Disclaimer: I don't own Gundam.
A big, big thanks to LW for taking time out to proofread my hideous draft. THANK YOU!
Also, I'm really sorry about the length, feel free to take breaks. More on that at the end.
Death at the Zodiac
In the Rem Republic, the official residence of their elected presidents was a majestic building known as the Ivory Tower. Constructed using materials salvaged from the Lion Ark, it had served as a beacon of hope for the newly arrived refugees in the republic's early days and continued to do so even as the first city of New Lyon rose around it. Today, while the Ivory Tower still attracted much reverence and photo-ops as it stood out amongst the taller skyscrapers looming behind it, the same could not said for its occupants.
"Six months after the disastrous Fourth Battle for Lemuria, the Winter administration still refuses to outline its strategy to win the Lemurian Conflict or bring RDF troops stranded on the yellow planet back home, claiming military confidentiality."
Tapping her finger with increasing agitation, Caroline sat behind her oak desk and watched the TV hung up on the Lion Office wall as a female journalist reported from outside the very tower the president was in.
"As the administration continues to poll poorly over the issue, the leader of the opposition, Senator Chalmers, has made it a key argument for the election next year and had this to say."
The report cut to a round man with a grey combover standing outside the domed legislature building where congress was held and he appeared to be speaking in front of a crowd.
"The winter of our discontent never ends with this president! Well, I say we give her a taste of her own medicine and freeze her out until the troops are brought home! Bring the troops home! Bring the troops home! Bring the…"
The senator and his supporters began to chant, but Caroline muted the volume by throwing the remote at the screen and it bounced off with a bang.
"Winter of our discontent?! I'm the one who's discontent!" she cried, standing up and slamming her desk. "Stupid Chalmers. What the hell happened to national unity in times of crisis? And where's my coffee?!"
"Right here, Madam President!"
Ridgeway rushed in carrying a takeaway cup of steaming hot coffee and, paying mind to the emblem of Rem's standing White Lion imprinted on the blue carpet, went around it and handed the commander-in-chief her morning dose of caffeine. The defence minister, and occasional errand-boy, wiped the sweat from his wet forehead with a handkerchief only to perspire some more as he watched the president take a sip and frown.
"Ridgeway, you nincompoop! I ordered a triple regular espresso with almond milk – this is a quad decaf caffé latte with soy!"
"I-I'm sorry, Madam President, but they said it was the same thing!"
"Who? Who said that?! Darren?!"
"Darren quit, Madam President…"
For a moment, Caroline's angry features were overcome with shock at the departure of her favourite barista before she downed the container's contents in one and thrust it back into Ridgeway's chest.
"Listen to me carefully, Ridgeway – you march back down to that cafeteria, find someone who knows how make coffee the way I like it, and don't come back until they do it right!"
"B-But the elevator's out of service! I already had to walk a dozen flights of stairs – twice!"
"Really? No wonder my coffee was a degree cooler than I liked…" Winters clicked her tongue before coming up with a suitable solution. "…Next time, run."
Ridgeway looked horrified and his teeth began to chatter.
The president put her hands on her hips and stared the minister down with her hawk-like eyes, silencing him. With slumped shoulders, Ridgeway retreated without another word and passed the large figure of Admiral Barton as he left.
"Barton!" Winters yelled and pointed his attention to the TV. "Are you seeing this? We're getting killed on TV! What's the point of the Lionheart's achievements if I can't announce them?!"
"Please be patient, Madam President. The Lionheart's mission is still on-going – it would be disastrous for all of us if the enemy obtained any clues to its activities and findings. But once all the locations on the star map have been searched, I promise you will have a wealth of good news to announce to the public," Barton's calm and authoritative demeanour managed to placate his leader as usual and the president sat back down with a long sigh. "In fact, I just received a report that the Lionheart and the First Fleet have passed the Gate into the Zodiac Union and came to share it with you."
"I suppose everything is going according to plan…" Caroline admitted and bit her thumb, thinking of ways to distract the public and media until the Lionheart returned to win her the election only for her intercom to buzz. "Yes?"
"Madam President, the ZU ambassador is on the line," her secretary said.
"Him again? The ZU better not be backing out of our deal," the president grumbled, picked up the phone and instantly transformed from frigid to sunny. "Ambassador Li! How good to hear from you again. Did you pass on my regards to Chancellor Zhou? I trust our arrangement is intact – free passage for our fleet to explore the ZU and ship-building materials in exchange for arms and new technology, including any resulting from the fleet's discoveries, is more than generous I would argue… wait, what? What?! What did you say?!"
During his tenure advising the Winter Administration, Barton had rarely seen anything faze the master chameleon politician but as he watched her mask slip away even the admiral of the fleet could not help but hold his breath with alarm.
"Admiral…" Caroline finally spoke in a low whisper. "It's a tiny possibility, but… we may have a leak…"
It was that red suit again. That peerless Valkyrie of wrought steel and polished armour; it should have been a thing of beauty. Instead, it filled Ray's heart with terror and its demonic face haunted the man even in his dreams.
But this was no dream.
Like a shooting star of ill omen burning brightly in the darkness of space, the Fenrir swooped down from the heavens on a pair of fiery crimson wings and glowing yellow eyes. Ray wrenched his controls and the Hermes narrowly avoided the speeding red blur by thrusting to the side. This was not going to end the same way as his dreams – not if he could help it.
Demonstrating the Hermes' uncanny agility, the ace coiled the mobile suit around and went after the Fenrir without delay, firing his twin rifles at its rear. The red beast twisted and turned as its pursuer gave chase, dodging rapid bursts of blue plasma while trying to shake free. But Ray alternated his fire and guided the enemy into his crosshairs – and one perfectly timed pull of his trigger later, a beam pierced the Scarlet Wolf's back before she exploded.
The destruction of his hated foe should have been cause for celebration, but Ray knew it was far from over and the ping of his radar proved it so – a second Fenrir, charging from underneath. The pilot kicked in his reverse thrusters and dodged the swing of a neon beamsabre, followed by several more slashes as he flew away at speed – facing backwards. The Hermes was so nimble that even while flying the wrong way around in space it managed to keep the speeding Fenrir just out of reach – long enough for Ray to dispatch the Scarlet Wolf for a second time with a well-aimed shot.
The red suit transformed into a giant fireball, which swiftly extinguished in the vacuum of space to reveal a charred, floating husk. Ray leaned back in his seat to admire his handiwork, before the screen went black and the roof of the cockpit opened at the sound of a drawn-out jingle. When the Ray-Man floated out of the simulator, he made sure he was wearing his cockiest grin.
"How's that brat? That's five wins in a row now!" he hooted, and when Freya floated out of her own simulator with a furious gaze Ray made sure she saw him smooth his orange fringe back. "They don't call me an ace for nothing!"
"Shut up, old man!" the Pink Diva growled, and banged her fist on the simulator. "I don't get it – we had you beat for the first five matches!"
"You did, but – and don't take this personally – your piloting became way too predictable," Ray smirked and wagged his finger, causing Freya to angrily grind her teeth. "You're going to have to change it up more than that if you want to fight the Scarlet Wolf, let alone imitate her."
"There's no need to gloat, warrant officer. We are doing this for your benefit, you realise," Alice appeared from the simulator next to Freya and chided him with a tiny hint of annoyance. "And by your logic I hope you don't mean to die at Vega Aurelia's hands five times in a row before finally beating her, because there is a small quandary to that plan."
"That's right!" Freya banged her fist again, sickened ever since learning they had to play the Scarlet Wolf to help with Ray's trauma over a month ago. "We don't have to take this from the guy who was puking his guts out every training session until a week ago – hey, where are you going? We want our rematch, old man!"
"Sorry, Ensign Brat, but this old man needs a short break," Ray waved the sore loser away and made for the door.
When it closed shut behind him, only then did Ray bend over and clutch his chest, panting heavily like he had run a marathon.
"Those little monsters…!" he whispered, wiping the sweat from his forehead, and his eyes bulged out of their sockets with disbelief.
Ray thought he had Team Orthrus' number after studying hours of footage of them in action back at the R&D lab, but nothing could have prepared the former ace for what went on in that simulator room. Those videos were already out of date – the orphans had gotten even better since and as a technopath he could not compare; it was all Ray could do to keep up with them. Sure, he may have finally won five matches in a row there, but he had no doubt Freya and Alice would learn from their mistakes and be even stronger next time.
However, Laura was the worst. When Ray fought Laura, even though he knew it was a simulation, he could seriously believe at times that he was facing off against the Scarlet Wolf herself. Fortunately, Commander Gabriel's training regimen in the VR relic, in combination with his meds, had helped tremendously with his fears. With some more sessions and some luck, Ray prayed he would finally be free of his trauma.
"You were right, commander… this all just might become a sweet memory," he murmured, regaining his breath. "I hope…"
"So, what do you think so far?"
Laura, who had been monitoring the mock battles on the simulator room's computer with Junko, asked the others once Ray was out of sight.
"Humph. I guess he passes…" Freya crossed her arms with a grunt and tossed her head.
"She says he's pretty good," Alice translated with a smile, and the diva slapped her shoulder in retaliation. "Not only are his technopathic abilities almost on par with us, he has a lot of dogfighting experience with LIRA and gives excellent advice – and he seems to be getting over his trauma, which is promising."
"Yeah, I was getting sick of the smell of barf in the simulators…" Junko made a face, and the others nodded in agreement. "But seriously, ever since the Ray-Man showed up, everyone's data keeps getting better! It's like you're all pushing each other to reach a higher level."
The mechanic showed off the positive graphs on the monitor and they huddled around it.
"I knew it – some fresh blood and new ideas was just what we needed to test and overcome our limits," said Laura, wondering if this was what Admiral Turner intended. "At this rate, we should be prepared for whatever LIRA throws at us in the Zodiac Union."
"Don't forget the Scarlet Wolf," Freya punched her fist. "I can't wait to test my Brunhild on her!"
