The Millionth Miracle [R] Apr 23, 2012 22:46:13 GMT -5
Post by Zane Burnlight on Apr 23, 2012 22:46:13 GMT -5
The Millionth Miracle
The Millionth Miracle
Chapter I: The Day a Demon Awakens[/center]
The TV’s loud. Too loud for this early in the morning and especially considering the hangover that’s doing its best to teach me what it would feel like to have a tiny man with a jackhammer pounding away behind my eyes. I curl in on myself on the futon, forming a half-hearted fetal position and groan before pulling the pillow over my head. At least it brings the volume down to a somewhat reasonable level. Of course, now my head’s hotter than the hubs of hell and that really gets the little guy going. With another groan, I push the pillow off. It flops to the ground with a whump. As I sit up, the little construction worker upgrades to a wrecking ball and I have to stay that way for a while, elbows on my knees and hands massaging my temples.
I can’t help but wonder: how much did I have to drink last night?
After a while I decide to ignore the pain and actually do something with the day, so I stand and make my way to the small kitchen that inhabits a full third of my apartment. The rest of it is the futon and TV and a disproportionate lavatory. When I get up, my bladder remembers what it exists for and I have to jump over some of the clutter that’s accumulated over the last several months of my living here to make it to the toilet. All the while, that damn TV is still blaring away.
I finish my business in the bathroom and finally, at long merciful last, turn the volume down to a reasonable level. It’s another “news” cast from everyone’s favorite state-run media network, BNN. The channel runs 24/7, so I guess I was waxing political last night. That never bodes well. The last time I got openly political, and can remember it, I wound up locked in a cell at the local Military Police station for a few days. And then I got fired. Let me tell you: that was so much fun.
I used to work for them, you know. Not BNN – the Empire. As a young kid growing up in the Homeland, my greatest dream was to become a fighter pilot. Too bad for me the military only wanted infantry when I signed up. They were all too happy for my service, though. Especially after I passed Special Operations selection and became an Operative. I did some time fighting against some group of democratic revolutionaries on the east coast – just small pockets of anti-Imperial folks who wanted a more fair government, nothing special; after that, I helped in the acquisition and subjugation of Area 10. By the time the higher ups were satisfied that we had effectively kicked the inhabitants of the Indochinese peninsula squarely in the short and curlies, the war with Japan was well underway. Hell, I still remember the first time I saw a Knightmare in action.
My squad and I were being bracketed by mortar fire coming from downtown Saitama. The shells rained down like God’s Own piss, blowing everything – buildings, trees, people, our vehicle – to little smoldering bits. We had to hide in a blown open sewer main to take cover. Our RTO had taken about 15 rounds from a machine gun some five steps out of the transport. The radio that he was carrying caught some of the bullets and actually caught fire. Flaming metal and sizzling human flesh make an interesting combination as far as smells are concerned. The Jap operating the gun must have gotten too excited about managing a kill, though, and none of his other bursts of fire managed to hit us as we all scrambled for cover.
“Jesus Christ, they killed Brad!” one of my men shouted over the team-speak radio mounted in all our helmets. I couldn’t tell if he was pissed off or scared shitless. Probably both.
“Keep your fucking cool, people!” I ordered in my best Drill Sergeant voice. Most of my guys still remembered what it was like to have a Drill breathing down their necks. They straightened out quick. “Santos, take your team and swing around behind that shop! Alberts, you’re with me!” Within seconds, the teams were back on track, following my orders and their training. We sprinted behind the hulks of burned out cars and other debris common to an urban battlefield, shooting back at where we thought the gunner was all the while.
It wasn’t long before he responded. The Jap on the trigger had either regained his composure or been replaced, because the next burst cut down two more of my men. On the plus side, I now knew that the son of a bitch was holed up in a second-story window at the end of the street. While my guys rained suppressing fire on his position, I lined up a shot with the grenade launcher attached to my weapon.
A grenade explosion in real life isn’t like what you see in the movies. Sure, it’s about the same size, but there’s much less fire and other fanfare. Usually, you just get dust and smoke and screaming. There wasn’t any screaming this time. The whole wall came crumbling down, pushed past its limits by the explosion. I caught sight of a dismembered arm tumbling through the masonry. That was enough confirmation for me. We headed back to Santos’s position and helped set up security while our Combat Life Saving teams assessed the dead and injured. We had three of the former and two of the latter.
I was ordering the dead and wounded back to the transport when it took a mortar to the engine compartment. With no other available course, we gathered up the injured guys and started running for our lives as shells came down around us. Alberts caught one with his face and we were forced to leave what little was left of him and his team behind. Apparently the Japs wanted their stash of Sakuradite just as bad as we did.
We were past the former machine gun nest when Santos pointed out the broken sewer main. We all squeezed in and waited for the end; whether it was just an end to the shelling or an end to our collective lives, I wasn’t sure. The bombardment intensified shortly afterward, but it sounded further off and I could hear something over it: a high-pitched whining sound accompanied by grinding.
“The hell is that sound, Sarge?” Santos asked, looking to me for answers.
I told him I had no fucking clue and poked my head out. I could see columns of smoke rising over the tops of the buildings and explosions were lighting up the early morning streets. The sound was getting closer and fresh detonations trailed in its wake. “Queen 6-3, this Knight 5-1. How copy, over?” a female voice called over the radio. I couldn’t help but flinch at being called “Queen” anything. I get that the whole “Infantry is the Queen of battle” thing is a reference to the most powerful piece in chess, but that doesn’t stop it from being humiliating.
“Knight 5-1, Queen 6-3. Good copy, break. We are taking heavy Jap mortar fire and need a hand. Status on reinforcements? Over.”
“Reinforcements are a no-go, 6-3, but I’ll do you one better. Sit tight and watch the show, out.” She struck me as awfully flippant for someone who had just told a man that he and his team were basically fucked. All the same, I did as she suggested and kept a lookout. I remember thinking that whatever heat she was bringing, it had better have been worth it.
