Blank Sprite – Mission Report 13

As always, thank you to Doctorlit and Hieronymus Graubart for their beta services. Special thanks for this chapter go to Aelit, who helped me greatly by picking up again two characters of hers after years to cowrite a scene that simply wouldn’t have been the same otherwise.

 

Mission Record 13 – Not Alone Anymore

 

[This the south gate guard post, the enemy has breached! We need reinforcements!]

Josh brought a hand near his ear. “This is Griffon of Raptor Team, roger that. We’re on our way.”

He then turned towards Sergio. “Do you think…?”

“Vera? Yeah, I think she’s behind it.” Sergio brought a hand near his ear as well. “This is Lightning of Skystreaker team, we’re coming too.”

[Lightning? That Lightning? I… I’m glad to hear you’re back, sir!”

Sergio rolled his eyes. “This is not the time, soldier. Hold on, help is on the way!”

[Yes sir!”]

Sergio resisted the urge to facepalm. Evidently, some of the guys on guard duty hadn’t received the “we don’t enforce ranks so formally” memo.

 

Sergio’s group and Raptor Team took cover behind some concrete barriers. In front of them a fierce battle was taking place at the south gate: while Vera’s Defectives had managed to break through the gate with a couple of their usual Cayennes, the vehicles had taken too much damage and so they were now pinned just a few meters past the entrance, shooting at Strike Dove’s soldiers from behind their wrecked cars.

“Rocket, Phoenix, we’ll be providing suppressive fire to allow the guys at the guard post to retreat here. Blackmage, you’ll do your usual thing,” Josh ordered.

“Er…” Corolla said, “we were missing one of your—”

Despite not being with them at the mess hall, though, Marco walked next to the group. He gave a quick nod to Josh before vanishing again. Literally.

Corolla blinked. “What?”

Josh let out a short laugh before opening fire. “Told you he’s a ninja.”

Sergio poked Corolla’s shoulder before starting to shoot as well. “Can you put some shields here? Homura, we could use some more suppressive fire with your Minimi. Nikki, can you try taking out some of the Defectives with arcing shots?”

“Sure, I’ll try,” Nikki said while Homura opened fire.

Samantha ducked under cover to reload her P90, and raised an eyebrow at the two magical girls next to her. “A machine gun and energy blasts? I admit I’ve last seen Sailor Moon years ago, but you Magical Girls are a lot more… radical than I remembered.”

Nikki fired off a couple of Shoot Barret projectiles, taking down one of the Defectives. “Well… Homura is an exception to the rule.”

Nikki turned Vanguard around and put a plasma grenade near the pommel. “I hope there’s not going to be more of these Porsches, ‘cause this is my last one.”

She fired off the grenade right between the two SUVs, which ended up overturned by the light blue explosion. Some of the Defectives ended up killed as well, while the others were quickly gunned down.

Josh lowered his M4 carbine. “Okay, what was that and where can I get some?”

“Classified gear coming from my previous employer,” Sergio explained vaguely. I can’t really tell you they come from that Halo videogame, since I’d need to tell you we’re all fictional characters here. “This is Lightning, all hostiles neutralized.”

 

Sergio crouched near one of the dead Defectives. “What did she expect to achieve by sending just a few of her mooks here?”

“Maybe showing that she always knows where we are?” Nikki rubbed her chin. “We had already realized, though.”

Colt put a hand near his ear. “Wait. What is it, Blackmage?… Understood.” He pointed at a radio tower in the north corner of the base. “Marco saw some movement on the tower.”

“So the attack on the south gate was a diversion?” Rocket scratched his head. “But for what?”

Sergio started walking towards the tower. “There’s only one way to know.”

 

When the two groups reached the radio tower, Colonel Johnson and a small squad of Strike Dove soldiers were already under it. Two soldiers were inspecting a charred electrical cabinet.

“Good timing, Skystreaker and Raptor.” Johnson pointed at the cabinet. “Our comms tower has just been sabotaged, and I’m afraid I know who’s behind it.”

“A retaliation for helping me,” Sergio said dryly before looking down. “I shouldn’t have come here.”

“Nonsense, Captain,” Johnson rebutted, “Vera’s our problem, not just yours. Especially now.” He glanced at the damaged cabinet. “She knew where to hit. Our CODEC network is out of commission, and it will take a while to bring it back online. If you don’t mind, I’ll take some extra measures regarding your assignment, Captain Turbo.”

“Of course, sir.”

“As a way to properly keep track of the people involved, we will consider your friends here as part of your team, which will be reclassified as Striker Team Skystreaker.” Johnson smiled at the girls. “Of course, that’s just to keep communications easy, especially now that we have to rely on our backup communication systems. None of you is being enlisted against her will, though it would help us if you chose a radio callsign.”

“Corolla, callsign Robogirl, reporting for duty sir!” Corolla saluted enthusiastically.

Sergio shook his head, and corrected her hand’s position.

“What should I choose…?” Nikki rubbed her chin. “Oh, right. Nikki Cherryflower, callsign Starlight.”

Sergio raised his eyebrow. That’s not what she had been given when she tried the flight simulators at DoSAT. I wonder why…? Well, Keycard was quite lame, so I can’t really blame her.

Johnson entered the information on a small PDA. “Alright, so we have Lightning, Robogirl and Starlight. And what about you, young miss?”

Homura, as usual, didn’t show any sign of emotion. “My name’s Akemi Homura, but I wish to not use a callsign.”

“Really? That’s not fun,” Corolla protested. “You need something about time or clocks, I guess? Chrono? Clockwork?”

“What about ‘time to die’?” someone shouted from the top of the tower.

Josh looked up. “Wait, that voice…”

Sergio’s eyes narrowed. “Vera.”

Indeed, when they looked up Vera was standing near the top of the tower, leaning over the railing.

“Major Heartbound, stop this madness and surrender immediately!” Johnson shouted at her.

“Let me think about it… No! My life… my story was perfect, but you didn’t understand that I am the best! Colonel, how could you try to hand over my squad’s leadership to him!” Vera pointed at Sergio.

“Contrary to you, he actually showed tactical knowledge and common sense. We fight to protect people, Major, not for the glory or for some other kind of self-fulfillment!”

“You’re all idiots! Everything was going so well until you arrived, Sergio! That’s why you all have to die now!”

“Sir?” One of the soldiers said to Johnson, his rifle already aimed at Vera.

Johnson took a deep breath. “Major Heartbound is refusing orders, and clearly out of control. Open fire.”

Vera retreated from the railing just in time to avoid being hit by Strike Dove’s soldiers, bullets bouncing on the tower’s metal structure. Sergio ran up the metal stairway leading to the top of the tower, but before anyone else could follow him an explosive charge detonated, collapsing the flight of stairs just behind him. At the same time, gunshots started echoing all over the base.

“We have more hostiles!” one of the soldiers shouted, opening fire against more of Vera’s Defectives.

Johnson fired off a few shots from his pistol. “Captain Turbo, go get her. Everyone else, we need to repeal the attack!”

Sergio gave a quick nod. “Yes, sir!”

Nikki turned towards him. “Please, be careful!”

Sergio noticed the worry in her eyes. “You too. I’ll be right back.” He resumed climbing the stairs, running at first but eventually slowing down in order to not make his footsteps heard.

He clutched his rifle tightly once near the top, listening to the popping sounds of gunshots from below. Vera’s controlling the Defectives, they’ll stop fighting as soon as she’s dead. I have to take her down quickly.

Sergio walked on the top platform of the radio tower, looking around the area. There were several electrical cabinets neatly arranged in rows, some open and emitting sparks from severed wires. Where is she hiding?

He started circling the cabinets carefully just as some music started playing out of seemingly nowhere. Figures… Dramatic to the end.

Sergio put a hand near the sheath of his combat knife. If she was playing hide and seek, it was time to lure her out. “Still listening only to Black Veil Brides, aren’t you? Nothing against them, but you should give other artists a chance too.”

Footsteps behind him. Sergio turned around just in time to parry a downward katana swing. Just as expected.

“They’re the best, and I only listen to the best!” Vera retorted. She took a step back and went for a decapitating swing, which Sergio dodged by rolling to the side.

He took cover behind a cabinet just as bullets started bouncing all over it. By the rate of fire, she’s still going akimbo with those MAC-10s. As expected, she’s not changed at all.

Sergio waited until Vera had expended all ammo in the magazines to retaliate with his rifle, but didn’t manage to hit her before she took cover as well.

This platform is about fifteen or twenty meters per side. Sergio thought while changing cover, barely dodging another hail of bullets. Not enough range for my ARX-160’s better accuracy to actually matter, while she has an advantage on rate of fire.

Sergio fired off a few rounds, before taking cover again. And it goes without saying that her katana means close quarters isn’t going to work.

“Gotta give it to her, she planned something right for once,” Sergio remarked drily under his breath. This is exactly the kind of situation I should’ve learned to not get myself into at the PPC.

“What’s the matter, Sergio?” Vera shouted in a mocking tone. “For someone who claimed he’s going to kill me, you’re too much on the defensive.”

Sergio gritted his teeth. Vera knew she had the advantage — that’s why she had lured him there, and made sure he would get there alone.

“Could it be that you’ve realized you can’t match me? Only another Suvian can hope to draw blood from me.”

She’s getting closer, Sergio thought as he started considering what few options he had.

“What is it? You’ve also run out of snippy remarks?”

Sergio listened carefully. She was approaching from the right of the cabinet, likely at a dramatically slow walking pace. Keep talking; I need to know where you are.

“It isn’t even funny this way.”

Vera was now close enough that he could hear her footsteps. Sergio switched to his pistol and combat knife, waiting for her to be next to the cabinet. If it works, I’ll get the jump on her. If it doesn’t, I’m Swiss cheese slices. One, two, three!

Sergio circled the cabinet from the left, walking as quickly as he could without making noise.

“Hey, where did you—”

Sergio walked past the last corner of the cabinet. Vera was in front of him, aiming the wrong way. He managed to fire off a single round, missing her, before getting close enough to try to stab her.

Vera dodged just barely, the blade grazing her side. The momentum brought Sergio to hit the railing, dropping the knife. He turned around just to be kicked in the gut, and fell to the ground.

“Hmpf. You’ve become sloppier, but you’re still enough of a Gary Stu to be able to land a hit. It doesn’t matter, though. End of the line, Captain Turbo.” Vera aimed one of her machine pistols at him, only for it to be blasted out of her hands by a bullet coming from outside the tower.

Vera held her hand. “What the… “

Sergio took advantage of the distraction to fire some shots at her, but again none of the bullets hit as Vera took cover just in time. He gave a quick glance at the direction her gun was hit from, finding the empty roof of the main base building. Don’t tell me… Ami?

Sergio grabbed the railing, and pulled himself up, his chest aching and his breath cut short as he did so. Damn it, Nikki was right. That rib broke again.

He switched to his rifle again, trying to think despite the pain. A broken rib was going to impair his fighting ability greatly, while Vera had only sustained minor injuries so far. Things aren’t looking good.

He started walking between the cabinets carefully, turning around continuously to try to catch any attempt Vera could make to get him from behind.

“Too slow!” Vera shouted, catching him by surprise anyway, lunging at him with her katana. Sergio raised his rifle to shield himself, deflecting the blade but leaving his guard open enough for a second, stabbing blow to go through his right shoulder, forcing him to drop the rifle. Vera pulled the blade out and kicked him away.

Sergio did his best to get back up, managing just barely as his right arm was refusing to move. He stared at the blood dripping down the arm — too much, too fast. If I don’t end this quickly, I’m going to bleed out.

“How did you…. Why did you get up again?” Vera screamed at him. “You can’t beat me! I’m barely scratched, and you’re on the verge of death! It’s useless!”

Sergio leaned on the nearest cabinet. “They all say I’m stubborn.”

“But for what? You hate your life, your nature, even yourself. Why don’t you just give up and die already?”

“Because as long as there’s people like you causing harm, there’s need for those like me.” Sergio pulled out his pistol with his left hand. “Besides, I’ve made some promises I want to keep.”

He fired off the rest of the magazine, but his shaky aim was nowhere near good enough to score any hit as she charged towards him guns blazing.

Sergio felt the pain of a bullet hitting his left leg, and fell to the ground. He tried to get up again, but his strength faded just as his vision started blurring. Damn it… the blood loss is already kicking in. He slowly rolled on his back, pulling the trigger again in a futile attempt to get his empty gun to fire.

Vera reloaded one of her MAC-10s. “Let me put you out of your misery.”

Sergio closed his eyes. That’s it.

He heard the gunshots, but also the sound of bullets ricocheting off a hard surface. He opened his eyes to find a white, round magical shield and a familiar brunette in front of him. “Nikki…?”

“If you want to kill him, Vera, you’ll have to do it over my dead body,” Nikki said in a very determined tone. “He made me a promise, and I’m not letting you get in the way of him keeping it.” She glanced back at him. “I have something very important to tell you, so don’t even think about dying here, OK?”

Sergio did his best to stay awake as the two girls started fighting, but he was already blacking out, the sounds of the battle coming off as muffled while, for some reason, the song currently playing in Vera’s “arena” was still clear.

[In the end, as you fade into the night/Who will tell the story of your life?]

Well, surely Corolla is going to make up stories about me being the greatest hero of the PPC or something, he mused to himself as he started losing consciousness.

[And who will remember your last goodbye?]

I didn’t even get to say goodbye to Nikki properly, did I?

[‘Cause it’s the end, and I’m not afraid/I’m not afraid to die]

Oh, no, I’m afraid to die. But I guess that’s too late. Forgive me, Nikki. I don’t think I’ll be able to keep that promise after all.

 

Sergio opened his eyes. He was standing in a bare hallway, a white fog blurring the edges. He felt a throbbing pain behind his eyes.

Where the hell am I? he thought. There was a room down the hallway, the door open. A yellow light seeped from it.

Sergio walked towards it. The room was almost as bare as the hallway, except for two expensive-looking leather armchairs and a thick mahogany table. A person — a girl, judging by the silhouette — leaned back on her elbows, the small of her back pressed against the edge of the table. The light cast by a lampshade behind her prevented Sergio from seeing her face.

He took a couple of steps forward, walking into the room, and was taken aback when he finally recognized the girl. She tilted her head, smirking. Her short dark brown hair caressed her neck as she did, the tips dyed bright pink. Her eyes had a spark of life in them, amusing considering that she was dead. There was no way that he could mistake her for someone else.

“Kath… is that you?”

The girl sat on the table with a leap. “Who else should I be? Do you see anyone else here?” She pointed at the room with a sweeping gesture of her hand.

Sergio took a deep breath. Yes, she was unmistakably his sister. “Nice to see you haven’t changed a bit in all these years but, where are we? Am I…” He gulped. “Am I dead?”

Kathleen sighed and crossed her limbs. “No, you aren’t. But if you keep going on like this then you would’ve been better off dead already.”

She still knows how to get on my nerves, Sergio thought before sighing himself. “Good to know, I don’t quite plan to die anytime soon. So, why am I here?” He paused. “I mean, aside from getting the chance to apologize to you.”

Kathleen sneered. “Apologizing, and for what? For allowing my girlfriend to die? For killing me?”

“Yes! I wasn’t able to protect you, or Faith, or anyone else. That’s why I’m here, isn’t it? To face my sins and failures instead of running away like I did for all this time.”

“You’re here ’cause you need to face yourself.

“Face myself?”

“You’re not running away from your sins. You’re running away from your memories. Only you can run away from something that doesn’t even exist. You’re really an idiot.”

“From something that doesn’t even exist? But Faith died… I saw it happen but I couldn’t do anything to prevent it. And I couldn’t do anything for you, either!” Sergio shouted.

He took a step forward and pulled the string that he wore around his neck. There was a cartridge casing at the end, and he gripped it tightly. “I was only able to put an end to your suffering when it was too late for anything else.”

Much to his surprise, Kathleen burst into laughter. “Are you for real? I wouldn’t have had myself killed by an idiot like you.”

“If that’s a joke, it’s not funny,” Sergio said flatly.

“Really? I find it amusing. Anyway, when have you ever found fun in anything?”

“More often than you seem to think. Pardon me if I can’t find anything to laugh about in my sister’s death.”

“If the main character can, you can too.” Kathleen shrugged. “So, your memories?”

“My memories? Well, I had seen Faith’s death through your psychic outburst and a while later you died the same way, by the hand of the same killer, and—”

Sergio pinched the bridge of his nose. Something in the unfolding of his memories didn’t feel right. “I remember you were shot in the same room as Faith, but that can’t be right. That room no longer existed. What happened then?”

“C’mon, get it on your own!”

“Do you mean that all those deaths I saw — yours, Faith’s, everyone’s — didn’t really happen? My mind made it all up?”

Kathleen rubbed her temples. “For heaven’s sake, no! Weren’t you the one who said ‘no jokes’?”

“Bear with me here. I don’t know anymore what’s real and what’s not! Please, stop being cryptic and just tell me what the heck happened back then.”

Kathleen leaned back. “Pretty much what you already know. Faith died. I died. But not like you remember.”

Then how did it really go? Great help you are, Sergio thought, going through his memories from the beginning of that day.

Marcus said he had seen through Kathleen’s deception, then ordered Chianti — one of the Black Organization’s snipers — to kill her. Faith had put herself on the bullet’s trajectory before it could reach Kathleen and he had seen all through the latter’s eyes. Again and again, like a broken record.

And then, something he hadn’t remembered in quite a long time. Kathleen had a breakdown and discharged psychic waves one after the other, pushing herself to exhaustion. Sergio remembered seeing the room’s walls cracking, big chunks of concrete falling onto the ground. The skin of those unfortunate enough to be in her reach melted, baring the bone underneath. That was the full destructive potential of his sister.

“After Faith’s death, you lost control of your powers.”

“You didn’t kill me, yeah. Because I did.”

Sergio nodded; the last piece fell into place. “You pushed your powers to a point your body couldn’t handle it. Why have my memories changed?”

“Because you can’t bear the truth. You’ve always been good at running away after all.”

“So, let’s see if I got it right,” Sergio said, tapping his forehead. “I couldn’t bear the fact that I couldn’t prevent any of your deaths, so I blamed myself to the point I convinced myself that I had killed you with my own hands?”

“Ugh. Something like that. I can’t really understand you, even though I am a product of your subconscious.”

Sergio raised an eyebrow. “Then you’re basically my subconscious telling me to stop feeling sorry for myself and move forward? I’m impressed. You’re just as annoying as the real thing.”

Kathleen grinned. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“Anything else I should be made aware of?”

“Yes. Back then, there was a survivor.”

Sergio cleared the space between them with two long strides, then grabbed her shoulders, keeping her at arm’s length. “Someone else made it? Who? Where are they now? Please, tell me.”

“She’s next to you right now. And take your hands off me.” She shrugged off his hands with a snort.

“How can you— You’re the real Kathleen, aren’t you? Otherwise you can’t know things I don’t know about.”

Kathleen grinned, again. “Oh, so you’re not totally witless, are you? However, I can tell you something. If she doesn’t stop shaking you anytime soon, she’s going to break your arm.”

“Who are you meaning with ‘she’? I mean…”

He was quite sure that nobody nearby him could be one of his old friends — even if his memory wasn’t completely reliable about what had happened during the War, none of his old friends appeared to be working at Strike Dove.

“Unless…”

There was one person who actually looked like someone he knew. One that had been at his side for over one year and a half.

“Nikki? The Sakura we met back then is actually Nikki?”

“You sure took your time to realize it. C’mon, they’re twins!” Kathleen sighed. “Well, that’s not quite right since they are the same person after all.”

“Many things make more sense now… like how she speaks Italian fluently.”

Sergio felt the urge to slap himself on the head for not noticing. Now that he thought about it, the similarities in behavior between the “Sakura” from his fanfiction and Nikki were very evident. And, of course, both had the voice of the Italian dub actress, although he had brushed that aside as a coincidence when he met her at the PPC.

“But why didn’t she say anything—”

A pair of arms wrapped around Kathleen’s waist. The owner was a girl in her early twenties with wavy hazel hair reaching her lower back and gleaming green eyes. Federica ‘Faith’ Leone, Kathleen’s girlfriend.

“I’m sorry to intrude. C’mon, Caterina, our time is running up.”

Kathleen crossed her arms. “You’re such a killjoy, you know?”

