9 The End Bomb
Back in the party hall—
All of the hostages were freed and had escaped to the second level.
If the ship was destroyed it wouldn't make a difference, but at least in their rooms, they would avoid any remaining soldiers hanging around.
"We started dropping altitude?"
The view outside of the window showed that the ship was slowly tilting downward.
It was still before dawn, and it was difficult to tell they were descending, but Lud could see the angle of the stars and the moon had begun to change—proof that the ship was dropping altitude.
I didn't really end up doing anything...
They had been saved by Sven and Sophia.
Why hadn't they come to him for help?
They didn't trust him. Lud thought.
He would immediately put his life on the line, and they were afraid he would die.
When the Commander told me that I was just living to atone for my past, I couldn't disagree with her. That's why.
Yet he was sure the joy he felt when someone ate and enjoyed the food he baked wasn't from looking back to his past.
That joy was why he wanted to be a baker.
Lud suspected that Sophia had given him that impossible challenge to make him ask that question—why he truly wanted to become a baker.
"Are those two... going to be okay?"
Milly quietly muttered at Lud's side.
"Yeah... They've probably wrapped everything up. They'll be right back once they're done. By the way..."
Lud asked the question he hadn't been able to ask her while he had been preoccupied with all the trouble on the ship.
"Hey, Milly... What are you doing on this ship anyway?"
The young girl spent a few moments thinking about how to reply, but then answered Lud with a subdued voice, as if the subject wasn't worth talking about.
"Before that... I wanted to tell you..."
Unsteadily, Milly began to tell Lud something that was difficult to say, when the heavy wooden door of the party hall blew open as if a bomb had exploded outside.
Appearing in the door was a giant of a man, wrapped in heavy armor like a knight.
"I've come to get my soldiers."
After looking quickly toward the child soldiers, the man spoke to Lud, assuming the only adult in the room was in control of the situation.
"Yes, that's right. They're young, but they are my soldiers. If they've been captured, I have a duty to save them."
Lud thought this was a little... no, a very surprising thing to hear from the man.
Lud and the others had believed that the child soldiers had been treated like tools, but the man standing in front of him—most likely the leader of this whole affair—referred to the children as his soldiers, and had come to save them.
"Dreadnought. Forgive me for not giving my name sooner."
"Oh, no ... Um, my name is Lud Langart."
Lud was further taken aback that a Special Forces soldier would introduce himself properly at all, whether with a false name, code name, or anything else.
With his outfit and armor, the man inside seems like a knight from middle ages.
"Who would have thought the Wiltian military would camouflage soldiers as civilians. I was careless."
Dreadnought spoke quietly, observing Lud's appearance.
"Um, I'm uh... actually a civilian..."
Lud grew sad at being mistaken once again for a soldier in disguise.
"Oh well, concealing it from you won't make any difference. I'll tell you about out current state of affairs. I'm the only one of our forces left. All the men I left in the control room have been killed."
"I gain nothing by lying to you."
Lud breathed a sigh of relief that Sven and Sophia's part had gone well.
"But... It seems you don't know of the existence of a third bomb."
"What'd you say?! There's still another bomb?!"
Each bomb had enough power to cause the Defairedead to crash.
"They say one cannot be too careful, right? We estimated two of the bombs would be disarmed, and we prepared a third that, while small, has more explosive power than the other two."
Is he bluffing?
Lud couldn't read Dreadnought's expression through the visor covering his face.
Nevertheless, what he said wasn't completely out of the question.
Carrying a final trump card, hidden even from his comrades, was not unheard of.
It was an effective method to trap the enemy by allowing them to base their strategy on misinformation acquired from captured prisoners.
It could also be used during negotiations in the final hour.
"Now about that, I'd like to suggest a deal."
Exactly like this current situation.
"I want you to return my men to me. In exchange, you will be free to use the escape pod as you like."
"Escape pod?! This ship has something like that?!"
An escape pod was an emergency apparatus equipped with a parachute which could accommodate approximately five adult passengers.
"However, there are only twenty of them. Subtracting the number necessary for my soldiers... If you pack in as many people as you can, approximately one hundred other passengers could fit into the rest."
"That's all they can fit?!"
"There are many fools in this world who are ashamed to ensure their own means to escape."
The Defairedead was the supreme rules of the skies. It was un unsinkable airship, the pride of Wiltia.
It was completely safe, so it didn't need emergency equipment, and if it had such equipment, its existence would be an embarrassment.
It was an absurd line of reasoning, but reason didn't always get through to those who valued appearances above all else.
"Twenty... So that means they're just for the VIPs then..."
The escape pods hadn't even been included on the ship's guide map.
Lud was sure that when the time came, crew members who knew would guide the VIP passengers to their location.
"It will be impossible for everyone to escape, but surely the women and children among the passengers can be saved, correct? Of course, I don't care if you hop in."
"You're leaving the other's to die?!"
"It's clear that everyone on both sides will die. So, it would be wise for the innocent to survive, would it not? Incidentally, I should mention that the final bomb isn't a timed explosive. I can trigger it at will."
If Lud didn't accept his deal, Dreadnought would set it off here, right now.
That was the implication in Dreadnought's words.
Lud glanced behind him and looked at the trembling Milly.
If he accepted this deal now, Milly, Sophia and Sven would all certainly be allowed to live.
His mind turned to the child soldiers... Even if they landed, they all would be executed.
