Author Topic: Living as Usual: A MaidRPG story  (Read 234 times)

Offline Marx-93

Living as Usual: A MaidRPG story
« on: August 07, 2017, 09:58:05 pm »
Hey, I actually posted something. First of all; this is a story motivated by Arraxis' contest. Thanks a lot Arra, for being invested enough in MRPG to organize this, which in turn motivated me to write this little piece. I'm still deeply sorry for not managing to finish it by the deadline, but I figured it was better to put at least one part by today so I didn't feel completely horrible.

EDIT: Welp, it's over. All parts and the epologue are updated. What was supposed to be a small story has become a monster of almost 60 pages.

So, yeah, on the text. First, it's obviously not canon; me being a GM doesn't change anything. Second, I've gone with a different style than my usual for this piece. I've cut down on descriptions a bit and focused on dialogue, trying to achieve a kinda rapid-fire exchanges feel to suit the comedy. My hope is that the end result is not too confusing. Personally, I'm not terribly satisfied with the end result, but at the same time I've spent an entire week writing this and at least 3 on my head, and in my experience the more time I waste writing something, the more I end up hating it. So, for this I would really thank people for any kind of feedback, even if it's non-descriptive (feel free to post "I don't like this even if I'm not sure why" and vice-versa!). Third, being late and all means I've only made a second pass; even when I proofread things extensively I end up with a million of grammatical and orthographical mistakes, so I apologize for the 10 million that will surely appear.

And finally, an enormous thanks to Wooly, who I have the honor to help with MRPG, designed this terrific setting and even helped me with some small bits of the plot.

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Living as Usual

Part 1
White. Wherever I looked, I could only see white. The ceiling itself was of a pristine yet pale colour, looking like it had been eons since anybody had touched it. The corner where the ceiling became the wall was rounded down, the people who designed it thinking it would be more pleasant to the eyes. But it just made the place even more suffocating: the ceiling to the wall, the wall to the floor. No distinction. It looked like cage, one where I drowned in a sea of white and sameness. Only some slight dirt and the odd cork board differentiated up from down, left from right. He wondered if he would even realize it if gravity decided to flip out while he was there.

Most people hated hospitals. The vision of his mother sitting besides him, sweating a lot and with a look of terrible anguish, was a good enough example. However, he thought 'hate' was a word too heavy for him. At most, dislike or annoyance would fit better. The fact that even in his situation he could focus on the damn architecture of the place was telling enough, he told himself.

"... too hot"

The voice escaped his mouth, as he tried to fan himself with his hand. He probably was not in a position to criticize his mother for sweating. The suffocating atmosphere or the high temperature; he didn’t knew which was the one at fault, but he wanted both of them away as quick as possible.

He decided that he preferred dying of suffocation standing more than dying of suffocation while sitting. His father directed him a glance when he was rising, but he returned a small gesture. He didn’t plan to go outside, just stretch his legs a bit and walk within the same waiting room. His father, his anxiousness visible even behind his glasses, understood his signal and returned to his reading. Or more like returned to trying to hide his nervousness with his reading. He had been in the same page for at least 20 minutes, maybe even more.

Trying to look away from his father, his sight making him uncomfortable, he couldn’t help but glance at the set of doors, looking far more gigantic than what they truly were, placed just in front of the Waiting Room. Perhaps the only distinct part of this whole stupid room. Just looking at them, a confused mess of feelings rose through his throat, making it hurt like hell, but he pushed them down. He felt almost like a sort of rage against this. Why should he break down in such a pathetic way like his parents?! What had she done for him to be like this?!

Gritting his teeth to recover his bearings, he felt the almost physical lump of feelings going down again. Just as he was sighing of relief however, a word unconsciously escaped through his throat, almost as if it had waited for him to lower his guard.

"Marie…"

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"-uis. Louis!"

With a start, I realized my thoughts had drifted off for way too much time. The blue sky was in front of me, laying just beyond a thick bulletproof glass that served as a window. To everybody else it must have looked like I was simple observing the landscape for an oddly long time. I turned my head to see the owner of the familiar voice.

"Yo, it looked like you were lost in your thoughts. Are you alright, mr. engineer?"

Kevin’s visage had not changed in the brief period of time I was trapped by my memories, as could be expected. He still wore his cocky grin, a spiked blonde hair with way too much hair gel on it, and his service dress loosely over quite the muscular build. He also was, of course, accompanied.

"Kevin, I know this might surprise you, but normal people actually think sometimes."

Fujio’s melodic voice answered for him. He looked short, at least when compared with Kevin, but he was very slender and wore his uniform in a splendid way. It helped that the dark grey of the Administration combined really well with his bluish black hair and eyes. They were both standing with me besides the window in a spacious grey hall, which was almost devoid of other people.

"Oh, shut up, you know what I mean. We’re in a goddamned Stratocarrier; Louis loves this kind of stuff, he normally would be busy checking out every nook and cranny of this ship."

"Maybe because of that? I’m sure observing the wings and aerodynamical form of the exterior is almost as fascinating as the interior."

"You said it, almost. Aren’t there even miniatures for checking this kind of stuff? I just find it a bit weird Fuji."

As the two went on almost as if he wasn’t there, he could see a golden flash coming towards them, one belonging to the only other figure on this hall, one that might save(?) him from his predicament.

"Sergeant Durante, Corporal Leong, can you please stop talking about Warrant officer Mayber as if you weren’t in front of him?! Dou you have to be so brutish even outside of combat?!"

It seems they had made enough of a ruckus for the lieutenant to notice. Her steps were firm, and a sheathed blade by her waist increased even more the intensity of her aura. Golden hair, pulled in a long ponytail that almost reached her waist, and hazelnut eyes; her beauty made her stand out even more. A female officer dress uniform, with a knee-length skirt, thighs and boots enhanced her figure, which was already quite tall and muscular. Still, the look in her eyes was one of exasperation more than one of anger, and her motions reeked more of impatience than outright dislike. Indeed, Louis was still the 'newcomer' of the team, but he had already realized that the Lieutenant was a bit of a softie inside.

"What, we weren’t doing anything wrong Alice! Tell her, Fuji."

"*Sigh*... Sorry lieutenant. Kevin just can’t wrap his head around the idea of people actually thinking."

"What the hell Fuji, don’t sell me out like this!"

He felt a bitter yet still sincere smile form in his face. While the lieutenant was way too soft on them, at this rate they would manage to make her angry for real. He better step in. Kevin and Fujio were funny, and more importantly, were what he would call friends.

"Don’t worry lieutenant. I was just lost in my thoughts, and they were worried about me. I would even say it was good they did it. I have never stepped in a 4th Generation Stratocarrier before, so I want to enjoy every minute of it."

The lieutenant’s temper had started to flare up, her fists clenched, her boots impatiently tapping the floor and her ponytail swaying with that same rhythm, but my words achieved their purpose. She relaxed her posture and directed a minuscule but still visible and somewhat bitter smile at me. She looked really young when she did that, barely reaching the 20s. Well, she was around that age after all.

"If you say so, warrant officer. If those two bother you, just call me. Still, while I don’t mind if you enjoy the passage, please remember we are in the midst of a mission, and you should at least be combat ready-"

"Alice, Alice! Did you see the catering? It was, like, the best thing ever! They have all kind of sweets, pastries, teas and even milkshakes! It’s amazing!"

A high pitched voice interrupted Alice’s admonition. Coming from one of the ends of the hall was a brunette with hair just reaching her shoulders and a short yet slender figure. A familiar girl. She hurried towards them, ignoring like it was nothing the glare the lieutenant was sending towards her. She was an officer too, wearing a similar uniform to Alice’s, but nonetheless the contrast couldn’t be greater. Still, seeing the nonchalant way in which Rachel just reached towards them despite interrupting Alice, it only reinforced his conclusion that the girls knew each other for some time.

"Rachel… what did I say about interrupting me-"

Alas, Rachel familiarity with Alice was only matched by Kevin’s recklessness.

"Wait, what?! Seriously?! Ughhhhh, I’m so jealous! Privileges of an officer I suppose, ugh, why did I decide to enlist directly instead of going to the Academy?"

"You say that as if you had any chance of passing…"

"Shut up, Fuji"

Welp. While my good friends were indeed funny, they seemed to have forgotten the figure of the Lieutenant, now trembling with rage over being utterly ignored. Part of me pitied her, seeing we were all more like a group schoolchildren going on a trip than soldiers of the Administration. The other part of me was worried about trying to survive for the following 20 minutes. I had to do something, anything.

"You all….!"

"L-lieutenant Alice! T-thanks for staying with us! As a brand new 4th generation stratocarrier, this airship is full of recreational facilities for officers, yet you choose to stay here with us to guide us and so we wouldn’t feel abandoned. Your dedication and loyalty to your team is worthy of all respect and I admire it immensely!"

A hint of red creeped beneath Alice’s cheeks as my words reached her. She seemed taken aback, her arms gesticulating like she didn’t knew what to do with them, and was even stuttering a bit. I really hoped the small blush didn’t mean I made her angrier.

"W-w-what are you s-saying, Mayber? I-I mean, it’s just my duty. Y-yeah, I’m just doing what any officer worth his commision would do… T-though I guess I can accept your admiration…"

She seemed to trail on, but I couldn’t catch the last part. Still, It seems her blush wasn’t one of anger, thank the gods. While I couldn’t unravel the reason behind her slight pinkish coloration, I was so relieved of having been able to defuse the situation that I didn’t care that much. I could see Fujio winking at me, most likely as thanks, but oddly enough Rachel looked like she was about to break into a giggle fit at any moment. Didn’t she value the live I had saved?!

Fujio quickly broke what could have devolved into an awkward silence. He was in fact quite the bro when he wasn’t busy mocking Kevin.

"Still, a dessert catering in a stratocarrier? Even if reserved only for officers, it does seem a bit odd"

"I suppose it’s the influence of the Lyceum"

"The Lyceum…?"

Everyone seemed a bit shocked at my words. It was quite logical though.

"Yes. Remember that the 4th generation has just entered in service, we’re lucky we can travel in one of them so early. You should think of almost all of them as cheaper and mass-produced version of the Silver Wings. Even if they’re made or owned by the Administration alone, the Lyceum’s signature style is still there."

Talking about stratocarriers made me remember how much I liked them. I felt like a complete idiot for losing time looking through the window when I could have been snooping in. Was realizing the follies of youth perhaps what growing up means… ? I’m still barely above 20 though.

"Eh… I guess then this isn’t that surprising. They really are the 'flowers in the garden'"

The lieutenant frowned at Kevin’s air quotes. While it wasn’t supposed to be demeaning, the popular Administration nickname did imply Maids were delicate treasures, kept away from most of the regular operations. It was easy to see why some saw a hidden insult there.

"... OHHHHHHHH! Oh, I forgot!! Alice, guys, I totally, like, for sure, saw 2 maids there!! They even had their shiny bracelets-"

"Engines"

Alice corrected Rachel automatically

"-whatever, and their uniforms were so white and cute, too. They were trying to stay unnoticed, but no, they couldn’t slip pass this woman here."

"Geez, we get it, Rachel, you’re awesome. Happy now?"

"Kevin, you could say that a hundred times and it wouldn’t make me happy in the least."

"Rude!"

While they continued their banter, I had started to filter out their entire conversation the moment they had said ‘maids’. Maids were here, in this same stratocarrier. This was a game changer. He knew the mission they were in was important, but not that it was also this dangerous. Maids were only deployed when risk of encountering the Remnant were high, and even then when the Remnant were considered dangerous.

His eyes found those of Alice, who seemed to be thinking something similar. Perhaps this what made her raise her voice.

"Team. In the end, this does not change our mission. Maids or not, our briefing did not mention any modifications to the plan, so we will proceed as usual. Don’t worry about unnecessary things."

… It was a bit of a shame that only me (and maybe Fujio) realized what that pep talk was about. Kevin looked confused more than motivated, and Rachel… well, I could never understand what was going on in Rachel’s mind and today was no exception.

"??... What was that about, Alice? … Oh, wait, I think I get it, you do know some maids right?"

Though the tangent Kevin brought up was interesting.

"Wha…? What are you referring too, Sergeant Durante?!"

"Well, duh. Your name is Alice Orunitia, isn’t? Anyone from that family must know a lot of maids."

Oh. That.

*paf*

The lieutenant facepalmed hard enough we could even hear the sound. She then proceeded to sigh the most exasperated sigh I had ever heard sighed in years.

"No… I mean, yes, that is my name. But no, I’m not one of those Orunitias. We’re related, but in a very distant way; my father is the second cousin once removed of the current head. Even during the First or the Second we would be considered a cadet branch at most…"

"But, you even have the cool sword and all that."

Alice’s (and my own) eyes lowered towards her blade at her waist. She then removed it from its fixed position, weighing it with one hand, like she was checking its balance. It did look very impressive, or at least the sheath did. Of a brown colour, without a single decoration, the hilt nonetheless looked like it was made from the highest quality leather, the crossguard being simplistic in its design and the whole sword being all immaculate without a single stain or proof of use. The overall design seemed like that of a standard double-edged longsword, or at least that was what I could see from only the sheath, austere yet terrifying in its simplicity. It was a blade made to be used.

"... I do know a bit of the Orunitia family style, but I’m not that talented. It’s more of a good luck charm from my father. I also do not swear by the Code, if you’re asking."

She returned the sword to its original place in a movement so quick and graceful that she must had had done it at least a thousand times, her ponytail fluttering in an equally graceful way. The way that she was able to move her blade too without changing her body balance in the least made me think that, talent or not, she had spent years of practice in it.

"Okay… Though I do feel I forgot about something… Oh, yeah! Louis, weren’t you related to a maid? I think Alice mentioned it someti- UGH!"

I felt my heart sink a bit when Kevin mentioned that. Whether it was because I couldn’t hide it in my expression, or whether because Alice just felt he was being noisy, I thanked her for that timely kick in the shin anyway. Even while the blond clutched his hurt limb with his hands with a grimace on his face, standing on a single leg like a certain steadfast tin soldier, I couldn’t feel any kind of pity towards him.

"*cough**cough* Anyway, out with the negativity!"

Rachel took the silence as a chance to correct the mood, waving her arms as if to fan out some kind of foul air surrounding us, which also worked to get our attention. Despite her oddities, in her way she seemed to care and look for others-

"So, let’s talk about the movie we’re going to see next week Alice! The one with that actor that was so hot!"

Nope. Please remind me to never be her close friend. The grin on Rachel’s face seemed like it couldn’t get any bigger, while the lieutenant’s face went through the entire color spectrum, passing through the white of (social) death, the blue of (friendship) indigestion, before finding its final shade of red, one of both pure embarrassment and anger.

"W-w-what?! Y-you decided that on your own! D-d-don’t try to make it sound as if I wanted to g-go!!"

"Wait."

Fujio held his hand up, before continuing. Was it something serious?

"Isn’t that another movie of the Varnadria campaign? I’m quite hyped for it, but I don’t think I can reach ‘At the rescue of maid apprentice Aya's' level"

Of course.

"I don’t know, like, it was good, but wasn’t it a bit melodramatic?"

"Wait! Wait! Didn’t that one have Yuki Minase in it? Yes, I remember, she was starring as herself, and she even was in a love triangle! With a maid named Elicia and a butler named Steiger, I think."

"Kevin, the idol fan, defending Yuki Minase? How shocking. Don’t make me remember the worst part of the movie. Her singing is, like, fine, but her acting wasn’t up to the par"

"What are you saying!! Yuki was a novice, but even then she did her best! And it wasn’t bad, if you looked at the movie, the actor that starred as the 'Golden Raptor' was way worse."

