It was for these moments of insight, no matter how rare, that Gabriel listened to Millie babble almost every morning and though he hadn’t thought much of it, Gabriel found his meals far more enjoyable when she was around.
The rest of his day was spent drifting around the various cars, doing his best to stay out of the way. Occasionally he would be drafted into service by a passing member of the ELA, usually to help move supplies around or assist in the Dillos’ upkeep.
Gabriel didn’t mind either of those tasks so much. His wounds were healing quickly and he was grateful for the chance to exercise. Learning about the inner workings of the Dillo also gave him what could later be valuable intelligence and the ELA were more than willing to answer any questions he came up with during the maintenance.
Working in the mess hall, however, was another matter entirely. Early on he had been asked to assist the cooks with dinner preparation.. Gabriel was not a good cook and had to be hastily removed from the smoking kitchen before anything else went wrong. He was not asked to return to the kitchen after that incident and would occasionally get the odd snicker from the cooks whenever he entered the dining area.
Their laughter was strangely comforting and Gabriel found himself smiling whenever he heard it. It took him a few days to figure out why. It finally hit him one night when Charlie gave him a plate filled with burned food. He had been confused at first, before the entire car had burst into laughter and someone had slapped him playfully on the back before the plate was replaced with real food.
They saw him a comrade. He was someone they could depend on, who they could ask for help without hesitation. They joked with him, much like Chance and Fairy would back at the Academy.
They trusted him.
But Gabriel did not trust them. Even if he had wanted to, he couldn’t. The trust they had in him was built on lies. Lies that, if faced with the truth, would crumble and fall apart. They would turn on him, and he would not blame them. He was the enemy. Not Charlie, or even Millie, would stand beside him if they knew the truth.
No. He could not trust them and he could not stay.
Returning to Nova was still his prime objective.
It was his only objective.
“Easier said than done,” Gabriel said softly as he stared out the window, watching the ruins of yet another unknown city pass by. He didn’t usually talk to himself, but Millie’s habits were beginning to rub off on him. He pressed his forehead against the window. The glass was thick and Gabriel suspected it was bulletproof. A small switch near the top would drop two metal coverings, one on the inside and one on the outside, to help reinforce the opening in the event of an attack. It was a simple design, yet effective.
Simple, yet effective.
It was a term Gabriel was beginning to associate more and more with the ELA. Technologically they were inferior to Nova. The transport he rode was proof of that. Novan troops and civilians alike would balk at the thought of such a crude vehicle, but the ELA made it work. Their Knivs were similar in that regard. The designs were, for the most part, older, and based on technology that Nova had surpassed. If it were not for their superior numbers, Nova would have been able to eradicate the ELA long ago. But the Novan Military was small and had to pick its battles. Gabriel supposed that is what made it necessary for the Archangel in the first place. A single unit strike force, able to cause massive damage with a low risk of loss.
The ELA not only held the advantage in human capital, but in resources as well. While Nova controlled many key mining and support sites, the ELA controlled many, many more. It would be impossible for Nova to successfully hold that many areas with the military power it currently had. As it was the Novan bases on earth were few and far between, with most built near the mines to lend military support when necessary and with every passing mile Gabriel was growing further and further away from them.
He didn’t even know how far away the nearest base was, or even the direction he would need to travel.
“See anything interesting?” Charlie asked, pausing along her way as she passed by Gabriel. She had a large duffle bag hanging off her shoulder. Charlie always kept a close eye on him, constantly checking to make sure he hadn’t overexerted himself. She was not a fan of his refusal to stay in bed and rest, something she made clear every time she found him out and about, which was often.
“Not really, just another city.” Gabriel shrugged. The only thing noticeable about this one was how big it was. The term megacity drifted through his mind. A word he had picked up somewhere, likely Millie, and her never ending stream of information.
“Bad city,” Charlie said as she moved up next to him to peer out the window. She smelled like metal and oil. It reminded Gabriel of a Kniv. It was a comforting smell.
“Bad.” Charlie nodded. “We’re less than a week away from Freeport, but this is Vulture territory.”
