Lucien’s Review: Thief

ThiefAh, Thief.  I haven’t played a game in this franchise in a LONG time.  This game came out of nowhere and I’m glad it’s here.  A lot has already been said about this game, so let me start off by saying that this game can be incredibly fun, but there are conditions that have to be met for it to be so.  However, once you do, being a thief has never felt so good.  I do enjoy this game, to the extreme, now let’s talk about why.

First things first – turn off waypoints.  For real, they are so unbelievably restrictive when it comes to exploring the world.  Especially when you are on the job.  When you are in the middle of a heist, nothing takes you out of the experience more than a waypoint telling you where to go and what to do.  This game has a lot of problems with hand-holding, but it gets easier when you are able to have free reign.  Also, this game has something of an issue making killing WAY too easy.  To me, that takes me out of the experience of being a thief.  Garrett even rails on someone he is working with at one point about it, saying that he only kills when he has no choice.  I am down with that, and it makes the tension SO much more intense when you are sneaking through some rich-prick’s house and don’t want to get caught.

Another thing – crank up the difficulty.  On the highest setting, this game is REALLY hard, but it makes doing a theft perfectly that much better.  Plus, it makes the guards a LOT smarter, since they have a bad habit of being about as smart and accurate as stormtroopers.  Once you have that out of the way, get ready for some fun.

The plot of the game goes that after an incident with a protegee of his, Garrett is returning home, eager to get back to his trade and forget what happened.  However, as with most things on his life, it is never that simple.  I don’t want to say much more than that, because it would spoil a lot of the fun of this game.

The first thing to talk about is the overworld.  There is a LOT to do in this game.  There are a ton of heists one can do, some of which admittedly feel like busy-work, but it is all the sweeter for when you get that heist that makes you put your skills to work and feel like such a boss when you walk out of the place with your pockets full and the previous owners never knowing you were there.  And there is a ton of stuff you can steal.  Some reviewers have railed on that, and I kind of see their point.  Garrett remarks that it isn’t how much you take, but what.  You tend to be able to steal every little thing around, which gives you money that you need in order to buy new equipment and upgrades.  If one could avoid it, that would be fine, but you can’t.  You need to better your equipment, so you can disarm traps and other things.

But there are the rare pieces that are just so nice to have.  You keep a log of the rarer items that you take, which is nice to look back on.  They shimmer in all their respective glory.  There is also a lot of choice in what pieces you can steal.  There is something about cutting a priceless painting off the wall of some noble’s home and taking it that makes it feel so rewarding.  You can also look at the rarer pieces in your home-base at the clocktower.  It’s a nice touch that is a good mark of your skill as a thief.  You can also steal diaries and the like, reading random important things or just stuff that the person you are robbing had.  Some of it is very funny.

As far as the controls go, it has a lot in common with Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, in that light and sound play a BIG part of the game.  You have a meter in the corner that shows you how much light you have around you, and there are certain areas where you have to take it really slow and time your movements carefully, like around birds and water.  Little touches like that go a long way, for me.

As for the visuals, I got this game on the previous-gen console, because I am too poor for the latest ones, and I must say, it looks great.  Nothing ground-breaking, and there are some issues with lip-movement synching with the words that can take you out of the experience, but overall, it looks great.  It captures the vibe of the world the game exists in perfectly.  The city you explore feels dank and filled with unpleasantness.  There is chatter from NPCs that is very immersive, letting you know little bits and bobs about the current situation.  It’s a nice touch.

There is hardly any music in the game, which is for the better.  If one is sneaking through a home and there is music playing, I keep imagining the people who live there looking around like “what the fuck is that?  Is that sneak music?”

The characters in the game are all very fun.  Garrett has lots of funny little comments, while maintaining his stoic nature and cold demeanor.  Reminds me a lot of Altair in Assassin’s Creed.  There is great back-and-forth between characters that makes for some fun development.  They aren’t super-interesting, but they make the world feel real.

All-in-all, this game has to be tinkered with, but once you do, trust me, you’ll feel just like a real thief.  This isn’t a game that will leave you in awe, but it is very good for what it is.  The stealth parts were perfect.  So long as you don’t go the way of the assassin (which this game makes very easy to do, unfortunately), you will feel just like this character.  I am still enjoying this game, because there is a ton of stuff to do, and I think you will too.

Final Verdict:
8 out of 10

Peace out,

Maverick

Top 10 Anime Films

I did a list of my top 15 anime series that I love (linked here), but not the full-length films.  So, since I am sick and bored, I decided to do a list of the films that I am in love with in this genre.  Some of these you may see coming, since they are on my favorite films of all time lists, but there may be a few surprises for you.  I’m doing this in honor of a film that is coming out at the end of March – Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo.  So stoked.  I hope you enjoy.

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust10. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust
In the world of vampire fiction, this is one of those underrated classics of vampire cinema.  The visuals in this film are gorgeous and the way it stays serious about its subject matter is very nice, never going into the campy subplots that most anime shows and films do.  Plus, there is this nice sense of moral ambiguity about the thing.  The Vampire Hunter, D, is hired to go after a wealthy man’s daughter who was taken by one of the few remaining vampires.  However, the longer he is on this case, the more he realizes that she doesn’t want to be rescued.  The vampire who took her is neither hero nor villain.  You have to see it and choose for yourself what you believe.  I like that.  A film that nobody thinks about nowadays that you really should check out.

WXIII Patlabor9. WXIII: Patlabor
A really trippy science-fiction mecha anime thriller (words you don’t think you’ll ever see together), this film tones down the mecha aspect and focuses on two detectives who are investigating a series of crimes involving the mechanical units, Labors.  After a while, they come across a secret that they couldn’t believe, involving a lot of people, both close and far.  The thing that separates this film from others is the beautiful music and the bittersweet nature of it.  There is an aspect to the film of loss and pain that doesn’t go away.  Right up to the REALLY bittersweet ending, this aspect shines through.  Still, all of the elements work great, from the great dub-work, the interesting story and the awesome action sequences that make use of the mecha aspect of the film.  If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time8. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
A film I recently fell in love with was Spike Jonze’s latest film, “Her.”  In it, they have a science fiction element that is really downplayed, instead focusing on the character development, with the element in play being more of a plot device that keeps things realistic.  This film does much the same, with a young girl finding a way for her to travel back through time by jumping into the air.  The higher the jump, the farther back she goes.  At first, her use of this talent is all fun and games, but she quickly sees a darker side, when she starts trying to correct mistakes and realizes just how much damage she has done in the process.  This is an emotionally compelling film, which actually does a good job of capturing a realistic high school girl and her difficulties with romance and life.  How a relationship that grows throughout the film plays out is just gorgeous, along with a little bittersweet.  It treats love not just as something wonderful, but something real too.  That is definitely something to respect.

Cowboy Bebop7. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie
No surprise that my favorite anime series makes one of my favorite movies.  One of the things that I love about this film is how it doesn’t take place after the end of the series.  Rather, it takes place towards the end, like a really long and really good episode.  The crew of the Bebop arrives on Mars, only to get involved in a terrorist plot a man has to get revenge on the corporation that destroyed his past.  It has all the same character charm that the series has, along with showing the same growth elements that the series has.  The action scenes were totally awesome!  The animation for the film is a Studio Bones highlight, with all of their talent pouring out onto the screen.  It felt like a nice way to close out the series.  A series film that does it all right.  Nice work.

Ghost in the Shell6. Ghost in the Shell
While the plot for this isn’t entirely original, it’s all the execution.  And this film is nearly flawless in its execution.  Telling the story of a murderer who the police are going after, they very quickly find out that the criminal isn’t who they expect.  It all culminates in a REALLY neat crime thriller that has some sick action sequences.  The animation in this is retro, but still gorgeous.  The way they show technology is a reminder, to me, that despite digital animation, there are just some things that will always look better with 2D animation.  The technological aspects in this film were incredible, mostly due to their attention to detail.  The biggest selling-point of the film, to me, is the world it exists in.  It feels lot like Blade Runner and the lower-world that they made, overpopulated and filled with vice.  If one wants to see what the future might look like, this is a good place to start.

Summer Wars5. Summer Wars
Made by the same man who made “The Girl who Leapt Through Time,” he also happened to make the three Digimon films that America stupidly decided to make into one.  The second of the two, which is the only part of the American film you remember, was one that he liked.  He liked the concept, but wanted to make it outside of the Digimon franchise.  So, that’s exactly what he did.  Centered around a digital world called OZ, this is a two-pronged story about a brilliant young man and how a girl gets him roped into two different problems, each on drastically bigger than himself.  The animation of OZ and that world is GLORIOUS!  For real, how beautiful that world is will blow your mind.  It makes the fight scenes that much better.  But the other best part of the film is the female protagonist’s huge family and just how real that family feels.  For real, there are a few that I guarantee you everyone will bond with, but everybody has different ones that they do.  I’m so glad that the director decided to go this route.  We should all be thanking him.

