a World Trigger fanfic written by slr2moons
A/N: Normally I write with honorifics in appropriate fandoms, but I've been reading the NA licensed version of this manga, which omits them. I chose to err on the safe side and go with the style I've been reading. I have stuck with Japanese naming convention: last name first, given name second; and with use of last names to provide formality, and given names for underlings or those who are close.
Thanks to my amazing beta readers, who tackled this 18k beast in the space of one weekend. Knastymike, Saladbats, Star-chan, and Winnett, you're all wonderful and very brave! My thanks also go to my fellow Yuletiders and holiday ficcers, whose support and cheerleading helped me finish.
This fic is set after chapter 42. Never have I wished for an official Character Data File reference book more than when writing this! Please forgive any errors I have made in canon details. Written for augusta_brie in the Yuletide Small Fandom Fanfic Exchange, 2013.
This is a work of fanfiction, and has nothing to do with the original or licensed form of this manga in any way whatsoever. This is just for fun, folks!
"Incoming!" Arashiyama Jun shouted in the twilight. "Let's get ready to rumble!" A wild smile on his face, he dodged the bombs launched from the immense Neighbor flying above. A living bomber known as an Ilgar, it floated through the air with disturbing grace for a creature the size of a blue whale.
The continuous impacts shook the ground beneath his feet, and the vast shadow cast by the creature above made it even more difficult to avoid the car-sized craters that bit into the grassy field of this alien world. The Ilgar floated serenely along, continuing its attack down the length of the valley before beginning the wide circle that would bring it overhead for a second assault.
In the two minute-long lull, Jun settled his main trigger—a Meteor in the form of a large rifle—against his side and touched the communicator on his trion jacket's collar, special issue for this away mission to Aftokrator, located off Earth in the array of other worlds known as the Neighborhood. "Arashiyama Squad, status! Show me you're alive."
"Ken here. On your six."
Jun turned and spotted Satori Ken waving from his sniper position on a pile of rocks beyond the strike zone.
Jun waved back as his communicator spoke again. The female voice was strained and out of breath. "Kitora here, with Tokieda. We're okay. We've both taken damage. Permission to bail out?"
Very much aware of the bomber's impending return, Jun responded, "Nope. Sorry, Kitora. When Kazama finally takes out the Ilgar, it'll aim for highest concentration of humans. Right now, that's Fuyushima Squad guarding HQ back at the ship. You and Mitsuru hoof it to Ken's position."
"Uh, Jun," Tokieda Mitsuru's voice joined Kitora's. "My leg's blown off at the knee..."
"Oh yeah? Fortunately, Kitora knows how to fix that very thing."
"Understood," Kitora replied, her voice steadier. "We'll reconvene at Satori's position ASAP."
"Good. I advise you make it before the Ilgar returns." He smiled when thin snickers met his ears. "Ken, how are the other squads?"
Ken gave him a brief summary. "Fuyushima Squad reports all's-well at HQ. Kazama Squad is regrouping to try for the Ilgar before its second pass. Jin is moving to be Kazama's backup at the valley's head. Tachikawa and Izumi are cut off from the other two Tachikawa agents by a massive rock slide. The two agents are down and not responding, my Hudson radar shows them three hundred meters west of your position. It's Midori and Ichinose."
Jun looked towards the sunset, shading his eyes with one hand. In the distant end of the valley, he could see the fall of rock and scree that had separated Tachikawa Squad. No doubt the slide had been caused by the bombing run, and with the Ilgar's inevitable return, it could become even worse.
"I'll go check on Midori and Ichinose. Tell Tachikawa and the other two to concentrate on getting out of the rock slide zone."
Ken confirmed the order as Jun jogged west, skirting craters and chunks of debris in the dimming red light while keeping an eye on the Ilgar's position. He estimated there was only about a minute until the attack resumed. By all appearances, the Ilgar was continuing its approach completely unhampered. "I'm losing faith in you, Kazama," Jun chided to himself. He put on a burst of speed.
At nineteen years old, Arashiyama Jun was the prime age for an active Border agent. Free from compulsory school, with all the vigor and inherit invulnerability of youth, along with a healthy dose of good cheer. He was fit and lean, of average height but above-average looks, something that the Public Relations department of Border valued. His shaggy hair was a compromise between fashion—feathered and stylishly mussed—and functionality—it never hung down over his face to interfere with the vision of his also-PR-approved green eyes. Every agent's Border uniform was slightly different. In Jun's case, his was the standard gray jacket with high collar over a black t-shirt, black trousers, and knee-high boots. And of course, the shield-shaped badge on his jacket's front that marked him as part of the fifth A-ranked squad in Border. Named after its captain, Arashiyama Squad's coat of arms consisted of five small white stars, each inside its own small black pentagram, all five of which were arranged to form one large white star in the shield's middle.
Jun toggled his comm link to the all-agents channel. "Border agents Midori and Ichinose! Where are you?!" He paused to listen, both hands on his Meteor rifle, and heard nothing but the sound of the wind moaning around the approaching bulk of the Ilgar. He glanced upward. Maybe thirty seconds left, at most, he estimated internally.
"Ken, what's their location?"
"My Hudson shows them about seventy-five meters ahead. They've moved down into a crater at your one o'clock."
Jun scanned the debris-littered field ahead and ran on, chiding himself as he tripped on an exposed tree root that was hidden in a large rock's shadow and almost hit the dirt. "Agents! Report!"
"Midori and Ichinose, reporting." The voice was faint and crackled through the comm speaker, but it was there. "Arashiyama, please assist! Ichinose is waving now above the crater rim. His comm is out."
Spotting the movement ahead, next to an impressively huge blasted tree trunk, Jun sprinted. Far behind, he heard the explosions as the second bombing attack began. The impact tremors grew steadily stronger as the Ilgar neared his position, forcing him to slow down or trip yet again. He jogged until the expansive silhouette crept into the top of his vision, then he stopped and turned to face it.
He studied the pattern of the approaching impacts, crouching slightly to absorb the shocks coming up from the shaking ground. "Come on, Kazama, get a move on! Kill it already!"
Ken said, "Still no word from Kazama. Jin is now dealing with the Ilgar."
"Good!" Jun acknowledged as he activated his second trigger and teleported himself ten meters left. He ducked behind a large rock, neatly missing being blasted into a crater and catching any thrown debris. He'd been getting quite a bit of practice at bomb-dodging this evening.
Triumphant noises coming from his earpiece told him Jin had succeeded. A low moaning noise emanated from the Ilgar above. It slowly twisted in the air, diverting from its attack arc to aim—as expected—towards their distant ship.
Yet bombs continued falling. Jun darted around to the other side of his boulder and braced for the impact of another incoming bomb. But this bomb did not explode and send a ton of rock and soil flying. It merely hit the ground with a solid thud.
Jun blinked. He heard and felt the comparatively dull impacts continue hitting behind him as the Ilgar veered away.
With caution, he peeked out from behind his boulder and saw a large, smooth, egg-shaped object in the center of a three-meter bowl that had been struck in the earth. He only caught a glimpse before the long cast shadow of the Ilgar reached him and stole the remaining twilight.
He ducked back behind the boulder, his heart still racing. Is it a dud? Could they all be duds?
His communicator crackled. "Jun, you still there?"
"Yeah, Ken. Um...I think this end of the valley is now filled with duds."
A pause, then Ken's surprised voice replied, "Neighbor-dropped duds? I didn't think that was possible."
"Me, either." Jun flicked the safety off his Meteor trigger.
A trigger was alien technology, stolen from the denizens of the Neighborhood by Earth's protection agency, Border. Triggers could be used for an incredible range of purposes, from creating complex buildings to simple weapons like swords. Or in the case of Jun's Meteor trigger, a normal-seeming assault rifle...only one that could shoot explosive energy bullets made of trion.
Trion was the key to everything, for trion powered the triggers. It powered the ship that had brought them here, it powered the alien Neighbors that Border agents fought, and might even power human life in general. Research and Development was still working on that. Generated from a previously unknown invisible gland in the body located in the center of a person's chest, trion also formed and powered Jun's combat body. Engineed by R&D to protect their agents, the trion combat body was exchanged for someone's normal body upon trigger activation, which was safely stored as information inside their trigger. A perfect copy the regular body's appearance and clothing, the trion combat body possessed increased athletic ability, was largely impervious to damage from non-trion sources, and was what allowed Jun and the other agents to fight. And while losing a combat body's limb or being shot in general didn't hurt, it could still be very inconvenient. Particularly when the damage was bad enough to require a bail-out, which meant an instant trion-explosive retreat back to HQ, shut-down of their triggers, and automatic reversion to an agent's normal flesh-and-blood body.
The Ilgar's shadow was gone as the creature moved farther away in its slow-motion crash, but the sun had vanished below the horizon. What light remained was fading quickly. The sound of the odd non-explosive bombs impacting in the distance had ended, leaving the valley eerily quiet.
Something was off. For whatever reason, Jun did not want to break that silence. He tapped his comm link with one finger in the pattern that meant passive mode to the listening Ken, and flicked off the speaker.
A slight noise reached him, the click of rocks shifting, coming from the other side of the boulder.
Jun shifted his weight forward onto the balls of his feet and prepared to leap. With eyes now adjusted to the dark, he picked out an empty space ten meters away and prepared to teleport when a massive blast of air pressure hit him like a wall, even as the ground beneath him lurched in a rolling shock wave. Jun was knocked flat on his side, his Meteor only saved from being flung out of reach by its shoulder strap.
Shocked, Jun lay there for a moment, his mind whirling. His combat trion body had automatically muted his hearing, and thus he felt rather than heard the air and earth tremble around him.
I guess the Ilgar finally crashed, he thought. He flipped over onto his back, tried to ignore the grit that was now in his mouth, and blinked at the boulder he'd been hugging for the past couple minutes. The shock wave had knocked it out of place as well, and it had hung on a protruding rock and cracked open a narrow crevasse between it and the ground.
He sat up. He checked his Meteor as best as he could in the dim light. It seemed to have survived as well—
Jun threw himself forward, somersaulting once and jumping to his feet. A pale shape hit the ground where he'd been sitting and reared in front of him. It hissed at him, and its head split open on the center seam. The single large, lidless eye that every Neighbor possessed glared out at him from its false mouth.
Jun snapped his Meteor into position and fired off three blazingly white shots. The Neighbor shrieked and jumped away. At a noise behind him, Jun whirled and saw a second one, then a third. He fired again, the flashes of trion bullets lighting up the night, and more shrieks marking successful hits. A punch to his back shoved him hard against the ground. He could feel that he'd lost a chunk out of his side. He shot wildly as he rolled—barely avoiding being stomped—and his eyes focused on the crevasse. He invoked his teleporter trigger and instantly materialized inside.
Thank you, combat body and teleporter prototype trigger! Jun crammed himself in as deeply as he could, scraping against both the rock above and ground below. He managed to worm far enough under the boulder to leave a good meter between the tip of his Meteor's barrel and the opening.
The shapes outside were making a lot of noise. Jun could see them flicking back and forth across the remaining light as they milled about, burbling to each other. A pair of thick legs paused right in front of the crevasse. A foot reached inside, patted the rock and ground, then sank itself into the dirt and pulled backward in one long scratch. A third silhouette lowered into view—an oval at the end of a sinuous column.
The head. It's gotta be.
Jun sighted down his Meteor and squeezed the trigger.
The crevasse exploded in phosphorus-bright light. The Neighbor jerked as its head blew apart, and Jun shot off two more rounds beneath it before its body collapsed, blocking the entrance.
The other two outside shrieked in alarm. Jun heard them shuffling about, and he fired again at the edge of the downed one's form. Another dual shriek, followed by the distinct sounds of them running away.
