"Still nothing to show, lord Nahuel. Just the same pulses of two Ahab signatures and then nothing for anywhere from forty minutes to an hour. If Jaoel and Madan are still active out there they're running in low power modes, practically dead."
"Let's not assume an ARMOR is anything but fully active and operational until its desiccated carcass is directly in front of us, gentlemen. That particular stratagem has lead more than a few to untimely demises."
"Understood, lord Nahuel."
Vadik Nahuel gave a brief nod to Captain Kinte, leaving the bridge of the Valiant-class battleship without a backward glance...pretending not to notice the haggard and exhausted looks of his crew, nor the way the once proud ship unleashed a small, tired groan of stressed composites and metal as it carefully navigated through a tumbling, chaotic whirl of space junk—tentatively titled Red Hurricane, given its relative closeness to Mars—caused by no less than three Ahab reactors that had never quite gotten the memo to stop creating artificial gravity fields, the trio of devices and their erratic orbits to each other creating a particularly nasty debris zone, something battlegroup Asantewaa's quarry had taken great advantage of.
Passing by a viewport Nahuel glanced at the two other distant lights occasionally visible through the clouds of drifting junk, the engines of Asantewaa's two other ships shining bright in the darkness of space.
"Were that it was still five, rather than three."
Pushing that dark thought aside in favor of a confidant expression Nahuel continued on his trek to is quarters, passing by the occasional crewmember while returning their tired salutes and bows with nods of appreciation and acknowledgment, ensuring that their discipline and alertness was rewarded with his own.
...It was the least he could do, given their dire circumstances and even more dire morale, albeit that last part was through no fault of their own.
Battlegroup Asantewaa was nothing if not the finest group of men and women he had ever had the privilege of commanding...but even the best had their limits. And almost two years of round-the-clock battles and deployment, soaking up losses all the while, had reached aforementioned limits.
First the Gaylen colony secession crisis, the renewed tensions between old hardliners among the SAU and Oceanic Federations that clung to prewar ideals of the United States and China, armed insurrection on one of Luna's military bases...and then the four month long hunt for Jaoel and Madan that had carved a path of stripped and ravaged deep-space colonies and outposts before continuous engagements with Asantewaa had pushed the ARMORs to the breaking point, the end to one of the last few remaining nightmares of Humanity within sight.
Arriving at his private quarters Nahuel locked the door behind him, tossing aside his uniform with a weary sigh, critically staring at his reflection in the small mirror located within his washroom.
What had once been an impressive physique carefully maintained—as was expected of a successor to the Nahuel name—had slowly wasted away due to years of rationing and low-gravity environments, there hardly ever being enough time to sufficiently exercise his body, not when Humanity seemed intent on ripping itself to shreds.
Dropping into his terminal's chair with an exhausted sigh he rubbed at his bagged eyes as he logged on to the ship's Ariadne network, the fledgling communications system proving to be worth its weight in gold and blood as communications could now be effectively broadcast almost anywhere in the solar system, some travel time accounted for.
"If only we'd had the damn thing available thirty years ago...things might have never gotten this bad. Or at the very least the ARMOR's rampancy wouldn't have been the surprise it ended up being."
Humanity had barely even known one of its most potent weapons systems had gone rogue until Malakh had planted itself in orbit over the African Union, inquiries to the A.I. only met with rote messages of it carrying out its orders...and four million died with seven seconds of each other as the ARMOR dropped a collection of Dáinsleif rounds it had appropriated from a Martian armory on various targets of opportunity with machine precision. Dams, electrical grids, power plants...Ahab construction sights. Anything and everything of critical importance to human infrastructure and development had been reduced to rubble along with any population unlucky enough to be close by.
Two more hours had passed before the ARMOR was destroyed by a final salvo of nuclear missiles, Dáinsleif barrages and tactical beam weaponry courtesy of Luna...all while the combined death toll had climbed to seven million as Malakh had continued its path of destruction over the Oceanic Federation and SAU, an additional two million dying due to fallout and lack of critical resources.
The 'Hours of Humbling' as they would later be called were bad enough as it were...but the relentless onslaught of corrupted and rampant ARMORS mere days afterwards—as the world reeled and desperately sought to contain the damage wrought—had driven home the point.
A Humanity already wounded and bleeding from incessant war was very much in danger of being wiped from the solar system by their very own creations.
Nahuel had been twelve years old when his family was consumed in the fire and metal of the Hours of Humbling, only random chance having him away from home during those dark times.
Forcing himself out of grim reminiscence the Lord perused the network for any updates on their people's chances of survival in an increasingly hostile universe...and felt his already dour mood take a turn for the worse.
The total casualties for the long chain of conflicts that had preceded even the Mobile Armors rampancy was a scant few hundred thousand away from claiming almost a quarter of the solar system's Human population, a completely and unbelievably large number that felt almost surreal to consider. Not since the black death of ancient past had a singular event claimed so many, created such a horrific and immediately apparent impact on Human society that would no doubt be felt for centuries to come.
"And we're not even finished yet."
Releasing a quiet sigh Nahuel flipped through his e-mails, skipping over the lower priority ones in favor of the urgent-classifications...including one from none other than Agnika Kaieru himself.
Opening the message and submitting his clearance codes tired and bloodshot eyes scanned the contents of the message.
[I'll jump straight to the heart of the matter, Vadik. What you have on hand right now is all you'll be getting for the coming months. That, and whatever you can scavenge from the remnants of the Mars garrisons. Reports suggest that Sybil, Xathanael and Chasan are approaching Earth via the Luna highway, long range scans suggesting they're piggybacking on the carcass of at least two Valiant-class battleships, each with an intact Ahab reactor. We're going to need every resource and round we can get, as well as whatever we can make in the meantime. Do not despair, however. They won't make it to the Earth Sphere in time so I redirected battlegroups Bushranger and Ushanka to support your hunt. They should be arriving in one standard Solar rotation to the Red Hurricane. Stay strong, friend...there's not many of them left.]
Nahuel closed the message, a grim smile pulling at his lips.
"There's not many of us left either, Kaieru."
The man laced his hands behind his head, a casual gesture he would have never dared to show in public as he considered the two new battlegroups that would be joining his.
He was familiar with Bushranger's leader—she were an old friend—but not with Ushanka...no matter. As long as they could work together without undue friction then he didn't care who or what they were.
With that thought in mind Nahuel closed down his console, settling down for a few hours rest...which would be plagued by nightmares of lances of light streaking down from the Heavens, turning verdant Earth into scorching infernos of dust and flame.
"It's been far too long since we last met, Vadik. I was worried the next time I heard from you it would be in an after-action report. Deep space duty—all while hunting down a pair of Mobile Armors—isn't the kind of task one undertakes lightly."
Smiling at the warm embrace Charlotte Grace gave him Nahuel easily responded, "Not much of a choice on the matter, Char. And what's this? A Barony? Who in their right mind thought you would make for a good noble?"
The wiry and irreverent woman who was pushing forty with prematurely grey hair and tanned skin smirked, replying, "None other than Kaieru, of course. Being chosen by one of the Gundams as its pilot is kind of a big deal, you know."
"Of course a mere baroness doesn't have much in the way of lordly responsibilities, not much damage I can do since I'm terrible at politics. That was always your strength, Marquees Nahuel."
A sad smile crossed the dark-skinned man's features.
"Marquees to a dead land, Char."
She pointedly looked out her ship's viewport at the three engine contrails practically within spitting distance, at least by space combat standards.
"Not dead yet, Vadik. I still see a kingdom among the stars."
