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  1. (23.11.0) Careful. Careful now.
  2. A voice was obsessively repeating those words in his mind. It wasn't him, of course, if anything he'd tell himself to calm down. He had projected the machine in the first place. He had built, tested and patented it. Little did it matter that the military hierarchies washed their hands clean of his creation, it still was undoubtedly a state-of-art machine. No one knew how to operate it better than him.
  3.  
  4. He sighed and took a little break, swiping the sweat off his brow.
  5. In his heart of hearts he knew where the problem lied. This procedure was child's play, especially because he was the one in charge of it. It was a mere formality. What was to come, on the other hand, was nothing short of terrifying. He gulped, steeling his nerves.
  6. The computer said that the procedure had been inputed correctly. He felt little relief in knowing that. It was the common human tendency to being risk adverse: he already considered the procedure as a realized gain, the only thing he was afraid of was a prospective loss.
  7.  
  8. A timer popped up on the display. The waiting time would be huge. Would it prove to be a hurdle? Or would it rather be the wiggling room he desperately needed? It was too early to say. Adjusting his white coat, he left the room and headed for the corridor where his accomplice was waiting...
  9.  
  10. ======================================================================================================================
  11.  
  12. "Hey! Hey! The big mister over there! Can you explain it again?"
  13. Carlotta Dubois was a woman of reasonable patience. That's what you liked to think, of course, and frankly speaking it wasn't exactly the most unrealistic opinion to hold of oneself. To be more precise, in your opinion patience was a scarce resource whose consumption largely depended on the people you were dealing with. Old friends, family, and kind people in general had a slow consumption rate. On the other hand, people like the little girls sitting in front of you at the table would exhaust it all in a matter of seconds.
  14.  
  15. Not only were they extremely loud, but they also seemed to be unable to grasp the easiest of concepts. Even Father Matheus was scraping the barrel. Clearing his throat, he decided to try and give an answer in lieu of an exasperated Lukasz.
  16. "Girls, we've already gone over this. I am sure correction officer Rukino is also..."
  17. "I don't care, really."
  18.  
  19. Saki Rukino, who had come together with the little girls, was as beautiful as she was insufferable. In that very moment, rather than helping the rest of the team, she was busy taking care of her manicure. You couldn't stifle a sigh.
  20. The blonde little girl, which was usually more quick on the uptake, was biting her nails in frustration. She hated being in the same position as the ditzy redhead. The dark-haired little girl, instead, looked like she was profoundly uneasy.
  21.  
  22. The air was tense. Only the redhead had a broad, dumb smiled plastered on her face. This whole situation was giving you an headache, and the thought that it could very well be permanent was driving you nuts.
  23.  
  24. With pleading eyes, you turned to Father Matheus.
  25. "Please... could you take care of it?"
  26. He smiled like a man told to explain his daughters why it was rude to chew with their mouths open would. Clearing his throat, he begun.
  27.  
  28. "Lately, our friends on PN5, the Meganoids, have observed a strange phenomon. A large cluster of different alien species is being driven towards this Solar System, and we have no idea why. We say 'being driven', but we do not know what's driving them. All we know is that they're coming here. We have reasons to believe they're scared. Be it as may, the forces on our base are simply not enough to deal with them. That's why we asked for reinforcements, and we're glad to have you here."
  29.  
  30. The priest ended his speech on a diplomatic note. Was it a thinly veiled attempt to have miss Rukino take responsibility?
  31.  
  32. "But...but... Papika does not get it..." the red-haired girl said, with an apologetic look on her face. It was clear that the blondie was reaching the limits of her patience too, because she flipped at her teammate's words. "For crying out loud! Aliens are coming to kill us if we don't kill them first! What's so difficult to understand?"
  33.  
  34. "No, Yayaka, I understood that. I just think... if they're scared and we kill them, aren't we the ones being mean?"
  35. "A commendable thought, albeit somewhat naive," Father Matheus chimed in. "But such considerations only apply to lifeforms who are able to share the same form of 'common sense' as we do. It may well be that some of those aliens might be moved only by their primal insticts - their lizard brains, so to speak. They're just as afraid of the Anti-Spirals as they're eager to slaughter us."
  36.  
  37. It was clear that the explanation had not convinced the young Papika, who was now frowning just like the rest of the soldiers stationed on PN5-2. The only one with an air of absolute detachment around her was miss Rukino, who seemed to be utterly unconcerned by the events unfolding.
  38.  
  39. [Socializing background] Bitterly did you regret thinking of Joan as a queen bee. It was too late when you realized she was just a girl trying to balance the weight of her ideals against her growing feelings of jealousy and the sudden pain caused by loss. Saki, on other hand, was the ultimate primadonna, a staunch egotist with eyes for no one but herself.
  40.  
  41. It was mortifying to think that she, together with the three little girls, would have served the role of correction officers. You had received the news from Matheus and Lukasz, who informed you that the team you were part of was composed of former war criminals. In order to keep an eye on them, a loyalist, corrective officer had been assigned to the base, with nigh-unlimited decisional power over the lives of their subordinates. Until her death, that role had been covered by Joan de Spycer.
  42.  
  43. "Still, it's rather surprising if you think about it. When we first met, you guys shielded me from her. You could've been executed on the spot for insubordination." you told them back then.
  44. "Nah. We were acting on the captain's orders. Joan and Mark had agreed that he would be in charge of military operations, whereas she would remain in control of bureaucracy, administration and, well... all that jazz, I guess. It might sound messed up, but it was for the best, really. Mark was by far the best tactician of the two. Joan knew this and decided to capitalize on his talents."
  45.  
  46. That lengthy explanation had come from Lukasz himself. It was rare to see him so chatty, so you tried to asking him more questions, such as why were the three of them branded war criminals or why did other people took over Joan's role once Mark had passed away.
  47. However, the stoic giant returned to his usual one-liners, complaining that the title of war criminal had been thrown around by the Central Government like confetti after the Civil War, and briefly mentioning that both Lal'c and Shirou held ranks surpassing that of the deceased ensign. Then the furneral began, and you had no more opportunities to talk.
  48.  
  49. It was profoundly unnerving that your fate - and indeed, your life, was now at the mercy of the whims of a fickle woman. You started thinking of how to deal with it.
  50.  
  51. Regrettable as it were, there was really no chance but to try and deal with the trio of children. It wasn't like you had the luxury of choosing, of course, since the alternative was, well... Saki. It felt kinda dirty to try and persuade little girls, susceptible as they normally were to the words of an elder. Still, it felt like a small price to pay for safety - and possibly your life and the life of everyone else.
  52.  
  53. "So, girls, this is all probably new and confusing to you. But don't worry, we'll pull through somehow. Just remember that we've been here for a longer time, and most of the time we know what we're talking about. Please take our opinions and recommendations into consideration from now on, ok?" you asked, as coquettishly as possible.
  54.  
  55. "Eh?" Papika asked, confused. "But we're in charge here, aren't we?"
  56. "Of course we are," Yayaka chimed in, angered. "We know what we're talking about too, miss Dubois. And unlike you, we have more than just a few weeks of experience. Don't think you can fool us so easily."
  57. "But I wasn't trying to fool you," you replied, telling a bit of a white lie.
  58.  
  59. "No, but you certainly undermined us," the usually calm Cocona pointed out. "I get why you would, but please refraing from doing that from now on."
  60. Instinctively, your eyes darted back and forth, looking for approval from your friends. Lukasz was as stone-faced as usual, while Saki was still staring at her nails. Only Matheus gave you a meaningful glance.
  61. "Alright, I am sorry. I shouldn't have done that," you apologized. The girls looked like they accepted your apology, with Yayaka being the only one still showing signs of reticence.
  62.  
  63. With nothing else left to say, you excused yourself and left the cafeteria, heading for the hangar bay. Apparently the technical staff had gotten around 'fixing up' the Von Neumann, and they wanted to give you some new information on how the machine operated. It wasn't pleasant to leave the discussion like that: it still felt like you had just made a fool out of yourself. But turning back now  wouldn't have accomplished anything. On the other hand, an enormous, never before seen concentration of hostile lifeforms was headed your way. Learning how the Von Neumann operated would've helped deal with that.
  64.  
  65. As soon as you got there, you caught a glimpse of prof. Deucalion and prof. Isomäki confabulating. It didn't last long, however, because they quickly noticed you and motioned to come over. It wasn't often that you were asked to join their talks, but this was probably just about the Von Neumann.
  66.  
  67. "Miss Dubois, we were waiting for you," the petite woman said, greeting you.
  68. "Oh, sorry. I hope you didn't have to wait for long."
  69. "It's fine. More importantly, let's discuss the changes to your mecha unit," prof. Deucalion said, cutting short the chit-chat. He took a few steps in the direction of the black robot and started explaining the changes made, pointing to the areas affected by them.
  70.  
  71. "We've equipped the 'head' unit with vulcan guns. These should ideally give you an edge during close-quarters combat. They're not meant to be a primary weapon in and of themselves. The Satellite Communication System, SatCom for short, has been harvested from the wreckaged Hi-Drapearl and partly reconstructed. Whenever PN5-3 is in sight, it should slightly boost the efficiency of the SALUTE System. Finally, we're working on a replacement for the Fractal Blade. Until then, please keep using this modified beam rifle. It has been equipped with an energy knife, effectively letting you use it as a bayonet. Phew, I guess that's all."
