(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The first time they tow it into the hangar, Jack thinks he's looking at God in the shape of a plane.
The sun is out, one of those rare, clear days that's shaping up to be hell on the AC, just eleven in the morning and the airfield is already turning into a simmering, brilliant desert. Squinting out the hangar doors means almost going blind, a moment's nothing turning into something as the jet melts out of that scintillating brightness, itself shining like a piece of iridescent opal. First the nose, then the dark dome of the canopy, the long, sleek body unfurling into wings that seem to be moving on their own, reflected heat turning them into the minute movements of a giant bird. A pair of state-of-the-art laser guns, jutting forward like the spears of a valkyrie, custom-fitted missile tubes, and somewhere in the back of his head a part of Jack is grown up enough to trip the circuit breakers before the rest of him can prove he's never grown beyond fifteen, and draft up a plan to steal the keys and run away with that beauty into the sunset. Or alternately, start drooling.
He's got more important things to think about, like how they're dragging it into the hanger. His hangar.
The operator in the observation bay shouts something after him that Jack doesn't quite catch, grabbing his jacket on the way out. He's a major now. Heat or no, he's got to make it look like he's upholding standards and discipline. The trek down the grated metal staircase is just long enough to get his buttons done up in the wrong order and realize he's still holding the mug of stale coffee in one hand, but by then, he's on the ground floor and it's too late.
A once-over, the man's disapproving look losing itself in the forms on his clipboard. Behind him, the tow clamps are being dislodged, techies in orange jumpsuits working so fast they almost seem afraid to touch the jet, and if Jack could spare the attention, he's pretty sure he could pick out a few open-mouthed stares among his ground crew, too. It makes him feel oddly better.
The sergeant flips through his sheets. "If you'll just sign here, here, and here to confirm the receipt."
"What receipt," Jack says, finding his hands full of clipboard. He fumbles, pats his uniform, finds a pen in his shirt pocket. Unscrewing the cap stains his fingers blue.
"The receipt of the Super Sylph B-503."
"I wasn't informed." Raising his eyebrows meaningfully, Jack signs anyway, because there's precious little choice and perhaps, irrationally, because the plane is truly beautiful. The military is stingy with its toys, especially toys like this, and he sure as hell isn't cleared for prototype repairs. His hangar is regular squads only. Maintenance, training, sorties. Getting shot out of the sky and piecing what's left back together. If they're handing this beauty over to him without giving notice, it means they've already gone through every possible channel. This is a last ditch effort. Last ditch effort at what, he can't say.
"You are now." The sergeant takes back the forms, handing over a file he kept tucked under his arm. "Word has gotten around you have a good hand with tough cases."
Tough cases meaning stuff that, by all rights, shouldn't be working anymore. Jack isn't R&D, isn't even a mechanic per se, he just likes planes and fixing things and teaching a couple of flyboys to do the same. It's what should have started years ago on a grand scale, back when the JAM were still a problem on the other side of the world, and maybe even before that. Fixing things instead of scrapping them. Stripping parts to use with other parts, tuning up machines, tuning them down to fit. Teaching the blackbox in an American fighter drone to talk to the Chinese board computer. Jack makes do with what people give him, and they've given him dwindling resources and a damn tight budget.
No sense in telling that to the sergeant, so he just shrugs noncommittally. "I like tough cases."
Smiling thinly, the sergeant steps aside to let Jack get a good look at the thing that's come attached to the plane, a scrawny Japanese kid circling around the jet with the look of a caged tiger pacing around his fake log.
"Well, Major, I can guarantee... you won't like this one."
Rei Fukai is a second lieutenant who's won every conceivable honor there is for a test pilot, short of getting buried with his casket of medals. Rei Fukai has had the skin burned off his legs, and all his ribs broken, and needed reconstructive surgery on his right eye, all within the last three months. His left arm is still in a sling, in the delicate grip of a support cast, the thin metal struts meant to send electric impulses and stimulate the nerves to bring back his fine motor skills.
After the last crash, the doctors wanted to take him off the program, recommended psychological reevaluation. When he realized what was happening, Rei Fukai stabbed the doctor on duty with his blunt plastic dinner fork, then took down a musclebound nurse with a new syringe of sedatives and the security chief with his spoon. They found him back in the testing facility, curled up on the floor below the underbelly of that white Super Sylph, sleeping peacefully as a baby. When they made the mistake of waking him up, they found he was also sleeping with a box-end wrench.
All of this is just a roundabout way of saying that Rei Fukai is batshit insane.
