“A little bit higher… bit more… okay here.” Sergio said as he and Nikki lifted the Raptor’s new flap in place. He slid the bolt into its hinge on his side while Nikki did the other one.
Corolla looked down from where she was standing on the wing. “Okay, rotate it downwards a little so I can connect the actuator.”
Nikki raised an eyebrow, but did as she was asked. “Shouldn’t we finish tightening the nuts on the bolts first?”
“No, it is better to check if this flap moves freely first. If it doesn’t, we’re taking it off again and we’re also in trouble because we don’t have another one.” Corolla scratched the back of her head. “Good thing I already had the technical specs from when I worked on it at DoSAT, because I doubt the USAF guys at Kadena are sharing.”
“No, they aren’t,” Johnson said from behind Sergio. “In fact, I tried contacting the remaining USAF forces to see if we could find an arrangement for spare parts, and their answer was basically, ‘No, you’re not even supposed to have a Raptor in the first place’. In fact, they expressed a desire for us to turn it in to them.”
“And you told them to forget it, right? It’s not even a Strike Dove asset, it’s mine. And it was Osean before, not even American.”
Johnson laughed. “That’s what I told them. The Raptor is the prized personal plane of my top ace, and they’re gonna need to pry it off his dead hands if they really want it. Since you shot down two Flappers with it while none of their pilots could even land hits on them, I don’t think they’re gonna try to intercept us to get it by force.”
“Really? But Nikki also managed to shoot one down. I don’t think their pilots can be that shabby, neither of us is really a professional pilot.”
“What can I say? It seems you’re both naturals. And, to be fair, none of the Raptors from Kadena Air Base were anywhere near to the action. The USAF planes that got involved were mostly F-16CJ Falcons from Misawa and, as I’ve said, while they did down some bombers and Fishbeds they didn’t get any Flapper down.”
Nikki let the flap go. “Did they take any casualties?
“Unfortunately, yes. And the JADSF did, as well. Fifteen aircraft in total, with the loss of three pilots. But, considering the odds, it could’ve been much worse. We’re lucky that the Belkans didn’t have many Flappers in this fight. However, that’s not the reason I’m here. We’ve found a mission controller for our AWACS aircraft, and I thought it would’ve been nice if we welcomed him all together.”
✈ ✈ ✈
Hajime peeked into the Wave Gundam’s cockpit, where Hiro was scrolling through several holographic tabs. “So, what can you tell us about it?”
“Well, it’s called a Gundam, it looks like one, and the manual control systems seem to be largely the same as that of Mobile Suits from my universe, but that’s pretty much where all similarities end.”
Hiro pointed at one of the tabs, and Hajime leaned forward to look into it. It was labeled “Minotaur Drive System”, and it showed a central component called “Minovsky Ultracompact Fusion Reactor” and two conical ones called “GN Tau Drives.”
“It apparently uses some kind of compact fusion reaction as the primary energy source, which is impressive by itself. Even the original Destiny Gundam just had a fission reactor as the core of its Hyper-Deuterion Engine, and my version uses batteries as nuclear-powered weapons are actually forbidden in my world.”
“Hmm… You’re from the Cosmic Era continuity, aren’t you?”
“That’s what Commander Yagami called my universe, yes.”
Hajime nodded. “Okay, that’s why it looks so impressive to you. It’s actually pretty common tech in the Universal Century continuity.”
“Fair enough. I still don’t have the faintest idea of what these GN Tau Drives are though.”
“Oh, they’re from yet another continuity! The Anno Domini one, I think. From what I remember, they’re powerful drives but require a lot of electricity… which the Minovsky reactor provides, I think?”
Hiro shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. I’m sorry, I hoped I could be a better help.”
Keiko poked her head in. “Well, this sounds exactly like the complicated sort of thing Auntie Corolla would do. I guess we should really wait for her to come back, and hope she had actually designed the thing already in 2014.”
✈ ✈ ✈
Sergio sat down in a little conference room. Johnson had assembled everyone there, and was now standing next to a blonde man wearing an Osean Air Defense Forces uniform. He was somewhat chubby, and had a very pleasant smile.
“Everyone, this is Major Albert Ramsay of the Osean Air Defense Forces,” Johnson introduced. “He was rescued by the Japanese after his E-767 crashed due to turbulence caused by the Unravel. As there is no Osean command for him to get back to, he expressed a desire to join us as we are currently employing other former OADF personnel. He will be the mission controller on our E-767 AWACS aircraft, with callsign Long Caster.”
“I’m looking forward to working with you guys,” Albert said. “I’ve been told there are some excellent pilots among you, and I can’t wait to see what you can bring to the table.”
“I’m sure you will be pleasantly surprised. Here in the front row we have Captain Sergio Turbo, and next to him First Lieutenant Nikki Cherryflower. I think you’ve already followed their exploits this morning, they were Skystreaker One and Four. Then we have Lieutenant Ami Tanegashima, our liaison officer with the TSAB, who is currently flying as Skystreaker Two, and First Lieutenant Corolla, Skystreaker Three…”
✈ ✈ ✈
Kathleen walked over to Sergio as soon as he bent over to tighten up his shoestrings. Loosening them was quite an easy trick, but it did buy her enough time to let everyone else leave the room. She tugged at his sleeve as soon as he was done.
“Hm? What is it?”
“I…” Kathleen took a deep breath, but she felt her resolve vaning. “It’s nothing, forget it.”
Sergio gave a quick glance around, as if to make sure they were indeed alone. “I doubt it’s nothing. Come on, I’ll listen.”
Kathleen shook her head. “It’s probably stupid anyways.”
