“Kaburagi-san regained consciousness,” said the voice on the phone.
Mashiro doubted her ears for a moment and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “Really?”
“Yes. He says he has something extremely important to tell you. He is in no condition to be moving around, but he wants to leave the hospital to find you. It would be best to avoid sedating him right after he woke up, so we calmed him down by saying we are calling you over. I know it is very late, but would it be possible-”
Mashiro checked the time. Her father was still on a plane.
I wanted to talk to Dad first.
But I have to go.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Thank you, Oogi-san. I will tell him you will be arriving shortly.”
“Are you sure this is gonna work?” Ageha looked down the road.
No people or cars were in sight, typical for two in the morning.
“One can never be sure,” said Kaika, her voice coming from his earpiece. “That’s why there are contingency plans.”
“I don’t think she’s gonna rush to the hospital without her guards. If she does show up, it’s probably another trap.”
“Such a pessimist.” Kaika giggled. “But you’re right. That’s why we prepared for that possibility. A trap loses most of its meaning if you know it’s there. It’s gonna be tough going against her convoy, but it beats charging into her house.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re cozy in the safe house. We’re the ones doing the heavy lifting.”
“Hey, I agreed to minimizing civilian involvement at the expense of sleep. What else do you want?”
“Convoy spotted.” Arashi’s voice came from his earpiece.
From the entrance of an underground parking lot, Ageha zoomed in with his bionic eyes and confirmed her report. Six identical black vans were traveling single file down the two-lane road. Their windows were tinted jet black, making it impossible to identify Mashiro’s vehicle.
“The first van is almost at my position,” said Ageha.
“Operation start,” said Kaika.
A deafening boom shook the deserted Tokyo cityscape. A hole opened up on the leading van’s hood. Smoke wafted from the bullet hole as the vehicle sputtered to a stop. The other vans came to a halt behind it.
“Target neutralized,” said Arashi.
“Hope this works.” Ageha left cover and walked to the front of the convoy.
“Relax, I’m sure they’re using rubber bullets,” said Kaika. “Those won’t do much to your armor and helmet.”
“Didn’t you just say ‘one can never be sure’?”
“Okay, they’re probably using rubber bullets. Are you happy now?”
Mashiro’s staticky voice came from a megaphone. “Shikimi-san, is that you?”
“Please surrender. A force several times larger than this is seconds away from here. There’s also a squad heading for the sniper. You have no chance of victory or escape.”
Just as Kaika predicted.
Kaika was confident Mashiro would ask him to surrender personally if he showed up. He had saved her life, after all. That would give Ageha a chance to identify which vehicle she was in. If that had not worked, they would have to retreat. Mashiro using a megaphone was the best case scenario among the situations Kaika planned for ahead of time.
Ageha dashed towards Mashiro’s van, which was the fourth vehicle from the front. The other vans vomited armored soldiers equipped with submachine guns.
Arashi’s anti-material rifle wailed. A trooper got his arm blown off and crumpled to the ground. Realizing their armor could not protect them, the other troopers took cover in fear.
Upon reaching Mashiro’s vehicle, Ageha stabbed his alloy fingers into the gap on the rear door and yanked it open, breaking the lock. He was welcomed by a shower of rubber bullets from the troopers inside.
“She’s not here!” He closed the door for a momentary reprieve.
“Dammit! Retreat!” said Kaika.
Ageha checked the situation. A trooper crashed to the ground, his leg reduced to a stump. The remaining enemies could not shoot Ageha because of Arashi’s divinely accurate cover fire.
I still have time.
Mashiro wouldn’t hide herself while using her men as bait.
Kaika had failed to read Mashiro because she did not understand how a hero thought. Ageha was different. Mashiro was what he wanted to be once upon a time. He knew what he would do in her place.
Heroes were courageous and kind.
That made them stupid.
Worth a try.
He doubled back and rushed to the frontmost van, which was stuck in place due to Arashi’s opening shot. A trooper intercepted him and shot his chest. Ignoring the ticklish rubber rounds, he kicked the trooper in the torso, sending him flying. Ageha barely felt the recoil from his attack.
Awesome work, Tsubasa.
“Get outta there!” shouted Kaika. “Mashiro is smarter than I thought!”
“No, the opposite.” Ageha tore open the van’s door.
Ken greeted him with a tackle. Ageha lowered his center of gravity and caught the boy by the shoulders. Ken’s face, without the blue veins and red eyes, looked much healthier than at their previous meeting.
