Chapter 1:

Black Snow 1-1

Further Than The Sky


Six large humanoid machines trekked through a valley, only the white of the snow to accompany them. Explosions went off in every direction beyond the peaks, the fires of war flashing before them like a fireworks display on Independence Day. Despite the hellish battlefield they were beneath, they continued pacing forward, hiding away from the conflict.

A red-haired woman piloting on of the machines eyed the timer on her screen. "Five minutes till we're in operation range. When we're there, the autopilot will shut off." Her ears twitched when she heard the sound of a guitar on her transmission. "Nine! You're practicing here? Now?!"

The man sitting in the machine behind hers had his legs crossed, an acoustic guitar on his lap. "Yes and?" He played a few notes in quick succession, despite having to compromise space in that cramped cockpit. "All we can hear is boom boom boom. A little bit of music to break the tension isn't too much a favour, yeah? Gotta chill."

"Wahaha!" An old man in another robot laughed heartily. "I remember that one time dear old Nine slid a CD into the command center's computers. Everyone went into red alert thinking it was an enemy attack. Wahaha!"

The redhead noticed one transmission cut off upon hearing the first 'wahaha'. She paid it no mind. "Anyway! We're five minutes from starting the mission. Don't you think it's too reckless to play around at this kind of time?"

"Relax, Two." Nine said, combing back his graying hair. "The usual length for the songs I listen to are about four minutes. Plenty of time to get one song down."

He continued playing, completely unfazed by the war being waged above them. A robot plummeted in a flaming wreck from those skies, exploding next to him. Yet he kept strumming, not an ounce of fear or surprise in his expression.

"That song..." Two closed her eyes, recalling the tune he played. "That's I Don't Want To Miss A Thing, by Aerial Smith, isn't it?"

"Wahaha! So our grumpy, naggy commander has an eye for music after all!"

"Shut up, Seven."

Nine winked, not a pause to his play. "Yeah, it's Aerial Smith alright. Surprised you even know of them."

"It's the song my fiancé and I listened to back when we were dating."

"I'm more surprised that you had a fiancé."

"Just a fiancé, the marriage never took off." Two leaned back and sighed, a frosty cloud forming out her dry lips. "He got enlisted into the military, and we never communicated ever again. I joined the militia hoping to find him, but..."

"No dice?"

"He didn't make it through his first sortie."

"Oh. Sorry."

"Wahaha!" Seven laughed, trying to lighten the tension. "Y'know what they say! Shit happens. You just got to move on from it!"

She grimaced at his advice. "I'm an adult, I know that. Mind you, I'm technically your boss right now too. A little respect goes a long way."

"Wahaha! Rank does not equate to experience, Two. The fact that you've got a nice tuft of hair to show proves that!"

"Just because you're bald doesn't mean you're better. I have a higher rank because I'm skilled. Experience means nothing in the face of ability." She shook her head, grumbling. "Nine, per chance, do you know how to sing that song?"

"Hell no, just listen to my voice." He spoke with guttural growl, a natural consequence of a smoking addiction. "I ain't gonna besmirch Steve Tyler's godly voice with my shitty singing. Why don't you sing? You know the lyrics."

A feminine voice exclaimed over their receivers, "Six can sing it! She used to be an idol!"

Everyone screamed back together, "Hell no!"

Two groaned, clutching on the uniform she hung over her shoulders, the fur-lined hood warming her collared neck. "Fine, I'll try." She closed her eyes, listening closely, noting how Nine was getting close to the chorus. "Don't wanna close my eyes~ Don't wanna fall asleep cause I'd miss you babe, and I don't wanna miss a thing~"

Nine smiled wryly, with a taste of disgust. "Yeah... That's some monotone singing right there. You might need a few karaoke sessions."

"Shut up! It's been years since I heard it, okay? I was nervous."

"Wahaha! Nervous about what? Singing or dying?"

"Singing—" She gasped. "Hey! Why the hell are we screwing around?! It's a minute before we reach the combat zone!"

Nine strummed his last note. "Relax, we can't enter battle feeling all stressed out, it'll take our fighting skills down a notch or two." He put away his guitar, placing it on the passenger's seat behind his. "It's times like these when we should chat some more, know a little more about each other. Tell some juicy secrets." The flashing explosions of the battle reflected in his yellow irises. "We don't know if it'll be the last time we'll get to say it."

