Roy Fokker, Skull Leader - deceased.
"Stop shouting! I can't hear myself groan!"
"Michele? Is that you?"
"Of course it's me, you idiot! Do you know of anyone else around here who'd use this frequency?" The voice coming from the tactical net was tired and drawn-out, with little stops and starts between words as if the person on the other side was stifling moans of pain.
"What's your status?"
"Don't know how bad yet. I'm running an analysis program at the moment. Visuals don't look too comforting, though."
Michael thanked the stars for giving him back this particular wingman, grouchy though she may be. "What happened? I lost contact with you for a good forty seconds."
"I have absolutely no idea. Last thing I remember is the missile closing in on my tail, a big white explosion, and me panicking... Hold on, the analysis program has finished."
"How bad is it?"
"Bad. Both engines are slowly dying on me, my left wing is hanging on God knows how, visual communication is non-functional, weapons systems are down, ditto for the radar and visual systems. In other words, I'm a flying wreck. And if you thought the hardware wasn't bad enough, I'm leaking fluids."
The voice that answered back was full of sarcasm. "Oh what a novel way to say it. Of course I'm bleeding! How would you feel if you'd just had a missile blow up your tail-pipes?"
"Ok, Ok... You don't have to shout. Can you make it to New Macross?"
"I'm blinder than a bat at the moment. Somebody'll have to guide me in."
A smile crept on Michael's face. "No problem, I know just the person." He switched to Skull Two's frequency and raised Commander Sterling. "Excuse me sir, but we have a situation on our hands over here. We request permission to leave the mopping up to the rest of the group and we'd like a priority approach to New Macross airfield."
Sterling's face flickered into being on the left commo screen. "How bad is it Michael?"
"Skull Thirteen is barely able to fly sir. Most of her electronics is down and the rest is ready to give."
"Permission granted Skull Five. Just you make sure she gets back down in one piece or I'll nail your hide to my thrusters."
Michael saw the smile on Sterling's face and responded in kind. "Threat received and understood sir! See you back in New Macross." He switched frequencies again and raise Michele. "Yo, Skull Thirteen, we've been ordered back to New Macross ASAP. Bank fifteen degrees port, follow my manoeuvres and let's head home."
"Roger Skull Five. Beginning manoeuvre... now!"
Both Veritechs banked, one with the grace of a ballerina, the other like a hippopotamus doing the two-step. Afterburners flared into the night as both planes disappeared beyond the horizon.
Hausthar's consciousness was struggling to get a grip on reality. Blackness surrounded him, closing in on him from all sides. He opened his eyes and quickly glanced around. His head fell back just as quickly as he moaned in pain. Headaches he'd had, but nothing on this scale. He opened his eyes again and slowly made his way to a sitting position.
He was back in his room, that much was obvious. He wasn't drunk, this was also obvious. So why did he have a headache which would make aspirin manufacturers fight over his account? And why couldn't he remember how he'd made it back to the base? He got up, fought down a wave of nausea which surged up and shuffled his way into the bathroom. Opening the cabinet, he struggled with a pack of aspirins and swallowed a couple.
"Eve?" he whispered, trying to keep the pain in his head down to a minimum.
The lithe figure of Research's receptionist, secretary and resident Artificial Intelligence appeared before him. "Did you call me? Did you rub my lamp?" she answered in a bizarre voice.
"I wish you wouldn't just appear like this. Couldn't you... I don't know... Appear á la Star Trek Transporter? And what's with the funny voice?"
"Sorry... I'm watching Aladdin with Thallin and Izabelle. We just got to the first bit with the Genie. My favourite part. Do you smoke, mind if I do?" Eve disappeared in a cloud of smoke before reappearing in Hausthar's shower, naked.
"What are you doing?" hissed Hausthar.
"The gratuitous shower scene... Every good show should have a gratuitous shower scene."
"You've been watching the local cartoons for too long. Would you please put some clothes on?"
Eve stuck her tongue out at him and clothes formed around her. "Spoilsport."
"What's the lowdown on the XVA/F-2 Mk I?"
"The plane's gone through the preliminaries and is ready for testing. A date has not been settled on yet. Here's an amusing side-note; the plane's series has been nicknamed `Vindicator`."
"Vindicator? Why Vindicator?"
"Southern Cross has been pushing the UEG to drop the development of new RDF mecha until such a time as the SCA's own mecha are in production. They say that Research's prototypes are not up to scratch, but that their development team's VHT and Logan designs are ready. Lang hopes the XVA/F-2 Mk I will vindicate his views to the council. Hence `Vindicator`."
"Even for Research, that explanation for the name is stretching things a bit, isn't it?"
"Hey," smiled Eve, "I just deliver the messages, I don't make 'em. If you don't need me for anything else, I'll just go back to Thallin's room, OK?"
"Go, go." Eve disappeared again. Although she was capable of monitoring all of Research's installations at once, her hologram system could only handle processing one projection at a time.
Hausthar sat down on the side of the bath and waited for the aspirin to take effect. <What happened last night?> Surely you couldn't get such a headache as he was experiencing from drinking Petite Cola, even if you did drink over forty bottles. His thoughts and the news about the SCA's political manoeuvring went round and round inside his head as the worst of the headache subsided. <Breakfast! That's what I need! A good, solid breakfast to get back into shape, even if it is...> His eyes laboured to focus on his watch... <four O'Clock in the morning!?> He walked out of the bathroom, turning off the light as he did so.
