One Week Later
"From the hands of the 101th Mobile Suit Team of the Zeon Earth Assault Force's South African branch: Take as much time as you want, but don't let it be because of us. The ten of us have signed this piece of paper as our will to sacrifice ourselves, with the intention to buy this convoy a strong head start. Make use of it and let them reach Axis. Give them their home, and they'll give the Feds their war."
The entirety of Port Elizabeth in South Africa stared at the abyss of a clear night sky. An airfield in the outskirts of the city had opened the doors to the biggest hangar, one that was surprisingly big enough for a Gaw attack carrier. While this happened, sentries watched out for anything that looked even remotely like the glow of a GM's composite visor. The silhouette of a man leaned against a railing at the top of the abandoned control tower, glancing briefly at the hangar where the engineers quietly tried to get the main engine to work again (after a failed launch days prior), then lifting his gaze at the skyline of the thriving metropolis. His hands grasped the handle of a nearby ice container to open the door, taking out a beer can to quench the thirst and placate the heat. Condensation formed in the outer walls of the tin cylinder upon contact with the air. A nearby lamp post ocassionally flickered on and washed him in a warm, faint light, only to abandon him a few moments later. It had been a long day, and it would be a long night. Time seemed to be endless after the Axis officer read that letter he had handed him out loud. Erin had told him that it was a secret meant for the officer, that he or anybody else were never to even glance at it. Now, he knew why. He wouldn’t have left if she were ever to tell him.
The woman behind him, of whose presence he was unaware, had been through a lot more. After the battle that ended with the lives of all but two of her team members a week ago, their struggle to live another day was all but lost. However, it didn’t turn into much of a disruption for her plans. Leading the Titans away, they would be sure to be too focused in her team for any kind of attempt at investigating the ruins and finding out about the convoy that was en route to Port Elizabeth. After all, ten pilots weren't much when compared to the whole group of Mobile Suit mechanics, workers and soldiers that would reach Axis. They weren't expecting a battle that early, hoping to gain a head start and lead them further, but the two Zeonics and the Zimmad that had come out of that mess were still enough to keep pushing. Enough to keep moving forward. Enough to eat a few more rounds. And so the three carried on, to what they thought would be their bitter end.
Not everything had been lost, however.
Two days of constant watch later, Lady Luck smiled upon their perseverance one more time, and had them find a remote village where scarce remnants of the ZEAF had gone into hiding after their base was retaken by the Federation. Scared and tired, the vast majority decided to forgive but not forget, carrying on with a calm rural life and a low profile. Five of them did not forgive either, though, secretly mantaining their Mobile Suits, their uniforms and small arms as best as they could, all of it for the day when the Principality would come back for them. Taking some rest at the local inn, she told them about the convoy that was making its way to Port Elizabeth, and so they agreed to repair her Mobile Suits and join her, with the condition that she tried to take them there. The Gouf Custom and Dom Tropen got up better next morning, while the Zaku’s legs were deemed a lost cause after they never turned on again, and replaced with a Magella Attack’s tracks to be given as a Zaku Tank to the greenest of the bunch. They started marching towards Elizabeth, the three of them plus a blue Zogok and a captured GM that had been painted in green camouflage. Yuri kept travelling by her side, but Lyle decided to stay in the village and help them heal their sick, being as their medic had been lost months ago in an unfortunate, violent robbery, and few of them actually risked a walk into the city. In exchange, the Tropen would be given to the leader of the local squad for him to pilot. Erin knew Lyle’s decision wasn’t all about helping the villagers, but also a result of his doubts after Raphael’s death. She would miss him, but she let him stay, as it would be for the best. No point trying to force somebody to fight when motivated pilots were available, and while his skills as a medic weren’t stellar, they were better than nothing at all.
Now, Erin was back. The last week had been nothing if not terrifying. Every corner, every bush, every moving object could be a potential sign of a terrible death to come. Every step was a miracle. But that would be no more. She was safe and sound, and ready to go back to her life of eternal grudges and jingoism. Go ahead. You can say it now, you magnificent bastard. Happy to be there again, she let out a smirk and grabbed a beer can too, leaning against the railing, then looking into his astonished eyes. "I'm home..."
