Beyond the plate stationed in front of the windshield, the white cumulonimbus clouds stood in stark contrast to the blue sky. It was like a picture you'd see on a picture card, but Charles, gripping the control stick, looked displeased.
He looked at the altitude meter. They were currently at 4,500. The height of the cumulonimbus cloud obstructing them was at least 10,000 meters. Fortunately there was only one, so he decided to go around it.
For the first time since they'd taken off that morning, Charles picked up the voice pipe.
He hadn't spoken to Fana at all since that shocking wake-up. He felt he needed to speak to her, even if he had to force himself. After closing his eyes and calming himself, he opened his mouth, ordering himself to speak normally.
But his words stuttered out against his will. Biting his lips, he tried to force himself to speak naturally, when Fana's voice came back to him from the voice pipe.
"W-what is it?"
Fana's words were also shaken. It wasn't surprising that she felt the same. Charles tried to act like nothing happened.
"Um, there's a cumulonimbus cloud in our way, so I'm going to have to change our route a bit."
"Oh, is that so?"
"Yes. It looks like a storm cloud, so I don't want to plunge into it."
"Oh. How scary."
Fana was speaking in a deliberately awkward manner, but he knew she was trying her best at sounding normal.
"Once we're past the cloud, I expect to see enemy planes. As before, I'm entrusting the rear to the Lady."
The awkward conversation ended.
Charles placed the voice pipe back to the side and exhaled. The burden that he'd felt on his shoulders since that morning lightened a bit because of the conversation — maybe. He didn't really need to tell Fana what he just told her, but for the purposes of the rest of the journey he wanted a return to normalcy.
Every time he let down his guard, the morning's sight would return to his mind.
Whenever that happened, he'd shake his head and try to focus on flight, but every time he'd think only of Fana's exposed body. They were in the middle of an important mission, and he was in enemy airspace. He had to keep a lookout for enemy planes. But all his mind could focus on was a naked girl, and he couldn't help but think he was a damned fool for it.
That morning, the eastern sky was turning a purplish-blue.
Charles was almost awake, in a light sleep.
Thick mist rose from the ocean before sunrise, and it was the coldest period of the day. Shivering, he shifted the blanket back to his chin.
Feeling a soft warmth on his shoulder, he automatically leaned toward it.
It smelled pure and good. He was becoming more conscious, but he didn't want to get out of his blanket. Charles buried his face in the warmth. And then the scent went toward the sensors in his brain, and his brain reacted in a very natural way to that scent, ordering his groin area to "stand up!" As the subordinate in his groin area followed the order to Charles slowly opened his sleepy eyes.
And he realized the warm, soft thing, was the breast of Fana, who was sleeping against his left arm.
After blinking once, he ripped himself away from Fana and looked at what was in front of him again. Fana, wearing a white swimsuit, just continued sleeping. Fana's blanket had fallen to her side, and both of them had ended up sharing a blanket.
And Charles was only wearing his wood-fiber underwear.
He had brushed skin with the imperial prince Carlo's fiancée, and shared a blanket with her.
"What-" He blurted.
And both of Fana's eyes, in response, opened.
The two of them, half-naked, stared at each other.
Gradually, Fana's eyes widened, and she looked down at his groin.
Charles' subordinate, still following his brain's orders from earlier, roared into Fana's pure, undirtied sight.
Charles definitely heard Fana's throat make a sound.
And then the two silver-white eyes returned to Charles' face.
And in front of him, Fana's mouth opened wide.
Maybe I should wear earplugs, Charles thought absent-mindedly.
Charles silently braved the close-ranged scream. Even as the scream ended, his subordinate stood firm.
After she calmed down, he explained what had happened, how it was a natural male condition, how he couldn't really stop it, and firmly pressing that it had nothing to do with what he wanted to do. Fana in turn apologized for being careless the night before, and amidst the awkward silence that followed, the two changed into their flight suits. Without another word, they took off for the third day's journey.
After passing by the cumulonimbus cloud, they found themselves in front of a stratocumulus cloud. It was extremely wide, covering most of the visible area with cloud and obscuring their vision of the ocean. Plus, there were no clouds above it, so it was extremely likely that they would be caught if they flew higher.
After a bit of thought, Charles decided to go under the thick cloud. The windshield became covered in white, and after a moment, the dark ocean surface appeared in front of them.
At an altitude of about 1,000, he corrected the plane's direction, and headed northwest. After a few hours, they'd be able to see the Great Fall, and they'd be able to confirm their location then.
It was raining under the cloud. It made the windshield wet, but because of the velocity of the plane, droplets simply flowed to the back.
Visibility was low. Charles continued scanning the front without letting up.
They were entering dangerous skies.
To their north was Awashima and to their south was Iyojima, and both islands had enormous Amatsukami aerial fort bases. It would take no time for planes to take flight to aid the blockade, and if they were discovered they'd be chased by countless Shinden from both bases. To top it off, patrol fleets looking for Fana would also be alerted, leading to the danger of being caught in a web.
So the first priority was to not be caught.
