Chapter 2: The Girl Who Drifted to Me.
She looked around in a hurry, visibly confused.
“Don't push yourself too much,” I replied with a smile to put her at ease. “You still need to rest.”
I went to the fireplace and started another fire.
“What happened to me? Where am I?”
I turned to her while still contemplating how much I should tell her. I didn't know what to do from here on out, but I made sure to pretend like I did.
“This is the island Sunk Tierra… Well, not officially because it's not known to others— It was my father who found and named it. I don't really want other people to know about this island, but I can tell you that we're near the country Vessel from where I just came right now. If you wanted to know the closest place to here though, it'd be the island Divel.”
“Sunk Tierra…” she said softly.
“Although I have some questions of my own. Who are you?”
The fire was burning quite healthily now, so I filled a tea kettle from the sink facet that was piped directly from the well and boiled it over the fire.
“Yesterday night, you washed up on sh.o.r.e. I did say the closest place to here was Divel, but it's not a distance you could swim. So how did you end up here?”
I didn't want to pry too hard into her because that just wasn't the right thing to do. Instead, I asked for her situation in the least intrusive way possible.
Plus, I needed to know at least where to bring her back to, if I could at all. If I had to accompany her back to where she came from, it was important to understand what I was getting myself into.
Above all, I was just curious. Who wouldn't be?
Yet she didn't speak a word, opting to avert my gaze and stare at the ground instead. It was clear she didn't want to talk about it no matter how long I waited.
After a few moments, she finally uttered something.
“Hey no big deal— there's no need to say sorry. I'm someone you just met, after all,” I said, still trying to be as cheerful as possible. I also thought I came off too harsh when I asked her about it.
“Thanks… for saving me,” she said with a small bow.
“How you feeling? Once the water finishes boiling, I'll get some tea ready.”
“I'm fine… but…” She sat up on the bed while making sure the blanket was still wrapped tightly around her. She looked around frantically until she spotted her clothes hanging above the fireplace.
Instantly, I thought of yesterday's events.
“S-Sorry! You were really wet and getting really cold, so I did what I could! I didn't do anything else, I promise!”
She blushed for a moment but said, “It's o-okay. Thanks,” and threw out a smile.
On the other hand, I quickly looked away from her and handed her clothes back to her.
“Umm… could you also look away for a bit?”
I turned to face the opposite wall. “O-Of course,” I said, before hearing her say, “Sorry,” again in the faintest whisper possible as she began changing.
I made sure to completely cover my own eyes after everything that happened yesterday. I didn't want to make things worse.
“Alright, I'm good now.”
Even so, I turned around slowly. She was standing politely with her hands huddled together, almost like a timid white rabbit.
I pulled out a chair and motioned her to sit around my round table. Surprisingly, she walked up to it with an air of elegance that I couldn't describe, and she even sat down with a touch of dignity.
Now that the water was fully boiled, I took out some black tea leaves to throw in the teapot.
“What a beautiful aroma…” she suddenly said. “You didn't need to brew such a high quality tea for me…”
“Don't worry about it. I just felt like drinking it.”
The fact that she knew the quality of the tea just from the smell alone surprised me, but she wasn't wrong. I did indeed buy it from a special shop in Vessel at a high price.
In any case, I put the tea leaves inside the pot and stirred it around, then grabbed my tea set and made my way back to the table. Oddly enough, I enjoyed stirring the tea more than drinking it because I liked the way its aroma spread throughout the room.
“Once again, thanks so much for saving me,” she said after I sat down. “What could I possibly do to repay you?”
I shook my head. “No worries. Don't worry about it.”
“T-Thank you… I—” she paused for a brief second, so brief that it was borderline unnoticeable. “I'm Stella.”
“Nice to meet you! I'm Ciel Migrateur.”
She didn't tell me her last name, but I didn't mind at all. Whether someone had a last name or not was a delicate issue, and it was a road that I definitely should not cross.
“This is a bit sudden, but I do have a question for you Ciel…”
“Sure, if I could answer it. What is it?”
Stella got serious. “What month and day is it?”
“Uhhh…” Initially, I didn't know how to answer that. “You mean today's date?”
“Yes,” she replied, still with a serious tone.
“Which calendar do you use? I could tell you in Vessel's calendar.”
“Well then, today is the third day of the Grape month.”
I heard her whisper something about making it in time to herself, but that's when I noticed that the tea was ready, so I poured her a cup.
“Go ahead,” I urged.
The tea reminded me of the morning sky with its fresh aroma as I also poured myself one.
“Hey, you said earlier that this was an island, right?” Stella suddenly asked me. “Sunk Tierra?”
“How did you get here? You said it yourself, didn't you? It doesn't seem like a place where you can easily come to.”
“Well, I didn't wash up here like you did. I came here with my plane.”
“A plane as in a Seagull?”
Seagulls were a type of flying boat used regularly for transportation between countries and their respective islands. The crafts that we Swallows used had small engines (or rather, large perpetual engines were rarely found), but Seagulls were on a much larger scale. As a result, while a typical Seagull was equipped with two to four gasoline engines, they were unable to go very fast. They made up for that lack of speed with their ability to travel long distances and carry heavy loads without much of a problem. That's why countries opted to use Seagulls for transportation— it was just more economically viable.
But within all that lied a very serious problem. Seagulls were easy targets because of their slow speeds and sluggish maneuverability, which made them terrible fighters in the air. To abuse this, countries had a “Corsair” division solely dedicated to targeting and plundering helpless Seagulls.
Its ability to travel long distances was also one of its downfalls. It wasn't unusual for smaller gasoline powered escort aircraft to not have the fuel capacity to accompany the long journeys that only they could do. In that case, if the Seagulls happened to be spotted by enemy Corsairs, it was game over for them.
That's why countries still preferred Swallows to transport the more important deliveries.
“No, not a Seagull. They wouldn't come to such an island like this one. I came here with my own plane.”
“You have a private plane?!?!”
I forced out a smile. The only people who had planes of their own were the ultra wealthy and of course, Swallows like me. I probably didn't look like any of the two to her.
“It's parked right in an inlet outside, wanna see?”
Stella immediately nodded. “Yes please!”
Hearing that, I stood up and made my way outside, urging her to come along. The moment I opened the door, I was nearly blinded by the sunlight before my eyes had time to adjust.
