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Mobile Suit Gundam - The Second Century (Part 3: The Dark Side of the Moon)
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  1. #1
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    Default Mobile Suit Gundam - The Second Century (Part 3: The Dark Side of the Moon)

    Foreword

    All stories must come to an end...

    MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM: THE SECOND CENTURY (PART 3: THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON) will be the closing story arc of the MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM: THE SECOND CENTURY trilogy. The saga of Athena Ibaz (Minerva Zabi) and Jolie Minh, which started in PRELUDE 0099, comes to an end in THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON.

    Parts 1 and 2 explored the friendship between these two characters: one a brilliant tactician, the other a gifted fighter. Their partnership has brought them great victories...and great tragedies.

    In this final installment, we at last see what has always been hinted at (and perhaps feared) come to pass: Athena and Jolie turn upon each other as enemies, divided by ideology. Together, they have overcome every challenge...every foe.

    But can they survive each other?

    THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON will feature a number of familiar names and faces, a number of new ones, and at least one who is a bit of both. Here's to hoping that you'll all enjoy the final arc of THE SECOND CENTURY




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    Prologue

    December, U.C. 0105…

    Five years have passed since the conclusion of the war between the United Forces and the Archduchy of Phobos Zeon.

    With the passing of Archduke Alexander Miguel and the surrender of his forces, the era of Zeon has come, at last, to a close. The Zeon colors fly over no space colony, nor upon the desolate surface of the ruined Earth, nor upon any registered space vessel. All that remains of Zeon are space pirates and privateers…former Zeon soldiers, now war criminals and fugitives more concerned with profit than patriotism. These miscreants make use of their salvaged Zeon war technology to terrorize the shipping lanes between the Earth Sphere and the outlying frontier colonies in the Asteroid Belt and the Martian and Jupiter orbits…forming crime syndicates that will traffic anything and everything, or commit contract assaults with mobile weaponry, for the right price…but lack the vision, unity, will, organization, and sheer numbers to resurrect the Archduchy once again. No Zeon warlords remain…no Giren Zabi, no Haman Karn, no Char Aznable, no Alexander Miguel to galvanize the broken remnants of past Zeon glory. The Archduchy of Zeon is finally, irrevocably dead.

    The Earth Federation continues to exist, but has become both an anachronism and a misnomer. Founded more than a century ago, the Earth Federation has no Earth to rule. The planet is yet to recover from the devastation inflicted upon it by the Archduke Alexander Miguel’s “Operation Darkest Summer,” which saw the simultaneous uncontrolled descents of over a dozen space colonies around the globe, creating a nuclear winter that ultimately claimed ninety-five percent of Earth’s population, and snuffed out the planet’s ability to support a viable living ecosystem for generations to come. The Earth Federation has largely moved its operations to the frontier colonies, of which it governs a relative minority. In the election year U.C. 0101, Senator Mirai Yashima-Noah was elected by a seventy-percent majority as the twenty-fifth President of the Earth Federation Government, and won a second term in the election of U.C. 0105. Her administration has focused its efforts on the ecological restoration of the Earth as well as the relocation and repatriation of many Federation citizens displaced by the wars against Zeon. President Yashima-Noah has also pursued a path of strengthening diplomatic ties with the Shambala Republic, an effort greatly helped by the fact that the Shambala Republic’s Prime Minister, Dr. Artasia Daikun, is one of President Yashima-Noah’s oldest and most trusted friends…and by the fact that Deputy Prime Minister Minerva Zabi-Noah is the President’s own daughter-in-law.

    The Earth Federation Forces are no longer the monolithic standing army that secured the Earth Sphere prior to the One Year War, but a skeleton force barely equal to the task of protecting its relative meager territories. Nevertheless, though far less expansive, the Federation Forces nevertheless boast its elite Special Forces, which have since evolved into and simultaneously become a subset of the Strategic Naval Research Institute (SNRI), a small, but potent and dynamic force that combines frontline combat operations with intelligence-gathering and weapons systems development, particularly in the area of Psychom weapons systems. General Bright Noah has been the prime mover in this restructuring of the Earth Federation Forces, although he once again faces challenges from General Manron Blackhead, who though rendered paraplegic by a Zeon ambush five years earlier, has recovered enough to resume active duty and is pushing for a more aggressive and expansive remilitarization of the Earth Federation.

    In this post-Zeon world of the Second Universal Century, the most powerful social, political, economic, and military entity is the Shambala Republic. Based at the old Zeon homeland of Side 3, the Shambala Republic’s dominion extends to the lunar cities of Anman and Von Braun and all the space colonies of the Earth Sphere excluding Side 7, which remains the Earth Federation’s sole remaining territory within the Earth Sphere. The Shambala Republic also extends its suzerainty to the majority of the space colonies in the Asteroid Belt and the Martian and Jupiter orbits, and has spearheaded development of the Frontier 9 and Frontier 10 space colonies in Saturn orbit.

    Prime Minister Artasia Daikun and Deputy Prime Minister Minerva Zabi-Noah remain much loved figures by the citizenry of the Shambala Republic five years after the founding of the Shambala nation. The first two years were difficult, as the new nation struggled to organize itself and cope with the aftermath of the war against the last of the Zeon. The past three years have seen stability and security gradually settle over the Shambala Republic, and booms in the colony construction industry have created overall economic prosperity. Zeon Daikun’s dream of a just and peaceful Spacenoid nation, apparently, would be realized after all…

    Scientific and technological research has thrived under the sponsorship of the Shambala government, particularly in applying technology that the Archduchy of Zeon had been developing for warfare towards ecological reclamation. Deputy Prime Minister Minerva Zabi-Noah has led efforts to apply the Zeon’s colony laser technology to speeding the Earth’s recovery from the effects of the mass colony drops of U.C. 0100. Archduke Alexander Miguel’s undeveloped colony laser systems have been converted into mechanisms through which the billions of tons of debris thrown into Earth’s atmosphere, cutting off life-giving solar energy to the Earth’s surface, is burned away. The effort is expected to continue for at least another half-decade, but already, the nuclear winter effect caused by the colony drops have been partially reversed and ecological colonies have been established on each of the continents to replant dead forests and plains, and to reintroduce animal species to their old habitats. Shambala scientists have prognosticated that barring any significant setbacks, the full recovery of Earth’s ecology should be complete by the beginning of the Third Universal Century.

    Even the mighty Shambala Republic is not free of troubles and controversy: Defense Minister Meitzer Ronah has called for expansion of the Shambala Republic Defense Guard, which though adequate to protect the Shambala Republic’s interests from encroachments by the Earth Federation or the scattered remnants of Zeon, the Defense Guard remains a much smaller and less substantial force than the Earth Federation Forces and the Archduchy of Zeon Forces had been prior to the outbreak of the One Year War. During an infamous address to the Prime Minister and the Shambala Parliament in April, U.C. 0104, Defense Minister Ronah stated emphatically, “The Shambala Republic is Cosmic Babylonia, and like the Babylonia of the ancient world, a mighty empire must have a mighty army.” The Defense Minister found himself rebuked by both the Prime Minister and half the members of Parliament. Prime Minister Daikun went as far as to criticize the Defense Minister’s “brash warmongering as the same kind of thinking that turned the Zeon Republic into the Archduchy of Zeon,” and reaffirmed her commitment to not letting history be repeated in such a manner.

    This is the world of the Second Universal Century era, Year 0106…

  3. #3
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    EPISODE 1: THE LIONESS AND THE PHOENIX

    Anaheim Skunkworks Mobile Development Facility

    Classified – Codename: WHITE STAR

    Security Clearance: Top Max

    9-December-U.C. 0105

    02:33

    Surveillance Status: Active; Moderate Threat Alert


    Since the Archduchy of Zeon’s Operation: Darkest Summer in August, U.C. 0100, the once gleaming-blue surface of Planet Earth has taken on a distinctly lifeless, choked, grayish hue…the thick layer of dust and soot thrown seemingly permanently into the atmosphere by the multiple mass impacts across the planet. In the distance, near the visible rim of the globe, a brief, brilliant light flashes silently and intensely for a minute, burning through the thick haze to provide a momentary glimpse of the dark seas below…evidence of Project: New Dawn in operation – the Shambala Republic and the Earth Federation’s joint effort to restore the Earth’s ecology. Even with the application of the latest technology, the consensus of the scientific community is that at least a century will pass before the Earth’s ecosystems return to pre-drop conditions.

    The cosmos is silent and vacant, as it has been for an eternity. Earth’s immediate orbit, however, is littered with countless pieces of debris from twenty years of warfare. Derelict space colonies. Wrecked spacecraft. Mangled hulks of scorched mobile suits drift high above the globe…some to eventually be burnt to cinders after their orbits decay and they are drawn by the planet’s gravity through a fiery descent through the atmosphere…others to float forever in the eternal darkness.

    Amidst this veritable Sargasso, it is little wonder that eyes, both flesh and electronic, might miss two drifting figures, minute relative to all that surrounds them.

    The first figure, slender and feminine, drifts gracefully ahead of her companion, a lean, wiry male. Their normalsuits, helmets, and visors are as black as the cosmos around them, unmarked by any color that might betray their presence, and coated with Minovsky particles to mask them from non-ocular sensors. No sound is heard by either of them other than their shallow breaths within the confines of their helmets.

    The two figures drift closer to their objective…a space colony formerly in the Side 1 orbit left adrift in the aftermath of a battle between the Earth Federation Forces and the Archduchy of Zeon Forces during the final months of the One Year War. To all appearances, the colony, formerly a residential/light industrial colony known as Moffett, is nothing more than a derelict…its operational life having ended the day its steel and reinforced glass shell was penetrated by the rounds of Zaku machineguns and GM beam spray guns. As far as Moffett’s history as the home of 850,000 civilians and a light industry base, that remains the truth…but Moffett has experienced a secret afterlife during the past five years to which only a few dozen souls are privy…

    The female figure magnetizes herself to the massive armored hulk of the ruined space colony, an action mimicked by her male companion an instant later. The willowy, normalsuited female then extracts a small electronic tool from a pocket in her boot and opens an electronic systems access hatch embedded in the colony’s hull.

    A series of quickly tapped figures into the small electronic tool reveals a concealed entryway…surprisingly and paradoxically well-kept when juxtaposed against the battered ruin surrounding it.

    The two figures drift through the long passageway, which runs perhaps 600 meters long into the bowels of the abandoned colony. Within the hundreds of colonies like Moffett that have been devastated by war, one would expect to find malfunctioning power and life-support facilities, ruined cities, the wreckage of burned out mobile war machines, and the like…

    Hidden deep within Moffett’s decayed exterior, however, is a bustling, state-of-the-art construction facility…with normalsuited technicians rushing about with tools, large and small, into and out of a hangar compound…a large, cavernous concrete and steel edifice whose roof is marked with the cryptic letters “SNRI.”

    The female points towards the hangar, and her companion nods. Stealthily, they keep to the shadows, out of the view of the workers…their adeptness at avoiding detection suggests that they have taken part in such maneuvers many, many times before.

    The stealthy duo alights on the concrete wall of the bunker/hangar, and slowly makes their way towards a side entrance. Stealing inside, they spot their objective at last.

    Suspended by a dozen alloy cables from the ceiling of the hangar is a massive mobile armor. Silver with black trim, the mobile armor is aerodynamic and sleek in profile despite its considerable bulk. It is clearly a war machine designed to be equal parts capable of overwhelming a foe with superior force as it is outmaneuvering a foe with superior speed and maneuverability.

    Surrounding the mobile armor is a squad of twelve men armed with Earth Federation Forces’ issue automatic rifles.

    The female points towards the mobile armor and her companion quietly makes his way towards it. At the same time, the female removes another item from the pockets of her normalsuit, and lets it drift inconspicuously in the low gravity environment. A minute later, after the object has drifted a hundred meters away, the female extracts a final item from her normalsuit…a small silver Walther handpistol.

    The draw, the aim, the shot, all executed in one fluid motion, with one result…an explosion on the far wall of the hangar that sends work crews scrambling and screaming in a sudden panic.

    The female figure takes advantage of the confusion caused by her incendiary to approach the idling mobile armor.

    Just as she is about the board the MA’s open cockpit, she is spotted by one of the dozen armed guards.

    “You!” the guard bellows, leveling his rifle at her, “Move away fr…AWP!”

    The guard is felled by a single shot from the female’s handpistol, the bullet lodging it into his brain having entered almost bloodlessly between his eyes.

    The young woman seals the bullet-resistant canopy of the MA as she drops lightly into the cockpit seat. Already, the in-flight computer of the mighty war machine is displaying operating data onto the Heads Up Display (HUD). Behind her, in the engineering/navigation/in-flight control station, her partner continues bringing the systems of the mecha to life.

    “Engine power at 85% and climbing,” the young man reports, “We are fifteen seconds to critical mass.”

    “Roger,” the young woman acknowledges, “Guidance and weapons systems online.”

    “We’re set,” the young man says, “Power output at 100%.”

    “Power to thrusters,” the young woman orders.

    “Roger that,” the young man says, complying.

    The rogue crew of the mobile armor sees the Federal Forces security team firing its weapons futilely against the armored mass of the mobile armor. The occasional pelting of the reinforced cockpit by a stray bullet fails to alarm either the pilot or the engineer/navigator.

    “Deploy weapons?” the engineer asks.

    “Negative,” the pilot replies, “We aren’t here to kill people. We have our objective; let’s go.”

    So saying, the pilot moves the thrust lever into the 100% position, sending the aerodynamic mobile armor blasting out of the hangar and, seconds later, punching out of the hull of the former Moffett colony.

    Scarcely thirty seconds have passed before the engineer/navigator notifies his partner in the pilot/mecha commander’s seat, “We’ve got four bogies ahead. Identifying: Jegan-VI types, beam rifles, Vulcan cannon, heatseeker and electronic tracer missiles…twelve apiece.”

    “Disregard,” the pilot replies, “We’re not engaging them unless we have to.”

    “I think that option’s just been taken off the table, babe,” the engineer replies, “Those bandits have just unloaded two dozen stiff ones at us.”

    “Deploy suppressors,” the young woman responds calmly.

    “Suppressor deployed,” the young man responds, fingering a series of controls built into his monitor/console.

    A series of plasma flares is deployed from the internal nacelles of the mobile armor, drawing away the heatseeker missiles, but leaving the electronic tracer missiles…a half-dozen on them, closing in on the mecha.

    “Minovsky suppressor systems aren’t in synch,” the engineer remarks, “Enemy missiles closing on our six. Impact in seven seconds.”

    “Give me more thruster output,” the pilot orders.

    “Roger,” her partner replies, “You’ve got overdrive thrust.”

    The pilot thumbs a button on her control stick and the mobile armor lurches forward, its thrust greatly outpacing the speed even of the pursuing missiles.

    “This baby’s fast,” the engineer remarks, clearly impressed with the mecha.

    “Zero knots to Mach 6 within thirty seconds outside of planetary gravity,” the pilot remarks, “As fast as it gets without the use of an M-Booster system.”

    “That won’t help us much if the threat’s coming from in front of us,” the young man replies grimly, “Enemy targets ahead: a Magellan-class gunship and a couple of more Jegan-VIs.”

    “Slam on the brakes and give me combat mode,” the pilot orders.

    “Reverse thrust engaged...weapons systems to combat mode,” the engineer responds.

    Powerful retro rockets fire, slowing the forward momentum of the mobile armor before it collides with the enemy warships and MS units.

    The pilot activates the targeting systems built into her normalsuit helmet, the Magellan bracketed in her gunscopes.

    With the press of a slender thumb, a torrent of ordnance rushes forth from the mobile armor, slamming hard into the Magellan-class warship.

    The mobile armor, however, is quickly assailed by the beam rifles and missiles of the Jegan-VI squad, with the earlier pursuing squad if Jegan-VIs moving in to reinforce the defensive line. Ten Jegan-VI units total.

    “Switch us to mobile suit configuration,” the pilot of the mobile armor instructs.

    “Roger,” comes the reply from the engineering system, “OMEGA Gundam mobile suit configuration engaged.”

    The mobile armor’s modular sections fold, twist, swivel, unlock, and relock in new positions, shedding the shape of a sleek mobile space craft to assume the anthropomorphic armored warrior…a mobile suit…a GUNDAM.

    The Omega Gundam raises its arm-mounted shield, shaped in the familiar elongated quadrilateral configuration that has characterized the majority of previous Gundam-class and Earth Federation Forces frontline combat mobile suits in general, but only in its frame. The reinforced, triple-layer of Gundarium that usually fills the shield’s bulk is curiously missing…leaving a gaping vulnerability.

    The incoming beams and ordnance close in upon the shield that is not a shield, and the empty space between the quadrilateral lights up a light, incandescent green…a framed field of focused Minovsky particles that disperses or disintegrates upon contact the incoming torrent of beam energy and solid ordnance.

    With the graceful, fluid motion of an expert marksperson, the Omega Gundam retracts its shield and raises its powerful mega beam rifle into firing position. The pilot locks three targets in her helmet’s targeting scope and squeezes off three rapid beam shots in succession.

    Three Jegan-VI units rapidly collapse upon themselves and balloon into bursting shrapnel. The rest, their having witnessed the Omega Gundam’s devastating display of force, turn to flee, vectoring away from the scene as quickly as their thrusters can propel them.

    The pilot of the Omega Gundam has the fleeing targets bracketed within her gun sights. The opposing units have absolutely no hope of escaping…not from the Omega Gundam’s vast array of superior weapon systems.

    The pilot relents, removing her thumb from the trigger, converting the mecha back into mobile armor configuration, and bolting away in the opposite direction from the fleeing Earth Federation Forces MS.

    “Not worth it, eh?” her partner chimes in from his station.

    “Not necessary,” the pilot replies, “I don’t want more to die than absolutely necessary. That’s always been our operating philosophy.”

    “Right,” comes her partner’s reply, “ It’s a good thing the Federal Forces don’t have a greater presence here in the Earth Sphere these days, or there’d have been no way in hell we could’ve pulled this off. Check out the power on this monster! I still can’t believe the Federation chose to build this thing here in the Earth Sphere rather than out closer to their new core in the Outer System…or at least at Side 7.”

    “SNRI wasn’t counting on anybody discovering their operation here,” the pilot responds, “They’ve been discreet. They must have been out here working for at least four years, but we only discovered what they were up to four months ago.”

    “My apologies,” the engineer replies archly, with a tone of mock offense, “But you’ve always said you preferred it when I took things…a little slower…”

    The pilot’s gloved hand momentarily alights across her belly before she answers, “We haven’t got much time. This is vital to all our futures, and we need to get it resolved quickly.”

    to be continued...

  4. #4
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    Episode 1 continued...

    16 December, U.C. 0105

    Near the Frontier 1 Space Colonies, a new development that began construction a decade earlier at the Sun-Earth L2 point, located 1.5 million klicks outside the Earth Sphere.


    The remains of two Temptation-class space shuttles drift listlessly across the SEL2 orbit, shredded and blasted metal drifting along parts of decompressed human flesh…all that remains of the 1,392 men, women, and children who had been passengers of the two spacecraft a scant two hours earlier. Three more shuttles, each bearing approximately 700 souls, and for the present, intact and undamaged, drift nearby…surrounded by five formerly Zeon-affiliated Geara Doga mobile suits. Magnetically affixed to the hull of each shuttlecraft is a cobalt limpet mine, similar to the ones that had annihilated the two wrecked shuttles.

    “Absolutely unacceptable,” responds Gerard Kincaid (previously Captain Gerard Kincaid of the Archduchy of Zeon Forces, Serial # 1175332) to the Earth Federation negotiators’ latest offer for a peaceful end to the prevailing standoff, “You will release all political prisoners and provide both the funding and armaments we requested by 05:00, or we will kill the people on the remaining space shuttles. You already have the blood of 1,400 on your hands from refusing our demands. You know we have the will to carry out our threats. Do not contact us again until you are prepared to agree to our terms.”

    Kincaid kills the communication. The Federal Forces’ negotiators, including Frontier 1 Defense Guard commanding officer Col. Truong Nguyen, exchange knowing glances. The terms that Kincaid and his group are demanding can’t be met, but there are those 1,400 lives…

    Col. Nguyen passes on the word, “Cen-Strike, you have the green light.”

    Aboard his RX-78S Strike Gundam, Major Eric Gardner (SNRI, Earth Federation Forces) carefully lines up the targets in his sights…the cobalt limpet mines that threaten the space shuttles are bracketed within green electronic targeting markers.

    Gardner’s pulse and breath are hardly a hair above resting as he adjusts his scopes.

    Game’s on the line, Eric, Gardner tells himself mentally, You don’t f*ck these up. Never have before…not gonna start today.

    Confident, ready, Gardner thumbs the trigger switch three times.

    Three shots erupt from the Strike Gundam’s weapons pack…not missiles, not a stream of superheated Minovsky particles, not Vulcan rounds…but an anti-explosive effluent that would render the cobalt limpet mines useless upon contact.

    Three heartbeats. Three hits. Three neutralized explosives.

    Gardner knows that it isn’t over. In fact, it’s barely started. The explosives have been taken out of the discussion, but that still leaves five heavily armed mobile suits, each of which could easily shred a shuttlecraft.

    The veteran SNRI officer takes aim with the RX-78S’s beam rifle, cutting loose with a searing crimson beam that misses the lead Geara Doga unit (Kincaid), but incinerates one of his confederates.

    Kincaid’s furious response comes through the communications network to Col. Nguyen, “You’ve just murdered these people, Colonel!”

    The passengers aboard the three space shuttles cry out in horror as they see from viewports the Geara Dogas bringing their beam rifles to bear upon them. Terrified children cling to their parents, final prayers are offered, and some stoically await the end.

    A moment in time, frozen, in darkness and silence – life and death separated between the ticks of a second.

    Huntress eyes have scanned the field and locked into targets…the gleam of distant starlight upon silver-hued alloy.

    The inaudible drawing and exhalation of a breath, three gentle squeezes of a small, feminine hand upon a joystick trigger mechanism.

    Three flashes of red lightning, so swift as to barely be perceptible.

    Three mobile suits, lanced through precisely in a manner that guarantees the deaths of their pilots, but produces no explosion that would threaten the safety of the passengers of the three space shuttles.

    A moment passes before Kincaid realizes that he is completely alone.

    Alone in the eternal blackness of space.

    Kincaid squeezes the trigger on his Geara Doga’s joystick, determined to bring down whatever is menacing him, or the space shuttles whose human cargo his enemies hold so dear.

    The weapon, however, has been cleaved cleanly in half, energy sparking from its wrecked muzzle.

    Kincaid directs his mobile suit to reach for its beam saber, but barely has it extracted before a red blade of Minovsky particle energy has burned through the reinforced hatch of his Doga’s cockpit, vaporizing him instantly.

