Disclaimer: I don't own Gundam.
Another big thanks to my beta LW for prereading - thank you!
Death at the Zodiac
Laura kept her fears to herself and a week passed during which she trained with Team Banshee in the Ganymede's simulators for the upcoming operation on Undine. The combined RDF and Militia Fleet did not expect to run into LIRA yet, but they had drills and simulated underwater conditions just in case. As the Militia had recorded in their encounters, LIRA's Fourth Fleet was known to deploy a variety of mobile suits and when Laura wasn't familiarising herself with undersea combat and Team Banshee's tactics, she played the enemy for them.
As expected of the Militia's ace, Sheeban impressed Laura with his piloting and tactics, but they still never got to duke it out in the end. Despite his silent nature, the leader of Team Banshee never shirked from telling the other pilots what they had done wrong or needed to improve and was well-respected. Ignacio, hot-headed as he was, surprised Laura by taking Sheeban's advice to heart and was a reliable pilot – although it remained to be seen if he could keep his emotions in check in a real fight. Under Laura's tutelage, Shana's technopathic talents began to bloom and she made small improvements. However, the RDF pilot felt her pupil was still not yet mentally prepared for the rigours of actual combat and would require support.
At night, Laura and the orphans would update each other on the day's events with Shana gradually joining in and getting to know the girls. Laura was also required to report her activities to Milos on a regular basis but when he wouldn't stop worrying over her like a nosy helicopter parent she gladly reported to Sofia instead. According to the commander, Admiral Turner had allowed Zora to 'borrow' the RDF ace because he had a good 'gut feeling' about the former pirate which led them both to grind their teeth at the old man.
While she fell into her new routine, the fleet's journey continued and before Laura realised it they had arrived at their destination: the planet of water, Undine.
"It's beautiful…" Laura whispered, staring at the blue planet on the monitor of the Orthrus, where she sat on standby inside its cockpit. Undine was smaller than the other planets she had seen but still dwarfed the fleet and was like a round sapphire floating in space.
"Laura," the voice of Milos addressed her on the comm and the face of her adopted father appeared on-screen. "Don't worry, Laura, this should be a simple extraction operation; get the relic and get out of there."
"I'm not worried; you're the one who sounds worried," said Laura, raising her eyebrow. "And I'm only in this position because of you, remember?"
Milos groaned and they were interrupted when another voice joined the comm.
"I believe you forgot to add 'captain' to the end of your sentences, ensign."
"C-Commander Gabriel!" Laura saluted at once at the sight of the demon commander, irking her father.
"Ever since you transferred to the Ganymede, I've noticed you seem to be lacking in discipline. The influence of Captain Adesina's lax authority, I suspect," Sofia narrowed her red eyes upon speaking the pirate's name. "Perhaps you require retraining upon your return to the Lionheart…"
"Don't be too hard on the girl, commander," another voice interjected before Laura could protest and she found Admiral Turner's bushy beard in the frame. "Ensign Hartmann is just adapting to her new environment; I'm sure that upon her return she'll slip back into the chain of command like a well-oiled cog. Right, ensign?"
"Yes, sir! I'm just a cog in the machine!"
"As for the operation, Zora has my full confidence in seeing it through and I know she'll take care of our young ace here."
Whatever the admiral saw in the Militia leader, it overrode Sofia's concerns and she and Milos nodded.
"Yes, admiral," they answered only for Milos to add with a whisper, "You still can't beat me in a dance-off, old man…"
"The hell I can't, Hartmann!" Turner shot back with a competitive grin. "When this operation is over, I'm going to school your sorry behind – again!"
"Bring it on, old man!"
While the men argued like overgrown children, the women sighed and Laura quietly kicked them off her comm only for more calls to come in.
"Hey, Laura! Ready to go swimming?" Junko's cheery voice graced the technopath's relived ears. "I want to hear every detail afterwards!"
"She's not going on holiday, Junko," Alice appeared next and chided the mechanic who stuck her tongue out. "Good luck, Laura."
"Leave things over here to us, ensign, and go find that relic," Ray added, giving a thumbs up.
"Thanks, girls, Ray. Hopefully, this won't take long," Laura replied.
"Keep your eyes peeled, Laura! You won't have us to watch your back… and you know how much you rely on me!" Freya reminded her for the umpteenth time. "Those flyboys better not try anything fishy because I have a new mobile suit and I'm not afraid to use it!"
"What was that, rich girl?" Ignacio suddenly entered the channel and flapped his gums. "Why wait? Bring it on bit–"
"Nacho!" Shana shouted and her face supplanted his on the monitor. "Don't worry, everyone; we'll take good care of your Blonde Hellhound."
"Shana!" Laura objected only to hear laughter go around both teams and flushed to her ears. Shana was already getting along swimmingly with her friends, which turned out to be both a good and bad thing. Thankfully, Zora's roguish voice silenced the laughter as she made a crew-wide announcement.
"Okay, boys and girls, settle down. The Ganymede will now enter Undine's atmosphere so strap yourselves in, keep your heads, arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times, and please remember to enjoy the ride."
With a final nod to her friends, Laura closed the comm and felt the Ganymede fire its thrusters as it separated from the fleet, leaving the Militia's eight Gladiator-class destroyers in the RDF's care. Alone, it flew directly into the blue planet before pointing its nose up and began to gain speed, pulled by Undine's gravity until it was in its grasp and in freefall. The former pirate ship essentially bellyflopped into the atmosphere, attaining astronomical speeds that broke the sound barrier two dozen times over, and the friction and compressed air under its reddened hull reached thousands of degrees. The heat from those ionised particles recombined around the Ganymede and created an incandescent light which could be seen by its allies in space as it gradually descended like a falling star.
Within the Ganymede, Laura waited patiently inside the Orthrus' cockpit and found herself questioning the safety of the ancient Lemurian vessel as it creaked and groaned from the shockwaves pounding beneath her feet. However, as time passed and the drag decelerated the ship, the Gundam pilot felt the weight of her body return until she was eased into the comfort of her seat by gravity. The Ganymede, which had been breaking the sound barrier only minutes ago, was gradually restored to a less turbulent speed and dropped from Undine's skies like a giant watermelon.
"Deploy wings!" Zora ordered from the captain's chair and the bridge operators complied.
Broad sections hidden within the Ganymede's skirt unfolded, becoming three pairs of cascading wings, each embedded with with huge circular turbines which lifted the craft up and through the air. With the help of the spinning turbines keeping the vessel aloft, its thrusters reignited with azure flames and the ship soared over Undine's endless ocean which shimmered beneath the Zodian Sun. After admiring the world's horizon for a time, Zora ordered the helmswoman to take them down and the Ganymede made a soft landing in the middle of the sea where its hull cooled with rising white steam as it calmly floated on the waves.
"We're right on top of the Star Map coordinates, Zora," the navigator reported, and the captain activated her comm.
"Nothing," the Gundam pilot answered when the relic detection program on her monitor made no sound. "It must be further away."
"Then it looks like we're going for a swim," Zora grinned. "All hands, prepare to submerge!"
The Ganymede retracted its wings before ballast tanks in the forward and aft sections of its hull began to take water. The escaping air from the tanks caused bubbles to foam around the vessel which only halted when it had disappeared under the waves. Now fully submerged, the ship activated its searchlights and dived for Undine's ocean floor.
"I have something," Laura reported as her instrument began to bleep a hundred metres down. "A relic is definitely down here."
"Not just a relic," Zora replied. "Look."
Laura and Team Banshee checked their monitors and the link with the bridge displayed a mysterious white structure underneath the Ganymede. As they drew closer, they realised it was a circular dome of Lemurian design, half a kilometre in diameter, and stood on a single pillar which sprouted from the deep. The pilots and crew were rendered speechless and left wondering as to the purpose of such a facility on a remote planet.
"What the hell is that?" Ignacio finally said what everyone was thinking.
"A deep-sea research centre…?" Shana ventured but did not look entirely convinced.
"Whatever it is, the relic must be inside," said Laura and her voice welled with excitement.
"You heard the Bloodhound!" Zora bellowed with a grin, probably on purpose, and went on speaking before an annoyed Hellhound could correct her. "You're up, Team Banshee. Find that relic!"
The team of ten Raijuu and the Gundam were lowered from the Ganymede's hangar to its airlock which began to fill with water. The Raijuu had already been outfitted with underwater equipment which overlaid their thin torso frames with bubble-like armour and wrapped propeller gauntlets around their forelimbs. The Orthrus, on the other hand, while theoretically proven to function underwater in simulations, was incompatible with the Raijuu's equipment. Instead, it had been jury-rigged with inflatable super life rafts around its body in case it sunk like a hammer – a precaution which certainly did not boost Laura's confidence.
As the increasing seawater washed over the Orthrus' head cameras and seemingly transformed her panoramic monitor into an elaborate fish tank, Laura inadvertently held her breath until the Gundam's HUD switched to underwater mode. When it did, she sighed with relief and watched as the long bay doors of the flooded airlock groaned open below. One by one, the Raijuu walked over and sunk out from under the Ganymede and Laura went last after taking a deep breath.
The Orthrus did indeed sink like a hammer but as the simulations had proven, Laura was able to manoeuvre around thanks to her thrusters albeit slowly due to the dampening effects of the water. Meanwhile, the Raijuu swam like dolphins thanks to their bubble armour, which doubled as ballast tanks, and their spinning propellers. Team Banshee inevitably left her behind as they dove for the Lemurian dome facility although one mischievous Raijuu swam circles around Laura before taking off.