"Which is why we’re looking forward to this one so much~~. It was such a shame to see the 'Golden raptor' put to waste. Like, even if in the end it this one isn’t that good, at least the actor is a hottie, and we’re big fans of him~~."

"Don’t say we! You forced me Rachel, I didn’t want ittttt!!!"

The expression on Alice’s face was turning desperate, her knees turning inwards with a slight tremble and her ponytail fluttering about due to her constant gesticulation, which tried in vain to deny what Rachel was saying. In comparison, the usually short Rachel appeared almost taller than Alice, looking like a predator that had managed to corner her prey.

"But you were the one who reserved the tickets~~ You even cried because you, like, didn't arrive in time to get the ones for the premiere. I think I still have photos of that-"

"~~~~ NO, anything but that please!!!"

"Wait"

 Fujio held his hand, again, before continuing. Was it something serio- oh, who I’m kidding.

"Isn’t the actor of the 'Golden Raptor', the one that did the main character of the 'Dusk' series?"

Now, this did get my attention. Even I had heard about the Dusk series, and I couldn’t help but let the shock show in my face. The famous (or infamous) series of books called the "Dusk" Series, involving a spineless and depressive Butler who's caught in a love triangle between a Leysa and Aevum Maid; all the characters (if they can be even called that) are one dimensional (on account of zero dimensions making no sense) portrayals of stereotypes and it's unclear whether the overarching metaphor for domestic violence and sexism is even intentional or not. Unsurprisingly, the movie adaptations were even worse and ended up giving rise to a BDSM-themed spin off book and movie as well.

"L-lieutenant… you’re a fan of that…?"

In the midst of that chaos, my last bastion fell and I raised my voice. Alice met my eyes, for a full millesime of a second, before avoiding them at mach speed and hiding her face beneath her hands, trying to make herself even smaller, maybe hoping the floor would open up and make her disappear. Though the red colouring her cheeks shone like a lighthouse in the middle of the night and had no hope of remaining in the shadows.

"N-n-no… No-not you too, please anybody but you! Noooooooooooo!"

And so, we continued bullying our commanding officer while enjoying our school trip.


Part 2

The light of my room flickered, as if mirroring my annoyance. I was sitting in my usual chair, just besides my desk, which was filled to the brim with various books and a single computer. The figure standing before me was that of a girl I knew too well. Long straight black hair, height similar to mine, graceful limbs very unlike my own, sapphire eyes and an everpresent anxious and nervous look on her face. Marie, my elder sibling.

"Louis… sorry to bother you, but I’m having some problems with my studies, and I was wondering if you could help me…?"

I gritted my teeth to control the growl of anger that almost escaped my throat. The elder sibling had come to beg help of her younger brother, again. The fact that Marie’s expression showed she realized how pathetic that was too only worsened my mood. I pinched the bridge of my nose and sighed, making it clear just how annoyed I was.

"I'm busy right now. Are you really having such troubles with mere high-school subjects?"

Derision dripped from my voice. Deep inside me there was a voice screaming, one that asked me why I was acting like such a jerk, but I ignored it, again.

"Y-yes, I suppose you could say so… But I  really need the help, there’s a Maths exam tomorrow, and I must get a high mark if I want too-"

I rose up from my chair in anger, and shouted at her.

"You have an exam tomorrow and you ask for my help only NOW?! Why do you purposely set out to ignore each and every thing I say to you?! Are you really that stupid?!"

"... sorry"

Marie lowered her head, wordlessly accepting all my reproaches. That act made her appear shorter, which meant it was one of the few times I was looking at my elder sibling from above, further stimulating my inner sadism. Continuing to heap verbal abuse on her, searching and aiming for every flinch in her expression, I ended my streak of rebukes with a long sigh, before sitting on my chair again.

"Sigh… Bring your books. Now."

"Y-yes!"

When had it become like this, I wonder? Marie and I were close in age, and had been close as siblings. However, as we- no, as I grew older, things changed. It's not like we drifted apart, but rather something different. I started competing. I was tired of being told at every instant how similar I was to my elder sibling.

Marie’s vision started to fill me with some strange kind of lukewarm rage. I wasn’t like her at all, and felt compelled to show it at every moment, and for some weird reason I wanted it to show it the most to her. I paraded my victories over her constantly, while I swallowed the defeats she didn't even realize inflicted me. And in the midst of that confusing cycle I found myself treating her like this.

"Wait, basic derivation? I explained that to you 3 weeks ago? Did you really forgot about that?!!"

"I, uhh, no, I mean, kinda?"

"Could you please put a bit of work of your own instead of dumping all your problems on me?! Or is even the concept of that too hard to grasp!?!"

"Ugh, s-sorry!"

And as she apologized, again, I repeated that cycle, again. Too prideful to stop acting that way even now, and Marie too oblivious from where my bitterness came from.

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"Louis, seriously man, are you alright?"

Kevin’s light touch on my shoulder brought me back from my trance. I was sitting in a small metallic seating, a tight harness keeping me in place. As I took in my surroundings, I remembered where I was. A closed space surrounded me, filled with people- soldiers looking by their equipment- in the dark grey Akkieren’s Administration battledress uniform. It was in fact pretty cramped, and the intensity of the heat and smell made me wonder how did I managed to forget about them for even an instant. Not to mention the pressure in my stomach, which together with the bits of machinery I could see made me realize we were likely flying at a pretty high speed right now.

This wasn’t a stratocarrier though; far from it in fact. If the lack of space wasn’t telling, the colour, lack of windows and its crude appearance were evident enough. It looked like they were in a transport Zephyr. In fact, now that his brain had started to catch up with his surroundings, he remembered he did enter into a transport, and it wasn’t one of the fancy ones with great agility and combat capabilities, but rather one of those older than his grandmother that could barely act as shuttle. Gods forbid the Administration put expensive and modern transport Zephyrs to fit the expensive and modern stratocarrier.

Another tug from Kevin reminded him that he was still awaiting his response.

"Sorry, today I’m just a bit weird. Must be the stratocarrier that put me on cloud nine…"

"I don’t know, your face didn’t look like it was that happy, but whatever you say man."

'Of course' I shut down my remark. The fact that it continued to affect me even now was more than enough proof that it couldn’t be the stratocarrier. Still, what was it? I had felt weird since I entered the big airship, like some kind of entity was tugging at my mind and stirring my memories, but even after abandoning the stratocarrier with the transport it was still bothering me. Whatever it was, i could only hope it didn’t interfere with my work.

*Swish*

The pressure in my stomach increased with what I recognized was the slow-down just before landing. I grabbed onto my my harness (which I had seemingly put without even realizing when I entered the Zephyr), preparing for the impact. In theory it should be 'softened' thanks to the transport, but I had already been on some of these old transports and knew that by 'softened' they meant 'won’t kill you, maybe'.

*BAM*CLANG*PUFF*

.. well, I wasn’t dead. As my muscles recovered from the numbness caused by the impact, I admired how most of the soldiers seemed to recover like it was nothing and then proceeded to move out. Even Kevin looked impressive as he undid his harness and rose up with practiced movements. I took the hand he offered me, swallowing my pride as I reminded myself that I was simply a technician in the military, not a professional soldier like them.

"Well, we’ve arrived. Now, to find the others… Where were they?"

"Transport 061-O Kevin. The lieutenant will get angry if she finds out you forgot."

"Well, she was the one who refused to write it into my hand, so it’s not my fault."

"Are you 10 years old?!"

As we excited the transport, my boots finally touched the ground. A foreign ground, one not affected by the habitability bubble. I let my vision wander across the strange wasteland. There was big structure in front of us looking like if a hill had been cut in half by some kind of enormous axe, the eastern side completely caved in while the western side remained almost untouched. The reddish soil  was mixed with white stains (maybe salt?), and the place showed no sign of any flora or fauna, though he knew there were some, just stranger than what he imagined. I felt the wind on my face. I wore the same battledress as Kevin and the other soldiers, a reinforced vest with extra armour on arms and thighs which balanced protection with mobility, but we all had our helmets open. A visor could be lowered to protect us from any noxious fume, but with no risk of them everyone preferred being able to see each others faces. Still, the smell of sulphur and ammonium that permeated the zone made me consider lowering it.

We were in fact not far from Akkierens, but the environment already looked like an entirely different place. Kevin wasn’t enthralled by the sights like me, but he seemed impressed by the size of the hill(?).

"Woah! This is bigger than usual this close to the city!"

"Yeah. I heard the site had been eyed by the bigwigs for some time, but until the landslide happened it was deemed too dangerous and costly to exploit."

Remembering what we were supposed to be doing, I tugged Kevin’s sleeve to direct us to the transport where the rest of our teammates would be waiting us. Or at least, where the briefing said it would be. My cold sweat was for naught though, as we found Alice, Rachel and Fujio waiting for us in the exact same place I was told, their uniforms of before now replaced by the battledress’ combat armour. Alice was standing perfectly straight, while Rachel was crouching down and Fujio just leaning back on the black and cylindrical transport.

“Hi!”

Rachel stood up and waved at us with a big grin on her face while Fujio just raised his arm without moving at all, signaling they had seen us. I could see Alice form a smile, and almost start to wave, before the Lieutenant caught herself. Coughing to conceal her outburst (and embarrassment), she straightened her posture again, trying to maintain her professional attitude for at least some extra seconds.

"*cough*. Sergeant Durante, warrant officer Mayber, I see you’ve arrived. Though given that the warrant officer is the one guiding you, I warrant you forgot about it again, sergeant?"

A pre-emptive strike to avoid Kevin laughing at her! As expected from a veteran!

"Yeah"

Was not very effective… Kevin forced the Lieutenant to use Facepalm!

"*Sigh*… You’re not supposed to admit it so easily Kevin. Do you remember that a talk with my superiors is enough to cut your paycheck in half?"

"Crap. B-but you refused my proposed solution, so it’s not my fault. I’d knew that I would forget!"

"Are you incapable of remembering anything?! At least bring some kind of notebook to write down things if you’re so bad at it!"

"Alice~~~then you should have done what I said. Kevin is, like, a complete idiot, so it’s not like you could do anything about that. Just go together with Louis alone and leave the other two to me~~~."

Friendly fire coming from Rachel! Well, can it be friendly fire when it’s Rachel? Attacking both friend and foe is her modus operandi after all.

"NO! I m-mean, y-you know, t-that’s…"

Alice turned around in a hurry to face her former(?) ally. I missed the usual fluttering of her golden ponytail, now cramped inside the Lieutenant’s helmet. While some locks were still visible around Alice’s face (and were almost as pretty), that long ponytail was quite majestic and it was a bit of a shame to no longer be bale to see it.

"Yeah! Why does it have to always be my fault!"

Given that I was being used as ammunition by one of the sides, I felt the need to intervene and calm things down.

"Guys, the lieutenant our team’s commanding officer, so she has to go where there are more of us. Even if I’m still fairly new, I can’t get preferential treatment."

"Y-yes! That’s exactly it, warrant officer."

While Rachel was still grinning, she seemed happy enough with the current situation so as to not pursue us. I released a breath of relief. Really, these guys…

".. though that makes me think-"

"Are you feeling bad Kevin?"

"-What!! of course! And even you Louis!! Well, anyway, I’m going to ignore that. Why did they have to divide us on two transports? Don’t the other squads get all in a single transport?"

The mood turned more somber, and the lieutenant looked more thoughtful. I almost missed the glint of regret passing through Alice’s brown eyes.

"... you answered it yourself. We’re not a squad; we only have 5 members, so we are classified as a fireteam."

"The highest ranking fireteam in the entire army?"

Despite the constant mockery, Kevin wasn’t stupid. Everyone knew that the situation wasn’t normal. Our lowest ranking member, Fujio, a corporal, would be the one usually commanding these kind of small fireteams. Further, we were almost independent, as in we didn’t belong to a squad or platoon; Alice’s direct officer was the company’s captain. We were literally a group of 5 separate soldiers in a company of 200. I was always a bit of an exception, given that I was more of a technician (permanently) hired by the military than a professional soldier. But even so the current arrangements looked weird. I didn't ask. It was obvious this was a touchy subject: the lieutenant’s face had a bitter countenance, and Rachel’s usual grin was replaced by a worried look directed at her friend. We all had an inkling as to what, or more likely, who, was the cause of our current situation, but nobody had dared to openly question it.

Kevin however, appeared resolute. He seemed to have been mulling over it for a while, and decided to take the dive. Fujio nudged his friend with his elbow, a frown of worry making it clear he did either not approve of his actions or was concerned over his friend.

"What are you saying Kevin?! You know the reason. With her surname no matter what-"

The lieutenant however had no intention of running.

"It was my own choice Sergeant Durante. If you have any problems with it, I can find a replacement and have you transferred at a position befitting your rank right after this mission."

"Ma’am, I don’t mind the how or the what, but I’m tired of fucking around over this horseshit. Just give me a why."

A mix of various sentiments flashed by Alice’s eyes, including regret, doubt and hesitation, yet were replaced just as fast by resolution. I was momentarily mesmerized by it. While my words of earlier may had been to avoid her anger, it was true that I deeply admired Alice, and how well she managed to mix her strength with her kindness. One part of me wanted nothing but to help her, but the other feared my sheer presence would soil her battlefield, that this was something that belonged to her and her alone.

"You know it, my name. Even if I’m only distantly related, the common soldier venerates the Orunitia and their code. So much it blinds then."

The bitter smile had returned to her face, but she didn't let that stop her.

"Who’s to blame them? Nowadays most prominent families only seem to care about the military just to enter the Order, after which they dedicate themselves to live of Akkieren’s citizens taxes while sitting in their velvety cushions. Be it as bureaucrats, staff officers who haven't seen combat in years or outright selling their family’s prestige to the highest bidder. Anything works for them, except actually toiling together with other citizens. The Orunitia however remain a family which refused entry in the Order, and whose sons and daughters fight on the front like other soldiers or keep order as policemen. They’re the closest the common soldier will ever see to the old legendary families. Yet, even if mercury looks like silver, it continues being poisonous."

She sighed. A brief silence ensued, where only the sound of Alice’s boots tapping the floor could be heard. While the emotion on her voice could be felt, she was trying to keep both her posture and expression as stoic as possible. After another brief moment, she continued.

"When I got my commission, fresh out of the Academy, the enlisted already looked at me like their idol. My superiors too were hesitant to send me into combat, fearing being blamed by the death of an Orunitia, or maybe thinking that I would take their place the moment I had a victory. I was just the greenest of rookies, and instead of trying to guide me, my superiors feared me and my subordinates, all more veterans than me, wanted me to lead them like the legendary hero they thought of me as. I wasn't even part of the main family, yet something stupid like my name was enough to cause such a ruckus."

Alice lowered her head, almost as if the memory was hurting her in a physical way. However, she recovered in a flash, like if the previous image had been just a mirage.

"A that rate my inexperience was going to get a lot of people killed. So yes, figuring that if my name was going to pursue me might as well use it, I did ask my only reliable superior for the creation of this team. One small enough so that people would get to know me, and maybe respect me for the person I am instead of my name. One which couldn't give me the glory some feared me getting. With this, I thought, maybe I could gain enough experience and skill to lead other soldiers like they wanted me to. So yes, Sergeant Durante, I made this team solely for my sake. I don't care about furthering my military career, so I would understand if you find that unsatisfactory and wish to be in a position of more relevance. But I’ve grown to like this team enough; I will not disband it just because of you."