Touched at the gesture—even if he'd fully expected it from the irrepressibly optimistic woman—Nahuel gestured to the ship he'd come aboard, asking, "So this one ship is battlegroup Bushranger, then? Quite impressive. It seems Kaieru entrusted you with more than a mere title."
Grace nodded, lightly rapping the clean and still shiny halls of the battleship with her gloved hand, explaining, "The Wildfire was too heavily damaged to continue as she was and I tested positively for Vassago, Kaieru apparently decided to combine the two assets into one fast-moving package as a quick response force. Say hello to the Outback, one of the first Halfbeak-class ships of the new Gjallarhorn defense fleet."
Nahuel nodded in appreciation of the vessel, a far-cry from the worn and weary Valiant-class ships that still patrolled the space lanes. While they had served loyally for several decades at this point the reality was that Valiant's simply weren't ideal for the kind of warfare Humanity was currently facing. While they were more heavily armed and armored than the Halfbeak that tradeoff came in the form of a much slower speed and carrying capacity, taking time to reach proper interplanetary cruising speed and only having room for three mobile suits.
When facing a foe like the ARMORs the ship class was simply not suited for the job. A Mobile ARMOR that began to assault a colony or installation had been mathematically proven to become an exponentially more dangerous foe as it was given time to process the raw materials present. When mere days or even hours could mean the difference between a threat that could be easily handled by a single battlegroup and a threat that required nothing short of dozens of ships, Gundam frames and weapons of mass destruction speed was absolutely king, as opposed to having a modest more amount of guns and armor.
"So have you met Ushanka's commander before?"
"No, nothing. All I know is that he's like you, a military man from relatively humble background that had high comparability with one of the Pillars, Barbatos."
A snort of wry amusement left Nahuel.
"A lot of the more traditional nobility are upset at the meritocracy based system Kaieru has set up. They might have had ground to stand on a few years back but, well..."
This time his smile was more grim.
"The ARMORs are rather adept at cutting off the head and working their way down the proverbial food chain during the ensuring chaos."
"Seen that particular strategy hard at work more than a few times in the past..."
Grace's dry words caused the man to smile as they made their way through the bowel's of the ship, the crew seeming marginally more at ease and rested than his own.
"So do you have a plan for taking the ARMORs down? You've been chasing after them for months now."
Nahuel nodded, explaining, "It'll be risky and difficult to coordinate but I think a joint blitzkrieg with the mobile suits while the battleships provide support fire will carry the best chance of success. There's three Ahab reactors out there and the ARMORs have proven that they can freely attune themselves and their own reactors to act in accordance with foreign ones. The longer we leave them out there the greater the chance of them both finding the drifting reactors and scavenging the surrounding junk for useful tech to affix to their bodies."
Grace nodded, grimly adding, "Considering that this navigational hazard of a field was caused by a trading and refueling station along with two Valiant-class ships...yeah, I can see that. Leftover fuel tanks, nano-laminate armor and maybe even battleship-class weaponry. Not something I'd feel comfortable leaving in the hands of pirates, never mind homicidal A.I. weapons platforms."
"And thus a casualty heavy but swift end to the problem."
"Thus, in the long run, not being so casualty heavy, right?"
"That's the hope."
The bridge to Grace's ship slid open without complaint, a noticeable change to Nahuel's own vessel that groaned and hissed at the action.
"Lady Grace, communication from Gjallarhorn vessel identifying itself as the Moscow Nights."
"Put it on screen, no need to keep our reinforcements waiting."
No sooner had they arrived than they were being hailed, Nahuel respectfully standing off to the side as Grace did her business, the main screen snapping to life before revealing the image of a bear of a man, salt-and-pepper facial hair adorning a creased and weathered face.
"Baron Palmiro, a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I trust the journey here went smoothly?"
[Hardly. Damned pirates thought they could get clever, attacking a Gjallarhorn military fleet by destroying the engines. Ushanka's other Valiant won't be joining us for a number of days, they're engaged in repairs.]
The man's voice sounded like tough old leather and gravel, beady eyes clearly irate.
[Doesn't matter whether you're in the Earth Sphere or out of it, everything seems to want a taste of blood.]
"Well we're here for our own private hunt, preferably of the half-metal and nano-laminate kind. A shame about the lost asset but, as always, we'll make do."
A grunt escaped the enlarged image of Palmiro, his eyes settling on Nahuel as he got straight to the point with, [You have a plan, Marquees?]
Ignoring the irreverent and borderline disrespectful address as he skipped the formalities—at this point in time Nahuel simply, to use a more basic vernacular, didn't give a fuck—stepped forward and brought up the Outback's tactical display, asking, "What resources do you currently have, Palmiro? I'll need to take those into account before coming up with a final strategy."
[Two Salient-class mobile suits and the Barbatos, all in decent repair with full kits. No luck with the shipboard weapons, though. All tactical warheads were used during the damn pirate raid and we've only got six Dáinsleif lances left. Fifteen minutes sustained barrage of more conventional munitions.]
Turning his attention to Grace, Nahuel's old friend stated, "Six of the new Graze-class mobile suits and Vassago, fully loaded and ready to go. Twenty Dáinsleif lances and enough ammunition for forty minutes continued barrage."
She paused for a moment, expression turning grim.
"Three tactical warheads. Two of them ten megatons...and one packing sixty."
There was a gruff curse in Palmiro's native tongue that transmitted over the coms, Nahuel frowning.
"Have things really become that bad?"
"They have. A lot of the other Halfbeaks were loaded with similar devices, ranging from forty to seventy megatons."
Nahuel sighed, running a hand through his sparse hair. While nuclear devices were a relatively safe and perfectly feasible weapon to use in the vacuum of space...ground or close-quarters battles became a far more dicey affair in which to deploy them.
But they were undoubtedly one of the more effective weapons that could be employed against the ARMORs. Years of constant conflict with the mechanical monstrosities had caused them to learn, to develop programs and subroutines that minimized the effectiveness of other weapons systems.
Guided missile and smart ballistic weaponry were stymied by Ahab interference while linear but powerful technologies like the Dáinsleif had been reduced in lethality. Sloped armor, magnetic shielding and other techniques—all employed at the blisteringly fast computational speed of a supercomputer—had lead to more than a few unpleasant surprises as the apex of railgun technology was either minimized or outright neutralized by the machines.
But a nuke, especially the higher-yield ones?
Even nano-laminate armor and Ahab resonance would have a hard time trying to match the fury of a solar star, however short-lived it may be. And Ahab interference with smart guidance technologies wasn't quite so crippling of a factor when even a few kilometers distance ensured damage came through.
Of course, that very same effectiveness was a double-edged sword when it came to collateral damage. Mobile ARMORs didn't hang around in the middle of barren, interplanetary space just waiting to be nuked into oblivion. They sought out high-density populations or manufacturing plants or put themselves into a state of hibernation so perfect that no scans or sensor weeps could detect them unless they were practically within visual distance.
A sixty-megaton warhead in the middle of such a scenario would be the ultimate form of scorched-Earth tactics, to a depressingly literal sense.
Shaking himself out of his grim thoughts Nahuel finished the listing of resources with, "Asantewaa has three Salients and the Sabnock, the Salients at roughly seventy-five percent effectiveness. One tactical warhead of twenty megatons and shipboard ammunition at twenty minutes of sustained fire, eight Dáinsleif lances."
[And we're going up against two ARMORs in the middle of an Ahab graveyard? Guess I always did enjoy being the underdog…]
Ignoring Palmiro's somewhat justified grumbling Nahuel displayed an incomplete and scattered map of the Red Hurricane, three waypoints denoting their best guess of where the abandoned Ahab reactors were with two additional markings—emblazoned in bright red—to mark the ARMORs.