I knew it.
Mashiro saved you.
Mashiro was indeed the hero he thought she was. That also meant Ken did not possess the reaction speed he did before.
Ageha kneed the boy in the stomach, grabbed his right arm, and smashed him into the side of the van. Then he slammed him onto the road for good measure.
“Stop! Don’t hurt him!” screamed Mashiro from the vehicle’s backseat.
Ageha moved to grab her when he felt a powerful shock to his helmet. His vision blurred for a moment.
They switched to real bullets!
If not for his alloy neck brace, he would be unconscious with a severe concussion or dead.
“Reinforcements from 10 and 2 o’clock,” said Arashi.
He grabbed Mashiro’s arm and pulled her out of the car. The gunfire stopped as soon as the troopers saw her. Heaving her over his shoulder, Ageha dashed away from the convoy and down the ramp of the underground parking lot. A swarm of troopers followed him.
A pair of headlights were waiting for them inside the parking lot. Ageha shoved Mashiro into the white sedan’s backseat and jumped in after her.
“Are you okay?” asked Saya from the driver’s seat.
“Just fine.” Ageha restrained Mashiro’s wrist with a plastic band.
“Stop! Let me go!” Mashiro struggled with all her might but was helpless against him.
“Calm down. I don’t want to hurt you.” He bound her ankles the same way.
“Nice way of showing that!”
“I know right?” He gagged her with a piece of cloth. “They’re using real ammo.”
“No problem.” Saya stepped on the accelerator. “You and Arashi weren’t the only ones who got new toys from Tsubasa-san.”
Two armored troopers got in the way and shot the windshield with their submachine guns, but the bullets did not leave even a scratch on the bulletproof glass. Saya rammed the troopers and drove up the ramp and out onto the street.
She flashed a sadistic smile in the rear view mirror. “This ride isn’t bad at all.”
“We’re on our way, Arashi,” said Ageha. “Cars in pursuit. Can you provide cover fire?”
Arashi peeked over the footbridge railing and checked the road below. Two black vans came to a stop and unloaded a squad of troopers.
“Negative. Hostiles are closing in.”
“Focus on getting rid of them,” said Saya. “We’ll reach the footbridge in about forty seconds.”
“Roger.” Arashi captured one of the troopers in her scope.
Not killing is hard, Kai.
She blew away the trooper’s elbow. The recoil shook her core and caused her feet to skid on the ground, but she endured it. Anti-material rifles were generally designed to be fired from a prone position, but Arashi’s ARMS allowed her to use them accurately while crouching. She pulled the rifle’s bolt, ejecting an empty casing. A trooper reached the top of the stairs on the other side and opened fire. Rubber bullets hit Arashi’s leg, but she endured the impact and obliterated the trooper’s shin in retaliation. Flesh and alloy shards splattered on the concrete floor.
Her firing rate could not keep up with the number of incoming enemies. Though her initial shots made them wary, they would still surround her in a few seconds.
Arashi recalled the new present Tsubasa gave her along with the rifle.
She tossed a smoke grenade to the left side of the bridge. As black mist covered the area, she opened her rectangular rifle case and propped it up on its narrow end. With the flip of a switch on the handle, metal nails at the bottom of the case stabbed into the concrete ground, securing it in place. The alloy barrier stood about as tall as her, protecting her from enemies on one side of the bridge.
She hurled a flash grenade at the other stairwell, stunning the trooper vanguards. While the rifle case shielded her back from gunfire, she sniped the two blinded enemies in front, taking out an arm each. The others did not step onto the bridge in fear of sharing the same fate.
“The target has a shield!” shouted a trooper behind her. “Advance and neutralize!”
“We’re almost there!” said Ageha.
“Pick me up at the bottom of the staircase to your right.” Arashi left the protection of her rifle case and ran into the black mist.
The troopers reacted instantly and targeted her.
They have thermal vision too!
Arashi hopped on the footbridge railing to escape the initial burst of bullets and then jumped onto the closest trooper’s shoulders. Though rubber bullets meant nothing to their armor, the troopers acted according to their military training and stopped shooting to avoid friendly fire.
Using the trooper’s shoulder plates as a platform, Arashi leapt forward while flipping upside-down to face his back. She shot the trooper’s rear thigh, completely destroying his leg.
