Sara had been wrong. Gabriel had not needed his sleep. For almost two weeks he did nothing more than stay hidden away in the infirmary, only allowed to leave his bed for the briefest amounts of time before being forced back into bed and pricked with a sedative filled syringe. Gabriel didn’t know what else was in the syringe, but whatever it was had him feeling much better.
Even so, he was still extremely bored and almost looked forward to the few times that Sani or Rachel would show up, though he minded Rachel far less than Sani. Both would ask him similar questions. Mostly they were in relation to Freeport. He always gave the exact same answers, doing his best to remember every possible detail of the military base, but careful not to make any mention of Charlie nor Millie. It was hard, at times, to keep his story straight, especially when the questions were presented to him after receiving a large dose of mind numbing sedative. He found, however, that he could offset the effects of the medication by releasing a small amount of adrenaline into his bloodstream.
Rachel accepted his answers without question, giving small, curt nods as she wrote down his every word. Sani was not so agreeable. Often Sara would shoo him away for overstaying his welcome with the excuse that Gabriel needed his rest. Gabriel was glad to see him go. Sani’s questioning tactics were tedious and quickly grew annoying.
“He would rather you have died, I think” Sara said one day after shutting the door on Sani’s face. An act she did with considerable satisfaction.“The Archangel project was halted in your absence and won’t be continued until you recover. He’s pouting but he can’t say anything to Lucile, and Rachel won’t tolerate him either. That leaves you.”
“I see,” Gabriel said.
“Before we found out you were alive, he was having me examine candidates for the position,” said Sara lightly. “I thought it was a waste of time, of course.”
“Who were the candidates?” Gabriel said as he shifted in his bed. Breathing was hurting less and less, but it was still hard to find a fully comfortable position.
“Some Knights, some students,” Sara said lightly with a vague wave of her hand. “Unimportant now. You will be well enough to Pilot soon. Though I won’t be able to clear you for missions right away.”
“Rachel clears me for missions,” said Gabriel.
“That she does, but who do you think Rachel asks before she does so?” Sara smiled knowingly before she produced a long sleeved shirt and tossed it to him. “By the way, you should put that on.”
“Why?” Gabriel put the shirt on without waiting for her answer. He knew regardless of what she said the outcome was going to be the same.
“You have visitors,” Sara said as she went and pulled open the door. A girl with ash blonde hair briskly brushed past her. A tall, broad shouldered boy with black hair followed at a more leisurely pace, giving Sara an apologetic look as she left the room.
Fairy wasted no time as she stopped by the bed and crossed her arms across her chest. “How are you?”
Gabriel didn’t mean to smile, but couldn’t seem to stop himself as he stared at her, before flicking his eyes up to Chance. Chance returned the smile full force, his eyes crinkling as he easily rested his elbow on Fairy’s head.
“Damn Fairy, you could at least give the man a hello or nice to see ya,” Chance said as Fairy batted his arm away. “But really, how are you, because you look like hell spat you back out and forgot to buy you dinner.”
“You’re thin,” Fairy clarified. She leaned down close and stared at him. “Have you been eating?”
“Hard to eat when you’re unconscious,” said Gabriel. It had taken quite a bit of prodding but he had finally gotten Sara to tell him what his excuse for being absent from the Academy for almost a month was. As far as Fairy, Chance, and anyone else beyond Lucile, Rachel, Sani, Sara, and Gabriel were concerned, his implant had failed and he had fallen into critical condition. Sara had been able to stabilize him by putting him into a medically induced coma, but it had been vital that he stayed in a controlled and isolated state.
“Well you missed a lot,” Chance said as he grabbed a chair and brought it over. Fairy chose to remain standing. She pulled her face away from Gabriel, but still remained close to the bed, her fingers brushing against the sheets.
“Have I?” said Gabriel.
“Oh yeah, it’s been hell,” Chance leaned down and stage whispered. “Fairy’s been freaking out like crazy.”
