Chapter 4

The Island Prison

Finally, the lights of First Squad appeared on the horizon and Jill ground her cigarette into the ashtray on her desk. This day had been anything but normal. A category 4 incursion. That huge black machine. And judging by the conversation she had overhead over the radio, there was a man piloting it. Jill didn't even want to think about the kind of uproar that would cause. When they heard the pilot's voice, Pamela and the others had practically leapt out of their seats. Whoever the pilot was or wherever he came from, he'd be lucky if he wasn't jumped the second he stepped out of his machine.

"First Squad coming in," Zola broadcast. "Requesting permission to land."

"Permission granted runway is clear," Pamela confirmed. "Uh Commander..."

"I'll handle it," Jill said as she picked up her intercom mic. "Attention unknown unit. Proceed to the rear of the base. You will find a beach there that can accommodate your machine. I have multiple cannons trained on your position. If you deviate from your designated course, or if you try to run, we will shoot you down."

"Yeah yeah I get it." A collective gasp rose from the command staff.

"It really is a man," Olivier gasped.

"What's he doing here?" Pamela wondered.

"You think he's hot?" Hikaru added.

"Ahem!" Jill coughed. Immediately all three girls snapped to attention and turned back to their consoles. By now, the massive shape of the black machine was close enough to make out and Jill had to admit, remote footage of it was nothing compared to seeing it in person. With a wingspan that nearly stretched the width of the tarmac, the Para-mail flying beside it might as well have been its children. Zola led the way with Ersha, Hilda, and Vivian flanking it while Chris and Rosalie brought up the rear. As it flew by overhead, its shadow blanketed the command center in darkness.

"It's huge," Emma gasped as she adjusted her glasses. "No wonder it was able to kill those Brigs so easily." It's certainly powerful, Jill agreed. But it's the pilot that I'm interested in.

"Send out a recovery team to bring back Salia's Arquebus and whatever's left of Naomi's unit," she ordered. "Inspector, let's go meet with our guest." Departing the command center, Jill and Emma took the elevator to the utilities level at the very bottom of the base. "Tell me Inspector, have you any idea what that thing is?"

"Me? Of course not, though...well I admit it does remind me of something I once read about."

"Go on."

"Well, in the history books I read at the academy, when all of humanity was as prone to violence as the Norma were, several of the old nation states competed in various arms races. And that machine looks remarkably similar to some of the weapons used during that time period."

"So then it's not some new type of Para-mail? It doesn't seem to use the Light of Mana."

"I highly doubt that," Emma said. "Why the sheer amount of resources it would take to keep just one unit that size running would be far too impractical for mass production. Not too mention impossible to store in a facility the size of Arzenal." Jill's thoughts were the same. Any machine that didn't require the Light of Mana to function could only have come from one place and Jill had made it clear to Donovan that if his men came so much as near Arzenal, she'd reveal their position to the humans. The alliance between his people and hers had ended long ago and Jill had no intention of repeating the mistakes of the past. Still, the way that boy acted intrigued her. Perhaps he was a survivor from a colony besides Sanctuary. She supposed she'd find out soon enough.

As soon as her unit was docked, Zola leapt onto the tarmac. One by one the others disembarked as well while overhead, the giant machine flew on to its designated landing site, a gang of the Armorers led by Mei rushing out to have a look. First Squad however had other things on their mind. As their Para-mail mail were taxied away for maintenance and repair, the surviving pilots gathered around the two empty pads, one of which would remain vacant forever.

"Poor Naomi," Ersha whispered.

"There's nothing we can do," Zola said. "We'll arrange a funeral for her later."

"Are you sure you're okay Captain?" Rosalie worried. "You almost bought it as well."

"I was really scared," Chris agreed. Zola smirked as she wrapped her arms around her two subordinates and pushed their heads into her breasts.

"You two are so sweet. Don't worry. It's going to take a lot more than that to kill me. After debriefing, you both can come up to my room for a little post-encounter stress relief. But in the meantime, why don't we go say hello to our new friend."

"Typical," Hilda grumbled. "Fresh meat shows up and you're already chomping at the bit."

"Now now don't be jealous," Zola teased. "You can't tell me you aren't just a little bit excited about the prospects."

"Not at all," Hilda said. "Or are you all forgetting how he asked if we were Norma?"

"I don't think he was trying to antagonize us though," Ersha spoke up. "Plus he saved Salia."

"And myself so let's be nice to him," Zola suggested. "And if he's nice to us then we can be REALLY nice to him."

Thankfully, his destination appeared just as the warning light for Deathscythe's fuel gauge flicked on. Rising straight out of the sea was a tabletop plateau with a launch deck designed for small aircraft jutting out of a multilevel hanger. So that's where the Norma are sent, Duo thought. And all so they can fight those things. After getting clearance and instructions for landing, Duo cast a gaze at the girl who hadn't said two words since she calmed down.

"Look," he said. "I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable. It's just...where you're was a reflex it's not like I did it on purpose!"

