Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

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drakensis
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Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by drakensis » 2018-11-13 08:05am

Prologue – A Warning to the People

{MSG AC/CE/UC}
On the screen that dominated the room, a flicker of light burst into being, rapidly expanding into a firestorm.

The hourglass shape of Junius Seven shattered like glass as the heat and radiation hammered into its central access, breaking the vast solar mirrors (seven years bad luck, a little voice inside Dekim Barton’s head warned superstitiously) and severing the connections between the upper and lower halves.

The fire of the nuclear warhead launched at the colony didn’t do most of the killing. Most likely only a few thousand people had been in the core of the space colony. The vast majority of the inhabitants had been in the homes and the farmlands at the base of each half – Junius Seven was primarily an agricultural colony, exporting food to the other colonies of Jupiter’s orbitals and LaGrange points. Their deaths came as the atmosphere vented, dragging the unluckiest with it. But whether they died where they were or in the debris field of what had once been their homes, they died in frozen suffocation.

The Federation Senator jabbed at the controls as the footage came to an end, shutting down the monitor and raising the light level in the lounge from its previous dimness. “Damn them,” he said bitterly.

On the couch facing him, his children looked similarly grim, Trowa’s fingers white as he gripped his knees and Leia’s face pensive. “Do we know yet who did it?” she asked.

“It was the Brotherhood of Moore.” Dekim’s son slowly forced his hands to relax. One part Federation defensive fleet and one part militia, the Brotherhood had been recruited during the Zeon War from survivors of the devastated Moore colony cluster, located at the Sol-Earth One LaGrange point. Their hatred for Zeon, located at the Sol-Earth Two point on the far side of Earth was fanatical and other rebellious colonies had suffered the Brotherhood’s anger at the suffering of their home. “The investigators have confirmed the suit that fired the missile was launched from the Spartan, one of Fourth Fleet’s assault carriers. It wasn’t one of the survivors.”

“The suit or the Spartan?”

“Neither made it back.” Trowa shook his head. “It didn’t break the will of the Coordinators. They came at the fleet full force, and they must have had an idea where the shot was from because the Moore ships took the brunt of the fighting.”

“Maybe they knew or maybe they don’t, coincidences happen.” Dekim tugged on his short moustache. “But we know and the investigation’s report will be presented to the Senate within days. If it’s leaked then half the senate already know.”

“Can they do anything official?”

He gave his daughter a pained look. “For a war shot during a war they’re going to have to prosecute full force now? No, it would be public suicide. But unofficially, New Moore’s name is mud now. Breaking the Antarctic Treaty and is going to rebound on them. And on us.”

“After all we’ve done for them,” the younger man said bitterly.

The colony that the Barton family was sat within was a new one, built in the last few years to accommodate the massive number of refugees from the Zeon War. The colonies of Moore had been wrecked just as thoroughly as Junius Seven, suffering more than a billion civilian casualties out of the first week of fighting after war was declared. What remained had been relocated to the Earth-Luna Three colony point on the far side of Earth from Luna, and Dekim Barton had spearheaded repairs to damaged colony cylinders and the construction of new ones, carving a new political base out of those displaced from Moore and from the PanPacific territories of Earth which he hailed from. New Moore had been a contender for representation on the Federation Senate… but that was ashes now.

The old man shook his head. “What’s done is done. Fortunately, Treize kept his head.”

Leia looked up at the name of her husband. “You’ve heard from him? Is he coming here?”

“No – which is a good thing. He’s made it clear he’s firmly opposed to such atrocities and he has the record to back that up. The Federation doesn’t have enough reliable commanders right now to push him out just because he’s married into the wrong family so he should remain influential even when my seat on the Senate is taken from me.”

She took a deep breath. “I’m not going to see him for a while then.”

“It wouldn’t be doing him any favours. Everyone associates us with New Moore and the Brotherhood so staying in touch would kill his career.”

“I’ll miss him though.”

“He’s protecting us, sis.” Trowa pushed himself off the couch and walked over to the monitor, switching it to a view from outside the colony looking towards the distant globe of Earth. “With the census numbers coming in, more than half the PanPacific seats will be cut and there won’t be any New Moore seats to replace them. Not now. We need some representation inside the government and if the Senate’s out then the military is where it’ll have to be.”

“But how can he represent our interests when he’s claiming to be on the outs.”

“What our interests are and what they appear to be are two separate matters,” her father explained. “Many of our less reliable allies are seeking ties to conglomerates associated with Romefeller and Catalonia. Their coteries don’t want to destroy our economic might, they want to co-opt it – and as long as they believe Treize will be on their side they’ll still give contracts to firms where the Khrushrenada family have shareholdings.”

“And given the marriage contract, that means they’ll still be giving that work to our own core firms as well.” Leia nodded in understanding. “I take it that some of the other defectors are similarly entangled with us.”

Dekim nodded. “Of course.”

That, of course, was the reality of Federation politics. Voters were swayed by public awareness, and that cost money. The corporations had the money, and through the holding companies and family trusts that controlled the major shares in them they ensured that the right sort of people were guiding humanity in the right direction. Maintaining the proper balance between aspiration for the ambitious and stability for the entrenched was a delicate dance… but the Zeon War had converted into something more raw, more tempestuous.

Something that threatened to upend the old certainties.

“We can’t let it stand at that though,” Trowa warned. “We’re still slipping away and no one in Romefeller’s government is going to be that concerned about it.”

“Reaching out for new allies led to our current position but that’s a matter of choice rather than anything else,” Dekim observed. “Other alliances are possible – in a less traditional form. Leia, I want you to go back to Earth and concentrate on our main assets still on the surface. That’s what the sharks will expect – a rear-guard action. Meanwhile, Trowa, I need you to move your project forwards.”

His son raised an eyebrow. “We can’t rely on Moore for pilots now. The Brotherhood would co-opt it for more of what they just did. Spacenoids killing spacenoids.”

“They’d find the comparison offensive and we’re still based amongst them. I prefer them versus us. It keeps things simpler and avoids...” Spacenoid was a loaded term and one that could be defined in more than one way, some of which were derogatory of loyalty to the Federation. “It avoids connotations that don’t serve our interests. Go outside Moore. There are plenty of possible recruits if you handpick them carefully.”

“And what will you be doing, father?”

“I’ll be letting a few people know what the Barton family can still offer those who are willing to offer something in return.” Dekim gestured to the monitor, meaning not the Earth but the footage from before. “We aren’t the only ones for whom that was a blow.”
{MSG AC/CE/UC}
The memorial ended with defiant music. It wasn’t enough to honour the dead, painful though the loss of Junius Seven was. It was also necessary to remind the population of the Jovian colonies of what those deaths meant – the arrogant hatred of the Earth population for them. The need to protect themselves.

Athrun Zala found that offensive as a concept, but also impossible to criticize when he saw the fresh lines on his father’s face. It wasn’t as if the Supreme Council were untouched by the tragedy, but mourning must come second to preventing it from happening again.

His uniform didn’t feel comfortable for him yet – the high collar and the long jacket constraining in ways that civilian clothes didn’t. If Patrick Zala felt the same way, he didn’t show it. The older man glanced around once to make sure they were truly in private and then opened his arms slightly in an invitation.

Before, Athrun might have felt that his dignity as an adult would be wounded at a hug from his father but right now the hole in both of their lives demanded to be filled and he stepped close – head still a few inches short of Patrick’s as they wrapped arms around each other. Athrun’s lighter build took after his mother, not his father and the solid strength of the man was a reassurance in different ways from the warmth he might have had from her.

And that he would never feel again. Lenore Zala had worked and lived – and now died – on Junius Seven.

“I wasn’t sure you’d take to military training,” Patrick Zala murmured. “But top of your class… she always said you could do anything you set your mind to.”

“I won’t let it happen again, father. Not to anyone else.” He wasn’t a real soldier, not in his mind. The Defence Force curriculum lasted two years at the Academy compared to three months of intense cramming that focused entirely on turning out combat pilots for the rapidly expanding mobile suit corps.

“No, we won’t.” They broke the hug at last. “I won’t let them come near us, ever again.”

Athrun looked up at his father. “Can I ask…?”

“In public, Athrun, you shouldn’t question your military superior.” There might have been a shadow of a smile on Patrick’s face but perhaps not. “However, we aren’t in public right now. Ask.”

“Why Mars? Don’t we need our military strength here to protect the colonies?”

The Minister of Defence shook his head. “I suppose the flight training doesn’t really touch on strategy. You’ll pick it up, I’m sure. If the Federation can send a fleet at us and suffer no consequence then they have no reason not to keep trying. It only takes one missile getting through…” He paused, the raw wound robbing him of words for a moment. “They have more missiles than we have colonies. So, we take the fight to them. Make them understand that their homes can pay for their atrocities. And then they will dare not attack us again.”

“I see. I suppose that was how the Antarctic Treaty worked.”

“Yes, they knew that Zeon could and would use such measures. And because Siegel broke ties after Sydney was destroyed, the Earthnoids believe we have less resolve.”

Athrun rubbed his face. “Does that mean the colonies over Mars are targets?”

“For occupation, yes. Not for retaliation. The Federation Senate will complain when they lose their footholds over the Red Planet, but that’s more because that give us a foothold in the inner system and deprives them of a jumping off point to attack us. It is when we have a presence near Earth that they will take us seriously.”

“That’ll take longer I suppose.” The younger Zala might not have the breadth of knowledge that the academy could have taught him but the orbital mechanics were elementary school material in the Jovian colonies. Earth’s shorter orbit of the sun brought it past Jupiter every thirteen months. Manned flight – unlike the unmanned freight and fuel barges – was only really practical during those instances for any large expedition. “And anyone we send would be cut off from support for at least a year.”

“You’re eager,” his father noted. “It’s true we can’t launch a fleet at both Earth and Mars right now, but a small force can wound the Federation without waiting for that. All the more so because they won’t see it coming.”

“How do you mean? Raiding or…” Athrun wrestled with the idea.

“Not precisely. We aren’t entirely alone against the Federation, you know. I didn’t want to disturb your training but I’ll be leaving the colonies for a while.”

“You’re going to Earth yourself,” his son deduced.

“The Earth Sphere, at least.” Earth, Luna and the colonies at the nearest five or seven LaGrange points – some counted Sol-Earth One and Two as part of the sphere, depending on their feelings towards Moore and Zeon. “Our allies require a show of support and a single ship with a heavy fuel load can make it there even at this time of year. Since it’s the wrong time of year, the Federation won’t be looking out for it and the support should be enough to demonstrate our sincerity.”

“When you say a while, you mean you won’t be back for years.”

“That’s always possible.” Zala glanced back at the memorial. “You’ll be alright. Won’t you?”

Athrun looked at the floor. Then up at his father. “You’re not going alone – can’t I come?”

“Obviously I’m not – I can’t crew a cruiser alone. This isn’t exactly what you’ve trained for. The mobile suits are there for a last defence if absolutely needed but preferably we’d never fight a real battle. You may do more good at Mars or with the defence force here.”

“I know but…” I don’t want to lose you too.

“I understand. You want to go after them.” The older Zala rubbed his chin. “I won’t stand for any recklessness, you understand? And we’ll be in public almost all the time, that’s how it is on a military ship.”

“Yes sir.”

“And it means seeing no Lacus for years. There’s no way Siegel will let her leave the colonies as things stand. We’ll have communications at times, but…”

Athrun smiled ruefully. “We’ll be okay.” The engagement to Siegel Clyne’s daughter had been arranged by their parents. Having grown up with her, Athrun sometimes found it difficult to see her as bride to be and not a sister in all but blood. “Some time apart might do us good.”

“I see. I suppose that you and she aren’t quite close in that way yet,” his father conceded. “Alright. I’ll put you on the roster. You’ll need to learn fast how to handle the sort of tasks we’re likely to encounter.”

“It’s like you said. I can do anything I turn my mind to.”
{MSG AC/CE/UC}
The meet had been scheduled for a public place, a café overlooking Earth-Luna One’s government hall. The neoclassical building and its park, dominated by a statue of the Federation’s only colony-born Prime Minister, was surrounded by modern skyscrapers and the café was a revolving level on top of the tallest.

It was the sort of excess that made Duo laugh – just the cost of making the entire café turn throughout one day could probably have run his home’s energy bill for a year. He’d dressed to fit in with the tourist crowd with a bill cap he could tuck his braid into and a shirt that made his eyes water if he caught himself in a mirror. At least jeans were in this season.

The counter gave him an over-priced expresso and a slice of lemon cheesecake that looked like it would give him cavities if he so much as sniffed it. After paying he paused and looked around, like any other customer wondering where he could find a seat.

What – more precisely who – he was looking for was in a window seat gazing abstractly over the city. She was taller than he was, green-black hair that marked her as a coordinator (and left both adjacent tables unoccupied) and wearing a sundress that did something to redeem current fashion in his eyes.

“Mind if I catch the view from this angle?” he asked when he reached the table.

She looked up and despite careful make up he saw the sign of slight bags under her eyes. This woman had baggage. Well, didn’t they all. “It’s a free city.”

Recognition phrases exchanged, she went back to looking out of the window while Duo set down his coffee and cake. To complete his image as a tourist he pulled out his phone and took a couple of pictures of the city below.

“You’re younger than I expected,” she said without looking towards him.

“I could say the same of you.” Which wasn’t entirely untrue – for the list of accomplishments he’d heard ascribed to her, capped by the fact she was alive and at large right now, he’d not really internalised that Garahau Cima was only about five years his elder.

“Oh, flattery,” she said coquettishly.

“I cheat and steal, my lady, but Duo Maxwell never tells a lie.”

“That’s not quite the resume to offer when you’re doing business I would have thought.” Cima turned back from the view. “But those of your customers I’ve spoken too had no serious complaints.”

“I’m truly touched. Incidentally, could I interest you in half a dozen Zeonic thrust packs I have lying around at home? I found them still packaged on what was left of a supply ship three months ago and you strike me as someone who could give them a loving home.”

She nodded. “They could be of use to me but that’s not what I’m here for.”

“Well no, of course.” Duo dropped a memory card out of his phone onto the table and leant back in his chair, fishing a replacement for the finger-nail sized data storage. Just another tourist who’d taken too much video footage with his camera. “Full official transcripts of the war crime tribunals two years ago. Every session, all evidence entered on record, full data stamps on the lot.” And hadn’t compressing that onto just one memory card been a joy.

Putting the phone away he picked up his coffee and took a sip, noticing with no surprise when he put it down the card had been replaced with an almost – but not quite – identical one.

“I’ll rely on the ‘never tell a lie’ part of your claims,” she told him, then narrowed her eyes in a way that spoke eloquently of the darker parts of her reputation. “It would be a very unwise decision on your part to try to cheat me.”

“Yeah, well you know where I live.” A downside of having a reputation as a reliable middleman. And given her reputation she might not even be too worried about getting the exact address right.

“Some people forget that.” She held the memory card between two fingers and then tucked it away in her purse. “Or think they can run. But the past always catches you in the end.”

“They’ve not caught you so far,” he said and regretted it immediately.

Cima gave him a thoughtful look. “That’s the thing about people like you, Mr Maxwell. People who stay behind the scenes and keep their hands clean. You’re holding the data on where to find more than a dozen mobile suits.” She kept her voice at a level that wouldn’t draw attention but there was considerable intensity. “Whoever the buyer is, they plan to use them. That will mark them in the ways your kind don’t understand and never realise how it affects you in turn.”

Taken somewhat aback, Duo twirled his fork for a moment before digging it into the cake in front of him. “I’ve seen battlefields before. When they’re red and raw in the aftermath. And couldn’t tell one lick of difference between the two sides.”

“Between those on the battlefield there isn’t much,” she said. “The differences are between them and the ones behind them.”

“I begin to take your point.”

She nodded, lifted her glass and drank the dregs of whatever had been in it. “I hope you’re comfortable with your decisions then.”

“And you with yours.”

“As I said.” The glass touched down on the table with a little more force than was necessary. “The past always catches up.”

And then she was gone, stood and walking away with a briskness that caught him off-guard.

Duo stared after her in a moment, a ‘what did I say?’ expression painted across his face that wasn’t just tradecraft, and then shrugged and took a bite from the cake. It was as sweet and sugary as he’d expected.
{MSG AC/CE/UC}
Contrary to popular media, the meeting didn’t take place in some shadowy room in the backstreets somewhere. Aiguille Delaz believed that any such arrangement simply indicated a lack of resources by the participants – to be obscure enough that you could use it as security also meant being too unimportant to be useful.

Instead he welcomed each participant aboard his flagship, the Gwazine moored within one end of a ruptured colony cylinder. Loum was littered with such debris and Federation patrols of Sol-Earth Four were focused around the limited reconstruction. With their Jovian expeditionary fleet in tatters and a Mars fleet to prepare, there simply wasn’t enough fuel for them to police the rest of the wreckage in detail.

The conference room was small but there were only four of them. The first two guests to arrive weren’t previously acquainted and were engaged in small talk to begin building bridges between themselves and the organisations they represented when Delaz ushered the last into the room.

Patrick Zala broke off in mid-sentence as he saw who was standing beside Delaz. “What is he doing here? Is this some kind of trap?”

“I assure you that it is not.”

“The concern is reasonable though.” Dekim Barton removed the cap he was wearing as he entered the room and dipped his head in old-worldly courtesy to Icelina Eschonbach, the only woman in the room. “I would imagine that a former senator is the last person Mr. Zala expected to find here.”

“A senator who advocated war against my people. Who advocated the murder of civilians.”

Barton sighed heavily. “To the first, yes. I am guilty of that. Your people’s control over the best sources of helium and hydrogen isn’t something I feel the Federation can afford. But I never endorsed or approved of attacks on your colonies. Junius Seven was idiocy and tragedy in equal measure. I desired reconciliation and those deaths make that… unlikely at best.”

Zala looked over at Delaz. “You believe this?”

“I do.” It was Eschonbach who spoke. “The destruction of Junius Seven has erased Barton’s chances of instating a new political power base now that the PanPacific seats have been reduced. It would be stupid to expect otherwise and Senator Barton is many things but not stupid.”

For a moment, Zala seemed about to take the argument further but he apparently thought better of it and instead resumed his seat. “This doesn’t make us friends,” he warned Barton.

“None of us are friends, Mr Zala.” Delaz took his own seat at the head of the small table. “But we have mutual interests and can help each other.”

“Even though you didn’t endorse the attack on Junius Seven, Senator, are you really willing to work with us against the Federation?” Eschonbach seemed understandably sceptical.

Barton leant back in his seat. “The current Federation leadership claims to be moderate but in fact they’re taking an increasingly militarised position. Both on Earth and in the colonies, there are significant populations living under what amount to military occupation – and if things continue, I believe Junius Seven will only be the beginning.”

“Does that surprise you, Senator?” asked Delaz. “You were in office throughout our war for independence.”

“Let us call it what it was, Admiral. Gihren Zabi and his faction did not intend to settle for independence. They wanted Zeon domination of humanity going forwards and we both know how that ended. Nonetheless, if… to use your terms, for Spacenoid and Earthnoid to co-exist I feel that the current state of affairs must be ended. Since the current Federation government is a barrier to that I’m willing to work towards weakening them.”

“How very idealistic of you.”

Zala leant forwards. “None of us are entirely idealistic here. Your Karbala movement are pressing for reinstating the local governments and the senatorial representation of the parts of Earth that supported Zeon, a step that would leave you as a force within Federation politics. Should Admiral Delaz succeed in liberating Zeon then I see no Zabi family to resume rule so it seems likely he would take a leading role, and I.” He smiled tightly. “Well, you all know my standing within the Supreme Council.”

“Those paths don’t all lead to the same place in the end,” Delaz admitted. “But for now, at least we want a weaker Federation leadership so let us work towards that end.”

“The question then is what we seek to do as a step towards that goal and how we may help each other.” Eschonbach looked at each man in turn. “Karbala is already a political factor but we need to go beyond that. The remaining power blocs on Earth each control what amount to private armies within the Federation armed forces. We need a counterbalance to that and we’ve made a start on building it.”

Delaz nodded. “My own plans also call for military units, I’m currently reaching out to other splinter fleets remaining from Zeon’s forces so I can’t spare much directly. However, when I’m ready to act it should force the Federation to reduce its presence on the surface.”

“That would be appreciated.”

“I may be able to provide… let us say a strike force,” Barton said cautiously. “We have no commission from the Federation to manufacture mobile suits but there are certain prototypes. If it would be of use to you then I could mobilise a squadron in the short term. More than that… well, none of us could afford to build an army.”

She considered and then nodded. “For strategic strikes and diversions as we secure equipment from Federation suppliers that would be helpful.”

Zala nodded. “And I believe I can guess what you will be asking of me, Admiral. Fuel, am I wrong?”

“That is basically correct,” he admitted. “The Gwazine is a significant force but fuelling her has been a challenge and many other Zeon loyalists are similarly constrained.”

“My own ship brought limited supplies,” admitted the Coordinator. “But I have the details of several shipments arriving over the next few months. With that information it should be easy to intercept one and divert it to your purposes.”

“An entire barge of helium and hydrogen?” Delaz smiled. “That would allow a revival of our fortunes, I am sure.” The two elements were the most common in the universe, of course, but economically acquiring them was another matter.”

“You sound as if you have a grand plan.” Eschonbach eyed him warily. “I have shared something of my own organisation’s intentions, would you be equally forthright?”

He hesitated and then smiled. “That would only be fair. In order to maintain some degree of influence over semi-independent military groups like the Brotherhood of Moore, the Federation has consolidated its mobile suit manufacture to only two locations – Lake Victoria on Earth and the old Zeonic factories at Granada on the Moon. Destroying the latter would significantly impair the Federation’s ability to maintain its forces, would you not agree?”

“I believe that it would,” agreed Zala in a pleased voice. “And that is clearly to the benefit of myself and Miss Eschonbach.” He looked over at Barton. “I trust it meets with your approval too?”

“As a deterrent to adventurism, I approve. I admit I’m curious as to the mechanism.”

“The Federation appears to have put aside the Antarctic Treaty with Junius Seven,” Delaz replied flatly. “That being so I feel I’m now free to use more… extreme measures than if they had been more restrained.”

“I understand that,” the old man agreed after a moment’s thought.

“Good. It will send them a powerful message,” Zala concurred. “And while it will not free Zeon directly…”

“It will be a rallying cry against the occupation government and their figurehead,” Delaz finished. “The Federation will be forced to face a hydra of threats, such that whichever it cannot confront with its limited resources must assuredly rise to our benefit.”

“It will be something of a shame for those it does deal with, but those are the risks involved,” agreed the former senator. He played with his cap as he spoke. “Of course, the Jovian colonies have the advantage of distance to make them a less… obvious target.”

“I have no control over the relative location of the planets,” replied Zala testily. “Don’t play games.”

“Merely a comment.” The old man clapped the cap back on his head. “Perhaps you could help Miss Eschonbach and I a little further though.”

“I’m listening.”

“Our strike force has mobile suits, but it would hardly be sensible to let New Moore provide pilots so we’re recruiting our own. Surely you can afford to spare one of your escort to join the group. As a… sign of solidarity if you will.”

Zala glared at him and then glanced over at the only woman present. “I suppose if you can’t assist Karbala without my help then I should offer it, yes. Very well. I’ll ask for a volunteer to join your… strike team.”
{MSG AC/CE/UC}
The two mobile suits operating inside the colony cylinder were both painted in red, with only subdued markings to tell them apart. The rounded shapes of their lines contrasted with the angular lines of Federation mobile suits that Dekim had seen more of. It would be an easy assumption for observers to make that these were Zeon machines or at least derived from that line of development – which was true after a fashion.

Trowa was watching them from the shuttle’s forward viewpoint, binoculars pressed against his eyes. “Zala is good,” he announced confidently. “Of course, as a Coordinator he has a natural advantage.”

Dekim snorted. “In my experience, genetic engineering has yet to remove arrogance and stupidity from the human race – assuming you take…”

“The latter to mean failing to think rather than an inherent inability to do so. Yes, I remember,” his son replied. “He has good reflexes and takes orders, I can work with that.”

“And can whoever you send out in charge of this group handle him?”

“We’ve had this discussion before, father. Even if we had five qualified pilots – and we don’t – one of us should go along. Five of these suits is enough to change the course of history applied correctly. Do you want to leave that in the hands of someone else?”

“A discussion we’ve yet to come to an agreement on.” Dekim folded his arms. “If we can’t trust a squad leader with the five of them should we trust any of them with a single mobile suit? And even then, whoever controls their base ship will be in control of their supplies and spare parts.”

“That won’t get the respect of a soldier. I asked Treize,” Trowa added. “Discreetly, of course. He agreed that the leader must take the lead personally to win their respect. Nothing else will keep them on target.”

“Your sister’s husband has an idealised view of war.”

“He’s been to war, neither of us have.”

Dekim sniffed. “And as for pilots, are they really that hard to come by?”

Trowa offered the binoculars. “Look at the way they’re turning. These are demanding suits to pilot, far more so than the Federation’s Daggers. Reflexes, spatial awareness and handling the acceleration… we can’t just put anyone in them.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” The older Barton declined the binoculars, “I wouldn’t know what I was looking for. So Zala and Wayline – are they the only ones?”

“There’s another one who I think is good enough. We’ve made him an offer but he hasn’t got back to us.”

“Hmm. Tell me about him,” Dekim ordered as the two mobile suits completed their sparring and formed up on the shuttle. While the structure of the colony was complete it wasn’t airtight yet and external work remained to be done. It had been easy for the Bartons to divert work crews to colonies closer to completion and hide the mobile suits and their support facilities here.

His son put the binoculars away and took the controls, putting the shuttle into a gentle spin. “A mercenary, like Wayline. He calls himself Heero Yuy and has a reputation for reliability and demanding a certain standard from his employers.”

“Another idealist. Interesting choice of name to use. Do you know who he really is?” The real Heero Yuy had been the only Prime Minister of the Federation to come from the colonies. Using the name was a political statement if ever Dekim Barton had heard one.

“Not definitely – he started working after A Baoa Qu so he’s probably ex-Zeon like Wayline. Staying out of a prison camp would be a pretty good reason to take a different name.”

“Have they met?”

“He says not.”

“So they move in different circles. If he signs up, he might know of other good prospects. He can fly I assume?”

“I wouldn’t have approached him if he couldn’t,” Trowa shot back irritably. “I know what I’m doing, father.”

“Give me an example. I don’t know as much about those things as you do.”

His son sighed and thought a moment. “You remember six months ago when a couple of Zeon vets stole Strike Daggers and went after the medicine convoy?”

“He’s the one who took them down?”

“Yes, and he did it in a beat up Zaku I. Given the relative performance that’s impressive.”

“They’re both obsolete models, aren’t they?” asked Dekim curiously.

“The Strike Daggers were a wartime expedient. They’re not all that much worse than current Daggers, just harder to work with. Compared to that, the Zaku I was out of frontline service after the first week or two of the Zeon War. It’s a noticeable gap.”

“Hmm. And we know Wayline was Kycilla’s pet ace, so there’s that. Well, if they don’t know each other it might mean this Yuy has contacts that Wayline doesn’t and can bring you a couple more candidates.”

“We only need one more if he takes the deal,” Trowa said defiantly.

“Having a reserve would be useful, even if you do take charge directly. Accidents do happen.” The shuttle reached the entrance to the colony’s port and he let his son finish the process of navigating the passage ways to the hanger levels without offering distraction.

Really, they could have brought a dedicated pilot to fly them around but Treize had introduced Trowa to flying and now he insisted on getting as many hours as he could for himself.
{MSG AC/CE/UC}
Minovsky particles still clogged long range sensors and transmissions through Hatte – the old Earth-Lunar Four colonies had enjoyed no more safety than Moore had during the advance of Zeon’s forces towards Earth. A low priority for reconstruction, it was a navigation hazard and a mass grave for the dead.

That made it perfect for covert meetings like this one – Garahau Cima had spent three hours just finding the wreck of the colony that had been agreed on a rendezvous, then another two scouting the area for any ambushers before she brought her mobile suit in.

If the wait had disconcerted her contact then he gave no sign of it. His own mobile suit was powered down, held in place by the grip of one hand around a convenient girder, and he’d erected a small pressurised shelter.

Nudging her thrusters gently, Cima brought her Gelgoog in and anchored it facing the other mobile suit. It wasn’t a design she was familiar with and she let her sensors play over it for a moment given the opportunity. The mono-eyed sensor head and the shoulder mounted shield suggested it shared the heritage of the Zaku II that had been Zeon’s workhorse design during the war but unshielded cabling and an angular shape to the torso and the joint protection suggested other design influences.

Her cockpit was already depressurized so she only had to open the hatch in order to free herself to cross the short distance to the shelter, kicking off from the hatch to drift over in zero gravity.

The airlock was just big enough for two, and then they’d have had to be friendly. She entered head first and crouched to seal the hatch. The lock cycled automatically, air pumping in and when the tell-tales on her suit confirmed sufficient pressure and the right mix Cima removed her helmet and took a sniff. The slightly stale odour of long-tanked air – that took her back to all too many poorly supplied outposts she’d visited during her time as a Zeon soldier.

The hatch ‘above’ her opened and Cima had to restrain surprise at the sight of the man ahead of her. “The Nightmare of Solomon himself. I’d heard you weren’t in Federation hands but I didn’t think you’d be this near to Earth. You’ve quite a price on your head.”

Anavel Gato smiled sardonically. “Are you planning to collect?”

“Somehow I don’t think they’d pay if it was me.” After all, her own price was even higher. Being convicted in absentia for massacring an entire colony could ruin a girl’s reputation, she thought sourly. “I thought I’d be meeting one of Delaz’ flunkies.”

“Admiral Delaz doesn’t have flunkies. The current economic climate doesn’t allow for it, you see.”

“How tragic. He must feel terribly let down, having followed Gihren Zabi all that time just for the chance to look down his nose at everyone and now he doesn’t even have flunkies.” She pulled herself out of the airlock and looked the other pilot over. “So, he sent you to talk to me.”

“He did.” Gato opened a pack and offered her a drink packet. When she shook her head, he unsealed it and sipped lightly from the straw. “You’re not really a pirate, Cima.”

“I’m wanted on something like thirty counts of piracy over the last three years – most of them are actually true although some one had the nerve to repaint his ship in my colours before he hit the Luna to Zeon transport caravan.” She smiled nostalgically. “It took three months to find him but a lady’s reputation is everything, you know.”

“And I don’t think anyone will miss him. But that’s my point: you still have standards. You’re still a Zeon marine at heart.”

“The Zeon we know is gone. What’s left is a Federation protectorate under a quisling government. If the garrison was ever withdrawn there’s a better than average chance that someone like Moore’s Brotherhood would sweep in and…” She drew one hand across her throat.

Gato nodded. “And if that changed? If Zeon’s banners were raised again, would you rally to them? It’s the cause we were both pledged to, after all.”

“To protect our sacred homeland.” Cima laughed bitterly. “You forget, I can never go home again. Your Admiral’s precious Lord Gihren turned my entire colony into his glorious super laser.”

He let go of the drink packet and let it drift. “Alright, that’s a point. But Gihren is dead and so are the rest of the Zabi’s. And the people of your home colony are still alive in the other colonies, surviving only by virtue that Artesia Som Deikun has marginally more support within the Federation Senate than she has enemies. If that changes, well, as you illustratively said…”

“And Delaz thinks he can change that? Last I heard he had that damn battlewagon of his and a handful of escorts. That’s not going to be enough to take on the whole Federation fleet and we both know it.”

“Alone, no, but the Federation has other things to worry about. You heard about Junius Seven?”

Cima narrowed her eyes. “Everyone has.”

“The Jovians aren’t letting that pass, they’re moving on Mars and the colonies around it. The Federation’s putting together a fleet to defend it but that means their fleet here is going to be weaker than it has been since the Battle of Solomon. Between that and a few other things we have a good chance of pushing the balance of power in our favour.” Gato spread his hands. “It’s been three years of struggling to survive, but this is our chance, Major. A fresh chance, and when did it ever look like we’d get one of those?”

She met his gaze for a moment and then shrugged. “Is that drink still on offer?”

He dug out a second package for her and waited politely, finishing his own drink as she thought.

“What are these other things?” she asked at last. “And what’s his endgame?”

“I can’t tell you everything – we need to respect our allies’ secrecy after all and unless you’re confirming you’re onboard then you’d be a security risk.”

“You’re asking me to commit without knowing what I’m getting into. Given who Delaz was tight with, I think I have a right to reservations.”

“I can understand that, but you understand my position too.”

Cima nodded grudgingly. “You’re his flunky, and good flunkies don’t tell.”

“If you want to see it that way.” Gato refused to rise to the bait. “Do you really want to just keep raiding until your ships rot away underneath you?”

Tossing her helmet from hand to hand, the ex-marine conceded that point. “I want to meet him first. If he’s going to be calling the shots then I want to look him in the eye and see what sort of man I’m trusting to lead me.”

“That I can agree to. Not here, obviously, but we can set it up.”

“Alright.” She pulled her helmet back on, flipped open the visor and then worked the neck seals to make sure she would be airtight. “You know how to get word to me.”

“I do, yes.” He offered his hand. “I hope you sign on, Cima. You’d be a real help.”

“Judging by the mobile suit you came in, I think you’re more interested in my hardware. What scrap heap did that come from.”

“As I said, we have allies. It may not look like much but the Hizack’s a step up from the Zakus we were operating before.”

“I’ll stick with my Gelgoog, thank you very much.” She flipped down her visor and when she lowered her hand Cima saw that Gato was saluting her. After a moment she returned the gesture and opened the airlock again.
{MSG AC/CE/UC}
Duo heard the familiar sound of heavy tools in use as he entered the salvage yard but rather than heading into the workshops he diverted to the small office near the entrance, unbuttoning the collar of his shirt as he opened the security lock with his other hand. “Evening, Hilde.”

The brunette sat behind the second-hand computer system didn’t look up. “It’s eight in the morning, Duo.”

“It’s evening somewhere, he protested cheerfully, stripping off his jacket and securing it on the hanger in the closet. “Did you get the update from the bank?”

She looked up. “Yes, congratulations. We had a deposit all of thirty minutes before the monthly bills went out. Cutting it a bit fine, weren’t you?”

“I had to hunt up somewhere that was open to get it in in time, and since it included your pay can I have at least a little credit.” Duo put a little extra flirt in his voice.

“I’ll give you some credit when you sell those thrusters cluttering up lot three. You’ve been trying to shift them for six months.”

“I almost had a buyer this time!”

“Really?”

“I diiiiid!” he protested, leaning on the desk.

Hilde leant back in her chair. “Okay, I believe you. But I also believe, deep in my heart, that in true Duo Maxwell style you opened your big fat mouth and offended them, thus the ‘almost’ which translates to: no, you didn’t sell them.”

“You wound me, Hilde, you really do.”

“Save it for the funny papers. Oh, and your boyfriend has locked himself in the workshop again.”

Duo laughed. “We’re not like that, Hilde, but keep dreaming. It’s cheaper than more of your sleezy boy-love comics.”

“They’re not sleazy, you jerk. You just don’t appreciate true art. Go see what he’s up to this time and if he has his shirt off get me photos this time.”

“Eh, no promises.”

The office shared a bathroom with the apartment above so Duo was able to head straight in, lock the door into the office while he showered and then walk straight on into bunkroom to get dressed in coveralls. There was a hammering on the door just as he was knotting his bootlaces so he went back to let Hilde into the bathroom before going back to the workshops.

What would he ever do without Hilde to tease? Well, he’d probably think of something but it was nice to have an easy target.

The workshop keys had gone missing long since but that wasn’t particularly a challenge for someone who had the skills Duo shared with his business partner. Fifteen seconds with some wire and a pocket screw driver popped all the pins and he was able to push the door open. The sound of work being done more than double and he grabbed ear protection from a hook behind the door before letting it close again.

The beat-up shape of Heero Yuy’s Zaku-I was laid out on the flatbed platform, access panels open around the leg thrusters and the left arm missing above the elbow.

“Oh man, what did you do to it this time?” Duo called.

There was a grunt and then the brown hair and blue eyes he’d expected rose above the far leg to look at him. One greasy hand rose to cup behind the other man’s ear.

“I said: what did you do to it this time?” he shouted.

“Mmm. They had missiles.”

“Right, naturally they did. Do we even have a spare arm or will you be renaming this heap the one-armed bandit next time someone talks you into risking your life for a plate of beans and some cheap whiskey?”

The noise of the tools began to spool down. “I can probably refit a Zaku II arm.”

Duo shook his head. “We have enough parts for those, I guess. Sometimes I think I should just jerry-rig another suit and go along. Things are tightening up out there and there’s newer kit. Someone ought to watch your back.”

“So, you want to take something built of scraps out there?” Heero asked calmly as he emerged from behind the mobile suit, wiping his hands on a rag. “Not exactly safer.”

“Well nor is this solo shit. Didn’t you ever fly with a wingman, back in the war?”

A shadow seemed to pass across Heero’s eyes and he didn’t answer, walking back to the tool rack and pulling out two wrenches, measuring their grips.

Realising he’d cut too close, Duo threw up his hands. “Sorry, sorry. I just worry.”

“Hmm.”

Following Heero back to the open access panels, Duo grabbed hold of the damaged fuel lines and held them steady while the other man unlocked them, the two of them carrying them over to the discards pile and then fetching replacements.

“Had a job request,” Heero said quietly while they were clamping the fuel lines back into place. “It’s unusual.”

“How so?”

“They’ve got mobile suits.”

“What, yours isn’t good enough?”

Heero shrugged. “Maybe they’re making a statement. Money’s good.”

“And the rest of it?” asked Duo. “Wait, you said suits?”

He got a nod in reply.

“What, did you run out of words?”

The other man lowered the wrench he was using. “They’re talking about cleaning up the people who’ve been pushing beyond Federation sanction. People who are too connected or too well armed for the normal methods.”

“So this is Federation approved? How many mobile suits are they talking about?”

“They weren’t clear on either but they asked if I could recommend anyone.”

Duo frowned and took a seat on an upturned crate that filled in for a stool. “I never actually shot at someone before. Not to kill, at least. Always…” He paused. “Stayed behind the scenes and kept my hands clean.”

Heero just nodded.

“What’s it like?”

“Killings easier than not killing sometimes. Too easy.”

“Yeah. And I guess if they don’t hire you, they’ll hire someone else.”

The other man gave him another nod and started closing up the access panel, not meeting Duo’s eyes.

“You have a bad feeling on this one, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Oh hell.” The braided man threw his hands up in the air. “Sure, you have back-up. But you gotta come to eat dinner in the office so we can get Hilde confused about us again.”
{MSG AC/CE/UC}
Hymen Jamitov preferred an orderly office. Desk clear of everything but what he was working on right away, a videophone positioned so he could take calls from right at his desk, no chairs but his own. All data properly filed on the computer systems for his reference.

Right now, there was a crisply uniformed Federation officer standing behind the door waiting for his attention. The file under her arm suggested someone was operating outside normal channels which could be very good or very bad.

Closing down the report on a missing fuel barge he gave her his full attention. “Colonel Une, is there something I can do for you?”

“One of our agents within the Zeon remnants has returned some interesting information,” she answered and placed the file on the desk. “There was a meeting recently in the Hatte region between members of two of the better armed factions.”

Jamitov opened the file and scanned the contents. Message transcriptions, a sensor drone’s recordings of a Zanzibar-class cruiser – a Zeon design and a class that was now only in use by dissidents since surrendered ships had been decommissioned en masse – operating in Earth-Luna Four. “Major Garahau Cima. One of the more flamboyant officers not to surrender.”

“I wouldn’t quite refer to her as flamboyant, sir. Perhaps… incendiary.”

“Someone who had at least a degree of culpability in gassing the Halifax colony and sparked the Federation’s declaration of war against Zeon? I concede the aptness of your description, Colonel. And Anavel Gato, who in contrast we’ve not heard of lately.”

“Yes sir. However, he’s representing Aiguille Delaz and the combined forces of the Delaz and Cima fleets would be quite considerable.”

Jamitov nodded. “Nine warships between them and if they were fully loaded, unlikely but possible, that could mean sixty mobile suits. Quite a task force. What do you propose, Colonel?”

Une reached down to the file and displayed the last document. “A further meeting is being arranged sir, between Cima and Delaz directly. I recommend arranging for a Federation force to intercept them and capture or kill both leaders while they’re exposed.”

“As you say, they have a considerable force. That would require a large deployment of Federation units to eliminate them.”

“Less expensive, sir, than allowing them to combine their forces.”

“That’s arguable,” he observed. “It could be also be more valuable to allow the meeting to take place and have this agent follow the threads back to see who’s backing them. This mention of allies is concerning. It could very well mean we’re looking at a well-hidden Neo-Zeon organisation and letting that go for the sake of a pair of relatively modest officers could be short-sighted. I’ll raise the possibility. And in future, please file these reports through the usual channels. I assure you, they will reach me.”

“Sir.” Une drew herself up and saluted sharply.

“Dismissed.”

Jamitov waited until she was gone and then read through the file again. He used the computer to scan the original documents and typed up brief summaries himself from the analysis provided by Une. With that done he left his desk and went to the almost disused paper shredder in the corner and fed the file into it. Purely electronic data was much more convenient.

With that chore out of the way he dialled a number on the video-phone.

The face that greeted him on the other hand was round and might have otherwise been cheerful. “General Jamitov? You don’t usually call me directly.”

“It’s a matter of deployments, sir. I’ve had a request passed to me at a high enough level that I felt I should contact you.”

Marshal Ulyanov rubbed his eyes. “Deployments. Of course. And the request?”

“Based on observations of Zeon remnants near Hatte, it’s been suggested that a task force might be diverted there. I’m aware, sir, that with the Mars fleet such task forces are in short supply.”

“Yes, they are. Do you have any concrete threats, Jamitov?”

“I believe it’s still a developing situation, sir.”

Ulyanov nodded. “Alright, general. You’ve made your request and it’s denied. If it develops into anything you can raise it through normal channels.”

Jamitov bowed his head. “Of course, sir. I apologise for taking up your time.”

The call cut off and the Federation’s director of Military Intelligence smiled thinly as he set the records aside and pulled up Garahau Cima’s file again. The thing about developing situations was, of course, that they could develop very quickly with the right tending and watering.
{MSG AC/CE/UC}
The first sight of the mobile suits sent a thrill of excitement through Duo. He’d used mobile workers and decommissioned military hardware before of course but these weren’t economically low powered or deliberately limited. These, unless he was very much mistaken, were first-grade military hardware – as good or better than the Daggers currently in active service.

Heero had twitched slightly at the sight of them but just shrugged it off as bad memories when Duo asked him if something was wrong. Maybe he just didn’t like the paint scheme – home red was a bit much. Whatever this mission was, stealth clearly wasn’t going to be a priority.

“Gentlemen.” The man who seemed to be in charge gestured to two men already wearing pilot suits – one about Duo and Heero’s age with dark hair and green eyes, the other a few years older, blond and blue-eyed. “These are the two pilots we’ve brought in already: Alex Dino and Led Wayline.”

“Hi!” Duo said brightly and offered his hand to shake. Dino accepted and then offered Heero his hand while Wayline was giving Duo a thoughtful look. At almost the same instant, both Heero and Wayline took the offered hands and shook. They didn’t offer each other the same courtesy, just nodding tersely.

Their host didn’t seem bothered by any of this. “I’m Trowa Barton and I’ll be leading the squadron,” he announced with an edge of challenge to his voice.

“Okay, boss,” agreed Duo, putting his best innocent expression on his face. “Where do we start?”

“Familiarisation is first. The Gerbera Tetras aren’t like any mobile suits you’ve ever used before so it may take a little getting used to.”

“Just a little, huh?”

“Apparently we’re on a schedule,” Wayline said drily. “Or so we’ve just learned. Either you get to grips quickly and we’re all good, or you wipe and kill yourself. In which case, everyone but you is good.”

“You are terrible at being reassuring, you know that.”

“And you’re…” Barton looked over at Heero with a questioning look.

Duo’s buddy returned the look coolly. “He’ll be fine.”

“I guess we’ll find out. Dino, get him kitted up and ready to go.”

The other pilot nodded and directed Duo over to some lockers where several pilot suits were hanging. It only took a couple of minutes to find one that would fit him and he stripped down to put it on. “So how bad are they?” he asked as he sealed it up. “The suits I mean, Barton and Wayline I can tell already.”

Dino cracked a shy smile. “They know their stuff. The, uh, Gerbera are quite a piece of engineering. They’ve got a lot of thrust and if you can take the gees then they’ll turn on a dime.”

“’Kay, sounds good. They’ve uh…” He thought back to what he’d seen on combat suits before. “No shields.”

“No, so you need to be aggressive and evasive at the same time, thus the name.”

“Huh?” asked Duo, picking up the helmet.

“Gerbera – like the Zeon tactic for high speed attacks?” Dino led him down the steps and into the hanger proper although they stopped short of the floor and followed a gantry to the bay for one of the five mobile suits.

“Oh. I didn’t pick up the vernacular really.”

“Oh, wartime training?”

Duo shook his head and then stuck it into the cockpit, looking around. “I didn’t really get formal training. Okay, this looks mostly okay.” The controls were along the standard lines he’d expected although the triggers would likely be doing something much more lethal than activating, for example, a cutting torch.

The other pilot squatted to let light past him as Duo strapped himself in and put on his helmet. “Main triggers are for the machine cannon. Two guns in each arm, the arms are independently targeted. You can adjust the convergence for them on the auxiliary panel here.”

“Got it,” he lied. What was convergence? Something to ask Heero.

“Main gun is your right thumb trigger. It’s not a regular beam rifle, shorter bursts but a better cycle time.”

“Sort of a beam machine gun?”

Dino snorted. “Well, it’s not technically accurate but sure. And then there are the beam sabres. Nothing out of the ordinary there.”

“Right,” agreed Duo, who had never used a beam sabre except in arcade games. “Let’s see how it goes.”

The other man backed up as the cockpit sealed up and the main monitor lit up. Duo could see the gantry withdrawing and Dino riding it away. He seemed like a decent kid.

Across the way, a second Gerbera Tetra was already moving out towards the launch position. Presumably Heero was in that one – or maybe it was Barton or Wayline playing overseer. Playing around with the cameras, Duo spotted Barton and Heero up in the command centre. Wayline it was.

The other suit gestured towards Duo. “Come on kid, you’re first to take off,” Wayline’s voice ordered.

“Coming, mom.” Taking the controls, Duo powered it up and walked forwards getting used to the rhythm of the limbs and its balance. It was a touch top-heavier than he was used to but nothing drastically out of the order and he was quickly on the marked passage and looking at the hatch ahead.

“Wayline to flight control, ready to depart.”

“Confirmed,” Barton agreed. “Opening hatch.”

The hatch split vertically and folded out, showing the shadowy interior of the colony cylinder.

“Okay, Maxwell. Just take it out at your own pace…”

His own pace? Okay. With a broad grin, Duo lit up the thrusters and then drove the throttle wide open.

The hand of God smashed him back into seat and the hanger disappeared, sensors screaming as he saw the far end of the cylinder approaching far too fast.

Yanking on the controls, the young salvager sent the mobile suit into a spiral, bleeding speed until he could turn, heart thundering in his chest.

At what seemed like it would be far too late he managed to bring the mobile suit around, pointing it at the approaching wall and burning it hard to bring himself to a halt at the far end of the colony from the hanger.

It came to rest just short of the barrier, the metal blackening briefly under the thunder of the thrusters until Duo eased himself away. The mobile suit drifted left and right as he toyed with the controls and then he saw a second Gerbera Tetra approaching him a slightly slower pace. The suit spun and came to rest perpendicular to Duo’s, feet less than a metre from the colony hull.

“Just a little heavy on the throttle there,” Wayline said as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

“Felt about right to me,” Duo said lightly. He could feel his lips curled into an excited grin. That had been exhilarating. “Anyway, what’s next?”

“Some tighter manoeuvres. And kid, try and cut out the wisecracks. I don’t give a shit but Barton’s a tight ass sometimes.”

“I’ll, uh, do what I can.”

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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by LadyTevar » 2018-11-13 07:30pm

Nice start. I'm interested seeing where you take it from here.
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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by drakensis » 2018-11-14 06:12am

Chapter One – The Good and the Evil

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Unassisted the Gerbera Tetra couldn’t fly under Earth gravity, although it could boost itself hard enough to escape the simulated gravity of a colony. Since they were operating on Earth where that wasn’t an option, additional thrust packs were mounted on the back, extending several metres back.

The packs would have interfered with normal re-entry ballutes – the balloon-parachutes – so instead each mobile suit had been wrapped in an expendable drop-pod and ejected from a freighter as it approached low orbit. For Duo, being wrapped in the pod and unable to take control of his flight was the hardest part.

But eventually the ablative materials had melted away under the heat of the descent and as the altimeter hit the target figure and the rest of the pod ejected. The sky was brilliantly clear – they’d dropped in daylight where the light of their re-entry would be less obvious – and the Sahara Desert beneath them seemed endless.

“Count-off,” ordered Barton. “Lead.”

“Two,” reported Wayline.

“Three.” Duo saw Dino’s Gerbera Tetra dropping only a couple of kilometres off to his right.

Heero sounded calm as ever as he reported: “Four.”

“And Five. All present,” he declared, scanning his sensors. They’d scattered a little during the drop but not too badly. Besides them there was… no, there was something. Another Minovsky particle source, well below them. “I have something on my scope.”

“Confirmed.” Dino moved in towards Duo. “Land battleship heading for our drop zone.”

“Good.” Barton sounded smug. “We’re right on target then.”

“Are they friendly then?”

“No, they’re not. I’m unlocking your tactical folders, this is our first target.”

Wayline’s Gerbera Tetra moved in towards Duo with Heero’s just behind it. “This was expected? We’re coming down dangerously close to Dakar.”

Duo saw a file icon on one of his auxiliary monitors and opened it up. “Desert Hawk, a Federation land battleship… three mobile suits aboard.”

“The odds were about fifty-fifty they’d be in the area,” Barton explained as they continued to drop. “The Hawks are officially security for this area but they’ve been running protection rackets on settlements around the desert and attacking salvage operators out in the sand.”

“And the Capital Guards?” asked Dino. “If they scrambled now, they could have a full battalion out here in thirty minutes.”

“As long as the Hawks keep the desert quiet, the Guards don’t care what they do. It’s practically a private fief for the Hawks. They’ll investigate eventually but our transport will meet us long before that.”

Duo saw Barton’s mobile suit at last. Their leader was almost a thousand metres above them. “So, we take them out, our transport gets here and we leave.”

“Exactly. The Desert Hawks are close enough that this’ll be noticed and once someone digs into it, they’ll find out what they were doing. That’s one more argument for the Senate to start reining on the Federation Forces.”

“I don’t appreciate having this sprung on me at short notice,” Wayline growled. Then his suit twisted in the air. “We’ve been picked up. Take evasive.”

The warning was timely – the land battleship was visible now at the head of a plume of sand kicked up by its thrusters and tracer fire was beginning to snap upwards at the suits.

“I’ve got visual on their mobile suits – three land types.” Heero’s voice was sharp. “Duo, Alex, take out the ship. Led, you’re with me on the suits.”

Trowa started to say something but Heero cut him short with a brisk: “Go.”

Cutting his thrusters, Duo dropped downwards rapidly. He saw the main turret of the battleship elevating its guns – the massive ballistic weapons weren’t all that accurate but a single shell from them would wreck a mobile suit with ease.

“Have you got a plan of attack?” Dino called, following him down.

“Ya! Attack!” They were entering their own range now and Duo tried to draw a bead on the anti-aircraft turrets along the battleships flank. It wasn’t moving all that much but every time he tried to steady his aim the guns would focus in on him.

There was a flash as several particle beams pulsed past him. Dino was having more luck apparently – or was just a better shot which might be more likely. Two of the turrets blew up in succession.

“Thanks!” Duo stopped trying to shoot and instead drew a beam sabre from its storage on the Gerbera Tetra’s left thigh. He spun and evaded the tracer from the remaining turrets and then the main guns fired.

The shells blasted past him, insanely fast. The damage monitor hissed, lighting up orange in a dozen locations. Shit! Was he hit? The controls didn’t seem to be impaired and Duo crashed closer, bringing the mobile suit down directly on top of the turret’s flat upper surface, dropping to one knee.

He glanced at the damage monitor again – the side turrets were still swivelling – and saw that none of the damage was serious. Even a near miss from those guns…

I could have died right there, he realised. Without thinking about it he ignited the beam sabre and slashed it across the battleship’s bridge tower, the yellow-white beam cutting through the forward windows and burning through everything within.

Two more turrets blew out and Duo feathered the thrusters to take off before the rest could catch him. “Thanks, Alex!”

“Are you crazy?”

Duo laughed. The battleship was still trying to fight but taking out the bridge seemed to have cut their coordination as the ship hit a sloped dune, the angle shifting the turrets off-target. “I must be. Why else would I be here?”

He fired his beam machine gun and saw the pulses rip into the upper surface of the turret. For a moment it seemed to have done nothing and then an explosion hurled the entire turret – twice the size of their mobile suits – up into the air. Secondary explosions tore through the forward half of the land battleship and it ground to a halt.

“That’s it, get clear!” ordered Barton.

Turning, Duo saw the other mobile suit dropping down behind the crippled battleship and then its machine cannon roared to life. Fire blossomed from the engines and hatches began to open as the crew fled their posts.

“All clear,” Heero reported. “Mobile suits down. No sign of a response from Dakar.”

“Good work.” Barton sounded a little short of breath. “Head east – our transport will be flying south-west across the desert in twenty minutes. We don’t want to miss it.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Zechs Merquise saw heads turning towards him as he crossed Torrington Base. For a moment he felt like it was back in the old days, wondering if anyone would guess who he was. But was probably just his helmet. Wearing one made him stand out a little.

The facilities were pretty much what he’d expected – barracks, hangers, warehouses. The only exotic note were the uniforms. Federation grey-tan where he was used to seeing the black-trimmed dark green of Zeon. He supposed he’d get used to it.

“Here we are, sir.” The jeep driver pulled up outside an office block that showed obvious signs of being thrown up quickly and cheaply – it couldn’t have been more than a few years old but the concrete was already cracking and several windows had obviously been replaced.

“Thanks for the ride.” Zechs shook hands with the driver, then reached into the back for the rucksack that contained his kit. There was something oddly comforting about having everything that he needed on his person – he felt self-contained for almost the first time since the war ended.

“Anytime, sir.” The man waited until Zechs was out and then scooted the little jeep away, kicking up grit behind it.

Pushing open the door, the blond pilot saw a sergeant behind the reception desk and walked over that way. “Sergeant, I’m looking for Captain Noin.”

The man looked up from his computer and flinched obviously as he saw the metal helmet. He’d also seen the rank pins though so he bit back the obvious question. “Uh, yes sir. Your name?”

“Zechs Merquise.”

The sergeant scribbled something on a clipboard and then extended it. “Sign here please.”

Using the pen tied to the clipboard he complied and was issued a pass. “Upstairs, go left and her squadron’s office space is last door on the left.”

The stairs were bare concrete and the Federation flag hung on the back wall of the landing had a coffee stain in one corner where someone had presumably tripped and splashed their drink. Zechs tried to imagine this level of neglect on a Zeon base and had trouble imagining it. This is the force that won the war, he thought. Should I be ashamed or impressed?

The door was where he’d been told and he knocked sharply.

“Come in!”

Through the door he found the room was a fairly large one. Three desks lined the wall to his left, with computers on each, and a fourth faced him from the far wall. To his right a pair of low couches with institution-green padding formed an L-shape. A young woman was sat on one, reading a manual while a lanky man about her age was leaning over her shoulder to do the same. Another woman was behind the far desk and looking towards the door.

“Lieutenant Zechs Merquise, reporting in,” he said with a salute towards the latter woman.

The pair who were reading looked up at that and the woman put down her manual and stood, almost catching the man with her shoulder. They were both ensigns, he noted. Meanwhile the captain behind the desk returned the salute. “At ease lieutenant. Welcome to the squadron.”

“Thank you, captain.”

“I’d heard you have a minor eye condition,” she added, giving him a once over. “Is the helmet really necessary?”

“It’s a little more stable than glasses, captain.”

Noin stood and moved around the desk. “Hmm. Well, as long as it works, I don’t suppose it’s a problem.” She offered her hand and they shook firmly.

The younger woman offered her hand next. “Emma Sheen. I’m pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise.” She held his hand just a little longer than necessary, which might have caught the attention of her comrade – or perhaps he was just a bit full of himself – because he turned his own handshake into a test of strength. Well that was fine with Zechs and he closed his own fingers until the younger pilot flinched.

“Jerid Messa,” he introduced himself, discreetly massaging his fingers once that was done. “I don’t suppose you have any hours on the Dagger? Not Strike Daggers, the real deal.”

“A few. I’ve mostly been using old Zeon hardware in testing centres lately.”

“Well you’ll be glad to be in a real mobile suit then,” Jerid told him. “We just upgraded.”

“I’d heard supply was limited what with the Mars Fleet getting first priority.”

“For new construction, yes.” Noin leant against her desk. “We’re getting hand-me-downs from a squadron that got to use the new Long Dagger models. It’s more of a gift to our deck crews, cutting maintenance hours by a third.”

“They’ll be much better if we see real action though,” declared Jerid. “You’ve used them, you’ll know.”

Zechs shook his head. “Unless we run into something as advanced as the Duel or the Strike, I don’t think the quality of the suit will matter as much as the pilot’s skills.”

“What are you implying there!” the other man exclaimed.

“That I look forward to seeing what you can do in the cockpit,” he replied.

Noin smirked. “Excellent. Emma, show Lieutenant Merquise to his quarters and I’ll file a squadron training exercise for this afternoon. I look forward to seeing the best from all of you.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

“I hope everyone’s fine with their quarters,” Trowa Barton said a little smugly as the team assembled in the briefing room.

The other four exchanged looks. The quarters were actually very comfortable under the circumstances – they each had an admittedly small cabin to themselves. “I’ve slept in worse,” Duo said dismissively. “What are you going to surprise us with next, room service?”

The transport had been more than any of them expected, a vast multi-engine aircraft with a cavernous cargo hold that could carry all five of the Gerbera Tetras and even carry out maintenance and reloading. If it wasn’t for the bulk of the flight packs, Duo guessed that the Audhumla could have carried twice as many mobile suits.

“Not quite, this isn’t a hotel after all.”