"As expected of the daughter of bookworms, you really like that name," Alice teased.
"Well, it's a lot better than yours," the diva shot back.
"Do not speak ill of the Jabberwock!" the Disappointing Angel retorted to much laughter.
Before they left Colony Zero, the pair had been test flying their new mobile suits every day and had fallen in love with them from the first flight. Milos had forbidden them from giving the prototypes full paint jobs, much to Freya's consternation since the Hermes was entirely navy blue, so instead they settled with painting just their chest armour and limbs; rose pink for the Brunhild and sky blue for the Jabberwock. Laura also joined their flights to test the Orthrus' new Solar equipment and it was all monitored by representatives from the R&D division, who additionally examined the Gundam and the relics they had found.
In the end, the Solar and VR relics were shipped back to the division's lab, but Laura had been allowed to keep the Orthrus for the upcoming mission – much to her relief. She wouldn't be able to fight the Scarlet Wolf without it.
"Names aside, don't get too cocky with your new suits," she lectured them, somewhat hypocritically. "We've had lots of time to prepare, but so has Vega Aurelia and her Space Puppies – be ready for anything."
"We don't want to hear that from you, Blonde Hellhound," Freya pointed out with a smirk and was followed up by Alice.
"You're starting to sound like the demon commander, Laura."
"Take that back!" the technopath cried, only to join their laughter.
"Well, LIRA has a star map too, so we'll run into them sooner or later in the ZU," said Junko, before she put up her fists and her eyes sparkled. "But I'm more interested in the relics we'll find – they've been so amazing so far! And if we're going planet-hopping, that means we'll finally get to see the full power of the Lionheart's Pion Engine! Did you know? Not only can it provide thrust for combat and propulsion for long distance travel, it can use small amounts of metallic hydrogen for rocket fuel and blast us out of an atmosphere at escape velocity, all in a matter of…!"
The technology wiz had to cut her excited explanation short when the ship's intercom came on and they heard the imposing voice of Commander Gabriel.
"Attention crew. The ZU Militia has been sighted and will be escorting the Lionheart and the First Fleet on our relic hunt through the Zodiac System," she informed them. "As such, the commander of the militia fleet will be boarding the Lionheart for discussions and I expect any available officers to be present at the hanger bay when they arrive. That means you, Team Orthrus."
The intercom turned off and the orphans shivered before they quickly made for the door.
"Wait, the ZU Militia?" Laura stopped them. "Not the Navy?"
The ZU Navy, or ZUN, was the Union's sole but respectable fleet of Naga-class cruisers which were reportedly stationed at the planet of Arcturus, the resting place of the Dragon Ark and headquarters of the Union, where its chancellor resided. So, it was with great surprise when Admiral Barton informed Turner and Milos that ZUN would guide them through the ZU as part of President Winter's arrangement with Chancellor Zhou. This was unusual, considering the Union was neutral in the Lemurian Conflict and presumably would not want to show favouritism to either side, but as military men they had to trust their leaders had done their political homework and officially it was a joint military exercise to combat space piracy.
However, the fleet before them did not consist of Naga-class cruisers, but smaller Gladiator-class destroyers – obsolete RDF ships sold to the Union by Rem a decade ago – and were eight in number. They had been repainted khaki green and gold, the colours of the ZU, and the Union motif of the turquoise dragon was also branded on their hulls. They were led by a ninth ship, an impressive jade cruiser with a pincer-shaped bow, and it was this vessel that informed the RDF Fleet they were the ZU Militia.
"Just what the hell is going on?" Milos whispered, watching as the hangar bay prepared for their guests. The leader of the militia fleet had promised to explain the sudden escort change in person, but the captain had a security team on hand just in case.
"Calm down, son," Admiral Turner, who spoke from the Baselard on Milos' PDA, reassured the man. "None of us are experts in ZU politics, but my gut tells me something has changed since President Winters made her deal."
Though the rear admiral was technically in charge of the expedition and the remnants of the First Fleet, which now numbered only eight operational ships after its defeat at Lemuria destroyed twenty and damaged twelve, he followed the lead of the Relic Hunter Division. This was why the Militia leader was meeting them on the Lionheart and not the Baselard, since planning the relic hunt would be much better served there.
"Captain, they're here," Sofia informed Milos, and he put the PDA in his front pocket so Turner could watch.
A large section of the hangar floor slid open to reveal a deep shaft and a green transport shuttle emerged from the airlock elevator. Members of the Lionheart's crew gathered up on the gallery to watch, including the orphans and Ray, who discussed the newcomers with interest.
"This isn't a ruse, is it?" Laura asked, keeping an eye on their precious mobiles suits along with Freya and Alice. "They say they're the Militia, but that fleet is a little bit…"
"Out of date?" Ray finished for her. "It does feel more like a rickety old pirate outfit rather than a military fleet, but I seriously doubt pirates could get their hands on so many Gladiators."
"Do you think they're pirates?" Junko ventured with excitement. "They do say some of the ZU Militia are former pirates!"
"Look, they're coming out," Freya pointed, and the gallery went quiet.
The first to exit the shuttle was an athletic woman with dark skin and hair, which was dyed with red streaks and braided into locks on one side and shaved on the other. By her confident gait and easy smile, she appeared to be the leader of the boarding party and the stares coming from the gallery did not intimidate her in the least. She was followed out by two young men and one woman, who were of similar age to the orphans, and the young woman particularly caught their attention because of her emerald eyes.
"Laura," Alice gasped, touching her friend's shoulder and the blonde nodded.
"She looks like Tully…"
The Militia did not appear to have a standard uniform because the quartet dressed in a colourful variety of civilian clothing; in fact, the only thing they shared was the turquoise armbands they each wore. The woman with braided locks was especially fashionable, sporting tight black leggings, knee-high boots, and a gothic red coat which she wore over a white dress shirt and black waist coat. If one were to watch Sofia's expression, they would have witnessed it collapse with horror.
"Captain Hartmann?" the woman greeted Milos with a salute and introduced herself. "Zora Adesina, captain of the Ganymede and commander of the ZU Militia."
"Captain Adesina," Milos returned the salute. "Welcome aboard the Lionheart. We were told to expect the ZU Navy, so you can imagine our surprise to run into the Militia."
"Aha, I know what you must be thinking… they must be pirates! Who else would fly those rusty old Gladiators?" Zora shouted up to the gallery with good humour and earned quite a few laughs in return. "Indeed, the Militia might be a ragtag group and rough around the edges, but I can promise you this – we're staunch anti-LIRA fighters and I dare say we hate them as much as you Remians! Down to their bones!"
The gallery erupted with cheers and Zora ate it up with a grin, giving a sour-faced Sofia a wink when she saw the XO staring with disapproval.
"I see we're going to get along just fine, captain," said Milos, who managed not to join in with the ovation by coughing into his hand. "Why don't we continue this discussion in the Lionheart's strategy room?"
"Please, call me Zora. You've probably guessed already, but we don't stand on ceremony in the Militia," said Zora, blatantly smiling at Sofia, before gesturing to her three subordinates. "And I hope you don't mind, but I brought the Militia's best technopaths and pilots with me – I thought it would be good for them to see the workings of an actual military ship and, perhaps, learn from its trained technopathic pilots. I imagine they'll be working together on relic hunts."
"That can be arranged," said Sofia, who gestured for the orphans to come down, and introduced herself. "Commander Sofia Gabriel, the Lionheart's XO."
"Charmed, I'm sure," Zora responded, looking the woman up and down with a lusty gaze, and Sofia resisted the urge to kick the Zodian back into her shuttle.
While the three militiamen were left with Team Orthrus, Milos and Sofia lead Zora to the Lionheart's strategy room, where they could converse in private. The room was notable for its large hologram table and monitors on each wall, one of which Milos activated and Admiral Turner appeared on-screen to join the discussions.
"Well, Zora, I think we'd like to hear your explanation. Where is the ZU Navy?" Turner got straight to the point, after their introduction had been made.
"Back on Arcturus, where they always are. Useless swine!" Zora almost spat the insult with a scowl. "I only heard about this arrangement between our countries at the last moment when they pushed us to go. In fact, I don't think ZUN ever intended to come meet your fleet."
"Why do you say that?" asked Milos.
"I don't know how much you know about what goes on in the ZU, but for the last ten years LIRA's Fourth Fleet has operated here with impunity. They harass and kill our people, bullying Union planets until they accept whatever demands they have – if they ask at all," the Zodian's harsh words were laced with pure hatred and she had to pause to compose herself. "That's why I formed the Militia – to stand up to them with those who were brave enough. But we are too few, spread out, and outgunned. By the time we arrive at a razed settlement or hear a junker ship's distress signal, the curs are long gone."
"That's outrageous…!" Sofia whispered, angry on her behalf. "Does the Union or ZUN not intervene?"
"Those lily-livered politicians only care about neutrality, Arcturus, and their own skins – never the other Union planets. They constantly dismiss the evidence and witnesses, and instead they blame pirates, accidents, misadventure… or sometimes the Militia itself," Zora recounted with thinly veiled disgust. "Even when we do manage to catch them in the act, LIRA is smart enough to either disguise their colours or hire someone else to do their dirty work. The former is some sort of special ops squad we've once traced back to the Tempest – the flagship of the Reaper himself."
"The Reaper…" Admiral Turner repeated the name of the infamous general of LIRA's Fourth Fleet with concern. "Why? What does he have to gain by committing all these atrocities?"
The news of the LIRA general's presence sent a chill down the rear admiral's spine – and for good reason.
Ten years ago in 296AC, at the Second Battle for Lemuria, the discovery of the lost planet and its relics five years previous had led to the advent of beam technology and, with it, a new level of carnage for the conflict. While the RDF's hulking Knight-class battleships had kept LIRA's fleet at bay using their superior cannon range, one ship had broken through and demonstrated Rem's folly for neglecting research into mobile suits and smaller beam tech by releasing the perfect combination – the Warg mobile suits. After that bloodiest of battles had ended, Turner learned the grim moniker of Leonidas Cypher, who had both captained that lone ship and helped develop the Wargs. Having faced the Reaper on the battlefield himself, the admiral knew he was not one for random acts of violence – everything Cypher did was calculated.
