The special scouting mission went smoother than planned, and they had penetrated far deeper than expected.
It might have been a good thing to have wiped out the enemy on the first day of the mission. After having passed through the contested area, they entered the “Legion” controlled area, where the enemy patrols were less frequent. With Shinn’s ability, they knew where the “Legion” was, and either hid or detoured around them, avoiding contact as they advanced to the East.
The season of autumn set in, and they began to feel chilly while camping outside, their rations of synthesized food dry and bland, their advance continuing indefinitely. To them however, this was the very first trip of freedom in their lives after all the hardships they faced.
The areas controlled by the “Legion” were once resided by people, and though currently devoid of any, the city and village constructions remained. Given the chance, they would enter the relics to scout, and hunt livestock that had regained freedom. If conditions permitted, they would also light a bonfire. The cities they had encountered on their journey differed, and the natural beauty of the landscapes brought them great joy.
It was in mid-autumn that the Republic’s landmarks were no longer featured in the ruins. Instead, the mark of the Empire remained.
At that point, they had finally arrived.
“You witnessed our journey here—we command you to continue to do so, until you rot away.”
Fido was shot in the flank by a cannon, and was silenced forever; Shinn knelt down next to it, and slowly got up.
It was unknown whether the final order was received by the wrecked “Scavenger”. It was unknown if this scrap-picking robot could even understand the intent behind those words, given its feeble processing ability.
Shinn turned around, and saw that Raiden had returned.
“This should be okay, right?”
After a thought, he remembered something. There were aluminium graves containing the names of his dead comrades.
Including the grave of his brother, there were five hundred and seventy six of them in total. He had decided to leave these graves here along with Fido and the debris of the “Juggernauts”.
“Yeah. We can’t hang on for much longer anyway.”
In the previous battle, all the “Juggernauts”, aside from the “Undertaker”, were wasted, but luckily, the five of them, including Fido, had survived. At this point, they only had small arms left to defend themselves, utterly powerless against the mighty strength of the “Legion”.
They would really be done for in the next battle.
But Shinn could only smile faintly, and then he tapped his fingertip on the burned container equipped on Fido.
“This is all I can repay it with…there is no need to bring this guy along.”
The loyal scavenger that peeled away the armor of the dead was no longer around.
Raiden too chuckled. At this point, it was too late for them.
The end was right before them.
“So our happy journey is coming to an end?”
He sealed away the smile on his face, and looked to the west–the path that they had tread upon.
Under the blue sky was a dry, barren wasteland. The breeze blowing by rolled up the remaining yellow petals, and the eight black rail tracks before them extended into the endless horizon, seeming pretty ironic. Since, this was the one proof that people had once resided upon these empty plains.
“Never thought there would be that many though.”
They had barely managed to eke through the deepest parts of the “Legion” controlled areas, and now there were a lot more than what Shinn could deduce from the groans.
Atop the grasslands, from where he could see, there were units of Löwes and Dinosaurias in standby, forming a congested mosaic of metal. The recollection units Tausendfüßers formed a pair of flowing rivers, one moving from back to front, and the other vice versa. The Eintagsfliege had its wings concealed as it rested atop the wilted forest, forming silver icicles. From time to time, they would descend upon the barren wasteland of a collapsed mountain, or a crater. It seemed the minerals had been mined completely, and the scenery was akin to the end of this world.
There was also a Weisel, or an Admiral unit, a huge monster lying in wait amidst the thick morning fog. It was so massive, its entire silhouette could not be determined. The “Legion” moving around them were too clustered, and sometimes, they had to spend entire days, in the cold rain, hiding in there.
How could one fight back against the multitudes of the undead machinery army?
Surely the Republic would be defeated in this war.
Or rather, humanity would surely be defeated.
–One day, if she arrives here…but will that day come?
Angel stored the remaining resources into the last container that was cut away, tied it to the “Undertaker” with wires and winch, and returned to the other two.
“I am done with my job, both of you; it is about time we leave. The other “Legion” hearing this battle will hurry if we dither for longer.”
Krena and Seo too were done with their installation work, and hopped off their “Juggernauts”.
The five of them had decided they would take turns piloting the “Juggernaut” as they advanced, and if they were to encounter the “Legion”, the one piloting would battle, while the others would hide.
Seo stretched his back, cupped his hands behind his head, and pouted,
“But we have Shinn’s “Juggernaut”, of all things…the OS settings are really sensitive. To be honest, I’m a little scared of piloting it. A few limiters are wrecked.”
It was also the reason why the “Undertaker” could move in ways the “Juggernaut” could not. Of course, that was also the reason why Shinn’s piloting skills stood out amongst the “codenamed”.
At this moment, Krena raised her hand.
“I shall pilot first then. My unit was the first to be destroyed, so I’m not that tired.”
They managed to hang on till this point, but the “Undertaker” was pretty aged as it had not been maintained for long, and it was more dangerous to pilot it than it was for a unit a pilot was unused to. Krena moved the machine, and Shinn, sated on the container that was being dragged along, suddenly turned his attention towards them.
For a long time, there was a “Legion” unit tailing them.
And for some reason, it did not attack them. It might be an Ameise, or it might simply be monitoring their movements. However, it did not call for the other “Legion” units, instead merely stalking them from behind. If they had tried to ambush it, it too would stop. If they returned where they came from, it would follow suit. The “Juggernaut” weapons were tailored for precision, and had little range, only capable of attacking anything within sight. Since it had no intention to attack, Shinn did not inform the other four.
From the voice, he determined it was a “Shepherd”. The voice was hushed, and he could not hear its words, but he did remember hearing this voice before.
When exactly was it–…?
Can’t die when I should have. Is this karma?
Ray dragged the body that was hard to control, and had such a thought using the nanomachine neural system that was on the verge of collapse.
To preserve and collate battle data, the “Legion” mission recorder would transmit data from a destroyed unit to the closest unit. If the one destroyed was a “Shepherd”, the CPU inside the unit would also be sent to the standby unit.
There could be many ‘black sheep’ derived from humans, but there had to be one “Shepherd”.
