Gabriel leaned his head back on the wall and dropped his data pad onto the bed. The video of David’s last skirmish against Novan forces continued to play on the screen, filling the room with the sharp crack of gunfire and the harsh screech of metal being ripped apart.
Since returning from the meeting Gabriel had spent hours pouring over whatever information he could find on David. Like most information on ELA Pilots there wasn’t much in the terms of actual Intel, but there were a considerable number of video files, mostly taken from retreating forces or live feed that was terminated once the Kniv was destroyed.
David was a skilled Pilot, at least on par with any member of Alpha Squadron of the Orbital Knights and maybe even better. He was a Pilot that had been trained and tested by real combat. He had fought in battles where his life was truly on the line. Gabriel closed his eyes, listening to the battle and letting his mind construct the images.
He sighed as his stomach grumbled. He had skipped dinner and the hunger was just now beginning to get to him. The dining hall would be long closed by now. He could still go down and make himself something to eat, but cooking wasn’t something he excelled at. Briefly he considered sending a message to Rachel to have something sent to his room, but he didn’t want to bother her so late at night just for something so trivial.
The sound of his doorknob turning interrupted his thoughts. He had just enough time to mute the video before the door opened and Fairy walked in.
“You should lock your door. Anyone could walk in,” said Fairy as she took a seat as his desk.
“Like you?” Gabriel said.
“S-class students are given priority access to all rooms to assist the faculty in disciplinary actions if necessary, or in the event of an emergency.” Fairy reached out and picked up his data pad. “Technically, this could be considered grounds for disciplinary action.”
Gabriel shook his head and smiled. “How so?”
“You were listening to this loud enough to be heard outside of your door, even though you should be sleeping.”
“It’s a weekend, there’s no curfew on weekends,” Gabriel countered. He leaned forward and looked at her. Her hair was still damp from her evening shower. “Besides, shouldn’t you be asleep too?”
“I have been busy.”
“How long did you keep Chance out in the arena with you?” Gabriel asked.
“I let him leave three hours ago.” Fairy unmuted the pad and began to watch the video.
Gabriel fell back against the wall and made a mental note to send an apology message to Chance. “When did you leave?”
“Half an hour ago.” Fairy didn’t exactly frown but the displeasure on her face was evident. “Professor Lynne has barred me from using any of the arenas for the rest of the weekend.”
Gabriel had a feeling he knew why, but he asked just to be sure. “Were you practicing with the grenade launcher again?”
Fairy ignored the question. “You were not able to come so I was forced to change my lesson plan.”
“Doctor’s orders,” said Gabriel with a small shrug.
Fairy peered at him. “Just rest?”
“Just rest,” Gabriel assured her.
Fairy nodded and held up his data pad. “It seems Archangel is going to battle this David Goli of the ELA.”
“That’s what the press release said,” said Gabriel with a shrug. He didn’t really want to revisit Michael’s boisterous acceptance of the challenge. Like every public appearance Michael made it was painfully over the top with an excessive use of hand gestures, technical military jargon, and colorful allusions painting Michael as an avenging angel and the ELA, this time David specifically, as the devil. Sani liked to press that metaphor often and Michael was all too happy to comply.
Gabriel wasn’t much of a fan, but then again the message wasn’t meant for him.
“I’m surprised that Nova is going to allow it,” Fairy said. “Losing Archangel would be far worse to Nova than losing Goli would be to the ELA.”
“You think Archangel is going to lose?” said Gabriel.
“In any endeavor there is always the possibility of failure.” Fairy tapped her finger against the pad, bringing up a still image and tossing it onto the bed in front of Gabriel. “I don’t know much of Goli but I do know about his Kniv.”
Gabriel looked at the screen. He had been able to identify the Kniv in the Academy Database, but beyond even the most basic stats the information was sparse. All Gabriel knew was that it stood a commanding sixteen meters tall and was designed for close quarters combat.
“If you looked in the academy records they would have identified it as a type 0 Rhino.” Fairy said, confirming what Gabriel knew. “But that’s wrong.”