Unbeknownst to the other three, Sofia tensed at the mention of the Reaper and clutched her arms, squeezing them tight before forcing herself to relax.
"We don't know exactly why – on the surface it appears LIRA is terrorising Union members so they can get favourable trade terms and resources for Lux, but some of their actions make no sense," Zora answered the admiral with a shake of her head. "For example, they make incursions even on pro-Lux planets and the Fourth Fleet has gone over nearly every inch of the ZU as if they're searching for something… and wherever they've been, people go missing. It's not unheard of for whole villages to disappear overnight after the Reaper passes them, usually in remote outposts that have no political or military value…"
The Militia leader bit her thumb in frustration and the RDF officers shared her confusion and distress.
"Anyway… that's the gist of the ZU's state of affairs," Zora finished with a sigh. "You've probably guessed, but I suspect the reason they sent the Militia instead is because the Navy and Chancellor Zhou already made an arrangement with Lux too."
"So, they're trying to have the best of both worlds and stay neutral at the same time?" Milos grunted, unsure if he should be impressed or appalled.
"And the Militia isn't exactly friends with any of those buzzards on Arcturus," Zora added, almost proudly. "They'd be glad to be rid of us if fighting starts – especially me."
"I wasn't expecting a cake walk in the ZU, but this is worse than I anticipated…" said Turner, and he stroked his bushy white beard in thought. "Is it too late to contract Rem on the QEC relay and ask for instructions?"
"The next time the Gate will open is another week to receive our mission update, admiral," Sofia explained. "But even then, we would be delayed another week waiting for an answer – more, with less relay points on our side."
"Then we must act on our own initiative," Milos declared. "We can't let LIRA get a head start on us – the relic hunt must continue."
"I agree – and for what it's worth these circumstances just might be the best outcome possible for the RDF," Zora grinned, and put one hand on her hip. "No one else knows the ZU better than the Militia – we come from every corner and know every route and planet inside out. If there's a relic out there, we'll find it for you."
The RDF officers gave each other cursory glances and the agreement was unanimous. With a nod of his head, Milos gave Sofia his consent and the XO activated the hologram table. While not a technopath, Sofia operated the console with ease and a column of bright blue light touched the ceiling before transforming into two holographic maps – a 3D representation of the Zodiac system and the star map.
"This is the star map we found inside a relic on Lemuria's moon, Lenos. We believe it shows the co-ordinates of six relics within the Zodiac system," the commander explained, before merging the two maps together. "Accounting for planetary orbits since the Lemurian Cataclysm three centuries ago, when we hypothesise the map was made, we theorise the relics to be at these points."
Zora leaned forward and scanned the red dots on the hologram with inquisitive brown eyes.
"I know these co-ordinates… most are on planets I've visited before on the Ganymede – the Militia can guide you through them and negotiate with the locals," she nodded, fascinated by the map. "In fact, if we trace the most straightforward route through these points, it is remarkably similar to the one the Dragon Ark supposedly took after the Cataclysm – it even ends on Arcturus."
"So that's our route," Milos nodded, satisfied, and the dots were joined by a red line as Sofia already plotted a course. "What about LIRA? Do you have a prediction on their route? We have good reason to believe they also possess a star map."
"Well, we know the Fourth Fleet just arrived back after resupplying at Elsinore Base and, as you know, the two Gates in the ZU orbit the edges of the system on opposite ends," Zora gestured at the hologram and attempted to answer the captain's question. "While they could start at either end of the route… my guess is they'll head to Arcturus first. Starting from our end would take them too far out of the way, especially from their supply points, and, if they've deciphered this star map as well as you, the Reaper may not want to risk a confrontation without a way of retreat. We'll lose some relics, but hey – we can just take them when we meet and beat LIRA in the middle?"
"Spoken like a true pirate," Admiral Turner nodded and smiled, impressed. "So, Zora, what is our first destination?"
"The planet of water – Undine," she informed them, pointing at the closest set of co-ordinates to the Lionheart. "I hope your ships and mobile suits are seaworthy."
"Uh…" Milos started, grimacing. "Knight-class battleships can't even fly in an atmosphere, let alone get back into space without a mass driver. The Lionheart is atmospheric capable and can re-enter space on its own power, but…"
"…Neither it nor its mobile suits have been cleared for seaworthiness – above or below water," Sofia answered for the captain and sighed heavily. "This is obviously a large oversight on the part of the RDF."
Zora let out a hearty laugh and the RDF officers felt their cheeks heat with embarrassment.
"More like massive cockup!" she ribbed them, before the Zodian breathed out a lengthy sigh and tempered her glee. "Luckily for you the Ganymede can both float on water and submerge and our Raijuu mobile suits can easily switch to underwater equipment. We may not look like much, but never say the Militia isn't prepared for anything in the ZU."
"Yes… we do appreciate your assistance, Zora," Admiral Turner thanked her with a tug of his cap.
"I just need a few things from you first…" Zora smirked, and threw up her hands when she felt Sofia's red eyes narrow on the flamboyantly dressed woman with suspicion. "Oh, don't misunderstand, Sofia! I merely refer to the Militia's lack of reliable relic detection instruments… and I believe I have the perfect solution."
While their superiors held discussions on the ZU relic hunt, Team Orthrus took the militiamen to the Lionheart's mess, but as soon as they got a table the temperature plummeted. The Rem and Zodiac pilots were divided down the middle and sat on opposite sides of the long bench, engaged in some kind of social standoff. Ray had a good inkling of why the orphans hated 'flyboys', having been one himself until his loss to the Scarlet Wolf, but this was childish – especially since they kept glancing at the Militia's sole female pilot with interest.
As the oldest one there, Ray took it upon himself to get the ball rolling and after managing to get Team Orthrus to introduce themselves it was the Militia's turn.
The young man with crossed arms curtly spoke his name before saying no more and closed his eyes. Although Sheeban had a thin build, he looked far from frail and had the manner of an iceberg with a stony expression to match. Wearing a wrinkled steel blue shirt, fingerless gloves and laced boots, he appeared to be the most disciplined and soldier-like out of the trio and had an unusual streak of white hair running down his black fringe.
"Sheeban is our ace," the second man explained, a tanned and strapping youth with short fiery red hair and a sour look permanently etched on his face. "My name is Ignacio Marques and I'm a pilot in the Militia too.
Despite the chill of outer space, Ignacio wore a tattered, sleeveless orange shirt that showed off what appeared to be tribal tattoos and bangles on his toned arms. The Zodian's dark and wary eyes scanned the row of strangers before they settled on the meek girl beside him.
"Oh, um… I'm Shoshanna Chandra… b-but everyone calls me Shana," she began, obviously nervous to be speaking in front of so many people and clutched her hands underneath the table. "They made me a pilot in the Militia because I'm a technopath, but… but I'm not very good at fighting. At least, not compared to Sheeban and Na… Ignacio…"
Shana paused when she noticed all the eyes watching her from across the table and suddenly clammed up with embarrassment. The slim woman hunched over and stared at the table, perhaps expecting her long hair to fall and cover her reddened cheeks, only to gather the wayward midnight tresses in her arms when they floated away. She glanced up as she did, revealing striking emerald orbs which matched her close-fitting tunic, before looking down again.
Having met Shana and her timid bearing up close, her resemblance to Tully only stood out more and Laura found herself openly gawking. Although they had different skin shades – Tully having been quite pale compared to Shana's beautiful bronze – if Tully had grown her mousy hair long, she and Shana might look like sisters of a kind. The Gundam pilot desperately wanted to talk to her but couldn't find the words – and before she could, someone else broke the awkward silence.
"So, which one of you is the White Hellhound?" Ignacio asked, sounding more hostile than curious. "I know it's one of you – this is the RDF relic hunter ship, right?"
Laura didn't know whether she should be pleased or not hearing that news of the White Hellhound had already reached the Zodiac Union.
"Jack…?" Junko guessed, only to realise the junker boy probably had no friends considering his glowing personality.
"No, Jill," Freya whispered back. "Definitely Jill and her big mouth…"
"I am," Laura answered, looking Ignacio right in the eyes. "Got a problem?"
"Huh. No… I just never expected you to be a girl," said Ignacio, before he sneered at them. "I guess all those rumours about you being a hotshot were total hogwash. I bet you're just playing war with your big new toy, like you're on some shopping trip with your girlfriends."
"Nacho!" Shana's jaw dropped, appalled.
"What the hell, asshole?" Freya seethed and slammed the table. "You have no idea what we've been through!"
"I know a bunch of weaklings when I see 'em," Ignacio grinned, shameless and undeterred, and motioned as if shooing them away. "Why don't you run on home and bake some cookies? Leave the war to some real men."
Team Orthrus was just about ready to leap across the table and tear Ignacio a new one but a lone voice managed to keep the peace.
"Stop it, Nacho."
Sheeban's eyes were still closed but the order was enough to burst Ignacio's bubble and he stared at his fellow Zodian, shocked.
"But Ban!" he cried. "You know they deserve everything they get!"
"Ban? Nacho? Bancho? Oh my…" Alice, upon hearing their nicknames, let her imagination take off.
"Not now, Alice…" Laura whispered, before she gave the militiaman a piece of her mind. "I don't know why you're trying to pick a fight, but we're not falling for it – we don't need to prove ourselves to you."
"Why? Because you've been fighting the Scarlet Wolf?" Ignacio snorted. "Yeah, I heard all about it – that, and everything else that happens in your Lemurian Conflict. It's all you Remians and Luxites talk about, as if the Zodiac Union doesn't exist. Well, newsflash – the Militia has been fighting LIRA for years and we've been doing it without your help!"
"You ungrateful brute!" Freya snapped at him. "We come here with our fleet to help you fight LIRA and this how you treat us?!"