Faith laughed, her voice like a hundred little bells. “Really?” she said, then she turned toward Sergio. “She was really worried about you, did you know? She could not stop talking about how you were acting like an idiot and such.”

Kathleen gasped. “You weren’t supposed to tell him that!”

Sergio smiled, shaking his head. “I know. If she hadn’t been worried you both wouldn’t be here. Thanks, Kath.”

Kathleen pouted. “To put it clearly, I haven’t done this for you. I was just ashamed of having such an idiotic brother.”

Sergio couldn’t stop himself from laughing. “It was nice to see you again, but I’m afraid that I must go as well. I’ve got a Mary Sue to kill, worlds to save, messes to fix… the usual routine.”

The two girls nodded. The throbbing pain behind his eyes came back, sending waves of nausea down his throat. The floor tilted beneath him and the room started to spin around. Then, as all became black, he thought he heard a voice in the distance.

“Good luck, oniichan.”

 

“How funny.” Vera snorted, casually tossing her empty gun away. “He’s trying to deny his nature as a Gary Stu, and yet he keeps a copy of Sakura Kinomoto as his pet.”

“I’m not his pet.” Nikki dispelled her shield and shifted Vanguard to Saber form. “I’m his partner.”

“Same thing. But if you wish so badly to die for him…” Vera unsheathed her katana and charged. “Consider your wish granted!”

Nikki steeled herself to parry the attack. Much to her surprise, though, the blow wasn’t as strong as she thought it would be. Blade against blade, Nikki pushed forward until Vera was forced to stagger back a few steps.

Vera, however, didn’t give up and broke blade lock before launching herself at Nikki relentlessly, jumping around the brunette as if dancing, black steel meeting white mana over and over again.

Thin as she is, she relies on agility more than brute strength. Nikki turned around to parry another slash.  She’s trying to overpower me with attack speed, since she can’t win a blade lock.

Nikki ducked under a swing meant to decapitate her, but before she could land a hit of her own Vera had already twisted back into position to parry. Nikki pressed on, trying to force Vera to step back, but her Suvian opponent somehow angled the blade in a way that allowed her to slip away past her.

Nikki turned around just in time to parry another slash. She’s fast. If I can’t find a way to turn the fight in my favor quickly, she’ll eventually get past my guard. Maybe that spell Ari taught me…?

“Not bad. You’re strong,” Vera conceded between blows, “And I respect strong girls. It’s a shame you’ve sided with him, we could’ve been great friends.”

“I doubt it.”

“I guess I’ll have no regrets then!” Vera sidestepped Nikki’s attack and quickly retaliated. There was no time to swing back Vanguard to parry, and Nikki knew it. She raised her left arm, quickly casting Ari’s spell. It has to work!

“What the fu—” Vera shouted as her blade was caught by a translucent barrier wrapped around Nikki’s arm, but before she could end the sentence Nikki counterattacked. Vera jumped back to dodge her slash just barely, Vanguard’s blade grazing her cheek.

Vera touched where her skin had been cut. “Blood? But only another…” She looked at Nikki. “Don’t tell me, you’re…”

“A Replacement Sue? Yeah, I might’ve been one once,” Nikki said as she charged at Vera. “But not anymore.”

“Just great. You’re a traitor of our kind too, aren’t you?”

Nikki ignored her insult, focusing on matching every single one of Vera’s blows. Getting in the hit had destabilized her: Vera’s attacks were slower, as well as her movements. Nikki took advantage of that to keep pressing on, slowly pushing Vera towards an open electrical cabinet.

As they ended up in blade lock again, Nikki noticed how Vera’s katana had started glowing red where its edge met Vanguard. Of course, a metal sword can’t stand contact with an energy blade. It would’ve already melted if it weren’t a Suvian weapon.

Nikki increased the power output of Vanguard’s blade to the maximum, its exhausts blowing off steam, while continuing to push at the same time.

“This… this isn’t possible!” Vera screamed as her katana started to melt. “How can you—”

“I can because I love him!” Nikki shouted as Vera’s katana broke in half. “And love is always stronger than hate!”

Nikki spun around, building up momentum for a slash strong enough to lift Vera off her feet and send her right into the cabinet. Sparks flew everywhere as Vera got shocked by the same wires she had cut while sabotaging the radio tower.

Nikki shifted Vanguard back into Lancer form as Vera struggled to free herself. Now that she’s tangled up, I should have enough time for my strongest spell. Also, in hindsight, what I just said was very, very corny.

A white magic circle formed under her. “It took me five years to find him again.”

In front of Vanguard’s tip a white ball of mana appeared, quickly followed by another one around it. Sweat started beading on Nikki’s forehead as she used the outer ball of mana to compress the inner one. “And now that I did, I’m not going to let you harm him any further! Raging…”

The outer ball of mana started to peel away, the pressure inside too high to be completely contained.

“Blossom!”

The outer ball peeled off completely, opening like a tulip bud and releasing a short but powerful beam. Vera got hit squarely in the chest, and ended up being pushed through the cabinet and off the platform.

Nikki sent a quick message to Corolla explaining what had happened before running desperately to where Sergio was lying on the ground. He wasn’t conscious, and Nikki’s breath was cut short when she realized how bad his wounds were — blood was already starting to pool under him.

Nikki dropped to her knees and set up the magic circle for Physical Heal under him as fast as she could, checking his vital parameters in the meanwhile. The diagnosis was depressing — he had already lost a lot of blood, and if the hemorrhage wasn’t stopped quickly he wasn’t going to make it. Nikki slammed Vanguard’s pommel in the ground and started pushing all the mana she could muster into her spell. Please, don’t die! I refuse to believe you’ll die like this!

Not even thirty seconds had passed when she fell on all fours exhausted, her Device clattering on the ground next to her just as her magic circle dissipated. I’m… out of mana? Did I… Did I waste too much on Raging Blossom earlier?

Nikki crawled next to Sergio, tears running down her cheeks. It looked like his bleeding had stopped, but was that enough?

“Don’t you dare die on me, not like this! Not now that I… That I…” she screamed, grabbing him by the shoulders and starting to shake him in a desperate attempt to get a reaction from him.

“Now that I finally found you…”

He wasn’t moving. Nikki closed her eyes, unable to stop herself from crying. She had looked for him for years, and now…

“Nikki, I’m not a milkshake.”

Nikki opened her eyes. “… Sergio?”
Sergio smiled weakly, with only one eye open. “Sorry. I got you worried again, didn’t I?”

Nikki wiped her tears. “It doesn’t matter. You…”
“It does matter,” Sergio said, caressing her cheek. “I’ve made the girl I’ve always loved cry. That’s unforgivable.”

Nikki looked at him eyes wide open, surprised by both his gesture and choice of words. “You… realized?”

“Well, not quite by myself. Kathleen had to give me a bop in the head from beyond the grave. Looks like I’ve been quite an idiot for not noticing.”

Nikki pulled him in a hug just as tears started running down again. This time, however, they were a different kind of tears.

“Ow! I’m still quite banged up, you know?” Sergio protested before reciprocating the hug. They stayed that way for a few seconds before Nikki pulled back. “So… about that weight of yours? I think I might’ve collected some charges along the way, too.”

Sergio let out a short laugh. “Don’t tell me you’re thinking…?”
“If you’re a Gary Stu, then I’m a Replacement Sue and your accomplice,” Nikki said with a smile, “So I’m taking half of it.”

She moved closer, their faces just a few centimeters apart. “And I’m having none of that ‘I don’t deserve you’ nonsense again.”

“I guess I have no reaso—mmh?”

Sergio’s eyes widened just as Nikki pulled him in a kiss.

Advertisements

Blank Sprite – Mission Record 12

As usual, thanks to Doctorlit and Hieronymus Graubart for their beta services.

 

Mission Record 12 – Guardian Angel

 

Ami ran towards Colonel Johnson’s office and opened the door as quickly as she could without slamming it. “I’m sorry I’m late, sir!”

“Don’t worry, First Lieutenant. We didn’t begin the introductions yet.”

Ami looked around while catching her breath. Johnson was sitting at the desk like usual, and, as she had expected, Vera and James were already there, alongside a young man she assumed to be the new guy assigned to their team.

She looked at him out of curiosity. He was quite tall, probably just a couple inches less than James, with messy brown hair and wearing a pair of glasses. He was standing at attention looking towards Johnson, his expression unreadable.

He looks so serious… I was hoping for the new member to be a girl I could get along with. Well, there isn’t anything I can do about it, right?

“Raven Team, this is Second Lieutenant Sergio Turbo, your new team member.”

Ami’s thoughts started trailing off while Johnson continued with the introductions. Well, it’s not like I could be expecting another girl my age. I’m already an exception to the rules.

She glanced at Vera. I’m still curious how she got in, though.

 

Ami walked towards the outdoor firing range, carrying her Mk14 rifle inside its case. It was a cold January afternoon, and so there weren’t many people at the range that day; in fact, only the first two rifle lanes appeared to be occupied, with Josh and Nathan of Raptor Team currently comparing their results.

Ami waved at them and resisted the urge to laugh as she realized that both had tried to draw a smiley face on the targets with the bullet holes.

As she neared the long range lane, though, she noticed that the last rifle lane was occupied as well. She set her weapon case on the ground, and glanced at the other shooter.

That’s Sergio. I wonder why he chose a lane so far away from the others.

Ami peeked at the target sheet he was holding. “That’s not a bad grouping for a beginner.”

Sergio turned around and looked at her, apparently surprised. “Uhm… Thank you, ma’am.”

“Just Ami is fine. We aren’t so formal around here.”

“OK, but… Aren’t you my superior?”

“Well… yes and no? We only use ranks as to tell who’s a team leader and stuff like that. A Striker Team leader is a Captain, regular team members are First Lieutenants and probationary team members like you are Second Lieutenants.” Ami looked up in thought. “I heard Colonel Johnson held that rank in the US Air Force or something, so we’re using his old rank more out of respect than anything.”

Sergio rubbed his chin. “I see. Then why is Major Heartbound, well, a Major? Shouldn’t she be a Captain?”

“I… don’t know, actually. I never asked her, to be sincere.”

 

Ami glanced at Sergio while reloading her rifle. He kept firing in very long bursts, emptying a magazine in just two or three of them. “Maybe you should try shorter bursts?”

Sergio looked at her. “Hm?”

“Well, you consistently hit near the center of the target at first, but then you keep your finger on the trigger and end up spraying rounds all above the target.  You should only fire a few rounds at a time… maybe try the three round burst setting if your gun has it?”

“My M16 doesn’t have it, but I’ll try doing that manually.”

Only then Ami realized that, despite looking a lot like the standard issue M4 of Strike Dove, his rifle had a longer barrel and a different, simpler stock. It looked quite battered, as well. “Wow, they really gave you an old rifle. I didn’t even know we had M16s around.”

“No, I didn’t get it here. I already had it… let’s just say I already have some experience in fighting.”

 

“You were right. This looks much better,” Sergio said, looking at the target sheet in his hand. They had just finished shooting practice, and were sitting at a table cleaning their guns.

Ami peeked at the sheet. His groupings had improved considerably just with her tip. “Wow, that’s pretty good. You surely have been a shooter for a while, haven’t you…?”

Ami bit her lip as she saw Sergio turn away. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked that.

“For… I don’t remember exactly, but several years already,” he said after a while. Sergio then glanced at her Mk14. “What’s that? I’ve never seen anything like that rifle.”

“It’s an Mk14 Mod 0, a modernized version of the old M14. Or, at least, that’s what I got explained. Mine is set up as a marksman rifle, but it can be used as a battle rifle as well. Dad used it like the latter before—” Her voice died out as she thought about what had happened to her family.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s alright. You couldn’t have known.” Ami looked up at him. “But… Well, you’re bound to hear it from someone else one way or another, so I guess I should tell you the whole story. It isn’t good to keep secrets between teammates, after all.”

“You don’t have to if it is too hurtful.” Despite having met her only that day, Ami could hear genuine concern in his voice.

“Don’t worry. After all, there isn’t much to tell you about. See, my parents used to work here, as well. But one day, during last year’s war, they… didn’t get back from a mission.“

Sergio glanced at her rifle again. “So you picked up their battle?”

“More or less. I was already living at the base, as our house wasn’t a safe place anymore… and I already wanted to enlist here once old enough. I just ended up doing that earlier than planned.”

“Earlier than planned? Pardon my indiscretion, but… how old are you?”

It is because I’m so short, isn’t it? “I’ve just turned fourteen. I know, I’m too young for this, but…”

“I would be one hell of a hypocrite if I complained about that. How old do you think I am?”

Ami looked at him more carefully, but most of her first impression about him was confirmed. His eyes are very warm, though. “Twenty?”

Sergio started laughing. “I’m sixteen. Do I really look that old?”

Ami widened her eyes. “Well… yes? I mean, in the office you looked so serious and mature, and you’re so tall… you looked like a veteran!”

“Well.. I have to admit I’ve already seen a lot of action.”

Ami raised an eyebrow. He surely couldn’t have been a regular soldier at that age. “Resistance?”

“Something like that. But… I’d like to not speak about it.”

Ami nodded understandingly.

 

“Okay everyone, weapons ready,” Vera shouted over the helicopter’s noise. “We’ll be at the mission area soon. We go in, kill everything, put a bullet through the skull of that warlord, get out. Like usual.”

Ami suppressed a sigh. As usual, Vera’s plan was to simply barge in guns blazing, completely disregarding any kind of tactical approach. I’m a designated marksman. Running in blind is the opposite of what I should do. She’s gonna get me killed someday.

“Here we go again.” Sergio leaned forward. “That’s not a plan, you know?”

Vera crossed her arms, looking offended. “Of course it is. We’re an elite unit with cool weapons, while they’re just random militia with old AKs. They’ll go down like bowling pins, so why bother with complex stuff?”

Sergio rubbed his forehead in an eloquent “are you insane” gesture. “The only way that’s a good plan is if suicide is a good plan for you. What are you, twelve?”

“I’m thirteen! And I’m the leader, so I decide how we go, and…”

Ami shivered. Knowing Vera’s temper, that wasn’t going to end well, and indeed Vera started a long monologue on how she knew better. It was something Ami was used to; while she was too timid to start an argument with her and James simply went with the flow, Sergio was always quick to question Vera’s decisions.

Sergio listened to her silently, his arms crossed and his stare fixed as if analyzing her while waiting for her to run out of steam.

“That’s how it is, huh,” he said once Vera was over with the outburst of the day. “Though, with due respect ma’am, I still believe that’s not the best course of action.”

Sergio grabbed a satellite image with the location of the warlord’s stronghold. “While I agree that this is only an old colonial mansion with improvised fortification, this tower isn’t just for looks. Well, maybe it once was, but it would be stupid to believe they haven’t turned it into a watchtower. Taking out the sentinel up there should be the priority, and this rock ledge south of the stronghold looks like a good position for Comet to take the shot. Once taken care of that…”

Ami listened intently as Sergio laid out a full assault plan, scribbling down routes on the photo and going so far as to suggest how to split the team according to each member’s specialization and loadout. He always comes up with good plans. Where did he learn all of that…?

“Boring,” Vera commented in the end. “Taking them out from a distance? Encircling them? That’s the cowardly way. There’s glory only in facing your enemy head-on!”

“So ‘glory’ is why you want to get us all into crossfire, including our marksman who isn’t supposed to get into close combat at all?”

“It’s her fault if she’s too weak to handle automatic weapons!”

Ami looked down, trying to hold back her anger. I didn’t ask to be this small, you know?

James leaned forward. “Boss, that was harsh. And… well, I think Lightning’s got a point. He seems to know what he’s talking about. You should stop shooting down his plans every time.”

“No. We’re sticking with mine.”

“But, Boss…”

Sergio snorted. “Figures,” he muttered low enough that Ami heard him just barely, and Vera and James didn’t seem to hear over their own discussion, “You’re one too, huh?”

Ami kept wondering what he meant by that for the rest of the flight.

 

Ami held her rifle close to her body while hiding behind a concrete barrier, bullets zipping above her.

Sergio fired a couple bursts before ducking under cover to reload. “Does she have a death wish or something? She just charged in without any cover.”

Ami didn’t need to look to guess what Vera was doing. She likely was in the middle of the courtyard, shooting wildly with her machine pistols or stabbing with her katana, dodging bullets and spinning around like a dancer on stage while the rest of her team was forced to take cover and try to stay alive.

“Lightning, I hope you’ve got one of your clever ideas, because this is going south quickly,” James shouted, laying down suppressive fire with his M60 machine gun.

“Can you cover us? If Venom keeps distracting them with her show, Comet and I might be able to take a detour and get them from behind.”

 

Ami lay down on the rock ledge and unfolded her rifle’s bipod. Next to her, Sergio looked at the stronghold through a pair of binoculars. “Comet, near the gate. The target is escaping.”

Ami aimed where he said, and indeed the warlord was being quickly escorted towards an old offroader. She held her breath and pulled the trigger.

“Hit. He’s down.” Sergio patted her on the shoulder. “Nice shot.”

Ami opened a CODEC call. “Comet to HQ. Target is neutralized.”

[Good job. Raven Team, mission accomplished. Disengage and return to LZ.]

[What? We’ve still got lots of enemies to kill!] Vera screamed.  [And you two stole the most important kill from me again!]

 

Ami opened the door of the southmost hangar, and walked in. As Strike Dove lacked the air fleet to occupy all the hangars of the former US Air Force airfield they were based in, that one was being used as a covered car park by the people living at the base.

She looked around for Sergio. Their shift had ended an hour earlier, and since he wasn’t in his room he most likely was tinkering with his old Toyota coupé, even now that, with summer nearing, the hangar was becoming very hot in the afternoons.

Indeed, Ami caught a glimpse of the bright red car, its hood open. Sergio was leaning on the engine bay, working with some wires while James was talking to him.

“The guys from Raptor team and I are going to do some runs this evening at the old radio tower road. Want to come?”

Sergio looked at him sideways. “Runs at the… Sorry, I’m not into street racing.”

“Hey, don’t jump to conclusions. You don’t know which road it is, do you?” James laughed. “It’s the one leading to the old abandoned tower on the hill. Not a public road at all, the only way to get on it is from inside the base itself.”

“And the Colonel doesn’t mind?”

“He sometimes dusts off his old Charger and comes for a spin as well… though that narrow road doesn’t suit it at all. And, besides, we don’t actually race. Just some sporty driving up and down the road for fun. You should come, so see ya later!”

James waved at him and walked away. Sergio followed him with his eyes, his expression clearly one of disbelief until he noticed Ami standing a few meters away. “Oh, hi. Need anything?”

Ami took a deep breath and walked closer. Why am I feeling so embarrassed…? “Well, yes. Is your car alright? Because I finally decided on getting Ace Combat 6, and… well, if you could give me a lift…”

“I see. Since Namco had the great idea to switch sides in the console war, you’re going to need to get an Xbox for it as well. And you can’t really carry that comfortably by foot or on a bus.” He glanced at the engine bay. “Not a problem, I could use a few more kilometers of break-in for the engine. And, besides, that’s the least I can do since you’ve been letting me play the other Ace Combat games on your Playstation, and made me discover the awesomeness Lyrical Nanoha is.”

“Thank you! And… well, I didn’t do anything special. Videogames and anime are simply better in company.” Ami then glanced at the front of the car in curiosity. “You replaced the pop-up headlights with normal ones? Why did you do that?”

“Well, mostly for aerodynamic reasons. This way I can get better performance and mileage when the lights are on.”

“But the pop-ups were so cute!” Ami mimicked the motion of said headlights with her hands. “I once saw a photo of a car with only one light up, it looked like it was winking!”

Sergio laughed. “Well, I do have to admit pop-up headlights have their charm.”

 

“I can’t believe this,” Ami said, reading the instructions booklet of her new Xbox 360. “I have to pay a subscription to Microsoft to be able to play online?”

Sergio raised his head from behind her television set. “Now I get why people keep spelling their name with a dollar symbol in it.” He walked over to her. “Anyways, the Xbox is plugged in and ready to go.”

Ami grabbed the DVD case of Ace Combat 6 and put the disc into the console. “Aww, there is no split-screen!”

“That’s a shame. Shall we take turns at the campaign like we did with Unsung War?”

Ami nodded, and they sat at the end of her bed.

Why is my heart beating so fast now? Ami thought during Sergio’s turn. We’re just friends, and teammates, right?… Playing games together is nothing special.