Gabriel sat up slightly. “Oh?”
Fairy nodded. “The Rhino was developed as a guard Kniv for fixed structure defense. It was heavily armored, designed with CQC in mind.”
“How do you know that isn’t what David is using?”
“The original Rhino was extremely slow, lacking necessary offensive movement capabilities simply because it did not need them. It was never meant for offensive battle deployment.” Fairy said.
“So what is this?” Gabriel asked.
“I believe it is the Type 2 Rhino, the successor that was designed as an actual combat Kniv.”
Gabriel typed that into the data pad but came up with no results. He looked up at Fairy. “Nothing about it in the archives.”
“No, I wouldn’t imagine there would be. The original Rhino was extremely expensive to develop, build, and operate. In an effort to reduce costs, it was redesigned into a lighter, faster, though still extremely defensively minded form, the Type 2. The redesign was deemed a failure. As such, it never went into mass production which limits any further information.”
“How do you know it isn’t an original Rhino then, like the archives think?” Gabriel said. He already had a few good ideas how, but it never hurt to get Fairy’s side of the equation. She was not an S-class Pilot for nothing.
“The academy archives are mostly done by an automated system. It matches Knivs into their appropriate category by two main criteria: chassis and head. The head and basic chassis of the Type 0 was reused in development of the Type 2. Without a manual correction the archives will fail to register them as two different Knivs.”
“Then how do you know they aren’t the same?” Gabriel said.
“Because, the original Rhino had one other very telling difference,” Fairy lifted up her hand and held up four fingers. “It had four arms.”
“Four?” Gabriel’s eyebrow cocked in surprise.
“Another reason for its failure. The designer incorrectly believed, as it would not have to be as mobile as a traditional Kniv, the Pilot would be able to compensate for the added neural strain of the extra limbs.”
“Designer wasn’t a Pilot, then,” Gabriel said.
“It is unlikely,” Fairy said. “Many have attempted to add another limb to a Kniv to increase its battle capacity, but it has always resulted in a difficult syncing process with a high rate of link failure. The neural system is most effective when the body of the Kniv is within the relative proportions of the body of the Pilot.”
Gabriel nodded. It was completely possible to pilot a Kniv without the neural link, but it made the machine sluggish and unresponsive in comparison to a linked Pilot. When fully synced, the Kniv wasn’t just a vehicle that the Pilot controlled; it became an extension of the Pilot’s body. It was what made the Kniv so deadly.
“Are you going to watch the battle?” Fairy said suddenly.
Gabriel blinked. “I suppose I don’t have a choice. It will be hard to miss.”
“I was going to ask if you would like to watch it with me, but father is going to hold a viewing party,” said Fairy.
Gabriel had met Fairy’s father before, Julius Fairchild. He was a retired leader of the Alpha Division of the Orbital Knights, the unquestionable elite of the Novan Military. It was a post that Fairy was well on her way to matching. Julius was an imposing man with a powerful presence that could only come from years of military command. Gabriel had the distinct impression that Julius was not overly fond of him, likely due to his less than impressive performance in the Academy and the idea that he could somehow distract Fairy from her studies.
As though anyone could actually distract Fairy.
“I would invite you but…” Fairy faltered for a moment, her cheeks growing faintly red. It was such a rare thing to see that Gabriel smiled.
“But your father is only inviting S-class Pilots, right?” Gabriel guessed.
Fairy nodded. “Along with the other retired Knights and those who are not currently deployed. It is also possible that Chance will warrant an invitation as well, depending on father’s mood.”
Gabriel’s smile gained a few teeth. A fancy party with nothing to do but talk about military operations with grizzled veterans surrounded by the most talented students desperately trying to gain their approval? Chance was going to absolutely hate that.
“That’s alright. I’ll be fine on my own,” Gabriel said. Fairy gave him a look and he held up his hands. “I promise I’ll see the battle, but I’m not going to take any notes on it.”
“I suppose that is sufficient,” said Fairy as she stood up. “I shouldn’t keep you up any longer. This weekend you should do nothing but rest. Goodnight, Gabriel.”
