"Surface wound to the head, ruptured spleen and a visibly fractured femur!"
Duelo along with Hibiki, Dita and another crew member were rushing a single cart to the infirmary, lying on the cart was Meia. She had been severely injured in battle against the enemy they had come to call the Harvest.
During the battle, Hibiki had taken down an enemy trailing after Meia, she yelled at him, telling him she didn't need or want his help. While she was distracted another enemy damaged her dread before a co-op strike from both Cipher and Pixy saved her.
Cipher told the dread pilot to stay focused, which only aggravated and distracted Meia further. Meia immediately shot down two enemies before turning her attention to Cipher, telling the mercenary that she didn't need her help either before she was attacked from both sides before the Galm team could swing around to protect her.
Her dread was heavily damaged, but thanks to Cipher and Pixy the enemy was shot down before they could destroy the dread.
Gascogne's delivery ship retrieved Meia's dread and brought it back to the Nirvana, the pilot's life now slowly swaying at Death's door.
As they drew closer to the infirmary, Meia's vision began blurring and her eyes started to close, she faintly muttered a single word as she passed out "Mo…ther?"
Outside the Nirvana, the dread teams along with Galm were doing their best to deal with the enemy formation, but they had a new weapon this time, an enemy that had the ability to clone itself into decoys and attack with swift enough speed to flash by the defensive line around the Nirvana and attack the ship itself.
Since Meia was shot down, Jura had assumed the role of flight lead, but her leadership skills were horrible, she hesitated to give out her orders and either sent her allies right into enemy fire or crashing into each other.
"A-team switch to formation Alpha 1, B-team….uh well…"
Jura and Barnette collided with each other just before a third dread rammed into them, opening all of them to a direct attack, thankfully Pixy was able to save them.
Barnette yelled, "Get it together Jura, your formation is a mess!"
Jura was in a panic, she knew the formations well enough, but she had never taken the lead even in a training run, let alone an actual battle there was just too much pressure on her.
The battle continued for a few more minutes before Dita and Hibiki returned, quickly combining to from Vandread Dita.
They quickly destroyed an enemy, but failed to notice a giant space rock flying toward them, they just barely avoided a direct collision with it.
"What was that?" Jura asked them as she hovered her dread next to them "Is that all a loud mouth like you can do?"
Hibiki yelled back, "Shut up! Give me advice when you know what the hell you're doing!"
Jura growled, "I don't need a man telling me what to do!"
"Both of you shut it" Cipher yelled just before her F-15c zoomed by them "Settle your petty squabble after we deal with the enemy, until then stay focused cause I won't save you again".
Both Hibiki and Jura growled as Cipher gave her orders to Pixy telling him to go wide and around to strike at the enemy's right flank while she flew in directly.
Over the past couple of weeks Cipher had become more and more fierce and hostile in battle, on one occasion she even threatened to shoot Hibiki down herself if he didn't cut back on his attitude in battle.
While the battle continued on, BC watched from the bridge disappointed in herself, "It seems we've been taking Meia's leadership for granted. We neglected to train a secondary leader in case she was even incapacitated".
"It's because that girl wouldn't let us" Magno said. She began recalling the time she first heard of Meia, before she set out to find her as well as when she first met her and recruited her to her gang of pirates.
"She avoided human contact unless absolutely necessary, she avoided relying on people and kept herself closed off from everyone else. From the very moment I picked her I knew that eventually this day would come".
The ship shook after it took a violent hit that dropped what was left of the outer shields.
"The outer shields have fallen" Belvedere announced "Inner shields are also down to seventy percent".
"I've had enough of this" Cipher's voice said over the radios "Pixy get that bomb of yours ready!"
"Cipher?" Pixy asked.
"I'm going to bait them away from the ship, once we're clear of the dread teams fire that thing and take all of these bastards down in one go".
"Cipher, that's crazy!" Pixy said "You'll get caught in the blast".
