For the next seven days, the two of them trekked through the underground city with the communications towers as their goal.
For now, their current target was the waterfall they saw around the midpoint to the tower. They guessed that the water pouring from a gap in the ceiling panels was bound to create a river at its base if not a lake. It followed that there would be fishes living in those waters. That was their plan to obtain food.
In the concrete jungle dominated by nature, the two of them had to climb up and descend from time to time, as well as twist from left to right and vice versa along the way. They also encountered hostile drones more than a few times, but managed to get by without suffering any injuries.
Thankfully, their tactical suits which had finished self-repair helped keep their physical exhaustion at bay. As the suits ran off the bioelectricity generated by movement, they did not have to power it, and they gained newfound gratitude for this convenience which never thought to cross their minds before.
Nonetheless, for the duo who had grown accustomed to death and Respawn, this long-distance march was brutal.
Since they did not have medical supplies on hand, they were several times more strung up than usual, and as a result, their mental state was stretched to its limits. The fact that they did not know when they could next resupply, and the need to stay on guard at all times further drained their spirits inperceptibly.
At the same time, Akito also learned a lot he never knew before.
For example, about the girl known as Philia Loadrain.
The beautiful girl which seemed as though god took a whole week to sculpt was serious to a fault, and was extremely awkward.
Even during nights when it was so quiet they could practically hear each other’s heartbeats, she never failed to make sure to check clear each corner they met, and grew angry to him when he did not do so. There were also times when she tried to do everything by herself, and ended up failing and falling into a panic. She was probably not in the best state of mind then. It was to the extent that when they had encountered a group of JOINTs in sleep mode, she tried to destroy all by herself. Luckily, he managed to convince her to let him scout ahead and they avoided a disaster. Anyway, it seemed to be the result of having to meet expectations constantly and being used to accomplishing things on her own.
He also grew more knowledgeable about the underground world.
Despite the weathered appearance, various parts of the city still had running electricity.
A portion of the city’s infrastructure were still operable, and there were also taps where water still ran, albeit they were red with rust. Perhaps, automated cities like these were able to self-sustain for a surprisingly long period of time. On a side note, they did not have to worry about potable water as there were many small streams running through the city, a result of water naturally seeping through the ceiling.
Thus, the silhouette of the communications tower was now far larger than before where they first fell. However, it was still far away enough that they could not make out the finer details.
Still, they were nearing their first objective point, the waterfall, and could keenly hear the roar of a large volume of water pouring over.
They were now in a snaking alleyway of a street that bordered the shopping district and the slums.
Here too, the shops remained functional even though their owners had long left. Neon lights and holographic signboards of what appeared to be cheap hotels and karaokes were still flashing, illuminating the uncleared trash and air-conditioning units on the roadside.
Just then, Akito’s stomach growled, reminding him of the void in his stomach for the umpteenth time.
The effects of the injection had just worn off.
He turned to the side and saw Philia coughing violently while holding her stomach with both hands. At first, he thought she was holding in her pain, but then realized that she was just trying to hide the sound coming from her own stomach.
“I sure am hungry.”
“…Well, I’m not hungry in the least, but it’s about time we eat something soon.”
Her face was red as she turned away from him, possibly from embarrassment. Watching her, Akito laughed.
“There’s no need to act tough. Seeing as we’re pretty much in the same boat, you should just tell me what you’re feeling honestly.”
“…I’m not acting tough or anything. It’s just a slight pang of hunger—just a wee bit, that’s all.”
“Roger that. You’re so hungry you could eat an elephant right now.”
“That’s not what I said!”
That reaction was just like her, but it lacked the usual vitality.
Looks like we’re reaching our critical point, he thought inwardly.
It was right then.
In front of the flight of stairs ahead of them stood a vicious-looking machine.
Akito shouted and hid behind the shadow of a building.
As expected of the one people feared as Lethal Blue, Philia immediately snapped to attention and took cover behind the building opposite Akito’s, and switched off the safety on her light machine gun.
“…What is that?”
She murmured in a low voice.
Akito peeked over the wall to look at the passageway.
It was round and made of metal with a width of over four meters, blocking the path.
Its uneven surface was full of slits and depression of unknown purpose, making it look like a ball of scrap metal rolled together. The blueish-white light shining from various spots must be sensor units.
Generally, with such a complicated array of sensors, it most likely had in addition to optical sensor, thermal and other electromagnetic motion sensors.
When he trained the target seeker in his sights onto the ball, an “Unknown” sign appeared. This meant there was no information about it in the archives of his neural gate, and without connection to the UTAS, he could not search further.
Akito stepped back to the shade of the building and turned to Philia.
“…Most likely, it’s one of the drones operating during the great war. However, I’ve never seen any like that before.”
“Me too. …Do you suppose it’s still live?”
“No doubts about that, huh.”
Philia smiled bitterly as sweat rolled down her cheeks, and she glimpsed at the ball-shaped drone.
“What now? It has all that sensor array on it. We’re gonna have to make quite a long detour if we’re to escape its sight.”
“…A detour at this point is going add 18 hours before we reach the original target point.”
“By the way, I’m at the limits of my hunger already.”
When she noticed Akito’s gaze, her face turned flushed and she averted her eyes.
“…I-I’m still doing fine, but if you can’t take it anymore then I guess we have no choice.”
He chuckled softly, making her pout.
“It’s set then. Let’s break through this point. —It’s rare for us to be in agreement, don’t you think?”
“Don’t misunderstand. I’m only doing this out of consideration for you since it seems like you’re going to die from hunger. Nothing more.”
Thinking how she was always trying to act brave, Akito also switched off the safety of his MAR-16. He then pulled the charging handle slightly to check that the first bullet was chambered.