Princess Mononoke4. Princess Mononoke
Originally, Hayao Miyazaki intended for this to be his magnum opus.  After all the time and money and passion he poured into it, he believed that he wouldn’t be able to make another film.  The man half-expected Studio Ghibli to go out of business with this film.  Instead, he created one of the greatest animated films ever made.  Hell, one of the greatest films ever made.  Telling the story of a young prince named Ashitaka, who is cursed by a giant demon boar, he travels to the west, seeking the Forest Spirit and a cure for his curse.  He becomes involved in a world of humans and gods, along with the forest and the battle to save it from the industrialized city of Iron Town.  The animation in this film is perfect.  For real, there was nothing half-done.  The dub is one of the best I have ever heard, thanks in large part to the ADR director, Neil Gaiman (yes, THAT Neil Gaiman).  There is not a single aspect of this movie that I don’t love and it is, by far, Studio Ghibli’s best film.

Evangelion 2.0: You are (Not) Alone3. Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance
When FUNimation bought the rights to Neon Genesis Evangelion, they decided that, instead of doing a totally rebooted series, they instead decided to do a series of what is to be four films, the third of which comes out at the end of March here in the States.  Such a wise decision.  While the first film was beautiful and captured the feel of the series perfectly, it was this film that was truly a flawless work of art.  Picking up where the previous film left off, Shinji has now accepted his role as the pilot of EVA Unit 01.  He meets a new pilot, Asuka.  They also introduce another character, the EVA junkie Mari, who has a mission all her own.  The war against the Angels, in an effort to stop God himself, continues, with humanity gradually running out of options.  I love everything about this film.  The perfectly-captured dark aspects of Shinji’s war.  His tragic relationship with his father.  The sad reality that humanity has nearly been destroyed and is running out of places to run, along with all of the pilots trying to find humanity in their own way.  It’s not a happy film.  Far from it.  But it isn’t completely tragic.  They are all learning about themselves, and it’s beautiful to watch.

Five Centimeters Per Second2. Five Centimeters Per Second
One of the biggest problems in film is that every film that has romance as a central plot point makes it into a very happy experience, giving it a happy ending, even when it isn’t called for.  This film does NOT take that route.  Following the growth of a young man, this is a film of three stories, each one in a different part of his life.  It begins with him meeting up with a girl who he had feelings for, but had to move away from.  The two reconnect, believing that they will be together one day.  You see how the young man is unable to escape his feelings for her, with them eventually ruining his life.  It’s a tragic reminder of just how hard love can be, along with how hard it can be to move on.  Another thing to talk about is the eye-poppingly amazing animation!  Oh my god, this film is incredible to look at.  Using a softer, almost pastel approach, they are able to get colors to pop in a way that few other films on this list can.

And my favorite anime film is…

The Sky Crawlers1. The Sky Crawlers
Directed by Mamoru Oshii, the same man who made “Ghost in the Shell,” this is, to me, his magnum opus.  There will never be another film he makes that will come close to how much I enjoy watching this.  Telling the story of a squadron of fighter pilots made up of children who are clones.  They never age and only die when they are killed in battle.  It is a miserable existence, and the film shows how they deal with it.  Showing the slow and endless repetition of their tragic lives is almost a little cruel, but the film also has a plot going where the newest pilot is trying to figure out how his predecessor died.  What he inevitably figures out is almost heart-wrenching, because it lets him in on a darker side of his commanding officer.  The animation in this film is beautiful, but it isn’t as extravagant as the previous entry.  It is more subdued, shining when it needs or wants to, to give us some incredible depth.  Another dub that is among the best ever made, each character plays their roles perfectly, with the two leads bringing a lot of subdued passion to the film.  While not a blatantly depressing movie, it still has the feels going, in a smaller way.

What anime films do you love?  Let me know in the comments section.

Until next time, a quote,

“Would you like me to kill you?  Or would you do me a favor, and kill me?  If you don’t, then nothing will ever change for us.”  -Suito Kusanagi, The Sky Crawlers

Peace out,

Maverick

The Pious

Mission debriefings were had and it was time for the ship to move out and get things started.  The crew was more than a little excited.  There were a lot of unhappy betters who lost money on the wager of if Booker or Aurealia would win in their little sortie.  For the Lieutenant Commander, she was proud.  Her and Booker were talking about it like old friends at the mess hall.  Like everything else on this ship, it was quite the establishment.  With a panoramic view of the outside, it felt something like a ballroom with a bar and a lot of tables.  Still, the two were like old friends, ragging on each other’s tactics and squadron.  Harris and Seera were with the rest of the squadron, doing much the same.  Camaraderie was born in an instant between the group.  The rest of the Devils were enjoying the food.  The cooks on the ship were excellent.  They were regaling the crew with stories of previous missions, with pilots and other crewmembers eager to hear.  They all felt good.
However, just as they were getting into the spirit of things, there was a bell that went off on the ship.  The crew all took notice and got up, heading out of the mess hall.  The bulk of the Devils were very confused.
“I miss something?” Belle asked.
“For real,” Herschel agreed.  “What does that bell signify?”
Booker and Emily were more serious now.  “It is a call to prayer.  Delenheim is a theocracy, and there is a rule about daily prayers.  Unless one is engaged in combat, all crew members are required to attend prayers to the Goddess.  Those who helm and control the ship can remain at their posts, but they still have to pray.  The rest go to the Sanctuary and have the more formal ritual.”
Page saw the rest of them hanging back, a little confused.  “Aren’t you all coming?”
They all shook their heads.
“You don’t pray to the Goddess?”
Emily shrugged.  “I didn’t come here to pray.  I came here to fight.”
The girl decided not to push it, heading off to the join the others.  She met up with Aurealia and leaned over to her.
“Why do the Devils not pray?”
The woman was quiet for a second, trying to come up with the right words.  “They don’t believe in the Goddess.  At least, Booker doesn’t.  With Emily, I don’t think she does either.  As for the rest, if they do, they don’t show it.  It’s their prerogative, given that they aren’t formally with the military.”
Something about how she said it got the young pilot’s attention.  “Do you believe in the Goddess, ma’am?”
She gave her a very blank looked, shaking her head.  “What I’ve seen in battle, if there is a Goddess, I owe her an ass-whoopin’.”
Page seemed disturbed.  “That’s heresy!” she whispered.
“Perhaps, but it’s true all the same.”

The Sanctuary was a large room, with a symbol at the front, etched in the glass.  It was of a woman, clothed in shimmering blue that was almost the color of the sky.  She had a Crystal in her hand.  It glowed white.  The room was full of pews.  The crew took their seats, after washing their hands in a basin at the door.
An older woman was at the front of the room.  She was dressed in beautiful blue and white robes, dark in color, in their way.  Her face was behind a mask.
As the crew got to their seats, Belle came in the back of the room, staying in the shadows.  She wanted to see what the affair was like.
“We gathered here, on this day, bathed in the glory of the Goddess’ light.  Her light comes down upon us, cleansing us all of our sins.  We go today, to battle and glory!  We fight for our homeland, against a powerful foe.  Let us pray for our victory, along with the foe we face.  Pray that if we or they should pass, that they shall bear us no hatred.  Pray for the safety of our comrades and the safety of those back home.  We pray for Her Eminence, that she may guide us, with the glory of the Goddess smiling upon her.  Our light and our glory.  Pray for our nation’s victory in the war that is upon us.  Let the Goddess hear our prayers and given glory unto us!  Amen!”
They all sat there, heads bowed and eyes closed.  Aurealia was not as pious, choosing to look at the beautiful stained glass and have a cold gaze.  She looked over and saw Booker and Emily in the shadows, looking at it as well.
Booker had a very cold look on his face, glaring at the Goddess’ likeness.
“In a world like this, there is no Goddess.  I don’t buy it for one second,” he whispered softly.
Emily leaned in close to him.  “Her Eminence is a con artist!  Fake fucking prophet who makes the people give her loyalty and money because she can fake having a connection to the Goddess.  I don’t get how these people are so easily duped.”
“It’s all they know.  They’ve worshiped her like this for so long that the Goddess is their entire world.  It’s all they have.”
A memory came back to her.  “Maybe not.  Remember that group we used to run with?  What were they called?”
“The Union of Souls, yeah.  Hell of a group.  They were growing in membership.  With the revolutions of science, we are explaining away the Goddess’ miracles.  She isn’t quite the all-powerful entity we believed.  The more we learn about the world and what’s inside of it, the more we strip away the need for her.  In 100 years, Delenheim will be a very different place.”
That thought gave Emily shivers.  “What will happen to the Theological Sanctum?”
“Now that is an interesting question.”  He started to walk away, leaving Emily with more questions than answers.  From a pew, next to Aurealia, Page was looking at her.  Her expression, it was one of confusion.  Who is she?  Why do I want to know?

Griffin was in his room at that point, with a rug that had a tribal-looking design of circles and shapes was spread out.  He was wearing a white outfit that had designs like those of animals stitched into them.  Sunlight was pouring in through his quarters window.  He got onto the rug, gently going down on his knees and lowering his head to the floor.  He started to sing a gentle song that was more of a hum.  He didn’t rise until it was finished, rolling the rug up and putting it under his cot.
Herschel had passed by and looked inside, seeing him do it.  He was about to knock when Duke grabbed his hand.
“Let him be, honey.  He has his own rituals to follow.”
“He looked to be worshiping.  Who was he offering prayers to?”
“His people don’t worship the Goddess.  They don’t believe in her.  They believe in Spirits.  To their people, the Spirits are all around us, watching us and looking after us.  His prayers are for their guidance and wisdom and protection.  They are a very humble people.”
“I see.  That’s quite something.  I never knew that he had a spiritual side to him.  It’s never come up.”  They continued down the hall.
“Unlike those on the ship, his people keep their beliefs very private.  They don’t have a formal prayer.  They sing in the ancient tongue of their society, with a song whose words change, depending on the prayer.  Some groups of their people will have prayers together, but overall, it is a very solitary event.  Hence why we best not disturb.”
“Of course, my dear.  You’re right.  Once the prayers are done, we should find someone who can play cards.”
Duke’s face lit up.  “Now you’re talking!”