“Does anything else make sense right now?”
“Ok, fine. I thought that I keep treating you like my world’s Sergio and maybe it’s not fair to you.”
Sergio chuckled. “Well, of course it isn’t. I didn’t chase you to the end of the world. Though I probably would’ve done the same back then. I really could only sort people into black and white, when the world’s really mostly gray. And I’m definitely not a shining white knight myself.”
“So you won’t tell everyone what we did?”
“I’ll keep that to myself, yeah.” Sergio’s face turned to a stern expression. “Don’t get me wrong though, I don’t approve of what you did at all. But things haven’t gone any better in my timeline, so your ‘lesser of two evils’ attitude might’ve had some basis after all.”
“We wouldn’t do that if it wasn’t necessary, you know.”
“On that, I’m afraid I’m in no place to judge. I don’t know how many differences there were between your timeline and mine, and what little I know is from that weird dream Nikki and I had which frankly could be inaccurate or even just coincidence.”
“Oh, right. You mentioned seeing what happened in a dream. So the other me gave you a copy of our powers as well.”
“No idea. Frankly, I would be surprised. I’ve never been able to make any use of it, and now not only it gave me a vision of another world, but also allowed Nikki to have it as well?”
“She always had dream vision.”
“Point. She inherited that from Sakura. Anyways, we didn’t tell that dream to anyone, so we’re the only two who know about this thing in detail. Ami probably knows something as she was with us when we found you in that base, but I trust she’s not going to act on it. She isn’t the kind of person to do things behind the other’s back.”
Kathleen nodded. “Maybe you’re okay after all, bro.”
“Just keep in mind that you’re kind of on probation for me. Next time you get some weird ideas, talk with us before setting it in motion, alright?”
“Fine.” She mouthed “boring” under her breath. “Anyways, you’ll have to get in the line if you ever want to scold me. Faith’s already got the first ticket.”
✈ ✈ ✈
Ai shut down her holographic PDA. “Everything has been loaded on the E-767, and all of its crew and passengers have boarded as well. Well, Commander Yagami and me aside.”
“Good.” Johnson nodded. “I think we can all board our planes as well. Commander Yagami, we’re ready to depart as soon as you want.”
“Let’s go, then. People are waiting for us back at Sand Island.”
“By the way, I’ve received a message from them,” Ai said. “Two agents from the Protectors of the Plot Continuum followed First Lieutenant Corolla’s beacon.”
Corolla jumped in front of her, fists pumped and a beaming expression on her face. “I knew it would work! Who are they?”
“The message doesn’t say their names. But it says they’re from 2035, so I’m afraid you might not know them anyways.”
Johnson rubbed his chin. “2035? That’s much further than any of us.”
“Well, the guys from Macross come from the 2060s. Anyway, it’s no use thinking about that now. The sooner we go, the sooner we’ll meet them!”
✈ ✈ ✈
Hayate walked towards Albert’s console. “Can I borrow that for a minute? Since we have some time until we get to Sand Island, I thought I could start explaining the terms of our contract to everyone.”
Albert nodded. “Of course, ma’am. I’ll turn on the speakers, and also patch you through our radio channel.”
He offered her a headset. She then turned towards the passengers of the E-767. “This is Long Arch Zero Zero. Can everyone hear me?”
“Skystreaker Leader, loud and clear.”
The passengers of the plane nodded. The other Skystreaker pilots confirmed.
“As you know, we all got hired by the JSDF to help their defensive efforts against Belka. Which, well, isn’t exactly my Belka, but apparently the Ace Combat one means trouble all the same. As such, the Wolfram and her crew are officially contracted to the Japanese government, with Strike Dove officially being our subcontracted air wing. But that’s just the paperwork, we’re all in this together.”
“Does this mean that we’re moving out of that island?” Kathleen asked. “It’s a nice island, alright, but there’s nothing on it.”
“Not for now. It is in a good strategic position, so the JSDF wants to keep a presence there. Besides, the Wolfram isn’t ready to fly yet.”
Kathleen puffed her cheeks and muttered something. Hayate couldn’t blame her; Sand Island was just a military airbase and had nothing to offer to a teenager.
“Rest assured that we’re trying to set up an air lift between the Japanese mainland and Sand Island. This will allow supplies to fly in, but also for anyone to be able to enjoy a leave in Japan if the situation allows for it. You’ll get more shopping opportunities.” Hayate winked. “Don’t worry, I’m not considering that an infraction. Colonel Johnson filed those expenses under the Strike Dove budget.”
“They’re under “expenses for maintaining personnel morale”. Besides, I can’t blame any of you for wanting to have something else to wear outside uniforms and flight suits. We’ve lost everything, and I’m pretty sure the money we got for the signup was indeed meant to cover that kind of expense as well.” Johnson sighed. “Next time, though, you should ask instead of swiping the credit card out of my hand.”
Hayate giggled. Johnson’s family and friends were a nice bunch to have around.
“As per our assignments, we’re tasked with keeping an eye in our sector for enemy activity in the Sand Island area, and we’ll also be on speedcall for when the Japanese forces need support for offensive operations.”
“Offensive operations?” Nikki asked. “I thought the JSDF wasn’t allowed to do that?”
“In normal conditions, no,” Johnson said. “But apparently there are Japanese settlements that ended up materializing in this world far from the Japanese mainland, so it is likely there will be operations to keep Belkan forces away from them. Also, there are apparently some other countries that are being attacked by Belka, so we might also have to intervene in their aid.”
