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: 14
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.

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

Re: Speak of the Devil [MSG UC]

Post by Fraktal » 2019-06-12 08:20am

As soon as his Zaku's cockpit screen indicated he had a connection to the Falmel through the Minovsky interference, Char all but slammed the button to open the intercom. By now the adrenaline has worn off and he was angry. – "Dren, start charging the mega beam cannons!" – he barked.

"Sir, what happened? Where are the others?"

"Dead." – Char replied bluntly. He knew he sounded cold, but he also knew that he simply didn't have time to reflect on losing men. Besides, he honestly lost count how many men and women were killed under his command during his tenure at various factions, so it wasn't like three more mattered at this point.

And thinking of it would've only made him angrier. It all looked like a prime opportunity: get in there in force, tear the Federation garrison apart, score the most powerful mobile suits constructed up until this point in the war. In one move, kick the Federation in the teeth by denying them the Gundam's combat data and denying them Amuro's eventual skill and experience, while at the same time handing Zeon tools to enhance their own mobile suit development program and stalemate the war for a while longer, bleeding the Federation for a month more or even longer.

And then his entire force got their teeth kicked in by a single Gundam. And not even defeated in detail, but in a single engagement! History was repeating itself despite his preparations to the contrary. Did the universe itself enjoy mocking him?

Whether it did, it didn't matter. Because Char Aznable was done playing it safe.

"But... three Zakus? And you took that much damage yourself? What did the Federation have in there, an entire battalion?"

"No. But the ship we followed here is the only one they have; if we sink it, none of the Federation's prototypes are going anywhere until after we get reinforcements."

"Oh, I see! But we don't know where the ship is docked."

"Doesn't matter." – Char replied. If only he hadn't gotten greedy with trying to claim the prototypes and took the time to find the berth the White Base was docked in, he could've just ordered the gunners to keep shooting at that spot until every single bulkhead between them and the ship was melted into slag, followed by the ship. Without that, he was forced to be a bit more... indiscriminate. – "Target the dock in a sweeping pattern and fire! Turn the entire place into dust, if you have to."

"What about missiles, sir?"

"Don't bother. They're probably too deep inside." – And besides, they could be useful if the White Base decided to try and make a break for it.

"Understood. We'll open the hangar for you in a moment."

"Negative, just get the guns firing." – On an afterthought, he added – "And tell the crews to take the ASR out of storage."'As the saying goes, if I can't have you...'

----

Inside the colony, it was chaos.

Between the columns of smoke rising from the burning wrecks of destroyed Federation vehicles, civilians stampeded towards the spaceport for safety, even as whatever military personnel survived the attack were too busy tending to their own wounded to actually provide said safety. Or even to keep them out of restricted areas, for that matter. Even the sheer noise level of the agitated crowd, with people yelling at each other to hurry up and children crying in fear, couldn't drown out the screams of those whose injuries were more severe.

And for good reason: the line between "severely injured" and "in pieces randomly lying about" was thin indeed when mobile suit weapons used against people on foot were concerned. Most of those who were not dead yet when the last Zaku fell were dead by now – and those who weren't most certainly wished they were, be it because of burning oil charring one's face down to the bone, entrails spilled onto the mud by flying shrapnel or limbs being reduced into carbonized stumps by a nearby explosion. Whatever the reason, the result was enough to make most people swiftly lose the contents of their stomach, as several civilians unlucky enough to catch sight of the victims found out the hard way.

Such was war.

"Get those casualties to the ship!" – barked a Federation officer with a captain's rank insignia on his collar as he walked into the chaos. – "Any corpsmen report to the ship immediately! I don't care what the garrison commander says!"

Pausing to look over the turmoil, he singled out a group of engineers and headed straight towards them, the burly Hispanic soldier next to him handing over a radio.

"Bright, any change?"

"No, sir." – came the response. – "The sentries just called in, no movement from the Musai. It's just sitting there."

"Let me know if that changes. And call down to the infirmary to prepare for casualties."

"Yes, sir."

Paolo Cassius sighed as he handed back the radio. He knew this was going to happen as soon as the sensor crews reported that damn Musai trailing them. Still, he hoped it would wait until at least they were out of the colony before jumping them, faint as that hope might be. After all, Zeon certainly did not hesitate at breaking out the big guns around civilians, as he found out himself the hard way at Loum when the Salamis he's been commanding for several years by that point (and was likely going to be his last posting before retirement, if it weren't for the war) was caught on the fringe of a nuclear detonation.

Spacewalking to the re-entry shuttle through the radiation due to the cruiser's hull having been crumpled inwards like tissue paper, blocking off the corridors to the shuttle airlock, were the most nerve-wracking minutes of his life up until that point. If he would've lived a century ago, he definitely would've been sent into retirement with nothing but a Purple Heart at most – but fortunately for him, the advent of widespread space colonization necessitated the development of medical advancements for treating extended exposure to cosmic radiation and solar flares before most people were willing to live in space on a permanent basis.

Not that he would prefer having to go through acute radiation sickness treatment anywhere within the next eternity or so, but it got him back on his feet. Only for him to get into yet another crisis, it would seem.

And if the urgency the figure he recognized as Lieutenant Ray was hurrying towards him with was of any indication, the crisis wasn't anywhere near over yet.

"Report." – he ordered as soon as the engineer stopped before him, bending over from the exertion of sprinting in a bulky normal suit. Colony gravity or no colony gravity, they weren't exactly designed for athletic activities.

"Sir, the Gundam...!" – Tem gasped for breath, fumbling to steady his glasses before they fell through his helmet's open faceplate. – "It fought off the Zakus, I've seen it!"