    The red blade is extracted and tucked within the backpack nacelle of a massive, gleaming metal armored form.

    Dark, intense eyes burn with the fire of retribution…

    ************************************************** *************

    The passengers of the shuttles, confused, still fearful, and unable to believe that they remain alive, gradually take to the viewports.

    The face of a young boy, no more than ten years of age, arcs into a wide smile as he recognizes the silvery armored form looming beyond the viewport, lit by the rays of the sun.

    “The White Phoenix! It’s the White Phoenix!”

    White Phoenix…the phrase brings smiles and exultations of relief among the 687 individuals – families immigrating to Frontier 1, business people and jobseekers looking for new opportunities, tourists and diplomats – whose ordeal, they know, is over.

    The visor of a helmet is raised, revealing wide, expressive, dark eyes with the burning intensity of a predator on the hunt.

    A glimpse…and she vectors away into the eternal darkness of space.

    “Cen-Leader to Defense Guard Command,” Major Jolie Minh-Miguel reports grimly, “Shuttlecraft secured. Enemy targets eliminated.”

    “Good work, Major,” Col. Nguyen returns, “Any prisoners of war to interrogate?”

    “Negative, Colonel,” Jolie replies, “Couldn’t risk it with the shuttles in jeopardy.”

    “Understood,” Nguyen responds, “On behalf of my personnel and our colonies, thanks go out to the SNRI for its assistance, Major Minh-Miguel. Frontier 1 Defense Guard Command out.”

    Jolie receives a hailing signal from her mission partner, Major Eric Gardner, whose RX-78S Strike Gundam pulls up behind her White Phoenix Gundam.

    “Mission accomplished, Major,” Eric says cheerfully, “That didn’t go so badly, eh?”

    Jolie says nothing for a long, agonizing minute, and then finally says, “Tell that to those people on the two shuttles that were destroyed before we could get there. You saw the bodies, Eric. There was a woman…she was terrified, and so was the little boy clinging to her. We failed them, Eric.”

    Major Gardner says nothing. Civilian casualties always hit Jolie hard…not that Eric finds them easy to take, but Jolie seems to take them personally.

    Jolie sighs, “Let’s get out of here…I promised your fiancée that I’d only be borrowing you for three weeks, and we’ve been chasing ex-Zekes around Frontier 1 for four months now.”

    Eric grins, “Chieming is very understanding and patient. After all, she’s put up with you for years without complaining.”

    Jolie snorts.

    The familiar mass of the Earth Federation Forces’ space battlecarrier Amuro Ray looms ahead of them. Within minutes, they have docked with the warship, and within the hour, the mighty vessel’s M-Boosters flare to life, propelling it towards the Earth Sphere.

    ************************************************** **************

    Five days later, the Amuro Ray docks with Side 7’s Green Oasis Colony, the Earth Federation’s final bulwark in the Earth Sphere. Green Oasis remains the headquarters for the Earth Federation Special Forces, now part of a far more diverse and extensive organization titled the Strategic Naval Research Institute (SNRI), whose range of functions include special combat operations, intelligence-gathering, espionage, black-ops, and mobile weapons development (including the Newtype Corps Program, of which Major Jolie Minh-Miguel has been designated as program director).

    Having disembarked from the Amuro Ray, Jolie and Eric stride down one of the long corridors from the gangplank to the main terminal area, each carrying a small black valise in hand. Eric holds forth cheerfully on the joyous prospect of an extended break after their recent four-month tour of duty.

    Jolie characteristically says little in response, listening to Eric’s sunny banter without any remark or response other than a wry, reluctant grin more out of tact than amusement.

    At the far end of the terminal, Jolie and Eric spot Captain Chieming Noah, Jolie’s Executive Officer on the Centurion Team.

    “So you two finally decided to come home,” Chieming says with a bright smile that belies her arch tone, “I was seriously beginning to wonder if you guys were having an affair behind my back.”

    Eric wraps an arm around Chieming and replies lightly, “Well, I definitely wanted to, but Jolie wouldn’t cooperate, so…”

    Chieming elbows Eric in the ribs…hard!

    “All right, all right…kidding,” Eric says, “I wouldn’t leave you out, babe. I think a threesome would…”

    Jolie cuts in, “Your phone’s flashing, Major.”

    “Damn it,” Eric groans, then answers, “Major Eric Gardner, SNRI. Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.”

    Eric’s expression turns serious as he listens intently for a minute before responding, “Yes, ma’am. I’ll meet with you right away.”

    “Col. McKenzie, I’m guessing?” Jolie ventures.

    “Yeah,” Eric replies, “Priority 1 Security Alert.”

    “Let’s go, then,” Jolie says.

    Eric says, “She only summoned me, Jolie. Didn’t say anything about wanting you to report.”

    “Weird,” Jolie comments, finding the lack of a summons for her oddly disturbing, “It’s just as well. I could use some downtime.”

    Eric turns to Chieming, “Why don’t you go with Jolie? Whatever it is will probably only take an hour or two. Can’t imagine Christina sending me on another assignment right away.”

    “Hurry back,” Chieming says mischievously, “Jolie will have eaten me alive if you take too long.”

    “I would,” Jolie deadpans, “Except I don’t eat meat anymore.”

    Major Gardner boards a jeep sent for him by Col. McKenzie for the ride to SNRI headquarters at Garrison Noah. Another jeep, driven by Chief Warrant Officer Rayann Zhang, one of the Centurion Team’s newly inducted recruits, pulls up to the curb.

    Chief Officer Zhang, a fresh-faced sixteen year old, disembarks from the jeep and salutes the two senior officers, “Major Minh-Miguel, Captain Noah, ma’am!”

    “At ease, Chief,” Jolie returns the salute.

    “Welcome back, ma’am,” Rayann chirps, wide-eyed.

    “Thanks,” Jolie returns somewhat wearily as she and Chieming board rear seat of the jeep.

    “To the base, ma’am?” Rayann asks, shifting the gear into “Drive.”

    “No,” Jolie says, “Not right now. Take us to the condo.”

    “Yes, ma’am,” Rayann answers dutifully.

    As Rayann pulls the jeep from the curb, Jolie turns to Chieming, “What’s today’s date, Chibi?”

    Chieming hesitates a moment before answering quietly, “December 24. Christmas Eve.”

    Jolie says nothing for a long moment, her eyes cold.

    “Rayann,” Jolie says at last.

    “Yes, ma’am,” Rayann responds expectantly.

    “Take us down to the veteran’s cemetery,” Jolie says somberly.

    “Right away, ma’am,” Rayann answers, merging into traffic.

    Jolie sighs, "Ten days late. I'm always too late."

    to be continued...

  5. #5
    Junior Member galadriel's Avatar
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    Wow, such a long story. Is good to see a full fanfic, since many abandoned theirs.
    May my Earendil be Light in your Darkness when others Died out.

  6. #6
    Moderator Ken Cheng's Avatar
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    Episode 1 continued...

    Twenty minutes later, Jolie lays a bouquet of fresh flowers upon a flat gravestone from which extends a burning torch…an eternal flame. She fingers the engraved letters on the limestone surface lovingly, feeling the words…

    BELOVED HUSBAND AND FRIEND

    LIEUTENANT-COLONEL JONAH MIGUEL

    SPECIAL FORCES

    CENTURION TEAM

    May 14, U.C. 0080 – December 14, U.C. 0100

    "HIS LIGHT WILL SHINE FOREVER"


    Jolie stands quietly over her late husband's grave, gazing solemnly at the gravestone, as she has every Christmas Eve for the past five years.

    Chieming stands respectfully, quietly at Jolie's side, offering her own silent tribute to her fallen friend and former commanding officer. She steals a glance at Jolie…particularly her dark, soulful eyes. Chieming can see a myriad of emotions within those eyes…regret, emptiness, perhaps even a hint of anger…but not a single tear. Not a single one all these years.

    They stand there quietly for a long, long time, until a distant church bell peals seven times.

    "Chieming," Jolie whispers at last.

    "I'm here," Chieming says reassuringly.

    "Let's go," Jolie rasps, stepping away from her husband's gravestone towards the jeep parked on the driveway, aboard which Rayann has fallen asleep.

    ************************************************** ************

    Approximately thirty minutes later, the jeep drops Jolie and Chieming off at the Utopia Towers, a luxury condominium complex located near the cultural and commercial center of Green Oasis City, a good eight kilometers from Garrison Noah.

    Jolie has an officer's residence suite reserved for her at the base, but has opted for off-base civilian housing…and why not? Utopia Towers is one of the newest, most luxurious condominium complexes in all of Side 7. A gleaming, aerodynamically-shaped eighty-story skyscraper, Utopia Towers offers a panoramic view of Green Oasis City and Garrison Noah, as well as such amenities as a private park, tennis courts, gymnasium and spa, full-size swimming pools and Jacuzzis, and even a first-rate restaurant and coffee shop on the ground floor.

    Jolie occupies the penthouse of the tower – one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the Earth Sphere – something whose monthly rent or mortgage would be beyond the monthly salary of most Earth Federation Forces officers, but Major Jolie Minh-Miguel is not "most Earth Federation Forces officers." In light of her unique abilities, Jolie is the most valuable asset that the Earth Federation Forces have, so keeping her happy (including supplying all the creature comforts that she could want) is part of the price that the Federation is willing to pay to maintain this asset.

    The private elevator car opens into penthouse, and Jolie and Chieming step forward into a spacious, modernly furnished den area. They are greeted by Ms. Davies, Jolie's maid.

    "Ma'am," Ms. Davies, a tall, slim Englishwoman of about forty, says deferentially, bowing her head to her employer, "Welcome home. It's so good to see you and Miss Chieming again."

    "Good to see you too, Cynthia," Jolie says, habitually addressing her domestic by first name, "Missed you…and your cooking."

    Ms. Davies smiles as she places steaming cups of freshly brewed tea on the coffee table in the den, "I have a vegetable casserole in the oven…should be ready in another ten minutes."

    "Cyn, I don't know what I'd do without you," Jolie says sincerely, but wearily, "Thank you."

    As Ms. Davies steps into the kitchen to monitor the casserole, Jolie and Chieming flop into the comfortable sofas in the den.

    Jolie reaches for a cylindrical ceramic container on the table, from which she extracts a single cigarette (Chieming not being a smoker), inserts the ciggie loosely between her lips, and lights it.

    Jolie closes her eyes as she exhales a column of smoke.

    Chieming watches her friend quietly for a moment before remarking, "You seem tired."

    "I am tired," Jolie admits, emphasizing the verb, "How long have I been on this combat treadmill now, Chieming? Seven years? Eight?"

    "You can get off anytime you want to," Chieming offers candidly, "Or at least you can when your current commission runs out next year."

    "That's what I told myself three years ago," Jolie sighs, "But I reenlisted."

    "Of course you did," Chieming observes with a wry smile, "What else would you have done with yourself if you hadn't?"

    "That's a damn good question," Jolie confesses, flicking ash off the end of her cigarette into an ashtray.

    Chieming leans forward towards Jolie meaningfully, "You should go and find the answer to that question while you're still young enough for it to matter. You're not going to be twenty-four forever, you know?"

    "You're probably right," Jolie allows, "Maybe…"

    Chieming sighs, "You just aren't the same anymore."

    "Don't I know it," Jolie says bitterly.

    "What I mean is," Chieming begins, "You were always so sure about what you wanted and how you were going to get it. But now…"

    "Now, I don't know which way to turn," Jolie finishes.

    Jolie rises from the sofa and ambles towards the mantel over the fireplace. On the mantel are various framed photographs…of the Centurion Team, of Jolie and Jonah when the two of them were just teenagers, and, acquired by Jolie during a chance meeting a year earlier with a retired Earth Federation Forces officer who had once served with her father, a photograph of 1Lt. Dominic Minh in his youth…a fresh cadet out of the Federal Forces Officer's Academy.

    Jolie gazes pensively at the photographs of her late father and late husband, "My entire family was military…and they gave their lives in the line of duty. Maybe that's going to be my fate too."

    Jolie's broodings are cut short by Ms. Davie's announcement that dinner is served.

    ************************************************** ***************

    At 21:00, dinner long since consumed, Jolie again sits in the den, clad in a cotton bathrobe. She has a glass of burgundy on the coffee table, lit cigarette in ashtray, and a hardcover edition of Tolstoy's War and Peace in hand. The book was a gift to Jolie from her best friend and one-time commanding officer, Athena Ibaz (now known as Deputy Prime Minister Minerva Zabi of the Shambala Republic).

    For three years now, Jolie has been attempting to get through the text, but remains mired in the first of the work's four component books. Jolie finds the novel dauntingly dense and yet, surprisingly, has also found herself able to relate to a number of its characters and themes.

    Chieming emerges in the den, seemingly surprised to find Jolie there, "You've got your face buried in that book again?"

    "I'm trying to finish it," Jolie answers dryly, turning the page.

    Chieming grins, "This is one battle you aren't winning. You've been 'trying' for three years now, and I think you've maybe gotten through fifty pages so far."

    "It's a good read," Jolie remarks.

    "Probably," Chieming replies, "But wouldn't you rather go down to the club tonight?"

    "Why?" Jolie asks.

    Chieming glares at Jolie.

    "Let me change, then," Jolie says with a reluctant sigh.

    Jolie disappears into her bedroom and opens her dresser, finding a closet full of identical Earth Federation Forces uniform jackets, skirts, and overcoats.

    "Damn," Jolie grouses.

    Chieming, entering the bedroom, asks, "What's wrong?"

    Jolie points at the row of identical uniforms inside her closet.

    Chieming cannot suppress a giggle, "Time to update the wardrobe?"

    "Time to throw the whole damn lot out," Jolie snarls as she pulls on a freshly ironed uniform jacket, "I've got to stop by at Fendi or Armani one of these days."

    Chieming extends a green box wrapped with a red bow towards Jolie, "Until you do…Merry Christmas!"

    Jolie smiles as she accepts the box, "You really shouldn't have, Chibi. I didn't even get you anything this year…"

    Chieming nods, biting her lip, "I know, but you're forgiven because you protected my Eric out there, like you always do. You brought him back alive and well to me again, and that's the only gift I need."

    "'Your' Eric, huh?" Jolie says, smiling at last, "You two are getting serious, aren't you?"

    "Serious enough that we've been engaged for a year," Chieming says warmly, blushing.

    "Don't wait longer than you have to," Jolie says cryptically, throwing an overcoat over her uniform before turning her attention back to the box, "So what did you get me this year? A paperweight to chuck at you or Amy or Rayann when I'm in a bad mood?"

    Chieming laughs, "Just open it and you'll find out."

    Jolie tears through the wrapping. Within the box is a long, white woolen scarf.

    "This is great," Jolie enthuses, draping the scarf over her neck, and putting her officer's hat on her head, "How do I look?"

    Chieming grins, "Like a certain Special Forces officer I used to know…name of Athena Ibaz."

    "Perfect," Jolie replies, as she leads the way to a night on the town.

    ************************************************** **************

    The White Phoenix Nightclub, formerly the Andromeda Nightclub, is located at 254 Ahrgama Boulevard in the heart of Green Oasis City's fashionable entertainment district. Amidst the garish neon lighting of neighboring clubs, the White Phoenix's relatively demure exterior décor, rendered in a tasteful, early 20th Century art deco style, evinces an understated elegance that belies the energy within the club's walls.

    The old Andromeda Nightclub was once frequented by young Earth Federation Forces' officers from Garrison Noah, including the original Centurion Team, before the Phobos War. In U.C. 0102, Jolie bought the establishment from the Andromeda's owners, had the club redecorated, and reopened it a year later as the White Phoenix Nightclub.

    During the past two years, the White Phoenix has grown into one of the trendiest hotspots in the Earth Sphere – a place to see and be seen among the hipsters and jet set. The entertainment (including live bands, DJ/dance nights, and, in the early morning hours, blues, jazz, and acoustic music showcases) covers a vast spectrum of tastes, and many visit the White Phoenix just on the chance that its famous proprietor, the Federation's hero of the Phobos War, might just show up on some random night…as she is known to do five or six times a year.

    Jolie and Chieming are greeted by two handsome young doormen at the entrance to the club, and then step inside.

    The interior of the club retains the cosmic-themed décor of its days as the Andromeda, although Jolie has added some unique flourishes such as select paintings by her late husband, Jonah Miguel. A number of the club's guests are young Earth Federation Forces officers and cadets, but a larger number are stylishly dressed young civilians (few over the age of thirty). Saturday night, predictably, is disco night…and a pulsating beat emanates from the club's mighty amplifier system, the groove shaping itself according to the DJ's directives.

    Jolie nods approvingly; business is everything she could hope it could be.

    The club manager, a young Greek man named Philip, greets Jolie and Chieming with a charming smile as he spots them, "Major Minh, Captain Noah…good to have you here."

    "Business looks great tonight, Phillip," Jolie says, letting Philip take her overcoat, hat, and scarf and guide her and Chieming to a private booth, "You've done a terrific job here."

    "Thank you, ma'am," Philip answers, "but it's your notoriety that draws them in."

    As if to affirm Philip's remark, the club patrons who spot Jolie turn excitedly to offer toasts to her, applaud, or accost her for autographs.

    "See what I mean?" Philip grins, fending off the crowd from Jolie.

    Jolie does find herself taken aback by the attention from people she's never met (and a number of which she doesn't care to get to know), uncomfortable with the celebrity status that has gradually snowballed around her since the end of the Phobos War.

    Philip finally succeeds in leading Jolie and Chieming to a private booth reserved for Jolie's use towards the back of the club; two security men stand guard to assure that they are not disturbed.

    "It's wilder here than I remember," Jolie observes as she pulls out a bottle of champagne from a silver ice bucket, pouring a glass for Chieming and another for herself.

    The two friends exchange a toast, and Chieming responds to Jolie's observation with, "It only seems that way to you because you don't get out much these days."

    "The place felt much more intimate when it was the Andromeda," Jolie says, looking at some old photographs on the wall that are a part of the nightclub's décor, photographs of people long gone…

    Behind Jolie and Chieming looms a large painting – an abstract mural of gradually deepening blue…"Blue World," by Jonah Miguel.

    "It is Christmas Eve, remember," Chieming adds, "The people here are probably even more hammered than they normally are."

    "You know," Jolie muses, "Maybe you were right. Maybe I should consider not reenlisting when my commission expires. I could run this place full time."

    Jolie takes a sip from her flute of champagne and begins to relax for the first time in…even she isn't sure how long. Maybe she can just sit back and enjoy this for a while…

    Maybe…

    The appearance of Colonel Christina McKenzie, Director of SNRI, and Major Eric Gardner chase such pleasant thoughts away.

    Jolie scowls as they approach.

    Eric sidles up to Chieming, planting a warm kiss on his fiancée's cheek, "Miss me?"

    Chieming replies, "Not so much as I hope the enemy does."

    Col. Christina McKenzie, an attractive, red-haired woman in her early forties, takes a seat next to Jolie. The Director of the SNRI is among the most formidable officers in the Earth Federation Forces, and a good, trusted friend of Jolie and Chieming.

    That does not necessarily mean, however, that Jolie is pleased to see Christina, a fact affirmed by the hostile glare that Jolie directs at the colonel. The hostile sentiments are directed not so much at the senior officer personally as they are towards the unpleasant tidings that Christina undoubtedly brings.

    "Major," Col. Christina says, by way of small talk, "It's good to see you again."

    Jolie resists an urge to roll her eyes and replies wanly, "Yeah, I've been getting a lot of that lately."

    So saying, Jolie nonetheless pours out a flute of champagne and hands it to her superior officer. They exchange a toast.

    Not taking her eyes off the SNRI Director, Jolie says piercingly, "You didn't come here from your office to welcome me back…or to offer holiday greetings."

    Christina's expression is somber, and a glance at even Major Eric Gardner's uncharacteristically grim demeanor tells Jolie that the news, whatever it might be, is momentous.

    Christina comes to the point, "It's the Omega Gundam. We lost it three weeks ago. Two agents of unknown origin penetrated our security at Moffett, blasted through our security forces, and have taken it to a location we're still working to determine."

    Jolie blithely takes another sip of champagne before saying offhandedly, "You f*cked up big time."

    Eric and Chieming draw in deep breaths, afraid to exhale.

    Christina smiles and nods sheepishly, "We did."

    That seems to satisfy Jolie, whose scowl dissolves at last, "So Eric and I have been assigned get it back?"

    "Just Major Gardner for now," Christina replies, "Unfortunately, we don't even know where the prototype is at the moment. We've got a few possible leads; Major Gardner will check them out. You just remain on standby. When we do locate the prototype, we'll need you to move in quickly."

    Jolie says nothing, draining her flute of champagne, her lack of protest taken, as Christina knows, as compliance.

    Philip approaches and hands Jolie an envelope, "A message for you, ma'am."

    "On paper?" Jolie observes, taking the elegant, cream-colored envelope from the handsome young manager, "What is this? The Middle Ages?"

    Philip smiles and shrugs as Jolie opens the envelope. She extracts a card of the same color, but made from expensive, high-grade stationery paper.

    Jolie reads the contents of the card, then pockets it, and rises from her seat, "You folks enjoy the rest of the evening."

    "Where are you going?" Chieming asks.

    Jolie does not reply.

    Col. McKenzie adds, "Just remember that you're on standby alert, Major."

    Jolie throws back a glare that, if verbalized, would probably come out as something like, Go f*ck yourself.

    Philip brings Jolie her officer's hat, overcoat, and white scarf.

    Jolie quickly dons these items and leaves without another word.

    Col. McKenzie sighs, pouring out what remains of the champagne for Chieming, Eric, and herself, "She's never been easy to talk to."

    "It's part of her charm," Major Gardner says wryly.

    "Might be a good idea to track her," Col. McKenzie concludes, sipping from her flute of champagne.

    to be continued...

  7. #7
    Moderator Ken Cheng's Avatar
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    Episode 1 continued...

    The following morning, Jolie is aboard Shambala Aerospace Flight 111 from Green Oasis Spaceport, Side 7 to Shambala City, Side 3…a grueling ten hour flight.

    Fortunately, Athena booked Jolie into business class.

    Jolie stares forlornly out into the dark cosmos, gazing upon the grey-hued skies of the Earth in the distance, occasional sparks of intense light indicating the operation of colony laser devices no longer used for war, but as the primary tool of the Earth Federation and the Shambala Republic's joint project, Operation: Rebirth…an attempt to use the colony laser technology to gradually undo the nuclear winter created by the Zeon colony drops of U.C. 0100.

    So much death…so much waste, Jolie laments.

    Jolie's focus then sharpens. Even at the Green Oasis Spaceport, before she boarded the flight, Jolie had sensed something…someone, stalking her. Two drinks and three hours into the flight, Jolie decides to take action.

