“Sorry for not telling you about Zhang and Mei Xing’s relationship earlier,” said Kaika.
“You had your reasons,” said Ageha.
“You probably know where I’m going with this, but I’ll say it anyway. I want you to kill Zhang.”
“…I didn’t think you’d agree so easily.”
I even prepared several ways to convince you.
It’s almost disappointing.
Kaika and Ageha were seated diagonally across from each other in the living area of a luxury suite. Saya demonstrated the perfect sitting posture on the couch next to Ageha. Arashi, hugging her knees on a recliner, looked even sleepier than usual.
“Zhang Wei Long is scum,” said Ageha. “Kidnapping, murder, drug and human trafficking. That’s just a small part of his profile. I already knew it would come to this when you sent Arashi and me to scout Zhang’s HQ.“
“But he’s Mei Xing’s father.”
“Doesn’t change who he is or what he’s done. Mei Xing hates him anyway. He isn’t exactly the best father around.”
“They’re still family. Like you and Sousuke.”
“I understand that. I’ll take responsibility.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’ll let Mei Xing decide.”
“I can’t allow that. What if he asks for your life or something?”
“I’ll only accommodate him within reason. He at least deserves to know I’m responsible for killing his father. I owe him that much.”
“But you’re not responsible. This is my decision. Tools shouldn’t share the blame.”
“That’s no excuse. A tool has no choice but to be used. I chose this.”
“Saya, say something to this stubborn mule.”
“If that is what he wants to do, I have no reason to oppose,” said Saya.
Kaika blinked a few times before sinking into the sofa with a sigh. “My butler has abandoned me for a man. How tragic.”
“That is not true, Ojousama! I just think that this is his decision to make.”
Kaika thought about it some more but eventually decided to trust in their judgment. Ageha would not do anything that would needlessly endanger her or Saya. He had learned the limits of fairness firsthand when he chose Saya over Rin.
“Fine. I won’t stop you, but wait until we successfully complete the mission. We can’t risk leaking any info.”
“Understood,” said Ageha.
“Then I’ll begin the briefing.” Kaika pressed her mobile terminal, causing a mini-projector to display an image on the hotel suite’s wall. “Arashi, make sure to listen.”
“Roger.” Arashi revealed a serious expression, her eyes alert.
I wish she were this attentive all the time.
Everyone in the room focused on the projected blueprint.
“This is a drug production facility,” said Kaika. “We’re going to attack it.”
“Not the HQ?” asked Ageha. “Why did we go through the trouble of scouting the area around it?”
“Zhang has a good nose. He tightened his security after his meeting with me. I thought I fooled him into thinking I still intended to negotiate, but he’s sharper than I expected. As your scouting report said, the Soaring Serpent’s HQ is locked down like a fortress. It’s even worse within the building.”
“How do you know that?”
“I have people inside.”
“Why not use them to kill Zhang?”
“Are you insane? Spies aren’t supermen or suicide bombers. They’re mostly glorified actors. You watch too many secret agent movies.”
“That said, it is thanks to them that we got our hands on this blueprint,” said Saya. “They are doing good work.”
“This blueprint isn’t official,” said Kaika. “It’s just a map drawn by my mole. It may have some inaccuracies, but in exchange, there are details on the renovated sections not included in the original blueprint. For example, this underground lab.” She used a laser pointer to indicate a spot on the projection. “There’s also basic information on the security detail. Not as airtight as HQ, but it’s still very secure.”
“How about attacking him in his vehicle?” asked Ageha. “That worked in Akihabara.”
“We can’t count on a truck to finish Zhang off.”
“When are you gonna let that go?”
“Seriously though, that plan has a low chance of success. Zhang sends out several convoys when he goes out. We have no way to know which car he’ll be riding in, and they all take different routes. It’s even possible he wouldn’t be in any of them. We can’t afford to attack the wrong vehicle and let him escape.”
“We can only confirm his whereabouts when he enters that drug facility,” said Saya. “He goes there every two weeks for a check, though he changes the exact day at random. We will stay somewhere in the vicinity and wait for a message from the mole confirming Zhang is inside. Then we will attack and eliminate him.”
Kaika gently pinched her tiny chin. “But this is still a risky plan. We don’t know where he’ll be in the building, so the three of you will have to split up to find him. That increases the danger of getting cornered alone.”
“I have a better idea,” said Ageha. “It’s perfect for scum like him. You know about skimming scum when cooking, don’t you?”
“You mean removing the layer of foam that forms on top when simmering a soup or stock?” Kaika’s eyes lit up. “I see.”
“We raise the heat on one side to force him out the other. Then someone can get rid of him when he shows up.”