“Wow, it's beautiful…” Stella whispered.
Instantly, we were surrounded by the luscious forest right under the bright overhead sun. In front of us was the beach, but unlike yesterday night when it was all dark, the sand glittered to an almost white color. The ocean beyond that quietly splashed waves onto the sh.o.r.e, and with the sky in the picture, I couldn't help but take in the vibrant colors of blue, white, and green all in one go.
Stella saw Polaris parked at the pier and ran up to it, with me following right behind her.
“Wow, it's so white… like snow.”
“You've seen snow before, Stella?” I asked.
“No, but I have seen it in pictures… I'm sure it's as beautiful as this in person.”
“The white makes it get dirty easily— You won't believe how hard I have to work to maintain it.”
Stella laughed. “It has an eternal perpetual engine?”
“It does… how did you know?”
“Because I love airplanes!” she replied cheerfully. “That means that it could fly anywhere without fuel, right?”
I nodded. “We don't know how it works because they're too well built to be disa.s.sembled and a.n.a.lyzed. No one knows… I mean, how could it fly forever? But it could. This one's been flying forever for sure.”
“The sky's so vast and welcoming. You could go anywhere you want to…” Stella said in wonder. She clearly had a great impression of the sky.
Not me, though.
“Hey,” she continued. “Ciel, are you by chance a Swallow?”
I nodded again and Stella immediately followed up with another question.
“Then… could this plane's name be Polaris?”
What? I was so in shock I couldn't answer.
My face must have given all away, because Stella looked as though I flat out confirmed her suspicions.
“As I thought. You're the White Wing Migrateur, aren't you?”
Ah, no wonder. She must have known my farther.
“I am, but not the same White Wing you know. That would be my father, Akasha Migrateur.”
I gave a vague smile without replying. She did seem like she had more to ask.
“Ciel, you also have your father's stream chart, then?”
“Yes. He pa.s.sed it down to me.”
Stella dropped her gaze down to her feet— she was taken aback and didn't know what to follow up with, but eventually regained her composure.
“Then, do you have Batoh's stream chart?”
Batoh was a country roughly the same size as Vessel. There was a part where both Vessel and Batoh's paths overlapped, and if I remembered correctly, it should be quite near to us right now.
I paused to think things through before replying.
“Yeah, I do… but what about it?”
“Then I have a request,” she replied loudly. Her gaze turned so intense I instinctively straightened my posture. “Do you think you can take me there?”
“To Batoh?” I asked, even though I knew full well that was it.
Stella nodded. She was dead serious, and now it was clear she had something urgent to do.
I thought about my options long and hard— She was a girl who had just washed up on sh.o.r.e and I still didn't know anything about her or her situation. The obvious logical answer was to not get involved with her.
“If I do that, then you can at least tell me why you washed up on sh.o.r.e?”
Stella bowed apologetically but replied with, “I can't tell you.”
I gulped nervously. “Then, why do you want to go there?”
“I can't tell you that, either. Sorry…”
For a brief moment after, there was nothing but the sounds of the wind and ocean in the air because I just didn't know what to say with all her secrecy. Eventually, I sighed. I couldn't take this any more.
“So essentially, you want me to take you to Batoh without knowing anything myself?”
“Yes, that's right.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, but I can't do that then. If you wanted to go to Divel or even Vessel then I could have taken you no questions asked. But anything beyond that is a no go for me, at least without more information.”
“Please! I know I'm asking a lot, and I know I'm being rude doing so, but please! I have to go to Batoh!”
Stella kept bowing her head apologetically and pa.s.sionately. She sounded desperate, but emitted a certain pressure that wasn't pleasant for the both of us. Everything in me was screaming not to get involved with her and that she was dangerous.
“Even if you say that…”
“D-Deliver me then!” she interrupted with a shout.
Her sudden shout just confused me— I didn't know what she was trying to get at.
“I've heard Swallows maintained absolute discretion for their clients and whatever they wanted to deliver.”
Oh, so that's what she was trying to get at. If she wanted to play that game, I would be happy to go along with her.
“As I said, I would be happy to bring you to Divel or Vessel as a favor. But it's another story if you wanted to hire me as a Swallow. Then I would need a suitable amount of money, money that would probably be more than you would antic.i.p.ate.”
“If I had that, would you accept it then?”
I nodded. There weren't really any other way to transport people around, which made it incredibly expensive. In this case, a lump sum of 10 million gotes wouldn't even be out of the picture. I didn't know how much Stella thought it would cost, but certainly not this much.
The plan here was to refuse her offer and just take her to Divel or Vessel. That way I could avoid any trouble that would most certainly arise otherwise… or so I had antic.i.p.ated. Ever since I found her on the beach, things probably weren't ever going to go according to plan.
Stella reached behind her neck and unfastened the silver chain around her pendant and handed it to me.
“Is this enough?” she asked.
“What is it?”
I could only stare in awe at the large blue gem embedded in the pendant.
“This is about 100 carats… Plus it's in a six pointed shape… Is this a real star sapphire?”
Stella nodded. It was a frighteningly expensive gem. Even by conservative estimates, it was worth about 300 million gotes.
“If you take me to Batoh, I will give that to you.”
I couldn't believe what I was seeing. There was no way I could pull out the cost card with that, but if she was willing to use that as payment then something fishy must be going on.
“If I asked you who you are, you won't answer me, huh…” I asked initially.
She apologized, and I sighed once again.
“Why would you go that far?”
Stella frowned at my question. There was probably so much she wanted to get off her chest, but couldn't.
“I won't ask for any more details,” I continued. “But if you're willing to sell that star sapphire— then you could do anything you want, whenever you want. You could travel the world and live in a place that you like forever. So why? There's no way that's worth a trip to Batoh. It's not right.”
I really didn't mean to ask her any more questions or criticize her motives because I knew nothing would come of it, but what could possibly motivate her to go to such lengths?
Of course, I was fully aware that I wasn't getting the answer to my question anytime soon, but there weren't a lot of things that got me excited like this has. Perhaps that was why I became so invested in this.
“It's not about the money,” she said without an ounce of doubt in her eyes. “And again I'm sorry I can't tell you anything. I will make it to Batoh no matter what it takes.”
As a Swallow, I literally couldn't find a reason to refuse her request… So I sighed and went for it.
