Noelle dragged the large chest from the closet with all her might. It seemed to be stuck, so she put her entire weight into it. The chest suddenly slid forward, causing her to lose balance and fall on her butt.
“Ouch!” She stood up while rubbing her behind. “I really should clean up more often…”
The fall did not hurt that much. Despite her slim build, her buttocks were well-padded, to say the least. She usually considered her butt nothing but a distraction for her spotter when she sniped in prone position, but it had its uses sometimes.
A thin layer of dust had gathered on the chest’s lid. The container itself could pass for an antique, with elaborate embossing covering the surface. It belonged to her great grandmother and had been passed down in the family. Even with its history, Noelle did not have any special attachment to the chest. She had only brought it to her apartment to stop her parents from bickering about the dwindling space in their basement. The utilitarian in her would not let her keep the oversized box unused, so she had stuffed everything she would rather forget in it.
Noelle opened the lid and rummaged through the contents. “Where did I put it?” Without bothering to organize, she tossed papers, medals, and books behind her as if they were trash. Military silver and bronze stars, covered in dust, cluttered the bedroom carpet as she continued her excavation.
Noelle stared at the photograph in her hand. The incomplete picture showed her standing beside a stone-faced man with a timid-looking child on his lap.
The photo was taken years ago when Noelle visited the Tanizaki home, a small apartment in Okinawa. Captain Tanizaki had been assigned to a local base to instruct soldiers in a military cross-training program between the United States and Japan. A section on the left was missing. After Kaoru left her husband, Noelle slashed her out of the image with a utility knife.
Noelle used to display the photo on her desk, but after Captain Tanizaki and his daughter disappeared, seeing their smiling faces depressed her, so she had stashed it away in the heirloom chest, thinking she would never see it again.
She hated her powerlessness and inability to repay her mentor for everything he had done for her. Fortunately, things had changed. Now she was in a position to make a difference, to save his mentor’s daughter.
Noelle’s eyes shifted to the small girl in the picture. Arashi looked a bit out of it, but that only made her cuter.
Their first meeting was still fresh in Noelle’s memory. The moment she entered the Tanizaki home, Arashi very lazily hid behind her mother’s leg, like a sloth hugging a tree. Noelle could not decide whether the girl was afraid of her or simply did not want to bother with greetings. After dinner and a few brief exchanges, Arashi opened up to her.
“Do you work with Papa?”
“Sort of. Actually, your papa teaches me a lot of things and helps me all the time.”
Though Noelle had a terrible American accent, she could speak simple Japanese after living in Okinawa for almost a year.
“Really. He’s a good man.”
“…Do you like him?”
“Eh!? Ah, yeah, of course I do. As a superior. Yup.”
“Hm, kinda like a teacher.”
Arashi nodded in understanding. “Then… Then can you do something for me?”
“If it’s within my power, sure!”
“Can you protect Papa? Mama says his work is dangerous. I’m worried.”
Noelle made a bitter smile. “I’ll do what I can, but to be honest, I don’t think a greenhorn like me can do anything for the captain.”
Arashi smiled and gently shook her head. “Thank you very much.” She politely, albeit incredibly slowly, bowed.
Unable to help herself, Noelle snatched the adorable girl from the ground and squeezed her like a plushie. Arashi made flat-toned groans while lethargically struggling within the bear hug.
They met several times after that and remained in good terms until Noelle returned to the States.
Slipping out of reverie, Noelle fondly ran her thumb across the girl’s profile in the picture. The poker-faced Arashi was smiling from ear to ear. Noelle would do anything to see that smile again.
This should be good enough to prove my link to Arashi.
I can’t screw this up.
This is the only chance to get rid of my regrets.
The face of the man who had given her that chance flashed in her head. Nick seemed like a nice guy, but he was a politician, a president even. Power like that did not roll into one’s lap. People, if they could still be called that, dirtied their hands for it. That was one of the lessons Captain Tanizaki had taught her.
He had also warned her about her trusting nature and unwavering loyalty. While excellent qualities as a soldier, they also made her prone to manipulation. The military generally lauded soldiers who followed orders without question, but Captain Tanizaki had believed an excellent soldier did not blindly follow orders. The best of the best could understand the meaning behind their orders, enabling them to take the correct action in any situation.
