. My radar isn't working and there's too much interference on my monitors. I'm switching to manual firing control. Cover my back. We'll set up a defensive perimeter on the nearby hill and—(Wait!)"

"I found the problem" The problem? "My left engine just died and my secondary engine is just about reaching its end too. (Huh?) Sorry. I wasn't paying attention to my fuel gauge. I'm… out of gas" Are you kidding me!? All that alarm for engine failure? This has got to be nuts.

"Damn it. Already? Alright. Let's set down and I'll have a look"

I ran my scanners the moment we made an emergency landing. The ground we were on was fortunately stable and there was no sign of collapse from the mountain-pass. And just like Kashiwagi said, she really was out of gas. Both of her engines run on the same fuel tank but if she uses one side more than the other from the auto-correcting system, it's common for one line of the tank to empty first. I can only guess that her other engine would last another 2 minutes before suffering the same fate.

"How does it look?" I asked for a secondary confirmation.

Kashiwagi reappeared on my headset and shook her face in reply. "No good. I'm completely empty. Sorry I didn't notice it earlier. I'm still adjusting to the new controls. The Russian language on my screen isn't exactly helping either. But other than that, all systems are green. We have plenty of power and oxygen to boot"

"That's good. We're already near Shikokuchuo. According to the markers, this is where the Imperial Navy patrol ships dock to resupply. It's also close by to where the G-Bombs were dropped so expect your radar and other instruments to go haywire when we get close. (Roger that) We'll walk the rest of the way from here. Our TSFs doesn't consume fuel when walking and since we're close to the city already, we may as well conserve what we have left"

"Yeah. Understood. I'm right behind you"

I'd better give the all clear to Piatif. Don't want her worrying over us. "This is 1st Lt. Shirogane to 1st Lt. Piatif. Do you copy?"

"I copy. Are we under attack?"

"No. False alarm. One of our units ran out of fuel. We're gonna leg it from here on so expect some bumps on the travel. We'll have the pack mules set down once we reach the first base. Have your respirator ready just in case the area is toxic. I'll notify you when we get there. (Roger)"

Ugh… damn it. I got worked up for nothing. I guess people getting annoyed to false alarms are true after all. My palms are already sweating just by thinking about it. But hopefully that won't happen again.

We walked the rest of the way with our TSFs. It took a lot longer than expected seeing as how our giant feet kept sinking into the snow. This is a bad sign on its own. If we don't find fuel fast… then we'd be stuck with more problems than we could deal with. Firstly, without fuel, our traveling time will lengthen considerably and that alone is a given. But without fuel, there's a good chance our TSFs will stall with this weather. Just like cars, if you leave them out in the cold for too long, the engines will die from the excessive cold and then the other systems will follow.

I can only imagine the same thing happened to some of the TSFs that lay scattered across the field. Their engines must've given up and their power supply drained to the last drop.

We need to find fuel if we want to stand any chance of surviving.

(Shikokuchuo City ruins) (04:50 AM)

We arrived at the military base of Shikokuchuo about an hour later. From the looks of things, the Imperial Army leveled half the city to accommodate their military infrastructures. They made the old Mishima Medical Center as their headquarters and used the long road stretch on Iyoshima as their runway. The base was definitely larger than all the other depots we've passed through so there are bound to be something that they left behind. With the limited manpower they had used to evacuate soldiers, they probably couldn't have brought everything with them.

I can only hope that they have some fuel in here.

Beep beep beep!

Hmm? Oh crud. That's not good.

"Haruko, stop" I ordered which she quickly followed.

"What's the matter?"

"The air around the base. It's toxic" My scanners are reading heavy metal cloud particles still floating just above the buildings. Not just that, but I'm also detecting slight increase of radiation coming from the base itself. If I remember correctly from what Marimo taught me, long term exposure to such poisonous environment could cause stochastic health effects which are obviously dangerous to one's body. Nausea, fatigue and vomiting will be one of the few symptoms we have to be careful about.

"Hmm… you're right. I'm seeing it on my scanners too" Kashiwagi noted in agreement. "What should we do? Should we skip it?"