"A soldier should choose the action that will lead to guaranteed survival, without any sort of gambits or gambles, right?"
"That's right. I hope you will make the wise decision Wiltian soldier."
Dreadnought still considered Lud to be part of the Wiltian military.
There was nothing he could do about it.
It wasn't just because Lud had been a soldier, nor because of his appearance.
If he was to die saving someone, Lud wouldn't mind dying at all.
He believed that others were more worthy of protection than he was.
The problem wasn't that some lives were more valuable than others.
The very fact that he thought it right to balance his life on a scale was an example of the way of a soldier would think.
"Hate to break it to you but... I'm not a soldier anymore."
Lud raised both his hands, and took a stance for hand-to-hand combat.
It was one of the few fighting stances he could use without holding a weapon.
"That's simple isn't it? If I defeat you, then no one dies."
"That is an unsuitable answer for a soldier... But, for a civilian, it might be the correct choice."
Dreadnought's tone of voice softened slightly.
"Shall we go somewhere else? Seeing a friend killed isn't something a child should have to watch."
Turning his gaze slightly toward Milly, Dreadnought invited Lud to follow him to another location for their duel.
The Defairedead's portside scenic viewing parlor had one windowed wall, and the room was used to enjoy the scenery above the clouds, along with afternoon tea.
"These are in the way."
Dreadnought brandished his mighty arm and mowed down the tables and chairs set up in the room.
What the hell... is that power? Is he even human?!
In addition to his antiquated but heavy armor, Dreadnought's strength was remarkable.
"To honor your courage, allow me to tell you my origins."
Dreadnought said this as though he were a knight displaying his sword on an ancient battlefield.
"My name is Dreadnought. I am Captain of Greyten's Special Military Intelligence Bureau."
"Greyten...? That's right, this ship's like hell spawn to your people."
"Your astute observation will make my explanation a quick one."
The Defairedead bombed the Greyten Empire mainland. It was said that the attack was among the most savage assaults of the entire war.
The bombs had been dropped from such a high altitude, not even anti-craft guns could reach them, let alone lesser quality aircraft.
It was an indiscriminate slaughter, as if the intention was to bomb the entire city off the map.
"I lost my wife and my daughter to this ship."
Because of his visor, Lud couldn't see whether any color came to Dreadnought's eyes as he spoke.
However he could imagine that they were filled with deep despair and anger.
"That's why you're sinking this ship?"
"That's right... But, just sinking it wouldn't be enough. Even if this ship was completely erased, a second or third version of the Defairedead would be built, and placed back into the sky."
Then, with its compartments filled with bombs, it would shower death from high in the sky, as if it were God itself.
"In order to prevent that, I need to etch into the minds and memories of the Wiltian people that hover aircraft are detestable and horrific. In order to do that—"
"Ponapalas... You're flying us over the city?"
He was planning to drop the colossal airship, wreathed in flames, on the former Pelfish capital of Ponapalas.
Lud wasn't sure how many hundreds or thousands of casualties it would cause, but it would engulf the city in the same hellish inferno that Greyten had experienced.
"You saw the suffering caused by the Defairedead, didn't you? And you want to bring that about again!?"
"The victors don't understand the suffering of the losers."
The international community should have denounced the indiscriminate slaughter Wiltia perpetrated on Greyten.
However, Wiltia won the war.
"It was a necessary, if drastic, act taken to bring closer the end of the war."
"It was an unavoidable sacrifice."
Wiltia was able to force these pretexts on the defeated nation.No matter how inhumane and cruel a weapon is, if it isn't used on their country, there is now way for the citizens to grasp its atrocity.
"If you don't understand, then all we can do is give you the same pain."
Lud couldn't refute any of what Dreadnought was saying.
His argument was fair.
As long as people didn't listen to the victims, there was nothing they could do but drag the victors over to see their side of the tragedy.
"Now then, battling you with words wasn't my intention. Shall we begin, Wiltian Soldier?"
Smoke began to blow out of Dreadnought's mouth with a loud whistle.
"I'm a mechanical soldier, whose body is reinforced by machines. I'm in a far stronger position than you to fight in hand to hand battle... I will drop the output of my machinery down to fifty percent."
This was Dreadnought's mercy and compassion.
Since he could turn a human into a lump of flesh with just one blow from his powerful body, fighting him was equivalent to suicide.
He had to give Lud some chance to win, or it would be far too uneven a battle.
"I apologize but I can't lower my output any further. Forgive me."
His apology wasn't complacency, nor was it from contempt. It was purely from his heart, and showed his respect for the difference in their respective strengths.
Nevertheless, Lud couldn't back down from his challenge.
Lud attacked Dreadnought quickly, as if victory would go to whoever made the first move.
His whole body is armor... In that case, a direct blow won't hurt him...
Lud feigned a frontal attack, but at the last moment he changed course and jumped diagonally to the left.
Weaving into his blind spot and moving behind, Lud twisted his arm around Dreadnought's neck.
If I can just drop him instantly like this!
If hitting him wouldn't have any effect, Lud could only smash his joints and immobilize him.
But, Dreadnought grabbed Lud's head.
Dreadnought's hands bent in the opposite direction from his joints and he grabbed Lud's head from an impossible angle.
"My arms are not the arms of a human. Wiltia took those from me."
Saying this coolly, Dreadnought then tore Lud off of him with all his might and sent him flying with one hand.
His defense inadequate, Lud collided with the floor.