“Night Fairy,” Gabriel called as Fairy exited his room. He waited a few minutes to make sure she had actually left before pushing himself off the bed. With Fairy’s information fresh in his mind he made his way to Hanger Twelve.
“Did you sleep at all?” Rachel asked as she walked into the hanger, her heels clicking loudly against the metal floor. She looked up at Gabriel, watching as he dangled precariously off the shoulder of his Kniv and continued to tinker with the wiring inside. There was a shower of sparks and Rachel took a step back, lifting her arm to protect her face. “You know you’re supposed to wear a harness when you do that?”
“The left arm felt slow,” Gabriel replied quietly, ignoring both her questions as he finished with the wiring and slid the armour plate back into place. “When they rebuilt it, someone didn’t wire it properly. The neural interface had latency even with an eighty-five percent sync.”
“I’m more than certain it was done exactly as it should have been,” Rachel said though she knew it was a futile argument. Pilots were known to be very finicky when it came to their Knivs. Though, she figured, there was a good reason for that. Shaking her head and letting the issue go Rachel held up the bag of food she had brought. “Come down and eat.”
“What time is it?” Gabriel asked as he slid down the Kniv and dropped down to the floor. He accepted the bottle of water Rachel tossed to him.
“It’s seven-thirty in the morning,” Rachel said as Gabriel drained the water bottle. She pulled out another, handing it to him, along with a biscuit. “Want some jam?”
Gabriel shook his head as he devoured the biscuit, and the following one that Rachel offered him. When he was finished he leaned back against the leg of the Kniv and let out a long, tired sigh. Rachel dropped the bag beside him. Gabriel spied a shiny red apple and he reached in and grabbed it.
“I have what you asked for on order,” Rachel said, pacing back and forth as she consulted her tablet. “Though are you sure this is what you need? It’s… mining equipment?”
Gabriel nodded as he munched on the apple. “It’s what I need.”
“It should be here soon. I had to have it brought up from Earth, so I’m guessing late afternoon. That should give you just enough time to get at least a few hours of sleep.”
“Not tired,” said Gabriel through a yawn.
“You need to sleep,” Rachel said, reaching down and grabbing Gabriel under the arm. He resisted her for a moment before allowing himself to be dragged up to his feet. Rachel did not release his arm until they were well on their way back to the dorms.
“You really need to make sure you eat and sleep,” Rachel said as they exited the elevator. The hallway was silent. It was still too early for most students to be up on a weekend. Gabriel stumbled beside her and she returned her arm to his, holding him aloft until they reached his dorm room. Using her keycard she swiped into his room. Gabriel made a move towards the bed, but Rachel caught him by the back of his collar.
“Shower. You’re filthy,” Rachel ordered.
Gabriel gave a small nod and dragged himself into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him with a soft click. As the shower turned on Rachel took the moment to look around the room. It had been a long time since she had last visited in person but still there wasn’t much to see.
The bedding was standard issue, as was the rest of the furniture in the room. The walls had been left a bare, stark white. In the entire room there was only one furnishing that proved a student lived there. A small, framed picture that sat on the corner of Gabriel’s desk. Curious, Rachel reached out and picked up it up.
Gabriel stood in between two other students. The girl on his right was slight, with long, ash blonde hair. Rachel recognized her as Thea Fairchild. It was the eyes that gave her away, the same pale blue as her father’s. The name of the raven-haired boy on Gabriel’s other side took Rachel a moment to remember. Reed Chance. He was in the year above Gabriel and Fairy, an A-class Pilot.
Gabriel looked happy, either of his arms thrown around his friend’s shoulders and small smile turning up the corner of his mouth.
In moments like these it was hard for Rachel to remember that he wasn’t just another normal teenage boy. But Gabriel could not be a normal boy anymore. He couldn’t be just another student at the Academy. He couldn’t worry about his grades, or having a social life. He couldn’t even look forward to graduation and life after school. He couldn’t do any of these things because he was the Archangel.
He was the Archangel, and she had helped him become that.
