The Federation Capital St. Yedder was present at least two hundred kilometers east of the Republic’s eastern battlefront, covered in a silent white during this winter.
Shinn came to the main road of the plaza, stopped, and looked up at the bell tower of the city hall that looked blurry amidst the fluttering snow. The snow on the asphalt road was already swept away. There was a large momi fir tree standing in the middle of the plaza before the shops, and it appeared to be decorated for Christmas.
He had assumed long ago that he would never see the snow again.
He had assumed long ago that his corpse would be lying in an unknown corner of the battlefield, and that the snow piling atop him would slowly melt away in the Spring breeze.
And at this point, he was standing in a corner of the bustling street, as pedestrians passed and went. The sound of war could no longer be heard. He looked up, and felt that it was truly intriguing.
He let out a long sigh, and the white mist that formed after was exactly the same as the one on the battlefield back then, when he was at the plaza before the abandoned snow-covered church. However, the thick coat he bought and wore now was a lot warmer than his clothing back then.
He shook his head, and again started walking down the snow covered path.
The Empire’s Capital Library stood at the central street of the Federation’s capital, its heaters working fine as Shinn removed his coat, shook off the snow upon it, and entered the library. It had been a month since he arrived, and he started to get familiar with the librarians. He greeted them, and strolled off to the rows of books.
The large hall of the Empire’s Capital Library was five storeys high, with bookshelves reaching the ceiling, and the wing halls built around it in a radial manner. The dome arch at the top showcased an intricate spiral pattern, forming the constellations of summer. For Shinn, who never took particular heed to the dates, let alone have a vacation, the unique tranquillity of a library with only a few people on a ‘usual day’ was something he could not get used to.
Suddenly, he stopped before the children bookshelves which he had never paid much attention to. There were a few picture books on this short bookshelf, their covers facing out. He was familiar with one of them, and he reached out for the one that was a little aged.
He was unfamiliar with the book itself. His eyes remained on the cover illustration.
The headless skeleton raising a longsword.
He casually flipped through the pages, but he could not remember the contents of the story. He remembered seeing it somewhere before, but the story itself was not unique, or perhaps he was mistaken. It was about a hero of justice who helped the weak and defeated evil.
But as he read the easy-to-read book, it seemed his brother’s voice echoed at his ears.
The massive hand flipped the pages. It started to deepen before he knew it. Every night, he would beg his brother to read it.
And that brother was no longer around.
The final words, and the back of the unreachable silhouette that left him, just like how it was when he last saw him alive.
Suddenly, he noticed footsteps stopping a little distance away from him.
He turned his eyes aside, and spotted a girl about five, six years old. She was wearing a plush cap, her large silver eyes opened big and round.
He realized that the girl was staring at the book in his hands, and closed it shut before handing it to her with one hand. The girl seemed shy, but after some hesitation, she timidly reached out for the book, and turned to run away.
Soon after, she was brought back to Shinn by a boy of similar age.
Seeing his silvery hair and eyes behind his glasses, Shinn’s face froze for a moment.
A Selena–an Alba.
It was not the Eighty-Sixth area of the Republic, and the boy before him was not of the Republic. Shinn understood this, but he still remained restless.
“I apologize for my sister’s rudeness.”
“…Oh, it’s fine. I wasn’t reading.”
The boy raised his eyebrows.
“This won’t do. When you are helped or given something, you need to say thank you. This is something that is taught since young.”
Saying that, he nudged the girl on the back, and prodding her to move forward. After some hesitation, she murmured something with a pitifully soft voice, and then teetered away again.
“Ah, hey!…eh, seriously.”
Once the lady librarian glared at him, the boy immediately kept quiet.
Seeing the black-haired, green eyed librarian tell off the Selena boy, Shinn was a little taken aback. Again, he realized that he had arrived in a foreign land.
The boy sighed reluctantly, and turned towards Shinn, lowering his head.
“Thank you. Sorry for getting you involved in our home disciplinary issue.”
The boy apologized seriously, and coupled with his silver hair and eyes, Shinn was reminded of the last Handler that he had, whom he had never met.
“It’s fine. Being an older brother must be a tough thing.”
“She’s too shy. Really, I wonder who she takes after here.”
He weakly lowered his shoulders, and then seemed a little confused as he tilted his head,
“Erm, I’m not sure if I can ask, but I have seen you here often recently. Don’t you go to school?”
For the time being, the Federation had six years of compulsory education, and any further education was on voluntary expenses. The reason for this was that the system was implemented nine years ago, so many areas away from the capital had insufficient teaching resources, lacked teachers, and sometimes, no school buildings either.
For Shinn, a Federation citizen who was not locally born, and lived in the concentration camps and the battlefield as an Eighty-Sixer for many years, he naturally never studied at any school.
Ernst did say that Shinn would get used to this place by the upcoming Spring, and there was still time for him to think.
“What about you?”
“Since you’re saying that you saw me while there’s school going on, that means you’re often here too, right?”
The boy gave an awkward smile.
“Ah, yes, I don’t attend school. Rather, I can’t attend school. The ex-nobles here are pretty much shunned aside anyway.”
After the civil revolution, the nobility of the Federation was broken into two.
The nobles involved with mass farming, heavy industries, and any other productions involving the lifeline of the country continued with their businesses, aside from their status and tax privileges being revoked. Their businesses were directly involved with the fighting strength of the country, and if they were in chaos, the war against the would take a perilous turn. Similarly, the sons of the nobles chose to be officers for the old Empire instead of taking over the businesses, and most of them chose to stay with the Federation army.
The other nobles had the privilege to continue their lives as ordinary citizens, but it was often difficult for them to find jobs, for they were unused to toil, and begrudged by the commoners. Some low-ranked nobles of relatively poor fortunes might be worse off than the commoners.
“So I thought you would be the same as me…sorry for being rude.”
Seeing the boy look so apologetic, Shinn shook his hand.
“It’s fine. I’m not a local.”