    Jolie rises from her seat, making her way towards the lavatories, barely glancing at the other passengers, either asleep or consumed by their novels or electronic devices.

    Five minutes later, the passenger in Business Class Row 17, Seat B turns his head back, looking down the long central aisle of the space shuttlecraft.

    Another five minutes pass, and Jolie still has not returned to her seat.

    The passenger in Row 17, Seat B rises from his seat and heads back towards the lavatories.

    A pair of feminine hands extends from behind a curtain and pulls him quietly, but violently, into a storage area.

    Jolie forces the man to the ground, bringing her meager 40 kilograms to bear on his much larger frame, her bent right knee on top of his larynx.

    Jolie presses her face into his, snarling, "You're one of Christina's men…SNRI Internal Security Department."

    "First Lieutenant James Griffin, ma'am," the tall, gaunt man croaks out, "Col. McKenzie…sent me…for your…security."

    "The hell she did," Jolie mutters, taking her knee off of Griffin's larynx and allowing him to stand now that she has relieved him of his sidearm and has it pointed at him.

    "I should jettison you out the airlock," Jolie says menacingly, "but that would endanger the other people on this shuttlecraft. When we land at Shambala City, I want you off my tail, or there's going to be a third hole between your eyes."

    To emphasize her point, Jolie presses the muzzle of the pistol against Griffin's forehead.

    Griffin nods, his throat dry.

    "Back to your seat, Lieutenant," Jolie hisses.

    The Internal Security Department officer complies.

    "They don't make security officers like they used to," Jolie sighs, pocketing Griffin's sidearm.

    ************************************************** *************

    Seven hours later, Flight 111 docks at the Shambala City International Spaceport. Passengers disembark, and Jolie makes sure that 1Lt. Griffin boards Flight 79 back to Green Oasis just seven minutes after he disembarks from Flight 111.

    Satisfied, Jolie makes her way from the terminal to the street, carrying the black valise that represents the only luggage she carries with her.

    ************************************************** **************

    A sleek limousine bearing the flag of the Shambala Republic on one side of its hood and the flag of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on the other pulls up to the curb in front of Jolie.

    An elegantly uniformed driver emerges from the limousine, pronouncing in a crisp English accent, "Major Minh-Miguel?"

    "You are?" Jolie asks.

    "I'm Brian," the chauffeur replies, "Madame Deputy Prime Minister Minerva's driver. She sent me for you, ma'am."

    Always classy, that 'Thena, Jolie thinks to herself.

    "Thanks for coming," Jolie says, boarding the back seat of the limo.

    Brian takes to the driver's seat, "The Deputy Prime Minister is waiting for you at La Brasserie d' Chute d'eau."


    Jolie attempts to relax in the comfortable environment of the limousine's back seat, but she feels an inexplicable tension. It's been three years since she's seen Athena, and Jolie senses that Athena has invited her to Shambala City today for much more than lunch and old times…

    ************************************************** **************

    La Brasserie d' Chute d'eau is one of Shambala City's most elegant and exclusive dining venues, and its menu is considered by many a prestigious gourmet to feature the finest French cuisine off of Earth. It is popular among Side 3's elite, including its media celebrities, professional athletes, and political and military leaders.

    Even those who are not connoisseurs of fine French cuisine are unable to argue against the establishment's extraordinary décor, including the balconied waterfalls that give the restaurant its name.

    The maître d' of the establishment leads Jolie to a private balcony, where a table for two is set with finest crystalware and silverware.

    "The Deputy Prime Minister will join you in a moment, Major," the maître d' says cordially.

    "Thank you," Jolie replies.

    The maître d' departs, and Jolie is left for a moment to appreciate the beauty of the artificial waterfalls and gardens that comprise the establishment's décor. The sound of the water falling upon the marble basins below is soothing.

    Jolie senses a familiar presence, and turns to a familiar sight.

    The intervening five years have been kind, very, very kind, to the countenance and figure of Deputy Prime Minister Minerva Zabi, once the Duchess of Zeon, and also once Lt. Col. Athena Ibaz, Deputy Director of the Earth Federation Special Forces. Having turned twenty-six the previous September, Minerva looks a good five years younger than that, a point helped by the growth of her fine, honey-colored hair to beyond the shoulder length that she had maintained during her time as an Earth Federation Forces officer a half decade earlier and the maintenance of her willowy figure. Balancing out this youthfulness, however, is the mature sophistication and elegance of dress that befits both her personality and her status – a tasteful beige pantsuit combination with a snow-white cravat for that extra hint of flare that has always been a part of Minerva's sense of style. Matching the color of her outfit are the elegantly tailored leather gloves on Minerva's hands, which conceal the fact that her left hand and arm is a cybernetic limb that replaces the natural appendage lost during the Phobos War.

    Minerva takes in an eyeful of her old friend and makes a similar judgment about Jolie. Minerva has not seen Jolie for two years…not since Jolie attended Minerva's wedding. The intervening time might as well have been two minutes, for Jolie looks every bit the same as she had not just two years earlier, but since Minerva first met her some eight years ago, when she recruited a fifteen-year old Jolie from the streets of the slum colony of Industria after the teenager had helped her recover the stolen Centurion Gundam prototype.

    Minerva cannot help smiling as she takes in Jolie's mode of dress…her Earth Federation Forces' duty uniform, complemented by her officer's hat, a dark topcoat draped over her shoulders, a white scarf, and a gold pocketwatch on a chain attached to the jacket's front pocket.

    "Your fashion sense certainly has gotten much better, Major," Minerva says archly.

    Jolie can no longer suppress her grin, "Those of us who don't have any fashion sense do the next best thing: imitate those who do."

    The two friends laugh and embrace warmly. There is true affection between them…they have always been like sisters…more than sisters.

    "I'm so glad to see you, Jolie," Minerva smiles, "I've missed you so much."

    "You're getting all mushy in your old age, 'Thena," Jolie returns the smile and the warmth.

    "After all these years, you're still calling me that," Minerva chides gently, "Nobody else ever calls me 'Athena' anymore."

    "To the rest of the world, you're Minerva Zabi," Jolie says, "but to me, you'll always be 'Thena."

    "And to me, you'll always be stubborn," Minerva replies, "It's good to see that certain things manage to endure, even as so many other things change."

    "You look great," Jolie compliments sincerely.

    "Back at you," Minerva returns.

    "So," Jolie says, "Madame Deputy Prime Minister…"

    "Please," Minerva says with a wan smile, "That title makes me sound so old."

    "How about Mrs. Hathaway Noah, then?" Jolie teases.

    Minerva blushes mildly, "I like the sound of that much more."

    "You finally got what you wanted," Jolie says, happy for her friend, "Just like I told you way back when."

    "And I always thought I was the smart one," Minerva says self-mockingly, "Maybe you were the one who really knew better."

    The two seat themselves at the table. A waiter approaches, "Drinks, ma'am?"

    Jolie says, "Dry martini. Two of them."

    "One," Minerva corrects, "and a glass of organic whole milk."

    The waiter thanks the two young women and goes to the bar to prepare their drinks.

    "Organic whole milk?" Jolie says in surprise, "Being married really has changed you, 'Thena."

    "Life looks different when you're twenty-six than when you're eighteen, Jolie," Minerva says, "Especially since I'm retired from the military, chances are I'm going to be living past thirty after all."

    "Speak for yourself," Jolie says sarcastically, inserting a cigarette between her lips and lighting up.

    Minerva begins coughing, fanning away the tobacco smoke, "Jolie…please."

    Jolie quickly butts out the cigarette, observing, "You really have changed a lot."

    Minerva says matter-of-factly, "I gave up smoking months ago."

    "Sounds like the right thing to do, although as unexpected as all hell," Jolie says, as the waiter brings their drinks, "Maybe one of these days I'll learn how to live healthier too."

    "I remember you'd quit smoking a few years ago," Minerva says, almost afraid to broach the subject.

    Jolie says nothing more on the subject.

    Minerva grimaces briefly and places a hand over her abdomen reflexively…an increasingly habitual gesture for her of late.

    Jolie observes, "You're not lactose intolerant, are you?"

    Minerva says, "No. This job gives me ulcers, though."

    Jolie grins, "I guess being a state minister is way harder even than being a Special Forces team leader, huh?"

    Minerva says, "Not necessarily. They're different kinds of challenges. Having done both, I certainly know the differences."

    The subject turns in the direction of old friends, as Minerva asks, "How's the squad doing? I haven't seen or heard from any of them since the wedding."

    "Well, you see Chieming at family gatherings almost every month," Jolie says, "Karim and his wife Adanna have a son already, born last year. He's on reserve status now, although he's told me he's ready to be reactivated if I need him. Tomo has returned to civilian life; he was discharged a few months ago and last I heard, he's starting his own security firm. Geoff is commanding Tycho Team now…he's finally made First Lieutenant, can you believe it?"

    "Geoff 'Casanova' Sutcliffe…a Lieutenant?" Minerva shudders.

    Minerva and Jolie burst into laughter at the thought.

    Minerva smiles, "You're doing my legacy proud as Centurion Leader."

    "I'm just filling your boots," Jolie sighs, "You'll always be the real Centurion Leader, 'Thena."

    "Don't sell yourself short," Minerva replies, reverting to "big sister" mode, "I saw leadership potential in you even back then…which is why I made you my executive officer even before you really had the experience to qualify for it. From what I've heard from Bright and Chieming, you're doing fine…better than fine. The decisions and choices you've made aren't so different from the ones I would have made, and you've gotten the results."

    The waiter stops by again to take Minerva and Jolie's orders; both vegetarians, they each order light, meatless fare.

    "'Thena," Jolie says solemnly, "Level with me. You didn't invite me here from Side 7 just to have lunch and reminisce."

    Minerva looks straight at Jolie with that penetrating gaze that Jolie remembers well, "You're right. Jolie…I need your help. I want for you to join the Shambala Defense Guard."

    Jolie takes the proposition as if she had expected it, taking a sip from the martini before answering, "No."

    "I know you've been following the news," Minerva says, "There's a growing schism within the Shambala government, Jolie. My people are on one side of it, and Meizuar Ronah and his supporters are on the other. If we don't gain control of the situation, it'll tear Shambala apart."

    Jolie fixes Minerva in a glare, "I'm an Earth Federation Forces officer, 'Thena. Unless my higher-ups tell me otherwise, I don't give a f*ck about what goes on in the Shambala Republic. Your political pissing contests are your problem."

    Minerva looks severely at Jolie, giving the barest shake of her head as she says, "I can't believe that you, of all people, would be so blind as to let a flag define your worldview."

    "Some of us actually value loyalty, Lt. Col. Ibaz," Jolie says acidly, "My father was an Earth Federation Forces officer…so was my husband…and the man who saved my life when I was a little girl. Maybe none of that means a thing to you, but it does to me."

    The water crashes loudly from the falls, growing louder still, seeming to fill the balcony with white noise. Two friends, close as sisters…closer, but they cannot hear each other. Not anymore.

    ************************************************** **************

    An hour later, lunch has been disposed with. Neither young woman felt inclined to consume much, leaving the bulk of their meals, taken in tense, awkward silence, on their plates.

    They walk together out the steps of the front entrance of the restaurant.

    Minerva breaks the silence at last, "Jolie: you should carefully reconsider. We could work together again, like we did when we were Centurions. I asked you once before to make a difference with me…come with me to make a difference again."

    Jolie replies flatly, "I already gave you my answer."

    "Jolie," Minerva says quietly, grimly, "You need to realize that if you insist on doing it your way…you and I could end up on opposite sides."

    "Maybe," Jolie says, "But you were wrong about one thing: this isn't about flags; it's about loyalties that run deeper than friendship."

    Minerva says nothing. There is nothing more to say.

    Minerva and Jolie walk away in opposite directions.

    ************************************************** ***************

    A day later, Jolie arrives at the Green Oasis City Spaceport, deeply disturbed. Maybe she shouldn't have been so uncompromising with Athena, but the last thing that she needed was…

    A dozen uniformed SNRI security agents surround Jolie, aiming their sidearms at her.

    "What is this?!" Jolie demands.

    Col. Christina McKenzie approaches, ordering the security agents to stand down, "Major Minh-Miguel, I need you to come with me."

    "For what?!" Jolie snarls.

    Christina, her expression grim, replies, "Major…you're the prime suspect in the theft of the Omega Gundam."

    continued in Episode 2...

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    Nice beginning. I like the set-up, and I belive, contrary to the oblivious Jolie, that Athena is pregnant. Looking forward to more of your work.

  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by Suzaku View Post
    Nice beginning. I like the set-up, and I belive, contrary to the oblivious Jolie, that Athena is pregnant. Looking forward to more of your work.
    Thank you for reading and commenting.

    I'm not revealing any future plot points just yet, suffice it to say that a number of points unfold in the story over time.

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    EPISODE 2: CHRISTIAN

    "This is archival video taken from our reconnaissance units operating at our active installation in L5 orbit," Col. Christina McKenzie says, "Check it out."

    The video, time-marked as 02:44, 26-December-0105, is taken from an Earth Federation Forces installation located within L5. The flickering video screen image displays the menacing silhouette of the Omega Gundam, illuminated by electronic enhancement and brought into clearer focus by running the video at 1/10 speed.

    With a grace that belies the powerful war machine's considerable armored bulk, the Omega Gundam twists and winds its way around the defensive fire of Earth Federation Forces mobile suits and warships, and draws its powerful hyper beam rifle to blast the Federal Forces units to fiery oblivion. The Omega Gundam then goes on to carry out a brutal, systematic dismantling of the Federal Forces' satellite installation…sparing neither men nor machines.

    Christina clicks the remote control, and another video image appears onscreen, this one time-marked at 05:06, 27-December-0106. An Earth Federation Forces supply convoy escorted by a squad of Jegan-IVs falls to a sudden assault by the Omega Gundam, which makes short work of the MS and the supply ship with its multiple beam cannon.

    "And finally, this…" Christina says gravely, clicking the remote again.

    The final sequence, time-marked as 07:19, 27-December-0106…barely five hours ago…shows the Omega Gundam tearing its way relentlessly through a team of SNRI MS units…advanced Strike Jegans piloted by elite Special Forces pilots, downing the highly skilled, experienced pilots with precision strikes from its Psychom weapons systems.

    Major Jolie Minh-Michaels, working her way through her sixth cigarette of the hour, finally sets the cigarette aside and shakes her head, "Why the hell are you showing me all this? I already know all too well what the Omega Gundam can do. I've test-piloted the damn thing on and off for eighteen months now. I know every system of that machine backwards and forwards."

    Christina nods, "Which is why you're a subject of interest. The only person more familiar with the O-G's systems is its designer, Dr. Camille Vidan, and frankly, you probably know much more about its operational capabilities than even he does."

    "This is a f*cking waste of time," Jolie mutters, butting out her cigarette.

    "Jolie," Christina says with deadly earnest, "You need to understand that it's taking all of my and General Noah's influence to keep you out of the brig right now. If it were up to General Blackhead, you'd have been shot at the spaceport today, so drop the f*cking attitude and cooperate with me here!"

    "What exactly do you want me to do?!" Jolie demands.

    "For starters," Christina answers, "You can be upfront about exactly what you were doing at Shambala City the past two days."

    "Visiting an old friend," Jolie says matter-of-factly.

    "What friend?" Christina asks, already knowing the answer.

    "'Thena," Jolie spits back, "…Deputy Prime Minister Minerva Zabi of the Shambala Republic. Former Lt. Col. Athena Ibaz of the Special Forces. Duchess…"

    "That's enough," Christina snaps, "You went to see Deputy Prime Minister Zabi because…"

    "Because she asked me to see her," Jolie says.

    "There's more to it than that, Major," Christina persists.

    "Fine," Jolie snarls, long since having lost patience for the discussion (such as it is), "'Thena asked me to resign from the Federal Forces and join the Shambala Defense Guard. I told her 'no,' then headed home. Then you and your goons hauled me here at gunpoint. Does that answer your question, Colonel?"

    "It'll do for now," Christina replies, "At least enough to keep you out of any more trouble."

    Jolie mutters something unintelligible, and Christina decides it's just as well to ignore it and press on.

    Christina replays the video, and with a movement of her head, asks Jolie to watch it again, "Let's review this footage again: now, as an eight-year combat veteran and an ace MS pilot, give me your opinion of the action that you see."

    Jolie reluctantly views the footage again, and then remarks with a shrug, "Whoever the pilot is, he's good. Damn good."

    Christina nods, "You said earlier that you know the Omega Gundam's combat systems better than anyone else alive, and I agree. Do you think anybody other than yourself could pilot the Omega Gundam like this?"

    Jolie shrugs again, "Yeah. There are lots of ace pilots out there…with the Federation, with the Shambala Defense Guard, Crossbones Vanguard, ex-Zeon…even with the private crime syndicates. I'm not the only MS ace in the world, Chris. Remember that Kyoko Yamaguchi who fought for Miguel during the war? She could duplicate pretty much all of my moves, and I can pretty much duplicate any of hers."

    Christina nods, "That may well be true; even so, Jolie, you can't tell me that you don't recognize the movements of the Omega Gundam…the way it hunts down and eliminates targets…the way it draws in the enemy for the kill…the way it evades enemy fire…are all very idiosyncratic of your unique combat style."

    Jolie bites out through clenched teeth, "I've already told you: I didn't hijack any damn mobile suit. I was at Shambala City when all this went down…or on my way back here from Shambala City."

    Christina nods once again, "I know. Frankly, that's the only thing that's stopped the High Command from officially indicting you on any charges…that one alibi."

    "I don't believe this," Jolie sighs, leaning back in her seat.

    Christina switches the videoscreen from the combat footage to two plates with identical wave patterns illustrated on them, "Combat maneuvers can, perhaps, be duplicated by an expert pilot, but there's no way to duplicate the brainwave synapses of a specific Newtype. Check out these two plates."

    Jolie recognizes them as EEG wave patterns.

    "The set on the left was recorded by our instruments from the cockpit of the Omega Gundam during the attacks," Christina explains, "The set on the right was collected from the Omega Gundam during earlier test flights and from the White Phoenix Gundam during combat sorties."

    Jolie says nothing…stupefied by what she sees: an identical match.

    "Th' hell…?" Jolie begins.

    Christina says, "Now you know why the High Command zeroed in on you."

    Jolie sneers, "So…when does the court martial begin?"

    Christina smiles, "The Federation still considers you indispensable…especially with the Omega Gundam in hostile hands, and thanks to General Noah's intervention on your behalf, you're going to avoid any sort of disciplinary or legal action until further information is uncovered that clearly implicates you. In the meantime, however, you've been removed from the active combat roster, Jolie."

    Jolie rises, taking her overcoat from where it has been sprawled on top of Christina's desk, "Guess I'll have more time to oversee the club…"

    "You wish," Christina says, flashing another grin at Jolie, "They've taken you off the active combat roster; they haven't suspended you from duty. Let's just say that for now, they're reassigning you from active combat towards recruit development."

    "They're expecting me to babysit?" Jolie complains bitterly, "Forget it. I have enough cadets assigned to me as it is."

    Ignoring Jolie's protests, Christina continues, "SNRI has been developing a young man, currently seventeen years of age, as a Newtype for quite some time now. He has tremendous talent and potential…rivaling yours, in fact…and he might even be a bigger pain in the a*s."

    "Pfft…tell me more," Jolie replies wryly.

    Christina says plainly, "His name is Christian Ray."

    Jolie is silent for a long moment before saying, "Christian…Ray?"

    Christina nods, "Christian Ray, born in September, U.C. 0088, is the only child of Captain Amuro Ray and Velotrica Irma. Amuro and Velotrica met when both of them were Karaba operatives during the war against the Titans. They fell in love. They later had a falling out before Amuro left the Karaba to join the AEUG Space Forces in the war against Haman Karn's Axis Neo Zeon in early U.C. 0088…but not before Velotrica had become pregnant with Amuro's child."

    "Tell me more," Jolie says, much more earnestly this time.

    "Velotrica gave birth to a son…named him Christian, just a few months before the end of the Axis War. Amuro never knew about this son…Velotrica never told him. She raised him herself for six years until she died in U.C. 0094. Accident during a supply run, I hear."

    "Yeah, you hear…" Jolie remarks, knowing the brutality the Federation is capable of in the pursuit of its goals.

    "After the deaths of both Amuro and Velotrica," Christina continues, "the Federation adopted Christian and began preparing him to one day succeed his father as the Federal Forces' top MS ace. For the past nine years, Christian Ray has been the Federation's best-kept secret: even I didn't know he existed until a little over a year ago. This will come as a surprise to you, Jolie, but the Centurion Gundam was originally designed with Christian in mind, although we deployed it years ahead of schedule when you and then Jonah came along."

    "So supposing I agree to train this kid," Jolie says, her confrontational demeanor returning, "Just what is it that the Federation expects me to do with him?"

    "Teach him everything you know," Christina says, "He's talented, but raw…just like you were when Athena…excuse me, when Minerva brought you into the Federal Forces. Jolie, to be frank, you're going to be training him to replace you in the event that one day…"

    "Yeah," Jolie says with a sigh, "I know. Besides, if I'm not cleared of this Omega Gundam business, that day could come sooner rather than later."

    Christina's silence affirms Jolie's assessment.

    "I'll take this assignment on one condition," Jolie finally says, "The Federation lets me train this kid as I see fit, on my terms. The High Command interferes with what I do, and the deal's off."

    to be continued...

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    Episode 2 continued...

    Luna 2 was once the bulwark of the Earth Federation Forces' power in the Earth Sphere – the home base of the Earth Federation Space Armada and MS Corps, from which the counteroffensive operations against the Archduchy of Zeon were launched and supplied in three wars.

    There was a time when Luna 2 was a repository of the Earth Federation Forces' cutting-edge war technology. It was at Luna 2 that the components of the original RX-78 Gundam were produced before being sent to Side 7 for final assembly, and it was also from Luna 2 that the first Pegasus, Salamis, and Magellan-class warships were assembled and deployed.

    Time trundles on…and Luna 2 is no longer a bulwark of either overwhelming military power or cutting-edge technology for the Earth Federation Forces. Far from being a mighty manufacturing center from which powerful mobile suits that can devastate entire space colonies or cities are constructed, Luna 2 is now a sad relic at which even the latrines no longer function properly.

    That last, however, is more a result of abuse than disuse…

    ************************************************** **************

    "Shut off the water main, Corporal, NOW!!!" Staff Sergeant Carter Mayer bellows as he is splashed by a torrent of cold, foul water.

    "No can do, sir!" the equally bedraggled Corporal Buttaci calls back, "The main's not the problem, sir! This is backflow, sir!"

    Indeed, every sink, every shower, every laundry unit, every toilet on Decks 11-16 of the southern quadrant of Luna-2 is cascading sewage, which seeps in every direction that it is free to flow.