"It's fine," Salia murmured. "I'll...consider it a compliment." Better to just land before he made it even more awkward. As he cleared the mountain range along the far edge, a triangular patch of sand appeared at the cliff's base and Duo brought Deathscythe in for a landing where a welcoming committee was already waiting for them. The first woman was tall, slim, and dressed in a white uniform with long black hair tied back in a pony tail. Judging by how she carried herself she was most likely the base's CO. Behind her was a second woman in glasses dressed in a white and purple. And Duo frowned as he saw one of those Mana screens hovering in the air before her.

"I'll let you get out first," he told her as he opened the hatch. "Show them you're okay." Hurrying off his lap, Salia grabbed on to the drop line and lowered down to the sand. Further up the beach, a group of girls emerged from the doorway and raced down towards her. Like Salia, they were all dressed in the same revealing plug suits. What kind of a base is this? he wondered. As they gathered around Deathscythe's feet, the woman in the beret called up for him to show himself. After taking a moment to set final precautions, Duo climbed out the hatch and rode down the lift line. Oh well. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

The moment she touched down on the sand, Salia's legs gave out and she fell to her knees. Her heart was pounding like a machine gun. When Duo's machine had caught her, Salia had frozen when the hatch opened and she saw that a man was piloting it. But then he had pulled her inside and before she knew it the DRAGONs had swarmed them. But even that paled to the realization that she had actually felt "it." I was actually sitting on a man's lap, she blushed.

"Are you alright Salia?" Salia forced herself to calm down and picked herself up as she remembered that Jill was standing right beside her.

"Yes Ma'am," she answered. Casting a gaze back at the black machine she had ridden in on, Salia was able to better realize just how big it actually was. As tall as a Brig, its wings had been folded around its torso like some armored cape, leaving only the cockpit exposed. And on it's rear skirt was the dual bladed scythe that had cut down a Bombardment-type Brig as if it were nothing. It's size and black armor gave it an air that was foreboding but not exactly malevolent. More a force of nature than a monster.

"God of Death," she whispered.

"It's a fitting name for it," Jill admitted as the rest of First Squad came running out the beach entrance.

"Salia!" Ersha cried as she ran up and threw her arms around her, nearly engulfing the smaller girl inside of her bosom. "I'm so glad you're safe."

"Yeah thanks Ersha," Salia said. Captain Zola meanwhile looked up at the giant machine and whistled.

"Now THAT is a machine. Just imagining the kind of man that could pilot it gets me hungry."

"Your feast will have to wait," Jill said. "The Inspector and I want to have a word with him first."

"So cool!" Vivian awed. "Now I have something new to add to my list."

"How much do you think something like this even costs?" Rosalie wondered.

"All of you stand back," Ms. Emma ordered. "You. Whoever you are get down here immediately." At her request, Duo emerged from the cockpit and despite her initial embarrassment, now that she got a good look at him Salia had to admit he was actually rather handsome. Taller than all of them except Zola, Ersha, and Jill; he was slim but well built with dark blue eyes and long brown hair tied back in a braid that hung down to his back.

"Mmmm yummy, " Zola purred

Alighting onto the beach, Duo looked over the girls that had assembled before him. All of them were attractive to say the least, even the mousy looking silver haired girl in green. And with the exception of Salia and the younger one in pink, they were also very well stacked. Play it cool, Duo said. Just keep focused on their faces. "Uh hey," he said. "How's it going?"

"Excuse me?" asked the tall girl in the orange suit who had embraced Salia. She had long pink hair that draped to her hips and after the tall blonde in purple, she was the second most well endowed among them. "Are you feeling alright? You're awfully flushed." Oh crap they're on to me, he realized.

"Huh? Yeah...yeah I'm great," he stammered.

"Are you sure?" asked the girl in yellow with the short orange hair. She stepped up to him and Duo's gaze kept slipping away from her face to someplace else.

"Well see..." it was then they finally noticed just where they were looking. Both Salia and the yellow suit jumped back blushing with their hands over the chests.

"What's up with you two?" their younger teammate asked as she cocked her head. She had short vermillion hair, looked barely older than fifteen, and the lolipop stick that dangled from her mouth didn't make Duo any less comfortable.

"What do you think?" asked another. Like Salia, her long red hair was done up in twin tails and she wore a suit the same shade. She too had caught on to what he was looking at and was shooting him a death glare that could have punctured even Deathscythe's hull. "You so much as try anything," she warned, "and you can kiss it goodbye."

"Hey!" he cried. "Don't get mad at me just because the way you dress is distracting!" Too late, Duo realized just what he had said as she glowered at him and cracked her knuckles.

"Stand down!" Jill ordered. The redhead cut a final glance at Duo but thankfully backed off. Hoping to salvage what little dignity he had left, Duo turned to address the two officers. They were dressed less provocatively so hopefully he could keep his foot out of his mouth by focusing on them.

"I take it you're the ones in charge?" he asked.

"That's right," the spectacled one answered. "Now tell me who you are and what you're doing here?" Duo smirked as he crossed his arms. Whoever this woman was she had the self important attitude of someone whose role wasn't nearly as important in the grand scheme of things as she believed.

