Further Than The Sky
With a rough pull on the lever, Nine steered his ALT rightwards, crashing it into the mountainside. The chasm protruding before him provided a decent cover against the mysterious assailant, if only temporarily. It would only help prevent its targeting system from perfectly adjusting to his location, but a beam could easily tear right through the mountainside.
Two tapped the button on her earpiece, sweat trickling down despite the cold weather. "Six, Six, respond. Seven is down, I repeat, Seven is down."
The girl replied over the intercom. "What? The old man is dead? Are you joking?"
"Hey, dumbass!" Nine screamed back. "You think we're in a position to be telling shitty jokes like that?! There's an enemy sniper on our ass!" Another shot was fired, the massive beam of light streaking past them. "And sure as hell looks like it wants us dead!"
Six let out a sulk, but hadn't a choice but to assist them with the turmoil. "Uhm, that's strange... The two beams that were fired just now, they came from... Well, relative to your position, four kilometers away, three kilometers above your altitude."
Nine tapped his finger on the lever, eyes rolled upwards. "Four away, three above... I know there's a formula to calculate this. Hippopotamus? Hypocrite? Damn, should have paid attention back in elementary school."
Two leaned back, wrapping her arms around the girl tighter. "Pythagoras' Theorem. We're looking for the hypotenuse." She sighed, a large cloud forming from her breath. "I don't remember my squares, I need a calculator for thi—"
"Five," a feminine voice spoke.
Nine flinched at the answer. "Huh? Who said that? Didn't sound like Six."
"Uhm, yes, five is correct. I just calculated." Six replied. "The enemy sniper is about five kilometers away from you, if you fly a straight line toward them. And no, it wasn't me who answered."
Two's eyes widened when she slowly came to a realization. "Five kilometers...? You're not joking, are you? The furthest range a sniper's FCS can function is about 1.5 kilometers. That's almost... three times that range! You mean to tell me that our enemy can get an accurate shot on us from so far away?!"
Another blast flew by, this time smashing to the grounds behind them, creating a scalding crater beneath the snow. Two stared at it on the screen, unable to clamp her jaw shut.
"That one was also from the same source!"
Her hair stood, eyes almost bulging out the sockets. The crater was still smoldering, and the sight of it made her fret for her life. The enemy was too far for them to reach, yet they were like ants to be squished. She felt tears starting to leak out as she wondered whether it was her time.
Nine watched her over his shoulder as her face darkened. "Hey, Two. You're the boss here. That's not the face of a leader, y'know?" He tapped his finger on the lever, echoing a beat in his head. "I'll tell you this, I've been stuck at this squad of ours for many, many years. But out of all the commanders that got stuck with me, I trust you the most. I'm not a very smart guy, you see? So I'm going to need you to tell me what to do. You told me you'd do whatever it takes so all of us could make it out alive."
She looked up, staring at his callous face through the reflection of the screens. As she wiped her eyes, she suddenly bit into her wrist. Her teeth sank into her flesh deeper and deeper till blood dripped down her chin. An enthusiastic grin on her face, she nodded back at him. "Thanks, my mind's clear now."
"Alright, then. Here's a bit of—"
Another blue beam of light streaked right by them. Had it been a meter closer, they would have been fried. The side of the mountain was dyed black from the heat.
"Here's my offer, just to psyche you up. I'll call you Boss if you can get both of us out of this mess alive."
"Boss, hm? I like the sound of that." She spat the blood out, shaking her wrist about. "Your piloting skill is what's going to determine that. So for my end, I'll sing for you if you can get us out of this alive."
"Twenty seconds. That was the time between the shots. I'll assume that's its rifle's cooldown time. How fast is your ALT?"
His eyes aimed toward several static blips on the radar. "Hits 170. Maybe with a little extra baggage, 150."
"The ALT's only weapon right now is the blade. We're going to need a rifle and a shield. I want you to fly in and snatch those from the fallen AMSs on the ground. "
"I doubt a shield's gonna do any good against a blast that huge."
"Wasn't your advice to Three 'don't get hit'?"
He glanced over his shoulder at her smug face. Shaking his head, he found himself grinning as well. "So you wanna see why they call me the Bullet Striker, eh? I'll give you a show, just be ready for one hell of a ride."