Moments later, a gray giant came rumbling around the corner. It was a blocky contraption, bulky and squared all over. As it approached, the face split into quarters and slid away, revealing a small sphere with a glowing central eye. The sphere pulsed green for a second before the quarters slipped back into position. The giant sped past, propelled by a pair of short arms that terminated in wheels attached to the legs. It was followed by two others. The giants turned a corner and it wasn’t long before heavy gunfire erupted and more explosions stopped the mortars.
My men and I climbed out of our sewer and looked down the road, still in shock at having seen Knightmares in combat. The war must have been going worse for us than first anticipated. They rolled back soon enough and stopped in front of us. The lead machine knelt down a few meters away from me and turned. A hatch on the back fell open and a chair containing a woman slid out. She dropped from the seat and came my way. Given all the shit I’d seen over the past few years, figuratively and literally, she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Pale blonde hair, brilliant emerald eyes, flawless skin, and a killer body to boot. And don’t even get me started on that form-fitting pilot’s suit hugging the ample contours of her form.
I picked my jaw up off the road and resumed my role as Squad Leader. “I take it you’re Knight 5-1?”
“That I am, sergeant.” She shook sweat from her golden mane and put a hand on her hip. “Care to give me a SitRep?”
“Well as you can see, we got pretty jacked up back there,” I said, too flustered to even throw in any of my trademark sarcasm. “Half my squad’s dead or wounded and our vehicle is toast. There’s no way in hell we can take the stockpile and hold it against a counterattack.”
She just nodded, all sagely wisdom despite her young age. “Command guessed as much. I told them this was a suicide run, but they really want that Sakuradite.” She seemed genuine enough to me, but the fact that she had told command anything but the standard yes-sir-no-sir threw me off. And aside from that, what the hell was a girl like this doing saying anything to command? “Anyway, I’m Knight Second Class Marina Allswell. And you are?”
I can only imagine how far my eyes bugged out at hearing that she was a Knight. I only just stopped myself from dropping to one knee and averting my gaze as I answered, “Sergeant Vincent Miles, my lady. Thanks for pulling our asses out of the fire.”
“Oh, jeez,” she said with an annoyed sigh. “You can cut the ‘my lady’ crap. I may be a Knight in rank, but I’m still just a commoner. Call me Marina. In any event, Sergeant Vincent Miles, we can still clear the route for transportation of the Sakuradite. What say we get on that?”
“Of course, my-” a glare cut me off. “Marina. And please, just Vince is fine.”
Her gaze switched back to warm as fast as it had turned icy and she smiled. “Alrighty then, Vince. Let’s show these Jap bastards that they can’t screw with Britannia.”
My men were anything but pleased to learn that we were continuing on mission, but our orders were coming directly from a Knight in the field: that’s not something you can ignore. With the Knightmares backing us up, we managed to finish the mission and get back to the FOB in time for a late lunch. Marina and I were placed on several more missions together throughout the war that followed and, on more than one occasion, spent some private time in her quarters “planning” for the next mission.
After the war ended, I was garrisoned in the Tokyo Settlement with a new squad. Santos was given command of a squad of his own and shipped off to the European front. Marina and I tried a real relationship not based on the fact that either of us could be dead the next day and sex, but couldn’t make it work out in the end. I’ve still got a picture of us somewhere…
A pounding at the door ceases my attempt to find the picture before it begins. I don’t even bother going to it. “Yeah?” I call from in front of the TV, finger still stabbing the button to turn the volume down.
“Hey, Vince!” a man shouts from the other side. “You going to get moving or what, man? There’s a meeting today, remember?”
“Yeah, Satoshi, I remember.” My mind starts buzzing, trying to remember. I’ve completely forgotten about the meeting. “1700 at the usual place, right?”
“Dammit, Vince, do you know how drunk were you last night?”
I cringe and mutter under my breath, “apparently, very.” I make my way to the door and open it so that Satoshi and I can stop shouting through the door for any curious passerby to hear. He enters and gives me an appraising look.
“You look like shit. That’s why you don’t drink on an empty stomach. How many times do I have to tell you that?” he says with a grin that’s more schadenfreude than anything.
“At least one more, mother, same as always. Now remind me about this meeting?” I open the pantry, hoping for something to eat so that my stomach’s grumbling wouldn’t interrupt anything going on later.
“Boss Lady called it herself. 1500 at the airfield.” He shrugs in a way that indicates something huge is going on rather than something dismissible. “Rumor is that she’s found Zero.”
I stop what I’m doing and stare at him. “No fucking way…”
“Yeah. I mean, it’s just hearsay, but I overheard that from Kallen herself.”
As far as the general public is concerned Zero has been dead for a year, executed in the Homeland for his crimes against the Empire; the Black Knights, his personal army, had “officially” disbanded under the lack of leadership shortly afterward. Britannia was still looking for some of the key players, though. I scratch at the stubble growing on my chin. “So even Red thinks this is legit?”
Satoshi nods gravely. “Oh yeah. This is all hands on deck, Vince. After all our waiting and praying, we’re finally going to get Him back.”
I check my watch. We still have a couple of hours to go, but I always did like to be early to any party. “I’ll get ready,” I tell him as I abandon my hunt for food and start digging in my dresser for a clean set of clothes.
A short while later, I emerge from the bathroom, clean shaven and no longer smelling of alcohol and body odor. Less than 15 minutes later, we’re aboard a train headed south. Satoshi sits while I stand, gently swaying with the train’s rocking momentum. Under ordinary circumstances, I would have been looking out at the scenery as it flashed by. This hangover, however, is anything but ordinary. I figure that my only reasonable course of action is to find out which bar – or bars – I went to last night and kill each bartender in turn for letting me drink so much.
We’re a good distance away from the Tokyo Settlement, so most of the train’s passengers are Japanese like Satoshi. I’m sure I receive more than a few unkind stares from them and I know that those elbows to the side as they file past me were intentional. Even the most downtrodden Japanese has pride.
If only these people knew what I’ve given in the name of their pride. In the name of their freedom. Then again, I’m not sure if even I understand just what I’ve sacrificed by joining up with the Black Knights.
