Even if he was trampled on by people on the ground, he would lose to no one in the sky. That was the pride of private Karino Charles of the del Moral Aerial Knights. Even as a former refugee bestado, he was free as long as he was in control of the stick of an Iris II. There were no social hierarchies in the sky. Only the strong survive. That simplicity was good.
However, even so…this spec difference was too unfair!
Hammering at the throttle to speed up, Charles looked behind him.
Beyond the organic glass windshield was a clear, 4,000 meters of blue sky. But marring the expanse of blue was a single, jet-black plane, chasing him down with calm composure. The sharp nose, the crooked wings, the propeller on its back - Amatsukami Air Fleet's latest single-seat fighter plane, the "Shinden", or True Lightning, that had been unveiled along with the start of the central ocean war.
Charles was piloting the Holy Levahm Empire's pride, a new single-seat fighter plane, the "Iris II." Before the combat began, everyone assumed the Amatsukami air force would be shot down by Iris IIs before they could even see the Great Fall. But upon opening the lid of war, an unpleasant surprise awaited them.
It became clear that it was actually the Levahm air force that couldn't even get close enough to see the Great Fall. Iris IIs couldn't touch Shindens, and the airspace over the Great Fall quickly fell into the Amatsukami Air Fleet's hands. The effectiveness of superior fighter plane fleets in aerial warfare was a harsh lesson taught to the Levahm imperial command.
Armaments, flight distance, maneuverability, top speed, climbing power… the Iris II was inferior in every way. And the gap in inferiority wasn’t even close. It was so inferior that current pilots would shed tears of blood in frustration, and bad pilots would instantly give up the moment a Shinden showed up, not even wanting to fly anymore. A certain flight expert remarked that it was as if the Shinden had "skipped two steps ahead in flight technology development." Charles knew first-hand that wasn't an exaggeration. Shindens were faster, quicker at turning, could climb better, and hit harder.
“I can't win!!” Charles spat this out as he kicked the footbar with both feet, bit-by-bit, controlling the stick with his whole body, trying to shake the Shinden. But he could imagine the Shinden pilot just smirking as it looked like the Shinden was casually being pulled toward his tail.
Charles had the pride of being a del Moral Aerial Knight ace. He was confident he was superior to most Levahm pilots, and truth be told, he had utterly demolished a slew of Levahm air force aces. Everyone acknowledged him as the best pilot of San Martilia, Karino Charles.
However, even so, for him to be dominated with such ease!
Charles used his overboost. Using up an enormous amount of his metal-hydride battery, the Iris II, aided by the explosive boost in speed, turned into a climb. There was a thin, silken-thread-like cloud at around 5,000 altitude. He wanted to fly in there and lose his enemy.
He looked behind him. The Shinden followed, after a bit of hesitation. Nodding once and calming his breathing, Charles nosed his Iris II into the cloud.
Cloud flight was the pride of Charles. Most pilots risk airspace ataxia and prefer not to fly in clouds for long, but Charles had the God-given gift of being able to hang onto an invisible horizon, and the skill to maintain according plane control. Passing through the cloud, he saw the blue ocean spread under him.
Did I get away?
When he looked behind, Charles' eyes opened wide.
Unbelievably, the Shinden had managed to come even closer to the Iris II. Not just a bit closer, but so close the Shinden's nose was about to ram the Iris II's tail. Getting as close as possible to take the enemy down in one volley was the ideal of a pilot, but this was too close.
It was like the legendary sword technique of the Amatsukami, the Iainuki. The unavoidable single strike, fired from anything constituting its range, would slice its poor victim in two. Charles' survival instincts slid the windshield back. The outside air rushed in.
They occurred almost simultaneously: the Shinden's 20mm guns on its wings opened fire, and Charles threw himself out of the cockpit with his parachute.
The shattered parts of his favorite plane danced into the late-spring azure. One wing was torn off, and dragging its blazing tail, Charles' plane spun in free-fall down to the ocean.
Biting his lips, he opened his parachute as he fell straight down. After a momentary load on his breast and shoulders, a yellow flower blossomed in the air. It was Charles' first parachute.
The Shinden was swirling around the falling Charles, proud of its handiwork. The enemy pilot was probably rejoicing, gazing at the pitiable sight of the loser. It was so humiliating he felt his brain about to catch fire. He swore he'd never parachute again. If he were to have to taste this much humiliation a second time, he'd rather die.
The Shinden crept closer. It was close enough to make out the pilot. Charles narrowed his eyes, and peered into the cockpit.