“I have not been freaking out,” Fairy said flatly.
“She’s totally been freaking out,” Chance said with a large smile. “Like every day going to Doc Kim and bugging her, trying to get some info, then going and blowing shit up in training when she couldn’t get anything.”
Gabriel smiled as Fairy glowered at Chance. “Anything else?”
“Yup,” Chance nodded and he pointed down at his chest. “Notice anything different about me?”
Gabriel dropped his eyes to Chance’s lapel. He was dressed in the usual academy uniform, the long white jacket with black accents, but something was different. There was a freshly polished silver pin on his lapel.
“You joined the Orbital Knights?” Gabriel said as he looked back up at Chance.
“Hey, don’t sound so surprised. I got promoted to S-class too!” Chance puffed his chest out proudly. “I’ve been running drills with them most days. Delta Division. Though I’m not actually a full member just, just provisional.”
A gleam from Fairy’s direction caught Gabriel’s eye but he didn’t turn to look. If Chance had been promoted to an Orbital Knight, then he had no doubts.
“What division are you in?” Gabriel said, directing the question at Fairy.
“Alpha Division,” Fairy said. She reached up and touched the pin on her chest. Gabriel knew it would be Alpha Division. The best of the best. The first ones dropped into combat. The Novan Shock Troops.
“She’s not provisional though,” Chance said. “Our Fairy here is the real deal. Still comes to class for some reason, though.”
“Joining the Orbital Knights is not an end goal,” Fairy said curtly. “Even after joining you should take advantage of every resource at your disposal.”
Chance rolled his eyes. “Hey Gabriel?”
“Yeah?” Gabriel said.
“You know what hasn’t changed?” asked Chance.
Gabriel shook his head. “What?”
“Fairy is still a freakin’ nerd!” Chance cackled before quickly retreating out of the room as Fairy through a punch towards his head. “Alright, I’ll see you later bro! And I’ll bring some snacks!”
“He hasn’t changed at all either,” Fairy sniffed as the door clicked shut. She turned to look at Gabriel. Tentatively she reached out and touched his hair. “You need a haircut.”
“I’ve been told,” Gabriel said.
“If it gets in your eyes, it could cause a distraction in battle,” Fairy said. Her hand was still resting against his face. Gabriel found it oddly distracting and he nodded silently. Fairy continued to stare at him for a long time, her pale blue eyes boring into his. Finally, she let out a soft sigh and bowed her head.
“I missed you,” Fairy said quietly.
Gabriel’s throat tightened and he nodded. “I missed you too.”
“I was worried,” Fairy’s voice grew fainter. “I was really worried, Gabriel.”
Gabriel found himself looking down as well. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t go away like that again, okay?” Fairy whispered.
“I won’t,” Gabriel said.
Fairy’s hand moved down to touch his cheek. Gabriel felt his own hand begin to rise up to meet hers before falling limply back down to his side. Fairy remained still as a statue for a moment longer before clearing her throat and pulling her hand back.
“When will you be able to return to class?” Fairy asked. Her voice sounded strained and her eyes were shining.
“Hopefully soon,” Gabriel said. His voice came out just as tight. “It’s hard to get a straight answer out of Doctor Kim.”
Fairy made a face. “I am well aware. She has not been very helpful.”
Gabriel grinned slightly. “So you were coming here every day?”
“Not every day,” Fairy said. A faint blush crept into her cheeks.
“No, she took at least one day off, I believe,” Sara said as she walked into the room holding a long plastic bag over her shoulder with one hand and a steaming mug of strongly scented coffee in the other. “Hello little Fairy.”
“Doctor Kim,” Fairy said. The greeting came out polite but there was trademark Fairchild venom behind it. From the way Sara smiled Gabriel knew she had greatly enjoyed teasing Fairy. Perhaps more than a professional should.