"But why only now?!" Ignacio shouted back, almost pained, and gestured around him. "You RDF with your fancy ships, advanced technology and unlimited supplies. Meanwhile, we have to choose between three square meals a day and buying new weapons so we can fight – weapons which are usually leftovers from your war! And when we ask the Rem government for the funding and help ours won't give us, they blow us off – until now! Where the hell were you when we needed you?!"
The furious Zodian stunned the Remians with his tirade and slammed the table several times with heavy blows. Ignacio only stopped when Shana gently touched his shoulder and the militiaman hunched over and gritted his teeth.
"…The only reason you're here now is because you want our relics," Ignacio whispered, as his lips trembled with spite. "If only you had come sooner…"
Speechless, the orphans looked at each other and the mess' atmosphere had gone from frosty, to heated, and back to subzero again. They could only guess what the Militia had gone through against LIRA's superior forces, something the RDF also struggled with and they had greater numbers, but loss and powerlessness in the face of war were feelings they understood all too well. The problem was they also knew there was nothing they could say to ease his pain – so instead, Laura just spoke the truth.
"You're right… we do want your relics," she began, which earned Ignacio's attention along with his ireful gaze. "It's a self-serving reason and the RDF would never have come otherwise… but we're here now. You can either cry about the past you can't change or take control of the present you have… and carve out a better future. Which is it going to be, Ignacio Marques?"
For a moment, the Zodian glowered at Laura, before his eyes closed and a soft chuckle escaped his lips.
"…That's a stupid question, Hellhound," Ignacio said, and from the faint glow in his eyes he perhaps finally recognised something they had in common as soldiers. "I think you already know the answer."
"Then we'll do it together," Laura nodded.
"Yeah, let's kick LIRA's ass!" Junko suddenly interrupted and they all burst out with laughter before a voice shouted over them.
"Wait a second!" Freya demanded, arms crossed. "Nacho, or whatever your name is, don't think we're all buddy-buddy now just because Laura made a nice speech – you still haven't apologised for running your mouth before!"
"Huh? Why the hell should I do that?!" Ignacio shot back, belligerent as ever. "You can't tell me what to do, rich girl!"
"R-Rich?" Freya stammered, although she actually looked kind of pleased. "It's basic manners! What the hell is with you flyboys from the ZU?!"
Alice giggled, while Laura and the others sighed, except for Sheeban for whom indifference appeared to be his default setting.
"Give it a rest, you two…" Laura mediated to no avail until Ray spoke up.
"Well, we're all pilots here, so why don't we settle things the only way we know how?"
It took a second for everyone to catch on to what Ray was talking about, but once they did Freya and Ignacio agreed in a heartbeat. Before they knew it the gathering of RDF and ZU pilots had moved to the simulator room where the Diva and Nacho challenged each other to a duel of virtual combat. Fortunately, Junko kept an updated list of different mobile suits along with their customisable specs, 3D models and equipment, which allowed Ignacio to pilot his modified Raijuu.
"A Raijuu? Pfft!" Freya made her condescending attitude quite clear from the outset. "Hey Junko, you better load up my old Garm, because I actually want this fight to last more than ten seconds."
"You'll eat those words, rich girl – my Raijuu will fly circles around your Garm!" Ignacio crowed with bravado, until he entered his simulator unit and the Zodian's nose twitched with revulsion. "Hey, is it me or does this simulator smell like barf…?"
"Um, it's just you…" Ray lied, and the lids of the simulators dropped closed before they hummed with power and the duel began.
The main screen showed various camera angles of the action, along with the perspectives of Freya and Ignacio's monitors, and the pair appeared to be evenly matched. Ignacio's smaller and lighter Raijuu was certainly quicker and more agile, but it lacked firepower and Freya easily absorbed the shots from his beam rifle with her shield. The Pink Diva would have probably been troubled a month ago, but thanks to Ray's advice she stayed patient and it appeared her victory was only a matter of time.
While Junko and Ray watched the duel with interest, Alice badgered a taciturn Sheeban with questions about his and Nacho's relationship and Laura saw Shana was finally alone.
"Shana…" the blonde started, only to stop when she realised she didn't know what to say next.
"Laura… right?" Shana responded, smiling. "It's nice to see them finally getting along, isn't it?"
"Huh? Oh, them?" Laura followed the girl's emerald gaze to the large screen, where Freya and Ignacio's duel had devolved into a metal-knuckled fistfight. "Well, deep down, they're sort of birds of a feather… not that they'll ever admit it."
Shana covered her mouth and giggled, a soft and melodious sound much like Tully's.
"I hope you can forgive Nacho for all the rude things he said," she pleaded with her big eyes. "I'm sure he didn't mean any of it; he was just upset. Nacho and Ban are actually really nice – ever since I joined the Militia, they've watched over me like older brothers."
"It's okay, I don't mind anymore," Laura assured her. "And I was going to ask – I was worried since you were the only girl, but I'm relieved to hear the Firecracker and Snowman over there aren't always like that."
"Firecracker and Snowman? That's so true…!" Shana giggled again, delighting Laura. "They're the Militia's best pilots, especially Ban, but I just can't compare even though I'm a technopath too."
"Well, maybe I can give you some pointers," the Gundam pilot offered and grinned when the Zodian's emerald eyes lit up. "We can't have any flyboys looking down on us female pilots and they don't call me the White Hellhound for nothing."
"Wow, a private lesson with the famous White Hellhound? Yes, please!" Shana exclaimed playfully and the two girls laughed. "It's so nice to finally talk with a girl my own age – half of the Ganymede's crew is female, but they're all older than me and I don't really interact with them apart from Zora."
"Your captain?" Laura recalled the flamboyant-looking woman and her red coat. "She looked kind of cool. What's she like as a captain?"
"Zora is… Zora," Shana struggled to explain and pursed her lips. "I don't know how a captain is meant to be, but she's like a big sister. Isn't that how it is on your ship?"
While Milos was both captain and family, for some reason the first thought that came to Laura's mind was Sofia, the demon commander with her endless drills and lectures about regulations.
"Sorry… I was just thinking about the question…"
That was when the door to the simulator room hissed open and the odd pair of Sofia and Zora floated through. While Laura and the others saluted on instinct, Shana rushed over to her captain like a puppy.
"Zora!" she cried and smiled at the sight of the older woman.
"Shana!" Zora grinned and threw an arm around the girl. "Playing nice with your new friends?"
The display of familiarity caught the others off guard, but it made sense considering the ragtag nature of the Militia and Laura thought she felt a pang of envy. However, a certain aghast commander had no such feelings of sentimentality and decided to make her views known.
"Ahem… Captain Adesina," Sofia caught her attention with a loud cough. "If you do not mind my saying, perhaps you should refrain from being so familiar with your pilots."
"Hah! Don't sweat it, Sofia!" Zora threw her head back and laughed. "We're not so hung up on rank or discipline in the Militia."
Sofia's red eyes twitched, and the orphans thought she was going to bite Zora's head off.
"Captain Adesina…" Sofia spoke slowly and kept her tone amazingly civil. "I would prefer it if you did not use my first name in front of my subordinates and referred to me as Commander Gabriel instead."
"Oh?" Zora's dark eyes twinkled. "So, it's fine in private?"
If the demon commander could grow a pair of horns and gore the Militia leader with them, she probably would have, but gave the grinning Zodian an icy glare instead. Meanwhile, fearing an explosive fallout, the orphans and Ray gathered in the corner of the room to escape the tension – and share their awe.
"Balls of steel…!" Laura whispered.
"Gundanium…!" cried Junko.
"Ovaries…!" Alice corrected them.
"No slap? Come on…!" Ray murmured, only for Sofia to whip her head around with pin-point accuracy and silence them with laser-like eyes.
A jingle cut through atmosphere and they turned to find the lids of the simulator units opening. On-screen, Freya's battered Garm stood triumphant over the dismembered remains of Ignacio's Raijuu.
"Hah! Take that, flyboy!" A smirking, if breathless, Freya emerged from the simulator and hollered with glee. "Chalk one up for Team Orthrus!"
"Damn it! I would have won if it wasn't for this simulator… it reeks!" Ignacio grumbled and shook his fist. "Ban, you've got to get revenge for me – for Team Banshee!"
Sheeban just ignored his teammate from his corner of the room and when the warring pair finally noticed they had company Freya's arm shot up to salute faster than humanly possible.
"Team Banshee?" Alice said aloud, before putting two and two together. "Sheeban?"
"It's the Militia's nickname for Ban," Shana confirmed.
"I didn't pick the name…" Sheeban answered for once, sounding somewhat displeased.
"Eh, so your team is named after you? You must be some ace, Banshee," Laura softly goaded him, feeling competitive all of a sudden. "I'm the White Hellhound, but our team is only named after my Orthrus."
"I believe I prefer that to Team Hellhound," Alice piped in.
"Yeah, I can already hear the jokes about us being a pack of–"
"–Bitches, was it, Valstein?" Sofia finished for Freya, who nodded with a gulp and relived her trauma. The diva had no idea why, but the demon commander was livid today.
"I was really looking forward to a match in the simulator with you, Sheeban, but I guess it will have to wait until next time," Laura finished with a smirk and gauged the Zodian's reaction, but he didn't even blink – in fact, it was Laura who was left blinking.
"Actually, that match might come sooner than you think, ensign," Sofia gave her star pilot the news. "As of now, you've been temporarily transferred to the Ganymede."
"…W-W-What?!" Laura shouted, after a delayed reaction, along with the others. "But why?!"
"Because the Ganymede lacks relic detection equipment," Zora explained, thoroughly enjoying the look on Laura's face. "Which the Orthrus not only possesses, but its Lemurian design is also likely to function underwater – as your scientists have so theorised."
"Our destination, Undine, is a planet of water," Sofia clarified. "The Orthrus will search for and guide Team Banshee to the relic and, if necessary, absorb the relic's data into its core should retrieval be impractical. Hence, for the purposes of this operation, you and the Gundam will stay aboard the Ganymede to train with its pilots and crew."
