Short, frantic breaths continued without end.
The city was buried in rubble. None of the buildings retained their roofs and the ones with all four walls were rare. Some had not even kept their box-like shape, so only a wall or two stood up like a monolith commemorating the failures of mankind. Those walls of what used to be reinforced concrete filled the wasteland.
And that was where Quenser and some other Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers were running for their lives.
They were completely out of breath and they were panting like thirsty dogs.
“Pant, pant, pant!! Pant, pant, pant, pant, pant, pant, pant, pant!!”
Behind them, dust from the collapsed building materials rose like a cumulonimbus cloud. But they knew that obvious “gazes” were piercing them from beyond that obscuring curtain. And they knew they were being pursued by the possessors of those abnormal and clearly inhuman “glowing eyes”.
A continuous metallic sound followed them.
None of them knew what exactly was pursuing them. Everyone who had been dragged back into the dust had died.
There had been no exceptions.
Quenser desperately ran while sticking his tongue out like a starving dog. Without stopping, he chucked some Hand Axe plastic explosive behind him and used his radio to detonate it.
There was an earsplitting explosion, but the dust did not clear up. And whatever was beyond it did not stop their advance.
“Dammit!! What the hell is this!? They’re clearly eating people…no, are they actually laying their eggs in them!?”
Quenser trembled in fear and his legs nearly gave out, but someone tugged on his arm. The handsome, black-haired man then shouted in his ear.
“Don’t stop running!! If we escape to the landing zone, the chopper will pick us up!!”
The sound of rotors beating the air passed by over their heads.
It was a Legitimacy Kingdom transport helicopter. The side cargo door was wide open and a ground support Gatling gun known as the Crocodile was sticking out.
His awful friend Heivia yelled angrily over the radio.
“Keep your heads down as you run!! I’ll be shooting from up here, but don’t you dare stop. If you’re late, we’re leaving you behind!!”
A solid block of sound burst out with no noticeable gap between individual shots. The variable gear switched over to the highest setting which sent 7.62mm bullets into the many forms beyond the dust at a rate of 8000 a minute.
Orange sparks covered everything.
But the bizarre silhouettes that looked like insects or armor did not stop moving.
They gained ground on Quenser’s group running along the surface.
The great noise and light was enough for the humans to instinctually shrink back. When fired from above, the Crocodile had a similar effect to a lightning strike or a stun grenade. Quenser cowered a little even though he knew this was covering fire from an ally, but the handsome man grabbed his arm and pulled. He almost seemed to drag Quenser along as he ran.
An unnatural stream of fluorescent pink smoke rose up ahead.
It was about two hundred meters away. That smoke grenade signified the landing zone. The escape helicopter was already waiting to leave. In fact, it was floating a few dozen centimeters above the ground. The pilot was getting ahead of himself from fear.
They were going to be left behind.
That fear pushed Quenser onward. He swung both arms up as he ran.
“Wait! Please wait!!”
As he shouted, the soldiers right behind him were overtaken by the dust and swallowed up. He could not look back anymore. Quenser and the handsome man ran with all their might. They climbed over waist-height rubble and ran smoothly forward. Finally, they arrived at the landing zone.
The dust was right behind them.
But the helicopter started to take off as if the pilot could not stand it any longer.
Quenser and the handsome man grabbed onto the landing gear and dangled from the metal rods. The helicopter quickly ascended and they were carried into the empty sky with no lifeline. The gray dust seemed to graze the bottom of their military boots as it filled the landing zone.
“Did we…make it?”
The handsome man crawled up first before reaching down and pulling Quenser onboard. Several other helicopters rose from the city of rubble. Heivia was leaning out nearby, still firing his Crocodile Gatling gun.
A voice arrived over the radio.
“Wing Master to all helicopters. Twenty seconds until the heat-treated missile strike. If you don’t want to be thrown from your helicopters, close the cargo door or fasten in with a harness! Brace for impact! They’re about to blow!!”
An ominous wriggling seemed to compress space itself more than destroy the target.
The gray-filled surface was painted over with a different color: a blazing orange. The explosive flames covered an area of four square kilometers.
A crosswind tossed Quenser and the handsome man’s helicopter around like a paper airplane. The handsome man was just about thrown from the open cargo door, but Quenser somehow managed to grab his arm.
“Is it…over?” blankly muttered the handsome man as he leaned out of the helicopter.
The great explosion had eliminated all trace of the dust.
Some blackened masses had been scattered everywhere. That was what remained of “them”, the creatures beyond the gray curtain. Heivia fired the Gatling gun down on them, but they showed no sign of running away. Those were nothing but corpses.
After seeing that, Quenser finally wiped the sweat from his chin with the back of his hand.
And a smile found its way to his lips.
“Wait…a second,” muttered the handsome man.
His head was pointed in the wrong direction. Everyone else was looking down at the outcome on the surface, but he alone was looking in the exact opposite direction: straight up.
A moment later, a shadow covered everything.
It was almost like the entire area had been covered by a giant roof.
What was it that handsome man was staring at with such disbelief?
“Is that…‘their’ mothership?”
It was April and a middle-aged man’s deep voice rang across a great plain in the White Sea District, a battlefield country.
“Cuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut!! Awful!! Simply awful!! Redo it all from the beginning! You, extra over there! Do you even have a brain!? You’re not supposed to stand out more than the lead!! Showing off isn’t going to increase your pay!!”