The pilot, with feminine features, lorded over Charles, smirking. His neck was covered in a fancy sky-blue muffler. Near the nose of the plane was an illustration of a beagle, as if making fun of people.
"I won't lose, next time." Carving an oath into his brain, Charles muttered out loud. Done gloating over his triumph, the Shinden turned, then left, happily flapping its wings.
Charles shouted after the vanishing plane.
"I'll remember you, Beagle!"
Shouting, he woke up to his own voice.
Groggily opening his eyes, he raised himself. A white, thin sheet had been placed over him. Looking around, he recognized his surroundings as the ever-familiar pilot dormitory. Outside the window was the red-dirt runway of the Almeria airport. He could hear the propeller of a patrol plane in the distance, mixed with the voices of some early morning insects. Sunlight, traced by the window sill, shone onto the hardwood floor.
By the side of the bed, his fellow pilot, Joakhim, was looking at Charles, puzzled.
"Tug of war?" He asked, looking worried.
Forcing laughter and brushing hair away from his forehead, Charles shook his head.
"Dreaming. Of when I was shot down two weeks ago."
"Ahh, that. That's what you get for fighting a Shinden. We've been told not to take them on, you know?"
"I'm regretting it enough. Stop teasing me."
Charles slid out of the wooden bed and did a light warm-up, cracked his knuckles, and changed out of his wood-fiber nightgown into his white flight-suit.
Compared to an Amatsuvian, his facial features were carved deeply, and his eyes were a transparent water-blue. But otherwise, he had chestnut hair and a slender body, with skin that was more light-peach than white. At first glance you would instantly think him a pure Amatsuvian. The reason why he wasn't able to enter the Levahm air force despite his magnificent flight skill was because of the blood running through him. But Charles didn’t hold a grudge against anyone about that. If a bestado were to enter the air force, he'd be subjected to a lot of malice. He was content with being able to fly in a fighter plane as part of the del Moral Aerial Knights. Most of the Knights, after all, were vulgar, rough social outcasts, but they were all light-hearted enough to joke about their own birthplaces and blood as they flew. That sort of atmosphere was a salvation to Charles.
Yawning, he washed his face, then went to the cafeteria with Joakhim.
There was no mission that morning. The early-rising del Moral Aerial Knights were gathered at one side of the cafeteria, eating oatmeal at plain, wooden tables.
The vacant seats stood out blaringly. Half-a-year since war began, the Knights were already halved in number. But no one talked about that. If the moment were to arise, they would gladly give remembrances to their fallen comrades, but in order to stave off grief, it was not a normal topic of discussion.
Taking his portion of the morning meal, he said good morning to his comrades, and pulled out a wooden chair.
On the other side of the cafeteria was a cluster of Levahm air force pilots.
They were allies, but they never really spoke. Mission briefings were done separately, and in most cases, the Knights were simply used as decoys for the air force. That's why their losses were so staggering.
The del Moral Aerial Knights had been created by Duke Diego, using his personal finances, with the blessing of the imperial family. They had the grandiose name of 'knights,' but in truth they were simply a gathering of pilots, regardless of background, thus essentially just a group of mercenaries. Their primary duty had been to fight pirates and escort transportation vessels, but when war broke out, they were shuffled under the command of the air force, and for the most part forced to fly into battle. The air force pilots all looked down on the knights, considering them "soldiers hired by a rustic noble," and despite their sacrifices, garnered no pity.
There were many who shook in anger at being treated as animals. They were mercenaries, so they didn't have any obligation to continue serving the army. But San Martilia was filled with the starving unemployed, so there weren't many kindhearted people willing to employ people who could only fly. Thus, they'd all return, shoulders drooped, for that day's worth of bread.
"Another weird one just came." Joakhim commented. Of late, several high-ranking officials had been arriving in black cars at Almeria, and would have long discussions in the aerial command room.
Swallowing the last of his breakfast, Charles remarked, "Hopefully the imperial prince hasn't come up with another new strategy."
The Knights chuckled. The feeble mind of the emperor-to-be, imperial prince Carlo Levahm, was the source of amusement not just for the Knights, but also for the air force.
"When will the Eighth Special Mission Fleet get here?" Joakhim sighed, neither serious nor joking, and another chuckle rose from the Knights.
The Eighth Special Mission Fleet had been dispatched eastward.
It would later be written into history books as the beginning of an unprecedented bridal reclamation operation. The story began three weeks before, when the del Moral mansion was violently attacked by seven Shinden.
