Speak of the Devil [MSG UC]

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Fraktal
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Joined: 2018-02-26 08:14am

Speak of the Devil [MSG UC]

Post by Fraktal » 2018-12-28 07:27pm

He didn't know how to define the darkness before him.

It was darkness, and yet it was not.

It was empty, and yet it was not.

It was nothing… and yet it was eternity.

All the times he reached beyond the state of existence known by Oldtypes couldn't even remotely compare to this. The "expansion of consciousness", as scientists called it, even though it was more than that. Only Newtypes knew for sure, only Newtypes could know for sure - and yet that description didn't quite describe it. Couldn't describe it. For Newtypes, their state of existence simply was. No description needed. And yet no description was possible, for thoughts put to words by a human mind simply could not describe what laid beyond the bounds of a human mind.

What his mind now glimpsed upon eclipsed all of that. There was no expansion. There was only him and the Beyond, towering over him in its infinity.

But even as it pulled at him, his very soul feeling the threshold of transcendence…

…he hesitated.

And as if to answer that hesitation, a familiar form appeared before him. – "You are not ready."

"What do you mean?" – He did not consciously will to respond, but the words were spoken true.

"I can feel it." – her spirit slowly circled around him. – "You feel as you still have things left to do."

And the nature of his hesitation revealed itself to him. There was no point in denying it. – "...you're right."

"And you are honest about it. I've always liked that in you."

"As opposed to Char?" – he asked bitterly.

He more felt than saw Lalah frown. – "I never wanted the two of you to fight."

"We don't always get what we want. If Char wouldn't have wanted to force the hand of history, none of this would've happened."

"If he wouldn't have done it, someone else would've."

Anger welled up in him. – "So I should've just left everyone to die?!"

"Am I not dead?"

"People only have one life! If they lose it, it's all over for them!"

"Am I not talking to you right now?"

"Don't give me that!" – He reached out and grabbed her shoulder. Though he wasn't sure if that really happened or if his mind was just making the sensation up to make sense of what it was perceiving. – "Being able to talk to someone isn't the same as being there with them! It can't even begin to compare! All the people, all those who died today, they still had things to do in life! Should they give all of it up just because you say it's okay to do so?!"

"I never said that–"

"If you say people should abandon their state of existence for another just because you think it's better for them…" – he interrupted her. – "If you truly believe that, then you are the same as Char. We cannot make that kind of choice for them. No one can. People must make that choice by themselves."

"You talk as though death is the end of everything." – Lalah remarked.

Which only rekindled his anger. – "If death is not the end, why didn't you stop him?!"

"You did that yourself, captain." – Chan pointed out as she materialized out of nowhere.

"And how many people died to make that happen?!"

"You're a soldier yourself. You know that we can't save everyone, no matter how hard we try."

"I know, but that still doesn't make it right."

He wouldn't accept it. He couldn't accept it. The frustration, the powerlessness, the knowledge that he could do nothing… all feelings he was familiar with ever since that day fate decided to put him on center stage. A day he always felt ambivalent about: the day when everything started going downhill…

…and the day when he became able to make a difference.

With that, a decision blossomed in his mind. – "I want to go back."

"You can't."

"Why not?"

"No one has the power to bring back the dead." – Lalah replied. – "Not even you."

"You said it yourself, captain: people only have one life." – Chan added. – "Even you."

But the decision was made.

"No." – Amuro Ray replied calmly, his anger being drained by a new emotion. Resolve. – "I will not accept this."

In that instant, the universe was no more.

----

Consciousness returned to Amuro as his eyes slowly cracked open.

It wasn't the spherical walls of a panoramic cockpit that greeted him; more like a crumpled pillow pressed against his face by gravity. Or rather, artificial gravity. Throughout his life, he traversed the Earth Sphere enough to get a feel for the varying amounts of gravity in various locations – and what he felt right now was neither the oppressive pull of Earth, nor felt quite like the Moon. By process of elimination, that meant he was in a colony somewhere.

Brain slowly rebooting, his head turned … and stared stupidly at the amateur electronics gear in front of him.

He couldn't, for the love of his life, figure out what was going on. Did someone pick him up and take him to safety?

That was unlikely. If a Jegan would've grabbed the Nu, he would be in the Ra Cailum's infirmary right now. If it would've been a Geara Doga, he probably would've been killed in his sleep for stopping their efforts. Then again, at least some of them did try to help him in the end…

What else? A civilian vessel wouldn't go anywhere near a pitched battle zone, much less a colony drop. Especially since he clearly remembered the Nu being seared by reentry heat as Char desperately tried to convince him to give up.

Amuro sat right up at that thought. If he was alive, chances were that Char made it too. And if so, might be up to something.

First things first, he had to find out where he was and how to get in contact with Londo Bell. Neo-Zeon was at their breaking point; time was of the essence before they tried to go underground. Last time that happened, nothing good came out of it. But then again, the same was the case with Char too. Amuro told the brass he was too dangerous to be left alone and Bright backed him up on that – but not only they didn't listen, they actually tried to bribe the man! Did they honestly think that someone who spent eleven years to stalk and kill five people and betrayed not one, not two, but three factions he worked for at various points, could be swayed by real estate?

It wasn't mere stupidity. It was incompetence to such an insane degree that Amuro, as much as he hated to admit it, honestly started to have doubts about the Federation as a whole lately.