“Anyway, as much as fighting in a war is not going to be nice, Japan is home to many of us.” Hayate continued. “I intend to do everything I can to help defend my country, and I’m sure all of you think the same. Even if many of you come from other nations, this version of Japan will likely be our new home. So–”
“Just a second, ma’am. This is AWACS Long Caster of Strike Dove Incorporated. I didn’t get your message in full, please repeat.”
“Long Caster, this is AWACS Galaxy of Sicario Mercenary Corps. We have received intel about the possibility of a wanted criminal being onboard your plane, so I’m afraid you need to follow us to the nearest Japanese airfield.”
Albert gave an interrogative glance to Hayate, who shook her head no. She quickly opened up a holographic window with “Warrant?” written on it.
“Long Caster to Galaxy, I’m afraid I cannot comply with your request unless you can show me proof of a proper warrant for any of this aircraft’s occupants.”
Galaxy sighed. “Please, don’t make this more difficult than it already is. We’ve been asked by Interpol to escort you guys back, we don’t have the paperwork yet but it’s on the way. By the time we’re at Naha you’ll have everything. Just trust us for now. If Interpol is wrong, I’ll make sure all of us get compensated for the wasted time and fuel.”
“I’m sorry, unless you can send us some actual documents we cannot trust you on this. We’re not changing course.”
Hayate could feel that the atmosphere in the aircraft was getting tense. Kathleen and Faith hugged and whispered something to each other.
Those two girls must be terrified. They nearly got kidnapped just a few days ago, after all.
“Long Caster, we’re authorized to use force if you don’t comply.”
“Skystreaker Leader to Galaxy, I can assure you none of my boys and girls here is a criminal. We’ve already had another idiotic AWACS operator accusing them falsely so, unless you can show proper proof, Golf Tango Foxtrot Oscar.”
“Galaxy to Skystreaker Squadron and Long Caster. This is your last warning. Follow us, or we’ll be forced to engage. Please, don’t make us do it.”
Hayate bit her lip. She didn’t want a confrontation, but for all she knew Sicario could be actually Belkan agents having covertly infiltrated the JSDF contractor auditions – just like Grabacr had posed as an Osean squadron.
She couldn’t trust them like that, especially without anything backing their claims, but she couldn’t risk a blue-on-blue accident either, especially after mere hours of signing the contract.
What should I do?
Johnson sighed. “Skystreaker Leader to Skystreaker Squadron, we’re forming a defensive perimeter around Long Caster. AWACS Galaxy, engage us if you want, but I can assure you we’ll send you to the bottom of the sea if you do.”
✈ ✈ ✈
Ami circled around Long Caster’s E-767, keeping her eyes open for unknown aircraft.
Why was this happening? Why them?
Unless… Could it be something about Sergio’s sister? They quarrelled about something very bad she apparently did when we rescued her.
“Long Caster to Skystreaker Squadron, bogeys closing from bearing 047. Four aircraft.”
“Skystreaker Leader, copy. We’re moving to intercept them.”
She positioned her aircraft on the right of Corolla’s Raptor as they formed up to intercept the other formation.
“Skystreaker Leader to Robogirl, can you get us any intel on them?”
“On it. They’re transmitting a valid IFF code, so they’ll show up as friendly. Formation name Hitman Team… yep, they’re with Sicario all right.”
“A Tomcat, an Eagle, a Fulcrum, and a Tornado. Looks like we aren’t the only ones who had to scrounge around for usable aircraft. Anyways, we should have no trouble engaging them.”
“Alright. Skystreaker Leader to AWACS Galaxy and Hitman Team. Last chance of leaving us alone before the gloves are off.”
“Galaxy to Hitman Team, engage.”
The missile alert on Ami’s Eagle started blaring, and she turned hard right to avoid being hit.
“Skystreaker Leader to Long Caster. Looks like they aren’t shooting blanks at us.”
“I saw. Sending new IFF data. Show them they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.”
The blue HITMAN squares on the HUD changed to green, and Ami selected her SAAMs. The tracking circle appeared on the HUD, and she manoeuvred to get it on the Tornado, firing as soon as she got a lock.
Ami manoeuvred to keep the Tornado in the circle as the missile traveled. That was the tradeoff with SAAMs, they were deadly accurate at long ranges but required constant illumination to the target by her aircraft’s radar.
As soon as the missile got close, the Tornado turned left sharply, getting just outside the circle in the nick of time. The missile lost track and flew off straight forward.
She turned left, trying to get another lock, just for the Tornado to slow down while performing a barrel roll to the right. Before she realized it, she was the one being chased instead.
Ami pulled the stick as hard as she could to dodge a burst of cannon fire. That manoeuver, I saw it already!
✈ ✈ ✈
Sergio rolled right, trying to follow Hitman Team’s lead aircraft. The Tomcat kept manoeuvring sharply, foiling all his attempts to get a proper lock-on.
The square on the HUD became red again, but the Tomcat was already angled almost perpendicularly to Sergio’s Raptor. Too much angle for standard missiles and XMAAs.
I won’t ever bother firing a missile now. It’s going to miss. Damn, this guy is good. He’s in an old Tomcat, I’ve got a Raptor, and I can’t get a good lock.
He went full afterburner to get closer, trying to get the gunsight on the Tomcat. If missiles weren’t going to work, it was time to go the old fashioned way.
He fired a couple bursts but each time the Tomcat rolled out of the way. A third only managed to score a couple glancing hits on one of the engines.
He could really use some help, but Nikki was busy with the Fulcrum, Corolla with the Eagle and Johnson was trying to get the Tornado off Ami’s tail.