“That idea isn’t half bad, but it’s still lacking. Your plan still requires us to split our forces. Two of you are necessary to put on enough pressure for Zhang to run, and Ageha needs to be on that team. I’m not sure if Saya or Arashi alone can take Zhang out. He’ll be right beside his personal guards while escaping. We need a contingency plan.”
Kaika began discussing the revised strategy based on Ageha’s idea. She specified the positions they needed to take, their individual objectives, and Zhang’s possible escape routes.
“Sounds like a plan,” said Ageha.
“No need to be amazed,” said Kaika as she crossed her arms and raised her chin proudly. “It’s easy because I have more pieces I can move around.”
“I wasn’t amazed. And this isn’t a game of chess.”
“But it is. Arashi is the rook, Saya is the queen, and you, with your horrible marksmanship, are the King.”
“Shouldn’t you be the King?”
“What are you talking about?” Kaika looked at him like he was an idiot. “I’m the player.”
Arashi followed Ageha’s lead as they stealthily approached the main entrance of the drug facility. A simple black mask hid her face, leaving only her eyes visible. Her outfit, gray bordering on black, allowed her to easily blend into the darkness of the night.
She readied her new weapon, an improved version of the custom rifle her father gave her. Kaika had grumbled about how often Arashi asked for new toys but had gotten it for her anyway.
Kai is so nice.
She stroked the barrel of her rifle as if caressing a plushie.
“Wait for my signal,” whispered Ageha, his voice slightly muffled by his helmet. “First we take out the guards in front. Then I’ll break the gate and we storm in. Within the gate, there should be seven guards on each side. You take the right, I’ll take the left.”
“On my count. Three. Wait, what did you say?”
“Leave it… to me.”
Time to show Ageha what I can do!
Arashi left the cover of the underbrush and faced the wide metal gate. The gate was around one story high. The building behind it was three. The two guards stationed in front immediately noticed her and took aim. Arashi fired two short bursts, mangling their bodies with high-calibre bullets.
She flipped a switch on her gun and shot a grappling hook into the third-story wall of the building. Several shouts could be heard from inside the gates. Alerted by the gunfire, the security teams began to converge on the gateway.
Arashi took three grenades from her vest, pinching them between the fingers of her left hand. With the flip of a switch, the rope mechanism rapidly pulled her diagonally up towards the third-floor wall.
As soon as she cleared the gate, she tossed the time-delay grenades towards the guards on the left. She switched off the rope’s pull action and landed with both feet slamming into the wall. Positioned like a rappeler, she pulled out three impact-detonated frag grenades and showered them on the guards coming from the right. They saw her hanging from the wall and aimed at her.
A tsunami of explosions swallowed her enemies.
Arashi rappelled to the ground and recovered her grappling hook. Ageha tore open the metal gate and walked up to her. She waited for him in the middle of a parted red sea composed of blood and shredded flesh.
“All clear,” she said.
“Stick to the damn plan.” Ageha flicked her forehead with his middle finger. “But good job. We definitely have their attention now.”
She rubbed the spot he flicked. His alloy finger had the force of an airsoft bullet, but her forehead felt warmth instead of pain.
Ageha unsheathed his knives. “From here on, we move together. Got it?”
He kicked open the main door, and Arashi pitched two flashbangs inside. They planted their backs on the outside wall until a deafening boom escaped from the doorway.
“Stay here and cover me. I’ll handle the small fry, so don’t waste your ammo.”
Ageha dashed inside the lobby. Several groups of armed men were moaning while holding their eyes in pain.
Arashi took a sniping position from outside the door and shot a guard in the head. Ageha barreled towards an enemy group before they could disperse and used his body like a battering ram. Half of the men got knocked down like bowling pins. Ageha proceeded to slice open the remaining half with his knives.
As ordered, Arashi sniped the enemies aiming for Ageha. Three gunmen noticed her fire support and focused on her. Forced to take cover, she was unable to continue covering for Ageha.
I have to do something.
Arashi analyzed the image of the battlefield in her head. From her position, she could aim at one of the gunmen without taking fire from the others. With just the right angle, she peeked out and shot him with the grappling hook. The metal spike stabbed into his shoulder, causing him to drop his submachine gun. Arashi flipped a switch to pull the rope in, dragging the struggling gunman towards her like a hooked fish. When her prey got close enough, she pulled him close to her body and stepped out of cover.
Using the guard as a shield, Arashi aimed her rifle, but the two other enemies shot through the hostage without hesitation and hit her alloy leg. Another bullet grazed her left arm.
These guys don’t care about friendly fire!
