Though it was still the dark before dawn, the del Moral Aerial Knights were in good humor as they gathered in the briefing room, a rarity for the Almeria airport flight command. The mercenaries of the sky, despite using the same facilities, were usually sparsely mixed into the mob of the Levahm air force with despondent looks. This time, though, they looked satisfied and active, actually eagerly waiting for their launch orders.
On the other hand, the Levahm air force, packed into the same briefing room, looked depressed.
The mission details had been announced last night. Pilot divisions were posted, and everyone discovered that only Charles was headed in a different direction. It was the ranked officials themselves who explained that the imperial prince’s fiancée, Fana de Moral, would be riding behind Charles in a multi-seat recon plane.
The Aerial Knights shouted in joy for Charles, while the Levahm air force harbored only resentment. For the air force pilots sent from the mainland, this was just another layer of misfortune. Because the airways were cut off at the central ocean, there were no reinforcements from the mainland, and the number of pilots and ships stationed here were in steady decline.
Now, the morning's mission was to escort Karino Charles, someone they’d made a point to make light of in their daily routine -in effect, they were to be decoys for him. In contrast to the excitement of the mercenaries, their glum faces weren’t too surprising.
All the murmuring came to an abrupt stop when the Director of the Levahm air force Eastern Battalion, Captain Domingo Garcia, brought his aide into the briefing room. Everyone looked at the scouting reports held by the officer.
He read aloud the report from the night reconnaissance plane.
"The destination airspace, Takatsuka air base, is sunny, cloud altitude of 3000 meters, 3 or 4 in cloud density, and roughly 15 kilometers of visibility. No obstructions to a noon raid."
The Aerial Knights exulted, while the air force clicked their tongues. Only the weather was a worry for this mission, but even that was fine. Captain Domingo jutted out the silver emblem on his breast as he addressed everyone.
"Flight divisions are as yesterday! Air superiority corps will launch now, direct escort and bombing corps will launch 15 minutes after the air superiority corps. Don't forget! All of you are Lady Fana's decoys. This operation is to force every enemy plane from Rio de Este to you. Hold your ground in combat for even a second longer; show them the pride of the Levahm air force!"
Roaring in response, the 21 air superiority pilots ran out of the briefing room.
After watching them exit, Captain Domingo shuffled toward Charles, belly flopping.
"Lady Fana has already arrived. She's waiting at the eastern edge of the runway. Come with me, black-tailed gull," He gravely ordered.
Charles stood and followed the captain. Incidentally, "black-tailed gull" was Charles' code-name for the mission. The operation was simply called "Operation Black-tailed Gull".
"Don't forget. Normally you wouldn't even be allowed to see her face. Don't say anything useless. Don't look in her eye. I'll introduce you. Keep your mouth shut. If she asks you anything, answer with either 'yes' or 'no.' Understood?"
He was used to this sort of treatment, so he responded frankly. As they walked on the red-dirt runway, on Charles’s left and right the air superiority fighters had already started their engines.
He saw the operators running around, through the sand and dust being raised by the explosive rumbling of the propellers.
Stratus clouds stretched out low in the eastern sky, their underbellies tinted red. It would soon be sunrise.
The streamers set up along the runway all shook their tails northwest-ward.
The thick odor of metal hydride gas blown out of the engines mixed with the summer morning wind tickled Charles' nose. The smell was enough to pump any pilot’s adrenaline.
The rumbling of an entire fleet of fighter planes made the earth tremble. The explosive sound emitted from the Armelia airport was music to Charles' ears. The remaining strength of San Martilia would fly out this morning to help Charles.
Passing by Charles' side was three Iris II's in a triangle formation. Dashing down the runway, they left behind the "ooon" shriek of propellers as they launched toward the east.
With barely any room for air, another formation of three followed. Their noses were pointed toward an enemy air base, set up near the border. The aim was to raid in the morning, and force aerial combat in enemy airspace. In the meantime, Charles, with Fana seated behind, would secretly fly the opposite direction, to the northwest.
The red sun began to rise from the east. The blazing, inflamed color began to spread from the horizon.
It seemed like the Iris II’s taking to the air flew into a red backdrop. They engraved their refined, cross-shaped shadows into the sky, leaving behind only a mournful echo as the sound of their propellers became distant.
And then…the empress-to-be, Fana del Moral, dressed in an Aerial Knights flight suit, was standing by the side of the runway.
While walking, Charles narrowed his eyes against the light behind her.
The summer morning sky had turned into a frame that outlined Fana's figure.
Her tied, silver hair looked like glossy silk, reflecting the red sunlight, and it looked as if it was placed carefully on top of a frail body that was a bit hunched in grief. It was such a white, transparent, and momentary appearance that it felt just blowing in her direction would make her turn to dust and disappear into the background.
There was no blaming the imperial prince for having his soul whisked away with one look. Her beauty could even be called intimidating.
By Fana's side were some authorities from the del Moral house.
Each of them wrapped themselves in an elegant tailcoat, and surrounded Fana with stern looks on their faces. They were directing these looks to Charles, but it also looked as if they were surrounding Fana to keep her from escaping.