"Why so slow, Hellhound? Did you forget how to dog paddle?" Ignacio taunted her before laughing his head off.
"You little…! You wouldn't be talking like that if this were a vacuum!" the blonde growled and tried to will the Gundam to go faster to little effect.
"Here, hold on to me, Laura."
Shana pulled up beside the Orthrus in her Raijuu and offered a welcome hand. Shouting her thanks through the electromagnetic comm, Laura grabbed it and was towed along as Team Banshee approached the underwater facility. However, heart-pounding alerts from their sonars stopped them in their tracks: several objects were closing in and fast.
"Torpedoes!" Sheeban warned before he realised their alarming proximity. "Scatter!"
Team Banshee broke formation on his order but a torpedo bolted out of the darkness and drove straight into one of their number. It scuppered the Raijuu in a rising bubble of destructive energy and sent shockwaves through the ocean, startling the Militia inside their shuddering cockpits. The rest of the torpedoes exploded around them and everyone braced as they were caught by multiple pressure surges.
"Is it LIRA? Where are they?" Zora demanded, hanging off the edge of her seat on the Ganymede's bridge. "Why didn't we see them?!"
"The torpedoes came from beyond our sonar range and sonar has reduced effectiveness this deep in the ocean!" the man on sonar reported before giving his conclusion. "They're close!"
Zora's eyes widened and she determined the answer to her own question with a growl.
"Turn off the searchlights! Load the torpedo tubes! All hands prepare for an undersea knife fight!" she ordered. "Team Banshee, get ready!"
"Zora, more incoming objects on sonar… mobile suits!" the sonarman reported. "It's a squad of Lycans!"
"Did you hear that, Ban? It's them."
"Understood," Sheeban responded and propelled his Raijuu out in front. "Team Banshee, prepare to counterattack!"
Hearing the order Laura grimaced, feeling vulnerable while armed with only a torpedo launcher loaned from the Militia. The Orthrus' new Solar equipment had been left behind on the Ganymede for reasons of hydrodynamics and the reduced effectiveness of beam weapons underwater. But concerns for her own survival suddenly evaporated when Laura realised the true meaning of LIRA's presence. With a shocked gasp, she threw her distressed purple gaze back towards Undine's skies.
They appeared at the outer edge of Undine: a line of black ships in the distance with a wraith-like cruiser at their head – LIRA's Fourth Fleet and their flagship, the Tempest. Admiral Turner knew it was the Reaper the moment the Baselard's radarman sounded the alarm and the operator counted nine Wyvern-class cruisers. It was three short of the full LIRA-dozen and although reports said the Fourth had less ships than Lux's regular fleets, Turner assumed the missing vessels would be gunning for their backs.
"What are the chances, admiral?" Milos appeared on the captain's chair monitor with an angry scowl masking his gritted teeth. "They may have a star map but to appear at the same time as us and ready for a brawl? Either we have a leak or we were fed false information."
"I agree, captain," Turner replied coolly. "But we can't think about that right now; we must focus on winning this battle. Besides, don't you see the irony, Milos?"
"Yes, sir… It's like a miniature battle for Lemuria."
The positions were reversed but with LIRA coming from the front, Undine on their starboard side and its moon nearing on their port, it looked as if the remnants of Rem's First Fleet would get their chance at revenge early.
"We're at less than a quarter-strength though and I don't know how much we can count on the Militia," Milos went on, frowning, but Turner shook his head.
"Oh, I wouldn't say that, Milos; after all, we have the Lionheart and the Militia's Gladiators are quick little things," he explained with a familiar stroke of his beard. "I should know since I've both served on and captained one of those old tin cans. Well, if it's a fight the Reaper wants, it's a fight he'll get."
"I take it my schooling is on hold, sir?" Milos finally grinned.
"You can still watch and learn, boy," Turner retorted before bellowing his orders. "All ships, prepare for combat! Launch all Garm teams! And get the Militia's subcommander on the line; I have a special job for them…"
When the alarms sounded, the crew of the Lionheart dropped what they were doing and dashed for their battle stations. The members of Team Orthrus who had been left behind manned their mobile suits with a mix of different feelings. For Ray, it would be his second battle since re-enlisting – if one counted the disastrous friendly-fire incident at the abandoned colony as a battle – and he was eager to prove himself. For Freya and Alice, however, it was the opportunity they had been waiting for: to take their new mobiles suits out for a spin and stomp on LIRA.
"Finally, some action!" the Pink Diva hollered as she strapped herself into her cockpit and began start up procedures.
"Remember to leave some for me," Alice entreated through the comm as she checked her instruments.
"Don't get cocky, brats; we're up against a whole fleet this time," Ray chided them before swallowing some pills and fixing his helmet on.
"Hey, stop raining on our parade, old man!" Freya shot back with a cheeky grin. "I'm just sad Laura isn't here see us in all our glory."
"She'd just steal your thunder anyway," Junko appeared on the diva's screen with the others and poked her tongue out with a jeer. "This will be the debut battle of the new Garms, so make sure to get plenty of data; I'm sure R&D will appreciate it when they're admiring your footage!"
"Oh, you bet! We're going to give them a show to remember," Freya licked her lips.
"Team Orthrus, you are cleared for launch," the voice of the bridge operator informed them, and the Garms Beta and Gamma were transported to the launch pad catapults first.
"This is Freya Valstein," the Pink Diva announced and gripped her controls. "Brunhild, heading out!"
"Alice Carol," the Disappointing Angel mimicked the pinkette. "Jabberwock, taking flight!"
The catapult blocks disengaged their locks and the mobile suits shot down their runways on sparks of electromagnetic force. The Brunhild left the rails first and came careening out of the Lionheart's bow, revealing itself to be a lean white and pink machine armed with a rifle and shield. The sky-blue Jabberwock followed with its new sniper rifle in hand and the two Garm prototypes coiled around each other as they soared into space. Ray's navy-blue Hermes exited last, wielding its dual rifles and as he took up the rear he observed the joint fleet had assembled into a line formation; the RDF Knight battleships were on the right wing, the Militia Gladiator destroyers on the left, and the Lionheart was in between.
"Check us out, LIRA! We're stunning!" Freya whooped and stopped above the Lionheart to pose with Alice. "But I still think my Brunhild should've been painted all pink…"
"There was no way that was going to happen," a frowning Milos muscled in on their monitors and proclaimed. "We already have a scarlet mobile suit running around and now a blue Garm; we don't need to confuse our allies any more than that. You're lucky I even let you paint them at all!"
"Milos, you scrooge!" Freya stuck her tongue out.
"Philistine!" Alice added.
"Quiet, all of you," Sofia suddenly materialised on their screens and ordered, her narrowed red eyes muzzling even the captain. "Now if you can focus for five seconds, LIRA has already deployed their mobile suit squadrons. ETA in three minutes."
"Wargs?" Ray asked.
"Negative, radar reports they're too small to be Wargs. Expect the Lycans the Militia warned us about."
"They're basically Raijuu, right? Let me at them!" Freya shouted, punching her palm.
"Stay where you are, ensign. We need all teams to stay close to their ships," Milos instructed the diva who sulked like a child. "There might be a few stealth cruisers out there waiting to ambush us so we don't need Team Orthrus straying too far in case we need you."
"What? No fair!" Freya cried and her moping was followed by a torrent of bleeps on Alice's radar.
"Detecting up to ten bandits," the blonde reported, adjusting her instruments. "Remarkable… the Jabberwock's sensors far outstrip those of my old Garm."
"Perfect for a sniper, eh, ensign?" Ray winked before addressing Milos. "Permission to engage, captain?"
"Granted. But remember, don't stray too far."
"Ensign Carol and Mr Mercury should be enough. The Lionheart will support you from behind," Sofia added, leaving a certain diva gobsmacked, before she and the captain signed off.
"Roger that. Come on, Alice, you're up! Just like we trained," Ray spurred Alice on, taking command in place of an indignant Freya.
Alice boosted the Jabberwock several hundred metres in front of the Lionheart before reverse thrusting to a stop. There, she took up a shooting posture by resting the barrel of her long rifle on a notch along the rim of her shield. Flipping a switch inside the cockpit, the lights dimmed and a large scope lowered over the technopath's amber eyes.
She saw them: ten grey mobile suits, over thirty kilometres away. The Lycans were smaller than Wargs, one-eyed and slender-limbed, but all were prey to the Jabberwock. As the targeting reticule converged on her first victim, the Disappointing Angel smiled and squeezed the trigger.
An instant later, the lead Lycan was seemingly pierced by a lance of blue light which left a molten hole in its chest before exiting out its back. After a delayed reaction, it burst into a ball of sputtering flames and veered off course while its bewildered comrades were left reeling. By the time they realised the enemy was sniping them from an impossible distance ahead, another Lycan had been speared through and its explosion finally compelled the squadron to quickly take evasive manoeuvres.
Nevertheless, Alice kept pulling the trigger and managed to shoot down another two Lycans in flight only to miss the next few shots. The blonde clicked her tongue and pushed her scope out of the way. The Lycans were much faster than she had been led to believe and she had to reload.
"Sorry, Ray. There are too many for me," the sniper apologised and retreated while changing her plasma cartridge.
"No, you did good," said Ray as the Hermes zoomed past the Jabberwock. "You softened them up for me and I just happen to be the right tool for the right job!"
"…Did you just call yourself a tool?"
