Again, a big thanks to Doctorlit and Hieronymus Graubart for their beta reader services! Special thanks also go to Jos Ploegmakers of Coltgames for letting me borrow a few characters from his World In Danger videogame. If you’re a fan of old-school run’n’gun 2D games, you should check it out here: http://store.steampowered.com/app/560180/World_In_Danger/
Mission Record 11 – Lost Lightning
Sergio closed the CODEC call, rifle aimed at the young man in front of him.
“Who is that?” Homura asked, keeping the guy in her sights as well. “He looks just like you.”
Indeed, the young man’s face was identical to Sergio’s, although he wasn’t wearing any glasses. His gear was different as well, as he was wearing a long overcoat and had a black AK-style rifle hanging from a sling.
“Sergej Speed,” Sergio said slowly. “Lame as it may sound, he’s my evil clone.”
“Clone? Not exactly… brother.”
Sergio stiffened. To define him like that, Sergej likely knew more about Marcus’ plans than when they last met several years earlier. “Brother?”
“Yes, brother. Marcus made both of us, and that makes us his children.” Sergej clenched a fist. “But the only one he ever called son was you, while I, the one who actually embodied what he wanted from a son, was only the weapon made to kill you after you betrayed him!”
Sergio frowned. “He made me as a weapon as well, you know? Besides, if you’ve come all the way here to claim the right to be Marcus’ son you can have it; I’ve never really seen him as a father anyways. I actually have some important business to tend to, so if you don’t mind…”
“I do mind! Since neither of us is dead yet, we never settled who’s the strongest!”
Sergio resisted the urge to roll his eyes, instead keeping a steady aim on his clone. “I’m rather curious on how you’re alive, actually.”
Sergej pulled the trigger of his Venom multi-barreled machinegun, but Sergio managed to fire off a shot at him from his Glock 17 pistol before his clone’s weapon could pick up enough speed.
Sergej dropped his gun and stumbled backwards until he tripped over the bridge’s railing, falling towards certain death.
Sergej outstretched his arms dramatically. “We’re fictional characters, brother. Being shot before plummeting down from a bridge? Hardly ever killed anyone like us.”
Sergio repressed a sigh. Serves me well for not making sure. At this rate, I’m not going to be surprised if Marcus is alive too. “Listen, there’s no need for either of us to die, and plenty of other ways to settle things. I’m sorry you’ve come all the way here for nothing, but if you want we can talk about it another time.”
Sergej started laughing, slowly at first but soon uncontrollably. “Are you for real? No, I’m not going away from here until you’re dead!”
He aimed his gun at Sergio and Homura, and only then Sergio noticed that his clone’s weapon had a bayonet and a grenade launcher attached to it. The latter of which, obviously, was the first thing Sergej fired.
Sergio and Homura jumped away in opposite directions, narrowly dodging the explosion as they took cover in the nearby corridors.
“Figures. Trying to talk some sense into him is useless, after all these years he’s still a mindless killer!”
“What’s the plan?”
Sergio glanced at Homura in surprise. Not only she was asking for directions instead of simply unloading whatever weapon she had against Sergej, but she had also used her own telepathy to do so.
“We’re two against one, so we can try to outmaneuver him,” Sergio thought, making a conscious effort to spell the words clearly in his mind for Homura to read, “I didn’t recognize the rifle yet, but the grenade launcher looks like a GP-25, so he has to reload it after each shot. We need to take advantage of that opening, because—”
There was another explosion, and the corridor intersection was filled with dust.
“It goes without saying that one of these is enough to blow us into tiny bits,” Sergio said just as Homura started returning fire. While he couldn’t see her due to the dust, the long bursts of automatic fire clearly meant that she had switched to the Minimi machine gun. “Good, this will keep him pinned. I’ll try to get him from behind. But be careful, please.”
“Leave it to me.”
Sergio ran away from the intersection, looking for a route. The gray, empty corridors were all identical to each other, and Sergio found himself having to rely on the sounds of gunfire to navigate the place. His clone seemed to have given up on using the grenades, and his rifle’s gunfire sounded distinctly different from Homura’s machinegun.