Butler did indeed want Arashi dead. That was clear in the kill orders Noelle received. She, of course, had no intention of fulfilling those orders. Despite that conflict, her allegiance to her country, more specifically, her commanding officer did not sway in the least.
Noelle was completely loyal to General Walker. Excluding Captain Tanizaki, no other person had helped her as much. Armed with unparalleled bravery and a vicious intellect, he was a soldier beyond reproach. Most importantly, he was a patriot with no ambitions for himself, at least from her eyes.
That man entrusted Nick with this mission, which meant the Filipino was capable of completing it. However, that did not mean Noelle should act completely according to Nick’s will. The man was too fishy. Even though political scheming lay well above her pay grade, Noelle could not turn a blind eye to the possibility that both General Walker and Arashi might fall victim to Nick’s hopefully imagined machinations. That said, she had no idea what to do.
What would you have done, Captain?
Her brain felt like it would overheat from her ruminations. She flopped backward onto the bed and rested a wrist on her forehead. Another of the captain’s lessons floated to the surface of her murky mind.
“One shot at a time.”
First I need to eliminate the initial target.
Everything else comes after.
“Where’s Arashi?” asked Ageha.
Kaika shot him a scolding look, left eyebrow arched. “You of all people know she can’t be part of this meeting.”
“How will she know her part in the operation?”
“I’ll brief her,” said Saya, “while keeping certain details secret, of course.”
“…That does sound better than dancing around the topic.”
“Let’s get started then.” Kaika operated the terminal to display a map on the large screen in the drawing room. “This is the venue for the match. Ria sent the location to me earlier today.”
“An abandoned one. It’s going to be demolished within the year. It’s practically deserted at night. Naturally, both sides are forbidden from setting traps within the venue. Both my people and hers are already monitoring the area for anything amiss. Of course, I also had someone inspect the place in case Ria set something up before announcing the location. Probably not necessary considering Ria’s personality, but better safe than sorry. After taking a closer look at it, the shipyard’s a good choice for a thrilling cyborg battle. It’s far from traffic and civilians, has a lot of levels and obstacles, and is surrounded by water.”
“The water is a pain. Both Sakuya and I sink like rocks, but she gets to press continue and start with a new body. I don’t.”
“Can’t you jump from the bottom?”
“Depends. If the water is too deep, even my cybernetic legs can’t take me to the surface because of the water resistance. Overloading my power cells could help, but it’s not something I wanna try out.”
“Typical of Ria to go for such high stakes.” Kaika shrugged. “Not like it matters though. You won’t be fighting Sakuya.”
“Are you high?”
Ignoring his comeback, Kaika prattled on. “The robot’s weakness is the pilot. That will be your target.”
“I object. No one else can match Sakuya in combat.”
“Else? I’m pretty sure you can’t match her either.”
Ageha fell silent.
Kaika crossed her arms. “In any case, this is the best use of our resources. Ria knows I’ll try to attack the pilot. It’s pointless to defeat a reproducible robot, after all. That means she’ll be concentrating her forces on defense. Saya and Arashi are more vulnerable to bullets than you. It’s too risky to have them attack Ria’s base, wherever that is. You’re the best person for the job. Likewise, Saya and Arashi are a better fit to delay the robot because they can fight at range using firearms. The shipyard is a large place. Agility and range are big advantages.”
“And I’ve been working hard to prepare for a protracted battle as well,” said Saya.
Ageha faintly frowned at Kaika. “You’ve been planning on doing this the entire time.”
“Yup. I have a strategy ready and everything. That’s also why I had Tsubasa make you that weapon. It’s perfect for your role in this mission.”
“True enough. But how do we find Sakuya?”
“Are you calling her that instead of Mitsuki to avoid feeling guilty?”
“Why would I feel guilty? We’re not going to hurt her.”
“Ageha is right, Ojousama. Mitsuki is Arashi’s friend. Her safety is high priority, just beneath our own.”
“I’m fine with that as long as you don’t let lingering attachment dull your judgment.” Kaika showed them a small device with a screen and antenna. “Back on topic. This thing can track the link between the robot and the pilot.”
“That’s awfully convenient. Where did you get it?”
“Is that really important?”
“We’re trusting our lives on that thing. We deserve to know.”
“Fair enough. I wasn’t really hiding it anyway. I got it from the robot’s inventor.”
“Kanou-sensei betrayed Valeriya?” asked Saya.
