"I ain't gonna die 'cause it's a waste of my time."
Izumi's eyes twitched open to the first rays of morning sunlight. The world appeared slightly blurred when she wasn't wearing her glasses, but she knew Ishiguro was already awake on the pillow next to her, smiling at her as he pet her long brown hair. The couple stayed in bed and remained silent for several minutes, preferring to just gaze lovingly at each other as they cherished their time together. If only the moment could last forever.
This was the last morning they would be able to see each other for at least a few months. He was being deployed with the rest of the ground forces to Kyushu that day, and she was well on her way to the TSF pilot academy. They were going to save the human race together. Once the war was over, they would be able be able to start a family in the peaceful future they helped create.
Izumi's head started to feel a familiar pounding sensation. Her vision became fuzzier than usual even when she tried to squint. A mysterious force slowly drew her head deeper into her pillow and placed invisible weights on her eyelids. She just wanted to go back to sleep...
Izumi awoke to cockpit diagnostic screens flashing in her face. She took a moment to sit up, fix her glasses, and shake her aching head before she tried her controls. Her TSF made no response and had seemingly been paralyzed in the crash. Her console was a mess of garbled messages that failed to tell her anything about her unit's condition for better or worse, but her dead controls were enough for her to decide it was a lost cause. She was worried about Yui and Kazusa, and sitting around in a disabled unit with no reception wasn't going to get her anywhere. That left her with only one option.
Biting her lip, she picked up the locket she always kept on her dashboard, deactivated her console, and nervously hit the eject button. The outer layer of armor on her Zuikaku's torso popped off in a small explosion, opening a path to the ground below. She almost forgot to collect her sidearm before she slowly climbed out.
Izumi was overwhelmed by trepidation the second her feet touched the ground. Only minutes ago, she had felt practically invincible in the cockpit of her heavily armed and armored Zuikaku. Now she was standing in what may very well be a BETA hive with only a small handgun and her lightly armored pilot suit protecting her. Nothing in her training at the academy had prepared her for feeling this vulnerable.
So many things had already gone wrong for rest of the girls in her class. The battle at Kyoto was going to be the start of a bright and prosperous military career for all of them. It was just going to be a routine support mission, a way to give them some experience on the battlefield just before they graduated. But then the real troops on the frontlines fell, and the trainees were suddenly facing the entire invasion force and started dropping like flies. Shimako, Aki, even their squadron commander... They were all gone, slaughtered by the BETA.
In the best case scenario, she, Yui, and Kazusa were the only ones left, and even that was questionable at this point. The last time she had seen her teammates was just before a rogue Fort-class ambushed them in the middle of their retreat and swatted all three of Zuikakus out of the air. Could she be the only survivor? Did anyone even know she was still alive? What if no one came to rescue her?
With one hand around the grip of her gun, she used the other to briefly open her locket and glance at the photo inside. It had been a month since Ishiguro was killed in the Kyushu invasion, and the tiny portrait of the two of them together was the only thing that made her feel like she wasn't completely alone. She closed the locket and held it tightly in her gloved fist.
Using her sidearm's flashlight to study her surroundings, she saw she had landed in one of the lower floors of Kyoto Station. The place had been left in dilapidated ruins after the evacuation, covered in almost pitch black and devoid of any signs of life.
That is, human life.
As she quietly stepped around a darkened corner, her flashlight revealed a gang of Soldier-class BETA huddled in a hallway. They were slurping over piles of gore that must have been unlucky civilians who didn't make it out of the evacuation hours ago. The small mob instantly stopped what they were doing and raised their heads in unison when they smelled her warm blood.
Izumi backed up in horror. She raised her gun to shoot, but she couldn't steady her fingers enough to pull the trigger. It was the same petrifying feeling she felt when Yui's Zuikaku was cornered by a Destroyer-class and she hesitated to fire her TSF's machine gun. She had no problems hacking her way through BETA swarms and being part of the firing line when she was with the rest of her group, but she still faltered every time she came face-to-face with a live opponent by herself.
She saw there were three of them when they came closer to her light, and fresh food was always likely to draw many more. They crawled toward her in somewhat of a V formation, with the one in front quickly moving within arm's reach. It lunged at her hands once to send her locket skipping across the floor in one direction, then a second time to send her sidearm flying in the opposite direction.
Izumi's eyes were wide with fear. She stumbled all the way backwards and landed in a seated position. Her stalkers almost seemed to grin down at her with their sharp teeth and hungry eyes as she helplessly tried to squirm away from them.
And then the lead Soldier's head exploded.
Two more gunshots rang through the halls as the remaining BETA were put down with headshots. Izumi turned in disbelief to see Yui standing several feet away from her, holding a smoking pistol in her hands.
