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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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!”
“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.”
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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”