Gabriel vaguely recognized the name as some kind of bird native to earth. It fed on the carcasses of the dead. “The bird?”
“If only.” Charlie let out a bitter laugh. “We call them Vultures. They used to call themselves the Chosen, but I don’t even know what they call themselves these days. They’re scavengers. They’ve got a knack for showing up after battles and taking whatever they can.”
Gabriel was surprised. He had been under the assumption that the ELA was the only organized military force on earth. He wondered if Rachel knew about these Vultures. If they could be persuaded to fight for money, maybe they could prove to be an effective mercenary force.
“They’re pathetic, worse than Novans,” Charlie said darkly. Surprised at the venom in her tone, Gabriel turned his head away from the window to look at her. Her hair was tied up in a messy bun and she had grease marks on her face.
Charlie caught him staring at her and her expression softened. “What?”
“Your face,” said Gabriel.
“What about my face?” Charlie tilted her head and reached up to touch her cheek, smearing the grease even worse. “Oh.”
She couldn’t contain a surprised laugh and Gabriel found himself smiling as well.
“I’ve been doing maintenance on the Knivs,” Charlie shook her head and shifted her bag into a more comfortable position. “Since I’m still dirty, wanna see them before I clean up? I don’t think I can do much more today anyway.”
Gabriel nodded. He knew for sure where the Knivs were located already, but he had yet to actually see them. The engine car, where they Knivs were kept, was too well staffed for him to risk trying to enter without a reason. He followed Charlie through the Dilllo, pausing a few times as she chatted with her fellow ELA soldiers, before they entered the engine car.
It was larger than the other segments of the Dillo by a wide margin. There was a steady growl from the massive engines that produced the power necessary to keep the Dillo moving at its steady pace. Even with its oversized space, the compartment was almost completely filled by the Two Knivs that had been placed in storage. They had been folded into their transport forms to minimize space. Gabriel recognized both models.
The first, and larger of the two, was a Model-3 Stryker. Its body was highly armored and designed to take a punishment, however, it was notoriously slow. Gabriel knew it had trouble cornering and lacked the ability to successfully operate in CQC environments. For some reason, perhaps to aid in transport, its legs had been removed from the torso.
The other was a P-36 Ettin. It was an older, smaller model, standing only ten meters. It was designed for speed and utilized by the ELA most often in urban combat. Gabriel had not encountered many of them in person, but had seen video. Their armour was light and they were easily incapacitated with a few, well-placed shots. The ELA favored them because they were easy to train on and even easier to produce.
“This one is mine,” Charlie said proudly, slapping her hand against the hull of the Ettin. “I call her the Shield Maiden.”
“Shield Maiden?” Gabriel repeated.
Charlie kicked what Gabriel had thought was a section of the floor under the Ettin, but on closer inspection he realized was a large rectangle of metal. Looking closely he spied a few magnetic locks near the center.
“A shield,” said Gabriel.
“Yup. Maiden is fast, but she can’t take much of a beating. I decided to fix that,” Charlie said. She patted the Ettin fondly. “Pretty, isn’t she? She used to belong to my father. He always preferred his other one and let me train on her. ”
“He’s a Pilot?”
“He was,” Charlie said softly. “He died, six years ago.”
“I’m sorry.” Gabriel said. The words tumbled out of his mouth without much thought. He was slightly surprised to find that he actually meant it.
“It’s not your fault,” Charlie’s hand formed into a fist and pressed against the Shield Maiden’s side. “It was the Archangel.”
“Archangel?” Gabriel looked up sharply, but Charlie didn’t notice as she stared blankly ahead.
“Archangel,” Charlie repeated. “Six years ago, my father’s unit was ambushed by the Archangel and the Orbital Knights. It came down to my father against Archangel. My father didn’t make it.”
Six years ago. That was before Gabriel had taken the position, but still he felt a stab of guilt in his stomach. The feeling only grew worse as he knew that the Archangel of six years ago had not survived that battle either. He had succumbed to his injuries hours later after returning to Nova only to be quietly replaced.
Gabriel didn’t know how much longer it would be before they replaced him.