Not to a level of actually agreeing with Char, even in hindsight, but he did remember Haman Karn's hateful words recounted to historians by Judau Ashta's friends, decrying the Federation as a herd of fatcats content on having their own fill and damn everything else. He remembered Jerid Messa's words, heard with his own ears: 'we have the power, therefore we have the right'.

And yet he also remembered the Federation Assembly unanimously repealing the 0087 Counter-Terrorism Act that day in Dakar. That right there is what kept Amuro hopeful when the Federation tried to avoid Haman's wrath by giving her Side 3 and leaving what was left of AEUG hanging out to dry. Why he risked his neck by re-enlisting in the military after having stepped on one too many toes through his protesting of the existence of the Titans' Newtype labs and technically having committed treason by joining Karaba – both worthy of being blacklisted and the latter worthy of a court martial.

Lalah was right. He did feel that if he could turn back the clock, there would've been many things he could've done better. Or done at all.

He slung his legs over the edge of the bed and frowned. His body felt… wrong somehow. In fact, the whole world felt wrong. Even his senses were… fogged, if that word could be applied to extrasensory perception. It was most definitely not helped by a bizarre sense of familiarity he felt as he looked across the room. It looked more like a teenager's room than a prison cell, including a slightly torn poster of a Zaku I above a desk. Where in the hell was he?!

Inching slowly to the window, he peeked around the edges of the closed curtains, careful not to touch it in any way a sentry outside could see. They didn't know he was awake yet, which meant he had the element of surprise.

No military base or hospital, just a normal-looking suburban street. That left two options: either he was in civilian hands – which was unlikely –, or in those of a Neo-Zeon group in hiding. And considering that he didn't remember ejecting, that could be trouble: if they managed to get their hands on the Nu and had a Cyber-Newtype in their ranks, there could be no end to the carnage they could cause with it. In which case, getting back in touch with Bright in a timely manner just got a whole lot more important.

Amuro was more than a little surprised to find the door unlocked. Were his captors seriously this sloppy or did his luck finally decide to help him out for a change?

Even so, he decided not to risk it and took the stairs behind as quietly as he could, listening to any sound indicative of someone about to jump him. Yet there was none. And as he arrived down to what looked like a dining room, he was starting to get more than a little paranoid. There was just no way someone with a prisoner could be sloppy enough to leave everything unlocked and post no guards whatsoever, no way at all.

'Even if they didn't recognize my face, they pulled me out of an enemy mobile suit. I'm the enemy, they have to know that!'

Yet as he spotted a computer in another room upstairs, he recognized the opportunity: no guards means no one to stop him from using it to get his bearings.

'Well. Don't mind if I do…'

Five minutes later, Amuro pinched the bridge of his nose with a frustrated sigh.

No matter where he looked, he couldn't find any online news more recent than fourteen years old and if it was censored, it was a very elaborate and seamless mechanism. There went that idea, he supposed. He chanced an attempt to log in to the EFSF global network as well, but found that the system didn't accept his credentials. News of his apparent death spread fast, it would seem. Only, he never quite remembered the military bureaucracy being so swift and efficient that they'd bother with locking out accounts in the immediate aftermath of a near-apocalypse. That being said, it still had a perk, though: if he was lucky, his attempted unauthorized access was flagged and traced to wherever he was, dragging security forces right to his captors' doorstep.

Not that Amuro intended to wait for the cavalry.

He was in the middle of standing up from the computer to tally up potential escape routes when he heard a voice from the stairs. There was no way for him to ambush or even hide in time…

…before a young girl looking very much like a teenage Frau Bow walked into the room.

"So this is where you're hiding!" – she regarded him with a sigh. – "I don't think your dad is going to be pleased if he finds you in here. And you didn't even touch the food I brought you! Were you up all night again? I know there's no school today, but-"

That was just too much for him.

He distantly heard her cry of alarm as he practically collapsed back onto the chair in the room he now recognized very well. The persistent feeling of deja vu he's been having ever since he woke up, the lack of recent news, and now Frau Bow suddenly appearing with a much younger look and just casually chatting him up as if she wasn't a thirty year old widow with a dead husband and foster son. No matter how much he tried finding the catch, there was none. His senses, though foggy, assured him that no, this was no illusion. The girl before him was Frau Bow, that much he could feel.

The entire situation was just absurd, but it was the truth and the realization hit with all the subtlety of a beam cannon to a mobile suit's reactor. Somehow, he was in 0079 – and if the way his body felt (and Frau's lack of reaction) was any indication, he was no longer 30 either.

This was just flat-out impossible – and yet Amuro Ray had seen many things that would've been impossible without Newtypes being involved. So there was that.

It took a pair of rapid, forceful slaps on his cheek to shook him out of his thoughts and back to reality.

"AMURO!" – Frau's voice snapped at him, her hands grabbing his cheeks and forcibly making him face her as she was leaning over him. – "Are you listening to me now?"

He shakily nodded.

"Okay. Now, are you okay? You looked like you've just seen a ghost and collapsed."

"...y-yeah… yeah, I'm okay."

"I don't think so. You haven't eaten. Again. And I think your blood pressure dropped from standing up too fast. You're lucky you didn't fall and hit your head on the edge of the table."

'Why do you even ask if I'm alright if you're not going to accept the answer anyway…?' he inwardly wondered. – "It's okay, I'm fine."

