For a moment, she did not understand what Shinn was saying.
Everyone will die? Death row for this purpose?
"What are you, saying…"
At that moment, Lena realized.
Six years ago, she met Ray. Back then, he was an Eighty Sixer, a Processor.
The Eighty Sixers went to the battlefield of despair to regain the citizenships for themselves and their families.
So why did Shinn, as Ray's little brother, remain an Eighty Sixer when he should be a citizen of the Republic because of Ray's service, and remain as a Processor on the battlefield?
Also, this applied for the other Processors too. Every year, thousands of recruits were sent to the battlefield. What were their families and siblings doing?
"Yeah. That's it. Since the beginning, the white swine never thought of giving the Eighty Sixers citizenship at all."
"They bluff us into being soldiers by using that as the incentive, and use us until we die. A bunch of white swine they are. Absolutely horrible."
Lena kept shaking her head, trying to deny it. It was likely that, for her ideals, this was truly an unacceptable fact.
"How is this, how is this possible—!?"
Seo sighed. He was not trying to reproach her, he was anguished, and had similar thoughts to her.
"Look, we're not blaming you here… but think about it. Ever since the war started, have you seen a single Eighty Sixer inside the Eighty Five legislative zones?"
Eighty Sixers were required to serve for five years in the military so that they could regain their citizenship. Even if they were to die before their terms ended, the other family members should have been receiving citizenship.
However, the war had been going on for nine years. Logically, the families of the soldiers who died over these past nine years should have attained citizenship, but Lena had never ever seen a single one of them. Even though she was living in the first zone the entire time, that there were few Colorata in the first zone to begin with, it made no sense for her to not see a single one—!
Her foolishness left her utterly nauseous.
She should have thought of it a long time ago. The brothers Shinn and Ray, the children who had their parents and siblings around when they were in the Concentration Camps, that she could only spot Albas in the first zone. She had seen them all before, yet ignored them; even at this point, she had foolishly believed the Republic was in the right.
"Most of the Processors die before they retire from service, so the issue of the promised citizenship isn't much even though they never abided by it. The key though is for those with 'Codenames' like us, who lived through the hellish battlefield. We've been able to live through to today , aren’t exactly stupid, and are heroes to the other Eighty Sixers; they're probably scared that we will be the spark to a rebellion."
Raiden's voice was monotonous. He had lots of grudges against the Republic, but at this point, it was pointless to voice them.
"Thus, they would have those with 'Codenames' assigned to the areas with the most intense battles, hoping that they would then die. Most of those ‘Codenamed’ do die like this. However, there are those that just won't die at all, and these people are sent to the first defense team in the first battle zone, the last death row. Once they have enough 'Codenamed' to be executed, they have them sent here, and have them fight until every single one of them die. This is the objective of our squadron's existence. There will be no new soldiers. Once we all die, the next batch to be executed will be sent over — this is our final battlefield. Sooner or later, we will die here."
Lena felt dizzy, her world completely turned upside down.
Having them continue fighting was not about protecting the Republic, but for them to die.
That was no regimented conscription, but utter genocide through enemy hands.
Lena said, grasping at straws for the last bit of hope,
"I-If you can fight on until the very end…"
"Oh, there are some who just won't die and live until the very end… so to deal with these guys, at the end of their service, they will be sent to deal with some special recon mission, where the success and survival rate is practically zero. Nobody will be able to survive. For those white swine, the trash's cleared out. Job well done."
To protect their homeland, they ventured forth into the battlefield of death, even though their efforts would not be rewarded. If they survived long enough, they were deemed a calamity, and forced into a more dangerous battlefield, waiting to die. The squadron established for this execution continued to fight until this point. And at the very end — she was going to order them to die.
Rage became tears, blurring her vision.
This country had become so rotten, fallen.
She recalled Seo and Raiden grumbling that there was nothing to do.
She recalled Shinn having no thoughts about life after service.
For they did not, and would not, have any future to look forward to, and no time to prepare for it.
All that awaited them would be a signed execution order, the moment it would be implemented, never to be avoided.
"Y-You knew about this…?"
"Yeah… sorry. Nobody dared say this to you, not even Shinn or Raiden."
"Wh-When did you…?"
Lena heard her own voice quaking. Krena answered, her voice exceptionally cold,
"Right from the beginning. My older sister, Seo's parents, Shinn's family, none of them returned after they entered the battlefield, and we never left the Concentration Camp. The white swine will never fulfill their promises… everyone already knew about it."
"Then why do you still fight!? Have you not thought about running away… taking revenge on the Republic!?"
Upon hearing Lena's anguished, furious question, Raiden closed his eyes, and gave a wry smile.
"Where can we go to? The is before us, and we have mines and intercepting cannons behind us. Rebellion is an option… but given our numbers, it's impossible."
If it had been the generation of their parents, there might have been a fighting chance. However, that generation of people fought on not to exact vengeance on the Republic, but for their families to regain lives as proper humans. If they did not fight with their utmost, the ones dead would be their families and children, locked in the Concentration Camps outside the . They could only believe in the sweet talk of the Republic, and continue the hopeless battle.
