Flight 103: It Came From Diablo Valley

"Wait!  I'm coming too!" cried Kanagi.

"You have to rest your feet, Green.  Plus, it's not every day you get to sleep with the famous Galaxy Fairy in a hot steamy jungle," teased Aris as she braided the redhead's hair.

Just then, Sheryl snuggled against her, breathing softly near her neck.  Kanagi's cheeks flamed at the contact.  She pulled away and tried to disentangle herself from the Fairy's limbs that were wrapped around her.

"N-no, you've got it all wrong!  W-we're not like that!"

Red chuckled.  "You say that, but your face says something else.  Besides, you look so comfortable together.  By Miriya, I wish I could sleep like that!"  She rubbed her neck and glanced at Eriko.  "How was she, Black?"

The captain was checking the map and compass.  "Why don't you sleep with her tonight?"

She felt eyes piercing her back.  "Err... no... I'll pass.  Aris is good enough for me."

Eriko spoke to Kanagi.  "Green, go make breakfast.  Tell Pink to prepare water.  We're going to get more food."

"But..." protested Kanagi once more as she rose on an elbow.  But when Eriko stared at her, she could not argue.  With a bit of effort, she managed to extract herself from the lean-to.  Then she busied herself with breakfast and split the meal over the tin plates which were borrowed from Eriko and Tadyana.  When she was done, she tried to wake Sheryl.

"Hey, Nome..."

From the edge of her consciousness, Sheryl heard Kanagi's voice.  A hand shook her shoulder.  Slowly, she sat up and rubbed her eyes.  Through the foliage, the rays of dawn poked through.

"Breakfast is ready," said Kanagi.  She offered a tin plate with scrambled eggs and some berries.

She took the plate.  "Where'd you get the eggs?"

"Silver climbed a tree and found them."

She looked around.  "Where's everybody?" 

"They went to get more food.  The captain said that I should rest my feet, so we'll be here for most of the morning while they hunt."

"I see.  Did she have any instructions for me?"

"Boil water."

Sheryl sighed.  She had no experience hunting, so boiling water was all she could do.  "Let me finish this and we can fetch water together."

"Ok."  For a few seconds, she watched Sheryl eat.  Then she blurted out, "A-and... I'm s-sorry about yesterday!"

"About what?" asked Sheryl between bites.

"A-about your color..."

"It can't be helped.  You know Tadyana won't stop when she has her mind set on something."

"B-but still..."

"It's ok.  I don't like it, but in a way, she accepted me as part of the team, and that's good enough for me."

"Oh, I see.  I-I feel more relieved now.  I-is it ok if I call you Pink?"

It was too late to undo the damage already.  "Yeah, it's fine.  How's your foot?"

"A little better, but the blister's still there."

While waiting for the rest of the team to come back, they did their chores.  Around mid-morning, they arrived with a couple of birds and more berries. 

"You should've seen the captain!  She just shot them down with her slingshot!" exclaimed Aris as she picked up her share of breakfast.

The said slingshot was hanging from Eriko's belt and was newly whittled from a branch.  A stout band was secured to its ends.  When Neumann inspected their personal items, Sheryl saw the band in the captain's pouch and wondered what it was for.  Now, she knew.  Since a slingshot would be too large for the pouch, Eriko just brought the band and carved the body.

The captain handed the birds to Kanagi.  "Clean these up and roast them."

Kanagi turned pale as she accepted the birds.  She moved to the outskirts of camp to do her grisly task.  After the birds were roasted, they packed up and continued the hike.

Around mid-afternoon, they heard screaming in the distance.  They stopped in their tracks and listened carefully.

"I hear... faint voices..." whispered Aris.

Kanagi's hand went to her mouth.  "W-what if wild animals attacked the guys?"

Tadyana's hand tightened on the stick and she took a step.  "We gotta get over there!"

Eriko stopped her.  "Hold on.  We're not sure what's out there.  We should be more cautious."

"I agree," said Sheryl.

"What if it's too late?  If they're in trouble, we could save them!" argued Aris.

"Then let's just move as fast as we can without making too much noise.  Everyone get their blades out," ordered Eriko.

They crept through the brush.  Finally, they saw movement and approached more stealthily.  Two men were standing over five of their classmates who were unconscious and tied up with the twine from their kits.  Each standing man had the blade from the kit in his hand.  One man was emptying the packs and separating the rations and water.  The men's heads were shaved and each wore a matching gray shirt and pants.

"By Miriya..." cursed Tadyana under her breath.  "What now, Black?"

