“Four more Shadow Crawlers, halfway up the cliffside!” He leaned forward, peering out the right side of his canopy for a better look. “You got that, Keshi?”
A missile salvo igniting the plateau of the cliff in question was the first answer he received. Then, while his ears were still ringing: “Got it. They gone?”
Hikaru chuckled despite himself, his fellow pilot’s typical brute-force approach entertaining him where once, he knew, it would’ve made him groan. “Definitely gone.” Still on his right, he could see the doomed mechs plummet down the escarpment they’d been methodically scaling, their hold broken by the quake and rockslide triggered by the blast. The one that had been closest to the top was already sparking as it went down, its cockpit—and the robot inside—crushed by a falling boulder.
Immediately the blue-haired pilot swiveled his eyes to the center again. Linger on a foe’s defeat and you only hasten your own. He’d drilled that one into himself ages ago—or, at least, it felt like it had been ages since he’d first flown out over Tenchi Bridge in the A-01 Stealth Hunter. But unless he’d gotten the math wrong—and, Hikaru thought wryly, that wasn’t something he was known to do—it had been only a little more than a year since the fighting had begun.
NNYEEN! The mantra had proven entirely correct in this case, though. Hikaru pulled sharply to the right, lashing out with the Sky Guardian’s energy sword to slice cleanly through the magnetic homing missile as it sizzled just past his left, through the air he’d been occupying a second ago. Glaring, annoyed with himself for almost getting hit, he throttled his battle machine’s leg jets, accelerating at top speed in the direction the attack had come from.
“I’m going to be occupied for a bit, Takeshi,” he reported, spying the offending robot mechs hovering ominously in the near distance. “Three Iron Condors. You going to be okay down there?”
An eager laugh rattled out of the comm in response. “What, against the robots? You know the answer to that.” The green-haired pilot’s tone was almost mocking. “Just don’t get lonely up there, Hikaru.”
Hikaru felt his lips curl into a smile at the slightly older boy’s words, and resisted the urge to fire back with the kind of response he knew Takeshi was trying to provoke. He spared a momentary glance back at the clifftop as he flew away, verifying with his eyes what his targeting computer had already told him: There were still ample numbers of robot mechs gathered in the sparse tree cover away from the cliff’s edge. Most were Claw Crushers, with a few more Shadow Crawlers making an appearance here and there. Just outside the treeline, facing them all down, stood Takeshi’s red and white mech, the Blade Titan.
It had been a good while since the two of them had been on a mission alone, without any other pilots backing them up. But in the aftermath of the Mobile Devastator’s attack on the Golden City—and the subsequent robot retreat—the Exo-Force team had split into small squads, each combing the mountainside for any remnants of the robot presence in human territory. With how much the fighting had been concentrated around the city proper in the last few months, Hikaru mused, this might have actually been the first time that he and Takeshi had fought without Ryo or Ha-Ya-To by their side since arriving at the city in the first place, just after the start of the year.
He knew, beyond any question of a doubt, that Takeshi was more than experienced at fighting off large numbers of robot forces on his own. But the sight of the Blade Titan standing out in the open like that, with the robots massing nearby, still made Hikaru uneasy. It just wasn’t the same as his own battles, the blue-haired teen was convinced. In aerial combat, everything came down to skill. You could dodge any attack, if you had the reflexes. You could take on as many enemies as you wanted, if you stayed focused and kept your cool—which Hikaru always did. But Takeshi’s mech, landbound as it was, wasn’t built for maneuverability: It was a juggernaut. The Blade Titan was meant to soak up or shrug off every attack the enemy could throw at it, and still keep fighting. Hikaru simply wasn’t convinced that that principle held forever. After all—its bladed shield could only cover, like, 90 degrees of fire, at most.
He reached the Condors after only a few seconds and set about dispatching them with trademarked efficiency. Pweeeng—dodged a laser blast. PHLOOM!—exploded one with a particle beam shot. Tsunnn—rocketed over and around the remaining two. ZNGG—sliced clean through one with the energy sword.
The last of the three robot fliers seemed to hesitate for a moment as it watched its fellows plummet from the sky. Its right arm, magmissile primed, began to slowly rise. Inside his cockpit, Hikaru tensed, the Sky Guardian mimicking his action and readying its sword once again.
Then the Iron Condor spun around and flew at blinding speed in the opposite direction, back towards the cliff.
“NO!” Hikaru shouted, kicking his jets into overdrive and rocketing into pursuit. But the robot’s head start, mere seconds though it was, had already made a difference; with the Sky Guardian temporarily too far behind to do anything, the Condor aimed its missile launcher and fired—straight at the Blade Titan, still battling the robot ground forces atop the cliff.
Gritting his teeth, Hikaru pushed his battle machine as fast as it could go, zooming back to the ground battlezone, knowing he only had moments. Even if he contacted Takeshi over the comm, there wouldn’t be time for the Blade Titan to move out of the way of the attack—the homing missile could easily adjust course to match the speed of something that slow.
The Sky Guardian was ancient Golden City technology; its top speed far outstripped anything the average robot mech could hope to achieve. Before the Iron Condor could turn back to face him or ready another attack, Hikaru had caught up to it. With a casual flick of his wrist, he bisected the enemy mech, the Sky Guardian striking out with its deadly energy sword and slashing through the tenatium plating without slowing down.
Now came the hard part. Still flying after the missile as fast as he could, Hikaru raised the Sky Guardian’s right arm, aiming the particle beam rifle at the rogue object. Careful… careful… The shot had to be as precise as he could make it. As both the Sky Guardian and the Iron Condor—and, consequently, the missile—had flown towards the battlefield on approximately the same vector, the shot that Hikaru was now lining up to take on the missile was effectively lined up on the Blade Titan behind it as well. If he missed, it would be even worse than if he’d simply let the missile hit Takeshi.
Hikaru forced himself not to think about that. He forced himself not to worry about the speed he was currently travelling at, or the risk he was taking. He felt each second stretch out as his eyes narrowed and everything but the targeting HUD blurred away at the edges of his vision.
His gloved hands as steady as they’d ever been, Hikaru jabbed the trigger button.
