Chapter 17

November 26th, U.C. 0051, 8:00 PM

The 32nd Infantry Regiment attempted to seize the Crystal Palace from the 10th Engineer Battalion. Despite their inferior numbers, the 10th effectively used the natural defenses of the GINZUISHOU and the barricades they had erected to hold the 32nd at bay. Before opening their attack on the Crystal Palace, the 32nd had not communicated their plans to any other group, for fear of their plot being discovered, but had hoped that other forces loyal to the defense minister would reinforce them. Instead, forty minutes after the first shot was fired, the 16th Infantry division, loyal to Akira, began encircling the 32nd. Caught between a neutral force and a force loyal to the enemy, the 32nd had no choice but to surrender. The victory was bittersweet for the 10th. Although they had held the Crystal Palace, they had unwillingly assisted the 16th in disarming the 32nd, upsetting the balance of power. Before the night was out, every unit within the SDF had declared sides, with very few opting for explicit neutrality.

Officially, the incident was blamed on a miscommunication and several operational blunders, and it was reported that there were no casualties. Among the general public, however, a rumor persisted that dozens had been killed during the fight.

November 27th, U.C. 0051, 9:10 AM

“More coffee, goshujin-sama?” Aina asked, her voice still sounding a little stuffy. Akira had just finished breakfast and was reviewing the reports of the previous night’s battle. Naomi stood in the corner of the room, ostensibly to guard Akira from any threats.

Iie, sanykuu,” Akira replied with a chuckle. He couldn’t help himself, both Aina’s voice and the large mask protecting her face were just too funny.

The mask had been Sena’s doing. Aina had been dismayed to find that Sena was staffing the infirmary when she had returned from her fight with Chikako. Any other gynoid would have treated Aina’s nose without comment, but she expected at least a short lecture from Sena. Instead, after examining Aina, the only words out of Sena’s mouth had been, “You don’t need surgery.” She had then proceeded to reset Aina’s nose and apply an external splint to it. The splint had been small, and easily held in place with two strips of tape, but Sena had deemed it necessary to affix extra tape to hold it more firmly. After that, she pulled a white padded mask with three black adjustable straps from a supply cabinet and placed it on Aina’s face. The mask covered her nose, cheeks, and forehead, and, in Aina’s estimation, made her look like a knockoff Gundam character.

Or it least it would have, had Sena not seen fit to draw on the mask’s cheeks. With a thin black sharpie, Sena drew a stick-figure depiction of Chikako punching Aina in the face, adding little flecks of blood with a red sharpie. On Aina’s other cheek, Sena drew a stylized self-portrait of her face making the Peko-chan expression, her right eye closed in a wink, with her tongue sticking out on the same side. When she was finished, she remarked, “For as long as I continue to function, I will never forget this sight.” And then, leaning closer and speaking so only Aina could hear, she added, “even if all my external memory is removed.”

It was far more embarrassing to Aina than any lecture could have been. Even so, Aina only took the mask off to sleep, knowing that if she dared to take the mask off in public, Sena would come up with an even more embarrassing punishment.

“Are you sure?” Aina pressed. “You’ve got a long day ahead of you, now that the SDF has gone to sensou with itself.”

“That’s not my mondai.”Akira yawned. “I’m not the defense minister.”

Demo, the defense minister is your mondai,” Aina pointed out, “and you can be sure he’s already devising plans based on this latest turn of events.”

Tabun,”Akira conceded. “Demo, he rooted out all of my spies, so there’s not much we can do except react to his moves. His plans haven’t been successful so far, so I’m not too worried.”

“His plans forced us to take risks, and we’ve been lucky,” Aina contended. “Soshite, that’s a rather defeatist attitude, goshujin-sama. We may not know for certain what he’s planning, but we can make some good guesses.”

“I’m all ears,” Akira replied evenly.

“To the defense minister, this mansion must seem akin to Iserlohn Fortress, with the kekkai functioning as the liquid-metal armor.”