Lud didn't stand up, and instead spun like a top, kicking dreadnought in the knee.
A direct kick to the knee would break the join and create an effect similar to a joint lock.
"It didn't work?!"
"My legs were also taken—they aren't flesh and blood."
Dreadnought counterattacked and kicked Lud as he lay on the ground.
Lud's two-meter tall body was kicked as if he was a nothing but a ball, and he went flying to the far end of the lounge and on the mountain of chairs and tables piled there.
There's no way... This isn't a fight at all!
Lud had heard stories of the mechanical soldiers of Greyten.
It was a project to replace lost limbs with machinery, and with it, grant the recipients superior strength.
However, although the program was declared inhumane and should be discontinued, the research was further developed in secret, and now two years after the end of the war, its level of perfection was on display for Lud.
Continuing to challenge him, Lud threw a nearby chair at Dreadnought, but he brushed it off with his arm, as if he was dealing with a child throwing a temper tantrum.
The moment Dreadnought's arm was slightly blocking his visor and his vision, Lud once again charged.
Since Dreadnought's limbs had been retrofitted with machinery, join lock techniques weren't effective.
Lud suspected that he would need an anti-tank rifle to penetrate the heavy armor covering Dreadnought's body.
It had been foolish to challenge Dreadnought to a hand-to-hand fight to begin with.
But Lud had an idea.
Since he's wrapped himself in all that armor, he'll be overconfident, so once his guard is down—!
He shaped his hand between an open palm and open fist, almost like a beast's claw, and putting all his might into the blow, hit Dreadnought in his left breast.
It was the Dragon's Roar, a technique that pierced right through an enemy's armor and damaged their heart.
But, the reaction to his attack was unexpected.
It felt to Lud as if he had smacked a large bell with his bare fist.
"That technique is an eastern martial art, is it not? In my country, that's known as baritsu."
There wasn't the slightest sign of injury in Dreadnought's voice.
"However, it is too bad buy my heart was already take by Wiltia."
With a loud buzzing, Dreadnought sent out another punch.
Lud instantly protected himself, but even though Dreadnought was still going easy on him, the shock from the attack was nearly strong enough to tear Lud's body apart, and sent him flying in the glass.
The glass had been tempered to withstand differences in inner and outer atmospheric pressure, as well as any type of impact, and yet cracks now ran through the glass wall like a spider's web.
"It's unfortunate, Wiltian Soldier. I wish we could have fought when I still had my living body."
Dreadnought lifted the visor on his helmet.
Under it was the undaunted expression of a man who looked to be ten years Lud's senior.
"The only thing left from my living body is above my neck. Everything else has been turned into a machine."
Neither joint locks nor the Dragon's Roar would be effective.
The fighting style that Lud had cultivated as a soldier was composed entirely of techniques to kill people.
He didn't know a single technique to defeat something that wasn't human.
"Gluh... Agh... Glaugh...."
Lud tried to speak, but instead of words, stomach acid and blood came out of his mouth.
"It wasn't just my family that I lost to the Defairedead's bombs. In addition to losing my internal organs, my mouth is just a speaker. I can't even drink tea."
A sense of despair showed on Dreadnought's face.
Lud saw that Dreadnought felt more than just despair.
Dreadnought had pledged to erase this ship from existence, even if he head to turn everything, even his sorrow, into steel to do so.
"You fought well. You can't blame yourself for your defeat."
Dreadnought slowly approached Lud.
He intended to deliver a final, painless blow.
"That young girl that was with you back there... At the very least, I will make sure she gets into an escape pod. I used this body to seize victory. Let her life be my small atonement."
Hearing Dreadnought's words, Lud felt in his heart that if this was how it was to end, he was fine with it.
This is where I die... well, somehow... I had a feeling I would...
He had also been a Wiltian soldier, despised by Dreadnought.
Dreadnought had the right to take revenge on Lud, and Lud had a duty to accept that revenge.
It's been only two years since I left the military... It was only a few months, but I managed to have a lot of fun...
The people who ate the bread he baked had been happy.
They told him it was delicious.
In those moments, he felt a big hole inside of him fill up.
He had been able to taste such happiness, Lud thought, and that was enough—
No that's wrong!
Brandishing his fist, Dreadnought swung it down on Lud as if it was a round fired from a cannon.
Lud had thought his body wouldn't move, but just before the strike connected, he slid to the side as he collapsed, and dodged the attack.
"You're quite... a sore loser."
Dreadnought grumbled, sound slightly disappointed.
Missing its target, Dreadnought's fist shattered the glass wall, and a ferocious wind swirled into the room from the change in air pressure.
Fighting the gate, Lud stood up, legs quivering.
"That's not it... I'm not baking bread to atone for my past."
Lud spat, his vision hazy.
"I was happy... that's it... When I brought a smile to someone's face, I was happy. No matter how good I was at killing, I never felt that, but... for the first time, I felt like I was here in this world... I was able to feel happy to be alive..."
"Are you losing consciousness?"
Dreadnought was slightly bewildered by Lud's words as he staggered about in a daze.
"I want to live... I want to find pleasure in living. I want to prove... that my life isn't something to throw away..."
Having said this, Lud lost consciousness, fell to his knees and collapsed where he stood.
Or perhaps he had been unconscious ever since he dodged Dreadnought's last attack.
The longing to live in Lud Langart's soul had stirred his body.
However it was the end of his final act of defiance.
