Gabriel Lockhart had always preferred being the spotter to the shooter.
It fit him better, staring down the scope and waiting until his target made that one mistake that would expose them. He found the entire process calming. Not like firing the gun. The high-pitched crack of the rifle, the vibration rattling down his arm, the heavy pull of the trigger. Not one bit of it appealed to him in the slightest.
He took a moment to stretch out his sore arm before once again peering down his spotter’s scope, paying careful attention to the thickest clustering of the tree line across from him. His target would likely be hidden somewhere in that vicinity. From the three likely spots he investigated it provided the most cover and thus the best chance for a successful attack. The slight breeze caused the foliage to be in a near constant state of movement. It would help cover any movement and disguise the approach.
Reed Chance, the sniper lying beside him, sighed dramatically and Gabriel had just enough time to pull his eye away from the scope to see Chance’s head plop against the dirt. Gabriel immediately turned back to the scope, keeping his attention on the tree line and wishing they had chosen an area with similar cover. The very thin smattering of bushes they were currently masked by did not provide nearly enough camouflage. Especially considering the person they were hunting.
“This is so boring,” Chance groaned into the dirt. “I’m a Pilot. Let me get in a Kniv and this would be over in minutes.”
“Unlikely,” Gabriel said. He adjusted the sighting on the scope as movement in the tree line caught his eye. It was gone before he could focus on it.
“You sure she is over there?” Chance lifted his head up.
“Likely,” Gabriel answered.
“Then why don’t we just fire off an incendiary round and set the trees on fire? That will flush her out real quick and then I’ll just pick her off.” Chance punctuated the statement by making a ‘pew’ sound and tapping his finger against the side of his rifle.
Gabriel could think of a litany of reasons that was a bad idea, but he chose to keep it simple. That was often the most effective approach with Chance.
“Doing that would expose our position. Then she would shoot you.”
“Like she doesn’t already know where we are,” Chance scoffed as he reached up and brushed some stray dirt that had clung to his black hair. “I’ll bet you lunch she’s actually sneaking up behind us already.”
That comment actually gave Gabriel a moment of pause before he saw a slight silhouette, almost invisible against the shadow cast by the trees, slither into view. It was only there for a moment before once again fading away against the greenery.
“Shouldn’t you be wearing a helmet?” Gabriel said, sparing Chance a quick glance.
“Messes with my hair,” Chance shrugged and reached up to run a hand through his hair. It was longer than regulation allowed, again. No matter how many times he was punished Chance never seemed to learn. “And it hurts my ears. They don’t fit them like the Pilot helmets. Maybe if they spent more money on helmets and less money on… Whatever it is we’re doing here, I would consider wearing it.”
“You should put your helmet on,” Gabriel said as he saw the silhouette again. This time it held still long enough for him to make out the rifle, and that fact that it seemed to be pointing in his general direction, before disappearing.
“She might shoot you in the head.”
Chance rolled his eyes. “Look, Gabriel, I love you man, but you gotta relax sometimes. We’ll at least get a warning shot first. She’s not going to just shoot me in the head.”
Gabriel barely had time to blink before there was a sharp crack that echoed across the divide and a round struck Chance squarely between the eyes. Chance let out a soft sigh before his face crashed against the ground and his body went limp. Gabriel frowned and turned his attention back to the tree line. There was no need to use the spotter’s scope this time as the opposition sniper had already revealed herself, the large rifle slung proudly over one shoulder.
Gabriel slowly lifted himself up from the ground and dusted the dirt from his fatigues as she marched across the short distance to meet him. Gabriel gave her a small nod before glancing down at Chance.
“Good shot,” he offered.
Thea Fairchild, more commonly known as Fairy, frowned. “Hardly. You two spent more time talking than focusing on the mission. If I had really wanted to kill you, I could have shot you both before you even got into position. Multiple times.” Fairy leveled the rifle at him. “And your position, if it could even be called that. What were you thinking? It barely has enough cover for one person, let alone a two-man team. I could have spotted you without even using any optics.”
Gabriel shrugged and pointed to Chance. “He liked it.”
Fairy’s frown deepened and the barrel of her rifle went from aiming at Gabriel to Chance. “Did he at least have a good reason?”
“It allowed the greatest range of visibility,” Gabriel said. Technically that wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t real the reason Chance had chosen the spot. In reality, it had been picked because it required the least amount of effort to get to, and on his weekend Chance wasn’t about to exert any more effort than was necessary. Gabriel felt it would be wrong to give Fairy any more reason to damage Chance further and decided to keep that bit of information to himself.
“Hmph.” Fairy did not seem satisfied in the least, but she lowered her rifle all the same.
“You shouldn’t have shot him in the head, again,” said Gabriel. He was unsure how many times this scenario had happened, but it was often enough that he had long ago stopped keeping count.
“He should have been wearing his helmet. It’s academy protocol to wear both a chest protector and a helmet during any training exercise,” Fairy said.
