Dedicated to Wimsett, who's warm threats served as motivation to finish this chapter *8)
[size=22px]Operation Lighthouse: Nexus[/size]
Chapter 15: Falling
Aileron bounded over the wall in two hops, breaking into a run the moment his feet touched the wet grass just on the other side. As he sprinted through the dark woods, creepy shadows of evergreens flying past, his mind was racing even faster.
Arnold, his closest friend at school, had been attacked. Based upon what Mr. Pierce had related, it sounded as if it had been a nearly fatal assault. Aileron growled in lieu of a curse, feeling that if only he had been there, it would've turned out different. He was positive he could have easily repelled such an assault. Feelings of anger welled up from within him, and Aileron began to place blame on everything. He blamed the FAA for the strict regulations on supersonic aircraft. Had he been able to arrive just a few hours earlier, he wouldn't be racing to the hospital and his friend's side. He blamed the Coalition for raiding his home base, which had ultimately caused his delayed arrival. Had he gotten home on Saturday night like originally planned, he and Arnold would be joking around in their room right now. If only he hadn't taken that mission on in the first place, one which he really hadn't wanted to go on, he wouldn't have left at all over the weekend. If only Elise's father hadn't been such a jerk, he wouldn't have had to take on the extra work. If only… if only he had just been there.
After what seemed like an eternity Aileron arrived back at his secret shed. He pulled the cover off of his still warm bike and immediately mounted it, donning his helmet. He started the Suzuki's engine and pulled the idling motorcycle out of the shed. As soon as he was clear Aileron put the bike into gear, hammered the throttle, and released the clutch. Kicking up a flurry of dirt and small rocks, the motorcycle spun around and sped off into the night.
The drive the Pendleton would take several minutes, even speeding as he was. The last thing Aileron needed was to be pulled over, but his emotions currently had a strong grip on the throttle and weren't letting go. All he could think about was making sure Arnold was okay, and neither the traffic laws, nor the biting cold of the winter night, would slow him down.
He arrived at the hospital in record time, and wasted none of it by parking in the first available spot. He was about to run off toward the hospital's entrances when his better judgment kicked in. He was still carrying the backpack, and among other dangerous items it contained a loaded .40 caliber H&K pistol. He couldn't risk the contents being discovered by the hospital security, so he left the backpack with his helmet on the bike and immediately sprinted toward the building.
The only area open for access at that hour was the emergency room, so Aileron entered. Dodging an occupied stretcher in the entryway, Aileron caught sight of a familiar face among the small throng of sick people and their escorts. He did a double take, then focused on the diminutive, melancholy looking girl sitting in the corner.
"Rachael?" Aileron asked reflexively, his brow furrowing. Rachael looked up and upon noticing him her eyes lit up like Christmas lights.
"Aile!" she said, getting up and rushing to him.
"Rachael, what's hap…" Aileron was cut off by the unexpected event of Rachael colliding into him with unexpected force. She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed as tightly as her strength would allow. Wide eyed and unsure, Aileron slowly returned her embrace. He felt her petite shoulders shaking; she was sobbing.
"Aile, I'm so glad you're okay. We were so worried about you."
"I'm fine, Rache," Aileron replied using the short form of her name as he often did. He disengaged from the hug and asked, "Is Elise here too?"
Rachael looked up at him with a hollow expression, hesitating a moment.
"You mean you don't know?" Rachael said, and something in her inflection sent a painful chill down Aileron's spine. His stomach tightened and his heart throbbed in his chest.
"Rachael… where's Elise?"
"She… she's gone," Rachael said, tears wetting her eyes once again. Aileron immediately assumed the worst.
"Wh…what?" Aileron asked reflexively. Surely, Elise wasn't…
"She was taken away… we don't know by who or to where," Rachael explained, "Arnold tried to stop them, and he got hurt because of that."
"No…" Aileron felt dizzy, like someone had kicked him in the back of his head. His legs felt weak, and he started to lose his balance. Rachael was startled, but she reacted and tried to support him. However, being so small she only managed to direct him toward a chair, which he fell into with her landing atop him.