“Alright. I'll accept your request on behalf of the Vessel's Guild of Swallow. It will be carried out by me, Ciel Migrateur and the Polaris.”
“Thank you so much!”
She smiled so cheerfully at me it could take anyone's worries away, yet it had the opposite effect on me. There was nothing that could make me feel at ease. Receiving 300 million in payment for taking someone to Batoh just sounded too good to be true.
If the whole thing wasn't a scam, I would be set for life in terms of money. In the back of my mind, however, I knew that things wouldn't go the way I wanted. She was hiding something big… I just didn't know what it was.
I sighed again to hide my concerns.
“So, when should we head out?” I asked.
“I don't have much time, so as soon as possible.”
“Just when I thought I'd have time to rest…”
“Sorry about that.”
“There's no to apologize. You're my client now, and I agreed to take this job,” I said, going to my drawer and shuffling through it. “They should be in here somewhere…”
It would be troublesome for her to fly with the robe she was wearing, so I looked for some spare clothes she could wear.
“Ah nice! Found it.”
I pulled out a fat stack of brown clothes my father left behind before slamming the drawer shut. I could tell that the sizes weren't perfect once I straightened a part of it out and held it in front of her to see, but there wasn't anything I could really do about that.
“These are a little big, but please change into them. You can't really fly with those clothes on.”
“I'll be waiting outside, so come out when you're done,” I said.
There was a small table outside where I had laid out my stream chart and other instruments to quickly calculate my flight path. In other words, I had to calculate Batoh's current location and drift path so I could meet up with it— and fast. Batoh was currently about 3,000 kilometers away, so it would take about two days with an overnight stop. However, it was heading south towards me at a rate of about 200 kilometers a day, so in reality I would reach it much quicker.
At the same time, flying to a place moving towards you was a danger of its own because there was only one chance to spot it as a single miss could prove to be fatal. My plan here was to travel 1,500 kilometers in the first day, stop overnight, and search for it on the second day. There was no choice but to fly very slowly on that second day to ensure there was no room for error. As for food and water, I only had about five days worth for two people.
Stella came out of the hut while I continued processing all the information in my head.
“H-How is it?” she said, spinning herself around for me to see.
It was definitely too big for her from the sleeves to the waist, so much that she had to roll it up around her. She managed to get her arms and legs to stick out, but the neck portion was way too big.
“Yeah, it's definitely too big…” I replied.
“It's okay, at least I could still move.”
Although, it did seem to suit her in a strange way.
In any case, I began to load all the food and supplies back into Polaris. The perishable goods I bought like the vegetables had to be eaten for lunch today, and the water tank had to be filled as much as possible. Luckily, I didn't have to worry about fuel or any cargo weight due to my special engine, so I was good to load up as much as possible and not have to worry about how much of what to carry. Besides, I could discard items when necessary if I really wanted to lighten my load.
“You're loading up a lot of stuff, huh.”
“Swallows could stay up to a week without resupplying, so it's necessary,” I replied. I had done this kind of packing so many times before that I managed to squeeze everything without wasting any unnecessary s.p.a.ce.
After doing so, I gave a stern warning to Stella, who was still checking out all my cargo.
“It's pretty tiring to be sitting for so long if you're not used to it…”
“It's okay, I'll manage!” Stella said confidently.
I didn't buy into her confidence. At the very least, I hoped that she wouldn't complain during the ride…
“This trip will take two days,” I said. “That means we would have to spend the night together in Polaris…”
I didn't even realize that was the case until I said it myself. Why it took me so long to realize that was a mystery to me. Now that I realized I was spending the night with her, my face couldn't help but turn red, and Stella's as well to a certain extent.
“B-But!” I continued after an awkward silence. “It's okay, I won't do anything!”
Stella laughed and motioned that it was okay. It wasn't like me to get fl.u.s.tered and shout things out like that, but I quickly composed myself and nodded.
After loading all the cargo, I began my inspections. My father had regular inspections done for him because of a favor he incurred in the past, and that favor was pa.s.sed down to me. The girl who did my inspections wasn't the original mechanic working for my father, but rather had her profession pa.s.sed down to her like I had.
However, since she wasn't here, I had to do all the checks myself. Generally, an eternal perpetual engine was not p.r.o.ne to failure at all— it could be hit by a barrage of cannonb.a.l.l.s, set on fire, sunk and it would still trug along without breaking down.
That's why I was never too worried about it.
The exterior of Polaris seemed to be in good shape even after my little dogfight in Nave, and there weren't any areas that raised a red flag. My father and our mechanics always did great work on Polaris so it was always tough as nails.
On the same note, I checked and double checked that the instruments were calibrated properly. If they were even just a little off, my calculations would be affected and turn out to be wrong. In the worst case scenario, that meant death at the bottom of the ocean.
Equipment like the speedometer, altimeter, balances, turn and slip indicators, variometer, Hobb's meter, and of course my charts and their respective calculators had to be checked to make sure they were accurate.
Luckily, they were.
I opened a small door in the nose of the Polaris to check the final thing.
“What's in there?” Stella asked from behind me.
You never knew what could happen up in the sky, especially this time around. It made me think more on how Stella could possible end up here. She must have been on an airplane that crashed somewhere in the area, and while this place didn't have any large currents that could move whole countries around, it did have smaller waves that could have easily washed her up here.
It must have been quite a miracle that she was still alive, but I didn't think that was the whole story. For one, did she crash because of some engine troubles? Or did someone else shoot her down?
While I preferred not to use my weapons at all, I wouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger if push ever came to shove. These consisted of two 20 mm anti-aircraft machine guns on the wings and a separate .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the backseat.
“Hey, can I ask you something?” I said, turning back to her.
“What is it?”
“You've never shot a gun before, haven't you?”
“… I haven't.”
“Ah, thought so.”
I wasn't sure if the back gunner mount was operational because I rarely used it, if ever. It would be better for me to fire some test rounds first to make sure it works.
With that being said, I moved into the back seat, aimed the machine gun at the ocean, and fired.
The thunderous roar of the gun was loud, but the recoil was even greater than I had antic.i.p.ated. The gun went tat tat tat as the empty sh.e.l.ls dropped into the ocean. It seemed like it was working properly, so I waved Stella over.