The Tomcat began another turn, only to suddenly pitch up with its airbrakes open. Sergio eased the throttle, but it was too late – the Tomcat was now on his tail.
This isn’t going well. These aren’t Belkan conscripts. They fly better than Grabacr for sure.
✈ ✈ ✈
Ami gritted her teeth as the entire aircraft shook. Alarms went off in the cockpit and the plane lost thrust. The indicators of the left engine plummeted, the missile had put it out of commission.
No, no, no! I don’t want to die again!
“Skystreaker Leader to Comet, resist. I’m on the tail of your bogey.”
“Please make it quick, I’ve lost an engine! If he gets another hit in, I’m toast!”
She kept weaving, the missile lock warning lost in the middle of beeps and chimes going off.
“Long Caster to Skystreaker Squadron, stand down. Repeat: stand down. Galaxy managed to scrounge up their warrant. It’s not good. Legit, but it’s something pretty hard to swallow.”
The missile warning ceased. Everything else was still blaring, though.
“Copy. Skystreaker Squadron, breaking off engagement. Hitman Team seems to be doing the same.”
✈ ✈ ✈
“Galaxy to Hitman Team, damage report.”
“Diplomat, alive. Got some shrapnel from one of their F/S-15s, but it doesn’t seem like anything important has been damaged.”
“Comic, I’m OK. I managed to fend off one of their VX-23s.”
“Cuirassier, no damage. I got a good hit on one of their Eagles, too. Also, that’s a FB-22, not a VX-23.”
“Again with your weird names? Though I admit that their VX-23s have some weird wings.”
“Galaxy to Hitman 1, I haven’t heard your report.”
“Prez here. Sorry, but I needed a minute to get my bearings. Their other VX-23 really pushed Monarch hard, I think he even got a couple gun hits in. I’m not sure, I’ve almost passed out, and that says a lot.”
✈ ✈ ✈
Sergio formed up on Johnson as they headed back towards Long Caster’s E-767. “So, what the hell is going on?”
As much as he tried to not show it through his voice, his stomach was filled with dread. He knew who they were after.
Someone else knows about what Kathleen did. But who? I didn’t tell anyone, and both Nikki and Ami wouldn’t.
“Long Caster to Lightning. Interpol sent their data, Sicario’s intel was solid. Kathleen Leone was apparently wanted in her universe.”
“My granddaughter?” Johnson’s voice was filled with disbelief. “For what?”
“The destruction of an entire city, and the resultant mass murder of its inhabitants.”
Sergio leaned back on his seat. The cat was out of the bag.
“What’s her say on the matter?” Johnson asked.
“She isn’t denying it.”
“Open me a private channel to her. Now.”
✈ ✈ ✈
“… And that’s all we know, really,” Sergio finished explaining to Ami and Corolla through CODEC. “Looks like this world got the same Interpol out of Kathleen’s timeline, or at least some of their paperwork.”
“Ok, that was a pretty drastic solution,” Corolla said. “But the situation can be saved, I think. I might try hacking into the avionics of Sicario’s aircraft, disable them so we can blast them up without them even realizing it, and then we go make a little night time visit to the Interpol’s local headquarters and make a few reports disappear.”
“No, we can’t afford the risk to make this a bigger mess than it already is. Not with a war on our doorstep. All we can do is to leave this to Gramps and Hayate.”
He glanced at Sicario’s formation, which had been joined by their AWACS, flying an E-737. “Besides, those guys are better than I thought. I don’t want to risk fighting them again, this is a battle we might not win.”
He turned the other way, his stare fixed to the smoke trailing from Ami’s Eagle. “We haven’t got any solid hits on them, while we almost lost one of ours.”
“Speaking of that,” Ami said. “The way the Tornado moved, it creeped me out.”
“It flies the same way you do, down to your opposite roll counter!”
✈ ✈ ✈
Kathleen went back to her seat. It had taken less than expected for her castle of lies to fall apart.
“He’s angry, but he will calm down. The other Grandpa did.” Kathleen sat down and smiled, but her heart was filled with dread.
“Who told… ”
Kathleen shook her head. “It’s him. I can feel he’s here. He found me.”
Kathleen looked back at the pier as the boat departed. Someone ran towards it.
Just in time.
“Too slow! This world will end before you’ll be able to catch me!”
As much as she hated his obsession, getting him riled up was one of the few things she could have fun with.
“If I can’t arrest you in this one, I’ll do it in the next!”
“He’s keeping up that promise. I gotta give him that.”
✈ ✈ ✈
Sergio squinted to have a better look at the Tornado’s tail. While the Tomcat he chased had a crown, or a butterfly, or whatever that was, the Tornado’s insignia was clearly different.
A yellow lightning bolt occupied the centre of the vertical tail. He gulped. Well, unless Despatch decided to get some fighters, this is gonna be weird.
✈ ✈ ✈
Hajime rocked back and forth on her bed, hugging a notepad. “They all agreed to give me autographs!”
“And they were very confused by your request. Neither the Razgriz nor Nanoha and Fate are used to being celebrities… not yet when they got plucked from their universes, at least.” Keiko sighed. “Besides, I agree movieverse Nanoha and Fate are absolutely adorable, but I shouldn’t have had to physically restrain you from glomping them.”
“I wasn’t going to glomp them! I just wanted to shake hands, and get their autographs.”
“Your face said otherwise.”
Hajime opened her mouth for a retort, but what she said was drowned out by the roar of approaching jet engines.
Keiko peeked out from the blinds. A plane was landing, a tailless fighter painted in a light blue digital camo scheme. “That’s Auntie’s plane, I’m sure! Let’s go!”