"Slow down, lieutenant. What about the cargo we're here for?" – As much as he was responsible for safely transporting the cargo in question to Jaburo, Cassius was only actually briefed on the nature of the cargo. Technical data was not part of his briefing for the simple reason that he didn't need to handle the prototypes, hence he didn't need to know and could just let the engineers take care.

At least, that's what the brass told him before sending him off.

Glasses stabilized, Tem finally stood up. – "Sir. Most of the engineering crew has been killed, Some of the prototypes are still intact, but we're yet to do a full inventory."

"Inventory can wait." – Cassius waved him off. – "Start loading everything you can onto the White Base; we'll sort it out later. The sooner we launch, the better."

"Yes, sir."

"Now, what was that you were trying to say just now?"

"Sir. That Gunda- err, one of the prototypes, engaged the Zakus. I've seen it."

That was unexpected, but it explained why there were two Zakus lying motionlessly nearby. Or why, as Cassius only noticed right now, there was a mobile suit with EFSF markings standing between the columns of smoke, likely on watch against further attacks.

"Who was it?"

"I-I don't know, sir. I only saw it when it was already in combat."

Cassius hummed to himself before he saw Tem bend down and snatch up a variable-power flashlight that rolled away from the scattered contents of the toolbox of an overturned jeep nearby. Turning it up to maximum power, the engineer pointed it at the mobile suit and began pulsing it in a rhythmic pattern Cassius recognized as the international navigation light signal for "begin approach". A few seconds later, the suit's head turned towards him and the machine began marching towards the group, visibly avoiding anyone on the ground.

"The visual processing software of the cockpit display automatically recognizes light signals and alerts the pilot, even if he's not looking that way." – Tem explained as he lowered the flashlight.

A short distance away, the mobile suit carefully lowered itself to one knee and braced against the ground before the cockpit hatch swung open. As the lone figure begun descending on a cable, Cassius immediately noticed the distinct lack of a normal suit or even a uniform. If anything, the pilot was dressed as if they were on shore leave when the attack came – but considering that the White Base arrived before the Musai and with a warning that they were tailed, the garrison commander should've had ample time to recall all personnel to full readiness.

In fact, as the pilot's feet touched the ground and Cassius squinted with his eyes, they looked rather short.

Once the pilot was out of the machine's shadow, however, Cassius realized that no, his eyes were not playing tricks with him. The pilot was short alright, for the apparent reason that he wasn't even into adulthood yet. And the lack of uniform made it plain that the boy who appeared to be in his mid-teens was very much a civilian. Who just came out of a top secret military weapon prototype he had absolutely no business being inside of.

Cassius was distinctly feeling the beginnings of a headache forming. As if the Musai outside wasn't enough, now he had to deal with civilians poking their noses into classified materials as well. He heard a choking sound from Tem's direction but as he opened his mouth to ask the boy just what he was doing inside the prototype, he paused.

Calm. Focus. Steel. Confidence.

Those eyes weren't those of a civilian who just got out of trouble with the skin of their teeth. Nor those of a cocky teen who just pulled off something incredibly dangerous and thought they were hot shit. Nor those of an anarchist who spitefully stuck their nose where it didn't belong, purely for sticking it to the Man. If it weren't for the fact that he was an underage civilian, Cassius could've sworn the boy's eyes were those of a battle-hardened soldier. A soldier for whom two mobile suits, state-of-the-art military hardware capable of punching far above their own weight class, didn't rate high enough on the threat scale to give a damn about.

And it wasn't just the eyes. Cassius couldn't describe what it was, but the boy somehow had this... presence. He didn't look anything out of the ordinary, nor did he hold himself in an obvious way, yet there was... something.

He only shook himself out of it when the teen stopped before the adults and snapped off a perfect and impeccable military salute. – "Amuro Ray, returning the Gundam and submitting myself to disciplinary action, sir!"

By now, Cassius finally found his voice. – "What disciplinary action?"

"I took the Gundam without permission, sir."

"Why?" – Not that it really mattered. Theft of military equipment in times of war was a serious offense, even if he not only admitted it, but turned himself in.

"I have friends living here, sir, and the Zakus didn't care what they were aiming at."

Needless to say, Cassius was not convinced in the least. – "You expect me to believe that a kid like you took out two Zakus on his own?"

If the teen was offended by being called a kid to his face, he didn't show it. – "Three, sir. The third one is back over there." – He pointed a thumb behind him, towards a collapsed building. – "I got that one first."

Cassius sighed. – "You do realize this story sounds a bit too fantastic to be true, don't you?"

"Yes, sir." – came the steady reply. – "The cockpit's data recorder will confirm it."

That was quite the bold claim, Cassius decided. And now that he took a moment to think about it, what did this kid say was his name again?

Before he could've asked that, however, Tem beat him to the punch with sufficient volume to make him flinch. – "WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?! DO YOU THINK THIS IS SOME KIND OF GAME?!"

"No, I don't." – came the blunt reply that seemed to confirm a degree of familiarity between those two to Cassius.

"You had no business even being in the Gundam!"

"If I wouldn't have done it, how many more people would've died?"

"You KILLED two people!"

"Three. I stabbed all three through the cockpit with the beam saber, so I know for a fact that they're dead."

"How did you even know how to use the beam saber?!" – In response, the teen merely held up what appeared to be a folder with what Cassius recognized was the insignia for Project V. – "Where did you get that?!"

"It was in the cockpit."

Yep, Cassius was definitely going to have a headache in the near future. As if the Zeon attack and a civilian fighting them off with one of the prototypes wasn't enough, apparently someone violated pretty much every regulation in the book regarding information security by leaving the goddamn instruction manual in the cockpit where any wannabe hijacker would find it.

