Chapter Five: Regrets

Sakuya, more accurately her Valeriya-sized robot puppet, leisurely strolled towards the main platform of the shipyard. The lights throughout the entire structure were on, brightening up the bay’s night sky. Ageha and his team had probably turned them on as soon as they arrived. Through her zoom lenses, she could see Ageha waiting in the center of the shipyard, but there was no need to rush.

“He really came… What an idiot.”

“What are you talking about, Mitsuki? We agreed on this plan, right?”

The machine appeared to be talking to itself. In reality, the pilot was speaking to her split personality, if that term even still applied to her condition. After Mitsuki found out about her other half, their personalities and memories had been slowly melding together. Her date with Ageha sped up the process dramatically, in part due to her resolution to support Sakuya’s wish. It had gotten to the extent that they could speak to each other without breaking consciousness, much like a normal person having a monologue.

“But I can’t help it. I… like him. I know you deserve compensation for carrying my burdens all this time… But… But is there really no other way?”

“You know the answer to that.”

“…Because he saved the woman who killed Ken? That doesn’t make sense. Ken wasn’t innocent either, and Ageha wasn’t the one who stole him from you.”

“It’s nothing that clear cut. I just hate. I hate everything. I hate the bitch who killed Ken along with the man who saved her. I hate you for loving him, and I hate myself for not being able to do anything except this, even though I know how you feel. I can only hate, Mitsuki. Only cut. Only kill. Everyone and everything, until nothing is left. Ageha gets to die first because he asked for this match.”

“I see. This is my punishment…”

“I’m glad we came to understand each other. Then again, it was inevitable.”

“Was it? I didn’t have any idea about you until Ageha came along and messed everything up.”

“And I didn’t want to let you know how horrifying we are. Ken’s death screwed everything up.”

“…We have bad taste in men.”

“For once, we agree.”

“…There is no ‘we’ anymore, is there? No. I thought so.”

She walked up a short flight of metal stairs and stood in front of her enemy. Ageha, in a black helmet and armor, silently watched her approach. A large black kite shield was attached to his back.

“What a dangerous thing to bring on a date.” She directed her eyes, more accurately the sensors on her featureless face, to the imposing backpack.

“Says you.”

She languidly unsheathed the curved blade on her waist and threw away the scabbard. “This isn’t a test, so I’m going all out from the start.”

“I can see that. That robot is as big as I am. I was kinda hoping you’d choose a smaller model for agility because of the numerous obstructions in the shipyard.”

“I learned my lesson when you broke my toy in the arena.”

“How’s Mitsuki?”

“You’re talking to her.”

“…Is that so? You’ve finally become yourself.”

“Are you disappointed?”

“No, I’m glad. That means I don’t have to worry about her seeing violence firsthand anymore.”

“Big words. Will that hunk of metal on your back be of any use? As your former teacher, I’d warn you that loadout doesn’t make sense. You’re already lagging in speed. Why slow yourself down further?”

Ageha turned to the side and glanced at the shield. “This isn’t for you.”

The robot’s body flew sideways. A thunderous roar cracked the tense air. Sakuya’s vision tilted to an unnatural angle before flickering violently to black.

 

***

 

Arashi gently emptied her half-inflated lungs. “Target neutralized.” She lay prone on the rooftop of a building more than three kilometers away, calmly loading the next bullet in her anti-materiel rifle.

It was an extremely difficult shot even for her. There were only three usable sniping points within a block of each other, and they were a ridiculous distance away from the shipyard. Factoring in gravity and wind, hitting the robot in the head was mostly luck.

“Good shot,” said Ageha through the earpiece. “Looks pretty dead from where I stand. I’ll confirm the damage.”

Arashi relaxed her shoulders after hearing his voice. For some reason, he had turned off his earpiece earlier, probably to discuss something in private with the enemy. Apparently, they had some sort of history.

“Be careful,” said Kaika. “The second body could show up any second.”

“The skull is caved in, and the neck is broken. This thing’s dead alright. I went ahead and broke the sword too.”

Arashi sighed in relief.

That went unexpectedly well.

Arashi had clearly explained to Kaika the chances of her making a headshot were one in three. Even so, Kaika had asked her to do it. A body shot would have been easier, but the boss had rejected the idea, saying one shot might not do enough damage to the armored body.

“Perfect,” said Kaika. “Luck is on my side, as usual. Arashi, hurry up and get out of there. Don’t forget, there’s a good chance they figured out your position from that shot.”

Arashi heard a loud thud behind her and rolled sideways. Taking a sitting position, she aimed her rifle at the source of the sound, but all she saw was a silver flash.

I’m gonna die.

Sensing the danger, Arashi did not bother looking for the enemy and flung herself off the side of the roof. While hurtling downward, she frantically equipped the grappling attachment to her rifle and shot out her lifeline. The grappling arrow stabbed into the metal floor of a fire escape ladder a split second before she hit the pavement, reducing her momentum. Arashi managed to land without injury by using her alloy legs to absorb most of the impact.

The enemy, a metallic female form about Ageha’s height, landed ten feet beside her, cracking the concrete with the force of its fall.

Good thing Kai warned me about this.

Kaika had known the enemy would consider staking out possible sniping spots. That said, only the robot could handle Arashi in one on one combat with firearms, so one, at most two of the remaining robots had to be sent over. In that case, it would be more efficient to wait for a shot and determine Arashi’s location by sound before making a move. That way, only one robot would need to be on standby.

Arashi ran away at full speed while slinging her rifle on her back. The rapid clanking footfalls of the robot pursuer drew ever closer. She unloaded her impact-triggered concussion grenades, all six of them, behind her. The explosions caught the robot point blank, throwing it backward twenty feet. The force also propelled Arashi forward, lifting her a few inches off the ground. Like a parkour athlete, she rolled on the ground and transitioned into a run without losing speed.

“Lure the robot to the shipyard! Even if you shake off pursuit, it’ll head to the shipyard anyway, or worse, return to base. It’s better if we invite it to the arena on our own terms. Saya, prepare to intercept. Wouldn’t want all our prep to go to waste. Ageha is already on the highway and en route to the pilot via car.”

“Roger.”

“Yes, Ojousama.”

After turning the corner, Arashi reached her illegally parked motorcycle. She put on her helmet and sped away as the enemy rounded the building behind her. In the side mirror, she noticed the robot throw something. She swerved left, avoiding a throwing knife. A second knife grazed her right arm, which was fortunately alloy. The robot chased after her at an insane speed, but a motorcycle was naturally faster, especially Arashi’s souped up machine.

She sent a smug grin to the enemy using the side mirror.

Heh, I’m a pro at running away.

That’s all I do when sparring with Ageha.

As if reacting to her thoughts, the robot ran even faster. But that was fine. Her goal was to lead the robot to the shipyard. Losing it would be beyond idiotic.

“Guys,” said Ageha. “I have a problem here.”

“Deal with it,” said Kaika. “That’s your job.”

“Right, but I don’t think I’m cut out for this one.”

“What’s the problem?”

“There’s a helicopter chasing my car with a mounted machine gun and some guy is hanging out the side with a grenade launcher.”

“Lose it.”

“Like it’s that easy! I’m not Saya. I can’t drift like a racer.”

“Dammit, Ria really pulled out all the stops. Bringing in a military chopper…”

“It’s not military. It’s a private chopper outfitted with weapons. Shit, a grenade.”

A loud boom saturated the comm line, followed by a second of static.

“““Ageha!?””” Three female voices overlapped on the line.

“Report your situation!” shouted Kaika.

A series of coughs buzzed in from Arashi’s earpiece. “I’m okay. I jumped out just in time. I’m taking cover inside a building. I managed to grab the shield, but I lost my wheels.”

“Change of plans. Arashi, after luring the enemy to the shipyard, proceed to pick up Ageha and bring him to the target’s location. You can deal with the chopper, right?”

“Roger. Will be at first waypoint in thirty seconds.”

“I’m ready,” said Saya. “Drive up the ramp to the platform where you shot the first body and then do a full stop.”

“But she’ll get me.” Arashi peeked behind her.

The robot had taken several shortcuts and had almost caught up.

“She won’t.”

“Roger.”

The moment Arashi reached the main platform, she squeezed the brakes, burning rubber as the bike skidded to a full stop. The robot, surprised by the sudden development, slowed down.

That was when a bola whirled out from the shadow of a pillar. The spinning projectile caught the robot’s legs, entwining them with an alloy string. The robot crashed to the metal floor, spraying sparks as she scraped the rusted surface.

Saya popped out from behind the pillar with an RPG on her shoulder. “Now go!”

With a nod, Arashi focused her attention on getting to Ageha. Ignoring the explosion behind her, she drove off the other side of the platform and took a shortcut on an adjoining foot bridge to reach the pedestrian walkway.

 

***

 

She dodged it!

After tossing the spent rocket launcher, Saya clicked her tongue while readying a shotgun.

The moment she had pulled the trigger on the launcher, the robot had already sliced the alloy wire binding its feet with a knife and rolled to the side. The explosion had still dealt some damage but nowhere near the amount a direct hit would have.

“I never liked you.” Sakuya’s voice came unfiltered from the robot’s speaker.

Saya aimed her shotgun with a blank expression. “Are you still fretting about your loss to me in that game of tag?”

Opening fire at her current distance would be pointless. The shotgun was a tool for her delay tactics. She knew the shells would do nothing to the robot’s armor. Its main purpose was to knock the enemy off balance.

“Oh, I don’t really care about that. I hate you because you’re Ageha’s girlfriend. It’s really annoying. I’m gonna enjoy tearing you apart.”

“It’s slightly unnerving hearing such vulgar threats in such a cute voice. Why did you remove the masking function?”

“What’s the point? You all know the truth anyway.” Sakuya began walking towards her. “And I’d like it better if my voice is the last thing every single one of you hears. Especially Ageha. Doesn’t that sound romantic?”

She’s totally broken.

Her love and hate are all mashed together.

Is there really a point in saving this girl?

Saya shook her head ever so slightly, denying the despicable thought.

She’s Arashi’s friend, even if she’s crazy.

The least I can do is try.

“Is this about jealousy? I have to say I did not expect that.”

“Trying to buy time, Flatty? That’s pointless. My body is in a very secure location right now. Not even Ageha can get to it. Did you really think Ria wouldn’t see through your stupid plan?”

“…What did you just call me?” Saya’s brow furrowed a little.

“Flatty. A flat-breasted flattypus.”

“I wish I could switch roles with Ageha right now.”

“So you can kill me? Not happening.”

“So I can be the first to give a snotty friendzoned brat a good spanking.”

“F-Friend… zoned?” Sakuya’s imposing aura faltered.

Looks like Mitsuki’s personality is still very much in there.

“Think about it. Ageha dumped you, and that boy, Ken was it? I bet you liked him. You screamed like a baby when he got shot. Did you get anywhere with him? Held his hand? Maybe you even kissed?”

