"That's just like her. Always waiting until the last second to pull the trigger."
- Kazusa Yamashiro
"ASHES TO ASHES, MOTHERFUCKER."
- Steven Armstrong
"Target located. ETA five minutes."
Kasumi spoke over Susanoo's radio in her usual stoic tone. The lower halls of the Kashgar Hive were eerily quiet compared to the chaos occurring on the upper floors. With the hive's reactor in the immediate vicinity, Takeru was surprised there was nothing trying to stop him.
He would regret that thought.
The cockpit alarm suddenly screamed in full alert. What had been a sparsely populated radar map a second ago now showed a massive cloud of bogies funneling into the lower hall. BETA offensives were only this big when they were getting ready to level a city, and this one was pouring down behind him.
"Enemy reinforcements are coming from the rear! They'll catch up to us any second!"
Meiya was the first to respond to his signal.
"Damn it, they must have dug around me! Are there any Valkyries in your sector?"
He desperately searched the radar for the smallest ray of hope. His eyes stopped on one particular blip.
"There's one right behind us."
Toggling the comm channel, he instantly recognized the unit's Royal Guard call sign.
Izumi finished hacking her way through what little remained of a Grappler assault. Just as the final blow connected, her PB Blade buckled under hours of constant stress and burst into metallic splinters. She would have liked to have a melee option, but she was still grateful it had gotten her this far.
"Thanks for hanging in there for so long."
Her reprieve was cut short by an incoming transmission. A panel showing Takeru's face opened in the corner of her screen.
"Izumi, there's a huge wave of BETA on our tail. They're heading straight toward you!"
She consulted her radar and saw the same troubling sight as Takeru. Her attention then flashed toward to the six panels spanning the top of her screen. Each provided her a first person view from a series pillar-shaped turrets she had stationed nearby. Most of them were completely depleted, and checking the Shiranui's handheld Assault Cannon came up with similar results.
"I'm out of ammo, and my PB Blade's screwed! What should we do?"
"We need a few more minutes. If they make it down here, they'll be all over us. There's no way we'll be able to hold them off and deal with the reactor at the same time!"
With nowhere else to turn, Izumi glanced toward her palm. She always carried her locket during missions, hoping it would give her some form of guidance in times like this. Seeing the image of her younger self, her thoughts drifted back to her days in flight academy. She remembered the last thing the training Captain had taught his three surviving students in Kyoto.
Her fist closed tightly around the locket.
"Forget about the BETA. Just worry about getting to the core and let Sumika do her thing. I'll hold the line."
Takeru shot a confused look through her monitor.
"But you just said..."
Izumi cut him off with a reaffirmed voice.
"I said I'll hold the line. We're not going to let them overwhelm us, not when we're this close and the whole world is counting on us."
"How the hell are you going to stop them?"
She entered the sequence '2-2-4-3' on her console, causing a new panel to open just above her hand.
It was the Shiranui's self-destruct mechanism.
"What are you talking about? You don't have any landmines."
She steered her TSF toward the closest pillar and pulled its anchor out of the ground. The weapon was hastily planted next to the corridor wall before she moved to the next.
"I'm sitting in one. The sentries give me another six to work with. I figure if I wait until they're right on top me, the explosions will take out the Destroyers in the front and the trench will slow the other ones in the back. Maybe I'll even get the ceiling to collapse."
"But the only way you can make the sentries self-destruct is..."
Izumi was halfway through the hop to the next turret when his words trailed off.
"From the cockpit. I know. And each of their SD-Systems are only a third as powerful as the S-11 on the Shiranui. The best chance we have is if I throw everything in their faces in one big bang. You'll never have enough time to retrieve me, anyway."
It was easier for both of them if she didn't flat out admit she was going to die.
Izumi staked the second weapon into the ground several yards away from the first one. The two sentries were beginning to form a row that would extend from wall to wall.
"Once you get out of this mess, can you pass a message to Yui for me? Tell her I wanted to thank her for helping me back when I needed it the most. She'll know what I'm talking about."
The third turret was secured in place. Izumi left a wider gap between three and four so she would have a place in the center of the arrangement.
