"I don't remember what happened yesterday," Fana said in a grudging tone. She stood on sand dunes covered with the morning mist, a flush on her face. "Really, I don't remember anything."
But he could tell from her expression that she clearly remembered everything. Holding back his desire to tease, Charles answered with a nonchalant expression.
"I forgot what I spoke to the Lady about, too, whilst we were being chased, so this makes us even."
She glared at Charles, vexed, and turned away.
Charles moved his arms and legs after standing up, doing a light warm-up exercise.
Because he'd rested a whole day, he was in close to perfect condition. Even the wound on his temple didn't hurt that much anymore.
He looked at the western sky that was becoming brass. Countless clouds that had been drawn out with invisible ink in the clear, biting morning air filled the sky. Cloud density around seven or eight. It was perfect for taking flight.
"There are good clouds. Let's take off," He said to Fana, who was still sitting on the dune.
A slight color of protest appeared in her eyes, reflecting the morning sky.
"We can't stay on this island forever. The enemy may begin to land, to try to find us. We must fly, to survive."
Fana's response wasn't very enthusiastic. It was obvious she wanted to stay on this island more. But he couldn't acquiesce.
After waking himself up more with some more light exercise, with Fana in tow he returned to the plains where the Santa Cruz was hidden.
Maintenance had gone well, and the metal hydride stack was in good condition. When he powered the plane, it made a healthy sound as it began to vibrate, and the propeller smoothly began to spin.
After making sure Fana was seated, he closed the windshield.
Beyond the backup windshield, which they'd installed after getting on the island, was a blue sky that seemed right out of oil painting.
"It was a good island."
"It's a shame we must leave it, but it's time to go. To our last flight."
After a short conversation over the voice pipe, he turned up the throttle and pushed the control stick forward. As the plane dashed forward, air pressure gathered under the wings.
Ultramarine-colored wings reflected the sunlight, and the Santa Cruz ran into the sky. The propeller's groan was clean, and the comfortable plus-G reverberated over his stomach. Paradise grew smaller in Fana's sight. The transparent mountain cuffs around the island left her vision, and eventually, the dark-green island melted into the ultramarine expanse. Fana stared distantly toward the expanse, where the island should be, filled with parting regret.
The nose of the plane was pointed towards the La Pista airbase on the imperial island of Cyon. Charles climbed 3,000 meters before making the plane parallel to the horizon.
Working hard to slap himself out of the relaxed life of the uninhabited island, he focused on the airspace in front of him. He couldn't see anything like a patrol plane. He confidently skipped from one cloud to another, flying covertly. And because he was too confident that he could escape with this much cloud…he misjudged.
It was an hour after taking flight that his instincts as a pilot sniffed out the strangeness of the situation.
He glanced in every direction from behind his flight goggles. He was piercing through the smatterings of clouds, looking into the skies beyond. Around him, torn-up-looking clouds were everywhere, becoming stratus clouds at altitudes 4,000 and 2,000 meters. And he silently flew through the world between those layers. The indigo-blue-colored clouds stood out more than the blue sky. And the torn clouds covering the horizon made it difficult to see. They obstructed his attempts to look at the sky, so it was difficult to keep watch.
He couldn't see anything … but they were there. His spine told him so.
He could smell something like steel. He could smell several steel clumps in this airspace.
The enemy already knew where the Santa Cruz was.
It was the same feeling as when he'd flown right into a fleet. The radar the enemy carrier carried must have been really good. They'd already found him, before he could find them, and they were getting in position to pounce. And Charles' experience and instincts alerted him to that before he could see them.
He'd underestimated them.
He thought he could get away if he kept watch. But if the enemy had perfected a very good radar, things would change. The naked eye would be obstructed by clouds, but radars wouldn't. Even if he were to fly into a cloud, the pulse fired from the radar would find the Santa Cruz anyways, bounce back, and tell them exactly where he was. If the superiority of their planes wasn't all - if the Amatsukami had vastly superior radars, too - then this war would only end in misery for the Empire.
"Enemy planes behind, to the left."
Fana's tense voice came across the voice pipe. When he looked in that direction, he saw in the distance the narrow, potato-bug-shaped ship.
The enemy ship was flying on the same plane as the Santa Cruz, on the other side of the cloud. It was almost certainly the San'un type high-speed destroyer he'd run into at the Great Fall. The signal light that was flickering near the bridge was probably communicating with ships in the area. But because he was surrounded by clouds, he wasn't able to see exactly what was around him.
Decisions made in flight led directly to life or death. Aerial combat was like a constant chain of life-or-death decisions. There was no one you could discuss things with, and you had to make one choice out of hundreds, and depend on it with your life.
This time, Charles' decision was to fly higher in order to better see the enemy’s numbers and positioning.
After hitting the throttle once and gaining the necessary speed, he pulled the control stick toward him. Along with a low groan from the propeller, the Santa Cruz pierced through the clouds as it ascended.
"To the right and below, two more enemy planes."
Fana's nervous voice reached him. As he ascended, he looked down behind him, and saw the other two San'un-class destroyers. Like the other one, they were flying on the same plane as the Santa Cruz. They'd already caught sight of him, and were flying after him.
They were pretty fast for their size. The Santa Cruz was just a bit faster, but it'd take around five or six minutes to completely lose them.