"Jaoel and Madan are without a doubt beginning to search for these scattered reactors, likely gathering whatever salvage they come across that's usable for them to begin adding to their frames, after Asantewaa reduced them to thirty-one percent effectiveness. As we're all aware, leaving an ARMOR to its own devices amid this kind of raw material is only slightly less suicidal then sticking your head next to a cracked Ahab chassis."
Resigned nods were passed all around, the Graveyard Star incident still fresh in everyone's mind. Ishim had approached a defense station in Lunar orbit during the opening days of the ARMORs introduction to the war, the commander calling for an evacuation as they prepared to scuttle the station before leaving...except instead of manual charges the fool had merely settled for an automatic countdown, the ARMOR easily hacking and then shutting down the planned destruction and moving right in, hijacking a platform designed to take down goddamned battleships.
The losses needed to bring it down were still felt in all sectors of Earth Sphere defense fleets, almost thirty years later.
[So what's the plan? We're on a time limit here even if there's no readily visible clock.]
"Agreed. That's why the fleets will commence localized bombardments of areas we believe the ARMORs to be hiding in, flushing them out while mobile suit teams will directly move to engage."
Palmiro grunted, remarking, [MS teams are going to take a pounding then. In this environment mobility will be limited at best, never mind ensuring there's no friendly fire as the damn ARMORs start jumping around.]
"Agreed. But the alternative is to allow them the opportunity to begin repairs as we carefully root them out."
Grace nodded in agreement, adding, "Demons don't shirk from Angels...neither should we."
"Well said. How soon can mobile suits be prepped and ready for launch?"
[Thirty minutes for Ushanka.]
"Same for Bushranger."
"Understood, then we launch in thirty, I'll assign formations and flight patterns. Get ready for the long haul, ladies and gentlemen...today we clip these Angel's wings."
Grim smiles of imminent retribution colored the expressions of those present, Grace turning to her bridge staff and issuing orders as Nahuel sent word to his own ship, alarms and sirens begging to ring throughout the halls as the combined battlegroups prepared for battle.
[Sabnock is prepped and ready for combat, Lord Nahuel. Commencing Alaya-Vijnana bridge in 3...2...1.]
Vadik Nahuel seized in Sabnock's command chair, nerves ablaze with a rush of information that was an almost physical sensation, brain firing off a collection of random and confused signals as it attempted to understand and handle the influx of information from the mobile suit...and with a huff of irritation the dark-skinned man wiped a trace of sweat off his brow, grumbling, "Never going to get used to that..."
Leaning back in the command nexus of the Gundam Nahuel allowed himself a moment to properly assimilate his mind to the readily available stream of information presented by the machine and transferred through the two ports on his spine-
-and grinned, the rush of power that always accompanied the link dangerously addictive. He was still Vadik Nahuel, still Human...but his mind was now shared with a body of unbreakable metal and adamantine strength, that looked upon the world from the height of a God and the clarity of a prophet, Sabnock's visual acuity powerful enough to count the individual rust stains dotting the farthest reaches of the ships hangar, enough to label each and every last beard follicle of its last minute maintenance staff.
"You ready, Akila?"
A rush of information that was half intent and half emotion simmered through their bond, Sabnock conveying its desire to unleash the barely controlled fury and battlelust that defined its creation.
A Gundam's A.I. wasn't truly independent, not truly sentient—at least not to the extent of the ARMORs—but to dismiss them as simple tropisms or unfeeling code would have made light of their majesty, their presence.
Sabnock—and every other one of the 72 Pillars—had a personality, a proclivity for certain responses and urges...one of the most defining aspects of being able to control one of the Demons of Solomon was to understand and be at peace with the underlying intelligence, to understand that you weren't the sole owner or operator of the Gundam.
You, a measly Human, were so much less than a beast with a heart that burnt as strongly as a sun, that wielded weapons and armor that would have made the legendary heroes and gods of old Earth seem as threatening as a wingless avian.
A quiet sigh left Nahuel as the link settled, their shared perceptions now operating as well as could be expected of an ultimately imperfect connection. As powerful as the Alaya-Vijnana was the pilot was ultimately only Human, unable to comprehend the sheer breadth of information available to the mobile suit.
That was a providence exclusive to the Mobile ARMORs...and none would disagree that such beings should never again be constructed.
[Gundam Sabnock, you are clear for launch.]
"Roger that, control. Gundam Sabnock, Vadik Nahuel, launching!"
A motion that was more instinctive and mental than it was physical engaged the thrusters of the mighty war machine, acceleration aided by the launch catapult as the mobile suit was shot out into the maelstrom of wreckage and debris, effortlessly looping around to join the thirteen other mobile suits in loose formation.
It was quite the motley collection, at that. The older Salient varieties with their heavy and sloped armor alongside the more nimble Grazes, following the same design philosophy as the new battlecruisers with reduced defenses but far greater maneuverability.
And then there were the three Gundams. Barbatos, Vassago and Sabnock.
Adorned in plating of red, white and blues Barbatos cut a striking image with its bright paints, the mobile suit slightly hunched to give it a predatory air while the heavy mace and rail-cannon took up most of its weapon hardpoints, only a pair of underslung autocannons to round out its direct and brutal method of warfare.
Vassago was undoubtedly the more regal of the trio, with bright whites and purples complementing its upright and sleek posture, a loadout of arming sword, assault rifle and shoulder-mounted railgun and missile racks ensuring maximum flexibility and mobility for any potential combat scenario.
Sabnock was by far the more understated machine of the trio, dull grays and reds decorating scarred and pitted nano-laminate armor while it adopted a neutral pose, neither proud nor feral. It was undoubtedly the more specialized of the group, however.
A single rotary cannon that could chew even an ARMOR's shell to pieces given a second to properly aim, dual railguns on its shoulder mounts and a rare plasma cannon to round out the ensemble, an unstable and dangerous weapon but all the more potent for it.
"All right, here's the plan. Ushanka and Asantewaa will take the flanks, Bushranger will hold the center. Maintain spacing of no more than two kilometers and ensure at least one mobile suit has line-of-sight communication with the battleships at all times. We'll move in an arc around the Red Hurricane, starting with the closest Ahab reactor the ARMORs were assumed to be approaching."
While two kilometers was practically knife-fighting distance by space combat standards in this kind of theater two kilometers might be too much, given how quickly a single mobile suit could be set upon by the ARMORs...but they simply didn't have the numbers to cover a respectable amount of ground and keep their allies safe.
It was a dangerous game they were going to have to play.
[Bushranger copies. On me, let's start the hunt!]
A chorus of affirmatives carried over the public channel, Grace's confident words spurring the battlegroups into a state of readiness as thrusters engaged, the combined forces moving further into the field as one entity.
They were going to have a lot of area to cover, the Red Hurricane could stretch from around 4000 kilometers to a bit under 2000 depending on the rotation of the Ahab reactors, increasing or decreasing the density of the debris fields at a moments notice...all while they had to be on the ready for an assault by their quarry that could come at literally any second.
For almost half-an-hour they combed the debris fields, maintaining formation and constant scouting in order to ensure they had the earliest possible warning of any possible counterattack, the ARMOR's signature appearing and fading at irregular intervals as debris and interference from the mess of an environment they were chasing them through stymied their ability to properly keep track of their quarry.
And in the span of a second the paradigm shifted.
[Ushanka, break! Energy spike fifty kilometers directly ahead-]
The black and emptiness of space was turned to blazing incandescence a split-second later, a star-bright beam impacting one of Ushanka's mobile suits directly in the head, thrusters flaring as the machine darted out of the deluge, the beam weapon shutting off a moment later.
