Chapter 52

“It's a Hard Rain”

Ran hated waiting.

She had been at the high point of the cliff Dome City was built against for an eternity and a half, and nothing had happened yet. Her orders were simple enough: to keep an eye on the movements of the origin of the overhead probes (a Livuan ship, if Nereida Aegea was to be believed), and to see that nothing landed too close to Dome City.

Seeing was the part that got to her. She was not allowed to give away her own position. For obvious reasons, she thought. She was very close to Dome City. But the prohibition was to remain even if she moved far, far away. Which she reckoned she could, if she didn’t overexert her powers.

And now the argument with Hoshiko had come back to the plans.

“The ship is going to come too close to Dome City for comfort. We’re going to have to bait it away,” Hoshiko said.

“Bait it how?”

“Listen, I don’t have time to explain,” Hoshiko’s voice continued in a low voice. It was getting hard to understand her when she spoke so softly, as if the quality of the signal was dropping. “I’m moving into position and I’ll be too far to speak with you.”

“Where are you going?”

“Nereida Nostrum,” the familiar voice of Torao interrupted, this one sounding crisp and clear.

“Kokawa-san?” Ran said.

“Yes. We don’t have much time so I’ll give you a very brief explanation. After that, only use the radio to give us updates on the enemy’s moves.”

“B-” Ran bit her lip and stopped the “but” that had almost jumped out of her lips.

“Going by the movements you have been describing, the ship is going to come close enough that Aegea-san believes it will detect Dome City unless we stop it.”

Ran nodded, pointlessly as she was miles away from Torao.

“Our plan is simple. We will use the ruins fifty miles east of the city as bait. My men will make a mock evacuation when the alien ship is close enough, and your friends will provide cover. If they are looking for a human settlement around here, as Aegea-san believes, we will give them one. The trail of the fake evacuation will lead them away.”

“My friends?” Ran said, emphasizing the plural. “Who-”

“Nereida Caribea, Nereida Andamania, and me,” Hoshiko said. There was noticeable static now in her transmission.

“If it’s cover you need, I-”

“We need you up there!” Torao interrupted, and his voice carried a certain amount of exasperation. “You’re our eyes, you’re the only one who can see everything that’s happening. Stay. There.”

There was no reply for several seconds, and finally Ran’s voice came through, the perfect sound of resignation. “I understand.”

 

Hoshiko smiled inwardly and allowed herself to relax back into her seat. At last Ran had given in. She was sitting inside the military underground railway, together with the best part of the men that would stage the evacuation, and the two pupils Kitteh had fetched for her.

“She sounds worried,” Tamako said, looking at Hoshiko.

“I know.”

“Is it okay not to explain anything else to her?”

Hoshiko looked at Tamako, Nereida Andamania, and smiled. “You know her.”

“Yeah,” she replied, making a smile of her own and nodding. “She’s such a worrier.”

Hoshiko didn’t answer. She was plenty worried herself. She had brought Tamako as the first line of defence, and Isamu as the heavy hitter in case things went South. Hoshiko herself had to stay put and not lift a finger, because she had to save all her power for the one task she couldn’t trust anyone with.

Destroy that ship, if it comes down to that. I’ll only have one shot.

Isamu was the one to speak, first time she had done so since she got in the train. “Maybe you should be worried yourself. Obviously we will help if things go badly. But if they don’t, you’ll be the only one out there. And you will obviously be under attack.”

“Now, now. Technically it won’t be me under attack… but everyone else,” Tamako finished in a whisper, taking an inconspicuous look around.

“You know what I mean.”

Hoshiko laid back on her seat and tried to relax, eyes closed and not paying attention. She wasn’t sure what would be worse, having to step in into the action, or having to stand on the sidelines while everyone else risked life and limb. Going by what she knew, Tamako had good defensive capabilities. Isamu had at least one overwhelming attack with large impact. And she, she had to sit tight and wait, and put everything into blowing the ship in one single lightning attack.

She’d have preferred Etsuko for the mission. She was by far the fastest of them all, and the best choice to zip around the battlefield. But it was impossible for her at the time. She was back home, like Ayame, to hold to fort and only fight if the worst came to pass.

Of course, it’s not going to be a battlefield.

The original plan was one of the desperate scenarios, where the army would misdirect a discovery force while the real Dome City was evacuated. In its original inception, it was to be a suicide mission – being on the receiving end of a one-sided bombardment – brought by the lack of effectiveness of the regular human weapons on the Livuans. Just a silly decoy, carrying the hope that Dome City wouldn’t be spotted.