The missile exploded in a dazzle of green energy, its shrapnel raining harmlessly down a few meters away from where the Blade Titan still stood, blasting away at enemy mechs.
With a triumphant whoop, Hikaru pulled the Sky Guardian out of its dive, banking up quickly to avoid impacting the cliff. Almost he turned on the comm just to brag to Takeshi about the precision shot he’d just pulled off. But—Linger on a foe’s defeat—there were still plenty more robot mechs on the battlefield. Snapping back to reality instantly, Hikaru set the targeting computer to identify which ones might give Takeshi the most trouble.
The comm crackled on anyway. “I saw that, flyboy,” Takeshi’s voice chimed into the cockpit. “Good shot, but don’t think that means you’re winning!”
This time Hikaru couldn’t resist taking the bait. “You sure, Keshi?” he asked, tauntingly. “This isn’t the first time I’ve saved your ass in the last few days. You owe me big time.”
“Oh, yeah?” the other pilot challenged, his tone playfully threatening. “Prove it, Hikaru.”
The blue-haired teen smirked. “Sure thing,” he began, lining up the Sky Guardian’s rifle with one of the Claw Crushers currently unloading its laser cannon into the Blade Titan’s shield. “Prepare to be ama—”
SHNNN. A massive beam of pure energy lanced past Hikaru’s cockpit, striking the Claw Crusher dead-on and incinerating the robot battle machine in an instant. From behind him came the equally-grandiose roar of an engine turbine, growing louder and louder as it neared the battlefield.
Hikaru froze, not bothering to check his computer to verify the new arrival’s identity. There was only one battle machine in the Exo-Force arsenal capable of producing that powerful a blast, and only one with such an obnoxiously loud triple-turbine rocket booster.
“Having fun, guys?” the newcomer sang out of the comm. “Might want to make sure you actually blast the robots before you practice bragging about it to each other.”
“Ha-Ya-To?!” Takeshi exclaimed, shock ringing through his voice. “Weren’t you assigned to the northwest sector?”
Hikaru could practically hear the enormous grin on the red-haired pilot’s face. “I finished early! Thought I’d swing over and help you two clean up.”
The turbines’ roar crescendoed as Ha-Ya-To’s battle machine shot past the Sky Guardian, rocketing fully into view. Despite his annoyance, Hikaru still couldn’t help but admire the impressive construction of what everyone on the mountain knew to be Ryo’s greatest work: the A-12 Aero Booster, a massive rocket pack consisting of three powerful engines and an array of weaponry, hooked up to a small blue battle machine body.
“Ready to bring this home?” Ha-Ya-To asked, cheerful as ever. In front of him, Hikaru could see the Aero Booster’s twin oversized laser cannons swivel into a forward ready position. “I’ll fly back to base with you after we’re finished, Hikaru. You never know where the robots might be waiting to attack.”
Hikaru buried his face in his hands and let out a muffled groan. At least the Sky Guardian could make the trip back to the Golden City in relatively short time—a long flight alone with his brother was the last thing he wanted right now.
“You’re awfully quiet.” It had been a full minute since starting their flight back home, which he’d decided was more than long enough. “Something on your mind, Hikaru?”
His brother’s voice over the comm was sharp. “There hasn’t exactly been much to talk about.”
Ha-Ya-To sighed, gazing out his cockpit to the left, just barely able to make out Hikaru’s resolute expression behind the glass of his own canopy. “I don’t know. Seems to me like there’s a lot of things we could be discussing. Like the repairs on the city. Or the fact that we need to choose a leader. Or Sensei being missi—”
“He’s not missing,” Hikaru cut in. “We know where he is. The robots took him to the mountain’s base, into the jungle. And once we get him back, we won’t need another leader.”
The mountainside rushed past beneath them. Ha-Ya-To shook his head and tried again. “I’m all for looking on the bright side, Hikaru, but you know it’s not nearly that simple.” He chuckled softly to himself. He knew his younger brother didn’t want to have this conversation, but he hadn’t expected such immediate resistance. “We don’t know how long it will take to track them through the jungle, and we can’t assume defeating the robots there will be any easier than it was up here. We need someone to make decisions until we’ve actually rescued Sensei.” The red-haired teen hesitated, then added, “And I think it should be you.”
“That’s not funny, Ha-Ya-To.”
“I’m not joking!” he protested, though he had to stifle a laugh at Hikaru’s predictable reaction. “You’re the obvious choice. You’ve got a fantastic head for tactics, and we all trust you to watch our backs during a battle. I bet you any of the others would agree with me.”
“I’m good at strategy because I usually work alone,” Hikaru said firmly. “I’m not a leader. It’s not my style.”
Ha-Ya-To grinned, resisting the urge to do a brief loop around his brother’s mech just to annoy him. “Now, that’s just not true. When the Mobile Devastator attacked the city, you were the one who took charge. We all followed your orders to keep the people safe.”
Hikaru was silent for a moment, then: “You don’t have to wait around with me, if you’re in a hurry to get back. I know the Aero Booster can go a lot faster than this.”
Ha-Ya-To almost laughed out loud at the other pilot’s transparent attempt to end the conversation. “Hikaru, it has to be you. Do you honestly think Ryo could do it? Or Takeshi?”
“Yes,” Hikaru replied, his tone curt. “Takeshi’s a great pilot, and he was the one who defeated the Striking Venom. I’d trust him to lead.”
“He’s brave, sure, but you know just as well as anyone that he doesn’t use his head much. Speaking of Takeshi, though,” Ha-Ya-To said, his grin broadening as he pounced on the new conversation topic, “How are you two getting along?”
He could hear the intake of breath from the blue-haired pilot. “What?”
“You guys used to butt heads a lot, especially during battles,” Ha-Ya-To said casually. “Doesn’t seem like that’s the case anymore.”
“We both grew out of it.” Hikaru’s tone was neutral. “We realized fighting as a team was more important than constantly trying to prove who’s better.”
Again Ha-Ya-To forced himself not to laugh out loud. “Oh, I’d say it’s a bit more than that. You two sounded like you were really enjoying yourselves right before I showed up.”