Jun listened for a full thirty seconds before he inched his way forward. That final shot had been intended to do more than scare off the two remaining Neighbors; it had blasted out a chunk of Neighbor and rock big enough for him to see through. He focused on a flat space of open ground several meters away and used his teleporter again.
Scrambling to his feet, Meteor ready, he whirled and scanned the night. Nothing else moved.
He took a deep breath of crisp air, grateful to be out from under several hundred tons of rock—combat body or not, it was still uncomfortable—and carefully approached the downed shape. With its head blasted to bits, it was definitely dead.
Jun pulled his flashlight from his utility belt with one hand and flicked it on to take a closer look. No blood, obvious artificial casing made of the usual pale metal alloy, bipedal with a large round body, and a long sinuous neck. Jun had to blink.
"It's an...attack ostrich."
He snickered and reached for his communicator. "Jun here, back to active comm mode."
"Jun!" Ken's voice came through alarmed and loud. "We heard shots fired! What's your status? You okay?!"
"Yeah, I'm fine. The shots were a welcoming party I decided to throw."
Jun chuckled. "Ken, tell everyone we've got some new Neighbors."
Ken was silent for a moment, then said, "Understood. Basic description?"
"Bipedal, no visible wings or fins for flight. About two and a half meters tall. It really does look like a metal ostrich." Jun noticed the footprints covering the ground. "Distinctive footprints, about twenty centimeters long, only two toes..." He trailed off as he spotted two separate sets of tracks that departed the melee around the boulder. The prints headed west toward the end of the valley.
"Ken, any word on Midori and Ichinose?"
"Not since before the Ilgar crash. Tachikawa is headed towards their last known position now. ETA ten minutes."
Jun cursed and began to run, following the dual sets of tracks. "Tell him to hurry! The two surviving Neighbors are heading in that direction, and if they are like ostriches, then they're fast! I'm on my way!"
Pushing himself through the dark, using precious trion to teleport over two craters, Jun pursued them. He ran until he could just make out the blasted tree trunk he'd spotted before the Ilgar had returned. Jun killed the flashlight and held his Meteor ready in both hands as he cautiously moved forward, stepping sideways to no longer be in a straight line from where he'd used the flashlight. After his eyes adjusted, he could make out that the Neighbors had split up, one moving to each side of the crater. Even in the dim starlight, the tracks were obvious in the fresh, soft dirt thrown out from the bombing.
Jun slunk forward until he could fully see inside the crater's bowl. No Border agents, no Neighbors, just some dark small shapes on one side of the crater's base. He skidded down the steep side and trotted to the objects. A Bagworm trigger cloak, a weaponry trigger in the default rectangular handle form, and the clear sight of the new Neighbors' footprints over the top of bootprints and handprints. Jun was no wilderness tracker, but he could clearly see what had happened. A brief milling there, where the two humans had been crouched, and then two sets of Neighbors' prints heading up out of the crater and on their merry way.
It appeared the Neighbors had paid Midori and Ichinose a surprise visit, and then took the agents with them when they left.
Jun straightened and looked off into the direction the prints marked. "Shit."
Tachikawa called everyone to gather in their squads at Ken's rock pile, which had become a de facto rallying point that night. Tachikawa Kei, highest ranked Border agent and leader of the Away Team, was also one of the oldest among them at twenty years. Tall and solidly built, he wore his wavy brown hair a little long, and kept his triangular-shaped goatee trimmed closely . His eyes were his most unusual feature, though. The irises were faceted in a grid pattern with no pupil. They tended to render a person momentarily speechless upon first meeting Tachikawa's gaze. He wore all black, including his long coat. Used to leading and a veteran of many away missions to the Neighborhood, he radiated quiet power laced with an undertone of anger at the evening's events. Particularly the loss of their members.
They had left Border headquarters with a full ship of seventeen agents, and now they were down to twelve. Tachikawa's own squad members Midori and Ichinose were officially MIA, along with the Away Team's second in command, Kazama Soya. Two of Kazama's squad members had vanished with him, leaving only one of their squad's attackers, Kikuchihara Shiro. He was sixteen, with dark blond hair in a pageboy cut, and a plain face currently in a rather stunned expression.
Tachikawa rubbed his goatee in thought. "Five agents gone. No bail-outs, no communication, no bodies. And I agree with Jun's theory that the Neighbors captured Midori and Ichinose, based on what I saw for myself at their last known location."
"You think Kazama and his two agents were captured, too," Fuyushima Hitomi commented. Captain of her own squad, this was her third away mission. At eighteen years old, she was short and round in both bust and hip, and she could be vicious when she fought. She wore her long, dark hair in a sensible French braid.
"Yes. We know the various ruling powers here in the Neighborhood all want trion, and every agent on this mission has enough of it to be worth taking alive." Taken alive, as opposed to the method of retrieving normal or low-levels of trion from a person: simply chopping the gland out of their chest and leaving them to die. "Particularly here, in Aftokrator, the largest military nation in the Neighborhood. They always want more soldiers, and more intel on their enemies.
"I'd say these new Neighbors are hunter/capture specialists," he continued. From what Jun described, each one sounds big enough to contain one person in their body. They hunted him down well enough."
Jun spoke up. "Yeah. I barely heard them coming. For being taller and heavier than we are, they were really quiet. I can definitely see them stalking someone who's preoccupied and snapping 'em up before they had any idea."
"Sneaky bastards," Kikuchihara muttered from where he crouched, alone without his squad around him.
"Kazama and the rest have been captured, so we'll go get 'em back," Jin Yuichi concluded. Jin was the odd man out in their Away Team. His squad was still in training, but the powers that be had wanted him on the away mission, and thus he'd been sent as a singleton. Jin was also nineteen, like Jun, but more serious and a little cocky. For good reason, since he was the same rank and skill level as Tachikawa. With his powerful Black Trigger given up to the Border Board of Directors in a smart political move weeks earlier, Jin had reverted to using his dual Scorpion short sword blades. Jin's sorrel hair was similar in style to Jun's, his eyes bright blue, and like the rest of them he was very fit, though more slender than Tachikawa. Jin always wore a pair of bridgeless sunglasses with blue lenses. Jun wasn't sure how they didn't go flying off when Jin was fighting, but at the moment they were lose around Jin's neck.
"That's right, we will," Tachikawa concluded. "All right, everyone. Tomorrow in the daylight, we'll try to track the two Neighbors who took Midori and Ichinose, we'll set up a new HQ, and we'll investigate the ship. If it's grounded, we'll call home on the portable communication unit and salvage what we can from the ship."
Reminded of the big picture, they were all silent for a moment. Jin had been able to divert the Ilgar slightly from its crash-course into their ship and HQ with Fuyushima Squad, but their combined efforts had not enough. It had still smashed partially into the vehicle. They wouldn't know how damaged the ship was until they could fully look it over in the light of day.
Tachikawa stood and adjusted his main weaponry trigger, a Kogetsu sword, where it hung at his waist. By all appearances a traditional long katana, his version was equipped with an option that allowed him to lengthen the cutting strike many meters beyond the sword's actual blade. "We'll set watches all night. Two people each, and be on the alert. Kouhei and I will take the first watch. I don't want those new Neighbors to snatch anyone else."
Silent in the face of their dire situation, the agents prepared for bed as well as they could. Jun made it a point to smile at each member of his squad. Mitsuru was clearly tired, low on trion after losing a leg and having to jury rig one from his Scorpion sword trigger until he could revert to his normal body, but a night's sleep and good breakfast would see him fully recovered. Kitora, his team's lone female member, seemed her usual no-nonsense self. She snorted at something Ken said and imperiously pointed at the ground on the other side of Mitsuru. With a grin, Ken complied, cheerfully flopping down on the blanket every agent had in their ration pack.
Jun laid his own blanket out on the other side of Kitora, glad for the warm late summer night, and lay down on his back. He stared up at the night sky. They were on an entirely different planet, but the stars were still the same.
He couldn't decide if that was cool or creepy. But eventually he did drift into sleep, lulled by the sound of his friends' steady breathing, and wondering what was in store for them on the second day of their mission.
Jun and Ken ended up with the final watch that night, which was fine with them. They both took delight in waking up their fellow agents, particularly Ken, who while light-hearted like Jun, was more of a prankster. Ken claimed the honor of waking Tachikawa, and for his method chose to dribble warmed water from his canteen upon Tachikawa's hand and say with mock-chagrin, "Oops! Sorry, Tachikawa, didn't see your hand there!"
Tachikawa lurched from his blanket with a very loud curse, his face a mixture of disgust and anger, flailing his hand wildly. Ken, laughing so hard he had to sit down, could only shake his head and point to his open canteen in explanation. Tachikawa whirled on Jun. "Arashiyama! Control your squad!"
Jun grinned and didn't bat an eye. "I did, Tachikawa. He wanted to aim for your face."
That set the rest of the agents off again, their hoots and guffaws filling the crisp morning air. Even Kikuchihara found a small smile.
Tachikawa's eyes narrowed, until Jun figured he must have registered the laughter of the other agents. Their mighty leader looked over his Away Team, who were still snickering and cracking jokes as they prepared for the day, and it was evident how the prank had lightened their collective spirits.
"All right, all right. Everyone's had their fun. From now on, use normal non-liquid methods to wake your fellow agents." More snickers at that, and Tachikawa pointed a finger at Jun. "You wake me up personally. Clearly I can't trust your subordinates."
Jun grinned at him again. "Understood."
After a cold and dry—if hearty—breakfast of emergency rations, they split into three groups. Tachikawa and his remaining squad member, Izumi Kouhei, would return to the field and try to track the two Neighbors that had taken Midori and Ichinose. Jin and Kikuchihara would retrieve the new Neighbor's body from the valley for dissection, and then seek out a new location for HQ. Arashiyama and Fuyushima squads would return to the ship, inspect the damage, and if needed salvage what they could.
"Remember to stay alert, everyone. These new Neighbors aren't the smash-and-grabs we're used to."
After confirmation all around, they went their separate ways.
The ship was only a kilometer from the temporary camp, and they had landed in a meadow surrounded by thick, concealing woods. The trees around them were disconcertingly enormous, their lowest branches a good three meters from the ground, with huge trunks and root spreads to support the immense plants, whose tips seemed to vanish in the clouds.
The two squads reached the downed ship in minutes. The Ilgar's giant body, cracked and bent and sliced open from Jin's attack, still lay in the great furrow its crash had cut into the earth. Without the flow of trion to power it, the body had already begun to break down, though the full process would take a week or more given the Ilgar's size. The Neighbor had indeed clipped the side of their ship, knocking it a good twenty meters away.
It was a testament to the strength of trion that the ship hadn't disintegrated from the blow and following impact with the ground. Dented and bent, two legs ripped off, a third broken, both tail fins bent askew, and a nice, big three-meter gash ripped out of one side.
Jun scratched his head as he eyed the ship. "It's not that bad." Everyone looked at him. "At least now it looks like a stomped roach."
Snickers greeted his comment, and Ken trotted up to the ship's front, where the mouth-like horizontal split in the casing now had a huge dent right in the middle. Ken grinned at it and use his arms to trace the new shape. "Look, you guys! It's smiling!"
Kitora scoffed at him. "Enough kidding around! Let's get busy!"
"Yeah," Jun agreed easily. "But first, let's check for those new Neighbors. This area is full of hiding places for them to ambush us."
After a careful search of the ship and nearby woods with no sign of the enemy, the two squads began their inspection. The huge boulder that had knocked their ship into a smile had also taken out the bridge, and there could be no doubt the ship was dead. With that conclusion, the inspection turned into a salvage operation. They pulled out more ration kits, a medical case, five extra weaponry triggers, a set of tools and basic repair equipment, plenty of bottled water, and two big crates of emergency rations. Jun's good cheer finally took a blow when he found the backup communication unit.