It wasn’t long before they arrived at their destination. Once the train stopped, they alighted and made their way outside while the men unloaded gear. They had everything they needed. Numerous semi-visible large tents all over the ruins, old vehicles, assorted rubbish strewn across the land… Much of it looked old and lived-in, gear that had probably been there since Dome City’s inhabitants first moved in.

“The bunker’s over there,” one of the soldiers said to the girls. A polite way of inviting them to move out of the way.

Hoshiko sighed, and looked at Tamako. She tried to speak, but failed to find the words.

“Don’t worry Aegea-san. I’ll be fine.”

“I know you will,” Hoshiko replied. “But… Something for you to remember. There will be no way to tell what will happen. Once the attacks start, there’s just no telling. You concentrate on keeping yourself safe first, if you are not safe, you can’t help anyone.”

“I know.”

“And… And even then.” Hoshiko put both hands on Tamako’s shoulders, and looked at her straight in the eye. “Even then. Not everyone will make it.”

The girl’s perennial smile didn’t disappear, but it changed visibly. It was the least happy smile Hoshiko had seen on Tamako’s face so far. “I know,” she repeated, speaking in a much softer voice.

Hoshiko gave the girl a hug. “Good luck,” she said, before turning abruptly and leading Isamu towards their waiting spot. A deeply dug bunker, where they’d have to wait for orders and news from the outside. Once they made it inside and placed themselves on the cushioned floor of one of the compartments, they started their wait.

Like Ran, they hated waiting.

 

The signal to begin the fake evacuation came three hours later. It was already past noon, a very hot day outside the dome. Tamako didn’t find it difficult to withstand the heated dry air, and the merciless Sun. Her power as a Nereida felt a lot like a refreshing water torrent. She thought it at first only natural, but neither one of the others had reported the same feeling she had.

That was one of the random thoughts that had been playing inside her head while the endless wait continued. Now the alarm had been raised, and all those random thoughts were in a scramble to bury themselves back inside her and make room for the urgent needs of the present. The warning had come from one of the scouts. A scout like one would expect in a real settlement of the wasteland, warning the base back home that trouble was coming. She was perched high on the ruins of a particularly tall building, hiding behind the rubble that adorned the surviving beams. She rushed towards the North side, and managed to catch the wispy trail of smoke from the distant explosion. The scouts were on their own, she was not supposed to help them.

She had to help the caravan that had just started moving out of the settlement. Eastwards, away from Dome City. It moved in apparent disarray and irregular pace, a perfect mimicry of a true stream of refugees.

More than anything, she wished Etsuko could be there with her.

With one final look at the smoke, she moved out. The ship was not yet visible to anyone other than Ran, and all she saw was a small glowy spot in the distance. But what started to become visible were large mecha raining from the sky and landing closer and closer to the ruins.

When she reached ten, she stopped counting them. Too many, that’s all she needed to know. She stuck to the plan and walked close to the middle of the caravan, keeping away and hiding from view in the ruins.

Then the rain started. The rain of death. The first shot landed surprisingly close to the head of the caravan. A red glowing ball of energy that she almost missed in its speed. She hadn’t known what to expect, and had been extremely surprised at how fast and powerful it had been.

More were coming. She made a silent prayer for her power to grant her the speed she needed, and rushed towards it. Her mission was as simple as it was challenging: cover as many people as possible from the shots with her shielding powers, but let the destruction rain otherwise. Those who survived would continue the caravan, hide, or play possum. Destroyed gear and dead would be left behind. Leave a trail of destruction for the Livuans to follow away from Dome City. The final destination being one of the many abandoned networks of underground tunnels. Easy to justify a trail being lost.

Survivors would discreetly return to Dome City as best they could. She had promised herself to help them return no matter what.

She landed in front of the caravan mere instants before the shot landed and, without even looling, spun her staff around making the largest energy shield she had made so far. Not that she had had much of a chance, but she had done a few training tests by herself. The disk grew four meters across right when the energy shot was about to impact. She held onto her staff firmly while the energy ball exploded all around her.

It was all over in the longest instant she could remember. When she opened her eyes, she saw people on the ground behind her, those who dove for cover by instinct more than conscious thought. Then her eyes strayed, and looked beyond what her staff had been able to protect.

She saw red. She heard moans. And she became rooted in place.

“What are you doing? GO!”

She turned to see a man, one of the soldiers she had been able to protect, shouting at her. There was another explosion, and that one landed mercifully far from the caravan. The voice and the blast snapped her back to reality, and she looked up to find where the next drop of deadly rain would fall.

Her feet pushed her so hard, the soldier thought she had vanished in thin air.

0 Comments ↓

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply