Volume 1 Chapter 7
On that day, there were many "Black Sheep" who battled, and after the battle ended, Lena gingerly heaved a sigh, trying her best to endure the disgust she felt.
Her Para-RAID was not disconnected, and Krena on the other side suddenly spoke up. The battle had ended, and the other Processors had already disconnected, except for her.
"If you can’t take it, you can disconnect, you know."
Her voice was so nonchalant, devoid of worry.
"It doesn’t matter whether you’re watching over us. Nothing will happen even without you managing us. Nobody can see you anyway, and it’s distracting to see you suffer when we’re in battle, you understand?"
Lena could not bring herself to be angry, because she was right. However, Lena was pleased to receive these words.
Then, she suddenly thought of something, and asked,
"Is this not painful, for you and everyone else…?"
There was no way Krena and the others could disconnect the Para-RAID just because they were suffering. Shinn's ability could precisely detect the location and number of the enemy, and it was a valuable information trove in battle.
Krena then shrugged.
"Nothing, we’re used to it. Even without Shinn, us Processors are already way too used to hearing the screams of those meeting their demise."
Her tone was as calm as ever, but Lena could sense a little falter. It was not an emotion of of fear, rage, regret, or remorse, but an emotion that was darker than that.
"Being blown to bits along with the unit is a good way to die. Everyone's used to seeing limbs getting blown up, brains shredded, bodies burned, organs spilling out from ruptured bellies, people in such pain that it’s better to die than to survive, screams, until they all die. Compared to that, the voices aren’t much."
Behind the calm voice were the tears and bitterness that were endured.
Lena could sense the girl at the distant battlefield pursing her lips. Her tightly clenched teeth were clattering.
"It’s the same here, this 'First Battle Zone…' one or two deaths isn’t strange for us."
Of the twenty four initial members, one had died two days ago, and there were thirteen of them left.
Raiden dumped the broken radio that could never be repaired into the reclamation furnace of the automated factory.
As usual, a few familiar faces were lingering in the room when Lena suddenly connected through Para-RAID.
Once she greeted them, they responded,
"Copy that, Major… just a few bastards here, so bear with it."
The girl on the other end seemed to have tilted her head in confusion.
It was natural that she would feel this way. Every night, the first to respond would always be Shinn, and not Raiden.
"…Erm, is there anything wrong with Captain Nouzen?"
Seo, holding the sketch book, snorted,
"Don’t you find it a bother, Major Millize? You know our ranks are all just for show, right?"
The commander of the squadron was ranked Captain, followed by the vice commander and squad leaders, and finally the squad members, the latter ranked Warrant Officers. This was only to clearly define a hierarchy within the ranks, and no difference in treatment or authorization was granted. The Processors in this squadron had "Personal Codenames," and most of them were formerly commanders or vice commander, forcibly demoted from Captain and Lieutenant to 2nd Lieutenant or Warrant Officer.
However, Lena answered with clarity.
Raiden was slightly amused to see the girl become a little more open, as compared to how tentative she was before.
"Have you not been calling me Major too, Lieutenant Shuga and Second Lieutenant Lica? Is there a problem with me addressing you the same way?"
Seo had nothing to say, and gave a wry smile.
Lena is fine. Though she had said so, none of them had referred to her as such. It was likely they realized the barrier between them, and Lena had to address them as her subordinates, in an unacquainted manner.
Though they conversed, they were not at the stage where they could address each other by personal names. If she were to act chummy with them, she would end up highlighting the fact that she was one of the oppressors, and that was a fine line never to be crossed.
"…Then, erm, what about Captain Nouzen? Did something happen to him during the battle today—?"
Raiden glanced aside at the wall isolating the neighboring room.
Everyone, other than Krena and Angel, were gathered together on this night, spending time in their own ways. However, they were not gathered in Shinn's room, but Raiden's.
The other side of the thin partition was extremely quiet, not a single movement to be heard.
"He’s sleeping. He’s tired."