"We won't be able to outrun the patrols if we keep traveling on foot. We need fuel if want to keep our distance between them. Besides, if that place is indeed toxic, there's a good chance that the soldiers wouldn't have the time or resources to gather everything together. This might be a good thing for us. We'll have to leave the pack mules here. Use one of those hangers as a shelter"

"Roger that, give me a few minutes to settle both of them in"

We'd better hurry it up too. It's almost 5 o'clock. The sun will be coming up soon and with that, our stealth capabilities will decrease dramatically. Though there might not be literally a sun rising from the east because of all this cloud, it would make hiding a whole lot harder when it's brighter. If we can get to that Peninsula by tonight we'll be able to slip under the radar for at least awhile.

"This is Piatif. Shirogane san. Can you hear me?"

"This is Takeru. Yeah, I can hear you. We've made it to Shikokuchuo. However the supply base appears to be deep within a toxic zone. It's probably caused by the various depleted uranium rounds and heavy metal cloud mixed in the area. Kashiwagi and I will proceed with our TSFs. Our fortified suits should be able to deal with any moderate poison environment. It's dangerous but there's a good chance that we might find what we need there"

"That sounds logical" She agreed. "I'll hang back with Kasumi and keep an eye out for any opposition. But be careful. We only have a few hours before the sun comes back up"

"Roger that. Come on Haruko. Let's go find us some gas"

(Fukuoka) (RLF Captured Headquarters)

Jacob, the RLF commander entered the control room of the U.N. Base with his head held high that morning. He observed closely as his militia force dragged off the bodies from the seats and then dumping them all into one of the storage rooms to decompose. He can finally say that the capture of the Fukuoka Base was a complete success and with the prime hostages safely within their grasp, the U.N. were powerless to do anything but commence a staring competition with their captured TSFs and mechanized weapons.

Jacob was impressed with his work and even more so with the Master's plan. It went so well that it felt like they just walked into the place and asked that they were taking over. The guards here barely even put up a fight when the knockout gas sunk in.

"Commander Jacob, sir" One of the younger RLF volunteers saluted. "We've completed in hacking into the U.N. control logs. We have complete control of the base's primary and secondary functions"

"Excellent work. Tell all soldiers that they have contributed greatly to our cause today and that the world has finally heard our message. The sacrifices have been plenty but at long last, the tyranny of those in power will finally end and they will have no choice but to meet us on the battlefield. (Yes sir!) Go. Tell the soldiers to prep themselves. The final battle will soon be upon us and the tyrants will undoubtedly bring all their resources to crush the voice of freedom"

The young militia saluted with his chest beaming proudly. "Yes sir! We will make you proud sir!"

"Good. Now leave me. I need to finalize the plan with Master. (Yes sir!)" The young man quickly signaled the other troops to leave the area. Once Jacob was certain that all the RLF soldiers were gone, he quickly switched the monitor on, which displayed Master's face showing a rather satisfied grin. "Master. You summoned me?"

"Ah Jacob. It's good to see you well" Master opened with a pleasing tone. The two soldiers that accompanied Jacob at the time quickly got on their knees, lowering their heads to the floor. "I see everything is in order"

"Yes Master. Everything is as you instructed. We have complete control of the base. The U.N. Army is opening for negotiations but like always we have kept silent. Our strength has also doubled in the last few days. It seems like the U.N. Army had more weapons than they had soldiers to use them. We have captured many of their TSFs. With this base and the equipment we can amass a small army on our own"

"Good… very good. And what of our beloved witch?" The red head on screen asked.

Jacob's face twisted a bit, feeling uncomfortable with the subject. "Professor Kouzuki continues to remain docile. She had made no attempts to neither escape nor contact anyone for aid"

"Oh? Is that so?" Master raised a quizzical look, equally surprised by the prisoner. "That doesn't sound like her. What does she do then?"

"Nothing sir. She just sits there, in her room, doing absolutely nothing. I've had men checkup on her every hour but it's all the same. She just sits… and sleeps. Nothing else"

"Hmm… perhaps she's more accepting than I thought. What of our other guests?"

"The Undersecretary General has been the most rebellious. The other delegates from the Empire, America and the Soviet Union have been quiet and biding their time. So far there have been no incidents"

"Good. I trust the RLF have been keeping in line"

A grin formed around Jacob's mouth. "The RLF have been an excellent addition Master. Their blind loyalty to their cause has made them zealous to our objectives. They will undoubtedly become prime meat shields for our troops. You need not worry about it"

"I hardly worry about anything, Jacob" Master corrected. "But I am cautious. In case of any unforeseen accidents, I will be leading the rest of the operations, personally"

"Personally? You mean…!?" Jacob's face lit with excitement along with his guards who were equally surprised. "You will join us?"