    "How the hell did this happen?!" SSgt. Mayer demands, as he frantically searches for something…anything to stem the rising tide of foul water.

    "I can't be sure, sir," Corporal Buttaci replies, even as he desperately (and vainly) drags a couple of metal buckets out of a utility closet, "but I'll bet you anything that Cadet Ray has something to do with it!"

    "That damn punk!" Mayer rages.

    The staff sergeant has no time to say more before a cascade of putrid, coffee-colored water surges towards him and Corporal Buttaci.

    His eyes growing wide with horror, Buttaci bites out, "Ma Vaffanbagno! Mamma mia!"

    The two Earth Federation Forces instructor NCOs scramble out of the onrushing sewage water, cursing and screaming.

    ************************************************** ***************

    Watching in amused delight from the safety of an overhanging catwalk is a pair of wild, youthful eyes that rest beneath a wild growth of rust-colored hair.

    Those goofs have always been full of it, now they're gonna have all over them too!

    Seventeen year old Christian Ray has his father's hair and eyes, and his mother's delicate features and complexion, an auspicious combination that has resulted in a strikingly handsome visage. Taller than either of his parents, with a lean, wiry frame that appears almost monkeylike, and clad in an Earth Federation Forces' officer cadet uniform with its collar unbuttoned and flared outward, Christian projects an air of anything but propriety.

    Love to stay and watch the fun, but I've got places to go, the youth resolves has he surveys his handiwork for a final instant before scrambling into ventilation system conduit that conveys him to a storage area with mobile work pods…Hydrosuits…which are left attended as all personnel scramble with makeshift insulation (beddings, foam packaging materials, surplus tires, etc.) to stem the advancing tide of foul water.

    Christian, throwing a backpack into the cockpit of a red-painted Hydrosuit, closes the canopy and brings the utility mecha to life.

    "Freedom, here I come!" Christian rubs his hands with mischievous glee as the HS comes to life.

    The HS sails above a mob of Federal Forces soldiers, who are oblivious to the work mecha as they scramble to save their quarters, work areas, and training facilities from inundation.

    "How dry I am, how wet I'll be…" Christian sings as the Hydrosuit exits through a utility port.

    "Ladies and germs," Christian announces to no one, "Elvis has left the building…"

    Christian feels an incomparable sense of exhilaration as he launches into the star-filled cosmos…

    I can make it to Side 7 in this thing in about two hours, tops,
    Christian reasons, Then hop a flight for the Shambala Republic and…

    "Uh-oh," Christian says, a spark flashing from his head.

    "Uh-oh" comes in the form of an old RGM-79 GM…a twenty-five year old piece of machinery whose few remaining units the Federal Forces have relegated to routine patrols of areas considered non-vital.

    The GM looms menacingly over the Hydrosuit for a moment before passing over it, apparently disinterested in the smaller utility machine.

    "Whew," Christian exhales, doubling the thrust output of the Hydrosuit.

    Christian's relief is short-lived as the GM doubles back to overtake and loom over his Hydrosuit again.

    "Aw, crap," Christian mutters.

    "You there, in the Hydrosuit," comes a voice over the HS's communications receiver, "You are not authorized to operate that utility mecha outside the designated work zone. Identify yourself and return to work zone immediately."

    "Feh," is all Christian says as he pushes the HS's thrusters to maximum output.

    The GM likewise follows suit. Antiquated though it might be, its combat-oriented thrust output and speed far outstrip that of even the best utility suit.

    Christian knows he won't be able to outrun the GM.

    "All righty then," Christian says softly, "You want to get close, I'll give you close.'

    Christian shuts off the Hydrosuit's thruster and activates the magnetic pads in its landing gear.

    The Hydrosuit magnetizes itself to the armor of the GM, as Christian planned it, right near the power/thruster pack.

    The GM reaches back like a man attempting to scratch an inaccessible itch, looking equally ridiculous in the process.

    "Stop reaching," Christian complains, "I'll scratch your itch right now."

    So saying, Christian flips a few switches and the Hydrosuit extends a set of utility arms, which open several access hatches in the GM's backpack generator/thruster. A few seconds of work shuts down the GM's systems except for life support.

    "Nighty night," Christian grins as the GM's camera eye goes from green to dark.

    Christian disengages the magnetic pads and jets free of the GM's armor, apparently home free, but three more GMs and an equally ancient BALL mobile combat pod close in on him.

    "Dance floor is getting crowded," Christian observes.

    Christian waits for the GMs and the BALL to close in…closer…closer…close enough!

    A quick burst of thrust and a twisting of the joystick propel the Hydrosuit to safety as the GMs and the BALL collide in a tangle of titanium arms and legs.

    "Hah!" Christian enthuses.

    The adolescent is so pleased with himself and his pursuer's predicament that he grows careless, and finds his Hydrosuit suddenly ensnared in the grip of yet another Federal Forces MS…a much more modern and powerful machine…a Strike Jegan.

    The pleasant voice of Col. Christina McKenzie of SNRI, a voice that Christian has never heard before, comes through the Hydrosuit's communications monitor, "Cadet Ray, I presume?"

    ************************************************** ***************

    Two hours later, Christian grumbles and curses as he works a mop on Deck 11, condemned to clean up the mess he created in his latest attempt to escape from the Junior Officer's Academy at Luna 2.

    "That's pretty much what it comes down to, SSgt. Mayer," Col. McKenzie says, "I think you've known for some time now that this day would come."

    "Not a moment too soon," SSgt. Mayer replies darkly, still smelling of sewage, "Since that kid arrived here three years ago, he's been turning this place upside down. I don't care if his father was a war hero: the kid's a pain in the ***. You and your SNRI people are going to have your hands full, ma'am."

    "We're ready for him," Col. McKenzie grins.

    "Cadet Ray!" SSgt. Mayer shouts.

    Christian pretends not to hear the NCO, sullenly continuing with his mopping.

    "Cadet Ray, attention!" SSgt. Mayer repeats.

    Christian drops the mop and marches towards the NCO, saluting carelessly and perfunctorily, "Sir!"

    "Cadet Ray," SSgt. Mayer says, barely able to conceal the delight he feels at the prospect that his announcement will free him from this burden he has shouldered for the past two years, "This is Col. Christina McKenzie of SNRI. She will be taking you to Side 7's Garrison Noah to continue your training."

    Great, Christian thinks, his spirits sagging, another gang of idiots to escape from…well at least this one's a lady...fairly hot lady too. She must have been quite a babe when she was younger…still quite a babe now even though she's got to be pushing forty…

    Not evincing even the barest hint of enthusiasm, Christian says wearily, "Yes, sir."

    Col. McKenzie extends a friendly hand and smile to the handsome youth, "Welcome to SNRI, Cadet Ray."

    ************************************************** ***************

    January 1, U.C. 0106


    The Parliament of the Shambala Republic meets on the fifth anniversary of the founding of the nation, its highest elected officials gathered at Parliamentary Hall in Shambala City (built on the site of the former Zum Palace, since razed to the ground along with all other symbols of Zeon imperialism) to discuss not the past, but the Republic's future. Many issues are to be debated and resolved, though none without contention and controversy.

    Defense Minister Meitzer Ronah addresses the assembled representatives from the speaker's podium, "I believe that it is absolutely and incontrovertibly vital to the interests of this Republic, ladies and gentlemen, that a larger portion of the national budget be allocated towards strengthening our defenses. The Earth Sphere may appear to be tranquil and secure, but the remnants of Zeon remain at large. Moreover, we have intelligence suggesting that the Earth Federation Forces are rebuilding their strength, and may pose a future threat to our sovereignty over the Earth Sphere."

    From her seat behind the speaker's podium, to the lower right of the Prime Minister's seat, Deputy Prime Minister Minerva Zabi can only smirk and resist an urge to roll her eyes…Typical!

    "Furthermore," Ronah continues, his voice a powerful, booming echo, "I further urge my fellow representatives to expedite the approval of my proposition to reallocate at least half of the colony laser units now deployed for environmental reclamation work in Earth orbit for defense purposes."

    Minerva has heard enough, rising to say, "Defense Minister Ronah, with all due respect, I object to that proposition."

    The parliamentary assembly buzzes with dissent, divided in half.

    Ronah bows his head deferentially, "Madame Deputy Prime Minister: I humbly wait to hear your reasoning."

    "Reallocating the colony lasers towards combat operations would perceived as an act of war by the Earth Federation," Minerva says evenly, "I remind the Defense Minister that the Earth Federation Government is currently allied with us through the terms of the Jupiter Treaty of U.C. 0101, and that the terms of that treaty stipulate that neither the Federation nor our Republic would take military actions that would be reasonably perceived as a provocation of hostilities."

    "Madame Deputy Prime Minister," Ronah says coolly, "I would like to ask: do you not consider the Federation's development of the Omega Gundam a provocation of hostilities?"

    Curious murmurs of "Omega Gundam" fill the chamber, the very word "Gundam" creating a sensation of fear that permeates the assembly.

    "The organization of the SNRI and the construction of the Omega Gundam is a clear indication of the Earth Federation's hostile intentions," Ronah persists, "You are not naïve, Madame Deputy Prime Minister. You yourself were once an Earth Federation Special Forces officer: you are very well aware of how the Federation's military apparatus operates, and what its ultimate goals are."

    Before Minerva can respond, Prime Minister Artasia Daikun, still a ravishingly attractive woman in her mid-forties, rises, "Defense Minister Ronah, Deputy Prime Minister Zabi: I find myself in partial agreement with you both. Minister Ronah, I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister that there is no need to reallocate the colony lasers for combat purposes at this time; at the same time, however, the Federation's development of the Omega Gundam is disturbing. I am particularly concerned about this because according to our intelligence agency's latest data, the Federation has lost control of Omega Gundam and hostile entities have used it to attack Federation bases and warships in recent days. Those entities might well be hostile to our Republic as well. We must work with the Federation to locate and recover the Omega Gundam before it is used for catastrophic purposes."

    Ronah and Minerva glare at each other silently for a moment before Ronah says with a smile that belies his seething anger, "Agreed, Madame Prime Minister."

    "Agreed," Minerva sighs, taking her seat, placing her flesh-and-blood right hand over her abdomen.

    Another stalemate in the battle of wills and duel of destinies.

    ************************************************** ***************

    Several hours later, Minerva returns home, bone tired, kicking off her pumps and putting her ample briefcase at its customary early evening position on top of the small cabinet in the entrance foyer. She slumps into the sofa in the spacious living room of the ranch house that she shares with her husband, National Intelligence Agency Director Hathaway Noah, in the rural districts of Shambala Colony…a zone of lush greenery, roaming horses, and grazing cattle located eight kilometers from the city center.

    Minerva reaches down to rub her aching feet, noting that she's coming close to growing a blister on one of her toes. Minerva sighs. Sometimes, she misses her days as a combat officer in the Federal Forces. At least the uniform boots were easier on the feet than the heeled pumps she's been obligated to wear in her function as Deputy Prime Minister of the Shambala Republic.

    Hathaway comes into the living room from the kitchen.

    "Hey," Hathaway says gently, kissing Minerva sweetly on the neck, "Tough day at the office?"

    Minerva kisses her husband back, "'Tough' doesn't begin to cover it."

    "I'm making a casserole tonight," Hathaway announces, "Eggplant parmesan. I think you'll like it."

    "Parmesan?" Minerva says, "Isn't that a little…fattening?"

    "You could use some fattening," Hathaway tells his wife, "Look at you: you're as thin as a rail these days. You need better nourishment, especially now."

    "Have you told Bright and Mirai yet?" Minerva asks Hathaway.

    "Nuh-uh," Hathaway says with a grin, "You forget: I'm the Director of Intelligence, and the first rule of intelligence is that information is not to be shared unless absolutely necessary."

    "We won't be able to keep this a secret for long anyway," Minerva says, "These things have a way of revealing themselves."

    Hathaway chuckles, "True enough."

    "Ronah is trying to reallocate the colony lasers for combat…or what he calls 'defense'…thanks," Minerva says, taking a glass of milk that Hathaway offers her, "…and he's trying to get more funding for his Crossbones Vanguard. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that he's setting up for an insurrection. Fortunately, Artasia sees it too and stopped him cold, but I don't know about those idiots in the parliament. My God, what kind of stupid…!"

    "Easy," Hathaway says soothingly, putting his arms lovingly around Minerva and kissing her on the cheek again, "You have to watch your temper…it isn't good for…"

    "I know," Minerva says sullenly, "It's just so frustrating sometimes."

    "Artasia says you should slow down," Hathaway says, "and don't forget: she practiced medicine before she became Prime Minister. Not that you could be easily replaced or anything, but there are people who can help you lighten the load. There are a lot of capable young people coming up in the government these days."

    "I know," Minerva concedes, "In a few months, I plan to have them take over completely. I've thought about it: I'm going to resign."

    "Resign?" Hathaway says, surprised, "Really?"

    Minerva smiles, "There are more important responsibilities than even Deputy Prime Minister of the Shambala Republic."

    "True," Hathaway says with a warm grin as he kisses Minerva lovingly on the nose, "And I'm glad you think of it that way."

    "But we need to bring closure to this current situation first," Minerva says, "It's critical. If we're successful, it'll ensure peace for years to come."

    "All work and no play," Hathaway teases.

    The couple leans closer to kiss again, a tender moment that lasts until Minerva lets out a slight yelp of pain.

    "What's the matter?" Hathaway asks, concerned.

    "My feet," Minerva says, "Those damn shoes are giving me blisters."

    Hathaway kneels in front of his wife, helps her onto a comfortable sofa, lifts her bare foot into his lap, and massages the tender skin, "That any better?"

    "Much, thank you," Minerva says with a relieved sigh. She smiles again, "Doesn't this remind you of when we first met?"

    "I was thinking the same thing," Hathaway replies, "That time at my old apartment in Shanghai, where I brought you after I noticed you freezing your little tootsies off in the snow."

    "It seems like only yesterday," Minerva reflects, "it's hard to believe that seven years have passed."

    "Aren't you happier now than you were back then?" Hathaway probes.

    "To be sure," Minerva concedes, "Because now, I can be myself…and I can be with you. But…"

    "Jolie," Hathaway says, sensing the direction of his wife's thoughts.

    "She's still my best friend," Minerva says, her mood turning dark, "My little sister. I thought I would be able to count on her, but now…Hathaway, I'm afraid we might need to…"

    Hathaway, realizing that no good can come from Minerva's thoughts turning in such a dark direction, bucks her up, "Eggplant parmesan's almost ready. Why not get an early taste? Want a ride into the kitchen?"

    "Well, if you're offering," Minerva smiles, her mood brightening, surrendering herself to the loving security of her husband's arms.

    ************************************************** **************

    An Earth Federation Forces personnel transport shuttle is en rout from Luna 2 to Side 7, its only passengers being its pilot, Col. Christina McKenzie, and Cadet Christian Ray.

    Christian, sitting in the copilot's seat, yawns and places his booted feet upon the control console.

    "Those instruments are extremely sensitive, Cadet Ray," Col. McKenzie says, eyeing the cadet disapprovingly, "I'd sit properly if I were you…as you refused to wear a normalsuit, I'd hate for you to accidentally open the upper hatch."

    Christian sullenly drops his feet back to the cockpit floor, turning away from the SNRI senior officer.

    "Cadet Ray…" Christina begins.

    "Will you please stop calling me that?" Christian says in a voice dripping with contempt, perhaps for the term, perhaps for the speaker, and perhaps for both.

    "Calling you what?" Christina asks.

    "That f*cking name," Christian bites out, "I hate it."

    Christina blinks, "What do you want me to call you?"

    "Anything but 'Ray,'" Christian answers, "Call me 'F*cking Little Bastard' if you want, but don't call me 'Ray.' Call me 'Christian Irma'…at least I hate that name a little less."

    Christina has read Christian's profile, and according to the report of the academy psychologist, Christian has a sense of long-standing resentment towards his father. Undoubtedly, this is the result of Christian's never having known his father…and his father having never known him. Amuro was unaware of and never told about the birth of this son…and then he died before that situation could be rectified. Christina doesn't need a psychologist's report to know that the boy suffers from abandonment issues.

    Beyond that, however, Christian has been compared by his military guardians to his famous father, and undoubtedly has heard too many times how he would never…could never live up to Amuro's heroic legacy. Amuro Ray – the hero of the Earth Federation Forces…the pilot of Gundam…the greatest of the Newtypes…how could anyone live up to that?

    "You can forget about training me to be one of your MS pilots, Colonel," Christian says, fixing an angry gaze on Christina, "Soon as we land, I'm out, and you and your entire SNRI can't stop me!"

    Christina smiles, "I know about your record of near-escapes from Luna 2. If you couldn't get away from them, what makes you think you can get away from my people?"

    Christian says nothing, turning away.

    "I won't be training you personally," Christina says, "So maybe that'll be a small comfort to you."

    Christian continues to say nothing, placing his feet back up on the console, more insolently than before.

    Christina continues, "You'll be training under the supervision of Major Jolie Minh-Miguel of the Centurion Special Operations Team."

    Christian turns his head towards Christina, suddenly attentive, "Jolie…Minh?"

    Christina nods, "No doubt you've heard of her."

    Christian's dumbfounded silence indicates that he has.

    Christina grins, "I think you'll get along well with her."

    ************************************************** ***************

    Seven hours later, Col. McKenzie leads Christian through the mobile suit maintenance bays at Garrison Noah at Side 7. The facility, as ever, hums with activity as mobile suits are combat-prepped for deployment.

    Christian watches in admiration as a Special Forces pilot skillfully positions his Jet Jegan-II on a launch catapult and launch crews direct the mecha's deployment into space. All around, a number of other mobile suits are also readied for deployment.

    "Over there," Col. McKenzie indicates, pointing towards a mecha that Christian recognizes as a Gundam unit.

    "That's…" Christian begins, jaw dropping in awe.

    "The White Phoenix Gundam," Col. McKenzie finishes, "Major Minh-Miguel's personal mobile suit."

    "Awesome," Christian exhales, fingering the gleaming armor of the powerful war machine, his slender fingers lingering over the black, stenciled letters on the side of the cockpit hatch, "MAJ. J. MINH-MIGUEL."



    Christian senses a presence…completely new, and yet somehow familiar to him, and turns his head. Approaching is a slender, feminine figure clad in a silver and black normalsuit, the pilot's face hidden behind a sealed, visored helmet.

    The pilot removes her helmet, shaking out her long, fine, ebony-black hair.

    Christian looks into eyes that are as black as they are intense, the most distinct feature on a delicately-featured face as smooth as silk. His heart begins to race.

    She's…beautiful.


    "Major Minh-Miguel," Col. McKenzie says, returning Jolie's quick salute, "This is Cadet Christian Ray. You'll be training him from this point forward and he will be under your direct command."

    Christian stares at Jolie's ethereal beauty, his face a delirious grin.

    Jolie throws a withering glare in Christian's direction that seems to reduce him to the level of the smallest, most insignificant insect.

    Christian finds himself intimidated by Jolie's unnerving gaze…he looks into her dark eyes…the eyes of a killer.

    "Grab some rags, a mop, and a bucket," Jolie finally says to Christian, "You have two hours to clean my mobile suit. If I find a single unclean spot on it in two hours, it's two days in the guardhouse for you, Cadet."

    "Yes, ma'am!" Christian salutes, all but tripping over himself to locate and acquire the necessary cleaning implements.

    "ON THE DOUBLE, CADET RAY!" Jolie raises her voice.

    "Right way, ma'am!" Christian replies.

    "Oooh, harsh," Col. McKenzie smiles.

    "Have to be with these young punks," Jolie replies coldly.

    "You like him, don't you?" the colonel says, amusement in her voice.

    Jolie gives the colonel the briefest hint of a smile, but says nothing.

    Continued in Episode 3...

  12. #12
    Moderator Ken Cheng's Avatar
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    EPISODE 3: LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD

    Date: January 11, U.C. 0106

    Time: 23:18

    Location: Buch Concern Orbital Industrial Warehouse O-71, L5 orbit…

    A voice cries out in pain and horror, "Fire! Fire!"

    A flash of light heralds an explosion that results in screams, then silence.

    A second explosion sends literally tons of shrapnel shooting in multiple directions, many of the incidental projectiles finding their way to and through tender flesh.

    A massive shadow moves ominously, visible only in the glint of light emanating from fires that die in an instant without oxygen to fuel them.

    A massive armored footfall crushes a vehicle and its occupants, and then jets away.

    A Minovsky-energy based ranged weapon is directed, set, aimed, and fired, immolating tens of billions of credits worth of mobile weapons platform prototypes, armaments caches, and supply warehouses.

    A platoon of men, their hearts pumping in fear, bring their handheld weapons to bear futilely against the black armor of the monster that confronts them, their expressions betraying their despair as vulcan rounds rain down upon them, pulverizing them into piles of smoking, bloody flesh.

    Seemingly bored by the paltry resistance, the armored monster turns it attention to more weapons caches and large industrial apparatuses that dwarf even its massive bulk, firing upon them with its primary weapon, reducing them to slag.

    The ebony mobile suit swivels its head in the direction of a more substantial challenge – an approaching squadron of Buch Concern prototype mobile suits…XM-00 Den'an Sero types…ostensibly developed for use by the Shambala Republic Defense Guard, but thus far seen only in a limited production run for the elite pilots of Meitzer Ronah's private army, the Crossbones Vanguard. The twelve mobile suits represent the very cutting edge of combat mecha technology – an entirely new generation of mobile suits far removed from and far superior to the Earth Federation and Archduchy of Zeon-based models that dominated the first quarter century of mobile suit warfare…an impression reinforced by the sinister, binocular-like bicameral monitor units mounted on the masks of the Seros. The Age of the Zaku and the GM, it would appear, is over…

    The OMEGA GUNDAM, the latest scion of the Federation's most venerable combat mecha platform, begs to differ.

    Within the lead XM-00S Officer's Den'an Sero, veteran Crossbones Vanguard pilot Carrozzo Matthioli flashes a manic grin, "Gundam, eh? The Federation still has a penchant for creating monsters."

    And what a monster the Omega Gundam is, staring down the twelve Den'an Seros menacingly, its green eyes flashing dangerously upon its black mask, ready to take on all of its challengers.

    "Gentlemen," Carrozzo says to his subordinates, "You are looking at the finest sample of the Earth Federation Forces' cutting-edge military technology. Beauty, isn't it? Let's gift-wrap it."

    The Omega Gundam aims its beam rifle, prepared to strike.

    Before it can, it is ensnared in the grip of a dozen alloy cables, which snake around the mighty Federation mobile suit's limbs and torso, magnetizing themselves into unbreakable grips.

    "Power up," Carrozzo orders.