"Aile, it's gonna be okay," she said as she pushed herself back onto her feet, "the police are already looking, and the doctors say that Arnold's gonna be okay. He's resting right now, but they might let you see him."
"O…okay," Aileron said, forcing himself to be calm. He was desperately worried about Elise; so much so that it was crippling. But at the same time he had to make sure Arnold was okay, and also get any information Arnold might have that would put him on the right course to finding Elise… and exacting quick retribution.
Even though it was past visiting hours, the nursing staff was kind enough to let a visibly worried Aileron in to see Arnold. A nurse showed him to the room and when they arrived she reached for the curtain. As she pulled it aside, Aileron steeled himself for the worst. With a deep breath he crossed the threshold into Arnold's room. The room was large enough to host two patients, but there was only one bed in the middle, Arnold lying motionlessly atop. Aileron cautiously walked up to his side, trying his damnedest to remain composed as he gazed upon his friend's deathly still body. There were machines monitoring his vitals, as well as an oxygen mask on his face. His arm was wrapped up and rested in a sling, and one of his eyes was covered with a bandage. His feathery blond hair was mussed up and hung haphazardly over his forehead.
"Arnold?" Aileron asked as he cautiously approached the recumbent form of his friend. Arnold's left eye opened lazily, and he looked around the room while blinking several times, finally settling on Aileron's face.
"Aile?" Arnold asked, his voice a rasp. He took in a deep breath and asked, "you're okay?"
Aileron was momentarily at a loss. Even though Arnold was the one lying in the bed with multiple injuries, the first thing out of his mouth was concern for him?
"Me? I'm fine, what about you? You're…"
"I'll live," Arnold replied with some effort. He tried to sit up, but groaned and gave up when the pain of his upset wounds hit him. "We were worried about you… we didn't know where you were and were afraid they had got to you too."
"Who?" Aileron asked, feeling anxious, "who did this to you?"
"I don't know who they were," Arnold replied, closing his eyes and breathing heavily, "two men. I don't know how they got on campus, but they wanted to take Elise and I away."
"You fought them?"
"I tried… I tried to give Elise time to escape but I was too weak. They beat me too fast, Elise couldn't get away," Arnold recounted, his voice growing thin. Aileron noticed tears forming in his visible eye. "I'm sorry, my friend. I tried to save her… but I couldn't…"
"Don't say that," Aileron said, feeling both guilty and helpless, "it's my fault. I should've been there. It's my fault…"
Aileron couldn't stop his own tears, and they flowed freely. The bitter pain of seeing a close friend in bed, mixed with the indescribable worry for his missing love; it was too much for the young pilot to handle calmly.
"Aile…" Arnold said, feebly lifting his free hand. Aileron grasped it and gave it a light squeeze.
"Arnold," Aileron said whilst wiping his face with his free hand, "you're gonna be okay, right? The nurse said you're gonna be just fine. Once this is all over we'll be tearing up that track, just like always."
At that mention, Arnold's face grew profoundly sad.
"What is it?" Aileron was almost too afraid to ask.
"One of the times he stabbed me," Arnold said, trying to keep his voice even, "it went through and hit my spine… they're not sure yet, but it's possible I won't walk again…. much less run."
"Oh, God… no…" Aileron lamented, his body recoiling. His sobbing went way beyond his control.
"But," Arnold said boldly, "there's still a chance I can recover. I'm not giving up yet. Don't think you can beat me just because of a little set back like this."
"Damn it, I don't want to win," Aileron replied bitterly, grasping Arnold's hand with both of his own. He bowed his head and sobbed, his tears speckling the floor tiles. It took several moments, but Aileron managed to calm himself enough to speak evenly.
"Arnold," Aileron began, squeezing his friend's hand, "I don't know why this happened, or where they've taken Elise, but I do know this. I'm going to get her back, and I'm going to make those responsible pay for what they've done."
"I know you will," Arnold replied with a degree of confidence that Aileron hadn't expected. "I don't know who your other self is, but I can sense that he's very strong."