“I’ll hit it with my smart bullets. You’re on backup.”
“Are you trying to do everything by yourself again? I can finish it in one hit with my anti-tank blade, you know?”
“That’s overkill. We can’t waste our one and only high-powered weapon on something like that. Just follow what I say!”
Nodding in resignation, the two of them jumped into the passageway at the same time.
At about three steps in, the sensors on the ball-shaped drone shimmered, then a low noise resounded as dust flew into the air.
Philia fired her light machine gun on full-auto as she ran.
Each bullet changed trajectory on course to target the sensor units. Amazingly, each and every one of their paths were being guided by Philia’s neural gate in real-time.
In normal cases, a sniper would have used all of their calculative capacity on a single sure-kill shot. Yet, she was able to achieve that for all her shots while firing at a rate of 800 rounds per minute.
Saying that she excelled at parallel calculations did not even cut it; it was simply inhuman.
This was the reason why people feared the name “Lethal Blue”.
The moment you were locked on by her blue eyes, you were sure to drown in a storm of bullets.
—However, countless dark holes opened up on the surface of the drone, and all of her bullets were shot down without exception.
Following which, they fired in the direction of Akito and Philia.
Akito laid down covering fire so as to lay pressure on the drone.
The two of them jumped into the side alleys with the gap he bought.
Barely a second later, large caliber bullets gouged enormous holes in the corners of the concrete walls they hid behind.
“…What’s with that fire-control system!! Why would an antique like that be armed with an Aegis system!?”
“I heard the early phases of the great war mainly consisted of drone combat. I bet that’s one those things they made with the near-infinite budget they had back then.”
“If we can’t compete with pure computing power, we just need to overwhelm it using numbers…!”
Akito switched out his magazine and replied.
“There’s no way we can break through with just the firepower of two foot soldiers! Let’s use the 096 after all—”
“That’s our last resort! We’re not out of options yet!”
Said Philia as she jumped out.
“She’s so stubborn, I swear…!”
Akito ground his teeth and followed after her. He shot at the ball-shaped drone in short bursts as he ran.
Thanks to her god-like bullet manipulation, Philia finally managed to destroy one of the drone’s sensor unit.
At that moment, the bolt of his MAR-16 came to a stop and he shouted.
Just as he reached out for a fresh magazine, Philia also shouted.
“Reload too! You’re the backup, so match with my timing!”
Akito’s eyes spread wide and he hurriedly grabbed his handgun to lay down covering fire.
“Don’t be unreasonable! Your magazine’s 70 rounds, isn’t it!? You’re emptying too fast!”
“Just cover me!”
“Already on it!”
Each time the slide pulled back, a round either intercepted or deflected a fatal bullet fired by the drone.
He also fired on the drone itself, but they just bounced off it without a scratch.
“Any idea what level’s that armor!? It’s crazy tough!”
“At least Class 5! It’s not variable armor, but normal bullets can’t make a dent!”
“Are you kidding me…!”
At his voice, Philia turned around in shock.
“Don’t tell me all you have are normal bullets!?”
“Unfortunately, the answer is Yes…!”
She looked at him as if he was a strange creature not of this world.
“Unbelievable! Don’t you Elmers know that the most important thing is to choose your ammo wisely!?”
Even for bullets of the same caliber, their muzzle velocity and penetrability can vary widely across different cartridges. Naturally, high-performance rounds were only distributed sparingly to each squad.
For Akito, whose death rate dropped rapidly this past half a year, his concern was more about quantity than quality, and thus he did not hold many high-penetration rounds on hand.
“All the AP ones we already used them up during the battle against you guys at the Lab!”
Philia finally finished reloading just as his handgun was about to run out of of bullets, and she laid down gunfire on the drone again.
Akito changed the magazine for both his handgun and assault rifle before dashing out.
There, he saw Philia forcefully trying to close the distance before them and gulped deeply.
He jumped right in.
She must have thought she was at a disadvantage at this distance with the weapons she had on hand. The enemy was shaped in a sphere; its angle of fire would be more limited the closer she was. She was probably prepared to take three critical three hits in exchange for taking out the enemy.
However, that was a tactic which was only viable in the battlefield on top.
It was a foolhardy fighting style which took into account being able to Respawn via Arcadia.
Far too late, Philia realized the mistake she had made.
Her eyes widened.
The lights in her eyes dimmed even as they screamed out how she wanted to live.
With superhuman reflexes, Akito boosted the enhancement to his leg by the tactical suit to the max, and jumped towards Philia.
All at once, he faced the wall of bullets fired by the drone.
It was a number which even Philia wouldn’t be able intercept, and naturally, neither could Akito.
He reached Philia before the bullets made contact and pushed her away.
Then, he twisted his body forcefully to make it through the hail of bullets.
A bullet brushed past his cheek, drawing a line of red.
At the same time, he purged the cord linking his suit and the MAR-16.
Her eyes met his.
She had a look on her face as if she could not believe what she was seeing.
Before she finished speaking, he had already dropped the rifle.
In return, he drew the black handle-shaped weapon from his waist.
It was the ZERO-96 anti-tank blade—commonly shortened as 096.
This special weapon held such amazing firepower that no one in Reikyo was able to utilize it other than Akito due to its tremendous knockback.
Hugging so close to the ground that he almost seemed to be crawling as he ran, he adjusted the three knobs on the handle.
Output 3, Width 1, Length 3—
His suit’s assist mode automatically read the values, and several windows appeared in his sights showing calculations for the recoil values.
Akito glared at the drone ahead of him.
“—Out of the way!”
He pointed the handle at his waist level straight ahead and pressed the trigger.