He carried the case outside and set it down on a tarp that had yet to be covered in retrieved goods. The case had been thrown against something with a hard corner, and now it sported the resulting dent and hole punched through both its sturdy layers. He opened it and studied the extent of the damage inside.
"Well, shit." Jun stood up from his crouch. "Hey, Fuyushima Hitomi!"
The other captain trotted up to him, her handgun-shaped Asteroid trigger pointed at the ground in the low ready position. She'd been on guard duty. "What is it, Arashiyama?"
Jun waved a hand at the open comm unit case. "Anyone on your team good with trion-powered device repair?"
After a long look at the unit, she cursed too. "Shit!"
"Yeah, that's what I said. I think my squad's Kitora Ai has some—"
"Trigger, On! Neighbor attack!" a voice cut through the clearing, and the shouts of other agents activating their triggers followed. Shots fired inside the ship made it tremble.
Jun activated his own trigger, felt the odd shift into his trion combat body, and scanned the area and visible sky down the barrel of his Meteor. "Which Neighbor?" he snapped.
"The new ones! They're in the ship!"
Jun barked out, "Evacuate the ship! Everyone retreat to the tarps! Move it!"
Five agents boiled out of the ship, followed by two Neighbors. The Neighbors both halted just outside the cargo door, hissing and weaving their heads when they saw the armed group facing them.
"Everyone down!" Fuyushima snarled, and the agents still running towards them hit the dirt. Jun and Fuyushima fired, but the Neighbors had already leaped away. The bastards were fast.
"How many did you see?" Jun demanded, even as he motioned the agents forward again, his eyes scanning the area.
Panting, Ken and Kitora reached him. "I saw three," Kitora said, her voice sharp. "I was in the back of the cargo bay."
"I saw two in the passenger area," Ken added without his usual smile. "They got Yamada." He gulped. "One minute, we were trading jokes while we checked the storage under the seats. The next, one of those damn Neighbors was crouched next to me instead. And I saw a second one jumping for me. I dodged and activated my trigger."
"Good work. Was it you who called the warning?"
"Good." Jun glanced at both of them and blinked. "Where's Mitsuru?"
"Tokieda?" Kitora asked. "He was right next to me."
Fear had just begun to leach into Jun when Mitsuru spoke up from behind him, making him spin about to see the familiar face with its bowl-cut light hair and shallow-set eyes.
"Here I am, Jun." Mitsuru halted next to them, his own Asteroid assault rifle held in both hands. "I detoured to check the tree line. I saw the footprints you described last night. A lot of them."
Jun's eyes narrowed. "Fuyushima! They're in the woods!" He turned back to Mitsuru. "Could you tell how many Neighbors or what direction they were headed?"
Mitsuru shook his head.
Fuyushima approached, trigger still held ready. "They must have been hiding inside the Ilgar. It's the only nearby place we didn't check." She almost growled. "Can we track the one that got Yamada?"
"Near as I can tell, they split up," Tokieda answered. "There's no way to know which one has him, especially if it mixed with the others around us."
Fuyushima closed her eyes and cursed silently to herself. "All right." She took a deep breath. "Let's finish this! Fuyushima Squad! We're on watch." She turned to Jun. "Arashiyama?"
He nodded and ran his gaze over the loaded tarps. "Looks like we have everything important already."
"Then let's head back. Everyone, maintain your triggers. Let's move before those bastards pick off any more of us."
They quickly assembled two slings made from the tarps and freshly-cut branches, and thanks to the greater physical capabilities of their Trion combat bodies, it only took two agents each to carry them fully loaded. Jun kept the communication device, wrapped in its own tarp and stuffed in a large duffel bag he hung diagonally around his torso. Fuyushima took point, followed by a sling carried by the remaining two members of her squad. Ken came next, his Egret sniper rifle trigger ready. Kitora and Mitsuru took the second sling, and Jun brought up the rear.
They moved quickly, and Jun felt hyper-aware that every tree knocked down from the Ilgar's crash created a potential hiding place for the new Neighbors to ambush them. The others must have been thinking along the same lines, because Jun heard Ken teasingly call out, "What was that, Toma?"
"I said these fucking Neighbors were sneaky bastards!" Toma Isami, Fuyushima Squad's lanky Sniper, snarled out. "Yamada was right next to you, and you didn't even notice until it already had him, you blind—!"
"Toma! Enough!" Fuyushima cut him off.
Jun spoke up, "The new Neighbors are sneaky, and that's exactly what they were programmed to do. Now we've all seen them in action, we all have a better idea of what they can do, and we can better defend against them." He paused. "The 'new Neighbors'. We need a specific name for them."
"I vote for 'Sneaky Bastard'!" Ken piped up.
Jun grinned. "That's even longer than 'new Neighbor'. Let's shorten it to just 'SneeBa'."
That made Ken laugh. "SneeBa it is!"
The following snickers slowly faded away, and Jun suspected even Toma had chuckled at the name, just a bit.
"Join Border, and you too can crack stupid jokes and be fucking cheerful, just like Arashiyama Squad," the other remaining Fuyushima member mocked, his voice heavy with sarcasm.
Fuyushima snapped, "Takemoto! Can it!"
Jun, used to being ribbed about his team's PR job and his own perpetually sunny nature, didn't let Takemoto's words bother him. If he'd lost a trusted teammate, he knew he'd be upset, too. And besides, I have something more important to worry about...like the soft noises I've been hearing pacing us for the past thirty seconds.
He spared one hand from his weapon and touched the suit's comm link. "We're being stalked," he murmured into it. "No visual confirmation, but I'm sure."
A heavy silence fell over the group for a moment, then Fuyushima replied in a soft voice via her own suit's comm. "We're almost to the rock pile. Keep moving, everyone. Double-time."
Jun agreed with her decision. The rock pile was defensible, unlike being strung out on a trail through the woods, burdened by bulky supplies.
In less than three minutes, they cleared the trees. Jun took a deep breath of relief.
Fuyushima briefly spoke into a different channel on her comm. "Tachikawa and Jin's groups are still out. I'm running ahead to check the camp for SneeBas." One side of her mouth lifted in a faint smile as she darted ahead.
"I'll go hunt for SneeBas, too!" Ken volunteered and quickly tailed Fuyushima. Jun suspected he wanted to tease the captain about her adoption of the nickname as much as he wanted to protect his fellow agents.
"Let's slow down and give them time to work," Jun called out to the group, who gratefully complied. The other four agents—the ones carrying the slings—were panting from the trion exertion used to carry their very heavy loads at speed. Jun pivoted about and walked backwards, scanning the trees for any SneeBa signs. Everything seemed fine. Their stalkers had not chosen to reveal themselves.
"Hitomi's giving the all-clear sign," Toma said, and Jun turned to see her standing on one of the rocks and waving her arm.
Jun raised his hand to silently acknowledge her signal when a pale blur suddenly jumped up behind Fuyushima, a black maw gaping open in its chest, and snapped her inside its body as neatly as a pelican scooping up a fish. It hit the ground running and streaked away.
They stared in shock for a split second.
"Captain Hitomi!" Takemoto screamed, and he and Toma dropped their sling and ran after it, scrabbling for their triggers.
Jun sprinted after them, signing to Kitora and Mitsuru to stay with the supplies as he passed. Takemoto used a Kogetsu sword trigger, but Toma was a sniper. "Headshot to kill! Legs to cripple!" he ordered into his comm, even though he knew it was pointless. The SneeBa had to be moving at more than sixty kilometers an hour; it was already no bigger than a marble as it ran west through the pock-marked valley.
Toma tried several shots in desperation, but they missed wildly. The SneeBa seemed to only increase its speed.
Ken might still get a shot off, if he were at the top of the pile. "Ken! Can you draw a bead?" He waited, but no reply came. "Ken? Ken! Satori Ken! Answer me!"
Fear stabbed into Jun's heart, and he abandoned the chase after the two Fuyushima members to run back to the camp. His Meteor in position, he circled the entire rock pile. His eyes scanned every bump of rock, searching for another SneeBa, lying in wait. He couldn't see any, but that was proving to be false comfort.
"Ken! Agent Satori Ken! Report!" he snapped out.
Only silence answered him. He eased inside the camp, ears and eyes straining. He could see the place on the ground where the SneeBa had landed after capturing Fuyushima. Its footprints were stamped into the moist earth, and they left a clear trail in a straight line out of camp.
"Damn it, no!" Jun teleported to the top of the rock pile. He searched the area again, and spotted Ken's Egret sniper rifle trigger glinting in the sunlight where it had fallen between two large rocks. He jumped down to it and found Ken's second trigger, the plain multi-purpose one meant for his left hand, underneath the rifle. The trigger had bounced against the rocks on the way down and its handle-shaped case had cracked open to expose the circuitry inside.
He found a second set of SneeBa footprints next to the triggers. The prints were faint on the harder rocky ground on the far side of the rock pile. They, too, headed in a straight line away from the camp, west towards the mountains.
"Jun?" he heard Mitsuru's voice through the comm.
"Is he there?" Kitora asked.
The worry that marred his teammates voices cut into him. He clutched Ken's broken trigger in his hand, squeezing tightly, before he spoke.
"No, guys. Ken's not here. The SneeBas got him, too."
Jun sat silently in the firelight of their new headquarters camp, with Kitora on one side and Mitsuru on the other. The three of them were silent. Kitora reviewed the manual that had been included with the trigger repair kit, her lips pressed together in a pale, bloodless line. Mitsuru cleaned his Asteroid, fastidiously taking care of each piece, and ran his fingers along the trigger circuits inside it to feel for irregularities, before carefully wiping the circuits clean again. Jun held Ken's broken trigger in his hands, turning in an endless loop as he listened to Tachikawa Kei.
"Dissection of the Neighbor Jun brought down confirms what we suspected: they are capture specialists. No weapons aside from their feet. Their forelegs are adapted into forming the trap door, and can grab their target and shove it inside. We counted fifteen of the small non-explosive impact craters near Jun's final position in the valley. Given how Soya and his other two members vanished before those were dropped, and before his squad could take out the Ilgar, we probably have at least that many more of the new Neighbors." He paused. "What was that name you came up with?"
"Sneaky Bastards," Toma said darkly. He twisted the empty water bottle in his hands, crushing it into a useless lump of plastic.
"SneeBa for short," Jun added in a quiet voice.
"SneeBa it is, then." Tachikawa sighed. "Kouhei and I tracked the SneeBas as well as we could, for about three and a half kilometers. We were guessing towards the end, once the tracks left the soft soil and starting hitting rock and gravel. We lost the trail completely when we reached a cobblestone road."
Jun looked up at that. "A road, that close. So we aren't as far into the wilderness as we thought."
"No, we aren't," Tachikawa agreed. "We watched it for an hour, and it did have traffic. Light, but regular. Looks to be mostly farms out here."
"Without a nearby military base or city, we have very little chance of finding new triggers, then," Jin Yuichi added. He was silent for a moment, then asked the important question. "Kei, what's our priority now? Retrieving our missing agents, or scouting this part of the Neighborhood and collecting triggers to take back home to Border?"
Everyone stopped what they were doing to look up at Tachikawa. Jin, the only member left among them with the same skill level and seniority as Tachikawa, was also the only one who could dare ask that all-important question.
Tachikawa's second sigh was much deeper than the first. "Every squad here has lost at least one member. I want Midori and Ichinose back just as badly as the rest of you. But..."