"Well if that's what happens then you can finally say you beat me" Cipher responded "Now get the damn thing ready to fire".
Pixy sighed and resigned his argument "Galm 2, wilco".
Cipher fired her last 2 XMAA missiles at the leading wave of the next attack run to gain their attention before she flew right through their ranks baiting them away from the ship.
The mercenary's plan worked. Each of the Harvesters began shifting course and following her one after another until the bulk of their force was focused on Cipher alone.
Once they started following Cipher, Pixy ordered for all the dread pilots to fall back to escape the blast radius. Waiting for Cipher to lead the Harvesters further away Pixy took a deep breath before he released the safety on his special weapons lock.
"Galm 2" he said in a hesitant tone "Fox three".
The Multi-Purpose Burst Missile sped toward the center of the enemy formation chasing down Cipher and exploded in a mass of light blue plasma wiping out the entire group that was chasing Cipher and forcing the remaining force into a retreat.
"The enemy is retreating!" Aramone announced.
BC immediately yelled for all pilots to return to the ship, an order they were all glad to hear.
Once all the pilots had returned to the ship, the maintenance crews quickly went to work, repairing and rearming all the damaged fighters.
Cipher climbed out of her fighter and casually walked out of the hangar ignoring a small group of pilots that praised her plan and bravery that caused the enemy to retreat.
After Cipher left, Pixy walked over to the group of pilots and apologized for Cipher's cold shoulder "Don't take it personally, she's just not used to being praised by others, it makes her uncomfortable".
Pixy didn't follow Cipher this time, instead he sat on a bench in the corner of the massive hangar and crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall to get a bit of rest before the enemy returned and he knew they would.
Cipher returned to the training deck, a single large room on the Ikazuchi was a gym complete with treadmill, weights and punching bags, small and large.
Not many of the women on the ship made use of the gym, but Cipher was more than happy to use it. It gave her something to focus on while not flying and the punching bags were a great way to zero out her frustration for today.
Taking a roll of sports tape from a locker on the wall, she wrapped it around her forearms and the back of her hands before setting it on the bench and began changing into some clothes more suitable for working out.
After taking off her blazer jacket and short jeans, she now stood in just the skin tight black, knee long pants and a sport's bra. She walked over to the large punching bag, hanging from the ceiling and immediately gave it a single quick jab.
The second she hit it memories from her past came flooding back to her.
Cipher grew up in Yuktobania, both Cipher and her mother were born in Cinigrad, the country's capital city. Cipher's father however was Osean; he was born and raised for much of his life in November city before he moved to Bana city as a college student majoring in politics. Eventually he moved to Oured, the capital of Osea, that's where he met Alena Nikanor, daughter of the Yuktobanian Prime Minister.
It was 1963; Alena Nikanor was an aspiring writer who loved to travel as much as she could. While visiting the capital city of Osea she was so busy gazing at the sites of the city she accidently knocked over a young man reading the daily paper.
She quickly apologized to which the man merely smiled and shrugged off the incident. Alena apologized again and not long after that the two started talking. The man introduced himself as Charles Amagi.
The two spent a good portion of the day together and Charles offered to show Alena more of the city the next day, to which she happily agreed, it wasn't long after that before the two began falling for each other.
In 1965, the two were married in Cinigrad, Yuktobania with the Prime Minister joyfully conducting the ceremony and Alena's older brother Seryozha Viktorovich Nikanor also attending. Two years later in 1967, Alena gave birth to a daughter, a girl they named Fiona.
Fiona was a strong willed child, not afraid to voice her opinion on a matter and always ready to defend something or someone important to her. When she was 11 she had gotten into a fight with other students at her school.
She had found them torturing a stray dog that had a large cut on the side of its stomach and a rope leash that was tied so tight the dog's skin worn away skin was beginning to grow around it.
Fiona was so furious with the cold hearted matter the four boys were treating the helpless dog. She immediately ran over to them and pushed her way past two of them before punching the obvious leader of the group in his face, easily knocking him to the ground with a bloody nose.