Dreadnought's drew his fist back a third time, filled with his overwhelming and prized power to kill.
"No, your life will be the one to end."
Unnoticed, someone was standing behind Dreadnought.
Dreadnought was stunned.
Strengthened by his machinery, his perception was far superior to that of a normal person.
In addition, he was a veteran soldier.
In battle, he would never let someone sneak up behind him so easily.
"It can't be?!"
He thought perhaps he had misheard, or mistook the wind rushing in from the window, and turned around.
There, a lovely and fragile-looking young girl sent a kick into Dreadnought's body.
Dreadnought could no longer feel pain.
There was no need for a machine to feel pain.
His cry wasn't from pain, but from pure surprise.
His colossal body was over two meters tall. With a single kick, his body, weighing more than two hundred kilograms, was tossed in the air.
"How dare you hurt Master... How dare you hurt the Captain... How dare you, how dare you, how dare you!!!"
The girl violently took off her sunglasses, and her red eyes shone with all the murderous rage in her soul.The girl's black hair floated in the air, as if it was synchronized with her rage.
Intense heat shot from her hair, and the dye that hide its true silver color evaporated, and blew away in a puff of black smoke.
"Who are... you?"
"Shut up! There's no need for someone devoted to her master to tell you her name!"
Red eyes and silver hair—the waitress of Tockerbrot, the Humanoid Hunter Unit Svelgen Avei, boiled with intense rage, looking not like a gallant warrior maiden, but like an angel of destruction, revealed to mankind at the end of days.
Now Sven had released almost all of the limiters inside her body.
If she wielded any further power, she would be one small step from breaking the artificial skeleton inside her.
Sven's hair wasn't just for decoration.
It was also a radiator.
The Rezanium reactor, her source of power and the home of her heart and soul, radiated immense thermal energy, and unable to completely discharge, the energy rose in waves from her body.
"I'm going to kill you... I'll erase you from this earth!"
At Sven's angered cry, Dreadnought no longer recognized the person in front of him as a young girl.
Dreadnought thought to himself that even he, who was all machine below the neck, was still more human than this girl.
Raising his fist, Dreadnought attacked Sven.
It was a dangerous to wait for her to attack.
He feared that the battle would be decided by Sven's slightest move.
Dreadnought lunged with his powerful arm, but Sven easily dodged it with inches to spare.
The charging ended with nothing to show for it.
Despite this, Dreadnought felt a certain relief.
The fact that she felt the need to dodge meant that he could still damage her.
Dreadnought was beginning to believe that this girl was an embodied demon raised from the depths of hell, so the fact that he could injure her gave him hope, however small it might be.
If I can launch a series of attacks on her and keep her from countering then... I can at least bring it to a draw!
Dreadnought began a follow up attack, but as he was about to release a punch, it happened—
Dreadnought's right arm, the arm that had launched his first attack, disconnected from the join and fell to the floor.
"Impossible... What in the world..."
"Quite a noisy tin can, aren't you?"
Sven gripped a machine part as she coldly answered Dreadnought.
"When I dodged, I broke off one of your joints, that's all."
She held the piece of Dreadnought's right arm that connected the joints.
He had misunderstood.
She hadn't felt the slighted threat from the previous blow.
She had evaded the attack because she wouldn't let any man other than Lud touch her.
Then, she had easily deprived this repulsive man of his arm.
"You're a mechanical soldier? You're a foolish bunch. You possessed the one thing I will forever wish for, yet you threw that away to become a half-hearted tin doll."
Sven considered Sutherland and Dreadnought's mechanical existence to be the height of folly.
In the past, when she was still a Hunter Unit, no matter how much she yearned for it, she couldn't give the one she loved a tender touch of her hand.
"What a miserable man you are! If you had your human body, you could have fought my master as a man, and your battle decided as men. But you have up your humanity. You've destroyed yourself to become nothing more than a weaponized monster."
Like Sven, he had become inhuman.
"Because of that, I'll give you what you want. Not defeat, not death. I'll demolish you instead."
Saying this, Sven drew back her right hand, and getting into her instance, launched herself forward with a sharp, sword like palm, as though she was propelled from a catapult.
Dreadnought braced himself.
The heavy armor encasing his body wasn't just for intimidation.
No matter how many stabs or rifle shots he took, his armor would not be pierced.
However, Sven's chopping hand cut through his metal body easier than a knife slicing a piece of cake.
Sven's attacks didn't stop there.
Putting her strength into the assault, Sven tore away dreadnought's armor, as if she was rending flesh.
The steel armor removed, the exposed inner machine parts were violently torn away, along with the equipment inside.
The Rezanium reactor, from her time as the Hunter Unit Avei, was transplanted into Sven's body.
She couldn't channel all that power into her current body, but this fragile frame still harbored the colossal power of an eight meter-tall metal giant.
Even if she only used half that power, concentrated in her human-sized hand, it was enough to turn rocks into sand and tear metal apart.
He had no way to sense pain.
But, seeing Sven silently tearing apart his body made him terrified of being devoured alive.
It was as if he was looking at the mythical silver wolf Fenrir, who fasted on the entrails of the gods.
As he awoke, Lud wondered how long he had been unconscious, and he saw everything was over.
Everyone was still alive, and he hadn't yet entered the world beyond.
Dreadnought had been defeated, and Sven was in front of him, bawling her eyes out.
