Chapter Fifteen: Rendezvous

Mao’s eyelids snapped open. With her left hand, she fumbled around for her vibrating mobile but only found silken sheets and warm flesh.

Right.

Not my bed.

This time, she reached out with her right and grabbed her device. She checked the screen while cupping her other hand around it to prevent the light from leaking into the dark bedroom.

Where are you going, Ying?

Mao focused on the marker displayed on the map of the city, which represented the tracker she had planted in Ying’s shoe. Mao’s mobile was set up to give an alert whenever Ying went farther than two miles from it.

A few days ago, Mao and Ying accompanied Mei Xing on a business trip to Japan. As a reward for Ying’s accomplishments in weeding out the traitors, her team had been assigned as Mei Xing’s personal guard. Mao felt proud, having been the one who took the girl in and looked after her.

However, Mao saw Ying sneaking out of their hotel the very night they arrived in Tokyo. Chen had already been dealt with, so Ying should not have had a reason to do such a thing. Mao had subtly asked Mei Xing about it, but he denied assigning Ying any new covert tasks.

Is Ying a traitor too?

That doesn’t add up.

She protected Mei Xing many times.

As Mei Xing’s bodyguard, Mao could not let such suspicious behavior go unchecked, regardless of her personal feelings.

I have to follow her.

Mao tried to get off the bed, but her waist and legs were caught by something. She gently pushed the blanket off her body. Mei Xing’s arms had ensnared her torso, while Setsu’s legs were intricately tangled with her own. Blood rushed to her head as she remembered last night’s events.

How many times does this make?

What the heck am I doing with my boss and his wife..?

That was a question she repeatedly asked herself ever since the first instance, but the couple convinced her to forget about it each and every time. Mei Xing made it a habit to bring his family on longer trips to keep them safe, which often resulted in nighttime exercises for the trio.

I don’t have time to reflect on this right now.

Mao carefully moved Mei Xing’s arms to free her waist. He moaned and would not let go. After a few more tries, she successfully escaped his grasp. Next came Setsu’s leg lock. Setsu lay perpendicular to her and Mei Xing for some reason. That made it incredibly difficult to untangle their legs without shaking the bed too much.

After releasing herself from her cozy cage, Mao felt around the hotel room floor for her qipao. She found it under the bed and put it on. Something slick and sticky rubbed off on her fingers.

What is this?

Her dress was coated with it. She gave it a sniff and turned beet red.

I can’t go out like this!

It was not just her clothes. Her entire body reeked of passion. Getting found tailing a target because of her body odor would irreparably shatter her dignity, so she decided to take a quick shower and change clothes before pursuing Ying.

Fortunately, Li Xue was sound asleep in the suite’s other bedroom, so there were no other obstacles to freedom. Tip-toeing across the spacious suite, she reached the door and gently twisted the doorknob like a thief. Without making a sound, she slipped into the hallway and rushed to her hotel room while praying no one would run into her.

 

***

 

What a letdown.

Sakuya would yawn if she could, but the automaton, as Gen called it, did not have a mouth.

“Remember, we’re not here to fight,” said Makoto. “Mashiro’s safety is our top priority. But keep your guard up. We can’t trust Nikaido.”

A bunch of affirmative responses came over the van’s radio.

Sakuya was aching for a fight, but with a truce in place, she begrudgingly reined it in. She did not want Ken to dislike her for endangering Mashiro, who he seemed to care a lot about.

The vans arrived at the designated meeting point, an abandoned gas station. Entrance and exit ramps connected the roofed station to the freeway. The entire facility lay about a floor lower than the main road, with brick walls lining the elevated land around it.

A non-descript gray car waited for them at the other end of the station. A few tense seconds after the vans killed their engines, the gray car’s passenger door opened. A man in a black helmet and body armor emerged, the rising sun dying him in a dull yellow tint.

Ageha.

Bloodlust pulsed in Sakuya’s veins, but she easily restrained it. Her urges had weakened considerably, an effect of Mitsuki infecting her personality.

Sakuya watched the gray car through the windshield as Ken fidgeted in suspense on the automaton’s lap. Ageha opened the rear door and made way for Mashiro to come out. She looked safe and unbound. Without being prompted, she calmly lined up to Ageha’s left.

“Thank god she’s okay.” Makoto deflated his chest and relaxed his rigid shoulders. “I’m heading out to make contact.”

After Makoto showed himself, Kaika and Saya also exited the car. Saya remained behind the open driver-side door, while Kaika stood to Ageha’s right.

“I can’t just watch.” Ken opened the van’s door and hopped out.

“I’m going with you.” Sakuya followed him.

“I didn’t ask you two to come,” said Makoto.

“They have two cyborgs on their side.” Sakuya put a hand on her hip. “We’re here to even the odds, right?”

Makoto looked at them in turn before shrugging. “Okay, but don’t do anything stupid.” He pressed a button on his earpiece and spoke to the armored troopers. “Stay in the vans. I don’t want to agitate them.”

Kaika, Ageha, and Mashiro walked towards the gas pumps.

Makoto clicked his tongue. “Why are those two tagging along?” He took a deep breath and moved to meet the other party.

Ken and Sakuya silently followed behind him.

The two groups met underneath the roofed gas pump area. They stood about fifteen feet away from each other, far enough to give the illusion of safety, but close enough for conversation.

“Makoto, are you okay?” asked Mashiro.

“That’s my line, idiot.”

“I’m not the one with a broken arm. Ken, how about you?”

“I’m fine. Did they hurt you?” Ken glared at Ageha’s helmet.

“Not at all. They even treated me to a delicious meal.”

Kaika looked at Makoto. “Your employer and I have come to an agreement. There’s no need for hostility.”

Makoto snorted indignantly. “Say that after your bodyguard takes off his armor.”

“Sorry, but unlike you, we only brought one car,” said Ageha. “Just being careful.”

“Don’t put us on your level. We don’t use cheap tricks like that.”

“Makoto, don’t be rude,” said Mashiro.

Makoto ignored her and glared at Kaika. “What do you want? I thought you were just bringing Mashiro to us.”

“I just came out to apologize. I’m sure you were worried because we invited Mashiro unexpectedly.” Kaika nodded her head casually. “Sorry.” She jabbed Ageha’s hip with her elbow. “C’mon, you too.”

“Sorry,” said Ageha curtly.

Caught off guard, Makoto stuttered. “O-Okay.”

“As an apology, I’ll tell you something good. Wanna hear it?”

Makoto furrowed his brow. He could not get a read on Ageha with the mask covering his face.  “Sure.”

“Oogi-san has someone she likes, and judging from our conversation, it’s you.”

Mashiro’s ears turned crimson to the roots. “Wh-Wh-What are you talking about!?”

Makoto blinked a few times, his mouth ajar. “R-Really?” He turned his gaze from Ageha’s tinted helmet to Mashiro.

“T-This isn’t the time, Makoto!”

“I wasn’t sure, to be honest,” said Ageha, “but her reaction now speaks for itself.”

