The first three men who had attempted to interrogate him had been all but useless. After enduring their screaming, and a few strikes to the side of his head and stomach, he had listed off a code that he had been forced to memorize long ago.
It was a simple code, but one that anyone high enough on the food chain would understand once hearing. Unfortunately for Gabriel, his interrogators were not high-ranking officers. It wasn’t until well into the tenth hour of his third interrogation that the door to the room had suddenly opened and his interrogator was quickly ushered out and a sharp featured, older woman had marched in, flanked by two guards. As soon as Gabriel repeated the code she had given him a curt nod, apologized, and ordered a shuttle to Nova be prepared ASAP.
While the shuttle was arranged, Gabriel was taken a small room to shower and given a fresh pair of Novan fatigues. Gabriel would have preferred a flight suit, but did not complain. The cloth was much higher quality than the ELA clothes. The jacket was slightly too big even though it was the size he would usually wear. It took him a while to figure out that he must have lost weight since being on Earth.
A small contingent of soldiers accompanied him on the shuttle ride up. None of them spoke to him and most did their best not to even look at him, but he caught them glancing at him from time to time before quickly looking away. He knew they didn’t know who he was. Lucile wouldn’t have allowed that. The older woman, who he suspected was the Base Commander, didn’t even know who he was. All they knew was that they needed to bring him back to Nova and never speak of the matter again.
The lack of information was making them nervous.
Gabriel was too tired and in too much pain to focus on their discomfort and quickly fell into a light sleep that lasted until the final moments of docking, when the ship jolted as it landed inside of one of Nova’s many hangers.
He disembarked alone, none of the soldiers making any move to get up or follow him. The hanger was completely deserted save for a single person, her hands clasped behind her back and her head held high. Gabriel stopped in front of her.
“Gabriel,” Rachel held a hand out toward him.
“Ms. Lane,” Gabriel took her hand in a firm grip.
“Welcome home,” said Rachel as she released his hand and turned on her heel. Gabriel followed her without a word. She led him to a small room where Sara was waiting with a mobile operating stand.
“Clothes off,” Sara ordered curtly. Gabriel did as he was told, placing his clothes on a table in the side of the room. Sara pulled on a pair of gloves and gave him a quick once over, prodding him gently in the ribs and paying extra attention to the stitches on his stomach, arm, and leg. She didn’t seem pleased.
“You’re so thin. Were they even feeding you down there?” Sara mumbled as she pushed a thermometer into his ear and took his temperature.
“Yes,” Gabriel said.
“That was rhetorical.” Sara sighed and she ruffled his hair. “You need a haircut.”
Gabriel hadn’t noticed but his hair had grown long, it was almost in his eyes. He reached up and brushed his hair to the side with his fingers.
“How is he?” Rachel asked.
“On the surface he seems well enough.” Sara shrugged. “But it’s impossible to tell without running some tests. I’ve never gone this long without monitoring his heart. He could be fine or he could be about to die.”
“Then we’ll run the tests,” Rachel said. She looked up as the door to the room opened and Sani walked in. Rachel crossed her arms over her chest and turned to face him. “We are not done.”
“Yes, you are,” said Sani. “You’ve had your hour.”
“We are not done,” Rachel said again with more force.
“It would be best to wait.” Sara urged. “Once we run a diagnostic on his heart, at least.”
“He’s survived on Earth for the last month, he’ll survive a few more hours,” Sani said.
“Sani,” Rachel warned.
“He’s well enough to speak isn’t he?” Sani snapped. He looked to Gabriel. “Aren’t you?”
Gabriel nodded silently.
“You see? Now get him dressed,” Sani said as he walked out of the room. “Lucile has been waiting long enough.”
“I hate that man, you know,” Sara said lightly as Gabriel dressed. “Really, I do.”
Rachel ignored the quip. “Be ready with the tests. This shouldn’t take too long.”
“I doubt that,” Sara said airily as she produced a syringe and held out her hand. Gabriel hesitated for a moment before extending his arm. Sara rolled up his sleeve and quickly gave him the injection. He winced at the sharp pain. “This is a general booster, just to help your immune system and the like. Now, if you start to have any issues, come and see me immediately, understand.”
Gabriel nodded. “Yes.”
“That better not be a fake yes.” Sara narrowed her eyes. “Really, Gabriel. That implant needs constant monitoring and I have no idea what kind of stress you’ve put it through, but from what I can see it’s more than intended. Promise me.”
Gabriel stared at her for a moment before slowly nodding. “I will.”