Two smirked as she heard his words. "Then we don't divulge any secrets. Cause today won't be the last time we'll get to say anything to each other, nor will tomorrow. I'm not letting any of you die, understood? The objective of this mission is to take back the Liner Research Facility, and if impossible, to destroy it. My only order to all of you..." She took a deep breath, clutching her controls as the timer fell down to the seconds. "Is to survive."

"Wahaha! How dramatic!"

"AMS, disengaging autopilot."

Reaching the end of the valley, the autopilot on all six machines shut off, the giant sign bearing the nine words disappearing off their screens. They pushed on the levers to acquit themselves to their machines, a slight warm-up before the real show.

They had radars to help them know where their enemies are, however, they knew that such information was useless on that snowy-field stained with black. Robots covered the skies, airships flying alongside them, beams and ballistics raining down in every direction. With such a vast, chaotic skirmish, their own two eyes proved to be of more use than any technology.

A subordinate of theirs spoke up, quivering from the gelid air and his own fear. "T-T-Two...! Where did you say the Liner Research Facility was? Cause the only buildings I see are buried in snow!

"It's on the other side of this battlefield. We've got no choice but to break through."

He gasped. "Break through?! This?!"

"Just do what I say."

"N-N-Nine! Nine! I don't wanna die! What the hell am I supposed to do?!"

The man tugged on his tattered red scarf, reaching within the deepest parts of his mind to extract words of advice from his knowledge and experience born from his time with the military forces. Three words came to him, and casually, as a father would to a son, he said, "Don't get hit."

VVVVVVV

The beautiful hymns of a violin was all that echoed throughout the pristine, porcelain walls. The view beyond the windows was but a sea of clouds brushing by. The young lady with the instrument against her neck and a bow in hand stood front and center; her eyes shut as the tune took precedence of her focus and attention.

Her cheeks tightened, sweat dripping from the tips of her golden locks. The song she played hastened, slowly devolving into a chaotic howl. With an angered grunt, the lady stopped, the music ending with an abrupt screech. She glanced to her right, eyeing the reflection in the window.

A familiar silhouette stood behind her, cross-shaped hairpin on her fringe particularly eye-catching. The two girls wore the same outfit, a white jacket over black, a red ribbon to complete the look. Miniskirts three centimeters above their knees, the two could almost be mistaken to be schoolgirls in uniform.

Arms crossed, the onlooker asked, "Why are you practicing now? We're almost arriving at the combat zone."

The violinist calmly stepped over to a box bared open on a countertop, putting away her instrument with utmost care. "I'm well aware." Closing the box shut, she leaned back, raising a finger to her friend. "Did you know? Music soothes the soul. I simply needed a last minute recreation."

"What I heard tells me that you're far from soothed. Is something bothering you?"

The blonde was quiet. She turned to the window again, the heavy snow dashing across her watery blue irises. Her palm pressed against the glass, pushing down as if she were trying to crack it through nothing but pressure.

"I'm Sovian, you must be well aware, no? Three years ago, I was not a soldier, nor was I a pilot. Merely another girl living an ordinary life. I woke up. I went to school. I made friends. I went home. I did my homework. I slept. That was my life. But that day..." She gritted her teeth, anger seething through its cracks. "It was snowing heavily, just like today. I lost everything. I blinked but once, and this snow took everything I've ever loved away right before my very eyes. And now..."

The girl finished for her. "You're back at Sovia." She placed a caring hand on her shoulder, hoping her empathy came through. "Anastasia, I know it must be hard for you to come back here. But you're the first ranked pilot aboard the Jotunheim. You can't let your emotions best you, not at such a critical moment."

Anastasia took her friend's hand away. "I'm aware. Those Imperials will make quick work of me if I fight too recklessly. But I swear by my name that I will make them pay. Those monsters are vile and cruel."

"Then, if you know, I'll head out first." She stepped toward the door, pushing a button to open it up. "Charlotte's headed out early to clear the area surrounding the combat zone, so now it's my turn to go in and clear a path with the Red Rose."

"You may be second ranked, but you're on equal grounds as me when it comes to AMS combat." She stressed her face into a reassuring smile. "Show them what we Candidates are capable of, Karen."