Shinn started to feel drowsy when they were having dinner, and he was already sleeping soundly by the time Raiden, who was on duty, was done cleaning up and checked on his room. The kitten next to him was purring unhappily, so Raiden took it out, and laid a blanket over Shinn. It was likely the latter would only wake up the following day.
Over the three years Raiden had known Shinn, such a situation would happen every once in a while. Though he said he was used to it, it was tiring to hear the voices of the twenty four hours a day.
Raiden and the others, with their Para-RAIDs set to the minimum, would not hear those voices. Nobody could comprehend what kind of world Shinn was living in. Once, just once, Shinn synchronized with an ex-Handler at the highest setting, and that Handler killed himself. The latter had been deliberately giving wrong intel and commands, letting the Processors die for nothing, and reveled in it, resulting in a rookie, who had just been assigned, to be sacrificed amidst the confusion. Shinn was annoyed by the Handler's actions, and during the next battle, set the Para-RAID to the maximum level, synchronized only with the Handler. The Handler never synchronized with them again, and the next day, they received a report from a messenger, stating that the Handler had committed suicide.
Shinn was living in a world filled with such voices, and recently, Squad Spearhead had been hard pressed.
"…I guess everyone, including the Captain, has been increasingly stressed in many ways… never thought we would have KIAs…"
Lena lamented, and Raiden nodded. Shinn was not the only one, for everyone else had been clearly weary during the recent battles, and were at their limits.
Since the establishment of the squad, there had been eleven KIAs in Spearhead Squadron, almost half of the allotted number. Typically, this Squadron should be considered unable to battle, and had to be restructured. The frequency of the attacks, along with the numbers of the , had not changed in the slightest, so every member’s responsibility in battle had increased. The enemy numbers had been beyond whatever they could handle, and the amounting fatigue resulted in lapses of judgement, and increased the number of casualties.
However, there had been no reinforcements, and even the vacancies of the trio who died in February, including Kujo, had not been replaced. Lena’s voice became stiff, as though she was pursing her lips.
"I will expedite the request, and have the higher-ups prioritize the reinforcements here."
Haruto gave Raiden a glance, and the latter let out a sigh,
"Ahh… I guess."
"This Squad is in charge of defending the most critical bases, and has the privilege to be reinforced. I will ask the surrounding squadrons for reinforcements… also, please hang on."
He nodded away in an ambiguous manner, and out of the corner of his eye, he could see Haruto and Seo shrugging.
"…Hey, Angel, I say."
Krena and Angel were the only ones in the showers.
Angel was washing her long silver hair, and Krena was pouring warm water over her head.
"What is it?"
"Shouldn’t it be time to tell that girl?"
For some reason, Angel gave Krena an elated look.
"Worried about the Major?"
She frantically shook her head. What is she saying!?
"Not at all! Why should I be worried about that girl!? …It's just that, looking how, she's not scared of Shinn, I just thought it’s fine to tell her, that’s all."
Krena pursed her lips, pouting away.
She hated Lena, how the latter was always saying such nauseatingly pretty words. However, Lena never thought of Krena's precious squadmates as monsters, which was not something to take for granted.
"Nobody has said it, I guess. Not Shinn, not Raiden… if we did, that girl would probably never contact us again. It’s better for us both."
"I guess… Kaie once said that…"
You're not a bad person. You shouldn't be caring for us.
"But it's because of this that Shinn and Raiden haven't said anything. They probably think that saying it will only hurt both sides."
Kaie was no longer around.
This petite girl was always angsty about her flat body whenever they showered, and always teased by others. Gone was that girl who was as obedient as a kitten, and all their friends who always enthusiastically discussed topics boys should never hear.
At this point, only the two of them remained. Of the six female soldiers in the squadron, only Krena and Angel remained, everyone else had died.
Krena was suddenly reminded of something, and lifted her head towards Angel.
"…Is it fine?"
Angel’s hands stopped washing her hair, and she shrugged.