[Lajos, you still with us?!]
Palmiro's gruff voice inquired after the Salient's pilot, an equally rough tone responding, [Yes sir, only sensors are fried, switching to visual while they reset.]
Nodding in relief at the avoidance of an early casualty Nahuel ordered, "All forces close the net, surround it and keep those lines of fire clear! Battleships, fire at will!"
Another round of acknowledgments echoed over the net, the mobile suits flaring their thrusters and making a corkscrewing beeline for the mobile ARMOR with weapons primed and ready.
[ARMOR identified, Jaoel currently attempting to link with abandoned Ahab reactor, Madan signature one kilometer distant from allied ARMOR. Commencing bombardment, clear the lanes!]
Red lines appeared on tactical displays, mobile suits swiftly maneuvering out of the crimson highways-
-and five battleships opened fire, 22-inch cannons sending solid-state ammunition on a direct course for the ARMOR while Dáinsleif batteries prepared to launch their own deluge of kinetic destruction.
[Dáinsleif lances, firing!]
Five mirror-bright streaks of metal flashed forward, swiftly catching up to the HE rounds as they impacted the mobile ARMOR at precisely calibrated intervals, flashes of light and fire visible amidst the chaotic wreckage as the barrage struck home, the radar signature of Jaoel and Madan alongside the unidentified reactor spiraling out of control due to the force of the impacts.
"That's our cue, mobile suit teams move in and hit the mechanical sons of bitches where it hurts!"
Afterburners kicked in, Sabnock conveying its eagerness for battle as the Alaya-Vijnana link flared with shared information as fourteen humanoid machines of war rocketed towards their objective.
A few seconds of high-g forces hit them as they sprinted towards the ARMORs with reckless abandon-
-and Nahuel threw Sabnock into a wild roll that avoided most of a beam cannon's deluge of annihilating energy, nano-laminate armor heating briefly before swiftly cooling to its usual temperature.
And then they were in visual range of the target, a distant and oblong cocoon of engines, guns and grasping arms surrounding the more sensitive circuitry and Ahab reactors.
At a glance the surrounding epidermis was comprised of wrecked metal and armor, impaled cleanly by Dáinsleif lances and pockmarked with impact craters from the earlier barrage. But there was nothing wrong with the ARMOR's combat routines, the engine clusters flaring bright as the mechanical monstrosity shot forward at speeds that would have killed a living pilot.
"Hit it hard, don't let it slip away!"
The mobile suit teams opened fire, sending almost solid lines of fire towards their quarry as it spun around at insane velocities, spreading the damage out over its surface as its own cannons fired back in perfect tandem with a blast from its beam weapon that impacted one of the Grazes head on, mechanical precision first blinding the mobile suit with the beam cannon and allowing the solid munitions to strike home, sending the mobile suit on a spiraling course away from the battle as its thrusters were damaged.
Nahuel locked a curse behind his teeth, instead sending a quarter-second burst of rotary cannon ammunition at the ARMOR and stripping one of the guns from its hull in a spray of shredded metal.
Even the Alaya-Vijnana connection couldn't match the sheer processing power of an A.I. on a mobile ARMORs level, unfortunately.
Then there was no more time to think, a high-speed and breakneck chase through the Red Hurricane commencing as the entire battlegroup began to lay into the fleeing ARMOR...the machine giving as good as it got.
Blindingly fast reflexes guided it though the whirling wreckage at flawless speeds, guns and cannons taking every opportunity to pepper its hunters with glancing or inconvenient blows.
Yet it was only a delaying tactic, the ARMOR being ripped to shreds as while the mobile suits may not have been able to get too close or land decisive blows there was no such restriction on the pursuing battleships, their Dáinsleif batteries and main guns sending an unceasing barrage of destructive metal and explosives into the path of the ARMORs, forcing them to divert course, give up speed or take a mobile suit sized rod of metal head-on.
Thirty second passed in a storm of communication, warnings, damage reports, calls of fire support and the steady thrum of pounding guns, Nahuel and Sabnock locked into their own private world where all that existed was the battle and all of its facets, a symphony of destruction that they were the masters of.
At least until the mobile ARMOR got creative.
A twisting appendage that was likely once a docking arm grabbed a hunk of metal, throwing it in its pursuer's direction as a pair of Grazes effortlessly slipped out of its path-
-and the beam cannon shot impacted the rear of the wreckage, igniting what had once been a fuel storage container of some kind if the gargantuan explosion that occurred was any indication.
The Grazes were flung away from the detonation in uncontrolled tumbles...and the ARMOR sent a perfectly aimed volley of shots their way, somehow correctly identifying that they were the more dangerous yet less-armored assailants.
Cockpit blocks were shattered and breached, the suits floating limply through space as Nahuel snarled at the sudden turnaround.
The battlegroups tightened their pursuit net, chipping away at what little remained of their foe's protective layer of armor with renewed fury as it abruptly threw itself into a twisting and shifting corridor of ravaged metal, Nahuel's group closely following it through the maze-like structure, relying on Sabnock's agility and the Salient's natural durability to shove aside debris and incoming fire as they doggedly chased down the ARMOR-
[Engage evasive maneuvers!]
The dual warning from Grace and his partner had Nahuel causing his body to creak as he threw the Gundam into a desperate side roll to avoid whatever was coming...and his eyes widened as he saw his three soldiers violently torn to shreds by some unseen force, limbs that could stand up aerial bombardments and direct missile strikes plucked like an insect's wings from the main chassis, smashing through the corridor of metal as the entire structure heaved and twisted in unnatural motions.
Sabnock broke through the constraining pathway...and Nahuel almost swore aloud in fury at what trap the ARMOR had constructed.
Magnetic docking arms had been laced along the tunnels at parallel angles, the ARMOR no doubt activating the devices that were designed to secure battleships at full power as they passed...killing the last of Asantewaa's pilots in one fell swoop.
Feeling more than slightly enraged Sabnock lended its computational and sensory powers to its pilot, Nahuel raising the plasma gun to the ready as he and the Gundam calculated the most likely path of exit from the debris tunnel-
-and with a sun-bright burst of molten power a shining projectile flew into seemingly empty space, no target to be found...and the ARMOR dodged directly into it as it shot free of the tunnel's confines, one engine nacelle completely slagged and spewing fire as the mechanical monstrosity briefly flew out of control, losing precious distance as it course-corrected.
A delay that the rest of the battlegroup took full advantage of.
Dáinsleif lances were fired off in tightly grouped clusters while the rest of the mobile suits charged forward, firing off volleys of autocannon and high-caliber rounds, tearing into the rapidly dwindling chassis of the ARMOR.
Nahuel grinned savagely, driving Sabnock forward as their quarry began to thrash and desperately attempt to flee, engine mountings flaring in a staccato sequence as the A.I. fought to keep itself from spiraling out of control due to the countless outside forces acting upon it.
At least until another pair of Dáinsleifs impacted its form, this time the damage obviously critical as flames and sparks could be seen pouring out of the torn and twisted body, beam cannon and few remaining guns firing in a desperate and completely ineffectual pattern that no doubt hoped to force them away in a bid to avoid getting hit.
The battlegroups did the exact opposite, ignoring the superficial damage and surrounding the ARMOR with ever tightening arcs of fire, slowly collapsing the metal behemoth through sheer volume of incoming damage, working out grudges and repressed anger upon the dying A.I. with feral glee.
Nahuel smirked, lining up the rotary cannon with the exposed mechanical innards of the ARMOR-
-and his eyes widened as, with absolutely zero warning whatsoever, the dying ARMOR accelerated at absurd speeds past their encirclement before they could even register the acceleration.