  72.  
  73. It was a lot of information and it was coming all at once. You were having some problems processing all of it, especially the parts concerning the SatCom. As far as you knew, Joan had died in mysterious circumstances. She dashed to fight the enemy on her own, but what killed her? The impact? The enemy, through mutual assured destruction? Or perhaps it was a malfunction of her 'custom' component?
  74.  
  75. There was a non-zero probability that your former comrade in arm had been done in by her own robot. As long as it persisted, you didn't intend on fighting with the Von Neumann.
  76.  
  77. Something felt off. Possessed by something you couldn't even define, you decided to investigate their motivations.
  78. "Really strange... a former pilot on my team is KIA, the most important part of her machine is retrieved and reinstalled... things aren't adding up."
  79. "What do you mean, Carlotta?" prof. Isomäki inquired. "You were here when we retrieved both the sunk After War model and the remains of Joan's Hi-Drapearl."
  80. "Oh yes, that I saw with my own two eyes. But wouldn't you agree that her death is -at least from my perspective- shrouded in mystery?"
  81.  
  82. "I believe your worries could be assuaged by an explanation," Deucalion interjected, intervening on behalf of his somewhat annoyed colleague. She had assumed a standoffish pose, after all, perhaps under the (not entirely false) assumption that you were provoking her.
  83.  
  84. "Which I don't really mind giving, by the way, but let's keep this quick. Flaming Skulls are allotted only a limited consumption of Spiral Energy -their personal interpretation of the Unified Power- for combat use. Requests for large quantities must be lodged in advance, and a request to withdraw all remaining Spiral Power on one's 'account' is called Cygnus Song Protocol. Are you starting to get it?"
  85. "Joan de Spycer used the SatCom to bypass that procedure..."
  86. "Bingo," the man replied, tilting his head slightly and smiling at you. "But the SatCom is an imperfect machine. Its use for the Cygnus Song left it like a broken faucet, still leaking droplets of energy."
  87.  
  88. You narrowed your eyes, scratching your chin. It was all coming together now. The SatCom would've boosted the Von Neumann little by little, without the risks that a large outburst of power would've entailed. That, however, didn't explain neither how nor why Joan died.
  89.  
  90. "So what happened to our former correction officer, if she wasn't killed by her final attack?"
  91. "Probably destroyed by the ensuing explosing. ASI tend to scatter into explosive bits upon death. I don't think she intended to survive, to be honest. There's a reason why it's called Cygnus Song: Flaming Skulls don't want to live a life devoid of battle."
  92.  
  93. 'A life devoid of fight is without meaning.' That was the cruel creed your friend had subscribed to. It was difficult for you to imagine why anyone would want to live like that, but then again, you and Joan came from two different worlds and two different backgrounds. Fanatical as it might've been, perhaps her faith meant salvation for her.
  94.  
  95. Lost in thoughts, you eyed the Von Neumann's faceless head. You had seen it change shape several times before, an integrated function of the SALUTE System. It looked like a Gundam, like a Buster Machine, like a Mazin Robot, and many more you had not seen yet. But did it have a face of its own, behind that thick metal curtain? Or was it destined to be an imitation forever?
  96.  
  97. Sighing, you told yourself it didn't matter. It was still the best machine stationed on the base, except for the ones piloted by the corrective officers. If nothing else, it would have been entertaining to see them in battle. It was strange. The old you would've probably kicked and screamed upon knowing that she had been thrown in a life or death situation, but now all you could feel was a bit of pre-battle anxiety.
  98.  
  99. What had changed? What changed you? It would have been lovely to reflect on that question, but your train of thoughts was stopped cold in its tracks by Father Matheus, who bumped into you.
  100. "Ah, miss Dubois. I have a little favor to ask of you," he said, strangely agitated. His usual, polite self would've apologized first, so something must've occurred.
  101.  
  102. Cocking an eyebrow, you greeted him and prepared to ask some questions.
  103. "You seem in a hurry, father. Is there something I can do for you?"
  104. "Ah, yes actually. And by the way, sorry for bumping into you. I should pay more attention to where I go."
  105. "Don't worry about that. Come on, let me have it."
  106.  
  107. "Well, the gist of it is that Lukasz is sick. He needs his drugs, and now that the cat's out of the bag, I thought you could help him. He said you've seen him on the ship."
  108.  
  109. The image of your teammate injecting a weird substance flashed through your mind briefly. It was one of the most disturbing things you'd seen in the previous days, something you struggled to come terms with. This was a rare moment of calm before the storm, and it was precisely because of this reason that your mind, which would've been otherwise busy, was now feverishly dwelling on that particular. Speechless and absent-minded, you nodded.
  110.  
  111. Father Matheus apologized, said that he would've done it himself but that the technical staff was waiting for him to conduct maintenance on the Simulacrum. Come to think of it, the weird, symbiotic relationship between that man and his machine was another thing you knew next to nothing about. The priest excused himself before you could pursue any further question, telling you that the medicines Lukasz had requested were waiting for you at the medbay.
  112.  
  113. The nurse handed a small box to you, warning that the contents were fragile. You thanked her and proceeded towards the pilots' quarters, wondering about your teammate's condition. What could've bent a man as big and strong as him? Was it stress? Was it a fulminant disease still unknown in your world? Or was it a form of PTSD?
  114.  
  115. You quickly ruled out the disease. Matheus said 'drugs', not 'medicines'. This meant that he was dealing with problems related to his mental states, which was even more worrisome, considering how secretive and taciturn he usually was.
  116.  
  117. [Social Background] Was he bottling up his frustrations? Was he afraid to open up to the rest of his squad? Or did he just think that he would've been a burden to everyone else if he did? Either way, these lines of thought would be sure to aggravate his mental state, if he were holding them.
  118.  
  119. Still mulling about these things, you reached his room. Hesitantly, you knocked on the door, just to see it slide open right away. The massive frame of private Chtograd suddenly appeared, making you flinch in surprise. Before you could spill the contents of the box, he grabbed your wrists to keep them steady, then grabbed the box and withdrew in his room.  
  120.  
  121. "Do you... need help with that...?" You tentatively inquired.
  122. "Nah. I should be fine," he replied, laying the box on a nightstand and then opening and closing his hands rhythmically. "Thank you."
  123.  
  124. His room was just as dark and messy as his cabin on the spaceship. Did the cleaning staff just not swing by, scared by the prospect of angering him? That was unlikely. Lukasz knew how to be abrasive, but he never struck first. There was always a way to notice his annoyance before being reprimanded.  
  125.  
  126. In that exact moment, he was staring at you. It was his way of asking you to leave, or to speak up if you had anything to say.
  127.  
  128. "Well... maybe I should learn how to administer those drugs. You know, just in case..."
  129. The man took a deep breath, then nodded. "Alright. Watch closely."
  130. The procedure seemed fairly simple: he didn't need to dose quantities apparently, for he just took the cocktail and injected it in his veins using a sterile syringe.
  131.  
  132. "I am sorry you had to see me like this... again," he whispered, visibly stunned by the effects of the drug. "Some people... really love riling others up."
  133. "Saki Rukino?"
  134. "Saki motherfucking Rukino. The audacity on the bitch, making fun of the tragedy at the Hammer of the Gods... Sorry, I am trailing off.
  135. I need to sleep. Would you mind leaving me alone?"
  136.  
  137. Sighing, you left the room. There was a lot to be worried about if the teamwork was this abysmal. PN5-2 faced its greatest threat to date, and no amount of big robots would've made up for a lack of coordination. Just as you were thinking that, you saw the three little girls running in your direction, chasing and screaming at each other. Were they playing? The blonde girl, Yayaka, was reprimanding the other two.
  138.  
  139. "YOU TWO! LOOK WHERE YOU'RE GOING!" she screamed, and much to her chagrin, they didn't seem to be paying attention. They really should have, however, because a few seconds later the red-headed girl rammed into you. Despite seeing the girl charging, you were too slow to dodge. Luckily it didn't hurt, but Papika seemed to be in pain.
  140.  
  141. "Are you ok?" you asked, kneeling a bit and helping her up.
  142. "Ah! We should be asking that!" Cocona replied. "Sorry. We shouldn't be running through the corridors."
  143. "See? I warned you about that," Yayaka chimed in. "Just be glad it's not that other stuck-up woman."
  144.  
  145. The three girls occupied together the position of 'correction officer', together with miss Rukino. This meant that their orders held the full authority of their rank only if they were issued through a consensus. If Deucalion's speculations were correct, they had been sent there from the Central Government just to appease a request for reinforcements, whereas their 'joint rank' was an ad-hoc creation the military had come up with to justify their presence there. In other words, no one else could be spared.
  146.  
  147. "Were you girls in a rush, or were you just playing around?" You asked, curious.
  148. "Ah! We wanted to see the black robot you pilot, actually. We're very curious," Cocona answered.
  149. "I see. Well, I am sorry to say this, but I can't make it transform at will just yet. You'll have to wait for the battle to see that."
