Chapter 75

Exiting the Dome was always a big deal for any of the inhabitants, moreso for those who weren’t part of the military, but Ran had become so accustomed to it that she didn’t even take notice of all the inquisitive soldiers at the gates. Nagataka spend a while giving explanations about what they were going to do and who had authorized their departure, and finally they were let through, but not without several pointless warnings.

Why should we be careful about being found? We’re the ones doing the hunting this time, Ran thought.

“Where do we start?” Nagataka said, talking loudly over the racket of the military jeep. They were driving along towards the East, skirting close to the mountain and the cover the trees offered. “We got a rough idea they went East after they left the Dome, but they disappeared somewhere in the mountains. I suppose we could just drive in this direction and see if we catch their attention.”

“Kitteh?” Ran said.

“Kitteh? What do you me-”

“I can’t feel anything yet,” Kitteh replied.

“HOLY-” Nagataka shouted. In his surprise, he swerved wildly and nearly lost control of the car. They came to a standstill sideways after heavy countersteering and braking. Once they had stopped, Nagataka turned to the cat to speak. “Holy cow, what the hell? You have a talking cat?!”

Kitteh had made a series of deep tracks with his nails along the dashboard of the jeep, and looked rather spooked and puffed up. “Can’t you be more careful?” he said, eyeing Nagataka and growling.

“I- Jeez, you scared the living daylights out of me!”

“Can we go now?” Ran said, catching both their attentions. “What? Really now, we don’t have time for this.”

“But…” Nagataka said.

“But what?”

Nagataka took a few more seconds to regain his composure. His heart had felt like it was going to burst inside his chest, and was slowly regaining its normal pace. He sighed, turned the key in the ignition, and resumed their march. “Okay, so we just drive East, and…” he hesitated, looking at the cat. “And you can find her?”

“Maybe.”

“Ma-”

“What do you mean maybe?” Ran interrupted. “You said you could find her!”

“I said something was wrong,” Kitteh replied.

“You’re bloody useless,” Ran retorted, sulking back into her seat.

“I’m just a cat.”

Nagataka ignored the discussion, and instead focused on rummaging through the backpack behind his seat. He produced a pair of yellow-tinted wide glasses, and put them on. He then got another pair out, and handed them to Ran.

“What’s this?” she said.

“Put them on, something I took from R&D.”

Ran obeyed, and as soon as she had them on, a heads-up display flickered to life. There was a compass along the top showing their direction, as well as several markings.

“What’s all this?” she said.

“Heads-up display. Will tell you where we are, how to get back to the Dome, and where friendlies are.”

She looked at Nagataka, and the HUD put a marking over his glasses. “Very neat. What else do they do?”

“That’s about it. They can also lock into wireless signals some enemies give, but that doesn’t work so well.”

“I see,” Ran said. She was looking around left and right, trying to find other signals. When she looked over her shoulder, she gasped in surprise. “Oh my. What’s all that?”

There were several markings she could see on the back of the jeep, laid on top of the back seat.

“What?”

“There’s a whole bunch of marks back there. What do you have under the seat?”

“Oh, that’s the mines. So that you don’t step on them.”

“Mines?!”

“Yeah, take a look. There’s a latch under the seat… There.”

Ran reached where Nagataka was pointing, and found a release latch under the lip of the back seat. Once she pulled it, the bottom of the seat became loose, and she was able to open it as if it was a chest. She stared wordlessly at the load they were carrying. She saw the signals piled up on the boxes she surmised to be the mines, there was a rocket launcher, boxes of what looked to be ammo for it, and boxes of grenades, all clearly marked. There was also a backpack wedged behind Nagataka’s seat.

“What… What’s all this?”

“Well, I don’t have any special powers, do I?”

“Really now, this is… Wow.”

Nagataka smiled, and kept driving without saying another word. Soon they were in the open wasteland, the edge of the forest having become too ragged and filled with underbush to stay close. The sun was nearing the horizon now, and in front of them, a nearly full moon was rising.

“It’s going to get dark soon, we should find some cover,” Nagataka said.

“Why?” Ran inquired.

“According to Fujihara-san, the aliens can easily spot us at night.”

“Really now, that’s a good thing.”

Nagataka looked at Ran and shook his head. “I don’t think you should take them head-on. If they took Nereida Pacifica, then-”

“Let them come!” Ran said, interrupting Nagataka and getting more fire up. “I’ll kick their asses and-”

“Ran!” Nagataka shouted, interrupting her tirade. “Even if you can, we don’t have to fight on their terms.” He pointed with his thumb at the back seat load. “Let them come to us when we’re ready.”

