"Complete failure, and then some."
That was the summary two days after the destruction of Dawn Base.
"Not only did we lose ninety-one percent of our forces in the area, we lost a Nito. Do you have any idea how large a scale that disaster is to our firepower? Or our morale?"
"Now, now, General. I think you're coming down too hard on Captain Motishi."
"Commander Greene, you, of all people, should be taking the most blame! This entire operation was under your command! We gave you half of the available ships in your sector, and you return us two capital ships and only five Nitos!"
"That will be enough, General Lars," Emperor Schwartz silenced him. "This conference is to discuss how to move forward, not who to blame."
An emergency meeting had been called to order. Due to its urgency, they had to talk via video links. Hotaka was looking at Schwartz, General Lars (whom he had grown to hate in the past thirty seconds), the previously thought to be dead Commander Greene, and someone he'd never heard of, probably an advisor or something.
"Captain Motishi," Lars addressed him directly. "You say that Angelo Vini died trying to go to this… this mega-mode?"
"Hyper Mode," Hotaka corrected him dryly.
"Whatever. Don't you think this Hyper Mode is a little dangerous to be playing around with?"
"Angelo wasn't ready. I don't think any of us are, or will be for awhile."
"How do you know you'll ever be ready for it? Why should we be studying this when we should be looking at the effects Nitos have on their pilots?"
"We… have been neglecting that field," Commander Greene admitted.
"You're putting our most promising pilots into a piece of alien technology? Without doing a complete examination?" Lars had an expression of incredulity. "What the hell were you people doing over there?"
"The fact is," the stranger to Hotaka finally spoke, "The Nitos are powerful enough as it is. Trying to reach Hyper Mode at the risk of life is illogical and dangerous. I suggest we simply drop the whole notion of Hyper Mode and focus on more reasonable goals."
Hotaka decided he didn't like that person either. "I can understand if you don't want us to try it until later, but drop it completely? No, no I can't do that."
"I'm afraid you'll have to, Hotaka." Schwartz defended the suggestion. "We wouldn't want to lose you."
"I know." Hotaka lowered his head.
"Now, the aliens… do we have another name for them? Calling them 'aliens' just doesn't sound right."
"We don't have an official name, but most pilots the local sectors call them the 'Virus' ."
"These… Viruses have taken over most of the sector you were positioned in, Commander. The whole public knows about this tremendous loss. Whatever chances we had of restoring faith are now even further in the hole."
"I need you to be realistic, Commander," Schwartz said. "Do we really stand a chance against them?"
"We do, but it'll take time to analyze their ships, strategy, and weapons, not mention time to reorganize that front, and manpower to fend them off."
"I have reports from my engineers they've nearly perfected a shield calibration that'll actually offer our ships some protection," Schwartz announced.
"It a hardware upgrade though, that'll be expensive to put into every single fighter and capital ship."
"Hmm, that's not so good. But it's progress."
Hotaka noticed the time in the corner of the screen. "I'm afraid I have some personal matters to attend to."
"Very well, it's been good talking to you, Captain," Greene said. "I wish I could be there."
With a flick of a switch, the connection was terminated, and Hotaka's screen went blank.
"He sounds very badly distraught," Schwartz commented. "I know I would be. Nevertheless, I find myself also out of time. I bid you all good health, for the galaxy has become a very dangerous place."
"What can be said about these brave souls, who gave their life in the name of our safety, that hasn't already been said? They've been called heroes, sacrifices, casualties, and many other things. Call them what you may, but the fact is they are no longer with us. Some left behind families, friends, comrades-in-arms. Though we should mourn the losses of our fellow pilots, they would want us to look forward, to a better future they died for."
When the speaker concluded, a chorus began. It was pre-recorded, unfortunately, but sounded real enough.
To Nito Squadron, it only increased the tears. Angelo may have been a jerk to all of them, but he was part of the team. He was practically family.
As the voices sang low, mellow notes, the dozens of individual coffins were slowly lowered by a platform. When they had all gone down a few meters, the gap in the floor closed and hissed. Then a set of doors opened, this time into outer space, and the caskets slowly drifted out towards a nearby white star.
They were caught in the gravity and began to accelerate to the boiling surface. A special paint that coated the surface of the wood ignited and gave off a bright, flaming rainbow of colors. Mixed in was glitter, which sparkled like fireworks.
"It's so beautiful…" Midori murmured. Her cheeks were stained with flooding tears, yet she had a smile on her face at the beauty of the sight. "He's a shooting star now." She looked at Hotaka. "My mother always said shooting stars were the spirits of people after they died."
Hotaka nodded absently. He had barley been able to drag himself here, and he found himself on the edge of simply running out. But it was his fault Angelo was now space dust, and the least he could do was attend the funeral. He would miss Angelo, and his rash, compulsive temper. At the same time, he felt like a certain burden had been taken off his shoulders.
Minute after minute passed by in agony, before Hotaka finally saw the people breaking up and exiting. Now maybe he could quietly sneak out at the reception.
No such luck though. Hotaka found he couldn't push past the hundreds of people, and was forced to stand ground near the refreshments. He was in no mood to eat, even though those shish kabobs were going fast.
Wilhelm, who seemed to have so much on his mind, it was appearing on his face, joined him. He served himself a small glass of sweet wine, then leaned his massive frame on the table next to Hotaka.