Duke Diego's viciously burnt corpse was found among the rubble, and the three primary newspapers on the mainland printed the news on the front page.
It seems, they wrote along with the details of the incident, that imperial prince Carlo's fiancée, Fana del Moral, was being targeted by the Amatsuvians. By abducting the young, beautiful Lady from the Levahm imperial family, they would force an indefinite postponement of the wedding; the already-low morale of the Levahm army would be ground down even further, and the imperial court would feel the onset of war-weariness. On top of this, it was only a matter of time before the Amatsukami air force took complete control of San Martilia airspace. To them, kidnapping Fana del Moral was probably like having the enemy's last hopes in their hands. After conquering San Martilia, they could publicly execute her, or send her into a brothel … anything would work.
And it was this article that sent imperial prince Carlo into a rage, his face flushed with anger and desire.
One week after the incident, the imperial prince drew from the seven imperial fleets one aerial warship, three heavy airships, and seven destroyer airships. Forming a new fleet with them and dubbing it the "Eighth Special Mission Fleet," he sent it off to reclaim his beloved fiancée from the crumbling ruins of San Martilia. At their departure, an enormous party was thrown, with applause and cheers sent after the brave warriors.
The Levahm people are well known for their strong passion. The heroic, romantic mission was enthusiastically accepted by the populace, with newspapers printing showy front-page stories that detailed the love of imperial prince Carlo and Lady Fana. The imperial prince, a central figure in Levahmian beauty, personally sent the warriors off to rescue his fiancée with every ounce of zeal he had.
The plan was that the Eighth Special Mission Fleet would break through enemy lines, cross the central ocean in ten days, and arrive at Rio de Este. There, they would pick up Lady Fana and other high-ranked officials there, turn and break through the enemy lines again. In another ten days, they’d return to the capital city Esmeralda, in time for a grand ceremony celebrating the reunion of imperial prince Carlo and Lady Fana. That was the plan, anyway.
Now, two weeks after the departure of Eighth Special Mission Fleet, and no one received a single word on its whereabouts.
What happened to the Eighth Special Mission Fleet?
A mercenary who loved to gamble made his bet. "300 peseta it never crossed the Great Fall."
Charles didn't respond. It was so obvious it wasn't worth betting on.
There is a limit to how much you underestimate your enemy. The Amatsukami had already deployed their heaviest warships to create a blockade over the Great Fall. Lumbering warships would have no chance of slipping through. And if a skirmish broke out at the Great Fall, flocks of Shinden would be deployed from Awashima and Iyojima, destroying any defenses of the Special Mission Fleet and turning it into scrap.
Warship cannons are no match to the air-to-air thunder of fighter planes. That was common knowledge to most of the world.
They were underestimating the Amatsukami far too much.
There was a great difference in the Imperial Amatsukami that had been defeated by the Holy Levahm Empire 60 years ago and the one that was fighting now. They'd spent the last 60 years furiously advancing their technology, and was now capable of producing parts with not a hint of Levahm influence. The Shinden was simply one of those products.
The reason why we’re struggling so much is because the Levahm imperial command is unwilling to acknowledge the vast technological superiority of the enemy, Charles thought.
That was when an officer he didn't recognize, wearing a Levahm air force uniform, called Charles' name from the cafeteria entrance.
Dropping the spoon that was he was bringing to his mouth, Charles stood up on the spot, snapped his heels together and saluted the officer. According to the insignia on his breast, he was a commander.
"Sorry to interrupt your meal, but there's an emergency. Come with me to the command room."
The air force pilots shot Charles a suspicious look. Some of them didn’t even bother hiding their animosity, and outright glared. They weren't amused by a mere mercenary leaping over their official standing and being called by a high-ranking officer. Charles followed the commander, not paying them any heed.
The late-July sky floated above them as they left the dormitory. White, clouds were scattered everywhere, blown by the carefree wind. Sounding its propellers, a patrol plane was calmly cutting diagonally through the blue sky. The bluish-gray cowling reflected the translucent sun-rays.
Contrary to the wooden dormitory, the aerial command building was a sturdily-built two-story building. Large, brown cicadas were resting against the white-painted walls, basking in the warmth.
The Director of the Levahm air force Eastern Battalion, Captain Domingo Garcia, was seated on his leather chair in the command room on the second floor, waiting for Charles. His protruding stomach, his balding head, and the military cap plopped on his head marked the special characteristics of this man.
He glared at Charles, elbows resting on the office table, chin propped on his intertwined hands. Snapping his heels together, Charles placed his right fingertips over his temple in salute.