When I first approached them, a little more than a year and a half ago, they thought I was a spy. And why wouldn’t they? I was a highly-decorated, excessively efficient Britannian Special Operations Non-Commissioned Officer. Hell, I was probably personally responsible for the deaths of more than a few of the members’ families. As is the case with most captured spies, I was kept without trial in a holding cell while I awaited either judgment or interrogation. Neither option sounded very pleasant. There was no way that I was going to get out of this alive, of that I was sure.
I had resigned myself to my fate when the door opened and standing there, without so much as a guard, was Zero himself. I’m not too proud to admit that I nearly crapped myself from shock. He strode into the cell with all the confidence of a god. The door slid shut behind him and the mask turned towards a camera positioned against the roof in a corner. The small diode on the front, no doubt put there for the benefit of prisoners like me, winked out.
I just sat there and stared like a dumbass. I mean, here was the leader of the Black Rebellion, the Hero of the Elevens and all-around pain in the Empire’s ass, walking unguarded into a room with a Britannian SpecOps ex-operative. I had to admire his bravery, if not his wisdom, in such a choice. I spoke first. “You’ve got some real cajones, walking in here like that. If I were a spy, I could kill you where you stand and your people couldn’t do shit to stop me.” Was it crass of me to say so? Yeah, sure. Was it true? You’d better believe it.
If he was put off by my language, his manner didn’t reflect it. Maybe it was that voice modulator he’s got in his mask or maybe he just didn’t care. Either way, the guy shrugged a little and tilted his head. “Perhaps. Or perhaps you are assuming that my only strengths lie in leading and giving speeches.” He looked at the accommodations: a single chair which I inhabited, a toilet in the corner, and a cot in another. I’d been in worse places, but not by much. “One could also say the same of you,” he observed, bringing his mask back to me. “Why would a man such as you, who has shown such devotion to the Empire of Britannia, betray his own? You cannot very well expect us to believe your claims of wishing to join.”
“Well, you’ve got me there. But I’ve got a present for you,” I countered with a grin. “A goodwill gift, if you will.”
“Oh? And what might that be?” It was like fishing with my dad again. I could see the quarry eyeing the bait; I just had to jiggle it a little to make it more enticing and I’d have my dinner. Or something like that. Metaphors were never really my thing.
“I’ve got Britannian frequency decryption protocols-”
Zero dismissed that offer with a flourish of his hand. “The Black Knights receive daily updates on that.”
Well, damn. That certainly explained a lot, though. “Alright. You obviously already know plenty about Britannian military doctrine and tactics. How about a detailed description of the raid they’re planning two days from now against one of your supply depots?” I knew about more than the one I was offering, but I couldn’t afford to show my entire hand.
I’ll give him credit where credit is due: Zero is damn near impossible to surprise. Ever. He could be screwing that little pale girl who’s always hanging around him and Captain Kozuki at the same time in the Emperor’s personal chambers and still manage to ask the guards for time to finish when they kick the door down. He’d probably get it, too.
“How did you come into this information and, more importantly, why would you give it to me?” he asked, calculated curiosity only just audible in his voice. The hook was nearly set. I was almost home free.
“The how part’s easy: I’m supposed to lead the assault. My unit has a projected casualty rate of 60 percent. Not good odds for us, you know? But then, we’re just the initial assault. After most of us distract your guys and die horribly, the real force hits from the rear. Knightmares, tanks, a full three platoons of dismounted infantry. The whole kit and caboodle.” I looked directly at where I imagined his eyes would be. “As for why? This shit sucks. It’s that simple. I’m sick of looking around at all the Japanese people here and knowing that I did this to them. That I, personally, helped subjugate them and countless others in the name of a country that doesn’t even understand basic fucking dignity.”
Zero nodded a couple of times, like he already knew all this. “Do you have anything else?”
I leaned back in the chair, trying to look relaxed. “I might. This is huge, though. I’m giving you time to get your people and supplies out of that warehouse before the whole fucking thing gets blown sky-high. Hell if it’ll make you feel better, you can take the information and put a bullet in my head for all I care – I just want you to win against these bastards.” I was starting to worry that he didn’t think my info was solid. “Just beat them, okay?”
Zero stood there looking at me for a long time. Maybe he was talking to his underlings, maybe he was planning a creative execution for me, maybe he was considering what he was going to have for dinner; I don’t know. After a while, he spoke again. “The Britannians will know that they were betrayed. How do you plan on escaping their vengeance?”
“That depends on what time it is,” I said, voice devoid of emotion. “If it’s after 1300, then disgraced Sergeant Vincent Miles is dead. His residence in King’s Commons Apartments was targeted by a bomb set by Britannian hardliners seeking greater punishment for a political dissident than a simple dishonorable discharge. They were kind enough to leave a few pieces of evidence behind that point in no way to any Japanese resistance movement and, unfortunately, the blast was so intense that Miles’s body was too disfigured to determine identity.” I shrugged. “So much for leaving a pretty corpse.”
Zero nodded and spun on his heel. At the far side of the open door, he stopped and looked over his shoulder. “The time is 1432. If Mister Miles is dead, then what should I call you?”
I couldn’t help but laugh a little. It’s a strange experience, being told that you’re dead. “Hell, I don’t know. Vince, I guess.”
“Very well then. I thank you for this information, Vince. I will use it to the best of my abilities.” With that, the door slid shut. The diode on the camera lit back up and it resumed tracking my every movement within the cell. It didn’t have much to do for a while.
When the pieces in my head finally clicked into place, I sat back in the chair. “Huh.” I looked at the camera. “Well that was unexpected.”
The rest, I suppose, you can guess at. I spent the next couple of days in the cell, killing time by sleeping, doing pushups, and sleeping some more. Every now and then I put my ear to the door in the vain hope that I would hear something of the outside world.
The Britannians raided the warehouse in force. When the initial assault team broke in, they found the place emptied of everything but a few crates. The rest of the foot soldiers came in shortly afterward to help secure the building. After that, the Knightmare Devicers dismounted and came in to offer their “expert” advice and help lead the search efforts. And then some nosy and unwise private decided to open their present early. Kid’s parents must have never taught him not to peek at his Christmas gifts. He learned that lesson the hard way that night, when shrapnel, heat, and pressure flayed him alive and took his life, along with the lives of most of the raid team. Those few who weren’t killed outright suffered from injuries ranging from mortal to minor.
