7 The Coward“s Fate
Reaching the top floor, Lud stayed alert as he headed toward the party hall.
On the way, he found a trail of corpses strewn about the corridor.
Lud grimaced at the smell of the dead bodies—less the smell of rotting meat, it was more the stench of death itself.
Among the bodies, many were wearing the uniform of the ship's security personnel.
"They engaged the armed group? But..."
Lud scanned the area, but there weren't many holes or other damage from ricocheting bullets.
It meant that the security crew hadn't been able to fight back, and this had been one-sided battle.
Lud gently and respectfully checked one of the bodies.
They were shot from behind? And by a small caliber round...
It wasn't the 9mm ammunition normally used by the military, nor was it the even smaller 7mm they previously used.
It looked as if the wounds were caused by a pocket derringer that women sometimes used for self-defense.
These wounds wouldn't be fatal unless they had been shot at point-blank range.
The security force was made up of former soldiers who had assigned to the ship.
Lud couldn't believe these soldiers could have been taken down so easily by a weapon that so small.
Lud continued on, slowly and carefully, trying not to make a sound.
The corridor was covered in a thick carpet, which made it easier to move silently.
He checked the guide map on the wall.
So, the scenic viewing parlor is on the other side of that corner... The party hall is after that.
Calmly, with no sudden movements, Lud proceeded, until finally he could see the door to the party hall.
However next to the door, he was a person's silhouette.
"W-Who... Who is it?!"
A child crouched there, trembling.
"It's okay, I'm not a bad guy, I heard the commotion and came to help."
Lud spoke quietly, making sure not to terrify the boy any further.
"S-Save us! The band... We, we didn't know them! All of a sudden, today, there were a bunch of people we didn't know!"
The child was young, and looked to be about Jacob's age or perhaps younger.
He was wearing old-fashioned clerical garments that a monk's apprentice might wear.
"One of the kids from the choir?"
Lud remembered that one of the events during the party was an amateur choral performance.
"I get it, so the soldiers snuck in pretending to be the musicians in the band?"
The boy agreed, nodding his head up and down.
"What about inside the party? Are all the scary men gone?"
"They all went somewhere... But I'm scared... too scared to move..."
If Lud's prediction about the small number of soldiers was correct, they couldn't spare personnel to guard hostages who had nowhere to left to run.
"I see... Are there any unharmed people inside the hall?"
"Yeah, my friends, and the nobles... but there are so many bodies, I'm scared..."
Lud understood that the agonized faces on the dead bodies would be a horrible and frightening sight for a young child.
"I got it, Do you want to come inside with me? That way you won't be scared, right?"
Seeing the boy give a trembling nod, Lud shielded him as they entered the party hall.
From inside the hall, Lud heard a stifled scream.
One of the surviving guests shrieked, fearing that one of the brutal rebels had returned.
He looked for Sophia among the frightened faces.
He found her lying among a group of hostages, as if she had been dropped there.
She wasn't dressed in her regular uniform, but he knew without a doubt it was her.
Lud shouted, and Sophia gave a small grown and opened her eyes, staring at Lud.
—No she was looking behind him.
"Captain, you fool! The enemy's behind you!"
Faster than Sophia could shout, the young boy behind Lud pulled a small pistol from his monk's robes and aimed the barrel at Lud's back.
Lud turned around just before the boy pulled the trigger.
He looked completely... unsurprised.
Nor did he look unaware of what was going on.
In fact, the look on his face suggested that he had everything already figured out.
"I knew it."
Before the boy could respond, Lud grabbed the boy's hand holding the gun, and raised his whole arm toward the ceiling.
The bullet from the gun hit the chandelier above them and scattered shards of glass onto the floor.
"Dammit, he found out?!"
The voice didn't belong to the boy.
Other children crawled out from beneath tables and chairs pointing similar pistols at Lud.
"Are you going to shoot your friend!?"
Lud still held the gun and the boy's arm fast.
Even an adult would find it hard to escape his grip.
"Crap... Wiltian scum!"
"Using such a cowardly tactic!"
Pretending innocence about their own actions, the children reproached Lud.
"Captain... How did you know?"
Sophia asked with a blank look, ignoring the pain from the gunshot wound in her leg.
"Did you forgot, Commander? I grew up the same way these guys did.
Just before his tenth birthday, Lud had been drafted as a class three soldier, and had entered military training.
He had been given lessons from his instructor with both words, and fists.
"You guys are weak. You don't have physical strength, but there is a weapon that only you can wield."
Their weapon was the fact that they were children.
If the opponent is a child, any soldier will let down his or her guard.