"But what?" Jun asked in a hard voice. He gripped Ken's trigger tightly, making the casing creak, until Kitora's cool hand touched his. He looked over at her, and she shook her head. He relaxed his grip. She took the trigger from him.
"But we have our orders, Jun," Tachikawa replied. "I say we do both. We gather intel on this area, look for triggers to take, and try to find our captured agents at the same time. We're down to nine agents, and Kitora needs to spend her time fixing the communication device so we can talk to Border. No one goes anywhere alone anymore; one person says behind with her. That leaves seven agents to go out and get busy. And from now on, we have automatic check-ins by comm every half-hour."
The meeting continued, with Tachikawa discussing various things with the other agents, eventually powering on his tablet and adding the first details to the map they were expected to make. He divided the area into a search grid. Jun only half-listened, replaying in his mind every encounter he'd had or observed with the SneeBas. He made a thoughtful noise, and his hand fell on Ken's Egret trigger, which he had laid on the ground between himself and Mitsuru.
Tachikawa stopped a low conversation with Jin and looked at him. "What is it, Jun?"
"About the SneeBas. When I first met them, I knew they—or something—was there. I was ready, and I shot at them. They scattered after I killed one. When we were at the ship, they crept up on Yamada and got him, but Ken had time to dodge and shoot, and then they ran and he escaped. When the two SneeBas followed us out of the ship, they stopped when they saw us waiting for them, then ran. The ones that followed us through the woods never approached, and we were ready for them to try. Then the two at the rock pile surprised Ken and Fuyushima, and got them." He patted Ken's rifle. "I bet if either Ken or Fuyushima had time to take a shot, the SneeBas would have run."
"You think a bunch of cowards captured Captain Hitomi?!" Takemoto demanded bitterly. He and Toma had followed their captain's SneeBa as fast as they could until they had met Tachikawa and Izumi, who had been returning to the camp by retracing their steps. Tachikawa had ordered them to give up, and it seemed Takemoto was still furious.
Jun shook his head. "No, not cowards. Neighbors are programmed, living machines. They don't have emotions that we know of. They aren't cowards, but they are cautious and capable of learning. Don't you see what I'm saying? If we resist, they back off."
The camp was silent for a long moment.
Tachikawa scratched at his goatee. "I think you have something there, Jun," he said.
"Great," Takemoto muttered. "So let's just fire into the bushes every ten seconds, and we'll be perfectly safe."
"Goro," Toma rebuked his teammate, "stop being a dick and help us figure out how to deal with this."
"Fuck off!" Takemoto stomped away.
Tachikawa called after him, "Don't leave the vicinity, Agent. And invoke your trigger."
Jun heard Takemoto curse again, followed by a very vehement, "Trigger, On!" He stopped with his back to them, at the edge of the circle lit by the orange firelight.
"Best to let him stew," Toma advised.
The meeting concluded quickly after that, with Tachikawa assigning searches the next day, Kikuchihara volunteering to guard Kitora, and the Fuyushima Squad agents on first watch, since Takemoto was already at it. Jun assembled his pallet of blankets between his two friends, very grateful Kitora and Mitsuru had not been taken along with Ken. He was tugging at a boot when Tachikawa appeared next to him.
"Jun, let's talk for a minute. Over here." He jerked his head to indicate his side of the camp, where Izumi was already passed out in a tangle of blankets and bare feet.
"What is it, Tachikawa?" Jun asked in a quiet voice.
The Away Team's leader studied him for a moment, and then spoke in a resolute, if soft, voice. "I know you're upset that I chose not to devote all our resources to finding our taken friends. But we are Border agents, and we were sent here with a specific mission. As Border agents, you know there is always an element of risk when we face the Neighbors. Over here in the Neighborhood, their home field as it were, we are the invaders, and that makes the danger more extreme. And expensive. If we don't succeed in our mission at least partially, heads are going to roll. We're already in a bad position with the loss of our ship, and have to wait for Kitora to fix the portable comm unit before we can request a second one be sent. And that will make this mission even more expensive in trion, tech, and agents."
Jun clenched his jaw shut and simply nodded.
Tachikawa continued, "This is your team's first away mission here, and you're only the fifth A-ranked squad. You're a good year away from having enough experience to qualify by merit. And that means you were sent here in repercussion for your team siding with Yuichi and the rest of his Tamakoma branch in that scuffle last month. Someone on the Board of Directors wants to make a point to your boss, and it looks like they've succeeded."
Jun's boss, Shinoda Masafumi, was the Border HQ Defense Corps Commander. He was personable and fair, and had a strong sense of honor and loyalty, particularly to those under his care. Sending his starlit squad away to the extreme danger of the Neighborhood was the perfect way to slap him.
With a muffled curse, Jun looked away from Tachikawa's steady, serious gaze and took a deep breath. He held it for a moment before sighing it out and forcing his body to relax. "I knew something was off when we were assigned to this mission. I never thought it could be fallout from our little squabble." He wrinkled his nose. "Politics, complicating things since the dawn of human civilization."
"Pretty much, yeah," Tachikawa agreed.
Jun chuckled. "You should have seen Midorikawa Shun's face, when he found out we were assigned to this mission over his fourth-ranked Kusakabe Squad. I think he busted a vein."
Tachikawa chuckled with him. "I heard his bellows all the way out in the Border parking lot."
Their laughter dwindled, and Tachikawa reached out with one hand to squeeze Jun's shoulder. Jun met his odd, arresting gridded eyes, and wondered anew what the trigger inside them did.
"Jun, we'll find our captured agents. Our friends. Ken, Ichinose, Hitomi, Soya...all of them. And we'll also do enough scouting and trigger-scrounging to keep the Border bigwigs happy. All right?"
Jun considered his words for a moment, then nodded in a much less angry gesture than before. "All right."
Tachikawa gave him an easy smile. "We'll get started tomorrow. Try to get some sleep before your watch." He motioned towards Jun's sleeping friends.
Jun had just stepped away when he felt Tachikawa's hand on his arm. He looked back over his shoulder, eyebrows raised.
"I still want you to wake me in the morning. I don't trust Kitora and Mitsuru. They seem kinda shifty."
That made Jun grin. "Sure." Tachikawa released him with a wave, and Jun rounded the fire, his steps a little lighter. He reclaimed his place between his two friends. In a few minutes, he was asleep.
All three members of Arashiyama Squad shared the same watch. Mitsuru smiled back at Jun and accepted the hand Jun offered to help him up. Pleased to see his captain's usual cheerful nature returned, Mitsuru activated his Asteroid assault rifle trigger and headed to his side of the camp. Kitora, however, was a great deal more suspicious. She did accept his hand up as well, but she studied him for a moment before she spoke in a soft voice.
"You've bounced back, Jun."
Jun shouldered his Meteor and smiled at her again. "I know we'll rescue Ken and everyone else. We'll draw some maps and steal some triggers, you'll fix the comm unit, and then we'll go home and play it up to the public. PR will love that. We'll deserve raises, even above our hazard pay for this mission." He plucked her Asteroid handgun and plain secondary triggers off the ground for her, and held them out with a playful bow. "Yours, madame."
After a moment, she took the triggers. "Thanks. So...what did you drink last night to restore you? I might need a dose of whatever it was."
Jun slung his Meteor into position and gave her a wink. "I just had a chat with Tachikawa. It was informative. I doubt he'd mind having a similar conversation with you; you're the cutest person out here."
She scoffed at that, but still struck a chic pose before she headed to her third of the camp's circumference. Kitora was cute, but in an elegant rather than adorable manner. Her shoulder-length hair was shiny black, and she kept it twisted up and out of the way. She was small and athletic, and Jun knew from sparring practice that her kicks had real power. Her looks, confidence, and proficiency with academics and battles intimidated plenty of other agents. As for Jun, he was glad to have her in his squad.
Jun walked to his own guard position on the remaining third of the large circle around the camp. He faced outward, watching the leaves and grass flutter in a gentle night breeze, and listened to the peculiar sound of nocturnal alien life. Neighbors, all of them, he reminded hismelf. He could hear some sort of bird, and plenty of singing that he suspected came from insects, and periodic soft splashes from the distant stream.
This portion of the Neighborhood was a country known as Aftokrator, the holy land. Aftokrator was the largest military nation in the entire vast Neighborhood, and Border HQ suspected them of imminent invasion of Earth. Hence the reason for this Away Team's mission: some preemptive recon.
Though someone in Border goofed, sending us this far out in the Aftokrator boonies. Nothing here but wilderness and farms for a good twenty-five kilometers. Sure, there's something to be said for the safety of us landing in an uninhabited area, but this is overdoing it.
He snorted at that, then became thoughtful. And yet...that Ilgar attacked us in less than two hours after our arrival, and it was loaded with those damn SneeBas. Very convenient for them. So...how did they know?
Jun verified his comm was switched to his squad's channel and called to his team in a low voice. "Hey, Kitora and Mitsuru."
They both acknowledged, and Jun shared his observation about the Ilgar's timely arrival and armament. "How could an Ilgar have gotten here so fast? Their closest base has to be over fifty kilometers away. An Ilgar has never been clocked at more than twenty kilometers per hour. The distance alone is too far, and that's not counting the time they'd need to prepare the thing and load it with the SneeBas, even assuming the closest base had an Ilgar and enough SneeBas to send."
After a moment, Mitsuru said his usual stolid tone, "It took us seventy-two hours to arrive here on the ship from Mikado City. Maybe they could sense we were coming. Our ships do use and emit a lot of trion."
"Maybe," Kitora chimed in. "And maybe they knew we were coming because there's a spy."
That statement rendered them all silent for several moments, until Jun concluded his thoughts with an eloquent, "Well, shit."
"Sounds like it to me," Mitsuru commented.
Kitora sounded suspiciously innocent when she said, "You should discuss it with Tachikawa after you buy him breakfast."
Jun felt his cheeks heat, which was ridiculous since his trion combat body didn't contain any blood. "Very funny. Please stick to the subject, Agent Kitora!"
"Yes, sir, Captain, sir!" she sang out sotto voice.
"Wait, what?" Mitsuru asked. "What did I miss?"
"Nothing, Mitsuru. Let's get back to listening as well as watching for SneeBas. Jun out." He tapped the comm off and really hoped a dangerous Neighbor would poke its nose out of the bushes right then, just so he could kill it with malice.
Kitora tried her best to remain coolly professional in front of others, but among her own team she did indulge in teasing from time to time. And like her kicks, she knew where to aim. Jun snorted at his embarrassment. He had nothing to be embarrassed about from his conversation with Kei—or rather, Tachikawa. Kitora was just releasing stress, and had neatly distracted all three of them from the nasty implications of a spy in Border.
Jun loved her for it.
I don't care how tricksy the SneeBas are. They won't get anyone tonight, not on my watch. His hands tightened on his Meteor's grip, and he glared daggers into the starlit brush and trees around the camp. I'm not going to lose Kitora and Mitsuru, on top of Ken. Never.
Jun woke Tachikawa in a properly professional manner. He shook his shoulder through the blanket with one hand and a minimum of fuss. A short "Tachikawa, it's morning," and their mission leader was alert.
Resuming his watch until his sentry replacement could take over, Jun listened to the buzz of the wakening camp behind him. Tachikawa's first action was to start the automatic check-in.
"I know we're all still here at camp, but we're going to start the routine now. Everyone, when the count begins, I want you to reply alphabetically by squad and agent. If a fellow agent is with you but unable to talk, answer for them. If you can't talk for some reason, use the comm tapping signal sequence to reply."