"Pardon me, ma'am, but is it wise to just hand the Orthrus over to a foreign ship – allies though they may be?" Ray questioned and earned himself a dirty glare from Ignacio.
"Yeah! What about maintenance? Not anyone can just touch the Orthrus, you know!" Junko added, puffing her cheeks out. "It's not fair Laura gets to frolic on some beach in her bathing suit!"
"A suitable maintenance unit from the Lionheart will be going with the Orthrus – but not you, Kodama, you're needed here," said Sofia, who ignored the mechanic's pouting. "And there are no beaches on Undine; it is entirely ocean according to Captain Adesina, which is why only the Ganymede will be entering its atmosphere. Unlike the Lionheart, it is already proven to be seaworthy and can submerge should the need arise."
"Same with our Raijuu with the right equipment! They're a lot more versatile than your fat Garms, heh," Ignacio smugly declared and shot his next barb at Laura. "Looks like you're apart of Team Banshee now, Hellhound – don't forget your favourite chew toy!"
The young man threw his head back and laughed hysterically, but all Laura and her friends could do was grit their teeth and bear it.
"I'll make a chew toy out of you…" the Gundam pilot hissed under her breath.
"Oh, Laura! It will be wonderful to have you aboard the Ganymede!" Shana grabbed her hand and exclaimed, perhaps not quite realising the gravity of the situation for her new friend.
"Yes, it will be an honour to have the White Hellhound, the bane of LIRA, as our guest," Zora chimed in and threw her arms around both Shana and the petrified ace. "We must celebrate the occasion tonight with a feast!"
Laura found herself staring blankly into space, as if her brain was still processing the information, and scanned the numerous faces around her for help before settling on Sofia.
"Don't look at me, ensign…" the unsympathetic commander threw her hands up in air. "Admiral Turner and Captain Hartmann already gave their approval… so I advise you to suck it up."
"Milos…!" Laura clenched her fist and cursed her adoptive father.
As if that betrayal wasn't enough, when the Militia members left the room Sheeban paused at the door and proved he wasn't entirely above payback.
"Looks like you got your wish, Hellhound," he said in a matter-of-fact monotone before leaving. "Lucky you."
When the door closed, a furious Laura finally grabbed her head and let out a shriek of frustration.
After spending a month at Elsinore Base for resupply and repairs, LIRA's Fourth Fleet returned to the Zodiac Union to continue the relic hunt with the Blue Crow. Although the stealth vessel had started the hunt, the reinforcement of the ten-strong fleet meant General Leonidas Cypher was now in command and the Reaper made it clear the independence the Crow had enjoyed before was now over and they were to submit to his complete authority. Aside from the Blue Crow another Crow-class ship, the Paris, joined the expedition just as they passed through the Gate to the ZU – and it brought with it some rather welcome additions.
The voice echoing throughout the hangar bay of the Blue Crow belonged to a young woman who leapt from the doors of the Paris' recently arrived transport shuttle and into the waiting arms of the Scarlet Wolf. A full head shorter than Vega, she could have easily been mistaken for a child with her petite figure but wore the unmistakable black and white trimmed uniform of a LIRA officer. Furthermore, the Space Wolves' emblem of a wolf clutching a dagger between its jaws was proudly displayed on her shoulder.
As the newcomer threw herself at the mercy of zero-G, a golden curtain of waist-long blonde hair unfurled behind her and revealed a youthful face akin to a porcelain doll's. She had glazed marshmallow white cheeks, a delicate pair of painted pink lips, and a large feline set of ruby red eyes – all of which upturned with joy at the sight of the masked woman.
"Charlotte!" Vega cried, catching her with a grin and they floated backwards together as the girl snuggled against her chest. "I was beginning to think you wouldn't make it."
"How could you think that, Lady Vega?! I came as soon as I received your summons!" Charlotte pouted and craned her neck back so she could look up at her idol before her red eyes softened. "Oh, I missed you, my lady!"
Vega laughed and patted her follower on the head, whereupon Charlotte giggled like a child. Until they were rudely interrupted it was as if the pair were in their own private world.
"Lieutenant Jaeger!" Ursula, who had been watching only metres away with Luke, finally unset her grinding jaw and snapped at the blonde doll. "Unhand Major Aurelia this instant! As I have told you repeatedly, that behaviour is unseemly for a junior officer and could spoil the major's reputation!"
"Tch," Charlotte clicked her tongue upon noticing the brunette and released Vega as instructed. "Oh, if it isn't Captain Roland? I didn't see you there."
The girl smiled sweetly using her child-like features but the false visage did nothing to fool Ursula and it soon became apparent they were well acquainted.
"You very well did see me, Jaeger," Ursula growled and crossed her arms. "Just because the major scouted you personally doesn't give you the privilege to hang off of her like some… some parasite!"
"Oh my… are you jealous, captain?" Charlotte crooned, almost mimicking the Scarlet Wolf, before her polite persona fell away and she puffed her cheeks with anger. "I'm the one who should be jealous – you get to be with Lady Vega all the time! I bet you hog her all to yourself in private."
"W-W-What shameless rumours are you spreading?!" Ursula, red in the face, stuttered and steamed like a kettle. "You…you little imp!"
"I-Imp?! Are you blind, you… you old crone!?"
The pair continued to trade barbs without regard for their surroundings while Vega and Luke chuckled with amusement.
"Charming, aren't they?" the silver haired woman held a hand to her cheek and remarked.
"Yes, they get along so well," a sarcastic Luke agreed.
"Like cats and dogs, you mean."
The soft-spoken voice that joined their musings belonged to a tall man upon whom the LIRA uniform stretched tightly over his large and sturdy frame. His blue hair had been cropped short and a scar ran down the left cheek of his round and weathered face; a fearsome countenance unless one noticed the raised edge of his lips which passed for a smile. The man was the last to exit the transport along with eight others, all of whom wore the emblem of the Space Wolves, and he was not only the tallest among them but clearly the oldest.
"Lieutenant Ivanov!" Luke greeted him with a grin and they clasped hands before the giant and the other newly arrived Space Wolves saluted their masked leader.
"Pavel, everyone," Vega returned the gesture with a casual wave of her hand and scanned the squad with a smile. "I trust you all had a pleasant trip?"
"As pleasant as possible, major," said Pavel, and his male and female comrades nodded in agreement. "The Paris stopped at Elsinore to pick up their newly assigned squadron… which happened to be the reformed Team Ambion."
"That's right! We had to put up with their idiot leader until we caught up with the fleet!" Charlotte, upon hearing the mention of Team Ambion, broke away from Ursula and complained to Vega. "That pig was saying all sorts of horrible things about you to our faces, Lady Vega – I couldn't stand it anymore, so I gave him a piece of my mind, my lady!"
"You kicked the major in the back of the head and gave him a concussion…" Pavel corrected her with a sigh. "You're lucky he had memory loss."
"Humph! He's lucky I didn't walk all over his face – which I would have done if you hadn't gotten in my way, Pavel!" Charlotte sulked and began smacking the man on his chest. "Geez, why did you stop me? Pavel, you dummy!"
Pavel mouthed an inaudible apology and absorbed the playful hits without complaint and to the hilarity of the company. Unless one knew them, the unusual pair appeared more like a weary father and his tantrum-prone daughter than fellow pilots. Or a bear and a small animal, thought Luke as he masked his laughter.
"Easy there, short-stuff – Pavel probably saved you from being shipped back to Lux and separated from your precious major," the raven-haired pilot pointed out, not that it made the girl any more grateful.
"Don't call me short!" Charlotte retorted and switched targets, only for a grinning Luke to catch her tiny fist. "You're insufferable as always, Luke Valorie!"
"While I agree about Lieutenant Valorie, he also happens to be correct," Ursula joined them with a shake of her head. "Striking a superior officer and from House Ambion no less… Not even Major Aurelia's influence would have gotten you out of that one."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you, you thieving cat. You'd have Lady Vega all to yourself then!"
"I, I would not! That's a baseless accusation!"
"Girls, girls…" a smooth voice crooned and Vega wrapped her arms around the combatants, both of whom suddenly lost the power of speech. "Our fellow Space Wolves are finally here – it is a time for celebration, not argument! Won't you cease your hostilities? For me?"
Ursula and Charlotte, whose faces were flushed from ear to ear, quietly nodded and a delighted Vega hugged them even closer.
"Come, Space Wolves! To the ready room where we can regale each other with tales of recent events!" the Scarlet Wolf cried, adding, "And food and drinks are on me!"
Hearing that, the pack raised their fists and cheered before they followed their leader past the watchful eyes of the Fenrir.
The ship's ready room, which was located adjacent to the hangar bay, was a place of work where on-duty pilots would remain on standby until they were called to man their mobile suits. However, in the hands of the Space Wolves, it had been transformed into their own private clubroom complete with pinball machines, arcade cabinets, and a pool table where eating, drinking, gambling and general merrymaking was the norm and encouraged by the Scarlet Wolf herself. When Commodore Sparrhorn passed the room he often heard what sounded like a party going on behind closed doors and today was no different.
Jonas sighed and supposed, as captain, he better have another quiet word with them.
"What the hell is going on in here?!" he bellowed, almost ripping the door off its hinges, and found Major Aurelia leading the dozen-strong squad in what appeared to be a toast – albeit with straws and beverage pouches.
"Oh, commodore!" Vega exclaimed, and if she was surprised she masked it well. "We were just having a little celebration; a Space Wolves reunion if you would. Attention, everyone! You are in the presence of the Blue Crow's captain, Commodore Sparrhorn – the Lunar Fox himself."
Like well-trained hounds, the squadron saluted as one and Jonas stared between them and their smiling master before begrudgingly raising his hand to his head. As the daughter of House Aurelia had arranged, the best of the Space Wolves had been gathered on his ship for the ZU expedition and were an unusual mix of men and women. As the commodore inspected his new crew members, putting faces to the names from their files, he recalled that they were all exceptionally talented technopaths and pilots – more than worthy of catching the Scarlet Wolf's eye. Many were those overlooked or outright ostracised due to prejudices rife within LIRA, which still expected officers to be of a certain class and gender.