A “Shepherd”, with its distinct personality, could not sustain other units of the same characteristics. However, the “Legion” was unwilling to lose these “Shepherds” with better processing ability, and had prepared backup units and a special transfer system as a failure.
Ray itself felt this system was pointless.
The moment they were shot down, it was impossible to transmit the data that was practically destroyed. It was likely most of them could not transmit, and even if they did, it was hard to imagine the standby unit working as normal.
In fact, after it was hit by the shrapnel of the HEAT warhead, Ray’s perforated data was barely transferred, but it was on the verge of collapse.
It could not hang on for long.
It understood that, and thus, it decided to stalk Shinn. It wanted to ensure it would not be seen, and tailed from behind…wanting to witness the end of their journey.
The old spare Dinosauria rattled as it advanced forward.
Suddenly, it remembered it was the soul of Shourei Nouzen.
As time transpired, its data was gradually breaking apart, yet it preserved the memory of its final battle. The fighting machine’s instincts kicked in with his own madness to protect and kill. He remembered everything, from the illusion of the silver haired girl who stood up to protect, and the voice that tried to kill it several times, and yet called it brother until the very end.
In the controlled area where the “Legion” kept crossing, Shinn and his comrades darted part them, avoiding combat as they navigated forward.
This is fine. Ray thought. There was no need to fight any hopeless battles, and instead, they should consider how to advance further. Beyond this would be the Federation soil, the largest bastion of humanity that was isolated from the outside world, yet fighting on against the “Legion”
And once they reached the Federation, surely Shinn and the others would be protected.
Compared to the Republic, the Federation soldiers were a lot more normal. Its soldiers were of different colors, different races, fighting alongside each other, and would never abandon their comrades, even if they had become corpses.
No way would they ignore the five children who escaped from the pits of death.
By then, surely I will vanish. This is fine. Though he barely managed to maintain consciousness, it was a matter of time until he went berserk. All his memories, all his wishes would be ‘eradicated’…and then, it would be summoned again.
If summoned, surely he would look for it. The kind little brother who could not leave his killer of an older brother who died away, and ventured the hell called the battlefield for five years.
Sorry, but I have to go this time.
The Dinosauria strode off. It appeared to be praying hoping that the final wish it was protecting could be forgiven.
“–Angel, it’s my turn.”
Angel, piloting the “Undertaker”, felt confused as she suddenly heard Shinn’s voice through the Para-RAID. It was the second day since they bid farewell to Fido. The clouds were high up in the autumn skies, and the sunlight shone through the creases between the leaves, lighting spots of light, the red maple leaves in the forest fluttering with the window.
“Is it not early? Am I not supposed to continue until noon break?”
“Got sick of it.”
Angel grimaced once she heard his simple, sudden answer. Honestly, this was not the time for them to chatter, and it was to be expected that they would feel bored simply looking at the scenery.
“If you had known that you would be so bored, you could have brought a book along on your way there, Shinn.”
Angel wryly noted, and reached for the hatch lever.
As it watched Shinn and the others approach Federation land, Ray heaved a sigh of relief. Its thought process was starting to break apart, dulled.
If this kept up, they would arrive at the Federation patrol line. The “Legion” there would only care about the Federation army before them, and not one unit approaching them from behind. If they could use the landscape to hide, passing through it would still be possible.
Ray did not know how long its body could hang on…but they should be fine. He could rest.
It barely managed to connect to the allied forces intel on the data link. Once it saw the positioning, it felt something burning in its mock neural network.
This is bad…!
As they descended the treacherous, vertical cliff-like path, the “Undertaker” suddenly stopped. Radien, who had taken a blanket out of his own unit, was lying on the container as he suddenly stood up.
“What is it, Shinn?”
Shinn spoke up. His voice was as aloof as before, but with some poised determination.
“–Whoever pilots this has to fight. We discussed this.”
At that moment, Raiden understood.
“Hey! You found out already!?”
They could not avoid the “Legion” no matter how hard they tried…it was likely he already knew when he took over from Angel.
Angel, agitated with fear, hurriedly jumped off the container.
“No, Shinn! –I never asked you to do so!”
She was about to approach, but Shinn fired a grappling wire right towards her. She dodged, and the “Undertaker” seized the opportunity to scale the slope, up to the top. The steep slope was basically a cliff, impossible for any human to climb. There were no winding paths to be seen, and it was likely he led them here for this reason.
The red optical sensors, with several cracks on it, turned towards the four of them. The “Juggernaut” was completely battered, its combat arms on both sides no longer seen; burn marks were all over its armor, and the propulsion was severely damaged.
“Continue moving in this direction. Once you entered the forest, you probably won’t be discovered…not too far away, there won’t be any voices of the “Legion”. If there are any survivors, if possible, ask them for protection.”
Those were the news they heard on the battlefield of the Eighty-Sixers.
It was to be expected that they would not be discovered. Given that there was an enemy unit within the controlled area, the “Undertaker”, the nearby “Legion” units would simply focus on it, and not much on anything else.
It was likely he had considered this part too.
“You got to be joking! Doesn’t this mean that you’re going to be bait here!?”
“Didn’t we say that everyone is to go together!? I’m not going to let you die alone at the very end–!”
Ignoring Seo’s growls and Krena’s wailing, the “Undertaker” cut off contact on the Para-RAID, and vanished into the green.
Raiden smacked the container without thinking.
The pilot had to fight when they encountered the “Legion”. No matter whoever volunteered for the last battle, the others would never agree. Thus, they thought of a plan that seemed more fair, one reliant on luck. However, they forgot something, that Shinn could sense the “Legion” from afar, and that once they discovered an enemy unit they could not avoid, he could choose who to die.
And to avoid that choice, he chose to sacrifice himself.
Raiden armed himself with the assault rifle to his side, and stood up.
The “Legion” patrol squad was suddenly attacked by an unknown machine, and immediately rewrote its Identification friend or foe (IFF) system, its battle datalink switched to the tactic of engage as it took to the battlefield.