  150. "Eeeh?" Papika looked like she was thoroughly disappointed. "That's boring."
  151.  
  152. Shrugging your shoulders, you tried giving an explanation.
  153. "Nothing we can do about that. To transform, the Von Neumann requires a lot of Mirror Energy and an emotional response connected to the object I want to copy. That's why I am telling you it's not easy."
  154. "Ah! Then, you can Flip Flap too, miss!" Papika responded, elated.
  155.  
  156. "Flip... flap?"
  157. "Yes! When your impedance goes to zero and your heart fully synchronizes with someone else's, that's Flip Flapping!" Cocona enthusiastically explained. You nodded, taking mental note of all of this. It must've been one of those theories that Deucalion mentioned and which supposedly were just part of a whole. Only the blonde girl seemed to be somewhat displeased.
  158.  
  159. [Social Background] No, it wasn't displeasure. It was more like... embarrassment? That must've been it. After all, if the three of them worked together, this could only mean that she used the power of 'flip flapping' too, whatever that was.
  160.  
  161. Returning for a second to more pressing matters, you reminded yourself that the little girls held considerable authority on the base. Perhaps it was time to ask them for a favor now. Strange as it might've been, they were probably less fickle and self-centered than Saki.
  162.  
  163. [socializing background] Steeling your nerves, you prepared to attempt diplomacy once again. Making the same mistake twice was the epitome of stupidity. You had to deal with them as if they were your peers.
  164.  
  165. Clearing your throat to catch their attention you prepared to start.
  166. "Excuse me, girls. I would like to apologize for my behavior earlier. It wasn't polite of me."
  167. "We already went over this. It's water under the bridge," Cocona reassured you.
  168.  
  169. "That may be so, and in that case, I am thankful. But the truth is, I don't just want to apologize. I am here to ask a favor as well. Please, don't let anyone charge into their death. Sacrifices must be unavoidable, but they should be our last resort."
  170. "Are you asking us not to endanger your lives?" Yayaka asked, suspicious.
  171.  
  172. "That'd be impossible, and foolish. But you're our correction officers. All I am asking is that you don't give suicidal orders, as much as possible."
  173. "It's fine!" Papika proudly proclaimed, spreading her arms far and wide. "We will absolutely not let anyone die! Absolutely!"
  174. You smiled. A clumsy promise it may have been, but it was enough to discern their true disposition.
  175.  
  176. "Well then, we're off," Yayaka announced, dragging her fellow pilots by the scruff of their necks. "Von Neumann or not, we still have to make sure all our machines are working properly. We'll see you around. Bye, Carlotta."
  177. "Bye!" the other girls repeated, waving at you.
  178.  
  179. As the the correction officers took their leave, you sighed in exhaustion. It had been one thing after the other that day, with barely any time for you to catch your breath. Exhausted, you decided to head back to your room and rest for a bit.
  180.  
  181. The base felt emptier than usual that afternoon. Only the underground facility you mysteriously accessed upon your arrival had felt as devoid of life. Granted, there weren't nearly as many people on PN5-2 as the facility could've hosted, but even the severe understaffing -by now familiar- could not explain the sudden desert the headquarters had turned into.
  182.  
  183. Funnily enough, you still managed to possess what was possibly the only single room in the pilot's quarters. The constant presence of an odd number of female pilots had been playing in your favor. Considering the caliber of the newcomer officers, it was hard not to consider this a blessing in disguise. Or perhaps it was better to describe it as a silver lining.
  184.  
  185. Either way, you were all too happy to let yourself in and lie down on the bed. Rummaging behind the pillow, you looked for the weird, childlike drawing found in the room you slept in while onboard the spaceship. Much to your dismay, it looked like it was missing. Its absence hit you more than it should've. Was it just the pain of having lost something? Bizarre. It was barely more than a piece of scrap paper to you.
  186.  
  187. Disappointed and tired, you fell asleep. Once again, all you could see in your dreams was the metal abomination floating through space, a shape that would likely terrify anyone who'd see that in real life. Thankfully, it was just a recurring nightmare. Yeah, nothing more than a nightmare. The hunger you were feeling and that woke you up was proof of that.
  188.  
  189. Clearly, skipping dinner had not been the brightest idea you ever had. It was hardly surprising that you would now feel hungry all of a sudden. But would the cafeteria still be open and serving for a lost lamb like yourself? That was anyone's guess, at that point.
  190.  
  191. The first order of business was verifying whether or not someone else was awake. After all, not only is dinner best enjoyed in company, but kitchens should also -in theory- be more responsive to the prayers of two or more people rather than just one. The best way to do this would be to nonchalantly walk past their rooms and check if any noise could be heard, besides snoring.
  192.  
  193. Unfortuantely, that didn't seem to be the case. Everyone was either uncharacteristically silent (except for Lukasz of course) or sleeping like a log. Resigned to your fate, you decided to visit the cafeteria anyway, hoping to find something - anything edible, at all. That proved to be a bit of a more fortunate enterprise, however, as a young staff member you'd never seen before gladly served you some of the leftovers for the day. Thanking him from the bottom of your heart, you left for your room and returned to sleep, this time with a full belly.
  194.  
  195. The following day a meeting had been convened to discuss the strategy for the upcoming battle. This time, the Meganoids from PN5 would join in video-conference, to give some insight from their observations. Furthermore, a technical staff superintendent was sent from the Central Government Military Headquarter to assist with the mission briefing and with the maintenance of the machines for the operation.
  196.  
  197. He was a man no taller than three feet, with disheveld white hair and vivid red skin. His heterochromia was barely noticeable, due to the welder glasses he always wore. His size was inversely proportional to his ego, but despite his occasional delusions of grandeur, rumors in the base had it that he was more competent than he let on.
  198.  
  199. It was thanks to him that the Von Neumann was repaired and improved, and it was thanks to him that noticeable progress was being made on the Simulacrum. He made sure to relay this information himself, of course, but as a matter of fact no one denied it, meaning that it must've been the truth.
  200.  
  201. [Socializing background] You could, however, completely sympathize with the feelings of the technical staff. There is no worse feeling than having to deal with a genius who is also keenly aware of how competent he is. A magniloquent braggart is easily dismissed, not quite so a pompouss prodigy.
  202.  
  203. Unsurprisingly, nothing noteworthy emerged during the meeting. Nothing that you did not already know, of course. There was no proper plan in motion because of the sheer amount of uncertainty involved: some alien species might've been immune to this or that weapon, some others be entirely focused on their escape rather than on the battle, and so on.
  204.  
  205. In the grand scheme of things, regrettably, this made no difference. Trespassers had to be eliminated, or the battalion deployed on PN5-2 would've been held responsible. Similarly, immune aliens had to be dealt with one way or another. The absence of a plan didn't mean that you pilots did not know what to do. Rather, it meant you had no idea of how to carry out your tasks efficiently.
  206.  
  207. Only the officers looked like they were completely immune to the widespread climate of pessimism. Saki Rukino, impassible and unconcerned as always, and the little girls trio, who had been infected by Papika's overflowing enthusiasm, stood out like sore thumbs among all the somber faces in the room and -more in general- at the base.
  208.  
  209. You, on the other hand, desperately needed something to do. Something that did not involve mission control or mechanical tests, if possible. Taking a deep breath, you evaluated your options.
  210.  
  211. Maybe a functional team was something a bit beyond your grasp at the moment. Even so, efforts could be made so that everyone would be on their optimal level to fight. For instance, you could check up on Lukasz. During the meeting, he always looked like his mind was elsewhere. Was he trying to reel in the pain?
  212.  
  213. You decided to visit him, and once in front of his room, knocked on his door.
  214. "Who's that?" he asked bluntly.
  215. "It's me, Carlotta. I just wanted to know if you're fine."
  216. "Ah... yeah, I am fine. Sorry, I can't really open the door at the moment. The room is a mess."
  217.  
  218. "No, no, don't worry. If you're fine then all's well," you concluded, ready to leave. But before you could, he called out your name as if trying to get you to stay, even just a second longer. "Carlotta... Thank you."
  219. It was unusual to hear him be that meek with words. It felt like you were seeing a part of him one wouldn't usually get to see.
  220. "You're welcome."
  221.  
  222. Departing from the pilots' quarters, you were surprised to see a familiar figure standing right there by the exit.
  223. "Congratulations, miss Dubois. You truly are making progress."
  224. "Father Matheus...! You surprised me," you reprimanded him. "Were you eavesdropping?"
  225. "Of course not. That would be impolite. But I am certain you did the right thing."
  226.  
  227. You cocked an eyebrow, confused. "And what makes you so sure?"
  228. "That talk you just had... it was about the battle, wasn't it? Sorry, I expressed myself poorly. What I meant to say is that you talked with Lukasz to ensure us the best odds of winning the upcoming battle. Am I wrong?"
  229. Despite how much you hated admitting it, he was right. What happened to 'diverting your attention from the operation', as you resolved to do in the meeting room?
  230.  
  231. "Well, it's not that strange is it? People want to survive, and I am no exception. And in this case, surviving means fighting."
  232. ""You're wrong. There's another option, there's always been. What happened to returning to your own world?"