"Didn't your mother teach you it's bad manners to demand someone else's name before you give your own?" Duo's smirk broadened as her eyes widened in shock before she began to fume.

"You...young man I don't think you understand just how much trouble you're in."

"Let me handle this Inspector," the woman in the pony tail interrupted. "I'm Commander Jill. And this is Inspector Emma Bronson. I saw what you did for my girls and I appreciate your help. However, as you can understand we have quite a number of questions for you." Duo looked Jill over and realized he should stow the cockiness. There was a distinct edge to her that warned him she wouldn't hesitate to put him in his place if he stepped out of line.

"Yeah I figured as much."

"If you cooperate I can guarantee your safety for now. However..." and Jill paused as she threw back her cape to expose her prosthetic right arm, "if you don't then good luck getting away in one piece. Every girl here is a trained soldier. And I have ten guns within this cliff alone that have your machine in their sights." Duo scanned his surroundings. With the sun down and everything bathed in shadow, she could have twice that many and he'd never know until he took off. And while he doubted they'd do much damage, he was running on fumes and judging by how small and fast those machines were, they'd overwhelm him pretty quickly.

"Alright then," he finally decided. Pulling out his PA, Duo triggered the cockpit to close as the Active Cloak fully wrapped around Deathscythe. "But I'm going to warn you not to touch my Gundam. I've set the self destruct to trigger if anyone other than me tries to open the hatch. And the reactor's still got enough juice in it to take out half this island."

"Fair enough," Jill said. "The rest of you, show's over. Perform your post-encounter duties and tend to whatever arrangements you need to make for Naomi. Dismissed."

"Yes Ma'am."

"Excuse me," the pinkette spoke up, "but you never told us your name."

"It's Duo," he said. "Duo Maxwell."

"I see," she smiled. "Duo, I just wanted to say thank you for saving Salia. Losing Naomi was a tragedy but if you hadn't been there it would have been much worse."

"Hey, happy to do it," he said. "And don't forget Deathscythe Ahriman. He did all the work."

"Mmm modest too. That's so cute!" Duo gave a slight jump at the sudden gust of hot breath in his ear. While he had been focused on the Commander and the Inspector, the blonde had taken the opportunity to sneak up behind him. She was slightly taller than him, and unlike the others the collar of her plug suit was undone which further emphasized her already ample cleavage. She leaned forward and Duo found his eyes drawn to the flower tattoo on her left breast. "I'm Captain Zola. And I was the pilot of the unit you saved. If it hadn't been for you I'd be dead too."

"Uh big deal!" Zola licked her lips as she bent around to his ear, her luxuriant blonde hair caressing his face. Holy crap she smells good, he thought.

"Once you're done with the Commander, come see me and I'll show you my appreciation."

"I'll...keep that in mind."

"Enough Zola!" Jill warned. Zola pulled back and snapped a salute.

"Yes Commander. Everyone, report to the squad room."

Still mortified by her state of appearance, Salia hurried along with the others up the beach and back into the base. She had gotten so used to the flight suits they wore that she no longer noticed them. But now a man had set foot on Arzenal and she realized how revealing they actually were.

"So that's a man huh?" Rosalie mused. "I'll admit. He's not bad to look at."

"And totally awesome!" Vivian squeed. "I bet he could take on an entire army of DRAGONs in that super Para-mail of his!"

"Gundam," Salia corrected. "He called it a Gundam. And it's name is Deathscythe Ahriman." Gundam. It was a name that dripped with power and just thinking about it sent a shiver up Salia's spine.

"Does it even matter what he calls it?" Hilda argued. "If he stays here you can kiss any future reward money goodbye. Do you have any idea the amount of cash killing TWO Brigs by yourself earns you?"

"Okay I guess that does kind of suck," Rosalie agreed.

"Rules are rules," Zola said. "He killed those Brigs fair and square and so he's earned the reward. And we got one ourselves plus all those Schooners so the mission wasn't a total washout."

"Besides I don't think Duo would do that," Ersha said. "He seems really nice."

"Please," Hilda grumbled. "You saw the way he was looking at us. He's like a dog in heat."

"You say that like it's a bad thing," Zola purred.

"You don't think he might actually try something do you?" Chris asked.

"I almost hope he does," Hilda said. "You can bet I'll make sure he lives to regret it."

With Commander Jill leading the way and the Inspector following after, Duo took a moment to study his new surroundings. With extremely limited space, the entire base had been carved out of the plateau's interior. Judging by all the pipes running along the walls and ceilings, the lower levels were devoted to utilities and maintenance. A guide sign along the way featured an arrow and the trefoil symbol pointing down an adjacent hall and Duo made a mental note to come back later for a closer look. They use nuclear fusion here, he realized. That means they either have a plant for refining hydrogen isotopes from seawater or they have stores of it shipped in. Either way, I could use that to refuel Deathscythe. Of course, actually being able to sneak around without being seen was going to be a challenge. More than a few of the girls gave him a second look in passing and it suddenly dawned on Duo that he was most likely the first man any of them had ever seen in real life. Finally, they arrived at an elevator and the three of them rode all the way up to the top level. Inside what had to be the Commander's office, Jill beckoned to a chair set before a desk as she took a seat behind it.

