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 in 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 and 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 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 to 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 it?”
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.”
“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.”
“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.