The hatch of the Bear that was severed in two opened up, and a young black man with a large build came out.

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It looks like the pilot was okay.
He waved to Kou and boarded one of the support vehicles that were nearby.

「Are you a solo mercenary? Or are you already affiliated with an Underground Force?」

「I was just transferred over a few days ago.
I still don’t know a whole lot about this world.」

Kou decided to answer honestly.

「A lot happened, and I ended up finding this guy in a junkyard.
I defeated an unmanned weapon like the ones we fought earlier and made it all the way here.」

He heard the other pilot gasp in surprise through the comm.
Judging from that reaction, what happened to him should be pretty rare.

「Since we can talk with each other without any problems, that means you’ve already taken a language capsule, right? Great.
Do you want to come together with us back to the Defense Dome? You can resupply and get your machine to undergo some repairs there.」

「That would be nice.
But I don’t even know what a Defense Dome exactly is.
Can I still come?」

「It’s a shelter for humans.
Basically, it’s a colony.
Small-scale colonies are called Defense Domes while large-scale ones are called Fortress Areas.
It looks like really are just a recent transferee.」

「I kinda missed the rescue shuttle.」

「We’ll be moving out immediately.
You really saved our hides back there.
I’ll send you a guest identification code.
You can register your machine with it.
We’re the Underground Force『Metal Iris』by the way.」

「Is it really okay? This would make me a temporary member of your Force, right?」

「It’s fine.
I’ll explain everything to the captain.
Don’t worry.」

「Thank you.
I’ll be taking you up on your offer.」

「Great.
Follow after us then.
Let’s talk again later once we arrive at the Dome.」

「Roger.」

Kou switched Unit 5 to Cruise Mode once again.

He began following after the Metal Iris members who led the way out front.

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「Let’s see…… The machine didn’t take any damage.
Our supplies are still enough too.
What should we do, once we get to the colony, Master?」

「Hm.
Let’s get you registered and procure an ID card then.」

「Yeah, okay.
I guess I’ll ask if they can share some food with us too.
Nothing wrong with having more anyway.」

In any case, Kou didn’t plan on staying in the Defense Dome for too long.

「Uh, what’s an Underground Force anyway?」

「They are mercenary groups affiliated and managed by the Mercenary Association, an organization directly controlled by Okeanos.
Underground Forces are the largest mercenary units working under the Association.
They are roughly similar to the private military companies or PMCs of your time.」

「Is it really alright for private individuals to organize military forces for themselves?」

「There’s a good reason for this.
When they were reinitialized after the Interplanetary War era, the three planets ended up completely abandoning conventional military organizations.
It was a world without large military forces serving under individual countries.
Each Fortress Area and Defense Dome was treated as an independent self-governing territory somewhat similar to autonomous areas of your era.」

「And everyone was fine with that?」

Kou was truly surprised about the lack of formal military forces.
Who will protect the people? Or rather, who will willingly take up the responsibility of protecting them.

He even suspected that it was an aftereffect of the Telema AI’s excessive care for humanity.

「Under the management of Okeanos, all three planets have a unified language and currency through the use of language capsules and are well-protected within vast shelters.
It was a world where the concept of a nation was next to nonexistent.
Thanks to the advanced automation of society, poverty was all but eliminated.
Of course, each autonomous area did possess a certain extent of defensive capability through the use of hired mercenaries.」

「I suppose an arrangement like that didn’t go that well when the Stones attacked.」

「Yes.
The situation was completely turned on its head when the Stones began their invasion.
Military power was redefined once more.
At present, each self-governing Fortress Area employs mercenaries to act as their standing armed forces under a long-term contract.
Since this was previously a world that rejected the very concept of a regular standing military, they are still treated as【unofficial military forces】even now.」

「So some people actually prefer working as mercenaries?」

In the present era of convenient and advanced automation, although there should still be a bit of a gap between different individuals, the minimum conditions for living a relatively comfortable life should be guaranteed.

Being a mercenary entails risking one’s life doing highly dangerous jobs for money.
No matter how much money was involved, Kou didn’t think it would be worth risking one’s life for.

「Although the citizens basically never starve to death, a large majority of them still find it difficult to afford affluent lives.
Becoming a mercenary is one of the few ways to get rich relatively quickly.
Silhouettes were originally designed as work machines, so they started arming them, and everything escalated from there.」

「That’s why some Silhouettes come pretty cheap, right?」

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「Right.
The most important condition to be met if one wants to establish an Underground Force is having a large mobile facility.」

「Mobile facility?」

「The standard is a mobile facility for transporting and maintaining Silhouettes called a Hangar Carrier.
Particularly large Underground Forces even possess Interplanetary War-era space carriers capable of moving between the three planets.」

「Carriers that can fly into space……」

「They are very popular with large Forces.
After all, having one means you can freely travel to active battlefields for jobs.
There’s little to no merit in taking over the administrative rights of Fortress Areas, so no one is inclined to do so.
It’s a form of capitalism reintroduced because of the war.」

「I think I’ll have to pass on that.
I just don’t get what’s so appealing about it.
Hm? Hold up.
Since you’re all facing a common enemy, the Stones, why aren’t people uniting in order to face them?」

Kou thought something like that should have been a given considering the circumstances and asked why it actually wasn’t.