That earned some mutters. The tapping code was required for every Border agent trainee to learn, but few remembered it beyond passing the related tests, simply because it was used so rarely once in the field. Jun heard someone digging around in the retrieved supplies until Kitora announced she had the code memorized and could hold an impromptu class. The lack of sarcastic remarks following that announcement surprised Jun, and he had to smile as Tachikawa told her to end her sentry duty, eat breakfast, and remind everyone of what they should already remember.
As she was settling in with her onigiri and fish jerky, Tachikawa started the roll call. "Border Agents, half hour mandatory check-in, start."
"Arashiyama Squad, Arashiyama Jun."
"Arashiyama Squad, Kitora Ai."
"Arashiyama Squad, Tokieda Mitsuru."
A pause, then, "Fuyushima Squad, Takemoto Goro."
The roll call continued through Tachikawa Kei, who was last on the alphabetical list. "Good, everyone. We do that every half-hour, on the dot. Understood?"
A chorus of acknowledgements followed.
Jun was relieved when Toma and Kikuchihara took over guard duty, and he quickly visited the latrine tree with Mitsuru after deactivating his trigger, then washed up and selected his own dry and over-preserved breakfast. Kitora's impromptu class began. Jun was pleased to learn how much of the code he could recall on his own. As Kitora was wrapping up the lesson, Jun approached Tachikawa where he sat on a convenient log, tapping away on his tablet.
Tachikawa looked up and motioned for Jun to sit next to him. "Yeah, Jun?"
Jun watched Kitora and Mitsuru—whom he noticed was taking notes—for a moment before he spoke. "Last night, my squad and I came to an interesting pair of conclusions."
"Yes." For the second time, Jun summarized his observations about the Ilgar and SneeBas, then dropped the bomb. "We came up with two explanations. Either the Neighbors can now tell when and where we're coming, or there's a spy in Border reporting it—and who knows what else—to them."
Tachikawa placed the tablet in his lap and sat back, sighing. "Well, shit."
"Yeah," Jun agreed. "There's a lot of that on this mission."
After studying the slowly brightening sky for several moments, Tachikawa said, "We have to report this to Border. We need that comm unit repaired now."
"Kitora's good with non-Border-sanctioned trigger repair. My Meteor's trion circuits ended up smashed by a fall on one Neighbor hunt back in Mikado City. She was able to jury-rig it using Mitsuru's assault rifle Asteroid and her own handgun-styled Asteroid as templates. It worked just fine until we could return to HQ and it could be officially repaired. If the comm unit can be fixed here, then she can do it."
That earned him a wry grin. "Ken's marksmanship, Mitsuru's quiet competence, Kitora's brains, and your hidden skills as a field observer. Your squad really isn't just a set of pretty faces to woo the public. What are you all doing stuck at A-rank number five?"
Jun felt himself blush for real this time. Too flustered to think up a reply, he shoved the rest of his onigiri in his mouth instead, and then pointed at it to show he couldn't speak for the moment.
Tachikawa laughed, and when his watch beeped, he touched his comm link. "Border Agents, half hour mandatory check-in—start."
Jun, chewing his huge mouthful of food as best as he could, waved at Tachikawa.
With a smirk and shake of his head, Tachikawa said, "Tachikawa Kei reporting for Arashiyama Squad, Arashiyama Jun."
Jun saw everyone staring, and he cheerfully waved at them, too. His own teammates continued the roll call.
Silence followed Mitsuru's voice. Silence that stretched out for several seconds, and tension rose in the group like a stretched bridge cable.
"Half hour mandatory check-in, Agent Takemoto! Report!" Tachikawa ordered.
More silence, then Toma spoke. "He told me he needed to take a leak, Tachikawa. About five minutes ago."
"No. I told him to just ask someone else, since I'm on sentry duty. He said he would and signed off."
Tachikawa whirled on everyone. "Did Takemoto contact any of you?!"
A mixture of spoken negatives and shaken heads were his reply.
Jun choked down the rest of his mouthful of onigiri, snatched up his Meteor, and called out, "Trigger, On!" as he joined the search team to hunt for Takemoto.
They didn't find him, but they did find his Kogetsu sword trigger where it had fallen, surrounded by SneeBa prints in the dirt and leaves.
Toma fell to his knees and carefully took up Takemoto's Kogetsu in his arms. No one thought less of him when his voice broke and he began to cry. "Stupid dickish Goro. Fucking sneaky bastards."
With Takemoto taken, Tachikawa ordered Toma to stay behind with Kitora. Jun and Mitsuru took their assigned mapping tablet, turned it on auto-plotting, and headed east. Tachikawa and Izumi took a tablet north, and Jin and Kikuchihara to the south. With only three teams available to leave the camp, and having already explored to the west while tracking the SneeBas, Tachikawa decided to let that direction wait for more exploration until the next day.
Jun and Mitsuru traveled at a good clip, aiming generally in a straight line, but meandering when they found something of interest, and stopping to rest for a few minutes at every other check-in. As reported by Tachikawa the day before, the land was all wilderness with a scattering of roads and farms, with not a single SneeBa or SneeBa print in sight. The cobblestone roads were quirky and old-fashioned, but they seemed to do the job. The two agents saw their first non-combat Neighbor in the person of a grizzled middle-aged man. He seemed a normal human, but being from Aftokrator, he was still considered a Neighbor. He was transporting a harvested crop that looked like corn. The plants were stacked in bushels, standing upright and packed tightly in what could only be described as a truck trigger. It didn't move quickly; they timed it at six kilometers an hour, barely above walking speed. Slow and steady will get the food where it needs to be. Eventually, Jun supposed.
They left the man and his trundling trigger and continued on. The homesteads gradually increased in number and shrank in individual size, until the pair found themselves skirting a small hamlet of around fifty houses. They both pulled out Chameleon triggers, and while rendered invisible they scouted a select few of the outer buildings with caution. Chameleons were great for rending the wearer invisible, but they consumed a surprisingly large amount of trion, and the wearer also could not use any other triggers simultaneously. Jun had a close moment when a group of children, running down the road and laughing, almost crashed into him. He had just enough time to jump up to the roof of a nearby cottage. Watching the kids, clearly off to have fun, reminded him of his younger brother and sister back home in Mikado City.
It's difficult to remember these people are Neighbors, and thus the enemy. Or it was difficult until another round of check-ins started, and Jun remembered the agents who could no longer answer. Like Ken.
A man not much older than the two of them suddenly shot by on a single-person vehicle trigger, very close to a motorcycle in form and function. They followed him through the streets. When he parked the machine inside a barn and entered the house, Jun watched the front door, ready to trade his Chameleon for his Meteor. Mitsuru darted inside the still-open garage. After a moment, Jun heard a muffled metallic shunk, and Mitsuru's soft, "Aha!" through their comm link.
"Got it. Let's go!" Mitsuru flashed him a grin when he darted out of the garage, right before he powered up his Chameleon trigger.
They ran directly out of the town and into the surrounding fields, deactivating the draining Chameleons as soon as possible. Jun called a halt to rest when they were three kilometers away. Jun gave the first break to Mitsuru, and his teammate happily turned off his triggers and relaxed back in his flesh-and-blood body. He ate a quick meal while Jun examined the trigger they had stolen.
It seemed like a regular trigger circuit, consisting of a microchip and reflective metal trails laid into a dark plastic plate half the size of a playing card, but then all triggers were not created equal. Unlike the slow-moving truck, this trigger was fast. Jun didn't know if Border already had this particular one in its Research and Development files, but at least now they would.
It was Jun's turn to relax and eat. Then it was time for another round of check-ins, with everyone replying again. Jun and Mitsuru traded grateful looks as Kitora answered after a suspenseful pause. When the roll call was finished, Jun spoke into his comm again.
"Agent Tachikawa, Agent Arashiyama Jun would like to report we have absconded with one Neighbor trigger."
"Good. We have one, too. What's yours from?"
"A motorcycle, believe it or not."
"Nice! Ours is some powerful earth-mover. Imagine a big Komatsu backhoe."
Jun smiled at the satisfaction in Tachikawa's voice. "Will the Border Board of Bigwigs be happy with us, now?"
He heard Tachikawa chuckle. "They can't be officially mad at us now, at least. Two new vehicle triggers are nothing to dismiss. And the good news continues: Kitora reports she has fixed the comm unit!"
Jun shared a triumphant smile with Mitsuru, whose own grin was just as big as his. "I knew she could do it!"
"How far out are you two?"
Jun looked over at Mitsuru, who had already pulled the mapping tablet out of his bag to hand it to Jun. "Our tablet shows us twenty-five point three kilometers total, fifteen point two as the crow flies."
"You made good time. Start your return. Come straight back, but if you see something of interest, you're approved to investigate."
"Will do, Tachikawa," Jun answered and signed off. A few minutes later, they were moving west.
They could feel the drain in their trion levels, but with the ship and friends only a little more than eight minutes away at a good clip, the return trip was heartening for both Jun and Mitsuru. The kilometers seemed to fly beneath their feet. They were about four minutes out when their comm links exploded with noise.
"SneeBa attack! SneeBa attack!" Toma's Egret blasts followed, the shots sounded almost as desperate as his voice.
Kitora's smaller Asteroid gunfire joined the loud sniper booms. "They're rushing us in the open, en masse! Not an ambush—they're attacking!"
Jun and Mitsuru simultaneously poured on the speed, until they streaked through the forest as ghostly blurs. Jun emphatically wished his teleporter could take more than one person at a time, but Border R&D had yet to make it work. As it was, Jun refused to leave Mitsuru alone by jumping ahead. They ran on together, fear and anger for their friend pushing them as fast as they could.
We have to help Kitora!
They found her in a field near the campsite, kneeling alone in the center of a large circle of earth scarred by trion gun blasts and SneeBa corpses.
Jun and Mitsuru carefully picked their way toward her through the morass, nerves on edge and both assault rifles ready to fire at the slightest sign of another attack. Jun signaled for Mitsuru to stand guard, and he slowly knelt in the trampled grass next to Kitora.
"Hey, Kitora Ai," he said in a soft voice. She was trembling with trion exhaustion, and Jun knew she was barely managing to keep her trigger and combat body activated.
She met his eyes, and Jun saw her swallow twice before she could speak. "Hey, Jun," she managed to say in a shaky tone. "They didn't get me. They got Toma, and they tried to get me, but they didn't." She pointed at the closest SneeBa. "That one. I chopped its head off with my Scorpion."
Jun looked over at the dead SneeBa and saw its head lying a meter from the end of its neck. She'd chopped the head in half, in addition to severing it. He glanced at the SneeBa's body again and realized the large opening in its chest, the entrance to the containment chamber that would hold a captured agent, was gaping open.
That was very, very close.
Jun placed a hand on her shoulder and looked up at Mitsuru, who was steadfastly scanning the area.
"Tachikawa and Izumi are almost here. Jin and Kikuchihara about three minutes away," Mitsuru reported.
"Thanks," Jun acknowledged. He turned back to Kitora. "You can deactivate your trigger, Kitora. Mitsuru and I are here, and the others soon will be. Rest."
She met his eyes and took a deep breath, then nodded. She let her trigger flicker off, and Jun caught her as the trion combat body faded out and was replaced by her living one. Her breathing became quick and shallow as physical shock could now follow mental shock. Jun stroked her back and did his best to calm her.
He heard someone approaching in the distance as Tachikawa and Izumi announced their arrival over the comm link channel. He looked up to see them both pause at the edge of the field, taking in the carnage. Izumi materialized his Viper trigger and held it hovering over the palm of one hand. The Viper was a ballistics weapon, with individual cubes that an agent could vary in size and shoot in a specific direction without need of an actual gun. Izumi also possessed a Hound trigger, which like the Viper materialized in separate cubes, with the addition of a homing function. A Hound would chase its designated target until it either successfully impacted or ran out of trion to power it.