  233. "...!"
  234.  
  235. That question felt like a sudden blow. You were not expecting him to bring that up, and what was worse, you had no real comeback.
  236. "Well, I'd like to. But we both know Deucalion will just tell me he can't send me back."
  237. "That's probably true. But you haven't asked or thought about it. Have you?"
  238.  
  239. Another well assested blow. He sure knew where to hit to make it hurt. Sighing, you prepared to concede.
  240. "What is it that you want, Father? I consider you one of the few reasonable people around here. Please, don't turn unnecessarily adversarial. Not you too."
  241. "Far from that. I just wanted to compliment you for your courage. Sorry if it came out wrong."
  242.  
  243. You shook your head. "No, it's fine. I may have overracted. Still... courage, huh? What part of me is courageous?"
  244. "The part of you that stands up and fight."
  245. "Is that courage? Or folly?"
  246. "Do you think we are going to die in our battle against the aliens?"
  247. "We may, yeah."
  248. "But it's not certain. See? You're not a fool. A fool would charge in even if the probability of success were zero."
  249. "And what if that probability is almost zero?"
  250. "Then you'll have to use your courage to make up for it."
  251.  
  252. "'Courage', huh? Lal'c used to talk about guts and hard work, said it was the most important thing in the world. But I didn't expect the same kind of praise coming from you."
  253. The priest smiled. It seemed like he was enjoying the conversation. "And it is indeed not the same kind of praise. Hard work will bring you far in life, that's for sure. But courage is different. Courage is the prince of all virtues. To be brave, to be courageous, means to take the first step. Without taking the first step, you can't work hard, or achieve whatever you wish to achieve."
  254.  
  255. "You have a point. I suppose I misunderstood your philosophy then. I thought it was about pain and individuality and so on."
  256. "Oh, you did not misunderstand that part. Identity brings disparity, and disparity brings pain. To decide to bear with that pain is, ultimately, courage."
  257.  
  258. You gave him a cocky smile, as if to tell him that he had won the battle, but not the war. He read you as if you were an open book, and that was your specialty. That smile was your way of issuing a formal challenge. Sooner or later, you'd return him the favor.
  259. The man seraphically smiled back, then turned around and left, probably busy with his own errands. In hindsight, this had probably been the diversion you needed.
  260.  
  261. With less than a dozen hours remaining before deployment, you...
  262.  
  263. All things considered, working on the machine until the very last second was probably the best thing to do. Outnumbered as you were, you simply couldn't afford to have any machine be even remotely faulty. Persuaded of this, you headed for the hangar, where you spent the last part of the day helping the mechanics work on the Von Neumann.
  264.  
  265. You also helped with the maintenance of the other machines, trying to understand how they worked in anticipation of the battle. Finally, you spent the last hour or so in simulations, fighting against different alien species listed on the Euclid-Keter manual.
  266.  
  267. The departure from the base on the following day felt like attending your own funeral march. It was an austere procession that involved the pilots, the technical staff and the mission control staff quietly heading to the Arcadia-class battleship, loading the robots and all necessary supplies before taking off through the Geschtam Gate.
  268.  
  269. No patrol rounds were organized, and no plan of engagement was formulated: everyone was simply told to take off and to stand together. Miss Rukino's robot was sleek and green, and it had something that looked like a gown around its waist. It was a 'medium' robot, something comparable to the Simulacrum or to your own Von Neumann.
  270.  
  271. The Great Pacoya, on the other hand, was something out of a Soviet laboratory fantasy. Absolutely massive, towering even above the titanic Solarion, it looked like several cubes and other regular geometric shapes thrown together. It was an utter and complete mystery how that worked.
  272.  
  273. The man called 'Pops' informed you that the high mobility package of the Hi-Drapearl had been harvested as well and implanted last minute on your Von Neumann. The black robot was now more maneuverable in zero-G environments, but it lacked the capacity to transform into a fighter. You thanked him for the information and prepared to launch into outer space.
  274.  
  275. The pilots placed the five machines directly in front of the spaceship (and, by extension, the base). A massive swarm of aliens was already visible to the naked eye.
  276. "Let's start by cutting down their numbers," Saki announced. "Solarion, Great Pacoya. Fire at will."
  277.  
  278. For Lukasz, of course, this meant business as usual. But you had no idea what this entailed for the Great Pacoya before you saw it in action. Large, wing-like panels deployed behind its back, as thread made of pure light spread out around it.
  279. "Good, the dimensional anchors are working... at least it seems so. You're good to go, girls, give it a shot!"
  280. "Understood!" the three girls replied to their fellow correction officer in chorus.
  281.  
  282. The diamond-like shape on the Great Pacoya's chest light up, and the rest of the body followed suit. The machine was glowing as if it were another star. Electric discharges ran through it, before the robot finally released the energy it had been accumulating.
  283. "PACOYA NOVA!"
  284.  
  285. The two beams of pure energy flew towards the enemy at a surprising speed. When they hit them, they hit them hard. Holes were now visible in the enemy formation. It was too early to celebrate, but this was a remarkable result for what was, for all intents and purposes, just a preliminary strike.
  286.  
  287. As miss Rukino gave the order to repeat the attack, you started thinking on how to best use your own machine.
  288.  
  289. Both the Solarion and the Great Pacoya were doing an excellent job at keeping the enemy at bay, but it wasn't nearly enough. They needed something to pack a bit more of a punch. Breaking formation, you placed the Von Neumann between them.
  290. "Huh? Dubois, what are you doing?"
  291. "To you guys, I will grant you power!"
  292.  
  293. Metal threads sprouted from the Von Neumann, linking it to the adjacent machines. The SatCom system was slowly but surely empowering you, and you'd use that energy to empower your friends.
  294. "Twin Satellite Booster, armed and ready!"
  295. "Solarion, fire!"
  296. "Great Pacoya, fire!"
  297.  
  298. The two beams departed at the same time. Not only were they faster than their earlier counterparts, they were also massively more destructive. Unfortunately, this depleted the Von Neumann's reserve of energy 'pilfered' from PN5-3.
  299.  
  300. "Von Neumann," miss Rukino suddenly called. "Can you do that again?"
  301. "I am afraid not, it'll take me a while to recharge."
  302. "Alright, then come with me. We'll do some advanced scouting."
  303.  
  304. The 'gown' of the Carmilla started moving, as if it were little spider feet, and propelled her towards the enemy. Deploying your mobility package, you followed her to the best of your capabilities.
  305. "Ah, this is bad. The mothership has to retreat, or we'll lose it," she remarked.
  306.  
  307. "Enemy scouting party!" Matheus suddenly shouted, alerting you. "They're on your nine!"
  308. A small patrol of aliens had indeed parted ways from the main force and was coming to greet you. The Carmilla released its two spinning wheels, killing a few unlucky ones. You, on the other hand, had to make do with the beam rifle and vulcans.
  309.  
  310. Suddenly, the Carmilla stopped moving, as if its power were down. The machine that had been graciously dancing through the star was still like a toy whose batteries had run out.
  311. "Fuck! I am overheating!"
  312. "Huh?" you asked dumbfounded.
  313. "I have no time to explain! Help me!"
  314.  
  315. Was that an order? Or was she begging for her life? You decided it was no time to find out whether you had a sadistic streak in you or not. Instead, this was the perfect time to carry out a little experiment. Deploying a probe blaster, you controlled it so that it would neatly attach on her back, then moved it towards your position.
  316.  
  317. Just as you expected, the probe blaster had no difficulties dragging the green robot around and away from danger.
  318. "Hey, what are you doing? How are you absorbing heat so fast?" the pilot asked, a hint of irritation on her voice.
  319. "I have an idea!" you cockily replied.
  320. "Fine, whatever, just get this thing off me already! I can move!"
  321.  
  322. It was time to move on to phase two. Detaching the probe, you instead moved it upon the Von Neumann's breast. The probe blaster had functioned like a heat sink up until that moment. But a certain machine you observed had been capable of using its heat sink as weapon, and you thought that this just might've worked the same way.
  323.  
  324. Flexing the robot's arms in order to move them from harm's way and to expose the chest, you turned the Von Neumann around and prepared to put your theory to the test.
  325. "BREAST FLAME!"
  326.  
  327. Once again, your prediction turned out to be correct. A wave of concentrated heat was released from the probe blaster, engulfing the chasing aliens and burning them to a crisp. It was a plan you were pretty proud of, something you wished Shirou could have seen for himself.
  328.  
  329. "Thank you," Saki said, sounding almost sincere for the first time since you met her.
  330. [Socializing Background] "You're welcome. Miss Rukino... no, Saki. We need a plan if we are to make it out of here alive. If not for us, do it for yourself. Please, give us your orders."
  331.  
  332. "For my life?" Saki laughed cynically. "I don't much care about that. I should've died a long time ago."
  333. Regrettably, this wasn't the moment to give her some life counseling advice. You had to shake her up a bit, but you promised yourself you would've made up for it once back to the base.
  334.  
  335. "But you didn't! And that maybe means something. Call it god, or fate, or destiny, it doesn't matter. What matters is that you're alive, right here and right now. What do you intend to do?"