“It beats out a Gaw,” Led Wayline conceded. “I hope you’ll give us more of a briefing this time on our objectives. Surprises can happen but it’s not a good idea to court them the way you did with the Desert Hawks.”

Barton shrugged. “I stand corrected,” he said without apology. “And if they hadn’t been right below us then there would have been plenty of time to fill you in.”

“So, what’s next?” asked Alex Dino. “We’re over the Indian Ocean right now.”

A projector lit up, displaying a sprawling complex surrounded by hills and tropical jungle. Barton gestured towards it. “This is the Murasame Institute, originally a minor research group in Japan. They were on the far fringes of medical science before the war, looking into what amounts to the Newtype theory. The institute itself didn’t survive the tidal waves resulting from Operation British but more than half the personnel survived and the Federation gathered them up and brought them here, to Malaysia, two years ago.”

“I’ve never been really clear what that was,” Duo admitted. “The Newtype thing.”

“Nor was anyone else,” grunted Wayline. “I read Deikun’s papers on the idea when I was a kid but I couldn’t make anything of it. The Flanagan Institute co-opted the term for what they were looking into – some sort of ESP.”

“Mind-reading?” Dino asked sceptically.

“Maybe. Or possibly some sort of precognition. They were getting results, enough that they were building operational prototypes of some kind.”

“And that brings us to our next point.” Barton flipped a control and the projector began to show faces and abbreviated biographies. “Not all of the scientists working for Murasame are from the previous incarnation of the Institute. In fact, quite a number are using false identities. Our information indicates many of them are -”

“Stop.” Heero’s voice was flat. “Stop the display, go back three.”

The older man frowned but did so. Heero scanned the profile. “I know that face. His real name’s Ulen Hibiki.”

“Hell, he was with the Flanagan Institute,” Wayline said in surprise. “I never met the man but I heard rumours. Nasty piece of work, if anything went wrong it was always someone else’s fault – and it was uncharted territory so a lot of experiments didn’t pan out. And there was supposed to be a messy divorce some years back. Where did you come across him?”

Heero paused before speaking. “I did some looking into the Garm Institute once, for another job. He was there before Flanagan recruited him.”

Duo glanced over at his partner. When had Heero every done any job regarding Garm? He’d done tactical strikes, he wasn’t an investigator. What was he holding out on, and from, whom?

“Do you have an issue with Coordinators?” asked Dino quietly. The Garm Institute hadn’t been the only place where people could go to ensure their children were ‘genetically superior’ but it had been one of the most obvious. It had been bombed a year before the Zeon War, the terrorist attack almost lost in the escalating violence between pro-Zeon and pro-Federation groups. These days the artificial conception wasn’t practised anywhere in the Earth Sphere and Coordinator families were rare except in outlying colonies like the Jupiter colonies.

“What? No.” Heero shook his head in dismissal. “But some of the people working at Garm were going a bit beyond that.”

They all looked at him and he gave them a flat, uninformative glare in reply. “Please continue.”

“Anyway, yes, some of the current personnel there are from the Flanagan Institute,” agreed Barton slowly. “And some of that list are wanted war criminals. Someone in the Federation is shielding them from the consequences of their actions.”

“If you want prisoners, we’re not really equipped for that,” warned Wayline. “We’d need infantry and somewhere to keep them – I don’t think we have a brig on this bird.”

“You’re right, we don’t want prisoners and nor am I looking for you to execute them.” Barton went back to the original image of the Institute. “We want to know what they’re doing and drag it out into the open. Force the Federation to confront the issue. Our information is that these buildings contain prototypes.” He highlighted two buildings in red, then another in orange. “And this is their main computer centre. We want the prototypes and their computer servers. Your mission is to take out the defences, take the prototypes and the computers and carry them as far as the landing strip here. We’ll land the Audhumla for you to bring it all aboard – flying while carrying the equipment is too chancey.”

Wayline nodded. “What sort of defences are we dealing with?”

“Emplaced turrets around the perimeter and some infantry.” Icons began to spring up to identify them.

“That looks like a hanger,” Dino pointed out.

“It is, but we’re not sure what’s in there. We have to assume we could be looking at a squadron of mobile suits. If so, I’m confident you can handle them.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

The alerts on Zechs Merquise’s radio and Jerid Messa’s weren’t quite in sync and thus they added to the disconcerting bleating each emitted as the two men woke and fumbled for the units.

Jerid tumbled out of his bunk while trying to reach his radio on the floor next to him, which Zechs decided to ignore as he pulled his own radio from the small shelf in the wall next to him. “Lieutenant Merquise.” He glanced over the edge of the bunk and saw Jerid kicking clear of a blanket. “Ensign Messa is with me.”

A moment later the other officer’s radio stopped signalling. “Lieutenant, Ensign,” Noin voice announced from his own as Zechs set it to speaker mode. “We’re being called to back up some search teams, I want us ready to leave in twenty-five minutes.”

“Search and rescue?” asked Jerid as he stood up and opened both men’s lockers, pulling his pilot suit out of his own.

Zechs hopped out of bed and retrieved his helmet from the top shelf of the locker.

“No, there’s been a possible sighting in the Indian Ocean that matches some of the data from an incident in the Sahara. We’ll be going up with full combat loads.”

“What the hell happened in the Sahara?”

“Save it for the briefing,” Noin said flatly and cut the call.

The two men exchanged shrugs and finished kitting up. Despite starting second, Zechs was first to finish securing his kit and he pushed open the barracks door, holding it for Jerid who was still juggling his helmet and struggling with the collar.

“Let me hold that,” he told the younger man, and grabbed the helmet.

“Dammit, I can usually do this one handed.” Both hands free, the collar sealed properly.

Zechs nodded. “It’s easier when you’re not hurrying,” he pointed out and returned the helmet.

There was a jeep outside and he let Jerid take the wheel, looking up at the pre-dawn sky. The sun would reach the horizon within the next hour, he thought with a look at his watch, blazing down over what had once been the city of Sydney and was now a vast flooded crater hundreds of miles across. Torrington Base sat on the new coastline but there had been no civilian enthusiasm for re-settling the area – it was too stark a reminder of man’s ability to unleash destruction.

The woman’s barracks were a fraction closer to the hanger, but Noin and Emma were just getting out of their own jeep as the men arrived. Inside gantries and cranes were moving weapons and supplementary equipment around the four GAT-01A1 Dagger mobile suits.

“Briefing room,” the Captain called over the cacophony and they filed into the small soundproofed room, the noise dropping sharply when Zechs closed the door behind them.

“What’s going on, sir?”

Noin logged into the computer and fed in her authorisation codes. “Four days ago, the land battleship Desert Hawk detected an orbital drop a short distance to the east of Dakar by five unknown mobile suits,” she explained. The main screen lit up and she opened up more files, typing in passwords as she spoke.

“The Desert Hawk moved to intercept and was destroyed in short order, along with three onboard mobile suits. Some of the crew made it out and we have some pictures but at the time that was all we had.”

Still images appeared on the screen, cycling through shots of crimson mobile suits, ochre sand and a brilliant blue sky. Noin paused on one shot. “You were in Zeon’s mobile suit development programme, lieutenant. What do you make of them?”

“He was what?!” Jerid half-shouted, pushing his chair to one side.

Behind his mask Zechs rolled his eyes. “I was undercover for Federation intelligence,” he explained. “Looking into what they were doing to counter our G-weapon project.”

“How did you get into that line of work,” Emma asked.

“Classified. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds.” He leant forwards and examined the picture. The characteristically round armour and its crimson paint scheme reminded him of the bright, flashy colours of certain other mobile suits. This was sleeker though, with large thrusters above and behind each shoulder, a third and much larger arrangement jutting aft wards from the spine.

“No, I haven’t seen this before,” he decided. “That thrust arrangement definitely looks like a Zeon pattern – several secondary thrusters. It’s as good as our own auxiliary flight packs but it must have a top-notch reactor to power them and a beam weapon that large.”

“How do you rate it?” Noin asked.

“It doesn’t look like it’s forgiving of pilot errors. And no shield either. But if the pilots know what they’re doing then it could be a very dangerous opponent.” He examined the picture again. “Can you zoom in on the arms.”

The shot magnified as directed and he nodded. “Machine cannon built into each arm. I can’t tell the calibre offhand but at least as heavy as the head-mounted weapons on Strike Daggers and Long Daggers.”

“Heavier in fact,” Noin confirmed. “Post battle analysis suggest 110mm cannon.”

The other three all winced. That was the sort of calibre usually reserved for hand-held weapons. Their Daggers mounted 40mm close-in weapon systems in their sensor heads, smaller but faster firing versions of the 75mm weapons used by the earlier models or the high-performance Long Dagger. Against infantry or incoming missiles that was perfectly sufficient but it wasn’t an effective secondary weapon against most mobile suits.

“They might be light on armour,” Emma offered. “They’re fast and carrying a lot of firepower, they almost have to have compromised somewhere.”

“Maybe, but don’t count on it. If someone’s willing to throw enough money at it, they can afford to excel in all areas. Look at the Duel or the Strike.”

Noin’s words were a painful reminder to Zechs. Those prototypes had been ludicrously expensive – but even four years later there were still no production units that could compare to them in performance. “Why does command think they might be coming this way?”

The captain closed up the file and brought up a map. “We got lucky. A flight plan was inserted into the Sinai air control schedule for a mobile suit transport to fly east from the Sahara over the horn of Africa. A local officer came in visual range and didn’t recognise the design. When he enquired, the flight plan was tracked back and discovered to be a hack.”

“So you think this transport – any photos?” Jerid paused while Noin shook her head “Damn. You think it kept coming east and is headed for Western Australia?”

“It could have turned north to India or south to the Antarctic but there haven’t been any sightings so the high command has ordered a sweep.” Noin folded her arms. “Four Base Jabbers are being prepared to carry us while scouts sweep west from the coast. If we find anything, we’re to raise the alarm and then delay the enemy until reinforcements arrive.”

“Four of us on five of them,” Emma asked warily.

“Sounds interesting,” Zechs answered with a smirk.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Cima had expected to meet with Delaz in much the same way she had with Gato, but apparently the admiral felt a temporary shelter was beneath his dignity. She brought her Gelgoog into the fringes of Sol-Earth Five colonies under low power and found the mass of the Gwazine hidden within a half-built colony cylinder. The mass of an asteroid being cut up for raw materials to build the colony masked the battleship from the other colonies in the area.

Landing inside the ship’s hanger she saw entire squadrons of Hizacks being prepared for action but very few suits dating back to the war. Everything she saw of the mobile suits suggested that her Gelgoog would be at a great advantage… but she only had a dozen of them and this was just the complement of the Gwazine, before the other ships of the Delaz fleet were considered.

On the far side of the airlock she found Aiguille Delaz himself waiting for her. She wondered if he expected a salute but he instead extended his hand and when she reached out in return the admiral bowed deeply and brushed a kiss against the back of her glove. “Welcome to the Gwazine,” he greeted her. “It’s an honour to meet one of Zeon’s most stalwart officers.”

“The Deikun government might disagree with that assessment,” she observed and let herself be guided towards a meeting room.

He sighed. “I must confess, I don’t know how much of Artesia Som Deikun’s words are her own and how many are put into her mouth by Federation watchdogs. She was only a child when her father died and a decade in exile suggests she may understand Zeon less than she believes she does.”

“Whereas you and I, having not seen Zeon in three years would still have a better idea?”

“At the very least,” and Delaz fixed her with a determined gaze, “The Zabi’s were right that mankind can no longer afford to be chained down to gravity any more. We must look outwards, not inwards.”

“That’s fine in principle, but do you really think the people of the colonies will rally to that cause? Now?”

“Colonies. That’s the Federation’s term for us, Garahau. May I call you that? I don’t see any need for ranks between us.”

“Mess rules then,” she offered and, after a moment’s hesitation, “Aiguille.”

“Thank you,” Delaz said warmly. “We aren’t colonies any more, Garahau. We’re nations. The equals, if not of the entire Federation, then at least of the national power blocs that formed it. Look at our numbers – population, economics, how were we less than they were?”

“I don’t think any of those numbers are quite what they once were,” she said harshly. “The war killed billions. That can’t be forgotten.”

“No. But it was their mistake, not ours. We did not declare war. And for all they scream about Halifax, our hand was pushed there. All we did was try to defend those who wanted the same freedoms we did. And now they’re stripping away those few freedoms we had. Something must be done before it’s too late.”

She stepped back and away from him, suddenly aware of how close they were standing. Taking a seat at the table she gestured towards the one facing her. “Gato said you had a plan, but he wasn’t free to share it with me.”

“The trouble with Hatte is that anyone could be hidden away in the debris,” Delaz offered winningly. “It’s best not to discuss something sensitive there. This, on the other hand, is a far more controlled environment.”

“So, you’re saying it’s nothing personal.”

“Of course not. After all, we’re on the same side, aren’t we?”

“Are we? That was something of a concern in the old days, Delaz. You were one of Gihren’s cronies and he didn’t exactly see eye to eye with his brother and sister.”

“Zabi family politics. Gato was at Solomon – with Dozle’s forces – but you don’t see me holding that against him. Kycilla murdered Lord Gihren – let’s take that as a lesson to where such divides lead and put them behind us.”

“That might be easier said than done. But say we do.” She looked at him through narrow eyes. “What do you have in mind?”

“This area was relatively unmarked by the war,” he explained. “There are new colony cylinders being built here to accommodate the displaced populations from the PanPacific and the Earth Orbitals.”

“I’ve seen them.”

“There was a petition to open two of them to settlement by Zeon – our homeland is already densely populated and the Federation has barred the construction of new cylinders for us at Sol Earth Two.” He clenched his fists. “The motion never even reached the Senate for a vote, they killed it in committee.”

“So much for democracy,” Cima said cynically.

“Exactly. Those cylinders are ours by right, paid for by the heavy taxes imposed on our people by the Federation under their ‘Reconstruction Budget’.” Delaz took a deep breath. “So, I mean to take them.”

“Just like that? You don’t think the inhabitants would complain?”

“Right now, there aren’t any residents. Final fitting out is still underway – oh, a few thousand workers and a guard force, but nothing that can’t be dealt with.” He spread his hands. “The workers are blameless and if the guard force surrenders then I’m happy to let them all leave. Between our two fleets they wouldn’t stand a chance and that should be obvious to them.”

She considered that. Some, she thought, would fight anyway. But against overwhelming odds that might even be relatively easily dealt with. “And then? They won’t let you keep two cylinders, you know. And while we can overawe a few squadrons of mobile suits, the Federation can bring in reinforcements that could squash us if they catch us.”

Delaz nodded. “I know. As much as I’d like to simply take them to Zeon and gift them to our people, the Federation would take them back. No, I have in mind to use them to strike at the base of Federation power in space.”

“If you’re talking about colony drops then our conversation is over, Aiguille.” She had a sidearm and would chance the rest of his crew if need be.

“I’m talking about the mobile suit at Granada,” he clarified. “No atmosphere, no ocean.”

“Just the mother of all moon-quakes and a crater that could swallow the entire city?” she snapped.

“No, no. I’ve thought this through. There’s a fault on the surface just outside Granada, the city is reinforced to deal with quakes and the factory is on the far side of the fault – we built it there because the softer rock made it easier to build.” Delaz activated a screen. “Here, what I’m suggesting is dropping the colonies here and here.”

The map showed Granada, dug into a lunar crater, and the Zeonic factory now operated by Anaheim Electronics for the Federation. Two icons glowed well to the north of either.

Delaz indicated the markers. “Drop the colonies here and there won’t be any direct impact on the city or the factory. The shockwaves will hit the factory, and from two directions that’ll wreck it. But the fault will break up the shockwaves and Granada itself won’t be hit by more than the minor tremors they deal with every couple of years anyway.”

“You’ve given this a lot of thought.”

“It’s not something I take lightly,” he said. “What do you think?”

“It sounds about as well planned as Operation British. And you might remember that the colony for that landed on the wrong side of the Pacific Ocean.”

“That was because the Federation forces damaged the thrusters and slowed it down.” He spread his hands. “All we need to do is make sure they don’t get the chance this time. I’ve arranged diversions that will keep their Earth-based forces from reaching us in time and the bulk of their mobile units will be headed to Mars – by the time they turn around it’ll all be over. Between us we can make sure that this goes right.”

He leant over and offered his hand again, eyes burning with conviction. “Are you with me, Garahau?”

“If I say no, you’ll try anyway.”

“We have to.”

Garahau Cima hesitated and then took his hand. “Then I suppose I’d better make sure this is done right.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Patrolling was boring, Zechs knew, but backing up a patrol was even more boring because keeping an eye out was redundant so you had to simply remain ready without actually doing anything. There was just enough tension to keep you from resting and too much tedium to stay on edge.

This particular circuit had been going on for six hours now and there had been nothing but waves beneath them since the four Base Jabbers had left northern Australia behind them, carrying the squadron’s Daggers out over the Indian Ocean.

“I spy,” Jerid said heavily. “With my little eye. Something beginning with… W.”

“Water,” Emma said immediately.

“Wrong!” he corrected her.

“Waves,” Zechs said absently as he played with the radio receiver, scanning frequencies for any hint of a signal. It was probably going to be fruitless given the Minovsky particles in the upper atmosphere but at least it was something to do.

Jerid made a defeated sound.

“It’s not as if you were spoiled for choice,” the masked pilot pointed out. “And it’s only a couple more hours.”

There were groans over the radio.

“I appreciate your efforts to maintain morale,” Noin noted in an amused voice, “But that last part might have been counter-productive.”

“You may be…” Zechs broke off as for an instant he heard a voice on the radio. Turning the dial back he narrowed down the range. Yes, there it was. Not a language he knew, but definitely alarm. “I’m picking up some kind of distress call from east-north-east. Very faint, channel… five-four-two-seven.”

“We’ll check it out,” Noin concurred, turning her Base Jabber in that direction. The other three followed suit, checking their Dagger’s readiness with renewed attention now that there was something to focus on. “I’ll call it in.”

While she dropped out of the channel, Zechs checked his weapon systems. Besides the head mounted 40mm cannon, he had a Federation standard 57mm beam rifle and two beam sabres. The charging slots for the latter were in the shoulders and covered up by the Aile flight pack which locked over them, but the designers had prudently fitted that with its own beam sabre charging ports. Really, he thought one of the main advantages the Dagger and Long Dagger had over the wartime Strike Daggers was that the developers had had the time to add little touches like that.

Noin re-entered the conversation. “There’s some sort of Federation facility – headquarters couldn’t tell me what exactly – located on that bearing and in reasonable range,” she advised tersely. “Go to maximum thrust – we’ve got hundreds of kilometres to cross to get there in time.”

“That’s going to run the Jabbers out of fuel before we can get back to Torrington,” warned Emma, although Zechs could see her thrusters adjusting for low-efficiency, high thrust mode along with the rest of the squadron.

“I get the impression that that’s a price that headquarters are willing to pay.” The captain’s voice was forced calm.


{MSG AC/CE/UC}


“Turrets down.” Duo heard Alex Dino’s report absently as he darted the Gerbera Tetra behind a building just before a guntank opened up. Flipping the mobile suit around he darted back around before the heavily armed and armoured ground unit’s autoloader could cycle and put a short burst from his beam machinegun through the head-like contact.

That didn’t stop the thing from swerving back and forwards evasively - he remembered suddenly there was a second cockpit buried deep in the lower chassis. “Well shit.”

Diving forwards he went underneath two more shots from the main guns and came up with 110mm cannon firing. Several shots hit the tarmac and ricocheted, but several dug into the lower glacis of the frontal armour. They must have hit something because the tracked mobile weapon jarred to a halt and smoke began to rise from the hull.

“I think that’s the last Guntank,” he reported.

“You think?” asked Barton. “Aren’t you sure?”

“I didn’t get an exact count.”

“There were four,” Heero cut in. “Standard squadron and they’re all down.”

“Right, and I took out the security barracks,” Barton noted. “So, we’re clear for Audhumla to land and it’s an easy job from here.”

The explosion from the hanger building prevented Duo from saying anything about taunting Murphy. Given the size of the mobile suit that burst out of the building, Barton should probably be smart enough to realise it for himself.

“What is that!” their commander exclaimed, rocketing up in the air as the new hostile turned towards him, two – no, they weren’t wings, some sort of shoulder mounted pods – flaring out.

Duo twisted his Gerbera Tetra aside and particle beams ripped into the building he’d been stood beside. “I don’t know, but it’s making me feel inadequate.”

“Those were warship grade guns,” Dino exclaimed. “I’ll get in close, cover me!”

The red painted mobile suit dived in at the larger olive machine and Duo sprayed fire ahead of him. Then the pods seemed to explode launching some kind of… missiles? No, they weren’t fast enough.

“Dodge!”

Obeying the shout from Wayline, Dion pulled left and narrowly avoided a spray of beams that cut through his approach vector.

“Okay, that is cheating,” Duo decided and shifted his cannon fire towards the mobile suit, only for it to turn and take the hits on one of the shoulder pods.

“Those things are… flying beam weapons,” shouted Dino. “How are they even powering them?”

“Focus!” Wayline shouted. “Heero, can you.”

“Firing.” The brown-haired pilot seemed to be the only calm one and his shots rained down from above, beam pulses and cannon shells detonating short of the enemy as they intersected the autonomous weapons.

“I’ll out flank him,” Duo shouted, jetting sideways around one of the objective buildings. Popping one beam sabre he prepared to blindside the enemy suit only to come out and see it had turned to face him.

There was a moment of bone-chilling terror as the suit lashed out with a beam sabre at least twice as long as his. Throwing the controls over, Duo tried to slide under the cut but he’d forgotten to account for the size of his thruster pack and it hit the ground, throwing him into a wild tumble along the ground.

The beam sabre cut his own left arm away below the elbow, taking his own beam sabre away with it, and then lashed into the building cutting an entire corner away.

That was the last chance it had though as Trowa dropped from the sky, both beam sabres lit and literally disarmed the enemy mobile suit, lopping off the shoulder pods for good measure before jetting away.

Left open and unguarded, the suit turned to try to follow only to fall as Dino spitted the Minovsky reactor with his beam rifle. A moment later it below up, taking out the entire near end of the target building.

“Ow. Ow. Are we clear?” Duo asked.

Heero’s mobile suit landed and helped him bring his own upright. “Maybe. Are you alright.”

“I’m fine. My suit’s…” He looked at the diagnostics display and winced. “Well, scratch one flight pack. I can walk at least.”

“The Audhumla’s landing so that’s not an issue right now.” Heero looked at the wrecked building. “I doubt we can get any prototypes out of there.” Fires were spreading through the part of the structure that hadn’t already collapsed.”

“I’ll take the roof off the other one with my beam sabre,” Barton announced. “Dino, grab whatever they have inside. Yuy, get the computers.”

There was a bright flash, a creak and then a crash as Barton cut the roof away with a horizontal sweep of his beam sabre and Wayline flipped it casually off the building before it could collapse.

“What the hell is this?”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Smoke was rising to mark their destination as the Base Jabbers ran out of fuel, but there was nothing in the sky to indicate an escape was underway.

“Take off and let the Jabbers land if they can,” Noin ordered and matched actions to words, her Dagger leaping off the aircraft under its own power.

Looking at the hills and recalling just how limited the autopilots were on the Base Jabbers, Zechs didn’t think much of their chances of landing in a useful condition but that wasn’t his problem and he followed his captain onwards.

The four of them crossed the last ridgeline in a rough diamond formation and saw the large aircraft on the landing strip already taxiing to take off.

“That thing’s huge!” Emma exclaimed. “It’s as big as a space cruiser!”

“Save the analysis, those are the suits we’re looking for,” Noin warned as four red shapes hurtled into the air to intercept them.

They split to outflank their opponents, Jerid going high and Emma to the right. Noin went to the left and Zechs dove for the deck, using the full mobility of the flight pack to operate inverted. Beam fire traced around him and he dodged, firing a single shot back that also missed his target.

It would have been too much to hope for, he thought. It wasn’t like his first time being fired on with a beam rifle – the enemy knew how to dodge this time. On the other hand, now he had a beam rifle too.

The four of them had split into individual duels and Zechs’ opponent seemed more than willing to expend energy and munitions on trying to hit him – even a chance hit could be deadly. Cautious of his own reactor, Zechs flew evasively returned fire more economically, just enough to keep the other pilot honest.

Why four? The report said there were five of them, he thought. He and his opponent streaked across the landing strip, barely avoiding the large sky transport as it picked up speed. Seeing the wreck of a guntank, Zechs used it for momentary cover and then blasted himself upwards as the other pilot blew through the tank’s munition store with his beam rifle.

Using the smoke as cover, Zechs dropped suddenly, pulling a beam sabre. For a moment he thought that he had the advantage but at the last minute a second beam sabre lit up and the other suit parried him.

It was fast, powerful… Zechs fired his machine cannon in that brief moment and saw sparks flying from the other mobile suit’s armour. Damn, armoured too? Who had the money to throw into five suits like this one?

They broke away, clashed again, beam sabres catching each other.

He’s good but he’s not experienced, he decided. I can take him but it won’t be quick and –

At the last moment some inner instinct had him turn away and a beam pulse blew off one of his stabiliser fins rather than the sensor head of his Dagger.

Now airborne the transport was pointing its tail at him, a yawning hatch at the rear large enough for a mobile suit to be standing there. Its beam rifle was laying down sustained fire on him and Zechs had to dive behind a building to avoid further damage.

The fifth one, he thought. That’s not good. The other one can come around and then I’ll be in a crossfire…

He brought his rifle up to catch any such an attempt but nothing came into view. After a moment he cautiously lifted his mobile suits head up above the building to get a glimpse of the enemy and before a close shot forced him down again, taking out one of the cameras, he saw the enemy forming up around the air transport, leaving he and presumably whatever else remained of Noin’s squadron quite literally in the dirt.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Duo waited until Trowa Barton was out of his Gerbera, then picked him up by the lapels of his jacket and threw him up against the mobile suit’s leg. “What the hell, Barton? You said prototypes.”

“I didn’t know!” the other man snarled, sweeping his arms up and around to break Duo’s grip. “Get a hold of yourself. I’m as surprised as you are.”

“Duo.” Heero caught hold of his shoulder and pulled him back before he could seize their ‘oh so glorious commander’ again. “You’re scaring them.”

The anger went out of Duo and he looked back to the little huddle of misery in the back of a truck they’d commandeered to get the Murasame Institute’s work aboard the Audhumla. There were twelve of them, hair mostly in exotic shades, wearing no more than hospital gowns and in some cases plastic restraints that hadn’t been the work of Duo or his comrades.

And by his best guess the oldest of them might have been nine years old.

“Who does this sort of crap!” he hissed. “They’re kids, Heero.”

“Apparently the Murasame Institute did,” the other pilot said flatly. “Maybe the Flanagan too, for all I know.”

“As far as I’m aware, the youngest subject of testing at the Flanagan Institute was in her mid-teens,” Wayline said heavily. “I didn’t know everything, but I know Kycilla Zabi met that one personally and made sure she was a volunteer and not being coerced.”

“What happened to her?”

“If it’s who I think then the White Devil killed her at Solomon.” Heero let go of Duo. “A volunteer, but do you really think someone that age knows what they were getting into.”

“I heard that too,” agreed Wayline. “But don’t kid yourself. By the end of the war there were a lot of kids on both sides getting into cockpits. Most of them didn’t last any longer than she did.”

Duo looked at the two veterans and shook his head. “I don’t get it. I don’t get it at all.”

They both looked at him and then Wayline cracked a smile. “Be glad of that kid. It was no place to live.”

Barton straightened his jacket. “Look, Maxwell, we’ll look after them okay. I’ve got a niece, you know. Not that much younger. I get where you’re coming from.”

“I don’t think you do.” He folded his arms around himself. “That damned suit, who do you think was piloting it? One of the researchers or one of their test subjects? And that building that got torched… it…”

He felt another hand on his shoulder, pushing him away. When he looked it was Alex Dino, face no less bleak. “You’re not doing anyone any good like this,” the black-haired man grated, voice unsteady. “Get your head together and then we’ll hunt up something decent for them to wear. Get them some food. Figure out where they’ll be sleeping.”

Dino lowered his voice. “And if Barton can’t find somewhere for them, I know some people who’ll take them. Get them out of the Federation’s reach.”

Duo felt his eyes water and wiped his sleeve across his face. “Yeah. Okay.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Jamitov had had been called down to Dakar only twice since he took over as head of Military Intelligence. On both occasions it had been because the Minister for Intelligence wanted to throw a fit. The first time it happened he’d decided that there wouldn’t be a third occasion and he’d ensured it by carrying a little envelope of some… interesting photos of Minister Cabell-Scott with him down with him for the second incident.

The man’s face when he opened the envelope was one of Janitor’s happiest memories and since then their interaction had been restrained and entirely respectful of the General’s rank and expertise.

On this occasion though, the Minister for Intelligence had already clearly been verbally flayed by someone else before Jamitov reached the briefing room. Glancing around he identified the likely culprit and bowed his head respectfully. Prime Minister Santiago had reached the height of power within the Federation Senate through an amiable manner, a willingness to compromise and a vicious streak approximately as wide as an Island-type colony.

“General, how good of you to make time in your busy schedule for the elected leadership of the Federation,” he said with thinly veiled anger. “I hope you can enlighten us as to certain issues that remain, shall we say, opaque.”

Taking seat along the side of the table, Jamitov opened a laptop computer and brought up his notes. “The whereabouts of three nuclear warheads previously stored at Torrington Base,” he said levelly. “A matter of some concern.”

“I’d have to wonder why you and your people didn’t pick up on this before Zeon hold-outs made off with them. And why the military weren’t able to secure weapons of mass destruction,” the Prime Minister added with a sharp look at Marshal Ulyanov. “I would agree that they are matters of considerable concern.”

“The group responsible are loosely affiliated with Zeon holdouts rather than falling into that category themselves,” Jamitov noted mildly. “While those groups are increasingly active and Marshal Ulyanov and I have been discussing the possibility of a task force to root them out, the warheads were taken by a political activist group centred in North America and Eastern Europe that goes by the name of Karbala.”

“They were using Zeon equipment though.”

Jamitov nodded. “Zeon ground type mobile suits, specifically the Dom Trope which is intended for use in tropical environments. Not precisely ideal for the operation but sufficient, unfortunately, to hold their own against the diminished garrison at Torrington.”

“Diminished in what way?” a voice asked from further down the table. Jamitov recognised the Vice Minister for Economic Development, one of the extended Carbine family. She was a woman well worth cultivation.

“Specifically, Vice Minister, several mobile suit squadrons were supporting the hunt for a terrorist squad who landed in Africa a week ago, destroying a Federation battleship less than an hour’s flight from here. From there they were traced to a highly classified Federation weapons development facility which was destroyed approximately thirty minutes before the attack on Torrington.”

“What sort of weapons development?” The obvious answer was mobile suits and if so then Carbine would be furious that it was being snuck past her.

“I’m honestly unaware,” Jamitov confessed. “Such matters are need to know and the Ministry has – understandably – compartmentalised such matters.”

“And did they catch the terrorists?”

Ulyanov cleared his throat. “One of our squadrons intercepted them at the site. Unfortunately, they were significantly outgunned and the terrorists were able to disable several mobile suits and break contact.”

There were arched eyebrows around the room. The vaunted Federation Forces had been outgunned by terrorists. Following the debacle of the Jupiter expedition, Ulyanov’s start was very clearly in decline.

“Back on point,” demanded Santiago. “What do these Karbala people want?”

“Predominately they object to the slow pace of restoring their home regions to their previous autonomy within the Federation.”

“And why don’t they restrain themselves to writing irate letters to their senators like law-abiding citizens?”

Because the suspension of elections in those areas until local government is restored leaves the senators in office indefinitely, Jamitov thought but didn’t say.

Federation law didn’t specify that Senators left office at the end of a term, simply that they held their seats until replaced by election (or the dissolution of their seat as in the case of the reapportionment that followed the last census). That loophole had been meant to accommodate local preferences in how often elections took place but as a trade-off for shrinking the representation of the PanPacific, Santiago had agreed to a rather lax schedule of reintegration of regions once occupied by Zeon forces.

“It’s widely agreed that portions of the local governments collaborated with Zeon forces – necessary accommodation at the time of course, but it has left them thinking of themselves first and of the wider Federation second,” he said diplomatically. “In my experience, very few people are willing to see themselves as the problem, so rather than amending their behaviour they may have placed the blame upon the political process as a whole.”

“So, to recap,” Santiago concluded. “Zeon remnants are active in space; this Karbala are in possession of three nuclear weapons…”

Jamitov coughed. “Three warheads, prime minister. Each contains multiple nuclear weapons which can be detonated collectively or independently.”

“You are a font of bad news today, although I suppose that would be your job, wouldn’t it? Three warheads then. And in addition, we have a group of terrorists sufficiently armed to outgun a mobile suit squadron. What will the Federation Forces be able to bring to bear regarding this?”

Ulyanov’s brow was glittering with sweat. “At the current time, our most reliable forces are being concentrated in the Mars fleet, as previously discussed. We’re combing our other off-Earth detachments to provide a reaction force in Karbala’s likely areas of operation – North America and Europe.”

“May I recommend that they instead focus on Africa and South America,” Jamitov proposed. “Karbala’s support base would be weakened were they to use such weapons within their political homelands. Locations such as military headquarters at Jaburo or, of course, our capital here at Dakar are more likely targets.”

The way the civilians present paled at that moment amused him almost as much as Ulyanov’s clear annoyance.

“I’ll expect a more specific proposal when we meet next week,” Santiago grumbled. “Unless you surprise me by neutralising them in the meantime.”

“Won’t you miss next week’s cabinet meeting while you’re attending the formal award ceremonies on Corsica?” asked Carbine.

The prime minister waved his hand dismissively. “The Marshal will be joining me in presenting the medals,” he said. “A meeting will be scheduled.”

A meeting that most of us won’t be at, Jamitov thought. He wants this close to his chest.
{MSG AC/CE/UC}
Dorothy Catalonia watched as her grandfather sat down for breakfast and waited for him to finish his coffee. It wasn’t fun to poke at him until he was completely awake.

“We’re at war again,” she said brightly.

“I’m aware, Dorothy. The Jovian colonies - the Zodiac Alliance I believe they’ve declared themselves now – have been verbose on the subject.”

“Oh, not them.” She picked up the newspaper folded next to her glass of sparkling water and tossed it to him. “The Jovians are just talk until one side or the other gets to Mars. A phony war at best. No, this is the real thing.”

He read the newspaper and then shook his head. “Karbala? A problem, I agree. Santiago shouldn’t have taken half measures. Either cut the seats until they were reintegrated or fresh elections. But the latter would have cost him votes and either I’d have picked them up or Dekim Barton would have weaselled his way back in. But a war? I don’t think so.”

“Oh pooh.” Dorothy shook her head sadly. “Not them, the mobile suits.”

“Hmm.” Then he waved his fork. “Go on.”

“They’re not Karbala,” she said clearly. “Those suits are too powerful. I have my sources and they absolutely trounced the squadron they encountered in Indonesia. It makes no sense to use them together as a concentrated force if you have a larger force – like the Dom Trope at Torrington. Instead they should be each leading a squadron or more, operating as force multipliers.”

“Hmm. Is that what you’re learning from Treize Khrushrenada?”

“It’s basic strategy father. If you have five strong allies, do you group them up with one Senate committee to dominate just that field or spread them around to lead less committed senators along.”

“Ah.” He nodded, grasping the analogy. “The former gives you leverage to trade but in the long run the breadth of the latter is more rewarding.”

“Precisely. So, they may be working with Karbala, given the timing of the attack, but they’re also an independent group with their own agenda.”

“And what do you make of them?” her grandfather asked.

Dorothy smiled brilliantly. “They’re shaking the Federation,” she declared confidently. “Not to destroy it, shake it.”

“Shake it?”

“Think, first they hit within spitting distance of Dakar.” She blithely ignored his reproving finger wave at the unladylike phrase. “With their observed speed and firepower, they could have been in the capital and struck the senate building without having to face more than a fraction of the Capital Guards – but instead they strike off halfway around the world and hit a top-secret research base. No one knew they were going there exactly though, but even so there were dozens of mobile suits and almost fifty scout aircraft looking for them.”

“You mean they’re forcing a disproportionate response to their actions.”

Dorothy sighed. “Almost. No, they’re after chaos. They aren’t trying to create a specific result as much as to spur is into hasty action that creates opportunities. This time it was Karbala that benefitted, but next time it might be someone else.”

“What’s in it for them?”

“Presumably they don’t like the current world order.” She paused and picked up a fried tomato biting into it and sucking down the juices. “They don’t have to take the top slots themselves, there are plenty of people that are willing to seize them – people after Prime Minister Santiago’s position, or Marshal Ulyanov’s. All that these mobile suits have to do is cause enough disorder and new leadership will be called for.”

“It might not be the people they want.”

“Those people will be taking up the challenge of dealing with them, grandfather. If they can’t produce results, well, the wheel will turn again.”

Dermail grunted in amusement. “That assumes that they continue to succeed. They are rather outnumbered, after all.”

“So was the Duel when the White Devil piloted it here from Sol-Earth Three, but Zeon didn’t manage to stop it. And the Strike was even more effective in forcing them back from Solomon all the way to the Zeon homelands.” Dorothy sat back in her chair and crossed her legs at her ankles. “If one mobile suit and one elite pilot can defy an army with such success, what do you think five such suits and pilots can do.”

“You’re still star struck by the idea of a brave knight in the cockpit, aren’t you?” her grandfather asked with a smile. “But you must remember that even Yamato didn’t survive in the end.”

“No body was ever found,” the young woman said, sticking out her chin. “Habeas corpus, isn’t that the phrase?”

“Perhaps so,” he allowed – as ever, simply refusing to argue without a strong enough counter to settle the issue. “However, just because we haven’t previously built mobile suits to match the Strike doesn’t mean that we couldn’t. There was simply no need until now. If facing them with weapons of equal quality is needed – and your case is a strong one that we should – then who would you wager on? These terrorists in their suits or your dear Treize and a picked squadron in first rate mobile suits of their own?”

Dorothy chuckled, “but either way I win, grandfather. I don’t care one bit for the terrorists as such, just for the ideal that a few brave men settle the war rather than a mass of blunderers winning by weight of numbers.”

“Do remember, dear child that that is much how Marshal Ulyanov managed to win the war and his current rank – pressing the attack on A Baoa Qu with every unit he could scrape together after General Revil and his elite ships were destroyed by Gihren Zabi. Quantity is a much more effective quality than you give it credit for.”

“But not when it comes to capturing the imagination,” she countered. “Imagine if Yamato the war hero was still with us.”

“He’d have been torn down, my dear. He’d be a threat to too many established interests and the easiest people to bring down in disgrace are those who’ve already been put on a pedestal. If he is alive, as you hope, then he is very sensible to keep out of the public eye.”

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drakensis
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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by drakensis » 2018-11-15 06:21am

Chapter Two – To the Soldier, the Civilian

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Rather than returning to Torrington for debriefing, the squadron had been evacuated to Ceylon and kept isolated from each other. Fortunately, indirect communication was allowed so Zechs knew all three of the other pilots had made it out with only minor injuries. The enemy hadn’t been going for kills, which was a reassurance.

When the time came for him to give an account it was before a panel of three senior officers, only one of them familiar to him. His flight recorder was intact so all he had to do was commentate it, which he did tersely, and answer a few questions – all idiotic in his opinion.

“I believe that covers everything for the inquiry,” Treize Khrushrenada concluded the session. “If you’ll excuse us, gentlemen, Lieutenant Merquise has some matters of interest for future operations.” He didn’t rise and the two older officers took a moment to grasp that they were being dismissed. One went a little red in the face but both yielded to the young general’s rank and left the room.

“It’s been an exciting week, Zechs. Not what I expected when I sent you to Torrington.”

Zechs smiled slightly. “I would have thought you would be pleased.”

“Oh, I am.” Treize went to a side cabinet. “Something to drink?”

“Sure. You know what I like.”

“I do indeed.” Formal courtesy had the junior serve the senior even as a guest, but it was typical of Treize’s breezy confidence that he didn’t hesitate to pass Zechs a glass of whiskey on the rocks before filling his own glass. “To worthy enemies!”

“And rematches.”

They clinked their glasses and drank. “So, these mobile suits – they’re good? As good as the Strike?”

“More dangerous really.”

“Oh?” It was clear that his old friend like the sound of that. He’d always liked a challenge – it was what had made them rivals back in Spain as boys. “More powerful?”

“In power plant maybe, but what I mean is they’re more focused. The Strike – to a lesser extent the Duel too – was a generalist. It took on whatever it faced. It had to.” He snorted. “I threw enough at the Duel and was lucky to survive.”

“Luck is good, Napoleon would agree.”

“Luck in that the pilot was still learning what to do. This isn’t like Yamato. They’re trained pilots and good ones. These suits are specialists, optimised for fast attack – what Zeon called gerbera.”

“No shields, those huge thrusters.” Treize shook his glass slightly to settle the ice and then sipped again. “I’d like to fight one.”

“If you do, take something better than a Dagger. I assume you have a Long Dagger?”

“And a few things that have been sitting wasting on design boards,” the general confirmed. “No one wanted better suits out if it meant that they might see someone else’s faction using them for an advantage.”

“Sounds exactly like the Zabi family, squabbling over every little toy that one of them could get their hands on.” Zechs shook his head. “I’d like to see these new designs, but if we’re going after the Suits then I’d rather have Long Daggers than wait for an upgrade. The perfect being the enemy of the good enough.”

Treize nodded. “I’d be glad to bring you in even if it means shuffling the squadrons a little.”

“How about just adding Captain Noin’s squadron to the force,” suggested Zechs. “They need new mobile suits anyway and you can’t tell me that four more Long Daggers are out of your reach.”

“Not and keep a straight face at the same time, no.” The general toyed with his glass. “It’s a steep transition for some pilots though. Noin is good – I’ve had my eye on her for a while – but I’m not so sure about the rest of the squadron.”

“I think they’re up for it. Messa’s got a mouth on him but he’s not without talent and Sheen is a quick learner. Besides that, they’ll have every motivation for a second round. Neither of them likes losing.”

“Who does?”

Zechs’ smile turned savage. “Judging by behaviour, I could drop a few names.”

“Maybe, maybe.” Treize leant forwards. “You were impressed by the pilots.”

“Better than average at least. Suits like that are demanding, but they were handling them well. Do we know anything else about them?”

“One of them took a tumble dealing with one of the defenders and we have a couple of armour fragments that they didn’t manage to retrieve. Would it surprise you to learn it was lunar titanium?”

“From its performance, no. But that’s damn expensive and that’s on top of what’s got to be an ultracompact reactor… Who can afford suits like that?”

“Not all that many, at least, not without the accountants catching it. Your sister couldn’t.”

“Treize…”

“Oh, nothing she’ll be in trouble for. And I’ll cover for her if it comes to that – I like her moxie.”

Zechs set his glass down. “She makes her own choices, we settled that a while back. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t take offense if someone was playing around.”

“Nothing like, my friend. It’s purely platonic admiration. Besides, I’m married.”

Thinking back to what little he knew of Treize’s wife, Zechs wondered how close that relationship was. “Some men wouldn’t be restrained by that… although I don’t think that of you.”

“Thank you. So, back on topic, yes there are only a few organisations that could build something like those suits off the book. I have someone in intelligence looking into it.”

“The other thing that bothers me is what they were after at that facility. Even the name’s classified, so someone must have a leak. Can you tell me anything?”

“Legally no, but you’re familiar with the Flanagan Institute, aren’t you?”

Pale eyes on a face that haled from this very part of the world crossed Zechs’ mind for a moment. “I have history with them. Was this…?”

“Someone else looking into the same field. Newtypes are still a subject of interest. There are a lot of people who don’t want it investigated too deeply, for fear that the trail might go high up.” Treize grinned boyishly. “Naturally I’m digging into it. There’s all sorts of possibilities in the research, just so long as they’re developed the right way.”

“And were they.”

The smile fell off his old friend’s face. “From what little I know so far, probably it wasn’t.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

“Sorry to put you to the bother,” Duo apologised to Heero as the two of them hunched over one of the Audhumla’s computer terminals. The servers that they’d taken from the Murasame Institute were stacked neatly against the wall but that wasn’t what Heero was investigating right now.

“I’m curious as well,” the other pilot replied. He typed in a password, then a second command, bypassing the thumbprint scanner. “And there we go.”

“You make that seem so easy.”

“It’s a fairly basic work-around for maintenance. Professor Ray kept forgetting to unlock files I needed back at college and tracking him down for authorisation got old real fast. It took about a month for me to find someone who know how to handle it. I guess Barton is used to more sophisticated security and assumed this was just as safe.”

Duo opened the email system and started sorting through their commander’s deleted folder. “I have trouble seeing you as a college kid.”

“Hmm. People change.”

“Fair. Okay, he keeps this clean so…” Duo typed in a command and restored everything that had been dumped out of the deleted folder. “Wow, so he didn’t even know to lock that down.”

“Rich kid.”

“Huh?”

“His father is a Federation Senator for one of the PanPacific seats. Was, anyway.”

“Oh! One of those Bartons.” He shook his head. “And here he is running a mini-rebellion.”

Heero shrugged and leant back, watching the door. “Politics. Explains who’s payrolling this, anyway. The Bartons have a lot of resources.”

There was a brief pause and then Duo grunted. “Okay, this is in. His report to… looks like his father. And a response.”

“Mmm?”

Duo tapped the screen. “Sonofabitch.”

“What?”

“That sonofabitch.”

Heero sighed and leant forward to read the screen. “I see.” There was considerable weight to the words.

Trowa Barton was certainly keen on getting the children they’d rescued from Murasame up to New Moore but the accommodation that he and his father had in mind was a secure laboratory on Shortbus colony – the same one used to build the Gerbera Tetras - where they hoped they would be able to pick up where the Federation’s own facility had left off in artificially inducing Newtypes. Neither seemed particularly specific on how that would be carried out but clearly neither felt there was anything too objectionable about the test-subjects being pre-teen refugees.

“I think we’re working for the wrong side,” Duo informed his buddy.

“One of them, anyway.” Heero put a memory card into the terminal. “We should look this over somewhere we don’t have to worry about being interrupted.”

“I thought you were sure he wouldn’t be back for a while?”

“I am, but this suggests he has a lot more reason to be concerned about someone accessing his files and the flight crew all work for him.”

Duo nodded. “You know more about this sort of cloak and dagger stuff than I thought.”

“College politics can be cut-throat.”

“Really? Glad I never went.” He eyed the bar on the screen. The data transfer seemed to be painfully slow. “How much are you getting?”

Heero shook his head. “Enough, I think.”

After what seemed like an interminable wait, the computer confirmed the transfer was complete and Heero dumped the deletion folder again before carefully locking the terminal again. Then he cycled the power, resetting it. “If he notices anything, hopefully he’ll think it was just the system resetting after a power surge,” he explained. “Military gear is hardened but this is civilian spec.”

Duo nodded and the two of them made an exit, the salvager tense and looking back and forth for observers.

“Relax,” Heero advised him. “There’s nothing to be twitchy about. Go check on the kids if you want, there’s nothing to worry about.”

“This wasn’t exactly how I saw this as working out.”

“First rule of anything military,” the other pilot said. “Nothing ever goes to plan. It’s always necessary to improvise at some point.”

They did check on the kids, most of whom were asleep in huddles of blankets, two or three to a bunk. One ginger-haired child stared up fearfully at the door, eyes wide, when Duo looked in. He held a finger up to his lips and fished a candy bar from his jacket.

The kid – boy or girl? He thought it was a girl – shrank back.

What sort of kid doesn’t want candy? With an effort he shoved that thought aside and opened the end of the wrapping taking the first chunk for himself and then offering it again. The girl accepted it but waited until he’d put the chocolate in his mouth before breaking off another chunk and nibbling on it warily.

Duo tried for something to say but nothing came to mind so he just winked and left.

“Is it just me or are there a lot of gingers in that group?” he asked.

“Red hair’s quite popular among coordinators,” Heero noted. “But it’s statistically significant that all seven are in the same age bracket.”

“And what does that mean?”

“Until I go through the Murasame data, I don’t know.” He opened the hatch to his quarters. “Let’s have a look at our options.”

“Do we tell the others?” Duo asked him. “I think Alex is a decent kid – and he’s a Coordinator so there’s a good chance he’d be as angry about this as we are. Experimentation on kids… fuckers.”

“Mmm. Maybe, but he doesn’t have his heart on his sleeve the way you do. And Wayline seems to know a lot about the Flanagan Institute. He must have been more connected with Kycilla Zabi’s faction than he lets on.”

“I don’t follow that. I know she commanded Zeon’s Mobile Assault Corps, but beyond that I’m not sure.”

Heero sat down on the bunk. “I learned most of this after the fact, but the Zabi family was fighting the Zeon War on two fronts: one against the Federation and the other against each other. In theory Degwin Zabi was the Sovereign and Gihren was heir, but in practise Gihren’s youngest brother Garma was the apple of Degwin’s eye. In addition, the Sovereign was in ill-health the entire war so his leadership was… erratic. Gihren was Prime Minister and Supreme Commander of the military, so he was de facto leader.”

“Meanwhile Kycilla was carving out her own power base from the Zeon security services and her own branch of the military, which was practically independent of Gihren. By all accounts she was just as ruthless, just as ambitious and maybe just as arrogant as he was. Gihren focused on super-weapons that could cause massive destruction – it was his idea to drop a colony on the Earth at the start of the war and he’s the one who turned an entire colony cylinder into the super-laser system that hammered the Federation fleet before A Baoa Qu. Kycilla preferred more subtle tools – that’s how she got involved in the Flanagan Institute. The idea that Newtypes could be super-soldiers appealed to her.”

Duo took a deep breath. “And the others. Garma and… who was it, Dozle?”

“Garma, I don’t know. Probably he would have gone the same way but we’ll never know – he died right when Zeon were at the height of their success and had a lot of good press with the Occupation governments, so he might have had a political future. Dozle – there was a brother between him and Gihren but he died before the war. Political assassination, which probably should have been a warning sign.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say so much at one time. Not on one topic anyway. You were on the Federation’s side, right?”

“I thought so at the time.” The veteran shrugged and leant back against the back of the bunk. “Between the end of the war and when I ran into you, I spent some time trying to figure out what had been going on that I hadn’t seen at the time. What I’d been fighting for and why.”

“Did you come up with any answers.”

“Ask me another time.” Heero’s eyes were closed. “Anyway, Dozle. I don’t know. He was… I saw him die. His mobile suit was a wreck, and he climbed out, found a rifle from somewhere and opened up on the Federation forces. I don’t think he was sane by the end. I guess… you can’t do what he ended up doing and not pay the price.”

“Really? He did that?”

“They were all kind of extreme, I guess. In a way I’m sort of sorry for Dozle. He was pretty much a family man – the only one of them who got married, had a stake in the future. So, he might have been the only one fighting for more than himself. But…” Heero shrugged helplessly. “Well, when you’re fighting you don’t have time to think like that.”

Duo thought back to another veteran he’d spoken to. “I guess the past catches up though.”

“Mmm.” Heero seemed half asleep. “Think about what to do,” he said and leant forwards to unfasten his boots. “And get some sleep before we do anything else.”

“Sleep? How am I supposed to sleep now?” Duo asked rhetorically. But he went for the door and before he had it open, Heero was flat on the bunk, eyes closed.

Out in the corridor, Duo closed the door softly and walked over to rest his forehead against the wall. “Man, this is no fun at all.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

The two fleets had divided their forces equitably to take the two colonies that Delaz was targeting. Cima’s two cruisers had been augmented by a pair of converted transports, each carrying six Hizacks, although she wouldn’t trust them in a direct engagement. In fact, by preference she didn’t want to risk her cruisers in gun range of the Federation picket force.

This wasn’t like the war where she could send a damaged cruiser back for repairs, any hits that the Federation scored on her ships would cause damage she might have to live with for years before it could be made good. If it ever could.

Without the ships though, she needed a full sortie of her mobile suits so for the first time in almost two years she committed both her Gelgoog squadrons to the attack and had the Hizacks launch to act as her back up.

“It makes my skin crawl,” Wong observed as he brought his squadron up on Cima’s right flank.

“What does?” she asked, seeing that he was using a private channel that the Delaz forces probably wouldn’t be able to listen in on.

“Trusting them,” he said, indicating the Hizacks behind and to the left. “If they turn on us, we’d be caught in a crossfire between them and the Feddies.”

Cima smirked. “You suspect our dear allies of colluding with the Federation? Unlikely as it may seem, Delaz has actually come through so far.”

“It wasn’t the Federation that condemned Mahal and expelled our families,” Wong grumbled. “That was Gihren and Delaz still thinks the snake walked on water.”

“Snakes don’t walk, Wong. They wriggle. Don’t worry, they won’t be behind us for long.” Cima switched to the agreed tactical channel for the operation. “All mobile suits, move in. When we reach firing range, my squadron and Wong’s will cut through the Federation forces at high speed and loop around the colony to catch them in a crossfire with Fox and Kellman’s squadrons.”

“An old-fashioned gerbera?” asked Kellman, who she thought was senior. “Why not keep our forces together.”

“Your Hizacks wouldn’t be able to keep up,” she told him matter-of-factly. “Maybe on the initial run but you’d still be trying to turn around when we were re-engaging.”

Wong grunted agreement and she was pleased to hear Fox add: “You’re right, Kellman. You didn’t see Gelgoogs fighting at A Baoa Qu. They’ve got more power to burn that we do.”

The squadrons shifted and tweaked their formations as they cruised in at a slow burn that preserved their fuel and hopefully wouldn’t draw attention until they were close enough for an attack run. Cima checked the diagnostics on her beam rifle and the twin beam sword. Each of her squadrons had one pilot carrying a rocket cannon – ammunition was too short for more of the heavy weapons and they’d really only be useful against the Federation destroyers.

Intelligence reported a pair of the small warships were securing the colony – cheap wartime construction that didn’t have the fuel reserves for long range operations. That had kept them out of the attack on Junius colony cluster and if they were typical of such pickets they were mostly manned by local recruits. Back before the war, Federation crews had been heterogenous with care taken to ensure regional loyalties never had a preponderance aboard a ship. Such measures had fallen by the wayside so the crews would be defending ‘their homes’ even if they had no attachment to the empty colony itself.

Probably they wouldn’t surrender, she thought. That was a shame but all she could do was make the offer. Life pods would be easy enough to put prisoners in and they weren’t too far from other colonies to make the journey to safety.

The colony grew before them, visible long before the comparatively tiny warships. Then radio waves finally reached her through the electronic fog of Minovsky particles.

“Three ships,” warned Wong.

“One is just a transport,” she responded. “But they could be rotating MS forces, expect up to sixteen enemy suits.”

Four to three odds in mobile suits and the ships besides that. Not the best odds but they’d come too far now to turn back.

“On my command,” Cima declared and watched the range drop. No matter how careless the crews were, someone should see them shortly. Not yet, not yet… “Burn!” she cried out and the twelve Gelgoogs opened their throttles wide open, surging ahead of the Hizacks even as the latter went to a more restrained combat speed.

The ships were visible now, two destroyers as expected and a blocky freighter in front of them. Turrets began to move and she saw a hatch open, the humanoid form of a mobile suit exiting. Each squadron picked one of the destroyers to begin with – take them out fast enough and not all the enemy mobile forces would launch, not to mention taking out the commanders.

Cima diverted though, picking out the transport as her personal prey.

The stars were suddenly drowned out by the flare of beam weapons and hot tracer fire racking towards her but she twisted evasively and raised her beam rifle to return fire as a suit – a Strike Dagger with a heavy weapons pack – tried to bring her down.

The beam from her rifle slashed into one shoulder, through the upper torso and out the other shoulder. Both arms and the weapon pack went flying and for an instant she thought the pilot might have been lucky but then the reactor went up.

It wasn’t the only one to die though and Cima stowed her rifle as she closed in, the beam-sword seeming to leap into her Gelgoog’s hands without instruction, so instinctive was its use after three years. She spun it expertly as she flashed past the lumbering transport, the beam tearing down one flank from prow to stern.

Fire boiled from the ruptured cargo bay and then explosions chased after her – it must have had munitions aboard, she realised as she turned the Gelgoog’s rush aside to avoid one of the great structural beams that linked the central colony to the outlying agricultural sections.

The battle vanished from Cima’s view as she rounded the colony, the Gelgoog’s thrusters howling as they slowed her and bled off the velocity she had built up. All she could do was count the other mobile suits still with her.

One… two… three and four… five, she counted for her own squadron. The pilots were counting their kills as they worked their way around, distracting each other from the strain of the steep turn.

Rather than paying attention to their boasts she looked further, for Wang’s squadron who were trailing hers slightly. One, two… a third and then four. Wang’s Gelgoog, with its distinctive crest in memory of their lost home colony wasn’t among them.

“Where are your comrades?” she cut across the chatter.

“He lost a leg and couldn’t manoeuvre,” one of them reported. “Huk went after him to get him slowed down for pick-up.”

“Good.” They were almost around the colony now, two down in number, but the Hizacks should be there now if they could be trusted. Damaged suits were a double loss in the short term since someone had to break off from the battle to recover them but in the long run recovering the suit was worthwhile – as was the spirit de corps of not leaving someone behind.

The ten Gelgoogs were rushing around the curve of the colony now, nearer the mid-section than the end. As they broke around into line of sight, they saw the flashes and flares of active combat. Delaz’ suits hadn’t broken off then.

One of the destroyers had broken into two and the other, as Cima closed back in, was adrift with the bridge tower burning with fires that would be uncontrollable until someone cut the air to the damaged compartment. Clearly no one aboard was coordinating damage control or that would have been done already.

A damaged Strike Dagger whirled towards the re-engaging Gelgoogs – either rash beyond belief or simply fleeing the attention of the Hizacks. Someone blew its remaining arm off and the limb whirled away, beam sabre still active with one hand locked around it.

Cima looked for the transport and didn’t see it at first until she saw the dark shape of its prow tumbling behind the destroyers. Either she’d done more damage than she thought or the Hizacks had finished it off.

“Federation forces,” she transmitted on the general emergency band. Anyone with a working brain would be listening to it. “This is the Cima Fleet. Surrender and your lives will be spared.”

“Let ‘em burn,” a voice with the rasping accent of Zeon City protested – not one of her pilots. Also not on the emergency band thankfully.