All in all, I was conflicted over the turn of events. On the one hand, I was happy to finally get started on changing some of my bad karma. On the other, I couldn’t help but wonder how much bad karma one had to accumulate before the negatives started turning positive. All the same, it wasn’t as though I could change course: I was a dead man, after all. If I resurfaced, I would be called a traitor to the Empire and executed. I wasn’t sure that I didn’t deserve it.
“Vince? Vince are you listening?”
I come back to the present with a start. “What’s that?” I ask as I look around, expecting to see the cell again. It’s a pleasant surprise to see that I’m on the train instead.
“I said that we’re almost there. Don’t flake out on us, Vince. We need you on this,” Satoshi admonishes. I must have been really zoned out if he’s that worried.
“Yeah, sorry. Just thinking about the first time I met the boss.” I rub my eyes. “I’m solid.”
Satoshi looks past me out the window. “You’d better be,” he grumbles.
“What crawled up your ass and died, Satoshi? Jesus, you haven’t been this hard on me since I joined the firm.” Even surrounded by Japanese, you can never be sure who’s acting as a set of ears for Britannia. Whenever we’re in public, we refer to the Black Knights as “the firm.” Makes things easier for everyone. Except Britannia, but then I guess that’s the point.
“And you haven’t gone out and gotten so piss-drunk that I had to drag your ass back to your apartment the night before an operation since…” He has to think for a second. “Since, well, ever. Did your previous employers allow that kind of crap?”
Oh great. Now he’s bringing my past up. This is a dangerous conversation, especially given the dubious loyalties of our present company. “They didn’t give a damn what I did, so long as I stayed within the rules, did my job, and did it well,” I growl back, tired of Satoshi’s attitude. “And my coworkers were willing to overlook what I did on my personal time, even if it affected them.”
“Even if it affected them during a date?” he snaps back.
Oh. Oh. So that’s why Satoshi is so pissed off at me. I must have killed his shot at getting laid last night. “Okay, fine. My bad. I shouldn’t have gone out and got that shitfaced.” I shrug and shake my head. “Alcohol is an evil substance that should be banned the world over for its corrupting influence on man.”
“You…” he says with a sigh, “are a complete ass.”
“That’s true, but so is my apology. Plus, having me is good for the firm, right?”
“Next stop, Kanagawa. Next stop, Kanagawa. Please exit from the right side of the train,” the PA announces.
“That’s us,” Satoshi tells me, standing up and taking hold of a handrail. “The boss said that there’s going to be a car waiting for us.”
As usual, the pale girl’s word holds true and a simple black sedan is waiting for us outside the station. After it drops us off at the airfield, the car drives away. The driver never said a word. She must have shelled out some serious cash and favors for the guy to be so professional. Of course, it’s possible that he’s a Black Knight, too, and is just following orders.
The meeting hangar is easy enough to find – it’s the really big one with the blimp and a few militant-looking Japanese hanging about. Honestly, if the Empire hadn’t re-relegated the Black Knights to a minor annoyance in their Big Book of Bastards, they would find this place in a heartbeat. In a way, Zero’s disappearance was the best thing that had happened to us up to that point. In all fairness, though, the operation wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place if Zero hadn’t vanished on us.
Satoshi walks in first and I at his heels. The murmur dies down when I enter, as is typical at Black Knight meetings. They never claimed to be a nationalistic or biased, but the official story wasn’t exactly the truth. I had earned the trust of a few, like Satoshi, but most of them still saw the Britannian soldier that I had been, rather than the freedom fighter I had become. I let Satoshi lead us to the head of the small group, ignoring the mistrustful looks and mutterings.
“I don’t know if they’re ever going to fully accept you as a member, Vince,” Satoshi admits. It’s weird how he seems to be able to read my mind at times.
“Don’t need them to accept me. I just want the chance to make things right.” I light a cigarette and inhale deeply. “All I really need is for a small handful of them to listen to me.”
We arrive at the head of the gathering in silence. The blimp’s cargo hatch is lying open on and the interior is loaded with Knightmares of various builds. Most impressive is Kosetsu Urabe’s Gekka. I can see a few people moving around in the gloom further within. They seem to be engaged in some sort of heated conversation, but I can’t make out anything being said.
“Hey, check it out, Satoshi. That look like Boss Lady and Red to you?”
Satoshi waves smoke from my cigarette out of his face and squints into the darkness. “Yeah, maybe. It would make sense, though. They were the ones to call the meeting, after all.”
The two of us meet up with a few of our buddies, two men and a woman who had grown to trust me as Satoshi had, and while the time away as our interim leaders wait for the appointed time. A small handful more of the Order arrive while we wait and converse amongst ourselves. The murmur of conversation is almost enough to echo in the massive hangar when it suddenly dies. I turn towards the blimp.
Standing on the slightly raised hatch of the cargo bay is Captain Kosetsu Urabe, our de facto commanding officer. The man was a good Devicer – hell, he was great – but I found him to be too focused on the smaller aspects of the revolution. Too willing to indulge in the personal to be a truly effective captain. Damn near everyone else loves him though. A cheer from the little crowd at his arrival on the stage splits my head with an axe.
“Countrymen!” he cries when the uproar dies down. Captain Kozuki and the “Boss Lady” flank him on either side. That he doesn’t bother to mention us defectors is not lost on me. He’s probably still bitter that I had hijacked his Knightmare during the Second Pacific War and used it to kill some of his allies.
Oh, great. A pep talk, I think, rubbing away at my temples again.
“It has been almost a year to the day since Zero disappeared. In that time, we have not faltered in our quest to eliminate Britannian abuses. It is a fight that many say is impossible. A battle which cannot be won. In response to this, I need only ask you to look around you. You are surrounded by allies in this so-called pointless fight. Brothers and sisters who would lay down their lives for the dream of a free Japan.” Another round of cheering. Why can’t officers just say their piece and be done with it? It’s really not that hard to say “go here, do that.”