“How do we approach them, though?”
✈ ✈ ✈
Sergio walked towards the E-767 at a steady pace, opening his Beretta’s holster at the same time. If his hunch was right, Kathleen was going to need an armed escort off the plane.
There was a group of people near the aircraft. A guy roughly the same height and build as him, with dark brown hair, was keeping Kathleen at gunpoint.
Sometimes I hate being right.
“Cuirassier, stand down,” The man next to him said. From the voice, it was the mission controller form Sicario’s AWACS. “We need to discuss custody of her with Strike Dove Incorporated’s command first.”
“No. She evaded arrest for two years, I’m not taking chances. I’m gonna handcuff her, and not take my eyes off her until we throw her on board your plane.”
Sergio aimed his Beretta at him. “What about you drop that stupid laser gun instead?”
The guy turned around. “Who are you?”
“You, but older and wiser.”
✈ ✈ ✈
“Basically, what we’re saying is that the documentation you have on the case is incomplete,” Hayate explained. “It was ruled in May 2009 that the actions taken by Kathleen Leone and her accomplices were, if reprehensible, the only viable choice to prevent a bigger tragedy from happening at the time. In fact, we have testimony from an alternate timeline in which failure to act on the Organization’s threat caused a world war with an estimated 95 million deaths.”
Sergio leaned against the wall of the conference room where Kathleen’s case was being discussed. He couldn’t help but be amazed by Hayate’s confidence. She, alongside Johnson and Virgilia, had about an hour to plan a response on Sicario’s warrant, and yet she was rolling in stride. They had even convinced AWACS Galaxy’s operator and acting leader of the remaining Sicario forces, Dominic Zaitsev, to have the meeting on Sand Island instead of Naha by offering free repairs and fuel for their aircraft.
No wonder they accepted. If they’re down to an AWACS and a four aircraft squadron, one of which was recruited here in this leftover world, they must have it really rough.
“If that’s the case, it changes a lot of things. Do you have proof of what you’re saying? We cannot tell Interpol that we let her go just on your word. Especially since we really need to get paid for this job.”
“Unfortunately, we don’t have any documents backing us,” Sergio admitted. “But I think I know who has them. Right, Cuirassier? Or should I say, Interpol Special Investigator Sergio Turbo?”
He took a couple steps towards Cuirassier, and held his hand out. “Your phone. I used to keep all the documents about my cases on it, and I’m pretty sure you do the same.”
Cuirassier winced, but did as Sergio asked.
“Let’s see.” Sergio flipped the phone open and navigated through the files. He opened the relevant one and slid the phone on the table towards Zaitsev.
“That’s…” Zaitsev scrolled down. “This last part wasn’t in Interpol’s warrant. Cuirassier, I think you owe me an explanation. Especially since “Sergio Turbo” is not the name I’ve got on your contract.”
“Kathleen would’ve gotten away scot-free otherwise. I’m not going to allow that to happen!”
“Let me guess, you provided this world’s Japanese detachment of Interpol with only part of the data so they would deem Kathleen dangerous, and then joined Sicario undercover with a fake name to be able to conduct the arrest yourself at the earliest opportunity without giving yourself out. I don’t know what happened in your book, but in mine you’re out of line.” Sergio gritted his teeth. His alternate was so desperate in apprehending his sister, he manipulated both Interpol and Sicario into doing his bidding.
Cuirassier stared back at him, teeth bared. Sergio could clearly see the hatred in his eyes, the same of a caged beast clawing at the bars of its prison.
This isn’t me. Not anymore. What the hell did this guy become?
“As you can guess that’s why we said there are no criminals among us,” Johnson said. “Kathleen Leone had actually been released from her charges.”
“Even resisting arrest?”
“Well, not that one,” Hayate conceded. “That’s why she is currently under probationary employment with the Time-Space Administration Bureau.”
“She’s basically working off her crimes by doing military service,” Sergio explained. “Tossing her behind bars won’t bring back the people she sacrificed. But working with the TSAB means she can at least save other lives. I think it’s a better solution, don’t you agree?”
Cuirassier’s face, though, expressed mostly defeat.
✈ ✈ ✈
Corolla screwed in the last screw of a panel on Hitman One’s F-14D. Or F/D-14, as they called it. They likely came from a game that didn’t have official licenses for the aircraft, but at least it was similar enough to an actual Tomcat that their spare parts fit.
Prez set the electric screwdriver down on a cart. “Well, I guess I should thank you. We were shooting each other just one hour ago, and yet you’re helping us fix our aircraft.”
“Don’t worry, it was just a big misunderstanding! But since our bosses are going to take a while sorting everything out, what about giving me a hand with replacing the engine on Eagle 009? Y’know, the one that was shot up by your younger and angrier version of Sergio.”
“Sergio, so that’s his name? He punched in as Keith Camardella or something. Not that it really matters, we try to not use names unless we really have to. He’s Cuirassier to us.”
“I wonder why he did that.”
Prez shrug. “Don’t ask me. I’ve only known the guy for, what, two weeks? And he mostly keeps to himself. The only one who gets any words out of Cuirassier when we’re not flying is Princess. They’re kinda cute together.”
“Princess. I guess she’s your Nikki?”
“She claimed her name was Hanami Fujimoto, but I really shouldn’t get surprised at anything anymore. I don’t know if our world was a videogame in yours too, but let’s say we escaped the end of the world there just to witness that of the universe right afterwards.”
✈ ✈ ✈
Nikki sat next to Hanami. The girl was drinking from a small bottle of apple juice, her shoulders sunken. She was roughly as tall as her, but her posture made her look smaller. Then again, if her math was right, she couldn’t be any older than fifteen.