Switching back to the tactical channel she was about to remonstrate but Kellman got there first. “Admiral Delaz put us under Major Cima’s command, Chester. That means you treat her orders like they came from him, clear.”

Cima saw three Strike Daggers still active – not including the one that had charged her, that was so much scrap after her squadron had done with it. Two of them let go of their beam rifles in token of surrender while a third tried to bring its beam rifle up towards her.

A Hizack put paid to that, chopping through the beam rifle with its heat hawk and then wheeling to drive one foot squarely into the Strike Dagger’s mid-section. The cockpit deformed visibly but that wasn’t enough for the Hizack pilot, who applied his heat hawk to the hatch with predictable consequences for the man or woman inside.

“Any issue with that Major?” Chester’s voice asked, panting.

“She didn’t surrender,” Cima said flatly. “Kellman, pick up the two who had enough brains to see how this was going and take them to the colony’s life pods. Then give them a push towards Sweetwater colony.” The nearest occupied colony and one that had stayed neutral during the war, not caring who won as long as they survived to see it.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

“I’d be happy to arrange something,” Alex Dino agreed when Duo approached him. “There are a few ships I know of that smuggle endangered coordinator families out to colonies where they’ll be safe. I’ll need to check if any are near us but if any children count as endangered, they do.”

“Thanks,” Duo said appreciatively. “I’ll feel a lot happier when they’re somewhere out of the line of fire. As it is if the Federation spot the Audhumla then they wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“No one’s going to spot us out here,” an unwelcome voice declared from below them and there was the sound of boots on the ladder as Trowa Barton climbed up to join them. “I know you don’t have much experience, Maxwell, but I know what I’m doing.”

“All it would take is a little bad luck,” pointed out Dino. “And we can’t have children aboard forever.”

Barton snorted. “Look outside sometime and see how thick the clouds are we’re flying through,” he suggested. “No one will be able to see us and we’re well off the regular flight lines.”

“That still leaves the military search planes,” Duo said. “Sure, it might not happen, but why take the chance?”

“The military have other things on their mind. And stop bothering Dino about the Murasame kids. I’ve made arrangements and after our next operation someone will be picking them up. We’ll filter them through space ports a few at a time to New Moore – there are lots of families there that would be eager to foster war orphans.”

Duo pulled on his braid. “Well, I guess I misread you then, Mr Barton. Because you must be a miracle worker to have families in Moore colonies willing to adopt coordinators, what with the Brotherhood being more Earthnoid than genuine earthers and eager to prove it.”

“Moore is a lot bigger than just the Brotherhood,” Barton told him. “And most of the real hardcases were with Fourth Fleet when they got hammered by the Jovians.”

“The Zodiac Alliance,” Dino corrected him mildly. “It’s officially the name we’ve adopted.”

“I stand corrected,” huffed the older man. “Look, Maxwell, I know you’re an orphan yourself, but we’ll treat those kids as well as we would my own niece.”

“Man, you’d lock up your own niece on Short Bus colony and experiment on her?” Duo jabbed, realising too late he’d opened his mouth too far.

Unfortunately, Trowa Barton wasn’t careless enough to miss that. “What have you been reading, Maxwell?” He put his hand inside his jacket and pulled out a pistol.

“Your mail, obviously.” Duo cursed himself out and shot a look at Dino who was eyeing the pistol warily.

Trowa looked aside at the other pilot. “Don’t just stand there, Zala. Check him for weapons.”

Green eyes narrowed and Dino stepped towards Duo, “Let’s not do anything reckless.”

“Tell that to Maxwell.”

“Don’t do this,” Duo appealed to Dino, trying to figure out where Zala sounded familiar from. “He’s going to treat those kids as test subjects.”

Dino started patting him down, careful not to block Barton’s line of fire. With the hand not in their commander’s view he pulled out his own pistol. “Can you prove that?”

“Look at how he’s reacting, what does that tell you?”

“Don’t listen to -”

Dino moved sharply pushing Duo out of the way as he snapped his arm up and fired at Barton.

The industrialist already had his gun up though and his first shot snapped between the pair before he cried out and dived for cover behind the nearest mobile suit.

“I think you got him,” Duo said optimistically, scrambling for cover.

“No, just winged him.” The other pilot fired again, chipping the paint on the Gerbera Tetra and then safed the pistol and flipped it through the air to Duo. “Keep him pinned.”

Duo unsafed the gun and aimed it in the right direction, uncomfortably aware that he’d never actually fired at someone deliberately before. It didn’t seem the same as using the weapons of his Gerbera Tetra, somehow. “What are you going to do?”

Dino jumped up and grasped the bottom of the next level of gantry up. “Well first,” he said, not even showing any strain as he pulled himself up, “I’ll announce my plan out loud so he can counter it.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, just – shit!” The pilot heaved himself up as another shot smacked into the hanger wall behind them. Duo fired back, two shots hitting something and ricocheting off in wild directions. It occurred to him that sooner or later they’d hit something important to the Audhumla or to the mobile suits.

“Dammit, what sort of mercenary can’t keep his nose out his employer’s business,” Barton shouted.

“I can’t tell a lie,” Duo called back, trying to keep the man’s attention, “I’m a really lousy mercenary.”

“You’re telling -” and then Barton discharged his pistol several times up at the gantry above him. There was a startled cry and Dino fell from it, dropping past them both to the hanger floor below. “Got you.”

“Damn you!” Duo saw red and charged, hoping the older man had emptied his gun.

Barton stepped out of cover, levelling the gun directly at Duo’s face. It looked as wide a muzzle as one of the Gerbera’s machine cannon in that moment.

There was a gunshot and Duo threw himself flat on his back, hoping to be in time.

Barton stared down at him and then crumpled white-faced to the gantry.

“What?” Duo looked around. “Heero? Shit! Alex?”

“I’m fine,” the black-haired pilot replied from below. “He missed and six metres isn’t much of a drop as long as you know how to land.”

“Would either of you like to explain,” Led Wayline said, stepping out of the shadows with a pistol of his own, “Why you were in a gunfight with our late leader in the first place?” He looked down at the fallen Barton and Duo saw blood was dripping down off the gantry onto the deck below. “Because I seem to have taken a side.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Cima waited patiently as signals bounced back and forth between her cabin and the party she wanted to contact. Each relay buoy added a tiny fraction of a second to the communications circuit and Minovsky particles meant that many more of them were needed than before. In addition, a number of nodes for communication had been lost during the war and replacing them was still a work in progress.

After a few moments though the scree displayed the image of the letter B and the number 5, interlocked and rotating, signalling that communications protocol had been synchronised through the Babylon station in Zahn. Although operated by the Federation Forces, Babylon stations (there had been five since the first was commissioned almost a century ago) didn’t serve a military purpose. By a tradition predating even the Federation they were neutral ground for negotiations. The Zeon surrender had been formally signed there three years ago, just the latest in a series of landmark agreements reached between or within the Federation as a result of negotiations held there.

It was another two minutes before the emblem was replaced by a lined face, one that Cima was only passingly familiar with.

If it bothered Hyman Jamitov to be called out of the blue by a self-professed pirate and convicted war criminal, it didn’t seem to make any impact on his expression, at least in that he seemed no more or less sour than usual.

“Major Garahau Cima. You must have gone to some trouble to get this number.”

“I have reason to believe you’ll make it worth my while.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “And what do you believe I can offer you?”

“You can re-open the case on the Halifax massacre,” she told him.

“Interesting. You have new evidence?”

“Not precisely new. I have suppressed evidence. According to the official record, the orders I was given and the black box recordings from my mobile suit were submitted but never presented. Instead, testimony of General Septim of the Loum ground forces detachment was taken at face value during the tribunal that condemned me as responsible.”

Jamitov inclined his head. “And if it were presented?”

“Then it might present a more balanced case. A case that would reflect poorly on General Septim.” And Septim was high in Ulyanov’s councils. In fact, the Marshal had pushed the former Loum commander to command military intelligence rather than Jamitov and often used him as a trouble-shooter since that had fallen through.”

“I see. While that may indicate an injustice has taken place, Major Cima, you could have taken that to the Ministry of Justice.”

It was amazing that he’d said that with a straight face, she thought. “I believe it would carry more weight if it was presented by your office, sir. And you would have considerable credibility if you also presented information of a major threat to Federation security.”

The old man eyed her bleakly. “A major threat of what kind?”

“A double colony drop.”

It was with no great satisfaction that Cima saw Janitor’s reserve crack at last. “Where?” he demanded. “And when.”

“Aiguille Delaz already has control of two colonies here at Sol Earth Five,” she explained. “It’ll probably be another day before news reaches you through normal channels that the local patrols have dropped out of contact.”

He nodded sharply. “It would take time to mount thrusters and he would need a great deal of fuel.”

“The thrusters are being installed underway and he has an entire barge of fuel. If the Federation doesn’t move swiftly then they’ll be in motion and then – as you found out with Operation British – it’s only a question of where they end up.”

“Where does Delaz intend to deliver them?” Jamitov asked.

Cima shook her head. “I think I’ve told you enough for now. I’m attaching the evidence now and once my case is being reviewed then I’ll tell you more. Of course, you might be able to stop this now if you can send forces fast enough… but my experience is that the Federation isn’t good at responding quickly.”

“I’ll be back in touch then,” he said sourly.

“I’ll call you, assuming you do as I’ve requested,” she said. “My communications are a little more secure than yours.”

“You’re very confident, Major.”

“If they weren’t, I would probably have been caught before now,” she riposted and cut communications.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

In lieu of explaining the situation to the crew of the Audhumla, who had somehow missed the entire fire fight in the hanger, Wayline and Dino had picked up Barton’s body and walked up to the aft hatch. When they came back without the body, Duo had found a mop and was cleaning up the blood.

“What happened?” Heero asked them.

“How do you know I’m not just cleaning up?”

“I’ve bunked with you on and off for two years, Duo, and you only clean up when you’re trying to hide something.”

“Barton and Maxwell had a little disagreement,” Wayline said quietly. “He took a walk outside to cool off.”

Heero didn’t bat an eyelid at that statement. “We should compare notes then.”

“Yeah, by the way.” Duo looked over at Dino. “Zala?”

The other man flushed. “My real name is Athrun Zala.”

“Any relation to Patrick Zala?” asked Wayline in a thoughtful voice.

“My father.”

“Ah. I met him once, before the war. Just in passing – he was visiting Zeon and we were at the same reception.”

“So, the Zodiac Alliance was backing Barton?” Duo asked in surprise. “I thought they’d be too mad at him given the Moore connections.”

“It’s more along the lines of a temporary alliance.” Athrun’s expression was uncomfortable. “Barton needed pilots for this and my father felt that anything likely to hamper the Federation was worthwhile. As far as I know Senator Barton wasn’t directly involved in the attack on Junius Seven.”

“Whoever said politics made for strange bedfellows wasn’t kidding,” Duo noted.

“Let’s take this somewhere more private.” Heero led them to a small briefing room and loaded a memory card into its computer. It only took a few moments to fill the others in on Barton’s plans for the Murasame children. “He’s also sent data on the mobile suit we ran into there already. The Queen Mansa, as it was described. I wouldn’t be surprised if the engineers who built our Gerbera Tetras are working on building something similar now.”

“I don’t really care what they build as long as they’re not sticking the kids in the cockpit.”

Wayline and Zala both nodded in agreement with Duo. “I’ll see what I can find for somewhere for the kids to go,” Zala said. “But we need to keep the crew in the dark about what we’re doing at least through another mission before we get the chance.”

“Does anyone even know what that mission is going to be?” asked Wayline.

Heero scanned through the data on the memory card. “There was a message here about that, relayed via Barton’s father from Karbala.”

“Karbala?” asked Wayline warily. “The people who just made the news.”

Duo blinked. “I haven’t been watching the headlines since we left the Murasame Institute. Did they have another protest?”

“In a manner of speaking. There was an attack on Torrington Base and the Prime Minister got cornered on the topic yesterday by the media. He very carefully didn’t deny that they managed to get away with nuclear weapons.”

“Which is about as good as confirming that they did.”

“So, we’re helping someone who has nukes.” Duo made a face. “Just when I thought I couldn’t think any less of Barton.”

“To be honest,” Wayline leant back in his seat and studied the ceiling, “I think nukes are still less of a black mark than experimenting on children.”

“Eh, kind of a quantity rather than quality of evil question.”

Heero shook his head. “We have some contact information for them. Let’s see if we can find out exactly what they want from us. If it’s something we can go along with – the Desert Hawks were genuine scum – then great. If not then I suppose we need a new plan.”

“Would they tell us?” asked Athrun. “They’d presumably be security conscious and Barton was the one they knew.”

“Point. Of course, poor signal strength can cover a lot of sins but we’d need someone that could pass for Barton, at least from a distance.”

Duo looked at the black haired Athrun, brunette Heero and then his own braided hair. “You’re probably closest in age and colouring, Led.”

The mercenary sighed. “I wish I hadn’t got out of bed this morning. Alright, but were going to have to distract the flight crew. And what do we tell them if they look for Barton.”

“He’s the boss,” Duo said disingenuously. “If he wanted to leave the Audhumla without saying anything, we’d have nothing to say about it, would we?”

“Just brazen it out?” asked Athrun.

“Believe me,” Duo grinned. “Trowa Barton wasn’t the kind of boss who liked being questioned.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Two days later and much closer the equator, the Audhumla slowed and opened rear hatch. Duo unlocked the clamps and his Gerbera Tetra slid smoothly backwards, out into the sky. His manoeuvring thrusters kept him upright while he waited for sufficient distance before engaging main thrust.

He wasn’t actually flying his own Gerbera Tetra. The technical crew aboard had repaired the armour damage but the severed arm wasn’t quite ready yet. Instead Duo was using Trowa Barton’s mobile suit. It wasn’t as if the other pilot still needed it and the continuing repairs to his own suit explained why this was a four suit mission.

Just after he brought up his thrusters a second mobile suit entered the air and then in steady succession the other two. They formed up into two pairs in the air – while Barton had been content to treat them as a single unit, Led Wayline’s preference was for wing-leads – Duo and Athrun – and wingmen – he and Heero. Since he had the most experience out of all of them the other three pilots had deferred to this.

“You all remember the plan,” Wayline said tersely. “Stick to it and we’ll be fine.”

What he wasn’t saying where Audhumla’s crew might hear them was that their plan differed in several respects from what Karbala had asked of them and as a result it was considerably more dangerous.

Lake Victoria was heavily fortified. As one of the Federation’s major sources of mobile suits it had a strong garrison and there were, as a matter of course, always going to be a few dozen mobile suits present to reinforce them.

Attacking them would be dangerous enough for the proposed shoot and scoot intended to draw off the more mobile parts of the garrison long enough for Karbala to get in range for their own operation. The modified plan was even more hazardous – but none of them saw any other way.

The four Gerbera Tetras settled onto their pre-agreed route and throttled up. Flying low might have caught the attention of someone that could send a warning ahead so instead they’d chosen a high approach. It wasn’t as if radar was a concern.

From the past operations Duo had expected the approach to drag on interminably but instead the forty-minute flight seemed to pass in a haze. He forced himself to focus as the lake itself came into view.

“Two to squadron,” Wayline’s voice was serious. “Dive.”

While the mobile suits weren’t precisely aerodynamic, they were almost always going to be faster in descent than the reverse. Combined with opening their thrust packs up to maximum, squadron were moving almost as fast as jet fighters when they reached the outer defences.

Duo scanned the area for targets, remembering the priorities that they’d agreed upon. Air defence turrets were off limits since they might be needed if Karbala followed through with the attack. Warehouses were valid though and mobile suits, which were likely to come after them before they could complete their plan, were unavoidable.

A wicked grin crossed Duo’s face as he saw something that combined both options. An open hanger with mobile suits visible inside. Tucking the Gerbera Tetra’s limbs in tightly he darted down, slowing at the last possible moment and skidded in across the open floor, feet kicking up sparks from the concrete floor.

The Gerbera Tetra pirouetted in the middle of the hanger, 110mm shells flying in all directions as he raked the mobile suits lining both sides. Then Duo aimed the suit at the doors and blasted out of it as reactors began to detonate, eviscerating the hanger and what remained of the mobile suits within.

The defenders hadn’t had much warning but they were on guard so it didn’t surprise him to see tanks rolling out. Standing and fighting wouldn’t be a good idea so he took to the air again, spraying a fuel store with a short burst from his beam rifle. The explosion tore up into the sky but – as designed – didn’t vent the fire towards the rest of the base.

“I think we have their attention!” he called.

“I concur,” agreed Athrun. “Time to get out of here.”

“Inbound mobile suits from the west and south,” Heero announced flatly from where he was covering Duo’s rear arc. “Looks like they were already in the air.”

“Make course 000,” Wayline directed and the Gerbera Tetras boosted northwards, moving fast but not fast enough to avoid a determined pursuit. Now came the difficult part of the plan.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

The first sign of trouble was the control tower cutting out communication with their flight.

Captain Noin had taken to her Long Dagger easily, Zechs had found, gradually expanding her manoeuvres as she got used to the added power. It was probably a smoother transition than he had since the suit’s performance sometimes led him to over-estimate what it could do.

He’d been gratified to find that his faith in Emma Sheen and Jerid Messa hadn’t been misplaced. They both needed some guidance but a few more hours in the cockpit should be enough to accustom them to the quirks of the high-performance mobile suits.

“Captain. I’ve lost contact with Lake Victoria,” Emma reported dutifully as the instructions they were getting from Lake Victoria’s air control cut out mid-word. The four suits were in the air over the lake, fully loaded since they were making use of the aerial gunnery course.

“You don’t think it might be our friends in red?” Zechs asked Noin, drawing his beam rifle. Unlike those he’d encountered on the Strike Dagger and Dagger, this one came with an underslung grenade launcher, a welcome little addition to the mobile suit’s firepower.

The captain brought her suit up and turned around. “We’ll find out soon enough. Back to base and watch out for friendly mobile suits. I won’t have any blue on blue from my squadron.”

What about red on red? Zechs thought with a chuckle but complied, scanning the horizon.

The rising fireball of a fuel store going up from inside the base perimeter backed up the idea that this wasn’t just a minor communications glitch.

“Contact, ten o’clock, retreating north.” Jerid was the first to spot them. “Four red mobile suits – it is them!”

Zechs could readily imagine Noin’s lips pulling back. She’d not been pleased at all at the way she’d been taken down the last time, all four limbs cut from her Dagger with insulting ease. “We’re going after them!” she snapped.

“Yes ma’am!” Flight packs roared to life and they began to close the distance.

“Come back and fight us,” Jerid shouted as the red mobile suits continued to retreat, keeping the rate of closure to a painfully slow rate. Technically speaking their beam rifles could reach, but none of them wasted power on shots at this distance.

“Save the energy for when we’re closer,” he advised, glancing back. More mobile suits were taking off from Lake Victoria but it would be a few minutes before they could catch up – if they could at all since most were just Daggers. For that matter, most of the suits active wouldn’t have been fitted with thrust packs.

“Just reel them in.” Noin’s voice was low and focused. “They can’t afford to lead us back to that transport of theirs so they’ll have to stand and fight before they get there.”

They were at the northern end of the lake before the range dropped to something effective and the four enemy pilots must have realised it, for they wheeled into evasive manoeuvres a second before Jerid’s first shot tore through the air near one of them.

Zechs had more success with his own shot – one of the pilots pulled a standard Zeon evasive move but he’d seen it before and his shot took the thruster pack high on the side. There was an explosion and he thought for an instant that he’d taken out the suit but then it blasted out of the smoke, missing the pack.

He’d realised what was happening and ejected before the fuel went up, the helmeted pilot realised. This guy has good reflexes – damn good.

“I’ve got him,” Emma called out and fired twice but the mobile suit twisted between them. “How…”

A beam sabre lit up and Zechs ignited his own, barely intercepting it before the enemy attack cut into Emma’s Long Dagger. The younger pilot cried out as the near collision forced her to lose altitude.

“I’ve got this one,” he snapped. “Get after the others.” The last thing he needed with a pilot of this calibre was someone else getting in his way.

Emma hesitated but Noin grasped the situation in an instant. “Continue pursuit. If Zechs needs help, reinforcements are right behind us.”

Something of an exaggeration but the other three red suits were moving away and the Long Daggers roared after them.

Another clash of beam sabres and then the enemy suit slipped aside and opened up with its autocannon.

Zechs popped a grenade – he had the beam rifle in his free hand - and dropped below the gunfire while the explosion distracted the enemy pilot. He wasn’t just good, he realised. He’d seen someone fly like this before. But where?

The two jostled for position, beam sabres flashing back and forth, the occasional gunfire as they drifted westwards – Zechs caught glimpses of Kampala in the distance.

Both mobile suits lunged suddenly and with ironic synchronicity, the beam sabres guttered out – they’d drained their power cells at the same instant.

Zechs pressed forward and smacked his Long Dagger’s fist against the other suit’s upper glacis, then tossed his beam sabre away and switched hands on the beam rifle so he could draw the other beam sabre.

He was interrupted as the enemy closed in and butt-stroked his suit with its long beam rifle. Thrown against his straps, Zechs saw stars when he recoiled and his helmeted head found the headrest. The impact didn’t just spark pain though – it triggered a memory of taking a similar hit once.

It had been a red suit then too, and he’d been practising. His opponent that day… “Crimson Lightning!” he exclaimed and barely avoided a follow up burst of fire from the beam rifle. “Of all the lousy… Why didn’t you have the decency to die back then?”

“Zechs!” an alarmed cry came from Noin. “Watch for a…”

Alarms blazed and he twisted his Long Dagger in the sky. Something was coming at him from the north, not a mobile suit – a missile!

It flashed above the two of them – not the usual size used for anti-mobile weapons work, this was larger - and the Crimson Lightning broke off abruptly.

Taking advantage of the other’s distraction, Zechs extended his beam rifle and blew through the mobile suit’s right arm and shoulder, sending its own beam rifle tumbling away into the jungle below.

“The missile?” he called, “I saw it.” It had been fast though, he turned and it was already vanishing, just barely in range – he squeezed the trigger twice but knew it would be more luck than anything else if he hit it.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Leia Barton stared at the sky in disbelief.

Those had been her brother’s mobile suits. What were they doing here?

Her brain could barely process the shock of the sudden battle erupting at Lake Victoria. Security had dragged her into the lobby of the nearest building at the first siren and she watched with numbed sensibilities as the Gerbera Tetras carved through the defenders.

And then they were gone and she stumbled out of the building to stare northwards after them.

It seemed like hours but when she checked her watch only five minutes had passed.

“What are they here for?” she wondered out loud and then caught herself. But why wouldn’t Trowa have warned her if he was going to attack Lake Victoria? He knew she was here, she’d let him know she was visiting to bid for the upcoming component contracts as the Federation ramped up Long Dagger production.

At least it was a diversion, she thought. He’ll be drawing attention away from somewhere else. And wherever it is will probably be having a very bad day.

After hours of negotiating with representatives of the other major firms in the mobile suit component field, the thought that one of them was in for a very warming thought. They’d been so condescending about her family’s ‘so unfortunate’ loss of their seat on the Senate.

“Ms Barton,” her aide murmured. “I think our meetings for the rest of the day will have to be postponed.”

“I do believe you’re right,” she agreed.

The limousine was unmarked by the brief violence and the streets around the office complex were almost bare of traffic – unlike the adjacent military base she was sure. Everyone was still inside taking shelter as the car rushed her towards the helipad.

“Flight north is restricted,” the pilot warned as the little group approached him. He was already warming up the engines, having anticipated departure. “Nairobi should be fine though.”

“That’ll be fine.” She thought of her husband for a moment. “See if you can get Treize on the line, Henry. Perhaps he can spare me an evening.”

She strapped into her seat as the helicopter left the ground, hovering for a moment and then gaining altitude.

“I’ve logged a flight plan,” the pilot reported. “We should be in Nairobi in just over an… what the h-”

A flash of light, like a new sun rising, bloomed from behind them. Leia’s aide, who was looking that way cried out, covering his eyes.

And then a wind like the hand of god itself hammered the helicopter and its passengers out of the sky.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

The flash of light gave Zechs just enough warning and he dove his suit towards the ground, mind racing as he contemplated the consequences of what he’d just seen. The main blast – blasts, the warhead had been a cluster type he assessed automatically - was far enough away that in space he’d have nothing to worry about, but in an atmosphere?

The Crimson Lightning was beside him, the pilot clearly having followed the same thought process. Was his group responsible? None of them had been carrying a missile launcher suitable – it would have been entirely obvious but there were five of them and Zechs had only seen four.

Then the shockwave hit and the mobile suits tumbled, thrusters unable to compensate.

Kampala was going to have broken windows, Zechs thought irrelevantly. But at least they weren’t falling out of the sky. He snapped the reactor into emergency shut down and vented his fuel – the less of it aboard when he hit the ground the better.

There was a clang as the red mobile suit caught his Long Dagger.

What? He thought, and then the other pilot twisted and they hit the trees, the red suit taking the brunt of the impact on its lunar titanium armour.

Zechs gripped his seat as they reached the ground and the impact threatened to shake him out of the seat. Crash bags inflated to keep him from being flung entirely out and he was glad of his helmet’s protection yet again.

After one final crash they came to rest and he slumped back in his seat, glad just to be alive. The bags deflated and after a long moment he gathered his wits to unstrap. “Just my luck,” he thought out loud. “A few more kilometres north and I’d have been fine – a few less and I’d have been thrown into the lake and probably drowned. The god of war isn’t done with his plaything yet, I guess.”

The damage display told him nothing he couldn’t see already since it was dark, and there was no power to the hatch either, only dim emergency lights letting him see what he was doing. The manual controls worked at least and he was able to lever it open.

His Long Dagger was beneath the tree cover, still on top of the red mobile suit – at least, the main chest. Parts of both suits’ limbs were scattered down the gouge they’d torn in the ground and when he looked up, his sensor head was as flat as a pancake although what had done that he couldn’t even guess.

Fires were beginning to kindle along the crash path – venting fuel like that wasn’t without consequence but at least he was alive to worry about it.

Scrambling down he found the enemy cockpit intact, although the hatch frame had twisted, jamming it in place. “Are you alive in there?”

There was a pause and then. “Yeah. Truce?”

“We can figure out who is whose prisoner once we’re clear,” Zechs offered, looking for something to use as a lever. Assuming you don’t recognise me, that is.

Once he had a lever it took a while to find a place he could brace it, but their combined efforts eventually forced the hatch open. “I’m Led Wayline,” the man inside offered as he climbed out, double-taking at the helmet.

One good lie deserved another, Zechs thought. “Zechs Merquise. It’s the helmet, isn’t it. I’m sorry, but I have to wear this everywhere or women become uncontrollable around me. It’s a curse to be this handsome.”

“You’re not the first person I’ve met who wore one.” ‘Wayline’ looked at him suspiciously but then there was the howl of thrusters and mobile suits landed around them – Long Daggers and more of the red suits.

“Well it seems we’re not shooting at each other,” Zechs noted.

One cockpit opened and Noin looked down. “Lieutenant, are you injured?”

“Nothing serious!” He saw one of the other Long Daggers lowering its head, discreetly covering ‘Wayline’ with its machine cannon. “Don’t even think about it, Jerid!” 75mm cannon rounds would tear him apart along with the Crimson Lightning.

Noin also looked over and the Long Dagger straightened sharply. The red mobile suits very pointedly kept their own weapons aimed away from the Federation mobile suits. “I ought to try to take you into custody,” she called out to them. “But you led us to that missile launcher, so I’m guessing you weren’t involved.”

“We didn’t have a credible way of warning you,” a voice came from one of the suits. “Nukes are a bit much.”

“I’d have to agree.” Zechs offered his hand to his earlier opponent. “Of course, next time we do this I’m going to shoot you down. Nothing personal.”

‘Wayline’ accepted the hand. “We’ll see.” He jumped down from the wreck of his suit and one of the others dropped to one knee, reaching down to lift him up to its own cockpit.

Zechs headed for Noin’s machine and she dropped a line for him. Once he had one foot in the loop at the bottom it retraced, smoothly bringing him back up.

“Command isn’t going to like me letting them go,” she said as the three red suits took off. “But I figure he saved your life, taking the brunt of the landing.”

“Probably. And if the others are as good as him, it might not have ended up in our favour. “That was the Crimson Lightning.”

“Char Aznable?”

He blinked. Was she onto him… then he realised and laughed. “No, Char was the Red Comet. The Crimson Lightning was… is, Johnny Ridden. Kycilla Zabi’s top ace. He…” He laughed again. “He really hated people getting him mixed up with Char.”

“Ridden… holy, the guy with over two hundred mobile suit kills to his credit?”

“Yeah.” Zechs looked down at the broken mobile suit. “You were up against their number two suit last time, right?”

“I was.” She followed his gaze and saw the number painted on one shoulder. “Oh. That was him.”

“I think you were. Do you feel better about losing now?”

“No.” She shook her head. “I hate losing.”

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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by U.P. Cinnabar » 2018-11-15 03:58pm

But, Zechs is number one? Does he get a gold suit? And, where the hell is Bright?
"Beware the Beast, Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone amongst God's primates, he kills for sport, for lust, for greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him, drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of Death.."
—29th Scroll, 6th Verse of Ape Law
"Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”
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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by LadyTevar » 2018-11-15 08:53pm

Still interested. It's a very tangled web now. Good job. :)
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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by drakensis » 2018-11-16 06:21am

Chapter Three – The Martyr, the Victim

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Dekim Barton’s fingers trembled as he poured bourbon into his glass. The liquor splashed slightly over the edge and he set the bottle down firmly and stared at his hand until the treacherous appendages stilled. Then he lifted the glass decisively and drank what he’d managed to pour. The neat bourbon seared its way down his throat, leaving him coughing, but the burn cushioned the horror that had engulfed him.

He sealed the bottle and put it away, then carefully blotted the spillage away with his handkerchief. It wouldn’t do to let others see how much he was affected.

Pressing a button on his desk called the chief of his household into the room. In a more civilised time Satou would have been a butler or perhaps a gentleman’s gentleman. But such terms were considered elitist by the rabble and the rabble had votes. “You have heard the news,” he stated.

Dekim trusted the man almost as far as he did his own children. Enough to give him almost unrestricted access to his communications. It eased arrangements for the household if the chief knew of events as soon as his master – if Dekim hadn’t given him access, Satou would probably have had to snoop around to learn what he needed to ensure smooth service and that would have been undignified for both of them.

“Sir, my condolences.” Satou bowed his head respectfully. “We are all bereaved.”

“Perhaps twice over,” the old man murmured. “My granddaughter is unaware?”

“As yet, sir. Her tutors have taken her to the gardens.”

“Good, I will tell her myself. But not yet. Not yet.” He saw Satou’s brow furrow at the ‘twice’ and bit back a snarl. “Trowa knew where his sister was. He would have warned her.”

Alarm rose within the man’s eyes. Alarm and anger – Satou had watched both Trowa and Leia grow up. “You believe he has come to harm?”

“My son’s mobile suits were there. He could not have been unaware and even if he thought his actions the diversions, a single stray shot…” His hand was betraying him again and he gripped the edge of the desk.

The missile launched at Lake Victoria had carried multiple independently targeting warheads. Six airburst nuclear detonations in the kiloton range had erased the mobile suit factory and the adjacent military base from existence. Leia had been outside the primary area of effect but the blast front had been quite deadly enough to clear the skies for miles around. Even mobile suits had been smashed out of the sky, one small helicopter hadn’t stood a chance.

Recovery efforts had confirmed a body, though its state would require a closed casket for the funeral.

“One stray shot would have been enough even if Karbala hadn’t been targeting the base directly.”

“Then we must consider the pilots compromised, sir. The crew of the Audhumla may also have been subverted.”

Barton nodded. “I could call them directly but that would let them know I am aware. If my son is merely a prisoner than that would move him to the role of hostage or simply make him expendable. I cannot take the chance.”

Satou considered the situation. “The nature of their activities makes open investigation difficult, sir. And many of the deniable assets at your disposal are associated with Karbala.”

Barton nodded. “They knew too, of course. After all I have done for them…” He straightened. “I must inform my son-in-law, of course.”

“Will he be able to assist without revealing too much, sir?”

“We could claim the Audhumla was hijacked perhaps…” Then he paused and shook his head. “No. It would be too dangerous. The data aboard could ruin me. I will find a way.”

“We have no assets to counter the Gerbera Tetras,” warned Satou.

“That is relatively straightforward,” Barton decided. “Since they provide a veneer of cooperation, I will provide them with another target, one that will keep them away from the Audhumla at the right time.”

“I see, sir. And if the target is suitably challenging then some of them may not survive.”

“Quite. Quite.” He shook his head. “But first I must see to my family.”

“Should I call your granddaughter in, sir? Or open a channel to Mr Khrushrenada?”

“My son-in-law will be working, working to avenge my daughter,” Dekim decided. “But I will go to the garden.”

He pushed his seat back and tried to rise but wavered. Satou caught his arm to steady him and then brought him to his feet. “I’m fine,” Dekim grunted. “Just a moment’s unsteadiness.”

“Perhaps your stick, sir.”

He considered and then nodded. The walking stick was simply an ornament, something he could justify for his age and point with, but it was functional enough and if his knees were as reliable as his hands then it would be better to carry it just in case.

The wooden cane with its curved handle was produced as if by magic and the old man tucked it beneath his arm and walked the short distance from his office down to the family quarters and then out into the garden.

Mariemaia saw him before he saw her. “Grandfather, grandfather!” she shouted and ran over to him on her short legs. She had something white in her hand and she thrust it up towards him for inspection. A lily. “We have flowers!”

“Yes, grandchild, we do indeed.” He looked sharply at the tutor who was following the girl and dismissed the woman with a jerk of his chin. “We should sit down.”

There was a convenient bench and he sat down, looking at the blooming flower beds and the bright light reflected into the colony by the vast mirrors that rose from its side. Mariemaia pulled herself up onto the bench and then turned to sit next to him, her legs dangling off the edge and not quite reaching the path below.

“Mariemaia.”

“Grandfather?” She turned and looked up at him with wide trusting eyes.

“There has been an… accident on Earth,” he said slowly. “Your mother has been hurt.”

The girl frowned and rubbed unconsciously at her knees. “Momma has an owie-hurt or a big hurt?” she asked seriously.

“A big hurt. Yes. A very big hurt.”

“Grandfather will make it better?” she asked hopefully.

There was a lump in his throat and he shook his head. “I can’t do that, my dear. There’s nothing I can do to make this better.”

“No!” she protested and seized his arm. “Grandfa’… Grandfather can make anything better! Momma said so.”

“I’m… I can’t this time.” He swallowed. “She’s gone, child. Your mother is gone and we’ll never see her again.”

“No!” she shouted, voice shrill with panic. “Momma can’t stay away! Bring her back, bring her back!”

Dekim Barton shook his head again.

The girl bolted to her feet. “Then I’ll get momma!” She shot him and angry look, sniffed back and swiped her sleeve across her nose. “Grandfa’ being mean. Momma wouldn’t stay away. Papa will take me to her!”

“Your papa will tell you the same as I have,” he said sternly.

“You’re lying!” Mariemaia screamed at him and then turned and ran across the gardens.

Barton ignored the stick and ran after her. She didn’t get far, tripping as she reached the edge of the grass and sprawling on it, crying her heart out.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

There had been a pronounced lack of Federation interference as the Delaz Fleet fitted thrusters to the colonies. Cima’s forces had little to do but stand watch as the engineers installed the equipment. It was a mis-matched array, little resembling the purpose-built arrangement that had – four years ago now, where had the time gone? – hurled a similar colony cylinder into Earth’s gravity well with the intention of destroying the subterranean command centre of the Federation Forces at Jaburo.

Cima guessed that Delaz had salvaged engines from dozens of wrecked warships over the past few years, planning for this day. There was certainly no shortage of hulks out there. The fighting at Loum, Moore and Hatte had shattered the peacetime fleets of both sides and hastily built ships like the destroyers she’d dealt with lately had been rushed into service to make good the lack.

Her cruisers and Delaz’s Gwazine were among the rare exceptions, purpose-built ships that had been partially completed when the war began. They had a quality of workmanship that was just beginning to creep back into evidence within the Federation fleet.

In defiance of every lesson she’d learned of military planning, the fuel barge even arrived at the scheduled time with no delay whatsoever. A part of Cima was tempted to just shoot the damn thing and be done with it but then she’d have nothing to bargain with Jamitov for. Instead she watched as Delaz’ engineers disassembled it, adding the barge’s thrusters to one of the colonies and splitting the huge fuel tanks to both.

“Major?”

Cima looked up and saw one of her crew standing beside the command chair. Since she didn’t stay on the ship during battle she’d dispensed with the thin padding and straps in favour of comfortable cushions kept in place with a faux-tiger skin that laced down discreetly. It also allegedly looked intimidating as hell if she was lounging on it – at least some of the freighter captains she’d faced down from the bridge seemed to think so. “Yes?”

“Admiral Delaz has invited you aboard the Gwazine to observe the launch of the colonies,” he reported.

“Has he now?” She looked out of the window. “I doubt the view is better than from here. He insists, I take it?”

The crewman broke discipline enough to grin. “His communications officer was very full of himself.”

“Let me guess, the ‘grand blow against the oppression of the Federation’?” she asked.

He nodded. “Something along those lines.”

“Oh well, I suppose I should get changed then.” She looked down at her dress uniform with the high boots and the half-cape. Dressing up for the occasion made sense on her own bridge but if she was sharing Delaz’… “A pilot suit should do – no use letting him think I’m taking this seriously.”

Cima didn’t particularly hurry to get changed and her crew had her Gelgoog ready before she reached the hanger. “I’ll be back in a few hours,” she told them. “If he has anything drinkable to celebrate with then I’ll see if I can get a case for us.”

The transit was short and uninterrupted. Where the hell were the Federation? Did they want to have the colonies dropped onto Luna?

The Gwazine, sporting a huge golden Zeon emblem upon its nose, was a hive of activity in comparison to her own cruiser, the hangers still recovering shuttles of engineers from the colonies. Rather than push into their operations, Cima anchored her mobile suit to the battleship’s side and opened the hatch. There was an airlock only a few dozen metres away and she made it there in a single bound under zero gravity.

Anavel Gato was waiting at the inner door of the airlock. “Welcome aboard, Major. If you brought a uniform, we have a room where you can change.” Given he was also in a pilot suit she thought that was a bit much.

“If the message said anything about a dress code I might have,” she told him sarcastically. “I’m sure I’ll be fine in this.” Cima gestured down at the tight-fitting pilot-suit. She wasn’t ashamed of her figure and the equipment belt was good justification for keeping her gun on her.

“I don’t recall any being specified,” Gato assured her and gestured to the crewman with him. “Rodrigo will take you to the bridge.”

“Won’t you be there?”

He shook his head. “I’ll be with the suits keeping any eye out for any problems. With so many thrusters spread across the hulls of two separate colonies, we need a lot of eyes.”

“I’m sure you’ll be missed.”

“How kind of you to say so.” He bowed formally. “Until we meet again.”

Cima shook out her hair and turned to Rodrigo. “I recall the way.”

Nonetheless, the man saluted her crisply and took care to usher her every step of the way onto the bridge.

Like most warship bridges, the Gwazine’s had to compromise between the human preference to see the direction of travel as ‘forward’ and the practicality that under thrust it was actually ‘up’. Most of the work stations were anchored around the sides but the command seats were on gimbals placed so they could look out of an angled window when the armoured shutter was retracted – as it was right now.

“Major, welcome aboard again.” Delaz rose from his seat to greet her. Cima thought he would try to kiss her hand again so she saluted this time.

“Delaz, my respects to your crew. They’ve done a fine job.”

“Thank you, I’ll be sure to pass that on.” He gestured towards one of the command seats. “Please, take a seat. We’re on final count-down.”

Cima checked her watch and nodded in agreement although she simply held onto the seat rather than using it. The Gwazine wasn’t under thrust anyway.

The clock ticked on as reports came in from various stations. The engineers were all back on board and Cima could see the icons of Gato’s force observing the colonies from all angles. It all seemed to be going well for Delaz. Had the man made a pact with a devil? If someone didn’t at least drop a spanner somewhere…

Three seconds to launch.

Two seconds.

One second.

The clock reached zero and… nothing happened.

“Negative ignition,” one of the crew reported levelly.

Cima leant over to Delaz. “Performance issues?” she purred, mind working furiously. They were too calm. Everything they had planned for was suddenly failing and no one seemed even concerned.

“Reignite,” the admiral ordered, ignoring Cima.

“Sir.” The man went back to his controls and entered a sequence.

“We have power on colony one. Seventy percent of target. Eighty…”

“Colony two is in motion.” Another crewman leant back to report. “Thirty percent of thrusters not responding.”

That’ll put them off course, Cima thought. There was margin for error but corrections would need to be made…

“Well it all seemed to be going too smoothly,” Delaz noted ruefully. “We’ll see what we’re dealing with thrust wise and then we can finetune them. The important thing is that they’re moving.”

“Yes… on a convergent course,” she said, studying the display. “They’re going to bounce off each other in about… twenty, twenty-four hours. Easier to fix that now.”

“You’re surprisingly good at calculating courses,” the admiral said and something in his voice…

Cima had her gun out and pointed at the side of Delaz’ head a fraction of a second before Rodrigo could bring his own to bear. “Don’t try it or your Admiral’s brains will be scattered across the compartment,” she said flatly.

The crewman hesitated and she wrenched the gun out of his hand, dropping it into her holster with her free hand. “What are you up to, Delaz? No more lies.”

He met her eyes and then very slowly relaxed in his seat. “You were always sharp,” he admitted. “I should have remembered that.”

She turned slightly to keep the crew in sight. “The moon isn’t the target at all. Show me the real trajectories.”

“Do it,” he confirmed and the crew adjusted their controls.

Cima saw that she was correct. The two colonies would collide, although only at a very slight angle. A glancing impact that would adjust their courses further, pushing them both just outside the gravitational pull of Luna. Oddly enough that would pull them back onto roughly parallel courses, right down towards the Earth. It was elegant in its trajectories, nightmarish in its consequence.

“I told you that I wouldn’t stand for more atrocities, Delaz.”

“We should never have compromised at the Antarctic Treaty,” he replied, anger seeping into his words. “We were winning until Degwin agreed to tie our hands. One more push and the Federation would have collapsed but he had us fight on their terms, let them bury us in numbers. I won’t make the same mistake.”

“You don’t have an army to back up something like this. You’ll just push them into more extreme measures.”

“And every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” The words had the ring of something long rehearsed. “Artesia Som Deikun has been telling our people that they can co-exist with Earth, that Spacenoids can live under Earthnoid rule. Now they’ll be shown the truth.”

“The truth that you’ve manufactured, you maniac!” she exclaimed.

“I’d have thought the woman who took stern measures at Halifax would understand.”

“That was not the same.” Her finger tightened around the trigger, nearly firing the gun.

He looked up at her. “I am prepared to die a martyr for Zeon,” Aiguille Delaz assured her. “But if you fire then you’ll be dead yourself within seconds.”

Cima looked around the bridge, seeing in the eyes of the crew that the fanaticism wasn’t restrained to their leader, and made her decision.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Duo was in the kid’s bunkroom, entertaining them with his harmonica, when Wayline pushed the door open. Admittedly, some of the entertainment was in how badly he played, but every muted giggle was a step in the right direction.

“We need to talk,” the veteran said simply.

“Okay.” Duo wiped the harmonica and then offered it to a green-haired girl who was among the oldest. “You want a try?”

She looked at it and gave it an experimental blow. The squeal that came out was ear piercing and now she was the focus of the laughter.

“You’re getting along well with them,” Wayline said once they were out. “Going to miss them?”

“Yeah, but they need real homes. And real names.”

“How do you mean?” They descended a ladder to the hanger level and Wayline pointed towards the briefing room they’d used before.

Duo shoved his fists into his pocket. “The girl I gave the harmonica to? She’s called Four.”

“Four.”

“As in ‘number four’,” he spat.

The older man considered. “You know, in retrospect maybe we should have taken the time to dig some of those scientists out of the bunkers.”

“We were cutting it fine as it was,” Duo admitted. “But I’d feel better right now if we had.”

Inside the room, Athrun and Heero were waiting. “I’ve got good news and bad news,” the former announced. “There’s a Federation cruiser taking off for Zeon in a few days. The captain’s loyal to the Federation… but she’s not blind to its faults.”

“My country, right or wrong. If right to be kept right. If wrong, to be set right,” Heero quoted.

“Pithy,” Duo said. “Quoting someone?”

“Someone I knew in the war. I guess she was quoting someone else.”

Athrun nodded. “Something like that. I know she’s helped coordinators get off the surface before and passed them off to people who can get them the rest of the way to safety. She might not be happy if she figures out who we are but she’ll look out for the kids.”

“And the bad news,” asked Wayline cautiously.

“We’ve had a message with another mission. Timing wise we’d need to carry it out before we head for Panama.”

“That’s lousy. Can’t we go there first?”

Athrun shook his head. “It’s time sensitive. According to what we’ve been sent, the Federation has a hidden mobile suit factory. With what happened at Lake Victoria they’re on guard so any attack nearby will draw them in.”

“If it’s more nukes then to hell with them!”

“Not this time. Karbala are pulling out of Africa – it’s too hot for them with the attention they’ve drawn. We’re supposed to draw attention away while they escape.”

Duo sat back. “Maybe we should let them get caught.”

“If they’re caught, they might use the remaining nuclear weapons,” Heero pointed out. “Can we do this mission and then get to Panama in time?”

Athrun pulled up a map. “The target is Corsica. The Audhumla can drop us off south of the island, then turn north-west and we fly west to rendezvous and continue across the Atlantic. Two days and we’ll be over the Caribbean.”

Wayline measured the distance on the map. “That’d work. What about the flight crew? If they get another mission briefing what do we tell them?”

“We need a maintenance break anyway and heading across the Atlantic makes sense for a low profile – we’ve not been to the western hemisphere yet so it’ll be easier to hide. If they want another mission then,” Duo held up his fingers like quotes, “so sorry, we need to fix our suits. Call back in a couple more days.”

“They’re not really wrong either. We’re below fifty percent for munitions, as it is.”

“I don’t think Barton really understood how quickly combat missions chew through ammo,” agreed Heero.

“Either that or he was only planning five strikes.” Wayline shook his head. “I shouldn’t have signed on for this but I was running low on options.”

Duo sat back. “Is your dad going to tear you up on this, Athrun?”

“I might go with the kids,” the other pilot said seriously. “I came here to stop people launching nuclear attacks and after what just happened…”

“Yeah. This is the last mission for me.” He looked over at Heero. “Right?”

“Agreed.” The solemn pilot looked over at Wayline. “We’d be better laying low, but I know someone in Zeon that could set us up.”

The pilot made a face. “I’m not sure it’d be safe. My face is better known there than I like.”

“Disguises are easy, one broken nose and you’ll look entirely different.”

Wayline paused and then laughed. “You’re not breaking my nose, Maxwell. I’ll think of something. Maybe Zala’s old man will be recruiting.”

The coordinator shrugged. “Sure. We can use good pilots.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}


The bridge window on the Gwazine burst outwards as Cima fired her gun into it.

Alarms blared and the shutter began to close but as the air rushed out, she dived for the window, discarding her gun to cram her helmet on.

Her ears were ringing as the seal formed but she was out and none of the shots fired after her came close. The gun was still in reach and she caught it before it could drift away and fired it to propel her around the Gwazine. Intended for this purpose it quickly reversed her velocity and she caught onto the outside of the ship, scrambling to get to her mobile suit.

Touching the side of her helmet she opened a channel to her ship but interference filled the frequency with static. Delaz must have activated his ECM, it was only a matter of time before the Gwazine’s guns were active. Seeing the open hanger ahead she gave up on the Gelgoog and threw herself that direction.

True to her hopes three Hizacks were lined up waiting with cockpits open for pilots. The airlock at the back of the hanger opened as she threw herself into a dive for the nearest cockpit, bringing her gun around. She couldn’t fire until she reached it without slowing herself but they didn’t seem to realise it and the inbound pilots scattered, her one shot only hitting a bulkhead and letting her catch the hatch at a safe speed.

Flinging herself inside, Cima punched the main power switch before grabbing the straps. Fortunately, it was a standard layout - basically the same as the Zaku IIs she’d used back in the war. The hatch closed and screens lit up – the suit must have been held at immediate readiness.

Almost immediate at least since cables parted as she pushed the Hizack into movement. What did she have for weapons… a rocket cannon with only three shells!? Dammit, at least there was a beam sabre.

Wheeling, she kicked the next Hizack over, slamming it into the next one and brought the rocket cannon around. A single shot turned the two suits into a conflagration that threatened everyone un the hanger as she backed out.

Right, now for Delaz and –

Mega particle beams flared and space was lit by an explosion. Cima’s head jerked around and she saw the cruiser Meggido, her home since Mahal was confiscated, blow apart.

“Delaz!” she screamed and thrust outwards, looking for the panel covering the bridge window.

It was immediately visible and she fired both remaining shots from her rocket cannon into it. The first blew it open satisfactorily and the second plunged into the fire ball and detonated inside, doing god alone knew what damage.

Turning, Cima looked for a way out but Hizacks were returning from the colonies already, swarming over her remaining cruiser, the Vengeance. The ship’s hanger opened to release a single Gelgoog but before a second could exit, a Hizack dropped down and fired its beam rifle through the opening again and again, until the shots were punching out through the far side of the ship.

The Gelgoog swung its beam sabre around and cut the Hizack in two but two more were on top of it.

“No, damn you!” She fired her thrusters at maximum, but the suit was too slow, too slow by far.

Fighting fiercely the Gelgoog brought down one of its aggressors but then yet another arrived, bringing a heat hawk up and around to remove the sensor head before backing up and finishing the Gelgoog with a shot to the cockpit.

The same suit turned and its mono-eye focused on her as she plunged towards them. They clashed, heat hawk to heat hawk.

“Cima,” a voice crackled through her radio. “That’s you, isn’t it!”

“Gato. I should have known.”

“It didn’t have to be like this,” he told her, sparks flying as they whaled against each other, parrying each other’s attacks. “Zeon can rise again.”

“This isn’t about Zeon!” she shouted. “Fuck Zeon. This is my men. My crew!”

He paused. “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Then he whipped his suit around and hammered a kick down on top of the sensor head of her suit.

The Hizack groaned under the impact and in the brief moment of distraction he reversed his heat hawk and severed hers at the shaft.

“I’ll make this quick,” he promised and raised his beam rifle.

Then the Vengeance blew up – fires reaching the fuel stores, Cima later guessed.

Sections of the hull hammered both of them but Cima was back onto it and her suit partially shielded Gato, who – with a fraction of a second more to react – twisted and caught the worst on his shoulder shield.

The thruster pack of Cima’s suit erupted, hurling her uncontrollably away from the pyres of her crews and into the untrackable space between the colonies.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

“I don’t see anything that looks like a mobile suit factory,” Duo noted as the four mobile suits dropped towards Corsica. He was back in his original Gerbera Tetra while Led Wayline had taken over Trowa Barton’s.

“If you could see it then it wouldn’t really count as hidden,” pointed out Athrun.

“It’s not as if we’re really trying to destroy it,” added Wayline. “The point is to cause some incidental damage, get their attention and fly westwards. And this time we don’t need to dawdle and draw anyone after him.”

“Unless you see that guy from the Long Dagger again,” suggested Duo. “Didn’t you promise him a duel – or a date?”

“You know, I swear I’ve seen him somewhere before. I just can’t place him.”

“Well, he was wearing a helmet.”

Duo nodded. “Athrun’s right. Didn’t lots of Zeon pilots wear helmets instead of proper pilot suits. Maybe he just wants to look like… what was the guy. Heero, you know the one I mean.”

“…Char Aznable?” the other pilot asked reluctantly and Wayline’s Gerbera Tetra lurched wildly in the air.

“Whoa! Are you okay.”

“That bastard. That’s him!” Wayline snarled. “He must have been laughing his head off!”

“Er…”

“It was Aznable! How could I have missed it!”

Duo stared. “Uh, okay bad time for revelations… Anyway, wasn’t he killed at A Baoa Qu? The White Devil got him?”

“No,” Heero said flatly.

“I swear it was him. If I ever see him again, I swear I’ll kill him.”

“Mission first,” Heero told Wayline sharply. “Aznable can wait.”

“Kind of a sore spot?” asked Duo.

“He killed Lady Kycilla,” the man said flatly as if that settled everything. Then he took a deep breath, audible even over the radio. “But you’re right. Mission first. Sorry, it just… I’m such an idiot.”

“Aren’t we all?”

Athrun laughed awkwardly. “I think that that’s just you, Duo.”

“Hey! I resemble that remark.”

“Sixty seconds to the edge of Corsica Base sensor range,” Heero warned, bringing them back onto point.

“Remember, targets of opportunity, particularly anything that might be able to chase us.”

“We remember, Athrun.” Duo released his controls just long enough to crack his knuckles.

Corsica Base was an expanse of pale yellow stone carved out from the coast of the mountain. Under better sunlight it might have looked glorious but a storm front was coming in and the clouds cast long shadows across the base.

Duo saw blocks of personnel standing in front of a podium and focused his camera on it. Some sort of parade… ah, an award ceremony. There was a ton of braid on the uniforms of the soldiers on the podium so this should be eye-catching.

Sirens were already going off when he swooped down, the crowd of personnel milling in shock. He didn’t want a massacre but the squadron of mobile suits stood behind the podium could be a… well they might have been a promise if they weren’t holding Federation banners on flagpoles.

The Gerbera Tetra crashed down between them and Duo traced a line of beam pulses down the centre line of one mobile suit, then raked a second with the 110mm cannon in his offhand. The suit crashed backwards in flame and he kicked backwards, sending the podium crashing over, further scattering those on it.

Those able to move ran for a motorcade and Duo snatched a flag pole from one of the Daggers and threw it like a javelin into the biggest and shiniest of the limousines. The twenty metres of metal skewered the car, pinning it to the ground, and the rush diverted towards a nearby hanger instead.

Making a note not to fire on the hanger, Duo turned back to the mobile suits just in time to see the Dagger he’d disarmed drawing a beam sabre. “Oh, you want to play?”

The Dagger raised the beam sabre high but Duo side-slipped and drew one of his own beam sabres. The last of the honour guard tried to intercept him but he casually cut low and severed its leg, spilling the mobile suit to the floor.

“Surrender or die, you damned terrorist!” the pilot of the Dagger demanded.

“Two choices? How will I ever decide?” He dodged another wild cut and then lashed out, taking out the Dagger’s sword arm. “Now look at you, disarmed.” He let the other pilot reach back for his other beam sabre and then cut through the exposed elbow. “Properly disarmed in fact.”

With a flare of thrusters, he delivered a kick that dropped the Dagger onto its back. “Just stay down, kid, you’re out of your league.”

There was a whine of engines and a military aircraft taxied out of the hanger where the dignitaries were hiding. It took Duo a couple of moments to identify it before he realised it was a transport, nothing like the Audhumla but big enough you could cram a couple of Daggers inside as long as they were on their backs.

“Fly free, fellas,” he called and took off, looking for something else to destroy.

Judging by the smoke coming from other locations the others had already found something. He snapped off a couple of shots at anti-air turrets that were finally coming online and then flew up out over the sea. “Time to go, guys. We don’t want to miss our flight.”

Wayline and Athrun joined him and he looked around. “Where’s Heero?”

“He took off a moment ago,” Wayline said. “Said something about a mobile suit transport in the air.”

“Oh…” Then Duo winced. “If it’s the one I think it was then I doubt there were any mobile suits on it.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

“Can you see it yet?”

“If I saw it then I’d tell you, Duo.” Athrun sounded down-right testy.

“Sorry.” He checked his instruments again. They were near enough due west of Corsica and the distance still checked out – this was where the Audhumla should be.

Of course, in the thick clouds it could probably come within five miles of them and they could miss it entirely.

“And who schedules rainstorms like that. Really! The weather on Earth is crazy.”

“No one schedules it. This isn’t a colony, it just… happens.”

“Not the point, Athrun. Besides, isn’t this your first time being on Earth too?”

“Would you two focus,” Led snapped. “Maybe the crew went up above the cloud cover to get out of the weather.”

“Check it,” Heero decided. “I’ll go down in case they’re at low altitude.”

“Wouldn’t that risk someone seeing them?” asked Duo.

“Only if they went out in this weather.”

As he descended, following Heero, Duo could see the point his buddy was making. The rain was hammering at the upper surfaces of his Gerbera Tetra and running down the verticals. It was actually having a measurable effect on the flight characteristics, which he hadn’t expected.

“Earth conditions take a lot of adjusting to,” Heero agreed when he mentioned this. “It slowed Zeon progress down quite a bit when they first landed on Earth.”

With no immediate sight of the Audhumla, they broke apart in a search pattern, staying as far apart as they could without losing radio contact.

“Nothing,” Duo exclaimed. “Did the crew decide they’d had enough?”

There was no response from Heero but two specks of red came down from the clouds. “Head west,” Wayline ordered tersely.

“Further west? We’ve almost reached Spain as it is!”

“I got a faint coast guard signal from the Spanish coast,” Athrun replied, sounding tired. “They have strong transmitters to get through even in heavy Minovsky conditions. There was something about an aircraft coming down.”

“Coming down? Ah hell. Do you think it floats?”

“If the hanger’s sealed and acts as a flotation cell, yes,” came a surprising answer from Athrun. “It’s one of the design requirements. Of course, if it’s damaged…”

Duo had nothing further to add to that so they grimly opened up their throttles and streaked west. News of their attack on Corsica would have spread so everyone would be looking out for them but without the Audhumla, Duo didn’t see a huge number of options. They’d have to find somewhere to land the suits before long as it was…

“Shit,” Athrun said as they approached the shoreline.

The rare expletive from the Jovian pilot drew everyone’s attention.

“There’s something in the water ahead of me,” he said. “Maybe fifty metres down.”

They descended to hang above the water, thrusters sending the water rippling as they pointed searchlights downwards and tried to make out what they were looking at.

“Right colour, too small to be the whole thing.”

“Can’t we go down? Our suits are sealed.”

“It won’t do them a ton of good but without repairs we’re boned anyway.”

That was enough for Duo and he cut his thrusters, diving his Gerbera Tetra down into the dark water. His searchlight didn’t give a huge field of view but he was right on top of the object.

Standing on the seabed he walked awkwardly forward and examined it. A wing, matching the shape he remembered from the Audhumla, the wreckage of engines marking it as having taken some form of weapons fire.

“Crap.” Looking around there was nothing else he could see but if this had fallen out of the sky then the rest could be spread across miles. Duo could feel moisture on his cheeks and checked for a leak before realising the cause.

He flared his thrusters angrily and the Gerbera forced its way up and out of the Mediterranean Sea to re-join the others.

“Well?” asked Wayline.

“We’re screwed,” Duo said bitterly.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Stunned by the force of the explosion, Cima slumped in the seat of her hijacked Hizack and waited for the inevitable shot from Gato or one of Delaz’s other minions.

It several long minutes before she realised that no such shot was coming at her. Death, it seemed, was not yet ready for Garahau Cima.

Taking stock, she checked her controls and found the arms were still working but the suit’s legs were unresponsive. She shut down the thrusters and tried consider her position rationally.

What were her assets?

Her pilot suit and the equipment on it, admittedly intended to keep the wearer alive in some pretty dire situations.

One damaged mobile suit – not that it was much of a mobile suit to begin with but it was at least several dozen tons of equipment.

And a trajectory that would take her generally towards the Earth Sphere, given few weeks, depending on how much she breathed.

Her lips quirked at that. If she just drifted for weeks then she was dead anyway. A mobile suit only had so much air and it required recyclers for any extended operations. Days were certainly possible, but a week… that she was less certain of. Food and water…

Panic threatened to swallow her but she fought it down. She’d been as good as dead for years anyway, resorting to raiding just to keep her crews fed and out of Federation hands. If she died now, well it wasn’t anything more than she deserved.

If she had been adrift in her suit alone then she might as well have just opened her air valve and gone to face her ghosts, but with the Hizack then there was at least a chance. What the hell? Maybe a Federation fleet would be on the way and pick her up. While the boost from the Vengeance and the Hizack’s thruster was miniscule in comparison, there was so much mass involved that she must be well ahead of the colonies.

Checking through the cockpit contents she found the survival kit. Food, albeit ration bars, for far longer than she’d have air. And bottled water to add to the small supply on her suit’s kit. If she eked it out… well, either it was enough or it wasn’t.

So, there was a chance.

She couldn’t afford to just vent the cockpit so Cima waited in near darkness, conserving reactor power, as it was pumped empty. Opening the hatch, she started looking for stars to navigate by. Fortunately, she was good at orbital mechanics, Delaz had been right about that.

After more than an hour of searching she had a rough idea. The onboard computer calculated for her, then calculated again as she double-checked.

Not good. Not disastrous, but not good either. She wasn’t going to reach Earth orbit, she was headed too far out and if she turned her course for that then she’d not have enough fuel to get there in the timeframe she needed.

But she wasn’t going to miss it by much. She could probably… if she hadn’t made too many mistakes in her observations of the stars, if she hadn’t mis-remembered the necessary information (because no one set up a mobile suit computer to calculate navigation across almost half an astronomical unit so why would it have the raw data?) pass somewhere between Luna’s orbit and the Sol-Earth Two colonies… Zeon, in other words.

Which meant that ships headed to or from Zeon – from Earth or the Earth-Luna colonies – might, just possibly, be able to pick her up.

“It would almost have been easier to deal with bad news,” she mused as she closed up the cockpit again – no point taking any radiation risks.

Cima strapped herself down, and began very carefully to correct the Hizack’s orientation, using the minimum possible energy to do so.

Death would be quick, at least.

She was committing to at best a week alone in a metal box both sides of which she could touch by stretching out her arms. Living in her own filth since the pilot suit’s plumbing had hard limits. And at the end of it, she might die anyway.

Was it worth it?

She put the thought aside, checked her calculations one more time and fired the thrusters. If death wanted her, it would just have to wait.

At the very least, she thought as the Hizack began to accelerate, I might be close enough to see Mahal once more. Or what’s left of it.

Damn Gihren, damn Delaz and damn everyone who’d rather smash people’s home than accept defeat. What were they fighting for that was worth so much anyway?

Tired, grieving and on a knife’s edge between hope and despair, Garahau Cima drifted off into a fitful sleep. A sleep haunted by dreams of a past that would never release her.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Some claimed that war had been inevitable and that Garahau Cima should not be blamed for starting it.

Others pointed out that whatever might have happened in some hypothetical other timeline, in this universe the flashpoint had been Halifax Colony.

In hindsight, Cima leaned towards the second view, although the writing had clearly been on the wall. The pressures had been building, obvious to everyone willing to see them, for more than a decade.

In the span of her own fairly short lifetime, Zeon Zum Deikun had gone from a crackpot philosopher to the focus of a political movement. Swept into power as Prime Minister of Sol-Earth Five – Munzo as it was then – he’d almost as swiftly been martyred and political unrest swept through the colonies.

Cima recalled it well, remembering men and women whispering in the corners of parallels to another name: Heero Yuy.

He too had been a Prime Minister. He too had spoken for the colonies more than the interests of Earth’s mighty senators. And he too had died quickly in office, under circumstances that might have been far from natural.

The Federation’s soldiers had imposed, if not peace, then at least grudging acquiescence to their continued domination. But in Munzo, home of the fallen hero, that concession came with a compromise.

Thereafter the colonies of Munzo were no longer a Republic under the authority of the Earth Federation, instead they took the proud name: Autonomous Republic of Zeon.

The brokers of that agreement, Degwin Zabi and his children, took up the leadership and began to slowly chip away at the authority of the Federation. Autonomous on its own was just a word, after all. That alone did not elevate Zeon to equal that of the great power blocs that had grown from Earthly nations and which elected the senators of the Federation.

But one crisis at a time, one compromise at a time – each looking reasonable enough on the face of it, concerning only in hindsight, Zeon was breaking free from the strictures of the Federation.

If she could go back in time, Cima would have screamed at her past self, at those around her: look what is replacing the Federation’s laws? Are those restrictions on us or on the people who rule us?

One teenage girl more or less might not have made a difference, but no one would ever know. Power did not descend into the hands of the people, save for those whose support was courted by the Zabi family. Nor did wealth or prosperity reach the streets of Mahal. Just pride. Fierce pride in symbols that were little understood even by those who offered them.

Pride – as well as poverty – drove a young Garahau Cima into the Zeon Defence Forces. A militia once entirely subordinate to the Federation garrison and now perhaps not quite so second-class when it came to their equipment, their training or their espirit de corps.

She’d marched, saluted, trained… and her work had been rewarded for the Defence Forces were growing and often in ways that the Federation would not have approved of if they had known. Mobile suits, little more than a joke in the eyes of an armada of swift cruisers and mighty battleships, were built around the power of Minovsky reactors – reactors whose by-products, the Minovsky particles, blinded the delicate sensors, targeting and communications of conventional combatants.

Was war inevitable?

Perhaps not, but the fact that neither side feared it made it ever more probable. The Federation with their untested dominance over the generations and their vast resources. Zeon, with their cocksure faith in new weapons and reckless resentment bred of condescension.

If it was not Halifax that broke the last veneer of peace then it must have been a comparatively quiet and understated speech by Gihren Zabi that noted that since representation on the Federation Senate was denied them, then logically the next step for Zeon would be to render themselves legally autonomous, to live up to the name taken years previous. In a word, independence for Zeon. And in the future, independence for every other colony that wanted it.

The key, irreconcilable issue was out in the open and not one colony from Earth’s low orbit to the handful of colonies at Sol-Earth Three on the far side of the sun, from Riah over Venus to the scattered colonies of Jupiter and its trojans, could be unaffected.

Had Zeon requested senatorial representation?

Most assuredly. It had been raised in every conflict of interest with the Federation’s government… if always the first point to be graciously yielded. As if, some thought, it was merely a bargaining point. A pro forma petition that could be set aside once the serious discussion of working out a compromise began.

But now, apparently, Zeon was no longer interested. And what they declared instead was not a matter the Federation was willing to compromise on.

One race, one people, one Federation. Thus, the interests and ambitions of once warring nations had turned outward to the conquest of space. Division would be fatal…

But division there was.

Brother against brother, neighbour against neighbour, colony against colony…

Had it been planned as such or was it premature?

Pro-Federation or Pro-Zeon? Proud colonist or lapdog of Earth?

Cima and her fellow soldiers were flung into that, sent out as peacekeepers by Zeon to work alongside the Federation’s forces as negotiations sought to close a rift that was suddenly wider than anyone had imagined.

Conversations became debates. Protests became marches. Rallies became riots. Violence bled out onto the streets and beyond.

Federation soldiers and Zeon soldiers were kept apart by threadbare agreements, each trying to defend their adherents from the militant of their… adversaries? Or was the word enemies?

She couldn’t count the number of riots she’d broken up and the Federation noticed at last that mobile suits had, at the least, a considerable psychological impact in such work. But the colonies had their own armed militias and were more than able to improvise heavier gear.

A month before the war began, Garahau Cima became an ‘ace’ with five kills of armed mobile workers that had been escorting their ‘Loyalist’ march into the midst of a pro-Zeon rally. Forty-seven civilians died, ten times that were hospitalised. She received a medal and promotion to lieutenant.

Even then, Cima believed it was right. Necessary, even.

She could still sleep at night.

And then Halifax. One of the Loum colonies. A very divided cluster, well-established.

It was a pro-Federation colony. Strongly so. And one with well-armed forces at their disposal. Zeon had quietly agreed with the Federation that they would deter any adventurism against it – wasteful when there were other colonies still in the balance and more effort could tip them to their side.

But General Septim of Halifax colony’s militia looked at his neighbouring colonies and considered the benefits to him if peace was imposed on them by his forces. A peace that would be pro-Federation, of course.

Cima’s squadron had been scrambled to respond. Reports – quite correctly – showed that Septim had taken the port facility of Halifax and was preparing transports to carry his soldiers to nearby colonies. At best a spread of violence. At worst, half a dozen colonies and millions of people cowed into accepting the Federation.

A handful of mobile suits couldn’t directly stop the thousands of soldier Septim commanded, but the solution was provided in several canisters of gas. Canisters no different outwardly from the tear gas she’d used against riots in the past.

With ruthless efficiency, Cima seized the port’s environmental centre and pumped the gas in. It was an isolated system. She remembered being vaguely grateful of that – there was no need for the civilians to deal with the massive quantity of tear gas needed to flood the port.

Two errors, two little mistakes.

Firstly, she didn’t verify that it was tear gas.

Secondly, she didn’t expect Septim – already secure aboard a sealed transport - to order his men to throw open the airlocks and withdraw back into the colony proper.

Slightly more than fourteen million people had lived in Halifax colony. Rescue efforts would finally find that fewer than three hundred – including Septim and his senior officers – survived the release of lethal nerve gas.

Three days later the Federation Senate passed a declaration of war against the former Republic of Zeon.

And Garahau Cima, from that day onwards, found her sleep haunted by fourteen million ghosts.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

The apartment door closed behind its owner and she kicked off her shoes before hanging the uniform tunic of a Federation forces major on the coat hook behind it.

“God, I’ve missed this,” she said, stretching. “No one hanging over my shoulder for a change. No messages just…” She saw the red light on her videophone. “…me time. Oh, you have got to be kidding me.”

After a moment she filed the message, whatever it was, as less important than going into the kitchen. Five minutes of work transferred several bags of expired food into the bin and from the rest she constructed a sandwich an inch and a half deep.

Setting it on the dining table, she went back to the hall, picked up the videophone and carried it over to the table, pulling the cables behind it. Fortunately, it just reached.

As a final preparation she closed the curtains, cutting her apartment off from the admittedly uninspiring view of Zeon City. The sometimes-eccentric architecture approved by the Zabi family was out and as a result the downtown was at least thirty percent building sites.

“Right.” With one hand, the woman picked up her sandwich and the other she thumbed the replay button. “I defy you to ruin my night off.”

The screen sprang to life and she almost dropped the sandwich at the sight of brown hair and violet eyes. “Relena, uh, hi.”

An uncharitable observer might have claimed that the woman’s response was a muted “eeeeeee?” as the man glanced awkwardly to one side.

“Sorry I haven’t called you lately,” he said at last.

The woman hit pause and shook her head. “I’m just glad you didn’t get yourself killed, idiot,” she informed his frozen face and bit into the sandwich. “Mmmm. Okay.” Chewing she restarted it.

“It’s kind of awkward since my roommate can access the phone records where I live and he has no concept of privacy,” he excused himself. “I heard… Uh, I guess you know that Captain Ramius is doing alright?”

She nodded, took another bite and swallowed. “Stop stalling,” she ordered the recording.

As if on cue, he looked seriously at the screen. “I don’t know anyone else I can trust with this, but there’s a conspiracy. It involves Karbala, the Zodiac Alliance and a Senator Barton. I’m… not exactly the Federation’s biggest fan but I don’t think these people are better. I… some kids are dead, Relena.”

“Aw shit,” she muttered and paused it again. Going back to the hall she grabbed a notepad and pen then rewound the message and replayed it, noting down the names.

“…dead,” he continued. “I was trying to get them out and I screwed up. I don’t think it’ll be long before they get my cover ID so I’m probably going to have to burn it. Just don’t panic if you get reports I’ve popped back into view, okay? It’s safer than my cover is now.”

He paused again. “Look, I’ll try to come to Zeon and see you. I’ve got your apartment address. So, if you come in and find me crashed out on the couch… uh, don’t shoot me. I know I probably deserve to be kicked, but it’d be a bit much.”

“How do you figure using your real name is safer than your false identification?” she asked the message rhetorically. “Particularly coming here, of all places?”

The screen flickered. “Oh, I almost forgot. I saw your brother. He seems to be okay. Probably a good thing I didn’t recognise him at first though. It would have been… uh. Anyway. You probably don’t need to worry about him.”

The message ended and Relena Mass stared at the phone for a minute. “Oh, you idiot,” she said ruefully. “You and my brother would cross paths right now. The Prime Minster and Marshal Ulyanov getting shot down wasn’t enough of a disaster without you two? At least you weren’t shooting at each other again.”

Finishing her sandwich, she looked at the little list again. “Barton… I can see how Karbala and the Zodiac Alliance would have common interests but what would his angle be? He lost his seat but he’s still rich. Assuming this is tied to Torrington and Lake Victoria, why would he give them nukes. That just…”

She sat back, looked up at the ceiling and frowned. “Karbala’s out to reduce Federation occupation of the old occupied territories. Right now, the Federation’s stretched in terms of forces and losing Lake Victoria hurts that. They’re going to need more mobile suits. Can Barton build them? If he can then that would give him an in with Santiago’s government – or whatever’s left of it.”

“Or maybe he wanted the Prime Minister dead for spite. Is that thinking too Zabi for him?” Relena leant back, balancing the chair on two legs as she thought. “I don’t know. Dammit, I wanted a night away from thinking about that sort of thing. Mobile suits. Huh, those mobile suits that raided Corsica and the other places… if he built those then he can build more, so yes, he can offer the Federation a supply. I don’t know.”

She rocked the chair forwards again and gave the phone a shove. “Thanks, Kira, for letting me know you’re still alive and giving me a headache at the same time.”

There was a snapping sound from the hall and the cable linking the videophone to the wall socket went slack.

Relena dropped her face into her hands. “And now I have to fix that. Fuck my life.”

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U.P. Cinnabar
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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by U.P. Cinnabar » 2018-11-16 09:01am

As if we didn't know.
"Beware the Beast, Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone amongst God's primates, he kills for sport, for lust, for greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him, drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of Death.."
—29th Scroll, 6th Verse of Ape Law
"Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”
---Doctor Christine Blasey-Ford

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drakensis
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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by drakensis » 2018-11-17 12:24pm

Chapter Four – A Warning to the Prophet

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

There were mourning banners in Dakar, representing many different cultures’ customs. The Federation’s banners were at half-mast outside the Senate building as Jamitov took his place among the remaining officials of the Santiago government facing the usual morass of reporters and behind them the sheep of the capital – government bureaucrats, their families and a leavening of tourists.

The mood was fearful and that reflected poorly on the leadership. Fortunately, there were two obvious candidates to blame and they weren’t here to defend themselves. If there had been, someone might have stirred up a mob to break through the thin cordon of Federation soldiers and storm the senate building.

He could almost imagine the image, like a call-back to the French Revolution. Of course, the best part, the trampling of the media caught in the crossfire, would have to be diplomatically omitted. And the guards’ firepower would make Napoleon’s ‘whiff of gunpowder’ fade in comparison.

Still, Jamitov would rather avoid being the centre of a guillotine scene. He wouldn’t have come down here from his office in Zahn if the political solution didn’t demand it.

Emerging from the front doors, Dermail Catalonia went directly for the podium, a scattering of his political allies following him to join the other Ministers, Vice Ministers and military officers.

Catalonia raised his hand and a few bars of the Federation anthem rose from hidden speakers, cutting short conversations and bringing the attention towards him. “People of the Federation, ladies and gentlemen of the media,” the senator greeted them in a dignified fashion. “I bring you grave news.”

“As many of you have heard, a small number of mobile suits have launched a series of terrorist attacks against the Federation. Disgraceful as such actions are, they have been met with stern resolution by the leadership of the Federation. Prime Minister Santiago and Marshal Ulyanov, taking the lead in this, were on Corsica to take further measures when, perhaps aware of the intention of their meeting, the terrorists launched another cowardly attack upon the peaceful island.”

“Yielding to the protests of their security, both men accepted evacuation with minimal security so that their escort could engage the terrorists in action. Alas,” Catalonia gripped the podium with both hands and leant forwards. “Alas, the unarmed transport they were aboard was gunned down without mercy by the terrorists before they could be repelled.” Releasing the podium, he brought his right hand up to cover his heart. “I ask a moment of silence in tribute to these brave men.”

Caught up in the theatre of the moment, even the media fell silent. Jamitov let his eyes flick down to his wrist and counted the seconds. After fifty seconds, a mournful trumpet blew from a bandsman stationed to one side of the podium.

“It is incumbent upon us all to live up to the brave example of our fallen leaders,” Catalonia continued. “It having been established by divers that neither the Prime Minister nor the Marshal survived the crash of their aircraft, the Senate has elected me to serve as Prime Minister of the Federation.”

Cameras flashed as journalists raced to be the first to spread the word that the Federation had a new Prime Minister.

“We face today a moment of crisis such as we have not seen since the ambitions of Zeon were laid bare.” The new Prime Minister rested his hands upon the podium, shoulders squared. “There are those, I am sad to say, who are plotting to bring the horrors of war back to the Earth sphere. Not content with the tremendous bloodshed of recent years, the organisation known as Karaba have followed Zeon’s example and cast aside due political process -”

Jamitov’s lip twitched despite his best efforts at remaining stoic in the face of this performance. Ah, the sacred cow of the Senate. Not so moving to the mob though.

“- and deployed a weapon of mass destruction against the Federation base at Lake Victoria. Even now we know they are raising an army against the Federation. This is perhaps known to many of you but we have had further reports from Sol-Earth Five, brought to the Senate’s attention by General Hyman Jamitov.”

Cameras swung to the focus on Jamitov, who did his best to remain calm under the attention. He had expected this, but the limelight was new to him.

“In a rare error of judgement, my predecessor felt that General Jamitov focused too much of military intelligence’s resources upon the movement of the remainder of Zeon’s war machine that lurk within the far corners of the solar system. Yet Karaba was not, until lately, a matter for military intelligence but for civilian agencies. And warnings that should have been heeded have, I regret to say, fallen on closed ears.”

The prime minister clenched his fists. “Until now, I say. Gihren Zabi’s shadow has risen again, and his adherent Aiguille Delaz has seized not one but two colony cylinders with the intention of replicating the Zabi’s despicable obliteration of Sydney.”

A deathly silence fell upon the crowd. Faces paled and the first sounds to break that moment’s calm were the sobs of children sensitive to the mood even if they did not understand the nature of that threat.

Catalonia took a deep breath. “We have been slow to anger, a virtue of the Federation. But now we must be swift to act. Surrounded by such threats we require a decisive response, one that will safeguard our freedoms and the future that we desire for our descendants. I have, therefore, ordered the formation of a special task force charged with the destruction of Karaba, the annihilation of Delaz and the neutralisation of the weapons with which they threaten us.”

“The task force will be directed by General Jamitov, who has at his command all of the resources of the Federation’s military intelligence, and field command will be held by one of our finest officers, General Khrushrenada.”

Jamitov stood, adjusting his uniform tunic as he walked forward to flank the podium from one side while Treize Khrushrenada occupied the other. They must make quite a contrast in the public eye, the spymaster thought to himself, under no illusions that his white hair and slightly stooped posture could match the vitality of the younger general.

“Ladies and gentlemen, to these fine officers I entrust our safety. We cannot be in better hands,” Catalonia proclaimed with apparent confidence. “We shall pass through this time of trials and we shall emerge stronger and better than we have ever been.”

And if a few eggs get broken, Jamitov thought, well that’s how omelettes are made.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

The voyage had passed in a haze. Cima had used the small medical kit to sedate herself, knowing she would need less air while asleep. The drugs did nothing for her dreams save hamper her ability to escape them. Water was rationed ruthlessly and her head ached from dehydration as she watched the clock count away hours and days in a daze.

Six days later, hoping she was finally close enough to be detected, the major turned on the radio and set it to replay a short distress message before she took the last sedatives. Everything was now in the hands of fortune, that fickle bitch.

She was never sure when she awoke again. Voices she could have put off as coming from within her head, and she had been seeing flashes of light for a while since she drank the last of the water.

Cima’s first certain recollection of rescue was of a ceiling light. Then another, and another.

After a moment her muddled thoughts focused enough to realise she was passing them, being carried past them. A straw was pushed into her mouth and she sucked automatically, sweet water drawn into her parched mouth.

She was alive!

It embarrassed her that she could not stop tears from spilling down her cheeks, either in relief or in regret that it was not over at last. No one mentioned them, at least she had that mercy.

At some point she may have passed out again, she next remembered a sponge bath, secured in what seemed to be a medical berth. The nurse wore a federation uniform, which bothered her for no reason she could place at the time. Cima was offered a bottle and eagerly sucked down the contents – more water, probably laced with medication and calories.

She slept, the ghosts unaccountably silent for the first time in forever. Perhaps they were as exhausted as she was.

“Can you answer some questions?” she was asked on waking. More water was on offer, and food – she hadn’t been able to keep the ration bars down after the fourth day – so she nodded.

The questions didn’t come immediately though and she was able to eat in peace. Breakfast, for all it was mid-afternoon according to the clock in the corner of the medical space.

The door slid open shortly after the tray of food was taken away and admitted two officers. A woman – brown hair, full figure, about Cima’s age – wearing a captain’s rank tabs and a man a few years younger with dark hair and the tabs of a lieutenant. Cima compared her own hospital gown and decided she was under-dressed for the occasion.

“Excuse me for not rising to greet you, captain,” she said before they began. “I don’t wish to seem ungrateful for being picked up.”

“I understand it’s not medically recommended.” The captain took the one seat, leaving the lieutenant standing behind her. “We were in the right place at the right time. You may have used up all the luck of a lifetime though.”

“It may have been hoarded for the occasion,” she said. “If I may enquire, are you en route to Sol-Earth Five?”

“We should be asking the questions,” the lieutenant advised sharply.

The captain gestured for him to desist. They weren’t heading after the colonies, Cima decided. Why not? She would have thought the Federation would mobilise everything they had to prevent further colony drops.

“I’m Murrue Ramius, Captain of the Federation Cruiser Albion. This is my second in command, Lieutenant Noah Bright.”

She hesitated and then smiled cynically. “Garahau Cima,” she introduced herself. “Late of Zeon forces, one-time pirate and currently a Federation military intelligence informant.” True, if not in any official capacity. “Oh, and patient.”

Bright’s face paled and then tightened. He opened his lips to speak, looked at his captain and remained silence. Cima was impressed at his discipline, obviously Ramius ran a tight ship.

For her part the captain seemed to simply consider the words and then nodded. “Quite the resume. Which of those left you adrift in a mobile suit?”

“The Delaz fleet.” She closed her eyes, reliving the moment yet again. “They have two colonies under thrust towards Earth. When I last spoke to General Jamitov, I didn’t know the targets yet.”

The two officers exchanged looks. “Earth then,” Ramius said quietly. “That hadn’t been confirmed.”

“So you do know. Then…”

“We’re headed for Zeon,” the captain said. “Those were our orders and, so far, they haven’t been changed.”

“You surprise me. I’ve have thought Ulyanov would throw every ship he had at the colonies, to stop them. He was something of a blunt instrument at A Baoa Qu, after all.”

“You’ve been out of touch for a while.” Ramius rose to her feet and smoothed down her skirt. “Things have changed on Earth, but I’ll send word to General Jamitov immediately. Is there anything more you can tell me?”

Cima considered and then smiled. “Delaz is probably dead. I fired a rocket cannon right into his bridge and he’d been there a minute or two before.”

Bright blinked. “You’re not a very subtle spy.”

“He’d killed my ship and everyone aboard,” she said tightly. “I’m not fond of half-measures.”

“Obviously not, given Halifax.”

Cima glared at the lieutenant. “I think we’re done.”

“You said you were working with Federation military intelligence,” he retorted. “Why would they ever work with you?”

“Jamitov had something I wanted and I had something to offer.”

Ramius raised an eyebrow. “If he offered you a pardon, I think you may have been optimistic about your chances.”

“I didn’t want a pardon.” Cima looked at Ramius. “I wanted a fair trial.”

“I see.” The captain looked at Bright and flicked her eyes towards the door. He obediently rose and exited the room. “You may get your chance at that. We’ll see what the Zeon provisional government have to say. In the meantime, I’ll have to keep you under guard.”

Cima raised her hands and watched them tremble. “You should warn them I’m a dangerous woman. I may vomit on them.”

Ramius touched her cap – not so much a salute as acknowledging the remark’s accuracy, and the door slid closed.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Duo ducked his head slightly as he passed the entrance to the Dublin naval base, grateful for the weather that gave him a ready excuse to mask his face. It was irrational at this point – there was no evidence to suggest that the Federation knew who he was. At most they might have an idea of Led Wayline’s face.

But still, paranoia clawed at him.

Hiding this near to a Federation military base had seemed insane at first glance, but it seemed to be working. Once a hive of activity as the Federation contested the Atlantic against Zeon submarines from North America, Dublin’s military importance had dwindled and the base had contracted.

Around it was shabby city that had expanded into the abandoned hangers and warehouses, trying to accommodate a refugee population with limited resources. Few people knew their neighbours the way Duo was used to and so close to the base, heavy trucks carrying what were obviously mobile suits didn’t catch attention. A splash of paint to replace the original crimson with the Federation’s typical cream and blue further reduced the chances of civilians recognising them for what they were.

Reaching the door to the building they’d laid claim to, he held the groceries with one hand while he fished for a key in his pockets. Before he could find it, the door swung open to admit him.

“Thanks,” he greeted Athrun and stepped inside.

The other pilot closed the door wordlessly. “No trouble?”

“Price of fruit is up, I’ve no idea if that’s significant or not,” Duo told him, dumping the bag on the table and pulling an orange out of the top. He tossed it to Athrun and opened the refrigerator to unload the other contents. Four healthy appetites went through a lot of food. “Any news here?”

“I’ve just been watching the news.” Peeling the orange, Athrun split the insides in half and handed one half to Duo. “Led’s friend Char is with the Specials. There was footage of the unit being assembled at Panama and I saw the helmet.”

“Do you think they know who he is?”

“Unless the Federation are blind and deaf, I’d expect someone knows.”

“So fifty-fifty?” Duo bit into a section of orange, enjoying the tart juice. “Hmm. Panama. That would probably make contacting your friendly Federation captain a bit risky.”

“She took off days ago.”

He gave the other man a look. “You made contact?”

“No, but it’s kind of hard to miss a ship launching from a mass driver. There are online boards from people who make a hobby of keeping track of that goes up. Too much bother for the military to shut them down except in wartime. And even then, you only need someone with binoculars within five or ten kilometres.”

“Well scratch one way off the surface.”

Athrun nodded. “I don’t know that we’d want to go for Panama anyway. It seems like the Specials are almost taunting Karaba, basing themselves so near to North America.”

“You think they’re hoping Karaba will attack them?” asked Duo.

“I doubt they’re counting on it, but it would be very convenient.”

“If Karaba do attack, they’ll use another nuclear weapon,” Heero said, opening the fridge. “Otherwise they’d be badly outnumbered.”

Duo almost jumped out of his skin. “Heero! When did you get here?”

The other man gave him an amused look. “Since Athrun mentioned Char. Your spatial awareness needs work.”

“So you decided to give me a heart attack?”

“I’d blame the amount of soda you drink for that.” Heero winked and Duo gave him a second look.

“Wait, your eyes?” Heero had blue eyes but they looked more… violet in this light. He flipped the light switch.

The other man sighed. “Yes. I’m not wearing my contact lenses.”

“I didn’t know you needed them in the first place.”

Athrun snickered. “I don’t think he needs them to see, Duo.”

“There are times and places where it’s best not to advertise I’m a coordinator,” Heero confirmed. “I was making some calls to people who don’t know Heero Yuy.”

“Man.” He shook his head. “First Athrun and now you. Does Wayline have another identity too?”

“Who would call their kid Led?” asked Athrun reasonably. “The Federation has lists of everyone who served with Zeon, changing his name was probably the first thing he did before he started taking mercenary work.”

Duo pouted. “I feel left out. I want a false identity too.”

“If they manage to ID you as one of us then you’ll need one for the rest of your life,” Heero pointed out. “I’ve started putting one together for you just in case.”

“Ooh, show me, show me.”

Heero pulled out his phone and fiddled around with it, then handed it to Athrun to pass to Duo. The coordinator looked at the picture on the screen and burst out laughing.

“What!” Duo grabbed hold of Athrun’s wrist and dragged the phone around so he could see it. “What!” he exclaimed again in a shriller tone. “I deleted all of the photos!”

“I always have back-ups,” Heero reassured him.

He groaned dramatically. “I was really drunk!” he said. “And I was behind on the laundry.”

“And the make-up?”

“Hilde insisted on that before she agreed to lend him a skirt and sweater. Who do you think took the pictures?”

Athrun snickered again.

“I’m not responsible when I’m drunk!” Duo protested. He looked at the picture again. “And I made it look good, at least!”

“I’ll be counting on that experience if we need to use the ID,” Heero told him and retrieved the phone. “We have some decisions to make. Is Wayline awake?”

“I’ll check,” Duo said, hoping to escape with some dignity intact. He opened the door and saw the last member of their group walking their way, still buttoning a shirt. “Led, in here.”

“Are we throwing a party?” the other man asked as he followed them in. “Because we’d need cake.”

“No cake. We’re on a budget.” It wasn’t as if they’d been carrying much money in the Gerbera Tetras. Fortunately, Heero had managed to find a bank where he could access an account he’d squirrelled away for a rainy day – and Dublin was so far nothing but rainy days – but the account wasn’t bottomless.

“So, what are we deciding?” Wayline asked once they were all at the table.

Heero ran his hand through his hair, raking the fringe back. “Right now, how we move forwards. We can get off Earth, split up. Leaving the mobile suits behind would make that… easier. We have places we can go. Just draw a line under this and we’re done.”

Wayline nodded. “Then what is there for us to decide?”

“Whoever took out the Audhumla, I want payback,” Duo noted darkly. “There’s nothing in the news about the Federation shooting them down so I bet it was Barton.”

“This is bigger than Barton or the Audhumla.” Athrun lowered his head. “We… killed a lot of people and we enabled Karaba to kill more. That makes us responsible for some of this.” He looked up. “I’m not going to make anyone go with me, but I want to try to fix my mistakes.”

“How do you plan to do that?”

“I’m not sure,” the young man admitted to Wayline. “Maybe follow up those contacts you used to speak to Karaba. See if we can get the nukes away from them. If we can do that then the Specials should be more than able to finish them off.”

“I don’t think they’ll give the nukes up just because you ask nicely. And our suits aren’t exactly in good supply.”

“I can get fuel,” Heero said quietly. “No more ammunition for the cannon but we have enough for a half-load each. Maintenance will be an issue before long, but right now we’re okay.”

Wayline paused. “You know the odds on this aren’t in his favour. Karaba must have more than the mobile suits they used at Torrington.”

Heero nodded.

“And you’re going along with this… tilting at windmills?”

“Why?”

There was a long pause and then Heero sighed. “Because I knew Barton wasn’t just doing some unofficial cleaning up of the Federation’s dirty laundry.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I had pretty good idea that he was going to use us for dirty work. Not exactly how, no, but I decided it didn’t matter as long as I got what I was after.” His shoulders slumped. “And now we’re here and it wasn’t worth it. I never should have gone along with this.”

“What were you after?” asked Duo. “It can’t be the money.”

“I was adopted as a baby.” Heero rubbed his face. “But I was also made at the Garm labs, so someone – my biological parents I assume – paid for me to be created there and for some reason gave me up. Barton had dealings with them – and then the Murasame Institute gave me a shot at getting hold of Ulen Hibiki’s files. He worked at Garm at just the right time.”

Duo reached over and patted his shoulder. “You didn’t know it would be like this, buddy. It’s not your fault.”

“I knew enough.”

Athrun cleared his throat. “What were Barton’s dealings with Garm?”

Heero blinked. “Oh. He was pro-Coordinator before it became such a hot-button issue. The Barton Foundation was one of the Institute’s early backers. He backed off when he got serious about politics but if you know where to look, his wife visited there twice, both times when she was pregnant.”

“Trowa Barton was a coordinator?” asked Wayline.

“It’s not always obvious,” Athrun told him. “A lot of parents just screen for hereditary conditions and the like.”

Wayline pinched his brow. “So you two… and I assume Maxwell too, since you follow Yuy around like an annoying kid brother.”

They all looked over at Duo and Heero gave him a rueful look. “This isn’t what you signed up for, Duo.”

“No… you know, it kind of is. Barton’s crap wasn’t but… I don’t want those nukes out there anymore than you do. Count me in.”

Wayline groaned. “When did I become the voice of reason?”

“War does strange things to you, Ridden.”

The oldest of them gave Heero a dark look. “How?”

He shrugged apologetically. “You were on Zeon recruiting posters back in the day. When I started thinking in terms of disguising you, the face matched. It wasn’t hard to guess the rest.”

“It’s like no one around here is who they say they are,” Duo complained.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

To Cima’s surprise she wasn’t put in a cell once the onboard surgeon certified that she was no longer in need of constant medical care. The guards remained but she was simply moved to a small cabin. During the ship’s night cycle, she was even allowed access to the tiny onboard gym. Presumably Ramius was intent on delivering her to Zeon in the best of possible conditions.

At least the gym gave her something to do. Something to focus on. In her cabin she only had the sounds of the ship. It was larger than the Hizack’s cockpit but not huge by any measure.

The warning to prepare for zero gravity and docking manoeuvres dragged her out of reliving the destruction of the Megiddo and the Vengeance. Strapping down, she waited out the familiar changes in what her gravity-evolved brain insisted was up and down despite the irrelevance of such terms in space.

Once it was over and another general message confirmed that the Albion was docked, Cima opened the small closet and considered her small choice of wardrobe. Well, it wasn’t much choice. Her pilot suit and what she’d been wearing under it hadn’t been returned – in fact, she suspected they’d be disposed of as biological hazards after what she’d put them through.

That reduced the choice to nudity or a Federation military issue skirt, boots and tunic – rankless, of course. She felt vaguely insulted that the Albion apparently didn’t have prison jumpsuits to offer her. If she wasn’t guarded, she could probably have walked off the ship and no one would be able to tell at first glance she was an escaped prisoner.

Admittedly she’d have no paperwork and the first step would be hard to carry out without raising alarms but…

She dressed herself and waited.

And waited.

Cima was contemplating trying to sleep, ghosts or not, when there was a knock on the door. “Major Cima, are you decent?”

It took a moment for her to realise it was Lieutenant Bright. “Close enough.”

He opened the door, blinked and then stepped back. “Come with me, please.”

“Throwing me off the ship?” she asked lightly as she followed him, the guard falling in behind her.

“Not so far.” Bright led her down a deck, his voice not giving her any hint whether he was happy or not about the answer he’d give her. He indicated a door. “In here, please.”

“You’re very polite, given our first meeting.”

“Would you rather I slapped you around?” he asked sarcastically. “The Federation expects me to be both an officer and a gentleman. Did Zeon have similar expectations of you?”

She opened the door, aware that whoever was inside would hear her answer. “Lieutenant, I am far from being a gentleman.”

There was a small table inside and two Federation officers. One was familiar – Captain Ramius – and the other was a lieutenant although as Cima entered and took the obvious seat the dynamic puzzled her. The place Ramius was sat, the way she looked for the lieutenant to begin the conversation… it was deferential, as if the ranks were reversed.

“Ms. Cima.” The lieutenant gave her a measuring look and then squared the documents she’d been studying. The photo on the front page was readily recognisable to Cima as the shot of her used on her military identification back in the war so the content of the papers was easy to guess at.

“Major Cima.”

The woman made a slight gesture, perhaps regretful. “If you prefer. My understanding is you no longer consider yourself part of Zeon’s armed forces.”

“Such as they are, no. But it’s the last rank I held.”

“Formally speaking, all commissions within the Zeon armed forces were revoked by the provisional government under the terms of surrender.” The lieutenant shrugged slightly. “Preferences vary on the part of former officers as to whether they use the ranks socially.”

“We’re not here to talk about common courtesy, are we?” She paused. “Whoever you are.”

“My apologies.” The lieutenant drew herself up. “I’m Lieutenant Relena Mass, the provisional governor’s military attaché.”

“Major Garahau Cima. Pirate and informant.”

“Yes.” The lieutenant glanced sideways at Ramius, “An enquiry has been sent regarding the latter?”

The captain nodded. “We’ve had no response as yet. General Jamitov’s office is presumably rather busy at the moment.”

“Hmm. Although this would seem pertinent to the Specials’ particular mission.”

Cima arched an eyebrow. “The Specials?”

“In light of Admiral Delaz’ actions, along with several other anti-Federation activities of late, General Jamitov has been assigned a special task force with a great deal of discretion as to their actions.” Mass frowned and shook her head. “A final decision over whether you should receive the re-trial you’ve requested will wait on an answer.”

“You mean on what orders the Governor receives.”

Mass gave her an amused look. “My understanding is that you were tried in absentia. While I’m not a lawyer by profession, that is one circumstance under Federation law where a retrial can be carried out, since you’ve not previously had the chance to defend yourself. The question, of course, is whether that would change the verdict.”

Ramius cleared her throat. “Do you have any fresh evidence to present?” She seemed genuinely curious. “There doesn’t seem to be any question that you were there and that you deployed the gas.”

“The records I wished to present were aboard the Megiddo,” Cima admitted, her stomach churning. “I sent copies to Jamitov. Failing that, documents were submitted for the original trial but never presented.”

“Oh?”

“My orders and the recordings from my mobile suit.”

The other two women exchanged looks. “You kept them?” asked Mass curiously. “That’s very meticulous.”

“No. I was able to obtain access to the official records of the war crimes tribunal.”

The lieutenant pursed her lips. “And these would show…?”

“That I ordered the gassing of the port, not the colony as a whole. And that the orders I was given never specified that the gas I was issued was nerve gas.”

“And yet the gas was released into the colony.” Mass pointed out quietly.

“I’m fully aware,” snapped Cima and then restrained herself. “The port was separated from the main colony by airlocks. After I released the gas someone inside the port opened the airlocks at both ends.”

“And this would be proven?”

She cast her mind back. “The separation is evident – all colonies are laid out like that. The gas was on both sides of that barrier, so either I deliberately fed it in on both sides – and my records will show I didn’t – or someone opened the airlocks.”

Mass nodded thoughtfully. “The militia commander on Halifax colony was General Septim,” she acknowledged. “Currently in charge of California base and one of the three senior commanders of the North American occupation force.”

Ramius winced. “A retrial that passed the responsibility to him would be… incendiary. Particularly now.” She gave Mass a questioning look. “Do you…”

The lieutenant exhaled. “I’ll request a copy of the official record. Beyond that, I’m not sure.”

“It’s up to Artesia Som Deikun, then.” Cima made a face. “A woman who spent most of her life in exile and only returned to Zeon in order to surrender it to the Federation.”

“That’s basically true.” Mass agreed after a moment.

“I’ve never heard that anyone made her do that.” Cima gave the lieutenant a resigned smile. “She could have done nothing and a lot more people on both sides would have died. There are worse people whose hands I could be putting my fate into.”

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drakensis
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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by drakensis » 2018-11-17 12:25pm

“As crazy as this plan is, it actually seems to be working,” Ridden admitted as he leant over the side of the freighter and looked at the warm Caribbean waters.

“It’s all a matter of letting people see what they expect to see,” Duo replied in a low voice. It would be a bit awkward if the ship’s crew overheard them. “Everyone knows that the Federation is concentrating its best people and equipment in the Specials. And it’s no secret that the Specials are at Panama.”

“Yes, but…” Ridden tried to reach for words. “Didn’t anyone check?”

“Check with whom?” he grinned at the man. “Most people don’t have direct channels to high level government officials. If it looks genuine, why would they doubt it?”

The crew of the ship, in a fit of patriotism that might be somewhat influenced by the desire to not have an entire space colony dropped into the Atlantic, triggering tsunamis like those that had devastated the Pacific four years ago, had made it clear that they were extremely supportive of the mission to deliver four advanced mobile suits to Panama.

All it had taken was some official looking documentation, four Federation uniforms and a healthy advance on the transportation bill. Admittedly the shipping company would probably have trouble claiming the remaining payment, but that was what insurance was for. By the time it was an issue, the four and their mobile suits intended to be well away from the ship and… well, what was the Federation going to do? Order a second manhunt for them besides the one that was already underway?

“Major Ridley!” a shout came from the superstructure.

Ridden blinked and then turned, recalling the identity on his papers. Duo followed suite and saw the captain of the freighter standing outside the bridge, waving furiously.

“If this blows up in our faces, I’m blaming you,” the Zeon veteran murmured and then strode towards the back of the ship. “Yes, captain. Is something wrong?”

The man scrambled down the ladder to the main deck. “I am sorry to disturb your tete-a-tete with the young ensign -”

Duo flushed and smoothed the uniform skirt he was wearing. Heero had just had to go with the female false identity for him. Vengeance would be deferred but all the sweeter for it.

“- but there is terrible news on the radio.”

“Calm down, Captain, and tell me what you have heard.”

“It is the Karaba!” the man announced. “They are attacking California Base, in great force. It is said that the Federation forces have been handed a terrible defeat!”

Duo’s eyes widened. California was thousands of miles away, the wrong side of the continent. The Gerbera Tetras had a decent range but not that great.

“I see.” Ridden rubbed his chin. “And we are here, unable to assist. I imagine General Khrushrenada will respond directly… Do you have any details?”

The captain shook his head. “Only what has been passed on from coast guard to coast guard.”

“I believe… Captain, may we look at your charts?”

“Of course!”

Ridden and Duo were quickly joined in the freighter’s navigation space by the other two, both also wearing Federation uniforms. “We’re here,” Ridden noted, tapping the strait between Florida and Cuba. “We could fly ashore easily but we don’t have the fuel to reach Panama or California. General Khrushrenada will probably move send a response force by air but he likely won’t have anything to spare for us.”

“Could you not refuel at a military base?” the captain asked nervously.

“Normally, yes. But now all the Federation forces will be on guard for attacks on them and reserving fuel for their own operations…”

Athrun looked at the map. “There must be a way.”

Heero grimaced. “Unfortunately, sometimes there isn’t one.”

“Wait!” The coordinator suddenly tapped a marking on the map. “Cape Canaveral.”

“…what about it?”

“They build solid fuel boosters there – I read about it. Ships launching from the mass drivers sometimes need extra boost to reach orbit.”

“So?”

“Well, if we were to strap one to each of our mobile suits…”

“Are you joking?”

“We’d have to work around the current flight packs but the mountings aren’t too difficult,” the young man said with increasing excitement. “We’d have to talk to the firm but if they have four ready…”

Ridden gave him a look. “You want to launch our suits like improvised ballistic missiles across the continent?”

“Karaba have to be aware that the Federation will respond. This is a trap, one the Specials have no choice but to spring.” Athrun stared Ridden in the eye. “This is the only way we can do anything about it.”

Heero nodded thoughtfully. “It’s mechanically feasible.”

“I can’t believe I’m going along with this,” Ridden said with a groan. “Captain, we’ll need to launch our mobile suits – can your ship take that?”

“Of course! She is as sturdy as the Rock of Gibraltar itself!”

“Alright. Ensigns, get your suits ready. Let’s hope Canaveral have some boosters we can commandeer.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

It was easy to forget sometimes, in a war of mobile suits and weapons of mass destruction, that there were other ways to fight a war.

That thought was foremost in Zechs’ mind as three Gaw air transports flew north towards California Base. There were twenty-seven more of them on the ground at Panama but someone had smashed valves at the aviation gas fuel farm and a large portion of the facility had gone up in flames as the Specials prepared to launch forth to deal with the attack.

The storage itself wasn’t in that much danger, but it was inaccessible until the fires were out, so the only aviation fuel available had been what was already in aircraft or in stray drums. Consolidated it was just enough for three mobile suit transports to make the trip north.

Waiting was unacceptable, so Treize Khrushrenada had ordered two squadrons and his own command team aboard the transports. The Specials might not be able to engage in battle in the numbers expected… but they would be going.

“Twelve mobile suits is a decent number,” Emma said optimistically as they sat in their mobile suits, waiting for the transports to reach California. “And we’ve got quality on our side – Long Daggers and the General’s prototypes against old Zeon hardware.”

“Don’t take the Doms too lightly,” Zechs warned. “They’re ground type specialists and we’ll have to take the fight to them down on the ground while we’re using flight packs.”

Jerid chuckled. “You’re not saying they’ll be as bad as those red suits, are you?”

“I wouldn’t think so,” said Noin. “As a rule of thumb, anyone who paints their suit red is probably good. Otherwise they’d not have lasted long with such an obvious paint scheme.”

“It also cuts down on friendly fire. When you’re picking your targets by mark one eyeball, obvious colour differences help make sure you’re shooting at the enemy and not an ally.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Jerid conceded. “Maybe the Specials need their own colours.”

“I think the General has more to worry about than what colour our ‘Mechs are,” the Captain told him.

Zechs grinned. “It might appeal to him, actually. The heraldry of a knight of the skies… He admires that sort of thing.”

“I wasn’t aware you knew him.” Emma sounded intrigued. “You have hidden depths, Zechs.”

You have no idea. “We’re acquainted from before the war. I was surprised to cross his path again when I came back from Zeon, but it seems to have worked out.”

“And do you think the same way about… honourable warfare between knights in mobile suits?”

“There’s nothing honourable about war,” he told her flatly. “The general is an idealist, but war has a way of staining ideals.”

Jerid’s voice was aggrieved. “Well you’re a regular ray of sunshine. Why did you let that other pilot go then?”

Zechs considered the answer and went for the truth. “My pride got the better of me. He probably saved my life, taking the brunt of the crash. Now I’ve repaid the debt and I can kill him with a clear conscience.” Or as near to clean as mine gets.

There was a brief silence before the younger man observed: “Did you ever get any the-”

He was cut off by a brief surge of static over the radio and then Treize Khrushrenada’s voice. “My fellow soldiers, we’re now approaching the launch point. Our last intelligence is that between ten and thirty hostile mobile suits are still active. General Septim’s final report before his command post was overrun indicated further forces were north of the base.”

Zechs took liberty to doubt that Septim’s final report had been anything but begging and pleading for someone to save him from the enemy, but possibly someone else in the post had relayed useful information.

“The last known location of garrison forces was dug in around the main arsenal. General Jamitov has predicted that Karaba have one of two possible plans: seize the arsenal so they can further expand their forces – or lure the Specials into a trap and destroy us with one of their nuclear weapons.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, we did not accept this mission because it would be easy. We chose to shoulder it because it was difficult, dangerous and demanded the very best of the Federation’s soldiers. And that therefore we were the only ones who could bear its weight. If the leaders of Karaba believe that we will fail due to some coward pressing a button in a bunker then they are sadly mistaken.”

“But if any of you feel at this late moment that you cannot follow me into battle, pray take yourselves south as soon as we are launched. You will be returned to your previous unit with no further statement than this: that you are not one of us. That your only crime, that your only punishment.”

There was a pause and then another voice cut in. “All mobile suits, we are five miles out. Launching one!”

There was a rumble and the rear hatch of the transport dropped open. Explosive bolts sounded and suddenly Lucrezia Noin’s Long Dagger was no longer behind Zechs’ – or rather it was, but from outside the transport and somewhat below.

“Launching two!”

More bolts burst and Zechs was out in the air. He feathered his thrusters to stabilise and then dove after Noin. Cut off from the transport he could not hear the launch commands as first Jerid and then Emma were pushed out and into the air after him.

Their mission complete, the three transports turned and made for their landing zone. They had no fuel to reach anywhere else so they’d be putting down on a highway only a few miles from the base. If all went well then fuel tanks would arrive eventually. If not… well, that wasn’t Zechs’ problem.

Casually he glanced right. All four of Noin’s squadron were flying north. Treize Khrushrenada was to their right, his white and blue suit sporting a high crest on top of its sensor head. Two of the mobile suits with him brought back ugly memories for Zechs – the Duel and the Strike, rebuilt using some of the same components but further advanced over the machines flown by the White Devil during the Zeon War. The last of Treize’s command group needed a Base Jabber to stay in the air – a ground combat suit that the general had high hopes for. Beyond them he could make out the contrails of four more suits.

No one had accepted the invitation to turn back. Well honestly, he would have been surprised. Treize hadn’t picked the pilots going along out of a hat, after all.

California base was a vast expanse of buildings, roads and runways, stretching from the piers at the coast deep in land. He’d been here before, seen Zeon banners fluttering in the air above the command centre.

Now smoke poured up from tanks, mobile suits and turrets. From this height he couldn’t guess which were Federation and which Karaba, but the armoury citadel was obvious enough – it was the only place where weapons fire was still being exchanged.

“Follow me!” Treize roared and threw his mobile suit – the Tallgeese – into a dive. The twin thrusters on its back blazed to even greater fury as he left his escort behind, diving down into battle with the long-barrelled beam cannon firing dangerously fast.

Zechs could imagine the strain that Treize must be feeling – he’d pushed suits to their limits before himself. Unfortunately, the Long Dagger he was in had lower limits than the Tallgeese. And besides which, his duty now was to follow Captain Noin.

“Three Doms coming in on the arsenal from the west,” she shrieked like a valkyrie as she led them into a similar dive. “Take them!”

They dropped on them, the ex-Zeon suits skimming the ground on their leg thrusters and avoiding their fire with surprising ease. They fired back with their machine cannon but their own evasive turns made it hard for them to fight back.

Zechs judged his angle and then jettisoned his jet pack. One of the Doms had leant back to spray particle beams across his trajectory with its torso mounted scatter gun but his sudden descent avoided the fire, while the jet pack veered off up and would doubtless come down somewhere. Drawing a beam sabre, Zechs lunged at the enemy mobile suit which responded with its heat sabre – a critical error for the pilot. Zechs didn’t even change the course of his attack, the contained high energy particles of the beam sabre tearing through the heat sabre and then deep into the Dom’s chest. It reeled drunkenly and then fell.

Looking around he saw Emma and Jerid had taken down a second Dom with their combined beam rifle fire but Noin and the third were out of sight. Then the last of the ground type suits swept out from behind a building, struggling fiercely. Somehow Noin had managed to catch its arms, dragging them up while she braced her Long Dagger’s feet against the Dom’s back.

Zechs would have bet on the arms breaking under the punishment and he was right but not as he expected. Noin rotated her thrust pack’s thrust directly down and heaved the Dom completely off the ground. Clearly panicking, the Dom pilot let his suit’s legs flail widely and Noin banked, letting the centrifugal force mount. Both arms parted at once and the massive Dom crashed headlong into a barracks building.

“That was innovative,” he conceded. “I didn’t see any other Doms this side of the citadel, should we -”

“Hello the Specials!” a voice cut in.

“Who is that?” Jerid exclaimed, having to shout to be heard.

“As you may have guessed, we’ve been expecting you. Welcome to North America, I’ve prepared a warm welcome for you,” the man continued.

“That’s impossible,” Zechs murmured. It couldn’t be – it just couldn’t be who it sounded like.

“He’s flooding every frequency,” Noin shouted, not hearing what Zechs had said. “He must have taken part of the base communications centre over.”

“To be honest, I wasn’t going to make a speech… I was even lukewarm about using a nuclear weapon on American soil.”

“Scatter,” shouted Zechs. “Get for cover – he can’t blanket the entire base!”

“But you brought an old friend of mine and I couldn’t resist the chance to repay everything he ever did to me. Char, if you can hear me, blame this on your unfortunate origin.”

Looking to the north, Zechs saw – or imagined he saw – the dart-like shapes of nuclear missiles plunging towards California Base. Towards him.

“Garma,” he murmured, smiling despite himself in sincere admiration. “May you find more joy in revenge than I did!”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

For the life of him, Duo wasn’t sure if the engineers at Cape Canaveral believed the cock-and-bull story Ridden told them about commandeering their equipment, didn’t want to argue with the crazy man who’d brought mobile suits into their factory or were genuinely fascinated by the technical challenge presented to them in improvising rocket packs for four mobile suits in under an hour.

For that matter, he didn’t really care.

North America was flashing beneath him and his life was doing the same before his eyes. His controls were going crazy, unable to process that they were moving faster than they were designed to cope with. The pilots had to operate by instinct, steering – to the extent it was possible – with their internal thrusters, while crushed under brutal acceleration.

It took them minutes to cross the Mississippi basin and then the Rockies reared up ahead of them.

The acceleration tapered off and the four suits streaked over the mountains, boosters running towards empty, Duo whooping and cheering in excitement the entire way.

“This isn’t a roller coaster!” Athrun called. “Pay attention!”

“I am! I don’t want to miss a second of this!”

“There are a lot of Minovsky particles ahead,” Ridden warned. “We might be too late.”

“They haven’t used a nuke yet, we’re not too late,” Heero corrected him calmly. “But keep an eye out.”

Deserts rolled below them, wind howling against the suits. The booster rockets, finally exhausted, ejected and fell away into the wastelands below. Ahead of them a glitter on the horizon marked the first sight of the Pacific Ocean.

“California Base is… just a hair left of centre,” reported Athrun, checking his instruments. “We’re almost exactly on target. Which…” He paused. “Given the stress readings on my suit, it’s probably a good thing. I don’t think I have a lot of mileage left.”

Duo glanced at his own diagnostics and conceded the other pilot was probably right. “They’ve got one more fight in them, though.”

“I hope so, because we’re…” Ridden’s words were suddenly cut off by another voice.

“…prepared a warm welcome for you. To be honest, I wasn’t going to make a speech…”

“Who is that?” Duo asked.

“…I was even lukewarm about using a nuclear weapon on American soil,” the voice continued.

“Question retracted, he’s a crazy person.”

“He must have launched, we have to intercept,” Athrun shouted, his Gerbera Tetra twisting in the air as he looked for the predicted missile.

“But you brought an old friend of mine…”

“It could be coming from anywhere,” Ridden declared, taking charge. “Cover each cardinal direction. I have south.”

“…and I couldn’t resist the chance to repay everything he ever did to me.”

“West,” Duo shouted, turning to engage as Heero spun his suit to look behind them and Athrun pulled as sharp a right turn as he could at these speeds.

“Char, if you can hear me, blame this on your unfortunate origin.”

Duo saw the movement out of the corner of his eye, “North! Two of them!” he shrieked, spinning the Gerbera Tetra and bringing his beam machinegun up.

His fire was too slow – he couldn’t believe how fast the missile was going, it must be faster than even their transcontinental flight.

Athrun’s fire was more accurate and one of the missiles fell out of the sky in two portions.

Without words they switched fire to the second missile, almost on top of them.

From behind them a beam rifle pulse tore the missile apart down its length.

The two turned and saw Heero’s suit hanging in the sky, beam rifle outstretched towards the target.

“You got it!”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

His Long Dagger still stood on the ground, Zechs Merquise… among the other names he’d used over the years… stared up at the sky.

“Where was the earth-shattering kaboom?” Jerid asked, almost babbling in relief. “There was supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom.”

“I think we’re better off without the earth-shattering kabooms, Jerid.” Emma seemed almost equally shocked. The two Ensigns had both been promoted to Lieutenant after Lake Victoria – there was a lot of that going around with officers who joined the Specials.

“You’re not going to believe who just saved us,” Zechs said quietly.

“Never mind that now.” Noin fired up her thrusters and took off. “We’ll regroup on the general’s position.”

“Do you need a hand?” Jerid asked as his mobile suit took off.

“I’ll catch up,” Zechs told him and began to run his mobile suit through the debris of the battered base. He wasn’t entirely without thrusters so he could still negotiate obstacles easily and crossed the distance within a few minutes.

Even so, he missed what remained of the fight – the streets around the armoury were littered with Doms and Strike Daggers, some of the latter in the same brown and tan camouflage as the Doms. Presumably they had been subverted to the service of Karaba at some point. Garma had clear been busy.

Two Long Daggers were flanking the Tallgeese as he arrived and they turned their beam rifles towards him as he entered the area.

“I wasn’t aware losing my flight pack was an executable offense,” he offered, now on the familiar ground of trying to persuade someone not to shoot him.

Treize waved his mobile suit’s arm, signalling for the pilots to lower their weapons. “It seems we have some unlooked-for assistance, Zechs.”

“Yes sir. It seems the raiders have had a change of heart – and of livery.”

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” Treize told him, resplendent in Federation colours. “Did you see which way they went?”

“North – backtracking the missiles.”

“How can you trust him?” asked the pilot of the Calamity. She seemed more curious than accusing. “If he’s really Char Aznable then he killed hundreds of Federation soldiers just in the Battle of Loum alone.”

“He also saved thousands more when he killed Kycilla Zabi at A Baoa Qu,” the general pointed out. “You’re sure she’s dead, right Zechs?”

“I was fairly sure her brother was dead too,” he said ruefully. “I pulled the trigger personally on Kycilla though. Unless she had a body double or could survive having her head blown off, she shouldn’t have survived.”

“I must give him credit for persistence I suppose.” The general turned his mobile suit to face north. “In person, by preference. Dorothy, lend Zechs your Base Jabber.”

“Yes sir,” she said in a disappointed voice. The automated aircraft descended from its holding pattern towards an unobstructed runway and touched down. “Handing over control protocols.”