Jack keeps gazing at the file for a bit, not entirely sure whether he really just read all that. It's the sort of crazy thing you usually see in a psych ward movie, where they have the drugs and the braces to strap down a kid who's a danger to others, a danger to himself. There's enough in this file to make Jack's stomach squirm with the realization of what they have handed to him, the knowledge that this kid should have been getting treatment, should have, at the very least, pissed off the brass into removing him after the first incident, but they didn't. They don't just find nutcases like this, they make them.
He can't even say what he's supposed to do here. He fixes planes, not kids. Planes don't develop neuroses, or try to kill doctors, planes don't circle other planes with a murderous glint in their eyes whenever anybody curious enough steps forward to admire the jet more closely. There's a stack of specs and protocols in the back of Rei Fukai's personal file that's so censored that there's barely a straight sentence left, but what Jack can read makes his gut flip on its side again.
The last hope against an enemy who is faster than their fastest computers, who learns at an exponential speed. Jack's no cyberneticist, no psychiatrist, no anything this kind of project would require, but if they're shoving their top secret weapon on him in a way that almost screams, "Take it, for fuck's sake, take it," it means they've thrown everything they had at the problem, and still failed.
Taking a deep breath, Jack rakes a hand through his hair.
Up ahead, the kid is still circling, not in reach of anything to use as a weapon but you never know.
He should do something, Jack thinks, before Rei Fukai starts decorating the landing strip with the entrails of his ground crew.
Jack's mom used to run an animal shelter in Chicago before it was swallowed by the fireball that ate the rest of Illinois. She got all kinds — dogs, cats, a couple of rabbits, the occasional giant python — and through some miracle, she managed to get along with all of them. Other people called it a gift, his mom called it learning to speak the language, read the mood until she could reach safely between the bars and scritch behind an ear, check a muzzle for bad teeth.
Jack loved the dogs, and the cats, and the rabbits, but the day usually ended with him needing band-aids and maybe a tetanus shot, the lot of them too skittish and traumatized to do anything but bite and scratch. He never quite managed to get the feeling for them that his mom had, the patience and intuition, so the most he ended up helping out with was pushing the bowls of ground beef into the outdoor pound every day at ten and at five, with a long stick and jittery hands.
That's what he's doing now, minus the hands.
Now that everybody's understood that they're sharing hangar space with a lunatic, Rei Fukai has stopped pacing, turning to place his good palm against the cockpit, his cheek almost resting against the weld seams on the hull. Up close, he's even skinnier, the gray-green flight crew coveralls sagging on his frame, with a non-regulation belt that needed an extra two holes punched in to hold up anything at all. The file said it took three days to get him away from the jet, just so they could get it ready for transfer. Bless whoever thought of putting a lock-out code on the cockpit, Jack really doesn't want to think about what a kid that takes down people with a plastic fork would do with a pair of laser needle guns.
"Hi," Jack says, because it's the smallest possible word and he's not sure whether the kid will even hear, lost in communion with the plane.
He does. Tense, rigid, with a glare that could freeze blood, and Jack has to keep himself from taking an involuntary step back.
"Whoa, hey. I'm just here to say hello." Not off to a good start, when he has to justify walking around his own place. Technically, he's the kid's CO now, but if looking like a pushover keeps things from exploding, then hell, he's not that keen on the military alpha male crap.
Rei Fukai says nothing, but Jack thinks maybe, maybe the glare's getting downgraded from hostile to suspicious.
"I guess we'll be working together from now on. Not sure what they think this'll do; we're just the mechanics here. So unless the ouch is somewhere in there—" he gestures at the white expanse of jet, "—I don't know what we'll be able to fix."
Another venomous stare, the kid's fingers twitching against the surface of the plane as if to grab and throw something.
Jack sighs. "Hey, don't worry. Nobody here's touching your girl, you've made that clear. But if you could actually tell me what's wrong with either of you, that'd be a start. They gave me this—" He moves to wave at the file, realizes he's gesturing as if speaking to a gradeschooler, and redirects his hand to finally put his buttons in order, "—but damn if that says anything. So unless you're sworn to secrecy or something, I'd appreciate a few pointers here."
Still nothing. He's starting to wonder if the kid can even talk, if they didn't just get a mute as a lab rat because you can't hear them scream. Human-machine interface. It's the stuff he read about in cheap sci-fi magazines as a boy, and all the stories ended with eternal nightmares and mutant uprisings. Personality reconfiguration. That sort of thing. He has no idea if that's what's happening here.
"Look," Jack tries again, "I can call up the labs and get the dirt straight from them—" Wishful thinking at best, a blatant lie at worst, "—but I'd much rather hear it from you. They dumped you here, you know. You're part of the whole thing."