No matter how much he shouted, his voice was not going to reach them and all communication was being handled over radio, but Film Director James Honeymoon still shouted into a megaphone, waved the megaphone around, and beat a nearby assistant director’s head with the megaphone.
Needless to say, everyone around him was fed up with it all.
He apparently believed in filming everything with practical effects instead of CGI, but each retake required resetting all of the explosives and smokescreens. It took a huge, huge, huge amount of time, money, and effort.
After the transport helicopter landed somewhere, Quenser disembarked and complained to the rest of the soldiers.
“Ten kilometers long? Is he screwing with us? If something that big simply flew full-speed into the atmosphere with toxic materials stuffed inside, it’d cause a disease-ridden ice age.”
“I wouldn’t say that if I were you.” Heivia walked up after disembarking another helicopter. “The military is giving its full support in the filming of this movie. It’s clearly a form of wartime propaganda, so it must be sponsored by some VIP way, way, way up the chain of command. Complain about it and you’re picking a fight with something too big to even see.”
Quenser and the other “extras” were not guaranteed a break while the explosives were set up. They were paid the same amount of tax money either way, but sometimes they were forced to work on and on with no end in sight.
“This whole thing is because the Capitalist Corporations and Information Alliance are really starting to get into the movie business, which is making the Legitimacy Kingdom look like the bad guys, right? So our mass media is getting into the entertainment business real fast. But it’s useless. Completely useless. Why is it useless? Because we’ll never catch up if we’re following their lead! We need to predict what’s coming and make the first move that blocks their way or else it’s all wasted effort!!”
“Oh, how scary. But I’m not complaining. If you want pick a fight with a VIP and get yourself sent out to the backwoods, do it on your own.”
It was the same reason that safe country quiz shows had started punishing wrong answers by attacking the young entertainers with special masked commandos who threw stun grenades in through the doors and windows.
Meanwhile, the handsome man with sparkling and silky black hair walked up in a military uniform that did not suit him in the slightest. He was the lead actor and he had a permanent marker in one hand.
“Heh heh heh. Don’t be so grumpy, my little kittens. How about I give you my signature? Would that give you some motivation?”
“Wait, that’s a military supplied backpack!! Don’t write directly on it! And is that thing permanent!? Oh, no! Now I’ll have to pay for it!!”
“And you even call other guys your ‘little kittens’? Get away from me.”
The scattered soldiers had slowly gathered when they heard talk of signatures. He was a well-known actor and he was apparently skilled at motivating people, even if not for the reasons he intended.
Quenser was angry at the unsolicited signature he had been given in the midst of the confusion, but then he asked Heivia a question.
“By the way, where’s the Princess?”
“Same as before. She’s been sulking ever since seeing that storyboard where the space cruiser blows away an Object in one hit. She’s probably still holed up in the Baby Magnum.”
It must have looked like the famous actor was getting along with the assisting soldiers because some of the crew gathered with a large camera. They may have been getting some behind-the scenes photos.
“Okay, here we go. Smile, smile! Three, two, one.”
The picture they took would later become an oft-discussed legend in a certain corner of the film industry.
After all, several dozen smiling soldiers all raised their middle fingers in perfect unison.
“It’s all wrong!! You can’t set off all of the explosives at once! You start over there and move this way!! You add a lag into the detonation time to create a wave! Why do I even have to explain this to you morons!? Every last person in the audience would notice immediately!!”
As the director complained far too much for a man his age, Frolaytia held her head in her hands.
In truth, she and the 37th Mobile Maintenance Battalion were in the middle of a military operation. They had a target they were meant to destroy and they should have sent the Object out right away.
They were in the White Sea District, a battlefield country sandwiched between the Legitimacy Kingdom’s Volga District and the Northern Restricted Zone.
That frozen land was ruled by blizzards of -30 degrees during the winter, but things were different in April.
Simply put, the melted snow created swamp-like sludge for over ten thousand square kilometers.
This was not good news for the Baby Magnum’s static electricity propulsion device that had to attach floats for naval battles. They were waiting to see how it could cross the deep swamp that caused tanks and armored trucks to sink.
(But we’d never hear the end of it from the inspectors if we just sat here doing nothing. No one wants to listen to them asking if we’re having flower viewings on the people’s tax money, so we were forced to deal with a low-priority matter.)
“Besides, the full cooperation of the military is only added value.”
The director – she could not remember his name – spoke in a voice considerably too high-strung for his body type.
“It’s like a preorder bonus, a limited-time-only product, your first love, or a girl’s virginity. Those things are only a bonus. If the base product is awful, it’s meaningless. So why do you have to, y’know, be tripping me up like this…”
“Ahhh, I want to punch this guy.”
Frolaytia used every muscle in her face to maintain her smile.
As part of their image campaign, the Legitimacy Kingdom was engaging in information manipulation to send out the disturbing message of, “The military is full of good people☆ The Legitimacy Kingdom are the good guys☆” She would ruin all of that if she went on a rampage and caused an unnecessary incident here, so she was forced to shake her butt like a model when she walked, smile like a saleswoman, and keep her back straight and her chest out to accentuate her bust. If an intelligence officer had not spent three days and three nights explaining the logic of this operation, that middle-aged man would be hanging upside-down from a helicopter as he was dragged through the swamp.
Her information terminal rang.
She checked the screen and found it was from a major general who was probably enjoying a round of golf in a safe country.
“So how does it feel to deal with those fools who have never seen real war?” asked the man. “I have to deal with them in meetings year-round.”
“This has been an important lesson that using someone is a lot harder than just killing them. In fact, that lesson is still ongoing.”
