Kaika stretched her back as she walked away from the meeting room. The two-hour emergency conference with several Chinese generals had yielded positive results. Due to rumors about NGC’s connection to Mei Xing, who was selling rare metals to the U.S. military, the Chinese government had sent representatives to Tokyo to speak with Kaika. It had only been a matter of time before the Chinese connected the dots, so she had not been caught unprepared.
With masterful acting, she had managed to allay doubts about NGC’s neutrality by adamantly denying any political alliance with the Chinese mafia or the U.S. government. She had insisted that everything NGC did was in the name of business and monetary gain. That had convinced the generals that her corporation would act predictably and respect confidentiality, a considerable assurance in the field of politics.
Saya followed a few steps behind her. “I have prepared another jet. Would you like to leave for the United States tonight?”
“You miss Ageha already? Sheesh. It hasn’t even been a day.”
“That is not true!”
“Then why did you keep peeking at your mobile during the meeting? And why did you prepare a jet even though I haven’t said anything about flying out tonight?”
“Geez. I thought you’d feel betrayed when he outed you to Mei Xing, but you two seem to be getting along just fine. I wasted my energy worrying.”
“I have no right to feel betrayed. Ageha kept that secret for my sake at great cost to himself. It was a privilege, not a right. Only a spoiled child would complain when a privilege is taken away.”
“Makes sense. It was a gigantic strategic blunder though.”
“He already apologized for that many times.”
“I know, I know. Good thing Mei Xing didn’t back out of our supply contracts. That guy truly understands what it means to lead an organization. Too bad he still won’t speak to Ageha.”
“Indeed. Still, I am thankful that Ageha is feeling better recently. Despite how cold she acts around him, I am sure Arashi’s presence is a big factor in his recovery.”
Kaika nodded in agreement. “I hope their trip together helps them patch things up, even a little.”
Saya did not know about Rin’s visit. Ageha had wanted to tell her, but Kaika had pleaded with him to not make things any more complicated in exchange for forgiving his reckless confession to Mei Xing.
“So Ojousama, are we flying out tonight? I will call the flight crew to cancel if not.”
“We leave tonight. I need to meet with Mashiro asap to deal with Butler. I hope Ageha and Arashi are done scouting by the time we arrive.”
“You asked them to check certain locations for kill points, correct?”
“Yeah. We need to draw Butler out and kill him.”
“Mashiro will not agree to that.”
“It’s our last resort. First we’ll try to depose him some other way.”
“Forgive my ignorance, but why are we going so far to remove a leader we helped put in power?”
“Elementary, my dear butler.” With a smug grin, Kaika raised an index finger. “It’s all about balance.”
Saya tapped a fist into the palm of her other hand, showing her understanding. “Butler was needed to consolidate the American military and spark a war, but with him at the helm, the U.S. is too powerful an adversary for the other nations.”
“Well done. I don’t want an all-out war, Saya. That’d be a nice show too, but very short lived. A regulated, drawn-out conflict between many countries is ideal. Butler is too competent, and consequently, too dangerous. He may win the war in an instant, or he may force the other nations to yield without conflict. Both options sound rather boring to me.”
“Is entertainment the only thing that matters to you?”
“I’d like to say yes, but that’d be a lie. What I really want is actually very simple. It’s something everyone wants.”
“I find it hard to imagine you wanting anything that can be remotely considered simple, Ojousama.”
“But I do. I just want to leave a mark on the world that is proportionate to my self-worth, no different from the next guy. The only difference is I’m worth a lot more than most. Considering that, what better way is there to prove my worth than to change the world that evaluates it?”
“Many would say you went a little overboard.”
“The many are stupid. That’s exactly why I took the approach of minority influence. Even a tiny minority can change the minds of the majority if they stick to their guns long and hard enough. Ever heard of flat-earthers?”
“Are they not a group of people who believe that the earth is flat?”
“Yes. Do you know how they can gather enough people to make an organization despite the absurdity of their claim?”
“There’s that, but it’s mostly due to the almost fanatical fixation of the existing believers to the idea. They adamantly defend their beliefs in every occasion and appear to be completely sure of what they assert. Can you imagine a normal person defending that the earth is round with that much passion?”
“I believe very few would put in that much effort.”
“And that’s where their power lies. If a person is faced with a minority viewpoint that is explained in an intelligent, apparently well-informed way, and when the proponents don’t deviate from their opinions no matter what, they can be very influential. The majority will start believing the illusion bit by bit.”