"Oh no, you're not brushing this off just like that." – She stood back up. – "I'm bringing that food here and you're not moving an inch from here, understand?"

"Frau-"

"No."

"I-"

"No. You. Are. Going. To. Eat." – she declared in a tone that left no room for resistance before marching out of the room.

'Yep. Same old Frau.' Amuro thought with some measure of amusement; despite all she went through, Frau could still force her way through when she really put her mind to something. Though it was more to distract himself from the matter at hand.

Eating did give him time to think, though. Here were the facts.

He was in Side 7, sometime around '79 instead of '93. How did he suddenly retrace the last 14 years of his life, he had no idea.

He was a teenager again. Again, how did he had fourteen years' worth of extra memories in his head, he had no idea.

However this happened, he still had his Newtype senses. Well, sort of. In any case, that was going to come in handy.

However he returned to the past, he didn't seem to bring Frau along for the ride. At least, she didn't show any remembrance of what he was still having trouble recognizing as the future.

The future… it sounded ridiculous to him as well, but Amuro has long since learned to trust what his senses told him. And right now they, dulled as they were, told him that this was no illusion. No, this was cold, hard reality. Outside the colony's walls and beyond the void, the One Year War raged. He didn't know the exact date, though; he made a mental note to check it first thing after he slipped away from Frau's motherhenning of him. As glad as he was to see her as a chipper youth instead of a broken woman, he had more important things to do right now.

Like getting his bearings to know where he stood.

----

'Whatever higher power steers the hand of fate has a strange sense of humor indeed…'

It was a good thing Musai cruisers kept the tradition of the commanding officer having separate personal quarters instead of hotbunking with the rest of the crew because Char Aznable didn't think he would've had an easy time explaining to the rest of the crew why he had a, as distasteful as the word sounded, freakout just a few minutes ago upon waking up in his bunk.

But at least he had a good excuse for it. After all, people don't visit death's door only to suddenly wake up inside a Principality of Zeon warship they commanded fourteen years ago, manned by the same crew and headed for the same objective. But there was no mistake: he was in the CO quarters of the Falmel, headed for Side 7 to investigate intelligence obtained by Principality intelligence about Project V.

And yet, he knew exactly what he was going to find: the Pegasus-class assault ship White Base and a few kilometers away, on a heavy trailer being transported to the docking facilities…

His mouth tightened into a thin line at the thought.

A part of him morbidly noted that for some reason, it was always a white mobile suit that came closest to killing him. First it was the Gundam, then it was the Qubeley and finally, Nu Gundam. But none of the other two left as heavy an impression upon his mind as the Gundam. And considering that it would seem the Nu Gundam actually succeeded in killing him, that was saying something. He still remembered the mounting frustration he felt as time and time again, he failed to score a decisive victory, no matter how often he switched rides to keep the upper hand. Yet even once he had a superior machine, all he was able to eke out was a draw.

Because no matter how advanced it was, a mobile suit was only as powerful as the pilot.

Char didn't care there were only a handful of other Zeon pilots who went toe-to-toe with the White Devil and survived the experience. To him, it was personal. The Gundam had taken everything from him: his pride…

…and his hope for the future.

Simply put, Char was scared. He was scared to sit down and contact her. If he were to see her face, alive and well, after all these years… he honestly didn't know what he would do. No matter how many of his comrades fell alongside him, all of them combined couldn't compare to the agony he felt when he lost her. And if he had anything to say about it, it would not happen again. He would not allow it, even if he had to choke the life out of Amuro with his bare hands. And if he were to lose her again…

He would burn it all. For he would know the universe existed solely to torment him and it would be only right for him to strike back.

For now, though, he needed to think about his immediate situation. He was on the Falmel inbound to Side 7, back in the past with a clean slate. Which meant the Principality of Zeon existed and with it…

He turned on his heel and walked to his quarters' private terminal, whereupon he sat down and calmly proceeded to type out a list of names before scrolling back to the first item on his list.

Degwin Zabi

After a few seconds of contemplation, he put an X next to the name. The man started this whole mess in the first place; there was just too much blood on his hands.

Gihren Zabi

Char put down another X without pausing.

Kycilia Zabi

He paused for consideration again. It was very tempting to mark her off as a target; she more than deserved it and did try to kill him and Artesia, him more than once. Yet at the same time, she did personally kill Gihren and wasn't quite as psychotic as him (which was faint praise indeed). In the end, he shook his head and put down an X. Better not to take any chances.

Dozle Zabi

A difficult question. Char had to admit, if it weren't for the man's heritage, he might have even respected him. Dozle wasn't a monster like his older siblings, it's just that he wasn't exactly the sharpest tool in the shed and was too prone to blindly going along with what the rest of his family said simply because of who said it. And yet while Gihren might have been the one to come up with Operation British, it was Dozle who executed it. Char noted with some measure of mirth that he was probably the last person in existence who was in a position to criticize Dozle for Operation British, but that didn't mean he approved of it. In the end, he simply put a question mark next to Dozle's name. If the brute got in his way, by all means he would put him down but frankly, he had more important targets. Besides, Dozle would rot in military prison for the rest of his life anyway. That is, if Amuro didn't get to him first – not that Char intended to let Amuro live that long.