It had been more than a year since they first met, but it was the first time Angel was showering with her. Before this, Angel never stripped herself before anyone else, not even her female squadmates.
"Yes, I guess it's fine now. Since there's only two of us, there's nothing to hide."
Her skin remained exceptionally pearly white, even in the steam. There were scars of various sizes all over her body, and in this aspect, she was no different from Krena. However, Angel’s back clearly had some bright scars that obviously were not caused in battle.
Krena could see word-like scars between the gaps of the long hair, and hurriedly looked aside. She could vaguely see the words "Daughter of a Whore." While Angel was almost a pure-blooded Alba, one of her ancestors had a Celesta bloodline.
"…When he first met me, Daiya, he praised my pretty hair. He knew I had long hair to cover the scars, but he purposely asked if I had long hair because it's pretty."
As she said this with a calm tone, Angel finally looked up. The thin lips were trying their best to force a smile as they quivered, acting as though they did not belong to her.
"Even that Daiya is no longer around. So, there’s no need to hide now…"
Krena had assumed Angel was crying, but the latter was not. Angel lifted her damp hair, and looked back at Krena, the kind face displaying the usual, serene smile.
"What about you, Krena? Not going to say it to him?"
Angel never specified whom she was referring to, and did not have to prod. Krena knew very well.
Krena lowered her eyes.
"…Hm. I guess, I don’t have the right to say those words."
When she was first assigned to his squadron, truth be told, she was terrified.
He was already infamous amongst them. The headless "Death God" with red eyes, ruling over the frontlines of the eastern battle zone.
Most of those with "Personal Codenames" survived by sucking the blood of their deceased comrades, and most of them were malicious. Amongst them however, Shinn's codename really stood out.
Undertaker, the one who was always closest to death, and yet never could die, always simply burying others, no different from a death god. His codename was the most kindred, yet reviled existence on the battle.
It was said that of his squad, everyone else other than "Werewolf" had died off. Some said that he was a harbinger of death, as his codename implied; others said he sacrificed the lives of his comrades to protect himself.
It was only later on that she learned that, ever since he was conscripted, he was sent to the most turbulent of the areas the whole time.
And during an umpteenth battle.
A landmine unit crept under one of her comrade's unit, and blew it up.
He was grievously hurt, suffering, but nobody else could do anything about it.
Shinn alone quietly knelt by his side. Raiden was about to do so, only to be stopped by Shinn
Krena, standing far away, saw Shinn draw his pistol. Everyone would do so, for self-defense, and also to commit suicide as a last resort.
But on that day, for the first time, she learned of a third use.
"I know it's difficult for you. Try thinking of some happy things though, anything will do."
For some reason, the dying person showed a smile. And their lips quivered.
"Promise me… take me along too, will you…?"
The dying comrade extended the hand covered in blood and shattered organs, touching Shinn’s face. The latter did not blink. As she watched this, Krena felt it was the most sacred, beautiful scene to be seen.
Our death god, thus she knew the reason why he was hailed as such by Raiden and the other squadmates who had joined earlier than she did.
For he would always bring them along, he would bear everything, the names of his deceased comrades, their wishes, without exception, and keep going to the end of the journey.
For the Processors could not enter the grave, destined to be forgotten, never able to know if they could see the sunrise on the following day, and this was an irreplaceable redemption they could never have yearned for.
Truly, from the bottom of her heart, she had fallen for him.
She was truly elated to think that when she were to die one day, he would take her along. She was no longer afraid, and started refining her skills until she was very proficient in marksmanship. If such a thing was to happen again, she could take over, so she thought.
Even though she was fated to die, she wanted to remain by his side for a little longer.
Krena turned off the tap, and looked up. She knew she could not do it. As long as she remained on this battlefield, she could never do so. She could not be like the Death God, able to go to the ends of the Earth while carrying the names and wishes of the comrades she fought alongside.
But if that was the case, who would be the one carrying Shinn's wishes…?
"Hey, there's one more here, Eighty Sixer."