Zechs saw the relevant controls light up on his own controls and locked them down automatically. “I have them.”

“Captain Noin, your squadron will escort me. The rest of you commence search and rescue. It’s possible we didn’t catch all the mobile suits and there are sure to be many wounded soldiers waiting for assurance we’ve secured the base.”

There was a brief chorus of obedient “Yes sirs,” as Zechs crossed to the Base Jabber and had his Long Dagger climb onto its flat dorsal surface. Locking the mobile suit into place he spooled up the engines and the aircraft accelerated down the runway. For a moment he thought that he’d run out of distance but at the last moment it lumbered up into the air.

Banking he saw the Tallgeese flying northwards, three Long Daggers of his squadron flying alongside the General. As he closed in, they shifted to a V-formation to the Tallgeese’s left, letting him occupy the right flank with the relatively clumsy Base Jabber. And drawing a line between them.

“You’re really Char Aznable?” asked Emma curiously. “And that was Garma Zabi on the radio?”

“The real Char died years ago.” How long had it been since he even thought about poor innocent Char? Almost as long as the young man had been dead, really. One more victim of the Zabi family, although he wasn’t entirely blameless himself for using the man as a decoy. “It’s a long story, but I took his name and place in the Zeon Defence Academy. As for Garma, it certainly sounded like him.”

They cleared the edge of the base and swept over the dusty landscape of southern California.

“How much of what you said to us was true?” Jerid challenged.

“Would you believe anything I told you at this point?” He could imagine the other man’s face twisting in frustration.

“No, I don’t. You’re an enigma wrapped in lies. Whose side are you on?”

“First you say that you don’t believe me, then you keep asking questions.”

“Stop teasing him, Zechs,” ordered Noin testily. “And Jerid, stop falling for his bait.”

“But how can we trust him?”

“We can’t,” she said without hesitation and something twisted inside of Zechs. “And interrogating him won’t change that.”

Emma cleared his throat. “Char. Or Zechs, whatever. If you’re alive… what happened at A Baoa Qu? Did you kill Kira Yamato?”

His mind lunged back to that time, the climactic battle of the Zeon War ranging around the two of them as they each sought to bring their enmity to a close. “I tried, but no. Neither of us could kill the other. Whatever strange fate bound us, it didn’t end there. It hasn’t reached its end yet.”

Jerid snorted. “Can you believe this crap?”

“Lieutenant.” Treize brought him to silence with but that word. “We’ve found our prey.”

Down below them a land battleship – an old Zeon unit – lay stricken in a gully. Four mobile suits, white-limbed with blue torsos, stood around it but Char could see by their lines they were no Federation suits.

Other units – hovercycles, trucks and wheeled armour personnel carriers had been scattered around them like broken toys. Bodies too were amongst them.

Three of the mobile suits were at rest, beam machine guns held casually. Only one was on guard and that had its gun pointed towards the ship, muzzle no more than a metre from the glass of the battleships command deck.

“Magnificent,” Treize said admiringly. “Come on. We can’t miss the final act.”

None of the suits shifted as the Long Daggers came to rest. Zechs set the Base Jabber to circle and jumped down to join them, forming a loose perimeter around the Tallgeese.

“May I ask your intentions?” the general asked genially, as if those present weren’t in the deadliest fighting machines mankind had thus far devised.

One of the three that were at ease stirred and the cockpit hatch opened. The pilot stuck his head out. “We came here to stop Karaba,” he called out.

“And you have clearly done so,” Treize noted. “Is that the end of your intentions?”

The mobile suit confronting the battleship lowered its gun. “Which of you is Char?” Without waiting for an answer, it faced towards Zechs’ Long Dagger and pointed towards the battleship. “This is for you to finish.”

One of the other suits shifted as if to move but then stood back. Ridden’s suit perhaps?

Moving forward with his Long Dagger, Zechs crouched slightly to look into the landship’s bridge.

At first, he thought it was abandoned, although largely intact. Then he saw that though most of the stations were vacant, the thronelike commander’s chair was occupied.

Garma Zabi stared defiantly out at him with half a face. In his arms a blonde woman rested her head against his shoulder but the arm that he used to hold her was metal and plastic. One eye was the same violet that Zechs remembered, the other was as artificial as the plastic around it.

Once Garma had been the most handsome of Degwin Zabi’s children, nearly worshipped by masses. Now he was a frankensteinian creation, part man and part machine.

Zechs swallowed.

Garma’s lips moved, shaping words that Zechs couldn’t hear.

The woman in his arms turned and looked out at the face of his Long Dagger then turned away contemptuously. Icelina Eschonbach, he remembered her now. Garma had loved her and she him. Degwin, far away in Zeon, might have approved the match for the political advantage of his son marrying an Earthnoid, but the girl’s father had been a stalwart opponent of the Zeon occupation.

He straightened his mobile suit, unable to face them anymore. “What do you expect of me? To arrest them?”

Treize opened his cockpit and stepped out onto the hatch, the wind catching the cloak he’d added to the normal Federation uniform and ruffling his hair. It should have made him look ridiculous but instead he was somehow majestic, like a figure out of history.

“Let us not make martyrs of them in court, Zechs. They sought the judgement of battle and have received it. You know the fate that befits a fallen soldier.”

“I’m not your executioner.”

“Finish what you started,” Treize told him sharply.

Zechs looked again at the command deck, then at the suit that had menaced it earlier. Why had they left Garma alive, like this? Had they been waiting for him? They couldn’t have known he would be coming, no one had. His hands trembled upon the controls.

Was this why I found no satisfaction in Garma’s death? he wondered. Did I somehow know he wasn’t truly gone?

“Why not you?” he croaked.

The other mobile suit didn’t answer for a moment but then, through its external speakers, the pilot spoke. “I found another couple like that once. I couldn’t kill them either.”

“Merciful of you.”

“Oh, would you stop talking about it!” Jerid exclaimed and brought his beam rifle up.

His shot struck the command deck squarely in the centre, blasting a hole from front to back. The commander’s seat and its occupants were vaporised in an instant.

“Lieutenant!” Noin shouted.

“What? Someone had to do it. Just get it over with! God!”

“It’s fine, captain.” Treize turned and re-entered his cockpit. The hatch closed and a moment later the Tallgeese came alive once more. “If you gentlemen are minded to do battle with the Specials, we can do it another time. For now, it would be ungrateful of me not to at least offer you the bare hospitality of California Base.”

The one suit that hadn’t reacted yet turned to Noin and asked: “Is he for real?”

“Don’t look at me.” She sounded just as lost. “I just work here.”

“Well, why not. It’s a free lunch. And between you and me, it’s been a long time since breakfast.”

Zechs called in the Base Jabber for a pick-up. It was trickier when it couldn’t land but there were grips on the underside.

“So, just out of interest,” the pilot continued. “Why doesn’t he have a flight pack? Is that Jabber like training wheels or something?”

He gritted his teeth. “No, it is not.”

“I like him,” Jerid decided, although for a mercy, he said it on their squadron’s radio channel and not out loud.

Emma snorted. “He may start on you next, Jerid.”

“Even so!”

They took off, an understandably ragged formation due to differing flight characteristic. Both sides, Zechs noted from the distance of the Base Jabber, kept their weapons pointed at the ground and their sensors sweeping in case one of the other mobile suits chose to break the sudden and unexpected truce.

“So, do you have names?” the pilot asked on the general band. “I know he’s Char.” The suit waved at Zechs. “But what about the rest of you? Or should I just call you Snippy, Grumpy and Sleepy?”

“Which is which?” Jerid asked in a tone of dreadful fascination.

“Well she’s Grumpy, because, you heard her.” The suit pointed at Noin. “And you’re Snippy because of, you know, sniping.”

“But why am I Sleepy?” Emma asked.

“Oh my god! She’s awake!”

“This is the crack team that’s had the Federation trembling?” Noin asked Zechs on a private channel.

He nodded to himself. “We should be ashamed.”

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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by U.P. Cinnabar » 2018-11-17 02:22pm

"Would you rather I slap you around?"

Was totally not expecting the in joke.
"Beware the Beast, Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone amongst God's primates, he kills for sport, for lust, for greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him, drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of Death.."
—29th Scroll, 6th Verse of Ape Law
"Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”
---Doctor Christine Blasey-Ford

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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by LadyTevar » 2018-11-17 10:31pm

OMG, you put Duo in a dress. You threatened and then did it. BRAVO!
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drakensis
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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by drakensis » 2018-11-18 07:35am

Chapter Five – The Liar, the Honest

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Duo landed his Gerbera Tetra on the concrete outside a more or less intact hanger for what was probably going to be the last time, whatever happened. One of the knees was reporting some very worrying stresses and if he was at home he’d be thinking of stripping it down for salvageable parts.

None of the Federation pilots seemed to know what to do, which he credited himself for at least in part – the needling he’d given them as they flew had kept them off balance and kept them from treating them simply as hostiles inside mobile suits. Snippy was apparently hostile enough for all of them anyway.

They popped their cockpits and descended to the floor, the Gerbera Tetras looming over them like giants.

Facing them the Specials did the same. Duo saw Ridden clench his fists at the sight of Char Aznable, wearing a helmet much sleeker than that he’d been in the pictures from the war. After a moment’s hesitation the Red Comet removed the helmet too and walked over to them, holding the helmet under one arm.

“Hello Johnny.”

“Y- I…” The oldest of them shook his head fiercely. “Why? Just tell me that, Aznable. Why?”

“There were a lot of reasons,” Char said thoughtfully. “We’d got history, probably more than you know. But the main one was that she was willing to fight to the last drop of everyone else’s blood.”

“And you decided the war should end? You, in all your arrogance…”

“What would have happened if she’d got back to Zeon?” The man paused a moment. “The Federation had won, it was just a matter of mopping up. If they had to take our colonies one street at a time, the cost would have been paid by the citizens caught up in the crossfire. You know what war is like inside a city, don’t lie to yourself.”

“They were as exhausted as we were!” Ridden shouted, gesturing towards the Federation forces. “They were throwing half-trained pilots at us. The best of their fleet had died with Revil!”

“But they could recover from that. Zeon couldn’t. How many of the pilots you trained with were alive? Why were first rate mobile suits like the Gelgoog given to cadets pulled out of the academy? If there was anything left to fight for except Zabi pride then maybe I would have made a different decision… but there wasn’t.”

Ridden was groping now and everyone could see it. “You’re not from Zeon, you wouldn’t understand.”

“I was born in the clocktower of Munzo University,” Char shot back. “My father was Zeon Zum Deikun. How much more Zeon could I be?”

There was a collective “WHAT?” from everyone, reminding the two blond pilots that they weren’t alone. Looking around, Duo saw that only Treize and Heero didn’t seem to be surprised.

“How many fucking names does he have?” Snippy asked under his breath.

Treize found a crate to sit on and crossed his legs, resting his hands on the uppermost of his knees. “You’ve been our allies today,” he told them. “If thought I could get away with it, I’d offer you all places with the Specials just based on that. Alas, that’s not an option.”

“I couldn’t accept that if you offered it,” Athrun said bluntly.

“Thank you,” the Specials’ general replied in a pleased tone. Seeing Athrun blink he clarified: “You said you couldn’t, not that you wouldn’t were it entirely your choice.”

“We have some unfinished business,” Duo told him. “But I tell you what – how about you take our mobile suits and let us leave?”

Treize smiled appreciatively. “Interesting.”

“You can’t be serious?” Grumpy objected.

“Now now, Lucrezia, we’re bargaining.” He didn’t take his eyes off of Duo.

Lucrezia? Hah! Someone’s parents were callous! “With the suits in your possession you can reasonably claim we’ve been disarmed, with credit going to the Specials. And our business is in dealing with one of Karaba’s backers – doesn’t that serve your interests too?”

“I can certainly see the advantages for me, but wouldn’t losing your mobile suits hamper you in pursuing this… vendetta?”

“We’re a resourceful bunch.”

“Inarguably true.” Treize considered and then shook his head. “Could I not persuade you to simply share what you know about this backer with me?”

“No.” Heero’s voice was firm. “I don’t trust your superiors with what those backers are up to. We’ll stop them ourselves.”

“That leaves me with trusting that you are indeed going to be acting in the… greater interests of the Federation, even if your plans aren’t entirely in line with my superior’s wishes.” Treize considered. “And then, of course, I have the question of what to do about you, Zechs. Your past makes you something of a hot potato now that it’s out in the open.”

Char – or apparently Zechs – smiled slightly. “I’ve dropped out of sight before.”

“Yes, but I don’t think you’ll stand aside from things as they are. Karaba was only one part of a larger problem.” Then Treize smiled confidently. “I suppose I’ll have to put you on detached duty to investigate Karaba’s backers. I can’t spare anyone to go with you but I’m sure you can find a few resourceful men not far from here.”

The Red Comet gave him a startled look and then turned warily towards – not Ridden, but Heero. “Well?”

Duo’s roommate looked at him and then shrugged. “We’ll need a spacecraft,” he said shortly.

“Sir, this is very irregular,” Lucrezia warned.

“This is an irregular situation,” Treize told her smoothly. “The Specials are themselves irregular, but necessary given the circumstances. If there’s a shuttle still flight worthy then I’ll sign off on you commandeering it, Zechs.”

“And…” Char paused in calculation. “A shuttle could carry two mobile suits.”

“You must have a pirate in your ancestry.” Treize shook his head in amusement. “But that’s as far as I’ll stick my neck out for you.”

Heero looked over at Athrun. “Go find a working jeep,” he ordered.

“Are you sure we can trust him?”

“It’s the best offer we’re going to get.” Heero turned back to Treize and gestured back to the Gerbera Tetras. “Four slightly used mobile suits, as agreed.”

Char pulled a radio from his hip. “Spencer, Marks, get your mobile suits over to the shuttle port. General’s orders.”

For the first time, Treize Khrushrenada lost his cool, looking sharply over at the unmasked pilot. “The Strike and the Duel are…”

“You never set any limits on what mobile suits I could requisition,” the blond told him with a smirk. “You’re not going back on your word, are you, Treize?”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

The door to Cima’s quarters hissed open without warning and she sat up from the small bunk where she’d been reading a novel from the Albion’s electronic library.

There was no sight of the guard outside, just the slim figure of Lieutenant Mass silhouetted against the brighter lights of the passage outside. The door closed smoothly behind Mass, who held a folder.

“I didn’t realise I would be having a guest,” Cima said. “Please make yourself at home. It may lack a little in comparison to the Governor’s mansion.”

Mass activated a control on the wall that unfolded a small seat from the wall, something Cima hadn’t even realised was there. “I bunked in a room much like this for a good part of the war,” she said. “There are times I even look back with nostalgia.”

“If you’re feeling nostalgic for the war then you’re not getting out enough,” Cima told her seriously. “Whoever said that war was hell wasn’t kidding.”

“William Tecumseh Sherman, I believe,” the lieutenant informed her. “I’ve tried to verify what you told me about Halifax against the tribunal records stored here. Unfortunately, they don’t include copies of your orders or the recordings…”

Cima’s lips curled back in a snarl but Mass held up her hand. “They were submitted, Major. That much I was able to verify. General Septim appears to have had very powerful patrons.”

“I should have killed him when I had the chance.”

“Formally, I would have to recommend against adding murder to your record but the point is moot. General Septim was killed a few days ago in a Karaba attack on California Base.”

“What the hell is a Karaba?” asked Cima, bemused. “And why did it attack California Base?”

“A political movement objecting to the continued military occupation of Zeon’s own occupation zones on Earth. Their leadership has always been obscure, but it was recently tied to Garma Zabi of all people.” Mass shrugged. “They shifted to active guerrilla warfare against the Federation in the last few months, which doesn’t seem to have gone well for anyone.”

“Hmm.” Cima thought back to a young man in a horrifically tasteless shirt and wondered if his interest in the cache of Dom Tropens was related. Oh well, irrelevant now. “So, someone’s covering for Septim. Is there any chance of that changing now that he’s dead?”

“It seems unlikely.” The lieutenant pursed her lips. “General Jamitov has denied any knowledge of your appeal to him or of any data about your trial being sent to him.”

Cima fought to keep her face still. “That’s… disappointing.”

“If it’s any consolation, Major. I believe you.”

“A little, but it’s the governor that I need to persuade.”

Mass gave her a thoughtful look and then reached up to her hair and pulled some pins out. Her long brown hair came away in her hand, revealing a head of shorter blonde locks beneath it. “If that was all that you needed,” Artesia Som Deikun said ruefully, “then I’d be scheduling your retrial right now.”

Cima tried to speak. Failed. Swallowed and tried again. “What, no… why the masquerade?”

“I’m sure you’ve heard the rumours that I’m nothing more than a figurehead for the Provisional Government.” Artesia held the wig in both hands. “It’s not exactly true, but the Federation appointees would certainly rather I didn’t do too much governing and remained reclusively inside the mansion. Being Relena Mass lets me get out of the office without them having to worry. And without requiring a massive security presence, for that matter. There have been… quite a few death threats.”

“You mean your own government doesn’t know there’s a fake Federation lieutenant wandering around?”

“There’s nothing fake about it.” The governor smiled ruefully. “My identification is legitimate, if not entirely honest, and I hold an entirely genuine commission in the Federation armed forces. If anything, it was harder to re-establish myself as Artesia Som Deikun.”

“And you…” Cima looked around the room. “You served during the war? Against Zeon?”

“As a medical officer and then doubling up in flight control. The Pegasus was very short handed.”

“You were on the Pegasus?” That was respect-worthy, even if the ship was from the Federation. The cruiser had been the home base for the White Devil, the first and some said the best of the Federation’s mobile suit aces. In the fiercest battles since Loum, the Pegasus had racked up a dozen battle honours in the course of less than a year, finally destroyed at A Baoa Qu. “I heard their captain was called Ramius, is Captain Ramius a relative?”

“The same woman.”

She arched an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t have thought she was old enough.”

“None of us were.” Artesia laughed a little bitterly. “I was a medical student and a refugee, but we both know war doesn’t always give you the choice to avoid picking a side.”

“I’ll give you that.” She sighed. “So where does that leave us. Without evidence, even if you grant me a retrial, I don’t have much of a chance.”

“I didn’t specifically report that you were in custody. For all Jamitov knows, you got a back-channels message to me the same way you did to him. That won’t hold up forever, but I’ll see if I can dig anything else up. Fortunately, the Albion hasn’t been ordered away yet. If she is, you’ll have to be disembarked and I doubt I can cover that up.”

“It hasn’t?” Cima straightened. “But the colonies must be halfway to Earth by now!”

“A point that isn’t lost on me.”

“What is the Federation doing!? Do they want a colony dropped on their heads a second time!?”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

“The Zodiac Alliance have a hidden base in Hatte?” asked Char from the co-pilot’s seat of the shuttle. He didn’t have his hands on the controls and in fact Athrun had even turned the displays off so that he wouldn’t be giving away their destination.

“Everyone has a hidden base in Hatte.” Duo grinned as Athrun let his inner snark out. It was always nice to see. “It’s practically a cliché.”

“That’s a fair point,” Char conceded. “At this point it’s dangerously trafficked, really.”

“It’s dangerous in general.” The shuttle slowed and Athrun eased around what looked like the engine pod of a Zeon destroyer. “Keep your eyes out for anything fast moving. If we hit a bolt the wrong way, we could vent the flight deck.” There was good reason that the three of them up front were all wearing their pilot suits.

“This isn’t my first time in a debris field.” To be fair, the infamous Red Comet had his head on a swivel, checking every direction he could see for incoming wreckage.

“Are we there yet?”

“Duo.”

“Yes.”

“You’re not six years old. Please stop acting like one.”

Duo chuckled. “Relax a little. We can’t spot everything out here and you’ll drive yourself crazy trying.”

“Do you want to fly through this?”

“I’d be glad to, but then I’d know the coordinates to your super-secret spy house.”

Athrun took a deep breath and looked over at Char. “You see what I have to deal with?”

“Everyone deals with stress differently. As long as he doesn’t start playing insubordination, we’re probably fine.”

“How do you play that?” Duo asked eagerly.

“It’s sort of like backwards Simon Says.”

“Is that actually a thing?” asked Athrun sceptically.

Char made a face. “I took a cruiser as far as Noa back during the war. The crew got really bored. Unless you slept the entire way from Jupiter to the Earth Sphere you should know what I mean.”

“Ah.”

“Are we there?” Duo asked.

“It’s not as funny the second time,” the blond told him.

Athrun brought the power up a hair. “No, he’s right. That’s the base up ahead.”

At some point during the war, one of the Hatte colonies had been torn apart such that there was a complete loop of the inner and outer surfaces separated from either end. While it didn’t look very thick from a distance, that was plenty of depth to work with and buildings on the inner surface didn’t really draw attention unless you looked closely enough to realise they had been carefully reinforced.

“It’s a work in progress but it keeps the people there busy,” Athrun explained as he adjusted the trim. Turning on the radio he transmitted a pre-recorded data burst – an otherwise meaningless set of letters and numbers that could be missed even if someone other than the intended recipient was close enough to receive it.

A flickering white light began to respond in Morse code.

“Fuck off, we got here first,” Char translated. “Well, ‘farst’.”

“That’s the confirmation signal. Salvage prospectors are even more common here than spies.” A second data burst and the white light went steady and was joined by two more, one red and one green.

Athrun began to rotate the shuttle, watching lights carefully to line himself up. “Let the others know we’re here,” he said absently.

Duo went back to the hatch and through it. The shuttle had a small bunkroom and rudimentary facilities below but the others wouldn’t be in there. Instead of taking the stair down he went through an airlock into the cargo bay.

Clamped down in the cavernous bay were a pair of mobile suits, the cockpits open but otherwise ready to launch. Touching a control on his helmet, Duo transmitted on a signal so weak that it shouldn’t penetrate the hull: “Athrun’s lining us up to dock.”

Both mobile suits bore a clear stamp of resemblance to the Daggers and variants thereof used by the Federation, which wasn’t exactly a surprise. The Duel was essentially the prototype for all of them and the Strike was a development from that template, the testbed for the modular flight and weapon packs that were ubiquitous in Federation forces.

The Blu Duel was wrapped in additional plating and weapon systems that went well beyond those packs, so much that it was almost hard to see the core mobile suit except at the sensor head, thighs and upper arms.

Further back, the Strike Noir replaced the usual Federation blue with black and more significantly the flight pack had been expanded considerably with a pair of wing-like arrangements that apparently incorporated integral beam weapons.

Treize actually agreeing to let Char make off with them indicated to Duo that he really had a lot of faith in the pilot, however insane that seemed. That very faith suggested, of course, that there was a better than average chance that if Treize ever so requested then Char would turn on them just as he apparently had the Zabis.

Both mobile suits stirred slightly, the fingers of their hands shifting until their right thumbs were up. Heero and Ridden warned, Duo headed back to the cockpit, just in time to see an entire warehouse on the inner hull of the colony fold open to reveal the access to a subterranean dock. “That has to be the coolest thing I have ever seen.”

“It belongs in a Saturday morning cartoon,” Athrun muttered. “So I can see why it appeals to you.”

“You don’t like it?”

“It would be enormously easier to arrange a sealed dock at the torn edge of the structure,” their pilot said seriously. “Articulation wouldn’t raise any eyebrows if we were ever seen because no one would expect the hull there to be well-secured.”

“As fascinating as the engineering critique is, I think we have a welcoming committee,” Char pointed out.

Looking out of the cockpit, Duo saw a little cluster of people in suits waiting on a gantry below. As they cleared the entrance, he saw that the hanger was large enough for a full-size ship if it could manage to get through the access route. In fact, an elongated ship almost as large as a destroyer had clearly done so because it was at rest on one side of the hanger. “What’s that?”

“Stealth ship,” Athrun explained. “Most of the length is baffles around the engines to reduce the visible and thermal bloom of the engines.”

“That doesn’t sound like it would be very stealthy, even so.”

“Not if someone’s looking but even automated observatories can’t watch everywhere. It’s useful for smuggling people and equipment into the Earth Sphere.”

The shuttle came to rest and Duo stepped back to let Athrun get out of the pilot seat. “Are you coming, Char?”

The other pilot grunted in acknowledgement but kept looking out the cockpit.

“Is something wrong?”

Char pushed his seat back. “It was a bit of a shock that Treize had built a second Strike. I wasn’t quite prepared that someone else had the same idea and using my colours.”

Duo stooped and looked out the side Char had been staring. A mobile suit hanger was visible and through the hatch one of the mobile suits had the squarish lines of the Strike. It was also painted in red and pink.

“Pink?”

“The shade is technically a light red called Desert Sand. It looks darker in space.”

“Pink?”

Char sighed. “I strongly suspect the Black Tristars bribed the flight crews to paint my Zaku like that. Once people started calling me the Red Comet, I just went with it.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

There was nothing at all suspicious about Relena Mass and Murrue Ramius having lunch in a small and very discreet bar in Zeon City. It was no secret they were old ship-mates and with the Albion still lacking any further orders, there was no reason the Captain couldn’t go ‘ashore’ for social reasons.

Ramius bringing Noah Bright along was a bit out of the ordinary though, although he looked a bit uncomfortable in civilian clothes.

Relena gave them a little wave as she saw them hesitate at the bottom of the stairs down from the street. The bar was buried in a basement, advertised only by a sign on the street that the proprietors’ husband – grunting with effort – set out every morning and removed in the late afternoon, long experience having told them that someone would inevitably knock it over or otherwise deface it during the evenings. No particular spite was involved, it was just that sort of neighbourhood.

“Do you come here often?” Ramius asked as she took a seat in the booth, working her way around to the back so that Bright could sit as well.

“Fairly often. The owner was a friend of my mother. Her husband was shot down in Africa, during the war. His family had been political before the Zabis so no one asked too many questions when he took a medical discharge so he could marry.”

“Africa? It wasn’t by some chance…?”

Relena nodded. “Yes. One of the few people to survive fighting the Duel. He actually gets a certain respect in the veteran community. They’re good people.” Which mean they could speak at least semi-freely.

Bright looked around at the brick walls and framed (sometimes signed) pictures of singers and musicians. “I didn’t expect somewhere this… old fashioned, I guess, in the colonies.”

“The colonies brought a lot of culture with them. Some stuck, some didn’t.” Relena pulled a menu from the rack on the table. “Some got strange. I don’t recommend the pizza here unless you have a very strong stomach.”

“Oh?”

“Spicy.”

He nodded and opened the menu, not at all coincidentally blocking Ramius from casual view from the doorway.

“Two cruisers docked this morning,” the captain murmured. “A few mobile suits but mostly they were carrying troops and spooks.”

Relena raised an eyebrow. “Usually I’d be informed as a matter of course.” Being the military attaché put her on all sorts of mailing lists, some of which the provisional governor likely shouldn’t be aware of.

“I’d say the same,” Ramius opened her own menu. “And still no orders to do anything about Delaz’s fleet. I’d like to say Cima was just being paranoid but she makes a good point. There’s been more than enough time to pull a task force behind. The Mars fleet hasn’t left us as bare as that.”

“Were they regular Federation troops?” asked Relena thoughtfully.

“Specials, although that’s mostly a matter of their jackets being a different colour. No special equipment – no pun intended.”

“Good to know that the sartorial demands of Jamitov’s stormtroopers takes precedence over a possible repeat of Sydney,” Relena said – more sharply than she intended. “I’m sorry, it’s not your fault.”

“If the Federation doesn’t send a task force to stop the colonies, what else can they do?” Noah asked cautiously.

Both women looked over at him. “Good question,” agreed Ramius. “They’ll be moving fast by now, there isn’t much that can stop the colonies now, it’s more a matter of deflecting them.” She closed her menu with a snap. “Homes for millions, billions in investment and someone has to weaponize them. It’s disgusting.”

“Drinks?” asked an elegant blonde woman who’d approached the table without anyone but Relena noticing. She made no mention of their start, graciously accepting the order of three beers.

“Do you think she heard?” Bright said softly.

“I’m sure she did.” Relena answered with a smile. “Ms. Hamon knows who I am.”

“I’m not really comfortable with this cloak and dagger business,” he said, tugging at his collar.

“But you know who is?” Ramius leant towards Relena slightly. “Hyman Jamitov is in control of both Federation intelligence and of the Specials. That means all the people who arrived are working for him. Do you trust him?”

“I’ve never met him. As I understand it, he wanted a full military occupation of Zeon, rather than the current provisional government.”

“That makes Artesia Som Deikun his enemy even if they’ve never laid eyes on each other,” Ramus warned her. “If he finds anything he can pin on you…”

Relena looked at her former captain and then reached into her pocket. Pulling out her phone she typed a short message and sent it. “Fortunately, not many people know you picked up an adrift spacer,” she told them. “And even fewer know her identity. Conveniently the electronic records are going to go missing and I didn’t keep papers longer than I had to.” She gave Murrue a questioning look.

The older woman sighed. “Computer records only. But my crew aren’t idiots.”

“Excluding the current pilots,” Bright said sourly.

“Mmm.” Ramius conceded that point without looking away from Relena, who exhaled slowly.

A governor’s records going missing was considerably less serious than the captain of a Federation warship wilfully falsifying records. A case could be made that it was treason.

“I think we should enjoy our lunch,” she said mildly as the beers arrived. “It might be our last chance to relax for a while.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

The commander of the base had silver hair, presumably a choice by his parents because Duo guessed he was still in his early twenties. “You missed your father by about a week,” he told Athrun.

“I’m sorry to have missed him, Yzak.” Athrun paused. “Sorry, I mean, Commander Joule. Is he on his way home?”

Joule grunted dismissively. “Don’t get hung up on protocol, this isn’t the Federation. And no, he was headed for Mars. He’d have waited a bit longer for you to resurface but it was his last chance to get there before the Federation’s Mars fleet.”

“I wouldn’t expect him to put family ahead of his duties.”

“Duty is what he wanted to discuss with you.” The commander leant back in his seat and glared at Athrun, ignoring the other four of them. “What the hell happened to Trowa Barton? We have a whole string of messages from his father demanding answers. Apparently, no one on the Audhumla knew where he’d gone.”

Athrun hesitated. “Did Senator Barton say anything about what happened at the Murasame Institute?”

Duo glanced over at Heero, brow furrowing. How had Senator Barton asked the Audhumla’s crew about his son? The transport had been shot down… hadn’t it?

“That was what, your second target? Not really. Some sort of new mobile suit prototype that you took out?”

Heero stepped forwards. “What happened to the Audhumla? We lost contact with them after the Corsica attack.”

Joule looked up at him. “And you’d be…?”

“I want to know too.”

The commander looked back to Athrun. “You seem to be avoiding my question. Where’s Trowa Barton?”

“I shot him and threw the body into the Indian Ocean,” Ridden said. “Happy?”

Joule’s back-up, a swarthy young man with a shock of blond hair choked. “That’s… why?”

“There were Coordinator children at Murasame,” Athrun told him. “They were being experimented on. Barton thought that it was a great line of research and planned to pick up where the Federation left off.”

“Those bastards!” the aide exclaimed.

“Get a grip, Dearka.” Joule gave Ridden a grudging nod of approval. “I guess I’d have done the same. To answer your question, Senator Barton’s people boarded the Audhumla, evacuated the crew and then blew it up.”

“They did what!?” Duo exclaimed.

“Covering his tracks. He figured his operation had been compromised and didn’t want to leave evidence leading back to him. That was his explanation, anyway.”

“That sonofabitch!”

“He’s a Federation Senator. It goes with the territory.”

Athrun turned and looked at the others. “Then our next stop is New Moore.”

“Denied.” Joule’s tone was final. “Barton will get his but your father left you another mission. And now your friends here are aware of the base, I’d need a damn good reason to let them leave.”

“They don’t know the coordinates, Yzak. They’re not a security risk.”

“I decide what’s a risk to my base and what isn’t.” Yzak folded his hands. “That means I want to debrief them and make sure they’re not going to run back to Federation intelligence with the fact we have a base here and a description of it. Hell, you haven’t even told me their names yet.”

“You aren’t touching my briefs,” Duo said indignantly, grabbing his belt.

The aide snorted in amusement. “It means we want to know who you are and what you’ve been doing while you’ve been running around with Athrun.”

“Father’s mission can wait,” declared Athrun. “If Barton’s people captured the Audhumla before they blew it up, then they probably took the children with them. Don’t you see?”

The other two Zodiac Alliance officers exchanged looks. “No, I don’t. That’s why I need to debrief your people,” the commander said sharply. “Your mission is time sensitive.”

“I’m all in favour of rescuing Coordinator children,” Dearka added. “But if they’re… test-subjects…” He made a disgusted face. “Then Barton needs them alive and healthy. They’re not in immediate danger. But give us a chance to gather information first, then we can be sure of rescuing them. What’s your plan otherwise? Storm New Moore with a shuttle and two mobile suits?”

“As much as the Moore fleet has it coming, we’d be a little more subtle than that.” Char hadn’t spoken so far, content to keep a low profile. “What is this mission you have for Athrun?”

Joule reached over to the keyboard of his office computer and typed in a few commands. The screen lit up, displaying a diagram of the Earth Sphere. “Besides Karaba and Senator Barton, Commander Zala agreed to support the Delaz Fleet in an attack on the Granada mobile suit factory.”

“The plan’s already gone awry. Delaz is dead and the colonies he was going to drop on Granada aren’t going to hit Luna, so his second in command – Captain Anavel Gato - is going to have another crack at Jaburo.”

Duo felt his face pale. He was sure the others felt the same way.

The screen switched to a schematic of a mobile suit. “It’s only a matter of time before the Federation – probably these Specials of theirs – launch an attack to try to divert the colonies. Your father had the Strike Rouge brought here to use as a deniable asset to support Gato. It’s a near copy of the original Strike, better than anything the Federation is likely to throw at them.”

“Didn’t the Jovians withdraw their support from Zeon because of Operation British?” asked Ridden softly. He’d moved so his gun-hand was out of view of the commander.

“That was before Junius Seven,” Joule told him flatly. “The Federation has already broken the Antarctic Treaty. Besides, Gato will do this with or without us and I’d rather he succeeds than fails.”

“And my father approved of this?”

His reply was a gesture at the Strike Rouge on the screen. “Obviously.”

“Well I don’t.” Athrun stared at Joule. “I won’t do this.”

“This is a direct order, Zala.”

“It’s wrong. I won’t.”

“Then one of our other pilots will.” The commander’s lips curled. “You can stay here, detained with your friends and -”

He broke off as Ridden stepped forwards, gun pointed at the bridge of his nose. Joule’s eyes practically crossed, looking directly down the muzzle.

Dearka went for his own gun but Heero caught his wrist and twisted it sharply up behind his back. The coordinator tried to break free and but he’d focused too much on Heero and Duo kicked him squarely in the groin. The young man folded up with a scream and Heero disarmed him.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Joule asked warily. “You’re on my base, surrounded by my troops.”

“That’s one way of putting it.” Char removed the commander’s sidearm and pushed him away from the desk. “Another would be that we’re in your office and you’ve unlocked your computer for us. So any orders sent from here should be taken as coming from you.”

Joule paled. “What are you doing?”

“If you’re co-operative then we can probably work out a way to detain your people.” Char smiled coldly. “Otherwise I’ll just order most of them to assemble in the hanger and vent it. Your call.”

“You wouldn’t?”

“A few dozen soldiers or billions of civilians?” the Red Comet asked. “It really isn’t a tough decision for me. Make up your mind quickly.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

There were in fact, less than fifty people in the entire base. It seemed too few until Duo considered that it had no armament except a relative handful of mobile suits and that those suits didn’t see very much activity, meaning their maintenance staff could overlap with those who handled the life support and the base reactor. In fact, sustaining more would have been difficult with supplies mostly coming from colonies somewhere between seven and nine hundred million kilometres away, depending on the time of year.

Since no one except for Yzak Joule and his aide Dearka Elsmann were aware that Athrun wasn’t a member in good standing of the Zodiac Alliance military, it was easy for him to get close to the handful of places where calling the staff away would have been suspicious – the guard on the base armoury, for example.

Keeping them locked up would have been challenging if they hadn’t been able to order a pallet of rations and some chemical toilets moved into an isolated compartment with no more justification than ‘Commander Joule’s orders’. Once air and water were supplied the entire compartment served perfectly well as an improvised prison.

“You might be considering rushing the door, figuring that some of you would make it,” Zechs told them, holding a submachinegun in his hands. There was a metallic clanging sound from the far wall – a wall on the other side of which was a vacuum. “I’d suggest you reconsider. That was a magnetic mine and we have the detonator. One push and you’ll be trying to breathe vacuum.”

“Who are you working for?” one of the pilots called. “Blue Cosmos? The Brotherhood of Moore?”

He shook his head sadly. “Who decides skirts should be above the knee one year and below the knee the next?”

The pilot gave him a puzzled look and adjusted her own skirt self-consciously. Zodiac Alliance women’s uniforms were apparently of the ‘above the knee’ view. “I don’t know.”

He nodded sagely. “Same group, different branch. We’re just here to stop a little bit of civilian massacring and then we’ll be out of your way.” Stepping back before any more questions could be thrown at him, he closed the hatch and Duo stepped forward with a welding torch and mask. It only took a few minutes to ensure the door wasn’t going to be opened for a while.

“How are we going to get them out of there?” the younger pilot asked. “We can’t leave them there forever.”

“Athrun’s a clever fellow, I’m sure he’ll think of something.”

“Do you think they believed you about the mine?”

“Did I sound willing to kill them all without a shred of remorse?”

Duo paused and then nodded uneasily.

“Then they probably believed it too.” Putting an actual bomb together would have taken too long so while the magnet was genuine it was just an electromagnet with a battery.

By the time the two of them reached the base’s control room, Heero had returned from placing the magnet and joined Athrun and Ridden.

“We’ve got two situations to deal with,” the latter said. “The Delaz Fleet and Barton.”

“As loath as I am to agree with Yzak on anything,” Athrun admitted, “The colonies are probably the more immediate threat.”

“We’re also on a timescale with Barton,” Zechs warned them. “I wish you’d mentioned that he was the backer before.”

Ridden glared at him. “What does that mean?”

“Treize is married to Senator Barton’s daughter. He’s consulted with Trowa Barton on mobile suit design before now and he has access to your mobile suits it won’t take him long to work out who built them.”

“You think he’ll move against him?”

Zechs nodded. “And he’ll do so as quickly as he can. Treize and his wife have busy professional lives so their daughter lives with her grandfather. He can’t afford to allow the impression that one of the Federation’s enemies has that sort of leverage over him. It would be enough to have him replaced as commander of the Specials.”

“You think Senator Barton would harm his own granddaughter?” asked Duo sceptically.

“Whether he would or not doesn’t really matter. The possibility would exist and that’s all the Senate would need to hear.”

“Dammit.” Duo kicked a chair and watched it roll across the command centre. “If the Federation retakes those kids then who knows where they could take them!”

“We can’t ignore the colonies either. Intercepting them will require matching velocities,” warned Ridden. “We don’t have the firepower to simply destroy them so we’d have to either take control of their thrusters or plant some formidable bombs. There’s no way we can do that and make a round trip to New Moore.”

“Then we’re going to need to divide our forces,” Heero decided. “Athrun, you have the best chance of figuring out a way to divert or destroy the colonies. Char, Johnny, you’re our most experienced pilots. We don’t know what forces Gato has – Delaz dying suggests that his forces must have taken casualties somehow – but two Strikes and the Duel gives you a good chance. I’m not sure adding a couple of Zodiac mobile suits will add that much.”

“I’ll probably need to cannibalise them anyway,” agreed Athrun. “Conventional explosives won’t be enough but if I rig half a dozen Minovsky reactors to overload then that should do serious damage to even a colony.”

Heero nodded in agreement. “Duo and I can take the shuttle to New Moore. We shouldn’t draw much attention and mobile suits wouldn’t be ideal anyway – we’d be more likely to kill the children by accident than to save them.”

“Are you sure?” asked Ridden. “No offense Duo, but you’re not exactly a commando.”

“None of us are, except maybe Char.” Heero gave Zechs a nod. “But out of all of us Duo has the best chance of talking us past any problems we encounter.”

“Or of creating more problems.” Ridden looked over at Zechs. “What do you think?”

“If Yuy thinks that Maxwell is the best choice, then I’m not going to second-guess him.”

Ridden gave Athrun a look and got a shrug. “I guess that’s the plan then,” he conceded. “When do you leave?”

“We’ll need some supplies from the base, but we’d better leave as soon as we can,” Heero decided. Treize may not give us much time.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Satou escorted Treize Khrushrenada into Dekim Barton’s office and then stepped out again.

For a long moment, the two men simply exchanged looks and then – for once – Treize yielded, speaking first. “My condolences, sir. I hope I must never bear the pain of losing a child.”

“I didn’t expect you would make the time to come here. Thank you for doing so. I am sure Mariemaia will be glad to see you.”

Treize took a seat without being asked. “I have no news of Trowa. When I encountered his mobile suits in California he wasn’t among the pilots.”

“And yet you let them get away,” the old senator said harshly.

“Had they been arrested then interrogation would have certainly brought up your own name. And if I shot them out of hand then any information they have on Trowa would be lost. If there is any hope that he is still alive…”

Dekim growled in frustration. “The crew of the Audhumla were useless! All they knew is that he had been aboard and then that he was suddenly not in evidence, with the pilots claiming he’d departed without saying where to or why.”

“An unlikely, but not entirely impossible situation. He could be… imperious.”

“He is my son. If he… if he is gone then Mariemaia is all that I have left.”

His son-in-law nodded coolly. “One of my best people is dealing with the pilots. It may take longer but we will find out what happened.”

“If anyone ever tells you, Treize, that age confers patience, do not believe them.” Dekim rested his head on his hands. “It merely reduces the time one has left.”

There was a pause and then the younger man leant forwards. “We should discuss the future now then, not later.”

Dekim looked up sharply. “In what sense?”

“You have successfully brought down the Santiago government – perhaps not in the manner intended but nonetheless. However, with Dermail Catalonia as Prime Minister, your political prospects seem no stronger than they were before.”

The old man studied the desk. “They maintained the occupation zone seats,” he said – aware that he sounded petulant. “Removing mine was unnecessary.”

“You’ve advised me in the past that politics is always a matter of ‘what can you offer me, today’,” Treize reminded him. “Presumably Santiago felt that there was no immediate benefit to you. Even if a Senatorial seat isn’t immediately open, is there anything we can offer the Federation to stabilise the family’s influence?”

“Beyond your position commanding the Specials?”

“That remains a political appointment,” Treize reminded him quietly. “Only continued results maintain that position.”

Dekim laughed sharply. “Ah, so you’re feeling the pinch too. I can have more Gerbera Tetras built. You’ve seen them in action. Imagine the Specials equipped with such weapons of war!”

“There is only so much budget.” Treize shook his head. “And examination suggests that they are rather high maintenance. The Romefellers have already offered their Calamity as the Specials’ mobile suit of choice and received payment for a limited production run.”

The old man’s mind raced. “What about pilots?” he offered.

“What about them?”

“Newtype pilots,” he said, baiting the hook. “Murasame was working artificially creating elite pilots and weapons for them. We have their data and some of the test subjects. It is the next generation of warfare. What would that be worth to Catalonia?”

Treize’s eyes narrowed in thought. “In my experience he prefers to keep his hands clean, but General Jamitov and Federation Intelligence might very well be interested in such a project. Can you deliver results?”

“We’re already assembling the next step in their mobile suit development, the replacement for the Queen Mansa that my son defeated at the Murasame Institute.”

“On principle, I’m not convinced of the merits of soldiers raised as weapons rather than fighting for their own convictions,” his son-in-law told him disdainfully. “It seems though, that my superior feels otherwise. Did you get that, Colonel?” he added in a louder voice.

Dekim frowned at the non sequitur and then his eyes widened. “What did you do?”

Treize reached into his uniform and brought out what was recognisably a compact transmitter. “What I had to in order to safeguard our futures.”

The old man thumped his hand on the button to call Satou. “You fool,” he hissed. “Who were you speaking to?”

The door opened and admitted the chief of the household but he was walking backwards, a small pistol aimed at him by a severe looking woman. “I heard everything, general,” she confirmed to Treize. “General Jamitov will be pleased.”

He nodded and looked back at Barton, a trace of sympathy in his eyes. “Permit me to introduce Colonel Une. She’ll be taking over your research station. And my daughter’s protection. I don’t feel it’s safe for Mariemaia to stay here. Zeon sympathisers could be anywhere, after all.”

“My security is -”

“Clearly incapable of keeping Colonel Une and her people out.” Treize sounded slightly apologetic.

Barton leant on the desk. “I gave you everything. Invested your inheritance for you, sponsored your career… Without me, you would be nothing. Nothing! And this is how you repay me?”

“Perhaps.” Treize rose gracefully to his feet. “But to quote a respected mentor of mine: what can you offer me today?”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Relena had been working on the assumption, since the Specials had arrived, that if her office as attaché wasn’t compromised then it would be shortly. Purging the computer records hadn’t just been to protect Garahau Cima – her last message to Kira warning him off from Zeon would be very hard to explain when Federation Intelligence had asked her three separate times if she had any reason at all to believe he’d survived A Baoa Qu.

It was still a surprise to walk in and find someone else behind the desk.

The someone in question was around her own age, with blonde hair that was almost certainly longer than regulations allowed (although she’d seen a lot of discretion granted by Federation officers over the years when it came to regulations) and a Specials uniform jacket slung casually across the back of the chair.

After her initial pause, Relena continued in and put her case down on the desk, pulling out the paperwork she’d taken home the previous evening. “If I’d known I was being replaced, I wouldn’t have bothered with this,” she said lightly, stacking the documents on the desk.

The woman looked up and smiled. “Nothing like that, lieutenant. I needed to use a workstation with top level authority for the Residence and yours seemed like the best to use.” She reached into her jacket and pulled out an identification card and a letter. “Here’s my authority.”

Accepting them, Relena looked at the card first. Dorothy Catalonia, Captain in the Federation armed forces with a very recent date of rank. The letter spelled out that she was answering directly to General Khrushrenada and had discretion to commandeer any and all Federation assets in pursuit of her mission. What that mission was, the letter didn’t say.

“That should do it. Congratulations on your recent promotion.”

She returned both to Dorothy, who nodded. “You can advance rapidly in the Specials, if you’re good enough.”

“Should I make myself scarce until you’re done, or is there something can do to help?”

She got another look of cool appraisal. “Possibly. Tell me about the back-ups for the computer systems.”

Relena arched her eyebrows and took a seat facing her. “Workstations back-up their own data every minute or so as I understand it. Then there’s a half hourly dump back to the main servers in the basement.”

“Besides that…?”

“I’m not a computer specialist but the system dates back about a decade and a half. There are two back-up cores – one at the far end of the basement from the main servers and the other in the roof. My understanding is that they update their data on a staggered one-hundred-and-twenty-minute cycle. Off-site back-up is only monthly. My understanding is that originally it was mostly used by the Zabi family and they didn’t want a back-up that was outside their immediate control. It’s the same reason they didn’t have the system updated – someone always found something wrong about the proposed contractor.”

“It seems very slack for government records,” Dorothy said. “Is that it.”

“Officially, yes. Most government records are at the Parliament building.” Relena gave the captain a conspiratorial look. “I fitted a third back-up core when I took on the job. The governor’s never mentioned it to me, so she may not be aware. I can’t update it during the day or it would be noticed but it acts as a failsafe.”

“Excellent!” She received a beaming smile. “Where is this core?”

Relena stood up and walked around the desk. Ignoring Dorothy spinning the chair to watch, she walked to the ornamental fireplace and flipped a switch hidden in the engraving. With a whir the entire fire grate lifted up until it plugged the chimney, revealing a concrete box beneath it. In the box a computer server sat, the power button glowing green.

“You’re very resourceful. Have you ever considered a career in military intelligence?” Dorothy left the chair and examined the box. “I just pull it out?”

“There should be enough slack in the wires, yes.” Relena stepped back and let her work. Despite a slender build, the Specials captain didn’t show any sign of exertion as she unplugged the server and carried it over to the desk.

Returning to Relena’s chair, Dorothy seemed pleased with herself. “Now, do you know where the Governor is?”

“I believe her itinerary for the morning was clear. She rarely leaves the residence when that’s the case.”

“Then why isn’t she in her quarters or the gardens?”

“Have you asked her security?” Relena reached over and lifted the phone only for Dorothy to firmly take it off her.

“They claim – and an oversight team from Federation intelligence backs this up – that she returned to the residence yesterday and hasn’t left. But we haven’t found her yet.”

Relena blinked. Oh well, it had been a good run. “That would leave three options.”

“Oh?”

“Either she left without being spotted, or someone entered and removed her without being noticed or she’s still here in some hiding place.”

“Some sort of hidden room or secret passage?” Dorothy asked sardonically. “A little farfetched. But given the recent suspicions that she might be involved in supporting Karaba, the Delaz Fleet or both…”

With a sigh, Relena sat down again. “If so, she’d have managed it without my noticing, which doesn’t speak well of my attention. Professionally I don’t like the idea but I suppose I can’t rule it out,” she lied.

“There are a great many people in the Federation military who do rule things out just because it would mean admitting failure on their part.” The captain gave her what was probably intended to be a reassuring look. “I admire your objectivity. Let us assume that she is involved somehow – possibly as an involuntary figurehead. What would you recommend?”

Relena considered that. “Firstly, I’d suggest disarming the colony militia. Mostly they have light equipment but there are two mobile suits on the colony and they’re fully functional, not just ceremonial.”

Dorothy frowned. “How did she justify that? All Zeon military hardware was to be surrendered at the end of the war.”

“Anaheim Electronics built them at Granada as an alternative to the Long Dagger. When their bid fell through, the prototypes were offered to Lady Artesia as a gift.” Relena made a face. “I think they were trying to advertise the design by having them on camera any time they were seen with her in public. The Minister of Defence signed off it – the documentation should be on record.”

“I’m going to be leaning on you for the next few days,” Dorothy decided. “There are too many details I don’t know of. Let’s remove them from temptation. I don’t want any public signs of trouble though.”

Relena pretended to consider that and then shrugged. “Why not say they’re being taken for assessment. After Lake Victoria it’s no secret the Federation is looking at new mobile suits. The Albion is in port and carries four mobile suits. Commandeer that squadron as a loan for the absence and Captain Ramius can take the suits away – unless you want the Albion on station?”

“Not particularly. There was a general hold on deployments or she’d have left by now.” Dorothy stood up again and picked up the server. “I’ll take this to my technical team, you draw up the necessary orders to have Ramius swap out her mobile suits for these two and then to deliver them to… Luna, let’s say. They shouldn’t come to harm there.”

“One would hope,” Relena murmured obediently, already mentally identifying what she’d need to arrange this. And if she delivered the instructions to the Albion directly then she could also explain what was happening.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

The sight of the scrapyard ahead was mana to Duo. He could almost feel the stress fade away as the two of them walked down the street from the port, the occasional truck passing them. “It’s good to be home.”

Heero glanced at him and then nodded. “Don’t relax too much.”

“Let me revel for a moment. I can almost imagine Hilde seeing us back and saying…”

“Where have you two been hiding? Couldn’t you at least have called occasionally?”

Duo looked ahead and saw their secretary leaning against the gate posts, scowling at them. “Yeah… even in my head this is how it went,” he admitted.

“Well?” she demanded.

“The job didn’t go so well,” Duo admitted. “The advance should have covered the most of month’s bills, right?”

“It did,” she said at last. “And there were enough other sales to cover the rest. Not, I might add, those damned thrusters.”

“I’m shocked – shocked, I tell you – that you haven’t managed to sell them in the time we were away.”

She put her hands on her hips and shook her head, trying to hide a smile. “Well at least you’re back and not missing any limbs.”

“Just overnight,” Heero said quietly.

“What?” Her voice was rising. “I’ll take a swing at you one of those days. This one month to the next crap is getting a bit old, guys. What are you doing now?”

“Eh, we slew the dragon,” Duo explained. “But it turns out the princess was in another castle.”

“nNNNNggggg.” Hilde threw up her arms as they walked towards the office. “Please tell me you at least got paid.”

“Well…”

There was a choking sound from Hilde, cut off when Heero pulled a card out of his jacket. “He’s kidding,” he told her placatingly. “There’s enough there to cover us for the next quarter, plus a month’s bonus pay for you.”

Hilde snatched the card from him. “Is this a joke?” she asked, looking at it sceptically. “It looks real and I didn’t know you had a sense of humour but… you’re giving me a bonus?”

“You deserve it,” Duo assured her, wondering where the money had come from. “And when we’re done you can have a week off or something. I wouldn’t want you to feel unappreciated.”

“I’ll… just go cash this before it expires or something,” she decided. “Time off? Who are you and where’s the real Duo Maxwell?”

“I’m right here you know!” he called as the door crashed shut behind her. Waiting a moment, he gave Heero a questioning look.

“Zodiac Alliance black ops account,” the other man explained. “As nearly untraceable as they could make it.”

“I don’t suppose they can sue us to get it back.” Duo picked up both bags. “I’ll dump this, you use the shower first.”

Heero glanced at him, then nodded and turned to the bathroom.

Dropping Heero’s bag on the other man’s bunk, Duo tipped his own out onto the laundry pile, then dug into it for his toiletries. “Right, bunk sweet… oh hello?”

For the first time he could remember, the videophone in their room was lit up to show a message had been received. Mostly they used the one in the office – Duo thought he’d made maybe three calls in total, for takeaway on days he felt too lazy to get out of bed and walk across to use the other videophone.

“Who even has this number?” he wondered and hit replay.

The face on the screen was a fairly pretty woman with long light brown hair. She was wearing what looked like a military issue under-shirt and in Duo’s professional opinion looked like she was at the far end of too many late nights.

“Kira, thanks for calling,” she said. “But please don’t try to come here – it’s too dangerous. We have entire shiploads of Federation intelligence and these new Specials here. If you need somewhere, I’ll find somewhere but not Zeon. I may have to find an excuse to leave myself.”

The bathroom door opened and Heero stepped into the room, bareass naked and still dripping.

“Jesus!” Duo exclaimed, hitting pause by instinct. “What’s the matter?”

Heero looked at the phone and then at Duo. He wasn’t wearing his contacts, Duo noted.

“It’s just a wrong number, right?” he asked, cautiously. “I mean, she’s calling some guy called Kira and I… don’t know… oh come on! Really?”

Heero sighed. “Wait one.” He vanished back into the bathroom and returned with a towel, beginning to dry himself off. “Okay. Ask.”

“Your name’s Kira,” Duo said slowly. “You’re a coordinator. And you flew for the Federation back in the war.”

The other pilot nodded three distinct times.

“Now call me crazy if you will, but there was a fairly famous Federation ace pilot by that name, who was a coordinator. You’re him, aren’t you? Kira Yamato? The White Devil?”

Heero shrugged and lifted the towel to start drying his hair. “I’m not fond of the nickname, but yes.”

“What the hell!? What are you doing in a scrapyard then? After the war you’d have been able to write your own ticket. The Federation almost literally owed you for winning the war. Just getting the Duel back to Earth alone changed the course of the war, but then you took the Strike out and took down, what, three super-weapons the Zeon threw out against the Federation forces?”

Lowering the towel and wrapping it around his waist, Heero sat down. “I was just an engineering student, Duo. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The only ticket the Federation would have let me write was one that followed their script. A hero is only safe for them as long as he’s an obedient one, and I’d had too much of them to be what they’d ask of me.”

Duo stared at him and then groaned. “Okay, I guess I get it. But who’s she then?”

“Relena Mass. An old friend. One of the few I stay in touch with.”

“Girlfriend?”

Heero actually flushed. “Maybe if things had gone differently.”

“Seems like she’s worried about you. And has problems of her own.”

He got a nod in return. “It comes with the territory. I’ll watch it later.”

In private, Duo realised. “Sure. Didn’t realise it was for you.” He stopped the playback. “Are you finished in the bathroom?”

There was a hammering from through the door. “Guys!” Hilde’s faint shout could be heard. “Stop leaving the door locked when you’re done.”

Heero walked back through and Duo heard the lock snap. There was a shriek of embarrassment from Hilde that almost covered Heero’s deadpan: “Is it an emergency?”

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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by U.P. Cinnabar » 2018-11-18 11:05am

Snuck in a B5 reference, did ya? 😏

The idiot pilots Bright referred to. Please say they're not Monsha, Burning, Keith, an that stupid prick asshole Kou Uraki.

I'd even rather it be that moron Kamille Bidan
"Beware the Beast, Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone amongst God's primates, he kills for sport, for lust, for greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him, drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of Death.."
—29th Scroll, 6th Verse of Ape Law
"Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”
---Doctor Christine Blasey-Ford

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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by LadyTevar » 2018-11-18 02:40pm

You are very good at the Political Intrigue, and at mixing it up with humor. Great job so far, I'm loving this.
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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by drakensis » 2018-11-19 07:18am

Chapter Six – The Leader, the Pariah


{MSG AC/CE/UC}

The sounds of the Albion undocking woke Cima and she looked at the ceiling of her little cabin in surprise. Mass – Deikun – had suggested that if the Albion left, she would be taken off the ship first. Maybe they were just changing berths?

But no, the manoeuvring went on far too long for that and after around thirty minutes the main engines began to fire.

Cima felt an irrational fear that she’d been forgotten somehow. Would she remain locked in here forever? No, that was ridiculous. Too many people knew about her… right?

She was relieved when the door opened, even if it was Bright outside, standing next to the guard.

“Can I help you, lieutenant?”

“I hope so. Please come this way.” Rather than keeping the guard with them, he led her up a gangway. Idly she considered grabbing him and snapping his neck. She’d never done it before but it was part of her training. One hand on the back of the neck, the other on his jaw, twist and… then what?

Leave the Albion somehow? Possible, they couldn’t have gone far. But she’d need a destination both immediately and then for someone to run to since she doubted the Governor would be so kindly disposed to her after that.

Apparently unaware that his life had been spared, Bright knocked on a cabin door. “Captain?”

“Come in.”

The room was about twice the size of that which Cima was occupying, with a desk below the bunk and room for a tiny table with four seats around it. Murrue Ramius was already sat at the table and gestured for both Cima and Bright to join her.

“I take it that plans have changed,” Cima asked her directly.

“Yes,” the captain agreed. “Or rather, the circumstances have and we must now plan around them.” Bright remained standing at the door until she signalled him again to sit. “This isn’t a formal matter, I have no authority over you, Major, and no legal right to give you orders on this matter, Noah.”

“That sounds very much as if you don’t agree with the orders you’ve received.”