"So, Duo was it?" she asked as she lit a cigarette. "First things first, I want to know where you came from." Duo shifted his gaze between her and Inspector Emma off to the side. Should I tell them the truth? he wondered. Normally he would opt not to as they wouldn't believe him anyway. Even he still didn't believe his current situation. But following the encounter with those dragons maybe they would. And there was still a lot he didn't know about his world. For all he knew, they might consider him an enemy as well.

"I come from someplace...very far away." It was truthful enough.

"Don't dance around the question," Emma said as she adjusted her glasses. "You are trespassing in a restricted area. Now I'm willing to believe you were unaware of that but that doesn't change the severity of your situation. Furthermore, there's the matter of that machine of yours. Why is a civilian in possession of something like that?"

"Who says I'm a civilian?" Duo asked. "I work for a group called the Preventers. A security division of the Earth Sphere Unified Nation. And it's our job to deal with problems before they start."

"There's no such country," Emma argued. "And what problems could possibly require a machine like that?"

"Well there's those dragons for one." The room suddenly became dead silent as the two women stared at him. "What?" he asked.

"How do you know about the DRAGONs?" Emma demanded.

"Doesn't everyone?" he said. "I mean, I thought they were a myth but apparently they're not." The inspector looked at Duo as if he had gone crazy.

"This Earth Sphere Unified Nation," Jill interrupted. "What sort of place is it?"

"Well," Duo said. "We're very far away from here and we like to keep to ourselves."

"I suppose that would explain why I've never heard of it," Jill nodded.

"Commander this is ridiculous!" Emma protested. "Even if what he's saying is true, and I highly doubt that, why would any civilized person go out and do something so incredibly reckless?" Duo leaned forward and shot her a dirty look.

"Yeah well unlike you I've got more self respect than to throw innocent girls into the meat grinder."

"Excuse me?" Emma asked as Jill raised an eyebrow.

"You heard me," Duo said. "In the ESUN, humans and Norma live side by side and we get along just fine." Emma's mouth dropped open in dumbfounded shock.

" could you...?"

"So let me see if I understand what you're saying," Jill interrupted. "You come from a political body independent of the six nations. One that not only rejects official world policy regarding Norma but also where they and humans peacefully coexist. Is that correct?"

"You got it."

"Oh enough of this!" Emma cried. "Commander, I insist he be thrown in the stockade. I'm going to call the Committee and have them send a transport to bring him AND that machine to the mainland. They'll get the truth out of him one way or another." Duo leaned back and shrugged.

"You could do that," Duo supposed. "And with Deathscythe out of fuel I doubt I could do anything to stop you. But that might cost you more than its worth."

"What are you talking about?" Emma demanded.

"That Gundam isn't the only one of its kind. There are others, each one just as powerful. And my superior isn't going to sit back and let an asset like that fall into enemy hands." Creasing her brow, Jill swiveled in her chair towards the Inspector.

"He makes a valid point," she noted. "If word of this should get out I can only imagine the public outcry that would result. If we aren't careful, we could very well trigger a major diplomatic incident. Possibly even a war."

"A war?" Emma cried. "Between humans!?" Emma's gaze shifted to Duo with a disdainful look. "You may have a point. If these ESUN people are degenerate enough to coexist with Norma there's no telling what other sort of deviant behavior they're capable of." I'll consider that a compliment, Duo thought. "Very well. I'll write up a report for the Committee recommending he be kept here for now. I don't intend to let you out of my sight for one moment."

"Sheesh if you wanted a date so badly all you had to do is ask," Duo joked, making Emma flush in embarrassment as she walked off without another word.

"Well," Jill said as the door closed behind the Inspector, "that was certainly entertaining."

"Yeah I like to think I'm the funny one in my group," Duo shrugged.

"Though there is one thing that bothers me," Jill said. "You know about the DRAGONs and Norma yet you don't seem to know anything about Arzenal. That's rather odd to me."

"I might have been absent that day when we covered it."

"And that bit about DRAGONs being legends," she continued, "there are no legends about them. At least not in any of the ones that I've heard of." Snubbing out her cigarette, Jill leaned towards him. "I don't think you're lying but I don't think you're telling me the entire truth either. Especially since if you wanted to you could have already called in your comrades to come pick you up. You saved my pilots, including Salia, and I am grateful for that. But right now, I have a feeling you aren't nearly as untouchable as you claim to be. So if you want to make sure you don't wind up someplace even worse than Arzenal, I strongly suggest you tell me everything." Duo looked into her steely violet eyes and knew Jill wasn't bluffing. She wouldn't hesitate to throw him to the wolves if she felt it was in her best interests to do so.

"It's kind of a long story," he admitted. Jill smirked and knitted her hands together.