On the other hand... a civilian being the one to find it is still preferable to the enemy finding it. And said civilian immediately turning it over to them afterwards was pretty much the best possible outcome for the situation, which was one weight off of Cassius' shoulders. He did not want to make an already horrible day even worse with a summary execution of a civilian. Much less one whom one of his subordinates was apparently personally acquainted with. It still did not excuse the fact that the boy now knew things he wasn't supposed to, but at least it gave Cassius something to work with.

Unless, of course, he was a Zeon agent. Which would explain how he knew how to pilot a mobile suit – but then again, he did apparently kill three enemy pilots, which would get him shot for treason if he ever returned. Unless he was authorized to commit friendly fire in order to maintain his cover – but then again, Tem apparently knew him.

Which is why Cassius turned to Tem and interrupted his next tirade with – "Do you know him, lieutenant?"

"Y-yes, sir. He's my son."

That... was unexpected. And not entirely in an unwelcome way: it pretty much eliminated the possibility of the boy being a Zeon agent unless Tem was a plant himself, in which case the entire project was already compromised far too deeply for an infosec violation to matter. And also explained the sudden tails-between-legs guilty attitude Tem assumed as soon as he was addressed by a superior officer: it was a family matter. Still, Cassius decided to ask for a background check on both of them as soon as they reached Luna II, just in case.

"You understand that we'll have to take him into custody."

Tem looked ready to protest for a moment, but finally relented. – "Yes, sir."

"I'm sorry about this, but we can't let him go. He knows too much."

"I'll cooperate, sir." – the teen stated without a hint of alarm. Either he had an excellent poker face... or he truly felt like he didn't have anything to be afraid of.

"Good." – Cassius turned back to Tem. – "Lieutenant, I want you to load everything not nailed down on the White Base. Don't bother making an inventory, just concentrate on loading the cargo. The ship that followed us here is staying away for now; hopefully we've taken out their mobile suit compliment, which will buy us some time."

"What about the red one?"

"What red one?"

Tem gestured towards his son with his head. – "He was chasing a red Zaku when I saw him, but it fled once the other two were down."

A chill ran down Cassius' spine and he immediately turned to the other soldier present. – "Ryu, do you think-?"

"Bullshit." – the soldier replied immediately. – "I've seen him in action at Loum, sir, no way the kid could take him."

"Listen... Amuro, was it?" – Cassius asked, turning back to the teen. – "How many Zakus were there in total?"

"Four, sir."

"And you got three of them?"

"Yes, sir. I ambushed the first from behind, then moved into this area and took out the other two here."

A short and almost casual summary. Sounding far more casual than it should be, considering the subject matter. – "What about the fourth?"

"It was escorting the first one, but I couldn't take it out before it regrouped with the others."

Which matched up with Tem's eyewitness account. – "And you're certain it was red?"

"Yes sir, MS-06S commander type with a bazooka and leg missile pods."

"How do you know what type it was?"

"Had an antenna, sir."

"It could be just customization." – Ryu guessed.

But Amuro shook his head. – "Its performance was far higher than the others'. The pilot was better, too; once he ran out of weapons, he sacrificed one of his legs as a distraction and retreated. He can't fight inside the colony with a missing leg, but the AMBAC system can adjust to compensate, so his zero-g maneuverability will only be partially affected and he could try to ambush us when we leave the colony."

By the end of Amuro's analysis, Cassius' eyebrows were well on their way towards his hairline. This kid actually sounded like he knew what he was talking about. – "How do you know that?"

"That's what I would do in his place, sir."

Ryu began to say something but before Cassius' ears could register the sound, Amuro's head suddenly snapped to the side and he stared off into the distance for a second before yelling – "Incoming!" – and throwing himself to the ground.

A moment later, a sudden explosion nearby shook the ground, immediately prompting all three adults to follow suit and hit the deck. Well, Tem let out a startled yelp and unceremoniously belly-flopped to the ground while the soldiers beat him to the punch by half a second.

"Or he could switch to a sniper loadout to finish what he started!" – Amuro added. And Cassius was surprised to hear irritation in his voice. Not fear from being shot at like any civilian, irritation of someone who just had a fast one pulled over them.

----

On the other side of the colony, Char chambered the next round for his Zaku's anti-ship rifle. It was quite difficult to accurately hit something from such a distance, even without his one-legged Zaku awkwardly lying on its front. But he didn't survive two wars being a horrible shot and he only had the rotation of the colony to compensate for.

Thus, as his next shot connected with a trailer whose cargo he recognized as the upper half of a Guntank, he smirked. It was just like Loum, except without the part where the big, fat stationary targets actually shot back with anti-air fire.

----

"Ryu!" – Cassius yelled over another explosion. – "Do you have any experience at flying that thing?!" – He thumbed at the prototype, still bent over on all fours where Amuro left it.

"Two simulations, sir!"

That's nowhere near enough for the situation, Cassius decided. – "What about you, Lieutenant?"

"I only designed it! I never actually flew it myself!" – Tem protested, lifting his face up from the soil just long enough to answer before another explosion startled him right back down.

"And I'm guessing correctly that you don't happen to know where any test pilots are, right?"

"No, sir!"

'That's just great' was what Cassius was in the middle of thinking when Amuro spoke up, only to be drowned out by another explosion. – "What?!"

"Permission to sortie in the Gundam?!" – the teen yelled over the background noise.

Cassius' first instinct, the instinct of a military officer with full knowledge of regulations, was to refuse outright. And yet, he only managed to open his mouth before realizing that he had no better idea. He had no one even remotely qualified in doing the job at hand, and yet here was a volunteer who had already shown he can do it.

"...oh, what the hell! Go! Go!" – he barked, gesturing towards the Gundam just in case Amuro didn't hear it.