Ray ignored Freya's little jibe and opened up his throttle, propelling the Hermes straight into the remaining Lycans at high speed. The grey mobile suits spread out and fired their rifles en masse, attempting to surround and destroy the lone blue Garm, but it weaved through the web of beams like they were mere hindrances. Inside the Hermes' cockpit, Ray's dark blue eyes darted about between the multiple enemies on his monitors as they shot to kill before taking a deep breath and pushing on his control sticks.
In mid-flight, the Hermes stretched out its arms and fired off dual bursts of plasma from its rifles in two different directions. Two Lycans in Ray's orbit were hit at the same time, becoming twin fireballs as they joined the stars. The red beams flying his way intensified but the former ace calmly shifted his controls, simultaneously dodging and repositioning the Hermes using minimal thruster burns. Its rotating arms, freed to manoeuvre due to the compact bullpup designs of the rifles in its hands, lined up new targets on the fly and Ray shot them down a pair at a time like a ballet of beams.
From start to finish, the skirmish only lasted ten seconds and the Hermes was the final one standing amongst the shredded remains of the Lycans.
"…Like riding a bicycle," Ray exhaled only to cry out in alarm when one of the Lycans reactivated and took off for the Lionheart. "Look out! One's still alive!"
Alice quickly whipped up her rifle and checked her scope. The Lycan was nothing but a flying torso hurtling forward even after its legs, lower waist and its right arm had been blown off as its pilot burned what propellent they had left into a blue inferno out the back. Both Ray and Alice got a shot off only for the Lycan to zigzag erratically past the Jabberwock and go straight for the Lionheart.
"He's mine!" Freya cried and she thrusted to intercept the survivor who tried to snake around the Brunhild like they had the Jabberwock.
But the Pink Diva took a different tact and slammed her shield into the Lycan. The impact together with the full weight of the Brunhild should have knocked the pilot unconscious – yet they kept coming. With thrusters blazing, they grabbed onto the shield and tried to push the Brunhild back.
"What the…?" Freya whispered, finding the enemy's behaviour baffling, and her technopathic abilities shared her alarm when they felt a growing spike of energy from the Lycan.
"Freya!" Alice shouted, having also correctly deduced the Lycan's intentions.
Biting her lip, the diva shook the glowing mobile suit off her shield before following up with a thruster-aided kick that sent the Lycan spinning away from the Lionheart. Aiming her rifle next, she discharged a few beams into its back for good measure and hid behind her shield from the ensuing eruption. The Lycan must have been using a cheap, obsolete battery because when it self-destructed the explosion rocked the Lionheart and the surrounding space. When the wall of heat and light finally died away from her monitor, Freya lowered her shield and found there was nothing left; the Lycan had been completely disintegrated.
"…What the hell was that?" the diva asked after taking a deep breath.
"I think it was trying to take the Lionheart down with it…" said Ray who was no less disturbed as he rejoined the others. "I've seen pilots do some suicidal things but this was extra crazy…"
"It's like they didn't value their own lives…" Alice whispered, feeling an uneasy chill.
"There are similar reports from the other ships," Sofia appeared on their monitors and informed them. "But whatever the tactics of the Reaper's Hypnos squad, the First Fleet has fended them off for now. Good work, Team Orthrus. LIRA's fleet will be coming into cannon range soon so remain on standby."
The three pilots watched as the row of Knight-class battleships and the Lionheart fired their main cannons, unleashing a barrage of titanic-sized beams which surged into the distance like a dazzling deluge. After the initial volley, the RDF alternated fire and launched random missile salvos, keeping the nimble Wyvern-class cruisers on their toes as they attempted to get their own cannons within range amidst the attack. Meanwhile, the Militia fleet of Gladiator-class destroyers, left unopposed on the left wing, advanced and attempted to flank the occupied Fourth Fleet.
From their vantage point above the Lionheart, Team Orthrus observed what appeared to be a solid strategy from Admiral Turner but it was cold comfort against the feared Reaper. Furthermore, the burning question at the back of their minds was the whereabouts of the Fourth Fleet's missing ships which might include the stealth cruiser of the Lunar Fox and the Scarlet Wolf. The thought of facing their dreaded rivals while they were not at full strength was concerning to say the least but no one in Team Orthrus dared mention it.
"By the way… how's your lunch, Ray-Man?" Freya finally broke the silence and asked.
"Still in its place, since you asked," Ray replied, keeping his eyes on the unfolding battle while Alice's gaze drifted towards the blue sphere of Undine in the background.
"Come back soon, Laura…"
Narick Ambion couldn't believe his luck.
First, not only had his father, Lord Ambion, dispatched the finest pilots to replenish Team Ambion's depleted ranks, he had also arranged for the scion's transfer to the Paris. The Crow-class stealth cruiser would join General Cypher's Fourth Fleet and the Blue Crow to the ZU where they would continue the relic hunt – the perfect stage for Narick to outshine Vega and reclaim his glory. He may have had to share passage with those detestable Space Wolves in the process, whom he was sure had something to do with his waking up in the medical bay with sudden memory loss, but General Cypher had recognised his worth over their mistress and sent the Paris down to Undine to claim the relic.
The Paris and Team Ambion were also accompanied by the Wyvern-class Caliban which carried a squad of the Reaper's infamous Team Hypnos. The mysterious masked troopers were unintelligent barbarians as far as Narick could tell who piloted inferior Raijuu called Lycans. It was a stain on his nobility to work with such rabble but no matter; they would be a minor footnote in the Legend of Narick Ambion and how he bravely secured the first relic in the ZU for Lux.
Which led Narick to his next bit of fortune: as if offering themselves up for his legend, a horde of enemies were already on Undine and ready for a thrashing. Well, it appeared to be just a lone ship judging by the searchlights in the undersea distance but embellishment was a necessary instrument for those of higher birth to control the mindless masses, as Narick's father said. Demonstrating the brilliant tactical genius for which he would surely be known, the nobleman ordered the Caliban and Team Hypnos to attack from the front and distract the enemy. Meanwhile, the Paris and Team Ambion would sneak around and acquire the relic before they would rout the enemy from behind.
That was when he saw it – the source of his most recent humiliation. An existence second only to Vega Aurelia when it came to the indignities Narick had been made to suffer.
"The White Hellhound…!" he glowered, his perfect features twisting into an ugly scowl usually reserved for the Scarlet Wolf. There was no mistake; after what it had done to him and the Tybalt, Narick would recognise that white mobile suit anywhere. Even when it was floundering underwater.
"…Oh. Lucky day, indeed!" the scion grinned when he realised his chance for revenge was already at hand and opened his comm. "Change of plans, Cecil; all Sea Wargs are to target the Orthrus Gundam for destruction!"
"The White Hellhound?" Cecil gasped. "At once, Master Narick! That cur will rue the day they crossed House Ambion!"
"Yes, I will enjoy skinning them alive… and afterwards I will forever remind that she-wolf that it was I who took the head of her rival, not her!" Narick began to laugh vigorously and Cecil joined in but their premature revelling was interrupted by a third party.
"Our orders were to secure the relic," a heavily filtered voice stated without a hint of emotion and the masked visage of X-99 with his shock of white hair appeared on Narick's monitor.
"99-X or whatever your name is," the blonde nobleman sneered with contempt at the sight of the Reaper's dog. "I know General Cypher sent you to babysit me – don't think I don't know – but the fact remains I outrank you! Now follow my orders and keep distracting the enemy while I sink this hound in the water… and don't get in my way unless you also wish to feel the full wrath of House Ambion!"
"…Understood," came the masked pilot's response after a pause and he disappeared from the screen.
"Well done, Master Narick!" Cecil praised his lord. "The insolence of that native!"
"Every now and again we must put the lower-born in their place, Cecil," Narick declared with proud pomp and raised his nose. "Chaos would reign otherwise."
Under the cover of the ocean deep, Team Ambion crept forward towards the unsuspecting enemy while they were engaged with Team Hypnos' Lycans. Vibrations swept over their Sea Wargs from the explosions of torpedoes and mobile suits but Narick was surprisingly patient as he kept his hungry eyes on the murky white form in the water. Finally, the Orthrus separated from the group and the aggrieved heir to House Ambion bellowed a single order.
"Attack! Bring me the head of the White Hellhound!"
The Lycans came out of the shadows of the deep like phantoms. They were grey versions of the Militia's one-eyed Raijuu complete with round underwater equipment and propellers except the eyes on their triangular heads were red. Like the Raijuu, their propeller gauntlets were armed with torpedoes and they launched a second volley at the scattered Militia on sight. Team Banshee returned fire and the opposing waves of zooming warheads either smashed into one another or found unfortunate mobile suits, creating ripples of underwater tremors as they detonated.
Laura braced inside her cockpit as the shockwaves hit, pushing the Orthrus backwards, and fired her torpedo launcher into the dark. Thoughts of the fleet and her friends rapidly deserted her mind as she tried to get a visual on the enemy but the ocean depths were devoid of light and jammers beset her sonar. Furthermore, the immobility of the Gundam underwater concerned the technopath and she grimaced. As much as it went against her own tactical instincts, she had no choice but to remain as quiet and still as possible.
Suddenly, a ray of light illuminated the darkness and Laura saw a familiar Raijuu soaring overhead on her monitor. Sheeban had turned on his high-intensity searchlights and was shining them at the Lycans. Taking their leader's cue, Laura and Team Banshee unleashed a torpedo barrage at the enemy positions as they were exposed one at a time.
The Lycans scrambled, propelling every which way to avoid the spotlight and deployed their jammers. But the speeding torpedoes didn't even need their onboard sonar; the instant they detected the mobile suits' magnetic signatures in close proximity, they detonated. Several spherical gas bubbles expanded instantly, snuffing out an equal number of Lycans in their roaring wake.