This was true of even for veteran soldiers.
In fact, even experienced soldiers who function in battle with their well-trained bodies often moving faster than their minds, will instinctively identify children as noncombatants, and lower their weapons.
The victims shot from behind by small caliber bullets, from a gun with recoil low enough for even a child—all the facts were clear to Lud.
But more than that—
"And there's no way... that kid wouldn't be scared of me, meeting me for the first time."
"Oh... I see..."
Lud's face was so frightening that Jacob, his long-time friend, age differences notwithstanding, even said that when he first met Lud, he was sure that Lud was going to kill him or eat him.
So, Olfen's behavior moments before, when he was terrified that Lud had come to kill him, was a more typical reaction.
"Wiltian soldier scum! To come here disguised as a civilian, you're the lowest of the low!"
Held fast in Lud's grip, the boy shouted furiously, his tone completely changed from before.
"No, this is... My work outfit... I'm just a baker..."
The children thought Lud was a soldier, and disguised as a baker to make them drop their guard.
"Don't screw with us! Like any baker would have killer's face like that!"
Lud felt a little like he wanted to cry.
"Just give up. You take advantage by making your opponents believe that they won't be attacked by a child. Once that's gone, you don't stand a chance."
Even if they were armed, and even if they outnumbered him, Lud's strength vastly overpowered that of ten children.
And now, one of them was restrained by Lud.
"Stop with the crap... You think we'd lose to the likes of you..."
The young boy seemed to mutter to himself rather than to Lud.
Instantly, Lud sensed danger.
Lud knew when he said these words, the boy was planning to lay his own life on the line.
"Everyone! Forget about me! Just shoot him! Kill him!"
Unsure what to do, the children obeyed and once again pointed their guns at Lud.
With their inexperience, it would be impossible for them to shoot Lud, without killing their friend as well.
"Wait! I'll release the boy. If you want to shoot me, do it after that!"
Lud insisted that he, not the boy, was their target.
At that moment, a white smoke seeped from the vents.
It wasn't smoke from a fire.
But it wasn't a gas, either.
The air had turned completely white, and Lud recognized the sweet smell.
"This is... baking soda?"
It was a type of baking powder used in breads and cakes.
Naturally, it wasn't toxic.
Inhaling it wouldn't be harmful. However—
"Don't shot!!! If you shoot you'll all die!"
The slightest spark would react with the oxygen in the air and cause a tremendous explosion.
A phenomenon that occurred regularly in mines, if uncontrolled, it could lead to many hundreds of casualties.
"W-What was that?!"
The child soldiers were confused, unable to see anything in front of them.
Then, with lightning speed, someone seized on that disruption, and rushed into the party hall.
"Augh!"The cries of the child soldiers echoed inside the dense fog.
While human vision could not penetrate the thick cloud, someone who could see took the children's gun after another.
Taking less than a minute, the automatic smoke alarm system detected the baking soda, and drained the white powder from the room.
Standing before Lud was the young black—normally silver-haired waitress.
"It's an old, worn out trick, but I knew it would work!"
Sven stood with a big grin on her face, crushing small three of the pistols in one of her hands.
"You're... that girl from back then..."
With one look at Sven, Sophia remembered the earlier incident, glared angrily at Sven, but since Sven had saved her life, Sophia also look confused.
"Are you okay, Master?"
"Sven... What are you doing here? Weren't you down below?"
"Please don't worry, the brat—err, Miss Milly, is with me."
Sven had left Milly in the ventilation room next to the party hall.
In order to carry out her plan, Sven had given her the job of sprinkling the baking powder into the air vents.
"I heard about the child soldiers from Milly... I came rushing to assist you, Master, but it seems that you didn't let your guard down too much..."
With children as the opponents, Sven was afraid that her kind-hearted master would end up in the same situation he had with Marlene.
Lud had a slightly look on his face.
The reason he hadn't been deceived was because he had once done the same thing himself.
It was an ironic twist that his own past, filled with events he didn't want to remember, saved his life.
Sven knew Lud after he had become a Hunter Unit pilot, when she met him as Avei.
"Now then, what should we do about these children, I wonder?"
Sven aimed her rage at the child soldiers for making Lud remember such a dark time in his life.
"If you're going to kill us, then do it! We'll never give into Wiltian trash like you!"
Even disarmed, the children had no intention of surrendering quietly.
Turning to them, Sven looked at the children as if they were completely insignificant.
Their morale broken, the children looked at a loss.
"I don't really mind. You've already chosen your fate."
Sven crushed the children's guns in her hand, and as she scattered the pieces about, she slowly looked every children in the eye.