“I wanted to kill him, you know,” said Charlie. She sighed through her nose and looked at Gabriel. She gave him a weak smile. “I wanted to kill him myself, in my father’s Kniv. I wanted to make him pay for what he did… I wanted…” She trailed off and shook her head. “Did you see the battle between Goli and Archangel?”
“I did too. I met Goli a few times. He was a good man. Incredibly skilled, far more skilled than I am. I was so jealous when I saw that Archangel had accepted his challenge. Jealous that he was going to get a chance to avenge his fallen comrades. Jealous that Archangel accepted so easily. I wanted to be the one to battle him.” Charlie shuddered. “Still, I was sure Goli would win. The Archangel only fights when he has the advantage. At least, that’s what we all wanted to believe. Maybe we needed to believe it.”
Gabriel said nothing. Many of his missions had only been possible because he held the element of surprise. If the ELA had time to set up and prepare for his attacks, it was unlikely he would have been able to survive as long as he had.
“Goli fought well, but he was never in control of the battle. If I had been in his place, the Archangel would have killed me. I wouldn’t have stood a chance.” Charlie was nearly whispering. “I trained so hard. I wanted to be stronger than my father. Stronger than everyone else who had fallen to the Archangel… but I… I….”
Her voice cracked and she went silent. Gabriel’s hand lifted up a few inches before falling back down to hang limply at his side. He knew he should say something, but he had no right to comfort her. He glanced at the Ettin. Charlie was right. In the open plains where he had fought Goli, he would have killed her with little difficulty. It wouldn’t have even been a thought for him to do so.
“I’m sorry. Talking about dad always messes with me,” said Charlie as she wiped her dirty sleeve across her eyes leaving a light smudge across her skin. She smiled sadly. “It doesn’t matter anymore though. Archangel is finally dead. Now I have to fight for those that are still alive. That’s why I’ve been doing my best to get these two up and running.”
“They don’t work?” Gabriel asked. He ran his eyes over the Shield Maiden again. Under a closer inspection he realized the hull was blackened in several places, almost like it had caught in a fire.
“That big one is called a Stryker and it might as well be scrap metal. The neural link system is broken and I can’t fix it with the tools we have on hand, neither can anyone else. One of the legs is malfunctioning too, but both have to be removed to fix the motor. Right now it isn’t much use as anything besides a sentry.”
“What about the Shield Maiden?”
“I’m assuming you heard that explosion back in Woodcrest?” Charlie said. “The Archangel blew up a munitions dump. I was caught in the explosion. It didn’t destroy her, but it blew out all of the heat sinks. The fire ruptured the battery and destroyed most of the sensors too.”
Gabriel walked around the Kniv, allowing Charlie to fall out of his view for a moment. He took in a deep breath as he reached out and touched the Kniv’s burned exterior. He felt an uneasy feeling in his stomach as he did so and quickly removed his hand. He heard Charlie walk around to his side of the Kniv and he kept his eyes forward, staring blankly at the Kniv.
He had nearly killed Mille. He had come closer to killing Charlie. How many people had faced their death because of him?
How many more would?
“Can you fix it?” he said, more to silence his thoughts than actual interest.
“The small things I can. I’ve been replacing the wiring and tuning the motors. Luckily the neural link system is still up, but everything is fuzzy when you start it up.” Charlie shook her head. “But starting it up is the real problem. She takes forever just to get moving and I’m not sure what is wrong. No one else knows either. Most of the soldiers on board are just that, soldiers. They aren’t Pilots and they certainty aren’t Kniv mechanics. I’m basically on my own trying to put her back together. I really wanted to have her done before we reached Vulture territory, even if she could only run for an hour at most with the battery the way it is.”
“Do the Vultures have Knivs?” said Gabriel.
“Not usually, and the ones they do are salvaged Junkers. Even infantry can take them out easily enough. That’s not what I’m worried about.”
“Mobility,” said Charlie. “The Dillo is slow. If we come under attack, outrunning them won’t be an option. If the Shield Maiden was operational I could use that to buy us time, but right now it will take at least ten minutes to get her running,” Charlie chewed on her bottom lip. “That’s a long time in a firefight. Too long.”