“Promise,” Sara said.
“I… promise,” Gabriel said. The word felt strange in his mouth, but Sara seemed placated and she waved him away. “Then go and have your meeting that is far too important for me.”
“Come along, Gabriel,” Rachel said. She waited until they were a on the elevator before she let out a sigh and her posture relaxed. “Honestly, sometimes it feels like Sara is a child and not a doctor.”
Gabriel didn’t disagree with that assessment, but he still found it oddly comforting. Something about Sara’s upbeat, if at times slightly sadistic, attitude made working with her relaxing. In a different, yet similar way, Rachel’s calm and straightforward demeanor was reassuring. Gabriel had missed both of them. The elevator doors opened into Lucile’s office. Sani was waiting for them. Gabriel had not missed him.
“About time,” Sani muttered as he led them to Lucile’s desk. She stood when she saw Gabriel and walked around the desk.
“Gabriel!” She spread her arms wide and enveloped him in a loose hug. Her embrace was cold and made Gabriel feel like he was a fly trapped in a spider’s web. He was glad when she released him and returned back to her desk.
“Our champion, back from the dead,” Lucile sighed dramatically. “I almost didn’t believe it when the transmission came through. Sani was quite adamant in his belief that you had died in that battle, though Rachel was just as sure, if not more so, that you were alive, though not well. It seems Rachel was right, and yet again you, Sani, were wrong.”
“So it would seem.” Sani frowned.
“I hope I don’t see a pattern beginning to appear,” Lucile said lightly, a small smile on her face. Sani nearly took a step back before catching himself and nodding.
“I can assure you, you will not,” he said.
“Yes, I am sure I will not.” Lucile stared at Sani, her eyes boring into his until he looked away and his eyes fell to the floor. She kept her eyes on him for a moment longer before looking at Gabriel. “Please, sit. Everyone.”
She waited until Gabriel sat down, with Rachel moving a chair beside him. Sani took a chair to his left, keeping his distance.
Lucile nodded. “Now then, I believe you have quite a story to tell us and I, for one, can not wait to hear it. Start from the beginning, please.”
Gabriel nodded and began to speak, starting with the attack on Woodcrest. The words flowed from his lips in a steady monotone. It seemed impossible to him that he had been gone from Nova for less than a month when it felt like he had been on Earth for years. He told them about the Dillo. How the ELA had nursed him back to health. He chose to leave any information about Charlie and Millie free from the report. When he reached the Vulture attack Sani stopped him.
“These Vultures, are they well organized?” Sani said, interested. He was leaning towards Gabriel.
Gabriel resisted the urge to move away from him.
“No, not in a traditional sense,” Gabriel said after a moment of thought. “Their military power is extremely low. Even though the ELA forces inside the Dillo were poorly equipped and greatly outnumbered they were able to repel the attack. If the Vultures were forced into an actual battle they would fall almost immediately. They lack sufficient equipment, both in small arms and in heavy weapons and vehicles. A team of Orbital Knights could wipe on the entire organization in a matter of days. They are mostly suited for guerrilla tactics.”
“I see.” Sani nodded thoughtfully. “Still, we should consider making contact with them. They could prove to be a useful diversionary tactic, if nothing else. I’m sure they could be enticed quite easily. Don’t you think?”
Gabriel shrugged. “I can’t say.. My contact with them was extremely limited. According to the ELA and civilians aboard the Dillo, the Vultures scavenge from both the ELA and Nova. It is unlikely they would align themselves with either side of the war without compelling compensation. They are not soldiers.”
“Sani, make sure we have a full report on these Vultures by tomorrow,” Lucile said. “I want to know their leaders, their positions, and their numbers.”
“Of course,” Sani nodded and pulled out his tablet to send out the orders.
“Gabriel, please continue, what happened during the Vulture attack?” Lucile said.
“I stayed with the other civilians during the attack. The Vultures were able to breach the Dillo’s interior, but were eventually repelled by the ELA once they were able to get their Kniv online,” Gabriel said. The half-truths he fed to his handlers came surprisingly easily to him, but he still nearly flinched when Rachel spoke.
“What Knivs did the ELA have on the Dillo?” she asked.
“They had two Knivs on board. A Stryker and an Ettin,” said Gabriel.
“Did, at any point, you attempt to use it for an escape,” Sani asked suddenly as he looked up from his tablet. “It would seem that, with your skillset, if you were able to get to the Kniv, it would have been a simple matter for you to escape.”
Gabriel answered him without hesitation. “The only functional Kniv they had was the Ettin. Its battery was too damaged for prolonged use. The startup sequence was also failing, which would have made it impossible to use for an escape. The Knivs were also kept in the most well guarded area of the Dillo. It was not a suitable option for escape.”
“What other ways did you attempt to escape? Wouldn’t radioing Nova for help have been an option?” Sani said.
“Sani, Gabriel was in enemy territory. It is not as simple as you make it sound,” Rachel said lowly.
“It’s a radio, Rachel. Even I can work a radio,” Sani replied.
Gabriel cut into their budding argument before it could continue. “The transmissions on the Dillo were being monitored constantly. Attempting to send a message offered no guarantee of reaching Nova. It was high risk and low reward.”
“Hmmm.” Sani was not fully convinced. “And during the Vulture attack? You said the ELA were outnumbered. Surely you could have slipped away.”
Rachel spoke before Gabriel could. “Oh please be quiet Sani. Do you honestly think escaping from the ELA directly into a different enemy controlled territory is an actual escape? Please do explain to me how that would have improved the situation. At least with the ELA Gabriel was able to stay safe and possibly gain information. By leaving, all he would have given himself is a death sentence. He would have been injured, unarmed, and isolated.”
Gabriel shifted in his seat slightly. Rachel’s thinking was correct, his escape during that time would have been difficult, if he had not been armed and able to secure a Vulture vehicle.
“I am simply trying to get all of the facts, Rachel,” Sani sniffed. “He was with them for quite a long time.”
Rachel’s eyes narrowed. “How is that relevant?”
“I believe that is enough, you two,” Lucile said gently, as one would admonish two bickering children. “There will be time for questions once Gabriel finishes.”
Lucile gestured with her hand and Gabriel nodded.
“The ELA has a base known as Freeport, it was our destination. It’s located deep underground,” Gabriel began. He explained the general location, along with the interior set up, accepting a tablet from Rachel as he spoke. He sketched out a rough diagram as he spoke, paying attention to the rapid launch columns and the military installations he had seen.
“Impressive,” Lucile said as she looked over the diagram. “And you used one of these columns to escape? That seems rather risky.”
“It became necessary,” Gabriel said. “A member of the ELA began to suspect I was not a civilian.”
“Oh?” Lucile tilted her head.
“My initial lack of identification was not a problem while on the Dillo, but upon arrival at Freeport, she began to press and came to the conclusion that I was not an Earth civilian. From there she deduced I was a Novan.” Gabriel’s hand began to tighten into a fist but he forced his fingers to relax. “I incapacitated her and escaped before she could raise an alarm.”
“My, quite an ordeal you have been through,” Lucile said
Gabriel shrugged. He throat felt raw and he felt as though he had spoken far too much. It was the longest he had spoken in years, if not ever.
“Gabriel, do you believe your identity as the Archangel was compromised?” Lucile asked, tapping the tips of her fingers together.
“Possibly,” Gabriel said. “With my escape, the assumption of my identity as a Novan will be confirmed. The fact that I escaped using a Kniv, along with the wounds I sustained during the battle at Woodcrest, could lend enough credibility to the theory that I was the Archangel.”
“I see, then we must operate under the assumption that you are correct. Will this be a problem?”
Lucile directed the question to Sani and Rachel.
Sani took the lead. “Unlikely.”
“Explain,” Lucile said.
“Killing Archangel, or at least the belief of his death, was a major victory for the ELA. They have broadcast their victory continuously for the last month and even now news of his defeat and death are among the most commonly intercepted transmissions. If they admit to knowing that Gabriel is the Archangel, then they must also admit to the fact that he is alive. Not only that, they must admit that they failed to capture him. No doubt rumors are already forming in relation to his escape from Freeport. If they were to allow them to link up with news of Archangel being alive, it could be catastrophic.”
“I see.” Lucile nodded. “Rachel, what do you think?”
“I agree. For now, at least, the ELA would not want to risk demoralizing their soldiers by admitting they had failed to kill the Archangel, even if they have reason to believe there is more than one Archangel.”
Rachel nodded. “If the Archangel were to appear on the battlefield again, the ELA will then reveal that there is the possibility of more than one Archangel.”
“Rachel is right,” Sani added. “However, their admittance would still put them in a position of weakness. Even if it does reduce the standing of the single Archangel as an unbeatable foe, it means there are more Pilots in Nova capable of taking on such tasks. Either way, this situation favors us.”
“And Freeport, how would you suggest we handle this new development, Rachel?” said Lucile.