At the same time, the remaining members of Team Hypnos fired on Sheeban who engaged his thrusters and made some noise. Laura had to admire the Militia ace as she watched his selfless Raijuu guide the pack of torpedoes away from the battle but there was no way he was outrunning them. What the technopath did not realise was the Zodian had deliberately swum into the path of the hiding Ganymede.
"Zora!" Sheeban yelled into his comm.
"Fire interceptors!" Zora ordered.
Two holes on the bow of the Ganymede opened and ejected two pairs of double-loaded interceptors – cigar-shaped projectiles that were half the size of their torpedo cousins. Rammed out by water pressure and propelled rapidly to high velocity by electric power, the four interceptors were quiet as well as quick. They easily sought out and converged on the torpedoes dogging Sheeban, scuttling them in a series of foamy explosions and saving the Zodian's bacon.
"Torpedoes neutralised!" one of the Ganymede operators reported.
"Alright! Time to join in!" Zora hollered with a grin only to frown when the sonar picked something up.
"Zora, more torpedoes on our port side!" the sonarman yelled. "They're targeting the Ganymede!"
"Dive! Take us down another hundred feet!" the raven-haired pirate bellowed. "And deploy decoys!"
The Ganymede's ballast tanks filled with water and it sank deeper into the ocean while simultaneously releasing small rod-shaped devices. Four arms flipped up from the sides of the devices, revealing themselves to be rotors, and the decoys whirled away from the Ganymede like a school of fish. Each swamped the ocean with multiple acoustic signals, fooling the sonar of the incoming torpedoes with false targets and running them in circles until they either expended their fuel or left their programmed kill boxes and shut down.
"Thermal torpedoes!" Zora growled, recognising the greater size and speed of the muddled warheads on the sonar. "They have a ship with underwater warfare capabilities!"
LIRA cruisers were known to function underwater but naval warfare was so rare in the current space age it was thought they were not outfitted with anything beyond basic undersea weaponry. While electric torpedoes were small, safe, and easily stored for use when needed by specialised mobile suit equipment or a modified airlock, thermal torpedoes were large, volatile, and had slow acceleration in exchange for greater range and top speeds. They were unsuited for mobile suits and only a ship specialised for undersea warfare would carry them.
"So the Reaper thinks he can take me on in a submarine battle, eh?" Zora scoffed before stepping up to the challenge with a smirk. "Well, they don't call me the Hyena of the High Seas for nothing!"
"No, they call you the Laughing Hyena," Sheeban deadpanned on the comm.
"Save your comedy routine for those Hypnos goons, Banshee," the former pirate retorted. "Now work some more magic and clean up those Lycans!"
"Roger. Returning to the enemy's last known loc–" Sheeban paused, distracted, and his grey eyes narrowed. "Zora… it's him."
The Militia ace's instruments told him all was calm. But it was deceptive – somehow, he knew. Half a second later, a black Lycan burst out of the deep in front of Sheeban's Raijuu, searchlights flashing and brandishing a sonic blade.
The leader of Team Hypnos.
On instinct, Sheeban fired a torpedo at point blank but the Lycan merely knocked it aside before the warhead could arm and it harmlessly zoomed past its target. Grunting, the Militiaman swung his empty launcher at the enemy instead, letting it get sliced in two by the Lycan's vibrating knife while he drew the Raijuu's own sonic blade. Their daggers clashed repeatedly, shaving off sparks that glittered in the dark ocean, and all pretence of stealth was lost in the savage close-quarters melee as they tried to blind one another with their bright lights.
"Sorry, Zora… Team Banshee will have to fight without me," Sheeban managed to mutter in between dodging the Lycan's stabs, his usually emotionless face the picture of life-or-death concentration.
"Damn! That was the last thing we needed…" Zora swore and quickly switched comm channels. "Laura, get inside that Lemurian station and find that relic. Go with her, Shana. The Ganymede and Team Banshee will hold the fort."
"Understood," Laura replied and grabbed on to Shana's Raijuu again as it sailed past. The pair left the battlefield behind and headed straight for the white dome under stealth, using the Raijuu's silent propellers. But they did not get far before their sonars pinged and their faces paled with alarm.
"What the hell?!" Laura cried out upon seeing multiple readings on her sonar indicating a whole squad of mobile suits were closing in. "More Lycans? No…!"
"Sea Wargs!" Shana finished for her.
Yellow eyes glowed in the deep and the blue Wargs surged behind them like sharks to blood. As Laura had been briefed, these were no ordinary Wargs; they had rounded armour all over and giant propellers built into their backs, arms and legs. They had been especially designed for undersea combat from the ground up and could easily outrun an underwater equipped Raijuu or Lycan.
Nevertheless, Laura and Shana still tried to flee only to watch as their pursuers aimed torpedo-armed gauntlets at the rears of their mobile suits. Laura pointed her launcher back with the Orthrus' free arm, determined to at least take a few down with her, and fired her last torpedo. She watched it bolt and disappear into the ocean twilight, expecting an explosion to follow. When her sonar picked up several, the technopath's purple eyes bulged with comical surprise.
Buoyed, Laura and Shana listened as the Sea Wargs backed off and were replaced by the familiar signature of a lone Raijuu.
"Nacho?!" Shana cried, and sure enough the voice of the redhead barked over their comms.
"I'll distract them, so get going Hellmutt!" Ignacio grunted and kept it short.
"Don't call me mutt!" Laura snapped, adding, "And don't die, you idiot!"
Shana took off again with Laura in tow before the Sea Wargs could follow and Ignacio blind-fired another torpedo at the enemy's last location. The shattered husks of two Sea Wargs were already sinking into the abyss, destroyed by the Orthrus and Ignacio in the first salvo, which left six unaccounted for. The militiaman only found four using his sonar – two of which were hanging back like cowards while they let their comrades fight for them – and while he led them into a game of cat and mouse he quickly warned the others.
"Heads up, there might be two on your tail."
"Found them," Laura replied, hearing a pair of Sea Wargs noisily try to catch up with them on the sonar before she caught sight of their lights on the monitor, glowing like tiny torches. LIRA obviously didn't think they were much of a threat in their current state if they had turned on their searchlights too. "Don't worry, two we can handle. How many torpedoes do you have left, Shana?"
"One?! How trigger-happy were you?"
"Sorry! I freaked out a bit when the fighting started," a jittery Shana explained over the comm. "We're almost at the Lemurian dome; what do we do, Laura?"
The White Hellhound clamped up for a moment before coming up with a daring and possibly suicidal plan Commander Gabriel would never approve of.
"…Okay, I've got it. Do exactly as I tell you…."
Unlike the smooth white crown of the Lemurian dome, its dilapidated underside was a shadowy maze of jutting blocks and damaged structures – perfect for concealing two mobile suits. When the Sea Wargs arrived they used their bright, head-mounted torches to search for their prey, telegraphing their positions to Laura as she lay in hiding. Once she knew they were close enough, the White Hellhound burst into action.
The Orthrus might be dead weight underwater but it still had one advantage – it could sink like a stone. Using the Gundam's heavy feet, Laura plunged right on top of the first Sea Warg and crushed its head in with a kick before whipping out her beamsabre. As expected, its plasma blade was nothing more than a short butterknife under the freezing ocean but it could still burn through titanium and as Laura sunk past the Warg she stabbed at its cockpit. The pull of gravity on the Gundam dragged its beamsabre along, tearing the Warg open with a burst of escaping bubbles before it went limp and made a watery grave for itself below.
In a matter of seconds, their pursuers had been reduced to one and the remaining Sea Warg aimed its torpedo gauntlets below at the descending Orthrus, bent on avenging the sudden death of its comrade. But if its pilot thought destroying the White Hellhound would be like shooting a fish in a barrel, Laura quickly disabused them of that belief by triggering the jury-rigged super life rafts attached to the Gundam's body. In combination with its thrusters, the inflated rafts shot the balloon-like Orthrus towards the surface as intended and the mobile suit rammed into the stunned Sea Warg before pinning it to the dome underside with a shuddering quake.
At Laura's command, Shana's Raijuu leapt out of its hiding place with its torpedo launcher at the ready. While she took aim, Laura used her stubby beamsabre to cut whatever rafts had not burst, freeing the Orthrus to kick off its foe and out of the way to safety. This also unblocked the Warg's cameras, which had been blinded by the inflated rafts, but the first and last thing it saw was a torpedo to the face. The resulting explosion rocked the dome and when the bubbles and debris finally cleared, the hollowed out remains of the Sea Warg sank to the bottom of the ocean to join its fallen comrades.
"Great shot, Shana!" Laura grabbed onto the Raijuu again and congratulated its pilot.
"No, you made it easy for me, Laura; you had the difficult part," Shana sighed with relief and wondered if the White Hellhound was always this crazy. "I think I found the entrance so let's hurry and find the relic."
Propelling her Raijuu forward, Shana guided them to a round opening underneath the dome and they switched on their searchlights before going inside. The dark shaft led upwards deep into the facility until their shimmering lights refracted off a portal at the tunnel's end and their mobile suits surfaced inside a large pool. They clambered out and shone their torches over their surroundings, finding a cavernous and rusty Lemurian docking bay that had seen better days.
"The relic is close…" Laura checked her relic detector and reported while Shana marvelled at the facility. They were probably the first people to set foot inside the dome in centuries but there was no time to admire it – they had a mission to carry out. However, before they could even begin their search, the dome convulsed beneath the feet of their mobile suits like it had been struck by an earthquake.
