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?”
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