    His subordinates comply, sending a collective several hundred thousands of amperes of electrical energy surging from the Den'an Seros, sending the Omega Gundam into a paroxysm of mechanical agony.

    A few small explosions rip from various points on the Omega Gundam's armored form…overloaded power transformers and circuitry relay units.

    The Omega Gundam's green eyes flicker and go dark…and the mobile suit's mighty limbs go slack. Its beam rifle, however, remains magnetized to its armored gauntlet.

    "Prepare the unit for transport," Carrozzo instructs his charges.

    Two of the Den'an Seros move in with towing mechanisms deployed.

    Their magnetic clamp heads have just made contact when the Omega Gundam's eyes flash back to life and with them, the massive power of its nuclear fusion engine.

    With a speed seemingly impossible for an armored form of its bulk, the Omega Gundam grabs the offending cables and draws its enemies closer with a powerful pull of its armored hands. The Den'an Seros, its pilots still reeling from the shock of the sudden, violent motion, begin to draw out their beam rifles.

    The Omega Gundam is faster, extracting its beam saber and cleaving both restrictive cables and then plunging the saber into the cockpit of one of the two Den'an Seros while kicking aside the other.

    "Open fire," Carrozzo orders.

    The Den'an Seros comply, bringing their beam rifles to bear on the Omega Gundam and letting rip.

    Its power reduced by the electrical cable attack, the Omega Gundam is unable to dodge the incoming barrage with a blast of its rocket pack. It does not need to…its armor absorbs the incoming fusillade.

    The eyes of the Omega Gundam flash a terrible, intense green as it launches itself towards Carrozzo's Officer's Den'an Sero.

    "You won't," Carrozzo snarls as he raises the shield of his Sero.

    The Officer's Den'an Sero and the Omega Gundam are shield-locked…each mobile suit engages thrusters, increasing power slowly.

    For a brief moment, there is stalemate and then, the tide turns decidedly against the Den'an Sero.

    Uncanny! Carrozzo thinks to himself, as his mouth begins to run dry, Our attack had to have at least halved its power, and it's still overpowering the Sero!

    "Reed! Armus!" Carrozzo calls to his subordinates, "Dust this monster!"

    Reed and Armus swing the beam cannon of their Den'an Seros towards the back of the Omega Gundam and open fire.

    The Omega Gundam twists around just in time to block their incoming shots with its arm-mounted energy shield, which takes form at precisely the last possible second.

    Aside the shield is the muzzle of the Omega Gundam's own hyper beam rifle, which unleashes a devastating stream of Minovsky energy to annihilate both Reed's and Armus' Den'an Seros in a single shot.

    "Take up defensive positions," Carrozzo alerts his men, "Watch yourselves, men."

    The Omega Gundam faces its enemies…defiantly, impassively, seemingly capable of immolating them all in an instant, even with only a fraction of its power.

    To the surprise of Crossbones Vanguard pilots, however, the Federation's hijacked terror weapon transforms from mobile suit to mobile armor configuration and vectors away at speeds that Carrozzo Matthioli knows that his Seros, swift as they are, cannot match.

    Carrozzo cannot help but chuckle at his failure, despite the fact that he has lost three men and, more importantly to him, three mobile suits…a loss that will certainly cost him some points with his superior, Meitzer Ronah.

    "Omega Gundam," Carrozzo sighs, "You're every bit as good as expected…and then some. Worth another effort to get…another day.'

    ************************************************** ***************

    On a Sunday afternoon, even the Earth Federation Forces' final stronghold in the Earth Sphere, Garrison Noah, is quiet.

    "Quiet," naturally, is a relative term, for even on a quiet Sunday during peacetime, dozens of engineers and mechanics are employed as they are, daily, around the clock, servicing mobile suits that might need to be deployed for emergency combat at an instant's notice.

    Chief Warrant Officer Christian Ray, newly inducted into SNRI's Centurion Special Operations Team, snoozes comfortably in the cockpit of the White Phoenix Gundam, a light breeze drifting through the open cockpit hatch. Resting casually between Christian's lips is a lit cigarette burned almost to its butt.

    Christian dreams…seeing himself on a beautiful tropical beach the likes of which can no longer be found on the Earth. Approaching him is a familiar, gorgeous young woman…Jolie Minh, the prettiest girl Christian has ever seen.

    She is clad in a short denim summer micro skirt, which she drops to reveal a white micro bikini, her long, luscious legs covered with beads of her perspiration in the tropical heat.

    She approaches him, wrapping her slender arms around his form, her lips approaching his…

    WHACK!

    "OW! Goddamn it…what the fu…?!" Christian mutters, rubbing his left cheek.

    WHACK!

    The impact hits his right cheek this time, nearly snapping his head off…or at least, so it feels.

    "Hey!" Christian bites out, his teeth clenched in rage, "What the f*ck is your problem?!"

    The girl of his dreams crouches in front of him at the threshold of the cockpit hatch, clad in her Earth Federation Forces uniform, officer's hat on her head and stylish black overcoat draped over her shoulders. She looks furious.

    "What's my problem?" Jolie demands angrily, "I want to know what the f*ck YOUR problem is! Were you born retarded?! Did your mom drop you on your head when you were a baby?! How the HELL could you be stupid enough to SMOKE inside a mobile suit cockpit?! BUY a clue, moron!"

    "I…!" Christian begins, but doesn't get to finish as Jolie growls, drags him out of the cockpit seat and across the threshold of the cockpit hatch with one hand, and drops him on the deck of the boarding gantry.

    Before Christian can even rise, Jolie slaps him again in rapid succession with both the palm and back of her right hand.

    Enraged now, Christian staggers to his feet and lunges at Jolie, "B*TCH! I'm gonna…whoa!"

    Jolie sweeps her foot and sends Christian sprawling again. He picks up a mop as he goes down, turns its end towards Jolie, and thrusts it at her viciously.

    Jolie catches the mop handle with casual ease and kicks Christian in the teeth. While he is still reeling, she delivers an uppercut to his jaw, knocking Christian flat on his back.

    Jolie picks up a nearby bucket of grease and machine fluid and proceeds to splatter it all over the inside of the cockpit of the White Phoenix Gundam. She then throws the metal bucket to the gantry floor, where it echoes loudly through the maintenance dock.

    Dazed and stunned, Christian hears Jolie say menacingly, "I want you to clean out the cockpit of my mobile suit now. You have two hours. If I return then and that cockpit isn't perfectly clean, you'll suffer a beating that makes what you just felt feel like a massage by comparison."

    Jolie turns to leave. Behind her, Christian quietly picks up the mop again, and runs towards her, mop raised above his head.

    "I wouldn't do that, kid," a new voice calls out, "Unless you want that mop handle shoved up your a*s and out your mouth."

    "Who the hell are you?" Christian demands, lowering the mop.

    A handsome Earth Federation Forces officer in his late twenties offers a friendly smile and extends his hand to Christian, "Major Eric Gardner, SNRI Intelligence Department, at your service. You're Chief Warrant Officer Christian Ray?"

    "Yeah," Christian says, shaking Gardner's hand, "How did you…?"

    "Like I said, I work in intelligence," Gardner replies, "and if you had any, you'd understand that Jolie isn't doing this just to torture you, although it might seem that way."

    "She's a sadistic, insane b*tch," Christian mutters, "I hate her."

    Eric says, "She doesn't hate you. She does what she does because she cares: if she didn't, she wouldn't bother."

    Christian says nothing, but gives Eric an incredulous look.

    Eric pats Christian on the shoulder and grins at the younger man, "You'll get it sooner or later. In meantime, though, you'd better clean up that cockpit before that fluid does any permanent damage, or Jolie just might kill you. She does love that MS, you know."

    Gardner leaves. Christian picks up the mop, some rags, and a bucket and goes to work.

    to be continued...

  13. #13
    Moderator Ken Cheng's Avatar
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    Episode 3 continued...

    Two hours later, a greasy, sweaty Chief Warrant Officer Christian Ray puts the final polish on the cockpit of the White Phoenix Gundam. Christian has performed a meticulous job: every centimeter of the WPG's cockpit gleams.

    Major Jolie Minh-Miguel approaches precisely two hours after she left, as she had threatened.

    Christian sets aside his cleaning tools and salutes smartly, "Major Minh-Miguel, ma'am!"

    Ignoring him, Jolie inspects the inside of the White Phoenix Gundam, carefully checking for any unclean spots or missed smudges, and finds none.

    Jolie exits the cockpit and turns to Christian. Her expression is cold.

    Jolie picks up another bucket filled with grease, oil, and other refuse, and splatters its contents into the cockpit of the WPG.

    Jolie smiles and hands the bucket to Christian, saying quietly, "You have two hours."

    Straining with every erg of willpower he has, Christian resists the urge to tear Jolie's head off. Instead, he salutes and shouts loudly, "YES, MA'AM!"

    Jolie leaves. Christian closes his eyes, sighs, and prepares to start over.

    ************************************************** **************

    I think I'm gonna die here…an exhausted Christian Ray thinks to himself, exhausted and spreadeagled on service gantry…and I'm too f*cking tired to care.

    Christian hears light footsteps approaching. He spots Jolie, a bucket in her hand.

    Christian rises, shaking with terror. He offers as crisp a salute as he can manage and steadies his voice with supreme effort, "Major Minh-Miguel, ma'am!"

    Once again, Jolie inspects the WPG cockpit. Once again, she finds it spotlessly clean.

    Jolie lifts the bucket towards Christian's face.

    A scent crosses Christian's nose…not the scent of machine fluids or grease, but of a warm Danish pastry and a fresh pot of hot coffee.

    Jolie offers Christian a warm smile and her hand, "Congratulations, Chief Ray: you've passed the first test. You're ready to begin learning."

    Christian accepts the Danish from Jolie, but before he can begin digging into it, Jolie produces another bucket of grease and machine fluids and dumps the contents on Christian's head!

    The fluid stings his eyes, nose, mouth, and ears, but through the grimy sensation, Christian hears a sound that no one has heard in more than five years.

    Jolie laughs…laughs harder and more joyfully than she has in a long, long time.

    Christian begins to laugh too, picturing the mess he must look like at this point.

    Jolie is doubled over laughing, and soon, both she and Christian have collapsed on the gantry, their shared laughter echoing through the maintenance deck through the noise of heavy machinery and hydraulic mechanisms in operation.

    ************************************************** **************

    A little over an hour later, Christian steps out of the shower in Jolie's luxury condo in Green Oasis City. He dresses in a fresh uniform (his previous one a total loss) and joins Jolie in the informal dining area near the kitchen, where a sumptuous lunch (prepared by Jolie's maid, Cynthia) awaits him.

    Jolie seems content with a tobacco lunch today, working her way through her third cigarette of the hour as Christian takes a seat.

    "How do you like living at the barracks?" Jolie asks Christian, "Is the food there as bad as I remember it?"

    "Probably," Christian orders, tasting the delicious meal Cynthia has whipped up, "Definitely not as good as this: I've survived worse, though, at Luna 2 and at the orphanage in San Francisco down on Earth before the Federation made me its ward."

    Jolie grins, remembering her own days as a war orphan on the streets of Side 1's Industria Colony, and then says, "Would you like to live here with me?"

    Christian stops chewing and stares at Jolie in disbelief for a moment, "Are you serious? You're asking me to live here…with you?"

    "Do you want to?" Jolie asks.

    Christian, his heart racing, replies, "Well, yeah…but…"

    Jolie says, "I'll clear it with Col. McKenzie and your quartermaster."

    "Yes, ma'am!" Christian says enthusiastically.

    Jolie smiles, "If we're going to work together in combat, the most important thing is that we trust each other. Right now, you and I hardly know each other. We'll need to learn to establish this trust."

    Christian nods…ecstatic at the idea of living and training with Jolie, but somewhat apprehensive about what "establishing trust" will entail.

    ************************************************** ***************

    That evening, Jolie takes Christian with her to the White Phoenix Nightclub. Legally, Christian is six months shy of legally visiting and drinking at the club, but Jolie was an entire two years too young for the club when she began frequenting it when it was named the Andromeda and was under different ownership.

    Christian takes in the glittering neon atmosphere of the club, "This is your place?"

    Jolie replies, "Bought it at a good price two years ago. Owners were in trouble with gambling debts, I think."

    Philip, greets Jolie and Christian, whom Jolie introduces to the m'aitre 'd, who leads the pair to Jolie's favorite corner table, where Major Eric Gardner and Captain Chieming Noah are already waiting.

    Christian recognizes the major immediately, offering a grin and a handshake, "Hey, Major Gardner!"

    "Hey, kid," Eric grins, taking the younger man's hand, "Good to see you survived Jolie's initiation ritual."

    "Christian," Jolie says, "This is Captain Chieming Noah, second-in-command of the Centurion Team."

    Chieming shakes Christian's hand, "So you're Christian Ray. Your parents and mine are good friends.'

    Christian smiles, but seems annoyed at the mention of his parents. Everyone takes to their seats somewhat uncomfortably.

    Philip brings a bottle of Chablis and Jolie pours for everyone. She offers Christian a cigarette and places a second ciggie between her lips. Christian lights Jolie's cigarette and then his own.

    "Any new intel on the OG?" Jolie asks Eric.

    "It was sighted attacking an orbital Buch Concern weapons R&D site in L5 about forty-eight hours ago," Eric says, "Skirmished with some Crossbones Vanguard MS, and then hightailed it out of there again."

    "Whoever has it has it in for both the Shambala Republic and the Federation," Jolie observes, "We've been hit, and so have they."

    Chieming chimes in, "Hathaway sent some data to Eric and Col. McKenzie just two hours ago. SIA is willing to pool resources with SNRI to locate the OG…but they don't have any more solid leads than we do at present."

    Christian is more than a bit lost in all this apparently secretive subject matter, and sips his glass of Chablis quietly.

    "How hard could it possibly to find that damn thing?" Jolie mutters, butting out her cigarette.

    "Hard," Eric says, "The Omega Gundam has the most advanced Minovsky-based stealth system ever fitted into a mobile weapons platform. The thing can become invisible even to Newtypes. If not, you'd probably have found it for us already."

    "And as long as it's out at large," Jolie says, "I stay off the active duty roster."

    "Well," Chieming remarks, "At least you aren't the prime suspect in its theft anymore: its recent attacks all occurred while you've been here at Garrison Noah. Your alibi is bulletproof."

    "That's great," Jolie says, "but it's not important at this point. That thing is a menace: I know what it can do. So far, it's limited its attacks to military objectives. My thinking is that whoever has it isn't likely to use it against civilians, but…"

    Jolie stops in mid-sentence as she spots Col. Christina McKenzie, Director of SNRI, entering the club and approaching the table.

    The SNRI officers rise to salute their commanding officer, and Christina bids them all to take a seat.

    Christina tells, "I've authorized your request for Chief Warrant Officer Ray here to live with you at the condo. I faced more than just a few raised eyebrows for that one."

    Jolie grins, "Thanks. We were just talking about our current 'Big Problem.'"

    Christina nods, "So I figured: that's the other thing I came to talk to you about. I've got some good news for you, but don't be too ecstatic about it: we might all regret it yet. The High Command has put you back on active duty, Jolie, and they want you to take the point on finding and recovering the OG."

    "Knew they'd come groveling to me," Jolie says, shaking her head, "I'm gonna need my need partner here to back me up," she adds, indicating Christian.

    Christian looks at Jolie eagerly, his pulse racing at Jolie's referring to him as her "partner."

    Col. McKenzie says, "Whatever resources you need: bottom line is we want the OG back, or we want it destroyed. That's your mission objective."

    The club's resident band strikes up an old rock tune from the 1980s of the old pre-Universal Century calendar – "Love Is a Battlefield."

    Jolie turns to Christian, "Hey…I'm getting bored now. Dance?"

    Christian grins, "You got it."

    Jolie and Christian take to the crowded dance floor…the pair move to the song's groove with sassy flair, like liquid flames.

    Chieming looks incredulously at the sight, blinking in disbelief, "Now there's something I never thought I'd see again…"

    "What?" her fiancé Major Gardner asks.

    "Jolie dancing like that," Chieming replies, "I haven't seen her dance since…"

    Gardner knows what Chieming leaves unsaid…since before Jonah died…, and remarks, "She still dances really well. I'm breaking a good sweat here just watching her move…those mile-long legs…that tiny, but shapely little tush…

    Chieming elbows Gardner in the sternum, hard, and continues watching Jolie and Christian, their moves graceful and yes, extremely sexy…charged with passion.

    The vocalist's voice delivers the lyrics of the song with equal passion, conveying the mood of the moment:

    We are young
    heartache to heartache we stand
    No promises no demands
    Love is a battlefield.

    We are strong
    no-one can tell us we're wrong
    Searching our hearts for so long
    Both of us knowing
    Love is a battlefield.

    You're begging me to go
    then making me stay -
    Why do you hurt me so bad?
    It would help me to know
    do I stand in your way
    Or am I the best thing you've had?
    Believe me
    believe me
    I can't tell you why

    But I'm trapped by your love
    and I'm chained to your side.
    We are young
    heartache to heartache we stand
    no promises, no demands
    love is a battlefield

    When I'm losing control
    will you turn me away or touch me deep inside'
    And when all this gets old
    will it still feel the same?
    There's no way this will die

    But if we get much closer
    I could lose control

    And if your heart surrenders you'll need me to hold.
    We are young
    heartache to heartache we stand
    ...


    As the song ends, Jolie and Christian are left perspiring…staring at each other and smiling with an almost feral heat.

    The band switches to a slow, romantic number, and Christian approaches Jolie.

    Jolie walks past him and returns to the table.

    Straining to conceal his frustration, Christian follows.

    Establishing trust
    …Christian cannot help thinking…But you don't trust me yet, do you?

    Jolie pours another round of Chablis for her companions and says through shallow pants to Christian, "First training session begins tomorrow morning at 04:00, Chief Ray."

    Episode 3 to be continued...

  14. #14
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    Episode 3 continued...

    At 03:15, Major Jolie Minh-Miguel and Chief Warrant Officer Christian Ray are at the mobile suit deck of Garrison Noah, standing on the service gantry at the open cockpit hatch of the RX-780 Centurion Gundam. Both normalsuited, Jolie runs through a pre-sortie checklist with Christian.

    "This was my first mobile suit when I first joined the Federal Forces," Jolie explains to Christian as she runs through a diagnostic review of the mobile suit's combat systems, "It was mothballed after I was assigned the White Phoenix Gundam, and it hasn't seen any action since."

    "So I'm wearing your hand-me-downs?" Christian wisecracks.

    Jolie returns with a grin, "Nonsense. You'd look silly in a miniskirt, Chief."

    Jolie boards her White Phoenix Gundam, pulls on her helmet, seals the visor, and brings the WPG's combat systems online. Weeks have passed since her last sortie, and she's itching to get back into action…even if it is just a training exercise rather than real combat.

    Once a combat pilot, always a combat pilot, Jolie sighs resignedly, It's just in my blood, I guess: some of us just weren't meant to live as civilians.

    Satisfied that the WPG is in top operating order, Jolie opens her communications channel to Christian's Centurion Gundam, "Centurion Leader to Centurion Three: stand by for deployment."

    "Roger, Centurion Leader," comes Christian's reply.

    WPG and CG sortie from Garrison Noah together…for the first time in five years.

    ************************************************** **************

    Two hours later, Chief Warrant Officer Christian Ray finds himself on his heels as he struggles to anticipate and dodge the White Phoenix Gundam's shots. Fortunately, the CG and the WPG are not armed with live ammunition for this training exercise or Christian and his MS would have been immolated at least a half dozen times already.

    "Pick it up! Pick it up!" Jolie exhorts through the tactical net, "You need to anticipate where the shots are coming from and react faster, or you'll get your a$$ blown off!"

    To underscore her point, Jolie launches a simulated beam rifle shot that registers as a hit on the CG's "crotch," between the armored mechanoid's legs.

    "Just castrated you there, boyo," Jolie remarks.

    "Yeah, well," Christian retorts, "I've got more down there than you counted on."

    Christian hears a short laugh through the tactical net.

    To back up his point, Christian launches a multiple fronts attack with the CG's beam rifle, Vulcan cannon, and missile pack.

    The WPG dodges the incoming fire with adroit ease.

    "You were saying?" Jolie's arch voice comes through the tactical net.

    Christian says nothing, instead pulling off a surprise maneuver by barreling the CG directly at the WPG.

    Jolie tips the WPG backwards almost playfully, magnetizing the two MS together in a metallic embrace.

    "All right," Jolie says, "We've done enough work on individual assault maneuvers for now. Next, I want us to practice the docking exercise we discussed yesterday."

    Christian acknowledges, "Roger, ma'am."

    The WPG and CG separate.

    "Systems switching to docking for PSI-Gundam," Jolie announces, "Synchronizing energy output levels. Docking mechanisms engaged. WPG now maneuvering into docking position."

    "Roger," Christian replies, "Centurion Gundam docking interface systems engaged."

    CG and WPG synchronize their movements and interlock into a single unit, becoming the PSI-Gundam…seen for the first time since the penultimate battle of the Phobos War.

    That went just as smoothly as when Jonah and I last did it, Jolie reflects, with some wonder.

    It was always trust that had enabled Jolie and her beloved, slain husband, Jonah Miguel, to function so effectively as a combat team. Even when conflict had come between them, there was an underlying faith in one another that they could always rely on…and made them invincible in battle.

    But Jonah is gone…inadvertently slain by Jolie's own hand in a nightmare she relives every night.

    Trust is about to be tested anew.

    Jolie shifts the thruster throttle into the "Maximum" position and directs the PSI-Gundam towards Side 7's Green Noah Colony.

    "Major Minh, what are you doing?" Christian asks nervously.

    Jolie does not reply, holding the thrust down at Maximum and the heading of the PSI-Gundam on a collision course with the space colony, which houses Garrison Noah and Green Oasis City…a population of over 1.5 million people.

    "Major!" Christian croaks out through a dry throat.

    The mass of Green Noah Colony looms larger by the second…the vehicles on its busy streets visible through its massive, transparent solar panel.

    "Jolie, we need to pull out, now! We're going to crash right into them!" Christian shouts.

    No reaction from the WPG.

    Christian's eyes dart desperately around the cockpit of the Centurion Gundam; he finally locates a red-lit button marked, "EMERGENCY DISENGAGE"

    Christian hits the button.

    The PSI-Gundam's interlocks disengage, and the combination MS separates into its component Centurion Gundam and White Phoenix Gundam. The emergency disengagement kills forward thrust and sets the CG and WPG vectoring in opposite directions, but no longer towards Green Noah Colony.

    "Got to regain control…" Christian mutters as his Centurion Gundam spins helplessly.

    A moment later, his momentum is brought to a lurching stop that would have sent Christian crashing into the CG's control console had he not been wearing the safety restraint harness.