[What the fuck?!]
[Shit, it broke the net!]
[Fleet be advised, ARMOR is approaching main battleline-]
Warnings and shouts of surprise dominated the comms, Nahuel getting a sudden and entirely awful feeling as the machine intelligence made a straight beeline for Asantewaa's formation of three ships, maneuvering thrusters flaring to life as the vessels attempted to minimize any potential damage and clear lines of fire to the ARMOR...only for the Ahab sensors to start going ballistic, detecting a sudden upswing of energy-
-and the horizon turned to white fire.
The mobile suit teams were quiet, no words spoken as in the vacuum of space even an Ahab detonation couldn't last for long, winking out of existence within seconds and revealing the state of the fleet.
Bushranger and Ushanka were largely unharmed...not so for Asantewaa, only Nahuel's flagship limping away with scorched and molten armor while the other two Valiants were literally deformed and scoured by the intense heat of the explosion. Even if anyone had survived the initial blast the followup radiation from three erupting Ahab reactors would have done the job, gamma rays frying biological tissue before countermeasures could have been deployed.
The comms were quiet for a few seconds.
[...Jaoel and Madan signatures confirmed destroyed. No signs of additional Ahab waves.]
Tired but victorious sighs and mutterings filled the comm channels, Nahuel gazing towards where the ARMOR had suddenly gained its massive speed, scowling in grim admiration of the machine's tenacity.
Another magnetic docking plate had given it that final boost, a last charge to cause as much possible damage to Humankind that it could manage given its crippled state.
...But it was gone now.
Along with almost all of Asantewaa, only whoever had survived on Nahuel's ship and Sabnock left of his comrades of many years.
"...I'll see in the next life, friends."
Forcing back the hollow grief at his prized battlegroup being all but demolished Nahuel glanced to the side as Vassago floated up alongside him, Grace's tone filled with empathy as she stated, [If half the rumors I've heard about your battlegroup are true, Vadik...they would have been satisfied with destroying the ARMORs, taking it as a well-earned victory.]
Nodding in acceptance of both the words and his friend's gesture the dark-skinned man prepared to chart a course to his ship in order to affect search-and-rescue when he heard a distant voice, demanding something that his brain automatically tagged as ominous news.
[Say again, you said NO SIGNS of additional Ahab waves?]
[Yes, Lord Palmiro. No additional Ahab signatures are present within the Red...Hurricane…]
Nahuel stiffened, coming to the same grim conclusion as everyone else no doubt did.
"Scan for the two Ahab reactors still within the Hurricane, broaden the search if you have to!"
A few tense seconds passed, Nahuel grinding his teeth as he prayed that he was wrong-
[Sir...two Ahab signatures approaching Mars at speed. The other reactors that were within the debris field.]
Nahuel snarled within the confines of his cockpit, Sabnock distantly inquiring what fueled his rage as the man shouted out, "All forces set a course for Mars, max speed! Repair and rearm the mobile suits as best you can! One of the damn ARMORS is still out there!"
The battlegroups exploded into activity, frantic orders and calls for reorganization flying back-and-forth as Nahuel stared hatefully into the distance.
"...Clever. One ARMOR stayed behind while the other appropriated a different reactor from the Red Hurricane. And while we were focused on the battle either Jaoel or Madan attuned itself to the thing, grabbed whatever raw material it could find and made a beeline for Mars."
And due to that deception the ARMOR was going to have quite possibly several hours—maybe as much as a day—of time to ravage the small garrison present on the red planet before turning to whatever resources caught its interest.
"...Meaning our battle will be all the fiercer for it."
Steering Sabnock towards the rest of the convening forces Nahuel swore that he would see the ARMOR scattered and melted down for scrap by the time this campaign was over...too many of his comrades had died at its hand to leave things unfinished.
"How are you holding up?"
Nahuel glanced at Grace as she approached him from where he sat next to Sabnock, the techs of the Outback frantically reloading and replacing damaged or subpar components with what they had available.
"Fine. Trying not to think about things until this mission is over."
She wordlessly handed him a nutrition pouch, the noble gratefully squeezing it dry in seconds flat. The Alaya-Vijnana took a lot out of the body, brain and organs working overtime as they tried to handle and supply an allocation of resources not natural to the Human form...just a few hours use of the system—even passively—could leave one dangerously low on sugars and hydration.
"You did what you could, Vadik. Lucky two-fiver, remember?"
"Yeah, I know. But it's still hard to think about the fact that they're all...gone. Most of Asantewaa were with me from the moment I turned thirteen. Almost three decades of fighting right alongside them...and I guess, in the end, we weren't that lucky."
Lucky two-fiver was slang for how all engagements with mobile ARMORS to date had resulted in at least a quarter loss of all forces committed...IF you were lucky.
While his flagship wasn't completely a loss a fair amount of its crew had been killed in the A.I.'s suicide charge, engines and other functions crippled while the other two vessels had been lost all hands.
Asantewaa was down to less than a fifth of its original strength.
Snapping out of such depressing thoughts Nahuel felt Grace's hand squeeze his shoulder in gesture of comfort.
"Well, once we're done with this particular hunt you could always rebuild Asantewaa. There's a strong lineage and pedigree that Humanity could only benefit from that runs in your battlegroup."
From anyone else that statement would have sounded irreverent, disrespectful. Implying that his brothers and sisters could simply be replaced.
From Grace it was an optimistic hope that things may one day return to normal.
He smiled, quietly replying, "I'm not so sure about that...I'm getting old, Char. I'll give what I have left of me to Sabnock and ending this mad war we've seemed to have found ourselves in...but afterwards it'll be time for me to retire, to try rebuilding the Nahuel line into something worthy of the legacy we used to hold."
The woman gave him a wink, glibly stating, "You'll need to marry, then. Can't make heirs out nothing. And there's a new baroness in town, in case you haven't heard~!"
Unable to keep the smile from his face at Grace's easygoing words he said, "It's hard enough being your friend sometimes, Char. Being married would do me in quicker than any ARMOR could hope to."
They shared a laugh at that, Nahuel finding his mood just a bit lighter at the woman's words...no doubt her plan from the start.
"Lady Grace, we're one hour out from Mars orbit. All stations on standby and long-range scanning is active."
Both nobles snapped themselves to attention as one of the Outback's crew approached, Charlotte asking, "Any word from the orbital garrison?"
"None, they're silent."
A grim expression appeared on her features, coldly stating, "Then assume they're hostile and taken over by the ARMOR. Destroy them."
The man hesitated for a moment before composing himself, nodding as he inquired, "What ordnance shall we use?"
"Save the Dáinsleifs, use the lower yield tactical missiles and conventional weaponry."
"Understood, lady Grace."
The messenger began sending out orders as the pair of Gundam pilots shared one last look before the last stages of their hunt would begin.
"Good hunting, Charlotte."
"You too, Vadik."
Ascending the few meters to Sabnock's cockpit Nahuel sucked in a slow breath through his teeth, feeling a cold desire for revenge course through his veins.
There was unfinished business to be found on the crimson sands of Mars.
[-of Hellas Pit 4 under attack, it's tearing through our defenses-]
[-please help, it's killing everyone-]
[-distress call to any and all who can hear us, we need backup-]
[THIS IS AN AUTOMATED DISTRESS BEACON, TO ANYONE HEARING THIS MESSAGE…]
Nahuel locked a scowl behind his teeth as the deluge of messages came to an end, orbital satellite images showing Madan—who they had designated simply out of convenience rather than any certainty that it was the correct ARMOR—gorging itself on the industrial outpost located in the basins of Hellas, manufacturing plants, mining pits and other signs of civilization being efficiently dismantled and turned to easily processed scrap by the collection of Worker and Queen-class drones, insect-like automatons that had no doubt been hacked by the ARMOR into doing its bidding.