“Now to answer your question, Gabriel will be in class within the week, but for now I am going to have to ask you to leave. He does still need his rest, after all. But you can come back and see him tomorrow. Maybe you could even take him out. I’m sure he’d love to get out of this room for a while,” Sara winked.
“Very well,” Fairy gave the woman a curt nod before turning back to Gabriel. “Get some rest, Gabriel. I will see you soon.”
Gabriel nodded. “Bye Fairy.”
“Yes, goodbye!” Sara said with mock cheer as she ushered the girl out the door. Almost as soon as it had closed she tossed the bag to Gabriel and pulled a flask from her pocket. With another wink she poured a healthy amount of aromatic liquor into her coffee and took a long drink. Licking her lips and sighing she held the drink towards Gabriel. “Want some?”
Gabriel declined with a shake of his head and opened the bag. Inside was a flight suit along with a Pilot’s helmet. He looked up at Sara.
“Suit up, Archangel,” Sara said faintly. She was no longer smiling. “Breaks over.”
Gabriel nodded and quickly dressed. Just as he donned the helmet Rachel walked into the room. She gave Sara and small nod before gesturing to Gabriel. He followed her without a word.
“How do you feel?” Rachel asked as they reached the hanger.
“Functional,” Gabriel answered as he looked at the two Knivs that had been prepared. Both had been painted white, marking them as vehicles belonging to the Archangel. One was a Renegade, an almost exact replacement of the Kniv he had lost in Woodcrest. It had been an unfortunate loss. Gabriel had Piloted that Kniv almost his entire career, reusing the chassis and replacing whatever parts were destroyed during combat.
The other Kniv he did not fully recognize. It seemed to be built in the Renegade design. So similar that from far away Gabriel might not have been able to tell the difference. But up close he could see it was bulkier, with sharper features and heavier armour plating around the chest and shoulders.
“It’s a Type 01 Titan. It’s an improvement on the Renegade,” Rachel explained as Gabriel began to slowly circle the machine. “Its armour plating is experimental, made from a multi-layered weave that can reduce the effectiveness of plasma. It currently costs too much to mass-produce, but if the cost can be lowered, it will become the standard. Right now this is a prototype. You will serve as the test Pilot.”
Gabriel nodded. He had done the same thing with multiple variants of the Renegade. It allowed him to keep an advantage by using the cutting edge technology and it gave Nova useful information about the designs that could not be learned in simulation battles.
“Has the speed been reduced with the change in armour?” he asked as he reached out to run one gloved finger down the Kniv’s leg.
“Slightly. The weave is heavier than standard armour plating, but we were able to offset the weight by increasing the strength of the thrusters.”
Gabriel glanced at her. “That was enough to significantly offset the weight difference?”
Rachel shook her head. “Not entirely. The armour surrounding the cockpit was reduced by a large percentage. The theory being that it would be unnecessary to have a highly armored interior with the strengthened exterior.
Gabriel looked back at the Titan. That sounded like something an engineer who had never been in combat would think up. Theory was all well and good until it failed in the face of practice.
“Orders?” Gabriel said as the Titan dropped down to one knee and the chest opened up to reveal the Coffin.
“We’re going to keep it simple today,” Rachel said. “Just a few drills and a mock battle against a single opponent. Nothing you can’t handle.”
Gabriel climbed into the Kniv. “What Arena?”
“Arena Two,” Rachel said as the cockpit closed.
“Roger that,” Gabriel settled into the cockpit and waited for the neural sync to initialize. His hands glided over the control and set the Kniv to autopilot, directing it to take him to the Arena. There was no need to wait in the hangar for his link to stabilize.
He closed his eyes as his vision began to go hazy, his mind melding with the machine. He didn’t open them again until he reached the arena and his HUD informed him, with a gentle ping, that he had reached the minimum requirement of fifty percent. He glanced at the readout and frowned as his sync wavered between sixty-five and seventy percent, a far cry from his usual place in the high eighties. He lifted one arm, then the other. There was a considerable amount of latency.
“Archangel?” Rachel appeared on his HUD.