"We have to separate them," said Eriko softly.  "If the three of them could take out five guys, then they must be strong.  What's everyone's combat experience?"

"Aris and I can hold our own in a fight," said the redhead confidently.

"Umm... I'm not very good..." admitted Kanagi.

Sheryl cleared her throat nervously.  She had never been in a physical fight before, so she tried her best to sound confident despite the rising panic in her heart.  "I've fought in a few battles."

Eriko's tone grew even more serious.  "In that case, here's the plan..."

They listened attentively before discussing changes to the plan.  When they were satisfied, they made their preparations.  As soon as they were ready, Aris went over to the men who were eating the rations.  She stumbled through the brush.

"Oops, wrong picnic... I'll be going now..."

The men stared at her and only reacted when she turned to run.  The largest one yelled, "Get her!"

One man dropped his food and ran after her.  Aris sprinted as fast as she could.  She was chased about fifty feet away from the site before the man stumbled over a hidden twine across the path and fell.  Rocks smashed on his head and hands courtesy of Sheryl and Kanagi.  Aris checked that he was unconscious and took all his weapons before climbing a tree and signaling Eriko with the mirror.

The captain received the message and replied.  She watched the men from above in a nearby tree.  The men paced impatiently before they started arguing.  Then they stuffed the rations in two packs.

"We can't leave any witnesses..." said the large one.  He unfolded a blade and yanked a nearby pilot's head back to expose his throat.

"Crap!" cursed Eriko.  She hoped that one of them would leave and look for his companion.  She cocked her slingshot and fired.

"Aaaugh!"  The large man fell to his knees and held a hand to his bleeding temple.

With a loud crack, a large branch landed on the other man's head.  He swayed for a moment and then spun around crazily, slicing the air with his blade.

Tadyana parried as the man advanced and tried to cut her.  Meanwhile, the large man got up and lunged towards her.  He screamed again when another rock hit the top of his head. 

For a moment, her opponent looked away towards his companion.  Tadyana seized the opportunity and drove the branch towards her opponent's throat.  She grinned with satisfaction when soft muscles met wood.  The man reeled away gagging.  She followed it up with a kick to his groin, but the man caught her foot when she connected and pulled her ankle.  With a panicked yell, she fell to the ground.

The blade flashed in her direction and she parried it frantically. 

"Y--you... b--bitch..." rasped the man between wheezing coughs.  He raised his blade. 

Just then, a rock hit his head and he howled in pain as blood dripped down his eyes.  Kanagi was sneaking up behind her opponent.  Tadyana whipped the branch towards his face.  The attack forced him to block and Kanagi took advantage of the diversion to swing down.  The man's eyes rolled up and he fell forward.  Tadyana braced the branch against the ground to divert him away from her.  She got up to help Aris but winced in pain when she put weight on her ankle. 

Meanwhile, Aris and Sheryl hit the larger man with their walking sticks.  When her walking stick broke, Sheryl backed off.  Even after several hits, the man was still standing.  She resorted to the next option and unhooked her water bottle from her belt.  When Aris made an opening, she lunged in and splashed hot water onto the man's face.  The man shrank back and covered his eyes with one hand while the other sliced aimlessly through the air.  Then Kanagi ran behind him and swung with all her might.  He crumpled to the ground unconscious.

"Everyone ok?" yelled Eriko from somewhere.

"My ankle's hurt," replied Tadyana.

"I'll be right over."

Sheryl took a few moments to catch her breath.  Meanwhile, Aris took the blades from the large man.  Kanagi was activating the tracker on each male pilot. 

The men had numbers sewn on their shirts.  The large man had a barcode etched on the back of his hand.  Sheryl guessed that they were probably escaped convicts. 

She wiped the sweat from her brow and took a flare from a pack to fire it.  It raced to the sky, leaving a trail of red plume.  She dropped the flare remnants and began untying the other pilots.

Eriko arrived and knelt next to Tadyana.  After examining it, she announced gravely, "It's sprained.  I'll wrap it for now.  Pink, can I borrow some of your athletic tape?" 

Sheryl dug into her bag and gave her the roll of self-adhering athletic tape.  And then it happened.  Tadyana's opponent sat up and swung the branch towards Eriko's head. 

"Watch out!" yelled Sheryl as she tackled Eriko.  She grimaced in pain as the branch hit her right shoulder.

Aris and Kanagi were on him in an instant.  Several strikes later, he lay bloodied on the ground. 

Concern filled the captain's face when she saw Sheryl's arm position.  "Don't move, Nome."