By the end, every other feeling had been replaced by a sharp glint in her eyes, one that overpowered everything else. Despite that half of the speech was about her own doubts over her leadership qualities, I could only admire how her eyes still screamed her confidence for all of Antiope to hear. My heart was moved. I wonder; maybe, if I had some of this confidence years ago, I might not have done some things I regretted.

*Clap*

To the surprise of the lieutenant (though most certainly not to my own), Kevin started clapping, an excited look upon his face.

"Yes, that’s it!! I’m all pumped up!!! Yup, yup, this kind of things have to be said face to face!"

"... huh? You don’t mind it, Kevi- I mean, sergeant Durante?"

"Of course not! I mean, not being able to do things like leading the reinforcements in a hard-fought battle, or shouting ‘hold the line!” is a bit of a bummer, but it’s not like I could have been done that anyway as a regular sergeant… Oh! And doing odd jobs is a hundred times better than being kept on reserve like most regular squads. I just can’t handle that bit of being on the ready for hours waiting for an emergency that never materializes."

Fujio also raised his hand, this time with a full smile on his lips.

"All well for me too. Honestly, as of now I don’t think I could even return to a more traditional squad. It was a bit stifling. I just like comfy things."

"Thanks… UGH"

Alice’s smile was only broken by Rachel’s sudden hug, which threatened to send them both towards the ground. While the lieutenant managed to recover her footing, Rachel seemed content just clinging to her while laughing

"And of course I’m fine with it too, silly~~ I didn't stick with you since the Academy only to give up so quickly~~."

She let out another giggle, before looking at both Fujio and Kevin

"Besides, if those two and me were in any other platoon, they would have had to, like, create a ‘private fourth class’ rank to demote us into~~ We’re kinda bad at this. I don’t even know how Kevin managed to be a sergeant."

"I'm just that good, baby"

"I don’t know what’s more pathetic, that you called me your baby or that you still use this slang after so many years~~"

"I'll have you know that-"

As they continued their banter, I could see Alice (still caught by Rachel) looking at me, her eyes asking me a silent question, looking for approval. I could have tried to answer her with something witty, or remember some kind of poetry that would suit the situation, but after the sincerity of her speech I felt like any words I could speak would just dirty it. So I just gave her my best smile and nodded with all the approval I could muster, putting all my sincerity in this silly gesture, hoping that in some way it would reach her.

Some of it must have, because I could see some pink in her cheeks, and that could only be due to how embarrassing I must have looked like. Still, with the happy mood we were in, I couldn’t care less.

"so you know that!... WAIT! Look!"

Wondering what had gotten into Kevin, we all looked around… and saw nothing.

"Man, now Kevin might have been bitten by some kind of insect which provokes hallucinations. Or you’re even worse in the head than I thought, bro."

"What are you saying!?! Don’t you see everyone leaving?!"

He was in fact right about this. A big portion of our comrades had started moving, and I could even see some of the earliest squad start moving towards the hill from our landing zone.

"... and?"

"Shouldn’t we go with them?!!!!!"

At this point, even I couldn’t contain myself.

"Kevin, do you even remember anything about the briefing? No, don’t answer; I prefer to just think you had a sudden case of amnesia."

“Like some kind of main character? That would be too cool for Kevin~~”

Our lieutenant facepalmed, again.

"Sergeant Durante, do you really think I’m the type that would be here just doing her little speech when we should be moving? We move with the second wave, after the exteriors have been secured. We discussed this, do you remember?"

"Nope."

"Again with these kind of answers!! Don’t you have at least some bit of shame or pride as a soldier?!"

"Nah."

While the Lieutenant looked like a volcano ready to erupt, Fujio timidly raised her hand. In a rare situation, he in fact looked embarrassed by something.

"*cough* so, uhm, I admit today I was very sleepy, so I miiiight have taken a little nap during the briefing. I kinda wanted to take this time before going in to hear about the briefing."

"...Corporal Leong, you too…? Rachel?"

Alice looked at her longtime friend in a panic.

"Don’t worry, I was all ears~~"

“Thank all… Well, then Rachel would you explain the briefing to them?"

Alice let out a breath relief, before pointing towards our two stooges.

"Ehh~~? I could, but, like, you know I’m not good at those kind of things. We had to go like, before some, but after others, and take some thingies and-"

"Okay Rachel, I realize you’re no help, please stop."

"No prob~~~Why don’t you explain it to them?"

Silence. Rachel’s words had left Alice on the spot, and she seemed to be sweating, her face with an expression that shifted between being awkward, squirming, and trying to uphold some kind of facade that had been broken before it could even be built. Even her usual tapping on the floor, a telltale sign that she was impatient or nervous, had stopped. Our team is really good at bullying our lieutenant.

"Ehm, yeah, about that... I usually record everything with my device, but I kinda forgot today… I mean, I remember! But, you know, I’m not that good at telling things from memory or -"

"Oh, it’s true~~ You were, like, even worse than me when explaining things~~ I now remember-"

"No more memories from the Academy please!"

At this point I felt the need the intervene, unless I wanted our lieutenant to lose every bit of the dignity her previous speech had build up. I slowly raised my hand before speaking up

"I do have everything recorded, but even without that I remember most of it pretty well, so I can make a summary."

Alice looked at me like a puppy looks at her owner after returning home, her eyes almost shining with relief. I could almost imagine that if she wasn’t wearing her helmet, her ponytail would be wagging in the air.

"Thanks! A lot of thanks! Many thanks! I knew I li- i mean, I knew we had you in the team for some reason!! That’s true, we do have an actually smart guy on our team!"

I let an amused smile float to my lips. Alice was still overreacting, with Rachel grinning non-stop behind her, Fujio rolling his eyes at all the silliness and Kevin looking clueless about what was happening. Yes, this was a good team.


Part 3
We were in quadrant 26J of Akkieren's 'region', as little sense it would have to name anything past the habitability bubble a part of Akkierens. In this zone, not very far from the city, an adalstier deposit of unknown purity and depth had been detected quite some years ago on a hill. The size of the hill and its position pointed towards the possibility of the deposit being due to a fragment of a small ancient ship that fell there, maybe even an escort of Akkieren's mothership. There were other wilder theories, but they were impossible to prove or disprove without any further investigation. Of course, it was not like the Administration didn't want the extra adalstier. Rather, early probes showed that the deposit was fairly deep within the ‘hill’. This would require mining the precious element, a task that would take quite a long time. Further, there was a high chance the sound and tremors would attract the Remnant. Deciding that  long-term mining would be unsustainable (Akkierens had long abandoned fixed defences because of the harsh casualties they brought, after all), and that intermittent mining would be inefficient and expensive, the Administration simply catalogued the site and left it alone.

However, this changed some weeks ago. In a Remnant raid nearby, a particularly violent fight had caused an enormous landslide on one half of the 'hill'. This meant the previously deep deposits were now much closer to the surface. The Administration wasted no time sending a scouting team (us), which had to inspect the site, report its state and the position and quality of the deposit (and if there was anything else to salvage), preferably while also taking samples of anything that could be interesting/useful for a deeper investigation in Akkieren's labs. They would send 2 stratocarriers, a number which further showcased the importance the Administration gave to the mission. One of brand new 4th generation stratocarriers, smaller but more agile, would be the one to deliver the scouting team to the site and recover them if things went south, while an older 3th generation one would act as the backup and bring most of the firepower in case the Remnant appeared.

The scouting team itself would be divided in 3 'waves'. The first one would secure the exterior, and check which of the existent caves and galleries looked secure enough. If there weren't any, they may even do some digging. The second wave would directly investigate and acquire samples, going as deep into the hill as they could. The third would act as a reserve force and patrol the surroundings so the Remnant didn't catch us unaware. We were in wave 2.

—————————————————————————————————————


It had been some hours since we entered the cave. After some probes indicated that this route reached quite the depth within the hill, our company’s captain decided that someone should be sent to investigate. The direction of this gallery however would lead to a place somewhat far from where the main adalstier deposits were estimated to be, so it’s not like most of the men could be sent this way. Thus it was perfect for an 'odd-jobs' team like ours.

I clutched the device within my arms. At first sight it looked like a regular tablet, however a bit more of attention revealed an unusual thickness and weight. Indeed, he could swear that the device weighted even more than the standard Administration rifle they would be usually required to carry. Still, it was a familiar gadget, one that he had used countless times since he had started working with  the military. Carrying countless sensors, from Infrared to even the odd Lyman alpha sensor for if he ever wanted to point it at the sky, it also had a top-notch Adalstier resonator and even an incorporated database which listed every mineral in existence. Its proper name was "Prospection and Multi-tool Analysys Helper", but everyone called it PAMAH.

He looked up from his PAMAH to what lay ahead. The cave was dark and didn’t follow any kind of pattern nor had any consistency, so he felt at any moment he could just crash into a dead-end. The lights on their helmets were on, but that amounted to little with everything else being pitch dark. He had to both look at his PAMAH to see if there was anything strange or dangerous and also lead everyone deeper into the cave. He felt the footsteps of the rest of his team behind him. He wanted nothing more than to tell one of them to take the lead and walk first so he could just follow him and focus completely on his PAMAH, but that carried the risk of him detecting the danger too late whenever they did get near anything dangerous. He couldn’t put the lives of his friends on the line for something so silly, so he continued walking. His steps were hesitant, but they were steps nonetheless.

Of course, everything would be easier to weather if the ones behind were anybody else but his team.

"So, then the girl left, just like that! Geez, to think she would let this kind of muscles escape…"

I didn't need to look behind  to picture Kevin directing a look of appreciation at his biceps while looking smug.

"... I honestly can’t imagine how any woman could put up with you for more than 10 minutes"

" You're just jealous Rachel, that you will never get these biceps."

Rachel's snort was loud enough that I didn’t have to imagine it, though.

"Sorry, I don’t know who told you, but most straight women don’t even like muscles that much. At least not your overgrown, stupid, brain-consuming kind."

"Yeah, yeah, say whatever you want. If Ma told me anything, is that men and women are equal! So, just like us can’t avoid liking big boobs, girls must love big muscles for sure."

"...wut?"

Oh, Kevin’s line of reasoning had left Rachel without words. That was rare. I could picture Kevin with his arms crossed, nodding with a smug look and his eyes closed, all while Rachel would be staring at him with a look at bewilderment, crouching a bit and placing her hands protectively in front of her chest. Not that there was anything to look at or even feel with their think battledress, but one of Kevin’s qualities was precisely that he made you question common logic.

"... I don’t know where to start… Well, for example, not all men like big chests, don’t they?"

Rachel mimicked the voice of a teacher that was talking to a 10 year old, but I could imagine Kevin's look of befuddlement nonetheless.

"? I mean, some don’t mind that much, but I can assure you bigger is always better! Tell her, Fuji!"

"Bro, I’m into men, I don’t think I can help you"

Oh. I forgot

"Oh, I forgot."

Kevin echoes my thoughts.

"... I don’t know if I should be honored or insulted. But, really?"

I felt a shiver going down my spine. Crap, I think Fujio was looking at me. Could it be he realized what I had thought?! Damn, it was enough of an eternal shame that for a second I was thinking the same as Kevin, no need for anything extra!

"Well then, man, you can help me! Tell that Rachel just how good my muscles are!"

"... Are you saying you want me to hit on you…?"

"If you do that, I’ll hit you. I-I mean, not like that!!!!!-"

"Sorry bro, but you’re just not my type. I only see you as a friend-"

"JUST STOP!"

After Fujio messed with Kevin for a while, the later, seemingly unable to give up, decided to just continue his (rather stupid) pursuit.

"So, Fuji is gay… Hum, then that means that there’s only Louis and me who like boobs… uhm… Wait, unless Alice is also-"

A set of footsteps, which had been in a perfect cadence since we entered the cave, slipped all of a sudden. Worried, I looked behind to see Alice had managed to recover her balance, but, the question had (no surprises) left her speechless. Fortunately(?), Rachel answered in her stead.

"Alice? Nope, not at all~~ She’s straighter than a straight angle."

"!!? How do you even know that Rachel!?"

"Oh, want me to share it~~~?"

Rachel answered Alice’s desperate question by putting her hand on her hip, letting her threat linger in the air and directing a significant lookTM at her close friend. Realizing she was outnumbered, outgunned and outmaneuvered, our brave lieutenant let out a small whimper signalling her surrender. Taking that as a sign the little interlude was over, Kevin continued with his own weird reasoning.

"Oh, cool. Then Alice is out, ok. That means our team is all accounted for…"

"Oh? Then you have realized what I’m? Colour me surprised Kevin, I didn't think you had it in you to-"

"Oh, Rachel? Well, I don’t care what you say either way, so you simply don’t count."

"RUDE! Forget about 5 minutes, you’ll be lucky if a woman puts up with you for more than a minute outside work-"

I shook my head and looked ahead, trying to focus on my task. If I listened to them, I would either have a heart-attack or they would distract me enough for me to make a mistake. Soon however I felt a touch on my shoulder.

I turned back to find Fujio nodding at me, with a bit of a worried look.

"Ei, Louis, you really don’t look that good. Want to take a bit of a break? We have been walking for more than 2 hours, so 5 minutes can’t hurt."

I suddenly became aware of all the sweat glistening in my face, due to the heat and tension of the situation. Even below my battledress, I could feel it on my legs and armpits. Still, it was no reason to worry him.

"No need to worry Fujio. I was just surprised by those 2. Still, I suppose we can stop for some minutes."

I could see he was skeptical about it, but when he saw I wasn't trying to escape he handed me a handkerchief, which I accepted. The rest of the team had stopped too, Rachel and Kevin continuing their banter and Alice, ever diligent, covering our back. As I was wiping the sweat of my face he continued speaking.

"Look, I’ve seen you, and today you’re not like other days, and in those other days Rachel and Kevin acted the same. Kevin even told me you were a bit weird during the ride from the stratocarrier. Now, at the beginning I thought Kevin was overreacting, but you’re starting to worry me."

Uncomfortable, I leaned on my left leg, like if changing my posture would magically change the situation. Whatever had been bothering me in the stratocarrier and transport was doing the same now, gods know how many meters beyond ground. It was a subtle tug, one that didn't affect me in an overt way but that was putting me on edge. Still, I believed I had managed to hide it well. He was sharper than I expected. Looking back at Fujio, I thought being at least somewhat honest couldn’t hurt.

"... I just feel a bit weird. It’s not anything big, but I do admit I am not in my best form. Still, it shouldn't affect the mission in the least, so you really shouldn’t worry, Fujio."

He still looked skeptical, but he still accepted the handkerchief I returned.

"... If you say so. You’re the smart guy after all. Still, you know you can call me Fuji, do you? I mean, everyone does, even the lieutenant when she takes that stick out of her ass."

I couldn’t help but let a small giggle at the picturesque image.

"Still, isn’t Fuji a girl’s name?"

"Oh, so you know! I mean, yeah, but after so many times, it doesn’t bother me. Hell, they've called me worse things. And hey, how you call others is kinda important; it affects how you think about them."

Fujio -no, Fuji, shrugged his shoulders while letting out a piece of trivia he had surely heard in some kind of self-help book or ‘alternative therapy’. While I disliked the pseudoscience most of those kind of things advocated, in this case the logic was a sound one.

"... yeah, you’re right, Fuji."

He answered me with a thumbs up, and I resumed the march. Or, well, were about to resume our march when a certain blond muscular man decided to throw a wrench in our plans.