It takes your ears, eyes, every limb, all five senses, even a sixth sense, to control a plane with your body and mind while evading gunfire. That made five or six minutes basically the same as five or six hours to a pilot.
He cut across the air diagonally, and pierced through the clouds hovering at 4,000 meters’ altitude. It was a pure, blue sky with nothing in view. The last time, the aircraft carrier was floating above them, but this time there was not one ship at an altitude higher than the Santa Cruz.
After climbing to about 8,000 meters altitude, he straightened the plane. At the same time, Fana's voice trembled over the voice pipe, almost in a scream.
"From the cloud under us… ten! They’re coming!"
Tensing his limbs, he stretched his neck and looked down.
The ocean of whiteness was spraying mist as two columns of San'un destroyers, ten in total, ascended through the cloud. He could feel the air shaking.
"There are more."
Charles' eyes widened in surprise. There were a total of eight San'un before. Minus the one he brought down, there should have been seven. They must have been received reinforcements while they were resting on the island.
The blanket of clouds under the heavy steel clumps were hit by waves from the lifting devices, were ripped apart, and swirled like the ocean during a storm, and spraying mist surrounded the destroyers. The airspace was already beginning to look like a battlefield.
Charles looked even closer.
On the broadside of the ships, surrounded by whiteness, the tens of pentagon-shaped fortresses and the hundreds of cannons contained in them were pointed at the Santa Cruz. Firing preparations were completed, and he could imagine the gunners licking their lips with anticipation.
They were formed in two columns, on either side of the Santa Cruz, and were flying about five kilometers parallel to each other. They were probably setting up the bullets to explode at a good range.
It'd be no use running toward the ocean surface. He had to either speed away from them, or run perpendicular to them. The maximum altitude of the Santa Cruz was 7,500 meters; at that point his top speed would begin to fall, and that would mean being plunked from behind by anti-air fire.
What now? He asked himself.
Fly straight forward, avoid fire, and see what the enemy does.
As he'd seen in the previous exchange, the Amatsukami air fleet favored using tight formations to raise the likelihood of taking down their target. Even on the Levahm side, the days of relying on bravado, skill, and mental fortitude was beginning to fade into a thing of the past, but they were still not even close to being as modern in combat as the Amatsukami.
What was going to start wasn't a chivalrous fight of wills, but an escape from a mechanical strategy to eliminate Charles from the sky. Two, three steps were nothing; he'd have to think five, six steps ahead to avoid being trapped.
He wasn't going to be shot down here, not after coming this far. He'd get through this, all ten-some minutes, using everything he'd accumulated.
And the moment he braced himself, feeling the air under him rumbling.
He looked down; the upper hull of the destroyer right under him was covered in red. The shots fired exploded into fireworks around him.
The silver wings coasted amidst the blazing heat, as the Santa Cruz lowered its nose and sped up in a descent.
He'd have to get out of this with pure speed. He hit the throttle. Plus-G lurched into him. Bullets were in pursuit. He thought Fana would scream, but he didn't hear her voice. She was probably holding herself together, screwing her eyes shut.
Snaking left and right, forcing the gunners' aim off, he focused every nerve in his body on evading shots. Shreds of metal from the explosive bullets rattled against the silvery surface of the plane. He prayed the metal hydride stack wouldn't get hit.
The hand gripping the control stick sweated profusely. He wanted to get away from this. Death was right there within reach; he wanted to be away from this fear. He subconsciously hit the throttle again. With a heavy groan, the Santa Cruz continued to descend, while speeding up.
The ten San'un kept up speeding, but rose in altitude. The front guns glittered, and red bullet traces lined the sky, pursuing them.
The world beyond the windshield was filled with flames. They could feel the heat. But he didn't even have the time to wipe away sweat.
After passing through the ashen world and descending to around the same altitude as the destroyers, the blanket of cloud underneath broke up again.
Charles' eyes widened. Like a rising cumulonimbus cloud, the blanket cloud under him rose in a dome shape, like a small mountain. It wasn't just one; like a mountain range on the cloud, a whole line of clouds rose. And from the other side of the windshield came the rumbling and pressure of several lifting devices.
The top of the dome appeared as he shouted. Spraying into the air, four proud Amatsukami heavy cruisers ascended with a malevolent groan.
Drops of water covered the surface of the bug-shaped ship, and its black exterior gleamed in the sunlight. They were each roughly 150 meters in length, four heavy ships lined in a crisp single-line formation.
Charles ground his teeth as he took stock of his surroundings.
The destroyers had been in a two-column formation to chase him here.
As if spreading out both arms to embrace him, the heavy cruisers were pointed at the Santa Cruz. And their armaments were incomparable to the destroyers giving chase from behind. Their guns were set up in a T-formation, and now they were in the most perfect of positions to fire. If he were to keep flying forward, they'd simply turn to dust in moments.
The fronts of all four cruisers turned crimson, and the heavens shook from the cannons.
Instinctively, Charles wanted to push his control stick forward and dive toward the cloud.
Don't go down!
His intuition screamed.
An instantaneous reaction kept his and Fana's lives intact.
In the blink of an eye, Charles pulled the control stick he was about to push toward himself, and kicked the right footbar.