The bridge of the ship came alive as the Captain and her staff came back, after prayers.
She cued up the intercom.  “All hands, this is the captain!  We are commencing our mission!  We should be at the Oerban border in two days!  May the Goddess be with us!”  She shut off the intercom, looking to the navigator.  “Alright, I want a confirmation from the rest of the fleet!”
After a moment, the communications officer looked up.  “Yes ma’am, all ships are reporting ready!”
“Excellent!  Have them remain information as we move.  All ahead full!”
“All ahead full!”

The engines came to life as the glowing rings started to emit large streams of light downward.  There were large glowing orbs on the back that were powering them forward.  The smaller ships had massive rotors on the sides, with the glowing rings on the bottom.  They all moved in perfect synchronization, headed toward future unknown.

Aurealia was just coming down to dinner when she noticed a large crowd gathered around a couple of tables that were put together.  The evening sun was shining in, making the entire room have a golden glow.  The crowd was pretty thick, with a lot of noise coming from it.  She looked to the bartender, who just smiled and shrugged.  After walking over, she pushed her way through to see two people sitting, with a large amount of coins and bills in the center.  On one side, there was Duke.  On the other, there was Harris.  The two were staring each other down, each one playing the other.  They seemed to have even amounts of money between them.  It was clear that other players had come and gone.  They both had five six in their hands, looking each other right in the eye.  Aurealia could see it, there was a battle being fought here.  One that was as fierce as a dog-fight.
“Your move, pretty-boy!” Duke said, venomously.
He looked at the coins and bills in his hand.  He looked down at his cards, taking the coin stacks first and putting them all in.  He then took the bills and put them all in the pile.
“All-in!  Let’s end this!”
Duke couldn’t help but smile.  She was going to win, she could feel it.  There were four cards already on the table.  One was a woman with a crown, the other was a bird in the sky, the third was a blade with jewels and the last was a blue gem.
“I’m game!”  She put all her money in as well.
The dealer looked over.  “Alright, let’s see what cards you got!”
Duke went first.  “I’ve got Five Honors Rich, Field of Beauty and Jewels of Power.  That’s all she wrote, kid!”  The crowd was ecstatic, waiting to see what Harris would do.  His smile grew.
“Not bad.  Not bad at all.”
Duke was reveling in this.
“But not good enough!”
Her expression changed immediately.
He put down his cards and her heart sank.  “I’ve got Three Birds of Beauty, Jewels of Power and, as my last play, The Goddess Queen!”
Everybody went nuts.  The crowd of people were changing money as bets were cashed in.  Duke looked shocked.  Herschel was as well.  She had never lost in cards.  Ever.  Chief was the only true rival she’d had, but this young Delenheim pilot had just taken her for everything.  As he counted up his winnings, the crowd started to disperse.
Finally, Duke looked up.  “Not bad, kid.  Not to bad at all.  I was so sure I had it.  You nailed me good!”
He chuckled.  “I was a little worried, for a second there.  You were seven points away from a tie!  That was close!”
“Indeed.  We must do this again sometime!  I mean to take my winnings back!”
He nodded, shaking her hand.  “I’d like that.  Good game, Devil.”
“Name’s Duke.”
“I’m Harris.”
“Nice to meet ya.”
Aurealia grabbed one of the bills from the table.  “The house gets a cut, naturally.”
Since they were off-duty, he didn’t salute, but he did shrug a bit.  “It was a good game, ma’am!  Though I think that you wouldn’t do well against this opponent.”
The lot of them got a laugh, ordering some drinks from the bar.

Far away, there was a fleet of airships.  They were like dirigibles, except they had glowing rings on the bottom and large open platforms around the center, lined with guns.  On one of them, the silver plane with the black rose.  They were gathering, knowing that a foe was going to be meeting them, soon enough.

Until next time, a quote,

“Words are the means to meaning and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth.  And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there?”  -V, V for Vendetta

Peace out,

Maverick

The Debriefing (First Sortie)

It was well before dawn when he awoke.  He grabbed a quick shower and dressed.  The ship was quiet.  Everyone he passed by gave him a warm look.  It reminded him of why he was glad to be back.  The mess hall wasn’t serving breakfast yet, but they had coffee.  He grabbed a cup and sat down.  There was a paper on the table, which he took and started reading.  He hadn’t read the language of Delenheim in a long time, but he knew the syntax immediately.  The biggest story on the front page was the declaration of war.  The people were scared and the politicians were being wishy-washy.  That concerned him a bit.  But there was no time to worry about that now.  They had a mission, and the perk of this job was that they were outside of military jurisdiction, so it didn’t matter if they approved or not.  He finished his coffee, noticing the clock on the wall.  It was time to go.

He arrived on the flight deck just as the sun was starting to come up.  There were several things that caught his eye.  The first was Koraline, working on his plane.  He walked over, grinning.
“Have you been at this all night?”
She nodded, wiping some grease from her forehead.  “Yeah.  You’re going out today, so I wanted to make sure that your bird was in working order.  It looks good, but there were a couple of things that needed tweaking.  You’ll be able to tell when you fly her.  She’s ready for action!”
Booker chuckled, leaning on the wing.  “You really do know your stuff.  Nice to see that you’ve gotten a little more confident too.”
She blushed a bit.  “Well, it’s hard to just walk up to a legend and shoot the shit, ya know?”
“Fair enough.”  The radio was playing a soft tune that was written many years ago for an orchestra.  “I like your taste in music.”
The girl smiled a bit, turning it up a notch.  “Thanks.  I like to think that if you really have something worth saying, you don’t need words, you know?  Words just muddle things.  Besides, it lets me zen for this work.”
As they stood there, he couldn’t help but admire the girl.  But he had bigger concerns.  The other thing he noticed was that Aurealia was down here too.
“When did the LC get here?”
Koraline frowned.  “Not long before you did.  She brought some of the squadron she has with her.  Which reminds me, they asked me to remove all the live ammo from your guns and replace them with paint rounds.”
That got a smile from him.  “Ah, so that’s her game.  This is going to be a fun sortie.”
“You know what she’s got planned?”
“I think so.  Now, where is that squadron I was-” He was cut off as he saw ten pilots arriving off the elevator.  They caught sight of him and started walking over.  It was seven women and five men.  They were young, but looked capable.  There was one among them who seemed to have sway over the others.  He was a young man with ice-blue eyes and jet-black hair.  He was deathly pale, but didn’t look frail.
The pilots walked over and stood at attention, saluting.
Booker stood up, walking in front of them.  “At ease, pilots.  Now, I’m going to be put in charge of your squadron.  You all know who I am and my reputation.  I lead the most efficient mercenary outfit there is.  You all have some pretty big shoes to fill to be under my command.  I expect the best from you.  I was trained under Lieutenant Commader Aurealia, and I assure you, I will not go any easier on you than her.  You get me?”
“We get you, sir!”
“That’s what I like to hear.  Now, we’re going out today on a practice run.  It’s a test of our ability to work together.  I’m told that we should expect anything.  Get to your birds and be on the runway in 20!”
“Yes sir!”  They all took off, eager to prove themselves to the new commander.
Koraline leaned over.  “All of their weapons have been changed to paint rounds too.  Think we should tell them that?”
Booker smiled to himself.  “No reason to make this too easy for them.  A good scare will do them good.”  The two chuckled as he got onto his plane.  Koraline ran to get the starter for his engines.