The commander went to stand by the captain's side, and opened a black notebook. He had an average build and height, and didn't look especially out-standing, but every now and then, he'd throw Charles a very discerning eye from behind his glasses.
Leafing through the profile documents, Captain Domingo lifted his slightly-yellow eyes.
"Private Charles Karino, of the Amadora region. 17 confirmed kills, 0 unconfirmed kills. A strange record."
"It is an honor."
"Do you like matching your recorded kills with the confirmed battle records?"
"No. I simply report it as I see it."
The captain snorted at Charles' response.
The Levahm air force recorded numbers from the battlefield in two ways. One was the pilots' reports themselves, and one was sent from the aircraft observing the battle, and these would be noted down as "confirmed kills as by both pilot and observer" and "kills reported by the pilot but unconfirmed by the observer." Because of this system, some shady pilots would have records of "0 confirmed kills, 17 unconfirmed kills." But Charles was the exact opposite.
He was honest, but he was also a fool. The number of kills dictated the stature of a pilot, and unconfirmed kills weren't just a sham. There're plenty of actual kills that simply occur outside of the observer's vision, which made this a useless honesty for Charles.
That's when the commander, staring down at the notebook, asked.
"We highly regard that straight-forward personality, though. We've done a background check, you were raised by a priest of the Aldista Church?"
"I was orphaned when I was nine, and the priest picked me up when I was starving to death when I was ten. While under his care, I was able to find work doing errands around the Almeria airport. I am very thankful to him."
Not knowing why he was being investigated so deeply, Charles tried to hide his worries as he replied.
Charles's father was a homeless seasonal worker; in other words, a refugee. While struggling to survive on the bottom-most rung of Levahm’s class system, he ruined his lungs in the coal mines and died. His mother then took the young Charles and used her connections to find work at at a noble's mansion, but after a few years was fired because of an incident. Shortly after, she was killed, stabbed by a masher at a bar. After wandering around Amadora as an orphan, a nearly-frozen ten-year-old Charles was picked up by an Aldista Church priest. It was then that he was able to resume his life.
It was through various lines of work that he began to frequent the Almeria airport, and befriend its pilots. He soon learned how to fly a plane, and then worked towards his current position, where he was able to fly a plane without a license. There was no lie in what he told the captain; even today, he still sent portions of his salary to the church.
"We recognize that you are a devout believer of the Aldista religion. Is this wrong?"
"I do my best to remain devout at all times."
"Then what do you think of men and women who have pre-marital intercourse?"
Still not knowing where this was leading, Charles answered with a line from the Aldista teachings.
"They fall to hell, to be burned for all eternity."
"Wonderful," Said the commander, apparently satisfied, and looked at the captain, prodding him on.
The captain stood up in an extravagant manner, clasped his hands behind him, and looked out the window. He spoke while facing away.
"Everything you hear from this point on is top secret. No matter the reason, if you tell anyone else this, you will be punished according to military law. Even amongst colleagues, you must not speak of this until granted permission."
The creepy feeling of a confirmed suspicion was touching the back of his mind. He wondered if he shouldn't listen to this after all, but curiosity won out.
"I want to entrust you with an important mission."
With that, the captain turned back to face Charles. This obese bald man liked putting on a show, Charles concluded. Each and every action was done deliberately, and it was beginning to irritate Charles.
Having toyed with Charles to the point where the latter's irritation was bubbling close to the surface, the captain stayed true to the feeling that the enormity of the situation doesn't actually appear until an illogical order is bluntly given. And thus issued from his mouth the most illogical order.
"With the Empress-to-be in your back seat, you are to fly alone through the central ocean and pass through the enemy blockade."
With the order given, the command room fell silent. Only the sound of the four-bladed electric fan mounted on the ceiling could be heard. Charles absorbed the order he'd just been given, doing his best to comprehend it.
The captain, trying his best to maintain his composure, asked, "Can you do it?"
"You are to deliver the imperial prince Carlo's fiancée to him."
Charles simply could not understand his captain’s order. So he sent a look of plea to the commander.
"This mission was supposed to be carried out by the Eighth Special Mission Fleet. But it was impossible. You can probably imagine what happened, but the Eighth Special Mission Fleet will not be arriving in Rio de Este to receive Lady Fana.
"However the reputation of the imperial prince must be preserved. After all, this was a mission of such magnitude that a grand ceremony was held. The failure of the Special Mission Fleet is not an option. The war-weariness faction would gain enough influence to call an end to the war. Thus, the annihilation of the Eighth Special Mission Fleet must remain a secret until the end of the war.