"Looouiiiss!!! Answer me a quick question, are you gay?!"

I just froze, my right leg half raised, my left arm in a weird position and with an overall terribly uncomfortable posture. Silence also followed the weird question- wait, no, there was a very impatient and nervous tapping on the floor, but the only one with a the habit to tap the ground was Alice, and she had no reason to be nervous. Maybe I was tapping without realizing? Maybe nobody was tapping and I was just imagining it? Was there maybe some kind of evil demon tapping the floor-

As I questioned the nature of reality in order to escape the situation I was in, Fuji came to my rescue.

"... Kevin, homosexuality isn’t contagious."

"Of course I know that!!! It's just to show Rachel that I’m not a complete idiot who would miss the preferences of his two best friends! So, your answer , Louis?!"

Oh, so it was that. I could now see Rachel behind Kevin’s huge frame, and she even seemed somewhat apologetic? Huh, I suppose not even she is that evil.

"Duh. I already told you, I’m straight. Well, I’m single so it’s not like it matter that much right now..."

Two breaths of relief were freed after my answer. Well, while I got Kevin’s, what was Alice relieved about?

"See Rachel! See!"

"Sure, sure. I’m sorry, Louis, I didn’t think Kevin would just ask it out of the blue."

She apologized with a small bow and a smile. It was a bit strange to see her like this, but I guess even Rachel thought she went a bit too far. Now that I think about it, she seems to only pull all the stops with people she’s really close too, like Alice, so she’s more of a thoughtful girl with a devil’s mask than a true demon. I smiled back and waved my hand to indicate it was nothing.

"No need to worry. When I went to college people were even worse about it."

"Oh, it's true, you went to college didn’t you? Aren’t you only 20?"

Fuji asked, looking quite curious. Well, I’m not super-comfortable when talking about me, but it’s not like I wouldn’t disclose anything-

"He actually finished it at 20, though the warrant officer is now 21."

Before I said anything, the lieutenant answered for me. While she was standing at the back before, she seemed to have gotten close at some point, meaning the entire team was now surrounding me. I looked at her blankly, wondering why would she remember such trivial things from my dossier. She looked back at me, a question mark almost visible above her head, before gasping and stepping back.

"Oh, I’m sorry! I said something I shouldn’t, did I? I’m terribly so-"

"Wait, wait, no! You said nothing wrong! I just wondered why you remembered!"

After repeating it a few times, it seems Alice finally understood, though now her cheeks were red with embarrassment and the mood became a bit more awkward. Fuji, however, came to the rescue.

"So, what you were studying at college?"

Thanking him inside my heart, I answered him.

"Biochemistry. I also took some geology and engineering courses when I enlisted, as that is more in line with the technicians the Administration needs."

Kevin whistled

"Wow, you did hit your books. Are you one of those genius?"

"Kevin…!"

Alice growled. Her earlier mistake had probably been quite the embarrassing one, so she seemed to be trying to compensate by being overprotective of my privacy. While I was thankful for the gesture, I didn’t mind in the least, so I just gestured at Alice that it was nothing.

“Nope. Geniuses are clause 5. I’m just a 'gifted', clause 3”

"That sounds the same to me- UGH!"

This time it was Rachel the one who kicked him in the shin.

"Leaving the idiot aside, that’s very impressive~~ I knew you were the smart guy, but, like, a clause 3 is even better than I expected~~"

As Rachel talked, the lieutenant was besides her nodding with her arms crossed and a smug face. You’re not my mother, you know.

"Still, I suppose I can tell you while we advance. If we’re too slow, the captain is going to get mad at us."

Looking back at my PAMAH, I again stepped towards the depths of the cave. Without a word, the rest of the team followed me. While I thanked the brief respite, I would hate for the lieutenant to get yelled at because of me.

"So… if you managed to finish college, why did you enlist?"

My heart sank. I honestly didn’t want to lie to them, but at the same time I didn't think I would be able to talk about it. It wasn’t that big of a story, but, it was… personal, that would be the best way to put it. In the end, that I had my PAMAH was a blessing in disguise. Making it seem like I was absorbed in it let me give a curt and short answer without it seeming anything else. For that I was willing to endure any further annoyance from it.

"Family."

I focused my eyes on the device, hoping they wouldn’t realize I actually wasn’t reading anything on-screen. It somehow worked.

"Oh, ei, I can get behind that. I enlisted at 16 to help my family too."

"Eh, you did Fuji~~ That makes sense now that I think of it. Unlike Kevin you could probably have gotten into the Academy~~"

"Well, what can I say? Not everyone has the time to do that. Still, I don’t regret it. In fact I almost prefer not being an officer. I kinda like to kick back and relax, and leading everyone would be too stressful for my taste."

"I get that. Still, my family was, like, unable to accept I wanted to enlist. Their precious baby daughter? No way, she had to stay at home and be pretty forever. I only managed to convince them thanks to Alice~~ Honestly, I didn’t care much about the Academy, but if that alone already took them years to accept, imagine what would have happened if I wanted to enlist as common grunt?"

"Eh, so you wanted to enlist? I had thought you only accompanied Alice on a whim."

"Well it obviously wasn't thanks to you, Kevin. What can I say? I always loved maids, but I kinda, like, prefer guns over frilly dresses if I have to be honest. Since I didn’t have the gift, might as well join the regular troops."

"Hah! Well, I joined simply because I wanted to!"

"...So simple."

"Like I care! I sent a fan letter to Yuki when I was wondering whether to enlist, and she actually answered me!! She said that, 'no matter our reason, serving the city is a wonderful aim. Don’t let the simplicity of your feelings bother you, because that only makes them purer. '! So nope, not going to care!"

"That was just PR!"

I relaxed a bit now that I wasn’t the focus of their attention, letting my lips curl up a little. As I raised my eyes from the PAMAH to check what was ahead, however, I didn’t expect what I saw.

"Okay, this is different"

I raised my arm in a ‘stop’ motion. Just ahead, the cave opened in a way we hadn’t seen before. Our path was sometimes more wide and sometimes very tight, but it had never gone above the width of 4 men side by side. Now however the walls were separated by dozens of meters, and the ceiling had risen up to the height of around 4 full-grown men. The path widened to form a circular chamber. More importantly, the way ahead opened up in multiple paths, some of which I could see were dead ends even from my current position. I looked at my PAMAH. Yes, it seems like something was different here. Alice looked over my shoulders, a frown settling on her face, and her usual tapping of the floor returning.

"Do you think this is dangerous?"

The question lingered for a moment, in which I furiously tapped at the screen, looking at various sensors. In fact, her getting close to me so suddenly almost made me jump of the surprise, but I managed to tone it down to just a mistype and some leg fidgeting. Still, me being silly or not, this looked like a good place

"... I don’t see any overt dangers. Going ahead though would be an exercise in futility, with all these different paths. Yes, I think it would be better to take some samples, and just note it down. We can later prove deeper once we have the deposit secured."

Alice nodded, agreeing with my judgement, before turning towards the rest of our team which had, very surprisingly, remained quiet and listening.

"Okay, you’ve heard him! Take some samples of the soil and rocks of the walls, I will be setting up the transmitter and communicating with the captain. Don’t go too far from the chamber, warrant officer Mayber has only checked for danger nearby. Do you hear me?"

“Yeah!”  “*nod*” ”Sure~~”

"... you should have answered with a 'yes, Ma’m!' "

Facepalming for the nteenth time, Alice just looked at me. I simply gave her a smile of sympathy, before proceeding to the center of the chamber. The transmitter was a curious tool: a small box that both let out a radio signal and used it to map the surroundings like a sonar. It’s not like we needed it to communicate with the surface (Alice had a communication device on her helmet for that), but it was standard procedure to leave one in the deepest part of any surveying. More than for them, it was for the Administration. Each transmitter acted as a check, one that signaled that Administration forces had been there and that until that point everything had been explored. More importantly however, they gave out a lot of information on the surroundings in a constant but reliable way. The Administration had to monitor thousands of miles and hundreds of sites, but it just did not have the manpower, and these little devices proved very useful in alleviating that. And cheap. The Administration always liked cheap. The main reason why they realized the landslide had affected this site in the first place had been precisely because of one transmitter set up in the hill.

Now, their usefulness didn’t make them easy to carry around. They weighed around 2 to 3 kilos, depending on the model, and weren’t that small. Still, the lieutenant took it out with a single hand and with tremendous ease. It usually was tucked away in the backpack of the battledress, but as the there was only one per team, it was Alice who carried it. I would have offered to help her with that, but the last (and only) time I did it ended with me being barely able to walk after two hours. I had no illusions of being half as fit as Alice, but, still, being crushed like that wasn’t fun. It wasn’t like she only carried that extra too. Besides the standard backpack plus transmitter, she also carried a cylindrical and very long case on her back, one with her favourite adalstier heavy rifle on it.

The rest of the team preferred to carry their standard Administration rifle on hand, and I got so used to it that it was Alice without any apparent weapons on herself the one that weirded me the most. Well, except her sword on her waist, now properly hidden within the battledress (yes, their battledress did have have a system of straps to hold and camouflage a sword with it, yes, he also found it very weird, and yes, it was also likely due to Maid influence). Rachel was sometimes a bit worried about her friend's apparent helplessness. However, the few times we talked about it, Alice argued that with the Remnant being their most usual enemy on the exterior, the fact that she didn't carry her weapon on hand wouldn’t matter, because if they were taken by surprise they were dead anyway, and as a last resort weapon her blade would work just as well (meaning not much). She was right of course, but still…

My inner debate didn’t stop Alice from setting up the transmitter with the practiced movements of someone who has done this at least a dozen times, even while crouching. Now however I could help her with the more technical part of it, as I kneeled before the device, pressing a pair of buttons, and checking if the signal was being sent correctly through my PAMAH. Nodding to Alice, I rose again and looked around.

The team had spread out, searching for the samples. Fuji and Kevin worked together, while Rachel was on her own. While they were still inside, the size of the chamber was so big that I felt that I would have had to shout for them to hear me in any capacity. Still, after finding some bits of rocks and minerals, they would show them to me, I would check them, and then we could return. Honestly, I was a bit impatient. Today had been tiring and weird, and I wanted nothing more than calling it a day and go home to Akkierens.

"Warrant officer"

Alice rose from her crouching position. I could only wonder what she wanted

"? What is it, lieutenant?"

She looked down, her boots tapping the floor, as she did whenever she was nervous.

"Well, my apologies for Kevin and the others. I know you’re a bit uncomfortable about your family’s situation. It also all came because of my indiscretion. For that let me apologize."

She bowed at me, in a way that if she still had her hair free would have ended with her ponytail slapping me (though that prospect did look somewhat appealing). As always, she managed to look solemn and elegant even within the cumbersome battledress.

"No, no need to worry Lieutenant."

"Still, let me apologize. Perhaps you could let me do something for you? You appear somewhat tired today, and even Kevin and Fuji are worried."

Even as we met eye to eye again, she wouldn’t buckle. Rather, she was as sharp as ever. Still, it was hard for me to say what was wrong when I didn’t even realize it myself. She apparently misunderstood my silence however, as her expression slowly became a crestfallen one and her tapping stopped.

" ... Are you unhappy with our team? I know they appear as idiots, but I think they are in fact reliable."

Crap. I was slow to react, and now Alice was already whispering to herself without me having a chance to stop her.

 "And now that I found this team... I suppose it’s no use though. I’m sorry, even if you’re a technician you’re also way above our level, and deserve to work in a better post-"

Deciding to take a drastic action, I grabbed and shook her arm, trying to get her attention. She looked at me, shocked, but now that I had her eyes on me I could finally speak.

"No! I don’t wish to be separated by this team. In fact, let me apologize back at you for being so useless today. I don’t know what’s gotten in me today, but I just feel a bit weird and, and… I don’t know, weird! It’s frustrating, but I swear it doesn’t have anything to with you or your team Alice, you’re both great!"

A small blush started to appear in Alice’s cheeks, as both my words and closeness started to register on her mind. Awkwardly, she looked away from me, but did little else. Crap, maybe I overdid it?

"... Thank you, warrant officer."

The words lingered, but neither me nor the Lieutenant moved (my arm still grabbing hers) or said more , and the mood became just too awkward. Deciding there wouldn’t be any good moment for it, I just let go of her arm, and took two steps back. She still refused to look at my eyes, and the arm I let go was just dangling, as if she didn’t even know where to put it. The pink still in her cheeks, at least her usual tapping of the floor had returned, though I feared that just showed how nervous we both were. Meanwhile, I was scratching my cheek with my legs fidgeting. Gods, it was so awkward! I had to do something, anything. Remembering a bit of our earlier conversation, I just latched into it, and spoke, with my voice sounding much higher than usual..

"Y-yeah, about what you said before? A favour?"

That seemed to put the gears of her mind running, and she answered, her voice somewhat cracking.

"Y-yes! Can I do s-something for you?"

"Uhm, can you just call me by my name instead of warrant officer all the time?"

"..."

The silence lingered. Oh gods, how I could be so stupid. That was even more awkward!

I sighed. Welp, I was already in, so might as well go all the way. Fuji was right after all, names were important. I took a  deep breath, before continuing.

"While you call the others by their name, you always call me only 'warrant officer' or 'Mayber'. I would feel a bit more comfortable if called by my name, Louis. Yeah, I know, military etiquette and all, but  when there’s no one else around, does it really matter?"

This time she meet my eyes. She seemed indecisive, a slight frown upon her face, the tapping intensifying, her lips pressed together in thought. After a while however she sighed, and looked at me with a small smile on her face.

"I would prefer to follow military etiquette while on a mission, but, you’re right, to hell with it. We are I don’t know how many miles deep below the surface after all. Still, Louis, Louis...."

Crap, I wasn’t used to hearing it coming from her mouth, so that was a bit embarrassing. Especially with how she was muttering the name, spending her time on each phoneme and vocalizing it with care. It felt very embarrassing, I don't know why. She seemed to think the same though, as a bit of pink returned to her cheeks.

".. further, you’ve already called me Alice just now, haven't you?"

Oh, that. I felt my cheek’s heat on my hand as my embarrassment became a full-fledged blush. Alice realized that, and started to giggle, all while trying to hide it with her hands. Crap, that was very, very cute. Of course, these thoughts didn’t help my embarrassment in the least.

"Fufufu…"

And so, as we acted like kids in elementary school, we continued our school trip.



Part 4
"-ouis!Louis!"

Kevin's (with Fuji behind him) words interrupted our conversation. For the whole length of half a second, I kinda hated him. Then I saw what he carried in his hands, and surprise overrode my dislike.

Kevin carried a small transparent canister on his left hand (his right on holding his rifle), a typical utility used by the Administration to carry samples. Inside there were some number of pebbles of different colours and other various grains. However, the surprising part was above the canister’s cover, where a rolling paper held some kind of metallic dust.

"Sorry, for carrying it like this,but I only had one hand, and Fuji-"

He directed a pointed look at his friend behind, which simply shrugged his shoulders

"-wasn't of any help. Anyway, here are the samples, and here is some weird stuff I found too."

He passed me the canister, which I held with all the care I could muster, hoping the powder wouldn’t be blown away. Fuji approached too, but I signalled him I would take his own canister (which looked completely normal) later. On the background, I could hear Alice lecturing Kevin about bringing rolling paper to a mission, but at that moment the only thing in my mind was to bring my PAMAH to whatever that powdery stuff was.