“Do not lose heart, brave soldiers. Soon will be the day when we, The Order of the Black Knights rise again to power and crush Britannia’s stranglehold on Japan! And then, we will do it again for the entire world’s sake!
“But first, we must take back that which was stolen from us: Zero Himself. We know where He will be and, with the help of Captain Kozuki and C.C., we will have Him back!” The revelation of some sort of identity for the Boss Lady blocks the pain brought to my head by the next round of ovation.
There’s no way that could be her real name. He pronounces it “C-2.” A two-digit letter and number combination could indicate a lot of things, but it’s a far cry from what parents would choose for their child. I’m so caught up in trying to determine all the possible meanings that I don’t even notice the crowd moving until Satoshi pushes me.
“Captain Urabe said he needs to talk to us. Get a move on, Vince.”
I give an affirmative and lead the way into the cargo bay with the rest of the Black Knights. There aren’t many of us, especially compared to the night of the Black Rebellion, but the bay is still rather cramped thanks to the Knightmares. We make our way to the bridge where Captain Urabe is waiting. I stand at attention while waiting for his instructions. Just because I don’t like the guy doesn’t mean that I can throw protocol out the window, you know?
He gives me a look and then glances at Satoshi. “You will play a special role in this mission, Operative Miles,” he says, all grave determination. I still don’t understand why he insists on calling me by the name of a dead man. “You will arrive early to the target building with Captain Kozuki and wait for Zero to arrive. When He does, you will everything in your power to protect them from harm, is that clear?”
“You will only intervene if their lives are in direct threat. Otherwise, you will use your talents to remain undetected and keep track of them.”
“Corporal Satoshi, you will not be taking part in the mission. We need you to go to the Chinese Consulate and inform the ambassador there that ‘the appointed time has arrived’.” And now we’ve got code phrases. This mission has all the makings of a bad movie.
To Satoshi’s credit, he only hesitates for a moment at being given such a role. “Yes, sir,” he says in a controlled voice that, to me, speaks of anger. To someone who doesn’t know him as well, I’m sure his tone sounds neutral and deferential.
Urabe picks up a file folder and hands it to me. “All the details are in here. There is not much time. You are dismissed.”
I accept the folder, snap off a salute, and leave without another word. As we leave the hangar, Satoshi asks me, “so where is He going to be?”
I open the folder. “Babel Tower, apparently. Never figured Zero for a hookers-and-poker sort. Then again, He’s kind of hard to get to know.” I light another cigarette. “He never comes and hangs out with us grunts, you know? What a downer.”
“There are some in this organization that would call that something akin to blasphemy, Vince.”
“And I would call them fucking crazy for it. Zero’s not a god. He’s not a devil or a demon or an angel or a wizard. Under that mask is a human being. A damn brilliant one, but a person all the same.” Satoshi quiets down for the time being and lets me read the file as we walk back to the station.
Zero’s ETA at Babel is around 1600. He’s not expected to be alone. Kallen and I are supposed to get there two hours early so that we can take our places. As soon as we separate Zero from whoever is with him, we take him to the roof and signal for pickup. Then it’s back to the hangar and drinks all around. It’s a great plan, really.
Too bad it’ll never work.
Back when I was just a specialist, one of my NCOs was fond of saying, “No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy; especially when the plan is a good one.” It had been his theory that the best laid plans of mice, men, and officers were the ones that should be avoided as often as possible for the simple fact that Murphy’s Law rules the battlefield. He was killed on one of those supposedly well-planned missions that, of course, went absolutely batshit.
“How’re you going to know who He is?” Satoshi asks when we get on the train. It’s early in the afternoon on a weekday now. Most everyone’s at work.
I close the folder and give him a skeptical look. “It says here that Red knows what He really looks like and will give me a signal. After that, we just have to get him to the pickup point and skitter off.” Oh yeah, there is no way at all this plan is going to work right. I can hardly wait to see at what point it all falls apart.
We ride the train all the way back to the station that we started at and part with a handshake. Satoshi’s disappointed that he won’t get to take part in the recovery, but knows that his job is important all the same. He’s got a good, determined heart, that one. For my part, I’m going to shove some groceries down my neck and get decked out for the operation. The Captain and I are supposed to meet in half an hour, according to the timetable laid out in the folder. More than enough time.
When Red and I meet, it’s in the alley behind my apartment building. It’s surprisingly clean compared to most alleyways, which is to say that it’s disgusting but at least there’s a path leading between the piles of garbage along either wall. She’s wearing a long coat that covers everything from her shoulders down to her ankles. I spot a pair of high heels on her feet and my questioning look earns a blush and an order to shut the hell up.
I shrug and lead her to the car. It’s a stylish green two-seater that most people will associate with success. She takes in my appearance as I start it and drive towards the Settlement proper. My hair’s slicked back with enough gel to fill a kiddie pool, I’ve got a gold earring in my right earlobe, my button-up shirt is fastened only about halfway up my chest, showing off toned muscle and the tacky gold chain and crucifix combo around my neck. I’ve got pants on that approximate the business casual slacks of Britannians who actually do something that resembles working for a living. All in all, I look like a douchebag. In this case, it’s a good thing. That’s the character I’m meant to play for this mission, after all. I mentally prepare the cover I’m going to use on the drive over.
Name: Christopher Block. Occupation: freelance asset acquisition – “you need it and need it quiet, I can get it for you.” Reason for Block’s visit to Babel Tower: delivery of a gift to open up a working relationship with one of the casino managers, a man named Jeremy Newton. I run through the overview out loud to Captain Kozuki, but she stays quiet. I slip into the New Amsterdam accent that I’ve decided upon for this cover. “Hey, you gonna do somethin’ aside from starin’ out the window or what?”
She gives me a glare that most guys would probably flinch at. I nearly do. “You just had to choose an annoying accent for your cover, didn’t you?” she asks before looking back out the windshield.
“I can’t afford not to, ma’am,” I tell her, back in my usual voice. “Anyway, what’s this gift that I’m supposed to be bringing them? The file is scarce on details and I wasn’t given any supplies.”
