Chapter 23

December 15th, U.C. 0046, 4:00 AM

“Oh ho ho ho ho ho ho ho! Did you really think I was your tomodachi?” Mari sneered, placing her foot on the back of Aina’s head and forcing her face into the mud. Aina struggled against the ropes fastened around her arms and legs, but to no avail. Mari removed her foot, and Aina jerked her face upwards, gasping, sputtering, and spitting mud from her mouth. “Aho? Baka? Why would I want to be tomodachi with a barbarian like you?” Mari laughed, turning her back on Aina and walking away. Aina kept her eyes on Mari, unable to pull her attention away from Mari’s golden drilltails, which shone brightly under the moon, faintly illuminating her meido dress.

“Nicely done, Mme Mari,” Naomi’s voice came from all around them. Mari continued forward a few more steps and stopped at an operating table, illuminating it with the glow from her hair. At that distance, Aina could barely make out the figure of Sena lying on the table, struggling against steel restraints. Mari pulled a sword from the broom strapped to her back, and raised it up as if to impale Sena’s heart.

“That will not work,” Sena informed her. “I have no kokoro to stab.” Without replying, Mari dragged the tip of her blade across Sena’s chest, towards her shoulder, slicing through dress and synthetic skin.

Yamero!” Aina shouted, wriggling her way slowly through the mud on her belly, but Mari payed her no heed and continued stripping the skin from Sena. She reached into the gash and detached Sena’s shoulder, which came free with a quiet hissing sound, and then cast it aside, where it fell into the mud with a dull plop.

“I’m going to disassemble you desu wa,” Mari announced loudly, pulling out Sena’s shoulder blade and tossing it in a different direction. “If Aina-san can crawl across the ground and reassemble you with her mouth by tomorrow night, I might not destroy your electronic brain.”

Naze? Naze are you doing this?” Aina pleaded, as she futilely attempted to crawl faster. “Naze bully me now?”

“Because I am Mari and you are Aina,” Mari explained, not pausing in her work. She had now sliced open Sena’s face and, removing an eyeball, had hurled it into the night.

“I agree with Aina-chan,” Sena said. “This is illogical. Nothing you can do will bring back Hiroko-san.”

Damare, you baka machine!” Mari shrieked, plunging her hand into Sena’s head and removing the electronic brain. It was encased in a black cube, about twelve centimeters on each side. It should have been difficult to see in the dark, but it glowed with a blue aura. Aina thought at first that it was an electric glow, but it began to glow brighter and brighter, until it shone more brightly than Mari’s hair, recasting the scene from yellow to blue. The glow lept from the cube and hung in the air, like a will-o-wisp.

“Mariiii-saaaaan,” Hiroko’s voice emanated from the glow. “Mariiiii-saaaaaaaaaaan, Naze did you kiiiiill watashi?”

Mari screamed.

“Stay back!” Mari demanded, once she recovered her composure. “I-I’ll crush this robot if you don’t stay back!” But the glow slowly advanced on her, repeating its question. Mari raised her hand, preparing to dash the electronic brain on the corner of the operating table.

“MARI-SAN, DAME!” Aina shrieked, bolting upright in her own bed.

“Don’t say that namae,” Momo complained, grabbing a pillow and hiding her head under it. Aina was breathing heavily, and it took a few moments for the meaning of Momo’s words to register, and for Aina to realize that she was safe in her bed.

That hadn’t been the first nightmare she had had about Mari in the last couple weeks, but it was the first since she started letting Momo back into her room, and it was certainly the most intense.

Aina flopped back down on to the bed. Momo had already gone back to sleep, and Aina knew she should do her best to get some sleep as well, but the adrenaline was still pumping through her. She reached for her phone to see how much time was left before her alarm went off, but stopped, worried that the phone might display new messages from Mari. Instead, she sunk back onto her pillow and closed her eyes.

Only a few minutes later, her attempt at sleep was interrupted by a repeating beeping noise coming from outside her window. She got up, careful not to disturb Momo, and pulled back the curtain to spy what looked like two dump trucks backing up the driveway along the side of the mansion, guided by Kazue, who walked alongside them. Figuring her chances of getting back to sleep were about zero at this point, Aina changed into her work clothes and went to go see what was going on.

“Alright, alright, alright,” Kazue chanted rhythmically, as the trucks continued their slow crawl around the side of the mansion. “Stop.” The trucks halted, and Kazue walked around them, inspecting them closely. “All clear,” she finally announced, causing the gynoid drivers to cut the engines and exit the vehicles.

“What’s in the trucks, Kazue-chan?” Aina asked, approaching slowly.

Labors,” Kazue answered.

Sugoi! Can I take a look?”

Hai, but don’t touch anything.”

Aina leapt up onto the side of the nearest truck bed and pulled back a corner of the tarp, expecting to find the red or yellow foot of a construction labor, and instead found what appeared to be an olive drab robotic claw.

“Oi! Oi!” Aina called out. “Is this a military labor?”

“Ee,” Kazue confirmed.

Naze do we need something like that?”

“In a few days’ time, they’ll be conducting construction labor training and certification on a nearby property,” Kazue informed her. “These labors will serve as a deterrent to anyone who thinks they can use that event to stage an attack on this mansion.”

“Can’t the mansion’s defense systems handle a rogue construction labor or two?”

“Hai. Even without the military labors, we could repel all ten of the construction labors to be used for the certification. Demo, the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport is politically aligned with the Minister of Defense, so we are taking extra precautions and projecting an image of strength.”