Twenty minutes later, their planes were lined up on the runway.  Everyone was stoked.
Booker got on his radio.  “Launch control, this is Devil One and squadron.  Requesting permission to launch.”
“Permission granted, Devil One!  Opening launch bay doors.”  The front of the ship opened up.
“Copy that, control.  All fighters, move out!”  They took off, heading away from the fleet.  “Form up on me!”  They moved to obey, with three on either side of his wing in a V-shape and three in the center behind them.  They moved further and further out.
“Alright, everybody, keep you eyes peeled.  They have something waiting for us!”
It was a relatively dull trip for about ten minutes.  They got 60 kilometers out.
Booker looked to his right.  “Right wing, tighten up!  You’re getting too spread out!”  They obeyed, getting in closer.  He could hear people breathing over the radio.  They were nervous.
It was then that a voice came onto the radio.  “Sir, we’ve got unknown fighters coming up, eleven o’clock, same height.  They’re making a b-line right for us!”
He knew.  “Alright, people, get ready for combat!”
Everyone turned on their sights, getting ready.  The other planes all had white markings, so they would know which ones they were.
“Alright, people, it’s time to dance!  There’s six of them!  Pair off and deal with them, one-by-one!  I got the leader!”  They split in perfect formation, with Booker heading right for the center plane.  It turned sideways as he did, moving right past him.  He recognized this tactic.  So, the LC came to do this herself.  Alright.  The two were all over each other, each moving to get in behind the other.
Meanwhile, it was an ugly battle with the rest.  One of Aurealia’s fighters got behind a member of the squadron.
“Oh shit!  I’m in trouble!”
The jet-black haired pilot came in behind him.
“I got you, Garruth!”  He let-fly, painting the engine of the enemy fighter with blood-red paint.  It knew it was hit, heading off to base.  Two of their fighters were hit.
A female voice could be heard on the radio.  “What the fuck are you idiots doing out there?!  Stay with your partner!  They should not be getting behind you like this!”
Booker heard and smiled.  He liked these two voices.  However, he was occupied.  Aurealia was every bit the devious enemy he remembered.  She was keeping pace with him.  It was a joy to have a dog-fight this intense.  He sent off some rounds, when he thought he had a shot, but she was good.
As the last of her fighters were deal with, the squadron saw the two of them.
“Is that the LC’s plane?” one asked.
“Cut the chatter!” the girl from before yelled.  “Harris, form with me.  We’ll go back the Lieutenant!”
“Don’t you mean Devil?”
“Just form up, smartass!”
The two did, moving in on the fight.
“Sir, we’ve come to back you up!”
Booker smiled beneath the mask.  “Roger that!  Glad to have the help!”
The two came in from the other side, making it so that she couldn’t move too much without being in their line of fire.  She was good, but a three-on-one fight was something she couldn’t deal with.  It gave Booker just enough time to get in behind here and let-fly.  He splattered he engine with all kinds of hits.  She knew that she was done, heading back to the flagship.  The group cheered as she left.
“Cut the chatter, pilots!” Booker shouted.  “In a real battle, the enemy could still be in the area!”
They all piped down, but were still proud.
“Good work, everyone.  We’re headed back to base.”

As they landed, the female pilot from before hopped out of her cockpit, ripping off her helmet and goggles, letting her fiery-red hair fall.  Her face was brimming with excitement.  She ran over to where the jet-black haired pilot was, wrapping an arm around his shoulder.
“Man, we owned the LC and her squadron!”
“Fuck yeah, we did!  I swear, I could almost see her getting pissed when we came to back the Lieutenant!  That shit was awesome!”
Booker got out of his plane, with the rest of the squadron running over.  He gave them enough of a smile to let them know they did well, but still retaining his look of cold command.
“You all did well today.  Of course, two of you got ‘shot down,’ but with one of them, the damage was arguably not that bad.  We’ll work on that.  However, there are two who I wish to recognize.”
He pointed at the jet-black haired pilot, along with the red-haired one.
“What are your names?”
The young man stepped forward.  “Harris, sir.  Delta Harris.”
“And you?”
“Seera, sir!  Seera Taro.”
“You two seem to have a pretty firm command of running a squadron and how to use them well.  That’s good.  What’s more, people follow you.  Those are two qualities I need in my new Squadron Leaders.”
The two were enthralled.  The others were nodding in approval.
“I did this test to see which of you would step up, when needed.  I have my own squadron to run, so I need two people who I can depend on, able to lead parts of this group when I am occupied, while following my commands.  You two seem to be right for the job.  So you’re it until you’re dead, or I find someone better.”
The two saluted.  “Thank you, sir!”
“Alright, dismissed!”
They all took off, eager to rag on the two pilots and to celebrate their victory.
Koraline was standing by his plane, smiling.  “I’m glad we called you in, sir.”
“Thanks, Kora.  That means a lot.”

Until next time, a quote,

“Great warrior?  War not make one great.”  -Yoda, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Peace out,

Maverick

The Flagship

It was a couple hours later as the eight fighters came within range of the Fifth Choir.  The Delenheim military called their air fleets Choirs because of the fact that the airships had much in common with angels.  Thus, a grouping of them was called a Choir.  Since they were a theology, it wasn’t questioned.  The Choir was made up of seven airships.  There was a large battleship at the center, long, slender and smooth.  It’s white hull was beautiful to look at.  In addition to the anti-air and medium-sized batteries, there were three massive cannons on the top.  There was a large raised section toward the back.  It was like a tower. 
There were three cruisers, in the same vein as the battleship.  They were gathered in a circle around it, clearly its major line of defense.  They were well-armed, appearing to have a base section that could open.  The last set of airships were small ones that were made to move quickly.  They were a fair distance out, as if they were lookouts.  They were armed, but it was armament that wasn’t for a long-standing fight.  They would hold the line until the rest of their fleet showed up.
Aurealia came on the comm.  “Pious Devotion, this is Deckartt, Page and the Sky Devils, requesting permission to land.”
The curved front of the ship opened up, showing a long runway inside.
“Roger, Deckartt, you are clear to land.  Glad to see that the Devils have arrived.”
Booker couldn’t help but grin.
They came in through the opening, landing on a very well-kept runway.  The inside of the battleship held about 30 fighters.  The maintenance crews were hard at work, prepping them for battle.  Of course, the landing bay was small in comparison to the rest of the ship. 
As they landed, people were gathering.  Their fighters were led into the free spots.  Booker was the first one to get out.  He dropped to the deck, looking around.  The grin he had was ear-to-ear.  He was loving it.  Being back on a Delenheim airship, about to be engaged in battle with a powerful enemy.  His force had been the underdogs in the last war, now they were again.  It was a good day. 
Emily dropped out of her fighter as well, running over to where her commander stood.
“Man, this brings back memories!”
“For real.  Though this ship is about a thousand times better stocked and armed than the last one we served on.”
“For real!  That thing was a fucking bucket!  I wanted a shot just looking at the rust in some places.”  The two shared a laugh.
It was then that a young woman walked over.  She had a rather shy look on her face, like she was told to talk to them but was too nervous to start.  She had long brown hair that was tied in a ponytail in the back.  It was almost black, it was so dark.  Her skin was naturally tan, but just a little.  There was a softness to her that was irresistible to both of them when they tried not to stare.  She was wearing a jumpsuit that the two of them knew well.
“Uh, hi.  My name’s Koraline, but you can call me Kora.  Everybody else does.  Or just Kay, if you want.  I, uh…I’m in charge of looking after you two’s fighters.”
Despite how cute she was trying to talk, the two couldn’t help but find her lack of conviction disturbing.  To break the ice, Booker walked over.
“What can you tell me about these models?”
She looked them over, smiling.  “They’re gorgeous!  Given the various mix of hardware, I’d say that they are custom models, but the design is based on Asquerian interceptors.  Fast, maneuverable, but with some alterations to the armor so that they can take a few more hits.  Oh, and you replaced the regular guns with Asquerian model machine cannons, reserved for their heavy bombers and anti-aircraft guns on airships.”  She walked closer, running her hands along the hull.  She hopped onto the wing and looked inside.  “Asquerian controls, very nice!  I bet it handles like a dream!  With all the mix of hardware, it’s a good thing I’m assigned to look after them!  I originally worked at a naval port in Frada.  I had to deal with all kinds of airships there.  I can easily work with both.”
The two were impressed.
“Welcome to the Sky Devils, Koraline.  For the remainder of our time here, anyway.”  He shook her hand.  The girl was blushing like crazy.  She seemed more at ease around Emily, which bummed her.  It was clear, she was drawn to Booker.  He looked over at his wingmate and she shrugged.  Can’t win ’em all.
“Oh, and make sure to tell anyone else to leave the one with the three engines alone.  That one is taken very special care of by the pilot.  He doesn’t like people touching his plane.”
Koraline nodded.  “Sure thing.”

At that very moment, Griffin was getting out of his plan.  He was in love with this ship.  His eyes were all over it, immediately wanting to ask questions.  He couldn’t help the amount of looks he was getting from the crew.  It was almost all women, and they liked what they saw.  The amount of women he saw in the Delenheim military he had seen was on his mind, so he walked over to Firo, who was also getting looks.
“Hey Firo, can I ask you – why are there so many women in the military of Delenheim.  I mean, was I just not accustomed to seeing them thanks to our time in Asqueria?”
His comrade chuckled.  “Nah, it ain’t that.  Delenheim has far more women in the Air Navy than men.  They believe that women are better pilots.  Can’t say as I can disagree too hard.  They raise some of the best pilots in the world here.”
Griffin nodded, smiling.  “Impressive.  Though I am seeing where Emily gets her openly flirtatious behavior.”
There was a warm chuckle.  “Yeah, but you’ll also get a lot of looks of confusion too.  Seeing male pilots, it’s almost unheard of.  To be a man in their naval forces, you really have to prove yourself.”
“I see.  Fascinating.  I shall have to learn more about Delenheim’s customs as we go along.”
“For sure.”

Duke and Herschel were getting out of their fighter, with the gathered crowd gasping Herschel’s size.
He waved at them, smiling.  “I suppose I should be used to this reaction.”
His wife chuckled, clinging to his arm.  “They are just enamored with your size.  Can’t say I blame them.”
“Indeed.  They are all so, young.”
That got a look.  “You aren’t going to go running off with some young thing here are you?  Especially since they seem to share a few traits with Emily.”
The man shook his head, laughing.  “Of course not!  After all, if I did, you might hurt me!  Can’t risk that!”
She punched him in the arm, walking away.  “Well, I never!”
He ran after her, groaning.  I can never tell when she’s serious and when she’s not.