And behind the tailcoats were seven, eight servants. Each of them held big, wooden travel cases.
The captain stepped forward quickly, then straightened and snapped his heels in front of Fana. After giving a worn and customary greeting, he pointed to Charles, at his side.
"This is private Charles Karino, who has been chosen for this mission."
As Charles raised his head, he straightened his back, snapped his heels together, and touched his right fingertips on his temple.
Fana stood within Charles' eyesight. But she was looking somewhere distant, and not at Charles.
She was tomboyish and headstrong when they were kids, but the Fana that stood before him now was no different than a puppet. Her eyes had no life. Perhaps the society of nobles had sucked the humanity out of her, the same way horses are blinded. He couldn't see any resemblance between the young Fana in his memories and the girl in front of him.
After one look at Charles, the tailcoats sent a glance of consternation at the captain. The captain made a sign with his hand. Go. After another salute, Charles ran toward the Santa Cruz by himself. Behind him, the tailcoats and the captain were engaged in some discussion.
His partner for the black-tailed gull operation, the multi-seat aquatic reconnaissance plane, Santa Cruz, greeted Charles in the morning light with its brand new body.
Designed for flying above water, the top half was ultramarine and the bottom half was an ashen silver. The straight, smooth, low wings looked awe-inspiring under the clouds, and that gave him confidence. The glass covering the windshield over the seats had also been polished. And under the body, the new floats had been folded and tucked.
The mechanics were doing final inspections of the top of the wings, the cowlings, the metal hydride stack, the backup battery device, the metal hydride tank inside the plane, and other things. After giving a light greeting to the lead mechanic, he received a few words of advice about how to handle the plane.
Being the top of the line, it was a plane Charles had never stepped on before. The same designer had also done the Iris, so most of the controls should feel the same, but he'd spend the next ten days memorizing little things like the rate of metal hydride depletion and the fingerboard details.
Charles was extremely fond of the ship. Even though it was an aquatic ship, it had similar properties as the Iris II. He also liked that it didn't have many forward guns, it being a recon plane. He didn't need killing weapons for this mission.
There was, however, a 600-bullet magazine just in case, for the backseat machine gun. It wasn't like Fana would shoot it, but because it was highly likely they'd be chased, it would be prudent to at least have some bullets to implant some fear. With those, enemies wouldn't be able to settle in comfortably behind him.
The servants then walked to the Santa Cruz and began shoving the big suitcases into the body. There'd been space for travel necessities planned out beforehand, but they'd brought far too much. The mechanics glared at the servants in irritation, then secured them to the body using wires.
Of course, once away from the area it was his responsibility, so he could just throw away everything that was unneeded. Charles couldn't wait to lift off. As soon as the head mechanic announced everything was good to go, he jumped on the wing and slid into the cockpit.
With the windshield open, he glanced over the dashboard, inspecting everything for problems. After playing with the control stick and foot bar to confirm the dials, he cast his eyes to the surface.
The del Moral house inhabitants slowly walked to the Santa Cruz, and Captain Domingo climbed on a wing. Hurried onward by the send-off, Fana borrowed the captain's hand, and struggled with her balance as she stepped onto the Santa Cruz' wing.
Fana and Charles' eyes met for an instant. As before, there was nothing in Fana's eyes. No nostalgia toward the place she was born, no sadness at having to leave people close to her, not even fear at the journey that was about to begin. Just nothing. The liveliness that should be expected in an 18-year old girl was completely carved out of Fana.
Fana once again borrowed the captain's hand to slide into the rear seat. Because the seats were set in place, you couldn't look behind you during a fight.
The pipe seating that Fana was leaning against and the seating of Charles were the same. If Charles lifted himself just a bit out of his seat and turned around, he'd bump into the back of Fana's head. They were so close that if the engine weren't on, they might even be able to feel each others' pulses.
Then, the captain stuck his bald, bearded face into the front cockpit. He glared at Charles with his yellow-ish eyes.
"I'm begging you, black-tailed gull. My career's on the line."
"I'll do my best."
"Mmhmm. To help your condition, take this with you."
The captain took a bottle of brandy from a ground crew-member, then pushed it onto Charles' chest. Charles glanced at the label; it was a very famous, expensive brand.
"Don't drink too much."
After patting Charles' shoulder once, and making sure Fana had put on her seat-belt, the captain jumped back onto the ground.
Charles lowered his flight goggles, stuck out a hand from the still-open windshield, and motioned to the ground crew.
"Clear the front! Staff on alert!"
The mechanics scattered from the front of the Santa Cruz. The battery stack sucked metal hydride from the metal hydride tank and oxygen from the air to create energy, and the resulting electrical energy powered the propeller engines.
He could feel the comfortable vibration over his body. The clean vibration of the engine told him the machine was in fantastic state. Through it he could feel that the good mechanics had spent all night preparing everything.
He glanced over the dashboard again. Voltage gauge, electrical power gauge, gas pressure gauge, rotation gauge, no problems.
Charles picked up the voice pipe, and spoke to Fana for the first time.
"Are you ready, my Lady?"