The seconds the sensors looked at it, identifying its spectra and chemical components, were one of the longest moments on my life. Just as it proclaimed the scan was finished, I tapped the button as quick as I could… and let out a breath of relief.

"Just aluminium, huh"

As the fear escaped my whole body, and I almost felt the need to lay down a bit, my eyes lingered to the canister I was holding. At some of the rocks and white grains. White grains.

I felt the jolt hit my entire body. While they looked like it, those grains were not salt. We had found them through the entire way here after all. I remembered very well what they were. With all the urgency I could muster I shouted towards Kevin.

"Kevin, where the hell have you found this dammed powder!!"

He looked at me, surprised by the intensity of my voice. Still he recovered and answered in flash. In some moments he did resemble a soldier.

"I found them everywhere. They were like dust, but very small and thin, I needed some minutes to collect enough so that it could even be seen."

Crap. This was bad, really bad. I looked towards my own uniform, and scooped all the dust and dirt I could find. Without waiting, I put the pile of everything through my PAMAH’s sensors.

"Shit!"

Among the data of the various silicates and oxides, there was without doubt a mostly metallic signal, that of Aluminium.

"Damm, how could I have missed this!!! Was the powder so thin it didn’t detect it, or maybe-"

Someone shook my shoulder. I turned my face, fully intending to discharge my rage and frustration upon whomever it was, to came eye-to-eye with Alice. Her hazelnut irises were deadly serious, her face appearing hardened like steel. She was beautiful, as powerful as a blade, but beautiful nonetheless.

"Louis, first of all, calm down. Then tell me what happens, and we’ll do our best to work around it."

Her voice was terse and aware, but there was a warm side to it. Realizing that panicking would only make things worse, I breathed in and out. After 2 or 3 deeps breaths, I looked at Alice, whose lips had now curled up a bit.

"Better?"

"Yes, thanks. We need to call Rachel. It’s more efficient to just tell it to everyone in one go, and we should leave as promptly as possible."

Alice nodded, and immediately left towards where Rachel had gone. Kevin and Fuji both looked at me a bit surprised, but their grips on their rifles had strengthened, and the both looked ready to bolt off the moment the order was given.

"Okay, I'm here, what happened?"

Alice returned, with Rachel in tow. The later had a rare frown of worry on her face. Still, with that all of them were now looking at me.

"... First of all, don't panic like me there. It's bad, but not 'we have 30 seconds to live' bad"

“That still sounds bad-UGH”

A kick to the shin later, this time courtesy of Fuji, I continued.

"The dust contains Aluminum powder. I suspect it was present even in the parts closer to the surface, we just didn’t realize. The Aluminum probably comes from the fragments of the original airship that formed this deposit. After hundreds of years and the impact, I’d wager almost none of the original form remains and we only have this dust. Still, Aluminum powder in itself is not too dangerous even when breathed. The problem are those grains"

I pointed to the white grains present in Kevin’s canister. Though I could just have pointed anywhere, or any of the other two canisters. White 'stains' were everpresent in the reddish soil, even within the cave, and they were made precisely of this white grain.

"This is Ammonium nitrate. As the aluminum dust is everywhere, this means the two are mixed"

"And…?"

"We're standing on an unstable mix of Tannerite, Kevin."

This time there was no need of a kick to the shin to shut up Kevin. Even he realized what this meant.

Tannerite was, in short, an explosive. A secondary one, used commonly by the military, formed by the combination of Ammonium nitrate with Aluminium powder. Its main property was that it responded not to weight or heat, but to speed. It was thus perfect for demonstrations of high-speed adalstier rifles while not being overly dangerous with anything else. That was of course, with a perfectly measured and balanced mix and in small abundances. We were now on a natural mix, that also had tons of extra minerals and may even have some adalstier mixed in. The word ‘unstable’ would be an understatement.

"...Crap."

Kevin’s word was a perfect mirror of our feelings.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

We didn't wait a second before we started our march back. We communicated our discovery to the captain, and he promised us he would investigate the matter on the other caves and galleries. It seems they did manage to found the deposit, so they couldn't just call for an evacuation right away; with the prize in sight, if it ended being a false alarm it would end with half of the commanding officers being demoted.

I could hear Alice's frustration as we marched our way back. As the Tannerite explodes by velocity, we decided that returning sprinting at full speed would be too dangerous; a tiny pebble we kicked out during our sprint could have enough speed to transforms us all into cinders. We were thus marching at a steady pace, very careful of where we stepped, while I had my eyes focused on my PAMAH to look for big concentrations of Ammonium nitrate so we could avoid them.

We still had quite a while to go, but things were going surprisingly well, until a sudden tremor almost send us all to the ground.

"What the hell was that!!"

"Whatever it was, it’s not near us."

I managed to answer while looking at my device. The tremor was big and strong, but the PAMAH put its focus some miles to the left… near where the adalstier deposits were supposed to be.

As I shared this info, Alice immediately tried to contact her superior.

".. could it be they exploded the Tannerite while trying to mine the Adalstier?"

Kevin looked worried. We all were worried. While we weren't that close, we knew a lot of the soldiers that were there (half of them were from our own company), and while we were ready for the worst, it wasn’t something pleasant to even think. Still, I shook my head.

"I don’t detect the heat that such an enormous explosion would cause. For the tremors to reach us, the explosion would need to be fairly big, and it’s just as likely that such an explosion would just explode all the Tannerite in its surroundings, meaning all the hill would become a volcano."

What I did not say, is that I detected a small heat source. It was not even near being big enough for it to be an explosion, but there definitely was something.

"Team…"

Alice's voice, her communication with the captain finished, had a tremendous sense of finality. She had been tense, but now she looked even worse.

"The captain has told me. We have a 666. The unit at the adalstier deposit was attacked by a Remnant."

I felt my heart sink, as my worst fears became real.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

We continued marching, in complete silence. No, silence was too mild a word, emptiness would be more fitting. It was not only that we weren’t speaking, but that even our breaths were barely audible, and our footsteps were languid. The only thing that interrupted the complete lack of sound were the electronic chirps of the Alice’s helmet, as she strained to hear every report about the current situation. By her face, none were good.

Still, the only thing we could do was continue marching. An evacuation order had been sent to all units, and we all had to hurry towards the landing zone, where Transports would come to pick us up. That if the Remnant didn’t get us first…

"... It seems for now there is only one."

Alice broke the silence. Realizing that that this eerie quiet was only making us more nervous and anxious every passing minute, she pushed herself to speak up. After all, no matter how grim the situation was, it was likely that our fears and thoughts were even worse.

"Some companies have tried to pin it down, but… the casualties were harsh. As all the combat has happened inside the caves, we can’t bring the firepower of our Zephyrs and stratocarriers to bear. The captain has told me the maids we had attached to our regiment have been sent to intercept the Remnant; a Skadia and Vidrein. He also has told me reinforcements are in the way."

She tried to present those facts in a hopeful way, but our expressions, even her own, were still grim. It’s not like the Administration wasn't ready to fight the Remnant. In this same team, Fuji and Kevin had actually been in live combat against them at least 2 times, something they always bragged about.

But to fight the Remnant wasn’t an easy thing. Normal soldiers alone can take them down, but that is always with an abundance of heavy weapons, air support and an overarching strategy. It was the most dangerous hunt in the whole Antiope, and if they got the drop on us we were dead. Thus, fights while on a scavenging mission were the worst, and the reason the Administration was so cautious with them. They were on closed spaces, where neither artillery or air power could reach, and we were on their lair, where neither terrain or strategy could help us. Even suicide bombing proved futile; an explosion on the level to obliterate the Remnant would just collapse the entire mine, killing all the men within it.

The only things able to face them in those situations were Maids. Hopefully the two girls Rachel had seen would manage. One of them was a Skadia, and Skadia maids were powerful if nothing else.

The power to control the elements, to use the energy within the quantum foam and give it form as terrible bursts of power. They could heat the air around them to become plasma, and direct it in a stream of destruction equaling the power of the Sun. They could take a more refined approach and ionize their surrounding, giving raise to thunderbolts and beams of electricity, not as powerful but just as deadly and easier to control. Or, if you managed to anger them, they could simply suck the energy out of you and the space-time you occupy, letting your entire system slowly break as every cellule of your body slows down and every fiber of your body becomes brittle. If they were merciful, they would kill you before that, but if they weren't they would let you freeze until your body was unable to sustain its own weight, collapsing and breaking into a million tiny pieces.

They were perhaps the only beings of this world outside the Gods that could deny the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Perhaps because of his background, he felt he had an unique understanding of how powerful they were. Though the price they paid was also equally steep, he knew it very well. At least it had been for Marie…

"UGGGHHHHHH!!!!!"

My head started aching like hell. I stopped, letting a shout of pain, and brought both of my hands to the head as if to support it. Anything to stop this damned pain. It was like if someone had opened my cranium and was pulling away at my brain, trying to take it from me. I fell. The pain made it all appear like in a haze, but I could see, and maybe even hear Alice shouting at me, Kevin and Fuji taking me by the shoulder,  and Rachel hurriedly taking out the first aid kit.

Then, darkness.

At some moment, I couldn't even guess which, it simply stopped. I didn’t even realize how much it lasted, or if it had been a second or an hour.  However, as I opened my eyes, I could see Fuji and Kevin were both carrying me each on one shoulder. My whole body was sore, though I wasn’t sure why. As I slowly recovered my awareness,  the team took notice of my recovery.

"Louis, are you OK?!"

"Thank all you’re fine! You had us worried out there!"

"Do you feel well? Even with the first aid kit I couldn’t detect any anomaly, so I wasn’t sure what to do. Tell me if anything continues hurting, I might be able to do something!"

"Louis, you’re fine… what a relief…"

I could see them all. Kevin, being the most worried I had ever seen him. Fuji, letting out a breath of relief he had probably been holding since I was unconscious. Rachel, looking terribly frustrated at not having been able to help me. And Alice, who just smiled at me, little drops in the corners of her eyes.

I tried to tell them that I was better, but my words just became a coughing fit. As I endured it, I wondered what the hell had happened. My body was sore, and it seems like my throat was too, but at the same time I felt my mind was clearer than it had ever been, and I didn’t feel tired at all despite the soreness.

On my second try, I had a bit more success.

"Hey, guys, sorry to worry you."

I motioned to both Fuji and Kevin to let me stand on my own, and while they were reluctant, in the end they both conceded. I stretched my legs, and I felt again that strange surge of energy, now accompanied with a dash of impatience. I didn’t know why, but I had the feeling I had to go somewhere. My inner feelings aside, seeing me being able to move and all seemed to tranquilize the team.

"Do you feel capable of continuing, Louis?"

Alice cut to the chase. I nodded back

"I don’t really know what the heck was that, but I feel in perfect condition."

"Perfect. Though if you feel any kind of pain, please tell me, we can still arrange some kind of evacuation."

"Not a problem, I’m in top-"

I stopped myself. Wait a second, 'Arrange for some kind of evacuation'? Weren't we evacuating?

My question must have been reflected on my face, because Alice brought her hand to her face, pinching the bridge of her nose and letting out a sigh that didn’t foreshadow anything good.

"Oh, it’s true, they told us after you were already unconscious…"

I looked at the rest of the team. The mood had changed. Before we were all wallowing in fear and anxiety, but now there was some kind of fatalistic finality in the stares of everyone. What had happened? I returned my stare towards Alice, wordlessly asking her what was the meaning of all of this. She met my eyes for a long while, before opening her mouth.

"Louis, you were unconscious for around 20 minutes. During that time, in fact just after you fell, the situation changed. We have a 000, Louis. A 000."

Triple-zero. A code that signalled a new objective, with top priority over anything else they were doing, for all the available troops nearby no matter the disposition, training, or mission. The retrieval of a maid engine.

The maids had failed, and they couldn’t even retreat with their engine. This could only mean death, for at least one of them.

"The Vidrein maid managed to retreat, but it seems it was only because of the Skadia maid covering her, at the cost of her life."

Even a Skadia couldn’t do anything against that monster….!

"3 fourths of  the regiment were already on transports by the time a 000 was declared, so we don’t have much coverage of where the engine could be and can’t expect much support."

The first rule of a triple-zero was to localize the missing Adalstier engine. If any threat was around and retrieval was deemed too complex, then a simple monitoring until further reinforcements were sent could suffice. But even that monitoring required to be close enough to the engine to see it, and in practice such monitoring was always interrupted by the Remnant. Casualties would always rise catastrophically.

But such was the nature of an Adalstier engine. Refined with the most pure Adalstier found, making a single one could require years even with the city’s entire adalstier output. They were the lifeline of the Lyceum, and one of the most powerful defences of any city. While nobody dared to say it out loud, it was no secret that the higher command wouldn’t hesitate in sacrificing a thousand men if it meant safeguarding a single engine. Even the Lyceum, despite their motto and ‘care’ for the lives of the city, wouldn’t hesitate in pushing the Administration until the engine was recovered, no matter the cost. This was the nature of a triple-zero.

"... due to our route, we are in fact quite close to the last position we have of the Skadia maid. With you like this, we were wondering what to do. Now that you are fine though, we have to make a decision…"

I could see Alice biting her lip, forcing herself to say the last words. She appeared frustrated at the situation and her own powerlessness. However, there was no decision to make. After a cursory glance to the rest of the team, I spoke what was on everyone's mind.

"It's not like we can do anything else, can we…? Even when I was unconscious, that wouldn’t have worked as an excuse to avoid combat. We’re in a triple-zero after all. The alternative would be…"

Desertion. I left it unspoken, because even the thought made me shiver. Desertion was already a pretty big  crime, and would end with you on a military tribunal. But desertion on a triple-zero? That was abandoning Akkieren’s when it needed you the most, it was high treason against the state. If caught they would be put either in life imprisonment, or outright executed by firing squad, the blemish appearing on all registers of their families. 

It was not something we could just decide.

"Well, then we simply have to be the big damn heroes!"

Kevin’s shout broke me from my inner spiral of negativity. However, as I looked at him in shock, the rest started speaking up too.

"Yeah. I mean, instead of looking at the negative part, look at the positive! If we manage to do it, we’ll most likely get a condecoration! A pension for life is quite tempting"

"That will show my parents~~ Also, we can , like, flaunt the condecoration over all those superiors who were afraid of Alice. Even while on a small team we kicked more ass than them!"

"Guys…"

Alice's face was glowing with gratitude, a smile both tender yet resolute on her lips. Yes, there was only one to thing to do, so why should we do it with only dark thoughts in mind? I looked at Alice, ready to say my piece.

"We all enlisted for a reason. We are all here because we want it. So what we should do is clear."

Alice closed her eyes, taking a deep breath, before opening them again, this time ready for the action. Her expression steeled, her posture as sharp as the edge of her blade and the light of victory shining on her eyes.

"Well, then, let’s march team! We have an engine to retrieve!"


Part 5

The place was just at the base of the hill. The sunk half was not uniform, but rather formed a very steep slope, like a cliff, with various caves dispersed through it that carried deeper within the hill. The fact that the landslide had such a tremendous effect was an important clue that, even before it, the inner structure of the hill was already pretty complex, and most likely those caves were not recent. The landslide just revealed them. A full hill doesn’t sink after all, no matter how strong the shockwave.

This meant however that the caves we not just spread in an horizontal way, but also vertically. A series of very narrow pathways, some of them natural, some created very quickly by the first wave of the scouting team so we could investigate deeper, connected most of the caves. Thus, to say the paths were dangerous and unstable was understating the magnitude of the problem.