“Ami?”

Ami turned towards him. He was offering her the controller, one of his eyebrows raised. “Eh? What?”

“It’s your turn.”

Ami took the controller. “Sorry, I was spacing out.”

Sergio leaned towards her a bit, concern on his face. “Anything wrong?”

Ami could feel her heart skip a beat. “No, nothing. Just thinking about some stuff.” Is that how I feel about him…?

 

“So…” Sergio said, driving his Trueno on the radio tower road, closely following Josh’s Lancer. “I thought you weren’t interested in cars much?”

Ami fiddled with her seatbelt. “Well, yeah. But you’re going to race on a mountain course like in Initial D, right? I was curious to see how it is in real life!”

Sergio raised an eyebrow as he downshifted to tackle a corner. “Initial what?”

“You don’t know Initial D? The main character even has the same car as you!”

“Guess I’ll have to check it out, then.”

“Well…” Ami fidgeted. “I’ve only watched the first season, as it isn’t really my kind of anime. But if you want we can watch it together after we finish Nanoha.

“Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”

 

“Sergio, you’re pretty good for someone this young,” Josh said as they took a pause to let the engines cool down.

James nodded, leaning with his back against his Mustang. “Told you the guy had potential. And you haven’t seen the best. Pop the hood, Sergio.”

Sergio gave him a quick glance before doing so. “I don’t think it’s anything special.”

Josh and Nathan looked under the hood. “Isn’t that engine a 7A-GTE?” the latter asked. “It looks like you’ve spent a lot building this car.”

“Well…” Sergio said, looking down. “This car’s everything I have left, so I’m throwing everything into it, both in money and time.”

Ami raised an eyebrow. “Everything…?”

“Well, yeah. I’m living at the base, so I don’t have much in the way of living expenses. And I don’t go out much, either… after all, I don’t even have a girlfriend.”

Ami brought a hand to her chest. Why am I feeling so relieved that he is single?

“Being single has its perks,” Nathan said before glancing at his BMW. “Vanny nearly killed me when she realized that the car I had bought was actually an old M5.”

Their chat was interrupted by the sound of an engine. A few seconds later, a black Porsche parked next to them.

“Here we go again…” Josh said, disappointment in his voice.

The door of the Porsche opened, and Vera got out. Ami blinked a couple of times in disbelief. Why has she got a car? She’s too young to drive!

“Sorry I’m late. Let’s see who’s the fastest!”

“For the hundredth time, this isn’t a competition,” Josh said sternly. “We’re here to have fun with our cars, and that’s it.”

Vera scoffed. “What’s the point of improving your car if it isn’t to be faster than the others’?”

“Your Cayman seems to be quite stock though.”

“That’s because Porsches are perfect the way they are!”

Josh sighed. “Feel free to believe what you want, but I thought I had been clear last time: until you accept that our car meetings aren’t about one-upping each other, you’re not welcome here.”

“Oh, but you’ve got no authority to tell me what to do, Captain Colt. I’m the highest ranked one here, so I lay the rules.” Vera smiled smugly, and looked around. She raised an eyebrow as she saw Ami. “Tanegashima? You here too? I didn’t know your feet reached the pedals.”

Ami clenched her fists, breathing deeply. She had to keep her anger in check, as Vera would be quick to abuse her position as a team leader to report any complaint as insubordination.

“Ok, that’s it Vera,” Sergio said, his voice eerily calm. “I’m putting up with you enough during missions; I’m not letting you insult my friends here too. You want to race? Fine, I’ll race against you. And the loser never sets foot here again.”

Ami was taken aback. True, he would go out of his way to help her during missions, but that was a given for a good teammate. Him standing up to Vera there was something she didn’t expect. He’s going so far as to face off Vera for me…?

Vera laughed. “That’s Major Heartbound to you, Second Lieutenant. But I’m letting your insubordination slip for this time. Humiliating you and your rustbucket during the race will be enough.”

As she said that, she entered her car and drove it to the starting position. Sergio opened his Trueno’s door, but Josh grabbed him by the arm. “Hey, you don’t have to do this. Besides, if you lose—”

“I won’t lose, Josh. Sure, she has more power — my Trueno’s still on a low boost setting so that’s just about 220 horsepower against her 300 or so — but this is a narrow winding road so suspension setup and driving skills are what matters most. If she drives like she fights, there’s no way I can lose to her pancaked Beetle.”

Josh sighed, and let him go with a shrug. “Alright, it’s your call. Just be careful, though — we don’t want anyone to get hurt here, and I know for fact Vera doesn’t drive cleanly.”

 

“Rocket, I hope your camera setup is working. We need to keep an eye on this,” Josh said after the race started. As could be expected, Vera’s Cayman was faster off the line, and rounded the first corner in the lead.

Nathan set a laptop PC on the hood of his car. “Looks like it is.”

Ami peeked in, and saw the video feed of several cameras on the computer’s screen. “Wow, you could make a movie with all these cams!”

“Well, the idea was to make a montage of our runs.” Nathan brought on full-screen the feed of the camera from which the two cars were visible. “But it will also be a good way to see if something bad happens.”

Ami kept watching the video feed, with Nathan switching from camera to camera in order to follow the race. Vera was still in the lead, her car faster on the straights, but in the corners Sergio would always regain the distance.

“He wasn’t lying about his claims.” Josh let out a short laugh. “His line is better. He isn’t some kid who just got his driving license.”

“Maybe he was racing karts before the war?” Nathan wondered.

In the meanwhile, Sergio had managed to come out faster from a chicane, and tried to overtake on the inside in the following corner. Vera, however, steered sharply to close the space, forcing him to brake. Sparks flew off as Sergio’s car scratched lightly on the guardrail as he did his best to avoid colliding with Vera’s car.

“She nearly drove him off the road!” Ami shouted.

“That’s why we don’t want her here,” Josh said flatly. “And why I was against this.”

Nathan poked his shoulder. “Josh, look. He’s driving differently now.”

His driving now looks a bit like that in Initial D, Ami thought as she saw that Sergio was now taking the corners very aggressively, sending the car on a four wheel drift in the narrow ones. While he had lost some ground due to the collision, he was making it up at a quick pace.

“Rocket, I think he hasn’t been karting. He’s driving more like a rally driver.” Josh rubbed his chin. “I’m pretty sure I’ve already seen this particular style somewhere, but where…?”

The two cars reached the end of the road, where a cone had been placed to mark the switch-back point. Vera brutally turned her Cayman around with the handbrake, nearly coming to a stop before accelerating away spinning her tires. Sergio, instead, managed to swing his car around the cone cleanly, making up the last of the gap.

“Just a quick tap on the handbrake, then power over to drift around the cone,” Josh explained. “As I thought, he’s indeed using rally techniques.”

Ami kept her eyes fixed on the video feed. He’s right on her tail, but he’s not trying to overtake…?

Indeed, for several corners Sergio seemed to be contented with driving at just a couple meters from the rear bumper of the Cayman. Wait, isn’t Vera’s car sliding too?

“Wow, Sergio’s surely putting a lot of pressure on the boss,” James said. “I can see from here that she’s getting nervous. Look at— Whoa!”

The Cayman skidded out of the intended line during a long right-hand corner, likely due to taking it too fast. The Trueno dove to the inside, making the pass just in time before the following corner.

Josh crossed his arms. “It’s over. She’s not going to keep up.”

Ami noticed a smile on Josh’s face. “Why? I mean, he’s been faster… but you’re so sure!”

“I just realized where I had already seen his driving. A couple years ago, in the Under-16 World Rally Championship…”

 

“You were awesome!” Ami complimented Sergio as he accompanied her to her room.

“Nah, I’m sure I’m not.”

“But… I mean, you’ve been doing great during missions, and you’re very good at driving too.”

Sergio smiled uncomfortably. “That’s the only two things I’m good at, though. Fighting and driving. That’s all I am.”

Ami opened the door of her room. “You’re much more than that. I mean, so far you’ve been such a nice person. You can be a little more proud of yourself… you’re even a world champion!”

Ami realized that Sergio wasn’t following her inside the room. She turned around, and found him looking at the ground a few steps back. “How do you know?”

“Well, Colt said that he had recognized how you drive. He said that you’ve managed to win some kind of rally championship twice!”

Sergio kept looking down. “Think nothing of it. It wasn’t really that big of a championship anyways. Just a few kids doing a watered-down version of the rallies of the proper WRC. It was just an experiment they did as a lead-in class like the small single-seater cars are to F1, and they didn’t even resume it after the War. Too many accidents, I guess.”

“Do you mind if I go looking for some videos of it, though? I’m curious,” Ami said, opening her laptop PC.

Sergio took a deep breath. “Even if I say no, there’s nothing I can do to prevent you from doing so when I’m not around so…”

Ami pouted. “I would never do that! It wouldn’t be nice to look up things about you behind your back, you know…?”

 

“Why did you stop racing?” Ami asked after watching a few videos. She brought up another browser window, showing his results. “You won both the 2005 and 2006 titles by a very good margin! I bet you would’ve been earning more money, too.”

Sergio looked away. “It didn’t feel right anymore after I—” He stopped, almost like catching himself from finishing the sentence.

“After what?”

Sergio gulped, and pointed at his copilot’s name on the screen. “Aurora was in my same resistance group during the War, but… unlike me, she didn’t make it out alive. I… I was the only one who did.”

Ami felt her stomach knotting up. So that’s why he’s uncomfortable with remembering his racing career? “Sorry, I shouldn’t have been forcing this onto you. If only I knew…”

“And how? You couldn’t.” Sergio let out a short laugh. “Heh, this is like the chat we had on my first day, but with inverted roles, isn’t it? So don’t worry about it. The only thing we have to worry about is how grumpy Vera will be tomorrow.”

 

“Major Heartbound, your complaint is simply unacceptable,” Johnson said, looking Vera straight in the eyes. She had dragged the entire team to his office, and was trying to get Sergio off her team. “Second Lieutenant Turbo’s refusal to follow your orders isn’t insubordination, but simply common sense. In fact, if it wasn’t for his quick thinking I believe many of the operations assigned to your team would’ve ended in failure.”

“But—”

Johnson raised a hand to stop her. “You’ve been showing a lack of even the basics of tactical knowledge, and that means you’re unfit as a team leader. I’ve scheduled some courses for you, and in the meanwhile I’ll temporarily assign your team’s leadership to Second Lieutenant Turbo. Pay attention, I think you can learn from him.”

“No way I’m working under him! I’d rather fight all by myself… I don’t need a team!” Vera stormed out of Colonel Johnson’s office, slamming the door behind her.

A shiver went down Ami’s spine. She had never seen Vera so furious, but Johnson seemed to take the issue calmly, just letting out an exasperated sigh.

“Well, if she doesn’t want to stay in Raven Team anymore then I guess the change in its leadership will be permanent.” He looked at Sergio. “Congratulations, Captain Turbo. You just got promoted.”

Ami looked at Sergio and was surprised to see that he didn’t seem to be happy about it.

“Uhm… Thank you sir, but I’m not sure I’m good enough to be a team leader.”

James raised an eyebrow. “Are you kidding, man? There’s no way you can be worse than Vera. I saw how you think, and I trust the Colonel’s judgment so you’re the boss now.”

“But…”

Ami walked in front of him and saluted. “I’m looking forward to working with you, Captain!”

Sergio sighed. “Guys… OK, I’ll give it a try.”

 

Ami tied up some of her hair in a single high pigtail before taking a look in the mirror. She nodded in satisfaction as the hair tie matched perfectly with her lilac sleeveless dress and purple eyes.

Despite being already September, the weather was still very warm and so she had come up with the idea of taking a day off. I’m happy Sergio accepted it.

She took a deep breath and walked out of her room. Will he accept my confession, as well…?

 

“Wow, I didn’t think this place was so popular!” Ami said as she and Sergio queued up at an ice cream parlor.

“Maybe we should try another one?”

Ami shook her head energetically. “I’ve heard this one’s the best in the area, I really wanted to try it out!”

Sergio let out a short laugh. “Well, I’m trusting you here. It’s not like we’re in a hurry after all.”

As the queue slowly proceeded, Ami did her best to act normally, even if being so close to him was making her heart race. This feels so much like a date…

Sergio leaned towards her a bit. “Hm?”

“W-what is it?” Ami felt her cheeks heat up. If I keep going like this, he’ll realize on his own before I say anything!

“Your earrings are really nice.”

Ami felt her head become light with joy at the compliment. Those were her favorite earrings; shaped like Japanese cherry tree blossoms, but in lilac.

Sergio looked away. “In pink they would’ve looked good with her hair clip,” he muttered in a very low voice, probably mostly to himself.

Ami felt like the whole world had crashed on her. Her… who? Don’t tell me… he has a girlfriend?

She walked out of the queue absent-mindedly.

“Ami?”

“Sorry, I’m… not feeling very well. Can we get back to the base?”

 

Ami hugged her pillow tightly, lying on her bed and staring at the wall. I’ve waited too much. He mentioned he didn’t have a girlfriend a couple months ago… She buried her face in the pillow, and started crying again.

There was a light knock at the door. Ami raised her face from the pillow just enough to speak. “Who is that?”

“It’s me, Sergio.”

Ami took a deep breath. It might be a bad idea, but… “Come in.”

Sergio opened the door and walked in, a clearly concerned look on his face. “Are you feeling better?”

Even if there’s a girl you love, you really care about me a lot as well… you’re too kind. “A bit.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

The thought of him dropping his girlfriend for her passed on Ami’s mind, but she rejected it. That’s a very selfish and messed up thing to want! “Not really, no. But thank you.”

A thought passed on her mind. Maybe… What if I had gotten it all wrong? How can I be sure…

“You really are too kind. Your girlfriend surely is a very lucky girl,” she said in the end.

Sergio raised an eyebrow. “What? But I don’t have one.”

Ami felt a glimmer of hope. Oh, right, he mentioned he has a sister. Maybe he was talking about her? “Really? By what you said earlier, it sounded like you wanted to get earrings like mine for another girl… your sister, perhaps? You never talk about her.”

“I never really got along much with her… No, you were right in thinking the earrings would’ve been for a girlfriend, but… I don’t have one anymore”

Ami raised an eyebrow, trying to put together the few things he had revealed. “You broke up?”

Sergio sat on the edge of her bed. “No… I lost her during the War. It’s been one year already, but… I still can’t stop thinking about her, even if it feels wrong.”

“Oh, I get it… Aurora wasn’t just your copilot, am I right?”

Sergio shook his head. “No, she was just a friend. I’ve… lost many people. Pretty much everyone.”

Ami looked down. “I know what you mean.”

To her surprise, Sergio pulled out his wallet and retrieved a photo from it. “Here, since you appear to be curious.”

Ami took a look at it. It was a group photo of many people around their age, took under a very big Christmas tree. Here’s Sergio… and that other girl must be Aurora, she looks the same as the girl in the photos of Sergio’s rallying I found on the Internet.

She then noticed that one of the girls was wearing a hairclip decorated with cherry blossoms. “Is this one your girlfriend?”

Sergio nodded slowly. “And the one with a bit of her hair dyed pink is my sister.”

“You never talk about her… wait, don’t tell me…”

Sergio flinched. He put the photo back in his wallet, and took a deep breath. “Yeah. Of these people, I’m the only one left. And maybe some would’ve been better off never knowing me. I was sort of the leader of this group, you know? And that’s how it ended.”

Ami was surprised. It was pretty rare for Sergio to open up that way. “So that’s why you didn’t want to be the leader of our team. But don’t worry: I don’t have any intention of dying on you, and I’m sure James doesn’t either!”

Sergio, however, didn’t seem to be very reassured.

 

“Guys, you need to come have a look at this!” Josh shouted at Sergio and Ami as they walked towards the firing range.

“What’s the matter, JJ?” Sergio asked as they started following him.

Josh led them to the mess hall, heading towards one of the televisions in it. “It’s about James.”

“Didn’t he take the week off?” Ami raised an eyebrow. “He said his brother had just gotten out of jail or something, and wanted to help him find a job and…”

The words died in her throat as she read the breaking news on the screen. They were about a drive-by shooting that happened nearby, with two brothers as the victims. “No…”

“Probably a rival gang,” Josh said.

“Or maybe Carl’s own. James said he had gotten a few years off his sentence by collaborating with the police,” Sergio added, before turning to a table and punching it. “Damn it! Off all the ways it could happen…”

Ami looked down. She understood clearly what he meant — what are the odds of getting shot at home, when your job involves getting shot everywhere else?

 

“Why is it always ending like this lately?” Ami shouted as she and Sergio took cover behind some trees. While they had completed their main mission objective — take down a survivalist militia leader who had holed up in the Alaskan wilderness — a full platoon of his men came out of apparently nowhere to chase them.

“There’s something fishy about this. You fired only a single shot, we relocated right away and yet they’ve pinpointed our location perfectly!” Sergio shouted back over the sound of gunfire.

He took a sigh after taking down the last of the militia soldiers. “It’s almost like they knew of our attack plan…”

“But that can’t be, can it?” Ami said, reloading her rifle. “Anyways, we’re almost done. We just have to destroy their weapons depot, right?”

“Right.” Sergio looked down. “Maybe I’ll feel better once I’ll have blown up that wretched place for good…?”

 

Ami bolted awake, hearing the sound of the helicopter. She looked around, and she was indeed inside Dove 1-1. Did I just fall asleep on duty?

She saw Sergio sitting across from her, looking quite downcast. The door gunner was trying to comfort him. Right, I must’ve passed out after being shot. All what I’ve told him was for nothing, I guess… but that’s better.

“Sergio? Stop worrying about me, I’m feeling better, see?”

Neither Sergio nor the gunner, though, seemed to hear her. Ami got up from her seat and walked towards them. “Hey! I’m alright. The wound isn’t even hurting any—” No, that’s not right.

She tried moving the wounded shoulder and arm, which she did effortlessly. There’s no way I can move my shoulder like this after getting a bullet there, is there? She looked at her winter camo fatigues, the left sleeve of her jacket mostly covered in congealed blood. Or be standing this soon after bleeding out…

Only then she noticed something out of the corner of her eye. She turned around, and saw a black body bag lying on the floor of the helicopter. “Uhm, guys, who’s that?”

Again, no answer. She walked closer to them, and waved a hand in front of Sergio’s eyes, but there was no reaction. They can’t see or hear me? What’s happening?

She turned back at the body bag, looking at it more carefully. Judging by the length of the body, that person couldn’t have been any taller than her.

No, it can’t be… This is some sort of prank, right?

She walked over to the body bag. It wasn’t in Sergio’s style to pull such a mean prank on her, but at that point she was hoping for that to be the case. She mustered up her courage and grabbed for the bag’s zipper, but her fingers went right through the tab as if it were air. Ami recoiled back in shock, and put a hand on her neck, trying to feel the jugular, but there was no pulse. Where’s my heartbeat… Does it mean that, inside that bag, there’s…?

She fell on her knees and started screaming.

 

Ami looked at the papers on Sergio’s desk. He had started investigating some things in the days after her death. The leaked mission strategy, the false weather report sent to our extraction helicopter… it all came from Vera?

She turned around as she heard the distinctive sound of a round being chambered. Sergio was sitting on his bed, oddly wearing civilian clothes — a red jacket over black pants — and was slinging his rifle across his back while walking towards the door.

Ami followed him, her heart heavy. She already knew what he was going to do.

 

Where is everyone? Ami thought as she followed Sergio through the empty corridors. While most of the teams were out on their missions and Colonel Johnson was in Washington for some bureaucratic matter, that night the base was still quieter than it was supposed to be.

Ami kept following Sergio as he entered a small gym — one over which Vera had claimed exclusive rights due to it being her “dojo” or something.

“Fancy seeing you here, Sergio,” Vera said as she jumped down from a pommel horse with a somersault. “What brings you here?”

Sergio didn’t look fazed by her acrobatics. “You can guess by yourself. I know everything, Vera. I’m here to settle matters before you kill more innocents. Those like you have no right to exist.”

Ami looked down. I knew it. He wants to kill her to avenge me. And James, maybe? Was Vera behind that as well?

Vera laughed. “You caught me. So what? They died easily just like the weaklings they were, and the same will happen to you. I wanted to make it look like a battle casualty, but you’re leaving me no choice.”