“Link secure,” Gabriel reported before Rachel could say anything. He knew she could see the sync rating. “Beginning training.”
Arena two was a large circular training ground. It had been left bare, with no forms of cover or obstacles. It was the perfect place to practice movement and Gabriel did just that, sliding from side to side before dashing forward and then back. He kept an eye on the blinking sync rate on his HUD the entire time but the sync refused to raise any higher. He shook his head and forced his eyes away as he completed a full revolution around the arena before coming to an abrupt halt and boosting directly to the middle, his feet barely touching the ground.
The Titan was heavier than the Renegade, and the feeling was only made worse by the added latency from his low neural sync, but the Kniv still handled more or less the same.
“Pilot Archangel, ready for combat,” Gabriel said as he came to a full stop.
“Acknowledged,” Rachel said. One of the bay doors opened and an Orbital Knight Kniv ambled into the Arena. Gabriel’s HUD designated him as Zeta-Six. Zeta was the lowest of the seven Orbital Knight divisions, sometimes mockingly referred to as the Orbital Squires. “Opponent had entered Arena. This is a weapons free match. Engage in hand-to-hand combat and eliminate your target. Begin in Three. Two. One. Fight!”
Gabriel boosted forward immediately, cutting the distance between himself and the Orbital Knight. In terms of strength and armour, with the Titan, he would have the advantage. The Knight had the slight edge in speed, but if Gabriel could get in close that advantage would be forfeit.
Six also likely had a higher sync rating, but Gabriel forced himself to ignore that thought as he reached the Knight and opened with a wide swing. As he expected the Knight lifted his arm to block, but was unprepared for the increased weight behind Gabriel’s punch. The blow knocked Six to the side and he stumbled before catching his balance with a helpful puff of his thruster. Gabriel allowed him to regain his footing and Six returned with a quick jab that Gabriel knocked away before slamming his fist into the Knight’s chest. The strike was not strong, but it was enough to dent the Kniv’s chest plate slightly and send him back against the arena wall. Seeing his vulnerable position the Knight quickly boosted back to escape but Gabriel grabbed him by the arm and pulled him into an elbow strike.
The fight was coming to an early close as Gabriel released Six’s arm and followed up with a series of precision strikes to the head and chest before finishing with a devastating haymaker to the side of the head. .
Six’s head snapped to the side from the force and he started to fall away but Gabriel caught him by the arm and spun around, tossing Six to the ground. Keeping a tight grip on the arm, Gabriel planted his foot on the Kniv’s chest and wrenched back. The Kniv’s body jerked wildly as the limb separated from the torso. Gabriel knew inside the Kniv Six would experience a rapid loss of sync points from the pain. He did not relent, tossing the arm away and dropping down to one knee. He drove his fist down against Six’s chest.
The metal crumpled in. Six weakly punched at him with his remaining hand, but Gabriel easily batted the attack away. An alert pinged on his HUD, and Gabriel silenced it without a thought. He lifted back his arm and struck six again. The alert came back, this time with a loud klaxon alarm.
Darkness began to eat at the corners of his vision. Gabriel blinked and dismissed the warning as he struck Six again and again, blinking with each strike as more dark spots appeared in his vision. He kept up his methodical attack, blocking out the ever-darkening world.
Gabriel’s hand came up and he faltered. Beneath him Six twitched ever so slightly. The desync was imminent. There was likely heavy damage to his Coffin as well. Gabriel could finish it with one more blow. If he wanted to, he could even kill the Pilot. Kill the Pilot like he had killed the Vultures. Just like he had killed the members of the ELA. Just like he had killed Millie’s father. Just like how he could have killed Charlie…
“Gabriel!” Rachel’s voice cut through his mind and he felt his stomach drop and bile rise up in his throat. He realized he was no longer kneeling over Six. He was draped over the controls of the Kniv. He tasted copper in his mouth and there was blood splattered against the inside of his visor.
He had desynced.