Albert finished transmitting, and the voice of a young woman would reach for his ears. The woman who had just been shot through the chest by a 60mm round was rapidly bleeding out, and losing consciousness. But she was still alive, and with her last breath, she had drawn her own sidearm, a standard issue Naban Type 62, before surprising her killer with her last words, staring down the sights of the Zeon pistol, ready to shoot it at the Titans commanding officer that had mistaken her for a corpse too soon. “You’re a fool… it might be a lost one, but at least we follow… urgh! We… we follow…”, she managed to utter, holding back the extreme pain she was going through, but as she tried to finish the sentence and pull the trigger, she realized it was too late. Her strength was not enough anymore for any of the two, and so Sara Levchenko ceased to live, dropping her bloodied gun right on Albert's face, hitting him in the nose and making it bleed. Now Albert sat in his cockpit, awaiting rescue, and reflecting on the purpose of it all while death looked him straight in the eye, as it hung above him and dirtied him with the blood of those whom he had killed.
The smoke cloud had begun to dissipate, and Erin kept battling against the dark blue Mobile Suit. She had managed to anger it beyond recognition: a minute earlier, its pilot treated the fight like a game. Now he was shouting at her, telling her to shut up, that she knew nothing. “I know nothing? Oh, boy. We had to try to drop an entire colony in Jaburo just to demonstrate how badly you had mistreated us. Then your beloved Federation chose to preserve itself at the cost of a whole chunk of Australia, with all the deaths that implied. Shameful, cowardly and pathetic.” Her Gouf spun over its right leg like a dancer, nimbly dodging the particle blade and positioning the Quel to its left, before grabbing its arm in a similar manner to Levchenko, with a lot more of success due to the strength difference between the Gouf's arms and the Quel's. However, she didn't count with her words enraging the pilot any further, making him drop the beam saber out of its left hand and grabbing it with the right for another hard-hitting strike. All she could do was to quickly raise her left arm to put it in the path of the blade, which upon contact with the magazine of her arm gatlings made it explode, shattering the transparent visor that had been put in front of the monoeye and leaving most of the left arm of the mobile suit in ruins, as its pilot made it pull back to recover, while the Quel put the breather to good use. “Now you've done it! I am gonna. Mess. You. Up!”, she exclaimed, hell-bent on dragging on the battle, but an incoming transmission interrupted what would have been further unnecessary bloodshed. It was Yuri, from the safety of the infinite forest.
“Retreat, Commander! The sniper is coming for you, it's now or never!”, he yelled at the radio, before Erin replied back, seemingly intending to hold back the dark navy Mobile Suits for them to run away. “The show must go on! You've still got a shuttle to catch, so run away and don't waste those lives of yours!”. Lyle turned on his mic and joined the discussion, attempting to make her come to her senses, and knowing her better than Yuri, he had more luck. “You've got a shuttle to catch too! Don't throw away your life on being a distraction! You also promised Dominic to put it to good use, so come back and walk us to the stupid shuttle, will ya?!” Lyle struck a sensitive chord on her, and she reluctantly considered clinging on to her life. There wasn't much time, for the Quel was preparing to charge at her with the beam saber again, and the Sniper II wasn't that much far from them now. Finally, she made up her mind, and prepared for the GM's attack. “Aaaarrrgh! I can't believe I'm doing this!”.
The Quel fired up its thrusters at her Gouf, stopping at a close distance by burying its foot on the dirt, swiping to its right again with the beam saber in both hands. As it pulled out the exact same maneuver than seconds before, Erin knew where to strike, and made the Gouf pull its right arm backwards beforehand. Then, before the blade could reach her, she made a throw forward, and the Quel pilot would only know too late that she had unleashed the Gouf's infamous heat rod, when a long, red-hot rope came down upon his Mobile Suit with the throwing motion. Like a lightning, it struck down the Quel, first slashing the left arm's joint, then a piece of the torso, missing the cockpit by a few centimeters. It then went on to melt the left leg’s first stretch, then finally the right knee. Losing three of its limbs at the same time, the Quel hit the floor hard, trying to land on its missing feet and crushing what was left of the right leg under its weight as a result. As quickly as it made its attack, the Gouf retracted the heat rod into the right arm, and gave the Quel a good view of its back, as it bent its knees, preparing to thrust into the forest. Before it did so, it gave the Quel's pilot a last word.