  336. Through the communication channel open between the Von Neumann and the Carmilla, you could see her expression turning more resolute.
  337.  
  338. "Alright. I'll do it. Stil... this would be much easier if we had a trump card of sorts..."
  339.  
  340. >Leave it to me! [Revenge +1]
  341. >Trump card or not, we can win if we fight together [Synthesis +1]
  342. >We need no trump card, competent leadership will carry us through. [Revenge +1]
  343. >Other [specify]
  344. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  345.  
  346. [missing chunk. Do something cool!]
  347.  
  348. The enemy had been dealt a terrible blow. But a proverb goes that quantity is a quality in itself, and the enemy certainly had no shortage of quantity. What was worse is that they were coming closer, meaning that the Solarion and the Great Pacoya only had one or two more rounds in the chamber.
  349.  
  350. Time was running out. Without any more hesitation, you took your beam bayonet and aimed it at the closest alien. With grim determination, the Carmilla prepared to do the same, with its spinner knuckles. A grunt coming from the Simulacrum notified you that Matheus was ready too.
  351. "PACOYA NOVA!"
  352.  
  353. Another blast was fired at the aliens, another hole appeared in their formation. The Solarion fired a few seconds later, while the Great Pacoya recovered. It was a joint attempt at never stopping the barrage fire, but as you expected, it wasn't quite enough. The enemy was now upon you.
  354.  
  355. "Carlotta Dubois. Do you want to become a star?", Saki asked out of the blue.
  356. "Huh? What does that mean?"
  357. "You see, to become a star, you need to be a good dancer. Choreography is essential."
  358.  
  359. It was clever. Very clever, in fact. Had she come up with that plan just a few minutes ago, after witness the capabilities of the Von Neumann? That certainly was impressive. You never even considered that possibility yourself. Admittedly, it wasn't Einstein-level reasoning. But it was easy, it worked, and it came at the exact right time. In other words, it was clever.
  360.  
  361. The enemy was upon you, too close to be targeted by the two large robots long-range beams. The risk was that the other machines would be affected by the ensuing explosions.
  362. "Not yet."
  363.  
  364. Everyone held position, perhaps aware of your plans by now. It was something that had to be executed with perfect timing, lest the spaceship be damaged. Three of the Von Neumann's probe blasters attached themselves on the back of all the other robots besides the Carmilla, with the fourth one still resting on its shoulder.
  365. "Not yet."
  366.  
  367. The aliens had arrived. It was difficult to judge distance in space, but they were probably just a few hundred meters away at best. Some of them were slimy, some of them had a much more defined anatomy. None of them was even remotely anthropomorphic. 'Figures,' you thought to yourself. Either way, something much more important required your full attention.
  368. "NOW!"
  369.  
  370. All the probe blasters activated in unison, scattering all the robots apart. Taking full advantages of the holes in the enemy formation, you snuck those machines behind enemy lines, beginning a mad flying circus and keeping them at a safety distance. The Carmilla was the only exception, more than capable of handling it by herself thanks to her spider legs.
  371.  
  372. The plan was working. The aliens were being driven away from the ship and towards the mecha. What they couldn't account for was that each one of them had effectively two pilots on board.
  373. "Carlotta! I am almost there!", Saki suddenly said. "Let's hit 'em with the switcharoo."
  374. "Understood!"
  375.  
  376. The probe planted on the Solarion's back suddenly dragged it upwards (if there even was an upwards in space) and away from the enemy before dropping it. Now at a safety distance, the Solarion could fire its barrage fire unhindered. Meanwhile, the probe attached itself on the Carmilla's back, draining its heat and releasing it as white-hot fire upon the enemies, seconds before returning to the Solarion and dragging it away from the encroaching enemies.
  377.  
  378. It was a neat trick, of course, but it required superhuman precision. Even the tiniest of mistakes would've lead the team to a complete wipeout. In that very moment, a familiar intercom channel opened again.
  379. "Miss Carlotta Dubois? We have news. It's urgent.
  380. "Lieutenant Kess? What's wrong?"
  381.  
  382. "You're wasting your time there. Those aliens are too many for you guys. At this rate you'll be annihilated."
  383. "Tell me something I don't know!"
  384. "How about the fact that our proximity scanners revealed an Angel in the swarm?"
  385. "Well shit, that sure isn't something I was hoping to hear."
  386.  
  387. "It's indeed regrettable. But listen to me: there's a chance that Angel has mentally subjugated the other aliens."
  388. "So if we get rid of it, we get rid of the swarm."
  389. "Bingo. It's a big if, of course but..."
  390. "It's better than nothing at all. Thanks, Lieutenant."
  391. "Don't mention it. Good luck."
  392.  
  393. >Take care of this on your own [Revenge +1]
  394. >Ask Father Matheus for help [Synthesis +1]
  395. >Double-check with mission control [Heritage +1]
  396. >Other [specify]
  397. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  398.  
  399. [missing chunk: no one seems capable of locating it.]
  400.  
  401. Frustration was rising: were the Meganoids deliberately spreading misinformation? This wouldn't be the first time they took advantage of you. It was hard to process all of this while at the same time keeping the flying circus in full swing. The events, however, were headed for a surprising turn.
  402.  
  403. "Found it!" Papika shouted, as if unaware that the Great Pacoya had been tossed and that it was now floating upside down. "A zone with impedance 0, deep within enemy territory. What is that?"
  404. There was no time to translate it, but you understood perfectly. 'Zero impedence' must've meant full understanding, and if Father Matheus was right, that meant no idenitity. In other words, mind control. The science behind Mirror Energy explained that different instruments measured the same thing, just giving it a different name.
  405.  
  406. "Great Pacoya, you're large and in charge. I need you to open a way for the Von Neumann," you pleaded.
  407. "Understood!"
  408. "Leave it to us!"
  409. "Coming right up!"
  410.  
  411. Having received their consensus, you used the probe blaster on the Great Pacoya's back to move it into position. The massive robot released another beam in the target area, showing you the easiest way to reach the Angel. It was time to remove the enemy King from the chessboard.
  412.  
  413. "Solarion! Can you give me the usual?"
  414. "Coming up!" Lukasz replied, as he concentrated everything he had to produce another one of his psychic blades.
  415. Suddenly the video communication channel was cut, as the pilot could be heard coughing. A wet sound was echoing, like that of a man spitting.
  416.  
  417. "Chtograd! Status report," Rukino demanded
  418. "I am fine, but sorry Dubois, this is as far as I can go."
  419. What the Solarion tossed in your direction was a clump of shapeless energy, something with no purpose nor utility. Much to your surprise, the last remaining probe reacted to it, projecting a field around it.
  420.  
  421. "An I-field..."
  422. You had seen this phenomenon at work before, but back then the field only worked to shield you. Now, it was shaping the clump. The light generated by this process forced you to look away. Once it was over, there was no more probe, and no more clump: they had fused, turning into a glowing, golden hammer.
  423.  
  424. Holding it with both of the Von Neumann's hands, you bolted towards the alien overmind, passing through an increasingly narrow corridor left by the Great Pacoya's beam. The Angel must have understood it had been found out, and he was redirecting its minions against you. Just when you thought you were done for, the spinner knucles of the Carmilla came in your aid. With a final sprint, you closed the distance between you and your target.
  425.  
  426. It stood there as if keeping a safety distance from its slaves. Most of its body looked like an inverted cone, a bizzare throne on which a fetal-looking shape was sitting. The homunculus was staring right into you with its only eye, while the other one was swollen and orange in color. In an instant, you realized it was its nucleus.
  427.  
  428. Wielding your new weapon with renewed conviction, you prepared to bring this battle to a swift conclusion.
  429. "Black like mourning is the machine I pilot, but the hammer it's grasping shines with the light of hope!"
  430. Holding it above the Von Neumann's head, you swung it down against its AT-Field
  431. "HAMMER HEL!"
  432.  
  433. The impact was brutal, and if not for the empowerment coming from the SatCom system, it would have shattered both of you robot's arms.  But the AT-Field was yielding, cracking below the immense pressure you were applying. Once its protection faded, you passed to phase two.
  434. "HAMMER GLADSHEIM!"
  435.  
  436. Something pierced the Angel's core, and when you pulled the hammer away, it dragged it out of its body. It was now floating in the empty space between the Von Neumann and the creature, which responded by sprouting tendril from its cavity, all headed for the nucleus.
  437. Before it could regenerate, you had to give it a final blow. One final swing of the maul.
  438. "MASTERMIND ANGEL! RETURN INTO THE LIGHT"
  439.  
  440. The impact shattered it, turning its body into specks of dust. All the other aliens must've felt the psychic feedback, for their bodies exploded much in the same way. The hammer dissolved, leaving only the probe blaster in its place. It was done.  What was the next order of business?
  441.  
  442. >Check in with your teammates [Synthesis +1]
  443. >Check in with mission control [Heritage +1]
  444. >Check in with the Meganoids [Revenge +1]
  445. >Other [specify]
  446. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  447.  
  448. [missing chunk]
  449.  
  450. Once back to the battleship, you couldn't help but notice how tense everyone was. Not just technicians, usually worried about fixing right away an issue that would take a long time to remedy otherwise, everyone else looked on edge too. Needless to say, all pilots were immediately summoned on the main bridge for an 'urgent meeting'.