They had to forget the morning's happenings and concentrate on the task at hand.
There were cracks in the stratocumulus cloud above them. Every so often, you could see above the cloud through those cracks, but so far it'd just been the normal blue sky.
The further along they went, the mistier it became.
Visibility front and back became even more limited. He didn't want to bring the plane lower, because he couldn't see the ocean surface, so he remained right under the cloud.
For pilots, skill, experience, and "instinct" were all necessary for survival.
Seldom, a pilot is born with an inexplicable primitive feel, the ability to sense enemies hidden and undetected. The tension of enemy pilots straining to remain hidden, and the murderous intent they radiated; being able to sniff them out, act first, and strike faster was the hallmark ability of the age-old aces of the sky.
He could feel the murderous intent.
Charles' skin prickled with the abnormal feeling.
The hand gripping the control stick was covered with sweat. He looked around him, but saw nothing. He grabbed the voice pipe.
"My Lady, could you look around again? Something's close."
"I don't know if this is worth reporting or not…"
"Report anything and everything; I'll decide its worth."
"Umm, the cracks in the clouds were black."
"I could see the blue sky through the cloud, but the crack we'd just gone past was black."
Charles' face stopped sweating, replaced by a shudder that ran down his spine.
"My Lady, that's the enemy."
"The enemy airship is flying over the cloud; that's why the crack was black!!"
Slamming the voice pipe down, Charles looked at the cloud behind him.
He saw the cloud being sliced downward, like a spear had been thrown from heaven.
From that gash, rays of sunlight streamed toward the ocean.
It wasn't just from behind.
Surrounding the Santa Cruz, in a circle with a radius of roughly 4km, the cloud was broken here and there, golden rays pouring into the ocean.
It was like a divine drawing, but it wasn't an order of angels descending with the sunlight. They were more vicious, more human.
Charles finally realized what was going on. He shouted to Fana, without using the voice pipe.
"An enemy ship is descending! It's cutting through the cloud-
My Lady, keep low! Don't let them see your face!"
They'd been discovered a long time ago. They'd probably been caught by the enemy carrier's radar.
This airspace was right in the middle of the enemy formation!
The coded message had obviously been broken. The enemy was lying in wait for the Santa Cruz. All around him, airships bearing the emblem of the Amatsukami descended, ripping through the cloud. The giant, potato-bug-shaped planes reflected the sunlight, bouncing brass-colored light off of their light-gray bodies.
The intimidation stemming from their full-steel bodies, the clump of heavy metal flying in the air, they looked like the stuff of gods. They were Amatsukami's latest mobility cruisers, the San'un.
Eight in all surrounded the Santa Cruz, flying at almost the same speed.
Charles narrowed his eyes. Each of the cruisers opened three, malevolent holes in their underbellies.
His chestnut-colored hair stood on end.
Simultaneously, from all eight ships, a total of 24 kuurai missiles were fired.
The droplet-shaped percussion missiles split through the rain, each with a propeller powered by a metal-hydride battery, heading for the Santa Cruz.
At the head of each kuurai was a sensor that detected heat emanating from metal hydride batteries. The sensor allowed the missiles to give chase until contact, or until they ran out of power.
There was only one way to escape them.
Charles pushed the control stick as far as it could go, and nose-dived toward the ocean.
He couldn't see because of the mist, but this wasn't the time to be complaining.
Feeling the speed of the descent in his stomach, he kept his eyes on the altitude and speed gauges, trying to guess when they'd barely avoid the ocean.
The windshield shrieked at the sudden drop. The plane creaked and groaned.
"The missiles are chasing us!" He heard Fana's shout from behind.
"Keep your head low! I don't need you to watch anymore!" He yelled back, focusing all of his attention on the sight in front of him.
Through the rain, he was able to catch the silvery ocean. And he quickly glanced behind. There were countless missiles giving chase.
The moment he confirmed everything, he pulled the control stick with his whole body.
The propeller groaned as the Santa Cruz's nose was raised, and as if kicking the ocean to stay upright, the blue plane swiftly began sliding across the surface.
On the other side of the windshield, the sound of thunder hummed. Not just once. Twice, thrice, four times, and more, the dull sound of underwater explosions shook the sky.
In all, 18 kuurai sped into the ocean, lifting pillars of water, unable to copy his movements.
But the remaining six continued their pursuit of the Santa Cruz.
He clicked his tongue. Kuurai were faster than his plane. He'd be caught if he tried doing the same thing.
Then … he had only one more trick.
Glancing at a ship flying about 500 in altitude over the ocean, Charles turned his plane toward it.
He hit the grip on the throttle, speeding up the Santa Cruz. Power would be drained faster, but he needed to use it to survive now. He needed enough power and velocity to get on the same plane as that ship.
When he was finally able to lift the nose, he saw the many fortifications on the curved body of the ship, and the countless anti-air, anti-ship cannons housed by them. All pointed in his direction.
The next moment, fireworks blossomed around the rising Santa Cruz.
"Kyaa!" Fana screamed at the endless explosions.