“I suggest turning the information over to the Orbital Knights and allowing them to develop a course of action to take the base. We can have the Archangel assist if necessary,” Rachel said after a moment’s thought.
“It is quite unfortunate that Gabriel destroyed the navigation system in the Kniv he took from Freeport,” Sani said. “The information could have been invaluable.”
“And if he hadn’t and they had caught him, we would know nothing and lost an important military asset,” Rachel shot back. “Now, if we are done here, I believe it is time Gabriel underwent a formal examination by Doctor Kim.”
“I believe you are correct,” Lucile said. She looked at Gabriel and smiled. “I am so very glad to have you back Gabriel, and I look forward to working with you again, very soon. You may go.”
Gabriel nodded and stood up. Rachel stood as well. With a small nod of her head to Lucile, she exit the room with Gabriel following silently behind her. She remained silent the entire trip to Sara’s office, only saying a soft goodbye before leaving him in the care of Sara. The good doctor was all too eager to run Gabriel though an extremely extensive gamut of examinations, some of which Gabriel wasn’t completely convinced were real. When they had finally finished, she allowed Gabriel to sit down on one of the beds in her office for the final stages of the checkup.
“Well, whoever did your stitches did a half-assed job and you’re gonna have some serious scarring to add to your collection, but besides that you seem alright,” Sara said as she gently ran her finger across the laceration on Gabriel’s stomach causing him to shiver.
“Really?” Gabriel said, surprised.
“Of course not, you idiot.” Sara sighed as she stood back. “I don’t even know how you’re alive this time. The implant is still working, but I’ll need to recalibrate it and run some diagnostics, just in case. Despite the blunt force trauma your chest experienced, the implant seems to have held together, somehow. As it turns out I am a genius. Or you’re just lucky.”
“Maybe both,” Gabriel said. He looked down at his chest. Large, ugly black and blue bruises covered a large portion of his flesh. The swelling had gone down thank to a shot from Sara. It also seemed to dull some of the pain at the expense of making his head feel a bit hazy.
“You know, your injuries are interesting, Gabriel,” Sara said as she carefully touched the wound on his arm.
“How so?” said Gabriel. He had never found injuries particularly interesting, but Sara was a rather unique person.
“Well this seems to be a bullet wound,” Sara said, tapping his arm. “So I assume you were shot.”
“The ELA were shooting at me after I got out of my Kniv,” Gabriel said.
“Oh I’m sure they were, but that isn’t what makes this wound so interesting,” Sara pressed her finger against his skin, applying a small amount of pressure. Gabriel winced. “The interesting part is that you have been gone for almost a month and this bullet wound is only a week old, maybe two at most.”
Gabriel swallowed hard. “Oh?”
“Yes,” Sara’s hand drifted to his leg. “These wounds as well, both quite recent. I can say with almost complete certainty that neither of these were inflicted more than a week or so ago. Same with that cut along your back.
Gabriel remained silent.
“So very, very interesting,” Sara said. “However, it is also not part of my usual check up process and seems like extra work so I see no need to add that to my report. Don’t you agree? Of course you do.”
Gabriel had to smile at that. “I do.”
“I already told you that,” Sara tutted, tapping him lightly on the head. “Though I’m going to have to recommend, as your source of primary care and well being, that you wear long sleeves for the foreseeable future. Especially when your friends come to see you.”
“Friends?” Gabriel said as Sara produced a roll of bandages.
“Yes, the little Fairy and Chance. They have been worried about you, you know,” Sara said as she began to wrap his chest. “I’ve seen more of the little Fairy in the last month than I have in the last few years.”
She pushed him back against the bed when she finished her work. Gabriel didn’t fight her, letting his head rest against the pillow. He felt a small prick in his arm as she gave him another shot. He didn’t bother asking what it was. He trusted Sara well enough to know it wouldn’t be anything bad.
“What did you tell them?” Gabriel said quietly as his eyes began to grow heavy. Sara had probably mixed in some sort of sedative in the shot to make sure he would rest.
Sara pressed the back of her hand against his forehead. “You’re still warm. Low-grade fever, probably from the stress. You really need to sleep before it gets worse.”
“What did you tell them?” Gabriel repeated, though the words came out jumbled and slow.
“I told them the truth.”
“And what is that?” Gabriel’s eyes went out of focus and he heard Sara laugh.
“That’s the real question, isn’t it, Gabriel?” Sara pulled a sheet over him and flicked off the light. “Now get some sleep. Trust me, you’re going to need it.”