The Mecha Monogatari, Chapter II
Posted by Doug on November 7, 2008
<Okay, Seki-kun, this the Haneda Airport, in the Ōta ward>, Hijū said over the titan’s communications link. Beside her, Seki’s titan stood, its head turning side to side as Seki surveyed the battlefield. <Pretty much the same place I was stationed during the battle last month. You see the terminal complex in the center?>
With a thought, Hijū highlighted the terminal complex, tagging it as a non-target. <Hai>, Seki replied, then after a moment’s pause, he added, <I know not to shoot it.>
Hijū smiled. When she had first met Seki in the Academy’s admissions office, she thought he would be unassertive and meek—two traits she believed were of no value to a pilot. Fortunately, he was not. <In the heat of a battle, it’s easy to forget about stuff like that>, Hijū told him. <Now, in the basic training, you focused on how well you operated solo. At the Academy, it’s all about teamwork. You’ll be assigned to a team with three other cadets, and by and large your performance will be graded on how well you work together. Five other pilots from my company were here, too: Sakai, Kokawa, Katō, Inoue, and Sakamoto.>
As she said the names, Hijū highlighted their positions, labeling them Hayabusa-2 through Hayabusa-6, respectively, arrayed in a V with Hijū and Seki at the point, closest to the projected path of the Eschatos’ approach. She was Hayabusa-1, but the system tagged her as Hijū; Seki was Hayabusa-7. During the real battle three weeks ago, they had all been telling dirty jokes while they waited for the Eschatos to appear, but the AI that was controlling the other pilots was not capable of anything except confirming orders and giving status updates, and Hijū had filtered those so that only she could hear them.
<Sakamoto-nii and Inoue-juni were the two we met earlier, right?> Seki asked.
<Yes> Hijū said. <Of course, that isn’t really them: these are just AI stand-ins, so don’t worry too much about team plays for now. All you got to do for this simulation is what I tell you to. The Eschatos will approach from the southwest, the Kamasaki ward. Can you access your comm channels?>
<Hai> Seki replied.
<Query the Public Safety Net to check the evacuation status of the Kamasaki ward> Hijū ordered.
It took Seki a few seconds. <They’re eighty percent complete.>
<Which means the Eschatos will be here before they’re done> Hijū said. <They won’t bother with the Kamasaki ward-there aren’t any high- or even medium-priority targets there. They’re going to come straight for the Haneda Airport. We’re going to see a bunch of Hoplite-types and a few Vikings. The Hoplites are going to target the airport from range, but their energy weapons won’t be very effective until they get within two thousand meters or so. So, we got to take them down before they cross the Tama river.>
<What about the Vikings?> Seki asked.
<They’ll come after us> Hijū said. <Viking-types only have melee weapons, so you will have a little more time to deal with them, but do not let them anywhere near you. They will tear you to pieces.>
<Wakarimasu>, Seki said. <But why doesn’t the Titan Corps use melee weapons, too?>
<Because attacking from range is standard doctrine>, Hijū said. <A titan is effectively a twenty-meter-tall infantry soldier, and what do armies arm their infantry with? Rifles. The vast majority of engagements are at over five hundred meters.>
<But they said during basic training that most titans are destroyed by close-range attacks>, Seki countered. <Shouldn’t the titans be equipped to deal with melee attacks as well as ranged ones?>
Hijū chuckled: she had been arguing that same point for years, and had proposed a dozen different plans to arm titans for melee engagements with something more than just their fists. She had been trying to gain the support of other pilots who had actually used melee weapons against the Eschatos-pilots like Ichigiri, who was, like Seki, an avid kendōka, and had once destroyed six Eschatos with six swings of a sword he had scavenged off of an elite Eschatos pilot’s machine. Unfortunately, she had not been able to get anyone else on board her project, yet; Ichigiri’s unit had been decimated recently, fighting the Omega Lucifer. <Oh, so think you’re going to charge into battle with a pair of katana, screaming banzai or something?>
<No>, Seki said. <Both rifle and daishō. No screaming.>
<There might be a time where that is done>, Hijū said. <But not today. If I recall correctly, we’re about to get some visitors.>
<I know>, Seki said.
Before Hijū could question how he knew, the first wave of the Eschatos came into view above the buildings of the Kamasaki ward. The enemy units were tagged by their type and a number to differentiate them. <Hold fire until they cross the Tama River>, Hijū ordered. <Hayabusa-7, get behind that shield tower!>
Arranged around the area were huge two-and-a-half-meter thick reinforced concrete walls that could turn to face any direction to serve as cover for the titans. Seki had taken a balanced, textbook stance with his rifle, but it had left him mostly uncovered by the shield tower. Hijū knew that his stance gave him the best accuracy with the rifle he carried, but she also knew that it made him a better target, too.