Belle got out of her plane, plopping down on the ground in front of a tiny young thing.  The girl was smiling up at her.
“Hey there!  My name’s Elizania Morane Relfo!  You can call me Ellie!  I’m going to be your mechanic!”
The girl was so enthusiastic, the pilot couldn’t help but find her endearing.  “You’re so cute!  I want to pick you up like a big cat!”
The tiny little girl tried to look indignant, but that just made her cuter.  “Hey, I know what I’m doing!  I’m the best damn mechanic in the whole fleet!  I could take your bird apart with my eyes closed!  Asquerian models are easy to tinker with.”
Rubbing the top of the girl’s head, Belle giggled.  “I believe you.  I look forward to working with you.”
Despite the indignant fact, she couldn’t help but enjoy the compliment. 

Page got out of her bird, running over to where Emily was.
“Hey!  We didn’t get a lot of time to talk back at the Naval Command.  You free to talk later?”
She got a cold look in response.  “You have a problem staying in formation, pilot.”
She looked hurt.  “Ma’am?”
“Your fighter was all over the place.  Staying in formation helps keep us alive, pilot.  Remember that.”  She started walking away, leaving Page looking more than a little hurt.
Booker walked over to her, leaning down.  “You have to go at the kid that hard?  She looks like she’s about to cry.”
Emily had a half-smile.  “She’s the LC’s protegee.  You remember how she was with us.  We start babying her, she’ll come to us to do just that.  We’d undermine the LC’s work, just by talking to her.  We gotta treat her cold, or she won’t learn nothing.  She may hate me for it, but it’ll make her a damn good pilot one day.  The fact that she seems to like me will make it so that she listens to me.”
“She’ll also resent the fuck out of you, since she’ll be coming to you all the time, looking for your approval.”
“I have no doubt.  I eventually saw why the Lieutenant was cold to us.  Hopefully she will see why I am cold to her.  If not, then she’ll hate my guts and be a damn good pilot.  Either way, we help.”
Booker was in shock.  “Wow, you certainly did a 180.  Pretty young thing like that, I would have thought you’d be all over that!”
Emily smiled.  “What can I say, being back with the Lieutenant, or the Lieutenant Commander now, it got me feeling all nostalgic.  Though I haven’t given up on getting to chase that skirt.  Or flightsuit, as the case may be.”  She sealed it with a wink.
“We’ll see.”  They met up with their comrades, headed to meet with Aurealia on the elevator.

They stopped on the top of the spire section of the ship.  It opened to show a very open bridge.  It was deceptively open.  There were segments where protective shielding could come up, in the event of an ugly fire-fight.  There was a woman with shimmering blonde hair that hung down to her back.  It was done in a braid, ending just above the center.  She was wearing a casual uniform, not wanting to look grand for anyone.  Her rank was clear.  She was the captain.  With her was a slightly younger man with jet-black hair.
The Captain stood up, walking over.  She held out her hand.  “A pleasure to meet you.  My name is Captain Hera Dieratess.  I am the leader of the Fifth Choir and will be commanding this operation.”
Booker shook her hand.  “I’m Booker Sands, and these are my comrades.  We are the Sky Devils.”
“Indeed.  Your reputation precedes you.  I was part of an operation that was fighting against you during the brushfire conflict with Asqueria.  You gave my crew a good licking.  Made us feel like proper idiots.  Glad that we could have you on our side this time.”
He looked a little sheepish at the comment.  “Well, water under the bridge, I hope.”
The Captain chuckled, nodding.  “Oh yeah.  All’s well that ends well.  Now, I’m sure you were given a mission brief from Naval Command, yes?”
He nodded.  “Yeah, go behind enemy lines and hit ’em where it hurts.  Go in, strike and get out.  Clean and simple.  Sounds good.”
“Exactly.  Glad that I won’t have to cover old ground.  As for your involvement in this effort, I am giving you command of not only your own forces, but also a squadron of ten fighters.  You will be one of our hammers in this fight.  I take it that that won’t be a problem.”
His look got more serious.  “I can do that, but ma’am, I have some of the best pilots in the world with me.  We have on-a-dime reaction and are a great team.  I need that kind of commitment from your people.  I can’t have anyone questioning my orders out there.”
“Oh, I can assure you, they are professionals, and some of the best.  However, to form unit cohesion, I am going to have your first sortie be a practice run with just them.  Your own crew can stay behind and observe, give them pointers.  You are being given a field command as Lieutenant Commander, while each member of your squadron is given a field rank of Flight Lieutenant.  That way, there will be no misunderstandings.  Since we are hoping to get things rolling sooner, rather than later, I was hoping you could run that practice sortie in the morning.  Break of dawn.”
Booker stood at attention, saluting.  “Yes ma’am!”  The rest of the squad did as well.
Captain Hera was impressed, saluting back.  “Excellent!  Since you are officers, you each get your own quarters.  Aside from the two who are clearly a couple.”  She saw the rings hanging from necklaces that they couldn’t wear on their fingers in flight.  “Married couple, I see.  I’ll have the Lieutenant Commander show you to the living quarters.  Dismissed!”
They all saluted again, following her back to the elevator.

After they were settled in, with the quarters being much smaller than what they were used to, the lot of them were more than happy to get some rest.  They had been flying almost all day and it was exhausting.  Duke and Herschel were trying to find a way that they could sleep on a standard-issue cot together.  It was going to be more than a little tricky.  Griffin was eager to write in his journal.  Firo was letting his mind zen, watching the clouds pass by outside.  Belle was already fast-asleep.  The girl had a gift at being able to sleep anywhere, anytime.  Emily was doing a few exercises before crashing and Booker was deep in thought. 
Already, he had more responsibilities.  More than he had bargained for.  He wasn’t worried about an expanded command.  His own people would follow his orders.  He would find out how worthy these ten newcomers to his pack were.  The best case scenario would be to find someone within who could be a squadron leader, allowing him to lead his own people, while having them as back-up.  But one couldn’t be sure without field testing.  It took him back to days gone by.  As he stared out the window, he smiled.  Finally, I’m back home.

Until next time, a quote,

“I need to determine for myself if peace and the expense of lives can really be defined as peace.  And I will become evil itself to find out!”  -Wufei Chang, Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz

Peace out,

Maverick

The Debriefing (Negotiation)

Each of the pilots in the Sky Devils had their own ritual when it came to preparing for a mission.  As they packed, each of them was partaking of their rituals.  The first was Booker.  He would routinely go to his spot beneath a tree to the side or the runway and take a nap with whatever book he was reading over his face.  Reading the book was the actual ritual, but he couldn’t help passing out in the warm shade with the calm breeze on his face.  There was the sound of the mechanics arguing about something, along with Firo playing with the base’s dog, Haunter.  He was called that because he was haunting the place for a while, never leaving.  It was a scruffy mutt with short brown and grey hair and a soft face.  It was getting on in its years and would stay there until someone would eventually feed it.  After a while, they just made a bed for it inside one of the hangars and it would go in there at night and sleep.  Firo would play with the dog for the entire day when they had a mission the next one.  Since the dog was getting old, it didn’t have the spring in its step that it used to, but it liked the attention all the same.  After it did enough fetch to get tired, it would come over and pass out by Booker, with Firo always walking over and petting its head before he would go and continue packing whatever he needed.
Belle would grab her swimming attire and go to a lake that wasn’t too far from the base and go for a swim.  Leeches weren’t an issue, since there was all gravel at the bottom.  A deep lake, it was a perfect escape on a hot day like this.  She would swim out to a dock that they had toward the middle and rest for a while, enjoying the breeze.  Then, she would swim back and saunter back to the base, in no specific hurry.
Duke, Herschel, the Chief and the bulk of the maintenance crew would play a game of poker.  Guaranteed to get ugly, due to the fact that they always had real money riding, it was a game that like a battle.  Herschel always played for fun, since he was not very competitive.  His wife, on the other hand, was in a battle with the Chief, and it always came down to the two of them.  The battle would sometimes go on for several hours.  It was an ugly game to see them play.
Griffin would sit in his room with the window open and write.  He kept a regular journal, which he was very meticulous in keeping as well-informed as possible.  Before each mission, he would lay out his thoughts and concerns, as if to reinforce his perspectives to himself.  He would write in great detail about what he was hoping to accomplish and how he was hoping things would pan out.  Another part of the ritual was to bring his concerns to Booker, who made a habit of listening to them.  Assuming, of course, he didn’t get interrupted from his nap.
Emily had a very demanding ritual that shocked everyone – she worked out.  She would go through a rigorous routine of exercise before each mission, making her entire body sore.  She would start with stretches and warm-up weights, push-ups and crunches, followed by a long run and more intensive weights, usually having either Herschel or the Chief as her spotter.  She would end the routine with a punching bag, going until she was sure that she had punished it enough, with both her fists and feet.  Afterwards, she would go to the shower and sing.  The first time everyone heard it, they were confused/amused.  Something they learned quickly to keep to themselves, lest they end up on the business end of her wrath.  Firo would occasionally join her as well, as the two were constantly on a mission to one-up the other.
The day was quiet and warm.  Everyone got through their ritual and met at the dining hall that night.  One of the maintenance crew doubled as their cook.  He was a younger man who was something of a show-off, loving to prove how awesome his skills in the kitchen were.  He had quite a crush on Emily, but would never admit it.  Surprisingly, she wasn’t cruel to him about it.  She didn’t play with him or abuse his feelings.  She was polite and good-natured with the man.  She respected his courtesy and wasn’t going to smash his feelings all over the place.  It was a good friendship between them, his feelings unspoken.  It ended with everyone eager to see where things would go next.