    Christian thinks he has crashed into space debris, but looks into the external monitor to see that the White Phoenix Gundam has stopped his momentum by grabbing onto the Centurion Gundam's hand.

    "We need to talk," Jolie says darkly, "After we get back to Garrison Noah."

    ************************************************** **************

    An hour later, Jolie is chewing Christian out loudly on the mobile suit maintenance deck. Her ranting voice can be heard over the sound of heavy machinery at work.

    "I had the situation completely under control!" Jolie rails, "I gave you no order to activate the emergency disengage function!"

    'We were gonna crash into the colony!" Christian retorts, "If I didn't disengage, we would have plowed right into them!"

    Jolie smacks Christian on the right cheek with a hard slap, "You don't act without my orders, do you understand, Chief Ray?! That exercise was conducted to determine whether or not we had enough trust in each other to function effectively as a combat unit! We have the answer to that question now!"

    Christian bites his lip contritely, and considers his words before saying, "You're right, ma'am. I'm sorry. I should have trusted you."

    Jolie's expression softens, and she reaches her gloved hand to tenderly touch the spot on Christian's cheek where she slapped him a moment earlier…the angry red mark having not yet faded.

    "We have a lot of work to do," Jolie says softly, "but not right now. Go get showered and report for duty."

    "Yes, ma'am," Christian says.

    They hear footsteps and see Chief Warrant Officer Amy Chu, one of Jolie's aides, approaching.

    Amy salutes the leader of the Centurion Team, "Major Minh-Miguel, ma'am: Col. McKenzie requests your and Chief Warrant Officer Ray's presence at Reville Hall immediately."

    ************************************************** ***************

    "Our intelligence sweeps of Earth orbit detected some unusual activity beginning around seven hours ago," Col. Christina McKenzie says to Jolie and Christian, a holographic display of the Earth projected before them, "Something is poking around the area near one of the Earth Ecology Reclamation Energy Projectors. Minovsky particle field, however, makes it difficult to tell precisely what it is."

    "Omega Gundam?" Jolie suggests.

    "Quite possibly," Col. McKenzie replies, "Though what its current operators would gain by sabotaging an EER ray projector isn't clear. Whoever has the Omega Gundam isn't using it to make ideological statements. Its attacks have all been rooted in very pragmatic targets: weapons depots, research and development facilities, personnel training compounds, and the like. Attacking a repurposed colony laser wouldn't seem to have much strategic value. Still, if this is the Omega Gundam, I need you out there."

    "We'll leave immediately then," Jolie says as she and Christian rise from their seats.

    "A transport shuttle will be waiting for you in forty-five minutes at the spacedock," Col. McKenzie says, "The WPG and CG have been combat-prepped and should be being loaded aboard the shuttle right now. You'll need to be discreet: we don't want to tip our hand to whoever is out there."

    ************************************************** ***************

    Ten minutes later, Jolie and Christian are en rout to the spacedock.

    Christian brings up an unpleasant, but pressing topic, "Ma'am: I appreciate the confidence you're showing in me, but I'm still in training. I have no real combat experience."

    "Are you saying you're afraid of being in a real battle?" Jolie asks.

    "No, ma'am," Christian replies, "But I don't want to screw up and…"

    "Chief Ray," Jolie says, serious combat demeanor in place now, "there is no better training than actual combat. You either prove yourself, or we both die. It's that simple."

    Christian gulps and settles into his seat aboard the jeep driven by Chief Warrant Officer Amy Chu.

    ************************************************** **************

    EEREP # 2 was, in an earlier incarnation, the Colony Laser Polyphemus – designed and built by the Zeonic Corporation under the orders of Archduke Alexander Miguel for use against the Earth Federation Forces and their Shambala Republic allies. With the Archduke's defeat and the fall of the Zeon war machine, engineering crews for the Federation and the Shambala Republic have restored a number of the derelict colony lasers and put them to use in reversing the nuclear winter effects caused by the Phobos Zeons' mass colony drop operations of U.C. 0100. The plan, conceived by Deputy Prime Minister Minerva Zabi of the Shambala Republic, is to use the focused solar thermal energy of the colony laser not to wage war, but to reverse its effects. Positioned in orbit over the planet, each EEREP fires periodic beams of concentrated, amplified solar energy into Earth's atmosphere…burning away the billions of tons of debris that the Zeon's colony drop attack sent into the atmosphere, choking away the planet's access to life-giving sunlight and rendering the planet a desolate, lifeless husk.

    Five years after the catastrophe, the Earth's natural recuperative powers and humanity's efforts have started the process of rebirth. Even so, scientists estimate that a century will pass before the Earth will begin resembling the lush, green world it was centuries ago.

    This assumes no disruptions, such as a handful of armored figures are now perpetrating at EEREP # 2, still colloquially called Polyphemus, currently in terrestrial orbit high above the Mediterranean Sea.

    ************************************************** ************

    Carrozzo Matthioli of the Crossbones Vanguard leads his squad of Den'an Sero mobile suits as they inspect the external surface of the Polyphemus. Twelve massive towing ships, each twice the size of the largest space warship, have attached magnetic cables to the hull of the even more titanic colony laser.

    "All right," Carrozzo beams with satisfaction, seeing the towing cables secure and the towing ships at the ready, "Unlike our last prospect, this one doesn't fight back, and it's too big and slow to run away from us. Let's bring this home."

    It's an insane plan, Carrozzo reflects, Do they expect that the Federation's leaders and Daikun and Zabi will just overlook this? They will not be mollified by explanations that this is a maintenance issue. This…eh?

    "This is Lestang One," Carrozzo signals his men, "Go to combat alert status."

    Without question or hesitation, the Den'an Seros assume battle formation.

    A powerful beam blast, red in color, immolates a Den'an Sero and narrowly misses Carrozzo's own Officer's Den'an Sero.

    Damn it! Carrozzo thinks as his teeth clench in rage, Third unit lost in as many days! And I know what did this!

    The Omega Gundam's green eyes flash in the distance to confirm Carrozzo's suspicions.

    "Fire at will!" Carrozzo orders his men, "Hold back nothing: your objective is not to disable, but destroy!"

    The Den'an Seros concentrate their beam fire on the approaching Omega Gundam, which wards off the beam storm with its energy shield.

    ************************************************** **************

    The White Phoenix Gundam and the Centurion Gundam, piloted by Major Jolie Minh-Miguel and Chief Warrant Officer Christian Ray, respectively, rapidly approach the scene of the skirmish.

    "I've tried contacting them through all communications frequencies, ma'am," Christian says, "No response."

    "You've got signatures?" Jolie asks.

    "Scanning now," Christian replies, "Fifteen units…fourteen are a design not in our databanks. The fifteenth…Gundam type."

    "Gundam," Jolie exhales, "Looks like Col. McKenzie was right. We've found our lost lamb."

    "Some lamb," Christian notes, "It's slaughtering that pack of wolves."

    "And we can't separate the friendlies from the unfriendlies," Jolie rejoins, "Weapons systems to combat mode."

    "Roger," Christian complies, "But which side are we attacking?"

    "ALL of them if they shoot at us," Jolie answers.

    ************************************************** *************

    The Omega Gundam reaches out with its massive armored claw, grabbing Carrozzo Matthioli's Officer's Den'an Sero by the throat, squeezing with its tremendous might, crushing critical relay circuits between the external camera unit and the control cockpit.

    If Carrozzo fears impending demise, however, he does not allow it to show, deftly directing his mobile suit to extract its beam saber from its backpack nacelle, igniting its greenish beam, which digs into the black armor of the Omega Gundam's left arm.

    "You are quite the monster," Carrozzo mutters, "But this close in, you can't use your most powerful weapons systems against me."

    Distant beam blasts strike the rear of the Omega Gundam, but Carrozzo notes that the blasts are not originating from any of his subordinates' MS.

    The combat computer of the Officer's Den'an Sero indicates the arrival of two more mobile suits upon the scene: like the Omega Gundam, Earth Federation Forces signatures…Gundam types.

    The Officer's Den'an Sero kicks itself free of the Omega Gundam's weakening grip, firing its beam rifle to drive the ebony mobile suit farther back.

    Regrouping with his subordinates, Carrozzo issues new orders, "Withdraw! All combat units and tow ships!"

    The towing ships disengage their towing cables as the Den'an Seros magnetize themselves to the ships' hulls; they hit maximum thrust and depart the scene.

    ************************************************** ***************

    "Who the hell are they?!" Christian wonders aloud.

    "Crossbones Vanguard," Jolie answers, "We'll deal with them later. Omega Gundam first. Two-front attack."

    "Roger," Christian replies.

    Jolie points the WPG's beam rifle towards the Omega Gundam, but before she can get off a shot, the OG, faster than it appears it can be, slashes its beam saber towards the WPG, forcing Jolie to retreat.

    Undeterred, Jolie launches the WPG in a frontal attack against the OG, unknowingly mirroring Carrozzo Matthioli's earlier strategy, drawing in close to the OG to engage it in close-in combat.

    Jolie gets the WPG behind the Omega Gundam, using her greater agility to get the black Gundam in a sort of half-nelson.

    Jolie says into the monitor, "Chief Ray…you've got a clear shot! Take it!"

    Christian takes aim with the Centurion Gundam's beam rifle at the Omega Gundam's cockpit. Restrained by the WPG, the OG cannot bring its energy shield into play.

    Christian's gloved finger tightens around the trigger, and then…he hesitates.

    The pressure coming from inside the cockpit of the Omega Gundam…Christian notes…It's…Jolie?! But that's impossible!

    With its titanic strength, the Omega Gundam breaks free of the White Phoenix Gundam's grip, directs its beam rifle towards the Centurion Gundam, and opens fire!

    Christian succeeds in turning the Centurion Gundam just enough to avoid a lethal direct hit, but the CG nevertheless takes a shot to a critical stabilizer thruster, sending his MS careening out of control…and falling towards the Earth!

    "Christian!" Jolie cries out in panic. She darts the WPG past the OG towards her drifting comrade.

    The OG gets a bead on the back of the WPG with its mega beam rifle.

    Before the black Gundam can get the shot off, the WPG twists around unexpected and fires its own beam rifle, blasting the OG's primary weapon out of its hand.

    Jolie turns her attention back towards the Centurion Gundam, which has begun to glow ominously as it falls farther into Earth's atmosphere.

    "Damn it!" Jolie bites out through clenched teeth.

    Jolie switches the WPG into Wavediver mode, hits maximum thrust on the throttle, and dives towards the falling Centurion Gundam, keeping one eye on the Omega Gundam above and behind her.

    The Omega Gundam watches its two brethren fall towards the Earth…its green eyes evincing almost a curiosity. If it fires its weapons now, it could eliminate them both.

    But the OG merely watches…dispassionately, perhaps even inquisitively…its pilot wondering, perhaps, why she is reluctant to fire.

    Inside the cockpit of the Centurion Gundam, Christian tries to maintain a sense of calm as he attempts every possible maneuver to regain flight control. He can feel the pull of the Earth's gravity growing stronger by the second, and the temperature in the MS cockpit has already risen to uncomfortable levels.

    Jolie's voice comes through the tactical net, "Christian! You've got to get yourself stabilized or you'll burn up on reentry!"

    "Stabilizer controls negative, Major," Christian reports, "That blast took out all thruster controls!"

    "Hang in there!" Jolie calls out, "I'm almost there! Stand by to engage docking mode!"

    "Docking?!" Christian echoes incredulously, "Are you f*cking kidding me?! Docking, here?! Now!"

    "Shut up and do it!" Jolie snarls.

    Christian complies, "Docking sequence initiated. Interlocks engaged."

    "PSI-Gundam systems engaged," Jolie responds, "Now positioning for docking."

    The PWG, diving at maximum speed, overtakes the falling Centurion Gundam. The two Gundams fall together towards the Earth…spinning out of control…in a bizarre parallel to Jolie and Christian's dance at the White Phoenix Nightclub.

    Love is a Battlefield…


    After several long, agonizing moments, the two MS make contact…rocked by several heat-friction induced explosions that nearly throw them apart. Ultimately, however, the interlocks and servos bind.

    Heartache to heartache, we stand…

    "PSI-Gundam Docking Complete," the combat computer indicates.

    Jolie hits maximum thrust. Slowly, fitfully, the PSI-Gundam's momentum slows, and reverses…breaking free of Earth gravity, struggling, straining to climb back towards space.

    Flames bite the edges of the mecha, bathing the two young Federation MS pilots in their own perspiration.

    The glare of the flames growing blindingly bright, then subside as the blackness of space reasserts itself.

    "We made it," Jolie exhales.

    The PSI-Gundam blasts back towards the cosmos.

    "That was one hell of a training exercise," Christian says.

    "The Omega Gundam's gone," Jolie says, scanning her monitors, "It almost had us."

    "That was my fault," Christian says contritely.

    "Yeah," Jolie says after a moment, "Trust, remember?"

    "I'm sorry, Jolie," Christian says.

    "It just shows we still have a lot of work to do," Jolie replies plainly, "But the fact that we're still here shows we've come a long way in the little time we've had."

    "What about the Omega Gundam and those Crossbones Vanguard mobile suits?" Christian asks.

    Jolie says nothing for a long minute, then finally says, "We'll find them."

    PSI-Gundam separates into WPG and CG, which vector back towards the awaiting transport ship that had brought them from Garrison Noah.

    To be continued in Episode 4...


    Author's Note: It's going to be a slightly longer wait than usual for the next update, ladies and gentlemen. I'm out of backlog, and Episode 4 is in production.

  15. #15
    Moderator Ken Cheng's Avatar
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    EPISODE 4: JO-M

    An Earth Federation Forces' personnel transport plies a routine flight across the Earth Sphere from Side 7 to Anman City on the Moon, one of a dozen such flights that depart from both locations weekly.

    Two of the passengers aboard EFPT # 108 are Major Jolie Minh-Miguel of SNRI and her newest recruit, Chief Warrant Officer Christian Ray.

    Jolie is absorbed in a copy of Sun Tzu's Art of War while Christian, seated next to her, fidgets nervously, leafing halfheartedly through an in-flight magazine offering little more than dry articles concerning military life interspersed with advertisements for sundry products that military personnel are deemed likely to buy. Christian, however, can't seem to get excited about a vapor-collecting water canteen made from a lunar titanium/aluminum alloy…

    "Major," Christian says tentatively, "Just why are we going to Anman City, anyway?"

    "To visit someone," Jolie says absently, highlighting a passage from the book as she answers her protégé.

    "Who?" Christian demands, "I mean: you got me up two hours ahead of reveille, then dragged me to the spaceport to board this flight, and no matter how many times I've asked you, you still won't tell me who we're supposed to be flying across the Earth Sphere to see."

    "Christian," Jolie says evenly, "What have we been talking about the past few days?"

    "I know, I know," Christian replies with an impatient sigh, "Trust. I understand that, ma'am, but if trust is such a big deal, why don't you just trust me and tell me what we're doing and who we're meeting."

    "When I was a new recruit," Jolie answers as she highlights another passage with her felt-tipped marker, "my commanding officer taught me that the most important part of trust is knowing who to trust, and when. I trust you, Christian…but I don't trust these walls…these windows. Eyes and ears are everywhere, so we need to be careful about what we say, and what we do."

    So saying, Jolie removes a cigarette that Christian has inserted between his lips, "My habit isn't any less intense than yours; if I can wait it out, so can you."

    Christian makes a wry face, and settles into his seat. After a short minute of sulking, he takes a sidelong glance at Jolie…so beautiful even as she's consumed by the words in the book in her right hand. Her left hand, so delicate and feminine, holds the yellow highlighter marker.

    Christian reaches gingerly towards that hand, taking its silk-smooth warmth in his own for the briefest of instants…and then Jolie gently pulls her hand free.

    Christian turns to Jolie and is met by a smoldering glare that seems to say, "Back off."

    Some six hours later, Jolie and Christian have landed at Anman City, where they acquisition a jeep from the local Federal Forces base and make the short drive over to Anahem Enterprises' Skunkworks Division located on the outskirts of the lunar city.

    "I used to work for AE as a test pilot," Jolie says to Christian, riding shotgun and still sulking sullenly, "I tested the WPG out here before I took it into combat."

    "No kidding?" Christian says without enthusiasm.

    Jolie gives Christian a sidelong look and the hint of a smile, "Still mad at me?"

    "What makes you say that?" Christian responds defensively.

    Jolie says nothing, pressing the accelerator to the floor.

    ************************************************** **********

    Within minutes, Jolie and Christian clear security at the gates of the Anaheim Skunkworks' facility. Christian stares bug-eyed and open-mouthed at the numerous experimental MS units undergoing construction and testing within the facility's cavernous hangars. Not all of the MS are new units, however. Christian is surprised when he spots a familiar MS he has seen in numerous photographic stills and video images over the years…

    "Hey," Christian begins, "That's…"

    "Zeta Gundam," Jolie finishes, "Camile Vidan's mobile suit during the war against the Titans. I guess you know now who we're here to see."

    Christian nods. Camille Vidan…the original pilot of the Zeta Gundam.

    ************************************************** ***************

    "This is Amuro's son Christian," Jolie says by way of introduction ten minutes later in Dr. Camille Vidan's office, "Christian: this is Dr. Camille Vidan."

    Camille, his blue hair cropped shorter than it was during his days as an AEUG MS pilot and his eyes shining behind a pair of prescription spectacles, offers a warm smile and friendly hand to the younger man, "It's a pleasure, Christian. I knew your parents quite well, and I was quite fond of both of them."

    It always comes back to my old man, Christian thinks wryly, even as he shakes Camille's hand and offers a forced, awkward smile.

    "Christian is the newest recruit assigned to me," Jolie explains, "I'm training him to pilot the Centurion Gundam, or the Gundam-100 as you know it, Doc."

    Camille nods, "That was a good machine, though falling a bit behind the times now. I think you came here to talk to me about Gundams today, didn't you?"

    "Right," Jolie says, settling into business mode, "We had an encounter with the Omega Gundam not long ago. Even with the PSI-Gundam, we nearly got creamed by it. We came hoping you might be able to offer a few tips for beating it, Doc."

    Camille thinks deeply for a moment before saying anything. Finally, he says with a sigh, "The Omega Gundam…yes, I heard it was stolen from the SNRI some weeks ago, and I've been quite worried ever since. The thought of its destructive potential in the hands of unscrupulous individuals is extremely disturbing."

    Jolie nods, "I know. When we went head up against it, I knew that its raw power was much greater than the White Phoenix Gundam or the Centurion Gundam's. It pretty much whupped us."

    "And the frightening truth is," Camille adds, "It exhibited only a fraction of its power in that skirmish. Otherwise, frankly, neither of you would be here right now."

    A moment of uneasy silence follows before Jolie asks, "So how…?"

    Camille, having anticipated the question, answers, "The pilot lacks the experience to draw out the full potential of the Omega Gundam. Don't forget, Jolie: you test piloted the Omega Gundam for nearly two years, and even you haven't used the Omega Gundam to its full potential yet. You're probably, however, the only person alive who can."

    "I'm not so sure about that," Jolie says, removing some documents from a valise and handing them to Camille, "Check these out, Doc."

    Camille studies the documents and his face clouds with worry. Finally, he says in a low voice, "These were taken from your scans of the PSI-waves emanating from the Omega Gundam?"

    "Yep," Jolie says, "The EEG pattern that we recorded is…identical to mine!"

    Christian pipes up, "It's true, sir. I felt it coming from the Omega Gundam – a brainwave energy pattern just like Jolie's!"

    Camille is lost in memory for a moment…faces, names from the painful past…Four Murusame…Rosamia Baudam…Elpee Puru.

    Camille then says to his two fellow Newtypes, "If the Omega Gundam's pilot is anything like Jolie, then you can expect that she…or he…will improve with each new battle experience. I'm afraid that if you encounter the Omega Gundam again, it's not going to get any easier for you to beat it."

    "Then tell us how we can beat it, Doc," Jolie says, with an edge of impatience no less intense than Christian's.

    "Everything has a weakness," Camille observes, "Even the Omega Gundam. But if you go at it with your beam weapons and missiles, you'll never find it. If you want to defeat the Omega Gundam, you'll need to overload its Biosensor system."

    "Could you explain that more clearly, Doc?" Jolie presses.

    "Every Gundam since the Zeta has been equipped with a Biosensor system," Camille explains, "to pick up the brainwave signal of its Newtype pilot and convert it into action signals for the Gundam unit itself. The Omega Gundam is no exception: in fact, its Biosensor system is the most sensitive and sophisticated yet, and therein lies its weakness."

    "What do you mean?" Christian Ray demands.

    "I put a fly in the ointment," Camille says with a slight grin, "In the event that the Omega Gundam should ever come into the possession of hostile entities. When Jolie test piloted the Omega Gundam, we often had the problem that her PSI-powers would overload and burn out the Biosensor interface systems. This will cause the Omega Gundam's combat control systems to momentarily stall, maybe long enough for the mecha to be neutralized. Technology is available to repair this flaw, but I elected not to…precisely so that we'd have this option should the Omega Gundam ever be compromised."

    "All right," Jolie says, "So how can we get this Biosensor overload to work? I'm not gonna be aboard the Omega Gundam, remember?"

    "You'll need to bring the White Phoenix Gundam in for a modification to its Biosensor," Camille says, then, turning to Christian, adds, "and it's probably a good idea to bring the Centurion Gundam in for the same."

    "Yeah!" Christian enthuses, showing a better mood for the first time all day, "Jolie and me combined can kick anybody's a$$!"

    Camille looks at Christian soberly, "I can't be sure how your two PSI-patterns will work together. There'll be a great amount of raw power to be sure, but making it work together. That's…well, we can only wait and see. We know that Jonah Miguel's PSI-energy perfectly dovetailed Jolie's, and together, they created a true, controlled synergism. Unfortunately…"

    Camille does not finish. Jolie's face falls into a melancholy expression, while Christian's expression is defined by resentment for a dead man he never knew.

    Why do I keep coming second to dead guys? Christian wonders bitterly.

    to be continued...

  16. #16
    Moderator Ken Cheng's Avatar
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    Episode 4 continued...

    Two hours later, Jolie and Christian are on a flight back to Side 7. Before leaving Anaheim Enterprises, Jolie sent a coded signal back to Garrison Noah requesting that the White Phoenix Gundam and Centurion Gundam be shipped immediately to Anaheim's skunkworks facility for the proposed Biosensor modifications.

    "We still have a problem," Jolie remarks as the transport craft speeds towards Lagrange Point Three.

    "And what's that?" Christian replies acidly.

    "We still need a way to draw that thing out into action," Jolie says, "No preparation is going to help us if the damn thing doesn't show up."

    ************************************************** **************

    Upon returning to Garrison Noah, Jolie and Christian take their dilemma to their SNRI colleague and friend, Major Eric Gardner of SNRI's Intelligence Division, an expert in such affairs.