And through the smoke, the six kuurai were still chasing the Santa Cruz in one line.
In front, the ship grew larger and larger.
The amount of gunfire also grew more severe. The windshield was almost completely obscured by gunpowder smoke. Charles delicately continued shifting the plane's location, to throw off their aim.
The enemy ship knew exactly what Charles was trying to do. That's why it was shooting back with everything it had. Two Kuurai behind him exploded. Because they were percussion, they were weak to explosive bullets. The enemy ship was desperately trying to shoot down the missiles following Charles, but?
"Sorry." With a short apology, Charles edged past the ship and then raised the nose. The remaining four missiles were unable to follow, instead plunging into the airship's curved body.
A heavy explosion shook the air.
A whole region of ink-colored airspace became engulfed in the color of flames, and the screams of steel penetrated the sky.
The airship, splitting down the middle, began spitting out people, falling toward the cold ocean.
Fana's silver-white eyes opened wide.
This was not an opera tragedy.
In this world, that was not beyond the glass panel, tens, hundreds of people were being thrown into the air, flames covering their backs. She could see pain and resignation on their faces. Several hundred lives that were held by the ship were being exterminated with no difficulty. It was an unbelievably quick and smooth end to their lives. Each of these lives surely had families, friends, lovers, and thoughts, but in one moment, they were returned to nothing. It was Fana's first time seeing the horror of war.
But that hellish sight quickly disappeared into whiteness.
The Santa Cruz quickly shot into the cloud.
The droplets slid quickly past their sight. Wind howled across the windshield. Sunlight suddenly poured into the seats, and an endless blue dominated the world above the cloud.
And … the mobile fleet was situated far above the Santa Cruz, at about 5,000 meters altitude.
The Santa Cruz, having sliced through the cloud, looked like it was flying straight at the carrier's underbelly.
Charles narrowed his eyes and confirmed the fleet's composition.
In the middle, judging by its size, was an Amatsukami carrier. At the top was a steel runway, fielding 60-70 float-less warship fighters, missile ships, and bombers.
The Amatsukami were said to field seven carriers in total. At least one of those tigers had been scouring the skies for Fana, so he could feel the Amatsukami’s determination in preventing this mission from succeeding.
Alongside this carrier were two heavy cruisers and two destroyers. Having seen the Santa Cruz, these were already in descent, their lower guns readied.
Biting his lips, Charles flew along the top of the cloud. Hitting the throttle knob once more, he raised his speed. The cloud around the Santa Cruz was carved away, creating pillars of mist like it was an ocean.
The heavy cruisers were firing. Charles controlled the engine with little movements, sliding and crawling to try to throw off their gunners’ predictions, escaping along the top of the cloud.
The sky was filled with the roars of cannonfire. Explosive shells crackled around them, peppering holes in the Santa Cruz' body. Fana was so scared she didn't make a sound. The other side of the windshield was a hellish world of fire and smoke. If you were to reach out, you would shake hands with death.
"I'll get us away. Please trust me."
Amidst the sound of cannonfire, Fana was able to hear Charles' voice through the voice pipe, astonishingly clearly. It was quiet, but determined. Fana couldn't reply; she only nodded.
Charles looked behind to him, diagonally to the right.
At about 2,000 meters in distance and 2,000 meters altitude, the enemy carrier silently looked down at the Santa Cruz, not firing.
No … it wasn't just sitting and watching.
Like poppy seeds, countless shadows flew off of the runway on top.
The shadows formed in sets of seven.
"Here it comes."
What Charles feared the most in this mission had come.
His body began trembling. His confidence in surviving felt like it was being carved away by those shadows.
"There's no need to fight. I just have to run," He told himself, as he turned the engine up to maximum power.
"Fourteen ships are chasing us!"
Fana's voice trembled over the voice pipe. The enemy had two formations of seven. He glanced at the gauges, then at the airspace around him.
Far ahead to the north was a clump of cumulonimbus clouds, like a folding screen.
The crown of the clouds was around 10,000 meter altitude. A pure white mountain range in the summer sky. The silhouettes were sharp and white against the blue backdrop.
I’ll run there, Charles decided as he sped the engine up more.
"My Lady, I don't need you to keep watch anymore. Keep your head low, tighten your seatbelt, and hang onto the seat."
"This'll get rough. Don't talk, because you'll bite your tongue. There'll be a lot of sudden inclines and declines, so put on earplugs too."
Charles sped up even more, after getting an acknowledgment from Fana.
The needle on the speed gauge passed 600 kmph. Because they were close to the upper limit of the plane's speed, it was shaking violently and uncontrollably.
However, along with the malicious sound of propellers, a shadow fell over the control stick.
Cross-shaped shadows appeared on the cloud beneath them.
Five, six, seven - no matter how hard he tried, the shadows pursued Charles without any difficulty, and simply increased in number.
He looked behind.
Fourteen ships dominated the Santa Cruz's rear space, calmly and lackadaisically, as if mocking his attempts at escape.