"Well, lucky for you time is the one thing we have plenty of here." And so Duo told her everything, or at least as much as he understood. How the Seraphim had picked up an unknown signal during its test run, and the resulting backlash when he tried to trace the source. "When I woke up I was here. After a few misadventures in a place called Misurugi I wound up on your doorstep." After he finished, Jill leaned back in her chair.

"So you're from the other side of the singular," she said. "Just like the DRAGONs."

"I guess so," Duo mused. "But we don't have them in my world. Or maybe a long time ago they tried to invade and that's where the legends of them came from."

"In any case," she said. "Don't tell anyone here about where you come from. Especially the Inspector. For now, make yourself at home. There's an old dock underneath the western cliffs that was used by the original construction team. It should be large enough for you to park that machine of yours and keep it out of the elements. I'll send someone by to help you get settled in."

"Thanks a lot," Duo said as he stood up. He turned to leave when Jill suddenly called out to him.'

"So is it really true that in your world humans and Norma exist side by side?" Duo looked to her and scratched his chin.

"Well, the truth is we don't have the Light of Mana in my world so technically everyone there is a Norma."

Taking a fresh cigarette form her case, Jill gazed at the ceiling as she thought over what Duo had told her. A boy from the other side of the singular. One from a world where the Light of Mana didn't exist. Embryo, she realized. He has a hand in this somehow. It's a shame we don't have a way to contact his allies ourselves. Just one Gundam was worth more than an entire Para-mail squad. The only thin that matched that kind of power was a Ragna-mail. Duo may not have been what she was expecting, but perhaps she could make use of him anyway.

As he shut the door, Duo gave a sigh of relief. At least he didn't have to worry about winding up in a prison cell. For now, he'd move Deathscythe into port and then try to get a better idea of the layout of this place. From the corner of his eye, Duo caught a sudden movement and he looked up to see three girls staring at him from a partially open door.

"Oh, hi," he said with a wave. Now that they had been seen, the three of them awkwardly stepped out into the hall. All three were dressed in uniforms of blue tunics with pleated skirts and white boots.

"Are you the pilot of that huge machine?" the green hair asked.

"Yeah that's right. The name's Duo."

"So hot," the red hair gasped.

"Uh...thanks," he said.

"Excuse them," the long haired blonde spoke. "It's're the first man we've ever seen."

"Yeah I pretty much figured."

"I'm Pamela," the blonde said. "And this is Olivier and Hikaru."

"Nice to meet you," Duo greeted, the three girls giving him wary looks. "What?"

"It's just," Olivier mumbled, "aren't you scared to be here?"

"Why would I?" he asked.

"Because everyone here is a Norma," Hikaru pointed out. "Why aren't you freaking out?"

"Oh that," Duo said. "Look, this whole Norma business is completely stupid. To me, Norma are just girls who can't use Mana. That's all. Look, I'd love to stay and chat but I have to go and move my partner off the beach. But we'll talk later okay."

"Oh um, sure," Pamela said. As Duo walked off, he could hear the girls whispering in excited glee.

"Oh my god an actual man!"

"And he likes Norma too!" Well something tells me I definitely won't be lonely here, he realized. At least the lower levels were mostly empty so Duo was able to get back to Deathscythe without being held up. Since his Gundam was nearly dry, Duo opted to walk it over instead of flying. The dock Jill mentioned turned out happened to be a cave along the tidal line that had been converted into a landing bay. And it was just large enough for Deathsythe to fit inside with the Active Cloak either wrapped around it or folded along its back. Inside were were two more Norma. One was about the same age as as the girl in the pink plug suit. Dressed in an orange coveralls, her black hair was done up in twin short tails and she was gazing up at his Gundam with stars in her eyes. The second was an older woman wearing a purple dress and half jacket that reminded him of a gypsy. Her dirty blonde hair was held up under a head scarf and by her side was a large yellow dog with a pilot's cap and goggles on its head.

"So you're the one who fought off an entire Category 4 incursion by himself huh?" the older woman asked as he rode down the drop line. "Have to admit that's one hell of a machine."

"You should see when I'm fueled up." Slowly, the dog came forward and Duo extended his hand to let it have a sniff. Once it seemed comfortable Duo scratched around its ears and it began to happily wag its tail.

"The name's Jasmine," the older woman said. "This is Mei. And the mangy fleabag is Vulcan. Jill told us your story and sent us to help you get situated."

"Good to know," Duo nodded.

"So big," Mei gasped as she stared up at Deathscythe.

"Yeah okay," Duo said. "So what I really need is ammo for the Vulcans and fuel. From what I saw you people run this place on nuclear fusion right?"

"You got it," Jasmine confirmed. "Unfortunately, I'm afraid we can't give you much. The Inspector wants to make sure you can't get fly off until she knows what to do with you. But Jill has a plan to at least keep you from being dragged off in chains."

"I'm listening," he said.

"I'll cut to the chase. You're not a Norma so we can't force you to follow orders. But, if you were to offer to help with further incursions, it's a good bet the humans will let you stay here so long as you don't try anything. They're more concerned with keeping the DRAGONs from overwhelming their own world than some boy who dropped in out of nowhere."