"Because of this, we absolutely must send Lady Fana to the imperial capital Esmeralda at all costs, and have the triumphant return festival held as planned. Yet, the Eighth Special Mission Fleet obviously cannot carry that out.
"That's where you come in. You will seat Lady Fana in a multi-seat aquatic reconnaissance plane, break through the enemy blockade alone, land on the waters near Cyon island, where there will be a friendly airport, and send a message to the mainland. The mainland will then send an airship to pick up Lady Fana, in secret. As you have probably figured out, this ship will bear the same emblem as the Eighth Special Mission Fleet.
"This ship will then arrive at the imperial capital, the lone survivor of the glorious mission to rescue Lady Fana, and she will be reunited with her beloved imperial prince Carlo. Imperial prince Carlo's Eighth Special Mission Fleet operation will thus have succeeded, and they will live happily ever after.
"Of course, you'll be rewarded well. You'll have enough to enjoy your life three times over. If the operation succeeds, you're free to live wherever you want, however you want. The imperial court will no longer be able to push you around. I'm actually quite envious.
"Harumph. Well, that is the plan hatched with the blood of command and the desire of imperial prince Carlo; the best we can do given the situation. It's an everyone-wins plan. Any questions?"
Though it had harsh realities mixed in, thanks to the kindly broken-down explanation provided by the commander Charles was finally able to understand.
But at the same time his throat became parched as he realized the magnitude of the order. It was so enormous he wanted to sit down.
He choked out his words. "Why are you entrusting this to me, instead of one of the Levahm air force pilots?"
"A good question, from one who understands his position, pilot Charles. The answer is simple. There is no one in our air force that can fly through the central ocean using only the terrain. Not only will you be using a reconnaissance plane, it will also be Lady Fana, not another pilot, in the rear seat. That's why it is important that the pilot can fly across the ocean without using any instruments. You've gone on round-trips across the ocean multiple times, haven't you?"
"Yes. It will be no problem," Charles answered with honesty.
Using the terrain meant relying on landmarks to fly, using the mountains, rivers, birds, and fish as your map. All single-seat fighter pilots fly this way. To fly without using landmarks, you need a navigator with highly specialized training in flight instruments.
As the commander said, del Moral Aerial Knights had flown across the central ocean numerous times before the war broke out. That's why most of the Knights could fly back and forth between the continents without a navigator. On the other hand, the Levahm air force pilots had never flown across the ocean without a navigator, so not one of them could undertake this mission.
On top of that premise, Charles was the del Moral Aerial Knights ace, with 17 confirmed and 0 unconfirmed kills, along with the religious belief that pre-marital sex would lead to eternal damnation in hell. Those were the reasons why Karino Charles was chosen.
"Just to add, upon arrival at the imperial capital, Lady Fana's body will be inspected by the church. If she is not the innocent being she was upon departure, regardless of the success of the mission, you will be executed by gunfire. Any complaints?"
"N-no. The inspection itself is a humiliation of my beliefs."
Seeing Charles's anger, the commander silently laughed, then became serious once more, his eyes glimmering beyond his glasses.
"Can you fly 12,000 kilometers into an enemy squadron, alone, while protecting a beautiful princess?"
Charles hesitated to answer. He quickly planned out a route in his mind, then thought out loud. "It would be difficult, but not impossible. I believe it's a lot more realistic than using a fleet to send one person back to the mainland," He answered honestly, then peered at the commander, to read his face. It looked satisfied.
If you send an entire fleet, complete with a departure ceremony, then of course it'd be discovered by the enemy and annihilated. The enemy wouldn't stop firing until it was eradicated. But placing Fana on an aquatic recon plane and flying secretly, using its superior speed to try and break the blockade, wasn't impossible. As long as you were vigilant, found the enemy before they found you, and fled. Even if the enemy began chasing, it was fast enough to shake them. He couldn't take on a Shinden, but he could run. And Charles, confident in his cloud flight, felt he could shake any as long as a single cloud was in the sky. Plus, contrary to a fleet, it was just one recon plane. The enemy wouldn't send an entire fleet after it. There may be times he's chased by three or four Shinden, but it would just be like warding off a few annoying bees, like play. Of course, if he were to accidentally fly into an enemy fleet preparing for a massive operation, he'd probably be hounded, but there shouldn't be a case of being chased by a rotating set of 30-40 planes, especially not when he's just in a recon plane.
But, there was one sticky point.