She pulled out her katana apparently out of nowhere and charged at Sergio, who parried with his rifle before hitting her in the gut with the stock. Vera staggered, a surprised expression on her face. “How on Earth…?”

Sergio calmly pulled out his combat knife from its sheath and attached it to the rifle’s bayonet lug. “I know what you are, Vera. An abomination known as a Mary Sue.”

Ami raised an eyebrow. Isn’t that a term for badly written characters?

Vera scoffed. “Tsk. And now I know why my aura didn’t affect you in the slightest. You’re the same thing, aren’t you?”

Ami noticed a pained expression on Sergio’s face.

“Yes… Probably the only one who’s realized that being a monster isn’t good,” Sergio said as he aimed his rifle and opened fire.

Vera vaulted on the horse, dodging the gunfire before retaliating with her machine pistols. Which, again, Ami couldn’t understand from where they came from, as Vera was wearing only a gymnastics leotard. As the fight went on, though, Ami noticed that reality itself didn’t seem to be applying anymore. I can clearly see the bullets flying as they somehow slowed down… and there’s at least a couple hundred spent casings on the ground, but neither of them has reloaded even once!

Vera swung her katana horizontally, trying to decapitate her opponent. “So you’re a traitor to your own kind? Trying to pass off as a mere human, instead of looking for the success we were made for?”

Sergio ducked, before slashing with the bayonet, missing her just barely. “Success? You’re warping everything around you so you can always have what you want without breaking a sweat. And your answer to your teammates not following your madness was betraying them!”

Vera fired another burst off one of her machine pistols. “If you have a problem with that, you’re free to try killing me. But I doubt you can. You hate our nature… I embrace it!”

“You still don’t know one thing, Vera.” Sergio dodged the bullets and parried her following slash, before charging in with the bayonet. Vera’s breath was cut short as the blade struck her gut. “You’re not the first of our kind that I kill.”

Sergio pulled his weapon out, letting Vera fall on the ground.

“This… This can’t be happening!” she screamed. “I’m stronger than you!”

“You aren’t strong. You just force stuff to suit your whims.”

“I can do that because I am strong!”

Sergio pulled out his pistol, a Walther P99 standard issue from Strike Dove, and aimed it at Vera’s heart. “There is no strength in betraying your own allies. Only cowardice.”

Much to Ami’s surprise, though, Sergio didn’t shoot Vera but lowered his gun. “No, it would be too easy for you to die like this. You know how much Ami held onto life, despite her injury? One hour. Waiting for a helicopter you made sure would never arrive.”

The room began to shake. Ami instinctively covered her head with her arms, even if falling debris couldn’t hurt her anymore. An earthquake? Right now?

Sergio, however, seemed to take the issue calmly. He simply put away the gun as the building kept shaking. “This place’s buckling? Don’t tell me Strike Dove’s existence was your doing, too…? Well, listen: I’m not finishing you now. You’re going to bleed out, or maybe you’ll be lucky and this place will fall on your head first. Either way, you’ll die slowly and painfully. Like Ami.”

Sergio then left the room quickly, leaving the wounded Vera behind. Ami followed him, shocked by what she had just seen. That’s… brutal. And not like him at all. She looked down. My death pushed you this far?

 

Ami was sitting in the passenger seat of Sergio’s Trueno, hugging her knees, as he drove away from the base. She had learned that she could force her ethereal “body” to act as if it could make contact with solid objects, but unfortunately she had found no way to manipulate anything.

Ami kept thinking about everything that had happened. Not only did “Mary Sues” actually exist, but they could make entire organizations at will? No, that’s not right. The Colonel, Raptor Team… There are a lot of people that are too nice to have been made by her.

Much to her surprise, Sergio stopped the car on the side of the road very soon — the base was still in sight. He turned off the engine before leaning back against the seat, looking at the roof. “Where am I even going? It’s useless.”

Ami looked at him. What is he getting at?

“Vera was one hell of a Sue, and yet I overpowered her. I was so angry I let myself relapse, didn’t I?” He leaned forward on the steering wheel, burying his head in his arms. “Everywhere I go, those who get close to me are killed, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Is that my curse? Since I’m such a hard-to-kill abomination, my friends pay for my sins instead?”

Ami clenched her fists. “Stop it!” she shouted, even if she knew that he couldn’t hear her. “You’re a much better person than you think! And there’s no way Vera’s crimes can be—”

Ami gasped as Sergio pulled out his pistol and put it against his head.

“Guess there’s only one way to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Ami tried to grab his arm, but again her hands just passed through. “No! Stop!”

Before he could pull the trigger, though, Sergio noticed something outside of the car. He put the gun away and opened the door.

Ami sighed in relief before looking for what had made him change his mind. There were two people a few meters ahead, dressed in black and with some kind of flash patch on the sleeve. While they were behind a bush, their attempt to hide was pretty much useless as they were discussing something very animatedly.

Sergio had already started walking towards them, and so Ami followed him.

“… so, that guy is not in the Words, he killed the Sue we were supposed to kill, what are we even supposed to do with him?” one of the two people said. Now that she could see them more clearly, Ami noticed that they were two girls — the one talking was a rather short brunette with two ridiculously long pigtails wearing what looked like a black Navy uniform, while the other was taller, with unnaturally glowing red eyes, and wearing a simple black turtleneck and jeans. Neither of them seemed to have noticed that Sergio had gotten out of the car.

“Dunno, Emily. Might be recruit material, but I’d have to get a CAD scan of him first and my last one kicked the bucket when you tried scanning the Sue, remember? And no, I’m not using my own sensors when—”

The two girls appeared to have noticed Sergio, and readied themselves to battle. Ami widened her eyes as Emily summoned some miniature fighter planes from apparently nowhere while the other girl’s right arm morphed into some kind of gun. What the…?

Sergio raised his hands. “Calm down, I’m surrendering. You’re from that Sue hunting organization, right? I’ve already seen those flash patches.”

The two girls exchanged a glance before taking a few steps towards him. “Well, yes,” the still unnamed one said, “I’m Agent Arumi Knight and she’s my partner, Emily Geofon. Department of Mary Sues of the Protectors of the Plot Continuum. And I would really appreciate to know why you’ve been running around in this fic pretending to be part of it.”

Sergio raised an eyebrow. “First of all, what fic? This is the world I was born in…”

 

“If I wasn’t involved in this first-hand, I’d think this is the kind of mission one of the guys from Implausible Crossovers would be telling about after having a couple drinks too much at Rudy’s,” Arumi said after hearing a quick summary of Sergio’s past. “From what I can tell, we don’t know who you are just because this fic is a recursive fanfiction of your fanfiction, but so in-name-only that the Words refused to believe you were actually around. Or something. Anyways, you weren’t supposed to be here, but here you are and you even somehow knew a little about the PPC already. Now, the problem is: what are we supposed to do with you? We don’t even have an Intel report of your fic around, oddly enough.”

Ami tried to wrap her head around what she had just discovered. So I’m actually a fictional character?

Sergio raised his hands again. “Well, I know already that I am a Stu, so if you want to put me out of my misery I’m going to make it easy. I won’t fight back.”

Emily glanced at her partner before looking back at him. “But… if you know you are one, and know it is wrong… that means you’re not a danger, right?”

Arumi nodded. “Damn right. As much as I appreciate a kill served on a silver platter, if we kill you we’re getting yelled at.”

Sergio raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

Arumi smiled. “Because you might actually be fit to work with us misfits. We’re perpetually understaffed, so the Marquis is gonna complain if we kill a potential recruit.”

“It’s not like I have anywhere else to go, right?” Sergio sighed. “Alright, lead the way if you’re OK with a not really human colleague.”

Both of the girls started laughing. “You’re way more human than we are, kid. I’m a cyborg who usually has a car as her body, my partner here is the personification of an aircraft carrier, and our bosses are… well, plants. Bossy telepathic plants.”

Sergio raised an eyebrow again, but shrugged right afterwards. “Seen weirder.”

“What did I tell you, Emily? He’s gonna fit just fine.”

 

Ami followed Sergio as he entered PPC HQ’s Response Center 1587 for the first time. It’s been several days since I died… and yet, no matter what I do I always end up around him, even now that he’s not in our world anymore.. She looked down at her hands. Am I one of those ghosts who can’t get to the afterlife due to having to do something first?

Sergio laid down his belongings quickly before unrolling his sleeping bag.

“You’re not even going to get a proper bed? That’s not good!” Ami shouted at him, but it was useless. Right… He can’t hear me. If I’m supposed to help him… how can I? I can’t do anything as I am right now.

Sergio started rustling through his gym bag, having probably changed his mind on going to sleep. He took two Ace Combat games from it, 04 and Zero, and held both in his hands for a while before putting the disc of 04 into the console. Once the game loaded up, he moved the cursor on “VS Mode” for a few seconds before going to “Free mission”.

“Guess I’m going to make do with single player from now on,” he said, his voice little more than a somber whisper. “If I fight alone, there will be no betrayals… and no losses.”

“No, that’s not right,” Ami said, hugging him from behind. But, again, he could not hear or feel her. “You don’t have to be alone.”

She started crying quietly. There must be something I can do for him.

“Ahem…” someone said with a feminine voice from behind her.

Ami turned around, and she found a girl with long, pink hair, golden eyes and a long, flowing white dress. Sergio hasn’t noticed her either… is she another ghost? “Uhm… Who are you?”

“Well… they call me Law of Cycles… will call me Law of Cycles?” the girl said, looking up. She seemed rather confused. “You can call me Madoka though. Sorry if I’m being a bit pushy, Ami, but… I have your same problem with a friend of mine, as well.”

“… You know me?”

“Oh, well, I’m… kind of a goddess? Anyways, I know things will become rough both for him and for that friend of mine, and neither of us will be able to do anything on her own.”

Ami started feeling intrigued. “How do you know?”

“I’m everywhere and everywhen. Don’t ask me how it works, it just is that way?”

Ami raised an eyebrow. Despite being presumably an ageless goddess, Madoka gave her the feeling of not being any older than her.

“Anyways, what I wanted to talk about with you was this. Things aren’t looking good for our friends… but we can make it alright if we help each other helping them. If you give me a few minutes, I can explain.”

Ami glanced back at Sergio, who was still playing Ace Combat completely unaware, and took a deep breath, determination swelling inside her. “You don’t need to tell me any more. I’m in.”

Blank Sprite – Mission Record 11

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.

“You? How—”

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.”

Blank Sprite – Mission Record 10

I want to thank Doctorlit and Hieronymus Graubart for their beta services.

 

Mission Record 10 – Broken Mirrors

 

Nikki ducked under one of Carol’s hammer swings. She had no idea where she was, how she had gotten there, how Carol was alive, and especially why they were fighting each other.

Carol fired up what looked like a small rocket engine in the back of her sledgehammer’s head and hammered the ground, causing an explosion that lifted Nikki off her feet.

“What do you think about this, Sakutaro?”

Nikki got up, readying herself for another attack. “My name is Sakura!”

Wait, no, my name’s Nikki. Why… why did I say ‘Sakura’?

“Whatever that is.”

Carol shrugged before launching herself at Nikki, who instinctively brought up a Round Shield to parry the attack. Or, rather, that was her idea.

A giant, wing shaped object with a red gem in the center appeared in front of her instead, deflecting the blows with what appeared to be some kind of forcefield.

Is this one of the Clow Cards, The Shield? There was something wrong with the staff she was holding, as well. This isn’t Vanguard, it’s… Sakura’s Star Staff? What’s going on here?

Carol bounced back from her last attack, but regained her balance quickly and ran towards Nikki again, sparks trailing behind her as she dragged her sledgehammer’s head on the ground.

“Let’s see how long you can resist, Sakutaro!”

Carol raised her weapon and fired up the rocket motor.

“I said my name is

The Shield shattered, the backlash knocking Nikki on the ground for the second time. She drove the Star Staff’s tip into the ground, using it as a crutch to get on her knees, but it was too late. Carol was already over her, with her sledgehammer high ready for a finishing move, and a wide grin on her face.

 

Nikki bolted up in a sitting position, panting heavily. Was that just a dream?

Corolla raised her head and rubbed her eyes.

“What’s the matter, Nikki?”

Nikki shook her head and smiled to reassure her.

“It’s nothing. I just had a bad dream.”

Corolla sat up and looked around, and Nikki did the same. Both Sergio and Homura weren’t in the room, but their empty sleeping bags and Sergio’s backpack were still on the floor next to them. They must’ve decided to patrol this place. She looked at her wristwatch. It’s four in the morning. Sergio always sleeps so little… is it the same for Homura? The nightmares, everything?

Corolla leaned towards her. “Want to tell me about it?”

“It was a bit of a weird dream, though. There isn’t much about it.” She rubbed the back of her head. “I was fighting Carol — I know, that makes no sense. If she was still alive, we would be on the same side, right?”

Much to her surprise, a thoughtful look appeared on Corolla’s face.

“Let me guess, you were Sakura in that dream?”

“Eh? How do you know?”

“Simple, it’s because… Wait, I think I can show it.” Corolla got up and looked into Nikki’s messenger bag. She came back with Carol’s weapon in hand. “If this is anything like a Device, it should have a video recording feature somewhere. Let’s just hope Carol had left it on…”

The small hammer turned into its full size, its sudden weight increasing enough to knock Corolla on her butt.

“Whoops, wrong function.”

Nikki looked at the sledgehammer more closely. It had a long, chromed handle with a red grip, and a squared, gunmetal gray head. One of the two faces of the hammer, though, was replaced with what looked like a jet engine nozzle.

“Weird, it looks the same as it did in my dream! But I had only seen it in standby form until now. How—”

“Just a bit of patience, if I tell you all right away you’re just going to think I’m pulling a joke on you.”

Corolla opened a holographic window. It was different from her usual ones, lacking the light blue frame around it. Inside, a scene as seen by Carol’s eyes played, in which she was attacking a girl who appeared to be Sakura Kinomoto.

“That’s exactly how my dream went! How is it possible?”

“The dream you just had really happened. Look at the timestamp.”

“It’s sometime in July 2007,” Nikki read from the upper left corner.

“Keep that in mind.” Corolla opened another window, this time one of her own. “That is a scene from Chapter 157 of Sergio’s badfic. Like this one I recorded myself, this time from chapter 90.”

This time, the recorded video showed Sakura worried over a younger Sergio’s bandaged arm.

Nikki raised an eyebrow trying to ignore the déjà vu feeling the video was giving her.

“How did you record it?”

“I was clever with the portals on our way here.” Corolla waved her hand dismissively. “Anyways, what’s Sakura doing here?”

Nikki let out a short laugh. The scene was quite familiar.

“She’s fussing over his lack of regard for his own wellbeing as much as I do.”

Corolla emitted what sounded like a TV quiz’s wrong answer buzzer sound.

“Not quite. She’s fussing over him exactly like you do.”

Nikki raised an eyebrow. Exactly like… What is she getting to?

“Now, how old does she look in these windows?”

Nikki rubbed her chin in thought.

“I don’t know. She’s already got the Star Wand, so… Twelve, maybe?”

“Yes.” Corolla nodded. “Well, that’s how old she is in this video. The one with Carol is set some months later, and she’s thirteen there if my calculations are correct. Anyways, one million Midchildan credits question: how old would she be now?”

“Well, she would be around my age? Wait, do you mean…” She widened her eyes as realization struck her and touched Sakura’s image. “This… is actually me?”

“Ding-ding-ding! You just won a million dollars!”

“Wait a minute here. This means…”

“That you’re technically already a couple, and I’ve missed your first kiss. I’m disappointed. Well, technically it was your second, if we consider that time you tripped, fell on Sergio, and your lips—”

Nikki felt her cheeks heat up. “That’s not the point now! What I wanted to say was, why was I fighting Carol? That is, assuming you’re right about this Sakura being me.”

“You still don’t remember? Well, it wasn’t a real fight. Your group had split in half, and one half pretended to defect to the Organization’s side. You were just pretending to fight each other. I’ll resume the recording, but beforehand, since you seem to still have doubts…” She opened yet another holographic window, this time a log of her CAD subprogram. “I took this on ‘Sakura’ after recording the scene with Sergio.”

“The character is currently under PPC employment as…” Nikki read, “Agent Nikki Cherryflower. Ok, I believe you now.”

“By the way, that also marks the first time you’ve berated him for his chronic lack of self-preservation. He’s still not getting it, is he?” Corolla said, resuming Carol’s recording.

 

Faith: That’s enough, Marcus is gone!

 

<Marcus, indeed, was gone and Aér was unconscious on the ground.>

 

“Wait,” Nikki scratched her head, “Didn’t you say that we were only pretending…  no… Aér didn’t know, right? They had to knock her out to prevent her from knowing the ‘defection’ was all a ruse.”

Corolla smiled. “You’re starting to remember! Good!”

“It’s still all foggy, though.”

 

Carol: You’ve been lucky, if it hadn’t gone this way I would’ve had to kill you ❤

 

“She managed to pronounce the heart smiley. I’m impressed.”

Nikki sighed. “I’m really from this?”

Corolla patted her on the shoulder.

 

<in less than a split second Sergio already grabbed Carol by the collar of her dress.>

 

Sergio: Who were you supposed to kill?

 

“Touch Nikki and Sergio will go angry~~~” Corolla said in a sing-song voice, somehow managing to pronounce the tildes.

Nikki blushed. “Corolla!”

“Don’t worry, the best is yet to come.” she said with a very wide grin. A chill went down Nikki’s spine.

 

Kathleen: Put her down.

Faith: Slowly.

Faith and Kathleen: Or you’ll die ❤

 

“Nikki, please tell me you weren’t part of the Spoken Hearts Club.”

“I… don’t think I did?” Nikki said, doing her best to remember. “My memories are still quite fragmented, sorry. Also, you’re not one to speak, after all those tildes.”

Corolla pouted. “You’re not fun.”

 

Sergio (letting her go): Ok… Anyways, we know that they blew up the governments with bombs, but we don’t know from where the trigger signal was sent.

Faith: Lilith has some radio transmitters, but neither I nor my mother know where they are.

Nina: Then when those are discovered, we can go back?

Sergio: Uhm… not necessarily. We have to discover how many, and which ones they’ll use. We can’t destroy them all.

Kathleen: I can find it out, but it will take some time.

Sergio: It doesn’t matter how much time it will take, Kath. We’re already in the wrong future. What matters is to find the way to set things right when we get back to the past.

 

Nikki looked down. She knew already that that makeshift plan, as could be expected, didn’t work. And now they were all dead, except for her and Sergio.

Corolla put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

 

Kathleen: If I am not able to get the information in time, we’ll be stuck here with no way back.

Everyone: What?
Kathleen: There’s a time limit for time-space alterations, we have only a month, and we already wasted a week.

 

“No, wait, what?”

“That was one of the limitations of the spell Kath had used to transport us to the future, I think. But…”

“Yeah, don’t expect things to make sense in this fic. I read it all, I know.”

Nikki gave her a glance that clearly meant “then why did you ask?”

 

Sakura: What if I were to use the Time card?

 

Corolla clapped her hands.  “Congratulations, Nikki! You had the only sane idea there!”

“Uhm, thanks?”

 

Alice: I doubt it will work, it’s a scientific mutation, not a magical one.

 

“Wait a minute here. Magic overrides science. Because it’s magic. I want a word with her.”

Nikki took a deep breath. “I don’t think she’ll be able to listen.”

“Sorry.”

 

<Sergio takes a deep breath, and with an excuse he walks away from the group together with Sakura>

 

“This is going to be interesting!”

Despite not remembering what happened afterwards, Nikki could feel her heart pound faster. Kathleen told someone to start recording what Sergio and “Sakura” were doing, and the video followed them.

 

Sakura: What did you want to tell me?…

Sergio: Sakura, I…

 

“Don’t tell me…” Nikki blushed. “This is when…”

 

Sergio (taking her hands): I… I love you, Sakura!

 

“Do we really have to—” Nikki said quickly.

“Yes! Also, I think I can fry an egg on your cheeks.”

 

Sakura: Sergio, I…

Sergio: I already know what you’re going to say… After what Kathleen told us about my past, you don’t trust me anymore, do you?

 

Corolla let out an exasperated howl. “He was already like that back then?”

Nikki could do nothing but keep staring at the video.

 

Sakura (visibly blushing): No!… What I wanted to say is… is… is that I love you, too!

 

Corolla clenched her fists, her nose just a few centimeters from the holographic window. “Kiss already!”