The other boys didn't take long to react; two of them restrained Fiona while the other and the group's leader both hit her in her stomach. Thankfully two police officers showed up just as it happened and the group of boys quickly ran off.
Helping Fiona and making sure she was alright, one of the officers asked her what happened and she began explaining everything with tears in her eyes.
Once she was done explaining, the cops praised her for her bravery, but told her it's never a good idea to just charge in when you're outnumbered, you have to be smart.
The cops took Fiona home and promised to take the stray dog a black Labrador to the closest vet to be treated.
Two weeks later, two same two officers appeared at Cipher's home and showed her that the dog had made a full recovery. They also explained that the day before they picked up the dog, that someone tried to rob the vet's office, but the black lab had made him run off.
The dog was clearly loyal and one of the officers explained that in Old Norse mythology there was a demon hound named Garmer who guarded the gates of hell, but was very loyal to his master.
Fiona's parents had no objections to taking the dog into their family, but they didn't like the idea of naming it after a demon hound, so instead they named him Galm.
Cipher hit the bag again, and then a second time with a furious yell, as she began remembering more from her past.
Cipher was 17 now and in her senior year of high school. After getting home one day she changed out of her school uniform and grabbed Galm's leash to take the old dog for a quick walk.
She knew the dog was getting older and weaker, she knew it wouldn't be long before he passed away, but try as she might she couldn't prepare herself for it, she tried not to think about it as much as possible.
While walking Galm, she heard a gunshot come from inside a gas station and saw a single man running out of the station with barely a handful of cash. Instinctively Fiona ran inside to see what she could do to help, but what she found terrified her.
Lying on the ground bleeding from a gunshot was Ricardo Vorshov, the now retired police officer who helped her when she was younger. Both Fiona and the station's clerk did what they could to stop the bleeding, but the bullet had gone through one of his lungs. He was long gone by the time any help arrived.
As a partial witness, Fiona was questioned by the police and even saw the security footage from the gas station, she burned the image of the robber into her mind, she didn't know how or when, but she was going to make him answer for what he did.
Again, Cipher hit the bag, growling and grunting from the pain of her memories as they continued to haunt her. Every time she hit the bag she added more and more force to it, if it wasn't for the hard leather used to cover and case the training equipment, she probably would've destroyed it by now.
Fiona spent every bit of her allowance on martial arts classes, more specifically Muay Thai. She was determined to train and learn ways to not only defend herself, but what she cared most about. At least that's what she told herself, at times she wondered if she was working to defend herself and others or just wanting to become strong enough to take revenge on those who deserve it.
Regardless of her reasons she was determined, quickly advancing to the top of her class and even winning a regional tournament, her master sadly passed away in his sleep one night the same night her dog a loyal companion Galm did.
Cipher could feel the tears slowly running down her face, but as always she forced them back and continued on. Again and again she continued to hit the bag, landing blow after blow.
She remembered a time when she was 19 and in her first year of college, she had been expelled from the school for injuring another student and damaging the student's car as well.
The student was a senior and very drunk at the time, he was hitting on Cipher who stated over and over that she wasn't interested, but eventually the male student tried to force himself on her. Cipher quickly dropped her bag and slammed the student's face into the hood of his car before spinning him around and throwing him into the windshield of his car.
Campus security was called and arrested Cipher and the drunken student, both of them were expelled, Fiona for violence against another student as well as vandalism of personal property and the male student for breaking the rule of no alcohol on campus and public drunkenness.
That was the turning point in her life. Both of her parents were furious with her for being expelled, even though they understood she was defending herself they firmly agreed that she went too far while doing so.
Aggravated herself, Fiona quickly ran out of the house and began walking around town, unfortunately the night just kept getting worse and worse for her. A group from a local gang managed to piss her off as well and they got pretty much the same treatment the drunken student had gotten, it was four against one, but nothing she hadn't been through before.