The wings and centrifugal force reacted to the control, and the Santa Cruz rolled to the side, like a kite whose string just snapped.
The shells from the heavy cruisers exploded, pursuing the Santa Cruz. But the plane was sliding sideways and losing altitude as it rolled, so it was impossible for the enemy to anticipate his movements.
Charles didn't pause rolling. The world spun around them. Their visibility was obscured by flame and smoke. Most pilots would no doubt succumb to the loss of location, but Charles' natural talent allowed him to hold onto the invisible horizon.
Glaring at a single point ahead of him, he focused, and he gradually stabilized the plane from a drilling motion.
Charles' trained semicircular canals hardly felt the effect of the rolling. The world stopped instantly, and he was back to normal. The rear seat was quiet. Most new pilots would be initiated by a veteran in aerial rolling, and they would lose consciousness, so Charles assumed Fana did, too. And he thought was good. She was buckled into the seat with the seat belt, so she wouldn't be thrown out of the plane. So paying the rear seat no mind, he glanced around him.
He'd evaded one salvo from the forward heavy cruisers, but the destroyers were still gaining ground from behind. If he'd escaped toward the cloud, he'd have to flown right into the hail of shells, no doubt resulting in an explosion.
But he couldn't relax now. The second salvo was coming.
All I can do is keep dodging.
Crawling under the cloud was the last of his options. The enemy would anticipate him wanting to go under, after all, and would be prepared. He couldn't just follow the book.
Quickly speeding up the plane, Charles flew in the opposite direction of the heavy cruisers' vector, whilst snaking.
He wanted to fly toward the rear of the four heavy cruisers flying to cut him off, and try to evade the shells fired from the underbelly. He concentrated, carefully but almost flamboyantly flying just over the top of the clouds.
The clouds were mashed up by shots. The San'un silhouettes looked farther away than before. Their top-speed difference was beginning to show, and they were beginning to break off. The heavy cruisers couldn't keep up with the deft movements of the Santa Cruz either, as they were just now beginning to turn.
I can get past them!
But the moment he saw hope, they were just as quickly dashed.
The king of the sky - Shinden.
Like the heavy cruisers, they appeared in front of the Santa Cruz, having come through the cloud below. A total of seven. Going head-to-head. They were probably waiting for Charles below, but got impatient, and took initiative.
"Seven planes from behind."
Charles was taken aback at hearing Fana's slightly raspy voice through the voice pipe. He was surprised she managed to avoid losing consciousness from the Santa Cruz' abrupt movements. Her voice was also slightly tensed, by she was staying calm during this harsh firefight. She was more level-headed than he'd expected.
He looked behind and saw the seven new planes, as Fana had said. Combined with the seven in front, there were fourteen. He prayed they weren't, like the other day, that good. If that were the case, he could be at least somewhat confident he'd be able to get away.
As several propellers made heavy rumbling sounds, the wings of the Shinden in front turned red, and red lines streaked toward them.
At last, Charles pushed the control stick forward.
The Santa Cruz plunged smoothly into the cloud below.
The windshield was immediately covered an ashen color, and at the altitude of around 7,500 meters, he cleared through the cloud.
Sunlight was screened by the cloud, and the sky below was dreary. And even darker-gray colored clouds were below, making visibility poor. Even if it wasn't raining, this wasn't an ideal situation for pursuit.
"Fourteen planes descending from above."
Fana's calm voice came across. Charles didn't look in the given direction, and hit the throttle. He knew the accuracy of Fana's reporting. There was no point in painstakingly confirming each and every one now. He'd come to trust her eyes as his own, so he simply opted to control the plane.
The formation of Shinden followed from behind. He could feel them on his back. Their killing intent filled the sky and passed through the windshield, soaking into his soul.
The first shots were fired.
He kicked the left footbar to evade. The Shinden that fired flew past the Santa Cruz, and kept flying straight forward.
It was different this time. Maybe the squad leader changed. He felt uneasy as the next Shinden tried to line up a shot and fired.
At this point, there was nothing left but to keep repeating the same evasive maneuver every time they tried to line up a shot. He kicked the footbar again to slide the plane away from the shots. And the streaks of red passed by the Santa Cruz and pelted through the dark clouds.
And again, this Shinden flew past the Santa Cruz, and flew straight ahead.
Something was wrong. He peered into the dark sky ahead.
The first Shinden had done a quick turn and was heading toward him. The second Shinden followed suit.
Enemy planes in front and in the rear. Charles realized what they were after.
"That's not good."
The fourteen Shinden were going to abuse their superior speed, to create a circle around the Santa Cruz, attacking from every angle.
They weren't going to screw things up like before, where the squad leaders fought with each other to try to grab glory for themselves. This time they were extraordinarily coordinated and reasonable.
His plane was already inferior, and now he was going to be subjected to a coordinated attack. Hope was dwindling.
And as if to crush the dwindling hope, the Shinden from behind broke formation and began attacking the Santa Cruz individually, firing as they passed by.
Charles continued to perform evasive maneuvers every time anyone got on an even plane with him. He pondered asking Fana to man the rear gun, but he decided against it. If she were to grip the gun, the enemy pilots would begin to aim at her, too. And he didn't want that to happen.