The remains of the small city were like an overturned anthill, interspersed by molten furrows where the ARMOR's beam cannon had carved away entire blocks of the landscape or pockmarked craters where its stolen cannons from the orbiting platform had performed their deadly work.
Automated recordings of the assault had shown that Madan had dropped a few sizable chunks of metal onto the settlements more stationary defenses before descending itself, sporting a body that was vaguely reminiscent of an Earth Mantis Shrimp constructed of gleaming metal and rusted scrap alike, armed with all manner of varied ordnance that had chewed through the pair of garrisoned mobile suits in short order before turning to the city proper.
The rest of the red planet wasn't going to be much help either, they were all too far away to properly reinforce them in time, leaving the combined battlegroups to solve the problem on their own.
...A problem that had rapidly began to reinforce and repair itself to full operational capacity on the carcass of a dead city, growing fat on the corpses of man and machine alike.
"You know what we need to do, Char. We're too low on options to go with anything else other than scorched Earth tactics here, especially how powerful Madan is becoming."
[Yeah, I know...was just hoping a cosmic 'on-off' button for the damn thing would appear in front of me.]
A grunt of amusement left Palmiro, the man rumbling, [If only the creators of those monsters had thought to make it that simple.]
Grace contacted her ship's commanding officer, ordering, [Captain? Target the ARMOR with our remaining nuke, mix it with our remaining Dáinsleif lances and standard munitions so that it doesn't get shot down.]
There was an understandable moment of hesitation, the man's voice warily coming back with, [Lady Grace, are you certain? The ARMOR is still directly within the confines of the city, there might be-]
[ARMORs don't leave survivors, Captain.]
[...Understood, lady Grace. Prepping tactical warhead now.]
What followed was a long list of confirmations and recorded messages—the detonation of a nuclear warhead within atmosphere, especially one with this kind of yield, was no laughing matter—before they were ready to begin.
[Commencing bombardment in three...two...one.]
Brief fireworks displays lit up the blackness of space, the two ships deploying their Dáinsleif batteries as more conventional munitions hit the atmosphere, burning bright as they began to heat before shedding enough momentum to even out.
Not an accurate means of hitting a target by any stretch of the imagination, certainly...but they weren't planning to destroy the ARMOR through that kind of indiscriminate bombardment.
[Dáinsleif bombardment commencing in three...two...on-]
A sun-bright beam of radiant energy impacted the Valiant-class directly on the side, nano-plate armor flaring and heating as the ship rocked backwards, maneuvering thrusters engaging as it attempted to slip out of the path of the beam for a moment...and with utterly absurd levels of precision made possible only by an A.I. of incredible caliber the beam followed the ship, locking onto the same spot it previously assaulted, gradually but surely melting its way into the bowels of the vessel.
[Commencing bombardment now!]
The Halfbeak didn't wait for any further surprises, firing off an oversized missile from its prow as lances of immense destructive power were fired into the atmosphere, punching through the air at speeds fast enough that their momentum or course were barely affected.
Satellite imagery showed massive plumes of dust and sand ensconce the ARMOR, kinetic impact waves traveling for kilometers in every direction as the beam cannon lost its precision amid the destruction of the Dáinsleif impacts, the nuke still making its way towards the surface at a relatively sedate pace.
[Keep firing, don't let the bastard recalibrate itself and take down the warhead!]
Grace's order coincided with yet another round of Dáinsleif lances fired off towards Mars, adding to the considerable amount of obscuring red clouds as Ushanka's damaged but still battle-ready ship heaved itself into position, readying the battlegroup's last pair of projectiles even as a portion of its interior compartments vented air and flotsam into space.
The ARMOR had likely found a way to overcharge its beam cannon, burning through a Valiant's hull like that.
Dáinsleif's were sent on their way and all that was left to do was wait, the battleships having burned through their entire ammunition stores during the course of the conflict and were left only with small-scale point defense cannons, worthless for this kind of work.
[Warhead detonation in ten...nine...eight…]
Nahuel grit his teeth as the countdown commenced, eyes glue to the tactical screen displayed within Sabnock as the missile breached Mar's upper atmosphere, diving towards the previously know location of the mobile ARMOR.
Against all conceivable means of detection the beam cannon yet again found the warhead through the roiling clouds, casting the dirt into swirling colors as most of the grit was instantly turned to gas or flaming embers due to the released heat.
While the nuke had a naturally durable casing—one didn't want a bomb with megatons worth of destructive potential to go off because someone tipped it over—this raised another problem...namely, that the ARMOR was pushing it back.
[Hit the failsafes, detonate it!]
Grace's order was received and complied with-
-and a small section of Mars visible even from orbit briefly outshined the sun.
The signature mushroom cloud quickly ballooned up past Mar's atmosphere, dust clouds that could have drowned a city traveling outwards from the blast while ground zero was a mess of destruction that no sensor could read past.
[Warhead detonated three kilometers above desired range, looking for signs of Ahab resonance.]
Nahuel growled in mild frustration at the report, knowing those few extra kilometers could mean all the difference...and they had already intended for the bomb to be at least a kilometer above the target before going off, risking radiation fallout from a relatively close ground detonation just to ensure the ARMOR was crippled or outright destroyed by the blast.
They'd likely be having to do things the hard way.
"Mobile suit teams, launch! Get ready for a rough insertion, we've got a job to finish!"
"All teams maintain forty meter spacing, check ins every twenty seconds. Stay ready for anything and watch each other's backs."
A chorus of affirmatives sounded out over the comms, the remaining eight mobile suits of the battlegroup stalking their way through the remains of the city with slow but steady steps, the weight of their armored forms causing the ground to quake and tremble with every footfall.
...Not that they could see such a sight, the raging dust clouds and leftover fallout from the warheads detonation not even close to dispersed as they combed through the settlement one street at a time, appearing little more than ghostly titans as they trudged through the chaos, armor and sensor coverings constantly rattling and creaking under the barrage of rock and detritus that consisted of their current battleground.
Making the orbital drop into this environment had been very much like descending into Hell, seeking out the Devil itself.
Albeit it was the Demons doing the hunting and the enemy of man was none other than an Angel…
Growling to himself Nahuel turned his attention outwards, Sabnock's powerful sensor suite hardly better than plain Human inputs in this mess. Thermal was pointless as everything was some varying shade of overheated, sonar was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of moving and noise-creating objects, radar under similar constraints and Ahab detection was so scrambled by the warheads blast that it could barely detect the mobile suit right next to it.
The less said about visual scanning the better.
But they forged on regardless, combing the desiccated and demolished ruins of the city with cold efficiency despite the danger. There would be no better time to hunt down the ARMOR than this very moment, when it was weakened and damaged by the bombardment.
The routine calls continued to come in at a steady pace, no deviations occurring...and one of the two remaining Salientsof Ushanka failed to report in at the proper time, the one furthest in the extended line they had formed.
The entire mobile suit squad swung their weapons towards their comrade's location, not a moment of hesitation as they waited, idly hoping that it was mere communications failure or a moment of laxness while preparing to open fire-
[ARMOR behind us-]
And the Graze on the opposite end of the line gave a brief gasp, wet gurgle and sound of creaking metal before the comm went dead.
"Ambush! Spread out and take it down!"
The six Mobile Suits immediately ignited their thrusters and caused the raging sandstorm to light up with dazzling blue glows as particles of all size and consistency caught aflame, an indistinct shape twice as tall as their suits lighting up with a similar blaze as it darted out of range, only the glowing contrails it left behind denoting Madan's location.