Another shot, this time missing the ALT's head by a few centimeters as it burrowed into the mountainside. The snow on the top started to collapse.
Her eyes narrowed, her feet shifting around Nine's guitar. "Twenty seconds again. Now, if I put a rough estimate, if we go 150km/h, and the sniper's five kilometers away... How fast would we be in terms of minutes?"
"2.5 kilometers per minute!"
Nine raised an eyebrow. "Who the hell—"
"So we're going to need two minutes to make it there. And in that time, we need to survive six shots. Once we're in visual range, I'm sure the sniper's accuracy will increase. How confident are you, Nine?"
"Bullet Striker, baby. Bullet Striker."
"Fine then. I'll leave the rest to you."
"I love you."
Her cheeks flushed red as he failed to hold back his snickers. "I know you like to embarrass me when I'm being serious, but now's not the time for that."
"I just need to lighten the mood. I'm no good with these tense situations. I fly best when I'm in high spirits."
"More like when you're high."
Another shot came down, closer than it ever was. It was practically shaving the shoulder plate of the ALT, and as it dissipated, the plate was half its original length. Nine stomped on the pedal, and at last, the ALT came out of hiding.
Two held onto the girl as if her life depended on it. Even with her belt on, the G-forces acting on her was unbearable, and Nine's rough piloting made it difficult to keep steady on her seat. She started to mutter under her breath as they drifted through the snow. "One... Two..."
The wreckage of enemy AMSs lay in the snow, still smoking from damage. All of them were taken out by Seven. It was obvious that there were no survivors within their cockpits. And Nine knew he could take advantage of that.
As he flew by, he snatched a shield and rifle planted into the ground. Eyes on the screen, a single blip was beeping, warning signs of concentrated energy on his screen. It was time he avenged an old friend. With a single bound, his ALT took off from the snow, hovering over the frozen scapes with a single target in mind.
Two could barely keep her eyes open under the high speed. But her true concern was with the unconscious girl on her lap. More than anything, she wanted to get that girl out of the battlefield safe and sound.
Nine made a sudden turn as the bright blue light suddenly flashed. The beam pierced the front of his ALT, melting the tip of its armour. He realized that she was mistaken; the lag between shots was ten seconds, not twenty. But they can't stop now that they've begun.
"Ten! Count to ten!"
"I know! One! Two! Three!"
They just wanted to go home. Listen to music. Watch television. Complain about the terrible food. They were charging forth for the chance to see what tomorrow brings.
Being a soldier was never their dream. Somehow, they ended up in this situation. The aspirations they held as children were quietly discarded.
Looking to the past held no merits for it could not be changed. Looking toward the future had no purpose for it could not be predicted. All they had was the present.
His eye widened, a blue light reflecting in his irises.
With a hard stomp, he made another sharp turn. His ALT was sent rolling in the snow as the beam phased through the downed units behind him.
Watching them melt like a slab of butter, a thought occurred in Two's mind. She immediately yelled at him, "Jammers, now!"
He didn't think twice before flicking the switch. His ALT's signal disappeared from the radar, but so did every other signal. Jammers were a double-edged sword. In exchange for completely masking your presence, it also blocked communications and the signals of every other unit. A pilot has to rely on sight and senses when using them.
As he continued his charge, he didn't hear a word from her, so he yelled, "Start counting, dammit!"
"There's no need to anymore." She adjusted the girl on her lap to hold her in a more comfortable position. "It's not going to shoot us anymore."
A single breath released, her expression brightened as if a load was taken off her shoulder. "Think about it. What kind of camera can accurately break down information of AMS movement for the FCS from five kilometers of distance? It was definitely using its radar, and our signal was its reference.
"Then why was its accuracy diminished when we were hiding?"
"Perhaps it needed its camera to finalize the calculations. Relying entirely on a camera of five-kilometers of distance would make it too sensitive; a single change in degrees and the shot misses completely. But mixing information from both the camera and the radar would create the best result for sniping. Outside of sniping range, it can't get us if it can't detect us."
Nine perked his lips, staring ahead at where the enemy was. "The next shot wasn't fired yet. You'd think it'd be looking for us."