"I have far too much invested in this grand undertaking to see it fail. Speaking of which, it seems like we have an uninvited guest listening in on our little… conversation"

Jacob quickly tracked Master's eyes towards a shadowy part of the room where he noted a figure rushing in the dark. "Who's there!?" He demanded and quickly brought his guards up. "Find him!"

The two guards quickly rushed to that position only to be met with gunfire.

"You there. Get the lights!"

The second guard rushed for the light switch but before he could even reach it, a bullet ran straight through his head killing him instantly.

"Damn you!" The other soldier fired up a volley trying to flush his opponent out of cover. He went into a trigger happy mode that he forgot to keep count of his bullets. "Damn it. Out alre—(Bang!) Gah!" He fell on his back clutching his shoulder. "Son of a…"


And another came, finishing him off.

Jacob was alone, with a pistol in hand. He could not believe the humiliating sneak attack that befell before him in front of his Master. He fired a few random shots into the air trying to get a reaction but he could feel nothing.

In all of his years as a soldier he dealt with assassins, strikers and terrorists. But this opponent he was facing was different. There was no killing intent, no presence to direct where his next attack might take place. It felt more like he was dealing with a ghost, someone who was capable of becoming almost literally invisible.

"Well this is a rather unsightly reunion…" Master muttered boringly as he watched as his men fall prey to this unknown assailant from the safety of his hideout. "I wasn't expecting you to appear here of all places"

"Master. Please log off. I will deal with this interloper"

"Don't be so dramatic Jacob" The red head grinned. "It's difficult to exorcise a ghost of his caliber. I've tried dozens of times before but he always seems to crawl back from the afterlife time and time and again. Isn't that right, Yoroi kun?"

And as if reacting to the call of his name, Yoroi Sakon appeared from the shadow, as always, wearing his expensive jacket.

"And you haven't changed yourself, Master"


Jacob reacted just a little too late when a bullet got him by the stomach.

"Argh! You stupid stinking sounova…!" The soldier grunted and gargled trying to reach for his weapon which flung away. But Sakon gave him no chance, and unleashed three more shots to the body, which undoubtedly finished the job.

"As always, your choices of henchmen are poor. I thought you would've learned that by now in Seattle"

"And you haven't changed your habit of being where I don't want you" The Master countered earning a grin from his opponent. If anyone was watching this exchange of dialogue they probably would've compared it to a hero who was being mocked by his arch-nemesis. "Have you come to exact your revenge after all these years? For some time now I actually thought that you've forgotten about me"

"I never forget a face, especially yours" Yoroi knew that this would get him nowhere. He quickly pulled a cigar from his coat and lighted it and puffing an artistic smoke in the air.

"Ahahaha! I'm flattered" The Master burst into a small fitting laugh. "So I'm guessing this little trap set here was your doing? Luring so many delightful targets in one location, you knew I wouldn't be able to resist that temptation"

"You have no idea how much trouble I had to go through to set this whole event up" Sakon admitted puffing another blow of smoke. "Though I have to admit I never expected the Undersecretary General to be here or Professor Kouzuki. Now I feel like I just gave woman a lot of trouble. But… it was worth it. It brought you out at last…"

"So you went to all the trouble of setting up a false meeting just to lure me from hiding. My my… I'm honored. But like before, my old departed ghost… you cannot stop me"

"Neither can you stop this world, Master" Yoroi countered. "I know your plans. I already released it to the United Nations. Even if you did use the G-Bomb here, without the element of surprise, your psych attack will be rendered useless. (…) You can destroy Fukuoka or the capital, but with this action, I have minimized the damage it would've done to the people"

A stunned silence came between the two assailants. Only the chirping noise of the computers echoed throughout the place.

"What… a disappointment you are… Sakon…" The Master said suddenly surprising the agent. "I was expecting more from you but I suppose a trained dog like yourself can only see things in 1-dimension. You see a bomb in front of you and all you can ever think of… is a weapon. You never try to use your imagination at all, do you, Yoroi kun? (…?) This is boring me. Jacob, deal with him"

"Yes… Master"

Sakon reacted quickly to the presence behind him but not fast enough to be held by the wrist by a strong grip.

"Gahh!" Yoroi grunted loudly when he felt his bones crushed under the weight of the grip. He looked to his aggressor and was amazed to find that the man he thought he killed rise back up.