“Peace is precious and we will do whatever it takes to maintain it. As a soldier, you must never forget that original purpose of ours. And if you gain the patience to remove your claws and fangs, maintain a smile, loosen your necktie, undo the top three buttons of your blouse, and show off your cleavage in front of the camera like the director wants, then you might just have a future as a soldier who lives a life of luxury without ever visiting the battlefield.”
“This may be too forward, but I will kill you, sir.”
“Hah hah hah. You really are more suited for the battlefield. And I suppose it’s about time we ended this lesson of yours.”
“The plan your battalion suggested was approved. Find a good stopping point for the work there and head to the next site. War is waiting, major.”
Frolaytia instinctually gave a crisp salute.
“I love you, sir.”
“Hah hah hah. Now you’re being a little too friendly. If I were half a century younger, my heart might have skipped a beat.”
“I’ll tell your wife you said so, sir.”
“Do you want to see a man in his seventies cry?”
The Princess slowly piloted the Baby Magnum into the giant maintenance facility and left the cockpit through the elevator-like tunnel.
The maintenance soldiers quickly swarmed the Object and used a pressurized liquid detergent fired by special nozzles to remove the mud and soot caused by the unnecessary filming.
That filth would hardly be a problem for a First Generation Multirole built for all weather and environmental conditions, but before heading out to a real battle, they needed to eliminate anything with even a 0.1% possibility of causing an error.
On the maintenance scaffolding a level below from her, the Princess heard the sound of a carbonated drink being opened amplified several hundred times over. She also saw Quenser Barbotage covered in bubbles.
“What are you doing?”
“Nbwah. Wait, what is…? Dbyah! It won’t stop! Bwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh!?”
The Princess glanced over at the old lady giving instructions with a tablet device in one hand, but that old lady showed no interest in helping Quenser. Any job given to a battlefield student was going to be something that did not really need doing in the first place.
And so the Princess decided to ignore him as well.
“Oh, honestly. I want to go take a shower.”
The special suits worn by Pilot Elites were made to resist blades and bullets, but they also provided high-level body temperature regulation. It was effective enough that she only needed that suit to get by in the desert, the rainforest, or the Antarctic. However, that did not change the fact that she was sometimes simply in the mood for a shower.
And whether he heard what she said or not…
“Bfh! Wait, Quenser!”
Quenser was unable to control the nozzle as it waved right, left, and every direction in between, so its bubbles shot straight up toward the Princess on the next level up.
The white bubbles to the face took out her vision and she stated choking, but then she felt the floor slip out from under her.
She slid down the surface of the spherical main body and fell right on top of Quenser on the scaffolding below.
She knocked Quenser onto the wire mesh floor.
“Mgh… Princess… Gh… Wait…”
The old maintenance lady’s eyes widened and she shouted “You fool!! Are you trying to end the war early!?”, but the two of them had bigger issues to worry about.
First, the Princess had landed on her butt and that butt was flattening Quenser’s face.
Second, this was not a love comedy zone, so what happened to a human skull when someone’s full body weight was pressed down on it?
Quenser would later claim his brains nearly came out his nostrils.
But at the moment, his focus was on making sure all the blood coming from his nose was not misinterpreted because that could easily lead to a beating.
“It’s time for war, everyone!! I know you idiots are tired of using your heads and forcing a smile, so work off some steam by moving your body.”
After a large number of soldiers gathered in the conference room, Frolaytia began from the dais up front.
A map was projected on the wall behind her. It contained countless dots with arrows connecting them.
“Our objective this time is not the destruction of an Object. We need to destroy an anti-establishment copied weapons factory discovered deep in the White Sea District. All of the military weapons technology leaked from cyber attacks or seduction is given physical form here and then sold to terrorists around the world. They do business with some notable groups like the Tundra Tigers, Woodstock, and the Traitorous Apostle. You could say it was the mess those groups caused that brought attention to this factory.”
Photographs and plans for a few weapons were displayed.
But Battlefield Student Quenser’s expression did not change much when he saw them. They were handguns, assault rifles, hand grenades, and shoulder-fired rockets. While they would cause a major incident in a safe country city, they had no connection to Object development.
“Currently, April’s melted snow has turned most of the White Sea District into a deep swamp. It covers an area of ten thousand square kilometers. The Arctic Ocean lies behind it, but we can’t touch it because the world powers are busy arguing over some new sea route there. Going there could easily trigger a war. That’s why the Baby Magnum has been stuck here and that’s our biggest problem. Based on the depth of the swamp, tanks and armored trucks would be useless too.”
Quenser was bored, so he raised his hand.
“Then why not send in attack fighters or bombers?”
“I would love to, but look at these dots scattered across the map. The purple ones.”
Frolaytia used her pen-shaped laser pointer to point at the projected screen. There were thirty to fifty of the purple dots.
“The factory noticed our approach, so they’re using helicopters to carry some of their spare weapons inventory around the swamp. These are antiaircraft guns.”
A small window was added.
The video file showed mid-sized military trucks with no canopy over the back. Instead, pedestals covered in four meter long and twelve centimeter wide metal tubes were half-forcibly welded or bolted to the beds of the trucks. The gun turrets were angled up toward the sky and the trucks looked something like a dangerous tow truck.
“Won’t these things sink as soon as they’re place in the deep swamp?”
“They have a wooden frame built around them with countless plastic containers attached for buoyancy. There’s a risk of them flipping over as soon as they fire, but this group isn’t actually an army. They probably don’t know how to use the weapons properly.”