“Shut your mouth…”

Saya felt pathetic for stooping so low just to provoke a girl more than a decade her junior, but it was the most effective method to make her lose composure. Attacking a girl’s youth and inexperience was an effective psychological strategy.

And she had to get her back for flattypus. Insulting her with a pun was unforgivable.

“You didn’t even hold hands? How pitiful. And he’s dead now.” Saya scoffed. “Don’t talk about love or hate, you ignorant virgin. You don’t know anything.”

“I said shut your mouth!!!” Sakuya launched herself at Saya, covering the distance with a single arching leap, like a wild beast.

She fell for it.

Saya waited until the last moment before unloading a shell into the robot’s torso. The concentrated impact killed the robot’s momentum, causing her to drop to the ground like an injured bird.

Still not enough!

Saya had hoped a point blank blast would at least fling the robot backward, but considering the robot’s weight and velocity, she realized that had been too optimistic.

But it should work if she’s not flying at me.

Before the robot could stand up, Saya blasted it away with her automatic shotgun. With no sign of damage, the robot landed on the metal floor with a clang.

“How’s that?” Saya rested the short shotgun barrel on her shoulder. “Ready for your second loss against me?”

Responding with a roar, the robot leapt towards its prey. Saya aimed her weapon, forcing it to sidestep left. Without firing, Saya took advantage of the robot’s evasion to dash away. The robot did not expect Saya to suddenly run off, causing it to fall behind.

Saya jumped off the platform and continued fleeing. The shipyard consisted of several expansive sections. The main platform was directly in the middle of the facility surrounded by warehouses, rows of unused metal containers, and a storage area for unused machinery. The ship docks used to  build and repair vessels lay behind the machine storage area. Saya headed in that direction.

A mess of old machines and vehicles came into view. Each time Sakuya closed in, Saya fended her off with a shot or two. Her buckshot shells lacked accuracy at long range but hit practically anything within a few meters. The pellets did no damage to Sakuya but successfully slowed her down by ruining her running form.

After emptying her weapon, Saya tossed it aside. A ten foot tall metal sawing machine and a mobile crane blocked her path. Without losing speed, she twisted sideways and slipped through the narrow space between the two machines. A sharp metal protrusion tore the battle suit covering her buttocks, but her alloy glutes took no damage.

“Dammit!” The robot, whose body resembled the voluptuous Valeriya, did not fit into the space, so it tried pushing the two machines apart. Realizing it would take too much time, the robot just jumped over the obstacles.

Saya had already bolted away during that delay. Still, the difference in their base speed allowed the robot to catch up before long.

“Stop running around and fight!” shouted Sakuya.

“Out of breath already? That’s what you get for all that excess flab.”

“That doesn’t make sense. This is a robot. You’ll tire out long before I do. Oh, I get it. You’re trying to justify that pitiful chest of yours. To yourself, no less! Only lolis can brag about having a DFC. It’s just pathetic otherwise.”

This little runt!!!

The robot in no way looked little, but Saya could easily imagine Mitsuki’s smug face, pissing her off further. Even so, she continued running away. The time to face off with the robot was yet to come.

Saya jumped onto a metal beam structure used for building ships, followed closely by her persistent pursuer. She traversed the metal maze like an expert gymnast, using her alloy limbs to perform inhuman acrobatics. The tightly woven beams allowed her to outpace Sakuya. The robot had trouble slipping into narrow openings, and she took full advantage of that.

Despite being a master martial artist, Sakuya was not trained in acrobatics. That gave Saya a slight edge in the current battlefield. Saya used a vertical metal beam to swing around and kick the robot in the gut. The robot took the blow full force and flew backward. Its back hit a metal beam with a loud clank, but it quickly recovered and rushed towards Saya again.

Saya’s advantage quickly disappeared as the robot began copying her movements and experimenting with its own.

What a monster.

The girl’s ability, the same prodigious talent that allowed her to pilot the robot in the first place, terrified Saya, but she could not let that emotion affect her. Too much was at stake in this battle. Reining in her fear, Saya focused on running away again.

“This is getting old.” The robot detached a small baton from its forearm. With a flick of its wrist, the short pole extended to about the length of a Japanese sword. Then the robot gave the thick end a twist.

The round pole suddenly flattened into a blade. Saya had no idea how that worked, but there was no time to watch in amazement. The robot unleashed a flurry of slashes while balancing on a beam. Her extended reach threatened to corner Saya, who suffered a few shallow cuts on her arm and waist.

Left with no choice, Saya decided to take the battle to the next stage. After dodging the robot’s sword thrust, Saya hopped down the metal structure one level at a time until she landed on the ground.

Sakuya looked down from near the top of the structure, blade in hand. “Where are you going this time?”

“Forgot something.” Saya dashed away.

The robot bringing a sword was well within Kaika’s predictions. As such, Saya had also prepared a countermeasure.

A loud thud erupted behind her. Not bothering to confirm the robot’s landing, Saya beelined to her destination, the large dock extending out into the water. The vast space sandwiched by towering walls on two sides was designed to house cruise ships. Virtually no obstacles existed in the open space.

Without stopping, Saya bent down and picked up the weapon she had planted at the dock before the fight began. Unsheathing the katana, she finally stopped running and faced her opponent.

“Are you mad?” The robot slowed to a stop and tilted its head. “You do know I’m a sword expert, right? Not only that, there’s no way you can beat me in an open field like this.”

“Don’t worry. I took a few lessons.”

“You’ve gotta be joking.”

“Didn’t Ageha tell you?” Saya took a side stance and held the sword horizontally near her face with both hands, the point aimed at her enemy. “I’m a fast learner too.”

Switching to offense for the first time, Saya ran straight towards the robot and thrust her sword. The robot leaned sideways to avoid the blade’s path, but the opening attack was a feint. By twisting her wrists, Saya diverted the forward momentum into centripetal force and slashed at the robot’s knee joint. The robot almost took the blow but still managed to deflect Saya’s sword at the last moment. Saya hopped backward and rebuilt her stance.

“Not bad, for an amateur.”

“I wonder what face you’ll make after you lose to said amateur. Oh wait, you have no face.”

“Nice sword by the way. I think that rivals even the best blades in Ria’s collection.”

“Of course. I got it from Ageha’s blacksmith.”

“Ageha this, Ageha that. Does your entire world revolve around that guy?”

“Half of it. The other half revolves around Ojousama. What do you care? Jealous?”

“Has anyone ever told you you talk too much?”

“No. I’m usually the quiet type, unless I’m disciplining children.”

“That high and mighty attitude is really, really annoying. I think I’ll cut off your tongue first.”

“Um, isn’t that kinda hard? It’s not like I stick it out randomly. Not even when I talk.”

“…T-That doesn’t matter! I’ll do it anyway!”

Flashes of Mitsuki occasionally broke through the bouts of Sakuya’s insanity. Saya did not know Mitsuki very well, but it was clear as day how unstable the girl was now.

As if trying to hide her embarrassment, Sakuya stepped forward and peppered Saya with blows. Each strike was swift and heavy.

Normally, the hand that held most of a katana’s weight was the non-dominant hand. However, Saya’s human left hand was unfit to fend off Sakuya’s attacks. That was why she had learned to wield a sword in a reverse stance from Tsubasa’s father, an excellent swordsman on top of being a master smith.

Despite that, she found it hard to keep a handle on her sword. The robot’s relentless attacks defied logic, overwhelming like a tornado but as precise as calligraphy. Saya’s amateurish techniques were completely conquered in just a few exchanges.

Saya was driven into a corner, her back heaving against a concrete wall with the open ocean to her left. With her senses heightened by adrenaline, she could feel each droplet of sweat crawling down her face.

“Is that all?” asked Sakuya. “I’ve been trying to draw out everything you can do. Looks like you’re empty.”

“…Even I have run out of witty comebacks in this situation.”

“Too bad. Then die.”

“Weren’t you gonna cut off my tongue first?”

“Wiseass bitch!” The robot raised its sword and swung it at the crown of Saya’s head.

That conclusion was inevitable because of the gap between their sword skills. Reality was a harsh mistress.

But Kaika was harsher.

With perfect timing, Saya swung her sword upward. Her blade clashed against Sakuya’s weapon well before the attack came close to her head. The alloy sword flew into the air. Before it reached the peak of its flight, Saya slammed a turning side kick into the robot’s lower abdomen. The robot’s body bent into a V before tumbling to the ground a good twelve feet away. The baton sword drew an arc and fell into the ocean. Saya tossed her own weapon into the pitch black water to prevent it from being used against her.

The robot slowly got up, its entire body trembling in rage.

“How dare you… Using such a cheap trick…”

“Don’t blame me for your immaturity. And it’s not a cheap trick. I trained that single move for weeks, you know?”

That move was a makiage, a disarming technique that was especially useful against expert swordsmen. Masters did not hold their weapons tightly the whole time. They only exerted the right amount of pressure when necessary, such as when clashing swords or slashing a target.

Provoking a wide swing from the robot had been the first step. Then by moving her alloy right hand from the lower grip to the actual blade just above the hilt, she had effectively shortened her sword and quickened her slash. The swords had clashed earlier than Sakuya’s predicted moment of impact, resulting in the successful disarm.

Kaika had known that Sakuya would not immediately go for the kill if Saya wielded a sword. The prideful Mitsuki combined with the crazy Sakuya would first want to completely humiliate Saya for even trying to fight using their specialty weapon.

Kaika had also come up with the idea of using a makiage technique and practically forced Saya to train it to perfection, going so far as cutting her alone time with Ageha. It was a surprise counter that could only be attempted once, so that single opportunity had to count. Her mistress was extremely spartan when the situation called for it.

All that preparation had been done just to disarm Sakuya, who was a demon with a sword in her hands.

Sakuya clawed at her alloy chest, as if trying to tear it open to free her seething fury. “I’ll rip you apart with my bare hands!”

“You really have no other choice since you lost your sword, but sure.”

Saya continued her childish taunts to piss off her young opponent. Despite being a martial arts expert, Sakuya was just a kid. While she could throw out her share of insults, enduring well-targeted barbs was another matter.

As expected, Sakuya blew her top and recklessly charged. In contrast, Saya calmly tossed a miniature concussion grenade, the same type Arashi used, in the robot’s path. Blinded by rage, the robot chose to ignore the projectile. The moment the grenade made contact, a powerful impact knocked the robot to the side. Saya rushed forward and punted the toppled robot upward, launching it into the air. With all her might, Saya slammed a spinning kick into the robot’s flank, hoping to throw it off the dock and into the ocean.

Contrary to her optimistic wish, the robot caught her leg with both arms at the moment of contact. Bound together, they tumbled to the ground. It was the worst possible outcome for Saya. Wrestling with a robot meant certain death.