    "In fact," Eric tells the two MS pilots over drinks at the White Phoenix Nightclub, "We've been correlating the data we've recorded from each of the Omega Gundam's attacks, and we've definitely found a pattern: it's targeting weapons transfers, caches, etc. So if it likes weapons, then that's what we'll use to bait it."

    "The High Command will court martial the whole lot of us if we put a weapons cache or armaments cargo vessel at risk," Jolie says wryly.

    "C'mon, Jolie," Eric smiles rakishly, "Give me some credit, babe: I'm in the Intelligence Division, remember? You think I can't rig up some convincing fakes?"

    Jolie inhales from her half-smoked cigarette and exhales with a smile, "You're right. I forgot who I'm dealing with."

    "I'll take care of the bait," Eric says, "You just make sure you've got good hooks."

    ************************************************** ***************

    Unable to do more while their mobile suits are being upgraded and Major Gardner prepares his trap, Jolie and Christian retire to Jolie's luxury condo at the Utopia Towers in Green Oasis City.

    Christian has just finished moving his meager possessions (not more than a few Federation Forces uniforms and a few sundry items) into the condo. Jolie has given him his own bedroom, a privilege Christian has not enjoyed since he was a small boy, and definitely not with the luxury that Jolie's condo offers (panoramic view of the city, personal bathroom, and personal telecommunications system).

    Jolie has stepped into the shower, and Christian takes the time to look around the luxurious surroundings of the spacious, airy modern condominium. A warm fire burns in the fireplace, and Christian is drawn to the numerous framed photographs that Jolie keeps upon the mantel.

    The first photograph that Christian spots is that of an Earth Federation Forces officer – a handsome Asian man in his mid-thirties standing in front of an antiquated GM-III mobile suit sometime during the late U.C. 0080s, around the time Christian was born. Christian reasons that this must be Jolie's father, who like his daughter, was a MS pilot.

    The second photo shows Jolie in an officer's cadet uniform, sitting next to a very attractive, slim honey-blonde young woman that Christian recognizes as Minerva Zabi, the current Deputy Prime Minister of the Shambala Republic. Christian is familiar enough with the Federation's recent military lore to know that Deputy Prime Minister Zabi was once Lt. Col. Athena Ibaz of the Earth Federation Special Forces (which has since evolved into SNRI), and was Jolie's commanding officer during the war against the Zeon warlords of the Outer Sphere. The photo must be nearly ten years old, and Christian marvels at how little Jolie and Minerva Zabi have aged in that time. They look today not very different from how they looked then, though they were teenagers when the photograph was taken and each is now in her mid-twenties.

    The third photograph shows a happy, smiling Jolie in the loving embrace of a very handsome young man, both of them clad in Earth Federation Forces uniforms. Christian can read the handsome young officer's name from the patch on his uniform jacket, "Capt. Jonah Michaels." The couple looks so good together in the photograph…so young…so beautiful…so happily in love.

    Much to Christian's chagrin.

    Turning away from the image that so riles him, Christian casts his eyes on the next photo, which only serves to bring his mounting anger to a boil.

    The face in the photograph is also familiar to Christian…more familiar than any other aside from his own because, a few discrepancies aside, it is not dissimilar to his own. A similar shock of dark brown, almost reddish hair sits atop two intense soulful eyes.

    Amuro Ray…Christian's father, haunting his dreams even here, even now.

    Why the hell does Jolie have a photo of HIM?! Christian wonders.

    The door of Jolie's bedroom opens, and anger transmogrifies into lustful thrill as Christian spots Jolie clad only in a large t-shirt that barely covers the top of her thighs.

    Christian's heart, pounding like a thousand pistons powered by a nuclear fusion engine, is stuck somewhere in his throat. He tries to speak, but manages to make only a gurgling sound as the view of Jolie's shapely figure and wonderfully bare legs turns his own legs into jelly.

    Seemingly oblivious to the reaction she is provoking in Christian, Jolie asks, "What the hell are you looking at?"

    "Err..ah…," Christian says, fairly sure that it isn't what he meant to say, then settles on, "These photos! Er…great…photos!"

    Jolie sighs as she sets eyes on the all-too familiar images, "These are some of the people who've been important to me during my life."

    "That's your dad, isn't it?" Christian asks, indicating the least objectionable (to him) of the photos.

    Jolie offers Christian a light smile, "Pretty perceptive of you. Yeah, that's my daddy: Captain Dominic Minh of the Quebec Colony Civil Defense Guard, Earth Federation Forces. He was killed…along with my mom and older brother, when Alexander Miguel attacked our home colony back in 0092."

    "I'm sorry," Christian says sincerely, knowing firsthand the bitterness of growing up an orphan.

    "Daddy was a good soldier," Jolie says grimly, "He died protecting us…all of us."

    Attempting to turn Jolie's thoughts away from such dark memories, Christian remarks on the second photo, "That's Minerva Zabi, isn't it?"

    Jolie smiles, "Yeah. But in those days, she was Captain Athena Ibaz of the Centurion Team. I'll tell you: in all my life, I've never met a character quite like 'Thena. She was really what people would call an 'officer and a lady.' Everything I know about being an officer, about leading a team, about winning a battle...about being a woman, 'Thena taught me. She even taught me how to dress better."

    Staring at Jolie's gorgeous thighs again, Christian pries his eyes away only with the greatest effort.

    "She taught you well..." he manages to whisper through shallow breaths.

    The youth's eyes fall on an image that pleases him much less, "That dude in the photo with you: that was your husband, wasn't it? Jonah Michaels?"

    "Jonah Miguel," Jolie corrects, reaching for the photo and fingering it lovingly, "He had the most beautiful soul of anyone I've ever known, Christian. He made me happier than anyone else ever could."

    That last sentence causes Christian to bristle, "You're still in love with him, aren't you?"

    Jolie shoots Christian a deadly glare that says, What kind of a question is THAT?!

    Christian is not finished yet, though he refocuses the source of his growing irritation, "What about that picture of my dad, then? What's up with that?"

    Jolie tosses her long, lustrous hair before replying, "Captain Amuro saved my life when I was a little girl. I would have been killed along with my parents and brother by Alexander Miguel and his forces, but your father rescued me. I became a Federation MS pilot partly because of him. He's my personal hero."

    Christian's expression registers his distaste, "Yeah…Amuro Ray…the 'great hero' of the Earth Federation Forces…the knight in shining white armor. The world doesn't know, though, that this so-called 'hero' couldn't even live up to the most basic responsibility of all."

    "Christian," Jolie replies, "That isn't fair. Amuro didn't know about you. Velotrica never told him. If he had known, things would have been different. He wouldn't have abandoned you."

    "How do you know?" Christian challenges, bitterness in his voice.

    Not wanting her protégé's thoughts to continue down this dark direction, Jolie takes Christian earnestly by the hand and says to him gently, "Christian, remember what we've been talking about: trust. It's not going to work out for us as partners if we don't trust each other. I want you to trust me. I want to know that I can trust you. The fact is, though, that we barely know each other."

    So saying, Jolie smiles at Christian and tugs him towards the fireplace in the den, where a warm fire has burned since they returned home, "Come here."

    Christian is momentarily curious, but curiosity quickly becomes a fresh burst of lustful excitement as Jolie seats herself crosslegged in front of the fire, her t-shirt covering nothing below her supple waist, the curves of her silk-smooth thighs and buttocks divinely captivating.

    Struggling against such irresistible distractions, Christian mirrors Jolie's posture, taking a seat face to face with her.

    Still holding his hand, Jolie says, "Close your eyes…clear your mind…"

    Christian does as Jolie instructs, clearing his mind of thoughts both pleasant and unpleasant…and soon…it all becomes clear…

    They see each other's lives, as if they were their own memories…joys, sorrows, triumphs, and defeats. They know each other's fears, and each other's dreams. They see each other's darkest, loneliest moments, and the indomitable spirit that guides them. For the briefest of instants, they are one…

    Minutes pass into hours as they sit, their minds united…until material reality intrudes in the form of Jolie's trilling comlink.

    Jolie opens her eyes, unfolds her lovely legs, and darts to the coffee table where her comlink rests.

    "Major Minh-Miguel here," Jolie says into the receiver.

    "Jolie, it's Eric," comes the voice of Major Eric Gardner, "Get that cute a$$ of yours down to the garrison, pronto! I've got something for you!"

    Episode 4 to be continued...

  17. #17
    Moderator Ken Cheng's Avatar
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    Episode 4 continued...

    Thirty minutes later, Jolie and Christian are in a secured conference room with Major Gardner at Garrison Noah.

    "This is the plan," Eric announces, "We've been sending out false communiqués about an arms shipment from Frontier 8 to Side 7 that will take place within seventy-two hours. There will be dummy warships, dummy MS, and dummy armaments that we hope will be good enough bait for the Omega Gundam. We've made a pretense of keeping this information secure, but leaked out just barely enough data that anyone who's tracking such data won't miss it."

    "Nice work," Jolie says, "But isn't it a bit risky drawing the Omega Gundam so close to Side 7?"

    "It is," Eric confesses, "but bringing it here means you guys will have plenty of back up if you need it. Also, it gives us the option of dragging it in and impounding it immediately before anybody else can get their hands on it."

    "Makes sense," Jolie admits, "But our Gundam units won't be back from getting the necessary modifications for at least another twenty-four hours, and that's plenty of time for the message to be received. Let's just hope that whoever has the Omega Gundam doesn't make their move before we've got our own Gundam units back."

    "The location was up to us," Eric says, "but the timing, not as much. We'll wait and see…and pray it isn't a disaster."

    ************************************************** ***************

    Deputy Prime Minister Minerva Zabi is in her office, on the phone with Prime Minister Artasia Rem Daikun.

    "I hear the tones of secession in each word that the Defense Minister says," the Prime Minister says worriedly, "but we've got nothing on him that's actionable."

    "Even if we did," Minerva says, "We couldn't well take that action without risking civil war."

    "You're right," Artasia answers, "And that's something we can't afford. After five years, we've finally got this nation stabilized, but if we were to go to war with our own…"

    Hathaway Noah appears at the door, indicating that he has something urgent to discuss with Minerva.

    "Madame Prime Minister," Minerva says, "May we continue this conversation later?"

    Minerva can hear Artasia's smile across the phone line, "Someone more important than I am want your attention?"

    "You might say that," Minerva replies.

    "I envy you," Artasia says, and then adds, "We'll talk about it later then, Minerva."

    "Thank you, Artasia," Minerva answers, then closes the line.

    "Something important?" Minerva asks her husband.

    "I wouldn't interrupt a call from the Prime Minister if it weren't," Hathaway says, "But first…a moment's frivolous indulgence."

    Hathaway and Minerva exchange a long, breathless, lustful kiss…their passion for each other as intense as it was when they first fell in love as teenagers nearly a decade ago.

    "So…what…did…you…come…to…tell…me?" Minerva pants.

    Hathaway, also panting, says, "Communiqué…we…intercepted…from Side 7. Federation is receiving a huge arms shipment at Garrison Noah in about seventy hours from now."

    "Really?" Minerva says curiously, "It isn't like SNRI to be so sloppy, is it?"

    "No, it isn't," Hathaway agrees, "Looks like the Federation is hunting big game, and is luring it out with a huge hunk of meat."

    Minerva says, "More likely, a piece of garbage dressed up to look and smell like meat."

    "So…?" Hathaway begins meaningfully.

    "So…" Minerva replies cryptically.

    The couple exchanges a knowing nod.

    ************************************************** ***************

    Some time later at Garrison Noah, the White Phoenix Gundam and Centurion Gundam return to their assigned maintenance docks, having been refitted with improved Biosensor systems by Dr. Camille Vidan's staff of technicians at Anaheim Skunkworks.

    Jolie and Christian run full diagnostic scans of the new Biosensor systems, making sure that they function precisely as Dr. Vidan informed them they would.

    Presently, the pair is seated in the cockpit of Jolie's White Phoenix Gundam, Jolie in the pilot/mecha commander's seat, and Christian at the engineering station. Both are clad in normalsuits and helmets, which have received upgrades for use with the new Biosensor system.

    "This is way more sensitive than the old system," Jolie remarks, "but that's just a side benefit of the modifications that Camille made. This is how we're going to take down the Omega Gundam."

    "Can't wait to kick its butt after what it did to us last time," Christian says eagerly.

    "You mean what it did to you last time," Jolie corrects acidly.

    "OK, OK," Christian answers irritably, "This time, I'll rescue you, OK?"

    "Christian," Jolie says, her tone becoming serious, "When we go up against the Omega Gundam again, don't merge your PSI-powers with mine unless I order you to, understand?"

    "Why?" Christian challenges, "That's the only sure way we have of…"

    "What we can't be sure of," Jolie cuts in, "is whether or not we can control our joined power well enough that we don't destroy a whole lot more than the Omega Gundam's control system. We don't want to take that risk if we don't have to. Do you get me, Chief Ray?"

    Christian bites his lip for moment before reluctantly muttering, "Yes, ma'am."

    Jolie gives Christian an affectionate punch to the shoulder that he wishes could be a kiss to the lips instead.

    ************************************************** ***************

    Within hours, the Centurion Team has been deployed, concealed amidst asteroids and space debris in the general orbital path of Side 7.

    From the heading of the Frontier 8 space colonies, a fleet of Earth Federation Forces cargo ships enters the Side 7 Zone, their holds loaded with empty shells of mobile suits and warheads.

    ************************************************** ***************

    In nearby space, concealed Centurion Team mobile suits stand by…ready to pounce on command.

    Radio silence is maintained among all Centurion Team MS; the only radio signals being broadcast and received are the faux communications between the commanding officer of the convoy fleet (actually, an SNRI officer) and the control tower at Garrison Noah. As the pilot of the Omega Gundam is almost certainly a Newtype, Jolie and Christian dare not communicate with one another even using their PSI abilities for fear of detection.

    Tension builds in every breath, every heartbeat, and every bead of perspiration as the convoy slowly makes its way towards Garrison Noah.

    Then, they sense it…Jolie first, and Christian an instant later…an unmistakable sense of pressure that indicates the presence of a powerful Newtype.

    "It's her…" Jolie whispers to herself.

    Her? Jolie wonders, How do I know so certainly that it's a "her?"

    The Omega Gundam appears, visible only by the twin slits of green that illuminate its main camera mounts and the various service lights on its body. The rogue mobile suit bears down upon the convoy…then suddenly veers away from it…towards the concealed MS of the Centurion Team!

    "What th'…?!" Chief Warrant Officer Christian Ray has time to bite out before his Centurion Gundam is bowled down by a charging Omega Gundam.

    Jolie turns the White Phoenix Gundam towards the Omega Gundam and attempts to get off a shot from the WPG's beam rifle. Jolie has the Omega Gundam bracketed in the targeting scope of the WPG, distance and rate of speed marked.

    Jolie depresses the trigger on the control stick.

    The response is slow…the beam finally unleashes from the WPG's beam rifle a half second late, and missing the Omega Gundam by fifty meters.

    "'Th' hell?!" Jolie wonders.

    The Omega Gundam counter-fires with a salvo of beam blasts that forces the WPG to momentarily

    The Omega Gundam presses its attack, and is confronted by a pair of Strike Jegans piloted by Chief Warrant Officer Rayann Zhang and Chief Warrant Officer Amy Chu, respectively. Rayann and Amy, two of the top graduates of the SNRI MS combat training program, were handpicked by Jolie for the Centurion Team for their excellent training records. Though inexperienced, each has proven herself a formidable MS pilot.

    So disdainful of the two young Centurions is the Omega Gundam, however, that it does not bother to use its suite of weapons against them…opting instead to remove them from the battle with well-placed strikes of its massive armored fists, wrecking their camera units and blinding them.

    The Omega Gundam turns its arm-mounted energy shield in time to block incoming beam strikes from Major Eric Gardner's Strike Gundam and Captain Chieming Noah's Cour de Leon-Kai. The Omega Gundam draws its beam saber and slashes at Eric and Chieming's mobile suits, removing one arm from each.

    Jolie and Christian have the WPG and Centurion Gundam back on the attack, hammering at the Omega Gundam with their combined fire. The Omega Gundam, however, succeeds in evading their fire.

    Something's wrong, Jolie cannot help feeling, our weapons systems are a half-step behind...

    Jolie has no time to ruminate on such matters, however, as she and Christian continue pouring on the gunfire.

    The Omega Gundam, however, deflects or evades it all deftly, daring its opponents to attack it again.

    "Damn it!" Jolie snarls as the Omega Gundam's counter-fire nearly tags her.

    Jolie realizes that her concern for her teammates is hindering her from going after the Omega Gundam, and opens the tactical net, "Centurion Leader to all units: clear out and withdraw!"

    "Ma'am…" Christian protests.

    "YOU! OUT! NOW!" Jolie shouts as she dives the White Phoenix Gundam directly at the Omega Gundam.

    Christian opens communications to his comrades-at-arms, "Centurion Three to all units. Major Gardner? Captain Noah? Chief Zhang? Chief Chu?"

    One-by-one, the Centurions acknowledge…their mobile suits have all sustained damage, but at least they remain alive.

    Satisfied, Christian directs his Centurion Gundam in the direction that the White Phoenix Gundam and the Omega Gundam had taken off.

    ************************************************** ***************

    Two Gundams exchange fire from every weapons system their arsenals have to offer…beam rifle, beam cannon, Vulcan rounds, missiles, Psychom funnels…all of it is called into play.

    Strike…dodge…feint…strike again…Jolie feels as if she is fighting her own shadow, the Omega Gundam mirroring her every move…

    This isn't getting me anywhere, Jolie realizes, Whoever is piloting that monster is as good as Kyoko Yamaguchi…or better! Got to end this, now!


    Jolie engages the new Biosensor booster system that Camille had installed into the White Phoenix Gundam. Receptors built into the lining of Jolie's helmet pick up and retransmit her brainwave energy into the White Phoenix Gundam's circuitry, leading to a buildup of energy in the WPG's nuclear fusion core.

    The PSI-energy radiates outward…washing over the Omega Gundam.

    C'mon…go down, you…Jolie grits her teeth, focusing on the Biosensor.

    But the Omega Gundam is not giving a centimeter…the pilot is pushing back against Jolie with an equal counter-pressure…no matter how intensely Jolie strains…she cannot trigger the overload that Camille predicted would result.

    Biosensor device is functioning, Jolie notes, but the Omega Gundam's systems are resisting the pressure I'm laying down...did whoever's operating it discover the weakness and fix it?

    Jolie realizes that if such is really the case, then she's in great danger because both she and the Omega Gundam's Newtype pilot are locked in a deadly stalemate that neither can afford to break.

    Jonah...Jolie implores.

    "Ma'am!" Christian's voice comes through Jolie's helmet receivers.

    "I ordered you to pull back!" Jolie snaps.

    "Like hell I would," Christian retorts, "with you in trouble!"

    Christian quickly gathers the situation and activates the Centurion Gundam's own Biosensor booster…adding his PSI-energy to Jolie's…exerting the pressure back against the Omega Gundam.

    "Christian…" Jolie grates, "We're…gonna overload…disengage, now!"

    "No…" Christian answers, "We've almost got her…"

    Her? Yes…her! For a moment, all three of them are connected…fully experiencing each other's thoughts, emotions, and memories…

    The energy recoils and casts all three Gundams in shells of electric current, causing internal circuitry explosions. Smoke fills the cockpits of each of the mecha.

    Jolie activates emergency backup power from the secondary generator and also internal ventilation fans to remove the smoke…cockpit indicators show that the WPG is losing power…with energy levels having fallen to forty percent and still dropping.

    Jolie glances out the fading side monitor of her linear seat cockpit and notes that the Centurion Gundam must be suffering from similar problems as it too, goes limp.

    For a moment, the eyes of the Omega Gundam darken, then come to life again…sparks shooting out of exposed circuitry panels. It too has sustained heavy damage.

    For another moment, there is stillness among the three crippled Gundam units. The Omega Gundam raises its beam rifle weakly, pointing it at the helpless Centurion Gundam.

    "No…" Jolie snarls, memories of Jonah flashing through her mind.

    The WPG, however, does not respond to Jolie's manipulations…energy has fallen below minimal operable levels. Only life support is being maintained by the backup generator.

    A beam rifle shot glances the Omega Gundam. The weakened OG turns to see Major Eric Gardner's Strike Gundam, beam rifle extended in its remaining good hand, taking shots at it.

    The Omega Gundam converts to mobile armor configuration and, with a burst of thrust, vectors away from the scene.

    "Major Minh! Chief Ray!," Gardner calls out, "You two all right?"

    Jolie opens communications, "A-OK here, Major Gardner…although I can't say the same for the White Phoenix Gundam. Circuitry is completely burned out. Christian?"

    "I'm OK," comes the youth's voice, "Same story on the CG, though. Nothing's working here except life support."

    "All of our MS are in bad shape," Gardner grouses, "I've radioed for a recovery crew. They'll be picking us up in a few minutes. We certainly ****ed this operation up today."

    Jolie opens the cockpit of the White Phoenix Gundam and floats out, magnetizing herself to the shell of the MS with a hand held device. Christian does the same from the Centurion Gundam.

    Jolie shoots the youth a reproachful glare, and Christian can only turn away in embarrassment.

    ************************************************** ***************

    An hour later, the mobile suits of the Centurion Team have been transported back to Garrison Noah for repairs. Considering the amount of damage they sustained, it would likely be at least five days before any of the team's MS are ready to sortie into combat again.

    Jolie stalks down the gantry with her helmet in the crook of her arm, refusing to stop or look back towards Christian, who chases after her apologetically.

    "I know I disobeyed your orders, ma'am," Christian pleads, "But you were in danger. I couldn't…"

    "Chief Ray," Jolie says, "I don't want to hear another word from you. You continue to fail at trusting your comrades in combat. Until you do that, you'll never be a good soldier. Christian…frankly, I'm really beginning to have doubts about whether I can train you. Not when you don't trust me enough to follow my orders."

    "Jolie, I'm sorry…I…," Christian answers.

    Jolie disregards him, disappearing into the pilot's locker for women officers.

    "Sh*t!" Christian spits, throwing his helmet to the gantry, creating a loud echo in the maintenance deck.

    Christian steps over to the railing, watching intently as maintenance crews begin assessing the damage to his Centurion Gundam.

    That pilot, Christian reflects back, Who is…she?

    ************************************************** ***************

    In the shower of the officer's locker, Jolie allows the hot water to run over her head and onto her body as she thinks thoughts along a similar line, The Omega Gundam was piloted by someone whose brainwave patterns matched my own, but that isn't possible, unless…

    Jolie remembers a conversation she had with Athena years ago, when Jolie was a new recruit on the Centurion Team.