"Master! Thank goodness, you've woken up... I was worried you'd stay asleep forever and I didn't know what do.... Ten years, twenty years or all eternity, I would stay at your side and take care of you, but to no longer be able to hear your voice would be just... just too... waaaaah!"
With a wave of emotion, Sven sobbed as she imagined the tragic scenario.
"I'm fine... I'm fine already....Ow, ow, ow!"
"Don't push yourself!"
Just being alive after battling the mechanical soldier, Dreadnought, was a godsend, but a few ribs were not cracked.
He also couldn't move the arm that had taken Dreadnought's attack.
"Did you beat him?"
Lud asked Sven, looking at Dreadnought, with his arms ripped off and his dismembered body looking like nothing more than a pile of scrap metal.
"Um, well... Yes."
Sven had a hard time answering Lud.
She almost looked like a young child, quivering in fear of mother after breaking a flower vase.
"But, um... He made master suffer so much... That I... well..."
Sven had lost her temper at Lud for always disregarding his own life, and pleaded with him to value it more.
"But you know, this time... I was scared of dying."
If there was even an instant when Lud accepted his own death, then Sven had gotten there just in time.
"It looks like I had to almost die to realize it, but I guess I'm the same idiot as always. I... I want to live. I want to live, and think more and more happy how happy I am to be alive."
On the verge of death, he realized for the first time his strong yearning to live.
Lud's face broke into a troubled, but slightly happy smile.
"That's okay. Master... Wanting to live is a normal and natural desire that all human beings have."
Looking at Lud's expression, an overjoyed smile came to Sven's face.
"Jeez, I always end up causing trouble for Avei, don't I..."
"It's okay. That's my mission, after all... Eh?"
Sven nodded in satisfaction at Lud's murmuring, but after a few moments, her eyes widened in surprise.
"Sven... Sorry but, can you bring me over to him? My legs... I still can't really stand."
Lud continued talking as if nothing had happened, and Sven carried him on her shoulder over to where Dreadnought lay, having lost her chance to question Lud about what he had just said.
"Are you still alive?"
Had Dreadnought been human, he would already be dead if his body was torn to shreds and his arm ripped off, but a mechanical soldier could survive such damage.
Dreadnought voice was faint.
Every part of him below the neck was machine.
Lud suspected that his internal life support systems that had been replaced with machines were beginning to shut down.
"Tell us... where is the last bomb?"
"I can't... tell you."
This was Dreadnought's final will.
If Lud had defeated him with only his human strength, he might have told him the location of the bomb out of sportsmanship.
However, Sven had looked down on him for being half-hearted machine, and had said that was the reason he would lose. Once her prediction came true, he decided to wipe the bitterness from his heart and engulf everything around him in flames to compensate for the disadvantage he had during their battle.
"No matter what, you have to make the Defairedead crash, is that it?"
"Yes, I must sink this ship. I must return even a little of the pain to Wiltia for the slaughter of innocent Greytens..."
"... My parents were killed by the Greyten Empire."
Lud informed Dreadnought quietly.
Both Dreadnought and Sven were surprised by Lud's disclosure.
Lud didn't often speak about his childhood as a soldier, and he had almost never spoken his life before that.
However Lud started to reveal it all Dreadnought.
"My parents were merchants, and despite what I may look like, we were a pretty rich family."
'Langart and Company', managed by Lud's father, was a large and prosperous business, with clients among the nobility, and it traded both inside Wiltia and internationally.
"But when the war started, right after Greyten issued their declaration of war, my parents made a mad dash back to Wiltia, and on their way home, their boat was sunk."
Generally, when a war breaks out between two countries, the citizens are given a period of time to return to their own country. According to international law, during that period, if boats pass through the other country's territorial waters, they can't be attacked.
But, Lud's parents were in the Kingdom of Alhadra, on the western edge of Europea, and available boats are limited.
If they didn't leave immediately, they were at risk of being sent to concentration camp.
In a frenzy to get home, people chartered their own boats.
Lud's parents boarded a boat that wasn't registered as neutral, and when they entered territorial waters, the Greyten navy fired with no warning and sank their ship.
"Between the passengers and crew, over one thousand people died."
"I know. That ship hadn't applied the paint that would indicate it was neutral, so there was no way to prevent it from attack, But, the fact remains that the people on that boat were all innocent, and just trying to return to their homeland."
There was no reproach in his voice.
Lud sounded like he was simply stating the facts.
"After that, their fortune was swindled, I became a vagrant, the military picked me up, and I became a child soldier... just like those kids in there."
Lud still harbored a grudge against Greyten.
But, that wasn't the reason he joined the military.
He had been desperately trying to survive, one day at a time, and didn't have time for resentment or anything like it."So you're saying to let it go? Because we're similar... you think that kind of logic will make it all right? For me, or for you?!"
"No, that's impossible... Saying that one hundred people dying on one side means it's okay for another hundred on the other side to die—that has nothing to do with it."
No one would agree to exchange the lives of his precious family, lover, or close friend for the lives of a stranger.
"But, I became a soldier. You did too, right? We killed people, and our government sanctioned it. That's how we earned our keep... People like us can't go and kill someone out of resentment... am I wrong?"
Under the pretext of war, soldiers kill people, and of course, it isn't considered a crime.
Killing was allowed, and went unpunished.
Lud's parents were killed by Greyten.
But, Lud was sure that among the men he had killed on the battlefield, there were some who had kids of their own, waiting for them back home.