From the way the kid sprung up to his feet and hauled ass, he definitely did. Not that it made Cassius feel better about the situation: sending a kid into life-or-death combat or no, he was fully aware that simply handing classified top-of-the-line equipment was likely going to end in a court martial. It's not like he was planning on staying in the EFSF for much longer, but a dishonorable discharge means ineligibility for veteran benefits, which likely wasn't going to make his olden days any easier.

Then again, veteran benefits meant precisely squat if he was too dead to enjoy them and Cassius wasn't quite prepared to give his life for his country just yet. Desperate as it was, an alternative was still an alternative.

"Sir!" – Ryu called out when the Gundam rose up onto its feet and immediately turned towards the colony's interior before its thrusters flared and the machine rocketed away. – "Are you sure about this?!"

"If you have a better idea, I'm listening! Lieutenant Ray, is there anything nearby we can actually use?"

Tem just stared after the Gundam.

"Lieutenant!" – Cassius barked impatiently, which finally succeeded in snapping the engineer out of his reverie.

"There... there may be a Core Fighter nearby, but finding one in these conditions is-"

"Wait one!" – Ryu interrupted, one hand raised. After a few seconds, there was an explosion in the direction the Gundam headed off to. – "I think the shooter switched attention to him."

"Get me the radio!" – Cassius ordered, only realizing belatedly that he had no way of knowing what, if any, frequency Amuro was on at the moment. Instead, he decided to use the momentary breather to reach his XO. – "Bright, any change up there?"

Just then he felt the ground tremble beneath him. – "Standby!" – came the agitated response. There was a brief silence before the man continued. – "Lookout reports the dock is under fire!"

"Mobile suits?"

"Negative, it's cannon fire from the Musai! It didn't hit us, but it wasn't far off either!"

"Get the gunnery crew to their stations and prepare for emergency launch!" – Cassius ordered. – "If they want a fight, we'll give them one."

"Sir, the equipment-!" – Tem protested.

"We'll come back for it after we've sunk that bastard!" – Cassius cut him off. – "They box the White Base into the dock, we're not going anywhere. A breakout and counterattack is our only option. Bright, can you take care of things until I get there?"

"Yes, sir."

Just then, a new voice joined the conversation. – "Gundam to White Base. CQ."

"This is White Base Actual, identify yourself."

"I'll take this one, Bright." – Cassius interrupted. – "Gundam, sitrep."

"Tally one target, ID MS-06S." – came Amuro's terse voice. – "Same one as before. In pursuit but unable to intercept; target too fast."

"If it leaves the colony, break off and return. And stay on this channel. Understood?"

"Wilco."

Cassius then stood and dusted himself off. – "I'm heading back to the ship. Ryu, you go with the lieutenant and see if you can't find something to fly. Lieutenant, as soon as you're done with that, go to the base. Pull down a copy of every hard drive of every goddamn computer in the place that was even tangentially involved in research, then remove the drives, pile them together and go find the emergency thermite charges. We're not leaving anything behind."

"What about the equipment?" – Tem asked, straightening his glasses.

"Have your people handle that. Move everything to the dock so that once we're back in, we can load everything up ASAP and be gone before Zeon even thinks about sending in reinforcements."

"Understood."

With that, Cassius began hurrying back towards the dock, his ears still registering Ryu's voice from next to the overturned jeep. – "Doc, gimme a hand with this thing."

----

Outside, the stillness of space was suddenly disturbed by a red Zaku bursting out of a maintenance hatch, immediately braking to a halt and jetting off to the side before settling down on the colony's external wall, rifle trained at the hatch.

Inside, Char briefly took off his mask to wipe his forehead of sweat. Maybe it was the number of years he spent without it, but the thing was starting to feel... obtrusive. Restrictive. Yet he knew that he couldn't just stop wearing it right away. For one, it would immediately arouse attention in people who had only ever seen him in it. For another, there was always the chance someone could recognize his face. And right now, being Casval Deikun would be a death sentence.

In fact, Char had no illusions of ever being able to live with that name anymore. Even if the Zabis were to be removed, other people who bought into the propaganda would flock around him and turn him into a grotesque messiah figure. Not that he minded the doors it opened and resources it gave him access to when he stepped into the limelight as the leader of Neo-Zeon, but he honestly had better things to do than pander to the crowd. Like destroying the Federation, for one.

Even so, as he put the mask back on and focused his attention back at the hatch in anticipation of his pursuer, his mind couldn't help but wonder. He was about to return anyway due to having expended most of his rifle's ammunition when the Gundam rose up from behind a building near the carnage he had wrought; when did it get there without him noticing, he had no idea. And yet, one shot, one single shot at the white mobile suit was enough for the pilot to immediately zero in on his position nearly across the entire colony.

Was the pilot a Newtype? Did the Federation already have them among their ranks this early and his wingmen managed to kill this one by pure happenstance the first time around?

Whatever the case, Char decided not to risk it and disengaged as soon as he was certain the Gundam was headed for him. He was fairly certain the anti-ship rifle could've pierced the lunar titanium armor on a direct hit, but that wasn't a theory he was willing to test right now. Not with his mobility hampered by a missing leg. Yet even as he waited with baited breath and felt the colony shake from the Falmel's cannon fire two more times, his foe did not appear. And Char found that no matter how hard he tried to extend his senses in search of it, all he achieved was giving himself a headache.

Thus after the third time the Falmel struck the colony, he conceded that his pursuer likely lost his trail and decided not to linger around himself.

After all, he didn't want to miss the main event.