Kaika jabbed him with her elbow again. “Tell me about these things next time. I wanna be the one to mess with them.”

“How greedy can you be? You do enough of that with us.”

“Fine, scrooge. Nice bait, though.”

“Learned from the master.”

Ken and Sakuya tilted their heads at the same time.

What are these people doing?

Mashiro clenched her fists on her sides, arms straight as arrows. “Ugh, can I go now?”

Kaika raised an eyebrow at her. “Why are you asking me? Ageha and I just came over to apologize. You were free to go from the start, remember? Going senile?”

“This midget..!” Eyebrows twitching, Mashiro bit her bottom lip and stomped over to Makoto. “We’re leaving!”

Makoto looked at her embarrassed face. “D-Don’t I get a hug or something? I was worried sick, like Nikaido-san said.”

“No! Don’t be tricked by them!”

Slumping his shoulders, Makoto made a dejected face. “So it wasn’t true…”

“Th-That’s…” Mashiro grabbed her hair and moaned. “I’ve had it! I just wanna go home! I’m sick and tired of getting kidnapped!”

Ken approached her. “Sorry. I couldn’t protect you.”

“Ah, I didn’t mean it like that. You did your best. I should be the one apologizing for getting you involved in my problems.”

“N-No, that’s okay. M-Mashiro-neesan… I think I got fired from my old job. C-Can I keep working for you?”

“No.”

Ken’s face clouded in an instant.

“Hey, you bitch!” said Sakuya.

“I. am. not. a. bitch!” Mashiro looked at Sakuya and released a short shriek. “W-What is this!?”

“I’ve been standing here the whole time, but whatever. Don’t be mean to Ken or I’ll skewer you like a roast pig.”

“I’m not being mean to him.” Mashiro put her hands on the boy’s shoulders. “Ken, you can stay with me as long as you want, but you won’t be working.”

“You’re not gonna pay him!? You’re a worse boss than I am!” said Kaika.

“So you do know how bad you are,” said Ageha.

Mashiro stomped her foot. “That’s not what I meant! I mean he doesn’t need to do dangerous things anymore. He can stay with me even if he stops fighting.”

“Thank you, Mashiro-neesan!” Ken showed a glowing expression completely unlike his usual emo self.

That ticked Sakuya off a little.

She put her hands on her waist and leaned towards Ken. “What about me? I came all the way here to help you.”

“I’m grateful to you too!” He turned to the automaton and wrapped its hand with both of his. “Without you, I would still be helplessly roaming the darkness and blaming this cruel world for my twisted fate.”

“…I’m glad you appreciate it, but dial down the emo-ness a bit.”

Kaika waved her hand to get Sakuya’s attention. “By the way, since when did you start working for Mashiro? Does Ria know about this?”

Kaika and Ageha did not know her real identity. The automaton’s voice was altered to prevent identification. She did not reply to prevent any info from leaking.

“The silent treatment, huh. No matter.” Kaika turned about face. “As much as I’d like to watch more of this drama, that’s sarcasm by the way, I really need to be getting back. Farewell.” She walked back towards her car, with Ageha following behind her like a wraith.

Sakuya noticed Ken still holding her hand. “Y-You can let go now. If you want, I mean.” She felt glad the automaton did not have a face because her expression kept twisting around inside her helmet.

Ken was not holding her hand but the automaton’s. However, the ticklish warmth transferred to Sakuya’s real body, kindling unknown emotions inside her. Those feelings gave her incomplete self a semblance of contentment.

Ken shyly looked away, his eyes awkwardly darting around. “S-Sorry, I-”

Red erupted from Ken’s jaw. His eyes rolled back as his face lost all expression. He fell to his knees. Sakuya reflexively held onto his left hand, keeping him from falling to the ground. His body hung limply by their connection.

Sakuya stared at his lifeless face. Blood gushed out of the hole on the side of his neck, bathing his body and soaking his clothes.

“Ken?” she whispered.

Her enhanced hearing caught raucous movements happening all around her: car doors opening, men shouting, metal clanking, gun’s blazing, but her mind did not register any of them. She blankly stared at the boy hanging from her hand like a puppet on its last string.

Terrible nausea attacked her. Her consciousness shook like a rickety raft in a stormy sea until it got swallowed by the towering waves.

 

***

 

Mitsuki opened her eyes and saw a boy bathed in blood. She screamed and faded out.

 

***

 

Sakuya saw Ken’s corpse a second time. She screamed and faded out.

 

***

 

Mitsuki felt her body shaking uncontrollably. She remembered a frightening dream where the boy she loved died in front of her. That image, along with those of her dead father and Valeriya covered in blood, repeatedly cycled in her head. She feared opening her eyes, but she suffered infinitely with them closed.

She gingerly cracked her eyelids and realized that her dream was reality. She screamed and faded out.

 

***

 

Sakuya faced Ken’s death again.

How many times is it now?

She did not know. Her consciousness flickered back and forth within a second. All she knew was how the hole in her chest kept growing deeper and wider each time.

You won’t even let me hide, Mitsuki.

Everyone called me cruel.

Even Ria did.

But you’re worse.

I don’t want to see this.

I don’t want to be here.

I’ve been keeping you safe all this time.

Why can’t you do that for me just this once?

She tasted salt. Sakuya could taste the warm liquid soaking her lips. Searching for where the tears went, she looked down. But the automaton had no eyes, so she could not find them.

Instead, she noticed how she kept holding Ken up by the hand. A memory surfaced in her confused mind.

De ja vu.

Yeah, there was this boy.

He told me he liked me.

I held his hand.

What did he look like?

I can’t remember.

From the edge of her enhanced peripheral vision, she noticed someone firing a pistol while peeking in and out of cover. She turned her head and zoomed in on the person’s face.

That face.

He had that face.

Sakuya instantly understood that the boy with the pistol killed the boy in front of her. The angle was right. The weapon was right. Everything was right. And wrong.

Ying.

That was his name.

But I killed him.

How can he kill Ken if he’s dead?

Then he’s not dead.

What now?

I just have to kill him.

Kill him. Kill him. Kill him.

Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him.

Then what?

Who cares?

Just kill.

 

***

 

Ying shot an armored trooper, but her handgun did as much damage as a peashooter.

What happened?

What am I doing here?

She remembered following Sakuya and the black vans from Valeriya’s building. It had taken a lot of effort tailing them in a car without being seen, but she was particularly good at those things.

She also remembered she ran out of medicine last night. Her parched throat craved for it, but she had to wait until morning to buy more.

She also remembered seeing Sakuya in her true form, not the frail little girl, but the invulnerable steel fiend.

She also remembered Sakuya holding a boy’s hand. Whose hand was that? Was it her brother’s? No. Was it her own? No. Then whose was it? Did it matter? No.

All that mattered was the wrongness of it.

Only she, as her brother’s successor, had the right to hold Sakuya’s hand.

Sakuya had agreed to love her brother back. Therefore, she had to love Ying too. Ying lived inside Ying, no, Ying was Ying, after all.