The enemy unit ignored the usual armed forces theory, as it suddenly bombarded a Löwe, taking it down before charging into the enemy. The “Legion” patrol squads had no records of such an enemy in its local data, but after searching through the vast data, it discovered a unit type that matched the characteristics; the main weapon of the Republic of San Magnolia, identification “Juggernaut”. The threat level was low, so much so that it was weaker in firepower and armor compared to an ordinary armored unit. It was basically an armored trrop.
On this flatland without any obstacles, there was no way it could be on par with the Löwe, advantaged with overwhelming firepower and sturdy armor.
But this “Juggernaut” exhibited combat abilities far upon imagination. By inciting chaos in the battlefield, this unit defended itself from the “Legion” bombardment through the thick armor of the Löwe, and even fired from up close to mitigate the lack of firepower.
The “Juggernaut” used for close ranged combat was no different from the other units in terms. The main difference was the CPU.
Four Löwe patrolling the area were destroyed, and the squad lost 45% of its fighting strength.
However, the machine monsters showed no sense of anxiety at all. They simply escalated the threat level to the main field dress of the Federation, codenamed “Vanargand”. It was impossible for them to suppress given their current strength. They requested reinforcements from their main forces and the surrounding squads.
A special request–a recommendation to capture it alive.
Within several milliseconds, the report and request was submitted into the network, and the “Legion” began movement again.
…There was a change in the enemy’s movements.
As he destroyed the fourth enemy, Shinn sensed a change in pattern of the “Legion”, and he quickly scanned his surroundings.
Typically, when surrounding any enemy, the forces and units would space apart to avoid hitting friendlies. It was applicable for the “Legion” too, as they could blow apart their allies without hesitation if necessary. However, the “Legion” facing Shinn kept advancing into their friendlies line of fire, trying to get behind him, and cutting his escape route.
A delaying tactic, so Shinn determined. He sensed that the neighboring “Legion” units was beginning to move. The closest, probably the main forces of this patrol squad, was probably eight thousand meters away. Given the navigation speed of a Löwe, this area would be within firing range in less than a minute.
If reinforcements came, he would really be in danger. He dodged the slash of an oncoming Grauwolf, pointed its cannon back and shot it down, and darted out from the gap that was formed that instant. The heavy machine gun bullets grazed by, and the warning lights indicating the overload of the left hind leg lit up.
The “Legion” was aiming at,
So he thought, and bitterly narrowed his eyes.
This head, huh?
The “Black Sheep”, and the “Shepherds”. They were the “Legion” units that absorbed the brains of dead humans, acting as possessed.
But Shinn, who served the longest amongst the Processors, never thought of this before.
It was to be expected. Till this point, he had only encountered one “Shepherd”, and it would be hard to determine its location if it was hidden amongst the “Black Sheep”.
Furthermore, Shinn himself had said that the “Shepherd” main objective was to dominate a large area, or to destroy specific targets. It would be hard to imagine one deployed to deal with an armored unit.
He could feel the stare.
There was a strong malice from an area far beyond the range of a Scorpion, and one might even feel a hallucination of black eyes filled with madness.
“I’ll kill you.”
The words were no different, and the voice seemed strangely similar to that of his brother, whom he should have sent off.
The night he was killed appeared before his eyes, and the hands holding the joysticks froze in the miasma of fear.
I’ll kill you.
The imagery kept seeping into his consciousness. It was not Shinn’s own memories. It was someone else’s he managed to peek into from time to time, as though shared through the Para-RAID, or through the ability he once had.
A cloudy day. Ruins. Shattered stone. In the grey scenery, a hanged sinner appeared to be dangling in the air, and a child’s mantle, dyed a crimson red, looked astonishingly bright.
I’ll kill you.
Men, women, children, elderly, noble, plebs…everyone who doomed me.
Back in the eighty-sixth area of the Republic, on the first battle area Spearhead Squadron was in charge of.
During that battle, four died. With one shot beyond the radar detection range, it obliterated the “Juggernauts”.
Shinn immediately had the “Undertaker” jump back, as his prior experience of that encounter and his warrior instincts kicked in.
The radar immediately showed a warning, followed by a hit.
With an initial velocity of up to four thousand meters and a mass of several tons, the cannon carried a vast amount of kinetic energy as it rained upon the surroundings, ignoring the scouting squads of the “Legion”
There was a deafening boom, so much so that it could render one deaf, and the dazzling light covered everything white.
The tremendous impact waves engulfed everything, and the scattered high-velocity shrapnel contorted the sturdy armor of the “Legion”, and blew everything far away. The tremors along the surface gradually formed an expanding round wave, whiffing up a large amount of dust and dirt, forming a crater that appeared to be formed by an asteroid.
A beautiful, serene grassland in autumn was instantly reduced to a massive, barren wasteland.
With the deafening explosions and the wild gales that came right at him, “Undertaker” barely managed to escape from the impact radius, but not unscathed. The shrapnel pierced into the cockpit, and the main screen was shut down. The gyroscope and the cooling system readings had vanished, and all messages on the holographic windows were forced to shut down.
The silver lining was that the propulsion and weapons systems were still functioning. The enemies remained. Subconsciously, he piloted with one hand to control the damage, and sought the enemies while ignoring the obsolete main screen.
At this moment, the left hind leg that was overly stressed broke at the joint.
With the remaining three legs, he barely managed to hold the machine upright, and prevent it from falling over, but this was all he could do. The cannons and body of the “Juggernaut” was heavier, and mounted on the back. Thus, if one hind leg was lost, then the “Juggernaut”, whose center of gravity deviated to the back, would be unable to move at all.
The nostalgic growls of the old chief mechanic echoed at Shinn’s ears.
–Its wheels aren’t that stable, how many times have I told you to stop being reckless!?
–One of these days, you’re going to die in some stupid battle!
So now it happens, huh?
A Löwe, having lost half its legs, hurriedly cut through the wall of dirt and sand that arose, darting in.
Shinn could only give an inappropriate, wry smile as he watched the enemy reach its front leg towards him.
The “Undertaker” was blown back, its armor scattered.
Raiden and the others, who had finally managed to scale the slope, darted out of the forest as they followed the noises, having witnessed this.