The powerful recoil flipped her right-side up and boosted her jump distance. She flew over the other troopers within the smoke and landed near the stairwell. Arashi tossed an incendiary grenade behind her before leaping down the steps. A fiery explosion engulfed the troopers, stopping them from giving chase.
When she reached the sidewalk, a white sedan drifted to a stop in front of her. The rear door swung open, revealing Ageha and tonight’s target.
He beckoned her inside. “Leave the rifle. It won’t fit in the car.”
“Again!?” Arashi reluctantly dropped her barely used weapon and hopped in.
While Arashi was boarding the car, Saya cracked her window and stuck out the muzzle of her gun. She shot the helmet of a trooper targeting Arashi. Neon paint coated his visor.
“Shit! I can’t see!” The trooper frantically tried to wipe off the paint with his left hand.
Saya could tell the soldiers were relatively skilled, but they clearly lacked fighting experience using the suits. They felt invincible inside their armor. Even a paintball gun was effective against such cocky opponents.
As soon as the door closed, Saya stepped on the gas and sped away from the footbridge. “Arashi, get rid of any tracking devices on Mashiro.”
“Roger.” Arashi switched seats with Ageha and patted Mashiro down, crushing her phone and a suspicious looking clip in the process.
“I could’ve done that earlier,” said Ageha.
Saya shot him a look in the rearview mirror. “And sexually harass our guest?”
Two black vans appeared in the intersection ahead, one from each perpendicular direction. They braked in front of the sedan, blocking the way. Without slowing down, Saya swerved onto the sidewalk. The sedan barely fit in the space between the building and the van. The sandwiching obstacles smashed both side mirrors, but they managed to slip past the barricade.
The vans immediately chased after them.
Ageha watched the enemy vehicles from the rear window. “They’re catching up.”
“They’re probably using a nitrous oxide injection system,” said Saya.
“Do we have that too?”
“We do, but we can only use it once. I have a better idea.”
Having lost the side mirrors, Saya was forced to turn her head to check on their pursuers.
Just a little more.
The two vans chased them in a line. The leading vehicle was about twenty feet away and closing.
“Hold on!” Saya slammed her foot on the brake pedal, her eyes still on the pursuing vans.
The sedan lost speed abruptly. The van drivers reflexively braked and swerved to avoid hitting them. The van in front veered left, while the other curved right.
As the first van passed them, Saya turned the wheel and clipped the van’s rear corner. The van spun out and smashed through the glass doors of a restaurant. Riding the recoil from her initial collision, she rapidly turned other way and struck the van on the other side in the same manner. The van lost control and hit a telephone pole headfirst.
Saya accelerated, leaving the piles of wreckage in her wake.
“Amazing!” said Arashi with sparkling eyes.
“What was that just now?” asked Ageha.
Saya met his eyes in the mirror. “It’s called a PIT maneuver. Cops use it in car chases. It’s lethal at high speeds, but those guys are wearing armor. They’ll be fine.”
“Where’d you learn that?”
“Practiced it in my free time. This is the first time I did two vehicles in a row, though.”
“I thought you were a wreckless driver?”
Saya stifled a laugh. “Trashing cars intentionally doesn’t count.” She saw a military jeep come up behind them. “More company.”
The jeep had no doors, allowing the enemy to fire at them easily. However, the sedan’s armor easily withstood the rifle rounds.
Soon after, more black vans appeared behind the jeep. The net Mashiro had cast was wider and tighter than expected. Unlike Kaika who relied on a small elite team and battlefield tactics, Mashiro depended on numbers and high-level strategy.
An armored soldier leaned out from the side of the jeep. He was holding an RPG.
“Incoming!” Saya swerved to the side.
The rocket flew past the sedan and hit a parked car, blowing its trunk open.
Ageha looked out the rear window. “Did they forget we have their boss in here?”
Saya shook her head. “They know this car is armored. Judging from that explosion, they’re using a weak warhead.”
“Then we don’t have anything to worry about.”
“I’m afraid we do. It won’t kill us, but it can take out the run-on-flat tires or damage the car enough to stop us.”
“Then I gotta do something before they reload.” Ageha opened the rear door.
“What are you planning?”
“Boarding the jeep.”
“That’s crazy! Close the door!”
“Let’s leave it to him,” said Kaika. “Ageha, use your phone to navigate back to the car later. I’ll guide Saya to a good spot.”
“Understood.” He climbed on the roof and let air resistance close the door.
Saya cracked the windows slightly to give him a good grip. His cybernetic fingers were much stronger than metal clamps, so there was no risk of him getting thrown off.