“Mmmm,” Gabriel said, still unconvinced that shooting Chance in the shoulder wouldn’t have had a similar effect. Getting hit with a charge round sent a large jolt of electricity through the target’s body, rendering them unconscious for a few minutes. They were considered non-lethal and safe for student training, but it was still advised not to get hit in the head with them.
“The charge will wear off in a few minutes and he will wake up. Unfortunately. But while we wait...” Fairy gently placed her rifle on the ground and pulled off her helmet. She took a moment to make sure her ash blonde hair was still secured in a tight bun before turning to Gabriel and lifting up her fists. “Up for a match?”
Gabriel didn’t particularly feel like sparring, but he knew it hadn’t actually been a question as much as it had been an order. Disregarding an order from Fairy was not something anyone would consider a wise idea.
Gabriel rolled his sore shoulder and reached up to remove his own helmet. Fairy didn’t wait for him to finish before launching herself forward. Her right fist would have connected with his jaw if he hadn’t taken a hasty step back. Fairy didn’t relent sliding forward and launching another punch. Gabriel deflected it with his forearm and returned with a quick jab towards her head. Fairy tilted to the side to avoid the blow and returned with a quick flurry of punches to his ribs before he was able to knock her back with a sweeping arm strike that caught her on the shoulder.
As Fairy skipped back a step, he chased after her, throwing out a punch that Fairy knocked away before returning with a quick elbow strike that glanced off his jaw. The force was enough to snap his head to the side and Fairy used the moment to lift her foot up and deliver a sharp kick to his side. Gabriel hissed in pain but still managed to lift his leg to block her next kick. Using his greater weight he knocked her leg back and Fairy spun with the momentum, coming back around with a heel kick that hit Gabriel in the side. With a grunt of pain he accepted the blow and locked his arm down around Fairy’s leg.
From countless hours of sparring with Fairy Gabriel knew what she would do next. Using his grip as leverage she would push off from the ground and use her other leg to deliver a kick to the side of his head.
He felt her tense up for the attack, before abruptly pulling hard with her trapped leg and tugging him forward. In that split second Gabriel realized she would go for an elbow strike to his head. With him stumbling forward off balance the attack would be particularly devastating. It would be possible to block, his other arm was still free. From there he could use his forward momentum to slam her to the ground. The force would drive the air from her lungs and give him a moment to take charge of the situation. A strike to her throat would keep her from catching her breath and he could finish the fight with another blow to her temple with enough force to knock her unconscious before she could recover.
It was a plan of attack Gabriel would never use, as he instead did nothing, allowing Fairy’s elbow to catch him on cheek and knock him to the side. Off balance he tumbled down, losing his grip on Fairy’s leg. As he crashed to the ground he felt Fairy drop down on top of him. One of her hands went to his throat and the other was curled into a fist, held high and ready to strike. She held it there, waiting.
Gabriel slowly lifted up his hand and tapped her in three times quick succession on the thigh. Nodding, she released his throat and raised herself up.
“You’re getting better,” Fairy said as Gabriel rubbed at his throat. “You need to anticipate more. You’re being reactive instead of proactive. You’ll win once you can control the pace of the fight.”
Gabriel nodded but said nothing. He knew he would never beat Fairy. Not in a sparring match or in an Academy event. He couldn’t. It simply wouldn’t make sense.
B-class did not beat the S class.
Those were the rules.
“You should go easy on him,” Chance called out, rubbing his head as he stared at the pair from the ground. “And me for that matter.”
Fairy’s lip curled. “Taking it easy does not produce results. Gabriel is far from prepared for the next class battle and the same could be said for you. At this rate neither of you will be moving up.”
“Yeah, yeah, and you’re the benevolent dictator taking time out of her busy S Class schedule to take care of us underlings out of the kindness of your own heart, right? Want to make sure we both live up to our potential?” Chance said, smiling as Fairy’s scowl grew.
Fairy’s hand fell to the pistol at her hip. “Do I need to shoot you again?”
“Ah, lighten up half-pint.”
Gabriel watched the exchange from the ground with a bemused smile. Chance never missed an opportunity to rile Fairy up and she seemed incapable of letting his antics go unpunished.
A sudden, piercing tone ended the squabbling as Fairy and Gabriel both produced their academy data pads. Chance would have pulled his out as well, if he had any idea where it was. As he didn’t, he instead peered over Fairy’s shoulder.
“Ah, looks like there is an assembly. If I wasn’t already up and training that would really suck. But seeing as I am, because of a certain S Class Pilot who shall remain nameless… I guess training is over!” Chance said. He reached down and yanked Gabriel back to his feet. “Alright, time to hit the showers.”
“I will see you there,” Fairy said, nodding to both Gabriel and Chance as she headed off in the opposite direction.
“Saved by the bell, eh?” Chance said when they were out earshot. “You know she was going to make us run that exercise at least five more times.”
“Her methods are effective,” Gabriel said after a moment of thought as they entered the locker rooms. He stopped at his assigned locker and began to undress. Chance sauntered through the room and removed his clothes at will, letting them drop haphazardly to the floor.