With a nod, the girl left.

Anastasia stood in there, her expression fading. Her eyes rolled toward an ornament ring on her left hand. Inscribed into the gold, hard as it was to see, was one word, 'Alexandrovna'. She raised her hand and kissed the ring, a single tear escaping.

"Father. Mother. Everyone. It is only because of all of you that I continue to live on. I don't have anything left to live for, which is why I dedicate this life you saved to your deaths." She clasped her hands together, her arms shaking. "I may not have a country to fight for, but I swear by our name that I will take back everything Gestahl has robbed us of."

She froze, her skin paling white as the snow.

"So please, give me the strength to fight."

VVVVVVV

When Karen sat in her bright red AMS, the gates of the runway before her opened up one by one. With a few flicks of switches, she activated the machine, yelping as a sharp pain shot up her spine to her brain. It was normal, the AMS externally connects to the pilot's mind to help maximize their piloting abilities. No surgical modifications were needed, any person is connected as soon as they activate these machines. How compatible they are with such a system, that's a whole other story.

Karen clutched the levers by her side, watching the snow flow into the launching pad. She could see the fighting even from where she was. She sighed, finding it sad how ceaseless the war is. She always believed in peace. She always thought that every conflict can be solved if both parties could take the time to understand one another.

"Yet here I am in the cockpit of an AMS..."

The irony cut deep. She never wanted have a hand in the war, but she ended up deported into the Candidate Program. As a peace-loving person, she had a talent for these war machines. A talent that frightens her.

An older woman's face appeared on her screen. She straightened her posture and instinctively saluted.

"Karen. A brief rundown of your orders. You are to clear a path through the waves of Imperial AMSs to allow the Jotunheim to reach the Liner Research Facility. Do not stray too far away from the airship. After the path is clear, immediately withdraw and leave the rest up to Anastasia's Blue Magnolia."

"Understood."

The feed cut, and her screen was clear. She glanced to her right, looking at the katana her machine wielded. The Akatsuki Type-III. A quick glance to the left was a shorter wakizashi, the prototype Hibiki. They were the only weapons she had. They were the only weapons she needed.

The Red Rose was specifically geared toward high mobility whilst still boasting excellent handling. It could fly at speeds exceeding Mach 1, yet the pilot can still maneuver it as if it were moving at strolling speeds. In short, the machine was second to none in terms of melee combat. Engaging it at close ranged combat was equal to suicide.

The only reason she was the sole pilot of this one-of-a-kind machine was because she was Candidate, nothing more, nothing less. Not once in her piloting career has she taken major damage.

"Karen Murakumo, Red Rose, launching."

With a step on the pedal, the catapult her machine's feet were strapped to pushed her machine forward into the bountiful snow.

VVVVVVV

"It's a little hectic up here, ain't it?"

"A little?"

Two, Nine and Seven were breaking through to the facility by going straight across the battlefield. Needless to say, the amount of ammunition being fired in every direction made for an excruciating experience for the pilots. Compared to every other machine flying in that airspace, theirs were notably more rusty. AMSs have certain design elements that all come together, but theirs looked like random parts of various machines put together hastily.

There was a term used to describe 'junkyard' AMSs such as these, ALT. The only thing an ALT will ever have over an AMS is that it rolled off the tongue better.

Still, despite appearing vastly inferior, the three soared through those skies, avoiding any kind of damage as they maneuvered to the chaotic web of battle. Their performance was far within satisfaction. Perhaps it was good customization and loadout, perhaps it was their abilities as veterans coming to fruition, but the three hadn't any fear toward the afterlife.

Their other teammates took a different, safer route around the battlefield. Their jobs were to become artillery support once they touch down at the facility. In the first place, their safety wasn't guaranteed if they had to brave through the crossfire.

"Wahaha! Two was right!" Seven was cackling as he steered his way through. "The enemies don't care enough to take out small fries like us! Going through straight through was the best choice! Our buddies over there with the fancy tech get all the attention!"

"Yeah, but..." Nine stomped his foot on the pedal, drastically halting his machine's acceleration. Just as he came to a stop, a big blue laser from an airship whizzed right in front of him, taking a direct hit on an allied ship. "You gotta watch out for stray fire." He continued flying on, catching up with his squad.