  451.  
  452. An exceptionally somber Deucalion proceeded to fill you in.
  453. "I won't beat around the bush, folks: PN5-2 has been compromised. Enemy spies have infiltrated the moon, and possibly the planet."
  454. "Are you kidding me? What was security doing?" Saki asked, visibly angered.
  455. "Taking care of orbital defenses, of course. Need I remind you that our attention was focused on larger threat? Perhaps if your friends at the Central Government didn't starve us of manpower and supplies..."
  456.  
  457. "Alright, I get it. No point in crying over spilled milk, and besides, my ears will literally bleed if I hear you complain for one more second. So, what do we do now?"
  458. "We land this ship carefully in one or two days. The sooner, the better. And we pretend we know nothing, of course. They must believe their plan has succeeded."
  459.  
  460. "Woah, one moment here," you intervened. "Enemy who? Aliens?"
  461. "Independentists," prof. Isomäki explained.
  462. "Oh, dang, alright. But then why would they come here? I mean, I know this is a planet on the outer rim of the Empire, and a full scale invasion would make sense. But why send spies or infiltrators? Do they not know how poorly garrisoned the base is?"
  463.  
  464. "Oh, trust me. They know," Deucalion responded.
  465. "Then why?" you insisted.
  466. Slowly, you started to notice that everyone was staring at you in lieu of answering. And then it dawned on you. "Ah."
  467.  
  468. A mysterious, prototype-level technology no one knew how to operate, but which could potentially turn the tides of war. Did they need any more reasons to invade? You felt stupid for not taking such an obvious possibility into account.
  469. "As I was saying," the bespectacled man resumed, "We need to be careful. We must, at all times, act under the belief that the person in front of us is either a spy or someone brainwashed to serve the spies. This includes people on this ship. Later today I will pass on a codeword that can be used to confirm your identities. I suppose that's all for now."
  470.  
  471. "Are we implying that we should act as her personal bodyguards?" Saki inquired, somewhat peeved.
  472. "I am implying that you should keep your eyes open, correction officer Rukino. I just thought it would helpful to know who the enemy target is."
  473.  
  474. >I can take care of myself [Revenge +1]
  475. >Feel free to ignore me, you'll be the one held responsible [Heritage +1]
  476. >A better way to see this is that we can look out for each other [Synthesis +1]
  477. >Other [specify]
  478. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  479. [missing chunk]
  480.  
  481. Later that evening, a knocking on your door woke you up.
  482. "Ah, this sure brings back memories. Come on in," you said, still in a daze.
  483. The light coming from the corridors was undiluted pain for the eyes, and you were barey able to make out three little shadows standing on the room's edge.
  484.  
  485. "Ah, it's you girls. What's up?"
  486. "Well... we kinda came up with a plan to counter the spies. A plan of our own, that is," Yayaka said, flustered.
  487. "Can we come in?" Cocona asked.
  488.  
  489. You nodded, sitting up on the bed to look a bit more presentable. "Let me hear."
  490. "Well, we thought that we could share something that only our real selves know... that way, we would be able to recognize impostors," the raven-haired girl explained.
  491. "Yeah! The other pilots agreed as well. So? how does that sound? Are you in?" an overly excited Papika pressed you.
  492.  
  493. "Ok, yeah, I suppose it makes sense. A sort of two-steps identification process in case the codeword gets leaked. I am in," you confidently said.
  494. Not missing a bit, the red-headed girl grabbed your hand and dragged you out of bed. "Come on then, the others are waiting."
  495. "Ah, wait, I am still wearing my pajama...!"
  496.  
  497. Regrettably, your complaints were in vain. A meager consolation was finding out that everyone else in the room arranged for this informal meeting was just as fashionable as you. Saki was particularly flustered, clearly uncomfortable with wearing a casual attire and no make-up.
  498.  
  499. "Wait a second!" she protested. "I thought this was an officer-only affair. What are these guys doing here?"
  500. She probably had arrived just a few seconds earlier than you. Yeah, that would've explained why she hadn't noticed Matheus and Lukasz sitting on the sofa, still half-asleep.
  501.  
  502. "There's no point in doing this if it's just the four of us," Yayaka replied. "Please, bear with it."
  503. "And it's a good chance to become friends!" Papika enthusiastically added. Admittedly, her innocence was touching. Nevertheless, Cocona gently reprimanded her for being too forward.
  504.  
  505. "Alright, let us begin," Matheus proclaimed, as if suddenly snapping awake. "Don't worry, I am a priest. I am used to hearing confessions."
  506. "Oh? Sounds like someone doesn't want to go first. Do you have a deep, dark secret you can't tell us? C'mon, I want to hear!"
  507. Those words must've triggered something in Saki, because her attitude suddenly did a 180. Not even the little girls were as curious and eager to start.
  508.  
  509. >Well then, I guess I have some favors to return [Synthesis +1]
  510. >It's ok, he can go first. [Heritage +1]
  511. >Nah, Saki will go first [Revenge +1]
  512. >Other [specify]
  513. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  514.  
  515. [missing chunk, accommodate. Especially since some confessions might occur sooner rather than later!]
  516.  
  517. The priest sighed. "Alright then, looks like I can't back down. This might count a bit as cheating, since Carlotta and Lukasz already know about this. But the truth is, I lost my body. What I have now is simply a replica generated by my robot, the Simulacrum. The Mother of Machines gave it to me. Satisfied?"
  518.  
  519. All the girls were looking at him wide-eyed, mouth agape. "That's... really something, I guess. Well, who wants to go next?"
  520. "I will!" Papika shouted, raising her hand. "My secret is that I love Cocona very much!"
  521. "Hey, wait...! That's not a secret!" Yayaka protested. "It doesn't count."
  522. "She's right, you know," Cocona commented. "You have to say something others don't know already."
  523.  
  524. The red-haired girl looked like she was deep in thought, then snapped her fingers as if she had something figured out.
  525. "No one knows, but my old name is Papikana! Does that count?"
  526. Everyone else nodded in approval. It was something the spies might've already known, but it was probably unrealistic to expect anything more from her.
  527.  
  528. "What about you, Carlotta? What's your secret?" Saki asked
  529. "Well... something you might not know is that I am an orphan. I never knew my real mother or my father. So if you want to find out whether or not I am a body double, ask me about my family members. Easy, isn't it?"
  530. "Ah... I am an orphan too, actually... I only live with my grandma..." Cocona replied. "I guess I have to come up with something else."
  531. "It should be fine, really," Matheus said, trying to calm her down. "As long as it's only the two of you..."
  532.  
  533. "Truth be told, I am an orphan too," Yayaka pointed out. "but it's fine. The organization I used to work with is called Asklepios. No one but Papika and Cocona should know about this."
  534. "Orphans, huh... what a blessing in disguise," Saki nonchalantly considered. "Well, guess it's my turn to fess up now. There is a boy I like, his name is Haruto. I doubt anyone knows of him, though."
  535.  
  536. [socializing background] Normally this would be the moment to ask her everything about her crush, and indeed the little girls were already squealing in excitement, bar the blondie. But something felt wrong: why would no one know about her lover, or love interest? Was he...
  537.  
  538. "Hey, big boy! Your turn to talk!"
  539. Saki's imperious speech forced you to return to reality. What would the silent giant confess? After a few seconds of deliberation, he whispered something.
  540. "... we weren't wrong."
  541. "Huh? We can't hear you, speak up," the officer goaded him.
  542.  
  543. "We weren't wrong!" he repeated, almost shouting. "We weren't wrong. The Mirage Knights never endorsed the folly of the Independentists. We just didn't want to fall into the grasp of Simon the Black. That's all."
  544. "Uttering that name is treason." Saki coldy remarked.
  545. "Your treason can lick my balls! Wanna hear a secret? Here it is: fuck the Central Government, fuck Afranchi Char, fuck Simon the Black and fuck the Independentists. Does that give you enough material to work with?"
  546.  
  547. >Let's calm down, everyone. [Synthesis +1]
  548. >You went a bit overboard, didn't you, Lukasz? [Heritage +1]
  549. >Yeah, screw them! [Revenge +1]
  550. >other [specify]
  551. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  552.  
  553. [missing chunk]
  554.  
  555. Be it as may, apparent peace had returned to the meeting room. The mood was ruined, and no one felt like staying around. Having confirmed each other's 'security question', everyone returned to their room. It had been a long day, and no one felt like fighting another battle, verbal or otherwise.
  556.  
  557. Deucalion announced that the ship was scheduled to make landfall in less than 10 hours, slightly ahead of schedule. All talks about spies and infiltration had ceased, especially since official channels were being used to broadcast information to and from the base.
  558. This whole situation felt bizarre and surreal. Even more than usual.
  559.  
  560. It was surprising how quickly a human could adapt to radically different circumstances, but what was even more surprising is how little it took to throw her into disarray once again from her precarious equilibrium. Much in the same way, you had adapted to fighting unfathomable creatures on your robot, but having to face enemies without the comfort of your 'armor' was distressing to say the least.  
  561.  