Using her martial arts training, she easily beat each of them into the ground while only getting hit once. Immediately after the fight began, one of the gang smashed a beer bottle on the back of her head, a painful hit to be sure, but she still managed to beat them all before running away.
She returned home, early that morning to find that neither of her parents were there. At the time she didn't think much of it, she figured they were out looking for her and would be back soon so she went to bed after showering.
After sleeping for a few hours she awoke and walked into the kitchen where her mother was waiting for her. After a short talk, Fiona told her mother that she decided to join the military since her chances of being accepted at another college were pretty much zero.
Neither of her parents objected to it, in fact they encouraged it. So soon after, Fiona was on her way to the Yuktobanian military.
5 years, that's how long Fiona was in the Yuktobanian Air Force before she left and became a mercenary. For four years she had flown as a mercenary, but her skills weren't really used until the start of the Belkan war in 1995. At first she started as a recon pilot for ground forces, but was quickly recognized as a more than exceptional pilot and hired by the Republic of Ustio as a mercenary fighter pilot…a month later, that's when she met Pixy.
Cipher remembered the first time she met Pixy; she stopped hitting the punching bag while the memory replayed in her mind.
Since she became a mercenary she hid her identity entirely, she wore a men's flightsuit that was padded on the inside to conceal her female figure, and took a prototype voice filter before she left the military and implanted it into her helmet's communicator.
Everyone assumed Cipher was a man and she never removed her helmet around others, it was by complete accident that Pixy learned her secret.
Cipher's room was right next to Pixy's and the night after they shot down a squadron of bombers targeting Valais Air Base Pixy found out Cipher's secret. The pilot was reading a book and entered Cipher's room by mistake; Pixy walked over to what he thought was his bed until he heard a surprised gasp to his left and looked.
Surprised himself, he saw a woman sitting at a desk reading a book of her own dressed only in her red undergarments.
He didn't know how or why, but Pixy knew it was Cipher.
Pixy tried to make his expression calm, but he was really surprised to see the woman in his partner's room "I'm sure there's a really interesting story behind this".
"You can leave now" Cipher told him "And don't say a word".
Pixy decided it best to not try and push the conversation, so he left and returned to his room instead, but finding out his flight lead's secret was something he couldn't get off his mind.
On three occasions Pixy tried to get Cipher to open up a little, but only when they were alone. He knew she was trying to keep her gender a secret, but couldn't figure out why.
After their first mission in Area B7R, the two mercenary pilots defeated a well known Belkan squadron, The Grun flight.
During the air battle, Grun's flight lead gained a persistent lock on Cipher, but she managed to keep shaking off his missiles. The other members of Grun were shot down, but the squadron's leader was persistent and quick on his reflexes. Each sharp turn or evade Cipher pulled, he followed.
It was thanks to Pixy, firing at him that Cipher's pursuer finally broke away; Cipher swiftly turned her eagle around and downed the enemy flight lead with a single shot.
It was that night that Cipher decided it was time to give Pixy some answers.
Cipher heard the ship's alarm accompanied by BC's voice stating that the enemy had returned.
Leaving the gym and heading for the hangar, Cipher didn't bother to change her clothes, she had to find out something and she needed to find out now.
"I think you deserve some answers" Cipher said with her helmet and voice filter still on.
"I do like answers" Pixy told her with a small smile.
Cipher looked at the setting sun in the distance before she started explaining things.
"I concealed my gender because I'm tired of drunken personal coming on to me, before and during my time in the military it was all the same" Cipher told him "And as for my identity I'm a deserter, from the Yuktobanian Air Force. Officially I was declared KIA; I faked my death during a training exercise against another squadron. I sabotaged my fighter's engines before take off".
"Why?" Pixy asked her.
"I wanted to be free of it all" she told him "My whole life I've been bound by rules and regulations about something. I feel terrible about deserting my country's military and even more terrible when I think about how the news reached my parents, but I want a chance to go in the direction I want. Not the direction others want me to go".