Ramius nodded at Cima’s deduction. “There have still been no orders or instructions regarding the Colony. I’ve made discreet enquiries but the Specials are playing this very close to their chests. All we know at the moment is that a large number of Federation intelligence officers and Specials have arrived in Zeon and that the colony militia have been disarmed.”

“They don’t have anything to do with the colonies,” Cima told her. “They might be up to something else, but I don’t know about it if they do.”

“It’s hard to believe they could be doing anything more damaging. Lieutenant Mass advises me that the Provisional Governor is missing and that the Specials have secured all copies of her personal files. That suggests to me that they’re looking for something. A suspicious person might suggest that whatever they find, we would have only their word that it was genuine and not inserted somehow.”

“Do you have reason to believe they’d do that?” asked Bright. “No offense is meant to Lieutenant Mass’ speculations but there have been a lot of pro-Zeon and anti-Federation actions lately. It would be amazing if there were no partisans of that cause in Zeon.”

“You may be right, but if anything, the indications were that they were fare more concerned about being scapegoated for the actions of others. Removing the Provisional Government would be a legal means of retaliation by the Federation, albeit a worrying one. Using the rights of Federation citizens as hostages is… questionable on moral grounds”.

“I may be prejudiced against the man, but General Jamitov seems to be accumulating a very broad authority,” observed Cima. “Something like Kycilla Zabi’s combination of the Public Security Bureau and her Mobile Assault Corps during the war.”

Ramius nodded her head unhappily. “I can’t do anything about that, but I do have discretion as a ship’s captain over two things that aren’t open to question. I can choose the course the Albion takes on the way to Luna, which is our official destination. And I can engage in combat if I see a threat to the Federation or Federal citizens.”

“Meaning that you can go looking for the Delaz Fleet on your own?”

“If we ‘coincidentally’ encounter them,” Ramius said quietly, “which I think is very likely given the course I’ve ordered, then I’ll do everything I can to stop them.”

Cima turned and looked at Bright. He rested his elbows on the table and stared over them at his captain. “If you feel that that’s best, ma’am, you have my full support. But there’s nothing illegal in asking that of me.”

“And with all respect to your ship, one cruiser may not be enough. The Gwazine should be damaged but it’s a battleship. Even if it was an ambush it took my two cruisers very quickly.”

Ramius nodded. “It’s a long shot, but better that we try – and fail – than that we do nothing.” She took a long breath. “Our mobile suits have been requisitioned by the Specials, so the only two aboard are a pair that we’re transporting to Luna. Apparently, they’re upgrades of the Rick Doms that Zeon used as a stop-gap during the last months of the war.”

Cima recalled the design, converting the production of the ground-type Dom into a space-type mobile suit. It hadn’t been a terrible one and truthfully, every mobile suit had been needed.

“They’ll need pilots,” the captain continued. “Ensign Job Johns, our shuttle pilot, has some mobile suit experience from the war. But that’s only one.” She looked over at Cima.

“You want me to pilot the other?”

Her answer was a nod.

“I seem to be along for the ride, so given the choice of being a passenger or a combatant, I choose the latter.” She folded her arms. “Besides, Anavel Gato is owed some payback for my men that he killed. I’d be glad to deliver it to him.”

“This isn’t about revenge.”

“For you, no. But the sweetest revenge, Captain, would be for his plans to fail and for everything he has put into this to come to nothing. I won’t go crazy trying to kill him.” If I even can, she admitted to herself. After all, when they’d clashed before they’d been in basically identical mobile suits and he’d come out the victor.

“Captain, the major is a prisoner. You’re talking about not just releasing her but actively arming her.”

Ramius nodded. “That’s right Noah. And I can’t do that if you fight me on it. You’re my executive officer – the crew looks to you to represent them to me. If you have doubts in me then they will see that and without the crew’s backing this is a doomed venture.”

“They’d never mutiny, ma’am!”

“The doubt would be enough. A warship’s crew is a delicate organism. To operate at their best, they have to work as one. A crew that doubts its captain is a crew that’ll cripple itself whether they realise it or not.” Ramius glanced to the side. “Do you agree, Major?”

“I do. I would have died long ago without my crew.” She lowered her eyes. “In many ways I would have preferred to die alongside them rather than be left as the last survivor of the Cima Fleet. We were all sons and daughter of Mahal.”

“Mahal?” Bright enquired.

“Our home colony. Gihren Zabi took it away from us, destroyed our homes. One more price that the war demanded.” She smiled thinly. “Kycilla Zabi may have killed him for entirely different reasons but at least for once he paid the price for his actions.”

The lieutenant looked at her steadily. Measuringly. “What will you do if we survive?” he asked. “Assume all this goes to plan and we’re not killed. What then?”

“I don’t know. Honestly I’ve not known from one day to the next what will happen since…”

“Since we recovered you?”

“No. Since Halifax. Before then I could believe in something larger, something that deserved my allegiance and that of my people. But if this is what you’re asking me, lieutenant, I won’t turn on you or the Albion. I’ve been a pirate but I have never turned on any ally, however little I like them, unless they first betrayed me.”

Their eyes met and held for a moment. She thought she saw her ghosts, reflected for an instant, and then he shivered and turned away.

“I’d rather have two pilots than one,” Bright decided. “And if you die in action then we don’t have to admit we ever had you a prisoner in the first place, which would simplify a lot of things really.”

“Lieutenant!” Ramius protested, half-laughing and half-appalled.

“There is that,” Cima agreed with a feral smile. “Do you have anything worth drinking, captain? Let’s drink to our united cause.”

The captain opened a locker and brought out three plastic cups and a bottle. She poured a sliver of the contents into each.

“That’s it?” asked Cima in mocking disappointment.

“It’s strong,” Ramius said and lifted her glass. “To victory.”

“To survival,” added Bright.

“To disappointing Gato.” Cima threw back the contents of the glass down her throat and it exploded like fire. She coughed, tears forming at the corner of her eyes. Bright was no better off, one hand over his mouth and the other – cup dropped – clutching his chest as it was wracked by his coughs.

Ramius, who had drained her cup smoothly looked amused and only slightly teary-eyed. “Lightweights,” she said sweetly.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Checking the supply contracts didn’t tell Relena what was being worked on, but she could tell that they were all being sent out to what had once been Mahal. The colony-cylinder-sized laser that had been Gihren Zabi’s ultimate weapon.

He’d come terrifyingly close to victory and after the war she wouldn’t have been surprised if the Federation had demolished the entire thing. But they hadn’t, just removing various key components and stationing a garrison there to make sure it wasn’t used again.

Or used again without their sanction, at least. She’d realised early on just how fragile the Federation’s confidence in the peace they’d signed was. Zeon’s fleet had been handed over but the Federation had lost in essence their pre-war fleet and most of what they’d built to replace it. They needed the colony laser, if not to use then to reinforce their own confidence that they could resume their former place as the government of all humanity.

It hadn’t quite worked out that way thought and she – and perhaps the Federation – had somehow managed to forget that it was still out there and could be restored, relatively easily, to full function.

And now perhaps its hour had come. She wasn’t enough of an engineer to know if it would destroy a colony outright, but the damage would be tremendous. Certainly enough to kill anyone aboard it and possibly enough to deflect it. Kira would know, she thought and then dismissed it as irrelevant.

What puzzled Relena was why they were ordering the parts from Zeon manufacturers. The original components still existed as far as she knew, in secure storage at Zahn – the centre of Federation power in space. Shipping them here would be a matter of days. It wouldn’t have surprised her if the cruisers that brought Dorothy Catalonia here carried them here.

“I hope I haven’t sent the Albion into the path of its attack,” she said when she was absolutely sure she was alone with Crowley Hamon.

The bar owner and singer smiled a little wearily. “Sometimes all we can do is hope for the best,” she counselled. “Trust their judgement. And there may be more to this than it at first appears.”

“There almost certainly is.”

Relena had dined at the bar only because it was part of her normal routine and it would have seemed suspicious not to. She wouldn’t have been surprised at all if she was being followed – Dorothy Catalonia’s trust was shallow at best. Then again, the woman was the grand-daughter of the new Prime Minister and had been reared in an intensely political and very influential family. She was probably used to keeping everyone at arms’ length.

Making her way home, the disguised governor saw eyes following her on the street. Some might – or might not – be agents of Federation Intelligence. Others she recognised as people who’d lived in the area since before her return to Zeon. People who were once again beginning to regard her as an outsider and recall that she was part of the Federation occupation and not just a neighbour.

Things had been going well, she’d thought. Perhaps the Federation’s leaders had been wiser than she if the progress on healing the wounds of the war was so easily undone.

In the apartment she kicked off her shoes, checked the phone – no messages – and sank into an armchair. It would be idiotic of Kira to reply to her but she wished she knew for sure if he’d received her warning.

Opening her case, she started looking through the paperwork, digging deeper into the stack she’d brought from the office. It wasn’t encouraged but nor was it prohibited and quite a number of the more ambitious officers wound up working extra hours at home.

It was close to midnight when Relena found something and at first she thought she was just too tired and mis-reading the documents.

The contracts weren’t claiming that parts were being sent to the colony lasers. They were claiming that they had already been sent. The dates were spread through the last six months.

She doublechecked. The contracts should be those that had been added to the database since the last back-up. There shouldn’t be anything more than a week old at most. She couldn’t have missed orders like this – they should have crossed her desk twice, once as Relena and once as Artesia.

If these were accurate then someone had been quietly readying the colony-laser for use, starting months before the current crisis.

A cold chill went down Relena’s back and she looked at the authorisation codes. Each contract showed one damning but dishonest identifier among those approving it. Artesia Som Deikun, the provisional governor.

“It’s a smoking gun,” she murmured, mind racing. She’d never approved these contracts and she was sure the firms mentioned had never seen them. There was no need for them to because no one was relying on Zeon firms to restore the colony laser. The only purpose of these contracts was to present the appearance that Zeon was rearming under her leadership, restoring the laser.

It was all the justification the Federation Senate would need to denounce her government and impose full military occupation over the Zeon colonies, just as General Jamitov had desired.

Jamitov’s headquarters was in the Zahn cluster, he could easily have arranged access to the original components to ship them here – or just to have them examined and duplicates so that the Federation would ‘know’ that the parts being fitted right now were the replacements the contracts spoke of.

How much of this did he plan? the young woman asked herself, not daring to speak out loud any further and already regretting her words a moment ago. What if her apartment was bugged? Was Jamitov the mastermind or just an opportunist, seizing on the chance to fan up hatred of Zeon to justify expanding the power at his command.

Does it even matter? she thought numbly. If this goes on, he’ll have the laser and in the Specials he’ll have an army to protect it. Add in Federation Intelligence as his eyes and ears… if he places a proxy in charge of the military occupation then he’ll control some of the most industrialised colonies… In all but name he’ll have a personal empire even stronger than Zeon at the start of the war. And by destroying the colony headed for Earth, he’ll be politically credible as their saviour from a second Sydney.

How far does he mean to go? How far can he go?

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Zechs Merquise – he saw no reason not to keep using the name for now - was napping in the command centre of the Zodiac base. He’d agreed to monitor the many systems that kept the base operating and the cameras that should let them know if the crew were breaking out of their confinement, but he didn’t really see the point. There was next to nothing he could do if anything broke and since the confinement was dependent on one sealed hatch and a lot of bluff, if the crew got out all he could do was run away.

As a result, he’d set up a few alarms, put his feet up on one console and was getting some sleep. It would probably be in short supply in the near future so he wanted to be well rested.

Athrun Zala and Johnny Ridden were down in the hangers, carving up mobile suits for their reactors. There was no time for a proper disassembly so they were using a beam sabre. It was kind of a shame, Zechs rather liked the look of the Jovian’s copies of the Zaku and Dom. He’d have liked a chance to see how they performed but alas such indulgences would have to be foregone under these circumstances.

One of the alarms going off brought him to his feet, sleep banished. He checked the cameras… no sign of a prison break. Engineering… no alerts on the reactor or on life support so it didn’t seem that they were about to die. That left…

Aha, communications. If he was reading the controls right then they’d received a message. Really, was it necessary for a glorified videophone to be so complicated? The message wasn’t even video, just a page or so of scrambled letters. Encrypted obviously.

The allure of reading someone’s secret messages stirred Zechs’ interest and he dug around to see if the communications staff had left anything lying around that would let him decipher the codes.

It took him an hour to find a folder containing one-time codes, each sub-folder conveniently marked with a prefix code to indicate which sender would use it. Matching this he found the right code on his third attempt – the document listing them conveniently opened to the last page viewed, which was a security hazard in its own right. God help the Zodiac Alliance’s spies, he thought, going up against Federation intelligence. If they didn’t learn quickly then Jamitov was going to take them for everything they had.

The deciphering was as simple as copying the code into one field and the message into the other. The computer took mere seconds to render it as plain text and Zechs frowned as he skimmed it, going back to the beginning and reading more carefully. Anavel Gato, was it? He hadn’t crossed his path before really – Gato had joined Dozle’s fleet after his time and made his name in the desperate fighting around Solomon Base. Why he was apparently now running Aigulle Delaz’s fleet eluded Zechs but presumably there was some story he wasn’t aware of.

Reaching out for the controls again, Zechs found the frequency the others were using while they worked on their mobile suit butchery. “Zala, I have a technical question for you.”

The younger man sounded distracted. “Just a moment, we’re at a fiddly stage.”

Waiting, Zechs heard metal crash against metal. “Okay,” Athrun continued. “What can do for you?”

“You’ve heard about the colony laser that Gihren Zabi used to destroy his father and General Revil during the negotiations before A Baoa Qu?” he asked. “How effective do you think that would be in shooting at a colony?”

“…there are a few variables. It would kill everyone on the colony if that’s what you mean. I take it this isn’t hypothetical?”

“No.” Zechs looked again at the message. “The Delaz fleet apparently have a source of information in the Zeon colonies and it seems that someone is working at getting the laser ready to fire. Since they still think they can expect reinforcements from your father, they’re passing the warning along.”

“Oh.” There was a pause at Athrun’s end and Zechs guessed he was deep in thought. “I don’t have exact numbers,” he said at last. “The ends of a colony might be dense enough to absorb the damage but I doubt it and more than likely the shot would catch at least part of the sides anyway.”

“So they can destroy Delaz’s colonies?”

“Well… one of them. Hitting both with one shot would be tricky and I think each shot from the laser then requires a cooling period and some repairs… If they fire right now then they might be able to get a second shot off in time, I’m not sure. But not three.”

“Ah, that makes sense then,” Zechs concurred. “Gato talks about adjusting the course of one colony to make sure they can’t both be hit with a single shot from Zeon’s position.”

“I’m not sure how practical it would be to hit both, details on how much the laser pulse expands are classified of course. Of course, we’re talking about distances measured in millions of kilometres. It’s an incredible technological accomplishment.”

“I would have said terrifying. If it can hit the colonies from here then it could hit the Earth as well?”

“Oh yes,” Athrun said, sounding surprised at the question. “Obviously. The atmosphere would attenuate the damage but it’s well within range. It could probably destroy targets as far away as Sol-Earth One if the planet wasn’t in the way.”

Zechs rubbed his chin. “So they can take out one of the colonies but maybe not the other. Well, at least that should cut our problems in half.”

“It’ll certainly be a lot easier to break up one colony than two,” the younger man agreed. “Can I help with anything else?”

“No, that’s everything for now.” Zechs cut the channel and sat back in his chair. Who was putting the laser back in service? he wondered. As a solution to the problem of the Delaz Fleet it was quite elegant if now possibly slightly too late – then again, recalling the Mars fleet would have set operations there back by months if not years given the optimal window for the transit would have passed.

But would the laser be disabled again after its use? After all, there was a case that could be made that it should be held ready against similar attacks in the future.

And who would control the laser? Zeon was a long way from the Earth and the Federation would be placing enormous trust in the man on the spot to resist the temptation to attempt what Gihren Zabi had, to command the Earth sphere by means of the tremendous power of the weapon.

For the first time in years Zechs mentally thanked Kycilla Zabi. If she hadn’t blown her brother’s brains out for his patricidal use of it against their father and Zeon command hadn’t fragmented then even the victory of the Federation’s remaining forces at A Baoa Qu wouldn’t have been enough. He had no doubts that Gihren would have retreated and then ordered the laser deployed against Zeon’s final fortress and the Federation forces assaulting it, killing them and probably Zechs.

And Artesia, he thought. Oh you foolish foolish young woman. What was she doing on Zeon? he wondered. Was she a prisoner? He doubted the Federation would allow Zeon any degree of self-rule while they were right next to the most powerful weapon ever conceived by man.

She’s surprised me before, Zechs thought to himself. She’s tougher and smarter than mother, more flexible than father. And she hates less than I do. I have to trust that she’ll realise she can’t win there and to get away to fight another day.

Whatever else happened, it was out of his hands for now. Checking the alarms were still active he went to look for something he could drink that might take the bitter taste out of his mouth.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Cima was getting to grips with the controls of her Rick Dias when she saw a flare of light from the direction of Zeon.

“What was that?” Job Johns brought his own mobile suit around, perhaps thinking they were under attack. The bulky Rick Dias weren’t quite as agile as her Gelgoog, Cima thought, but that might be her personal preference speaking rather than an objective measurement. They were certainly superior to a Hizack and had reactors to support multiple beam weapons.

Inside her cockpit she swallowed. It had looked like… Would anyone really do that? “Mahal…” she murmured.

There were more flashes of light, smaller and more obvious in cause as the Albion fired flares to signal for them to return aboard.

Turning her Rick Dias around, Cima began the process of matching velocity with the cruiser. Opposite her, she saw Job doing the same. He was far more comfortable with this admittedly dangerous process than he was with combat training, she thought. Perhaps that was why he’d opted for shuttles rather than mobile suits once the war was over.

Lined up with the hatches they slowed their suits gradually, letting the Albion overtake them and the mobile suit bays swallowed them. There was a familiar impact as the feet of Cima’s Rick Dias met the deck and she automatically cut her thrusters, keeping the mobile suit steady as articulated arms moved out to lock it into position.

A few moments later and her Rick Dias had been moved into its slot within the hanger. There was room aboard for eight mobile suits although Job had mentioned that except in wartime conditions only a single four suit squadron was carried. Then his eyes had seemed to look past her and he mumbled that in war, of course, not all the suits would be operational.

She understood the sentiment and had changed the topic before the undoubtedly sore topic of the availability of pilots came up.

“Major Cima, Ensign Johns, report to the command deck immediately,” came a tannoy announcement.

Exchanging wary looks, the two headed through the airlock, removing their helmets. On a Zeon ship the use of the word immediately would have meant not waiting to change out of pilot suits and Cima guessed the same was true here since Johns led her past the ready room and up two decks.

There was an armed guard outside the command deck but he must have been expecting them since he simply saluted as they went past and into the command deck.

Cima looked first for the captain in the articulated seats at the centre but they were empty and she finally spotted Ramius and Bright leaning over the navigator’s shoulder.

Bright straightened as they approached. “There was a high energy event somewhere in the Zeon colony cluster,” he explained in a low voice.

“I saw it,” Cima confirmed.

Job nodded. “The colour looked like…” He shook his head and it took Cima a moment to realise that the man was physically trembling.

“Like what?” Bright folded his arms. “The captain thought she recognised it too, but she won’t say what as.”

“The last time I saw it.” She licked her lips before saying it. “It was before A Baoa Qu.”

“Before…” Bright was quick, she’d give him that. “Gihren’s laser?”

Ramius straightened. “Ensign Yamato called it the light of hatred.” Her eyes focused on Job and softened slightly. “Never mind, Job. You’re excused. Get some rest.”

The man saluted, face pale and walked away. Cima watched him go and then gave Ramius a look. “He was there?”

“He was flying off a carrier in Revil’s task force for that campaign,” the captain said simply. “He was one of the lucky ones… after a fashion. The only survivor of not just his squadron but of the entire ship. When we recovered him, he had to be sedated.” She rubbed her face. “The source of the light is confirmed. Someone has fired the colony laser.”

“At the Delaz Fleet?” asked Cima.

“No.” Ramius shook her head firmly. “We’re close enough to the line of fire for that sort of a shot that we’d have seen it due to visible light scattering. I’ve seen that before.”

Bright went over to the sensor station and checked. “Both colonies are still intact as far as we can tell from this distance.”

The obvious question hung in the air.

“Let me have a look at the data,” Cima offered. “I’ve probably seen that thing closer than either of you, maybe I can figure out which direction it was firing in.”

“Thank you.” Ramius pointed to one of the centre seats. “It’s accessible from there.”

Cima headed for the seat, not elevated at the moment since they were under thrust, and activated its private displays. Sure enough, sensor data files were accessible from them and she checked them, calling up the horrible memory of her home’s defilement for comparison.

She still recalled the nausea that she’d felt as Mahal blazed for the first time as Gihren’s weapon. Her crew had all but broken down, every man and woman a native of Mahal who had volunteered to serve Zeon never dreaming what price the Zabi family’s ambitions would demand of them.

Not towards Earth, nor towards Luna. No, the profile was all wrong for that. She rotated the sensor data, trying to match what she recalled. That? No… no… that. Yes. That was it. So, if she orientated it like that…

“Out system?” Ramius murmured, looking over her shoulder. Cima wasn’t sure how long the other woman had been watching her work. “What’s out there?”

“It’s got a lot of range, but I doubt it can hit Mars or the asteroids.” Cima sat back in the chair. She’d been looking at the data for more than an hour, she realised, looking at the clock.

Ramius froze. “Not the planet, no.” She reached in and started entering commands.

“Captain?” Bright asked.

“Check my figures,” she demanded.

Bright looked at her and then activated the bridge’s main display screen, bringing up a display of the solar system. A line shot out from Zeon, stretching out across the orbital plane of the planets, intersecting with none of them. And then another, curving line shot out from the Earth. A line that met with the first line. After another moment, a marker appeared right at that junction.

“What did they shoot at?” Cima asked as the two Federation officers stared at the screen.

“That icon is the current location of the Mars fleet,” Bright said when Ramius didn’t respond. “The Federation’s only offensive force.” He paused. “The biggest concentration of pre-war personnel. Most of the defensive fleets are made up of federalised militia units and wartime trainees.”

Cima bit her lip. “Do you have any way of determining their status?”

“Not at this distance,” Ramius said distantly. “But… the range is greater than when it was fired at Revil so the pulse would do less damage but across a wider area. Unless they missed completely, I doubt more than a couple of ships escaped damage.” Her voice was clinical. “At best, a handful of ships might be in a condition to return to Earth.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Press briefings weren’t usually part of Hyman Jamitov’s responsibilities but under the circumstances it was necessary for him to step forwards a little. At least he was able to do this on Zahn where the worst of the press could be excluded on vaguely worded security concerns. Only reputable – and reliable – news agencies were represented amongst the journalists in the room.

Dermail Catalonia was at the podium already, the prime minister setting the stage. It had been relatively easy to persuade the old man that he shouldn’t be the one reporting the news to the Federation at large. No one wanted to be associated with what looked like a disaster, particularly someone so new to his office and apparently reaping the rewards of his predecessor’s failures.

“In the interests of transparency,” Catalonia announced, “I will now ask General Jamitov of Federation military intelligence to explain the situation to all of you, just as he reported it to me several hours ago.” He stepped back and Jamitov rose to his feet.

Looking out from the podium he saw the empty eyes of the cameras and the almost as empty eyes of the journalists who clutched microphones and prepared to vomit their first thoughts on his words out to the Federation as a whole.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” – just in case some were unaccountably present – “I must regretfully report that the provisional government of Zeon have carried out an act of war against the Federation.”

For a wonder, no one spoke. The media fell dead silent.

He took advantage. “The recent events – the attacks near Dakar, at Lake Victoria and in California – are not disjointed occurrences. Our investigation of these attacks has led us to a conspiracy between the renegade Zeon soldiers who refused to surrender after the capture of A Baoa Qu and a number of other anti-Federation groups who had fallen under their influence.”

“Many of these groups had distressing levels of support. We can confirm, for example, that the mobile suits in use by the Delaz Fleet are illicitly supplied to them by supporters within certain colonies. It is without doubt that the greatest well-spring of support for them must be within the Zeon colonies themselves and I assigned a team to investigate there to see if the provisional government had failed in its efforts to suppress such activity.”

He gripped the podium. “With grave regret, I can tell you that there was no failure simply because the government, led by Artesia Som Deikun herself, has made no more than token efforts to do so. Instead they are a fully active participant in the conspiracies that have cost so many innocent lives.”

Murmurs began to resume among the audience as they took this in, speculating as to his meaning.

Jamitov turned and bowed his head slightly in the direction of Treize Khrushrenada. “Upon receiving these reports, the Federation’s Special forces were dispatched immediately to take control of Zeon City and arrest the provisional government. We were, to my great personal sorrow, just barely too late to capture Governor Deikun or to prevent her from carrying out a terrible and unasked for strike against the Federation.”

“As troops prepared to seize it, the colony laser used by Gihren Zabi was activated and successfully fired a single shot before it could be shut down. The target of the attack has been confirmed as the Federation’s Mars fleet – a force that was in no way a threat towards Zeon. As yet, we have had no communications from the fleet and it appears possible that casualties may have been total.”

Someone in the audience fainted and Jamitov eyed him with what he hoped appeared to be concern before concluding. “While the laser is now securely in Federation hands, Artesia Som Deikun has not yet been captured and we must anticipate that her conspiracy will continue to strike at us. We are, whether we wish it or not, at war with this new Zeon threat… this Neo-Zeon if you will.”

The general squared his shoulders. “With the prime minister’s consent, I will now answer questions from the press. Please understand that I cannot divulge classified information about ongoing operations.”

Staffers brought the journalists into order as their initial questions drowned each other out. Jamitov left it to the professionals to determine who would be allowed to speak first.

“Marshall Brookes of Earth Times,” the first reporter queued asked once precedence was settled. “General, given the Mars fleet was committed to defend Mars from the Zodiac Alliance, does the use of the laser on them indicate that the Alliance are backing the conspiracy?”

“We are certain that they are in communication,” he answered gravely. “Investigations are continuing.”

“Baines de Montfort of the InterSolar News,” a woman introduced herself. “May I ask what forces you believe Neo-Zeon could have given Zeon’s post-war disarmament.”

“There is evidence to suggest that Governor Deikun was in contact with the Butcher of Halifax,” Jamitov revealed. Stupid woman, did she think he wouldn’t put two and two together? “Added to the Delaz fleet this indicates at least two fleets of warships are active in the Earth Sphere.”

“How was this allowed to happen?” another man demanded without identifying himself. “Why didn’t the Federation stop this?”

“While Marshal Ulyanov is unavailable to answer for the administration of the Federation armed forces, Minister Cabell-Scott has been suspended from office,” Jamitov announced with carefully hidden pleasure, “while investigations take place into why the civilian agencies observing Zeon made no note of the laser’s status.”

“Randolph Peer.” A surprisingly young man. “New Moore Networks. May I ask what is being done to search for survivors of the Mars fleet.”

“You may ask, sir.”

There was a titter of laughter at the reporter’s expense as Jamitov paused.

“It would not be prudent,” he continued, “To reveal where we have withdrawn ships for that purpose. I can inform you that cruisers are on their way, along with a hospital ship. I am sure all our prayers are with them.”

“Rong Rhonda, East Asia Discourse. Will the Federation be destroying the colony laser now that it’s been used for a second time against the Federation’s military forces?”

“The laser is a military asset,” he told the woman. “At the moment we are in need of all possible resources against Neo-Zeon. You may expect its security is being taken far more seriously until such time as it can be dispensed with.”

“Does that mean it’ll be fired at the colonies that have been commandeered by the Delaz fleet?” she demanded rather than allowing a second question.

Jamitov gave her a grim look. “That would fall under operational matters, Ms. Rong.”

One of the staffers firmly took away Rong’s microphone and another looked ready to make her sit down if she didn’t comply. Her place was taken by an older man. “Don Jaime Belisario of the Worldwide Broadcast Service. “Will the federation be issuing a formal declaration of war against Neo-Zeon?”

Jamitov bowed his head. “That would be a political question, sir. I must refer you to the Prime Minister.”

Catalonia stepped forwards and the general yielded the place, returning to his seat. Hopefully he’d presented himself as a reasonable authority figure – a reliable presence to see them through the crisis.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

“Even though they were going to be fighting against my people, is it wrong that I feel sorry for the Mars fleet,” asked Athrun as he secured the last reactor inside the Zodiac Alliance stealth ship. Even removed from their mobile suits the reactors were large enough that he’d used the Strike Rouge to carry them aboard one at a time.

“It’s not wrong,” Ridden told him. Zechs saw him give him a sharp look. “They were shot in the back by people who claimed to be on the same side. But you probably shouldn’t be focused on them when you’re working with explosives.”

Athrun checked the reactor was tied down and then backed up. “They aren’t modern explosives and even if they were, they wouldn’t go off just because I dropped them. Only an idiot would use unstable high explosives these days when there are so many safer alternatives.”

Zechs chuckled. “They still use them in traditional fireworks.”

The other two, who’d never lived outside the colonies gave him disbelieving looks. “Fireworks?” asked Athrun incredulously.

“Come on, no one would do that. Children play with fireworks. Who’d give them something that could go off accidentally?”

“I didn’t believe it either but back when I was a kid, they let my little sister set one off. I didn’t realise what it was until they gave her a live flame to set it off with.”

“…how old was she?” Athrun asked dubiously.

“Nine years old.”

“She still has her face, right? No missing fingers.”

“Fortunately, yes. Earthnoids’ idea of risk assessment has a few holes in it.” Zechs watched as Athrun moved the Strike Rouge into the hanger proper and locked it down for transport between the Strike Noir and the Blu Duel. “Is that it? Are we ready to go?”

The black-haired pilot left the cockpit. “I can’t think of anything else we can do to prepare.”

“Are we all set up to release our prisoners?”

“It’s ready to go on the press of a button,” Athrun confirmed. “Have you taken care of the radios, Johnny?”

“The transmitter is one more piece of junk out there,” the oldest of them confirmed. “By the time they rig up a replacement it’ll be too late to warn Gato or anyone else that we’re going for the colonies.”

Zechs nodded in agreement. “Then let’s close the ship up and get moving.”

It wasn’t quite that simple with just the three of them – they had to depressurise the hanger and open the hatch, both of them two-man jobs – before they could take off. Athrun and Zechs took care of those tasks though, leaving Ridden to finish up the pre-launch checks on the ship. Then the pair of them ran in their pilot suits across the hanger and up into the ship’s airlock.

Pausing at the hatch, Zechs made sure it was sealed tightly before Athrun opened the inner one. Necessarily stored flat in the low hanger, the ship’s proper orientation was vertical, leaving the fixtures in strange places as they made their way up to the command deck. With no weapons mounted there, the little chamber was right behind the nose shield with a seat facing in each of the cardinal directions, only the hatch down to the rest of the ship between them.

“Buckle in,” Ridden warned as they entered and flipped the switch to activate the manoeuvring thrusters.

Zechs was jerked back and forth as thousands of tons of ship lifted off the deck. Even in microgravity it wasn’t the smoothest of actions and they couldn’t exactly practise. He glared at Ridden and tightened his straps. “How’s the cargo holding up?” he asked.

“Looks secure,” Athrun confirmed. “Do you want to do the honours or shall I?”

“I wouldn’t think of depriving you of the pleasure,” Zechs assured him. “Besides, I need all my attention on memorising the image of the great Crimson Lightning struggling to control this thing. If only his admirers could see him now.”

“You’re one to talk, you cocky – showboating – backstabbing – weasel,” snarled Ridden as he brought the ship up to the hatch. He exhaled as the ship lined up. “There’s almost no room to work with and this thing steers like a pig on ice.”

Athrun shook his head at that and pressed a button, activating the little robot he’d set up outside the door of the prison. “Hello, everyone. Sorry for the inconvenience but it was rather necessary. You’ll be happy to know that you can go back to your regularly scheduled lives shortly.”

“Any moment now, a cutting torch will start opening up the door for you. All going well the door will be open in about ten minutes, although I left a few surprises and so I’d really suggest waiting thirty minutes or so before you try to leave. Um, maybe sixty minutes would be safer.”

“Now it’s possible I made a mistake and the cutting torch won’t open the door. In that case… well, I’m ninety-nine percent sure I got it right. Really, you’ve got much better odds than the billions of civilians I was ordered to help kill would have had. Oh, and for those who had laundry on the go when we locked you up, let me reassure you that I hung it all out to dry for you. Just to show how considerate we are.”

“You’re enjoying this far too much,” Ridden noted once Athrun had shut down the radio. “What was that about laundry?”

“Exactly what I said,” the young man said seriously. “Leaving the clothes soaked in the machines would wreck them.”

“Somehow I suspect there’s more to it than that.”

Athrun smiled slightly. “I may have hung it all up in Joule’s and Elsmann’s offices, underwear and all.”

Ridden shook his head and opened up the throttle of the ship once they were clear of the hatch, manoeuvring to avoid the other side of the ring. “Maxwell was a terrible influence on you.”

“Before Junius Seven I was attending a technical college. Believe me, this is tame compared to some of the things students used to get up to. Sometimes I’m amazed anyone had energy to complete their classwork, the amount of time people spent setting up practical jokes at each other’s expense.”

“Sounds like they didn’t work you hard enough,” Char noted. Then he frowned. “You know, I never thought to ask. What’s this ship called. She has a name, right?”

“Of course.” Ridden pointed to a small bronze plaque in attached to a bulkhead next to his station. “She’s the Shrinking Violet.”

“Because she’s so subdued and inoffensive?”

“I’d assume so.” Ridden eyed the monitor. “Of course, the Delaz Fleet may see her in another light once we’re through.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Crisp white tablecloth, silver cutlery and cut crystal glasses marked the officer’s mess at Jamitov’s headquarters. While it certainly wasn’t the only thing that he and Treize Khrushrenada agreed upon, civilised dining practises were one of the things they had in common and the service they received at the small side table set aside for them wouldn’t have embarrassed a five-star hotel down on Earth.

Jamitov considered it a simple exercise in management: he expected the best from his subordinates but in exchange they could expect the best treatment from him. And of course, if they had to interact with the Federation’s political and financial elite it meant that his officers would never stand out through poor table manners, something that had tripped up more than a few investigators before he took over. Compared to that, the expense was trivial.

Colonel Une, the third person at the table, was a less common dining partner but she was perfectly mannerly and Jamitov suspected she’d be as smoothly competent if she was in a gown and following the proper social cues of a lady as opposed to the gentlemanly rules that applied to those in uniform, regardless of their actual gender.

“The repairs to the laser are taking slightly longer than expected,” she noted. “It remains in question whether two shots against the Delaz fleet will be possible.”

“It wouldn’t be too late for the Specials to launch a direct attack,” Treize noted casually. He took a bite from his beef and reached for his wineglass as he chewed. “There are enough ships at Zahn to carry forty mobile suits,” he added, as if Jamitov might not be aware.

“A necessary counter-balance against the inner colonies and their militia forces,” Jamitov corrected him, cutting open a roast potato. “And the mobile suits will be needed to maintain order in Zeon now that the provisional government has been removed.”

“You seem to have a great deal of faith in the colony lasers.”

The white-haired general chewed on the mouthful of potato as he considered his reply. “I have faith in the image of such a weapon as the arbiter of power. Many of the colony clusters have fleets but there is only one laser.”

Une raised her own glass and sipped on the contents. “Casualties are unpredictable if one of the colonies are dropped. “Casualties are unpredictable if one of the colonies are dropped, since we don’t know where it will land.”

“Civil defence plans are in place from the war,” he said dismissively. “But I am sure General Khrushrenada will do all in his power to ensure that the laser is used in time, despite his disdain for the weapon.”

“Using one faceless weapon of terror against another doesn’t offend me,” agreed Treize calmly. “But it isn’t a fitting weapon to use against warriors.”

Jamitov looked at his de facto second-in-command and frowned slightly. “History may be written by the victors, but reading between the lines of it shows that the victors are most often those who employ the most pragmatic path for victory.”

“I would certainly agree, but it is also replete with examples of leaders who pushed to the point that all around them felt that they had no choice but to unite and destroy them at any price. Karl XII of Sweden, for example.”

Jamitov didn’t recall the specifics of that case off hand but he could think of others. “Pragmatism does not exclude restraint, that is true.” He cut into the beef on his plate. “I trust that you will exercise that virtue in the use of the laser. So long as it is understood that we can unleash it, I see no reason to utilise it except where it is genuinely the best choice.”

Treize nodded, eyed the contents of his wine glass and signalled to a waiting attendant for a refill. He waited until the man had left before adding: “I would hope for similar restraint in the use of the project that you have taken on for us, Colonel Une.”

The woman lowered her head demurely. “I will be guided by your example, sir.”

“It isn’t anything I’m in a hurry to employ,” the spymaster concurred. “The senate would react poorly. Once the technology is matured, however…”

“The potential is unquestionable,” Treize agreed. “Once it is the hands of loyal soldiers, but such men and women are forged in battle, not the product of laboratories.”

“The Coordinators might differ from you on that.”

“Then they are mistaken,” came the immediate reply. “The physical and mental potential may be ensured – although I have not found them markedly out of line with the best of unmodified humanity - but the spirit and discipline of a soldier are not found in DNA any more than they have successfully induced artistic genius.”

Une toyed with her glass. “Some would say that the Chairman of the Alliance’s daughter is a counter-argument,” she said cautiously.

Jamitov snorted sharply. “I doubt very much if Siegel Clyne intentionally asked for that talent in his offspring. If I accept the argument that war is an art rather than a science then I must also take General Khrushrenada’s side, colonel.”

She lowered her face and focused on her meal, apparently abashed. “I stand corrected, sir.”

“If you feel that the Murasame test subjects are not of value, General, for what reason do you advocate their continued study?” Jamitov continued. “We could begin again. I am sure we would not lack for more… politically acceptable volunteers. Wounded veteran soldiers, for example.”

Treize leant forwards. “The Institute has dehumanised them, a process that would not be acceptable in enabling our soldiers to use this… psycommu system. By rehabilitating them we can perfect the process of inducing the capability without compromising their loyalty or discipline. The use of a mobile suit with such power should never be entrusted to a mere berserker.”

Berserkers can be useful, if suitably guided, thought Jamitov. As can any weapon. And a weapon cannot aspire to be some kind of ‘master race’ in the way Zabi interpreted Deikun’s foolishness. “It would be of limited value,” he agreed. “We should also consider whether suitable pilots exist within our ranks – suitable in both talent and… shall I say character?”

“Such soldiers would be worth cultivation.” Treize finished his main course and leant back slightly, wiping the corner of his mouth with a napkin as a waiter approached to remove the plate.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Shortbus colony hadn’t changed much in the weeks since they’d departed it under Trowa Barton’s command – a short cylinder just as wide as the other colonies of the cluster but only a third as long. At some point work might resume, adding more length and eventually transitioning the construction end into a port facility but for now it remained an apparently abandoned building site.

Heero and Duo had entered through the completed end, as far away from the hangers and factory complex they’d seen before. While the site’s obscurity was its main defence, someone would probably at least be watching so they left the shuttle and borrowed a mobile worker from a dock on one of the colonies still being constructed. One of several dozen it shouldn’t be missed and Heero deactivated its transponder while Duo painted over the industrial orange exterior with matte black paint.

The result wasn’t much of a stealth craft but since no one intercepted them, it was probably good enough. If it wasn’t then they’d have to find out the hard way.

The interior of the cylinder felt very different crossing it in their pilot suits rather than the Gerbera Tetras. Much larger, much more ominous. The latter, Duo was inclined to blame on the circumstances. There was no atmosphere inside and they’d each carried an extra air cylinder for the trip, topping up their suits as they crossed the expanse on foot.

The cylinders were almost empty when they arrived at their destination. Unless they obtained more there was no way back.

Prying open a cover, Heero began work on the electronic surveillance that should alert what passed for a security room if anyone used the airlock. Duo waited for him to nod, trying not to watch his air gauge. On the signal he activated the controls quickly and entered, joined by Heero, and closed the door behind them.

Air gushed into the little chamber and they cracked their helmets, taking deep breaths. “If we were noticed, chances are they’ll be waiting outside the lock,” Heero warned.

Duo shrugged. “That’s the risk.” He opened the door as sharply as he could, braced for someone to shoot them. Or try to tackle him. Or…

Well, there were many possibilities but none of them mattered because there was no one waiting for them.

Heero gave him a slight smile.

“Oh sure, like you weren’t nervous.”

“Terrified. Now try not to be seen, but if we are seen, try not to be suspicious.”

“I’m not suspicious of anything,” Duo protested. “I trust everyone without question, I am a font of not suspecting people.” He paused. “Also babbling.”

“Yes. You really are.”

As they moved carefully up through the colony there were more signs of occupation. The colony’s main access was on the centre line and most of what the Bartons had set up was near it for convenience. It was eerily quiet though.

Heero threw his hand up for Duo to stop as they reached a stairwell. Duo froze, trying to reach out with his every sense for what it was. A moment later he heard footsteps on the stairs. If the hatch isolating the stairwell had been fitted, there wouldn’t have even been that much warning.

The pair backed up and Duo checked the first door they found. It was locked but not very securely. Pulling out some pins he worked the lock and they were through it and closing the door behind them almost immediately.

There was only barely room for them both, some sort of supply cabinet with shelves that dug into his back.

Outside they heard the feet again. “You know,” a nasal voice complained. “I didn’t think I’d be babysitting when I signed up.”

“If it wasn’t important, we wouldn’t be given the job. Trust the general that it’s important,” another voice pointed out.

Heero gave them a moment to move on and then opened the door a crack.

The men had their backs to them, magnetic boots holding their feet against the floor. Duo’s eyes narrowed. It was hard to tell from behind but the green jackets and cream pants looked like the uniform of the Specials.

Heero opened the door wider and pointed to Duo, then the one on the left, then himself and the one on right. Duo mimed throwing a punch and got a nod. Okay, so they were going to jump them?

Careful not to make a sound the two of them exited the cabinet, braced themselves against the wall and then threw themselves through the microgravity and at their respective targets. Duo didn’t see what Heero did, although there was a painful sounding thump, he locked one arm around his own target’s neck and grabbed for his gun with the other.

The man struggled, trying to shake Duo off and retain his gun at the same time. The first time he jabbed his elbow back, Duo was sure he’d have a bruise later. The second, hitting the same spot, hurt much more. “Why… won’t… you…” Duo grumbled.

Heero came into view, kicking the man below the ribs. When he gasped and doubled over, the other pilot caught his throat and pressed. A few seconds later the man was unconscious.

“Why didn’t that work for me!” protested Duo.

“You missed the carotid artery,” Heero explained. “The point of a stranglehold isn’t to stop him breathing, it’s to stop blood from reaching the brain.”

“Oh.” He looked at the guns, then at the uniforms. “They’re Specials.”

Heero nodded.

“Think we’re too late?”

“Babysitting suggests not. And if they’d moved the children, they’d not still be here.” Heero eyed the pair for a moment and then started unbuttoning the uniforms. “They’re pretty large guys. Get changed.”

“They are gonna hate us,” Duo noted, stripping off his opponent’s jacket. It just barely fit on over his pilot suit but he’d have to leave the helmet behind. “It’s not very warm down here.”

“Someone’ll find them eventually.” Heero pulled on pants and boots before trying the jacket. Even over his pilot suit it was obviously too large.

“Switch,” offered Duo, taking his jacket off again. Neither was a perfect fit but they were better. He tucked his braid down the collar of the jacket to hide it.

Going up the stairs they could feel that it was warmer. Opening the door, two more Federation soldiers walked past them but didn’t give either of them a second glance.

Thinking back to their previous time here, Duo thought they were near the quarters they’d lived out of. It made sense that they’d be in use for military personnel now. When they discussed it before arriving, they’d agreed that any development of a mobile suit like the Queen Mansa would take place in the hanger and workshops that had been used for the Gerbera Tetras. But where the children be was less easy to guess.

Heero led the way along the hallway and they turned into a gallery looking back out into the colony interior, confirming Duo’s previous speculation of where they were. This far from the floor of the colony it wasn’t easy to see what was happening on it but he was still glad it seemed to be deserted. It would only have taken one person looking out at the wrong moment and they wouldn’t have gotten this far.

There was an upper level to the gallery, one they’d been asked not to intrude on before. The only thing that Duo was sure of was that it was where Trowa Barton had lived. Now Heero started walking up the stairs and Duo followed.

Look calm, he told himself. If anyone sees me, I mustn’t show any doubts that I should be here. If I only had a clipboard, it’d be perfect. No one questions someone walking around with a clipboard.

Heero gestured to the door they’d seen Barton use. “This one,” he said conversationally.

Well, that didn’t sound suspicious if anyone was listening. Duo tried the handle and found it to be locked. There must be something important inside if it was locked. Let’s see, upmarket electronic lock. Pulling a small electronic probe from his sleeve, Duo found the right place and inserted it into the socket.

The first try did nothing so he adjusted it and tried again. “Seems a bit stuck.” Two tries was bad. If he missed his guess a third time then there was usually an alarm function.

“Try again,” Heero said calmly.

Duo made another correction and applied the probe. To his relief the lock accepted the reset command and he typed in the factory pre-set code, springing it open. “My bad.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

The inside of the room was nothing they’d expected though. It wasn’t a room, really. It was an arboretum, full of thousands of plants. The planters were laid out ornamentally with winding paths through it.

“What the hell?” Duo muttered. “Barton was keeping this for himself? What a prick!”

“I don’t think it was here.” Heero walked to the nearest planter and examined it before nodding. “This has been recently re-potted. Someone set this up in the last… two weeks, tops.”

“I am amazed at the extent of your talents.”

“My mother was an avid gardener.” He shrugged. “I doubt this is the only door.”

Duo nodded and they walked deeper into the room. Taller bushes and even trees rose up and cut the room into several smaller sections as well as hiding the walls. If he hadn’t known better, Duo might have thought they were in the main space of a colony rather than an admittedly large room. There were even benches laid out for sitting.

“This all seems awfully elaborate to be left empty,” Duo murmured. “It’s kind of creepy. Why isn’t anyone here?”

There was a sniffling noise and he turned around sharply finding that the bench they’d just passed was occupied.

A small child had been laid out on it. For a moment he thought she was one of the many redheads among the children from Murasame but then he realised her hair was lighter and the shape of her face was different with a delicate chin and the beginnings of high cheekbones.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded.

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drakensis
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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by drakensis » 2018-11-20 06:58am

Chapter Seven – The Victor, the Messiah

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

The Rick Dias rattled a little as it was lifted into launch position. Cima had mentioned it the first time it happened in the limited training time they had and then ignored the issue. The Albion’s flight deck was set up for Dagger-series mobile suits and while it could manage the Rick Dias it was pushing the limits of the mechanisms.

Hatches sealed and she checked her cameras, watching as blast shields moved into position to redirect the heat of her thrusters away from vital moving parts.

“Major Cima,” Bright informed her from the command deck. “You’re clear to take off.”

“Understood.” She ejected the cord supplying the mobile suit with power from the cruiser’s reactor and the lights of the cockpit flickered as the suit’s own Minovsky reactor took up the task. “Garahau Cima, Rick Dias, launching!”

The twin thrusters on the mobile suit’s back roared to life, flinging her out into the void. A moment later the other Rick Dias joined her. Ahead in the distance the nearer of the two colonies was clearly visible. The second was no more than a sliver beyond it.

“Minovsky particles picking up,” Ramius warned. “We may lose radio contact. The enemy appear to have dispersed to try to avoid being taken out by a single strike from the colony laser. Two ships are in sensor range, too far apart for mutual support.”

Cima looked at her own display. Too far out still for the less capable sensors of her mobile suit. “Their classes, captain?”

“Papua-class.” The captain knew she need say more. Unable to match Federation warship numbers, Zeon had converted large numbers of transports to carry mobile suits. The Papua-class’s onboard squadron made them more than a match for Federation destroyers and older cruisers until they had started carrying mobile suits of their own, but the ships themselves were lightly armed and armoured. Even better, their sensors were second-rate – there was a good chance they hadn’t seen the Albion yet.

“We strike first then.”

“Correct,” Ramius confirmed. Behind Cima the Albion shifted course slightly. “Take heading zero-one-seven to engage the further of the two. We will engage the nearer with a long-range bombardment.”

Long range was relative – compared to the guided missiles that the Federation had preferred in the first weeks of the war, missiles that were utterly useless in heavy Minovsky particle conditions, the Albion would be engaging at point-blank range.

“Watch out for their mobile suits,” Cima warned and brought her engines up to full power as she took the requested strike. It would be a gerbera strike, much like that on the Federation destroyers that had once guarded these two colonies.

Job Jones fell in on her flank, saying nothing. Cima chose not to break the silence, less out of concern for radio detection than out of respect. He had his own ghosts to wrestle with. They plunged together towards the enemy.

While the Rick Dias’ sensors were less effective than those of a ship, they were also smaller and harder to detect. But there was no chance of reaching engagement range without being spotted, not even at this speed. It almost seemed that they had barely spotted the Papua before it was turning to face them, not so much to shoot as to mask the hatches on its side as mobile suits launched.

“Take the ship,” Job said quietly. “I’ll cover you.”

“Fine,” she said shortly, seeing the first mobile suit emerging. A Hizack, it lunged towards them, opening up with its machine gun. The Rick Dias had no shield to cover itself against the attack but the designers had fitted a pair of vulcan cannon rising up from behind the sensor head. Approaching like this, head on, the combined force of four 55mm guns ripped the Hizack apart mercilessly.

Cima ignored the next Hizack – and the third – as she brought out her beam rifle and focused in on the target. She fired once, the shot punching into the flank just behind the nose. It penetrated but did no damage. Adjusting her fire, she sent a second shot right into the bridge. Barely armoured, the compartment vented immediately.

Vaguely aware of explosions around her, she spun and decelerated as she went past the Papua, snapping off a shot that she wasn’t even sure had hit and then, from behind the thrusters, she scored a hit on the fuel tanks with her fourth shot from the beam rifle. In the long term that was an operational kill but it wasn’t enough now. She needed the ship dead.

A Hizack plunged after her, a rocket cannon in each hand. A moment before she had to break off to defend herself, Job’s Rick Dias was on it, a beam sabre in each hand. The Federation pilot drove each sabre deep into the back of the Delaz fleet machine and then burst away.

Steadying her aim, Cima fired again, aiming for the reactor where it lay surrounded by the fuel tank. The result was everything she could have hoped for – the rear half of the Papua disappeared in a brilliant explosion. Twisting the Rick Dias to avoid shrapnel from the explosion, Cima looked for more enemies – a least one more Hizack had launched.

She saw one immediately, a limb-less wreck with a final lethal beam sabre penetration over the cockpit and looked for Job.

She found him facing a fourth Hizack, beam sabres at maximum extension, almost touching the sensor head as if about to cut it away like a pair of scissors. But he wasn’t moving.

The Hizack fired a fraction of a second after Cima saw the hole in the Rick Dias’ rear where one beam rifle shot had already punched right through the cockpit. The second shot must have hit the reactor for both mobile suits disappeared in an explosion.

With a banshee scream, Cima lunged into the fire, catching the Hizack reeling out of the explosion, half-blinded by the shattered state of its mono-eye. Docking her beam rifle, Cima took the shorter and handier beam pistol out and rammed its muzzle directly into the other mobile suit’s cockpit hatch.

“Stop! Killing! My! People!” she shrieked and pulled the trigger once, twice, thrice… again and again until weapon stopped firing, its small capacitor needing to recharge from her suit.

With a gasp she lowered the weapon and looked around. No other mobile suits were nearby. Job was dead, but the Albion itself…

An explosion in the distance caught her eyes and she flew towards it.

To her relief as she closed the distance, the shape of the Albion came into view, the cruiser’s mega-beam particle turrets turning briefly towards her until she was identified as no longer a threat. Four wrecked mobile suits drifted around the cruiser, smashed either by the particle beams or by the much smaller CIWS turrets that dotted the Albion’s hull.

“Major Cima reporting,” she told them. “Enemy destroyed. One casualty.”

One more casualty.

One more ghost.

“Stick close, major,” Ramius ordered. “They know we’re here now.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

The little girl stared at them imperiously, with hands on her hips. If she had more height to work with then it might have been intimidating. As it was Duo was tempted to snicker. Still, the kid could sound the alarm.

“Can you not see that we are dashing heroes?” he informed her cheerfully. Heero had told him he was in charge of talking them out of trouble, right. Blather mode on! “Fighters against evil! Protectors of the weak!” He shadow-boxed for a moment. “Rescuers of captured princesses!”

“Really?” She looked up at him. “But you’re dressed like the scary lady’s soldiers.”

Duo reached back to his collar. “We’re in disguise,” he explained. Then he pulled out his braid. “Look, I have to hide my hair!”

The girl clapped appreciatively. “Are you here to rescue me?”

“Uhh, that… could be right. Let’s check.” He mimed taking out a notepad, glancing at Heero out of the corner of his eye. His buddy looked out of his depth. “Are you… a princess?”

“Momma said so.” The girl sniffed and wiped at her eyes. “Papa said I could be a warrior princess when I grow up. That way I could be like both of them.”

“Okay…” Duo said thoughtfully. “I think we can tick that box. Now, have you been kidnapped? Taken away from your family?” he added in case she didn’t recognise the word.

A nod. “The scary lady brought me here. Grandfa’ didn’t want me to go but she had soldiers dressed like you.”

“Kidnapped,” Heero concurred.

They looked at each other. Dammit. The Bartons weren’t just using the kids they had as test-subjects, they were taking more children.

“I’m Mariemaia!” the girl informed them. “Who are you?”

“As dashing heroes, we cannot disclose our real names,” Duo told her quickly. “We use codenames. I am Brave and he is… Hero.”

Heero gave him an exasperated look. “Mariemaia, do you know where the other children are?”

“There are other children?” she exclaimed. “No one told me! I could have had someone to play with!” She huffed angrily. “Let’s go find them!”

Well it wasn’t as if they were going to leave her for Barton to experiment on. “Welcome to the team.” Duo stuck out his hand and she grabbed hold of him. “Can you guess where they might be?”

Mariemaia shook her head but then brightened. “There’s a map,” she offered. “Lots of soldiers don’t know their way around yet. I saw it up on a wall.”

“Okay, can you show us where that is?”

She tugged on Duo’s hand. “This way!”

Duo let her pull him after her – although he was taking one step for every two of hers so there wasn’t a lot of pulling involved. Leaving the arboretum through another door, Mariemaia led them to a locked door. “It’s through here,” she explained and tugged on the handle. “But I can’t open it.”

“Fortunately, I know a magic spell for that,” he told her. “But it needs both hands. Can you hold Hero’s for a moment?”

“There’s no such thing as magic,” the girl told him, but she let go. “I’m not a little kid.”

Duo hid the probe he’d pulled out from her and tried the handle. “Oh really? Well it’s locked now. So…” He turned to cover his other hand from Mariemaia’s view as he reset the lock and typed in the code. “Open sesame!”

The door opened and Mariemaia giggled. “You’re silly, Brave. You just knew the code!”

“Oh no, you saw right through me!” he told her and opened the door. The girl grabbed his hand again but didn’t let go of Heero’s, binding them into a group.

This corridor was busier and they got a couple of looks as they walked down it with Mariemaia between them. Duo made sure Mariemaia wasn’t looking at him and mouthed ‘babysitting duty’ to one officer who looked particularly suspicious. The man’s expression shifted to sympathy and he patted Duo on the shoulder before walking on.

“Here’s the map!” Mariemaia announced, pointing at a wall.

Duo had expected something like a museum sign or a stylised diagram such as that seen on the underground passenger monorail that served his home colony. Instead it was an already slightly tatty poster held against the wall with magnets. Someone must have run it up in a hurry, he thought.

Heero examined the map thoughtfully. “We’re here,” he decided.

There wasn’t a convenient ‘You are here’ label but Duo was willing to take his word for it. He lifted up Mariemaia onto his shoulder so she could see more clearly. “So that would be the arboretum?”

“Yes.” Both young men looked at a blocked-out section marked as ‘Testing Facility’. There wasn’t anything marked as ‘prison’ or ‘cells’, but there was a second accommodation block marked, one accessible only through the testing facility and via an elevator ‘up’ to the kitchens and the other utilities.

“Time to split up then,” Duo noted.

Mariemaia grabbed his ear. “You’re not leaving me behind,” she demanded fiercely.

He winced. “No, not you and me. Hero has to go do his part of the secret mission.”

A young woman overheard that, gave him a sceptical look and then started giggling as she saw who he was talking to. She tried to hide it behind her hand and gave Duo an encouraging wave when he shot her a beset-upon expression.

“Do I have a part?”

“Yes, and hold steady or you’ll fall off.” He was using one hand to keep her safe but she was shifting around, still holding onto his ear. “You’re helping me.” More like hindering, but you don’t go breaking a young maiden’s heart by telling her such things.

Heero pointed out an airlock near the accommodation block and Duo nodded his understanding.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Cima saw no more of the Papua-class ships. Gato was no fool and knew that they had no business straying into range of the Albion’s mega particle beam cannon.

As they closed in on the colony, Cima saw the clean lines of the cylinder were distorted by the thrusters. One of the mirrors had been broken somehow. Colonies weren’t made to be moved – possibly it had hit some stray debris or a structural member had failed under acceleration the mirror was never designed for.

“We’re picking up mobile suits,” Bright warned her. “Eighteen of them.”

Three full squadrons of Hizacks, Cima thought. The Albion had dealt with a single squadron well enough – this wasn’t the start of the war when Federation crews had no idea how to fight against mobile suits and had to develop a whole new doctrine. But eighteen mobile suits…

“Is there any sign of the Gwazine?”

“Nothing.”

“This could be her mobile suit complement or Gato might have her covering the other colony and these are from transports,” she mused.

“You think he’s waiting for us to engage the mobile suits before he outflanks us with the battleship?” asked Ramius.

Cima considered. “No. Delaz might, but Gato is a pilot through and through. He wouldn’t rely on a battleship’s guns if he could lead mobile suits at us.”

“Then it doesn’t make any difference,” decided the captain. “We attack.”

The Albion’s engines lit up and Cima saw the main battery begin to move. There wasn’t much chance of hitting the Hizacks at this range, she thought, but better some chance than no chance. She moved off to one side, not wanting the Rick Dias caught in a crossfire, and pushed ahead towards the colony. Every Hizack that came after her wasn’t swarming the Albion, after all.