"So in other words," Duo mused, "I have to risk my life for people who won't appreciate it, don't deserve it, and who could care less if I live or die."

"You got it," Jasmine laughed.

"Well it's nothing I haven't done before," Duo sighed. "Alright. You can tell Jill I'm in."

"Great," Mei beamed. "There's a cargo elevator I can use to bring down some fuel tanks and ammo. It looks like those vulcans of your use the same caliber ammo as the Para-mail miniguns. I'd also like to see if I can equip one of your machine's arms with a freeze bullet launcher. I might even be able to fit on a magazine for multiple rounds."

"Sounds good," Duo agreed. "In the meantime, I need to figure out where I'm going to sleep."

"Already taken care of," Jasmine replied. "Oh and killing two Brigs earned you one hell of a payday. Let's go up and get you your reward."

Jasmine wasn't kidding. According to a chart on the bank wall, each category of DRAGON was worth a particular bounty. And killing two Brigs had earned Duo a whopping ten million. Even after deductions for supplies and maintenance, he still had about seven million left. "So the Norma have to pay for what they need to do their job with?" he asked.

"That's how things work here hon," Jasmine said. "Everything has a price. Even lives."

"What if something happens and they can't work or fight?" Jasmine cast a sideways glance and Duo got the message. And here I thought this world couldn't go any lower. "Does that mean the girls I came in with won't get paid?"

"Not for the ones you got. But they got a Brigg of their own plus plenty of Schooners so don't worry about it. Coming back from a Category 4 with only one fatality is worth missing out on the lion's share of the money."

"What do they do with the money they don't spend for fuel and ammo?"

"I was hoping you'd ask that?" she smirked with a gleam in her eye. A few minutes later, Duo found himself across from the hanger in what looked like some massive warehouse. Metal shelves stacked floor to ceiling were packed to collapsing with everything from food to appliances while erected barricades lined off specialty sections for things like clothes or firearms. One section had even been walled off to form an arcade complete with game cabinets, pool and ping pong tables, and a row of vending machines along one wall. "Welcome to the Jasmine Mall. Here you can get anything from lingerie to heavy artillery."

"Wow," Duo said as he looked around. "Don't suppose you have men's clothes here as well?"

"Yes and no," Jasmine said. "We do have the materials to make them. Just tell me what you need and I can hire a few girls to custom sew them for you." Well that was at least one problem solved. As the other residents shopped around him, Duo took note of their uniforms. Maintenance and mechanics wore orange coveralls like Mei while others wore the blue tunics worn by the three girls he met earlier. Base personnel if he had to guess. A minority of them wore midriff bearing white tunics with maroon trimmed jackets along with skirts, shorts, and pants of various styles and colors. And most of them were gazing up at one particular wall where dozens of giant weapons hung suspended overhead, meaning they had to be pilots like Salia and her friends.

"What do you call those machines anyway?" he asked.

"Para-mail," Jasmine said. "We have three squads here and each one takes it in turn to deal with the incursions."

"How often do they occur?"

"Usually about every three to four days. We weren't expecting the next one until tomorrow. And definitely not a Category 4 so it was a good thing you showed up. Having to replace an entire squad is a real hassle."

"I'm surprised anyone would even want to be assigned to something like that."

"Well it's not like we have much of a choice," Jasmine pointed out. "Besides, being a mail-rider has the highest payout of any position on Arzenal. And being able to buy whatever you want is the only real freedom we Norma have." Duo bit his tongue before he said anything that made him look like an even bigger jerk. "What about your machine? What do you call that monster?"

"Well," Duo said, "It's a Gundam. A type of mobile suit. I call it Deathscythe Ahriman. He and I have been partners for a long time."

"Mobile suit huh?" she asked. "Are they all as powerful as yours."

"Hardly. Gundams are special because they're made of Gundanium alloy. Nothing short of a tactical nuke will even scratch it."

"Not bad," Jasmine nodded. "No wonder the DRAGONs don't bother your world if they have things like that waiting for them."

"Speaking of which" Duo asked, "why do they come here? What do they want?"

"Who knows," Jasmine shrugged. "Only that they come from some world on the other side of the singular and they want to kill everything on this side. Luckily for the humans we Norma are here to stand in their way." Duo looked around at the girls shopping through the mall, most of whom couldn't be older than him. Duo was no stranger to child soldiers. He had been one himself. But the thought that these girls were forced into this life just for how they were born triggered something in him.

"I'm sorry," he said. "It's not right." Jasmine looked to him and smiled.

"That's sweet of you kid," she told him. "And who knows, having a big strong man around might be nice. It certainly looks as if you're already quite popular." Duo followed her gaze and saw that a small crowd had gathered behind one of the barricades. Girls whispered and gawked while more than a few had gleams in their eyes. "Alright shoo!" Jasmine said with a wave of her hand. "If you aren't going to buy then quit taking up space!"