"Shinden." Charles mumbled the name of the king of the sky.
Fourteen versus one.
Numbers aside, they were individually superior.
Plus, he only had one rear gun, and even that one weapon couldn't be handled by Fana.
Despair encompassed Charles' heart.
But he'd predicted this, at the start. Charles realized what he was thinking, and chased his cowardice away.
Re-gripping the control stick and breathing deeply, he told himself to calm down. If he panicked, that would be death.
The only weapon he had for getting out of this sort of situation was his piloting skills. And he knew that from the start.
Even if his plane was inferior, he was confident he was better. That he could get away.
He mumbled to himself, not audibly, and then hunkered down.
His instincts whispered to him. If he just flew like this, he'd be killed. And the next moment, Charles kicked the right foot bar.
The plane that was flying at high speeds suddenly began skidding sideways. The 20mm explosive bullets shot from the Shinden's wings stabbed through the cloud, chasing the Santa Cruz, creating a spray of mist.
He couldn't rest just because he'd evaded the first shots. The planes lined by the sides of the first plane would begin dancing, firing second and third shots at the prey that had stopped sliding sideways. Charles knew that. So when the plane stopped sliding, he kicked the left footbar, and began snaking through the cloud.
He'd managed to survive the triangular formation of Shinden. But next was the rhombus-shaped quad-formation. This group was trained for suppressive fire, as they'd step in one after another, beginning with the leader, to shower him with an endless stream of bullets.
The Santa Cruz couldn't fly straight for even one moment. Wagging its tail and sliding left and right, it evaded shots like a sea-snake swimming through the air.
Even if the enemy were faster, it wasn't much use - in a dogfight, gunshots wouldn't land unless the planes were linearly aligned. Charles was shifting his plane every time the planes aligned. To the enemy, it was as if Charles had an eye on the back of his head.
Charles was focused completely on everything behind him.
The instincts and experience he'd accumulated guided him on the timing of the enemy’s firing.
Of course, if he messed up even once, the Santa Cruz would be engulfed in flames, and would become the empress-to-be's coffin. Failure was unacceptable.
Recognizing the skill of Charles, the three-plane formation lined up, and began firing while nudging their plane left and right. Instead of focusing their fire at Charles, they would simply fire straight ahead, to scatter bullets around him.
The unnerving sound of 7.7mm bullets slamming into the Santa Cruz echoed through the cockpit. Fana had her head lowered, trembling in an overwhelming fear.
Charles looked behind him, at the punctures around the Santa Cruz. Then he glanced at the dashboard, making sure the metal hydride tank hadn't been hit.
The enemy knew what he was up to. He could no longer fight on the carpet of the cloud. Determined, Charles looked at the mountain range of cumulonimbus clouds to the north, pushed down on the footbars a bit, and pushed the control stick all the way.
The Santa Cruz leaned over and plummeted into the stratocumulus cloud.
It was a thick cloud, and he didn't know if the cloud reached all the way to the surface. Relying completely on his altitude meter, he kept the stick pushed all the way, and popped out of the other side of the cloud at about 500 meters altitude.
Pulling the stick back, he began flying northward at 200 meters altitude, flying parallel to the ocean surface.
Below him, he could see the dark ocean being pelted by rain. Looking behind, he could see the seven destroyers heading straight toward him, but they didn't open fire. They didn't want to hit their own, and they probably expected the Shinden to mop things up, anyways.
Belatedly, four Shinden broke through the cloud, and after some slight adjustments, pointed their guns at the Santa Cruz.
Only the lead plane actually crept closer. The military forbids close flight in the fog, because of the dangers of collisions. The other planes from the formation were probably above the cloud; he couldn't see them anywhere.
Charles looked forward. The cumulonimbus cloud was hard to see because of the rain. He nudged his plane in the direction he'd been going in before he'd plunged through the cloud.
Bullets streaked red lines into the sky in front of him. The four Shinden in pursuit began firing.
But Charles had gauged the enemy pilots' skill to this point.
They weren't very good.
He could see a bit of hope. Even though his plane was inferior, he was far more skilled. It was possible to escape.
The only thing the Santa Cruz had that the Shinden did not was the ability to refuel on the surface.
The single-seat interceptors, Shinden, tied the pilot's life to the plane's power supply. If they pursued an enemy plane too far and wandered out of the carrier's radio range, there was the possibility of dying, unable to return to safety. The Shinden always had to keep the carrier within sight.
Charles, piloting the Santa Cruz, was thus in a calmer state of mind on this single point. Even if the fight lasted a long time, he'd just have to touch down and refuel.
So he aimed for just one thing: to evade gunfire and crawl as far away from the carrier as possible, out of the carrier’s radio range, so that the Shinden pilots would fear running out of power.
If the enemy became worried about their power supply, folded their wings, and turned their backs on Charles, it'd be his win. Actually, that was the only way to win.
Charles glared behind him.
The four planes relentlessly kept chase. All four planes were piloted by formation leaders, so they seemed to be bristling with each other for airspace, and weren't really in formation.