Frolaytia placed her kiseru back in her mouth and continued on.
“These antiaircraft guns have poor aim. In fact, you could say they give no targeting assistance whatsoever, but they fire thermobaric rounds. Simply put, they’ll create an eight hundred meter explosion of flames. They’re like the ABM rounds of an older age. They could wipe out all of our aircraft just by shooting those things like crazy. A bombardment that covers an entire surface is difficult to overcome even with a saturation attack.”
“What about cruise missiles or ballistic missiles?”
“I said they’re using ABM rounds, didn’t I? Not even Mach 5 or 8 is enough. They’re not aiming; they’re creating a giant wall in the air for the enemy aircraft to run into. We were hoping to pack a coagulant inside surface-to-surface missiles to disseminate the coagulant in midair, solidify the swamp, and let the Object through, but even that requires silencing these Rafflesia thermobaric antiaircraft guns first.”
This time it was Heivia who spoke up and he had a stiff smile as he did so.
“Wait, wait, wait. Those things are firing tons of thermobaric rounds that create eight hundred meter explosions, right? If we go after them, we’ll be turned to cinders before we even get close.”
“Fortunately, the Rafflesia antiaircraft guns have a limited angle of fire, so they can’t fire horizontally. They’re attached to trucks floating on a wooden frame covered in plastic containers, so if they aimed horizontally and rotated the gun, it would bump into the truck’s cabin. But if you carelessly get close, it’s possible they’ll self-destruct as one final attack, so we won’t target each antiaircraft gun individually.”
A new arrow appeared on the map.
“All of them are controlled by central electronic commands. The only people around the antiaircraft guns themselves are crew to load the ammunition and guards. You’ll be ignoring the antiaircraft guns and instead heading straight toward the weapons factory in the center. If you can blow away the command vehicle with shoulder-fired missiles, all of the cannons will fall silent. Then we can fire surface-to-surface missiles loaded with a ton of coagulant to harden up the swamp and the Object can clean up the rest.”
Tanks and armored trucks could not travel through the vast, seemingly-bottomless swamp and they could not exactly swim the entire way, but if they used an amphibious hovercraft that used the power of air to remain afloat, the journey would go smoothly.
“By the way,” added Frolaytia. “A notable individual recently arrived at this copied weapons factory. She goes by Yog-Sothoth and her real name is unknown. She is a white hacker who slipped into the electronic simulation division by fighting back against the intensifying cyber attacks, but she was under investigation by the Black Uniforms as a possible Capitalist Corporations spy. The last thing Yog-Sothoth accessed were the plans for an invisible bomb. This could get ugly if she brought that to the copied weapons factory.”
“An invisible bomb?”
Quenser frowned at the unfamiliar term, so Frolaytia displayed a new document.
It was a weapon shaped like a three meter black soccer ball.
“The concept is simple. The bomb is sent into the sky dangling from a giant balloon filled with helium. It has attitude control and allows for some level of laser guidance, but it has no primary propulsion. It simply rides the wind. And since the outer shell has undergone advanced stealth treatment, it doesn’t show up on radar. Slipping past visual detection is easy and it can’t be detected by its heat signature since it has no primary engine.”
She lightly shook her head.
“In other words, it’s a bomb that can only move slowly but can slip through any air-defense network. And if they load it with one of those thermobaric warheads, the risk of a direct attack on a safe country only rises. I want to settle this before that happens and before they even show a hint of playing that card.”
Their top priority was destroying the command vehicle in charge of the Rafflesia thermobaric antiaircraft guns.
Their second priority was defeating Yog-Sothoth, the hacker who had arrived at the copied weapons factory.
“I doubt they’ll stay holed up in this hideout now that it’s been located. I wish we could hold the Arctic Ocean, but the international interests there are so complex we wouldn’t even be able to sweep for mines like we wanted. They’re sure to escape on one of the submersibles they use to carry materials and products. You can assume we’re only rushing this plan because the time limit is approaching fast.”
Yog-Sothoth was a woman in her early twenties, but Quenser was not sure if that was young or old for the hacker world.
The other important individual was the factory manager. He was a middle-aged man known as Newsmaker. Since he had no real name, he had likely received cosmetic surgery and faked his death a few times to hide his identity. Naturally, only someone doing something wrong would need to take such steps and Quenser did not want to imagine how much blood had been spilled along the way.
“You will be given Factory Manager Newsmaker and Yog-Sothoth’s personal information, but don’t go out of your way to capture them alive. Only a fool would lose his life for a bonus. I’ll handle the complaints from the higher ups, so if things get dangerous, you can choose to kill them.”
“You’re being surprisingly weak-willed here. Did something happen?”
“Don’t ask that, Quenser. It’s probably just that time of the month.”
A kiseru with an orange flame burning at the end struck Heivia and he started writhing around on the floor.
Frolaytia ignored him and answered the question.
“Thanks to that hacker, things are a complete mess up above. The satellite surveillance network covering the Arctic has been rendered completely useless thanks to some interference. We’re guessing it’s due to a clone satellite, but it will take time for the electronic simulation division to isolate and eliminate the cause. And that means we can’t use the eyes meant to stare down at the chess board from above.”
“A clone satellite?”
“It’s a standard example of a hardware crack. A satellite using a similar frequency is sent near the military satellite to interfere with our signal, intercept our signal, or even slip in some suspicious signals of their own. It’s probably disguised as a small civilian satellite only forty centimeters across and it was probably sent down from orbit using the Capitalist Corporations’ elevator. Simply put, we can’t rely on the dots on this screen.”