It sounds like the first two rounds are fired closer to each other compared to the rest of the burst… an Izhmash AN-94? Russian name, Russian rifle, he just needs a fake Russian accent and he would be a good 007 villain.
Sergio gripped his ARX-160 tightly as he turned the last corner. “Stop firing and take cover, I’m behind him!”
Sergej heard his footsteps and turned around, giving Sergio time to fire only a couple bursts before having to dive in another corridor for cover. A grenade exploded on the wall just behind him. He’s saving up those for me!
Sergio rolled on his back, aiming his rifle at the intersection just in time to welcome his clone with another burst.
Sergej dodged sideways, but just as he tried to raise his rifle another burst of bullets, this time coming from the corridor he had just exited, forced him to retreat inside a room.
Sergio got up just as Homura caught up with him.
“Are you alright?”
Sergio gave a quick nod. “Yeah, you drove him away just in the nick of time.” He reloaded his rifle, and noticed some small red stains on the floor. “He’s wounded.”
Sergio walked next to the door, and gestured Homura to follow him. “Have you got any flashbangs?”
Homura took one from her shield and tried to pull the pin with her teeth, but Sergio snatched the grenade out of her hands before she could do so. “Not with the teeth, unless you’re willing to lose some. You do it this way.” He pulled the pin with his hands, and tossed the grenade inside the room.
They both walked in right after the detonation, with their weapons at the ready. The room began as a short corridor before widening out in a lobby, which Sergio recognized as the one where he was ambushed by flamethrower troops years earlier. He gritted his teeth as he found the spent flashbang on the ground inside the corridor; Sergej likely had been shielded from the flash by the walls. “I don’t think the flashbang worked, keep your guard up. I’ll check left, you check right.”
Homura didn’t answer, but in the corner of his eye Sergio saw her move to the right side of the corridor. They entered the lobby back-to back.
“Clear on my—” Sergio didn’t manage to end what he was saying as Homura started firing. He turned around just in time to see his clone stab Homura with the rifle’s bayonet.
Sergej pulled out his weapon from Homura. “Right in the heart. And now—”
Sergio cut him off by hitting him with the stock of his rifle. Sergej staggered back a couple steps, and tried to raise the AN-94 to shoot. “Hey, you’re supposed to stop and listen!”
Sergio let go of his rifle, letting it hang from its sling, and cross-pulled his Beretta 92 pistol and a combat knife. His mind emptied while only one thing started to matter to him. I’m killing you, here and now!
Sergio charged forward, firing off a couple shots. One of the bullets grazed Sergej on the shoulder, but he didn’t seem to realize it as he swiped the AN-94.
Sergio dodged the attack just barely, the bayonet cutting open his jacket’s right sleeve. He retaliated with his knife, but missed.
“Not bad. You’re starting to see the thrill of the kill, brother,” Sergej said, charging at Sergio with the bayonet.
Sergio dodged sideways, but before he could aim at him with the pistol Sergej already had him in his sights.
“But you’re still not at my—”
There were two detonations and Sergej flinched, hit from behind. He turned backwards to where Homura was on the floor, holding an M9 pistol in her hands.
Sergej never managed to end the phrase, as Sergio took advantage of the distraction to stab him right in the middle of the chest. Right in the heart, was it?
Sergej let out a short laugh. “We’re the same after all, aren’t we?” he said, his voice little more than a whisper.
Sergio pulled the knife out and turned his clone around. He slashed his throat as well before emptying the entire magazine of the Beretta 92 on him as he fell.
Sergio kept pulling the trigger several times after the gun started clicking empty. “And stay dead this time!”
Sergio started breathing deeply, feeling the smell of blood and burned gunpowder. He kicked the AN-94 out of his clone’s hands, and reloaded the pistol before walking towards Homura. “Are you alright?”
Homura had gotten up to her feet, and was standing with her back against the wall, holding some Grief Seeds against her Soul Gem. Her Puella Magi outfit was ripped and stained with blood where Sergej’s bayonet had stabbed her, but the skin in the gap looked intact. “Had worse. Not being human actually helps sometimes.”