"Rookie mistake. The next time you shoot a guy, better make sure he's dead before you start talking…"

But Sakon wasn't out of the fight just yet. Feeling his arm nearing its end, he grabs a stun baton from the fallen guard and struck it directly at his opponent's stomach. The shock loosened his grip on his hand giving him enough time to empty the clip on Jacob. He expected all men to fall after being dealt such damage.

But to his amazement, Jacob remained standing, cracking his neck bone like he was just shrugging off the pain.

It didn't take long for Master's voice to come in and gloat. "Oh that's right. Where are my manners? I completely forgot to introduce you to one another. Jacob, this is Yoroi Sakon, Yoroi kun, I would like to introduce you to my personal bodyguard, Jacob. For a person of your occupation, I'm sure you've seen one of these before"


"It cost me quite a fortune to create but it was well worth it. Jacob here has been a most loyal and dedicated subordinate. And with his half robotic parts, he can be quite… deadly"

Jacob slammed his fists together creating a loud metallic noise, shaking the area around him. He licked his lips menacingly before he approached Yoroi, delivering one good punch to the stomach.

Sakon felt his ribcage break and his internal organs shifting into various different locations. The blow was so powerful that it sent him flying to one of the computer terminals, breaking the monitor. He couldn't even see it coming. It was like his opponent ran in mach speed that broke the sound barrier itself.

But the cyborg wasn't finished. After being humiliated in front of his Master with that surprise attack, he wanted to return the favor, by breaking every last bone in his body till they were nothing but dust. He grabbed Yoroi by his coat and threw him to the ground and began pounding his arms and shoulder to inflict as much pain as physically possible.

The agent coughed out blood and some of his last night's dinner on the floor. He tried to crawl away but the cyborg wanted to play with his meal just a little bit longer by snapping his leg.

But Yoroi didn't squeal. His bore all the pain and kept fighting back. But his weakened body was ineffective against one who was literally made out of steel.

Sensing his death coming to a close, Jacob placed his boots on the man's face, crushing his jaw to dust. "Don't bleed too much, old man. By the time I'm done with you, I might keep that suit for myself. It'll be a waste to stain something so… expensive"


"Enough Jacob. Don't kill him just yet"

"What? Why not?" The cyborg snapped. Surprised why his Master wouldn't want to kill an old foe like him.

"As much as it would please me to finally rid myself of such an annoying slouch, I still have need of him. He has information of a subject that has just recently peak my interest. Keep him alive just awhile longer"

"But he killed two of my men… Master"

"Then I expect you to do him pain worth two soldiers… Jacob. Do not be like Christopher…"

And once the monitor died down, Jacob released his foot from Yoroi's face watching the half dead spy crawl up to the nearby chair. "It will be done, Master…" Grabbing his side arm once more, the soldier directed his pistol on the leg of his prey.

(Takeru's POV) (Shikokuchuo Imperial Army base)

Damn, this one is empty too. We've been searching for half an hour now and had little luck in finding just about anything of use. It's plain to see that the Imperial Army couldn't take everything with them. They left behind a lot of equipment and ammo but no fuel to take with us. Maybe this was just a waste of time and we're just burning our limited resources.

"Hey Takeru" Haruko's face appeared again on my headset. We've been keeping a short range burst transmission to keep ourselves from getting cut off. As long as we remain no farther than 15 meters apart, we can hear each other clearly. Anything more than that is static.

"What is it? Did you find something?"

"Maybe. You see that warehouse with the helicopter crashed on top of it? (Yeah?) It seems like the crash did some damage to the door mechanism. They wouldn't have been able to move it unless they had heavy machineries to lift it. (Meaning?) I bet that if they couldn't get the door open, the stuff inside might've been untouched"

"That's a possibility. I can't scan the inside of the warehouse either"

"I'm going for a closer look. I'll leave my TSF under your care"

Wait… what?

"Hold on Kashiwagi! The air outside is toxic. If you leave your cockpit, you'll…"

"There's no time. We need that fuel, remember? I'm going in. Watch out for me"

"Wait! Haruko! (Beep beep) Damn that girl"

I left my TSF and had the controls locked. The moment I opened the cockpit, my headset warned me to the poisonous environment in the area. I felt a strange of warmth creeping onto my face. I guess this is what they call radiation. It's so unnatural that it left me feeling nauseous for a moment.