Saya quickly tried to escape the robot’s grasp by using her judo techniques, but Sakuya completely overwhelmed her. In a matter of seconds, the robot had her pinned to the ground with its knee on her chest. The machine’s cold metal fingers wrapped around her neck, choking the life out of her. It could easily crush her throat, but opted to slowly strangle her to death.

“I finally got you.” The robot tightened its grip while giggling childishly. “How does it feel, slowly slipping into death like this? I gotta say I’m very curious.”

Saya shook her head side to side vigorously, ignoring the pain the movement inflicted on her bound neck.

“Are you in denial? Shaking your head like that won’t change reality, you know? You’re going to die here without accomplishing anything. You couldn’t even buy fifteen minutes.” Sakuya’s laugh echoed into the night.

Saya continued to shake her head. Her fringe slipped down the side of her face, revealing her blind eye.

“Oh, you can’t talk like this, can you. Here, I wanna hear you begging for mercy.” The robot loosened its grip slightly, allowing Saya to mutter words, but her voice was too tiny to hear even for the robot’s enhanced auditory sensors. The faceless robot moved its head closer to hers. “What did you say?”

“Gotcha.” Saya squeezed her eye muscles, triggering the mechanism in her right eye.

Blank ink spurted from her eyeball, coating the robot’s faceless head. Caught off guard, the robot released her neck and tried to wipe off the ink to no avail. It was made to not come off.

“You shitty bitch! I’m so sick of all these tricks! You think this’ll save you!? You’re still pinned. I can kill you even if I can’t see you!”

“That much is obvious. I blinded you for a different reason.”

“Wha-”

A smooth black leg thrust into the robot’s ribs like a javelin. The robot was thrown off Saya and flew over the dock’s ledge.

While rubbing her purplish neck, Saya looked up at her savior. “You’re late.”

The woman with an absurdly long braid offered her a hand, or more accurately, a bunch of claws.

Saya showed a wry smile. “Is that a joke? I’ll get paralyzed if I grab onto that thing.”

“Are you an idiot?” Mao tilted her head, her purple qipao fluttering in the sea breeze. “Use your right hand.”

“Oh right. Sorry, my brain is lacking oxygen.” Saya took the claw and pulled herself up. “What took you so long?”

“We ran into some trouble. That Russian sent a team to attack us.”

“I see. You look good. Definitely better than the last time I saw you.”

“My wheelchair is waiting for me in the trunk. The fancy metal spine your Ojousama gave me is working wonders. I rarely jump around anymore, though. Overuse leads to nerve realignment, and we all know how pleasant that is.”

Before leaving the country, Gen had provided his research on the cybernetic nervous system he used for Sakuya’s dolls. Tsubasa, albeit with extreme reluctance, had used the technology to give Mao her legs back, even if only for brief periods of time. The pain involved in limb nerve realignment was already insanity inducing. A spinal realignment was unimaginable for Saya. Mao had taken up such a burden to save her.

“Thanks for saving me.”

“I’m not doing this for you. And I haven’t saved you yet. I didn’t hear a splash.”

Oh come on.

Saya turned to the ocean in time to see a metal hand reach over the ledge and claw into the cement. The rest of the robot promptly followed. The robot then slammed its featureless face to the ground and ran around in circles, dragging its head on the cement.

“What the fuck is it doing?” asked Mao.

“…Scraping off the ink.” Saya held her forehead in exasperation. “This is gonna be a long night.”

“Good thing I brought company.” Mao pointed a claw behind her. “And toys.”

Ying’s subordinates, some wounded and most covered in grime, approached them from the entrance of the dock. They brought a medley of weapons, including rocket launchers.

The two ladies nodded to each other before facing the menacing metal mass lumbering towards them.

Time for round two.

 

***

 

The glass doors to the building Ageha was sheltering in shattered as a motorcycle plowed through them.

Arashi, wearing a sleek blue helmet, cocked her head. “Get on.”

“Last time I rode with you, I almost vomited from motion sickness.”

“That was practice. We should… be good this time.” She gave him a thumbs up.

Kaika had accounted for the possibility of Arashi being forced to be Ageha’s wheels in her layers upon layers of contingency plans. That was why Ageha had agreed to ride behind Arashi from time to time for practice. The ride had never been pleasant, but beggars could not be choosers.

“I hope you’re right.” Ageha attached his black kite shield to his back and jumped on the back seat. Wrapping his arms around the girl’s slim and tight waist, he firmly locked his forearms together to ensure he did not fly off.

“Here we go.” Arashi blasted into full throttle. She drove through a different glass pane on the way out.

“Was that necessary?”

Despite the wind, they could converse normally thanks to the earpieces.

“It’s more fun… this way.”

Ageha gulped down his anxiety. “Just make sure we get there in one piece.”

The helicopter had been waiting for them outside. It flew at a relatively high altitude and shot at them from afar. Its accuracy suffered, but it seemed to prioritize safety over hitting its target. Considering Arashi’s marksmanship, that was an understandable caution.

“Can you shoot down the chopper?” asked Ageha.

“Not on the bike. The recoil… will ruin our balance.”

“Should we get closer?”

“It’ll get us if we go near… But I can probably lure it close if we ride into cover.”

Ageha showed her the tracking device that showed the general direction to the robot’s pilot. “Just make sure we’re going the right way.”

“Roger.”

Arashi drove the bike deeper into the small harbor city. No other vehicles ran in the late night streets. The buildings were relatively low, but by riding on sidewalks and sticking close to buildings, they successfully avoided the chopper’s sights. Weaving through the small city delayed their arrival to the destination, but they had no choice. First they had to take down the helicopter.

The chopper unloaded hundreds of rounds, hoping to get a lucky hit through volume. A few bullets caught Ageha in the back, but the shield deflected them. The impacts caused the bike to veer, but Arashi skillfully regained control.

After a few minutes of hide and seek, the chopper finally gave in and closed the distance. It also lowered its altitude because the machine gun attached to the commercial helicopter did not have enough forward tilt.

Arashi rounded a corner and immediately made a u-turn to face the chopper head on. The moment the chopper showed up, she drove directly underneath it and shot the grappling arrow into the bottom of the aircraft’s frame.

“Here, take this.” She handed the rifle to Ageha. “Don’t forget… to return it. I’m sick of losing my guns.”

Ageha absentmindedly took the weapon. “What’ll I do with this?”

Arashi smiled and flipped a switch on the rifle. The rifle rapidly pulled in the wire connected to the chopper and flew upward, dragging Ageha into the sky.

“I’ll get back at you for this!!!”

“My assault rifle rounds won’t take it down in one burst… so I shot the best bullet I had.”

“I’m not ammo!” Ageha flipped in mid air and used his legs to land upside down on the bottom of the helicopter. After grabbing onto the landing skid, he yanked the grappling arrow out and slung the rifle on his shoulder. Frantic screaming, just barely audible over the rotor noise, could be heard from inside the chopper.

A guy just flew to a chopper.

Of course they’re screaming.

Ageha smiled inside his helmet while swinging himself up on top of the landing skid. He was too close for the machine gun to take aim, so the gunner pulled a pistol and shot him in the head. His improved neck brace rendered the impact harmless.

He bent the machine gun barrel as he entered the chopper. A quick shove tossed the gunner from the vessel. The pilot trembled in the cockpit, refusing to look at the black demon that alighted on his aircraft.

“Hey.” Ageha took out the device from his pocket and showed it to the pilot. “Can you take us to the direction specified by this thing?”

“N-N-No!”

“You do know this isn’t a request, right?”

The pilot frantically took off his headpiece. “That’s not it! This chopper has a bomb on it! If it moves strangely, it’s gonna get blown to bits!”

“Shit, Ria. You gotta take it easy on acquaintances.” Ageha sighed. “Since we’re still in the air, I take it your HQ doesn’t know you’ve been hijacked.”

“Yeah, I’m not gonna kill myself over something like this!”

The Japanese pilot was clearly not one of Valeriya’s trusted men. He was likely just a mercenary, which made sense. She probably did not have any pilots among her mafia minions.

“Bring the chopper down. You can run away if you do.”

“I’ll do it! I’ll do it! Thank you! Thank you so much!!!” The sniveling pilot quickly dropped altitude.

When the chopper was low enough to jump down, Ageha pulled the pilot from the cockpit and walked out of the chopper. Right before he dropped, Ageha threw the pilot into the chopper’s rotor blade, making it rain blood. The pilot’s body damaged the rotor, causing the chopper to fall like a rock.

In freefall, Ageha wielded his shield and pointed it at the ground. He landed safely using the shield as a shock absorber. The chopper crashed into a vacant park a few dozen meters away. He stood up and looked around.

No civilian casualties.

Destroying the chopper like that had been the quickest way to make sure it did not crash into buildings. A little skydive was worth it.

Arashi stopped the bike beside him. “Good job.”

Ageha grabbed her helmet and started shaking her head.

“Please stoooop…”

“Don’t ever do that again.”

“But you were so cool!”

“…I suppose I can forgive you this time.” He promptly released her and returned her gun.

“You’re surprisingly simple, Ageha,” said Kaika over the line.

“Shut it.” After depositing the shield on his back, he hopped on the backseat and pressed against Arashi, inadvertently getting the pilot’s blood on her suit. Knowing she did not mind or even care, he grabbed onto her waist with no hesitation. “Let’s go. We’re running late.”

 

***

 

Kaika tapped her finger on the table while keeping her eyes glued to the screen. She continued to monitor the status of her team through the blips on the GPS map and brief verbal reports. The plan was going well.

Too well.

Valeriya was no idiot. In fact, if the eccentric Russian had not been limited by her strange principles and maternal love, Kaika would not stand a chance against her. Despite that, Kaika had predicted all her moves so far. There had to be an ace up her sleeve.

“We’re almost at the target location.” Ageha’s voice came from the terminal speakers. “Looks like Ria holed herself up in a peculiar safehouse.”

“Peculiar?”

“A bank. It’s surrounded by an outer wall. We’re circling it looking for an entrance.”

“She probably bought that branch and remodeled it. How prodigal.”

“That’s funny coming from you. An old bank is peanuts compared to the tech you poured into this operation.”

“True enough. But this is sort of the climax, after all. No sense saving my elixirs, right?”

“Elixirs?”

“Nevermind.” Kaika clicked her tongue. “Ria would’ve gotten that one.”

“Well sorry for not being your archenemy.”

“Saya, how’re things on your end?”

“We have the advantage, but the robot is more durable than expected. I think a few RPGs will disable it, but it is moving too fast.”

“Time to use that, then.”

“But what about the third body?”

“We don’t know if it’s near you or in Ria’s bank. Either way, better to use it now than never.”

“I agree,” said Ageha. “I’ll take care of Mitsuki before the third robot becomes a problem.”

“Understood,” said Saya.

“…Actually, scratch that. We might be arriving late.”

“What is it?” asked Kaika.

“Your predicted worst case scenario. Tanks.”