"The problem is the aquatic recon plane's properties. At the very least, I'd need something that can fly at the same speed as a Shinden."
"We know. We'll be using the latest multi-seat aquatic recon plane, the Santa Cruz. Its top speed is 620km per hour. It can travel 3100 kilometers between refueling, and has one 7.7mm machine gun in the back seat. It also has a newly-designed collapsible float. Being able to stow the float away makes it incomparably better than other aquatic recon planes. We couldn't make it match a Shinden in top speed, but it's still one of the fastest planes around. The enemy will struggle to shoot down a Santa Cruz."
Charles nodded. It would take tremendous skill to shoot down a plane using maneuvers at top speed. If the Santa Cruz could actually output the specifications the commander listed, then it increased the odds.
As he talked, a flight path from Almeria airport to the destination, Cyon island, began to take form in Charles' head. The biggest problem would be crossing the Great Fall, as the blockades from Awashima and Iyojima would overlap. If he could get through there without
being discovered, this mission would almost certainly be a success.
The Great Fall.
An edgeless waterfall running north-south, splitting the central ocean.
It had 1300 meters in height, with the higher, Western Ocean being connected to Levahm, and the lower one connected to the Amatsukami Eastern Ocean.
Until about a hundred years ago, before airplanes, neither country knew of each others’ existence. Because it was impossible for regular ships to go down or up the waterfall, both felt there was no world beyond the waterfall.
When airplanes were invented, it was made possible to fly past the waterfall, and both countries had found each other. The next frontier was finding the "north end and south end" of the waterfall.
Where does the Great Fall end?
This question, asked since the naval era and now a romantic dream of sailors, had still not been solved. So many people had set sail trying to find the answer, and whilst some returned, having run out of supplies in the middle, still others vanished, never to return.
Both the Holy Levahm Empire and the Imperial Amatsukami, having spent vast amounts of money in this venture, concluded that "there are only the east and west continents on this world. Other than these there is only an endless sea and a waterfall with no end," which is a very useless conclusion. And with no conclusion to the world's truth, both powers began waging war on each other.
At the same time, because of this enormous quest, the technology to power airplanes was invented. The "metal hydride battery" was used by everything that flies. This battery was not just able to store energy, but able to create it.
They say a certain alchemist invented the metal hydride battery.
For three days and nights he poured ocean water into a box that contained various chemical substances and liquids, to split the hydrogen from oxygen. He then used reverse electrolysis, to create small currents in the two metal rods sticking out of the box.
At first, people around him considered it a nice street trick. Alchemists were alchemists because they were to create gold out of mud, so what was the point of making fireworks out of ocean water, they laughed.
But one investor heard rumors and came to the alchemist, wanting to see it in action, then almost fell over in shock. Everything began to change, as the investor paid an exorbitant sum to buy this invention, then created a company that both used and sold products using the metal hydride battery.
That's when the world moved from the steam age to the industrial revolution.
After all, electricity was being made from ocean water. The materials needed to make the battery itself were expensive, but as long as you made it, you no longer needed to fund a power source.
Steam power, which was used until then, vanished instantly, replaced worldwide by this "metal hydride battery."
Nowadays, most airplanes simply refuel the batteries over the ocean. And now there were even some ships that took off the floats, not bothering to refuel over the ocean, like the Shinden. But because most combat took place over the ocean, ships with floats still constituted the majority of air fleets. They were less effective in combat, but even if you got lost, you would be able to refuel.
Charles' mission, too, was based on simply lowering the floats to refuel the metal hydride batteries. Santa Cruz would go at least 3000 kilometers between refueling, so at the very least he'd need at least four nights to refuel.
Charles realized he was already planning out how to make the mission succeed. When he looked up, he found the commander amused by Charles's furious thinking.
"Do you want the mission?"
Again, Charles hesitated before answering. It was too heavy a mission for him. With the light of hope of the empire seated behind him, if he were to be shot down, there'd be nothing he could say.
After a long silence, he opened his mouth. "May I have time to think about it?"
"But we only have you."
"It's too heavy a task for a mercenary."
"I consider you a proud, trustworthy pilot. Your background doesn't matter."
"I am honored. However… I'm also a timid person whose legs trembled upon hearing this mission. Please let me think about it over the night. I'll have decided by tomorrow morning."
The commander looked at Charles' legs. The two slender legs were trembling just a bit. With the mission fully understood, the weight was bearing down on him.
"I'm hoping for a good response. I’ll say it again, you're all we have."