“You won’t make the jump without a running start,” said Saya. “Should I let them catch up?”
“That’s too risky. They’ll get a better shot at the car if I screw up. Don’t worry, I have an idea.”
“Okay, but be careful.”
“Overload mode, activate.”
“Didn’t you hear what I just said!?”
“Desperate times.” He leapt off the sedan.
Ageha flew past the jeep’s roof.
He stretched his arm to its limit and grabbed the metal bar on the edge of the vehicle’s roof. His body slammed into the back of the jeep.
I wish I could’ve practiced this.
He had just come back from Tsubasa’s upgrade procedure when Kaika called him for this emergency mission. Apparently, they had to kidnap Mashiro tonight, giving him no time to try out the newly installed power cell overload system.
His limbs felt like they were on fire, but his alloy muscles produced unbelievable force. He had toned down his jump in anticipation of it but still overshot his landing.
Ageha climbed onto the jeep’s roof using the bars. A helmet popped out from the passenger side, followed by the muzzle of an assault rifle. Ageha quickly grabbed the barrel with one hand and crushed it. Then he pulled the rifle away and kicked the trooper’s head. The armored soldier fell off the jeep and tumbled on the asphalt.
Reaching down the driver’s side, Ageha tore off the steering wheel. The jeep lost control, so he jumped off. He rolled on the road while protecting his head, his armor absorbing most of the impact.
The jeep braked and crashed into a bike stand, sending bicycles flying. The black vans zipped past them and continued chasing after the sedan. The jeep driver stepped out of the vehicle with a loaded RPG and aimed it at Ageha.
Ageha instinctively used his full power to push off the road. Instead of sprinting, he flew off the ground in a low arc.
This is insane power.
The armored driver pulled the trigger. The rocket zipped by just underneath Ageha’s feet and hit the building behind him. The explosion added to his momentum and sent him all the way to the attacker. Ageha drove a flying kick into his chest plate. The trooper flew backward and skidded on the ground, his armor creating sparks on the asphalt.
The smell of burning artificial skin tickled Ageha’s nostrils.
I gotta turn this off.
“Overload mode, deactivate.”
His arms and legs still felt like they were on fire, but it was natural that they would not cool as fast as they heated up. He just had to deal with it.
Ageha climbed to the roof of a nearby building by jumping from balcony to balcony. “I’ve taken care of the jeep. Where do we meet?” He checked his mobile and confirmed Saya’s location.
“Head to this spot,” said Kaika.
A marker appeared on his map.
“Understood. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
Saya slammed on the brakes to avoid a civilian pickup at the intersection. The truck’s furious horn quickly faded into the distance. That was not their first close call. Even though it was late, a few vehicles still roamed the streets.
She checked the rearview mirror and saw several black vans closing in.
They’re very persistent.
“Take the right up ahead,” said Kaika. “It’s a blind turn. Cars are parked on both sides of the street.”
Saya immediately understood Kaika’s plan. “Arashi, make sure our guest doesn’t get hurt. We’re speeding up.”
Saya flipped the nitrous oxide injection switch and floored the accelerator. Powerful Gs pressed everyone into their backrests as the sedan pulled away from the pursuers.
When they got close to the corner, Saya stomped the brakes to make the turn. “Hold on!” She turned the wheel while engaging the parking brake.
The tires released a shrill cry as the sedan drifted into the blind corner. Saya saw two cars parallel parked on the side of the road. There was an empty spot between them.
She continued drifting until the sedan spun. Expertly manipulating the wheel, she guided the spin right into the space between the two cars. The sedan fit into the gap like a glove and came to a complete stop.
“Get down!” Saya turned off the lights and bent towards the empty passenger seat.
Arashi ducked behind the front seats while pushing Mashiro’s head down. A few seconds later, the black vans appeared from the corner and drove past them, thinking they had gone further ahead.
“Did you just drift into a parallel park while using nitro?” asked Kaika.
“Yes. Your plan of using the parked cars went perfectly, Ojousama.”
“Actually, I just wanted you to take the turn. I only warned you about the parked cars so you wouldn’t hit them.”
“Anyway, great job. Go and pick up Ageha.”
“Sorry, I won’t make it in time,” he said.
“Enemy group on my tail. I can’t jump from roof to roof while being shot at. A good hit can drop me. Gotta climb down and take the long way.”