“I’m sorry. I held back.”
And so the Gouf flew away. The Quel used its sole remaining arm to lift the Mobile Suit and fire its vulcans at it, futilely. The Sniper fired its bullpup in a burst at it too, but it was too far to get a reliable shot by the time it was finished aiming, so the three bullets were wasted, flying at the lowering sun. The battle was over. The operational debut of their team, the Titans defeated seven Mobile Suits, but three of them ran away, and the fact that they were all together on that cursed forest meant going after them alone in the GM Sniper was too risky despite the deplorable condition they were in. Ryder had to let go of them, regardless of whether anybody at the base felt he had taken the right decision or was just being cowardly.
The ruined Quel 02, already on its knees, fell to the floor in various pieces, letting go more black smoke, a result of the beam saber melting through the bodywork, and revealing absolutely nothing behind it anymore, as it was slowly set aflame again by the molten Gundarium alloy. A woman heard her enemy turn on the strange GM's PA system, and as his words were reproduced by the internal speakers of her Gouf Custom, she rolled her eyes. Cheap tricks and cowardice... We've got another one of those around here, huh? Just my luck… Down to business, a red circular flash appeared behind the black GM, and as Gabriel turned around, unaware of what awaited at the end of the turn, a green leg, clad in a silver boot, appeared out of the smoke to kick the battered shield off its hands, breaking the handle and leaving it still in the firm grasp of his hand. Honor… what are you, a child? The beam saber swinged forward, but the Gouf was already by his right side, ramming him with an unpainted grey shield and knocking him back a few steps. Taking a Dom's heat saber from a holster in its skirt, the Gouf immediately charged forward, and the Quel's pilot miraculously had the reflexes to block its attack with his beam saber. Now, both sabers clashed, firmly gripped by machines of nearly the same power, but very slowly closing in to the Quel, as the Gouf's pilot suddenly spoke, seemingly not above turning on the PA System herself. “You must think you're an oh-so-righteous knight, right? Come from the heavens to rain down his wrath upon evil... Pathetic… you're but a mere toy soldier!”
Intent on helping their teammate, the GM Sniper and the commanding Quel, distinguished by the big white 01 painted on its right shoulder, ran towards the big cloud of smoke, risking being surprised by anything, and sure enough, Yuri and Levchenko now entered the cloud by the other side, not wanting to let Erin hog all three Titans for herself. As the latter found their way into the center of the cloud and discovered Quel 03 steadfastly holding its position against the advancing enemy Gouf, they prepared a bullpup and a beam saber respectively to gang up on the green machine, but were surprised by two monoeyes, which had briefly leapt out of the cloud with their boosters to drop right in front of them, maybe wanting to let the fight drag on longer. Her heat hawk shining red, Levchenko playfully laughed, kicking Quel 01’s right feet and having it land on its knee, then holding its hand with the left arm to keep the beam saber from coming back to cut her in half, and thrusting the hawk into its shoulder with the right arm. Had she taken a few more moments, the superior Quel would have regained the upper hand by force, but Sara acted quickly. Now, the Quel's right shoulder was being slowly melted away, the arm losing power and finding itself on even grounds with the Zaku's, as Lieutenant Sara Levchenko turned on her PA too. “That’s right! Shudder in fear!”. The Sniper II, bullpup in hand, could do something about it, but the strange Zaku II, gripping one of the latest Zeon machine guns, remained slyly silent and disappeared amongst the fog of war, and was certain to reappear at the worst time if something was not done about it. Albert looked like he could offer further resistance, too...
