—The moment Akito pulled the trigger, an aerial drone exploded before his eyes.
The resulting shockwave hit him directly and sent him flying back-first into a mound of rubble.
The blue skies spread before his eyes with large cumulonimbus clouds high in the air.
Zipping across the jungle of skyscrapers in the summer skies were numerous mini high-mobility missiles and unmanned fighter aircrafts, trailing white tails through the air.
With this scene at her back, a girl carrying a light machine gun jumped down from the remains of a building.
Coughing out the blood rising from his throat, Akito glared at the soldier.
“—You sure are one vengeful woman, ‘Lethal Blue’.”
The girl with the platinum-blond long hair swaying in the blast wave—Tactical Name “Lethal Blue”, slowly opened her eyes.
The azure irises that appeared were a more vivid shade of blue than the sky.
She was around the same age as Akito; not as young as to be called a child yet not mature enough to be called an adult.
Her shapely face held an otherworldly beauty that was enough to make people who see it thought that they were in the metaverse.
A pure-white tactical suit hugged her body, leaving nothing to the imagination about her unexpectedly well-developed curves.
“That makes one hundred and thirty-four.”
Akito furrowed his brows at her sudden words.
“…What’s that number supposed to be.”
Having remained cool up till now, the girl’s shoulders trembled, and she sprayed her light machine gun wildly with fervid animosity on her face.
“…That’s how many drones you’ve destroyed today! How dare you slaughter those little ones! And you call yourself human!? That’s why I hate you Elmers!”
Akito manipulated the jet kit on his waist and twisted his way out of the bullet’s trajectories.
Likewise, the silver girl gave pursuit.
“So it’s okay to kill people but not destroy drones!?”
“What are you even saying!? People can just respawn straight away, but you can’t fix up a drone that easily!”
That’s unreasonable, he thought, but reconsidered when he realized that was technically true.
Just then, a column of five new aerial drones, each more than one meter long, appeared from the gap between the skyscrapers.
Taking a large jump through using his legs enhanced by the tactical suit, Akito did a back-flip in the air while firing his assualt rifle, leaving five explosions in his wake.
The instant he landed, he darted from the shadows of one debris to another. The girl aimed for the interval he was exposed as she sniped, but never seemed to hit her target as he jumped out with an irregular lag in between.
“Sending in a large number of drones and aiming for the moment when I’m evading—do you really think this tactic is still going to work on me!?”
“Says the muscle-brain running around in circles and knows nothing but close-quarter combat!”
“That’s only because I can’t break through your swarm unless I do this! If you call yourself a soldier, how about rushing at me with a gun sometimes!”
“Right back at you! —If you call yourself a soldier, how about you control even one drone while you’re fighting?”
The girl caught up to his side and they exchanged an intense rain of bullets.
Just then, the girl’s foot caught a piece of rubble and she fell forwards.
Akito wasn’t amateur enough to miss that chance.
He supported the rifle with his shoulder. The reticle of the scope fixed upon the small head.
His index finger squeezed the trigger—
Just then, he saw those blue eyes again.
And his finger froze. He forgot to even breathe.
Akito could feel his facial muscles stiffen.
In that span, the girl got up.
The black muzzle of her light machine gun was pointed straight at him.
Then, three 7.62mm bullets riddled his body. Subsequently, a suicide unmanned aerial vehicle exploded at his back, sending him crashing into the wall of a building.
A crimson splatter formed where he dropped onto the ground. Finally, he spat out a glob of red.
When he did, a leg wrapped in white appeared before him and stopped.
He raised his head to find Lethal Blue looking down at him with raised brows.
“What an ironic name, ‘Blood Naught’. For someone who spills more blood than anybody.”
“…With all that blood coming out of me, perhaps it isn’t so wrong to call me that now.”
The girl snorted at his wisecrack and glared at him hard enough it was almost visible.
“Why didn’t you shoot just now.”
“…I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
At his act of pretense, the girl only sighed and raised her light machine gun.
The dark muzzle hovered around the center of his forehead.
“…I don’t know what goes through that head of yours nor do I care, but this kind of behavior peeves me off.”
“It just jammed.”
The gunpoint wavered.