Garma Zabi

Probably the hardest question. Simply put, Garma was no threat to him whatsoever. Like Dozle, he was impressionable - but unlike Dozle, he lacked the stomach to get his hands dirty. Useless for anything but PR, really. Then again, Char noted with what he was surprised to realize was a measure of sentimentality, Garma was quite possibly the closest he ever had to someone he could call a friend. Not a subordinate, not someone who was merely a means to an end for him, but someone he could actually speak his mind to. Well, to a certain extent; Char didn't quite have any intention of telling him who he actually was. But still, the sole useful reason for killing him would be to hurt the others – with the exception of Gihren, who not only took the whole thing in stride, but turned it into propaganda to fuel Zeon morale instead. No, Char thought as he put a dash next to Garma's name, he would not give the bastard the satisfaction this time around.

Zenna Zabi

Char put down a dash without missing a beat. She was no threat to him and no one except Dozle would really care anyway.

Mineva Zabi

He idled on her name for a few moments before putting down a dash. While the girl had potential usefulness as a figurehead in case things went down the same way, Char didn't quite intend to sit on his laurels, so the chances of it happening were… well, not quite nil due to Murphy's Law, but if it was up to him, it wasn't going to happen. Besides, killing her at this point would be far worse than killing Garma, in terms of propaganda material. Killing the Sovereign's favored son would earn him the scorn of a traitor, but killing a helpless infant would have the entire Principality out for his blood right behind Dozle, even without Gihren siccing them on him.

Char's hand was halfway towards erasing the list from the screen before anyone saw it when he paused as a new name suddenly occurred to him.

Glemy Toto

He didn't know if there were any substance to the rumors of the boy being Gihren's bastard, but a quick calculation in his head stated he should only be around 8 years old at this time. Gihren obviously didn't care because if he did, the boy's identity would've been public; if anything, one could always count on Gihren Zabi being a narcissistic enough bastard to shill himself to the public. That being said, he knew from Neo Zeon fugitives who joined his forces at Sweetwater that the boy was charismatic and apparently staunchly loyal to the Zabi family, even if he was a bit naive at times. Come to think of it, Char thought, he almost sounded like Dozle in that regard. Nevertheless, he put a question mark next to the name; while Glemy could potentially have his uses, especially for PR, loyalty to the Zabis was a problem and Char didn't feel like being in the mood to try to convince him to look at the bigger picture. Frankly, he has had enough of herding snot-nosed little brats around, especially after his experience with Gyunei.

With that, Char leaned back and directed his thoughts to a different matter. Namely, the state of the Earth Sphere itself. He had no illusions whatsoever that the ultimate outcome of the One Year War was set in stone by this point in time. No matter what he would or could do, Operation Odessa was in the preparatory stages and Project V was too far along to meaningfully impede. Zeon already missed their chance to score a knockout blow when they failed to capitalize on their initial blitzkrieg and inflict enough damage before hitting the limits of their supply lines. But then again, Char Aznable had absolutely no intention whatsoever to help the Principality of Zeon come out on top. Even if it weren't for the personal insult of them using his father's name for their horrific deeds, there was also the fact that it was the One Year War when the fate of the Earth Sphere entered a downward spiral. It was when the corrupt fatcats of the Earth Federation realized that for the first time in the Universal Century, the status quo was threatened. It was when the actions of the Zabi family and their followers put the fear of spacenoids into the heart of the Federation.

The storm clouds were already gathering for a while now, but it was this cataclysmic conflict that ensured there would never be lasting peace for as long as more than one side remained.

Thus, to Char, the solution was as self-evident as the day when he walked upon that podium in Sweetwater.

The Federation had to go.

As long as it and its elite remained, content on maintaining the status quo in the now instead of looking to the future, there was no future for humanity. Yet there was no future under the Principality of Zeon either, that he was certain of. Thus it was obvious that both needed to go. Char wasn't stupid: he was fully aware he was just one man. He couldn't possibly overthrow one government by himself, let alone two. And without feeling the results on their own skin, literally no one else would share his goal. Only he knew the chain of wars flowing on pure inertia, of conflict sowing the seeds of the next conflict, and the next one after that, in an infinite cycle of dogs mauling each other over something that never belonged to them in the first place.

Earth.

For now, though, his strategic goal was simple. The Principality of Zeon was going to fall regardless of what he did, so them he could tick off his mental list already. All he had to do was ensure the Federation's victory was as costly as possible, to weaken them for the following years. Even if the Federation didn't collapse by itself, the sorrow of all those who suffered loss in this war would ensure there would always be those who opposed the Federation. He merely needed to even the scales so that they would have a chance.

Once again, Char Aznable would be the vessel of humanity's pain, striking a righteous blow at the chains that bit into their flesh to keep them from reaching towards the sky.

----

Post-it author's notes - 2018.12.04.

After having been sitting on this idea for several years, I decided to let it out of my head at last. This story was originally inspired by the alternate timeline routes of the PS2 game Gundam VS Zeta Gundam. Not exactly the most original of plots, but hopefully I've been able to carry it further than other attempts in this particular fandom. Updates will likely be irregular, but this will not be a short story. Expect progressively heavier butterfly effects as the plot goes on.

Fraktal
Redshirt
Posts: 12
Joined: 2018-02-26 08:14am

Re: Speak of the Devil [MSG UC]

Post by Fraktal » 2018-12-28 07:37pm

The entrance door of the Ray residence all but slammed open as Frau hurried inside, mouth already opening for a shout. – "Amu-!"