“Not human, huh?” Sergio said, his voice weary. He looked back at his dead clone’s mangled corpse. “You’re not the only one here, I’m afraid.”
That’s right. I’m still a weapon… a freaking killing machine.
“If we want to nitpick, technically no one of us here is a normal human,” Corolla said from behind him.
Sergio turned round, and saw her and Nikki walk into the room. “How did you find us?”
Corolla raised an eyebrow. “We just followed the sound of gunfire. Anyways, yeah, neither of you is actually a natural human. But neither I nor Nikki is, remember? Magical construct and badfic clone. But, guess what? All the four of us are people. That’s what matters, the soul inside!”
Corolla glanced at Homura just as the latter flinched. “Or not so inside. But you still have one, and that’s what matters.”
Nikki walked over to Sergio, and glanced at his dead clone. “Is that Sergej?”
“Yeah… I went a bit overboard.”
Nikki nodded slowly. “I… see. Kurara didn’t go down easily, either.”
She then turned towards Sergio, and grabbed his arm. “You’re hurt!”
Sergio looked at where his clone had cut his jacket earlier, and indeed there was a cut on his arm as well. The adrenaline must’ve kept me from realizing. “Don’t worry, it’s just a scratch.”
Nikki sighed, and a small magic circle appeared, hovering over his wound while healing it. “With you, it’s always ‘just a scratch’.”
“It is?” Homura said, “I’ve just been stabbed to the heart. A cut like that is daily business for me.”
Nikki looked at her, her eyes wide open. “You’ve been what?”
Corolla raised an eyebrow. “Great, we’ve got two of them now.”
Sergio picked up his clone’s rifle. “Anyways, I guess it’s back to get out of here and try to guess where Vera actually hid? Though I admit I have no—”
“Wait. Kurara mentioned that she was going to get back to Venice after killing us.” Nikki said. “She mentioned that it was to kill Sakura as well, so I guess that’s where Vera is keeping both her and Madoka.”
“By the way, apparently the two clones were working for her.” Corolla added.
Sergio rubbed his chin in thought. “Venice, huh? I guess it’s time to pay Vera a visit.”
Nikki looked like she was going to say something, but as soon as she opened her mouth the chopping sound of a helicopter filled the room.
Sergio gestured the girls to follow him. “I really hope that’s not some other old enemy of mine. Or more of those damned Defectives.”
Sergio peeked out of a window. “Hmm, that looks like a Westland Lynx.”
The helicopter had just landed, and was painted in three tones of gray in a hexagonal camo pattern. On the pilot’s door there was an insignia looking like a cartoonish white bird wearing a helmet, and holding a rifle while giving a salute.
“Wait… that’s Strike Dove’s insignia.”
“So… Are they on our side?” Corolla said.
Sergio kept looking at the helicopter. “I’m not sure. On one hand, Vera pretty much betrayed them. On the other, I don’t know how strong her Suefluence was on them. So let’s be careful.”
Sergio walked away from the window. “The helicopter looks empty, they must be already inside. Weapons ready.”
The group walked past a corner, and found themselves in front of four armed men in arctic camouflage gear. The one in front, armed with an M4 carbine, was oddly wearing a black cap under the uniform’s hood, and was flanked by a big guy with a machine gun and a redhead woman with a P90 submachine gun. Almost hidden behind them was another guy, armed with a machine pistol and his face hidden by a scarf.
Both groups aimed their weapons, but the leader of the soldiers raised his hand towards his men.
“That means ‘Stop’,” Sergio translated. “They’re not going to attack us… for now, at least.”
The leader gave a thumbs-up.
Sergio lowered his ARX-160 rifle. “Friendly. Weapons down.”
The leader put a hand next to his ear while the other soldiers lowered their weapons as well. “Raptor Team to HQ. We’ve found Lightning.”
Raptor Team? Wait… Sergio then recognized the voice. “JJ? Is that you?”
“The one and only,” the leader said as he pulled down the hood.
Sergio let out a short laugh. “I should’ve realized right away. There’s only one man who would wear a black SWAT cap together with arctic camo.”