Once a month, the squadron would receive supplies airlifted from the , supplies that could not be provided by the production or automated plants.
Shinn inspected the containers of supplies as listed, and lifted his head once he heard the transporter.
There was a peeved looking officer wearing his military uniform shoddily, stroking his chin as he led two soldiers who were wielding assault rifles, probably for the purpose of intimidation. The soldiers had their rifle safeties on, and the bullets unloaded. Given their close proximity to Shinn, the latter could take them all down before they could fire, but it was pointless to do so, and he could not be bothered.
"Your Handler (master) requested a delivery of this special ammunition. Hmph, bunch of pigs, to have a human worry so much about you…"
The officer had an anti-blast container behind him, a very bulky item with lots of packaging and a clear label indicating explosives.
Shinn looked on with surprise, and frowned. He did not remember ordering such a thing.
And while Shinn remained silent, the officer suddenly leered. Most Eighty Sixers would subconsciously fight back, but the person before him seemed obedient and unfazed by anything.
"Heard that your Master's a woman. Hey, how did you pigs get her? Easily duped that naive Princess with just some sweet talk?"
Suddenly, Shinn lifted his head at the officer.
"So, do you want me to demonstrate with your wife? She's feeling lonely this long night, right?"
The furious officer was about to go on a rampage, only to freeze up once he met Shinn in the eyes. The red eyes were as serene as ever, and showed no threatening intention, but for a white swine who lived his life in safety behind the , there was no way he was a match for a pig who lived on the battlefield. Shinn deliberately brushed aside the stiffened officer and went to the container. There was this serial number on the checklist, and it contained the signature of Lena he was used to seeing over the past few months.
Beneath it, he spotted a line written on the label.
A short moment of thought later, Shinn widened his eyes, having been reminded of something.
The party was a social gathering, an activity for many to gain leads, negotiate, and gather information.
Mostly discussed were elegant, useless matters like the arts, music, or philosophy, but useless matters were useless.
The plaza of the Blanc Neige Palace was filled with glittering lights and the noises of endless desires, and Lena escaped alone to a terrace which the stars shone upon, sighing.
Personally, she disliked such parties, and she was frustrated with most of the males who came to discuss the topic unique to her age group. The Millizes were formerly nobles, investors. There were many aiming for the family's prestige and inheritance.
Luckily, nobody did speak to Lena.
While the black silk evening dress was not exactly a violation of the social dress code, it did clearly resemble mourning clothes when matched with black gems and a white flower. Also, she did not take a drink, and merely stood silently by the flowers at the wall. All the posh ladies there merely ignored her, save for a few troubled looks from time to time. Except for a few words with a stunned Arnett and a troubled Carl-Stahl, there were some ladies who would occasionally praise her (literally and metaphorically) for having a flower on her head that matched the choker RAID device.
It was truly rude of her to do so, but she had no intention to respond.
For Lena, all these acts were simply idle foolishness, whether it was confining oneself by escaping reality, boasting self-pride in the pretentious, confined world, or showing desires of greed and lust. Furthermore, due to her own incompetence, she had caused the deaths of a few Processors…
Suddenly, her RAID device activated.
"Captain Nouzen… what is it now?"
She immediately reached a hand for the device, pressed it, and responded softly. She should not be commanding at this time. Was there a massive battle that the second squadron could not handle…?
However, Shinn’s voice remained composed.
"It’s the usual contact time, and you haven't done so, so we contacted you. Did something happen? If it's not convenient, another time is fine…"
"I am fine. What is it?"
Now that he mentioned it, it's the usual contact time with Squad Spearhead. She turned her back on the party, and asked, as the darkness of the New Moon shone upon the garden.
"'Special ammunition' received. Reporting confirmation."
Only the stars shone in the night, and a massive firework bloomed.
The flaming reaction resulted in a variety of vibrant colors being scattered in all directions, and they then fluttered like floating snowflakes. Another boom echoed, and another shooting star shot out from the ground, passing through the extinguished snowflakes, and exploded to form another vibrant firework.