I can't change my strategy now.
He was determined.
All he would do now was to kick the footbar anytime someone lined up a shot at him. The simplicity made him uneasy, but there was nothing else to be done. So many of his comrades had been shot out of the sky because they tried to do something else. Charles understood that the best way to survive in the sky was to hone your fundamentals.
The Shinden attack was relentless. 20mm guns blazed one after another as the enemy made passes.
He would simply time his footbar kicks with the enemy's passes. And every time he'd kick the left footbar, he'd slide left. The enemy would then fly past Charles, make a big turn, fly at him, and then return to the big circle of planes. And when the thirteen planes in front made their pass, it would be his turn again. There was no end to the loop. The only thing Charles could do was keep sliding the plane.
It was like an ant hole without an exit. No matter how much he struggled, there was no light at the end of the tunnel. If they kept firing at him like this, eventually … a feeling of despair slowly crept up on him.
This was a battle of wills.
This was hard on the enemy, too. It took great effort for fourteen planes to continue flying in coordinated formation. So he would continue to focus on the planes behind him, avoiding direct hits whilst limiting the damage done to the Santa Cruz.
The longer the show went on, the more the enemy pilots would begin to fret. They'd fear flying out of radio distance of the carrier. The longer he held out, the more anxious they'd become, and the only way to survive was to hold out until they gave up. And to do that, he had to keep dodging every single shot. He was pouring every bit of stamina, will, and sensory strength into dodging, with his proud skill.
The hand gripping the control stick began to tremble, because he was growing tired. His nerves, stretched to their limits, began fraying. But the moment he let down his guard, he'd be taken out. He reminded himself that Fana was seated behind him, now, and he berated himself for wanting to stop.
Don't ever give up.
Tracers flew past him, the color of magma. He would just keep flying straight, sliding left and right, avoiding shots. This was all he needed to do. He musn't try to do anything else.
That was one of the most courageous decision for a pilot. Most pilots, stuck in the middle of so many planes relentlessly attacking him, would become aggravated at the repetition of the simple task, try to do something that wasn't fundamental, and instead fall prey to the enemy's trap and get shot. But Charles was so good at the fundamentals that he could hold out in such a hopeless situation.
He dodged. And kept dodging. Over and over again; that was all he thought about, paying careful attention to each and every movement, and staying calm, flew around thousands of bullets, deftly flew like a sparrow.
Even if there were fourteen enemies, they wouldn't be able to hit him unless they lined up perfectly. And they could only attack one at a time, so as long as he gave proper respective to each one, over and over again, he'd eventually see the light at the end of the tunnel. Telling himself this, Charles did his best to keep plugging away.
The Shinden pilots in turn were vexed by Charles' skill.
The Amatsukami pilots knew, because of the radio telegraph code, that the empress-to-be of the Levahm Empire was seated in the rear seat of the Santa Cruz. It was obvious to everyone that shooting down the enemy's light of hope in the middle of the ocean would lead to a promotion and endless glory, so they secretly gave chase. However, the enemy pilot was unbelievably good. It took a tremendous amount of skill to continue evading attacks whilst being surrounded by so many enemy planes.
All of the Shinden pilots knew they wouldn't be able to replicate such a feat - except for one.
And the formation leader was excited at meeting someone of equal skill. He didn't think someone this good was part of the Levahm Empire. It wasn't out of the question to believe he was the top pilot of the Levahm Empire, considering he was entrusted with the empress' life.
His heart began racing. He wanted to shoot this pilot down. This childish feeling made his neck crooked, like a preying mantis. He wanted to take this pilot on, one on one, using the fullest of his skills, instead of being restricted by the tight formation.
Once upon a time, there were proud warriors in the Amatsukami, called "samurai." There was still a bit of that blood in this formation leader.
He wasn't interested in accolades or promotions. He lived to fight people of great skill. As long as he was able to partake in a "do or die" combat, he didn't care about anything else. And as long as he was able to shoot down Fana del Moral, any selfish action would be overlooked. The result, not the method, was what was important.
First lieutenant and formation leader, pilot Chijiwa, made such excuses to himself as he gave the rest of the formation an order over the radio.
"I'll do this alone; everyone else stand back."
Feeling the killing intent dissipate in the sky, Charles looked behind.
"The enemies…are backing off."
Fana spoke directly to the front seat. As she said, the circle of Shinden began to back off, and gradually completely dissipated. The rain of tracer shots stopped just like that, and only the Santa Cruz' propeller could be heard.
"Did they give up?"
"No, just one plane is left. The rest ascended."
Charles glanced around behind him. As Fana said, one plane, seemingly the formation leader, maintained altitude, while the other thirteen backed out of the airspace and, like confirmation planes, simply watched.
The plane in pursuit sped up.
Feeling nervous, Charles held his foot over the footbar, but the enemy plane, instead of lining up, closed in from the left side, and began flying at his side.
The single-seat Shinden, not equipped with a revolving turret, couldn't fire at him. And because the Santa Cruz' rear gun was fixed, they were both safe from each other.
Charles glared at the plane from the side of his eye.
And when he realized that at the side of the nose was an mocking illustration of a beagle, he felt goosebumps all over him.