“Okay.” Saya watched the vans behind them disappear in the distance. “Coast is clear. We’ll wait here for now. I’ll head out when you’re close to the rendezvous point.”
A jeep appeared from the blind corner and bathed them in headlights. Saya hurriedly hid from view.
C’mon, go past.
The jeep stopped a short distance away and opened fire.
“We’ve been found!” Saya turned on the lights and drove out of the parking spot.
An armored trooper operated a mounted machine gun on top of the jeep, peppering the sedan’s hood with bullets. Cracks spread across the reinforced windows as Saya drove past the enemy vehicle. The jeep quickly turned around to chase them.
The machine gun went silent. The enemy probably avoided shooting their rear end in fear of killing Mashiro by accident.
“Arashi, that jeep might have an RPG too. I need you to get them off our tail fast.”
Arashi pulled a frag grenade from her vest and opened the car window. She stuck her shoulders out of the car to get a better look at her target. With a sharp flick of her elbow, she pitched the grenade at the jeep. At the same time, a rifle bullet went through her left bicep. A small squeak passed her lips as she fell back into her seat.
The jeep veered to the side and avoided the brunt of the explosion. The frag grenade damaged its rear tire and slowed it down, but it still kept chasing them.
“How bad is it!?” asked Saya.
Arashi pressed down on the wound. “It’s bleeding a lot.”
The bullet must’ve hit a major blood vessel.
She needs first aid.
Mashiro desperately rubbed her face on the front seat until her gag slipped off. “Cut my hands free!”
Saya turn to their hostage, shocked by the ridiculous proposition. “Are you crazy?”
“I can’t bandage her arm like this!” Mashiro raised her bound wrists. “I can’t run away with my ankles bound, so please!”
“You do know we are kidnapping you, right?”
“She can’t fight anymore with that wound. I can’t just let her die.”
“Cut her hands free,” said Ageha.
Saya could not believe what she heard. “You can’t be serious-”
That was all it took to convince her. Saya took out a pocket knife and cut Mashiro’s hands loose. Mashiro quickly removed her shirt and used it as a tourniquet for Arashi’s left arm.
Saya sped past the nth red light of the night. A civilian convertible appeared from the intersection and hit the rear corner of their car. The sedan spun around a few times and crashed into a fire hydrant, spilling water onto the street. No amount of skill or training could circumvent the inevitability of physics and unpredictability of luck.
When Saya came to, she immediately checked on her condition. Her vision was blurry like a foggy lens, and blood dripped from her forehead.
How long was I out?
Because she was still in the driver’s seat, it was probably just a few seconds. She turned her neck to check on her passengers. Arashi and Mashiro were dazed but safe. Saya tore off the deflated airbag and checked the vehicle’s condition on the dashboard. A few red lights were on, but the engine and tires seemed to be intact.
It can still run.
The jeep with the damaged tires stopped near the sedan. The trooper aimed the mounted machine gun at Saya’s cracked window. She frantically shifted into reverse and stomped on the gas pedal, but the car did not move. The front bumper was stuck on the damaged fire hydrant.
Sparks erupted from the gun’s muzzle as the door’s armor got blasted off bit by bit. More cracks appeared on her window. Saya ducked down while shifting to drive.
The window broke, sending fragments of so-called bulletproof glass raining on her back. She continued pumping on the gas pedal but only succeeded in burning rubber. The bullets began breaking through the car’s armor. One round got inside and left a hole on the passenger seat, inches away from her face.
I won’t make it…
A black van plowed into the side of the jeep, pushing it through the display windows of a clothing store.
Ageha emerged from van’s driver seat and rushed to the sedan. “Are you okay?”
I swear, if you keep saving me like that, I’ll become your complete slave.
Maybe I already am.
Naturally, she hid those thoughts and put on a nonchalant expression.
“Little help?” Saya pointed at the hydrant.
He lifted the car off the ground and pushed it away from the obstacle before hopping in the backseat. “Sorry I’m late.”
“No, you’re earlier than expected.” She backed into the street and drove off.
“I hitched a ride.”
After confirming that they were not being followed, Saya breathed a sigh of relief and wiped away the blood on her face.
“Listen to me,” said Mashiro, “you have to surrender. Things will only get worse. My father won’t let you get away-”
“Thanks for patching her up, Oogi-san.” Ageha glanced at the injured Arashi.
“Ah, don’t mention it. I just did what anyone, mmph!”
Ageha gagged Mashiro and bound her wrists again. “Now sit tight until we arrive.”