Aileron had always suspected that Arnold knew more than he let on. He was, after all, a smart guy. And way too good of a friend to lie to.
"I promise you, when I come back with Elise at my side, I'm going to tell you everything."
"Can't wait," Arnold managed a small grin.
"And damn it all, after that my friend, we will run," Aileron said with all the confidence he could muster.
"Like the wind," Arnold affirmed with a smile, and gave Aileron's hand a reassuring squeeze.
Aileron left Arnold's room feeling dejected, yet determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. He knew that Elise was relying on him to bring her back to her friends, and he was sure he was going to bring her back. He just didn't know how, or even where to start. As he rounded the corner, deep in thought, something brought his attention back to the present. At one of the nursing stations there were a duo of police officers standing affront the counter. They were talking with the nurse at the other side of the counter, and when Aileron came around the corner they stopped and looked right at him. Their gaze affixed on him, and they began to move. At once, Aileron's senses perked up, and a warning alarm went off in his head. He knew that gaze. The gaze of murderous intent.
Hesitating for all of one second, Aileron quickly made up his mind. He turned around and bolted down the hallway. He didn't have to look back to know that the two officers were chasing after him. He ran down the halls, alerting a number of patients, nurses and doctors as he narrowly avoided numerous obstacles. He didn't know why the police were after him, but he did know for sure that he didn't want to be caught.
All the running with Arnold served him well, and he easily gave the two less conditioned officers the slip, but as he neared the end of a long corridor, he spied two more officers rounding the corner affront him at a full run. Without saying anything, not even a warning or demand, the lead officer brought up his sidearm and fired. If Aileron had been an instant slower, he would have been hit. Leaping sideways, Aileron crashed through a door shoulder first. He landed roughly, rolled, and was back on his feet. He took off through another door, down another hallway. As he ran, adrenaline began to take it's effect, and he felt a painful anxiety. He could feel the offending officers at his heels, and it was a long and narrow hallway that offered little cover. Spying a nurse wheeling a cart out of an open door, Aileron shot passed her and ducked into the closing door just as another duo of gunshots rang out from behind. He glanced back in time to see the nurse hit in the arm by a stray shot, and she fell back against the wall while screaming in terror and confusion. While still in a full run, Aileron grabbed up a stool and flung it affront him, through a large window that overlooked the parking lot. The stool broke through, the glass shattered, and Aileron, uncaring of what was below, bounded through the broken window right behind it.
It was the third floor, and it was quite a fall. Thankfully for Aileron an ambulance had been parked under the window, and instead of crashing into the asphalt he landed atop the vehicle, which broke his fall some. He landed feet first, rolled and then fell off the other side of the ambulance, landing on his side with a crash. He felt something crack, and a wave of intense pain wash through him, but he didn't cry out. It took all of his will, but he remained as quiet as possible as he writhed about on the cold winter ground in dizzying agony.
He couldn't stay still, though. He had to keep moving. The police officers that were after him meant business, and they wouldn't stop just because he left the building. Getting onto his feet, Aileron stumbled when his right ankle wouldn't support his own weight, but he hobbled off anyway, paying the pain as little mind as possible. As he made his way vaguely toward his motorcycle, he looked back up at the window he had just fallen from. A man in a gown, holding an IV tree was gazing down at him, but a moment later he was pushed aside and replaced by a darkly attired police officer. The officer aimed his gun down at Aileron and fired.
The young pilot managed to jump with his left foot, rolling behind a cement support pillar. Several gunshots struck the pillar and surrounding asphalt, raising a small cloud of dust and making sounds that were akin to slamming a steel hammer against the hard surfaces. As the police officers relentlessly poured nine millimeter rounds into the asphalt, Aileron made use of a raised planter as cover and quickly crawled away. Once he was around the side of the building, he dizzily got to his feet. Surveying his surroundings, he picked the forest that wasn't two hundred feet from the building as his best chance of escape. Taking a deep breath, he forced the pain he was feeling to the back of his mind, and just as he was about to break into a run…
"Hold it right there!" someone shouted. Aileron started, feeling an incredible urge to run, but his better judgment told him that it would be in his best interest to remain where he was. He slowly turned and looked over his shoulder. A police officer, one he hadn't yet seen, was standing a few meters away and holding him at gunpoint. Another two police officers were approaching from the far side of the building; it seemed that Aileron's luck was finally running out. As the nearby officer closed in, free hand reaching for handcuffs, the all too familiar feelings of despair began to creep up on the young aviator. Even so, something inside Aileron stubbornly wasn't giving up.