“Is that what you want to achieve?”
“Maybe. This world is a disgusting and boring place, Saya. I’m merely taking the shortest and most efficient route to fix that.”
As if on cue, Saya’s mobile rang. Her face instantly paled upon taking the call.
Noticing this change, Kaika stopped walking and faced her properly. “What happened?”
“The plane… Ageha and Arashi’s plane disappeared.”
“The plane crashed!?” shouted Noelle.
Nick moved the receiver away from his ear. “You don’t have to scream. I hear you just fine.”
“What happened to Arashi!?”
“I don’t know yet. The plane was en route to Russia. The satellite breadcrumb trail it left behind shows that it crashed in the Altai mountain range, close to the Chinese-Russian border.”
“How can you do something like this!?”
“I didn’t. I had operatives inside the plane, but they were only supposed to strike when an opportunity arose. The main plan was to take Kaika’s entire party to Russia, where they would land in hostile territory and be eliminated, except Arashi if at all possible. It goes without saying, but something went terribly wrong. I’m going to send in a team to search for survivors.”
“Do you think Arashi is alive?”
“The chances are decent. Both Shikimi and Arashi are extensively modified. I, for one, certainly wouldn’t bet on either of them kicking the bucket just like that.”
“Let me join the search team.”
“I knew you’d say that. You can go on one condition.”
“Kill Shikimi? Assuming he’s alive of course.”
“You get a gold star.”
“I have a condition of my own. If I find Arashi, I’ll be taking her back to the U.S. with me. I need your help to give her a new identity and get her into the country safely.”
“I knew letting her go back to that psychopathic witch was a mistake. Someone who can kill her own sister can never care for another human being.”
“…What did you just say?”
“I said someone who could kill her own sister-”
“You’re talking about Kaika Nikaido, right?”
“Yeah. What about it?”
“Where did you get that information?”
“Hm? Well, Arashi told me a bunch of things while she was here. She mentioned overhearing Nikaido and Saionji fighting about Kureha Nikaido’s death. Arashi didn’t know she was Nikaido’s sister though.”
“Are you sure this isn’t disinformation? It might be Nikaido’s trap. She’s infamous for such schemes.”
“Arashi was in no condition to lie at the time. Besides, she only brought it up because I asked her to tell me about her conversations with her friend Mitsuki. That was the first real secret they shared, supposedly. Why is this so important anyway? We already know that Nikaido is scum.”
“We do. Thing is, do the people around her know that?”
“Of course they do. They’re all scum for using Arashi like that. Birds of a feather and all that.”
“Maybe. Either way, thanks for that tasty tidbit. Can’t hurt to have more cards in my hand.”
“Where should I go for the mission briefing?”
“I’ll send you the airfield address. Report to the man named Viktor when you get there. He’ll be your CO for this mission. Make sure to bring back Shikimi’s head. I don’t care if it has a bunch of holes in it. I’m sick of people coming back from the dead.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t worry about it and focus on your mission. I have one more top secret directive for you. You’re forbidden to repeat these words.”
“About your field CO, Viktor…”
Ageha struggled up a snowy slope, carrying both Arashi and her rifle on his back. The parachute had gotten stuck in the branches, so he had left it behind. The combined weight of his load hardly burdened him, but the thick snow underfoot slowed his progress. He took a peek at Arashi’s face. The small gash on her head had stopped bleeding, but her cheeks and chin carried scratches and scrapes from their fall.
Despite his thick winter coat and pants, the cold mountain air chilled his highly conductive metal limbs, robbing him of energy. Unfortunately, he had no knowledge about how to survive in the mountains. Even though he learned combat from his grandfather’s training exoskeleton, there had been no chips related to surviving in the wild.
I have to get to high ground.
He wanted to check the area and find the plane crash site. That was the first place rescuers would check, and he might find useful items onboard, hopefully intact. Snow-covered peaks blocked his line of sight in every direction. Patches of trees, similar to the one they had landed on, were few and far between.
After traversing the third steep slope, Arashi began to squirm on his back. He thought about putting her down, but there was nowhere to let her rest in the endless snowfields and cliffs surrounding them.
Arashi gently opened her eyes with a high-pitched groan.
“Finally awake.” Ageha resumed walking.
“A-Ageha..? What’re yuh doin? Whur… are we?”