He had intended to say that he was not from the Federation, but through the prior conversation, he knew that the citizens of St. Yedder would subconsciously interpret it as ‘not from the old Empire capital’. It would be too troublesome to explain that he was an Eighty-Sixer, for everywhere else other than the capital were considered ‘colonies’. Nobody would delve too deeply into this explanation, and Shinn had been giving this explanation the entire time.
Of the territories the Empire used to rule, there were different cultures from different lands, including values, customs and languages, and they differed greatly from the old Empire capital. Having understood these unnecessary implication, the boy heaved a sigh of relief, and had a curious glint in his eyes.
“But it is rare to see an Onyx and Pyrope not being born in the capital…ah, pardon me for the rudeness again.”
The boy lowered his head apologetically, and showed a smile on his face, and in the white eyes behind his glasses.
“I’m Eugene Lantz. Nice to meet you.”
“–This is basically how it is. They have been here for a month, and have started to get used to this place.”
Ernst had told the youths to “watch this country carefully, and slowly think of the future.”. He had them stroll freely on the streets, but he could not just simply shoo them away when they just came from a foreign land.
During the initial few days, he had arranged for a few guides of similar age to lead them, had them familiarize with the places, and the guides would supervise them from afar, sending reports of their actions to the secretary, who then compiled a large pile of reports and submitted it to Ernst, who was reading through these electronic documents. He noted, his eyes still staring at the terminal on his work desk.
“Yes. Just yesterday, he went to check on the war history bookshelf, and two days ago, it was philosophy. Three days ago, he went to the war graveyard, but for some reason, he picked up an illustration book today, but I suppose it’s a good thing he made a friend. Time to bust out the azuki bean rice today, huh?”
“It’ll be a mistake trying to cook that when you don’t know how it looks like. Don’t do that.”
“Besides, are you able to return home today like this? Raiden brought a change of clothes here, and even passed Teresa’s complaint to you. What are you doing?”
The Oriental Eisen secretary flatly noted, but Ernst did not mind it.
“I did ask for a change of clothes because there is a washing machine in the office, so I have been wearing the same suit every day, and Teresa’s probably just nagging at me because of this. Ah, but I’m definitely going home today, so you people should return back too! It’s the night of the Christmas Eve after all!”
“Well, thanks for that then.”
“Since it’s a rare opportunity, I guess I should buy some presents. I wonder if the Republic has a habit of giving presents on Christmas Eve night.”
“Probably yes…but I have no idea if those children could remember that.”
“If they have forgotten, it is best to let them remember…now then. What should I buy…”
Ernst’s eyes remained fixated on the screen, his lips showing an elated smile. However, as he was still busy with administrative duties, it appeared that he would be unable to prepare any decent gifts.
It had been almost a month since they had arrived at St. Yedder, and the youths appeared to be getting used to enjoying their peaceful lifestyle. Raiden was working part-time as a transporter riding a motorbike, Angel participated in a cooking class, Seo was going out with a sketchbook in hand, Krena enjoyed herself with window shopping, and Shinn had been visiting the library and museum. It appeared that they were starting to have one or two acquaintances, or friends.
Thank goodness, so he earnestly thought.
None of them mentioned anything about joining the army again. It seemed they had finally escaped from the oppression that their country had inflicted upon them…along with the mindset of a combatant they were forced to learn.
They were no longer ‘Eighty-Sixers’.
“…Starting Spring, it’s time to consider their wishes.”
Beyond the windows, the long Winter of the northern country seemed to be waiting for the Spring and the light that shone.
It snowed the entire night, and stopped the following day, at noon. The sky was clear, a pristine blue, shining brightly upon the plaza made of white-grey bricks.
Seo stopped his slow feet, and looked up at the blue skies.
There were dried, wilted, black branches atop the large sakura tree in the middle of the plaza, and the clear, distant winter sky was beyond them.
These branches appeared to be forming fragments out of the skies, causing them to collapse at any given moment.
He lowered his stare, and could see the holographic screen on the TV by the streets, showing the telecast of a live meeting.
Seeing Ernst present his speech at the podium with an ordinary suit and glasses, Seo felt something was amiss. He was the hero who led the revolution, and in his tenth year of presidency, but to Seo, he was the eccentric uncle who would occasionally drop by home, decide on the curfew and nag at the children who returned home late, and act like a child when jostling over the remote control with Frederica.
There were often times when the broadcasted news was switched to a magical girl anime, or a live soccer telecast was switched to the footage of some battalion; these often happened to Shinn and Raiden, and they would often be told, “Can’t we just watch a half hour anime clip together?”
Seo callously listened to the speech, which seemed to be regarding the Federation’s status in the war. There were introductions to the various battlefields, analysis of the battlefield, and future prospects. While Ernst himself was probably not the one doing the analysis, there were at least various intel from the many battlefields. It was really a world of difference from the Republic, who were fooled by the same report for five years, only to be discovered by their last handler.
The broadcasted news, which Shinn would watch, albeit listening while he read his book, should probably be accurate. At the end of it, the news would surely showcase a list of the KIA. Even the lowest of ranks would be recorded, and all citizens, no matter whether they knew the dead, would give a moment of silence. It was to be expected in the Federation, and also for the neighboring countries ten years ago, just that Seo would never know.
Those white swines of the Republic are really dumb, so he thought as he listened, feeling extremely restless, impatient. He could not simply remain as he was, and could not simply remain at this place.
So, he thought,
As expected, we,
Tucking the sketchbook under his arm, he walked on the plaza that was so clean, that there was nary a piece of trash to be seen. It was truly too cold, and he did not see any other sketch-lovers on this street.
It was said that there was war in this city during the civil revolution ten years ago. Along the way, there were some bricks that seemed brand new, and there were bridge sections along the city river that were obviously burned off. The ancient cathedral bell that was a derelict due to cannon bombardment remained there. The collapsed stone walls had vines over them, and remained an outstanding sight in the populous city, showcasing an atmosphere of a war relic. Curious, Seo sat by the side, drawing, and for some reason, the old chaplain gave him some sweets.
The distant footsteps approached, and turning around, he found Angel.
