The number stared back at Gabriel, blinking on his HUD in a way that felt almost mocking. He killed the neural link and shut the Kniv down. He waited until the machine went completely silent before activating the link and booting the Kniv back up.
He felt the familiar tingle of the neural sync, beginning at the base of his skull and traveling down to his toes, but it was slow. Even as he closed his eyes and waited for the link to stabilize he knew it would be too low. His hands tightened over the controls and he grit his teeth, willing the connection to grow stronger. When he opened his eyes again his vision was not the clear view of the Kniv’s HUD, but caught somewhere between his own vision and the Kniv, the two blurring together in a mad scramble of color and lights. Even so, he could still make out his blurred sync rating.
He cut the connection and slowly pulled off his helmet. The cockpit opened and he dragged himself out of the Titan, dropping lightly to the floor. Rachel was waiting for him. She tossed him a water bottle that he deftly caught. He took a long drink and poured the rest over his head, shivering as the cold water dripped down his back.
“It’s getting worse,” he said quietly.
Rachel stared at him for a long time, noting the heavy bags beneath his eyes. “How long have you been here?”
“I don’t know. What time is it?” Gabriel asked as he began to idly spin the helmet in his hands.
“It’s seven in the morning,” Rachel said with a small frown.
“Fifteen hours,” Gabriel answered. His hand came up to cover his mouth as a yawn escaped him. “Maybe sixteen.”
“Your sync won’t get better if you don’t rest.”
“It might not get better at all,” Gabriel replied. He listed to one side and Rachel reached out to steady him, her hand resting lightly on his arm.
“Gabriel, go get some sleep,” Rachel ordered gently. Gabriel nodded but made no move to leave the Hanger. He looked down at the helmet in his hands.
“What happens to Archangels if they can’t Pilot?” he mused, more to himself than Rachel. “I never really thought about it.”
Rachel had no answer, and even though she knew he didn’t expect one, it pained her to remain silent. She was saved from the silence as Gabriel’s data pad buzzed. He pulled the slim device from a pocket on his flight suit and tapped it to display the message.
“Fairy wants to see me,” Gabriel said. “Immediately.”
Rachel’s stomach twisted. Even though two days had already past, she had yet to inform Gabriel of Sani’s plan. She couldn’t. Doing so would be admitting that Sani was correct, that the only way for Gabriel to succeed was to push him until he broke. She couldn’t do that to him. Not after everything else she had allowed to happen to him. With effort, she managed to keep her voice passive. “Does she say why?”
Gabriel shook his head, sending water drops scattering from his hair.
“You should go,” said Rachel. She extend her hand and took his helmet. She saw the hesitation in his eyes as he glanced back at the Kniv. “Go, Gabriel.”
Gabriel wavered for a moment longer before nodding slowly and exiting the hangar. He followed a deserted hallway to a fingerprint locked room. Opening the door, he quickly peeled off the sweaty flight suit and let it fall to the ground. Someone would come and retrieve it later. He showered quickly, barely letting the water warm up, before he was out and pulling on his Academy uniform.
He responded to Fairy’s message as he made his way to his room. Sara had allowed him to leave the infirmary and stay in his own living quarters, though officially he was still not allowed to go to class or participate in Kniv training.
He had only just shut the door behind him and sat down at his desk when the door opened and Fairy stepped inside. She wasn’t dressed in her usual academy uniform but Novan combat fatigues. A sidearm was strapped to her hip. Gabriel eyed it with a frown.
“You still haven’t learned to lock your door,” Fairy said quietly.
“You’re the only one who ever comes in without knocking,” Gabriel said. He finally was able to look away from the weapon on her hip and to her face. She had a frown that easily matched his. She opened her mouth to say something but her voice failed her and she shook her head.
“How do you feel?” Fairy said, trying again.
“Better,” Gabriel lied.
“You look worse.” Fairy crossed the room and leaned over him, looking at the dark bags that formed under his eyes. “Have you been sleeping?”
“Yes,” Gabriel said. Another lie.
Fairy stepped back and took in a deep breath. “I… I have been given my first assignment as an Orbital Knight.”
Gabriel felt the chain slip around his neck again. Though maybe it had never left. The weight began to drag him down. There was only one reason the Alpha Division of the Orbital Knight’s would be sent to earth.
“An ELA base has been discovered, Freeport. The Alpha Division is going to lead the assault. It is believed to be one of the ELA’s largest strongholds,” said Fairy, confirming his fears. “Chance has already left for earth. He was prompted to Alpha Division last night.”