“Says the one who’s wearing a red bandana in the middle of Alaska,” ‘JJ’ retorted.
Corolla walked next to Sergio. “Who are they?”
“These four people in front of us are Striker Team Raptor, among the best of Strike Dove. The one with the SWAT cap is the squad leader, Captain Josh Colt Junior. The big guy is Nathan Nace, on the other side we have Samantha Byington, and the guy who’s desperately trying to pretend he’s invisible back there is Marco Tundo.”
“So, what brings you here?” Sergio asked once introductions were done.
“You. The guys at mission control picked up your CODEC’s signal. They were quite surprised, since you’ve been MIA for four years.”
Sergio raised an eyebrow. “And the Colonel sent a full team to check on me? And not only a full team, but yours?”
“Nobody gets left behind.” Josh crossed his arms. “Besides, we’ve had some troubles with a guy who really resembles you. Part of an assassin duo, they nearly wiped out the team that had been tasked with taking them down last time. So some people suspected you had gone rogue.”
“An assassin… Wait, was he with a girl? One who resembled her?” Sergio pointed at Nikki.
Josh rubbed his chin, looking at her. “Now that you make me think about it… Yeah, the girl resembles her. She has shorter hair, though.”
Sergio glanced at Nikki, then looked back at Josh. “Let me guess, Sergej Speed and Kurara Tsukimoto?”
“How do you know?”
“Oh, they’re our evil clones. Well, were, we bagged them what, ten minutes ago?” Sergio noticed Josh’s weirded out stare. “Long story, I’ll tell you along the way. The Colonel will surely want to see me, and to be fair we could use a lift anyway.”
“I… see. Sergio, what have you gotten into this time?”
“What I was already into last time, JJ. Vera’s machinations.”
“… And that pretty much sums it up,” Sergio said. He leaned against the thin backrest of his seat, listening to the helicopter’s chopping sound.
“So Vera’s still alive? Doesn’t surprise me. Stuff always stopped making sense around her.” Josh crossed his arms. “Starting with the fact that she was a Major at thirteen years old when we don’t even have that rank.”
Nikki leaned forward on her seat. “Thirteen? That’s way too young for a soldier!”
“Told you she’s a Sue,” Sergio said. “As I was saying earlier, she must’ve Suefluenced her way through.”
“Well, neither you nor Tanegashima were above the minimum age, either,” Nathan said from the helicopter’s pilot seat, “but after the War we were so desperate for manpower that some of our officers took advantage of the confusion and didn’t bother to ensure all paperwork was in order. Luckily, we discovered them and gave them the boot.”
“That’s not Ami’s case, Rocket,” Josh corrected him, “She was the daughter of Kenta and Midori, remember? The Colonel decided to shelter her, but—”
“She was hell-bent on fighting to try to make sure that no one else would suffer as she did,” Sergio completed for him. “I know this very well. It was my case, though. On paper, I was just a civilian volunteer. The kind that would cook meals during disaster relief and such. Maybe we should’ve been assigned there for real.”
Josh shook his head. “It would’ve been a waste… though I understand why you’re saying that.”
You don’t really understand how it is to lose your friends until it happens to you, Sergio thought, glancing at Josh and his team. You’re really, really lucky. He looked down. Or maybe they felt that way about me? Sergio glanced outside the window, and saw Strike Dove’s main headquarters in the distance, apparently fully repaired after the collapse during his fight with Vera. Here’s another place from which I just ran away instead of facing my own mistakes.
“Captain Turbo of Sniper Team Skystreaker reporting for duty, sir.”
Sergio saluted the man sitting at the desk in front of him. Colonel Leroy Johnson, the founder and leader of Strike Dove Inc. His office had changed very little: the desk was still full of paperwork, and on the wall behind him there were the same old photos of a younger Johnson during his days as a USAF F-4 pilot.
“At ease, Captain. I have already received some information from Captain Colt, but I’d like to hear your report.”
Sergio couldn’t help but notice how Johnson had aged in the last years. His hair was now almost white, and there were more wrinkles on his forehead than he remembered.