He hadn't forgotten - the pilot flying next to him now was the opponent who downed Charles for the first time in his life. The guy that stared at him, savoring victory as he circled around the parachuting Charles.
He wouldn't lose the next time they met, Charles had sworn. After that, he'd searched for the beagle every time he flew into combat. He didn't care if he was stepped on and mocked on the ground, but he didn't want to lose in the air. He would put his pride on the line to defeat the beagle - he'd vowed.
But to appear now of all times!
Begrudgingly, he glared into the enemy cockpit.
And there, the pilot slid back his windshield, and looked coolly back at him.
It was a very feminine face, but the sharp jaw and sunken expression proved he was a man. The sky-blue muffler flowed with the wind, and with a challenging smirk, he stared at Charles, with eyes that seemed to pierce everything that existed in this airspace.
There as no mistake about it. It was the opponent he'd been looking for.
Charles glared back. And then he smirked, challenging the opponent.
Can you actually take me down?
He forced that feeling into his eyes, and hammered the emotion into the enemy. The confident enemy, in turn, accepted the look. Fana sounded worried.
"He's looking for a duel. It's an Amatsukami duel ritual."
"Like a samurai."
"It's also the best way to take us down. One really good pilot is better than fourteen bad pilots."
"Is that so?"
"Unfortunately, that is so."
That beagle was good. On a good day, they were around even in skill. He didn't want to think about a bad day, because that might chip away at his mental state.
The true strength of the Shinden, as pulled out by an elite pilot - Charles knew in his soul the dark prospects brought on by that.
He picked up the voice pipe.
This would be the last test.
This might be where everything ends…so he wanted to talk to Fana one more time.
"This is it, Lady. The enemy is incredibly strong, but let's get through this together."
"Yes. Together." Fana quietly answered Charles' resolute voice.
The word 'together' settled warmly into her heart.
Survive together, or die together.
No matter which way things went, she'd quietly accept it. It was a natural, and comfortable, feeling.
After closing his windshield and losing some speed, the enemy pilot settled behind and above the Santa Cruz.
The fight was on.
Charles breathed deeply, and gripped the control stick.
And then he suddenly pushed the stick forward. The silver wing turned amidst the thin-ink-colored sky, and the Santa Cruz plunged into a thick mess of cloud.
The beagle-plane followed suit, without any trouble. Along with the heavy groaning of its rear propellers, the snake-like jet-black plane cut through the dark-gray cloud and flung puffs of cloud into the sky behind it.
Charles could feel the enemy behind him. He couldn't see, but the beagle was keeping up with him. He knew as much.
It was a thicker cloud than he'd expected. He stared at the altitude meter as they made a nosedive. Altitude 2,500 meters. And they still weren't through the cloud. The windshield was covered in such a thick cloud that he couldn't even see his own wings. The enemy shouldn't be able to see him in such density, either.
He pulled the stick toward him and righted the plane.
Mid-cloud flight was Charles' specialty. Even though normal pilots lost track of their location, Charles was born with the ability to hang on to the horizon, no matter what happened.
Santa Cruz cut through the gray darkness.
Raindrops slid along the windshield. Only the sound of the propeller echoed through the dark world. He couldn't see anything, except for the horizon that was engraved into his mind. And he flew toward that horizon.
This cloud was thicker than he thought, and expansive. It was great for losing opponents. Even if Charles was the chaser, he wouldn't be able to keep track of the enemy.
I've lost him, he thought, as he punched out of the cloud.
The beautiful ocean suddenly appeared under them.
His eyes, so used to the darkness, were stunned for a moment.
The airspace past the cloud was absolutely empty, a world of cloud-density zero.
Far below him was the calm ocean that looked like a scattering of silver leaves. It was like waves were frozen in place, like a model landscape. From the aquamarine ocean, to the sky slightly thinner in color than the ocean, the harsh sunlight from the southern peak rained on everything. And that sunlight was reflected directly off of the surface.
And Charles realized. That amidst this landscape of fortune and bounty, was a malevolent sound of a propeller. He wanted to act like he didn't hear it, but the voice pipe sounded.
"Left and up, to the back, the enemy is in pursuit."
Holding back his urge to shout, ‘That's impossible!’ he turned to where Fana had directed him.
The first thing that his eyes met was the fierce sunlight. He quickly darted his eyes a bit to the side, and saw the jet-black snake-like plane nestled into the sun from the side of his eye.
The beagle, as if in a sightseeing flight, had settled in with the sun at his back, chasing him textbook-style.
Never mind losing his way in the clouds after such a long flight, he'd actually even managed to keep hold of the Santa Cruz' position.
"Oh, crap," he mumbled. He was on inferior footing in airspace with nowhere to hide, and plane inferiority aside, even the piloting skill was inferior - that would only lead to one thing.
Along with Fana's voice, the Shinden's propeller sound changed. Slicing diagonally through the air, the beagle attacked from above. The maneuver of swooping in from a higher altitude mimicked that of an eagle swooping after its prey.
Charles quickly kicked the footbar, slanted the control stick, and evaded the charging plane.
Bullets would come raining down as they grazed past each other - is what he'd braced himself for, but the enemy didn't fire a single shot. After sliding past just an arm's reach apart, the beagle turned around about 600 meters under him.