So Ying had shot the boy. And the boy had died. That was less than ten seconds ago.

So many nuisances had shown up since then and started shooting at her. Although her mind floated in a murky abyss, her body defended itself by instinct. Her training kept her from dying and even made her retaliate automatically.

But surviving against the armored troopers was the limit. Her instincts told her she would not survive the streak of silver lightning headed her way.

Sparks scattered before her eyes. Gleaming claws deflected Sakuya’s attack.

“What are you standing around for!?” Mao’s long braid whipped in front of Ying. “We’re getting out of here!”

“B-But I-”

Mao clawed at Sakuya’s faceless head, leaving shallow scratches on the polished surface. “Run! Your car is closer! I’m right behind you!”

“Kill. Kill. Kill.” Sakuya slowly approached them, arms swaying limply, like a rabid ape.

Regaining her senses, Ying ran with all her might while Mao kept Sakuya busy. She dashed up the slope leading to the freeway. Her car was parked on the shoulder, just outside of view from the gas station.

A tremendous impact struck her back. She crashed to the rough asphalt face first.

Ying tried to push her body off the ground, but her left elbow was dislocated. Each breath felt like getting stabbed in the lungs. She guessed her broken ribs were probably doing exactly that. Shifting her face to the side, Ying saw what hit her. It was Mao, clearly in worse shape than she was. Blood coated her gashed face and busted lips. Her mangled left arm hung limply from her shoulder.

Despite that, Mao forced herself to her wobbly feet, “Get to the car. I’ll hold that thing off.”

Why is she going so far to save me?

“Why..?”

“We’re part of Mei Xing’s family. Neither of us can die here.”

Sakuya leisurely walked over to them and tilted her head at Mao. “Why are you getting in my way? Wait your turn. I’ll cut up everyone soon enough.” A thin foot-long alloy blade grew out from each of her forearms, extending past her hand like a short sword.

A violent firefight continued behind Sakuya. Armored troopers opened fire against Kaika’s group. Several troopers ambushed the gray car from behind, preventing Kaika and Ageha from running back to their vehicle. They were sandwiched by enemy forces.

Ying had not intended to create chaos. However, when she saw that boy holding Sakuya’s hand, the next thing she knew, she had drawn her gun and pulled the trigger.

She did not know why Mao was at the scene, but Ying’s lapse had placed her in danger. Her sense of responsibility returned her to sanity.

Ying struggled to her feet, blood dripping down her chin. “I… won’t run… alone. We have to… escape together.”

Mao glanced at her. “Well said.”

“Shut up.” Sakuya closed the distance in an instant and stabbed her sword into Mao’s right shoulder.

Mao screamed in agony but instantly countered with a front kick that hit Sakuya in the gut. The force threw Sakuya backward, but she landed on her feet. Mao rushed towards Sakuya as Ying provided cover fire from behind. The bullets hit Sakuya’s head repeatedly. Taking advantage of the distraction, Mao jumped up and caught Sakuya’s head between her thighs. It was not the safest move, but with no functioning arms, she had no other choice. Mao flexed her alloy legs to the side to snap Sakuya’s neck, but like a deep-rooted tree, it did not budge.

Sakuya grabbed Mao’s shoulders, pulled them downward, and lazily thrust her knee into Mao’s spine.

A crisp crack pricked Ying’s eardrums.

Mao fell limp and flopped to the ground. Sakuya stepped on Mao’s right forearm to pin it down and ripped the claw from her right wrist.

Ying emptied her magazine into Sakuya’s head, but it did little more annoy the silver fiend. Sheer terror urged her to escape, but she gritted her teeth and reloaded instead.

I can’t leave Mao behind!

Sakuya hurled Mao’s claw at Ying’s face. She dodged it at the last moment, but one of the blades nicked her cheek. She continued firing at Sakuya’s head in hopes of inflicting damage, but her attempts were futile. Judging from how Sakuya shrugged off Mao’s cybernetic leg lock, her neck seemed to be fortified to resist impact.

Ying ran out of ammo. She threw the gun at Sakuya and dashed to her car. There was an assault rifle in the trunk. She knew it was optimistic but hoped it would be enough firepower to push Sakuya back and rescue Mao.

Ying tumbled to the ground face first.

My legs won’t move!

Mao’s poison!

Sakuya turned her body over. “Finally some alone time.” She snickered like a child playing a prank.

“…Why are you doing this?”

“Don’t talk.” Sakuya sliced the nerves in her left elbow.

Ying squealed from the excruciating pain. The remnants of her sanity vanished.

“Now for the other arm.” Sakuya raised her other blade.

“You whore!!! You were supposed to love Ying! But you were all over that brat!!! I love you!!! Why can’t you understand that!? I had to kill him! It was all your fault!!!” Blood and saliva sprayed from Ying’s mouth as she forced her punctured lungs to scream.

Without replying, Sakuya cut the nerves in her right elbow.

This time, Ying did not make a sound. The poison had made its way to her throat. Keeping her eyelids open was the best she could do.

“You know what?” Sakuya crouched beside her face. “I get it. I understand how it feels to wanna kill someone no matter what. So I forgive you. We can even be friends.”

Ying’s eyes widened.

She remembers me!

And she forgave me!

Just like how I forgave her for killing Ying!

She understands!!!

“That’s why you understand why I gotta do this, right?” With a flick of her arm, Sakuya withdrew her right blade into her forearm. “As your pal, I’ll send you off just like your brother.” She jammed her fingers into Ying’s gut, twisted them inside, and pulled out chunks of her organs.

Ying used the final flicker of her life to mouth the words “Thank you” before shutting her eyes for good.

 

***

 

“Keep your head down!” Ageha took cover behind a pillar while embracing Kaika.

Bullets ricocheted off his armor and arms, battering his body slowly but surely.

Ageha checked on Saya. Using the front and rear car doors as cover, she exchanged fire with the troopers. She alternated between a paintball gun and an assault rifle to blind and push back the enemies as necessary.

These guys were ready to ambush us from the start.

Ageha did not recognize the teenager who shot Ken, but Mao had shown up to save her.

What’s going on here?

Speculation could wait. First, they had to escape.

“I need to get Kai in the car,” said Ageha.

“I’ll distract the enemies in the rear with incendiary grenades,” said Saya. “Use that chance to get inside.” She tossed three small rectangular grenades at the enemies behind the car.

“Fire in the hole!” shouted an enemy.

The troopers scuttled away from the grenades and avoided the brunt of the fiery explosions. Ageha ran to the car and shoved Kaika into the backseat. Saya closed the rear door she had been using for cover and hopped into the driver seat.

Ageha surveyed the battlefield.

The troopers behind the car were beginning to regroup. Those in front kept shooting at them from afar. Makoto pushed Mashiro inside one of the vans. The robot approached the unconscious Mao near the entrance ramp. Ageha zoomed in with his bionic eyes and saw Ken’s killer, dead, a few feet away from Mao.

“Saya, go ahead and take Kai to safety,” he said.

“What are you talking about!? Get in!”