“Your name is Hanami, right?”
“Not really. Se–Cuirassier said we had to give ourselves new names while at Sicario, so that Kathleen couldn’t track us down. Or something. I’m still Sakura, like you?”
Nikki bit her lip. That girl likely was not aware that the real Sakura was a different individual from them both. “Actually, my name is Nikki. Nikki Cherryflower.”
Hanami gave her a confused look.
“It’s a bit complicated to explain, but there’s several of us around. And apparently neither of us is the original.” Nikki smiled to reassure her. “I met her yesterday, actually, but I’ve known about her for a while. So I changed my name to avoid confusion.”
“Do you think I’d have to do the same?”
“I think it would be for the best, yes. Besides, Hanami is cute. I like that name.”
“Is something the matter?”
“It’s been hard. I’ve got only Sergio left, but lately he’s changed. He only thinks about catching Kath, and he’s more aggressive than he used to be.” Hanami rolled the bottle between her fingers. “I’ve tried to tell him to let her go, that we can’t spend our lives chasing after her. It’s been two years already, but even when we found ourselves in this world he didn’t listen. He had no reason to believe she was here at all, but he kept looking.”
Nikki couldn’t believe a word of what she had heard. Sure, the Sergio she knew could be stubborn, but that wasn’t stubbornness. That was an outright obsession.
“Well, Kathleen has to do TSAB service now. So, in a way, she’s already been caught?”
“I guess. Maybe things will be back to what they used to be now…”
“Perhaps. But he’ll need time, if he’s anything like my Sergio.”
✈ ✈ ✈
“I’m not happy with this probationary service thing.” Kathleen walked down a corridor along Faith. “I’m not military.”
“I know. But, please, bear with it. As long as it keeps you safe.”
Kathleen shrugged. Her world’s Sergio appeared from the other side of the corridor. Faith put herself between them defensively, but he just glared at them as he walked past.
“He doesn’t seem satisfied with the arrangement either,” Faith said. “But he has to be insane to try anything now.”
“He is insane.”
“It would be suicide. As much as he wants to see you in prison, I don’t think he’s stupid enough to risk his life for it.”
They reached the pilot’s lobby. Sicario’s leader was there, speaking with Johnson and Hayate. Sergio was brewing some coffee. Both Nikki and Sakura were there as well; Sakura was sitting on one of the couches, while Nikki was using the lobby’s phone.
“Oh, here she is,” Hayate said. “Interpol agreed on our terms, so it is official now. Petty Officer Leone, you’ll be continuing your probationary employment with TSAB, with no variations.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” What’s a petty officer? Sounds rude. “So it’s over? They’re leaving me alone?”
“For as much as we’re concerned, Sicario is done here,” Zaitsev said. “We found the person Interpol asked us to find, Interpol made their decisions about her, the contract is done, we’re getting paid. It’s simply business. I hope there are no hard feelings?”
“I wish we could’ve sorted it out before trying to shoot each other down, but accidents happen,” Johnson said. “However, as a gesture of goodwill, you’re welcome to stay over the night if your aircraft need more time for the repairs.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I think our F/D-14 and MG-29 should be fine by now, and we really need to get to Naha to make the down payment for hangar space rent before someone else beats us to the spot. Besides, it looks like we have to sort out some other things as well.” Zaitsev turned towards Sakura. “She and her friend applied with fake documents, so we’re not very keen on having them around, especially since it turned out she’s only fifteen. On top of that, her friend is in hot waters with Interpol as well. Aside from the documents he withheld, it seems that he didn’t bother getting permission for his little undercover operation either.”
“Speaking of them,” Nikki said. “I just finished talking with my parents. They’re willing to take in Hanami. That’s how we should keep calling her, by the way. Both Sakura and Nikki are taken, I’m afraid. They live in a town near Tokyo, so it would be nice if you could bring her there.”
Zaitsev nodded. “That’s not going to be a problem, we’re going to drop her friend in Tokyo anyway. His higher ups there want to question him. I’m not going to be surprised if he loses his badge.”
Kathleen couldn’t believe her ears. It was over again, but this time, she hoped, for good.
✈ ✈ ✈
Corolla helped Prez attach the tow bar to Sicario’s F/D-14. “So you’re going already? What a shame. I liked working with you, you’re pretty good.”
“To be fair, my main occupation at Sicario’s is crew chief, not weapon system operator. I just happen to be the only one who can do backseat for Monarch without puking or passing out in minutes. But, hey, I don’t mind. With Monarch, cash rolls in like a printing machine. I wish I still had someone to send it to, though.”
“I know. Everyone lost people here, but we have to keep on going for them too!”
“Well, maybe they’re still in this world somewhere,” said a young female voice behind Corolla. “We just found our family, to be fair.”
Corolla turned around to find two teenager girls with dark brown hair. The taller one wore it in twintails, and both were wearing black jackets with PPC flash patches. “You must be the two PPC agents who arrived yesterday. Maybe you knew me already, since you come from the future, but I don’t yet so nice to meet you!”
“Yes, we know you,” The taller one said. “It’s nice to see you’ve made it here, Auntie–” She covered her mouth with her hands. “Whoops.”
Corolla wasn’t against young agents calling her auntie, in fact she encouraged them to do so, but the fact she tried to stop herself was suspicious.
Let’s see: dark brown hair, pretty tall for an Asian girl, and those green eyes are very familiar. Could it be… Yes, it must be!
“I can’t believe it! You’re Sergio and Nikki’s daughter!”