“Ha-Ya-To, I don’t know what that’s supposed to—” The other pilot’s cool facade had finally broken; his tone had gone shrill. The blue tint on the Sky Guardian’s cockpit made it hard to be sure, but Ha-Ya-To hoped his brother’s face was as flushed as he sounded.
In the distance, the Golden City’s gleaming walls had finally come into view, and just in time—Ha-Ya-To knew there wasn’t anything more he was going to be able to get out of Hikaru for now. With a happy yell, he hit the accelerator. “You know what, Hikaru? Don’t worry about it. I’ll see you back at base!”
The Aero Booster rocketed forward, and Ha-Ya-To felt his entire body relax as the thrust pressed him back into his seat. His brother had been right about one thing: Having to slow down to match the Sky Guardian’s speed had been killing him.
“You just get back?” She frowned, searching her memory of the last ten minutes. “I didn’t hear the Aero Booster land.” It wasn’t an easy sound to miss, she thought with amusement.
Ha-Ya-To plopped himself down beside her with a casual sigh. “Nope, I landed hours ago. Just didn’t think to come over here until now.”
A faint smile on her face, Hitomi glanced down at the “bench” the both of them were sitting on. “I suppose we could stand to choose a better meeting spot.”
“Aw, what are you talking about?” Ha-Ya-To placed his hands behind his head and leaned fully back. “This place has character. It has history!”
“It’s a rock, Ha-Ya-To,” she chided lightheartedly. The makeshift stone bench was where she and Ha-Ya-To had first properly met each other, where they’d become friends. Ever since, it had been their impromptu meeting place whenever one or both of them needed to vent or just unwind. But, still—it was a rock. “And I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit tired of getting dust all over my uniform every time I sit down here.”
The redhead bolted upright, eyes wide and pleading. “It’s the rock where we found the code to the Golden Guardian, Hitomi!”
“Hmm,” she said slowly. “The Golden Guardian which you don’t seem to have all that much fondness for? The Golden Guardian that you ditched for good the moment Ryo built you the Aero Booster?”
Ha-Ya-To’s face took on a pouty look. “I couldn’t just say no to something with three giant engines, Hitomi…”
Hitomi couldn’t keep up the act. It was simply impossible to tease Ha-Ya-To for too long—his earnestness was just too endearing. “Alright, alright,” she laughed. “We’ll stick with the rock, I guess.”
“Yes!” Her friend pumped a fist in the air in mock victory. Smiling, he turned towards her, propping himself up on one arm. “So, remind me, where were you today? Northeast sector?”
“East sector,” she corrected him absentmindedly. “Solo. Only encountered a small robot patrol—nothing the Blazing Falcon couldn’t handle.”
“You mean nothing you couldn’t handle,” Ha-Ya-To said cheerily, giving her a small nudge. “The Falcon’s good, Hitomi, but I don’t think most pilots would know how to work a battle machine whose primary weapons are claws. You spent more time doing weapons training than any of the rest of us.”
“Only because Grandfather wouldn’t even let me join the force as a tech until I was seventeen…” she grumbled, kicking out at the dust. Then she shook her head. “But, alright. Compliment accepted. I am pretty good.” She returned his smile. “Thanks, Ha-Ya-To.”
His grin grew twice as wide. “No problem!” He paused. Then, in a more serious tone, he added, “So, as long as we’re talking about things Sensei did and didn’t want you to do…”
Hitomi threw her hands up in exasperation. “No way. He can’t possibly think—there’s no way I’m really going to—right?!” She whipped her head around, eyes narrowed for the boy’s reaction.
“Hey, I didn’t say you should,” Ha-Ya-To protested, holding up his hands defensively. “The whole team was together when we listened to Sensei’s message—you know that none of them agreed with his suggestion.”
“His decision, you mean,” Hitomi snarled, getting up from the stone bench. She started to pace back and forth, feeling her fists clenched in anger. “He said I was to replace him as the leader—as the sit-in-a-chair-all-day commander of Exo-Force—and then he just moved on! He acted like I would just lock myself in his office and wait for the rest of you to rescue him! After everything I’ve proven since we got to the Golden City!”
A hand landed on her shoulder. “I know. I get it, Hitomi, seriously.” Ha-Ya-To had gotten up from the bench, too, and moved to stand beside her. “He’s trying to sideline you, just like always. But you’re part of the team now. None of us would make you do that if you didn’t want to.”
She let out a sigh, closing her eyes for a moment. “Yeah. I know you guys have my back. And I’m grateful.”
“Nothing says the commander has to sit around in an office all the time, anyway,” Ha-Ya-To pointed out. “I can’t exactly see someone Sensei’s age piloting a battle machine, but if it was one of us…”
Hitomi waved her hand dismissively. “I thought of that, too. But I still don’t think I’d be right for the job, even if I could do it from the Blazing Falcon.” She glanced at him again, and quirked her mouth into a small smile. “Managing others isn’t exactly one of my strong suits. I’m not sure you’d want me as your commander.”
Ha-Ya-To wiped an arm across his forehead dramatically. “Well, I didn’t want to be rude, but if you’re saying it anyway…”
They both burst out into small peals of laughter and dropped back down to the bench.
After a moment, once they’d both calmed down, Ha-Ya-To turned to her again, his expression serious. “We do need to choose a new leader, though.”
Hitomi nodded. “Mm. I think this morning proves that, if nothing else. Flying all over the mountain in small groups, none of us keeping track of where anyone else was… If we try that when we head into the jungle, we’ll be screwed.”
“Exactly. We need someone to keep tabs on what each member of the team’s supposed to be doing—someone who can manage all that in their head while still flying a battle machine and blasting robots.”
The dark-haired pilot pursed her lips. “Sounds like you have someone in mind already.”
Ha-Ya-To grinned. “Hikaru, of course.”
She leaned back, her surprise genuine. “You’d be comfortable taking orders from your younger brother?”
Her friend rolled his eyes. “I’m barely a year older than him. And, come on—when have I ever acted my age?”
“Point.” She shoved him affectionately. “But Hikaru’s… always been a bit of a loner, hasn’t he? You really think he’s leadership material?”