“Try shooting some rounds,” I said.
Stella shook her head in despair. “I-I can't! I've never even touched something like this before…”
“If you don't, it could mean our doom…” I replied, putting the safety back on the gun. I continued on with a few choice words because I noticed Stella wasn't budging. “The sky isn't a safe place. When we're under attack by enemy fighters, we live or die by your hand. Since I have to pilot the s.h.i.+p, you're the only one who could use that machine gun. If you're still sure you can't, then tell it to me again with that in mind.”
I said all that with a bit of sa.s.s in my tone while Stella just stared silently back at both me and the gun.
A few moments later she finally said, “I'll do it.”
She said it softly, but surely. I nodded and got out of the seat.
“Go for it,” I urged.
She awkwardly climbed up and struggled to plop herself right in the seat.
“Wow, it's really narrow,” she said.
“You'll get used to it because you're really small, especially since you'll be in there all day.”
“I-I'll try my best.”
The back seat was back to back with the pilot seat, facing the other direction.
“I see it has all the same instruments as the pilot too,” said Stella.
“Originally it was for the navigator who would do all the calculations, but since I'm used to flying alone I could mult.i.task and do that as well. Don't worry about any of that stuff, let's just try to get some shooting practice in.”
“Uhh… so what should I do first?”
“Shooting's actually not that hard. See that lever next to the trigger? Turn that around.”
Stella swung the horizontal lever just as I had instructed. “Like this?”
“Now pull it towards you.”
“Y-Yes!” Stella said, using a burst of strength to do so. The gun went kching and the safety was removed.
“Now it's safe to shoot since the safety is off. All that's left is for you to brace yourself, aim it, and pull the trigger. Try firing out there just like I just did.”
Stella looked very uncertain gripping the gun, which made her the least person in the world who should have been using it. I chose not to say anything about the recoil that she very clearly wasn't prepared for.
“Alright, here I g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g-go!”
The recoil was so violent Stella shook back and forth with it as if she was experiencing an earthquake. The barrel swung up and down and back and forth and back again. There was no way she could hit anything like that.
She couldn't hold the trigger for long, anyway. When the ordeal was all over, she slumped down in her seat.
“So, how was it?”
“I'm just… shocked…” she said with a defeated face.
I laughed a bit. It was fine even if she couldn't hit anything, because that meant she wouldn't kill anyone. Besides, it was the threat of the bullets that mattered.
Now that she could somewhat use the gun, I was ready to go.
“Let's eat first. The perishable food won't last long.”
I made mostly salads because the majority of the perishables were vegetables.For the most part I threw most of it in a large bowl, added a dash of a special balsamic vinegar specially made from Modina, some olive oil, and finally topped it off with a honey salad dressing. I combined the remaining vegetables with the meat and rye bread to make sandwiches. There was enough food for dinner as well.
Meanwhile, Stella was just watching me from the side. “Hey Ciel, you're pretty good at cooking,” she said with a hint of admiration.
“How about you?” I asked.
“N-Not really…” she answered and then giggled nervously.
I flipped the kitchen knife around so that the handle was facing towards her and said, “Why not try?”
“Uhh, okay… just for a bit!” she said, grasping the knife with both her hands. “L-Like this, right?”
“Yeah… wait, hold on a second.”
I took a step back away from her because she was gripping the knife too tightly with both her hands in the most shaky way possible. From an outsider's perspective, she looked like she was about to stab me in the stomach.
“S-Sorry… I've never held a knife before…” she said softly.
Stella nodded— no wonder she still hasn't realized she was still pointing the knife at me.
“Well, you can start by not pointing it in my direction.”
“Huh?” she said. “Oh, right! That's dangerous!”
“Wait, don't point it at yourself, either…”
Stella swung the knife around in a desperate attempt to be safe, but that only caused more problems.
“You shouldn't swing it around like that…”
This farce went on for five long minutes.
“I guess we could say that there are some things that just weren't meant to be,” I concluded.
She was so apologetic that even I felt like I did something wrong.
“How did you get so good at cooking?”
“I wouldn't say I'm good at cooking, but I did start when I was little I guess?”
“The exact moment I was born.”
“What?!? Right out the womb?”
“No, it's a joke…”
Or so I said, but there was some truth in it.
“I really don't know exactly when I started,” I continued.
“Your parents never did the cooking?”
“My father was rarely home because he was a Swallow, and my mother… Well, I just had no choice but to do everything myself. Besides, even my father is gone now.”
Even though I was nonchalant about the whole thing, I could feel Stella's heart drop the moment I said that.
“Aren't you lonely?” she asked.
I thought about what she asked— It was hard to think of a reply because I was never the emotional type. She must have thought I had it really rough emotionally from the way she was looking at me so uneasily, but that wasn't necessarily the case for me.
I laughed to lighten the mood.
“If I did feel lonely, it must have been way too long ago to remember.”
“You can just sit normally, you know.”
“Don't be so nervous. Just sit and relax. There's nothing you have to do… for now,” I said, glancing at the machine gun. “You might have to use that.”
“I'll do what I can…”
“You'll do fine. You shot it fine just now, didn't you?”
I laughed, well aware that she was still my customer.
“You don't have to hit anything,” I rea.s.sured. “You don't even have to aim. When I say shoot, just pull the trigger. Don't shoot otherwise though. It's too dangerous.”
“Alright, you ready for this two day trip?”
“I'm ready,” she said with a bow.
The engine was warmed up enough since I fired it up a while ago. Now was the time to leave.
“Let's do this,” I said, doing one last check over all my instruments. The yoke and rudder felt solid as well, and the engine sounded healthy.
“Mic check, mic check, can you hear me?” I said, speaking into the mic this time.
“Is this my mic? Yes, you sound fine,” Stella replied.
This was the best shape I could hope Polaris to be in. I pulled my flying cap right over my ears so that I would still be able to hear her even with the winds.h.i.+eld open.
“Ready for takeoff,” I said.
I slowly engaged the throttle to push power into the engine. For an airplane with a perpetual engine like mine, the takeoff process was actually quite difficult. While a gasoline engine gained power gradually as the throttle was engaged, an eternal perpetual engine was much more sensitive. Even a slow push forward could cause the plane to fly at full power, while a slow push backward could cause a sudden stop in speed. In this case, there was simply no room for error. Inexperienced pilots might push the throttle too hard too fast and cause the plane to lose stability, and others might stall the plane when they pull it too slowly.