"Severing the chains of hatred... It's not something clean or beautiful... But, only we can protect that fine line, or we're no better than murderers."
Lud was still burdened with the guilt of the mass slaughter that he head participated in as a child soldier.
He feared that if he let go of that guilt, he would truly become something inhuman.
"Is that... Is that how you intend to live the rest of your life?"
"It might be easier if I died, but... I still want to live."
Lud and Dreadnought stared at each other.
A silence fell between them.
One was a man who gave up his humanity to reverse the past and clear away his hatred.
The other accepted his hatred, and bore his regrets to continue living as a human.
Suddenly, Dreadnought broke the silence.
"Could I have a cup of tea?"
Sven was puzzled by Dreadnought's request.
His body was nothing more than a machine from his neck down.
With neither a heart nor lungs, he would not have digestive organs either.
It was no longer possible for him to eat or drink.
"Sven, can you make him some?"
Yet, Lud complied with his request.
In the corner of the parlor, there was a counter for serving light food and drinks.
Sven made tea, still perplexed.
Using the highest quality leaves and the proper brewing method, Sven poured the tea into a cup.
"Do you want help?"
"Don't be insulting. A gentleman of Greyten can't allow such a breach of etiqutte. I'll drink it properly, on my own."
Replying to Lud's offer with a dry laugh. Dreadnought clumsily brought the cup to his mouth with his barely functional left hand.
"Awful... Wiltian tea is truly awful."
"What are you talking about? These are the highest quality made in Mughal and—"
"That's not what I mean."
Dreadnought gave a laugh at Sven's objections.
He had no sense of taste.
The taste of the tea wasn't what prompted his statement.
"A cup of tea in my house... brewed by my wife, was much, much better."
Dreadnought's body was now a machine, but his memories of human sensation had not died.
"Wiltian soldier... You said your name was Lud Langart, is that right?"
Dreadnought stood up.
He was no longer in any condition to fight.
Raising his colossal frame to stand up on one knee, screws flew from his body, left and right, and oil gushed out like fresh blood.
"Yeah, but now I'm just a baker."
"That's right; you did say that, didn't you... Forgive me for implying it was a disguise."
Dragging his leg behind him, little by little, he turned in front of the glass wall.
"I have a deal... Those children, my soldiers... I used their hatred as a tool, so I ask you to please give them back their humanity. In exchange, I will disarm the bomb."
There was a hole in the glass wall from Dreadnought's fight with Lud, and countless cracks extended from it.
On the other side of the glass, the empty sky stretched for miles.
"....... I understand."
"I've put you through a lot of trouble."
As Lud nodded deeply, accepting his deal, Dreadnought gave a satisfied smile, swung up his left arm, and with all his strength, drove his fist into the glass wall.
The entire wall his shattered, leaving a a gaping hole in the ship.
"Goodbye, Baker of Wiltia."
Saying this, Dreadnought jumped from the craft.
Lud staggered toward the window.
Although they were slowly descending, the airship was still over one thousand meters up in the air.
Dreadnought's body grew smaller as it fell, and soo dropped out of sight.
Suddenly, there was flash of red light, and with it, a tremendous explosion.
The shockwaves spread in all directions, and rocked the massive Defairedead.
If the explosive had gone off inside the ship, it would engulfed it entirely.
"That's... a Zeihombomber... right?! That's what his plan was..."
Straining the Rezanium reactor that powered his suit so it would blow up—the final bomb had been the "end bomb" as well.
"So he risked... No, he planned from the start to exchange his life for the mission's success."
Lud was reminded of Dreadnought's vindictive spite once again.
At the same time, Lud quietly closed his eyes and mourned the death of Dreadnought, who in his final moments had put aside his desire for revenge and his resolve to take the ship down with him.
Less than an hour later, the Defairedead touched down in Ponapalas.
Under the circumstances, the hovering airship ignored the usual landing sequence, but it touched down slowly, and the damage was insignificant.
Compared to the damage that would have resulted if the ship had exploded above the center of the city and fallen in a mass of flames, the actual amount was miniscule.
Since communications from the ship had broken off, the Wiltian troops in Ponapalas suspected an emergency, and rushed to the ship to conduct rescue and relief efforts.
The casualties included more than eigthy people, from the captain and the control room staff, to the security personnel, the guests in the party hall and those who died in the panic on the lower levels. There were over one thousand injured, some severely.
This was still minimal compared to the number of deaths if the ship had been destroyed, but Wiltia's prestigious celebratory even had been ruined.
"What's going to happen to us?"
The child soldiers were captured when the military boarded the ship, and they were now held in a vacant area beside the Defairedead's landing spot.
"It's obvious, ain't it? We're traitors, you know. They'll kill us..."
"Mr. Dreadnought's dead, too... So we're going to die with him..."
They had been used by the Greyten Empire's Special Forces, and participated in the sabotage of the ship and the seditious acts against Wiltia.
Now that the plan had failed, Greyten would be informed that the children were held as prisoners.
However, Greyten would not acknowledge their existence.
Dreadnought and Sutherland had told them that they were soldiers of the Greyten Special Forces, but that alone wasn't proof. If Greyten claimed ignorance and said that the children were making it up, that would be that.
Very likely, Greyten was prepared, and had disposed any evidence that connected the children to their military.
As such, the children were at the mercy of the Wiltian military.
They could be alive or executed as a warning.
"Hey... Stoll... We're..."
"Just shut up!"