Ageha was an unmatched killer. However, that only applied to people. While he had dispatched civilian-class security robots with Saya on a previous mission, military grade tanks were a different beast altogether. Knives were useless, and punching armor plating was the height of stupidity.

But that was exactly why Kaika had anticipated Valeriya would bring them to the fight. Fortunately, she had prepared a countermeasure.

“Type?”

“Several small ones. They’re large enough for only one person maybe. And one big one.”

“That’s like the vaguest description of tanks I’ve ever heard. You should’ve studied enough to differentiate them properly, like what makes a Panzer IV completely different from a Tiger I.”

“Give me a break. I’m not a military geek. Can we ride past them?”

“Yeah,” said Arashi. “Hold on tight!”

Just then, a loud crash erupted from Kaika’s speakers.

“Report!”

A few moments of tense silence passed before sound returned to the speakers.

“Someone sniped the bike. We found some cover. I’m fine, but Arashi’s left arm took a little beating from the crash.”

“I can still shoot,” said Arashi. “No problem.”

Kaika thought it was fortunate the sniper had not targeted Arashi but quickly realized that was only natural. Ageha, covered by a large shield, acted as protection. The bike had been the most accessible target.

Kicking her mind into overdrive, Kaika brought up the GPS map of the area and began barking orders. “Arashi, head to the four-story building to your southwest and get into a sniping position. Your priority is to neutralize the sniper. Upon success, support Ageha with your anti-materiel rifle, assuming he hasn’t gotten past the tanks.”

“Roger.”

“Ageha, infiltrate from the front. I doubt Ria would leave any other entrances unblocked, and we don’t know how much the inside has been remodeled. We don’t have time to dally, so go for the direct route.”

“Understood.”

“I told you the weapon I invented is going to be useful.”

“I was hoping I could avoid tanking tanks, but that’s life.”

Saya’s giggle flitted through the comm line. “Tanking tanks.” A subdued chuckle followed.

Kaika unconsciously cracked a grin. Their hodgepodge team was strange to say the least, but it was a group capable of miraculous feats. Kaika, despite her cynical core, truly believed that. They were her ultimate source of validation and entertainment. She was the one who created that team, the same one that would change the world. And winning was fun, after all.

“Engaging enemy vehicles,” said Ageha. “Overload mode, activate.”

Valeriya’s carefree smile surfaced in Kaika’s mind.

Let’s compare toys, shall we?

 

***

 

Four modern tankettes rolled out of the open bank gates. Each vehicle, painted a dull grey, sported a high calibre machine gun on a rotating turret. The larger black tank, armed with a long cannon in addition to a machine gun, looked infinitely more imposing even though it remained within the walls.

Fifty feet separated Ageha from the enemies. The machine guns slowly swiveled in his direction. The overload system filled his limbs with energy, but instead of running around to avoid enemy sights, he wielded his shield and slammed it into the ground. The edges of the shield were crafted from the same alloy material and based on Crescent’s blades. They were designed to cut metal, but with Ageha’s augmented power, they dug into concrete just as well.

A volley of high caliber bullets battered the shield, but the solid mass of metal did not even dent. The slight curvature of the surface deflected the force of the bullets to an extent. The tanks continued their barrage as if ammo was on firesale. Ten seconds later, they ceased firing to check the status of their target.

Unscathed.

Both Ageha and the shield stood firm, like a timeless monument. The overcharged ARMS burned his artificial skin and suit, cloaking him in a thin, foreboding fog. Glowing red eyes slowly floated above the black shield, like a demon emerging from the darkness.

Test successful.

Ageha had intentionally taken the first volley head on to check his armament against the enemy firepower. Judging from the impact, he could resist enemy fire without stabbing the shield into the ground.

Another rain of gunfire peppered his shield. This time, he lifted the shield and ran diagonally towards the closest tank. The tank immediately went in reverse, but Ageha’s speed far outstripped the small vehicle’s backward acceleration.

Ageha immediately tried to rip off the tank’s tracks. The treads were tougher than expected, difficult to destroy even for his alloy fingers, especially when in motion. Blocked from view by the tank’s body, Ageha avoided enemy fire for a brief period, but the tank soon changed direction. Focused on using the tank for cover, he ran around to stay as close as possible. He considered jumping on top of it, but the other tanks might fire at him even if it meant hitting their ally.

I’m running out of time.

He could only maintain overload mode for a short period, even shorter in this battle because he needed to save some juice for the confrontation with Valeriya. However, he could not ignore the tanks and rush the building because the entrance was heavily barred. He could probably break the barricade with force, but that would take time, enough for the tanks to blast him to pieces.

Now or never.

While running to stay in cover, Ageha twisted the black shield’s handle. A creaking noise gave way to a loud snap as the weapon changed shape. The metal plate split down the middle and extended out, connected by a thick pole. An even thicker pole ran perpendicular to that one, forming a cross in between split sides of the shield.

Ageha twisted the vertical bar, unscrewing the pole, and pulled it back to extend the handle to three times its original length. No longer recognizable as a shield, an enormous ebony battle axe, considerably taller than its wielder, had materialized.

Dragging the cumbersome weapon across the ground, Ageha rushed the tankette he had been shadowing. His overcharged alloy muscles swung the black blade horizontally, cleaving into the tank tracks. The treads splintered like matchsticks, causing the tank to swerve and crash into the bank’s outer wall.

The other tanks aimed their machine guns at Ageha while moving in reverse to escape his range. Instead of running, Ageha focused energy into his legs and rocketed into the sky. Even with the added weight of the axe, he almost reached the height of a nearby telephone pole. His leap carried him all the way to the closest tank’s roof. He roared as he slammed the battle axe into the tank’s armor. The blade tore through metal and damaged the vehicle’s control system, causing it to sputter to a stop.

The uninjured driver was partly visible through the hole in the armor. The gap was large enough for Ageha’s arm, so he reached inside and grabbed the driver’s shoulder. In one motion, Ageha pulled him through the hole that clearly could not fit a grown man. Only parts of the driver made it through.

A burst of gunfire hit Ageha’s back. His armor dented in places, and his internal organs felt like they were slammed into a wall. Before he could sustain more damage, he used the axe blade to block the gunfire and hopped off the tank to take cover in its shadow.

“I’ve pinned down the sniper,” said Arashi. “It’s Old Scary.”

“Who?” asked Ageha.

“Viktor,” said Saya. “He’s a dangerous sniper. Good job.”

“He got my ear though.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Ageha. “Happened to me too. It grows back.”

“It does? That’s great.”

“Don’t teach her stupid things,” said Saya.

“I can’t cover you, Ageha. I need to watch… the old man. You have to get in by yourself.”

“That’s what I planned from the start.” While keeping the axe blades in front of him, Ageha burst out from cover and ran towards the two remaining tankettes, which were lined up side by side.

The main battle tank finally left the confines of the wall and rotated its cannon to target him. He quickly converted his axe back to a shield and blocked incoming machine gun fire from the smaller tanks. By lining himself up with the other tanks, the larger tank could not fire its cannon due to the possibility of friendly fire and resorted to using the machine gun. Ageha zigzagged to avoid getting blasted in the back until he finally caught up with one of the smaller tanks. He leapt up and smashed his shield into the machine gun, destroying it. Then he threw his shield at the other tank’s weapon. The shield damaged the gun enough to prevent it from rotating. He jumped over to that tank and finished the job, retrieving his shield in the process.

With both guns out of commission, the two tanks became far less of a threat. However, that also meant they were no longer useful to the enemy.

An explosive sound came from Ageha’s rear. He instinctively jumped off the small tank and raised his shield to cover his body. A deafening explosion rattled his senses. The tank he had been standing on was reduced to scrap metal. His shield blocked most of the impact and deflected the shrapnel, but the blast knocked him backward and threw him to the ground.

A slight concussion blurred Ageha’s vision and gave him a throbbing headache. Enduring the pain, Ageha bounced back to his feet and sprinted away just in time to avoid a second shell.

Attaching the shield to his back, Ageha focused on sprinting directly at the large tank. The cannon menacingly turned his way. Before it could get him in its sights, he abruptly changed direction, forcing the cannon to renew its aim. After he did this a second time, the gunner shot early, hoping to damage him with the explosion. Predicting this, Ageha turned his back, protected by his shield, in the direction of the blast. This not only protected his body, but also propelled him close enough to escape the cannon’s effective range.

The driver gunned the engine to ram Ageha. Unfortunately for the him, the large tank turned too slowly to catch the flighty black shadow. The machine gun tried to get a lock, but it crumbled to scraps with a single swing of Ageha’s freshly converted axe. The tracks were the next to go, first the left then the right, completely immobilizing the vehicle. Even the cannon, useless at that range, fell to Ageha’s hurricane of swings. Next thing the people inside knew, Ageha had already jammed his axe blade into the tiny space between the hatch and the turret. Using his weapon like a bottle opener, Ageha pried open the tank and jumped inside, ignoring the pitiful handgun fire that welcomed him. Desperate screams and curses echoed from the metal death trap.

A blood coated Ageha emerged from the tank and picked up his axe. The other tanks had been abandoned, even the one that had merely crashed into the wall. Snipers would no longer be a threat within the building, so he decided to focus on getting inside. After deactivating overload mode to save energy, he headed for the barred entrance, dragging his axe behind him.

Just like the chopper pilot, the enemies seemed to be comprised of mercenaries, not Valeriya’s loyal followers.

This is too arrogant even for Ria.

What is she thinking?

Ageha slightly shook his still throbbing head to shed his anxiety. He needed his full concentration for the next stage of the operation.

“Old Scary got away,” said Arashi. “He crawled along cover… until he got closer to the roof’s exit. I think I got his arm as he ran… but my rifle was in assault mode. He’s still alive. …Ageha, why are we fighting the old man? Wasn’t he Mitsuki’s… driver?”

Unable to come up with a good excuse, Ageha remained silent. Kaika quickly sent him a lifeboat.

“Save the questions for later. We’re in the middle of an operation.”

“…Okay.”

“Stay outside and keep an eye out for him, Arashi.” Ageha jogged to the barred entrance. “He might try to enter the building. Make sure he doesn’t. I’ll handle things inside.”

“Roger.”

Moving his grip to the end of the axe’s handle, Ageha swung the weapon in a circle to gather momentum and cleaved the security bars with two consecutive slashes of differing heights, annihilating the glass doors behind them in the process. The metal bars fell to the ground with a series of clangs. Ageha returned his axe to shield form and stepped over the barricade.

 

***

 

“Useless. All of them.”

Valeriya stared at the monitors showing Ageha literally cutting through her troops with his giant axe in the bank’s lobby. Limbs and torsos flew in the air and decorated the walls. Heads wantonly rolled on the ground like tumbleweeds in the desert.

Kai got me with that one.