Jonas recognised Lieutenant Pavel Ivanov immediately and not simply owing to his size. The scarred veteran had a long and impressive service record and was an ace in his own right, but had been denied promotion for years due to his low birth – something the Lunar Fox could relate to, being of low birth himself. Having flown together with him in her early days as LIRA's ace, Ivanov was one of Vega's first recruits when she formed the Space Wolves alongside Ursula Roland and Luke Valerie.
In contrast, the petite woman beside him, Lieutenant Charlotte Jaeger, was an up-and-coming prodigy rumoured to be the next LIRA ace. However, because of her short stature and lower-class roots, she had been ridiculed by her peers – that was, until Vega saw her in flight one day and scouted her on the spot. The girl had been so grateful it was whispered she had become enamoured with the Scarlet Wolf and grown her hair long to be just like her idol, earning her the moniker of 'the Scarlet Cub'. Indeed, without prior knowledge, Jonas could have easily mistaken Jaeger for a lost child aboard his ship – but it was the crimson liquid in her transparent beverage pouch that raised his eyebrow.
"That's not wine, is it?" he asked, knowing Vega's preferred poison of choice, and Charlotte's red eyes suspiciously flickered to her leader.
"Of course not, commodore! We all know alcohol is strictly prohibited while on duty – why, we could be dismissed just for sipping it," Vega quickly came to Charlotte's rescue and bemoaned the accusation – all while making gestures behind her back for Ursula to hide her wine bottle, which the captain promptly did.
"Commodore, we were just about to drink to our fallen comrades," Luke interjected, distracting the Lunar Fox just before he spotted Ursula. "Won't you join us?"
"Ah, yes… a toast to the fallen," Jonas nodded and accepted a beverage pouch from Ursula, which he gave a discreet sniff before raising it into the air. "To the fallen Wolves."
"To the fallen Wolves," Vega and the Space Wolves held up their pouches and repeated, before slurping the receptacles dry. Jonas noticed Vega appeared to suck on her straw longer than necessary, taking a sustained draw of the red liquid and savouring it between her cheeks before swallowing with a euphoric sigh.
"Andy, Boris, and all the others…" Pavel lamented, his grey eyes downcast. "We had such high hopes for them, but they were taken away so soon."
"I fear I am to blame," Vega confessed. "I underestimated the relic hunt and thought it would be an adventurous jaunt; perfect for training our new recruits. Instead, I led them straight into the lion's den."
"It was not your fault, major," Ursula insisted. "The enemy got lucky on Lenos – if they had not discovered that relic before us…"
"Yes, those RDF relic hunters are the guilty ones, Lady Vega!" Charlotte added her voice and crushed the empty pouch in her hand, while also throwing Ursula a dirty look for getting the jump on her. "And I refuse to accept this… this Orthrus and its pilot could even hold a candle to you!"
Vega laughed and patted the girl on the head, eliciting purrs from the cub – who made sure Ursula was watching before she smirked with triumph. The captain bit her lip and snapped her straw in two, alarming those nearby.
"Thank you, Charlotte. But do not underestimate the White Hellhound," the Scarlet Wolf warned. "I would be devastated if I lost you too… you, whom I consider like my own sister."
"Oh, Lady Vega!"
While Charlotte snuggled against her idol and Ursula tried to force them apart, Pavel found Luke helping himself to more 'juice'.
"Is the Rem ace truly as dangerous as we've been led to believe?" Pavel asked the raven-haired man, curious.
"When you watch the Fenrir's footage, you'll understand – she's like a Scarlet Wolf in the making; even closer than Charlotte," Luke nodded, recalling the encounters with awe. "And her comrades are no slouches either. But we should have the edge now that the Fenrir has a Gravity Mode."
"What did I say just say about underestimating them?" Vega, having slipped away from the bickering Ursula and Charlotte, rebuked the young nobleman. "While I have managed to calibrate it for more measured displays of power, Gravity Mode is still quite taxing on the Fenrir's energy supply – and the relic's sheer complexity means I doubt we'll see any technological benefits from R&D in the near future."
Before they left Elsinore Base, members of LIRA's R&D division, who had built the Fenrir, had come to study its Gravity Mode and collect data. Since the original gravity relic had been destroyed, they downloaded its saved data from the Fenrir's relic core for research – although Vega imagined it would take their technopaths years to decipher all its secrets; she, of course, had already cracked most of it herself in the last month. If they arrived at the same conclusions she had then they should know the Fenrir's relic core could alter the properties of Gundanium, giving rise to powerful Mode Changes provided there was enough Gundanium, enough power to sustain the transformation, and a suitable relic.
Vega was sure the RDF relic hunters and their researchers had drawn the same conclusions with the Orthrus, although she highly doubted its Solar Mode could drain a battery as rapidly as Gravity Mode. The fact the Fenrir was constructed using composite Gundanium, rather than pure Gundanium as its designs specified, was probably what prevented its power supply from being instantly drained on contact – and saved the Scarlet Wolf from becoming a sitting duck. Ideally, Gravity Mode required a fission reactor – as Vega had so demonstrated on Elsinore to great fanfare – but current designs were far too large to mount on mobile suits and a reactor-powered warship would likely require eye-watering quantities of precious Gundanium to attain similar powers, not to mention the technopathic talent that would be involved to control it.
Ultimately though, LIRA's predictable attempts to weaponise the gravity relic would be pointless in light of one major obstacle – the lack of relic cores, which were the key to Mode Change. Fortunately, however, of the two known cores in existence, Vega was already in possession of the only one with Gravity Mode; not that the Scarlet Wolf would allow anyone but she and the Fenrir to use it. No, this power was hers to monopolise; a spotlight that would serve to enhance her legend in the eyes of the world… and when the time came they would know her name.
"Complexity? Benefits? You do recall you used it to host a barbeque, don't you?"
The voice of Luke interrupted Vega's thoughts, but not from the growing curve on her red lips.
"Yes, I heard! It's not fair you all had a party without us!" Charlotte joined them and pouted with a puff of her marshmallow cheeks. "I want to eat barbeque too!"
Vega let out a hearty laugh, which only caused the petite girl's cheeks to swell even more.
"Perhaps we can have another one on the Blue Crow, using its reactor?" the masked woman ventured, meeting eyes with Commodore Sparrhorn across the room, only to receive a disapproving head shake. "…Or perhaps not."
"Of course not," Ursula narrowed her eyes at the very suggestion. "General Cypher would have our hides if he found out."
"You mean our souls…" Luke quipped and sipped his drink.
"Yes, speaking of the Reaper…" Vega began, and made sure she had every Space Wolves' attention. "While I was able to give a detailed briefing on the threat we face from the RDF relic hunters and the White Hellhound, my knowledge of our new allies was less than satisfactory. Perhaps you could be of assistance here, commodore?"
The attention of the room went over to Jonas, who supped his straw and made them wait.
"…There isn't much to tell," he finally said. "General Cypher and his Fourth Fleet are a bit of an enigma in LIRA – the fleet acts independently in the ZU and only the Reaper is privy to their full capabilities. However, I did happen to see the fleet's resupply log and they were filled with… unusual items."
"We saw them loading strange equipment onto the Paris when we stopped at Elsinore – remember, Pavel?" Charlotte revealed and cocked her head. "They were not like any mobile suit equipment I've ever seen before…"
"Some old buddies of mine who served in the Fourth said much the same thing – the Reaper has an obsession with experimental tech and the ZU is his testing grounds," said Luke, who was well-connected due to his family's military service. "They also say he has a private squad of masked followers to do his dirty work, but no one knows where they come from. He calls them his Team Hypnos… Creepy stuff, really."
"Those rumours have been floating around for years now… since the general was reassigned to the ZU ten years ago," Pavel, the only one besides Jonas who had been serving long enough to remember that far back, informed them and reminisced. "However, I do not believe he was always so… unorthodox."
"That's putting it lightly…" Charlotte joked and wrapped her thin arms around herself. Like the others, the Reaper gave her the chills.
"Yes, this intrigues me. Why was the Reaper reassigned to the ZU? As commander of the First Fleet, he had just fought a successful campaign against Rem in the Second Battle of 296," Vega pondered aloud, and turned to the only man who might know. "Commodore?"
Jonas grumbled and rolled his lips, like he was about to say something he might regret.
"First of all, you never heard this from me… and these are just rumours… but," the Lunar Fox began with a stroke of his whiskers and the Space Wolves leaned in to listen. "After the success of beam technology in the Second Battle for Lemuria, General Leonidas Cypher pushed for an increase in LIRA's relic hunting activities… but in the Zodiac Union."
"Well, that's not unreasonable considering what we know now," Ursula whispered, only for the commodore to shake his head.
"Wait until you hear his logic, captain," Jonas told her. "The Reaper's reasoning for such a move, based on reports he had compiled when he was a member of the Intelligence Division… all revolved around local superstitions – the myths and the occult of the ZU."
"W-W-What?!" Charlotte exclaimed, along with the rest of the wide-eyed Wolves, and she grabbed on to Vega's arm in fright. The masked woman however, looked positively amused.
"Quite mad, was he?" she quipped, smiling.
"Manic, as it were. He was obsessed with the possibility the legends and unexplained phenomena in the ZU were actually the work of Lemurian relics," Jonas continued, scarcely believing it himself. "Well, LIRA High Command laughed in his face, as expected, and the general had a falling out with everyone else. Eventually they decided that, if he wanted to go to the ZU backwater that badly, the Reaper should get his wish and they made him commander of the Fourth Fleet. It was their way of getting rid of him and with little fuss. However, it seems he's been making the most of his fall from grace."