“I have to save Mao.”

Mei Xing would never forgive me if I abandon her like this.

“No! It’s too dangerous!”

“Sorry.” Ageha shut the door as he endured a few bullets on his torso and thighs. “Overload mode, activate.”

Seething energy filled his body. He poured it into his legs and kicked the ground, exploding into a sprint. Just as the robot raised its blade to finish Mao off, a van cut in from the side, blocking Ageha’s way.

Ageha leapt over the vehicle and kicked off the roof’s edge with both feet to propel himself towards the robot. The force tilted the van until it almost fell to its side.

He tackled the robot with his shoulder. They crashed into the brick wall fencing the gas station. The robot took the brunt of the impact on its back.

Ageha endured the dizziness and thrust a muay thai knee in the robot’s solar plexus. He repeated that a few more times to ensure the robot’s destruction, each blow embedding the enemy deeper into the cracked wall. With most of its torso buried in concrete and soil, the robot finally stopped moving.

Ageha ran to Mao’s side and checked her pulse.

Still alive.

I need to take her to the car.

Judging by her unnatural pose on the ground, Mao’s back was likely injured. Moving her recklessly could kill her on the spot.

“Saya, drive over here. I need to move Mao to the backseat carefully-”

“Behind you!”

Ageha dove forward. A shrill scraping noise reverberated from his back. He rolled on the ground and twisted his body to face his attacker.

“Do you have eyes in the back of your head?” The robot scraped its blades against each other, as if honing the edges.

“You’re tougher than last time,” said Ageha.

“And you’re faster and stronger.”

It really is Crescent.

Ageha had been unsure of the enemy’s identity. A different person could have been controlling the machine, but the robot’s reply confirmed it was the person who he and Saya fought in the arena.

But what’s with the screaming when Ken got killed?

Did this guy know him?

Ageha had heard muffled cries from one of the black vans harmonizing with the robot’s screams.

The one controlling that thing is in one of those vans.

The pitch was high, probably female.

But he could not be sure. If the robot’s voice was altered, the pilot’s voice could be too. Crescent had also been a hulking giant and a little boy once, so anything was possible.

Crescent approached him while swaying from side to side like a drunkard. With a sudden burst of speed, she closed in and unleashed a flurry of slashes. The erratic movements made them hard to predict, but Ageha’s bionic vision allowed him to keep track of the attacks. He took large backward steps to escape the flashing blades. Two gashes opened up on his chest plate. The blades could penetrate his armor if they connected at a good angle.

“Ageha, get back here!” said Kaika from his earpiece.

“I told you to get outta here!” He ducked a horizontal slash and countered with a body blow.

Crescent hopped back to avoid it and resumed her strange swaying.

“I can’t do that without a driver! Who do you think has been covering your ass all this time?”

Ageha searched for Saya. Fortunately, his tinted mask prevented Crescent from noticing that he was looking away. The car had been moved beside a wall, likely to avoid getting flanked. Saya was keeping the armored suits busy while using the car as cover.

Saya’s rifle hurt the troopers enough to knock them down, but they got up after a few breaths. The enemies gradually closed in, rising and falling like zombies. They did not fire at her.

Mashiro probably ordered them to capture us alive.

Crescent’s blade flew at Ageha’s face like a whip. He leaned back to avoid it. As the edge scraped his helmet, he spun around and slammed a side kick into Crescent’s chest. She flew through the air and crashed into one of the armored troopers.

Ageha checked the gash on his helmet.

I can’t take clean hits from those blades.

They’re designed to cut metal.

A trooper tried to help Crescent to her feet. She took his hand and stuck her blade into the thin gap between his chest and waist plates. Following the curve of the plates, she gutted him like a fish before pulling her blade out. The trooper’s armor leaked blood as he collapsed.

The trooper Crescent crashed into earlier grabbed her ankle. “The fuck are you doing! We’re allies!”

She stabbed her blade into the trooper’s neck joint, instantly killing him. The joints seemed like paper against her swords.

Those idiots.

Crescent did not care about sides. All she wanted to do was kill, something that had not changed since Ageha fought her in the arena.

He had been hoping to escape with Mao or to kill the person controlling the robot. Both tasks seemed impossible with Crescent targeting him. He had to deal with her first.

With blood dripping from her blades, Crescent’s featureless face weakly turned to Ageha. For some reason, that gesture gave him the impression that she was crying. However, he could not spare a second caring about that. His overload mode had a time limit, and so did Mao’s life. Ageha cracked his alloy knuckles and committed himself to the deathmatch.

 

***

 

There she goes again.

Gen frowned at the laptop screen, which showed Sakuya murdering two men in an instant. Sakuya would be the perfect subject if not for her unpredictable outbursts. This one, however, was no surprise. Sakuya had clearly been smitten with the boy. His death would naturally cause this reaction.

“Hey Doc! Stop that robot now!” said Makoto from the front seat.

Mashiro, who sat beside Gen, peeked at his monitor and then pointed at Sakuya’s neural control headgear. “Can’t you turn that thing off!?”

“I can, but I won’t. The data I’m getting in this test is invaluable. She’s pushing the automaton beyond its paper specs.”

“Cut the crap!” Makoto glared at him. “Turn it off now!”

Gen took out a small revolver from his lab coat and pointed it at Mashiro’s face. “I refuse. The two of you in front, please exit the van and move away, or I’ll kill her.”

“You bastard-”

“Now, please. And leave the keys in the ignition.” Gen gently squeezed the trigger, nudging it just a little bit.

“Stop bluffing! You’re gonna shoot her? Then what? We’ll kill you right after. You need her alive to get outta here.”

“Makes sense.” Gen lowered his aim to her torso. “I’m a doctor. I know exactly where to shoot to make her suffer but keep her alive for a while. Should I give you a demonstration?”

“Okay, okay! Calm down!” Makoto gave the driver a look. “We’re getting out!”

Makoto and the driver stepped out and shut the doors.

Gen reached over to the driver’s panel and locked the doors. “Now you get out, Miss.” Keeping the gun aimed at Mashiro’s chest, he cocked his head to the rear door.

“Why are you doing this?”

“It’s just an experiment. Nothing personal.”

“…Sick bastard.” Mashiro scowled at him, disgust plainly written on her face.

Gen could not care less. Mashiro opened the rear door and stepped out, leaving Gen and Sakuya alone in the van.

“Close it.”

She complied. Gen quickly locked the rear door. Then he pushed down the driver’s backrest and got into the seat.

The signal should be unaffected if the unit is relatively close by.

This is a good chance to test signal strength and latency.

Gen started the van and drove out of the gas station.

 

***

 

She’s getting faster!

Even though Ageha could see Crescent’s attacks, he could not react to them quickly enough. Consecutive slashes struck Ageha’s armor, leaving a large tear. Before he could back away, Crescent stabbed her blade into the gap. The sword hit Ageha’s chest with the force of a rifle bullet, robbing him of breath. The tip pierced an inch deep into his alloy muscle, something that had never happened before. He blocked her turning kick with his arm and jumped along with the momentum. He rolled sideways on the ground to gain some distance.