A crimson blade grew from the handle and pierced right through drone. The memory alloy in the handle had turned into the shape of a sword.
The knockback made his whole body creak, and the ground underneath his feet cracked.
Akito exerted the muscles in his arms to their limits and pushed the blade through the drone.
The blade, which vibrated faster than the eyes could see, made a shrill grinding sound as it cut through the tough armor.
The top half of the ball-shaped drone flew through the air in a parabola, landing behind the two and exploding. The shockwave shattered the remaining windows nearby while the wreckage hit the shutters.
The remaining ammunitions in the drone must have ignited when the main generator was cut through.
Akito relaxed the tension in his whole body and erase the blade.
Footsteps sounded from his back as he returned the handle to the mount on his waist.
Philia stood there with her face completely red and looking terribly shaken.
“Wh-Who asked you to step in… I could’ve finished it off…”
Akito frowned and approached her instead.
“Like hell you can! At best you’d have lost an arm, at worst you’d have died taking it out!”
Shocked at his raised voice, she came to the verge of crying, and shouted back like a child throwing a tantrum.
“Shut up! Shut up! There’s no end to the replacement for this body anyway! Even if it hurts I just have to bear with the pain, that’s all… as long as we reach the surface, it’s fine!”
“No it isn’t! This pain is real! —You need to treasure your life more!!”
Her large, blue eyes opened wide.
Akito could see his figure reflected in it, and it seemed to sway.
Philia choked up and brought a clenched fist to her chest.
For a while, no sound passed between them.
The flames rising from the drone wreckage crackled, and sparks flew out from it occasionally.
—Was I too harsh…?
As he wondered if he could have phrased it better, Philia spoke with her head still hanging.
“…So you say despite killing so many already.”
“…I can’t deny that. —But, we’re on the same side now, and I don’t want to see you suffer.”
Half of it was true, and half of it was a lie. For some reason, ever since that winter, he had come to hate seeing the look of pain on her face.
“Same side…? What do you mean; we’re enemies.”
“Only when we return to the surface. Until then, I’ll protect you and cover for you. —I can’t have you dying on me now. I won’t be able to make it out of this city on my own.”
He tried to lighten the atmosphere by joking a bit.
In response, Philia heaved a sigh with her face still covered.
“…You’re so weird. Really, what am I doing?”
At last, she raised her head and her cheeks were red for some reason.
Then, she looked away and said in a raspy voice.
“…Th-Thanks for just now—”
“…? What did you say?”
Noting that she was acting strange, Akito brought his face closer.
“N-Never mind, it’s nothing…!”
However, her mouth flapped open and close repeatedly, and in the end, she just glared at him.
“Wh-What! You were trying to say something!”
“I said it’s nothing! …Just now, you just had to reload at that terrible timing, so I wanted to tell you to properly match with me the next time you act as backup!”
It didn’t sounded like she wanted to say such a long sentence, thought Akito, but he did not mention that.
He had learnt enough from past experience that he would be faced with a muzzle to his cheek or have his feet stepped on had he commented further.
“Yeah yeah, I hear you. In that case, let’s settle on some common cues. We’ll call them out when we’re about to run out of ammo and need cover.”
She was still sulky, but after a while she just sighed.
“…‘Alternate’ for when we switch. The one covering will say ‘Ready’ and then we’ll switch at ‘Go’. That’s how we do it in the Federation.”
“OK, we’ll go with that. …You will do your part, won’t you?”
Philia reluctantly bobbed her head.
“…I’ll try my best.”
Akito sighed and laughed out loud.
After that, he picked up his MAR-16 and re-attached the cord from his suit to it, and called out to her.
“Let’s go. We’re not far from the waterfall now.”
She stood on the spot for a while, then eventually nodded and walked alongside him.
∗ ∗ ∗
The base of the waterfall was right in the middle of a train terminal.
Numerous tracks extended out from the large building to all over the underground city like blood veins running from the heart. Water poured through the ceiling panels of the city through a hole in its dome-shaped roof. Flora more vibrant than any they saw on their journey flourished all over the station, and a splendid rainbow hung over it.
The surrounding streets were flooded halfway through, giving the impression of a floating city.
The submerged portion of the streets could be seen through the crystal-clear water, and even the fishes at the deep ends could be observed.
As the two of them walked down the water-logged district, they came across a lake right next to the station.
Surrounded by low buildings, it was most likely a roundabout originally.
Akito and Philia found remains of what looked like a classy rooftop cafe near the waterside and decided to make it their base camp. It was a pity the wooden tables and chairs were rotted beyond use, but a great tree had grown in the center and made for good shade.
“Phew—we can finally take a break.”
Philia placed her light machine gun down, and lay on the floor with a big stretch.
Akito also sat down heavily and breathed out deeply.
“Now that the No. 4’s worn off, I just wanna take a nap. …This double whammy of hunger and sleepiness is no joke.”
“…But, we really need to find something to eat before we really can’t move any more.”
“…So you say, but it looks like you can’t be bothered to even lift a finger already.”
When he turned his head, he saw Philia bathed in the setting sun as she rested in bliss. She was stretched out wide as a cat would, exposing her supple bodyline even through her suit.
Looking at how relaxed she was, Akito felt like he had caught the sleeping bug as well.
Will you look at that, so she has this side to her too—
Feeling like he had just seen a side to her no one else had seen, Akito silently felt a sense of wonder.
Wonder? No, it was something different. It was more like so—the feeling when you find out that a flower you thought only bloomed in the highest mountaintop could actually be found right in your courtyard.
However, he felt thinking any further about this would lead to something fatal and stopped his thoughts there.
To take his mind off it, he raised his body and looked across the majestic lake.
“All right, time to think. How are we going to fish for our dinner? —Come on, wake up, Philia.”