Two was barely listening. All her focus went into her eyes. "Just a little more. We're almost there!"

"Guys! Guys!" a feminine voice spoke up on their transmission. "Six detected something! Unidentified unit approaching! It's coming in fast! Really fast! It's three times faster than the average AMS!"

"Three times faster?" Nine's mouth gapped, his eyes nearly escaping his sockets. "Is it red?!"

The three of them eyed the sky before them as a single red line zoomed in every direction, seemingly randomly. But behind that line was a trail of destruction, units exploding the moment the line touches them. And what was worse was it was getting closer.

"Shit, of all times!" Two opened a transmission to her other team. "Guys, where are you? Are you seeing that?"

"One red thing getting all the kills? Just like my children's cartoons."

"Good. If you can see it, then stay there for a sec. Five, please ready your sniper rifle." She pushed a few buttons, locking her sights on the enemy. The single eye on her ALT's head telescoped out, the camera's retinas narrowing to get a clearer lock. "Six, connect Five's FCS to my lock. Five, when you have a clear shot, shoot to kill."

Neither gave her a response, but she was confident that they were acting as she commanded. The distance was still pretty far, but within seconds, a single beep came on, and Two was successfully locked on to the unit which not even her eyes could follow.

The lock was then sent over to Five who was even further away from the action than the three, and her Firing Control System was tied down to wherever the enemy AMS moved. Sniper rifle ready, it's barrel swaying toward the AMS' relative angle, it was just a matter of time before an opening showed itself.

Two puffed her chest up. Six and Five were both awfully strange, in two radically different ways. Neither of the two girls were worthy of trust. But, if she coordinated them right, then miracles could occur.

She saw it, it was just a twitch, maybe even a moment of hesitation, but the red line slowed down for a brief moment. At the top of her lungs, she screamed, "Now!"

Five pulled the trigger, and a single purple beam zipped past the battlefield like a flash of lightning. The distance that exceeded two kilometers was traversed in an instant, and the beam struck the red AMS dead center. A beam would always cut through metal like hot knife through butter, so the chances of the AMS standing was close to null...

So they believed.

Two's triumphant grin slowly arched down to a horrified scowl when she saw the machine intact. In fact, it hadn't suffered even a scratch. She couldn't fathom why such a thing would occur. The question would've continued to build up if not for Nine putting the answer right there for her to digest in three simple words.

"A fucking barrier?!"

Karen breathed out in relief. Had it not been for the Twitch Armour, she would have been dead by now. It was an energy shield that deployed in every direction surrounding her AMS if she was unable to evade an attack. A shield that can only protect her for that pivotal moment that would cost her life. All Candidate AMSs are equipped with it, and it has not seen usage anywhere else.

She doubted herself. That was what could have killed her. In the end, the only thing stopping her from surpassing Anastasia was her hesitation and indecisiveness. Composing herself once more, she raised her head and looked at her screen at the AMS that was locking onto her from afar. With a gentle step on the pedal, she chased after it.

Two shrieked, "Shit! She's charging! One, Three, Five! Your location is compromised, run!" Without another order, she, Nine and Seven had already begun escaping.

"Quick analysis, guys!" Six couldn't stop panting as she spoke fast. "The AMS only has swords! I repeat! It only has swords! So just shoot it!"

Nine yelled back in irritation, "Shut up! Don't make it sound easy!"

"Wahahahahahaha!" Seven was laughing hard, but it was obvious from his face that he too was petrified. "It's fast! It's waaaay too fast! We can't shake it off! Wahaha!"

The Red Rose was getting closer and closer, her katana fixated on Seven's ALT. Inching closer and closer, she raised her blade, a crimson chaotic burning aura emanating from its edge. One strike, and she could cut through it to bring it down.

Karen pushed on her lever. The blade fell. But she didn't hit what she expected to.

Nine couldn't even react when he saw it. Two had maneuvered her ALT in to take the blow for her comrade. Her machine's top half came clean off, and it arms fell into the buried city beneath them. Losing control, her ALT was sent flying in a downward spiral into the hills of snow.

He wanted to scream, but he knew it wasn't the time. The enemy was still before them. Nine had no choice but to bottle his feelings up and finish the job.