Whenever the petals bloomed, there was a raise of innocent, childlike cheers. It was no wonder, for most of them had never witnessed a firework since their childhood. The fleeting moments of fireworks lit their elated eyes, shining upon their dancing shadows.
They could not light them up their the base after all, so the members of the squadron went to a nearby soccer field that had become a dump. Wild grass grew through ground, the soldiers and mechanics scattered in bunches, and the "Juggernauts" waited silently outside.
Fido, which came along with the maintenance crew, was putting the containers on the ground, lit the burner as a replacement for a match, and lit them all one by one.
Shinn was leaning by the "Undertaker," looking up as he watched yet another firework shoot up into the sky.
"—Thank you very much for the fireworks."
Lena heard some cheers from the other members. She realized Shinn might have increased the Para-RAID synchronization rate for her to hear, and felt elated.
"It's the Anniversary of the Revolution. You did see it along with your brother and parents, right? The others should be the same."
Whenever the festival approached, the stores in the town would lay out lots of fireworks. So Lena bought a fair bit of them, and had them delivered to the squadron. She issued a few bottles of fine wine to the workers of the logistical branch, did a few things to the label, and stuffed them into the container. Fireworks are flammable, and need to be transported by carrier, while the container used was blast-proof. The checklist had it listed as an explosive.
She never thought she would end up bribing others, and yet was amazed to learn that it was a must if she had to do some unscrupulous things.
"This is a tradition during the Revolution party, right… can you see fireworks at the Presidential Hall?"
From the other side of the terrace, Lena looked over at the presidential residence. It seemed the fireworks had just began, and the multiple colors bloomed in the night sky along with the majestic anthem of the Republic.
She was watching this intricate piece of firework art alone, and gave a forlorn smile.
"I can. But the sky is too bright."
The party on the streets and the many erratic lights were too bright. The air in the city was polluted, for energy was being wasted without a care. The massive flames that should be showing the dignity of the Republic were blurry due to how dull they were.
Also, nobody else was watching the fireworks, not the ones in the party, nor the pedestrians on the streets. While the customized fireworks made by specialists were a lot prettier than the ones sold in the shops, the people did not seem to care.
"The fireworks there should be pretty. The sky is dark, and the air is clean and clear."
In the clear darkness of night, the fireworks were lit in a corner of a distant battlefield, blooming for the onlookers.
I want to watch this along with them. Lena swallowed the words she nearly blurted out. She should not be saying such words. If she was willing to, Lena could head to the frontlines to investigate, but Shinn and the others had to remain put, and could not follow Lena and the others back behind the . The "together" was simply a short fleeting illusion, not a wish to be hoped for.
After a thought, she said,
"If possible, I want to invite everyone into the First Area to watch the fireworks. You will smile."
It seemed Shinn gave a wry smile.
"I don't recall seeing so many fireworks over there."
"So please witness them personally. Once the war ends, once you retire, together."
Her voice gloomed. The names of Daiya and the other six members who died recently appeared in her mind.
"I do wish Second Lieutenant Iruma and the others would be able to see this… sorry, these words aren't appropriate now."
"No, I do think Daiya and the others would be happy, since we're remembering the dead with fireworks for the first time. They didn't like to be all gloomy and sad anyway."
Kino and the others are probably happy with this — so Shinn ostensibly quipped with a smile. He was probably showing a larger emotional change compared to usual, and probably moved to some extent.
"Also, Angel finally cried. She's always been bottling up her feelings alone, so in this sense, I'm grateful for the fireworks."
Daiya and Angel, the two who had remained close to each other for a long time.
"Warrant Officer Emma probably will never forget this…"
"Nobody will. Just as you never forgot about my brother, Major."
After a moment of silence, Shinn continued,
"I'm really glad… because I had already forgotten about my brother."
Lena heard the quivering voice, and was left with some disbelief.
It was the first time Shinn had been so frank with her.
"Can you please not forget about us, Major?"