"Indeed. Thank you, Commodore Sparrhorn. That was most… enlightening," Vega remarked, and the hint of mischief in her tone was not missed by the Lunar Fox.
"Remember, not a word of this to anyone," Jonas reminded them, mustering his voice with authority. "The Reaper might be a coldblooded maniac with the charisma of a cadaver, but he's still an excellent fleet commander – there will be no insubordination towards him while we are a part of the Fourth Fleet. Understood?"
"Yes, sir," the room chorused, albeit in a somewhat unconvinced monotone.
"By the way, Major Aurelia, I've been meaning to ask… but what in God's name are you wearing?"
Vega followed Jonas' gaze and settled on the new flight suit she was wearing – which was almost entirely red, except for some black highlights. It also happened to have her name printed on the chest and the Space Wolves' emblem on the shoulders.
"Oh, this? It's my new combat g-suit; specially ordered straight from Nova Industries," she boasted with a flip of her silver hair and floated up towards the ceiling and posed so everyone could admire it. "As you can imagine, the strain of g-forces while piloting in Gravity Mode can be quite demanding on the body – and that's despite the mode employing what appears to be a minor inertia cancelling effect within the cockpit. I was reminded of a prototype suit I saw while modelling equipment for Nova and ordered one immediately when we reached Elsinore Base – customised to my tastes, of course. Do you like it? I was just wearing it in."
The form-fitting compression suit was made of cutting-edge synthetic fibres, which were not only flexible and strong but also insulated the wearer from space, heat and radiation. Its chief innovation, however, was the special freeze-proof g-liquid stored in the back cavity which could be dispersed throughout the suit using vein-like seams – effectively covering the wearer in water, but particularly their thighs and lungs. During high-g manoeuvres, the water would pull on the material and naturally apply counterpressure, thus constricting and controlling blood flow without delay, which would allow the pilot to endure more gs and reduce the risk of losing consciousness.
Along with plenty of pockets, the g-suit also carried an oxygen tank and battery in the chest cavity in case the pilot was separated from their mobile suit's life support systems. All in all, Vega was very pleased with the finished product and showed it off by twirling in the air for her audience.
"You look stunning, Lady Vega!" a starstruck Charlotte cried and began taking pictures with her PDA.
"Isn't it a bit… painted on?" Ursula balked instead and her squeamish brown eyes didn't know where to look. "I guess it is very flattering… Very you, actually, major. I don't know anyone else who would be brave enough to wear that…"
"Oh, don't say that, Ursula…" Vega crooned and kicked off the ceiling so that she floated towards one of the room's storage lockers. "After all… there's enough for everyone!"
Throwing the locker door open, the masked woman began tossing out vacuum-shrunk clear-packages containing black versions of the Nova g-suit – each with a Space Wolf's name printed on the front.
"Don't push, you'll each get your due – and it will please you to know they've each been tailored to your exact sizes!" Vega cried above the cheering horde before staring directly at a bewildered Ursula. "Yes, even you Ursula!"
"H-How would you know that?" the blushing captain demanded as she snatched her package out of the air and held it tight to her chest. "And how much did all this even cost? Nova Industries makes premier equipment!"
"Details, details – do not fret, my dear Ursula," Vega cheekily pressed a finger to her cute subordinate's lips and smiled. "After all, my Space Wolves only deserve the best – and the Nova g-suit is capable of withstanding at least two more gs than our old suits!"
That drew many excited murmurs and even Ursula was silenced.
"Oh, I love you, Lady Vega!" Charlotte took advantage of the situation and declared before latching onto the masked woman's side and pushing her away from Ursula.
"Wait… what's the catch?" Luke suddenly stopped and enquired, and the entire squad paused in their gift-opening as an ominous chill took over the ready room.
"The catch…" Vega's blood-red lips took on a sadistic curve as she answered. "…is that I will be personally retraining all of you. I will be making sure everyone is taking full advantage of their shiny new gifts and are familiar with the recalibrated Wargs, which will have their limiters adjusted accordingly. Because starting now, we will leave nothing to chance – when we next meet the relic hunters in battle, we will have both our vengeance and victory!"
With an upward thrust of her gloved fist, the Scarlet Wolf led her pack in a cheer and not even her mask could disguise her passion – her hunger to fight the White Hellhound. As the Space Wolves bayed for blood, momentarily forgetting the hellish drilling their leader intended to put them through, Jonas decided to quietly slip away. When he was out the door, the Lunar Fox realised there was one obvious question Vega had not asked.
She had never asked where the Fourth Fleet and the Blue Crow were headed in the ZU.
The Tempest, the infamous flagship of General Cypher, was originally a Wyvern-class war cruiser. It still was, but over the years alterations to its design had made it almost unrecognisable and it was now known as a decrepit ghost ship worthy of the Reaper. The stories of what went on within its groaning hull froze the blood of sailors within the ZU and even the Tempest's own allies in the Fourth Fleet made the sign of warding off evil in its presence.
The LIRA crew members assigned to work aboard the Tempest had it even worse and were forced to endure the ship's phantoms: its resident bogeymen and the Reaper's special ops squad otherwise known as Team Hypnos. The faceless shades were known to be skilful technopaths and pilots and were deathly silent except for the long and laboured breathing which could be heard from behind their gas masks. They stalked the halls during the day, frightening the crew, but at night they disappeared into the belly of the ship which was off limits to all but the Reaper and his close confidantes.
"Report on the experiment."
The sonorous voice of General Cypher demanded the moment he entered the restricted area aboard the Tempest which was revealed to be a long corridor of white labs. Scores of scientists in white coats scurried about recording data and operating lab equipment while behind the glass the obedient members of Team Hypnos were strapped to chairs and hooked up to various machinery. The Reaper floated down the corridor and inspected his work before stopping at the compartment of the member of Team Hypnos with a shock of white hair coming out the back of his mask.
"Our test subjects are giving us superb data, general," one of the scientists reported. "X-131 and X-178 have responded well to the new concoction, improving their reaction times. But X-99 here has broken another record as usual."
"Excellent," Cypher, who was not one for praise, stated. "Once you're done have X-99 and his squad move to the Caliban with their Lycans."
"You expect combat, sir?" the scientist asked, revelling at the chance to collect more data.
The Reaper nodded and admired his perfect test subject from behind the glass with a glint in his dark eyes.
After Laura and the Orthrus were transferred to the Ganymede, the other orphans found themselves fraught with worry and went about their duties with distraction. They had complained to Milos, of course, cornering him once he had seen his daughter off, but the captain gave much the same excuses as Sofia – and so they chased him across the Lionheart like an angry mob, giving up only when he locked himself in his cabin. Frustrated, they shot Ray down in the simulator until they were satisfied and patiently waited for the day to end. When it finally did, the orphans gathered in their quarters with jittery anticipation.
"Hello? Can you hear me?"
Laura's familiar voice graced their ears from the speakers of Junko's laptop first before her round face and striking purple eyes filled the empty screen. Her messy blonde bob was smoothed back and wet as if she had just gotten out of a shower, and like them the Gundam pilot had changed into her pyjamas. Behind her they spied what appeared to be a simple and sparse cabin for two on the Ganymede and the camera pivoted back to show the technopath was alone.
"Laura!" the three girls cried out at once, but Freya got the first question in. "Are you alright, Laura?! Those Zodians aren't picking on you, are they? Oh my god, did they touch you?!"
The diva's screams left the blonde reeling and she readjusted her PDA so it was at arm's length and stuck it to the ceiling of her padded sleeping compartment.
"I'm fine, Freya," she insisted, letting go of the device and lying back. "And no one's picking on me. If anything, Zora has been pulling out all the stops to make me feel welcome. She gave me a tour and even held a party where the whole crew must have turned up."
"Zora? Since when were you on a first-name basis with that pirate?! Don't fall for it, Laura – they're brainwashing you!" Freya yelled and, if it were possible, her face paled with even more alarm. "What about the Orthrus? You didn't let those flyboys sit in it, did you?!"
"Of course not! Even the maintenance unit has to get past my technopathic lock first!" Laura shot back and rolled her eyes. "Now can someone please give Freya a chill pill and ask me something else?"
The pinkette opened her mouth to fire back but was thwarted when Alice stuffed a large calorie bar into her orifice and the muffled diva was pulled away from the camera with arms flailing.
"So… it sounds like you're having a grand time," said Junko, who took over the frame while Alice and an obedient Freya chewed on snacks in the background and watched. "But what about the Ganymede?! What's it like? How does it work? Where did it come from? Tell me everything, Laura!"
"Oh, you won't believe this, Junko," Laura teased, and let the mechanic's chocolate orbs expand with starry-eyed anticipation. "The Ganymede… is a Lemurian ship!"
"What?!" Junko and the others squawked, and they were back to squeezing three heads inside the frame. "The Ganymede is a relic?!"
"Zora found it when she was just a girl and worked on it for years until she got it flying again – and then she used it for pirating! They called her the Hyena!" Laura explained to the rapt attention of the faces on the screen. "It's how she knew the Orthrus was sea-worthy – the Ganymede would ambush wealthy merchant ships from underneath the oceans of Arcturus before diving again to hide from the ZU Navy. That's Lemurian tech for you; they thought of everything!"
"No way… no way!" Junko squealed, and grabbed her head before it burst from excitement. "I'm so jealous of you right now, Laura! Why wasn't I part of your maintenance unit?!"
"I won't lie, the Ganymede is a pretty impressive ship. It's not as well-armed as the Lionheart, but it's fast and I get the feeling the crew are old hands. It's no wonder ZUN never managed to shoot it down and it must be a thorn in LIRA's side," Laura sung some more praises to Junko's everlasting envy. "I couldn't get much more out of Zora, but I bet the Ganymede has even more capabilities we don't know about."
"Wow… so she was a pirate!" Freya exclaimed, open-mouthed.
"Most of the Militia are; they banded together to fight LIRA under Zora."
"They must really respect her," Alice stated, and Laura nodded.