Philia rubbed her eyes and got up reluctantly.
Then, she got onto all fours and crawled to the edge of the parapet, and gazed deeply into the waters one meter below. Coupled with her half-asleep side profile, she looked somewhat carnal and Akito averted his gaze hurriedly.
“…Obviously, we do not have any fishing rods, not to mention I have no experience fishing in the first place. …Perhaps, we can shoot them with our guns…?”
“There should be no problem predicting their next positions, but I doubt we can hit them with how slow the bullets will get.”
“I guess so…”
“Speaking of which, I heard from somewhere that dynamite can be used to fish.”
Akito took out a frag grenade from his waist, but was met with a censuring look from below.
“You mean how they use the shockwave from the explosion to knock the fish unconscious so that they float to the surface, right. That’s just overly cruel.”
Akito shrugged his shoulders and muttered, “Just mentioning it.”
Apparently, she had a dislike for meaningless killings, be it machines or animal and other humans of course. She was probably a kind-hearted girl to begin with. However, she wasn’t allowed to remain that way due to her upbringing. This was also something Akito knew painfully well.
In fact, he was the same as her back then, so he understood.
“Looks like there’s no other choice, I’ll just dive in and catch them with my hands. It should be possible with the help of the suit’s enhancement. Keep a look out on the surroundings for me.”
Akito removed all other equipments from his tactical suit, and stretched lightly on top of the parapet.
Philia looked up at him in surprise.
“You can swim?”
“I’ve never swam before, but I did install the tech set for swimming in my neural gate.”
“What a weirdo. It’s not like you’ll need to swim when fighting a battle. Why did you install such a useless skill?”
“Well, there was a time when I wanted to impress others by learning all kinds of different stuff.”
“…Now that you mentioned it, I remember the guys in my base also learned this kind of stuff. Things like guitar or drums and other instruments were quite popular. Lately, there’s this band, what was it called again? …I think it’s call ‘Deep Escaper’ or something? Everyone at the base was playing songs by that band.”
Akito’s ears pricked up at that name.
“That band’s also famous back at my base. Looks like even though we’re from different countries, what’s in the vogue are still rather similar, huh?”
“…It’s probably because we’re all around the same age?”
Must be, muttered Akito before he turned to face the lake again.
“Alright, I’m gonna go catch us something.”
Saying so, he took a deep breath and jumped into the lake with the perfect form of a diver.
Cold engulfed his body, and all sound became distant. In his blurry vision, he could see tiny bubbles rising over his fingertips, and the fishes swimming away in all directions in a flurry.
This deep, dark world was one where the natural act of breathing was absolutely forbidden—this newfound fear was extremely similar to that which he felt when he first fell into Iota and couldn’t connect to Arcadia, he thought.
While feeling some slight dissonance, Akito was still able to move naturally in the water.
Then, he used the power of his suit to propel his body forwards in a burst, succeeding in grabbing the tail of a fish about 30-centimeters long. However, the rest of the shoal had quickly disappeared and he couldn’t catch a second one.
That was when he reached the limits of his breath, and he ascended rapidly, breaking through the water surface with both hands up.
“Haa…! I got one, Philia!”
Philia was watching over the perimeter with a sharp eye, but immediately turned to him in surprise.
“You really caught one! To be honest, I thought we’d have to resort to the grenade!”
“Aren’t you the one who didn’t wanted to do that.”
“…I mean, sure…”
He passed her the catch, but it flopped everywhere, causing her to panic.
“Wait, what is this…! It’s so slimy…!”
“Of course, it is, that’s how fish is supposed to be.”
“I didn’t know that! This is the first time I ever saw a live fish!”
Akito climbed back up the building and headed to the cafe terrace where Philia was standing at a slight distance away, watching the fish flop on the ground with an off-putting look.
“…It stinks and is all slimy. I wanna take a bath right now.”
“There’s no warm bath, but if you just wanna soak in some water then you can do so right in front. I must say, it’s pretty cold though.”
She looked between her hands glistening with slime and the lake. In the end, she looked down her body and back at Akito’s face.
“Wh-What is it?”
She then pointed towards the back of the cafe.
“…I’ll go over there.”
“Why not just do it here?”
Her face turned slightly flushed and she looked the opposite side.
“…I want to bathe in the water. …You know what I mean?”
Akito cocked his head, then realized belatedly what she was trying to say.
Basically, she was saying she wanted to take off her tactical suit and wash her body in the lake. Indeed, from the time of the battle at the surface, they had not bathed in over a week.
Thanks to the injection, their bodies did not produce as much waste product as usual, but he understood the feeling of wanting to wash off the body. In fact, although he dived into the water just now, the tactical suit kept his body completely water-free so he felt just as unpleasant on the inside as before.
“Stay vigilant as you go. There’s no telling that there won’t be drones around here.”
“…It’s fine, I won’t go too far. I’ll come back soon.”
“You can take your time. …Hey, at least take a handgun with you. I’ll keep an eye from here, but it’s dangerous to be so unprotected.”
Akito called her out to a stop when she was about to leave with nothing in hand.
He picked out a holstered handgun from her belongings which she arranged neatly on the floor and tossed it to her.
Philia caught it with her arms since she didn’t want to touch it with her slime-stained hands, and she muttered in a soft voice.
He was a bit surprised at her thanks that he did not immediately reply.
But, her expression immediately turned back to her usual one and she glared at him.
“…You know what’s going to happen if you peek, right.”
“You’ll put one right between my eye, right? I know. There’s no way I’d risk that without Arcadia.”
“…So you’re saying you would peek if you’re connected to Arcadia?”