"It thinks we're dead." She pointed at the smoldering pile of scrap that used to be the shot down units. "When it got those, I had you activate your jammers to make it seem as if you got hit too. As far as it knows, we've been shot down."
"So, we're invisible to it now?"
"Yeah. We should be safe now. But we're not exactly done yet, are we?"
He wiped the blood off his cheek, one hand caressing the lever to his left. "That guy killed Seven. Unfortunately, I'm not going to let that go." He stared at the mountain peaks which grew taller and taller, fixing his gaze upon the thin blue light that streaked away from it.
"It's still in a position to swat us like flies. Chances are, if it sees us up there, we're going down. Its allies won't take too long to rip through our jammers. There's only one way out of this, it seems."
He didn't respond, choosing to continue straight onward toward the enemy. His hand hovered over a small keypad which he started tapping on.
On his monitor, various mp3 files were on display. He clicked on one of them, which made the speakers in his ALT roar with the strum of a guitar.
"Did you actually store music in your ALT'S computer?!"
He grinned at her over his shoulder. An addictive guitar riff started playing. Then, as if he was anticipating it, he sang along with perfect timing, "I was told a million times of the troubles in my way, might you grow a little wiser, a little better every day~!"
Blood pumping from the laidback rock, he stomped on the pedal. The ALT's thrusters flared brighter, and he flew it toward the mountain where the enemy AMS was situated. As the peaks rose higher and higher with each second, and he couldn't help but bob his head to the beat. Two's nagging drowned in the chords. Before long she simply gave up and pressed her face against the girl's back in absolute frustration.
Anastasia was perched far away from them, high on a mountainside. The peaks she used as a post was the tallest in the area, and it was perfect position to snipe. Her unit was equipped with a massive sniper cannon that had immense recoil. It was a terrible idea to fire it in mid-flight.
She fired one too many shots to take down a single unit. She quite hated that obscured enemies become difficult to target. Luck was her friend in such cases, but not a single shot hit that foe when it hid. At the very least, when it was out, it finally went down. The disappearing blip was her only proof. It was rare that she ever saw the enemy she sniped. Even at the closest zoom, the massive machines were nothing but dots on her screen.
Still, her task was to clear a way for the Jotunheim to safely land at the research facility. If even one enemy poses a danger to the Cruiser-class airship, she must snipe it. She felt no remorse from pulling the trigger. After all, these imperials were the ones who took everything away from her.
Her Blue Magnolia raised its rifle high into the sky, its barrels facing down a squad of AMSs moving toward the facility.
"Anastasia! Enemy unit inbound! It was using jammers!"
It was not normal for her friends aboard the Jotunheim to too long to detect an enemy equipped with jammers. No one lasts more than a minute in her sniping range. But when the information revealing its location came in, she realized that it was close, no, it was too close. In fact, when she glanced at its direction, it was barely five seconds from reaching her. She could not believe it managed to stay in her range for so long without her noticing.
Biting her lip, she quickly pointed her rifle at it. There was no time for calculations, as soon as she lined the rifle up with the enemy unit, she pulled the trigger. She knew, at that close distance, she couldn't miss. It would take a miracle for the enemy to dodge.
Nine hadn't even a second to think. When that blue beam flashed before his eyes, he had to act according to raw instinct. He had done this maneuver many times during his training days, back when fighter jets roamed the skies. It was flashy and looked impractical, but in his hands, it was a tactical maneuver. Angling the legs of his ALT, the machine was spent spiraling to the side. What Anastasia realized too late was that it was an evasive-offensive move. By barrel-rolling the ALT, he could narrowly dodge an attack without a loss in speed. And that speed was what he needed.
With the shield aimed forward, he zoomed straight at the Blue Magnolia. Anastasia, who was confident that she couldn't miss at such a close range, didn't see him approach from her blind spot. And the moment the machine reached her sight, the airbags of her machine exploded forth, shielding her from the impact.
The blue AMS was sent toppling into the snow, a large dent on its chest piece. Nine threw the shield aside, and without missing a beat, delivered a kick right into his foe's sniper rifle. The AMS's grip on the gun was loosened, and the weapon was sent rolling down the mountainside. Just because he removed that weapon from play, doesn't mean his job was done. If he left things as it is, the enemy could fly down and reclaim her weapon.