"What now?!" Laura cried out with frustration only for her eyes to widen when she realised the floor was tilting. A terrible groan of warping steel reached their ears and the next thing they knew their mobile suits were sliding across the room before tumbling and crashing through the facility as the entire dome pitched sideways. Seawater flooded after them, seeping inside the dome in waves and, although their minds were gripped by fear, the girls had no confusion as to what was happening.
The dome was falling – and they were going with it.
"Take that, White Hellhound!"
An ecstatic Narick Ambion bellowed with triumph and watched as the torpedoes leaving his Sea Warg's gauntlets shot towards the Lemurian dome which his hated enemy had taken refuge inside of. The very idea of the White Hellhound discovering another relic before him was too much to bear and, in a thoughtless and hasty plan, the nobleman had decided to make the underwater facility their tomb. Little did he know it would work out far better than he had imagined as, in what could only be described as a freakish fluke, the torpedoes missed the dome entirely... and collided with its lone pillar instead.
When the heir to House Ambion saw the explosion, his giant chin hit the cockpit floor and he went completely quiet. Clouds of dust and foam from the impact obscured the section of the pillar that had been struck but there was no question it had been taken out because the entire column visibly shifted, marking the beginning of an extraordinary chain reaction.
First, the ruined spire collapsed in slow motion, falling backwards and breaking up into smaller pieces as it sank to the bottom of the ocean. Next, having lost its sole supporting pillar below, the immense dome rapidly tilted sideways at a sharp angle before the whole structure began to descend and released a chimney of escaping bubbles as it gathered speed. Finally, like a burial at sea, the white coffin disappeared into the abyss and the bubbles stopped, leaving behind no evidence a Lemurian ruin had ever been there.
Afterwards, Narick remained silent for a moment longer but eventually he found his voice and it trickled out.
"I… I've done it…!" he spluttered, shaking off his disbelief. "I've defeated the White Hellhound!"
The scion roared with laughter and his handsome features twisted with an ugly show of white teeth. The euphoric celebration went over the comm and was heard by another Sea Warg which rushed to his location. When Cecil arrived and saw what his master had done, the lackey went speechless.
"Look, Cecil! I've achieved what that she-wolf Vega Aurelia could not – I've killed the White Hellhound!" Narick boasted loudly upon knowing there was an audience even if it was just one. "Now all will know the name of Narick Ambion, LIRA's true ace!"
"B-B-But Master Narick…" Cecil stuttered fearfully. "What about the relic?"
"What about it? We can retrieve it after the battle – and while I'm at it, I'll dance on that mangy hellhound's grave!" the nobleman snapped before relishing the idea with a gleeful grin. "Honestly, Cecil, stop raining on my parade!"
"M-Master Narick…" the nervous retainer began. "Neither our Sea Wargs nor the Paris are cleared to dive to such depths… We would be crushed before we reached the relic now…"
From the other side of the comm came a deathly silence. It was the Ambion equivalent of realising he had stepped in a pile of faeces and was determining if he could still pull his foot out unsoiled. But when Narick's voice was finally heard, one would never have known.
"…That blasted Hellhound! Scuttling the ruins before I could arrive to take the relic!" he snarled through his teeth quite convincingly. "I had thought they were a worthy foe but rather than face me they decided to take the coward's way out!"
"Indeed, Master Narick! They knew they were no match for you, the pride of House Ambion!" Cecil quickly followed up his lord. "May the RDF ace rot in hell!"
"Yes, quite… I suppose I can still gloat to Vega of having been the one to seal her rival's fate," Narick sniggered with a smirk before turning his attention to his comm. "Come in, Team Hypnos. This is Team Ambion. How fares the battle?"
"…Still fighting…" came X-99's muffled reply and the noise of combat could be heard in the background. "Request assistance…"
"What?! You still haven't finished them off?! That ragtag Militia?!" Narick screamed, scarcely believing what he was hearing. "Don't tell me you're still fighting the same one!"
"It is the Militia ace…" X-99 confirmed coldly. "He will not be defeated so easily…"
"They're piloting Raijuu rejects! Gods! Do I have to do everything myself?" the nobleman sighed and slapped his throttle into gear. "Come, Cecil – House Ambion has no choice but to teach those incompetents how it is done!"
"Yes, Master Narick!"
Carried by the spinning propellers of their Sea Wargs, the bumbling pair swam back to the battle, never noticing the stray bubbles that had arisen from the abyss.
For the Rem Defence Force, distance was power. To strike your enemy while staying outside the range of their weapons and maintaining an impregnable defence was the military doctrine they had taken into the Lemurian Conflict – the first war in Rem's history. Nothing illustrated this more than the RDF's hulking Knight-class battleships and the heavily armoured Garm mobile suits they carried.
The Lux Imperial Army, on the other hand, valued mobility and versatility. Outmanoeuvre your opponent and strike like lightning, and you would never need fear superior numbers or armaments. It was a creed honed during the Outer Rim conflicts, borne in their fleet of Wyvern-class warships and peerless Warg mobile suits, and only enhanced by the addition of the Crow-class stealth cruisers.
Now, not for the first time, these two philosophies clashed on the battlefield.
"Keep alternating fire! If you're not blasting beams, you should be clobbering LIRA with missiles!" Admiral Turner ordered the RDF fleet, bellowing even as the Baselard's bridge flashed with light – pot shots from LIRA cruisers that managed to sneak past the barrage before a wave of missiles forced them to retreat.
"Admiral, we can't keep this up!" one operator beseeched the rear-admiral. They had been able to maintain this pattern for a time thanks to their newly equipped Hellfire missiles but the precious projectiles would soon run out and leave the First Fleet without their best answer to LIRA's Wargs which still had yet to be deployed.
"It's the only way unless you a want a repeat of the Fourth Battle for Lemuria!" Turner shot back before checking his chair monitor. "Be patient; they should be in position any moment now."
Across the battlefield, the Zodiac Union Militia's fleet of green Gladiator destroyers reached their destination unchallenged – the right flank of LIRA's fleet. While the RDF had kept LIRA occupied ship for ship, the agile Militia took advantage and charged ahead as planned, fanning out like an enclosing wing. LIRA had yet to respond, perhaps refusing to consider them threats due to the outdated destroyers' lack of beam weaponry, but if that was the case it was a mistake the Reaper would soon come to regret.
The bows of the Gladiators began to hatch open, their canopies splitting down the middle in two long doors like a banana peel before revealing an extensive deck crammed wholly with missile silos. Turner certainly did not remember that addition when he was a young crewman and had to admire the Militia's resourcefulness, not to mention the tactical prowess of their leader. According to Zora, she had purposely concealed the true nature of the redesigned destroyers until the time was right – when the Militia's decisive confrontation with the Reaper's fleet was at hand.
Like eight volatile wine racks, the Gladiators popped wave after wave of missiles into space and bombarded the LIRA cruiser guarding the Fourth Fleet's right flank. The Wyverns responded with an explosive point-defence light show, shooting the guided warheads down with rotating laser turrets mounted on its side, but the sheer number of missiles drove the vessel to evasive manoeuvres and it dived while releasing disruptive chaff shells. Its attached Warg squadron, previously on standby above, was called into action and they mopped up the remaining projectiles before making a beeline for the nearest Militia destroyer.
Now the bottom-half of the Gladiators unfurled and behind their bay doors were rows of Raijuu hanging from the deck underside like bats. The eyes of the green mobile suits glowed orange before they were released and thrusted out from beneath the destroyers towards the outnumbered Wargs, swarming them like a plague of insects. To their credit, LIRA's black wolves did not flinch in the face of the Raijuu's astonishing numbers and held faith in their superior equipment and discipline, sweeping through the mongrel mobs and blasting their beam rifles as one. The Raijuu fired back using revamped LIRA and RDF rifles but their incompatibility combined with the mobile suits' lower voltage output produced a less than optimal beam only effective at close range, allowing the Wargs to shrug off the plasma by the time it reached them.
However, what the Raijuu lacked in offence they more than made up for in speed – they were as agile as their foes, darting about and frustrating the Wargs' targeting systems. LIRA could not hope to stop them all and a dozen Raijuu slipped by, diving down and veering for the Wyvern's unprotected belly. They got close enough to aim and charge their rifles only for a second Warg team from the next ship to finally arrive and put them down with a hail of cavity-inducing red beams.
Leaving exploded green scrap behind them, the second Warg team joined their comrades at the massive mobile suit battle and more reinforcements soon followed as LIRA re-evaluated the Militia threat. Between the Raijuu's numbers and the Gladiators' transformation into missile batteries, the Wargs found themselves in a stalemate. The Wyvern at the right flank had the worst time as it struggled to fend off missiles from above, Raijuu on the starboard side, and the heavy beams of the Lionheart's canon in front.
"Not so mobile now, are you?" Admiral Turner grinned from the vantage of the Baselard. "Captain Hartmann, I think it's time we turned the screws on the Reaper."
"Yes, sir," Milos replied before bellowing to his bridge, "Begin relic particle cannon firing sequence!"
"Beginning particle cannon firing sequence!" Sofia repeated and addressed her subordinate operators at the weapons console one by one. "Reactor room, report!"
"Particle capture tank at maximum capacity!" came the first reply as the host of operators furiously worked their keyboards, checked monitors, and talked into their headsets. "Ready for release on command!"
"Filling barrel chamber with helium gas and refocusing electromagnets… Desired levels reached and stable!"
"Proton beams are primed and ready! All conditions for Plasma Wakefield Acceleration have been met!"
"Targeting computer has acquired LIRA Wyvern-class cruiser using radar... calculating trajectory… making final adjustments…" the operator on the fire-control system reported and finished with an excited shout. "Target is locked on! Probability reading is calculated to be 99.6 percent!"
"Excellent," Sofia nodded. "And the Militia?"
"The Militia have been informed and have cleared the kill zone!"
"Captain, the relic particle cannon is ready to fire on your command," Sofia followed protocol to the letter and informed her superior who paused to take in the moment by readjusting his cap.
"Alright… Let's see how this baby burns," Milos whispered before his eyes glinted from beneath the cap's visor and the order left his mouth with a roar. "Gungnir, fire!"
At Milos' command, glittering reactor particles were injected into the rear of the Lionheart's beam cannon and intense blue proton beams were simultaneously fired from holes in the back of the chamber. The beams travelled down the barrel in rapid pulses, ionising the helium into a fiery sea of blue plasma and creating terahertz frequency pulses of light – or an electromagnetic wake. Like surfers pulled into a series of ocean waves, the plasma wakefield accelerated the glittering particles down the barrel at extreme speed, changing the blue plasma to purple, and electromagnets along the inside focused them into a single beam.
Outside the Lionheart, there was a blinding flash as the relic particle cannon discharged its contents at the speed of light, reaching the other side of the battlefield and striking its target in an instant. The Wyvern cruiser never saw the purple beam coming until the very end when the kinetic energy of the subatomic particles pierced through the length of its hull and gutted the warship in spectacular explosive fashion. The explosion and resulting shockwave were so intense and far-reaching it caught even distant Wargs in its wake, snuffing out their confused pilots like candles while those who survived wondered why their ship had seemingly self-destructed.
Mere seconds had passed since Milos gave the order to fire and the speechless captain watched along with the Lionheart's similarly open-mouthed bridge crew at the destruction the Gungnir particle cannon had already wrought on their enemies. The silence was palatable and only broke when Sofia finally spoke up.
"Apparently, this baby burns like Hell, captain…"
Milos stared at his XO like she had grown another head and one couldn't tell if he was still shocked by the Gungnir or the fact Sofia had made a joke.
"…I guess those R&D eggheads really did do their homework," the captain finally muttered and leaned back in his seat where he adjusted his damp cap. "Not bad for a prototype. Speaking of which, give me a sitrep."
The operators finally tore their eyes away from the main monitor and reported, masking their shock as best they could.
"Particle capture tank has been completely depleted…"
"The barrel overheated but within predicted parameters… No misalignments detected."
"Initiating cooling measures. Normal plasma beam operations expected to return in ten minutes."
Officially, this was also the Gungnir particle cannon's first test firing after having been installed in secret aboard the Lionheart while at Colony Zero. Heavily redacted reports of small-scale experiments told the crew what to expect from transforming their beam cannon into a particle accelerator but it had been anyone's guess what the actual results would look like. Judging by the hushed voices of the operators as they dissected the data flooding in, the Gungnir had more than proven itself as the newest weapon of mass destruction in Lemurian Conflict.
"To think the Lionheart had the capability for such a weapon…" Sofia shook her head, astounded. "Whatever relic inspired the Gungnir must have been something else…"
"Don't forget the Lionheart's fusion reactor," Milos added. "Whatever particles it emits, they just punched LIRA in the brain… What are they calling them again?"
"Pandora Particles," the XO informed him. "Or PP."
Someone on the bridge snickered and Sofia quickly rounded on them with a roar to get back to work just before Admiral Turner appeared on the monitor.
"Excellent work, Lionheart. Not only did you hammer LIRA and open up their wing, you proved R&D's new toy actually works…" the bearded man exhaled with disbelief before grinning. "…I have got to get me one of those particle cannons. Soon, every ship in the fleet will have one."
"Don't count your chickens yet, Admiral," Milos warned him. "The Gungnir depleted all its PP and left our cannon offline for ten minutes."
"I see. Sounds like R&D still has to iron out some wrinkles," Turner nodded and stroked his beard before his expression did a double take. "Pee-what?"
"Admiral, the Militia has regrouped and is preparing to flank the next LIRA ship in line," Sofia interrupted and used her commanding presence to thoroughly squash any ill-disciplined laughter. "Shall we join them as planned?"
"Go. When it comes to the Reaper, we must push our advantage when we can."
"With all due respect, Admiral, LIRA's stealth ships have yet to reveal themselves," Milos cautioned. He had hoped they would appear once the Militia had made their attack but still had seen neither hide nor hair of the deadly cruisers that had already decimated the First Fleet once before.
"I know but our probes and infrared sensors have detected nothing so far," said Turner, speaking of the new countermeasures invented by R&D which the fleet had deployed just before the battle started. "We can't miss this chance to take out the Reaper, Milos."
"Understood, admiral. Lionheart, moving out!"
The admiral disappeared and the monitor reverted back to the distant lights of the space battle unfolding against the stars. While Sofia barked orders and made sure they were going in the right heading, Milos rested his chin on his fingers and stared out into space. The veteran soldier's gut told him the Lunar Fox was out there... but where? The infrared probes detected nothing above, below or to their rear, the Fourth Fleet was already in front, and Undine was to their right.
The captain's dark eyes swung to the left, finding nothing at first, until he spotted a tiny white object moving in the distance.
"Commander Gabriel… What is that?"
"Undine's moon," Sofia replied with a glance before turning back to her monitor. "Coming up on orbit."
When the XO finally realised the gravity of her superior's question she whipped back around, her calm features reeling, and discovered Milos' eyes widening with her. The truth dawned on them both and their faces paled.
"Oh my god…"
"Look at that view, Ursula," a familiar voice gushed over the comm channel. "Are you not filled with a sense of awe at the very sight?"
Presumably, the sight in question was the planet of water, Undine, whose cerulean sphere was centred on Vega's monitor with the bright Zodian Sun in the background. Thin red and blue beams crisscrossed in front of the ocean world, as did a steady stream of tiny explosions, but the battle in the distance did not appear to concern the Scarlet Wolf in the slightest. In fact, the masked woman's red lips seemed to curve with amusement.
"If you're referring to Undine, I might feel something if we weren't about to sortie," Ursula's cynical voice caused Vega to smile and the brunette's portrait appeared onscreen where she eyed her leader with suspicion. "Did you know we were headed for Undine, major? And that the RDF would already be here?"
En route to Arcturus, the Reaper had ordered the Fourth Fleet to change course at the last moment, taking them in the opposite direction and around the Zodian Sun. Having found the Star Map herself, it was not out of the question that Vega had already guessed their destination beforehand yet somehow the Blue Crow's bizarre orders to hide behind Undine's moon had not triggered even a twitch in her finely chiselled eyebrows – and now Ursula knew why. While the fleets battled it out over Undine, its moon had carried the Blue Crow to the RDF flank unnoticed, concealing the stealth ship from their probe and infrared countermeasures.
Now, the Crow peeked out just from behind the moon, ready to strike. The Space Wolves had already been deployed and the Fenrir stood on the bow of the ship with its pack spread out behind it.
"My dear Ursula, how could I possibly know? I may claim to be many things but a psychic is not one of them," Vega chuckled. "Perhaps you should be asking General Cypher? This seems far beyond an educated guess; did he perchance enlist the services of an Ouija board?"
"As a former member of intelligence, I suppose the Reaper must have his sources…" Ursula ignored her joke and muttered, adding, "…As must you."
Vega said nothing and the conversation abruptly ended when the other Space Wolves joined the comm channel.
"Major, will this really work?" Pavel asked, a hint of trepidation in his voice. "The battle is so far away…"
"How dare you doubt Lady Vega, Pavel!" Charlotte snapped, leaping to her idol's defence before smiling sweetly and waving to her. "Make sure you watch me, Lady Vega – I'm even better than before!"
Vega waved back with a chuckle, never noticing the click of Ursula's tongue.
"Don't sweat it, Pavel," Luke assured the older man. "Trust me; this will be a blast!"
"This is not an amusement park ride, Lieutenant Valorie," Ursula let off some steam and chastised him. "Need I remind you the RDF Relic Hunters are out there and just took out the Sebastian?"
"Captain Roland is correct," the authoritative voice of Commodore Sparrhorn entered the channel and silenced the Wolves. "Until we know the full extent of the RDF's new technologies, assuming there are more, we should proceed with caution. Our only consolation is that they appear to be unable to fire their new weapon consecutively."
"Quite a fascinating weapon, would not you agree?" Vega mused, showing no hint of sympathy for the Sebastian's destruction. "It appeared to be a beam yet it was nigh instantaneous and left damage dissimilar to plasma... Kinetic energy? Particles? Did they convert their cannon into a makeshift particle accelerator? It makes me curious what other tricks the Relic Hunters may have up their sleeves since our last meeting…"
"Oh no, Vega… There will be no 'maverick' stunts from you while we're under the Reaper's command! Not when I'm the one who has to deal with that devil…" Sparrhorn suppressed a groan and would have lectured the ace about discipline – a futile effort, he knew – but was diverted by a message off-screen. "…That was General Cypher. Change of plans, Vega – we target the Militia first before moving on to the RDF. Can you do it?"
"You underestimate me, commodore. Nothing is beyond the power of my Fenrir now," Vega responded with an ominous smile and proceeded to open her commlink so she could notify her pack. "Buckle up, Space Wolves… We're going in."