Crescent did not chase him immediately. She simply turned her body to where he was and slowly advanced, still swaying side to side. At first, Ageha had thought that movement was some kind of tactic to confuse him. And it did. She seemed to have no drive to finish the fight, but the weight and speed of her attacks proved otherwise.

Crescent exuded both despair and anger, a bitter brew Ageha gradually recognized as they fought. Back when he found out that Arashi’s father was responsible for “killing” Saya, Ageha had entered the same state and defeated him one-sidedly. Heightened concentration and terrifying calmness had given him a decisive edge over a more experienced enemy. This time, Ageha was on the receiving end.

Numerous gashes littered his arms and legs. The pain each of them inflicted barely registered, but the overall toll they took on his performance grew as the battle wore on.

Ageha received unexpected assistance from the troopers. They shot Crescent with their rifles to avenge their fallen comrades, transforming the battle into a free for all.

Crescent flinched from the well-placed shots, but they did not stop her for long. She did not even bother protecting herself.

When Crescent got close, Ageha also became a target of the gunfire. However, he was not nearly as durable. The force churned his innards and blurred his vision.

During an exchange, a bullet hit the back of Ageha’s knee, causing him to stagger forward. Crescent met his unguarded chin with an uppercut. The blow turned his legs to jelly and dropped him.

His neckbrace did not buffer vertical collisions as effectively as horizontal ones. While he could twist his shoulders and waist to supplement his neck’s lack of horizontal flexibility, he would have trouble looking up if his vertical motion had been as restricted.

A lead boulder fell on his chest. Upon parting his heavy eyelids, he realized it was just Crescent’s foot. She stomped on him again and again, slowly cracking his armor. He began drowning in his own vomit as stomach fluids bubbled to his throat.

“Ageha!!!”

He heard Saya’s frantic voice in his earpiece.

I can’t die like this!

Through sheer will, Ageha caught Crescent’s foot and tried to kick her. Crescent deftly dodged his leg and retaliated by kicking his head using her free foot. She lost balance and fell on top of him. But that was no opportunity. He could barely move. His fingers lost strength, allowing her to easily escape his grasp and get up.

Crescent launched herself vertically off the ground. She flipped once in midair and put her feet together for a stomp. Ageha forced his body to move, but he only succeeded in nudging himself a few inches. It was not enough to avoid the missile hurtling towards his body.

A black javelin speared Crescent on her way down, throwing her to the side.

Saya’s face appeared above him. “Are you okay!?”

Ageha rolled to his side and sat up. He disengaged the visor lock and opened his helm, releasing the vomit inside. “I’ve had better days.”

“I’ll keep her busy. Go to the car.”

He closed the visor while getting to his feet. His vision swayed terribly, forcing him back to his knees.

Crescent stood up about twenty feet away and turned to Saya. “You’re in the way. Again. This time I’ll kill you.”

Saya threw two knives at her face. The blades bounced off, doing no damage.

Crescent tilted her head. “You never learn, do you?”

“I’m actually a quick learner.”

A rocket propelled grenade exploded on Crescent’s flank, blowing her away. Her body crashed into one of the gas pumps, destroying it. A trooper was responsible for the perfectly executed sneak attack.

Saya pulled Ageha up by his arm. “We have to go! Ojousama is surrounded!”

Ageha saw armored soldiers teeming around the locked gray car. Then he looked to the far right, focusing on the unconscious Mao. “We need to save her.”

“Fine, but we need to get back to the car first.”

A trooper aimed his rifle at them. “Freeze!”

Ignoring the warning, Saya jogged towards the car while supporting Ageha. The trooper shot at them without hesitation. The burst caught Saya’s leg, causing them to stumble to the ground.

The trooper slammed to the ground.

Crescent, covered in soot, stood on his back and cut his arms off. “Don’t mess with my prey!!!”

“…We can’t kill that thing,” said Ageha. “We need to take out the pilot. She should be in one of the vans.”

“One drove off in a hurry earlier. The pilot was probably inside.”

Ageha clicked his tongue. “I have another idea. Keep the robot away from me as long as you can. The troopers should leave me alone that way.”

“Got it.”

“Here she comes!” Ageha pushed Saya away and fell on his side.

Crescent’s flying kick cut between them. Saya pulled out her pistol and shot Crescent’s body. Annoyed by the disturbance, Crescent chased after her.

If it’s just buying time, Saya should be able to hold out.

The smell of burning rubber emanated from Ageha’s body. His overload mode was still on, eating his energy and burning his skin. Smoke began seeping out of the gashes in his suit. As terrifying as it seemed, that was a good thing. Most of the heat dispersed outward, just as Tsubasa designed. His core muscles did not have power cells. All the energy originated from the tubular batteries in his limbs to prevent his organs from getting cooked. That said, conduction still transferred enough heat to make him feel like a live crab in a pot.

Ageha pushed himself off the ground and rose to one knee. After disengaging the locks on his neck brace, he opened the right side, exposing his neck. Then he took out a metal injection gun from a small compartment in his armor.

“Drop the gun or I’ll shoot!” A trooper aimed his rifle at him from about fifteen feet away.

With his neck in the open, a single lucky bullet could kill him. However, Ageha could not afford to waste any time. Saya was risking her life to buy him every second. He had to do the same.

Ageha pressed the muzzle to his neck and injected himself with the drug.

The trooper pulled the trigger, but his bullets hit the gas pump area’s ceiling.

“Hold your fire!” shouted Makoto, still holding the troopers rifle barrel. “Mashiro said no killing!”

“But these guys ain’t human!”

The drug quickly took effect. Ageha’s heart rate skyrocketed as his breathing sped up. The fog clouding his mind cleared up.

The theory was simple. Ageha had already acquired the pinnacle of current ARMS technology. His body was perfect. Despite that, he struggled in his fight against Ken, an amateur, because of drugs. How could he prevent that? The solution was simple. Eliminate the difference.

But that was not good enough. Despite Ken’s hyper-stimulants, Ageha had defeated him easily due to the gap in experience, tactics, and skills. Faster reaction time was not enough. He wanted something that would overcome all that.

At first, he had tried expanding his repertoire by using other weapons, such as guns or Zhi Zhu’s threads, but those attempts had only served as a reminder of his clumsiness. Ageha was not a jack-of-all-trades like Kaika or Saya.

Instead of searching for a new path, he had decided to continue down the road he was on. But where did that road lead?

To answer that, Ageha had asked himself how he survived until now. A few things had come mind: his pain tolerance, his ability to analyze his enemies, and his willingness to go one step further than anyone else.

Therein lay the answer.

Speed of thought.

He had asked Tsubasa to concoct a cocktail that enhanced his reaction and analytical speed, the ultimate fighting drug, no matter the cost.

Ageha recounted all that in less than a second, proving that the drug worked. Then came the side effects.

Why is it so painful!? My head’s splitting. My eyes are gonna pop. I can’t breath. I’m gonna die. I’m gonna die. Shit! Shit! Shit!!!