It was the first time they had witnessed their Death God’s defeat, even for Raiden.
Their survival instincts immediately beckoned–given their physical bodies, they was no way they could match a Löwe.
Their rationality anchored them for dead life–if they darted out from this place, Shinn’s death would really be for naught.
To hell with that.
It was a momentary pause, and once he heard the footsteps of his comrades running forth, Raiden leaped out of the forest.
The rounds fired from an assault rifle could be heard.
Shinn heard the shrill, familiar sound, and lifted his eyelids with much effort. All the optical screens and devices were wiped out, and he was lying in the cockpit of the “Juggernaut” lying to the side.
He had much difficulty in breathing. It seemed to be burning inside his lungs, and there was a bloody stench in his breath. While he did not feel that he was bleeding, his body was strangely cold, and he merely felt aloof while injured.
It seemed he was still alive, and his body should still be able to move. He wanted to at least pull his handgun out to end himself, but could not move a single finger.
Outside the thin armor, he could hear the growls and gunshots from the comrades he should have abandoned.
How stupid. So he thought, and then he realized he got what he deserved, and was unable to laugh at them.
Perhaps this ending, being so pointless, was so completely reasonable, a fitting end for this foolish, meaningless battle.
Again, Shinn showed an inopportune, wry smile.
He had personally bade farewell to his brother, and after that, he had unexpectedly advanced far, with no lingering regrets…but at this moment, he thought that he really did not want to die.
If he died, would he too become one of the “Legion”?
If he became part of the “Legion”–whose name would he call?
He tried to recall a person whose appearance he did not know of, and had a bit of regret in his heart.
The growls and gunshots suddenly vanished.
Till the very end, with his ability to hear the dead, he knew the “Legion” was right before him, preparing to peel off the hatch of the cockpit.
–But a tungsten round was shot through the thick armor, giving off a shrill metallic cry.
And that was the last Shinn heard before his consciousness sank into the darkness.
Once it was certain that the five enemies were unable to fight back, the one remaining Löwe broadcasted to the entire area network, indicating the end of the battle.
At the same time, it requested for an adjustment of the ‘prototype’ that provided the fire support. While it had requested a priority to capture the enemy alive, the prototype fired with the intention to obliterate, and had an entire squad blown to smithereens just to deal with a single enemy. It appeared the core processing system was still lacking in judgmental ability.
After sending out the request, it pointed its optical sensors towards the disabled “Juggernaut”.
Including the other four bodies, the enemy unit remained alive. The enemy CPU was extremely feeble, and the composition would be destroyed if it was taken out and scanned; worse, if its vitals stopped functioning, the body would start to deteriorate immediately. To capture it alive, it had to keep it alive as best as it could.
This enemy processor piloting the “Juggernaut”.
Its capabilities were so high, it made up for the difference in specifications. If used on their own units, surely their performances would be much improved.
At this moment, the IFF detected a response signal from a friendly closing it.
It was a Dinosauria not belonging to any unit. Perhaps it was approaching, having sensed the cannon strike–
The front of the Löwe had a composite armor the equivalent of steel sheets 650mm thick, able to withstand a blast from the same model up close; it was easily blasted through by a 155mm APFSDS.
It was a shot from the Dinosauria. The automated machine knew neither fear nor surprise, and took some time to comprehend. To them, it was something impossible.
Perhaps it was friendly fire. No, there was communication between them on the IFF. It knew it was a friendly, and still attacked. In other words, it was an enemy.
It was a good thing the round used was an old tungsten APFSDS. If it had been a HEAT warehead or a depleted uranium piercing round, the insides would be scorched through, and it would be taken down. It updated the IFF, identifying it as an enemy. It prepared to fight back, using the engagement report in the datalink–
A second shot.
It came practically right after the first shot, and completely destroyed the CPU that barely managed to evade the first shot.
The Dinosauria did not use the HEAT warhead, but an APFSDS round, so as to prevent the explosion of the unit, and damaging the nearby “Juggernaut”. Naturally, the Löwe that was taken down could not comprehend.
The silver nanomachine ‘arm’ extended out from the Dinosauria, and that was the last scene the shattered optical sensors detected before the Löwe ceased to function.
Shinn had a dream.
In his dream, Shinn was still a child, and he was being carried around by someone. Other than him, everywhere else was pitch darkness, and nothing could be seen. It was the darkness deep within his consciousness and soul, the region he could hear the souls of the machines from.
Looking up, he saw his brother’s face.
His brother appeared a few years older than their last encounter, probably in his early twenties…when he died.
Ray smiled. His smile was so smile, so nostalgic.
“Finally woke up?”
He stopped, and knelt down, putting Shinn on the floor. The little body could not maintain its balance properly. Shinn stumbled a little, and lifted his head again.
Ray remained crouched, but was still a little taller than Shinn. Looking at his eyes, he said.
“This is where I shall stop. You can continue on your own, right? You still have friends waiting for you.”
Saying that, Ray stood up.
Shinn continued to look up. While his brother had stood up, the distance between them did not seem to change.
“How tall you have become.”
Shinn looked down, and found that he had reverted back to his sixteen year old body.
Brother–he tried to speak up, but could not eke out any voice.
For the ghosts, the dead could never be able to converse with the living.
And looking at Shinn’s silent stare, Ray suddenly showed a pained look.
Ray reached out, and gently caressed the scar. The brother’s large palm was the same as that night’s, that battlefield’s.
“Sorry. I guess it hurts, huh…I couldn’t die, and kept calling for you, and brought you to such a place.”
This isn’t it. Shinn wanted to respond. He tried to shake his head to deny it, but found that his body could not obey, and remained still.
It was a lie to say it did not hurt. The malice he felt was a form of torture. “This is all your fault”, he heard these lashings every night, dreaming of the night he was choked. The screams would not disappear no matter how he covered his ears, telling him over and over again that he would never be forgiven, until the very end. He was hurting because of this.
But because of this, he made it all the way here.
Whether it was the endless duels against the “Legion”, each day on the battlefield where he could have died for naught, where his squads were wiped out, the lonely nights he spent, he managed to hang on, for he had the objective and conviction to send off his brother.
If not, he would not have endured this much, and would have died a mangled corpse.
Because of you. Even though you died, it’s because you are waiting before me.
There were so many words he wanted to say, but he could not.
“There is no need to be bound down to me. Forget about me.”
I don’t want to.
“Ahh…no, I guess I hope you’ll still remember me thought. It’ll be great if you can gain freedom and happiness for the rest of the life that belongs to you, and think of me from time to time.”
“This time, I’m not going to wait for you…I’m tired of waiting already. You still have a long, long time to go…so keep on living. I wish you happiness.”
He let go of the hand.
And he turned around, walking into the darkness.
Into the abyss his father, mother and countless comrades had fallen into.
If he went there, there was no way he could return.
Never would they meet again.
Suddenly, Shinn’s body was released from its bounds.
He reached his arm out, but his hand could not come close. He shouted out, but his voice could not reach.
A certain border dividing life and death was before him, and he could not take the next step towards his brother again.
Ray turned around, smiling at him, and melted into the abyss of darkness, disappearing.
Like the end of that battle–his brother’s gentle, wide hand that faded into the light he could not reach before him.
Shinn was woken up by his own voice.
He stared at the dark, lifeless ceiling for a moment, and blinked his bloody red eyes that remained unfocused.
It was a snowy white ceiling he had never seen before. Surrounding him were four similarly snowy white walls. A rhythmic electronic sound came from a monitor device, along with the stinging scent of disinfectants.
Shinn was lying on a clean bed in a cramped room, and there was a drip and cords linking to the monitor attached to his body. Given that he was sent to a concentration camp since his youth, and never had any proper medical treatment, it was hard to imagine this place being a ward room.
Suddenly, he felt anguish rising up his nose, and he reached his left hand out, covering his eyes.
A strong sense of relief was accompanied with a similar sense of disappointment from out of nowhere, blurring his eyes.
He finally recalled.
But in fact–he really did not want to lose him.
On his left arm, there was a drip, along with other sensors, and once he moved his elbow, a siren rang. It was lacking in urgency, and appeared to be an indication that the patient had woken up, rather than an outright warning.
The white wall by his bedside gradually became transparent. Appearing beyond it was an adult man dressed in a suit.
The Jet man was wearing silver framed glasses of high degree, had traces of white in his black hair, and he looked like a scholar. There was a nurse standing behind him, and further beyond was a corridor as lifeless as this room. It seemed the ‘wall’ that had just become transparent was the door. There were similar doors that could be seen beyond the corridor indicating that there were rooms similar to this one on both sides of the aisle.
“–Finally woke up?”
The poised voice reminded him of a certain someone he had long forgotten.
Not knowing what was going on, Shinn was about to ask, but could not voice his thoughts out. The sudden pain left him wincing. The nurse behind him frowned.
“Your Excellency, he had just regained consciousness, he’s still feverish after his operation. It is best not to…”
“Understood. Just a few words then.”
The man responded to the nurse’s grumbles with a calm smile, and reached out his right hand for the door.
Shinn thought in his hazy consciousness that it was the hand of a soldier. The sturdy, thick hand showed that he was proficient with a handgun. However, the silver ring on his ring finger made Shinn a little curious.
“Hello…first, do you mind telling me your name?”
There was no need to spend time to think of the response to such a simple question, but Shinn took a lot of time to search the answer from his memories. His mind was just not working. He did not know if it was due to the anaesthetic, or how he ended up like this.
A certain person did ask for his name before, just like this–the memory from back then flickered in his mind, and he subconsciously answered.
All he saw was the hallucination of long, silver hair that he had never seen before.
The man nodded.
“I am Ernst Zimmermann, temporary president of the Republican Geade Federation.”
It appeared that on that day, the Federation news frequencies aired the reports of five young foreign soldiers who were discovered on the Western battlefront, and protected.
It was said that the five of them were imprisoned by a ‘hunting’ Dinosauria that was shot down by the frontline troops.
Looking at their camouflage fatigues and a multi-pedalled operating system of an unknown model, it appeared that they were soldiers from the Republic of San Magnolia to the West.
The Federation ruptured with elation. They never expected another surviving country. They were still not alone.
At the same time, they were worried about the predicament of their neighbors. They wondered if the Republic was cornered to this point, that they had to send young children onto the battlefield.
And after questioning the youths the reason was revealed to the public, the people understood the revolting reasons of why they were sent onto the battlefield, the worries in their hearts changing from concern to utter rage.
However most of the people still showed concern for the youths from the neighboring country.
Such pitiful children, oppressed by their country, yet fighting on, escaping, and making their way here.
At the very least, they should have a comfortable life in the Federation.
“–And that was what happened after the lot of you were protected by our army. I wonder how much you remember.”
Hearing this question, Shinn started to wonder how he should answer, and he sensed that his mind was beginning to work.
Suddenly, he remembered the predicament just before he lost consciousness, and looked around–only to see no one.
Ahh, Ernst smiled.
“My apologies. You were still sleeping, so we reduced the visibility to zero…it’s no wonder you are worried…a moment please.”
The man turned around, and said something to the nurse. The color pigments on the left and right wall dissolved away.
Beyond the transparent walls were lifeless rooms just like this. He could see his comrades in the four adjacent rooms to the left.
Next to him was Raiden, who heaved a sigh of relief, before frowning.
“You slept for three whole days.”
The voice came from the speakers at the ceiling.
What about the Para-RAID? Shinn wondered, and found out that it could not be activated. The RAID device once inserted in the back of his neck was aching away. The earcuffs the Processors could not remove by themselves were also gone.
“…What is going on?”
There was neither a subject nor a predicate, just a doubt. However, Raiden seemed to have understood it, as he shrugged.
“Who knows? Once we woke up, we were locked in this room. They said we were captured by a Dinosauria…but nobody saw it.”
Then, Shinn recalled the dream he had had just a moment ago.
The brother whom he had supposedly sent off, yet still imprisoned inside the deepest part of the Dinosauria.