No answer, but Rei Fukai's hand has started fluttering along the hull, up and down, as if stroking a nervous pet.
"I'd say we go up to my office, but if you don't want to move, that's cool, too. I get being attached. Work with them long enough and you feel like they're part of you." He risks a glance around the hangar, the two dozen machines lined up there, half of them ready to get shot down again next week. "Breaks your heart, seeing them get beat up."
Goofy to put it that way, but it's the truth. A glance back at the kid reveals that Rei Fukai has tilted his head to the side, messy bangs sliding over a contemplative gaze.
"So, really, nobody here's going to do anything to make it worse. What do you say I grab us some more coffee, and a bagel, and then we can start tal—"
Evidently the wrong thing to say, because Rei Fukai is growling. Or rather, a part of Rei Fukai is growling. Rei Fukai himself is staring at that part with the kind of look that says he's forgotten he doesn't come with a built-in drop tank, that this is what happens to human beings when they spend three days exhausting themselves by trying to kill people with engine parts.
Perhaps it's not the best idea to laugh at a would-be psychopath, but there's something oddly endearing about the look of utter stunned bewilderment, like the kid isn't even sure how to go about fixing the problem.
In the depths of his uniform jacket, Jack's fingers hit upon the squashed granola bar that's been there for six weeks and two laundry sessions already. Tossing it to the kid, he grins. "I'm guessing we're agreed on those bagels. Don't run off while I grab them. Name's Jack, by the way."
He could have said 'Major Bukhar,' but hell, that's like trying to yank a mangy street dog to his heel. He'd rather stick to what'll keep his hands intact.
The kid still doesn't reply, examining the granola bar like its garish foil wrapping is holding some kind of arcane mystery. Shaking his head, Jack turns to get back up to the observation bay for a raid on the fridge and the coffee pot, waving the doubtful-looking flyboys back to their tasks. He's almost to the stairs by the time he catches the voice, so low and quiet it could have been swallowed by the clatter of a stray tool.
- Yeah, Yukikaze isn't white in the anime, but I thought for something called "Snow Wind," it had to have an appropriate color.
- Rei's age is really hard for me to gauge. He strikes me as 25-ish, but there's a lot of frames where he just looks really young.
Existential philosophy at the end of the world.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Super Sylph B-503 is a box of secrets with wings.
Jack knows that, doesn't need a file full of blackened out text to tell him that, doesn't need the cloak and dagger hand-me-down or the way the techies couldn't seem to get away from it fast enough, doesn't even need the half-mad Japanese kid — all he needs is to look, and listen, and see.
Whatever the rather loveless paintjob is hiding, it's not an ordinary titanium hull, because he can hear the echo of his footsteps fading the closer he gets, the material itself swallowing the sound. The weld seams, so neat and clean Jack is sure no precision laser in the world could have made them, the shape of the wings, slanted in the closest imitation of an albatross he's ever seen. They don't have the means to make wings like these, the fine structure meant to alternately cut or caress the air, or they would have made them years ago, and by the thousands — more difficult to control, but man, just thinking about this plane in flight is enough to make his heart beat faster. He's read all the stories, da Vinci's flying machines, the brothers Montgolfier, and Lilienthal, but now he knows that all the vehicles that resulted from their dreams are imitations, crude and unfinished, just means to get a chair into the sky.
When he looks at the Super Sylph, he thinks of Icarus, and how he had the right idea. Give a bird's wings to a man.
Someone on the design team must have thought the same, perhaps stood where Jack is standing now and stared with a certain kind of awe at the blueprints come to life, and only remembered at the last moment to slap a military project number on the only fitting name for such a plane — Sylph, the spirit of the air.
All of this only leaves the certainty that under normal circumstances, he wouldn't even have been allowed to catch a glimpse of it. Technically, he doesn't even know what the normal circumstances would have been.
Anti-JAM weapon is pretty much a given, because that's all anyone ever does these days. Drones, missiles, bombs. The JAM adapt, whether it's tactical nukes or kitchen sinks — nothing long-range that works for more than one hit, nothing short range that hits hard enough to stop a battle from turning into a massacre.
Anti-JAM weapon flown by a half-mad kid, not so much.
Rei Fukai has settled down on the left wing, cross-legged, nearly wolfing down Jack's bagels whole. He looks less mad when he does so, and more like some kind of feral child they picked up in some podunk town, friendless, motherless, godless. Barely capable of speech, nevermind manners, but even though he tears into the raisin cinnamons like they've got a neck to snap, there's hardly a crumb that gets spilled.
Jack's spent the last half hour inching closer to the jet, fully conscious that the food doesn't even qualify as a moment's distraction, that Rei Fukai or whatever is behind Rei Fukai's eyes is registering his every move, but has, for some unfathomable reason, decided not to try and kill him with the cellophane wraps.