On the bow of the Blue Crow where the Fenrir stood, the red mobile suit spread out its arms and its armour transformed into the dark maroon of its Gravity Mode. From there, Vega concentrated and expanded her invisible gravity field outward until the Blue Crow, the Space Wolves, and even stray moon rocks were encompassed in its power. Willing them all forward, they fell out of the shadow of Undine's moon and descended on the faraway battle together, bracing as they closed the distance with incredible acceleration.
"Good god…!" Pavel managed to exclaim between breaths. "We're really falling!"
"I told you!" Luke reminded him, whooping with exhilaration. "Nothing beats the thrill of a Gravity Fall!"
"Amazing… Amazing, Lady Vega!" Charlotte screamed before moaning with pleasure. "Oh, this feels even better than I imagined!"
"Do you have to be so suggestive?!" Ursula snapped even as the g-forces pushed the woman back in her seat and her eyes were drawn to several blips on her radar. "Militia Gladiators are within range – they haven't noticed us!"
"Vega, fire-control is linking you with the targeting coordinates as they calculate!" Commodore Sparrhorn notified the ace and held on to his cap. "Do it!"
"Understood!" the Scarlet Wolf answered and technopathically filtered the information flooding in with a predacious grin.
The Blue Crow slowed its descent and pivoted as Vega tweaked the gravity field, lining up the Fenrir's blinking targeting reticule with fire-control's coordinates until they snapped together. While the warship's underside buzzed and glowed with surging power, the Scarlet Wolf made a flourish of holding out the Fenrir's hand as if pointing a gun just as the cannon fired a heavy beam into space like a long red arrow. It hit its mark, penetrating the Gladiator's bow from above and igniting its munitions before bursting out its belly with crimson fanfare, causing a blistering explosion that transformed several unsuspecting Raijuu into misshapen balls of collateral damage.
The shocked Militia reacted immediately with evasive manoeuvres but the Blue Crow was already on the move as the Fenrir rotated the stealth ship to its next target with the aid of gravity and continued to roll the ship even as its cannon discharged. The sustained beam swung like a gigantic plasma sword, cleaving through two ships and burning dozens of Raijuu in its wake before landing on a third ship which overcooked to melting point. The surgical trail of destruction looked like fireworks in space, forcing the surviving Militia into a retreat and buoying LIRA's Fourth Fleet.
"After them, Space Wolves!" Vega howled and pushed on her controls. "The hunt is on!"
The Fenrir reverted back to its red coat, dispelling its gravity field and releasing the Blue Crow to move on its own power before the Scarlet Wolf led her pack into the fray. The elite pilots swept through the enemy with the other Warg squadrons from the Fourth Fleet close behind, leaving another trail of charred Raijuu parts in their wake and throwing the Militia into disarray. The Blue Crow supported them from the rear, taking advantage of its stealth to snipe the remaining Gladiators one by one as they tried to flee to the safety of the RDF line.
"I won't go easy on you just because you're a bunch of pathetic Raijuu!" Charlotte yelled and punched her throttle. "Not when Lady Vega is watching!"
With beamsabre and rifle in hand much like her beloved idol, the Scarlet Cub took off and propelled her Warg into enemy fire. Proving herself a worthy successor to the name, she weaved through the orange web of flying plasma with ease, aiming her rifle in mid-flight and wasting half her attackers without missing a shot. Having sown fear and confusion among those left alive, Charlotte closed in armed with only a beamsabre and her remarkable agility as she made short work of the rest.
"Did you see me, Lady Vega?!" the prodigy cried after eviscerating the final Raijuu into pieces. "They were only Raijuu but I can almost take out a whole squadron by myself just like you!"
"Yes, I did see, Charlotte," Vega replied while calmly slicing up several Raijuu who had ganged up on the Fenrir. "I knew I had chosen well – the day we met was destiny!"
"Oh, Lady Vegaaaa~"
"Shut up!" Ursula screamed, interrupting their little moment with an apathetic stare. "If you're both done playing house, can you please shoot something?"
"Leave it to me, captain!"
Pavel rushed forward in his Warg which brandished a black shield. LIRA pilots usually took pride in using the agility of their Wargs to dodge beams but after one too many suicidal orders given to him by prejudiced superiors, Pavel had appropriated an RDF shield and made it his own. Demonstrating the deadly combination of Rem defence and Lux speed, the Warg charged directly at his opponents and blasted them with plasma without fear of injury. It was a straightforward tactic but highly effective – particularly when supported by a sniper.
"It never ceases to amaze me how you can lug that thing around," Luke complimented his comrade, picking off Raijuu with his new sniper rifle as they tried to surround Pavel. "You move even faster than I remember too."
"It's the new Nova g-suit. Like the major said, I barely feel anything at all."
"I know what you mean!" Charlotte added her two cents. "Thank you, Lady Vega; I'll cherish this suit forever!"
"You're very welcome but don't hesitate to ask me for a replacement. I actually ordered a few too many and the boxes are clogging up my quart–" Vega's confession was cut short when a bright light bore down on the Space Wolves and they dispersed just in time to see a heavy blue beam pass by. "What was that?"
"Another ship is coming to the Militia's aid... It's the Relic Hunter ship!" Ursula reported.
"Finally, a challenge!" Vega perked up and zoomed in on her monitor only to frown. "I don't see the Gundam… How unfortunate. Oh, but these are not ordinary Garms… They appear to be new models. Perhaps they can play with me while I wait for the While Hellhound…"
"They got us…"
The despondent whisper belonged to Admiral Turner who sat in the Baselard's captain's chair with his eyes closed. The routing of the Militia played out on the bridge's monitor but he did not need to see to know how it would end; soon, LIRA would be free to overrun the First Fleet. When the veteran's eyes opened again, he steeled his resolve and made the call he knew he had to make.
"Retreat…?!" Milos almost yelled before he lowered his voice and stared at bearded man on his chair monitor as they spoke on a private channel. "But admiral… the Orthrus and the Ganymede are still on Undine. If we retreat now, they won't have a safe route back into space; we'll be abandoning them to LIRA."
"I'm well aware, captain," Turner replied and stroked his beard. "We'll give them another hour. Until then, the Lionheart will cover the Militia's retreat and stall for time along with the rest of the fleet. I'll try and think of something in the interim… but I don't need to tell you this looks bad, Milos."
"Understood, admiral. We'll do our best… and thanks." Milos signed off with a nod and barked his orders with extra zest so as not to upset morale. "Prep the main cannon and sortie Team Orthrus! Our orders are to cover the Militia's retreat but there's no reason we can't clobber LIRA at the same time!"
"Team Orthrus, link up with the Militia's Raijuu teams and help cover their fleet's retreat."
Sofia relayed their orders through the comm while Ray boosted the Hermes ahead alongside the Brunhild and Jabberwock. The space in front of them lit up with constant mobile suit explosions – almost exclusively that of Raijuu judging by the sea of green scrap floating past their monitors – as the Militia were beaten back towards RDF lines. They only had three Gladiator destroyers left which were just barely staying afloat.
"They're getting massacred…" a horrified Alice stated the obvious.
"Yeah… I don't know how much help we're going to be…" Freya agreed, suddenly hesitant.
"Come on, girls! What happened to all that gusto before?" Ray needled them. "Our new Garms can handle this! We just need to secure those remaining Gladiators; combined with the Lionheart, the Raijuu should get the support they need to fight LIRA off."
"…Shut up, old man! You can't tell me what to do!" Freya huffed but she sounded much more like herself.
"She says it's worth trying," Alice translated much to the Diva's ire. "I agree."
The pair signed off and Ray chuckled out of earshot only to stop when he realised Commander Gabriel was still on the line.
"Mr Mercury… there's something else," Sofia's tentative tone surprised him. "The Militia have reported sightings of a red mobile suit…"
There was a long pause but Sofia didn't hear any retching.
"Mr Mercury? Do you copy? What is your status, Hermes?'
"…I… I can see her…"
"She… She's already here…!"
Sofia quickly had the operator tap into the Hermes' camera and saw it for herself. An unmistakable red dot in the distance of space was winding its way towards the Hermes, slaying Raijuu left and right as it grew in size until the Fenrir of the Scarlet Wolf was revealed. Almost at once she heard Ray's breath sharpen, like he was hyperventilating, and the operator sounded the alarm.
"Mr Mercury's heart rate is increasing rapidly – he's panicking!"
"Come in, Mercury! Do you read?!" Sofia began shouting into her microphone. "Say something, god damn it!"
The demon commander's voice assaulted Ray's eardrums but even she could not break him from his paralysis. As much as the former ace tried to get a hold of himself, his muscles tensed, his hands sweated and trembled, and the visor of his helmet began to fog up as his breath worsened. He had become a prisoner of his own body – and his past.
Memories began to flash by, brought on by the sight of that red suit. His old Garm team, long dead – their screams echoing in his skull as their Garms were disembowelled and strewn across space. The perpetually empty bottle and the vomit-filled gutter – his new friends who always promised to make the pain go away. Finally, the never-ending nightmares of the Fenrir hunting him down – relentless, terrifying dreams he knew only one way to wake up from.
Death. To let the Scarlet Wolf do what she should have done two years ago. And now Ray had his chance. The nightmare had become reality and his salvation – his penance – was mere moments away. All he had to do was let it come to pass…
"Mercury! Focus on my voice!" Sofia's voice grew desperate as she tried to get through to him. "Don't let it end this way – you survived for a reason! Remember your training! Remember why you stepped back into that Garm!"