Once their parents died, the generation of the eldest children understood that they would be unable to attain citizenship, and continued to fight to prove their identities as citizens of the Republic. They tried to fulfill their duties as citizens, fighting for their country, and pick up the identities and pride that their country had trampled upon. They wanted to prove that they were real citizens of the Republic, they who had fought and given their all, and not the white swine who had abandoned their duty to defend.
And for Raiden and the others, they had nothing.
The families they wanted to protect were long gone, and they were all too young when when they were sent to Concentration Camps or locked in the cramped gardens.
Whether it was their memories strolling freely on the streets, or their experience of being treated as humans, that time was way too distant for them. All they knew was a life boxed in by metal fences and mines, a lifestyle no different from livestock, and the oppressors who had created everything, called the Republic. They did not know of the Republic who had once hailed freedom, equality, fraternity, justice, and purity, and were reduced to livestock before they even realized they were citizens of the Republic, and proud of it.
To Raiden and the others, they did not think of themselves as citizens of the Republic.
They were Eighty Sixers, born to the battlefield, and to die on the battlefield, the homeland they were most familiar with being the battlefield surrounded with enemies, and they were citizens who would meet their demise in battle. Such was their identity, their pride.
The Republic of San Magnolia was simply a foreign land, only for white swine to live in, and they did not care.
Thus, they had no need to answer her doubt.
But they wanted to tell her. Even in the face of angry lashings, even after hearing the chilling groans of the ghosts, she insisted, and even desired to interact with them. Perhaps they had all been touched by the foolishness of that obstinate girl.
Raiden's squadmates remained silent, but not because they refused to say anything. Once he was sure of this, Raiden spoke up,
"Until I was twelve, I was hidden by an Alba granny in the ninth zone."
"The one who raised Shinn was an Alba priest who refused to retreat, and stayed inside the Concentration Camp. Seo did mention the story of his squad leader, right? We know the white swine are those that did those despicable acts, and of them all, Krena saw the worst of them. Angel and Shinn even saw some Eighty Sixers who were as despicable as they are."
Some were so unbearably uncouth, and some remained dazzlingly pure. They were clear on what one of them, or both of them, were like.
"So we made our decisions. It's simple. How to be a despicable cad, and how to be a noble, upright person."
Inside the cramped cockpit, he straightened his body, and looked up.
He had long forgotten about the old granny's teachings about God, or the words to say for prayer. However, the image of her lying on the road, wailing away shabbily remained fresh in his mind.
"If we wanted to take revenge, it wouldn't be that difficult; just give up fighting. Let the pass through… we won’t survive, but the Republic would be doomed. There are times when we do think the white swine should all be killed."
Even though their compatriots in the Concentration Camps would be doomed as well, it was a matter of years until they died… for the Processors, the choice to give up was not a difficult one.
"But, well, even amongst the Albas, there are those who chose to come here to die, and even if we want to take revenge like that, the outcome remains the same."
Lena did not seem to understand. Are you really fine with this? Such words could almost be heard from her. Raiden was completely gobsmacked. This girl's really kind, and also stupid. Perhaps she had never thought about revenge or something like that.
The real hatred and vengeance was not simply about killing off those they hated.
"True revenge is only done by having the offenders thoroughly understand what they did, regret and kneel on the ground, begging for forgiveness while wailing, before killing them… but the white swine have already done all kinds of disgusting things. No way they will be reflecting on their actions just because of a rebellion or utter defeat, you know? You won’t be reflecting on your own incompetence, instead just lambasting others as trash, and act as a victim, a tragic hero… no way will anyone else want to be like those scumbags who end up being delusional."
Before he knew it, his voice was filled with rage.
For them, that was the most unforgivable act.
The soldiers who mocked the granny who resisted out of kindness.
The weak, dreaming citizens who shut their eyes and ears, running away from the reality that was war, and hid behind the .
The white swine who refused to fulfill their duties, and robbed the rights of others, unabashedly hailing that only they were noble and upright, and unable to understand the hypocrisy of their actions.
No way would anyone else want to end up like them.
"While the scum did inhumane things to us, if we do similar things to them, we'll end up as scum, just like them. If there is the option to fight the until the very end, or to give up and die, then we will choose to fight until the very end, never giving up, and never being reduced to trash. This is the reason why we fight, our raison d'etre, our pride… though it might appear that we're protecting the white swine, that doesn’t matter now."
They were the Eighty Sixers, discarded upon the battlefield, citizens of the battlefield.
They would fight until they were completely exhausted, fight and live on to the very end, with their own abilities, and that would be their pride.
The Handler girl bit her lips. Everyone sensed a sense of rustic blood not belonging to them.
"You know the outcome… that you won’t be able to escape death, right?"
Her voice seemed to be yearning for their vengeance, inflicted upon herself. Raiden grimaced,
"Nobody's going to hang himself just because he's going to die tomorrow. We're going to get onto the guillotine sooner or later, and we're going to choose how we do it. We made our decisions already. We're just going to keep living with our convictions."
And it was because they knew the meaningless, tragic death was inevitable that they could face it head on.