For some reason, he knew that his brother was really no longer around.
But he did not see the need to say it, and shook his head gently, only to feel a little dizzy. Immediately, he closed his eyes, and Seo frowned with concern.
“If you’re still suffering, don’t try to force the issue. You came back from the central treatment room just yesterday. You still need some time to rest…Krena kept crying out loud until yesterday.”
“I wasn’t crying!”
Krena protested, her eyes still red and swollen, but she was ignored by everyone.
And in the furthest room, Angel stared at Shinn quietly, showing an alluring smile similar to a blooming white flower.
Shinn knew that it was her seething look, and looked away.
“Shinn, I know you have yet to recover from your injuries, but do not forget to collect a slap from me once you are done, okay?”
“Sorry about that, but we all agree. Next time you do that, I’m going to beat you up.”
Upon Seo’s follow up, Shinn gave a gaudy look.
“…I never planned on dying.”
“Like hell that would have worked out. Even if you never planned on dying, you know you would.”
If he had continued to lure the “Legion” away, it was only a matter of time until the unit would have been worn out, or he would be depleted of ammunition, and died as a result.
“You think we never thought of this, and that’s why we can’t forgive you for what you did, Shinn. You knew, and you could pull it off, but it’s selfish of you… never again.”
“We were all so worried.”
This time, Krena was crying again. Shinn closed his eyes, and leaned his head on the pillow.
Ernst, watching this silently, continued on with a smile,
“The main reason why we have you locked here is for fear of any biohazards, and nothing more, so do relax. You are our first foreign guests since the establishment of this country after all–welcome to the Geade Federation!”
Ernst spread his arms wide in an exaggerated manner, only to be met with silence and cold stares. However, he merely shrugged, remaining unfazed.
“Anyway, this is the matter. Neither you nor us fully know what happened. If you do remember something, I do wish for you to tell us.”
Seo raised an eyebrow and was about to say something, but Ernst raised his hand to stop the former, giving a wry smile.
“But you do have time, so you can continue to think later. It is too tiring to talk too much…and I am going to be told off by a certain terrifying big sister here.”
The nurse standing behind the president was giving his back a glare full of quiet pressure.
Just as that president, or whoever he was had considered, a still-injured Shinn still had difficulty staying awake. Soon after they left, he felt asleep.
Looking at Shinn, who fell asleep without managing to say much, Krena nearly broke into tears again, while Angel and Seo comforted and teased her respectively. Three days ago, when she woke up, Krena did not manage to see Shinn, and bawled out loudly. Even at this point, she would cry from time to time.
It’s to be expected. So Raiden thought as he sat cross-legged on the bed in this small prison-like room.
Leaving aside the fact that they were locked up, they were still treated rather well. They were given proper meals, their rooms and beds were really neat too. The individual questioning and investigations went smoothly, and everyone had surgeries to various extents, including Shinn, who needed an operation due to his severe injuries. The Republic would have left Shinn to die.
However, this was no reason to trust them.
They were deemed as livestock taking the form of humans by their own country. Even if the other party was human, even if this was the end of their journey, they were not naïve enough to be given unconditional protection and aid.
If they were to be imprisoned here and forced to give all the intel they knew–they would likely be executed later.
In any case, he still could not move. Shinn still needed their aid.
Seriously, we’ll hate to meet our end like this, at this place. Raiden looked up at the ceiling of the small room without any windows or daylight, and gave a long snort.
While the Federation had been overwhelmingly sympathetic to the youths, as the leader of his country, Ernst could not simply act on compassion and pity alone.
Once he exited the shelter module and entered the hospital module linked to it, Ernst arrived at the treatment room that had become the temporary meeting room.
“How’s the analysis?”
The shelter module could act as an isolation chamber against biohazards, and also as a prison; each room had cameras and various surveillances in them.
The intelligence officers summarized all the data analysis, and showed them on the holographic screens.
“The conclusion is that they are neither spies from the Republic of San Magnolia, nor anywhere else.”
While wary, the youths did not show any signs of being trained in such aspects. Even in trivial conversations, given the frequency they would talk, the focal points of the questions, and the number of times the names were mentioned, one could deduce the hierarchy in an organization. However, they never realized they were being analyzed.
Even if they were trained to sufficiently fool any analysis, their country had no reason to order them to pass through the “Legion” controlled area that would mean assured death. With the Eintagsliege drones jamming the signals, neither the Federation nor the Republic could affirm each other’s existence.
“They might be a little too cautious, but if their predicaments are as they had said, it might be normalcy for them. That sub-leader, Raiden, I believe, was tense the entire time, but it’s hard not to understand his feelings seeing how his leader’s like this. Their leader’s basically a hostage to us now.”
In fact, the Federation had no such intentions. While Raiden was not a pleasant person to begin with, he did answer all the questions obediently, and there was no need to take hostages.
Even so, that was not out of trust; it was an unwillingness to have a pointlessly extended questioning just because he refused. To them, the Republic was not a country worth protecting.
“And one other thing–is it possible they are carriers of biological weapons from the new “Legion” models, or something similar?”
“We need to finish all the checks before we can make a final conclusion. Looking at the current data and the scans after they were brought in, there doesn’t appear to be any anomalies. Also, the “Legion” cannot create any weapons that mimic humans or other organisms, right?”
The “Legion” could not create or use any biological weapons, especially any units with viral and bacterial weapons, or mimicking the appearances of any known organism. There was a code in its process forbidding this.
It was easy to understand, considering that the “Legion” was originally created by the Empire to suppress their foreign enemies. It would be troublesome to deal with biological weapons that attacked indiscriminately, or androids that made it difficult to differentiate between human and robot. The ugliness of the automated land mines was also due to this reason.
And to add on to that, given that the definition of any biological weapon was too stringent, even those people deemed as friendlies would be deemed to have broken the rules if a knife was held. Thus, the old Empire could not let the “Legion” take the battlefield along with the humans, and was reduced to a laughing stock.