The warehouse that Kashiwagi mentioned was just a few feet from where I was. Just as she said, there was a helicopter sticking at the top of building. The tail of the aircraft was poking from the roof and the head rammed itself inside breaking the denting the entrance in such a way that it couldn't open again. The cockpit was empty meaning someone had already taken the body or the pilot was lucky enough to walk away from the crash unscathed though I suppose the latter one is highly unlikely to happen.

"Kashiwagi? Hey! Haruko! Say something. Don't just go wandering out on your own. We can't be reckless especially… now…"


My voice froze in place the moment I caught up to her. As I entered the warehouse, the first thing that caught my eye was the two bodies that laid there.

Buried under a thin layer of snow were a boy and a girl, huddled together in one warm blanket that covered their upper bodies. Their heads leaned on one another, and their hands held tightly to one another like a solid bond of their affection. They looked a couple from where I'm standing. Just two people who were in love with one another. They were wearing fortified suits with Imperial Army Markings, which means they were Eishis.

The scattered MRE boxes suggest that these two were held up here for awhile before they expired. There were signs of medical treatment and the man's bloodied leg explained it. Different wrappings of bandages were used to cover up the wound.

"It looked like… they went out together…" Haruko explained to me when she reached out for the pistol on the girl's hand. "This might… sound weird coming from me. But even though it's… so sad to see them like this, it also looks… very romantic" I can understand what she's trying to say. Despite the heartbreaking story you could see in this one scene, there was a sense of beauty in it. A withering flower on the battlefield if one would call it. I bet these two probably didn't even know that they were inside a toxic zone with their suits so damaged.

"Let's… leave them alone" I asked her, which she agreed completely. "I'm sure the Imperial Army will come back and take their bodies back to their families. We should focus on finding fuel"

"There's no need to go far…" She said to me before gesturing to the few oil drums a few feet away from the couple. "They hoarded up their supplies here"

I quickly inspected the fuel supply and noted that a few of them were still full. It wasn't a lot but it was definitely a start. The couple must've been collecting supplies unaware that this was a toxic zone.

There's enough fuel here to share among the four units we have. Not enough for a full tank but enough to get us to where we need. There are still a few outposts we can stop by before we reach the Peninsula, but at the very least we should have enough get there.

"Alright. This should do nicely. Come on Haruko. Let's bring these outside while we still have time"

(Marimo's POV) (Kyoto Base) (06: 15 AM) (PX)

It was a slow and quiet morning here in the PX.

Hardly anyone was around. Even my team members were absent for the early breakfast. Not that there was much to eat anyway. The PX was a complete mess too. There were so many bullet holes on the wall that it felt like it literally rained bullets here.

The chefs weren't even cooking. They were too busy fixing up the kitchen to make anything work.

"Sorry for not making anything more, Jinguuji san" The head chef apologized to me. "I would gladly make you a meal if we had a working cooker here"

"It's fine" I waved it off. "I'm just glad you're alright. I'm not in the food for anything fancy. What happened here anyway?"

"Some dumb kid took the gas canister I used for cooking and used it as an improvised explosive. Nearly blew me and half my kitchen if you don't believe it. I tell you, these rookies nowadays have no sense of priority whatsoever. He could've just used a grenade or something. But no. It had to come from my kitchen. Haa… he even used up my secret stash of beer I was saving for a joyous occasion"

"Well at the very least, you're safe. And that's all that matters"

"Heh. I guess our life is worth more than just a few packs of MREs. Thanks Jinguuji san. Hmm?"

"Excuse me, Sergeant Major" A voice behind me called out which made me look like a person who was holding the line. "I was wondering if you were still open. Oh…" She quickly noted me and smiled. "You are… Lieutenant Jinguuji"

She knows me? "Ah… well… yes" I stuttered a bit.

"You're Shirogane's squad mate, are you not? How fortunate of me to meet you here" Her voice was perky that it almost reminded me of Yoroi in her euphoric moment. "Would you mind joining me for a bit of breakfast? I would love to have your company"

"Of… of course" I wanted to refuse but there wasn't a reason for me to back off.

We quickly found a seat away from the rest of the smaller crowd. The damage done to the PX wasn't extensive but the giant hole on the wall was enough to grab our attention. I can see that the engineer team would need time to manage that area so they boarded it up to keep the snow from entering.