However, no magnitude could ever get close to what lay at the base of the Hill. There was the cave that lead towards the main adalstier deposit. A simple hole, its main feature would be that its surroundings were almost flat in comparison to the steep slopes surrounding it. It almost was like a terraced field, except instead of plantations it did have the usual reddish soil with its common companion the white stains. Yes, it appeared our friend the Ammonium nitrate was still there. Yet, everything about the place paled in comparison to the figure standing just in front the cave, like an ancient guardian statue.

It looked like a quadruped beast, but he did not dare to guess which of those appendages were limbs and which just overgrown filaments or spikes. That was because it’s entire body looked like it was made of steel, yet it had an organic feel. Instead of plate, the steel appeared in filaments, looking for all purposes like muscle tissue and tendons. Its face looked more like like a snout, and it was completely smooth, unlike the rest of its body, with no sign of eyes or any kind of sensory organ. Its proportion were also weird, with 2 of the limbs (legs?) appearing twice as large as the two others, plus two miniature spikes emerging from what if it were a human person he would have called shoulders. The end to all of its appendages was the same, something that looked like the mix between a claw and a hand, with 3 "fingers". While whatever alloy it was made of looked to be the same for all the body, its color wasn’t; its forward limbs had acquired a maroon shade, like oxide, while the head had a tinge of blue, and its back was the same reddish as the soil. The body looked scarred too, with gashes everywhere, and even a longsword impaled on its right hind limb.

Its size was enormous, as tall as 4 men and with a length of at least 15 meters, and that was in its current position. With its limbs extended it could easily be as large as 20 meters. It wasn’t wide though, it looked somewhat like a skeleton, with only the hind limbs being somewhat thick respect the rest of the body. Still, with that size, even the spikes jutting out of the shoulders could kill any human with ease.

"... Damn, I’ve never seen one like that"

We were in one the narrow pathways, concretely one 6 to 7 meters above the Remnant. The reason we chose this one was that the outwards part flared up in this particular point, so we had a small rampart to protect us from the beast’s sight. Well, it was fairly small, more like a guard rail than a wall, but as of now we would take anything we could get.

We had been lucky. When we descended after exiting our cave, we had managed to avoid the Remnant’s eyes (or whatever sensor he had instead of them), and approach without being detected. Considering the size of the beats and the thickness of its hide, our rifles would just be peashooters to it, so our only chance was in Alice’s gigantic adalstier rifle. Considering she was setting it up right this moment, our stealthy march had effectively saved our lives.

"We haven’t fought many, but still…"

I could hear Fuji answering Kevin’s previous offhand whisper. I had little experience with the Remnant, but I hoped that whatever it was it landed in the ‘less troublesome’ side of the spectrum. Of course, the blood stains all around the beast didn’t inspire much confidence.

It was curious; there weren’t any bodies, so in a way that should make it easier for me. Yet, the imagined horror of what could had happened to the bodies made it worse, a lot worse. Because something had definitely happened. The blood there was enough for a dozen human to die of blood loss, so I had no illusions about our comrades being just wounded.

The place didn't help. The flat surrounding meant the beast could see us coming, and its position was almost opposite to that of the landing zone, so both reinforcements and retreats were slow, very slow. It was quite obvious that whatever we had been trying until now hadn’t worked.

I turned towards Alice. We were all crouching behind the natural rampart, but she was lying on her stomach, the huge case on her back now besides her and opened, showing an enormous cannon she was tinkering with. It was of a grey colour and spartan design, with the grip lacking the usual leather and the barrel being completely open, more of a flat strip of metal than a cylinder, with thin plates at its sides with a coating that revealed its magnetic nature. Technically an adalstier heavy rifle, it was at all effects a railgun with a scope to aim with. While the huge caliber and tremendous speed of its projectiles made it the only weapon we had capable to put a dent on that thing, it required a meticulous set up if we wanted it to be accurate. Considering our surroundings were full of tannerite, we had to be accurate if we wanted to live. So Alice had spent the last 5 minutes preparing her weapon. I could see the amber shine of the adalstier used to power the weapon as she checked the magazine well for the fifth time.

"Alice…?"

She looked back at me. While she probably had the right of being angry at my interruption, she just appeared tense, but with the resolution in her eyes still not fading. She nodded, gesturing me to continue.

"Why aren't we bombarding it from afar? It seems it isn’t moving, so we could just find somewhere to hide and then have the Stratocarrier and Zephyr’s guns blow him apart."

The Remnant looked resilient, and he knew the bigger types could take an enormous amount of hits. But still, it was in the open, and a constant bombardment would most likely work and be far more effective than what they were doing now.

Alice however shook her head.

"High Command has decided that any kind of bombardment has a high chance of damaging the engine. Especially after they checked following your report and discovered the hill is full of tannerite. I even had to convince them to allow me to use my railgun."

Alice pointed towards a place somewhat near where the Remnant was. There, a dark reddish glint could be seen even among the similar coloured soil. We had found the engine, but the position of the Remnant meant the only thing we could do was sit and wait for more reinforcements, and so we had been doing. Still, the position of the engine was a bit weird; it was near the end of the ‘flatland’ surrounding the beast and there wasn't any blood stain nearby. I could only guess that its owner had somehow remembered the defeat protocol, where the maid was supposed to throw the engine as far from the fight as possible if there weren’t any allied forces nearby.

A shiver went down my spine as I realized the maid had somehow found the will to throw away her closest companion in her last moments as she was dying. The shiver was however replaced by a surge of impatience. I had that weird sensation since some time ago, but I felt we had to pick that engine, in any way possible. As I looked the distance between the remnant, the engine, and any possible cover that could mask our approach, a plan started to form up in my mid.

"Alice…?"

She directed me a questioning glance, before motioning me to continue, all while she was still working on her railgun on the side. I tried to lower my voice to barely a whisper.

"I think maybe we can get the engine and slip by."

Her question turned to shock, but she nodded. Around me I could feel the eyes of the team on me.

"The beast hasn’t been moving in these last minutes. It’s obvious it won’t for now. If we wait for reinforcements we can maybe manage it, but it’s very probable a lot of of our comrades, or maybe us, will die. Especially considering we don’t have air support."

"Yeah, but it's not like we can do much else. If we get near, the Remnant will detect us, won’t it?"

I had expected Fuji's question.

"The Remnant didn’t react when we got in this position. While we hid and tried to be as quiet as possible, that thing is obviously mechanical, and acoustic sensors should be able to catch the sound of our heartbeats from that distance, even one from before the Old War. I think that thing has senses different from the ones of a normal human. More concretely, I believe that Remnant doesn't 'hear' anything."

I could see the dawn of understanding slowly appear on their faces.

"The engine is nearby one of the pathways that bring to the cave of the deposit. If one of us crawls through it, they might be able to avoid the Remnant’s detection, and take the engine. After which we can leave this place and just bomb the thing."

Kevin seemed to like the idea, while Fuji and Rachel were nodding to themselves, thinking of the risks and the benefits. Alice however put up a protest.

"Wait! While the idea is good, I can’t let us do something so dangerous on such feeble evidence. Maybe the acoustic sensor is really that bad, or maybe the Remnant confused our movements with that of an animal running by."

I could sense the trepidation in her voice, even if its volume was still on the same level as a whisper.

"Then we can do a test."

"Wha-? A test?"

I picked up a small pebble. Slowly, while still crouching, I approached the flare/barricade separating us from a fall towards the terrible beast.

"Alice, do you have the Railgun set up?"

"Y-yes. I’m just fiddling with some of the adjustments, but it can fire at any moment."

I nodded at her answer, as I slowly raised my hand, the one with the pebble, towards the rampart. As she realized my intention, she in a flash aimed the railgun towards me. I could see the rest of team gaining some distance and preparing their rifles too. I was a bit impressed. I suppose we were soldiers after all, but seeing how they were able to understand my intentions and react so quickly made me a bit happy.

I, in a slow and methodical way, let my hand, still clutching the pebble, over the rampart. When my hand was above the 6 meters of air, I let the pebble go.

*Cling*

The slowest seconds of my life started. I could hear the cling of the pebble as it fell and bounced multiple times upon the soil, the momentum gained too big to dissipate in only one collision.

*cling*cling*

My friends were ready, all tensed up, waiting for our worst fears to happen. If the Remnant reacted, what it would do is jump towards me and devour me in an instant, but such a thing might give Alice an opening to fire the railgun. At point blank, she wouldn’t miss, and the impact would surely leave more than a dent. Of course, it’s not like I planned to die, but if I was wrong then let’s at least make the most of my failure.

*cling*

The sound started dying down. Despite the fear and distress I could see on the gazes of my friends, I felt oddly calm. My mind was now focused on the engine, on a way to recover it. I suppose it was for the best. After all, If I started thinking about death then the weight of my regrets would crush me and leave me unable to act.

**

There was no more noise. The beast had not moved.

I let out a breath I didn’t knew I had been withholding, and nodded towards Alice. She and all the others had similar expressions of relief and had lowered their weapons somewhat, but they still reacted and huddled towards me.

"Don't ever do something so fucking dangerous without warning, warrant officer, or I’ll kick you through your butt."

I winced at the colourful imagery. We were still talking in whispers, but nonetheless the threat felt very real.

"Then, leaving that aside, did the test convince you, ma’am?"

"... It continues being risky, but it’s better than just standing here hoping for the best when the beast can destroy the engine at any moment without even realizing it. Tell us the details."

I let my lips curl up in a smile. It was a bit strange, feeling happy about doing something so dangerous, but the engine was bugging me for some reason.

"Well then. I'll crawl up through one of the pathways, taking a way through which the Remnant can't see me. You will position yourself in another of these ramparts, a bit farther, and if you see the Remnant sniffing me out, you will shoot it and distract him while I take the engine. Hopefully it doesn't come to this, but if it comes, I think if you retreat through one of the caves just after hitting him, he may not pursue you. He seems oddly protective of the deposit. That-"

"Wait!. Why are you one the risking yourself?!"

Kevin cut me off, seeming both angry and worried at the same time. Through the corner of my eyes I could see Alice nodding, her stare digging into me, while Fuji and Rachel gave me questioning looks.

I gulped. Part of it was my selfish desire of taking the engine, but there was a more rational side to it.

"Because I’m dead weight. If it comes to a fight you will need every weapon and man, but I’m neither that trained and I only carry with me my side-arm."

I took out a handgun of the holster it was in, well hidden within the battledress, putting it in front of the others.

"Whoever tries to take the engine will not be able to fight. Either he will take it, or die quickly. Thus, as I have no combat ability, it makes the most sense for me to do it."

I could see from their faces they were having difficulty accepting my reasoning. Alice was biting her lips, while Kevin and Fuji had face-splitting frown and Rachel directed me a worried glance. Still, in the end they knew I was right, and accepted it.

"Though, why can’t we simply cover you in this position?"

I answered Fuji's question by pointing at the white stain located barely half a meter to our right. After hours of walking through this mine-field we had even grown somewhat accustomed and lost some of our fear; whatever the tannerite mix was, it wasn’t that unstable to explode at people walking. It still was something dangerous and we should fight far from it. I dropped the pebble earlier because I thought that even in the worst case the remnant jumped on us, an explosion could help more that hinder us. Any extra damage on the Remnant would be worth it. But if they were simply firing to distract him, something farther and safer would be better.

Fuji nodded, understanding what I meant, and we started readying ourselves. I could see them doing a last minute check-up on their weapons, as I clutched the handgun I had shown earlier and returned it to its holster. As we were all still crouching behind the rampart, I grabbed my legs, praying that the surge of energy I felt earlier was real, and I wouldn’t just lock up at the decisive moment. Whatever it was, I hoped it could help me.

Slowly, we finished our preparations, and the time to get going came. I nodded as the team started marching through one of the pathways further up. I would wait here for 5 minutes and then start my crawl. We didn't knew if the Remnant had an electromagnetic wave sensor, so we had cut all radio communication minutes ago, the last transmission we got being precisely the High command's informing Alice of the decision to not bombard the zone. So we decided that I would wait 5 minutes before going, to give them time to get a good position.

The last one was Alice. She looked at me, furrowing her brows, biting her lips, almost as if she wanted to tell me something. Before long however, she shook her head and let out a sigh, deciding that whatever it was she wanted to tell me, it wasn't worth it. She did stare at me, her hazelnut eyes shining again with resolution, even if I could see the trepidation and anxiety behind them. She opened her mouth, staying like this for some seconds, almost as if she didn't know what to say.

"... please be safe"

In the end she did let out those words. I could only nod, looking at her eyes with a confidence I didn't have as I tried to answer her.

"I promise."

I felt bad for promising something I  wasn’t sure I could achieve, but I believed  we both needed the reassurance. 

Nodding back at me, Alice marched with the rest of the team. I could see I had not fully dissipated the doubt in her eyes, but we both felt a bit calmer now. I suppose it was now time to back my words with facts.

I counted the minutes in my head.

1

2

3

4

And… 5

I started crawling. The path I took wasn’t a straight one towards the engine. Rather, it was a web of narrow pathways, in which I took one until a certain point then deviated through another, all while trying to avoid the Remnant’s vision.

The 5 minutes of now had been fairly long, but I was almost sure my crawling towards the engine would take me twice or thrice as long.

Or that was the idea.

*CLANG*

A enormous metallic sound resounded, and I felt time slow to a crawl. I could see how the Remnant jumped, in slow motion, how it magnificently rose through the air to an altitude that I didn't think possible with a stationary jump. Its size, its ferocity, it all jumped at me at this moment, and I could only look at how the beast came closer and closer…

Until it went above me.

Terror dawned on my face as I realized where it was going, and I rose up.

Yet time had only been slowed in my mind. The Remnant’s jump was fast, and before I had finished my motion it had already collided with a section of the ramparts. Human screams resounded, ones that i was very familiar with. Despair and hopelessness fell upon me as I realize the damn beast had just targeted my group of friends.

I could see their faces in my mind, which were immediately replaced by a furious red anger. At myself, at the world and that damned spawn of everything that was wrong with Antiope.

Yet even my fury was meaningless. The Remnant turned towards me from its position, almost as if that collision had been all that it needed to annihilate my best friends. I could barely see a pile of debris and rocks there. The beast then took one of its smaller limbs, and with that mix of a claw and hand grabbed an enormous stone from the heap. I looked at it defiantly, not caring about anything anymore. In less than 2 seconds we had lost everything. The Remmant raised the stone, its intent clear. Deeming me an inconsequential threat, it was not even worth for it to destroy me in close combat. A mere oversized pebble would suffice.

Without hope or any idea of how to survive I was ready to end it all right now, but something tugged my mind. For some reason, I don't know how, the engine surged within my thoughts, and its presence faded the despair and rage within me. My self-preservation won, and within the second I was jumping from the pathway towards the ground below.

*CRASH*

I could hear as the rock the Remnant had thrown impacted on where seconds ago I had been, the debris hitting me. Still, that didn't worry me, at least compared to the fact I was falling from 6 to 5 meters of altitude. In the second I had I tried to find a way to cushion my fall but-

*Puf*

"UGHHHHHHH!"

Pain shot through my legs. I had at least broke my ankles, if not both my entire legs. Yet the adrenaline quickly stopped the pain. I had to move, the beast would either send another projectile or come here itself, and in both cases I now had no hope of outrunning it.

A glint caught my eyes. A Dark red shine. Maybe unconsciously, I had jumped towards where the engine was. At this point I realized it. I recognized this engine. I knew it from before.

