The sound of intermitten rumbling roused Akito from his coma.
When he tried to move, pain flared out from at all parts of his body which felt as heavy as lead.
He barely managed to twist his neck around to take a look at his surroundings.
What spread across his view was the sweeping underground city built below Reikyo.
His overhead was lined with artificial sky panels which was currently stained a madder red.
Right in the middle of it was a gaping hole leading to the surface which he fell from. The size alone was large enough to swallow up a single city district. It was most likely a ventilation shaft or something like that. Looking further, he could see similar holes across the artificial skies spread out at regular intervals. When he measured the distance between him and the shaft, it came out to around 2,000 meters.
He looked back down to ground level and saw densely packed buildings separated cleanly into sections which stretched nearly to the roof. Their walls were all covered by vines, and the streets were similarly overgrown with grasses, shrubs, and trees with large-spread canopies. Birds and insects he had never seen before darted freely among the vegetations.
When he inhaled deeply, the crisp smell of the earth and grass filled his lungs.
There’s no doubt about it.
This is the geocity, Iota.
It was the ninth in the series of utopias created by mankind during their golden age.
As he stood still in awe of the scenery, a large piece of rubble formerly part of the Saiga Lab fell to the ground nearby, shaking the ground violently and sending a cloud of dust into the air.
“Kh… Koff koff…”
Dust entered his throat and induced him to cough violently.
—I need to get away from here, quick!
It was dangerous to remain here. Now that he was unlinked from Arcadia, his death here would mean the permanent end of the human known as Ichinose Akito.
If that happens, the only thing left would be his old Mindstate, never to be Respawned again.
That was the only actual death in this current world overseen by Arcadia.
Akito raised his upper body and took stock of his current situation.
Of all the equipment status windows in his vision, nearly all of them were marked with an icon stating their disfunction. The state of damage was so bad that he could only pray it to be a system error as he checked his equipment by sight.
“What the… Are you serious…”
But reality was harsh. His jet kit was broken beyond repair, while his anti-tank blade had entered maintenance mode probably due to the excessive impact it received. The tears on his tactical suit were too many and extensive that even the self-repair function of the biometal fiber couldn’t seal all of them. He still had his handgun on his body, but his main weapon, the MAR-16 was nowhere to be found.
—Just then, he spotted the stock of the familiar assault rifle sticking out from the debris as if it was marking a grave.
He heaved a sigh and forced his aching body to get up—it was at that moment.
Right across him, the figure of another person rose from the sand.
Their eyes met each other.
Both of them froze.
For the one there was none other than the blue-eyed girl—Lethal Blue, although her beautiful hair was now dishevelled and covered in ash-gray dirt.
The extraordinarily stunning girl bent her body… and shot out.
By the time he took in everything, her right fist was already approaching his face.
He deflected it using his left elbow, and the following kick with his knee.
The performance of his tactical suit was sub-optimal, and his body movement was sluggish. Its durability was also lacking and he felt each blow keenly along with pain.
However, the same went for Lethal Blue.
Her usual agility was nowhere to be seen. He noted that the jet kit around her waist was similarly busted, and her tactical suit was ripped here and there, revealing her skin underneath.
Fending off one and two more of her strikes, Akito turned on the offensive.
His punch was also blocked. However, her expression twisted into one of pain.
She quickly slid out her handgun, but dropped it when he countered with a hand chop.
Glaring daggers at him, Lethal Blue shouted.
“The security dongle! You took it, didn’t you! Hand it over!”
“Oh yeah, I should be the one saying that! Hand over the data drive!”
Akito pressed on the attack, reaching out for her pouch at every move. However, she intercepted all of them.
“Why must you always, always get in my way!? Reikyo is such a wide battlefield so just get out of my sight! Unless you’re telling me you’re a stalker!?”
“That’s my line! Thanks to you wiping out my platoon each and every time, our scores are in dire straits now! They then vent their frustration out on me by forcing penalty games on me everyday, how would you like that!”
“My condolence! But, you’re like the worst penalty game to me!”
“I see you’re as talkative as always!”
He blocked her right leg kick for the umpteenth time with his crossed arms and sent her flying with all his might.
She did a back-flip in the air before landing, where she spotted something in the corner of her eyes.
When she turned to her side, she saw the light machine gun that had been cut off from her suit.
Akito also glimpsed at the rifle at his back.
Both of their main armaments were several meters away from them.
Their sight met each other once more.
Then, they jumped in the direction of their weapons at the same time.
He scooped up the assault rifle and instantly turned his body around.
Time seemed to slow down.
He could even see the individual dust particles in the air moving as the imaginary bullet line overlay his vision in slow-motion.
His eyes lined up with the holosight, and the red reticle slid into view. In the middle was the girl holding the light machine gun in a half-squat.
They looked each other in the eyes through their respective scopes.
And just when they were about to press the trigger—
An explosion erupted from the mountain of wreckage next to them.
Lethal Blue lost her footing as Akito exclaimed.
A “giant” emerged from underneath the pile of debris, with sand rolling down its body like a waterfall.
No, it wasn’t human. It wasn’t even a living thing.
The thing did not have a clear boundary between its head and torso, and the bluish-white lightings dotting its body seemed to be optical sensors which included Infrared. It had joints like a human and a cylindrical torso, but the similarities ended there. The two legs were not just to support its incredible weight, they were also armored heavily enough such that it could step on any anti-tank mines and not budge even an inch.
One could tell that not a single thought about aesthetics went into the design of the ten-odd meters tall metallic giant—their only concern was for it to be sturdy enough to face any barrage of gunfire or cannon shells and still advance onwards.
It was the bipedal tank—JOINT.
The lone unit domineered over the two.
The prospect of death gripped Akito’s heart in an iron-clutch. Fear ran throughout his body and he shook in phantom pain until he even forgot to move.
“Why is there an old-model JOINT here—”
The stunned girl murmured.
The colossal robot adjusted the angle of the large cannon it carried with both hands.
Warning siren blared in his head as his vision turned red and an evasion route materialized in his head.
Akito sprinted down the mountain of rubble in accordance to the route provide by the assist system.
At the same time, a 400g shell blasted out from the JOINT’s 35mm dual cannon.
When he turned back to look, the remnant of the Saiga Lab debris he was standing on just now was vaporized amid a splattering of concrete shards.
Returning his gaze to the front, he spotted a hunk of metal previously part of a server unit.
He dived head-first behind that junk scrap not even two-meters across.
A 35mm shell barely scraped past his foot.
Just then, someone else dashed into the shadow of the cover from the other side.
“Why are you here!”
Of all things, it had to be Lethal Blue who slid next to him.
Judging that length of her rifle was too long, she raised her fist instead.
“Wai-! Dumbass, you’re gonna get us killed—!”
Akito caught the fist flying at him near zero distance and stopped her.
Right then, a white beam swept across the area—it was the JOINT’s search laser.
A second later, a heavy footstep rocked the ground. By the sound of it, he estimated the distance between them to be less than 30 meters.
The two of them kept absolutely silent and didn’t move a single muscle. If they were discovered at this distance, they’d be reduced to two blood splatters in less than three seconds. Luckily for them, the JOINT was only using optical sight currently and not Infrared. However, it still meant any movement would be detected instantly.
Still grabbing on to each other in close quarters, the silver girl asked at a minimal volume.
“Isn’t that an Elmer machine? Why are you hiding from it…”
Akito took a double take at what she said.
The JOINT had pointed its cannon at him. At that, he had assumed it was a unit belonging to the Lots.
“Huh…!? Don’t you mean it’s one of you Lots’ souvenir…!?”
“…The Federation doesn’t employ such ugly machines. Ours are more streamline and cute-looking.”
This woman… Could it be she sees not only drones as something to lovable, but any unmanned weapon too?
In any case, it seems that the JOINT belonged to neither the United States of Elmea nor the Lorelia Federation.
“This is a waste of time…! Eve, kill this man holding me down!”
“Wh-What…!? You still have allies!?”
Akito looked around in a fluster. But, no matter how long they waited, nothing showed up.
It seemed she had not expected that either, as she stood up in a daze.
“…No, it can’t be. Eve, where are you? Respond to me, Eve!”
“You idiot, stop shouting…!”
Akito hurriedly put a hand around her mouth and pulled her back down into the cover of the scrap metal. Gingerly, he stole a peek at the JOINT, but fortunately, it did not seemed to have caught that.
Meanwhile, the girl seemed to be badly shaken, much like a little girl who had lost her favorite doll, in a complete reversal of her usual self.
“B-But… Eve isn’t here. Where are you, Eve…!”
Eve must be the name of her partner or something.
Feeling slightly disappointed, he heaved a sigh. Then, he silently reached out his hand towards the panicking girl’s pouch.
But, as expected of the famed Lethal Blue. She sensed his ruse immediately and they got into a scuffle again.
“You slimy little…! If you call yourself a soldier, then face me straight on!”
“Sharp senses there…! Hand over the drive without resisting! Do so and I’ll let you off!”
“That’s my line! —Though in my case, I won’t let you off even if hand over the dongle! I’ll take it and kill you!”
They grappled each other in close proximity.
And while they grabbed one another’s arms—
A Zaa sound rang out.
The brr-ing sound of motors surrounded them in the dozens or hundreds.
They slowly raised their faces.
There they saw the same four-legged drones they previously encountered aboveground.
The UGVs had them surrounded on all sides. Apparently, these drones were also left behind in this city and forgotten during the early phases of the great war.
To make matters worse, the JOINT just now could be heard making its approach behind them.
Without removing his gaze from the encirclement of drones, Akito spoke.
“I have a suggestion, Lethal Blue.”
“Shut up! I don’t want to hear it! And don’t even call me by that again, it’s embarrassing!”
“I see we both suffer from the shame of an embarrassing tactical name.”
The encirclement slowly closed in around them.
They were already less than 100 meters away.
This was a common strategy when employing drones.
As mass-produced drones suffered from lousy accuracy, long-range fire in an encirclement usually led to widespread friendly-fire, resulting in losses up to 50%. To address this issue, they were programmed to approach as close as possible so as to eliminate their target more effectively.
If he had to guess, they would commence their attack once they pass the 50-meter mark.
“Let’s join forces. At this rate, we’d both turn into mincemeat.”
“Not a chance in hell.”
“If it’s the two of us, we can break through the encirclement by alternating gunfire.”
Akito turned his neck to directly face the girl sitting atop him.
Then he brought up his hand holding up a small object.
It was the security dongle.
“…You want this, don’t you? Besides, you should know that you won’t be able to Respawn if you die at a place like this, no?”
“To team up with an Elmea soldier, even temporarily—what’s worse with Blood Naught, would be the greatest shame of my life if my allies find out.”
“It can be just until we return to the surface and re-establish our links to Arcadia. We’re currently in an offline zone. No one will ever know that we teamed up.”
The UGVs were now 70 meters away.
A unit at the front fired a shot to gauge the distance between them. The shell passed right by the girl’s head.
She shut her eyes tightly and pursed her lips in serious consideration.
“Fine! I’ll join forces with you till we get back to the surface.”
Akito widened his eyes.
By then, the drones had passed the 50-meter mark.
The whole pack jumped in at once.
“—But, you’re dead meat the moment we reach the ground.”
At her response which remained true to her personality to the end, Akito stifled a chuckle.
“Let’s see you try if you can.”
His reply caused her to furrow her brows.
Then, a shadow cast over them.
The two of them raised their weapons at the same time while locked in a glaring contest, their gunpoint aiming right next to each other.
Then, they opened fire.
The UGV fell to the ground, bellowing smoke from the many holes opened in it.
Following its lead, the other drones leapt in one after another.
Akito and the girl stood with their shoulders touching as they shot down the approaching enemies.
“We’ll head north! There’s still hope of escaping from here in this chaos!”
“Don’t order me around!”
“…I see you’re still as uncharming as always.”
“…Maybe I should scrap this cooperation thing.”
“But, I’ve thought you’re pretty cute since the first time I saw you, Lethal Blue!”
He felt daggers staring at him from the side. However, he also felt the corners of her lips loosening as well. He tried his best to keep himself from bursting out into laughter.
As he turned to face the front, he heard a small voice calling out to him from behind.
“…What’s your name.”
Facing the unending wave of drones, Akito raised his lids in surprise.
“It’s Ichinose Akito. People just call me Akito or Aki. …What about you?”
He was met with silence.
Just as he resigned to being ignored, the girl spoke.
“Philia Loadrain. That’s my name.”
They have hurt and killed each other countless of times.
But, when he heard that name, his lips curled into a smile.
For that was what he truly felt.
“That’s a good name.”
He was sure that no matter how many hundreds or thousands of times he Respawned in the future, he would never forget that name alone.
Lined up next to the silver girl—he took a large step forward.