Hai, and we all know how to capture Iserlohn,” Akira said impatiently, “from the inside. He already tried that with the youkai, and I’ll have you know that the returned spies were all cleared by Jin-chan.”

“Jin-chan’s chip only allowed her to feel their emotions, not read their minds, but I’m not trying to accuse them. The defense minister does not need to capture this mansion, and there was another plan that almost succeeded in destroying Iserlohn.”

“Are you suggesting he’s going to somehow slam another mansion into this one?” Akira laughed.

“It wouldn’t have to be a mansion,” Aina said quietly. “A black ship might be large enough. With the SDF in disarray, the black ships won’t be as well-defended as they usually are. It might be possible to steal one.”

The smile immediately vanished from Akira’s face. “I would say he wouldn’t dare, but he’s already shown he’s not above using even the GINZUISHOU. Even so, deploying a black ship in the machi? The collateral damage… Iie, he doesn’t care about that. Still, the ship kyaputens consider themselves above this kind of thing. I doubt they’d cooperate.”

“He only needs ichi. I think we should secure one before he does. We can even send the returnees to crew it. They have experience with the defense ministry’s computer systems, so they’re the perfect candidates, and—”

“And it would remove them from the mansion, so they couldn’t sabotage us from the inside,” Akira sighed. “Except we’d be giving them a black ship they could ram into us.”

“We could spin it as a show of trust in them. We wouldn’t let them crew it alone, and meanwhile, we’d take additional precautions against black ships. With the agriculture minister on our side, it shouldn’t be too hard to acquire a Gundam.”

“And who would pilot it?” Akira questioned, “with so many of our number committed to the black ship?”

“From what I understand, they mostly pilot themselves,” Aina said offhandedly.

“Not completely, you still have to read the manual.”

Jya it’s a good thing you teach your meido to read.”

“The Gundam makes sense, but taking a black ship is too risky. It could coalesce the rest of the SDF against us. At the very least, the other black ship kyaputens would unite against us.”

“We would have to control the message. We could claim that the defense minister planned to take the ship, and we had no choice but to take it first, and that we only plan to keep it from him and use it as a deterrent. Even his sympathizers in the SDF know how much collateral damage he could cause with a black ship, and if you assure the other kyaputens that we won’t come for their ships, I don’t think they’ll risk a confrontation.”

“It’s not a bad idea,” Akira said thoughtfully, “as long as the defense minister is deterred. Demo, what if he escalates? We capture a ship, he captures san. I don’t want a black ship tatakai within the machi.”

“The defense minister only has enough people to crew ichi, maybe ni ships. The Macedonian is by far the most powerful. If we can take it, the SDF will probably increase their defenses around the others, and the defense minister will have a harder time capturing a less-powerful ship. There are only jyuu-ichi other ships, so it shouldn’t be hard for an organization the size of the SDF to secure them all.”

“There are jyuu-ni other ships,” Akira corrected her. “The Yamato was recently commissioned.”

“The Yamato?” Aina gasped. “Masaka…”

“Hai,” Akira confirmed. “That’s why I really don’t want the black ships to trade blows in the machi.”

“Should we capture the Yamato then?”

“Iie. The Yamato is still outfitted for field testing. It only has one gun, and I couldn’t bring myself to fire it. If the Macedonian and the current Yamato went head-to-head, the winner would be the one who scored the first hit. With a Gundam by its side, the Macedonian is the better choice.”

“And if the Yamato manages to take out both, it wouldn’t be Iserlohn without Thor’s Hammer.” Aina said, gesturing towards Naomi.

“Don’t forget, Yang retook Iserlohn by turning Thor’s Hammer against Iserlohn’s occupants,” Akira sighed. “Thank you for the suggestion, Aina-chan. I think I need another cup of coffee after all.”

11:30 AM

Aina and the six returnees arrived at the armory where the Macedonian was docked, only to find it completely undefended. Fearing a trap, the meido entered the building through one of the upper windows, but the precaution was unnecessary. There were no soldiers within the armory either. Quietly, they circled around the ship, and, finding it clear, Aina motioned to one of the returnees to blow open the door on the port side of the ship. Three of them moved forward, but as they neared the door, they turned back towards Aina.