She had thought that taking a hostage would delay them enough for her to shoot them down, but the enemies were more professional than expected.
Arashi was holding a tattered umbrella in the middle of a downpour. It was only a matter of time before she got fatally injured. She could drop her shield and run, but starting from zero velocity would make her completely vulnerable to fire for a deadly second.
The rain of bullets stopped.
Arashi took a peek from behind her meat shield. Ageha stood above the corpse of one of the gunmen that had been shooting at her. About a dozen feet away from him, the other gunman fell to the floor, a knife embedded in his chest. Ageha had thrown it to save her as soon as possible.
“You okay?” he asked.
She checked her wound and then nodded, dropping the useless meat shield to the floor.
I was supposed to be covering for him.
But he saved me instead.
I screwed up.
Ageha walked over to the dying gunman and pulled the knife from his chest. While turning his head to Arashi, he slashed open the gunman’s neck, putting him out of misery.
“I know you like copying moves from me and Saya, but you have to choose what to use in combat. Human shields work for me because I’m mostly metal and I have armor.”
“Sorry… Ageha. And thanks… for saving me.”
“No problem. You took the risk to cover my back. Just take better care of yourself.”
A smile appeared beneath Arashi’s mask. It was different from the grin she usually showed in combat. Tinged with a slight giddiness and an ounce of embarrassment, it resembled one belonging to a girl on a date.
“Please cease unnecessary conversation and continue with the mission,” said a stern voice coming from their earpieces. It was Saya’s.
“Yes, ma’am. Let’s move, Arashi. Reinforcements will show up if we take too long.”
“Saya, we’re heading to the basement laboratory. If we’re lucky, you might not have to do anything.”
“Sorry, but it looks like I hit the jackpot.”
“Isn’t that a little too fast? We just finished clearing the first wave over here.”
“Shows how decisive Zhang is. I’ll look for a clear shot.”
A new group of enemies appeared from the lobby corridor.
“Arashi, get to position. I’ll clean this up and go to Saya as soon as I can.” His eyes met hers. “I’m counting on you.”
Arashi nodded. She ran back outside and shot her grappling hook upward. Glancing at Ageha’s back one last time, she flipped the switch on her rifle and soared into the sky.
Lying prone at the top of a grassy hill, Saya aimed her automatic rifle at her target. At least, she tried to. Tucked in the middle of a dozen bodyguards, Zhang briskly walked towards a black sedan. His head, pushed down by the guards, was buried in a mass of suits.
Arashi might have been able to shoot through the guards and hit Zhang, but Saya lacked the sniping experience for such a feat. Moreover, her rifle was likely not powerful enough to completely pierce the kevlar-reinforced wall of flesh.
I have to scatter the guards first.
Saya shot the two guards directly blocking her line of sight to Zhang. They fell, but the other guards quickly filled in the gap. Like a spartan phalanx, Zhang’s group continued towards the getaway vehicle.
“Get the car!” shouted one of the men.
The guard closest to the car ran towards it. Saya picked him off with a burst of bullets.
I’ll try the car next.
She moved her sights to the vehicle and shot at it. The black sedan’s hood slightly dented from her bullets, but she concluded that it would take at least her entire magazine to go through the armor plating, if not more. A couple bullets into the tires confirmed they were military-grade run-flats.
Tearing down that human wall looks easier.
She shifted her aim back to the phalanx and eliminated two more guards. Stopped by their bulletproof armor, her bullets did not reach Zhang.
She heard grass rustling to her right.
Following her intuition, she let go of the rifle and protected her face with her right arm. Sharp blades tore through her combat suit and artificial skin. Rather than a sword slash, the attack felt more like a shark’s jaw clamping down on her arm.
Saya rolled to her left and stood up to face the enemy. She recognized her.
Mao, was it?
The qipao-garbed woman was crouched like a panther, the end of her long braid coiled on the ground like a tail. The metal claws fitted on her fingers gleamed in the moonlight.
“Tsk. An alloy arm,” said Mao in Chinese.
Saya considered using the pistol holstered at her back, but the enemy was too close. Mao kept her stance without moving an inch.
She is buying time.
Saya turned her eyes to the left to check on Zhang. He was just a few steps away from the sedan. In that instant, Mao rushed towards her and swung her claws. Saya leaned back to avoid the first attack and sidestepped the next. She did not even see the leg sweep that followed.
Her legs were taken off the ground. Saya used her cybernetic hand to push off the grass and intentionally rolled down the hill to create distance.
“You even have alloy legs? I’m impressed,” said Mao.
Saya noticed that her pants had four cuts on her left calf.
When did she..?