----


The anti-ship rifle Char is wielding here is the same one he used at the beginning of the first Origin OVA, shown to be capable of cutting right through a Magellan's armor and gutting it in a single shot. Contrary to popular belief, lunar titanium is not, in fact, completely immune to kinetic weapons, only highly resistant. A sufficiently powerful kinetic weapon such as the Dom's 360mm and late-war 880mm bazooka could still damage a mobile suit with lunar titanium armor and in the original MSG novelization, the Gundam itself is ultimately destroyed by a Rick Dom, rather than a beam weapon.

CQ – radio operator code for "any station listening on this frequency, please respond"
Actual – radio callsign indicating that the commanding officer is on the line, rather than the unit's radio operator
Tally – NATO brevity code for "enemy spotted"
Wilco – NATO brevity code for "received and complying" ('roger' merely indicates reception, not compliance)

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

Re: Speak of the Devil [MSG UC]

Post by Fraktal » 2019-10-01 09:21pm

Amuro's knuckles were still tense on the controls by the time he was nearing the factory section once more, the smoke from the fires visibly fogging the longitudinal axis of the colony above him. It would take the environmental systems a couple of days to clear it out, but structural damage to the colony itself was still light. Which was good, but not nearly as good as it could've been.

He was mentally kicking himself for not expecting Char to come back so quickly, and with an anti-ship rifle nonetheless. If it weren't for the low angle the shots traveled at, ordinance of that caliber could very well have punched a hole straight through the colony's outer wall and spaced a lot of the civilians who were fleeing to the dock nearby. Things were definitely not going according to plan – and not just because he failed to take down Char on the first try due to a cheap shot on the man's part. Hell, Char wasn't even supposed to have accompanied his wingmen into the colony during the initial incursion, let alone armed to the teeth with heavy weapons.

But that was no excuse for failing to take him out right then and there. There was no denying it: Amuro was having far more difficulty adjusting to an RX-78 than he expected. The controls he could vaguely recall and it wasn't as if mobile suit controls didn't have a similar level of cross-compatibility as airplane controls, but the difficulty was in how sluggish the machine was compared to what he was used to. It wasn't just the lack of a movable frame, the whole system was reacting to his commands with a brief but noticeable time lag, as if it was taking a moment to figure out what command to send to which actuator.

He definitely needed to look into the OS later on to see what he could do about that in the way of optimization. That is, if they would even let him.

The cockpit display alerting him to an incoming communication shook him out of his thoughts. – "White Base to Gundam. Sitrep."

"Contact lost with target, returning as ordered."

"Change of plans. The Musai is barraging the docks trying to smoke us out and the impacts are getting a bit too close for comfort. We're almost ready for launch, but I need you back here ASAP."

"On my way."

"Lieutenant Ray is going through our cargo right now to get you a weapon to use. I need you to get out there and distract them long enough for the White Base to get outside. We'll handle the Musai, you just need to buzz around their heads loud enough to keep their attention on you until we have them in our sights. Can you do that?"

"Yes, sir."

He would do more than that.

----

"Who was that, sir?"

"The reason why we aren't Zaku boot polish right now." – Cassius replied as he put down the receiver. – "You know Lieutenant Ray has a son, right?"

"Yes, sir." – Bright replied.

"Well, he somehow got into one of the prototypes when the Zakus showed up and tore them to pieces with it. Don't ask me how because I don't have any more of a clue than you do. He was about to return it to us too when a sniper started taking shots at us, so I sent him after it. He's on his way back now."

"Are you sure that was wise, sir? Letting an untrained civilian operate classified equipment is-"

"Against regulations, I know." – Cassius interrupted him wearily. – "You're not the first to remind me, either. But if he gets us out of here in one piece, I'll take the rap from the brass. Especially if we can hold these Zekes off long enough to not walk away empty-handed."

----

As the one-legged Zaku stood suspended by fuel lines in the middle of the Falmel's hangar like a spider sitting at the center of its web, Char was idly drumming on his knee with his fingers in the cockpit. As much as it hurt his pride, he was forced to change into a normal suit after all. A glance at the cockpit display told him the propellant loading was 95% complete, which meant he would soon be heading out again – and this time, for the killing blow.

After all, having the Gundam did the Federation a fat load of good if it couldn't leave Side 7, much less reach Jaburo, without a certain assault carrier to hitch a ride on.

While waiting, his thoughts inevitably went back to the way the Gundam fought. Newtype or Oldtype, it wasn't the practiced but rough style of a well-trained rookie, but more like an experienced ace who knew the full capabilities of a mobile suit and didn't hesitate in using them. But considering that it was far too early for the Federation to have mobile suit aces of their own, it hinted the possibility of a Zeon defector. But as much as he tried to wrack his brain for an answer, he didn't remember hearing about any Zeon aces who defected before the tides of war even turned in the Federation's favor.

Another possibility, of course, was one he considered but rejected. At this point in time, Amuro Ray was nothing more than an arrogant and whiny teenager with zero skill or experience, only surviving by the skin of his teeth and even then only due to the Gundam's sheer power. Were he in a Zanny back in the day, he wouldn't have even made it stand up before getting perforated by Zaku machine gun fire. It was a textbook example of the machine doing all the fighting, something Char personally looked down on as undeserving of the name of soldier. Of course, that situation very much changed later on, to the point of Amuro putting the fear of God into him like no one else ever did. Even facing down Haman Karn by himself in an inferior machine couldn't compare.

The way the Gundam moved was most decisively not something Amuro would be capable of at this time, of that he was dead certain. Yet the possibility kept gnawing at the back of his mind, maddeningly teasing him with something he didn't know, an unknown that infuriatingly felt as if it should be obvious.

And Char did not miss the moment of himself instinctively calling out Amuro's name during the fight.