Armed, Izumi began to prowl around the outer circumference. Tachikawa headed straight for Arashiyama Squad in the center.
In once glance, Tachikawa realized Kitora's condition, and he looked at Jun for guidance. Jun mouthed act normal, and Tachikawa nodded.
"Agent Kitora, report."
She pulled a crisp white handkerchief out of an inner jacket pocket and wiped her eyes and nose, then stood upright, wobbling only a little. "Captain Tachikawa, I didn't like being in the middle of the trees around our camp, even with the scant underbrush, so Toma and I moved out here to the field, where we would have a clear line of sight. By noon, I'd been able to fix the comm unit and achieved intermittent contact. Toma and I saw the first SneeBa in the edge of the trees shortly after that. Toma killed that one. Then they became more careful. Every time I convinced the comm unit to work again, they'd make an appearance, then vanish when Toma would take aim. It became clear they were extremely attracted to the unit when it was transmitting. It must be the amount of trion it uses. I knew it was a large amount, but..." She trailed off, carefully refolded the handkerchief, and tucked it back into a pocket before she continued.
"At about thirteen thirty hours, I was able to keep the unit working long enough to fully contact Border. I relayed the message we prepared this morning. Most important to us: a rescue ship is being sent immediately. HQ estimates its arrival in no less than eighty hours." She paused again and gave them a resigned smile. "Border emphasized that we must remember the original mission."
Tachikawa returned her smile with a sardonic lilt. "Of course they did."
Kitora took another deep breath. "Border ordered us to contact them again when you returned to the camp. I signed off, and that's when Toma told me he thought the SneeBas were very...agitated." She broke off and visibly steeled herself.
"We thought they would calm down with the comm unit deactivated, and it did help, but they were still behaving oddly. Not really trying to hide, and snapping at each other. I think the unit really disturbed them. Toma was able to pick off two in the tree line."
"How was Toma taken?" Jin asked. He and Kikuchihara had arrived and joined the group in the center, along with Izumi.
Kitora's face flushed. "With the comm unit fixed, I started working on my side project." She reached down inside a roll of tools spread out on the ground and pulled something out of a large pocket. She held it up for them to see.
"Ken's second trigger," Jun breathed. He had forgotten she'd taken it from his hands the night before, when he'd been clutching it so desperately, it had almost cracked. "That contains his Chameleon, Bagworm, and his—" Jun broke off and sat back, staring wide-eyed at Kitora, then at Tachikawa. "His Hudson. The radar trigger."
Izumi gaped. "You have Ken's Hudson? It might—"
Tachikawa cut him off with a raised hand. "Later, Kouhei. Let Kitora finish."
"The trigger is an easy fix, just some connecting circuitry damage. But...t-the trion...sparked," Kitora said. "I was soldering in a new connection, and suddenly trion just erupted in a bright flash. The next moment, the SneeBas were charging." She sniffled, but soldiered on, her words coming faster as she tried to finish and be done with it. "Toma was able to pick off three before they were on us. They're so fast. They used numbers to overwhelm us. Toma was scooped up right in front of me. I hit two and dodged the one aiming to scoop up me, but I wasn't fast enough. It clipped me, and I dropped my Asteroid, but I was still able to chop off its head with my Scorpion in my other hand. The remaining two SneeBas wouldn't approach me. Their programming had reasserted itself by then, I guess. I picked up my Asteroid and fired at them. That's when they turned and ran back into the trees. I think there were more SneeBas I couldn't see, judging by all the noise I heard when they vanished. After that...I waited in the middle of the field until Arashiyama and Tokieda reached me."
Silence filled the air around them for several long moments. It was broken when Tachikawa gave her a bow and said, "Thank you, Agent Kitora Ai, for your hard work and success. You repaired the portable comm unit, and our ride home is on its way. You have saved us all."
Everyone else in the group matched his bow, and Kitora returned it, her face flaming. "Not at all, I was just doing my job."
Jun gave her a huge grin and tugged her in for a one-armed hug, complete with a hearty pat on the back. "You saved our asses today, Kitora." She managed to give him a disapproving look for his language, and his expression turned cheeky.
"Speaking of jobs," Tachikawa said determinedly, "we've done enough to appease our mission. Scouting, mapping, two new triggers, and a whole lot of intel on a new, nasty Neighbor."
Jin asked with a certain glint in his eye, "Does that mean what I think it means?"
"Yes," Tachikawa replied. "It's time for us to find our friends."
Everyone broke out into cheers.
They began to pack up Kitora's repair equipment and the water and food she'd brought for herself and Toma, and Jun insisted that Kitora rest and let the others take care of it. As they did, Kitora explained her rationale on fixing Ken's second trigger.
"Ken tried to use his Hudson to find Midori and Ichinose, after the Ilgar crashed, but they weren't visible. They were already out of range."
"What is the Hudson's range?" Jin asked, as they began the walk back to the campsite.
Jun knew that answer. "Normal is one hundred meters. Extended varies, depending on how much trion the user can feed into it. Ken's maximum range was three hundred meters. A more reasonable estimation is two hundred to two-hundred-fifty."
Tachikawa, who was walking at the head of their little line of seven as they wended through a patch of four dead SneeBas, asked, "The Hudson only detects Border agents, right?"
"Yes," Kitora answered. "Border agents, or more specifically, Border trion. If we knew the SneeBa's trion frequency, and if we had the right tools, we could tune the Hudson—"
She vanished inside the maw of a SneeBa as the supposedly dead group around them came alive. Mitsuru was taken just as quickly.
Jun froze as his two remaining teammates were captured right in front of him, within touching distance. Everything after that seemed to happen in slow motion. Mitsuru's SneeBa kicked him as it leaped past, and Jun felt himself stagger backwards, his Meteor slipping from his hands. A third SneeBa appeared right where he had been, its trap door open, and it seemed to pirouette neatly in place and carefully aim at his new position for a second try. As it turned, its head opened, and that horrible eye looked at him.
That gaze held Jun in place as neatly as a pinned insect. Jun could faintly hear Tachikawa yelling, and the sounds of fighting and shots around him, but all he could do was stare back at the SneeBa and wait.
They got Ken, Kitora, and Mitsuru. They should get me, too.
A powerful hit to Jun's side sent him flying, and he watched in dazed upset as the SneeBa missed him again, and it met Jin's two Scorpion blades instead. Jun saw the earth rising towards him and had the presence of mind to twist and land on his back, rather than his face. He skidded to a stop in the grass.
This can't be happening. We found a new trigger for Border. Kitora fixed the comm unit. A ship is coming to get us. We're going to rescue everyone and go home. This can't be happening.
Jun stared up into the blue sky and saw nothing but the loss of his three squad members on infinite loop. Ken's dropped Egret and secondary trigger. Kitora snapped up, Mitsuru right after. Ken, Kitora, Mitsuru, over and over again.
Someone shouted in his ear, and he felt hands grip his jacket and shirt and shake him.
Ken, Kitora, Mitsuru.
He registered pain then, and the sharp crack of an open palm impacting his cheek. He blinked and slowly turned his head to look at the person hovering over him.
Tachikawa's grid-patterned, pupil-less eyes were so strange. He refused to talk about them, but everyone knew they had to be some sort of trigger. Jun remembered he had done a classic double-take when he'd first met Tachikawa. He'd immediately asked about them, but Tachikawa had deflected the question with grace, no doubt earned from a great deal of practice at that very thing. Jun had done his charming, enthusiastic best ever since to win the information out of the guy, but he was defeated every time.
Jun reached up with one hand to try to touch them. Ken said they were probably X-ray vision, and he didn't want to talk about it because it would freak out the girls— His hand froze, and everything came rushing back.
"Oh, no you don't!" Tachikawa grabbed Jun's hand and yanked him into a sitting position. "Wake up, Agent Arashiyama! We are still in deep shit, and you have to fight!" Tachikawa shoved Jun's Meteor into his hands. "Stand up! Defend your Away Team! Help us reach the trees! Move!"
Jun did what he was told. It was easier that way. He focused on standing, and carefully turning off his rifle's safety, and then he aimed. Bam! One SneeBa down. Bam! One hit in the leg. Bam! The wounded one was down. He continued until a large duffel bag was thrown at his feet. Jun picked it up automatically, slung it to hang opposite his Meteor, and followed Tachikawa off the battlefield and into the trees.
Jun stood there in the camp, waiting while the other three talked. When Jin told him to jump into one of the enormous nearby trees and climb, he did. He straddled the branch Jin pointed at, leaned back against the trunk, turned off his trigger, and ate and drank what was given to him. When the shivers started, he stared in wonderment down at his hands.
He registered a sudden silence in his companions, who had been talking several meters away, and he looked up from his shaking fingers to find them watching him. Tachikawa, Izumi, and Jin. Three friends. They were the only ones left from their entire Away Team contingent of seventeen. That was really something.
Jun wished his squad were here, so he could share his wonderment at that.
He reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out his most prized possession. Two photographs, glued together. One side was him and his two siblings, Fuku and Saho. Jun, in the middle, had an arm around both of their shoulders, and he had pulled them in for a group hug that neither younger teenager wanted. Fuku's face was screwed up with embarrassment, and Saho just looked resigned. But Jun knew they loved him, and he loved this photo for showing the three of them as they really were together. Open, sharing, willing to not be perfect. Carefully, with infinite tenderness, Jun turned the photo over and looked at the other side.
His team. A selfie taken with his phone during a break from one of their Border PR shoots. They were all professionally made up, right down to mascara on the guys and Kitora's hair styled into a ridiculous getup that wouldn't last five seconds in a battle. Ken had his face twisted into an amusing grimace, Mitsuru's eyes were crossed, and Kitora had dared to stick her tongue out at the camera. Jun was grinning hugely in the photo. He'd been so relieved to escape the hustle of a professional photo shoot by goofing around with his three friends.
Jun turned the pic over again to see his siblings, then back to his team.
When he heard footsteps approaching, he looked up and saw Tachikawa, who gestured at the branch where Jun was sitting in an unspoken question. Jun nodded once and lifted one leg over to sit sideways. Tachikawa settled down next to him.
They sat together without speaking for several minutes. Jun listened to the evening breeze, moving the leaves and sending them softly brushing against each other, making the light that shone in around them flicker in beams. He looked at his two photos.
"May I see them, Jun?" Tachikawa asked.
Jun slowly handed it to him, and he took the photos just as carefully. Tachikawa studied both sides. Jun watched his eyes move from face to face, pausing for several seconds on each one before moving on. When he finished, he held the photo back out to Jun.
"You have photos of both your families. That's nice."
Jun took the photos and returned them to the safety of his jacket's inside pocket, a little surprised at Tachikawa. No one ever realizes that both sides are my family.
Tachikawa sighed and picked a leaf dangling from a twig overhead. "I'm not that close to my family. Not since I joined Border. They didn't want me to join. Said it was too dangerous, particularly since I was blind."
Jun's surprise made him look sharply at Tachikawa, in the fastest and most decisive movement he'd made in the past several hours.
Tachikawa said, "Yeah, I was born blind. Only a few people at Border know about that. Chief Executive Kida, Director Kinuta of R&D, and Yuichi. And now you, I suppose." He held his leaf up to the closest beam of light. "Border gave me sight. It is a trigger, that much I can admit." He turned to Jun. "You've been wondering about that for some time, I know."
One side of Jun's mouth lifted in a tiny smile.
Tachikawa smiled back. "I'm not really close to my own squad. Sure, we're friends, and we go out for drinks, but it's just coworkers blowing off steam. We have too much rivalry to be really close. To be honest, I'm kind of envious of you and your squad."
Jun stared down at his hands where they rested on his thighs.
