December 23rd, U.C. 0046, 6:45 AM
Ohayou! Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve! Do you have any fun plans? I have the day off. ᕙ(:˘∧˘:)ᕗ
Aina reread the message for the tenth time that morning and pondered how she should reply. Knowing that Naomi was watching, she wanted to give the impression that she had overcome her negative feelings towards Mari, but at the same time, she wanted to let Mari know, in no uncertain terms, that she wanted nothing to do with her.
The biggest challenge was that Aina didn’t know if Naomi still thought Aina was afraid of Mari. As promised, Mari had visited for tea a few weeks prior, and Aina had done her best to be polite, putting all her social training on display, all the while remaining unemotional. Nothing of significance happened, and it was an all-around boring time. But had that been enough to convince Naomi? Aina didn’t know.
In the end, Aina settled for a noncommittal answer. She didn’t feel safe telling Mari off, but at the very least, she didn’t want to give Mari any false hope.
She quickly typed the message and set off for the dining hall. She wanted to get something warm in her belly before beginning her shift. Luckily, this was the last day of the labor training and certification, and hopefully, it would be as uneventful as all the others.
“Looks like they’re finally wrapping up,” the voice crackled in Aina’s ear. “They’re loading their labors into the trucks now.”
“Don’t let your guard down,” Naomi cautioned. “The road will lead them closer to the mansion before it leads them away from it. They may think they can stage a surprise attack from the road. Pull back to the curve in the road and position yourselves to observe the trucks as they pass.”
“Ha!” Three voices replied as one. Everyone was glad it was almost over. The entire operation had been long and boring, and had required them to pass most of their shifts outside in the cold. The GINZUISHOU moderated the weather, and for some reason it had decided that U.C. 0046 would have an unusually cold winter.
“I want fresh pilots,” Naomi announced. “Quickly, before the trucks begin moving.”
“There’s still an hour and a half left in the shift,” Karin informed her. “The next pilots aren’t ready yet.”
“Put in the backups,” Naomi replied. In the end, they had chosen six pilots and six backup pilots.
“Naomi-sama,” Jin’s voice came in clearly over the headset, “please don’t take me out. I’m fine. I can do this better than any of the backups.”
“Agreed,” Naomi said, “on one condition. Mme Tsukasa replaces the other pilot.”
“Zettai ni not!” Karin gasped. “Putting those two in labors at the same time would be a mistake.”
“Do it,” Naomi insisted, “and don’t question my orders. Mme Tsukasa’s presence will keep Mme Jin on her toes. You two, stay focused on the mission, understand?”
“Ha!” Jin and Tsukasa replied.
“Alright,” Karin griped. “You’d better know what you’re doing.” Naomi didn’t respond, but Aina, who was standing next to Naomi, could see the corners of her lips curl upwards.
It turned out they needn’t have rushed. It was over twenty minutes before anything happened.
“The trucks are coming this way,” one of the forward scouts reported as the GUINZISHOU began to glow red with the setting of the sun.
“Are there any left at the training site?” Naomi asked.
“Iie,” another scout reported.
“Good. I want you to count them out loud as they pass the bend,” Naomi ordered. “There should be ten trucks total.”
“Ichi,” came the scout’s voice, a minute later, “ni, san…” She continued to count. “…hachi, kyuu, jyuu.” Aina, glad that the ordeal was over, let out a sigh of relief. “Jyuu-ichi.”
“Retreat!” yelled Naomi. “Labors, take point. Prepare to open fire. Activate—”
An ill wind fell over the mansion, cutting Naomi’s orders short. The electronic hum of their headsets fell silent, and all the lights blinked off within the mansion. Naomi turned to see one of the labors lose all power mid-step. Its raised leg crashed into the ground, and it appeared as though it would lose its balance and topple over onto its face, but the other labor caught and steadied it.
“The gynoids are down,” Karin shouted. The backup generator for the mansion wasn’t activating either. It was obvious that all the electronic systems were being disrupted.
The still-functioning labor’s cockpit door swung open, and Jin shouted down from the open cockpit, “I still have power.”
“How did you manage that?” Naomi yelled up at her.
“I was able to switch on the nuclear reactor before the power faded,” Jin explained.
“That thing has a nuclear reactor?” Naomi looked horrified and disgusted. “Never mind. Can you start the other one?”
“Iie,” Jin shook her head. “It would be dangerous without the failsafe mechanisms active.”
“Then we need to figure out how to restore power,” Naomi announced, “and we need to make preparations to evacuate the mansion.”
“That’s the source of the disruption,” Aina interrupted, pointing towards the road. Several meido gasped as, silhouetted against the pale red glow of the GINZUISHOU, what looked like an enormous spider, perhaps 20 meters in height, rose from one of the trucks and stood hunched forward on its shorter front legs.
“Mme Jin, we’re going to investigate. Stay here and defend the mansion,” Naomi said.
“Ryokai,” Jin confirmed, swinging the cockpit door back shut.
“Mme Aina, you’re with me,” Naomi added. The two sprinted towards the gate and leapt over it, Naomi a few paces ahead of Aina. As they were running down the hill, they came across the three scouts.
“Report,” Naomi ordered.
“That thing came from the last truck,” one of the scouts panted. “We barely got out of the way in time. The other trucks stopped and began raising their labors. Demo, that thing made no moves against them. Either they’re on the same side, or that thing is controlling them.”