Even I, as an experienced pilot, had to be extra care when taking off and landing in the water.
Polaris slowly glided on top of the water with my precision controls on both the throttle and the rudder pedals below my feet.
As such, I made my way out of the inlet until the ocean was in plain sight. Once I began to feel Polaris picking up more speed, I pushed the throttle harder and harder.
I was accelerating fast enough that the reflections on the water seemed like glittering shooting stars zooming by on the surface.
At last, Polaris finally got enough lift to take off, and I got the all too familiar feeling of the sky welcoming me back home once I started maneuvering with the wind. I felt so at home it didn't even feel like I was piloting a plane, but rather flying through the atmosphere on my own.
The sky was calling out to me.
Once Polaris was near its peak alt.i.tude, the main flotation device folded back into the main body, while the secondary ones underneath both wings folded into itself.
“Are you okay?” I called out to Stella. We felt some G's from the takeoff.
“Y-Yes!” she replied. “Amazing… I didn't think the sky was this vast! It's so different seeing it out a window!”
At least she seemed okay. Her amazement and wonder reminded me of when my father first took me to the skies when I was two years old. I didn't remember anything from that time except for the beautiful evening glow that seemed to encompa.s.s everything before my very eyes. It was a sight I would never forget.
I was sitting on top of my mother's lap, but I couldn't remember my mother's face no matter how hard I tried. In fact, that was the only time I remembered being with my mother at all.
Once I climbed to 3,000 meters, I relaxed the throttle and stopped ascending. My plan today was to first make my way about 700 kilometers northwest to the island Divel, and from there go west for another 700 kilometers to be reach Batoh's expected route.
“I wonder how far this ocean goes?”
“I don't know. n.o.body's ever tried to find out.”
“Is there even an end to this?” she asked innocently, but her words stabbed straight to my heart.
“Only idiots would try and see the edge of the world,” I whispered to myself.
Only idiots like my father.
After about three hours of flying, I reached the island of Divel as I had antic.i.p.ated.
“Wow, even I could see from here that it's a bustling island,” said Stella.
“Yeah, its a city of trade. There's not a lot of countries on islands, much less prosperous ones like Divel.”
Divel spanned about 300 square kilometers with a population of 80,000, a population considered large even compared to other countries on the ma.s.sive s.h.i.+ps. In the past, the island was always at the center of conflict because it was in the path of five different countries. Islands who shared that unfortunate fate never ended well for the people living on them, since anything in the middle of that crossfire usually resulted in intense oppression and subjugation.
However, the current head of Divel came from a long line of ancestors who took back the island by force. When they did so, they declared that Divel remain a strictly neutral and independent country that was willing to engage in trade with the neighboring countries. As such, their policy resulted in a flouris.h.i.+ng economy that remains so to this day.
I wanted to fly in for a closer look, but right now there was no time to waste. I made a hard bank directly west and continued from there.
While on route I did take a quick break on top of the water before flying for another four hours, making it about 1,600 kilometers flown today. Ultimately, I landed in a peaceful and current-less part of the ocean just as the sun started to set.
“I'm so tired even though I did nothing but sit all day,” Stella said after we landed on the water. The canopy had opened so she stood up and stretched. “Ah, sorry, I shouldn't be complaining when I did nothing…”
“No, it's perfectly normal to be tired if you aren't used to it. Let's eat.”
I brought out a lantern and an outdoor stove and placed them on top of the wing. The wing of a plane served as a crucial place to stretch and walk around when landing on the water. Using that s.p.a.ce, I started a fire and began to boil some water.
Stella climbed out as well. She was giggly for some reason seeing me set up shop.
“What's going on?” I asked her.
“Nothing, I'm just excited.”
“I never thought I would ever have a meal on top of the wings of a plane,” she laughed.
Seeing her happy smile made me feel a bit more at ease.
“Excited, huh…” I said. “To me this is just another day, but…”
I paused and stared up at the sky. It was the night sky I was all too familiar with, but today I was in a slightly different situation.
“But it's been a while since I've had company,” I said.
We finished the sandwiches and red tea we made earlier, though after that we had nothing to do but to lie down and wait for the morning. Lying down and looking at the stars was pretty much the only thing we could do.
“Wow…” said Stella. “I didn't realize there were so many stars in the sky…”
“Yeah, you can see more since there's no light pollution out here.”
The night sky here was a completely different sight compared to that of a city since there were no artificial lights blocking out the sky.
“Hey, Polaris is the name of a star, right?”
I nodded and pointed to it in the sky. “You see that? That's it right there,” I said.
Polaris was a star that was easy to spot if you knew where to look. Besides, with the compa.s.ses inside us, all we had to do was follow our instincts and look north for that bright white star.
“Swallows seem to like naming their planes after stars…” said Stella.
“Well everything is decided by the guild… but yeah.”
“Was there a reason for why that is?”
“There probably was…” I said, remembering about what it may be— My father had told me why once before when I was young. “Long ago, apparently there were people who researched ways to navigate by only looking at the stars without the use of any internal compa.s.ses.”
“Yeah. They move in very predictable ways, so theoretically it was possible to figure out your position by only looking at them…” I replied. “But the researchers stopped before they could find a way to do so.”
“Probably because it wasn't necessary. We all have our internal compa.s.ses to navigate, and besides, the majority of people in this world don't travel and would never need to know such things.”
I paused to take another look at the Polaris star up in the sky before continuing my explanation.
“Even so, I think those researchers had a dream they wanted to fulfill.”
“What kind of dream?”
“To travel the world regardless of if they could do so or not,” I said. “That kind of dream. That's probably why our planes are named after the stars. I mean, the Swallow Guild was created for the sake of all of humanity, you know.”
“Swallows consist of people who have the ability to traverse the ocean and are hired by people who don't possess those abilities. That's essentially what we do, right?”
“So perhaps the planes we use represent the dreams of all those who want to fly far and away…”
Stella took some time to process what I just said, which resulted in the two of us just sitting on the wings of Polaris and drinking our tea.
“Umm…” she finally said. “I've been dying to do this… Can I take this off?”
Stella smiled nervously while I stared back blankly. She suddenly stood up and yanked off the coat she was wearing.
