More than anything else in his life, Koichi knew, deep down in his heart, that he really didn't want to be here. Not just that he didn't want to be in the Neo York Zero Zone, dashing amongst derelict buildings, picking his way across cracked pavement and ducking to avoid the low branches of improbably healthy trees. Nor that he regretted his decision to join Jinsei's security force, aiming his career at the corporation's army and winning a field assignment. Not even that he was fighting an all-out war that he didn't believe in against derelicts, criminals and madmen. No, what he hated the most was that here, half-way across the world from his beloved home, they were losing.
To him, it was an unavoidable conclusion. The officers had constantly assured them it would be an easy victory. That their opponents were scattered, disorganised, poorly armed and afraid of the corporate armies. But from the second he had set foot in this blighted city, he knew it was wrong. Intelligence had been up to scratch on the terrain. They were perfectly accurate on the state of the city and the bizarre landscape that had emerged over the years of neglect. But nothing had prepared his squadron to be ambushed mere minutes from the command post.
And here it was, looming ahead of him. A large patch of land had been cleared by the Williamsburg bridge, and a number of prefabricated bunkers had been set up. Koichi had arrived in the second wave of troops; he'd heard from the first that the bunker was established within hours of rolling into the city.
He slowed his hurried pace as he approached the clearing. A pair of heavily armoured troopers stepped forwards to bar his path. Division 1, the Wolf Brigade, as they'd been nicknamed. At first, he'd wanted to join the Brigade for their paycheck, rumoured to be ten times his own. Now he wanted to join them for the cushy assignment. Since the initial push, the Brigade had sat out the invasion, mostly just guarding the bunker and the bridge.
He came to a halt in front of the soldiers and paused to catch his breath. <Private Koichi Tokita,> he announced. <Bringing a message from Sergeant Koda.>
<Hold on,> one said, his voice muffled by the heavy mask. There was a brief chatter over his radio, then he turned his attention back to Koichi. <You're clear. Go ahead.>
He gave a short bow and made his way past the pair. He walked briskly to the bunker, noting the numerous temporary buildings that had sprung up around it. He made his way around to the main entrance. He stopped again, more to regain his courage than his breath, then opened the door.
Inside was a picture of military precision. The bunker itself was little more than a single large room, the walls lined with neatly groomed operators at terminals. Opposite the main entrance was a large screen displaying a map of the Zero Zone. A small patch of the map was blue; the rest was shaded in grey. A pair of Wolf Brigade soldiers stood at attention by the door. He hurried past them and stepped onto the floor, approaching the commander.
General Shun Maeda turned to watch him approach. Even in the bunker, the general was dressed in full combat kit, save for his helmet. He was a middle-aged Japanese man with a shaved head. Koichi could tell from the cut of his uniform that he was in excellent shape. He realised Shun was watching him expectantly, and he snapped to attention.
<Sir! Private Koichi Takita, bringing a message from sergeant Amon Koda, Sir!> Koichi snapped a salute and stood frozen, waiting for the General's response.
Painful seconds passed while the general watched him, before finally saying <Aren't you with Lieutenant Iwada's platoon?>
Koichi brought down his hand. <My squad was attached to Lieutenant Watanabe's platoon after Lieutenant Iwada was killed in action, sir.>
The general nodded. <Your assignment was to push through Barter Town to the Entertainment District, was it not?>
<I assume it is going well,> he said, circling Koichi.
Koichi swallowed hard. Since Amon had sent him to run the message back to the compound, he had feared this moment. He briefly wondered if talking back to the general was a punishable offence, but quickly dismissed the thought. After all, he was just a messenger.
<No sir,> he said. Silence washed over him. Out of the corners of his eyes he could see the staff turning from their stations, watching the two of them. The general had frozen in place, Koichi could almost feel his dark eyes were boring into the side of his head. <We're losing ground and men, sir.>
The general stood stock still. Koichi could feel a great pressure building up around him, as if the walls were closing in. He felt trapped, and wanted to scream. But all he could do was stare ahead at the board. To him, the patch of blue seemed so incredibly small and fragile, ready to be swallowed up by the grey that surrounded it. He felt the sweat beading on his brow, the pain in his feet and the chill of the night on his back, all in agonising detail.
Finally Shun stepped back around in front of him. His right eye twitched briefly before he spoke. <Perhaps you had better give me the entire message,> he said quietly.
