The stiff seat fully transmitted the heavy vibration of the eight-bladed rotor.
The Liger Platoon was made of eight squads with three men each, and they were split into helicopters each carrying two squads.
In the skies above the main road with collapsed viaducts here and there, the helicopters weaved through a jungle of skyscrapers.
Rushing through the air at a speed hard to capture with the naked eye, the cluster of buildings emblazed by the sinking sun almost appeared to be a shower of meteor as they passed them by.
As for the helicopter Akito and the others were in—its interior blared with loud dance music as its occupants engaged in a game of cards.
“Yessss! It’s my win!”
Ryoutarou raised a cry of victory over their virtual game of trumps.
As for the loser, Rena was hugging her head as she sobbed.
“Why did I lose again this time!? I don’t wanna carry it, it’s so damn heavy! Aki, Ryou, you guys must be cheating!”
Akito already got up from his seat and placed a hand on the crying Rena’s shoulder.
“There there, Rena. This is also the result of your daily actions. Just as you exact penalty games on others, so too does it circles around back to you…”
“That doesn’t make any sense!”
“Sorry, I just made that up.”
“Hey Aki, take over for me, please? Think of it as doing me a favor, please? It wouldn’t hurt, right?”
“How about this, I’ll take over for you in exchange for you doing one thing I say.”
She hesitated for a moment, her cheeks turning red for some reason as she looked up at Akito with pleading eyes.
“B-By the way, what are you going to request? C-Could it be you want my body—”
“From now onwards, you shall not be able to inflict any penalty game on me.”
He declared in an ultimatum to which she completely flipped.
“That’s an obvious NO! You wanna take away my purpose in life!?”
“What kind of purpose in life is that!?”
Akito and the others had been playing to see who would be the one to carry the equipment called the All-terrain Tactical Additive Printer, or ATAP in short. It was a magic bullet that could print out clone bodies anywhere as long as it was connected to the Aethernet. This allows for Respawning without using drop pods.
However, just as it was convenient, it also had its demerits. One was that it took a longer time to print out a single body. Another was its weight.
“One more time! Let’s play one more round! You know how I go with a high mobility loadout, right!? If you make me carry the ATAP, it’d all be for nothing!”
Even Ryoutarou who was always at her bidding had the last laugh this time.
“You’re being a sore loser, Rena. Just suck it up and accept the fact already.”
“Says the one who always whines when he lose! I don’t want to hear that from you of all people, Ryou!”
“Huh, what was that, loser?”
Leaving the sight of the two bickering at the corner of his eyes, Akito checked that they were approaching their objective point and raised his hand to signal the rest.
“Alright, let’s begin.”
Switching off the mute command in his Mindtalk, Akito addressed the whole platoon mentally.
[All hands, conduct final checks.]
Instantly, the music stopped and everyone came to attention.
From there, they silently conducted their final preparations.
Akito checked the safety on his rifle and pulled the charging handle to chamber his first round. He then confirmed that the assault rifle was fastened securely to the cord extending from the clavicle of his tactical suit. Lastly, he did a quick scan of his neural gate to ensure it was in a clean state and had no backdoors.
Finally, he lightly touched the choker by his neck.
The choker was known as the MS Syncer.
It continually extracted the wearer’s Mindstate in real-time and synchronized it with Arcadia’s servers. At the same time, it was also the device which burned the Mindstate into the brain of a clone body when Respawning.
In other words, it was their literal lifeline.
Anxiousness flooded into him at once, turning into a sharp sting at the back of his nostrils. He had a particularly bad feeling about today. And it usually turned out to be the case when his teammates would die a great deal.
However, as commander, Akito couldn’t let it show on his face.
So instead, he took a deep breath.
Just when he finished the final checks, a beep sounds rang out. A second later, the door on both sides slid open. The summer wind rushed in, chilling his exposed neck.
The high-pitched tone of a speedy flying object approached from their backs.
Two unmanned fighters zoomed past the helicopter leaving white tails in their wake, and fired a single large missile each. As the missiles fell, its front began to open as if it was a flower bud in bloom, scattering countless tube-shaped objects.