Except she barely even got the first sound out when Amuro stepped out from behind a corner with jacket and shoes on, instead of the half-dressed state she expected him to be in. – "I'm here. Let's go."

"If you heard the alarm, then what are you still doing here?!"

"Waiting for you, actually."

That brought Frau up short. – "What? Why?"

"Because I knew you'd wander around looking for me instead of going to the shelter yourself if you didn't see me anywhere." – he pointed out. And Frau realized she couldn't argue with him, seeing how her standing right there was the proof he was correct. – "It's not safe."

"And it's safe for you?"

"I need to get something first. But it's on the way to the spaceport anyway, so I'll be with you until the shelter."

"Get what first?"

He waved her off and started walking towards the door. – "Don't worry about that. Let's go."

----

"Sir, are you sure this is wise? Surely a recon mission doesn't require your personal attention."

"I know what I'm doing, Dren. Trust me." – Char replied as he and his XO floated down the Musai's corridor towards the hangar. – "If the Federation do have mobile suits here, they might be more than what the team can handle. Besides, if the Federation would've had a notable garrison inside the colony, intelligence would've caught it."

"I see. What about us, sir?"

"Stake out the dock. If the ship we tracked here tries to make a run for it, take it out but hold your fire until then. They'll come out eventually, so shelling the dock is a waste of ammunition."

"Yes, sir."

With that, Dren stopped at the threshold of the hangar to catch his momentum before heading back to the bridge while Char slung himself over the handrail to kick off towards the waiting mobile suits.

Zakus weren't a sight he was unused to, even with his actual age instead of what he physically looked like now. Still, he found himself stopping dead in his track as his gaze rose to fall upon the red Zaku whose feet he was now standing before.

It is said that a man cannot quite love another woman the same way he loved the first. Mobile suits were not people... but if there was any mobile suit Char Aznable ever felt attached to, it was this MS-06S Zaku II. Not the Gelgoog, not the Rick Dias, not the Hyaku Shiki, not the Sazabi, not any other mobile suits or mobile armors he ever piloted. It was this one.

He knew there was no logical reason to it: it wasn't the Zaku in which he earned his fame at Loum, nor did he ever experience anything but defeat after defeat, or a draw at best, against the Gundam while in it.

But to him, there were none like it. The persona of Char Aznable might have begun as nothing more than the stolen mask of a dead man by another man who was born as Casval Rem Deikun, but it was pointless to deny it that mask and man had become one. One person, one life. And to him, this mobile suit was part of that life like none other.

It was a part of his very soul. A reminder of days when his pride was in full bloom, untarnished by individuals whom fate had seemingly raised up solely to torment him.

It was a good thing the deck crew already finished the pre-launch checks and left for other duties, because if any would've asked him why he was smiling as he floated up to the cockpit hatch waiting for him... he might very well have told them of the memories the Zaku stirred in him, even if it would've made him sound insane. A quick glance downwards and to the left confirmed that the crew did exactly as he asked and fitted the mobile suit with both a bazooka and leg missile pods. In an ideal world, he would get to the Gundam before Amuro did and put a few machine gun rounds into the joints at point blank range, but it was better not to risk it, hence why he decided to forego his usual preference for being light on his feet and go in loaded for bear. Besides, Char didn't know if even his current firepower could make a dent in lunar titanium.

As he strapped himself into the cockpit seat and reached to close the hatch, Char found his hands slightly trembling and it wasn't merely from the nostalgia.

Amuro.

Char knew his nemesis was in there. He didn't need his Newtype senses, foggy as they were, to know it. An unassuming teen who went on to become the man who singlehandedly caused him the most grief (not that Haman Karn had anything to be ashamed of in that regard). Char was sorely tempted to just ditch the others as soon as he was inside and go after Amuro... and yet a small voice in him pointed out that this Amuro hadn't done anything. That he was a random bystander completely innocent of anything Char blamed him for.

That it wasn't the Amuro he hated.

Nevertheless, Char knew very well how much of a threat the boy could be if he was allowed to get that far. And how much of an asset to the Federation he and the Gundam would become. Thus, he shook his head and strengthened his resolve. The Gundam was his target. If he could take it out without incident, the White Base was as good as finished, not to mention that Amuro wouldn't ever get in his way.

Of course, if Amuro got there first, Char would kill him without hesitation. As powerful as the Gundam was, a rookie wouldn't stand a chance against a veteran who knew all of the Gundam's tricks. Not to mention a veteran whose mobile suit was quite literally loaded for Gundam.

With that settled, he locked the hatch and flipped on the radio. – "Aznable to all units, comm check."

"Gene, reporting."

"Slender, reporting."

"Denim, reporting."

Char nodded to himself as his brain dug up old memories to go with the names. – "Denim, once we're inside, you take Slender and head for the factory. Destroy all resistance but if you see anything that look like mobile suit parts, leave them intact."

"Why? I thought we're trying to prevent them from developing mobile suits." – Gene asked.

"That we do, but this may not be the only facility they are using. Any components we capture will give us valuable intel about their suits' capabilities, not to mention data we could use for our own development programs. All we need to do is chase them away and take the spoils for ourselves."

"Oh."

"Don't sweat it, though. Remember that we're fighting inside a colony this time, so the Federation forces might use human shields. And if you see any operational mobile suits, do not engage on your own. We don't know their capabilities" – 'But I do.' – "and we have no backup, so regroup and move in all at once."

----

"Frau, get to the shelter."