“So you are here. You said you were headed to the Republic Square today, so I thought you would be nearby.”
“Ah, yeah. Never thought that the Republic Plaza would be right before the old embassy of the Republic…got anything?”
Angel was dressed in a posh blouse, a faint colored coat, a fluffy long skirt, and tall boots. Seo was unused to seeing her dressed up like this, after seeing her in camouflage for a long time. It was the same for the others too, for though they did not appear to be out of place, something seemed to be out of order.
“Please lend me a hand. I have some baggage to carry, and I cannot do so alone.”
“Oh, okay…you sure I’m enough help? Did you call anyone else?”
Naturally, the girls Krena and the child Frederica would be excluded from this moving job.
“Raiden…is at work. Shinn probably has some spare time.”
In fact, every one of them was free every day.
Seo reached for the earcuff on his right ear, trying to activate the Para-RAID as he said,
But his fingers just slipped through, and did not touch the hard earcuff.
Oh yeah, Seo went silent. Angel held in her laughter as she took out a mobile phone from her pocket, and he looked sullen but he too took his out.
“Goodness, this thing sure is convenient. Need to carry this around every day, can’t contact people if they don’t switch on theirs, and everyone needs to store their numbers.”
But unlike what he had initially said, Seo followed up with sarcastic words, befitting his facial expression. Angel followed with a chuckle.
“But with a Para-RAID, there is a need to change contacts when there is a change of Handler, no?”
“Those white swines…well, it’s pretty troublesome. All those white swines could have done whatever they wanted, but they always come up with so much nonsense.”
The choker called the Para-RAID was meant to deal with the Processors, and it was for the convenience of the Republic, who also ensured that the earcuffs containing the modifiable data could not be removed easily. There was no disinfection when they were removed, and once the Federation had taken them off, there were still scars on the ear. Seo himself did not mind it, but even he was livid seeing the scars on Angel and and Krena’s ears.
The fact remained that their Handler…or to be precise, the Handler in charge of contacting Shinn had been changing, it was not their responsibility. Furthermore, their last Handler was a feeble princess of similar age, and even she endured this; compared to her, everyone else who could not endure looked comparatively bad.
“Those Federation guys are really curious, wanting such a thing. We used this for such a long time, and even we don’t know what in the world that thing is.”
“But it sure is useful for for the warzone, right? We have Eintagsfliege on this side too. Regarding the “Juggernaut” though, that walking coffin is not worth investigating, I feel.”
The items of protection they obtained from the Federation no longer remained.
The “Juggernaut” and the Para-RAID were said to be taken to a research lab for analysis. Of the other items, there was nothing worth commemorating, and they too were given to the Federation.
“…Speaking of which, it did seem Shinn hoped to keep his gun. The Federation wouldn’t allow ordinary citizens to do so, so he was refused.”
For the time being, Ernst would keep it.
“Might not be appropriate to say that it is worth remembering. That handgun had killed off many people however. This is the only job Shinn has never allowed anyone else to do.”
Even Raiden, who spent the longest time with him, never got to do so.
“Well, it remains a fact that he can hear them all the time, but…I do wish Shinn can enjoy his life a little more.”
Seo assumed that his comrade, who could hear the voices of the unreleased, vengeful spirits, was being bound too heavily by the dead, or Death itself.
For instance, he was the one who had killed off his comrades who were in delirious pain.
It was he who promised his comrades that he would accompany them to the end of their lives, from his initial squad to Spearhead Squadron, the comrades who fought alongside him and left him behind.
Their brains were taken by the , continuously repeating the moans of death as they became ‘Black Sheep’.
And also, there was the head of his brother…who had died many years ago, yet still kept clinging onto him until his recent defeat.
Angel lowered her blue eyes, and sank into deep thought.
“Perhaps some things can only be fulfilled because we are bound down.”
“…What do you mean?”
“To be bound down, in other words, means to be forced to stay. Perhaps it is because he had the objective to slay his brother, Shinn could remain on this battlefield, and remained on this world.”
And what forced him to stay was the lamentations of the countless dead, their curses ensnared upon the scar on his neck…and ironically, the deceased brother who caused said scar.
“We are Eighty-Sixers. We should have died on that battlefield, so in a certain sense, it was inevitable. That goes the same for Shinn, who has been thinking about his brother the entire time. But now, he has nothing to commemorate him…I am a little worried about him.”
Seo still did not understand the meaning behind those words.
Angel was adept at observation. Thus, it was difficult for Seo to refute otherwise.
“What about you, Angel?”
“You too should have died on that battlefield, but you kept living. That old man wants us to think of our futures…but have you thought of it?”
Angel’s flowery-colored lips grimaced.
Ahh, so she’s starting to put on makeup, so he thought.
“Do you still want to hear?”
Seo suddenly cracked a smile.
“For example…I have thought of it, what will happen if Daiya was still alive, what if I wait a little longer. The result will remain the same. What we should do, and what we want to do, we–”
Seo carried on, and nodded.
“Same here. I guess everyone’s the same too. This is all we have.”
A short moment of silence lingered between those two. In this silence, there was a mutual understanding and chemistry, a satisfactory solace.
Angel suddenly clapped her hands.
“In any case, that aside.”
“Ah, yeah. Carry the stuff back, right?”
He checked for Shinn’s number that was stored, and pressed the call button. He kept dialling over and over again…but there was no response after a long while, so Seo frowned,
“–He’s not picking up!”
For a long time, Shinn had dreams of the night when he was nearly killed by his brother, and hardly remembered anything else.
But he still understood.
That it was a dream.
“–I know this is too much to ask for.”
Kaie was smiling in the sealed space with white mist drifting around her. She was one of Spearhead Squadron’s members, who fought on the Eastern front of the Republic’s Eighty-Six region, and died there.
Her hair and eyes were an Oriental black, and she was dressed in a desert camouflage uniform obtained from the Republic’s deadstock, and had a ponytail.
Her little head was not at its usual position, but was severed neatly from its neck, held in her hands.
That face was smiling.