    ************************************************** ***************

    July, U.C. 0098…

    Chief Warrant Officer Jolie Minh directs the Centurion Gundam in a series of intricate maneuvers, skeeting target drone after target drone with the beam rifle of her mobile suit.

    Aboard her Cour de Leon, Captain Athena Ibaz carefully records the data being transmitted from the CG's onboard computer.

    Athena nods approvingly, "One-hundred percent target efficiency. Nice shooting, Jolie!"

    "Yeah!" Jolie enthuses, fist pumped, "I'm the baddest of the badasses!"

    Athena smiles, "Your grammar certainly is 'baddest,' but your combat instincts are great. The Federation would love to have a whole army of you."

    Jolie answers, "Well too bad, 'cause there's only one!"

    "For now," Athena replies, "But both the Federation and Zeon have invested heavily in the research of cloning technology, and both sides have made use of cloned soldiers in the past."

    "That's scary," Jolie says, "You mean they could make another me?"

    Athena says, "She wouldn't be quite the same, because she wouldn't have your memories or experiences. Physically, however, she would be identical to you."

    Jolie says nothing, undoubtedly unnerved by the idea.

    "Don't worry," Athena says reassuringly, "Over my dead body would I let the Federation use you for something like that."


    ************************************************** ***************

    Jolie opens her eyes, the water continuing to run over her. As steamy hot as the water is, Jolie trembles with an icy coldness emanating from deep inside her…

    ************************************************** ***************

    The Omega Gundam limps to a landing at an undisclosed location within an abandoned space colony, settling upon a pad constructed to receive it.

    The mighty mobile suit's cockpit hatch opens, and a slim feminine figure dressed in an all-black normalsuit floats downward as the airlocks seal, landing on the pad just as gravity asserts itself.

    Footsteps are heard as the familiar figure of Deputy Prime Minister Minerva Zabi steps into the light.

    "I'm sorry, ma'am," the pilot, evidently a girl, says to Minerva, "I failed to destroy the White Phoenix Gundam and Centurion Gundam as you instructed."

    Minerva puts her flesh-and-blood right hand warmly on the pilot's normalsuited shoulder, saying in a reassuring tone, "I told you before you went that it would not be easy. Don't worry about it: the data you collected on them will help us devise a way to beat them, Jo-M."

    "Jo-M" removes her helmet, revealing a familiar, silk-smooth face and long, jet-black hair.

    "Yes, ma'am," Jo-M says.

    Minerva fondly touches the girl's face, "You're just like her, but so different."

    "Jolie Minh is an obstacle to our goals, ma'am," Jo-M says coldly, "I promise you that I'll destroy her."

    Minerva's look becomes reproachful, "You'll do only as I order, Jo. It's good that you have grown accustomed to taking your own initiative, but some initiatives, you are not to take, particularly in regards to Jolie Minh, is that understood?"

    "Yes, ma'am," Jo-M replies dutifully.

    Having made her point, Minerva gives the attractive young MS pilot a warm, sisterly embrace and dismisses her.

    The former Duchess of Zeon stares up at the damaged Omega Gundam and sighs, pulling out a handkerchief from the pocket of her jacket and using it to wipe the fingers of both hands. Her organic hand then flies to her belly.

    Jolie…Minerva thinks ruefully…I'm so sorry I had to do this.

    to be continued in Episode 5...

  18. #18
    Moderator Ken Cheng's Avatar
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    EPISODE 5: THE HAMMER

    Damn kid didn't even tell me about his burn injuries, Major Jolie Minh-Miguel grouses silently as she swabs medicinal fluid onto the skin of her junior executive officer's, Chief Warrant Officer Christian Ray, torso.

    "Ow!" Christian complains, as Jolie works the cotton ball across his skin, "A little gentler, will ya? You're f*cking ripping my skin off!"

    "I should," Jolie retorts, but nonetheless going easier with the cotton ball, "For not telling me right away how badly you got burned."

    Indeed, in the initial aftermath of their most recent skirmish against the Omega Gundam, Christian had sustained first-degree burn wounds upon parts of his arm, upper right torso, and right leg when the Centurion Gundam's internal systems overloaded, resulting the control panel spewing forth a shower of sparks that burned through the young Federation soldier's protective normalsuit.

    Jolie did not discover Christian's injuries until after they had both returned to Garrison Noah and disembarked from their mobile suits. Over the youth's objections, Jolie rushed him to the veteran's hospital, where the combat surgeon judged Christian's burns to be of the first-degree…nothing the young man wouldn't be able to fully recover from in time.

    The combat surgeon's sanguine prognosis notwithstanding, Jolie hasn't stopped fussing over her protégé's injuries in the three days that have passed since the battle from which they resulted…the outcome of which, Jolie has reminded Christian at least a dozen times, was the result of his own refusal to obey orders.

    The medicinal swabbing done, next comes a fresh dressing of the already-healing wounds. Jolie gently wraps the affected portions of Christian's upper torso…near the ribs on his right side…in soft, white cotton gauze.

    At seventeen, Christian is lean and athletic…taller than either of his parents, with better defined musculature than his father had. Jolie would never admit it to Christian, but she can't help admitting to herself that his chest is rather…sexy.

    Christian stares into the ethereal beauty of Jolie's silky smooth complexion as the soft, light warmth of her hands gently winds the gauze around him.

    Jolie notices Christian's stare and offers him a mischievous grin, "What are you looking at?"

    Christian says softly, "Nobody has been as good to me as you have, Jolie…not since my mom died."

    Jolie replies as she continues to wind the gauze, "We're both war orphans. I can relate to the things you doubtless feel."

    His mouth dry, Christian begins tentatively, "Jolie…I…"

    Jolie finishes wrapping the bandage around Christian with an emphatic final pull that causes him to yelp. She leans forwards to kiss him on the forehead.

    The sensation causes Christian's heartbeat to go into overdrive, and a strange sense of vertigo that works it way from the base of his skull to his stomach…but with the thrill comes a strangely juxtaposed sense of disappointment. The kiss was given with sincere affection, Christian is certain of that much…but it was altogether too…sisterly. Jolie kissed him the way an older sister might kiss her kid brother…not at all what he had been hoping for, and anticipating. There was love in that kiss, but no passion…

    Jolie washes her hands at the faucet of the bathroom attached to Christian's bedroom in her luxurious penthouse condo suite in Green Oasis City, and calls out to him, "Get ready. We're going out."

    "Going out where?" Christian says, an irritated tone in his voice, "It's Sunday morning, and we aren't on assignment. Can't a body get a break on Sunday in this outfit…'specially a burned body?"

    "It is Sunday morning," Jolie affirms, "And while bodies, burned or otherwise, do deserve a break on Sunday, you want to make sure your soul doesn't burn when it's all said and done."

    "What the hell are you talking about?" Christian demands.

    "'Hell' is the word," Jolie replies with another mischievous grin, "Sunday morning mass starts in less than an hour. I'm going even if you aren't."

    Christian is aware that Jolie is a practicing Catholic…attending mass each Sunday morning for as long as he's known her (which, Christian acknowledges, hasn't been that long). Several times, she invited him to attend mass services with her, but each time, he refused.

    Not this time, however, "All right. Let me put on a fresh uniform."

    "Something cleaned and ironed," Jolie says, "I don't want you walking into the church looking and smelling like you just returned from active combat."

    "Heh," Christian chuckles, donning a uniform jacket he had personally ironed the previous day.

    "Your profile says that you're Catholic, so I figure…" Jolie asks.

    "I'm not sure if I can say that I really am or not," Christian says, buttoning up his uniform jacket, "but Mom was. She was actually lapsed…pretty much atheist before she had me. After…Amuro died, she sort of found her faith again. That's why she named me 'Christian.' Said she hoped I wouldn't ever lose my faith like she did. Had me baptized and everything…took me to mass every Sunday, so I guess…yeah, I'd be considered Catholic, sort of. After she died, though, I lapsed. Just couldn't bother with it anymore."

    "Same with me," Jolie says, "When I was a little girl, I went to mass with my parents and my big brother every Sunday. After they died, I stopped going too. I started going again after Jonah died…more to pray for him than to pray for myself. Not that he needs it; Jonah was the closest thing to a saint you could ever meet."

    Christian smiles conspiratorially, "What about you?"

    Jolie answers, "I'm a bad girl. I'm going to hell for sure."

    The pair laughs as they enter the private elevator car, descending…to street level.

    ************************************************** *****************************

    Officially, the Gothic cathedral that stands near the city center area of Green Oasis City is designated the Holy Church of the Saint Monica of the Merciful Heart, but locals generally refer to the edifice as Saint Monica's Cathedral. Built to resemble a smaller version of Paris' famous Cathedral of Notre Dame, Saint Monica is the largest church among all the Side 7 colonies, and the fifth largest off-planet.

    The plaintive sound of Gregorian chant echoes through the cathedral's central nave.

    Jolie and Christian kneel side by side at a pew located in the right side of the nave. In mid-prayer, Christian opens one eye and steals a glance at Jolie…her youthful face radiant even partially hidden behind the black mantilla veil required of all female churchgoers.

    Christian shuts his eyes tightly and labors to focus on the sermon; this really is the wrong place and time to be having lustful thoughts…

    The priest turns to the congregation and offers a solemn final blessing, "Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen."

    ************************************************** *********************************

    Following the conclusion of mass services, after the other parishioners have departed, Jolie and Christian remain in the nave of the cathedral church as the mournful tones Gregorian chant continue to peal through the cavernous space. Clad in their Earth Federation Forces uniforms, officer's cloak draped over their shoulders, the pair resembles two medieval knights awaiting pre-battle benediction.

    "What are waiting around for?" Christian says impatiently, "Let's go."

    "Not yet," Jolie answers, "There's someone I want you to meet today. Someone…who might be able to offer you a few insights that you might find valuable."

    "Oh?" Christian says challengingly, "Who?"

    Jolie smiles as she spots a small figure approaching them, "There she is right now."

    Christian turns and spots a short, slightly built nun approaching them. Though slightly over the age of forty, the nun appears about a decade younger than her actual age…the visible roots of her hair going grey, but the hairs themselves retaining their original auburn color. Her eyes are weary…perhaps having once shed too many tears for too many sorrows, but nevertheless sparkle with a clearness that emanates directly from her soul.

    "Major Minh-Miguel," the nun smiles, "It's been many months since we've seen each other. I'm happy to see you here."

    "Sister Frau," Jolie says warmly, "Thank you for taking the time to come and meet with me today. I wanted to introduce you to someone…my adjutant officer. Tell me…if you recognize him."

    Sister Frau Bow casts her kindly eyes upon the tall, wiry young man standing next to Jolie, and her face freezes in impossible recognition. She opens her mouth to speak, but for a long moment, is unable to produce any sound. Finally, comes a barely audible, hopeful whisper, "Amuro…"

    Christian, taken aback by the unexpected mention of his father's name, says, "My name is Christian, Sister…Christian Ray. Amuro…was my father."

    "Yes," Sister Frau answers with another whisper, "Oh, you look so much like him…taller, but otherwise…"

    Jolie interjects, "Christian…Sister Frau was a good friend of Amuro's. They grew up together here at Side 7 during the Seventies…before the One Year War."

    "Sister Frau," Christian says, "My mother mentioned you a few times when I was little."

    "Who was your mother, Christian?" Frau asks.

    "Velotrika Irma," Christian replies.

    "Velotrika Irma," Sister Frau repeats, "Velotrika…I never met your mother, Christian. But my late husband Hayato told me about her. He described her as a hot-blooded woman unafraid to speak her mind, and back it with action…the very kind that Amuro would love most."

    Christian does not know what to say, and thus, says nothing.

    Sister Frau smiles benignly, taking the youth's hand, "Come…there's so much we need to discuss. Major Minh…would you join us?"

    "Of course, Sister," Jolie says.

    to be continued...

  19. #19
    Senior Member Ghaleon's Avatar
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    So these are new episodes for your fanfic... How long did it take u to write them??

  20. #20
    Moderator Ken Cheng's Avatar
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    Episode 5 continued...

    Nearly two hours later, in the garden that occupies the central courtyard of the church, Sister Frau concludes her discussion of her relationship with Amuro Ray – from the time they met as school children during the early UC 0070s, through the One Year War and their time as fellow Earth Federation Forces soldiers aboard the White Base, up through their last correspondences shortly before Amuro's death in UC 0093.

    "I want to thank you, Sister Frau, for sharing all that with me," Christian says, "There's so much that I didn't know about…Amuro. My mother was very reluctant to talk about him with me."

    "Understandable," Sister Frau said, "Christian…I don't want to give you the wrong impression. I'm not trying to tell you that Amuro was a saint. He wasn't. The Lord knows how I used to get on him for being selfish and hotheaded, and he sometimes was. He wasn't perfect, Christian…any more than any of us are, but deep down, Amuro cared. He cared about those he loved, and even those he hated. I think it's important that you know that about him."

    Christian nods quietly.

    "One more thing I want to say, Christian," Frau says softly, "It's important to have faith in others…even when they aren't at their best. It's when they aren't that they need that faith more than ever."

    "Thank you, Sister Frau," Christian says, embracing the nun, once his father's closest friend.

    Frau gives the young man a final smile and an affectionate pat on the cheek and disappears into the cathedral, to see to her daily duties.

    Jolie, who had been quietly polishing off a cigarette while Christian had his discussion with Sister Frau, now rejoins him.

    "Thanks," Christian says to Jolie.

    "For what?" Jolie asks.

    "I understand why you brought me here today," Christian replies, "You wanted me to find faith in other people again…starting with my dad."

    Jolie grins conspiratorially, "I did it for entirely selfish reasons: so you'd start trusting me in combat. The next time we go up against the Omega Gundam, we're not going to lose…at least not because we failed to trust each other."

    The sore point unavoidable, Christian pauses before asking, "Do you really think…that the pilot of the Omega Gundam is a clone of you?"

    Jolie nods, "All the data we have on the Omega Gundam points in that direction, and I know that it's not just technologically possible, but done before. The Titans created the clones Four Murusame and Rosamia Baudam to pilot their Psycho Gundam units during the Gryps Conflict, and the Axis Zeon produced the Ple twins to do the same for their own experimental MS a year later."

    "But who's behind it?" Christian wonders, "Who has the resources to do something like that now…and who obviously has a beef with both the Federation and the Shambala Republic?"

    Jolie says nothing…her lips becoming a thin, angry line.

    Christian's thoughts turn in another direction, and he places another question to Jolie, "So what are we going to do about this clone, if that's what it is?"

    "We're going to kill her," Jolie says without the slightest hesitation.

    The words, delivered with utter, ruthless decisiveness, seemingly so out of place in the midst of a house of worship named for a patron of mercy, send a chill down Christian's spine.

    "But ma'am," Christian responds, "She…"

    "She's an abomination," Jolie bites out, "Created by a sick mind for a sick purpose. As soldiers of the Earth Federation Forces, our duty is to put her down before she hurts any more people."

    "Yes, ma'am," Christian says, but unable, ultimately, to lay aside certain doubts.

    Faith…

    ************************************************** *************

    "You can't tell me you don't think he's cute, Rayann," sixteen-year old Chief Warrant Officer Amy Chu says to her best friend, Chief Warrant Rayann Zhang (a year older than Amy), "I've seen the way you look at him in the officer's mess and in the corridors!"

    "The same way you look at him," Rayann says with a coy grin, "There's nothing you can accuse me of that you aren't equally guilty of."

    "Hey," Amy protests, "At least I'm not the one who left a boyfriend back home at Side 6..."

    Rayann tosses a cushion at Amy, "Will you quit saying that, already? Kevin isn't my boyfriend anymore, our relationship ended when I joined the Federal Forces."

    Amy sighs, "I really hate the idea of having to compete with you…my best friend."

    Rayann answers, "You won't have to. Neither of us have a chance in hell – because it's pretty clear that Christian has his eyes on the Major."

    "Damn her," Amy complains, "All the cute guys want her."

    Rayann smiles, "It's that 'White Phoenix' Mystique, you know? How can we hope to compete with that?"

    Amy tosses her long, lustrous hair, "She's a married woman, though."

    "Was married," Rayann reminds her friend, "Her husband died years ago. You knew them when you were really little."

    "Yeah, I did," Amy replies, "If not for Jolie and Jonah, I'd probably have died in wilderness down on Earth al those years ago. Jolie is my hero too, Rayann, but having known her since back then…well, she's changed a lot."

    "Losing the love of your life will do that to a person," Rayann remarks dryly.

    "I suppose, but…"

    Amy does not finish her statement as Jolie and Christian enter.

    "Ma'am!" Amy and Rayann snap to attention, saluting their commanding officer.

    Jolie returns their salutes and grins at her two charges' skimpy casualwear, consisting of little more than oversized t-shirts, "Sorry to not have told you we were coming in this morning. It was sort of spur of the moment."

    Amy and Rayann garble out some sort of response that Jolie doesn't care to decipher, and then she tells them, "Get dressed and report to the Conference Room at precisely 13:30. We have important matters to discuss."

    Jolie turns and walks away, and Christian joins her, but not before stealing a glance back towards Amy and Rayann and giving them a rakish wink, causing them both to blush.

    ************************************************** ***************

    At precisely 13:30 (twenty minutes later), Jolie has the Centurion Team convened in the conference room – herself, Christian, Captain Chieming Noah, Major Eric Gardner, Chief Warrant Officers Amy Chu and Rayann Zhang, and Col. Christina McKenzie, present at Jolie's request.

    "Based on the data from our combat experiences against the Omega Gundam to date," Jolie tells her fellow officers, "its pilot is most likely a Newtype clone…of me."

    The pronouncement produces gasps of shock amidst the Federal Forces officers. For a long moment, there is only stunned silence.

    "Newtype cloning technology isn't new," Col. Christina McKenzie observes, "But it's also not something that just anybody can accomplish. Costly resources are necessary for it to happen…to say nothing of access to samples of your DNA, Major Minh-Miguel."

    "Have there been any break-ins at the medical labs that house Federal Forces personnel's tissue samples?" Jolie asks.

    "Nothing like that in years," Col. McKenzie affirms, "Not since long before you were recruited, Major."

    That only solidifies Jolie's suspicions, though she judiciously bites her tongue.

    "If it is indeed a clone piloting the Omega Gundam," Jolie tells her team, "Then destroying her is imperative…even if we must destroy the Omega Gundam as well."

    "Major Minh-Miguel," Major Gardner interjects, "May I offer a suggestion?"

    "Go ahead, Eric," Jolie says.

    "As Col. McKenzie was intimating," Eric muses, "Whoever produced this supposed 'Jolie-clone' must have access to vast resources. Whoever they are, they can possibly produce more clones of you…or of Camille Vidan, Amuro Ray, Judau Ashta…whoever. Even if we succeed in destroying the clone, the real threat will still be out there…and we'll have no way of tracing the source."

    Jolie sees what Eric is getting at, "So are you suggesting that we use a reverse Trojan Horse strategy?"

    Eric nods, "If we do it correctly, the clone will lead us right back to her puppet master."

    "There's just one problem," Jolie says acidly, "How are we going to find the damn thing again? It's not gonna take the bait for another trap, Eric."

    Major Gardner nods, "I'll run a fresh round of telemetry scans. Now that the Omega Gundam has sortied a half dozen times, our tracking devices can probably triangulate its approximate point of origin."

    "Guess we shouldn't really worry about it," Jolie shrugs, "I have a feeling that it'll come to us before long."

    ************************************************** ***************

    Several hours later, after the meeting has adjourned, Jolie and Christian study schematics of the Omega Gundam provided to them by Dr. Camille Vidan. The two Special Forces pilots pore over each detail of the rogue mecha's internal layout. Smoke drifts lazily from the ends of the lit buttes of their cigarettes, and the equally languid expressions belie their focus. The object of their focus: accessible external points of the Omega Gundam.

    Jolie extracts the half-smoked cigarette from between her lips and blows out a column of smoke, pointing at the holographic image before them, "There…on its left hip…a storage nacelle for emergency supplies…just large enough to fit one of us in."

    Christian nods, "Two of us, maybe…if you don't mind getting cozy."

    Jolie grins, inhaling from her cigarette again before replying, "Not that you wouldn't be yummy to cozy up with…but I've got other plans for you."

    Christian sighs, "I take over the PSI-Gundam while you get aboard the Omega Gundam, right?"

    Jolie replies, "Someone has to keep it spaceborne…can't trust an operation this delicate to the autopilot…or just any pilot. I need my backup to be the very best."

    Christian says, "Hah. Flatterer. OK, I'll follow orders, but I'm telling you in advance: if you get into trouble out there, I'm coming right in after you, one way or another."

    "I'm counting on it," Jolie answers with a wry grin, "Faith is, after all, a two-way street. I'm just gonna have to have faith that your judgment is at least as good as mine."

    "Having faith in people is one thing," Christian says, "but I'm wondering: how much faith do we have in our machines?"

    Jolie turns her eyes to Christian, "You've noticed something wrong too, eh?"

    Christian nods, "Control response was a bit out of synch on the Centurion Gundam during the last sortie. It wasn't fatal, obviously, but it could have been. I already talked to Captain Duran-Pearce of the maintenance corps, and she and her crew are doing what they can, but the real problem is in the quality of the components they're getting from the supply corps. "

    Jolie exhales another long column of tobacco smoke, "The quality of workmanship on the Federal Forces' mobile suits has declined steadily since the end of the Phobos War. A big part of it is that the Federation isn't the great world power it was years ago and doesn't have military budget that a major power would. Another reason is that for the past five years, the Federal Forces have been supplied primarily by the Buch Concern."

    Christian's eyes widen, "Buch Concern? That's…"

    "Meitzer Ronah's conglomerate," Jolie affirms, "and he's the Defense Minister of the Shambala Republic."

    Christian sighs, "So much for trust, eh?"

    "Yeah," Jolie replies, "Even our mecha might betray us at the worst time."

    Christian brightens and offers, "The same might be true for the Omega Gundam."

    Jolie shakes her head, "I test piloted that engine of death for more than a year. I can assure you that the Federation held nothing back in its design and construction, and that was one contract that the High Command did not offer to the Buch Concern. Anaheim Enterprises got the exclusive rights not only for its development and construction, but also its maintenance…unlike our…older models, the White Phoenix and the Centurion, which started switching to the cheaper grade maintenance materials about two years ago, just as the Omega Gundam neared completion. WPG and CG should have been phased out by now, Christian. What's kept them in service this long are all the delays that Project: Omega has run into…"

    "…the latest being it getting stolen from right under the Federation's nose," Christian says.

    Jolie butts out her cigarette and switches off the holographic projector, "We've done everything we can here. Let's suit up: if WPG and CG aren't working right, we'd better find out where before taking them into combat against the OG again."

    to be continued...

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