"And tell her and Kazusa I'm sorry I ended up wrecking all this test equipment they let me borrow. Yukon probably won't even need it anymore if everything works out here, but I still feel bad since they had to pull so many strings getting it to me. I promised them I'd take care of it."
The fifth and six sentries completed the defensive line.
"Kazusa's been bragging all week about how this thing was designed for area denial. She'll at least be glad I got to prove it's not just for show."
Takeru's response was all the relief she needed.
"I'll make sure they know. Kasumi is recording everything."
She boosted back to the center of the arrangement, directing the Shiranui to stand in position with three sentries on either side. All she had to do now was wait.
"Thanks, Takeru. You already know how sorry I am for everything you've been through."
Takeru lowered his voice in an attempt to console her.
"Come on, we've gone over this. You were just a cadet back then. You did everything you could. None of that was your fault."
She looked down toward her lap, pondering if that was really the case.
"My very first mission was to defend the capital and stop the BETA from going any further in Japan. Sumika suffered more than anyone after we failed. Lady Yuuhi told me the same thing you did when we were retreating, but I still feel responsible for what happened. I feel like I could have done more if I hadn't been so stupid with my whole revenge thing."
Pushing her doubts aside, she gazed down the still empty corridor. One of first and most important things she had learned was there was no value in lamenting over past mistakes. All that mattered was fighting for a brighter future.
"Just remember what I said before. No matter what you and Sumika have gone through or how much time you have left, the important part is you have a second chance together. That's more than Ishiguro and I ever had."
She couldn't help but giggle quietly.
"He's been waiting for me for three and a half years. Aki and Shimako have probably been trading him back and forth by now."
A row of Destroyer-class finally made appeared on her screen, storming toward her from the distance. She stared Death in the eye with a peaceful smile on her face.
"Did I ever tell you how he died? They said the BETA charged straight into the tank fleet when they reached Kyushu. A line of Destroyers came right out of the water and just mowed the entire battalion down."
"Izumi, you shouldn't think about things like that right now."
Takeru had mistaken her subtle happiness for hopeless despair. There was something cute about how he was always a little oblivious about everything.
"I'll be okay, Takeru. It actually makes me feel a little closer to him knowing we're going to go out the same way."
Tears began to roll down her cheeks.
"I guess we're going to save the human race together after all."
Takeru hesitated in his response.
"Izumi, I... I don't know what to tell you..."
Izumi shook her head to regain her composure. There was one more thing she still had to do to earn her closure. If she let anything happen to the Susanoo or its crew, the world would lose its only chance of defeating the BETA. The hopes and dreams of all of humanity were resting on her shoulders.
"Don't worry about it. Just concentrate on Target A and let me cover you."
Her final transmission was the same promise she had been fighting to keep ever since she became a pilot.
"I won't let you guys down."
Once the comm channel was closed, Izumi reached for the self-destruct button with the same hand that held her locket. Facing the approaching BETA forces down with steely eyes, she muttered under her breath.
"Come on, you monsters. I'm ready for you."
They were almost on her. There must have been thousands of them charging straight at her meager defensive formation. She had just enough time to say two simple words as they infested every pixel on her screen.
Her thumb squeezed the detonator.
The tiny error message was all that remained of the icon that used to represent Izumi. The only thing that prevented Takeru from breaking down on the spot was the miracle that followed.
A enormous cluster of BETA blips vanished from his screen at the exact spot of Izumi's last recorded location. The rest crowded together in a parallel formation, as if an invisible wall was blocking their path. Her sacrifice had completely halted the BETA pursuit.
Takeru continued to drift through the winding halls of the hive. When he finally entered what looked like the central chamber, Kasumi verified they had reached their destination.
"Primary Objective identified. 220 meters from firing range."
In the center of the grand hall, a single six-eyed abomination rose out of a crater of writhing tentacles. Takeru was soon the first human being in history to see the thing that had been plaguing the planet and slowly driving mankind to extinction.
With the help of all the comrades who had fought with him and given their lives along the way, he now had an opportunity to destroy the supreme power source of all BETA forces on Earth. If he was successful, the war would be over. If he failed, the world would be doomed.