"My condolences for the attack on your base the other day" Sigel opened up to which I nodded in acceptance. "This must be difficult for all the United Nations. To suffer such losses over a terrorist organization"

"Thank you… Lieutenant"

"Please, call me Sigel" She insisted. "I have enough people calling me by my rank. I'd prefer to keep things informal between us Jinguuji san"

"Ah… well… if you insist… Sigel san" She returned my forced tone with a gentle smile. "I thank you for those kind words earlier but I should also apologize on behalf of the U.N. for not being able to ensure our own security"

"There's no need to apologize for that. There are just some things that are just out of control. We cannot hope to prevent every disaster"

"I suppose so" I sighed. "I guess this means that you will be returning back to your country?"

"No, not yet" I raised a questioning look to her answer. "One of our pilots went missing during the chaos. My Commanding Officer is asking permission to stay a few days longer to organize a search and rescue mission for her"

"Ah… I'm sorry. I suppose, the U.N. isn't the only one affected by the attack"

"But I wouldn't worry about her too much" Sigel brushed my apology away. "She's a survivor, that one. It's going to take a lot more than a simple crash landing to do away with her. I'm sure she's probably waiting for us somewhere bored out of her mind"

"That's a nice sentiment. You have strong faith in your subordinate, don't you?"

She nodded in reply. "Indeed. She didn't become a representative of the E.U. because of her looks alone. She survived worse situations than this. I'm certain… no… I'm sure that she's alive. (…) Ah… but enough of this depressing talk. I didn't intend to have this conversation with such a gloomy atmosphere"

It seems like I was being conscious over nothing. This girl doesn't seem to have any ill-intentions or hidden agendas. It seems like she just wants to talk.

"I'm sorry" I unconsciously apologized. "I'm thankful that you wish to talk with me, but as you may understand, none of us are really in the mood for a pleasant chat"

"I supposed so" She answered. "But that doesn't mean you have to close your heart and mind to everything around you. With the little time we have, don't you think you should spend it with those that you still care for?"

"I agree… but there are times when we need to be… alone"

The silver haired Eishi nodded with an agreeing expression. "Perhaps isolation does have its uses. (…) By the way, how are the other members of your squad, if you don't mind me asking?"

"I'm afraid I can't answer that. (Oh…) I'm sorry, but I am not inclined to sharing details of my unit with another soldier, much less from an outsider"

"Hai hai. I understand. I won't pressure it anymore" She casually waved it off. But I sense a hidden agenda in that question.

"It's my turn to ask now" I countered back. I expected her to recoil a bit but she maintained her pose just like before. "Why are you so interested in Shirogane? (Hmm?) Why are you so keen to getting close to him? In the last few days, you appear to have spent more time with him than most. Can I at least clarify that you have ulterior motives behind your actions?"

"Ara? Is that how you perceive it? I don't think I did anything wrong"

"You were seen dining with him one night. Am I to take your actions merely a coincidence?"

Her smile dropped for a moment as she returned a rather powerful gaze at me. My posture shifted slightly from fright. I was so used to her care-free personality that I wasn't expecting such a drastic change. "It almost feels like you're suggesting that I know something about him that you do not, 1st Lt. Jinguuji. (…!) Judging by your expression, it seems like Lt. Shirogane has his own shares of secrets. But unlike yourself, I'm afraid I only have rumors to follow. I am simply confirming what those rumors say"

"And what rumors are those?" I countered back recovering my poise.

Again, her carefree smile returned. "Stuff that people tend to say are… impossible. But let's just leave it at that. I assure you, I have no ill will against you or him. My commander's only desire at this moment is the recovery of our lost pilot. Everything I have done with Lt. Shirogane have been… instinctual, thus far"

"Instinctual?" I mimicked. And for a moment there, Sigel's face actually turned soft on me, like a doll.

"He simply reminds me of an old friend that I wish to see again. Nothing more…" My mind worked in conjunction with her words. I can see that this woman had no ill intentions against me or anyone. But I still can't get over the fact that she might still be hiding something. "Are you done with your interrogation, 1st Lt. Jinguuji?"

Right before I could answer, our attention was abruptly cut when a smaller crowd near our table turned towards the television which was broadcasting one of the more popular news channels. One of the younger recruits asked the chef to raise the volume.