The dawn came just as they wanted it to.  Everyone got up and got into their flightsuits.  Relatively form-fitting, they were made to squeeze the body just enough to keep blood flowing during combat, when the forces of gravity could make it pool.  They could be loosened or tightened, depending on the circumstances, and it was quick, so they could do it in mid-air.  All of them were in black.  Everyone walked to their hangars’.
Booker and Emily had the same kind of plane.  Twin engines with rotors facing the back.  They were on either side of the sizable wingspan.  The thing that set them apart, however, was their weapons.  Underneath, both fighters had dual-machine cannons that were several sizes larger barrel than the typical mounted guns of a fighter.  They could blast through airship armor, which was the goal.  These two fighters were both speed and power and made from the ground up, designed by the Chief.
Duke and Herschel had a two-seated fighter.  It was made with a radar screen inside.  This was so they could spot enemies.  Radar was a new invention that was starting to make the rounds.  Duke watched the radar and handled the guns while Herschel did the flying.  The fighter was also big enough to hold a few smaller-class bombs.  Of course, they only did that when the mission called for it.  This fighter wasn’t as maneuverable as the others, so it was kept in the center, protected by the rest.  Being able to detect enemies as they came was an asset that Booker refused to lose.  However, the fighter was well-armored and in no way toothless, with two standard-issue belt-fed guns that typical fighters had.
Firo’s plane was a smaller fighter that was made for speed.  It was compact, with a single motor that had the rotors in the back.  It had two standard-issue guns mounted underneath.  It was deadly, but it couldn’t take very many hits.
This was much the same with Griffin’s vehicle.  It was the odd duck of the bunch.  It had twin-engines, but a third on the back.  See, the two larger engines had rotors that were at an angle on the sides, with the lower part descending beneath the cockpit.  This gave it maneuverability that the rest of the planes didn’t have.  The third engine was much smaller and simply propelled it forward.  It also had a cockpit with the best view of them, making it typically the one that ran point, scouting the position ahead.  It was a design from the south and could land and take off from anywhere with its design.
Belle’s plane was a typical model from the Asquerian military, with a long center and a single-motor and the rotors on the back.  It had a long front and a single gun that was the same as the one used in Booker and Emily’s.  It was made to take hits and dish out punishment.  They could mount small rockets onto its decent wingspan.  These weapons were hard to come by and could only shoot forward, so they were expressly reserved for hard targets, such as ground positions or airship engines.  It was their heavy-hitter.
After loading up their bags in the cargo compartment of Duke and Herchel’s bird, they all got on their respective fighters.  They had already been rolled out of the hangars and were awaiting start.  There were long rods on a machine that went into the back of the engines.  They sent a bolt of light into each one, which activated the Crystals inside of their engines.  They came alive with the rotors moving.  The mechanics moved the wooden wedges the held them in place and ran out of the way.  The Chief motioned them out.  On the side of the main building, a light came on.  It had three bulbs inside.  The first came on green.  Then the second.  As the third one did, they took off.  Several of the crew waved at them as they left, as well as their dog watching them go.  None of them knew when they’d be back.  This was not unheard of.

The planes took their respective positions.  Griffin and Firo were on point, with Booker and Emily to the sides, alongside Duke’s bird.  Belle brought up the rear.  They headed due northeast, eager to see what was waiting for them.  They all had masks with communicators inside, so they could keep in touch, via radio.  It was short-range, but anyone on their frequency could patch in.  The masks also allowed them to breath in the heat of battle.  They all had helmets as well, with goggles that had special lenses that would go darker when direct sunlight hit them.  It was nifty and useful in a fire-fight, while still making them able to see at night.  For Booker and Emily, they felt trepidation, along with joy at the same time.  They were going home.

Air Naval command was in the city of Vena.  It was a very secure city, with several airships providing constant protection.  There were also guns running along the perimeter.  This was a precaution from the previous war with Oerba.  The building was very large, with the runway not far from it.  It was made of white stone, shining in the summer light.  The entire city was made of this stone, making it beautiful to look at.  There were lots of trees in it as well, with the wind blowing them to the side.  There were Crystal-power motorcars on the roads.  Where having a motorcar used to be a luxury item, manufacturing was making them something that most everyone in the middle class could afford.
Admiral Elena Dartt was sitting at her desk when an aide came running in.  It was nearly noon.
“Ma’am, I just received word from an airship just outside of the city!  The Devils are arriving!”
She looked up, nodding.  “Alright, have them assemble in the conference room on the fifth floor.”
The aide saluted, heading off.

The Devils made it there in good time.  It was a quick journey over the mountains.  Typically, that wasn’t the best idea, as weather could get rough, but Booker knew what he was doing and trusted his comrades to be the same.  They saw the first of the airships that marked the entry into the city.  Some of their fighters came over, but quickly left.  They knew the birds of the Devils well enough, and it seems that they were expected.  They went back to their ships.  Soon, the city itself came into view.  Their runways were clear, with several staff members motioning them down.
“Alright, everyone, landing gear down.  Follow their instructions on where to park.”
There were noises of confirmation.  They got lower, coming down in the same formation.  Several runway hands motioned for them to go to a couple of hangars that were right next to each other, inside a larger complex that clearly was made for housing airships.  They got to their places and powered down.
As he opened his cockpit, Booker breathed in the air.  Sure enough, like five years before, there was the sugary sweet smell of the fruits that grew on the trees here.  It was a wonderful scent, bringing back a lot of memories.  He saw Emily breathing it in as well, smiling at him.  The two hopped down, meeting up with the others.  An aide came running over.
“Booker Sands?” he asked to the group.
He stepped forward.  “Present and accounted for, with my group in tow.  Where do we take this party?”
“Ah, Admiral Dartt will be meeting with you on the fifth floor conference room.  If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you the way.”
Duke and Herschel were enamored by the beauty of the city.
“Oh, sweetie, we should come here for our vacation, once this job is done!”
He put his arm around her neck, since she was too short on him for it to go down further and pulled her in close.  “That sounds wonderful, dear.  This is quite the city.”
Belle was admiring the airships.  They had glowing rings on the outside, with them being rather silky and smooth hulls instead of hard and sharp corners.  “Look at those ships!  They’re beautiful!  Their engine design has always fascinated me.  Why do they have those rings?”
Griffin was the one who answered.  “It’s so they can distribute the energy fields that keep them aloft.  They flow out through the rings and down, that’s why they are on the sides and the base, except you can’t see the ones on the very bottom.”
“Why don’t our planes have that?” she replied.
Booker chimed in, “because they’re too small.  That kind of power distribution system has to have a large amount of engine power to channel it.  Our planes are given power by Crystals, but we have to have rotors to fly.  Larger bombers, however, do have pseudo-Ring Drives.”
She was in awe, smiling up at them.  They seemed to shimmer in the light, slender and long.  They were a sight to see.  The fighters they had were compact, with dual-sets of rotors on a single engine on the back.  It was to make them harder to hit, while still being armored enough to take some amount of punishment.  They were fast, too.
The group couldn’t help but notice people giving them looks.  Most of them were looks of awe and excitement.  If the Devils were here, not as combatants, that was a good sign, to them.  The adulation was well-received by the group, who couldn’t help but take it in with a smile.

The group arrived at the conference room.  It was a very plain-looking table that was clearly used only for issues that concerned this facility, rather than the larger issues that the base handled.  Admiral Dartt was waiting inside.  She had several aides with her, all high in rank.  They stood up as the group entered.  Hands were shook and greetings exchanged as they sat down.
The Admiral began, “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you why you are here, Mr. Sands.”
He nodded.  “I got the gist on the news, when war was declared.”
“Indeed.  Well, we are planning on hiring you to accompany the Fifth Choir, who is going to be our sword in this war.  You will be on the flagship of the Choir, Pious Devotion.  We have a couple of fighters waiting here to escort you.  The mission plan is simple – destroy the enemies supply lines and force them to withdraw.  Now, because the Theological Sanctum is not officially condoning hostile action at this time, you and the rest of the Fifth Choir will be on your own.  There won’t be any reinforcements, so you’ll have to make due with what you have.  Is that going to be an issue?”
Booker looked to the others, who either shook their head or shrugged.  A job’s a job.  That status just meant that the price tag went up.
“Nope, assuming that our price is not too high.”
“Ah, speaking of, I assume that you have an estimate?”
The man smiled, taking a notepad that was on the table and a pencil.  He marked a figure on it, passing it over to the Admiral.  Her eyes went wide.
“The Lieutenant Commander wasn’t kidding when she said that your price would be high.”
“You’re sending us in deep with no back-up and on a mission to hit the enemy where it hurts.  I would think that the high price would be sensible.”
She couldn’t argue with that logic.  “Agreed.  You shall be paid when the job is done and you return to back here.”  The two stood up,  shaking hands.
“Alright then, have your people meet up with us and lead the way.”
She gave him a smile.  “They are already waiting back at the hangars where you left your planes.  Good luck, Mr. Sands.”
He returned the smile.  “If you need luck to win a battle, you’ve done something wrong.”  The group headed out.