She shifts uncomfortably a bit and, before she turns her head away from me, I catch sight of a blush. It takes a while for her to answer. “The gift is… it’s me.”
Well. That has an effect on the landscape. “So it’s one of those kinds of casinos.” I’d been to several during my time in the military, but never really by choice. Most of the women “employed” at them are those who couldn’t get a job doing anything except selling their bodies. The exploitation makes me sick.
I can already tell that this mission was going to push the limits of comfort for Captain Kozuki and me. “My apologies for speaking freely, ma’am, but this mission’s going to go sideways. “
She’s suddenly indignant and forgets her embarrassment for the moment. “Then why don’t you just go back home and forget about the whole thing?”
“Yeah, because a guy who knows as much as I do would totally be allowed to live if I quit,” I reply, sarcasm bordering on insubordination. The Black Knights were never that big on military protocol, though, so it slides. “I’m in for the long haul, ma’am. Doesn’t matter to me whether a mission goes according to plan or flies so far off the damn rails that the ride ends up in space, I’ll stick it out.”
“How noble of you.”
Alright, I get it. She’s not my greatest fan ever. She should see about joining the club. I’ve got to get the conversation back on track, though. As a soldier under her command, it’s my job to follow her orders and keep her safe in the process. “As I was saying, this shit is going to go all kinds of wrong. I just wanted to ask that you not take any unnecessary risks when it does, ma’am.”
I bring us around to the back of the Tower and pull up to the gate. Captain Kozuki and I both fall into our respective roles. I’m Christopher Block, criminal with aspirations of making it big, and she’s my ticket to getting my foot in the door.
The security guard stands at my window. “This area’s restricted to employees only. You’re going to have to turn around.” He’s just a kid, but he’s got no illusions about how much his job sucks. I can appreciate that.
“I have an appointment with Mister Newton. He’s expecting me any minute, kiddo, and he’ll be pissed off if you make me late, get me? How’s about you jus’ let me ride on by and we forget you wasted my time?” The accent comes out, full strength and brings the character with it. I blow cigarette smoke into his face.
The kid backs up a little and mutters something that sounds like “asshole,” but I decide Christopher Block will take as an affirmative.
“Thanks, kid,” I say as I pull forward. The gate lifts just before the car’s bumper scrapes against it. It’s not long before Captain Kozuki and I are on a staff elevator headed for the casino. The place takes up several floors of the tower, with offices and other official business facilities inhabiting the top story. Newton is waiting for us in the elevator lobby as the doors open.
“Ah, Mister Block. How nice to finally meet you. Your assistant said over the phone that you were a punctual man,” Newton says, trying to sound cordial and inviting. He thinks that I don’t catch the hungry glance he throws the Captain, but I do. The guy’s a shitbag, no doubt about it.
“First impressions are everythin’, sir. You know how it is,” I reply with a short bow of my head.
“Indeed. This way, please.” He turns and leads us to a small bare room with a table and some chairs. “Now then. I was told that you would be bringing me something…” again, he looks at Captain Kozuki with those beady little eyes of his. Only this time, he doesn’t even try to hide it. “Interesting.”
“Yessir, I do.” I snap my fingers and wave Kallen forward. “Found this little beauty out in Saitama,” I tell him as she steps closer to the table we’re seated at. She stands there awkwardly for a moment and I snap at her, “drop the coat, bitch!” She stays true to her character and flinches at my shout before doing as she’s been told. The coat falls to the floor, revealing a low-cut pink Playboy Bunny costume, complete with a little puffball tail at the top of her butt and pale stockings on her legs. She’s got the ears twisted up in her hands.
“She ain’t too bright, but she don’t have to be to work here, right? Besides that, she’s got some great tits for an Eleven.” I’m going to need to shower again after this mission’s done; I feel disgusting.
“My, my,” Newton responds with a lick of his lips. He’s undressing her with his mind now and I get the urge to show him what his insides look like. “To think that a beauty like this was hiding in the Saitama Ghetto all this time.” He tears his attention off of her barely-concealed breasts and gets back to business. “Are there any defects?”
“You mean aside from being born an Eleven?” We share a laugh that cements us as like-minded Britannian men. “Nah, she’s clean, knows the language, has good teeth, and woo-boy is she tight.” Make that two showers.
“I see.” He sits back to take us both in. “How much?”
Bingo. “Mister Newton, you got it all wrong. I ain’t sellin’ her to you. I’m givin’ her to you. She’s a gift and, in return, you can make me your go-to guy for gettin’ anythin’ you need.” I lean back and put my hands behind my head. “Sounds like a good deal to me. Whaddya say?”
He thinks for a moment, considering the possibilities for what a man like Christopher Block can contribute to his bottom line, especially if Block can just give away a beauty like this. I can see the hamster running full tilt in its wheel in his head. “Mister Block, you have yourself a deal.” He stands and opens a door behind him. A few soft words go out and come back before he returns. The door opens wider behind him and three women, dressed similar to Captain Kozuki, silently file in and lead her out. “As thanks for the gift, feel free to stay the night here and partake of the entertainment. If anything is not to your liking, show an employee this card.” He pulls a business card out of his pocket and hands it to me.
It’s mostly plain white, but the center is embossed with a red heart. Superimposed on the heart is a King. I take it and slip it in my breast pocket. “Thank you, Mister Newton. I believe I will.”
He leads me out to the main floor and points out the VIP section before excusing himself to other business. At last alone, I make my way to the edge of the fight pit and test the small radio transmitter I’ve got buried in my ear. “Q-1, this is N-3. You reading me?”
“If you say any of that again, I will kill you, Miles,” Captain Kozuki responds over the link.
“It’s not like I enjoyed it, ma’am.” Two Japanese men are down in the pit, desperately pounding away at each other. Fists and elbows slap against faces and torsos with dull thaps. “Status?”
“They’re going to put me in the VIP section as a waitress. I’ll be on the floor in half an hour.”
I check my watch. We’ve still got an hour to go before Zero’s estimated arrival time. “Understood. I’ll head in there and watch your back.”
Her response indicates that she views me as some sort of pedophile. “Ma’am, calm down please,” I ask her once she’s run out of steam and cuss words. “I didn’t mean it like that.” I don’t bother adding that she’s the better part of a decade too young for me anyway.