Stoll, the de-facto leader of the children, answered his companions with a cry of anger.
Why did it end up this way?
With neither hope nor a future, he had tried to escape the absurdity of the world he lived in.
All he had wanted was to live as a human being.
So we shouldn't be alive then, is that it? Would it have been better to die with our families during the war?
Stoll was sad and frustrated that, no matter how they got here, in the end, they would be disposed of like stray dogs.
"Man, I'm hungry..."
Stoll quietly muttered to himself.
Knowing that he was on the verge of death, hunger set in as if Stoll's body was still trying to survive.
"Nothing will come from living anyway... so why am I hungry?"
At that moment, a sweet smell tickled the boy's nose.
"Something smells good..."
Stoll wasn't the only one who smelled it.
The other child soldiers raised their heads and looked around inquisitively.
The smell of wheat—it was the fragrance of freshly baked bread.
Lud and the others were walking toward them from the Defairedead.
In his arms was a tray of bread he had baked moments ago.
"Thank goodness... I got here in time."
After they landed, Lud had hurriedly dressed his wounds and with help from Sven, set to baking bread.
He baked bread for the children to eat.
"You're hungry, right? Will you eat... some.. for me?"
Lud's face, far too stern for the face of bakery, grew even stiffer in his anxiety.
"You pity us? Get loss..."
Stoll spat his reply at Lud with the last of his pride.
However, he gazed hungrily at the bread in Lud's hands.
"W-What the... What is this?"
Without thinking, his eyes grew wide in amazement.
"Is this... a turtle?"
"Look at this one, it's a dog!"
"It's nose is read... Wait, is his nose actually a berry?!"
The other children eagerly asked in surprise, looking at the bread on Lud's tray.
Lud had made baked sweets.
It wasn't just because something sweet tastes so good when one is exhausted.
Lud knew that children liked sweet things, and was sure they would be happy.
But he had added one final touch.
He head shaped the sweets before baking them to resemble different animals—dogs, rabbits, cats, and even turtles and crabs.
"Uh, you know... I... well, no matter what I do, I end up frightening kids... The bread seems to taste fine but... that's why I thought, you know, if I make them into these shapes then maybe they'd be happy..."
After worrying terribly, this was the idea he had come up with.
He borrowed picture books from the elementary school library for the designs, and calculated the exact time needed to bake them to create the proper burn marks.
"Are you stupid?"
Stoll muttered as he picked up a fresh piece of lion-shaped bread, garnished with honey pickled oranges.
"This ain't what bread's supposed to be..."
Stoll's face and voice were sullen as he spoke, but he took a big bite of the lion bread.
"What the heck is this... It's soft, and sweet, and smells good..."
Stoll continued to voraciously tear into the bread as he muttered complaints.
"Bread's supposed to be hard, and crusty, without any flavor, and it should have mold growing on it!"
That was the type of bread that had been shoved at Stoll as though he was a dog while he was in the poorhouse.
"What's 'eat some for me,' supposed to mean... you can just throw it at us, can't you? Like feeding scraps to a dog..."
As he ate, tears started to roll down in Stoll's cheek.
The bread hadn't been thrown at him like he was an animal.
It was the crystallization of Lud's feelings, having pondered and researched to come up with this creation, and it was filled with his joy in having others eat it with pleasure.
"What the hell... bread's actually... delicious..."
Lud's bread had the other power to melt the heart of the young boy, who couldn't even remember the simple fact that bread can taste good.
"C-can I have some...?"
"I want this bunny one!"
Seeing their leader Stoll eating the bread, the other children quickly held out their hands to grab a piece of their own.
"What is this? It's filled with some kind of sweet paste... But it's so good!"
"I like it too, it's so fluffy and flaky!"
Although earlier they had held guns and their faces had been stiff with hatred, each child's face now displayed the expression it should have—a smile.
"That's it, that's it, there's still a whoooooole mountain left so you can eat until your heart's content!"
Sven passed one piece after another from the stack of bread on the tray.
The dough that had matured to perfection in preparation for the party was more than enough to fill up the twelve hungry children.
"It looks delicious. Can I have a piece?"
"Yes, yes, please do, please do! What would you like? A giraffe? A horse?"
Sven responded to the voice behind her.
"Doesn't look like you have any wolves, huh?"
Standing in front of Sven was Sophia, dressed once again in her original military garb.
She had determined look on her face, but her body was leaning slightly to one side because of her leg injury.
"Is this your way of wiping your guilty? You're making up for your inability to do anything to help them?"
Sophia's tone was biting.
Lud could make them smile now, but given what was in store for them, his bread was only temporary relief.
To Sophia, Lud's actions were just a way to avert his eyes from reality.
"I'm a baker. Bakers only bake bread. So I baked bread. That's all."
However this time, Lud didn't attempt to avoid Sophia's gaze.
"But, Commander, it's different for you, right?"
"You... You can't seriously... You aren't seriously telling me to do something about these children, are you?! I'm just a single officer. There's a limit to what I can do."
"As a soldier, yes, that's true. But..."
As the daughter of the famous Rundstadt family, her influence could make a big difference.
However, Sophia hated to take advantage of her family's connections most of all.
"You're suggesting I use my family's name? You're telling me to skirt the law and give them special treatment?!"
"These children are the victims of soldiers like us. I won't tell you to forgive their crimes, I just want you to give them a chance for rehabilitation."