“How did you…? Well yeah, busted. Keiko Caterina Turbo, Department of Floaters, Special Operations Division, at your service.”
“Did you introduce yourself to your parents?”
“Not yet. Apparently, there’s two versions of Dad and two of Mom running around here right now, so I’d like to be able to narrow down which ones are my parents first, if any. Things are already weird as it is.”
“I can understand. Who’s your friend, by the way?
“We’re still kinda figuring it out. I mean, she knows very well who she is, but we’re still figuring out what we are to each other.”
Corolla gave the other girl an interrogatory glance. She was shorter, with bright purple eyes, and her hair was the same shade of brown as Keiko’s.
“My name is Hajime Irene Turbo.”
“Oh, so you must be related. Keiko, don’t tell me she’s your daughter-from-the-future?”
“I’m afraid not. It would actually make things less weird. She’s–”
Corolla covered her ears. “No, don’t tell me! I want to guess. Let’s see…”
Surely she’s related to Sergio, the hair color and surname say so. However, if she was Nikki’s daughter it would make no sense for her to have purple eyes. In fact, even her face resembles more that of…
“You’re Sergio and Ami’s daughter?”
“We’re not from the same timeline, by the way,” Keiko added. “And, since we’re born the same day, we might not be step-sisters but alternates of each other. Or something. We’re calling each other sis and calling it a day for now.”
Prez pointed at Galaxy’s plane. “I have some things to discuss with my boss. I’ll be over there if you need me.”
Corolla couldn’t blame her. It was a lot of weird in one sitting even for her standards.
✈ ✈ ✈
Sergio stared at the two girls. His daughters. From two different future timelines.
“So?” Corolla asked. “What do you have to say now that you’re a father?”
“Well let’s put it in a simple way: Keiko is from the Nikki route, Hajime is from the Ami route, and this means we’re playing the New Game Plus right now!”
Sergio glanced at the two mothers. Nikki looked as confused as he was, opening and closing her mouth as if she was unable to find something to say. Ami was covering her face with her hands, what little could be seen of her cheeks was tomato red.
I’m not getting any help there.
“Corolla, what I meant is I don’t think anyone here has the faintest idea of how to deal with this.”
“Well, it’s simple. I don’t think you want either of your daughters to have a broken family. Nikki and Ami both like you, we’re in a New Game Plus, this means only one thing.” Corolla made a wide smile. “The harem route is unlocked!”
Sergio facepalmed. “You can’t be serious.”
“As a matter of fact, I never am. But I don’t really see any other solution here.”
Sergio turned towards Kathleen. He couldn’t believe he was resorting to her of all people, but his options were running out. “Help?”
“I’m flabbergasted. The fact that you have one daughter is already a miracle, but two from two different mothers?” Kathleen whistled. “I don’t see anything wrong in a poly family, by the way.”
“You’re not helping!”
Kathleen walked over to the two girls and hugged their shoulders. “Don’t worry, cool aunt Kathleen will take care of you until they manage to reboot. Which will take a while, I’m afraid.”
“Hey, give our parents a bit more credit,” Keiko said. “They’re idiots sometimes, but they’re good parents.”
✈ ✈ ✈
Prez checked the radar. It was all clear, but it wasn’t like she expected any enemy aircraft to pop up. Especially since Galaxy would see them before she did.
“So… Out of curiosity, Galaxy,” Comic said, transmitting on their secondary frequency. The one they didn’t tell yet to Keith, or Sergio, or whatever was his name. “Why are we still letting Cuirassier fly the Tornado? I thought we were giving him the boot.”
“We need to bring that thing home, and the alternative would be letting Prez fly it. I’m not sure you want that.”
“… I’m afraid you’ve got a point.”
“Fuck you guys. I might not be as good as you in a dogfight, but I can bring a bird home.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll get your chance. The leg between Tokyo and Naha is yours. Besides, until we are over the Japanese mainland I think it is better if we have you handle Monarch’s weapon system if any Belkan plane pops up.”
“Okay, that is a point I can get behind.”
“Speaking of the devil…” Galaxy switched over to the main frequency. “Cuirassier, you’re losing pace. Are you trying to sneak away with our aircraft?”
“Losing thrust on engine two. I think… yes, it’s gone. You shouldn’t have let them touch the planes.”
“It would go against their interests to sabotage us. Alright, then. Sand Island is still close, so I’ll warn the TSAB and Strike Dove that you’re heading back. They won’t be happy to have you there again, but it can’t be helped. We cannot really afford to have to fish you out of the sea and lose the plane if the other engine fails as well.”
✈ ✈ ✈
Sergio entered the hangar just as the fire truck departed towards the runway. “Hey, Corolla, what’s happening?”
Corolla rolled out from under one of the Eagles without standing up from her workshop chair. “Looks like karma hit the other you. We got a radio transmission from Galaxy that he’s being forced to divert back here due to a dead engine.”
Sergio snorted. “The Ironic Overpower still exists, it seems. I just hope he won’t try anything fishy like trying to kidnap Kath.”
“Well he’d be literally alone on that, Hanami is travelling on Galaxy’s plane and as far as I know only the Tornado is coming back here.”
“Still… Is my Raptor good for flight right now?”
Corolla looked up in thought. “Hmm… There’s still a few things that need work, but they’re fairly minor and it has been already refueled and rearmed. I’d say it’s fine. Why?”
“I’m taking it up for a spin. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
✈ ✈ ✈
A blip appeared on the Raptor’s radar.
“Lightning to Sand Island. I’ve got him on my radar as well.”
“Copy that Lightning. Cuirassier, the runway is clear and the ground crew is ready. You’re allowed to land whenever you’re ready.”