Nikki covered her face with her hands, unable to bear the embarrassment. And, even worse, her past was now being considered just like a movie by Corolla. She mustered up some courage and peeked through her fingers.

 

<Said that, Sakura hugs him and they share a tender kiss.>

 

“YES!”

Nikki felt her cheeks hot as if they were on fire. “So, we actually already…”

“Yes, the most important moment in your lives, and I wasn’t there for it!” Corolla cried, her eyes watery.

 

Kathleen: They did it, finally.

 

Corolla sighed.

“Not quite, Kath. Not quite. But don’t worry.” She clenched up a fist. “I’ll continue this battle for you.”

Despite not being Sakura, and having long ceased to believe to be her, Nikki felt the urge to say a long, desperate “Hoeee!”

 

“Looks like the snowstorm has stopped.” Sergio said after looking out of the window, “I think we should start travelling back to the town.”

Nikki rubbed one eye while nibbling on an energy bar. After talking with Corolla, she hadn’t been able to get much sleep — memories from her life as “Sakura” in Mai Dire Fine kept resurfacing.

“Shouldn’t we wait for the sunrise, at least? I could’ve used a couple hours of sleep more.”

“It’s nine thirty in the morning, Nikki. Rise and shine.”

Nikki looked at her wristwatch. He was right. But then, why is it still dark outside?

“They don’t get much daytime here, do they?” Corolla rolled up her sleeping bag.

“We’re pretty close to the Arctic Circle here.” Sergio checked the magazine of his rifle. “Luckily not enough to not get any light at all, though.”

Nikki took a deep breath in resignation as she picked up her messenger bag. She glanced at Sergio while they were walking towards the exit. Now I understand why I fell in love with him right after we met at the PPC… I was already in love with him from much earlier.

She walked closer to him. All the troubles he had with accepting her feelings were because he believed that, as a Stu, he had forced Sakura to fall in love with him.  But that wasn’t Sakura… that was me. He needs to know it. “Er, Sergio?”

“What is it?”

“I—” An explosion shook the building, drowning her words.

“We’ll talk about that later.” Sergio readied his rifle. “I think we have company.”

Nikki nodded, summoning her Device and Barrier Jacket. Next to her Corolla and Homura did their own transformations as well.

“Why the explosion?” Corolla set up some Round Shields around her allies. “If Vera’s Defectives are trying to get in, they could just enter through a window, or maybe that unlocked door we used.”

“Unless they’re trying to collapse the entire building on us.” Sergio gestured the girls to follow him. “Let’s get out of here.”

There was a second explosion, and the ceiling started cracking, some pieces of concrete falling down on them. Nikki dove out of the way just in time to avoid being buried by the rubble.

“You really had to say that, didn’t you?” she said between coughs. “Sergio…?”

Nikki looked around. The corridor was cut off by the rubble and there was only Corolla in sight, sitting on the ground slapping her own head lightly. “Uhm, gimme a minute, my HUD went all fuzzy.”

Vanguard’s gem lighted up and the words “Incoming call” appeared in it. Nikki accepted it right away.

“Nikki? Are you alright?” Sergio said.

“Yes, I’m fine. Where are you?”

“On the other side of this pile of rubble, I guess. I’m with Homura, we’re both OK. Corolla is with you?”

Nikki glanced at Corolla, who had just given herself a slap strong enough to knock herself sideways on the floor.

“Yes, she’s got some HUD problems but she seems fine… mostly. We’ll try to catch up.”

“Let’s not take any risk, get out of here through the first window big enough, and… Uh. Problem on my side. Stuff not staying dead.”

Nikki helped Corolla getting up.

“What do you mean by…?”

A girl appeared at the other end of the corridor, wearing a black sailor fuku school uniform with an unusually long skirt reaching her knees. She was holding a submachine gun in her right hand, and was playing with a yo-yo with the left.

What caught Nikki’s attention, though, was the other girl’s face. An exact copy of her own.

“Don’t tell me Vera played the “evil clones” card?” said Corolla, summoning a Round Shield between them.

“No… or rather, not her,” Nikki said.

Her mirror image had Sakura’s shorter haircut, but what gave Nikki no doubt about her identity was the small red yo-yo she was playing with.

“Sergio, I think I have your same problem here.”

She closed the call.

“… I think I get it,” Corolla said, “She’s…”

“Kurara Tsukimoto. One of the clones Marcus made to try to kill us.” Nikki aimed Vanguard forward, readying herself for combat. “I presume the one Sergio was talking about is Sergej?”

“You’re not as dimwitted as our original, are you? And it seems I was right. The Sakura I’ve fought against is you, not that kid Vera kidnapped.” Kurara licked her lips. “This will make killing you much sweeter, after what you did to me.”

 

Nikki dodged another throw of Kurara’s bladed yo-yo and pulled out one of her Sakura cards, The Shot. It materialized into a vaguely star-shaped body of magenta light and started shooting energy projectiles at Kurara relentlessly.

The clone did her best to avoid the attack, but to no avail. The Shot hit her with enough force to send her flying towards an electrical substation and into a transformer. There was an explosion and sparks started flying everywhere.

Don’t… you dare… attack… my friend… ever again!” Nikki shouted after her, expecting her clone to get up. However, she was nowhere to be seen, and the electrical equipment started to fall like domino tiles, a fire quickly engulfing the entire substation.

Nikki fell on her knees, realizing what she had just caused.

Sakura… are you alright???” Sergio called out to her.

I… I… I’ve killed her?” Nikki kept looking into the inferno, “I’ve… I’ve killed… I’ve killed a person?

Sergio grabbed her by the shoulders. “… if you hadn’t done that you would be the one in the middle of those flames now! She wouldn’t be having these afterthoughts!

 

“Can’t we just talk it over?” Nikki said, despite preparing herself to cast Shoot Barret, “if you weren’t continuously trying to kill me or my friends, I would’ve never had anything against you.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m getting paid depending on how many of you I kill.” Kurara smirked. “And, besides, do you know how frustrating it is to be a clone? To know that your entire body is just a copy of someone else made in a test tube?”

Nikki raised an eyebrow. “As a matter of fact… I do? I wasn’t born in a test tube, but I was copied from the Sakura Vera has kidnapped. And I’m not being homicidal about it.”

Kurara seemed to be contemplating her answer for a few seconds. “Great… so I’m a clone of a clone?”

Corolla floated towards her a bit, but still behind the safety of her own Round Shield.

“It doesn’t mean anything, you know? You can still live your own life and make your own choices, like Nikki’s doing. It’s not too late.”

“Oh, yes, I’ve already made my own choice. And that’s killing my original here, and then I will kill her original once I get back to Venice. When there will be only me, then I’ll be free from their shadow!”

Kurara opened fire with her submachine gun, but Corolla brought up more shields to protect herself and Nikki, continuously replacing the ones shattered by the bullets. “It doesn’t work that way!”

Nikki returned fire with some Shoot Barrets. “It’s no use. She still understands nothing but violence.”

“We have no choice then. There’s little space in here, I think it’s better for us to Unison.”

Nikki grabbed her hands and Corolla disappeared in a flash of light. Nikki’s Barrier Jacket changed, becoming light blue with white trim and, even if she couldn’t see it, she knew that her eyes and hair had changed color as well.

“Unison successful, we have 81% synchronization and our mana reserves are in the green.” Corolla said, now in an incorporeal form inside Nikki.

“Keep talking, it will make things easier for me!” Kurara shouted. Only then Nikki noticed that her clone had taken advantage of the small delay of the Unison to close in. Kurara jumped over Corolla’s Round Shields and threw her yo-yo at Nikki, missing her by only a few centimeters.

Nikki tried to aim Vanguard at her, but could do only half of the movement before something started pulling it. The string of Kurara’s yo-yo was wound tightly around the handle, and Kurara yanked on it, pulling the Device out of Nikki’s grasp. “Your magic wand has changed, but you still fell for the same trick. You’re disappointing me… you’ll die before I even start having fun.”

Kurara tossed Vanguard behind herself and started attacking with her yo-yo again.

Nikki dodged sideways. “Corolla, any idea?”

“Hmm, I think I have one. But I need you to buy a bit of time.”

Nikki ducked under another throw, the yo-yo’s blades passing dangerously close to her head. “If you can help with that too it would be nice.”

A couple magic circles appeared vertically next to her, a dozen small energy darts emerging from each.  They shot out towards Kurara all at once, some striking her, but she just shrugged them off. “Is this the best you’ve got? They barely tingle!”

Nikki kept doing her best to dodge Kurara’s onslaught. “Corolla, you really need to start working on Moonlight Dagger’s damage! You’ve just made her angry!”

Nikki felt a sharp pain to her side. A glancing hit, but enough to cut into her skin.  She barely had the time to realize she was bleeding before having to duck under another throw. She cut through my Barrier Jacket like it was butter?

Kurara recovered her yo-yo, and opened up its blades before licking Nikki’s blood off one of them. “Weird. Tastes like mine.”

Nikki resisted the urge to facepalm. She opened her mouth for a retort, but a small ball of mana appeared next to her, quickly materializing as Carol’s sledgehammer.

“I’ve managed to give you full access to it!” Corolla said triumphantly, “I’ll deal with your wound, you deal with her!”

Nikki grabbed the weapon with both hands just as the pain started subsiding. AMS-02 Mjolnir system initialization appeared on her vision, quickly followed by Authorized user. Safety lock disengaged.

“Like you getting a new toy would change anything!” Kurara tried to shift into attack position, but she found two light blue energy rings blocking her ankles. “What the…”

“Also, thank you for standing still doing useless creepy stuff,” Corolla continued, “that was exactly what I needed to cast Ring Bind.”

Nikki ran towards Kurara, holding Mjolnir to the side. Once she was a couple steps away from her clone she swept the sledgehammer horizontally, igniting its engine as well.

The swing hit Kurara in the belly with enough strength to send her straight through a wall, and Nikki took advantage of that to pick Vanguard up. “Thank you for lending me your strength, Carol,” she whispered before changing Mjolnir back to its standby form.

Nikki gripped Vanguard’s handle firmly. “Vanguard, Saber Form.” The device started glowing, and its head disappeared while the handle shortened, becoming the hilt of an energy blade. She then walked carefully towards the hole in the wall.

“I’m going to be surprised if she still has more intact bones than broken ones after that.” Corolla said.

“I threw her into a freaking high voltage transformer that other time, and it didn’t kill her. I’m not so sure.”

As it was, bullets started spraying out of the hole. Nikki summoned a Round Shield and entered the other room behind its cover. Indeed, Kurara was still standing, though she was covered in bruises and her clothes were torn and dirty. Nikki closed in, bullets bouncing against her shield, and slashed at her clone. Kurara managed to dodge just barely, but Nikki’s energy blade managed to cut her submachine gun in half.

“I might’ve underestimated you, but that doesn’t matter. You Sakuras are nice girls — you don’t have the guts to actually kill someone.”

Kurara tossed the remains of her guns away, then threw her yo-yo at Nikki, only for it to be deflected by her shield. Nikki retaliated with another slash, and Kurara took advantage of the opening to attack, managing to ensnare her weapon.

“You may be right.” Nikki said as both girls started to pull, locked in a deadly tug of war. “Sakura wouldn’t harm anyone.”

Vanguard’s energy blade burned through the string of Kurara’s yo-yo. Kurara stumbled back, trying to regain footing, but Nikki was quicker, charging her with a stab. The momentum was enough for both girls to end up in the wall.

“But my name’s Nikki.”

Kurara’s eyes were wide open and blood trickled from the side of her mouth as she tried to speak, but only choking sounds came out.

Nikki dispelled her blade and stepped back. Kurara’s body slid down the wall, completely limp.

Corolla de-Unisoned. “I think this time you’ve gotten her for real.”

Nikki breathed deeply, still looking at her clone. There was a hole in the upper part of Kurara’s chest; Vanguard’s blade had stabbed right through. Despite knowing well that she had had no choice, looking at her dead mirror image made Nikki start to feel sick to the stomach. “Is she dead? I don’t want to have to deal with her again.”

Corolla opened a holographic window. “Both heart and brain activity are flat, so I think she is.” She scrolled down her scan. “Oh, and she didn’t die a virgin, if that’s of any interest to you.”

Nikki opened her mouth for a retort, but her stomach decided it was the right time to turn on her. She stumbled to a nearby wall for support, reaching it just in time before throwing up.

Corolla floated next to her, offering a tissue. “Here.”

“Sorry,” Nikki said as soon as her stomach settled. She was glad to have eaten only an energy bar earlier. She wiped her mouth and took a deep breath. “It’s just… she looks exactly like me.”

Corolla grabbed her arm. “Hey, I understand. But she’s not you.”

Nikki gulped, her throat still burning. “Yes, but… In the end, we’re both copies, aren’t we?”

Corolla floated in front of her. “I know where this is going and it’s not like you. So stop doubting yourself like that.” She put a hand under Nikki’s chin, forcing her friend to look in her eyes. “What makes you a person? Your choices.” Corolla took Vanguard from her hand. “Why do you think your Device’s standby mode is shaped like a star?”

Nikki pondered the question for a few seconds. “I have no idea. Maybe Anne got inspired by the Star Wand?”

“Nope.” Corolla shook her head vigorously. “I chose it. And yes, there is a correlation to the Star Wand: the meaning of the star.” Corolla floated back a bit. “You remember it, right? Sakura’s magic ‘doesn’t come from the sun or the moon, but from her own star’. And yours too. You didn’t let your being a clone of Sakura weigh on you, you looked for your own path, and you started shining with your own light.” Corolla pointed at Kurara with her chin. “Her? Not so much, considering how obsessed she was with taking your place, and Sakura’s… just like the moon doesn’t have its own light, but needs the sun’s. She kept repeating that to herself, and was engulfed by the darkness.”

Nikki smiled. Corolla was right; between her and Kurara there was an abyss. “Thank you.”

Corolla shook her head. “It’s nothing. Now, let’s go see if Homura and your boyfriend need any help with his clone.”

Nikki felt her cheeks heat up. “Corolla!”

“Hey, that scene pretty much meant that you two were a couple, and I don’t recall you breaking up.”

Blank Sprite – Mission Record 09

I want to thank Aelit, Doctorlit and Hieronymus Graubart for their beta services.

 

Mission Record 09 – Buried Regrets

 

Sergio looked behind himself again before proceeding to the next flight of stairs, but nobody was following him. Unsurprising, considering he was supposed to be dead.

Second floor. He walked towards one of the doors, clutching his cloak’s flaps tightly.

Sergio stopped mid-motion before taking a deep breath and ringing the doorbell. “Aunt, it’s me.”

The door was opened by a woman wearing a blue dress. Virgilia, Faith’s mother. “Come in,” she said. She looked weary; there were some wrinkles in her forehead that Sergio was sure weren’t there just a month before. He gave one last look behind himself before walking in.

“I’m glad to see you,” Virgilia said with a forced smile. “Would you like a cup of tea? Or maybe you prefer some coffee?” she added, showing him to the living room.

Sergio followed her almost mechanically. “Just a glass of water, thanks.”

Sergio looked down as Virgilia went into the kitchen. Upon seeing him, her expression had beamed for a second. Was she getting up her hopes?

“Here,” Virgilia said as she came back with the water. “Thank God you’re fine, my brother had made an announcement, the other day, and I was getting worried.”

Sergio started drinking the water slowly. Here it comes, he thought.

“But, since you’re here, it was all propaganda,” she said, looking straight into his eyes. “Right?”

Sergio averted his eyes. “Not quite.” He took a deep breath, “The others—” He gulped, trying to find the courage to tell her the truth. “They’re all—” His voice died out, tears already rolling down his cheeks. He shook his head.

Virgilia covered her mouth with a hand. “What happened?”
“Remember what we said about that time machine? Turns out there never was one!” Sergio said, before letting himself fall on a couch. “Those rumors, they planted them deliberately. They were waiting for us.”

 

Sergio looked out of the helicopter’s window, looking for the other one flying in formation with them. He brought his hand near his earpiece. “We’ll be in sight of the lab soon. Everyone remembers the plan, right?”
“Why are we splitting up? We’re stronger all together,” Carol said, rocking back and forth on her seat for as much as the seatbelts allowed her.

“We can’t afford to put all our eggs in the same basket, sis,” Alice said in the earpieces. “That’s why you, Sergio and Nina will go in from the north while Sakura, Li and I will enter from the south.”
“Exactly. If one team gets cornered, the other has a chance to reach our goal,” Sergio agreed, pushing up his glasses. “All we need is to be able to send even a single one of us back to January with all we’ve gathered on the Organization’s coup.“ He took a deep breath. “Even if we take more casualties, as long as someone gets to that time machine it will be a success.”

“We have a problem!” the helicopter’s pilot said. “Bandit twelve o’clock, it’s an attack helicopter!”

Sergio looked forward just as an alarm went off. “An Apache? Damn!”

Both of the Foundation’s helicopters dodged sideways.

“Wind, blow away those missiles! Release!” Sakura screamed over the radio, followed by the card appearing outside and ensnaring the two missiles in her tendrils, causing them to crash on the ground.

Sergio opened the side door. “That thing’s well armored, but if we can get the rotor hubs we might be able to take it down!” He fired a couple bursts from his M16, but the Apache was too far and none of the bullets hit. The Apache retaliated with its cannon.

“You’ve made him angry!” Nina said, covering her head as the helicopter’s windows shattered under the hail of 30 millimeter rounds.

“Raitei Shōrai!” Li said over the radio. Sergio looked out and, indeed, yellow lightning was hitting the Apache. However, in order to allow Li to cast his spell, the other helicopter was flying at only a few meters from the Apache.

“Crown Two, you’re too close, you’re going to crash into each other if you—” the pilot of Sergio’s helicopter said, but it was too late. The Apache’s pilot, shocked by the spell, lost control causing his helicopter’s blades to cut into Crown Two’s tail, shredding it.

Sergio could only watch in horror as both helicopters crashed into the ground and exploded.

 

“They sent an attack helicopter after you?”

Sergio nodded slowly. “It wasn’t the first time, either. How do you think we’ve lost KITT? Anyways, our helicopter was damaged, and the engine failed just before reaching our destination…”

 

Sergio unbuckled his seat belts. “You alright?”

Nina nodded, while Carol got up and shook the pilot’s shoulder. “I’m fine, but our driver’s gone for a Burton.”

Sergio gritted his teeth. Another victim. “We’ve got to get moving. We’re not far from the lab, I’m pretty sure they’ve heard the crash.”

Carol jumped down from the helicopter. “You’re right; if we stay here we’re dead meat.”

 

“We didn’t meet anyone on the way to the lab, and we got inside easily. But that’s what they wanted.”

 

Sergio, Nina and Carol took cover behind a desk just as bullets zipped past and a long flame swept over their heads.

“I can’t believe it, they’re using flamethrowers!” Carol said, holding her shotgun over her head and firing back.

“They want to make sure none of us gets to that time machine!” Sergio said, opening fire as well. One of the flamethrower-wielding soldiers went down, his chest riddled with bullets.

Nina fired a couple laser beams from her Taldom. “Wait, that guy is on fire, why—”

“Down!” Sergio pulled the two girls back under cover. There was a loud explosion, and the entire corridor in front of them was filled with flames.

“I don’t want a flamethrower as a birthday gift anymore, I really don’t,” Carol said, earning a stare from Nina.

“That should keep them busy for a while. Let’s move to the next room,” Sergio said, getting up.

 

“But no matter how many lab rooms we searched, there was no trace of what we were looking for.”

 

“This place’s burning down, we don’t have much time left,” Nina said between coughs as smoke started filling the corridors.

“There’s only one lab left, it must be there.” Sergio fired some rounds at their pursuers. “Damn, they just don’t give up!”

Carol fired off the last rounds of her shotgun before tossing the empty weapon away. “You two get in there; I’ll hold them here for as long as I can.” She summoned her rocket sledgehammer, and put herself between her allies and pursuers. “Go!”

Sergio nodded, and ran towards the door with Nina. When they opened it, they were greeted by a hail of bullets. Sergio took cover just in time, but Nina wasn’t fast enough. She fell backwards, bullets ripping through her flesh.

Sergio emptied the magazine of his M16 into the room, before reloading and storming inside, screaming at the top of his lungs.

Time seemed to slow down as bullets zipped around him. Sergio started shooting, taking down the four soldiers inside the room one after another.