The doors to the empty hangar remained open, and Raiden stopped in his tracks once he saw the shadow and "Scavenger" approaching. It was night, in the beginning of Autumn, and the air was chilly, the moon a little blue, and in the pitch black sky above, the stars exceptionally sharp. The stars and moon remained so dazzling, so hear, even though some died on that day.
This world definitely would not show bias towards humanity. Even without humanity, the Earth would continue to revolve.
"—It's fine. This isn't your fault. Thanks for today too."
Shinn saw Fido leave gloomily as it lowered its shoulders (literally bending its front end forward), and returned to the hangar. Raiden asked him,
"Kino and the others?"
"Yeah. Seems like it can’t find the scraps of Chise's unit. It’s been a while since we found a replacement."
"Can't we use the plane model Chise used instead? The main wing should be fine… but we can't find the scraps. Guess nothing really remains after that shot."
On this day, Fido had scavenged about for a very long time. Having followed the death god for a while, it learned however to seek the shrapnel of KIA units, and provided them for Shinn to write down their names as a memorial. While it was not Fido's job originally, it had become its prioritized mission.
Raiden had heard Shinn mention that Fido was taught to do so. In the past, Fido cut away the debris with the personal mark, and Shinn dumped that into the cockpit of the "Undertaker," together with the other metal gravestones he had.
"Look, you're probably not too bothered by it, but I just want to say that it's not your fault."
Shinn's ability could only detect the position of enemies, and was unable to determine their type. He could somewhat infer it based on the enemy's formation and numbers to some extent, but it was impossible for him to determine that there was a brand new unit type way behind the .
Shinn glanced at Raiden, and shrugged wordlessly, probably showing that he really was not bothered. Raiden, however, felt that it was fine. Those killed were mentally prepared, did their best, and died. It was their fault, not others', not Shinn's.
The clear red eyes looked up at the sky above the battlefield, and Raiden followed suit. The hyper long distance cannon was there in the day.
"…I thought the next shot would have hit the base directly. This is unexpected."
"The heavy cannon's purpose is to provide suppressing fire and destroy stationary targets. It can’t snipe armored weapons precisely, and isn't used to attack squadrons. It's likely the attack target is a city, or a base. I’m guessing they fired a few shots at us as a test."
"A few shots, and four down, huh? No way we can fight."
"If it's actually used, the Republic, not just four people, will be wiped out. It’s one thing if it's us here… but what is the Major going to do? Let's hope they have some countermeasures there."
Shinn flatly spoke, but Raiden was a little bemused. It seemed Shinn had not realized it at all.
Never before had Shinn been worried about a Handler.
"…Anyway, it's the same as a Scorpion, there's an observation unit at the target area. Right now, they aren't firing."
"You know that too?"
"I remembered the voice. No matter which one it is, I can tell once it starts moving the next moment… it's unlikely they’ll fire again though."
Raiden looked at Shinn in shock. The latter kept staring at the distant battlefield, narrowing his eyes.
"I've been found. More or less, he's sharing the optical sensor with an Ameise."
"…! Your brother…!?"
Raiden gasped audibly. He knew. They had never met, but they had fought against the led by him a few times. That "Shepherd's" tactics were devious, cruel, and terrifyingly delicate.
Shinn looked over at where the enemy was most likely at, and smiled.
It was the smile of a war devil, mixed with an equal portion of fear and guts, a challenge against Death itself. His slender body was shaking, and he subconsciously cupped his body with his arms.
"I already knew he's in this battle zone, but he finally found me. Next time, he's coming for my life. He's not going to take the easy option and finish me off with that cannon."
Raiden felt a shiver as he saw his usually blasé comrade give off a maniacal presence like never before, and had to narrow his eyes.
Shinn was looking for his brother, the one who had once killed him, the one who had died in a certain ruin on the Eastern battlefront, his head taken away by the enemy, and who was taken by the .
The Death God was smiling. It was an icy blade, sharp and cold, a twisted, demented smile. The cold leer was akin to an ancient blade that been deformed and honed due to the many battlefields, aiming at its prey, aiming to end its existence.
"For me, it's a perfect opportunity not to be missed, but it doesn't look like you guys are lucky… what now? Go hang ourselves before we die tomorrow?"
Raiden too was leering heinously. It was born out the stubbornness of a hungry wolf following its survival instincts, leaping madly at its prey, an intense will to live.
"129 days till Run Out Date!! Fucking Glory to Spearhead Squadron!!"
The Run Out Date, or their deaths. That show of stupid optimism was a countdown to their execution.
The countdown had been stopped for the moment, and the actual number of days left was thirty two. Even if that number reached zero, they would continue to fight, until the day they died.
"You kidding me… we're going along with you, our Death God."
"Eh, how do I put it though… this is really something our country would do."
After hearing Lena's explanation, Arnett looked utterly speechless.
Both of them had come to Arnett's research lab so as to avoid any eavesdropping. The tabletop had a pair of matching white and black bunny mugs, along with some strange cookies that were half purple, half pink.
"Please, Arnett, help. We have to… stop this."