The enemy pilots recognized Charles' skill, too. The gunshots weren't really aimed at him, but instead acted as a sort of warning, suppressive volley. They were either waiting for him to mess up, or waiting for someone to attack him.
Charles descended to an even lower altitude.
400, 200, 100. The needle on the altitude meter kept dipping. Gradually going lower, he tried to distinguish the ocean surface through the rain.
At about ten meters, he stopped descending. He looked behind: the four enemy planes were pursuing from about 100 meters altitude.
From now on it would just be a fight of skill. If the enemy tried attacking, they might plunge into the ocean, so they couldn't do it that easily. To take down the Santa Cruz like this, the enemy would have to also fly parallel to the ocean surface, but this obviously came with the risk of ramming the propeller into the ocean, so this would require the enemy pilots to be as skilled as him.
He could see the enemy pilots were hesitating.
He felt himself calming down again. Slowly rocking his plane and shifting the direction of his plane, Charles pulled the enemy planes with him.
He was headed toward the stratucumulus cloud over the squall line. If he could reach it, things would swing in his favor.
Just as he was beginning to see the light of hope, Fana shouted into her voice pipe.
"Five planes coming from above, to the left!"
He immediately looked up and left. As Fana said, five new Shinden were swooping toward them in a T formation, from the side.
He didn't notice until he was told. Charles had clearly let down his guard. The four planes behind him had opted not to engage in a dogfight because this formation was coming.
They were going to be hit.
"Lady, keep your head down!"
Along with Charles' shout, 20mm bullets fired from the five planes cutting in from the side created fireworks.
A wall of bullets slammed into the front half of the Santa Cruz.
Along with that, the four planes laid down blanket fire from behind.
There was no escape for Charles.
All he could do was plunge into the bullets and watch as his plane was crushed by bullets. That was when Charles subconsciously began moving his hands.
The instant he was about to plunge into the bullets from the side, Charles instinctively pressed down on the control stick, nudging his plane down.
It wasn't something you could think and do. All the experience and instincts he'd nurtured made possible the evasive maneuver that lasted a tenth of a second.
The five Shinden flew barely over the windshield, at a distance where he could have reached out and touched them. The Santa Cruz barely edged under them, at an altitude of maybe 5 meters. The ocean was so close, if they were able to stretch out their legs, they'd feel it on their feet.
And before they crashed into the ocean, he lifted the nose.
A moment of calm.
But the bullets from the planes behind were incoming.
He was going to kick the footbar, to avoid the bullets in the air. Or was.
Suddenly, along with a heavy reverbration, the glass windshield shattered.
At the same time, Charles felt like he was hit in the head with a metal bat.
His head was knocked sideways. Blood slid down from his temple, and the windshield was stained red.
He could hear Fana's scream in the distance.
He didn't know what happened. The sound of the propeller slowly disappeared, overwhelmed by the sound of wind.
"Charles! Get a grip on yourself! Charles!!"
His vision blurred, distorted, and warped. He could hear Fana's voice. Her voice anchored his fading consciousness.
He could smell the stench of his own blood. He couldn't feel any pain. But if he let up for even a moment, he would lose consciousness. And he could feel the danger of that crawling up and down his spine.
He forced his eyes open. Blood seeped into an eye, and he instinctively wiped it away. Droplets of water slammed into the cockpit.
He could see the backs of the five Shinden rising to the right of the Santa Cruz.
There weren't just five from the left. There were also five from the right. Charles didn't realize that at all, and ended up taking the other half.
This is it, I guess, he thought, feeling the wind and rain hitting his face.
"Come on!" Fana turned around and shouted to him, without using her voice pipe.
Bullets had ploughed across the plane, and one had grazed Charles. Even being grazed by one was like being bludgeoned. Half of Charles' hair was becoming encrusted with blood. Rain and wind hammered mercilessly into the cockpit through the broken windshield. The temperature of the seating instantly dropped, and the cold set in.
In front of Fana, the four Shinden from behind chased them persistently. They were like hyenas hunting down its wounded prey.
Fana bit her cherry-blossom lips. She was embarassed that all she could do was scream with her head lowered.
A 7.7mm machine gun sat in front of her, drenched by rain, dangling and spinning in every which way.
She wasn't trained with the usage of it, before they'd left. House del Moral had not wanted the empress-to-be to need to pick up a weapon of murder.
But … wasn't it necessary, now?
Unlike before, the Santa Cruz was just flying straight. It was like an animal dragging its leg, in an effort to escape. Even Fana knew they were ripe for the pickings.
Fana slowly reached out to the machine gun, glistening black.
She could feel the coldness of steel. Without question it was a weapon of murder. Quaking, she willed her trembling legs to calm, and awkwardly rotated the gun toward the enemy planes.
She glanced through the sights; the planes were so close they didn't even fit inside the sight.
"God, please forgive me."
She whispered, and she pulled the trigger.
But nothing happened.
She'd messed up somewhere, but she didn't know where. She wanted to cry, humiliated at her uselessness.
