Lucile calmly sipped at her tea as Rachel and Sani waited with growing anxiety. They had been in her office for almost fifteen minutes and Lucile had yet to say a word or even acknowledge their presence. It was not the first time Lucile had done something like this, nor would it be the last.
It was early in the morning, far too early to be awake, and it showed in both Rachel and Sani who had been woken up with a summons. It was unheard of to ignore Lucile, no matter what time of day it was. Lucile did not seem bothered by the early hour, a content smile on her face as she put down her teacup and picked up a small cookie. She took a delicate bite and let out a gentle sigh before dabbing at her mouth with the corner of an embroidered napkin.
“I believe you both know why you are here,” said Lucile. “It has now been three weeks since contact was lost with Archangel. I trust that in those three weeks you have both thought long and hard about the situation and have come up with a solution to this issue.”
Sani took the imitative, leaning forward and lacing his fingers together. “The loss of Gabriel was unfortunate, but as you said, it has been three weeks now and we can not afford to dwell on this issue any longer. The ELA were quick to announce his defeat, but with Michael still here in Nova, we were able to negate their claims as nothing more than propaganda.”
“And what have been the reactions to the ELA broadcasts?” Lucile asked.
“They…” Sani hesitated. “The Archangel’s battle with the ELA Pilot, David Goli was watched by almost the entirety of Nova. It trended on every social media network and approval ratings of the war effort reached record highs.”
“That is not what I asked, Sani.” Lucile tilted her head to the side ever so slightly. “What has been the public reaction to the news that Archangel was killed, even with Michael’s recent public appearance?”
“There… there has been some discussion on the matter,” Sani admitted quietly before he quickly added, “But never publicly. There are a just few small, select groups who doubt the current situation. But they are obviously the minority and that is only among the civilians. Among the military we are seeing no issues.”
“I see.” Lucile leaned back in her chair and began to drum her manicured nails lightly on her desk. The sound echoed throughout the silent room. “What are our options, then?”
“Replacement,” said Sani. He produced his tablet and the screen lit up. “We have many suitable candidates who we can groom to replace Gabriel, ranging from Orbital Knights to S-Rank students at the academy.”
“Replacement,” said Lucile slowly. She turned attention to Rachel. “And you, Rachel? What do you have to say?”
“This situation never should have arisen in the first place,” Rachel said, her sharp eyes flicking to Sani. ”Gabriel should not have been placed into a situation like that, especially without a proper Handler to guide him.”
“Without a proper Handler?” Sani bristled.
“Yes, without a proper Handler!” Rachel snapped, her voice rising. “Gabriel should never have entered that battle without backup. You should have made sure the Orbital Knights had landed first before ordering Gabriel to begin his assault. You sent him on a suicide mission.”
“He has done similar missions in the past without any backup,” Sani protested.
“This was against a fortified structure in hostile territory that was already on high alert,” said Rachel as her hands tightened into fists. “Because of your inability to adequately comprehend the complexity of the situation we have lost one of our most important military assets. We lost Gabriel.”
“The loss of Gabriel is not my fault. I used my best judgment to assess the situation and I stand by my decision.” Sani’s voice took on a shrill pitch. “If the Orbital Knights had landed as had been planned then–”
“If?” Lucile cut Sani off and he went silent immediately, his head ducking slightly as though he expected to be struck at any moment.
“Yes, if the Orbital Knights had…” Sani trailed off as Lucile lifted up a single finger.
“Tell me, Sani, how long have you worked for me?” Lucile asked.
Sani glanced at Rachel, but received nothing more than a glare. Swallowing hard, he answered. “Almost twenty years.”
“I thought so.” Lucile nodded thoughtfully and lifted her finger to her chin. “And how long have you been part of the Archangel project?”
Despite the cold temperature in the room, a bead of sweat slid down the corner of Sani’s face and he wiped it away hastily. “T-ten years.”
“That would be since the beginning of the project, wouldn’t it?” said Lucile.
“Yes. I’ve been here since the start,” Sani said.
“Right, right, you have been here since the start.” Lucile took in a deep breath. “Now please, remind me if I have forgotten, but in either of those time frames have I ever once been interested in ‘ifs’?”
“No,” said Sani quickly. “No. Never.”
“I thought not. So, do tell me, what makes you think I am interested in them now?” Lucile spoke as if she were speaking to a particularly dim child. Sani jerked his head from side to side, his eyes wide and fists clenched against the tablet in his hands.
“Nothing. I mean, of course, you wouldn’t be interested in them,” Sani stammered. Lucile continued to stare at him, waiting. Sani jerked up slightly and bowed his head. “I’m sorry. I did not mean to waste your time.”
“That’s quite alright Sani, we all make mistakes.” Lucile smiled, but it was thin and didn’t reach her eyes. “I myself made a mistake when, at your request, I gave control of the operation to you, rather than to leave it in Rachel’s much more experienced hands. It is one I will not make again. In the future, Sani, you will have no part in battlefield operations as you have shown that you lack the necessary intelligence and aptitude. You will stick to what you are good at, and leave war to the warriors. Are we clear on that?”