Rachel would never forget the first time she had seen him. It was a meeting that Gabriel would never be aware of. He had been dying, stretched on the operating table, his skin so pale she was sure it could have only belonged to a corpse. There was so much blood. So much blood it didn’t seem possible he could still be alive. She had stared in rapt, horrified fascination as a team of Nova’s top surgeons, led by Sara, had worked tirelessly to save his life.
Rachel could scarcely believe it when they finally stabilized him, the artificial implant that would serve as his heart slowly beating in time with the beeping monitor hooked to his chest. It was only then, when Sara had assured them that Gabriel would live, that Lucile had told her why Nova was willing to expend such an effort for this child’s life.
ELA forces had shot down a transport ship carrying reinforcements, their families, and supplies. The ship crashed miles away from the Novan base. A handful of those on the ship survived, including Gabriel, if only just. Pierced through the chest by shrapnel, by all rights he should have died along with the rest of his family, but he hadn’t. Bleeding out and entering shock, he had dragged himself into the cargo bay and entered one of the surviving Knivs. Activating the life support systems he had been able to stave off death.
He was wonderfully resourceful, as Lucile had so lightly put it.
The story alone was horrifying enough for a child to endure, but it did not end there. Taking advantage of the situation ELA forces had moved in to mop up the survivors and scavenge what they could. A small strike team consisting of three Knives carried out the operation. They had not expected to meet any form of resistance.
Gabriel’s methods were crude, but effective. Rachel had watched the video many times, forcing herself to not mute the volume, listening to his screams of pain and anguish as he tore through them, not noticing or simply not caring as the Kniv that was barely keeping him alive was ripped apart piece by piece. By the time Nova managed to scramble a response team together it was over.
Gabriel had slaughtered them.
He was resourceful and he was resolute.
The perfect candidate.
Without even blinking an eye Lucile sealed his fate. According to the official report Gabriel never was on the transport ship. As an orphan he was placed in the custody of Nova and Lucile had taken him under her wing. Rachel had given no arguments, agreeing to become his Handler, alongside Sani. She hadn’t given so much as a word of disagreement.
He was only fourteen.
Gabriel took to training like nothing Rachel had ever seen before. She put him through hell, part of her hoping he would break before he would be forced into active duty. He never broke. He didn’t even show a crack. Nothing they asked him was too difficult, too challenging. He simply took the orders he was given and he completed them.
It was terrifying.
His personal life was considerably more difficult to manage. At first it seemed necessary to isolate him, for the sake of Archangel’s identity. In the end it had been Sani, and not Rachel, that had made the push for Gabriel to live life as a normal student. Rachel had agreed. She wanted to believe that living freely would make up for the horrible things they would make him do.
But now, as she stared down at the picture, at the false memories that Gabriel was making, she couldn’t help but question that decision. Was it really an act of benevolence? Or had they just trapped him in an even worse cage? Rachel frowned and put down the picture as the shower shut off.
It was too late for questions now.
A few moments later Gabriel exited in a cloud of steam, already dressed for bed, his towel hanging loosely around his neck. Rachel gave him a pointed look and he dropped into the bed without an argument.
“Sleep well, Gabriel. I’ll send you an update when your order arrives,” Rachel said quietly as she left the room. As the door shut behind her she reached up and rubbed at the bridge of her nose before making her way back to her car.
Her phone rang and she answered it without looking at the screen. Only a handful of people had this particular number and only one of them would be calling this early.
“What is it, Sani?” said Rachel as she entered her car.
“Good morning to you too, Rachel,” Sani said before cutting straight to the point. “How is he?”
“He’s sleeping, now.”
“Ah, you better make sure he stays rested,” Rachel could hear a hint of nervousness in his voice. Somehow, it made her feel better. “A mistake on any other day I can cover for, but if something happens to him on Monday, neither of us are going to be safe from Lucile.”
It did not escape Rachel that Sani did not mention the safety of Gabriel or Michael. Sani really was a self-serving man, but, in her heart, she knew she wasn’t all that different from him.