“You guys made it to the end of the journey, and brought us to the end here too. You can forget about us…but.”
There were more of them who departed without waiting for him. Rather than it being Kaie herself, she was simply a representation of them all.
Corpses, some dying, some dead, were abducted by the , their heads taken for reading, and stored inside combat units, becoming the deviant ‘black sheep’ comrades amongst the ‘white sheep’ of the .
“We do understand, but we are still in pain. It is too painful for us to remain on this world like this. We are already dead, and we want to return there. So Shinn, our Death God.”’
Kaie smiled as she called out the infamous moniker Shinn himself never felt uncomfortable with.
On the lush grass beneath their feet, there were eight rail tracks. One could see the grey silhouette of the abandoned “Juggernaut” and “Scavenger” amidst the thick white mist.
It was the autumn night two months ago, when they entered the controlled territory.
“Can you help us out here?”
The ‘black sheep’ were simply a crude clone of the deceased brains, and had no personalities of themselves.
And even the ‘Shepherds’, who had thinking ability on par with humans, could not communicate with the latter.
Thus, the girl before him was not Kaie, and neither was it an embodiment of the others…it was Shinn’s lingering will.
Back then, all he cared about was burying his brother, and could not bother with the others, so he left them behind.
Shinn heard someone call for his name, and opened his eyes. He found himself in the browsing section of the Empire’s Capital Library, sprawled upon the eight person table. He nudged himself up.
Eugene, seated opposite to him, had his elbows on the table, his head on his hands as he leaned over; the silvery white eyes behind the glasses were smiling away. His little sister was not around, probably reading a picture book nearby.
“Even if the sun is setting, you will be told off by the librarian if you keep sleeping. It is true that the sunlight here makes it really comfy.”
The browsing room in the wing block made ample use of naturally light, as the sunlight shone upon the old, thick glass windows on the ceiling, and the softened light lit the entire browsing room through the stained glass patterns engraved upon them. It was said that in the summer, the leaves of the large Elm tree outside would block and scatter the lights. In the afternoon, the room would feel warm and comfortable due to the sunlight, and one could see that on the other tables in the narrow and long browsing room, many boys and girls of similar ages were dozing off, having been either reading or studying.
“Stayed up all night?”
“Not at all.”
It had been years since he had been like this. While there were times when he would suddenly fall asleep, probably due to overexertion because of his ability, it was the first time he fell unconscious and asleep before a near-total stranger.
Sure relaxed a lot here. Shinn callously thought.
There was no noise of the hangar, no gunfire from afar, and no need to worry about the movements nearby. He was slowly getting used to this lifestyle.
The only thing that remained by his ears were the dying groans of the mechanical ghosts, multiplying at the frontlines far away, surging like a flood.
Eugene then leaned forward, his silvery white eyes giving a mischievous vibe.
“It’s about time. Want to go check it out? There’s a terrace at the top floor of this hall, and very few know that you can actually get out from there. It’s a little far, but you can see it clearly.”
“The parade. On the night of Christmas Eve. It’s the 24th armored corps of the Western army participating today. You can probably can see the third generation, newest ‘Vanargand’.”
Seeing Shinn’s lack of response, Eugene tilted his head.
“Huh? You don’t have any interest in this?”
Rather, he was surprised this person before him was so interested in this.
Leaving aside the Alba appearance that left Shinn startled, his slender frame and honest demeanour made him seem unacquainted with the harsh, cruel battlefield. His hands were a little rough due to the housework, and clearly have held a pen for far too long. It was obvious he was inexperienced in using a weapon, or enacting violence.
“I thought…you wouldn’t be interested in that.”
Hearing that, Eugene beamed happily,
“Yeah, I decided to join the army. Be part of the armored corps. So I went to learn…I thought you would be the same as me in this regards.”
Shinn had been reading up on war history just the previous day, and read the memoirs of famed Empire-era soldiers before then. Seeing Shinn visit the faculty he had been visiting, Eugene had been wondering if the former too wanted to join the special cadet school…since he could not attend school.
So I thought, and I felt closer to you because of that, so the Alba boy said. Furthermore, he had wanted to talk for quite some time.
“The Capital here has been very peaceful, but the war continues on at the borders, and who knows when it will be the day they come here. I’m willing to do anything to prevent that from…to protect my little sister, the city here. Also…I want to bring her to see the sea. That’s why I want to end this war.”
Kaie’s voice, which he had heard in the dream, echoed once again.
“Can you help us out here?”
The distant battlefield.
The battlefield where he spent years, and swore to advance until the very end.
At this point, he was not at that place that he hoped to be at.
He had long forgotten about the insides of the Grand Mur.
For those people were unwilling to face reality, and lost the means to protect themselves, rotting away pathetically in the eighty five areas of the Republic as they stagnated.
At this point, he, who stagnated, had returned to the boundaries of the Grand Mur.
The groans of the never ceased. They kept ringing in his ears, encompassing till the ends of the continent.
He kept looking for the massive, perverted corpses of the Republic mixed between them.
But he could not hear her, for perhaps she was still alive.
Would she continue to follow their footsteps, and fight the enemy?
He muttered to himself quietly, and Eugene did not hear him.
“Ah, got a message. It is from Shinn.”
“Eh, why the response to you!? I’ve been calling me lots of times!”
“Hm…I guess it might be because you called too many times…”
Hearing the overwhelming cheers and the noise of the procession at the other end of the road, Krena stopped in her tracks.
She looked over, and in her vision that was reduced to a rectangle by the two tall buildings to the side, she spotted the massive steel colored bodies slowly ease their way down the main street, and froze in space. The massive 120mm cannon was nerve-wrecking, and it was followed by the long chair, a bare turret, and the body. A startling noise was caused by the motor and the power pack attached to it as the massive weight of the eight-legged armored unit hammered upon the stone tiles.
The eight-legged machines caused loud footsteps and motor noises.
It took her a while to remember these were not the , and heaved a huge sigh of relief. The hand instinctively reaching for her shoulder, where she once strapped the assault rifle over, returned back in place.
“…That scared me.”