「It’s a political issue.
The Fortress Areas around the world and large Underground Forces don’t really cooperate with each other beyond a certain level.」

「Why?」

「They are afraid of the possibility that some would actually move to establish an actual large nation using their cooperation as a pretext.
The organization that proposed to establish one will be the leader of the new state and the other would end up subordinate to it after all.」

「Do they really have the leeway to care about such things in the current situation?」

「Basically, cooperation is possible, but it all depends on the money and merits involved.
There are also Fortress Areas that have gone over to the Stone’s side.
They are guaranteed their lives and some level of autonomy after surrendering after all.」

「Putting survival over freedom huh……」

Prudent judgment was required of those who lead after all.

「Differences in values, beliefs, and disparities between individuals cannot be overcome as long as one remains of flesh and blood.
That’s why the Stones abandoned their biological bodies instead.」

「Meaning?」

「They threw away their biological bodies and uploaded themselves as part of a monolithic collective consciousness.
There are no longer any differences in gender, personalities, and beliefs between them.
They sought perfect equality and became inorganic inhuman entities instead.
Though thanks to that, they were able to avoid being turned into quantum data a second time.」

「I think that’s just messed up.
It’s like putting the cart before the horse in my opinion.」

「It’s just a matter of the difference in people’s philosophies and beliefs.
They merely opted for such a choice.
That’s all there is to it.」

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While he was discussing things with Master, an alert notice rang out within Unit 5’s cockpit, and Kou switched to Combat Mode in a fluster.

He heard an explosion go off in the distance.

「What the–?」

The image taken by Unit 5’s main cameras was enlarged.
A giant plume of fire and smoke erupted from afar.

「What the heck is that?」

A large object was displayed on the main monitor of Unit 5’s cockpit.
It greatly resembled the Ant-type Keres Kou fought just a while ago.

However, its size was of an entirely different level.
After all, it was big enough that its form could already be seen on the monitor even from such a great distance.

「It’s a super-large-class Queen Ant-type Keres.
It’s called Enyo, after the Ancient Greek goddess of terror and war.
It’s also earned the moniker City Destroyer.
Basically, it functions as a siege engine.
Shelters are covered with meta-material domes treated with high-dimensional projection as a countermeasure for impacts caused by meteorite showers.
That thing is capable of destroying them.」

「That’s another dangerous-sounding name.
So after fighting the mid-boss, we’re gonna go up against the last boss next huh.
This place really is a damn piece of work.」

Kou couldn’t help but curse.

「Kou, the Defense Dome we’re heading to is under attack! We’re heading straight for it regardless to help out.
What about you? Still coming?」

A transmission came from Barry that informed Kou about the situation.

「Sure.」

Kou shifted Unit 5’s rollers to full speed and followed after the Bears.

In emergency cases like this, a standard Silhouette’s speed left much to be desired.

The two Bears each deployed wires which connected to the two armored vehicles.
The vehicles then proceeded to tow the Bears at full speed.
Although Silhouettes were equipped with rollers, they still weren’t as fast as proper wheeled vehicles.
It was a move that intended to make up for their lack of speed.
The armored vehicles were also designed with enough horsepower to tow Silhouettes at high speed.

「Well, that’s convenient.
Guess we’ll just have to keep tracking them.」

Kou kept following after the group.

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「The radar is practically unusable.
You’ll have to track everything with your eyes.」

「What happened?」

「An EMP blast.
It incapacitates electronic devices by way of a powerful electromagnetic pulse.
It’s powerful enough to affect a person’s body.」

「It can affect a person’s body…?」

「It’s like being put inside a microwave and getting boiled to death.
It’s harmless as long as you’re at least 1 kilometer away from the epicenter, but that simply means the electromagnetic pulse is just that powerful.」

「This really is a scary world.」

Kou couldn’t believe he had to be at least 1 kilometer away in order to be safe.

The Metal Iris members themselves seemed to be avoiding being exposed to the outside for long.

Kou once again witnessed an example of just how dangerous for flesh and blood humans the planet’s current environment was.

「It was just a non-lethal strategic weapon in your time.
But in this era, the output of the electromagnetic pulse is several magnitudes greater.
Its effects on the human body are incomparable to its 21st-century counterpart.
It’s one of the major reasons why foot soldiers are no longer employed on battlefields here.」

「Yeah.
I mean, they’d probably just croak from all the craziness going on.」

「Silhouettes were born from work machines designed to withstand meteorite showers and magnetic storms.
You’ll be fine as long as you stay inside Unit 5’s cockpit.
You’ll just have to do your best and lock on to your targets visually.」

「It’s a pretty primitive way of fighting.」

「The enemy is in the same boat.
It will also go in for the kill the moment it gets a visual lock.」

「Boy, am I glad Unit 5’s maneuverability and speed are excellent.」

Kou wasn’t aware, but Unit 5’s sensors were also quite excellent as well.

「Its loadout is lacking as a trade-off though.」

「One sword is more than enough.」

Kou gave a carefree response.

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