The commander's words jarred something in Ray's memories and he flashed back to their time in the VR relic together. Day after day, he fought the Fenrir, puking his guts out until he could stand the sight of it. Sofia watched over him like a drill sergeant, breaking and remoulding him back into form and then some. On their last session before R&D appropriated the relic, after witnessing all his embarrassing fear and retching close up, Sofia finally asked why Ray had come back to the RDF. He remembered his answer…
"So I can finally wake up from this nightmare."
"Wake up, Ray!"
Ray's body suddenly fell back under his control and he jerked his piloting stick with a primal roar. The Hermes' thrusters burst with blue fire, throwing the mobile suit up and out of the way just as the Fenrir charged beneath, swinging its red beamsabre. The Scarlet Wolf slowed to a stop in the distance, perhaps perplexed by the blue Garm's unexpected vigour, and Ray took the opportunity to catch his breath.
"…Are you back with us, Mr Mercury?" Sofia appeared and asked although judging by her good-humoured red eyes she already knew.
"I'm back commander… thanks to you," Ray replied and managed a cheeky grin as his heavy breathing slowly returned to normal levels. "…And did I hear wrong or did you just call me by name?"
"You were obviously dreaming, Mr Mercury."
"If you say so, commander."
Ray turned his eyes back towards the Fenrir which appeared to be studying the Hermes before it made another run – which it promptly did with a burst of red fire.
"Ray! Are you okay?" Freya showed up onscreen and asked followed by a similarly worried Alice as their Garms floated nearby.
"Be careful, Ray!"
"I'm just peachy, since you asked," the ace declared confidently while firing up his thrusters and taking off. "And don't worry; I've got this!"
"Yeah, right – I've heard that one before!" Freya shot back, thinking of a certain Blonde Hellhound. "In case you've forgotten, Ray-Man, that's Vega Aurelia!"
The Pink Diva's warning fell on deaf ears and the Hermes met the Fenrir in battle to a hail of beams. But to the girls' surprise, Ray wasn't blown to bits; in fact, he was keeping up with the Scarlet Wolf as they danced around each other. The blue Garm's multi-directional thrust bounced it around space like a sizzling pinball and led the Fenrir on a wild chase while plasma bursts from its twin rifles kept the hungry wolf at a safe distance.
"I knew it – you weren't in my head for two years for nothing!" Ray shouted, grinning and sweating even as red beams whizzed by the Hermes. "You like playing with technopaths? Well, let's play!"
"Whoa… Ray-Man is back?!" Freya gaped and got ready to join in the fight.
"Don't forget we a have a score to settle too, Ray; we'll help," said Alice, staring down her scope as she tried to keep up with the duelling pair.
"Not yet!" Ray stopped them. "If we push her too much and she switches on Gravity Mode, we're done for! Instead we'll appeal to her pride and challenge her one at a time!"
"Drawing out the fight and exhausting the Fenrir's battery until Laura gets back, giving her an advantage," Alice finished for him and nodded. "I approve, Ray-Man."
"Seriously? Will she really fall for that?" Freya's brow furrowed, sceptical.
"Trust me! With our new Garms, we're like new toys for the Scarlet Wolf," Ray grunted from the pull of g-forces and added with a whisper, "I know I can't beat you… but I know someone who can."
"Interesting…" Vega calmly murmured as the navy blue Garm buzzed about like a bee and harried her with twin rifles. "This appears to be the same mobile suit from the abandoned colony… but the pilot has either changed or vastly improved."
The slick Garm darted from point to point with the Fenrir a fraction of a second behind, blazing plasma at the red suit while facing backwards. Having admired their dexterity, skill and spatial awareness long enough, Vega turned the tables with a grin and flashed ahead of the Garm, closing in as she predicted the pilot's evasive pattern with frightening accuracy. But the RDF pilot held their nerve, firing at point blank range instead and goading the Fenrir to dodge every shot if she wanted to keep this up.
The Scarlet Wolf's smile only widened.
"Not an amateur, are you? Strange that I have neither met nor heard of an RDF pilot of your calibre before this… I would have remembered." Vega's curiosity lasted only a short moment before she began slashing away at the offending plasma with an eye on the blue Garm next. "Still, you do not hold a candle to the White Hellhound…"
With blurred strikes of its red beamsabre, the Fenrir thrashed its way past the azure barrage mid-flight and got in the Garm's face. Poised to tear through its blue armour, Vega was only stopped by a premonition of danger and whirled around in time to deflect the scorching beam from a sky-blue sniper. The noblewoman quickly fired back only to be thwarted when a shield absorbed her shot and the pink Garm wielding it stormed in her direction.
"The Hellhound's packmates? So you survived," Vega praised her enemies even as their double team tactics forced the Fenrir into a momentary retreat. "How nostalgic. Your skills have only improved since Lemuria and these new Garms certainly compliment your styles. I really shouldn't… but while I wait for the White Hellhound, I suppose I can play with you."
Vega's hand moved to her throttle to counterattack but a series of space quakes suspended the battle and the participants were showered with light. The Militia's remaining three Gladiator-class destroyers had all exploded, transforming into three giant fireballs that flared with even more eruptions as their munitions either detonated onboard or rocketed away. Flying out of the destruction, several Wargs regrouped and rallied to the Scarlet Wolf.
"Lady Vega!" The uncontainable voice of her protégé echoed on the comm.
"Oh my. Charlotte," the masked woman greeted her with a smile and a touch of disappointment. "I wasn't expecting you to be finished so soon…"
"I knew it! You were playing with your 'food' again, weren't you?" Ursula appeared onscreen and accused her with a pointed glare only for Vega to laugh. "You and your bad habits... What if the White Hellhound had shown up? The Fenrir needs to conserve its energy, major!"
Before Vega could retort, the Space Wolves swooped in and took over for her. Charlotte pursed the blue Garm, confounding them with her Scarlet Wolf-like tactics, while Ursula cautiously engaged the pink Garm and their familiar pilot. The last Wargs to arrive sniped at the sky-blue Garm while one defended them with their shield.
"Major, you should take the opportunity to change out your battery while you can," Pavel suggested, advancing on the sniper behind the safety of his shield.
"You're our trump card against the Hellhound after all," Luke added, hiding behind Pavel's Warg while he took pot shots. "We'll handle her pack!"
Vega found herself smiling with pride as she watched the Space Wolves tear into the Relic Hunters using perfectly coordinated teamwork.
"My… what a reliable bunch you've become," she chuckled with a sigh. "Very well… This is the Fenrir, returning to the Blue Crow. Try to not steal all the fun while I'm gone!"
The red mobile suit engaged its thrusters and departed the battle in a blue streak of fire, leaving the Wargs to finish what she had started.
"How dare you enjoy Lady Vega's attentions just because your Garm had a makeover!" Charlotte unloaded on the nimble blue Garm with a spray of plasma – both figuratively and literally. "I'll squash you like a bug and prove you're nothing but a second-rate pilot!"
The Warg on the Hermes' tail harried it with a vengeance. Ray couldn't explain it but it felt personal – like he'd stolen their girlfriend or something. It also threw the ace for a loop how similar their aggressive piloting style was to the Scarlet Wolf to the point they even dual-wielded a beam rifle and sabre.
"LIRA must have caught on to our plan because the Fenrir just left the field," Alice reported, taking no heed of Ray's strained features.
"Little busy here, Alice!" he replied through gritted teeth as the spiralling Hermes dodged another barrage of red beams. "Are all the Space Wolves like this one? What the hell have you been up against?!"
"No, I've never seen that one before... but I definitely know this one!" Freya yelled back, fighting her own battle against a familiar enemy. The Warg's pilot was not intimidated by close quarters combat and gave away no weaknesses or missteps for the Pink Diva to exploit. In fact, it felt like the Warg was probing the Brunhild for vulnerabilities and only its shield saved Freya from a few close calls.
"It would seem these Space Wolves don't die so easily," Alice agreed as the Jabberwock traded blows with their sniper. "And they brought friends this time."
"I swear their Wargs are performing better too," Freya muttered with a grunt. "Like they're different machines!"
"Well, we can play at that too – let's show them what our new Garms are made of!"
With that cry of bravado, Ray rolled the Hermes out of the Warg's line of sight and braced in his seat from the g-forces as the mobile suit exerted maximum operating performance. When the monitor finally stopped spinning, the Hermes was behind its pursuer and lining them up on the targeting reticule. Their pilot may be a Scarlet Clone, thought Ray, but the real thing was far scarier. However a Warg with a shield got in between his shot, giving the impression of a very hefty bear protecting its cub, and the RDF pilot quickly made his escape as he felt his hair stand on end.
"Well, so much for that…" Freya quipped before a voice on their comm sent them scrambling.
"Clear the area, Team Orthrus! Hellfire missiles, firing!"
The warning was followed by a cluster of projectiles climbing at Mach speeds before they separated and hunted down the Wargs. Caught between the heat seekers below and the beams of the Garms who had evacuated above, the Space Wolves retreated under the light of chaff flares. Blasting its beam turrets at the escaping Wolves for good measure, the Lionheart ascended and linked up with Team Orthrus.
"Thanks, commander…" said Ray, leaning back and catching his breath for a second time.
"Just don't let your guard down," Sofia replied. "I expect they'll be back before long."
"Any word from the Ganymede, Milos?" a frantic Freya asked while Alice listened in with interest.
"Negative. It must still be operating under the ocean," Milos answered with a frown, having asked for repeated updates from the radio operator. The captain and the orphans turned their collective attention to their monitors where Undine's peaceful blue sphere hung in the background, seemingly oblivious to the flames of war on its doorstep.
"Be safe, Laura…" they prayed.
The conclusion to Episode Seven, Part C, will air next week... hopefully!