Eriko touched her shoulder gently and pressed various spots.  Sheryl winced.  A minute later, she declared, "I think it's dislocated.  Silver, can you hold her?  Sorry, Nome.  This is going to hurt."

Since she was already in pain, Sheryl thought that it could not get any worse.  When Eriko rotated her arm, she realized that she was wrong.

"AAAHHH!!!" screamed Sheryl as tears flooded her vision.  Something shifted into place in her shoulder.

"Try not to move it too much.  I'm really sorry, Nome.  I should've been more alert.  Can you go on?  If you can't, then I'll activate the tracker."

Through her haze of pain, the Galaxy Fairy made her decision.  "O-of course... I can..."

"Mine doesn't feel that bad.  I'll just walk it off," said Tadyana.

The captain acknowledged their decisions.  "Alright.  Pink, I'll make you a sling later.  Right now, we have to get going before Neumann comes.  We don't want to get picked up with these guys.  Green, can you carry her pack?"

Eriko quickly wrapped Tadyana's ankle.  With Aris supporting Tadyana, they walked away from the site.  A few minutes later, they heard a whirring noise overhead.  A helicopter hovered over the site and Mr. Neumann climbed down a rope ladder. 

"He'll take care of it.  Let's keep moving," said the captain.

Ten minutes later, they took a break.  Eriko adjusted Tadyana's wraps and made a splint around her ankle with cloth from the other team's pack and twine.  Then she wrapped Sheryl's shoulder and made her a sling.  Meanwhile, Aris and Kanagi warmed up the roasted bird meat to eat. 

"This sucks," complained Tadyana as she raised her ankle on a log.

"It's not that bad," said Aris.  "At least, we don't have to hunt for food anymore."

With the rations from the other team, they had enough for the rest of the week.  Rations did not taste that great, but they were ten times more palatable than the lizard. 

The rest of the day was uneventful and they made camp at dusk.  After dinner, they decided to rest as much as possible with the usual night watch.  Around 11 PM, Sheryl received another visit from Ranka.

"Oh no!" cried Ranka with worry.  "Does it hurt a lot?"

"It's just sore.  The captain said not to put weight on it."

Ranka hugged her.  "Are you going to be ok?"

"I'll be fine.  The captain's a good shot and there's tough fighters on our team."

"I wish there was something I could do."

Sheryl kissed her.  "There is... and only you could do it."

Those verdant locks bounced up.  She patted her lap and Sheryl obediently laid her head on it.

Once again, that clear, soothing voiced lulled her to sleep.  Pain forgotten, she drifted into dreams of her wonderful Cinderella.


"By Miriya... it pisses me off to see her sleep like that," grumbled Tadyana as she sat against a tree.  She yawned and rubbed her sore muscles. 

"She's been through a lot," said Kanagi who was making breakfast.  "Why don't you sleep too?"

"I'm already up."

Kanagi did not say anything and offered her a cup of water and warm rations with some berries that she found nearby.  She hoped that Aris and Eriko would be back from scouting soon.  With Tadyana injured, they had to pick more level terrain.

The rest of the day progressed in an expected routine and they camped at dusk.  While Eriko was adjusting Sheryl's sling, Tadyana saw it.  After the captain left, she hobbled behind her and pulled up the chain around Sheryl's neck.

"Deculture!  Did the Princess propose?" exclaimed Tadyana as she held the ring between her fingertips.

Sheryl paled and clutched at her hand.  "Mind your own business!"

Two letters were engraved on the inside rim and she read it aloud.  "R loves S."  She stared at Sheryl with disgust and accused her.  "You already have someone and you're still stringing the Princess along!?"

"Give it back!" yelled Sheryl angrily.

She quickly unlatched the chain and stood up with the ring in her hand.  "You two-timer!  You're not worthy of this!"  She tossed it over the campfire towards Aris.

Aris reached out to catch it, but something swooped down and caught it in midair.  When she looked up, she tumbled off her log in horror. 

Sheryl simply stood up and held out her hand.  Hope deposited the ring in her palm.  She slipped it onto the ring finger of her right hand.  Then she turned towards Tadyana and extended her left hand. 

"The chain, please."  Despite the courteous words, there was no politeness in her command.

With a shaking hand, Tadyana placed it on her upturned palm.

"Do you know this thing?" asked Eriko who had the slingshot in her hand.

"It's my pet," replied Sheryl.

"Has it been following us?" 

"Yes, but at a distance."

"Can't you leave it at home?"

"It wants to be near me."