"Still, faking your death is pretty extreme" Pixy said "How'd you manage to get away?"
"I secretly placed a scuba tank and some webs into the cockpit of my fighter that night while no one was looking. I didn't eject as I glided my fighter over the water's surface. I told everyone the ejection handle was stuck and the canopy wasn't popping. After my fighter began sinking, I put on the tank and fins I brought with me and swam underwater to the shore line. It was easy to slip by the outside of the base with so many people in a panic over a downed pilot".
Cipher paused for a moment "From there I stowed away on a cargo plane and it landed in Ustio. That's when I started my career as a merc; I'm not really good at anything else. My only skills are as a human weapon so I might as well make money off of it".
Cipher turned around to return to the Air Base "Anyway, that's my life's story".
Climbing back into her fighter, Cipher felt a warm sensation inside her chest; she almost had a sad look on her face when she stared down at her flightstick, "This is Galm 1. I'm taking off" she said quietly.
"I'm done" she thought to herself "I'm done living in the past. It's long gone and never coming back, I'm done feeling sorry for myself, I'm going to keep moving forward now".
Once Cipher took off from the Nirvana, she took her place in front of Pixy and looked over to Vandread Dita "So" she said calmly "Do you have a plan or something?"
Hibiki smirked and gave a thumbs up to the F-15 from the Vandread's cockpit "You'll see, I've got it all covered this time".
Cipher grunted a laugh before she looked over to Jura "How about you? Ready to take command?"
Jura replied with a bit of seduction in her voice "Well now, you'll just have to wait and see".
Cipher grunted another laugh before she looked over her shoulder to Pixy's fighter, "Larry…" she began, her voice had changed, quiet and almost distant now "Focus on giving cover to the dreads, engage enemies as needed, but we're defending this time".
"Galm 2, roger" Pixy replied as the enemy formation came into view.
The battle started almost immediately, the new dart shaped enemy duplicated itself until there were seven of them, the clones along with the remaining cube types all attacked at once. Several enemies slipped through the dread formations to attack the Nirvana, but the Galm team wasn't going to let the ship take another hit.
Easily and almost one after another, cube type after cube type were shot down, not a single one would get through as long as the pilots of Galm team were still flying.
"Alright let's do this!" Hibiki cheered before he and Dita started charging the Vandread's dual cannons.
"Everyone into position" Jura ordered to all of the dread pilots.
The female pilots flew away from each other and stopped in certain position at varying distances from each other. If one were looking from the outside of the battle he would think it to be a cluster of moving stars.
"All pilots, shields up" Jura ordered once everyone was in position.
Cipher and Pixy stayed next to the Nirvana, when the shields went up and watched as the Vanguard fired its weapons at its own allies, bouncing and deflecting its lasers off of all the allied shields causing a net to trap all of the enemies in a web that eventually killed them as the lasers continuously arced about.
There was only a single enemy left when the battle was over, the dart shaped enemy that brought down Meia, it was damaged and attempting to flee from the battle.
"Pixy, follow me and engage from the rear" Cipher ordered.
"Pixy here, roger that!"
The Galm team separated from the dread teams and pursued the damaged enemy.
Cipher broke away from Pixy and flew around as fast as her eagle would let her, when she put enough distance between her and the enemy; she turned around and began flying head on toward it while Pixy approached it from behind.
Once they were both close enough the two pilots fired a single missile in perfect synchronization. The two missiles quickly closed in on the lone enemy and impacted it from both sides, destroying it just before Cipher and Pixy passed each other with their fighters turned the same way it did during their final battle over Avalon Dam before they were transported to the far future.
Back on the Nirvana's bridge, Belvedere gave the radar a quick scan before she turned and smiled "All enemies confirmed destroyed, looks like we've survived another one".
Duelo's screen appeared on the captain's terminal "Captain" he said calmly.
"Yes Duelo what is it?" the captain asked him.