Free power was the stuff of fairytales. Trading away his human body was not enough, so he had bartered his mind for power as well.

Tsubasa had warned him about the danger. In fact, he had tasted the terrible side effects while taking much smaller doses during the drug’s testing phase. With a full dose, skull-cracking migraines were the least of his worries. Then again, dying here would leave him no room to worry about anything.

I don’t have time for this! Think. Think. Think! Think!!!

Thinking distracted him from the pain. So he thought and thought.

How do we survive in this situation? I need to get rid of the enemies around the car. I need to get Mao in the back seat. I need to escape from Crescent’s pursuit. Crescent is practically invulnerable. That means I need to disable Crescent as long as possible. How? How? How!? How!!?

Still kneeling on the ground, Ageha held his throbbing head. It was a strange sensation. His mind was hopelessly cluttered yet perfectly organized, like a well-used room.

I have one chance. Gotta stop Crescent while she doesn’t know about my enhanced abilities.

Ageha closed and locked his neckbrace.

The trooper rushed to his side and aimed the rifle at his head. “I said don’t move!”

“Calm down!” shouted Makoto. “Get away from him!”

Sorry, Mashiro.

I can’t let your men keep getting up again and again.

I can’t afford to hold back.

Because it hurts. It hurts. It hurts! It hurts!!!

His tolerance to pain meant nothing. He experienced endless torture.

He could not bear it, so he screamed.

That made him feel a little better.

 

***

 

Mashiro stared out the window. After depositing her in one of the armored vans, Makoto had gone out and saved Ageha’s life at her request.

Ageha was their savior. She could not just let him die.

An unknown assassin had murdered Ken, and that assassin was dead. This chaotic situation was not Ageha’s or Kaika’s fault. Mashiro understood that much, so she had sent Makoto to broker a ceasefire before things got any worse.

Ignoring the trooper’s frantic warnings, Ageha slowly rose to his feet and roared. Muffled by his helmet, his voice resembled a deep bellow, like the howl of a dying beast. Black smoke drifted from his body, as if his soul was burning to cinders within.

Ageha_v2

What’s happening to you?

The trooper beside the screaming Ageha panicked and shot his body. Mashiro could see Makoto screaming for the trooper to stop. Ageha took the attack without moving.

Then he ripped off the trooper’s chest plate, plunged a hand into his body, and tossed him to the brick wall over sixty feet away.

 

***

 

Saya desperately ran from the robot, attempting to buy more time for Ageha. Fighting it head on would kill her in seconds.

Bone-chilling screams grated her ears, one coming from her earpiece, another echoing throughout the gas station. Surprised by the sound, she got taken off her feet by the robot’s low sweep. She fell on her back but managed to unload a few shots into the robot’s chin. Saya kicked the robot’s knee and used the force to roll backward. She ended up in a crouch and aimed her pistol at her target, but it was gone.

A soccer kick came from her left. She dodged it by leaning backward but lost her balance. She fell on her back again, but this time, the robot mounted her waist before she could do anything.

There was no escape.

Sorry Ageha.

Sorry Ojousama.

That was the most she could think about as she took out an impact-triggered concussion grenade from her pocket. She knew it would do little damage to the robot, but that was better than dying without a fight. Saya armed it and waited for the robot’s killing blow.

The robot disappeared. So did the grenade in her hand.

She sat up and looked around for the missing objects.

A black cannonball leaving a faint trail of smoke flew towards the brick wall.

Ageha..?

For a moment, Saya doubted her eyes. But it had to be him. After all, the black demon kept screaming at the same time as the familiar voice from her earpiece.

In his left hand was the robot’s neck, the rest of it dragging behind him. In his right was the grenade he had snatched from Saya. He threw the grenade at the brick wall. The explosion damaged the bricks and exposed some of the soil behind it.

Ageha slammed the robot into the cracked surface and then unleashed a flurry of strikes, each hit embedding the robot deeper. When most of the robot’s body was buried in the wall, he ended the combo with a full power front kick.

He picked up a trooper, who had a hole in his chest, toppled near the wall. After pulling back to gather momentum, he jammed the dead trooper into the hole, plugging up the robot’s only escape route.

Then he roared.

The cry was agonizing for Saya. She did not know what exactly was happening to him. However, she instinctively understood that he had sacrificed another piece of his dwindling humanity. For them. For her.

If he continued like that, he would eventually lose everything that made him human.

So what?

Demon or not, she loved him. If he fell to the depths of hell, then they simply had to fall together.

 

***

 

Kaika hopped into the driver’s seat, but before she could step on the gas, one of the armored troopers lifted the car’s rear wheels off the ground. By the time the all-wheel drive system switched the front wheels on, two more troopers hoisted the vehicle’s front end into the air. The wheels only floated about an inch or two off the pavement, but that was enough.

Dammit!

She looked inside the car for anything that could help but found nothing. Saya had taken the grenades, and the pistol in the glove compartment was useless against the armored enemies.

A trooper attached a round plate on the driver side window. The device released a shrill ringing noise as the bulletproof glass began shaking. A few seconds later, the vibration shattered the window. The trooper unlocked all the doors using the driver’s panel and pulled out the car key.

Enemies surrounded the car. Kaika had nowhere to go. She tried to kick the trooper who tried to grab her from outside the rear door.

The trooper grabbed Kaika’s ankle. “Stop struggling!” The voice was female.

“Stop grabbing me first!” Kaika kicked the trooper’s helmet, lightly spraining her ankle in the process.

“Damn brat!” The trooper pulled Kaika in and slapped her face.

Red droplets spattered the rear window. Kaika gathered blood from the cuts in her mouth and spat it on the trooper’s visor.

“Bitch!” The trooper wiped off the stain with her free hand and buried her fist into Kaika’s gut.

Kaika’s vomit, a blend of red and yellow, splattered on the trooper’s forearm. The pain threatened to rob her of movement, but she forced herself to loop the seat belt around her arm to delay her capture.

“Why won’t you give the fuck up!?” The trooper ripped the seat belt from its root.

Kaika grinned, her pearly whites painted a deep, sticky crimson. “I’m waiting for someone.”

A jet-black fist smashed into the trooper’s chin. The trooper’s helmet flew off, revealing a blank, feminine face. The blow had pulverized her jaw and broken her neck.

The black demon ripped off her waist plate and stabbed his fingers into her solar plexus. He grabbed something inside, probably her spine, and lifted the body off the ground like an improvised tower shield. No, it was an improvised tower shield.

Tendrils of smoke snaked from his body, as if he were possessed by an evil spirit.

The demon roared.

This was not the first time. Kaika had been listening to his pained cries from her earpiece for a while now.

Sorry Ageha.

Sorry, but I’m having so much fun right now!

So this is what you’ve been hiding from me!

You never fail to exceed my expectations!

You never fail to entertain!!!

Kaika desperately tried to control the urge to laugh out loud.

She failed.