He breathed heavily as he realized that the threat was gone. Only then he had a better look at the room: a small laboratory with white tables and very simple instruments.

“Damn, it isn’t here, either!” he muttered in frustration before bringing a hand near his headset. “Carol, we have a problem! The time machine isn’t here, and Nina bit it too.”

There was no answer.

“Carol? Come in, Carol!”

Again, only static could be heard over the radio. Sergio gritted his teeth, before noticing that one of the soldiers moved slightly, still alive despite the wounds. Sergio grabbed him, and put his laser pistol right under the man’s chin. “Where’s the time machine?”

The man laughed weakly. “You… really believed it all?” Blood started dripping from the side of his mouth. “Time machines don’t exist. Only some stupid kids would believe that… you all fell for it.”

Sergio hit him on the head with the pistol’s grip before letting him go. “Fuck!” He threw the pistol on the ground. They had been played, and now everyone was dead.

The building shook; the fire was starting to take its toll on the structure.

Sergio looked down at his pistol, and dropped his laser rifle as well. Those were his favorite weapons — if the Organization was to search for proof of their deaths, they would believe that he had died in the fire too.

 

Sergio curled up in a ball, hugging his knees. “They trusted me, and I led them all to their own deaths. And for what? For nothing.”

Virgilia took a step back. “My God… Marco must’ve lost his head completely. All of that… to kill some kids.”

“We were the biggest threat to the Organization’s rule. He wanted to make sure we were all crushed, I guess.”

Virgilia sat on the couch and pulled him into a hug.  “Don’t worry, we’ll stop him,” she said, before wiping some tears from her nephew’s face. “You can stay here if you want, I don’t think they’ll come to look for you now that they think you’re dead. Then, when things calm down a bit, I’ll help you find some way of fighting back again. I know this former U.S. Air Force colonel who—”

“I’m going to act tomorrow.” Sergio said, getting up. “That’s my best… no, my only chance.”

Virgilia glanced at a pamphlet lying on the coffee table. “Don’t tell me… You’re going to the Organization’s victory celebration at Palazzo Ca’ D’Oro? That’s suicide!”

“I know, but Marcus and all the other leaders will be there, and possibly a lot of high ranking officers as well. I can kill the head of the serpent if I blow the entire place up.”

Virgilia sighed. “I can see your point. But, please, promise me you’re going to come back. I’ve lost Faith and Kathleen, I—” She hiccuped. “I can’t lose my nephew too.”

Sergio gritted his teeth. “I… can’t.  I’m honored you see me as a relative, but the truth is that I think I should die in there, too.”

Virgilia got up and grabbed his arm. “You can’t be serious! What makes you think something like that?”
“You know how I was made, right? I think that also has to do with why I’m still alive,” Sergio said, before looking down. “Do you know how many of the Organization’s men I’ve killed while on my way here, while gathering all I need for tomorrow’s assault?”

“I don’t know.” Virgilia said slowly. “But Kathleen always said you never wanted any bloodshed, so—”
“Probably around one hundred.”

Virgilia’s eyes widened. “What?”

Sergio looked her straight in the eyes. “I was outnumbered, outgunned, and yet I could kill them all every time! I’m not a human being, I’m a fucking weapon!”

“No,” Virgilia said, pulling him into a hug again, “No. I admit I know you only a little, but—” Virgilia grabbed him by the shoulders, keeping him at arm’s length. “I know your heart is in the right place. Can weapons be altruist? Can weapons love? No, but you do!”

Sergio winced, and looked away. “Someone else told me that, some time ago. A girl I loved with all of my heart, and who was starting to convince me that I wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Now she’s a dead corpse somewhere in Alaska. I—” Tears started running down again. “I can’t live without her.”

Virgilia shook her head. “It doesn’t mean you need to immolate yourself to avenge her! Would she want you to die? I don’t think so.” She stared straight in his eyes. “Live. For her, and for all the others. I’m sure that’s what they want.”

Sergio stepped back, slipping out of her grasp. “I’ll… think about it.”

 

Sergio woke up, and rubbed his temples, looking at the ceiling. I should’ve expected that I would have that dream. He pulled out his cell phone, scrolling back into the missed calls list. There was one he had never deleted in years.

Virgilia, 23rd September 2007, 8.43 AM. She was likely calling me to know if I had made up my mind. But I had done so in the way she didn’t like.

He put the phone away, and looked up at the ceiling.

 

Sergio walked towards the room in which the celebration was being held. He was clad in a stolen Organization soldier uniform, his head covered by a balaclava. The headgear was common enough between their ranks that no one paid any attention to him.

He gripped the detonator in his pocket tightly. All the C4 charges were in place; all it would take was for him to press a button to blow the entire place to smithereens. He could do that right away, but there was something he had to do first.

Sergio entered the room, which turned out to be a rather big auditorium. He looked at the stage, and ignored the other Organization leaders as he noticed that Marcus was the one currently at the podium.

Sergio walked down the main aisle, his eyes fixed on his creator and nemesis. The man who had taken away the lives of his friends and his girlfriend, and was keeping the whole world hostage.

“You in the middle! What are you doing there? Get back to your patrol.” Marcus called out. Sergio pulled off his balaclava.

“…You!” Marcus’s eyes widened in surprise. “I thought I had killed you! But it doesn’t matter. We’ve won, and there’s nothing a stupid detective like you can do about it.”

Sergio heard the distinctive sounds of safeties being taken off and rounds being chambered around him.

“Wait. Don’t shoot him right away. He can be our special guest. A representative of our enemies attending our victory celebration… I like that. You can always join your friends afterwards. What do you think about it, son?”

“I’m sorry, but I have to decline.” Sergio pulled out the detonator from his pocket, and held it high so everyone could see it. “You, me, the Organization, this war… this madness ends here!”

Sergio saw Marcus’s expression turn into horror as he pushed the button. “This is for Sakura.”

 

“And yet, someone must’ve thought that for me it would’ve been the easy way out.” Sergio muttered under his breath.  He sighed, and got up. Maybe a little walk can help me calm down.  He picked up his rifle, and walked out of the room, lost in his thoughts.

 

Maybe I should’ve called Virgilia, and let her know that I had made it out alive. Sergio looked out of the window. Scratch the maybe, that was the right thing to do. Does she think I’m dead as well? Did she mourn me? Why… Why didn’t I contact her afterwards?

He sighed. Who am I kidding? I know very well why. Since Kathleen’s death, I just can’t face—”

He heard footsteps behind him and turned around. “Looks like I’m not the only one who can’t sleep, huh?”

Homura nodded and walked next to him.

“Nightmares?”

She tilted her head towards him “Yes. How do you…?”

Sergio looked outside again. “Because that’s what is waiting in the night for those who have seen hell.”

“How do you deal with… everything?”

Sergio took a deep breath. “I guess I really don’t.”

He sat down, back against the wall. It was cold enough that he could feel it through his jacket. The snowstorm wasn’t ceasing, the wind strong enough he could hear it clearly even from inside. “I ran away.” He continued after a few seconds, “I’m still running away. The PPC is the perfect place for doing that. It’s basically in between all the universes: nowhere, and everywhere at the same moment. And yet, I’m still playing hero. I guess I don’t really know when to quit, do I?” He smirked.

Homura gave him a thoughtful look. “Why do you still fight?”

Sergio lowered his chin. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just waiting for some Sue to get lucky and put an end to my misery. But part of me also wants to atone, and… well, fighting is one of the few things I can do well. So I guess I still have some use as a protector for those who can’t defend themselves.” He shrugged. “If I was made as a weapon, I can at least make sure I’m aimed in the right direction.”

Homura sat next to him. “It’s the same for me.  After Madoka ascended, I didn’t know what to do at first. But then I realized that, while the world had improved with her sacrifice, it still needed someone to protect it. And I happened to be able to do that.”

“And not make her sacrifice go to waste.” He chuckled. “Looks like we aren’t that different. But, still, what are we?”

“We’re both heroes, or fools.”

Sergio shrugged. “I don’t know about you, but I’m probably the latter.” He glanced at his rifle. “Or maybe I am just a weapon pretending to be a human.”

“Well, technically we’re fictional characters, right? Or, at least, that’s what the fairy said.”

Sergio let out a short laugh. “You’re lucky she didn’t hear you. Mistaking her for one is the fastest way to get her angry.” He got up. “Let’s get back. If they wake up with us missing, they’ll worry.”

Blank Sprite – Mission Record 08

As usual, I want to thank this chapter’s beta readers, Aelit and Hieronymus Graubart, for their great help.

 

Mission Record 08 – Lingering Ghosts

 

“So…” Corolla started as the group walked back towards Response Center 1587, “What’s on your mind, Sergio? You went so far as to resign… I hope you have a good reason for it.”

Corolla felt her mouth become dry. As far as she knew, Sergio didn’t have any place to go outside the PPC.

Sergio kept walking without turning towards her. “I admit it, I’ve acted on instinct. Guess here goes my job stability. But I’ll manage.”

Nikki grabbed his arm. “Wherever you go after this, I’m coming with you. I’ll resign, too.”

“I knew you were going to say something like that.” Sergio shook his head. “I have to admit I was actually counting on it.”

Nikki’s eyes widened. “Eh…? Wait, don’t tell me. You did this deliberately to–”

“Ensure that there is a way for what we’ve seen during the Blackout — me and you no longer working here with Corolla — to happen without us dying.”

“I get it.” Nikki nodded. “When the Sunflower wanted to send only the two of us after Vera, you were afraid that we….”

Sergio nodded. “You’re reading me like an open book. Yes, that was the goal. The more allies we have, the less likely it is for us to not make it. I don’t know if destiny can be changed, but I think going through the path of least resistance while attempting to do so is the best way.” He turned around towards Corolla and Homura. “Sorry for dragging you along in my machinations.”

“It’s fine. We’re doing this to save Madoka, after all,” Homura said. A faint smile appeared on her face. “Besides, I think I understand how you feel.”

Corolla clenched a fist. “And I was getting bored staying all day at the console!” She floated in front of her partners, and put her fists against her sides in an effort to look intimidating. “If anyone wants to hurt my friends, they’ll have to pass over my dead body first!”

Sergio laughed and ruffled the small girl’s hair. “You’re too tiny and adorable to make that kind of statement work, you know?”

Corolla did her best to try to comb her hair back into place. “I’m still going to do my best. I’m not accepting a Bad End for you two, I’m aiming for the Perfect Golden Ending!” Especially if Nikki and the Sakura you knew are indeed the same person.

Corolla continued thinking about the matter as they resumed walking, ignoring Sergio’s embarrassed remarks. But, if it really is like that… Why doesn’t Nikki remember anything?

 

Corolla opened the door of RC 1587. “Welcome to our humble home!”

Homura just had a look around without showing any reaction, but Corolla imagined that the RC was looking weird to her; the furniture was horribly mismatched, after all. Corolla retrieved her backpack from a Victorian wardrobe standing right next to a metal office cabinet. Homura, though, seemed to be more interested in the collection of firearms on a metal shelf, her stare fixed on the Barrett M82A1 anti-materiel rifle.

“Feel free to borrow anything you like.” Sergio set his rifle on the Art Deco desk next to the shelf and turned towards the console’s screen. “Wait, is that—”

A chill went down Corolla’s spine. I forgot to close the internet browser!

“—the fanfiction I’m from?” Sergio said, after reading some of the text.

Corolla smiled, but her hands were already starting to sweat. “Curiosity killed the cat?”

Sergio sighed, apparently not upset at all. In fact, he had more of a weary look on his face. “Well, now you know how much of a Stu I was. I guess it’s only fair, considering I’ve lied to you for three years.”

Corolla floated over to him and hugged his arm. “Hey. I’ve already told you that I don’t care about your past as a Stu. You’ve been my friend since I met you, and you still are now. That’s all that matters. So don’t make that sad face and let’s go kick some ass!”

Sergio laughed. “That last part felt so wrong out of your mouth.” He shook his head. “Alright, back to the matter at hand. I have a theory about where Vera has her main base of activities, and where she’s keeping Sakura and Madoka.”

Sergio opened a map of Alaska on the console, and put the cursor over the name of a small town in the northern part of the American state. “There’s a complex about fifty kilometers north of here, I think that’s the place. I don’t have the exact coordinates for it, though.”

Nikki raised an eyebrow. “Why are you so sure about it?”
“Vera’s not just obsessed with killing me, I’m pretty sure she wants me to suffer beforehand. And what place would she like more than where I’ve lost the last of my friends from that fanfiction? What place would she like more than where she had Ami killed? Both of these things happened in or near that complex, and she wants me to remember all of that.”  Sergio turned towards the girls. “She’s there, waiting for us. I’d bet anything on it.”

Corolla scratched her head. “Wouldn’t we be just running into another ambush, then?”

Sergio smiled. “Oh, well, it’s no longer an ambush…”

“If we know it’s there.” Nikki completed for him.

Sergio nodded. “Everything Vera’s done until now fits perfectly with how I remember her. She’s not changed at all, meaning she’s going to be very predictable. Which is what I’m not going to be. Remember what Vera said at the auction about me?”

Nikki looked up. “Uhm… Something about you always playing by the rules?”

Sergio smirked. “That’s exactly why I’m not going to let myself be bound by the PPC ones now. So, who’s with me?”

Corolla immediately raised a hand. “What kind of question is that? Everyone!” She opened up one of her holographic windows and started tapping the town’s coordinates in her Remote Activator subprogram.

“I could speak for myself,” Homura said.

Nikki shrugged. “That’s Corolla for you.”

Corolla failed to hide a grin as she tapped the last holographic key, making a blue portal appear in front of them. “Portal’s online. We’re ready to sail, captain!” she said with a salute.

Sergio shook his head as Nikki and Homura walked through. “You know what? I had indeed the rank of Captain, at Strike Dove.” He walked towards the portal as well. “Though those were based on Army ranks, not Navy ranks, so–”

As soon as Sergio was through, Corolla tapped in another complicated series of instructions in the portal subprogram. Sorry, guys, but I have to check one thing first. Though, if I did everything right, you won’t even notice it.

 

Corolla emerged from the portal into what looked like a bedroom with what she assumed to be antique furniture despite looking rather nondescript. Sitting on the bed was Sergio, who was checking a bandage on his left arm. His face looked somewhat softer, lacking the weariness she was so used to see. He couldn’t have been any older than fourteen or fifteen.

It worked. This is the scene from Mai Dire Fine I wanted to see. Corolla dove inside a nearby gym bag, nesting between some clothes and some kind of weird-looking rifle. The SEP field was going to be useless for hiding her, and the last thing she wanted was having to make explanations to Sergio’s past self.

Sakura peeked in from the door. “Am I bothering you…?”

Sergio quickly unrolled his sleeve to hide the bandage. Corolla shook her head. On some things you never changed, did you?

“No, of course not. Come in.”

Sakura walked in, staring at the sleeve. “Is something wrong with your arm?”

Sergio shook his head. “No, it’s nothing…”

Sakura didn’t seem to believe him and rolled up the sleeve again, uncovering the bandage. “But… you’re hurt!”

“It’s only a scratch, trust me.”

“Yes, but… Every time I am in danger, you keep risking your own life to get me out of trouble… and this isn’t the first time you get hurt for it!

Sergio just stared at her, taken aback by her outburst. “Sakura…”

“Why you keep doing that? Why you always put yourself in danger to avoid other people getting hurt?”

That’s definitely not right for Sakura… but would be in character for someone else I know.

“I don’t know. I feel like it’s the right thing to do. And, trust me, even considering how much this wound and all the bruises I got today hurt, it would’ve hurt me more to know, or even just have the doubt, that they had harmed you because I didn’t act.”

Corolla rolled her eyes. You really liked playing knight in shining armor, didn’t you?

Sakura looked down only to notice something else on his arm. “What’s that?”

Sergio tried to get out of her grasp, but she was quicker and rolled the sleeve some more. “This is…”

“Yes, it’s a scar. It’s from a couple years ago. Anyways, if you don’t mind, I’d got take a shower now”

Sakura nodded, and left the room. Corolla followed her as soon as Sergio looked the other way. That scar was only barely visible until she rolled up the sleeve some more. She opened up the holographic window of her CAD subprogram and started scanning Sakura.

[Sakura Kinomoto. Uncanon. Character replacement of Sakura Kinomoto, Card Captor Sakura canon.]

Corolla scrolled down the report. Indeed. The canonical Sakura is a bit slow on things; she would’ve never noticed… well, pretty much everything she noticed now. She looked at the rest of the report and smiled. But that’s just how our Nikki is.

[WARNING: The character is currently under PPC employment as Agent Nikki Cherryflower (Department of Floaters, Special Operations Division). Any interaction may cause a time paradox.]

 

“– the type of captain you were meaning would actually outrank me.” Sergio zipped up his jacket.

Corolla smiled. Chaining her portals had worked, to the others she hadn’t been gone for even half a second. “It’s cold here!” she said, hugging herself. The town they were in was actually pretty much covered in snow — while the road and sidewalks were clean, there was at least half a meter of snow everywhere else.

“We’re in Alaska in the middle of winter. Of course it is.” Sergio rubbed his chin in thought. “Well, I have to get a vehicle, so maybe you girls should go look for warmer clothes in the meanwhile?”

Nikki raised an eyebrow. “Don’t we already have the Volvo?”

“Yeah, and it would’ve been more than adequate if the complex was anywhere near a clean, paved road. But, as much as the Swedish know to make cars that can handle this kind of weather, going over half a meter of fresh snow isn’t something it can do.” Sergio pointed at the hills near the town. “We have several kilometers of at best dirt trails that surely haven’t been plowed. So we’re going to need to rent snowmobiles or something.”

 

“This is much better!” Corolla said, walking out of the mall. “Getting these is worth staying in full-size mode!” She clapped her mitten-clad hands over her fluffy earmuffs and straightened out her new coat.

“You really like cute stuff, don’t you?” Homura smiled softly. Corolla wondered if she was starting to warm up to them.

“Your ski suit looks good, too!”

Homura looked down at her clothes. “Really? I was just looking for something that would be easy to move in.”

Corolla looked at Nikki, who was still wearing her usual longcoat, and frowned. “I can’t believe it… Am I the only one who actually cared about looks?”

“I did buy warmer clothes to go underneath,” Nikki said. “Besides, I… What’s that thing?”

Corolla turned towards where Nikki was looking, and blinked at the vehicle slowly moving on the road. “It’s… Uh… A pickup truck, I think. On steroids. With caterpillar tracks instead of wheels. Do you think–”

Corolla didn’t have the time to say the rest of the phrase before the truck stopped next to them. And, as she was expecting, Sergio jumped down from the driver’s seat.

“What’s with those faces? You’ve never seen an American pickup truck? Yes, they’re this big.”

“Aside from the fact that we don’t need a truck this big,” Corolla said, “and the fact that I’m being the voice of reason here when I realize myself that it shouldn’t be happening…. Well, these things usually run on wheels.”

Sergio crossed his arms. “We would’ve needed two snowmobiles otherwise, and I don’t think any of you knows how to drive one, am I right?”

Corolla felt very disappointed. “But I wanted to try one! I mean, I’ve never driven anything of the sort, but I think I am perfectly able to manage!” She looked at Nikki hoping for approval.

“I don’t think it would’ve been a good idea,” Nikki said.

“C’mon! I know how to fly a fighter jet! A snowmobile can’t be any harder. Homura, at least you agree with me, right?”

Homura just stared at her. “You’re a pilot?”

Corolla raised her eyes to the sky, snorting in frustration. They never let her have any fun.

“By the way,” Nikki said, walking closer to Sergio. “I’ve got these for you.” She handed him a jacket and a pair of gloves.

Corolla stared at them. This is going to be interesting.

“Really? There wasn’t any need, I‘m fine this way,” Sergio said, but accepted them anyways.

“Isn’t it better now?” Nikki said as he wore them. “Your jacket looked quite light, and with this cold fingerless gloves aren’t really a good idea.”

“I guess. Thank you. Well, I think we’re good to go now, or–”

“Not yet.” Nikki pulled out a red scarf from her coat’s pocket, and started putting it around his neck.

Corolla beamed at seeing them so close. C’mon, kiss kiss kiss…!

Nikki stepped away instead, flushed cheeks and hands behind her back. “Early Christmas gift from me.”