A  copper coloured band surrounded the crystal, the colour somewhat faded, perhaps to make the glint of the dark red adalstier even more stunning. It had dark patterns engraved, with a motley collection of dark and black colours which together with the copper made them look like embers. The band itself was relatively thin, yet even from here I could feel an abnormal temperature; no matter the time or place it always was lukewarm to the touch.

It was the Embers' Final Hymn. A skadia engine my eldest sibling, Marie, had used 5 years ago, one which had forced her to live the remaining of her life on a bed.

I reached for it. It was a pointless move, yet I still tried. And when I touched it, everything made sense.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Dark.

The curtains were closed and the lamps off, so the only light that entered the room was through the door’s small aperture and the thick curtains. Still, there was no need for me to see the white ceiling and walls, I had been enough time in this hospital to know them as well as my home.

A bed was in the center of the room. A long nondescript hospital bed, one that would never look out of place anywhere. Yet this one had Marie on it. I gripped the bedrails.

Father and mother had just left. I suppose they wanted to leave us some time alone. However, I couldn't find it in me to thank them for it. My throat hurt a lot, almost as if everything I had wanted to say to Marie was trapped there. Yet I also found myself unable to let anything out. Almost as if my pride, love, dislike, appreciation, etc, had all become a paste stuck to my throat, its sheer thickness making it impossible to come out.

"... I’m sorry."

Marie's feeble voice struck me. I looked at her, shock and surprise in my eyes. Why was she apologizing? Why?!!!

"In the end, I wasn’t able to protect you as much as I wanted."

"Wha-"

*Cough*

A cough fit from her interrupted my thoughts. Quickly I took a vase of water prepared nearby for such cases and helped her drink it, being careful to not let any slip and that she could gulp it all down. After some time, she motioned me she was all right again, and I returned to my position on the bedrail.

"... I’m a sorry excuse of an elder sister, am I? First I needed my little brother’s help since I was small, and even after I became a maid I was unable to use my powers to protect him. In the end I even made you worry."

'NO!' was what I wanted to shout. I wanted to tell her that I was the one who always treated her badly, who let my pride control myself and disrespect her constantly. But I couldn’t. The knot in my throat just became bigger each passing second, hurting more, yet making me unable to say anything.

"You protected the city."

In the end, with all my strength, I managed to let out a whisper. She reacted with surprise, after which she let a bitter smile form on her mouth as she shook her head. Marie, always straightforward and innocent, made a smile this cynical. I could only wonder how much had the Lyceum and fights changed her.

"I barely protected anyone. In the end, I was so eager to fight, so eager to have a purpose in life, so eager to be an able and competent elder sister, that I overdid it. If I had the patience and maturity, I could have perhaps worked to protect the city for 5 or 10 years more… I can only hope the next ones who receive Embers will be better about it. I even feel bad for the Lyceum for wasting their time with someone so useless-"

"You are not useless!!!!!!!"

The dam broke. I let out everything I had, without thinking, without stopping, all while Marie looked at me.

"You were always so kind, and I was always such a jerk! No matter the moment, you always smiled at me even when I was bothering at you, even when I did so purposely! You always took my abuse without answering back, almost as if everything was your fault! It WASN'T! I was just being a complete idiot because every time I saw you, I felt I couldn’t compete! No matter what I did, you always looked so mature, so kind, so gentle! I felt I had to be better than you! That I couldn’t just be a useless brother! Yet, always, I ended letting my pride get the better of me…! You became a maid without doubting, despite all the risk! You were bent on protecting everybody. You wanted to protect me, even me, your stupid little brother!! There's no way you would ever be useless!!!!!!!"

I let my head fall down, to the bed, the white sheets blocking my eyes. At this moment, I felt like I couldn’t look at my sister. Letting it all out had been a weird feeling. Like if my body was numb, but on the inside. As if my muscles had been in constant tension for years, and had just relaxed for the first time. The only thing I did was talk, yet I felt utterly exhausted. At this point I didn’t even care anymore. Marie could just laugh at me if she wanted, I deserved it anyway.

".... thanks."

I felt a drop of water hitting the back of my head. Turning my face up, I found Marie looking at me from above, having raised from laying in the bed to a sitting posture. Tears were welling in her eyes, in great numbers, without any intent to hide them. The azure of her irises worked very well with the tears, and I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the sight.

Softly, she brought a hand and rubbed my hair, like she did when we were little. She pushed my head towards her lap, still covered in sheets and the smell of analgesic, all while still rubbing my head. The touch was so nostalgic… It almost felt like we had returned to those times, with me being but a baby and she but a clueless child trying to imitate mother. I closed my eyes.

*Drop*

Tears started to fall from my eyes too. The pain in my throat resumed, now from the emotions overflowing from everything. I wanted to hug her, thank her, tease her, play with her, tell her she was too harsh on herself… However, I just focused on her hand, enjoying this moment where everything had  returned to be as simple as it was when we were kids.

*Drop*

**

Little by little, the moment faded, and I finally opened my eyes. Marie had a dazzling smile, tears still overflowing, her eyes now red due to those small drops of water. I wanted to tell her a lot of things, but, at the same time, I felt there was no need to.

"... I really have the best little brother in the word."

I blushed at the remark like I was a 5 years old.

"... the only reason I’m alive anyway is thanks to Marie, so, if anything, it’s all thanks to you."

She smiled at me. I raised my head from her lap, recovering my position at the bedrail. I looked at her, eye-to-eye, and let an awkward smile come to my face. It was perhaps the first time I had smiled at her in years. Her lips curled even more, her eyes closing and her smile almost reaching her ears. I felt very silly in how I had withhold something that made her so obviously happy just for my stupid complex.

We basked in that combination of awkwardness and cozyness for some time, before she voiced an unusual request.

"Lil bro- I mean, Louis…?"

"What is it, Marie?"

"Ehm… Before, when we were little, you used to call me sis or sister. Ehm, i-it doesn't need to be always, but can you call me like that again? Even if it's only this time…"

Surprise showed up in my face. The request was certainly shocking, but after all I did it was but a triviality. I opened my mouth-

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I returned to the present.

Upon touching the engine, the copper band had simply attached to my wrist, the bracelet now extended in what could only be a bronze gauntlet, The dark engravings of before had now evolved to the form of full fledged dark flames, its lukewarm touch had just become scorching hot and the dark red gem was shining like an old fire, one that had been rekindled from its embers but had lost none of its fury and power.

For some weird reason, the engine had chosen me. And while I couldn't rationally explain it, I felt I didn't need to. I could hear the whispers of the engine, like the crackling of fire. They told me of my sister. Of passion. Of burning everything until only embers remained.

*PLAF*

A shockwave assaulted me and I was thrown away like a rag doll. I had still been laying on my back, my legs unable to sustain my weight. I looked ahead to confirm what I suspected. The Remnant had jumped from its previous position, taking a 10 meter fall like it was nothing but with the impact on the grown enough to blast me away.

Looking at him, I felt my rage return, burn hotter than ever. That thing had to pay. I had to destroy it. Following the engine’s indication, I brought my right hand forward, and could even feel how the power accumulated there. How all the heat in my body focused on that point, turning the already hot engine into a scorching deflagration. And I let it go.

What could only be a flare was emitted from my hand, impacting squarely into the Remnant. Its colour, between red and orange reflexcted its ferocity as it reached in the entire beast… and got flicked away like it was nothing by one of the beast’s upper limbs.

I felt my entire body get cold like ice. It wasn’t just my spirit, it was a physical sensation. I started coughing, trying to use my hand to hide it. Cold. So cold. Looking at my hand again, I realized that besides spit I had also coughed up blood. Cold.

Thankfully, whatever I did had made the Remnant stop. It was now ‘observing’ me, realizing something had changed. That I was no longer a normal human. Which gave me the time to recover a bit.

I wanted to hit myself. I was a man. No matter what strike of fortune had helped me now, it was evident I would never have the same firepower as a normal maid. Even if I had it, a trained maid of the Lyceum with those same powers had just gotten killed by this same beast! It was obvious it would be no different if I just used those powers without thinking! And I had even fallen into Ember's provocation! That thing had been what had ruined Marie’s life, an engine that was just like its namesake, burning everything until only embers remained, including its user.

I pushed with my arms, trying to at least get into all fours. My knees hurt a lot, but they were a bit better than my ankle, so I could somehow manage. I looked at the Remnant. From where it had jumped from. Its current position. Its old position. Its limbs. Everything.

And it dawned on me. A small, perhaps infinitesimal, but still non-zero chance. The Remnant… had been avoiding the white stains. The reason why it hadn’t attacked us when we arrived wasn’t because it couldn’t detect sound, but because it realized there was tannerite nearby. This damned little bastard had tricked us, waiting until my friends were far from any of those explosives to pounce on us. Of fucking course. Whatever it was it was used to the caves here, so of course it knew about it and a way to avoid them.

But no more. Was tannerite what it hated? Then I would explode it into its face!

Unfortunately, the Remnant chose this precise instant to start moving, deeming that even with my new abilities, my small figure was no threat. Before I could even react, the quadruped beasts was in front of me, its smooth face/snout before me. Then, the snout opened.

While closed, the face appeared smooth with no sign of a line or aperture. Yet it opened in two, like a maw wanting to devour me. What were there were no fangs or teeth though. The inside, like the outside was almost completely smooth. Almost, because in both the upper and lower parts, where the palate and the tongue would be, there appeared what looked like nozzles. With horror I realized that was no mouth, but a combustion chamber. That was the reason there were no bodies or guts thrown around, it just burned everything it killed. And that was what it was going to do to me-

*BANG*

The Remnant was sent flying over, crashing towards a wall. The shockwave of the impact assaulted me, but this time I managed to resist. What the hell had happened?! It was like something had shot the Remnant, and not a small weapon either, but a high caliber-

Like a high caliber adalstier railgun.

With a start, I looked above, towards where the shot had come. The pile of rocks and debris was still there, but in the midst I could see a metallic glint that wasn’t there previously. More than one in fact. My heart sang with happiness upon realizing that some of my friends had survived, that Alice had survived.

*PAF*

But it was not over. The Remnant rose again, with a visible dent on its snout but still ready to fight. Its snout pointed first towards me and then towards where the team was. It then used its longer limb, the hind one, to crack the earth and take a fragment of it, bigger than the previous rock it had used. A fragment that it was ready to throw towards my friends.

Yet, the Remnant had made a mistake. I put my hand forward, focusing again, as the beast raised its hinder leg in a powerful display. When it had taken the fragment of earth, the Remnant had not looked below… where a white stain was obvious in the now uncovered soil. I pulled my power, this time in a more moderate flame; I had to constrain myself if I didn’t want to die, and besides, speed was more important than sheer power. The tannerite would do the rest. As the Remnant finished its motion, I threw the flame.

I had almost lost my friends earlier, I would not miss this chance.

*BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM*

Heat. A shockwave sent me flying as the heat almost burned my face. I couldn’t hear anything, everything my ears sensed being a constant ringing. I didn't know much, but that felt as one of the bigger explosions I had ever seen; that stain might have been a fairly big vein, because that was not a mere kilogram explosion.

After everything had stopped hurting, I dared to open my eyes. What had been a relatively flat land besides the deposit cave had now become something different. The side where the Remnant had been launched into by that shot had become a smooth slope that reached until half of the former flatland, as the explosion destroyed what few stability the web of narrow pathways had and a minor landslide ensued. The other side (the one where I had been launched into by the explosion) had somehow survived.

There was no signs of the Remnant. I did it.

The euphoria giving me strength, I somehow managed to raise to my knees, looking up. The explosion had stopped the Remnant mid-throw, but I had to check on the team. There, I could see some of the team's faces. Alice, with her face full of dust and dirt, yet with a brilliant smile. Fuji, giving me a thumbs up. Rachel, waving. After the explosion they had come out of the pile of rocks and debris; they most likely had played dead within it to survive. I could sense a story there, better ask later.

As the euphoria passed, I just felt drained. Deciding that I no longer had the energy to stay on my knees, I just laid back on the soil. Somehow, we managed it. I closed my eyes for an instant. When I opened them, I could sense something had changed. Alice for example, was shouting something at me, with a frown on her face. My ears were still ringing, so I couldn’t hear anything, but what could she mean-

I didn’t hear anything, but I felt it. My body felt the vibrations. I rolled my body to look at it, no longer having the energy to raise even on my knees, praying to everything that it wouldn’t be what I thought…

All in vain, of course. In the midst of that slope, the Remnant appeared again. His skin blackened by the explosion, the odd spark through its hide meaning this time it had suffered internal damage, but it still rose.

I couldn't do anything. I had spent everything. I could only lay on my back as the monster started to walk. From the corner of my eye I could see movement. Probably Alice trying to aim her rifle and save me. I felt thankful for her consideration, but I hoped she started running instead of doing that. Now that she knew where they were, the beast wouldn’t have a problem avoiding her rifle.

The Remnant continued walking. Well, I suppose that was it. My life had been a short one, but I guess-

*CLANG*

A purple flash. What could only be described as a giant sword crashed against the Remnant, stopping it, before they pushed each other away, creating some distance between them. It was at this moment I realized that the giant sword had a human figure attached to it, one with a black uniform and a long ashen hair flowing behind her. A Maid.

Without even looking at me or the others, the figure sped towards the Remnant again, so fast I couldn't see it- no, a purple flash told me she wasn’t just running. The Leysa maid wielded her enormous blade against the monster, attacking its limbs with non-stop unavoidable slashes. While the beast tried to counter with sweeping attacks, the woman dodged them with ease. Still, while adding gashes to the Remnant blackened steel, even that gigantic sword was unable to penetrate its hide or legs.

After another purple flash, the maid disappeared, this time appearing 10 meters from the Remnant. Realizing that her strategy wasn't effective, she was observing her enemy with care. The beast, mad at the non-stop appearance of new enemies, charged at her, opening its snout for its special move. The woman smiled, charging right back towards what to her appeared like an obvious weak spot.

I felt my pulse quicken. If we did nothing then that maid would burn to her death! I put all the strength that remained in me in a powerful shout.

"STOP! It’s a combustion chamber!"

In a second, as I shouted, our eyes met each other. Her amber eyes shone with ferocity, courage and even a sort of feral cunning.

The second after, the woman entered the opened snout, and the beast closed it. My heart stopped for a moment. Had I been too late?!

A purple flash later, the maid appeared outside the Remnant, just before an enormous explosion occurred within it. The snout, normally closed in such a way the division wasn't even visible, was being forcibly opened by a storm of fire within it, powerful enough to overcome its almost perfect sealing. The powerful beast trembled, before finally falling over, its snout opened to reveal a blackened interior matching and surpassing its exterior. But a second later, a set of secondary explosions ensued, ripping apart one of its limbs and opening a small hole in its hide. The Remnant was finally dead. It was over.

"More powerful than expected. I guess those new generation grenades aren’t just for show. Oh, and thanks, kid. That could have been dangerous."

Seemingly realizing we existed, the woman looked at us, and even thanked me after muttering something. I wanted to ask a lot of things and say a lot of things, but I had neither the energy nor the will for either. I could only lay on my back.

"I'm Elidia, headmistress of Akkieren’s Lyceum. We received notice of a triple-zero, and we moved with the Silver Wings. Seeing an explosion from the sky, I rushed here as fast as possible, even if it required an unorthodox drop. I wager I arrived in time?”

I could only nod at her, our eyes meeting for the second time. This time however she noticed my gauntlet, a dark gem shining brilliantly on it.