“Yeah, effective is good and all, but sometimes I think she could think about relaxing for a bit. If she pushes to hard, she’s going to end up breaking.”
Gabriel doubted that. “Perhaps.”
“Speaking of that,” Chance glanced over his shoulder as they entered the shower. “You know, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to push yourself so hard. I mean, I bitch about everything, but I’m pretty much an S class student already. I probably won’t be in A much longer. You’re only in B and you’re training with Fairy more than anyone else. If it’s too much, you could just tell her.”
“I don’t mind,” Gabriel stepped into the water. “I appreciate the help. From both of you.”
Chance stared at him for a moment before breaking into a smile. “Alright bro, but no taking that back. We’re going to run through hell together.”
Despite his declaration of solidarity after exiting the shower, Chance managed to disappear on the way to the assembly. Gabriel would wager a guess he would either be hiding out in the dining hall, or considering it was a weekend, back in bed and already fast asleep.
The gymnasium was already buzzing with excitement by the time Gabriel found his seat beside Fairy. It was rare for the Academy to call an assembly during the weekend. The abruptness of the summons meant everyone already knew what the subject would be.
The Archangel had struck another decisive blow against the ELA forces.
The video detailing his success would be shown to the students, both as a motivational tool and as a teaching aid before being revealed to the rest of Nova. Every student knew of Archangel, the most successful Kniv Pilot to ever graduate from the Academy. His exploits were legendary, even among the general public. Many a student had spent hours studying his techniques and running simulations based off his exploits, all in the hope of gaining an edge on their peers and being fast tracked to the one of the seven Orbital Knights divisions.
The students grew silent as the lights dimmed and large video screens descended from the ceiling.
Gabriel watched the screen with a blank expression. Beside him Fairy took out her data pad from her bag and propped it up on her knee. She gave Gabriel a gentle nudge with her shoulder.
“Take notes,” she said as the video began to play.
Gabriel made no motion to comply with her request, his eyes glassing over as footage from Archangel’s Drop played out across the screens. Fairy spun her stylus around in her nimble fingers and jabbed him hard in the ribs. Gabriel hissed in surprise and turned on her.
She held up her data pad. “Notes.”
“I’ll download it after,” said Gabriel.
“First impressions are the most important,” Fairy said as she jotted something down on her pad. “How you understand Archangel’s decisions on your first watch is a more realistic representation than if you watch the video multiple times.”
Gabriel blinked. “What?”
Fairy’s stylus was a blur on the data pad. Her pale blue eyes never left the screen as she continued to lecture. “Place yourself in Archangel’s Kniv. Try to make decisions as he makes them. Evaluate your actions against his. You can only do that the first time you watch the video. Any subsequent watches will be corrupted by knowledge you learned beforehand. Be proactive, not reactive.”
Gabriel nodded but he still did not move to pull out his own pad.
“This is exactly why you are ranked so low in your class.” Fairy tutted, jabbing out her stylus to give him another poke to the ribs. Gabriel grit his teeth against the sharp pain and drew his data pad from his pocket. Appeased, Fairy returned her full attention to the battle.
Gabriel did as well, though his interest in the battle quickly waned after only a few seconds of viewing. It was hard to get excited about a battle that he already knew the outcome of. He never really enjoyed watching the Archangel battles. Despite what Fairy and many other students believed, he didn’t feel like he could learn much from the videos. It also didn’t help that the battle was always extensively edited, often cutting between Archangel’s own perspective and a much grainier, satellite view from Nova. Gabriel had figured out a long time ago that a perspective shift normally came right before Archangel took heavy damage or made a mistake.
“Ten targets eliminated in less than fifteen minutes,” Fairy said softly as the video came to an end with Archangel looking down on his final downed enemy before cutting to black. “Impressive.”
“He lost an arm,” said Gabriel. He heard someone behind him snicker before a boot nudged against his shoulder. A frown tugged at the corner of his mouth, but he didn’t turn around. His lack of interest did not stop his aggressor from giving him another nudge.
“I don’t think someone from B-class should be critiquing the Archangel,” said Harvey Ford. Harvey was a thickly built second year student, same as Gabriel and Fairy. His skill as a Pilot was well known within the school. He had quickly surged through the ranks and taken his place as an A-Class Pilot within his first year and was well on the way to the S-Class. He was expected to be accepted to an Orbital Knight division within the year. This knowledge was not lost on Harvey and he took any chance to show off his skill and knowledge, usually at the expense of the lower ranked Pilots.
“He made a mistake,” Gabriel said as he turned to look up at Harvey. Though they were the same age, Harvey still stood a good head taller than Gabriel.
“Yes, he did. Many in fact,” Fairy said. She was still scribbling on her data pad and did not waste effort on looking up. “If you believe that just because a Pilot is of a higher standing than another that it makes them safe from criticism you are extremely naïve. Criticism and critique are how improvements are made. If you think any differently, you will not last long outside of the shelter that the classroom provides for you. Orbital Knights are held to the strictest of regulations and oversight. If you wish to become one of them I suggest you remember that.”