However, the control system of the “Legion”, especially the tactical, combat algorithms were encrypted in an extremely complex manner, and the constructs of the units meant that if they were hit, the explosions caused within would burn the inner structures completely, resulting in an analysis of the “Legion” going basically nowhere. It was ascertained that the “Legion” had overcome its lifespan issue by duplicating the structure of the deceased’s brains, and it was another thing to take note of.
“The devices we caught on the scan are basically a communication devices, as they had said. The Pyropes do have some people capable of communicating mentally amongst their kin, and this device creates the same effect in an artificial manner.”
“It’s pretty advanced.”
“Yeah. Given their testimonies and all the data regarding the control area in their mission recorders, this is too much of a gift if they really are supposed to be spies.”
Due to the electronic jamming by the Eintagsliege, the Federation could not communicate with the frontlines through the wireless signals.
“The unit that was collected, I believe that it was called the “Juggernaut”, right? Leaving aside the specifications of that thing, the battle logs are really amazing. The pilot is probably that young leader. Once he’s recovered, we should have a talk with him.”
“Oh? We should be the priority here. We want him to be our test pilot. No way will we let him go to you. The high mobility combat data, and a pilot with actual experience will go well with my prototype. It is a waste to let him go for that lump of a “Vanargand”.”
“What, spider girl?”
“What, you drone beetle?”
“If you want to talk, you can talk to them once they have calmed down. No way are we letting them be pilots though. If we do so, we’ll be the same as the Republic, no?”
Ernst flatly noted, and the two bickering commanders quieted down.
“Every cause will beget its results. They risked their lives battling till this point, and should have a steady life now. Since their country was unable to do so, all the more should our Federation insist on our justice. These are the ideals and convictions humanity should have.”
The commander of the Western front spoke up,
“…We should have executed them after all. It is for the Federation’s safety.”
“Lieutenant General, we’re done discussing this matter. You have accepted the resolution, have you not?”
“Yes. But as you have insisted, Your Excellency, it is our priority as soldiers to ensure the safety of our people. We shall abide during the expected isolation period, and then proceed with thorough checks and questioning.”
“Of course. Just in case, the soldiers protecting them have been sent to the isolation rooms too, right?”
At this point, they could not eliminate the possibility of them being dormant carriers.
Suddenly, Ernst showed a hearty chuckle.
“Furthermore…what about their immigration? We have been dealing with the “Legion” for so long that we have forgotten about stuff like this.”
Before him, the one in charge of this matter was hurriedly dealing with the necessary legal procedures.
“So, starting today, you are citizens of the Federation.”
“…A month since we met, and this is what you start with? ‘So’? Don’t you find it strange?”
Raiden’s voice came from behind the reinforced acrylic walls, still full of spite, but the initial wariness was no longer there. All he was showing was simply discontentment.
Ernst remained unflappable. It was to be expected, so he thought.
They were youths who should have been lively and jumpy given their age, but they were contained for a month, doing various boring checks every day; it was to be expected that they would grumble a little. Seeing the adolescence befitting their age, he was a little relieved.
“In any case, for the next period of time, I shall be taking care of you. Do rest well, observe this country, and think about what you plan to do in the future.”
In the future.
In fact, the person in charge had already explained their future prospects, and asked for their wishes. Ernst had already read the reports.
The five of them wished to enter the army.
Did the person in charge not explain clearly, or did they misunderstand something…or did they not know anything other than the battlefield?
He had obtained similar reports from the nurses, doctors and consultants.
All of them had felt the five of them could not remain in their rooms for long.
The anxiety of being imprisoned, the boredom they could not starve off, and more importantly, their curiosity of how the war was going, and the restlessness over the fact that they were not where they should be at.
They escaped the rule of the Republic, fled from the hellish battlefield…but never got rid of the psychological oppression.
“You sure? We’re kids from regions unknown who escaped from an enemy country, passed through the enemy controlled area, and made it all the way here. Isn’t it easier to just execute us?”
“So you wish for us to execute you?”
Ernst answered with a smile. Seo went silent.
He understood. They did not want to be killed. They were just trying to grasp this environment using their prior experiences.
It was not something they could alter, and they were not wrong.
Shinn quietly spoke up.
Seeing that his wounds had healed after a month, the weight in Ernst heart broke apart.
“So what benefit is there for you to save us?”
“If there is no benefit, and we are to leave these children before us to die, it will not be beneficial to both of us. A basic ideal of society is co-operation…and furthermore.”
Suddenly, Ernst showed a chuckle.
It was so cruel, so grim, and it left the children, who had witnessed the depths of hell, intimidated.
“From regions unknown. If we really do have to kill children just to survive, it is better off for humanity to be wiped out.”
The door of the isolation rooms opened, and the youths, ordered to change clothes, came out, still feeling wary. There was no casual clothing prepared on the frontlines, and they could only change into Federation uniform.
Were they to be brought somewhere else to be executed, or would they be brought to some experimental lab, or maybe a prison? In any case, they would rather run away and be shot in the back than be facing a mere execution.
Seeing them look for an opportunity, Ernst pretended not to notice as he discreetly ordered for added security. They would not shoot the youths in the back even if they did run away, but if they were hurt accidentally after they were held down, it would be troublesome.
They were brought onto the transport craft, which flew above the city, and they started to have doubts.
The aircraft landed at the base of the capital’s suburbs, and they boarded a car arranged for them, leaving the youths perturbed.
The car rushed out of the gates of the base, and into the main street of the Geade Federation capital, St. Yedder.
Krena exclaimed, and leaned at the window. Angel and Seo both followed suit. Shinn and Raiden were not reacting as openly, but even they took gasps as they watched the outside intently.
There were many, countless people of different colors, just like them, hustling down the streets.
A young girl was holding the hands of her parents, happily chipping. An elderly couple was seated at the open-air seat of a café. Students returning from school were joking around and laughing. Couples in love were inquiring a floral shop attendant.
Their eyes were damp, their visions blurred. They had nostalgia, reminiscence, and yet felt so foreign.
Outside the windows were the usual, peaceful scenes on the streets, which they had witnessed again after nine years.
“–Finally arrived, have you not, pitiful folks expelled from your country.”
