When he slipped past the grove of trees, his view was completely covered by rose bushes flowering in various colors.
It was a garden. In the center was a fountain, surrounded by flower beds forming a circle around it.
Besides the plaza, there was also an arch covered in blooming roses, and a tree maze which he couldn’t see above. Those structures with dome-shaped roofs were probably gazebos.
The drops of water splashing out from the fountain caught the sunbeam, turning into sparkling crystal drops.
As if he was being drawn in by something, he stepped into the rose garden.
There, he found himself feeling strangely weightless, as if his feet weren’t making contact with the bricks-tiled surface. Just then, Akito came to the realization that this was a dream.
As he walked under the series of rose arches, the sun disappeared and reappeared in a regular rhythm. The brightness of the sun made him squint his eyes, and he brought up his hand to provide shade.
Eventually, he reached the end of the flower tunnel and found a stone gazebo beyond.
There was already someone there.
It was a girl with polished facial features and hair the color of platinum which he had never seen before.
Her thin limbs extended from what seemed like a hospital gown, skin as white as snow.
But what stood out the most was still that platinum hair and her azure eyes as pretty as jewels—
A gust of wind blew past, sending a shower of petals dancing in the air.
This isn’t just a dream. It’s a memory.
It was the vestiges of a memory, like a worn-out film which could still play miraculously.
The moment he thought that, Akito’s consciousness broke through the surface of the sea of slumber—
Deep blue skies which seemed to extend to infinity and pure white cumulonimbus clouds moving lazily across them.
That picture of beautiful contrast was punctuated by the verdurous green of trees.
And beyond the ridges of green lay a cluster of gray formed by the skyscrapers of Reikyo. The countless bullet wounds and remains of collapse robbed the city abandoned 40 years ago of its former glory.
Akito had been taking a nap on the grassy slope while enjoying the cool summer breeze, with the outlines of the streets he fought in just yesterday peeking at the corner of his eyes.
—What a nostalgic dream.
The sunlight filtering through the tree canopy reminded him of the dream he just had.
He and the rest of the children posted to the Reikyo front were all raised at the same place.
That place was simply called “Patio”.
The dream he just saw belonged to back when he was still living at Patio.
He couldn’t recall much of the time when he was still a child, perhaps a side effect of having his memories overwritten repeatedly over the years. The only time he saw them was pretty much only in his dreams.
“Ah, there you are!”
As he soaked in nostalgia, a shadow suddenly came over him.
He tilted his head upwards slightly and found Rena standing there with her hair in braids, looking more showy than usual.
Bathed in ample sunlight, her golden hair shone even brighter than always. Was it his eyes playing tricks on him for having seen nothing but blood and gore all these time on the battlefield? He wondered to himself self-mockingly.
“Taking a nap at this time of the day?”
“This is called respite for the heart. Fighting day in, day out is taking a toll on me.”
In contrast to him, she was wearing a brilliant smile which made it hard to think she was engaged in the same gruesome battle as him as she offered him a hand.
“Come on, Aki, join us in the bee assault!”
But upon hearing what she said, Akito pulled a long face.
Bee assault referred to a kind of sports contest where several players each controlled a flying drone and tried to shoot down the others.
The name originated from how in certain matches, up to several dozen drones chased each other around in dogfights, appearing to spectators as bees buzzing around a hive.
Since it also served as a training of sorts for conducting parallel calculations linked to multi-tasking, the army gave leeway for soldiers to spend their free time like this. In this outpost where entertainment was sorely lacking, it was one of the most common leisure activity.
However, Akito avoided it like the plague.
The reason was simple.
“…Are you inviting me on purpose to annoy me? You know I’m hopeless at parallel calculations.”
In terms of mental calculations using the neural gate, Akito was faster than anyone at direct calculation when focusing on a single task. Conversely, he was utterly bad at parallel calculations.
And Rena had full knowledge of that as she invited him.
Her motive couldn’t have been more bald-faced.
In general, bee assault was a game which came with bets. The wager of the bets were diverse, ranging from today’s dessert at the cafeteria, to even the portrait data of a specific person. Needless to say, Akito had never won any single one of those bets.
“I mean, it’ll be easy pickings… or rather, my wallet’s… Scratch that, it’s, you know, it’ll fire the team up!”
Her pure smile was dazzling.
Akito leaned back hard as he resisted.
“No way in hell! What more could you possibly want to wring out of me!?”
“Hmm, how about a ‘Whole-day Massage Ticket’? Recently, I’ve been feeling the exhaustion pile up since our survival rate’s been going up. Don’t you think this would be a great motivation for everyone to participate? See, it’ll be a chance for you to catch up with the rest, and it’ll improve our teamwork for sure!”
“How many times have you said that just to make me suffer! The other day it was ‘Become a Butler For the Day Ticket’, and the one before that was a ‘Praise Me Every Hour Ticket’. I’m already all wiped out from battle already, so why do I still have to labor in the base!?”
“There there, just think of it as doing the team a service.”
“Screw that service!”
Not to mention, most of those tickets were won by her.
It wasn’t that she was particularly good at electronic warfare. Rather, she specialized in ambushes. She excelled at circling around to the enemy’s back in the chaos of a melee involving multiple parties.
Thus, a contest like bee assault was ripe for the picking to her.
“You sure are being stubborn today. But what if I told you this: among the prizes today is a ticket for the test-drive of an experimental model of the anti-tank blade you are so fond of. Furthermore, it’s made by the trusted Telesa Corporation.”
She had caught his attention for a moment, but he decided that this too was another one of her traps and shook his head.
Speaking of the Telesa Corporation, it was the world’s largest military-industrial complex conglomerate.
Holding a neutral stance of staying uninvolved in any conflict, the international conglomerate supplies weapons to all manners of battlefields around the globe. In this Reikyo front too, most armament used by Elmea and Lorelia were manufactured by them.
“You can’t bait me with that, you know. Experimental model are called that because they usually have some kind of defect which makes them unusable. I’m more than happy with my current model.”
“Hmm, I see you are being awfully cautious of me.”
“You only have yourself to blame for that. …Anyway, to think that they even actively work on the development of a minor weapon like the anti-tank blade. As expected of Telesa Corp.”
“Isn’t their slogan ‘Your one-stop destination from the humble bullet to an orbital cannon’—or something like that? It’s hard to believe that that nasty ration packs are also a product of Telesa.”
As he spoke to Rena lightheartedly, Akito thought to himself.
—What a relief. If she’s laughing like that, it must mean I’m no different from usual.
She was as cheerful as always, and wasn’t trying to pry into him or anything.
She and Ryoutarou have been friends with him for almost 16 years.
He didn’t wanted to worry them at all if possible.
However, paying no heed to his concerns, something barged into his time of peace.
A piercing blare resounded in his mind along with the appearance of the words “Emergency Transmission” filling his field of vision in red.
It was a contact from Headquarters of the highest importance.
[Ichinose, gather Liger Platoon immediately.]
When he connected to the line, a low man’s voice sounded in his head.
Akito got up with a start and looked towards the field.
Excluding him and Rena, the other 21 members of the platoon were standing in a circle and cheering as two drones were engaged in a fierce dogfight in the center. The match was apparently down to Ryoutarou and one more member in final combat.
Everyone were abnormally engrossed in the match, and it was right at the moment before the showdown concluded when Akito shouted.
“Liger Platoon, gather round!! Connect your Mindtalk to the platoon-use room immediately! On the double!”
The atmosphere changed in a beat.
All members dropped their drones to the ground and gathered around Akito in a circle.
He instantly saw 25 names in the participant list of the telepathic communication app Mindtalk filling his sight.
Akito extracted some location data from his GPS and put it on shared mode in his Mindtalk—at once, the countless skyscrapers making up Reikyo City filled the interior of their ring.
A few seconds later, the hologram projection of a middle-aged man appeared.
Despite being part of the military, the man—Kanzaki Tooru was dressed in a well-ironed business suit.
His rank was colonel and his position was the overall commander of the Reikyo outpost in charge of planning and operation command. Put another way, he was the man responsible for the deadlock here at the Reikyo frontline for the past three years.
He was also the direct superior of Akito who led the Liger Platoon.
The moment he saw Kanzaki’s face, Akito had a bad premonition.
For their regular missions, the contact AI of the United Tactical Assist System—codename “Agitator” would be the one giving the briefing. However, when it came to irregular missions, Kanzaki would show up in person like this to give the mission directive.
And in cases like this, they usually spelled bad news. Everyone was well-aware of that too and their faces turned sour.
A sickeningly buoyant smile was plastered on Kanzaki’s handsome face as he began speaking.
[—Right, everyone’s here so let’s begin. A new plan of action was devised 320 seconds ago. The field of operation will be a certain underground research facility at Point R8501, the Saiga Lab. The mission objective is the recovery of data safekept in the control room of the lab.]
—Saiga Lab. It was one of the research facilities made by the citizens of Reikyo City who were said to be mankind’s cream of the crop.
Akito doubted the words Kanzaki said for a moment.
However, when he saw the looks spreading across his subordinates’ faces, he realized that he did not hear wrongly. Some of them turned pale as they looked into each other’s face, while some flinched with their cheeks twitching.
To his right, Ryoutarou also turned stiff.
“Don’t tell me…”
Akito continued his sentence in a groan.
“—Is it Operation Whiteout?”
Still smiling, Kanzaki nodded.
In the two years since the mission was first proposed, none of the teams who were deployed had succeeded. It was the most notorious mission here at the Reikyo outpost.
On the surface, it was a simple operation which entails entering a certain underground research facility in zone Romeo, and recovering a certain data drive containing top secret information, but the trouble lay in the lab’s security system. Even with its original owners gone, a large number of powerful drones still patrolled Saiga Lab. Those unmanned weapons seemed to be positioned to guard the control room, and they sent all teams who went there to salvage the data to their deaths without fail.
By the grace of Arcadia, the only option apart from the successful recovery of data was to continue to die trying until the time limit is reached.
As a result, all platoons which undertook the mission had their scores lowered tremendously.
Akito clenched his fists tightly.
If they were made to participate in this mission, the steady progress they’ve made in raising their scores would be readily gone with the wind. Then, the dreams of Rena and Ryoutarou and the others would end up as castles in the air.
“Why pick us…!? Isn’t Whiteout usually allotted to the platoon with the lowest score!”
On his left, Rena spoke rapidly without pausing to breathe.
Taking the opportunity to vent their angers, the rest of the members also started heckling.
“Yeah, that’s right! You can’t pick us, our score’s above average!”
“If you’re gonna assign it to someone, at least assign it to someone useless like Hagi who can only use the shotgun!”
“Hey, which of you asshole said that!”
“Will you guys quieten down.”
At Kanzaki’s sharp words, the clatter died down immediately.
“Liger Platoon does indeed have the lowest score. In terms of anti-personnel scores, that is.”
The air froze around the squad.
“Operation Whiteout is so to speak, a side mission. Our main objective is still to occupy Reikyo and form a bridgehead for the assault on the Lorelia mainland. In order to break through the battlefield where Arcadia is in force, what we need are troops who excel at suppressing enemy combatants. Naturally, the onus of this mission falls upon you guys who do not.”
It went without saying whose responsibility it was that things turned out this way.
Akito himself was the one who determined the team’s direction to focus on anti-drone tactics and neglect enemy combatants.
He felt the entire platoon’s accusatory stares on him.
“…Damn it., it’s all Ichinose’s fault!”
“Screw this, why do we have to wipe that guy’s ass for his screw-ups.”
“What’s gonna happen to our scores… If we did Whiteout, that’s a direct ticket to rock-bottom, isn’t it.”
Whispers of grievance came from everywhere with no attempts made to hide them.
“What are you all pinning the blame on Aki for! Isn’t it our collective responsibility that our score’s this way!?”
Rena curtly stamped down the complaining voices. Her words made the rest of them avert their faces.
Akito took a sharp breath before speaking out.
“Colonel, our platoon has contribute significantly to the war effort, in particular, our ability at holding the ground is top-class. I can say with confidence that we are second to none in this regard. Our participation in the battle aboveground is sure to be more beneficial to the army overall. I beseech that you assign us another mission.”
“No can do. You guys score badly against enemy personnel, but rank abnormally high against drone targets. There’s no better allocation than this.”
“Unlike the battle aboveground, Saiga Lab is an enclosed area. I believe there is a possibility that we are unable to fully exert our performances in such different environment. Wouldn’t the 3rd or 4th platoon who had undertaken Operation Whiteout before be more suitable?”
“There’s no need to worry on that front. I’ve looked through your past battle records and can guarantee that you guys can maintain a baseline performance level regardless of aboveground or underground. You guys just have to follow your orders without question and break through the defense.”
Akito gritted his teeth so hard he felt pain.
He glared hard at Kanzaki who had a smile plastered on his face that was completely insincere.
“You seem to be really fixated with this data drive. Could it be that it holds the pictures of your daughter who ran away from home? Not to mention, the Lots also frequently send their own salvager teams on a mission like this. If it’s so important, shouldn’t you plan a large-scale assault on that point instead?”
“M-My daughter have nothing this and the contents of the drive are none of your concern. And how many times must I repeat myself, Ichinose. Maintaining the frontlines is the top priority. What you guys are doing is just on the side.”