Momentarily, thrusters at the back of the tubes ignited, zigzagging across the air onto targets on the ground. They transformed into spears which aimed straight for the enemy ground units spread 100 meters ahead of them.
The explosions reached their eyes a few seconds before the shockwaves did, sending clouds of dust blooming into the air and rushing past them.
The air-to-ground cluster missiles marked the start of the offensive, with a vast amount of aerial drones lining up next the helicopter Akito and others were in.
[Agitator to Liger Platoon. 10 seconds to contact with enemy ground forces.]
The helicopter accelerated.
Sure enough, a mass of helicopters appeared beyond the main street in front exactly 10 seconds later on the dot as announced by Agitator. They were made up of transport aircrafts carrying human soldier just as they were and the accompanying drone guards.
Ryoutarou commented with a snort.
“Props to Agitator. Always accurate, even more so than the weather report.”
“—Five seconds to target point.”
Akito declared and turned off the safety.
His pulse hastened.
He inched as close to the edge of the door as possible. Then, when the timer hit zero—
“Liger Platoon, disperse!!”
Akito and the rest of the platoon jumped out of the helicopters at once without even rappelling.
The cold air of the battlefield enveloped him straight away while gravity guided his body downwards. He could feel his internal organs seem to shift upwards, and could barely hear anything through the roaring wind. The holey asphalt seemed to approach him as the moments went by while the outline of the craters made by tank shots and the wreckages of drones became clearer.
His body sank deeply as he landed, kicking up a cloud of dust. The impact from landing was perfectly absorbed by the biometal fiber making up his tactical suit. Following Akito, the rest of the platoon landed one after another.
Right then, a storm of bullet showered them from the front of the main street.
[All units, assume formation Caylus and head for the objective point!]
Running through the bullet rain fired by the Lorelia army’s drones, he shouted to the rest.
The platoon was headed towards the entrances to the subway littered across the land.
However, the route there was already a picture of hell.
A teammate in front of him exploded into a blood spray, and the one next to him tripped over their body. Akito grabbed their hand and pulled them forcefully down the stairs of the subway entrance.
As they jumped down the steps almost in a fall, the person called out to him.
At the voice, he realized that the hand belonged to Rena.
Once he confirmed that she was able to run on her own, he let go of her hand.
“No, I’m fine. But, half of the members are on my back by now… We need to quickly let them Respawn so that they can earn some points too.”
Akito nodded at her words.
“Res using the ATAP takes time. We need to hurry up and set up camp somewhere in the research facility.”
He turned around to find the gutter from the entrance stained red with blood most likely belonging to his allies.
His friends lost their lives again because of his orders.
Each time that happened, their scores would drop until it reached the negatives. However, what affected Akito more was the pain and suffering they experienced as they died, which pricked at his heart as if he felt their deaths himself. Even if the casualty themselves did not minded so.
“…Aki, you okay?”
Rena called out to him with concern.
Akito returned to his senses and smiled his usual smile.
“Yeah. Let’s move on while we can.”
When they descended the stairs, they found themselves in a dome-shaped space with a ticketing barrier. From there, they soon found the entrance to the lab.
The Saiga Lab was built here in the vast underground intersections of Reikyo City back when it was still the world’s top research city, its subterranean location meant to evade the iron grip of the oppressive Lorelia Federation. From the way they tried to hide themselves and were armed so heavily, it could be implied that their research was something not meant to see the light of the day.
As the two progressed down the barren corridor of the Lab, they came out into a spacious area.
It was an atrium which served as an office space.
Akito switched to night vision and gave orders for each squad to spread out. The team silently scattered.
As they did, countless shadows appeared hazily in the darkness.
They were four-legged machine dogs made out of contraptions. However, they were headless and tailless. Instead, they were fully covered in armor with built-in sensors, and an autocannon rode along their back. Looking at their full silhouette, it seemed inaccurate to call them dogs when their rugged design clearly spoke of their original purpose—to kill.
These were unmanned ground vehicles, or UGVs in short.
[All teams, begin aether dispersal.]
Akito pushed a button on the tube-shaped object hanging from his waist, and it started releasing its contents into the atmosphere with a pssh. The other squad leaders also did as he did and started dispersing theirs.
The identity of what they were releasing was a kind of nanomachine called Aether that served as a broadcast relay unit capable of remaining airborne.
By dispersing aether, they were able to connect to the UTAS even in communications-shutoff areas without resorting to linking physical cables—More importantly, it allowed them to connect to Arcadia.
[Leave these guys to us. Each squad are to split up and search for the server room containing the data drive.]
Leaving behind the team of Akito, Rena and Ryoutarou, the rest of the platoon split up and began their infiltration of the research facility.
When one of the UGV turned around to chase them, Akito immediately turned his crosshair onto it and fired.
∗ ∗ ∗
A shell fired from a UGV pierced through Akito’s heart.
The next moment, he found himself staring at a sea of blood on the linoleum floor illuminated briefly by muzzle flashes.
A violent cough shot up his throat and he reflexively took a deep breath.
[ARCADIA is Online.]
The artificial voice signaled to him his successful Respawn.
He looked down to find his feet being printed out coincidentally by the ATAP.
The ATAP was an aerial drone with a gravity-control system instead of wings. Normally, it appeared no different from the mass-produced UAVs, but transforms into its current annular shape when in use.
Upon completion of the printing of his new body, Akito spit out a meat-like mass of biofilament from his mouth. Then, he drew the rifle from his back which was printed together and raised his face.
He glanced at the timer floating in the corner of his view.
Two hours had passed since they infiltrated the lab.
They were currently in a narrow corridor where Ryoutarou and Rena were engaged in a fierce firefight with the UGVs blocking their way.
Right between the two forces was a door.
The composite function in his sights displayed the room plate as “1st Control Room”. The room which no one managed to reach in these two years contained their objective, the data drive, and it was so close he could almost smell it. However, they were running low on the biofilament required for them to Respawn here underground, while the other teams were busy stopping the drones behind them in their tracks.
A body lay right in front of the room. It belonged to none other than Akito whose soul had previously inhabited moments ago.
He was so, so close. But, that remaining bit of distance was hopelessly far.
“Rena, how many more Respawns do we have with the biofilaments remaining!?”
“Yours was the last one!”
“You can’t be serious… My bad!”
Even as she replied him, her eyes were fixed to the front as her dual 9mm submachine guns spewed accurate gunfire aimed at the joints of the drones. Her style of shooting which minimized recoil made her stream of bullets appear to be firing in a straight line. No one else on the team held a candle to her when it came to accuracy.
“Don’t fret about that! After all, even I have already Res-ed six times so far!”
Next to her, Ryoutarou was spamming his 12-gauge shotgun equiped with an extended 32 rounds drum magazine, occasionally tossing grenades into the mix. One of his go-to phrases was, “Anything mid-range can be settled with grenades!”
Surrounded by the sound of explosions, Akito cursed inwardly.
When he listed up the death count of each squad, he calculated that they had already lost points equivalent to one month of battle.
Their current rate of earning points was bad enough already, and now this deficit hurt even more. At this rate, by the time they retire, all the platoon members could look to was a dismal, dreary life, not even to speak of being able to follow their hopes and dreams.
“The target’s right ahead! We’ve bring back that data drive no matter what, you hear me!”
Akito switched position with Rena just as she reloaded—Right then…
[Agitator to Liger Platoon 1st Squad. Five seconds to contact with enemy ground soldiers.]
Matching his shout, another force appeared behind the drones ahead of them in the corridor which now turned into a T junction. Based on sight alone, he could already see six people.
The tactical support program displayed [Enemy Personnel: 9] in the corner of his eyes based on aural analysis of their footsteps.
[It’s the Lots! Why they hell do they have to pick the same time as us to dive here, God damn it…!]
Ryoutarou looked to Akito.
We’re being tested, he thought.
Akito shut his eyes for a second, then gave out orders immediately.
[Rena will use a flashblang. The moment it goes off, we’ll deploy a shield pod and advance towards the control room. Ryoutarou and I will take point. We’ll take turns to lay down cover fire at your own discretion. Also, switch on your laser!]
The two answered simultaneously in the Mindtalk.
Akito and Ryoutarou took out a four-wheeled drone and lay it on the ground. Then, Akito manipulated the menu of the application in his sights. As he did, the drone projected a human-sized translucent shield in front.
Rena pulled the pin out of a stun grenade and tossed it down the corridor.
A gruff male voice on the other side shouted, followed by a blinding white flash.
The two guys switched on their lasersights and began running along with the shield pod.
Akito trained a red laser dot on the head of one the soldiers who staggered from the loud explostion. Nonetheless, as expected of a trained soldier, he turned his gun in Akito’s direction even as he bowled over. Judging from his reaction, his sensor had yet to recover from the effects of the stun grenade, and he gave up on relying on his fire-control programme. It must have been almost instinct that he was pointing his gun at him when he could barely even see.
—Am I going to kill again?
A voice sounded out in his cool, calm mind. It belonged to his other self which he had forced deep down inside for this mission.
Akito bit his lips as he shut the voice up again.
—This is the right thing to do. It’s what everyone’s doing. There’s no better way.
He kept telling himself that, as if in self-suggestion. This way, he shut away his true feelings at the bottom of his heart.
He felt giddy. His heart palpitations were getting so loud he could practically hear them. The scream of his heart seemed to manifest as actual pain.
Even so, he averted his eyes from that pain.
Then, he pulled the trigger.
Smoke rose from the muzzle of his rifle and the sound of two cartridge hitting the ground came a moment later. That was all it took for the man to collapse with a splatter of blood on the wall behind him. However, Akito didn’t stop there. His optical sight shifted from one person to another, and his finger pulled the trigger in a machine-like manner.
Bodies dropped onto the floor with dull thuds.
“You’ve still got it in you, dontcha!”
Ryoutarou shouted in excitement. He had also been doing his part and had dispatched two others.
But, Akito had no replies for him.
He felt a resistance at his fingertips, as if he was moving them through mud.
They continued to lay down suppressing fire at the remaining soldiers, but the other side also recovered and shot back, leaving numerous bullet dents on the simple shield in front of them.
Ryoutarou shouted with his gun point facing upwards, and Rena rushed forward to take over for him—just then…
Three aerial drone headed straight for them.
Akito quickly spotted the miniature bombs attached to their sides.
“—Suicide drones, count three!”
He fired his low remaining ammo in bursts, shooting down two of them. That was when he finally exhausted his magazine.
He immediately threw down his rifle and drew his handgun. However, he didn’t make it in time.
Just when the drone was almost right in front of them, Rena’s full-auto sent the drone exploding.
The shield pod was blasted away and the three of them were thrown onto the ground.
Along with the explosion, multiple muzzles stuck out from the smoke and took aim at them.
Knowing they wouldn’t survive the barrage, Akito made a snap decision and kicked down the door of the control room.
“Get in, quickly!!”
Holding off the attackers with his handgun, he heard the two of them enter in a half-crawl-half-roll.
At the same time, a tracer round scratched the side of his face.
From there, Ryoutarou and Rena grabbed his collar and pulled him into the room, barely saving his life.
“That was close! Aki, you dummy! You’re always so reckless at times like these even though you’re usually so calm!”
“Sorry, and thanks!”
The small room was lined with rows of large silver boxes taller than man. Each of them were filled a transparent liquid. Some of them were cracked, and signs of leakage could be seen below them. They were liquid-cooled server units and this was the server room.
“—We’ve finally reach this place.”
Rena murmured. Next to her, Ryoutarou was similarly amazed, turning mute in a rare display.
Akito was also filled with countless thoughts.
No one had managed to reached this sealed area for the past two years; they were the first to do so.
The support application indicated that the data drive of their target was located at the furthest back of the room atop a control panel.
[Agitator to Liger Platoon 1st Squad. An unknown signal has been detected, proceeding to isola-la-la-la-]
A transmission from Headquarters reached them abruptly. However, it cut off halfway, repeating itself over and over in error.