Aiming the stolen rifle toward the Blue Magnolia's head, he pulled the trigger. Unfortunately, at that very moment, Anastasia's airbags had deflated, and she was in clear view of her surroundings. The moment she saw the rifle's barrel, she strafed leftward, activating the beam saber in her AMS' wrist.
At such a close range, it was obvious she'd attempt a melee. Nine felt relieved that he hadn't chucked his blade away. Grabbing its hilt with his free hand, he swung it toward the pink streak of energy coursing out the Blue Magnolia and deflected the strike away. Normally, a solid metal blade like his would be cleaved in two from a beam of energy. However, current blade technology was manufactured to produce its own barrier within its edges to amplify cutting power, and that barrier was able to clash with the beam saber.
Nine backed away clearing the distance between them, his gun aimed squarely at her. He hesitated to fire, however. The enemy was staying still. Unnatural occurrences always spelled trouble in the field of battle.
He eyed Two's face through the reflection, and smiled at her loosened complexion. Since they've been found, he switched off the jammers as there was no use for it anymore. And the moment he did, a transmission came in from an unknown frequency.
A feed of a teenage girl was overlaid on his screen. "Congratulations. You claim the first honor of damaging my Blue Magnolia. And—Huh? Why are you covered in blood? And what's with this awful music?"
Nine found her to be pretty for her age, she gave the impression of royalty just from appearances alone. He wouldn't be surprised if she actually was a bonafide princess. But what bothered him the most was—
"What the fuck did you say about my music?!" He clicked a button to switch it off, a vein bulging on his forehead. "I'll have you know that this is Keep Yourself Alive by Crimson King, the chart shattering song of 1973!"
"That's ten years ago!"
"So what, violin girl?!"
"How do you know I play the violin?"
"You look like the type to have a violin on her neck. And the way you cringed when you heard that sick guitar solo, that's the face of a classic music granny. I bet you spend your nights listening to Mozzarella."
"It's Mozart!" She cleared her throat. The man's crude nature was bringing out the worst in her. She told herself that she can't forget the most important fact; this man had rammed her AMS with a shield. "Anyway, I thought that it might be rude if I failed to introduce myself to you."
"Who the hell are you anyway?"
She clutched her lever as if she wanted to snap it off. "I'm right in front of you."
"The sniper? Why the hell are you talking to me? Aren't you trying to kill me? I'm definitely trying to kill you."
She cleared her throat once more. "In any case, my name is Anastasia, and I am the first ranked pilot aboard the Jotunheim. This unit is my personal AMS, the Blue Magnolia. It is developed by the Stark Foundation, and only one of it exists in this world. It is specifically tuned toward sniping, however, it has far more options in close ranges than one might expect. At its fastest, it can go 300km/h. It is equipped with the Twitch Armour, which is still in its prototype stages and has yet to see use outside the Jotunheim. If you wish to leave this place alive, I suggest you refrain from pursuing this confrontation any longer."
Nine's face was blank. He didn't know how to reply to that. Thankfully, Two took the words right out his mouth. "Are you trying to sell us your AMS?"
Anastasia turned beet red. "No! Who is that?!"
"My copilot. Even she's confused why you're telling us about your robot."
"I'm making a statement. If you treasure your lives, you'll fall back."
Six gun-shaped drones separated themselves from the Blue Magnolia's back. They hovered in the air with their own flight system, and proceeded to surround Nine's ALT with each of them aiming their barrels toward him.
"Indeed. I have you completely surrounded. This is a warning. If you proceed with hostilities, I will not hesitate to open fire."
"Great. Well, you blabbered a lot about your big toy, lemme tell you something about me, just to keep things even." He cleared his throat, mockingly imitating her. "I don't even have a name to give you, so you'll have to make do with remembering this handsome face as Nine. This AMS I'm piloting is an ALT, it's made from scrounge up parts we find at junkyards. Stat-wise, it can only hit 170 at its fastest, when 200 is the bare minimum of the AMSs of today. As for its equipment, I don't even know any of these, because I just picked them up. Basically, what I'm trying to say is that this machine is a total piece of shit." A smirk grew from cheek to cheek. "And I managed to make it leave that huge dent on your special snowflake."