Izumi scurried on all fours to collect her precious locket. It took her longer to find her missing firearm, but she was back on her feet once she was properly armed. She stepped toward her squadmate to offer her a thankful smile.
Her display of gratitude was interrupted by Yui's gloved palm angrily slapping her face.
"Damn it, Izumi! You can't keep freezing up like that every time you're in trouble! You're going to get us BOTH killed the next time it happens!"
Rubbing her cheek, she lowered her head in shame.
"I... I'm sorry."
All of her hopes for the future had gone up in flames the day she found out Ishiguro had been killed. She had wanted to become a pilot so she would eventually be able to support him on the battlefield, but vengeance became her sole motive once he was dead. It was the only thing she could ever think about after she had spent weeks crying herself to sleep each night. In her blind quest for revenge, she had lost everything that made her feel secure, she had almost suffered the worst death imaginable, and now she was bringing the rest of the team down with her. Her eyes began to well as all of her worst fears came rushing out in a single rambling stream.
"I shouldn't be here. I just wanted to make those monsters pay for what they did to Ishiguro. I never thought being a pilot would be this dangerous. I didn't think anything could hurt us as long as we had our TSFs. I didn't think those things actually... ate people. I'm not cut out for this. It's too much for me. I'll never be as brave as he was. I never should have tried to join the army like him."
Yui shook her head in growing regret. She placed a hand on Izumi's shoulder in sisterly support.
"Okay, okay. Calm down. We're all the in the same boat here. It's combat nerves. Yours are just a little worse because of all the other shit you've been through. What would your boyfriend think of you if you counted yourself out on your first mission?"
Izumi stopped to think about the question, then swallowed the rest of her tears and forced herself to firm up. After glancing toward her feet to collect her thoughts, she turned back toward Yui with a concerned look.
"I don't think we're going to get out of here on foot if there's a lot of Soldier-class crawling around. Did your Zuikaku make it through the crash?"
Yui hopelessly shook her head.
"It's totaled. I think I was thrown further than either of you guys. How's yours?"
Izumi answered with a similar gesture.
"I'm not sure. I'm able to get power in the cockpit, but interface was all scrambled and I couldn't get any readings. I don't think we can fix it."
Yui seemed to ponder to herself before she gave Izumi a curious glance.
"Let me take a look."
The two girls quickly made their way back to Izumi's TSF, where Yui spent some time tinkering with the cockpit controls. Izumi watched over her shoulder as the interior lighting at first kicked back on, then the Zuikaku's few remaining cameras activated. The joints in its arms were squealing in agony, but they were moving. With the cockpit hatch gone, there was only one screen left on the dashboard that told the pilots the machine was still operational.
Yui sounded like she was in higher spirits when she spoke.
"Looks like your controls just needed to be rerouted to the secondary OS. You might even be in the best shape out of all of us. The Jump Units are shot, but the structural damage on this thing isn't that bad considering that Fort-class rammed it through a building."
Izumi tilted her head toward the console and blinked in astonishment.
"You can do that?"
Yui glanced over her shoulder with a sudden puzzled look.
"Well, yeah. Did you miss that part of the emergency tutorial or something?"
Izumi turned her eyes away as she timidly lowered her voice.
"I guess I wasn't paying attention. We only had that class a few days after..."
She stopped mid-sentence as she struggled with putting her thoughts into words. Yui already knew what she was trying to say and responded with a reassuring smile.
"It's okay. I'll help you get caught up when we get back."
Yui had just started to climb out of the seat when Izumi impulsively reached for her shoulders, prompting her to sit back down.
"I think you should be the one to pilot it, Yui. I don't want to keep getting in the way."
Yui turned her head to shoot a stubborn glare.
"You're going to have to pull yourself together at some point, Izumi. You made it through training. You, me, and Yamashiro are the only ones who could make it this far, and we're going to have to depend on each other if we want to keep making it. You can do this."
Her anger faded when she sighed. All things considered, her comrade was offering sound advice. She knew Izumi was already in a tough fight trying to overcome her trauma, and she didn't want to make it worse.
"But you're right. It's probably our safest bet if I take over for right now."
Izumi stabilized herself as best she could beside Yui's seat. Yui manually guided the unit to slowly climb to its feet. They were still exposed to the open air due to the ejected cockpit hatch, but now they had the higher ground over any more Soldier-class that may have been lurking around.
Once they were elevated, Yui made a final check of the equipment.
"There we go. It's not pretty, but it will hold. Now let's find Yamashiro."
Izumi's Zuikaku was only lumbering through the spacious halls of the complex for a few minutes before both pilots started picking up a weak radio feed from another nearby unit. Kazusa's voice came through the static in a barely audible whisper.