Support from the sky above could make a world of difference in a game of tag or hide-and-seek. Searching out and crushing hidden targets in that vast combat zone filled with a deep swamp would indeed take a lot of work. The odds were good time would run out before the search was complete and the targets would escape. And of course, rushing things increased the risk of being caught off guard.
“Just out of curiosity, what is the bonus for capturing them alive?”
Frolaytia readily answered Quenser’s cautious question.
“Well, it will have to be in the realm of what I can grant, so how about a triple burger, a veritable mountain of fries, a soft drink, and chicken nuggets?”
“You might as well just order us to our deaths!!”
Those soldiers only had soap-like flavorless rations to eat, so she had essentially just told them to capture the targets alive even at the cost of their lives.
And so they ended their cooperation with the movie shoot that had been so very, very boring that some had suspected it was a stress test. Soon thereafter, Quenser and Heivia were thrown out onto the battlefield.
They were stuffed into small ten-man hovercraft that raced across the sticky and squishy marsh.
The entire area was covered in brown mud, but it lacked the distinctive rotting stench. The snow was melting for spring, but the number of active microbes may have been low.
“It doesn’t look all that impressive from above.”
“Stop it. This isn’t just some tidelands. Fall in there, and you’ll sink up to your chest right away. As stupid as it sounds, you wouldn’t be able to crawl back out if you got even one leg in there. Dying in this nasty mud would be a real tragedy. No microbes will get close, so you’ll be pulled out as pristine as a mummy in a pyramid and displayed in a museum or something. Look.”
Heivia pointed in a random direction with this thumb.
A flat surface of brown mud continued as far as the eye could see and even beyond the horizon, but protrusions with artificially straight lines poked up here and there. Something had sunk into the mud there. Those were the results of tanks and armored trucks trying to cross the swamp or other trucks attempting to save the crew.
Not a single tire or tread was visible. Quite a few were nothing but metal roofs just barely poking up above the mud, but there were probably others completely submerged that they could not see.
“It’s like a snowy road; you won’t slip as long as the tires are moving,” said Heivia while the warm wind on his cheeks almost made him forget this was the Arctic. “That’s why people let their guard down. They realize they’re not sinking and decide they can make it where everyone else failed. And then when they slow down a little to turn or something, they start to sink. I don’t know whether these are from the Legitimacy Kingdom or that copied weapons factory, but this place has swallowed up a ton of lives.”
Quenser and the others were using more than just one hovercraft. Forty to fifty of them were crossing the marsh in a large reverse V formation.
The sky was just as unusual as the ground.
The clouds were thick enough to weigh down on them as mental pressure, but there were some other objects in that sky that clearly did not belong. There were hundreds if not thousands of them. As far as the eye could see, spheres about a meter across floated in the gray sky like a wall or curtain. The giant eyeball drawn on each one made the scene all the more psychotic looking.
Quenser did not look pleased.
“Are those the invisible bombs we were briefed about?”
“How about you try to think for yourself before asking? It should be obvious that those simple spheres have no stealth capabilities whatsoever. I’m guessing they’re barrage balloons mass-produced using the same tech. They’re just balloons with bombs attached. They leave less room for aircraft or missiles to fly through and the antiaircraft guns fire through the gaps. They make an aerial wall.”
Heivia actually sounded shocked at the enemy’s methods.
“That’s why we can’t do any surveillance or bombings from some ridiculous altitude like 25 or 30 thousand meters up. To get up that high, the aircraft sacrifice precise handling. If they flew into an area of sky filled with bombs, they wouldn’t be able to avoid them and they’d be blown apart.”
“I see,” was all Quenser said.
Only an Object or the giant machines inside an industrial complex would excite his mecha heart.
The student then spoke up, sounding entirely carefree despite both land and air being blocked off on this battlefield.
“What’s the point of this battle anyway?”
“A sea route through the Arctic Ocean. Polar bears are on the verge of extinction thanks to global warming, but a bunch of idiots are going nuts because they see a business opportunity.”
“Didn’t they say we’re getting rid of everyone in the way of a development base for that new sea route and an underwater oil field? But can’t they just say we’re driving out some guerrillas or terrorist? And besides, I doubt they can transport materials and heavy machinery to the coast through this mud, so can they really maintain a port?”
“I doubt they’re actually planning to build a port. Terrorists are criminals, not soldiers. Looking ‘civilians’ in the eye and slaughtering them with an Object sounds bad, so they came up with an alternate reason. The specific reason doesn’t matter as long as they can eliminate the risk of that new sea route being filled with mines.”
The Volga District, a safe country, was insistent on obtaining that Arctic route, so they had sent out a battalion to drive away an Information Alliance Object station in this battlefield country. For them, this mission was only a detour, so they did not want to get too serious about it yet did not want to be stabbed in the side either.
“And we’re stuck dealing with odd jobs again. Honestly, what’s the point of going to a battlefield without an Object?”
“Stay vigilant, Quenser. You don’t want to die on this ridiculous odd job, do you?”
“You think we’ll be attacked here? How? Infantry can’t walk through the mud and the Rafflesia thermobaric antiaircraft guns can’t fire horizontally. Even all these tanks and armored trucks are sunk in the mud. They wouldn’t have any way to-…”
He never finished his sentence.
One of the tanks supposedly sunk and stranded in the mud suddenly fired its gun.
“Dammit, the thing’s still alive!? No, wait…”
Heivia revved the engine. The three giant propellers pushed the hovercraft forward and past the stranded tank.