Sergio passed a hand over the scarf, blushing slightly. “I… Thank you. I like it”

Corolla walked right next to them. “If that scarf is supposed to be your red string of fate, you two should’ve kissed just now.”

As she was expecting, the result was both of them embarrassedly screaming her name. However, this time Corolla didn’t feel as amused as usual. You two met again after all these years, universes away, and yet don’t recognize each other… I have to fix that.

 

As she looked out of the truck’s window, Corolla couldn’t do anything but feel disappointed. This is so boring, there are only trees to see here and we’re doing thirty kilometers per hour at most. She sighed, remembering what she had read about Sergio’s driving in his fanfiction. If he was still like that, he would’ve been doing at least one hundred, making this truck jump at every bump on the road. She suppressed a laugh. I would’ve enjoyed that.

“Hm? It’s already starting to get dark,” Nikki said, looking up from her map.

“It’s more like night has caught up with us.” Sergio turned on the truck’s headlights.

“Yeah! Since we travelled to Alaska from Germany, we basically rewound our clocks by ten hours.” Corolla explained. “Or, well, more like Alaska is ten hours behind. Time zones are fun!”

“Unless they give you jet lag. That’s not so fun.” Sergio stopped the truck. “And we need to take a detour, I’m afraid.”

The snow-covered trail they were travelling on ended abruptly, cut off by a collapsed wooden bridge.

Corolla peeked from behind Nikki’s seat. “Can’t we just cross the frozen stream and climb back on the other side?”

“Even with tracks, the bank’s too steep here. But the idea is good; we just need to find a better place to put it into practice.” Sergio turned the truck around and proceeded alongside the riverbank.

 

“Yee-ha!” Corolla raised her hands as the truck climbed up the bank, tossing up some snow as it struggled for traction.

Nikki just sighed, holding the roof and door handles tight, while Homura just gave a sideways glance at Corolla, who pouted. “C’mon, it was fun!”

“I’ll try to get back to the trail; we shouldn’t have gotten very far from it,” Sergio said, ignoring her.  “The woods on this side seem to be somewhat thicker, but this thing should still be able to…” His voice died down.

“What’s the matter?” Nikki looked ahead. “Wait, is that…?”

Corolla peeked from behind the seat again. The truck’s headlights were illuminating the wreckage of a small aircraft, probably a helicopter. For how long has it been here? It was covered in snow and frost to the point she wasn’t able to say exactly how much it was damaged, or what color it was. The only thing she was sure was that it wasn’t going to fly ever again.

Sergio shut off the engine and opened the door. “I have to check something.”

“Why? I don’t think there can be survivors inside,” Homura said, but he had already jumped down. The girls quickly followed him.

Wow, it’s deep! Corolla found herself almost waist-deep in snow. Sergio had already reached the downed aircraft and was brushing off some snow from the fuselage. The paint was charred, but a logo resembling a blue crowned “A” was still visible. “Yes… It’s that one.”

Corolla waded through the snow. “What one?”

“One of the two helicopters that were supposed to bring me and my friends to that damned complex… the one I wasn’t on.” He turned towards the rear of the wreckage, where the tail of the helicopter was clearly missing. “We were ambushed by an attack chopper. You can guess how it went.”

Nikki put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It’s not your fault.”

Corolla walked closer to them. “But, if this helicopter is still here, do you think that your friends…”

“Might be still inside? I don’t know.” Sergio took a deep breath. “But… I guess I should check. If they are, the least I can do is to arrange for a proper burial.”

He slowly took a flashlight from his utility belt, and used it to peek inside from what remained of the side door. Nikki took a peek as well, while Corolla remained behind. She didn’t feel like seeing her partner’s friends as dead bodies.

Nikki gasped. Bad sign.

“Corolla, can you record the coordinates? We’ll have to arrange for picking them up once we’re done with this mess,” Sergio said, his voice low. “Two to four bodies.”

“Two to four? You’re not sure?”

“Not in the state they are. I know for sure there’s at least two — there were two original characters, including the pilot, and two canon characters on this thing. The canons would’ve snapped back to their continuum of origin, unless they…” He gulped.

“They were replacements.” Nikki completed for him.

Corolla grabbed Sergio’s arm. “Let’s go. There’s nothing we can do for them now.”

He turned towards her and nodded. There were tears on his face.

 

“So, what’s the plan?” Homura asked as they hid behind some bushes. The complex was a simple concrete building in the middle of a clearing, with a watchtower a couple dozen meters from it.

“First of all, we have to get an idea of what we’re getting into.” Sergio inspected the building through his pocket binoculars. “Stay low; there was a sniper on the watchtower last time.”

“Leave the recon to me!” Corolla smiled while a light blue magic circle appeared under her. “Area Search.” Several small mana orbs of the same color appeared around her, and she shot them towards the building and its immediate surroundings.

Corolla closed her eyes and concentrated on the data she was receiving.  Hmm, there are several signatures… Oh, that’s a nest of mice. Guess I’ve gotten the settings wrong. She opened a holographic window, and started setting up some filters for the results.

“Well, that’s weird.” Corolla raised an eyebrow. “There are no human-sized living beings as far as I can sense, though there’s a very weak magical signature coming from inside the building… I think the basement? Sorry, I can’t get my scan that far inside.”

Sergio shook his head. “It’s fine. We’ll think about it once we’re inside — maybe Vera got the basement shielded or something, and kept the rest of the building empty to avoid attracting attention.”

Homura transformed into her Puella Magi form and pulled out her rifle. Sergio raised an arm in front of her. “Wait. There doesn’t seem to be anyone on the surface, alright, but it might just be another trap.  We should use some kind of cover.”

“I’ll make a smoke curtain like we did at the warehouse.” Nikki set up her Barrier Jacket, and pulled out a grenade from her hammerspace. She readied it near Vanguard’s pommel. Sergio and Homura readied their guns, and Corolla prepared some Round Shields around them.

“On my mark!” Corolla put her right hand fingers in a gun shape. “Three, two, one! Bang!”

Nikki shot the grenade, and the group proceeded forward through the cloud of smoke. They quickly reached the building’s side door.

“Flashbang?” Nikki whispered as they took positions at the door’s sides.

“No, the detonation would give us away if they indeed are holed up in the basement,” Sergio said, pulling the door’s handle. It opened right away, its hinges creaking.

“I don’t think that was supposed to be opened so easily.” Corolla followed him inside.

Sergio turned on the flashlight on his assault rifle. “Same as last time, too.”

He took a deep breath and walked forward, followed by the three girls. Corolla raised an eyebrow as she summoned some small mana orbs for additional lighting — there was no furniture whatsoever, and the walls were bare concrete. “This place looks too empty. Almost fake.”

“Well, it was a laboratory in 2007, but it pretty much burned to the ground back then.” Sergio checked a room. “Clear. I guess Vera just needed for it to look the same from the outside when she had it rebuilt to ambush me and Ami — we were never supposed to get inside.” He took a couple steps forward before stopping and shaking his head.

Nikki walked closer to him. “Sergio, are you alright?”

“Not… quite,” he said, breathing heavily.

Not good, Corolla bit her lip. For him to admit that he’s not feeling good, he really is feeling awful. She looked around. That place was clearly filled with bad memories for him. Can’t blame him. “Another flashback?”

Sergio nodded slowly, before resuming walking. He aimed his rifle forward. “Two of the Organization’s men shooting at us. I kill one, Carol gets the other.”

Corolla followed him. “Who’s Carol?”

“Carol Liddell, Kathleen’s bodyguard… somehow. Take Vita from Lyrical Nanoha, dress her in a pink school uniform, and give her a shotgun. You’ll get something quite close.” He let out a short, dry laugh. “My author, or maybe one of his accomplices, had run out of original character ideas.”

The corridor led them to what looked like an empty lobby. Sergio aimed his rifle at one of the corners. “One man with an assault rifle. Nina — the main character of the Nina, the Child of the Sixth Moon series, by the way — hits him with a laser shot from her… let’s say it was her alchemical scepter.  Bit of a long story.”

Corolla took a note to research that book series later just as Sergio aimed his rifle at a door. “Two more. I empty the clip on them, both fall down.”

He’s still talking in present tense, he’s still flashbacking?

Sergio walked to the center of the room and aimed his rifle at one of the other corridors leading to it. “More enemies, one has a flamethrower. We take cover behind a desk and shoot back.“

Corolla grabbed his arm and shook it. The more he kept reliving the past, the less he would be able to stay focused… the difference between life and death in a firefight. “It’s enough.  You don’t have to relive this just to tell us.”

Sergio blinked. “You’re right. This is not the time for that.”

 

A few minutes later, they reached the stairs leading to the basement. The walls were scorched by the fire, and there was still rubble on the ground.

“Looks like Vera didn’t bother to renovate here,” Corolla said as they ducked to get past a partially collapsed beam.

“Yeah, and that’s not like her. If she really has made this basement into her hideout, she would’ve gone out of her way to make it look cool.” Sergio kept his rifle aimed forward.

They kept walking until they reached the end of the corridor, checking every room along the way. Even after years, there was still a very noticeable burnt smell. Corolla coughed, the sound echoing in the otherwise silent corridor.

Some of the rooms were entirely blocked by rubble, but the ones that didn’t were all the same: charred walls, burnt-down tables, some had also the melted remains of some kind of lab instruments.

Corolla dispelled her shields. “I think you would’ve lost that bet. There isn’t anyone here.”

Sergio sighed, lowering his rifle. “I’m sorry. I dragged you all here for nothing.”

Nikki patted his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. Do you know of any other place that… Wait.” She turned towards Corolla. “Then, that magical signature you found?”

Corolla looked at her in puzzlement for a couple seconds, before realization struck her. “Oh, right, I forgot!” She opened a holographic window, and used it to scan around. “Hmm, even here the signature is weak… not from a living being for sure.” A blip appeared on her window. “There, in that pile of rubble.”

Nikki kneeled next to where Corolla was pointing and retrieved what looked like a small hammer-shaped pendant from the pile. “This thing, maybe? Weird, it looks familiar.”

“Well, if you’re thinking that it looks like Graf Eisen, that’s because it’s pretty much a copy of it,” Sergio said, taking it from Nikki’s hands. “This is Carol’s other weapon. She had stayed behind to cover us around here, and did so until the very end.”

Corolla looked down. “She must’ve been very brave.”

Sergio walked past her, heading back to the upper floor. “They all were.”

“So what do we do now?” Nikki followed him on the stairs. “I mean, there’s no use staying here anymore, is there?”

Sergio nodded. “The earlier we get out of here, the better.” He walked to a window, and frowned. “Change of plans. I’m afraid we’ll have to spend the night here, as much as I hate that thought.”

“Why?” Corolla looked outside. A snowstorm had started, and combined with the darkness it made seeing anything past a few meters impossible. “Yup, it’s too dangerous to travel now.”

She turned around just in time to see Homura clench her fists, presumably upset for the time they were going to lose that way.  She never says anything, but this whole mess must be terrible for her too.

 

Corolla had just started to drift into sleep when she remembered to tell them her findings. “Oh, guys, I wanted to speak about something.”

“Is it urgent?” Sergio whispered, pointing his chin at Nikki. “She’s already asleep, and I’d prefer to let her rest.”

Corolla bit her lip in disappointment, but nodded. “Well, if you’re alright with it, I’d still want to talk about it with you now.”

Sergio raised an eyebrow. “Sure, go on.”

Corolla thought up a bit on a good way to tell him her findings. After all, it was something so unlikely that Sergio could easily dismiss it as one of her usual pranks. “In your fanfiction, OOCness was rampant. To the point that, as you mentioned earlier, several characters might’ve been Replacements.”

“Yeah, and?”

“So, I was thinking… What if one of those characters was the Sakura you met back then?”

Sergio winced. “I hope she wasn’t.”

“But what if she indeed is?” Corolla pressed on, “I mean, she could’ve ended up travelling around by plothole just like you did, and–”

“Corolla, stop.” Sergio turned away from her. “Sakura was on that helicopter. If she was a replacement, now she… she would be just a pile of charred bones. I don’t want to think about that possibility, and I don’t want to talk about it any further.”

“But–”

“Remember what I’ve said about the promise I had made to her? I had failed to keep it! How do you think I feel thinking about it?” Sergio snapped at her.

Corolla gulped, and looked down. “I… I’m sorry.”

Sergio’s eyes widened; he had surely realized that his outburst was unwarranted. “No, I… I should be the one apologizing. I… just don’t want to talk about it. Sorry.” He turned away again. “Goodnight.”

Corolla sighed, and turned towards Nikki. I understand, but… she’s not dead! She’s right here, right now! She laid down her head, still looking at her. Well, this only added more questions. How did you survive? And where have you been all those years? She sighed, realizing that the only way to have an answer was Nikki recovering her missing memories, and went on to sleep.

Blank Sprite – Mission Record 07

I want to thank Hieronymus Graubart and Eatpraylove for betaing this chapter.

 

Mission Record 07 – Mr. Turbo, I expect you to dine

 

“My name is Turbo, Sergio Turbo,” Sergio said, looking into the mirror attached to the wardrobe’s door. He had set the DORKS to outfit him in a tuxedo, and was holding his pistol over his chest in the most typical Bond pose. He let out a short laugh before putting the gun away under the jacket. “Yep, it’s just as silly as it sounds.”

[That isn’t going to work,] Corolla said from her usual holographic window.

“I know, right? We’re using false identities, it would be stupid to introduce myself like that.”

[No, no, no, I wasn’t talking about that! It’s how you’re dressed!]

Sergio looked down, and raised an eyebrow as he couldn’t find anything wrong. “It’s a tuxedo. Isn’t it what I need?”

Corolla facepalmed. [Yes, it is. But the bowtie and handkerchief are wrong! They must match Nikki’s dress, and yours don’t even match each other!]

Sergio blinked a couple of times. “They have to? Anyways, I can’t match them with Nikki’s dress if I have no idea how it looks, don’t you think?”

Corolla shook her head. [It has to be a surprise! And, besides, I’m still working on that, so… Uh. You have a point, I’m afraid.]

The Unison Device tapped something quickly on a holographic keyboard, causing Sergio’s black bowtie and the white handkerchief in his jacket’s pocket to become both red. After having a quick look at them, Sergio glanced at the bathroom’s door. “I hope the color isn’t the only thing you’ve settled on in over an hour.”

[Don’t worry, just wait and see!] Corolla said before closing the window.

Sergio shook his head and turned towards Homura, who had raised an eyebrow. “What can I say? She’s a bit crazy, but I wouldn’t replace her with anyone else. Anyways, while Corolla finishes impersonating Tomoyo, shall we review the plan? Well, such as it is.”

Homura nodded. “You and Nikki enter the party as guests while I sneak in from the rear.”

“So we’re going to finally catch whoever is behind this while you find Madoka and Sakura,” Sergio confirmed. “Try to not be seen as much as possible, though — if you have to take down some Defectives, try to do that silently. We’re going to be in the belly of the beast, so it would be better for everyone involved to not cause a firefight.”

Homura transformed and pulled a submachine gun out of her shield. “Would this work? It’s silenced.”

Sergio took the gun and inspected it. “A Heckler&Koch MP5SD… Three, I think? Or maybe a six? Anyways, it definitely works. Mind you, a suppressor doesn’t make a weapon completely silent, so take your shots carefully. Single shots, short bursts at most — the suppressor will last longer, and you’ll be more accurate. And, more importantly, aim from the shoulder; I’m quite surprised that you actually hit stuff while shooting from the hip.”

Homura nodded as Sergio handed back the weapon. He looked like he was going to say something else, but the bathroom’s door opened.

“Finally,” Nikki said as she walked out. “Corolla made me try on so many dresses; she would’ve put Tomoyo to shame. So, what do you think?”

Sergio found himself unable to speak. She was wearing a simple, knee-length strapless red dress, sprinkled with a lot of fake rose petals. More petals were on her shoulders, with no apparent way to stay attached. To him, she was nothing short of gorgeous.

[I think that’s a critical hit,] Corolla said cheerfully from her holographic window. [So, did I do a good job?]

“A-absolutely,” Sergio said. Damn it, here I am, stuttering like a harem comedy protagonist. He also nearly facepalmed after realizing that there wasn’t anything weird about the petals on Nikki’s shoulders — there was actually some transparent fabric underneath holding them in place.

Homura could do nothing but sigh in defeat after remembering that, after all, her current allies were still a bit weird. She ignored the bantering between Sergio and Corolla, and looked out of the window. Madoka… Are you alright? Or will I find you suffering once again?

 

Madoka and Sakura, hugging each other and shaking like leaves, kept staring at the phrase written in front of them. You’re dead, written in red letters dripping like blood.

“I… I’m scared.” Sakura said.

Madoka nodded in agreement. “Let’s… let’s change the game.”

The terrified Goddess of Hope walked over to the television set, and popped open the disk tray of the somewhat generic game console attached to it. A zombie shooter had been a terrible choice to pass their captivity time.

 

“I’m Guido Piano, and this is Tsubasa Ohka, my fiancée. We have an invite,” Sergio said, handing a printed sheet to the Defective stationed at the mansion’s entrance. The bit character gave a quick glance to the invite before mechanically showing them in.

I can’t believe such a formal auction sends emails to be printed as invites,” Nikki said telepathically as they walked.

True, this is more in line with what some comics fairs do with cosplayers… maybe our culprit, Suvian or not, is an anime fanboy or fangirl after all,” Sergio replied just as they entered what looked like a very big ballroom. Some long buffet tables and many smaller, round ones were lined along three of the walls, and attached to the last one there was a stage with a podium on it, from which the auction was presumably going to be held. There weren’t many people, though — at a quick glance, even if everyone was sitting at the same time more than half of the tables would remain empty.

Okay, we’re in,” Sergio sent out to Corolla.

[Good. If everything goes as scheduled, the auction will begin in about one hour, so I guess you’d better try to blend in until then.]

A Defective in a waiter uniform passed them with a tray of champagne glasses, and Sergio took two, offering one to Nikki.

You know I’m not old enough to drink, right?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

I know, and I’m not going to drink either, alcohol now would be a terrible idea. Just pretend to take a sip from time to time, it will make our cover more believable.”

In spite of what he had just said, Sergio took a little sip out of curiosity. Sure, it was sparkly and the taste was wine-ish, but it certainly wasn’t a fine wine. “You’re not missing anything; this thing is just Generic Champagne.”

 

Homura slipped into the mansion’s basement through an open window. The place wasn’t very well lit, and consisted of one single, very big room taking the entirety of the basement itself, with pillars at regular intervals and a few wooden crates on the floor.

I’m in too.” she sent out as she hid behind one of the crates to avoid being spotted by a couple of Defectives.

[Then we’re all set! It doesn’t look like Madoka and Sakura are there, but I’d suggest having a look at the crates just in case. Sergio gave you his C-CAD, right?”]

Homura pulled out the device from her shield, and pressed the power switch. The screen lit up, showing Combined Content Analysis Device Mk. I — Please Stand By for a few seconds before changing to Please scan a character. “Will this thing actually work?

[They usually do. Sometimes they die, like Nikki’s did while trying to scan Sergio… but you should be fine unless you run into a Sue.]

Still dubious, Homura pointed the device at herself and pressed the Scan button.

[Homura Akemi. Puella Magi Madoka Magica canon cha— Wait a minute, how did you get hold of me and why are you scanning yourself?]

Homura nearly dropped the device in surprise. “… Is this thing alive?”

[That, or whoever programmed these really thought of everything. Anyways, aim it around. I doubt the girls have been stuck in the crates, but you never know. Hmm, how can we distract those two Defectives while you look around…?]

Homura pulled out the suppressed submachine gun from her shield. Stock against the shoulder, aim down the sights, short bursts…The two Defectives went down without even realizing what was happening.

[…Or you could just kill them. As usual.] Corolla sighed.

 

Sergio, sitting at one of the tables, glanced at the center of the ballroom. Anime music was playing, and so some people were dancing to its tune. Well, more or less. Sergio was pretty sure My Spiritual Garden, if it could be danced to at all, wasn’t meant as waltz music.

Nikki sat next to him with a sigh.

“So, what did those girls want?” Sergio asked.

“They were a group of cosplayers. They were looking for new members, and they said I would’ve been perfect for Princess Sakura from Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle:”

Sergio let out a short laugh. “That would be cheating, wouldn’t it?”

Nikki nodded. “Pretty much.”