Harvey’s hands curled into fists as he stared down at Fairy. She blatantly ignored him. After a moment of fuming Harvey cursed softly and stormed off. Gabriel watched him go, his frown slowly turning into a small smile. Though he was sure Harvey would have loved to argue with anyone else, Fairy was a unique case. As one of only five S-Class Pilots at the Academy, a single look from Fairy held far more weight than an entire speech from Harvey.
“You have a message,” Fairy said as she looked up from her work and spied the flashing icon on Gabriel’s pad.
Gabriel glanced down at the tablet. With reluctance he brushed his thumb over the mail icon. His frown returned in full force as he read over the message. Fairy glanced at it out of the corner of her eye.
“The infirmary?” she tilted her head, her hair cascading down the side of her face. “Are you having any trouble?”
“Not really,” Gabriel said as he pocketed the pad.
Fairy stared at him pensively, her eyes flicking to his chest. “Really?”
“It said your presence is requested immediately.” Fairy pointed out unhelpfully.
“Immediately means now.”
Fairy spun her stylus around and Gabriel prepared himself for another painful poke, but Fairy simply tapped out a few commands on her pad. She turned and gave him a blank stare.
“So you’re not going?” she said.
“I have just requisitioned arena eight for another private training session. You’ve been slow on your corner boosting lately. Seeing as it is the weekend and as you have nothing else to do, we can continue your training.” Fairy brought her eyes up to stare at him. There was not a trace of animosity in her voice and her face remained completely blank, but the threat of her words still hung in the air between them.
Gabriel held up one hand in defeat. “I’ll go to the infirmary.”
Fairy nodded and watched him begin to leave before calling out. “Gabriel.”
Gabriel stopped and turned to look back at her. “Yes?”
“I have the arena for the entire day. Your infirmary visit shouldn’t take that long. Meet me there when you’re done. I’ll send Chance a message and see if he wants to join us. The training would benefit him as well.”
“Thanks,” Gabriel said with a decided lack of enthusiasm as his shoulders slumped and he shuffled out of the room.
Gabriel did not like the medical wing of the academy. He didn’t like the overly white surfaces that smelled of disinfectant that burned his throat, nor did he like scratchy sheets that felt more like sandpaper than fabric. He especially didn’t like that the head doctor, Sara Kim, seemed to take a very sadistic form of joy at watching him squirm whenever she brought out something particularly nasty looking from her seemingly endless collection of medical devices. It amazed him that there could be so many things designed to heal and yet they all still caused varying amounts of pain and discomfort.
The very large syringe she currently held was one such item. Gabriel watched her out of the corner of his narrowed eyes as she stabbed the needle into a vial of clear liquid and filled the syringe up. She flicked it a few times with her nail and depressed the plunger, sending out a small fountain of liquid and dispelling any air bubbles. She turned towards him and gave him a large, cheerful smile.
“Are you ready?”
Gabriel was unsure how anyone could ever be ready to be stabbed, even by a needle administered by a trained professional.
“What’s that for?” he said warily.
“Oh, this?” Sara reached out and took his arm, pressing her thumb down his forearm until his veins began to rise from his skin. She brought the needle towards his flesh before letting out a laugh and taking a step back. She released his arm and put the syringe down.
“What?” Gabriel gave her a confused look.
“I’m sorry,” Sara hid a smile behind her gloved hand. “I’m sorry. I know how much you hate needles. I couldn’t resist.”
Gabriel glanced towards the syringe. “So I’m not getting a shot?”
“No, not today. There’s nothing but distilled water in that syringe anyway,” Sara said as she grabbed her rolling chair and sat down across from Gabriel. “Don’t worry, this is just a regular check up. No needles.”
Gabriel let out a sigh of relief. He rarely was in the mood to put up with any of those things and today was no different.
A thought struck him.
“So this wasn’t urgent?” said Gabriel.
Sara shrugged. “No, not really, I suppose.”
“You said immediately.”
“It’s more fun that way,” Sara said. “I get bored. Most of the students here are painfully healthy. You’re really my only regular.”
“You have terrible bedside manner,” Gabriel said as he shook his head. He wasn’t surprised though. Sara, while good at her job, often lacked a certain professional tact. At least, when no one was around that could get her into trouble. Gabriel unfortunately fell into that category. “You could have sent that message earlier.”
Sara rocked back and forth in her chair. “But then you would have missed the exploits of the great Archangel. It wouldn’t be right for me to detract from your academic experiences.”
“You’re doing a good job of detracting from my weekend,” said Gabriel.
“Fine, fine,” Sara reached out and knocked the back of her hand against his chest. “So how are you feeling? Everything working like it should?”
“Yes,” Gabriel said as Sara pulled out her stethoscope. She motioned for him to remove his clothes as she placed the buds in her ears. Gabriel complied silently, shrugging off his jacket and unbuttoning his shirt. As his shirt fell away and his chest was exposed Sara let out a low whistle. Reaching forward she traced her finger along the long, ugly scar that cut a jagged line across Gabriel’s chest. He shivered at her touch and pulled away slightly. Sara gave him an apologetic smile as she pulled her hand away.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that,” she sighed before pressing the bell of her stethoscope to his chest. “This might be cold, by the way.”