The car was parked before a house in a quiet residential area. It was the residence of Ernst, who often stayed at his office instead.
In any case, after hearing these words once he entered the hall, Ernst put a hand on his forehead, and the youths tilted their heads in confusion.
There was a young girl with red eyes, probably just ten, speaking with a shrill voice and a mocking, cocky attitude. She stood on a podium, her arms folded as she raised her chin.
“Us Geade Federation welcome you pitiful folks with compassion and sympathy. Be grateful that you plebs have no need to repay us!”
She pointed at Shinn. It was impressive that she was able to determine the hierarchy of the squad in such a short time. However–
“Ehh, red eyes, why are you looking back!!?”
“…Thought there was someone behind.”
Naturally, Shinn’s voice was as aloof as ever.
“Was it not I who closed the door? Have you thought of us as a fool?”
Shinn did not answer, but it would have been better if he did.
“…So I say, the plebs of the Republic are…even though I do have the royal blood of the Empire–”
Saying that, the girl’s eyes suddenly ‘spotted’ a certain something.
“…What in the world happened to your neck…?”
Shinn immediately gasped.
The bloody eyes looking down at the girl cooled off, becoming increasingly frosty, and it left the girl intimidated.
Ernst sighed, and spoke up.
He did notice the scar on Shinn’s neck, which was covered by the uniform collar at this point, but he never did ask about it.
“Enough, Frederica. I did explain their situation to you…everyone has wounds they do not want to talk about. You should be the same too.”
The girl unexpectedly lowered her head apologetically.
Seeing her act obediently, Raiden turned towards Ernst.
“Your daughter? …Not my place to say, but you should educate her some more, I think.”
“Ahh, no, she is not my daughter.”
“Who is willing to be the daughter of this chirpy dandy?”
Saying that, the girl lifted her flat chest proudly, only to tumble over, showing some cute innocence.
“Frederica Rozenfort. Due to various circumstances, she is under my temporary care.”
Frederica glared at Ernst, and the latter pretended not to answer.
“it’s troublesome to explain, so the official documentation has her as my daughter. Oh yes, you are my adopted children for the time being…if you’re willing, you can call me papa too.”
A pause occurred.
“…Just joking. You don’t have to show so much unwillingness there…”
Even Shinn gave him a cold look.
“Fine then. For the time being, all of you are going to stay together. This child may not know much, but I do hope you can think of her as a little sister and get along well with her.”
With a mocking sneer, Frederica curled her lips.
“You pitiful plebs have been oppressed and battling. Surely your hearts are battered. You may think of I as a pet meant to sooth your souls.”
Frederica chuckled, having seen through everything.
There is no way any of you can understand. so she leered with a strange sense of solidarity.
“For not only I, every single person has prepared the same for you. A safe, comfortable house, a motherly maid, a guardian-like father, an adorable little sister–all of these have been delivered by the Federation government, having considered the loss of your families and relatives at such an early age…you may dote on I as you please, my siblings. As people to be pitied, we shall love each other and–woah!?”
First off, Shinn wordlessly reached his hand out, and ruffled her hair violently, causing the latter to squeal. She kept shaking her head, trying to shake off Shinn’s hand, and scaled the slender blond hair, emerald eyed maid behind her, wailing.
“Woahhh–Teresa! They started pulling me so quickly!”
“Yes yes, Lady Frederica. It has been your fault the entire time though.”
Teresa continued with the dagger, and her snow queen-like face showed a tender smile.
“It has been a long journey, everyone. First, will you like to have some coffee?”
They had an earlier dinner than usual, and then the five of them went to their assigned rooms, quickly falling asleep.
It’s to be expected.So Ernst thought as he sat alone at the dining table. This was a luxurious residence in a safe city he was used to living in, but for them, isolated from the outside world for years, they had arrived at a different world altogether, a completely different environment. It was no wonder that they would be worn out.
Frederica entered, curling her lips unhappily.
“…They went to sleep. I wanted to hear them talk about the Republic. How boring.”
In her little hands, she was holding a deck of poker cards, clearly intending to play with them while hearing their stories.
“Need some milk, ex-premier?”
“Shush. How incompetent you are. I have no memory of abdicating. Also, who needs milk? I am no longer a child.”
“It’s not good for a child to drink coffee before bed.”
He responded. Teresa was done with the cleaning and the breakfast for the following morning, and then she entered. She brought cups of coffee, one for Frederica, and one for herself.
“Good work, Teresa.”
“No worries. Those children are at a growing age, and ate a lot too. I had a lot of enthusiasm cooking today.”
Her blue eyes glanced aside, looking pretty upset. You are hardly at home due to administrative work, so Lady Frederica has been eating alone. She’s so lonely The rare grumble she made remained fresh in his mind.
“My apologies…I will be causing you more hardships in the future.”
The five children knew nothing other than oppression, the battlefield, malice, and death.
For them, it was difficult getting used to the opposite world of comfort and solace.
“You are being too kind, Master. It is my job to take care of you.”
“…Do you think I am being too much of a busybody?”
Teresa did not answer, and merely accepted his stare quietly.
She was no different at all from his beloved woman, a splitting image even, but her heart was never moved.
“A foolish compensation…am I letting them replace me?”
But unlike her words, Teresa’s voice was extremely cold. The snow queen’s face was exceptionally frosty.
This is the only way I can act before you, so she once said. It just so happened to be what Ernst had hoped for.
A fleeting forgiveness was really unbefitting of him.
“Nobody can replace another. For us humans, each person is a unique existence..”
Frederica flatly noted.
“But people do choose to redeem others, in various ways.”
Ernst took a sip of coffee.
“And who might you be referring to, Your Highness?”
Saying this, Frederica kept quiet.
The ripples on the black coffees surface reflected her heart, and she pursed her lips.
Having heard his exploits, and read his information, she was shocked.
She could not hide her astonishment, both when she saw his photo, and when she met the actual person.
But why, why did they resemble each other so much?
If not for him being a different person…a pitiful person trapped in a cage just like her, she would have overlapped his image with the person in her heart.