“Projecting an image… Kazue-chan, I’ve been wondering this for a while now. Are the goshujin engaged in some kind of civil sensou?”

“It’s more like a cold war,” Naomi said, emerging as if from nowhere from the other side of the truck. “There haven’t been any casualties in decades, but they’re always testing each other. A surprise attack could come at any time.”

Kowai,” Aina remarked sarcastically, jumping down from the truck. “De, who’s going to pilot these?”

“We’ll be having tryouts today,” explained Naomi.

“You mean, I could?” Aina asked breathlessly.

“I don’t think so,” Naomi said. “The controls are quite delicate; you might accidentally break something. Besides, you’re more useful outside a cockpit than inside. Don’t make that face, it’s not like I’m singling you out. Everyone has their role, and almost half of the staff are too important to waste in one of those things.”

“What if nobody passes the tryouts?” Aina asked hopefully.

“In that case, maybe Mme Mari would be willing to come help us out,” Naomi teased.

“You wouldn’t!” Aina gasped.

“You’re right, I wouldn’t. Mme Karin has some experience, so she can pilot one, and one of the gynoids can pilot the other,” Naomi answered.

Sou ka?” Aina sighed. “Naze not just let them do it?”

“Mme Karin’s piloting experience makes her our best field commander for this mission, and the gynoids are the only qualified mechanics on site,” Naomi elaborated. “If we put them in the cockpit, we’d be operating in a diminished capacity.”

“If that happens, you should let me—” Aina tried.

“Not happening,” Naomi cut her off. “You’d break something for sure. Besides, you, Mme Chikako, and I are the last line of defense in case things go horribly wrong.”

“You don’t need me for that, I’m sure you could take care of a labor or ni on your own.”

“I probably could, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful. If, for unforeseen reasons, we need to detain rather than destroy the enemy labors, I’m not confident that my strength alone would be sufficient to stop them.”

“Fine,” Aina grunted, obviously disappointed.

“You may look all you like, but stay out of the cockpit,” Naomi warned, “or you’ll answer to me.”

“Hai, hai.”

“Oiiiii,” Karin’s voice echoed in the silence of the early morning as she shouted from the front steps, “Is that them? Nani did we get this time?”

“Two Samsons again,” Kazue answered when Karin was within polite conversation distance.

Hontou? Man, I was hoping I’d get the chance to try a Helldiver this time. It’s not like the Samson’s a bad machine, but I’ve already mastered it, you know?” It was obvious that Karin was excited to pilot a labor again but was putting on a tough act to hide it.

“Then I have good news for you,” Naomi said, a cruel smile once again gracing her face, “You’re not going to pilot it. This time, you’re the backup.”

Uso!” Karin looked like a loved one had just died. Naomi responded by pressing a headset into Karin’s hand. “Saitei,” Karin moped.

“Saitei,” Aina agreed.

Shortly after breakfast, eighteen young meido crowded around Karin in the courtyard as she explained how to pilot a labor. Aina could only watch wistfully from inside the mansion as the trucks pulled around the side of the house and the first two meido nervously climbed into the cockpits. Their first few steps were clumsy, but they managed to stay upright, and before long, they had gotten the hang of moving the labors around, albeit slowly. And so, the rest of the morning, and most of the afternoon, proceeded much in the same way, with two meido at a time trying their hands at labor piloting. None of them were awful, but none of them particularly stood out. For the most part, Aina tried to ignore them, but she watched with interest as Tsukasa and Jin both approached the labors at the same time.

Like all the others, their movements were clumsy at first, but Jin quickly stabilized, and was soon walking confidently around the courtyard, as quickly as a heavily-armored mech could move. Tsukasa, on the other hand, was obviously struggling. Jin finished her lap and walked towards Tsukasa, and the two were soon standing face-to-face.

“This is fun!” Jin exclaimed.

“Great,” Tsukasa sulked, “yet another thing you can do that I can’t.”

“Maybe you’d have better luck if your attitude weren’t so bad,” Jin retorted. It was an uncharacteristically aggressive response from her.

“Easy for you to say. You’re good at everything.”

“I am not. Sure, I can wave a sword around more gracefully than you can. Demo, when has that done me any good? I still can’t beat you in a swordfight. You always just knock the sword out of my te.”

Kankeinai. You’re always making me look like an aho in front of Aina-senpai.”

“So what? You want to join her harem or something?”

“You think I’m gay just because I’m a bit of an otenba?”

“Iie, I think you’re a bully who pushes watashi around just because you’re stronger. Demo, you know what? My labor is just as strong as yours.” Jin reached out and shoved Tsukasa’s labor in the shoulder. Tsukasa stumbled backwards but managed to keep it upright at the last second.

“Cut it out!” Karin shouted into her headset. “That’s enough. You are done. Return to the trucks.”

“Karin-sama, please let me bully her a little more. I just want to even things out,” Jin pleaded.

“Iie,” Karin insisted. “It’s dangerous.”

“You’re just playing favorites,” Jin protested.

“Follow my meirei,” Karin said coldly.

Ryokai,” Jin replied unenthusiastically. She walked the labor back to the truck, where it was lowered onto the bed, before she climbed out of the cockpit. Tsukasa was already on the ground, having immediately left the cockpit and rappelled down. She ran towards Jin, planning to pay her back, but was grabbed by Karin.

“Enough. It’s over,” Karin warned.

But it was obvious to all present that it was far from over.