It was cold and Gabriel sucked in a sharp breath. Sara closed her eyes and her tongue poked out of the corner of her mouth as she listened.
“Well, it’s definitely working,” she said as she pulled away, popping the buds out of her ears and resting them around her neck. “How is it holding up when you’re in a Kniv?”
“No problems,” Gabriel said as he started to button his shirt.
“I wouldn’t imagine so. Actually…” Sara picked up her tablet and tapped out a few commands. “It’s probably making you a better Pilot, if we’re being honest. Your resting heart rate… hmmm, is it still called a heart rate if you don’t have a heart?” She looked at Gabriel but only received a shrug. “We’ll call it a heart rate then. Your resting heart rate is roughly equivalent to ten to fifteen beats per minute. Your implant is very efficient. Not even a real seventeen-year-old heart could ever hope to work half as well at this. It will be pumping blood through your veins long after you are dead.”
Gabriel pulled on his jacket. “Lucky me.”
Sara lightly tapped him on the head with her tablet. “You are lucky, all things considered. You know how easy it is to lose sync points in high-pressure situations. I doubt you can even get your heart rate to over sixty beats per minute if you wanted to. I know a few Pilots who would kill for that advantage, or at least pay quite a bit of money.” Sara rocked back and forth in thought. “Though, I’m not sure how ethical that would be. A Kinv Pilot’s capability is based on their ability to sync with the neural interface. This ability peaks between the ages of fifteen to eighteen, with a gradual decline around twenty-five and a steep drop off at thirty. If we consider that, ripping someone’s real heart out to replace it with an artificial implant could be considered wrong… still...” Sara winked at him. “In theory, you could even set it up to have the implant release a stimulant like adrenaline to help speed up your reaction times. Though that would be extremely unsafe and would never be done in practice, at least not by a licensed medical professional. ”
“Never.” Gabriel gave her a grim look.
Sara swiped through a few documents on her tablet. “I see your ranking has not improved at all. Still holding steady in the middle of B-Class. Any chance of seeing you move up?”
Gabriel shook his head.
“That’s too bad. B-Class battles are brutal. Everyone is so cutthroat trying to make it to the A-Class. It’s funny, you would think it would be A-Class that were the most vicious.”
Gabriel didn’t disagree. Those on the cusp of joining A-Class were often the most dangerous Knivs on the battlefield, desperate to gain even a few more points to raise their rank up to the next level.
“Your last match went well. You placed third, if I remember correctly?”
“Ah, right. Well, at least your grades are decent. You should think about giving your history and math scores some work though, don’t want to fall behind. After all, you can’t be a Pilot forever. Eventually you’re going to be expected to get a real job,” Sara said.
“Oh, I don’t think you’re quite cut out for this job, Gabriel.” Sara spun her chair around, completing a full rotation before stopping to face him. “I don’t think you could handle the needles.”
“What do Pilots usually do when they retire, then?”
“Oh, that all depends.”
“On whether or not they survive!” Sara laughed and glanced down at her tablet. “Oh, look, your name has been added to arena eight. Someone even requisitioned a Kniv for you already.”
“That was fast,” Gabriel said as Sara pushed the tablet towards him so he could read.
“Let me guess?” Sara said. “It wasn’t Chance. He wouldn’t be up this early. He probably didn’t even go to the assembly. It’s amazing he is able to stay in A-Class. His grades are abysmal. Though, we all know combat ability trumps grades here any day. I won’t be surprised if he gets bumped up to S-Class soon. Hmmm… That must mean it is the little Fairy.”
“Yes,” said Gabriel.
“I do enjoy watching Fairy fight. The Orbital Knights always speak so highly of her whenever they are here. Apparently they’ve had her run formation drills with them and she’s done extremely well. I wouldn’t be surprised if they start taking her out for scouting trips down on Earth soon. That’s probably why she has been logging in so many extra hours in the arena.”
“You’re keeping a close eye on her,” said Gabriel.
“I keep a close eye on all the S-rank students. A handful of the A-ranks as well. You never know when they might get called in for action, can’t have them having any problems.” She reached out and ruffled his hair. “Of course, I keep an even closer eye on you.”
Gabriel blinked. “Thanks.”
“A shame you won’t be to join her though,” Sara said as Gabriel pulled his jacket back on. “I’m sure you’re going to get into trouble for that.”
Gabriel’s eyebrow went up. “What?”
“You’re not allowed to Pilot this weekend, unfortunately,” Sara said as she pulled a small notebook from her lab coat and scribbled a quick, nearly illegible note. She pushed it into his breast pocket. “Doctors orders. Your heart is having some issues and you need to rest for at least two days, but let’s make it three so you can take Monday off.”
Gabriel frowned. “Fern?”