She bit her lip, holding her irritation back. She had to keep her emotions in check, acting too rash could spell the end of her life. As annoying the man was, he had a point. He did damage her AMS. She couldn't underestimate him, not even for a second.
"Your first shot took out a friend of mine." He wiped the blood flowing down his neck and licked it off. "So you see, I'm out for blood. If there's one more important fact that you need to know, back in the day, they used to call me the Bullet Striker. I'm about to show you what that name really means." He stuck his rifle over his back, letting a mechanical arm on his ALT clamp it to hold it for the time being. One sword in hand, his fingers danced over his lever.
Anastasia took a deep breath. It would be unwise to be impatient. She kept her eyes fixated on the unit. If it made one small step toward her, she would riddle it with holes. That was her plan.
Nine's eyes bounced back and forth. He was sizing up the conditions and the environment, as well as his foe. In such a situation, surrender might be the best option, but he didn't trust this girl enough. If he left things as they are, she may eventually snipe them again.
Two only nodded at him when she saw him looking at her. He knew from that gesture that she has complete faith in his abilities.
With a tug on the trigger, a panel opened up on his ALT's shoulder. An explosive, unguided rocket flew out in a straight line, yet Anastasia remained in place. She saw its trajectory and knew it was aimed for the ground, not her. Perhaps it was a tactic to make her move irrationally, either way, she wouldn't fall for such a simple trick.
However, the moment it exploded, she realized its true purpose. The snow between them was sent flying up, creating a blanket that obscured her vision from him. It would dissipate soon enough, but five seconds for this man is four seconds too many. She immediately activated her Bits, firing all of them at the exact same time. The beams tore through the blanket like a bullet through a cloth.
Nothing exploded, and she knew something was wrong. In fact, her firing of those Bits superheated the snow and turned it into a thick mist, obscuring her vision even more. She could not see that machine, despite how big it is. Her enemy was using the mist to hide himself. If she charged in, she could get attacked from a blind spot, so the best option would be to back away from the clouds and let him come to her.
As she activated the thrusters to move her Blue Magnolia back, Nine's ALT suddenly emerged out the mist from her left, a single blade raised. Without as much as a blink, she swung her beam saber back at it, locking it down. It was her chance. He had one blade with him; she had a beam saber for each wrist. Switching the second one on, she swung it toward his torso—
"I know you have two."
He caught her by the forearm with his free hand, preventing the strike from connecting. It was a match of strength. Whoever could overpower the other, wins. Anastasia's AMS had better joints, but the man's bulky stature seemed to make up the gap. If she just kept pushing, eventually, she'll slice through him.
Veins were popping all over Nine. His ALT was just no match for the meticulously built AMS. The only thing that's keeping him up with her is his piloting skill, and that alone. Though he was successfully holding the Blue Magnolia back through sheer force of raw strength, it wouldn't be long before either he or his ALT gave out.
Of course, he considered that before the battle even started. From just a small exchange and the fact that she used a sniper-type, he knew his enemy was a cautious one. When conditions seem unfavourable, he guessed that she would fall back instead of charging. And she moved where he wanted her to.
His ALT's leg swung up and kicked the AMS off the edge of the mountain. It was impossible for him to hold out longer than her, so this was the only way to make it out alive. Anastasia found it pointless, AMSs can fly. Trying to throw her off the mountain holds no merit. Stepping on her pedal, the thrusters on her machine lifted her against gravity's pull, slowly going from falling to ascending. But just as she rose, the barrel of a rifle was aimed squarely at her.
Nine had pulled out the rifle he kept away, drawing it for the exact moment she moved upwards. Having yet to reach top speed, she was easy pickings for him to shoot. A tug on the trigger, and a barrage of 36mm rounds was spread squarely at the Blue Magnolia's head.
Anastasia realized that this was probably his goal from the beginning; he aimed for the head earlier as well. The AMS' head is where the main camera and processing units are located. By damaging it, he made it immensely difficult for her to continue sniping. Her cockpit turned dark from the destruction of the main camera, and it would take five seconds for it to switch to the sub cameras. He was too close for her to wait that long. If there was a time to act boldly, it was now.
Her AMS' arms swung wildly, hoping to get a lucky hit in. She scowled as she couldn't hear the screeching sound of melting metal. Instead, she was jolted forward when something hit her from behind.