Shinn was probably joking. His tone, his voice, was dripped with mischief.
However, as the synchronization rate was set higher than usual, Lena could sense the earnest wishes behind his words.
If we die, even just for a moment.
Please don't forget about us.
Lena slowly closed her eyes.
They were so strong, had encountered countless battles, and had survived to this point.
But for the time being, the possibility of death remained within reach, never departing.
"Of course, I will not… but."
She took a deep breath, and clearly answered. This was her duty and responsibility, as Vladlena Millize, Handler of Spearhead Squadron.
"Not only that, I am not letting another one of you die."
Lena kept reporting to her superiors, requesting reinforcements an umpteeth time.
But Spearhead Squadron did not have a single soldier added to their file.
On that day, during the sortie, four died.
It was a simple assault mission, where they were attacking a frontline base of the . This base was a vantage point which enemy forces would attack from. However, it was simply bait, defenceless at first glance, but laid out with traps everywhere.
Shinn had determined the ambush and enemy units locations, and intended to avoid the front, attacking from the flanks.
For some reason, the enemy did not deploy any Eintagsfliege to jam the signals, and Lena did not see any enemy markers on the radar. Before they encountered the enemy however, Shinn and a few others sensed something amiss. "I've got a bad feeling about this," so Raiden muttered, stating what a few others had sensed. Perhaps it was an instinct that allowed them to survive through blood and death.
It was not the ability to seek out the enemy by hearing the voices of the ghosts; it was a warrior's sense of smell.
The radar suddenly blared, and a cannon shot in diagonally from the sky, exploding on the ground.
A few subconsciously managed to evade at that moment due to the instinct they had. The "Griffin" (Chise’s Unit) was a tad late, directly hit and reduced to ashes, while the "Fafnir" (Kino’s unit) was too close to the shot, was hit by the shrapnel, and went silent. The other units were blown aside by the impact, tumbling around. At the same time, the second and third shots came along with explosions.
The computer calculated that the cannon shot was from 120 kilometers north-northeast. Nobody had seen such a blast from such a long range, so abnormally fast too. The initial velocity of the shot was estimated to be at least four thousand meters per second, far beyond the firepower of a single shot.
Even the enemy units in ambush were simply pawns to ensure Spearhead would remain in the blast zone, the latter's attempt to flank the sides considered. The detailed, cruel plan was of a completely different level from the typical .
Shinn, ever so alert, quickly discovered and destroyed the Ameise acting as scout, and the long ranged barrage suddenly stopped after ten shots or so (or perhaps there was some malfunction with the new installation). If he had not done so, even these elites would have been wiped out.
And so, after losing four units, they managed to escape and retreat. The four KIA were Chise, Kino, Toma, and Kioto.
There were only nine "Juggernaut" units left.
More than half were killed, and their ranks were in the single digits.
Lena was stunned, her voice quivering.
She was parched. She had an ominous imagination, a premonition in her heart that caused her heart to race. She was anxious, at a loss of words.
"I am demanding more soldiers. Right now, immediately. This is really weird—!"
Spearhead Squadron was too weary to be bothered.
They were lacking in numbers, unable to sufficiently rest, and could barely maintain the defense line by asking the surrounding squadrons for assistance or to temporarily take over. The superiors should have known, but they did not do anything. While the requests for reinforcements and resupplies had been easily approved, the request for more soldiers remained ignored. She once went straight to Brigadier General Carl-Stahl directly, at the risk of being accused of nepotism, but never had a single one added to Spearhead.
Shinn tersely said,
"I am going to talk to the Brigadier General again. If not, then I will do anything to—"
He called out again, and Lena went silent.
"Everyone, no problems with this?"
Raiden answered for everyone. There was a heavy silence from them.
"Major, it's fine. No matter what you do, nothing will change."
"Captain Nouzen, what do you mean?"
"There will be no additional troops. Not even one."
Shinn then quietly noted,
The truth everyone knew, but never informed Lena of.
"All of us will die. This Squadron is death row for that sole purpose."