"Seven, go to the facility. I'll hold the line long enough for you to get there."

"Wahaha! Alone?! Are you crazy?!"

"Crazy in a crazy world." He licked his lip. "Pretty normal, I guess. I told you. Before I got shipped to this piece of shit squad, I used to be quite the hotshot. Remember what they called me?"

"Bullet Striker." Seven breathed in for a moment to contemplate. "Wahaha! Then I'll leave it to you!"

The thrusters on his ALT blazed up, and he flew further and further away as Nine stared the Red Rose down. She didn't move after cutting Two down, she just waited, almost expecting him to act. Since guns were useless in the face of the Twitch Armour, Nine drew out a steel blade attached onto his left shoulder. It folded out, nearly doubling in length.

Karen didn't think much of it. One quick scan of the ALT and she knew the machine would be unable to best her in melee. The only thing she can't account for is the pilot's ability. But even then, the specs between his ALT and her Red Rose was like night and day.

She hated it. Whoever was in that ALT was probably shrieking in fear, crying for his family. But from the way his blade is drawn, it was obvious he was ready to kill. When she hesitated earlier, she almost got shot down. That was why she cleared her mind of any guilt and remembered that there were things she wanted to protect too.

Noticing how it was obvious he's trying to serve as distraction to let his ally get away, she activated her thrusters, red flames releasing from the turbines. Eyes set on his ally, she boosted past him.

Nine thought to himself, "Relentless bastard's still going after Seven!" He almost instinctively turned around, it was the most logical thing to do in such a situation, wasn't it? But he knew, he just knew, that there was something in his blind spot. Without thinking twice, he reached his blade over his shoulder and—

Clang!

Waves were released from the clashing blades, the falling snow around them melting into rain from the thermal release. Nine started panting, his instincts were right; she was trying to get him while he turned around. He looked over his shoulder, noticing movement in the other arm. With a quick reflex, he stopped swing at its halfway point, catching the Red Rose's arm by the wrist.

"One arm locking blades, the other holding the other hand back." Nine groaned. "Dammit, my Vulcans are all pointed up front. I can't shoot it!" He smirked. "Then again, Samurai Flamenco here doesn't have any guns on. So we're locked in a stalemate..."

Karen didn't know what to feel. Not once has she had to swing at an enemy more than once. But to think she swung twice, yet this ALT with below average specs was able to remain intact. It was almost unthinkable, how something like this could occur. She couldn't believe what was before her very eyes.

Yet, neither of them had time to rest. Warning signs appeared on both their screens, and they realized that they were locked on by an Imperial airship. The sirens went crazy when an enormous salvo of missiles shout out the massive shit, blackening the blue sky with its smoke.

Nine gasped as dozens of missiles were headed his way. "I'm one of you, dumbass!"

Karen on the other hand, knew that the Twitch Armour wouldn't too helpful when hammered by so many missiles, it had a limited amount of uses. With a quick thought, she delivered a kick straight at the ALT's back, pushing it off. Nine boosted away, turning around to look his at his foe one last time.

And thus the salvo of missiles split the two apart.

Karen soared upwards, relying on her extreme mobility to outrun the missiles. Within seconds, she was far beyond the missiles homing range.

"That's enough." The older woman commanded, her face appearing on her screen again. "You're too far away. The path is clear, return to the Jotunheim."

"Understood..."

She stared downwards at the massive white area. Her only thought was of that one foe that played her hand in her field of expertise. It was just a crappy ALT with parts taken from various AMSs. Yet, he was able to stand his ground despite being so close to her. She doubted his AMS could outrun the barrage of missiles, but given his performance, he could very well have found his way around the attack.

"Just who was that guy...?"

VVVVVVV

"Phew!"

Nine's ALT climbed out the snow, a single mechanical arm carrying the giant machine out a pile of white. In order to get the heat off him, he flew down into the snow-buried city, hoping the sub-zero temperature and low altitude would get the missiles off him. Ridiculous as the plan was, he didn't take a hit, so no one gets to complain.

Finally seeing light, he leaned back on his seat and pumped his fist. He survived. Such an occasion called for celebration. He reached into his coat pocket and took out a pack of cigarettes. Biting onto on stick, he took out a lighter and let the scent of tobacco fill his cockpit. The battle still waged on up above, he was so far below and so far away, that it was fine for him to just enjoy a smoke.