"Does it understand you?  You didn't even say anything to it."

Internally, Sheryl berated herself.  The captain was more observant than she thought.  She did not want to explain the fold link to them, at least, until she trusted them.  Frantically, she made up a reason.  "It's... uh... trained to fetch my ring... that's why it came out and grabbed it."

Those blue eyes assessed her.  Then the captain slipped the slingshot in her belt.  "Just don't let Neumann see it."

"He won't.  And for the record, I'm not dating Alto."  There, that should shut them up.

For the rest of the evening, the team did not speak to her as much.  Once in a while, Aris would look up and scan the nearby trees.  Sheryl secretly laughed at her paranoia.  She welcomed the quiet evening and restored the ring to its place around her neck during her sponge bath.  When she was ready to sleep, she waited eagerly for Ranka's visit.


The next morning, Sheryl's shoulder had swelled up more.  It hurt to move her arm up.  Meanwhile, Tadyana was able to limp without Aris' help.  However, their slow pace put them behind schedule.

Steadily, they trudged on, hoping that they could make it by the end of the fifth day.  They were hiking along somberly when all of the sudden, Aris was yanked off her feet.

"H-HELP!" screamed Aris as she was dragged along the ground by a vine around her leg.  Her hands clawed the ground frantically.

"Aris!" cried Tadyana who half ran to her side and grabbed her hands.  She was dragged along as well in a futile tug-of-war.

Eriko ran up with her blade out and hacked at the vine.  Suddenly, more vines came out and whipped at her.  She beat them off with her walking stick.

As Kanagi rushed in to help, the bushes gave way to their true enemy.  A giant plant with a round head and thorny fangs trampled the brush and extended more vines.  The  vines wrapped around Aris and lifted her off the ground.

"Aris!"  Tadyana vainly tried to hold on, but her grip slipped.  She watched helplessly as Aris dangled in midair above the plant's fangs.  The plant opened its huge mouth. 

"Nooooo!!!"  Tadyana rushed forward and hacked at the numerous vines with her blade.  Despite her efforts, Aris fell into its mouth.

"Tadyanaaaa!" screamed Aris as she reached towards her.

The redhead howled a meltran battle cry and renewed hacking away.

"Wait!  Stop!"  Sheryl pushed her aside and dived under the vines towards the roots.

"Pink!  What are you doing?  Come back!" yelled Eriko.

"It's ok!  Just keep it busy!" replied Sheryl as she crawled to the junction between the roots.  She grasped the first tuber and began to stroke it.

This time, the vines surrounded Kanagi.  Frantically, Eriko batted them away.  The vines whipped around her in response, but a few seconds later, they grew limp and began to retreat.  Eriko took the moment to pull Kanagi away from the plant.

Meanwhile, the vines around Tadyana were retreating as well.  However, she still continued to hack them.

"Captain!  Stop her!" yelled Sheryl from between the plant's enormous roots.

Eriko ran over and caught her wrist.  Then she bent her knee behind Tadyana's to make her lose her balance.  She managed to drag the taller girl away.

"Let go!  I have to save her!" struggled Tadyana.

"Hold on!  Pink's trying something!"  When she continued to struggle, Eriko was forced to pin her to the ground.  She looked up to check on Sheryl.

Sheryl was rubbing two tubers now.  Already, the roots were relaxing into the ground.  A few feet away, she saw Kanagi crouching.  Her body was shaking, but her eyes looked at her inquiringly. 

"Go ahead," coaxed Sheryl.

Cautiously, Kanagi crawled to another set of roots and her trembling hands rubbed a couple of tubers as well.

About half a minute later, the plant was motionless and its mouth hung ajar.  Eriko released Tadyana who immediately went to the mouth.  Sheryl grabbed her arm before she touched the plant.

"Let's do it slowly," instructed Sheryl.

Together, they pulled the lower lip down.  As Aris tumbled out, Kanagi caught her.

Tadyana took her from Kanagi and cradled her in her arms as she sat down.  Tears pooled on the lower lids of her eyes and she blinked them back rapidly.  She shook the silver haired girl gently.  "Aris!"

Eriko checked her vitals and exhaled with relief.  "She's breathing and her pulse is steady."

"She's just asleep.  She probably inhaled the pollen.  If you inhale too much, you fall asleep."  Sheryl knelt next to her and removed her pack.  She opened it and pulled out a sandwich bag.  "Aha!  I thought so... it was attracted to this."

Kanagi looked over her shoulder.  "It just wanted berries?"