Akito raised a cry of surprise and looked between Rena and Ryoutarou.
Right then, several windows in his display distorted with compression artifacts, and an unfamiliar female voice resounded in his head as if to overwrite the message from Agitator.
[—the children who can hear me. The battles you are made to—]
At that moment, a dull metallic thud landed in front of them. Blood drained from their faces. It was a grenade.
The three of them dived inside the room head-first.
A shockwave passed by above them. The sound of the explosion could be heard even after being softened by his headset. The origin of the explosion was from the right side of the door from their view. In other words, they would be approaching from their left and center.
[—I understand your doubts and disbelief. But, this is the unadulterated truth. I have evidence. Everything the Telesa Corporation had done is here—]
The mysterious voice continued. It was terribly distracting. However, all mute commands he entered were not accepted by the neural gate, so he only drive the voice out his head consciously.
Akito got up and switched his lasersight to Infrared sight, and the target in the reticle turned into a large mass. It’s going to turn in a melee; he wouldn’t need accurate fire any more.
Amid the sound of shattering glass falling onto the ground, Akito signalled the other two with hand signals. Rena would assault them from the right, while Ryoutarou and him pushed from the left. They acknowledged silently by clenching their fists.
He then raised his arm and swung it down. Simultaneously, the three of them moved and placed their backs against the servers.
Several pairs of footsteps could be heard rushing into the room.
The moment they entered, some of them shouted. “What is this transmissions!?” “Colonel, our lines are being jacked from an unknown address!” “Backtrack the source of the transmission! Hurry up!” Apparently, the source of the transmission was somewhere in this control room.
[There’s four of them while we only have the three of us here.]
[Ryoutarou, throw two grenades down the middle. We’ll snipe them when the first explosion smoke them out.]
“You got it.”
A click sound could be heard as Ryoutarou pulled out the primary and secondary pins before he tossed it with his back still against the server. Before he even got the second grenade ready, Akito sneaked the front of his rifle out from the left side of the row of servers.
The first explosion rocked his ears. Before the second one went off, two enemy soldiers ran down the left lane.
Akito bit his lips and pulled the trigger. A bullet went through each of their heads easily and they collapsed on the spot. A lone soldier who didn’t managed to escape the prior blast was sent also flying into the wall.
Akito re-assumed his cover behind the server and switched out his magazine.
His voice shivered as he reported. The more he tried to calm down, the clearer the scene of the splattering flesh and blood rewound in his head. The expressions of the fallen enemy soldiers remained fresh on his mind.
This time, three bangs resounded from the right. It must be Rena’s doing.
[One down! But this is bad, two of them managed to circle around to the center!]
The sound of footsteps on a metal surface was transmitted along with Rena’s mental voice, telling of their approach.
“Damn it! They’re close!”
Ryoutarou hurriedly got up and rushed into the center lane to provide backup.
Several muzzle flashes flickered briefly. Multiple 7.62mm rounds pierced through Ryoutarou’s right shoulder as a stream of empty cartridges fell from his assault rifle going full-auto.
Akito pulled his left shoulder firmly to bring him into the cover of the server unit. At the same time, he stepped out to Ryoutarou’s previous position and let loose his rifle at the enemy soldiers trying to take cover.
“Another one kill!”
[Nice kill, Akito! How’s Ryoutarou!?]
“Shit, it hit a major artery…!”
Ryoutarou leaned heavily against the server as he took out a jet injector filled with a hemostatic from his pouch and injected his right shoulder. He then threw the empty injector away and pressed his left hand against the wound to try to stop the bleeding.
It was right at that moment.
Without sound or warning, a gunpoint poked out of the darkness from the left side.
A grunt eked out of Akito’s mouth.
For what appeared was none other than a silver girl holding a handgun—Lethal Blue.
A muffled pff came from the gun equiped with a suppressor. Following which, Ryoutarou collapsed sideways with his eyes still open, his head penetrated by a bullet. His lifeless expression resembled that of an empty cicada carapace.
Akito jumped into the center lane.