Blazing pulses of energy shot out from the cannon and Cima surged after them, using them as a guide to where the Hizacks she couldn’t yet see where.

An explosion marked where at least one shot had been luck and then she saw movement, the Hizacks thrusters lighting up the sky as they rushed in, trying to get close enough to use their own weapons against the Albion.

They didn’t seem to even notice Cima until she opened fire. Her beam rifle gutted one of them and then took the leg off a second as it tried to evade. Six of them broke off towards her, leaving only nine for the Albion to handle – ten if the one missing a leg got back in the fight.

Six is fine, she thought. Job took down three so I can at least match that. The Rick Dias’ vulcan cannon roared, spitting fire at the Hizacks to keep them busy as she stowed the beam rifle and drew a beam sabre.

Get in close, she thought. Force them to worry about hitting each other.

The 55mm rounds from her vulcans had only scored a couple of minor hits so she picked out one Hizack and dived after it. Cannon fire raked through space around her as the enemy pilot drew his own beam sabre. He raised the weapon in a parry but Cima twitched the controls and skipped past him, flicking her sabre out to slash through part of the thruster pack.

Reversing course, she saw two beam rifle shots slash through space where she’d been about to enter. The damaged Hizack was trying to turn but she crashed into it, shoulder first, and slashed away the arm holding its beam sabre.

Swapping the weapon for her beam rifle she gripped the Hizack by its remaining shoulder and used it as a shield while she picked off one of its comrades.

Her unwilling accomplice fired its thrusters, trying to get away, but only sent them into a wild spin. Releasing him, Cima finished the suit off with another shot from her beam rifle and surged out of the explosion at the next nearest Hizack.

It fired at her, twice, missing both times and then she was on it. Grabbing both wrists before it could line up another shot, she forced its arms apart. The Hizack struggled but the Rick Dias was far more powerful. Even her Gelgoog couldn’t have done this.

A Hizack tried to come in behind her, avoiding its comrade, but it had forgotten her vulcans. They swivelled on their mount and raked the Hizack, shots tearing through its machinegun and perforating some of the exposed mechanisms around its waistline and in the sensor head.

It was out of action for now, Cima decided, and she used one leg of the Rick Dias to deliver a mighty kick to the Hizack she was holding, smashing the armoured skirt that protected the articulation of its own legs and forcing the smaller mobile suit away. Servos in the Hizack’s arms parted and left the suit crippled – with no arms it couldn’t use its weapons.

Two Hizacks destroyed, two crippled. The sky around the Albion was alive with tracer fire from its CIWS.

A rocket smashed against the Rick Dias’ left arm, blowing the limb in half just below the elbow.

Drawing her beam rifle, Cima broke into evasive manoeuvres. Just two more, she thought.

For a moment light filled her cockpit. Was she dead?

A lance of light reached out from the distance and had engulfed the nearer of the two colonies. Then it was gone – the light and the colony, though the latter was replaced by tumbling wreckage.

“The laser,” she realised. Spotting one of the Hizacks that had stopped manoeuvring in the pilot’s surprise, she blew it apart with her rifle. Looking for the second she saw it spinning to bring its beam rifle around.

The two beam rifle shots missed each other by what looked like less than a metre. The Hizack’s shot hit her rifle, forcing her to throw the damaged weapon away, but her own smashed through the suit’s sensor head and down through the torso, setting off the reactor.

Alone, Cima drew the beam pistol and put the Rick Dias into flight towards the Albion. One of the colonies was gone, and whether it was the Gwazine or three Papuas that had been in the area the chances were good that they’d stayed back by the colony and were destroyed with it.

One down, but one still to go.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

The colony’s port was a wash, Duo decided. The station’s functions being expanded meant that there were cargos coming in and being unloaded – everything from food and personal effects up to a shipload of life pods.

There were plenty of shuttles there that could be used to carry all the kids, but it was far too busy and far too well guarded. Capturing one would be almost impossible and then Heero would need to get twelve children onto it.

And then there was getting away from Shortbus. A shuttle wasn’t going to be fast enough to get away from mobile suits, and there were four Daggers out there with flight packs mounted that would give them even faster acceleration in space.

“What’s wrong, Brave?” asked Mariemaia, who was looking out of the window with him. He’d bluffed his way into an observation deck, claiming that the little girl wanted to see the shuttles. That was a kid thing to do, right? He’d certainly snuck off to look out at spacecraft when he was at the orphanage.

“Hero is counting on us for the daring escape,” he told her. “I was thinking of using a shuttle but those mobile suits out there would be faster.”

“Why can’t you use a mobile suit?” she asked.

“I’m not sure how many captured princesses we can get into a mobile suit,” he told her. Then he blinked. “Mind you… that gives me an idea. Good work, princess!”

Mariemaia beamed. “Is that my codename?”

“Yep!” He ruffled her hair and chuckled when she pouted and ran her hands through her hair to straighten it again.

Right, how to do this… the airlock was on the inside of the colony so he’d have to get there. Fortunately, there was a route through from the port to the hanger where the Gerbera Tetras had flown out of for practise.

He considered leaving Mariemaia behind and dismissed it. Within five minute she’d be bored and either get attention or get herself hurt somehow. Ports weren’t safe for young children and anyone who saw her unattended would know she shouldn’t be there. “Hey, Princess. Do you want to ride in a mobile worker?” he asked, pointing out the window at one of the machines carrying out the unloading.

A mobile suit would be better but stealing one of those would draw even more attention.

The mobile workers were stored where he expected and although most were at work, they were too small for their own reactors so several were currently recharging. Duo checked the battery status on them and selected one that had better than seventy percent charge.

He stripped off his jacket – his pilot suit wouldn’t seem out of place here and hung it around Mariemaia, with the hem going past her knees. “Put your arms in the sleeves,” he told her.

“It’s too big,” she protested.

“I know, but if anyone spots you then the adventure is over. Trust me, Princess.” Once she’d obeyed, he picked her up and tucked her into the cockpit behind the operator’s seat. With a bit of luck any casual observer would just think he’d slung his jacket behind the seat and miss that there was a child inside it.

Closing the cockpit, Duo marched – well, waddled – the mobile worker over to the airlock. Smaller than a mobile suit it only had short legs – most of its work was done in microgravity. The lock opened and he headed for the life pods he’d seen earlier.

Mariemaia made interested noises as he crossed the port. There were twelve life pods, all secured to a single pallet in three rows of four. They weren’t much more than barrel-shaped rooms with six seats and enough life support to keep that many humans alive for a day or two. One end had a few limited burn thrusters to jet them away from their parent colony or vessel and between those was a tiny airlock, the pod’s only entrance.

Reassuring himself that the pods could link up to a standard airlock, Duo used the mobile worker’s tool arm to cut two free.

“What are we doing?” Mariemaia asked from behind him.

“You see these?”

“What are they?”

“Tiny little spaceships, Princess.”

“Oooh.” He heard her move around. “Could I take one to Grandfa’?”

“We’ll need to find him first.”

“We live in a big house,” she told him seriously.

He couldn’t help but chuckle. “I’ll keep an eye out for it then. Was it on this colony?”

“Nooo?” she said uncertainly. “The scary lady brought me here on a shuttle.”

“Well, we’ll need a spaceship then.”

No one seemed to find anything remotely unusual about a mobile worker picking up two life pods and heading into the inner workings of the colony. Then again, there were several others moving around and Duo had far from the strangest cargo.

The passage through towards the hanger was unlit, presumably to save power because there were multiple light panels along it that had been illuminated when Duo was last here. He switched on the mobile worker’s cockpit rather than trying to talk port control into turning on the lights and opened and closed each of the safety barriers using the manual controls. Hopefully that wouldn’t draw attention the way the powered controls would. A real colony would have sensors all along the passage, but if that was the case he’d have been spotted anyway. Power surges would definitely draw attention though.

“It’s very dark,” Mariemaia informed him seriously. “Is this a secret passage?”

“Something like that. Where do you think it ends?”

“Maybe where the other children are?”

“Good guess and very nearly right. We’ll have a little further to go though.”

Two doors further along he spotted the side passage into the hanger and turned into it. Getting through required activating an airlock and he saw from the indicators that the hanger was pressurised.

There was nothing for it but to risk it. He entered the lock and pressed the mobile worker sized controls to pressurise. Air hissed in and he watched the radio warily. Nothing. Had he got away with it?

Opening the door revealed the answer and it was a no. A po-faced man wielding a clipboard and a loudhailer stared up at him from the ground. “What is the meaning of this?” he shouted up from the floor. “Who sent you here?”

Duo activated his speakers. “Sorry, the main doors are locked and I need to get these outside. I’ll be out of your way in five minutes, tops.”

“Of course, they’re locked, this is a secure area. Who told you to bring life pods here anyway?”

Feigning a sigh, he looked around the hanger. “It’s on my work order. Give me a minute, I have it here somewhere…”

“What are you going to do?” Mariemaia asked as he cut the microphone.

Duo spotted what he was looking for, a box that had contained belts of 110mm cannon rounds for the Gerbera Tetras. Whatever they were working on now didn’t seem to need them because it was open and obviously empty. “Improvise.”

He lowered the life pods to the floor, exciting more anger from the man outside and then lunged forward suddenly with the manipulator arms.

Instead of running away, the man screeched and flung up his hands protectively. Closing the grips gently around the man, Duo picked him up and carried him over to the box. It was easily large enough and the lid was heavy and hinged. Dropping the man inside, clipboard and all, he closed the lid.

Someone would find him eventually, probably.

Mariemaia tugged on his collar. “What did you do?” she asked and Duo realised she couldn’t see from behind the seat.

“I put him in the naughty corner,” he said, looking around. He froze when he saw what was stood in one of the mobile suit cubicles.

“Is something wrong?”

“Nope.” He felt a broad grin on his face. “It’s time to upgrade our ride!”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

“I guess the colony laser did its job,” Johnny Ridden concluded, looking at the one colony still on course for the Earth. A cloud of debris marked what had probably been the other one. Some of it might still reach the atmosphere but Athrun’s hasty calculations suggested that the largest fragments would narrowly miss – a hazard to traffic for a week or two but after that they’d continue tumbling sunwards until eventually Sol devoured them.

“That’s the good news.” Athrun finished locking down his console and scrambled down out of the cockpit. “The bad news is that there’s a ship escorting it, quite a large one.”

“Could you ID it?”

“Not without risking getting spotted. The Shrinking Violet isn’t really all that stealthy.” He dropped out of view.

“Also unarmed but it’s rude to dwell on a lady’s shortcomings,” Ridden added.

“Aiguille Delaz had a battleship,” Zechs recalled. “The… Gwazine?”

“That’s the one.” Ridden scrambled down after Athrun and Zechs gave them a moment or two to clear the ladder before following.

“Do you think the laser will take another shot?” he called down.

“I doubt it!” Athrun shouted back. “We’re less than a day from impact and for the last few hours of that, Earth would be backstopping the shot.”

“Why isn’t your buddy Treize out there?” asked Ridden. “He could have brought a fleet from low orbit or from one of the inner colony clusters.”

“Your guess is as good as mine. What matters is, he’s not here and we are.”

They reached the cargo bay and paused. “So, we need to take out a battleship?”

“Shouldn’t be too hard.” Ridden jerked his thumb at Zechs. “Char here killed five on his own at Loum. I’m sure he can handle one more.”

“Pre-war designs,” pointed out Zechs. “They had two point-defence turrets each and no mobile suit escorts. This’ll be a little harder.”

“It’s still more applicable than the rest of us,” Athrun pointed out. “Johnny and I should fly cover for you while you take the enemy ship down. I’ll try to bluff our way close enough but who knows if that’ll work.”

Stopping at the Blu Duel, Ridden started to climb up the side. “Agreed. As much as I hate to say it, you’re the best man for this job, Aznable.”

“Let’s do it then.”

They’d pre-flighted the three mobile suits extensively before arrival so all Zechs had to do was seal the hatch, strap in and then bring the reactor online. The Strike Noir’s cockpit lit up immediately and he checked the tell-tales. All were green.

“I hope you live up to your record,” he said to the suit. It was strange – he’d destroyed the previous iteration of the Strike, leaving it a battered and headless wreck on the exterior of A Baoa Qu even as he was forced to eject from the Zeong.

Now he was piloting it into battle himself.

Don’t be superstitious, he told himself as the hatch opened and the Strike Rouge exited the ship. Less than fifty percent of the Strike was recycled for this one and much of that is the lunar titanium of the armour. It’s not as if the White Devil is haunting the cockpit – he’s not dead and he’s even on our side!

Tucking the wing-like pack close he moved the Strike Noir out of the hatch and followed Athrun out towards the colony. Behind him, the Blu Duel followed him. Zechs tried to ignore the way the armoured suit’s railgun tracked him for a moment.

“Nightmare,” he heard Athrun transmit on the channel that Delaz’s message had provided. “This is Zeus. Do you read me?”

“Zeus, Nightmare. I read you.” The voice was grim. “I didn’t think you were coming.”

“We were delayed,” Athrun replied. “If the Federation is using the colony laser, we may not be much help anyway.”

“There’s a Federation cruiser out there. We assume it’s feeding targeting data back to the laser.”

Zechs raised an eyebrow. Who would that be? One of the Specials? Maybe Treize was here after all.

“They don’t have much of a window to fire the laser again.”

“Very little,” the Zeon commander – Gato, probably, the codename suggested it was Nightmare of Solomon agreed. “After that the only risk is of them getting onboard and planting charges. We’re almost at the point of no return but if they have enough explosives then most of the colony could burn up on re-entry.”

The battleship was in view now, twenty mobile suits holding formation around it. It was the Gwazine alright. Not even the Strike Noir’s armour could take a hit from the main batteries, but the real threats came from the anti-mobile weapon turrets around its hull.

“One cruiser can only carry so much. Are you sure it’s alone?”

“It was only carrying two mobile suits. We assume the rest of the hanger is packed with combat engineers and nuclear demolition charges.”

“Only two?” Athrun’s voice sounded surprised and Zechs couldn’t blame him. Delaz should have had twice this many mobile suits and several Papua carrier/transports. “That’s a very small escort.”

Gato’s voice hit a bitter note. “That’s the thinking that cost us two ships and more than twenty mobile suits. Between that mistake and the colony laser, we’re all that remains of the Delaz fleet.”

“Contact!” another voice shrieked sharply and Zechs rolled his mobile suit reflexively, checking his sensors. “Out of the sun!” The formation around the Gwazine broke up as the mobile suits began their own defensive weaves.

“We won’t get a better shot,” Ridden snapped on their private channel. “Aznable!”

“On it.” He opened the throttle wide, feeling his weight triple, pressing him into his seat as the Strike Noir streaked in towards the Gwazine, ignoring the Delaz mobile suits. Such power! No wonder the Strike had defeated everyone it ever faced!

The battleship itself was turning, guns at maximum elevation but not coming to bear on what Zechs guessed must be the inbound Federation cruiser.

Ridden opened fire with his railgun and the Blu Duel’s twin short-barrelled beam rifles. The Crimson Lightning took out three of the enemy mobile suits before anyone realised what was going on.

“You treacherous scum!” Gato roared and dove after them, his suit faster and more agile than those of his cohorts.

For a moment Zechs thought he’d have to break off his attack run but then Athrun was there, the Strike Rouge crashing into Gato’s suit – was that a Gelgoog? – shield first. The two suits spun away from each other and then flashed back into a furious engagement, Athrun’s more advanced mobile suit barely off-setting Gato’s greater skill and experience.

Mega particle beams hissed to life and Zechs jigged aside as Gwazine exchanged shots with the cruiser. Great glowing furrows drove into the battleship’s armour but it was by no means a mortal wound. Warships, particularly battleships, carried far thicker armour than any mobile suit could.

That didn’t make them invulnerable of course, it was just a matter of picking your spot.

Zechs ejected the wing-like vanes and seized them in each hand, beams of energy forming along the leading edge of each as the Strike Noir’s hands locked onto the grips. Longer and far more intense than the similar beam sabres, the anti-shipping beam blades were deadly in the right hands.

His first cut severed one of the forward mega particle beam turrets just ahead of the turret glacis, instantly halving the battleship’s forward firepower. Spinning to avoid fire from a secondary turret Zechs casually cut away a sensor mast and then brought the Strike Noir down to a crouch on the Gwazine’s dorsal surface. Sparks flew as feet met armoured hull and he brought both blades down to his sides, carving deep into the ship from both sides. Air bled out of the great rents and he ripped them out again, pausing to take out a persistent turret with the 75mm CIWS in his sensor head.

Then he cut again, right where he’d been standing, linking the two cuts.

The Gwazine groaned. The ship was stressed from turning and as he had guessed, it had been years since it had last had dockyard maintenance. With structural members cut through, the great battleship actually began to bend, causing even more damage.

The engines cut out, but the battleship was dying and Gato could see it. The Gelgoog smashed its shield against the Strike Rouge’s sensor head and broke away, beam rifle aiming towards Zechs.

He dived the Strike Noir aside, barely missing the first shot. Unlike a beam sabre, the anti-shipping beam swords took a moment to stow – time he didn’t have. Zechs discarded them, snatching beam pistols from their mountings…

And then a large mobile suit ploughed out of nowhere and drove the Gelgoog into the side of the Gwazine. It took Zechs a moment to place the design. Wasn’t it one of the ceremonial mobile suits he’d seen in broadcasts from Zeon? What was that doing here?

Gato tried to free his mobile suit but the other pilot seemed consumed by a fury, setting weapons aside and simply battering the Gelgoog back, literally embedding it in the hull and batting its arms away every time the ace pilot tried to ready a weapon.

Well. That took care of that. Since he had his beam pistols out anyway, Zechs blew away two more turrets before retrieving his blades.

The hull around the remaining forward turret erupted as a shot from the Federation cruiser smashed through the dedicated reactors that powered the weapon. He saw the Strike Rouge and Blu Duel above him, still engaging the remaining enemy mobile suits – such as remained.

Taking one blade, Zechs thrust it deep into the rent he’d carved in the battleship and then deliberately dragged it backwards, cutting the Gwazine open almost to the core. Life pods began to eject from the forward section as the crew yielded to reality.

The radio crackled to life. “Whoever you are,” Gato gasped, voice triumphant. “You’re too late. The point of no return… we’ve reached it. Whatever happens, the colony will reach the Earth now. Sieg Z-”

His voice died along with him as the other mobile suit blew the Gelgoog apart.

“Fuck Zeon,” someone said bitterly. A woman, Zeon accent.

“I don’t know who you are,” Athrun said urgently, the Strike Rouge coming down to join her. “But we brought explosive charges. There may be time.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

“Duo!” Heero’s voice was sharp, but the simple fact he was transmitting sent a jolt through Duo. The only reason to break radio silence was dire emergency, there was no way it could be missed by security. “Where’s our exit!”

“Who’s Duo?” asked Mariemaia. He’d found a space suit and coaxed her into it even though she was far too small and could barely see out of the helmet.

Firing his thrusters, he flew up the inside of the colony, the airlock in view. “Give me sixty seconds.”

Beside suiting up the Mariemaia, he’d also needed to ensure the life pods were ready to use and their controls slaved to his new mobile suit. Fortunately, standard practise was to ship them pre-loaded with everything they would need.

The little girl squealed as the sudden acceleration pulled her down and then she was thrown against her straps as he slowed. “Sorry,” he apologised, lifting one of the life pods to the lock. “Heero’s in trouble.”

“Oh-kay?” she gasped.

He couldn’t rush this part. Getting it wrong would be a disaster. Lining up the first life pod carefully he matched its lock to the one in the colony. It looked good and he triggered the airlock, watching the tell-tales repeated on his auxiliary screen. It looked okay.

“Princess,” he ordered, “see that screen?” he jabbed it with one finger. “Tell me if anything goes red. Heero, open the lock!”

There was no immediate reply and for a heart-stopping moment he thought he was too late.

Then: “Get in,” he heard Heero. “Duo, there’s not enough room…”

“I have another!”

“Okay.” Muffled noises. “You, you. No, you wait.”

“Brave?” Mariemaia asked meekly. “It’s not red, but there’s a yellow.”

He nodded. “Okay. Good for telling me, yellow isn’t bad.” I hope.

“Close it!” Heero called. There was the crack of gunfire. Sharp retorts from a pistol and the slightly muted blat-blat-blat of a small calibre submachinegun. “Duo! Do it!”

Duo closed the hatch and undocked the life pod, letting it drift away for the moment while he fetched another. “Princess, watch the screen below. Same thing.”

He fumbled and barely stopped the life pod before it rammed the wall. Stopped, took a deep breath and tried again, praying to God.

It linked correctly and he opened the door. “Go!”

“In!” There was the sound of feet. More gunfire. “Duo! Close in five and get us clear. One, two…”

“…three, four, five.” He stabbed his button on the controls. The doors of the life pod snapped shut and he yanked it away.

The airlock behind it hadn’t been closed and air rushed out. So did papers, other oddments and a horrified looking man wearing the uniform of the Specials.

The latter tried to cling to the hatch but there was an explosion and he was flung away, screaming silently as he tumbled towards the colony floor.

“Brave, it’s all green.”

Oh thank god, I don’t think she saw. “Great work, Princess.” He grabbed the other life pod, one in each hand and turned the mobile suit around. “Let’s go.” Opening the throttle, he rushed for the far end of the colony. “Heero, is anyone hurt?”

“Two,” the other man said flatly and Duo felt his heart stop for an instant. “Nothing serious, the first aid kit should be enough.”

“Don’t scare me like that.”

“Who is Duo?” Mariemaia asked again.

“That’s me, Princess. Heero must have forgotten my codename.”

“Oh.” She sniffled. “Are we safe now?”

“Not quite.” He looked at the sensors. There were heat sources behind him, someone must have reacted promptly and mobilised the mobile suits in port. “Soon.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

“And we’ll find Grandfa’?”

“I can’t promise soon for that, but we’ll do that, yeah.” He flipped the switches for the weapon system. This probably wouldn’t work the way it had for the Queen Mansa back at the Murasame Institute, but if he could just get them pointed the right way then they didn’t…

“That feels funny,” the girl behind him squeaked.

Duo shook his head, trying to dispel the double vision he was seeing. I don’t think it’s how it’s supposed to work.

What’s that behind us?

Light flashing at them but it fell short.

He could feel the confusion of the pilots behind them.

The far end of the colony was approaching. Slowing down would mean getting caught.

They cried out and a blaze of light tore through the wall ahead of them.

“Duo! What are you doing?”

That was Heero. What was he saying?

Four hands reached out and they flung themselves out and into space.

Turning they watched the Daggers following them out of the hole.

Bad men/specials/enemy.

Their wings spread and feathers brushed the two mobile suits away, bursting into fireballs as multiple particle beams devoured them.

Is this like being an angel?

An angel of death, perhaps.

My/our mothers are angels now.

Dead. Angels. I don’t want to leave!

“DUO!”

Small hands flipped the weapon selection switches off and Duo gasped in shock at the transition. Beside him, her hands still on the weapon controls, Mariemaia burst into tears.

“I… I’m here.” His hands were locked around the throttle and the thruster controls.

Heero exhaled, audible even on radio. “What is that thing? Another Queen Mansa?”

“They called it the Nocturne.” Duo adjusted course. They’d need to find the shuttle they’d come on where they’d left it drifting. The life pods wouldn’t last until they got home.

“Duo?” Mariemaia looked up at him, eyes red, face stained with snot and tears. “I don’t wanna adventure. I want my grandfa’.”

“I’ll do my best, kid,” he promised bleakly. What did this thing do to her? Why didn’t I put her in one of the pods? “Sorry for the scare.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}


The engines of the Albion were at full burn as they dragged the cruiser away from the colony’s terminal descent.

Scattered around the command deck in whatever seats they could claim, the pilots joined the ship’s officers in watching the colony hit the atmosphere, only the ships helmswoman sparing a display screen for the Albion’s actual trajectory – and even then, her attention was divided in a way that would have been unforgiveable for any lesser reason.

They’d waited until the last minute to depart, Albion firing its mega particle beams into the sides of the colony and through the great mirrors that jutted out from its sides to allow sunlight in. Under Athrun Zala’s direction the salvaged Minovsky reactors had been used to blast holes in the leading end of the colony and then they’d gone back and done it all over again with every scrap of military high explosives the three had brought from Hatte and that Captain Ramius had been able to find aboard the Albion.

Garahau Cima sat silently beside the captain, hollow eyed. It was almost forty-eight hours since she’d last slept and she dreaded the moment when she gave in.

“The trajectory is holding for North America,” Bright noted grimly. “Not far west of Chicago.”

“Best estimates for damage?”

“Besides another Great Lake?” The lieutenant’s flippancy might have drawn criticism but his hands were white as he gripped his chair. “Tens of millions dead. Secondary impacts on one of the most productive agricultural regions on Earth, possibly as far east as the Rustbelt and as far west as some of the Canadian oil fields.”

“Food shortages, fuel shortages.”

“And Chicago is a hub for transportation,” Ramius added. “Who was it who said civilisation was three missed meals from barbarism?”

The leading edge of the colony was beginning to glow. So was the interior as air rushed through the holes they’d made.

“We still have our last shot,” Athrun reminded her. “With your permission, captain?”

“Do it.”

Turning to the station he’d commandeered, Athrun flipped up a cover and hit the button underneath it. Albion’s most powerful radio transmitter surged to life, blasting out the pre-set signal with force that would have blanketed half the Earth if it weren’t for the Minovsky particles.

For a moment nothing seemed to happen and then a point of light appeared right at the lower edge of the colony cylinder.

“Aspect change. One degree, two…”

“Two more. Two more,” the young pilot pleaded.

“Three degrees,” Bright continued. “Still three. No, here it goes -”

The pressure inside the cylinder, despite air leaking out through the expanding rents in the sides of the colony, finally exceeded structural limits and the trailing end blew off.

Simultaneously, the engines of the Shrinking Violet, wedged into the leading edge, blew up. The little ship had never been intended for such temperatures, much less for running its engines at 150% of their design tolerances.

The explosion was enough to finally exceed the tolerances of the leading edge and it broke up as well. Within seconds the walls were splitting and what had once been a single massive object shattered.

“Update that trajectory,” Ramius snapped while Johnny Ridden and Char Aznable, direct witnesses of the first colony drop leant forwards hopefully.

“The bulk is still going down – smaller sections.” Bright typed frantically, correlating the data from the ship’s optical sensors. “Impact site further north, I don’t know how much less force…”

“What about the rear end?” Athrun asked. “It’s just possible that the air pressure was enough…”

Bright shook his head. “No. It’s still coming down.”

“Damn! I hoped…”

“It’s coming down on the polar ice,” the lieutenant told him. “Bad, but direct casualties will be minimal. You’ve saved millions of lives.”

Cima watched the debris raining down, a rain of fire as smaller fragments burned up but even comparatively small sections of the colony were far too large to be destroyed in that fashion.

The first impacts weren’t far north of the Great Lakes and they marched north and west as the planet spun, clouds erupting up from each of them, then mushrooming out over central Canada. Green and brown were replaced by black smoke, laced with fiery orange.

The violation of the planet below stretched up north into the pristine ice.

And then, finally, the aft section hit. A triangle of ice north of the Bering Straits vaporised as the red-hot metal came down, white steam obliterating their view of a region that entire countries could have been lost within.

“That much dirt and water vapour in the air, it’ll mean clouds across most of the Northern hemisphere for weeks, perhaps months” Bright told them with resignation. “Rain, storms. No sun for crops to ripen. It’s better than it could have been… but it’s going to touch everyone on Earth.”

“And they’ll demand retribution.” Johnny Ridden’s face was painted in reflected light from the monitors. “They’ll vent their hatred on the colonies… and they have the colony laser to enforce their demands, whatever they may be.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

The shuttle was a badly needed refuge, at least for Heero, who more or less passed out on a seat once all the kids and a computer memory core were aboard.

That, of course, was when Duo found out that his friend was one of the two wounded and while one of them was Four having skinned her knee somehow – bloody but superficial – Heero had a bullet in the fleshy part of his calf.

“Is he going to die?” Mariemaia asked fearfully, setting off a ripple of whispering and wide-eyed stares from the other children. In a way he’d have preferred tears, at least it would have been more ordinary.

“Not tonight.”

The shuttle wasn’t under power – he’d simply grabbed it with the Nocturne and pushed them both into a ballistic trajectory towards Sol-Earth Two. There was enough traffic – and for that matter, an entire colony – between them and Shortbus that he thought there was a good chance no one had spotted them. They wouldn’t get anywhere all that fast, except out of the area, but further action could wait until there were two pilots to work with.

Rubbing his forehead, Duo looked around. “Okay, kids. All of you head down at the far end of the cabin. You don’t have to sleep but be quiet for the sake of those who do. Princess, you go with them.”

The girl seemed about to protest so he gave her a lopsided smile. “If no one’s taken it away, one of them has a harmonica.”

“What’s a harmonica?”

Four produced the instrument in question and the demonstration was completely against the spirit of his earlier instruction to ‘be quiet’, but he’d never had much hope for that one.

Stripping Heero out of his pilot suit meant taking off the temporary bandage he’d applied over it. The wound was still bleeding, which didn’t surprise Duo very much. In the absence of knowing if Heero had administered an anaesthetic, he didn’t dare use more so he rolled up some gauze and jammed it between his friend’s teeth before probing the wound with some forceps.

Five excruciating minutes later he’d removed the bullet. Dropping it in one of the plastic bags from the medical kit – although there was no good reason he could think of that they might need the thing - he looked up and saw Heero’s eyes open. One had lost its contact lens, leaving him an unsettling heterochromatic gaze.

“Did we run out of painkillers?” he asked bluntly.

“I didn’t know if you’d taken anything already.”

“Only an idiot self-medicates.”

“Only an idiot wouldn’t tell me straight away that he was one of the people who’d been hurt. That was not ‘nothing serious’, Heero.”

“There wasn’t anything either of us could do, until now.” He paused. “Also, thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Duo found one of the pre-loaded injectors and jabbed it into Heero’s leg, as near to the wound as he could. After a moment his friend relaxed and Duo removed the needle and started rebandaging the wound. “What did you bring the computer for?”

The other man shrugged. “They had a terminal plugged into it and some of the data was marked as Hibiki’s. It seemed worth a chance.”

“Ah.” He patted Heero on the shoulder. “Good luck with that. Now get some sleep. We’ll need another pilot sooner or later so I’d rather you recover your strength quickly.”

After making sure his friend was comfortable, Duo went forward past the children and checked the shuttle’s situation. Everything seemed stable – they were away from any regular lines and as far as he could tell, no one was coming after them with every weapon at the disposals of the Specials.

Much to his surprise, some of the kids were drifting off when he got back, harmonica efforts or otherwise. Mariemaia was one of them, mumbling “Brave,” and then screwing her eyes closed and burrowing under the blanket he tucked around her. Fortunately, he’d thought ahead and added extra bunks to the already cramped living quarters during their frantic preparations for the mission. The kids were sometimes three to a bed, but they all had somewhere to sleep.

Four looked at him seriously – too seriously – as he straightened up. “Is she like us?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe.” He sat down facing her, cross-legged on the floor. “Did they ever put you in that mobile suit?”

“The Queen Mansa?” She nodded solemnly.

“I meant the new one, but I guess it might be the same?”

Four blinked. “New one?”

“The one I… you never saw it, right. I stole a mobile suit from them. It looked a lot of the Queen Mansa. Had lots of little flying things with beam weapons, drones of some kind…”

“Funnels.”

“Is that what they’re called? When we were flying out of here, I tried activating the weapon systems. I think we used them to destroy to Daggers. I… it’s hazy. I’m not sure I was in my right mind.”

Four leant forwards and tried to give him a comforting hug. The sentiment came across, even if the size differential clearly wasn’t what she was used to. “The doctors said we were out of our minds,” she explained less than clearly. “That it took time to get back inside.”

“Out of your minds.” He rubbed his head. “That… I think Mariemaia – Princess – was controlling them with me.”

The girl facing him paled. “They tried putting two of us in the Queen Mansa once,” she said. “They didn’t come back and the doctors were very angry.”

Duo flinched. “Ah. I… suppose we were very lucky then.”

She nodded again.

“Anyway, get some sleep. We’ll be out here a few days.”

Four found another blanket and a corner to curl up in while Duo headed back to where Heero was snoring softly. He’d have loved to take his own advice but someone responsible had to stay awake and right now that meant him.

Oh god, he was the responsible one. They were all doomed.

In an effort to stave off sleep he pulled out his laptop and plugged it into the memory core. “May as well try to get an idea what’s on here,” he muttered. “At least I can save Heero some time.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Relena knocked on the door to the governor’s office and almost walked in without waiting for a response. That had been her custom for years, since there wouldn’t be a governor within to invite her in. She caught herself this time – the room wasn’t Artesia Som Deikun’s anymore.

“Come in,” she heard and on pushing the door open she saw Dorothy Catalonia stood at the desk, wearing a pilot suit. “Ah, Lieutenant Mass, you almost missed me.”

“You’re taking a mobile suit out?” she asked.

“Yes, General Khrushrenada has arrived along with a number of the new Calamity suits. I’ll be able to get an hour or two of practise every day.” The young captain smiled with some excitement. “Have you ever tried piloting a mobile suit, lieutenant?”

“Once, aptitude testing during the War. I didn’t have any, so that was it.”

“Unfortunate for you. It’s… invigorating to have such power answering to your commands.” Dorothy’s smile was almost… inappropriately excited. “But you came here on business. Not more paperwork.”

“An update from Earth,” Relena said. “The water levels are still rising. The Senate are discussing relocating from Dakar, given its coastal location.”

“Have they decided on where?”

“Not so far, ma’am.”

Dorothy shrugged, her hair shaking behind her. “Perhaps when the water is ankle deep, they’ll be motivated to come to an agreement on that matter.”

“The Federation Agricultural ministry is shifting their offices to the Zahn colonies, however. They apparently had a waterfront location.” Moving the offices would be disruptive, right when Earth’s agricultural sector was in chaos.

“That’s going to be an important department for the next year or so. Which colony will be housing them?”

“Apparently they’re taking over parts of Babylon Station.” The Federation’s use for diplomats was on the decline, Relena thought sadly. “Jaburo was also offered but apparently General Jamitov’s vicinity is more appealing than that of the military high command.”

Dorothy gave her a look and then laughed serenely. “Perhaps appointing a new Marshal will raise the regular armed forces’ status,” she suggested. “Or some victories. Speaking of the regular military…”

“Ma’am?”

Dorothy stretched. “You and Captain Ramius are on good terms, I believe?”

“Yes. We served together and meet when her duties bring her here.”

“I’m sorry to inform you that the Albion is overdue to arrive at Luna.”

Relena swallowed. “Have there been any signals? Or any news from other ships?”

“Not at all. It’s quite concerning. A cruiser going missing may seem like a small thing but combined with recent events... Well, perhaps it’s just a minor deviation from schedule. Did Captain Ramius mention any engine problems or similar.”

“No, ma’am. She’s very proud of the Albion.”

Dorothy nodded her head. “I’m sure the facts will come to light soon. Have you given any thought to joining the Specials, by the way? Now that the governor is no longer here, she hardly needs a military attaché but you’ve more than justified your presence. It would just be more… regular if we were in the same chain of command.”

“I can understand that, captain.”

“If it’s any inducement, there’d almost certainly be a promotion in the future for you. A medical career is all very well but you’re making a real difference here for the security of the Federation. General Khrushrenada advised me I can expect to be a major in the next week or two as our presence here in Zeon increases.”

“You make a good point,” Relena agreed, forcing a smile on her face. “And military discharges have been frozen for the duration of the crisis so it’s not as if I can go back to school right now.”

“Give it some thought,” Dorothy ordered her and headed for the door. “Now I have a few weeks of rust to knock off my skills.”

“I’ll be sure to do that.” She followed the Specials captain out, mind racing. There were already investigations going on about Artesia’s associates, which would reach her sooner or later. If someone started looking at people about Captain Ramius then her name would have come up a second time.

Once Federation intelligence start poking into my past then my cover won’t hold forever, she realised. My time’s up – the only question is how to best get out of here.

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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by U.P. Cinnabar » 2018-11-20 01:09pm

The Angel of Death has returned from Hell, eh?

Can't wait for the next installment.
"Beware the Beast, Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone amongst God's primates, he kills for sport, for lust, for greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him, drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of Death.."
—29th Scroll, 6th Verse of Ape Law
"Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”
---Doctor Christine Blasey-Ford

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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by drakensis » 2018-11-21 06:37am

Chapter Eight – This Is War

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Dermail Catalonia’s first month as leader of the Federation had been one for the history books and not in a good way. It was marked him in every line on his face.

“General,” he said heavily. “I have a humanitarian crisis to deal with and a great deal of blame to apportion. We all know how than rolls downhill so please tell me – should I be shielding you or dropping this on your shoulders? I did give you the Specials to stop things like this.”

Jamitov inclined his head slightly. “I appreciate the trust that you have placed in me, sir. Unfortunately, we were prevented from completely averting this disaster by a breach of trust within the ranks of the Federation.”

The prime minister rubbed his forehead. “General, I’d appreciate a straight answer.”

Touching a control, Jamitov attached a file to the transmission. “I’m forwarding you footage from one of our orbital surveillance stations,” he advised. “We knew already that the Delaz Fleet were escorting the colonies as far as the atmosphere, making it almost impossible to board and divert them. However, the footage of the colony as it reached the atmosphere doesn’t show a Zeon warship at all.” True, if omitting that part of those records had showed why that was the case.

“And…?”

“Sir, we can also confirm that a Federation cruiser was in close company with the colony during its final descent. A cruiser that had spent a significant amount of time docked at Zeon city in the recent past and last departed – with its original crew – for Luna. The Albion had no business being anywhere near Earth’s orbit, she was transporting mobile suit prototypes recovered from Zeon to be studied by Anaheim.”

“Are you suggesting that they were supporting the colony drop? The Federation’s armed forces? The Albion’s commander is a war hero, General.”

Jamitov shrugged. “All that we know is that as we prepared for a second shot with the Colony laser, we picked up a Federation cruiser near the target and no Zeon presence. General Khrushrenada had the difficult decision of firing the laser, with the chance of damage to the Earth and the certainty of destroying the Federation cruiser which we had yet to identify. He made the decision to trust that a Federation ship in control of the space around the colony would act to divert the colony.”

“And now here we are.”

“And now here we are,” the general agreed. “As his commander, I must take responsibility for his unwillingness to fire on what he believed to be a loyal Federation vessel.”

Catalonia coughed, covering his mouth with a handkerchief. “General, you’re the head of Federation military intelligence. I want answers, not speculation. Where is the Albion right now?”

“That’s unknown. I’ll let you know immediately we have definite answers, but anything I said right now would be speculation.”

The two stared at each other and Catalonia broke the look first. “Very well, General. Clearly mistakes have been made but I agree that further investigation will be needed. I’ll buy you time, but you are responsible for your subordinates and I will hold you to that.”

“Of course, sir.” He paused. “Oh, just to confirm. Your grand-daughter’s promotion to major has been approved. I thought you might want to send her your congratulations.”

The prime minister sighed heavily. “I don’t need your advice on how to relate to my family, general.” He cut the channel and Jamitov leant back in his chair. Under the circumstances, that was unlikely to have gone better – he had time and time would tend to muddy the waters.

Now to deal with some of the other bad news. Clearing his desktop of the data about the colony drop he called in his next appointment.

Colonel Une’s uniform was immaculate, her hair as neatly pinned up as he had seen in the past. Only her eyes, behind her glasses, suggested her failure had marked her at all. “Sir.”

Jamitov didn’t invite her to sit. “Colonel. We should be grateful, I suppose, that recent events have drawn attention away from New Moore.”

“Sir,” she said again.

“Let me recap. Two unidentified men entered the facility you were in charge of, secured control of thirteen children – one of them the daughter of a Federation general officer – and a prototype mobile suit that could revolutionise warfare. They then escaped, killing five soldiers under your command. And you have no idea who these men were or where they might have gone?”

The words seemed painful for her: “No sir.”

“I am deeply disappointed in you, Colonel. I do not believe I can adequately speak on General Khrushrenada’s behalf for the extent of your failure.”

Une reached up and remove her glasses. “I…” Her voice broke and she was unable to continue.

“You have the choice, Colonel, between summary punishment and a formal court martial. The latter would be embarrassing for the Federation at a time when we are in a vulnerable position. Nonetheless, the choice is yours.”

“Sir, I… I accept summary punishment.”

Jamitov looked at her for a moment and then nodded. Opening a drawer in his desk he produced an electronic clipboard and stylus. “Sign here to confirm you are waiving your right to a court martial and a legal defence.”

She signed without a word.

“Very well,” he told her, filing the clipboard away. “You are hereby reduced in rank to captain. Normally some form of confinement and loss of other privilege might be in order but we cannot spare the manpower at this time. Instead you’re to take charge of cleaning up some of the mess you’ve caused. Close down the Shortbus facility and ensure that we have no leaks of the project through Senator Barton or his people.”

Une frowned and unfolded his glasses. “May I ask sir, the extent to which I should act?”

“Dead men tell no tales, Captain Une.”

She saluted crisply. “Understood, General.”

“You are dismissed.” He had cleared his desk once more before the doors closed behind her and began composing orders to transfer additional cruisers to the Specials for use in searching out and destroying the Albion.

It would, after all, be best if whatever answers were given after the ship was neutralised were answers that accorded with the information he’d already given to the Prime Minister.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

“I always said the day would come,” Hilde told Duo as they dragged bags of groceries into the scrapyard, “That you’d turn up with some creature and declare it followed you home and you were keeping it. I honestly didn’t think it would be thirteen children.”

“A salvage yard is no place for a small animal, Hilde.”

“It’s not really a great place for children either,” she warned. “I mean… I admire that you’re wanting to care for orphans but this is going to change your life. You may have to get somewhere to live that isn’t an extension of the office. And have you considered school?”

“I’m kind of putting that off until I figure out how to feed thirteen extra people.”

“That is also not going to be easy.” She tried the door using a hand still holding the handle of a grocery bag. “Did you lock this?”

“No.” He put down his own bags. “Heero’s here. Maybe he thought the younger kids might wander.” Fishing out a key, Duo unlocked the door.

Inside, most of a dozen faces turned towards him. “Brave,” Four greeted him. “Princess is crying in the bathroom.” The girl wiggled uncomfortably. “We can’t open the door.”

Hilde slapped her forehead. “Brave? Really?” She looked at the girl. “What’s Heero doing?”

“Hero’s gone.”

“What!?” the two adults exclaimed.

“He said we could watch television until you got back. But Princess saw something on it and she’s hiding in the bathroom.” The girl squirmed again. “We really need it.”

Duo groaned. They’d been away fifty whole minutes. Heero had been cracking open files in the office when they left, one leg propped up on their second chair. He really shouldn’t be walking anywhere, much less leaving the kids unattended. “Gimme a minute.”

“Anyone who isn’t queuing for the bathroom help me get this food into the fridge,” Hilde ordered as he headed for the door into the bathroom.

The bathroom door was latched, not locked, which made it harder to open. Duo avoided the entire issue by pulling the hinge pins and just removing the door from its frame. He was still setting it aside when Four burst past him, already dragging the waistband of her pants down.

“Four, let me at least get Mariemaia out,” he ordered before she started on her underwear. Looking inside he saw the little girl curled up in a ball in the bath. Scooping her up, he carried her princess style out of the room. Behind him he heard a sigh of relief.

“Princess,” he asked her as he carried her through the bunkroom and outside, where he sat down on the steps and placed her on his lap. “What’s wrong?”

“Grandfa’…” She sniffled through tears. “The television said…”

“He was on the television?”

She pressed her face against his shirt, no doubt spreading no small amount of snot on the garment. Mariemaia could produce amazing quantities of it, in Duo’s limited experience of her. He wondered if the other children would be the same and patted her consolingly on the back.

“Grandfa’s house burned down,” she wailed at last.

Oh. Oh crap.

Hilde stepped out past him and Duo gave her a beseeching look. She gave him a reassuring smile, sweet helpful angel that she was… and then headed for the office. Bitch.

“I lost my parents too,” he told Mariemaia. “I know it hurts.”

She sniffed again. “I know. I saw it.”

“Saw it?”

“When we were escaping,” she told him, mopping at her face ineffectually. “Everything went funny. It was like we were the same person and had two mommas and two papas.”

“I’m sorry about your grandfather,” Duo said. “You know I’ll look after you, right?”

“You’re not gonna go away?”

“Well I can’t keep you on my lap all the time,” he admitted. “But I’ll always come back.”

“Really?”

“Course. Brave and Princess are a team, right?”

“DUO!” Hilde stuck her head out of the office. “Heero left you a note.”

“In a minute.”

“No, right now. This is important.”

Duo gave a big sigh. “It’s never one thing, is it? Come on Princess, let’s see what’s going on.”

In the office, Hilde was looking at the screen of her computer. She turned it briskly around as he walked in. “Read.”

It didn’t take long – Heero had just opened the word processor, and left what he typed on the screen to be found by whoever next walked in and turned it on.

Duo. Char and Murrue going after laser. Going to help. Good luck with the children. Heero.

“What?” he asked. “His leg… oh man!”

“Hero’s gone away?” Mariemaia asked nervously.

“And what’s this about Char?” Hilde demanded. “Does he mean Char Aznable? Who is Murrue. Dammit, Duo, this whole keeping secrets shit is getting really old. Tell me what is going on!”

“Uh… at a guess, Captain Murrue Ramius. And yes, that Char.”

“The captain of the Pegasus? How are she and Char Aznable – the gods be damned Red Comet! - working together?”

“I have no idea. And, uh, Hilde? Little ears?” Duo pressed his hands over Mariemaia’s ears belatedly.

The woman coloured. “Sorry. But what’s going on?”

“Let’s see if he left anything else.” Duo sat down at the desk and got rid of the message. Apparently Heero had left his email unlocked too. It took him a couple of minutes to decipher the latest message in the inbox and it didn’t tell him much more than he already knew.

“Okay, short version,” he told the two impatient witnesses. “Heero and I were working with some other pilots – including Char - to stop the colony drop. When we found out about the kids, we went to rescue them while the other three took the available mobile suits after the colony. I assume they met up with Captain Ramius somehow. Now they’re going to try to destroy the Colony laser before it can be misused again.”

“Isn’t the entire Federation going to be after them if they do that?” asked Hilde reasonably. “How does he even know those people?”

“Uh, he’s kind of ...” He rubbed the back of his head. “He’s the White Devil, okay? And I think he’s got a girl – or a friend at least – in the Zeon colonies.”

“That is complete b- uh, baloney.” Hilde put her hands on her hips. “If you’re going to lie, at least be plausible. Heero being Kira Yamato I could kind of see, but a girlfriend? Really?”

“God’s honest truth! I even saw part of a video message she sent him.” He closed down the email system and saw that Heero had even still left files open from the server. “What’s this?”

“Well if you don’t know…”

“Are you going to bring him back?” asked Mariemaia.

“If he’s taken the Nocturne, I don’t know if I can catch him.” Duo looked at Hilde. “Do you know if he did or not?” he asked her.

“How would I know?”

“Well check!” he snapped. “You know where the hanger is.”

Hilde went white at his tone. But rather than snapping back she went to the wall and grabbed the hanger key from its hook.

“Brave?”

“Sorry, Princess. I’m… I’m worried.”

She wrapped her hands around his waist and hugged. “Hero is strong, right?”

“Yeah, yeah he is.” But he’s also wounded, Duo thought. And what state is his head in? He looked at the last files viewed. Ray – wasn’t that the name of a professor Heero had mentioned? Opening the file brought up a familiar face – Professor Tem Ray, developer of the Duel mobile suit for the Federation.

It couldn’t be the same guy… no, it had to be! Ray develops the Duel, Heero – Kira – piloted it. But how was he involved in…? Duo read further. Genetic donor for a child. Paternal donor, in fact. Maternal donor was… synthesized with donations from Ulen and Via Hibiki. Well, Ulen was a familiar name. Was Via his wife or a sibling or…?

Opening the file, Duo saw the violet eyes of Kira Yamato staring out of a grown woman’s face.

“Oh my god.”

He looked again at the head of the file. Medical profile, Amuro Ray. The birth date was blank… this was a pre-natal profile.

“Who is she?” Mariemaia asked. “She’s pretty.”

“She’s Heero’s mother,” Duo said at last. “That idiot!”

The door was flung open. “He- he- ?”

“Heero?” Duo asked the panting Hilde.

She shook her head. “He took his Zaku.”

Duo threw his hands in the air. “That idiot! That double-idiot! That super-idiot! He’s trying to get to Zeon – which isn’t even in the same cluster so I hope he took the shuttle – and he’s taking a mobile suit that was obsolete at the start of the war! How could he be so stupid?”

“I know!” Hilde seemed equally affronted. “That’s your job!”

“…I’ll let that pass but only because I screamed at you earlier.” He sprang to his feet. “He has a lead and he has a shuttle. If I’m going to catch up with him then I need some sort of transport or… or…” Duo smacked one fist into his other hand. “Hilde, I’m not gonna be selling those thrusters.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

“Captain Ramius needs you on the flight deck.”

Cima blinked at the Albion’s helmswoman. She barely knew the woman and wasn’t expecting her to open the door to her quarters, even if they weren’t locked or guarded any more. “Did she say why?”

“I’m not sure.” The young woman – Mirai, Cima thought – looked worried. “Some of the crew are…concerned. The captain might need you to get off before things get ugly.”

Well, it wasn’t as if she had a lot of personal possessions to leave behind. “Fine.” Picking up her jacket she shrugged it on and then pulled her long hair clear of the collar as she followed Mirai out of the little stateroom.

They met Char Aznable and Johnny Ridden on the way up the ship. “Have you seen Athrun?” the latter asked.

Cima shook her head. “I’ve been… alone,” she replied. “Maybe he’s with the captain?”

As they reached the hanger, they saw that Athrun was indeed with the captain, a hastily applied bandage around his head and a black eye just beginning to develop.

The hanger itself was filling up, crew from every part of the ship arriving in twos and threes. They stood in clusters, little cliques based on mutual interests or departments, Cima guessed. And while their numbers weren’t large enough to fill the echoingly huge hanger deck, they were more than enough in number to make up quite a mob.

“They must be down to a skeleton crew at duty stations,” Char murmured, as much to himself as anyone else. He was wearing sunglasses for some reason. “Do you see Bright?”

The executive officer wasn’t in view, Cima realised. She went to stand near the feet of the Rick Dias. In a pinch, she thought she might be able to get up it and the cockpit if this got ugly. Not that that would make matters any less ugly.

“This is Captain Ramius.” The captain was holding a microphone, linked to the wall by a cable. Her voice carried even without it and speakers repeated the words disconcertingly a fraction of a second late. Cima guessed the whole ship could hear her. “You’re all aware of what we’ve done of late. If we hadn’t intervened, casualties from the colony drop would have been ten or twenty times as high as they’re reported to be.”

“Without the help of Mr Zala and other pilots who joined us in that, we would have failed. That’s not speculation, that’s a fact.” Ramius took off her uniform hat. “Notwithstanding that fact, two hours ago three of your crew mates ambushed him and tried to kill him.”

She tossed the hat casually on the floor. “It didn’t go well for them. As you can see, he’s still standing. I can assure you that they are not. Nor is Lieutenant Bright, who went to Mr Zala’s aid and is now in the medical bay. Fortunately, his injuries aren’t life threatening.” A pause and she unbuttoned the collar of her jacket. “By the letter of regulations, their crime is mutiny. If anyone else wants to mutiny...” The captain produced a pistol from the small of her back. “…then this is your chance. Come at me.”

The hanger fell silent.

Cima arched an eyebrow. That was daring.

“No takers?” Ramius asked. “No one thinks that they’d be doing the right thing by removing me of command? I’ll tell you now, the chances are that Jaburo would not prosecute you for it.”

“Why not?” called Char. “I don’t recall the Federation being very forgiving when it comes to mutiny.”

“Because they’ve already issued shoot on sight orders,” Ramius replied, frankly. “It seems they don’t appreciate the continued existence of Chicago. We’re not all that far from Zahn right now, and the Specials are calling us a rogue ship. They’re even blaming us for the damage.”

A dozen voices tried to speak up at once. They sounded confused and to an extent anger, but that anger wasn’t aimed at Ramius anymore. They all drowned each other out though.

Cima folded her arms and adopted a carrying voice. “Were those orders from Jaburo, or from Jamitov?”

Heads turned towards her and she gazed back at them. “Jamitov is the one who controls the colony laser,” she said. “He claims that Artesia Som Deikun used it against the Mars Fleet. Now I don’t know the governor, but he also claims that the Albion helped carry out the colony drop and we all know he’s lying about that.”

She let that sink in. “What else is he lying about? Before I came aboard, I sent him evidence showing that I wasn’t solely responsible for the Halifax massacre. Conveniently, he says he never had it. That’s two lies I’ve heard from him. To me that says Artesia didn’t use the laser. And I have to wonder, who did?”

“Why should we trust you? You’re Zeon!”

“Zeon doesn’t matter,” Ramius declared. “The war is over. Those sides don’t matter, what matters is that there are those willing – even eager – to kill innocent people in order to advance themselves. And there are those who are willing to stand up to them.” She scanned the room. “I know what side of that line I’m on. I’d hope that having led you, I know where you all stand too.”

“I won’t lie. It’s going to be dangerous. To us and to our families. If some of you want to stand aside, I understand. If you want to leave the ship, that’s fine. We have our life pods and I’m more than happy to let you use them as we pass Luna.

She paused. “Three mutineers will be leaving the ship at that point, whether they want it or not.”

“If you want to stop me, if you want to side with Jamitov… Well, as I said: mutiny. Right now. Because make no mistake, the Albion is headed back into harm’s way. I’m going to Zeon and I’ll do everything in my power to destroy the colony laser, the way we should have done at the end of the war.”

Ramius lowered her gun. “Anyone? Anyone at all?”

Cima unfolded her arms. “Job Johns died fighting to save lives,” she reminded them. “I saw him – all his fears but also all his strength and courage. He fought odds of three to one so that we could reach the colony. I may not have served the federation, but as his comrade, I am going to Zeon.”

She looked to one side and saw a twisted grin cross Ridden’s lips. “I haven’t been home in a long time,” the ace said. “May as well go back with a splash. What do you say, Char?”

“I’m with you, Captain,” shouted Mirai before Aznable could speak. “Jamitov could use the laser on Earth, on our homes. He’s as bad as Gihren.” There were tears in her eyes.

Aznable threw his hands up. “Sure. Why not? My sister might need help getting away, anyway.”

“Your sister?”

The blond man removed the sunglasses he was wearing. “My name is Casval Rem Deikun,” he revealed. “Artesia is my little sister.”

Ramius looked over towards them. “No one has to decide now. But if you’re not with me, I do have to ask you to leave. And anyone changing their mind…well.” She holstered the pistol. “I won’t have the luxury of offering second chances.”

Cima reached out and took Mirai’s shoulder. “Don’t take this step unless you’re sure,” she warned, “This sort of choice can be hard to live with.”

“My fiancé was with the Mars Fleet,” the helmswoman said fiercely and Cima released her grip. What else could she say, at least that wouldn’t be hypocrisy? Her own reasons were just as selfish.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Dorothy Catalonia arched an eyebrow as she looked through the door of Lieutenant Mass’ apartment. The woman wasn’t in her office and wasn’t here. By all accounts she had been as reliable as a metronome about her work, so if she wasn’t here why hadn’t she turned up for work today?

The concern that there might have been foul play was why Dorothy herself was here with a squad of troops. Living here, surrounded by Zeon civilians was a daring move for an officer of the Federation’s garrison. It would have been a shame if she’d found such a useful officer slaughtered in her own apartment.

But no one was here.

“Put out an all-points bulletin,” she ordered absently, looking around. “List the lieutenant as missing.”

The rooms were lived in, not blandly anonymous. The furniture was simple and well worn. The videophone was an older model, although the wire connecting it to the wall was brand new. There was a story there and she wondered if it was to do with Mass’ absence.

Stalking deeper into the apartment Dorothy saw framed photographs on the wall. A young girl with light brown hair who was probably Mass stood with a sulky looking boy who had a familial relationship to judge by the face and a rotund man who seemed out of place. His face was familiar though – the late Senator Teabolo Mass, she recalled. One of the European senators, he’d died in a riot just before the war, hadn’t he? She hadn’t realised Mass was a senator’s daughter. No wonder she’d stood out as something better than the other junior officers of the garrison.

Another photo showed Mass in uniform, sitting with a larger group in a staged group shot. She was on the fringes, unlike Captain Ramius who sat in the centre of the group. Somewhere between the two was a young man with brown hair and striking violet eyes. The White Devil: Kira Yamato. This must be part of the crew of the Pegasus.

There were other photos, co-workers and friends, she guessed. One of Mass in surgical scrubs probably dated to her time as a medical student.

Brow furrowed, Dorothy stepped back and looked at the wall. There was something wrong, she though. Something out of place?

Nothing struck her but there was the same sense of wrongness. Her grandfather had advised her once that if she couldn’t spot a pattern, turn the issue on its head. What wasn’t a pattern? Rather than out of place, what should be here but… wasn’t…

Lieutenant Mass was the governor’s military attaché. They’d worked together for years and yet there wasn’t a single photo here that showed Artesia Som Deikun. Not alone, much less alongside Mass. And yet such a photo would normally be a minor perk of the position – evidence of a connection to someone powerful. Even if Mass didn’t care about that, it was out of character for her not to have a photo of someone she had worked with.

“So why not,” she said out loud. “Why is…” No. No, that couldn’t be it…

Whirling she ran for the videophone and dialled the residence.

“Oh, lieutenant,” the receptionist began and then stopped as she saw Dorothy’s face on her screen. “Sorry, Major, I saw Lieutenant Mass’s number and assumed.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she snapped. “Tell me, have you ever seen Governor Deikun and Lieutenant Mass together?”

“I… what…” The woman paused, flustered. “Well, uh… I must have.”

“Must you have? Can you think of a definite example?”

“I… no,” the receptionist admitted.

Dorothy nodded. “Take a message for the head of security today.”

“Yes, major.”

“Carry out a survey of all residence staff, check for anyone who can definitely confirm seeing Lieutenant Mass and Governor Deikun together. I want an answer by tonight.”

“Uh, yes ma’am.”

Dorothy cut the call, already confident on what the answer would be. “That clever bitch,” she said admiringly. “How did she keep it up for so long? No wonder I couldn’t find the governor, she was under my eyes the entire time.”