Realizing his slip of mouth, Akito silently raised his hands as he knew anything he said now would only be adding to the fire.
Seeing his action, Philia heaved as sigh and walked away, disappearing to the other side of the roof beyond the cafe.
∗ ∗ ∗
Philia mentally pressed the button of the virtual window in her vision to undo the fastening of her tactical suit.
A line opened up at her back along with the sound of air entering.
The biometal filaments making up the suit soften, peeling off from her skin.
“…He’s not peeking, is he?”
She turned back and checked the interior of the cafe.
The inside was quite messy, and thankfully, one could not see through to the other side. She also couldn’t see Akito from her position.
Apparently, he was making good on his promise. Despite his laidback personality, he was surprisingly gentlemanly.
Feeling self-conscious, she pulled her arms out of the suit, followed by her legs.
Even though she knew no one was watching, she couldn’t suppress the feelings of shame and held the suit in front to hide her body.
After looking back once more, she laid down the suit and the handgun Akito passed her on the edge of the waterside.
She stared into the lake.
“…It looks pretty deep.”
With sunset approaching, the far depths of the lake was completely murky. Just by staring at that darkness, a sense of unease grew inside her unconsciously.
Same as Akito, she had never swam before. It was only natural. There were no pools or sea in Reikyo, and there was no use for the action known as swimming.
For a moment, she regretted not having Akito share the tech set with her, but immediately banished the thought. In the end, they were enemies. There’s no way she could share data like that with him.
Nevertheless, she never even considered turning back here.
After all, she haven’t entered the bath for seven days seven nights straight.
Thanks to Akito’s supplement injection, she did not feel much dirt and grime build up on her body, but the little which did felt unpleasant.
She made up her mind and slowly lowered her body into the water with her fingers clinging tightly to the edge.
“…! I-It’s freezing…!”
Her body shivered till its core and her muscles spasmed.
Akito probably didn’t felt as cold since he entered with his tactical suit on. She had let her guard down due to his lack of reaction.
However, after waving her legs around in the water for a while, she got used to the temperature.
Stretching her legs out and relaxing her body, she floated gently on the lake’s surface.
It was a strange sensation. Half of her body was submerged in the water, while the upper half felt the gentle breeze blow by.
The only sound she could hear was the soft melody of the waves.
She tried to swing her legs up and down through the water for fun. It made pleasant splashing sounds and even that felt enjoyable.
Time slowly passed by in peace, and she let out a breath.
—I’m talking normally to that Blood Naught.
Not just that. She had felt anger, confusion, and occasionally joy—as they fought together.
Even though it was only a few days, it felt as if they had spent a much longer time together.
She felt for herself firsthand how he was just another ordinary person.
That’s wrong. He was just an ordinary person, but he was also like no others.
After all, who would have extended a hand to the enemy and asked to fight together in a situation like that after falling to an unknown place.
She should have died when she faced the ball-shaped drone.
Anyone else would have abandoned her and escaped themselves, but he didn’t.
Philia dived beneath the surface, head and all.
—What a strange person.
The frigid water encapsulated her body.
In that frozen world, she clearly felt the heat emanating from her heartbeat.
After a while, her body spontaneously shivered from the cold and broke out of the surface. She got up from the water and looked down at her suit and the handgun wordlessly. She was stupefied at herself for not thinking of how she was going to dry off. When she squatted down to deliberate, she heard a sound.
It came from inside the cafe. Could it be that Akito really came over to peek.
“You know what’s coming, don’t you…!?”
She covered her chest with her left hand and took aim with the handgun in her right—and then, she saw it.
∗ ∗ ∗
The sun was setting in the virtual skies.
Although it could not beat the beauty of the real sunset, it still inspired a sense of nostalgia in anyone who see it. Akito was no exception as he stared at the sparkling orange rays reflecting off the lake’s surface.
A light gust of wind blew by occasionally, bringing with it the verdant smell of greenery and the roaring sound of the waterfall.
In the midst of it, the sound of water could be heard coming from the direction opposite the station.
The splashing sound resembled that of fishes jumping through the water, but it continued for some time. If the sound could transmit emotions, it would surely be that of peace and tranquility.
After a while, it turned into the sound of someone coming out of the water.
The scenery of what’s going on behind him naturally came into his imagination, and he shook his head rapidly to dispel them.
If he had witnessed that, it would be the last time he drew breath.
And if that happens, he wouldn’t be able to bring the data drive back to the surface.
When he thought that, he turned down to look at his pouch lying next to his feet. He opened it and took out the security dongle.
The silvery-white object was covered with an explosion-proof lead coating. In that casing smaller than an index finger was a security program which unlocked the data drive Philia held.
Without this, Akito and the rest of the Liger platoon would only have miserable lives to look forward too in the future.
However, it was equally as vital to her as well.
They were both carrying out their missions, nothing more and nothing less.
Another emotion welled up inside him. Should he take this chance to kill her and steal the data drive—or, wait until they reach the surface where they fight each other to the death. Akito dreaded the inevitable to come.
More specifically, he was afraid that his future self wouldn’t be able to take action.
He was the platoon commander; the leader who held the futures of his twenty-odd members in his hands.
After heaving a long and deep sigh, he returned the dongle to pouch and kept it out of view.
He didn’t want to think about things beyond the immediate future.
And he returned his gaze to the lake in his previously relaxed mood—it happened just then.
He heard the noise of something massive stepping on the ground, along with the heavy humming of an engine motor.
The source of the noise was extremely specific; it belonged to a motor-powered device.
Akito immediately slung his rifle and got up in a hurry, but came to a stop when he imagined Philia’s current figure.
But, the moment he heard her scream, he dashed like a bullet.
It was followed by the sound of a small-caliber firearm being fired.