Erin couldn't believe her eyes as she watched Sargeant Raphael Gurden's death unfold before her eyes. Far from being the implacable men Jamitov spoke of, and despite the superior authority their officers wielded, the Titans’ regular ranks seemed to be comprised of mere grunts, clad in black for the purpose of intimidating the enemy. But even the best could fall prey to their own carelessness, and Raphael's had just cost him his life. Enraged, Erin grabbed the mic, and radioed her forces. They, too, were made of faulty human souls. “Yuri! What the actual hell were you doing?! How did you let this clown slip by?! Lyle, are you okay?”
“Sorry, boss! He somehow outmaneuvered us!” Claimed Yuri, holding the GM Kai from behind, for Levchenko to throw her heat hawk at its cockpit, landing its heat blade right on the middle section of the Kai and denying its pilot any chance of salvation, then kicking it further in with the foot to add insult to deadly injury. Lyle, who had his Tropen's leg blown off, got up, before cleverly speeding away with the remaining leg, using its thrust plus that of the right half of the skirt's engines. “I am sorry, Commander... i'm out. I'll try to pick up the leg and go hide in the forest, see if it's still good enough for attaching it again.” As Levchenko and Yuri got fed up of the Kai and started charging towards the sniper, the damaged Tropen sped past them, knowing they would cover him, and dropped its machine gun to pick up the detached right leg, then flying away with it, into the forest. Erin and the Zaku behind her now fired their weapons at another Quel, before Erin noticed the presence of a third, which was knowingly pointing his weapon towards her unit, intent on firing. Think you can take on me, nugget? Quickly, Erin made the Gouf face the black GM, then after a sidestep at the right, towards its downed doppleganger, a command was inputted to use it as a shield, so the green unit obeyed, lifting the Quel up from the armpits as fast as it could. This is for Raph, Feddie scum! As the first rounds arrived, they blew off one of her gigantic, curved shoulder spikes, of which she was not very fond anyways, before the rest made contact with the inoperative Mobile Suit, hitting the torso, the skirt, and even going for the cockpit, which was kept from destruction (much to the relief of the pilot) by the head, which hanged in front of the canopy and blew up in its place, unhinging the left breast vent and outright detaching the already battered right one. Its insides briefly went up in flames too, complete with an automated ejection of the cockpit, before thin firefoam started coming out of them, which mixed up with the steam created by the clashing temperatures created a smokescreen of sorts for Erin. Now, as the F2 fired its machine gun at the farthest of the black GMs, Erin advanced towards the smartass on Unit 03, holding her makeshift shield and smoke machine up, while the heat saber remotely turned on in preparation for the time to strike...
After the ravine collapsed, the entire platoon ran, setting course for the woods, where they wouldn't be as easily spotted, and where they could have an advantage if so was the case. But destiny had other plans for them. Only minutes after the explosion, black aircraft appeared high on the sky, which Erin recognized on the screen as larger versions of Federation supply craft, equipped with extra engines to bear with the added weight. They were too high for any of their guns to reach them with their bullets, and there was a chance that they hadn't actually seen them, so she ordered the platoon to hold their fire and keep moving, knowing that even if they had spotted them, the forest would nonetheless allow for an ambush. Yet her worst fear was realized soon after, when four GM-type Mobile Suits fell from the sky, and cleverly landed on a ridge to block them from entering cover, all the while miraculously dodging their bullets. Their response time had been suspiciously high, as if they knew beforehand where to go, and their black bodywork betrayed their true nature as the alleged heralds of their death: the dreaded Titans, addressed by Jamitov's speeches as Earth's finest, were finally here, bullpup machine guns in hand, now pointed at them.