There was no answer. When Charles turned his neck to look, he saw Fana picking up the voice pipe next to her seat.
Politeness and indifference were intermingled in the mechanical, cold reply that came through the voice pipe. They could hear each other even without a voice pipe during flight if they raised their voices, but using it was the most convenient way to communicate.
"I will begin lift-off then. No parting words?"
As Charles had been told earlier, maybe Fana was also ordered to "only answer yes or no." Ending the curt conversation, he motioned with his hands to take off the landing wheel.
The recon plane Santa Cruz slowly entered the runway. Charles saluted the officers and mechanics, lined up to the side.
Even the airport crew that had nothing to do with planes lined up to send Charles off. Inside the air command, the officers other than the captain were stood by the glass window, saluting. The sun, poking its face out of the clouds, stained their faces red and burned their
images into Charles' eyes.
The Santa Cruz strolled down the runway, and reached the designated spot.
Good for lift-off, the runway flag from the ground crew said.
Holding down the break, he fired the engine. The plane shook harder.
Lowering the rudder, and letting down on the breaks, he started moving the throttle. The plane entered the lift-off runway. He switched the engine to full power. As the plane sped up, it ran across the red-dirt runway, with violent vibrations.
He straightened the course of the plane, following the direction of the propeller by holding his leg against the control stick, and holding the check helm to the right.
Wind curled around each wing. Slowly, power to lift the plane gathered. He could hear the sound of wind cutting by his ears.
Checking the feel of wind, he lightly pulled the control stick toward him. He could feel the weight of the wind’s pressure against the two hands gripping the stick.
He could feel the air around him, becoming one with him. Charles leaned into that air.
Wind surrounded the plane. Charles could feel the Santa Cruz' words through the stick, I can fly, now.
"Let's go, then," He whispered, and he pulled the stick to him.
Then, without any sound, the wheels separated from the ground.
The world under the wheels lost its speed. The ground, whipping by so quickly just a moment ago, disappeared. Only the burning sky was in front of the windshield.
The body continued upwards, diagonally, cutting through the world’s gravity. The violent vibrations stopped, and the howling sound of the propellers became distant.
If you were to turn around, you would see the world becoming distant. The further it became, the slower it moved by. The silhouette of air command disappeared, becoming embedded into the ground. And then the airport became smaller, like a child's toy, until it was sucked into the red-dirt ground.
The Santa Cruz left the ground behind as it climbed into the sky.
Rio de Este, wounded by days of bombardment, could barely be made out from the rear, but that, too, quickly got sucked up by the earth.
A comfortable G covered his body. Lightly shifting the control stick, he coaxed the nose, still rising, to the west, and settled the plane parallel to the horizon at 4,000 meters' altitude.
Closing the windshield, glancing once more over the dashboard to check for problems, Charles smiled to himself in relief. It was a pure smile that he'd never show anyone on the ground.
Only the sky, clouds, and his ship.
Charles loved flying through the sky.
Flying through the sky. He could feel at peace with such a simple thing. No matter how much he was stomped over on the ground, none of it mattered once he got here.
The endless color of sky that stretched out in front of him, and the darker colors above him that would feel like they're sucking him in when he looks up, that infinite bosom embraced Charles, Fana, and the Santa Cruz. Everything that crowded up Charles' heart was filtered out by the sky, and his soul was cleared by the flawless clarity. The sense of security, of returning home after a depressing ordeal, floated up from inside him.
If it were peacetime, it would be a calm five days and four nights to the Levahm Empire. But it was wartime. The skies over the eastern ocean were covered with the Amatsukami air fleet. He couldn't let down his guard.
The two things key to the success or failure of this trip meant staying alert: to find the enemy before being found, and to quickly escape. That's why he was flying alone.
Charles picked up the voice pipe, and called to Fana.
"My Lady, please keep watch over the back. If you see something shining in the sky, please let me know immediately."
"During flight I'd like if you kept watch, rather than sleep. There's a lunchbox under the seat, so if you become hungry, go ahead by all means."
For the two weeks prior to launching, Fana had received G-resistance and look-out training, so he could probably trust her to a certain extent. Her eyesight was also 1.5 in both eyes, so that was quite comforting. Keeping watch wasn't something that differed much between veterans and newbies. Actually, veterans may be so accustomed to the job that they lose their concentration and slack off more, so some pilots actually prefer newbies who would be too afraid to lose focus.
Charles placed the voice pipe back to the side of the cockpit, and re-gripped the stick. Keeping watch over the front was Charles' job, so he had to keep watching the sky without letting up. Cloud density four, visibility roughly 10 kilometers. After scanning over the horizon, he then scanned under it. After confirming his first check in front, he turned around and confirmed the sky behind him. He'd entrusted Fana with keeping look-out behind him, but he still felt more comfortable checking with his own eyes.
The sun eventually rose fully into the sky, and the indigo blue of the ocean beneath them became darker.
Briefly scowling at the compass, Charles adjusted their direction, and they began calmly flying north-west. Fana, sitting in the back seat, said nothing. There were no enemy ships, enemy planes nor shadows. It was a disturbingly silent departure.
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