  562. Sighing, you felt like an idiot for not taking that self-defense course your friend Anne told you about. Less than half a day was far too short a time to learn how to deal with armed enemies. Possessed by these nefarious thoughts, you were scouring the corridors of the spaceship, wandering aimlessly from room to room.
  563.  
  564. Someone must've noticed your nervousness, because a hand reached your shoulders and caused you to freeze in place.
  565. "What's the matter?" a familiar voice inquired.
  566. "Ah, Saki. It's nothing. Just a bit worried about the situation going out of control... I have no experience with mano a mano, you see?" you replied, smiling faintly.
  567. "It's fine. We have the numbers, plus some tricks up our sleeve. If they're saboteurs, chances are they will just damage the hangar and your robots which -frankly speaking- are no state-of-art machines. It will be fine."
  568.  
  569. "I am not too sure I like that. Matheus IS his robot, and the Von Neumann..."
  570. "The Von Neumann won't be destroyed by some amateurs with firecrackers."
  571. "What if they're really aiming at me...?"
  572.  
  573. Saki held both of your shoulders, forcing you to turn around and look at her in the eyes.
  574. "It'll be fine. We'll cross the bridge when we get there. Getting worried about it now won't fix anything. You're a pretty perceptive girl, and you can take care of yourself. And if push comes to shove, I'll show you what a member of the Golden Seven is actually capable of."
  575.  
  576. With that cryptic remark, she let go of you and winked, before leaving and going on her way. That felt... odd. It wasn't the first time an organization you knew nothing about was brought up, but what left you thoroughly puzzled, more than anything else, was her sudden change in attitude. You feared that, just like it happened with Joan, you might've seriously misdjudged her. Was there time to make amends? Was there time to get to know her better?
  577.  
  578. These thoughts occupied your mind for the rest of your trip. As soon as the ship landed, however, you switched gears, and started considering what was in your power to do to counter the spies' activities.
  579.  
  580. >Check my room first [Synthesis +1]
  581. >Talk with the mechanics [Revenge +1]
  582. >Grab some dinner at the cafeteria [Heritage +1]
  583. >Other [specify]
  584. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  585.  
  586. [modify accordingly]
  587.  
  588. Exhausted with what little work you mananged to accomplish on the base, you opted to return to your room and go to sleep. Unfortunately, the anxiety and the fear that someone or something might be lurking in the dark made for very bad companions for the night. As a result, you kept waking up and then falling asleep.
  589.  
  590. Dawn came all too early on that god-forsaken moon. Crawling to the cafeteria for breakfast, you met your teammates, all equally sleep-deprived. After a successful mission the base would be in jubilation for the following one to two days; that morning, instead, the atmosphere was all too somber. Did they knew that you knew? Was counterespionage going to turn into a staring contest, in which whoever blinked first would lose?
  591.  
  592. Leaning forward to whisper among each other, you all confirmed your real identities. Having ascertained that everyone was whoever they were supposed to be, you proceeded to trade informations. Unfortunately, no one of you turned out to have found anything substantial. Most of what people deemed 'suspicious behavior' could be chalked up to a number of circumstances, thus it was difficult to tell the evidence apart from the false positives.
  593.  
  594. Frustrated, you decided to end meeting there for the moment, in mutual agreement that you would reconvene for lunch. The girls bolted out the room first, chasing after Papika, whose enthusiasm could barely be contained even in a situation of such grave danger. Moved by genuine concerns, you decided to follow them.
  595.  
  596. Stalking them, you found out that this was a wild session of 'you're it!' initiated by the red-haired girl, with the two other girls accompanying her in order to prevent incidents. There was absolute silence throughout the base, only broken by the noise made by the trio and by you. One, two, three, four: you counted four different people walking, yourself included.
  597.  
  598. Gradually, as your ears grew accustomed to the noise, you started hearing something else. Slow and deliberate, it was almost like...
  599. Turning around as quickly as you could, you saw absolutely no one. You weren't being followed then. The girls were now further away, so you had to step up your pace, and just when you did the fifth, unidentified noise repeated.
  600.  
  601. A scream came from the other end of the corridor, just around the corner. Rushing towards it, you noticed that the girls were gone.
  602. "Fuck!" you swore, turning around to alert the others. At least, that was the intention, but a soldier in a black uniform that looked like a biker's suit was now waiting behind you, his gun aimed and ready. Just where the fuck had he been hiding? No time for that, you had to think of a solution, and quickly.
  603.  
  604. >Raise your hands and surrender [Heritage +1]
  605. >Run for it! [Revenge +1]
  606. >"Who are you? What do you want?" [Synthesis +1]
  607. >Other [specify]
  608. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  609.  
  610. [missing chunk. ADAPT!]
  611.  
  612. A loud bang echoed through the corridor. Had the gun been fired? Were you dead? No, that couldn't be right. Turning around and taking a closer look, you noticed that the soldier laid now on the ground, a crack through his helmet. Besides him stood Father Matheus, in a martial pose of sort.
  613.  
  614. "Whew... you saved me out there. Thanks."
  615. "Heh, no biggie. It's been a while since I last had the chance to practice some good Baji Quan. More importantly, where are the girls?"
  616. "Disappeared somewhere. I am sorry... I lost track of them."
  617.  
  618. He flashed a smug smile, more self-satisfied than he had any right to be.
  619. "Good. They've taken the bait."
  620. "What the hell? We're using little girls as bait?"
  621. "Of course not. They have hypnotized Papika and think we do not know about it. Come on, we must rendezvous with Lukasz," he said, grabbing your wrist and dragging you away.
  622.  
  623. "Wait, wait, what the hell is going on?" you asked, still confused.
  624. "The endgame is here. The spies know they've been found out, and now it's showtime. It's a matter of who gets whom first."
  625. This was bad, really bad. Much worse than you had expected. And above all, how came that everyone else but you knew what was up?
  626.  
  627. Frustrated, you kept the pace with the priest, still madly dashing from corridor to corridor. Then, after what felt like an eternity, you finally caught a glimpse of the enormous man running in your direction. "Lukasz!" you screamed, seconds before realizing he wasn't alone. Next to him stood... you. Or rather, a girl that looked like you.
  628.  
  629. A sudden chill went down your spine. It wasn't just a figure of speech: something cold had been pressed against your nape. Lukasz did the same, urging the girl to move forward.
  630. "Alright then, time for the security question. Tell us about your parents."
  631. "I have none," the doppelganger in front of you promptly replied. "I am an orphan."
  632. "Ah..."
  633.  
  634. Silence. The noise of safety catches going off. You didn't even have the chance to respond, and yet...!
  635. Two shots exploded. The clone in front of you collapsed, her face melting off and revealing that of a boy in his teens.
  636. "He must've been on the ship. That damn Deucalion...! How did he miss a security breach of this size?" Matheus complained.
  637.  
  638. >Wait a second, how did you... [Synthesis +1]
  639. >To die so young. What a waste. [Revenge +1]
  640. >Good. What's the next step? [Heritage +1]
  641. >Other [specify]
  642. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  643. [missing chunk]
  644.  
  645. "By the Gods, if this isn't a fool's errand," Lukasz complained, kicking the corpse of the deceased spy away. In the deepest recesses of your mind, you were screaming, mad with terror and revulsion. But you had been through this already, when Deucalion killed two men right in front of you.  Right now, you had to keep your wits about yourself.
  646.  
  647. The worst was yet to come. There certainly were more spies scattered around the base. What if it came down to you to kill one of them? Could you stand to act as an executioner? Perhaps mecha fighting had desensitized you to killing. For a pilot it was something distant, 'clean', even safe. But killing in cold blood a man who stood a few steps away from you mere seconds earlier ... that was on a whole other level.
  648.  
  649. "Alright, the shortest path to the hangar is this way. Follow my lead," Matheus said, suddenly breaking the silence.
  650. "Hangar? So we're dealing with saboteurs, right?" you inquired
  651. "Don't be stupid. Who would try to sabotage the last line of defense between man and... well, whatever's out there?"
  652.  
  653. "Then why the hangar?"
  654. "That's where Papika is instructed to meet them. We're gonna pull the rug from under their feet," Lukasz responded. "But we don't have much time. The girls might already be there, and if they are, it's game over for us."
  655.  
  656. Too tired and out of breath, you decided not to pursue the matter any further. After all, there was still a whole lot of running to do. Corridor by corridor, room by room, you tried to get to your destination as fast as you could. At times, you had to stop and lie in wait to elude the spies' surveillance, rare occasions that you exploited to rest. You were completely out of your element.
  657.  
  658. "Over there!" Matheus suddenly whispered. "That's the door to the hangar! We made it!"
  659. It was perhaps too soon to feel relief, but you couldn't help thinking that maybe there was still hope. That is, until another masked man in all black appeared, barring your path to the door. Everyone stopped dead in their tracks. This was game over.
  660.  
  661. He was holding Saki in a chokehold with his forearm, pointing a gun at her head with his other hand.
  662. "End of the line, bootlickers. Not another step, or I'll use her brains to paint the walls."
  663. "Saki!" you instinctively shouted, frightened to the bone.
  664.  
  665. "Shut up!" she responded, a glint of pure malice in her eyes. "Do as you're told."
  666. "Yeah, good girl, tell 'em how it is. Kneel down, with your hands behind your nape. Got it?" the man taunted.
  667. A sudden squeeze around your wrist caught your attention. Lukasz was trying to lean closer, even by just a few millimeters.
  668.  
  669. "Get behind me. Now," he ordered. "Just fucking do it," he added for good measure.
  670.  
  671. >Comply with the man's orders [Heritage +1]
  672. >Comply with Lukasz's orders [Synthesis +1]
  673. >Try to save Rukino on your own [Revenge +1]
  674. >Other [specify]
  675. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  676.  
  677. [missing chunk]
  678.  
  679. It all happened in a flash. Matheus took a few steps forward, and the soldier unloaded the entirety of his pistol's magazine in Saki's head. Blood splattered everywhere and you couldn't contain a scream. The officer's body laid on the ground, her eyes barred and unmoving.
  680.  
  681. You feel on your knees, devastated and disgusted. Instinctively, you covered your mouth, trying to fight back the gag reflex. Your insides were a mess, and your mind had been thrown into utter chaos. Shit, were you actually struggling to breath too? No, no, you had to regain your composure. It was imperative.
  682.  
  683. The spy attempted to reach his gun, but the priest's extremely violent and aggresive fighting style managed to block his arm first, and then turn it behind his back forcefully. The man screamed in pain as Matheus tried to force him on the ground. A mere seconds away from succumbing, he reacted by kicking him and breaking free of his hold.
  684.  
  685. Surprisingly, didn't seem to affect the priest much. He hadn't been pushed away significantly, and in fact he was in a position to strike again. Wrapping his left arm against the enemy's stomach from behind and the right around his neck, he lifted him up slightly and squeezed.
  686.  
  687. Even if the soldier was wearing an helmet that completely covered his face, his screams of agony were still audible. He kicked and flappes his arms, trying to hurt Matheus, but it was all in vain. His spine was about to break, but it seemed like it wasn't happening fast enough for the priest.
  688.  
  689. Letting out a bloodcurling howl,  "ZONUDA!", he dug his teeth deep into his shoulder. The soldier's uniform was quickly soiled by his own blood, but he still refused to die.
  690. "You're going overboard. Let me end this."
  691.  
  692. Uttering these words with Olympian calm, Saki stood up, dusted off her clothes, reached for the man's knife and pushed it down his throat. "See? It's cleaner and faster this way."
  693.  
  694. This sequence of events was so sudden and so quick that you had no time to process it. When all was said and done, all you could do was kneeling on the floor, profoundly disturbed.
  695. "Why... how...?"
  696.  
  697. Nothing made sense. Corpses don't just stand up and walk. So just what had happened?
  698. "I told you, Carlotta: never underestimate a member of the Golden Seven," the officer replied, unfazed. "Guys, can I have a status report?"
  699.  
  700. "We eliminated a body double they made of Carlotta, and we've been sticking to the plan so far. What about you? Everything in order?"
  701. "Yeah, so far so good. One of them got me, as you can see, so I decided to play bait. I almost feel bad for these guys. It's clear they've been sent to die."
  702. "Well, it's us or them," Lukasz remarked, taking the soldier's helmet and handing it to you. "Wear this. You're gonna need it."
  703.  
  704. >Wait, wait, explain! [Revenge +1]
  705. >Alright, let's move [Synthesis +1]
  706. >I am being used as bait too, isn't it so? [Heritage +1]
  707. >Other [specify]
  708. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  709.  
  710. [missing chunk]
  711.  
  712. Everyone entered through the door as silently as possible, quickly taking refuge behind a crate. A quick peek around revealed that the hangar was all but fully occupied by the men in black uniforms. One of them, functionally identical to everyone else if not for a mantle wrapped around his slim figure, stood next to a beautiful woman wearing all white. Her hair was long enough to reach her shins, and what was more, it was green like grass. An alien, perhaps?
  713.  
  714. Either way, the two of them looked like they were in charge. As further evidence of that, a small group of soldiers were standing at their sides, guarding them. Papika, Yayaka and Cocona, all seemingly comatose, were walking towards the man with the mantle. If the others were to be trusted, they were merely faking it.
  715.  
  716. "Welcome, my little informants," he greeted them with an arrogant voice. "Did you follow my instructions? Are they coming?"
  717. "Yes, they are," they simultaneously responded in a flat voice.
  718. "Fantastic. Then, all conditions for the success of this plan have been cleared."
  719.  
  720. "I wouldn't be so sure of that!" the red-haired girl retorted, switching to a fighting pose. "The time's right! Flip Flapping!"
  721. Something about this struck you as profoundly absurd. Why would they wait to be right in front of the enemy leader, exposed and defenseless, to attack him?
  722.  
  723. But then you realized. All of this had been a part of a meticulously laid plan. Nothing had been left to chance. The leader of the enemy soldiers and his escort. The three girls with their fake hypnosis. They were all where they were for a specific reason. All of them were standing in front of... the Von Neumann!
  724.  
  725. With you nearby, the SALUTE System activated, simulating an environment in which the magical girl trio could freely access their power. Glowing with pure light, they transformed and struck a pose, ready to take on any enemy. As soon as the order to fire was issued, they gave proof of fantastic teamwork.
  726.  
  727. Papika projected shields and floating bubbles that absorbed bullets and stopped any enemy who thought of coming closer dead in their tracks. The bubbles were then deflagrated, stunning and throwing any assailant away. If you had to make a comparison, those shields and bubbles seemed to function similarly to probe blasters.
  728.  
  729. Cocona, instead, engaged enemies in close combat, wielding a mutable weapon that seemed to change shape according to her wishes. At times a sword, at times an hammer, in some rare circumstances even a knife or a lance, she used all of them with uncanny mastery and with the commendable care not to hit any deadly spot.
  730.  
  731. Yayaka worked as a collant, providing melee support when Cocona was in danger, and helping Papika hold up her barriers when enemies threatened to pass through them. It was probably the most mentally demanding task, as it basically came down to switching her style to suit the situation.
  732.  
  733. And as for you, it was getting increasingly difficult to just stand there and watch.
  734.  
  735. >SALUTE system... full power! [Revenge +1]
  736. >Von Neumann, crush them! [Heritage +1]
  737. >If my impedance goes to zero, then...! [Synthesis +1]
  738. >Other [Specify]
  739. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  740.  
  741. [missing chunk]
  742.  
  743. The battle was over. All that was left was for the leaders of the infiltrators to surrender. Their hands were already raised, and the girls were making sure that they could pull no stunt on them. Giving you a final warning to stay put, the others left the cover of the crates too and aimed their guns at the enemy.
  744.  
  745. "This is as far as you go, ladies and gentlemen," Saki announced. "Any last words?"
  746. "No, wait, don't kill them!" Cocona plead. "They surrendered!"
  747. "There's no surrender for war criminals."
  748.  
  749. Understanding that the little girls would shield the enemy, Saki opened fire before Papika could deploy her barrier, shooting the apparent leader and the woman at his side. The girls screamed, begging her to stop, but to no avail. A bullet passed through their head and they laid on the ground, lifeless.
  750.  
  751. Saki turned towards you, giving you a thumb up. The plan was a success. You, however, had seen too much death and bloodshed. The adrenaline rush was over, and now everything was coming down together. You were about to have a panic attack, and the fact that you could recognize the symptoms only served to throw you into further panic.
  752.  
  753. What happened later was probably a blessing in disguise, for it broke you free from that pitiful state. Laughing maniacally, the enemy leader stood up, his helmet broken and one of his eyes visible. It was purple, with a strange symbol right below the pupil.
  754. "Lelouch vi Britannia commands you: do not bring us any further harm!"
  755.  
  756. The little girls undid their transformation immediately, and the rest of your teammates dropped their weapons, raising their hands.
  757. "You've been quite naive, Saki Rukino of the Golden Seven. Did you think you were the only one possessing immortality?"
  758. "How... why... you here!" She was at a loss for words. Did she know him? Was that man a big shot? And why was his command enough to make everyone obey? This was terribly confusing.
  759.  
  760. "Don't waste your time calling reinforcements. My order has been already broadcasted. You know what this means."
  761. "You absolute piece of trash," Saki retorted, still livid with anger. "Just how far ahead did you plan?"
  762. "I've recently changed my philosophy. In an unstable universe such as this one, it's irrelvant and even harmful to plan ahead. Instead, you must configure your plans so that they can withstand catastrophic turns of events. And that's just what I did."
  763.  
  764. "Alright, spare us the gloating," Matheus intervened. "What is it that you want? The Von Neumann?"
  765. The man called Lelouch laughed bitterly. "Who would want a piece of trash like that? I know very well that you're hiding..."
  766. "Lelouch. Someone's here," the green haired lady intervened.
  767.  
  768. Fuck. Shit, fuck. Had you been found out? What now, then?
  769.  
  770. >Those orders mean nothing to you! Prepare to fight! [Revenge +1]
  771. >Come out and surrender [Heritage +1]
  772. >Prepare to negotiate [Synthesis +1]
  773. >Other [specify]
  774. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
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