Mao resumed her attack. Saya avoided a low kick by raising her leg and countered with a right straight. Mao weaved around the punch and swung her left claw. Saya raised her right arm to defend and braced herself for impact.
A solid mass hit her face.
She had been tricked by a feint. Vision flickering, she desperately forced herself to throw a right hook. With a look of surprise on her face, Mao blocked it with her left forearm. The force blew away her guard. Braid trailing in front of her, Mao hopped back to create space.
Blood trickled from Saya’s nose, further soiling her cut lip. Tears blurred her vision. Her enemy was, without exaggeration, a true beast. Like a lurking lion, Mao calmly waited for opportunities and pounced whenever one came. Saya realized that the enemy before her was significantly more battle-hardened than she was. If not for her lucky counter hook, she would already be dead.
Mao flexed her left arm, checking its condition. Saya used this time to wipe the mixed fluids on her face and analyze her enemy.
Saya had confirmed that Mao’s forearm was alloy on contact. Despite that, her hook had blown away Mao’s guard with ease.
Her left shoulder isn’t cybernetic. Right’s probably flesh too.
Based on her speed, her legs are alloy.
“That was close,” said Mao. “Seems your luck is better than mine, but that’s about it.” She flashed a mocking grin, her eyes full of disdain.
I can work with this.
Saya leapt back and pulled out her handgun. Mao leaned forward and ran after her while covering her face with her claws. Saya managed to fire off two shots. The first, aimed at Mao’s head, was deflected by the claws. The second grazed Mao’s right shoulder, gouging out a small chunk of flesh.
Mao grabbed and squeezed Saya’s gun with her claw, cutting it to pieces. At the same time, Saya jammed her left thumb into Mao’s shoulder wound. As Mao grimaced in pain, Saya feinted a right palm strike and connected with a left uppercut to the chin.
Rocked by the blow, Mao fell on her back. Saya raised her leg for an axe kick, but Mao, still lying on the grass, hurriedly kicked her torso. The kick launched Saya backward. She crashed to the ground and skidded to a stop about a dozen feet away.
I got too greedy!
Saya had not expected Mao to attack so soon after suffering a down. She regretted not using a quicker finisher.
Both women struggled to stand up. Saya found it difficult to breathe. Her ribs were probably cracked, if not broken. She turned her head to the drug facility. The car, with Zhang safely inside, began rolling away.
She did not make it in time.
Saya alone was not enough to eliminate Zhang.
Just as Ojousama predicted.
The car’s windshield cracked. Another gunshot followed, breaking the glass completely. The sedan sputtered to a stop as the gunfire accelerated. Innumerable holes riddled the black sedan. The rear door opened, and a bloodied Zhang fell out. Before he hit the ground, his head burst open, smearing his brain fluids on the car door.
Saya glanced at the drug facility’s rooftop and saw the slim sniper.
Excellent work, Arashi.
Saya focused her attention on Mao. Though still wobbly, they had both regained their feet. The wounded butler considered her options: escape because the mission was completed, or kill Mao to prevent retaliation.
“So… rry.” Ageha’s weak voice whispered in her right ear.
Saya unconsciously touched the receiver.
It can’t be.
“Where are you!?” she asked.
There was no answer.
Her blood turned cold.
“Arashi, go to Ageha, now!!!”
Saya turned to the direction of the facility and began running.
Mao zipped into her view. “As if I’d let you!!!”
Saya reflexively launched her favored kick, a roundhouse to the head. Mao calmly bent her knees to duck just under it. Saya realized her attack would miss.
It would miss, and she would not make it in time.
In time to save Ageha from danger.
In time to reach her beloved.
DON’T GET IN MY WAY!!!
Saya rotated her supporting leg and twisted her torso to change the trajectory of her kick. The scythe-like roundhouse curved down, turning into a brutal poleaxe. The forced motion strained her muscles and amplified the pain of her injuries. Her consciousness flickered, but she poured her everything into the attack anyway.
Mao bent forward and deflected the kick with her forearms. Despite avoiding the brunt of the impact, her entire body slammed flat to the ground, as if gravity had suddenly quadrupled.
Ignoring her opponent, Saya sprinted towards the building while praying to the gods she never believed in.
So they were pawns sacrificed to study me.
Ageha had swiftly defeated the four men who attacked him. The only one left was the leader, a short-haired middle-aged man in a long-sleeved kung fu outfit. White folded cuffs and front fasteners decorated the simple dark-grey suit.
With a serious expression, the leader clapped lightly and said something in Chinese. Ageha could not understand a word of it.
As if realizing this, the man pointed at his own chest and said, “Zhi Zhu.”