“You’re expected to be at her office within the hour. Someone will be coming to pick you up soon,” said Sara. Gabriel nodded and started to pull out his data pad to send a message to Fairy but Sara waved him off. “Don’t worry, I’ve already alerted Little Fairy that you won’t be in attendance.”
“Did you call her Little Fairy in the message?” Gabriel asked with a small frown.
Sara gave him a wide grin that served as all the answer he needed.
Gabriel’s escort was a tall, suited man who, after confirming Gabriel’s identity, quickly shuffled him out of the infirmary. Gabriel followed after him without hesitation. They followed the same path that they always did, taking the service elevator down to the lowest level of the Academy parking lot where a car with blacked out windows was waiting. Gabriel nodded a small thanks that was not returned as the escort opened his door. The smell of perfume immediately filled his nostrils as he slid into the seat. He looked up in surprise.
Lucile Fern sat across from him, a small smile set on her delicate face. “Hello Gabriel.”
“Mrs. Fern,” Gabriel dipped his head slightly.
“You know I prefer Lucile. Mrs. Fern makes me sound so old, or like one of your professors,” said Lucile as the car began to move. She glanced out the window as they left the Academy and entered the city. A small laugh slipped from her lips, drawing a look from Gabriel. She lifted up a manicured finger and pointed out the window. “Look.”
Gabriel pointed his gaze towards the trees that Lucile pointed at. They were just beginning to blossom, releasing a fresh scent throughout the city. Though there were no real seasons on Nova. All aspects of the artificially introduced flora and fauna were carefully monitored to make the citizens of Nova as comfortable as possible.
“All the amenities of earth with none of the drawbacks,” Lucile said airily. “In Nova there is no war, no famine. There is nothing but the progress of humanity.”
Gabriel could think of nothing to say to that so he gave a simple nod and remained silent.
“Comfort is created through control. Control is created through obedience. Unfortunately, not all people are able to see this,” said Lucile softly as she turned her dark eyes on Gabriel. “But I’m babbling and I’m sure this isn’t how you want to spend your weekend.”
She was correct, but Gabriel felt it would be rude to tell her so. He settled with a small, noncommittal shrug. “I have nothing planned.”
“Yes, but I’m sure you want to rest. Don’t worry, this won’t take long,” Lucile assured him.
The car stopped in front of an impressive building that soared high into the sky. So high it nearly touched the domed, translucent ceiling of the colony. Lucile exited without waiting for the driver to open her door and Gabriel quickly followed after her.
The inside of the building was uncomfortably cold and Gabriel found himself slipping his hands into his jacket pockets for warmth. Even in her skirt Lucile showed no aversion to the change in temperature and strode forward confidently with Gabriel in tow. A quick elevator ride later and they were in her office where three others were already waiting. Almost immediately the nearest person pulled Gabriel into a painfully tight bear hug.
“Gabriel! How the hell have you been?” Michael Stinson nearly shouted in Gabriel’s ear. Gabriel winced and did not return the embrace. Michael was not put off by the lack of affection and slapped Gabriel hard on the small of the back, stumbling him forward a step. “Serious as always!”
“Michael,” Gabriel greeted.
“Please, call me Archangel,” Michael grinned.
Gabriel ignored him and turned to the other two. One he was glad to see. The other he wouldn’t mind never seeing again. “Hello Rachel, Sani.”
Rachel crossed the room and gave Gabriel a firm handshake. “Hello Gabriel. I am sorry for the inconvenience.”
Gabriel started to tell her he didn’t mind when Sani thrust his hand out. Gabriel accepted it with only a hint of reluctance. Unlike Rachel’s handshake, Sani’s felt somehow slimy. It reminded Gabriel of jelly and he quickly released the man’s hand.
“Yeah, we’re all sorry we have to work on a weekend but it is what it is,” said Sani. “Now that everyone’s present and accounted for, shall we get down to business? Michael here has a press conference in two hours. If we’re late it could cause a riot.”
Michael grinned, showing off a set of dazzlingly white, and perfectly straight, teeth. “People love the Archangel.”
“They do,” said Lucile as she sat down at her desk and leaned back in her chair, her fingers running down the leather armrests and playing against the hand done stitching. “Which is exactly why I’ve called you all here.”
“What’s up, boss?” Michael asked, tossing himself onto the couch and kicking his feet up.
Gabriel remained standing, edging slightly to the side of the room to look out the plate glass window that dominated the wall. Lucile’s office had a breathtaking view of the city and far beyond. Squinting, he could even make out the fuzzy shape of earth, obscured through Nova’s protective membrane. Gabriel brought his eyes back to the city, looking to the Academy. Counting silently to himself he found arena eight. Fairy would still practice with or without him. Chance wouldn’t be very happy about having to spar with Fairy one on one, though in all honesty few people would be excited about that prospect. Chance would give Gabriel an earful about it for at least a week, or until Gabriel bought him lunch just to shut him up. He quickly turned his attention back to Lucile as she cleared her throat and the room went completely silent.
“As you know, Archangel’s most recent achievement against the ELA has been released to the general public.” Lucile began.