As she boosted upwards, Nine had moved around her to get behind. With a single turn with the blade out, he delivered a slash on the Blue Magnolia's back, cutting through its main thrusters. The machine, unable to fully support its weight, was sent crashing into the mountainside, rolling on its way down.
Anastasia panicked as she spun about in that cockpit, trying to stabilize her AMS. The auxiliary thrusters on her legs were enough to keep her from rolling all the way down, but they wouldn't help her fly. She was like a bird which had its wings clipped, and the man responsible was floating high above, where she could no longer return.
Nine looked at her angered face that seemed about ready to fly into a fury. Without much a care, he reached into his pockets and then lit up a cigarette. "It's my win, Ana. You're probably thinking of using your Bits to swat me, but you should know you won't be able to hit me in this situation." Holding the cigarette between his lips, he clicked on the panel, playing his song once more.
"Keep yourself alive~! Ooh~! Keep yourself alive~! Take you all your time and money and honey you'll survive~!"
Anastasia's head was down. She withdrew her Bits, flying them past him and back to her AMS. She was shuddering in disbelief. "How...? How did I get beaten by some guitar-playing degenerate...?"
His face brightened up. "Hey, you knew I played the guitar. It's cause I have the face of a rockstar, right?"
"No, I can see the guitar sticking out behind you." She clenched her lever hard, almost wanting to snap it off. "I'm the first ranked pilot aboard the Jotunheim. I even have the Blue Magnolia. There's no way I can lose like this!"
He leaned back, smoke escaping through his nostrils. "The man makes the machine. Not vice versa. You said you were the first ranked aboard the Jellyfish? Small fish in a big sea. I'm not even the best pilot I know."
"Three years... I spent three years to be the best AMS pilot I can be. To think that—"
"I spent five times that amount going battlefield to battlefield. Just because you have a big toy doesn't mean you can best everyone." He tapped on his forehead. "It's all about this."
She bit her lip, so hard it was on the brink of bleeding. "I'll remember this... I'll defeat you, Nine. You and your emblemless squad. If I don't see an emblem on an AMS, I'll know exactly who I need to shoot first. After that, I know I'll be ready to take down the rest of the empire and take back everything they took from me."
He noted how her glare was full of murderous intent, yet the tears they hid behind told him of the pain she was going through. It was a face he'd seen many times in his years. However, seeing as they were enemies, there was nothing he could do about it. He shook his head and flew his ALT away from the battlefield.
"Good luck, then."
With that, Nine cut the transmission. He eyed those glacial skies with a wry smile. The world was getting blurrier and blurrier. On his screen, they were reaching the end of the combat zone. Even so, his body was getting weaker and weaker.
Two took off her seatbelt, putting the unconscious girl down where she sat. "Nine, did you spare her life because of me?"
"Well... She was just a kid." His voice was strangely gentle, and his eyes were half-closed. "You'll bitch at me all day if I killed her. That'd be annoying..."
She patted him on the head and pecked him on the cheek as his eyes shut. "Thank you."
"Two, I'm getting really tired..."
"I know. Go to sleep, I'll take over." She slipped the cigarette off his lips and rubbed it against the lever to put it out.
She then climbed over him and sat on his lap. Tucking his hands away, she assumed control of the ALT. As she flew away from the battlefield, she couldn't help but sulk at the snowy, white grounds that were now stained black as a result of battle. The world was a beautiful place, but neither she, Nine or the girl could ever appreciate its beauty because of this war they're embroiled in.
Sighing, she had no choice but to accept this fate. Someday, it'll all be over. She only has to wait for that day to arrive. How long must she wait, she doesn't know. The only truth is that nothing is eternal. All things come to an end.
"Keep yourself alive~! Come on, keep yourself alive~! All you pretty people, keep yourself alive~!"
"Now, how do I put a stop to Nine's music...?"
To Be Continued
A/N: That's a wrap! This went on way longer than I expected, but I wanted to bring out Two and Nine's characters even more. Show how they excel in areas the other lacks in. How good a team they really are despite bickering a lot.
It's basically a buddy cop show.
So, now I can finally get to introducing the main characters! ... It's so weird that the main characters come in during the fourth chapter.