"Resistance fighters, partisans, guerillas... there are a lot of different names for them, but they are irregular military forces... And they aren't recognized as actual military."
The crushed guns were scattered on the floor, and the metallic cling and clang as they fell gave Sven an even more ominous presence as she stood in front of the children.
"When soldiers are in battle, international laws govern their behavior. They can be punished for improperly treating prisoners. Officially..."
Implied in her words was that this rule didn't extend where no one was looking.
"However, you all are different. I don't give a damn about whatever magnificent beliefs you may have, but under the law, you're nothing more than an armed group, rampaging around this ship. Do you understand what that means?"
The child soldiers couldn't look Sven in the eye.
They understood that while she looked like a pretty young girl, inside her was something far more sinister.
Several of the children looked down at the ground, while other winced in fear.
Only one among them defiantly returned Sven's look with a glare.
It was the young boy who attacked Lud.
This one, huh...
The boy wasn't showing bravery from courage or conviction.
It was likely that he was assuming the role of the commanding officer for the other children.
Only his sense of duty, and the pride he took in remaining strong in front of his subordinates, stopped him from giving in.
If I break this one, the rest will follow.
Sven stared hard into the boy's eyes.
She was smiling, but she looked at him as if he was a pathetic animal.
"How admirable, isn't it? I don't know exactly who controls you, but to think that their little kittens actually want to become his disposable tools of war is quite something."
"Tools?!... You're wrong, we're—"
"Weren't you listening? Once you've been defeated, there is no choice left to you but death. On the battlefield, uncontrolled irregular military groups are killed before they are able to sew chaos. It's common sense."
Sven's words weren't just an idle threat.
The battlefield wasn't just where soldiers killed each other.
The rules were apt to be broken, and were maybe just a promise that combatants would try to observe, but there was very little decorum on the battlefield.
Subversive activity while disguised as civilians— as the children had done aboard the ship—was strictly forbidden.
It wasn't just because it was cowardly.
Soldiers on both sides wouldn't be able to tell the civilians and the soldiers apart, and would have to kill both to survive.
Therefore, such actions taken by an irregular military group meant they would be slaughtered the moment their existence came to light.
"Your masters... They're officially military men, aren't they? Of course, they know this and still had you do it... Oh my, oh my, perhaps you didn't realize it yourselves? That you were being used as tools?"
"You're wrong... We're... but that's wrong..."
The boy started to shake.
Lud wasn't worried by Sven's threats.
Her desire to kill was genuine, but Lud knew she had no intention of action on it.
However, everything she told the children was true.
Lud knew from firsthand experience.
"Hey, behind me... can you see? The scummy Wiltian adults you captured... If I release them all, and restraint you all... I wonder what would happen..."
The boy looked around.
There were no weapons.
But, there were knives to cut meat, and forks to stab food.
"I'll say this just to be clear... No one's going to forgive you just because you're children anymore. After all, you fought using your frailty as your weapon, right? Now that you've lost, you won't be able to use it anymore."
Fighting that broke international law meant throwing away one's protection under those laws.
The children could only blame themselves for the consequences.
The fact that he had been used, the fact that he was to be tortured to death, and the fact that the life he had risked would be wasted—caused countless cracks in the heart of the young boy.
"Now then, which one would you like me to start with?"
"I'm asking you which eye should I gouge out first."
A fundamental military strategy was finding the right man for the right job.
Sven thought her kind and gentle master wouldn't fight against the child soldiers.
Actually, he had the toughness to confront them, but he had also been hurt.
Facing the children hadn't been the right job for him.
Lud would never able to kill them.
But, Sven could.
People who hurt her beloved master, people who made him suffer, people who trampled over his feelings, whether old or young, man or woman, Sven would grind every last one of them into dust.
"N-Noooooooo! Help! Someone save meeeee!!"
The boy shrieked, face-to-face with her pure, concentrated intent to kill.
A few minutes later—
Milly left the ventilation room and appeared in the party hall.
"Is it, over?"
With her face covered in baking soda, she timidly peeked into the room.
"Oh, thank you, little Miss Milly. You've done a great job.
Sven came over to greet the young girl.
"Lud... and Sophia... are they okay?"
"Yes, Master... and Major Rundstadt are both fine."
Hearing thes, Milly looked relieved at last.
"They were easier foes than I thought they'd be."
As she turned around, Sven saw the child soldiers, completely deprived of the will to fight, huddled together trembling, their faces ghostly pale.
Their wretched shaking made one think that even a litter of puppies would pose a greater threat.