The enemy planes were so close she could even see the faces of pilots.
The enemy pilots were smirking. They were toying with her life, knowing they had it in their grasp. That was obvious from their expression.
She was going to die to people making that sort of face. In the end, she could do nothing to control her own destiny. All her life, she'd lived like a doll, observing the world from the other side of a glass panel.
Filled with regret, Fana could do nothing but wait for the end.
She'd never cared about her life before. But, now that she was about to have everything come to an end, she realized how irreplaceable it was.
Maybe she should have been more assertive in life.
She should have conversed with Charles more last night. She should have talked about herself, asked about Charles, so they could learn about each other, and become friends. If she'd done so, maybe, even if everything would turn out the same way, she'd have been more accepting of death.
As she was mired in a loop of endless regrets, she felt air being sucked out from her lungs, and her body felt lighter.
The plane was ascending. And it was ascending faster than ever.
The smirking faces, once so close she could see the facial muscles, became distant.
The rain and wind pouring into the seats became harsher.
Fana turned around.
Charles, covered in blood, had wrapped his legs around the control stick, controlling the plane with all his might.
"Charles!" She screamed.
"It's not over yet." Charles spoke behind him, and let go of the overboost with his right hand. Their reserve power drained away. In exchange for extreme power consumption, the overboost gave them a momentary boost in speed. He couldn't use it often, but they'd at least gotten through that hurdle.
Charles' consciousness was still drifting.
If he stopped focusing, his vision would spin into darkness. And part of him felt like that would be easier.
His temple ringed. Thump, thump, it beat, blood pulsing out. Because the windshield glass shattered, the seats were cold. He could feel his body temperature dropping. The control stick was heavy, and he couldn't put strength into his arms. Blood and rain intermingled, making vision difficult.
It'd be easier to just end it, his mind screamed.
"I don't mind being shot down," He whispered to himself. "But Fana's here."
The whispers would never reach the rear seat. He used his whole body to support the control stick, pulling the check helm to the left.
The sound of propellers slicing through rain became closer behind him.
The Shinden were closing in. He didn't have to turn to check. They weren't opponents that could be lost with just one overboost.
It was difficult flying along the ocean. The salty spray poured into the seats. He didn't want to be below the clouds, either. He wanted to go above, to the sun. His body desired it, but his survival instincts vetoed the decision.
If he tried to lift his plane now, along with the drop in speed, he'd simply show the surface of his plane to the enemy, and that would lead to instant death. The only way to survive was to fly at this altitude until he shook off the enemy.
His head hurt, ringing from the pain. His fingertips were becoming numb. Shattered bits of the windshield had gashed his arms. The control stick was incredibly heavy. But if he messed up his control even a bit, he'd plunge into the ocean. All he could do was endure it.
Charles desperately tried to keep his consciousness intact, tried to wake himself up, and felt the killing intents of the pilots behind him.
As the Shindens' 20mm rifles blazed, the Santa Cruz slid sideways on the ocean surface.
The bullets made salty pillars to the left of the plane. He was flying so low he was creating waves.
Fana was still in the back seat, her neck turned as far as it would go as she shouted to Charles.
"Charles, I'm sorry Charles."
Her voice sounded tearful. Fana was drenched by the rain, but her face was covered by stuff that wasn't rain. She knew Charles was gripping the control stick, just a breath away from losing consciousness. But she couldn't just sit and do nothing. The only thing Fana could do was to keep Charles' consciouness intact. To keep talking to him, without pause.
"I'm so useless. I'm sorry, I'm sorry I'm just baggage." She was saying things that couldn't be helped. But she was afraid that if she stopped talking, Charles would black out entirely.
Every now and then Charles would say something, but she couldn't hear, and acting almost entirely of instict, would slide, crawl, change speeds, and evade bullets coming in from the rear.
Charles' sight, hindered more and more by blood, barely made out the stratocumulus cloud ahead.
That was their only hope.
He was already on the verge of losing himself. But his instincts as a pilot sent the plane toward the mountain of cloud.
The wounded wings of the Santa Cruz sliced through rain. He was so close to blacking out, but Fana's voice kept him awake.
Charles was supported by Fana behind him. In his rain-soaked vision was an image of young Fana, wearing a white one-piece dress.
With a sunflower field behind her, the Fana of the past was crying.
"Come on, Charles."
Charles, soaked in blood, smiled lightly. Maybe this was what they called a 'revolving lantern.' He couldn't tell what was real and what was a dream, but he responded anyways.
"Fana, are you crying?"
He remembered when he was picking on the pig, that she'd asked if he was crying, and he remembered quickly wiping away his tears.
"Yes, I am crying. I'm vexed that I can't do anything. That I can't do anything in a time like this."
Though his vision was blurred, the young Fana's voice sounded clear. The coldness of the rain and wind faded away, and the voice of Fana, settling in his heart, felt warm.
"I have a request."
"Keep talking to me."
"It won't be a bother?"
"Not at all. I feel like I'll black out if I don't listen to you."
"Okay, then what shall we talk about?"