“Are you sure the Vultures will attack?”
“I’m sure,” Charlie said. “We’ve already radioed Freeport and asked for an escort. They didn’t give us an outright no, but no one is coming to help us.”
Charlie lifted up a single finger and pointed towards ceiling. “Nova.”
“Nova?” Gabriel repeated, glancing skyward, though he saw nothing but the bright lights that lit up the car.
“Right now we’re nothing more than a small convoy. Unarmed. Even if Nova noticed us, we would be written off as a civilian transport, not worth following and not worth the Drop to attack us. An escort risks drawing too much attention. We can’t allow Nova to learn of the location of Freeport.” Her hand drifted down and gently touched her sidearm. “We’re on our own.”
“How long will it take to pass through Vulture controlled territory?” Gabriel said.
“Two days, maybe three. They don’t have a set base of operation that we know of, but we know they move through this area often. Unfortunately, it’s the only way to Freeport. At least, if we don’t want to be traveling for another month or so,” said Charlie. “Once we pass through we’ll be back in ELA territory.”
Gabriel knew Charlie meant to reassure him with her words, but the idea of entering ELA controlled territory, especially territory that was unknown to Nova, did not instill in him a sense of confidence. His emotions must have briefly shown on his face and Charlie read out and rested her hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t worry, I know it’s hard, moving to a new home after what happened in Woodcrest, but I’ll be right there with you.” She smiled and Gabriel did his best to return the gesture.
“Thanks, Charlie,” Gabriel said.
Charlie clapped him on the shoulder and pulled off her bag. She dumped out a large assortment of tools and parts, most of which Gabriel recognized. “Alright, screw cleaning up. I think I’ve been on break long enough anyways. I’ve got to work on getting that startup sequence fixed up.”
“Good luck,” Gabriel said, already knowing she wouldn’t be able to achieve her goal, not without salvaging parts from the other Kniv, one he would have recommended scrapping completely.. He kept those thoughts to himself.
“No luck here, only skill!” Charlie called out as he left the compartment. “I’ll see you at dinner!”
Gabriel did not see Charlie at dinner. This did not surprise him, though. Charlie often got caught up in her work. Instead, he had dinner with Millie along with Jayce. Jayce spent most of the meal joking about getting a robot eye replacement for his missing eye, a prospect that Millie latched onto with rapt attention.
Gabriel had a distinct feeling he was the only one the Dillo who knew that such technology was in alpha testing on Nova and was scheduled to be released for public use within the next five to ten years. Sara had often tried to get him to sign a release waiver to allow her to implant one in him as a human trial. This would have, of course, meant surgically removing Gabriel’s actual eyeball. Gabriel had firmly rebuffed the offer, as he did with most of Sara’s offers. Fairy, on the other hand, had seriously considered it, even going so far as to have her eyeball and socket measured by Sara before deciding to wait until the first generation of implants had been tested.
Sara had been heartbroken.
Strange that he had never noticed how much he really enjoyed their company until he no longer had it. He even missed Fairy’s constant pestering about his grades.
The memories brought a smile to Gabriel’s face that quickly faded. It felt like it been so long since he had seen any of them. Only Sara would be informed of the situation, and likely only the bare minimum. She would be told that he was missing in action, or possibly killed in action. It was impossible to tell which one they would assume. He was sure Rachel would want to retrieve him, but if Sani had his way Gabriel would guess killed would be preferable to missing. That would allow Sani to cut ties with him and not waste resources on a rescue mission. It was the right decision for Nova, and the one that Gabriel would make.
Those three, along with Lucile, would be the only ones who would know of his true fate. Though, it wasn’t like many would miss him. Only Fairy and Chance would really notice his absence.
Fairy would have noticed first. She would have messaged him after the Archangel battle. When he failed to respond she would have shown up at his room, but there would be no one to answer. Knowing Fairy, she would not wait to be told. Sara would be the first person she would contact. Gabriel did not know what measures would be taken in the event of his death, or failure to return to Nova, but he had an a guess.