Charles looked relieved at the commander's response. After being reinforced about remaining silent, Charles was let out of the command room.
With Charles gone, left alone, Captain Domingo glanced to the commander at his side.
"Well, he is as stupidly clean as you said."
"He's also very skilled. Him being young and single is an issue, but he meets all the conditions for the imperial family's approval."
"Even so, no matter how skilled he is, to have to send the future empress with a refugee bestado through an enemy blockade … what has the world come to?" Captain Domingo spat this out, then sighed.
As the Captain said, even though San Martilia was on the verge of ruin, it was still an audacious, unprecedented plan.
Roughly 700 years since the country was founded. The Holy Levahm Empire, from its founding to the present, adhered to a strict social class system, where the ruling family dominated the hierarchy.
Charles was born as a refugee, a class that wasn't even a class - regardless of his profession, he was destined to be discriminated against his whole life.
Refugees were technically part of the working class, but even amongst the working class there were divisions and severe inequity. Those who were part of this class could only rely on their physical bodies to make a living. Most jobs were in the worst of conditions and were hard labor. Pay was used for food and possibly shelter, with almost no possibility of any sort of luxury. The current working class was pretty much fated to be bought up by capitalists.
Above them was the middle class, or the citizens. Their jobs were based around production, maintenance, and merchandise, where they bought and sold others’ products for profit. It was a social class that had been necessary of late. There were hundreds of divisions even in this class. With a hierarchy even amongst the store owners, each would have to disdain or look up to people of different levels. They're called the middle class, but that was really just a generalization of a big cloud of professions and hierarchies, with a strict adherence to the relationships generated by them.
The classes above the middle class were far fewer in number. This was the domain of those surrounding the Emperor, the class of nobles. Clinging to the principles of vested rights, it was a class rife with conflict. Lower classes had to be abused in order to further their own power, lest they be displaced by another.
And lastly, at the top was the Levahm imperial family - this was the class Fana was to enter. The imperial family held veto rights to every meeting, and was the only class with the power to wield a military. Their monopoly of armed forces was the cog to their strength, as they were able to control when, where, and how violence could be placed. During war, they are able to draw from every standing military unit, which is what made it possible to arbitrarily form a new special unit, though it was a historically foolish move.
Overall for good or for bad, the imperial family had power rivaling that of God. To the empire, treating the imperial family as divinity wasn't an exaggeration.
And so it was that Fana del Moral, on the brink of ascending to divinity, would need the help of a refugee bestado to survive, a scenario produced by such an era - and that was why Captain Domingo was vexed.
The commander simply viewed the class structure as highly repressive but perhaps a necessary evil due to tradition. With his middle-class background, though, he could not speak his mind. However he did feel pity for Charles who, despite being so skilled, was unable to enter the Levahm air force simply because he was a bestado.
For the rest of the day, Charles soothed his curious colleagues, suffered the jealous stares of the Levahm air force, and spent the rest of his time in complete silence.
Eventually, when moonlight lit the lukewarm air and the crickets stopped chirping, Charles snuck out of the dormitory to walk under the full moon.
He was too anxious to sleep. Living up to the weight of his role was something he wasn’t confident about, although for a pilot, it was a very tempting mission. That it wasn't a normal killing mission, but a mission to save a life, made it especially so. But if he failed, there would be no going back. There were other pilots more skilled than he, so maybe they should be entrusted with the task-
Cradling an agony without an answer, he covered his wood-fiber gown with a red blanket and walked the midnight runway. The red dirt under his heel no longer had the noon's warmth.
He lit a cigarette in the middle of the runway. A spinning numbness ran through his mind. Feeling a comfortable dizziness, he blew smoke toward the sky, and indulged in his memories.
During his conversation with the officers, there was something he didn't tell them. He had braced himself for the question, but apparently they hadn't been able to dig into his childhood.
Looking up at the reddening moonlight, Charles retrieved that memory from his heart. He'd watched it so many times during his rough childhood that its taping was probably frayed and beat up. Come to think of it, it was summer then, too.
Green grass that had soaked up plenty of August sunlight, and a field of sunflowers.
The del Moral mansion's garden was as vast as a city with a forest and a small river, and even had a rough sentry house for the patrols.
Young Charles lived in that house, while his mother was a maid at the mansion.
Every day, Charles worked on the grass, the garden trees, and the flowers with the elder gardener, clearing the walkways.
With an overwhelming number of tasks, he could only see his mother once a week, and the gardener was also quite mean. Because he was a bestado, he could play with neither the Levahmian children nor the Amatsuvian children, so his only friend was the pig in the animal pen.