The Russian mobster had tapped into her military connections and obtained a few tanks to counter Ageha, but those preparations had been rendered meaningless under the weight of the black blade.

Putting aside the shield, the most logical upgrade to Ageha’s arsenal, the axe was an excellent weapon for him. It was simple to use and worked on people and objects. Most of all, it made full use of Ageha’s monstrous strength.

“That’s what you get for hiring mercs.” Viktor’s reply came from the blond Russian’s earpiece.

“I can’t ask my cute subordinates to die in a fight my daughter selfishly accepted, especially considering our last resort. It’s not like you fared any better.”

“I almost got Tanizaki. Missed by an inch because of a sudden gust. Lucky brat. That kid is better than I thought, though. I didn’t think she’d hit me with such a small shot window.”

“How’s your arm?”

“Bad. I’ve done my best to stop the bleeding, but I can’t shoot like this.”

“Then you know what to do.”

“Already on my way.”

Valeriya crushed the strawberry lollipop with her molars while watching Ageha use the blunt side of his axe to squish a seven-foot mercenary.

Damn, his front money was expensive too.

The truth was, Valeriya never expected the hired thugs to defeat Ageha. They were just there to let her see as much of Ageha’s current capabilities as possible. From the start, she intended to face him herself, like an old master sending off a dear student, only in this case, the destination was the afterlife.

There was also an option to skip all that and defeat Ageha easily. With him closing in, Valeriya decided to ask her daughter, who sat in a cockpit wired to a large console, for confirmation on which path to take.

“Are you sure you don’t wanna do this the easy way?”

Mitsuki or Sakuya, the distinction no longer relevant, pressed a button to mute her mic, preventing her words from being broadcasted to the enemy. A helmet covered her hair and eyes, so she followed the sound of Valeriya’s voice to face her. “You mean hide in the vault and blow up the bank?”

“It’s a good plan.”

In fact, Valeriya wanted to lock her daughter in the vault from the start, but that would weaken the signal of Gen’s machines too much.

“Dirty too.” The girl smiled at her. “Don’t worry, Ria. I’ve got this.”

“Even if you defeat those women, Ageha will still come for us. Not only that, he might become more dangerous if he’s out for revenge.”

“You think so? I think he’ll break the moment he loses Saya.”

“Maybe. He’s good at defying expectations.”

The girl closed her lips for a moment. “Can you win? Can you protect me?”

Valeriya was unsure if that was a question or a request, but it did not matter either way. She always gave her daughter what she wanted. It was her joy in life, unmatched by any and all of her many hobbies and desires.

“Yes and yes.”

“Then I won’t allow you to throw away your pride to protect me. I know you want to fight Ageha. The only reason you prepared that back-up plan was to make sure I don’t get hurt. I love you, Ria, and that includes your competitiveness. Let me protect it for you, just like how you’ve protected me and my whims all this time.”

A tear silently slipped down Valeriya’s cheek. Her daughter, not just the pure half but the whole, was willing to bet her life for her mother’s desires too. An overwhelming sense of fulfillment spread from the core of her body, but it only lingered a moment. In its place, the flames of her desire to protect mingled with burning embers of her desire to fight, giving birth to a scorching tempest of fire within her. The explosive heat filled her with power from her fingertips to her toes. She had never been as prepared to do battle as she was now.

“Okay.” Valeriya softly embraced her daughter, but her expression was far from motherly.

Congratulations, Ageha.

You get to fight me at my best.

 

***

 

“This thing is as crazy as I remember,” said Mao as she pushed herself off the ground.

Saya dodged a roundhouse kick and shuffled away from the robot. “Focus on defense when engaging. We need to keep it busy until Ageha reaches the pilot.”

“How unambitious. At least fight to win.”

“Says the person kissing dirt.”

“Just a lucky hit. I’m okay.” Mao wiped the blood off her chin and rejoined the battle.

“You two do know I can hear you, right?” asked the robot.

“Does it matter?” Whipping her long braid, Mao spun around and slashed the robot’s back with her claws.

“Nope, just like your attacks.” Barely scratched, the robot retaliated with a backfist.

The metal hand carved the air, missing Mao’s face by a finger. Taking advantage of the distraction, Saya successfully swept the robot’s legs.

“”Now!!!”” Saya and Mao jumped back as the robot fell to the cement.

A grenade rocketed to the tripped robot but missed hitting the target directly. The explosion tossed the robot into the wall, causing cracks to run across the surface.

The robot stood up as if nothing had happened. The Chinese mafia support peppered it with bullets, forcing it to cover its face with its forearms. About half of Ying’s subordinates had been incapacitated or killed during the many times they repeated the cycle of distract, blow up, and regroup. They were running out of rockets too.

Saya decided to gamble and use her ace in the hole. She had already obtained permission from Kaika anyway. “Mao, I need to land a clean hit on that thing’s chest, just to be sure.”

“You’re finally using that, huh? But does it need to be the chest? Are you sure you’re not just pissed a robot that doesn’t even need boobs has bigger ones than you do?”

“…I will remember those words.”

“Hey, your voice is scary. I was just kidding! Kidding! Comrades do that with each other!”

Saya silently glared at Mao.

“Sorry, okay! Don’t make that expression. My sharp tongue is a force of habit!”

“Will you do it or not?”

“I’ll do it!” Mao turned away and lowered her volume. “Geez. This girl can’t take a joke.”

“It’s coming again.”

“You go right.”

Saya nodded and dashed off. They split in opposite directions, forcing the charging robot to pick one. As expected, it chased Mao, the one more involved in Ken’s death. Saya did a u-turn and went after the robot. Ying’s subordinates held their fire whenever the two women engaged the enemy.

Mao ran to and kicked off a wall to execute a reverse somersault. She landed on the robot’s shoulders without much effort, as if the robot allowed her to do it. They ended up in a similar position when Sakuya broke Mao’s back, only this time they faced the same direction. Not sparing a second, Mao proceeded to squeeze the robot’s head, hoping to deal damage with her claws’ grip.

“You never learn.” The robot raised its arms and grabbed Mao’s claws. Then it leisurely tried to pull her down just like in their first fight.

Mao did not budge. “Sorry, metal back and spine.” Pulling her clawed gloves off, she flipped backward and landed crouched behind the robot.

The robot turned around and saw Saya’s fist barreling towards its torso. It tried to sidestep it but failed because Mao trapped its legs with hers. Saya’s knuckles dug squarely into the robot’s chest.

“Fall.” Saya activated the electric charge in her right hand.

After a few convulsions, the robot lost power and flopped to the ground.

“Light her up!” shouted Mao as she backed away with Saya.

With a stationary target, the rocketeers were able to calmly aim and shoot. Several explosions engulfed the robot. The sea wind quickly dispelled the smoke, revealing an unrecognizably mangled machine.

Saya squatted down and checked the robot’s condition. “I wasn’t sure if your artificial skin would protect you from the conducted electricity.”

Mao stood beside Saya while staring at the smoking pile of junk. “I had my artificial skin changed to the same type your boyfriend has. Better safe than sorry. Also, the nodes on your knuckles have to make direct contact to work. Even with normal fake skin, I probably would’ve been fine.”

“Doesn’t Mei Xing mind?”

“What?”

“The skin texture. It’s weird. I don’t like it at all.”

“Well, he usually asks me to keep my stockings on anyway, so the texture is kinda irrelevant.”

“What a pervert.”

“Rich, coming from a pedophile’s lover.”

“At least I’m the official lover, unlike you.”

“Until that Arashi kid steals him from you.”

“How do you even know about that!?”

“Mei Xing tells me things, unlike your boyfriend.”

“That boyfriend saved your life.”

“What’s that got to do with you?”

“You were the one who brought him up in the first place!”

The two women glared at each other, sparks flying between them. From a good distance away, the mafia men watched them with awkward smiles plastered on their faces.

A garbled scream interrupted their spat. Fountains of blood began erupting from within the huddled mafia group.

“Dammit!” Saya helplessly watched the scene from a distance. “The third body is also here!”

“Fuck!” Mao waved at her panicking men. “Scatter! Everyone scatter!!!”

A small silver wraith glided through the crowd of frantic mobsters. The two bloody knives in its hands slit, stabbed, tore, and rended flesh. The massacre ended in a matter of seconds. A few of Ying’s former subordinates survived, not because they got away, but because the robot stopped its rampage on a whim.

The new robot, this time with a child’s body, tilted its faceless head. “What are you two standing around there for? Come join the fun!” It motioned with its knife, beckoning Saya and Mao to come closer. “I’m tired of chasing you two around, so this time you’re it.”

“I recognize those moves,” whispered Saya. “They’re Ageha’s. This is going to get a lot harder.”

“What do you mean?”

“We both have martial arts backgrounds that allow us to keep up with Sakuya’s movements so far. But Ageha’s knife skills, though rooted in practical army techniques, have been refined through many years of killing. And one on many fights are his specialty. The style is hard to predict, fluid, flexible, and explosive. Even Arashi and I have never fought against it. He never uses knives against us in training.”

“So in short, that little bitch copied his moves. And if Ageha is as good as Mei Xing says, we’re really screwed.”

“In fewer words, yes.”

Bored because Saya and Mao opted to wait for her, Sakuya proceeded to torture the few survivors writhing in pain on the ground. She expertly flayed their skin and flesh like filleting an eel. “Who’d have thought cooking techniques would be useful in this situation?” Sakuya released a childlike laugh.

“That fucking-”

Saya blocked Mao’s way with an arm. “Don’t fall for it. It’s easier to defend than attack. We’re both unarmed right now.”

Mao’s claws had been destroyed by the explosions earlier. Saya’s usable weapons had been depleted as the fight dragged on. Only a few throwing knives and a compact time bomb was left.

“Buying time is our goal anyway. If Sakuya is willing to wait for Ageha to get to her, I’m all for it.”

“Hold on,” said Ageha. “I’m almost there. Ria is right in front of me.”

“Understood.” Saya closed her eyes for a moment to clear her mind.

When she opened them, the enemy was gone.

“Above!” Mao rolled to the side.

Saya reflexively blocked the first blade with her right forearm. The second one cut her left shoulder. Enduring the pain, she landed a turning kick on the robot’s upper arm.

Mao rushed the robot’s flank, but Sakuya danced around her kick and sliced her waist. Blood quickly soiled the vibrant purple of her dress.

Playfully hopping away, Sakuya watched the two women writhing in pain and giggled. “How does it feel, getting cut up by the techniques of the man you love?”

“I don’t love that guy!”

“Huh? Weren’t you part of the harem?”

“I’m part of a harem, just not that one.”

The robot shrugged. “So hard to keep track of these things. Whatever. Let’s continue shall we?”

Saya’s wound was relatively shallow. Mao, surprisingly, had also escaped serious injury. The cut on her waist barely reached muscle. It would not have been strange for her to be fatally wounded in the last exchange.

She’s toying with us.