Her movement was so unexpected I could only watch in shock.
“I felt kinda constricted in that. It's so much more comfortable taking that off,” she said with another smile.
I instinctively looked the other way.
“Huh? Is something wrong?” she asked.
She was only wearing a blue top that barely covered her b.r.e.a.s.t.s and nothing else, so of course there was something wrong. It just felt wrong staring at her without that coat on.
“Umm… don't you wanna put something else on first…” I said, my eyes still focused away from her.
But she wasn't fazed. Instead, she walked up in front of me and crouched down.
“It's okay, I'm not embarra.s.sed anymore,” she said in such a rea.s.suring but commanding voice that somehow drew me in. “It'll be a waste to be uncomfortable around such a wonderful sight.”
She stood back up and brushed her hair against the wind like a flag against the ocean breeze. She seemed to be seeing further than anyone could see, even though she didn't know much about the ocean. She was also shaking, but somehow she felt like she had the strength of a thousand men.
What a weird girl.
I took off my coat as well to see what the fuss was about, only to immediately get hit by the cold ocean breeze. Nothing I couldn't handle, though.
The wind seemed to just brush up against my skin like a paintbrush, which made me feel one step closer to the world without that heavy coat.
“You're right, it does feel so much more comfortable.”
“I know, right?”
We looked at each other right in the eyes and laughed. I couldn't remember the last time I laughed like this on the job, much less with the most dangerous cargo I ever had to transport. It was so ridiculous I took a second to ask myself what I was doing— I didn't feel like I was being myself, but everything just felt so right.
No matter how strange it felt to be sure of it, I knew from the bottom of my heart that Stella was different than the others.
We sat down on the edge of the wing so that our legs were dangling down and let the time pa.s.s as the stars did their own thing.
“Ciel, you really are amazing…”
“Why do you say that?”
“You know so many things I don't know, and you can do so many things I can't do.”
“Are you sure it's just you not knowing a lot and you not being able to do much?”
“Ouch, that's mean…”
“Sorry, sorry…” I said with a laugh.
I looked up at the sky again— there were so many stars I couldn't count them all even if I had all the time in the world.
“Stella, I think you're amazing as well.”
“You just seem so free, like for you the sky's the limit. It's something I'm a bit jealous of.”
“Really? I seem that way?”
“Oh… but I don't think that's the case…” she said in an unusually cold manner that startled me. “But yeah, I guess right now I'm pretty free. The fact that I can cross the ocean like this… even see the stars like we are right now is proof of that. It makes me want to travel with you forever.”
Her honestly caught me off guard, so I blurted out, “I don't think I can manage to bring you everywhere…”
“I-I know, right! Sorry for saying such a weird thing!” she said frantically. “To me, you're the one who seems so free. You can go anywhere with Polaris, right? I'm sure there's so many things you've seen that I never could, even with everything I've experienced this trip.”
She was wrong about me being free, but I understood where she was coming from. I guess we had the wrong impressions of each other.
“I'm a Swallow,” I said. “I'm only allowed to fly these skies because of my work.”
If I ever quit being a Swallow, I would not be able to keep Polaris or my father's stream charts.
The world didn't give me the luxury of being able to fly freely no matter what I was willing to give up. Everyone must have a role in these skies.
“You may see me as free,” I said with a cold and snappy tone that surprised even me. “But I've never felt that way my entire life.”
I saw Stella freeze up nervously which indicated that I came off too harshly. However, she then took a step towards me before I could apologize.
“Then why did you become a Swallow?” she asked.
I was taken aback— If I were in her shoes, I certainly wouldn't have prodded any further.
“You ask a lot for someone who wouldn't even tell me anything about yourself,” I said.
“Sorry, but I really want to know you,” she replied. Her eyes were determined as always without a hint of weakness in them.
I guess that had an effect on me since I asked, “Why?” back to her.
“Because right now I'm with you. Isn't that a good enough reason?”
Normally it would, but the fact that this only applied to her and not me really didn't help her case.
Now that I thought about it, maybe that's why she seemed mysterious to me… She wasn't afraid of doing anything.
“I've always wanted to fly no matter what, probably because I loved being in the sky,” I said. I was explaining myself before I even knew it. “Well, the reason I became a Swallow, or rather, the reason I could become a Swallow, was because my father had pa.s.sed away.”
I had never spoken to anyone about this until now.
“I'm sure you know this already, but my father, Akasha Migrateur, was a pretty famous Swallow. He flew tens of thousands of kilometers around the world with Polaris, earning him the nickname—The White Wing—. He's the type of person to knowingly accept dangerous jobs with a smile as if he didn't care about dying.”
“Yeah. When I was nine years old, I went with him for a week long job he had, sitting in the pa.s.senger seat where you sat today. At that time, he was attacked by another country's corsair fleet en route to his destination. Because Polaris stood out too much, they knew instantly who it was and probably thought he had some valuable cargo on board. There were some thirty enemy units around us when we were attacked.”
“One versus thirty?!?!”
“Yeah. I was scared out of my mind and on the verge of tears. I thought my father would retreat, but instead he told me we were busting through this.”
I could laugh about it now, but back then it really was frightening for me.
“Once he said that, I really thought I was going to die, and I ended up burst out crying. I cried and cried until my father had to stop me.”
“How'd he do that?”
“He simply yelled, Shut up! Stop distracting me!”
My sudden shout from impersonating my father startled Stella a little bit. I guess I did get too into it.
“He said we'd never make it if we gave up now, and said that if I was a real man then I needed to show it. Dumb, right? But my father did it in the end, without even damaging his or the thirty other enemy corsairs along the way. In the midst of all that, I stopped crying or feeling scared— after a certain moment, all I could see was the beautiful sky around me.”
I still remembered what I saw to this very day. Our plane cut through the clouds like paper, and we were going so fast that every second was a different sight for me to see. The enemy bullets lit up the sky around me like red, glittering stars. It would then that I saw the beauty of dogfights.
“He was an amazing pilot, wasn't he,” Stella added on.
“Of course. n.o.body could deny his skill as a pilot.”
“What was he even transporting if he was willing to go that far? If you could tell me, of course.”
“A love letter.”
“A what??” Stella blurted out.