"Hey Duo!" a familiar voice cried out. Duo and Jasmine looked up and heading towards them was Salia and the pink haired girl. Their younger comrade ran ahead of them and skidded to a halt in front of him and Jasmine. They had changed out of their plug suits into the white tunics of the pilot uniforms though like the other pilots their personal styles varied. Salia's ensemble seemed to be the most formal with a long sleeved jacket and and exterior half skirt over a pleated blue skirt with thigh high stockings. Her two friends in contrast had sleeveless jackets while the taller girl sported an orange wrap around skirt and their younger teammate a pair of pink shorts.

"Oh hey," he said. "What's up?"

"We're glad to see you're alright," the pinkette smiled. "We were worried you might wind up in trouble for coming here."

"Did Commander Jill say what was going to happen?" Salia asked.

"Well for the time being I'll be crashing here," Duo answered. "She said that if I help out with those DRAGON things then I should at least be left alone."

"Awesome!" the younger girl squeed. "I can't wait to see how much butt you can kick."

"Well then why don't we get better acquainted," the tall girl interrupted. "I'm Ersha. And this is Vivian. You already know Salia and you met Captain Zola on the beach. The girl who tried to fight you was named Hilda. And the other two were Rosalie and Chris. Chris is the quiet one."

"It's nice to meet you," Duo said as he extended a hand. Ersha gave him a confused look before she cautiously extended her own hand to accept it.

"My goodness," she said with a blush. "Your hand feels a lot different from a Norma's."

"Are the rest of your squad here?" he asked.

"No," Salia said as an annoyed look came over her face. "Captain Zola took them back to her quarters for...stress relief."

"Stress relief?" Duo asked. Ersha gave a nervous laugh which only confused him even further until it finally dawned on him. ""

"It's the standard here kid," Jasmine said. "Not like we have much options." Duo wasn't quite sure what to think about that. Not that there was anything wrong if that was what a person was genuinely into, but the fact was these girls weren't even being given a choice. On the other hand, the mental image Duo had of Zola and those other three going at it was...stimulating to say the least.

"Ahem!" someone coughed. Duo looked up and flinched a bit from the cold stare Salia was giving him. "Jasmine, we'd like to order a gravestone for Naomi. If possible, we'd like to have it ready by tomorrow afternoon."

"Consider it done," the older woman sighed. "Naomi was a good girl. Sweet, brave, she'll be missed."

"Hey," Duo suddenly spoke up. "If it's alright could I maybe swing by and pay my respects as well." The two older girls stared at him in shock before Ersha smiled warmly.

"Of course," she told him. "I think that would be wonderful."

"For now though," Salia interrupted, "we need to pick up a few things so if you'll excuse us."

"I hear you," Duo nodded. "I've got to get a few necessities myself but we'll talk later."

"See you around Duo!" Vivian chirped as they walked off.

"And welcome to Arzenal," Ersha added. Before they vanished around a bend, Salia cast a glance at him over her shoulder and her eyes seemed to have softened a bit.

"Is she always so serious?" he asked.

"You'd be surprised," Jasmine smirked. "Well come on. Let's get you a key for your room."

Exhausted and barely able to catch her breath, Hilda lay panting on Zola's bed. Her long red hair was undone and drenched in sweat while to her left and right, Chris and Rosalie lay passed out and spent. Zola had been even more aggressive in bed than usual and barely seemed sated at all. She loomed over Hilda, one hand on Hilda's breast as her eyes gleamed with hunger.

"Done already?" her Captain purred.

"Please," Hilda gasped. "I need a break." Zola gave an annoyed sigh and rolled away from her and off the bed.

"Fine." Grabbing her thin silk robe from the nearby couch, Zola threw it over her naked form and headed for the door.

"Where are you going?" Hilda asked.

"I'm still hungry," the older girl said. "You want to come with." Hilda frowned and shook her head. "Good. More for me." As Zola stepped out into the hall and shut the door, Hilda leaned back on the bed. She could already tell where the Captain was going. I can't believe a man of all things is actually here, she grimaced. The first few whispers had already started to spread but Hilda did not share their enthusiasm. Unlike most of the Norma, she had first hand experience with men and that was enough to last her ten lifetimes. Sitting up, Hilda wrapped her arms around herself. Even after all the years spent in Arzenal, she could still feel the policeman's arm around her waist as he dragged her to the patrol car before roughly throwing her inside, and the image of Mama running after them as they took Hilda away. That machine of his, she thought. That...Gundam. It flew all the way here from the mainland. That means it could fly back as well. But from what that Duo guy had said it had some kind of defense system that would blow the island sky high if anyone other than him tampered with it. I'll keep an eye on him, she decided. Learn as much as I can. And if I have to...well, it's nothing I haven't done before.