Once he finally got to the kitchenette he started to prepare a couple of eggs and slices of bread, left them to boil and toast respectively and stomped back into the living-room. He spied the sofa, still half-hidden in the darkness, and made his way towards it with the resolute intention of falling on top of it and forgetting all about the world. This resolution quickly crumbled as he noticed a dark shape lying on the sofa and several items of clothing in a pile next to it.
As he got closer, the dark shape became a blanket with a head protruding at one end. Hausthar recognised the features. He sat very gently next to her and looked deeply at the face which was presenting itself. <Even in her sleep she has a smile on her lips>, he thought. He brushed back a strand of hair that was slowly making its way to her lips and turned his attention to the pile of clothing next to the sofa. Shoes, socks, headband and sweatbands were lying on one side of the pile. On the other side was the jacket he had seen her with, and in the middle was... <Her leotard?!> Hausthar jumped up. <My God, what is she wearing under that blanket?> He made his way back to the bathroom, turned on the light, and for the first time noticed that he himself had been walking around in his underwear. <Oh, this is great>, he thought. <What else can go wrong today?> As if to answer his question, a strand of black smoke and a pernicious odour twisted their way around the door into the room. <Damn, my toasts!> He scrambled out through the doorway.
New Macross Airport was the only airport for miles around. Since there was close to no civilian flights these days, most of its functions were military - which is why no-one was surprised when a call came in from two damaged Veritechs, including one on the verge of disintegrating into its component parts.
"Lewis, what's their ETA?"
Lewis turned around towards the Chief Controller and flipped through his calculations. "Approximately two minutes. We've cleared runway five and placed all emergency services along it. Unless it crashes into the city, we should be able to save the pilot."
"Good. Just make sure you don't send them on a collision course with the SDF." His eyes turned back to the middle of Lake Gloval, a few hundred meters away from the tower. "I always said it was a bad idea to build an airport so close to this pile of junk that passes off for a Battle-Fortress."
Lewis did not answer - this was the third time this shift he'd heard the complaint, ever since a plane had mistakenly been diverted on a collision course towards the bridge of the old Fortress.
"Planes on approach. Two Veritechs confirmed... Skull Five, Skull Thirteen, do you read me?"
The speaker crackled into life as both pilots answered back, then "Skull Thirteen to Tower, request emergency approach."
"Roger Skull Thirteen, approach is clear on runway five. There is no other traffic in the vicinity so don't worry if you have to over-shoot and try again. Medics and firemen have been placed all along the runway and are ready to assist you. Do you copy?"
"Roger Tower, coming in. Heads up down there!"
Lewis looked out the window and saw a pile of junk make its approach onto runway five. The pile of junk extended landing gears and thus identified itself as Skull Thirteen. The Chief Controller suddenly gave a grunt of disgust, dropped the binoculars he was using and grabbed the nearest microphone.
"Skull Thirteen, abort! Abort! Your left landing gear is not fully extended."
"Negative Tower, cannot over-shoot the runway. My engines are about to go and my brakes just gave up the ghost. If I don't eat dirt on this one Michael, I'll buy you lunch."
"You've got it." said the other pilot. "Just you make sure you're in one piece for our date."
"As you wish. Attention Tower, this is Skull Thirteen on final approach. I'm coming in hot so make sure your people mind their heads when I land."
"Roger Skull Thirteen... and good luck."
The Veritech trembled as it descended onto the tarmac. Its wheels cried out as the asphalt ripped away some of their rubber. The jet started to slow down as the engines were reversed. With the sudden loss of speed came the loss of the balance that kept the plane upright - the left landing gear touched the ground and folded back into the body of the jet. Skull Thirteen seemed to hang in mid-air then dipped towards the ground. Its left wing clipped the tarmac and the plane was flung in circles down the rest of the runway, coming to rest a few hundred meters later. Emergency crews were already drowning the plane in foam to prevent a fire from starting whilst medics tried to open the cockpit. The pilot was crouched inside, head resting on her right shoulder, eyes closed, blood seeping from her nose.
"Tower, this is Skull Five... How is she doing?"
"Tower to Skull Five. The medics are just taking her out of the cockpit and into the ambulance. I can't see how bad it is from here."
"Thank you Tower. Skull Five requesting approach vectors."
"Roger Skull Five, runway eighteen is clear for landing. You have priority."
"Understood Tower. Warn the hospital I'll be over as soon as I can. Skull Five on final approach."
Lewis transferred Skull Five to another controller and turned towards the Chief Controller. "What do you think her chances are, Harry?"
"Difficult to say from here. I've seen people survive a fall without parachute from a thousand feet. I've also seen people die from tripping on the last step of a staircase. I'd say it all depends on how strong her will to live is."
"Well, there's nothing more we can do about it." said Lewis, pointing to the tarmac. "The medics just took her away. What do we do with the wreck?"
Harry glanced at the runway. "Leave it where it is for the moment. The runway's been scored so deeply it's unusable without repairs anyway."
Lewis turned to his instruments and plugged his headphone back in. A moment later he turned back in surprise and gestured towards Harry. "Harry, I think you'd better listen to this." He flicked a switch and the master speaker hummed with power. A voice came through, a voice they had heard not long ago.
"...C'mon guys, how about some service? My left side is killing me and I've got hydraulics leaking all over my body. Yo, Tower, can you read me?... Tower, this is Skull Thirteen. How long are you going to leave me to rot in this sun? I know I'm in bad shape but I ain't totalled yet. Can anybody hear me?..."
Harry and Lewis looked at each other for a long time, then turned towards the runway, towards a plane wrecked upon it - a plane that was complaining of lack of service, a plane that was talking in its pilot's voice.