“And it goes without saying that I’m really glad you’re alive. We were starting to lose hope.”
“Thanks for your concern, sir. I’m reporting the successful elimination of Sergej Speed and Kurara Tsukimoto. Their bodies have been already transferred to the morgue for confirmation, and their weapons turned over to the quartermaster.”
Johnson gave a nod. “I see. Good work out there, Captain. What about Major Heartbound?”
Sergio took a deep breath. “I’m still working on it, sir. Or, shall we say, she’s still trying to kill me.”
“Her determination would’ve been commendable if she used it in another way,” Johnson said, before typing something on his computer. “By the way, after you went missing we received some data on First Lieutenant Donovan’s death. You remember him, right?”
“Of course I do, sir.”
James Donovan, the fourth member of Striker Team Raven alongside Vera, Ami and him. Or, at least, until Vera threw a fit and decided to go lone wolf because she thought she was so much better than us all combined.
“The police were quick to file off this case as a drive-by shooting meant to kill his brother, but the footage gave me some doubts. I’d like your opinion on it, as it might be related to your current assignment.”
Johnson turned the screen towards Sergio. On it, the black and white footage of a security camera showed James and his brother sitting on a bench and eating hamburgers, discussing animatedly about something.
He had asked for some days off in order to help Carl get a job and clean up after he had gotten involved with gangs.
On the footage, a black SUV slowed down next to them. The men inside, wearing black balaclavas and tactical gear, opened fire on the two brothers with submachine guns, emptying their magazines before the SUV sped away. A typical drive-by shooting, if it weren’t for some details Sergio noticed right away.
“A Porsche Cayenne Turbo and Heckler & Koch MP5Ks!” Sergio punched the desk. “That wasn’t a drive-by by gang members, those are Vera’s minions!”
He realized his outburst, and composed himself. “Sir, that gear is exactly the same as the gear Major Heartbound’s men use. I believe without a doubt that this assassination was under her orders.”
Johnson crossed his arms. “That’s what I was afraid of. Major Heartbound is responsible for the murder of two fellow operatives and the kidnapping of two young girls. This cannot be forgiven. She is clearly out of control, and needs to be stopped.” He lowered his head a bit. “With lethal force, if necessary.”
“Of course, sir. I’m heading out immediately.”
Johnson got up from his chair, and walked over to Sergio. “At least wait for lunch, it isn’t any good to fight on an empty stomach. Besides, I think you could use a shower.”
Sergio looked down at his clothes. They were still full of dust from his fight against Sergej.
“Your room is still number 27, and we have some free ones that your friends can use, as well.”
Sergio raised his eyes. “You kept that room assigned to me for all this time? I… Thank you. I’m sorry for disappearing this way, sir.”
Johnson put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t be. I’m sure you had your reasons for not contacting us after your first attempt at arresting Major Heartbound failed.”
Sergio lowered his eyes again. “It… wasn’t a capture attempt, sir. I wasn’t even on your orders.”
“I know. But you were doing what had to be done.” Johnson gripped his shoulder with slightly more strength, prompting him to look up. “Vera has betrayed us all. You’re not alone, Sergio. Not anymore. Anything you need to stop her, just let me know. Dismissed.”
Johnson let go of Sergio, who saluted and walked towards the door.
“Good luck out there, Captain.”
Nikki walked down a corridor, rubbing her head with a towel. I really needed a good shower. Now, let’s see if Sergio is already back at his room.
She looked at the closest door numbers, and frowned. They’re too high. I must’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere.
“Hey! You’re on Sergio’s team, right?” someone said behind her.
Nikki turned towards the source of the voice, who happened to be an Asian girl with short black hair in a bob cut, wearing Strike Dove’s uniform.
“Nikki, was it?”
Nikki nodded, surprised that the news of Sergio’s return had already spread. “Yes, that’s me. What’s the matter?”
The girl waved her hands dismissively. “Nothing important, really. I had borrowed a book from Sergio, years ago, but I never managed to give it back. Can you bring it to him?”
Nikki nodded. “Sure… well, as long as you show me how to get back to his room. I’m kinda lost.”