"He wasn't that bad, once you got to know him," Wilhelm said, obviously referring to Angelo.
"Mm," was all Hotaka replied.
Wilhelm took a small sip, and smacked his lips at the juice-like beverage. "So what's next for the Nitos? I mean, we've stained our name pretty bad. The news says Angelo killed quite a few of our men."
"The reporters are two-timing bastards," Hotaka replied bitterly.
Wilhelm took a long, thoughtful sip. "Do you think we should take a break from the Nitos?"
"I don't think we can. The Infection is getting worst every day."
"Yeah, I suppose you're right." A moment passed before Wilhelm spoke again. "What about Hyper Mode? Do you still think we can reach it?"
Hotaka shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. I don't know if there's an upper limit to the Nitos, or if we've gotten to it already."
"I think it is possible. We just need more time."
"How much time?"
Hotaka raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "What makes you so sure?"
"That's how much time I'll…" Wilhelm's voice failed him at that point.
Sensing his friend was keeping something from him, Hotaka said, "What is it Will?"
Wilhelm finished up the wine in his glass, and felt the butterflies in his stomach settle a little. "Hotaka, when it comes to Nito Squadron, who would you say is the weaker end? Honestly."
"I don't know."
"Yes you do, it's me. Who gets hurt the most? Who backs out first? Me." Wilhelm put down his glass and locked eyes with Hotaka. "I don't know what's wrong, but I have a harder time in the Nitos than everyone else. Maybe it's because I haven't bonded with my Nito, maybe it's because I haven't learned a technique you guys have, maybe it's just because I'm a bad pilot. Whatever the cause, I need to spend some time to myself to train."
"Will, Angelo's gone, now you want to leave too?"
"Just temporarily. Like I said, three months."
"A lot can happen in three months. We might not even be around in three months."
"That's why you guys will have to fight hard."
"We'll be down two people! That's a full third!"
"I know the math Hotaka, but this is necessary. For all of us."
Hotaka was running out of reasons. "How did you even get permission? I'd think Lars would be all over you for this."
"I haven't quite gotten permission, yet. But all I need is a shuttle, food and water, and three months. Alone"
Shaking his head, Hotaka said, "Christ, Will, you're turning into a monk on me."
"If there are people nearby, they'll just distract me. It has to be my Nito and me. No one else."
Out of options, the Captain of Nito Squadron had nothing but his authority left. "I won't let you. I'm the Captain, and I order you to stay here."
"Then I quit," Wilhelm said with a light shrug, like he'd planned all his answers ahead of time.
"You Nito is property of the RISF. You can't just take it."
"It's a hunk of scrap if I'm not there."
"Fine, fine, you win. I'll try to get you out, if I can. But you do know you're going to be court-marshaled for this."
Wilhelm smiled. "If I show them the results, I think they'll pardon me."
Hotaka didn't share the smile. "Don't always assume the best. Usually it doesn't happen."
"I've thought long and hard about it. The good out weighs the bad."
"Whatever you say, Will. When did you have in mind?"
"A few days, once we come out of X-Space."
For a few moments, they stood around, looking through the crowd. After awhile, Wilhelm spotted Eve among them. "Hey, there's Eve. She's not looking so good."
"She lost her father, Dr. Kline."
"Ah, I see."
"I mean, I don't know if she has any other family." Hotaka frowned. "Actually, there's a lot we don't know about her. I'll see if I can fix that while you're gone."
"Hey, wait, is that…?" Wilhelm pointed.
"I think it is."
"Should we tell her?"
"No, let's let her find out."
Eve wandered among the crowd, lost in sorrow. It had taken a long time before she had realized Kline was on Dawn Base, and when it did, the grief sprung like a spring thunderstorm.
The painful loss quickly dulled into an aching, hollow feeling. It was how she was, bounce back after a day or so, but now who would take care of her in this enormous, and frightening world of humans?
She had come to see Dr. Kline as more than her "father", but also an oasis where she could be open. Midori was also one to share secrets with, but the Big Secret? No, Midori surely wasn't prepared for that, nor was Eve ready to speak it.
Weaving between the people, she was overwhelmed. It was no so much Dr. Kline himself, but his presence, the fact he was there to help, that comforted her. With him near, she could move forward confidently.
Now though, she was spiraling down fast and hard.
Eve, having had enough of people and war and death for one day, slowly walked to the door. Just five paces away, a hand was placed on her shoulder. She whirled around and cringed, expecting Guy, but when she saw the person the hand belonged to, a grin, wide and true, spread across her face.
"Father," she whispered, and embraced him with a hug. His touch felt warm and kind, she hadn't realized just how attached she was to him. A single tear went down her eye, she would've had more, but only had a limited amount existed in her eyes, and that was all she could spare for now.
"I must say, it was a wild ride in the Escape Pod, and everyone was so confused and shocked, I had to wait for awhile."
"That's okay. Just, don't do it again, okay?"
"Don't you worry about that. I may have lost all of my research, but I still have you."
At the other end of the room, Wilhelm and Hotaka watched with smiles.
"Looks like things are starting to look up."
Hotaka's smile fell. "I dunno, Will. The Infection won't go away on it's own. The storm is just starting, and it only gets harder from here."
None of them had any idea how true Hotaka was.
To be continued…