"I know you feel alone right now, Jun. And you feel like you failed your squad—your family. But to give up now, to not try to recover them, to not last until the ship arrives...that would be failure.
"Jun, our friends are alive because of their trion. You know that. They must be stored somewhere for retrieval, because no way would fourteen individual SneeBas be expected to travel sixty-two kilometers to the closest base we could locate today. SneeBas are short-range hunter/seekers."
Jun looked up at Tachikawa again, and his question must have been evident in his face, because Tachikawa turned a little smug.
"You aren't the only one skilled at field observation. Speaking of which, Kouhei, Yuichi, and I have been talking." He broke off to scoot around to face Jun as best as he could on their branch.
"We know we can rescue everyone. But it has to be as soon as possible, before the SneeBas can be retrieved. But you're they key, Jun. You, and this." He held up Ken's trigger.
Jun blinked at the trigger, then met Tachikawa's odd eyes again. "But it's still broken," he whispered.
"Kitora implied it was an easy fix, and you're our best chance."
"You watched Kitora fix your Meteor. That's more experience than any of the rest of us have in trigger repair."
Jun stared at Tachikawa in disbelief.
"Come on, Jun." Tachikawa took Jun's right hand and closed it around the trigger. "You're the eternal optimist. Your squad is the official face of Border, but...you're the heart of it, too." Tachikawa held Jun's astonished stare for a few seconds before he turned away with a curse and scrubbed at his hair.
Jun noticed Tachikawa's ears, darkened with what must be a blush, and heard the low cursing. He looked down at the trigger now in his right hand. "Tachikawa...did you really just call me the heart of Border?" he asked hesitantly.
Tachikawa actually flinched, then took a deep breath and forced himself to face Jun again. His face was indeed covered in a fierce blush, visible even in the faint starlight. "Yes, I did."
Jun stared at Tachikawa again, this time in wonderment. "Damn. I think you really mean it, too."
Tachikawa clenched his jaw. "Jun, I meant everything I just said. You didn't fail your squad, not yet. You're not alone here; you have the three of us. And we have a plan to rescue our friends. It depends on two things: the Hudson inside that trigger," he pointed at it, "and you." He tapped Jun on the sternum. "Help us rescue everyone. Your squad needs you, and so do we."
A spark lit inside Jun, and its warmth and light expanded. Slowly at first, then fast and faster, until it burst forth from him in a huge grin.
"Dude. You think I'm the heart of Border." He snickered. "I can't believe you actually said that. Tell me," he leaned forward, his eyes brightening. "Is it a candy heart, or a sparkly red sticker heart—with lace around the edge?" His snickers grew into laughter, "Or maybe a plushie heart, to snuggle with at night! I like that one!"
Tachikawa's face managed to turn even redder, and he lurched upright and actually stomped away along the branch, plopping back down with Izumi and Jin, who were also laughing. He glared at them, and that just set them off again.
Jun stood, a little shaky, and wobbled over to join them, too. "It could be a homemade Valentines chocolate heart, with a soft fudgy center and white chocolate decorations." He sat between Tachikawa and Jin. "I just love those. Yum."
Tachikawa tried to hold the glare, but it quickly morphed into laughter, too.
Jun traded grins with him, and gripped the trigger in his hand. I can do this. I know it.
For the third time, Jun tightened the small screws that closed the two halves of Ken's trigger and made it an easy-to-grip handle. He returned the drill to the equipment roll, stood up on the branch, feet braced, and all four of them watched with apprehension.
With the trigger held in his left hand, Jun said, "Trigger, On."
The trigger's automated voice spoke once again to begin the routine that aligned a trigger to a new user. "Commence trigger activation, scan activator's body," ripples of trion energy flowed from the trigger down Jun's arm and along his body. "Generate combat form..." the tension in Jun and his audience increased. This had been where it had failed the first two times Jun had tried to activate it that night.
"Exchange physical body with combat form." The scanning ripples increased in size and power to thick bright rings, and when Jun's flesh-and-blood body switched places with the trion from the trigger, the four men took a collective deep breath and held it.
"Deploy main armor," and Ken's Raygust appeared in shield mode on Jun's arm. "Trigger activation complete," the voice said, and fell quiet.
Jun held up the Raygust. It seemed to be normal, which was encouraging. He glanced at the other three. "Moment of truth, guys," he murmured, and then spoke clearly, "Activate Hudson."
The Raygust shield vanished, and Jun turned his left arm palm-up to reveal a small glowing framework of lines, with three dots close around the center dot that marked its user.
Jun grinned in triumph, and Izumi's impromptu happy dance almost kicked the equipment roll off the tree branch. Jin shot out a hand to save it, his own laughter more muted. Tachikawa clapped Jun on the back.
"Good job, Jun."
"Thanks, Kei," he replied, deliberately using Tachikawa's given name for the first time. Kei just grinned at him again, and gave Jun's shoulder a squeeze.
Hissing came up from below, followed by the sound of restless feet in the fallen leaves and brush. Their joyous noise had lured two SneeBas out from hiding.
Jun crouched on his branch so he could lean out and catch sight of the SneeBas. One registered his movement, and it opened the two halves of its head to stare at him with that disturbing, lidless single eye. The other SneeBa followed suit.
Arashiyama Jun looked down into the eager alien eyes that watched him with such relentless hunger, and this time, he smiled back with a predatory tinge of his own. "That's right, you nasty little machines," he whispered. "Now, we're gonna be the sneaky bastards."
The following morning, twenty meters up in the trees, his Meteor ready, Jun watched as Izumi sent out another volley of shots from his Viper. Izumi was also twenty meters up in a different tree, and he continued shooting at intervals in an unspoken tribute to Takemoto's sarcastic remark from their second night on the trip.
On the ground, protected from SneeBa attacks by the Viper and Jun's ready Meteor, Kei and Jin worked quickly. They secured the final bungee cord that would hold the comm unit's microphone against its speaker. Jin half-way wrapped the unit within a tarp they'd cut down to size, and Kei placed his fingers on the tarp, over both the power switch and the transmit button. After a nod from him, Jin finished gift-wrapping the unit and pulled tight the cable that would keep it closed. Both men crouched, Kei hit the switch and button, and they leaped into the trees in one trion-powered jump as feedback noise exploded around them.
Jun felt very grateful for his combat body's ability to block out loud sounds, because ouch. He reengaged the Meteor's safety, held Ken's trigger in his hand, and reminded himself to let Kei, Jin, and Izumi deal with any extra SneeBas. Jun only had to worry about one.
Within twenty seconds of the feedback's first shriek, a SneeBa burst out of the underbrush and ran towards the comm unit. Two followed, and Jun could hear still more approaching.
Come on, you bastard. Eat it!
As if answering his command, the first SneeBa's front trap door popped open, and it tried to scoop up the unit, but anther SneeBa smashed into the first. They both went sprawling, and a third SneeBa staggered in. Its head open and eye rolling, it almost fell on top of the unit. More SneeBas burst into the clearing, all of them in stages of mania or distress, and all aimed at the unit.
"Damn!" Jin shouted. "I count five already!"
"Take out any more that approach!" Kei ordered.
Jun blocked out the sounds of battle, his eyes focused on the unit. The SneeBa that had fallen kicked itself upright, only to be bowled over by new arrivals, who then tangled up in each other and rolled away. The same fallen SneeBa clambered to its feet, opened its trap door, and slid through a gap in the melee. It snatched the unit inside its body, scrambled about, lurched upright, and began to run.
"Activate Hudson!" The glowing framework appeared in his hands. Jun's attention latched on to his dot in the center, the three close ones of his friends fighting SneeBas below, and a fifth dot, headed west at a steadily increasing pace.
With a wild grin, Jun fixed his gaze through the trees at a spot parallel to the fleeing SneeBa's path, out in the clearing of their former camp. "Teleport!"
The race was on.
Pacing the SneeBa was easy at first. In distances of twenty or thirty meters a time, Jun kept pace with it, and even had to wait four or five seconds between teleports. But as the effects of the now mostly-muted comm faded, the SneeBa's programming reasserted itself. Its run straightened, strides lengthening, and it settled into a fast, ground-eating pace. Jun had to extended the lengths and pace of his teleports, only having time to find a new location to materialize in before blinking himself way. He allowed himself to drop back, out of the SneeBa's sight and sound. He followed the dot's progress on the faithful Hudson, remaining within the hundred-meter guaranteed range and saving all his trion for his teleports.
"Jun!" his comm link crackled Kei's voice in his ear, between jumps. "Report!"
"Headed west—past road—not slowing," Jun replied in snatches. He gripped the duffel hanging at his side opposite the Meteor, thinking of its precious contents. "Mapping tablet—auto relay—working?"
"Yes—Yuichi and Kouhei—and I following—tablet trail—full speed—"
Jun cursed. He'd been chasing the SneeBa for three minutes, and the trion drain was building. He estimated they were already four kilometers out. A Border Agent's top sustainable foot speed was around thirty kilometers per hour. That was less than half as fast as Jun and the SneeBa were moving. Kei, Jin, and Izumi wouldn't have a chance of chasing a SneeBa down on their own, even if they did have a Hudson.
I have to keep up! Jun told himself determinedly.
He spoke into his com, "Understood—still in pursuit—Arashiyama out!"
He only saw flashes of the land as he skittered through it at eighty kilometers an hour. A farm, a wide-eyed child, livestock that shied away, then scrubby plains and rocks.
After five minutes of running, about six and a half kilometers, the SneeBa finally slowed down. Jun, weak from consuming so much trion, gratefully switched to jogging instead of repeatedly teleporting. He kept up his speed just enough to maintain the comm unit's dot neatly in the Hudson's range, and he reported the change in pace to Kei and Jin. "But get here fast, guys. It can't be much farther, and I'm wiped," he concluded.
"On your six," Kei's voice answered. "The mapping tablet shows your meandering line headed west. We see SneeBa prints sometimes, so it's working."
Jin spoke. "Looks like we're about ten minutes behind your current location."
"We'll catch up soon, buddy!" Izumi chimed in.
"Glad to hear it," Jun gasped, and kept jogging.
Jun felt relief when the three dots of his friends appeared behind his position on the Hudson some minutes later. Within moments, they reached him and slowed to match his pace.
"Hey, there," Jin drawled. "Long time no see, Arashiyama."
Izumi leaned forward to peek at him. "You seem a bit...ah...peaked."
Jun gave them all a wry grin. "You guys don't look much better. Running at all-out for about twenty minutes? That would take out anyone."
A large hand squeezed his shoulder, "Good thing none of us are just anyone, then," Kei said with approval in his tone. Then more seriously, "Where's the SneeBa?"
Jun pointed to the lone dot on the Hudson ahead of their clustered group, then raised his finger to point ahead at a white smudge, moving against the green and gray rocky landscape.
"No shit," Jin commented, and adjusted his sunglasses. "Time for you to rest, Arashiyama. Izumi and I will trail the SneeBa. Our tablets are up and running."
Jun slowly came to halt, Jin and Kei on either side, while Izumi picked up his speed and kept running to keep the SneeBa in sight. Jun deactivated his trigger and Ken's, and passed Ken's to Jin, who called up the Hudson and sped off in Izumi's wake. Jun felt very glad that all four of them had aligned themselves to Ken's second trigger, back in the trees before this rescue mission began.
Once again in his regular body, Jun wobbled in place, then leaned over and retched. "I feel like shit," he wheezed to Kei.
Kei steered him towards a nearby rock, and Jun collapsed onto it. He heard Kei digging in a bag, and drank when a water bottle appeared under his nose. He wrinkled his nose at the taste of added vitamin powders, but knew he needed them. He downed half the bottle before fear of retching again made him stop.