"Resupply complete, sir." – Dren's voice shook Char out of his thoughts. And indeed, the displays now indicated his thrusters were topped up with reaction mass he'd need to maintain maneuverability despite the missing leg. Although the deaths of his wingmen meant he now had an abundance of spare parts for his own Zaku, there was no time to conduct more extensive repairs if they wanted to catch the White Base before it left.

"Continue barrage but stand ready to change target if the ship comes out." – Char ordered before moving to close the cockpit hatch, his subordinate backing out of the way.

"Understood, sir."

----

"The Gundam is armed, sir." – Tem reported to Cassius via the wired headset the latter was holding as he sat in the captain's chair on the bridge of the White Base.

"Good." – Just then, another explosion rocked the ship as the Gundam flew by the bridge window and stopped in front of the ship, holding a rifle in one hand.

"Sir, that hit was in the berth below ours!" – one of the operators at the elevated station behind him reported.

"We have to hurry. Marker, tell dock control to open the bay doors and let us out." – Cassius switched channel on his headset with a button press on his armrest. – "Gundam, do you read?"

"Five by five."

"We're out of time. Get out there, we'll be right behind you."

"Roger."

"Ensign José here." – Ryu's voice cut in. – "The doc got me a fighter; permission to sortie to back him up?"

"Granted."

----

"Movement at the dock!" – came the report from the built-in speakers of Char's helmet as his Zaku floated off to the side of the Falmel to keep the latter's line of fire at the colony clear.

"I see it." – Char replied, dialing the rifle's optics to maximum magnification to see a blue-white speck flying out of the dock. 'Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly...'

----

As soon as he reached open space, Amuro grit his teeth. Trying to actively reach out with his senses felt like climbing through a thorn bush: the harder he pushed, the more it felt like a jagged knife was slowly being driven into his skull. He knew the tickling sensation on his skin below his left ear was a thin trickle of blood even before his fingers brushed against it, but it still made him frown. This never happened before and there was no time to mull on it either.

Still, he needed to... there. A brief brush of intent directed at him was enough to subconsciously draw his eye in a specific direction long enough for him to notice the small silhouette of the Musai in the distance. Briefly moving upwards to clear the way for the White Base, Amuro raised his beam rifle and took aim with both hands.

"Listen up, Amuro." – came his father's voice through the radio, grainy from Minovsky interference but still legible due to his proximity to the colony. – "The computer can't lock onto the target without a clear visual silhouette, so you need to be reasonably close to your target to be able to hit it. Even then, you need to pay attention to the rifle's charge level-"

"I read the manual." – Amuro interrupted him. – "Visual contact with the Musai, about... 120, 130 klicks fore of the space gate, two o'clock low."

"Ryu, can you confirm?" – Cassius asked.

"Wait one... confirmed. Kid's got good eyes."

"No sign of interception." – Amuro continued. – "They're probably staying out of the line of fire."

"Maybe." – Cassius mused. – "Are you sure you got three Zakus in the colony?"

"Roger."

"Latest intel says a Musai has room for four at most, so that sniper should be the only one left."

'Assuming Char didn't bring an extra in the Komusai.' Amuro mentally remarked, but did not say it out loud.

"Alright kid, follow me but stay loose. Musais don't have anti-air turrets so if you just keep moving, you should be fi-"

"I can hit it from here."

"Don't be ridiculous!" – Tem cut in. – "That rifle isn't meant for long-distance shooting, the targeting system isn't calibrated for the Minovsky jamming at this range."

Amuro didn't reply. Inhaling and exhaling once, he closed his eyes.

"Are you listening to me?"

Inhale.

Exhale.

He could feel it.

The distant, almost completely silent, whispers on the wind, a ripple in the water no eye could see, bleeding into infinity as the flock rose from the surface like a blooming flower yearning for the sky fated to forever remain beyond its reach, a realm that existed beyond sight and thought, beyond mind and soul. beyond joy and sorrow, beyond life and death, its fingers softly guiding his to ends he knew not and could know not.

"Amuro!"

Eyes snapping open, he pulled the trigger and a beam of deadly light lanced out of his rifle, streaking off into the darkness of space.

"You're just wasting energy! You can't seriously think-"

"Explosion at the Musai!" – Ryu suddenly interrupted.

"What?!"

Many kilometers away, Char's head snapped around at record speed when a beam of light suddenly buried itself into the Falmel's middle turret, which violently tore itself to pieces in a massive explosion that visibly rocked the entire ship. – "What the-?!"

"We're hit!"

Letting out a snarl of dismay, he pushed his engines to maximum forward speed, centered his crosshair on the Gundam and fired.

Amuro reflexively yanked the controls hard the instant he felt the familiar twinge in his head, throwing the Gundam to the side before lining up another shot. He didn't even see the high-caliber round passing through his previous spot a few seconds later.

But Char did. 'Did he saw the muzzle flash at this distance?! What the hell kind of eyes does that pilot have?!' – "Dren, status report!"

"Turret 2 is out of commission! Damage control teams are on their way! Turrets 1 and 3 will finish charging in 20 seconds!"

"No time! Load all missile tubes and fire a full salvo into the bay!"

"But sir-"

"We can't let that mobile suit leave this place! Do it!"

Just then, another beam struck the bottom turret, the explosion sending the ship careening off to the side.

This was starting to be more than what they could take and Char knew it. But now he was close enough to see the Gundam without magnification and he was not going to let it take out his mothership and strand him hundreds of thousands of kilometers behind enemy lines without a fight. The Gundam had evidently seen him coming, as it retargeted at him and fired. But Char's Zaku hadn't been legendary for its swiftness for no reason and the beam struck only void when he casually dodged out of the way with plenty of room to spare.