Elise, he called out mentally to his missing love, somehow… somehow…
In that instant, a narrow place between the power of willpower and despair, Aileron was given another chance. The first of the two police officers who were coming to provide support for their compatriot suddenly staggered as if being struck by an invisible fist. His legs, sapped of all strength, failed and he fell to the ground where he lie motionless. The second officer frantically looked around, waving his gun in every direction, but it was a futile effort. He too shuddered, and Aileron glimpsed blood spouting from his back and head, right before he fell like a marionette to the cold asphalt below. The officer who was holding Aileron looked back at his fallen comrades in confusion, and at that moment Aileron acted. The young pilot rushed the officer and lunged at him with all his might. The officer tried to aim his gun but it was entirely too late. Aileron barreled into him with a great roar, knocking the officer from his feet and onto the ground. With a combination of adrenaline and built up rage, Aileron punched the man in the face alternately with both fists, until the officer struggled no longer. Pushing himself off the fallen constable, Aileron sat on the cold ground and took several deep breaths. Even though this was a victory, and he undeniably had support out there, he couldn't stay still. He forced himself onto his knees, but before going he quickly grabbed the officer's pistol and spare magazines.
Staggering into the woods, Aileron checked the ammunition on his new weapon. It was a Walther P99, a formidable and reliable pistol. The magazine was nearly full, with one round presumably in the chamber. Since he was unsure, Aileron pulled back the slide, hearing the satisfying mechanical action. A single round popped out of the ejection port and sailed through the air, landing somewhere in the darkness of the forest ground.
Okay, so it was loaded. Makes sense. Well, better safe than sorry, Aileron shrugged, releasing the slide with a dry snap.
Even though he had given his pursuers the slip, he wasn't out of the woods yet, neither figuratively or actually. In fact, he had nowhere to go. The school was out of the question, and while he might be able to make it all the way to the airfield and his L-39, there was no where he could run. The small jet didn't carry nearly enough fuel to get all the way back to Via, and since Lang's airfield, Icarus, had been overrun that safe haven no longer was. Perhaps if he could get in touch with Skylar before he left the two of them could figure something out.
Of course, his communicator was in his backpack, which was on his motorcycle, which was probably surrounded by a well armed force of police officers. He was in possession of a pistol, and two extra magazines, but it wouldn't be enough to take out that kind of force. And not to mention the fact that they were just police officers doing a job. He couldn't just kill them indiscriminately.
After several minutes of painful jogging through the forest, Aileron found himself near a shopping center. It wasn't all that far from the hospital, but he needed to treat his injuries. He didn't even have the most basic of medical supplies, but what he needed mostly at the moment was a source of light. Cautiously he made his way toward the buildings. He came up on the rear of a grocery store, near the loading dock that was illuminated by a faint amber light. The area provided lots of cover, and a few ways to escape should he need to. For the time being it was as good a place as any.
Hopping the small cinder block wall, Aileron painfully lowered himself to the ground, then quickly made his way to the loading dock area. Once he was there, and sure he was alone, he took a seat on a stack of wooden pallets on the far side of a dumpster, near the light but not in plain sight to any passers by. Before he began his self-check-up, he leaned against the cold cement wall of the building and sighed deeply. After all that hassle, a moment's rest was what he really needed. However, even that was taken away from him. No sooner than he had relaxed, Aileron detected approaching footsteps. He immediately steadied his breathing, and listened intently to the coming sound. Cautious not to make any sound, he got off the pallets and onto his feet. Crouching in wait behind the dumpster, he skillfully gripped the Walther in both hands. When the footsteps were nearly upon him, Aileron sprang out from behind his cover, holding the weapon affront him and aiming at whomever was on the other side.