I recognize the reporter on the screen…

"This is Tachibana Riuse reporting to you live at the military blockade at Fukuoka where a few days ago, the terrorist organization known as the RLF has taken over a military installation in a daring attack, taking many VIP hostages. Among them is the U.N. Undersecretary General, Tamase Genjousai, who was making a visit here. This attack may also be related to the raid in Kyoto yesterday. So far, the terrorists have made no demands. The U.N. army is currently working an angle but so far they have made no statement in resolving the situation. We will feed you constant update as the situation changes. Back to you…"

So they finally made it public. I guess the attack on Kyoto jogged the media into action. We couldn't hide it forever. Something as large as that would eventually spill out to the people. I can only imagine what Tamase is going through knowing that her father is also in there.

"It seems like the U.N. is in for a rough hurdle" Sigel mentioned, which I hesitantly agreed. With every that had happened today, combined with our losses from last year and with General Radhabinod in intensive medical care, we're understaffed and leaderless. To put it bluntly, we were like a headless chicken trying to find its way out of the farm only to discover that its head was stuck up its own ass.

In other words… we're just sitting around doing the best we can with little to almost no coordination whatsoever.

(Takeru's POV) (Shikokuchuo) (Imperial Army base TSF hanger) (08:13 AM)

It's almost a quarter-past-eight according to my watch.

The sun was up probably up now, which would explain why I can see everything so clearly. After Haruko and I returned with the fuel, two hours had gone by. We set up our TSFs in standby mode, conserving our energy supply. Thankfully this base still had electricity running through it which made things easier for all of us. The heater in the lounge still worked and the most importantly, we have shelter.

Lt. Piatif said that we should stop and rest for now as it wouldn't be safe to go by day. I wasn't entirely sure if I agreed to it, but she's not our intelligence officer for nothing. Besides… I could use a break myself. Neither of us has had any proper sleep since that attack and the stims can only take us so far before the mind body breaks.

The hanger here should keep us hidden from prying eyes for awhile. We probably still have leeway ahead of our pursuers and the advantage of surprise. As long as we keep that, we'll be fine.

The two prisoners we brought with us still showed no signs of waking up. One of the pilots of Cerberus and the CO of Zhar here made it feel like I was taking in more than I could chew on my own. I get the feeling that when these two wake up, it'll cause a storm that I don't want to be in. And I've been through a lot of storms both literally and metaphorically.


Oh man. Since when was the last time I felt this tired? To think that I would actually be looking forward to sleeping so early in the morning. Maybe Piatif was right and we should gather our strength for now.

But even so… it's difficult to sleep when you know that something bad could happen the moment you close your eyes.

"Can't sleep?"

"Hmm? Oh… Haruko. Are you done setting the station?"

She shrugged. "Yeah. The hard part was getting the fuel to the second floor without the service elevator. Carrying that stuff is nasty and I feel sticky everywhere"

"Well, not everything can go our way"

"Yeah, I know. Anyway, you didn't answer my question. You can't sleep either?

"Well yes… and… no" I answered amicably. "I feel like I could just close my eyes this very second and drift off to sleep but at the same time I don't want to. It's like…"

"Like the world might disappear if you take your eyes off it?"

"That's not how I would put say it but I suppose it's close enough" And this wouldn't be the first time either. During my last loop, after we successfully repelled the BETA from Yokohama Base, none of us could sleep. We all felt like there was more we could do, there was more for us to do. It went so bad that Tsukuyomi ordered us to take sleeping pills to shut us down. We woke up later to find the whole base in the same state as we left it. I won't forget that day… no… I can't forget it.

"Well… like a wise and beautiful soldier once said to me, 'You must always expect the worse in war, so dreaming about it is just a waste of good sleep'."

"Did Hayase say that or was it the Captain?"

"Buu buuu! Wrong!" She crossed her index fingers at me to make an 'X'. "Believe it or not, Akane was the one who made that"

"Huh!? Akane? As in… 1st Lt. Suzumiya's little sis?"

"The very same" Haruko nodded much to my surprise. "What do you think? It's quite meaningful if you think about it"

"Yeah. I guess if you can get over the worst things that could happen to you then… sleeping might actually be easier. But still… did Akane say that?"

"I think she may have had a different agenda when she made that quote. But it's a nice sentiment, don't you think?"

"Yeah… I might actually have a slightly different opinion of her now. But even so… I don't think it's gonna help with my sleep deprive situation"

"Then have you tried sleeping pills? I think the military issued some to all their pilots"

I quickly waved that idea off. "That's nice and all but… I think I'll save that as a last resort. (Eh? Why?) It's a long story but I… don't really like taking those" Especially before I began this loop. I can't exactly tell her that I took a whole box of these things killed myself with it. Despite her knowing my somewhat unique body, I don't think parting with that information would be for the betterment of our relationship.