"These aren't ordinary berries.  This plant needs these to get fertilized.  See those tubers between its roots?  Those are buds.  These berries have the seeds that will fertilize the buds, so it needs to eat them."

"I don't remember seeing this in any lecture," said the vice-captain.

Sheryl shrugged.  "Maybe the school didn't get the latest report."

"And you did?"

She knew from watching Vajra larvae play with the plant and getting further details from Ai.  The larvae would lull it to sleep with their tails and then crawled on its head.  When it woke up, the larvae went along for the ride.  It annoyed Ai sometimes because she had to look for them.  However, Sheryl did not want the team to know details about her relationship with the Vajra.  She decided to concoct another excuse.  "I know the biologist who studies alien plants.  He sends me his new discoveries."

"That's useful," said Eriko who put an arm around Aris and lifted her up.  "Let's get out of here before it wakes up.

"Wait... I have an idea," said Sheryl.

The team listened to her suggestion.  Their reactions were mixed.

"That sounds crazy..." said the captain who seemed skeptical.

"It does... but it just might work!" exclaimed the vice-captain with a note of excitement.

"Isn't it dangerous?" asked Green who eyed the long thorns.

"It'll be fine.  It's not carnivorous.  Besides, if it really wanted to kill you, it would strangle you with its vines," explained Sheryl.

"Let's vote then.  All in favor, raise your hand," said Eriko.  Everyone did, including Aris whose hand was raised by Tadyana.

"She'd do it," quipped redhead cheerfully.


"Woohoooo!!!  Gogogogogogo!!!" crowed Tadyana as she held onto the reins.  On her lap, she cradled the still sleeping Aris.

The huge plant lumbered forward, trampling bushes and knocking down small trees with its sturdy roots.  Its trimmed vines reached out to a bunch of berries suspended at the end of a long branch, but Tadyana kept the berries at a distance.

On the newly leveled trail, the rest of the team jogged behind them.  If all went well, they could make up the lost time. 

"Don't forget to let it have some if it gets bored!" reminded Sheryl as the distance between them and the plant grew wider.

"I will!  See y'all at camp!"  replied Tadyana.

Eventually, they lost sight of the plant as it went downhill.  They paced themselves with a combination of hiking and jogging on the trail.  When the sun began to set, they grew concerned that they had not found camp yet.  It grew dark enough that they were forced to make some torches to light their way.  Their worries went away when they finally found Tadyana and Aris by a campfire.  Rations were warming over it.

"You were supposed to camp at dusk," complained Eriko as she accepted a tin plate of rations and a cup of water.

"Sorry.  I just couldn't pass up the opportunity," replied Tadyana with a smug smile.

"But how were you able to see?" asked Kanagi.

"I used the flares.  The berries lasted long enough to get us this far."

The captain's eyes narrowed.  "So you're confident enough that we won't need the flares?"

"Oh yeah.  Come over here," gestured Aris.

They followed Aris who pushed aside some brush.  All eyes followed her pointing finger.  In the distance, the moonlight reflected off something metallic.

"I think that's our bus," declared Aris proudly.  "It's just downhill from here, across that meadow and through that patch of forest."

The vice-captain cracked her knuckles.  Her eyes were bright with challenge. "It's the homestretch.  What do you say?"

"Let's go for it," replied Sheryl excitedly.

"B-but to walk in the dark..." started Kanagi.

"Dangerous.  I agree.  If we're not careful where we step, we might miss the edge of solid ground," said Eriko.  Despite her cautious words, those blue eyes flashed with daring.  "But based on what happened so far, walking in the dark doesn't sound too bad."

"Vote on it?" suggested Aris.

The captain nodded.  "Those in favor of going on tonight, raise your hand."  When everybody did, she grinned wolfishly.  "It's settled then." 

She held out a fist towards them.  "Let's go, Phoenix Squadron!"

Five fists met in the center.  "Let's go!"

They had a quick dinner and made their preparations.  Eriko made a makeshift spear by lashing the extra blades and wire saw on a long branch to use for hacking into the brush.  Kanagi and Sheryl prepared torches to carry.  With a bit of persuading, Tadyana agreed to be carried by Aris who would switch with Kanagi when she got tired. 

They started with Eriko scouting ahead and clearing the brush while Kanagi lit their way ahead and Sheryl took up the rear.  Their pace was dictated by Aris who half-walked and half-jogged.

All seemed to be going well until they finished crossing the meadow.  Suddenly, Sheryl felt Hope's presence in her mind.  The feeling that she sensed from her was fear.  She looked around.  When she did not see anything out of the ordinary, she reassured Hope.  However, she maintained her guard.