“No problem. It was number twenty-seven, right? It’s in the same corridor as mine, even,” the girl said, leading the way.
Nikki raised an eyebrow. If her room was so close, there was no need to ask her to bring back the book. Maybe she’s just that shy?
The girl opened a door labeled “14” and walked inside. “Just a second, I have it somewhere here.”
Nikki peeked inside the room. Much to her surprise, it didn’t look like a military barrack at all: the bed had a brightly colored bedspread and there was a poster of what looked like a J-Pop singer on the wall. On the desk there was a laptop computer playing some music, and on the bookshelf there was an assortment of books, DVD cases and even some plush toys. This looks more like the room of a teenager.
“You can come in, if you want,” the girl said, rummaging through the shelf.
[Daisuki ni natta… dou shiyou?]
Nikki walked in, and glanced at the computer. Isn’t that a Yui Makino song? What was it again…?
[Mada deatta bakari nanda kedo.]
“Here it is!” The girl tiptoed to pull down a book from the highest shelf.
Nikki looked at the girl more closely as she walked towards her. She was fairly short, probably around one meter and fifty, and did indeed look like a teenager. Maybe she’s one of those civilian volunteers? Even then, she would’ve been very young four years ago.
Nikki took the book the girl offered her. “A book about fighter planes?”
The girl looked somewhat embarrassed; her cheeks flushed. “Well… I play Ace Combat a lot.”
Nikki nodded as they walked out of the room. “I see. Sergio likes those games, too. He kept ranting on how Assault Horizon was terrible for weeks, though.”
The girl tilted her head slightly. “Assault Horizon…? Oh, right. I think I didn’t get that one.”
They walked for a few meters, stopping in front of Sergio’s room.
“By the way, can you tell him something from me? ‘Nobody is blaming you’.”
Nikki raised an eyebrow while knocking on the door. “Blaming for what? Besides, we’re already here so you can tell—”
Nikki turned towards the girl, but she was nowhere to be seen. She looked around, but both sides of the corridor were empty. Where did she go?
“Come in,” Sergio said from inside.
Nikki walked inside. Sergio was sitting at the desk, cleaning his pistol. Homura was looking at what he was doing intently, while Corolla was napping on the bed.
“What took you so long? I was starting to worry.”
“Sorry. I got lost, then I met a girl who gave me this book. She said she had borrowed it from you before you left.”
Sergio lifted his eyes off the dismantled gun and gave her a quizzical look. “A book?”
Nikki handed the book to him. “This one.”
“Oh, right, I had lent it to… Wait, who gave you this?”
Nikki looked up in thought. “I’m afraid she didn’t say her name. About this tall, black hair in a bob cut, she looked fairly young. Oh, she’s in room fourteen, if that rings a bell.”
Sergio’s eyes widened. “Wait, what… the…”
“Sergio, you OK? You look like you just saw a ghost.”
Sergio got up from his chair, and ran towards the door. “I didn’t, but you did! The girl you described, and to whom I had lent this book, is Ami!”
Nikki followed him as he ran towards the girl’s room. He pushed its door open, and sighed. “What was I even hoping for…?”
Nikki caught up, and looked inside the room. “Wait, what happened here?”
The bookshelf and desk were now completely bare, and the bed was now only a frame and a mattress.
“This room wasn’t so empty a minute ago!” Nikki looked around in disbelief. “There were books, and DVDs, and plushies on the shelf, and there was a poster on the wall! There was even some music playing on a laptop, it was… Fuwa Fuwa by Yui Makino, I think.”
Sergio rubbed his chin. “That’s indeed how this room was four years ago. But her stuff had been packed up after her death. How on Earth…”
Nikki looked down, before remembering something else. “Oh, she asked me to tell you something. ‘Nobody is blaming you’.”
“Of course they don’t.” Sergio started walking back to his room. “None of them was the type to blame people.”
Nikki glanced at him. The problem is that you are blaming yourself, isn’t it?
“So, let’s see if I understood it,” Corolla said as she, Sergio, Nikki and Homura were walking towards the mess hall. “Our friendly neighborhood ghost sniper appeared again, this time just to give back a book?”
