Yesterday was my fifteenth birthday. It wasn't my actual birthday, and I don't really know if I'm fifteen, but it means I'm a year older. I sit in the situation room and watch the officers and scientists push their diagrams around the displays and mumble to each other in hushed voices, and I know deep down that I won't make sixteen.
That sounds harsh. It feels harsh. But now things are different. We've been through some horrible crises: the V2 Plan, the Black Hole Operation, the Solar Shift Plan. Yet I never thought of losing. Horrible things happened, but we just acted, and we won. Even when Ken said back during the Black Hole Operation that it might be our last mission together, I thought he was just trying to get us to be serious--what, that we wouldn't be serious with Joe missing? Deep in my heart, I don't think I believed it.
Now, the scientists and generals are scared. Kamo-gishicho is scared. Dr. Nambu is dead and Ken is dying from the side effects of the Hypershoot weapon he's been using. There's this huge wad of antimatter on a crash course with the Earth and nobody knows how to stop it. I know we'll be sent out to deal with it sooner or later. In the meantime, we can't even leave our base because we might get picked off by Gallactor snipers. Egobossler has us backed into a corner, and Sosai Z is using him as a puppet. We might hope that Egobossler is just holding the planet hostage, but after what happened to Katse, I don't think so. Joe said Z is out to finish what X started, and X wanted nothing left of Earth but dust and ashes.
So, deep in the mountains, under tons of rock and steel, it's just us and the ISO and the UN's top brass and the realization we're not gonna win this one.
I play video games (Is this how you want to spend the last hours of your life?). I try to watch TV (Action films don't entertain when the real thing is looming outside). I go to the gym (Enjoy the sweat and the burn while you still can). Finally, I take a hot shower, dress and go looking for the others.
Oneechan is in the hospital wing, sitting by Ken's bed while he sleeps. He needs the rest; he looks awful, his skin bruised and pale. I sit with them both for a little while, listening to the sounds of Ken's breathing and the beeps and hums of the monitors.
Will it hurt to die? Will it hurt afterward? I'm not afraid of pain, but I know how hard it is to snuff out a life. Or how easy. Which will it be, easy or hard?
There's a circular balcony that overlooks the situation room and provides a clear view of everything happening. I find Joe up there, leaning against the railing. He's in Birdstyle, looking like an angel of doom. In the past few weeks, he's grown still and quiet, like a statue or a wall. Sometimes I'm not sure he even blinks. He makes everybody nervous. I can't believe I miss the days when he'd swat my head over some wisecrack or bust my chops over some stupid little thing, The sicker Ken got, the quieter Joe became. I think he's afraid to show how worried he is.
But if there's anyone who knows what it's like to have one foot in the grave, it's Joe. I lean on the rail next to him and look down. After a few minutes, I feel him staring at me.
"I wish they'd go on and call us out already," I say, and my voice sounds too loud. "I hate this waiting."
Joe doesn't say anything, but he's listening.
"It's like jumping off the high dive for the first time. You know you gotta do it, and the waiting is worse than the doing."
Down below, a high-ranking officer shifts from foot to foot, watching the techs bustle around.
"I don't want to die." My voice cracks in mid-sentence.
"Nobody does," Joe says.
"How do you stand it?" I step closer to him and wave my hands for emphasis. "How can you go in knowing this is probably your last mission ever?"
He looms over me like a shadow. I've grown, but he's still head and shoulders taller, and even I can feel the effects of his colors. The overhead lights reflect off his visor. "We either die fighting, or we die when Z's weapon destroys the earth. I'd rather spend my last minutes knowing I tried to take that bastard with me."
"I knew you'd say that," I mutter. Still, it's the longest sentence I've heard from him in a while.
"Look, Jinpei, I can't tell you to not be afraid. As long as you feel the fear, you'll fight to live." He gives me a slight grin. "Don't waste your fear waiting on base."
"How would you spend your last few hours?" I ask. "Other than fighting Gallactor?"
"Not thinking it was my last few hours." He stares back down at the officers.
"How about a game of pool, then?"
I think that surprises him, and for a minute, he doesn't know what to say. Then, "Let's go."
Joe switches back to his civvies. I wake up Ryu, and the three of us go to the rec room near our quarters. We turn the music up loud, then take turns shooting pool and trash talking each other's skills. And I'm laughing and Ryu's laughing and even Joe is into it. The best Ryu and I can respond to his one-liners is, "Oh yeah?"
Then the music stops. We look at the stereo, and Jun's standing there in full Birdstyle. Ken's at the door. "Time to go," he says.
We follow him to the vehicle bay, where the Gatchaspartan waits. There are extra missiles and rocket boosters attached to the fuselage. We're going into space.
Nobody has any extra words other than reading off the extended flight checklist, and soon we're under way. As the sky darkens and the stars come into view, I listen to the clacking sounds of billiard balls hitting each other and the sound of Ryu laughing.
I don't have to think about it yet, but I hope it'll be a good fight.