“I’m as ready as I need to be. You just stay out of the way when the fight starts.”

“I didn’t come out here just to get out of the way. I’m here to help you.”

“Really now. I don’t need any help.”

“Need or want? Why didn’t you get any help from the others?”

“I don’t need her help,” Ran grated. She had turned to look ahead, and the way she said ‘her’ froze the conversation on its tracks.

Nagataka pondered for a few seconds, trying to read Ran’s mood. Torao had told him that they had had a fight due to the girl they had captured, but he hadn’t gotten any of the details. And Ran was acting really strange. She had always been prone to mood swings, but now she was switching between angry and oddly detached even worse than usual.

“Fine, but what about the others? Fujihara-san, or-”

“Really now,” Ran said, and sighed. She didn’t even turn to look at Nagataka as she spoke. “Can’t ask anyone else. Nereida Andamania was there in the fight, so she’s too tired. Isamu-san is hurt, and-”

“Hurt? Is she okay?” Nagataka interrupted.

“Dunno.”

What the hell? She’s not even worried?

“What happened?” Nagataka insisted. “How did she get hurt?”

“Fighting the girl that came with the aliens. Dunno.”

She doesn’t care? Nagataka thought. Bullcrap, she always cares. What is she trying to do? He looked at Ran, but she kept her gaze stubbornly fixed on the raising moon. This is really not the time… Shit. Okay, fine, let’s find Pacifica first.

“I still think we should stop,” Nagataka said. He tapped the side of his glasses. “These will help a bit at night, but they’re not full-fledged night vision.”

“I don’t need night vision,” Ran replied. “I have enough with my own.”

“Your own what, night vision?”

“Somet-”

“Something’s coming,” Kitteh said, interrupting the conversation. He was still clinging to the dashboard, and looking ahead through the window.

“Aliens? Can you feel Pacifica yet?” Ran said. She waited for Kitteh to reply, but when he didn’t, she insisted. “Kitteh-sama, what’s coming?”

Kitteh turned to Ran, and for the first time she had the chance to see him looking completely confused. “I have no idea.”

“What does it feel like?” Ran said.

“Like… Like something… I can’t describe it. Something that shouldn’t be.”

Ran concentrated and called her aura vision. The horizon morphed in the usual way in her view, and the familiar bright aura appeared around Kitteh. She scanned the horizon, the mountains, but couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary.

“Which direction?” she said. Nagataka had stopped the jeep, and was waiting with his hand on the gear lever for a decision of which way to go.

“There,” Kitteh said, looking ahead.

Ran followed his gaze towards the mountain range, but couldn’t see anything. She stepped out of the jeep and jumped on the bonnet, trying to get a better view.

Then she saw it. A flutter of light appearing and disappearing under the trees, far away from them. It was a colour she had never seen. She couldn’t even describe it, it appeared to be green one second, red the next, and it kept shifting every time it reappeared into view.

“I see it.”

“And?” Nagataka said.

“And I have no idea what it is.” She jumped to the side, and tapped the jeep’s bonnet with her hand. “You better get out of the way.”

“Right,” Nagataka said, sliding first gear in. “I’m going to lay some mines and traps, if you drag the fight to the forest-”

“Really now, there’s no need.”

“Ran…”

“Just go.”

“Fine,” Nagataka muttered. “But I’m going to do it anyway. Keep the glasses on and don’t step on the mines.”

Nagataka sped away, and Ran started to walk, making to a rocky elevation but without losing sight of the moving enemy. She jumped to the top, and waited until the aura had come closer. It was still moving inside the forest on the mountainside, seemingly not willing to show up until the last moment.

“Really now, maybe I should send an invitation,” she muttered. She plucked a strand of hair out of her head, laid it on her magical branch, and formed her magical bow in her hands. “Let’s see…” she said as she tensed the bow, a glowing arrow loaded in it. “I’m going to lead you… This much!”

She released the arrow, and it flew at full speed towards the enemy. The aura and her arrow converged a moment later on the side of the mountain forest, and they both disappeared under the glow of the arrow’s explosion.

Ran didn’t have to wait long for the response. She saw some dark object fly out of the explosion area, coming straight at her; but even if it was coming fast, she had plenty of time to call her shield from her bracer and block the attack.

The attack turned out to be a lot more powerful than she had expected, and the impact knocked her back several meters. But what caught her attention was not the power. It was the attack itself.

It was bigger than usual. The shape was slightly different. But she recognized the object that had been thrown her way. It was a throwing mace. And even with all the differences, it felt just like the ones Ayame used.

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