As if to target them, the machineguns on top of the armored trucks and the tanks’ guns moved unexpectedly smoothly to aim their way.
“This was no accident! It was an attack formation from the beginning!! Dammit, now they can target us from all 360 degrees!!”
An explosion sounded and the hovercraft racing along right next to theirs was tossed into the air like a toy. The ten soldiers inside were thrown on top of the mud. They did not have time to hesitate, turn back, or collect them. The sunken vehicles were targeting Quenser and Heivia’s hovercraft as well.
Heivia gave a shout and ten to twenty drink can sized cylinders flew from the side of the hovercraft in a fan shape. They created small explosions in midair and produced an unnaturally white wall of smoke. Something tore right through the cotton candy-like wall: improperly aimed tank shells.
Meanwhile, Heivia started preparing the shoulder-fired missile launcher hanging from a shoulder strap.
“What should I do!?” shouted Quenser.
“If you’ve got nothing to do, curl up in a ball!!”
Heivia shouted back, rested the launcher on his shoulder, and peered through the sight.
He aimed toward the closest tank that had let itself sink halfway into the mud. Its turret was rotating their way.
As soon as he fired, the hovercraft carrying Quenser’s group was destroyed. It flipped on its side and slammed into the mud. A moment later, the fired missile tore into the tank and filled it with explosive flames. Who could say how many tons the turret weighed, but the entire thing was lifted straight up like a manhole cover during a flood.
Quenser did not have time to check on all of that.
The flavor of iron spread through his mouth and a soft sensation enveloped his body. He was already waist deep in the mud and he could not move his lower body. No matter how much he twisted his hips or swung his arms, he could not move a single step.
And he was gradually sinking even further.
In all seriousness, he could easily sink down to the very top of his head and suffocate.
“Dammit…I need something!!”
He swung his arms around randomly and felt something hard with his fingertips.
It was a piece of hull stripped from the hovercraft. The panel of composite material was about the size of a hotel room’s side table.
He managed to pull it close and pressed both palms against it. He now had a handhold to keep himself from sinking. He forced himself upwards as if doing a push-up and got his upper body on top of the panel.
He paddled his arms and legs in the mud to somehow move forward as if on a body board.
“Heivia! And everyone else!! Find something – anything! – you can use as a float! Otherwise you’ll sink!!”
Hearing that, the soldiers thrown out across the mud started moving. They used whatever they could find to remain afloat: hovercraft fragments, broken pieces of wood, plastic containers used for who knows what, etc.
Heivia also moved through the mud like he was using a body board and he shouted into his radio.
“Requesting datalink support!! Use the heat sources to tell which tanks can move and which are junk! And how about some help from the Object!? It can fire long range using the targeting data of our rifles, right!?”
“Our eyes in the sky are useless thanks to the clone satellite! Destroy them yourself!!”
“Goddammit! Isn’t it your job to figure out a way around that!? There are shells flying all over the battlefield! If one of those hits us, we’ll be blown to bits!!”
“If a false signal is mixed in with your support request, the Princess will fire her main cannon right on top of you. Are you sure you want that!?”
The surrounding soldiers tore armor panels from the destroyed hovercraft to use as floats, kicked at the mud, and escaped behind the tanks and armored trucks. But they could not trust those shields. The turret might turn their way at any moment and a shell with a lead attached could be remotely detonated inside it.
“Heivia, Heivia! Begging them isn’t going to help. We’ll have to do whatever we can on our own.”
“What the hell are we supposed to do!? How many tanks and trucks do you think are sunk in this mud? And I’ve already fired my missile!!”
Meanwhile, a hovercraft a short distance away was fired on by a sunken armored truck and the hovercraft fired its Crocodile Gatling gun back. Quenser and the others were being lured deeper into the attack formation. There was a risk of attack from the tank guns up ahead, to the side, and behind them. Staying still would be an all-around bad idea.
“I feel like a mudskipper.”
“Goddammit, I’m a noble, you know? There’s something wrong when I’m paddling through the mud with shells flying everywhere. …Couldn’t I be taking a leisurely trip across the water on skis or something?”
While it was far better than sinking into the bottomless swamp, dragging their entire body weight while crawling across the water was not easy. The viscosity made it even harder than crawling on land.
“Besides, how far are we going? There are tanks and armored trucks everywhere. Even if they can’t move around, their weapons and armor still work. We can’t stand up to that with the firepower we have on hand.”
“Heivia, don’t use your assault rifle. I don’t want some stupid punchline where it explodes because the barrel’s packed full of mud.”
“You want me to take on armored weapons with just the bullets!?”
“No, we have all the firepower we need in the sky.”
“What? Is Joan of Arc finally descending from heaven in bikini armor!?”
“Heivia, I try not to trust people who seriously talk about bikini armor, but are all nobles like that?”
The student sounded fed up.
“I’m referring to those creepy eyeballs.”
He pointed straight up while still lying down on the panel of hull.
“Did you call them barrage balloons? Well, hundreds or even thousands of bomb-equipped balloons are floating above us. Bring them down, and it’ll be raining bombs. Plus, the top is the most fragile part of a tank or armored truck. …Download the formation on your handheld device. We need the locations of our allies, of the balloons, and of the tanks and armored trucks. We avoid the ones above our allies and shoot down the ones floating over those armored weapons.”