Sakuya appeared confident that Ageha would never reach her real body. That worried Saya, but she trusted in him. More importantly, she still had a job to do.

Beating Sakuya is out of the question.

How to delay her…

Saya noticed a giant crane in the distance. An idea popped into her head.

She glanced at Mao. “We’re running.”

“Wait, wha-”

Saya bolted away from the dock, followed by a bewildered Mao.

I hope this works.

 

***

 

Viktor snuck up on his unwitting target. Arashi, crouched by a slightly open window, was completely focused on finding him outside, ignorant of the fact that he used a basement parking corridor to enter the building. She peered through the scope of her rifle while gently moving her aim from place to place.

The blood on his shoulder was not dry, but it had coagulated enough to stop dripping. With his right arm no longer usable, he could not aim his handgun properly and had removed his shoes to sneak as close as possible. He needed to get within a few feet to hit her head, the only part guaranteed to be human, with his left hand. Inching steadily while holding his breath, he finally reached the ideal distance.

Sorry, kid.

You’re a funny one.

Lots of potential too.

But you joined the wrong team.

He aligned the front sight with the girl’s head and pulled the trigger.

Gunshots echoed in the empty room.

A dull pain ran up Viktor’s right arm. Arashi had turned around at the last moment and exchanged fire with a pistol. Viktor hit her left shoulder but also took a bullet in his right forearm. Arashi had aimed for his face, but he had raised his wounded right arm through sheer force of will to block it. Unlike the girl, he did not have any cybernetic enhancements, so he had no choice but to sacrifice his mostly useless arm.

Both of them staggered but quickly aimed their weapons at each other’s heads, resulting in a stalemate. They were too close to miss even if they dodged while shooting.

“How did you know I was behind you?” asked Viktor.

“The smell of blood.”

“Impressive. You’re coated in blood yourself. Must’ve been hard to tell the difference.”

“I’ve always… had a good sense of smell. I train it to find food.”

Despite being a step away from death, Viktor chuckled lightheartedly. “You really are a funny one.”

“Drop the gun, old man. I don’t… want to kill Mitsuki’s acquaintance.”

Viktor formed a wry smile. “But you’re fine killing Mitsuki herself? That’s some twisted logic.”

“Huh?” Arashi’s expression turned even blanker than usual.

Oho.

They kept her in the dark due to her friendship with Mitsuki.

I can use this.

“You didn’t know? Your boss wants her dead. She’s the one controlling the robots.”

“That’s a lie. Kai won’t… do something like that. Ageha and Saya too.”

“You’re in contact with them, aren’t you? Go ahead and ask.”

“Kai… is our target Mitsuki?”

Viktor could not hear Kaika’s reply, but judging from the angry lines marring Arashi’s face, it was not a denial.

“If you don’t plan to hurt her, then why didn’t you tell me!?”

Now!

Distracted by fury, Arashi failed to retaliate when Viktor pulled the trigger. However, her instincts and reaction speed allowed her to dodge the first bullet by tilting her head. She was not so lucky with the second one.

A bullet lodged itself deep into her gut. Before Viktor could finish her off, she grabbed the rifle by the window and leapt outside. Viktor got off two more shots as she escaped, but both hit her alloy parts.

Shit.

He looked out the window to find his target. Arashi had used a grappling tool in her rifle to swing to the building across the street. Catching up to her in his current condition was impossible. He had lost too much blood.

“She’s one tough cookie.”

Most people would freeze up after getting shot in the stomach, but she had immediately prioritized escape, as if that behavior had been hammered into her. It probably had been. Her tolerance to pain, at a level even the most seasoned fighters never reached, suggested as much.

Viktor sat on the floor, his back against the wall. He took off his shirt and used it to bandage his fresh wounds. He would hold Valeriya back if he rejoined the battle in his current condition, so he decided to take a rest instead.

Arashi’s conversation with Kaika confirmed Valeriya’s suspicion that Kaika’s faction intended to kidnap Mitsuki and use her as a negotiation tool. That meant the worst case scenario, Mitsuki’s death, was never a possibility in the first place. Even if Valeriya lost, chances were both mother and daughter would come out of the fight alive. A load fell off Viktor’s old, weathered shoulders, allowing him to finally breathe a sigh of relief.

His mind wandered to the girl he had just fought.

Where will you go?

Will you retreat or go to your friend?

Will you save her or defeat her?

Viktor let his eyelids fall, dreaming to wake up to good news.

 

***

 

“You’re alone?” asked Ageha, shield in hand.

Valeriya raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Do I look like I have anyone with me?” She was wearing her characteristic yet ever changing kimono, this time a bold black with red butterflies. The right sleeve dangled limply at her side, and the bust area very loosely supported two magnificent mounds, which looked even larger than Ageha remembered. Her feet were bare, probably to increase mobility.

“I’m just surprised. I thought you’d barricade your daughter’s room with bodies if you had to.”

“Small fry are useless against you, proven by the mess you made outside. They’ll just get in my way.”

“You actually think you can beat me in a straight fight?”

“Who knows? I’ll certainly try though.”

“You can’t, Ria. Please surrender and agree to Kai’s terms. That way, no one will get hurt.”

“No can do. Daughter’s orders.”

“No time to persuade her, Ageha,” said Kaika. “You heard Arashi, right? Her signal is heading towards the bank. She won’t listen to orders or even reply.”

“Arashi,” whispered Ageha, hoping Valeriya would not pick up on their sudden mutiny crisis. “Arashi.”

No response.

“She probably feels betrayed and wants to see the truth with her own eyes. Please Ageha, make sure you finish this before she gets there. Her pace is really slow, which means she’s wounded. Things will get complicated if she gets there. She might even become a hostage.”

Ageha stared at Valeriya while thinking about how to quickly defeat her.

The Russian raised her left hand to chest level. “Hey, don’t mind me. Take your time and chat all day if you want.”

Ageha released his shield and broke into an explosive sprint. Like an arrow flying to the enemy, he closed the distance in the blink of an eye. Valeriya, while an unparalleled martial artist, was only human. Even without overload mode, Ageha greatly exceeded her physically in every single way. By taking the initiative, he robbed her of any tactics or trickery she could use. And with his helmet and armor on, she had no way to even hurt him.

Or so he thought.

Before he could reach her, Valeriya pulled a large handgun from inside her collar with her right hand and shot him in the chest. Utterly shocked, Ageha had no way to defend himself. He never imagined Valeriya had taken an ARMS operation, something she thoroughly despised. Hiding such a powerful handgun and an extra arm inside that loose kimono never crossed his mind. He should have figured something was up when he noticed her increased breast size. Regret filled his heart as he tumbled backward and crashed to the floor.

While lying on his back, he spat out blood in his helmet. The bullet penetrated his armor and hit his chest directly, causing significant internal damage. Even though the bullet did not penetrate his alloy chest, the impact still smashed his organs against his own metal muscles, rupturing them. Any other person would have lost consciousness from the pain and shock, but Ageha’s abnormal pain tolerance allowed him to endure.

The biggest mistake he had made was letting Arashi’s situation make him anxious. Anxiety clouded judgment and rushed decisions, both fatal errors against the Russian. In his hurry to win, he had forgotten that Valeriya Varrenikov was no mere martial artist. She was first and foremost a survivor.

Gritting his teeth, Ageha raised his arms and legs to his body and head, hoping to protect his torso from gunfire. Valeriya shot him a few more times as she approached, damaging his right knee, his left elbow, and completely destroying his left fist. The weapon had insane power, which naturally meant it had ridiculous recoil. That was probably why Valeriya obtained a cyborg arm, to wield the one weapon that could both surprise and significantly damage Ageha.

The final of the five shots hit his thigh, which fortunately was his most durable part and thus suffered negligible damage. Ageha planned to get to his feet while she reloaded, which was why she did not reload. She merely tossed the gun away as if it were a lollipop wrapper and proceeded to hammer his head with her alloy fist. The strikes were blindingly fast and accurate, easily bypassing his damaged arms’ poor defense. With his helmet against the ground, the neck brace’s effectiveness was significantly reduced. Each blow smashed his nose and cheeks against the inside of his helmet. The helmet itself, strong enough to resist rifle bullets, began to dent from Valeriya’s ruthless blows.

Everything spun and warped. Darkness crept from outside his vision, slowly eating all color. The ringing in his ears would not stop. He lost all sense of distance and direction, forgetting what position he was in at the moment.

This was it.

He was ending.

 

***

 

“Bait her up the crane,” said Saya.

Mao, sprinting on her right, stared in disbelief. “Are you out of your mind?”

“This is the only way. Trust me.”

“Why don’t you be the bait?”

“Can you operate a giant crane?”

“…Shit. Fine. I’ll do it, you conniving bitch.”

“We’re lucky she’s toying with us. If she really wanted to catch us, she could do it in a heartbeat.”

“Why the hell is she doing that by the way?”

“Sakuya is a crazy sadist. She enjoys torturing people and watching their desperation. I guess we’re her new toys. Plus, she’s probably curious what we’ve got in store after running all the way here.”

“How do we get her to go after me?”

“You’ve always been her main target, but just to be sure, let’s put that sharp tongue of yours to use.” Saya sent her a meaningful smile. “Keep her busy as long as you can.”

“You owe me for this.”

“I’ll treat you to a drink next time.”

Mao turned her head and sent the most demeaning smirk imaginable to their pursuer. The prideful Sakuya easily took the bait and focused on Mao. Saya slipped away from the battle, while Mao jumped onto the crane and scampered up the slanted metal pathway.

The robot did not follow her. “Do you two think I’m stupid? You obviously plan to drop me into the ocean if I follow you up there.”

“What an idiot.” Mao placed a hand on her hip and arrogantly gesticulated with the other. “Your guess is completely off the mark.”

“Stop bluffing. What else is the point of going all the way up there?”

“You really are just a shitty kid. Who’d try to lure you with such an obvious dumb plan? The risk is worse for me. I’m dead if I fall into the ocean. You can just walk back on the seafloor. Your head must be filled with lollipops, just like that dumb blonde.”

Well, sorry it’s such a dumb plan.

In fact, that was exactly Saya’s plan. She had figured out a way to save Mao if she fell, but the rest was exactly as Sakuya had surmised.

“Dumb blonde? Are you referring to Ria?”

“Duh? A dumb blonde who can’t even discipline her ungrateful orphan. Really, you two are like two peas in a pod. Complete failures.”

Without replying, the robot jumped onto the crane, prompting Mao to make a run for it. She sprinted up the giant metal arm, but Sakuya took her time walking up. That was understandable. Mao had nowhere to go. She would eventually reach the end of the structure. Saya had to finish all her preparations before the robot killed Mao.

Fortunately, the giant crane was near a tool storage, just like in the map Kaika obtained. Saya took a rope and a shipyard hook hanging from the wall. After firmly tying the two items together, she headed to the crane controls.