Making his way through the dusty furnishings of the cafe, he emerged onto the other side of the rooftop.
There, he found the girl draped in nothing with water droplets still running down her body.
She was firing her handgun at a quadrupedal UGV.
The machine gun on its back was pointed straight at her head.
Akito flicked the safety off as he got into a firing position. When the bright red retical of his holosight crossed with the drone, he pulled the trigger.
He managed the recoil expertly, sending 6.8mm special armor-piercing rounds through the main supply unit of the drone. Empty cartridges were ejected from the body of the rifle and hit the floor of the terrace with a clunk.
Smoke bellowed from the 16 holes opened up on the drone’s body.
He saw that it stopped moving and judged that the threat was eliminated.
It did not explode, probably because the spread of bullets was low and did not hit the ammunitions store.
By the time Philia stood up on her own, the situation was over.
“Are you okay!?”
Akito was about to rush to her side, but he saw that her expression was still perilous.
Her gaze was directed not at him, but right next to him
She pushed him aside with her body, and what appeared there was the head of the UGV.
Its head was equipped with a second machine gun.
Numerous bright flashes came from the muzzle as it spewed bullets. They went past the two and reduced the tables behind them into wooden splinters.
Philia instantly took a large step forwards.
Her platinum-blond hair scattered behind her.
It was followed by a brilliant kick from her well-proportioned left leg.
The drone rolled over to its side with a big dent in its armor.
With practiced motion, Philia prepped her handgun.
Her dripping wet forelocks swayed and revealed the sharp gaze of her blue eyes.
The muzzle flashed like strobe lights.
Once, twice, thrice—it flickered 13 times, and as many empty cartridges fell to the floor.
She breathed heavily, the slide of her handgun locked in the retracted position and smoke bellowed from the barrel.
This time, the drone went silent for good and turned into a pile of scrap metal.
Fortunately, it seemed that that was the only drone to have spotted her. The two of them searched with their eyes for enemies around and did not see any others.
Akito turned to Philia to check that she wasn’t injured, and held his breath at what he saw.
He felt as if he had just observed a work of fine art even though he had never visited any art gallery—that was how otherworldly beautiful it appeared.
There was no other way for him to describe the nude body of the girl before him.
“That’s why I said you’re always so careless… I’m glad you came to help, but isn’t it the basics to make sure you finish off your enemy? Did they not teach you that in the Elmer army? Hey, are you listening—”
She seemed to be facing him.
However, even that simple fact did not register in his mind when all of his brains processing capabilities were focused to branding that image of beauty into his brain.
All of a sudden, his vision was dyed in black.
A red error sign was displayed in the corner of his vision along with the appearance of a large number of virtual windows. But, he still could not comprehend what was happening and he rubbed his eyes reflexively.
A second later, he realized that his vision had been hacked.
Nonetheless, it was already too late. His mind was still on cloud nine.
He heard the sound of a stomp.
It sounded awfully close to when she had unleashed a kick at the UGV just now.
He knew it then. That he had stepped on a lion’s tail and was still stepping on it currently.
It went without saying that he flew across the sky in an arc and made a magnificent splash in the water.
∗ ∗ ∗
“I-I’m sorry for just now…”
The sun had set, and an imaginary night sky hung over their heads.
Akito earnestly apologized with his face still red to Philia who sat nearby with her cheeks puffed up. The fish he caught was skewered on a stick and roasting next to a bonfire.
On a side note, Akito and the others who were linked to Arcadia did not wear helmets for protection as a rule. The reason was simple. Helmets could not stop the large-caliber rounds used frequently on the battlefield, and it lengthened the printing time for Respawn.
However, it was at this time when Akito cursed futilely that he wasn’t wearing one.
“…H-How much did you s-see…?”
Philia hugged her body cladded in her now dry tactical suit and asked with her face hanging down.
“I saw—absolutely nothing.”
He answered in complete calmness.
That picturesque view was so perfect that he couldn’t describe it in words. However, he could foresee his life flash by if he answered otherwise. Thus, he decided to lock this memory into the depth of his mind and bring it to the grave—
“That’s a lie.”
Philia glared at him with her face completely flushed and rejected his claim.
“…You know, it sounds like I’m going to die no matter what I say, isn’t it?”
“That’s because your lie is so bald-faced. …If you’re going to lie, at least put some effort into it.”
“Do I look like I’m so well-versed in the art of lying?”
Akito sighed in disgruntlement, and she chuckled unthinkingly.
“…You’re not a people’s person, are you.”
“Don’t go around stating the obvious. —What about you, I bet not many guys dare to approach you.”
When he said that while warming his freezing body by the bonfire, Philia desperately refuted him with a stutter.
“Sh-Shut up! I’m actually very p-popular, in fact!”
The image that came into his mind were that of her subordinates who bowed down to her in fear.
“Are you sure you aren’t mistaking reverence for affection?”
“…That just boils down to the same thing, isn’t it.”
“…What a horrible thing to say…”
Akito shook his head in pity. However, he considered that she might actually be serious, and did not comment further.
“In any case, all this talk about love and whatnot is completely foreign to me.”
“No doubts about that.”
Silence hung in the air.
Akito listened to the distant sound of waves while throwing a piece of kindling into the flame.
He followed the trail of the smoke that bellowed up and found himself staring into Philia’s side profile. There was a tinge of loneliness in it, but also vigor as the fire reflected off her face.
Realizing that he was staring, he quickly turned back to face the bonfire. The two sticks skewering half a fish each was looking well roasted.
“I think it’s about done.”
The skin was roasted a perfect golden-brown, and it looked delicious with a trail of oil sliding down the stick.
He handed one to Philia, and stared intently at his own like that of a cat looking at an empty box in curiosity.