Yui quickly perked at attention as she adjusted her headset.
"Yamashiro, it's me. I'm here with Izumi. Where are you?"
The radio responded with a few seconds of silence, followed by the sound of labored breathing. Then Kazusa said something any TSF pilot would dread to hear. The obvious rising panic in her voice only made it more chilling.
"Takamura... hurry... They're... almost inside..."
The squeal of bending metal in the distance suddenly told the two pilots where they needed to go.
All of their fears were confirmed when they found Kazusa's Zuikaku crumpled against a flight of concrete stairs. It was covered in a swarm of Tank-class BETA, and the giant red creatures had already spent some time picking off bits of its torso armor. They had just finished peeling the cockpit hatch away like the lid of a sardine can when their glowing beady eyes turned toward the second Zuikaku approaching them. With all of their interest in the cockpit of the disabled machine, there was no doubt the Tanks were after fresh meat.
It could only mean Kazusa was still inside. Frightened, alone, and inside.
Izumi watched apprehensively as Yui tightened her fists and shifted gears. She could see the strategy forming in Yui's eyes in the same instant. With no support, no weapons, and an already damaged TSF, it seemed like the setup for an insane last stand, but Kazusa was the only other pilot who had hung on as long as them. If they had any fighting chance of saving her, she at least deserved that much.
Izumi squeezed the locket in her palm. Yui never asked her for her opinion, but it didn't matter. She wouldn't have raised any objections anyway. All she could think about was how she had been in the same predicament only minutes earlier.
Yui waited just long enough to give her passenger some valuable advice through clenched teeth.
"Hold on. This is going to be a little bumpier than usual."
She wasn't joking. With the TSF's hydraulics rapidly wearing down and its shock absorbers already ruined, every impact it took rattled through the cockpit tenfold. Yui drove the Zuikaku straight into the Tanks and began tearing them away from Kazusa's downed unit with whatever raw strength she could get out of the hardware.
Zuikaku units weren't intended for barehanded combat, but due to the building's enclosed environment and the relatively small number of Tanks present, Yui was able get around her lack of practical weapons. She smashed some of the alien monsters with the TSF's closed fists, kicked others into the wall, and catapulted the rest straight into the air in the hope that gravity would at least immobilize them. It wasn't the most elegant form of warfare, but war wasn't supposed about art. It was about killing your enemy.
The battle went surprisingly well, until one particularly hungry Tank latched on to Izumi's Zuikaku only a few feet away from the cockpit. It persisted in clinging to the unit's shoulder, inching closer and closer toward the two exposed pilots no matter how much Yui tried to thrash it away. She could hardly give it more than a moment's notice with the number of Tanks still scurrying about on the ground.
"Shit, that one's getting too close! Take it out, Izumi!"
Izumi scrambled for her pistol. She used both hands to aim at what only could have been the Tank's face as her locket rested between her thumbs and clinked against the hammer. She inhaled sharply and told her fingers to pull the trigger.
They wouldn't listen. Her eyes widened in shock.
"Izumi, come on! Snap out of it! If I drop the controls they're ALL going to be climbing on us! Blow the damn thing's head off!"
No matter how much she wanted to fire the shot, no how hard she pushed herself, panic robbed her of the ability to react. The Tank crawled closer to her cockpit and tried to reach inside. She was looking death straight in the eye for the second time since her crash.
Yui's voice screamed from some distant void behind her. Her normally level-headed partner had never sounded so desperate before.
The Tank's mouth had opened wide enough to swallow her and Yui whole. She could see straight down its gullet. She could feel its hot breath heaving against her face. Yui was already struggling to win her own battle. Kazusa was helplessly trapped in her mangled wreckage. The Tank was going to kill all three of them if she didn't stop it.
Just like it killed Ishiguro.
All of her rage came flooding out in a sudden hysterical scream. While Yui stomped her way through remaining creatures on the ground, Izumi found the strength to squeeze her eyes shut and rapidly pull the trigger. One bullet left a hole in the back of the Tank's open mouth. Another ruptured one of its eyes. A third knocked out some of its lower teeth and lodged somewhere in its jaw. She continued to fire until she had emptied the entire clip.
Everything was silent once Izumi's senses returned to normal. When she nervously opened one of her eyes, the first thing she saw Ishiguro's smiling face dangling in front of her. She removed one of her hands from the gun and lowered her locket back to her side.
The Tank was hovering over the cockpit with a third of its frontal features blown away. It twitched for a few seconds, then plummeted lifelessly to the ground.
Yui leaned back into her seat and let out a deep sigh of relief. She took a moment to collect herself before turning toward Izumi.