“Yes,” Sani nearly whispered.
“Good,” Lucile said. “Now Rachel?”
Rachel, who had been watching Sani with a blank expression, turned back to Lucile. “Yes?”
“While you are correct that the loss of Gabriel was directly caused by Sani, you have yet to offer a solution. As it stands, Gabriel is dead and the Archangel is once again in need of a Pilot. Now I will ask you again, what do you have to say? Do you agree with Sani that we should begin to search for a replacement candidate, or do you have an alternative solution to offer?”
“I believe we need to entertain the possibility that Gabriel may not be dead,” said Rachel, frowning as Sani scoffed.
“Oh?” Lucile’s thin eyebrow went up. “Do tell?”
“I have gone through every single data input that Gabriel’s Kniv logged and transmitted to Nova. Before we lost contact with him, his Kniv registered a manual cockpit opening.” Rachel explained.
“Yes, but not an ejection,” Sani said. “It could have simply been malfunctioning.”
“No, it was not an ejection,” Rachel agreed. “But prior to that his Kniv was set to autopilot. I believe he used the Kniv to lure the ELA away while he made his escape.”
“Do you have any proof?” Lucile asked.
Rachel hesitated, but only for a moment. “No. At least not anything substantial.”
Lucile considered Rachel’s words for a moment before waving her hand. “Continue with your theory, please.”
“The ELA have been broadcasting video of Archangel’s defeat on a nonstop loop, even after Michael made an appearance to discredit them.” Rachel pulled out her tablet and brought up the video file. “In the video, it appears that the Kniv is destroyed by sustained ELA fire, but when the images are slowed, the pattern of explosions that appear on Archangel’s hull are in line with that of a Kniv’s self destruction protocol. Regardless of the cause of the explosion, the ELA have been unable to produce a body and it is unlikely by this point that they will.”
“Is the body important?” Lucile said.
“In this situation, I believe it is.” Rachel nodded. “They would want to show his body as absolute proof of his death. Even if was nothing more than burned remains.”
“Even if he is alive, it is unlikely he was able to evade capture by the ELA,” Sani said curtly. “If he is captured, protocol dictates that he kills himself before he can be interrogated.”
“The ELA have not captured him,” said Rachel with confidence.
“How do you know?” Sani snapped and Lucile echoed the sentiment though with decidedly more tact.
“What would you do if we captured a high ranking member of the ELA?” Rachel directed the question at Sani. He paused, considering his answer.
“I would have him interrogated for information,” said Sani after a few moments.
“And then?” Rachel pressed.
It was clear Sani didn’t want to answer the question, but with Lucile watching him expectantly he was given little choice. “I would broadcast news of his capture, using him either as a bargaining tool or conduct a trial and execute him publicly as an enemy of Nova, depending on the current climate.”
“In three weeks there has not been one mention of Gabriel’s capture or any other high ranking member of the Novan military, either publicly or in the transmissions we have been able to intercept. By this point in time there would be no point in keeping his capture secret and if they had killed him they would have wanted to show it, especially as a response to Michael, as it would expose him as a fraud,” Rachel said. “Even if he did manage to kill himself before capture, something I doubt you would be able to do, Sani, they still would have shown his body.”
Lucile picked up a cookie and chewed on it as she thought. When she finished, she took a sip of tea and cleared her throat softly.
“While your theory does have merit, and I do find myself agreeing with you, Rachel, it does not solve our problem. Regardless of whether or not Gabriel is dead, alive, or captured, it still leaves us without an Archangel. The longer he is absent from the battlefield, the more credibility is lent to the belief that he is dead,” said Lucile.
“Replacing Gabriel will not be as easy as Sani says,” said Rachel flatly. “It may be impossible.”
“Hardly impossible.” Sani held up his tablet, displaying the list. “We have more than enough candidates.”
“It’s not just about finding a Pilot to take on the name,” Rachel snapped. “The Archangel program has been running for ten years. In those ten years, the program has seen twelve Pilots, excluding Gabriel, take on the persona of the Archangel. Before Gabriel, none of them made it a full year. His three years as Archangel are unprecedented, despite being put into situations that most Pilots would fail in.” She spared a moment to glare at Sani. “As the Archangel, Gabriel has more completed missions under his belt than any other Pilot on Nova. He is not someone we can simply hope to replace by plucking a random student, or even an Orbital Knight. That isn’t even beginning to mention the amount of information he has on our Kniv Technology and military operations. We do not need to focus on replacing Gabriel, we need to focus on finding him and bringing him back before the ELA does capture him or he dies.”Lucile leaned back in her chair and tapped her chin thoughtfully. “I believe we have discussed this matter enough for today. I will allow you three more weeks, Rachel. Use whatever resources necessary to locate and retrieve Gabriel, if he is indeed still alive. Sani, during this time I would like you to refine the list of possible candidates and begin an interview process. If an incident does arise, I want the Archangel project ready to to be up and running as soon as possible. You are both dismissed"