The doctor smiled "I'd like to report that Meia has awakened and will make a full recovery".
"I see" Magno replied while concealing her smile "That is good news, thank you Duelo and good work on taking care of her".
Duelo nodded before turning off his screen. The pilots had all returned to the Nirvana, they all deserved a night of rest after their ordeal today.
Everyone left the hangar quickly for various reasons; only Cipher and Pixy were left.
Pixy looked over to Cipher from the corner of his eye before nodding "See you later Cipher".
"Larry" Cipher said as he began walking away.
Pixy stopped just as Cipher calmly walked over to him and stopped in front of him.
"Thanks" she said as she held out her open hand.
Pixy was surprised, Cipher was, acting friendly again; something he thought he'd never see again.
"I said it would take a while to start trusting you again" Cipher said before her eyes faltered and looked toward the ground "I think I'm ready to start trying".
"Good to here" Pixy said with a small smile as he grabbed Cipher's hand and shook it "Thank you Cipher".
Cipher gave him a small smile and nodded before she walked away, she seemed almost happy; the clenching feeling in her chest had been replaced with a warm, lighter than air feeling now. "From now on" she thought "I'm going to keep moving forward".
The crew of the Nirvana celebrated their hard earned victory that night, almost everyone attended the party, save for BC, Cipher and Meia of course.
After the party ended many of the crew just fell asleep where they were instead of returning to their rooms. Jura and Barnette feel asleep sitting against a wall in the back of the kitchen with Jura resting her head on Barnette's shoulders.
Hibiki was sitting reversed at one of the table's with his back leaning against the edge and Dita across from him.
Meia had entered the cafeteria and walked over to Hibiki and looked down at him, she didn't know what to think or feel at that point. While searching her thoughts, the captain walked up behind her.
"They all did their very best out there today" she said.
Meia looked behind her "Oh captain. I was just".
The captain reached down and picked up Hibiki's jacket before placing it over the young pilot "It's ironic" she smiled "He's the exact opposite of you, this passionate little fool. And yet he's won everyone's hearts and right from under our noses. You know Meia the two of you are a lot alike you and this rascal. The only difference is in how you share your feelings".
"Captain I" Meia began.
Magno quickly cut her off with a smile "Meia, don't you think its time you found some forgiveness? For yourself I mean".
Meia looked down at the floor "I'm sorry captain. For the way I've acted".
The captain shook her head "You have no need to apologize to me dear, it's the others you should be apologizing to. Especially young Hibiki here, it was because of his reckless idea that we were able to win today. Of course Cipher and Pixy also had a hand in our victory; the two of them alone defended this ship that we call home while everyone was getting into position. I'm sure if you open yourself up to them, they won't turn you away Meia".
Meia pulled her eyes away from Magno, but before she could say anything the captain merely smiled at her and began walking away.
"It's late Meia, go get some sleep and think about what I said. I'm sure you'll feel better in the morning".
Meia took one last look at Hibiki before leaving to return to her room for the night. Meanwhile in the ship's hangar Cipher and Pixy were talking again, slowly trying to rebuild their lost friendship.
Pixy laughed, "I had thought, that little move you pulled had broken the kid's back, but when he just jumped back up and yelled " Pixy threw his arms out to the side for effect "That was awesome!" the pilot lowered his arms again "I was pretty surprised never expected him to be able to take a hit like that".
Cipher looked down at the glass of whine in her hand "He was annoying" she said calmly "But he was a good pilot, loyal, friendly and dedicated" she chuckled "He just didn't know the rule about sneaking up on me".
Pixy fell silent for a second before holding up his glass toward Cipher "To PJ and the fallen".
"To the fallen" Cipher repeated as they gave a toast to all the pilots that fell before them during the Belkan war.
The two pilots drank the last of their wine before returning to their rooms in the brig for the night. It wasn't a large step forward, but it was a good enough start for him, Pixy was just happy that Cipher was opening up to him again.