"That was cutting it a little close, but you saved all three of our hides. That's all that matters."
She gave her partner a warm pat on the shoulder as she smiled gratefully.
Izumi's eyes remained fixated on her locket the entire time. As she tried to make sense of her swirling emotions and slowly came down from her own shock, Yui gave her some careful words of support.
"I bet you feel better now that you got revenge for your boyfriend."
That was when it finally struck her, and she broke her silence in a shy voice.
Yui was slightly confused by this. Izumi raised her head to reveal a new look of relief growing on her face.
"I mean, that's definitely part of it, but it's not driving me nuts any more. I'm just glad I was finally able to do something that helped someone other than me."
Her eyes grew a little moist as she smiled.
"I... I think he would have been proud of me."
Yui's response was short, but it was all Izumi needed to hear.
"He's not the only one."
Once the two girls had collected themselves, Yui lifted herself out of her seat and left the controls to Izumi.
"Stay put for a second. I'm going to check on Yamashiro. I need you to stand guard in case any more Tanks show up."
Izumi acknowledged her with a determined nod.
Yui climbed down the leg of the Izumi's Zuikaku and cautiously waded through a sea of dead Tanks toward Kazusa's machine. She disappeared into the unit's darkened cockpit for several minutes. Izumi couldn't make out what exactly what was happening inside, but Yui's voice soon crackled over her receiver to give her the news.
"Hey, Kazusa's hurt pretty bad, but I might be able get her Zuikaku at least moving around if I cover for her. Will you be okay on your own?"
Izumi calmly answered, turning her head to monitor her surroundings.
"I think so."
There were a few more minutes of silence, then Kazusa's Zuikaku whirred back to life. It noisily struggled to lift itself up from the base of the stairs, prompting Izumi to walk closer and offer it an extra hand. With her help, it was finally able to stand on its feet in all its brutalized glory. When it began to lurch forward, Izumi heard Yui speaking to her injured passenger over the radio.
"Hang in there. I know it's not very comfortable, but you won't even care once we get out of here alive."
Izumi could only hear Kazusa painfully murmur something in the background of the static. Part of her mumbling sounded like "Sorry about the whole rival thing."
Izumi and Yui agreed their best bet now would be to stay near the city streets, where they could be easily seen by any passing allies. The two Zuikakus spent several minutes limping through the complex before the first signs of help finally appeared. All three girls looked up from their damaged cockpits to see a series of lights descending from the air just above them.
Salvation came in the form of single blue Takemikazuchi that landed just in of them. It unsheathed one of its melee weapons in standard cautionary procedure, scanned the darkened environment, then finally came to a halt once it saw the coast was clear.
A woman's voice crackled from the unit's radio.
"You must be the Arashiyama team. Half of the platoon has been looking for you ever since that Fort-class showed up."
Yui responded through her own transmitter.
"Cadet First Class Takamura, reporting. Cadet Noto is in the other Zuikaku. Cadet Yamashiro is in the cockpit with me and needs medical attention. Her right arm is fractured and she's suffered minor head trauma."
The other pilot glanced toward Yui's open cockpit and spoke in a reassuring tone.
"We'll have her patched up in no time. Is it just the three of you?"
Yui answered with a solemn nod.
"The rest of the unit didn't make it. The two TSFs we have left are barely functional as it is."
"Don't worry. I activated my beacon the moment I saw you moving around down here. We'll be able transport you for the rest of the withdrawal."
The Takemikazuchi made another quick sweep of the room before its pilot spoke again.
"Nobody wanted you to go through this for your first combat mission, but the three of you must make for a pretty good a team if you were able to survive without your squadron leader in this hellhole."
Yui motioned toward her teammate in the other Zuikaku, sneaking a friendly grin into her words.
"I handled most of the tactical work, but Cadet Noto was the brains of the operation. The BETA would be having all of us for dinner if it weren't for her help."
The Takemikazuchi turned its cameras toward Izumi's unit.
"Is that so, Miss Noto?"
Izumi was caught off guard by this. It was the first time she had ever been the center of attention, and she stuttered through her modest response.
"I... I just listened to Yui and tried to do anything I could to help, Ma'am! She's the real hero."
The pilot of the Takemikazuchi chuckled lightly to herself.
"Interesting. I'll be anxious to see your report."
More lights began appearing high in the air. The rescue team arrived, and Izumi and her teammates were soon being lifted to safety.
As she looked down on the burning landscape, she knew Kyoto falling. After everything she'd been through, however, she refused to let it discourage her. She had already made up her mind she'd be part of the TSF force that would win it back, along every other country the BETA had overwhelmed. She wasn't going to let Ishiguro down. She wasn't going to let anyone down anymore.