“Absolutely.” His expression was fully honest. “Maybe it’s just because you haven’t known him as long, but I know what it looks like when Hikaru’s only thinking about his own strategy. And he hasn’t been like that since… well, honestly, since we got to the Golden City. These last few battles, whenever Sensei wasn’t giving out direct commands, Hikaru was the one devising a battle plan for all of us—especially during the Mobile Devastator assault.”
Ha-Ya-To’s eyes were shining as he spoke; he was proud of his brother’s growth, Hitomi realized. “And, not to cut you and me out of the equation,” the boy continued, “but I’ve seen how he works lately when it’s just him and Takeshi and Ryo. He knows exactly how to use each of their strengths in a small group. They’re unstoppable, Hitomi.”
Hitomi crossed one leg over the other, considering what Ha-Ya-To had said. “Well… you would be the one to know, I suppose,” she admitted. Then she nodded. “I’m open to it. If Hikaru’s willing to be interim commander, I’ll support him.”
“Yeah. About that.” Ha-Ya-To’s gaze grew sheepish.
She shoved him again. “You brought it up to him and he didn’t like it, did he?”
Something in Ha-Ya-To’s eyes flashed with excitement at her words. “Oh, trust me, that wasn’t all I brought up.”
He seemed to be waiting for her to bite on whatever the salacious topic was, so she did. “Go on.”
The red-haired teen looked like a jungle cat ready to sink its fangs into prey. “I asked him about Takeshi and he got so bothered by it.”
Hitomi said nothing. A moment passed, then Ha-Ya-To added, “I think they’re dating, Hitomi.”
The dark-haired girl threw back her head and cackled, tears forming at the corners of her eyes. Ha-Ya-To frowned, confused. “Hey—I’m not making it up, seriously. They were doing this cute little banter while mopping up the robots, and you could cut the tension with a—”
“Oh my god, Ha-Ya-To,” Hitomi wheezed, forcing herself to calm down. She put a hand on the other pilot’s shoulder to steady herself, then spoke once she’d gotten her voice down to a manageable pitch. “Look. You’re my friend, and I love you.”
“But?” Ha-Ya-To asked, sensing the implied word in her tone.
“But you’re a huge idiot,” she gasped, laughter still ringing through her voice. “Hikaru and Takeshi have been dating for months. I thought you knew.”
Her friend’s eyes ballooned at her words, an expression of genuine shock rapidly spreading over his face. “Wh—They—WHAT?” he stuttered. “What do you mean, months?”
“Since… shortly after we got to the Golden City, I think?” she mused. “It started before I was even a pilot, so I don’t know exactly.”
“They never told me!” the redhead exclaimed, offended.
“They never told anyone,” Hitomi said, fighting back another round of laughter. “It’s just… kind of obvious, you know? Hikaru doesn’t exactly scream ‘straight,’ and he and Takeshi spend so much time together…”
He still looked stunned, so she tried another approach. “I’m sure Hikaru will tell you he’s gay when he’s ready.”
Ha-Ya-To shook his head. “I already knew that. And I’m pretty sure I’m bi, or something… that’s not the point! How did you figure this out before I did?”
Hitomi had to cover her mouth with her hand to keep from bursting out laughing again. “I’m pretty sure it’s just because… everyone figured it out, Ha-Ya-To, and you just aren’t very good at observing your brother in that kind of light.”
His jaws parted, readying an indignant response. Whatever retort he would have made, though, Hitomi never heard it. From somewhere above them came an ear-splitting wailing noise, which was then picked up and carried, less audibly, from numerous other points throughout the city.
Hitomi and Ha-Ya-To stared at each other in horror, their lighthearted repartee dying away instantly. It was the perimeter alarm: The robots were approaching the Golden City.
“How?” Ha-Ya-To demanded, springing to his feet. “We just spent the whole day clearing them off this side of the mountain!”
Hitomi had already accessed her wrist-mounted computer and pulled up a radar tracking display. At once she registered the meaning of the numerous blinking dots slowly descending from the top of the screen. “It’s not stragglers from the Mobile Devastator battle.” She looked back up at Ha-Ya-To resolutely. “They’re coming across the bridge again.”
He threw the Sky Guardian into a backwards loop, flipping expertly around to dodge a pair of laser blasts from below. The maneuver sent him drifting towards a small pack of Iron Condors; he fired an arm-mounted missile straight into their midst and simultaneously primed his battle machine’s energy sword. The missile detonated right on target in the middle of the robot mechs, knocking them adrift for a few moments—which was more than enough time. Rocketing towards them, he slashed forward with the sword, carving through each of the enemy battle machines before they could properly react.
One managed to fire a magmissile before its systems went fully offline. Unflinchingly, Hikaru triggered the short-range lasers mounted just above his cockpit, blowing the missile to dust before it could impact him.
“I thought we were done with this back-and-forth!” he shouted into the comm. “With the bridge, I mean. You’d think—” He cut off, grunting, as a laser from farther along the walkway clipped the faintest edge of one of the Sky Guardian’s stabilizer fins. “—think that if Meca One’s taking his army deep into the jungle, he wouldn’t have many troops to spare for more attacks up here!”
Takeshi answered him with a yell. “When have the robots ever not had more forces than we expected them to?” Down below, Hikaru could see his fellow pilot’s battle machine standing determinedly in front of the Golden City’s gates, smack in the middle of the bridge. The Blade Titan was alternating between deflecting blasts with its bladed shield and firing back with its gatling laser cannon.
“No, I think Hikaru’s right,” Hitomi’s voice cut in. Giant claws gleaming, the Blazing Falcon darted down the bridge, zigzagging from one side to the other and back again in an orange and white blur as it shredded the robot battle machines unlucky enough to be caught in her path. “If Meca One had another huge army ready and waiting, he would’ve sent it with the Mobile Devastator when he attacked last week—there was no reason not to throw everything he had at us then. This has to be a reserve force. It’s only meant to slow us down, keep us from chasing after him and Grandfather.”
Hikaru spotted a pair of Shadow Crawlers advancing along the bridge’s side walls and dove towards them, readying the particle beam rifle. “If they’re a distraction, then we have to end the battle quickly. The last thing we want is to give Meca One more time.” He fired the rifle. One Shadow Crawler disintegrated; the other had scurried out of the blast radius. Cursing, Hikaru swung around for a second pass.