With a quick nod, Naomi continued running towards the immense creature, Aina close behind. As they drew close, Aina felt a wave of intense nostalgia wash over her. The magical energy emanating from the creature was familiar and soothing. It didn’t take her long to realize why.
“Kotori-chan!” Aina called out as she neared the bend in the road.
“Who addresses me so familiarly?” came a voice from above them. Where the eight legs joined hung not the body of a spider, but that of a young woman in military garb.
“It’s me, Aina.”
The woman bent her spider legs to bring herself closer to the ground so that she could see Aina better.
“It is you, Aina-chan,” she laughed. “I thought you were dead, or the Soviets got you. Nani’s with that uniform?”
“I could ask you the same thing,” Aina replied.
“Oh, you know, after the lab was destroyed, they didn’t need me for experiments anymore, so they put me on the battlefield instead. I actually like it much better, no offense to your parents. Hey, don’t tell anyone, but I’m on a secret mission for the defense minister.”
“Shitteimasu,” Aina interrupted. “I work for the education minister.”
“Oh,” Kotori gulped.
“Ahem,” Naomi interrupted. “Mme Aina, would you care to introduce me to your friend?”
“Gomen, Naomi-sama. Kochira wa Kotori-chan. She… We used to play together. In my parents’ lab.”
“I suppose that’s one way of putting it,” Kotori chuckled. “Nee, are you that Naomi-san?”
Without warning, a large, shimmering blue spell manifested in Kotori’s hand and sped towards Naomi. Naomi jumped out of the way, but the spell curved, following her. It tracked her as she ran ahead of it, but Naomi appeared to dissolve under the shade of an old tree, and the spell continued on its path, crashing into the tree and disintegrating it. Naomi reappeared from the shadows on the opposite side of Aina. At the same time, the buzz of laser fire began to sound from the direction of the mansion.
“Naomi-sama, I can take care of things here,” Aina assured her. “They need your help back at the mansion.”
“I’ll give the orders,” Naomi snapped. “Are you sure you can beat her?”
“Hai, I know her weaknesses. She’s never beaten me,” Aina bragged.
“Fine. Make it quick. We need the electricity back as soon as possible.” And with that, Naomi faded into the shadows once more, leaving the two of them alone.
“That was some big talk,” Kotori sneered. “You look a lot weaker than you used to be. The old Aina would have put up her shields by now. I, on the other hand, am much stronger than I was.”
In response, Aina began to relax her grip on her spiritual energy and let it flow freely from her. It crashed into the magical energy flowing from Kotori, clashing with it and causing a powerful vortex to form in the air around them. Kotori stepped backwards, shielding her eyes, but quickly regained her composure, and put more magical energy into her spell, hoping to overwhelm Aina.
But Aina continued relaxing her grip, and it was obvious to both of them that she would soon overwhelm Kotori. The swirling air around them settled, and then Kotori could feel a faint breeze blowing against her face. Aina had succeeded in forcing her spell back upon her. Within minutes, the mansion would once again have power. Enraged, Kotori unleashed a dark-tinged red spell from her hands that shot towards Aina, but dissipated amidst the palpable spiritual energy swirling around Aina’s body.
“It’s not that I’m weaker,” Aina informed her. “I don’t need the shields any more. Not against you, at least.”
Kotori let out a frustrated cry and began lobbing spells at Aina as fast as she could cast them. They all failed to reach her, either fizzling out or exploding spectacularly in midair. Although they failed to achieve their goal, they sparkled dazzlingly in the dark, obscuring all else, and so Aina failed to see it when a massive spider foot came down upon her head.
Jin had moved around to the side of the mansion, ready to defend both the front and the back. The mansion’s side faced the road where the trucks had stopped, making the front and back of the mansion the most likely targets. Karin had reasoned that the enemy would probably not attempt a frontal assault, as they would be disadvantaged coming up the hill, but they probably wouldn’t circle around the mansion completely and attack from the forest. The labors were too large to maneuver among the trees, and besides, they probably assumed that, with all electronic devices disrupted, they had little to worry about, and would try to finish it as quickly as possible.
Karin’s reasoning was right on the money. Two groups of five construction labors broke into view at the same time, one in front of the mansion, and the other behind. Jin was surprised to find that they were armed with labor-sized handguns, as their searches of the area had turned up no weaponry.
The front group was closer, so Jin turned to deal with them first, firing a small burst of laser shots from her minigun into the closest construction labor. It fell backwards and did not get back up. The other labors stopped in their tracks, momentarily stunned by the unexpected resistance. This gave Jin time to turn and fire her tank gun in the direction of the other group. The shot was high—Jin couldn’t risk hitting Tsukasa’s disabled labor—and the beam continued traveling until it impacted harmlessly on the GINZUISHOU, but it was enough to surprise the attackers.
Jin turned back to the first group. They had been caught in the open, halfway between cover and the mansion, and had mustered the resolve to rush Jin. She began firing at them with her minigun, but they were moving faster than before, and were harder to hit. She managed to take two of them down, but the other two were getting precariously close, and Jin noticed that one of them was carrying what looked like a large flamethrower. She concentrated her fire on that one, keenly aware that her energy reserves were fast depleting, but the other labor placed itself in the path of the shots, suffering the brunt of the attack.
The last remaining labor came into flamethrower range of the mansion, and with no electricity, there would be no barriers to stop it, nor fire suppression systems to minimize the damage.