In any case, this unit was often seen on the news that Shinn and Raiden watched. Apparently, it was called the ‘Vanargand’, the main weapon of the Federation. It had a main cannon and armor on par with the Löwe, and was a far cry from the “Juggernaut” that was inferior to the Grauwolf.
It was probably a parade. The well-polished ‘Vanargand’ and the Federation soldiers dressed in glamorous parade uniform kept moving forward as the March played on. The citizens standing on both sides of the main street were waving their hands at the twin-headed, black-red eagle on the Federation flag.
The officer manning the turrets of the “Vanargand” met Krena in the eyes, and waved at her. Krena was taken aback, but she too lifted her hand, and waved it. The young officer, probably a few years older, showed a proud smile as he gave her a joking bow, before vanishing behind the building.
This country continued to fight the , and the “Vanargands” were weapons used to combat them. However, the scene before her was so genial, so pleasant.
The bustling streets remained a pleasant sight, but Krena remained unaccustomed to the crowded places. She turned aside, and walked off.
Having obtained this peaceful, stable life, she got used to it, and enjoyed it. Initially however, she felt so lethargic and worn out, despite there not being any battles, nor any daily chores, and thus she was left frustrated.
Her comrades too found interests in their lives, and got to know a few friends. The friend list on her portable terminal too had been expanding.
Ever since the beginning, they had decided.
That as they watched this country, they would decide on their own futures. No matter each of their final decision, they would respect it.
She stood before the store she liked, and sized up the shop window reflecting herself. The girl in the reflection was wearing a one-piece dress commonly seen in magazines, along with a cape of fake fur. The heels of her boots were a little too tall, and she was trying to get used to it.
When she initially arrived in this city, she was wearing clothes picked out by Teresa, Ernst’s secretary, and others of similar age to her, but recently, she had been picking out her own choice of clothes. She turned her body around, checking if she was cute. The older saleslady behind the window chuckled, giving her a thumbs up.
She was delighted. However, she was a little embarrassed. She lowered her head, and ran off.
She chose the clothes she liked. She dolled herself up. She bought whatever she wanted, and strolled freely. She did not have to worry about dying the next day, nor did she need to worry about the battles she was to face.
It was a dream.
The cheers behind her vanished, and only the loud March of the band echoed on, stinging through the grim silence and the faint, tall blue skies above.
It was said that beyond the blue sky was an endless darkness where humans could not stay at.
That was what she heard from the battlefield of the eighty five areas. Perhaps she had heard it from Kujo of Spearhead Squadron, who, in contrary to his appearance, was well-versed in astronomy, or perhaps she had heard it from the female squad leader of her first assigned squad, or perhaps from Shinn, soon after she met him.
Beyond the blue sky was shrouded in darkness.
The sky, the seas, the mesmerizing blue was the membrane of the afterlife.
…Perhaps this was the reason why Heaven was in the skies.
Krena stopped in her tracks, and turned around.
The March continued to blare loudly, as though proclaiming beyond the skies, today, at this moment, all of you shall return with us.
There was a moment of silence by the crowd, along with retired soldiers dressed in uniform; the “Vanargand” was clothed in black, symbolizing death, quietly marching on.
There was a number at the front of the turret, representing the number of KIA and MIA since the previous parade. It was an astounding number. It did not simply represent the names; it represented the number of people who should have been alive.
And there were many more who were once the same as them, comrades, fighting on the frontlines.
While the current life was enjoyable, for them, it was only a fleeting dream.
And they would wake up from that dream.
Raiden, done with his part-time work, saw that the hall lights were not lit, and blinked in confusion. Typically, when he returned at this time, Teresa would have switched on the lights at the door and hall.
According to her, the children should be back by then, and the lights should be on.
The lights at the living room down the hall was lit, and Frederica was seated on the massive sofa, hugging a bear plushie alone as she remained still.
It was something Shinn had bought impulsively. Frederica pestered him to buy something for her, so he bought that plushie.
Frederica would never leave by herself, and it appeared that she never attended school either.
“I’m back…the others aren’t back? Where’s Teresa?”
“Went out shopping, yet to be back. Is there something?”
She sighed, feeling a little worried.
Suddenly, there was a loud rumbling sound from somewhere. Raiden looked down at Frederica, the source of this sound, and the latter’s face being flushed as she hugged the plushie in her hands firmly. Finally, with a teeny-weeny voice, she complained,
Raiden had a look at the clock on the wall, and found out that it was almost dinner time. While he and the others were used to irregular meal times due to combats and night raids, the young Frederica would have issues.
“Wait a moment.”
Raiden put down his goods, and went into the kitchen.
Unlike the synthesized food of the Republic that remained the same both inside and outside the Grand Mur, the Federation had produces that could be obtained from the farms or fields.
Raiden opened the fridge, ascertained the dishes he could cook, washed the ingredients, diced them, mixed them together and fried them on a pan. He simply needed to ensure Frederica had something to eat, and if Teresa was to return at this time, he could leave it as a side dish.
Frederica’s eyes were dazzling as she watched him from the sidelines, as though witnessing a spell.
“Never thought you are able to cook!”
“Well, if it’s not too difficult.”
Even if he was unwilling, this was a skill he had to learn on the battlefield, where he had to rely on himself.
…For most people anyway.
“Next time, if Shinn’s the only one at home, tell him that you’re hungry, and to buy something back to eat. Don’t talk with that kind of tone though.”
Frederica seemed strangely happy for some reason.
“Well, so Shinei is bad at cooking?”
Back during his younger days, Raiden himself was elated to learn of things that adults could not do. As he recalled his past, he shrugged.
“Not that he can’t. He’s just too lax with it.”
For instance, the saltiness of the dish being uneven, or egg shells mixed in, or the soup being overcooked.
While it was not inedible, but the taste was undoubtedly terrible, and Shinn himself had no intention to improve. Thus, no matter the squad he was in, Shinn was usually exempted from cooking. For some reason, the only skill he was proficient at was using the knife, and he had mastered the ultimate art of cutting onions without crying. Once they had arrived in the Federation however, they had a food processor to do the job, and that skill was not required.
