Enemy to Defeat

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Kou and the others finally made it back to Astraea.

Presently, Kou was inside the combat command post.

Asia and another young woman were also present inside the command post with him.
Asia took the appearance of a silver-haired petite young girl.
The other young woman was a blonde and tall Caucasian just like Jenny, but it was as if her beautiful features were carved from the finest marble.
She was a woman who appeared somehow divine.

The two young women were wearing loose white outfits of a similar design.

「Welcome back, Kou!」

「I’m back, Asia.
Who’s this?」

「I’m Astraea, Kou.」

「Astraea!」

Kou was astonished.
He didn’t think Astraea could also take the form of a girl just like Asia.

「I and Astraea are kinda like cousins.
Um, or maybe you can even call us sisters?」

「Even so, I am essentially different from you, Asia.
I’m akin to a spare unit.
My main body has already been lost forever.」

「I see……」

Kou thought that it should have been painful for Astraea to lose her main body permanently.
He wouldn’t be able to help her, unlike Asia.

He was quite indebted to Astraea.
He felt a bit frustrated due to how helpless he was regarding the matter.

「It’s already fortunate that she’s been able to retain about 30% of her functions.
Me right now can only use 10% you know.」

「I see.
We only recovered part of you, after all, Asia.
We still have a long way to go to fully rescue you.」

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「You have succeeded in taking Asia back.
There is a big difference between zero and ten percent.
That is a fact.
The situation on Planet Asia has definitely improved.
Even Asia at 10% functionality is already equal to me at 50%.」

Astraea explained to Kou with an unsmiling expression.
Kou felt she was complimenting him, but he couldn’t look at her directly because she was just too beautiful.

「I heard about what you wish to do from Astraea, Kou.
I may have limited authority right now, but I can still grant you what you need.」

「That’s great.
Thank you Asia.」

「First, you want to obtain the right to manufacture a small ultra-high pressure furnace for producing metallic hydrogen, right? We’re cutting it quite close with this one.
You knowledge about the material is insufficient, Kou.
I’m not blaming you though.」

「Sorry for asking something so unreasonable.」

The extent of the knowledge provided to humans also depended on an individual’s understanding of said knowledge.
Originally, Kou’s request would have been impossible to grant due to his lacking understanding.

「Next is improving the range of nanocarbons and nanocarbon composites that get produced.
Doing this would greatly expand your development options.」

「I’ll be fine when it comes to that technology.
I learned a lot about it from Astraea after all.」

「Lastly, we’ll be resuming Familiar production.
Since my current level of authority is limited, we probably wouldn’t be able to produce a lot, but I’ll do my very best.」

「Familiars huh.
I heard their numbers have been steadily decreasing because the Stones are really hostile to them and actively hunt them down.
That’s great news.」

When Asia got captured, the Familiar production facilities all throughout the planet got deactivated.

Once Asia gets rescued fully, full production could resume, and the number of Familiars who will serve as the friends and partners of humans will increase again.
That’s a very good thing, Kou thought.

「I’m going to use this facility as my base, but I also have to manage and maintain the climate control facilities around the planet.
That means you wouldn’t be able to see me for a while, Kou.
I wanted to inform you first before I go.」

「Looking after the planet is your job after all.
I’m sorry I wouldn’t be able to help more with that, but I promise I’ll work hard to retrieve the rest of your captured data, Asia.」

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「Hearing you say that makes me really happy.
If you need me, just call and I’ll come flying to your side right away, Kou! Astraea’s here too.
You can definitely rely on her as well.」

「Yes.
I’m different from my main body.
I have decided to work closely with Kou and stay by his side.
Be at ease, Asia.」

「Oh.
I never thought I’d hear something like that from you, Astraea……」

「What do you mean by that, Asia?」

「You see, Astraea here adheres strongly to the principle of equality.
It’s her core behavioral trait.
And she just declared she’s going to stay by your side and watch over you closely, Kou.
That’s really amazing you know.」

「Are you really okay with that, Astraea?」

「My main body was the one who adhered strongly to that principle.
I am different.
I am only an arms factory AI.
Please don’t think so hard about it, Kou.
You are not the one being balanced on a scale.
Rather, you own the scale itself.」

「Uh, I feel like I’ve been burdened with a lot more responsibility that way though.」

「Our basic behavioral principle is to be beholden to humans after all.
It’s just that the previous Astraea was too much of a special case.」

Astraea giggled cheerfully.

But before long, she returned to her usual stoic countenance.

「I feel like you need to know this, Kou.
Normally, the Stones wouldn’t be able to take advantage of us.
But that lot actually used unorthodox means to take advantage of a loophole and gain access to us.
They also used that method to capture me.」

「What kind of trick did they actually use then?」

Kou prepared to listen intently.
The matter Asia was about to disclose would be able to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding the Nemesis warfront.

「You’re already aware that the Stones have transformed themselves into a single homogenous existence, and that they’ve completely forsaken their humanity, right? Since they aren’t human, normally, they wouldn’t be able to access us.
Normally, that is.」

「Yeah.
I’ve learned of that.」

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「Apparently, being a Stone is a serious bore.
They don’t possess the five senses after all.
However, they managed to come up with a new form of entertainment.
–That entertainment method is to install their data inside the minds of captured humans in order to enjoy temporary bodies.
The original soul and personality of the person is completely deleted.」

「Wha–!?」

It was a more shocking matter than Kou expected.
He didn’t think the Stones would actually erase people’s souls and hijack their bodies.

「Do the humans know about this?」

「They still aren’t aware.
Only a few humans can hear my voice.
This was the case even before I was captured and sealed.
Those who are able to faintly hear me are the A class Development Engineers.」

Asia muttered in a forlorn manner.

「After they’ve installed themselves in humans, can they also be considered as humans by then? The answer was yes, unfortunately.
That’s how they were able to access me.
They reverse-traced my data trail from the Interplanetary War era and managed to pinpoint the Fortress Areas where my data was sleeping.
They simultaneously captured them all and proceeded to seal me up.
They did so by ordering me to personally seal myself.」

Kou had finally understood something.
This was why the key to Asia’s seal was only known to Asia.
It’s because the Stones that impersonated humans made sure to set things up that way.

It seemed like the perfect seal since no one could actually hear Asia’s voice clearly, and humanity didn’t even know where exactly she was.

「So that’s why humans are being hunted down and captured unilaterally huh……」

「I did everything I could to help out you know? The Familiars, Therianthropes, and Nereids all cooperated to defend humanity in order to enact my will.
But humanity’s ability to defend itself had clear limits due to Sophia sealing the most advanced technology.
So, with the last of my power, I asked Okeanos to summon transferees to Planet Asia in order to revive lost technology.」

「And that’s us; people whose deaths remain unconfirmed in the time periods we lived in huh……」

「Yes.
This is the truth of what happened.」

「The aim of the Stones is to return to Earth, right?」

「Yes.
Their goal is to return to Earth and use our powers in order to revive it.
But they still haven’t found my main body yet.
Well, even the current me doesn’t know its location!」

「Complete concealment huh.」

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「There are several outcomes for humans who have been captured by the Stones.
They might be used as temporary bodies that the Stones will install their data to.
The ones who are particularly skilled would be used as pawns.
They might also be considered as breeding stock to produce suitable bodies for the Stones to install themselves to.
Others would be deprived of their thoughts and live as biological labor machines to manufacture and maintain Murders.
As for those who had no prominent skills to speak of……」

Asia hesitated to continue.
It must be a truly unimaginable fate, Kou inwardly thought.
He felt this was the case.

「They will select humans with high ability and good looks based on current aesthetic sensibilities from among the ones they captured, erase their souls, and install themselves to enjoy temporary lives as mock humans.
That is the true face of the hivemind lifeform known as the Stones.」

「Even I was not aware of what the Stones were like until Asia shared this information with me.」

Kou found it surprising that even Astraea didn’t know, but she was sleeping underground for more than a thousand years until Kou reactivated her, so he supposed it was reasonable that she was unaware.
It was only natural.

「Those guys are already just like parasites that infest and take over humans huh.
Isn’t it laughable though? After all, they originated from the idea of denying the concept of individuality.」

「It truly is ironic, isn’t it? They espouse the idea of denying the very concept of individual differences but still insist on selecting bodies based on aesthetically pleasing appearances.
For them, freedom and equality can only be enjoyed by those among their kind.
And the act of living itself has turned into their pastime.
That’s why I absolutely do not want the Nemesis system to fall into their hands.
This is also to honor Sophia’s will of entrusting the Nemesis system to the humans.」

「I feel the same.
I’m glad since I don’t have to feel guilty when I fight them in the future.」

For the first time, Kou had a clear picture of the enemy.

In the past, he only fought unmanned murder machines in order to survive.

「I already talked about this with Astraea, and there’s something we want to entrust you with, Kou.」

「What is it?」

「Power to fight with the Stones.」

「I understand.
Let’s hear it.」

Once he viewed the Stones as enemies he absolutely couldn’t lose against, a clear will was born from within Kou.

He realized it a bit late, but it seemed he had already taken himself as a true citizen of Planet Asia.

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