Arnett maintained a disinterested look as she picked up a cookie.
Her silver eyes turned towards Lena.
"And the details?"
Those eyes were dry and cold, like those of a witch who had lived thousands of years, and was aloof to everything else.
"Are you going to present a speech on TV? Negotiate directly with the superiors? You know that's pointless, right? If people could have a change in heart just by hearing an idealized, riveting speech, things wouldn't have ended up like this. You know this logic well."
"I said that's enough already. It's pointless. You can't do anything here. So…"
Lena finally had enough of listening, and interrupted. Arnett was an important friend. Even so, she could not let her friend say such a thing.
"This is an important matter of life and death. You know that, no… you are remaining as the villain by inaction. Enough fooling around."
"You are the one fooling around!"
Arnett suddenly stood up. Faced with her sudden outburst, Lena was speechless.
"Haven't you had enough already!? How many times must I say that we can't do anything!? We can't do anything to help those people!"
"I had a friend."
Arnett's voice suddenly quieted, as though the shout was an illusion.
It was the feeble voice of a hapless girl, who was lost as a result.
"It's the neighbor's child. My father, and that child's father were both researchers at the same university, friends even. I used to play with that child often. That child's mother, the whole family, had some strange ability. That aunt, that child, and his brother who's older by a few years, they could sense each other even though they weren't together."
Her father was a neurologist, a researcher analyzing brain functions as humans interacted with each other.
That child's family was an expert in Artificial Intelligence, and yearned to produce an Artificial Intelligence which could be friends with humans.
Thus, the research never caused harm to others. They put on the toy-like sensor, and spoke to someone else in another room, enacting an experiment that was like a game. It was boring from time to time, but Arnett insisted to play along too, and even participated in the experiment. The trial testers for the actual experiments were students from her father’s lab, basically all of them, hoping to gain credits, and also to get the sweets made by her mother.
There was not much progress in the research, but Arnett was really happy.
"But everything ended when the war began."
She entered elementary school, but that child never came along. Back then, the discrimination against Colorata had become really dire.
In school, Arnett was bullied, berated for having a dirty Colorata friend, and was really peeved about it.
Once she got home, she found the boy waiting at her home, hoping to play with her, and she vented all her frustrations upon him.
They had a squabble. She got increasingly infuriated, You Colorata are filthy, and finally blurted it out.
That boy never looked really sad, but instead, confused, as he did not understand what she was saying. There was a divide between them that could no longer be mended, and caused by none other than herself. Faced with this fact, Arnett shivered.
She was terrified. Utterly terrified.
Her parents discussed the matter of hiding her friend's family, and weighed the friendship with her friend with their own safeties; when her father inquired her, she answered.
Her father was probably hoping for someone to prompt him, and help him make the decision. However, she pointed in the opposite direction.
I don't care about that child. I'm not going to be in danger just because of him.
The following day, that child and his family were brought to a Concentration Camp.
All she could say to herself was that she had no choice, that she could only do this right from the beginning.
Arnett gave a crooked smile. That should have been the case, so why is this friend before me so trusting of me?
"Hey, Lena. You kept acting like some pure Saintess, but you're an accomplice too… think about it. How many Eighty Sixers were killed for that RAID device you're wearing?"
"Voices needed to be conveyed, so animals can't be used for the experiments. We say that Eighty Sixers are not humans, but we used them as humans for this instance… we had to get results as soon as possible, and never thought about the safety of the testers in the design of the experiment. My father was assigned to be the head of this research."
While Arnett's father had never said anything to her, she did read through his records.
Most of them had their brains burned out due to the excessive burden, and lost their personalities, before dying off in endless pain.
The adults were taken to be laborers and soldiers, and the ones used for experimenting were all children.
The Eighty Sixers had no names left behind, and were managed as numbers.
Thus, did the children of the same age as that boy, who died tragically in the experimental lab in a certain Concentration Camp, include that boy himself? Neither her father nor anyone else could affirm.
"Father's death was not an accident. He killed himself."
He, who left his friend for dead, and personally caused the deaths and suffering of many more, would certainly die off in more anguish than any single one of them.
Yes, that was what her father kept repeating. There was no way he could have implemented a wrong value by mistake.
So I, who left that child for dead, share the same sin. So Arnett thought as she took over her father's research.
A Handler killed himself. The military had her investigate the dead's RAID device. Once she heard that the cause might be related to a single Processor, she suddenly had a thought.
If I have the military bring that Processor over for investigation, what will happen?
If that person is an important experimental sample, I can hide him until the war ends. It's no different from detention, but he can live. I can save someone, even if it's just one.
So she thought, and she was shocked by that thought.
Because back then, she refused to help that child.
When she heard the trash in the logistical department refuse to carry out their jobs, she heaved a sigh of relief. See, I can't do anything after all. I can't save a single one.
"But you are the same too."
It was laughable. This friend before her was too kind, too foolish, and never thought of these things, not knowing how low humanity's malice would stoop too.
"You can't do anything too — it's because you continue to insist that they remain alive that you have to order them to 'die,' right? You could have just played along with them, let them die sooner, and now you've dragged your feet for so long that you have to personally order them to. It's all your fault!"
Lena gasped. Arnett was utterly relieved, and yet guilt-ridden as she saw that pearly face gradually turn pale.
Again, I made the same mistake.
She grabbed the mug, and threw it hard into the trashbin. It was the matching mug they had both picked out and packaged together. The first cup of coffee was brewed in this room.
The porcelain shattered, like a shriek in her feeble heart.
"I really hate you, Lena… don't let me see your face again."
From then on, Spearhead Squadron undertook another two interception mission, and again, three people died.
During the two missions, the <Legion's> tactics differed vastly from any of the ones they had previously encountered. The long-distance cannons were used, and the tactics were guileful, cruel, and sharp. Shinn said that the enemy had a "Shepherd." Ever since the long distance cannon was used, it remained in the backlines, commanding, and never came to the frontlines.
During that time, Lena could not do anything. Whether it was to provide covering fire, or to revoke the punishment.
And finally, she received the order.
"A long-term scouting mission to head into the deepest part of the controlled territory—!?"
Once she saw the contents of the absurd mission on the PDA, she groaned.
The participants of this mission would be all of the "Juggernauts" which had survived since the initial formation of the squadron.
The destination of this mission was the very end.
There was no time limit. During the mission, if any member was to retreat or return, they would be deemed as deserters, and were to be executed immediately.
At the same time, all records of the members' Para-RAID, login of units, and Republic Military ranks were to be deleted.
They were allotted a month's worth of supplies for this mission.
And also, all support from HQ or other squadrons was forbidden, and not recognized.
No way it was a scouting mission. It was simply to have them enter the enemy ranks and die meaninglessly, just not stated in black and white. It was not even a mission to begin with.
They could not survive days, let alone a month. With the continuing to attack, the scouting forces would be wiped out. After countless meaningless battles, they were still going to be abandoned deep inside the battlefield, and die alone.
Lena gritted her aching teeth, and stood up abruptly, ignoring the chair that had toppled over.
"Are you requesting that I retract the special scouting assignment, Lena?"
"Please, Uncle Jerome. We cannot allow this to continue."
Lena lowered her head desperately before her last bit of hope, Carl-Stahl.
While doing her investigations to stop this mission, she had learned that this pointless order was a "tradition" in the Republic's Army that had existed and endured to the present time.
Spearhead was not the only case. There was the Razoredge Squadron, the first defense squadron on the first battle zone along the southern battlefront, Longbow Squadron, the first defense squadron on the first battle zone along the western battlefront, and Sledgehammer Squadron, the first defense squadron on the first battle zone along the northern battlefront. These squadrons were all wiped out within six months, and the few survivors were all sent for a "special scouting" mission, the survival rate being zero, no exceptions. Truly, they were sending all the Eighty Sixers who lived until the very end to the final execution ground, just to wiped them out—
Carl-Stahl looked at the report in his hands.
"…Impressive. Typically, only one or two would participate in the special scouting mission. You are the only Handler who could have a small squadron participate in this — so I said, do not do anything unnecessary."
It's because of you that they have lived to today, for nothing.
She recalled Arnett's words, and was left terrified. However, she gritted her teeth, and begged.
"Please. The Republic… we cannot continue to make this mistake."
"As you said, morals and justice may not be enough to move them, but what about the benefits to the country? We are just losing outstanding Processors, fighting strength for the Republic, and it benefits the Republic, safety-wise. If it is you, you should be able to discuss this during the National Defense Meeting, or an open debate…"
Carl-Stahl frowned as he heard Lena out. He then slowly spoke up, still frowning,
"The Republican Government and its people are all secretly thinking that having all the Eighty Sixers wiped out will be the greatest benefit to the Republic, and the Republic's army is simply accepting this ideal. Now why do you not think this way?"
She was stunned. Ignoring all formalities, she slammed her hands on the antique desk, and leaned forward.
"What are you saying!? I just said that this is simply a waste of the Republic's strength and conscience."
"If there are any Eighty Sixers left alive after the war ends, everything we did to them shall be criticized and recompensed. Forced detention, confiscation of property, compulsory military service, have you ever thought about how much everything would cost? Do you think the citizens of the Republic now would agree to increased taxes for pensions?"
"And if there are any surviving countries nearby, we have already hurt their compatriots. Once this is revealed to the world, the Republic shall lose its reputation and pride, and will be shamed for millennia as oppressors… all the consequences can be erased, as long as all the Eighty Sixers die off."
She gasped, and gritted her teeth. She recalled the words Shinn said.
"So that is why you never reclaimed the corpses of the KIA, and never buried them…!"
"Yes. And to add on, there are no records of the dead, whether in the concentration camps, or within the confinements of the . All the personal records of the dead Processors have all been deleted. The moment they are all dead, they will have never existed. Since they never existed, nobody can say that they were oppressed, and all facts that undermine the fraternity of the Republic will be void."
"…To think the people of the Republic are so vicious…"
For some reason, Carl-Stahl's expression had a tinge of anguish to it.
"Secretly, this is what everyone thinks. A small minority dare to say it, but most have quietly allowed it, either apathetic about it or just following along, but even so, they have all agreed to this… this is the result of the Republicanism we are so proud of, Lena. Most of the people hoped to sacrifice the Eighty Sixers for their own benefit. Since the people have so decreed it, we as soldiers can only abide. What do you think?"
Lena slammed the table, which gave a blunt sound that dispersed flatly in the room.
"Republicanism is definitely not about sacrificing the few for the benefit for many! There is a need to treat every single person equally, no matter what; that is the teaching of our five colored flag, and the constitution built for this purpose, right!? If we cannot do this, what is this will of the Republic!?"
At that moment, Carl-Stahl's eyes showed a heavy glint. It was a reproaching one to Lena, and also, a deep resentment towards something vague and distant.
"If there are no values worth respecting on the Constitution, the Constitution is just a worthless piece of paper. Like the revolutionary San Magnolia back in the day, all the revolution's government needed was her name and image, and after the monarchy was toppled, the Saint was secretly executed in jail."
Lena gasped as she heard that spiteful tone. It was the first time she had heard her uncle's voice filled with such entrenched fury.
"Are you saying this is violence? Of course. This is the result of letting the foolish people do whatever they want; giving political power to those who want unlimited power and yet are unwilling to bear it. This is the result of handing this political power to animals who only care about trampling over others, and consider nothing but their own benefits and desires. They harp upon the Saint, but all they do is to stain the name of the Saint with their folly. What else can the lazy, despicable imbeciles do other than the bad!?"
This agitated Carl-Stahl suddenly had a change in tone, and let out a deep sigh, sinking deep into his armchair.
"Lena, for us humans, freedom and equality is too distant… probably unattainable."
Lena's eyes showed no expression. She could only lower her head at the man she once saw as her second father, the one she admired. She had no choice other than to endure the condescension that was rising in her heart.
"All that shows is that you have fallen into despair, and you have tried rationalizing it… it is a grave mistake to watch the innocents lose their lives, and do nothing, all for this reason."
Carl-Stahl lifted his eyes back towards Lena. His silver eyes were weary, defeated.
"This hope you speak of, hope, is unable to save anyone. Ideals too. Because they are so exalted, we are not affected in the slightest. Because our ideals, our hopes, are unable to move anyone… you came to me, did you not?"
Lena gritted her teeth. He was right.
"Despair and hope are actually the same thing. They are two sides of the same coin, always being sought, but never to be attained."
But even so, even if it was pointless, there was the choice to await their fates.
Even if it was pointless, there was the choice to fight fate to the very end. The two choices clearly differed.
But this man before her might never understand this point, ever.
Ahh, I see, so this is despair.
"…Farewell, Brigadier General Carl-Stahl."
At the same time that Lena received the special scouting mission, Spearhead Squadron received the same orders, and everyone began preparations without saying anything more. They sorted out the airdropped supplies for the mission, and ensured that all the necessary items in the base were in fine condition, even the "Scavenger" that was chosen to transport the supplies. The "Juggernauts" could not be maintained and repaired once the mission started, so the maintenance team checked through all the "Juggernauts" thoroughly. The Processors, who were not returning to this base, checked through their belongings.
The preparations were summarized in a report, and submitted to Shinn. The latter's job was to check through all the items and ensure they were in proper state.
Audreht, who was proficient in supply preparations and allocation, volunteered to handle the preparation work. The empty hangar seemed so empty as he and Shinn remained in a corner filled with containers, leisurely affirming that all the checks were done.
"Rations, energy packs, ammunition, spare parts, we loaded them up just as needed. And for this stupid squad leader, a few extra leg parts. You know how to do some simple repairs, right?"
"Yeah. I always wreck them."
"Shitty brat, always with the stupid comebacks… you only have one unit. Don't fight in that same manner now."
Once he had the old mechanic mutter so with a deep, earnest voice, Shinn merely shrugged. Even though he was asked to do so, he could not do what he was incapable of. If he did not go all out against the enemy units, he would have trouble saving his own life.
"It's the end already. Can’t you just say 'copy that,' even if it's a lie? Just do what I say here, okay?"
"Goodness, you cheeky brat…"
Audreht snorted, and silence then beckoned upon the surrounding space. Shinn did not mind this awkward atmosphere, while Audreht scratched his cotton white hair, and spoke up,
"…Shinn. Once all preparations are done, call all the kids here. I've got something to say to you lot."
Shinn was a little skeptical, and tilted his head towards Audreht's grim face shielded by his sunglasses. What is it? He was about to ask, but the Para-RAID activated, and he could only swallow his words.
"Major. What is it?"
Shinn answered, gesturing that he was unavailable. Audreht nodded, and left.
"…The special scouting mission has been relayed to me."
"Affirmative. Preparations are proceeding smoothly with no delays. Is there any change in the situation?"
Unlike Lena's strangely grim tone, Shinn was as nonchalant in his response as usual, as though he had just received another typical order. Once she heard the callousness of that tone, Lena gritted her teeth.