By the time she reached the control room, Mao and the robot were already far up the crane. The top part of the crane extended out over the ocean. There was not a lot of distance between the tip of the metal arm to the edge of the shipyard, but the water was very deep because large ships used to dock there. All Saya needed to do was operate the crane to shake Mao and the robot off. Even she realized it was a flimsy strategy, but they had no other alternatives.

Saya slammed her hand on the controls. “Dammit! There’s no power!”

She should have known that an abandoned facility would not have working machines. The lights in the shipyard worked, fooling her into thinking too optimistically. There was no guarantee the crane would work as well.

Think!

I need to drop that robot into the sea!

But how!?

Then she remembered the last of the weapons in her possession.

The bomb!

She had brought a time detonated bomb along in case they could keep the robot in one place long enough to bomb it to oblivion. She never had the opportunity to use it because the RPGs had done most of the damage to the robot they destroyed. Detaining the flighty smaller robot was practically impossible, rendering the bomb useless against it. However, it was perfect for blowing up structures.

Saya rushed out and planted the bomb on the base of the crane. Then she headed to the edge of the shipyard with the rope. All she had to do now was wait for the crane to crash and throw the hook at Mao.

The throw itself was easy enough. Mao’s drop zone would not be far away, and Saya had a trained alloy throwing arm. The problem was catching it. Unlike Saya, Mao had no night vision. Catching a hook flying towards her while falling in the darkness was an extremely difficult feat. There was also the risk of the robot catching the rope instead, in which case Saya would have to throw the rope into the sea to prevent its return. In truth, the rescue plan was full of holes and very unlikely to succeed.

And that was fine.

It was never Saya’s goal to save Mao in the first place. All she had to do was make it appear that she did all she could. Mei Xing’s faction knew the risks when they sent Mao to this battle and would likely accept Mao’s death if it had been unavoidable during the fight.

If it was necessary to win, Saya had been prepared to sacrifice Mao and her men from the start. Considering that, her crane plan was not so dumb after all.

A pained smile rose on her face.

So this is what I’ve become.

Just as Kaika gradually gained a human heart, Saya had slowly lost hers, all for the sake of protecting the ones she cared for. She did not know if she felt proud of that sacrifice or ashamed of her weakness. However, she could not regret it. Regret was a privilege allowed only to those who could still be forgiven.

The blast brought her back to reality. The crane, having lost its foundation, fell towards the sea. Taking advantage of the sudden jolt, Mao managed to kick the robot away before falling.

Perfect.

Maybe I don’t need to lose more of myself after all.

Saya spun the hook like a lasso and threw it at Mao. The hook flew past its target, but Mao successfully caught the rope attached to it. Saya began pulling even before Mao hit the water. The black waves swallowed the helpless robot.

Mao sank like a rock because of her alloy parts, but Saya was able to pull her ashore before she drowned. The soaked qipao clung to Mao’s curves.

“That was a crazy plan.” Mao tried to squeeze the water out of her front skirt, exposing her black panties.

“But it worked.”

“One drink ain’t gonna cut it.”

“I’ll buy you a bottle once we get back.”

“How long do you think that monster is gonna be out for?”

“Depends. If we’re lucky, she’s deep enough to lose the pilot’s signal. The sea here is pretty deep, but she’ll eventually hit the ocean floor. Then it’s all a matter of how long it’ll take her to climb back up the undersea cliff face.”

“That means I can take a breather, right?”

“I guess so.”

Mao flopped to the floor. After a few furtive glances at Saya, she turned away and mumbled, “Thanks for saving my life.”

A sharp pain stabbed Saya’s heart. Mao had no idea that moments ago Saya was prepared to let her drown just to delay the robot.

Loud clanks invaded the comm line. Everyone on it fell silent, wondering what the rhythmic, metallic hammering was. Painful groans and guttural gasps interspersed the tolling beats. Saya would never fail to recognize that voice anywhere.

“Ageha, are you okay?” asked Saya, her voice steeped in anxiety. “Please report your situation. Ageha?”

Still no answer.

Even the groans had faded.

Each clank pounded at Saya’s frantic heart. Her instincts told her something was terribly wrong.

“Ojousama! I think Ageha has been incapacitated! His helmet is probably being hit by a blunt object! Ageha, are you there!? Please answer! Please!!!”

“Arashi, this isn’t the time for your rebellious stage,” said Kaika. “I’ll apologize on my hands and knees later, but please, find Ageha now!”

“…Roger.”

Mao tapped Saya’s shoulder. “Sorry, but we don’t have time for that.” She pointed at the edge of the shipyard where the crane fell.

A robot climbed up the edge. Its metallic body, wearing a coat of cold seawater, gleamed under the shipyard lights. The crane strategy only bought them a few minutes.

However, Saya’s mind was too distraught to care about her own situation. Ageha was not answering. He might even be…

No!!!

“Ageha!!! Please answer! Wake up!”

Still nothing.

Saya fell on her knees, tears dribbling ceaselessly down her face. Mao had no clue what was happening, but seeing her partner break down in the middle of a crisis, she had no choice but to pick up the slack.

“I’ll keep the robot busy! Get yourself together!” Mao ran off, disappearing from Saya’s view.

All Saya could do was scream his name.

 

***

 

He ended.

Black.

No, not even black.

Just nothing.

No feeling, no light, no sound.

He was nothing.

Nothing.

Nothing.

Nothing.

Nothing. Nothing.  Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

Then he heard a noise.

A voice.

“A…”

It was faint but familiar.

“A…ha”

He felt like he knew what it was trying to say but could not find the word.

“Age…”

He could almost understand it.

Just a little more.

He concentrated the last recesses of his consciousness on the sound, not caring if his mind totally vanished right after.

“Ageha!!!”

Right.

That was his name.

Called by the people most important to him.

Sound filled his world again.

“Ageha!!!” screamed Saya in a frantic, tearful voice.

Followed by light.

“Ageha, I’m coming!,” said Arashi in a pained voice. “Hold on!!!”

Then touch.

“Ageha, get up!” shouted Kaika, as commanding as always. “Everyone will die if you quit here!”

Quit?

Who the fuck ever said anything about quitting?

And then words.

“Injection activate.”

His voice command triggered the injection ampule stored in a tiny alloy capsule embedded in his neck. The device pumped the latest version of his brain drug into his body. Kaika had complained that a manual injection was too clunky and slow, so Tsubasa had come up with a better method. Aside from the injector, the improved drug had less intense side effects as well, a statement of Tsubasa’s he questioned each time they did an experimental injection.

Ageha’s eyes regained focus as his mind went into overdrive. Apparently, he had been able to fend off a portion of Valeriya’s blows on reflex even while his mind had been wandering beyond death’s door.

I need to get away from her. But how do I do that? I can grab her leg. No, that won’t work. She’s expecting that and can easily step away. First, I need to turtle up and stop getting hit.

In the small gap between Valeriya’s strikes, Ageha rolled over to his belly and covered his head and nape with his arms. The incessant attacks finally stopped.

Why didn’t I do this earlier? Shit, the gunshot must’ve stunned me more than I thought. Stop. Not the time for self-blame. I need to get to my feet, but one of my knees is damaged. What to do… What to do… What to do… That’s it. I just need more legs.

Ageha pushed off the ground with his hands but did not get up. He used his working right hand to prop himself up and started moving like a beast on all fours.

Ah shit, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts!!! My head’s gonna explode! My veins are all gonna pop!!! My eyeballs are shrinking!!! Dammit, Tsubasa, what the fuck were you saying about weaker side effects!?

Remembering the pain remedy he used at the gas station battle, Ageha howled with all his might. Valeriya was taken aback by the strange display, understandably so. She had never seen him fight on drugs before.

“Ageha… What have you done to yourself?”

He wanted to answer, to give an excuse, but he was in too much pain. All he could focus on was winning the fight and kidnapping Mitsuki.

“I guess I wasn’t the only one who was desperate.” Valeriya reloaded her handgun.

It seemed she had retrieved the weapon the moment Ageha turtled up earlier. However, that was well within his predictions. Ageha’s speed increased as he got used to running like a crippled animal. Valeriya shot him twice, but both bullets missed due to his erratic movements. That gave him enough time to reach his shield. Three more bullets flew in his direction but harmlessly bounced off the thick alloy barrier.

“Overload mode, activate.”

His cracked helm’s eyes glowed blood red as strength filled his body. Despite the power up, Ageha was not confident he could defeat Valeriya in his current state. She still had that annoying handgun, and he had only one usable arm and leg.

His left arm was more or less useless without a hand, and his left leg, though still moving, would probably stop working if he put too much strain on the damaged knee. He was literally a wounded animal trying to fend off a calculating hunter. No matter his physical superiority, the damage wrought on his body prevented him from using even a tenth of his usual capability.

What do I do? Is there a move I can use? No, Ria knows everything about my fighting techniques. Is there a way I can trick her? No, she has far more experience and wits than I do. Does she have a weakness I can exploit?

Then it occurred to him. Valeriya had a gigantic Achilles’ heel.

Sorry, Ria, but I don’t need to win this fight.

Ageha quickly attached the shield to his back as he turned around. Valeriya had reloaded during that time and shot him twice more, but the shield protected him. Then he ran on all fours to the door Valeriya had been protecting.

“Damn you, Ageha!” Valeriya shot him a few more times while chasing after him. “Have you lost everything that makes you human!?”

I’m the villain here, Ria. Forgetting that was your mistake.

The Russian wheezed as she ran desperately. Her ruthless attacks against Ageha’s helmet had also taken a toll on her. Each blow had also rattled her own body, leaving her exhausted and weakened.

Ageha tackled the door but only made a dent. As unassuming as it looked, it was reinforced to the teeth. Looking behind him, Ageha saw Valeriya closing in, but she did not have her handgun anymore.

Finally out of bullets. At least luck is starting to lean on my side.

He equipped the shield and gathered energy in his right arm. With a tight spin to gather momentum, he smashed the shield into the door, breaking it free from the concrete.

Inside, he saw the princess of the castle. Mitsuki sat in a cockpit wired to a bunch of machines on the left side of the room. He had finally reached the prize. All he had to do was grab her and the fight was over.

Valeriya entered the room a few steps before he could reach Mitsuki. To delay her further, Ageha pitched the shield at her with all his might, which was profoundly absurd when using overload mode.

The black mass hurtled at Valeriya, but she expertly deflected it with her alloy right hand while sidestepping away, creating sparks as she made the slightest of contacts. It was an inhuman feat, but the Russian did it without batting an eyelash. The shield barely changed course and smashed into the far wall, destroying a chunk of it. Moonlight seeped through the human-sized hole.

It did not matter if he missed. Victory was within his grasp. He turned around and reached for Mitsuki.

That was when he realized his mistake.

Valeriya would never leave Mitsuki unguarded in a room. And what better guard than the teenage fighting prodigy herself.