He almost didn't dodge the second shot targeted at the exact spot he would've been if his senses didn't alert him to it ahead of time. Which was enough for him to conclude that his foe's marksmanship was definitely not a fluke: the guy knew exactly where to aim. But there was only so much room for shooting here, with the speed he was approaching and the range he was currently at. So he stopped moving sideways and charged straight in, both physical and non-physical senses focused at his opponent with enough intensity for his head to feel like it was splitting in half.

In his mind's eyes, the universe slowed to a crawl as the Gundam aimed straight at him, the beam rifle's muzzle beginning to glow at the same moment his hands yanked the controls back. With less than a hundred meters and practically zero lateral relative velocity between muzzle and target, there was no way for any competently trained pilot to miss such a shot... but Char Aznable was no ordinary pilot himself. The outermost layers of the Zaku's paint bubbled as the machine threw itself into an impossibly fast backflip and the beam passed mere centimeters above the chest armor and the monoeye; there was no way for the Gundam to react before the Zaku's inertia closed the remaining distance and the red machine plowed straight into its quarry's chest with its remaining foot, sending the Gundam violently tumbling back.

An instant later, Char took aim next to his Zaku's foot and the anti-ship rifle let loose with its own high-caliber payload at an even shorter range - only for the Gundam's left arm to snap up and backhand straight into the path of the bullet, the almost point-blank blow tearing off a chunk of the forearm armor plating but deflecting just enough to miss the rest of the body. If it weren't for the lunar titanium, the arm wouldn't even have remained attached, much less intact and operational enough for the Gundam to swiftly toss its beam rifle from right hand to left, draw a beam saber with the now-empty right hand and immediately counterattack.

At that moment, Char knew without a doubt. None of the Oldtype aces he had known, either personally or by reputation, had that kind of reaction speed.

With that in mind, he righted the Zaku and counter-charged, pulling out the Zaku's heat hawk and immediately launching a swing before the axe blade had even finished heating up. Arcs of energy frayed the void as beam saber met heat hawk, the contained plasma failing to eat into the already superheated metal during the momentary contact before sliding off the curved blade from the force the Gundam was putting behind the parry. Char immediately reversed his attack into a horizontal slash to decapitate the Gundam but hit only space due to the Gundam leaning back to evade before kicking the Zaku in the side with the same motion and immediately stabbing forward with its beam saber to exploit the opening.

Amuro cursed to himself when the Zaku diverted the stab at the last second by ramming the muzzle of its rifle into the Gundam's elbow, only cutting a gash into the spiked shoulder guard instead of running the torso straight through. Zaku or no Zaku, this was Char Aznable he was up against and he wasn't considered by many to have been Amuro's equal for nothing. Not that Amuro particularly cared about competition or comparisons in the first place; war was never a game to him.

His senses alerted him just in time to move the Gundam's elbow out of the way of the point-blank shot that would've blown the joint in half at this range. He had personally known some pilots who joined the force after the One Year War and swore up and down that beam weapons objectively beat everything else, but Amuro himself had enough experience being on the receiving end of physical weapons to know better than to underestimate them. It was impossible to build moving parts without leaving seams in the armor to allow movement and anything that hit the gap between two plates wouldn't care what those plates were made of.

As the Zaku's heat hawk swept down to exploit the opening of the Gundam's saber arm being too far away to intercept in time, the Gundam kicked upwards with one foot into the end of the shaft of the Zaku's heat hawk to cancel out the weapon's momentum and create enough distance to spin around and parry the follow-up strike over its shoulder. Amuro immediately took aim with the beam rifle under the raised arm, only for the Zaku to swiftly disengage from the blade lock, knock his aim off with a kick to the barrel's bottom and take aim with its own rifle. But by the time it could fire, the Gundam spun back around and heel-kicked the rifle's barrel to the side, the Zaku using the momentum imparted by the blow to spin around and backhand-parry the incoming beam saber.

Above them, the Core Fighter floated motionlessly. – "Santa mierda..." – Ryu murmured.

"Ryu, talk to me. What's happening?"

Just then his thermal sensors alerted him to a large number of contacts heading in his direction. And it didn't take him long to realize what those were. – "I-incoming missiles from the Musai!"

"Move to intercept! Gundam, if you're hearing this, change of plans!"

"He's a bit busy right now, sir!"

At that moment, the Gundam's head snapped towards the incoming missiles before it threw its beam rifle upwards, parried an incoming hit and swiftly drew its other beam saber to cleave the Zaku's anti-ship rifle in half before shoving the heat hawk back and kicking off the Zaku's chest as a stepping stone upwards, putting its first beam saber away and grabbing the drifting beam rifle before rocketing off straight towards the missiles, Zaku hot on its tail.

"...or not." – was all Ryu could say before flying after them.

Truth be told, the sight of the red Zaku sent a chill down his spine as his brain vividly remembered the sight of the same mobile suit firing a tactical nuclear warhead straight into the open hangar of the ship he launched literally seconds before at Loum. Whether it was the will of the grim reaper that he crossed paths with the Red Comet again or something else, Ryu didn't know. But he profusely thanked God that Char was focused on someone else at the moment and as he lined up the crosshair on the speeding Zaku, having to throttle his own engines to maximum just to keep up, Ryu decided he will not be the last man standing this time around. – "Bring it, pendejo...!"

Three beams of light lanced out from the Gundam's beam rifle in rapid succession, each bisecting a missile, before the Zaku caught up and grabbed the Gundam's right leg from behind, fouling the next shot. The Gundam swiftly kicked backwards with its other foot before blowing away another missile but as the Zaku raised its heat hawk, the Core Fighter swept down like a bird of prey and strafed the Zaku with its machine guns. While this did little more than distract the Zaku long enough for the Gundam to take out one more missile, Ryu swept back around and shot the Zaku in the back with a missile just in time to blunt a heat hawk strike meant for the Gundam's thruster block. This time the Zaku finally let go of the Gundam so that the latter could take out two more missiles, but Ryu had no time to savor the minor victory as the missiles were already about to fly past them.