As they got back down to the hangars, there was a familiar face leaning up against the wall.  While she had aged a bit, Lieutenant Commander Aurealia Deckartt was still every bit the hard-edged military woman they remembered.  As she saw Booker and Emily walking over, unaware of her presence, she felt the emotions come flooding back.  She never believed she’d see these two again.  Now, with a new command and a crew that clearly was tight, she felt proud.  Her protegee was now a commander and clearly had a damn-good outfit.
He saw her there and he smiled.  She stood up and walked over.  Almost out of instinct, the two Devils saluted.  That got a laugh out of her.
“You can take the boy out of the navy, but you never take the navy out of the boy, do ya?”
Booker shook hands, giving her a smarmy grin.  “Well, ma’am, as I recall, if we didn’t salute properly, you did more than rap our knuckles.”
“Still the hopeless smartass, huh?”
“Yes ma’am!”
She turned to Emily, shaking her hand.  “It’s good to see you again, shorty.  I see that you and Booker are still connected at the hip.  People always wondered if you two were seeing each other, back in the day.”
Emily gave her a wink.  “Oh, I think they knew which side of the fence I was on, given how many hearts I broke on shore-leave.”  She looked to Booker, who joined her in a laugh.  The three of them felt good.
“So, ma’am, what’s the story with this outfit?  They have a nice plan, but there’s something a little specific about it that rubs me wrong,” Booker said, getting serious.
She nodded.  “Glad to see your intuition still works.  There is more to this.  Crystals are getting a little hard to come by in Delenheim.  We’re trying to keep the problem on the down-low, because if word gets out…”
“You’re fucked,” Griffin finished the thought.
“Blunt, but yes.  This plan is ambitious and if it works, we can get Oerban leaders to the bargaining table, since they won’t be able to keep up the war effort.”
Booker nodded.  It made sense and it was a strategically smart move.  “Alright then, I was told you somebody was leading the way to where the Fifth Choir is.  I get the feeling that it’s you.”
She nodded.  “Yup.  Me and my newest recruit – Regina Page.”
As if on cue, a young woman came around the corner.  She had hair that went down to the base of her neck, tied up behind her.  “Yo ma’am, how much longer do we have to-” She cut off after seeing the lot of them standing with her.
Aurealia’s face got hard.  “Show some damn respect, pilot!”
The girl stood at attention.  “Yes ma’am!  Sorry ma’am!  My name is Regina Page, pilot, first class.  I’ve been transferred to the Fifth Choir this morning.  It’s an honor to meet you.”
Booker knew better than to show too much kindness.  If Aurealia was being hard, he knew to follow her lead.  The others caught on.  Emily eye-balled the girl, nodding.  Page seemed to notice this, because she blushed a bit.
“Report to your bird, Page!  We’re moving out presently!”
She saluted again.  “Yes ma’am!”  Without a word, she rushed off to a fighter that was parked nearby.  The Devil’s birds were being brought out.
“After you, boss.”
Aurealia rolled her eyes.  “Fuck your sarcasm.”
He shrugged.  “Yes ma’am!”  They all headed to their planes, eager to see what awaited them.

Until next time, a quote,

And how do you reconcile your memories of your life when it’s just an endless repetition of the present? How do you stay sane? I guess one way to deal with it is to just not remember them. To constantly live your life in a constant hazy dream-like state. The things that happened yesterday and last month and last year become indistinguishable. Everything’s one big blur.” -Midori Mitsuya, The Sky Crawlers

Peace out,

Maverick

The Job

The two fighters were small in size.  They were compact, to present a smaller target to their enemy.  It was a sound strategy with typical enemies.  Their patrol was along the border with Oerba.  It was a beautiful day.  The sun was shining on their backs as they were making their way to their base.
One of the pilots was looking around, when her eyes went wide.  “Hey, we got a bandit!  Two-o’clock high!”
“Can you tell what it is?”  The other pilot was a woman too.
“I don’t know.  Jeats 5, maybe?  No, it’s a Dot 4!  Black rose on the nose!”
“Oh fuck, it’s The Teacher!”  Both of them dropped their extra fuel tanks, going into combat-mode.  The enemy plane was shimmering silver as it passed by.  It had large wings and a front-mounted motor.  The two both moved to the side, with each one hoping to cut it off on a pass.  Best case scenario would be that one of them comes up behind.  They each saw that it had its nose pointed straight-up as they passed.  It snap-rolled and was behind them.
“Oh shit!”
It opened fire at the nearest fighter, blasting its rear-mounted engine to pieces.  It dodged the wreckage as the pilot bailed.  It was right on the second fighter.  She was breathing hard through her mask, desperately trying to shake the enemy.  It wasn’t working.  It sent off a couple bursts of bullets, playing with her.
“Fucking Teacher!  Rotten bastard!”
It finally closed in, letting-fly.  The girl was also about to bail, when one of the bullets went right through the cockpit, sending most of her guts onto the dash.  She was dead before it started to crash.  The plane moved past her, coming back around.  It sighted the pilot who was drifting down to the ground, letting-loose.  She screamed as the bullets barely missed her.  As it passed, she could swear that there was a pale face inside that was smiling.  It missed on purpose.

The pilots and the bulk of the crew gathered inside the dining hall.  Booker was sitting at the head of the table, his feet up on it.  A fact that annoyed Belle to no end, but she learned to get past it.  Emily did the same when she arrived.
“Alright, everybody.  Glad to see you here!  I just got a telegram from out east.  I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that things in Delenheim are getting pretty damn intense.  It’s looking like war is going to start there any day now.  I got a telegram from an old CO back in the Delenheim Air Navy, Lieutenant Commander Aurealia Deckartt.”  He looked to Emily.  “I’m sure I don’t have to remind you who she is.”
Her smile decreased a bit as memories came back.  Memories of long hours of training and a tough-as-nails CO.  “Yeah, I remember.  Woman runs her people tight.  Last I heard, she was part of a unit that was regarded as the ‘problem-solvers,’ right?”
“Yup, and Air Navy Command has reached out to us and is making us a job to join her detail for a mission into Oerban territory.  We are to first head to their headquarters and negotiate terms for our contract.”  His grin returned.  “Needless to say, we’re going to make a killing at this job.  But it’s going to be tough.”
The Chief looked up.  “What about us?  Something tells me that this isn’t going to be a there-and-back excursion.”  The rest of the crew looked interested in that as well.
Booker nodded.  “You’re right.  We’re expected to be with this detail for some time.  Alas, I’m afraid that I won’t be bringing you all along.  The LC promised that she would have her best people there to help.”  He looked to Griffin.  “I’ll let them know to leave your bird alone.”
He nodded approvingly.
“We can trust the LC.  She’s good to her word.  She doesn’t fuck around, and we’ll be expected to follow her command.  Anybody got a problem with that?”
Everyone shook their heads.
“Good, because we’re about to make a killing.  With the kind of detail and mission we’re involved in, this will bring in some major dough.  Enough for you all to live it up how you wish.”  He looked to Duke and Herschel, who had been wanting a vacation.  “We’re going to ship out the morning after Duke and Herschel’s plane is in working order.  I know where we’re headed, so don’t sweat it.  Everyone cool with this?”
There were looks of approval.  “Good.  Standard military drill – bring a single duffel bag only.  We’ll probably end up staying on one of their airships.  I hope nobody here has issues landing on one.”
More shaking of heads.
“Once we move out, have your game faces on.  This mission is big.  The reward is big, but so is the risk.  Dismissed!”
The pilots scattered, eager to go through their various rituals to prepare for a mission.
The Chief was looking a little bummed.
“Don’t you go giving me that look, Chief.  You know why I’m doing this.  We need income, and this is a guarantee of a lot.  So don’t you go giving me your big old-dog face.”
“Alright, alright, you fucking asshole.  Just don’t let those Air Navy assholes fuck up my work!”
Booker gave him a wink.  “Now, why would I do that when I get so much pleasure listening to you bitch when I get back about how they are idiots and fuck with your stuff?  Admit it – you like the ritual as much as I do.”
Chief couldn’t suppress his grin.  “Yeah, I suppose.  You take care of yourself out there, kiddo!  If you’re headed into that conflict, you know who you might end up tangling with, right?”
A dark look came to his face.  “I’m not the kid I was back when I first met him.  I got the best pilots in the world with me, and we’re gonna kick ass!  Trust me.”
He walked over to his side, clapping a hand on his shoulder.  “I know you will, kiddo.  I know you will.”

As he sat in his office, smoke in hand, Emily came in.
“Hey boss, got a minute?”
He looked up, turning the radio down.  “Sure.  What’s on your mind?”
She looked a little nervous.  “So, back home, is it?”
“Yeah.  Goddess, it feels like more than five years ago, doesn’t it?”
“For real!  I remember when we enrolled at the Academy.  We were a couple of upstart kids who pissed a lot of people off.”
“I had to hand it to the Flight Lieutenant.  She was good.  Every time we got uppity, she put us back in our place.  It was so different in the real world.  In real combat, people died.”
“Did a lot of growing up back then.”