Some part of him, the stupid part, is wishing he had the gun ready, even though he only takes it with him when he leaves the base. There's seven feet of electrified wire fence around the base, and enough soldiers with MPs, though the only thing to shoot out here are the on-and-off jittering vagrants, diseased and crazed like something out of a zombie movie.
A precaution, the higher-ups call it. Bullshit, Jack is tempted to call it, the illusion of security. He supposes he shouldn't begrudge them the rhetoric, though, when the truth is so hard to face.
Guns don't even dent the JAM, and guns won't help him negotiate a truce with Rei Fukai.
Right now, the only thing he's got going for himself is the fact that he knows the lockout code, and the kid doesn't. Rei, it seems, has surmised as much himself, following Jack's movements to see what he's going to do.
"So, where you from?"
A stupid thing to say, really, but the alternative is talking about how he's going to touch the plane now, just the wing, juuust the wing, he won't do anything else, and that just sounds ludicrous.
Rei regards him, head cocked to the left, food pushed into his right cheek, incomprehension written all over his face.
"Well, I'm from Chicago," Jack offers. "Back when it was still Chicago. You know, up north."
Can't be sure these days that people still know where Chicago used to be, or NYC, or anything. There's stretches along the East Coast they lost contact with sometime after year three, with holes were things used to be, with places like Colorado suddenly finding they have a couple of thousand inhabitants more than they thought they had, because telling anyone you're from Massachusetts is the fastest way to find yourself out of a job and out of friends. Nobody's sure what happened, because there are places on this Earth that just tend to go, but rumor has it one of the generals panicked, called in a tactical strike, and if there's one thing people are more afraid of than the JAM, it's radiation.
It's become the standard greeting, "Where you from?", even though everybody knows nobody's going to tell the truth if they can help it.
Rei has tilted his head to the other side, still wearing the same look of puzzlement. "Here."
"Really? You mean 'round here?" Jack's keeping the tone casually inquisitive, not too much, just a little in hopes of keeping a conversation going as he pats down the wing, feeling the foreign material under his fingertips. Rei doesn't look one bit like someone from around here, or anywhere, but why not? If any part of the world is going to produce a guy like that, it's probably this one.
"Just here," Rei repeats, shrugging, and hell, maybe that's it, maybe they grew him on base in a vat, who is Jack to be surprised at anything these days?
"I see. You're a test pilot, then?"
"You like that?"
"What do you do off the job, Rei?"
"Wait for what?"
"The next day." His eyes twitch over to the cockpit.
"Just that?" Grabbing a hold of the wing with both hands, Jack decides to go for it. It's not like Rei Fukai is the sort of guy who looks like he has a cool-down mode, something about him giving the impression of a human live wire, always tense, always on the lookout. He pushes himself off the little stepladder and onto the broad expanse of white, all the while aware that the five seconds of graceless dangling would give Rei ample time to leap across the hull.
He doesn't, though he's turned to face him, studying him with a keen interest that wasn't there before.
"You will open it?"
Eyes trained on the keycard at Jack's belt.
"Maybe," Jack says. "I'd rather you tell me what the deal is, here."
"You read my file."
"I did. But that might as well be Greek. C'mon, Rei, help me out here. That file says you're part of an interface. What does that mean?"
"I talk." He's picking at the bits of wrapping now, small, nervous jerks of his fingers.
"Yes. You won't open it?"
"Even if I did, I wouldn't be able to let you back in there if I don't know what's wrong," Jack says, resisting the urge to sigh, resisting the urge to feel creeped out at the realization that he could be anyone, that hell, maybe Rei isn't even seeing him, but just a talking parking meter with the keys to the jet he's willing to commit murder for. With one hand, he reaches out to scratch the back of his neck. It comes away damp.
"Do you know what's wrong, Rei?"
"No." A blatant lie, his gaze sliding once again to the cockpit.
"Who are you talking to?" Jack asks, and tries not to fiddle with the card. He's going to have to open up the plane at some point, but right now, that doesn't seem like such a good idea.
"Who are you talking to, Rei?"
"...yukikaze," the kid murmurs, and at first Jack thinks he's talking gibberish now, the syllables thick and foreign.
"...What is yukikaze?" he repeats, tripping over the strange sounds.
A smile, so faint that he could take a picture of it and it wouldn't appear in pixels, like the question is stupid, like Jack couldn't understand it if he tried.
Was meant to be longer, didn't want to be. Ah, well. Next up: Jack takes a crash course in Japanese, and yells at people a lot.