Sara would fabricate a story about his implant failing. They would say he was in medical isolation, likely unstable and in critical condition. The Academy would accept that answer, as would Fairy. The implant was still in early testing stages and failures were to be expected. That would buy them time to figure out how to handle his absence. If they failed to recover him, it would be a simple matter of telling Fairy that he had passed away and his body cremated. The false ashes would be jettisoned into space, as was the Novan custom, and small note of his existence would be placed in the Novan records.
Time would march on and eventually, like every other Archangel who had fallen from grace before him, he would be forgotten.
“Gabriel? Are you okay?” Millie’s voice brought Gabriel from his thoughts. He shook his head slightly and glanced to the side. Millie stared up at him through her pale blue eyes. They were the same color as Fairy’s. He hadn’t noticed it before. Millie’s eyes lacked Fairy’s intensity, instead replaced by a bright curiosity.
Gabriel blinked. “I’m fine. Why?”
Millie rocked from side to side. “Dinner ended almost an hour ago.”
“Oh,” Gabriel looked around the dining car. It was empty. The plate in front of him was nearly untouched, but he still lacked any sort of appetite. “Sorry. I guess I… Sorry.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Millie said. “Do you want me to go get Charlie?”
Gabriel shook his head and forced a smile. “I’m fine, really. Just a bit tired.”
“You should sleep then,” Millie drew herself up to her full height and did her best impression of Charlie. “You won’t get better if you don’t rest.”
Gabriel laughed. “You should too, then.”
Millie rolled her eyes and pointed to her pajamas. “I was going to sleep, but you never came back so I had to go looking for you.”
“I will after I clean up,” Gabriel said.
“Alright.” Millie turned to leave but hesitated. “You’re sure you’re okay?”
Gabriel faltered but only for a moment. “Yeah, I’m alright Millie.”
“Good. Night Gabriel!” Millie waved over her shoulder and scampered out of the room, sliding the door shut behind her. Gabriel waited until he couldn’t hear the sound of her loud footsteps before getting up and cleaning off his tray. He stopped by the large window and stared out at the passing landscape.
It was dark. Too dark to see more than a few meters out. The Dillo had lights, but they mostly faced forward, illuminating the path ahead and very little to the sides. They were almost through the ruined interior of the megacity. In a few more hours they would be back into open road and would be able to increase their speed.
Gabriel narrowed his eyes and stared out into the darkness. The Vultures would attack soon. The city would be a safe haven for them. To venture out any further would risk drawing the wrath of the ELA. They needed to strike while the Dillo was still firmly within their territory.
In scenarios like this it was best to attack at night. The ELA would have been on high alert all day, watching for any sign of enemy activity. When they saw none, it would lure them into a false sense of security, they would start to think they could make it through the kill zone safely.
That was the time to strike.
Wait until the main force has fallen asleep. Only give them a few hours of rest. Enough to get them groggy and out of sync, and then strike fast and strike hard. Explosions would be what Gabriel would lead with. Something bright and flashy. Near the front of the Dillo. Draw attention and the ELA forces to defend the engine, but that wouldn’t be the real target. The real target would be the wheels.
The Engine was large and well armored. It was designed to take a beating. The wheels were not nearly as strong. If they could destroy even a handful they could cripple the Dillo. The ELA would be forced to come to a stop or risk tipping one of the cars over. If a car were to tip over, it would be nearly impossible to get it on its wheels again without Kniv support, and with only one partially functioning Kniv, there would be no time.
Gabriel sat back down and waited.
For almost an hour he sat, staring out the window and into the darkness until he spotted a tiny flicker of light off in the distance. Reaching out he grabbed the edge of the table and braced himself. He did not flinch as the first rocket slammed into the engine car. The Dillo veered to the side and fought to correct its course, even as another rocket struck. Fire blossomed across the side of the Dillo and what seemed like hundreds of lights lit up around the convoy, illuminating a ragtag group of vehicles that had closed in under the cover of darkness. Gabriel reached out and calmly flipped the window release switch, dropping the armour plates down.
The attack had begun.
It was time for him to act.