“... I see. It seems there is a lot to explain.”


Epilogue

"Interesting…"

Steiner Laudo peered at the projection in front of his face, his emerald eyes flickering with curiosity at the data presented there.

"Did you find something?"

Mathias' voice asked him in a gentle tone. The older man behind him, sitting in a office chair, had long given up at keeping up with the information the Archivists had in its projection, the later scrolling through the pages at a surprising speed.

"Not much, at least on what we were looking for. There isn’t any previous user of the 'Embers' Final Hymn' that ever had such… peculiarity."

His voice was a bit gruff, almost as if he was annoyed at someone interrupting his reading, despite the fact that the only reason he was even reading that was because of the Curator’s petition.

"Hmm…"

Mathias brought a hand towards his chin. This complicated things, but it wasn’t as if they hadn't expected it.

"Overall, a fascinating case."

The gloomy Archivist looked unusually happy, some mix of excitement and glee dying his features.

"That Mayber, he was diagnosed with a mild case of malignant infantile osteopetrosis at birth. When he was a but a baby he received a bone marrow transplant, the donor being her natural elder sister, Alice Mayber, a former maid who trained a this same Lyceum, who at that time was a but 3 year old baby. It seems his recovery was complete, with no anomalies nor chronic side-effects, so we have no follow up on his state after he was 6 years old, beyond routine medical check-ups. Still, everything points towards him being the main cause instead of the engine. Maybe it is Chimerism? Or perhaps Mosaicism is the better word? Anyway, when are the further analysis coming in?"

"There will be no further analysis."

Steiner turned his head towards the Curator, his shock and anger apparent on his face.

"Why?!"

Mathias returned the glare, his usually warm blue eyes replaced by a colder and harsher equivalent, one that reminded more of the frozen Barrens than of the temperate sea.

"You know it. Exposing this case to the public would only result in more futile and horrendous human experiments, and the Headmistress won't allow that. You know how hard is to shut them down, no matter the pressure of the Lyceum, the scientific community and the public. The last time we had the support of the Captain, and even with that it was quite the struggle. The moment you give them the minimal hope of success, those bureaucrats of the Administration will try again. The prize they seek is just too irresistible for them."

Male maids. The concept was intriguing, but that was no surprise, for the entire maid physiology was intriguing. Understanding enough to create a male maid meant understanding enough to make artificial maids, which at first sight looked like a prospect much more enticing. But in the end, the engine made the maid, and the number of engines was just as scarce as the number of natural maids. The bottleneck would just change positions, synthetic maids being relegated to a curious but small footnote in the archives.

Due to this, it hadn't been that hard to stop the kind of horrible human experiments designed to make synthetic maids. Even for the richest of Akkierens, paying enough for a natural maid to be loyal to you was simply cheaper.

But male maids were interesting. Male maids after all wouldn't be able to join the Lyceum, at least as it was now. They were a loophole, a way to put a type of maids under the direct command of the Administration, bypassing the Lyceum. And the Lyceum had proven that sometimes it could be very annoying our outright oppose the Administration in certain matters. Thus, there never was a lack of funds or plans for investigation regarding male maids, despite of the shady nature of the experiments.

"... even so, that doesn’t meant we shouldn’t at least know something about it. If the Lyceum takes the matter on its own hands, then at least some more information would-"

The Curator cut Steiner’s rebuke

"The more people involved, the higher the chances of a leak are. The decision is final. If you have any complaints, go take them to the Headmistress."

The Archivist bit his lip, frustration evident on his face, with his hands clenched into fists. But, after some seconds, he finally nodded. Mathias let out a breath of relief, happy that things had gone well this time.

"... For the same reason I would prefer for you to not say anything to Erick. I trust his character, but you also know he's thoroughly professional despite his looks."

Steiner nodded again, the gloom having returned to his face and his irritability at an all-time high. Without answering, he turned back towards his desk, intending on continuing whatever he had been working on before the Curator's arrival. Realizing he would get nothing better than that, Mathias rose from his chair, fully intending to continue his work. As he started walking away however, an offhand question of the Archivist reached his ears.

"Oh, and what do you intend to do with that bunch that was with him?"

Steiner hadn't even turned towards Mathias, and it was clear he didn't care much about the answer, focusing as he was on his work again. The Curator found it a bit odd for their taciturn Archivist to ask, but he decided to humour him, a smile gracing his features as he answered.

"That team was a peculiar one. A close-knit one. The Deputy Headmistress will check on them, but I don’t think there is nothing to worry about."

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


White. Wherever I looked, I could only see white. The ceiling itself was of a pristine yet pale colour, looking like it had been eons since anybody had touched it. The corner where the ceiling became the wall was rounded down, the people who designed it thinking it would be more pleasant to the eyes. But it just made the place even more boring: the ceiling to the wall, the wall to the floor. No distinction. It looked like cage, one where I drowned in a sea of tedium. Only some slight dirt and the odd cork board differentiated up from down, left from right. I wondered if I would even realize it if gravity decided to flip out while I was there.

"-then we retreated to the cave, but Fuji let out a grenade just before the collision. BAM!! The ceiling collapsed above us, forming a pile of rock and debris that would flatten us!!  But I was there! I protected everyone with my body!! Wasn't I the best?! It was thanks to me that everyone got out alive. They should be calling me a hero! Ha!"

It most certainly did a very poor job of distracting me as Kevin told me how he had saved everyone of the Remnant for the seventeenth time. He was laying on a bed, his left arm gesticulating in some weird form I could only presume was the position he took to uphold the debris that had fallen towards them. His right arm was wrapped in an orthopedic cast, the same as his left leg, which was raised in the air through a strap that connected to the ceiling. The white sheets smelled more of sweat than analgesic, but that could only be expected from Kevin’s bed.

"Impressive."

I answered, my voice such a monotone I could have been confused with a machine. I had, after all, been hearing Kevin for half an hour, and that had been more of ‘ hearing Kevin repeat the same tale twenty times’ than just small talk. I stretched my arms. My legs were numb too from me being in a wheelchair all day, but it's not like I could do anything about that. In the end, it seems I did broke my ankles, but the rest of my legs somehow weren't that affected. Perhaps my newest friend had something to do with it. I looked at them, a copper band around my right wrist, the dark red gem upon it glinting like always.

"Yeah, yeah! Man, we did it! Do you think maybe we’ll get a condecoration? M-maybe I’ll be able to meet Yuki in some way!?"

I let my lips form devious smile. He didn't knew half of it. I could tell him… but where would be the fun on that?

"Maybe?"

"D-do you think so? Man, maybe that will make up for Fuji's loss. He was so young…"

"... I'm still alive, you know?"

A retort came from the bed besides this one. Unlike Kevin, Fuji barely had any visible mark left by the fight, but it seems he did have some internal damage on some of his organs, so he had to stay here. His bluish black hair looked longer, and he was laying on his back, in a position that if he closed his eyes it would be mistaken for deep slumber. Still, if Kevin had been just prattling at me for half an hour, how must it have been for him being at his side for 24/7?

"... it must have been tough."

I looked at his eyes, and we had a connection, a flash where we both reached a mutual understanding, one that could only be reached by those that had been in Kevin’s presence for more than an hour. He nodded to me, no vocal answer needed, no need to speak of the untold horrors. My sympathy towards him skyrocketed. That was a true soldier who had braved everything!

"... still, it wasn’t that bad. There is that hottie of a nurse to comfort me, after all."

He winked at the end. I looked at him confused, Kevin perplexed too until he realized what he meant.

"UGH! You meant that gorilla?! That male nurse?!"

"How rude. I’ll have you know that every body has its beauty."

"That has its beauty?! And of course, the time that I do get put into the hospital for being a hero, the nurse caring for me must be a gorilla. Of course! Am I cursed?!"

"Well, then you should be glad that at least some of us appreciate it."

"Ugh!... wait, Fuji, before, you told me that muscles weren't your type. Were you lying, you traitor?!"

"Nope. You must understand, the body isn’t everything. That guy, he just has such a boyish innocence… He's just too cute-"

I let out a small giggle at seeing the two banter like that. It was nice to hear them again. Still, I didn't have that much time. Looking at my clock (on the left hand, a new one with a copper colour to match the band in my other wrist), I realized it was time to get going.

"Guys, I should probably get going. I want to visit Rachel and Alice while I still have time"

"Oh, yeah. Say hi to those two. They are in a super-fancy hospital aren't they? Officers…"

"I think that has more to do with their families than them being officers Kevin… Still, you're right, which is why I don't have much time as I wanted. Want me to say anything to them?"

"Just hi."

"For once, I agree with Kevin."

“Ok”

I nodded, before moving my wheelchair towards a small cabinet, where I had left my thing upon entering the room. As I took them out however, Kevin and Fuji took notice of something

"Oh, a flower bouquet, feeling bold eh, Louis!"

"If you give that to the lieutenant, I think she might let you do anything"

Fuji finished his words with a suggestive wink. What the hell were they even talking about?

"... I don't know what you're talking about. I just thought that non-synthetic flowers are quite rare in the upper zones, and Alice told me she loved camellias. Maybe it's a breach of etiquette?  Still, we're friends, so I think she would give me a pass. I suppose if Rachel told me her favourite flower I could also bring some to her."

Both Kevin and Fuji looked at me, their brows twitching, as if wondering if I was serious. Huh? Had i said something that wierd?

In the end Kevin let out a long sigh, while Fuji made a bitter smile.

"Louis, I don't know if you're a genius or a complete idiot."

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Fresh air. I took a breath of Akkieren's atmosphere, just outside the hospital where Kevin and Fuji were. The sun shone up high. The adalstier glittered through the sky. We had returned home, to Akkierens. I still was in my wheelchair, but I felt better than ever.

My phone rang. Wondering who it was, I took it out from my left pocket, letting a wide smile form on my face upon seeing the name of who was calling. Pushing the button, I accepted the call and put the phone on my ear.

“Yes, sister?”

« Last Edit: August 16, 2017, 12:02:53 am by Marx-93 »
Why can only the evil have empires, power and majestic theme music? I reclaim the possibility of creating the Federal-democratic-free Empire! A (democratic) tyranny fueled by the Power of Love!

Started writing. You can check it out here: Home

Offline Marx-93

Re: Living as Usual: A MaidRPG story
« Reply #1 on: August 16, 2017, 12:14:24 am »
Well, it's over.

Sorry, everyone who is reading this, for the confusing way I uploaded. But in the end, despite my initial reluctance, I ended a bit satisfied. The work is nowhere near perfect, but I think it came out decent, and I learnt a lot while writing (for example, I'm unable to rush things so if I think I can do something in 25 pages I will really take more than 50).

Some notes:
  • First, I played fast and loose with tannerite's rules. I like to do a lot of research about a stuff, but at some point I realized that if I spent 2 hours more searching for info on explosives, the Spanish police might present at my house asking me what I was doing. At the same time, I felt that plotobtainium or Explosive ex machina might be a bit too on the nose. So, I guess what I meant is, don't take what I say on tannerite as too reliable, I just needed something for my plot.
  • Second. In the end, the the story didn't have a male dressed as a maid, but just being a lore-wise maid. I kinda realized my mistake when I had already started. Thankfully Arra has been very kind about accepting almost every kid of entry, but, still, I'm sorry if you expected something else?

And remember, feel free to review in any way you want! All feedback is appreciated.
Why can only the evil have empires, power and majestic theme music? I reclaim the possibility of creating the Federal-democratic-free Empire! A (democratic) tyranny fueled by the Power of Love!

Started writing. You can check it out here: Home

Online Revontulet

Re: Living as Usual: A MaidRPG story
« Reply #2 on: August 30, 2017, 02:04:38 pm »
Only on part 3 atm, but Im enjoying the banter between everyone so far. Really makes the squad feel realistic to me :)
Milten [Sep 13, 2016, 03:31:18 pm]:   Come on, Rev's soul is 99% lewd, 1% Kurumi
Deeox2 [Dec 16, 2016, 01:31:10 am]:   ... Wow, I think Jannti broke my world solely by existing, lol.

https://youtu.be/USTCUPm5WB0

Online Deeox2

Re: Living as Usual: A MaidRPG story
« Reply #3 on: September 14, 2017, 06:09:47 am »
Yoooo. Quick thoughts that I now have remembered to put into the written form.

Spoiler
- I feel that there is some bumpiness to the general establishment to characters and relationships within the beginning of the narrative. However, quickly, this was smoothed out during my reading. To clarify, I was having a hard time caring about the characters during the first chapter, which may have been exacerbated by the level of detail and how much information was given. Leading onward through the narrative, I did not have these feelings. This is definitely something that was more specific to my reading, I would say.

- I don't even know or remember how Adalstier works, but I think the use of tannerite (which, man, I have never heard of before, lol) is less interesting than say... what if they were sitting on unstable Skadia Adalstier? Idunno. I've only read the lore documents millions of times.

- I think the juxtaposition of a "traditional Maid" and our "nontraditional" lore-wise Maid is good use of the challenge set forward by Arraxis. If there was a continuation, I would definitely like to see further contrast.

- The characterization of Alice seems to jump around a bit in terms of her emotional state (and not simply as a result of how I've seen men write female characters). I think, that this is a result of not being completely clued into story knowledge, coupled with the first person perspective.

- Few grammatical things here and there. Capitalization, punctuation... It's got a comedic feel in some parts, so it's excusable, but less so in the more serious areas, I would say. Also, pet peeve. When people don't put a comma before a character is addressed in a sentence (For example: “Don’t go there, John!”) really irks me because I've spent so long agonizing whether or not one has to do it. I hate commas. So much. English punctuation was created by the Devil himself.

- More references to canon Maids would have been interesting. I'm not exactly sure how one would want to go about doing that ideally due to the position MRPG is in currently, but it's an idea.

- Needs moar female homoeroticism. It's MRPG for cryin' out loud. Yuritopia.

Anyway, I enjoyed it.

Offline Marx-93

Re: Living as Usual: A MaidRPG story
« Reply #4 on: September 15, 2017, 06:16:53 pm »
Oh, thanks Dee (also to you Rev, but I didn't want to seem like an obsessive author that answers every short thought)! Some quick answers if you don't mind.

Spoiler
  • The thing with tannerite is a pet peeve of mine. One of my my personal rules is 'never do with magic what you can do with common science'. Also, from what I know, before being refined Adalstier has no differentiation (honestly, I think even after being refined there's no such things as different crystals, the elements are in how the maids interact with them and in the colours of the engines)
  • On Alice, you're right. She does jump a lot between comedic and serious. Part of it is that Louis is dense and she's a bit high-strung and dramatic, but it's a bit too much. She was originally supposed to be more like the other squad-mates, an endearing but simple character, but once I started writing she took over. Looking back at it I probably should have done an entire chapter just focused on her, and let her interactions with louis be comedic and relaxed until Part 4. That's why you don't let short stories become double their expected size boys! The structure becomes a mess.
  • I love punctuation, but it doesn't love me back. With comas I'm more of a fan of being natural sounding than searching for grammatical perfection, but hat doesn't mean you should strive for both.
  • As it's a male maid contest I figured I would do a bit for the other team. Fuji wants his Yaoitopia too!

I probably should collect my ramblings on Sisters and Daughters too. I was way too late and posting new feedback after Meliran's post is scary, but I really have no excuse now.
Why can only the evil have empires, power and majestic theme music? I reclaim the possibility of creating the Federal-democratic-free Empire! A (democratic) tyranny fueled by the Power of Love!

Started writing. You can check it out here: Home