<Hai>. Seki ducked back behind the shield tower, bracing his rifle against its edge.
Hijū had expected a complaint from him, but he said nothing as he waited for her order to open fire. Thinking fast, Hijū flagged each Eschatos as a target for one of her team, giving Seki the two tagged Hoplite-04 and Hoplite-05. As the Eschatos began their attack, firing their energy cannons, Hijū called out for her unit to continue holding their fire. <Wait until they clear the Tama River!>
Hijū knew the types of simulations Seki had already experienced at basic training. While challenging, they were nothing like this would be.
Without any warning, a half-dozen Viking-types appeared to the south, running up from the Tama River not four hundred meters away. Dashing at nearly a hundred kilometers per hour, the Vikings would be on top on them in seconds. Three weeks ago, Hijū had expected the Eschatos to use a tactic like this, and so, for this simulation, she had arranged things so that they did. She had intentionally said nothing about this to Seki, just to see how he’d react. <Vikings! Open fire! Open fire! Open fire!>
With well-placed shots, Hijū downed the Viking heading towards her with ease, and then turned her attention to Seki. Most new pilots—even those who completed the Academy, even those with high synchronicity indexes—had a bad habit of panicking and using poorly-aimed rapid-fire when faced with an Eschatos that was really close. However, Seki’s shots were slow and controlled, and almost every one hit. This was good, of course, but the precious seconds he spent lining up each shot were seconds where the Hoplites were drawing closer and closer. <Hayabusa-7! This isn’t the practice range! Take them down, quick!>
<Hai!> Seki said.
Hijū ducked involuntarily as the corner of her shield tower exploded in a hail of concrete chunks, superheated by the energy beams of the Hoplites, who were now close enough to target her position effectively. As she began returning fire, she heard over the net that Hayabusa-3 had been crippled, and a Viking had broken through their line and was circling up behind her. Inoue in Hayabusa-5 was engaging it, though, so Hijū kept her attention on the Hoplites in front of her, confident Inoue (actually, the AI version of Inoue) could deal with it.
Seki’s position was getting hammered—he now had four Hoplites firing on him from only about 1200 meters, and they were slowly disintegrating his shield tower as he crouched behind it, unable to pop out from behind the shield to return fire.
<Use your rifle’s targeting feed to shoot around the wall!> Hijū shouted. Normally, a pilot ‘saw’ the battlefield around him through his titan’s sensor suite, but the 45mm autocannon ‘rifles’ they carried also had their own independent sensors. By switching to it, Seki would be able to hold his rifle around the corner of the shield tower and fire without exposing more than his titan’s arms to the Eschatos’ energy bursts.
Seki did as Hijū instructed, and with help from Hijū and the Inoue AI, managed to break the Eschatos’ advance. When the dust had cleared, Seki had managed to destroy two Eschatos by himself, and three more with help from Hijū and the AI. Of course, he had taken serious damage to his titan’s right leg from one direct hit and minor damage to the head, torso, and arms from getting peppered with the superheated concrete fragments. <Well, Seki-kun, what do you think?>
<We only used the rifle’s sensors like that twice in basic>, Seki said.
<That’s why they call it ‘basic’>, Hijū said. In the battle three weeks prior, after this initial assault, Hijū’s Hayabusa unit had stayed on the defensive for another two hours, ready to defend the airport against further attacks, but there were none. Hijū saw no reason to spend all afternoon replaying the boring parts of the battle. Not today, anyway. <Okay, we’re done here. Synch out.>
Hijū snapped out of synchronization with the simulator instantly. Iijima and Fujikawa were sitting in the simulator control booth, Arata sat on the edge of the simulator chair Seki was using, holding a tissue to his nose while Shigeki hovered nearby. Seki, still synchronized, sat in the simulator chair, his eyes wide open but unseeing, seemingly oblivious to what was going on around him. “Nosebleed?” Hijū asked.
“Yeah,” Arata said. “Ruined his shirt.”
“No, it’ll come out,” Shigeki said. “If we hurry up and get some stain remover on it—”
“Kumichō, Seki-kun says he can’t unsynch,” Iijima said from the control booth.
Hijū gestured to Arata, who took the cue and began trying to help Seki unsynchronize from the simulator by shaking his shoulder, gently at first, but more vigorously as it became clear that was not working. This worried Hijū: she had never met any pilot who had trouble unsynching. She walked up to Seki’s side, and patted the side of his face. “Wakey, wakey.”