One day, the gardener had been particularly cruel, so Charles ran out of the sentry house, hid in the animal pen, and hit his pig friend with a branch. Why did he have to go through this? He didn't want to be a bestado or a refugee. He wanted to be reborn as a citizen. While crying like that, he picked on the pig. The pig ran out of the pen, crying, and escaped to the grass field in the middle of the garden.
As Charles chased after it, still crying, a girl got in the way.
"Why are you picking on the pig?"
It was a little girl with silver eyes and hair, wearing a pure white one-piece. Her shoes and socks were spotless, and she was so cute it was like she'd been cut out of a picture book.
Behind her was a field of sunflowers, and the spread of yellow petals swayed in the wind, with dancing butterflies frolicking amongst them.
The translucent eyes looked at Charles straight-on.
"Are you crying?"
"Was the pig picking on you?"
"Then why are you crying?"
"Not crying." Charles quickly rubbed away the tears.
The girl admonished him. "You shouldn't be picking on the poor pig."
Charles knew who the girl was. He felt embarrassed about his ragged wood-fiber shirt, his dirtied worker's trousers, the cloth shoes that didn’t cover his toes.
"Are you lonely?"
"You're crying because you're lonely, aren't you?"
"No, that's… not it." Charles fidgeted as he answered.
The young Fana del Moral looked at him suspiciously, stooping her head under his.
"What do you want to play?"
"Okay, let's play tag. You're it. Ready, go!"
Tat tat tat, and away Fana ran. Charles stood there dumbfounded, watching her small back.
Fana waved a hand from the forest. Turning to the dumbfounded Charles, she puffed her cheeks.
"Come on, chase me, or it’s no fun."
Surprising himself, Charles chased after Fana, hands stretched out in front of him.
Squealing happily, Fana ran away, Charles behind her with his clumsy plodding. When he finally brushed that small back, they heard an adult's voice from far away.
"Mistress, Mistress Fana!"
Fana responded to that voice in a surprisingly unhappy voice. Then she turned those big, silver-white eyes at Charles.
"Sorry, I hafta go."
"Promise me you won't cry anymore."
"Even if you're lonely, don't do anything bad. Okay?"
Fana smiled happily, reached out with both of her hands, and embraced Charles.
He could feel Fana's warmth. And beyond his apprehension, he learned affection.
For some reason, Charles felt like crying again. But he'd just promised to not cry anymore, so he held it back.
His heart raced. Fana's scent was comforting to his nose. Charles felt an emotion he'd never felt before.
After a moment, Fana let go, looked at Charles again, smiled, and ran out of the forest. When he looked at the grass outside of the forest, he noticed tutors breathlessly running towards her. It seemed she'd escaped from lessons to take a walk outside the mansion.
In the end, that was the first and last time he'd met Fana. After a short period, Charles' mother was fired because she'd gone against the Duke's orders, and the two were forced to wander the streets. Then his mother was stabbed for no reason, died, and Charles would later be picked up by a priest as he lay freezing to death.
The church’s duties weren't easy, and class discrimination continued. Humiliation and contempt on a daily basis was tough to deal with. But he cheered himself up with memories of Fana, whenever he felt down. After all, a girl from such a high rung of the ladder had consoled a person like him, all the way at the bottom, and embraced him like a saintly mother. It gave him incomparable warmth. Because of it, he was able to become a pilot, instead of stepping out of the world of civilization.
That was the only memory he had of his childhood. He'd left all the cruelty behind, only leaving the scent of sunflowers and the warmth of Fana engraved in his heart.
He inhaled deeply from the mostly burnt-out cigarette, and blew out. The red smoke, absorbing the moonlight, vanished into the night. Soaking in the sweet, comfortable sentimentality, he toyed with the horrible-tasting cigarette.
"It's become much clearer," He whispered.
He'd read in the newspaper that that tomboy girl had become engaged to the imperial prince Carlo. The photo of Fana, who he'd not seen in over ten years, was blinding. She was so beautiful he did a double-take, finding difficulty believing that something could remain unsoiled in such a dirty, disgusting world.
If I can, I want to help her.
If he had to live the life of a sewer rat, and was destined to die in the sky like garbage, then just once, he wanted to accomplish a task he could be proud of. If he could rescue Fana de Moral, who'd saved him when they were young, wouldn't that be something to take pride in?
When he falls through some sky as a ball of fire, wouldn't he be able to say his life wasn't one filled only with regrets?
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