“Well, maybe you should inform the robots that they’re only supposed to be a distraction!” Ha-Ya-To chimed in, his tone easygoing. “Because right now they sure seem to be trying their best to destroy us!” With a roar, the Aero Booster thundered past Hikaru’s cockpit, chasing down another flock of Iron Condors.
The four of them were the only human pilots on the battlefield. None of the other teams had returned from their sweeps of the mountain, and no one had been expecting another robot attack on the city itself so soon after the Mobile Devastator’s retreat. And yet—And yet, Hikaru thought, irritated with his own lack of foresight as he dove past the bridge again and swung the energy sword through the remaining Shadow Crawler—they should have known better than to think the robots wouldn’t take advantage of such an obvious lapse in their defenses. I should have been ready for this.
And then the thought was gone, forcibly filed away in his mind for later reflection. In a battle, the only thing more dangerous than lingering on an already-defeated enemy was dwelling on his own mistakes. He fired a small laser blast at a grouping of Claw Crushers down on the bridge—too weak from this distance to do any real damage, but enough to dissuade them from closing in on the Blazing Falcon. The battle is mine to win or lose. The Sky Guardian was where it was, and the enemy forces were where they were. Hikaru’s allies, the environment, the condition of his battle machine—they were factors he couldn’t change, but how he made use of them was entirely up to him. As long as he kept his focus on the situation at hand, every battle could be won.
“Thanks, Hikaru!” came Hitomi’s voice again. Immediately the Falcon pivoted, its leg jets allowing it to spin around mid-stride. Before Hikaru could even acknowledge his teammate’s thanks, the hybrid ground-air battle machine had dashed forward, tearing the Claw Crushers apart at lightning speed. “That was just the opening I needed.”
The blue-haired pilot smiled, shifting his gaze back to the city gates to see if Takeshi needed any help. “Glad to assist, Hitomi. Keshi?” He hoped Takeshi could hear him over the booming of the Blade Titan’s massive laser cannon. “You good?”
“Perfect!” Takeshi said, a note of satisfaction in his voice. In time with the word, Hikaru saw the Blade Titan swing its giant shield to the side, smashing it straight into the front of a Shadow Crawler with enough force to knock the unfortunate robot mech clear off the rocky plateau on which the Golden City rested, sending it tumbling off the mountain and out of sight.
Hikaru didn’t spend time checking in on Ha-Ya-To; he had few concerns about the Aero Booster’s ability to match the robots’ firepower. He scanned the remainder of the battlefield rapidly; though robot forces were still emerging from their fortress on the other side of the bridge, their numbers weren’t any greater than the platoons that had been sent out so far. By all appearances, the rest of the battle would be a rote repetition of what they’d already accomplished. “Doesn’t seem like we have much to worry about, then.”
The whine was nearly ultrasonic; only experience told Hikaru that he was hearing an engine at all and not just a buzzing in his ears. Acting purely on instinct, he tilted sharply to the left, curving around just in time to dodge the double laser blast streaking towards his battle machine from above. Even as his mind caught up with his senses, the targeting computer was already blaring a warning of its own at him: there was a Sonic Raven on the field.
“Yeah, I noticed,” he muttered. Thumbing the comm on again, he hastily informed the others. “There’s a Raven up there somewhere. I’m going after it. Keep me covered.”
A variety of assenting noises came at him in reply, by which time Hikaru had already engaged his jets and flown up to the approximate location his computer believed the laser blasts had come from. There were no other battle machines in sight.
But that was no surprise. Sonic Ravens were the stealthiest, deadliest mechs in the robot arsenal. Upgraded from the old Sonic Phantom designs from before Exo-Force had discovered the Golden City—already terrifying foes in their own right—Ravens boasted a top speed unmatched by any other battle machine except the Aero Booster itself, and twin magnetic missile launchers to back up their main double-barreled laser cannon. Where the Phantoms had been heavily-armored flying tanks, the Sonic Raven chose to forego heavy plating in favor of added speed and maneuverability.
As far as Exo-Force knew, only three Sonic Ravens had ever been constructed, and any one could have flown loops around the Sky Guardian without taking a hit. Which meant that for Hikaru, this contest would not be one of speed, but of skill.
He waited, and listened. Distantly, the faint whine returned.
ZNNGG! He only just managed to bring the energy sword around in time to ward off the magmissile before it could strike him. Immediately the teen again set the computer to locating the attack’s likely point of origin—and again he found nothing there but empty sky.
He waited, and listened.
The whine came a third time, and Hikaru turned the Sky Guardian towards his best guess at the direction it was coming from.
This time he saw it. Even faster than he’d been expecting, the sleek black-and-yellow craft dropped into view, fired a laser blast, then ascended again.
Hikaru parried the lasers evenly, smiling. Now he knew what the game was: the Sonic Raven was hiding in the cloud layer. With only the slightest hesitation, he rocketed upward to join it. The vapor wreathed around the Sky Guardian’s cockpit, obscuring his vision. The battle machine’s sensory instruments were mostly unaffected, but they wouldn’t have been able to track the Raven, anyway—the techs had said something about a rare sensory-dampening foil covering their hulls, which in theory was why the robots hadn’t been able to make more of them.
Another laser blast flashed towards him from somewhere else in the haze. This time, though, Hikaru didn’t have to do anything tricky to dodge it—he simply leaned to the side, and the blast went wide, missing him by a sizeable margin. The Sonic Raven, Hikaru realized, was just as hampered by their surroundings as he was. It was using the clouds to hide, but it couldn’t track him very accurately through the mist.
Not for the first time, Hikaru wished he was still piloting the Silent Strike, or even the Stealth Hunter. His old battle machines would’ve been in their element here—as their names implied, they were built to be covert, and even had limited invisibility protocols. In a game of stealth and secrecy, Hikaru had no doubt, he could have easily bested the Sonic Raven in either of the mechs Sensei Keiken had given him.