Ageha figured out it was an introduction. In response to the courtesy, he decided to kill him as soon as possible.
Taking two large strides forward, Ageha swung his reverse-gripped knife towards Zhi Zhu’s throat. The enemy casually parried it, but that was within expectations. Ageha flipped the knife on his left hand to a forward grip and thrust it towards Zhi Zhu’s ribcage.
Ageha felt no resistance. Instead, he noticed a subtle impact on his leading knee.
He instantly recognized the counterattack. Zhi Zhu had parried Ageha’s knife while simultaneously thrusting his left foot into his knee.
Zhi Zhu’s retaliation did not end there. He unleashed a series of strikes at almost zero distance. Ageha blocked most of them, but his guarding arm was suddenly pulled away, exposing his torso. Zhi Zhu landed three blows to his body in an instant.
Ageha’s armor protected him from critical damage. Zhi Zhu’s arms were definitely cybernetic, but due to the compact motions, his attacks were leagues below Ageha’s in terms of power.
Ageha knocked away a punch and countered with a knee. Zhi Zhu dodged it by taking a step back. Ageha took a large leap backward and sheathed his knives. Blades were meaningless against his extensively enhanced enemy.
Both arms and legs.
With that level of skill.
Ageha concluded that he was at a disadvantage. But this was not the first time. His battles with the Nikaido cyborgs and Valeriya’s dolls had been no different. He had to take more risks, but there was definitely a chance of winning.
Ear-splitting gunfire echoed from outside. He recognized it. It was from Arashi’s custom rifle. Saya had failed to kill Zhang alone, and Arashi had provided assistance.
Gotta hurry and regroup with them.
He decided to end the battle in the next exchange.
While keeping his open palms near the center of his body, Zhi Zhu carefully approached. Ageha took the opposite approach and relied on sheer power and speed to overwhelm him. He sprinted at Zhi Zhu, who stepped aside to dodge the human bulldozer. Ageha then stabbed his fingers into the floor to rapidly change direction. Zhi Zhu easily kept him in front by pivoting his heel.
Even this didn’t work.
Valeriya’s technique was highly effective as a counterattack, but Zhi Zhu, who focused on defense, had easily broken it.
Using his embedded fingers as an anchor, Ageha transformed his forward momentum into rotational energy. He swung his entire lower body towards Zhi Zhu’s legs, forcing him to jump. Ageha was completely open to attack from above, but he had also successfully taken Zhi Zhu away from the ground, where wing chun was at its best.
Zhi Zhu tried to stomp on Ageha’s face. He dodged it with room to spare because he knew it was coming. He did not expect Zhi Zhu to instantly follow up with a kick to his head. Ageha rolled towards Zhi Zhu, taking the kick on his helmet well before it reached full velocity. The impact, though diminished by his alloy neck brace, shook his brain.
Ignoring the pain, Ageha grabbed Zhi Zhu’s other leg and pulled him to the ground. Trying to mount or grapple a better martial artist would only lead to defeat, so he opted for a simpler attack. Firmly holding onto the enemy’s ankle, he raised his other hand above his head to gather power for a hammer smash. This left him vulnerable to attack, but the fight would be over if he could destroy the enemy’s knee joint.
Ageha gambled that his armor could take another punch or two.
Before he could slam his fist down, Zhi Zhu punched him in the thigh. Two tiny spikes on Zhi Zhu’s fist dug into Ageha’s skin and touched his alloy muscle.
Ageha’s entire world flashed white and then turned black.
Next thing he knew, he was flat on the floor.
He tried to move, but his arms and legs would not obey him. Burning away his willpower, he managed to move his neck, one of his few non-cybernetic parts. Rotating his head, he saw Zhi Zhu prying open his grasp to free his ankle.
Ageha stared into his eyes.
What did you do to me?
Zhi Zhu spoke, as if replying to the unvoiced question. Ageha was unsure if the gibberish he heard was due to his lack of mandarin mastery or his current condition.
Ageha had lost the bet.
If one kept gambling, that was inevitable. Those who lived by the roll of the dice died the same way.
He had been completely defeated.
He could not move no matter how much he strained to do so.
It was like his body was no longer his.
As if caged within a metal safe, his mind screamed and clawed at the impregnable walls in futility.
He felt an odd sense of alienation from his senses, as if he were no longer alive.
Maybe he was indeed dead, and this was all a nightmare in the afterlife.
He closed his eyes.
All he could see in the darkness was Saya’s smile.
It was likely the last time he would see it.
He regretted that with every fiber of his being.
Forcing his paralyzed throat to move, he squeezed out his last word.