About fifty paces into the forest, something swooped down from above.  Sheryl poked her torch upwards.  There was a flutter and a gust of air.

"What's wrong, Pink?" asked Tadyana who was on Kanagi's back.

"Everyone!  Something's out there!" warned Sheryl.  She looked around nervously.

"Let's hurry," urged Eriko who probed the ground before her.

They had gone about 50 yards when something swooped in front of Eriko.  In response, she slashed at it with her spear.  Something furry fell to the ground and there was a shrill cry with the beating of wings.  Aris raised the torch high.

Up on a nearby tree perched several batlike creatures with a cat's face and a long furry tail.  One was licking its bloody tail.  The largest one spread out its four wings and screeched.

"Catbats!  Run!" cried Aris.  Although small, a catbat's bite was potent enough to paralyze a man for a week. 

They raced through the forest as fast as they could.  Sheryl hovered near Kanagi and Tadyana.  Whenever the catbats flew near, she waved the torch.  However, it did not scare them enough.  One managed to land on Tadyana's pack.

"Get it off!" cringed Tadyana in fear of getting bit.

Sheryl swung the torch and hit the catbat.  The smell of burnt fur filled the air as it screeched away in pain.

Out in front, Eriko sliced and swung while Aris parried with torches.

They kept running until Tadyana yelled, "You've done enough!  I'll go on foot!"  With that, she hopped off her back.  Kanagi fell on her knees panting.

Aris planted the torches on the ground.  "I'll carry her!"

"I can..." protested the redhead.

"Shut up and let me carry you!" ordered Aris.
Sheryl blinked.  It was the first time that she saw Tadyana so cooperative. 

"Just a little bit more... You can do it!" coaxed Eriko who was fighting off the catbats.

Kanagi took several deep breaths before standing up on her own.  Then she picked up Aris' torches.

They started to race once again, half stumbling through the brush.  Eriko lashed out at the branches wildly to clear the way.  Kanagi and Sheryl fended off the catbats while Tadyana warned them when they attacked. 

Aris was so much faster than Kanagi.  Sheryl's lungs felt like they were going to burst and her leg muscles burned with exertion.  Mindlessly, she kept putting one foot in front of the other while flailing torches to keep the catbats away.

Finally, they burst through the forest and ran towards the trailers and bus.  Sheryl glanced behind them to see the outline of about a dozen catbats against the starry sky. 

"They're following us!" she yelled.

And that was how Mr. Neumann found them.  He stood at the trailer's door for a moment before going back in.  When he came out again, he began to shoot with a rifle.  There was a screech above them before a dark form fell to the ground and flopped about.  Sheryl sidestepped it and kept running forward. 

Mr. Neumann held the trailer door open.  "In here!"

They tossed the torches away and ran up the stairs.  They rushed in and collapsed on the floor in exhaustion.  Mr. Neumann closed the door behind them and shot out of a window.  When he was done, he closed the window and surveyed them.

They were all covered with green stains and their clothes were torn here and there, but Aris looked the worst.  Her clothes seemed like she was dragged through mud and there seemed to be a dusting of pollen in her hair.  He also noted the makeshift brace on Tadyana's ankle and Sheryl's sling.

His eyes shifted to the blades on Eriko's branch.  They were smeared with blood and sap. 

"You girls had a lot of guts running through the forest at night.  You've attracted more catbats."

"More...?" asked Sheryl curiously.

"Yes.  They've been eating our garbage at night for the past three days."

"Wait a sec... Doesn't that mean that they've already been hanging around here in the first place?" she pointed out.

Mr. Neumann thought for a moment and then coughed into his hand.  "You girls must be tired.  The shower's over there if you want to take a bath.  Towels and uniforms are in the cabinet.  Anyway, congratulations on completing the test.  I'll go warm up some dinner for you."

He shook their hands in turn.  The team stared as he went into the kitchen and closed the door.

"The nerve of the guy," whispered Tadyana in consternation.

"Yeah..." Aris was already leaning her head on the sofa with her eyes closed.

"Who needs to shower first?" asked Eriko.

"Go ahead, Black," said Tadyana, this time with a tone of respect.

"After you, captain," urged Sheryl.

"Please go first," said Kanagi.

Eriko nodded.  She held out her fist before them.  "Phoenix squadron, mission status?"

They all smiled widely and met their fists with hers.  In one voice, they declared, "Mission complete."

Board Flight 104:  Turbulence Ahead