“His client wasn't some high ranking n.o.ble or government official. It was just an ordinary girl who spent what little she had to deliver a single letter to her lover fighting in another island. That's all we had to deliver.”
“Wow…” Stella whispered as she looked up into the sky to process everything she had just heard. “Ciel, your father was a great man…”
“But now he's gone,” I said back.
Stella heart dropped the moment she heard me say that.
“My father's last flight wasn't because of his job, but because of his own selfishness.”
“He said he wanted to see the edge of the sea and took off to Boreas, never coming back.”
Boreas was said to be the northernmost place in this world. Although no one had ever seen it before, legend has it that it was a huge plot of land covered in snow.
I stood up and grabbed the chart book out of my seat, pulling out a folded up map of the ocean on the back of it. This particular map basically contained a miniature version of all the gathered maps organized into one. Whenever a Swallow received a stream chart from a country, he or she receive two copies of it. The first copy was a more detailed version for the chart book, while the second—smaller—copy was to be added to the map on the map.
“Wow… that's a big map…”
“Yeah. There aren't a lot of maps this comprehensive in the world.”
“This has everything your father saw then, huh.”
The map, compiled by my father, was over two meters in width and height. Even so, there weren't a lot of uses for it because everything on it was scaled down. It basically just served as proof of the places gone and the hards.h.i.+ps that overcome. When pa.s.sed down to a successor, it also showed the burden he or she must bear.
“Here, look at this line,” I said, pointing to a red line on the map. It started from Vessel three years ago on the third month and the twenty-fifth day.
“Could that line be the last route he took?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
The line went all the way past the top of the map to another section that was folded up. I unfolded that to show a weird portion of the ocean without any islands.
“Is that a map within a map…”
“My father flew to a place further than anyone had ever gone before. But beyond that was just the same old ocean, in my opinion. A year ago, the only thing that returned to Vessel was Polaris and this stream chart. Polaris itself wasn't damaged, but there was no one in it. After that, I took them both and inherited his White Wing nickname after I became a Swallow.”
I stood up abruptly as I finished my story— I needed to do something to shake off those memories.
“Alright, that's it for me. Let's go to sleep. We got an early day tomorrow,” I said.
There always needed to be a good reason to be flying. In my case, I was working as “The White Wing“.
I vowed to never fly just for the sake of flying, since I didn't want to do it for my own selfish reasons. Even if flying was all I ever wanted to do, I always flew with a purpose.
After all, becoming like my father was the last thing I wanted to do.
The sun was on full blast on us the next day without a single cloud in sight, making it a good day to be flying.
The weather in this area was volatile enough to change for the worse in the snap of a finger. Rain was a common occurrence, so seeing something like this was certainly a welcome sight.
We had just eaten breakfast and were making our final inspections before taking off.
“Umm, Ciel?” Stella said out of the blue.
“Let me help too.”
“Help… with what?”
“Let me help you fly the plane,” she said with a serious face.
I didn't know how to respond to that. She spoke with a tone that made her sound like she meant it. Unfortunately, that only made it even harder for me to respond.
I tried to think of the best way to explain why she couldn't.
“Umm,” I said. “Only one person can pilot Polaris. To pilot it, you also need to have special training and at least some practice hours, and…”
“Let me be the navigator!” she interrupted.
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. A navigator was someone who had to have a precise enough internal compa.s.s and the ability to calculate the flight path from the readings retrieved from all sorts of different equipment. It wasn't a position to be taken lightly. Even a slight miscalculation could result in dire consequences.
There was no way I was going to trust her to do it.
“That's impossible!” I said, shaking my head furiously. “That definitely cannot happen. It's going to be real bad if you miscalculate, not to mention your internal compa.s.s has to be at a high enough rating…”
“Chart number 32, X55 66'21”, Y43 50'25”,” she said abruptly.
It took me a split second to realize what she was referring to. I opened my chart book to frantically check for myself.
Those numbers referred to our current coordinates down to the second. On top of that, Stella hadn't even seen the stream chart ever since we departed from Sunk Tierra, which meant that she calculated our position just from the instruments in the back seat and her own internal compa.s.s.
“I'm on the mark… right?” she asked.
I nodded in confusion. “Probably, at least down to the minute. I'm not sure about the seconds.”
I didn't know because my internal compa.s.s wasn't good enough. Since it was rated S, I was only able to discern directions down to the minute.
“Stella, what rating is your compa.s.s?”
“Double S?!?” I shouted in surprised.
Rumor had it that only 1 in 100,000 to 200,000 people had a SS rated compa.s.s. In other words, there was usually only one lucky person per country who possessed such a gift.
An SS rated compa.s.s was essentially limitless. Those who had it were also able to discern their speed and distance traveled to a superhuman degree. The higher rated the compa.s.s, the better the precision.
If I were to come back to my water a.n.a.logy where the flow of water represented the magnetic field around us, every movement that we did ever so slightly affected the flow of that water. In other words, the field around us also changed depending on how we moved within it. Normally, this change would be too minute to perceive, but those with highly rated internal compa.s.ses were able to pick up on it unconsciously. That, adjusted with the visual perception of the world around us, allowed us to sense things that normal people couldn't, and was one reason why Swallows were skilled at dogfighting.
However, internal compa.s.ses that were rated SS were on a completely different scale. While I could perceive things for maybe a kilometer or so, SS rated compa.s.ses could do so even further than what our eyes were capable of seeing. Apparently there was no limit on the size of the objects they could feel moving around them. For example, even something as big as a country could be felt tens of kilometers away. That's why those who possessed them often worked as navigators for the countries themselves.
She was the last person I would have expected to have a SS rated compa.s.s.
Who are you really…
I really wanted to say that, but I couldn't.
Instead, Stella was the one who spoke up. “Even though we're flying together, the fact that I'm not doing anything is frustrating… That's why you can at least leave this to me? I won't let you down!”
I mean, piloting the plane and navigating at the same time was tough work. There was a small part of me that was excited at the fact that Stella could handle navigating for me. After all, she did prove her worth just now, and everything should be fine if I just double checked the main calculations so that there weren't any blatant errors.
“Alright, I'll leave it up to you,” I said.
“Thank you so much!” she replied with a bow and a smile.
We were going to hit Batoh around noontime today if everything went according to plan. I kept our alt.i.tude close to the sea level and slowly scoured the area looking for it.