Arashi’s words were slightly garbled, likely due to a concussion. She had woken up fairly quickly considering the blow she took, but that was probably because of her father’s abusive military training. Her body prioritized regaining consciousness over rest and recovery in critical situations.
“Don’t you remember? We fell from-”
“Leggo of me!” Arashi thrashed around behind him, trying to pry off his hold on her legs.
“Stop struggling! I’m just carrying you until you regain your bearings!”
“What did yuh do t’me!? Why’re we here!?”
Loss of memory related to the traumatic event was also a common symptom of a concussion, one he was very familiar with due to his battle with Valeriya. Ageha had no idea how severe Arashi’s injury was. Considering their current situation, he could only hope it was a temporary problem.
Before he could reply, Arashi ripped the rifle from his back and swung it at his head. Left with no choice, Ageha released Arashi and rolled forward, barely avoiding the gun-turned-club.
“That’s dangerous! You almost got me!”
With glazed eyes, Arashi shakily aimed her rifle at Ageha and loaded a bullet. “I’m not… falling for your tricks again!”
“This isn’t a trick.” Ageha took a step closer, his hands raised to show his lack of hostility. “If you just let me explain-”
“Don’t come closer! Noelle… was right. This trip is a trap!”
“…You don’t remember what we spoke about on the plane?”
“I explained everything to you. About Mitsuki and your mother.”
Arashi’s left hand reached for her head and grasped her messy hair. “Th-That’s… I…” Her knees buckled for an instant, but she managed to stay on her feet.
Realizing the danger of a customized sniper rifle, one that could kill him in one shot, in the hands of a bewildered Arashi, Ageha decided to disarm her. Considering the distance between them and her confused state, it was an easy task. He dashed forward while ducking her line of fire. Arashi reflexively lowered her aim but did not make it in time. He slipped past the barrel of the rifle and then reached for her wrist.
A loud bang echoed across the snowy mountains.
The rifle accidentally went off during their brief struggle. Ageha disarmed Arashi and pinned her down to the ground.
Arashi shut her eyes, her eyebrows knitted together. After a few moments, the tension in her body gradually disappeared. Her eyelids slowly parted, revealing more focused pupils. “…A-Ageha?”
“Looks like you’ve come to your senses.”
“We… jumped from the plane… What was I doing?”
“It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
“My head… hurts…” Arashi emitted a pained moan. “My ears… What’s that rumbling?”
“Probably due to your concussion. Your ears should go back to normal with some rest.”
Ageha strained his ears. He had suffered no head injuries during the fall, but he also heard the rumbling noise. Not only that, it was getting louder by the second.
Ageha jumped to his feet. “Arashi, get up! We need to get outta here!”
“Avalanche!” He swung his head to the source of the sound.
At the peak of the mountain they had been climbing, a gigantic white slab came rolling down towards them, breaking into large pieces as it plummeted. The tremendous force of the surging ice and snow dragged along rocks and trees, creating a potage as deadly as lava but hundreds of times faster.
Arashi perked up the moment she saw the terrifying spectacle. She quickly stood up but wobbled after taking a single step.
She’s in no condition to run.
Ageha gently tackled Arashi’s abdomen, lifting her up to his shoulder in one smooth motion. As he sprinted down the slope, he handed her the rifle, which she promptly took and embraced with both arms.
“Don’t lose it!”
Keeping a tight hold of Arashi’s thighs, Ageha vaulted down the slope, leaping a dozen feet at a time. Even so, the roaring snow wave chasing them drew ever closer.
“Run sideways!” shouted Arashi, trying her best to be heard over the deafening noise. “There’s less snow at the edges!”
Ageha nodded and changed direction, running in an oblique line from the flow of the avalanche. Even with his cybernetic legs, the thick snow affected his running form, hampering their speed. After dodging a few stray trees in his way, he found a rock jutting out from beneath the snow. Using it as a launch pad, he rocketed into the air and landed a good distance away. Thinking he had put some distance between them and their relentless pursuer, he peeked over his unoccupied shoulder, only to see an enormous white mass looming right behind them.
We’re not gonna make it!
Despite being confronted by that inevitability, Ageha refused to give up.
I have too many things left to do…
To atone for…
To come back to.
“Overload mode, activate!”
Heat surged from within the skeletal power cells in his limbs, filling them with volatile energy. Exerting his alloy muscles to the maximum, he blazed across the crumbling slope, a line of smoke trailing behind him. Arashi forcefully embraced his torso along with the rifle, hanging on for dear life. For a second, Ageha considered throwing away the weapon to lighten the load, but in this situation, even the act of tossing it would cost valuable seconds, resulting in their demise.
The deadly race between them and the white wave continued. His overcharged limbs allowed him to keep the landslide from engulfing them, but there was no end in sight. Per Arashi’s instruction, Ageha traced a diagonal line down the mountain, but even the farthest edge of the avalanche seemed massive enough to bury them in dozens of feet of snow.
I need to find shelter!
Ageha strained his bionic eyes to find anything that could shield them from the freezing onslaught. Ten seconds of frantic searching rewarded him with a possible refuge, a short ridge on the mountain face.
“We’re hiding behind a ridge!”
“That won’t work! Some of the debris can still hit us!”
“I’ll take care of it!”
“But the snow will end up burying us anyway!”
“The avalanche is right on our tail. We have no choice!”
Ageha beelined to the twenty-foot high ridge and jumped down. The ledge would at least protect them from most of the snow and debris because the momentum would carry those past them. That said, heavier objects could still fall on them, not to mention any rocks with unlucky bounces.
As soon as he landed, a dense stream of white gushed past their heads, covering them with a thin layer of powder snow. The ridge face was not steep enough to allow them to lean their backs on the wall. Several pieces of debris rolled down the cliff edge, almost hitting them. Still, the ridge protected them from the worst of it. Waves of snow and rocks barreled down their two unshielded sides, creating a small pocket where they stood.
After setting Arashi down, Ageha turned to face the unstoppable behemoth. “Stay down. I’ll stop the debris.”
Even though he said that, he knew it was suicide to smash into rocks falling at ridiculous speeds head on. He needed to parry them just enough to prevent them from hitting Arashi. To do that, he had to hit them at the right angle with perfect timing, a feat that required significant calculation and coordination. Fortunately, he had just the thing to do that.
He took out the portable injector from his jacket pocket and shot a dose into his neck. The thought-acceleration drug pulsed into his arteries, instantly changing how he perceived the world. The rocks did not fall any slower, but his accelerated analytical ability and bionic eyes allowed him to predict trajectory and avoid most of the falling debris.
A triangular slab of stone tumbled off the ledge and rushed towards them. Ageha sidestepped the rock with ease. The moment it passed by his side, he slammed his shoulder into it, diverting its course just enough to miss Arashi.
I can do this!
As if reprimanding him for his premature celebration, three ragged rocks rolled off the cliff just above them. This time, the trajectory headed straight for Arashi, forcing Ageha to jump backwards to defend her. Fortunately, the three rocks were much smaller than the first one, so he opted to fend them off with a two kick combo. The first kick shattered the smallest of the three, and the second kick knocked the largest one into the remaining one, causing them to safely pass over Arashi’s head.
Ageha continued protecting Arashi from the brunt of the relentless tsunami of snow and rocks. However, snow gradually built up on the ground of their small refuge, hindering Ageha’s movements. Some of the smaller rocks hit Ageha on his body and legs, chipping away at his endurance. Worst of all, his overload mode had surpassed all limitation guidelines. The searing heat burned through his artificial skin and singed his clothes.
Tsubasa had designed the heat release system to direct the thermal energy outside, safeguarding Ageha’s internal organs and the flesh connected directly to his ARMS. The concept was similar to how one could place a finger right beside a candlelight without getting burned, yet holding a palm a few inches away from the top quickly damaged the skin. Be that as it may, overload mode was not meant to be used at maximum capacity for an extended period of time.
His overheating limbs lit his clothes on fire. Ironically, the avalanche threatening their lives prevented his death. The snow showering his body melted into water and soaked his burning clothes. That did not mean he was unharmed. The steam produced by the evaporating water roasted his face and neck, scalding his throat and lungs with each breath.
Ageha failed to parry a chunk of ice. The block, as hard as concrete, collided with his left shoulder. He flew backward and tumbled past Arashi. Despite his grievous injuries and depleted stamina, he wasted no time on the ground. He sprung back up, shoulders heaving, and stood in front of Arashi again.
After swatting away numerous smaller rocks, Ageha finally fell to one knee. His consciousness sunk into a haze. The feeling gradually disappeared from his arms and legs. Even so, he saved Arashi from a hunk of wood by using his body as a shield. Again, he was knocked down. The pain from his burns and oxygen deprivation shattered his concentration. His accelerated thoughts slowly ground to a halt.
But still he stood up.
To protect one thing.
His brain barely functioned.
His body was in tatters.
Thoughts of survival or the future had already vanished from his mind like a fleeting dream.
He only moved to protect the one thing within his arm’s reach, the defenseless girl behind him.
He screamed as he tore apart countless blocks of ice heading their way. His second wind proved not inferior to the first, like a star blazing the brightest before death. If he held his ground, the avalanche would eventually end, and both of them would be saved.
Alas, reality loved pouring ice water on naive fantasies.
A thick tree, larger than the one Ageha had held up at the school courtyard to rescue Rin, rolled off the ridge in an almost lethargic manner. Jumping over it was out of the question. Not only was Arashi too far away to carry, a steady stream of snow and debris gushed just overhead.
He could only look up at his impending doom, lacking the energy to curse his luck.
The smell of sizzling meat entered her nostrils. Usually, that aroma immediately activated her salivary glands and roused her stomach acids. This time, it triggered intense agony in her heart, for the wafting scent came from the severe burns of her ruined protector.
Ageha could have escaped the avalanche if he had abandoned Arashi. Carrying her and her oversized rifle around had slowed him down significantly. Dodging the debris from under the ridge would have been much easier if he did not have to protect the useless baggage sprawled behind him.
Arashi wanted to help him. At the very least, she did not want to be a burden. However, her legs refused to move the way she wanted them to. Every time she stood up, her world tilted and twirled. If she joined the fray in that condition, it would only drag Ageha down.
All she could do was watch.
Watch Ageha burn to cinders because of her.
Watch him thrown around like a ragdoll because of her.
Watch him whittle away his life for her.
The girl who had accused him of deception, rejected his pleas, and avoided his presence. The fool who had cursed him, called him a disappointment, and conveniently forgotten everything he had done for her.
What was I thinking..?
I wasn’t thinking.
That’s why it ended up like this.
A large tree peeked out from the ledge before tumbling towards them. Ageha was completely spent. There was no way he could stop it. Even so, he did not abandon Arashi. He stood in death’s way to protect her.
That confirmed the truth about everything he had said on the plane. Everything he had done, everything she had blamed him for, all of it was for her sake.
He had been, and still was, her hero.
A rival she longed to surpass.
A mentor she deeply respected.
The man she loved.
A man would never be defeated by something like this.
Or by anything else, for that matter.
There was only one thing she could do.
Arashi screamed at the top of her lungs. “Don’t lose!!!”
The piercing cry traveled through the rumbling air and hit Ageha’s back. He flinched, as if zapped by electricity, before raising both hands to the sky.
He caught the tree with both hands. His fingers sank into the tree bark as his feet slid on the slope. He overexerted his alloy muscles to resist the momentum of the tree, eventually forcing it to a stop, but the danger did not end there. A giant boulder, larger than anything that threatened them before, followed right behind the tree.
With a beastly howl, Ageha embraced the tree trunk and swung the entire thing into the boulder. The tree splintered into pieces but successfully altered the rock’s trajectory. Several large chunks of ice, probably parts of the very first slab that started the avalanche, fell towards them. Ageha dodged the ones not headed for Arashi and kicked away the ones that were. He split a small piece in half with an uppercut and ducked under a flurry of smaller rocks. Arashi rolled sideways to avoid the shower of tiny debris, stopping just shy of their safe zone’s boundary.
The rumbling slowly dissipated, foretelling the end of the avalanche. Before Arashi could sigh in relief, the final obstacle, a thick plate of ice, about a dozen feet across, slid off the ridge. Ageha took a stance, preparing to smash it to pieces, but then abruptly stopped moving. The steamy haze constantly hanging around him slightly thinned.
What’s going on?
Even if Ageha’s indomitable will seemed to fuel him endlessly, there was one thing it could not do.
His power cells!!!
Overload mode consumed absurd amounts of energy, and Ageha had been using it at maximum output for almost the entire duration of the avalanche. Without energy, ARMS were nothing more than pillars of alloy. No amount of willpower could move them.
Arashi forced her wobbly legs to move. Unlike Ageha, it was impossible for her to break the slab with the amount of cybernetics she had. Instead, she decided to gamble on the fact that the landslide was nearing its end. She tackled Ageha’s immobile form, launching both of them outside the protective area of the ridge. A river of snow, albeit much slower than earlier, engulfed them in an instant.