"How many thousands of war orphans do you think there are?! Nothing will change by saving twelve of them!"
"But you saved me, didn't you, Sophia?!"
This was the first time Lud had called her by her first name rather than Commander.
"Even when I was a child soldier, and Special Forces had decided I was useless, you pulled me out. If you hadn't, who knows how I would have ended up? I wouldn't have been able to even dream of becoming a baker."
"Hold on... just calm down... back up a bit..."
Lud's face was close enough for her to feel his breath.
Then, instead of backing away as Sophia asked, Lud grabbed both her shoulders to plead with her intensely."I'm happy being a baker! It's not out of guilt, or atonement or anything like that! The things I make bring a smile to people's face... and that makes me happy! All of it is thanks to you, Sophia!"
"I-I'm telling you... You're too close, too close, way too close!!"
Lud didn't notice that Sophia's face grew redder and redder with each passing second.
"Even warning me not to go to the party on the Defairedead, that was because you know the truth, right?! You worried about me, and tried to force me to quit, right?!"
She had known that Lud and Sven would be given a cool reception on the ship, and she knew that they had only been invited for publicity and propaganda.
"You're actually a really kind person, aren't you, Sophia?! You want to do something for these kids too, don't you?! I'm begging you! I'll do anything!"
"Anything, you mean, anything?!"
Her face bright red, Sophia's eyes were spinning, and she could no longer get her words out properly.
"Please! Please, Sis!"
Lud continued to plead with her as she stood, flustered, and with his final word, to make absolutely sure that his message would get through, Sophia's back arched as she collapsed on the ground.
"Oh sorry... Sis... I mean, Commander."
"I-It's way too late for that, idiot..."
Lud bowed his head to Sophia, who had fainted.
"Um, Master... 'Sis'?"
Sven was surprised at the appearance of the word.
She knew from his official records that Lud didn't have a sister.
It was a news to her that the two of them were related.
"Well, no, you see, a long time ago my family were merchants... Once of our frequent stops was the Rundstadt estate. Because of that, Sophia and I became friends... Even since I was young, she treated me like a little brother..."
Lud was often bullied when he was small, and Sophia protected him. She was a tomboy back then, and it was hard to believe she was a daughter of a noble family.
However, when Lud cried, she told him to stop his wailing and hit him with fists stronger than any of the other bullies.
They had been childhood friends but their relationship was more like brother and sister.
"Hm... Now hold on just a second... Does that mean.. um.. Back then, did you ever stay overnight together?"
"Huh...? Yeah, I stayed over at the Rundstadt mansion a few times. The bed in the Commander's room was huge, so even with two children, there was plenty of room. Well, I mean, I was only five at that time."
"Oooooooooooooooooooooooooh, so that's what she meant..."
When Sophia told Sven onboard the Defairedead that she had shared a bed with Lud, She didn't mean that they had been shared a bed as a man and woman.
"But, I didn't realize she hated being called Sis that much. I tried to stop calling her that when I become her subordinate to separate our public and private life, but..."
"No, uh, um... Master?"
It seemed that Lud didn't understand why Sophia was in such agony.
Lud was like her cute younger brother.
Inside her shell as a soldier and senior officer, Sophia not to let her feelings show, but being called Sis was too much for her to bear.
"Uughh... I-I got it... I'll try to do something... That's all you want me to do, idiot?!"
Finally back on her feet, Sophia stood up, breathing heavily.
"Really?! Thank goodness... The Commander really is a nice person after all..."
Lud sighed with relief.
"Don't misunderstand. While I do sympathize with their circumstances, that wasn't what moved me to help these kids... It's because you, you asked me... You damn fool!"
Sophia snapped at Lud before grabbing a piece of bread from the tray and turning around.
"You won the challenge for now."
"Challenge? Oh right.. huh?"
Lud must make one of the party guests say that his bread was delicious, and Sophia would stop trying to draw him back into the military.
That had been her challenge.
"Those children did originally board that ship as passengers after all... Hmph!"
As she spoke, Sophia bit into the cat-shaped bread in her hands, and quickly walked away, her military boots tapping loudly behind her.
"Send a letter every now and then! Stupid!"
Just like that, without turning around once, Sophia left.
However, Lud saw, superimposed on her back, the smile of the young girl who had been like an older sister to him.
"Thank you... Commander."
Even someone like Lud had people who worried about him.
The fact that he had thoughtlessly done things to endanger his life was an insult to the people who cared about him.
But now, he realized that he did have people who cared, and it made him feel just the slightest bit proud.
As she walked alone, Sophia was deep in thought.
When Lud lost his family, Sophia's father and the Rundstadt family abandoned him.
Sophia had looked for him, but he seemed to have disappeared.
When they meet again, Sophia looked at the deep wounds on Lud's cheek, and in his heart, and she was regretful.
If she had protected Lud, he wouldn't have had to go through so much pain.
Her regret made her want to cry.
That was why she had to protect him this time. No matter who become her enemy as a result.
"Even if just a little... I was able to help you be happy, huh..."
Atonement, guilt, redemption—all the words she had thrown at Lud had been about herself.
The feelings, so painful and so strong, she couldn't confess to him.
But, a slight pang of loneliness ran through her.
Her helpless little brother had created his own place of belonging, without her help or protection.
"If this was how things were going to go... I should have told Lud how I felt about him when I had the chance..."
Muttering quietly to herself, Sophia used her sleeve to roughly wipe tears from her eyes.