“—Weaklings who can’t shoot should just leave the battlefield.”
With the last of her words, she pulled the trigger without hesitation.
The world seemed to slow into a crawl as the muzzle flash entered his eyes, followed by the bullet approaching his head.
And as the spiraling teardrop-shaped projectile made contact with his flesh—
[Warning: Mindstate Synchronization Rate… 94.8%]
In the flash before his impending doom, multiple scarlet alert windows filled his vision.
At virtually the same time, the value reached 100% and his mind blacked out. Akito cognized his death.
Following which, his mindstate, the compressed memory data, was transferred elsewhere. It was uploaded to the dropship floating two kilometers above their heads through the Aethernet pervading the battlefield.
Inside the dropship, one of the multiple cylindrical pods lined up in row began vibrating with a dull hum.
The indicator light above it turned from red to green, and a metal ring inside the pod shaped like a hula hoop began to descend slowly.
As it descended, a form in the shape of a human head materialized in the center which crackled with lightning arcs. Starting from his black hair to his white skin and the choker on his neck, eventually his whole body was printed out along with his tactical bodysuit.
What appeared from within was a clone of Akito.
Within seconds, his upper body was complete, and as the printing of his lower body proceeded, his heart jumped to a start.
At the same time, the clone body which was just given life had had his previous memory data overwritten in its brain.
—At once, he awoke.
Akito jolted to a start as his eyes opened, as if he had just woken up from a nightmare. Pieces of desiccated flesh came floating down from beyond his eyelashes.
The process of transition from death to life compelled the body to produce adrenaline, triggering him to gasp for breath. The belated realization that his eyes were opened forced his pupils to constrict and dilate as they try to find a balance of brightness.
The only thing before his eyes was the unblemished floor of the pod and his limply hanging arms.
When he rubbed his nose, the usual burnt stench unique to bioprinted meat agitated his nostrils.
After his lower body was finished, he stripped off the support membrane covering every inch of his body.
Hold and pull. What appeared underneath was a healthy body.
The windholes puncturing his body all over at the point of death were nowhere to be found.
His combat fatigue was as good as new and he could also feel the weight of the fresh magazines clipped to his belt. When he retrieved the MAR-16 assault rifle mounted on his back, the matte black surface was exactly the same as when he first sortied.
However, what also remained was the intense phantom pain from where he was shot previously.
The pain was particularly acute at his forehead where the bullet ran through his head, and he massaged it with his fingers.
“Ow… That woman seems to be in an especially bad mood today.”
Then, the neural gate implanted in his head activated, linking him to the army’s core system—the United Tactical Assist System, commonly abrreviated UTAS.
Instantly, his field of vision was overlaid with multiple virtual displays. They included a 3D map of the terrain, his vital signs, remaining ammo and durability value of his body armor etc.
Lastly, a sound rang out.
[ARCADIA is Online.]
A robotic female voice announced fluidly.
ARCADIA—that is the name of the omnipotent system which gave man the ability to cheat death. So long as one was connected to it, no matter how they die, be it roasted to death or drowned in water, their soul alone would be salvaged through their passing—truly an apparatus of miracles.
However, while it may be a product of dreams, one might classify it as being closer to a nightmare.
After all, what awaited those who fell on the battlefield was none other than a return to the same hell.
—Weaklings who can’t shoot should just leave the battlefield.
Lethal Blue’s departing words echoed in his mind.
Even if they don’t die, they still felt the same pain and despair that comes along with it. And it wasn’t just him or his comrades; it was the same for his enemies. Was it right for them to justify such senseless killings? This doubt remained in his heart like a black stain that wouldn’t disappear.
Still, Akito had to fight. He must head to the battlefield no matter what.
The reason being that he was the commander of a platoon.
Sucking in a deep breath to take his mind away, he grabbed the handle of the hatch sticking out above him and pulled hard.
“Liger 1, ready for drop!”
A sound like compressed air leaking accompanied the locking of the hatch from the inside. An anxiousness somewhat like claustrophobia assaulted Akito.
With no regards as to whether the occupant was holding onto the handle bar for support or not, the pod was disconnected from the transport aircraft with a dull thud.
Immediately, his entire body turned weightless.