<Sir! Reporting the loss of Lieutenant Watanabe and Sergeant Nakada. Sergeant Koda has taken command of the remainder of the platoon and ordered a withdrawal. He requests support to pull his men out of Barter Town. They are pinned down by fire from an unknown number of men, including at least one sniper in an elevated position.>
<Is that all?> The general asked. Koichi suppressed an urge to tell the general to go to the hell he was sending all his men. He merely nodded quietly. <Then you are dismissed,> the general said. <Return to your platoon, and tell them I will send support.>
Koichi blinked in surprise as the general turned away. Noise came flooding in around him. He sighed, as if he hadn't breathed in years, and relaxed his posture. Before forgetting himself completely, he snapped off a quick <Yes sir!> and quickly exited the bunker.
'Return to your platoon,' the general had said. Koichi quietly shook his head as he stepped out into the compound. From here he could hear the sounds of gunfire, see the smoke trailing up into the air. He shook his head again, and stepped past the Wolf Brigade guards. Back to hell without so much as a goodbye.
Koichi decided to get lost along the way.
"Look what we dragged in!" The burly man yelled. Koichi could feel the man's hot breath on the back of his neck. A rough shove from behind propelled him forwards into the room.
It was the lobby of an amazingly intact hotel. The surprisingly professional sign outside proclaimed it as the "Family Hotel," and it didn't take much imagination to figure out precisely what kind of family ran the place. He knew the fighting was approaching this position, and it was clear that the people inside knew it too.
Koichi had never seen such a motley crew in his life. To his left, by the counter were a group of European men, invaribaly fit and well groomed. Each seemed to be wearing what could only be described as a uniform, consisting of a stripped down business suit, lacking the tie, coat and, in some cases, the shirt sleeves. They watched him as he entered, each one brandishing some form of firearm, ranging from submachine guns to old revolvers. Next to them was a group of Asian men dressed in dark street clothes. They were more bunched together, and while they didn't show their guns so openly, Koichi could still make them out.
Those were the organised ones. Around the room was a ramshackle collection of people; young and old, men and women and even and exotically-coloured synthetic at the back. Some were armed, others hefted poles, pipes, or even bits of debris as makeshift weapons. The only thing they had in common was their malicious stare, all directed at him.
A man stepped forward from the European group. He was notably older than the others, though still in good shape, with his slick black hair greying by his temples. He looked Koichi up and down, holding his Heckler and Koch in both hands, before looking past him and asking "What did you find?"
"Caught him wandering in the woods. Said he wanted to join our side," said the burly man behind him. Koichi didn't need to look again to know that he was virtually identical to the European group by the counter. Clearly Mafioso, and by them, Yakuza, or possibly Tongs. He'd heard of the zone's gangs and organised crime groups, but had never imagined they would work together. He looked around the room once more, taking in the odd group around him. There was something about them that struck Koichi, an indefinable quality that he couldn't get a grip on.
He looked back to the man in front of him, realising he'd been spoken to. He blinked in mute confusion, saying <Sorry?>
"You speak English?" The man said.
"A little. Not well," Koichi said haltingly.
"That's enough. My boys say yours are near hear, right?"
As if by an unspoken command, the Mafia contingent subtly raised their weapons. Some were already pointing at Koichi. He looked up at the man before him and nodded.
"Good man, that," he replied. "You're a smart boy. You want to do the right thing. Don't you, boy?"
Koichi swallowed hard, and quietly nodded again.
"Good man." He nodded to the burly man. Koichi felt a weight on his shoulder, and reached up. His fingers grasped the butt of a rifle, and he brought it down in front of him. He stared at it in disbelief. It was the very same rifle he'd been issued by Jinsei, the same one the burly man had taken off him when he was ambushed by a half-dozen Mafia thugs.
He looked up in confusion at the older man and said "I don't understand."
"Simple," he replied. "You're going to take us where your people are."
Koichi looked around again. All eyes were locked on him. He shook his head and said "I can't. They my people."
The man put a gentle arm around Koichi's shoulder. "Look, here's how it works. These," he said with a sweeping gesture, taking in the room's occupants, "Are my people. And they're good people. They don't want to fight, but they have to. They're doing what's right. And you want to do what's right too, don't you?"
Koichi finally understood the look in their eyes. They weren't afraid of Jinsei. They knew they would probably lose. But they were determined to fight for their homes, what little it meant to the outside world. He knew once and for all, that they were in the right.
And for once, he felt good. Damn the corporation, he thought, and damn their war. He nodded slowly. "I show you," he said quietly.
A cheer went up around the room, but Koichi didn't hear it. He was lost in the magnitude of what he was about to do.
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