It was like this before, too, when he'd been shot down. Until he was securely in firing range, he didn't waste a single shot. Like an "iai" swordsman, he brought his plane as close to firing range as possible, and only when he was certain of landing shots would he fire with his 20mm guns.
This was too dangerous an enemy.
Charles at the moment only had three ways to win: wait for the enemy to run out of fuel, run out of ammo, or be overcome by fear of crashing and give up.
He would obviously have to give up on hoping the enemy would run out of ammo. He would have to look at this as, if the enemy fired, he'd be shot down. They probably had a similar amount of fuel, so the only thing he could do was pray the enemy would give up.
But would this enemy turn his tail just by being pulled along a bit?
Wouldn't someone so skilled that he could chase an enemy straight through a cloud be experienced in ocean flight?
Someone experienced in ocean flight wouldn't panic over flying out of radio range. They'd simply keep chasing, without worry. So how was he supposed to win?
Charles realized he was inching closer to utter despair. And realizing that, he desperately tried to focus. This wasn't the time to be feeling anxious.
After all, as he was thinking, the Shinden's propeller groaned. It was rising in the air. The black light, with its silent guns, felt even creepier than before.
Where would he run? It was time for Charles to decide, again. And he mustn't mess up that decision. The future of Levahm was seated behind him. Each and every move would change the face of the central ocean war.
If he tried to evade sideways, it'd become close-ranged combat. If that happened, the Santa Cruz, with inferior turning speed, would instantly be riddled with 20mm bullets and dropped into the ocean. The Shinden's forte was in close-ranged combat, so he couldn't let that happen.
He could only go vertically. And that didn't mean a calm descent, but rather a nosedive at top speed, to shake the Shinden.
There was just one thing he'd never tried against a Shinden. Maybe, just maybe, it would work. He wasn't left with much else.
Current altitude, 4,300. He might be able to do it. No, he'd have to.
In the time it'd take for the fireworks from a flint striking stone to vanish, his instincts as a pilot made him jar his plane downward.
The Shinden stabbed upward, at his underbelly. At that instant, the Santa Cruz did a half-spin and began flying straight down.
Like a panther, the Shinden also turned, and began chasing him down.
Charles didn't turn to look behind him. Only the stopped ocean was in the view across the windshield. Toward the blue of the lulling ocean, while feeling incredible plus-G, he screeched downward.
The altitude meter plummeted. The wings began to show wrinkles. Air pressure gathered against the plane, but he forced the control stick in place to prevent the plane from hopping.
As he fell, his speed rose. He forced the plane to the limits of its durability.
What he hadn't tested against a Shinden - matching their respective structural builds.
A Shinden's strength lay in its speed and maneuverability, and its incredible flight distance.
Currently the Shinden was faster, could turn better, and fly further than any other plane. But he couldn't imagine there being that big of a difference in their metal hydride stack technology. If the base engine was the same, then what would cause the plane to be that much superior? Something important must have been sacrificed.
So what would have been sacrificed? What did the Shinden sacrifice for its superiority?
The hull, in other words. The armor plating was the most likely sacrifice.
If it had gained superiority by sacrificing the safety of the pilot to maximize the power output of the plane, then it would explain much.
What if the Shinden were actually structurally weak?
That was Charles' reasoning. And if he were right, the Shinden wouldn't be able to keep up with him on such a drastic descent. The plane, designed for close-ranged combat, would fall apart against the massive air pressure, and crumble into the sea.
Altitude 3,000, 2,500, 2,000.
Still getting faster, he dove over 2,000 meters. Fana had probably lost consciousness this time. He glanced at the wings from the side, and noticed there were wrinkles forming from the front to the rear, as if they would tear away any second.
If he were to keep descending, the Santa Cruz would fall apart. The instant he came to that conclusion, he flashed a look behind him.
The Shinden was right behind him.
After about a 2,000 meter dive, the Shinden was calmly diving after the Santa Cruz.
"I can't win this!!" He shouted. The Shinden was as structurally sound as the Santa Cruz, if not more so. He couldn't even begin to fathom how that plane got its power.
He had less piloting skill, his plane was inferior both in flight and structure, and in his back seat was Fana, who was inexperienced in aerial combat.
He couldn't win. There was no way he could win.
He came close to being crushed by despair. But he hadn't been shot down yet. He hadn't lost yet; he was still miraculously flying.
So, he couldn't give up, until the end.
He kept willing himself forward, as he lifted his nose.
He needed to get away from the beagle, no matter what. He couldn't think of anything beyond that.
And to do that - he'd have to try his last resort!
Charles pulled out every bit of courage he had in him. He'd have to bet on a dangerous risk again. But at this point, testing his limits was the only thing left to do.
This enemy was strong. He was superior in every facet. He would acknowledge that much. But he couldn't afford to lose. With Fana sitting behind him, he couldn't just roll over and give up!
He hit the throttle, and began a somersault. He prayed the enemy would bite, and looked behind him.
The beagle followed. Flight just a bit off-center from the Santa Cruz, he also began doing a somersault, without suspecting anything.
He'd avoided all sorts of tricks, but he finally bit on this trap. Charles could finally take the initiative.
What Charles challenged him to do was the S-class Levahm Empire piloting trick, the "Ishmael Turn", considered the most difficult maneuver regardless of whether you were from the east or west of the ocean.