"Zora's like the opposite of Commander Gabriel. She calls everyone by name, treats them like friends and they love her for it – like she said, they really don't care about military formality or discipline over here," the blonde described to them and recalled the shocking scenes of drink and rowdiness she had witnessed since coming aboard. "But I don't doubt they'll sober up and follow her orders when the time comes – they really hate LIRA."
"Sounds like you'll fit in just fine," Alice smiled. "What are you doing now?"
"I'm just relaxing after a shower… Oh yeah, these Lemurian-designed showers are the best!" Laura's face lit up as she told them. "It's just like a glass cylinder shower stall with a shower head, but it vacuums and recycles the water through a drain on the bottom – and when you're done, air nozzles blow both you and the stall dry!"
"Are you serious?!" Freya's jaw dropped and her eyes looked like they would fall out. "That's… that's amazing! And here we are stuck with liquid soap, rinse-less shampoo and wet sponges!"
While the Lionheart did have showers, they were designed for use under gravity. They could be used in space, but the preparation required and the clean-up afterwards was so time-consuming, the crew were limited to a shower once a fortnight – if they were lucky. For Freya and Alice, who took pride in their appearance, this was an affront to their personal hygiene standards and they were understandably green with envy.
"It was so quick too! And everyone here gets to use them almost every day!" Laura went on, much to their resentment and finished with a long sigh. "Haa… I'm so glad I got this transfer…"
"Lucky you, Blonde Hellhound…" Freya growled, and she and Alice proceeded to stuff their faces with snacks from offscreen.
"Hey…" Laura murmured when she recognised what they were eating. "Those are my musk sticks… and my gummi Haros!"
"We did agree to share our snacks, remember?" Alice reminded the irate technopath and sucked on another gummi. "And you did get a whole backlog of sweets from Clara."
"Yeah, we're just chipping in," said Freya, who made a show of biting her musk stick in half. "There'll still be plenty when you get back."
"No fair! I didn't even get to bring any!" Laura pouted, but her tortured expression was interrupted by the sound a hydraulic door hissing open. "Oh, that must be Shana. I'll see you guys later, okay?"
"You're bunking with Shana? Nice!" Junko exclaimed before waving goodbye. "Goodnight, Laura!"
"Bye Laura! Don't let your guard down, you hear?" Freya brandished her musk stick like a wand and saw her off.
"But wait, I didn't even get to ask about Bancho's sleeping arrangements!" Alice cut in, visibly distraught.
"Use your imagination," Laura told the Disappointing Angel with a straight face. "You're good at that."
The blonde hung up and her friends disappeared from the screen. When she turned, she found Shana watching from the bunk opposite.
"Sorry, did I interrupt?" asked the Zodian, who must have overheard part of the conversation because she was smiling. Her bronze skin glistened from her recent shower and she had changed into a set of green pyjamas.
"No, it's okay. We were just finishing anyway," said Laura, and she watched as the girl braided her long black hair for bed. "Are you going to sleep now? Can we talk first?"
"I was hoping you'd say that," Shana grinned, and they laid side by side on their bunks facing each other. "What do you want to talk about?"
"I want to hear about you. How did you join the Militia?"
Even though Shana had been with Laura the entire day acting as her guide and host alongside Zora, the Gundam pilot had not had the chance to speak with her privately since coming aboard the Ganymede. Now seemed like an opportune moment.
"There's not much to tell… One day Zora visited my village and when she found out I was a technopath she invited me to join her crew in the Militia," Shana recounted with a neutral expression and a hint of what Laura thought was nostalgic melancholy. "That was almost two years ago now…"
"Just like that? No offence, but you don't seem like the fighting type," Laura pointed out, drawing a faint smile from the young woman.
"Is it really that obvious? You're right though; I'm not like the others," Shana rolled over and stared at the ceiling with her wistful green eyes. "I just wanted to get away, I guess, and Zora's offer gave me the perfect opportunity. Compared to everyone else in the Militia who have a burning desire for revenge against LIRA, it sounds pretty frivolous, doesn't it? I mean, it's not like I lost something… or someone…"
"Are you talking about Ignacio and Sheeban? What's their story?" Laura asked, curious, feeling she might understand having lost someone herself.
"Nacho has a sad but common tale in the Militia; LIRA destroyed his village to make way for a mine and he lost family and friends in the process. Like many others, he was a refugee until he joined the Militia. As for Sheeban, he was already here when Nacho and I joined, but I heard he was the sole survivor of a disappeared village when Zora found him. He never talks about it though," Shana revealed, and Laura purple eyes drooped with sympathy. "They're polar opposites, but they work really well together. On the other hand, I can barely pull my weight. Maybe I'm just not cut out to be a pilot…"
"That's not true. From what I could tell at the Ganymede's simulators today, you have a lot of technopathic talent," Laura encouraged the crestfallen woman just as she had Tully. While it had been occasionally clumsy, she recalled Shana's piloting had surprising displays of intuition and reflexes. "You just need practice and experience – and confidence! I don't know why, but I feel like you're holding back as a technopath…"
When Laura said that, a sliver of astonishment entered Shana's jade eyes before she blinked and cast whatever feeling was exposed back inside.
"I feel like I can't hide anything from you, Laura…" she whispered, confusing the Gundam pilot with her sunken smile. "You probably don't know, but technopaths aren't just rare in the ZU… they're shunned. For centuries, the many settlements in the Zodiac were far between and in their isolation people clung to superstitions old and new… which they still do today. Around here, technopaths like us aren't looked upon with wonder but as avatars of evil."
"What? That's not right… that's horrible…" Laura's mouth hung open and her eyes widened when she considered the revelation more closely. "Wait, so when you said you wanted to get away from your village…?"
Shana nodded and surprised Laura with her maturity and strength when she spoke.
"When they found out I was a technopath, they called me a witch and avoided me," she revealed solemnly, only for her lips to curve when she saw the horrified look on Laura's face. "It's not as bad as it sounds – I've heard much worse happen to other technopaths since I joined the Militia, so I feel lucky."
"I'm so sorry… I didn't know…" Laura whispered, thinking of all the times she had taken her privileged position as a technopath on Rem for granted and felt guilty.
"It's okay; it's all in the past now. Thanks to Zora, I'm in a better place with people who accept me," Shana assured her with a grin, before frowning. "But like you said… I guess I subconsciously still try to hide my powers. All my life I've been told using them is bad and it's kind of stuck."
"They're not bad… and you're not a witch," Laura told the Zodian with a shake of her head and the blonde's eyes burned with a combination of anger and compassion that captivated Shana. "Being a technopath just means you're special… It's a part of who you are and you shouldn't be ashamed of it. I… I like you the way you are, Shana…"
Laura blushed like a supernova when she realised what she had said and Shana laughed.
"…Thank you, Laura. I like you too," she whispered, causing Laura's cheeks to redden even further. "Can I ask you something now? What's that necklace you're always touching? Is it special to you?"
A little surprised by the unexpected question, Laura paused and gathered the necklace in her hand so that its amethyst ring sparkled under the faint bulb of their room.
"I've always had it… ever since I was at the orphanage. Milos said my real family must have given it to me. I can't explain it, but… touching it makes me feel safe…" Laura explained, and took the necklace off so Shana could have a look at it. "Not the chain though – that's new. Tully gave it to me."
Laura recalled the misty-eyed memory with a smile when she had lost her necklace at school and looked everywhere for it with Tully. They eventually found it, but the worn string that threaded the amethyst ring had finally reached the end of its life and snapped. The young Laura was distraught until Tully offered up her own necklace – a gift from the matron – as a replacement.
Laura told the story to Shana and how the necklace had become a symbol of their friendship while the Zodian listened intently.
"She sounds like a wonderful person," she remarked as she gave the necklace back.
"She was. She was my best friend," Laura replied, putting it back on, and paused. "I was so angry before… and sad after… after she died. I still am sometimes. But now, when I think about her, I remember all the good times we had and I feel… I feel better, I guess?"
"I think she would be pleased to hear you say that," Shana smiled. "I've seen revenge eat away at people in the Militia, so I'm glad it hasn't taken over your life."
"Well, we're still working on beating the Scarlet Wolf the next time she shows up," the ace mentioned, but nodded. "But you're right, I have my family and friends to thank for not letting this vendetta blind my judgement sometimes. I feel like we've grown even closer because of it…"
"That sounds so nice… I think I already told you, but there are no girls my own age on the Ganymede," Shana commented, making an expression that was a cross between a pout and a smile. "So I'm really jealous how close you orphans are."
"Well, you'll be happy to hear everyone is really interested in you so you're welcome to join us!"
Shana's emerald eyes lit up when Laura told her that and she chuckled. It was funny; when Laura had first met Shana she kept comparing her to Tully, but now after speaking to her and having a heart to heart, when she looked into her eyes she could only see the shy, dark-haired beauty before her.
"Oh, that reminds me," Laura exclaimed and pulled something out from the bag stashed under her bunk. "Do you like having your fortune told?"
"I love having my fortune told. How did you… Are those tarot cards?!" Shana yelled and launched herself out of her bunk towards a shocked Laura. "There's an old fortune teller on Arcturus who lets me look at her cards but I can never find a set for sale anywhere in the Union. Where did you get these?!"
"I had a hunch you might like them; they used to belong to Tully," Laura chuckled, and let the Zodian flip through the cards. "I'm still learning, but I thought we could do a reading together."
"Oh, I'd love to! Thank you, Laura!"
Shana threw a hug around the flustered woman and Laura gently caressed her hair. But when the green-eyed technopath drew the first card for their reading, the orphan paled. It was the black robed skeleton again, sitting atop a dark horse and wielding a long scythe.
Death was coming.
END OF PART A
Apologies for the long wait between updates. This is the first episode of the Zodiac Union arc and I underestimated the amount of build up it required from introducing the new characters and such. It's already as long as a full episode and there's still the second half to go... I'm not entirely happy with Part A but GG has been stalled long enough. Going to work on Part B now where we'll get what looks to be a full-blown episode of non-stop action.