The four Shinden kept pursuing from behind. They were waiting for him to mess up. While Fana spoke, Charles kept his attention focused.
"How troublesome. I've not talked to people much. May I ask about you?"
"Why are you flying?"
Charles answered Fana's question as he weaved in front of the enemy.
"Because I like to."
"You like war?"
"As if. What I like is flying in the sky."
"Of course. Of course that's it."
The 20mm guns from the Shinden roared. But the Santa Cruz was no longer in front of their guns. Hovering over the ocean, the plane slid sideways, kicking up waves. The reason why he was repeating everything over and over again was because this was the most effective way. Charles knew that if he grew irritated, and tried to do something else, he would be shot down.
"In our case, we don't have much of a choice. If a superior orders us, 'fly a plane and fight the enemy,' that's all we can do."
The five Shinden that had crossed over him turned, and charged from the left. The other five planes, including the one that hit Charles, danced down from the right.
"Are you taking me to Esmeralda because you were ordered to?"
Charles' consciousness was blurred, but he still had fully awareness of the situation. Like he had a bird's eye view of his own plane, as well as the enemy planes; it was a strange feeling that guided him.
"That's one reason. But along with that, no one had broken through the central ocean blockade on their own. I wanted to try it. That was a big reason."
The left planes were faster, he decided, and he kicked the right footbar.
"Even though your accomplishments will be sideswiped?"
The plane groaned.
"I don't really care."
The bullets riddled the ocean.
"You don't want fame?"
He could tell they were 7.7mm bullets. The enemy had already run out of 20mm bullets, which weren’t as well stocked.
"If they'd give it to me, sure I'd take it, but I don't need it to live."
The planes from the right swooped in. Charles didn't even have to turn to look. Even with his consciousness drifting between this world and the netherworld, he had full grasp of the airspace.
"I wish I could let those around me hear those words."
The plane slid parallel to the ocean surface. The enemy bullets didn't even graze the Santa Cruz.
The enemy planes that swooped changed to an ascent barely over the ocean.
"When you fly for as long as I have, you start losing interest in the value system of the surface. Most pilots think the same way as me."
The last plane didn't make it, crashed into the ocean, and was swallowed up, its jet-black wing spiraling in the air with a big splash.
"The sky is a treasure to Charles."
Blood still oozed out of his temple, and he couldn't put any strength into the arms holding onto the control stick, but Charles' consciousness was relatively awake.
"That sounds pretty cool."
"I was being serious."
"There are times I feel the surface is stupid. Social classes don’t exist in the sky."
His vision was filled with rain. It was limited. But Charles could clearly hear the breaths, the heartbeats of the enemy pilots.
The Shinden pilots were in a rush. The dogfight had gone on longer than expected, and they were afraid of chasing the Santa Cruz for much longer. They wouldn't say anything to each other, but Charles was sure they were trying to see if it was time to give up.
"You're right, I agree."
The Santa Cruz was dancing with the Shinden.
"After all, a refugee bestado is speaking with the empress-to-be."
No matter how much the Shinden fired, their actions were read two, three steps ahead. The bullets would miss, evaded. It was so futile you'd wonder why they were aiming for him at all.
"Are we not supposed to speak?"
And … the Santa Cruz finally made it to the stratocumulus cloud.
This airspace was dominated by rain and wind that was incomparably harsher than before. If they were to enter the clouds, the air would be split by the strong ascending and descending air currents. Only the most confident of pilots would dare to cut through.
Charles simply kept flying over the ocean, through the storm, because that made it difficult for the enemy to give chase. He wanted to fly into the cloud afterward, forcing the enemy into even more dangerous air, to make them want to give up.
Big raindrops and loud, crashing waves swept into the seats. Without the voice pipe, they wouldn't be able to continue to speak.
Knowing that, Fana shouted to Charles anyways, words that would never reach.
"You're a person, just as I am."
As she spoke, log-shaped lightning flashed outside the windshield. After a slight delay, the sound of thunder rumbled, and the shadow of the Santa Cruz was engraved into the waves.
Charles didn't reply. But, having been able to say what she'd wanted to say since the journey had started, Fana was satisfied. Rain, wind, lightning - none of it scared Fana anymore. She understood, without any reason to back it up, that they would be able to keep flying together.
"We're passing the cloud," Charles mumbled.
After that, like someone had lowered the curtains, bright sunlight poured into the seats.
The world, that all along had been one dreary ashen color, was suddenly filled with light, looking brighter and more colorful than ever before, and the summer sky flew into Fana's eyes.
"Wow," She blurted out. It was a sudden, abrupt change of scenery.
In front of her, behind the plane, the stratucumulus cloud they'd flown under drifted away, reflecting sunlight. The top of the cloud was like a silver-white steeple, standing tall as Fana looked up. The pure white was comforting in the clear, summer blue.
And, those nefarious black shadows were nowhere to be seen. The color of relief spread across Fana's face.
"Look, the enemies are gone. They must have given up."
"Yes, it looks like it," Charles rasped, not looking back.