 

***

 

The troopers stared at Ageha in shock. He could not blame them. He had leapt right into the middle of their group and killed the bastard who hurt Kaika. From their perspective, Ageha had materialized out of thin air.

“Holy shit! What the fuck is that!?!”

“Open fire! Open fire!”

The troopers holding the car let go and readied their rifles. The ones by the doors began shooting at him. Kaika dove to the car floor while laughing like a maniac.

There were six enemies around the car, minus the one stuck to his forearm: Two in front, one at each front door, and one behind the trunk.

Ripping off the plates is easier than I thought. Saya can handle the ones with exposed vitals. It hurts. It hurts dammit. Stop complaining. Think. Think! Think!!! First, kill the one behind the trunk to divert gunfire away from Kai. Kai is acting crazy again. Why the hell is she laughing in this situation? She’s always been nuts. Stop. Gotta focus. Focus! First, the one behind the trunk.

Ageha raised his human shield and blocked the barrage of gunfire. He charged towards the trooper behind the trunk and knocked him down. He flipped the shield over his shoulder to protect his back and mounted the downed trooper. Ageha tore off his chest plate and ripped out his heart, along with a bunch of blood vessels and rib shards.

He threw the slimy organ at the trooper by the driver’s door. The heart burst on the trooper’s helmet, coating his visor with warm blood.

“Saya, backup.”

“O-Okay!”

While shielding himself from gunfire, Ageha grabbed the chest plate of the blinded trooper and kicked him in the gut. The trooper flew backward like a cannonball, but the armor plate remained in Ageha’s hand. As the enemy tumbled on the ground, Saya shot his exposed chest, killing him.

Ageha rushed to the two troopers in front of the car and bashed them with his shield, knocking them down at the same time.

“RPG! 8 O’Clock!” said Saya.

He turned to his left. A trooper a good distance away aimed a rocket launcher in his direction. A second before the rocket’s launch, Ageha hurled his shield towards the enemy. The female trooper’s corpse collided with the rocket and exploded into a burning heap.

Having lost his shield, Ageha took bullets in his armor and helmet. His vision flickered, but the drug kept his brain from shutting down.

He jumped over the car, flipping upside down above the trooper by the passenger door. He grabbed the trooper’s helmet and ripped it off over his shoulder as he landed, beheading the man neck in the process.

One of the troopers Ageha knocked down scurried to the driver’s side of the car and targeted Saya. She was busy exchanging fire with the troopers on the other side of the station and did not notice the threat.

Ageha kicked the passenger side door, shoving the entire vehicle sideways. The car hit the trooper, messing up his aim. His bullets missed Saya by a few feet.

“Fucking monster!!!” The trooper changed his target to Ageha.

Ageha ducked down to hide from the enemy’s crosshairs and slunk around the car. The trooper shot at him the moment he dashed out. Ageha blocked the bullets with his arms and then dove to the trooper’s feet. He pulled the trooper’s legs from under him and pinned his crotch down with a foot. Then he ripped off the man’s legs, armor and all. The trooper shot him in retaliation while screaming. As a reward for his bravery, Ageha wrenched off his arms too.

Out of the five troopers surrounding the car, only one remained. The trooper lay on the ground, frozen in fear, a few feet from his dead comrades.

Ageha ran over to him and asked, “Are you actually trying to play dead?”

Trembling like a wet cat, the trooper raised his hands in surrender. “I give up! I surrender! Please don’t kill me! Please!!!” Piss leaked out from the gaps in his crotch plate.

If I stop the killing now, maybe the fake alliance with Mashiro is still salvageable. Ken’s killer isn’t part of Kai’s organization, and it was Crescent who went berserk first. But letting a hostile go in combat is never a good idea. It’ll probably come back to bite me in the ass later. Guess I’ll kill him.

“They’re retreating!” said Saya.

The troopers rushed back to their vehicles. Some of the vans drove up the ramps leading to the freeway.

Good choice, Mashiro. Now all that’s left is to escape with Mao.

“It’s your lucky day.” Ageha tapped the trooper’s arm with his foot. “Get up and go. Tell your boss you’re alive only because of our deal.”

The trooper nodded thrice and ran off.

“Ageha, look out!” shouted Kaika.

Ageha reflexively raised his arms to protect his head, but the attack came from the side. Crescent’s flying kick launched him into the car’s windshield, cracking the glass. He rolled over the roof and fell to the ground.

He writhed in pain. Blood leaked from his mouth and armor. His brain throbbed faster than a hummingbird’s heartbeat.

Unlike the manga he read as a kid, his accelerated mind did not make the surroundings move slower. He was able to think and do more things, but everything still happened in the blink of an eye. There was nothing leisurely about it.

In short, it was absolutely exhausting, both mentally and physically. He felt like he was going to go insane. Or he already was.

Moreover, his power cells were almost out of energy. His artificial skin was half-melted, and his organs were simmering inside his body. The real skin on his neck began to blister from the heat.

But the fight was not over. Crescent had escaped from her grave faster than expected.

“Get Mao in the car.” Ageha pushed himself off the ground. “I’ll keep Crescent busy.”

“Yes you will.” Crescent kicked his gut, launching him away.

He tumbled sideways on the ground while leaving a trail of smoke. She chased after him, like a soccer player desperate to keep the ball in play.

Ageha flipped to his feet, skidding on the ground. Crescent’s blade left a scratch on his helmet as he narrowly avoided her thrust. He grabbed the tip of the blade with his left hand and punched its flat side with his right, breaking it.

She still hasn’t gotten used to my enhanced reaction speed. I need to deal as much damage as I can now. If hitting her doesn’t work, I’ll try ripping.

Crescent swung her other blade horizontally. Ageha ducked underneath and slipped behind her. He grabbed her waist with both arms and executed a german suplex. Her head smashed into the pavement, spreading cracks all over it. Despite her durability, the monstrous impact stunned her momentarily.

Keeping his arms around her, Ageha twisted his body around and pushed her face first into the floor. He pinned her back with his knee and grabbed her bladeless arm. Straining his muscles, he tried to rip the arm from the shoulder.

His elbow creaked as he exerted more force. At this rate, his joints would tear before hers did.

That robot doesn’t need shock mitigation like I do. Her joints are probably built for sheer durability. I can’t beat her in a grappling match. Gen, why couldn’t you be lazier!

While keeping her arm pinned, Ageha picked up the broken blade from the ground and stabbed it into her shoulder joint. Crescent regained her wits and began struggling beneath him. He repeatedly thrust the blade into her alloy ligaments.

Crescent stopped trying to free her damaged arm and focused on getting up. Despite Ageha’s abnormal weight for his size, Crescent easily lifted him and rose to her feet. With Ageha still stuck to her back, she ran full speed towards one of the vans.

She’s gonna smash me into that thing!

Ageha released her arm and hopped off her back. At that instant, Crescent reached out and grabbed his wrist with her undamaged hand. She braked and spun around, dragging Ageha in a circle and throwing him into the side of the van.