Kashiwagi and I quickly entered the longue on the 2nd floor where it was warm and comfortable. I remember seeing mechanics taking breaks and shift-switches in these places. There was a comfy sofa in one corner and a pool-table for recreation. Too bad there weren't any equipment left otherwise I might've played a few games to pass the time.

"Uwa… Now this is the life. I haven't slept in something as comfortable as this in a long time" Taking in the new comfort, Haruko jumped onto the sofa and made herself comfortable in this relaxing environment. She purred like a cat with a satisfied grin. If she scratched the skin of the sofa, she probably would've surpassed Tama in terms of feline features. She stretched her limbs out and huddled herself into a ball.

"Don't get too comfortable" I warned her. "We leave for the Peninsula in the evening. (Hai hai) Ugh… I wonder if we still have some coffee left"

"Only tea left. Huaaaa…" Haruko let out a long yawn following her reply. "We already spent it back in Tokushima"

"Ugh… so the first thing to go before our fuel was our coffee supply. That's horrible" I mocked. "You'd think that a break room like this would have a coffee brewer somewhere. Right? (…) Haruko? (Zzzzzz…)" Hey! Don't go sleeping on people while they're talking to you, woman!

That girl. She really is like a cat. The moment she got onto a comfort zone, she conks out like a light without a care in the world. But I suppose her fatigue played a part in that. We're all tired, every last one of us. Even Kasumi who was a big ball of energy a day ago was now peacefully sleeping with Piatif in the adjacent room. None of us had any proper sleep since that attack and the situation we're in isn't exactly helping.

To be on the run from our own allies, chased down by who knows what and fighting a terrorist organization? A human psyche can only take so much before it shuts down.

Perhaps this is the first time these girls felt safe and secure in a long while.

Well… it's not like our enemies can find us here anyway. The Dellinger Effect should mask our presence from any radar search and there are various other bases nearby. If a patrol comes to search for us, we'd probably hear them before they see us.

Haaa… all this thinking isn't good for me. I should probably take first watch and keep an eye on things. Maybe a little stroll around the place would lull me to sleep.

Empty. The whole base was deserted. It's hard to imagine that the Imperial Army would use this city as a base of operation. I guess using the ruins of old buildings is easier than tearing down and building a completely new one on top of it. You have to admit that their efficiency is really something else. It's no wonder how the Japanese Army were able to last this long against the BETA.


Oh boy. Anymore of that yawning and I might as well smack my head on the snow and doze off.

Beep beep…

Setting my alarm clock to 11. That should be enough time before I switch with Haruko. Hopefully everyone will be back on their feet by the time we…



What the!? A alarm on my headset! Who…?

… oh…

It's just my TSF status silent alarm. I left my connection with my XFJ-Unit to keep me posted on any updates on its condition. Damn it. That scared the crap out of me.

Beep beep…

Oh… there seems to be a problem with the fuel line. Did it malfunction? Ugh… if so then this place might be coming down on us. I'll have to check it manually.

There it is. My TSF. The XFJ-01 Shiranui Second Phase. Quite a mouthful when you say it like that.

No matter how many times I look at it, that machine still gives me the creeps. That dream I had, when it killed me, traumatized my psyche in a way that I began to grow overly conscious of it. Though I had less time to experience it, you can still feel something lingering at the center of this Tactical Surface Fighter. Even the cockpit where I controlled this monster felt a bit out of place and uncomfortable. I kept telling myself to bring Meiya to perform some kind of exorcise but I kept holding it on from one reason to another.

Hmm? That's odd. The fuel lines are fine but the operation halted for some reason. I remember operating this console to put the fuel in but… it stopped.

Did it break?



There. It's operational again. Seems like it was just some faulty wiring. This place hasn't had its usual maintenance since the battle after all.



"Bewegen Sie sich nicht…"

That voice…

I spun around the moment I heard someone speak. And right before I could reach for my side arm, a pistol was directed at me, wielded by a golden haired pilot.

"You!" I nearly yelled out.

It was the Cerberus pilot.

A/N: Alright, I'm regaining my stamina. Next chapter I'll bring up the reason why Yoroi Sakon is doing all the way out in the open and doin stuff spies don't do.