“Sand island, this is Special Investigator Sergio Turbo. I’ll be taking custody of Kathleen Leone, so prepare her for departure.”
I fucking knew it.
“Lightning to Cuirassier. What did you not understand of ‘she’s already serving her sentence’?”
“Don’t you understand? People will only be safe from her when she’s behind bars! You can’t have her fight for you, she’ll just cause more deaths!”
“Sand Island to Cuirassier. I’m sorry, but you don’t have the authority to make such a request. If you really have a malfunctioning engine, you’re allowed to land but you’ll be under surveillance. If that’s not the case, or those conditions aren’t fine with you, please leave our airspace.”
“Hand her over! I’ll fight through all of you if I have to. Don’t make me bomb this place!”
Sergio turned his plane towards the Tornado. “Leave. Now.”
“How do you not understand? You’re me!”
“I’m not. I don’t threaten entire airbases just for a petty desire of having things go my way. Get a grip, or I’ll be the one you’re facing.”
“If you’re willing to be her accomplice, then I’ll get rid of you.”
The missile warning started beeping, and Sergio rolled away to dodge.
He’s in a Tornado, which is mostly a ground attack aircraft. I must not let my guard down, though, considering the number he did on Ami’s Eagle.
He turned the aircraft upside down and pulled the stick to perform a Split-S. “Lightning to Sand Island. Cuirassier fired on me. I’m engaging.”
“Copy. Try to keep him busy, we’re scrambling more aircraft ASAP.”
Sergio fired a missile as soon as he got a lock on the Tornado. It turned left to dodge, but as soon as the missile was past it the aircraft started turning right instead. Sergio pulled back on the throttle and pitched up, letting the Raptor stall nose up in a Pugachev’s Cobra. He counted two seconds, then pitched down while giving full afterburner.
The Tornado finished its barrel roll right in Sergio’s sights, who opened fire with the machine gun. The shells hit the Tornado on the left wing, shearing off its spoiler.
“What the…? How did you…?”
“You can’t use your signature counter against yourself!”
The Tornado weaved left and right, trying to throw off Sergio’s aim. With one spoiler out and the wing full of holes, his mobility will be limited. But he’s not gonna give up yet.
Another burst hit the Tornado’s right engine, which exploded in flames. The aircraft stopped weaving, the other Sergio probably too busy with keeping the aircraft in the air to attempt dodging.
Looks like his plane’s crippled now.
“Lightning to Cuirassier. Your plane’s had it. Land and surrender.”
“You don’t understand… no one does! I need to save this world from her, and there isn’t anything you can do to stop me!”
The Tornado turned straight towards Sand Island.
Is he surrendering…? No, wait.
The runway was nearly perpendicular to them. That wasn’t a landing approach – it was an attack run.
Sergio resumed the chase, putting himself straight behind the Tornado, and fired two missiles as soon as he got a lock. Both missiles hit, and the Tornado exploded.
Sergio turned away from the fireball. “Lightning to Sand Island, I think I got him.”
“Sand Island to Lightning, we confirm.”
He started circling the falling wreckage, looking for a parachute. “I haven’t seen him ejecting. Do you have visual on a chute?”
“We don’t see any parachute. He must’ve gone down with the plane.”
The wreckage hit the water. If he didn’t eject, he’s well more than dead – he’s shredded into tiny bits.
“Sand Island to Razgriz Squadron, abort takeoff.”
“Razgriz One to Sand Island, roger that. Takeoff aborted.”
Sergio took a deep breath. That last move was surely a desperate attempt to kill Kathleen by attacking the main base building – while knowing very well that he was going to get killed right afterwards.
“Galaxy to Sand Island. Did I hear right? The kid got himself killed while trying to attack you?”
“Yes, Galaxy. Lightning had to shoot him down.”
There was a staticky sigh. “I should’ve listened to Comic. All right, we started heading back as soon as we heard of the fight, but it seems like we didn’t manage to help you deal with our idiot. Is the offer for an overnight stay still open? The sun is already setting, and I’m afraid we’re going to have some more paperwork to go through together.”
“Of course Galaxy. You’re cleared to land.”
✈ ✈ ✈
Sergio climbed down from the Raptor and took his helmet off.
What drove him to this madness?
Kathleen walked towards him. Her steps were slow, and she was looking straight at the ground. “Hi.”
“I guess neither of us really wanted it to end this way, huh?”
She shook her head no. “I bet he’s disappointed I’m not rejoicing at his death. He thought I was the devil incarnate or something.”
An awkward silence fell between them.
“What is it?”
“Just for the record… did you happen to do anything else… questionable while you were on the run?”
“Illegal? Yeah, I didn’t really have a choice. But I didn’t hurt anyone. Well, unless they were shooting at me in the first place, that is. And only enough to get them to stop shooting. You know, I don’t really fancy dying.”
Sergio sighed. “I hope what you’re saying is true. Y’know… it’s hard to believe there was a timeline in which I became that.”
“I swear that, drowning Venice aside, I didn’t do anything to make him more mad. Except, well, not letting myself get caught. And taunting him every now and then.”
Sergio set down his helmet on a workbench and sat on a stool. “That’s not the point, Kath. Just before I shot him down, he tried to attack the base, or maybe he even wanted to kamikaze into it, just to kill you. Even if it meant killing the entire base! Am I just one betrayal away from going insane like him?”
“I hope not. You sound a lot more sane than him.”
“And I hope I indeed am. But… the last thing he said… he sounded a lot like another person I knew who went batshit insane after a betrayal.”