Author's Note: I've been thinking about this show more again with the steady stream of news about alleged UFOs that seems to be coming out these days and this idea came to me. Spoils up to episode 2 of the anime. Minor usage of offensive language for mental disability.
The campfire crackled in the cold, bone-dry air, wisps of smoke rising up from it into the night sky. Temperatures dropped quickly after sunset out here in the high desert, so much so that even in the heat of summer some nights were barely above freezing, and with that in mind tonight was mercifully warm. Huddled close to the fire like she was, it was almost comfortable.
Kana sat quietly and watched the fire flicker and sway, her legs curled up and her arms around her knees. It was the end of the second day.
Dean and Erica had worked out the plan. It was Erica who had pointed out that command knew where their planes were at all times thanks to their IFF transponders, and Dean had been the one who suggested obtaining that transponder data, locating the crash site and cross-referencing it with satellite photos, and actually hiking out into the Nevada desert to find it. Yesterday morning the four of them – her, Erica, Dean, and Enrico – had managed with some difficulty to sneak out of Tonopah and begin the long walk southeast to where Jamie's plane had gone down.
It was hard for her to know how to feel about what happened. She had trouble getting along with anyone, but Jamie had been the worst to her; it seemed like they could hardly talk to each other without him calling her 'retard' or 'stupid' or something like that, and to make matters worse, no one did a thing about it. Sometimes they didn't even know; the implants the five of them had received made it possible to send messages to each other, almost like a form of telepathy, and that had been his usually way of taunting her. He had done it the first time she'd been brought in to the evaluation room to test the implants, in fact, making her break down in tears – a reaction that had only made the bullying worse.
Even so, things had immediately felt different after they learned he had died. The truth of their situation, trapped and forced to fight, had slowly been setting in for all of them, even if they only had scarce knowledge of the what the outside world was like from books or comics that slipped past their handlers and found their way to them from the other pilots and base staff and from hazy childhood memories. After the first death, that realization was total. It was made even worse by how little they were told about what had happened to Jamie.
"We don't have much food or water left", Erica said, breaking the momentary silence as she took the energy bar she'd been attempting to roast over the fire off the tip of her utility knife, flinching a bit at the temperature as she touched it and quickly blowing on it. "This is probably the point of no return."
No one said anything, the four of them eating in silence. It had already become apparent to everyone just how far out of their depth they had gotten.
"I don't know about y'all-", Dean finally said, "-but I'm not going back until we find him."
"Me either", Enrico agreed. Erica nodded, and eventually the three of them glanced in Kana's direction. She looked up, nodded her head, and mumbled an affirmative answer before, having finished eating her 'dinner', she went back to curling up beside the fire.
"...How much of it do you think is true?", Erica said, looking up at the sky. They were miles and miles away from any town, road, or even any permanent military installation on the test range, and the sky was free of clouds, the vast field of stars above shining through undisturbed by artificial light and the Milky Way arcing across it. "What they've been telling us. Do you think there's really something out there that we're fighting?".
Since childhood, they'd been told about them. A hostile force from another world that had first appeared on Earth more than fifty years ago, on the 24th of June, 1947. It was for that reason that children with a high aptitude had been gathered in Nevada to receive the specialized training and implants required to pilot a new type of fighter plane. They were the chosen defenders of the Earth and humanity.
That the calm, dedicated, professional, never-questioning-orders Erica was asking questions like that just underscored how thoroughly their faith had been shaken.
"Well, maybe they're up there somewhere, but I can't see them", Dean replied, holding his hand above his eyes and looking up at the sky himself.
"Have either of you gotten close enough to see what they look like?", Enrico asked. He and Kana still hadn't flown any operational sorties yet, while Dean, Erica, and Jamie all had.
"No", Erica answered. "Orders are to engage targets from beyond visual range after command has identified them. Visual identification isn't required."
"So they could be...?", he trailed off.
"Pretty much anything", Erica said, shrugging her shoulders. "Real aliens, other humans like us... It's not our job to know, I guess."
Kana curled up even tighter, burying her face in her knees and trying to think of anything else. Vaguely interesting things she saw in the desert. Books she'd read. The possibility that they had been killing people just like them. Technical specifications of the T-38 Talon. The fact that they were probably going to die out here.
"You know, you've never talked much about where you were before you came here, Erica", Enrico said, breaking the silence again. "You either actually, Kana."
Kana didn't respond to him.