Chijiwa, piloting the Shinden, tilted his control stick with nary a twitch. Not knowing nor caring whether his Shinden could keep up with the 2,000 meter dive of the Santa Cruz in front of him, he now saw the Santa Cruz begin a somersault.
Of course Chijiwa followed suit. His enemy was quick, brave, and determined. And that made Chijiwa very happy. Since he'd began piloting the Shinden he'd not come across someone like this; someone worth fighting.
The Santa Cruz, in a lazy arc, was beginning to reverse at the peak of the somersault.
By that point, Chijiwa knew what was going on.
The first-class flight skill known among the Amatsukami as the "Left Screw" - it involved doing a half-roll at the peak of the somersault, to cause the pursuing plane to overshoot past you.
And see, the Santa Cruz, doing a reverse, began to slide to its left. He vaguely remembered the Levahm Empire calling it the "Ishmael Turn," after its originating pilot.
This was the first time Chijiwa would see it being used in combat. Because there was the risk of losing speed and falling, pilots never attempted it.
The enemy pilot was probably smirking, thinking "gotcha." Performing a legendary maneuver that only three people had perfected, he probably felt like he'd overcome Chijiwa's nerves.
"I win," Chijiwa whispered, as he lifted his foot from his left footbar, and lightly kicked the right footbar. The Shinden barely reacted to the rudder, sliding to its left as it reversed.
That was the exact same movement as Charles.
Chijiwa felt a bit lonely the fight was drawing to an end, but he was satisfied because he'd be able to finish it with a flourish.
Smirking, thinking "gotcha," Charles lifted his foot from his left footbar, and lightly kicked the right footbar. Whilst everyone knew of its existence, only three had executed it in combat, the Ishmael Turn. The one giving chase would suddenly find himself being chased, and he would be filled with a look of astonishment. If he had forward guns he'd immediately open fire, but the recon plane didn't have any. So he'd do the turn, then immediately flee at full power.
Still sliding sideways on his back, he tilted his control stick to the right, lowering his right wing. As if flying on its back, the plane slowly rolled, drifting like an automobile. Then, adjusting the aileron, he caused the plane to hover a bit, causing a floating feeling from the lack of gravity, whilst still on his back.
The Santa Cruz responded well to his precise controls.
The maneuver he wanted worked flawlessly, and he was pointed straight at the belly of his pursuit - or he was supposed to be.
But the enemy that should be in front of him wasn't there. The pilot that was supposed to be astonished wasn't there. Only the blue, summer sky he was so used to looking at was in front of him.
He glanced behind him, eyes widened in surprise.
Behind the Santa Cruz, the Shinden completed adjusting the aileron, finished hovering a bit, and had gone past the point of the floating feeling from the lack of gravity. Now, it was just pointing its 20mm guns, glistening black in the sun, at him.
The distance between them - well it wasn't possible to evade. It was the same distance as when he'd been taken down before; a distance where there was nothing else to do.
Charles understood that he had underestimated his enemy too much. And he also knew it was far too late to regret things.
"Fana," He whispered, apologetically.
Having safely completed his screw-like maneuver, Chijiwa re-gripped his control stick, and stared straight ahead at his prey.
The back of the Santa Cruz was right next to the Shinden's 20mm guns.
He could imagine the pilot's astonished face.
It would be harder to miss at this range. One salvo would cause shredded bits of the enemy plane to rain on his Shinden.
Chijiwa placed a finger over his trigger.
And he saw the expression on Fana del Moral's face, seating in the rear seat.
I see, the rumors of her being as beautiful as the light were true.
Her silhouette glimmered. Otherworldly was an apt description, and her figure, that which seemingly came from the netherworld, momentarily sucked away his soul.
And then Chijiwa realized that this beautiful empress wore a determined look on her face, with her hand gripping the machine gun pointed directly at the Shinden. Her eyes were cold and clear, like that of a warrior of the sky, piercing through him.
With an utterance of shock, Chijiwa snapped back into himself, realized that his life was in danger, and pulled the trigger on his 20mm guns.
Fana's eyes had been peeled open from the start of the fight. She was used to dealing with fear. Since her childhood, she always used it to escape from the unreasonableness of the world - to watch reality like an opera, from her castle on the other side of the glass panel, like the most extreme of cowards. Now, she stared at the enemy plane's movements like that.
Fana, on the other side of the glass panel, could even observe herself like someone else. That's why she could ignore any fear and simply stare at the entirety of the fight, from start to end, from her rear seat.
Even the extreme descent that almost made her black out, to the emergency turn, she'd gone through all of it in the two weeks of training before departure, so she was barely able to stay conscious.
And what's more, Fana had been silently waiting over Charles' words on the island.
"If I want to shoot them down, what should I do?"
"You need them to come as close as possible. Until their plane is sticking out from the sight."
Now, the enemy was so close that his plane was sticking out of the sight.
Fana stepped forward, through the glass panel, back into reality.
Sounds returned to her. The harsh sound of wind blasting against the windshield. And she could see the enemy pilot looking astonished, gripping his control stick right in front of her.
She could feel cold steel at her fingertips.
The machine gun's trigger.
"Fana," She heard, from across the seat.