A girl, standing straight up and looking at him with absolutely calm eyes. She was attired in a Lighthouse Academy school uniform, and wore a band in her platinum hair. Despite having a firearm pointed at her face, she showed no signs of fear or surprise. She just stood there, staring at Aileron and not moving in any threatening way.
"It's okay, Aile," she said in a soft, comforting voice, "I'm on your side."
"Lucine?" Aileron asked with great relief, letting his arms fall to his side. His head suddenly felt light, and before he knew it the whole of his perception was being encompassed in dark. The gun he had been grasping slipped from his fingers, and it clattered noisily to the ground.
Perhaps it was the relief of seeing a friendly face, or perchance his body simply couldn't take any more exertion. Or maybe he had gotten up too quickly. Reasonably, it was a combination of all three, but whatever it was, it sapped Aileron of the last of his strength, and he fell over unconscious.
Slowly, consciousness returned. Aileron first felt a throbbing in his head, as well as other parts of his battered body. As he opened his eyes, bright lights seemed to rush by him intermittently, and he could hear a deep, constant drone. As his perception cleared, it became evident that he was in a car, speeding down the road. The passing lights were lampposts. As he became more aware, he shook his head to help clear the fuzziness.
"How do you feel?" an even, soft voice asked.
"Like hell," Aileron grumbled, then let out a groan. "What's the haps?"
"You passed out."
"So I gathered."
"You're safe now, though. Rest assured."
"Wait a sec," Aileron took a good look at the driver. Sure enough, it could be no other than Lucine Arlette. He wasn't dreaming before. "Lucine?"
"Yes?" Lucine replied.
"What the eff are you doing here?"
"Saving your butt," Lucine said as a matter of fact. She glanced at him, a broad smile appearing upon her graceful features, "You're aptitude for getting into trouble is becoming legendary."
Aileron was at a total loss.
"Ah, where are we?" he asked when he realize he didn't recognize their surroundings.
"About ten miles East of Lighthouse, heading to Chandler Airfield."
"What in the world is going on? Why are the police after me? And what are you exactly?"
"A friend," Lucine said with a small smile, "from your past."
"From my past," Aileron said as more of a statement than a question, "care to elaborate on that?"
"Sure," Lucine said, taking a deep breath, "your uncle and my father used to be good friends. In fact, they were more than just friends, they flew in the same squadron."
"He was a Knight?" Aileron asked, kind of surprised.
"That's right. I didn't whole spend a lot of time on the island, but when I was there you and I used to play together."
Aileron thought back to those days.
"I do remember, but… that little girl wasn't you. She couldn't have been," Aileron replied. He recalled his old play mate, a skinny little girl with braces and thick glasses. She did have the same fair hair, but wore it in a pony tail. Comparing her with the Lucine who had broken so many hearts at Lighthouse Academy just wasn't feasible.
"It was me," Lucine assured him.
"I don't know," Aileron shook his head, "I'm not sure what to believe right now… or who to trust."
"Fair enough," Lucine replied with a slight nod, "remember back during that one spring afternoon? It was pouring down rain and you and I had taken shelter by ourselves in the cockpit of an F-111." Lucine recounted wistfully. Aileron felt a nostalgic feeling as memories of that event began to resurface.
"Sitting in that cozy cockpit, we watched the storm," Lucine continued. "You looked up to the sky with a distant gaze, saying that you wanted to blow through those clouds into the pure sunlight so high above the Earth and all of her troubles. As you gazed up at the heavens, I leaned over and kissed you… remember?"
"Elwyn?" Aileron said, eyes wide and mouth agape. Even if it was hard to believe, there was simply no way anyone else could know about that event.
"You do remember," Lucine said happily, smiling in relief.
"I remember, but I still don't believe it. You…" Aileron looked Lucine up and down, "… grew up."