“I see.” Gabriel slipped down an inch in his chair. “When do you leave?”
“Immediately.” Fairy’s voice was faint.
Gabriel already knew she would say that. The sooner Nova could attack, the less of a chance Freeport would have to bolster its defense. Freeport would already know an attack coming, thanks to his escape. It was too large and too important to abandon. And with Nova already closing in, Freeport wouldn’t be able to evacuate the base without exposing itself to an attack.
Gabriel started to speak, but his voice died in his throat. He didn’t know what he wanted to say. Fairy was staring at him, hands balled into tight fists at her side, her spine rigid. It was the exact same posture he had seen every time she had taken a test or fought in a student battle.
She was scared.
Slowly, Gabriel stood up. Tentatively he reached out and put his arms around her, pulling her into a loose hug. He felt her suck in a sharp breath before her arms jerked up and firmly wrapped around his torso. He felt some of the chain’s weight slip away. His arms tightened around her and he pulled her close, his cheek resting against the top of her head.
He still didn’t know what he wanted to say. He doubted he could have said the words even if he knew what they were. His world was made of shadows and deceit. One that was not meant for others. He pulled away from Fairy gently, his head bowed as his arms dropped down to his side.
There were so many things to say but in the end there was only one thing he could manage.
And she was gone, the door clicking shut behind her. Gabriel stayed where he was, listening to the sharp sound of her footfalls until they faded away completely. Even then he did not move, his eyes staring blankly ahead, unfocused and unseeing.
Gabriel found himself back in the hangar, though he wasn’t exactly sure how he got there. Rachel had left his helmet lying next to the leg of the Titan and he retrieved it, catching his reflection in the polished visor. He barely recognized himself. His skin was sickly and pale. His eyes were dull, more like a doll than a human, and only made worse by the dark bags from lack of sleep. His hair, still damp from the shower, hung in long spikes that cut across his vision.
He passed the helmet from one hand to the other as he looked up at the Knivs. He had to Pilot them. There was no other option. If there were to be an attack on Freeport, The Archangel would be there. He had to be. Nova needed him to be. Lucile needed him to be. Rachel and Sani needed him to be. Chance, Sara, and Fairy needed him to be. They would use him as the vanguard, the holy avenger that would strike fear into the hearts of hearts of Nova’s enemies.
With the Archangel leading the charge, the ELA would be annihilated. Even without him they would be defeated. Freeport was well designed, but it stood little chance of standing to the combined might of the Orbital Knights and the Novan Military.
Freeport would fall and everyone residing inside of it would die or be taken prisoner.
Gabriel dropped down to his knees. The helmet slipped from his numb fingers and clattered across the floor.
Just like Fairy, Charlie would be on the front lines. She would not retreat, even as the walls of Freeport came tumbling down. She would die, valiantly Piloting the Shield Maiden to her last breath, but she would be dead all the same. Death could not be swayed by courage alone.
He fell back and stared up at the ceiling, the harsh white light filling his vision.
Millie wouldn’t be safe either. Even though she was a civilian, the base would be designated a combat zone. Nova would level it completely. If she was lucky, she may be taken prisoner, but all the more likely, she would die along with the rest.
Gabriel closed his eyes and let the silence wash over him. Images of Fairy, Charlie, Millie, and Chance drifted through his mind. The countless faces of the men and women he walked by every day in Nova. The ELA soldiers who had accepted him on Earth. They all tangled together, clashing against each other but refusing to come together into a solid form.
There was question that forced its way to the center of his conscience. One that refused to be ignored no matter how hard he tried.
How could he save everyone?
It was a question that had no clear answer.
“Hey! I’ve been looking for you. Just what in the hell is wrong with you?” Michael roared as he entered the hanger. Gabriel’s eyes flicked open and he managed to sit up just in time to receive a kick to the chest from Michael. The kick itself didn’t hurt so much, but his ribs were still not fully healed and the pain sent Gabriel reeling. Michael kicked him again, his polished boot connecting with Gabriel’s side and sending him rolling across the floor before Gabriel could regain his balance. Gasping, he rolled onto his hands and knees and sucked in a pained breath. Before he could recover Michael grabbed the back of his jacket and tossed him forward. Gabriel’s hands scraped against the rough metal of the hangar floor.
“You can’t pilot?” Michael said, kicking Gabriel again as he tried again to rise up. “What does that even mean?”
Gabriel rolled onto his back and finally managed to sit up. He looked at Michael blankly. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? You don’t know?” Michael grabbed Gabriel by the front of his shirt and lifted him onto his feet. “Where were you? Too busy with your new Earth friends to bother coming back?”