Perhaps he was lax in everything else, for he exerted too much effort on fighting and commanding. That was what Raiden had once thought, but given how Shinn’s lifestyle had not changed in the slightest, it appeared that it was just his personality.
“So I see. Surely he is someone who gave his utmost to slay his brother…Raiden, what is that?”
“…You haven’t seen raw eggs before?”
Raiden cracked an egg with one hand, and dropped it into the bowl.
It appeared that their last Handler was a prim and proper princess, but even she knew what an egg was. Whether she knew how to crack an egg or not remained up for scepticism however.
“Umu. Teresa did say the kitchen is a maid’s territory, and would never allow me in. So eggs are packaged in such parcels…and coagulate upon heating?”
“It’s not a parcel, it’s a shell…you really aren’t educated on the outside world, are you?”
Frederica was about to say something, only to be at a loss of words.
Well, it was unlikely for her to say anything. Thinking this, Raiden looked down and narrowed his eyes at her.
He had a feeling. It was likely his comrades too had the same thought. They never paid much heed to it, and did not feel like pursuing the matter.
“Anyway, right now, you’re.”
The living room door let out a creak, and Shinn entered without making a sound.
“…Frederica, hope you helped out with cooking.”
Frederica was shocked, while Raiden looked over at Shinn nonchalantly. After four years together, he was used to Shinn’s ability to pop by without making any loud footsteps.
“The end times are here if you’re saying that. Welcome back…lots of things you have there.”
Shinn did not bring any excesses when he went out, and appeared to be out for a stroll. However, he was holding what appeared to be some pretty heavy bags.
Following him, Angel, Seo and Teresa returned, holding large paper carriers, or cooler bags. Raiden raised an eyebrow.
“…What’s going on?”
“Teresa went out to purchase groceries, but the car broke down once she arrived there. She was done with them, but there was too much for her to handle by herself, and then she met me.”
“Angel couldn’t help much either, so she called me, and then I called Shinn.”
Saying that, Seo put down the large cooler bag, and moved his shoulders around lazily.
“I say, Teresa. Next time, if you’re shopping, give us a call. Tell Shinn or me. We’re free, and can help move some things.”
“Which maid out there will allow the children she is serving to carry the items?”
“You aren’t exactly serving us here. More like that interesting old man.”
“I feel the same.”
“Not at all. He is not a father anyway.”
Ernst would probably be in tears if he was present, and at this moment, Krena, the last of them, returned.
For some reason, she stood at the living room entrance. Perhaps it was due to everyone looking over at her, or perhaps it was because she wanted to say something once the five of them were back, but found the other four to be present.
“Welcome back, Krena.”
“Ah, erm, I’m back…so.”
The cat-like golden eyes were drifting, only to be at peace.
The determined resolve visible in them overtook the uneasiness within.
And Raiden let out a little sigh.
Ahh, this one’s the same too?
The bloody red eyes looked calmly towards the standing Krena.
The silent, cold eyes eased up.
“You’re done, huh?”
That voice, and those words appeared to be prompting Krena, who nodded.
“Yeah. I think I’ve seen all that I’ve wanted to see.”
Shinn probably had already planned on this, and simply waited for the others to make the decision.
But the others must have thought the same.
So she spoke up.
Her lips showed a natural smile, proud of herself.
“Let’s go back. To where we should be at.”
Ernst was finally done with work, and returned to his private residence that he had not returned to in a while; he heard the youths talking, and was relieved to hear that they were starting to get used to the Federation’s lifestyle.
One might consider it fortunate that they were detained in the concentration camp at schooling age. Most children of that age would have known basic social common sense and economical knowledge, like how to shop, and how to behave.
Shinn and Raiden had better education than those in similar predicaments, probably due to their guardians. Seo, Angel and Krena seemed to have no formal education, but given how they could read the operational manual of the flawed weapon, and calculate the trajectory of the projectiles, they were probably smarter than most of the Federation citizens.
For a long time, the Federation had been ruled as an Empire, under a military dictatorship, for which higher education had been siphoned for the select few, so many of the commoner children were never educated, and most of its citizens could not even write their names. This was especially prevalent in the colonies. Ernst was made the temporary president before the official elections, and he was in his tenth year, partially due to this very reason.
For Ernst, who toiled under the dizzying load of administrative duties, browsing through materials on high schools and vocational schools was a form of leisure to him.
It seemed that Shinn liked to learn, so it was best if he could enter a school of a higher level. Raiden appeared to have an interest in tinkering machinery, and might be suited for a vocational school specializing in this. For Seo, Angel and Krena, he enjoyed considering their personalities, and made appropriate arrangements.
Besides, ‘her’ child never got the opportunity to be born, and he never had the chance to consider this.
He hoped that they would continue like this, and become ordinary children again.
They would go to school, they would laugh with their friends, they would brood over their futures, their love, wonder where they would go for the weekend, and think of other unnecessary things. While they had missed out these childhood experiences, it was not too late for them to start again.
Also, he had the capability to engineer it. It would be a misuse of power, but it was an insignificant issue. He might be permitted to do some things for the children who came to him, to ensure their happiness.
There was however one thing he was concerned about.
He had assigned personal rooms to everyone, and gave them pocket money a wealthy family could afford, but their personal belongings never increased in number. He never saw any excesses, other than the bare necessities.
Once, they were forbidden from having hopes and dreams, aside from their comrades.
So at least, starting from this point on, they could pick whatever they liked, and hold it in their hands, experiencing the joy of receiving…
That was what he thought.
So once he returned to the home he had not returned to in a while, he had a face to face conversation with the five of them. All of them said that they wanted to serve in the army, to return to the battlefield they escaped from, and upon hearing that, the materials Ernst held slipped from his arms, and scattered upon the floor.
Hearing his exclamation, they could only show confused looks. They were able to express themselves so honesty, but he was not in the mood to be elated by this.
“Why, you ask.”
“Didn’t we already say so? If we have a choice, we’ll enlist in the army.”