"What? Where are you going?!"

"Just get in!"

"I'm not-"

"No buts! Go!"

Frau Bow actually found herself unconsciously taking a step back at the uncharacteristic commanding tone from Amuro. If anything, it was always him who had to be herded around: to eat, to dress, to go to school. It was as if he was incapable of living by himself. Yet the Amuro that was now running away from her was vastly different. Confident.

If it wouldn't be a laughable word in the context of Amuro Ray, she would almost chance saying mature.

She didn't know what prompted this change but as she heard her mother calling for her, she didn't have time to mull on it further.

About a hundred meters away, Amuro's mind raced as he tried to recall the Gundam's location. He tried not to look too jittery in front of Frau on their way here, even though his legs were positively itching to break out into a full-blown sprint towards the Gundam all the while. He didn't know how much time he still had, even with having prepared to leave literally the second Frau showed up at his front door. He could've gone without her, yes, but his mind shot that idea down immediately. Leaving her wandering outside looking for him was just begging for her getting killed in the crossfire, as he still remembered the Zakus did not watch their aim around civilians.

Even so, he lost precious time escorting her and her mother to the shelter closest to the spaceport instead of the one nearest to their home, then doubling back for the Gundam. Time he could've used to get a head start for boarding the Gundam and taking down the Zakus before too many people got killed. Amuro had no illusions that he could save everyone, or even any more lives than the first time around, but that didn't mean he wasn't even going to try. Besides, he still had a head start, since the Zakus weren't here, he just didn't know how much.

He finally spotted the trailer about three hundred meters in front of him, near one of the loading gates of the spaceport. Slowing in his step, Amuro came to a halt and turned towards the interior of the colony, eyes squinting even as he was catching his breath, watching for any kind of movement indicative of heavy machinery. He was about to resume his course when a slight glint caught his eye from the upper left (relative to him) strip of the colony's interior surface. Any other person would've dismissed it as the glint of sunlight on a civilian car's windshield on its way to a shelter... but Amuro faintly felt it. A slight, momentary tingle just behind his eyes, one he was more than a little familiar with.

Focusing his attention in that direction, he finally saw trees swaying in the way he was looking for and knew beyond a doubt that the Zakus were coming.

----

"Commander, I see military facilities in the upper right block, near the spaceport."

"I see it. Denim, move in. Gene, you're with me."

Char found himself leaning forward in anticipation as he neared the spaceport, two of the three Zakus with him having split off earlier. Yet as his eyes swept across the various trailers and railway carriages, there was a conspicuous lack of white anywhere.

"Denim, what do you see?" – he radioed as he and Gene set down at what looked like a factory complex near the spaceport. He hazarded a guess that this might've been where some of the smaller components were built, but of course he couldn't know just from looking at the outside.

"It's as you said, commander. There are mobile suit components everywhere. I even see some complete ones."

"How do they look like?"

"Reds and grays."

Not white. Where was it?

He paused in his step when he felt the tingle behind his eyes. 'What-?' His eyes swept across the battlefield, but there was no threatening movement. Still, something wasn't right.

"Commander?"

"Eyes open, Gene. I don't like this." – Char replied as he started moving again, cautiously passing on the right of a tall administrative building.

On the opposite side of said building, Amuro let out a shuddering breath. As he expected, the Zakus' silhouette recognition algorithm wasn't yet adjusted to seek for mobile suits, which is why it didn't notice the Gundam's head cautiously peeking over the roof to observe the Zakus as they approached. But now that they were close enough, he had to track them solely by the sound of their steps; algorithm or no algorithm, the pilots would notice the movement from the corner of their eyes even without computer assistance.

Especially one as perceptive as Char Aznable.

Amuro's blood ran cold when he saw the red Zaku, to the point where a word of profanity unconsciously slipped out of his mouth. He distinctly remembered Char only boarding his mobile suit at the end of his unsuccessful recon run of the White Base. He should not be here. Nor so armed to the teeth. It was almost like...

...like Char knew what to expect.

This was a problem. Aside from the head vulcans, the Gundam had no ranged armaments and Amuro had no idea where to get any, even if he had the time to actually go looking.

Moving as slowly and carefully as the controls let him, Amuro slowly circled the building in a clockwise direction, ducking behind the corner just as Char's Zaku emerged on the other side. After a few seconds of stillness to confirm he wasn't spotted, Amuro slowly peeked around the other corner just in time to see the other Zaku's back vanishing behind the opposite side. Now was the time.

With hurried but still cautious steps, Amuro rounded the corner and started moving towards the unaware Zaku, the Gundam's left hand slowly rising to the shoulder to close around the hilt of a beam saber. He only had one chance this. There was no way this could work on Char if he was alone, but the other Zaku...

In the blink of an eye, the Gundam popped around the corner right behind the Zaku and in single, lightning-fast motion, grabbed the Zaku's shoulder armor with its right hand to hold it steady while the left hand slammed the inactive beam saber against the Zaku's back and ignited the blade. Only for one second, but it was enough to pierce the cockpit and instantly vaporize the pilot before he even realized he was under attack, much less before he made any sound that could've alerted the others.

Before the beam saber's blade even finished fully extending, the red Zaku was already in motion, spinning on its heels and firing its bazooka. Amuro scarcely had enough time to throw the Gundam into a sideways tumble before the close-range shot hit the Zaku he just backstabbed and turned it into a rapidly expanding ball of shrapnel.