“It’s true those eyeballs are arranged pretty randomly. And their altitude ranges from ten thousand meters to only five hundred. We might be able to shoot some of them down with just a rifle.” Heivia gulped. “But where the bombs land is still up to chance. With the wind and air resistance, they won’t fall straight down. We can’t drop the bombs on them that easily.”
“Yeah, if it was just one or two of them, it would probably be trickier than getting a hole-in-one.” Quenser smiled a little. “But we have plenty of chances. We just have to keep it up until we hit. I’m sure we’ll hit at least once if we shoot down a hundred of them. We just have to make sure we don’t drop any on our allies.”
“What a pain. So it comes down to a gamble, does it?”
The noble spat out the words.
“In that case, there’s no way we can lose. I’d never let some nouveau riche bastard steal my villa in a card game.”
Explosions sounded out without end.
Checking through binoculars showed nothing, but one glance at the flat LCD screen was enough to tell the number of barrage balloons was dropping. At the same time, scream-like reports continued pouring in from the attack formation disguised as stranded tanks and armored trucks.
The intercepted military radio signals were encrypted, so what they were saying was unknown. Still, the frequency of signals had increased considerably, so the soldiers were obviously elated as they approached.
It was as if they had found an opening.
The group swarmed toward this one idea like ants.
“Just as expected.”
Newsmaker spat out his low voice. He was the middle-aged man who ran the copied weapons factory that gave physical form to the information stolen by terrorist organizations and guerrilla groups around the world.
“The springtime swamp saved us, but scattering the contents of our warehouse wasn’t enough to drive off the Legitimacy Kingdom. We can continue as planned. How many of the Flying Fish were serviced in the time that bought us?”
That man was stubborn and picky about his field of expertise, but he looked far kinder than in the image usually shown off. His current wrinkled brow looked out of place with the rest of his face.
He wore a military uniform produced at this factory, but it looked more like a factory uniform. He may not have been the type to harm others and take things from them.
“Forty eight of them.”
The subordinate who replied looked like a slender literary young man.
“We won’t have time to prepare the rocket motors for the rest. The Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers would be here by the time the liquid fuel was loaded.”
“We can drag them down into chaos well enough without that.”
“But the thermobaric warheads were a failure…”
“That was to be expected. With our level of tech, we would have been lucky if one in twenty of them detonated. The whole point of this act was to make sure they didn’t catch on to that.”
That was why they had not been able to surround the factory with thermobaric bombs as if they were nuclear mines. The Rafflesia antiaircraft guns had not been in working order either. Even one in twenty detonating would kill a lot of soldiers, but if the enemy knew a lot of them were duds, they would take an optimistic view and charge right in. That would defeat the purpose of the barricade.
“How are the rocket motors?”
“The ones on the Flying Fish to be sent out are in perfect working order.”
“Then we’ll be fine. That provides enough power on its own. We don’t need to insist on the thermobaric warheads.”
Newsmaker briefly fell silent as he thought about the meaning of the rocket motors and the outcome they would bring.
“I’ve finished the list of volunteers. I’ll join you after completely erasing the data on our clients.”
A female voice spoke from the side with a somewhat low tone.
The woman wore ready-made white and neon pink skiwear. She had likely chosen the outfit after hearing she was going to the Arctic, but the sweat on her forehead made it obvious that had been a bad decision. She had her long blonde hair stuffed inside a knit cap and she looked something like a college girl or a new office worker.
But she was not.
She was Yog-Sothoth, a Legitimacy Kingdom white hacker and also a spy from a Capitalist Corporations intelligence agency.
“There’s no need to go this far. I only asked you to help as much as you were able and this is clearly going beyond that.”
“It will take another thirty minutes before the submarine arrives on the coast, so we need to buy some time.”
“But this isn’t the right way to do that.”
She slowly looked back at the several dozen identically-shaped weapons filling the vast space.
Yog-Sothoth had been born into this age of war and had come into contact with plenty of technological information about weapons, but even she found these to be an oddity. The factory workers who had built them had likely felt the same. No one would actually want to ride something like that.
“Newsmaker, I thought I taught you that the key to psychological warfare is increasing fear and that killing is just one means to that end. The killing isn’t absolutely necessary. If you want to increase social unrest and paralyze administrative functions, you only need to cover walls and guardrails with stickers and spray paint meaningful-sounding graffiti on apartment doors. What you’re doing here is extremely inefficient.”
“But painting eyeballs on the barrage balloons did not stop them.”
“But it had some effect. Our psychological warfare is affecting them far deeper than they realize. If we move to the next step and shake their hearts even further, their unit will collapse into chaos without any bloodshed.”
“Sorry, but we lost people in that attack formation,” quietly replied Newsmaker. “We’re already past the point of no return.”
It was obvious to everyone there that he was intentionally suppressing his emotions. With the likely exception of himself, that is.
“Think back to all the dramas and movies you’ve seen. Human emotions and the human heart are most strongly stimulated by death, as sad as that is. We feel happy when an enemy dies, we feel sad when a sickly girl dies, we feel fear when the protagonist is about to die, and we feel angry when the heroine is about to die. …Death is an almighty tool to draw out any emotion. And right now, we need an immediate effect. Making it a little more obvious than absolutely necessary is just what we need.”
“Yog-Sothoth, you head to the harbor and wait for the submarine. We’ll buy the time you need. Our piece-of-junk factory couldn’t fully recreate the classified information in your head, so you find someone more useful. That will change this world in a big way. You can change the world.”
She cursed in her heart that it was not supposed to be this way.