Gabriel blinked slowly and did not respond. Michael let out a disgusted snarl and pulled one hand back before driving it into Gabriel’s stomach. Gabriel would have doubled over but Michael kept him aloft, the fabric of his shirt bunched up beneath Michael’s thick fingers.
“Do you have any idea what is had been like for me while you’ve been screwing around on Earth? They call me a liar! They call me a coward! They call me a fraud!” Michael all but screamed before pushing him away with a disgusted snarl. Gabriel hit the ground hard and stayed there for a long time before slowly lifting himself back to his feet. He looked up at Michael.
“Aren’t you?” said Gabriel. The words were quiet but easily carried across the empty hanger.
Michael’s eyes went wide and his handsome face blossomed into color. He crossed the room and cracked Gabriel hard across the face. Gabriel staggered back a number of steps, but did not fall.
“I am the hero of Nova. I give the people hope. I am the Archangel!” Michael yelled as he threw a savage punch. Gabriel deflected the attack with his forearm and countered with a quick jab that caught Michael on the chin. The strike was weak, but caught Michael off guard. He lost his balance and toppled over. Gabriel stared down at him with a blank expression.
“You’re not the Archangel,” Gabriel said softly.
Michael slammed his fist against the ground and pushed back to his feet. He rolled his shoulders and bounced from one foot to the other as he lifted his fists up. “Got some fight now?”
Gabriel shook his head. “If we fought, I would kill you.”
Michael stepped forward and lowered himself into a combat stance, holding his arm out towards Gabriel. “Prove it.”
Gabriel stared at him for a moment before falling into a similar stance, widening his feet slightly and putting out his arm until his forearm crossed with Michael’s. They stood like that, locked against each other, until Michael’s face split into a sneer and he struck with a quick jab that Gabriel slid away from. Michael pressed the attack, following up with a quick combination of punches that Gabriel batted away with robotic precision before finding an opening slamming both his open palms against Michael’s chest and sending him stumbling back. Michael’s eyes widened as he caught his footing. Gritting his teeth he lunged at Gabriel, throwing out his arms to grab the smaller boy. Gabriel ducked under the attempt and came up beside Michael. Spinning, Michael attempted to throw out a kick, only to have Gabriel’s foot snap out and catch him hard on the outside of the knee. Michael’s leg buckled and he stumbled a step back, off balance.
Roaring in anger Michael cocked back his arm to throw a wild punch, but Gabriel was faster, slipping forward and slamming his fist into Michael’s stomach. The older Pilot sucked in a sharp gasp and doubled over as the unfamiliar feeling of pain washed over his senses. Staring blankly ahead Gabriel lifted up his elbow and slammed it against the back of Michael’s head. Michael hit the floor hard. Gasping in shock and pain, he started to push himself back up but Gabriel placed his foot between Michael’s shoulders and pushed him back down.
“You were only A-Class, at best. Your scores were artificially inflated,” Gabriel said, his voice emotionless as he applied more pressure to Michael’s back, forcing the air from his lungs. “Now you’re weak, and you’re slow. You could never have made it into S-class. You could never be the Archangel.”
Gabriel pressed down for a moment longer, grinding his heel into Michael’s spine, before he relented and stepped away, allowing Michael to stand. Michael’s chest was heaving and his hands were balled into fists. Gabriel waited patiently, his hands still down by his sides.
“If you can’t Pilot you’re useless,” Michael finally said, turning away. He stormed out of the hangar. “You’re not worth anyone’s time.”
Gabriel had no argument as the heavy thud of the blast door closing echoed through the hanger. He retrieved his helmet and pulled it on, activating the Titan. He climbed into the Coffin and settled into the seat. His hands rested over the controls and he started the machine up. He felt the tingle at the base of his skull as Kniv prepared for him to begin the sync. It was too weak. The tingle had barely reached the halfway point down his spine when it began to fade. His vision only had the barest hint of blur before his HUD flashed a warning. The desync was imminent.
Gabriel did not have time to cut the connection before his neural link with the Kniv was forcibly terminated. Even at such a low sync rating the pain was enough to send him lurching forward, his hands coming to claw at his head to pull the helmet off. He let it drop to the floor and fell back against his chair, letting his head rest against the padded surface. His breath came in short, pained gasps and his eyes closed, letting his exhaustion finally take hold of him.
He couldn’t Pilot.
He couldn’t be the Archangel.He couldn’t save anyone.