"As did you, but you haven't really changed," Lucine replied, "you're still walking around with your head up in the clouds."
"You tracked me down? I thought after everything fell apart there was no way we'd ever see each other again. All I could hope for was that you were okay, and now…" Aileron felt briefly elated that he had been able to reclaim a childhood friend, but then he remembered. "Lucine… Elwyn," Aileron corrected himself with a blink of his eyes and shake of his head, "I'm so sorry. I've been such a jerk to you."
"No, don't apologize," Lucine shook her head. "It was my fault… I was too straightforward, and I should've told you who I was from the beginning. I'm sorry."
"I can't believe you went through all that trouble to get enrolled in Lighthouse… just to come see me."
"Yeah," Lucine replied with a small and nervous laugh, "to be honest… I've always loved you."
"You…" Aileron's words hit a brick wall.
"Yeah. I know, it was silly of me to hope that you felt the same way… that you would be waiting for me. It was silly of me to hope for that, but it drove me for a long time. Thoughts of being reunited with you got me through some tough times."
"I had no idea… I'm sorry," Aileron felt terrible.
"What did I just say about apologizing?" Lucine reminded him.
"Right, I have a bit of a problem with that," Aileron said with a small smile.
"I understand why you reacted the way you did, though. I was trying to steal you away from your beloved Elise, a girl who is much more deserving of you than I'll ever be."
At the mention of Elise, Aileron felt a deep sadness. She was gone, taken away to some unknown place. He didn't even know where to begin looking for her. Lucine picked up on this sudden change in Aileron's mood.
"Don't worry," she said, "I know where she's been taken."
"What? You do?" Aileron exclaimed hopefully. "Where?"
"Wait," Lucine said, glancing into the rear view mirror. Her eyes narrowed. "We've got company."
"Company?" Aileron echoed, twisting around with some pain to look back. He could see a dark car gaining quickly on them. With tinted windows and driving with no lights, the dark colored sedan that seemed to scream "suspicious" edged closer and closer. Aileron got the distinct impression that those inside intended himself and Lucine harm. Lucine dropped into second gear, stepped on the gas and released the clutch. The tires squealed, and the aptly chosen Charger accelerated away. The dark pursuit car also picked up speed, and Lucine glimpsed a shadow being extended from the passenger side window.
"Hang on!" she said, cranking the wheel. Aileron barely managed to grab a hold of one of the handles as the car swerved violently to the left. Gunshots rang out from the other car, missing the Charger by a few scant feet.
"They're shooting again!" Aileron shouted, ducking down as several rounds thudded into the back of the car.
"Aile, take the wheel!" Lucine said, quickly shifting into third gear. Without hesitation, Aileron reached over and grabbed the steering wheel.
"I have control!" Aileron said habitually. Lucine took off her seat belt and bent forward, reached down under the front seat, and returned a moment later with an FN P90 submachine gun. She pulled back and released the charging handle, then got onto her knees atop the seat, facing backwards. As she opened the sunroof and stood up, Aileron stuck his left leg over the hump in the middle of the floor, pushing the gas pedal down as far as it would go. Lucine used the roof of the car to steady her aim.
"Straight and level, Aile!" Lucine shouted over the screaming engine and whipping wind. Aileron complied, keeping the car straight as Lucine opened up on full auto. There was a rapid succession of shots and in a matter of a few seconds she emptied the entire 50 round magazine of armor-piercing ammunition into the pursuing car. A hail of hot brass, ejected from the bottom of the P90, rained down on Aileron from the sunroof as he struggled to keep the car as steady as possible. The chasing car, it's windows shattered and body riddled with numerous holes, suddenly swerved to the left and ran into the center divider, flipping over and rolling several times before finally coming to a stop. Lucine lowered herself back into the seat and passed the empty P90 to Aileron, who shook his head in disbelief.
"When I first saw you in class on your first day, I would've never imagined this," Aileron said. Lucine smiled, a glint in her eye.
"I'm sure you imagined something," She replied suggestively as she retook the wheel. Aileron fell silent, unsure of how to reply.