His eye caught on to a machine trapped in the snow, just as he was. From the rusty exterior and the missing head, it was obvious to him that it had to be Two's ALT. He moved quickly toward it, finding a cockpit torn wide open for the snow to fill. And beneath that snow was head full of red.

With a flip of a switch, he activated the speakers on his machine. "Two! I see you right there! You alive?!"

But there was no response.

He took a deep breath of smog, a vein popping on the side of his head.

"Two, you better answer, dammit! You can't just die so soon! You've got lots of shit left to do!"

He raised his ALT's rifle up to the sky and fired twice. In close proximity, the sound was almost deafening.

"We still gotta work on your singing! Karaoke with me, every day from now on! You have a good voice, you just need more expression! I'll help you! Come on! You have the potential to become Gestahl's number one idol! And I'm not talking about that shitty 48-member idol group Six came from!"

Her hand rose up from the snow, and his face brightened at the sight. She rolled her hand into a fist, and slowly raised her middle finger at him.

"That's the Two I know."

Pushing herself out the snow, she sneezed once or twice from the cold. Climbing out her busted ALT, she shook her bleeding head as Nine's ALT reached its hand out to her. Hopping on, she then ran up its arm all the way to the torso, where a hatch was automatically opened for her.

Reaching her face into the cockpit, she sniffed twice. "You're smoking in here?!"

"Hey, it helps me calm down. That shit just now was crazy."

"Well, not every day a new high-tech model just waltzes into the battlefield. Still, we have to expect the unexpected. Especially if we want to survive." She wiped the blood dripping down her cheek. "Where's Seven?"

"Held the line so he could go. He should be there by now."

"Well, let's hope he's still there by the time we get there. I'll be giving orders from your backseat from now onwards."

She stuck her legs in through the hatch, stepping on his face. Balancing about, she stood on his shoulders and gently got onto the passenger's seat. Just as she put her butt down, she realized that an acoustic guitar was taking up her leg space.

"Why the hell am I sitting with your guitar?!"

"It's not like I expected you to hitch a ride with me!"

"You're way too irresponsible...!" She looked up as the hatch closed. "What kind of psycho brings his guitar to war?!"

"The guitar keeps us all from going crazy!" Nine dabbed the ashes on the lever to his left. "Music is an expression of the soul! The only thing that divides man from beast is the soul."

She opened a first-aid kit by her right, taking out the bandages and wrapping it around her head. "Yeah, but that doesn't mean you have to take a whole frickin' guitar with you everywhere you go!"

"Trust me, five years from now, I'll be needing this guitar. Screw this war, I just wanna be a rockstar!"

"You're already crazy..." She shook her head, taking out a headpiece from her coat. Attaching it to her ear, she clicked on some miniscule buttons on its side to adjust its frequency. "Two here. I managed to survive, but my ALT didn't make it. I'm in Nine's ALT right now. A minor inconvenience, especially for my legs."

"Wahaha! And here I thought the young boss died to save this old hoot!"

"I wouldn't die so early, I'm the heroine here. Seven, we'll be with you soon. Everyone else, proceed with the mission as stated in the briefing." She snapped her neck twice, exchanging glances with Nine through the reflection on the screens. "So, had you quite worried there, did I?"

"No. I don't care. I knew you'd be okay."

She slapped him on the side of the head. "Oh you. You think I wasn't listening? I have a good voice, huh?"

"Shut up, I didn't say that. No one said that."

She leaned back, resting her cheek on her palm. "Thursday and Friday nights. You and me. Karaoke. That's an order from a superior."

"Now you're just abusing your power."

"You're the one who suggested it." She shook her head, slight irritation welling up within. "Whatever. Let's head out now. To the Liner Research Facility."

To Be Continued

A/N: And, cut! That's the first chapter of FTTS! Hurray! I'm going for a more ensemble cast with this, so there isn't any 'main character' type. Well, actually, the 'main character' types haven't been introduced yet, everyone in this chapter are more supporting cast than anything. Since there were a lot of names flying around (so many people named after numbers), I'm hoping their personalities and dialogue stand out to be memorable.


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