“Along with multiple streams being broadcast on a loop down to earth on all available open channels,” Sani added with a smug smile.
“Yes, which apparently has been successful at reaching the ELA,” said Lucile.
“Really?” Michael let out a bark of laughter. “How do you know?”
“They sent a response,” Lucile said.
Michael sat up, his eyes widening. “They did?”
“They did,” Lucile said. She snapped her fingers and the windows grew dark. For a moment the room remained completely black before a monitor on the back wall flickered to life. Despite the high quality of the screen the film was grainy. Still, it wasn’t hard to make out the figure standing in the center of the frame. He was tall and imposing with skin black as coal. He puffed out his large chest and began to speak, his eyes burning with intensity.
“This is David Goli of the Earth Liberation Army. If you’re receiving this transmission, I’m going to assume you’re the heartless piece of shit called Archangel” David leaned over and spat on the ground. “Despite our differences, I think we can both agree this war has been going on longer than either of us would care to admit. That’s why I’m offering an end to it. At least for one of us.”
David’s scowling face disappeared and his image was replaced by a set of coordinates and a date.
“This spot is directly between one of our bases and your nearest forward operating base. It’s as neutral of a space as I could manage.”
Rachel pulled out her tablet and looked up the location. “What is he…? That’s Monday. That isn’t even two days away.”
David once again appeared. He lifted up his hand and pointed his thumb towards his chest.
“I offer you a chance for a single battle, Archangel. Fight me and me alone. You may bring no more than six other Knivs as escort and we will do the same. I will be waiting for your response.”
The video ended and Lucile snapped her fingers. Light flooded into the room. Michael was standing now, his hand running nervously through his blonde hair. Rachel was tapping furiously on her tablet and Sani was thoughtfully stroking his chin.
“Well, it is interesting,” Sani said, breaking the silence.
“And obviously a trap,” Rachel added in.
“Obviously,” Sani said, though it was clear that aspect did not bother him in the slightest.
“It would be best if we ignored it. It’s simply an act of chest thumping bravado,“ Rachel said.
“Hey!” Michael shook his head vigorously back and forth, musing his perfectly styled blonde hair. “Archangel doesn’t back down from anything. No challenge is insurmountable.”
“Michael….” Rachel growled, but Sani cut her off.
“Michael is right. Archangel cannot back down from any challenge. It’s likely they are broadcasting this message as broadly as they possibly can. It is impossible to keep that from the public forever. This could potentially be very damaging… or extremely useful if we can control the situation.” Sani bobbed his head back and forth, already formulating a plan.
Gabriel frowned. He didn’t like the glint in Sani’s eyes.
“I don’t care,” Rachel said, slicing her hand through the air. “You’re just going to trust the ELA to actually honor this? There is absolutely no point in sending Archangel to do this.”
Sani scoffed. “That isn’t your call, Rachel.”
“The health and well being of Archangel is my call.” Rachel shot back. “This in no way, shape, or form can be considered to be in his best interest.”
“His public image would be tarnished. That image is his most valuable asset.” Sani said.
“Everyone, quiet please,” Lucile said as she stood up and walked around to the front of her desk. “Sani is correct, we cannot afford to simply ignore this. However, as Rachel has said, it is completely possible that this is a trap set by the ELA.”
“Highly possible,” Rachel said.
“Perhaps,” Lucile said. She waved her hand and a digital projection of the battle coordinates lit up in front of her. “However, if they were attempting to double-cross us, this is a terrible position to do it. This entire area is an open plain for miles in every direction. A direct ambush would be impossible.”
“You can’t believe that this is a serious offer,” Rachel nearly recoiled. “Lucile!”
Lucile held up her hand. “This is not a unique situation if you look at it from a historical point of view. During times of great conflict it was not uncommon for each side to pick a champion and send them to battle. In the Iliad it was Achilles who battled Hector in single combat to the death.
“Yeah. Exactly. We gotta get down there and kick this guy’s ass. Just like Hector did!” Michael punched his fist into the air. Gabriel repressed a sigh.
Lucile slowly turned her head to look at Michael. “Michael, sit down and do not speak again for the rest of this meeting.”
Michael was instantly cowed and fell back onto the couch. He gave Lucile a weak, apologetic smile and remained silent. Lucile took a calming breath and turned back to Rachel. “Still, you are correct, under normal circumstances I would not even be considering this, but these are not normal circumstances. Goli is also correct. The war with the ELA has been going on for far too long. Public opinion remains in our favor only because it is heavily influenced by the high profile success of Archangel. In truth, in the last two months we have lost control of two of our mining operations with a third in contention. Our troops are spread thin and the last thing we need is for the public, or the military, to believe that Archangel was too scared to do battle against the ELA.”
“Excellent!” Sani clapped his hands together. “If we are all decided, I’ll add this onto our press meeting and we will shoot a response video from Michael. That should be suitable for a quick morale boost.”
“Lucile, are you really going to allow this?” said Rachel.