Sergio looked at his wristwatch. “Still ten minutes left before our kidnappers will show their hand. Or, at least, I hope.

Nikki looked intently at the bubbles in her untouched glass. The more she wanted the wait to be quick, the more time seemed to slow down. Then, the song switched to Garnet Moon by Hitomi Shimatani.

“I like this one!” Nikki said. She looked at the dance floor, then at Sergio. There might be only a few chances left to spend time with him, so…

“Eh…? What are you…?” Sergio asked in surprise as Nikki started dragging him towards the middle of the ballroom.

“Well, we still have some time to pass, so…”

“But I can’t dance at all!”

“Don’t worry about it; I’m not going to judge you. Just… let’s have some fun for once, can we?” Nikki said, smiling.

Sergio shook his head and let her have her way. How could he say no to such a smile?

 

They aren’t here, either.” Homura sent out as she finished searching the mansion’s upper floor.

[It’s almost time for the auction to start, so maybe they were already brought near the ballroom?] Corolla wondered.

Homura started running towards the stairs. “Then we have no time to lose.

 

Despite having to improvise every single step, Sergio found himself having more fun than he had imagined. What pleased him most was the look on Nikki’s face. She looks happier than I’ve ever seen her, he thought. It’s a shame that the only life I can offer her is a life of fighting.

He tried to get the thought out of his head. If Nikki were to notice a thoughtful look on his face, it would ruin her moment of happiness.

[Uh, sorry to intrude, guys, but we have a problem,] Corolla interrupted. [We weren’t able to find Madoka or Sakura anywhere on the other floors. Homura’s starting to check your floor, but we might have to free them during the auction itself.]

Got it,” Sergio said, struggling to keep pace in the last steps. Luckily for him, the song ended soon afterwards, with the lights going out too. A spotlight turned on, illuminating a blonde woman walking towards the podium.

Nikki squinted, trying to get a better look at her. She was wearing a long black dress with a ridiculously high split and a similarly ridiculously exposed cleavage, and her proportions were a bit too perfect. Her eyes were, of course, sapphire blue and large.

I don’t need my CAD to tell she’s a Sue,” Nikki said telepathically. “Do you think she’s the one behind this?”

Sergio didn’t answer, but Nikki could see that he had stiffened as soon as he saw the woman. “I can’t believe it… it’s her,” he muttered under his breath, his voice sounding more like a growl.

“Her… who?”

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” the woman began. “I see that there has been some interest in my little auction. I’m pleased; after all, what’s more exclusive merchandise than the anime characters themselves?”

She paused and let the audience murmur among itself for a few moments. “I knew that would get your attention. Our merchandise is safe in another world at the moment — we want to make sure you all wait your turn before the big moment.”

Nikki gasped. “You were right. She’s really trying to sell Madoka and Sakura to the highest bidder!”

“But before we start the auction, I’d like to say hi to an old friend.” Another spotlight turned on illuminating Sergio and Nikki. “Long time no see, Captain Turbo. Or Agent Turbo, as you go by now. Did you miss me?”

Now that she could see more clearly, Nikki noticed that Sergio’s usually warm eyes were  ice-cold. She took a step back; even the worst of the Cardcaptor Sakura badfics they’d covered hadn’t made him this angry.

“Miss? I was hoping you were rotting in Hell,” he said. “Looks like I have to do my job properly this time, Vera.”

“And how were you planning to do that? I’m stronger than you. I’m the best one. I’ve always been, and that little incident at Strike Dove’s base doesn’t count.”

“The best? You still have the nerve to call yourself the best, when you’re doing the exact opposite of what you were trying to be the best at?” Sergio shouted. “At Strike Dove we were fighting to save innocents… and now you’ve reduced yourself to kidnapping and human trafficking?”

Nikki looked around. The other people seemed to have disappeared from the room — and, even worse, she could see Defectives moving in.

“Oh, you’re always so naive. You were trying to save the innocents, wasting away your potential. Me? I was going after the important targets. Those dictators and terrorist leaders. That’s what we Suvians — that’s what the PPC calls us, right? — are made for. Defeating all our enemies leaving them no chance… the glory of a flawless victory! But you, no, you had to ruin it all, didn’t you? Really, I don’t get you. You managed to get that Sakura girl to fall for you — nice job, ripping her away from her soulmate! — and you could’ve gotten Ami too if you fancied, Japanese girls seem to fall for you at the drop of a hat, but no, you had to be the nice guy and do things by the rules. Of course, this meant you lost them both. And now look at yourself. Killing your own kind without a shred of remorse… is this really who you are now?”

“Yes, it is. And my job right now is to kill you!” Sergio screamed as he pulled out his Beretta and aimed for Vera. Before he could pull the trigger, though, Nikki pushed him to the ground and set up a Protection spell around the two of them. The barrier appeared just in time to stop the hail of bullets from Vera’s mooks.

“Why did you do that?” Sergio shouted when he noticed that Vera was getting away, “I would’ve gotten her!”

“And her Defectives would’ve gotten you!” Nikki rebutted without letting go of him.

“…Right,” he conceded.

Nikki decided that he had calmed enough, and got up before summoning his assault rifle from her hammerspace. “How do we deal with them? We’re surrounded, and I don’t think I can keep up this barrier forever,” she said while handing him the rifle.

“We’ll wait for them to empty their guns, and retaliate when they reload. They’re eight, I think, so four each? We have to be fast though.” Sergio said, aiming his gun.

Nikki summoned some Barret Shoot energy bullets, and put herself back-to-back with him. “I’m ready when you are.”

“Then…” Sergio said, keeping an eye on the Defectives. “Now!”

 

Vera kept running. After all, she didn’t expect her minions to last long — at best, they would take out the girl who was with Sergio, since the guy had a nasty habit of not dying. That was actually the outcome she would’ve liked most, make him plunge into despair for losing his friends yet again, then pull the trigger on him herself.

Her train of thought was interrupted when she found a black-haired girl with a submachine gun blocking the way. “Free Madoka. And the other girl. Now.”

Vera laughed; she could handle her with no trouble. “I’m sorry, but I still have uses for them. Get out of the way, and I’m not going to hurt you.”

Homura opened fire, but Vera was quicker and dodged the first burst. The Puella Magi kept shooting, but despite all logic and Homura’s canonical skill, not one bullet ever hit the Sue.

Why can’t I hit her? It’s like something’s preventing me from targeting her! Homura thought as her gun clicked empty.

Vera closed in, and kicked her straight in the gut, sending her flying towards a wall. The impact was strong enough to make Homura cough out some blood.

“What were you trying to do? You canon characters are powerless against me,” Vera said mockingly. “I’ve kidnapped Madoka. How can you think you would fare better? You can’t defeat me.”

Homura pulled out a pistol from her shield and emptied it against Vera. Despite aiming straight at her, the bullets went way off target, almost like something swatted them away mid-flight.

Vera produced a Mac-10 submachine gun from apparently nowhere. “You’re a persistent one, aren’t you?”

 

Sergio lowered the rifle. “All clear on my side.”

“Same here,” Nikki replied, turning around. “Is it me, or did these guys go down really easily?”

“Yeah. If that idiot’s still writing me, I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually skipped this fight,” Sergio said, completely deadpan. “Besides, it’s very like Vera to not have her minions have any competence at all.”

[We have another problem!] Corolla shouted, opening a holographic window in front of them, [Homura tried to stop Vera, but she’s not responding anymore!]

“Where is she?”

[The corridor near the stage, on the right. Oh, for Madoka’s sake, I hope she isn’t—]

“Let’s go!” Sergio shouted, running in the direction Corolla had pointed out. After entering the corridor, he and Nikki could see Homura on the floor, lying on her side in a puddle of blood. The Puella Magi raised her head weakly before passing out.

“Homura!” Nikki screamed, running to her side before casting Physical Heal on her.

Sergio, instead, stopped halfway through, his eyes unfocused.

 

“This is too quiet,” Ami said, peeking over a rock with her rifle’s scope. “I can’t see anyone in that base.”

Sergio put away his binoculars, sharing his teammate’s concern. “And I already didn’t like this place. Let’s be extra careful, bad stuff happened in this place, and we’re lucky to have gotten out of Da Ghwandai Khar in one piece last week.”

“Wait, there’s someone on that watchtower now. Where did he—”

Ami was cut off by a loud boom and a bullet hitting her shoulder. She collapsed on the wounded side, her blood steadily tinting the snow red.

“Ami!” Sergio shouted, kneeling beside her. The wound was bleeding heavily, likely due to the bullet hitting a major blood vessel.

“How… did he see us already?” Ami asked while Sergio did his best to patch her up with a first aid kit.

“I don’t know, but we’re getting out of here,” Sergio said before activating his CODEC. “Lightning to HQ, Comet has been hit; we need immediate extraction at our current position!”

Sergio then grabbed Ami’s rifle and crawled to the side of the rock. There was no way he could make a shot that far with his M16, after all. The sniper noticed him and started to take aim, but Sergio was faster. The other guy’s head turned into pink mist as he fell.

 

Sergio took a couple steps forward, trying to drive the memories away, to no avail.

 

“Lightning to Dove 1-1, where the hell are you?” Sergio screamed over the CODEC, cradling Ami in his arms. Almost an hour had passed, but the helicopter assigned to them was nowhere to be seen. He looked down to Ami in concern. The bleeding wasn’t stopping — blood was still seeping out from the bandages. And, to make things worse, the sun was setting. If the blood loss wasn’t going to kill her, the Alaskan freezing night would give her the coup-de-grace.

[This is Dove 1-1. We’re doing our best, but the snowstorm is too strong.]

Sergio looked around in disbelief. “What the fuck are you talking about, Dove 1-1? There isn’t even a single cloud in the sky!”

There was no answer, and Sergio didn’t bother try to get another one as he noticed Ami had closed her eyes. “Hey! Stay with me!”

Ami opened her eyes weakly. “Sorry… I feel sleepy… And cold…”

Sergio shook her. “Don’t close your eyes, it’s over if you do!”

“That chopper won’t arrive… right?”

“Of course it will! Hold on a little longer, please!”

“It’s alright. I… knew it was going to… end like this sooner or later.”

“Don’t say things like that!”

Ami raised her arm and patted his cheek. “It’s fine… I’m going to tell… Mom and Dad that I had a great friend who took care of me.”

Sergio shook his head. “I’m sure they don’t want you to join them yet! Besides, we’re a team, how am I supposed to fight without you?”

“I know you can. After all… Lightning always comes back for the next storm. Comets are like shooting stars… they only shine… for a little while…”

Her hand fell.

“Ami! Don’t give up! Ami! AMI!” Sergio screamed. He then looked for a pulse, but there was none. He laid her down, and started performing a cardiac massage on her.

“Why is it always like this? Not again Please, at least her let her live!”

 

[Sergio? Are you still here with us?] Corolla shouted from her window.

Sergio shook his head. It wasn’t the right time for reminiscing. He walked over to Nikki and Homura, and kneeled next to them. “How is she?”

“She lost consciousness, but her magic stopped her from bleeding out. I’m trying to help in healing her wounds, but… there are so many!” Nikki said, her forehead beaded with sweat.

Indeed, Homura’s Puella Magi outfit was riddled with holes, and mostly covered with her own blood.

Sergio frowned. “That bitch emptied a full clip into her. If Homura wasn’t a Puella Magi, she’d already be dead. And… well, Medical can fix that for canon characters, but we’d be all in real trouble anyways.”

He rustled through his pockets until he fished some black cubes out of them. “There, these should help,” he said, putting two next to Homura’s Soul Gem.

“Grief Cubes?” Nikki asked. “You’ve been carrying some with you all the time?”

“You never know when you might get a Madoka Magica mission with a saveable OC. Or team up with some Agents from there.” Sergio watched as the cubes siphoned the corruption from Homura’s Gem.

Nikki nodded before breaking off her spell. “That’s all I can muster at the moment. Good thing you had them; now that her Gem’s clean she has plenty of magic to heal the rest.”

“And it’s mostly done, anyways,” Sergio added, seeing Homura’s now-intact skin through the holes in her outfit. He patted Nikki’s shoulder and got up. “You did great just now, Nikki. You’ve saved everyone. Now, let’s get out of here before more of those Defectives appear.”

 

“At least now we know who’s behind this, right?” Nikki said after having a quick look at Homura. The Puella Magi was still unconscious on the rear seat of the Volvo, and the trio was trying to get as much distance as possible from the mansion.

“Yeah,” Sergio said, looking straight ahead on the road.

“So, this Vera… She’s the one who killed Ami, right?”

Sergio didn’t answer, and Nikki looked down. “… I see. Still, I thought you said you had killed her in turn.”

 

Sergio walked towards Vera, who was on the ground bleeding out.

“This… This can’t be happening!” she screamed. “I’m stronger than you!”

“You aren’t strong. You just force stuff to suit your whims.”

“I can do that because I am strong!”

Sergio aimed his P99 pistol at her. “There is no strength in betraying your own allies. Only cowardice.”

 

“… Didn’t you?” Nikki said, afraid of the answer.

 

Sergio lowered the gun. “No, it would be too easy for you to die like this. You know how much Ami held onto life, despite her injury? One hour. Waiting for a helicopter you made sure would never arrive.”

Sergio put away the gun just as the building started shaking. “This place’s buckling? Don’t tell me Strike Dove’s existence was your doing, too…? Well, listen: I’m not finishing you now. You’re going to bleed out, or maybe you’ll be lucky and this place will fall on your head first. Either way, you’ll die slowly and painfully. Like Ami.”

 

“… And that’s how it actually went. Told you I’m no hero… what kind of hero would do something like that? Looks like not finishing her off properly came back to bite me in the ass.”

Nikki put a hand on his shoulder, but didn’t know what to say. As much as she hated to admit it, she could actually imagine him doing something like that.

“This entire mess is all my fault, isn’t it?”

“No,” Nikki said firmly. “This is only Vera’s fault. Sure, if you had killed her back then this wouldn’t be happening, but… Everyone makes mistakes. Don’t let yours crush you, OK? Please.”

“I’m afraid it’s a bit late for that. Earlier, when I saw Homura in those conditions…”

“Yeah, I saw. What happened? It’s… just not like you to freeze that way.”

“Homura’s got the same hair color and roughly the same build as Ami. I… I wasn’t seeing Homura. I… I was back in Alaska, when Ami…” His voice died out.

“… A flashback? Don’t tell me…”

[Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,] Corolla completed from Nikki’s Device. [I was starting to suspect that, with how you were acting in the last days.]

“And knowing Vera’s behind this all isn’t making things any easier,” Sergio commented dryly. “But, then again, since I know how she thinks I can try to predict her next move. So having her as our enemy is not entirely a bad thing.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Still, I don’t get why she would do something like this. What interest does she have in all that getup?”

Nikki scratched her head. “Besides, when she realized you were there, she pretty much forgot about her auction completely.”

“Hm, you’re right. Vera talked only about… Damn!” Sergio shouted, punching the rim of the steering wheel. “We’ve been played since the very beginning!”

Nikki raised an eyebrow. “Eh?”

“Madoka and Sakura were never her goal. They were the bait.”

“Wait, this means that…?”

“What Vera’s actually after is me. I’m pretty sure she thinks I’ve humiliated her, and now wants revenge for it!”

Nikki looked down in thought. “You sure? I mean, it’s not that far-fetched…”

“Think about it. Who was the first kidnapped character?”

“Well, Sakura… Who is also—”

Sergio nodded. “Exactly. She deliberately went for her, to try to get me to be emotional and less lucid.”

“And then she went for Madoka because that would’ve shown how ‘strong’ she is?” Nikki wondered.

“Something like that, I guess. I don’t think Nanoha was even supposed to be on her target list… from that point on, all those coincidences were actually her laying out the clues that would’ve brought us to her.” Sergio said, “I think we would’ve found those four Defectives even if we went into Pretty Cure, or Ojamajo Doremi, or even a series with no magical girls at all. And setting up this thing in the Alarm für Cobra 11 continuum was likely a way to make sure I would’ve gotten this mission even if that Cardcaptor Sakura fic wasn’t assigned to me, as I’m likely the only agent knowledgeable in both!”

“And I guess the reason why all those ambushes were useless is because they weren’t supposed to actually stop us?”

Sergio nodded again. “It’s possible. I’m pretty sure she wants to kill me personally — those ambushes were likely only supposed to make us waste time and strength… if not even try to get me to be the only survivor again.”

Nikki took a deep breath, eyes wide open. “You think she wants me and Homura to die first?”

Sergio nodded slowly “That’s pretty much how things went last time, and… well, Homura was very, very lucky right now that Vera didn’t bother checking if she was indeed dead. Anyways, in the last assignments I got while teamed with Ami, things started going wrong at just the right moments to get us into real trouble — until a counter-sniper got lucky and… well, you know the rest. Vera didn’t pull the trigger herself that time, and only did right now because Homura faced her directly.”

“I see… So, what do you think will be her next move?”

“I’m not sure, actually, but considering how much she’s obsessed with killing me I think I know her base of operations,” Sergio said as he stopped the car. “I’m pretty sure the portals will be working right now, because she wants us to get there.”

 

“See? The portals work like a charm now. Also, that’s why a shrink ray is so convenient. We can use that car—”

Sergio stopped as he realized that they hadn’t ended up in their RC, but in the Sunflower’s office.

Homura, who had just woken up, blinked a couple of times. Why was a giant sunflower wearing a suit behind that desk?

“Uhm, guys, sorry for not warning you, but the Sunflower wanted to speak with all of us,” Corolla said, fidgeting as she floated next to them.

What were you thinking, Agent Turbo? I thought I was clear when I said that you were not to attempt a rescue yourself. DoSAT was working around the clock to find a way to send a rescue team in. Also, deputizing canon characters is not allowed. I thought we had sent a reminder to every console after Agent Carter had the—

“With all due respect, sir, we had to act before the end of that auction. And we needed all the help we could muster.”

I’m going to accept your justification this time, Agent Turbo. But at the next infraction you’ll be assigned to the department with the highest paperwork backlog. For now, continue the mission as you were, with you and Agent Cherryflower on the field and Agent Corolla as mission control. We will send backup as soon as Vera Heartbound and the abducted canon characters are located, so wait for it this time. It goes without saying that Homura Akemi is to be neuralyzed and sent back home.

“I am to be… what?” Homura asked, visibly upset.

“Neuralyzed,” Corolla explained. “We’ll erase your memories of the last few days.”

“I’m not going to allow that,” Homura said flatly, looking directly at where the Sunflower’s eyes would have been if he were human.

I’m afraid you don’t have a choice.

Sergio pulled out his neuralyzer reluctantly. Homura had been a great help, and actually succeeding in saving Madoka for once would probably do good to her psyche.

Then again, the whole mess was never supposed to happen, and both she and Madoka were to be neuralyzed anyway in the end.

Sergio sighed. It was going to be just him and Nikki again, since Corolla was to stay in HQ. Something the Unison Device was going to get used to, since…

“You’re right, sir. She has no choice. Homura, you’re coming with us. And I want Corolla on the field as well this time.”

Agent Turbo, are you deaf? That’s not—

Sergio ripped off the flash patch from his jacket, and put it on the Sunflower’s desk along with the neuralyzer. “I know. But Vera seems to know at least a bit of how the PPC works — she knows some of our terminology, I wouldn’t put it past her to somehow know at least some of our rules… and use them to her advantage. That’s why I’m resigning, right now. I need to break some of them.”

Agent Turbo, you know that I am now forced to reassign the mission to another team?

“Sir, Vera’s my own personal problem. She’s not after canon characters or the PPC, she’s after me. My enemy, my case, PPC or not. And, besides… I guess I’ve got to fix my own mistakes.”

The Sunflower did the telepathic equivalent of a frown. Seventy-two hours. That’s all I can give you. I’m getting a combined ESAS and Special Operations team on standby — one minute more, and the mission goes to them. Make use of your time wisely. However, I still can’t authorize Homura Akemi to follow you.

Sergio glanced at Homura. “Sir, you’re putting yourself in the way of a heavily armed, very unstable and extremely determined girl right now. I… wouldn’t do that.”

What do you mean, Agent Turbo… Oh. I understand. I will make another exception for now, Agent Turbo.

Sergio started walking out of the office. “I’m no longer an Agent, sir. And, Homura, can you put that flamethrower away, please? Torching my ex-boss would get us in more trouble than we already are in.”