Charles sounded weaker than before. Fana looked over her shoulder, and her eyes widened.
She hadn’t noticed in the dark clouds; Charles' wounds were far deeper than she'd thought. Blood was still oozing out of his right temple, and shattered bits of glass were gouged into his face and shoulders. His flight suit, a clean blue at dawn, was covered in red on his right side. And the hands gripping the control stick were, probably due to glass, dripping blood, his breath inconsistent. It looked like the control stick weighed tons.
Charles, in a state halfway between death and life, had flown through a thunder cloud, avoiding thousands of enemy bullets. Fana couldn't believe it.
"I-I'm sorry, I never realized."
Devastated, she wriggled about, trying to find anything that would work as wrapping.
Noticing the parachute being used as a cushion, she sliced it apart with a piece of glass and leaned into the front seat.
"This should do for now. We'll have to patch you up properly, later."
Forcibly twisting herself around in the seat, Fana wrapped up Charles' bleeding temple. She then plucked out the glass that was stuck in him, one by one. Fana's hands, which had never lifted anything heavier than forks and knives, were immediately cut, and tainted the colour of roses.
"Fana, I'm alright."
"Please, let me do this, at least."
Fana poked her hand out of the broken windshield and tossed out the glass shards. Blood and glass formed a helix as they spiraled past the plane.
"Your hands are hurt."
"You're hurt, too."
"I'm fine, but not you."
"Because you're going to become the empress."
"Oh my, Charles, aren’t you the one who said there are no social classes in the sky?"
Charles swallowed his words.
In front of him, through his blurred vision, an abnormality came into sight.
The Santa Cruz was flying at about 120 meters altitude. Far below them was a wall of ocean water.
The wall stretched left and right, without end. And the edge couldn't be seen through the spraying water.
It was a big step in the middle of what had been a flat ocean. The ocean was sliced in one line; water was falling from the higher end to the lower end, and water sprayed through the air.
"The Great Fall. We've finally made it."
There was relief in Charles' struggling voice. Once past the fall, they'd enter airspace which Levahm and Amatsukami forces fought over. They were no longer in airspace completely dominated by the Amatsukami.
Charles wrapped his right leg over the control stick and pulled it forward. His arms were so weak now that this was the only way to move the heavy stick. The plane painfully pointed upwards, and with a groan of the propeller, ascended.
Fana's eyes were glued to the wall of water. The Great Fall was roughly 1,300 meters in height, and there was a rainbow in the middle. The heavy rumbling of falling water vibrated through the plane.
This wasn't the first time Fana had seen this. She'd flown across many times and seen this . But every time, she'd feel a sense of awe.
Because of the existence of the Great Fall, the world had been split in two for a long time, and until the invention of planes, could not be crossed. At the same time, this waterfall was why flight supplanted sea travel in the transportation of cargo, and in the control of water-and?airspace.
If the waterfall didn't exist, flight technology would certainly not have advanced as much as it had now. Regular ships were far more effective and efficient in the transportation of cargo. Although they could travel greater distances and carry more weight, they could not overcome the Great Fall.
The Santa Cruz spiraled up and climbed over the Great Fall.
They were now in the western ocean. Charles once again brought the plane down toward the surface, wiped away blood from his eyes, and looked at the altitude gauge. Even though the ocean was right under them, it read 1,350 meters. After adjusting the gauge with his finger to read 10, he returned to a higher altitude.
Charles wanted to sleep. If he stopped focusing, he'd lose consciousness and immediately drift away. The lack of oxygen from being in a higher altitude, the loss of blood from wounds, and the energy loss from intense concentration; all of these were making him extremely drowsy.
Forcing sleep away, he looked across the ocean.
He needed to find Sierra Cadis somewhere in this ocean. Yet there was no land to be found on this lonesome ocean.
Until now, all Charles needed to do was fly northwest, because eventually he'd run into the Great Fall. The Sierra Cadis was supposed to be the next landmark for him.
He knew there would be islands to the northeast and southwest of where he was, but he didn't know which way to go. He would have to fly along the Great Fall, using the shape of the fall, the shape of the clouds, the colour of the ocean surface, and other such markings to figure out where he was.
Eventually, the sun began to set, and the sky was slowly stained an indigo-blue.
And at the edge of his blurred vision, he found a gathering of islands.
The resting place for the third night, the Sierra Cadis archipelago, seventeen islands of various sizes. He'd be able to rest in relative safety.
Licking dry lips, he used the last of his energy, lowering his plane into the ocean between islands that glittered silver.
The Santa Cruz plunged toward a green island, surrounded by shallow water.
They'd survived another day. He'd thought it was over so many times, and had been so close to giving up. But here he was, still flying. And Fana was still alive. The recon plane Santa Cruz had managed to survive an enemy fleet and fourteen enemy Shinden.
Charles thought about that with his freezing mind and smiled, satisfied. After a look at the silver ocean under him, he let go of of the control stick, switched the battery stack to "recharge," sighed, and fell into a deep, deep slumber.
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