The Sky Guardian was different. It was Golden City technology, built for power and speed, not clandestineness. With its bright yellow detailing and striking heroic image, Hikaru suspected it was meant for the very opposite purpose as his first two battle machines—it was supposed to be an icon, a champion defending the air against all threats to humanity. It had taken him most of a month to get used to flying in it, to get used to not having that handy stealth mode available at a moment’s notice. It was not meant for this type of cat-and-mouse endeavor.
But he was. No matter what battle machine he had available to him, Hikaru knew he was still the best pilot Exo-Force had. As long as he was in the air, he had all the tools he needed to outfly any opponent.
He spotted the next missile coming at him from a side angle and moved to intercept it, blasting it before it could reach him while also, ever so slightly, closing the distance towards its point of origin.
For each of the next few laser volleys he repeated the action, racing forwards as the attack came towards him, then neutralizing it at the last moment. Each time he did so, he also veered slightly to the left.
The Sonic Raven had no close-quarters armaments; it stood no chance in an open fight. It couldn’t allow the Sky Guardian to engage it directly—and with its vastly superior speed, it didn’t have to. The robot pilot, Hikaru knew, was simply going to keep blasting at him from a distance, secure within the veil of the clouds, counting on his own human fallibility to ensure that sooner or later he would slip up and a single fatal attack would make it through.
But Hikaru was counting on the very opposite: the robot’s predictability. As he dodged or blocked each successive attack, he made sure to continue moving forward at a left-leaning angle. In order to keep the distance between the Sky Guardian and itself, the robot would have to repeatedly push back at a similar angle—effectively moving around the Sky Guardian in a rough circle.
The Raven’s pilot wouldn’t have registered this pattern with any alarm; to its understanding, it was controlling the range of the battle by keeping the other mech penned within a certain area. That was exactly what Hikaru wanted it to think.
The blue-haired teen kept up the pattern for another minute, destroying two more missiles and dodging one last laser blast.
Then he dove.
The Raven was too fast for him to ever catch it simply by tracing any one of the attacks back to its source; it would always be gone by the time he got there. But after seven or eight iterations of the circular maneuvers, the Sky Guardian’s computer had more than enough data to predict where the next attack would come from, following the same elliptical arc. Dropping beneath the cloud layer, Hikaru throttled his battle machine’s jets, pushing at top speed towards the spot right underneath the calculated point, knowing he only had seconds.
VNNNN! The high-pitched whine was far louder than he’d heard it up till now—the Sonic Raven was directly above him. Grinning, Hikaru raised the Sky Guardian’s right arm, aiming the particle beam rifle directly at the robot battle machine, and fired.
Even as he did so, he could see the craft tilt downwards, the robot inside belatedly realizing where its quarry had reappeared. One of the missile launchers at its prow fired at him immediately—but the Sky Guardian was too close for the weapon to achieve target lock. The missile missed him entirely, quickly dropping out of sight.
Human and robot battle machines alike used computer targeting systems—but unlike the robots, a human pilot didn’t need one to land a shot. The particle beam rifle’s blast punched straight into the center of the Sonic Raven in a brilliant, fiery green explosion, utterly obliterating it.
Hikaru, of course, didn’t linger. The moment he was certain the robot mech had been destroyed—and it wasn’t hard to be sure—he plunged the Sky Guardian back down, heading straight for the battle on and around the Golden City gate.
The scene was just as he’d left it a few minutes before. The robot battle machines still had numbers to spare, but Exo-Force was holding its ground.
A sudden startled yell blared out of the comm. “Gah! Shit!” It was Ha-Ya-To, the normal upbeat excitement gone from his voice.
Hitomi was the first to respond. “Ha-Ya-To? What’s wrong?”
“I caught a magmissile in the left engine,” the other pilot reported grimly. “Came out of nowhere.”
“What? Can you still fly?” Takeshi asked, alarmed.
Hikaru heard his brother let out a low sigh. “I think so. I got lucky; it hit the outer casing, not the mechanism. Probably would’ve blown up the Aero Booster if it had made it inside, but as it is I’m still down one engine. I can fly—barely—but I can’t really maneuver.”
Hikaru swore and flicked the comm on. “That was my fault. I think it came from the Raven I was fighting—it got one last missile off before I took it down.” With the Sonic Raven’s weapons angled downwards and unable to lock on to the Sky Guardian, the missile would have targeted the next-closest human battle machine: the Aero Booster, soaring through the air not too far beneath it. “I’m sorry, Ha-Ya-To.”
“Hey, I’m not dead yet!” This time his brother sounded like his usual optimistic self.
“Make sure you stay that way,” Hitomi chimed back in. “Get back into the city and get repaired. We can finish up here.”
“No—wait.” Hikaru was still racing downwards towards the bridge, an idea forming in his mind. “Ha-Ya-To, can you still shoot?”
“Uh, yeah, I think so,” the redhead replied. “My power supply seems fine. Why?”
Takeshi’s voice cut in again. “Does that matter, Hikaru? He can’t keep fighting, not if he’s a sitting duck for every robot that feels like taking a shot at him.”
Hikaru pressed his left hand to his temple, hoping he wasn’t making a mistake. “It’s not enough to just win this battle. If we’re going into the jungle after Sensei, we’ll need to do something about the robot attacks on the city. They’re clearly just going to keep hammering at the gate, and I don’t know if the other pilots will be able to beat them without us here.”
“What does that have to do with Ha-Ya-To’s battle machine being damaged?” Hitomi demanded.
“We can cut off the flow of robot attacks right now if we take out the main bridge,” Hikaru said breathlessly. “The Sky Guardian can cut through the stone at key points and weaken its foundation, then the Aero Booster’s main blaster can do the rest. Ha-Ya-To doesn’t need to be able to do anything fancy—he just has to aim and fire.” He paused, then tried to finish with emphasis. “It’s our best option, I’m sure of it. You have to trust me on this.”
There was silence over the comm for several moments. Hikaru waited hopefully. By now he’d returned to the air just over the bridge, near where the others were fighting. A short distance away, he could see the Aero Booster hovering tentatively in the air, smoke puffing out of one of its engines.
“I say we do it.” Takeshi was the first to respond. Hikaru felt his heart soar. “It’s definitely worth the risk.”
“If you’re sure about this, Hikaru,” Hitomi said.
“Ha-Ya-To?” Hikaru asked.