An eight-foot robot burst from a coffin-shaped container by the wall and tackled Ageha from the side. The impact sent him crashing to a wall.

Weren’t there only three bodies!? Was Gen’s info wrong!? No, he wouldn’t lie about something like that, and there’s no way his estimates about reproducing his own work are wrong either. Then what…

That was when Ageha realized they had been dancing in Valeriya’s palm all along. Judging from the difficult fight at the shipyard, both bodies there were the latest model. So was the giant. Then which was fake?

The first one… The first goddamn one!

The robot that Arashi sniped at the start of the battle had fallen rather easily. That was only natural because it was a cheap imitation or a prototype. Valeriya had not only predicted the sniping strategy, she had also set a trap to make Kaika’s faction believe that one of the three robot bodies had been destroyed. They had been completely deceived.

The giant followed Ageha to the wall and raised its fist. Ageha’s many injuries prevented him from recovering fast enough. He stared at the block of metal falling towards his head and realized he would not make it.

Then the giant’s arm blew off from the elbow down.

“Ageha, I’m here!” shouted Arashi.

She had come through the door and saved him in the nick of time. The anti-materiel rifle had completely destroyed the giant’s elbow joint. Hitting such a small target moving at high speed was already amazing, but given the stakes and lack of preparation, that shot was probably Arashi’s best yet.

“Sakuya, switch!” Valeriya immediately ran towards Ageha as the giant robot lumbered to Arashi.

Valeriya was vulnerable to gunfire, so the robot was a better match against the rifle girl.

Ageha decided to fight with his back against the wall. That eliminated the issue of balance due to his damaged knee and also limited Valeriya’s ability to flank him. Even with his injuries, Ageha was still a tough nut to crack without the overpowered handgun. Simply put, Valeriya, who only had one alloy arm, lacked the firepower to kill him. The biggest problem was Ageha’s time limit. The moment his drug or battery ran out, his life would follow.

Like a viper, Valeriya struck and retreated almost instantaneously. Both of them only had one arm available for combat, so their battle consisted mostly of Ageha defending against Valeriya’s strikes. Hitting Ageha’s body was pointless because of the armor, making it rather easy for him to defend. Valeriya could not sweep his metal legs with her flesh ones either.

At first, she landed a few hits to the head. However, the frequency of successful hits decreased quickly. Ageha realized a convenient side effect, if one could call it that, of the drug. Thinking faster also meant learning faster. He was absorbing Valeriya’s patterns, techniques, and skills at a brain-melting rate. Finally, he managed to counter with a straight punch to the chest. The Russian sacrificed her left arm by using it to block. The bones in her forearm shattered like glass, and her body tumbled to the ground.

“That hurts, you asshole!!!” She immediately got up and glared at him, her composure completely blown away. Her hair had come undone and hung wildly around her shoulders.

“Wanna switch bodies?”

“That bad, huh? The price of power never was cheap.”

“What are you waiting for? Come at me.”

Valeriya shook her head. “I can’t beat you on offense like this.” She glanced at her left arm. “Unlike you, I’m really bad with pain. I almost lost consciousness just now.”

“You should’ve just gone to sleep.”

“Not while my daughter is still fighting. I’m not gonna go to you, Ageha. I’ll just wait until my daughter is done with your pet. Then we can finish you off together.”

Ageha clicked his tongue. That was the most annoying strategy Valeriya could use. Time was his worst enemy at this point, and Valeriya had it in spades. Arashi was still hanging on, completely focused on defense, but her movements were getting sluggish. Blood seeped from her stomach. Her wound had been taped up, but it still leaked red each time she avoided the giant’s blows.

I can’t hesitate.

It’s all or nothing.

With Valeriya injured, he might have a chance of defeating her. Ageha crouched down and drew one of the knives on his lower back. If Valeriya was not coming to him, then he would go to her, even if he had to crawl.

And crawl he did.

It was faster than a normal person could run, but compared to his original speed, it was indeed painfully slow. A trail of smoke from his burning skin marked his crooked path.

Valeriya took a wing chun stance, keeping her right elbow next to her ribs and pointing her upward facing palm at Ageha. He immediately went after her legs, diving at them while slashing with the knife. She agilely stepped aside, dodging the path of his blade. Predicting that reaction, Ageha tried to catch her leg with his elbow. Valeriya avoided the attack by raising her leg and countered with a rabbit punch towards Ageha’s helm.

Instead of dodging, Ageha leapt into her fist, colliding with it before it reached its maximum velocity. He was extremely tolerant to pain. She, however, was not, and that was a world of difference.

Ageha released his knife, surprising Valeriya. The knife had been a decoy from the start to trick Valeriya into thinking he could not grapple her. As he reached out, Valeriya frantically stepped back, wary of getting caught. However, one part of her body failed to react as fast. Her broken left arm, which was practically useless already, lagged behind.

Normally, it would be pointless to attack an immobile body part, but knowing Valeriya’s weakness to pain, Ageha targeted it anyway. He managed to catch her wrist and squeezed it like an empty soda can. Valeriya screamed in agony as he tore her nerves and muscles. Forcing her body to move through sheer determination, Valeriya landed a karate chop on Ageha’s helmet, forcing him to let go. His vision swayed from the blow, but it had been swaying since the fight started. Nothing new. No problem.

This is my win, Ria.

Valeriya was sweating bullets. Her breathing had turned into gasps, and her eyes began glazing over. The deciding factor in their duel turned out to be the difference in their paths to strength. Valeriya relied on godly talent and efficiency, never suffering through anything, while Ageha fought his way to strength, enduring agony every step of the way.

That was when he saw it.

From the corner of his eye, Ageha glimpsed Arashi’s fight unfold, or rather, end. The giant raised it’s hand over the girl, who was sitting on the ground, backed into the corner of the room. Arashi would not survive. There was no way to stop the robot.

Except one.

Ageha had been saving his trump card, not because he had the leeway to, but because he hated it. Hurting Mitsuki was his last resort, but there was no other way left.

He reached for his other knife and took aim at the sitting princess. Confident he could hit accurately at this distance, he targeted her leg and wound up for the throw. Injuring Mitsuki would be enough to stop the robot from killing Arashi. Then he would defeat Valeriya and end this stupid battle.

However, Valeriya realized his intent and reached forward to block his throw. Judging from their positions, she would succeed. He did not have the time to adjust his motion.

A gunshot, a simple bang, echoed from afar. It was no different from all the other bullets spent on the bloody feud so far, but this one changed all their fates in an instant.

A red hole opened up on Valeriya’s breast. Someone had sniped her from beyond the hole in the wall. The fatal injury ruined her form, causing her to graze Ageha’s hand instead of grabbing it. The contact affected his aim. Even so, Ageha had no other choice but to release the knife to save Arashi.

The blade flew and hit its target.

Ageha’s outstretched hand trembled. His breath caught. His rapidly cycling thoughts halted. His eyes locked in place, searing the scene he created into his mind.

The knife’s handle grew out of Mitsuki’s chest. Crimson bled into her white shirt. Her shoulders sagged like a hung criminal’s.

What have I done..?

The giant robot froze, and Arashi was saved.

What have I done?

His eyes darted around in panic. Two sets of eyes stared at the pale nadeshiko cloaked in red. Both of them empty, completely hollow. A mother and a friend saw what his hands had wrought. A piece of his heart broke off and withered away.

“Ageha, report!” said Kaika.

His tongue, overwhelmed by the taste of iron and bitter regret, would not move.

“Ageha, what happened!?”

“Ageha, please respond!” said Saya.

Again, Saya’s voice saved him from darkness. He had sinned, but life went on. He still needed to save Arashi and himself.

“Downer injection, activate. Overload mode, deactivate.”

His voice commands kicked the two processes into action. Soon, his thoughts and heart rate returned to normal, and the smoke clothing his body vanished.

“Mission… accomplished. We’re going home.”

“Confirmed,” said Saya. “The robot here ceased functioning. It was a close fight. I… kind of lost myself for a moment, but Mao covered for me. We’re both safe.”

Kaika, ignorant of the circumstances, raised a cheer on the comm line.

Ageha could still walk, albeit slowly, if he leaned most of his weight on his right leg. He moved towards Arashi and tried to help her up. She cried as she fought him off. Her rebellion contained no technique and thus was no danger to him. He picked her up by force and ignored the hits on his armor.

The after effects of the drug began assailing him. A ripping headache and burning nerves, along with Arashi’s punches, ravaged his body, but he could feel nothing except the emptiness of guilt, as if someone had carved out the entire contents of his chest.

He desperately tried to block out the images of Mitsuki flitting through his head. He failed. Each one burned him like a glowing brand, leaving an indelible mark. A million ifs visited his thoughts, all of them meaningless after the fact.

His strength had not been enough again. His hands had failed to save someone he cared about again. Worse, his own hands killed his hope.

What else do I have to give away?

I have nothing left.

When will I be strong enough?

Will I ever be strong enough?

He did not want to, but a strange sense of responsibility forced him to look back at the tragedy one more time. Valeriya still breathed. She crawled her way to her daughter’s red throne, coughing blood along the way. Her lung had been pierced. There was no doubt she would die in minutes.

I’m sorry.

I’m so sorry.

Killing Valeriya now would be a mercy to her, but he could not bring himself to do it. He could not bring himself to see what kind of look she would give her daughter’s killer.

Like a cowardly thief, Ageha, with Arashi bawling like a child on his shoulder, escaped hell through the hole.

 

***

 

Valeriya dragged herself across the floor. Her own blood threatened to drown her as it filled her lung, so she coughed it out at increasingly shorter intervals. Her legs refused to listen to her anymore. Only her alloy arm moved, clawing at the floor, pulling her towards the love of her life.

Her mind barely worked. She could not think. She did not care who shot her. She did not care why the knife flew in that direction. She did not care about her impending death.

All she wanted to do was embrace her daughter. That was it.

After what felt like millenia, Valeriya finally managed to touch her daughter again. She could not tell if she was warm or cold. Feeling had already left her. Grabbing the sitting girl’s scarlet shirt, she dragged her to the ground.

Valeriya removed the girl’s helmet and touched her pale face. Her eyes were wide open, so she kissed them closed. Then she kissed the girl’s cheeks, tasting the salt in her own tears. Her metal arm wrapped around the girl’s soft, fragile body and hugged it close.

“I…” She violently coughed. “I’m sorry… Thank you…” She wanted to say so, so much more. To tell her daughter how she meant the world to her, to shower her with praise, to laugh together with her. But alas, her last breath could only speak so much, so she chose those words carefully. Her eyelids fell as her lips parted one last time. “I love you.”

 

Next Chapter

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Chapter Five: Regrets

  1. supremeorb2

    sometimes i hate you, you know during v4 i stopped reading your novel for like a month or 2 and my note for the novel was that it had an sadistic author XD. So when do we ressurect the duo?
    … i really hate you………. lol

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s