Without letting him fall, she dashed forward and stabbed her remaining blade into his left shoulder joint. The tip sank about an inch past the surface. Crescent roared as she pressed the blade further in with her entire body. The blade went through, skewering Ageha to the van.

Ignoring the pain, he grabbed Crescent’s nape with his free arm and slammed a knee into her gut. Then he pulled out her blade from his shoulder and kicked her away.

She rolled backward and quickly regained her footing. Her right arm hung from her shoulder like Valeriya’s empty sleeve.

Ageha checked his own condition.

The artificial nerve in my right shoulder was cut. My right arm is useless, just like hers. I’m almost out of energy. My speed and power are less than half of what it was earlier. I smell like barbecue. It hurts dammit. I want this to end!

Crescent seized her dangling arm and tore it off. The severed arm stiffened like a rod because energy stopped stimulating the alloy muscles. Then she held it by her waist like a sheathed sword, the thick end serving as the tip.

That’s a kenjutsu iai stance. I have a bad feeling about this.

“I’m impressed,” said Crescent. “I didn’t think you’d push me this far.”

“You look like you barely broke a sweat.”

“That’s because I don’t get tired or feel pain no matter how much I abuse this thing. It’s half broken already. I think the sensors are on the fritz. I can barely see you.”

True or not, he did not have time to leisurely chat. Ageha charged at her, ready to execute the move he learned from his duel with Valeriya.

As soon as Ageha came within range, Crescent unleashed her blindingly fast sword draw slash. Ageha ducked to the floor, avoiding the attack by a hair’s breadth. His accelerated mind analyzed Crescent’s next movements. That attack was merely bait. She used the momentum of her swing to spin around for a follow-up slash.

He expected that much. She had been defeated by Valeriya’s technique before in the arena and had surely prepared a counter. The wide horizontal swing would hit him even if he abruptly changed direction now. Fortunately, he did not plan to.

The purpose of his charge was to trick Crescent into thinking he would do the same move as in their previous fight. Unlike the brittle arena floor or the forest soil, his fingers could not penetrate the hard concrete pavement of the gas station with one thrust anyway. Anchoring himself that way was impossible in this situation.

So he opted for a simpler solution: Pounce on her with his entire weight.

His jumping tackle would surely reach Crescent before she could complete her rotation. If he did it right, her head would slam full force into the ground. Then he could stuff her into another wall while she was stunned.

Before he could jump, a powerful downward blow hit his shoulder, keeping him on the ground. Then something struck his chest from below, pushing his body erect.

Ridiculous…

While reeling from the combo, Ageha recounted what happened.

Crescent had stopped mid-rotation and swung her sword downward. Even if her first strike was a feint, canceling her momentum and delivering such a powerful strike in that situation went beyond the realm of inhuman. And she did all that with her left hand. Crescent had reached godly lethality by wielding her own amputated limb.

What if she used a proper sword?

That terrifying thought filled his head as the thick end of the severed arm sped towards his helmet.

Crescent stopped her attack and jumped backward. A gray car skidded to a stop in the space she vacated.

She pointed her makeshift sword at the driver. “You’ll have to go faster than that to hit me.”

Kaika, who sat behind the wheel, replied, “Well duh.”

The unconscious Mao was strapped into the passenger’s seat. The rear windows were open.

Saya held an RPG in the back.

Bursts of flame and smoke shot out from both rear windows. Crescent saw the rocket coming, but her damaged body could not move fast enough to avoid it. The warhead exploded on her torso, blowing her away. Her severed arm flew in a different direction.

Saya tossed the empty rocket launcher out the window.

Kaika raised her head and turned to Ageha, her disheveled twintails whipping about. “Need a ride?”

He dragged his broken body into the backseat, his overloaded ARMS singing the seat covers. Without the energy to close the door, he shut his eyes and breathed his last.

 

***

 

Kaika stomped on the gas pedal, burning rubber as the car drove off. The acceleration pushed the rear door shut.

She checked the rearview mirror. “That gynoid is crawling on the ground. Hey Ageha, maybe we can kill it now and steal the tech?”

He did not answer.

Kaika pouted at his visor’s reflection in the mirror. “Don’t ignore me.”

Saya gently shook his thigh. “Ageha?”

He did not move.

“No…” Saya frantically removed his helmet and put her ear to his mouth. “He’s not breathing… O-Ojousama! He’s not breathing!!!”

“Don’t panic! Remove his armor!”

You’re not dying here, Ageha.

Not here.

Kaika pressed dial on her mobile as she drove on the freeway at an insane speed.

After a few heartstopping rings, Tsubasa answered, “What is it? I was asleep.”

“Ageha went berserk and stopped breathing. How do I fix him?”

Tsubasa sighed. “He actually used it. He’s always been an idiot.”

“How do I fix him!?” Kaika checked the mirror and saw Saya tearing off Ageha’s bodysuit and laying him down.

His body was dotted with blood, but he did not seem to have lost enough to go into shock. They would be unable to do anything if the bleeding was internal.

“No pulse!” shouted Saya in a shrill, raspy voice.

“It’s a drug,” said Tsubasa. “He probably didn’t take the downer in time and went into cardiac arrest. Inject the downer into his neck and give him CPR.”

“Where’s the downer!?”

“In an injection gun inside the compartment on the right side of his armor.”

Kaika quickly relayed the instructions to Saya, who performed them with unsteady hands. Because of his shock-dispersing cybernetics, Saya was forced to slam her alloy fist into his chest to massage his heart. Each strike produced a dull metallic sound.

The car fell completely silent except for the constant clanking. Saya’s tears trickled on Ageha’s stomach as she pounded endlessly.

Kaika knew how terrible the survival rate of CPR was. Unlike in dramas, less than one in ten people survived the procedure.

Fuck statistics!

I’m not gonna lose him over this!

He’ll pull through!

“Still no pulse!”

The longer his heart was stopped, the lower the chances of survival. Kaika gripped the wheel until her fingers turned white. The idea of praying to some higher being flashed in her head.

No way.

There are no miracles in this world.

We’re on our own here.

“Still no pulse!”

Clank. Clank. Clank.

The pounding continued.

Clank. Clank. Clank. Clank. Clank. Clank.

The dull sound hammered at Kaika’s heart, with no end in sight.

Clank. Clank. Clank. Clank. Clank. Clank. Clank. Clank. Clank. Clank. Clank. Clank.

“O-Ojousama… Still… no pulse…” Saya sniveled as she slammed her fist against Ageha’s chest.

Okay, God.

I never believed in you.

But you win.

I can’t lose him.

So please.

I’ll do anything you want.

Anything.

So please wake him up!

Please don’t let him die!!!

“Pulse!!! His pulse is back!!!”

“…No shit?”

“He’s breathing! He’s alive!” Saya wiped her tears on her arms.

Well, what do you know.

Kaika burst into laughter. She slapped on the wheel repeatedly, thoroughly relishing the moment.

“O-Ojousama?”

“Congratulate me, Saya.” Kaika licked her chapped lips and smirked. “I even tricked God.”

 

Next Chapter

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