“Adjust your course: 3.5, right,” said Stella.
“Roger. 3.5, right.”
Stella was already killing it as a navigator. Honestly, I felt more and more at ease with her doing it, but the sky was not looking good. Some clouds were beginning to move in.
It soon got to a point where I had to be careful not to fly above the clouds with it being only a matter of time being it started raining.
It was at that moment when everything went downhill.
“Something's coming…” Stella said through the radio. “W-Wait, above you! There are shadows in the cloud!”
I instinctively banked a hard right upon hearing her shout that out. Had I not done that, we would have been face to face with the plane thundering down from the clouds above.
“Oh my G.o.d!!” Stella screamed.
“Must be an attack!”
I did a 180 upwards and in doing so, caught a glimpse of the plane. By having 2 engines on each respective wing, it was very clear what kind of plane it was— a combat focused plane meant to intercept Seagulls, or in other words, a corsair.
“d.a.m.n it! Hang on tight!” I shouted back.
I yanked on the throttle to bring Polaris up to an acceptable speed for combat. As I did, the corsair looped behind me at a fixed, but threatening distance which I was okay with for the time being. The one who took the rear usually came out ahead in this situation, and I was fully confident that Polaris could outmaneuver that corsair to my advantage.
I made a sharp perpendicular turn upwards to gain alt.i.tude far past the clouds, but Stella stopped me right before I was able to fully break through them.
“You can't! There's another one hiding above the clouds!” she shouted.
Immediately, I stopped rising and instead dove back down away from the clouds, just in time to see another corsair burst through the clouds above me.
“Wow, she's right…”
That corsair was probably waiting to ambush me. It would have worked if Stella hadn't given me that crucial warning.
The two corsairs tactically split left and right in an attempt to pincer me, covering more of my escape options the closer they got. Even if I had the upper hand in control and maneuverability, they had the definite advantage in speed. If they were to fight me by covering each other's backs, I wouldn't be able to abuse my maneuverability to my fullest extent.
Even so, I couldn't help thinking about one thing.
“How did you know?!?” I shouted to Stella. That corsair was very clearly hidden in the clouds out of both our sights.
“I felt it!”
It was then that I finally understood— Of course, it was so obvious. She could feel the small change in the surrounding magnetic field when the corsairs moved even if they were out of our sight.
“Sick! Thanks for that!”
“No proble— Ahhhhh!!!!”
Before she could even finish her reply, I accelerated and banked into another direction, but that proved futile as the enemy corsairs were still hot on my trail.
For them to read my turns like that and predict where I was going to end up required an incredible amount of experience. Furthermore, for them to cut straight at me mid-turn without a drop in speed with their heavy aircraft showed an incredible display of skill.
“D-Do I shoot?!?”
“No, don't shoot!” I yelled back into the mic. I had to do something to get them off my tail. “They're probably Batoh's corsairs!”
a.s.suming they were actually from Batoh, I needed to let them know I was a Swallow delivering something before we ended up in an all out brawl. Yet there was always the possibility that they already knew that and still came at me anyway…
The two corsairs started firing, but luckily none of their shots. .h.i.t me. It seemed they really intended to shoot me down as they sped up to get a more accurate shot.
“They're coming!” Stella yelled.
Now that they showed they were serious, I zigzagged back and forth as an initial defense measure to get away from the ma.s.sive hail of bullets they were sending my way.
Corsairs usually targeted the slow but st.u.r.dy Seagull. In order to do any sort of meaningful damage, they were equipped with at least 30 mm cannons. Unfortunately, that meant it just took one of their bullets to send us flying to the bottom of the ocean.
I checked on the corsair above me while simultaneously keeping a close eye on the one behind me. They were in an ideal pincer formation. If I were to carelessly ascend, the one on top could easily fly up and take us down. Even worse, I was too low to descend any further.
That being said, there was a way out of this.
I was getting used to their firing rhythm and in doing so, was able to sidestep their shots. Since we were so low that we were practically gliding on top of the water, the bullets. .h.i.t the water with a crackling sound while splas.h.i.+ng water all over the place.
It was only when they were aiming for their next round that I made my next move.
I did a sharp barrel roll starting with my right side which ultimately put me behind the corsair following me when it flew on past me. However…
“Above you!” Stella yelled. The other corsair was waiting for this opportunity and dove in for the kill.
This time, instead of running away, I flew up to meet it. Right when we were about face to face with each other, I entered a stall that turned my airplane over vertically to barely dodge the bullets coming my way. After recovering with a roll, I took the higher elevation and created more distance for myself once the corsair zoomed past me.
It was only when I was at a safe distance away that I opened my communications line.
“I am a Swallow from the Vessel's Guild of Swallows, Ciel Migrateur!” I yelled into the mic. “If you two are from Batoh, please disengage! I am carrying some cargo for your country!”
There was no response, so I frustratingly yelled it again.
“I repeat! I am carrying some cargo for Batoh! Cease your attacks! Any continued acts of aggression will force me to act as well!”
Once again there was no response.
It's no use, huh…
I sighed. The enemy s.h.i.+ps got back into formation and prepared to come at me again. Now that it had come to this, I had no choice but to take them down.
“W-What is that…?” Stella suddenly whispered softly.
“It's towards the sun!” she shouted again before I even had any time to ask her what she was talking about.
Once again, I instinctively slowed down right as a loud howl filled the skies around us. A bright flash of light came barreling at us, splitting the sky apart with a blue streak.
I could somehow feel the gaze of whoever was piloting that aircraft painted solely in white. In fact, it looked so white it was as if the metal that made up its body was forged from the sun itself. However, unlike Polaris, it didn't have the gear to land on water, so I a.s.sumed its sole purpose was to intercept other aircraft.
From a momentary glance, I could tell that its speed and maneuverability clearly surpa.s.sed what Polaris could do. It was even a step up compared to the Spitfire I fought at Nave.
“Release the safety!” I shouted to Stella in a panic.
It performed an Immelmann turn to gain the alt.i.tude advantage, a turn coined by Max Immelmann, an ace from the country Steereboard. This turn, essentially a vertical off the top turn, was based off of one of his widely used maneuvers. It was actually quite simple to do— the plane went straight up in a loop until it's facing the opposite direction, then spun around to right itself horizontally.