"I apologize. Given my capabilities now, I really cannot retract the orders."
Lena pursed her lips. A moment later, she finally had enough, and spoke up.
"Please run away. You have no need to fulfill this foolish order."
She was utterly ashamed of her own incompetence. She could not retract this preposterous order, and could only give such irresponsible advice.
His answer remained poised and serene. It was a question, but in essence, it was a denial.
She knew. There was no place for them to run to. Even if there was, they would not survive. With so few of them, they could not ensure the most basic of food. It was obvious.
No person could survive alone. Thus, people gathered together, forming villages and cities, and built countries.
The establishment meant to sustain human livelihood was going to sentence them to death.
There was an inexplicable rage rising in Lena's heart, and she exclaimed,
"Why are you, always like this…!?"
She could not bear to see him accept his death so callously, like a death convict who had admitted his guilt, even though he had never sinned!
"Because there is nothing to have a grudge over. Everyone dies, and we will just die earlier than others. Pointing the finger is not going to change that."
"But you cannot be saying that! You are going to be killed!? Your future, your hopes, even your lives are going to be taken away from you without reason, and yet you do not have any grudges? There is no way this can happen!"
Shinn went silent as he heard her weeping voice. After a while, he finally spoke up, with a grimace in his voice.
"Major, we are not sending ourselves to our deaths."
His voice had no sense of longing or reluctance, instead it sounded crisp and clear.
"Until today, we have been locked up here, bound here. Everything is going to end though. We can finally head forth to a road we can look forward to, to the distant place we are hoping for. Can you please not belittle the precious freedom we have here?"
Lena kept shaking her head. That was not freedom. Real freedom is permitted by law, and does not intrude upon the rights of others. The desire to go anywhere, to do whatever they want, or freedom of thought that remains unhindered, this freedom is a right any individual should have.
To choose their burial ground the next day, to choose the path towards death. Such limited choices surely could not be considered freedom.
"Th-Then, at least, please do not fight. You should know where the is, so you can avoid them and safely move on…"
"That is impossible. Even if we do know where they are, it is impossible for us to pass through without them being alerted. To move forward, we must fight… we are already aware of that."
For a moment, Shinn grinned.
He was not saying that he knew, but that he was eagerly looking forward to it.
Lena finally lowered her eyes, unable to endure this. Thus,
"—You want to fight your brother, who is in the , right?"
Silence lingered. Finally, Shinn sighed with some frustration.
"…Why is it that you always notice such useless things?"
"Of course I would. That's because."
When he said that he was seeking the deceased Ray, and the "Shepherd" in the first battle zone, Shinn showed a cold, broken smile, just like the one now.
Shinn himself might not have noticed it. Just as one would not notice his own facial expression, he might have been the only one who never noticed the thoughts in the bottom of his heart.
Fear, rage, persistence, drive, countless emotions were intertwined, forming a merciless, maniacal blade leaping towards him.
It was not anticipation, but the opposite.
"All the more that I cannot allow you to battle. Even if it is the , to fight against your own brother is…"
"Brother is a 'Shepherd.' We cannot avoid him."
His voice was stiff, spiteful. It was the first time she had heard a voice filled with rage from him.
"If you are willing to command, please do not synchronize with us… Raiden and Kaie must have said it countless times already."
She heard the icy tone, and gasped. This intensity from Shinn came only for a moment, and then, he let out a long sigh, reverting back to the usual nonchalant tone.
"…Major, you don't have to command us anymore."
"I'll correct what I just said… I don't want you to hear my brother's last words."
He did not want Lena, the girl who knew only of Ray's outstretched kind hands and smile, hear the voice of curses and malice.
"And one other thing. Further East from here, beyond the border, there are no voices of the ."
He sounded as though he was callously mentioning something he had just forgotten.
Or perhaps, he was deliberately speaking with such a tone, to hide something.
"Maybe that is the maximum hearing range for me, or maybe there are other survivors on the other side. If it's the latter, the Republic will probably be saved before it gets wiped out… without the 'Shepherd,' the will be confused for the time being, and we can buy some time until then. So, please hang until then, Major."
His tone remained aloof, icy, but there was an earnest wish behind it. Hearing his words, Lena could only clench her fists.
During the interception battle that day, Haruto was killed.
It was the first time that Lena had not taken command, from the beginning to the end of the battle.
And so, the day to undertake the special scouting mission came.
They boarded the "Juggernauts," and activated the system, showing lines of messages and checksum results on the screen. The sub-screen showed the number of friendlies. Raiden glanced at it, and snorted.
"Five of us, huh? Too bad for that Haruto."
If he could have survived another two days, he could have joined in on their parade to paradise.
He could hear a sigh from Seo through the synchronized communicator.
"In the end, Major never contacted us, huh?"
"What? You're sounding pretty lonely there Seo."
"No, not at all… but."
Seo tilted his head slightly.
"Maybe I was a little concerned? More or less."
"Given that she's accompanied us till this point, I suppose she could have said goodbye."
"Right, I feel the same, Angel. Doesn't matter if she's around, but if she was, she could have said something."