He had already heard from them. The interrogators had reported on this, and when they first moved into this house, he had again heard this from them personally.
He had assumed they knew nothing of this world, and chose to serve the army.
He assumed that they did not know of peace and stability in this world. For they were labelled the derogatory term called Eighty-Sixers, and gave up on their future dreams and their lives of being treated as ordinary people.
They knew, so why did they…?
Raiden gave a quiet chuckle.
Ernst found that that compared to the time when they arrived, his smile was a lot calmer.
“Sorry for suspecting you at first…it’s really a nice place. We got careless and stayed too long however.”
“We had enough rest. It is time to move forward.”
“So we have to return, to where we should be at.”
Ernst slowly shook his head. They wanted to advance, and ‘thus’, chose to return back to the battlefield. That choice was not something that he could empathize with.
“So…why…return to the battlefield…”
They had risked their lives fighting, and surviving. They had escaped from there–
Shinn lifted his head, and stared straight at the gaudy looking Ernst.
When he first came here, he had already made up his mind.
It was not really a conviction. For them, this was an obvious conclusion. Since they had this chance and the moment, they had decided to use this to reflect upon themselves, and their predicament.
They had no intention of adapting to this lifestyle.
And never did they think of staying here.
During this short one month, they took the opportunity to ascertain that this momentary, peaceful lull from the endless war against the was not where they should be at.
That instead of a nostalgia due to being too far away, it was a vague, distant feeling to them.
In the face of this peaceful, decent lifestyle, they remained unfazed.
This person reached out to these kinless people, and provided this opportunity and time for them. Even at this point, he was thinking for their sake, and he was showing a gaudy look at this point, so he deserved a response, at least,
“We were just lucky.”
Shinn had the ability to hear the , and locate them.
Back in the Republic, it was the last Handler, unlike her countrymen, who had helped them cross the Contested Area.
And at the end of the battlefield, when it was cornered, it was most probably his brother who lent them a hand.
They were able to reach the Federation simply because they were lucky to have received help. The countless comrades who died were unfortunate not to have received aid.
That was the difference between them.
“We just so happened to get aid, but if we’re content and stop here, how are we going to face our comrades who fought to their final moments? We aren’t dead yet…so we aren’t keeping the fight.”
The names of the KIA comrades who fought along them were engraved on the aluminium plates placed next to Fido, acting as an offertory, and also a mark of their journey. He however did not intend to leave the final promise he had made behind him.
He remembered them all. Even at this point, they were together with him.
It is a promise, a promise to bring them to the end of the fight, and witness the end of the journey.
“The still remains, and this country might not exist if the war continues. We can’t just ignore the facts before us and live in a seemingly peaceful environment, waiting for our deaths.”
Acting like the white swines was something they utterly detested, and would never forgive themselves over; this was why they gave up on the Republic of San Magnolia.
For the white swines fled the battlefield despite a war going on, lulled themselves into a sense of false peace, shoved the responsibility to fight over to the Eighty-Sixers, and lost the means to protect themselves. Even animals were stronger than them at this point, let alone humans.
During the special scouting mission, on their death march through the controlled areas, they had witnessed the latter’s fighting strength multiple times.
For Shinn, who had been hearing the voices of the ghosts in his ears, the mechanical ghost army was expanding, murmuring away incessantly.
The Republic alone would be unable to handle it.
The whole of humanity might even be devoured by its might.
And in the face of this threat, they could not simply ignore it.
They were the Eighty-Sixers.
Despite being swarmed by the enemies on the battlefield, they survived to the very end on their own might. They were abandoned by their country, and bade farewell to their friends. They had nothing else, other than themselves, which was their pride, and their identity.
“We can’t avoid death, but we can choose how we die. Since we’re going to die anyway, we’re going to fight until the very end. So please, don’t take away our freedom to choose.”
Hearing that, Raiden cracked a smile.
Shinn had left some parting words for their last Handler.
“And also…we have said to a certain person that ‘we’ll be leaving first’. It’ll be bad if she catches up and sees us like this.”
Shinn ignored the banter.
However, Ernst kept shaking his head.
“That’s not it. That’s not it…!”
Ernst was no stranger to the battlefield.
He was an officer of the Empire. When the civil revolution broke out, he led the revolutionaries on the frontlines. They killed many, and many of them were killed too. Many people too harboured the same scars.
Many comrades died valiantly in combat, and the others survived, earning peace and happiness. Ernst had seen too many instances of soldiers who were tormented by such unnecessary guilt.
That was not the case.
“You experienced war and hardship, so since you came here, you should enjoy what you earned. If those who died in battle are really your comrades, they will have the same thoughts…you shouldn’t be blaming yourselves for this!”
Not because they survived.
Not because they obtained peace and happiness.
Otherwise, humanity, the people unable to escape their pasts, would never be able to obtain everlasting joy once sacrifices are made…!
However, the expressions of the five never changed in the slightest. They might have understood, but they remained unmoved. Ernst felt an unknown uneasiness surrounding him, and was about to continue with something,
But Frederica, who had been quiet the entire time, silently spoke up,
Ernst was taken aback, and looked down at Frederica.
The bloody red eyes were looking up at him sternly,
“Whilst it may be an act of kindness to provide a safe nest for an injured bird…when the bird is healed, and wants to fly, due to the various dangers outside, the nest thus becomes a prison. So long have they tried to escape the cage of oppression, and you wish to lock them in the cage of compassion now?”
For a moment, the faint colored lips pursed together, and chimed on with some rage,
Her eyes were filled with some sadness, some anguish, like a caged beast looking at the outside.
“Thus it will end up as no different from the Republic, which you surely would know, no?”
Ernst was left speechless.
“Furthermore, they are not stubborn children who do not know the ways of the world. One day, the children will leave their parents. As a parent…it is advised that you should let go and watch them move on.”
Ernst remained silent at the words of the petite girl whose age was not even half of his.
It was unexpected that these words could come from the lips of such a young child. Shinn lowered his head towards Frederica, asking,
“Need me to say thanks, Princess?”