Damn thing must have maneuvered using only physical means instead of its engines, relying on the chaos of the storm to disguise its initial ambush.
"Keep on it, don't let it-"
Not questioning Sabnock's burst of emotion Nahuel sent the mobile suit skyward not a moment to soon, the ground trembling for the briefest of seconds...before splitting apart with a dull groan like some titanic, wounded beast.
The Gundam pilot's eyes widened as the rift continued until sensor readings and the shouts of warning and panic from his comrades suggested that the entire damn city had been sent into the gaping maw of indeterminate depth.
And while he and no doubt the other two Gundams had the reflexes to escape the worst of the effects the other mobile suits weren't so lucky. Controlled and calculated thruster burns that had relied on there being a stable surface below the machine's feet to properly calculate the amount of force to keep the suit afloat now found themselves working overtime, the Grazes and Salient slowing and hanging motionless in the air for a crucial second as they reoriented themselves with the change in terrain...and the mobile ARMOR was on them within an eyeblink.
A downward swing of a halberd no doubt pilfered from the garrisoned mobile suits caught a Graze right in the joining of shoulder and cockpit block, tearing into the suit and causing it to fall limp, tumbling into darkness below.
A more artful stab of a spear slipped into the narrow gaps of the Salient's heavy plating, the suit spasming as the pilot was turned into a crimson smear.
The final Graze manged to swing its autocannon around, squeeze off two shots-
-and a sword impaled the cockpit block with incredible force and precision as Nahuel cursed violently.
Less than four seconds and it was only the three Gundams left.
Engaging Sabnock's thrusters at full burn Nahuel threw the machine into reverse, using the blowback from the dual railguns firing off a pair of projectiles to aid in his retreat and to shave a significant portion of armor off the damn thing, the ARMOR briefly spinning and listing from the impact before it righted itself and gave chase.
"I'm leading it out of the city, hit it when it's on solid ground!"
Aerial combat in atmosphere against a mobile ARMOR was suicide, even for the vastly improved performance of an Alaya-Vijnana user...an A.I. could simply make too many calculations and decisions per moment compared to a Human, an inequivalence only exacerbated when one had to split their attention between fighting and staying afloat.
Solid ground was their ally, not the ARMOR's.
Connection with Sabnock running hot Nahuel lavishly spent his rotary cannon's ammo stores, short bursts of annihilating metal that slowed the ARMOR's rapid approach by the slimmest of margins, keeping a barely respectable distance between them as he kept the plasma cannon in reserve while the railguns cooled in preparation for the next shot.
In a battle this fast-paced...he'd only get one more volley with each weapon.
Sabnock's warning caused Nahuel to grin, the Gundam dropping to solid ground and skidding to a halt as the cannons on the back of the suit fired off two more rounds with deafening CRACKS, Madan only able to avoid one shot as the other shaved off one of its maneuvering thrusters, the ARMOR closing the distance as the rotary cannon ran dry and allowing Nahuel to finally get a good look at the thing.
Still resembling the general shape of a mantis shrimp but far more uneven and ugly, armor a patchwork of scavenged metal ranging from military-grade nano-laminate to simple sheets of industrial steel, maneuvering jets slapped on in a mishmash of mobile suit engines and orbital maneuvering thrusters while six arms of varying length and shape dotted the elongated torso, beam cannon built into the head mount as it bore down on him, pilfered weapons poised to cleave the suit's arms clean off.
At least until the empty rotary cannon slammed into the stolen blades, shunting them aside at the cost of the weapon's integrity as Nahuel shoved the plasma cannon against the rounded chassis the ARMOR's lower half.
The gun went off in a sun-bright display of released energy, melting the barrel and a few fingers off Sabnock's hand—the feedback from their shared senses enough to make him grimace—as Madan went spinning out of control, the force of the blow melting a sixth of its mass while the Gundam was flattened onto the ground from the force of the detonation.
Engines pulsed and the Gundam rolled onto its feet in a graceless but efficient motion, railguns aiming in the ARMOR's direction...only to find it already recovered and bearing down on him, arms poised to run the machine through-
-and a bellowed warcy from Palmiro—amplified through Barabtos's external speakers—coincided with the Gundam impacting the ARMOR with all the fury of a meteor strike, oversized mace tearing one of the arms off in a spray of metal and composites as in the same motion the Baron threw his machine's rail-cannon towards Sabnock, Nahuel eagerly grasping the weapon as Barbatos's underslung autocannons spat hot lead at the ARMOR, cratering and even outright destroying the weaker sections of plating as the A.I. moved to respond to the new threat.
At least until a trio of unguided missiles detonated against its lower chassis, further ruining its pilfered thrusters as Vassago joined the fray, the Gundams surrounding their prey on three sides.
For a split-second the battle went on pause, the four mortal foes taking a moment to formulate their plans and strategies...and then they charged, the mobile ARMOR letting loose a voltaic screech of fury as its beam cannon unleashed an incandescent blast of power.
Barbatos slipped past the barrage, cannons burning through ammo as it hefted the mace like a jousting lance, Sabnock firing off a hail of accelerated rounds from the borrowed cannon and its own armaments in a burst that shook the very air while Vassago began the assault from behind, sword held at the ready while the empty missile rack detached in order to maximize speed, the railgun centering itself to preserve balance.
Then the haze of battle took them and there was precious little time to think, only act.
The shared perceptions of Human and Gundam synchronized in a symphony of destruction, little difference to be found between Vadika Nahuel and Sabnock as they sought out their quarry's head.
Barbatos impacted the ARMOR head on, mace stopped by two arms holding the weapon tight as its engines flared against the smaller mobile suit's, the chaotic air around them being turned to fast-moving embers as the weapons of war strove against each other, four arms aiming to tear into Barbatos as it was occupied-
-and two were lost to a clean shot from Sabnock's cannons and Vassago's railgun, substandard limbs turned to wild sprays of shattered metal and lubricants as the furthest Gundam continued its long range assault, Vassago closing the distance with smooth and predatory movements as its sword cleanly lopped off one of the few remaining thrusters.
The ARMOR took advantage of the sudden loss of its propulsion and uneven momentum, whipping its heavy lower body around and smashing aside Barbatos before forcing Vassago backwards with another shot from its beam cannon, the Gundam standing strong but nonetheless pushed back due to the force of the point-blank deluge.
At least until Sabnock blew the cannon mount clean off its head with a final shot from the rail-cannon, smoke and sparks spewing from the decapitated ARMOR as the two melee fighters regained their footing, engines blazing as they once more closed the gap.
The mobile ARMOR began to crack and slough under the assault, its crippled frame and body unable to hold up to the continuous beating it was subjected to, Barbatos raising its mace high to deliver a crushing blow to the A.I.'s reactor housing-
-and Madan had one more surprise in store for them, it seemed. Stubby but broad legs unfolded from the bottom of the burning and leaking abdomen, affording the ARMOR purchase as one of the three remaining arms grasped a hidden compartment just below its spinal column, unfolding an industrial-grade cutting implement halfway between a compressor and a pair of scissors, leaping forward and trapping one of Barbatos's arms within the grinding metal, stripping and mangling the limb as Sabnock and Vassago rushed forward to aid their trapped comrade...just a hair too late as a stabbing motion with one of the arms crippled Barbatos's opposite leg, Palmiro roaring with frustration and sympathetic pain as the Gundam collapsed, the mace being used to keep it upright as its autocannons ran dry, falling silent with streams of smoke rising from their barrels.