A second later, the thrusters on top of the pod fired, changing the weightlessness into severe negative g-force that nearly gave him a redout.
After a few seconds of gritting his teeth which felt like an eternity, thrusters on the opposite side fired, landing him on the ground with a less-than-pleasant impact.
[Touchdown. Error W1.5/E4. Within Area of Operation.]
Slowly, his semicircular canals stabilized and sensation returned to his legs before he opened his eyes.
A mechanical voice affirmed his demand and the hatch burst outwards explosively.
Akito grabbed his MAR-16 and jumped out of the descent pod.
He was in the midst of the messy, chaotic battlefield, weaved by bloody screams and metallic grunts spread as far as could see. Gunfire and explosion came from all over, oversaw by the rain of pods carrying soldiers from the sky.
He advanced down the ruined street, dodging the firing lines of the enemy.
Eventually, he saw two familiar silhouettes atop a ravaged skyscraper.
“You’re late, Aki! You always take so long when you face that pussycat! Are you sure you aren’t going easy on Lethal Blue just because she has a pretty face!?”
“About time, Akito! Rena’s been stormy all this time and she’s taking out her anger on me cuz you weren’t here!”
They belonged to a girl with long golden-blond hair in a stylish hairdo, and an idiosyncratic boy with flaming red hair.
Their names were Amashiro Rena and Hagi Ryoutarou.
They were both members of the 1st platoon, the Akito-led Liger Platoon, in addition to being long-time pals since the start of their 16 years of life.
Akito manipulated the jet kit to propel himself up more than 10 meters into the air. His hand was grabbed by Rena who pulled him up the edge.
After a brief moment, he put up his usual smile.
“What’s up, Rena. Had too much sugar again?”
“She’s just jealous that Lethal Blue have had you all to herself.”
At Ryoutarou’s quip, Rena turned bright red.
“W-W-What! I-It’s not like that! Don’t go spouting nonsense like that, Ryou!”
“H-Hey, watch it! Don’t point the gun anyhow at me!”
Akito only gave a sigh along with a sidelong glance at Ryoutarou before inquiring in a voice loud enough to drown out the gunfire in the background.
She glared at him for a second before her voice turned stern as she gave the report.
“Our side is being pushed back at NNW! 2nd platoon’s Respawn rate totally cannot keep up at all apparently!”
“I’ll move in to cover 2nd platoon! You and Ryoutarou will push back from the North! In any case, we’ll take down their drones to earn points! Avoid engaging enemy personnels!”
“Roger that! Aki, make sure you don’t clash with Lethal Blue again, okay! Your score is already the worst amongst us in Liger!”
“Yahoo, we can finally go on the offensive!”
With that, Rena and Ryoutaro jumped off the remains of the building with two submachine guns in either hands and a drum magazine-equipped shotgun respectively.
As he watched the two leave, Akito surveyed the vast battlefield.
Black columns of smoke rose in between the cluster of buildings where a swarm of drone and countless mini high-mobility missiles were engaged in a game of tag. Below them, eight-meter tall bihedral weapons—the tactical exo-armor JOINT, blew up a formation of Aegis battle tanks and advanced the defensive line.
The overwhelming stench of blood and gunpowder that stifled the throat was proof more than anything that this was the front line.
In the near distance, he spotted a flash of silver.
It’s her, thought Akito without a doubt. She commanded the steel-petals-like drone swarm while bathed in a barrage of bullets and still managed to gain ground.
Right then, he met those piercing blue iris.
He could feel his heartbeat turn irregular.
He shut his eyes tightly to regain composure. Erasing the choppy waves in his heart, he waited for it to settle till it was as still as a mirror.
By the time he raised his eyelid, he had turned into a soldier.
Firmly, he gave a mental transmission.
[Liger 1 to Agitator. Presently joining the battlefield.]
[Agitator, roger that.]
Before the response even arrived, he cocked the charging handle of his rifle and loaded a bullet into the chamber.
They were currently in the Ruined City, Reikyo.
Smack in the middle between the United States of Elmea and the Lorelia Federation, this was forefront of the war between the two great nations.
And Ichinose Akito was the platoon commander of the Elmea Army Reikyo Outpost 1st platoon, Liger Platoon.