The moment its downwards movement stopped, the Gundam's thrusters fired and dragged the sideways mobile suit across the ground, carving a divot into the ground with the shoulder but narrowly getting out of the way of a second bazooka shell. Then the thruster nozzles' gimbaling engaged at the same time as the Gundam's legs kicked downwards, catapulting the mobile suit up into the air high enough to get its feet under it and skid to a halt, beam saber igniting again and this time staying lit.

In the Zaku's cockpit, Char's eyebrows were practically up to his hairline.

'Did a Federation pilot get into the Gundam before Amuro? That can't possibly be a rookie, but the Federation shouldn't have any aces at this time. What's going on?'

He had no more time to ponder on the issue as the Gundam charged towards him, saber swinging upwards in a diagonal cut the Zaku stepped to the right to evade, getting behind its quarry who was being carried forward by his momentum. 'Amateu-' Char began to scoff before the words died in his throat as he noticed barely at the last moment that the Gundam's right hand was closed around its other beam saber. In a single, fluid motion, the Gundam drew its saber and swung it in a backhand slash Char very barely evaded by boosting backwards and out of reach.

That was far too close for comfort. His opponent didn't expose his back from lack of experience, it was on purpose to chain a second strike. This guy knew what he was doing.

Which was a big problem. Char was fully aware a Zaku didn't stand a snowball's chance in Hell against the Gundam with a veteran pilot.

His legs barely touched ground before the Gundam's eyes locked on him. As the white suit charged at him again, Char suddenly knew that even if he gunned the thrusters to maximum and catapulted himself upwards right now, it wouldn't be enough and the Gundam would cut his Zaku's legs off before he got out of arm's reach. So in the same instant as he fired his thrusters, Char pointed his bazooka at the ground and fired.

The resulting shockwave rattled him in the cockpit, alarms blaring from the damage to the Zaku's thigh armor plates, but it did give him the additional kick that when he began a forward flip, the beam saber missed both legs literally by inches. Carried by inertia, the Zaku flipped upside down and fired its bazooka into the Gundam's back at practically point-blank range.

Amuro had no time to dodge before the rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the Gundam and knocked it off its feet, faceplanting into the ground so hard that the seatbelts were literally the only thing keeping him from cracking his skull open on the cockpit's front panel. Rolling the Gundam onto its back, he pushed up into a sitting position just in time to see the Zaku's foot filling his viewscreen an instant before it hit the Gundam's faceplate and knocked the suit right back to the ground.

Char smirked as he planted a foot on the Gundam's head to keep it down while he took aim with the bazooka at the cockpit hatch. – "My compliments for the performance, but you took up enough of my time."

Except when he pulled the trigger, all he got was a warning tone. Looking up in surprise, the word EMPTY next to the bazooka's readout barely registered in his mind before he caught the flash of the Gundam's beam saber from the corner of his eye and the warning was replaced with LOST as the bazooka's barrel split in half.

Char cursed himself something fierce as he immediately let go of the useless weapon and jumped back, realizing that he didn't notice the low-ammo alarm from the damage alarms earlier. It was such an amateurish mistake that he had no idea how he fell for it. Or maybe he was too used to using a beam rifle to track his remaining ammunition that closely. Whatever the case, he was quickly running out of options and he knew it.

----

"What's the situation?!" – Tem Ray barked as he crouched down next to another engineer who was huddling behind an overturned truck, the sound of nearby explosions rattling what was left of the truck's windows as the two nearby Zakus exchanged fire with the meager Federation defenders. It was to no avail, though: mere MLRS trucks didn't have the slightest chance against Zakus that were both aware of them and in range of their own weapons.

"Sir!" – The engineer saluted where he sat. – "We were just about to start moving the hardware when the Zakus showed up! I don't even know how many of our people are still alive, let alone where they are! All the equipment is scattered about, I don't know how much of it is still intact."

"What about the Gundam?!"

"What do you mean? I thought it was already on the White Base!"

"What are you talking about?! It's still out here!"

"Not where we left it, sir!"

"Are you saying someone took the Gundam?!"

"I don't know, sir! I didn't see it!"

Suddenly an administration building on the far side of the Zakus exploded outwards as a red Zaku zoomed out of the dust cloud. Tem heard the engineer yelp – "Is that the Red Comet?!" – before the Gundam burst through, hot on the red Zaku's trail with both sabers ignited.

"Who the devil is piloting it?!"

What happened next put all thoughts of outrage to rest.

The red Zaku whirled around in a powerslide and fired two missiles in rapid succession from its leg-mounted pods. Instead of evading, however, the Gundam's thrusters roared to maximum output and the white mobile suit leapt towards the missiles, nimbly twisting its body to narrowly zoom between them at a relative speed too fast for the proximity fuses to activate in time.

In the Zaku's cockpit, a bead of sweat sneaked out from underneath Char's mask. 'This is unreal...! Am I fighting a Newtype?!' – "Denim, Slender! Disengage and retreat! One of the prototypes is active, we can't take it with the firepower we have!"

"Where's Gene?"

"Dead! Get moving!"

"We can take it, sir! It's just one guy and there's three of us!"

"Negative! Do not engage!"