But the surprise attack came at a price, Sabnock landing a powerful kick to a broken and exposed part of the ARMOR's insides, collapsing and damaging important circuitry while Vassago rammed its blade and assault rifle barrel into a similar gap in armor, twisting the forged metal violently while laying on the trigger, Madan bucking and twisting frantically as the Gundams tenaciously held on, mindlessly tearing into the innards of the machine with reckless abandon as it finally seemed to be dying, body spasming and glitching with erratic motions as the pair of Demons eagerly reared back, preparing deathblows-
-and were subsequently caught off guard as the ARMOR regained complete motor control, its remaining limbs latching onto the Gundam's heads, slamming them into the dirt with enough force to briefly stun the pilots inside as its legs and bulkier body settled over the writhing mechs to firmly pin them against Mars' crimson sand.
[Warning: Ahab detonation imminent!]
Nahuel snarled at Sabnock's warning, belatedly realizing that the ARMOR had suckered them...it knew it was dying and had decided to ensure that they would go out alongside it.
Engines burned to life, hot enough to melt the metal frames and turn solid dirt and rock into charred glass as the Gundams struggled against the pinning Madan to no effect, weapon mounts having no suitable angle on the A.I. as it prepared itself to self-destruct.
"FUCK! Grace, you got anything?!"
[Other than keep struggling, no!]
Metallic groans and creaks filled the howling martian landscape, high-pitched whines of overheating engines echoing as an ominous hum began to overpower the cacophony of mechanical thrashing-
[You two get out of here!]
-until, with a feral roar of static and steel howls Barbatos slammed full speed into the ARMOR, using its mace like a jousting lance to shove Madan away from its comrades...and over the lip of the chasm that had opened up earlier in the battle.
[See you on the other sides, comrades!]
Not wishing to waste their ally's sacrifice the pair of Gundams rose to their feet, sprinting and leaping away from the detonation that was about to occur-
-and the world went dark.
[You two did well. With Jaoel and Madan's destruction the last of the mobile ARMORs in martian airspace are accounted for. We can finally begin focusing on securing the trade routes and space lines around the red planet.]
"Until the next ARMOR flees from the Earth Sphere. Then we get to do this all over again."
Nahuel's tired words coincided with Grace laying a restraining hand on his shoulder, the man still confined to a hospital bed in the confines of Chryse city as he mended the broken legs that had occurred during the last stages of the battle against Madan.
Turns out being a scant two kilometers away from an Ahab reactor going off in a deliberate act of self-destruction was something of a rough time...never mind the colossal landslide that had occurred afterwards, Grace maintaining enough of her wits at the time to grab his unresponsive mobile suit and get them to safety before they were buried under uncountable tons of sand, the mining city all but wiped from the surface of Mars with barely a trace of it ever existing.
Agnika Kaieru's tone was strong and steady as it emanated from the secure voice-only channel they were communicating over.
[A valid concern...but of far more worry is the suicide charges the ARMORs deployed as well as the collapsing of the very ground itself, never mind their deception with the Ahab reactors. They haven't used strategies like that before...perhaps a sign of desperation, as their numbers deplete?]
Grace ran a hand through her graying hair, idly picking at a strand as she stated, "Maybe. Or maybe it's just a natural progression of machine learning, employing tactics and tricks that give them ever higher probabilities of success. The early ARMOR attacks always ended with them fighting to the last before expiring, whether alone or in groups. These new strategies—sacrificing one so that the other can escape, switching out reactors to fool our sensors, suicide runs just before they reach complete inoperability to maximize our casualties—could be the natural progression of an A.I. engaged in a protracted war of extermination."
Nahuel huffed out a sigh, morbidly remarking, "And we still aren't aware of just how communicative the ARMORs are with each other...do they merely cooperate out of convenience? Or do they actively share information and operational history?"
Gjallarhorn's founder was silent for a time, eventually replying, [Insightful input, ones we will have to bear in mind as we hunt down the last of these monstrosities of our own making. What of Barbatos and Palmiro?]
Quiet sighs left the duo, the memory of their fellow Gundam pilot who had saved their lives at the last possible moment still fresh.
"Even if some completely unprecedented roll of the cosmic dice let him live past the ARMOR's self-destruct then the subsequent burying of Barbatos would have finished it. And there's no discernible trace of the Gundam's Ahab wave, a scenario not made any easier by the fact that the city was a half-metal mine...unless a full-scale mining and excavation process is enacted I think it's safe to say Barbatos is lost to us."
Kaieru's tone carried a slight trace of wistfulness as he responded, [I see. One more comrade-in-arms lost in the line of duty.]
"Indeed. How goes the campaign against Sybil, Xathanael and Chasan?"
There was a brief pause.
[Sybil and Xathanael were destroyed at the cost of Gundams Valefar, Berith, Andras and Raum, alongside their accompanying battlegroups. We remain in pursuit of Chasan, it's currently making its way towards the moon's surface...for what purpose is still unclear. Don't worry, we'll see the Angel's wings clipped before the day is over.]
"...Understood, Lord Kaieru."
[Again, excellent work, Lord Nahuel, Lady Grace. Rest and recuperate, I'll have new marching orders for you once the business with Chasan is concluded. Give your battlegroups all the downtime you can manage...they'll need it in the coming months. Until we speak again.]
The communication channel switched off, the pair quietly sitting for a time before Grace sighed, commenting, "I don't know if I'm as enthusiastic about our chances as Lord Kaieru. That's four battlegroups each of those Gundams were a part of—and whatever else lord Kaieru mustered up—against just three mobile ARMORs."
Nahuel raised an eyebrow.
"Not like you to be the voice of doubt in situations like these, Char."
"True...but I can't help but have a bad feeling about this one, Vadik. Casualties like these every time we go up against these things isn't a sustainable way to wage war...and let's not even get started on all the pirate activity or criminal empires springing up as Gjallarhorn is stretched thin. You hear about what's happening in the Jovian territory? Mass anarchy with the local Gjallarhorn garrison practically ousted-"
"I know, Char...I know."
Leaning back in his hospital bed, listening to the wail of sirens and uneasy broadcasts outside as the city grieved for its neighbors and friends that had been wiped off the map Nahuel couldn't help but wonder what lay in store for the people of Mars.
Support for the continued terraforming of the red planet had ceased long ago, its people having to rely more and more on self-sufficient means of survival as the war raged around them, militia and private security firms picking up the slack as Gjallarhorn's regional arm grew all the weaker over time.
Her hand found his, the duo taking the moment to simply relax in each other's company...before a brief chuckle left Grace, Nahuel raising an eyebrow as he inquired, "Something tickle your fancy?"
"No, not really...just wondering if some kid will one day dig up the buried treasure that is Barbatos. Not to mention Flauros is still out there somewhere as well."
The dark-skinned man also began to laugh at that particular image, remarking, "Indeed. Something straight out of Arturian legend, the boy pulling the sword from the stone to save the kingdom."
"Pretty sure Caliburn wasn't a gigantic war machine."
"And I'm fairly certain whoever is a suitable pilot for a Gundam is no Once and Future King."
"But who can say? Life surprises."
Geez, I'm really getting into the habit of popping out shorter stories lately. Must be a phase. But this here is another franchise that I wanted to pay respects to but simply don't have the time to craft a longform story, so a shorter tale it is...and what better source material than the mother-trucking Calamity War?
Seriously, Sunrise. I get that Build Fighters and the Universal Century are popular money makers but I can't help but feel you're sitting on the Gundam equivalent of Attack on Titan or Game of Thrones with the Calamity War and all the crazy things that no doubt went down during it.
Fingers crossed we one day get that prequel instead of a mobile game sequel to a story that concluded quite, err...conclusively?