It was both infuriating, because she’d been played for a fool, and exhilarating, because someone had managed it. Of course, now that the lieutenant had disappeared she was on the move for real.

“The game is afoot,” Dorothy said and turned to the door only for the phone to ring. She froze, gave it a steady look and then accepted the call.

To her surprise, the regal features of General Khrushrenada. “Ah, major,” he greeted her. “The residence suggested I might catch you on this number.”

“Yes sir. There’s been a new development.”

“How remarkable. Shall we exchange revelations?”

Dorothy flushed slightly. “There’s evidence to suggest Governor Deikun was leading a double life, sir, serving as her own military attaché. Lieutenant Mass is now missing, which suggests that whatever her plans are they have moved to a new stage.”

“How very enterprising of her. I can only salute you on the calibre of your adversary.” The general gave her an approving smile. “My own news is equally auspicious. According to several of her crew that were allowed to leave by life pod, Captain Ramius is bringing the Albion back to Zeon with the intention of destroying the colony laser. I’m putting all mobile suit squadrons on to a rotating alert schedule so that we can respond immediately to the Albion’s arrival. Do you wish to be included on the roster?”

“Thank you, sir. I would be honoured.”

“Excellent. Please join me at the garrison headquarters for a strategy session in two hours.” He seemed to be alive as he had rarely been in recent weeks, invigorated by the prospect of battle.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Relena had expected heightened security once she dropped out of view – however close Dorothy was to realising her true identity, an active search would surely fill in the remaining gaps for her.

But the upswing in mobile suit patrols suggested an even greater concern and she couldn’t help but worry that she had left just in time to miss valuable information.

“Too late now,” she chided herself. “Second thoughts won’t help.”

Even under tightening Federation control there was a constant flow of traffic between the various colonies of the cluster. Without that, discontent would tick upwards and with an already inflamed situation Major Catalonia and General Khrushrenada had elected not to take measures that would worsen the mood of Zeon’s populace.

That didn’t make taking a shuttle easy but it did mean that a mobile suit seeing one wouldn’t immediately sound the alarm. That alarm could be very deadly since along with Long Daggers there were now entire squadrons of Calamity mobile suits on patrol, armed with 125mm and 115mm beam cannon that posed a real threat to a warship’s armour, much less a relatively fragile shuttle, and possibly larger weapons as well – the details were classified and she’d learned most of what she knew from Dorothy’s stray remarks.

Although taking off without a flight plan would have been a possibility, Relena had used what she still knew of the Special’s procedures to find her way into their own hanger. Shuttles were still going back and forth to the colony laser, rotating security and technical personnel as well as ferrying supplies and replacement components.

One of the shuttle pilots was unlucky enough to meet two criteria: he was about Relena’s height and he had no one waiting to go back to the laser on his flight. While that meant a modest cargo, it would mostly be a milk-run back to the colony laser to wait for someone else to be leaving – just another routine flight of which hundreds had taken place already.

With ruthlessness that startled even herself, Relena had caught him at an unguarded moment and brought a length of pipe down heavily on his head. He’d fallen to his hands and knees but not been knocked out until she hit him twice more and while he had still been breathing, she wasn’t confident she’d avoided a skull fracture or a severe concussion. Unlike the movies, serious head wounds could have lasting consequences and were rarely walked off.

He’d volunteered for the Federation armed forces and then again for the Specials, she told herself. That didn’t make him inherently evil but it did suggest he’d accepted the risks of injury to himself as a result of serving in that way.

Dressed in his space suit – no pilot suit for a mere truck driver – she’d finished the pre-flights and taken off right on schedule. The colony laser was some distance from the rest of the cluster so once she got there she could de-activate her transponder and the only patrols in position to investigate would be those directly around the laser, who wouldn’t dare leave their charge alone in order to follow her for any great distance.

That was the plan, at least. Whether it would go well…

Hah. She could remember easily how many times operations on the Pegasus had gone to plan. Never, not even once. Improvisation had been demanded of them every time but they had managed then and she would try to do the same now.

A patrol of Calamities went past her route as she let the autopilot do most of the work. Their torsos extended further back than she would have thought, presumably to accommodate a large reactor to power their weapons. As they moved on with nothing more than a wave of their arms towards her, they presumably saw nothing wrong.

The edge of paranoia that something would go wrong kept her on edge for the flight although she knew she would be wiser to rest while she could. As the shape of the colony laser expanded before her, she reached over to the transponder and prepared to disable it by the means she’d prepared – the crude but effective method of cutting the power cable for the transmitter. She’d already opened the panel, identified the wire and had insulated wire-cutters ready.

“All units!” the radio spat out suddenly. “Albion has been sighted at extreme range approaching the colony laser. Vector one-seven-three, one-six-zero. All squadrons scramble. Non-combatant craft head for the nearest port.”

Ah, there it was, Relena thought, somehow relieved that the complication she’d expected had appeared at last. Or perhaps just that the Albion was here. Taking the clippers, she severed the wire and bent both ends away to make sure they didn’t brush against each other and somehow re-activate the transponder.

Going back to the controls she turned the shuttle away from the colony laser and headed in the direction that had been specified for the Albion. Making contact with Ramius wasn’t an opportunity to pass up.

The new direction took her out-system which made sense now that she thought about it. Zeon lay further from the sun than the Earth did so the colony laser faced in-system in order to engage targets in the direction of the rest of the Earth sphere.

Looking in the direction of the laser she looked for the extensive cooling vanes that extended from the back of the cylinder. No one could survive inside the colony while the laser was firing so the control stations and the limited docking facilities were attached at the base of the vanes. If more mobile suits were launching then she wanted to know as soon as she could.

Except that no vanes were visible.

Relena ran her eyes across the length of the colony and at the far end she could just see the ends of the vanes. The Specials had turned the laser around.

Slamming the throttle open, she pushed the shuttle up to maximum speed, not caring any more than her thrusters were going to draw attention of the defenders. She had to get into radio range of the Albion as fast as possible, to warn them that their attack trajectory was coming in almost directly into the colony laser’s field of fire.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Cima found herself at the leading point of a diamond formation of mobile suits as they approached the colony laser. The long flight had given her flashbacks to the long days in the adrift Hizack and although she wasn’t alone this time, she’d had to practise radio silence.

And yet, somehow, she’d been able to sleep without nightmares for once.

Why she was no longer haunted she couldn’t guess and she doubted that it would last, but when she woke from what she expected to be a short, haunted doze, she found she’d slept for nine hours. Perhaps it was that she was headed home at last.

There were no signs of ships around Mahal. They were too far away for shuttles or mobile suits to be visible but at least there was no sign that the two Specials cruisers Ramius had reported from when she left Zeon were on station protecting the laser.

“I see the vanes,” Athrun announced. They were close enough that radio signals were no longer a concern. All four suits brought their engines up, formation wavering as they adjusted for the differing thrust profiles of their engines. “Captain Ramius was right – they guessed she’d come at the laser from behind.”

“No wonder she gave you such a hard time back in the war, Aznable,” Ridden offered. “She planned around them planning around her plan.”

“Stop sniping at each other,” ordered Cima. “We have actual enemies to deal with.”

Mahal grew before them and she felt a curious reluctance to shoot at it – she’d been born in that cylinder. It’s different now, she told herself. Those places are gone, torn away by Gihren Zabi’s ambition. No one lives there anymore.

Athrun fired first as they reached the theoretical maximum range of their beam rifles. Against mobile targets this would be ludicrously optimistic range to hit anything but the vanes were gigantic and at the same time startlingly fragile. Coolant exploded from them and froze into Christmas-tree like arrangements as the particle beams perforated them.

As Cima closed in she focused her fire on the centre from which they radiated, trying to sever the structural beams that held the vanes together. Char had recovered a rocket cannon from the remains of the Delaz fleet – it had been still clutched in the hand of a severed Hizack arm that had been used to rebuild the arm of Cima’s Rick Dias. As they reached its effective range, he emptied the three remaining rockets the direction of the centre and then flung the launcher after it.

“Do you think that’ll do anything?” she asked, amused.

“It weighs more than a ton,” he pointed out. “It may not hurt the vanes if it hits them but it surely won’t do them any good.”

“We’re not alone!” Ridden warned sharply. “Incoming mobile suits.”

“Quite right!” a familiar voice cut into their channel. “I was sure we would meet again.”

The Tallgeese flew at the head of a dozen Calamities, holding back its engines so that it didn’t out-pace them. It hardly mattered though as the suits opened fire with beam cannon that blazed through space around the four mobile suits, forcing them to break off the attack and evade wildly.

Cima, who had only heard of the suits from her new comrades, had barely believed Char’s summary of their capabilities. Now she was forced to concede that – if anything – he might have understated how much firepower they brought to bear.

“I see you’ve found new suits,” Treize continued, bringing the Tallgeese forwards. “Who’s in them – the White Devil? The Jovian? Or that charmingly forthright fellow who cut such a sharp bargain?”

“That doesn’t matter, Treize.” Zechs dived forwards, sweeping one of his massive anti-shipping beam swords around only for the Tallgeese to parry with its beam sabre. “What matters is that we’re enemies now.”

“And words cannot persuade you?” If anything, the Federation general seemed enthused at the thought.

“They can’t!” Cima declared. “Get close to the Calamities. Make them worry about shooting each other!”

She brought the Rick Dias in and the Strike Rouge and Blue Duel followed her, forcing the Specials into a wild dogfight.

“Very well!” She heard Treize laugh as the Strike Noir and Tallgeese spiralled away from them, the suits and their pilots apparently intent upon a private duel. “Let us settle this like warriors - and may the better pilots win!”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

The colony laser hadn’t fired. Relena wasn’t sure why that was but it was one of the few good signs she had right now.

Three Long Daggers had moved in on her shuttle and her evasions were taking her away from the Albion – now engaged in battle against another squadron of mobile suits. Only the fact that they didn’t seem willing to just blast the shuttle out of the sky was keeping her alive.

The shuttle shook as another shot grazed it, taking out one of her control thrusters.

“This is Captain Noin of the Specials,” a voice crackled over the radio. “We know you’re aboard, Governor Deikun. Surrender or we’ll have to risk injuring you.”

So, the jig was up. Relena flipped on the microphone, hoping Albion would pick up the signal. Hoping anyone would hear. “I doubt I’ll avoid injury in Federation custody, captain.”

“Shouldn’t have fired on the Mars Fleet then!” an angry voice cut in. The next shot clipped the nose of the shuttle, not far from the cockpit and Relena was flung against her restraints, losing her grip on the controls.

“Watch it, Jerid!”

“Just finish her off so we can deal with the real threats!” the man demanded.

But no shots came in. Relena twisted in her seat and saw that all three of her pursuers had broken off to face a new arrival. Machine cannon rounds sparked off the shield of one of the Long Fangs as the mobile suit rushed in and forced them to scatter. This opponent, at least, was armed.

Old instincts had Relena assess the threat. Rounded armour, a mono-eye sensor-head rather than the more face-like arrangements of a Federation suit. A Zaku II, like the one Char had used in the battles against the Duel and the Pegasus? No, this was an older design. She remembered seeing training machines from the Zeon Defence Academy being taken away by the Federation for scrapping – a Zaku I.

Outnumbered and outgunned – it seemed to have only a single machine cannon and a heat hawk, the old suit threw itself at the more modern machines. Two of them scattered but the third drew its beam sabre and engaged.

Relena stared, watching as the Zaku slipped aside from the deadly weapon, stowing its cannon. When the Long Dagger lunged in again, the bulkier suit moved inside of its arc, smacking the arm holding the beam sabre aside and then ripping the shield out of the Federation suit’s other hand.

It did so just in time to bring the beam-resistant panel around and intercept shots from the other two Long Daggers.

That distracted it though and the pilot only barely avoided the Long Dagger rushing in again – no, he didn’t entirely escape, Relena realised. One of the Zaku’s external cables had been severed.

Taking the offensive, the Zaku flung its heat hawk, lodging the weapon in the Long Dagger’s sensor head before it had to dodge again. One of the beam shots hit the shield again but another pierced his suit’s leg. The thrusters there blew up and when the smoke cleared, Relena saw the limb was gone from above the knee.

“I don’t know who your friend is, Governor.” Captain Noin’s voice remained calm. “But if you want him to survive then I suggest you rethink your position on surrender.”

“Man, you are still grumpy!” another voice called out.

“What?” Noin voiced what Relena was thinking. Who was that man, the third pilot?

Then one of the two undamaged suits grabbed the other and pushed it away as a rack of thrusters rushed past them, some sort of crude sled? It moved too fast for Relena to pick out any details as it tore past the little tableau and vanished into the distance.

Taking advantage of the distraction, the Zaku tried to rush the two Long Daggers, raking them with its machine cannon, but they blocked the shots with their own shields.

The damaged Long Dagger raised its beam rifle and fired shot after shot towards the Zaku – as much of a threat to its allies as to its target, but it only needed one hit.

Then a new mobile suit hit the Long Dagger feet first, sending it tumbling away, the beam rifle flying out of its hands.

Relena stared at the latest arrival. Federation mobile suits she knew, and at least most of the Zeon types. This though… it was painted only in grey primer and it had huge, tapered pods that extended from its back. From this angle they looked almost like wings.

The two remaining Long Daggers fired their beam rifles at it but the suit ignored them. A faint halo of green surrounded it and as the particle beam shots hit that light, they dissipated rather than cause damage.

“A particle deflecting shield!?” exclaimed Noin, her calm broken. “That’s impossible!”

“Then call me the man who makes the impossible possible.” Drones erupted from another pod, mounted behind the suit’s head. “I cheat and steal… but I never tell a lie!”

The drones formed a constellation around the suit and from each beams of energy raked the two Long Daggers. They still had their shields but they couldn’t cover every possible angle and the shots shaved away limbs and sensor heads, reducing both to cockpits and torsos adrift behind the questionable cover of shields held in their only remaining arms.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Not since A Baoa Qu had Zechs Merquise been pushed so hard in battle.

The asteroid fortress hadn’t been so far away, in fact. It had been the gateway to the Zeon colonies although unlike the laser, the Federation had removed it from the area after the war and restored it to its original purpose as a mining asteroid. Military installations were simply more metal to be taken from it and shaped into the raw materials for new colonies and the repair of those deemed salvageable.

The Strike Noir exceeded his recollections of the original – faster and more agile. It was all that was keeping him ahead of Treize Khrushrenada and the Tallgeese.

“I’m amazed that you put the Calamity into mass production!” he transmitted as he evaded shots from the Tallgeese’s beam rifle. “The Tallgeese seems like the better mobile suit.” He returned fire with his own beam pistols, peppering the other mobile suit.

Khrushrenada brought his relatively small shield up and intercepted the shots, anticipating their path and blocking them. “That was my own recommendation!” he called back. “But the armaments committee have always believed more in brute firepower than in finesse.”

As if by mutual consent the two switched back to pitting beam sabre and anti-ship beam blade against each other, dancing around each other unable to beat the other’s guard.

They’d battled like this many times, in simulators and then in Long Daggers as they worked together to develop the high-performance suits. The two men knew each other’s moves and habits too well. The only difference now was the suits they were using.

Around them the results of the Federation’s choices were apparent: the sky was ablaze with fire as Calamity’s unleashed their arsenals… and not one of the wrecked mobile suits that resulted were Zechs’ allies. The Strike Rouge, Rick Dias and Blue Duel were simply too agile for them to pin down and it they couldn’t match the sheer destructive power of the large calibre beam cannon, they didn’t need to.

“You’re running out of support,” Zechs hissed after a close call, hoping to shake Treize’s confidence. The man cared for his soldiers after all.

“Major Catalonia will be here with reserves soon.” Treize flung the Tallgeese back into a flip, as if to open the range but Zechs saw it for the feint it was and lunged in to meet the resumed assault rather than giving Treize an opening by trying to switch weapons.

Zechs’ blade nicked the edge of Treize’s shield but the Tallgeese avoided further damage, boosting away on maximum thrusters for long enough to bring its beam rifle to bear and Zechs had to re-dock his sword while evading, going back to the beam pistols. “I thought you hated attritional warfare!”

“I do, but I admire worthy foes.” Treize’s fire was damnably accurate. “The Specials are a blade that’s barely begun to be forged. The hammer of battle will drive out the impurities and leave an unparalleled metal.”

“Not unparalleled.”

The two of them plunged through a cloud of debris, shrapnel glancing off their armour, both men ceasing fire to ensure their delicate sensors were protected.

“Ah yes, your little band.” Treize sounded wistful. “I envy you, the chance to fly alongside such marvellous warriors.”

“Did you ever wonder,” snapped Zechs as he opened up with his pistols, “Why none of us are on your side?”

“Old friend you can’t possibly think I’ll change sides at this late stage.”

Zechs saw the Strike Rouge break through the remaining Calamities and head for the colony laser. For a moment he thought Athrun might make it but then the promised reinforcements arrived and the young man was forced to turn and fight rather than giving his back to the fresh Calamities.

“General!” Dorothy Catalonia’s voice cut onto their channel. “I see you’ve left some glory for us!”

“The Strike Noir is mine,” Treize told her. “But that leaves three for you, my dear.”

“You’re too generous!” she said with apparent enthusiasm.

“Catalonia.” Zechs shook his head slightly, eyes not leaving his monitors. “You meant the Prime Minister’s granddaughter?”

“She’s all grown up now and given up her dolls for mobile suits.”

Zechs snorted. “That little hellion was never one for dolls.” The girl he remembered from warm, lazy summers in Spain had been more likely to take a horse from the Khrushrenada stables and push the limits her riding instructors would allow.

He sensed rather than saw an opening and snapped up his beam pistol, sending a bolt of energy just past the edge of the Tallgeese’s shield and clipping the crest of the mobile suits.

At the same time a shot from the Tallgeese caught one of the long wings of his thrusters.

Under other circumstances they might have called off the duel, called it a draw.

But this wasn’t a day like that and the two pilots switched back to their swords and dove in for the kill. It really was like A Baoa Qu, Zechs thought absently. A personal battle, against a brilliant adversary, a conflict that neither would back down from.

How did we both survive that day? he thought and then was snapped back to reality as his beam blade barely intercepted the beam sabre.

“So, it comes to this.” Treize Khrushrenada drove the sabre against the blade, the two charged particle beams crackling against each other. “One of us won’t walk away from this.”

“Personally, I intend to fly,” Zechs Merquise replied.

Thrusters opened wide, weapons clashing, the two mobile suits soared around the far side of the colony laser, it’s bulk screening them from the battle of their allies, cutting them off from any intervention save each other.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Yet another Calamity spun in front of Cima, beam cannon blazing. Was there no end to them, she thought, moving on instinct to respond. There was no margin for error, it’s shield was coming around, the two beam cannon built into it more than enough to end her Rick Dias if they connected.

But the price of that was that the shield was edge on towards her and it did nothing to block her 55mm Vulcans as they raked across the suit’s chest, wrecking the chest mounted multi-phase cannon and then the cockpit cover below it.

A rocket slashed past her and Cima dived. Not many of the Calamities carried the launchers for those but they had some sort of plasma warhead – the Specials were using cutting edge weapons, the sort of things she’d only heard rumours of.

“All units!” She didn’t know the voice but it cut across the battlefield. “If you want to live then get away from the colony laser.”

“That’s Heero!” Athrun called out. “He must have got here.”

“I won’t fall for a bluff,” the Special’s commander transmitted challengingly.

Cima pinpointed the source and saw that the young woman was in the Calamity that had just launched the plasma rocket at her. Aggressive, but not yet tempered by experience, she judged. She reminded Cima of herself, back before the war and she was surprised to feel a pang of empathy for the younger woman.

“No bluff,” Heero responded with cool resolution. “I’ve reached the reactor and my mobile suit’s reactor is on a countdown to detonate. If you come after me, I’ve got a manual trigger – but this way you have a chance of getting away.”

“Are you going to kill yourself?”

Cima didn’t have to guess the answer to that and she opened her thrusters, risking hits from the still firing members of the Specials as she tried to distance herself from Mahal.

“If that’s what the mission takes.”

The finality of those words seemed lost to some of the Specials and Cima saw trio of the Calamities burn for the colony. They were too slow, she thought. They would have done better to bring Long Daggers to this fight.

Giving her credit the young commander didn’t mistake this Heero’s resolve. “Break off and evade!” she ordered crisply and put her own Calamity into a rapid climb away from Mahal.

Fire slackened as some of the Specials obeyed and followed their commander but others were more recalcitrant and she saw the Strike Rouge twist and tumble as two suits continued to focus their fire on Athrun. Twisting, Cima fired back and scored a hit on one with her beam rifle.

She couldn’t even guess where Ridden was – the Blu Duel might even be out of action already. They had been fighting individually since the reinforcements arrived, under too much pressure to employ teamwork against the enemy’s overwhelming numbers and firepower.

The trio closing on Mahal almost reached their goal. Whether the timer ran out or Heero had detonated his suit manually was impossible to say.

The explosion blotted the three Calamities out of existence as a mere afterthought.

The colony laser demanded a power source of incredible magnitude and Gihren’s scientists had sacrificed safety constraints in pursuit of the performance needed to charge the capacitors. Mahal – her home – vanished in a blaze of light that the Rick Dias’ sensors couldn’t entirely mute.

There should have been no shockwaves in space but one hammered into her anyway, those parts of the laser that had literally been reduced to dust combining with Minovsky particles to impart physical force to the expanding frontal wave of debris.

Send spinning like a child’s toy, the Rick Dias tumbled through space with Cima clutching her restraints, unable to do more than pray that she would remain ahead of larger fragments.

For all the irony of such an encounter, she didn’t want to be killed by Mahal’s death throes.

Someone must live on, she thought. Someone must spread the word of this. Of Heero Yuy – because the Federation will no doubt call him a terrorist and never mind that he was depriving a monster of the weapon he’d have used against them.

Right now, though, living on meant she had to avoid getting swatted by whatever was left of Mahal – the first wave of impact had been dust but –

The Rick Dias shook as something struck the mobile suit above the cockpit.

- heavier debris would follow. Case in point.

The impact had knocked out the data on her screen. Diagnostics claimed the camera in the sensor-head was still working so maybe the cable carrying the input to the cockpit had been taken out. On the plus side, the whirling stars had been making her dizzy and she thought that she might be spinning less now.

Switching the monitor to one of the smaller and much less capable cameras did nothing. Another camera, same result. Dammit. The monitor itself was broken.

Cima switched a secondary monitor to use the feed from her main camera and it lit up perfectly. It meant looking to one side to tell what was in front of her, but better than nothing. Judging the nature of her spin, the pirate started applying counter-thrust to stabilise herself.

More debris hit one leg, fortunately just glancing off the limb’s armour plating, and she had to start again but at last she was more or less steady.

The distant sight of the other colonies of Zeon suggested that they would have their own debris issues, but they were further away and at least as sealed colonies their hulls didn’t have massive windows that would be vulnerable.

There was nothing she could do for them, anyway.

Watching her radar for extra debris, Cima turned back towards the source of the explosion. Mahal was gone, almost as if it had never existed. A few shredded sections of the far end from the reactor were visible – curved plates of metal entire kilometres across – but even they were flying outwards from the heart of the explosion.

In the dim distance, she saw flares of light. Recovery orders. Had the Albion survived or was it a ship belonging to the Specials?

There was only one way to find out.

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drakensis
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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by drakensis » 2018-11-22 06:18am

Epilogues – It’s A Brave New World

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

One of the Albion’s turrets was gone and a gash had been carved along one side of its hull, but the cruiser was under power as Cima drifted closer. She’d locked each hand of the Rick Dias to structurally sound parts of mobile suits, but dragging them was doing nothing for the flight characteristics.

“Do you require recovery crews?” someone asked from the Albion.

“I assume you don’t want them rattling around inside the hanger.” Slowing, Cima brought all three suits to rest and maneuvered the first of them over to one of the Albion’s open hanger doors. The elevator rose into position and with the help of flight deck crew she pushed the Strike Noir onto it and secured it.

The space suited crew saw the open cockpit, hatch torn away by some weapon or impact, and at least one looked inside. Having done the same, Cima knew what they found: a few bloodstains on the controls but no body. Whether Aznable had been wounded and ejected, or simply been flung clear somehow, she didn’t know. There had been no sign of him.

As the elevator retracted, Cima went back to the other suit and prepared to stow it as well.

“Major, please keep the other elevator clear,” Ramius requested.

Cima directed a questioning look at the side-monitor where she could see the captain had taken over flight control personally. She guessed that given the damage, the Albion was short-handed even more now than she had been after dissenters had been allowed to leave for Luna. “Is someone landing or taking off?” she asked, pulling her burden back.

“Landing.” The brunette rubbed her head, uniform cap set aside. “Zala picked up two survivors.”

Turning, Cima spotted the Strike Rouge approaching. “I wasn’t sure he made it out.”

“Nor was I.” Ramius looked exhausted. “I guess Kira didn’t make it either.”

“Kira?”

She got a sigh. “He went by Heero… no, you wouldn’t have met him either.”

“Oh, him. No, I can’t see how anyone would have survived if they were inside the colony.” She blinked. “Wait… Kira as in, Kira Yamato? The White Devil?”

“He was no devil. Just a kid who wanted to keep the ship his friends were on intact.”

“Then he had a better reason for fighting than most of us,” Cima said at last. “It’s always the younger ones who pay for our mistakes.”

“Stop sounding like an old woman. I looked you up and you’re not even my age yet,” the twenty-eight-year-old captain grumbled. “I thought he was well out of this mess.”

As the Strike Rouge closed in, Cima saw the scars – one leg was a mangled wreck and it had lost its shield, its beam rifle… even the beam sabre sockets were empty. If any of the Specials had come across him, Athrun would have been defenceless.

“Major!” he called as he jetted to a halt, careful not to put too much strain on his own cargo, the torso section of a Dagger, if Cima was judging it correctly. “Thanks for that last shot – I thought they had me.”

“You would have done the same for me,” she answered, believing it. “I don’t suppose you saw the Crimson Lightning out there?”

“No… I haven’t seen anyone else.” He started moving again, carrying the torso section towards the open hatch. “Sorry, I have a couple of survivors in here – I’m not sure how much air they have left.”

“First things first,” agreed Cima.

Athrun placed the wreck on the elevator and started helping secure it. “What about Mr Merquise?”

“I found his suit but he wasn’t in it.” She made a face. “Maybe he just disappeared again. He did it at A Baoa Qu. The man’s a survivor, I wouldn’t be surprised if he turned up again somewhere.”

“Poor Heero, though.” Straightening, Athrun raised the Strike Rouge’s hand for a salute in the direction where Mahal had been. “He deserved better than that.”

“What we deserve and what we get are two very different things,” Cima told him. “Help me get this one aboard,” she added as the other elevator returned.

Moving over, Athrun seized hold of the mobile suit by its feet and helped her wrestle it aboard. “Is this… the Tallgeese?”

“I didn’t get that good a look at it before,” she admitted, “But what’s left of the crest certainly looks like it.”

The exterior of the mobile suit was a wreck. It must have been closer to Mahal than was wise when it blew and while the lunar titanium covered much of it, the chassis had been scoured down to it and even that protective layer hadn’t proven entirely resistant.

Nor did the armour cover everything. Like the Strike Noir, the cockpit hatch had been broken away at some point and unlike Char Aznable, there was no question as to the pilot’s fate.

Still holding the controls, face serene within his helmet, General Treize Khrushrenada was pinned to his seat by a metre-long shard of metal that had pierced him just to the left of his breastbone.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

“Major!”

The hatch of Dorothy’s Calamity opened at last, much to her relief. The mobile suit’s thrusters hadn’t been powerful enough to get her away from the blast in time. She’d expected to die, and though somehow that hadn’t taken place, the cockpit had warped enough that the hatch wouldn’t open.

The panel removed, she could see the helmets of two rescue crewmen against the stars. One reached in and she accepted the hand, kicking off her seat to escape the confines at last. She kicked her legs again lightly as she drifted out, not for more momentum but to work out the stiffness. Sitting still for hours wasn’t her favourite experience – it reminded her too much of schools she’d been eager to escape from.

Gratitude was due so she shook hands with the two space-suited workers once they’d stowed the cutting torches and then looked around.

The Calamity was a write off, she thought. The reactor had held – somehow – but the mounts for the main beam cannon were gone and so were most of the limbs. It had kept her alive though, which was worthy of praise and…

Behind it, she saw the looming shape of another mobile suit, one that gave her pause.

It had its back to her but the shape of the sensor head was distinctive – two long aerials rising from the face like horns or – as she preferred to imagine – like giant eyebrows. It was neither a Dagger nor a Calamity, although they had variations on the pattern. The hexagonal shape of the shoulders gave it away.

“The Blu Duel!” she exclaimed. “Where did you recover that?”

The nearer of the two workers shook his head. “It was right here,” he explained. “The rear thrusters collided with your own and locked the suits together.”

“The pilot?” Dorothy demanded, eagerly.

He shook his head, hardly visible inside his helmet but she got the idea. “Not a chance, sorry. It took the brunt of the shockwave and the debris – the cockpit looks like a cheese grater. Was he one of you?”

“No…” she admitted. “He… he was an enemy.”

She scrambled over the shoulder of the Calamity and saw that the two were indeed intertwined. The Blu Duel’s damage was no less severe than her own suit – and that despite lunar titanium armour and additional composite layers of protection. In many ways it looked worse off. “Who were you?” she asked the cockpit. “You had better thrusters…”

Mental note: tell the General we need better space combat suits, she added to herself. The Calamity is fine on Earth but we took avoidable losses out here.

The pilot should have been able to get away, she concluded. The Blu Duel hadn’t even been particularly near her when the colony laser exploded. Had the shockwave flung them together somehow? It wouldn’t make sense, if anything the expanding blast should have widened the distance unless for some reason the pilot had flown after her and…

“No.”

“Ma’am?”

“Not you.” To her fury and embarrassment, Dorothy felt the beginnings of tears in the corner of her eyes. I don’t accept this, she screamed mentally at the dead man who had saved her. You and I were enemies! Why would you use your own suit to shield me? What did you want? Did you think you’d survive?

He gave her no answers, of course.

“Make sure to recover his body,” she instructed, not looking back at them. “DNA testing should let us identify him… and I guess I owe him a decent burial.”

“Aye, major.” The two men took their tool skiff – little more than an underpowered motor linked to a collection of power tools – around and began working on the cockpit hatch of the Blu Duel.

Leaving them to it, Dorothy headed for the recovery shuttle. She needed to assess the losses, get in touch with her chain of command, put together an after-action report… All things that could distract her from the dead pilot who’d put himself between her and what would have been certain death.

For every battle like this one, she thought, day after day of drudgery and administration. It’s almost not worth it. Even if Artesia Som Deikun was no pilot, she made all that easier. Maybe I should have offered to cover for her if she’d joined up – it would have been amusing, at least.

You, at least, I’ll meet again, Dorothy thought. Even if Noin’s squadron somehow failed to catch you, all that that means is that you escaped the blast as well as them. I almost hope you did escape. Jamitov will complain but if we have no enemies out there, then the Senate might start wondering if they really need the Specials.

And until grandfather has solidified his position, that’s not a train of thought we want the old dinosaurs to be following.

That can wait until we’re past the point on depending on them, she thought, imagining the bright future of a Federation where she wouldn’t be constrained any more by them. A trimmer, fitter Federation. One led by the best leaders and one worthy to rule humanity.

Patience, she reminded herself, hard though that came to her. One step at a time, one enemy at a time.

Losing the laser was a set-back to her plans but hardly a fatal one.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

The shuttle grew in Zechs’ vision. A rescue shuttle from the colonies.

He’d been adrift for more than an hour now, having expended every bit of reaction mass he could scrape together to overcome the initial impetus of the explosion and head back towards the site of the battle. To conserve oxygen, he’d entered a meditative state, a lesson he’d been taught at the Flanagan Institute in one of the their less successful efforts to awaken Newtype abilities.

Stretching his limbs, he found them still responsive right down to the finger tips. Good. The shuttle was both salvation and deadly danger. Taking a flare from his belt he ignited it and extended his arm, releasing the device when it was at the full extent of his reach.

The signal flare was a standard issue used by all space farers and his pilot suit was Federation issue, the same sort used by the Specials. On the surface at least, he shouldn’t appear suspicious.

To his relief, the shuttle adjusted course and slowed, matching his pace. An airlock opened, streaming light towards him. From within a suited figure waved and then threw a cable out to him.

The weighted cable came close enough to grasp in both hands and Zechs reached out, loosely grasping it but let it run through his hands once it started to retract, purposely giving an impression of weakness, as if he was just clinging to life.

Undaunted, the suited figure secured the cable and this time they jumped out, following it to him. The man – now he was close enough to be sure – rested his helmet against Zechs’. “Don’t try to speak, save your air,” he instructed and secured the line to the belt of Zechs’ pilot suit.

The line retracted, drawing them back into the airlock, the outer door sealing behind them. Zechs’ rescuer worked the controls with controlled urgency and gauges went green on the wall. Working together - Zechs deliberately remaining ineffectual, almost hampering the other man – they removed his helmet.

“Breathe deeply,” the man instructed him and started opening the inner hatch. “Just get your lungs used to having enough good air. Are you hurt otherwise?”

Zechs shook his head. “N-no,” he wheezed. “Thank you.”

“It’s okay.” The man helped him up. “Come one, let’s get you inside and into a seat.”

The interior of the shuttle was bare of other rescuees. Not too surprising, Zechs decided. There probably weren’t all that many survivors. He’d have expected Kira Yamato to give much more time for people to get clear so someone had probably pushed his hand. Idiots. The young pilot wasn’t one to bluff.

“Can I take your name?”

What was this going to be, his fourth false identity? Edouard Mass, Char Aznable, Zechs Merquise. “Quatre,” he said whimsically as he sank into the nearest seat. “Quatre Winner.”

“Uh-huh.” The other man nodded. “You just sit tight, Lieutenant Winner. We’re still sweeping the area but we’ll have you safely on Zeon City colony in the next couple of hours.”

Zechs raised his hand and curled the fingers into a rough thumbs up.

“Good man.”

Zeon City was the last place he wanted to be – well, second-last. Drifting in space was probably worse. Still, now he had access to a shuttle. That was a huge windfall of resources and only a couple of spacers between him and sole control of it.

Fifteen minutes later the same man returned to the cabin, putting his helmet back on. “Found another one,” he said cheerfully. “Someone else beat the odds.”

“Great.” Zechs grinned. It really was a good piece of luck. He watched as the airlock closed and then rose to move quietly to look through the window next to it. The shuttle was picking up speed slightly although compared to the wreckage ahead it seemed to be slowing. Matching velocities then. They were approaching a Long Dagger, the haft of a heat hawk jutting obscenely from its sensor head. The light of a signal flare lit up the still closed hatch – mostly closed at any rate. One corner had been forced open, creating a space just large enough for an arm to be extended, waving.

The rescuer drifted into view, connected to the shuttle by a cable. He didn’t seem to have tools with him and Zechs guessed he’d need them to open the hatch. Looking around, the pilot spotted a tool skiff racked opposite the airlock. With a smile he retreated to his seat and waited.

Only two minutes later the cockpit hatch opened and the pilot emerged. “Okay, we have a two man job,” he explained. “I’m going to take out the tool skiff. Are you okay on your own for a few minutes?”

“Sure.” Zechs gave him a thumbs up. “Whatever you need for the poor fellow out there.”

“That’s the spirit.” The pilot opened the airlock and carried the tool skiff into it. “Keep an eye on the shuttle for us, okay?”

“Like it was my very own.”

The lock cycled once more and Zechs sprang up, checking the cockpit. Yes, he was alone. Perfect. And while the autopilot was set for station-keeping that was all it was doing. No locks or other security.

He returned to the airlock. No one was inside. The only link to the men outside was the cable linking the first rescuer, connected to the winch on the side of the shuttle. And for safety reasons that winch should have emergency controls… He scoured the cabin quickly, not finding them. Where… the cockpit?

Conscious of time ticking away he went back up front… yes! There, in easy reach of the co-pilot, under a cover for safety’s sake. Without hesitation, Zechs lifted the cover and pressed the button with his thumb.

There was a dull thump as explosive bolts jettisoned the winch.

Throwing himself into the pilot’s seat, Zechs turned the autopilot off and opened the throttle.

The radio squawked with protests and he silenced it abruptly. There would be other rescue shuttles and unless they were entirely negligent, the crew would have called in their location. Someone would pick them up and they could take satisfaction in having saved his life twice: once from the void in space and once from the Specials.

Or maybe they wouldn’t. Well, that was up to them.

In the meantime, he needed to get some distance from Zeon and then find a ship with more range. The in-system was a little too hot for any of his identities right now, but at least one of them should be welcome at one refuge he could think of.

Zechs didn’t look back once.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Murrue Ramius passed two of the drinks on her tray over to the pilots Athrun had brought aboard and kept a third for herself before handing the tray off. “I imagine you have questions.”

Captain Lucrezia Noin was nominally Ramius equal in rank and she’d appeared composed despite her situation, but Cima could tell that the footage of the battle against the Delaz Fleet and their combined efforts to defeat the colony drop had left her unsettled. “I have only your word that this is what actually happened,” she said warily.

“My word, and that of my crew. Also, of two of the five mobile suit pilots.” Murrue paused. “The other three being dead or missing.”

“And where do you think the data could be faked?” Cima asked the Captain, passing one drink to Athrun and keeping the last for herself. “I know Zeon ships didn’t have that sort of computer capacity – do Federation ships?”

The lieutenant with Noin gave her a thoughtful look. “She has a point – although the fact that you’re one of the pilots doesn’t exactly strengthen Captain Ramius’ case.”

“Lieutenant… Sheen, right?”

She got a nod in reply.

“Have I ever denied my part in what happened in Halifax?” Cima forced herself not to snarl. “I don’t claim to be totally responsible, but make no mistake: I was there. I deployed the gas. And I am damned as a result.”

Sheen gave her a thoughtful look. “You were following orders. That’s no defence.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Not for you, and not for us.”

“We,” Noin insisted, “aren’t war criminals, lieutenant.”

“Not yet.” Ramius leant forwards. “Jamitov lied about what the Albion was doing. Not a mistake, a lie. There’s no way that with the surveillance satellites around the Earth that he missed the fact we were shooting at the Delaz Fleet. No way he couldn’t tell that the colony’s trajectory changed after we sent people aboard it. So, if he’s lying about that, what else was he lying about?”

“Where are you going with this?”

The captain smiled grimly. “I can’t prove, not yet, that he had the colony laser fired at the Mars Fleet. But I know he had both Specials and Federation intelligence people on Zeon colony well before that happened. If he wanted to investigate Governor Deikun he had ample opportunity to do that. And if he wanted to take control of the laser… well, the only people on the laser that could have stopped him were Federation soldiers.”

“That… that would be monstrous.”

Cima’s smile was shark like and empty of empathy. “No, captain Noin. That would be obeying orders.”

Noin glared at her. “You think we’re like you?”

“Not yet.”

“Lucky us,” Sheen murmured. “For now.” She got a sharp look from her commander.

Ramius nodded. “Now, I trust Artesia Som Deikun. I’ve quite literally trusted her with my life. But you’ve not met her so that’s not much use as an argument.”

“Even if what you say is true, that’s treason. It’s a matter for the judiciary. Not for… vigilante action.”

“Good luck pressing those charges,” Athrun murmured from the corner where he’d been sitting quietly.

“What’s your part in this?” Sheen asked. “You saved our lives, and I’m grateful, but I don’t see how you got involved. You’re not Federation armed forces, are you?”

He grinned a little sadly. “No, I’m… I was with the Zodiac Alliance. I guess I’m a renegade myself now.”

“How so? I mean, you tried to take out the colony laser. I’d think they’d be happy with you?”

“I was also under orders to support the colony drop.” Athrun’s emerald eyes met Sheen’s equally striking jade eyes. “My mother was on Junius Seven, so I have a little bit of an issue with… civilian massacres.”

“I can understand that.”

“You can go back if you want,” Ramius told Noin levelly. “I don’t know how I can arrange that, but we’re pretty resourceful. But sooner or later, if you follow Hyman Jamitov’s orders, you’re going to face the same decision that Major Cima and Mr Zala had to make. Which of them do you want to be?”

“Take it from me.” Cima crushed the drinks canister in her hand and headed for the door, dropping it into the waste disposal. “You don’t want to be me.”

She closed the door, walked across the corridor and rested her forehead against the wall.

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

“The reports from your forward base are rather worrying, Patrick.” Siegel Clyne leant back in his chair and looked at his old friend with measuring eyes. “What do you make of them?”

Patrick Zala had all but memorised the reports but he lifted them and glanced through them again. “Taken at face value, my son would be the first person to be court martialled by the Zodiac Alliance for mutiny. I can’t claim that there’s no conflict of interest.”

Clyne made a dismissive noise. “This isn’t the supreme council, Patrick. I can understand recusing yourself there, but here? In private? Talk to me.”

“Being fair to Yzak Joule, he also forwarded the reports Athrun provided. That’s… impressive restraint given the provocation. We can probably expect more from his officer.” That was all the stalling he was going to get away with at this point. “Athrun was probably too young and inexperienced to be sent out the way I did. With Barton endorsing experimentation on children, coordinator children… I can understand he’d bond with the other pilots who agreed with him.”

“Yes, that’s another matter. I’d prefer supporting evidence, but no one here in the outer colonies will miss Trowa Barton or his father.”

“And in the long run, the colony laser isn’t something we want the Federation to have. Particularly in the hands of these Specials. It’s not impossible that mitigating Delaz’ efforts was some sort of quid pro pro,” he suggested, not really believing it but at the same time, feeling he should make the efforts. “The results have still been entirely positive for us.”

Clyne nodded sagely. “The Federation’s economy is in turmoil; their Mars Fleet is gone and one of their most dangerous weapons is gone. And garrisoning the Zeon colonies will not only drain their manpower, it’ll damage relations with moderate colonies.”

“On the other hand, the various Zeon remnants appear to have collapsed,” Zala conceded. “Karaba is a ghost of its former self at best, the Delaz Fleet are gone. As for Artesia Som Deikun… well I have no doubt she had some sort of plan but I’m inclined to dismiss Jamitov’s accusations simply because of the source.”

“She’s finished politically though.” Siegel made a face. “Lacus will be unhappy. She was something of an admirer.”

“You can never quite tell in politics,” Zala told him drily. “We’ve both had surprises before, for good or ill. As for my son, if it were my place to say, I’d defer judgement until we know more.”

“Assuming, I’m sorry Patrick, assuming that he’s alive.”

“Of that I have no doubts.” He spoke without hesitation. “He and I knew that Lenore was dead, long before the reports. I would know if he was dead too.”

Siegel Clyne stood and walked to the window. “There are times I wonder if our forebears had the slightest idea what they were doing when they tried to ‘fix’ our genetics. They raised the bar, for us and our children, but there are anomalies that we still can’t explain.”

“Leave that to scientists like the Hibikis and philosophers like Zeon,” Zala responded. “If we ever see their like again. Our job is to win the war so that the question is even relevant. You know there are voices in the Federation that would like to close the books on Coordinators and Newtypes, whatever either are.”

“Yes, that’s true.” Clyne still looked out at the gardens. Rain was falling, exactly as scheduled, and a bubble-gum pink-haired young woman sat in a gazebo, apparently heedless of the chill the rain brought to the air. “Very well, Patrick. I agree that it’s premature to decide anything about Athrun. We’ll call his service to the Zodiac Alliance… suspended pending investigation. That should keep Ezalia Joule from doing anything too rash on her son’s behalf.”

Satisfied, Zala set the reports aside and brought up a more useful topic of conversation. “With the Mars fleet out of the picture it may be worth expanding our goals on Mars. Asteroid mining is meeting most of our needs but the more mines we control the better our chances of building up a strategic reserve in some of the rarer elements…”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Hymen Jamitov looked across his desk at the young major and then shook his head very slightly. “Your report is very thorough, Major Catalonia.”

“I regret my failure to protect the laser, sir,” she said crisply.

He acknowledged the sentiment with an incremental nod of his head. “What is done is done, major. The losses suffered even before that point indicate that the Specials’ hadn’t been properly equipped for the situation you were faced with. General Khrushrenada had lodged his concerns previously that exclusively using the Calamity was less than ideal.”

Dorothy drew herself up. “May I ask if there is news of the General, sir?”

Fortunately not, he thought. There had been troubling divides in loyalty already within the Specials due to the charisma of their field commander. If he’d allowed their disagreements to surface it could have wrecked the force. “Regrettably not. For the sake of morale, he is listed as Missing in Action but we must face the facts: there is little chance at this time that General Khrushrenada is alive.”

The girl deflated slightly. The Prime Minister’s daughter and ambitious to go with it, she was a valuable tool and could only grow more useful. It was definitely a relief that her idolisation of Khrushrenada was now focused on someone who couldn’t speak for himself.

“The loss of the laser will appease certain elements within the Senate so we cannot entirely consider the matter a defeat,” he went on. “For reasons of public morale, its destruction was now on General Khrushrenada’s orders in order to prevent its capture by the Albion and its crew of renegades. The inability to otherwise defend it will rest upon the Armaments Committee. I understand the prime minister will be replacing several members as a result.”

Catalonia smiled thinly. “The general’s death becomes that of a martyr.”

“Precisely.”

“In his absence will the Specials receive a new commander?”

“As he is merely listed as missing, I will be taking charge of more of the administration. An acting field leader will be appointed until such time as a formal arrangement is made.” He paused. “As the Specials’ senior officer, the role can be yours if you wish it, Colonel.”

That caught her off-guard. “I would have thought, sir, that Colonel Une… A promotion? I hadn’t expected…”

“Colonel Une no longer holds that rank.” He gave her a wintery smile. “Just as rewards are due for your own successes, the final defeat of Zeon’s Crimson Lightning, she has had to face the consequences of a serious failure.” Jamitov shrugged slightly. “She has begun to redeem herself but as a result…”

Dorothy drew herself up and saluted. “I would be honoured to serve, sir.”

Ambition, yes. And this may have tempered her more. “Then I will make the arrangements, Colonel Catalonia.” He steepled his fingers. “While the main focus of the Federation armed forces rests on forming a new Mars fleet and persuading the local defence fleets that they should contribute towards it, we have more pressing concerns.”

“Artesia Som Deikun and the Albion.”

“Those would be two of them, yes. And there is also the report from a Lieutenant Messa regarding a… grey mobile suit with wings.”

“I’m not familiar with such a design, sir,” Dorothy admitted. “I saw his report but I don’t know if it should be taken seriously or not.”

“Captain Une’s demotion related to investigation of a group developing new combat technologies. Ideas as revolutionary in their way as the mobile suit.” He smiled slightly at the idea. Military strategists were always so shocked when their paradigm changed. The tools of politics and intelligence weren’t so easily revolutionised. “The lieutenant’s description matches the group’s prototype, a unit designated as the Nocturne.”

“Could there be a connection between the three parties?”

“That is always possible, Colonel. We must find out. Maintaining order within the colonies is a reactive mission, but all three have the potential to make that task considerably harder, so we must also be proactive when it comes to the threat they pose.”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

Zechs Merquise was set aside as he exited the asteroid mining ship. That identity had no value here, but from the two lines of troops that lined the passage, ceremonial rifles held across their chests, that of Char Aznable did.

Unless this was preparatory to his execution, of course. He doubted anyone in an orbital habitat would load the heavy rifles with live ammunition but they had gleaming bayonets that weren’t entirely ornamental.

Char was out of uniform but they saluted him crisply as he passed between them. More than a dozen on each side, a platoon strength honour guard. The lieutenant in command was young – if he’d served against the Federation he would have been in his teens at the time – possible, the pilot thought as he returned the other man’s salute.

“Lieutenant Aznable. Lady Zabi and the Regent await you.” The man glanced at Char’s clothes – a mix of civilian garb and Federation uniform – and made a face. “If I may suggest, a fresh uniform is waiting in your quarters.”

“It wouldn’t do to be unpresentable,” Char agreed. He’d stayed only briefly on Axis after the war, but the sprawling base had been largely empty when they arrived. Even so he was surprised to find that the room he was led to was the exact same one he’d used back then. Had it been held for him? The Regent must have had more faith than he that he’d return – although then again, he knew himself better than Maharaja Karn possibly could.

He took a moment to wash his face and hands before donning his old uniform – the same iconic red version of Zeon’s standard uniform that he’d adopted in his need to stand out, to make his name and to rise closer and closer to the Zabi family. The mask slid over his head, masking his eyes and then the silvered helmet.

Looking into a mirror was like looking back in time by five years. A younger, angrier Char. He smirked at his past self and re-joined his escort.

One of the cavernous interior spaces had been refitted as a throne room – it was easily large enough to use as a mobile suit hanger but inconveniently deep inside the asteroid – and since he last visited the metal floor had been replaced with something like marble. The throne on the dais seemed small in comparison and the burgundy-uniformed occupant even smaller.

Five-year-old Minerva Lao Zabi wore the uniform of Zeon. Fair-haired and biddable she reminded Char more of her mother Zenna than of her towering father.

“Lieutenant Aznable.” The figure in black at the side of the throne wasn’t Maharaja Karn and he was glad of his mask as he looked at her. “You may approach Lady Zabi.”

Ascending the dais, Char dropped to one knee before Minerva. Regally the child extended one small hand and he accepted it, touching his lips to the back. She trembled and, at first, he thought it was fear. “Welcome back, Char,” she said and he realised it was childish excitement. “I… we have missed you.”

“And I you,” he lied smoothly. Was that the royal we? Behind his mask he glanced towards the Regent. Perhaps not.

Haman Karn, Maharaja’s daughter, was barely out of her teens. Her slightly pointed face was solemn. “The Zeon government-in-exile thanks you, Lieutenant. Our enemies the Federation have been greatly weakened and we see your hand in these events.”

“I fear I have made myself somewhat unwelcome.”

“Not to the true heirs of Zeon.” Haman’s hand rose to cover her heart. “The Federation and the Zodiac Alliance are enemies and the balance of power stands more evenly than we could have hoped for, a year ago.”

Ah. “And when the powers are in balance, then Zeon may be the finger on the balance,” he concluded.

She inclined her head. “We too, are stronger than we once were. The Lady Minerva invites you to dine with her.”

“Of course. I am deeply honoured.”

On a slight nod from Haman, Minerva stood. All those in the great hall saluted her and the cry went up, the same cry that had heralded glory and bloodshed across the Earth Sphere:

“SIEG ZEON!” they cried out and a shiver went down Char’s spine. “SIEG ZEON!”

{MSG AC/CE/UC}

“I’m dead,” Duo murmured, sprawled face down on his desk. “Just roll me out and bury me.”

“You’re not dead,” Hilde told him heartlessly. “You just wish you were.”

“I thought that adoption paperwork had been simplified to deal with the refugee problem.”

“It has been!” she said brightly. “Just think how long it would have taken before the war! You’d have probably been dealing with it for another six or seven months.”

“No wonder so few prospective parents came to the orphanage,” he realised.

“That may have just been you, Duo.”

“I was an adorable child!”

“What happened to the adorable part?” Hilde asked with a good imitation of sincerity.

There was a laugh from the doorway and they turned to see a blonde in dungarees and a leather jacket miming sliding something onto her left ring finger. Hilde went red slightly and Duo rolled his eyes. He wasn’t entirely sure if Artesia Som Deikun was trolling Hilde or if she’d been entirely sincere when she asked “When are you two getting married?” less than a day after her arrival at the yard.

Not Artesia, he reminded herself. Cagalli. Proper tradecraft meant not even thinking a name other than the identity being used. “Congratulations.” He offered her some of the papers he’d collected at long last from the colony’s offices. “It’s a girl and two boys.”

“Katz, Letz and Kikka,” she read off the documents. “I can’t believe you picked their names out of a hat.”

“I did no such thing! They’re the ones who picked their names out of the hat, and given they’re all apparently Newtypes even without the drugs, I’m not sure how random it is.”

Cagalli shook her head. “I don’t believe in Newtypes.”

“You haven’t tried flying the Nocturne.”

“No, and I’m not going to. Only crazy people fly mobile suits.” She and Hilde scored a high five. Really, it was bizarre how easily Artesia – Cagalli - had fit into their crazy life at the scrapyard. Maybe it was the shared trauma of dealing with thirteen children, some of them going through withdrawal, or maybe she was just as chameleonic as her brother. Not that Duo was crazy enough to suggest the latter.

“I don’t envy you getting three children all the way from here to the Venus orbitals,” Hilde pointed out. “The cabins on a colony transport aren’t huge and they’ll be climbing the walls long before you get to the Riah colony.

Cagalli shrugged. “They probably won’t be the only children aboard – there are a lot of people who find the idea of heading for neutral colonies a good idea right now.”

Standing, Duo headed for the door. “Speaking of which, not much longer before you go.”

“Two more days. You got the paperwork done just in time,” she agreed. “Thank you, Duo.”

“Don’t mention it. Really. I don’t even want to think about what I had to do.”

Laughter followed him out of the office and there was more of it, from younger voices, on the lot where he’d stored the thrusters. With no other available space, he’d set up another prefab building there to make room to give the kids proper housing. Four was sat on the steps, tossing a ball patiently for Elpeo to rush around and recover.

“Hey,” he greeted them. “All okay?” The ball flew through the air, missing Four by the proverbial country mile – Duo had to stretch to catch it. He grinned at Elpeo and flipped the ball off into the corner of the lot, bouncing it off both fences.

Four nodded. “Are you?”

“Yeah, just getting clear,” he said. “Hilde and Cagalli have started saying their goodbyes, they don’t need me for that.”

The girl gave him a quizzical look. “But Cagalli, Katz, Letz and Kikka aren’t leaving for two more days?”

“It takes women that long, sometimes. I get the feeling Hilde will miss having Cagalli around to help gang up on me.”

“She’s been coaching me,” Four said solemnly. “Duo!” she continued in a decent imitation of Hilde. “Stop lazing about and go salvage something that we can sell!”

“Oh god no!” he groaned and reached down, grabbing her off the ground. “None of that, missy. I will tickle you, swear I will!”

The ball soared back and Four made use of being held up to catch it. She tapped it lightly against Duo’s head and then threw it out again for Elpeo. “You should go in,” she said more seriously.

Duo gave her a wry look. “I should, huh?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“Very well, my young mistress. I live to obey.” He settled her down again, tousled her hair and opened the door.

Sat in a second- or third-hand armchair they’d found in a thrift shop, brown eyes looked at him from a familiar face under tightly curling brown hair. He’d clearly been reading a book to the two girls in his lap but they’d fallen asleep at some point and rather than disturb them, he was just sitting there with his arms holding them in place.

“Getting domestic?” Duo asked lightly and lifted the renamed Leia out of Amuro Ray’s lap. Her mother’s name was one of the few things that Mariemaia Khrushrenada still had of her old life. Having her Hero leave too was harder on her than she tried to let on, but she would have to give up on one of them and the chances were better of someone identifying her if she tried to get through a space port legally right now. Perhaps things would settle down, but not now.

“Practise for the trip.” Amuro held up the tablet computer he’d been reading for. “We have every children’s book I could find downloaded onto here.” He bent over, careful not to dislodge Kikka, and stowed the computer away. “Paperwork done?”

“In the nick of time.” Duo settled Leia on the disreputable couch and went back for Kikka. Once both girls were laid down, heads at opposite ends, Amuro tucked a blanket around them. “Security might be tightening up, with the Specials expanding their reach.”

“Have you considered coming with us?”

“Ten more children would be a little more obvious,” he replied. “And leaving all this behind…? I’m more of a homebody than I thought.”

Amuro nodded. “It’s good to know oneself,” he said softly. “Don’t get into any crazy crusades, Duo.”

“Me neither. I get the impression Cagalli’s good at wrangling you, but she may be out of practise.”

“I’m done with causes.” The other man’s voice dropped further. “For now, at least. I think I need to figure out who Amuro Ray is before I can commit to anything bigger.”

Duo nodded. “I can understand that.”

He got a tight smile in response. “Yeah.”

“It does ride me a little,” Duo added quietly. “This Jamitov… he seems like nothing stuck to him. Slimy creature. But it’s not my fight any more. Not with the kids.”

“Help them grow up safe from him, that’s more than your fair share. If worst comes to worst you have my codes to contact Captain Ramius or a couple of people Re- Cagalli knows. They’ll do everything they can for you if you need help.”

“Hah! You almost slipped,” Duo caught him. “You’re not as good at keeping secrets as a certain other person was, Amuro.”

Amuro shrugged. “It’ll be a bit odd with Cagalli.” He said the name without hesitation this time. “I’ve never had a sister before.”

Duo gave him an amused look. Clearly someone hadn’t checked his paperwork carefully enough. Amuro Rey and Cagalli Rey shared a surname, but not because they were siblings. Still, that was her revelation to make. Duo wasn’t going to tread on the perquisites of that young lady – her brother might be a deadly pilot, but Artesia Som Deikun was unquestionably the more dangerous of the siblings.

“I’m sure you’ll work it out,” he said and smiled innocently when Amuro gave him a suspicious look. “Come on. We don’t want to disturb the girls. You can help me one last time with fixing up the Nocturne. If I ever do need it, I want it in tip top order.”

“I hope you never do,” Amuro said quietly. “A machine that connects with your brain, one that’s killed two people already…?” But he went with Duo anyway.

The two closed the door behind them and Four latched onto Duo’s arm. “Piggyback!” she demanded.

“Back! Back!” agreed Elpeo, holding her arms up to Amuro.

They exchanged grins and an agreement that the Nocturne could wait. Life came first.
Fin.

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U.P. Cinnabar
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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by U.P. Cinnabar » 2018-11-22 10:44am

And, they all lived happily ever after.

Until Char's Counterattack

Good show. I greatly enjoyed reading it
"Beware the Beast, Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone amongst God's primates, he kills for sport, for lust, for greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him, drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of Death.."
—29th Scroll, 6th Verse of Ape Law
"Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”
---Doctor Christine Blasey-Ford

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Re: Those That Carry On (MSG AC/CE/UC)

Post by LadyTevar » 2018-11-22 10:40pm

BRAVO BRAVO!!!
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Librium Arcana, Where Gamers Play!
Nitram, slightly high on cough syrup: Do you know you're beautiful?
Me: Nope, that's why I have you around to tell me.
Nitram: You -are- beautiful. Anyone tries to tell you otherwise kill them.
"A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP" -- Leonard Nimoy, last Tweet

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