"That's enough already. We told her many times not to bother about us, and now we've finally shaken her off. Isn't this fine?"
Krena seemed a little peeved as she said so. Seo and Angel were holding in their laughter, What's with that? and she puffed her cheeks in response.
Raiden tapped the inner wall of his cockpit, quietly agreeing. He never expected that Lena would never contact them again since that incident. He did not think she would retreat at this moment… but she might have been quietly distraught due to some stupid guilt.
I wanted to say a few words to her… doesn't matter now.
The final checks were done, and the units activated. The display screens flickered a few times before they lit up, and appearing on the monitor was the maintenance crew that had spent time with them for half a year. Though they knew the ones on the outside could not see, everyone lowered their heads deeply.
Fido waited quietly at the back of the procession. It carried a month's worth of supplies, living necessities, and another five containers of ammunition installed at its legs, resembling a centipede.
Thus, everyone got ready. Once they took the next step forward, they could not turn back. Once the operation began, their military ranks, along with the login records stashed in the Republic Army HQ, would all be thoroughly erased, and the login message to register the Handler for command purposes was to be deleted at noon, or perhaps they would be unable to connect once they left the jurisdiction area. Once they retreated, they would be met by Republican fire, and they could only head forth towards the land of death, until they themselves died.
For some reason, even when faced with such a future, Raiden was exceptionally calm.
When he was first assigned to this squadron, he had already been prepared for this.
Back then, Daiya was still alive, and there were the six of them. These six boarded a transport carrier from their respective old squadrons, and he met Kaie, Haruto, and Kino in this camp. The members had a commemorative photo together, and pasted it on the squad book. Whenever the squadron was shuffled, they would take photos again. They all held papers containing their numbers, standing before the wall with the markers like prisoners. Once the squadron disbanded, all of its data would be abandoned, and their photos would probably be deleted on this night, not a single one would remain. They once begged a kind-looking soldier to take a photo of them… but how long would it remain?
That night, all of them stood together, and swore.
Even if they were ridiculed as pigs, they would never fall and become pigs. They would fight until the bitter end, until the last man.
Not bad. Managed to survive till five were left.
He chuckled, and naturally thought of their squad leader, the "Undertaker," along with the mark that was etched on his unit, the headless skeleton lifting a shovel. It symbolized the Death God, their Death God, that had led the squad to this point, and remained with them in life and in death.
Accompanying them was the little aluminium grave, along with the other five hundred and seventy six KIA he had buried up to this point.
Raiden sensed Shinn open his slightly closed red eyes, and heard a quiet voice.
Upon hearing that soft voice, it awoke from its standby phase.
It's coming. It's still far away, but it's closing in. After looking for him for so long, they were finally going to meet again. For this purpose, it had waited for so long, angsty and jumpy, ready to pounce.
It could not wait. This time, it wanted to welcome it. Surely, this time.
The voice of the ghosts lingering by Shinn's ears suddenly got louder, and began to move. That voices gathered together, like a rampaging tidal wave engulfing the land, looming towards them.
The silver Eintagsfliege before the troops were clustered, covering the entire sky, and the sun was darkened as a result.
Raiden hissed, and Shinn tersely noted. The enemy was right before them, on the path they had chosen. If they had taken a different path, the enemy would adjust accordingly and move forward.
…It was to be expected. If Shinn could hear the , naturally, the enemy could hear him too.
After looking at the landscape, they chose a path of little contour. Since they could not evade, they chose a place where it would be easier to battle.
The radar screen showed blips of the enemy positions. In an instant, the blips increased in numbers, almost overlapping, and their path forward was covered in white.
They passed through the hills, and came to a stretch of grassland and forest, the forest being to the left.
Before their eyes was an endless stretch of army.
Leading the front was the Vanguard of Ameise. The Löwe and Grauwolf were mixed in the armored corps two kilometers to the back, and further back was the second wave, with a third wave that could barely be seen behind. The artillery team of Scorpions was most likely behind them. It seemed the entire armada of the first battle zone was before them.
Amongst them, Shinn's attention was lured to a Dinosauria that was tailing an Ameise.
It was at least four meters tall, twice the weight of a Löwe. I was covered in impenetrable armor, its eight legs providing an astounding amount of mobility and explosiveness, like a land battlecruiser. The massive 155mm cannon and the 75mm coaxial subcannon were aimed at them, the two 12.7mm heavy machine guns atop the body looking like toys on the massive beast of steel.
Even without listening, Shinn knew the "Shepherd" was leading this armada. It did not set the army along all possible routes, and predicted the path they would choose, setting up camp there. It was impossible for the "Sheep" to analyze the conditions and predict where the enemy would proceed.
And this "Shepherd" was hidden in the deepest part of the first battle zone.
That deep voice was the crucial evidence he needed. Shinn recalled that voice very well, and was never able to forget. It was the last thing he had heard when he was alive, that voice, those words.
The same voice was calling for him.
Shinn showed a faint smile. So you showed up… finally, I'm right before you.
That smile was like a blade of ice, maddening, sharp, and vicious.
"Found you — brother."