Lucile lifted her head. “Yes. David is a renowned Pilot among the ELA. He has an impressive military record. Eliminating him would not only boost the morale of our own military, but also deal a great blow to the effectiveness of the ELA. It’s a chance we cannot afford to lose.”
Rachel ground her teeth and shook her head. “Fine, but if you’re going to send him into the lion’s’ den you should at least ask him what he wants.”
“Archangel has already said he wants to fight,” Sani said, waving his hand towards the silent Michael who gave a feeble nod. “I believe that is more than enough.”
“Don’t, Sani. You know exactly what I mean.” Rachel shot them both a scathing look before turning her gaze to Gabriel, her eyes softening. “Gabriel?”
Gabriel was still staring at the digital projection when all of the attention in the room suddenly focused on him. Slowly he lifted his eyes up.
“Rachel is right,” said Lucile as she pushed off from her desk and approached him. Leaning forward, she looked Gabriel straight in the eye, her dark blue eyes locking onto his. “So, Archangel, what do you think? Will you fight for Nova again?”
Gabriel slowly shifted his eyes from Lucile to Rachel. She looked back at him with a furrowed brow. Sani was waiting with growing impatience, his foot beginning to tap against the plush carpet beneath his feet. Behind him, Michael was staring at Gabriel with a hopeful and expectant look. Gabriel looked past him and out the window, taking in the city. He could see the citizens milling about, going through their daily lives, remaining blissfully unaware of the true nature of the battles raging on the Earth so far beneath them.
Taking his silence for hesitation, Lucile reached out and rested her hand gently on his shoulder. “No one will force you to do this, Gabriel. If you don’t want to fight as Archangel, I will never make you.” She gave his shoulder a squeeze. “If you feel you cannot do it…”
“If he cannot do it, we can simply get another Pilot to take his place.” Sani said. “Any one of the Orbital Knights would gladly accept the challenge, I’m sure. Of course, we could also use one of the S-class students. I’m sure they would be more than a match for the ELA’s best.”
Gabriel looked up sharply. The fingers in his right hand slowly closed into a fist before once again relaxing. He looked at Lucile and gave a small nod.
“I’ll do it,” Gabriel said quietly. “I’ll fight.”
“Wonderful,” Lucile breathed as she released him and returned to her desk. “We have less than two days to prepare. I will leave hanger twelve open for your private use for the next forty-eight hours. Your personal Kniv was badly damaged during your last mission, but we were able to salvage the chassis. The refitting should be finished sometime tonight. I’ll leave outfitting the Kniv to you, Gabriel. You may have whatever you need.”
Gabriel nodded. “Thank you.”
Lucile flicked her eyes to Sani. “Sani, continue with your press conference and the planned response video. Be sure to make a live broadcast feed available for the battle. I want the entire colony to see this. Leave the channel open so the ELA, and anyone else on Earth, can see it as well, though I’m sure they will be doing something similar.”
“Right away,” Sani said. He pulled Michael from the couch and out the door. “Come along, we need to prepare.”
Michael paused at the door and lifted his fist towards Gabriel. “Do me proud out there.”
He didn’t wait for a reply from Gabriel, not that Gabriel had a response other than an extremely slow blink.
“Rachel,” Lucile dropped into her chair, “Even though I know you disagree with this course of action, please assist Gabriel as you have always done. If he needs anything, get it for him.”
“Of course,” Rachel said curtly.
“You may leave, then,” Lucile said.
“Lucile.” Rachel nodded her head and motioned for Gabriel to follow her. He threw one last glance at Lucile, who gave him a warm smile, before following after Rachel.
His handler was completely silent until they reached her car. As soon as he shut the passenger side door Rachel took in a sharp breath and slammed her fist against the dashboard several times. Gabriel remained silent as she started up the car and slowly pulled out of the parking garage, merging into the light midday traffic.
“Do you want me to drop you off at the Academy or at the hanger?” Rachel finally said after almost ten minutes of thick silence.
“The Academy, please,” said Gabriel. Rachel nodded and Gabriel expected the silence to resume until Rachel sighed.
“You don’t have to fight him, Gabriel. Lucile wasn’t lying when she said you don’t have to do it.”
“I know what Lucile and Sani said, but this is most likely a trap just so the ELA can take you out, publicly.”
“We won’t be able to send more backup than what David allowed. Dropping from Nova will take at least ten minutes and running Knivs out from the FOB will take double that and we can only keep so many on the ground. The ELA will have the advantage in numbers if this is a trap.”
Rachel came to a stop in front of the Academy. She put the car in park and turned to look at him. “Then why are you going?”
“Because,” Gabriel looked up at the Academy, “If I don’t, someone else will.”
Rachel stared at him for a long time before she closed her eyes. She sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly through her nose. When she opened her eyes again she was completely calm.
“Very well, Archangel. I will do my best to support you,” Rachel held out her hand. Gabriel accepted it and gave a firm shake.
“Thank you, Nova-two,” Gabriel said softly before he exited the car.
Rachel gave him one last look before pulling away.