“I’d say that it was out of a moment of impulse, that I wished to say something to that fool with the stone heart.”
She snorted as she turned her head around, and quickly glanced towards him.
“…Figured, have you?”
“More or less.”
She had a demeanour unbefitting her age, along with an uppity attitude. She was under the care of the country’s temporary president Ernst, never went to school, and never went out alone. It seemed her existence was kept a secret.
“Your intonation has a unique characteristic. I felt I heard it somewhere before, and I figured it out a few days ago…it’s just like my mother.”
That was the most he could recall at this point. The faces and voices of his parents had long faded amidst the memories of war and the voices of the dead.
“In other words, it does seem your parents were Empire nobles…perhaps others can be found if they are sought out, but given your lack of intent to meet them, truly I am unable to agree on that.”
Shinn seemed a little surprised as he looked back at her, and saw utter sincerity in her similarly blood red eyes,
“Abandoned by your country, separated from your relatives, and never inheriting your country’s history, nor the culture of your race. It is understandable that you may think of it as protecting yourself…but such a life remains an incomplete one for people. People cannot leave the place they grew up in, unable to break from the blood ties. For those who lost their homeland, their kin, and existed only by protecting oneself, they shall crumble easily once they lose their way…remember this so.”
For some reason, her words sounded so sincere.
It was hard to imagine them being from the mouth of a child who had just turned ten.
It was as though she had personally witnessed the destruction of a person, that she had bitterly sought for an answer to it in her own way.
A sense of familiarity suddenly flashed by in his mind.
The same blood red eyes looked up at him again.
For a moment, they faltered, but she closed them, and with a strange conviction, she looked up again,
“Thus, my true name is Augusta Frederica Adele-Adler. I am the final queen of the Great Geade Empire who commanded the to conquer the continent…and thus the one person who took the lives of your relatives and homeland. If you begrudge me over this, I am willing to listen.”
Raiden silently spoke up.
“How old were you back then?”
The began its invasion ten years ago. Frederica, who just happened to be ten this year, was a baby back then.
He had heard that for the last two hundred years of the Empire or so, the monarchy was mostly an installed puppet handled by the aristocracy.
“The ones who took everything from us is the Republic. Are you still going to say such nonsense now…don’t take us for fools.”
The girl sheepishly lowered her head.
She shivered, and lifted her head again.
“Whilst I do admire your pride, I too have something to ask of you, Eighty-Sixers…if you wish to return to the battlefield, do bring me along. Also, I do hope you shall slay the soul of the wandering knight roaming the battlefield.”
There was no need for further explanation, and they had understood everything.
As Eighty-Sixers, they were unable to reclaim the corpses of their dead comrades, and could not build graves for them. All they could do was to watch the corpses be ripped apart by the enemy, and taken away.
“Trapped inside the too?”
Frederica nodded slightly.
“In other words, that would be the that attacked you, before you arrived at the Federation. It bombarded you during the battle…the ‘Shepherd’, I take it?”
“How do you know?”
It was through Shinn’s supernatural ability that they were able to distinguish the laments of the individuals trapped in the machines. The Federation had practically no knowledge of the Para-RAID, and it was in the capital far from the frontlines. How did she know that it was her knight who was within the deepest parts of the enemy controlled region, amongst the she had yet to meet?
Hearing that question, Frederica winced in pain,
“I’d say it is the ability granted by my bloodline, to look into the present and the past of them I meet…my apologies. The scar caused by your brother…surely must hurt.”
–What in the world happened to your neck?
At that point, Frederica probably saw everything.
The night when he was killed by his brother.
The moment he destroyed the Dinosauria containing his brother’s soul.
That at her age, he had decided to finish this mission no matter what–
“With my eyes, I can only observe. I alone cannot save the knight abandoned in a corner of the battlefield alone, crying away, so please aid me for this cause. Just as you saved your brother, and your brother saved you…I do hope you can save my knight.”
Shinn slowly closed his eyes.
He finally understood the sense of familiarity he could not shake off.
He was of the same age when he decided to slay his brother, who died and wandered upon the distant battlefield.
Ernst let out a long sigh.
“…Understood. I will have Frederica sent as a mascot, and arranged to be in the same squadron…however, there is one condition I wish to make.”
Upon hearing the mood-killing words, all present gave him displeased, nonchalant looks, but he did not back down.
“You shall enlist as officers. Specifically, through the special cadet school of the Federation. Or I won’t agree.”
While there were a few who did not fulfill the condition of finishing their secondary education, it should not be too much of a problem. It was not a rigid condition after all, and would not affect the Federation’s war situation too greatly.
Huh? Krena narrowed her eyes sceptically.
“Why? Rank doesn’t really matter to us.”
“No. I am taking care of you as though your parents have entrusted you to me. There’s no doubt your parents would feel the same, and I can’t leave my own discretion out of this.”
“How do you know what they think?”
“I do…I was a father after all.”
The desire for their children to do well…such were these creatures.
“The choices afforded for a soldier and an officer defer greatly after retirement. Once the war ends, and when you return to society, it is better for you to have more options.”
Once the war ends.
Hearing these words, the youths looked strangely confused.
Before they were wise enough, they were involved in the war against the , toyed by the cruelty and madness of war, and never considered anything beyond surviving the day.
Their faces clearly showed that they had thought of nothing.
Have I said something too cruel? Ernst could not help but wonder.
Over the four, five years on the battlefield, they were tormented by the realization that their families, who took to the battlefield before them, would never return. They had once waited for their parents who would never return, watched their comrades die by their side, and harbored thoughts that they would surely die at a certain time, probably the next day.
And thus, they should live and die as people instead.
Yet he told these children, who made up their minds to die, to keep on living, to live a long, long life, without knowing when they would die. They were to live the complete opposite way of how they had lived, having lived on the edge and surviving by the skins of their teeth.
Surely they did not know the cruelty behind this.
“One day, the war will end. If you say you are going to fight until the very end…then from now onwards, you are to consider what you want to do after the war.”