“It’s already been blown.”

Running to the doorway, Aina checked the interior with a mirror before turning back to the returnees.

“We have to hurry. I want ni of you to stay and guard this entrance. The rest of you, we’re going to rush the bridge.”

“Ha!” they all responded in unison.

They didn’t make it very far into the ship before they encountered the first signs of a previous battle. Four sailors lay dead in the hallway, killed defending their ship. A few feet further, around the next corner, a dead meido slumped against the wall, a hole through her stomach, and three dead sailors at her feet. Aina’s team pressed on without resistance, and as they neared the bridge, the ship shook and they could hear the sounds of gunfire. The door to the bridge had been blown open, and just inside lay the mutilated bodies of two more sailors. Their corpses had been used as human shields by two meido to enter the room safely.

Aina held her team back and watched the fight play out. Including the bridge captain, the surviving bridge crew numbered five, but the captain was unarmed. They faced two enemy meido. The bridge crew had managed to take cover behind their chairs, but one of the meido was reflecting their gunshots back towards them with her sword. She wasn’t managing to hit any of them, but the other meido had more luck. Using a gun she had taken from a dead sailor, she managed to kill three of the bridge staff before receiving a shot through her right arm. It had been just too far to the right for her partner to deflect. The remaining armed bridge officer attempted to dive to his left, so he could get a straight shot at the wounded meido, but the meido who had been deflecting dropped her sword and, grabbing the gun from her companion, delivered a shot to the officer’s pelvis.

“Enough!” The captain bellowed before she could deliver a fatal shot. “I surrender.”

The unharmed meido picked up her sword and walked towards the captain. “I’ll be taking that,” she said with a smirk, lifting his oversized white captain’s hat with her blade.

It only took two shots, one into the victorious meido, and one into her injured companion, and Aina stepped onto the bridge, conqueror of the Macedonian. She hadn’t expected to find enemy meido on the ship—she would have to thank Naomi-sama for making her look prescient—but she felt little remorse over killing them, and even less for the others who had lost their lives in the battle. She felt worse about not feeling bad, but she just couldn’t find it within her to care about the dead, not after the protesters, and certainly not after Mari. At the very least, she rationalized, she knew these people had died for the greater good.

“Iie, I’ll be taking that,” Aina informed the captain, picking his hat up off the deck.

“The ship is yours, but will you at least allow me to turn her over to someone more… dignified?” the captain asked, gesturing to the drawings on Aina’s mask.

December 10th, U.C. 0051 1:05 AM

The GINZUISHOU extended many meters below the earth, protecting the city from below with a thick crystalline floor. It was through this floor that the GINZUISHOU now conveyed Aina and Jin, who shot through it as if it were liquid. For Aina, this was a new experience, and not an entirely comfortable one. If the GINZUISHOU decided to retreat from her, as it had in the past, she would be crushed by the dirt above her. The two of them had entered the GINZUISHOU on the outskirts of the city and were making their way towards the central spire. The plan was to swim up the tower’s interior and exit directly into the Crystal Palace. Aina had insisted that they wear scuba gear for the trip, but it appeared to be unnecessary. After a quick test, she had determined that the GINZUISHOU was able to supply them with breathable air, even far underground.

When they began to ascend the tower, Aina was worried that they would be spotted through the translucent walls, but when the GINZUISHOU spat them out into the Crystal Palace, there was no sign that they had been detected. Better yet, the Crystal Palace was empty.

“Arigatou, Jin-chan,” Aina thanked Jin. “I can make my way out on my own. You should head back. It might get dangerous.” Without a word, Jin sunk back into the wall, and Aina made her way over to one of the control consoles in the middle of the room.

If Yoko-sama can figure this out, so can I, she told herself, activating the terminal.

Nani,” are you doing? A familiar voice startled Aina. She whipped around to find a ghostly image of Mari floating a few feet away. “Are you trying to bring me back?”