“Are you kidding?” his brother responded instantly. “As long as I get to stay in the action longer, I’m totally on board.”
Hikaru smiled. “Glad to hear it. Then… Hitomi. I’ll need you to get into the air.”
“What?” she asked, startled. “Why?”
He swooped around and under the bridge, already trying to determine the best position to start from. “Ha-Ya-To and I will be focused on the bridge itself. We need someone to keep the Iron Condors off us while we work.”
There was still reluctance in her voice. “But… that leaves Takeshi alone in front of the gate. You think he can hold off all the robot ground forces by himself?”
“Yes,” Hikaru said firmly. “For a few minutes, at least. I’m trusting him to hold the line long enough for us to get this done.” Then, slightly more hesitantly, he added, “Right, Keshi?”
The green-haired pilot’s response came at once. “Of course. Don’t worry, Hikaru. You know I could beat Meca One’s entire army by myself if I wanted to.”
“Damn right you could,” Hikaru said, grinning. “But if you think I’d let you go charging into the robot base by yourself—”
A small cough from Hitomi interrupted him. Hikaru blushed. Oops. He shook his head and returned his mind to the situation at hand. “Right. That’s the plan. Everyone ready?”
The Aero Booster dropped down to level with the bridge. “Ready!”
The sound of jets igniting came as the Blazing Falcon rocketed off the bridge and into the sky. “Ready.”
Whirr-clank. The Blade Titan’s shield rotated around into a defensive stance. “Ready.”
Hikaru activated the Sky Guardian’s energy sword. “Go!”
Extending his battle machine’s left arm, he stabbed the sword straight up into the first planned spot on the bridge’s underside, plunging it into the golden stone as deep as he could. From what he could tell, the weapon was just barely long enough to reach through to the bridge’s upper surface. Once he was sure he’d cut all the way through, he withdrew the blade and flew quickly to the next spot, a few feet apart on the bridge’s width.
“One down, fifty to go,” Hikaru muttered to himself. The bridge was wide enough for five standard battle machines to stand side-by-side on it, and he would have to make cuts across that entire width at two separate places along its length. Working as quickly as he could, the process would take several minutes—several minutes during which the Sky Guardian would be an easy target and the Aero Booster even more vulnerable.
He heard a SNIKT! behind him as the Blazing Falcon shredded an Iron Condor that had presumably been trying to take advantage of that very vulnerability, and he smiled. He and Ha-Ya-To had nothing to worry about. Hitomi and Takeshi would do their jobs just as he’d asked them to. He trusted them completely.
Before long, the Sky Guardian had reached the other edge of the bridge. Hikaru looked back at the row of marks he’d made, all spaced a few feet apart with relative consistency. As he’d estimated, there were roughly two dozen in total.
“That’s one row down,” he reported into the comm. “You’re good to fire on this one whenever you’re ready, Ha-Ya-To.”
He heard a chuckle on the other end. “Then you’d better get out of the way!” his brother’s voice sang in response.
Hikaru obeyed, flying the Sky Guardian to the second planned row further down the bridge. From there he watched as the row of golden stone lit up with a blast from the Aero Booster’s massive cannon. If he was right… if he’d made enough cuts, and deep enough… the energy beam should have cracked the bridge’s integrity all the way through that width. For a moment, he thought he saw the stone shift.
But they wouldn’t know for sure until they’d completed the second row, too. Hikaru turned his attention back to the stone above his cockpit and, with a sigh, began methodically stabbing again, each cut just like the one before it. He forced himself not to get impatient; any rushed or incomplete cuts could prevent the entire plan from working.
He was a quarter of the way done. Then he was halfway done. Then, finally, he’d reached the other side of the bridge’s width again. Letting out a tired breath, he finally switched off the energy sword and flew out from under the walkway, positioning his battle machine near Ha-Ya-To’s in order to ward off any last-minute attacks by the robots.
“All clear,” he called. “Ha-Ya-To, now!”
Outside his cockpit, he heard the hum of energy as the Aero Booster charged its cannon with all the power it had available. Then it fired.
SHNNNNN! The blast seared through the bridge just as the first one had. This time Hikaru had a better view; he could see the packed stone collapse, crumbling under the intense firepower. Already weakened by the Sky Guardian’s blade, it didn’t have enough structural integrity to stay intact.
The bridge seemed to tremble, as if trying to hold itself together. Hikaru held his breath. It has to work. It has to.
A low, grating noise creaked out of the golden stone. Then, almost imperceptibly, its middle segment—the stretch of several hundred feet between the two rows where they’d attacked—began to dip. Slowly, steadily, it fell, slipping inch by inch beneath the level of the segments at either end.
Then it was no longer gradual. The section they’d carved out had completely broken away from the rest of the bridge, and nothing was keeping it suspended in the air. It plummeted, taking a dozen robot battle machines with it.
Excited cheers broke out over the comm. Feeling himself relax, Hikaru joined in with his friends, yelling triumphantly as the remainder of the robot attack crumbled just like the bridge had. The Blade Titan was already finishing off the last of the robot ground forces still on the human side of the gap. As Hikaru watched, the Blazing Falcon fired an explosive missile at a stray Iron Condor, destroying it; the rest seemed to reconsider their assault without ground-based support, and began to wing their way back towards the robot side of the mountain.
An ominous sputtering noise sounded somewhere just outside his cockpit. Alarmed, Hikaru realized it had come from the Aero Booster. The fumes emanating from its damaged left engine seemed to have increased in volume in the last few minutes.
The pilots’ cheering abruptly stopped as Ha-Ya-To raised his voice on the comm. “Yeah, uh. I think I might need someone to give me a hand.”
Hikaru reacted immediately, reaching the Sky Guardian’s arms around his brother’s mech as best he could and steering them both towards the spit of land in front of the Golden City’s gate. With the damage it had taken earlier and the power expended in burning through the bridge, he realized, the Aero Booster was barely able to stay in the air. Already one of its other two engines had given out, and the remaining functional one wasn’t enough to keep such a bulky battle machine airborne.