“Not exactly. Gen never took sides, remember? The research funded by Ria reached a dead end. The remote android technology he developed for Sakuya can only be used by gifted individuals like her. According to him, widespread use is impossible. So he lost interest and moved on to his next project, which is of course funded by me. In exchange for his research info and this gadget, I gave him a nice lab in an obscure country. Out of Ria’s reach, or at least he hopes.”
“It’s a little hard to believe Gen gave up just like that,” said Ageha.
“Oh, did I mention Ria shot him?”
“…I guess even that ice cube can get pissed. Why didn’t you tell us about this earlier?”
“I didn’t want to distract you. You were busy with weapons training and statutory, er, dates, right?”
Ageha cracked his fingers by closing his fists. “Looks like you didn’t learn your lesson.”
“I’m kidding! Don’t come closer…” Kaika backed away towards the wall like a cornered mouse. “I’m sick of hanging upside down! The rope burn on my ankles hasn’t even healed yet!”
“The hair Saya ripped off my scalp hasn’t grown back yet either.”
“I can’t help it!” said Saya. “It’s a reflex. Besides, it’s your fault for doing indecent things to Arashi!”
“You were the one who pushed me to date her in the first place.”
“T-That’s true! What was I thinking!?”
“How should I know!?”
Kaika thrust a finger at him. “This is all your fault. Neither of us would’ve suffered it you just kept the kiss with Arashi a secret from the legal wife.”
“Saya wouldn’t let me string you up if I didn’t explain everything that happened, including your involvement.”
“That’s my point! Don’t hang your boss out to dry! Especially not literally!”
“I almost had a heart attack because of your prank. I think I deserve a little revenge. More importantly, I didn’t want to lie to Saya.”
Saya turned to him, her cheeks faintly pink. “Ageha…”
“Arashi would’ve told her anyway.”
Saya’s appreciative tone shriveled into a weak squeak. “Ageha…”
Kaika coughed to get their attention. “Okay, enough. We’re way off topic.” She demonstrated how to use the handheld tracker. “This device won’t tell you the exact location of the pilot. It can only give a rough estimate of the direction and distance by tracing the multi-spectrum parallel compression waves used to communicate between the robot and the control unit. The estimate will become more accurate the closer you are to the target. The best starting point for the trace is the robot, so I’ll have Ageha wait in the shipyard until Sakuya arrives.”
Saya gracefully held her chin. “Is it possible to jam the signal? That seems like a better way to counter the robot.”
“According to Gen, it’s possible. However, it’ll require a lot of power to continuously jam the space-tech signal Gen used. Even then, it’ll only cover a small area. Since we can’t set anything up in the shipyard in advance, the only alternative would be to bring a portable one, which would have an even smaller range.”
“Is that not enough? We just need to lure her in and disable her with the jamming device.”
“That’s true if there’s only one robot. According to Gen, he finished three different models before parting ways with Ria. Even if we disable one, one of the others will just activate and destroy the jamming device from afar. Then Sakuya will be wary of any vehicles that can possibly contain another jammer.”
“Three robots…” mumbled Ageha. “That’s a problem.”
“Precisely why we need to take out the pilot while she’s distracted fighting in the shipyard. At least there won’t be any more. Only Gen is capable of building those things right now. It’ll take months for Ria to reverse engineer his latest model. The specs can’t be decoded by the average scientist. Good thing we already know from the arena battle that she can’t efficiently control multiple robots simultaneously.”
“Yeah, if she isn’t giving me her full attention, I’m confident I can quickly take one down, or at least throw it out of the battlefield.” Ageha nodded, partly to convince himself. “Before we continue discussing the details of this plan, I want to confirm one last thing. I was thinking… Even if we successfully kidnap Sakuya, will Ria really keep the terms of her surrender after we give her daughter back? This isn’t exactly a fair fight. We’re targeting her weakness by attacking the pilot.”
“It’s fair enough. She’ll do the same against us. Her troops will focus on Saya and Arashi because she knows they’re important to you.”
“If she’s going that far, she might as well go all the way. What makes you think the entire shipyard won’t explode the moment we get there?”
“About that…” Kaika poked her chin with a finger. “Let me put it this way. ‘Fairness’ isn’t exactly the right word to describe what Ria looks for in her battles. She just likes to call it that.”
“What’s the right word then?”
Ageha nodded twice. “That’s her alright.”