Their objective was obvious. They were a buffer faction born in the Arctic. With the world map shattered like stained glass, if the various vague gentleman’s agreements were broken, the boundary between battlefield country and safe country would immediately vanish. The only guarantee was the fact that “we’ve been doing this for decades, so everything will be fine”. That was why the buffer factions aimed to build obvious buffer zones between nations to lower the risk of a major metropolis becoming a battlefield. That was the kind of peaceful ideology this group subscribed to.
Of course, the major nations immediately rejected the idea of buffer zones as unrealistic because they restricted the amount of usable land and gave criminal organizations space for relay bases, increasing the flow of weapons, drugs, and even human trafficking.
Neither side was willing to compromise, so the weaker group had no choice but to rely on something beyond mere words.
To vanish after the fact, they needed to construct a stepping stone, so Yog-Sothoth had taught them how to construct a trump card without killing.
She had known her technological information was too much for them to handle. They could barely recreate any of the weapons to a usable level, but simply coming into contact with someone holding such high-level military secrets was enough to increase their perceived status. They should have been able to manipulate information enough to obtain a powerful bargaining chip without spilling any blood. Namely, the unignorable bargaining chip known as a bluff.
That was all it should have been.
“I understand.” The middle-aged Newsmaker gave a small self-deprecating smile. “But this is what we ended up choosing. It’s not that we had no other choice. We specifically chose this card from the many in our deck. No matter what you say, we were nothing but filthy terrorists. We live in a different world than a pacifist like you.”
“We made a lot of different weapons here and scattered them through the world. We’ve caused a lot of chaos in the carefree safe countries, but it just doesn’t feel like we’re doing anything at all. I know intellectually that staying hidden in the background is safer and more reliable, but it doesn’t sit right in my heart that we’re talking about changing the world but aren’t standing in the line of fire ourselves.”
Was that what he truly thought or was it a way of thinking he intentionally used to suppress the fear?
“You live on. It would be a waste if you died here.”
The conversation did not continue.
It was cut off.
Yog-Sothoth felt like an obvious line had been pulled back and a thick barrier of glass had come between them. Newsmaker turned his back and walked toward the weapons. She could no longer reach that back as it made a loud announcement.
“We are the Crown of the Northern Lights! We wish for peace in the Arctic and the northern hemisphere as a whole!!”
The first wave of pilots approached those bizarre weapons and the man spoke as their leader.
“We will be lost here, but that will be the trigger needed to awaken our latent comrades as the Sixth Branch. We are not alone, so face forward. For the sake of our still unseen comrades, we will pave the path to tomorrow by demonstrating the Sixth Branch that is not trapped in the existing five!!”
That proclamation was as obvious as a fast food burger yet it contained a strange heat. When Yog-Sothoth heard it, she looked to the weapons once more.
They were known as the Flying Fish.
They were hovercraft equipped with rocket motors. This group had failed to reach the level of fighter craft or ballistic missiles, but they had jury-rigged together parts from a number of blueprints to create these nightmarish weapons that skimmed only a few dozen centimeters from the surface at 880 kph.
Their primary weapons were 20mm heavy machineguns and 80mm multiple rocket launchers.
After Quenser and Heivia started shooting down the barrage balloons overhead, the others around them started doing the same. Bombs rained from the sky. Some Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers were nearly blown away on occasion, but they still managed to destroy most of the attack formation sunken in the mud.
The few that were lucky enough to survive were dealt with using shoulder-fired missiles and the like.
“Place the injured on the capsized hovercraft. Only the hovercraft! Place them on the wreckage of the tanks or armored trucks and they could get caught in the explosion if one of their shells goes off!!”
Heivia held a piece of an armor panel below his stomach like a body board as he shouted instructions around.
Quenser was similarly floating on top of the mud and he was staring into the distance as he lay on his stomach.
“This might be over sooner than we thought.”
Black smoke was rising there.
Some of it came from the tanks and armored trucks they had been targeting, but some of the fallen barrage balloon bombs seemed to have hit the Rafflesia thermobaric antiaircraft guns.
Once they were out of the picture, the Legitimacy Kingdom could fire their cruise missiles.
And once the coagulant was scattered from the air and the marsh quickly solidified, the Baby Magnum could be sent out. Once that happened, it became a perfect game for them.
But just as he thought that, he heard an odd noise.
It sounded different from a car or motorcycle engine. It was higher-pitched and more like a whistle. Quenser grimaced as the high-pitched roar stabbed at his ears and he saw several shapes arranged in a horizontal line and approaching from the horizon.
But by the time he saw them, they were already incredibly close.
They were fast.
The formation carried a mass of air with them as they passed right by the Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers. A moment later, intense pain exploded in Quenser’s ears and a dull pain spread through his chest like his lungs had been forcibly overinflated.
“Dammit! What are those things!? Hovercraft!?”
Based on the direction they came from, they had to be weapons from the factory, but they moved right past Quenser and the others.
Their objective lay elsewhere.
“Frolaytia!! The barrage balloons might be filling the radar with readings, but something insane is racing around below them. They’re probably trying to attack the maintenance base zone! Prepare to intercept them!!”
Even as he shouted over the radio, the second wave arrived.
They formed a reverse V-shape like a flock of migratory birds. When they saw that the hovercraft were equipped with heavy machineguns and multiple rocket launchers, the Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers were filled with fear as well as surprise. Some even aimed their assault rifles and grenade launchers toward the approaching enemy.
Fortunately, the enemy was moving in a completely straight line, so it was not difficult to target them even with their extreme speed.
There was an explosion, but it was large.