So he turned and streaked off after the missiles, gunning down one after another. He almost didn't hear the kid yelling something over the radio when suddenly the view above his canopy was filled with a red Zaku, heat hawk swiping straight down like the scythe of the Grim Reaper.

The superheated blade was less than a meter from the glass before it was speared straight through by a pink-purple beam of light and the next moment became filled with noise, shaking and pain. He shook off his daze just in time to see the Zaku get decapitated by another beam, causing it to toss away its ruined weapon and quickly leave his field of view.

Then he remembered the remaining missiles, grit his teeth and rammed the throttle forward. Luckily, his ride seemed to have survived the close-range buckshot of shrapnel without being much worse for the wear. Minus the canopy, whose broken shards were clattering around him from the acceleration, Ryu hissing in pain as he realized at least three shards were lodged into his thighs and were now being driven further in from the acceleration, to say nothing about the visible air leaks around them.

It took him an unnervingly long time to catch up, even with his momentum not having been decreased too badly by the hit he took earlier. As the colony loomed ahead of him, Ryu took out one of the last few missiles before the remaining ones suddenly started exploding, the Gundam zipping by him firing its head vulcans on full auto. Only one missile was left when the Gundam abruptly stopped firing and instead accelerated, leaving him behind. Ryu was in the middle of reaching for the radio to warn the White Base of incoming ordinance when the Gundam, now head-to-head with the missile, drew a beam saber and threw it at the missile, cleaving it straight in half before flipping around and decelerating hard against the colony's wall.

He winced when the Gundam bounced off the surface from failing to completely halt its momentum, but it didn't seem to affect the pilot much, seeing how it immediately headed towards him.

Taking a slow breath, Ryu carefully grabbed the first glass shard and slowly pulled it out, wincing from the pain. He knew every second cost him oxygen but possibly ripping the hole his normal suit even wider would be worse, hence why he took things carefully while his other hand reached into his suit's side pocket to grab the emergency sealant tape. As soon as the bloody shard was fully out, he tossed it aside and quickly unrolled the tape, sealing the hole just as the Gundam stopped next to him. – "Are you alright?"

"I'll live; thanks for the save." – Ryu replied, sweeping away the droplets of his own blood floating in front of him before getting to work on the second hole. – "No offense, but why the hell did you pull that stunt at the end? You could've just shot the damn thing."

"I'm out of ammo."

"Oh. Never mind, then. What about Char?"

"Escaped. The Musai is retreating too."

Ryu sighed. – "That's that, then. We'll go back shortly but I took some shrapnel and need to patch up my suit."

"Are you sure you're alright?"

"A little glass ain't gonna kill me." – Ryu replied with a scoff, tossing aside another bloody glass shard. – "Canopy's gone but the controls still work. This thing's built like a tank."

"The hull is made from the same material as the Gundam's armor, but it couldn't have taken a direct hit from a heat hawk."

"If you say so, kid. Next time we're on shore leave, I'm getting you a drink for this."

"I'm underage." – Amuro pointed out.

"I don't care! And no offense but I'm tossing your dad out the nearest airlock if he's got a problem with that." – Ryu finished extracting the final shard from his leg, taping the hole shut. – "After he's done fixing me up with a ride as sweet as yours, of course. I'm just about getting sick of being the underdog against the Zekes."

"I think you might want to call rain check with that airlock for now." - Amuro remarked with a slight smirk. - "I don't think your higher-ups would like it if you killed their foremost expert in mobile suit development while Zeon is still around."

Ryu laughed as he reached for the radio. – "Amen to that. You're alright, kid. José to White Base, come in."

"We heard the whole thing, ensign." – came Cassius' mildly amused voice. – "Return to ship and report to the infirmary. Mr. Ray, I trust you can get the Gundam into the hangar without crashing?"

"Yes sir, though I think the Core Fighter should go first." – Amuro replied. – "I'm not wearing a normal suit, so I can't open the hatch until the hangar is pressurized."

"Fair enough. Our berth didn't take any direct hits, so there shouldn't be any problems with maintaining atmosphere. Are you injuried?"

"No, sir. The Gundam took some light armor damage, but nowhere critical. One of the engine nozzle gimbals are a bit sluggish, though; I think it might be jammed."

"That's where Char hit you before he came after me." – Ryu spoke up, in the middle of steering the Core Fighter into the colony's space gate. – "I saw it."

"Ensign, can you confirm that was Char Aznable?"

"Beyond a doubt, sir. Color's one thing, but the guy was definitely flying like an ace. Speaking of which..."

Taking his eyes off the front for a moment, Ryu glanced at the Gundam.

"You might want to have the techs pull my gun camera footage, sir. You ain't gonna believe that shit."

----

The Core Fighter is canonically armored with lunar titanium, which makes sense considering that it was meant to basically serve as the Gundam's black box in addition to being an escape vehicle for the pilot. On the other hand, it could not possibly have had the same armor thickness as the Gundam or the Guncannon in order to remain VTOL-capable, let alone agile enough to outrun and outmaneuver dedicated atmospheric fighters like the Dopp.

The RRf-06 Zanny was one of the Federation's early attempts at producing mobile suits of their own, using captured Zakus as the base chassis. Although modified to use a Ball's recoilless cannon (caliber is uncertain: the Ball's is 180mm while the Zanny's is only 120mm, yet they're supposed to be the same design) rather than a machine gun, its development was severely underfunded due to competing with Project V and the final result was an extremely shoddy and mechanically unreliable design that never saw use as anything more than a training unit for future GM pilots.

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