Enrico had told them a little about his life before the Black Manta program, growing up in the city, which must have been New York he'd decided, since he remembered being able to see the Statue of Liberty. Dean was the oldest of the five of them and had talked a bit more, about life in what he believed was rural Kentucky, about a car crash he'd been in that killed his parents, and other little stories like the one about the cicadas emerging from the ground. But she'd never heard Erica talk much about herself.
"Hmm...". Erica sat in thought. "I don't remember much. It was up north, I think Montana. It was just me and my mother, then eventually I got taken away. I was in an orphanage, I guess. Not long after, some people came and took me away again and had me do a bunch of tests, and then I was here. It's nothing very interesting."
Kana saw the other three glance over at her, and she looked up, opening her mouth but finding herself unable to find any words to say. She looked down at her knees again, not saying anything, and again the four of them sat in silence
"Hey Kana, why do you never say anything? What's even going on in your head? What, are you retarded or something?". She sometimes wondered if everyone else thought the same things about her and the only difference was Jamie was the only one who said them out loud.
After a while, Dean fished a harmonica out of his pocket and blew into it briefly to test it. A few of his stories were about music and a relative who was a musician, and after he had managed to get someone on the base to slip him a harmonica, he had taken to it well. He hummed a bit to pick up the tune and then began to play. It was only the instrumentals this time, but she recognized this same tune as one he'd played before, stopping to sing the lyrics as best as he remembered them, and she was able to put words to the music herself.
"... Keep me searching for a heart of gold / And I'm getting old. ...".
Even if it was a sad song, all of it made her almost feel like this was an ordinary camping trip, or what she assumed an ordinary camping trip must be, like she'd seen in one of the handful of books that had slipped through command's attempts to control the information they received. Dean finished the song, lowering the harmonica from his lips and stretching his arms.
"Umm...", she mumbled, speaking up and feeling uncomfortable as Dean, Erica, and Enrico again turned to look at her. "I don't remember much either. I was born in a different country and I never knew my parents. There was always a lot of snow in the winters. I think I was at an orphanage too, like Erica... And then I was taken away and given the tests before I was brought here. I remember it was a very long flight and there were no windows on the plane. I don't remember much else, sorry...".
"...It's fine", Erica said, shaking her head. "Really. None of us can."
The fire had burned down to embers by the time Kana, Dean, and Enrico woke up, shivering, as the sun rose and the first light of dawn illuminated the barren, sandy plain. They had set a watch over the camp overnight, and Erica, who had taken the last shift, was already awake, sitting close to what remained of their campfire.
They stomped out the embers – water being far too scarce to waste – and gathered the meager supplies they had remaining as the sun slowly crept higher in the morning sky before setting out walking south again, further and further away from Tonopah and climbing into one of the mountain ridges that cut across the desert. The rough terrain and oppressive heat slowed their progress to a crawl as they ascended the side of the mountains, their remaining supply of water steadily dwindling. By midday, it was gone entirely, and after lunch so was the last of their food.
Desperate for relief, they had come to a stop under a rare rock outcropping that offered a bit of shelter from the sun and quietly ate their energy bars. From this vantage point, they could look back at the desert floor stretching out below them, not a single sign of another human being in sight.
Kana stared out at the view, covering her eyes with her hand and surveying the expanse of sand and scrubby grass.
It felt spectacularly lonely. If they died here, would anyone remember them? After all, they had no families left and no one who seemed to care about them except each other. They were allowed no contact with the outside world, and barely even knew an outside world existed. Even they had been told barely anything about what had happened to Jamie, and he was their own squadron-mate.
If they died here, it would be like they had never existed in this world.
She was getting more and more uneasy, her heart beating faster in her chest and her breathing feeling constricted. She took a few long, deep breaths, but the hot, dusty air did little to help matters.
"What are you doing, Erica?", she heard Enrico say, and turned around.
Erica had taken her utility knife out of her pack and stepped closer to the rock face, where she was using it to scratch and chip at the stone. It made little impact on the hard material, but she kept going, painstakingly, and began to write, words faintly but visibly scratched into the outcropping.
4-4-5-0 T-A-C G-R-P F 1-2-1 B-L-A-C-K M-A-N-T-A. The name of their unit and the designation and name of the aircraft they flew. A-U-G 0-9 2-0-0-0. The current date. She scratched a crude depiction of their patch insignia and then finally, below, E-R-I-C-A P-R-O-U-D-F-O-O-T.
"Think my knife might be about ruined", she said, stepping away from the rock face and looking it over. "Rest of you have less to write at least."
Dean scratched his name into the rock below Erica's next, then Enrico, leaving just Kana to fish her knife out of her backpack, step forward, kneel on the ground, and get to work
For at least a little while, no matter what happened to them, this corner of the world would remember they existed.