Other than that his nose had stopped bleeding, there was no change. She turned to Iijima and Fujikawa in the booth. “Cut all his feeds.”
“I already cut everything except for the primary comm channel,” Fujikawa said.
“Cut it,” Hijū said, but after waiting for what seemed like forever, it was obvious that it had not worked.
Personally, Hijū could not stand even a second synchronized if there were no incoming feeds. Such a state was compared to being in a sensory deprivation tank, except…creepier. The few times she had been synchronized without feeds, she had sensed an ominous Presence watching her. Even though she had never admitted it to anyone, that Presence frightened Hijū. It was one of the few things that did.
“Come on, Seki-kun, snap out of it,” Hijū said, and then reached down and pinched the back of his hand between her fingernails.
Seki did not even twitch.
For all her experience, Hijū did not have any idea what to try next. This had never happened before. Shutting down the simulator completely while he was still synchronized was not an option. It was too dangerous-Seki could suffer permanent brain damage. She remembered that his file had mentioned he had an allergy to reficroniphol, the most commonly used synchronicity inhibitor, but until now it had not occurred to her to wonder why reficroniphol had been used on him at all. In any case, she did not want to have to drug Seki.
Still, Hijū was not the type to sit back and do nothing. “I’m going to synch back in,” she declared, and walked back over to the simulation chair she had been using before. “Open the comm channel, and a basic visual and tactile.”
“Done,” Iijima said.
Hijū lay back in the simulator chair, closed her eyes and focused her mind to the sensations the simulator was projecting, and within a second, she had synchronized.
The Presence was there, instantly, bearing down on her with a terrifying intensity that made her scream despite herself as she involuntarily unsynched.
“Misaki!” Arata shouted.
Hijū tried to stand to get away from the simulator chair and the horrific Presence, but her legs did not seem to want to work right. She collapsed to the floor as her technicians scrambled to her side, Seki momentarily forgotten.
“Misaki!” Arata said. “Are you okay?”
Hijū nodded mutely as she tried to collect herself.
“What happened?” Iijima asked.
Hijū could not bear to say. “I…I don’t know…”
Shigeki asked, “Should we call Yamagishi-sensei?”
“No,” Hijū declared. Taking a deep breath, she forced her fear aside. “I’m all right. How’s Seki-kun?” They all turned to see Seki, still motionless in his simulation chair, his eyes open and unblinking. Hijū grabbed the headset Iijima was wearing and put it on. “Seki-kun, can you hear me?”
“Hai,” he replied, although the voice Hijū heard in the headset sounded nothing like Seki’s actual voice. As his brain was transmitting instructions to his lungs, vocal cords, and vocal tract, the simulator’s operating system intercepted those signals, translated them into digital signals, and then those signals were sent to the communications software of the simulators, which created the sounds Hijū heard over the headset. “Are you okay?”
“Seki-kun, don’t worry about me,” Hijū said, her voice firm. “You need to unsynch right now.”
“I’m trying,” Seki said. “But I can’t push the sensory inputs away.”
Hijū got up, went back to Seki’s side, and pinched his hand again. “Can you feel this?”
“Feel what?” Seki asked.
“Your hand,” Hijū said. “Try to focus on your right hand.”
“Okay,” Seki replied. Hijū kept pinching. Almost a minute went by before Seki abruptly unsynched, shouting in pain as he jerked his hand away.
“Shut it down!” Hijū ordered, and Shigeki dashed off to the control booth to turn the simulators off.
Arata immediately latched on to the youth. “Seki-kun, are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Seki said, looking down at his now-bleeding hand.
“Oh, Misaki!” Arata looked up at Hijū with an accusatory look. “You didn’t have to pinch him that hard, did you?”
“Sorry about that, Seki-kun,” Hijū said. “What happened in there, Seki-kun?”
“Nothing,” Seki said, but he did not look up at her.
It did not take much to tell he was not telling the truth. “Everyone out,” Hijū said.
Arata hugged Seki. “But—”
Hijū’s voice was quiet, but intense. “Now.”
Arata understood that tone. “I’ll go get some bandages,” she said, and then made a hasty exit from the simulator room, the other three of Hijū’s technicians not far behind.
Once they were alone, Hijū sat down next to Seki. “Listen, Seki-kun, I can’t force you to tell me anything, but I really wish you would. You weren’t just having trouble unsynching, were you?”
Seki shook his head.
“Did you sense a…a Presence? Like something was watching you?” Hijū asked.
Seki finally looked up at Hijū, his face blank and emotionless. “It said…it said that it is waiting for me.”