“…So this is what natural fish looks like.”
“This is my first time eating it too, although I’ve had the artificial one all the time.”
The two of them tore the skin aside and was greeted by pure-white flesh which was still steaming.
Akito gulped unconsciously and took a huge bite into it with a, “Let’s dig in.” Philia immediately did the same.
For a while, the two of them chewed wordlessly.
After she swallowed, Philia commented in a murmur.
Akito gulped down and nodded in agreement.
“I guess that’s how it would taste if we just roasted it without any seasoning… Perhaps, some preparation would have made it more palatable.”
“I loathe myself for not having installed any of the tech sets regarding survival in the wild, even if it’s absolutely non-essential.”
“Well, we definitely didn’t need that with Arcadia around…”
Nevertheless, they were starving, and wolved down the rest of the precious roasted fish. The steaming white flesh was soft and flaky, and the sweet oil of the fish coated their lips.
For all their complaints of it smelling too fishy or wanting to eat meat, they couldn’t stop devouring the fish until only the bones were left.
Despite the fact that it was only roasted on a fire without even salt or pepper, the taste of a natural fish was a brand new experience for the two who had only ever tasted the artificial stuff.
“…Thanks for the meal.”
Akito clapped his hands together and muttered.
Watching him, Philia cocked her head in curiosity.
“You were also saying something before you started eating. What’s that? A prayer?”
He looked back at her wondering what she was talking about, then realized with an “Ah.”
“It’s more like giving thanks rather a prayer. That’s how we give thanks to the animals who provided us with the meat and to those who prepared it into a meal for us. I heard from my big sister who’s like a mom that it’s a tradition that comes from a place called the Wa-region in Elmea.”
As he spoke, Akito thought back to the past.
He thought back to the time when even though he performed these gesture giving thanks to life, how he himself took the lives of many. Of how he killed so many with no regards all for sake of earning some points.
How even after he understood pain on that winter day half a year ago, he pulled the trigger without hesitation when it was required of him.
He wondered; what is life? What does it mean to die?
The moment when the brain stops functioning? Or when the heart stops beating?
Ever since he fell into the geocity, he had been thinking about it more frequently, and he came to a different explanation now.
—In the end, doesn’t it all just comes down to the Mindstate?
“Hmm… We don’t have this practise in Lorelia.”
He was brought back to reality just then at Philia’s voice.
Then, she placed the stick down on the ground, and awkwardly brought her hands together.
“…Thanks for the meal.”
Her eyes were shut as she bowed down lightly in prayer.
Her long eyelashes danced in the light of the bonfire, casting shadows on her snow-white cheeks.
Finally, she unclasped her hands and turned up to look at Akito.
“Is that how it’s done?”
“…Yeah, you did it perfectly.”
Somehow he felt glad and his cheeks loosened into a smile.
His smile seemed to have infected Philia, and her expression softened.
“That look on your face now suits you much better.”
He did not understand what she suddenly said and eked out an utter.
However, she was already leaning back with her hands and staring at the indigo-blue night skies.
“I see you smiling like that from time to time. It’s so out of place I can’t stand seeing it.”
He unconsciously brought his hands to his cheeks now that someone else pointed it out.
“Are you serious? Since when?”
“All the time at the surface, especially when you are with your squadmates. You have it on your face frequently too since we fell down here.”
“…Is that so? Yeah, you may be right.”
He affirmed and gazed at the orange flames.
It was something he had never heard his comrades say despite the long time they spent together.
Even so, it wasn’t something he would deny. Rather, he thought that was precisely the case.
Now that he thought about it, the one whom he spends the greatest amount of time with each day was, ironically, this girl on the enemy side.
Perhaps, the one who could truly see through to his real self was none other than her.
You got me there, muttered Akito, and said so in payback.
“Like you’re one to speak, I much prefer how you are now than that usual ice-cold elite facade. Here, you act more like a cute girl your age.”
Philia blinked repeatedly in surprise, then her cheeks turned rouge and she faced the other way.
“Th-That’s not true! …I’m a lieutenant colonel belonging to the great Lorelia army. To call me cute is—”
“Ah… would you’d rather be called gallant instead?”
“That’s not it!”
Oh, geez! She cried out as she flicked her hair over her shoulders and covered her face with her hands, looking at him through her fingers.
Whenever their gaze met, she would hurriedly look away.
Seeing her like that, a warmth spread through Akito’s chest and he laughed.
“…What’s so funny.”
She glared at him with her cheeks puffed out.
“Sorry, it’s nothing. It’s just I never imagined seeing you like that. You always looked like you were preoccupied with something.”
When she heard that, she turned to face the false starry skies above with a faraway gaze.
“Am I wrong?”
Then she took in a deep breath, and slowly breathed out before she started to speak.
“The image I see of myself in the mirror is completely different from the one everyone else sees of me. They used to be one and the same, but it seems to have diverged somewhere down the line. The one that you say looks preoccupied must have been the other me.”
“…Is that the one which is Lethal Blue?”
At that, she laughed self-depreciatingly.
“Lethal Blue—what a hideous moniker. It sounds like what an adolescent boy would think of. Did you know? That tactical name was thought up of by my friend.”
Akito laughed with a shrug.
“What a coincidence. The one who thought up the name ‘Blood Naught’ was also one of my buddies. It’s horrible, being called by such a cringey name all the time.”
“You got that right.”
Philia heaved a sigh, and brought up her knees to hide her face.
“Be it Lethal Blue or colonel or elite. They all mean the same thing; everyone’s star of hope and the goddess of victory. …The ‘me’ in their minds just keep moving forward alone, eventually getting further and further from the rest. —In truth, I never wanted to go there at all.”