It was a scene he had witnessed countless of times. Something that repeated over and over again.
Killing enemies on the battlefield also meant the possibility of his friends getting killed.
[Rena, Ryoutarou’s down!!]
Calm down, he told himself. Don’t lose your composure.
We’re still connected to Arcadia. He can still Respawn.
However, despite knowing that, what is this boiling emotion threatening to shoot up his throat…!!
Just as anger propelled him up, an aerial drone flew up to him.
Akito dived to where Rena was.
The drone exploded right where he stood a second ago, the shockwave close enough to send him flying still. Rena caught him and brought him to his feet.
“You alright, Aki!?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. More importantly, we need to get the drive—”
It happened before he even finished his sentence.
An ominous tremor shook the entire room.
Right then, he recalled the words he said during the briefing.
—The structural framework of the geocity’s upper surface was weakened with age.
Humans were such beings that when used to an action, took it for granted even when knowing it was dangerous, saying there’s no help for it. This was exactly that case now. If you don’t toss the grenade, you’ll get killed. If you’re going to die and lose some points anyway, might as well throw that grenade and try to get a kill. It’s not like the place will collapse that easily—that was their usual line of thoughts.
And that naiveté now came back to bite him.
Screeeee, came the sound from the floor as a fissure opened up beneath them.
Immediately, Akito pushed Rena towards the exit. In the blink of an eye, a gulf more than five meters long opened up between them.
Rena turned back in shock.
“Get out of here, Rena!”
“What are you saying, you know you can’t Respawn if fall from here, right!? I’m begging you, come over here!”
She pleaded with desperation in her eyes. It was an expression that the normal her would never have shown to anyone.
Even in this time, the ceiling continued to collapse and the rupture on the floor grew in size by the second.
The urge to jump over to her side was overwhelming, but he recalled his duty as the commander of the platoon and yelled back.
“I’ll go retrieve the drive! You head back first, Rena!!”
“No, Aki, don’t! Come back!”
But he only turned his back on her entreaty.
When he did, his eyes met those of Lethal Blue several meters ahead who was similarly trying to maintain her balance in the tremors.
Right now, they were the only two in this space.
She turned her sights towards the console at the back of the room.
Matching her, Akito peeled his eyes from the silver-haired girl and made a mad dash for the console.
The girl’s heels raised clouds of dusts behind them. Chasing her back, Akito could feel beads of sweat running off his cheeks.
Right before him, the silver girl reached the console and pulled away the data drive. It was a rectangular object, slightly bigger than palm-size. A cord-like thing dangled from its side.
He figured out straight away that that was the security dongle.
“Hand it over, Lethal Blue!”
Towards the approaching enemy, the girl swung her long legs in multiple swift kicks. Nonetheless, he dodged them by the breadth of a hair and reached out his hand to its limits to snatch the data drive.
And then his fingertips caught something—the edge of the security dongle.
The next moment, he was sent flying back by the girl’s footwork.
The momentum caused the dongle to separate from the data drive, ending up in his hand.
Slammed onto the floor, all the air in his lungs were forcefully expelled.
At the same time—the world in his vision seemed to rise.
Belatedly, he realized that he was falling.
Akito blindly flailed his other hand to try to grab something that would arrest his fall—alas, it caught nothing.
A glint of silver shone in the corner of his eyes. Apparently, Lethal Blue was also caught up in the collapse and free-falling. Her flowing long hair flew upwards as if it was being pulled by an invisible force.
Fear dominated their eyes.
What extended below his feet was a colossal shaft which made the entirety of the research lab look small in turn.
It wasn’t just a hole in the ground. The sides were made of concrete with a complicated pattern of machines built into it. The cylindrical pit was lined with architectural structures of unknown purposes and exposed steel framework. There were also many heavy construction equipments jutting out of the wall as if they were just abandoned halfway through the construction.
[ARCADIA is Offline.]
A mechanical voice announced in his head. It hit him then; he had just reached beyond the range of the Aethernet.
As despair overtake his mind, he collided with a steel beam sticking out from the wall and lost consciousness.