The false smile on Kanzaki’s face spasmed a bit.
Akito felt as if he was speaking to an outdated AI which could only reply with pre-recorded responses. He might as well be conversing with Agitator in this case, then he wouldn’t have to deal with this disgusting phony smile.
Akito took another look at the 3D map projection and noticed something.
There was a gigantic space right beneath the research facility in Reikyo.
“…Colonel. The empty space right under the lab wouldn’t happen to be—”
Kanzaki nodded briefly at his words.
“As you’ve noted, that is the geocity, Iota.”
“…You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
Starting with Ryoutarou, groans came up here and there.
It was the world’s largest geofront, a shining star of the splendor and abundance possessed by the world in the past. A keepsake of the lost Reikyo populace.
Akito’s gaze slid over to Kanzaki.
“Isn’t the bedrock around that area weak? In the unlikely event of a ground collapse, wouldn’t we would end up falling straight down… into an offline area where the Aethernet doesn’t reach?”
“…Ain’t that some serious bad stuff!?”
“Yup, the ground is slightly precarious there so be sure to pay full attention. However, in the case where one of you goes offline for more than two weeks, they will be struck off the list. That’s to prevent ‘Resonance’ with a clone holding the same Mindstate. If we can’t find a dead body, you will not be Respawned.”
A chill ran down Akito’s back.
Struck off the list, in other words, they would be treated as expelled from the army and would not be able to Respawn via Arcadia. And being disconnected from Arcadia and the Respawn system in an era like this meant real, actual death.
Following which, Kanzaki spread his arms open and spoke cheerfully.
“Of course, I understand that this is an extremely difficult and unsavory mission for you guys.”
Sensing a change in topic, the team focused their attention back on Kanzaki.
“That’s why I promise you—if you succeed in this mission, I shall boost your point scores by 500% for the remaining four years until the end of your service.”
His words made the surroundings grow rowdy.
It eventually transformed into excitement which then grew into cheers.
Akito, Rena and Ryoutarou looked to each other in doubt. None of them have ever heard of such a special reward. If they really had such a point enhancement in place, he could come up with more strategies that would even further reduce the team’s risk of death, thought Akito.
However, he still couldn’t erase his doubts and questioned Kanzaki further.
“What are you planning?”
But, the man only shrugged his shoulders in reply.
“I think it’s only fair since you guys are about to undertake a risky mission where you might possibly not Respawn from. Such a bonus seems about right.”
As they spoke, the team began a fierce debate among themselves about whether to take on the mission or not, seemingly forgetting that they were in the midst of an emergency summons.
“Will you guys pipe down for a second! Our discussion isn’t over yet!”
Rena shouted loudly to drown out the commotion.
Her roar caused silence to rule once again and everyone turned their sights onto Akito. When he looked around, he saw determination on their faces.
Akito slowly expelled the air from his lungs and turned to face Kanzaki directly once more.
“—Fine, but I have one more condition. I want air support until we reach the target point. We’re talking about the Lorelia forces here, there’s no doubt they’d sense our advance and come to stop us. I want to minimize losses on our side before we begin our assault on the lab.”
Kanzaki opened his eyes slightly.
“Consider it done.”
“—Alright, it’s settled then.”
Nodding in approval of Akito’s request, Kanzaki walked towards the 3D map projection.
“Since communications to Saiga Lab will be unstable, be prepared to fight under condition of high Respawn frequency. To that end, you will be provided with a larger amount of aether and biofilaments than usual.”
Next, a 3D projection of the target of recovery, the data drive appeared in mid-air.
It was a rectangular palm-sized object with a rugged exterior.
“Also, the data drive comes along with a security dongle. Without it, data within the drive cannot be accessed either, so be sure retrieve both without fail.”
Next to him, Ryoutarou uttered uneasily.
“…I know we can Res, but in the end, we’re still human. It’s one thing fighting a mid-range battle on the ground, but this time we’re facing drones with high processing abilities in an enclosed area to boot. Isn’t this kinda tough?”
“Alone, you guys may be weak. But, I believe your collective strength as a whole is greater than the sum of your parts. Don’t worry, human soldiers will come to play the main role again in warfare in time to come.”
Akito raised his head at Kanzaki’s unbarbed words which was different from the ones usually laced with sarcasm.
“You almost sounded like an adult there.”
“Despite how I appear to you, I did lived several time longer than you guys.”
He smiled faintly, before turning expressionless as he gave the order.
“The operation begins at 1300 hours. Liger Platoon, prepare for sortie.”
The entire platoon answer in unison to his words.