“Raphael! Lyle! Get their backs!” And so the Tropens sped to get their way around them, avoiding 90mm bullets like they all were of a far higher lethality. “Cosette! Yuri! Flank the ridge!” The JC-Type Zakus obeyed, and ran to position themselves. “The rest! Suppresive fire until we get there! We’ll leap right in front of their faces and sandwich them!” Not one to lose her cool despite the dire circumstances, Erin quickly directed everyone as well as she could, even though she hadn’t battled in months. The results showed up quickly: the GM Kais of the ridge were grazed by their fire, and one round even found its way into one of their cockpits, probably a result of Yuri Voychek’s marksmanship. Trying to jump off the ridge, they were surprised when Zakus flew right in front of them and began shooting at point blank range, destroying a second Kai. They would then try to fold back, only to find Raphael and Lyle, who took on the two remaining units. Raphael relieved the first of its left arm, slashing the joint with his beam saber, before it flew away and entered the forest, as Lyle rid the other one of its head by blowing it up, before pushing it from the ridge. However, soon arrived their reinforcements. An F2 would go up in flames, then at the next moment, as Erin landed on top of the ridge, she was getting a transmission from Cosette’s JC, which had lost its machine gun and gained lots of scrapes after enemy fire ignited its magazine.
“Commander, watch your back! Commander!”
And so, the Zaku leaped high into the air, before being blown up to smithereens by a beam. Cosette! Such output… a god damned sniper! “Doms! Forget those GMs! Tally a sniper on the loose, vector 360! Close the distance and get rid of him! Levchenko! Yuri! Get the fleeing Jim! We're all going to move in that direction, there's more of them.” Erin gave out new orders, and while the remaining JC Zaku ran into the woods with one of the F2-Types, the Tropens flew at top speed from the ridge, before another black GM, looking way more advanced than the Kais that had just been defeated, stood on the way of Lyle and Raphael, firing its machine gun at them. Both protected their main cameras with their arms, knowing that the thick plating would do. Raphael sped right through, but before the Quel could turn around to fire at his back, Lyle arrived, and flying at approximately two hundred kilometers per hour, he took aim at the head with his fist. The new GM attempted to evade by throwing its back on the floor, but the Tropen arrived in the middle of the maneuver and still managed to land a clean uppercut, severely damaging the head and destroying its joints, detaching it from the frame, yet leaving the lead cables intact, the head dangling from the Mobile Suit once it violently made contact with the floor. That said and done, Lyle quickly regained its lost speed. Two Dom Tropens now sped quickly at a black sniper-type Mobile Suit, while the other two new models quickly had to aim their weapons again at their friends. Staring at the sights of their machine guns, three Zeeks. A Gouf Custom and two F2 Zakus. Weapons drawn.
And the most murderous of intents.
Kilometers away, the Titans were being awaited by a depleted coal quarry of relatively small size, that yielded resources no more. Blackwell Quarry, having been for long home to a sizable Zeon Remnant community, today fared them goodbye. Inside its spacious tunnels, those who had taken the final decision to attempt to join Axis now started up their old wartime jeeps, APCs and even a Magella Attack Tank, while the Mobile Suit pilots prepared their Zakus and Dom Tropens for a long walk. The group would be commanded by a trash green Gouf Custom, which kneeled on the floor as it automatically gave a woman on a drab green Zeon uniform a lift with one hand, the other holding a Dom's heat saber, on a permanent guard stance. The hatch opened to let her in, and so she placed her baggage behind the seat, before seating herself in it, shifting her raven black hair back so it would be held by her ears, which would then be covered by a rugged but durable headset. Booting the systems up, turning the cabin temperature regulator on at 25 degrees Celsius and placing a water bottle on the cupholder, she tapped the microphone with her index nail, before contacting the Magella Attack, manned by her old friend, Acting Second-In-Command Stuart Rivers. - ''Testing. Testing... you comfortable in that armored coffin of yours, Stu?''
''Ha, like we're going to come under enemy fire. Say whatever you want about Maggie being less than effective, but at least i'm not the one in an eighteen-something-meter monstruosity that is bound to turn heads wherever it goes. Besides, we're going to spend half the way under the cover of Earth herself. And you?'' - Stuart responded, at the controls of the Magella's communications device, while a jeep that was positioned at the head of the formation turned its headlights on, advancing through the pitch black darkness of the biggest tunnel to clear the way for all of the ground vehicles.