He tried to stand, but Kei pushed him back down. "Take five, Jun. Yuichi and Kouhei are on it. We'll catch up using the tablets."
Jun blearily looked up at Kei, and even managed a weak smile before he blacked out.
Jun woke up in a new camp. He was tucked into a blanket, with a bottle of blessedly plain water and two protein bars within reach. He scarfed down the first bar and chased it with greedy gulps of water.
"Welcome back, Sleeping Beauty. You've been out for five and a half hours. Kei had to carry you here in his arms. It was very sweet."
Jun, busy stuffing the second bar in his mouth, simply gave Jin the finger and waved a questioning hand around their location.
Jin explained they were camped in a hidden hollow on the side of a large plateau, whose flat top was about eight hundred meters above the surrounding rocky plain.
"The SneeBas are up there, Arashiyama," Jun continued. "Fourteen of them. Lined up in neat, perfectly straight rows, asleep. It's creepy as hell, seeing them just sitting there like that, knowing our friends are inside. There's always one SneeBa on guard. They swap out in shifts, and the rest are in some sort of hibernation mode until it's their turn. The guard walks in a large circle around the others, a dedicated sentry just as nice as you please." He cursed.
Jun glanced about with concern. "Where are Kei and Izumi?"
Jin jerked a thumb towards the top of the plateau. "Watching the SneeBas. They're due back in ten minutes. We're taking shifts while we rest up."
With care, Jun rose to his feet. His nap and the food and water had done him good. He was surprisingly steady on his feet, after a quick visit to the designated latrine, he took a long look around his surroundings.
The area was covered with thick thigh-deep grass, and a scattering of rocks that poked up from the ground. Sparse short trees were scattered about, only a fraction the size of the ones they'd been camped within earlier that day. Rather thin and gnarled, Jun imagined they were as tough as they looked. He was examining one's fern-like leaves and four-centimeter long thorns when Kei appeared next to him.
"How are you doing?"
Jun smiled at him. "Okay, I think. I definitely feel better."
"Good to hear." He nodded back to the camp. "One more hour to rest and recharge. Then we attack."
They walked the short distance together, and Jun didn't mind the least when their shoulders bumped companionably together. I'm about to reclaim my friends, and I'm not doing it alone. Both realizations filled him with a fierce joy.
Jun wanted to take out the sentry SneeBa, but his noisy Meteor combat rifle was out of the question. Jin took the honors. He hid in his regular body to avoid detection and leaped out at the SneeBa after it passed his position, his dual Scorpion blades activated mid-jump to slice off its head.
Kei, Izumi, and Jun ran to join Jin, their triggers already activated, and the four waited tensely for a reaction from the hibernating SneeBas. But none came. They left the downed SneeBa where it was, understanding that the noise of cutting free their one friend inside might cost them the chance to rescue everyone else.
The SneeBas were indeed lined up in three rows of four, and one single at the end. They were nested on the ground, very much like Jun's first impression of an ostrich. Their long necks were curled into a deep S shape, back along the body and then arching forward to let the head rest with its tip braced on the bottom curve of the neck. Every SneeBa was in the same position, aligned perfectly, just like the programmed machines they were.
Jun, Izumi, and Kei each took a row of four. As the ones with distance weapons, they could take out multiple targets at once. Jin took the singleton. They silently stood at the same end, lined up in a row just as neat as those made by the SneeBas.
Jun crouched and peered down his Meteor's sights, lining them up with the four SneeBa heads in his row. Izumi raised his right palm and called up a single small Viper cube projectile, which glowed soundlessly with muted trion in his hand. Kei drew his Kogetsu sword, and Jun swore he saw the grid pattern in Kei's eyes shift as he leveled his blade, ready to extend it instantly through four SneeBa heads. Jin raised one Scorpion blade above his SneeBa's neck like an executioner.
Kei's steady, low voice whispered into Jun's ear through the comm links. "Three..."
Jun deliberately relaxed his grip on his Meteor.
Jun breathed in and held it.
Jun squeezed the trigger, Izumi sent his bullet forward, Kei flicked his sword, and Jin struck down.
Jun's Meteor shot pierced the first two SneeBas' heads, but with its speed so greatly reduced, it merely ricocheted off the third, which leaped upright. It shrieked an alarm, and the fourth SneeBa jumped to its feet, along with Izumi's final two SneeBas, who were similarly fortunate. Kei had killed three of his, and severely injured the fourth. Under orders from Kei to finish off their own SneeBas before helping others, Jun shot the shrieking SneeBa before it could take more than three steps away, but his fourth was up and running.
Jun chased it, teleporting to the opposite side of the melee, then again to land directly in front of the fleeing Neighbor. His Meteor already in position, the SneeBa tried to charge him, hissing head gaping open and eye staring. Jun took aim at that creepy-ass eye and squeezed. The head exploded with trion. Jun leaped to the side, and the SneeBa impacted the ground and skidded, its split head steaming and crackling from the trion.
"Fucking sneaky bastards!" Jun snarled, and ran past it to check on his three companions.
Twelve SneeBa bodies littered the ground. Kei had made short work of his fourth, Izumi had bagged his third, and his fourth's head was both shot by a Hound's homing ballistic and decapitated by a helpful Jin.
It took a moment for all of them to realize it was over.
"Quick! Cut them open!" Kei ordered.
Jun darted back to his fourth SneeBa. He called up a Scorpion blade. He didn't have nearly enough practice with one to use for combat, but he could use it to cut a SneeBa open. He sliced down, cutting along the trap door's seam. He shoved the blade back in and used it as a lever the force the door away from the sides, then sliced again. Finally, it fell to the ground, and Jun reached inside the dark, moist maw of the SneeBa's body.
His hand felt someone's hair, and he dropped his sword to feel with both hands until he could get a double-grip of jacket collar. Jun sat on the ground, braced his feet on the SneeBa, and pulled with his trion body strength.
A Border agent emerged, face relax in innocent sleep.
"Ken!" Jun choked out, and shoved harder against the SneeBa. He squirmed back, holding Ken against him until his friend was completely free of the Neighbor. He patted Ken's face with one hand.
"Ken! Satori Ken! Please wake up," Jun begged.
Ken's face scrunched, and he made a disgruntled noise. Jun almost started crying when Ken opened his eyes.
"Whaz goin' on?" Ken slurred out, and weakly raised one hand to rub at his face.
Jun sobbed once and hugged Ken to his chest.
Excited shouts came from the clearing, and Jun struggled to his feet with Ken in his arms. Not caring a whit about dignity or blackmail fodder, he carried his groggy brother in trembling arms to rejoin the others. Kazama was already standing, looking dazed, and beyond him Toma, Midori, and still more were curled on their sides or pushing themselves to sit up and blink.
Jun spotted a beloved head of pale bowl-cut hair, and he staggered towards Mitsuru, almost dropping Ken in Mitsuru's lap as he fell to his knees. He slung an arm around each of their necks, and the other two guys were alert enough to clasp his hands, even as Ken asked again to know what was going on.
Jun looked up at the now-familiar deep voice and saw Kei standing over them, with Kitora Ai in his arms.
"I've got a present for you." Kei smiled and gently deposited a dazed Kitora into Jun's embrace.
Jun began crying in earnest, rocking back and forth, relief rendering him speechless. Ken patted him on the back, still uncertain about what was going on, but wanting to comfort his distraught friend. Mitsuru spoke softly to Jun, his voice still slurred but clearing. Kitora rubbed her sleep-crusted eyes and cracked them open. When she saw the faces of her team around her, she gave them all a watery smile.
Jun gathered his family close and held them as tightly as he could. They remained that way for a full minute, the three rescued members realizing how much their captain needed them during that endless moment. They slowly broke apart when Jin's voice rang out through the clearing.
"We did it, guys. We've won," he said. "SneeBas be damned, "We won! Banzai!" he shouted at the top of his lungs.
Jun lifted his arms in the air and joined in, followed by Ken and Mitsuru, and even Kitora. "Banzai!"
"Banzai!" Others in the group came in, and by the fourth "Banzai!", the entire Away Team of seventeen people were shouting as loudly as they could.
Ken playfully knocked Jun on the head. "Hey, did you find my second trigger? I dropped it for you guys to use."
"Yes," Jun laughed. "Your Hudson saved our collective asses. After Kitora and I fixed it, of course."
"Fixed it?" Ken asked blankly.
"Yeah, fixed it, you idiot." Mitsuru poked Ken in the side. "Next time, try not to throw it against a rock."
"I was being eaten alive by a stupid SneeBa! Were you completely rational when that happened?!"
Kitora cut in, "You're just lucky that thanks to my brain and my excellent tutorage of our captain, we were able to fix it. Idiot."
The squabble continued around Jun, and he thought it was the most beautiful sight in the world.
In three days, the rescue ship would arrive to bring them all home. They had reams of scouting data, two new triggers, and a new Neighbor to give to the Border Directors. And every agent had survived, even Jun's team, which had been set up to fail miserably. Jun decided he was going to send a big thank-you basket to the R&D department, and ask for a Hudson trigger of his own. Requesting an official trigger repair course would be a good idea, too.
By this time, the large group was making its way down the plateau to stop by the small camp and retrieve what supplies Jun and the rest had brought along, then begin the long journey back to their camp HQ. Kei, Izumi, and Jin had taken out every other SneeBa they'd seen, but each agent was on alert. No one wanted to go through that again.
Jun walked behind his three squad members, specifically so he could reassure himself they really were returned to him. He knew he had a huge, stupid grin on his face, but he didn't care.
Kei appeared next to him, carrying the abused comm unit in a duffel slung over one shoulder. "Hey again, Jun," he said easily.
"Hey," Jun answered, and turned his beaming smile on Kei.
The smile must have been infectious, because Kei replied in kind. He reached out with his free hand and mussed Jun's hair, making Jun laugh and wave him away.
Kei chuckled too, a deep, content sound. "There's this great little ramen joint, hidden in a strip mall behind the library. They have the best sake, too. Want to join me sometime?"
Jun looked over his squad again, feeling the happiness and contentment roll over him once more, and met the eyes of his new friend. "Can the rest of my family come?"
"Of course," Kei agreed, and patted Jun's shoulder, letting his hand rest there. "You didn't have to ask."completed 12-20-13, last tweaked 12-26-13
ending A/N: Once again, Yuletide pushed me to write a story I likely never would have conceived on my own! I must offer thanks to my recipient, augusta_brie, for the challenging prompt. "Break the cutie" was something new for me to tackle, and I wanted to deliver the best fic I could. I certainly didn't intend for it to be this long, but it seems that's the story Jun wanted me to tell! I hope all the words worked.
Since my recipient didn't specify which of the three guys they wanted Jun to end up with, I let Jun tell me. He seemed rather fixated on Tachikawa Kei, and I went with it. The two of them didn't get up to much in the way of loving, but I hope everyone enjoyed watching them grow close, and especially how Kei put broken Jun back together again. C:
On a lighter note, I know I'll be seriously Jossed over and over again as canon continues onward. I had to assign triggers, throw in some OCs to fill out the teams, and even use my personal headcanon for some of the technology's workings. I have no idea if Kei will really end up originally blind in canon. That whole character angle was completely added by me. And of course, the SneeBas are entirely out of my head. I wouldn't be surprised if something like them showed up in canon, though. It seems a logical soldier choice.
Of special Jossing-potential note, Ken's radar trigger has no official name as of World Trigger chapter 42. I came up with "Hudson" on the spot, as a wink and nudge to a classic sci-fi movie. The first time I saw his radar, I thought it looked just like the one from that movie, and I named it with some giggling on my part. Kudos to anyone who figures it out!