“Seems so,” Sergio said. “Though I’m not sure why she went through the trouble of giving it to Nikki.”
Corolla snorted. “She was probably afraid you’d have a heart attack or something, considering how you reacted the other time she showed up.”
Nikki stopped listening to their banter. Ami must’ve felt very strongly towards him, if her spirit is following him like a guardian. She glanced at him. An undying loyalty towards her friend and teammate… or something else?
Nikki lowered her eyes. Maybe she never got the chance to confess. She took a deep breath. That’s why I should tell him who I am, right now.
“Sergio! Over here!” Josh called out, he and his team already on queue for lunch. Sergio sped up his pace so they could join them.
Nikki rolled her eyes. Again? Every time I try to talk to Sergio about it, something happens. Where are we, in an anime? Well… I am an anime character, after all.
She picked up a tray while still lost in her thoughts. Now that I think about it, this is the world where our badfic happened, so… I’m actually at home? Maybe after all this mess is over we should just settle somewhere in this universe. All the people here seem to be very glad Sergio’s back… though I’d prefer if we find a job with less shooting involved.
Corolla waved a hand in front of her. “Nikki? Are you listening?”
Nikki blinked a couple of times. “Sorry, I spaced out. What was it?”
“Survival lesson about the Strike Dove Restaurant,” Sergio said, “Avoid the pizza they make here at all costs, it’s unworthy of the name.”
Josh shook his head. “It’s nowhere as bad as he claims it to be. The Colonel knows that a good soldier needs good food to stay in good health.”
Sergio let out a short laugh. “I admit this is the only place outside Italy where I’ve found properly cooked pasta. But, still, anchovies have no place on a pizza!”
Nathan raised an eyebrow. “What’s wrong with putting anchovies on a pizza? I actually like that.”
“What’s wrong? Everything!”
Samantha turned towards the girls in Sergio’s group, ignoring the heated pizza debate. “If you happen to see any apple pie, go for it. The one they make here is delicious.”
“Rule number one for working with us: don’t get between Sam and her apple pie,” Josh said, setting his tray on an empty table.
Corolla took a seat as well. “Speaking of you guys, where did the one with the scarf go?”
“Marco? Oh, he almost never eats with us,” Josh explained. “He says he uses the lunch breaks to meditate. Ninja stuff.”
“By the way,” Sergio said once they were all sitting at the table, “how has stuff been in these years?”
“We’re not seeing as much action anymore, what with the world finally starting to shape up after the War,” Josh explained. “So less evildoers to chase around the globe.”
“Most of us are tasked with civilian duties nowadays, like security and disaster relief,” Nathan continued.
“‘An army’s duty is to protect people, not fight wars’, right?” Sergio said, “Just what I was expecting from the good old Colonel.”
“Rocket, you’re forgetting to tell him the most important thing.” Josh pointed at Nathan. “He’s a father now.”
“Really? That’s nice!” Sergio congratulated him.
Nikki glanced at Sergio. If they managed to fix their relationship, they would likely have children of their own one day. Corolla would surely want to be the godmother.
She looked down on her tray, thinking about what would’ve been the reaction of her friends from her badfic days. Kathleen and the others surely would’ve fought for the role. Well, maybe not Kathleen… but between Aurora, Luna and Corolla it would’ve been a mess.
She started imagining the scene: the girls hovering around her all day while planning every single detail, and showering her with ideas for the baby’s name…
“Have you told him yet?” Corolla asked her telepathically, waking her from her daydream.
“What? But I’m not pregnant! We didn’t even ever—”
Corolla raised an eyebrow. “Nikki, what are you talking about? I meant that you and the ‘Sakura’ he knew are one and the same. I wasn’t trying to imply anything for once… though I’d really like becoming an aunt, so you’d better hurry up.”
Nikki glanced around. “I don’t feel comfortable telling him in a room full of strangers, sorry.”
An alarm siren started blaring, accompanied by a loudspeaker announcement.
[All personnel, Attention: We are under attack. This is not a drill. All personnel…]
“Besides, that’s what happens every time I try.”