The doors slide open on the VIP area and I enter, hands in my pockets. I decide to sit at one of the slot machines and start pumping coins into it. Every now and then, a Japanese woman in a bunnygirl outfit walks my way and offers me a drink. I show the card and they immediately start bringing the drinks for free. I spend the next hour and a half wasting money and trying to avoid drinking too much alcohol. By the time Zero shows up and Captain Kozuki gives the signal, I’m just about out of cash.
I’m leaned up against a slot machine with a good view of the door when the kid enters. He’s wearing a student uniform and there’s a younger boy in the same uniform following him. Kallen practically beelines for him with her tray of drinks. As soon as she’s in range, she “accidentally” runs into him with the tray. I’m shocked to say the least.
To think that this guy, this kid, is the one who killed Clovis, started the Black Knights, and threw all of Area 11 into complete chaos is something akin to madness. But Kallen never wore a mask like Zero did. He should know her face, but he acts like he’s never seen her at all. I let the scene play out on its own until this monster of a man walks up behind Captain Kozuki and grabs her by her hair, almost lifting her from where she knelt to try and clean off the schoolboy’s uniform. I’m making my way slowly behind him so I can come up and snap his neck like a twig when the situation is defused by this supposed Zero challenging the big man, identified as the “Black King” underground chess master, to a game of chess.
I can’t help but wonder if all of Britannia’s gone fucking crazy. Underground chess mobsters? Fucking seriously? No wonder people hate the Empire.
A few minutes later, the two of them are sitting across a chess table from one another, surrounded by a crowd. There’s something in the air that speaks of redirected lust for blood as the two play their game. The contest goes back and forth for a little bit before the schoolboy calls checkmate and gloats a bit. Evidently, the Black King is a sore loser and he pulls a gun on the kid while his flunkies grab the schoolboy’s arms and force his face into the chessboard.
“Q-2, Q-2, this is N-3. Feel free to move any day now,” I say with my hand covering my mouth in mock surprise.
I don’t even get an affirmative before the whole tower starts shaking, setting the lights flickering and people screaming. I lunge forward to grab the gun from the Black King, but Captain Kozuki’s got the situation well in hand with a punch and a spinning flip kick to his face. He hits the ground like a sack of shit and she proceeds to take care of his flunkies with another couple of kicks. She takes the schoolboy by the sleeve and starts dragging him in my direction as another explosion rocks the tower and the lights die for good this time. From the sounds of things, the Knightmares have arrived. I’m about to cover the remaining distance between us when she suddenly stops where she is and the younger schoolboy runs over to the older one in her grasp.
The younger kid takes the target by the hand and runs off. So this is when the whole op goes to shit, I think before chasing after them. I activate the transmitter again and switch channels so I can talk to Captain Urabe. “N-3 here. Lost sight of the target. I’m in pursuit.”
“We what?!” he shouts back, understandably pissed off. “Lost sight of the target?”
“Yes, sir. Might want to send in the ground troops and Knightmares. This is going to get hairy fast.”
Another voice cuts in. “Yes, that is correct. We just received confirmation from Captain Kozuki. We’ll be going in now.”
I ignore Urabe’s response and keep running. They’ve got a hell of a head start on me already and I can’t afford to let them get further ahead. They’re on the main floor of the casino’s shopping area before I can get eyes on them again. I’m about to jump the rail down to their level when the ceiling starts raining down all around them and a Burai with head ornamentation indicating it’s Zero’s drops to the floor in front of them. It extends its hand towards the kid – I still have a hard time believing that he’s the Zero.
Then the plan falls even further apart as Britannian Sutherlands come crashing through the windows and start shooting damn near everything. Stores, walls, windows, decorations, civilians all fall to the storm of fire. Hell, they even manage to land a few rounds on the Burai. The Sutherlands are completely devoid of unit markings, which to the trained eye is just about the same as painting them with the OSI’s crest and stamping PROPERTY OF THE OFFICE OF SECRET INTELLIGENCE all over them.
I manage to avoid their ire just long enough to watch the schoolboys escape down an unfinished corridor. I’m sprinting full-tilt towards the hall by the time the OSI flunkies realize they missed one and start shooting again. Sometimes, just sometimes, I wish that these guys weren’t classic stereotypical villains. Honestly, what good does blasting random passersby do?
The hallway is too small for the Sutherlands to fit into, and they’ve got bigger problems to deal with than the one that got away, chief among them the Burai that crippled one of their machines and ran away, sans an arm. I’m rushing down the darkened corridor, pistol in hand, as a big iron door at the end slides shut. I sidle up to the wall next to it and listen. I can barely make out the pair talking to each other before one of them shouts and a trio of shots ring out. An explosion rocks dust from the ceiling above me and jars the door open a hair. I have to really put my back into it to open it the rest of the way, though.
When I finally get it open, the room beyond is mostly vacant. I can see a single set of footprints tracked through the dust laid down by the explosion leading to the far side of a gaping chasm in the center. I follow them to where a Black Knight lays. The guy looks like he’s been put through a blender: his uniform is tattered and singed, his legs are just ragged stumps, his right arm stops about halfway down the forearm, his left arm is twisted at an angle that speaks of a shattered elbow, and to top it all off, someone felt the need to cut his throat from ear to ear. I look from where I’m kneeling next to the body in the direction of the tracks. They lead to another door, also closed. I stand and look at the corpse at my feet.
“N-3 here. I’ve found Iwatari’s body in a construction area on the eastern side of the main concourse. Send someone to pick him up; I’m continuing the mission.”
There’s a sigh on the other side of the line. “Roger that, N-3. We’ll get him home.”
I walk to the edge of the abyss and look down into its heart. I’ve got no fucking clue where Zero could be. If He fell… this could very well be the end of the Black Knights. It wouldn’t make sense for him to have been the one to kill Iwatari, though. I decide to search around the room for any hints.
I’m looking behind crates for any sort of clue when I hear the echo of an echo of an echo reaching up from the depths of the hole in the floor. Sounds like it’s saying “Rolo” or something like it. It stops as suddenly as it starts and I go back to the ledge. It’s as good a clue as any, so I start making my way down the staircase nearby.