''Here's counting on a miracle and all of us getting there in one piece. It's going to be tough, but you'll take good care of them all, won't you? They're counting with you. It's your big break, the one you were waiting for.'' - Erin Rockwell's Gouf Custom finally got on its feet, and walked out of the main tunnel, with the main camera shining with the well-known shade of red distinctive of Zeonic Mobile Suits, focusing on the many explosive charges set to detonate at its pilot's signal.
''Well, Maggie isn't just for show, nor are my brains...''
''If you say so, dumbass.'' - Erin chuckled for a moment, before saying a few more words. - ''Why don't you do me the honors and brief everyone? I want to hear your voice one last time...''
Stuart sighed briefly, but complied and switched the radio to their public channel. All for the lady of my life... Ten Mobile Suits, standing in the center of the quarry, and a large contingent of vehicles, prepared to advance through the longest of the tunnels, now listened to his words. - ''Heads up, ladies. For those who slept through yesterday's briefing, Operation Last Call is underway. I'll try to tell you the plan in a nutshell. We'll ride this tunnel to someplace near the shore, then make our way to the spaceport without being spotted by the Feds, leave the cars and the jackets if we have to. It's going to be a long road, and that's why every vehicle carries enough supplies for a week. The rests will be made in well-hidden camps, which will be tightly regulated. You know what this means. No loud noises. No flashy lights. And absolutely no absences without leave! You hear me, Bryan? This isn't the time to ruin shit. Our lives depend on this.''
Erin could almost hear the voices of her comrades laughing at Stuart's reprimand for the young Ensign. Her screens showed the blue IFF blips moving, the Zakus bending their knees in preparation to leap out of the quarry, while the Tropens, unable to perform such a jump, were following the dirt ramps, hovering their way out. As the fastest units, they would be leading the group during the whole trip, and so they needed to be at the top before the Gouf jumped, five F2 Zaku IIs and two JC Zaku IIs behind it, all painted in sand brown with spots of their original paintjobs visible here and there.
''Unfortunately, as safe as we'd feel with ten Mobile Suits watching our backs, the 101th Corps is simply too big to fit through the tunnels. They'll take another route, completely over the ground. They are to meet us at the spaceport, but their odds aren't that great. We'll wait for them for as long as we can, but the Axis guys will take off whenever they feel the least bit menaced. That means they can take off without us too. We better hurry there. As for what happens if the Feds ever find us... fight or flight, it's your choice. We've given too much for each other already, and so i think it would be sensible for each one of us to make that decision by ourselves, no harbored grudges. That's all. We will now start advancing through the tunnel, and hope it's still as solid as the scouts said it was last week. Sieg Zeon.''
''Sieg Zeon...'' As soon as every pilot made their last pledge to Zeon, they switched frequencies, losing contact with the caravan, and Erin's hand would heavily fall over a handheld detonator. Bending its knees, the Gouf jumped, and turned its backpack boosters on for the first time in months, succesfully accelerating upwards. The Zakus followed her, all of their thrusters fortunately functional, and when all feet were finally on the high ground, the detonator would slowly rise up, clutched by Erin. She took a few seconds to look at the quarry, then silently wished them a good journey. Bon voyage, my sisters and brothers. Take good care of them, Stuart. To all of you...
The click was made, and it would be followed by a series of detonations. Mining charges, set up all over the quarry, made the tunnels collapse first, then the rest of the structure. With the tunnels closed, the Feds wouldn't know which tunnel to follow, even if they knew to look for other vehicles. And the only copies for the blueprints of the quarry had been stolen by Stu's boys a week or so ago, which meant they couldn't possibly use those either to know which their possible destinations. It was only the 101th Mobile Suit Platoon from there on. Them, and a crime scene wiped clean. Lifting her chin up, Erin now addressed her soldiers. - ''Very well, guys. It's time to do our part. Advance at the speed of our slowest units, heading two-zero-zero. Sharp sight, at all times. And if you see enemy aircraft, you know what to do. Blow those pricks out of the sky, to kingdom come and beyond.''