“I know what you mean. Sometimes, I also can’t tell the difference between whether I’m handing down orders as a person known as ‘Ichinose Akito’, or as the commander of Liger platoon. …No matter how much I try to stick to my beliefs, in the end, I always prioritize my role as commander and play out the part.”
Philia snickered softly.
“So that’s the reason for that miserable look.”
“You could’ve put it more nicely.”
For a while, the two of them laughed together.
“It’s strange. I’ve never had anyone I could share my troubles with.”
“What about that sniper girl? The one you always team up with during assaults.”
“I’m surprised you know her.”
Akito shrugged his shoulders.
“She did put a bullet through my head several times. You tend to remember who after a while.”
“…Cisty is… she’s my best friend. I don’t want to worry her, whether or not she mind.”
Best friend. Philia looked embarrassed to use that phrase, but there was also a hint of a smile.
“But, it’s okay to share with me, then.”
“…That’s right. After all, we’re enemies. I don’t need to consider your feelings at all. …That’s also why, it’s easy to talk with you.”
This time, it was Akito who turned red, and he lay down on his back to hide his embarrassment.
Enemies—Indeed, that’s what we are.
The two of them were unmistakably enemies, and furthermore, arch-rivals who had killed each other any number of times.
He mustn’t forget that no matter what.
But, it hurts his chest just thinking about it.
He already knew the reason for that for since some time back, but pretended not to notice.
Akito just couldn’t help but enjoy the time spent with this girl.
On the surface, he always had to take in account the expectations of others and take care not to betray them, as if he was walking on a tightrope. Somewhere along the way, he lost the ability to laugh from the bottom of his heart.
However, that sense of suffocation disappeared without a trace when he fell into this underground world. As the days passed while quarreling with her, he felt like he was finally himself.
Was it because they were foes who had faced each other a countless times on the battlefield?
No, the voice in his heart told him so.
Surely, it was because he was so drawn to this girl who was awkward and did not pretend to be someone else… yet, she treats everybody so straightforwardly—.
“…If only we were on the same side. I’m sure life would’ve been more fun.”
“…Don’t speak nonsense. All we’d do is argue.”
“Haha… yeah, you’re right.”
It was but a fleeting dream.
Her tone as she laughed off that dream was strangely gentle and soothing to the heart.
That was probably why.
Words he would never say normally made it out of his mouth.
“If—if the war ever ends, could we talk to each other like this again?”
Philia held her breath for a second. Slowly, she started to speak as if she was wringing out the words.
“…This war between our countries will never come to an end.”
“Don’t they say there’s nothing absolute in this world?”
She glanced at his expression.
Then, she brought her hand up to play with her hair and hide her face as she spoke.
“…If the war really ends, I’ll think about it then. …It’s impossible, though.”
Akito was so happy to hear her reply that he could not stop grinning.
“Even if it’s impossible, it’s still fine to dream, isn’t it.”
“…If it comes true, I want to see the stars. Not the gray skies above Reikyo, but a real night sky filled with stars.”
Looking at her clear side profile, Akito slowly breathed out.
“I’ll remember that.”
As he muttered, he felt a comfortable sense of drowsiness creeping in.
—I need to get up to keep watch in turn today too.
He thought as he tried to raise his body—However, that was only in his dreams and his body had already fallen into a peaceful slumber.
∗ ∗ ∗
The black-haired boy slept snugly next to the bonfire.
As the cold night wind scattered her forelocks, the girl—Philia Loadrain dug her cheeks into her knees, and stared quietly.
“…How can he be so unguarded.”
A carefree smile. A fed-up smile. A smile laced with pain.
And that miserable smile as if he understood everything.
He always had a smile plastered on his face, as if that was the duty bestow upon him.
That was what he—Ichinose Akito was like as a person.
In this week she spent together with him, there was one thing she figured out.
One might sum up his personality in a sentence as, “He treats everybody kindly”, but that was not exactly the case.
He was friendly to everyone, not just his friends—this too was inaccurate.
If it’s for his comrades, he wouldn’t hesitate to lay down his life—even this was only half-right.
He had a strict basis for the distinction between an ally or not—this was what it boiled down to.
In his case, what counts as a friend was extremely vague.
Furthermore, he did not put himself in consideration.
He most likely classified people into three groups.
One was “allies”, another “enemies”, and lastly “those who don’t matter”.
One might think this grouping is a common one used by most, but it was the scope of those grouping that was unique in the case of Ichinose Akito.
His definition for what counts as an “ally” or “enemy” was exceedingly narrow.
On the flipside, it meant most of humanity were “those who don’t matter”.
In brief, he considered those close to him as his “allies”, and only those who would do his allies wrong as his “enemies”.
In all likelihood, he did not considered most of his friendly Elmea forces as his “allies”.
As such, he was indifferent to the war, but would do anything in his ability for those close to him.
It was a way of life where he makes decisions by weighing them on a balance—
And it was the complete opposite of hers whereas she yearned for everything and wouldn’t settle for anything less.
Although his actions may appear random, he was in fact single-mindedly following his own will, moreso than anyone else. Watching him from the side like that, Philia somehow felt a sense of security.
It felt like she was being told it’s okay for her to be herself.
That it was fine even if she was different from the rest.
“What a strange person.”
Unconsciously, she reached her hand out for his cheek when she realized what she was doing, and hurriedly pull her hand back.
“What was I—”
She stared into his sleeping face, and pressed down on her chest.
Then, she turned the other way and lie down.
She gazed at the shadow cast by herself. However, it did not register in her mind.
Closing her eyes, she repeated to herself mentally.
This man is my enemy. When we return to the surface, I’m going to have to kill him again—