It feels like I’ve been descending into the darkness for hours when I spot my first trace of passage. There’s a bit of torn cloth that looks like it’s the same color as the schoolboys’ uniforms stuck on a piece of exposed rebar. I can make out faint footprints in the dust on the floor by squatting down really low. I’m on someone’s trail. Now if I can just figure out whom it belongs to. The tracks lead off down another pitch black hallway.
It’s not long before I’m in some kind of lobby. Giant pillars with gaudy decorations reach up to the ceiling and the far wall is collapsed in on itself. Flickering purple light is flowing through the breach, accompanied by crackling and people talking. I slip through the darkness of the lobby to the side of the hole and listen, pistol ready at my side.
“Boy, I’ll have you know that I am a Baron. I’m through wasting words on bait like you,” a lofty, self-righteous voice declares. “Now, time to dispose of you – and there won’t be any witnesses left.”
I would take a peek, but I can hear weapons being readied and if I poke my head around the corner, they’re sure to see my face. The schoolboy’s voice is incredulous, surprised to find that he’s looking death in the face. I certainly can’t fault him there. “Dispose?” Smoke starts filtering through the broken wall and I can smell burning bodies.
When the kid talks again, the incredulity is gone, replaced by certainty and hate. “Before you dispose of me, I’d like you to answer a question.”
A pair of the soldiers shout something, but I’m too far away to make it out. “If being powerless is so terribly wrong then does having power make you right? Do you find vengeance evil? What’s your value of friendship, is it justice?”
The Baron chuckles. “There’s no justice or evil. The only truth that exists for you, bait, is the simple reality of death.”
I finally edge my head around the corner. There are two Knightmares – Zero’s Burai and a Sutherland – surrounded by a ring of violet flame. Standing around the Sutherland are over 20 OSI mooks. The pilot of the Sutherland, I’m guessing he’s the Baron, is standing on his seat at the back of the cockpit block. I can see the schoolboy slowly walking towards the group. C.C. is standing nearby, watching with rapt attention.
“I see,” the schoolboy retorts, trying to sound wise. “Then that reality is all that remains for you as well.” The kid picks up his arm and extends it in front of himself. “I, Lelouch vi Britannia command you. All of you: die!” His arm flourishes out to the side exactly like the real Zero’s would if He were giving a speech or barking orders.
“It can’t be!” The Baron sounds as shocked as I feel. The kid is saying that he is a Royal Prince? And not just a Royal Prince, but one who’s supposed to have been dead for the better part of a decade now. To my mind, that’s almost as unlikely as what happens next.
All of the OSI guys go kind of stiff for a second before coming to attention and shouting, “yes, your Highness!” They turn and point their rifles at one another. The Baron puts his pistol to his own neck, right behind his jaw, laughing. Before my mind can really catch up with what’s going on, every single OSI soldier pulls their respective trigger. The 20-plus men all fall to the ground, trailing blood from gunshot wounds. It’s the single most fucking insane display of fratricide and suicide that I’ve ever seen.
I step around the corner, eyes wide and jaw on the floor. And still, C.C. and the kid are just standing there, looking at the bodies. I’m making my way forward when the Guren and Urabe’s Gekka smash through the ceiling and land before the kid, kneeling. Urabe’s voice pumps through his external speakers. “We’ve been waiting for You, Master Zero. Please, give us Your orders.”
As I come closer and my eyes grow accustomed to the light pouring in from above, I see that C.C.’s outfit is stained with blood. The pool extends from a small hole in her chest, right where her heart should be. She doesn’t look like she’s in pain. She’s not hyperventilating or showing any signs of being shot. In fact… she looks bored.
“Very well,” the kid answers, doing more of his hand flourishes. “Because after all, I am Zero: the one who will crush the world and the one who will recreate the world anew.”
I can’t help myself. The words are out of my mouth before I can kill the impulse. “What the fuck is this?”
C.C. and Zero turn to face me and the Knightmare’s heads shoot up to analyze me. “Ah, Vince. Thank you for joining us,” he says with a little grin.
“I knew that Zero wasn’t Japanese, but You’re just a kid! What the hell was that stuff about being a Prince? And how the fuck did You get those guys to kill themselves like that?!”
Zero just looks at me for a moment, and no one really knows what to say. Captains Kozuki and Urabe didn’t see it happen, so they have no clue what I’m talking about. C.C. just fixes Zero with a slightly interested expression and shrugs. “I understand that you have questions, Vince. I’ll answer them someday, but right now we have bigger problems. The Britannians will be mounting their attack soon and if we’re to have any hope of winning, I’ll need every soldier we have left.”
He turns away from me and goes over to where the Baron’s body is cooling. I can’t help but stare for a few seconds. This shit is insane. I mean, I didn’t expect this mission to go anything but all kinds of wrong but this? This is so far beyond anything I could have ever imagined… looks like those bartenders are going to be getting to live a bit longer and make more money off of me.
After thinking things through for a short bit, I holster my pistol and go to one of the OSI bodies. I grab the man’s rifle and pocket a pair of magazines – he won’t be needing them anymore, that’s for sure. “You want my loyalty, You’ve got it, sir.” I pop the current magazine out and inspect it. Four rounds missing, one in the chamber. Good enough. I slap it back home. “What I said back when I first approached the Black Knights is still true.
“Let’s show these bastards that the Black Knights are back and not to be fucked with.”
Zero just looks over his shoulder at me and smiles.
Author’s Note: Well, that was fun. Don’t really have any cool insights or anything for this chapter. As you can tell, it’s just a retelling of R2 Episode 1 with an OC thrown in for the fun of it. Characters like Vince here have always interested me – the nameless, faceless grunt who gets ordered around and makes life possible for the Main Characters. I guess I just figured it was time for one of these unsung revolutionaries to have his time in the spotlight. And don't worry - Vince won't end up with any of the canon characters.
Inspiration(s): Heroes Die (and its sequels) by Matthew Woodring Stover; personal experience from being a grunt myself.