She thought that meant, "fire."
Heavy, dull gunshot sounds echoed between the Santa Cruz and the Shinden, and scorching crimson trails carved paths between them.
Like the clash of ultimate blows between two master swordsmen - in a flash, the sky was sliced apart.
The next moment, the sound of exploding shells shook the world, and brown-colored flames engulfed them.
Shattered silver spiraled into the blue sky, like spraying mist, and the summer sunlight reflected and glimmered off the shrapnel.
The exchange of shots lasted but a moment.
Both fired almost simultaneously - and that was enough to decide the contest.
The sound of gunshots still reverberated in Charles' ears.
The sound of the swirling wind washed away everything else.
A static blue sky awaited on the other side of the windshield.
The Santa Cruz was still flying. He glanced at the dashboard. Nothing abnormal.
Charles let go of the left footbar. The moment he saw Fana for some reason gripping the machine gun, he instinctively slid the plane to the side. If he were just a bit later, they would have turned into shreds of flesh, to fall into the ocean. Fortunately the enemy pilot hesitated to shoot.
He turned around.
The empress-to-be was looking dumbfounded as she held the machine gun trigger. The smell of gunpowder filled the seats. Looking like she was holding back tears, Fana turned around to him.
Her voice was raspy. She looked like she didn't know what happened.
"It hit, it hit."
"Did you shoot?"
"Did he die?"
After that broken conversation, Charles glanced around, then shook his head sideways, and pointed down and to the right.
"It hit the front of his left wing. He won't be able to fight in the air with that."
He was pointing at the Shinden, wobbling in the air with the front third of its left wing shorn away.
Fana's eyes widened. The plane was bobbing, and it looked like just a touch of a finger would send it falling, but the pilot was desperately keeping it in the air.
"He's alive, thank god."
Fana sounded relieved.
What're you doing worrying over the safety of an enemy on a battlefield, chuckled Charles, but he stared down at the Shinden, to hide his amusement.
"It's amazing he can still fly. He's an enemy, but he's incredibly skilled."
300 meters under the Santa Cruz, the enemy pilot was struggling with the check helm to keep balance. If he had wing-mounted guns he'd be able to down the plane, but the Santa Cruz lacked the armament for that. He could fly behind and under the enemy and shoot it down with the rear gun, but there was no point in risking danger to do that. His primary goal was to carry Fana to safety, after all.
The fight was over.
"Shall we send him a greeting?" he whispered, as he slowly brought the Santa Cruz down, stopping at the Shinden's side, just as they'd been before the fight began.
The enemy pilot's face was on the other side of the windshield.
Charles slid his windshield back, and looked at the enemy pilot.
He, noticing, slid his windshield back, too, and looked nobly at Charles.
Neither of them were reckless enough to continue a futile battle.
Charles silently saluted.
The enemy pilot, looking a bit bitter, made a grim face and saluted back.
Fana looked at the two enemy pilots in fascination. It was odd, but she also felt a bit warm. Even though they were enemies, the sight of two men acknowledging each other was splendid.
Charles closed the windshield and sped up, leaving the Shinden behind.
Charles wagged his wings up and down. This was a pilot's greeting. The other pilot could no longer spare a look in his direction, but he'd managed to stabilize, and soon vanished from their sight.
Only the blue sky was left in front of Charles.
Nothing would obstruct them now. All he had to do was fly until sunset, and they'd reach Cyon island. And to the west of Cyon island was Levahm-dominated airspace.
Charles simply flew.
He thought of nothing but flying, and kept careful watch, to make sure he wouldn't slip up at the end.
Fana did the same. Without saying anything superfluous, she kept watch over the back of the Santa Cruz.
They didn't speak, but the atmosphere in the seat was far more homely than before. It was like that of a pair of pilots who'd flown together for several years, and would keep flying together for the foreseeable future. Charles and Fana lent their backs to each other.
Eventually - the final destination of the flight appeared on the ocean surface reflecting the evening sunset.
The meeting place with the ship sent from the mainland was a nameless crag some 110 kilometers from Cyon island.
Charles lowered his two floats. Then, drawing an elegant angle of elevation in the air, the Santa Cruz landed on the surface like the setting sun.
Golden traces radiated on the surface and soundlessly vanished.
The spinning of the propeller died away, and after looking for a moment like they were turning again, slowly stopped groaning, and eventually, stopped.
After switching the metal hydride stack to "recharge," Charles closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and smiled as he turned around.
"Thank you very much, Lady, the flying has come to an end."
Fana turned to Charles, and with an awkward smile, replied, "But you still have things to do?"
"Yes. I need to contact La Pista airbase, to call someone from the mainland. After that, all we have to do is wait for the ship."
"I see." Fana lowered her eyes and quietly whispered.
Charles' heart wrenched. He felt restless. But to hide that feeling, he opened the windshield, feigning happiness.
"This is the final night. There's no more need for aerial combat, so let's just enjoy ourselves."
And then he stood on the wing, stretched out a hand to help Fana out of her seat, and pumped air into the rubber boat. Now completely experienced, Fana helped with the preparations.
Lukewarm wind blew past the ocean, reflecting the evening. Somewhere amidst the salty wind was a scent signaling the end of summer.
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