As it turned out, Jasmine got him a key for a dorm room on the lower levels so he could be close to Deathscythe. It was also sparsely populated on this level next to an unassigned shower and toilet room with its own onsen so at least he'd have some privacy. While at the mall; he also got a new sidearm, some bed linen, toiletries, a bottle of detergent, and a few books that might be useful. After busying himself with handwashing his clothes and hanging them up to dry, Duo plopped onto the bed clad only in a towel and began flipping through the book on DRAGONs. Apparently, in this world the term was an acronym for Dimensional Rift Attuned Gargantuan Organic Neotype and they were ranked on a scale of size. Schooners were the small pink ones, while medium sized Frigates and Corvettes ranged around 15 meters. The ones he fought were Brigs and they could be around 20 meters while the larger Galleons could grow up to 30. They were then further categorized based on their special attacks which the book went into great detail on. The book on world history however was less than helpful. Most of it was just shilling the Light of Mana and how much better their world was since it was discovered. It hardly explained anything about where it came from, how it worked, why Norma couldn't use it or even how the world used to be before. Textbook propaganda that Duo had seen more times than he cared to think about. With a grunt of disgust, Duo threw the book onto a nearby nightstand and laid back.

'I wonder if the others are trying to figure out what happened to me.' If he knew Howard, he'd try to recreate the accident that brought Duo here and hopefully that would mean Heero and the others could find their way to this world as well. As powerful as Deathscythe Ahriman was it wasn't built to be a one machine army and there was only so much Duo could do by himself. 'Well' he decided as he closed his eyes, 'I'll think more about it in the morning.' This had been an unbelievably long day and what he wanted more than anything was a good night's sleep to get his head in order.

Or that was the plan until someone knocked at the door.

"Yes?" he asked. No answer so he closed his eyes again only to be woken up by another knock. Now getting annoyed, Duo moved to the door, unlocking it as he cracked it open and was greeted to the sight a pair of ample, unbound breasts holstered in a red silk robe.

"Hey there." Duo looked up and found himself face to face with Zola. "I heard you were going to be staying here a while. I thought I'd just check and see how you were settling in."

"Oh...thanks," Duo stammered. "I'm fine so..." before Duo could close the door, her hand slipped into the gap.

"Aren't you going to invite me in?" she cooed. "It's so cold out here in the hall." Duo's gaze shifted once more to the tattoo on her left breast and gulped. This couldn't really be happening could it? "Please," she begged. "You'll make me sad." His eye twitching, Duo opened the door and pulled her inside before she caused a scene.

"Look, what do you.." he tried to ask, only to be cut off when Zola suddenly pressed herself against him. Her perfume made him dizzy and her globular breasts were like two heated domes pressing against his chest.

"No but maybe I can help you," she purred. "I still owe you for saving me remember?" Duo was no stranger to sex. He was a teenage boy after all and he and Hilde had been intimate before their breakup. But between the circumstances he was currently in, not to mention Zola's aggression which was more than a little intimidating, it sort of put a damper on things. Steeling his resolve, Duo took a deep breath and shoved her back.

"Wait a minute!" he cried. "Just...stop okay!" Zola blinked in confusion.

"Why? I thought you liked Norma."

"That's not the issue! Look, you don't owe me a thing. And I get it. I'm the only and probably first man to ever set foot on this island. Besides, I don't have any protection so if something happens..."

"Protection?" Zola asked.

"You know, birth control."

"Is that what you're worried about?" she asked. Turning away, Zola undid her robe and dropped it down to her waist. All across her back and limbs, her skin was pocked with dozens of small pale scars. She turned around and across her stomach was one larger than the others that ran diagonal to her navel. "See that. A souvenir from when I was still a rookie. A piece of shrapnel lodged itself right in my womb. I couldn't get pregnant even if I wanted to." Duo stared at the scar and swallowed the lump in his throat.

"I'm sorry," he finally said as Zola shrugged.

"Well, not like it matters. We all die eventually. Best to just live it up while we can." Was that why she was here? Were hedonism and pleasure the only things keeping her going? When Duo was a boy, cold and starving in the L2 colonies, death was the standard. He and the rest of the orphans he ran with did whatever they had to in order to survive. In a lot of ways, the girls here were better off than he was but in some ways, they had it worse. If he hadn't been taken in by Father Maxwell and Sister Helen, would he have had to resort to the same measures just to stay alive? The more he stared at Zola, the less she looked like a brazen seductress and more like a hopelessly broken young woman desperately trying to find a reason to live.

"It's just sex right?" he asked. "No attachment or commitment?"

"What else is there?" she asked. "Though, here on Arzenal, you scratch our back and we'll scratch yours." 'Ah what the hell,' he thought. 'I did say I'd have a fling while I was trapped here.' And he had a feeling he'd need as many allies as he could get. As long as they were both honest about their intentions it should be alright. Moving past Zola, he sat back on the bed and gestured for her to join him. Zola smiled hungrily as she dropped her robe and perched next to him.

"I can't say how long I'll be here," he told her. Zola leaned in and pushed him down onto the mattress as she kissed him.

"No one ever does."


As Duo continues to adjust to his new surroundings, back in his world, his allies attempt to uncover the reason for his disappearance. Suddenly, a hole opens in the sky through which a horror never before seen emerges. As the monster descends onto a world that finally thought itself at peace, it comes face to face with another young man who like Duo, has found himself devoid of purpose in a world without battle. Next time on Cross Ange: Rondo and Waltz: The Two Dragons.

Gundam! Hold back the terror!