By the same token, the blue mech was far too big and heavy for the Sky Guardian to carry. But they were close enough to the ground, and had only been hovering a short distance away from the city gate. His battle machine’s leg jets straining, Hikaru was able to hastily guide the Aero Booster to a clumsy landing on the rocky plateau.
“You okay, Ha-Ya-To?” he asked once he was sure the giant battle machine wasn’t going to fall over and tumble off the mountainside.
Unsurprisingly, his brother sounded almost completely unconcerned about the near miss he’d just experienced. “All good! Once we can get Ryo and the other techs out here to take a look, I’m sure they can fix it up enough to fly back into the city and get a proper repair done.”
“Probably,” Hikaru agreed absentmindedly. The Blade Titan, he realized, was standing only a short distance away from where he’d set the Aero Booster down… and with the robots no longer a threat for the time being…
He made up his mind and abruptly dropped the Sky Guardian into a landing outside the gate. As quickly as he could, he powered down the battle machine’s systems. Then he popped open the cockpit and climbed down its legs.
He ran across the stretch of open ground towards the Blade Titan, delighted to see that Takeshi had gotten the same idea. The green-haired pilot had exited his own mech and was running towards him as well.
They met halfway, right in front of the Golden City’s gates. Immediately Takeshi wrapped a strong arm around Hikaru, pulling him in. Hikaru didn’t protest, grabbing Takeshi’s head with both hands and holding on tight.
It was far from their first kiss. But, Hikaru thought, it was the first one they’d had so soon after winning a battle. He could feel Takeshi’s excitement from their victory, could feel the adrenaline still running through both their veins as the older boy’s lips met his own. Strong hands caressed his back, surrounding him in a comforting, secure embrace. Takeshi’s passion was electrifying; Hikaru felt like he was going to explode with happiness. And he knew that he, too, was giving more to his boyfriend than he normally had the energy for. He bit Takeshi’s lower lip, gently, and the other boy let out a low growl, his hands clutching eagerly around Hikaru’s skinny back. Hikaru whined in response, which only made Takeshi grab him even more tightly. Both of them were sweating in their combat suits from the battle; the feeling of Takeshi’s hair damp against his skin only made Hikaru even hungrier as he ran his gloved hands over his boyfriend’s head and neck.
They stayed locked in the passionate exchange for another few moments. Then, slowly, Takeshi withdrew himself from Hikaru’s mouth and rested his forehead against Hikaru’s own, his eyes opening a crack.
“Nice job out there, flyboy,” he whispered.
Hikaru’s insides were warm and liquified. “Couldn’t have done it without you, big guy,” he breathed.
Clap. Clap. Clap.
Hikaru froze, eyes snapping wide open. Slowly he turned his head.
Hitomi and Ha-Ya-To had both climbed out of their own battle machines and were standing a few feet away, an enormous laughing grin on Ha-Ya-To’s face and a slightly amused smile on Hitomi’s.
It was Hitomi who had been clapping. “I seem to remember Ha-Ya-To and I helped out quite a bit, too,” she said teasingly.
Hikaru’s limbs finally caught up with his eyes. He pulled away from Takeshi at once—but was stopped by the other boy’s hand tightly grabbing his wrist.
Hikaru lifted his gaze. Takeshi’s expression was firm but soft. Sighing happily, Hikaru relaxed and slid his hand into Takeshi’s own. Then he turned back to face the other two pilots, aware that his face was about as red as Takeshi’s uniform. “We’re—uh—we’ve been—” he fumbled.
“Oh, we know,” Ha-Ya-To said, lifting his eyebrows. Hikaru groaned internally.
“Trust me,” said Hitomi, not quite able to stop herself from letting a mischievous glimmer into her eyes as well, “everyone knows.”
At that Hikaru simply groaned out loud. “Please, just throw me off the mountain.”
Takeshi’s thumb rubbed his hand comfortingly. “Give it a rest, guys,” he muttered, trying to sound composed, but Hikaru could see that he was just as bothered by their friends’ attention.
“Don’t worry,” Ha-Ya-To drawled, “we’ll wait until tomorrow before we broadcast it to the entire Golden City.”
Hikaru took a step towards his brother, clenching his hand into a fist and trying his best to look angry. “You—shut up, Ha-Ya-To—” Takeshi still had a grip on his other hand, though, so he didn’t move any farther than that. He wasn’t about to break that connection.
Hitomi laughed and moved toward them, raising her hands pacifyingly. “Okay, okay, we’re done joking around. Right, Ha-Ya-To?” she added meaningfully.
The redhead grinned. “Yeah. Sure.”
Hikaru doubted that very much.
“In all seriousness,” the black-haired pilot said, still smiling, “we are happy for you guys.”
“Thanks,” Hikaru said. Takeshi jerked his head in a slight nod.
She went on. “And there’s one other thing we have to discuss.” None of the rest of them said anything, so she continued. “Hikaru, you need to lead us while Grandfather is still missing.”
Hikaru blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Same thing I tried to tell you earlier today,” Ha-Ya-To chimed in. “You’re the best at taking charge among us, and the best at coming up with a plan. You going to try to tell me that’s not true, after what you just pulled with the bridge?”
The blue-haired teen stared at the ground. “No, I guess you’re right,” he admitted. “I just… don’t want to feel like I’m making myself more important than the rest of you guys.”
“It’s not like that, Hikaru,” said Takeshi. Hikaru turned back towards him, feeling a tingle run through his chest as he took in his normally hard-faced boyfriend’s impossibly soft gaze. “Being in charge doesn’t mean you matter more than anyone else. It’s just about picking the right person for the right job.” He stroked Hikaru’s hand again. “You are the right person to be our team leader, and you deserve to have that acknowledged.”
Hikaru felt himself blush, and smiled. “Well. If you’re all that sure of it.”
“Totally,” Hitomi said.
“No doubt,” added Ha-Ya-To.
Hikaru looked from each of his friends’ and teammates’ faces to the next in turn, recognizing the genuine trust they all were all placing in him. He squeezed Takeshi’s hand, and took a deep breath.
“Then, Exo-Force, as your newly elected commander, I think we’d all agree our next mission has been delayed long enough already,” he said confidently. “Begin making your final preparations. Tomorrow we leave to rescue Sensei Keiken!”