“What the fuck was that, Squadron Leader?!” the woman demanded.  She was dressed in a flightsuit, her dirty-blonde hair tied in a ponytail on the back.  There was a scar running the length of her face, between her eyes.
“We got the job done, ma’am!” a much younger Booker insisted.
“For real!  We took out the enemy factory and we did it without losing a man!  What more could we have done?!”  A much younger Emily said in support.
The woman looked about ready to hit one of them.  “What you did out there was damn stupid!  You got lucky that the enemy was not alert and ready, because if they had been, you’d be dead!  You decided to play chicken with your squadron!  What happens next time, when the enemy is ready and waiting?!”
“We had good intel that the enemy was resting after the battle yesterday.  It was an opportunity we couldn’t afford to miss, ma’am!  I don’t see what the fucking problem is!”
She smacked him in the face.  “Then you haven’t learned anything!  You had intel that was several hours old and could have been wrong.  You had your entire squadron committed to this.  Your enemy had you outnumbered and outgunned.  If they had been just a little more ready, I guarantee you that every single member of your squadron would be dead.  You went in on a hunch and got lucky.  It worked for you now, but you don’t always get lucky.  What happens next time, when you enemy is prepared and you walk right into their nest?!”
He said nothing, just looked down.
“That’s what I thought.  Go unload your sorry asses.  I’m removing your status as Squadron Leader and demoting you back to Pilot.  Understood?”
“Yes ma’am.”
“Good.  Now get out of here!”

“She didn’t fuck around.  And in the end, she was right,” Booker said, solemnly.  “I got my entire squadron killed the next time I had command.”
Emily gave him a hard look.  “That wasn’t your fault!  It was the fucking Teacher!  And we gave as good as we got!  He wound up limping his ass back home with not a single supporting plane!  You ask me, he got lucky.”
The man was unconvinced.  “Perhaps, but it was still my fault.  I went in on a hunch, and everyone in our squadron died for it.”
She frowned, nodding.  There was nothing more she could say.

He finished packing up his duffel bag.  The Lieutenant met him at the door.
“So that’s it, huh?  You’re just gonna up and ditch?  You get licked and you wanna roll over?”
Booker gave her a cold stare.  “Why the fuck are you on my side?!  I thought that you’d be all over rubbing salt in the wound.  I did the exact same thing you told me not to do.  I went in on a hunch and thought I’d get lucky.  All but one of my squadron died because of me!”
She shook her head.  “This wasn’t like that.  You had damn-good intel and your squadron had a damn-good approach coming in.  If everything had gone right, you’d have been in and out of there in 30 seconds with the enemy being blown the hell up!  You couldn’t help the Teacher showing up!”
He just shook his head.  “My squadron was looking to me.  They died because I wasn’t fast enough.  I’ve replayed it a hundred times in my head.  There were simple ways that I could have turned that battle around!  I could have saved them!  Instead, I choked!  The Teacher picked us off because I couldn’t rally my squadron.  Now, I have to live with the reality that my friends are dead because of that.”
“You can’t be expected to account for every possible outcome!  There’s a big-ass difference between getting lucky and having the odds in your favor.  There’s also a big-ass difference between making a rookie mistake and getting caught off guard.  Do you know how many times I’ve gotten my ass handed to me over the years?!  You shake it off!  You stand tall, spit on the fucker and then make sure you do better.  You can do this, Booker!  I know you can!  You’re best-damn pilot and leader I’ve ever seen.  You throw it away now, and you might as well have never tried at all!”
He grabbed her and slammed her against the wall, breathing hard.  She didn’t retaliate.  Their faces were just inches apart.  There was a moment that passed between them as they looked into each other’s eyes.
“It’s been an honor serving with you, ma’am.”  He picked up his duffel bag and left.  Emily wasn’t far away, with her own.  Just like at the Academy, wherever he went, she wasn’t far behind.

The memory had haunted him for a long time.  The two started the Sky Devils far away from the battlefields where he felt his honor was gone.  Going back there, while the money was a nice prospect, he was more than a little nervous.  But then he remembered – shake it off.  That was just what he did.  He had grown up a lot since then.  A chance to fight the Teacher again, it appealed to him.

The room was a typical meeting hall that one would expect in a military institution.  There were two large tables, each seating four people.  They were on either side of a space in the center for a speaker to stand.  Eight people entered, each wearing a military uniform.  There were six women and two men.  They took their seats and a light in the center of the room came on.
“Alright, we have gathered today to address the dilemma that is facing us.  We just received word – Oerba has declared war on us.  Their armies are already moving, as are their air fleets.”
“At face value, our forces are evenly matched, but we have another problem.  One which we believe Oerba is unaware of.”
One of the male commanders opened a folder.  “We are having problems refilling the necessary Crystals to power our military.  We are making plans to divert from the civilian sector, but Her Eminence and the rest of the Theological Sanctum are opposing us.  We may end up being stuck with what we have, which makes our situation even more desperate.”
“Agreed.  However, we have a plan.”  There was a map that was brought in by several aides.  “We are going to be deploying the Fifth Choir, commanded by Captain Hera Dieratess and her elite fighter squadrons.  They shall take their entire force and go deep behind enemy lines.  The goal of this operation is to cut off the main force’s supply lines.  There is another objective – to capture or destroy any key government personnel and installations.”
“As the Theocracy is against the war, we are doing this outside of their knowledge.  The Fifth Choir has officially stopped existing.  According the records, they became part of the fourth and third Choir last week.  This operation will not exist outside of the room.”
The second male commander looked up.  “As part of a guarantee of success for this operation, we are commissioning an elite force to assist the Fifth Choir in this endeavor.  They are the mercenary outfit, The Sky Devils.”
That got a lot of people whispering.
An older woman looked up.  “I understand we have a member of the Fifth Choir here to speak on behalf of this idea.”
The door opened and Lieutenant Commander Aurealia Deckartt entered, in her finest military garb, with her rapiers hanging by her sides.
“Ah, Commander Aurealia.  Your reputation precedes you.  So, we are told that you are here to speak on behalf of the Sky Devils and their reliability.”
She nodded.  “Indeed.  To all members of the Military Command, I served with the leader of the Sky Devils.  He was my protegee.  The best pilot and commander I have ever seen, before or since.  His second in command was also a pilot I served with.  The two were inseparable as pilots then, and they still are now.”
The older woman looked confused.  “You said that you served with him.  Why did he leave the force?”
She looked down for a second.  “It’s a hard memory, back during the first war with Oerba.  He had a large contingent of fighters under his command.  The mission was simple – go in, attack the enemy munitions factory and get out.  His intel was good and he had a good infill point.  However, right before he arrived, his forces were ambushed, by the Teacher and five other fighters with him.”
The room filled with whispers of fear.
“It was ugly.  He tried to coordinate a counter-attack against him, but his forces were too outmatched.  However, despite this, they took out ALL of the Teacher’s escorts and even survived a two-on-one battle against the Teacher, having done what nobody else has done, before or since – damaging him.  They put several holes in his plane, but by then, forcing him to retreat.  The enemy was alerted to their presence and they had no chance.  Both him and his wingmate, who is his current second-in-command, retreated.  He blamed himself for what happened, but I knew him.  It wasn’t his fault.  Nobody could have anticipated that the ace fighter of Oerba’s military would be there.  If he was sent there, then the enemy saw him as a threat.  I tried to talk him out of leaving, but it didn’t work.  He set up shop on the border of Delenheim and Asqueria.  The rest is history.”
A younger commander sat forward.  “You say he was the best commander.  How do we know that he has not slipped?”
The woman looked rather annoyed.  “I can assure every member of this council, he has not.  The Devil’s reputation among soldiers is well-known.  When the Devils enter a battle, it has much the same effect as the Teacher entering one – you feel sorry for the enemy.  They will make a good addition to this mission.”
“I’m assuming that their services will cost a small fortune,” the older commander groaned.
Aurealia chuckled, “oh, not a small one, Admiral.  Not at all.  Their services will cost a very sizable fortune, but I assure you – it is money well spent.  He makes a rule not to collect any money until after the job is done.  It’s a matter of professional pride, so that employers know that he is trustworthy.  But, I cannot stress this enough, the success of this mission rides on who we are taking into battle.  We need him.”
“Why has Oerba not tried to hire him?”
The second male commander shrugged.  “Given his reputation, along with the fact that he has scrapped with the Teacher, maybe there is bad blood.”
The other nodded.  An aide gave a telegram to the older commander.
“Alright, I’ve heard enough.  We have just received a reply from the Sky Devils.  They will be arriving here in a day to negotiate the terms of their contract, ready to ship out for battle.  They assured me that they will not need time for preparation once they are here.  Myself and my officers will remain here for negotiations.  The rest of us must disperse among the Choirs and prepare to lead them into battle.  May the Goddess be with us all.”
As they all left, Aurealia smiled.  He’s coming back.  He’s coming home.

Until next time, a quote,

“Being a soldier is the only thing I’ve ever been really good at.  And not ’cause I try.  Hell, I would have kicked my ass out years ago.  Last time I had a command, I lost almost everyone, and they promoted me for it.  I guess I’m just not sure if I’m ready to lead again.”  -James Vega, Mass Effect 3

Peace out,

Maverick