But Denim's Zaku was already taking aim at the Gundam, the machine gun opening up on full auto. Halting in its stride, the Gundam changed course towards its assailant, nimbly hopping left and right in its approach to evade most of the incoming fire before its own head vulcans roared to life and spat out a storm of 20mm bullets that pinged off the Zaku's head until one found its target in the monoeye. Its main camera shattered into a hundred pieces, the pilot scrambled to switch to the backup...

...which he succeeded at just in time to see the Gundam practically at arm's reach, its eyes staring into his very soul like the eyes of the Reaper.

Denim only had time to scream in terror and clamp his finger down on the trigger in an animalistic reflex before the Gundam ducked beneath his aimless automatic fire into a spinning powerslide and bisected both legs in a single, horizontal backhanded slash with its right saber, immediately using the rest of its momentum to stab the left saber diagonally upwards and carve a deep gash through the Zaku's cockpit hatch with the beam saber's tip without stabbing deep enough to touch the reactor.

"Son of a bitch!" – Slender howled and opened fire with his own machine gun... only for the Gundam to jump up into what could best be described as a one-footed pirouette and whirl around itself on one foot. Slender's mind barely registered the flash of pink before the thrown beam saber lodged itself hilt-deep into the Zaku's visor. Unlike Denim, he didn't have the time to switch cameras before the Gundam was on him. In a swift upwards slash, the Gundam bisected both of the Zaku's arms at the elbow while the other hand grabbed the still impaled beam saber in a reverse grip and tore it out to the side before the Gundam's foot lashed out and kicked out one of the Zaku's feet, sending the smaller suit tripping face-first into the ground.

Without missing a beat, the Gundam swiftly executed its felled opponent by way of a vertical coup de grace to the cockpit, courtesy of the beam saber it was still holding in a reverse grip. Yet the action almost turned out to be its undoing, as its head snapped towards the red Zaku just in time to see two missiles headed for him. Thrusters flaring, the white mobile suit rocketed upwards and above the missiles, both beam sabers raised into an overhead strike as it surged at the sole remaining Zaku.

With a swift hop backwards, the Zaku jumped out of the way of the telegraphed strike before its own thrusters fired and it launched its left-handed counterattack, the heat hawk drawing a trail of fire in the air as it swung downwards towards the inside of the Gundam's right elbow joint. Yet before it reached its mark, the Gundam's arm snapped shut and caught the superheated blade between its upper arm and forearm, the blade sizzling impotently against the lunar titanium armor. Then the Gundam's left arm stabbed its beam saber forward, only for the Zaku's free right hand to catch the Gundam's by the wrist and force it upwards, the beam saber cutting the Zaku's shoulder armor in half.

Everything stopped for a moment as the two combatants struggled in a stalemate, a set of two eyes matching a monoeye in a stare that one could describe as a challenge of 'who blinks first'. Then the Gundam's right hand rotated and swung its beam saber towards the Zaku's head, the Zaku barely leaning out of the way in time to avoid being decapitated but instead getting a large chunk carved out of its head. Bracing its footing, the Zaku's right foot lashed out and kicked the Gundam's midsection to make the white suit stumble while the Zaku let go of the heat hawk and grabbed the Gundam's right wrist.

The stalemate resumed, with the Zaku using all of its strength to keep holding the Gundam's arms up and away from itself. Yet something had to give - and as the Zaku's arms and legs let out increasingly loud mechanical groans from the strength of its foe pushing against it, accompanied by the growing mound of dirt behind the Zaku's heels from slowly being pushed back, both combatants knew the inevitable outcome.

Thus it was that the Zaku moved first, putting all of its remaining strength into a headbutt to momentarily break the pressure on its arms before it grabbed the hilts of both beam sabers and let loose a two-footed dropkick into the Gundam's chest to tear its weapons away from it. Refusing to concede, the Gundam skid to a halt and leaped back at the Zaku, right hand swinging in a barehanded punch...

...that missed the Zaku's torso by millimeters as the suit flied past him sideways. As the two cockpits passed only a few meters away from each other, both pilots felt a tingle behind their eyes.

"Not this time, Amuro!" – Char growled as his finger pressed down on the fire button.

His Zaku's right missile pod unleashed its last remaining piece of ordinance, the missile crossing the practically point-blank range between its launcher and the Gundam's torso in a split second before detonating with enough force to not only knock the Gundam away and off its feet, but also tear off the Zaku's right leg. The now-unbalanced Zaku slammed into the ground, its thruster dragging it along for several meters before it finally tore itself away from the ground and flew off into the distance.

In the cockpit, Char turned off the damage alarms before swiftly tearing his mask off and wiping the sweat off his forehead, trying to calm his pounding heart. 'Wha... why did I say Amuro's name?'

Behind him, the Gundam slowly rose back to its feet, hands putting the beam sabers back to their racks before lowering down to leave the mobile suit standing as victor over the battlefield, staring at the engine flare of its fleeing foe.

As the surviving Federation personnel cautiously came out from their hiding places, calls for orders and medical assistance sounded as everyone present surged to save what could still be saved.

All but one.

For in the middle of the turmoil, Tem Ray stood like a statue with his mouth wide open.

----

Post-it author's notes - 2018.12.24.

I chose not to drag things out before the first battle because although I prefer not to write at a hurried pace, I've had problems with audience retention before when I held off on a story's first fight scene until the sixth chapter in favor of worldbuilding and character introduction, resulting in most of my audience leaving before any of the actual good stuff. Some readers simply don't have the patience for that, so I decided to experiment with faster pacing.

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